Where is Marta? is the title of a docudrama about a young woman from Seville who disappeared one January night in 2009. Her body was never found, and her final hours were never clarified. But a lot was revealed in the years of police investigations: the number of people who last saw her alive, her last known whereabouts, the changing stories of people present. Her ex-boyfriend was among the friends with her the night she vanished. So were other friends of both Marta and the young man. And yet, despite these witnesses, a crime was committed. Bad things happen, and not just out in the woods or along empty highways. Risk is all around. Obviously, you take a risk climbing into a car with a stranger or rendezvousing with someone you’ve met over the Internet. You run a smaller but apparently real risk meeting with your former boyfriend, as Marta did, though the probability of the meeting ending in murder must be tiny, close to nil. But surely not by picnicking in a park with a nice man you met at an art gallery?
Yes, then too, said a friend of mine, who couldn’t believe I was meeting my new acquaintance for a date a couple of hours before I was to fly back to Spain from Albuquerque. My friend’s suggestions of possible—no, imminent—foul play began to work on my mother and me. “Why would anyone do this?” my friend asked.
“Do what?” I said. “Why would anyone invite me on a date or why would anyone accept an invitation?”
He meant me. Why would I go? I was the one with something to lose, he hinted. When my mother asked what could happen, he put it more bluntly, giving a very specific answer to her rhetorical question. “He could rape and murder your daughter, or murder and then rape your daughter.”
After about 10 minutes of talk, frowns, and laughter, I found I was confused: were we talking about a grown woman with a fair amount of experience in the world, aware of danger and wary of risk, or were we talking about a young girl, giddy with attention, and throwing all caution to the wind? “The man has a name,” I said, “and I know what it is. He’s been seen in public here in Magdalena. There are witnesses.”
The name could be an alias. All I knew was what he said about himself.
“I looked him up on the Internet!”
You looked up the person he said he was. The man waiting to bundle you into his car and dump you in the desert might not be that person.
I laughed again. “Oh, come on!”
But I did not sleep well that night.
The safest thing would be to cancel. But the point of an adventure is to take a different, unknown path. As Alice Munro writes of her protagonist in “Differently,” a married woman having an affair, she purposely takes risks. She courts disaster. Isn’t danger part of the adventure?
Her adventure ends unhappily, it’s true, and I did not want mine in the park to end badly. Plus, I had more at stake than the character, Georgia, because I was risking my life, whereas she risks only her marriage. But it turns out that when the affair ends, she purposely ends her marriage as well because she no longer values it. She is tired of living by sham, and she defiantly sheds “a world of ceremony, of safety, of gestures, concealment. Fond appearances. More than appearances. Fond contrivance.” After a sleepless night, she wakes up and welcomes her new world, which is free of such pretense. I, on the other hand, if my friend’s dire predictions were true, was in danger of never waking up at all. I liked my life, even without picnics in the park. Should I take the risk, small as it was? Champagne had been mentioned by my date, a proper sendoff before my return to Spain. How many stories had I heard of something slipped into a woman’s drink, the woman coming to hours later in an unfamiliar spot, disheveled or even naked? Not many, it’s true. But it happens. Almost never. But it happens.
The more I thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed that my adventure would be a misadventure. But also the more possible. Soon these two alternatives converged, and possible and unlikely were practically the same, meaningless descriptors of a particular outcome. Eighty percent chance of rain and 10 percent are the same unknown until it either rains or doesn’t, at which point, probability means nothing. Does it ever? It didn’t save Marta.
“It could happen, but it won’t happen,” was my weak reassurance to my mother. A plane crash could happen, but it won’t. A deadly case of coronavirus contracted from my seatmate could happen, but it won’t. According to the early aviator Jimmy Melrose, dying in your bed is the real danger. Take risk, is the message. Okay, I thought, I’ll do it.
Besides, the evil event, if it did occur, could even be good if it prevented a worse one. “What if this man abducts me and rapes me and leaves me in the desert hours from civilization?” My mother shivered. “What if I miss my plane as a result, and my plane, the one I missed, crashes and I survive because I’m not on it?” My mother wondered how often such a situation occurs, so I told her the news story about a necrophiliac working in a German morgue who sexually abused the dead. When, as a result of his crime, one of his victims awoke from a coma, she was grateful, not angry. If my date saved me from an airline crash, I too would be grateful, though I might not thank him personally, I decided, as I climbed from my mother’s car into his on the day of my departure, a few hours before takeoff.
In the end, I was grateful. For a fine picnic and just enough champagne, along with recalled snippets of conversation, to make the following hours across the skies an easy ride. I’d do it all over again, even the sleepless night. Maybe I will do it all over next year. Could it be as much fun the second time? There’s risk all around.
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