Malbec in Buenos Aires
I looked up from the book I couldn’t read and saw a plump, middle-aged man holding a small grey revolver ten feet from my face.
I was seated on a terrace somewhere in the middle of the city, with a glass of boiling Malbec and a heavy head. It was a hot day in the middle of a relentless summer. The trees wilted, the air carried the heavy smell of molten bitumen, and pedestrians shrunk and oozed like melting wax as they walked with febrile confusion to wherever they were going. The economy, too, was feverish, buckled by the stress of a collapsing peso and a consistently incapable government. People were poorer and more desperate than they had been in a long time. There was no joy in the sun, nor in the society; just an unyielding, inescapable burden in both.
Around me cars burped thick clouds of burned diesel, horns honked in atonal symphonies, and mopeds zipped in and out of the mounting traffic like mosquitos. I vaguely noticed that one of these mopeds had stopped beside me and that its driver was shouting at someone on the terrace. At first, I didn’t pay it any attention. Buenos Aires was noisy: people drove fast, they took risks and they often ended up shouting. But as the yelling got louder and more aggressive, I reluctantly raised my head.
I reacted slowly or, rather, I didn’t react; I just watched. The man, dressed in a polo shirt, khaki shorts and a white motorcycle helmet, didn’t immediately appear to be the type to point a gun at a terrace full of people; he seemed too smart, too normal. And for a few seconds he just stood there, his brown loafers squeaky with newness and sweat, pointing his gun while the other diners looked on in disbelief.
I remember noticing that the man’s t-shirt was sticking to his belly in damp clumps of fabric. I remember that his dark Iberian eyes were clogged with tiredness and red with strain; and that the veins in his forehead pulsed each time he shouted. I remember the garlic on his breath and his deep baritone voice. I remember the shoddy tattoo of a crucifix on his left forearm and the long spindly scar on his right. I remember his chipped gold wedding ring. I remember wondering what his wife was doing.
And with this, I saw my middle-class preconceptions fall away. His neck was thick with rage. He swung his gun back and forth across the terrace in the stiff pose of a construction crane, while his accomplice dismounted his motorcycle and ran into a scrum of fearful diners scrambling from their tables.
A small, bald man of about forty ran to the door of the restaurant, leaving his 80-year-old mother stranded at the table, while another, younger, man jumped dramatically in front of his wife in a bid to protect her. The rest of the diners gawped and gasped in a mix of curiosity and fear.
The gunman’s accomplice was sluggish. He stumbled between the tables, disorientated by the choice of victims and the beating sun. For a moment, he seemed to forget what he was doing there. His partner shouted at him: ¿Por qué estás siendo tan lento?” (why are you so slow?), “Vos sos inútil” (you’re useless). Then, as if in an act of defiance, his eyes fixed on a German tourist sitting alone.
He strode over to the man’s table, commanding him to give up his wallet and his watch. But the German, emboldened by his inability to understand his assailant’s demands, did not abandon his watch quickly. As the robber lunged for his wrist, the man pulled his arms toward his body, so that the pair entered into a tug of war. Such was the force of their respective tugs that the German’s strap soon burst, and the watch shattered into tens of shimmering links.
The gunman swore with disappointment. The accomplice snarled back. The German nursed his bleeding wrist. And in the distance, police sirens sounded.
The robbers immediately became nervous. The accomplice stuffed the broken watch into his pocket, grabbed a few more wallets on his way back to the moped, and rejoined his partner. As the pair sped off into the distance, the small bald man picked up his chair and threw it into the exhaust fumes of the whining moped. He cursed and screamed after the assailants, his words fueled by regret, and in pursuit of his disappearing masculinity. He was the first to rush to the police car as it arrived on the scene.
After the German had made his way to the nearby constabulary, the rest of the diners on the terrace went quiet. They shied away from one another, leaning further into their conversations and further away from the scene of the crime. The man who had dived in front of his wife was now staring obviously at the waitress’s breasts. The small bald man was in deep conversation with his exasperated mother, and the kitchen was again sending out its orders. No one wanted to talk, no one wanted to acknowledge, no one wanted to remember.
I was more scared than when the gun had been pointed at my face. I went over everything in detail. I downed my wine. I downed my water. I tried to read my book. I just wanted someone to say something.
Then, one of the waitresses spotted my empty wine glass and walked towards my table. She was smiling. “It’s hot today,” she said, ignoring my expression of bewilderment. “I hope it gets cooler soon.”
Published in Roads And Kingdoms 10th May 2016