ver wonder about the life of the person you always see alone in the back corner of your neighborhood cafˇ with nothing but a small, obscure paperback and a large cup of coffee? You know heÕs neither studying nor working. HeÕs just reading, and occasionally looking up to peek at his neighbor. You canÕt help but wonder what sorrows he bears or what disappointments heÕs had. You never think of his life as happy, interesting, or exciting, but rather sad, uneventful, boring, and safe, as depressing as that may sound. YouÕll wonder all these very things about Paul and youÕll be right in guessing he has a sad story, but youÕd never fathom the depth or intensity of his afflictions.
Paul doesnÕt read, not really. HeÕs mostly preoccupied with looking busy and pretending to immerse himself into an old classic, which heÕs already pretended to read at least three hundred and twenty times. Not knowing what to do, or where to go, stresses him to no end. The idle and lonesome nature of his heart terrifies him; he feels powerless to its doom. The idea of going to a movie or a restaurant is completely out of the question. He canÕt admit neither to the world nor himself that heÕs desperate enough to be out in public on his own. Likewise, he wonÕt see a play, walk to the museum, or do anything. He has no special interests or hobbies. All he does is sit at the Village Cafˇ and pretend to read when in fact heÕs wondering if heÕll ever be part of the living, instead of the passive bystander he really is. In truth, heÕs lost all zest for life and his profound shame is insufficient to breed the life-giving spark and energy he needs to break from the chains of his karma.
ItÕs not always obvious but his right hand is never bare. It carries an old, worn, and tattered black wooden cross. He keeps it with him no matter where he goes. His hand is so used to the one-inch artifact that it feels naked and lost without its polished, rounded edges carving the deep and well-defined trenches of his palm – and of his heart. HeÕs consequently forced himself to do everything with his left hand, from brushing his teeth and combing his hair to opening and closing doors, holding a book, and drinking coffee. Not even the somber dreams of the evening stars liberate him from the fate and memory of his cross. Only bathroom showers bear witness to the spectacle of his bare right hand, and thatÕs only because heÕs afraid the cross will crumble and surrender its life to the devastating power of running water. The crucifix has never left his side, not since he grabbed it six years ago.
Paul works at ShenÕs Laundromat from nine in the morning until six at night, Monday through Saturday. ItÕs only two blocks away from his tiny one-bedroom studio and next door to the Village Cafˇ. An old Taiwanese couple owns the establishment. They are both very friendly but difficult to understand and therefore poor company for Paul.
On Sundays, he wakes up between noon and one oÕclock in the afternoon, after tossing and turning in bed for almost an hour. He eats a cold ham and cheese sandwich and heads over to the Village Cafˇ roughly between three-thirty and four in the afternoon. Like a vagrant, aimlessly, without energy, and without purpose, he strolls slowly to the cafˇ. He takes a full half-hour to get there, when it couldÕve taken him twelve minutes. He finishes the day just like any other: on the outdoor patio of the cafˇ with a cold, poorly nursed cup of coffee and the same old paperback in hand.
WhatÕs interesting or rather tragic is that his life used to be very different. Paul wasnÕt always the loner he is today. He had the inexplicable spark that lunges most of us through our inner wall of fears and into the world of the living. He was the head bouncer of an extremely popular downtown cabaret called Paris at the Pine. He earned a good living and met many interesting people, from beautiful, dashing women and loud, insufferable artists to business executives and rich, eccentric athletes. Some might even say he had a wild life: drinking and partying every night and barely sleeping in between.
One Saturday night, over six years ago, the nightclub hosted a private party for a trendy Latin American pop star. It was wild! The club played a lot of salsa and merengue that night, but mostly the guests themselves played and sang their own songs, which ranged from flamenco and cumbia to tango and bolero. The wildest of them all was El Cat’re. He was the son of a rich Argentine ambassador who danced like a brute and drank like a horse. So much so, in fact, that he passed out and fell off the second-floor balcony into a cold and murky swimming pool. Paul happened to be nearby and dove after the drowning drunk, saving the happy fool from a flashy, premature death.
El Cat’re, sober and thankful, returned the following night to give Paul two thousand dollars in cash and an open round-trip ticket to Argentina for saving his life. He also arranged for the club to grant Paul a one-month vacation for his trip. Needless to say, Paul thanked the young man, took the money and the ticket, and ran off to the southern continent.
He slept in the plane more than he ever had. He daydreamed about a trip he never expected and a culture heÕd never seen. He didnÕt realize that in a city like Buenos Aires heÕd stand out like a teddy bear in the wild. He wasnÕt a savvy traveler and felt uncomfortable in the middle of foreign-speaking crowds. Nevertheless, he convinced himself to make the most of the trip and enjoyed visiting La Recoleta and other parts of the illustrious city, but La Boca tickled his fancy the most.
