Saturday, 15 Dec 2018

From the Lake (un recuerdo)

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Bennett Walls

From the cathedral I went back down to the lake, because the lapping water reminded me of something. I crossed the street and descended the stairs to the beach, passing two men sitting at the bottom. Extending into the Lago Nahuel Huapí from the small city of San Carlos de Bariloche is a long concrete pier, broken about three quarters of the way out so that one square of concrete sits alone at the end like an island. It was my favorite place in the city, actually on the edge of it. Then again I had only spent two days in Bariloche, today and another  two weeks before. I walked out to the edge of the concrete and watched the dark velvet rolling of the water, and listened to it. Surrounding the lake across from me were the Patagonian mountains, some of them topped with snow, betraying still a trace of dying sun. Over there was Chile.

Those staggered peaks appeared to recede with the light, a farewell from Patagonia. I’ve been among you mountains, I thought to myself, you’ve been my home for these two weeks, you that I can see there and those behind you. Two weeks, very little. And I imagined, as I can never help doing, this same view hundreds of years before, many sets of two weeks before. The same gorgeous mountains and the same rocking lullaby rhythm of the lake. Still, for this particular being, two weeks had been a new life of movement and affection. Backpacking and working as part of a team with next to no down time, I had been myself without really noticing him.

This evening at the water was the end of that. The people I’d been trekking with were either heading back to the States or, for a few, settling into their normal lives here in Argentina. Soon I would be the only one still on the move. In the morning, the bus to Mendoza, and three weeks of roaming the country alone. So standing there I tried to exchange parting sentiments with the South, by way of the watery murmur. What could be said was said and I turned back toward the steps, where the two men still sat huddled. It was my plan to visit a bar near the hostel named Ruta 40, after the famous highway to the end of the earth. A final toast to Bariloche and Patagonia, then to bed and up early.

Fairly dark now and I couldn’t make out the two figures well, but as I began to mount the steps to the road, the one closest reached out and stopped me.

“Amigo—” he was holding out his beer can. “Cerveza?”

Well, I was going to get a drink anyway.

“Oh, sí, gracias.” I accepted the can and crouched beside them, took a sip. I remembered the whole bit about not talking to strangers—no mention of having a beer with strangers. These fellows seemed nice enough.

“De dónde sos?” the man asked me.

“Los Estados Unidos.” My nationality seemed to interest them, especially the man closest to me who was a little drunk and very enthusiastic. The other man, huskier and quieter than his friend, spoke for the first time and told me he knew one person in the U.S., a friend who lived in Philadelphia. They began asking me about the States; neither of them had been but both wanted to know how it was different from Argentina. The smaller man asked me if people in the U.S. eat dulce de leche. I told him yes but we call it caramel and it isn’t a feature of the national cuisine as it is in Argentina. At least I tried to convey this in my slow and broken Spanish. I could understand much of what they said but I had to pay attention.

Having taken a few sips I handed the man his beer, and he reached for his backpack and pulled out a new one for me. I accepted with thanks and settled down more comfortably with my new friends. I held up the can with a smile and recited the slogan of the beer, Quilmes, which I had seen everywhere:

“Quilmes, la cerveza preferida de Argentina.”

They laughed, “Sí! Sí!”

Introductions followed, naturally. The smaller man with glasses, who had so graciously offered me his drink, was Alfredo, aged twenty-eight. Beside him, muscular with a shaved head and dark but sympathetic eyes, was Mario, thirty-one. To them I was Ben, because Bennett does not quite agree with Spanish pronunciation. I told them a little about my trip, what I’d been doing and where I was going, and I asked how long they’d been in Bariloche. Alfredo happily spoke up to tell me that he’d arrived here just two months before and loved it. He had grown up in the Northern city of San Miguel de Tucumán, and he wanted to impress upon me that Tucumán was hot – “mucho mucho calor.” Mario, on the other hand, was a lifelong resident of Bariloche. So we were all new friends.

During our conversation, whether through the Quilmes or a natural sentimentality, the two of them displayed an affectionate appreciation of my company, and pretty soon began presenting me with gifts. It began normally enough: Alfredo, preparing to smoke, pulled out an extra cigarette and handed it to me as a token of my meeting with them.

“Para recordar,” he said. To remember. I thanked him and told him I surely would. Up to this point Alfredo had been the enthusiastic one, so I was surprised when a minute later Mario pulled out a small multi-colored die and handed it to me.

“No, no, no puedo tenerlo,” I protested, but Mario insisted and Alfredo backed him up. Over the course of the next several minutes Mario withdrew a series of items from his pocket that he gravely insisted I accept: a marble, a peso, a small keychain pendant. Each time I shook my head and tried to refuse, and each time they both urged me to accept.

“Tranquilo,” they told me. Be calm. Don’t worry about it. “Para recordar.” It was very important to them that I hold on to these gifts and remember the encounter behind them. And they didn’t seem to feel that one was enough. Finally and to my disbelief, Mario took a ring straight from his finger and pressed it upon me. This time I decided I would not accept, but I soon realized that if I didn’t Mario would be hurt. The ring was light and silver with a vaguely Celtic design encircling it.

I tried to convey my regret that I didn’t have anything worth giving to them, but they waved their hands in refusal. And once again they stressed that it was important simply that I remember. I told them I would.

But now they had finished their beer, and they insisted I come with them to buy more. We ascended the steps to the street and once more I expressed embarrassment at taking all these things from them.

“Tranquilo,” Mario said again, and Alfredo added, with a weight to his words, “Son mucho para ti, son nada para nosotros.” For you they are much, for us they are nothing.

