Is This Dissertation Research or a First Date?

An excerpt from SHORT WAR by Lily Meyer, recommended by Chase Culler

Introduction by Chase Culler

There are three sharp left turns in Lily Meyer’s debut novel Short War. The first occurs almost immediately, when we discover the father of our young, newly-in-love protagonist—Gabriel Lazrus, a Jew living in Santiago shortly before Pinochet’s coup—is collaborating with the CIA. Suddenly, the narrative transforms from a story of sex and high school parties into one of exodus, trauma, and guilt.

The second turn occurs in Part Two, when Gabriel’s daughter Nina goes to Argentina as a graduate student to study a mysterious book, Guerra Eterna. As she navigates a continent her father has refused to set foot in, the story becomes a puzzle box, reminiscent of Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Hernan Diaz’s Trust, and perhaps more classically, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer. The mystery presents itself not through narration but through form: books-within-books, three POV characters, questions of authorship. The joy in such novels comes from peripatetic chapters in which we, as the reader, play detective—questions mount, build, and are ultimately solved. Or are they? 

The third and final left turn in Short War, the one that ties it all together, is too good to spoil. However, trust me when I say that Meyer’s book gives credence to the idiom that three lefts will make a right.

My favorite thing about this book is that it is both contemporary and historical. Readers familiar with One Hundred Years of Solitude and Allende’s House of the Spirits last year, arguably two of the most important novels of Latin American history, will appreciate Short War as a new example of the multigenerational novel‚ one split across cultures and identities. Generational wounds playing out over time and across countries—just as Gabriel dislikes his father, Nina has no real love for her mother; a parent’s rejection of his Chilean identity juxtaposes his child’s obsession with it. Where will the family, and thus the story, end up? There is something, too, about the power of the number three: three acts, a holy trinity, a third eye. After two sharp turns in which Meyer sends us back into history, investigating what Gabriel left behind during the coup, the last turn is more chilling: an almost subaltern voice, a pull-the-rug-out moment rarely seen in the generational novel, but transplanted beautifully by Meyer. (In truth, the novel also has elements of Gone Girl, but Lily might kill me for saying that … I’ll say it anyway.) Short War straddles so many formalist and political lines that, by the final turn, you’ll realize the wall between reader and character is broken. There is no fourth wall. Instead, there’s a finger pointed straight at you.

– Chase Culler
Creative Writing Instructor, Boston University

Is This Dissertation Research or a First Date?

An excerpt from Short War by Lily Meyer

Buenos Aires, Argentina, February 2015

Nina Lazris met her husband in the week between arriving in Buenos Aires and discovering the book that punched holes in her personal history. Besides that, she did little of note. She unpacked her bags, set up a writing space in her newly rented apartment, took long walks in the summer heat. She worked, though less than she should have, on the dissertation she had flown halfway across the globe to save. She spent too much money on fancy prepared foods before realizing she’d miscalculated the exchange rate. It didn’t matter—Nina had resources to fall back on—but she tried to live within her grad-student means. It was part of being a serious person, which she worked hard at. Before she stumbled on Guerra Eterna, it was arguably the project of her adult life.

Nina wasn’t positive her presence in Argentina qualified as serious. It was neither fully stipend-funded nor fully planned. In fairness to herself, she could only have planned so much. She’d come to Buenos Aires to study the protest movement arising from the suspicious death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, and he’d barely been dead three weeks. Hard to blame herself for not organizing her trip while he was still alive.

If somebody had told Nina a month earlier that she’d be spending her spring semester here, she would have laughed in their face. She had never been to Latin America before. Never traveled alone. Never imagined that, four and a half years into her doctorate, she’d wrench the scope of her dissertation open, shifting from social-media-driven dissent in the United States to social-media-driven dissent in the Americas. Of course, if that same clairvoyant person had added that she’d be making a chaotic last-ditch effort to rescue her dissertation—and with it her poor, shredded belief that she belonged in academia—she would have retracted her laughter. Fine, she would have said. Great. Cross your fingers it works.

She crossed her fingers at her sides now, waiting at the light on Avenida Santa Fe, the main commercial strip in her new neighborhood. Chic girls buzzed past in their giant earrings, hip-length hair flickering in the breeze. Sun bounced off the polished hoods of taxis, glared from bus windows, turned the street itself into a lake of glossy tar. The air smelled like hot asphalt mixed with warm fruit, dog shit, and the pleasant burnt-wood scent that wafted constantly from the pizzeria across Santa Fe. Nina had tried it two nights ago: not awful, but also not good.

