Chase the Sun
“I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora — precipitated us in its conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own….”
— Lawrence Durrell, Justine
In the photographs we are gorgeous, sun stretched along our arms, lips rich and bursting as wineskin. We are balanced in impossible positions, lithe and long-limbed, dancing as if we no longer need the earth.
The grass would soften under our footfalls and nuzzle into our open palms. The clouds broke at our pleasure. Stars clustered for our regard. The horses kicked up red dust as we rode them across acres of farmland and on past the horizon. Colo did barbecues at night, while teapot-bellied Esther cooked lunch and made our beds in the morning. We always pitched in to leave her a tip. She would smile when we ground our tires into the turf on Sunday afternoon, and we mistook her relief for affection as she waved goodbye. We were El Trebol, the name of a farm that became the marker of a tribe.
There were fifteen of us; we were always together. Some of us had been friends for years, while others met in this unlikely collision; but any relationship we had known before dissolved and reformed itself, like atoms frozen and then boiled. Everyone was at the end of some kind of tether, and the city we called home was climbing the gallows. But we didn’t see the connection. We were too busy reinventing el amor.
If there was a beginning, it was in the water at a wedding, the food at Carolina’s dinner parties and the confusion between summer and fall. We galloped on past what we’d been taught and told, raising our faces to the sun of a winter that never arrived. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2001, though it could have been Vienna in 1930 or Saint Germain in ’68. One peso to every dollar, fifteen pesos for every pill and six coked-up European DJ’s at every club: a world in decay and youth in flower, the oldest and most predictable story in the world. But as anyone who’s been to their own Alexandria knows, a universe can grow and thrive from the dust in the street and then — with no clear warning — cease to exist as a passing cloud blocks out the light.
The first weekend we spent together began like a blind date and ended in an ashram tangle. The idea was simple: to spend a few days at Colo’s farm and take a hit of E with friends, but we confused chemistry with alchemy.
The second day, after a lazy football match and the big sky sunset of the Pampa, we filled the house with candles and cleared the furniture out of the living room. In the footage (and someone was always filming) people race past in colored streaks amidst white smudges of flame, until the final shot narrows onto a silver tray with twenty tiny pills. That night, barefoot under the moon, we danced down a runway of bamboo torches, heads thrown back, hands caressing our own bodies. There was so much feeling that we could barely stand it. Skin opened and breathed; every pore lit and shone like a bulb. Our hearts rushed forward, stumbling into each other.
Later on, in the dozing sweetness that follows the high, we wrapped around a fire, passed a thermos, mate and a few guitars. Matías played a duet with Colo, and Marcos sang the epic of his twelve-hour dysentery aboard a bus in Bolivia. The faces that showed themselves in the firelight had lost the mildness of, “Hey, yeah, good to see you.” Irises that had been nothing more than color deepened under lashes, our laughter and jokes twisting into a new cosmology. We had arrived at a point of departure without meaning to, but we pushed off with both heels, our mouths open and hungry for so much more. We marked a new date on our calendars and thought of nothing else until it arrived.
Soon our weeknights filled with dinners and improvised parties; whole days disappeared into correspondence to a group account, eltrebol.com. When it got late, people slept on couches or in spare beds, and lucky the host who tucked his friends in with a parent’s kiss. No one ever went home early. No one ever said ‘enough’.
One couple moved in with another, and their red adobe house became the cradle of our opiate nursery. On any weekend afternoon, you could find ten people at tea on the patio and five more in the kitchen preparing the next meal. The house grew to accommodate our needs, and ceilings stretched three meters high, glass doors opened out onto a pool, while a breeze blew from one corner of the lawn, down the hall and out another curtained window. There was always cold beer in the refrigerator, music playing and something on the grill. People started to arrive on Friday and drifted through until Sunday night. As Argentines say about newborn children, friends came with loaves of bread tucked under their arms.
One afternoon — beautiful and aimless as many others — Dani climbed the pergola at the end of the yard and a group followed him. They sat there for hours, bodies cross-legged on the cured beams, each knee a seed pearl away from the next. They looked off into the fading light, hands splayed under supporting arms, as their backs darkened before us. The full moon hung flush and whole to their right, taking up a quarter of the sky.
