by Christopher Wait

What is truly beautiful has nothing to fear from disfigurement.
—Constantin Stanislavski

MARÍA LÓPEZ VILLAREAL is: Paraguayan; nested in blankets in the back of her uncle’s best friend’s borrowed pickup; twenty-two years old; on her way to a seventy-two-hour shift of scavenging recyclable cardboard from trash deposits in Belgrano, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the northwest corner of Buenos Aires; keeping a switchblade, which she’s used twice in seven years (once defensively) in the front pocket of her cream-orange Kangol hoodie with white piping; dreaming about her mother, whose head has been surgically attached to a stranger’s body. She wakes up flying.

PACA CROSSES HIMSELF twice every time he leaves his mother’s two-bedroom apartment. Once for the Virgin, radiating pastel serenity from a torn poster above the couch where his older brother is still asleep, curled and shirtless on a foam pad, looking like a brown mouse drowsing on the piece of cheese he’d been nibbling, and then again for the hand of God, Diego Maradona, el Diez, wrist cocked mid-air in an almost effeminate gesture. The poster commemorating his famous world-cup-winning handball is tacked below a small window with a broken pane, through which a square shaft of light enters and crosses the disheveled living room to frame, dead center, his brother’s purple nipple.

Paca intercepts, dashes up the center, dodges the defense and… He skips down the hallway on the balls of his feet, his espadrilles skidding in the film of concrete dust on the floor when he pivots for a fake. Pablo crouches at the stairwell entrance, arms outspread, and Juan, number 14, challenges Paca’s advance, unstoppable, but he’s not going to make it easy for number 12, the best in the league are about to go toe to toe with the win on the line, Paca stops, fakes, toes the air—and here their imaginations diverge, Juan stealing one ball and Paca retaining, deftly, another. Paca shoots and the ball divides again as one brushes past Pablo’s fingertips and slaps the nonexistent netting into concentric swells. Pablo slaps down another, and Pablo saves! and Gól, Gól, Gól! Number 12 wins the cup in double overtime, it’s a miracle! Paca pulls his shirt over his head and runs up and down the undecorated hallway, pumping his fists in victory.

“I stole, puta maricón!” Juan’s protest ricochets down the stairwell.

“La puta madre que te parió,” Pablo grumbles. Their three footballs deflate and dissolve into forgetfulness as they start down the stairwell, pushing and slapping each other.

“Che, I’m going to throw today,” Juan says as they near the ground floor.

“You’re too young, pelotudo. Pablo threw last time, it’s my turn,” Paca says.

“I have better aim than both of you.”

“Who cares? You’re still too young to throw. Manuel said so,” Paca says, invoking the name that ends all argument.

They walk out of the apartment building, a drab monolith, striped with solid-orange balconies, rising out of the green and tan grassland south of Buenos Aires. It stands alone against a bluebird sky, isolated from the even poorer suburbs. The only way in or out is a single front entrance because the building was unfinished when squatters moved in. A stiff breeze animates the laundry drying on its side: a denim pant leg bends its knee as if to step out into the wind; a navy-blue hooded sweatshirt raises its elbow, conspiratorially nudging a neon-pink tank top; white and black socks in a piano-key arrangement kick their feet as if on the edge of a pool. A white police booth stands an unmanned watch over the gray entryway. Manuel, lean, his intense eyes wet and bloodshot, zips up his jeans as he emerges from behind it.

“Che, what’s going on, you midgets?”

He kisses each on the cheek once and gives each a cigarette, striking a match, cupping it against the wind, and bringing the flame to each child’s face. They pucker up as if for a first kiss innocent of tongues. When lit, Juan pulls so hard he goes a little cross-eyed. Smoking with exaggerated relish, they watch Manuel to see if he’s watching how naturally they’re doing it, but his face is a sharp blank. He’s learned to be thrifty with displays of approval. He flicks his and starts towards the highway, flinging a “vamos” behind him. He is fourteen years old.

