The Hostel Gardel
Buenos Aires, 2011
I couldn’t sleep anymore. I pulled the blanket from my head and stared sleepily out the double panes of the plastic window. We’d come down under the clouds. The city was under the plane and the pre-dawn lights sparkled like dust moats in dim afternoon light. Pulling back a little, I could see nothing but my own reflection on the first plastic pane. I leaned forward again and watched the distant lights set fire to my shadowy features and slowly burn them down. I pulled back and saw my features coalesce, like rain draining into growing lakes and reassert themselves. When I realized no one was coming, I set out to the back of the plane for a cup of coffee, the flight attendants almost glad to see me. I was probably the first person awake.
We landed in Buenos Aires a few hours later and it was still early, before six. The plane was cluttered with blankets and pillows and exiting felt like escaping a slumber party that had been cut short. The children on the plane were being carried away nuzzling their little backpacks, mouths open, arms dangling. A few adults were still curled up and sleeping, looking homeless and passive.
I found my bike at the over-sized baggage claim. The box still looked pretty good. I put it on a cart and wheeled it out into the morning to the cab stand. The morning was foggy and the horizon was a mass of gray. A man with a cab driver’s belly and non-haircut raised his hand and strode up to me. We agreed on a price and pushed the box over the folded seat, I thought of how Gina and I had carried it across Oakland to get it on the BART. The cardboard handholds were nearly ripped out. I had to pay extra to get it in the cab. It would be one last thing.
I’d taken a semester of Spanish before coming, but the class had been an introductory-level thing which hadn’t required much effort. I did all the extra work I could, but the professor was retiring. He was from Spain and spoke with lots of -th. The last day of class the wine on his breath was like the smell of old flowers in stale water. When the other students had left, he walked by and scooped up my exam before I’d finished it saying ‘get out of here.’ I’d asked if he was seguro. He told me he was and I left, knowing almost nothing more than what I’d started the semester with.
In the cab, I felt no compunction talking about the weather and fell to chattering just to see how it felt. I was surprised how many words I was able to conjure. My verbs were terrible, though and as we drove down the highway, I rattled out a string of nouns nodding at the unfamiliarity on the highway. The driver humored me for a while slowly telling me I had raison and also nodding. He turned on the radio and I couldn’t catch a word except Kirchnerismo which was terrible-sounding. It caught in the grating of the speakers and crumpled out like a large piece of paper being shoved through a mail slot. The cab driver shook his head at the word, but said nothing.
When we got off the highway, the neighborhood looked like something long buried under the shadow of an overpass. No one was out and all the shutters were down. The address was right, but there was no sign for the Hostel Gardel, where I’d made reservations for two weeks. I got out and rang the buzzer before paying the driver. I couldn’t hear any sound inside to tell if it was working. No one answered. A light blue mist clung to the base of the buildings as if the sidewalks were evaporating. I tried the buzzer again. I had no backup plan, but I figured I’d pay the driver and wait with all my stuff. If no one came along, I’d flag down another cab and find another hostel. Hopefully they’d a room open for a few weeks.
The driver, tired of waiting, got out, pressed the button and yelled into what looked like an intercom. I waited on the misty sidewalk without making a move to get my bike. The sidewalk was littered with newspapers and pigeon shit. I kept my knees pulled up under my chin and waited for the cab driver to make a decision. He knocked on the door in a deliberate, European way with the flat of his palm. I looked around for a window to peer into, but there was only the brick melting into the sidewalk and a few beer bottles set against the wall. The driver paced around and knocked again before turning to me and making a ‘what now, chief?’ gesture. I returned a ‘search me!’ which made him wave me off and return to the cab. I stood looking at the door a moment before making up my mind to take my bike out of the cab. The driver got up and came over to help me. We were easing the awkward box out when behind us, the hostel door opened, a man with impossibly curly hair stood there in a bathrobe looking like someone who’d been kept up half the night by a crying baby. He asked me in English if I was there for the hostel and the three of us all dragged the bike over the threshold, into the tiled hallway.