During weekends at the farm, we lay in the grass watching the horses travel as the substances inside us ebbed and flowed. Lulu danced off to the left somewhere, her arms held up to the sky, dragonfly body tuned to the music from her MP3. Colo picked out a harmony on the guitar, and Matias wrote the lyrics for his next album. Gonza practiced Capoeira turns, spinning upside-down, while his feet kicked at the air. And on those green and rolling afternoons, the delirium and lucidity were indistinguishable. We never came down, never crashed, because we had become the drug. There was no Black Tuesday, when the brain gasps for serotonin, because on Tuesday we were all together to celebrate nothing in particular. So we floated from living room to lawn, bed to table and on out to the crowded sky of the Southern Hemisphere.
Laughter, the mix of salt and sweet, hair lifting between nape and neck, marijuana breeze. The boys played shirts against skins, while we lay in bikini tops and pajama bottoms. Caro, Colo, Dani, Lulu, Alexis, Alejo, Mechi, Diego, Matute, Matias, Guebe, Gonza, Rodrigo, Gerald, Juan y Juli: names I read today like hieroglyphs without a decoding stone. We would wake from our chemical dreams with nicknames that billowed past us, and our exploits piled atop each other until they held in a thick patois. Amateur DJ’s emerged from the group and burned CD’s with our own greatest hits. The same songs played at our favorite restaurants and clubs, tuning the city into a sprawling music video — starring us.
But we weren’t alone in our habits or our humour. In November 2001, one month shy of Argentina’s social and economic collapse, twenty thousand people leapt through the night during the first Creamfields ever held in Latin America. This massive outdoor electronic ‘festival’ drew a crowd from all corners of the city — despite the two feet of sludge that pulled dancers back to earth. Kids took buses from the provinces, spent their last savings on the thirty-peso ticket and donned sunglasses against the dark. Others planed pre and post vitamin cocktails to maximize the high and control the damage, while the price of bicho, keta, merca and chala went sky-high. And for two days straight, it poured. Paul Oakenfold, Dave Seaman and Argentina’s own Hernán Cattaneo made electronic history at the Polo grounds while muddy crowds won their hearts. That year, Oakenfold — resident king of Ibiza — declared Pachá Buenos Aires his favorite place to play in the world. Dumbfounded by their success in such a godforsaken place, the Cream producers came to tour the city; and girls tattooed the logo on their ankles, while taxis drove it around town. We called Seaman at his hotel and invited him to lunch. He called back to accept our offer, but we didn’t hear the phone. A pirate version of his Global Underground was playing at full volume in the red adobe house.
As we flew through the spring nights, landing in clumps of five or six on somebody’s couch, the city, the government, the world was not cooperating. Buildings exploded and disappeared, unemployment claimed a quarter of the local population, and the millennium began to make good on the worst of its promises. We proved no exception to the rule. We had businesses in bankruptcy, jobs in danger, crooked partners, lawsuits and court orders in our names. But we had drawn a line between real and important, and though we saw every shadow and crease of the hangman’s face, he no longer frightened us. Clutching the antidote we’d discovered in each other, we slept soundly, certain of our deliverance.
On December Twentieth 2001, ‘social unrest’ burst the city’s rotten skin. Policemen on horseback beat back protestors in front of the President’s Casa Rosada, and thirty people died underneath their blows. Looting erupted simultaneously in poor suburban neighborhoods, and every major bridge, intersection and highway exit choked on flaming piles of tires. In broadcasts all around the world, newscasters spoke of Buenos Aires. The New York Times wrote politely: “Turmoil in Argentina.”
Hours after President Fernando de la Rúa resigned, on the second day of violence and represión, we hosted a Christmas dinner for thirty at the red house. There were four extra tables, two roasted turkeys and a loaf of homemade bread for every guest. When friends called to ask if it was cancelled, we said no way; we’d been planning this for weeks — and people had damn well better bring their Secret Santa present.
The real adventure was getting there while the city splintered bone by barrio. I found myself downtown, cornered between drums and bonfires, the air fierce with shouts and whistles. A group of kids attacked Dani’s truck with rocks, while thousands marched past to protest at the residence of Domingo Cavallo, Harvard-educated architect of the peso-dollar. Rodrigo abandoned his scooter at work and walked twenty blocks through barricaded streets. The Panamerican highway became a no-man’s-land, eighteen-wheeler trucks parked against the traffic like aircraft carriers run aground.