She was en route to coffee with Ilán Radzietsky, a graduate of her program who now taught at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Nina was working on a Ph.D. in communications, but instead of getting funding from her department, she got it from her university’s Center for Media and Social Impact, which adopted a doctoral student every few years. Ilán had been its first. Now he was a rising academic star who researched multilinguistic online identity formation.

Nina wished she knew what type of coffee this would be: semiprofessional? Full professional? Casual but platonic? Or would it be one of those first dates recognizable only in retrospect? She had no reason to even imagine the latter. Her stubborn hope that it would be a pre-date pointed, probably, to her fundamental unseriousness. She’d never met Ilán in person. One of her bosses had introduced them, which led to a flurry of emails, and then Ilán invited her to a welcome-to-the-country coffee. All very ordinary. Nina was thinking in date-or-not-date terms only because (1) she hadn’t had a nontransactional conversation, barring phone calls with her dad, since she landed in Buenos Aires five days ago, (2) she hadn’t had sex since Thanksgiving, and (3) Ilán was hot. In the headshot on his departmental profile page, he glowed like some kind of Modern Orthodox sex prince in his yarmulke and open collar. His mussed curls practically lifted from her laptop screen. His smile was crooked, his skin perfect. Since Google Imaging him, Nina had devoted far too much time to sexual and marital fantasies in which he was the star.

A block from the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Nina paused to lift her hair from her sweating neck. She checked her reflection in the plate-glass window of a store that seemed to sell only compressive underwear: girdles, control panties, distressing Velcro-sided bras. She reminded herself that, even if she was not a serious person, she was gifted at small talk, proficient in Spanish, and neither as dumb nor as ill-prepared as she felt. She had read every scrap of Nisman news since he died on January 18. She had educated herself on his eleven-year investigation into the 1994 car bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA, Buenos Aires’s biggest Jewish community center; she’d read his allegations that the sitting president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, had concealed Iran’s involvement in the attack. Not even a week after he levied his accusations, he was discovered dead in his bathroom. Online, it had seemed to Nina that all of Argentina was in an uproar. Now that she was here, she couldn’t gauge how many people cared.

She could ask Ilán. In a normal way, not a help-me-my-dissertation-is-dying way. She did not plan to tell him that if her research failed here like it had been failing in D.C., she would quit academia. She would be confident. Not socially starved. Not a freak. She would not ask insensitive or ignorant questions. If she flirted, she would do it subtly. She smoothed her hair, tugged her skirt straight, and texted Ilán that she was close.

In her two weeks of feverish predeparture planning, Nina had imagined herself working in the Facultad library. Looking at the building, she had doubts. It was old and mildly crumbling, with a tiny brown garden, a drooping Argentine flag, and air conditioners dripping from every third window. An engraved stone over the door confirmed that it really was part of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, not a run-down office block. Neon-green flyers wheat-pasted to its walls declared TODOS SOMOS NISMAN; matching hot-pink ones demanded ¡JUSTICIA YA! Beneath them, long black streaks of spray paint declared the pope a fascist and Cristina Kirchner a traitor and suggested that both go suck dicks. Nina was idly considering Cristina’s facial flexibility—she’d plainly had both Botox and a face-lift; could she open her mouth wide enough to admit a penis?—when the Facultad’s iron-barred door swung open and Ilán appeared.

He was, unfortunately, even hotter in person. Significantly hotter. Nina wished she hadn’t just been contemplating oral sex. His shoulders were broad, his prayer-fringed hips narrow. The fringes themselves were somehow seductive—flickering little banners of religiousness, reminding Nina that he was almost certainly off limits. His sleeves were rolled to the elbows, revealing hairy forearms and delicate hands.

“Nina?” he called.

She waved and banished all sexual thoughts, though she did permit herself to appreciate how good he smelled when he kissed her cheek hello. A standard greeting here, but she’d assumed—ignorantly, she guessed—that an Orthodox Jew would skip it. She hadn’t been prepared.

In English, he said, “I have a very serious question to ask.”


He grinned. “You said your apartment is on Azcuénaga, right?”


“Have you been to Rapanui?”

