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Authors: Maxine Swann

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BOOK: The Foreigners
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I solde had invited me to accompany her to the German's Thursday-night wine party on Arroyo Street.
When we arrived, the room was gradually filling. The floors were laid with small amber-colored pieces of wood, the bookshelves the same color. The German, Thomas, was in his early thirties. His neck jutted out. He had a slight stutter and a post in an overseas German bank. “Welcome,” he would say to whoever appeared, too formally, too eagerly really to be gracious. Despite the regularity of these events, he continued to be flabbergasted at the very idea that a woman, much less a strange woman, would step into his home.
As we walked around, Isolde told me who was who. Tatiana, the beautiful upper-class drunkard, whose father was a famous artist, had recently returned from abroad. She had a look of discontent on her face. A small band of women, who had been in the nerdy group at the best girls' school in Buenos Aires, were now, as then, still ostracized at these parties, even if they had made names for themselves elsewhere in the world. One, Bettina, was a well-known clothes designer. Yet this made no difference. In these settings, she was still, as always, an outsider, pressed into a corner. So why did she still come?
Ignacio arrived. In him was encapsulated the whole point of this class, its good looks, easy charm, privilege taken for granted. His brothers and cousins were versions of himself, each with aspects, but in no one else had the elements been so fortunately combined. Ambitious women roved around him. He was the only one the French girl had agreed to date. Though he kept his apparent cool, he was actually terrified by these women, including the French girl and, as I would witness later, would eventually end up settling with a very different type of girl who asked nothing of him, never complained.
“What's going on with your art world project?” I asked Isolde as we milled around.
“Oh, there's interest,” she said. “Plenty of it, at least on the Argentine side.”
With Argentines, there's the constant urge to get the word out, abroad, we are here, we exist. This corresponds to a real set of circumstances. Unlike in the States—where an internal career can largely suffice—it is one thing to have a career within Argentine borders and quite another to have one abroad. The foreigner is consequently stamped with this glowing and vertiginous possibility : though the foreigner might him- or herself have no contacts whatsoever, have grown up in the Midwest, in a little town, he is conceived as rubbing shoulders with luminaries, in the New York art world, the London jet set, immediately preconfigured as a messenger to the court, by virtue of his foreignness, as if like the first conquerors, he and he alone were bringing back news to the King and Queen. Some foreigners, you can see it in their faces, are simply baffled to be placed in such a position and miss entirely the role being handed them. Others, more astute, play their cards. Isolde knew how to play her cards. What was less clear was what she actually meant to do with them, once played.
Later, Leonarda appeared. We'd spoken earlier and I knew she might be coming by. “Heyyyyy, hiiiiiiiiiii!”
I'd told Isolde and Leonarda about each other, but they hadn't met.
Isolde was talking to our German host. Her blue-and-white dress gave an impression of crispness, cleanliness, while her flat gold sandals matched her jewelry. Now I watched Leonarda watching her, always on the lookout for what a foreigner could yield.
“More colonial material?” I suggested.
“Maybe,” Leonarda said. As always, when she was interested in someone, I felt jealousy mixed with curiosity about what she would do. “You see,” Leonarda whispered to me, “the way she's totally adopted the upper-class accent?”
I nodded, though the truth was I hadn't understood where Isolde's accent was coming from.
Leonarda leaned into Isolde's conversation. “Your Spanish is delightful,” she said.
“Oh, yes, I insist on speaking Spanish,” Isolde answered. As usual, while smiling, she scrutinized people's clothes. Leonarda wore a tiny wool skirt and a piece of lacy lingerie as a shirt.
“When did you arrive?” Leonarda asked.
“A few months ago.”
“Like Daisy. Are you having fun?”
“Of course,” Isolde said. “There's wonderful culture here.” This seemed to be her line. What was less predictable was its effect on Leonarda.
“Really?” Leonarda's eyes were shining. It seemed that, despite her cynicism, she was very susceptible to foreigners admiring her country. “What have you been seeing?”
“Opera, dance. There's wonderful dance.”
“Oh, you're Isolde! Did you see
Tristan and Iseult
? It was just playing at the Colón.”
“Of course. Did you go?”
“No, I couldn't.” Leonarda looked horribly disappointed, then enraptured again. “But I have the music. I've been singing it.” She sang a line from an aria, really quite loudly. “But
should sing. Your voice is amazing. You must be a mezzo. Have people told you that?” I could see her dreaming up the scene, Isolde, internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano, quivering in the footlights. These infatuations of hers always made me nervous.
“I have been told that, yes.”
“And are you going to stay here? You must stay. We can study singing together,” Leonarda went on, as if nothing else had ever mattered to her in the world.
Isolde laughed, touched and surprised. I, on the other hand, felt annoyed. For one thing, I couldn't sing.
“What else have you been doing?” Leonarda asked.
Misinterpreting the question as “What do you do?” Isolde adopted her upright posture, forceful, as if exerting her will. Were it not such a sensitive issue for her, Isolde would have undoubtedly understood by now that most Argentines would never pose a question like that, considering it bad manners, and would be perfectly content to learn weeks later, for example, that a newfound friend was responsible for assuring the security systems of the U.S. government or worked in a Turkish restaurant as a cook.
“I'm developing a project related to art and charity for children,” Isolde said.
“Sounds fantastic,” Leonarda answered, her enthusiasm taking an abrupt nosedive. Neither “charity” nor “children” were at all her thing.
“Good, good,” Isolde said, relieved not to have to elaborate.
In the end, things never worked out between Leonarda and Isolde. The three of us attempted to meet a few times, but something always went wrong. For starters, Leonarda was always afraid that people would find her weird.
“She's sort of weird, right?” Isolde asked me right away.
I shrugged, as befitted my role as the cipher, the malleable, mediating one.
Unsurprisingly, in Leonarda's case, it was more complicated. She would go into raptures, dreaming up her image of Isolde, the innocent Austrian woman in distress. “She's adorable, her accent. She's so alone. I can picture her so well wearing a dirndl.” But when face-to-face with Isolde, something always jarred. Isolde did not cooperate with the dream. She kept getting in the way, asserting her will. “No, let's meet at this restaurant instead.” “Let's only speak in Spanish.” “I'm not going to be ordered around by some poorly instructed Austrian” was Leonarda's conclusion.
On seeing Leonarda at the party, a slim man with dirty-blond hair got down on one knee.
Isolde, on my right, appeared agitated. “Do you know that guy, Alfonso?” she whispered in my ear.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
She put her hand on my arm, a bit flushed. “Here,” she said. “Can we talk over here?”
We moved backward toward the bookshelves. “I've made out with him a few times at parties, always drunk, of course,” Isolde said, her eyes half on me, half on Alfonso. “And then he asked me on a date. I knew about his family. You know, he's from a very old Argentine family.” It seemed that Isolde had memorized this whole new set of nomenclature, so different from the European one. “He plays the role of the upper-class eccentric. But what I hadn't realized was that the family was poor.”
“They are?”
“Can you believe it?”
“How did you find out?”
“Because I got all wet. There was a big storm and the car window wouldn't close. Alfonso got out one of those tools, what is it, a screwdriver. He told me to put it in the door handle and turn, while he went around outside, getting soaked of course, and pulled the window up with his hands. But it wasn't a new thing. The window had been broken like that for years.” She looked up and gazed at Alfonso again, still mooning over him. “He never called again. Someone told me that Alfonso only likes dark-skinned women, so maybe that's what happened, I don't know.”
Leonarda rejoined us, as a shaggy-haired man sauntered in the front door.
He wore a long dark green leather coat and a thin scarf around his neck. It was an interesting concoction, cool dude mixed with dandy.
