This is The Foreign Exchange
#5.0 of the Gap Decade Chronicles
Ezeiza is an airport and all airports consist of the same essential matter. Large structural spans, security checkpoints, flight attendants and pilots walking purposefully through the masses and tearful goodbyes and homecoming hugs and an army of signage. But your first time in a foreign airport it is precisely this similitude that sharpens an attenuated strangeness. When I was a child I read a story about a man named Eckels that went back in time and stepped on a butterfly and when he returned the present had changed. I don’t remember why he went to the past nor why he returned to his own time but I remember his name and I remember that although most things were unchanged upon his return the alphabet was slightly different, or people spoke in a way he could not fully understand, or the other political party was in power. You feel like Eckels your first time in a foreign airport, for although it consists of the same matter as all the domestic airports you’ve seen before and even though some things are in English, most are not, and the signs say the same things but they are not in the same color, and the cab is a model of car you didn’t know existed. The cashier at the taxi stand receives the piece of paper that has my address on it and points to a digital display with the price and I pay him, but though the bills are a familiar size and crinkly and weathered with the ubiquitous hand of Man they are colored oddly, blue and pink and purple. These are the things you notice, this strangeness intermingled with an unsuspected familiarity.
You have been to Buenos Aires before?
The cabbie. And even his Spanish is strange. Nothing like the Mexicans aboard The Sounder and he sounds like he’s speaking Spanish with an Italian accent and he says a hard J where you’d expect a soft Y.
It is a beautiful city. There is no better city in which to fall in love than Buenos Aires.
I nod mutely.
How long will you stay?
I do not know. I do not have a return ticket. I will stay until I run out of money.
Well then, that is likely enough time.
There is a thin fog upon the land, floating between the plains and the occasional lone expansive treetop. It engulfs concrete barricades and half-obscures the road signs above the interchanges. The cabbie sees me squinting at the signs.
We are on the Autopista Panamericana. You have heard of it?
It is the longest road made by Man. It crosses both continents South to North. This road is connected all the way past South America, through Central America, even as far as your country. If you run out of money and cannot fly back, do not worry. You may return to your home overland.
How long would it take?
It would take a long time. You are Canadian?
Ah. A Janqui.
And he says it like it is supposed to derive from Yankee, but it sounds more like Junkie.
I thought perhaps a Canadian. On the television it is the Canadians who have beards.
You cannot trust it.
No. No you cannot.
What do the Argentines on your televisions look like? Do they wear black berets and red scarves and rope cattle and look like they never shower? We are not like that here in Buenos Aires, you will find.
No, they do not look like that on our televisions.
And he looks satisfied. I choose not to tell him that I have never once seen an Argentine person portrayed on television.
I arrive at the house that Tiffany Chang had arranged to live in. It is a mansion outside of the city. A woman in a white apron answers the door and I giver her the gift I have brought and thank her for letting me into her home. She giggles and explains she is the mucama. The maid. I have never met a maid before. La mucama leads me back to the house and I am introduced to the family. They look surprised but welcome me nonetheless and we have dinner and get acquainted and in the evening they go to sleep but my internal clock is skewed. I wander the house and the courtyard in the night. I am Eckels, noting what is the same and what has changed, a game I will play my whole life and never tire of. The toilet is identical to every toilet I’ve ever seen but adjacent to it is a second toilet with no seat and a water fountain inside it. The wood paneling is detailed in a typical fashion but it is not the light tan of Birch of home but the dark red of some unknown tree. There are no ravens and no chickadees and no magpies but alien birds sing garbled songs lovely and strange and pigeons coo their vaguely erotic exhalations outside my windowsill so that in my sleep I think someone in the house must be making love somewhere with their window open. The walls of the courtyard are intricate and flowery but at their tops are shards of broken glass placed vertically into grout, and at the corner a security guard in a station the size of a phone booth sits all night sipping some sort of tea through a metal straw from a gourd. And unlike Eckels I finally sleep in soft comfort, and dream vividly.
The Pavoni Family
The Pavonis had planned to have their incoming foreign exchange student share a bedroom with their daughter but that would not now be possible and none of the three sons of the house seemed keen on a roommate so they put me in an unused servant’s quarters in the attic. Señor Pavoni is in the furniture business. His family has lived in Barrio Florida since its inception and he inherited the business from his father who inherited it from his grandfather who inherited it in turn. The family has watched the train station come through and Avenida General San Martìn turn from mud to wood to asphalt framed by shops that grew second and then third stories as the barrio slowly prepares to be swallowed by the City it borders. The Pavoni Mueblerìa business has survived the Dirty War, the World Wars, hyperinflation and more than one depression. El Señor’s sons range from ages nineteen to thirtyone and all three still live at home and none have any interest in the furniture business or in me. The youngest wants to be a DJ. The middle speaks to no one and sits sullenly at the dinner table contemplating his harelip and I never learn his interests. The eldest was at least excited to have a female American in the house, as he had learned from films that they are easy. A male Janqui is of no use to him, which he tells me plainly my first day there. The only person my age that will speak to me is the daughter, an introverted young lady who spent last year living in the dorms in the States, necessitating the Exchange. She is quiet and kind and addicted to the internet. She spends all evening on chat rooms talking to people in English back in the United States. People she knew, people she doesn’t know. She sleeps all day and types all night. The internet has just arrived in Argentina, and only yet to the most privileged. It will soon change the country like it is changing America. Like it will eventually change the world. None of us know this yet, myself included, but the Daughter does. For now, it works on Argentine telephone lines, and telephone lines are expensive. The bill comes and the house is filled with shouting. The Pavonis did not build this mansion in a day. Frugality has been a shield they held up against the fickle storms of history. The Daughter and her father Señor Pavoni have exhaustive arguments wherein she tells him the future and he tells her the past. She cries and he throws his hands up in the air. His wife the Matron wrings her hands worriedly and prays for harmony. The Matron is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants and is a lovely woman. Her father still lives in the house. He is addressed as Abuelito. El Abuelito is Ninetythree years old and wakes before dawn each day to bake bread before the mucama takes over the kitchen. The mucama is named Àngel. She came seven hundred miles south from the jungles of Misiones and she sends her paychecks back to her sister who cares for the children she left there. Àngel la Mucama and El Abuelito and the Matron and El Señor Pavoni and his business and his three disinterested sons and his sweet lone hacker daughter would fill a regular home to the brim but this is a mansion and they can walk the halls all day and never see each other until dinnertime. Even the attic has more square footage than the entire house I grew up in. There is a billiards table and bumper pool and books and old family heirlooms stored up there and my bed. Behind the house is a swimming pool and two tennis courts and a Hall with a table that could seat fifty but the only place people ever meet is in a tiny room adjoining the kitchen.
