“At one point I got interested in a group of Trotskyites,” the gray-haired man was saying. “They had this literature, this magazine, and when I asked to see it, they said, âWhy?' âWhy?!' I asked.” People in the group laughed. “ âWell, don't you want people to know what you're doing?' The answer was âNo,' precisely no, they didn't. They didn't think there was any point in trying to disseminate what they knew. The question is what do you do when you're living in an age of stupidity and in possession of a truth that no one wants to hear? From the Christians to the Trotskyites there has been this model of a secret society. The secret society gathers to encrypt the truths that other people aren't ready to hear. What you have to do is think, not transmit. People in another era will be ready to hear.”
The young woman, Milagros, looked up with a shy, slightly mischievous smile. “Was that your intention in starting this group?”
The gray-haired man, Ernesto, laughed. “Well, if it turns out that way. No, no, not really. What I had in mind was a strategy of happiness,” he said. “We're confronted today with an immense amount of uncertainty. The idea of this group was to construct networks, or containers if you will, to alleviate the anxiety of uncertainty.”
Leonarda leaned in and whispered to me, “That guy's the founder.”
I looked around. The crowd was in general substantially younger than the speaker. There was a pale woman with delicate features and hair dyed bright orange, a young slender man in a purple turtleneck.
“The pending question is how are we going to organize ourselves ?” Ernesto said. “At one point, we proposed that this group be something like a permanent assembly. But nobody wanted to do it, nobody wanted to take charge.”
A guy with protruding teeth spoke up. “It's a problem of representation. Argentines don't believe in any representative system. Our short history has shown us only the errors of democracy, not its benefits. We always vote for representatives who betray us. All representation for us is linked to evil. We know that sooner or later we're going to get fucked over.”
“Yeah,” the young man with the hair in his eyes said, “which leads to a whole other definition of democracy. While in the United States, the concept of democracy arises from the American dream and calls into play such things as self-improvement, each person has the capacity to become better, in Argentina there's no idea of improvement, you are what you are. What democracy means to an Argentine is that each person does what he or she wants.”
“Like in this group?” a voice piped up.
“In this group, nobody does anything!” Ernesto said. “That's the problem. Look, right here, nobody takes out the trash.”
“But I think that's also why this group works well. Buenos Aires is an individualistic city.” Milagros once again spoke up. “It's skeptic and that's part of its energy. Mercury in this sense is using the energies of the people of this city. There's a strategy here, to have a place to meet, we don't know how long it's going to be here or who's going to administer it, but we have a place. The agreement has to do with that.”
“But isn't there a lot of energy lost that way? One of the keys of Mercury is to go toward the minimal effort,” Ernesto said.
The pale delicate woman with the bright orange hair spoke, tilting her head to the side. “We were talking about putting together a project W the other day, a kind of V.I.P. Mercury, for a limited number of people. The question was can we transform Mercury society? No, let's not waste time. Instead of transforming the old society, let's make a new one. Here, yes, the rules will be very clear, whoever doesn't participate in projects with others during a determined time will be systematically left outside and the next candidate invited to join.”
“Yeah, okay, I agree with that plan,” Leonarda suddenly burst out. She spoke harshly, blushing, looking at the floor. Her sudden shyness surprised me. “But the issue is also how we participate. There's something in democratic stupidity that fetishizes certain words, equality, horizontality, and everything else falls on the side of âbad.' Mercury is a good scenario for demonstrating this, there's always a kind of Mercurial police making sure that everything that's done here is participative. What's lacking is a more complex kind of thinking about the relationship between the individual and the group. What's needed is that someone in some moment takes the reins and pulls the others along. That way something gets done, instead of discussing how to make a flyer for four years.”
There was an eruption of voices.
Leonarda leaned in and whispered to me, “C'mon, let's get out of here.” She stood up and, ducking, snuck through the crowd. I followed.
We made it outside. Dusk. Long trails of eucalyptus leaves littered the streets. A small street dog trotted past.
