03 Oct City of Winter
A short psychological novel set in the illusory splendor of Latin America in the 1970s, “City in Winter” details the existential crisis of a protagonist who risks his personal security when he gives shelter to an executive who is on the run from the law.
City of Winter
by Abdón Ubidia
Translated by Nathan Horowitz
What people call bad luck is actually something that we keep inside ourselves at all times. It’s like a sum of money that’s not written down on the balance sheet of a company. Sometimes when we’re distracted or bored, we take a single coin out of that secret fund and use it to make a small wager with death. It’s a harmless game, of course. The risk is so small that we have every chance of winning.
I step on the gas when the light turns red because I know I’m in a part of town where there’s not much traffic. I point a gun at my head and pull the trigger because I remember clearly that it’s not loaded. The “risk” is little more than an illusion. I haven’t won anything, but I’ve won the illusion that I’ve won. It’s like playing Russian roulette with a revolver that has a million empty chambers. Maybe this begins to explain why I brought Santiago into my home.
We were seated at one of the outdoor tables at the café we always went to. Looking, talking, listening, between sips of beer or of cappuccino that had already grown cold, its foam hardened around the edge of a crystal cup. Young people and not-so-young people, passing by along the happy avenue, graceful, modern, carefree, looking for a place to sit in that café or in the restaurant next door. The style of the moment dressed them in clothing that was deliberately poor-looking, and light.
One could see this especially on the girls: blue jeans, sandals, sometimes a light blouse wrapped around a body that was almost always attractive and flexible. I’m speaking, of course, of what we preferred to see. And there were tourists, hippies, wanderers of all kinds. It was a nice place. The tables had colorful parasols, and amid them grew two trees that had their trunks whitewashed with chalk.
On the other side of the dense lines of cars was the supermarket, and above that rose the gothic towers of the nearby church. In the sunset it was lovely to see them bristling up against the blushing sky. One day I thought that I would have time to speak of the fantastic sunsets of my city. I even created a phrase to use on some special occasion, because in those days I didn’t fear the affectation that I considered an occupational hazard for any conversationalist.
The phrase went, “There will always be a blushing sunset to save us from death.” I never had the opportunity to say it. It’s that there were so many things to talk about. Starting with the city, suddenly modernized, in which it was no longer possible to recognize the traces of the town it had been not so long before. No nuns, no narrow alleyways, no tiny plazas paved with cobblestones.
These were the days of concrete overpasses, avenues and glass highrises. The old town stayed behind, in the South, while the city reared up among the mountains to the North, as if fleeing from itself, from its past. In the South, everything was grimy, old and poor, it was everything we wanted to forget. In the North was all that exciting modernity whose strange ecstasy could be perceived in the shop display cases adorned with posters in psychedelic colors, and in the new discotheques where those same colors flashed like lightning to the sound of the driving rhythms of drum sets and electric guitars.
You could see the modernity in the long tresses and the afros of the kids who greeted each other from windows of their cars with their thumbs raised, pointing to the sky, as if to say, “Everything’s on its way up,” because, in fact, everything was on its way up, and not only the buildings and the business deals, but also what Santiago called people’s “vital experiences.”
“It’s the oil,” Andrés would pronounce, slowly releasing his words, wrapping them in the great spirals of smoke from his black cigarettes. It’s not that we thought he was mistaken, but Andrés was one of those solemn and transcendental men who descend into the depths of their souls just to tell you good morning. And that invited us to rebut him without paying much attention to the validity of his opinions. In the end, we were just having a conversation.
So one of us would shoot back, “It’s not that, bro, it’s the whole new era!” At which point the others would add new arguments that allowed us to enjoy, to savor, to fall in love with that phrase that seemed to be made of echoes—the new era!—, and which was able to sum up, in itself, a whole diverse group of phenomena, and present them in definitive form as an unmistakable lifestyle, a way of laughing and suffering, living and dying, unmistakable.