The Matron looks concerned at my Sailor’s Spanish and Àngel la Mucama snickers against her hand and after the family has gone to bed most nights we have a sip of wine together and she coaches me on how to speak to the Pavonis without making them blush. My internal clock stays off for at least two weeks and I’m still up in the predawn when El Abuelito comes down to bake his bread. The years have hunched his back and taken most of his hearing but he still has a fair bit of shock white hair and doesn’t need a cane or spectacles.
Do you know how to make bread?
Speak louder, joven.
No. I do not know how.
If you live long enough, you might learn. It is not yet time for you, I think. Once you have made money, made love, made children and made a home, once all those things have been done, then you may finally relax, and learn to make bread. Bread baked by the Young has the taste of Hurry buried within it. What will you do today?
Today I will go to school.
That is not the way to say it. Voy a escuela. This is something children say.
Today I will attend University.
Sì. That is better.
And he gives me a bit of bread to travel into the City with. It is delicious.
The walk down La Avenida General San Martin to the train station is short and I’m thankful for it. At home I can walk a full hard day in the cold and post-holing through snow the whole way too but this South American Heat makes me view distances warily. I’m already starting to sweat by the time I get to the shaded verandas of the station. The train starts out with a wide berth but as we head into the city the Right of Way narrows and it eventually passes within inches of walled compounds, all beautiful and whitewashed and surrounding vegetation, all with barbed wire or shards of broken glass at the top, more ramparts than shademakers and I think this must be a place where the Rich live in fear of the Poor. Barrio Florida is the first neighborhood North of the city boundaries, and the school is in the Northern Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano, which looks to make the commute fortuitous.
There is a mixer today. School starts tomorrow and instead of meeting in the classroom we are to meet in a bar. Which is exciting in itself because I am twenty years old and have never been in a bar. New Country, New Rules. I walk into the establishment and a woman asks me to select my nametag. I decline but she says in order to get a free bar tab for the event I need a nametag from La Universidad De Belgrano, so I spend the rest of the night with a sticker on my shirt that says
¡Hola! Me Llamo
But I drink for free. And if your first time ever setting foot in a bar without getting carded you too drank for free, then you can truly know the smug indifference with which I viewed my Given Name that day. I sit at a spare bar stool and order a beer and a bourbon and say hola to the man sitting next to me. He’s got gringo features and the only other person in here with hair on his face and he’s got a beer and a glass of red wine in front of him.
You speak English?
Where you from?
That’s a state in America, correct?
So you’re a fuckin American. Correct?
Australian. So why’d you say you’re from Alaska?
I mean, I don’t say I’m from fuckin Adelaide, because what does that mean, right? You ever heard of Adelaide?
Precisely. It’s a city in South Australia. Famous for having heaps of churches. And wine. And not much else.
He downs the beer and pours the wine into a steel canteen in his lap. Then he motions the bartender for two more.
Why do you say you’re Alaskan instead of American? You fuckin embarrassed? You a separatist or something?
Naw. I don’t know why. I’m American. I’m from America.
When Texans go to Argentina on vacation and Porteños ask them where they’re from do they say Texas? Like we’re meant to have all fifty fuckin states of your country memorized?
If anybody does, it’s Texans. And Alaskans. And Vermonters. Hell I dunno.
We ponder this riddle for a moment while staring thoughtfully at the back bar, hoping the tender will notice us for another round.
I’m Fisher Milaiic.
I’m Fuckin McCulloch.
Nice to meet ye.
Pleasure. Do you know what Australians call Americans?
What’s that for?
Why septic tank?
Rhymes with Yank.
That seems elaborate.
I reckon it might be. What do Sepos call people from Australia?
What to you mean?
I guess we call them Australians.
Sure. But what’s your word for Australians when you’re taking the piss?
I don’t think we have one. I bet a good chunk of people graduating from public school in America couldn’t find Australia on a map.
That’s even more insulting.
I suppose it might be.
That’s the problem with the Sepos in general. Whole world knows it.
Huge rates of inequality, lower than average literacy rates, no health care, you put half your poor people in prison, everybody’s incapable of learning a second language and you have no idea what’s happening outside your own borders but you’re still running the fuckin world. Isn’t that embarrassing?