“Sometimes those people drive me nuts,” Leonarda said.
“I thought it seemed interesting,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, it can be interesting. But I agree with the guy Ernesto, that it doesn't work the way it should. People are lazy. I don't like that at all.”
She put her bag down on the ground under a streetlamp and got out her makeup case. She pulled a feather boa out of her bag. “Here, try this on,” she said. I put it around my neck. It was a golden brown color, fox.
“Oh, that looks great,” Leonarda said. “And besides, you need it.”
“You're such a reptile. Feel,” she said, touching my hand. “Your hands are so cold.”
I wondered how she knew that my hands were cold. “Then what are you?” I asked.
She shrugged, looking cute. “A warm, furry creature.”
“Somehow I doubt that very much,” I said.
She laughed. She fumbled around again in her bag, pulled out some cheap apple-green block heels and put them on instead of her sneakers. “Okay, now makeup.”
I had a little makeup on, not much. “Here, let me do your eyes,” she said. She put makeup, more makeup than I'd ever imagined wearing, on my eyes. Then she took off her baseball hat and made herself up. Already, without the baseball hat, she looked transformed. With the makeup, she gave herself a kind of cat eyes, then put on cherry-red lipstick.
Along the street, there was a dark wash over everything, gleaming. As night fell, the streetlights, sensitized to the dark, went on one by one. Leonarda took my arm. We whisked around a corner covered with graffiti. The street was deserted, dark. I had read somewhere about the use of pharmaceuticals that make mice behave as nonchalantly as if they were taking a stroll, with the gravest dangers nearby. Now I thought of that. But I was already distracted.
The cars screeched by. They halted in a lurch at the light. Leonarda coughed, a deep lung-cough. “I'm exhausted,” she said. “Let's go get a drink. But first we have to cross the railroad tracks.” Her voice was suddenly hoarse. “It's dangerous there. Let's take a cab.”
She stopped a cab. “Hey, you crossing the tracks? Can we come with you? We don't want a cab. We just don't want to be raped. Okay, great, thanks a lot.”
We got into the cab. The area around the railroad tracks was deserted and piled with gleaming garbage. Leonarda stared out the window. “It's awful you're seeing Buenos Aires this way. It's because of the crisis, you know. But soon everything will get lovelier and lovelier.”
The cab stopped on the other side of the tracks. “Hey, thanks a lot,” Leonarda said, as we scrambled out.
We walked a few blocks. On a street corner up ahead were plastic tables and chairs set out as if it were a beach scene. A red strip of carpet led the way inside. The bar inside was dark, with storefront windows looking out. There was a large Plexiglas case above the stairwell.
“Ohhhhhhh!” a guy yelled when he saw Leonarda. He was holding his pink arms high in the air. Downstairs were small square mattresses, another little bar, with a tall bird of paradise stuck in a jar. The light was rosy. It smelled strongly of
that nearly sickening flower smell. Leonarda and I ordered drinks and fell onto the mattresses. The pink guy brought us flowers.
“Are you married?” he asked.
Leonarda smiled. She looked at me. “I don't know if she wants to marry me,” she said.
The pink guy went away.
“Were you ever married?” Leonarda asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I'm divorced.”
“Really?” She looked at me, getting up on all fours on the mattress. There was something breathless in her face, rapt, delighted.
I nodded. I felt drunk already, though I'd only taken a few sips of my drink. Maybe it was something else, I thought. I felt a glimpse of a new feeling, woozy, reckless.
“Oh, I want to get married too,” Leonarda said.
“You do?” I asked. It wasn't the way I pictured her.
“Is it marvelous?” she asked.
I shrugged. “It had its marvelous moments.”
She laughed. “No, no,” she said, still breathlessly. “I wasn't really thinking of marriage. I was only joking. I'll never get married.” Her eyes were shining.
“Oh, well, I didn't mean that,” I said. I lay back on the cushions. I felt careless in the nicest way. It was partly the drink, but mostly the presence of this woman who, I sensed, was really actually wild, while I myself was not. “Maybe you should try it. It's a kind of adventure, like everything else.”
