I went to Paraguay because David thought it would be interesting, and I didn't have any other plans. Now it seems incredible that I ever had that much freedom, enough to wallow in, like a pig.
David was a blond American elf with tapered fingernails and watery eyes. He was from Mendocino and had been in BA for more than a year, covering the markets for the English-language newspaper the Buenos Aires Herald. I had been in the city for a couple of months, and with each passing day it was becoming clearer that the opportunities I had been counting on would not be forthcoming. My plan had been to live off my savings until I found a job—teaching English, something off the books in a bar, or as a nanny. When the time came I would return to New York and a serious life. But there were no jobs to be found. This was before the economic collapse, and the peso was still pegged to the dollar. Unemployment was holding on at 14 percent, while ministers of economy were rotating like musical chairs; one of them, Ricardo López Murphy, lasted only three weeks. Argentina was no place to slum it.
I met David a party at a bar called Milión. It was the kind of place I hated, an anonymous Eurozone of sleek global character too desperate to impress. They played slinky electronic music and the light fixtures were silver orbs and the seating was black leather and none of the furniture provided any back support. We could have been anywhere, except for the women. They were flawless. Everyone knows that Buenos Aires is the plastic surgery capital of the world.
It was the birthday or welcome-back or going-away drinks for one of the NGO expats we had in common, and David was buying martinis for everyone, throwing money around in the way that only extremely poor or extremely rich people do. Watching him command the scenario I experienced a kind of revulsion that was also pity mixed with desire and envy. He was exquisite, like a porcelain seabird: little and precious, breakable and girlish and puffed up beyond his physical dimensions.
David handed me a drink and I immediately spilled some on my wrist. I'm planning a Paraguayan getaway, he announced, while I licked myself. He had already been everywhere else: to Montevideo, to Valparaiso, to Macchu Picchu, to Igauzu. He had been to La Paz. I wanted to go to all those places, plus Tierra del Fuego, I said, to see the emperor penguins. David shrugged. Wildlife wasn't his thing. I've been to the zoo, he said. I want to see something I've never seen before.
Being around him was easy. Without any conversation about it we slipped into a routine. The weeks passed and he proved his ability as a procurer: futból tickets; restaurant reservations; marijuana from Oscar, a high school kid who worked at the all-night McDonald's; tango instruction. His dialect was excellent, all che this and che that. He knew about local mores, the cultural importance of Rodrigo, the old Borges haunts. He had a big dick for someone his height. Too big, but I tried to be enthusiastic. When he pulled me close at night to snuggle it was like having a baby koala on my back.
Eventually, without me needing to do much about it, David settled on the idea that we would go to Paraguay together. I liked the feeling of tagging along, being included. We left for Asunción on a cloudy Friday morning. The trip would take 17 hours by double-decker bus, and we sat up top to watch the road unfurl below. Attendants in skirted uniforms poured instant coffee and boxed juice into petite plastic cups. Around sunset we stopped at a roadside cafe. The tablecloths were blue plastic and flowered and the food was soft, overcooked noodles and hard, crusty bread. After dinner David gave me a sleeping pill and the window seat and I woke in the morning to the news that the bus had broken down in a town called Resistencia and, due to a strike that had been called overnight, there was no possibility of it being repaired. We were four hours from our destination.
We accepted this setback in a spirit of adventure, joining the other passengers on the blacktop of RN 11. The bus ladies had changed their clothes and were fresh and pert in full makeup. I borrowed David's Raiders cap and rubbed a finger over my furred teeth. Then ensued a long period of standing around in the unforgiving sunshine while the men insulted the driver, who shrugged, grunted, and stonewalled. In the end he used the radio to call three white vans. We negotiated a group rate.
At the next stop I got out of the van to stretch my legs and, if I could find the words, ask him to stop drinking, to remember himself, or me.