Embarrassing for us or embarrassing for you?
Well nothing lasts forever mate. Nobody stays on top long. The Romans and the Mongols and the Sultanates and the British and the French they all got stuffed up eventually. We little countries take comfort in that. We know the reign ends someday, if only to be taken up by some other mob that’s just as bad. Do people even know that where you’re from, that your lucky streak won’t last forever?
I dunno. Where I’m from, forever just means Until I’m Dead.
I reckon so. For most men, that’s probably how long Forever is. Young countries understand Forever about as well as young men do.
He is silent for a moment, perhaps thinking of a new strategy for giving shit. But instead he raises his glass.
No dramas. Something in common at least.
I raise mine back.
Here’s to being young men from young countries.
Here’s to That.
And finally a grin. Now at least we don’t have to talk about Where We Come From anymore. Sometimes it can take that long at a bar Abroad if they’re already angry.
A woman tings her glass and begins speaking to the crowd before the chatter dies down, effectively dimming it by her forward progress. She is the Director of Foreign Students. She welcomes us all to Belgrano and wishes us luck at this great university, in this great city, in this great country. Classes start at nine tomorrow morning. Bring a notebook and a pencil. And enjoy.
What’d she say?
She said welcome, and classes start early. You don’t speak Spanish?
I studied three years in Australia, but I didn’t catch any of that.
They talk different here. It’s harder to catch it.
What are you studying?
Same. I’m on a Gap Year.
What’s a gap year?
It’s the year you travel, after graduating school and before going on to college or work. You don’t do that in America?
Haven’t heard of it. Maybe rich kids do.
I’m not rich. All Australians do it. Brits and Kiwis too. Even the fuckin Canadians, probably. It’s a tradition. That’s what the Sepos get for leaving the Commonwealth. You miss out on all the good traditions. Go out. See the world. Get your whistle wet. Then get back and finish school, or start your career.
Like a little vacation after school and before a life of work. Like the AssemblyLine quits for just an instant, but then you just get back on like nothing ever happened. Sounds a little morbid, that’s all.
Might be. But. Might be it turns into something that shakes you loose. Might be you get some girl pregnant and start a family in Africa. Might be you end up living in the mountains of Thailand as a monk the rest of your life. Might be you get in with a bunch of revolutionaries and spend all your years giving it to the Man and dying before you can sell out. Or, if none of that suits you, no dramas. You can buy back in to regular life. No harm.
Che Guevara started on a Gap Year. Look all the fuckin things he got to do. He was Argentine. Was supposed to be a doctor and a Gap Year shook him loose of that rubbish forever.
I thought Che Guevara was Cuban.
Fuckin Sepos. He was from right here. Left Argentina and got in with Fidel and changed history from Cuba, but he was Porteño, from Buenos Aires.
Why did he have to go all the way to Cuba, instead of just starting a revolution here in his home town?
Might be he knew that one could never ever succeed here. Farm where the soil’s fertile. He was a right smart fucker, Che.
Fuckin McCulloch puts a beer in his gullet and another wine in his canteen and I start doing the same, drinking my beers but pouring my bourbons into my flask and we watch the room and tell a couple stories and meet a couple folks: Kees and Iwan from the Netherlands that have only been in their apartment two days but already planned a party this weekend, and Adam from Kansas City who doesn’t seem to like the heat any more than me, and Trine from Copenhagen that glides in between us to the bartop looking beautiful and confident and orders a whiskey, just rocks no coke or soda and she sips it like my grandfather sipped bourbon, lower lip getting the last taste off the upper while she scans the room. I’ve been dealing with underage Colorado girls that will do just about anything to make their alcohol taste less like alcohol with wine coolers and cosmopolitans and hard lemonade and this badass Dane is a figure to behold in her sweet tight jeans and a grandfather’s liver. She spends a moment watching us silently and says
The wine is free. Why are you stealing it and putting it in your canteen?
She says it in English too like she speaks it better than we do, and I don’t even know the word for canteen in Spanish so maybe she does.
Free here, says McCulloch, but just as likely in the next place it won’t be. I come from drought. Save up, I fuckin say.
Which she seems to accept without judgment. But in an unspoken sense I think the two of us feel outclassed anyway and the conversation dies off. She calls out to the bartender and orders another, and as she does her fingers brush my arm. And I spend a couple days reminding myself that that was an accident, but am still unable to transfer it out of my memory with all the other banal accidents of my days.
Fuckin McCulloch and I wander back to the train station but the trains they don’t go all night and we missed the last one and it starts to rain. We sit under a little overhang and he’s got cards and we’ve got wine and bourbon both between us and a set of Sonrisas cookies that he insists on calling biscuits and if the train stops before the bars I think this might not be the easiest commute after all. We play Ginrummy and drink wine and bourbon all night and by the time the trains start running again there’s no sense heading home and we sleep on the damp front steps of the university and wander up to class when the doors open. And just like back before: I can tell school here is unlikely to stick.
The first week of school I spend only one night in my bed back in Barrio Florida. It seems a waste of hard-earned rent to pay for a bed in a country this warm where a metro bench and maybe a storage locker somewhere would do just as well, and anyway the Pavonis are a family which makes me feel guilty for coming home late and a little constrained because I just spent eighteen years in a family and only two on my own and it seems regressive somehow to have to go back to telling somebody whether you think you’ll be home in time for dinner. I mention it to one of the Pavoni boys but he isn’t much for conversation and anyway he is almost thirty and still living at home like people do here so he doesn’t see what all the fuss about.