I tipped the driver, paid the exhausted-looking guy for a week at the hostel and moved the bike upstairs into a dormitory. There were six beds but only two were occupied by sleepers both turned toward the wall. At a table in the middle of the room, one of the lodgers was reading. We nodded to each other. It seemed rude to talk in a room so full of sleep. There were no windows in the dormitory except the small panes in the french doors. The light inside was rainy-day thick. I got a locker but it wasn’t big enough for my bag. I put my stuff on the floor and pushed it into a corner. I examined my bunk with my hand, checking the strength of the mattress but I couldn’t lie down. The unfamiliarity of the place pressed in on me and made sleep impossible. I looked around the room for a moment and went back out to the doors and turned the handle quietly like a kid sneaking away from sleeping parents.
The hostel was shaped like a wide elevator shaft. The rooms were crowded around an open courtyard that rose three floors through the institutional-shaped building. There was no roof over it and a light rain was falling to the black and white tiles below. Catwalks circled this courtyard on each level surrounded by a low wall, rounded at the top, which gave it an adobe feel—the type of wall it was difficult to pass and not pat with the flat of your hand for the clean snare-drum sound it made. Flat, worn enamel tiles covered the floors and walkways. The kitchen, pushed to the back for the second floor was greasy but clean. The lights were off and the pilot flame gave the stove a faint blue aura.
There were single rooms up on the roof. They had been added on and looked very small, like a row of beach cabanas with those flimsy doors you have to push harder to close because they have no impetus and even the air works against them. The view from the roof was of another roof and the scaffold back of a billboard.
After looking around, I went back down to the greasy kitchen, found some common-use instant coffee and stared into the blue shadows cast by the stove while the water boiled, examining all the broken pasta noodles and bread crumbs that had fallen under the burner ring. I sat in the only seat from which I could look out over the elevator shaft courtyard and watch the light rain fall through the middle of the building. It was past nine o’clock, but the place was still completely quiet; no one had any intention of waking up soon. I enjoyed the warmth of the coffee, but I was beginning to feel too impatient to sit in the kitchen and drink it all. I drank about half the cup, tossed the rest in the sink and made my way back downstairs to the street.
Corrientes was the closest thoroughfare to the hostel and I walked it toward downtown. There were a few theaters, but most of the businesses seemed to be those cellphone kiosks with the bulk of their business in Ziplock bagged cellphone parts and glass display cases that looked like they’d been purchased from an auction. I stopped into one and managed to communicate that I wanted a cheap phone and a sim card. I put the stress on the third syllable when I said ‘telefono’ and had to pantomime when I wasn’t understood. I bought a used red Nokkia which looked like a toy and used the free minutes that came with the sim card to call Gina back in California. It was drizzling harder, almost raining, when I left the cellphone kiosk. I could find no place to talk out of the rain that wasn’t crowded and roaring with background noise. I stood under an awning with my index finger jammed into my ear, squinting against the noise like it was a harsh light. I got her voicemail and I listened carefully to the outgoing message. “This is 6161513; leave a message.” At the beep, I described everything around me: the crushed sidewalks, the tables with socks for sale covered with clear plastic tarps, the maimed-looking pigeons, the corniced buildings, the Burger King with the sign ‘Cono, Solo 1 Peso.’ I didn’t say much about myself. I didn’t know what to say. ‘I made it. Ha ha, the bike made it.’ I stretched the message until the voicemail cut me off.
When I hung up, all the specificity had gone out of the place and the streets and buildings had been reassembled with a haphazard ‘anywhere’ quality, like an airport terminal. I couldn’t make up my mind to walk in any particular direction and hurried toward the obelisco like a giant pin stuck in the city, a you-are-here location to give my walk some import. I walked quickly through the rain while considering a post-apocalyptic scenario in which there were no more planes or buses and I had to get back home. The walk would take a year at least. I’d have to swim the Panama Canal and probably climb a good portion of the Andes. I’d be old by the time I got back. Thinking of the miles between Corrientes Avenue and Arcata, California, I started to radiate loneliness. I felt it hot on my face and tilted my chin up to feel the coolness of the rain.
I walked up to the obelisk and turned around without paying it, or the people around it selling bracelets, much attention. I stopped into a market and bought some things for dinner. Walking back to the hostel, the light rain pooled at the bottom of my plastic shopping bag and soaked through my cardboard box of pasta, making the ends of the spaghetti noodles swell into an indistinguishable white gunk.