“Listen up, che, don’t tell anybody anything. Especially not your mamas.” He glances at Juan, drawing a revolver from the waist of his jeans and wiggling it in the air as they make their way to the ditch along the highway.

“Pop, pop, pop. Any one of you says a word and you’re all fucking dead, you understand?

MATÍAS, AN ARTIST, is riding his old Honda Nightwing back from his father’s country house near Pinamar. Actually, the house is his: His father is dead. And there is no house. The old man paid for the “lakefront” property in full but had never been sound enough to visit it; the estancia he made such a show of bequeathing Matías on his deathbed—my only son, don’t let our legacy go to shit—had been erected by his dementia on another site somewhere between terminal nostalgia and frustrated hopes. There should be special pronouns for the deceased, he thinks. It seems somehow wrong to refer to his dead father with the same he he uses for his live brother, or his bookie, for that matter. It’s a poor linguistic patch-job, a plastic bag taped over a busted window, a hole in a wall filled in with bricks that don’t match. He swerves to avoid a pothole. He is still with us. He is choking on a truck’s thick exhaust. He lives on in our hearts and minds.He is sweating through his T-shirt. He is with the Lord now.

Matías has not cried at all and wonders if this means he didn’t love his father. The only emotion he can muster is a feeling of deficiency for being unable to feel anything. His psychologist says it’s shock, that grief will hit him eventually. Then why was everyone else sobbing their guts out while he stood there, hands folded in front of his waist, a gloss on his wet hair (which he’d washed for the first time in weeks) and his patent leather shoes (which he’d removed from their individual prophylactic sheaths), wanting to be doing just about anything else? A new painting begins the process of self-assembly as he percolates through the sluggish four-wheeled traffic. An empty electric chair in a spotlight, hand-carved with pronouns, one for each of its victims.

He met his lawyer on the property this morning, a parcel of a cattle ranch sold piecemeal. Where a rancid pond had once gagged on manure and algae, a thumbprint-shaped oval of tan mud was cracking into tortoise-shell patterns in the summer heat. The haze on the horizon ate up any objection to the tyrannical flatness of the pampas that a stranded outbuilding or a stand of poplars could posit. It was very hot. He turned his head left and right but the view was identical, as if he’d been standing on a responsive disk that rotated to correct for his movements, always keeping something behind him; he couldn’t wait to get back to his city where walls checked this morbid slide of vision and thought into unadulterated vastness, and small, manageable epiphanies waited around every corner.

A pointless dock jutted out over the dry depression. His lawyer, wearing a pinstripe suit with an emerald tie, stood on it, pretending to fish. Matías shook his hand, told him to sell the land as soon as he could, and got back on his bike.

MANUEL GAVE PACA the cell phone because he’s the tough one, the smart one, and even if Pablo and Juan don’t admit it outright, they follow his orders because they know they come direct from Manuel. Paca will throw the stone that brings down the car, and will get a bigger share of whatever Manuel robs. The gray lozenge in his pocket buzzes in a text: “listo,” ready.

