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Authors: Maxine Swann

The Foreigners

BOOK: The Foreigners
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Table of Contents
 
 
 
 
Also by Maxine Swann
Flower Children
 
Serious Girls
RIVERHEAD BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin
Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700,Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
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of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell,
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Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,
Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
 
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
 
Copyright © 2011 by Maxine Swann
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or
distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do
not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation
of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada
 
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Swann, Maxine.
The foreigners / Maxine Swann. p. cm.
ISBN : 978-1-101-54768-7
1. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 2. Buenos Aires (Argentina)—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3619.W356F67 2011
2011009413
813'.6—dc22
 
 
 
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

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to P
Part I
one
The amount of pollen that comes in on travelers' sleeves is vastly disproportionate to the number of species that hold. However, once an invasive species takes root, it can become voracious. An apparently innocent figure can topple whole ecosystems. Consider, for example, the rosy wolf snail of the southeastern United States. Or the case of the
Iris pseudacorus
currently taking over the Argentine wetlands, threatening to annihilate the habitat of the Curvebilled Reedhaunter and the Asian privet.
The foreigners in Buenos Aires come, searching as they always were, for a kind of utopia, though the definition of “utopia” varies. They fall into categories. There are the South American neighbors, Bolivians, Paraguayans, Peruvians, who come to work as maids, construction and agricultural workers and send the money home. The Belarusians come because there is an accord with their country, still now, papers delivered unquestionably. There are, apparently—it has not only been rumored but confirmed—whole communities of Africans. They are being taught the language so as to insert themselves. But where they are inserted remains a mystery. They are never seen. A black-skinned person on the street is an anomaly. Everyone, however furtively, turns and stares.
Then there is the other type of foreigner, coming out of curiosity, for a lark, backpackers, tango dancers, often the lark-seeking obscuring deeper, more complicated, half-conscious reasons, escape from overdetermined social trajectories, troubled families, marriages or lack of prospects. This group, in turn, bifurcates. The tango dancers conglomerate among themselves, into bigger and bigger masses. Friendships are light, turnover expected. The tango life is exigent, starting at two, three in the morning. You're out until dawn, sleep through the mornings, then pick up some odd jobs in the late afternoon hours until the night begins again. In general, this crowd isn't picky, nor that interested in money. Their lives are centered around one goal.
The motives of the other group are more complex. They arrive, Europeans, in the new world. “I've discovered the continent inhabited by more peoples and animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa itself, and I've found that the air here is more temperate and sweet than in any other part of the world we know,” wrote Vespuccio in 1507. “I hereby name it Mundus Novus.” The new world today seems to hold all the promise it ever did, exotic fauna and flora, potential for exploitation. Like the Belarusians and the Asians, these foreigners are taking their chances, only in a different tier and what they're after is more fleeting—glamour, big wealth, upper-class status, things they can't find at home, because they don't make the grade. But in Argentina it's different. No matter what their origins, by virtue of being European or American, as long as they're basically decently physically assembled, they're immediately endowed with a certain sheen, upper class unless proven otherwise, instead of the reverse. In the case of ugliness, of course, as always, other strategies must be sought. They learn to speak Spanish sufferingly well, with smatterings of other languages slipped in—among upper-class Argentines this is par for the course.
Though the potential for circulation is one of the great virtues of Buenos Aires, revolving city events, everyone goes, this particular group is interested in exclusivity. While at the end of the nineteenth century the places to be seen among the Argentine aristocracy were balls, dog walks, church masses, and above all the promenades of Palermo—on Thursdays and Sunday afternoons, four lines of cars would drive back and forth along the three blocks of what is now Sarmiento Avenue—and then later in the 1920s, the river islands of Tigre, where significant yachts would cross each other on the tranquil muddy waters, now the viewing places, as this particular breed of foreigner soon assesses, are museum openings, opera galas and cocktail parties. They can soon be seen at all the requisite events, typing contacts into their shiny cell phones.
For all its supposed glamour, the milieu ages you. Even the younger women look older than they are. The foreigners, starryeyed, don't realize this yet. They still can't get over having maids. They marvel secretly to themselves that they would ever have a maid, someone to fold and arrange their clothes, they who grew up the way they did, although here too there's a cultural conundrum—every basic middle-class Argentine household has a maid. But they soon not only behave as if, but begin to feel that, they could never live without one. Still, their two main concerns are the concerns of most of us, commerce and love.
 
 
As for me, I arrived in Buenos Aires in 2002 in a peculiar state. was thirty-five.
My marriage of nine years had dissolved the year before. Around the same time, I'd switched jobs. My husband had been a theater director. When I met him, I'd started working in stage design, but I now found myself disenchanted with that world. We lived in Seattle, where I had grown up. While looking around for a different line of work, I signed on as the assistant to a botanist I met at a dinner party, as an intermediate step. Still, I had yet to get my bearings. It wasn't that I'd been happy or unhappy with my husband. But the devotion I'd felt for him had been entirely absorbing.
My parents, divorced themselves, however amicably, were concerned. My father, a lawyer, had friends of his take care of my divorce paperwork. My mother, a social worker, suggested counseling. I did go to see a counselor; our conversations were interesting, yet they did nothing to prevent that in January of the year following my separation, I started fainting inexplicably. It would begin in my ears, sounds seeming to come from far away, then my vision would go into high-contrast mode, the brights blinding and the darks almost invisible for being so black. Once I had fainted a few times, and I knew what these signals meant, I could sometimes lie down in time to keep myself from going under. When I did pass out, it would seem like an eternity. Sometimes, I would shake as if I was going into convulsions or pee myself. One day, it happened on the street in Seattle. The next thing I knew I was down on the pavement throwing up like crazy, surrounded by firemen and paramedics. That time, I had gone so far under, I really felt that I had died and I heard this drumbeat filling my head getting slower and slower (the nurse said later that it was my heart), until everything came rushing back again with ice-cold liquid filling my veins from the IVs they'd stuck in me (it was winter and the stuff was cold from being in the ambulance). I was a mess, covered in vomit, pee and poo everywhere, but I actually felt exhilarated when I woke up. Riding in the ambulance to the hospital, I remembered being in Spain as a college student and imagined myself as one of those huge religious sculptures they carry in processions.
They kept me in the hospital for almost a week and did a million tests, blood tests and epilepsy tests, tests of my heart, an MRI of my brain, another test where they attached electrical probes to my head and sent shocks to different parts of my body. But it was finally concluded from the tests and repeated tests that there was nothing organically wrong with me. The head doctor came into my room one day on the neurology ward to report this and say that they could find no further justification for keeping me there.
BOOK: The Foreigners
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