NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD

¡Bienvenidos a Buenos Aires!
Now, put your hands up.

 

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By Billy Frierson | A semester abroad in Buenos Aires: it was the escape I had been craving my entire collegiate career. Six months of carefree living in a country where a glass of red accompanies every meat-filled meal and beautiful people smoke cigarettes by the carton. I imagined myself studying in smoky cafés, gazing out from balconies onto sunset cityscapes, and perfecting my Spanish over exotic liqueurs in the company of some immaculately complexioned Argentinean paramour.

Two months into my stay and the trip was, in its own way, measuring up to my lofty expectations. My host-mother’s love life was as drama-packed as a primetime telenovela tryst. My literature classes proved to be pleasurably demanding, with the emphasis on pleasure. My sketchbook had blossomed into a chaotic collection of daily observations, silly doodles, and class notes.

Time to write a letter to Mother.

Like almost everything I do, I make little events out of letter-writing. I’ll gather my things, settle down in a quaint coffee shop, and imagine that I am scribing by candlelight, an ink-soaked quill in one hand and a yellowed scroll of parchment in the other. It’s an image that’s much more pleasing than that of a pale boy slouching over a glowing screen. So it was with that mentality that I walked two blocks from my apartment, along the cobblestoned Juramento Avenue, in search of a café to serve my letter-writing needs.

The rustic sign read QUO VADIS - CAFE & RESTO. It was a small place and empty except for a chef, busboy, and waitress. The coffees were fairly priced and the ambiance ideal: low mood lighting, white tile floors, a striking painting of three boats sailing toward the viewer under an orange sky. (I imagined them to be the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, dutifully carrying a band of savage Europeans across the Atlantic to wreak havoc on a world of unobtrusive indigenous civilizations.)

I sat, ordered a cafe con leche, and unpacked my laptop. The letter poured out of me with ease. I smiled as I read it over, imagining how pleased my mother would be with her globetrotting son, how proud she would be that he had plumped up on roquefort empanadas (that dreamlike marriage of bleu cheese and fried dough), and how relieved she would be to learn that he had rediscovered his trademark thriftiness. My laptop, after an hour and a half of writing, was losing battery life, so I left the patio and plugged in at a booth inside. I smiled at the waitress, trying to entice her with my curls, and she responded with a fresh tray of star-shaped galletitas. I dipped my newly acquired cookies into what was left of my third coffee.
Then two men walked in. They stopped right between my table and the reception desk. Young, clad in black but well dressed, clean-shaven, and relatively good-looking, they stood there for a moment as though expecting something. The man farthest from me, maybe three feet away, pulled a pistol out of his coat pocket.

A pistol. The gun was black and old-fashioned with a revolving bullet cartridge and antique etchings on the handle. When the arm bearer looked at me, his face seemed to say, “Look what I have.”

Things moved quickly. The man with the gun slipped behind the counter to confront the chef and busboy, who fumbled to direct him toward the cash register. The second man turned to me and placed his hands on my laptop. My fingers were sitting on the keys, still in mid-sentence, when I raised my head to size up the intruder. The blow to my face came before our eyes could meet. It was a back-handed strike, somewhere between a slap and a punch, the kind a movie-land husband gives his wife after she asks where he’s been all night. It was executed brilliantly: his arm drawn back, hand cupped so as to accentuate his knuckles, the curved trajectory of his forearm. He connected with my right cheekbone and everyone turned when they heard it. The pain never hit me but the sound rang out like a struck bell. It was in that moment, with his victim recovering from the blow, that the prick closed my laptop, nabbed my charger, and snatched the bag sitting between my legs.

Fear was not what I felt. Nor panic, nor anger. Only the overwhelming sensation: Why? When I first saw the weapon, I did not think, “OH MY GOD HE HAS A GUN!” but rather, “Is that a gun? What are they doing with one of those here? Oh, look how pretty it is.”

