The apartment was, as usual, perfect. Wherever he went in the world he always seemed to land in the right place with the right people. Right for him, that is, because obviously everything is relative. There were probably lots of people who wouldn’t have wanted to trade their lives for his, but this didn’t faze him. It was their loss. In all honesty the concept of “other people” didn’t preoccupy him much. He left those thoughts to others. If they’d just think more about themselves and mind their own business they’d probably be happier. But again, he tried not to think about it — it was a waste of time.
He took the three flights of stairs up the roof terrace ringed by skyscrapers, plonked down in a white plastic chair and lit a cigarette. His throat had been hoarse since he’d fallen asleep by the local pool after last night’s escapades with far too much Fernet-cola, cocaine and cigarettes. His every muscle felt parched. Through a crack in the fiberglass roof that shielded against sudden downpours he looked down at the apartment’s patio.
Hung on long metal chains from the ceiling were a few glass Moroccan lamps but because no one could be bothered to change the bulb they no longer cast their kaleidoscopic nocturnal light. Come to think of it, he may never even have experienced their light himself. Unless he was misremembering, the lamps had been out since he’d moved in, but still he had the feeling that he knew what they looked like. He knew the terrace’s every nook and cranny. The large water silo that emitted a low growl when the neighbors flushed the toilet. The rippled metal ceiling; burning hot in the day and overrun by cats at night. He even knew their names. Negrito, Patita and Luciana were the worst of the strays. One wine-blurred night he’d run into the barrio’s local cat ladies on a graffiti-covered little parking lot where, over leftover rice brought from home, they spoke silky mammalito Spanish with the tiny beasts. In his rough just-arrived Spanish he tried to explain how they hissed, hunted and carried on like hysterical drama queens by night and were in no way the cozy cuddly angels that appeared by day. The cat ladies, who by their own accounts claimed to live in a different barrio and therefore didn’t need to tussle with them in their natural night-time state, had given him admonishing looks but for some reason took him to be enough of an ally to invite him to what he suspected was their cat-infested home. Unfortunately he’d forgotten both the day and the time of the invitation once he’d yet again dizzily fallen asleep by the pool. A measure of guilt plagued him now and, as though out of some sort of revenge, he had the feeling that the caterwauling was getting shriller and he was now desperately considering asking the cat ladies to dinner himself. Maybe they could eat on the patio, so they could hear the racket? Maybe they could talk some sense into the creatures? Ask them to respect the building and the homes and the people all around them? If he happened to run into them again one night he would definitely ask.
He flipped aimlessly through a short story collection by Borges from which he was to create a dialogue for his theater class. The assignment was due the day after tomorrow but inspiration hadn’t yet struck. How hard was it to understand that he wanted to write something of his own? That writing in a new language was enough of a challenge? It was an undoubtedly expressive one, worthy of his grand emotions. But still. He wasn’t interested in creating in relation to anyone else, he wanted free rein to create from within himself. This is precisely what he explained to the teacher, who’d rolled her eyes and muttered something in portenjo from which all he could make out was men. Men! Considering how masculine she was herself, she was probably a lesbian. Nothing wrong with that but he refused to put himself in one of those stifling little identity boxes.
The class after this intermezzo, she’d pressed a book of Marxist theater criticism into his hand and since then their relationship had been frosty. Upset, he’d considered printing a t-shirt with the text “Politics is death. Art is life.” and making an entrance during the next week’s class. Maybe the scene could be the lead-in to the dialogue in question? He gazed into the tranquil summer night and tried to conjure his creativity but the abrasive smoke in his chest seemed to be blocking the channels of his heart. Should he drop out of drama school and throw himself wholeheartedly into singing instead? In that case it would be much longer until he was ready to take the stage as a professional. Besides you can express more with acting than with song, where the entire instrument of the body is somewhat reduced, and because he sometimes had the feeling of being more corporeal than the body itself, was the question in fact if singing on its own was enough? It’s not like the one precluded the other. Maybe he could take up modeling again to cover the intensive studies at singing school? His parents might have a hard time accepting yet another career change. Could he do it without telling them? Say he was still going to drama school only to then slide into singing unnoticed. The difference was marginal. To them at least. Otherwise maybe his uncle could loan him money. He understood better than his parents that the world and its opportunities were infinitely bigger today and that it could take a longer time to find your way than in, like, the Sixties. Or was it in the Fifties that his parents were born?
Half-convinced, he spontaneously called his agent at the local modeling agency to remind her of his existence and to ask about any upcoming castings. The telephone signaled no answer and only then did he realize that it was 22:45. He left a suave message on the answering machine asking the booker to call him first thing in the morning. On further consideration, he might need the extra cash since he was thinking about visiting his Brazilian honey in Rio de Janeiro. It had gotten a little sticky there at the end when he happened to doze off drunk by the pool and ran out of time to say goodbye before she left the country. A surge of apology emails had followed in which he’d tried to explain the concept of love and freedom in Spanish, which could have been easily misconstrued because her Spanish was much worse than his English. But they had agreed to stick to Spanish because it was a more expressive language than English and his Portuguese was far from being good enough to express anything of value more than directions and semi-involved restaurant orders.
He took the stairs down to his bedroom with its buzzing fan and started rooting through his poetry books, sheets and wrinkled shirts. The room was just a few square meters but served its function since the rest of the building was generous with its outdoor areas, inner courtyard and balconies facing the garden. So how a laptop could get lost in this room was beyond him. He looked under the bed, folded down his bedding and picked up Sunday’s El Pais, then sank into the mattress and mechanically lit a cigarette which triggered a dry cough. He calmed his cough and was gripped by a heart-rending melancholy. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Him feeling like this. He was supposed to be sunny. Guided by the heart. A lover. A Family man. He wasn’t supposed to be alone. He was supposed to be here with his Family. With Natalia, Paula, Sonny and Jeremy. The sun was supposed to be shining as they half-danced to the lifeguard’s power rock ballads by the crystalline pool, casually switching between French, English, and Spanish, but speaking the same language. The language of the heart. Where nothing needed to be explained, much less why that was the language being spoken. Meanwhile it kept others as far away as possible from their bonded little Family.
