Thursday, 12 April 2007

La Noche de los Museos

Part II

The mind-map was falling off the page. Words uncurled to form tails that joined onto the ends of the arrows. Tentacles slithered to the corners of the sheet, onto the table towards the sugar bowl. My tutor’s voice floated across the room, catching the moving light in the window, at times interrupting where my thoughts went and at other times accompanying them. I guess I was responding to her questions. My responses were automated, perhaps even unconscious, but I can’t explain how, since the activity required unfamiliar vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Physically I was sitting in my tutor’s apartment, learning about Maradona through a mind-map, learning how to use different tenses in the telling of a narrative, but mentally I was outside the room, on the street opposite the window, in the public gardens round the corner where the purple spring blossoms were emerging, and where the cats were snoozing later in the lengthening hours of sunshine. And soon I was further away, in other districts of Buenos Aires, and then… I am not sure even if I was still in the city at all…

‘Que pasa, Stuart?

She repeated herself, ‘Que pasa…’

‘Oh.. nothing, nada, disculpame Mady,’ I said.

‘Is the mind-map boring you?’ Mady asked.

‘ No no really it’s a good exercise, I’m just not focusing today.’

‘You don’t feel like learning Spanish today?’

‘ No, I want to, I just don’t think I can.’

‘You’re thinking about something else… you’re thinking about that girl.’

‘How did you know that…?’

‘Ah come on,’ said my tutor Mady, ‘ You’re a young man in Argentina, what else can you be thinking about?’

I shrugged my shoulders but allowed a smile to peep from the corner of my mouth, which she saw, and her eyes twinkled mischievously: ‘ So, what happened with her?’


‘The girl, your friend, the one you like, what happened when you met up?’ she asked.

‘Well… I mean I can’t really say we met up… it happened very quickly, she was in the café eating an alfajor, and the bus nearly hit me.’

‘What?! When did this happen?’

‘Yesterday,’ I said.

‘Dios mio, are you ok?’

Si si, I didn’t get hit.’

‘Bueno.. y luego… que paso…did Gabriella see what happened?’

‘How could she have seen what happened? She was teaching.’

‘But you just said she was in the café?’

‘Oh… this was someone else.’

‘Ha ha, stu, you are becoming a true argentine man.’

‘No no really… this was just someone that caught my eye.’

‘Obviously… you were away in a… how do you say… place faraway?’

‘Was I? Yes, you’re right, I was… I still am.’

‘Bueno, so what about this girl, and what about Gabriella, you were supposed to have dinner with her, weren’t you?’

‘Yes, I turned up at her place three nights ago, but she wasn’t there. She didn’t answer. I’ve called a few times, she’s not answering. I must have upset her.’

‘Maybe you waited too long… she might have a boyfriend now?’

I took a sip of mate, and rolled it back towards Mady. I stayed silent, and tried to change the subject: ‘ I think I’m ready to carry on with the mind-map.’

I watched the football in Paseo de Julio. The Boca fans marched past the café in electric yellow and blue cursing River Plate and the English. Thankfully they were playing a weaker side than River, otherwise I would have stayed away from the area for fear of losing more than my hand. I devoured the plate of pumpkin mash and munched my way through an enormous suprema de pollo, which I couldn’t finish and was tempted to doggybag and give to the cats in Parque Lezama. The waiter talked tactics with the old men who sat with their bifes mounting up on the plates as they grumbled at the commentators for unfavourable remarks about Boca Juniors. A kid drifted in from his cornerstreet World Cup Final, mud dried out on his face and hands, the sun deeply soaked into his cheeks, asking for moneda. I emptied out my left pocket and said to him, ‘ tenes hambre?’ and I pushed my suprema de pollo to him and offered him the chair next to me. To my surprise he stepped back, frowned at the food and went over to the other tables repeating the same question. The waiter laughed, and the man serving drinks at the bar laughed too. I shrugged my shoulders in the exaggerated way that portenos do, and said, ‘ obviamente, el chico no le gusta la comida.’ An old man in front of the television raised his glass of wine and cheered, ‘ That’s why I keep on drinking the wine instead.’ I became the butt of friendly jokes, and somehow I had soon managed to eat all the food in front of me.