There was no key for the door of the hostel, so I had to ring the buzzer and wait until someone opened the door. It was the curly-haired owner again. He looked like he’d gone back to bed and I’d woken him up for a second time. His beard was crushed on the side he’d been sleeping. His eyes had a dull, febrile sheen. He tried to be friendly, but I could see he was getting tired of opening the door for me. I thanked him and he disappeared back into the building.
The kitchen was still dim and empty, except someone had left a glob of jam and a bunch of white crumbs on the counter by the stove. I boiled some water and looked out over the elevator shaft courtyard while my pasta cooked. The place reminded me of a high school bathroom. It was hard, worn and utilitarian. The myriad plants below in the courtyard could not belie the stale echo of dripping water and the sense of purposelessness that pervades such places. I looked up and noticed the ceiling paint had cracked and fallen and was hanging like jagged lace from dusty spiders’ webs. The corners of the floor were smoothed over with the masonry of compacted dirt too long swept out of the way. I poured my pasta into a colander and let the steam rise into my face, taking a deep breath, trying not force down the feeling that I’d abandoned myself by moving down here.
I went back into my room for a book, came back and took my plate to a corner of the room, feeling more comfortable sitting next to a wall. I was too hungry to read well and the book lay open, the first line barely skimmed as I shoveled the over-cooked pasta into my mouth. I stabbed at the mess with a bread roll I’d bought, which, even soaked in tomato sauce, was as hard and tasteless as styrofoam. I had just taken an embarrassingly large bite when someone walked into the room. “Estais comienjho?” he asked, speaking Spanish with such a strong accent, it sounded like Portuguese. I had too much food in my mouth to answer and pointed to my mouth while raising my index finger, still holding my fork before realizing I could answer and began to nod. Rather than being put off by this manic series of gestures, my interlocutor continued to walk toward me, smiling. He had one of those out-of-date haircuts that make people immediately endearing, a dark 1993 Devin Sawa puffy center part that swung just below pompadour range. His eyes were almost an emerald green. He sat down next to me and said something else that seemed to come entirely out of his nose. He offered his hand and introduced himself as Nelson.
I shook Nelson’s hand and offered him some of my rain-swollen pasta. He declined, but sat with me while I continued to shovel up the food on my plate. He seemed to wait until I took a bite before asking me anything, forcing me again to nod, or shake my head and swallow quickly so I could complete my answer. After a few questions he waved his hands around like he was casting a spell on my spaghetti and told me to eat, turning around to show that he wasn’t going to bother me with anymore questions. He didn’t get up, but stayed where he was, half-turned away from me, looking out over the drizzling courtyard and singing quietly to himself like he was on a boat, looking out over the waves for home. I listened to him sing politely, but eventually, I picked my book back up. I’d read about three words when he jumped up and yelled “Carlos!” I looked up to see the guy who’d been reading in the dorm when I’d put my stuff down that morning walking toward us from the catwalk. Nelson welcomed Carlos to the table still speaking Spanish but saying everything through his nose and putting ‘g’ sounds all over the place. He had the way of talking where every phrase seemed to ask ‘isn’t that great?’ Carlos and I couldn’t help but to nod at this unspoken question.
Carlos and Nelson were perfectly matched. Carlos had a slow, studious air. He spoke Spanish in measured tones and his Brazilian Portuguese only came out when he spoke it intentionally. He had a the bearing of someone constantly dressed in a dressing gown and wrapped in an ascot. His large, round eyes were slow in their orbits and seldom made direct contact. He never moved his hands when he talked unless he needed to illustrate something, when he did this, it was hard not to feel glad for the extra company which suddenly fluttered into the conversation. Carlos spoke English, but after our first meeting, we agreed not to speak it as we both wanted to learn Spanish. When he came to our table, Carlos, didn’t sit. He greeted me and then welcomed me to the hostel and, by extension, to the room we all shared before moving off to make some tea and sit by himself in the corner of the room under the flaky paint and spider webs with his own book. Nelson watched him go with a quiet affection and I thought maybe he’d go join him but he stayed where he was with me, looking out over the courtyard and singing quietly, his 1990s hair bobbing along, keeping time. Nelson and Carlos were like two people who’d been married in a previous life. Their relationship had a grandma and grandpa quality to it. When I finished my meal, Nelson jumped up and asked if I wanted some tea. He ran to the room and came back with three tea bags. I washed my dishes and when the tea was ready, I went over and talked to Nelson a little about his home in Brazil. Although Carlos had been given a tea, he stayed where he was reading in the corner, paying us no further attention. The second cup of tea steaming and untouched on the table.
