By the time we walked into the community center for Tango lessons on my sixth day in Argentina, my relationship with Sara had degenerated to that of respectful houseguest and pleasant host. Our relationship had become strictly platonic, a sour development to be sure.
It had been obvious for several days that I had overstayed my welcome. Sara and I were snapping at each other about directions to restaurants, about what to do at night, about how many cigarettes I was smoking. At one point she expressed her frustration at always being the one determining where to go, how to get there.
I countered, “I’m sorry, Sara, I don’t live here. And I don’t speak Spanish.”
In Uruguay, on a day trip to a surprisingly touristy hamlet, we fought about which quaint little restaurant to go to for dinner. That night ended wonderfully, though, with Sara and I on the outside deck of the ferry back to Argentina. She rewarded me for every Spanish vocab word I remembered correctly with a kiss.
That was how it went. We had stupid little domestic spats – the kinds of disagreements that pepper a long-term relationship and eventually take on a certain comfortable familiarity – and then we always ended up having fun by the end of the night. But there was no denying that the easy days, the peaceful days of the West Coast, were gone.
It should have occurred to me that someone who moves to a continent – a continent – where she doesn’t know anybody or speak the language might have a fierce, even irrational, independent streak. I never doubted that she wanted me to visit her, or that she was happy I had come once I was down there. The problem was that in Seattle, in San Francisco, we didn’t know day-to-day, literally, if we’d ever see each other again. The pressure of The Trip, The Nine Days In Argentina, was too much for us. Like a married couple planning on making love three weeks in the future, the adventure, ironically, was gone.
So there I was, in the unlikely position of having to take dance lessons to try to reignite what was once a sordid love affair. I felt like more a middle-aged man trying to save his marriage, a position decidedly less sexy than holing up in an airport hotel for two hours.
Watching the honest-to-god professional Tango dancers for thirty minutes during the open-dance period before our class started instilled in me a fear so primal it defies description. Buenos Aires is the home of Tango. We were taking lessons with the best instructors in the city. I hadn’t taken a dance class since my sophomore year of high school, during which we learned to Salsa dance by a fat white guy who had never been south of Missouri.
“You ready?” Sara asked me when they announced the beginning of class.
“Let’s dance,” I replied, as confidently as possible.
I’d been so preoccupied with trying to understand what had gone wrong between me and Sara I didn’t even have time to anticipate that our dance lesson would be taught in Spanish. Though it was all I had been hearing for six days, it still caught me by surprise.
The instructor, a handsome man who wore the dance-sweat on his brow like a Marine wears an assault rifle, spoke for several minutes, presumably about the upcoming lesson, though I couldn’t be sure. The men and women stood in separate lines facing one another, each across from the partner they came with. I look up and down the line and saw my beginner-level compatriots nodding.
“Si, si,” I said, semi-audibly.
Then, seemingly unprovoked, my entire line took one step left.
Panicking, I nodded quickly and said, “Claro, claro.” Of course, of course.
Then more words – always more words! – from the instructor, for whom I was quickly developing a serious distaste. Yes, Senor Instructor, we are all very impressed with your casual confidence. And then again, suddenly and without warning, my line took a step forward. I tried to remember if conservatives – that is, the Right – were referred to with the word derecha or izquierda.
Sara and the women were mirroring us. She, however, kept up just fine. Standing in place, awaiting my further inevitable humiliation with as much grace as I could muster, I caught her eye. We both burst into silent laughter, and I wished I could fix what had gone so wrong.
“These men, um, they are murderers.”
I felt quite confident that Esteban had misspoken, and had intended to say something closer to “dangerous.” It was my last full day in Buenos Aires, and Sara was trying to get tickets to the biggest futbol game of the year.
He continued, “Um, how do you say, um, they are killers. Como, with knives.”
Oh, so we’re going to be in the knife-murderers block of the stadium. Well that should be a hoot. One thing I had always been meaning to do was get murdered with a knife in Buenos Aires. Some people will tell you, When you go to Argentina, stay away from the murderers, especially the ones visibly wielding knives. Sara and I, however, took no such bizarre and unnecessary precautions. Into the fray I went, armed only with the ability to give consent to whatever question was posed to me.
“You were looking at me. Do you wish for me to plunge my knife into your stomach?”
“Si, si, claro.”
The next morning we walked through the police line towards the stadium. Our guide, Esteban, was nowhere to be seen. The van that held my bag drove away as soon as we got out of the car. I had to leave the game at half time to make my flight, so Esteban and I set up a place where we could meet and I could pick up my stuff, the stadium being both too crowded and too dangerous to bring anything at all inside.