And it’s hell on the wallet to eat at cafes three meals a day and though Àngel la Mucama would pack a couple day’s lunch they always run out or get crushed or left somewhere. Fuckin McCulloch and I meet each day after class or increasingly even at Café Plaza Garai on Luis Maria Campos Street, where we spend hours trying not to spend more than a couple pesos on coffee and medialunas and play cards while watching the parade of beautiful women pass by the window.
There is no city in the world where I have seen women like I have seen in the streets of Buenos Aires Argentina. Blonde hair and olive complexion and black hair with fair skin and freckles and jeans so tight they have to cut vertical slits at the ankles and call up some unknown ancient magic just to get them on in the morning and Fuckin McCulloch and I promise each other that if we’re still unmarried by the time we’re thirty we’ll return to this great city and just find wives, which goes to show just how little a man at twenty knows about women, or about turning thirty.
McCulloch has an Argentine buddy Chebludo that he met at his bank and he invites him over to play cards from time to time. Chebludo is not his real name. His real name I am embarrassed to say I cannot even remember, even though we traveled across the country together. He must have said it but Fuckin McCulloch always called him Chebludo and it stuck. McCulloch called him that because the man began every single sentence with that word, like a phrasally scaled prefix. As in Chebludopass the salt, or Chebludo mirà a esa rubia allà, or Chebludostop acting like such a Janqui. The intonation of it stretched out proportionally to the amount of wine in his system and after a full bottle it would come out as Chaaaaaay-Bo-Luuuuudo and you’d have to wait even longer for him to get into the meat of the communication. I’m not sure if he ever knew that’s what we called him, or just figured we were mimicking the way he spoke. Chebludo made it known we would indeed be wise to mimic his diction because it was obvious to him that we’d gone and learned Spanish in the wrong places and McCulloch sounded to his ears like a lisping Castillian prepschooler and I spoke like a Mexican fisherman, both dialects being equally ridiculous to him. Chebludo came from Barrio Velez Sarsfield and had never left the country and maybe even the city. He’d come from a working class family but had willed his way out of it, and he knew which fork was the salad fork and which one was for meat and he dressed in the latest fashions and he had read every book written in Spanish since the Cid but couldn’t fix the drain in the sink or take a proper penalty kick on the minifield or throw a punch because those were the knowledge sets of the demographic he aimed to leave behind. He loved a girl he’d grown up with since kids in the streets of Buenos Aires but her family had moved on to the mountains years ago and he’d never felt an inclination to find another girl in her place, which is a thing so rare that you have to give respect. He saved and saved and lived on ñoquis and cheap malbec so that one day he might be able to pay for an apartment of such elegance that his lover should she ever visit would decide to remain in Buenos Aires with him forever. Most people grow to the size of their fishbowls and I admired Chebludo’s ability to dirtbag it like Fuckin McCulloch and me even though he wore a tie to work every day but he maintained that it wasn’t so hard. A single man spends money like water he says, and a man that has a woman must spend even more. But if you love a woman and she lives far far away, well then you don’t spend a goddam dime on anything.
Chebludo knew which bakeries had the cheapest facturas and which shops let you put empty Quilmes beer bottle deposits towards wine and he knew a kiosk girl named Lili that would serve us superpancho hot dogs without charging us on the condition that nobody else was in line and that we agreed to dally and share a màte with her to relieve her of the boredom of spending Twelvehour shifts in a store the size of a closet talking to people in six second increments from behind glass. Chebludo always had a little thermos of hot water and a gourd with a metal straw in it that he drank the tea out of. Màte is not really how it’s spelled. Two syllables by statistics makes for unfortunate cognates cross languages and first time Chebludo saw it written on a grocery list in my pack he scolded me but it’d be too confusing to write matè (which means I Killed It, in Spanish) or mate (which reads as Lover for Janquis or Just About Anybody for Fuckin McCulloch’s countrymen) So this is the best I can come up with. Màte takes some getting used to but sipping bitter green tea out a gourd makes you feel kind of exotic and the buzz is real and it’s cheaper than coffee so when it wasn’t raining the three of us would sit in Plaza Barrancas telling stories over the gourd and talking about places outside Buenos Aires we’d like to visit.
Trine the Dane
McCulloch and I are sleeping in the park one day when someone shades me and wakes me up. It is Trine the Dane.
Hola, Alaskano. Alaskeño?
You’re making that up.
Didn’t feel up to class today?
I went to Geography in the morning, only missed the afternoon.
Afternoon’s Spanish. It never hurts to learn some more.
I’d just have to unlearn it when I got back to my Mexican friends. They think Argentines talk snotty.
I glance quickly across the lawn.
Don’t tell Chebludo I said that.
You lived in Mexico?
Just commercial fish with them.
She sits down crosslegged in the grass.
You worked on a fishing boat in Alaska?
A ship. Yeah.
Well what was it like?
This is not the discussion I’d choose. About not having money for school and having to go home and seine. Not with this girl. But she thinks it’s interesting. Exciting. It doesn’t occur to you, that the things you trudge through might be considered exotic by someone that grew up far enough away. And if she is going to sit in the grass and let me look at her then hell I’ll talk about whatever she wants me to. We chat about Alitak and about Buenos Aires and then she talks about Denmark and about a great many other places she’s lived that are just as interesting. Her father worked for an oil company and she lived in Malaysia and Norway and somewhere in Africa and Portugal until her folks split.