Boca dominated the match and played economical, powerful football. But in truth I wasn’t focused on the game, in the way that I wasn’t focused on my Spanish lesson earlier. A carousel of images and impulses stretched me from side to side. Sometimes it was taking me back to the 128 bus on Salguero, and the girl in the café licking chocolate from fingers, and then I was spinning back round to later on, to the sighs of moans coming from Julieta’s room, and the way the two girls giggled their way there, with their besitos lingering on my cheek long after they closed the door, and then it was breaking off back across the ocean, back to south London, to…. No, not her again... but yes, yes that’s why I nearly got hit by the bus, it was so uncanny, the way she licked her fingers, the way she sat captivated by her book seemingly oblivious, unaware that I, and others, were watching her, and all the time me knowing that she knew full well what effect she was having on some people. It was all so clear, four years on, on the other side of the world, what once gripped me, paralysed me, enthralled me for days, nights, months, was doing so again, and nearly lost me my right hand in the process.

And then there was Gabriella.

Before the incident on the corner, she was all I could think about. I almost missed the feeling of missing her, of being jilted at the door of her apartment, of wondering if she had in fact got bored of me and found a better time with another guy. Its true what they say – how you always want the things you can’t get. She’d been running me after for weeks when we first met, and I was in my element. And now with the tables turned, a person I considered a friend had morphed into the girl I had come to Argentina to find, and now a fight was on for me to get her back, against the invisible enemy. A porteno would be easier in some ways than another ex-pat. Against a local, I could entice her with promises of travel, new places, new friends, new adventures, the world beyond south America, the world of powerful currencies and international culture. But after the 128 bus nearly hit me, Gabriella’s presence in my mind, in my heart went with the bus. If it had taken my hand as well, perhaps I would have forgotten about her entirely. But no, I had not forgotten her completely…

Veni a La Noche de los Museos
Veni, veni, veni
La Noche de los Museos
La Noche de los Museos

A young team of street publicists were pinning posters on walls and the windows of maxikioscos about La Noche de los Museos. It was tomorrow. I knew Gabriella loved museums, for it was in a museum that we first met each other. That day we strolled around the collections of fine arts, switching from lucid English to slow, awkward Spanish. She was patient and sweet. I didn’t feel very excited to be in her company, but relaxed, and not afraid to be myself. She seemed to hang on my every word without making a food of her herself. She wasn’t afraid to disagree. Later on we talked about cinema and books, and where we’d most like to go in the world. We both agreed on Japan. The others with us thought we were strange. Her friends wanted to see Paris and New York. Her eyes lit up when I talked about the Taj Mahal in India, and how my family originated from that part of the world. She had I had an exotic face. I replied, ‘ Is that just a nice way of saying I look like something from a garbage bin?’ Unexpectedly, she laughed, laughed really hard, and so did I, although I was slightly embarrassed at my pathetic attempt to draw out the compliment. We knew we would see each other again soon after, and we did. It had been going very well… I decided to call her again, before tomorrow evening, but not now.

‘eh, hermano, como te vas, manana.. que haces…?…. veni a los museos.’’

The hard-sell:

A friendly guy comes up to you. He’s acting like you’re his long-lost brother, and does a good job in making you think you might be. But you’re busy, you need to be elsewhere so you walk past him, wish him good day. With your back turned, he signals to a colleague standing on the corner, a girl about your age, maybe two or three years longer. This time, its more than an ‘amigo’, its lips, lipstick, a lingering, ‘ hhhhooola, que tal chico.’ Almost comic book, but so good. I’d been having doubts about going. But I knew I would be going to the museums the following night. For now, I pretended that I would need some persuasion, and enjoyed the efforts of the pretty chica – I just hoped that the 128 bus wouldn’t be passing by anytime soon.