They’d had a plan. Because they wanted to, could and the Berlin-summer was supposed to last forever even though the nights were getting colder. Jeremy had cited Richard Florida and pointed to the encroaching gentrification with rising rents, hip boutiques and tourist-flooded clubs. Paula, his very own tiny dancer, no longer seemed to be finding inspiration in the city’s raw dance stages. Natalia was tired of the phone always ringing and having become some sort of reluctant connection point for Berlin’s guestlist-hungry clubbing elite. Sonny of never having any money in cities built on an art bubble. Everyone had been ready to move on. To places where conventions hadn’t yet been spread like a damp duvet over their sunny hearts and their Family’s collective strength. Now in retrospect, he couldn’t recall exactly how the conversations had gone but first they’d been all about Eastern Europe. Belgrade was still being built up after the collapse of war and Jeremy, who’d been there as part of an architectural exchange, waxed lyrical about how open, malleable and ready the city was for something new. They’d discussed Bucharest but concluded that it would be a while before the city would be anything to reckon with and Barcelona had been done, was touristy and passé. China and Shanghai, they agreed, were far too bound up in a soulkilling combination of a hunger for profit as well as a communist and ultracapitalist race to the emotional bottom. His own experience of modeling there had been everything but good. There was no real scene and it would be a while before the Chinese understood the concept of love. Somewhere amidst these discussions they must have decided on Buenos Aires. Argentina having recently gone through one of the post-war’s biggest financial crises played into it. Inflation was at 30 percent and the prices were ridiculously low. People were becoming more open, more creative and were being forced to rethink things. To be a bit more tender in the face of life.
They’d lived in their Family-buzz the whole summer long. Certain outsiders were allowed to stick in a leg, arm, hand, dick or pussy and were embraced like a long-lost relative on a brief visit but most of the time it was just them. Them with a capital T. June became July then August and everything moved towards its dizzy Picasso-like dissolution, but they lived and survived with the certainty that after a few months of planning they’d be reunited in the New World’s capital of Melancholy. On RyanAir flights and buzzing vespas they’d scattered across an ever-rainier Europe. On crackling Skype calls and late-night chats they discussed their next conquests. Rain turned into sleet into black ice and the internet connections seemed to be getting even slower, their messages more hastily written. Paula was offered a job as a dance teacher at an academy in her hometown which she swore she would take over her dead body but unfortunately she needed the money to pay for the annulment of a spontaneous marriage she’d entered into in the US after being lovestruck by an Italian yoga teacher, who’d offered her a Tarot reading on Venice Beach. He tried to convince her that it would be a cinch for her to find a dance job in the capital of tango, upon which she flooded him with smileys and love hearts. Jeremy was just going to wrap up a pitch for an architecture firm and would buy his ticket as soon as the money landed in his account. Natalia’s whereabouts he mostly found out about via various social media channels, where she exclusively posted pictures of Latin American art and clips of Spanish-language Eighties disco, which he interpreted as her way of getting ready and having her sights set on new adventures across the Atlantic. As for him, he took acting classes, had his weekly dinner with his parents and booked a one-way flight. His plan was to scope out the terrain before the others joined him. Find the perfect Family home for cheap, keep an ear out for dance jobs for Paula and plant a few tomatoes and herbs on the balcony.
He’d now been living in the city for five months, so far entirely without his Family. Jeremy would arrive the following week. He’d stay for ten days, longer wasn’t possible because he’d won the architecture competition and had been offered some kind of art-mall project in Dubai. Through him he’d heard that Natalia had tired of the concept of “Internet” and had broken off contact with everything and everyone. Paula was struggling with money but promised she’d be there as soon as she could. Alone in the beautiful fin de siècle apartment, he’d offered to buy her ticket; she politely but firmly declined as she’d promised herself not to get economically involved with anyone after her American marriage fiasco.
He stared into thin air. A whistling came from behind a pillow and he caught sight of his laptop sticking out from a gap between the wall and the wardrobe. Confounded, he pried it out. It emitted an overheated hum as he opened the screen and then the browser. He sat with the laptop on his knee wondering what his actual plan had been when he began looking for it. He started haplessly browsing funny clips of cute animals. Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games” music video. Some porn. A few images from his old Shanghai portfolio. Pictures of him and Paula. Him and the Brazilian. Him and the Family in Berlin.
Something crashed on the lower floor, followed by a drawn-out whimper. He closed his computer and went down to his flatmate’s room. He stuck his foot in the door. William was in there, laying in an impossible position: half his upper body on the bed and his head on a large pasta pot on the floor. Blood and locks of sweaty black hair stuck to his forehead and among the linens were piles of polaroids and cut-out newspaper ads for exotic fruit.
“What time is it in Europe? Like now?”
He whimpered and wiped the hair away from his face.
“I have a deadline! Some fucking catalog for some gallerist I slept with in London.”
“Four hours ahead. Five in the morning, maybe.”
He struggled to peel himself off the floor.
“Hey, so did we share that Brazilian last night?”
His heart felt as brittle as an eggshell.
William unleashed a rumbling vroom-sound which he topped off with a distasteful toottoot. It wrenched his love-heart.
“We got any blow left? I have to fuckin’ work.”
He nodded and fished the plastic knot out of his shorts.
“Luca, you old joker — you’re a true friend.”
He cut four lines and sucked two up right away.
His name wasn’t Luca. It was Bernard.