Once we had talked about it that way, there was no need to evoke the habitual and borrowed example of the fin de siècle or the Roaring Twenties; there was no need, but in the evening, watching the sun set could get boring sometimes, and we had to avoid those regions of conversation within which too long a silence could fall, so we spoke of the can-can and the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, or Chicago and the gangsters, or the infinite tenderness of Charlie Chaplin.
All this helped us reach the conclusion that in that city, it was our turn to experience, in our own way, a special age with its own system of signs and meanings, a belle époque of our own. It had changed the city, it had broken into our lives, turning everything around, inflicting upon us a fabulous confusion, as a result of which nothing would ever be the same again.
And the only thing that we managed to understand, surrounded by all that chaos, was that we moved as if lost in a vertiginous, draining, almost anguished search for happiness. That was what dragged us to the parties and the drinking binges, the movie theaters and the restaurants, the marijuana sometimes and the alcohol almost always. Meanwhile the city was overflowing its edges, the dirty and clean investments were shaking the cash registers of the rich, the roulette wheels in the casinos spun tirelessly, and our lives and the lives of the people we knew acquired unimagined forms.
There was one who blew his mind on drugs. Another didn’t stop until he was a millionaire. Many more were on their way to becoming millionaires. Still another one after becoming a millionaire suddenly lost all his money. Of course, some suicide attempts took place, but the most frequent result was what we used to call a “couple crisis,” a blanket term that included divorces, separations, reunions, adulteries and other conjugal catastrophes. Couple crises propagated themselves across the city like a virus. So much exterior change seemed to demand alterations and readjustments even in people’s intimate lives.
Within this framework it was comprehensible that someone, deliberately or not, would in some way embody all the transformations of the new era. That was Santiago. Now, leaning toward the center of the table, among whispers, hints, key words and worried faces, we spoke about his strange fate, or, better, about his strange behavior. Today I would define Santiago as a cynic, an egotist, and a megalomaniac. In those days, I rejected such epithets.
I considered them inevitably charged with an empty moralism that defines nothing apart from the ill will of those who employ them. Today, on the other hand, I prefer to use them without thinking about them. And I add that he never knew either loyalty or shame. Three marriages, three divorces, and an involvement in some shady business deals did not prevent him from building a solid career as an executive with entrepreneurial aspirations.
Sometimes he dropped by the cafe, good humored, carefree, but with an edge to him. He would tell a couple of jokes, describe his new projects, and then depart with a witticism that was almost always ironic. We would watch him thread his way between the tables, get in his new car, and speed off in a squeal of tires. “He’s a social climber,” we would say, or think, as if the phrase meant anything other than that we envied him; our envy, in turn, was a mix of a little nostalgia and a little bitterness.
Suddenly, the news came: Santiago a fugitive: he had written checks with no funds on various accounts and for large sums, and had signed promissory notes with what we supposed were huge interest rates. All that to cover other accounts and other IOUs which, according to the rumors, all came due at the same time. The illegal business in which he had been involved was denounced to the police by an ex-partner, and when everything started coming down on his head, he had no choice but to sign other promissory notes and flee.
I should mention that we were not scandalized by the deed itself—the fact that he had swindled people, or committed fraud, if you will. In the new city it seemed that everyone was swindling someone, according to their individual initiative. Some more, some less, it’s only natural. Some people didn’t play that game, of course. I’m probably exaggerating, but that’s the impression I had. There was no other way to explain so much waste, so much impetuous, accelerated splendor.
The Argentines who used to sit at a nearby table would drawl, “Look, man, look, this is the city with the most Mercedes Benzes per person that I’ve ever seen, man,” and at that moment a magnificent Mercedes would glide down the avenue with someone smiling inside. Furthermore, there were many, many tales told of dirty dealings in the city. So one more swindle didn’t scandalize us.
Even the fact that Santiago had committed it seemed logical to me. The strange thing was how he had done it. In that crude, clumsy, makeshift way. Without any kind of precautions, without thinking of an escape route, an emergency door that could save him if the business turned out badly. The strange thing was the audacious and irresponsible way he had carried it out, like a gambler who throws the dice knowing that disgrace or fortune depend on the instant in which the little cubes stop moving and remain motionless with the conclusive, definitive faces on top.