Rapanui was the ice cream place on Nina’s corner. Every time she walked by, cold, sugary air rolled over her, heavy with the smell of caramel or baking sugar cones. She’d vaguely planned to take herself there for academic rewards: first set of research aims written, first interview completed, first real idea.

“Not yet,” she said.

Ilán looked extremely pleased. “Would you like to fix that?”


“You’ll see.”

He led her down Azcuénaga, past the frightening underwear store, two parking garages, a Subway, a delicious-smelling Lebanese restaurant. Drum-machine cumbia poured from car windows. Persimmons, at the fruit stand, were DE OFERTA; Nina would have to remember to come back. She hadn’t had a persimmon since her best friend, Hazel, moved from California, where they were abundant, to New York.

“Are you liking the neighborhood?” Ilán asked.

“I like it a lot. The buildings are pretty, there’s great people-watching, it’s easy to get groceries, I’m near public transit. What else do I need?”

Ilán shrugged. “There’s not much nightlife. A couple good bars, but no clubs.”

“I can handle that,” Nina said, with a spike of self-consciousness. “Not so much of a club girl.” She’d read online that Buenos Aires was a major clubbing city, but she liked drinking and talking, not drugs and dancing. Besides, who would she go clubbing with? Her seventy-five-year-old landlady? Herself?

“Same,” Ilán said. “I live a couple blocks over there.” He waved his arm loosely toward the Facultad. “Which means I should be ashamed that I had to meet you at work to bully myself into going there.”

Nina laughed. “It’s summer.”

“Exactly. Time to write.”

She wondered if he was performing laziness—a favorite pastime of grad students; presumably young professors did it, too—or if he legitimately had a slacker streak.

She wondered if he was performing laziness—a favorite pastime of grad students; presumably young professors did it, too—or if he legitimately had a slacker streak. She hoped it was the second. It seemed consistent with the ice cream excitement, somehow. “Writing is overrated,” she said lightly.

“My daughter tells me that every day.”

Disappointment shot down Nina’s spine. She willed herself to ignore it. Ilán carried himself like a younger man, but, per her Googling, he was thirty-nine to her twenty-eight. She should have predicted that he’d have a kid. “How old is she?”

“She turned five last month. She’s very proud of it.” Ilán had almost no accent in English, but, Nina noticed now, he hissed the f in of, holding the letter a second too long. Nina knew she had equivalent tells in Spanish: letters she stretched, diphthongs she shortened. Her r-rolling was unreliable, though her dad had drilled her throughout her childhood, rewarding her with Klondike bars when she cleared the great hurdle of “ferrocarril.”

She tried to conjure up a good question to ask about five-year-olds. People liked talking about their kids, she knew, but what did they like to say? The only parent in Nina’s life was her dad. She had no siblings, no cousins on either side, so her family was baby-free. Her friends were all childless. None of them even had dogs.

“Did she have a birthday party?” she tried.

“She wanted to have a fancy dinner instead. We called it Restaurant Party.”

Nina smiled. “I like that.”

“She’s a likeable kid. An odd one.” Ilán’s tone told Nina he was prouder of the second trait than the first, which she found charming. Before she could ask, he launched into a description of his daughter’s ideas and habits: she was obsessed with dolphins and all dolphin-related content, which manifested, in part, as avid Miami Dolphins fandom; she’d struck up an imaginary friendship with Lady Gaga; she thought monsters lived in her closet, but she welcomed them and loaned them toys; she had only recently learned to separate English, Spanish, and Hebrew, all of which Ilán spoke to her at home, and was delighted with herself when she successfully communicated in one unmixed tongue.

Nina whistled. “Trilingual parenting. I knew you did research in a lot of languages, but still, that’s hardcore.”

“Or crazy.”

She waved his self-deprecation off. A small corner of her mind suggested she ask why Hebrew: religion or Zionism? But if he was a Zionist, she didn’t want to know. “Impressive,” she said. “My dad raised me bilingual, and that was tricky enough.”

Down the block, two silky women slipped into a building that Nina had realized yesterday was a plastic surgery clinic. A taxi honked at a jaywalking girl in palm-sized shorts. She swanned serenely onward, as if the noise were tribute, not rebuke. Over the horn’s ongoing blare, Ilán asked, “English and what other language?”

“Spanish. I didn’t tell you I speak it?”

“You did.” His mouth spread into a smile. “But when I lived in D.C., I met a lot of Americans who”—he clawed his fingers into scare quotes—“‘spoke Spanish.’”

Nina laughed. “I know the type. Memorized every verb in AP Spanish but can’t carry on a conversation.”


“I’m terrified of people thinking that’s me,” she admitted. “Sometimes I pretend not to know Spanish to avoid giving the wrong impression. But I do speak it, I swear. I wouldn’t call myself fluent, but I’m probably as close as a nonnative speaker can get.”

“Is your dad a native speaker?”

Nina hesitated. She half-regretted bringing her dad up. On the one hand, she and her father were extremely close, and she missed him. Talking about him at length would be nice. On the other, parent talk was unsexy. If she wanted to begin flirting with Ilán, she should steer the conversation swiftly elsewhere.

She felt she had grounds for flirting. Ilán’s elbow was extremely close to her bare arm, and his energy was not what she’d call professional. It was too bad he had a child. He was ringless and hadn’t mentioned a wife, but she still had to accept the high odds he was married. Also, he wore fringes and a yarmulke, which indicated a sincere belief that God could see the top of his head. God would not like to glance down and spot a married Orthodox man, or even a single one, flirting with an ultra-Reform agnostic.

Nina looked briefly upward, checking in. A window air conditioner chose that moment to drip directly onto her forehead. She took the oily water as a sign that God was indeed watching, and would like Nina to desexualize herself to Their servant. “He’s not,” she said, wiping her face, “but he lived in Chile till he was sixteen, so he went to school mainly in Spanish. He always spoke English at home, but he claims he couldn’t read or write it well till college.” She shrugged. “Anyway, he believes in bilingualism. He says Americans only speaking English is rude.”

Ilán made no comment on her dad’s language politics. Instead, he asked, “Have you been?”

“To Chile?”

He nodded.

“I haven’t.”

“It’s an easy trip from here. An hour flight, maybe.” He left the suggestion unspoken, but Nina could fill in the blank. She knew she should go. She also knew she wouldn’t. She wanted to—she’d wanted to visit Chile since she was old enough to know it was real—but it would be cruel to her dad. Bad enough, for him, that she’d come to the country next door.

Rapanui gleamed at the corner. Its windows were wide open, and Nina could hear pop reggaeton streaming from inside. She pointed down the block before Ilán could ask follow-up questions. “See the building with the iron balconies?” she said. “That’s mine.”

Ilán squinted at it. “Who are you living with?”


She’d gotten exceptionally lucky with her rental. For $200 a month less than she was getting from her subletter in D.C., she’d landed a gorgeous, fully furnished apartment whose owner, a sculptor named Paula Valenzuela, had temporarily moved to a suburb called San Isidro to keep her daughter company through her divorce. Nina had Googled Paula’s work: her sculptures looked like Henry Moore’s, but smaller and sexier. She was very, very good. Nina wondered if she were famous enough that mentioning her would qualify as name-dropping. Always hard to tell with art.

Ilán refused to let Nina pay for her ice cream, which was unspeakably delicious. It was artisanal and somehow Patagonian, and stretched like taffy between bowl and spoon. Nina took four Lactaid pills to eat her single scoop of dulce de leche. The caramel was rich and faintly bitter, as if it had been cooked to the edge of burnt. She forced herself to savor each bite, though what she wanted to do was shove her head into her paper dish like a horse eating oats from its trough.

Their table was inside the shop, but adjacent to a wide-open window. Warm air blew in from the street, tempering the air conditioning’s chill. Behind them, a long display counter sold handmade chocolates. Blown-up photos of wild berry bushes hung by the register. Nina considered breaking her lease and moving in here, or quitting her Ph.D. and apprenticing herself to these ice cream makers, who were clearly geniuses.

“This ice cream,” she informed Ilán, “deserves the Nobel Prize.”

“Good, right?” He licked chocolate from his spoon. “When they opened, Rebeca was a baby. My ex and I brought her so often, we thought her first word would be ‘helado.’”

Nina took a too-big bite of dulce de leche, willing it to glue her mouth shut. She could not visibly or audibly react to the news that Ilán had—she presumed—an ex-wife. She wondered if he’d mentioned the ex on purpose, to alert her to his singleness. She hoped so. She hoped, too, that the ex was no longer relevant. With luck, she’d swiftly remarried and exited the scene like Nina’s mom, who’d waited six months post-divorce, then moved to Napa and married a winemaker named Todd. He exploited migrant labor and never wore socks, but, after a full quarter century, she still seemed to love him enough.

He exploited migrant labor and never wore socks, but, after a full quarter century, she still seemed to love him enough.

Once Nina had swallowed and settled, she asked, “What was her actual first word?”


“I think that’s baby talk.”

“So did I. But her second word was ‘lady.’”

Maybe he was gay. A divorced Orthodox Jew whose child had been fixated on Lady Gaga since birth? It would make sense. Nina sat back in her clear plastic chair and considered Ilán’s disheveled curls, his movie-star eyelashes, his kempt stubble. He didn’t seem gay, but the whole idea of seeming gay was bullshit, and why else would a woman divorce a man this hot?

Nina gouged a clot of frozen caramel from her ice cream. She hadn’t mentioned her dissertation. In no way had she demonstrated that she was a serious person. She didn’t especially want to start now. Ilán was easy to talk to, easy to relax around. Nina wasn’t sure she could motivate herself to work at seriousness, or expose her academic insecurities. She wanted to have a nice time.

She and Ilán sat at their little table long after their ice creams, and the espressos that followed, were gone. He was full of ideas for leisure-time activities: museums to visit, neighborhoods to wander, restaurants to eat in, books to read. Nina tried, and failed, to resist being charmed by the associative depth of his suggestions. An indie film set in Montevideo reminded him of a book called Guerra Eterna, written by a Uruguayan Jew who was, basically, Elena Ferrante before Ferrante herself was, that Nina had to read: it was a classic, and, speaking of, if she wanted to read classic Uruguayan writers, she should seek out the Eduardo Galeano books published by Siglo XXI Press, which had a gorgeous office-bookstore in Palermo Soho—not, incidentally, his favorite neighborhood (too trendy), but it did have terrific bookstores, and if she wanted to shop for clothes or find a good yoga studio, it was, without a doubt, the place to go.

After recommendations, they moved on to academic gossip. Ilán was extremely willing to make fun of Thijs Kuiper, Nina’s adviser, whom she’d gotten stuck with after her first adviser went to teach at NYU. Kuiper was not affiliated with the Center for Media and Social Impact, nor was he interested in either of those things. He was Nina’s enemy. He rejected her core belief in connection. Nina, influenced by the French philosopher Simone Weil, felt that the true purpose of studying was to learn to pay real, sustained attention to others. Kuiper felt that it was to win tenure and publish in prestigious journals. He thought scholars should be aloof and dispassionate and not have Twitter accounts. Nina thought he was a Luddite, a misogynist, and a Grinch. One of her major reasons for continuing in her program was that quitting would please him too much. She fully intended to spite-graduate, she said, which was true, and also made Ilán laugh.

To stem aggravating thoughts of Kuiper, she asked how Ilán had liked D.C. He and Nina, it turned out, shared a favorite bar: the Red Derby, which was two doors down from her apartment. While discussing the District’s restaurants, he pried from her the knowledge that she couldn’t cook beyond eggs and pasta, and demanded that she come over for dinner before she got scurvy. She couldn’t quite gauge the nature of the invite, but the mere thought of entering his apartment sent a prickle of heat down her spine.

On her half-block walk home, she told herself to hope Ilán was gay. She felt in her bones that he was not, but also that, if he was straight, she could get herself into big trouble. Heartbreak trouble or, worse, step-maternal trouble. Already, she was imagining ways she might charm Rebeca. Contrary to parental stereotype, Ilán hadn’t shown Nina a single photo. She wondered if they looked alike.

In her building’s echoing staircase, Nina tried to remember herself at five. She remembered loving, in descending order, her dad, Scottie Pippen, and God, who she thought lived in trees. In playgrounds and parks, she’d shove her face into knotholes and root balls, braced to stare the God of her ancestors down. Eventually, she got poison oak on her forehead and renounced her search and, with it, her theological interests. She never lost interest in either her father or Scottie, though.

She wondered if her religious sureness had been a kid thing, or if it was her personality. Until her Ph.D., she had always been highly confident. She still felt that confidence operating below the surface of her mind, but her three failed case studies, combined with Kuiper’s scorn for her project, had done major damage. Once, Nina had been positive that studying social media’s political potential was her calling. Her purpose. She’d had all kinds of lofty ideals about the public benefits of researching internet dissent. Now she worried that her entire academic life was an excuse to dick around on Twitter instead of doing real nine-to-five work.