David and I, wary of being perceived as greedy gringos, hung back for the last van. The side mirrors were missing, thick black smoke issued from the exhaust pipe, and the sticky leather seats were patched with silver tape. Our driver was named Eduardo. He wore a belt buckle of a screaming eagle. The metalwork was beautiful and Eduardo had displayed it to full advantage by leaving his shirt entirely unbuttoned. There were 11 of us in his care: me, David, four men, three women, and a pudgy girl of 12 or 14 who wore sweet, sparkly barrettes. To one of the women was strapped a baby, asleep in a snuggly. The baby had a thick pelt of hair and wore a cloth headband.
One of the men sat up front with Eduardo. They slapped hands and seemed to know each other from before. In the first row of seats were the other
three men, in the second row were the three women, and I was squeezed in the last row between
David and the girl in barrettes. The windows were tinted and blocked the light. The air was humid. Eduardo tuned the radio to the cumbia station and David leaned his head on the window. After ten or 20 minutes one of the men shouted for attention. He was of indeterminate middle age with an avian nose cutting through a tight, mean face. His name was Marcos.
Refrescos, he said. Somebody clapped. Eduardo cast a lazy eye into the rearview mirror and pulled over at the next gas station. David scrambled over me to follow the men inside. Get me a water, I said. And gum? A few minutes later they came out of the minimart cradling 40s of Quilmes. Marcos handed one to Eduardo, who took a long silent slug and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The mood in the van got a little closer, and the women quieter, as the men spoke louder and more sociably. David sat next to me gulping his beer. Is that a good idea? I asked, and regretted my tone.
Fifteen minutes later, Marcos signaled for another stop, and again David lunged for the door. I worried about him getting too drunk. It's all well and good to try to fit in but it's easy to take that kind of thing too far. As I was feeling carsick and hungry I followed the men into the bodega, where I watched David buy 40s all around. Everybody slapped his back and called him hombre and he pumped his fist like, Yeah, yeah. I bought water and gum and two bags of chips and handed one to him. Back in the van I waited with the women while the men sucked on cigarettes near the pumps. I had never before seen David smoke a cigarette. He gripped it overhand and took nervous hurried puffs, like he was a bellows, or afraid the flame would go out.
This routine continued, with Marcos calling for refrescos—the word means "soft drinks," and he found the euphemism hilarious—and Eduardo obligingly pulling off the highway, another five or six times. At some point David's eyes became cloudy and distant, and he stripped down to a white undershirt. He moved to the front seat, next to Marcos, which effected a redistribution of bodies: One of the men moved back, next to a woman who might have been his wife or his sister; the woman with the thick-haired baby moved back, next to me. We sped through a featureless landscape. The microclimate of the van was hot and stifling, and I asked the girl with the barrettes to open the window to let in some highway air. She made a gesture of apologetic futility that indicated the lack of open/shut functionality re: windows. I wondered about the quality of her life. Marcos and David sang a soccer chant.
The woman in the row in front of me wearing a cheap pink T-shirt turned around to speak to her friend with the baby. Pobre Americana, she whispered. Hola, I said, and the baby woman smiled at me. Niños? she asked. No, I said. The baby was sleeping, and she rubbed its bottom. Cuantos años tienes? she asked, and I mumbled something that was younger than the truth.
Marcos called for silencio, saying he wished to recite a poem in honor of new friendships. I struggled to make sense of his words. My Spanish was pretty good in a classroom but my comprehension depended on how committed my interlocutor was to being understood. I let Marcos's words slur together and focused instead on the quality of his voice. It had a tremor that I recognized as sincerity, and it was this sincerity that told me to beware. One of the men, tired of the poem, began to speak in low tones, and Marcos smacked him on the head. The man protested and Marcos waggled his tongue and said BLAGHHGHGH and kissed his cheeks. I never got used to Latin American cheek-kissing. I always went for the wrong cheek first.