I went back to my room to settle in early that first evening. I wasn’t planning on unpacking entirely, but I’d bought a lock for the locker and I wanted to put a few things in it. The backpack I’d brought was one of those ridiculously large hernia-inducing things that had enough capacity for a small refrigerator which I been foolish enough to take complete advantage of by cramming it to the brim with sweaters and books. I dug around in the thing, rifling through the paperbacks and socks and extracted a few envelopes. One was from Lyndsey, my coworker from the cafe back in Humboldt who’d gotten everyone at work to donate and gave me 100 bucks as a send off. It was in this gift card that sang You’ve Got a Friend in Me when you opened it. The other card was from Gina. It was full of reminiscences and vague promises. Most of the content in the envelope was dried rosemary and jasmine—northern California plants, the smell of them combined was heartbreaking and a trial I was to submit myself to multiple times a day.
That first night, I reopened both the envelopes—I’d already read multiple times on the plane— read them again, listened to Randy Newman profess his friendship and put them in my locker as my only valuable possessions. I stuffed the 100 dollars in my sock with the rest of my money and chewed some of the dried rosemary after I climbed into my bunk. I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus and kept looking through the book, up past the rafters of the room into the sky. I kept thinking about the pale field of lights I had seen from the plane. It was disorienting to imagine how I was now down in what had previously been two-dimensional. I stared up at the ceiling and thought about how great it would feel to leave. To go back to the airport in the morning and buy a ticket back. It wouldn’t be too bad, I’d lose a little money, but no big deal and then I saw the ragged box in the corner, almost macerated by gripping hands and tarmac rains. There was no way I was going to drag that bike all the way back and I wasn’t going to leave it here, not after I’d dragged it halfway through Oakland and San Bruno. The next day, I’d put it together and maybe that would give me a little more ballast.
The first month it rained almost constantly. August, it turned out, was a lousy time to move to Buenos Aires. I put the bike together, but I only rode it once. It had no fenders and sprayed water all over my legs so that my socks got soaked and, even wrapped up in a plastic bag, my money got wet and I had to take it out and surreptitiously dry it by wrapping it in toilet paper in the bathroom. The drizzling rain was more conducive to walking. I walked downtown, past Nueve de Julio and the art deco confiterias along Rivadavia Avenue. I wandered through the Abasto and Once shopping districts, past the Carlos Gardel murals where tango dance steps had been painted in hectic profusion on the sidewalk. I walked into the city’s crowded gardens on Sunday in the Rosedal. Sometimes, I rode the subte home if I walked too far, but I had so much time, I usually walked back, too. I read about free museums and tours, but I didn’t want to do any of these things alone. I never went into anything. I’d pass nice-looking cafes and think ‘I’ll go there with Gina when she gets here.’ I was waiting before I tried to enjoy the place. But it was going to be a long wait. Gina was still in California, working to earn more money before coming down. At the airport, with the cumbersome bike finally resting against a row of chairs, she’d said goodbye to me and cried with enough enthusiasm that it wasn’t necessary for her to explain how long it would be before she came down, if she ever came at all. As I wandered up and down Corrientes, I wondered if she was back in California, gradually forgetting about me.
Every day I went looking for work, but I wasn’t finding much. I’d gotten a terrible job teaching private classes once or twice a week at an institute that was so small they frequently asked me if I minded just taking my student outside for his class since there was no room.
Jhonathan from Caracas and I were always out sitting on this bench Wednesdays, passing a notebook back and forth. He had a family and I liked hearing about how they’d all left Venezuela together and were now trying to make it here. He must’ve not been too happy with the class, though. We only met three or four times before I got word he wasn’t going to be coming back.
Jhonathan from Caracas and I were always out sitting on this bench Wednesdays, passing a notebook back and forth. He had a family and I liked hearing about how they’d all left Venezuela together and were now trying to make it here. He must’ve not been too happy with the class, though. We only met three or four times before I got word he wasn’t going to be coming back.
Carlos and Nelson were the only people I really got to know around the hostel. I gradually met most of the others in the kitchen, but other than exchange greetings, we didn’t talk much. Other than a kid from the Misiones province of Argentina, I was the only non-Brazilian. One of the girls who lived on the first floor was short, wore with very round glasses and had a very maternal air. She was always trying to tell me the most obvious things about the city or the language like “In Argentina, ‘ll’ is pronounced ‘sh’” I thanked her for her help, but after a while, I started avoiding her for fear that she would next explain to me how to tie my shoes.
There were others. A rocker who ordered pay-per-view on his computer to watch the Metallica show live when they came to town. The big guy who lived on the roof who always had a nod and a smile for me when I saw him in the kitchen. He was the only one who woke up as early as I did. Another guy named Raphael also lived up there who had a little amplifier he plugged his guitar into. I didn’t see him much, but I frequently heard his playing through the door. He did some technical stuff and sounded pretty good.
My dormitory had six beds, but it had been just Nelson, Carlos and I for the first month. They were both waiting for something. Like papers to come through or classes to start; I don’t remember, but they were always around. Usually they sat on their bunks. Carlos was a reader and Nelson was such a sociable guy, he seemed to think it was unthinkable that he and Carlos should be separated. So he hung around the dorm, too, but he was much more energetic, walking in and out of the kitchen, seeing who was there and what they were eating. On rainy days, he made tea for himself and Carlos, carrying it back to the room like a proud grandmother bringing tea to her studious and introverted husband. Nelson talked to me all the time, but not in an annoying way. He never tried to follow me anywhere and when he could see I was reading, he knew enough from Carlos not to interrupt. Carlos, on the other hand, hardly spoke at all. The only thing I remember him saying was not to touch his head after I’d made the mistake of giving it a friendly rub after he’d shaved it. He told me he never had his head touched. It was where the spirit entered the body.
The only time Carlos and Nelson left the hostel was in the evening to go to the Spanish classes the Argentine government provided for free for immigrants. Once I lamented that I had no such class to attend. Carlos looked at me blankly for a while and asked ‘do you want me to invite you to come with us?’ He was like that, very forthright. But he wasn’t a bad guy. I told him I’d like to go but that I probably needed some kind of paper or something. He looked at me with the same intense look. ‘Do you think we have any kind of papers?’ I asked if it wasn’t some kind of MercoSur thing. He laughed. ‘Like they’d do anything for average people.’ Carlos was really down on governments. He was kind of an anti-Hobbsian. He told me I should come with them to the class.
We had a teacher named Ruth who was really sweet, but it was immediately obvious the teachers picked for these classes had been the same ones who had been working in the elementary where they were held all day. The planned our lessons as they went and they tended to underestimate the ability of their pupils in order to make planning a little easier. The class was also wildly diverse in terms of proficiency. Carlos, Nelson and I spoke and understood quite a bit with our similar indo-european linguistic backgrounds, but the other pupils, an old man from Korea and two diffident girls from China barely spoke a word. The teachers frequently complained about them, referring to them all as chinos the same word they used for the bodegas scattered throughout the city which were often owned by Koreans.
In the midst of all this apathy, Ruth was an exception. She did her work with a clean kindness like a nurse or a nun who believes in it and has made it her life’s mission. Her lessons weren’t complex, but she made herself available to us as a local friend. She invited us to her quinta and even after she changed schools and could no longer teach the classes, she asked me if I could meet her in the Abasto food court and do a language exchange once a week. She wanted to learn English, she explained. Feeling bad for not going to her quinta (I’d had to work with Jhonathan that day) I told her I’d love to. I never got to teach her any English. We always did the Spanish portion of our ‘exchange’ first and it always ran too long. Whenever I tried to offer the English portion she’d repeat my homework assignment and pack up her things, saying she had to get going, that she had another student to meet with.
After our classes, we all walked back to the hostel together practicing our new Spanish words. Carlos and Nelson being in high spirits with some fresh air in their lungs. They spoke a little faster and smiled more often. We’d laugh at Nelson who would be so excited he’d continually mix up his Portuguese and Spanish. He could never seem to remember the ‘entendes?’ of Spanish and was always asking something that sounded like ‘intengi?’
