Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff

 

My life comes galloping back to me like I’m going to die. How will I manage. I don’t know how to fight the pain of love. How will I manage. I don’t know how to be far away. My forearms are exposed as if I’ve been shooting up, it’s just the shape of a woman with an overdose, slashed with a knife, a woman on the cross or thrown from a height. I wake up comatose, I say it to myself in French, comateuse, so much more elegant. J’ai dû trop boire at the end of the night but the room doesn’t taste of alcohol, I didn’t even drink the tiny bottle of water in the minibar. And when he kissed me for the last time and took off my clothes, I fainted. I’d love to crever sur le champ d’une crise cardiaque ou d’un ACV. J’en meurs du lever au coucher. Nothing in this four-star room looks normal. Like after visiting someone on their deathbed and saying, I’ll never drink another cup of coffee. And you gag, and gag again, in front of him, and you walk up and down the avenues and say, inventing, exaggerating, I won’t go, ça va. There won’t be thousands of miles between us, I still don’t speak French but at that moment it’s impossible not to have said ça va aller, ça ira. Breakfast will be over in fifteen minutes. I go down to the lobby in my pyjamas, still gagging, and say my room number out loud. Not madame yet but señora, or señorita at a push. On this final night, you’re in a hotel in the centre like a fake tourist in his city, already splitting in two. They think you’re Colombian, Polish, they even guess Australian, until you open your mouth and oh, right, you’re from around here, sos de acá che, from just round the corner, you didn’t look it. I help myself to tiny cones of dulce de leche, to dainty biscuits. I don’t really like this stuff but I want the cliché (Gallicism) of the Argentinian breakfast. Not that I can stomach any of it, not even the burnt white toast my mum used to make for me before dropping me off at school. The staff around me speak with Buenos Aires accents. Sha shego shamame sha. Where are you travelling to, gorgeous? France. For how long? I’m going there to live, I say. As if we weren’t always living wherever we are, or never really living at all. Oh là là, you lucky thing, off to France. But they don’t shower much, do they, the French, I hear they stink and that’s why they invented perfume. And they laugh. What are they laughing at? Eat some cheese for us, won’t you. Look at her, moving up in the world, there goes Amélie Poulain, who does she think she is. But listen, aren’t you a bit scared with all those bombs, all those beheadings, you’ll have to watch yourself in the crowds. Enjoy every minute and try not to come back. Are your family all here? Oh well, what did family ever do for anyone. Or Europe, that pigsty, the world’s rubbish dump, we’re better off here. Over there you’re surrounded by Syrians and Pakistanis. At least here everybody understands each other when they speak, no one has to make an effort, skidding around on foreign words. No accents, no interference, no forced expressions or forged rhymes. No shoehorning in the wrong idiom to pretend you’re au fait (Gallicism) with the lingo. Man, what a fucking mess, no one hidden in the language. I go up and watch the avenue through the window. Noise and more noise. An avenue of insects, stray bullets and snipers sprawled on the rooftops. An avenue of protests and tear gas. A long tree-lined avenue like Madrid but Buenos Aires, and skiving off school, walking round the pyramid and undercover militiamen in the Plaza de Mayo pretending to be reading with their newspapers upside-down. The cathedral where I once knelt and heard the priest say that the disappeared were all having a wonderful time in Moscow. They call again for me to leave the room; time to check out, chop chop, they say, leering, too familiar. He hasn’t come to pick me up and I haven’t packed. I never pack, I just throw things in a bag with seconds to spare. Bound for the airport. Leaving the hotel on the little square where I once spent Christmas with some kids sniffing glue in view of all the middle-class flats of the Barrio Norte, their balconies lit up with red, green and blue pines, the smell of steaming rubbish. Already on the motorway, but first I say farewell to the Opera House, that day when we sat in a box and listened to Puccini. The entire Argentinian aristocracy was there, flirting with the new right-wing culture minister during the intermezzo. Argentina, a playground for Israeli soldiers fresh from military service, for the last few adventurers who won’t let go, for thrill seekers from cossetted countries. Argentina, all the sights: Iguazú Falls, the glaciers, the fake colours of La Boca, the Recoleta cemetery, Patagonia, the wineries of Mendoza and Salta. And that’s it. Oh, and if you’re more the intrepid kind, a guided tour of the shanty towns. Argentina and her sky, so blue it’s disgusting. Her trees with full canopies that fall in the spring. Argentina, trainers dangling from electricity cables. Argentina, ice, storms and hail stones scratching the facades (Gallicism). Where’s my passport. What’s a passport and why does my mouth taste so much of his kisses. Guaranteed hell: the taste of his kisses and the escalators taking me to the departure gate at Ezeiza airport. Ezeiza airport in 1973. Leonardo Favio crying, loudspeaker in hand, begging people to be reasonable. Handguns willy-nilly, .22, .32, .38 calibre and semi-automatic pistols. The release of doves for peace and requests to sing the national anthem. Al gran pueblo argentino, salud. I didn’t shower, I didn’t freshen up, I didn’t brush my teeth. I carry it all in my body, a mule smuggling illegal substances, five hundred capsules of cocaine in my pussy, his shimmering liquid on my hair as proof of his love, his bitemarks on my tits, his desperate lust in by-the-hour hotels. I see him there and throw myself at him. Like that song, cada vez que pienso en vos, fue amor, cada vez que pienso en vos, fue amor, fue amor. Every time I think about you, it was love. It was love.