I didn’t even know Portugal had oil.
Maybe they don’t. But everywhere has oil companies.
Is that why you speak English so well?
They don’t speak English in Portugal. They speak Portuguese.
I know. Of course I know that.
Everyone in Denmark speaks English. We learn it in school. Everyone in Europe learns English in school.
I would think something like French. Language of diplomacy. And anyway Vikings don’t need diplomacy.
Sure. But English is the language of money. I speak the language of the Vikings at home, I speak the language of Money at work.
She talks like that, Trine the Dane. Makes you want to keep up.
Trine the Dane is older than us and she’s doing her Masters here. She has her own apartment and she invites Fuckin McCulloch and me over and cooks us chili con carne. Chili con carne is not a typically Argentine dish, but it’s damn good. She makes us two portions, one for there and one for the road, but we eat both. We lay on her floor with bloated bellies groaning in pleasure and pain while she does homework. Her apartment is clean and small and the only two things on the wall are a map of Buenos Aires with certain bus routes highlighted and a black and white photo of a man on the beach.
Who’s the dude?
He’s my boyfriend. In Denmark.
Yes he is.
Four years. He’s coming to visit at the end of the semester. We’re going to Bolivia.
What’ll you do there?
Go to the salt flats, likely.
They have very famous salt flats in Bolivia. The guidebook says they’re wonderful.
Tallest country this side of Tibet and you’re going to go check out flat places?
Not interesting enough for you. What would you do?
I’d be up high. Mountains. Any place spitting distance from the equator that still gets snow has got to be Up. I’d breathe air without air in it, check out horned and hoofed things I’ve never seen, walk up, walk down. Daydream. There are no better daydreams in the world than the ones you have putting one foot in front of the other up a mountain.
You don’t sound like a fisherman, getting all mushy about mountains.
I’m not a fisherman. I just fished. And I can’t believe you know the word mushy. Anyway, I’d take a Mountain over the Sea any day.
There is no why. You’re either a Mountain person or a Sea person. That’s all.
Maybe I’m a salt flat person.
Nobody’s a salt flat person. Take your handsome fella and go climb a mountain. It’ll be better, that’s all.
Fuckin McCulloch is stretching and waking, slowly. I’d have him sleep longer, sitting and talking about mountains with Trine the Dane. But he’s up.
There’s more màte.
Ta. I told Chebludo we’d meet him at a disco tonight. It’s eleven. We’d better go.
Eleven is too early, Trine says. Nobody will be there until onethirty or two.
Fuckin Two in the Morning? I’m meant to meet him there. What you think Milaiic?
Trine the Dane pours some wine into McCulloch’s canteen and says she won’t expect us in class on the morrow, and I thank her for letting us into her home.
The buses in Buenos Aires are all bi-colored and numbered. There’s a red and blue one called the Six, the OneOSeven which is green and white, and a hundred others. They are loud and full of belching smoke and have giant Mercedes emblems on the front. Fuckin McCulloch keeps a little spiral notebook in his pack called a Guìa and it has all the routes color coded and cross referenced in mapped sections. The Guìa tells you where each bus goes, where it stops, where it intersects with other buses. The routes look like coats of arms for prominent families or the uniforms of sports teams and I think of what it might be like to equate the banners of a bus with your home neighborhood. The Sixty, which is an ugly Desert Storm tan, is the bus we take downtown to El Cuervo, a bar where Chebludo is meeting us. The sky is full of fat clouds that would be invisible in the wilderness with no moon but this is a city of thirteenmillion people and it casts its artificial lights into the sky and the refractions form topographic maps of cyan gradient along the clouds’ black underbellies as they get slowly fatter and full of oncoming rain.
I grew up with less stars than most people. Up North In the summer the sun stays up all night and in the winter the snow reflects halflight all over and only the brightest stars come through so there’s just less multitudes of them. The Native Athabaskans at home didn’t even have separate constellations, just one giant constellation with all the visible Northern stars and it was a Man with a tail and the Big Dipper was his tail, and they could navigate based on that system because it was so far North it was always the same stars and there were less of them. I had looked forward to living in a hot country where the nights are black and the Milky Way stands out in its billions but these fat dark warm Atlantic clouds are even better bulging over the humid city. We’re going to a bar and it’s going to cost money to get in and more money to buy drinks and I’m not sure it’s all so necessary. If the colored heraldry of the buses and the bulbous clouds and the Viking accent of a girl who’s already got a boyfriend are enough to keep you interested, then why would you ever need to pay for anything?
Chebludo has not yet arrived nor has anyone else. The bar is deserted. We’re sitting just the two of us at the bar and looking at the restaurant across the street and it’s midnight but children are seated with their parents at the table. The bartender says nobody shows up until one a.m. at the earliest. Fuckin McCulloch and I sit and sip as slow as we can to keep our seats.
Should’ve stayed longer.
Couldn’t do it, mate. You were all over the shoppe and I can’t pretend to be asleep that long. Fuckin embarrassing.
Maybe. She has a boyfriend.
You’re not meant to care. You’re a fisherman from Alaska.
I’m not a fisherman. I just fished.
So you articulated. Shoot yourself in the foot, then. You know what you need to do? Buy the biggest map of Alaska you can find, and hang it up in your bedroom. That ought to make up for your complete inability to take advantage of a situation. Works for me.
