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Things We Lost in the Fire, The Intoxicated Years (1)

The Intoxicated Years (1)

The Intoxicated Years

1989

All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn't really understand what that meant. Our parents couldn't get over how the Minister of Public Works had announced the measures they were taking to avoid a widespread blackout while in a room lit only by a hurricane lamp: like in a slum, they repeated. What would a widespread blackout be like? Would we be left in the dark forever? The possibility was incredible. Stupid. Ridiculous. Useless adults, we thought, how useless. Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn't have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn't pay the rent or because inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn't cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls—their daughters—didn't feel sorry for them. Those things all seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages.

Meanwhile, we had a van. It belonged to Andrea's boyfriend. Andrea was the prettiest of us, the one who knew how to rip up jeans to make fabulous cutoffs and wore crop tops that she bought with money she stole from her mother. The boyfriend's name doesn't matter. He had a van that he used to deliver groceries during the week, but on weekends it was all ours. We smoked some poisonous pot from Paraguay that smelled like urine and pesticide when it was dry but was cheap and effective. The three of us would smoke, and once we were totally out of our minds we'd get into the back of the van, which didn't have windows or any light at all because it wasn't designed for people, it was made to transport cans of garbanzos and peas. We would have him drive really fast and then slam on the brakes, or go around and around the traffic island at the entrance to the town. We had him speed up around corners and make us bounce over speed bumps. And he did it all because he was in love with Andrea and he hoped that one day she would love him back.

We would scream and tumble on top of each other. It was better than a roller coaster and better than alcohol. Sprawled in the darkness we felt like every blow to the head could be our last, and sometimes, when Andrea's boyfriend had to stop for a red light, we sought each other out in the darkness to be sure we were all still alive. And we roared with laughter, sweaty, sometimes bloody, and the inside of the truck smelled of empty stomachs and onions, and sometimes of the apple shampoo we all shared. We shared a lot: clothes, the hair dryer, bikini wax. People said that we were similar, that the three of us looked alike, but that was just an illusion because we copied each other's movements and ways of speaking. Andrea was beautiful, tall, with thin and separated legs; Paula was too blond and turned a horrible shade of red when she spent too long in the sun; I could never manage a flat belly or thighs that didn't rub together and chafe when I walked.

Andrea's boyfriend would make us get out after an hour, once he got bored or started to worry the police would pull the van over and think that maybe he had kidnapped the three girls in the back. Sometimes he dropped us off at one of our houses, or sometimes in Plaza Italia, where we bought that poisonous Red Dot weed from the hippies in the artisan market. We also drank sangria that one of the hippies made in a five-liter tomato can with giant pieces of fruit because he was lazy and always too drunk to cut the bananas, oranges, and apples into smaller chunks. Once, we found an entire grapefruit, and one of us put it in her mouth like a stuffed Christmas piglet and ran around between the stalls. It was night, and the crafts were illuminated with lights running on a generator that all the vendors shared.

We would go back home very late, hours after the market closed; no one paid any attention to us that summer. The authorities didn't keep to the duration of the power outages, and we spent the longest nights of our lives dying of heat in yards and on sidewalks, listening to the radio using batteries that seemed to run out more and more quickly as the days went by.

1990

They'd forced the president to hand over the reins before the end of his term, and no one liked the new one too much, even though he'd won the elections by an impressive margin. The stench of resignation was in the air; it seeped from the twisted mouths of the embittered people, including the whiny parents we scorned now more than ever. But the new president had promised that from then on it wouldn't take years to get a telephone line once you requested it; the phone company was so inefficient that some of our neighbors had been waiting a decade for the thing, and sometimes when the technicians showed up to install it—they never called first—there would be impromptu celebrations. Out of pure luck we had telephones, all three of us, and we'd spend hours talking until our parents cut us off, yelling. It was during one of those phone conversations on some Sunday afternoon that Paula decided we had to start going to Buenos Aires. We would lie and say we were going out in our town, but really we would take the early bus on Saturday and spend the night in Buenos Aires. At dawn we'd be back at the station and home in the morning; our parents would never even know.

They never knew.