With a full glass in hand, we admired the curls of smoke crowning the city. The smell of charred rubber soured the early-summer breeze, and neighbors speculated if “they” would come over the walls. Around our table, we toasted Christmas, the New Year — and come whatever the fuck may. CNN broadcast footage all over the world of looted super markets, screaming protestors, and a Korean shopkeeper who wept and wept. My family called in panic to say they’d seen terrible scenes on television. Yeah, me too, I said, waving at someone to turn the music down. We got so drunk that everyone forgot their bread and so we crammed it in the freezer.
During the next two months, five men passed through the Presidential compound to pin on the inaugural blue and white striped sash. One currency was devalued and other government-issued bonds multiplied until more than eleven official forms of monetary exchange were in use. Three percent of the economy shifted to the barter system, families trading shoes for pencils for books for bread. Cash-poor professionals joined in and dentists did root canals in exchange for psychoanalysis; a new pair of contact lenses could buy a dress. The country’s risk index peaked higher than any other nation’s in the world, and indigent trash-collectors claimed the city, creating their own lane of traffic alongside cars. El Dólar, the Pesos’s ten-year twin, disappeared overnight on a private jet, and banks drew metal curtains across their broken facades. In rage and desperation, Perón’s famous middle class took to the street with pots and pans, banging until the entire city jangled like a pocketful of quarters. Except that everyone’s pockets were empty.
Not even the drugs could protect us anymore, but if everything was going straight to hell, we argued, than we’d better do exactly what we wanted. If a lifetime of honest work landed you on the street or worse, than it was time to make a change. Some quit their jobs to work freelance and others closed their businesses. Two people signed up for a course in astrology, and the shyest among us started acting. Like school kids at the end of summer who yearn in secret for their desks, we searched for a way out of ourselves. One group went to an aerial dance class to keep on flying, and others met downtown with a novelist. We tried yoga and meditation, trekking in the mountains. At Easter, someone suggested the Patagonia.
There was a birth, a wedding, a separation, an exodus to another country and a move around the corner. We continued to see each other, but our magic had become serious and productive, our appetites no longer confined to mere consumption. And, like the country that foundered around us, a great betrayal fed our destruction, just as a magnifying glass can turn its scrutiny into a weapon.
Our group love was fraternal and generous, the mutual warmth of animal to animal. This same eagerness to share affection (as if it were, indeed, unlimited) was the dumb secret of our happiness. But it was affection and no more. We didn’t swap partners as our parents had. We were a family, not a commune, friends and not lovers. When people asked from the outside, eyebrows convicting, “But what’s the deal with all the hugging?” we would smile away their misinterpretations: “You don’t understand. This has nothing to do with sex. We’re way, way beyond that.” During the nights our bodies sighed in unison, hearts beating together like a bomb that never exploded — until one day it did. And though we lived and breathed the evidence, the suspicions and clumsy lies, we denied it could be happening. And surely, inevitably, it finished us, one final bankruptcy in a fantastic chain.
Someone wrote in an email that the group was over, and someone answered that we were The Walrus, that El Trebol Not Dead. A philosophical treatise followed, tempers flared, but there was nothing to be done. Old friends celebrated our defeat and the return to normalcy with nauseating rectitude. Meanwhile, the country enjoyed a different humiliation at the hands of the IMF, and George W. Bush declared that Argentina should lie in the pauper’s bed it had made. Local papers claimed that over half the population planned to emigrate, and lines for the Spanish and Italian consulates wrapped kilometers around city blocks. Entrepreneurs offered their services to wait in line, day and night, while the would-be immigrants were at work. That year, eighty-three thousand souls got on a plane with one-way tickets, and the airport clogged with sobbing mothers, stone-faced fathers. Rome, Madrid, and Barcelona braced themselves for the return of long-lost grandchildren.
Facing a different kind of dead-end, Juan and I joined ranks with other escapees (who wants to be the last one awake at the party, condemned to see her face by the light of day?) and we left for a long trip. Our business had disappeared under the rubble of December, and we needed horizon. When the plane lifted off the tarmac, I sagged with relief and the terrible consolation of getting out in time. My head fell against the seat back, and I slept, free and safe and ashamed. The world I loved lay in a thousand mangled pieces — the first real disaster I had known — disaster on a scale I couldn’t comprehend. And the damage was total, fantasy and reality drawn white and shrunken together on the slab.
