This begins the seven-episode Kindle Serial “An Experience Definitely Worth Allegedly Having: Travel Stories From The Hairpin.” (Episode Two, by Maria Bustillos, is excerpted here.)
Here is something weird I did when I lived in Buenos Aires: I did a lot of aerobics. My favorite class was at 6:30 p.m., and when I say it was my favorite I mean that I would plan afternoon and evening dates with friends around it, so that — no matter what — at six o’clock or so every night, I’d be in shorts and tennis shoes cutting across the traffic on Avenida Gaona, with the buses honking along and the late-afternoon light slanting, and the air turning gold and peachy. Gyms are gyms. The same soupy cooped-up smell when you walk in one everywhere. Flash a membership card at the front desk, bypass the weight machines downstairs with the bulky guys in their weight-lifting belts, and then climb a flight of stairs to the aerobics room. I’d sit in a corner of the room in a group with the other girls in my class and speak my deplorable Spanish to them and understand about half of what they chatted back to me while the 5:30 class finished, and then we would all get up and do step aerobics together. Step aerobics — that’s the kind where you leap up and down off little platforms — was huge at the time, and this class was the nutso apex, with these long, complex routines, and every so often the teacher would bark into her mic something like, “Now cut the routine in half and do it from the halfway point backward, and then return to the halfway point and go forward again, and then do it once more but this time straight through from start to finish.” If you’re a fellow former aerobics-goer, this is not an exaggeration. I have never been in another class like it: it was like doing a Sudoku that would sometimes make you vomit. But we all seemed to take this swooping martial Lost Boy joy in how hard it was, as if being good there would eventually lead to recruitment overseas as part of some elite fighting corps of step-aerobics masters (“Yeah, that’s right, I just grapevined all over your ass, motherfucker”).
Why did I love it so? There was this amazing, resounding clomp when we would all jump onto our steps at the same time. The windows would be open. It was salty pampas southern-hemisphere summer. At that time of day, traffic was ticking up outside. The sidewalks were filled with all these guys (young boys, teenagers, middle-aged men) in groups of twos and threes and fours on their way to play soccer. How many hidden soccer fields around the city to hold all the amateur male soccer players of Buenos Aires? Some astounding number. On the corner was an Esso, with red-and-blue branding just like an American Exxon, but also a place with tables where you might go hang out and eat ice cream. (I spent Christmas Day reading there, because it was open and air-conditioned.) Everyone else would have their doors and windows open, too, all along the street. The lady who ran the block’s little market would be standing outside, and her son would be racing back and forth up and down the sidewalk. You could see the bakery, and the one produce stand that was okay but you were probably better off walking up a couple blocks and over one street to the next one. However, the very best thing on the block was Soul Pizza, which was a completely ordinary Italian restaurant like hundreds of others across Buenos Aires except for its name, which, again, was Soul Pizza. I’m not sure why, as no one associated with it spoke English, and my contribution to the great ongoing exchange of pageantry and cultural understanding between the earth’s nations was to teach people I knew (Argentines, Koreans, Germans, Brazilians, etc.) to call it Souuuuullll Pizza, like the announcer at the beginning of Soul Train, and this restaurant was manned by two laconic silver-haired Italian dudes in their sixties with identical beaky noses (brothers, I assumed), who seemed to like me mostly because I never asked them to change the TV channel from what they were watching, and to whom I had once sung out, in a moment of misplaced confidence in my Spanish, “You were terrific tonight!” when I meant, “The meal was terrific tonight!” so it came out sounding like a sexual innuendo, and we were all three sort of startled. And in this neighborhood — not rich not poor not fashionable but slightly frumpy and comfortable — I belonged for that one upside-down summer in some goofy, provisional way, such that when I walked around I felt, after the first couple of months, what a foreigner hopes to feel, which is completely and wonderfully unremarkable. Just another part of the landscape.
This was 1996. I was twenty-five years old. No email, no Facebook; it cost a dollar a minute to talk to me, so every phone call from the United States was a big event. I told everyone I was in Buenos Aires to write a novel, and that was halfway true. But the entire truth was, I’d had a wretched breakup in Asheville, North Carolina, where I’d been living. Shortly after the breakup, an old college friend, Herschel, had phoned and said he’d won a Fulbright to live in Buenos Aires for a year to study Borges. He was over-the-moon excited. At the end of the call he added, almost as an afterthought, “Hey, maybe you should come, too,” and I immediately said, “Yes.” Not “Oh maybe! That sounds fun,” but just “Yes, I’ll go.” It had to have been bewildering, like putting an exploratory line in the water and instead of feeling a tentative tug back, a fish leaps out of the water and onto your boat and says, “Oh my god, I had to get out of there, where are we headed?”
I was gone, all in all, about seven months — two months at a language school in Quetzaltenango (or Xela, pronounced Shay-la), Guatemala, and five months in Argentina, with a couple of side trips during that time to Uruguay and Chile. As a travel arc, yoking Guatemala with Argentina didn’t make much sense — I had to fly back to Miami to get from one country to the other — but I wanted to see Guatemala. It seemed like a place that people I knew were constantly rappelling back and forth to, and this way I could learn a little Spanish. (I spoke only high-school French, which was great for making obscure Isabelle Adjani jokes but was otherwise fairly useless here.) The detour to Guatemala also meant I’d do a leg of the trip on my own so I wouldn’t be wilting all over my friend when I got to Argentina. After I bought my plane tickets and paid the school tuition, I had about $4,000 left, an amount I’d somehow squirreled away from a couple of dreary writing and editing jobs, and that, along with a little money from tutoring English in Buenos Aires, is what I lived off. I looked scraggly by the end, but I managed it. I’d spent the year before reading through the Carlos Fuentes shelf at the Asheville library, and I was halfway through the Mario Vargas Llosa shelf. My knowledge of Latin American literature was broad and, to anyone well versed, surely shallow, but my interest and admiration were entirely sincere. I was reading a lot of Gabriel García Márquez (and Rushdie, and Angela Carter, who felt like English-language cousins, once and twice removed), and I wanted to do what they were doing — something big and bursting — and in that context learning Spanish and sitting in a room in Argentina to write a novel about Wisconsin made sense, at least to me.
Still, it was all a little drastic and randomly chosen.
There’s that thing in Greek myths where a person, often a woman, becomes something else. She was a woman and then she’s a white cow. Or one day she’s a woman and then she’s a fish, a tree, a spider, a stream. That’s the closest I can come to describing the breakup I’d had. Unlike most things, it never became a funny story. There was a before and an after. Things had gone well and then they hadn’t. He loved me and then he didn’t. When I think of that time, it’s as this person who didn’t know who or what she was now. I felt a thousand years old. I felt creaky. I didn’t expect the trip to change that, and it didn’t, but it seemed like a chance to see what this new thing I had become was. While I was away I thought about my old boyfriend continually. It became a habit to think of him almost as if he could see me, to wonder if he was imagining where I was and what I was doing, and to see myself in that moment the way he might see me — and to judge myself accordingly. So even though we weren’t in touch and he probably wasn’t wondering, it became very important to me that entire trip to appear to be doing just great. How are you doing, young woman, in your new life as a fish/a spider/a tree? A-OK. Just fine. Completely good. I haven’t had a real conversation in days, but I know where the bus stops are and I know how to get places, I can march around the neighborhood every morning with the landlady’s dog and people wave hello to me. I’ve gotten really good at aerobics, did I tell you?
More of Carrie’s pictures can be found on the collection’s [also free!] companion Tumblr.