You have a map of Alaska in your bedroom.
Get fucked. Australia. Far better. Australia’s rugged and exciting and big. But it’s warm there. I like you but sorry to say if it ever comes down to it I have the advantage. No hard feelings but the ladies want to feel adventurous and excited without all the shivers. Before I met you I took home a girl from Kentucky in Barrio Florida. Very driven young thing. Wants to be a Human Rights Lawyer someday I believe. No interest in funny business. Thicken up the accent a bit, talk about the Outback, show her the big map in the bedroom, and that was fuckin that.
You came all the way to South America and hooked up with an English speaking Sepo? You’re an embarrassment.
Speak for yourself, mate. God bless your repressed little country. Get ‘em going and it all comes out like a storm. Love Sepo girls, I do. And they love me. An Alaskan has no game against an Australian with a Sepo girl. You best stick to the locals. You’ll have no luck with the Danes either, I reckon.
You reckon? That’s a dumbass way to talk. You sound like a farmer from the EighteenHundreds.
Not so silly as adding Ass to everything. This is a long-ass walk, that’s a big-ass building, it’s a hot-ass day. I reckon it’s fuckin difficult for you to speak at all, what with your mouth so full of ass all the time.
This is a tradition building. In the absence of anything else to do, two poor boys from America and Australia on the most humble of budgets can still pass the time by getting drunk and making fun of how the other one talks. In truth, there’s nothing we did more than that, and it supplies most of my fondest memories of Argentina after so much else has faded off.
By the time Chebludo gets there we’ve had a bit too much. The bar fills at around two and ladies are dancing on tables and it’s Ricky Martin and La Portuaria and SodaStereo and El Tiburòn and if I could I’d will my eyes open but three long days sleeping on a bench or a floor and two helpings of chili con carne and we peaked too early. Chebludo puts us in a cab.
Chebludolapròxima vez, take a disco nap.
A disco nap?
Sì. It is the nap you take after work and dinner before you go to the disco. Everyone does it. You will learn.
Claro. Next time.
As the cab winds out the neighborhood I sit silently in unspoken shame. Fuckin McCulloch dozes in and out and I don’t recognize anything on the roadsides but that’s because I’ve been on the train.
Where are we?
Where are you going?
This is the way.
It looks different.
Too many turns, no major roads, going through neighborhoods. We should have been home by now. The meter keeps running.
It is faster when you take the Autopista.
Pascual Palazzo. The Panamericana.
I’m not sure if I know that one.
The Ruta Panamericana? You have not heard of it?
Perhaps. I’m not sure. This is the way.
We drive in silence for a few miles. On the roadside, there are a couple cops that have pulled over a car. Fuckin McCulloch snoozes next to me. The meter’s running on and on and on.
Voy a vomitar.
Ahorita. Now. En el auto sino pares.
He pulls over quickly and I lurch out the car as if I’m going to be sick. But instead I holler at the cops
¡OyeOyeOye! Esè ladròn dice que no conoce el Autopista Panamericana! Està robàndome!
And the cabbie is out his car in an instant and yelling
Yes Yes! The Panamerican Highway! I remember now. My mistake, Señor. I remember. Please Señor, get back in the car. I will take you there. I will turn off the meter.
And the cops are laughing. McCulloch is laughing from inside the cab. Even the guy they have pulled over grins morbidly. This is the way of the world. We slide silently into Barrio Florida and the meter is off. I stumble into the kitchen looking for water, but the kitchen is already full. Àngel is bustling about, and El Abuelito has already finished his bread. They cluck knowingly at me. They have seen it all before.
The phone would ring.
El Abuelito answered. On behalf of the Family.
The few times it was for me, he would call up the stairs, three landings tall:
And I would answer
From the attic
Down the stairs.
But he would never hear it. For he is from Before.
All the languages of the world had yet to run together
There was no word
There was only Què. Pronounced Kay. Which means, simply:
And so he shouts
And we are screaming
Down the stairs
Up the stairs
At each other.
One thinks the other ancient and deaf. One thinks the other simple and surly. We are friends, but at this moment, each cross with the other.
Each hearing, but with the wrong ears. The wrong voices. Què. Okay.
And this. This is the Foreign Exchange.
We are looking for a party, a party that I was invited to but cannot find. Not because I don’t know where the party is, but because I don’t know where I am. I never know where I am in this city. It is impossible to get lost in my home town. Anchorage is shaped like a giant triangle with the sea on two sides and mountains on the third. There is no place in town where you cannot see the mountains, so you always know which way is East, which means you always know which way is West and North and South by relation. But Buenos Aires has no mountains, and even if it did, the buildings are so tall they block the sun, let alone any other natural landmarks. I am voicing my displeasure with this arrangement with Trine the Dane.
Buenos Aires has its own landmarks. You need to learn to use them.
What are they?
The River. The Obelisk. The University. Between these three points you can locate yourself.
But you can’t see any of those points from here.
So they’re not really landmarks. I mean how the hell am I supposed to know which way the river is?
And she points definitively to our left.
The river is in that direction. Which means El Obelisko is over there, and La Universidad is that way.
How do you know?
Because I am paying attention, Fisher.
Then we’re going the wrong way. I’ll give you the address and you navigate.