Back in town Mario and I entered one of the little kiosk stores, and I felt better after Mario let me chip in on the beer. Outside, Mario put the beer in his backpack and we conferred. They asked what I had seen in Bariloche and I listed some of the places. It seemed I had hit most of the good spots, but had missed one important site, a mall called Shopping Bariloche. It was around eleven and the mall was not close, but Mario insisted we go there.

On the walk over Alfredo and Mario had me demonstrate some English phrases to them. They didn’t speak any English except for a couple of introductory words and motherfucker. I demonstrated “My name is” and “How are you?” and a couple of more specific ones they were curious about such as “have sex.” They were having a good time and I appreciated their friendliness but, late at night and on my own for the first time in a while, I found myself tensing, my eyes ahead, my smile half-hearted.

Hanging out with two Argentine strangers at the bottom of the southern hemisphere was a novel situation for me, and I couldn’t help wondering if these guys had an ulterior motive. Their generosity made me uneasy. I wanted to just go with it and relax, but my conditioned mind wouldn’t listen. I had to remind myself: you don’t know these men. They seem like good people, but remember you are a young tourist who is obviously alone and clueless. An easy target. As we walked down the street I struggled between my suspicions and my annoyance with those suspicions.

Evidently I betrayed my discomfort, because Mario put a hand on my shoulder now and then and issued the word: “Tranquilo.” My uneasiness made them uneasy in turn, and they urged me to trust them.

“Tranquilo, Ben. Somos trabajadores,” said Alfredo. We are workers.

***

Finally we arrived at Shopping Bariloche, which was still open although several of the shops had shut down for the night. Mario wanted to show me the casino on the second floor. Not to play, he said, just to look. Solo mirar.

By the time we entered the casino Alfredo had grown quiet from the alcohol and followed beside me as Mario led the way. The place was red velvet and shiny gold lining, full of late-night gamblers. It was clear Mario knew his way around; each of the finely dressed employees shook his hand as he passed and asked how things were going. As we passed each spot Mario tried to explain to me which game it was and how it worked, though I only picked up some of what he said. I was concerned now that he might try to convince me to make a bet. He seemed well-versed in the geography of the casino, and even had a certain enthusiasm about the place; he was determined to give me a full tour. Still he reassured me, perhaps too adamantly, “No jugar, solo mirar.” Not to play, only to look.

The tour completed, we ended up at the craps tables at the back of the casino, where Mario introduced me to the man running the game and had him explain it to me, in vain. Then Mario had to make a phone call and I talked to Alfredo, or rather listened and tried to catch what he was saying. His tipsiness had crept to the border of drunkenness, but he was a drowsy and affectionate drunk. He was leaning close so I could smell his breath, and telling me about his passion for boxing. “Un boxeador,” he tried to make me understand, “¿Entendés?” Then he began to talk about my meeting with them that night, how good it was that I could join them and share this night with them. This, anyway, is what I gathered. In sparse words of agreement I tried to convey in return my appreciation of them and their friendliness to me. Alfredo’s face was very close to mine and I made a point not to lean back, but to stay in there with him.

Mario returned and pulled me aside to speak to me. For some time I could not understand him. He spoke more clearly than Alfredo but I did not recognize many of the words, and my tiredness was getting to me. I noticed he kept gesturing to the craps table and I realized that he must be trying to persuade me to play. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t interested but he shook his head and started again, a little slower, his hands firmly on my shoulders. I could see he was trying to keep his patience as he repeated himself two, three times. But I couldn’t get it. His face was filling subtly but surely with emotion. Suddenly I caught the words. He was not trying to convince me to play. He was, rather, insisting that I never – nunca – play at a casino, that it would ruin a person’s life and family. His gestures to the craps table, I realized, were as the indication of a curse to be cast off.

“Nunca,” he repeated. I couldn’t catch every word but that one was sure. “Never.” My sympathy for him and my guilt at my own suspicion came pouring in as I watched the tears welling in his eyes. I asked if he spoke from experience and, as I knew he would, he nodded, Sí. The whole evening—the walk to the mall, the grand tour of the casino, the greetings to each employee—took on a new and strange meaning.  Mario repeated his entreaty and grasped me to ensure I would agree. I looked into his deep sad eyes and told him I understood. Nunca.

We gathered Alfredo, still standing where I’d left him. The three of us sat at a small table, and Mario and Alfredo each ordered a coke; both of them were quieter than before. A state of melancholy that I recognized had come upon them. Except in periodical references to the girl who was texting him, Alfredo had lost his earlier energy and seemed to slump in his chair. The two of them, as so often that night, focused their sad attention on me. They warned me to be careful in my travels, because Argentina is a good country with good people, but not everyone is good.

“Sos una buena persona,” they told me. You’re a good person. Be careful. I tried to return their sentiments, and I was sincere, but two weeks of backpacking and a little beer had made me groggy and less communicative. At last I told Mario that I wanted to get back to my hostel since I had to catch a bus in the morning. I half-expected him to protest, but he was at a low level now and got up to walk me to the door. I said farewell to a nearly comatose Alfredo and followed Mario through the still crowded casino, down the stairs and through the mall to the entrance. We walked to the street and Mario hailed a cab for me. Then he turned to me and in this large, ear-pierced, head-shaved, tattooed man of thirty-one I beheld quiverings of emotion I had rarely witnessed in my best friends.

I had one friend in the United States before, he said, and now I have two.

Sí.

Remember the things I gave you, hold on to them and remember.

“Sí. Voy a recordarlo.”

I tried to make him understand in my few words how much his generosity meant to me, and I don’t know if I succeeded. We embraced – a good, long abrazo, firm like old friends. The cab was waiting with its door open and I climbed in, looking back before I shut the door. I called out, “Espero que te veo otra vez.” I hope I see you again. For what it was worth.

Bennett Walls is a recent graduate of Oberlin College.

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