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Buenos Aires Side to Side

ISSUE:  Spring 2003

Faye’s daughter never cries except when they say goodbye on Sundays. Then the big tears come. Then, Lord, the whole pampas reel, and the asphalt and the airplanes, and the red dust quakes with her crying. She cries then like clockwork, the moment her good uncle meets them in the parking lot of Ezeiza Airport. She takes his hand sobbing, howling like a wolf, and he lifts her up into his truck. “Vale,” he always says, waving down to Faye, high sign with two thick fingers, “Vamos ya. Está bien. Let’s go already. It’s fine. It’s fine,” he always says, through the girl’s thick reckless sounds. Faye has no idea when her daughter finally gets quiet because the car door closes on her tears and she is gone.

Marciela is eight, almost too old to cry this way, but her uncle Pablo is a good man. In Pablo’s glance and the turn of his jaw when he signals, “Vale, está bien,” Faye understands that he keeps the absurd wailing of her girl in confidence. He and his friends work weekends at the airport, and he is good enough to bring Marciela into the city to see her mother. She stays with Faye until Sunday night, and then the child rides back with him the three hours to Santander. Pablo is not a talker; he would not tell his mother or his sisters how Marciela cries. “Vale, está bien,” he says. It is in the look of his eyes.

Faye met the girl’s father, Horacio, in a bar in Mobile. He was working on a ship out in the Gulf, cleaning up a spill. She had nothing to lose but time, as the Argentines say, and he wore linen pants and narrow belts, and touched her face how no American, black or white, ever had. Then after he had gone back home, he even called her, said if she got a passport she could come and see him. He would send her a ticket if she would carry a couple of bags for a friend of his. The ticket was one way. Faye was 21. She got to have two summers in a row. She lived with Horacio in the apartment where she lives now, above his cousin’s photocopy and school supply place.

Evenings during the week when no one calls her to go out, Faye sits in her room above the librería reading. She reads the old paperbacks the store has in English—books that students of English as a Second Language read. She likes books by women and John Steinbeck. She likes The Pearl, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.

After Horacio moved out, she could not watch their little girl by herself and still keep working. Horacio’s mother said they could move in with her, but she lives in Santander, a dirt town three hours away, and Faye could not live there. That is why her daughter has to come see her, when it works out, in Buenos Aires.

Horacio says you have to live in a big city, and Faye is from Carthage, Alabama, so she knows. Horacio says you have to live in a big city, like Buenos Aires or Rome, and Buenos Aires is six times larger than Rome.

The downtown autobus and train terminal takes up three city blocks. The English built the old section, and there are nets strung up inside to catch the plaster chunks that keep falling from the dome.

Faye’s little girl Marciela is in a sullen naughty phase. Today in the station she ran away for a moment and Faye had to go and search for her. Thank God the driver held the bus. When she found her, she was in behind the counter of a t-shirt vendor, almost leaning into the woman’s lap watching TV. The prison riot was ending up at Entrerios. The doctor who did the autopsy on the president’s son had been found dead.

Faye did not scold the girl. She was simply glad they had made the bus. The girl was disappearing now at least once a weekend. Faye had no plan but to ignore the phase and let it pass. There was a TV in the front of the bus showing the news also on Canal Trés. Once in a while Faye caught a phrase of what they were willing to report.

You would think she would be able to relax on the bus because all the weekend’s decisions—and mistakes—had been made already, but she can’t. Is it the way the girl sits by the window? There is a lot to see of the city as you leave Retire traveling south and west. Is it how she sits gripping her pink plastic diary, zipping and unzipping it like a purse?

Today she propped a phosphorescent alien up on her diary, and combed the hair of a small mermaid doll. With her back to her mother, she stared out the window at the parks of Palermo, at the ombús and the trees of paradise. The branches of the palos borrachos wove a high web of pink flower petals. The streets were white with office paper, thrown from windows during strikes. Then the parks were gone, and they cruised down Alem. Marciela sat silent staring at her plain face reflecting against her mother’s face against the docks and in the distance the muddy Rio de la Plata.

A second doctor has been found dead also. And the newspaper claimed it was not a double suicide, the anchorman reported, raising a copy of the day’s La Nation.

The girl bent over in her seat and opened her diary, tracing her finger down the page. “Orville Wright was from Norte Carolina, but Bernoulli was the man who allowed the law of flying,” she announced, then added, “He is from Argentina, Bernoulli.”

Faye smirked, reading over her daughter’s shoulder. “Not everyone with an Italian name is Argentine, you know.”