I fell in love with the waiter in a bar called Bolivia; he rejected me. “I get around,” he told me.

“What the hell do I care,” I shouted at him, and I downed almost a liter of gin and if I slept with someone else that night I don't remember. When I woke up I was on the bus home; it was already day and my shirt was covered in vomit. I had to go by Andrea's house to wash up before I went to mine. At Andrea's no one ever asked questions; her dad was almost always drunk and she had a lock on her bedroom door so he couldn't get in at night. When we went to her house it was better to stay in the kitchen—her dad only went in there to get more ice for his wine.

In that kitchen we swore an oath that we would never have boyfriends. We swore with blood, cutting ourselves a little, and with kisses, in the dark because once again there was no power. We made the promise while thinking about that drunken father, about what we would do if he came in and found us bleeding and embracing. He was tall and strong but he tended to stagger more than walk, and it would have been easy to push him down. But Andrea didn't want to push him; she was always weak with men. I promised never to fall in love again, and Paula said she was never going to let a man touch her.

One night, when we were on our way back from Buenos Aires earlier than usual, a girl got up from one of the seats in front of us, went up to the driver, and asked him to stop so she could get off. The driver braked in surprise and told her there was no bus stop there. We were going through Parque Pereyra: an enormous park halfway between Buenos Aires and our town. It had once been an estate of over ten thousand hectares that Perón expropriated from its millionaire owners. Now, it's a nature reserve, a damp, sinister little forest where the sun barely enters. The road cuts it right in half. The girl insisted. The passengers started waking up and one man said, “But where do you want to go at this hour, dear?” The girl, who was our age and had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked at him with such intense hatred he was struck dumb. She looked at him like a witch, like an assassin, like she had evil powers. The driver let her off and she ran toward the trees; when the bus started up again she disappeared in a cloud of dust. One woman complained aloud: “But how can you leave her out there alone at this hour? Who knows what could happen to her.” She and the driver argued almost until we reached the terminal.

We never forgot that girl or her evil look. No one could ever hurt her, we were sure about that; if anyone was going to do harm, it was her. She wasn't carrying a bag or a backpack, we remembered, and her clothes were too light for the coolness of the autumn night.

Once, we went looking for her. Andrea's boyfriend, the one with the van, had disappeared from our lives, but there was another boy, Paula's brother, who by then could drive his father's car. We didn't know exactly where the girl had gotten off the bus, just that it wasn't too far from the windmill—the park has a Dutch-style windmill that doesn't produce anything, it's just a chocolate shop for tourists. Walking among the trees, we discovered paths and a house that had maybe once been part of the estate. These days it's been refurbished; you can visit it like a museum and they even hold exclusive wedding receptions there. But back then there was just a park ranger who took care of the place, and it seemed to be holding its breath among the pines, secret and empty.

Maybe she's the park ranger's daughter, Paula's brother said, and he brought us home laughing at us, the silly girls who thought they'd seen a ghost.

But I know that girl wasn't anyone's daughter.

1991

High school was never-ending. We started hiding bottles of whiskey in our backpacks and sneaking to the bathroom to drink from them. We also stole Emotival from my mother; Emotival was a pill she took because she was depressed, et cetera. It didn't do anything much to us, just brought on a terrible fatigue, an exhaustion that made us fall asleep in class with our mouths open, snoring. They called in our parents, who thought that since we went to bed very late, our morning comas were caused by a lack of sleep. They were just as stupid as ever, although now they were less nervous about inflation and the lack of money: the government had passed a new law declaring that one peso was equal to a dollar, and although no one entirely believed it, hearing dollar dollar dollar filled my parents and all the other adults with happiness.

We were still poor, though. My family rented and Paula's family had a half-finished house, with old-fashioned, interconnected bedrooms. It was disgusting: her brothers were older and she had to walk through their rooms to go to the bathroom; sometimes she saw them masturbating. Andrea's apartment belonged to her family, but they could never pay their bills on time, and when their electricity wasn't getting cut off, their phone was. Her mother couldn't find any work except as an old people's nurse, and her drunk father went on throwing money away on wine and cigarettes.