On the plane here, plunging through the dark sky over Brazil, Nina had promised herself that this was it. She was in the fifth year of her Ph.D., and now she was on her fifth possible dissertation subject. Already she had tried and failed to study Occupy Wall Street, which proved too diffuse; the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which wasn’t sufficiently online; Black Lives Matter, which she’d decided it was not her place to research; and a newly formed Jewish anti-Zionist group headquartered in D.C. and on Twitter, which had been perfect until it abruptly unformed. Not Nina’s fault, but she took it as a bad sign. A cosmic alert that her work was misguided. If the Nisman protests failed to cohere into the movement she predicted and hoped for, she would take the universe’s advice. She’d admit that she was not a serious scholar, that her whole research agenda was baseless bullshit. She’d pack up and go home— and not home to D.C. either, but to Chicago. She’d admit defeat. She’d get a job.

Nina woke, on her first Friday in Buenos Aires, to a text from Ilán. He’d enjoyed spending the afternoon with her, and he’d meant that dinner invitation. Would she like to come over Tuesday? And if so, did she eat meat?

I eat everything, she replied. Briefly, she considered a winking emoji, but thought better. Instead, playing it safe, she asked, What can I bring? Dessert? Wine? Then she screenshotted the exchange, texted it to Hazel—Date or not date??—and pried herself from bed, leaving her phone behind. She would, she decided, do one full hour of work before checking for Ilán’s response.

Ilán proved to be a slow but consistent texter, which meant that Nina, adhering to her one-hour rule all day, was highly productive. She parked herself at her desk and devoted the morning to indexing internet theories surrounding Nisman’s death. In the afternoon, she messaged demonstration organizers to request interviews, then created a list of relevant slogans and hashtags. She tweeted several Nisman-related news stories to prove baseline engagement. She had yet to recapture the whole-body research enthusiasm that had brought her here, but she did feel good.

In the early evening, she quit working and took a beer onto the balcony. The sky was silky and blue, filled with criss-crossing wires and moonlike satellite dishes. Ash trees shook their green branches, stirred by pigeons and passing cars. It occurred to her that, except for her frantic week of work in Chicago, today was the closest she had come in years to the life she’d imagined for herself when she set out to be an academic. Ordinarily, her work-at-home days revolved around guilt, chores, and her vibrator; library days, guilt, Google, and snacks. She had fallen into a bad rut. Maybe coming here had snapped her free.

The next day, she worked till lunchtime, then walked to the used-book market on Avenida Corrientes. The selection was dizzying: art books, plastic-wrapped Penguin paperbacks, spooky biblical tracts, spooky sex manuals, medical sex manuals, woo-woo sex manuals, tarot guides, academic journals, encyclopedias, fancy Nobel-winning fiction, weird small-press fiction, the works. She bought a Henry Moore exhibition catalog as a hostess gift for Paula, who’d invited her to lunch in San Isidro the next day; a first-edition Spanish Valley of the Dolls for Hazel, who worked in the art department at Simon & Schuster and would love the Creamsicle-orange cover; and half the books Ilán had recommended at Rapanui, all of which she’d noted on her phone. She had to take a snack break halfway down the street, which led to a major discovery: in addition to containing the world’s best ice cream, the city of Buenos Aires was home to the perfect grilled ham-and-cheese. Her sandwich was impossibly thin and crispy, with perfectly salty ham and the exact right amount of mozzarella to pull between bread and teeth without making a mess. She wanted to eat seven more. She hoped Argentine pharmacies sold Lactaid. At this rate, she was going to run out by March. 

Nina left Avenida Corrientes content, dehydrated, and weighed down by books. Within days, she would see her walk home as a time of hilarious innocence. She’d had no idea that Guerra Eterna would be any more important to her than the six other books jammed in her New Yorker tote bag. As far as she was concerned, Guerra Eterna was relevant to her life because Ilán had told her it was good; relevant, in other words, because discussing it with him could help demonstrate she was a serious and intellectually engaged person worthy to audition for the role of his temporary girlfriend.

Nina understood that, to a thirty-nine-year-old tenure-track professor with a kindergartner, a six-month relationship might be too trivial to appeal. She understood, too, that it was unfair to hope for. It was not good—was probably objectifying, or tokenizing, or some other bad-ing—to want Ilán to be her tour guide and short-term boyfriend. It was an immature hope, a study-abroad hope. Nina disliked herself for it, and yet.