“Okay, maybe I will get married,” Leonarda said. “But if I do, it will have to be in a funny way.”
Later, in the bathroom, there was a woman moving slowly in front of the sink, completely inside herself, eyes hooded, impenetrable flesh.
“She's on something serious,” Leonarda said.
She did seem to be in some interior fleshy bliss that had nothing to do with the world around her. She scooped up water from the faucet and put it in her mouth. She let her eyes droop even farther. She had shimmery gray powder on her lids.
When Leonarda and I went back upstairs, I was surprised to see a man down on his knees inside the Plexiglas case above the stairwell. He had shorts and a tank top on and was mouthing the words to a song. I lingered, watching him. The bad glimmer of the lights made everything look weary and greenish.
We walked out onto the street and asked for single cigarettes in a kiosk.
“Did you see that dude at the kiosk? Sometimes when people look at me, it's as if their faces dissolve in corrosive acid,” Leonarda said.
I looked at her. I hadn't noticed it. Her face without her glasses looked different, extremely pretty when animated, but it could also, as now, look very exposed.
We passed some policemen.
“I want that hat,” Leonarda said. She turned back around. “Heyyyyy, hiiiiiiii!” she said to one policeman, wriggling her whole frame.
“Hello,” he said, stiffly, smiling, folding his hands in front of him. He felt better a few seconds later when his friend came over.
“Can I try on your hat?” Leonarda asked. “Just for a second?”
She reached up for it. The policeman flinched back slightly, then let her have it. She put it on herself, looked at him, looked at me, posed and then suddenly took off and began to run.
“Hey, hey,” the young policeman yelled. “Come back here.”
I didn't know what to do. I balked, paused. I'd never run from a policeman before. I was caught between the two of them, him and Leonarda, on the sidewalk. Then I began to run too.
Leonarda turned a corner, out of sight. I looked behind me. The policeman was running now too. He and his friend had thought Leonarda would come back. Now she'd disappeared.
Shit, shit, I thought. I ran. I turned the corner too. Despite her block heels, Leonarda was far ahead, looking back, laughing. She motioned me to run faster. She had hailed a cab. She jumped inside. The cab backed up toward me. The door opened. I jumped in too. Leonarda slammed the door and we were gone.
The young policeman stopped on the street, dropped his arms. Leonarda put her hand out the window and waved, then, laughing, turned back and sniffed under her arms. She took a tall aerosol can out of her purse and sprayed herself, both armpits.
“You want some?” she asked, handing it to me.
“Okay,” I said. I sprayed myself in both armpits too.
The taxi driver glanced over his shoulder, displeased.
“Okay, okay, it's over,” Leonarda said to him, putting gloss on her lips and the can back into her purse.
Later, back at my apartment, I stared out the window. Water ran in a sheen down the wall. My heart was beating.
I ran into Gabriel in the front hallway of the building. He had his bike helmet in one hand and was heading out.
“Hey, how's it going?” he asked.
I was happy to have something to report and told him about meeting Leonarda.
“Wait, she's in that Mercury group?” He was leaning against the wall, listening. “I know who they are. What does she look like again?”
I described her.
“Yeah, I think I know who you mean. I don't know her, but I know who she is.” He stood up straight again, preparing to go. “Okay, I approve,” he said, smiling his demon smile. “Here's my number.” He gave me his cell phone number. “Keep me posted on everything.”
I hadn't done anything for this grant project yet. I decided to figure out what I was supposed to be talking about.
I began with some basic Internet research. Starting big, I typed in “South America” and “water.” Here is what I learned: the next big crisis this planet is going to face is water scarcity. With its huge sea of underground water, known as the Guarani Aquifer, South America is one of our main suppliers. Located beneath the surface of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the Guarani Aquifer, named after the Indian tribe, could supply fresh drinking water to the world for two hundred years.