Even so, we three believed we could be rich. We thought that being rich was something that lay in our future. Until we met Ximena. A new classmate, she came from Patagonia and her parents had something to do with oil. When she invited us over we ran all through the house, bumping into each other as we tried to take it all in at once; we would have taken pictures if we could. The living room had a little bridge over an indoor pond with floating plants, water lilies, algae. None of the rooms had tile floors; they were all made of wood, and paintings hung on the white walls. The backyard had a pool, rosebushes, and white-pebbled paths. Seen from the street the house didn't look all that pretty, but inside it was madness, all those nice things, the scent of perfume in the air, armchairs of colored velveteen and rugs that were neither frayed nor worn. We detested Ximena immediately. She was ugly and had a vertical scar on her chin, and at school they called her buttface because of it. We convinced her to steal money from her mother—it was so easy for her!—and we used it to buy drugs, sometimes pills from the pharmacy. These days they're really strict, but back then if you just told the pharmacist you had an autistic brother or a psychotic father, they would sell you medication without a prescription. We knew the names of some medicines for psychosis, because we wrote them down whenever someone mentioned them. When we took the blue pills that we avoided forever after, poor Ximena went so nuts she tried to set the fine wooden floor of her room on fire, and she went on and on about all the eyes she saw floating around the house. We weren't impressed. The year before, one of the hippies at the artisan market had been put away after he'd eaten too many mushrooms. He said there were tiny men only a few centimeters tall who were shooting little arrows into his neck. He wanted to pull out the imaginary arrows so bad that he scratched at his neck until he almost slashed his jugular with his nails. He'd always wanted to be Paula's boyfriend—he called her his “spiritual companion.” Paula stole acid from him to take on our birthdays. He had only a few teeth, and his friends called him Jeremiah. They took him to the psychiatric ward in Romero and nothing more was ever heard from him.



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The Intoxicated Years (1)

The Intoxicated Years

1989

All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn't really understand what that meant. Our parents couldn't get over how the Minister of Public Works had announced the measures they were taking to avoid a widespread blackout while in a room lit only by a hurricane lamp: like in a slum, they repeated. What would a widespread blackout be like? Would we be left in the dark forever? The possibility was incredible. Stupid. Ridiculous. Useless adults, we thought, how useless. Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn't have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn't pay the rent or because inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn't cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls—their daughters—didn't feel sorry for them. Those things all seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages.

Meanwhile, we had a van. It belonged to Andrea's boyfriend. Andrea was the prettiest of us, the one who knew how to rip up jeans to make fabulous cutoffs and wore crop tops that she bought with money she stole from her mother. The boyfriend's name doesn't matter. He had a van that he used to deliver groceries during the week, but on weekends it was all ours. We smoked some poisonous pot from Paraguay that smelled like urine and pesticide when it was dry but was cheap and effective. The three of us would smoke, and once we were totally out of our minds we'd get into the back of the van, which didn't have windows or any light at all because it wasn't designed for people, it was made to transport cans of garbanzos and peas. We would have him drive really fast and then slam on the brakes, or go around and around the traffic island at the entrance to the town. We had him speed up around corners and make us bounce over speed bumps. And he did it all because he was in love with Andrea and he hoped that one day she would love him back.

We would scream and tumble on top of each other. It was better than a roller coaster and better than alcohol. Sprawled in the darkness we felt like every blow to the head could be our last, and sometimes, when Andrea's boyfriend had to stop for a red light, we sought each other out in the darkness to be sure we were all still alive. And we roared with laughter, sweaty, sometimes bloody, and the inside of the truck smelled of empty stomachs and onions, and sometimes of the apple shampoo we all shared. We shared a lot: clothes, the hair dryer, bikini wax. People said that we were similar, that the three of us looked alike, but that was just an illusion because we copied each other's movements and ways of speaking. Andrea was beautiful, tall, with thin and separated legs; Paula was too blond and turned a horrible shade of red when she spent too long in the sun; I could never manage a flat belly or thighs that didn't rub together and chafe when I walked.