Months later, she’d admit to Ilán that she had initially wanted to date him for practice. She hadn’t had a real boyfriend since college. She’d thought she could learn adult romance, then take her new expertise back to the U.S., where, presumably, some childless, American, age-appropriate version of Ilán would await. She’d thought her fantasies about marrying him, compelling though they might have been, were just manifestations of a crush.

Walking home, books swinging at her sides, she permitted herself one such fantasy. Beach ceremony, barefoot, very small. Maybe she’d even be pregnant. Nina would love to be pregnant at her wedding. She’d always wanted kids. A whole pack of them, ideally. Her whole life, she’d wished for a bigger family than her little Lazris unit. Growing up, she’d begged for a sister, though she would have gladly accepted a brother had one been offered. Even now, she occasionally imagined her dad falling in love with some younger woman and having a late-in-life baby. Her dad, who hadn’t been on a date since he met her mother in 1983.

Nina wished she could somehow spy on her parents’ courtship. Her mom, Wendy, was perfectly fine—Nina had no bad feelings toward her; she visited her in Napa before the start of every academic year—but strenuously boring. She had the inner and outer smoothness of a morning-show host. It was impossible to picture her attending an anti-Pinochet rally or caring who Pinochet was. Maybe Nina’s dad had found it calming to be with a woman whose concerns didn’t extend past herself. All he ever said about his brief marriage was that it had been ill-advised on both his part and Wendy’s but, because it led to Nina, he was grateful for it every day.

She needed to check on her father. Make sure he wasn’t too lonely. Really, she should email Nico, both to let him know her dad needed some extra support and to invite him to visit Buenos Aires. She’d love to see him. It had been—four years? Five? Too long.

When Nina was a kid, Nico came to Chicago every summer. He brought gifts, planned day trips, hauled them across the city to eat Indian dinners on Devon Avenue, pancake breakfasts at Ann Sather’s, pierogies in the Polish Triangle. He was Nina’s namesake, fake uncle, and role model. He was the only person alive who could reliably make her dad laugh.

Nina often asked Nico for help taking care of her dad. In high school, when she decided she needed to know Andrés’s full story, she bypassed her father completely. She feared asking him to remember. Instead, she called Nico, who explained how Andrés had died, then described him when he was alive. He helped Nina imagine Andrés not as a martyr but as her dad’s wiseass friend. Most importantly, he showed Nina that her dad felt as if he’d been living the wrong life since Andrés had gotten disappeared in 1973, and that she, Nina, did not have to feel the same way. She could love her dad without imitating him. She could know her family’s, and her country’s, past without beating herself up for what she had not personally done.

Only once, in college, had Nina deviated from Nico’s no-self-flagellation doctrine. In her guilt over leaving her dad alone at home, she’d launched herself into researching Cold War–era dictatorships in the Southern Cone, with a special focus on Pinochet. She took every available Latin American history class, did two independent studies, then proposed an honors thesis. Her adviser, a sweet, bearded man named Doug Cope, supported the idea but wanted her to do original research in Chile. He was happy to help set it up, even to wrangle departmental funding. Nina balked. Later, she mocked herself for the whole plan. Studying Chilean history could not possibly have given her more access to her dad’s grief than twenty years as his only child had.

She was approaching the Palacio de Aguas Corrientes, which she’d seen on travel blogs but not yet in real life. It had been, at one time, the world’s most ornate waterworks. Now it was, if she remembered correctly, an archive, and a gorgeous one, all turrets and arabesques, high golden windows and rosy, power-washed bricks. Jacarandas shed purple blossoms on the lawn. A lone balloon bobbed from the fence. The building’s beauty returned Nina to herself. She should have been concentrating on her very lovely and completely unfamiliar surroundings, not rehashing her lifelong worries about her dad. He was, after all, a grown man. Shielding him from his emotions was not Nina’s job.

She admired the water palace a moment longer, reminding herself how lucky she was. Lucky to be here; lucky to love her dad so much, even if it brought complication; lucky to have Nico to help sort that complication out. Luckier than she knew to have met Ilán, and to have Guerra Eterna biding its time at her side. No book would ever be more important to her. In the decades of their marriage, she’d often tell Ilán that no person would ever be more important than him, but she always hoped she was lying. She never gave up believing that her sister could someday matter most.

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