The high repetitive strains of cumbia were giving me a headache, plus I was still nauseous from the drive. The woman with the baby spoke rapidly to her friend, and together they looked at me with infinite pity and weary condemnation. Are you married? she asked. I said that David and I were novios. Of course this was a lie. In New York I wouldn't have even said that we were dating. But that was the kind of fine distinction that held only contextual meaning. By saying novios I was explaining that David was responsible for me, or I had thought he was, until he began relieving himself of that responsibility like a snakeskin out of season. When I met David, I was on vacation. I didn't understand that he was on life.
At the next stop I got out of the van to stretch my legs and, if I could find the words, ask him to stop drinking, to remember himself, or me. But before I could say anything he ran past me into the bathroom. It had a baby-blue door that looked freshly painted. Trucks and motorcycles whizzed by, belching fumes. Where are you from? Marcos asked me, his eyes distant pools, and when I said New York, he spat on the weeds. America, he said. What do you know about it? I said. He glowered at me and I held my ground. David came out of the bathroom and threw up next to the trash cans. Marcos laughed and clapped him on the back. I asked David to sit next to me again but he told me to be cool.
It seemed like Eduardo was picking up speed, but I felt so ill it was hard to tell the truth of what was outside my body and what was inside it. Now Marcos announced, in a tone of new gravity: I need a job. His employer had turned against him for no reason. The man was a lunatic, he said, he was an exploiter with a gambling addiction. Horses were his burden. David was immensely sympathetic to Marcos's plight. It was only possible to hear what they were saying over the claptrap engine and the wretched cumbia because no one else was talking—the other men had fallen asleep, and the women were silent—and they were shouting, working themselves up with emotion and fervor. Marcos promised to show David the treasures of his beautiful country. Most Americans don't come to Paraguay, he said. They think they're too good for it. But David was special. He would see. Marcos was going to introduce him to his mother, whose sweetness surpassed the Virgin's. Marcos was going to take him fishing with his brothers.
The woman in the cheap pink T-shirt turned around and asked if I had somewhere to stay. I had found a pensión in my Lonely Planet and showed her the page. It described the establishment as "economical" and "quaint." I asked if the neighborhood was safe, but she said she didn't know. Her relatives lived in the country.
It was mid-afternoon and we were closing in on Asunción. The van dropped everyone about a hundred yards from the border, at a dilapidated fruit stand where old men cratering on rusted lawn chairs drank maté out of metal straws. In the distance, past the salmon hutches where the agents cloistered, soldiers in fatigues idled under a peeling concrete arch. The other passengers dispersed like a haze lifting. The woman in the cheap pink T-shirt waved at me sadly and wished me luck, and I wished her the same.
I still don't know how it happened that Marcos got my passport into his hand. I must have had it out, in my eagerness to be ready, to have all in order, in my anticipation of meeting the border patrol. I had never entered a country on foot, in the open air. What I know is that one moment I was holding my passport and the next Marcos had it in his fist and was trotting away at a hasty clip, cutting a path through vendors hawking water and empanadas, separating huddled clumps of dredded backpackers from families consolidating their burdens by stuffing plastic bags into bigger plastic bags. I felt the scene drop away. I couldn't stand to lose my identity, that piece of paper I could use to get out of trouble, to find my way home. I look back on it now and see myself, pale and a little heavier, my hair short like a boy's, unwashed, throwing an American tantrum that I would throw again today without regret. Being American was my only card and Marcos was trying to take it away. But in my confusion I had forgotten how to say "stop" and was instead screaming, "Basta! Basta!" No one came to my aid, not even the women. I was betrayed, isolated, unseen in the way of a street person or a child. I thought, Whatever happened to sisterhood?
Marcos also had David's passport but David didn't seem to notice or care. I left him standing there and dashed into the crowd. Marcos wasn't much of a runner. I caught up to him easily and swatted at his cropped denim jacket, then ran around to his front side and blocked his path. Give me my passport, I said. I was shaking with anger. We were eye to eye. Marcos raised his hands like a soccer player backing away from an opponent rolling on the pitch—like
I was the one faking the injury—and made a big show of handing the passports back to me. First he held them out with two hands and bowed, Japanese-style. Then he made a little flourish, a "milady" gesture. Then he lit a cigarette, and succumbed to a coughing fit. He said he was only trying to help.