No. Santiago had not planned any escape routes.
Now we didn’t know what to do with him. Andrés couldn’t keep him more than a couple of days. People were always going to his house. With the police and the creditors on his trail, it wasn’t safe. There were two or three of us possible hosts for him. At least until Andrés could find a way to get him out of the country. We couldn’t count on Manuel, who was not present. That left Fausto, Rodrigo and me.
It would have been easy to say anything, to give any pretext, to elude the responsibility of giving him refuge with an obvious and at the same time unappealable lie. To say that there wasn’t enough space, that an aunt was coming to stay, even that we were moving house, et cetera. After all, there wasn’t much that tied us to Santiago: just some evenings at the café; a pair of disdainful opinions that we coldly shared about the modern age, to which we gave little credibility; and, of course, the factor that matters least in such cases, the memory of a now-distant past that we had shared.
But instead of answering Andrés, we preferred to remain indecisive, keep watching the street, and make quiet, inarticulate comments about the whole Santiago situation, basically avoiding specifying anything. Would it be appropriate to call it fear, the thing that kept Rodrigo, Fausto and me from making up our minds?
Fear of having problems with the police, of being charged with obstructing justice, of finding ourselves mixed up in a terrible situation? Fear of finding that we were afraid? Maybe not. Maybe it didn’t go that far, maybe it was only detachment, disinterest, negligence. But that indefinability weighed on us. A good observer would have seen it. We all had the same lethargy, the same torpid way of smoking and sipping, the same exaggerated sorrow on our faces as we avoided each other’s eyes.
“It’s OK, he can come to my place,” I said, almost without thinking. Of course, I must have thought about it. Looking at the circumstances abstractly, Santiago had shown himself capable of betting everything on a good or bad throw of the dice. And he had lost. It was the right thing to lend him a hand. In the face of his boldness, to spend some time looking after him, to wager a single coin from the personal fund that I mentioned earlier, and bring him home, really wasn’t a whole lot. Apart from that, one can never avoid having twisted thoughts.
Let me explain. When a beloved grandfather is dying, it’s impossible not to think of the good that will come of it: an inheritance. I believe that example is not new, but it serves to illustrate perfectly the nature of twisted thinking. Our so-called higher principles aid us in controlling our twisted thinking; but there it is, with its claws buried deep in our brains, and the fact that we try to drive it away doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
So at the same time as I let myself be carried away by the desire to help Santiago, I must also have seen clearly the events that rendered that assistance necessary: his sudden financial and legal collapse, that whole sick joke that had dropped him on his face—everything that at that moment had made Santiago into little more than his own corpse; in short, the spectacle of Santiago without those relationships he had cultivated, without his dizzying lifestyle, without his business trips, without his projects.
Susana accepted reluctantly. “It’s fine,” she said, but I could tell that she was debating between contradictory sentiments. On the one hand, there was Santiago, an old friend from when we were teenagers (though she hadn’t seen him for years), the ex-husband of Paulina, her best friend (also lost from sight at that point), a witness of the first times we had gone out together; and, on the other hand, there were the natural concerns of a housewife: the uncertainty, the fear of confronting an unforeseen situation. Yes, it was evident that she had her own twisted thoughts, though they were different from mine.
The next night Santiago came to our house. Andrés brought him, perhaps with excessive precautions. At around midnight we heard the iron gate open and footsteps crossing the patio. The taps on the kitchen window sounded just afterwards. Susana and I had been waiting up for a long time, yawning, sometimes making suspicious comments about Santiago, sometimes trying to link those comments to some remote memory of the old days, but failing to gain an understanding of this new figure of a Santiago who was capable of quick takeoffs and crash landings, of splendor and collapse, of the pinnacle and the abyss.
When he entered he seemed jovial, almost happy. He was followed by Andrés, who bore an unopened bottle of cognac. Wrapped in a very fine, expensive, black overcoat, in what must have been the latest fashion, Santiago made himself comfortable in a corner of the kitchen and as if he were unaware of the situation—that is, his situation—he initiated a discussion that was sometimes sparkling, sometimes trivial, full of questions and surprised gestures, an amiable chat of old friends who run into each other again after many years and who don’t manage to find the common ground they had once shared.
