A mysterious thread ran through my life to Argentina, like a murky path I followed blindly in the fog of time. The path began with Leslie, a young American woman I fell in love with at the age of thirty. She was exquisitely beautiful and melancholy, reminiscent of a strange wild orchid hiding itself in the shadows of a rainforest. Her fondest wish was to visit Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire at the southern tip of Argentina. She called it the ends of the earth and we broke up before she was able to bewitch me into taking her there. I didn't want to go because I was afraid she might choose to stay in such a lonely place, or simply vanish into the stark landscape. She was that kind of girl.
A few years after Leslie and I parted, I became a close friend of two Argentine families who had immigrated to my hometown in the U.S. Though it seemed quite accidental at the time, I realize now it was part of the continuing thread that would eventually lead me to Argentina. The family members talked mostly of Buenos Aires—fairly raved about how cosmopolitan and lovely it was. With an architecture and lifestyle patterned after Paris, Buenos Aires had the widest boulevard in the world, sidewalk cafés on every street corner, tango nightclubs, museums, theaters and lavish parks in a huge city that never slept. I listened politely to their enthusiastic recollections, never suspecting that they were describing my future home.
The two Argentine families eventually scattered to the four winds and I lost track of all but one member. As I grew older, I began to dream about retiring in Buenos Aires where I could get much more bang for my Yankee buck. The Argentine economy had virtually collapsed and prices dropped to one-third of their previous level. A fully-furnished apartment in Recoleta, the swankiest neighborhood in the city, could be rented for as little as $250 per month including air conditioning, cable TV and maid service. A sumptuous meal with wine at a sidewalk café cost less than $3. On my meager pension, I could live like a king and dance my last tango in life as a Porteno, as Buenos Aires residents call themselves.
Like many writers, I had always wanted to emulate Hemingway's life in the Paris of the 1920s. It was a bohemian city, to be sure, but Hemingway moved there initially because the cost of living was much cheaper than America. Although Paris had become more expensive than the U.S., I could at least live in a bohemian city known as the Paris of South America. (Old dreams must be adapted to current economic realities.) As I made plans for the move, I never suspected that I was nearing the end of a long thread stretching back to Leslie. Our lives are governed by invisible influences that scarcely touch our conscious minds.
Now that I actually reside in Buenos Aires, my existence here retains a certain dreamlike quality that confounds me at times. I live like a fictional character in an old adventure tale about the fabled Antipodes where everything is reversed. July is cold and January hot. The tropics are north while an icy climate lies to the south. Even the water spins counter clockwise when I flush the commode. I am Gulliver's opposite. I stroll the streets feeling six inches tall in a land of superlatives. Thirteen million people live in this teeming city, but I have gotten to know only a handful of them, mainly due to my bad Spanish. I speak baby talk Spanish which sounds hilarious to Portenos, judging from their reactions.
I have a studio apartment with a balcony overlooking a park five storeys below. I eat the majority of my meals in small cafés within walking distance. If I cook at home too often, Elena (the maid) complains about having to wash dishes and threatens to ask for a raise. Although Elena is twenty years younger than me, she is very much like a mother to me. She scolds me for staying home too much, urging me to go out on the town and meet a good woman to marry. I tell her I am not interested in marriage and she looks at me as if I came from another planet. We have a strange relationship, to say the least. I have never had a maid before and I feel somewhat uncomfortable about it, yet I am too distracted and lazy to clean the apartment myself. In a city where nearly everyone with money is in psychotherapy, it is appropriate to say that Elena and I are co-dependent. She enables me to be lazy with a bad conscience while I enable her to support her husband, who is unemployed through no fault of his own.
I have lived here long enough to consider a meal of ninety-five percent beef and five percent vegetables quite normal. I now leave my apartment at the time of an appointment, realizing that I will be expected to arrive late like everyone else. Punctuality is a North American compulsion from which Portenos rarely suffer. The local cigarettes taste like they are made from cow dung, yet nearly everyone smokes constantly in elevators, offices, restaurants, virtually everywhere. No surgeon general here to warn of the dangers of lung cancer or emphysema. It would be useless in any event since the ubiquitous black smoke from diesel buses is worse than cigarettes.
A sizeable American population exists in Buenos Aires and I used to eagerly introduce myself to any stranger who spoke English, but now I generally avoid my countrymen. They lean on each other to escape culture shock and homesickness; the whole group is leaning on illusions for support. One illusion is that Buenos Aires would feel more like home if they could only eat maple syrup and pancakes for breakfast rather than empenadas with dulce de leche, a local syrup made from boiled milk, sugar and vanilla. As if that would change the essence of this radically different place. It was laughable, but I grew tired of laughing at them.
However, I enjoy watching certain young American women on the streets. When a Porteno man makes a lewd suggestion, as invariably happens sooner or later, the more liberated of these females replies with a phrase that translates roughly as, “In your dreams, asshole!” One such exchange is enough to make my whole day. It is my only revenge for the grocery clerk who grins every time I apologize for my Spanish accent.
“Pobrecito,” he says mockingly. “You have no accent. You do not know how to speak Espanol.”
