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Authors: Maxine Swann

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BOOK: The Foreigners
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When I was working for the botanist, he lent me a book one day about the Cambrian Explosion, that pivotal biological point in the history of life on earth when an astounding diversity of animal life, nearly all the species we know now, appeared in the course of a relatively short time. What provoked it? Theories abound. Geochemical perturbations, unprecedented cell structure mutations, a dramatic lift in oxygen levels, allowing animals to radiate spectacularly. But no one explanation has proved conclusive. Those first months in Buenos Aires were something like my own little Cambrian Explosion. In the same way, not just one event, but a combination of converging factors in my life, some interior, some exterior, provoked this situation, some which I can identify, others which remain less clear. Later I would wonder—how important was geography? Would it have happened elsewhere? Would it have happened were I not in that paradoxically fertile posture, on the brink of despair? Whatever the causes, the effect was clear. Buenos Aires, dead, came alive to me. But it was not only that. Through Buenos Aires, I was able to see the universe in a way I had never seen it before.
Gabriel was an important presence. And Leonarda was, of course, a defining factor. It was in her presence that Buenos Aires first came alive, but then as with certain drug experiences that you can reproduce later without taking the drug, the city would stay alive for me or rather, simply, it became a world I could see. So, I began to wonder, what had I been seeing before? A partial view, episodic, not only large parts of the world, but large parts of my brain—is not the brain the world?—in darkness. Suddenly, I became obsessed with spreading as much light on my brain as possible. I had an image that kept recurring of unraveling all the wrinkles in my brain and laying it out in some fertile field.
June came. Winter. The light changed. Everyone was shivering exaggeratedly, but the truth is it wasn't that cold. I'd still go out walking. I walked a lot. Sometimes Gabriel stopped by, before or after a client meeting. I continued my water research, visiting the Palace of Waters, once the storage deposit of Buenos Aires drinking water, now a museum devoted to the water question. I met up with Isolde, over coffee, drinks, or joined her when she had tickets to a cultural event. But at the center of my life were my outings with Leonarda. We'd get dressed up and go to parties. We'd go out dancing. Or we'd go to bars and talk to people, mainly men, lying about everything, who we were, where we were from, forcing them to follow a train of logic that then doubled back on itself. We confounded them, it was all make-believe, and then just as we reached our apotheosis, some final absurdist conclusion, we were out on the street again.
Suddenly, thanks to lying, I detached myself from my biography. Rather than ruminating over things, I forgot about my past. Of course. Who has time? Leonarda had no interest in her past either.
“Childhood,” she would say with disgust, “who wants to talk about childhood?” Rarely, it seemed, did a memory cross her mind.
What she did like were ideas. She was enamored with ideas, above all, her own. Nostrils flared, she would walk along spouting them left and right.
At other times, she was full of mistrust. I could see her face turn. I'd done something, said something that made her suspicious. “Look, there's not actually a problem here,” I'd say. “I swear. I'm not asking you to trust me, but trust me at least on that one small point. There's not a problem here. We were having a nice conversation. I liked what you were saying.”
Sometimes I could soothe her, sometimes not. When I couldn't, her eyes went depthless, animal eyes. She was only out to save herself. I learned that the best thing to do in these situations was distract her, tease her, if at all possible, make her laugh.
One day, she took a picture of me, in which, by some trick of the camera, I looked like a monster. She seemed afraid. She quickly made an excuse and said she had to go.
A day or two later, I received an e-mail, “Heyyyyyy, hiiiiiiiiiiiii, you have no idea how much you want to see me.”
I felt deeply moved. When I wasn't with her, I felt concerned about her, imagining her in the clutches of her horrible family.
For my part, I was learning how to play. These nocturnal adventures, slinking along walls, lanes, gardens, chasing someone, being chased ourselves. There was playfulness in every tendon and digit of her form. Unless she got moody. Then she walked along, shoulders hunched up, eyes fixed on the ground.