Sunlight pools in the corners of windshields, pauses, streaks across the flexed flanks of passing vehicles. Paca’s eyes thread the oncoming traffic, and when he fixes on a purple sedan, the blurry onrush gels into this car and its immediate neighbors (blocky white Fiat, toy-like tricycle truck), and they seem to stand motionless on the accelerated treadmill of the pavement; they pass; the blur whirls back into place. Manuel says the best cars to hit are black with tinted windshields. Paca selects a silver Lexus. Manuel showed him how to take apart, clean, and reassemble the gun a week ago, what part each greased piece played in carrying out the mechanism’s stark function. That was a sure sign he was the favorite. His arm snaps and the stone flies true, but he’s hesitated. The Lexus sails on unharmed, and the stone catches Matías in the mouth with the force of his bike’s 120 kph channeled into it and his jaw shatters like a light bulb thrown against a brick wall. His neck snaps back and his hands release the motorcycle and three large drops of blood spatter a crimson ellipsis onto the windshield of the tanker truck tailgating him. His body is sucked under the tanker’s front wheels. His bike, disoriented by a sudden feeling of lightness, wobbles, falls, and follows its rider into the churning undercarriage. The truck driver loses control and jackknifes. María’s uncle’s best friend’s borrowed pickup slams into the truck bed, folding nearly in half as it buckles, catapulting her into the air. She wakes up just before she breaks both arms and most of her ribs on impact with the pavement, shedding strips of skin as she rag-dolls down the road. The tanker, perpendicular to the highway now, holds the oncoming traffic from her; she lies alone on asphalt that is seamed and pocked like acne-scarred skin. The punctured tank shamelessly relieves itself onto the road, and a v-shaped, opalescent shadow darkens the light-gray surface, wedging towards María with unhurried insistence. Through the filter of agony in her arms and chest, she feels a cold tongue licking at her belly, then her breasts, cheek, and ear. The pileup on the other side of the tanker issued millions of sparks, any one of which could have ignited the gasoline fire that Jennifer, an American English teacher, sees from the second level of a double-decker bus a quarter mile behind the accident.

IT’S BEEN A long trip already. Farmers blocked highways all over the country protesting a steep increase in the export tax on soy and meat. Jennifer has already sat through 16 hours of deadlock, watching protesters burn stores of grain and butcher cattle by the roadside, knowing that there are food shortages in Buenos Aires. A fat, shirtless man with a glossy chest and a half-unraveled straw hat boarded their bus and made a histrionic speech: down with the oligarchy, etc. He then passed the hat around for donations to the cause. She gave because she didn’t want to be singled out. Now it’s Sunday evening and she’s running out of time to prepare tomorrow’s lessons, not that she’s looking forward to going back to work with much enthusiasm. In the last five minutes of her last hour-and-a-half class before a 10-day vacation prompted by insomnia (culture shock) and chronic bronchitis (pollution), one of her students, who insists on being called “The Engineer,” propositioned her in his office. He lifted up his pink shirt to show her his sculpted abs.

“Joo like?”

“Andrés, the verb ‘like’ is transitive. You need to like something. Furthermore, standard yes-no questions require the auxiliary verb do. Say, ‘do you like it.’”

“Do joo like eet?”

“No. I find it very inappropriate. In a civilized part of the world, you’d have been fired for sexual harassment years ago. Tuck your shirt in.” No way he’d know tuck. “Put shirt back een pants.”

“I make photo, maybe joo like eet after.” He snapped a shot with his iPhone and showed it to her.

“I send now, what ees joor e-mail?”

The river Plata glittered through the floor-to-ceiling window. The window washers’ anchor ropes twitched like tentacles, and a sudsy tendril of water ran down the glass. She leaned back in the cushy office chair.

“Goodbye, Andrés.”

AT LEAST, THAT’S how she handled it in hindsight. The only response she actually made was a quick exit, punishing the reception area’s polished granite floor with her pumps. A flurry of laughter followed her out of the office. Now, on the bus, she remembers remembering then that Spanish has a verb for the sound high heels make against a hard surface: taconear, and this word triggered a chain of rhyming associations. Agarrar: to grab, to grip, to take. Arrancar: to rip, to tear. Violar: to rape.

Night has come down and she’s still stuck. Bus upholstery design is one thing that’s the same in the U.S. and Argentina: lemniscates, anthropoid figures, viral squiggles, abstract suns. She gets up and walks to the back of the bus for a cup of complementary coffee, but the dispenser is out. In the windshield, folds of black smoke edged with angry orange drift westward. They’re just letting it burn.

“Nothing works in this third-world shithole,” she mumbles as she goes back to her seat. The plastic bag full of homemade bread María had been using as a pillow is still in the back of the smashed pickup, still holding the imprint of her cheek and chin.