The Portenos speak Spanish with an Italian accent because so many paisanos immigrated to the country in the early 1900s. More of them have Italian or German last names than Spanish last names. Germans settled here as early as the Italians and during the 1930s Argentina's government was patterned after Mussolini's fascist regime. After World War II, Nazi party members flocked to Argentina to escape war crime trials in Europe. Politically, Argentina is a schizophrenic country. Taxi drivers talk openly about the difference between Marxism and communism a single generation after a brutal “dirty war” in which the military government murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens who had leftist leanings. Even though some of the generals are in prison now, they have the respect and gratitude of whole segments of the upper class. At the same time many young people have posters of Che Guevara in their rooms. (Che grew up as a member of the Argentine middle class.) Moderate views go begging in a land of political extremes. The pendulum swings first one way and then the other. Some day the military will take over again and everyone knows this in his heart, but it is too unpleasant to think about when dreamy nights beckon with goblets of wine and tango dancing until dawn.
I took me two months of scouring Buenos Aires to find Eric Benitez, one of the Argentine family members I knew in the U.S. Eric was astonished to learn I was living here and he seemed glad to see me, but his excitement quickly turned into sadness when I asked him about his family. His wife, Victoria, left him a year ago to live with another man and she took their two daughters with her. She had been unfaithful to him before and he forgave her, but this time she ended their marriage permanently. Eric took me to his favorite bar and introduced me to his friends, a collection of wild-eyed artists, writers and political activists. Although we all got gloriously drunk, Eric appeared to be on the verge of tears when he wasn't laughing.
Eric is an artist as well and he works mainly in leather goods, which is big business in Argentina. He drops by my apartment from time to time, always bringing a bottle of good wine, and we talk for hours about anything and everything except Victoria and their children. Eric is lonely and still in love with his ex-wife. I wish there was something I could do to help him forget her. He needs to fall in love with another woman, the only cure for a broken romance, but I am in no position to arrange a tryst with a pretty senorita for him. I doubt if I could find one for myself if I bothered to look. I'm too old for chasing women until they catch me. At my age I am content to live alone and recall past loves like the bewitching Leslie.
Tierro del Fuego lies yawning to the south, but I stubbornly refuse to go there. I realize that Leslie has influenced the course of my life to an uncanny degree and I don't want to give her this last victory. She had a degree in anthropology, so I majored in anthropology when I finally went to college. She hoped to become a writer and I did become a writer. She yearned to see the ends of the earth and here I am only a Patagonia away from it. Leslie has won a contest of wills in absentia, though I was unaware until recently that the contest had continued all these years.
I stay home and watch old American films on cable TV over and over again. I have gotten into the habit of reading the Spanish subtitles rather than watching the characters, hoping in vain that this will improve my shaky comprehension of the language. I am beginning to watch Argentine soap operas despite the fact that I understand precious little of the dialogue. Something about the animated facial expressions and body gestures is oddly fascinating to me.
Most nights I take long walks in parks or along the waterfront of the Rio de la Plata. Buenos Aires is considered the safest big city in South America and I seldom worry about muggers. The evening air is filled with the perfume of flowers that bloom year-round. Although I have become something of a night owl like most Portenos, I am still not accustomed to eating supper at 10 or 11 p.m. However, I derive an inexplicable joy from watching others dine very late in sidewalk cafés as I make my way home. Married couples bring their children and young couples in love hold hands and kiss furtively. Sometimes I sit at a table hardly touching my glass of wine, absorbing the night scenery in a kind of reverie.
I realize I have used the word home twice in the last two paragraphs. This is difficult to fathom since Buenos Aires remains alien to me in most respects. It is nothing like any other city where I have lived and yet it is my home. I spent most of my life in dull middle-class towns, but I always longed to live a bohemian existence like Hemingway in Paris. I may have been forced to wait until I was an old man to find the right place, but better late than never to realize a lifelong dream.
On rare occasions I spot an attractive older woman on the street who looks like Leslie. I follow the woman, fantasizing about a reunion, wondering if Leslie has been in Buenos Aires all these years. Then the woman turns to confront me and I am disappointed to observe that the nose is too prominent and the eyes are dark brown instead of hazel. It is a ghost from my past following me. I laugh and apologize to the startled woman, but secretly I wonder if she is Leslie in disguise. I remember how Leslie possessed a chameleon-like quality to make her face appear Asian or Latin or Middle Eastern even though she came from Scotch-Irish and Welch ancestors, the sad people of the British Isles.
To me Buenos Aires is a phantasmagoria, always changing and never quite real, like a Salvadore Dali painting set into motion. I don't feel the crush of thirteen million Portenos as I move around the city, as if I were floating through a dreamscape. I expect to wake up each morning and find myself back in familiar surroundings, but when I open my sleep-filled eyes I am still here in the dream. A cat yowls in the hallway and I am convinced it is not a real cat. It is a cat figment of the dream with tongue lapping in a bowl of condensed milk.
As I kneel and stroke the feline illusion, I hear the faint echo of Leslie laughing from somewhere far away—perhaps the opposite ends of the earth. It is strange laughter that reminds me of a siren's wail. I make a cup of strong Brazilian coffee and take it to the balcony to sip at my leisure. At 6:45 in the morning, the street below is already bustling with traffic. I listen to hear Leslie's laughter again, but it fades away in the morning sounds of the dream. I am haunted by this surreal city in the Antipodes and the woman who led me here.
Copyright © William Starr Moake 2004. Title graphic: "Something Southern" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.