"Antipodes" - Bill Moake
|Bill is an author from Honolulu, Hawaii.|
© 2004 Bill Moake
A mysterious thread ran through my life to Argentina, like a murky
path I followed blindly in the fog of time. The path began with Leslie, a
young American woman I fell in love with at the age of thirty. She was
exquisitely beautiful and melancholy, reminiscent of a strange wild orchid
hiding itself in the shadows of a rainforest. Her fondest wish was to
visit Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire at the southern tip of Argentina.
She called it the ends of the earth and we broke up before she was able to
bewitch me into taking her there. I didn't want to go because I was afraid
she might choose to stay in such a lonely place, or simply vanish into the
stark landscape. She was that kind of girl.
A few years after Leslie and I parted, I
became a close friend of two Argentine families who had immigrated to my
hometown in the U.S. Though it seemed quite accidental at the time, I
realize now it was part of the continuing thread that would eventually
lead me to Argentina. The family members talked mostly of Buenos Aires,
fairly raved about how cosmopolitan and lovely it was. With an
architecture and lifestyle patterned after Paris, Buenos Aires had the
widest boulevard in the world, sidewalk cafés on every street corner,
tango nightclubs, museums, theaters and lavish parks in a huge city that
never slept. I listened politely to their enthusiastic recollections,
never suspecting that they were describing my future home.
The two Argentine families eventually
scattered to the four winds and I lost track of all but one member. As I
grew older, I began to dream about retiring in Buenos Aires where I could
get much more bang for my Yankee buck. The Argentine economy had virtually
collapsed and prices dropped to one-third of their previous level. A
fully-furnished apartment in Recoleta, the swankiest neighborhood in the
city, could be rented for as little as $250 per month including air
conditioning, cable TV, and maid service. A sumptuous meal with wine at a
sidewalk café cost less than $3. On my meager pension I could live like a
king and dance my last tango in life as a Porteno, as Buenos Aires
residents call themselves.
Like many writers, I had always wanted to
emulate Hemingway's life in the Paris of the 1920s. It was a bohemian
city, to be sure, but Hemingway moved there initially because the cost of
living was much cheaper than America. Although Paris had become more
expensive than the U.S., I could at least live in a bohemian city known as
the Paris of South America. (Old dreams must be adapted to current
economic realities.) As I made plans for the move, I never suspected that
I was nearing the end of a long thread stretching back to Leslie. Our
lives are governed by invisible influences that scarcely touch our
Now that I actually reside in Buenos Aires,
my existence here has a certain dreamlike quality that confounds me at
times. I live like a fictional character in an old adventure tale about
the fabled Antipodes where everything is reversed. July is cold and
January hot. The tropics are north while an icy climate lies to the south.
Even the water spins counter clockwise when I flush the commode. I am
Gulliver's opposite. I stroll the streets feeling six inches tall in a
land of superlatives. Thirteen million people live in this teeming city,
but I have gotten to know only a handful of them, mainly due to my bad
Spanish. I speak baby talk Spanish which sounds hilarious to Portenos,
judging from their reactions.
I have a studio apartment with a balcony
overlooking a park five storeys below. I eat the majority of my meals in
small cafés within walking distance. If I cook at home too often, Elena
(the maid) complains about having to wash dishes and threatens to ask for
a raise. Although Elena is twenty years younger than me, she is very much
like a mother to me. She scolds me for staying home too much, urging me to
go out on the town and meet a good woman to marry. I tell her I am not
interested in marriage and she looks at me as if I came from another
planet. We have a strange relationship, to say the least. I have never had
a maid before and I feel somewhat uncomfortable about it, yet I am too
distracted and lazy to clean the apartment myself. In a city where nearly
everyone with money is in psychotherapy, it is appropriate to say that
Elena and I are co-dependent. She enables me to be lazy with a bad
conscience while I enable her to support her husband, who is unemployed
through no fault of his own.
I have lived here long enough to consider a
meal of ninety-five percent beef and five percent vegetables quite normal.
I now leave my apartment at the time of an appointment, realizing that I
will be expected to arrive late like everyone else. Punctuality is a North
American compulsion from which Portenos rarely suffer. The local
cigarettes taste like they are made from cow dung, yet nearly everyone
smokes constantly in elevators, offices, restaurants, virtually
everywhere. No surgeon general here to warn of the dangers of lung cancer
or emphysema. It would be useless in any event since the ubiquitous black
smoke from diesel buses is worse than cigarettes.
A sizeable American population exists in
Buenos Aires and I used to eagerly introduce myself to any stranger who
spoke English, but now I generally avoid my countrymen. They lean on each
other to escape culture shock and homesickness; the whole group is leaning
on illusions for support. One illusion is that Buenos Aires would feel
more like home if they could only eat maple syrup and pancakes for
breakfast rather than empenadas with dulce de leche, a local syrup made
from boiled milk, sugar and vanilla. As if that would change the essence
of this radically different place. It was laughable, but I grew tired of
laughing at them.
However, I enjoy watching certain young
American women on the streets. When a Porteno man makes a lewd suggestion,
as invariably happens sooner or later, the more liberated of these females
replies with a phrase that translates roughly as, "In your dreams,
asshole!" One such exchange is enough to make my whole day. It is my
only revenge for the grocery clerk who grins every time I apologize for my
"Pobrecito," he says mockingly.
"You have no accent. You do not know how to speak Espanol."
The Portenos speak Spanish with an Italian
accent because so many paisanos immigrated to the country in the early
1900s. More of them have Italian or German last names than Spanish last
names. Germans settled here as early as the Italians and during the 1930s
Argentina's government was patterned after Mussolini's fascist regime.