Leaving Buenos Aires like leaving a lover, like letting myself be beaten with my ankles bound tight. My body ignores me among the dark clouds. My end of the world. My state of alert. Losing myself in the turbulence. People begin to alter as the journey goes on, becoming less Argentinian. As we take off yes, as we take off I, an Argentinian, with palms open and arms raised, or the classic line: I didn’t vote for him. But as the plane grows colder and gloomier, it feels like we really might die at minus 50 degrees and ten thousand feet, like the pilot really might lose it and decide to take us all with him, and our nationality, nationalism and motherland begin to fade. All of a sudden the Argentinian woman sitting next to me talks in her sleep and I no longer know where she’s from, her accent and her heart have got lost somewhere. A delayed body refusing to end. To desire in Spanish. Je mourrai étouffée de son liquide, ça sera ma plus belle mort. His body tasting of Buenos Aires, his whole body steeped in that city. I’m on my way but I don’t speak a word of the language. I have my little Assimil book, French with Ease. I can’t say mon amour properly. Or bonjour. It makes me sound Russian: bonjourrrrrr. Or Chinese: bonsul. The American slurred r: je ne rewrette wrien. I look at the map with the tiny plane drawing a line through Manaus, an edited manuscript. Balzac, Proust. A bed is also a crossed-out map covered in arrows. Chau, Buenos Aires. An irresistible desire, I speak so badly, a haunting desire to throw myself head-first, everything’s coming out wrong, my skull upside-down through the rear door and the protective silence of altitude, over there where the passengers gather to munch on their snacks and add pathetic little ice cubes to their Schweppes. Just open the door and it’s over. Maria Callas sings in my ears. Maria Callas on the way so I’m not crossing the ocean. Maria Callas so I don’t exist. Stand face to face with Buenos Aires, with him, face to face and not next to each other like all those other couples who split up in the end. Face to face.

Charles de Gaulle. Changing countries like changing arms. To slide from one man’s arms into another’s. It’s me, it’s me, it’s still me in this airport terminal I don’t know, in this language I barely understand, in a man who comes to pick me up holding flowers and speaking strangely. Fumbling in basic Spanish: hola, bienvenida, cómo estás. Il faut se dépêcher, c’est dangereux rester ici. What is he saying. What the fuck is he saying. How does a Frenchman think. That it’s dangerous to stay here. That it’s a focus of attacks. Welcome to the firing line. We’re all targets now. Back there they kill you for your smartphone, here because you listen to death metal. Mind you, there they kill you for an old Nokia too, but here they also kill you for drinking beer. And we could go on: there for a hundred-peso note, here for going into a church. Make yourself at home. War can break out anywhere. From the car I see the Paris of tourists and women in veils. Saint Mark’s Square in Venice is the Place du Tertre here, the human swarm. Some streets where there’s pogrom in the air, a city under siege, a city of scapegoats, repeat offenders. All that’s missing are the hooded lepers. The first time in six hundred years that a man was executed in a sacred place, and now nothing. Tous à nos bougies, comme d’habitude, but not even that, the head sliced off and back to the Hundred Years’ War. We’ll have to buy some shares in candle factories, he says, with that irony that seems so French to me. The Paris of Jewish ghettos, too, but not now, now there are hardly any Jews. What’s a Jew, ask the children in history class, raising their hands. Something that existed a long, long time ago, c’était il y a longtemps, says the teacher. The oppressed hating France in the language of the oppressor. It’s chic to be anti-French and despise the modern world, so full of fascination, of gimme gimme gimme, of I want it all. They spit on the Galeries Lafayette, or is it drool. Rise up, Europeans! Good one, says the Frenchman, with a high-pitched laugh. We don’t have a Che Guevara here. Long live Che, he shouts merrily, and starts singing Manu Chao. I look out the window and the Frenchman kisses me. They’re in love with Che Guevara, they worship that image of him motorbiking through Latin America, so macho, so sexy, so James Dean. Affected little kisses the same way he speaks, worlds apart from the other. Kissing with tongues and the stress at the end, kiss-ing. Crossing the bridges and the standard question, what do people think of Argentina here? Excuse-moi? like saying what the hell. Argentina? Should we be thinking about it? Well, some dictatorships, I guess, Pinochet, the great tyrant of South America, tango. And let’s see, there’s also good steak, great weather, the glaciers, people who even look European, and football, yes, football, of course and that blue-eyed guy on the film posters, that one, the Argentinian who made it. And outside, La Place Concorde, Les Invalides, L’esplanade du Trocadéro; sophisticated Paris untouched by the centuries, the timeless luxury of Coco Chanel in the George V hotel without a burqa. Gradually, the trottoirs crack and disappear into the distance, old Europe succumbs and turns into an art gallery, a battleground.

That first involuntary revolting awakening in the French countryside. Owls, serpents, wild boars and a sky that falls on me like a stake. I try to eat the grass. Later, with the background noise from the motorway and the woodland clamour, I stare at the lit house from the shadows: two storeys, some rooms, the unopened suitcase on the floor like I’m just another tourist. My body losing the smell, like bleeding myself dry while everybody looks on, like a miscarriage in the third month. Losing the ability to speak. Stripped of my syllables. Peacocks are heading for the lake, their dreamy glamorous tails on full display. There’s no more polygamy, no more bilingualism, no more diplopia, no more bicephaly. They’ve started a fire and the flames lick my skin. Someone calls me by my name from inside the house. And for the first time it’s not my name but an echo, a deformation. From then on, my life takes place outside.

 

Artwork © Colores Mari

First Course
Charlotte Collins | Notes on Craft