This is a travelers party, but domestic instead of international. A group of boys I play soccer with from Tucumàn to the North are celebrating someone’s birthday. These are good boys. They recite poetry and sing Decano songs and give Chebludo more shit for being Porteño than they do us for being foreigners and they pass the wine and remark on Trine’s beauty and we all dance in the small sala and though this is a tiny concrete cave termitehill in a city of a million such termitehills there is the feeling that your soul can fill any cell if it needs to, and I don’t miss the mountains or feel claustrophobic like I’m sometimes apt to do in cities.
Fuckin McCulloch is sloucheyed and rosycheeked and the full flask of bourbon I handed him an hour ago is returned empty. Cheersbigears he says nonsensically.
Goddammit. Bourbon’s expensive here.
Wine is cheap. A dozen bottles in the cupboard. Stop yer bitchen.
He takes boiling water from the kettle and pours it over a plate, then meticulously wipes the plate down with a clean towel so it is dry and still too hot to the touch. As Chebludo and the Tucumeños look on, McCulloch takes a mirror and divvies out lines of cocaine for the lot of them. They wait patiently as he completes the detailed operation.
What are you doing?
It’s too humid here. The heated plate evaporates the moisture out of the cocaine. You want some?
Good decisionmaking. A mediocre drug at best, cocaine.
It’s inefficient. You have to keep taking it every half hour, it’s expensive, it makes you want to root but you can’t always, you talk a lot and then you come down far too hard. And It is horrid, the coming down.
He makes sure everyone gets equal portions, and that no one is left out. He asks everyone in turn if they are in, lets them say yay or nay, and judges no one. He merely provides. Fuckin McCulloch is good at that, making sure everyone is comfortable. For a man angry at the world, he is exceedingly kind. He sniffs a bit but retains his unsatisfied features.
Now if one could only get some proper Speed in this country, I could actually see myself living here a couple years.
Never tried that either.
In truth, Speed is a revolting substance. But if through hard work one is able to train oneself to ignore that fact, well then there is nothing better out there. Unfortunately, a man has to make do.
And he sniffs another line. Puts the plate away, and scans the kitchen.
Now then. Is wine all we have left? I could murder a beer.
The living room is sweaty and full and people come and go including the doorman downstairs who says if one more person drops anything off the balcony the groundfloor tenant will call the police. So the door to the balcony is locked and the party flows onward, because though a man wishes to shout his own existence to the Universe Los Tucumeños know it should never be at the expense of being good neighbors. And in the kitchen Trine the Dane has found the remnants of a bottle of whiskey and I join her. She looks scoldingly at me.
I haven’t seen you in class all week.
I don’t think I’m going to class anymore.
I can’t have a whole year go by without getting out of this City. Every time I make a jump, I find myself stuck in the mud right after I land. I’m not Tiffany Chang. I just took her ticket.
Can you stay at the Pavonis if you aren’t in school?
Dunno. I doubt it.
If he has space.
My lease ends this week as well. Christian is flying over from Denmark in two weeks and we’re going to Bolivia.
To the Salt Flats.
Yes. Until then I got a short position watching a Danish businessman’s flat until we go. If you can’t stay at the Pavonis, you can stay with me until you find your way.
Until I find my way?
Well. Maybe not that long.
But she is smirking.
The Tucumeños in the other room are cheering each other, cheering McCulloch.
They chant in a circle and down Fernet, that viscous bitter jäger that plagues the livers of the true drunks of Argentina. There is singing and dancing and deep in the night the bodies slowly disperse and we are the last ones awake. It is time to go. When I turn off the stereo I hear retching from the bathroom. McCulloch lay on his side, spooning the toilet, his forehead unseen behind the cabinetry against the back wall.
Nothing four liters of water and a time machine couldn’t fix. It all got a bit PearShaped, I’m afraid. Don’t leave us here, please. I’m not sure where we are. Tell the rest I’m sorry for taking the only toilet.
No hurry. Everyone else is gone. Get it all out. Give a shout when you think you’d make a full taxi ride home and I’ll head down and grab one.
And he moans softly against the base of the toilet.
Trine the Dane is on the balcony.
How’s the Australian?
He’ll need a little time. The Tucumeños are all gone.
I don’t think that’s a Word.
Do you know what I mean?
Then it’s a Word.
Perhaps. But it’s not the correct one.
What’s the correct one?
I don’t know.
Well then between the two of us it is most definitely a Word.
We hear more retching from the bathroom. She grimaces and rolls her eyes. I close the door to the balcony and we watch the City in the waning darkness and her shoulder is against my shoulder for a moment. Perhaps accidentally, but undoubtedly for the third time in thirty minutes. So I put my hand against her hand, just to see what happens. It stays there. And her shoulder comes back against mine, and then her hip. And slowly more and more of me is up against more and more of her until just about everything of both of us lay finally unconcealed in the open air of the balcony. And that is how I stand, as the first light hits my body and the sun rises over Buenos Aires.
I come round to her place later but she is gone. Moved out all her possessions. I have no idea where her housesitting gig is and she doesn’t call. I can’t bring myself to go to school and I don’t feel like staying at the Pavonis. Chebludo invites me to go to Còrdoba but it’s not until the weekend and I wander about waiting for life to happen to me, sleeping at the train station. One day I’m at Plaza Barrancas napping while I wait for Chebludo to get off work or McCulloch to get out of class and I feel a shadow over me.
I squint up, filtering out sleep and sun. She peers down, and the silence is long.
You moved. I couldn’t find you.
You stopped going to class. I couldn’t find you either. Had to go to Chebludo’s bank.