Just having been assaulted and robbed, I remained surprisingly calm. Strangely indifferent. Removed, almost. I looked around to see exactly what was happening, mull over my options, and assess just how dangerous these two men were. The second man was still fiddling with the cash register, opting to remove the entire machine from the counter rather than simply plundering its contents. Meanwhile, my new friend was stringing my bag strap around his shoulder. In it was everything I held dear: my sketchbook, my iPod, my class notes, my Mac. Every record of my experience abroad—thoughts, memories, musings—was neatly tucked inside that bag. I whistled a high note and he turned to me. In all honesty, I have no idea why I whistled. I am not a whistler. But I got what I was after: eye contact.

His eyes were blue and large, something rare in this country, and we shared about 30 seconds locked together before he averted his eyes and turned back to his amigo struggling with the cash register. The thief began to manically tap his foot. I had won.

He was nervous and I knew it. His body language betrayed him. It was clear he wasn’t going to kill us, or even hurt us too badly. Amateurs. Even so, we were essentially helpless to resist them: a fat chef, an ordinary waitress, a skinny busboy, and an even skinnier foreign patron. But we were not completely helpless. I cleared my throat and focused my eyes on the squirming thief.

Disculpame, señor,” I said. My voice was loud and lyrical, a schtick I usually reserve for the stage, and I began my performance.

“Why?” I declaimed, my less-than-perfect Spanish accent revealing my foreignness.

The thief turned to me, saying nothing. The simplicity of the question had startled him.

“Listen good,” I continued. “In my bag there is something to me very special.  A book of drawings. That which has an emotional value for me but a monetary cost of nothing. I would like it.”

He sneered. “Oh, you would like it?”

“Yes. A funny thing for someone to ask for what is already his. You think not?”

Again, the man said nothing but this time looked taken aback. A foreigner had dared to question the authority of an armed intruder. He rummaged through my bag and placed my drawing pad before me. He did it gently. I had his attention now and, once again, his eyes. I straightened my back, clenched my toes, and, emboldened by my foe’s recent concession, summoned a bravado I had only ever displayed while standing alone in front of my bedroom mirror.

“Are you without shame?”

The man hesitated, looking down at his arms filled with just about everything I owned, and seemed to consider responding for a moment. But it was only a moment because now he sprang to the counter, banging his flat palm on the marble and saying, “Quickly, quickly, quickly!”

His partner dislodged the cash register and they ran out the door, leaving with everything. I stood and watched them hook a hard left and scurry, as I imagined it, into a waiting getaway hatchback. Sitting back down, I felt not violated but contemplative and, to be quite honest, a little pleased with myself. I had not squawked, not cried, not broke into wild hysterics or fits of rage. I had remained alert but calm and continued to think.

The waitress fell to her knees and broke down in tears. The fat chef yelled to the busboy, “CLOSE THE DOOR! CLOSE THE DOOR!” Then everyone, excluding me, began doing what looked like a free-form Hokey Pokey—grabbing their arms, gesturing toward the sky, and circling each other while making strange grunts and growls. As they continued this strange dance, clasping foreheads and embracing one other, they kept turning to me saying, “Tranquilo, tranquilo.” But I was fine. They were the ones who needed the morphine.

Like clockwork we all stepped outside to share a cigarette. We were four people sucking down smoke and blowing it toward the sky while rubbing our eyes. I felt close to them all. After we did four rundowns of what just happened, each of us retelling the experience from our own self-centered points of view, they asked me what I was thinking. Why wasn’t I crying? Hadn’t I lost everything?

All I did was shrug.

That’s when I showed them the sketchbook I had salvaged. Its pages were filled with contorted creatures, oversized boobies, and fat stomachs. They laughed. I laughed. And then we all started to talk, in a warmer register than we had before. “Bienvenido a Buenos Aires,” the waitress said coyly. She was eager to practice her English and I was glad to help her. Laughter and smiles broke out only minutes after this violent and cruel experience. The busboy brought out a bottle of caramel-flavored liqueur and three glasses. None of us could ignore the odd humor of our present situation, and our common losses brought us together: the waitress had lost her purse and phone, the chef his wallet, the café had lost 2,000 pesos, and the busboy had lost the iPhone he had saved up to buy just two days before. But none of that seemed to matter. We were still standing, still breathing, and, after all, there was a bottle of exotic booze on the table before us.

“Cheers to us and not them,” I declared. And we drank.


Billy Frierson C’11 graduated in May.
 
     
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/24/11