The girl is obsessed with flying and Faye has made some effort to keep up. Maybe it is seeing her girl cry on Sundays that has made her keep trying. Maybe it is seeing her red, dirty tear-streaked face, her nostrils flaring in and out like the valves of a heart. She knows her girl is from somewhere else and could never make the kind of mistakes she has made. Horacio studied in the University of Buenos Aires in the School of Letters. Faye told him she went to UCLA, and for a long time he did not know that meant the Ugliest Corner of Lower Alabama. The school of hard knocks. The school of second shift at Grub Mart. School of Cashier at the tanning salon, bagging marijuana, cutting lines of coke on the glass beds.

Faye learned Spanish walking. She learned it from the plaques on the statues and the plaques underneath the beautiful trees. It was spring when she first saw the parks, the palos barrachos waving their pink flowers. Buenos Aires was a gift. At home she had gotten arrested on possession, then went and broke probation on a dirty piss. This life was her last second chance and she had a daughter now. Her daughter will never need to know the mistakes she has made.

They turned onto Nueve de Julio, and who isn’t mesmerized by the sight of it, 30 lanes wide? The girl stared down at the street children in the median. She watched a man with long gray hair and a gray silk duster jaywalking between cabs.

“Cars. They are alive. They move, they have temperature,” the girl told the alien doll. “They aspire. They expire.” she said, but no one answered.

The sun beat down on 30 lanes of rainbow buses and yellow Puegeots and green Ford Falcons. Billboards flashed Coca-Cola and Nikon. No lanes drawn on the asphalt, no real stopping at the stoplights, but everyone gets where their going. Order without law.

“Seven Up. Do they have that in the United States?” the girl wanted to know.

“Yes, it’s where it comes from,” Faye said in a far-away and pointed voice. “Coke, Nestle, Sony, all that stuff is from America.”

The girl stroked the alien’s bald head and tucked it in her pocket. Argentines learn early how not to listen to everything they hear.

The anchorman came back to say the two doctors were suicides after all. The newspaper had issued a retraction. The journalist who wrote the story could not be reached for comment. Then there was a hold up, some man waving a handful of guns from a window in Chacabuco.

They were almost to the highway then. “Nonabuela says you are going to São Paulo with your boyfriend and leave me here,” said the girl.

“Who told you that?” Faye asked, but it came out sounding like an accusation, and she tried to find a comfortable way to put her arm around her daughter.

“That’s what Nonabuela told Aunt Ana.”

“Well, they know I would never do that,” she answered, catching the girl’s eyes in the glass.

“Is it the one Michael? Is he your boyfriend?” She glanced back beside her, at her mother’s lap.

“I don’t know. I’d ask him if he ever called me back.”

“Cars. They are alive. They move, they have temperature, they drink gasoline,” the girl noted again, locking eyes once more with the traffic. “They aspire. They expire.”

Faye patted her daughter on the knee and when their touring bus stopped in the street again, she could hear it breathing. To move them in its red velour interior, it took hot heavy breaths, cutting in front of a taxi as it decided to let a man out in the middle of Nueve de Julio. It swung them by the opera house. It lingered in front of ombús and paradises in the great triple medians, and children swung from the tree limbs of rubber trees as big as live oaks. And it chugged slowly so the branches touched the windows to let them see women laying clothes out to dry on the chest-high roots of the trees. And Faye’s heart beat with her daughter’s heart inside the great beating body of one of the many buses of Buenos Aires, and it is the dirty fuming buses that keep the great city breathing. And Faye thought no matter where you are in Buenos Aires on Sundays, her daughter must cry loud enough that you can hear.

“If cars are alive, then does that mean they can think?” Faye asked.

“Yes,” said the girl without turning around.

“What do they think about?”

“Pues,” she said. “They are not very smart. They think only about as smart as fish.” Marciela straightened up in her seat and folded her hands neatly on top of her diary. “What does he call himself, your friend going to São Paulo?”

“Michael,” Faye told her, and every white Puegeot that they had passed she’d thought was his. He was from Houston. He worked for ConAgra. When she first saw him come in the libreria, she had done the math: him plus her would equal two well-cared-for children in a tall, well-cared-for house. Of course, Marciela was one of the children.

The wheels of the bus screeched and screamed as they roared up the ramp onto the highway where, here too, all the cars where schooling and moving. If Michael thought she was someone he’d like to sleep with the moment he saw her, it was all right. She’d thought he was someone she could sleep peacefully beside. It had been two weeks since he had called.

It’s faster and cheaper to take the train out to Ezeiza, but Faye doesn’t want her girl to see the slums. From the bus, her girl gets to look out at the big sky of her country. She could watch a new Home Depot going by, a basurero driving his mule cart on the shoulder of the road.