“Who are you texting?” I asked.
“I’m going back to the States today.”
“I’ve been with you for nine days. You’re really going to get upset with me for texting a friend after ignoring him for over a week?”
“I’m not saying you can’t text him. I’m just saying think about what it looks like to me.”
“Let’s not do this.”
“I’m going to be gone in a few hours.”
Sara and I got patted down at the security checkpoint, a city block away from the stadium. Boca Jrs were going to destroy River Plate. I had only learned about these teams 28 hours ago, but my loyalties were strong. Boca Jr were from the working-class neighborhood, with a fan base apparently comprised entirely of knife-obsessed criminals; River Plate’s nickname was The Millionaires. Sara and I knew where to go.
We shoved our way down the stairs of the packed standing room section until we realized we weren’t going any farther. Sara just stopped on a step, in the middle of the concrete stairway. I stopped right behind her, resting my hand on the small of her back. She didn’t lean back into me.
We spent the first half of the game yelling Spanish chants praising Boca and cursing the evil River Plate. The stands were so crowded she and I barely acknowledged each other. She’d occasionally turn around and explain a particularly involved cheer to me. I wanted her to explain the Spanish knife-murderers’ cheer, certainly, but after that I wanted her to demand I never like anyone more than her, just like she did when I first arrived and we rolled around in her bed. That wasn’t going to happen. The moment had passed, in a big way. I could no more ask me to repeat those words than I could ask her to drive me back to Brooklyn on her Vespa. So I stood there and cheered cheers I didn’t understand next to a woman I didn’t really know.
When half time came, I turned to her and said, “That’s it, time for me to go.”
“Thank you so much for coming down,” she said. Her voice sounded like our mothers had set us up on a play date that was finally coming to an end.
“I’m glad I came.”
Then we just kind of looked at each other. That was it. I pushed my way up the stairs and out through the proscenium to the open level that encircled the stadium. When I got to the top I had the fiercest jonesing for a cigarette I had had since I first landed in Buenos Aires. My head was empty other than that. I knew I had to find Esteban, somehow, and get to my flight. I was done with this foul city. Hell, I was done with the whole goddamn hemisphere. If I had to stay one more night in Buenos Aires I would’ve ended up drunk on a street corner asking where an American can get laid in this shitty town.
As I walked out of the stadium, a security officer grabbed my elbow. He said something in Spanish. I looked back at him blankly.
“No entiendo.” I don’t understand.
“If, if you go? No back in.” He said slowly.
“Si, si. Voy a ir a la aeropuerta.” Yes, yes, I’m going to go to the airport. My vocabulary had reached its breaking point, so I smiled and kept walking. Past another checkpoint. Then to a block that looked vaguely familiar, but only let me turn right when I wanted to turn left. Derecha – right – no izquierda. I saw myself from above, trapped in some sort of nightmare labyrinth.
I reached in my pocket, forgetting I didn’t have my phone on me. All I had was my passport, a lighter, and a pouch of tobacco. Panic began to take hold. I knew where the van was supposed to be, but only by sight. It was supposed to be in the middle of a parking lot, next to a crooked tree that pointed towards a multicolored apartment building. I realized immediately that I had made a mental treasure map for myself.
A cop stood idly at the next block up. As I approached, it dawned on me that even in English I didn’t know what to say. “Do you know where Esteban is?” There were 80,000 people at the biggest sporting event of the year. There could have been 300 Estebans there for all I knew. “Do you know how to get back to the crooked tree near a multicolored apartment building?” wouldn’t work much better.
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It should have occurred to me that someone who moves to a continent – a continent – where she doesn’t know anybody or speak the language might have a fierce, even irrational, independent streak.
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Finally, I said quietly, “Necesito ayuda.” I need help. He looked at me with a dreadful mix of pity and humor, and then he shrugged. I wanted to be mad, but I was mostly just frustrated. I had no money. No way to get money until I got back to that fucking van and my bag and my phone and my laptop and my ATM card, any of which could have been easily stolen by that point. I felt helpless, and so magnificently out of place I could have been walking around on the moon.
Blocks seemed to take hours to walk down, though they were completely desolate. I retraced our steps – I thought I did – from the stadium to our original drop-off point. Was this right? Where was the sandwich truck? Had it moved for the game? Or was this the wrong parking lot? Where the fuck was Esteban? If I didn’t find him, I wasn’t even sure if I could find Sara after the game. I had no idea where the rest of the group was supposed to meet. They wouldn’t be waiting for me, because I was supposed to be on a flight out of there. Eighty thousand knife-murderers would be flooding into the streets in an hour, at which point I would never be able to get a taxi, never be able to beat the traffic even if I did, never be able to find Sara.
Yes, panic had set it.
I began running down the streets like a crazy man trying to find someone to tell him he wasn’t insane. Esteban, Esteban, where the fuck are you?! You’ll tell them! You’ll tell them all that I’m not crazy! You have the secret. You know where my bag is. You know, Esteban. Tell them. Tell them, Esteban, tell them I’m not crazy.
Roll a smoke. Things will be fine. You came here for an adventure – well, roll with it. Calm down, you’ll be fine. Light your cigarette. But the smoke did nothing. Did this street look familiar because I had walked down it with Sara, or because I had just walked down it 2 minutes ago? I honestly had no idea what to do. And then.
He appeared like a firefighter and I was a child at the bottom of a well. I waved, he waved back. He quickened his pace, presumably to deal with me as fast as possible and return to the game of the year before missing too much more.
“Where have you been?” he asked in English.
“Lo siento, lo siento.” I replied. I’m sorry. I tried to think of how to say, “I got lost,” in Spanish but I gave up and just said it in English. He laughed a comfortable laugh and patted me on the back.
On our walk back to his van he asked what kind of girls I liked. I said I liked all kinds. He laughed again. “Yo tambien.” Me too. Then he said, “But especially Asians. I love Asians, you know what I mean?”
After a few minutes we got to the van. He popped the back open and I pulled my suitcase and messenger back out. I eyed the cooler.
“Cerveza?” Esteban asked.
“Si, si, claro. Necesito una cerveza.”
I opened a 32 ounce bottle of Quilmes, took an adventurer’s-sized drink, then passed the bottle to Esteban. He matched me and handed it back. I told him I was down there to see a girl. He asked if she was my girlfriend. I said no. Then I said sort of. Then I said no again.
The panic was completely gone, replaced with the photo negative of what I felt on the plane over Panama. There was no dread, no anxiety, no regrets even. Mostly, I felt calm.
Esteban stepped out on the boulevard to hail a cab for me. When one pulled over, I threw my suitcase and bag in the back. Esteban hopped in shotgun and informed the cabbie we were going to drop him off back at the stadium, and then I was going to the airport. Our bottle of beer was still going strong, and neither Esteban nor the cabbie made any sort of gesture for me to toss it, so I just brought it in the cab with me.
When we pulled up to the stadium, Esteban jumped out and was saying goodbye to me as he broke into a near run to get back to the game.
“Mucho gusto! Mucho mucho gusto!” I yelled. Nice to meet you. Nice nice to meet you. I turned back to the cabbie. “Voy a ir a la aeropuerta!” And we took off down the highway.
I rolled myself a cigarette, then rolled down the window and took a sip of beer.
“Hey, you like Bob Marley?” the cabbie asked in broken English.
I hadn’t been asked that question since my freshmen year of college. “Si, si.”
“And smoking other things?”
“Oh, si, si, claro.”
“Un moment.” He reached over and popped the glove box. After rummaging around for a few seconds, he tossed something back at me. A bag of weed and rolling papers.
“Ah, mi amigo” I smiled, “Me gusta.”
He laughed and said, “Roll, roll. I see you roll before. We smoke!”
I rolled up the window and then rolled up a joint. The weed was dry as hell – it was like rolling ground-up wood chips – but I was hardly in a position to complain. When I was finished I offered it to him, but he refused.
“You, you!” So I transferred my cigarette to my right hand – which was also still holding my beer – put the joint in my mouth, and sparked it. The dry weed grabbed the flame immediately, so much so that I was actually afraid the whole thing might go up like a torch before I could even pass it back to my generous new Argentinian friend. A few tamp-downs with my wet finger brought the situation under control soon enough. With the joint burning smoothly, I rolled the window down again and exhaled. I watched the smoke get pulled out of the cracked window into the Buenos Aires atmosphere. I took a drag of my cigarette and a sip of beer. What a way to end a trip.
“Did you, eh, did you hang out with any Buenos Aires girls while you were down here?”
“Um, no, not really. One American.”
“Eh, asi asi.” So so.
“Si, si, claro. Y muchachos tambien.” And also men, I said through a smile. “Voy a ir al aeropuerta!” I am going to go to the airport, and then I am going to go home.