There was her childish thievery. I soon understood that she was doing it for me, as an offering of sorts, which both confused and enraptured me.
She aspired to sophistication, glamour, not so much wealth itself, or that wasn't the focus, but knowledge of things such as jewels, wine. She aspired to beautiful manners, which she practiced well enough, if a bit ostentatiously, until she forgot, something caught her attention. She hulked around, grabbing at things. This even when she was dressed in a miniskirt, with a tiny tank top only half covering her large boobs. One thing for sure was that she was ambivalent about her beauty, would dispose of it in a second. A part of it too was that there were so many different things she aspired to.
She was twenty-eight and lived with her parents, I never saw where. I gathered from her stories it was a little apartment and maybe she was ashamed. Certainly her clothes were cheap, though at the same time suited her so well.
I also gathered there had been some political activity in her family's past. Her mother had been involved with an urban guerrilla group. This she told me proudly one day. “They're monsters,” she said another day, her face twisting in an ugly way. “No, they don't interest me at all.”
She was engaged in a militaristic campaign of her own, on the one hand purely aesthetic—she liked military clothing—and on the other, intellectual. She demanded that the Left account for themselves, investigate their own actions during Argentina's Dirty War. Enough of the victim role, if they ever want to be taken seriously. It was a provocative stance, and promised to get her into all kinds of trouble, which, it seems, was precisely what she wanted.
Without understanding what was happening, I felt youth reviving through my limbs. The opposite of Gombrowicz, I would look in the mirror and find myself young. Night after night passed—how do I explain these nights? I see black squares, one after the other falling. I would be with her. We'd go parading about, or I'd be alone, lying on the floor of my apartment. The building was silent. I'd feel the blood in my veins. Did anyone know I was here? It didn't matter. I felt hidden here, sensing without understanding this strange revivification.
Sometimes I would stop to wonder what my old friends would think of Leonarda. And my parents? Occasionally, I'd feel shocked by things she said. But this intrigued me too. Part of the attraction was what I thought of as her different morality.
She took me places in the city I would never have gone to. Once, we passed by a nightclub called Solid Silver. “It's a sex show,” Leonarda said. “Have you seen one? C'mon.” The show wasn't on. The guy standing at the door didn't want to let us in. Leonarda suddenly changed her physiognomy entirely, standing very near and pressing her face into the guy's face. “Listen, buddy, we're journalists. We write for
Time Out New York
. We're reviewing the place. You're lucky if you show us.”
It seemed to be the last thing the guy expected of her. He looked over his shoulder.
“All right, you can take a look.”
We went down the stairs. Below was a bar and a stage with colored lights. The floor was carpeted. There were several poles around which women were practicing their routines. Some of them were dressed in sexy outfits, others in sweatpants. The only spectators were a couple, an old man and woman, sitting side by side on square stools and watching.
“Wow, that's great,” Leonarda said, looking at the couple. “But I don't know about the girls. I think we should come back and see them in their splendor.”
Within a second, we were on the street again. It was always like that. Leonarda lived under the sign of speed. Everything with her developed so rapidly, went by in a flash.
But the door to youth was a strange one. It opened into a dark vestibule. What made it youth for me was that it implied action. In my actual youth, I had been in a melancholic posture, overly receptive, the membrane between myself and the world very thin. Now, with her, I was learning a new strategy.
She told me on one of our first “dates” that she thought she could actually learn something from me, which she didn't feel about many people. Arrogant, of course, she had plenty to learn, but I took this as a compliment. “I used to hate this city,” she said to me one day, “but when I walk through it with you, everything seems glorious.” Another time, she said, “I've never loved anyone before.” She was speaking with urgency, gripping her small, hot hand in a fist. “I don't know how to do it. You're teaching me.”
Initially, I brought some reasonableness to the proceedings. That is, until she touched something in me and I would be set off, act wild. I would want us to lie down in the grass in a tricky neighborhood late at night. Then she would be the one to be reasonable, calm me down, pull me up. I gave her that gift—she could play that role with me.
We went to the port for a drink. The walls of the hotel bar were lined with antelope heads decked with pendants and pearls. In the dining room alongside, there were rows of white unicorns with red eyes. Outside was a perpetually overflowing swimming pool. We ordered the house cocktail.
“I used to work for these guys writing texts in English,” Leonarda said. “The owner of this place is, like, an ex-model. He always wears white suits and snakeskin boots. Most of the other investors are Russian. They're doing a whole renovation of the port. It used to be totally seedy down here. The truth is the whole thing was a mess from the beginning.”
“What do you mean?”
“The water's too shallow. They used to have to leave the big boats really far out and bring the stuff in in little boats pulled by mules, totally inefficient. Then they invited this engineer guy Bateman over from England—I mean, really, why couldn't these guys think for themselves?—but the yellow fever epidemic hit and he chickened out. Those morons. Well, at least they finally decided to make it look half decent.”
I looked at her. “You have a lot of information in your head.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you poorly instructed foreigners are always so impressed with us Argentines knowing a thing or two.”
We sipped our drinks.
“Sometimes I feel like you're colonizing my brain,” I said.
She looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“I don't know,” I said. “It's as if you're trying to control me, in some sort of post-colonial gesture of revenge. And you're doing a good job.”
She laughed. “I guess you're not as dumb as you look.”
Later we were walking back to the city. Between the two places, the polished renovated port and the city, was another of those uncertain zones, deserted, maybe a remnant of the seedy port—the pavement was crumbling, grass grew up in tufts. Through it ran a gleaming set of train tracks.
As we were nearing, a cargo train passed, just a few wagons, carrying what looked like coal. Or was it just bricks and rubble? It stopped, then was going very slowly. A young man looked out. All we could see was his dark face. He saw us.
“Hey,” he yelled softly. “Hey, girls, come along.”
We looked at each other, stalled. Should we go? We began to run toward him. I was ahead, nearing the train wagon. I almost leaped. “Wait,” Leonarda called. I stopped.
Part II
Argentine Lucio Mansilla wrote about his days in Paris in 1851: “The Marquise, who was ‘charming' and who undoubtedly found me appetizing, well, I was very pretty at the age of eighteen, invited me to dinner and organized a party to show me off. When the meal was over, there was a reception and after the introductions I heard ‘the beautiful ladies' saying: ‘How handsome he must look with his feathers.' Of course in hearing this compliment, I preened, ‘je posais,' an expression that doesn't translate well, but at the same time I said inside myself,‘What beasts these French are!'”
The foreigners in Buenos Aires invite the upper-tier Argentines to theme parties, tea parties or Thursday-night wine parties. These are foreigners with money. They have tasteful apartments, on Arroyo, in Recoleta. The Argentines go, playing their role, as upper-tier Argentines, Third World aristocrats. They pose, they're amusing, and utterly amenable, mixing with the foreigners, speaking different languages. Unless you were watching closely and were suspicious—and most foreigners aren't—you would never catch the glances shot between them. But already, among the Argentines, in the paneled elevator downward, the mockery begins.
While the foreigner, much as he wants to be liked, also feels somewhere deep inside that he's really done the Argentines a favor, by being here in this country at all, and then associating with them, inviting them to his home, the Argentine is overly conscious of the foreigner's absurdity. Feeling, despite himself and solely for the amorphous quality of being foreign, that the foreigner is superior, he at the same time finds the foreigner vulgar, ignorant, poorly instructed, even lacking physical harmony. The woman's head is too big. The German has the rabbit features of the inbred. A few satiric comments exchanged, the Argentines walk away down the evening street with their beauty intact, this natural beauty that springs up effortlessly, mysteriously, generation after generation, according to a correct application of the laws of reproduction.
BOOK: The Foreigners
10.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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