On Fridays Faye takes the one peso train out to the airport to collect her daughter. The slums stretch the length of the hour-long ride, and you can look down the mud alleys between the houses made of scrap metal and road signs. You can see children walking along the edges of the houses and along boards laid down in the mud. There are no moving cars at all out there, only here and there a ragged horse will weave between the houses and the bits of fence and tarps strung up between the houses and there will be children and a woman tying back a tarp. And Faye will think, That woman, from where she is, can hear my daughter crying.

But the highway they were on approaches Ezeiza from the other side. And the bus was moving through the emptiness of the pampas then. It was worth five pesos for her daughter to look out at the bright flat green unspoiled land of her country.

“You are going to São Paolo and not tell nobody, is what Aunt Ana says.” The girl held the alien up to the window and it looked out. “I could ride this bus by myself.” It was true. The girl had memorized the route.

“Soon will come the horses,” she said and they appeared. Horses, five or six running in the sunlight on the plain of the pampas, barebacked, riderless and racing their shadows under the blue sky, free as boys.

“I used to ride the bus by myself when I was your age,” Faye said.

“De donde a donde?” asked the girl.

“From Atlanta to Anniston, to where my grandma lived.”

“Por qué?”

The girl turned and looked her mother in the eye until Faye couldn’t look at her anymore. She saw a white roan go by in the shade of a muño, a tree by itself in a field too empty to be real.

“Cuánto tiempo?” asked the girl again.

“Sometimes I stayed all summer long. I stayed until my mom could take me back again.”

“Por qué?” Her daughter asked again, staring at her as if she were a stranger at the gate of an unfamiliar town.

Her girl wanted to know if it was a farm. If there were horses, if she played games.

“No. It was an army town. She had a yard between two alleys. I used to catch grasshoppers. I used to throw a ball onto the roof while she was at work. I used to throw a ball onto the roof and catch it as it rolled back down.”


“Why? Because. Because I wanted to. It’s a long story, I guess.”

It was hot in the bus and she couldn’t look her daughter in the eye, because the girl was staring at her the way her first lover had stared at her, as if he could see in her eyes, if she’d let him, all the petty crimes she had done. The feeling came back to her that she felt throwing a flat grocery-store ball onto a roof in the sun—the ball getting hot in her hands, the secret, guilty calls coming in once a week from her daddy.

They were almost there now. They were in the airport district of shabby hotels. She showed her little girl the food she had brought for her and Pablo to eat along the way. There was bread and white cheese and grapes, short bread and dulce de leche, cherry-flavored soy milk in a box.

The girl said she wasn’t hungry. Maybe she would drink the milk.

Faye was sweating. She lifted up in her seat to smooth her slacks. She was preparing herself for the moment when she let go of her daughter’s hand and the girl let go her curdling tears, unable to control herself, because now she was doing that thing she had tried not to do. Faye was waiting for the look from Pablo, “Vamos ya. Está bien.”

The bus let them off in the parking lot before the airport, and they could see Pablo across the way, among the four men smoking cigarettes, as always, against the truck.

“You are going to leave me and disappear with Michael,” the girl said as they crossed the white concrete. The alien was in her pocket and she had her backpack on. There was never any indication in her face or voice before she broke.

“I’ll see you next weekend. We can go shopping,” Faye said, taking her daughter’s hand. Pablo stepped out to meet them as he always did. Marciela took her uncle’s hand, firmly, solidly, and there was no sound. She did not cry. There was no echo.

Nothing to embellish on. “Vamos ya,” said Uncle Pablo like a gaucho waving the okay with his cracked hand. “Está bien. Está bien.” He lifted the calm girl up and got into the van beside her and closed the door.

“Está bien,” Faye said, and waved her hand. She took the one-peso subway back, through the slums, saw a family pushing through the mud a dead car loaded with their belongings, moving themselves from one block to the next. A mother’s life is not a hero’s journey. Maybe it is The Pearl. Maybe it is The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. She saw a stray dog standing on the platform in Liniers and it stole the world from her. But the world was already gone.

She knew. The world worth following now belongs to the girl who said goodbye today in silence. She is riding through the night now, through the dark sky of the Southern Cone in a car full of men from her country. They pass the maté, chew coca leaves to stay awake. They are talking about taxes, the paradox of the Gospels, as she sleeps in the crook of her uncle’s arm, her head on his knee. He keeps her from falling. She repositions herself, now and then, in the seat of their language, until she crosses over into that hemisphere where caballos corren debajo del cielo, and she dreams believable dreams now safely in the language of that place.


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