My Former Colleague
Until recently, Andrea taught at the same Eastern European university where I work. She was over sixty when I met her. A brilliant woman, respected by students and colleagues, but not sociable; her superficial pleasantness becomes a wall of ice if you try to get close to her. She has fine features, is elegant in dress and demeanor. She’s a widow. She has children, but they live abroad. She has no friends, as far as anyone knows.
I was curious about this woman from the moment we became colleagues. There was something about her that inspired sympathy in me, perhaps because she made me think of women in European novels between the world wars. I often had the impulse to start a conversation with her, but she stopped me cold with a glance. Like she did everyone.
One day I saw her in the train station. I was waiting for a friend who was coming to visit me, and Andrea was arriving from somewhere. She didn’t see me, but I saw her and thought I’d say a quick hello.
At that moment something happened that left me stunned: a well-dressed, grey-haired man approached her, looked her in the eye and spat in her face.
No one said anything. The people who crowded the platform, if they saw the act, preferred to ignore it.
With the inexplicable resignation of one who deserved the punishment, Andrea lowered her head, searched for a tissue in the pocket of her coat and cleaned her face. The man who’d spat on her had disappeared.
My friend arrived and I lost sight of Andrea. But that incident made a profound impression on me, so much so that, whenever I could, I began to inquire about her.
I asked my colleagues, especially the oldest ones, and soon realized that no one at the university wanted to talk about her; they said they didn’t know anything, but they did. I spent hours on the internet, investigating I don’t know how many people, only because they had the same last name as Andrea. Finally, after many days of detective work and of people looking at me as if to say, “what does it matter to this nosy Mexican,” I managed to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
Andrea’s father had been an informant for the secret police during socialist times. He wasn’t actually a spy but kept an ear to the ground and reported all he heard. He named names. He did this for many years. People disappeared or were tortured because of him. He didn’t live very long after the system changed, died of an illness. Justice never had a chance to catch up with him.
And that stigma was the burden Andrea carried. The man at the train station wasn’t the only one who had spat on her.
The story made me sad and angry, but I couldn’t reach any conclusion. Would I spit on the daughter of an informant in Mexico, if someone in my family or among my close friends had suffered at his hands? Probably I would. You don’t know. Wounds like those never heal.
Several years have passed since that incident at the train station. Andrea retired and I don’t see her anymore. I suppose she lives locked in with her shame. Or perhaps she went to live in another city, or another country with her children. A place where nobody spits in her face on the street.
I remember Andrea every time I see somewhere the slogan “Neither forgive nor forget.” And I no longer know how I feel.