After World War II, Nazi party members flocked to Argentina to escape war
crime trials in Europe. Politically, Argentina is a schizophrenic country.
Taxi drivers talk openly about the difference between Marxism and
communism a single generation after a brutal "dirty war" in which the
military government murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens who had
leftist leanings. Even though some of the generals are in prison now, they
have the respect and gratitude of whole segments of the upper class. At
the same time many young people have posters of Che Guevara in their
rooms. (Che grew up as a member of the Argentine middle class.) Moderate
views go begging in a land of political extremes. The pendulum swings
first one way and then the other. Some day the military will take over
again and everyone knows this in his heart, but it is too unpleasant to
think about when dreamy nights beckon with goblets of wine and tango
dancing until dawn.
It took me two months of scouring Buenos
Aires to find Eric Benitez, one of the Argentine family members I knew in
the U.S. Eric was astonished to learn I was living here and he seemed glad
to see me, but his excitement quickly turned into sadness when I asked him
about his family. His wife, Victoria, left him a year ago to live with
another man and she took their two daughters with her. She had been
unfaithful to him before and he forgave her, but this time she ended their
marriage permanently. Eric took me to his favorite bar and introduced me
to his friends, a collection of wild-eyed artists, writers and political
activists. Although we all got gloriously drunk, Eric appeared to be on
the verge of tears when he wasn't laughing.
Eric is an artist as well and he works
mainly in leather goods, which is big business in Argentina. He drops by
my apartment from time to time, always bringing a bottle of good wine, and
we talk for hours about anything and everything except Victoria and their
children. Eric is lonely and still in love with his ex-wife. I wish there
was something I could do to help him forget her. He needs to fall in love
with another woman, the only cure for a broken romance, but I am in no
position to arrange a tryst with a pretty senorita for him. I doubt if I
could find one for myself if I bothered to look. I'm too old for chasing
women until they catch me. At my age I am content to live alone and recall
past loves like the bewitching Leslie.
Tierro del Fuego lies yawning to the south,
but I stubbornly refuse to go there. I realize that Leslie has influenced
the course of my life to an uncanny degree and I don't want to give her
this last victory. She had a degree in anthropology, so I majored in
anthropology when I finally went to college. She hoped to become a writer
and I did become a writer. She yearned to see the ends of the earth and
here I am only a Patagonia away from it. Leslie has won a contest of wills
in absentia, though I was unaware until recently that the struggle had
continued all these years.
I stay home and watch old American films on
cable TV over and over again. I have gotten into the habit of reading the
Spanish subtitles rather than watching the characters, hoping in vain that
this will improve my shaky comprehension of the language. I am beginning
to watch Argentine soap operas despite the fact that I understand precious
little of the dialogue. Something about the animated facial expressions
and body gestures is oddly fascinating to me.
Most nights I take long walks in parks or
along the waterfront of the Rio de la Plata. Buenos Aires is considered
the safest big city in South America and I seldom worry about muggers. The
evening air is filled with the perfume of flowers that bloom year-round.
Although I have become something of a night owl like most Portenos, I am
still not accustomed to eating supper at 10 or 11 p.m. However, I derive
an inexplicable joy from watching others dine very late in sidewalk cafés
as I make my way home. Married couples bring their children and young
couples in love hold hands and kiss furtively. Sometimes I sit at a table
hardly touching my glass of wine, absorbing the night scenery in a strange
kind of reverie.
I realize I have used the word home twice
in the last two paragraphs. This is difficult to fathom since Buenos Aires
remains alien to me in most respects. It is nothing like any other city
where I have lived and yet it is my home. I spent most of my life in dull
middle-class towns, but I always longed to live a bohemian existence like
Hemingway in Paris. I may have been forced to wait until I was an old man
to find the right place, but better late than never to realize a lifelong
On occasion I spot an attractive older
woman on the street who looks like Leslie. I follow the woman, fantasizing
about a reunion, wondering if Leslie has been in Buenos Aires all these
years. Then the woman turns to confront me and I am disappointed to
observe that the nose is too prominent and the eyes are dark brown instead
of hazel. It is a ghost from my past following me. I laugh and apologize
to the startled woman, but secretly I wonder if she is Leslie in disguise.
I remember how Leslie possessed a chameleon-like quality to make her face
appear Asian or Latin or Middle Eastern even though she came from
Scotch-Irish and Welch ancestors, the sad people of the British Isles.
To me Buenos Aires is a phantasmagoria,
always changing and never quite real, like a Salvadore Dali painting set
into motion. I don't feel the crush of thirteen million Portenos when I
move around the city, as if I were floating through a dreamscape. I expect
to wake up each morning and find myself back in reality, but when I open
my sleep-filled eyes I am still here in the dream. A cat yowls in the
hallway and I am convinced it is not a real cat. It is a cat figment of
the dream and I open the door to see it with tongue lapping in a bowl of
As I kneel and stroke the feline illusion, I hear the faint echo of Leslie laughing from somewhere far away - perhaps the opposite ends of the earth. It is strange laughter that reminds me of a siren's wail. I make a cup of strong Brazilian coffee and take it to the balcony to sip at my leisure. At 6:45 in the morning, the street below is already bustling with traffic. I listen to hear Leslie's laughter again, but it fades away in the morning sounds of the dream. I am haunted by this surreal city in the Antipodes.
All poems are copyrighted property of Bill Moake.
© 2004 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved