The cold South Atlantic waters can no longer be stopped from pressing through your nose, mouth, into your lungs; – the inevitability of the breathing reflex is remarkable, even when there’s nothing to breathe but heavy sub-Arctic seawater..
I get torn out of sleep, almost instantly, when I can’t breathe.
Wait … I … can breathe. I’m … alive. Here. In the hostal. In Buenos Aires. Near the railway …
It’s deep night. The city is not asleep. I don’t think I’ll be again.
I’ll be thinking about why I am going back to look for Miguel tomorrow, and why it is so important that I have not looked in the bag.
His bag. It’s there. On the floor, beside my too-short bed with the cement-mattress.
What do I want to prove?
There he is.
Back on his little ’platform’. In his uniform.
I should really … get the hell away.
I walk over.
The plaza in front of the presidential palace is almost deserted. They must still be holding a siesta or something. A few seagulls drift lazily above, looking down on us indifferently as if they’d say: ‘We’ve seen it all before’ … ‘we’ve seen it all before’.
Miguel reacts like he’s seen me before, sure enough:
He doesn’t even nod. Just look the other way. Problem is, like I said, there’s no one else really to look it.
I take a few steps closer:
“Hi. I’m sorry for what I said yesterday. I acted like a jerk.”
A little twitch around the mouth, but he says nothing.
“I brought … your bag.”
I put it down on the ground, before him.
” … I have not looked in it.”
Something … changes in his face, like a little part of the invisible shadow on it fades away. He shakes his head a bit, then looks briefly after the seagulls. Then at the pamphlets. There’s a huge stack in a cardboard box. Same size as before – the stack. Then he looks directly at me.
Then he takes a step forward – suddenly, takes the bag.
“Thank … you.” He looks at me, still suspicious.
“You … really have not looked? In it?” he asks, not really looking as if he’d believe any answer I’m ready to give.
So I just shake my head.
“Why?” he inquires sharply.
“For the same reason I came back. I want to … ” – Now it’s my turn to shake my head – “Oh, I don’t know … I don’t know what the hell I want. But I know that I didn’t want to piss you off yesterday. I meant well. I just wanted to … a cup of coffee … you know … ”
My words die, but he nods; looks like he is considering something.
“Here.” He holds out one of his Falklands War-pamphlets.
“I already … have one of those.” I regard the pamphlet skeptically. He keeps nudging it towards me – as if he’d want to stick it on my t-shirt or something.
“Nono – ” he says impatiently. “I want you to write me where you stay – your hotel. If you want … ”
“No, no it’s okay – ” I manage to say and take the pamphlet “But do you want to – “
He holds up a hand as if to silence any further discussion:
“I will pick you up. At 8.”
(Okaay … )
“Do you, er, have a pen,” I ask stupidly, just realizing what’s missing from the picture.
“A pen?” he repeats, as if I had just asked him about the space hamster. Then he slips a hand into the breast pocket of the worn uniform. It comes up empty.
Now it’s Miguel’s turn to look like he’d rather have seen a space hamster.
“I must have forgotten it.”
“Then you’ll just have to hope that people have their own pens with them – so they can sign your petition,” I say and expect a lash back, because that was positively the most inappropriate joke for someone who only just got to the phase of ‘ready-to-repair’ in the relationships truck stop.
He shakes his head again, at me I think … but for the first time a smile seems to be creeping up on his lips. Like it had been lying in ambush all the time.
“You’ll just have to tell me. I’ll remember.”
“The Hostal Peron, near the old railway station. You know it?”
“I know it. I … think.”
“It’s between – look – ” I pull up my Lonely Planet, which by now is only held together by hope. It’s a wonder it’s not fallen completely apart. I show him – on a minuscule map.
“Oh, there!” he exclaims. “Good.”
“Now you can pick me up at 8.”
“Good,” he says again.
“This is pretty odd … I thought you’d say no.” I put the guidebook back in my side-bag, and take a good look at him.
A voice screams from somewhere faraway but deep inside me: What the hell are you doing? Does he think I’m crazy? Or just pathetic?
Or is he so desperate that he thinks I’m so desperate and this is the clownish movements before a little roll in the hay, or some sweat-stained bed in a clammy motel. He must be at least 45 – God …
Miguel looks like, he is about to swallow something, like some of that humid, stale air that seems to be lying heavy over the main plaza this afternoon; drenched with a good dose of lead and exhaust from the millions of cars who probably feel it’s more their city than the humans’ now.
“I don’t know … what to say,” he then blurts, meekly.
“You’re not supposed to say anything,” I say and shrug. “You just invited me out. That’s all.”
“This is a stupid idea,” he then exclaims. “Stupid, stupid … ”
“If you’re not gonna come, that’s okay, but I’ll be waiting at 8. I trust you. Ask for Carrie ‘So-ieer’ in the reception.”
“You really want to go out, señorita. What kind of woman are you?”
“Not the one you thought I was – for a few seconds. I’ll choose to let that slide. But if you think about me that way again, I might not come down when you stand there at 8.”
“Why do you do it? Do you feel … sorry for me?” He looks like he had tasted something disgusting, about to spit it out.
“No. But maybe I feel sorry for myself. Is that good enough for you?”
“Well, why do you say yes then? You must feel at least as crazy as I am acting, to say yes to such a proposal.”
“Maybe I … would like some company. Not of … that kind!” he quickly ads.
“I know … ” I say an watch him again, not wearily anymore, kind of like attentively. He’s got a sea of lines under his eyes, making him look even older, but for some reason all I can think is ’45’. I dunno why …
“I know … ” I say again, as if to reassure myself before I begin to question my craziness. “I am good at spotting people who are as fucked up as me.”
“Why do you say that? Your Spanish is pretty excellent” – he nods with a suppressed hint of admiration – “if you are this good at speaking our language it should mean you are patient. And patient people are seldom ‘fucked up’ – loco.”
“And yesterday it meant something different.”
“Oh, I forgot. Never mind. But yeah, I’ve practiced. Now, do you still want to do this?”
“Good.” He nods more slowly, then takes a deep breath. It’s like he feels relieved, like he didn’t – or couldn’t – believe this was real. I’m real enough, though. For now.
I turn to walk. I don’t want to break the moment. Perhaps if I stay he’ll regret it. Or I will. Maybe we’ll regret it all later. We still have time for that – and to screw up. Two total strangers, so totally incompatible don’t just do things like this. Do they?
Perhaps you’re just only good at making weird friends, Carrie Sawyer, so you might as well accept it. You are weird yourself, not like everybody else – who’re weird in their own right. You’re weird-weird. You’re someone who’s on the fringe. Not normal. You might as well act the part. Embrace it.
Hell, yeah …
“I’ll see you at 8 then,” Miguel affirms, looking somewhere else, everywhere else than at me. Perhaps he’s afraid, too, that I’m just a figment of his imagination. I wonder what that imagination has seen … in war, I mean. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to jump into this, to be crazy. Perhaps it’s my only chance to gain access to the mind of someone who’s really been to war and then know what it means. Does his war look like mine?
Probably not, but maybe there are similarities.
And that – is as close as I get to a definition of an explanation for my actions today.
Wait – there was something else. I’d almost forgotten.
I turn, look back at him:
“Miguel – why do you say that patient people are seldom loco?”
He regards me inscrutably: “Well, patient people are able to wait until the madness has left them. That’s really all there is to it. And madness comes to all of us, if we live long enough – it comes in some form or other.”
“You sound very philosophical.”
“I’m not. I was a history teacher, though, before I went to war. There is a close relation between history and philosophy.”
I nod. “You can tell me about it tonight. I look forward to it.”
I walk away, without saying goodbye, without shaking hands. When I’ve left the plaza and can’t see him anymore, my mind goes into overdrive again and I agree with myself that this was most definitely the stupidest thing I’d ever done. Not only that, it was also an illusion.
He is not gonna show up.