Saturday, December 27, 2008

you've known it all the time, I'm learning it these days

This is not what I should be writing about, to be certain. I should be writing about the sunburn on my nose this afternoon, how a humid sweat is welcome after a summer in the desert, a fall and winter in the bitter cold. I should write about how Spain becomes Argentina and Argentina becomes Spain, how Barrio Retiro becomes Buen Retiro and suddenly I am not so sure where I am. Am I in Madrid or Buenos Aires? When you're alone, your mind can play tricks on you. I guess that's what I'm writing about.

It was the same time of year. Many, many, I don't even know how many years ago now. What I like to call my year of great upheaval. Up until November, I had been teetering too high, floating like a balloon waiting to be popped. By December, the deflation had started, but I was not ready to fall. Going home, being alone in the company of multitudes of uncles and aunties with their interrogations and pitiful looks, it was too much. It would have been the pin that burst the bubble, and I would have hurtled down to the ground with too much force.

I have always worried that I have a little too much of my father in me. Once, on a lark, he drove from Chicago to LA to visit his brother. This was in the 60s and he barely had enough money for gas. It is one of those stories that is always told in my family with a laugh, but is then followed by a pause and a shake of the head.

Me, I hopped on a train and went off to Montreal. In the dead of December, when no one thinks of vacationing in Montreal. My first (and come to think of it, only) trip wholly and completely alone. On the train ride up, three friendly Canadian brothers gathered around me and gave me a slew of tips about the city. One of them was a medical student and gave me his number in case I wanted to go to Musee des beaux-arts while I was in town. I threw his number away, but I did go to the museum.

After recovering from the chilling 10-minute walk from my hotel to the museum, I settled in. In one room was a temporary installation of Goya's Los Caprichos. It's weird how I have forgotten a lot of that trip, but that little set of Goya prints stuck in my head. Lead was starting to fill the balloon. I was walking through the simple, spare room, the weight of Goya's prints slowly chipping away at me. It was so cynical, so inevitable. It was a giant dose of who are you kidding.

It was one print in particular, titled Tal Para Qual that had done me in. They were all, every single one of the prints, indictments, but this one had forced me to sit down. Tal Para Qual, a simple enough statement, a couple that seemed right and happy. But looking at it more closely broke the illusion to pieces. The man was a scoundrel, the woman was a coquette.

Tal Para Qual. Easy come, easy go. Who are you kidding? Goya had meant to have just this effect, to shine a nasty, fluorescent-lit mirror on what everyone took as a matter of course. Of course the bubble was going to burst, of course the balloon was careening towards the ground. I drank two glasses of Cotes du Rhone that night and scrawled in a moleskin: I hope that's not us. But what I really meant to write is: I hope that's not me. I already knew one half of that picture fit just a little too well.

And all of this may seem rather irrelevant, and I assure you it is. Except that I was walking through Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes today, turned a corner, and was nearly knocked over by the sight of Tal Para Qual staring me in the face. In Buenos Aires. Pero por que no? I stood and stared at it, and found that it no longer had the same impact on me.

I said before that you can lose track of time and place when you're alone, and that's true. But, while I confused Buenos Aires for Madrid, I did not mistake that moment in the museum with the one when I was looking at the same print in Montreal. It was two different, distinct me's staring at that print. Two different, distinct feelings about it. That younger, deflated version of me had written: I hope that's not us. I looked at it today and thought: That's sometimes all of us.


Despite the impression this post may give, I really adore Buenos Aires. People are not as friendly as they were in Peru, probably because they figure they don't have to be, what with their dashing good looks. There are alfajores everywhere. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to figure out what I'm going to be doing in my kitchen when I return. I'll write more about Buenos Aires itself tomorrow. I just got back from a long walk and needed to let this out.

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