– This is the old Biblioteca Nacional, National Library, building, Lily. Borges was Head Librarian here back in the day. A blind, old man. My mother always cherished the one time when she helped him cross the street, right at this corner, México and Perú streets. Probably coming out of his work at the Library. My first home, our first family flat, was just a few short blocks from here, on Defensa between México and Venezuela. Until it burned down in a fire and we lost everything and moved to the apartment I still have above the Bar Britanico. Anyway… such a masterful writer, Lily. Translated into every language, of course. Argentina’s greatest contribution to world culture, in my opinion, along with tango music.
– We need to read some of his stuff sometime… what is it about?
– Well, there’s two sides to it… one side is all about this nation, this culture: gauchos, tango, what it means to be an Argie, what it meant for him, with his English grandmother, half his life lived abroad in Switzerland, his furious opposition to nationalism, to Perón and wife Evita, and all the troubles he got into for that. The other side has nothing to do with this country or any other country. I guess the way I’d describe it is, metaphysics in bed with literature: perfectly crafted essays and tales about great philosophical ideas, archetypes, myth. Immortality, deja vu, dreams, the existence or not of God -he was an atheist-, infinity, labyrinths, memory, identity.
– You mentioned Perón, Evita… I have a vague idea of who they were… can you tell me a bit more?
– Sure. Perón was a populistic, charismatic swindle, who was elected president right after World War Two, when Argentina was at its highest point ever. I mean until then, the consensus was that this country would become something similar to Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Very stable politically, with almost no native populations to start with, very fertile soil and enormous territory, it had been receiving literally millions of mostly European immigrants since the early 1800’s. Perón and his wife, a former cabaret performer, came along and made damn sure that would never happen. A classic conman in the Latin American tradition, you know, an admirer of fascism and Mussolini, corrupt to the bone, ready to blow away the nation’s wealth buying the loyalty of the underclasses with dole and subsidies and populism… damn, Lily… don’t let me get too carried away, or I end up talking to you about isms, being the smart aleck…
– No, dude, I like it… I asked… c’mon, let’s walk, it’s cold.
It was, indeed, very cold. They had good walking shoes and excellent English sweaters and jackets they had bought in London in preparation for the Southern Hemisphere winter, and Patagonia. Raúl had also a silver flask with some single malt Scotch, and now and then in their walks around the city they would have a quick drop or two to warm up the chilled bones. While Buenos Aires doesn’t get as cold as their next destination in Welsh Patagonia, which would be buried under several feet of snow by now, the fine garúa mist and the icy winds coming straight South from Antarctica and entering the city from the waters of the River Plate were enough to make being outside a dicey experience. Yet they continued to walk, hands in pockets, stopping now and then to better appreciate an interesting detail. They were both having the best of times. Always the curious woman, she was discovering a new city and a new world, with the best possible guide, a native who had left decades ago and was as keen as she was to rediscover it all, whose patience for explanations and translations and teaching everything he knew was infinite and who actually enjoyed the questions and would carry on with the answers for hours if left to do so. Who would point to the different parts of their bodies when in bed after their wanderings, or to the objects on the café table, to teach Spanish to her, who was doing surprisingly well with it and enjoying the challenge.
– Hey Rulo, what time are we meeting Pilar?
– Matter of fact, we only have a few minutes to get there. Look, an underground entrance. Let’s go, it’s just a couple stations from here.
They came down the stairs, paid a couple coins to get to the platform, and waited for the train. It didn’t take long. They stepped in, and were the only passengers in that car. The walls and benches were polished wood, very old, the grab handles looked smooth from decades of use, the whole thing felt like a trip to the past. And it was.
– Wow, said Lily, looking around. Look at this. This thing looks a hundred years old! And it still works!
– Yeah… it’s actually older than that. This is the Linea A of the Subte, or Tube. The oldest one in South America. From Plaza de Mayo to Caballito and Flores, passing right under the Congress building. A trip, innit? Good it’s Sunday, it would be packed on a work day.
– This is amazing… I have to take some pics, she said, pulling a small digital camera out of her bag and walking around the car taking pictures of it and of the passing stations, that looked as old as the train. She also took a few of Raúl, and then set it on timer to take one of both, bathed in the yellow light from the old bulbs, sitting on that old, old wooden bench, in the empty Tube car. They still have that pic in their computers, and it’s one of their favorites. They don’t look young or particularly beautiful. They look like what they are: veterans of many battles, scarred all over, but very tender towards each other. They are even holding hands, on that one. And they never realized they were, until they downloaded the memory to the computers a few days later.
They got off the car and climbed the stairs. It was very dark outside already. They walked a block and a half to get to the restaurant where they would be having dinner with Pilar, Raúl ex-wife, who was in Buenos Aires visiting the kids, who both were students at the Universidad and perfecting their Spanish, having dual citizenship. Just before entering the old restaurant, “El Globo”, a traditional joint off of Avenida de Mayo at least as old as that underground train, Rulo took her hand in his:
– You’re OK doing this, right, L?
– Pilar is a fine woman. Don’t forget I’ve met her several times already. I have a high opinion of her.
– Me too. Good. No weirdness, then. Let’s have a good time. I’m buying.
– Fine with me. No worries, R.
Pilar was at the table already, and rose to greet them. She was still a beautiful, professional looking Puerto Rican girl at 40-something, wearing her trademark heavy rimmed glasses, that were very similar, in fact, to Lily’s. She had just gotten there and was still wearing a heavy black leather jacket, very smart. She was almost as tall as Rulo, a full head taller than Lily. The two women hugged first.
– Lily, cómo estás? How are you? It’s been a while… last time was in…
– Florida, that’s right… cómo estás tú? Que gusto de verte!