He went to a small, cozy, out-of-the-way tango club filled with music, smoke, and Argentine flavor. The women wore black knee-high skirts, high heels, black stockings, and alluring silk blouses. The men complemented them with dark slacks, black dress shoes, and loose, light-colored shirts. They all seemed to know each other. They danced all the time and very seldom sat for a momentÕs rest. They occasionally switched dance partners – not by convention but spontaneously – yielding to the musicÕs natural rhythm and persuasive will. It was obvious they went there to dance. They werenÕt really interested in gossiping, socializing, or drinking, although that didnÕt mean these were totally excluded.
Before Paul could even order a drink, a striking, tall, slender, brunette grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the back corner of the club and onto the dance floor. She had soft, delicate features accentuated by long, thick, wavy, shoulder-length, pitch-black hair. In broken English and with a soft, half-embarrassed tone, she introduced herself as Ana Cristina.
SheÕd realized Paul was American the minute he stepped into the club and immediately thought of practicing her English-speaking skills with the stranger. She had learned English from her aunt long before, when she was just a teenager. Her uncle was a diplomat and would always travel with his family to the United States and Canada, and sometimes heÕd take Ana Cristina along for the summer.
They hit it off from the start, from the moment they touched. New, fresh, and unapologetically exhilarating sensations of love, joy, and peace all of a sudden sparked to life. The relationship was electric. They couldnÕt keep their eyes off each other and they grinned obnoxiously with untamed, unabashed joy. TheyÕd go to the park near La Recoleta at least once a day to drink Matˇ on the lawn and whisper sweet nothings into each otherÕs ears. Ana Cristina loved cafˇs and took Paul to all her favorite ones in the city. They hopped carelessly from one to the other. They were inseparable.
She taught Paul how to tango and took him to every club in town. TheyÕd even dance on the streets by El Obelisco or on whatever plazita they happened to be on. They glowed with elated joy and showed each other deeply rooted affection. PaulÕs life suddenly took direction. It now had both meaning and purpose. Ana Cristina awakened in him a keen sense of taste, not to mention love.
On the fourth Thursday, like on many other occasions, they strolled placidly along Avenida 9 de Julio around eleven oÕclock at night. They thought the night had magical qualities, which made their time together all the more special. Quite unexpectedly, when they were already half an hour into the walk, a red, clunking motorcycle slid on the gravel and cut them off in a screeching halt. Just as the man riding the two-wheel monster planted his feet on the ground, he jammed his hand into his side pocket and quickly pulled out an old rusty revolver. He managed to convey a few instructions amid a bombardment of obscure, incoherent obscenities. Paul instantly grabbed Ana Cristina by her waist and pulled her behind him to keep her away from their assailant. He then took off his wristwatch and pulled out whatever pesos he could muster.
The mugger was very jumpy. He had a wrinkled, red T-shirt, bleached blue jeans, and a dirty gray fleece with a strange red and white logo on the side. His gibberish was very difficult to discern, but his meaning was obvious. He spoke in a loud, high-pitched voice, which wavered in both volume and tone, with little resonance but great force. His hands shook so much that the tip of his gun swung back and forth in front of PaulÕs face like a pendulum.
Ana Cristina, of course, was nervous and scared. The fact that she couldnÕt see around PaulÕs broad shoulders worsened her anguish. She instinctively reacted by tiptoeing up and sneaking a glance over PaulÕs right shoulder. This caught the thief off-guard and made his gun suddenly jerk in her direction, at which point, his right index finger twitchedÉcausing the gun to fireÉ
The bullet flew straight into Ana CristinaÕs eye socket and through her head. Paul instantly turned and caught her as she fell. Out of desperation, without thinking, Paul ripped off his shirt and used it to plug the holes in her head, but the bleeding didnÕt stop. The thief, perplexed, reflexively dropped the loot, stashed the gun back into his jacket, and peeled off into the dead of night.
Paul wept incurably. He held Ana Cristina tight against his chest, against the rocking thumps of his rapidly beating heart. By the time the police and the ambulance arrived, it was all over. Ana Cristina was already a lifeless corpse, and the mugger was long gone. The policemen found Paul wrapped around Ana CristinaÕs body like a vine. A broth-like mix of blood, sweat, and tears soaked his quivering body from head to toe. As the medics peeled him off, her purse rolled to the side and a black rosary fell to the floor, and into PaulÕs right hand.
Today, only the cross remains, worn and faded but strong and solid as ever. The string of beads that bounded it together broke off a long time ago. The crucifix lives with Paul, in his right hand, encrusted in his palm and in his soul. It condemns Paul to the life of a recluse, to the life of the random, lonely stranger you see reading an old book and nursing a cold cup of coffee at the neighborhood cafˇ. He may be in his own country now, but his soul has never escaped the bars of that black crucifix, within which lives the bloody memory of both the most intense and the most agonizing love affair one could ever imagine.