2011: I have contracted with a surgeon in Argentina, to feminize my face. The amount he is charging is one-sixth the amount it costs in the US; still, it will cost all of my savings. My spouse Ani and I board a nine-hour flight in the US, and arrive in the vast metropolis of Buenos Aires, a sea of concrete-grey high-rise apartments. We take a hotel in an older part of town, near the museum that houses memorabilia of Carlos Gardel, the King of Tango. A quick check of the FM frequencies unearths an all-tango station.
No one speaks English; we have plunged into our Spanish lesson-books for months now, so we can manage with a phrase-book, and a lot of broad gestures. Our ancient hotel was once grand. The concierge takes our bags through the ornate brass doors, which are locked behind us. We ascend a marble staircase past a rusting iron gate, to our brightly-painted room.
The staff is curious to receive US citizens. There are Italians, Germans, and English tourists in town, but Yanks are rare. The room has an open-flame heater grille to stave off the Argentinian July chills; the balcony overlooks the street, and like all open flat surfaces, it is gritty with the obsidian dust from a local volcano.
I go to visit the surgeon, and we confirm the date of the operation. He does speak English, and he is quite polite and matter-of-fact. He keeps his high-end pinstripe jacket on while discussing details with me. He is straight-backed, reserved, proper — a Gentleman from Central Casting.
After the appointment we are free to roam the city, so we take the rumbling rubber-odor subway to the Recoleta cemetery, which is everything it is cracked up to be, a city-in-a-city, composed of improbably grand mausoleums. The rumor seems believable, that some of them have elevators and air conditioning. It is true that Evita Peron’s grave, though not nearly as large as many mausoleums there, is still covered in flowers — not just a few, either. There’s a whole florist shop on her final resting place.
On another necropolis street, a statue of a young woman in drapery, rendered in smooth white stone, shyly exits a tomb door. This is the resting place of a girl who collapsed of a sudden illness, more than a century ago, and was buried alive, in error. It’s a sort of marble apology.
Carlos Gardel is not here; he is buried in the working-class cemetery, La Chacarita, which is even larger. There, apartment-blocks of crematoria stand in great grassy fields of graves. In both cemeteries, the streets are marked as in any city, and they are quite a maze.
When morning arrives, I am eager and anxious about my transformation. The surgeon will not lower my scalp, he has said, but plans to raise my cheekbones and remove the flab under my chin; by his book, this is more feminizing. I go out to the balcony to see the dawn, and find the streets empty save for a madman who goes shouting curses — I am to discover that he greets every morning in this way: “Hijo, madre, puta, cabron!” He walks with a comically exaggerated swagger, face upturned, perhaps upbraiding God.
After he passes I can hear another sound, quite faint and persistent at first, as if an ethereal chorus of a thousand voices were approaching. It puts me in mind of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres.” The voices echo through the empty canyon-streets, and I am mystified with their anguished glissandos. After a long moment I understand: it is not an army of approaching wounded angels, but the daily fleet of delivery and garbage trucks, stored away from the city center, now entering for the day’s duties, their engines and clutches and hydraulics howling. The spell is broken, but I will rise each morning to hear it again.
In surgery, I awaken to find my body bound to a slab with blood gutters, as a man — not the dapper chief surgeon, I was later to find it was his associate — is cutting apart the top of my cheek with a scalpel. In my anesthetized stupor, I cannot remember that I have come to Buenos Aires for an operation; I assume that I have died, and that this hellish situation represents my own psyche, cutting apart my body-memories to adjust to the purification demands of death. The pain is shocking. Ah, well, that’s just fine; here I go; the surgeons are really my higher self, I reason. Look at the blood, so real. Then I realize where I am and what is happening, so I say to the man in my tourist-Spanish, “tengo mucho dolor” (I am in great pain!). “Calma,” he says, pushing my head back to the surgery-table. This is not satisfactory to me, so I say sarcastically (in Spanish), ‘Maybe this is a Catholic thing? That pain is good?’ — and he looks me in the eye then, realizing that I am indeed conscious, and he gestures to the anesthesiologist. The world fades comfortably.
The pain on waking, though, is quite intense. The surgeon does not seem to have access to much in the way of opiates; I am horrified. He is puzzled that I am in such agony, and I am puzzled that he doesn’t expect it. We settle on Tramadol. My head is covered in an absurdity of white gauze bandages, but I am very happy to have gone through the surgery.
The next day, with many of the bandages off, I marveled at the shape of my face. Absent the chin fat I did look younger, and the cheek-lift added to the effect. The surgeon had cut back the skin between my nose and my lip, giving my lips an odd petulance which eventually subsided. Overall I was pleased, especially considering the cut-rate price. (I was to pay for my corner-cutting a year later, though, as I struggled in the bathroom mirror to remove stitches that my health insurance refused to cover.) I have been told that the workmanship of my facial surgery is superb.
I was thrilled to be in such an exotic (for me) place. Over the following week, we trudged through the streets as well as my blood loss would allow, hopping aboard the tiny ever-swarming taxis whenever we grew tired or impatient with the massive, mouldering subway system. In Buenos Aires, commuters dress well and cram the antique, shuddering metallic subway cars in silence, politely tossing coins to the street-musicians as they play in the aisles. (These tips do not amount to much; I tossed in the equivalent of a US dollar to one indigenous group, and the singer came by to thank me personally.)
I am a giant compared to most people there, and drew stares with my baritone voice, as I used the roof to steady me while standing. “Soy un monstrua desde los Estados Unidos,” I explained, weaving from the drugs.
I vaguely remember standing in a museum, looking at indigenous artifacts, including skulls deformed by head-binding, and jade-colored ceramic pipes decorated with images of mushrooms. One set of skulls particularly drew my attention, as they were manifestly of the aged, yet the size of a small child’s. These elongated skulls did not show the indentation marks I had come to expect from head-binding. There was no guide, so I have no explanation.
At the hotel the desk clerks, perhaps taking pity on me with my bandaged face, suggest a special place to see tango. We hop in a taxi — just a matter of standing on the curb and gesturing — and are taken to a narrow street, not much more than an alley. Children mob us for coins as we exit the taxi, but the driver gets out and runs them off. We ascend a narrow concrete stair for two stories, and open a massive wooden door to find a jam-packed theater and dance floor. A crack accordion and violin orchestra is playing — we have arrived late, and can scarcely find a seat. Patrons get up from the tables to tango, some displaying sinuous athletic skill, others tottering. Eventually, we achieve a table and beer. My delighted smiles are returned by dancers and waiters.
Returning to the airport with my swollen face, I noticed that there was no demand that I remove my shoes to board the plane. The customs examination was cursory on exiting Argentina, and over two weeks I had grown used to the relaxed atmosphere. Re-entering the suspicious, angry metal detectors of the USA was a shock — shoes off, queueing in line like prisoners. In just two weeks I have forgotten that no one wants to meet my eye. Land of the Free.