“Oh, gross,” Leonarda said. “Look who it is. Hi, pig.”
The guy turned. “You're looking rather monkey-ish yourself,” he said. He pointed to the tufts of hair under Leonarda's arms.
Leonarda turned to us. “This is Diego, a horrible guy I used to date.”
Diego snickered. “I don't think ‘date' is the word. That sounds pretty harmless. What you did was much worse.”
Leonarda scowled. “Given the material, I think I was kind.”
“I don't believe you,” Isolde said to Diego in her luscious voice. “What did she do?”
Diego made a hex sign. “You don't want to know.”
“No, really, I don't believe you. She seems divine.”
“Maybe so. Maybe that's the explanation. Divine wrath.”
A little while later, as I was coming in from the balcony, I happened to catch a scene. Isolde was standing with a small contingent by the front door. Several guests were leaving. The standard greeting in Argentina, both hello and goodbye, is the one-cheek kiss and you're pretty much required to give it to everyone in the room. Bettina, the designer, had done her rounds. Diego, who had only stayed briefly, was just finishing his. He arrived at Isolde and, instead of turning his cheek sideways, aimed for her lips and stuffed his tongue into her mouth.
That Mercury stuff's going nowhere,” Leonarda said. “It's all talk, but they don't
anything. Like I presented them with this whole project to do cultural terrorism, but nothing came of it.”
“What's cultural terrorism?”
“Whatever. I'll tell you later. Listen, I've decided we have to go it alone. I think it's time we embarked on the Master Plan.”
We had just passed the prison on Las Heras Avenue, now turned into a park. The prison had been of the panoptic variety—I'd seen photographs—a central point, with wings radiating outward, architecture as vigilance strategy, the idea being that from that central point, you could see what everyone was doing at any given moment anywhere on the premises. Now there were patches of green, flowering trees. The purple jacaranda blossoms dropped down, translucent trumpets. The pink palo borracho ones were star-shaped, slightly rubbery.
“What's the Master Plan?” I asked.
“You'll see.”
She was carrying a stick of
in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. She smiled. “You're a very important part of it,” she said.
“I am?”
“Yes,” she said. “So is someone else, the prey. See that building?” Up ahead on the corner was a building in gray stone, with a semicircular entranceway on pillars. “It's called The Palace of Pigeons. This was one of the few buildings historically where it was okay to retire into aristocratic poverty. The prey lives there.”
“Another aristocrat?”
“No. Just a snob. He's a famous writer. But he's more than that. He was, like, a member of a leftist group in the seventies, a TV personality in the nineties. He's done everything. He's our Argentine Renaissance man.”
“And why's he the prey?”
“Because I have a plan.”
We stopped at a light. “To seduce him?” I had to admit I didn't like the idea.
She shrugged. “If necessary. I want to control his mind.”
Due to her changeable aspect, Leonarda possessed entrance to all kinds of scenes, the upper-class and foreigners circles, the underground art world, university student parties. Often, in the course of an evening, we'd pass from one circle to the next—Leonarda was particularly skilled at the quick exit. Shortly after this conversation, Leonarda and I made our first foray into the literary crowd. The prey was winning the National Argentine Prize for Literature.
Leonarda came by my apartment to pick me up. Knowing that we were going to a bookish event, I had dressed bookishly. She looked critically at what I was wearing. “No, no,” she said, “we have to look fabulous.”
“I feel like my butt is very prominent in this dress,” I said as we got out of the cab on Parana Street.
“That's good,” Leonarda said. “Because your butt is also part of the Master Plan.”
On her side, she was perfectly naked under her corduroy coat, which stopped just above the knee. Or at least that's what it looked like. Not a stitch of other fabric was showing.
I followed her through a wrought iron doorway. The place was a converted mansion. Inside was a plaque on the wall that said “Built in 1913 by the Allemand family.” We entered a passage lit with low yellow light, what had formerly been a garage.
BOOK: The Foreigners
4.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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