It became my ritual to stop on the way back to the hostel and pick up a beer to drink on the roof. When I stopped at the chino, even though it was just around the corner, Carlos and Nelson waited for me. I could never tell if they felt a responsibility for me or if they were just being polite. They never came into the store with me and neither or them drank so there was nothing I could casually buy them to thank them for their friendship.
The roof was my favorite place in the hostel. It was usually quiet up there, Raphael’s guitar and the sound of wind-flapped laundry were the only sounds. There was really nothing to see, but it was the best place to think. With my beer, I’d stare out over the rooftops into the slate-colored sky and think about Gina and the months we’d lived together before I’d left for Argentina. I’d think of the little house we’d had together and the horses that we could see from our window. I’d think about the times we drank whiskey in her kitchen and went to the bar to watch lousy local bands. I’d peer so hard into these memories sometimes it felt like I could lean forward in my chair and fall into them and be there with her. But the illusion was hard to maintain and the little chimneys and those metal spinning things that look like crowns would gradually break back into my field of vision and I’d be looking at the back of a billboard, hearing the sounds of Raphael’s guitar seep from under his door.
I picked up more work. After Jhonathan left, the institute gave me classes at a local vinyl label factory. I taught classes at three different levels, occasionally helping the staff translate things about adhesives or vinyl into English. One of my students was a musician. After asking me to help him with the pronunciation of the lyrics in a New Order song they were covering, he put me on the VIP list for their show. I went, but it was one of those situations where I didn’t know anyone and they were all speaking rapid Spanish. I drank too much, trying to compensate for not speaking to anyone and woke up to the next drizzly morning feeling anxious and lost.
I had the day off, so I decided I would walk downtown and see if the English-language library I’d discovered earlier that week was open. I’d been out on Sundays before and while the streets were always much emptier than they’d be in any North American city on a Sunday, today the city on the other side of Nueve de Julio looked post-apocalyptic. The streets were all empty save a few cars that looked like they’d been there overnight. The shutters had all been pulled down on the buffet places that served hideous flan in chafing trays to the office lunch crowd on weekday afternoons. The parillas with their tourist hawkers in fake gaucho clothes had all receded back into the anonymity of their uniform gray metal covering. The train still rolled through the stations underground, but infrequently and the warm morning breath of the tunnels coughed out of the steel grates by the Carlos Pelllegrini station as I walked past, scattering the papers that had been left behind by someone sleeping there. Even the McDonald’s was closed.
The library was as dark as the rest of the street when I arrived. I tried the door, just in case. From somewhere in the twilight of the place, an old guard emerged. When he saw me, hands cupped on the glass, peering into his world, he tipped his pointer finger back and forth like the needle of a deliberating scale. I gave him a thumb’s up and he nodded, completing our silent dialogue. We’d obviously both been satisfied by the unexpected humanity of our interaction, each of us materializing out of an empty world to exchange a few gestures and disappear again. I imagined him returning to his creaky rounds, walking back through the dim stacks of books, the compacted yellowed pages functioning like refrigeration coils and cooling the air immediately around them to drafty pockets.
I was so occupied with this thought, I didn’t see the kid come out of the alley ahead of me until I nearly ran into him. Although he’d been watching me and hadn’t made any movement to get out of my way when we had the entire sidewalk and even the street to ourselves. I made an awkward movement to step around him and muttered ‘permiso.’ He tensed. I could feel his nervousness even as I passed it. It must’ve been his first time, or an early attempt because he gave himself away by glancing around as he sidled back up to me. “Tenes plata?” He asked. I continued walking toward Nueve de Julio, the border of the empty downtown and the rest of the living city. On the other side, there were cafes and a few people out enjoying the morning. I kept walking, outpacing him again. “No,” I called back, rounding the ‘o’ to the short, almost curt sound it had in Spanish, like the amplified sound of blowing a smoke ring. Walking made it awkward for the kid, but there was no one around. He strode quickly back alongside me. “No tenes nada?” He asked. The last word bent a little by an impending whine. I shook my head, using as little verbal language as possible to not give myself away and echoed back ‘nada,’ trying to repeat the word exactly as he’d said it.
I kept walking, he took a few more steps after me, but then decided against it, turned back and disappeared down one of the gray alleys. It started to rain. I went into a place on Uruguay and Sarmiento, got a small, thick coffee and stared out the wet window wondering where the kid had gone and if he’d gotten any money.
My socks had gotten wet again and I knew I’d have to dry my money out with toilet paper in the bathroom so it didn’t get moldy. Carlos and Nelson were both in the dorm. They never went out on Sunday. Carlos sat at the table in the middle of the room eating some steaming noodles and reading. Nelson was on his bunk with a laptop on his chest on a Skype call with a girl whose ebullient voice pranced all around the male fug of the room..
I put my wet backpack down and went out to the elevator shaft courtyard to call Gina. I’d been in Argentina now for three weeks and she still hadn’t bought a ticket—she hardly mentioned coming anymore. I walked back and forth, looking down at the potted plants down in the courtyard, listening to the phone ring. She answered just as I was about to hang up and said how it nice was to hear from me. It was obvious I’d woken her up. I talked her into her own Sunday morning. I went to the kitchen and we made coffee together and I watched the drizzle fall through the dull light of the afternoon. I didn’t ask about her tickets even though it was on the tip of my tongue the whole conversation. When we hung up, I went back into the dorm, feeling much better about living in a dim and cramped area with guys whose socks were hanging up all over the place. I tried to read on my bed, but each word flew off the page into a tangled thicket of free association and soon I was asleep under the galloping sound of the increasing rain. The best thing about Carlos and Nelson was that they were never loud.
The next morning was the first clear day since I’d arrived. I woke up early and had plenty of time to review my lesson before heading out to the label factory for classes. I had been warned about the neighborhood around the factory and, after my encounter with the kid on Sunday, I kept a stern expression on my face and walked quickly, despite the beautiful weather. A stretch of dog park ran along the highway ramp by the Constitución Station, a ragged strip of green, ribboned with a broken macadam bike path. Crumpled trash blew freely through the shaggy and crushed grasses of the park. Tires left by the highway traffic, were lying in the tall grass. After the rain, visible clouds of young mosquitoes hovered just above them. In the winter, I hadn’t paid much attention to the trees that ran the length of the area. When they were bare, they’d looked dead, choked by the tires and highway exhaust. I saw now that they were all alive and budding. The smell was pale, faint, but unmistakably the sugary smell of lilac. I maintained my stern expression the best I could while surreptitiously standing next to one of the trees and inhaling deeply.
On the way home, I decided to miss my usual stop of Pasteur and get of at Pueyrredón. I did this sometimes. The hostel was nearly between the stations and it allowed me to walk from a different direction, past the synagogues behind concrete blocks and old confiterias with gold leaf painted on the windows. Once was a market district divided into sections, depending on product. Some streets were dominated by costume shops and balloon stores, others displayed nothing but paper in all shapes and colors; there was even an entire block dedicated to wigs. My walk down Sarmiento was dominated by toy stores, most of them dichotomous, blond dolls on one side, black machine guns on the other. The store were small, some no more than stalls and the products spilled out into the street in mural displays of boxes. But there were few children around to admire the garish colors and dimensions of the packages which had to be walked around, Dangling helicopters, tied up with string, had to be ducked.
Approaching the hostel from a different side, I didn’t recognize it. A group of people were standing around and someone was coming out on a stretcher. I started to cross the street to avoid the scene but I recognized the residents of the hostel among the crowd and realized it was my building. A few of them were being interviewed by police. The maternal girl with round glasses was standing there crying. I crossed the street, went up to her and asked her ‘que paso’ but she waved me away and started crying harder. I shifted through the people and the cops standing around the door and walked into the building.
No one was downstairs. The courtyard was empty, even a few plants looked absent. I climbed up to my room. On the stairs, I passed one of the women who cleaned the place, Ramona. She was spraying vanilla air freshener and crying. I ask her what happened. She stopped and said ‘el murió’ before shaking the tears out of her eyes and continuing down the stairs before I had the chance to ask who.