TWO YEARS LATER, Jennifer laughs to herself as she bypasses a clump of commuters crowding the escalator entrance and heads for the empty stairwell at the L.N. Alem stop, the end of the red line, the B line. Argentines love waiting. The other day, she walked up to a man standing in a line that stretched around the block and asked him what it was for. “I don’t know,” he said, “but it has to be good, look at all these people!” She’ll be home soon, and her boyfriend, Nikita, a career diplomat in the Russian embassy, is coming over for dinner, wine, sex, and maybe some late night English-language CNN. First, though, she has to shower, change, and put the empanadas in the oven.

She quit teaching for good last year and started working as an in-house translator for the law firm where she had been giving most of her classes. She makes good money, not much to retire on, true, but she can afford her own apartment, which is modern and clean. She eats out whenever she wants and doesn’t agonize anymore over whether to take a cab or a bus home from clubs at six in the morning, when she’s tipsy, sweaty, and satisfied. Yesterday, she took an Internet quiz, which, on the basis of twenty yes-no questions, rated her happiness level at 7.5 out of 10. Although some mornings she can’t shake the feeling that the doormen are watching her with something beyond casual interest while they hose down their segment of sidewalk, little lumps of dog shit melting in the soapy flow, and the apartment buildings of Calle Moldes in Belgrano seem to lean towards each other like tipping chests whose drawers are about to slide out onto the street in a jumble of white wrought-iron railings and unmade beds and dogs howling in crates and unfinished lives: Something is telling her to get out, warning her that this city never keeps its promises, that her happiness, all 7.5 points of it, hangs by a thread. But those mornings are rare. She does not miss the ingenuous cornfields of Nebraska.

The platform is nearly empty, and she isn’t waiting long before the train arrives. She sits down, sets her handbag on her lap, folds her hands over it. As the train pulls out, a warm wind from the open window drags a blond strand of her hair across her face, and she’s suddenly too tired to brush it back. At the Florida stop, men in white shirts file in and sit down on the maroon felt bench across from her, oddly erect and evenly spaced, like teeth, like Nikita’s perfect (she really thinks so) mouth—in the bright, white, tiled kitchen his eyes are full of wonder and hunger, he loves her, and he reaches up with his thin fingers to trace her face and in being touched she feels as if she’s being created; his index and thumb press the down-curving corners of her mouth, and when they pinch together her lips appear earth-red against a creamy whiteness; he leans in and outlines the shape of her nose with the tip of his own in the same ink, traces the question-mark curve of her ears, and she closes her eyes and the lines become bolder and sharper; he’s breathing blue smudges of warmth on her scalp through the sieve of her hair and he circles her wrists, encircles her fingers and presses the palms of her hands into his; she’s both more and less, reduced to these touch-points, a half-sketched drawing, but then that welling shapeless colorless heat, the primitive urge like a rattlesnake’s tail, and buzzing, she fights, they go down, nude in a bedroom swept by passing headlights, the right-angled shadow of the dresser corner against the blue-shaded wall like a reared leg in a black stocking. At the 9 de Julio stop, María gets on the train.

She’s begging, but unlike the majority of subway panhandlers, she doesn’t talk at all. Her appearance speaks for itself. Her lips, burned off, do not fully cover her teeth. Two angled slits in the center of her face remember a nose. Her ears are rough mounds around curved holes. The sandpaper skin of her face and scalp is laid out in a grid, maybe groundwork for reconstructive surgery. Two human eyes and all they imply look directly into Jennifer’s own. She has, over the last two years, hardened herself to all kinds of vicarious trauma and as she holds out a two-peso bill, a low thought ripples through her: Bums are people who have figured out how to charge admission for eye contact. María waits patiently for Jennifer to realize that she has no hands with which to accept her generosity. She hooks her stumps behind the maroon tote bag slung around her neck and obligingly pushes it outward. Jennifer starts and drops the bill into the slot.

It’s the least she can do.

Photo: Christopher Wait
Christopher Wait lives in Saratoga Springs, NY. He can be contacted at chwait(at)gmail(dot)com.