Over by the arch German shepherds—I don't know what they called them in Spanish—were pacing, muzzled, behind automatic weapons. The presence of guns contributed to my general sense that I was in a place I did not want to be, where bad things were happening. I despise guns and violence of all kind, even televised violence. I avoid situations of power.
Be cool, said David, who had finally caught up with us. His face was drained and his voice was reedy edging on whiny. He knelt over and spit. The string of saliva dangled from his teeth, swaying like a slinky or a cat toy. He smoothed his hair slowly, moving deliberately in an imitation of sobriety. I've always hated daytime drunks. He bit into a piece of fruit he had purchased while I had been chasing Marcos.
Now I was the one who was trotting, steering David at the elbow to one of the salmon hutches marked for non-nationals. There was no other course to take; going into Paraguay was the only way to get out again. A guard in reflective sunglasses slammed down the rubber stamp twice and shoved the passports back at me without a word of acknowledgment. My plan was to get in a taxi and slam the door in Marcos's face. But Marcos was right behind David, cramming his way into the backseat, talking again about his mother, his brothers. They all lived in a beautiful house. It was smaller than our houses. But it was beautiful.
I live in an apartment, I said. Paraguayans aren't like Americans, Marcos said, who abandon their families at the first slim opportunity. They live together and take care of one another. Marcos would take David to his home. They would eat there, sleep there, wake up there. There would be swimming. There would be music.
Let me tell you, Marcos said, about the silence in the morning before the first birdcalls, down at the lake where we go fishing. You must arrive when it is dark, and the sun rises over the water and turns it pink and then gold. We eat what we catch.
I felt like puking, thinking of the polluted puddles that Marcos fished in the shantytowns of this godforsaken place, Asunción, Paraguay.
I pulled David toward me, trying to create any amount of space between him and Marcos, staring uncomprehending out the window at colonial streets. A curtain of tan and black beads separated us from the driver. The radio was playing the profound hits of the 1980s: "Private Dancer," "Borderline," "Rock the Casbah." Sharp stabbing pains convulsed in my abdomen: a stress-related gastrointestinal infirmity. Get rid of him, I said, no longer caring what Marcos could hear, giving into the open tug-of-war. We take her to the hotel, Marcos said. She spends the money. You come to my mother. I will show you hospitality.
Marcos, I whispered. Yes, said David, and I heard the hiss and crackle of him sucking on another joint across the room. The smoke trailed up in ghostly light, making his face hollow and wise with concentration.
We arrived at the pensión and I left David staggering with Marcos outside and rang the bell for service. The place was a sunny dump filled with plants that were hanging on for their miserable lives. Armchairs that doubled as flea nests relieved themselves of the burden of their stuffing and clustered companionably around rickety side tables, while a red bird in a gold cage depressively pecked at its own feathers. There were beads here, too, a tall curtain of them, blue and green and purple, and they beat percussively against the tile floor when the woman emerged from the back. Behind her I glimpsed the back of a man slumped over an ancient word processor, his desk covered in files and newspapers. The woman greeted me listlessly and showed me to the room. She had thick rapids of hair hanging around her face and tired eyes underscored with deep blue smears. I have those circles under my eyes, too. They're genetic.
The room was walls and a tile floor, two double beds, thin blankets, a bare lightbulb, a woven rug. It was nothing but it did not contain Marcos and I felt the relief of being alone, the safety of doors and the paradoxical freedom of confinement. I sat down on the bed and sunk to the metal frame and closed my eyes and waited for David to get there. When he came inside I sprang up to lock the door behind him. He put his arms around me and apologized in a tone of surrender and I burst into tears I couldn't control. We lay on the bed exhausted and overcome and he was just starting to say that I was overreacting when we heard a pounding on the door. Fear was a bottomless well, a dark shaft. You deal with it, I said. This is your fault.
