The Disappeared

Wilhelm von Gloeden, Girl in a Garden.
Wilhelm von Gloeden, Girl in a Garden.

I met Daniel at 4:00 one August morning in 1999. It was on the roof of my building, where, in the grip of a long bout of insomnia, I would wait for first light to mark the end of another summer night. Daniel couldn’t sleep either. He was bunking with one of my neighbors—after the breakup of his third marriage, I later learned. Tall, bearded, he emerged through the warped steel fire door with a pitcher of iced coffee and a pack of cigarettes. He saw me sitting on the low brick balustrade that ran along the roof’s perimeter and said, “You look like you’re waiting for someone to push you over the edge, into thin air.”

With the polished, vaguely cheerful aura of someone who understood misfortune without having had to suffer much of it himself, he coaxed me into explaining the reason for what he called my “recessive condition.” I told him that my daughter had been hospitalized with an attack of manic depression for the second time in two years and immediately felt the beam of his attention grow stronger. In a halting, sympathetic voice that suggested we had become instant comrades, Daniel said, “At least you have the assurance of a diagnosis. Imagine what it’s like to have a perfectly healthy, brilliant daughter who decides to become a stranger and willfully cuts you off.”

The daughter he was referring to was Luisa, born in 1978 when Daniel was nineteen. “She’ll be twenty-one this month,” he said, then produced from his wallet the small, cracked photograph of an unsmiling girl, no older than seven. She had a long, straight curtain of dark hair and black eyes with bluish scoops under them, marks of a fellow sleepless soul. Daniel snatched away the photograph, offering me in its place a drink of his iced coffee, heavily dosed with whiskey. He apologized for turning the conversation to himself, but I could see that his drive to talk about his daughter with someone with “an obvious connection to these matters” was irrepressible. Luisa, he told me, was born in Buenos Aires. He had moved there with her mother, Helena, a porteña he has met, and fallen “desolately” in love with, when they both were traveling in Mexico.

When Luisa was ten months old, Helena “went disappeared”—fue desaparecida—in the passive, fairy-tale parlance for state kidnappings during Argentina’s Dirty War. Daniel had been able to reconstruct the event, down to the precise spot on the street in San Telmo Buenos Aires where Helena was forced into a black Ford Falcon, the official vehicle of the paramilitary death squads. She had gone out five minutes earlier to buy a few supplies for their home. “I’ve imagined it a million times. We knew what the dangers were. She was a utopian, not a guerrilla. A political innocent. The worst fantasy is the one in which I save her.” Probably they had come across Helena’s name in the address book of another “disappeared.” It was the way they picked people off, by random association; it was the way they kept the terror alive.

Several months after Helena’s kidnapping, Daniel returned to New York, “a disappeared who was still visible,” as he put it, “still there.” He said he felt useless in Argentina. “I couldn’t work there. I wanted to send them money. I wanted to go to school. It wasn’t my war.” Luisa stayed behind with Helena’s parents. None of them knew whether Helena was alive. It was as if she had been carried off to some bardo of unconfirmed existence, a “semiexistence,” Daniel said, “everything left to the hurricane of your imagination, nothing known.”

Daniel would fly to Buenos Aires several times a year, bearing gifts for Luisa, carrying her crayon drawings back to New York and taping them to the walls of his apartment. Before long, he was able to support her and Helena’s parents thanks to his “obscene good fortune” with SoHo real estate and various other entrepreneurial ventures. When Luisa was five, she came to live with him. “She had this little stuffed orange monkey that she brought from Buenos Aires. She called it Helena, of course, arguing with it and clinging to it like it was the life force itself.” They left the monkey in a cab on their way into the city from the airport. “She was inconsolable. We both were. It told the whole story. I couldn’t protect or replace even this emblem of her mother. I didn’t know how to explain our lives to her, or to myself, for that matter. I had no compass. It was like we were grieving for the same thing. The poor child was lost.”

New York terrified Luisa. “She got it into her head that it was where all the kidnappers came from. And the main kidnapper was me, holding her in my apartment.” She wouldn’t eat the food Daniel prepared and refused to speak English. After six months, he brought her back to Helena’s parents in Buenos Aires. It was then that she began to dodge his phone calls, becoming detached and frozen when he visited, and then breaking off contact entirely around the time she turned thirteen. She responded only once to his relentless attempts to reach her. On her seventeenth birthday, Daniel wrote her about how much he had adored Helena, enclosing photographs of their travels together in Mexico that Luisa had never seen. He thought they might get through to her because in the photographs he and Helena were also seventeen; she would see an aspect of herself in them, she would understand. Luisa answered that the only reason he still “loved” Helena was that her disappearance had spared him from having to return her like faulty merchandise to a store, the way he had returned Luisa to Buenos Aires when she was five. “I realized then the terrible mistake I had made,” said Daniel. “I thought I was the cause of her misery. I didn’t understand it had been a test, a chance to fight for her, and that I had failed.”

During the next ten or eleven years we would meet infrequently, Daniel and I, our conversation invariably settling on his despair over his daughter. I would feel enormously sad, listening to him slog yet again through an emotion that would neither exhaust itself nor be resolved. Last May, he called me in a mixed state of panic and excitement. Would I meet him for lunch in an hour? When I arrived at the restaurant, he stood up from his chair and handed me a letter. It had been delivered that morning. In terse, precise Spanish, Luisa announced that she was moving to New York and would be needing some financial assistance. “On the off-chance that you actually have a conscience, don’t make the mistake of regarding this loan as an opportunity to buy it off. I fully intend to pay back every penny. L.”

Daniel was still standing when I finished reading. He looked stunned and unsure. At the bottom of the letter Luisa had typed her e-mail address: lavidaessueñ I pointed out that this was the title of a play by the Spanish writer Pedro Calderón: La vida es sueño, “Life Is a Dream.” He felt sure this was a message to him. “Maybe what she’s saying is it’s all an illusion. She’s ready to forgive me, our resentments are like dreams.” He shot off a message to her: “Can’t wait to see you. Where should I send the money?” Luisa’s reply arrived almost at once, with an address in the suburb of San Isidro that Daniel recognized to belong to Luisa’s grandparents. He wondered aloud how much he should send her. Would fifteen thousand dollars be enough? Twenty? “I think I’ll make it twenty-five. I don’t want to put her in the position of having to ask for more right after she gets here.”

He immediately enlisted my help with the tricky logistics of delivering hard US currency to Buenos Aires. A bank wire was out of the question, since any deposit would automatically be converted to pesos, after which the Central Bank of Argentina would freeze 30 percent for one year. Through Western Union the maximum wire was a couple thousand dollars. Finally, we found a reputable “money broker.” By this time, Daniel had settled on forty thousand as the minimum amount Luisa would need. He deposited it in the broker’s US bank account; the broker, for a fee, would arrange for the cash to be hand-delivered to Luisa.

The transaction was completed, and Luisa notified Daniel of her expected date of arrival. On the day of her flight, Daniel called me to say that he had received a message from her: “Not coming. It was a bad idea.” In a numb voice, he told me he had read Calderón’s play. A king chains his newborn son in prison out of fear he will grow up to bring about his ruin. The son longs for revenge. “It makes perfect sense,” said Daniel. “I should have known.” I wanted to tell him that in the end the son makes peace with the father and assumes his rightful position in the court. But Daniel had hung up the phone, unable to continue speaking.