He asked about our lives, about the children, about our plans and projects for the future, things it had never occurred to him to ask me about on other occasions. He looked at everything. He seemed to be making an inventory of what was around him. It’s not that the house was badly furnished. The middle class tends to standardize its tastes and at the same time to dissimulate that uniformity. And that was our house. Modern furniture, carpets, lamps and a bar, pictures on the walls (among which was a kind of still life, sketched in the advertising agency where I worked, which I kept with me partly because I liked it and partly to displace the inevitable Last Supper embossed in silvered metal, a gift of Susana’s mother).
And amid all that, unique details: a few antique porcelain figurines, a floor lamp entirely of crystal, and a very old piece of furniture expressly placed in the corner to insinuate a remote connection to the old days, a connection that of course might not really have existed at all. I wouldn’t say that in those days our house was a very poor one. But in the avid gaze of Santiago I read what he, perhaps unconsciously, wished me to read: his pretended surprise, his feigned incomprehension. He seemed to be saying: “But how is it possible to be so conservative? Nothing has changed in your lives.” Later, at around four in the morning, when there wasn’t much left in the bottle of cognac, I was able to verify my perception.
Andrés had departed, as grave and profound as ever—although his tiredness and successive yawns had somewhat damaged his composure—with the promise to take him out of the country in two weeks. When I closed the door to the street, Santiago wasted no time before coming out with a sarcastic comment: “There goes the soul of safety, the sultan of security!”
Apparently, to Santiago, Andrés’s arguments for not continuing to keep him in his house carried no weight. He never believed that the number of people who came and went all the time over there would be a real obstacle to his remaining. He looked down on Andrés, and in his scorn, he saw him in the midst of a colorless world of simple accomplishments, defending, at all costs, what Santiago called his “security,” a word in which Santiago packed everything that implied a lack of risk, everything that was measured and programmed within men; that is to say, within the context of the strange moral scale that at that point I distinguished in him, “security” implied all that was cowardly and pathetic.
He added something else. I don’t recall it clearly now. In any case, I think he used the word “predictable.” I think he spoke of a predictable family, a predictable future, a predictable house—everything that was done intentionally, deliberately. He said that, but there was no bitterness in his voice. On the contrary, his scorn for Andrés seemed accompanied by a little bit of sorrow. And he spoke very well, as if trying to find definitions, to make concepts precise. Back in his armchair, despite the advanced hour, with his hands closed about the cup of cognac, his voice soft, his conversation flowing, almost friendly, he looked at Susana and me as one looks at a pair of secure confidantes with whom one needs to hold nothing back.
But I saw that behind his gaze, in his heart of hearts, as he was defining Andrés, he was also defining us. And I rediscovered, with each of his words, that first tiny recognition that he had when he entered our house. It was also a predictable house. And Susana was a predictable wife. Or so it seemed to him. In those moments I saw Santiago playing the role of an odd kind of judge. We were the ones being judged, there was no doubt about that. Recovered now from the first impact of not having found in him anything resembling the fallen angel that I imagined when I decided to put him up, I had time to observe him better.
Completely disconnected from reality, or from that which others understood to be his reality, the man was dedicated to living out his own personal legend. He had made of his life a kind of epic journey in which his present ruination was nothing but another bump in the road. Santiago was his own hero. He walked his walk, he liked it, he justified it and he glorified it with concepts like “vital experiences,” “life,” “the authentic,” “bravery and audacity.”
Seeing him like that, hearing him like that, enormous in the middle of that conceited, ostentatious personal space, in the middle of that mythology that he created around him, what an urge I had to tell him to shut up, stop all this gesturing, come back to reality, start thinking clearly, evaluate things correctly. In any case I remained silent. It wasn’t the most appropriate moment to say anything to him. Apart from the fact that words like clarity and reason were simply not in his vocabulary. I had figured that out. It was useless to debate with him. The deliberately charming tone of his voice itself prevented me.
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