I locked myself in the bathroom and flickered the lights until the bugs scattered back to the drains from whence they had come. It was too dirty to sit on the floor, so I leaned against the door. I could hear them fighting on the lawn. Marcos was screaming at David, calling him names, shitty American, maricón, thinks he's too good for Marcos, thinks Marcos isn't good enough to be his friend, he thought they were brothers, it went on like that.
I hoped that Marcos did not have a gun.
Then I heard another voice, a deeper and more dangerous voice. For a moment I thought David had accessed some hitherto unavailable source of power, but it was only the man from the back room. He was ordering Marcos off the property, threatening violence, the policía. Then David's voice, apologizing; his soft tread into the room; his gentle, embarrassed knock on the bathroom door.
I opened the door, pushed into the room, locked the other door, threw myself onto the bed, retracted my limbs like a sea anemone who is closed for business. Marcos has problems, David said. We have problems, I said. Our problems are luxuries, David said. They wouldn't have been, I said, if Marcos had succeeded in stealing our passports like he tried to.
Back in the reception area the red bird, who throughout all the events past and yet to come remained silent, was pecking at its food dish. A mangy dog that I had not noticed earlier stirred when I approached and rapped on the desk. The man at the computer turned around. He didn't rise to his feet, only scuttled the desk chair toward the curtain and held it open with one hand and looked at me with utter disdain. Gracias, I said, por su ayuda con el hombre. Él es un hombre malo. He nodded and turned away, like this kind of scene happened every day.
Back in the room David was smoking a joint and eating what remained of his bag of chips. My head was pounding with hunger but my stomach hurt and I was too scared to go outside, lest Marcos was lying in wait. David looked guilty but he went on the offensive. You antagonized Marcos, he said. You're a snob. It would have been fun to go fishing. So go, I said. I meant it, too. I could find a taxi to the bus station in the morning. The man who ran the pensión could call one for me.
Some time after we finished arguing I fell asleep. When I woke it was dark and my abdominal attack had subsided. I relished the expansiveness of spirit that accompanies the release from pain. I started thinking about food. Maybe we could find a little cafe that sold empanadas. Maybe we would see some local culture. Then I heard the sounds of a man's voice coming from the bowels of the pensión, a baritone rising in urgency.
Marcos, I whispered. Yes, said David, and I heard the hiss and crackle of him sucking on another joint across the room. The smoke trailed up in ghostly light, making his face hollow and wise with concentration. I relaxed until, the steady crackles of the joint making the room cozy and familiar, I heard another voice, a female one, high and urgent. Then some kind of scuffle. A few words, venomous, coming from outside now, dirty whore, basura. We have to do something, I whispered. What I meant was, You have to do something. There was a door slam, a choking noise that must have been crying. David let the joint go out. We'll just make it worse, David said. He'll be angrier tomorrow.
In breathless impotent silence we listened. I'm going to be sick, I said, but I wasn't. David lay down next to me on top of the blanket. He smelled of beer and vomit and sweat and weed. He pulled me in to be the little spoon but when he put his arms around me I was enormous, bumbling, an ethnic giant in the grip of a tiny Nordic princeling. I pushed him off. I wanted to be the little one. Through the walls swam the rapid chatter and laughter of a television game show.
David reached an arm overhead and pulled the frayed string. The ceiling light flickered to life, buzzing faintly. Let's take a shower, he said. Let me wash your hair. No, I said. I can't stand it.
He shrugged and went into the bathroom and came out a little while later in a ragged white towel. I couldn't look at him. I counted the tiles on the floor: 88. David was so small and delicate when he was naked. Now he was clean, too. It was horrible. Then he took my hand and put it on his crotch. His dick was still too big. It was going to hurt me. Please, he said. I feel bad, too.
I relented and he climbed on top.