I was happy to find Carlos in his usual spot reading at the table in our room, looking as imperturbable as ever. He was the only one around who seemed completely unaffected by whatever had happened, but when I asked he stopped reading and told me in measured tones of practiced Spanish how Raphael from upstairs had hanged himself over the weekend and the cleaning ladies had found him about an hour ago. It took me a second to remember who Raphael was, but while I was trying to recall his face or the sound of his voice, my mind was busy putting together the disparate images of the stretcher, the police uniforms and the air freshener. Before I could remember who he was, I smelled him. Carlos seemed relived that I’d noticed before he’d had to mention the smell, and asked if I minded closing the door.
I felt like I should sit and talk with Carlos for a while, but there was nothing to say. I’d only talked to Raphael a few times. I remembered that he’d given me a bag of pan felipe rolls once, but other than hearing his guitar seeping from under his door on the roof, I’d never had any other interaction with him. “He was a nice guy,” was all I could think to say. Carlos nodded, but didn’t look up from his book.
I climbed up into my bunk, lay there and felt the gloom of the place close around me. The dorm was dark at all times of the day, but it was always the darkest when the lamplight was dispelled by the meager light of late afternoon. Two kinds of light, rather than penetrating the dark together were more readily absorbed by it. The only sound in the room was that of Carlos steadily turning the pages in his book and the smell of death and vanilla drifting down from the ceiling less than a meter above my face. I lie there thinking that this wasn’t death, but its wake, the ripples following the event. Death had passed unnoticed Saturday or maybe Friday when the sun had been shining down into the elevator shaft courtyard and everyone was cooking dinner in the communal kitchen or making plans for the weekend. The moment had passed and lying there, I felt this one, too, passing. Each one rushing by, fait accompli, like they’d been constructed somewhere else and were only brought here to be lived through. Nothing could be done to alter them. All we could do was squirm through them, like kids climbing through those plastic tubes on a playground.
Someone downstairs was still quietly crying, someone who knew Raphael better. I interrupted Carlos’ reading to ask if he knew Raphael well. Raphael was also Brazilian. “Not really,” Carlos responded laconically and went back to his book. I stared up at the ceiling and tried to imagine what it had been like for him up there, in that little room on the roof. I wanted to empathize, but it seemed horrible to do so. I started thinking of all the absurd Dostoevsky characters pacing around in their freezing garrets, no furniture, gun in hand, wondering if they should do it or not. I shook the image out, it was too much in this dark, late afternoon dorm. I jumped down from my bed and went into the kitchen. I boiled some water and put some pasta on, retreating to the farther table so no one passing by would notice me eating at such a time.
When Nelson came back, Carlos came and got me and we went to our Spanish class as if nothing had happened. All through class, as Ruth asked us to conjugate irregular past tense, I was waiting for someone to tell her about it—we often used our daily lives in our exercises to make them more relevant—but no one mentioned it and on the way home, Nelson talked about how his girlfriend was probably coming to visit and Carlos told me about this umbrella dance that was typical of the northern state he was from. I couldn’t think of much to say other than my standard ‘interesante’.
I debated on whether I would even tell Gina about it. I think I wrote about it in an email and she responded, but the next time we talked on the phone, I forgot to mention it and the event faded from relevance.
I got more work teaching office workers downtown and Gina called one evening a few week’s later to tell me she’d bought her ticket for the end of the month. I took the bus out to the airport holding a single rose—it was a long ride and I worried a bouquet would start to droop, besides, I didn’t want her to have to carry a bunch of flowers back home.
Right before she came, I’d moved out of the hostel and into a bare, wooden apartment with a clawfoot tub and scratchy tango music drifting up from the courtyard in the evening. We lived in the Once neiighborhood about a year, climbing through the plastic tubes of each moment, drinking Quilmes, eating those smooth avocados that taste too ripe and walking to the obelisco and back each night.
I meant to invite Carlos and Nelson over for dinner, but it took a while to get back to the hostel and by the time I’d gotten back, Nelson had already gone off to live with his girlfriend who’d moved down and Carlos was also about to move out with some other Brazilians. I invited him over, but we didn’t make a date and when I went back again, he was gone, too.
By the time I left Buenos Aires, even the hostel wasn’t there anymore. The couple who’d owned had gotten divorced and, gradually, or all at once—I don’t really know—everyone had left the place.