Traveling, we rode past Lego-Land countryside on trains with people who worried about the delay or their university exams. We visited cities whose chaos simmered at a steady underboil and whose inhabitants appeared, at least, resigned to their fates. Old women stayed inside their houses, as did their pots and pans. Strikes shut down the airlines, but not the supermarkets. And I wandered through museums and past monuments, defrocked and anonymous, just another vaguely foreign girl.
Following the tourist crush of fanny packs and cameras, Juan consulted guidebooks and I kept a journal. We found our way to a café in a lemon grove and ordered as we’d been told, sipping the cold, viscous limoncello with dessert. In the square where four thousand Czechs wept for Mozart’s death, I felt the grave note of history and its indifference. Solemn and beautiful, mature in everything Argentina was not, the landscape’s perfection was irritating. I couldn’t reconcile what I had left with this tidy scenery — let alone my own freedom to come and go as I pleased, to choose one world or the other. The newspapers described an irreversible disaster and messages from friends were intermittent, lukewarm. Memories of our group excess blurred into a new feeling of unease, while the business-as-usual prosperity of the European Union filled me with anger. This is amazing — beautifully expressed.
Our travels ended on a rocky island covered in brush and sand, a place famous for its parties and spiritual enchantment — a place where people like us went when they followed their convictions. You could see them at hippie fairs selling tie-dyed pants and florescent hats, brown children hanging off their backs. Separate from the indigenous population and impossible to mistake for tourists, they moved to their own rhythm as citizens of the stars and outer planets.
The DJ’s who’d hypnotized us back home played in town, and every night noise and light troubled the horizon. We took refuge on the northern tip of the island, far from the clubs and their amnesiac parties. Very important this bit, this inability to identify with that culture given the circumstances. Among goats and hunched farmers who spoke a strange language, we read and walked on the beach. At midday, even the insects flattened into rest and the white walls of the peasant ranchos shone in the fields like diurnal stars. I was content, but only as an exile or a recluse can be, cut from my life and pasted elsewhere.
One afternoon, as I ran down a road between arid hill and endless sea, I felt my stomach fold with longing to return to that place, to those arms, to the moments that had seemed predestined in their time. Sun reddened the hard cheek of the mountain. Heat quartered the asphalt shimmer. The song playing on my Walkman belonged to a soundtrack that had lost its cast.
When Juan and I returned to Buenos Aires, some had gone south and others were working in the United States. The rest of us met in a restaurant downtown and we embraced like dissidents repatriated after a life abroad. Anxiety quickened our voices, and our excitement swelled with desperation; hands gripped tight around necks and shoulders. We exclaimed in our old group slang, posed for photos around the table, and planned a party for old-times’ sake, a Sunday barbecue, a night out on the town. We kept ordering to keep the check at bay and stood forever on the curb, resisting another separation. Cold and drunk in the winter chill, we wandered off to cars and taxis. The last frame of a movie that ends in the street.
How is it possible to find such a treasure, to love and dote upon it and then drop it in the river like a bag of stones? How is it possible that, wrapped in silk and daisy chains, we changed our translucent robes for a wet wool blanket and a pair of boots? I know it wasn’t like that, that so much happened, that it was unsustainable, fleeting in nature, a hair’s breadth from a lie. The whole thing did occur, after all, in a country whose founding father said it could become great among nations or amount to nothing. And the jury’s still out on that one. But if we had it for a moment, that is to say that it existed, that it wasn’t just a fad of sneakers and unstable compounds. I still wear the scars on my cheeks, but I’ve forgotten the sound of the drums.
That’s why I’m asking you to remember us, not as we are today — pensive and sincere, fitting the train back on the rails, paying off the interest on unpayable loans — but as we were that first weekend at the farm, the morning after the night of fire and shooting stars when we lay in the grass, the weather impossibly mild. Marcos and Alejo were playing the guitar and Juanchi was still alive. We sang under their clear voices, heads resting in laps, clothes half-on, skin still permeable, mind open and blank. It was winter, but we could barely feel the breeze. Our bodies, the earth and air all shared the same ambient degree.
Lupe and Matías emerged from the house, hair combed back by the wind as they walked, with trays of cheese and fresh ham, cold beer and potato chips. And the food tasted like sun and surf, the liquid cooled our tender throats, the cans caught and held the light, glinting like the muddy water conquistadores were tricked so many years ago into naming after silver.