I could eat.
We get food and head downtown and lay down in some other grassy plaza. The park is full of people lounging spread out in the sticky sunlight in clusters between intermittent pedestrians that traverse along crisscrossing desire lines and as I look up at the sky on my back with Trine at my side I think that from the air this park must look like some Great Green Palm of the City’s hand. We have eaten and we have napped again and we have even gotten in a tiny nip of sweet delicious trouble which one would seldom do in a park at home but this is Latin America and the rules are different.
No more school for you, then?
What will you do then, return home?
I’d rather stay.
Likely so. The mountains aren’t far.
What kind of work is there in the mountains?
At home my brother is a guide. I helped him summers in high school. I could do that.
What kind of guide?
You help rich people climb mountains. Kind of a half bellboy, half drill sergeant type of gig. Carry their bags, keep them from dying. Or come winter I could be a snowboard instructor. Same thing, but bringing them down the mountain instead of up.
You could do both.
I’d rather guide.
Winter’s coming. Is there really much difference whether you’re helping people get up a mountain or helping them get down one?
Well, the wage is better, for starters.
Anyway I still like the City. Just not school. But if I ran out of money I could go to a resort.
I skied in Switzerland once with my family. It was beautiful.
Would you be interested in that?
Going to the mountains.
It sounds interesting.
For you to do. It sounds interesting for you to do.
I dunno. I suppose Chile has a coast too. I wonder how much you can make with a spot on a ship out of Chile.
They farm fish in Chile.
It’s like a factory job, perhaps. It might be a good wage. Maybe even benefits. You should look into it.
The breeze picks up and the duskish air settles upon us so I’m finally comfortable but she asks for her sweater back, which I had in my pack. But my pack is gone. You spend enough time focused on a girl in a public place with your pack not attached to your back and it’s bound to happen.
Damn I’m sorry. I should have kept it closer.
It’s just a sweater. Did you have anything valuable?
Naw. Just my lunch and a Guìa and an empty Quilmes bottle deposit.
She is smiling
Poor thief. Barely worth all the risk. But my goodness if you get by like this with a Guìa, I can’t bear to imagine you without one. Let me purchase you a replacement.
If I can get you a sweater, then deal.
To make up for our losses we buy a sweater and a Guìa and a beer. Eat a kilo of ice cream. Watch a film. We wander about the city and we look in shopwindows and we watch people and we run out of places to go next.
You could come over.
To the new place.
Yes. To the new place.
But Fisher. Only today. Only once.
Do you understand?
Yes. I understand.
The apartment is owned by an obviously wealthy person but all of Trine’s possessions are in a corner of one room, half out of her pack. Books, clothing, boots for trekking and boots for dancing, that black and white photo from above her bed in her old bedroom, out of the frame, rolled up like a small poster. We don’t talk much about anything and we talk quite a lot about nothing and once it’s too late for the trains to be running anymore she walks into the bedroom and turns the light on. And she leaves the door open.
And you’re supposed to think about the wrongness of it all. Of the fact that women and men make promises to each other all the time and break them too but if you get yourself tangled up in their Breaking well then you’re on the side that is helping spread more Hurt around in a world that already has a preexisting surplus. And in fact I spent a good chunk of time with that on my mind in the weeks to come. But not then. Not at the moment. Right there, in the middle of it, all I could think was
This is your only go at this. Pay Attention. Task your memory to keep it with you. To suffice. You will run out of money and have to return to work again. Some stormy day of stinking fish and no sleep and missing fingers you must be able to come back to this place in your head, to recall these images and form a solace made of Memory that gets you through the drudgery and fatigue. She sleeps between sexes but I keep myself awake. I memorize the pattern of moles on her back, make mnemonic constellations of them for the starless someday sunny nights south of Kodiak. Constellations that, if so tasked, I could still draw to this day from memory.
My dreams are deep and murky and my body is spent and from the depths comes an incredibly shrill alarm, decibels of clanging metal and I do not know where I am. The sound sudden and shrilly reminiscent of the bell on The Sounder’s ignition that signified the start of another set, and I am thickheaded and shocked and moving too quickly up from bed. A hand, a soft hand with nerves full of communicated adrenaline, holds my shoulder to keep me from bolting. Trine’s hand. And a finger, silent, over her mouth, as she reaches across me for the ringing telephone. There is a short discussion in Danish. I am silent, coming into wakefulness, still waiting for the film to blink itself out of my eyes. She hangs up and stairs ahead at the wall, still laying cross my lap, for long moments. I see lines of worry and tension cross her face. It is the only time I ever saw them there.
That your fella?
He arrives tomorrow.
Are you alright?
Yeah. Phone reminded me of something. Lost my place in the world for a moment.
Ya. It’s catching.
She is up, opening the drapes. White skin dipped in white sunlight and the City outside.
What will you do?
What will I do?
Yeah. What will you do?
Fisher. I will go to Bolivia. We will go to Bolivia.
I have eggs, and some bread. But no màte.
I’ll fetch some.
There’s a kiosko two blocks North.
Is that a left or a right from the Groundfloor door?
Left. Towards the River.
And in the kitchen now, clanking pots. The phone at the side of the bed dormant, awaiting Whatever Comes Next. And the soft light has already warmed the tile under my bare feet as I dress and make the bed.
In the evening when I return to the Pavoni’s, El Abuelito says La Facultad called and revealed that I hadn’t been to class in two weeks, and that I have been dropped from the program.