– Wow, Pilar said, looking at Rulo, she’s really gotten good at her Spanish! Good job there!
– Oh, Rulo said, kissing Pilar on both cheeks, the French way, it’s all her job, not mine. She’s been making an effort, really.
– So how are the kids?, Lily said as they all sat down.
– Great. Jack still talks about going back and joining the Marines -a shadow crossed her handsome face as she said that, and Raúl’s too-, but we’re hoping he’ll find some Argentinian girlfriend to put some sense into him.
– I’m sure he will. The women here are so beautiful…
– Hey, the men too, said Raúl, dismissing the waiter who had just brought a bottle of Spanish Jerez wine.
– Oh, shut up, both women said at the same time, and the three of them had a good laugh about that. After that, the conversation went from here to there, in English mostly, Pilar’s accent flawlessly American, Lily’s always British, effortlessly and merrily. After the Jerez, they had some Malbec, and later on, some Spanish Cava. They sampled some tapas, some octopus with yellow rice, and tortilla de patatas y chorizo. It was all very good, it was warm inside and the place wasn’t pretentious at all, just a very old fashioned family restaurant with whole hams hanging from the roof, and the same waiters for at least the last 50 years.
Raúl spotted someone he knew at the bar, and excused himself for a minute. Lily and Pilar’s eyes met over the plates, and Pilar said:
– You guys seem happy, Lily.
– We are.
– I always knew, you know. That you two would end up together. I think you were one of the very first things he told me about, before even marrying me. “Oh, you know, I knew a girl once, in Christiansands, her name is Lily and blah blah”, she said, in a voice and an accent teasingly like Rulo’s. What a way to start talking to a future wife, right. I won’t lie to you, it was very painful sometimes. Like when I asked him to get rid of your pictures, and he said he would, and never did. Just hid them somewhere, and they popped up again years later. Then, I said to him, “how would you feel if I had my old pics of my ex from college, Alan, in the computer?”, and though he tried to pretend otherwise, I could tell that he wouldn’t give a fuck about it as long as he could look at you now and then. I knew then, that you guys were meant to be together again at some point. And I think you have been really tactful and classy about it, waiting until now. Sorry. It’s the wine. Don’t take it the wrong way. I just get sad sometimes, but R and I had our good times too. Now it’s your turn, I guess. He’s quite the guy.
– Don’t be sorry, Pilar. I don’t take it the wrong way. C’est la vie, you know…
– C’est la vie indeed. Anyway, I’m happy it’s you and not some stupid 20-year old bimbo. It says something good of him, and of you. That you guys knew what you wanted, and waited for it, waited many years patiently. He’s very authentic and raw sometimes. He can be a pain in the ass, you know all about it I’m sure, he can be a real case, but I have to say, he’s very straightforward, very loyal to his feelings and emotions… I’m not sure you understand me…
– I get it, my friend. He is. It’s what I like about him. And I know for a fact he has strong feelings for you, and massive respect. We talk about it.
– Sure, Lily. Anyway… how’s your Carter doing? London, right?
– Yes, in London with his Dad now. We talk almost every day. He’s fine, thanks. In school.
Raúl came back to the table, and after a round of coffee, he paid the bill and they all left. They hugged on the sidewalk and got into different cabs, Pilar alone, he and Lily together. “Defensa y Brasil”, he told the cabbie, the old flat above the Bar Britanico.
– Raúl, she was great as usual. She’s such a fine woman, you’ve been so lucky…
– She is indeed, I agree… bittersweet, my dear… like everything in my life…because I always knew it was you, it was gonna be you in the end…
– How? How did you know that? What is it that you saw in me? I still don’t get it, and it’s been half a lifetime already.
– I’ll tell you what the most important thing about you was, or rather, what the two most important things were, when we met so many years ago, at the Young Pioneers Farm. I was a joyless kind of young man before. So full of himself and his travels and his intellectual ideas and all that, of the tragic in life and what the great thinkers and philosophers had thought about it, that he didn’t have a clue what laughing was. Some kind of too serious, too full of himself fellow, with too much Jim Morrison and Rimbaud and Herman Hesse inside him for his own good. And a rather short, rather petite redheaded girl showed up, and she was laughing. I mean she was laughing. At the world, at herself, at him. She was making monkey faces and not taking anything too seriously and cracking fart jokes and singing loud and… she really showed me a thing or two about having a sense of humor and not taking myself so damn seriously… which is all very ironic, because in the end I also cried a lot over her, but the sense of humor stayed with me forever. And really changed who I was for the next few decades. I could be hurting inside, but I knew how to make fun of myself and of others, and have a good time, and that’s all you, Lily. I don’t think I really knew how to laugh before meeting you, all my girlfriends were chain smoking, coffee swilling existentialists in black outfits, and I guess I was like that too.
– Wow, Rulo… very surprising… I would have never guessed… I’m honored, I really am. Wow…. but you mentioned two things, what’s the other?
– The other thing, my dear Lily, is that before you I had never known what Love with a capital L was, and after you it never came back. It was a once in a lifetime thing. The second I saw you eyes, I knew I was doomed for life. It’s a tragic thing, or a sickness, or I don’t know what. I just knew it. And I know now. I know I’ll be with you for however many years on this Earth I have left. You were never meant to be my wife or the mother of my children. You were meant to be the last friend and lover I’d have in my lifetime, if I was lucky. And I’ve always been a lucky fellow.
– R, I feel lucky too. Hug me, babe.
They were almost there. Just three more corners, Garay, Bolivar, Brasil, and they would be there. The cabbie had the radio on, he was listening to the tango FM station, probably one of the few left, everything was cumbia and techno now. Very cold outside…