Andrea's boyfriend would make us get out after an hour, once he got bored or started to worry the police would pull the van over and think that maybe he had kidnapped the three girls in the back. Sometimes he dropped us off at one of our houses, or sometimes in Plaza Italia, where we bought that poisonous Red Dot weed from the hippies in the artisan market. We also drank sangria that one of the hippies made in a five-liter tomato can with giant pieces of fruit because he was lazy and always too drunk to cut the bananas, oranges, and apples into smaller chunks. Once, we found an entire grapefruit, and one of us put it in her mouth like a stuffed Christmas piglet and ran around between the stalls. It was night, and the crafts were illuminated with lights running on a generator that all the vendors shared.

We would go back home very late, hours after the market closed; no one paid any attention to us that summer. The authorities didn't keep to the duration of the power outages, and we spent the longest nights of our lives dying of heat in yards and on sidewalks, listening to the radio using batteries that seemed to run out more and more quickly as the days went by.

1990

They'd forced the president to hand over the reins before the end of his term, and no one liked the new one too much, even though he'd won the elections by an impressive margin. The stench of resignation was in the air; it seeped from the twisted mouths of the embittered people, including the whiny parents we scorned now more than ever. But the new president had promised that from then on it wouldn't take years to get a telephone line once you requested it; the phone company was so inefficient that some of our neighbors had been waiting a decade for the thing, and sometimes when the technicians showed up to install it—they never called first—there would be impromptu celebrations. Out of pure luck we had telephones, all three of us, and we'd spend hours talking until our parents cut us off, yelling. It was during one of those phone conversations on some Sunday afternoon that Paula decided we had to start going to Buenos Aires. We would lie and say we were going out in our town, but really we would take the early bus on Saturday and spend the night in Buenos Aires. At dawn we'd be back at the station and home in the morning; our parents would never even know.

They never knew.

I fell in love with the waiter in a bar called Bolivia; he rejected me. “I get around,” he told me.

“What the hell do I care,” I shouted at him, and I downed almost a liter of gin and if I slept with someone else that night I don't remember. When I woke up I was on the bus home; it was already day and my shirt was covered in vomit. I had to go by Andrea's house to wash up before I went to mine. At Andrea's no one ever asked questions; her dad was almost always drunk and she had a lock on her bedroom door so he couldn't get in at night. When we went to her house it was better to stay in the kitchen—her dad only went in there to get more ice for his wine.

In that kitchen we swore an oath that we would never have boyfriends. We swore with blood, cutting ourselves a little, and with kisses, in the dark because once again there was no power. We made the promise while thinking about that drunken father, about what we would do if he came in and found us bleeding and embracing. He was tall and strong but he tended to stagger more than walk, and it would have been easy to push him down. But Andrea didn't want to push him; she was always weak with men. I promised never to fall in love again, and Paula said she was never going to let a man touch her.

One night, when we were on our way back from Buenos Aires earlier than usual, a girl got up from one of the seats in front of us, went up to the driver, and asked him to stop so she could get off. The driver braked in surprise and told her there was no bus stop there. We were going through Parque Pereyra: an enormous park halfway between Buenos Aires and our town. It had once been an estate of over ten thousand hectares that Perón expropriated from its millionaire owners. Now, it's a nature reserve, a damp, sinister little forest where the sun barely enters. The road cuts it right in half. The girl insisted. The passengers started waking up and one man said, “But where do you want to go at this hour, dear?” The girl, who was our age and had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked at him with such intense hatred he was struck dumb. She looked at him like a witch, like an assassin, like she had evil powers. The driver let her off and she ran toward the trees; when the bus started up again she disappeared in a cloud of dust. One woman complained aloud: “But how can you leave her out there alone at this hour? Who knows what could happen to her.” She and the driver argued almost until we reached the terminal.

We never forgot that girl or her evil look. No one could ever hurt her, we were sure about that; if anyone was going to do harm, it was her. She wasn't carrying a bag or a backpack, we remembered, and her clothes were too light for the coolness of the autumn night.

Once, we went looking for her. Andrea's boyfriend, the one with the van, had disappeared from our lives, but there was another boy, Paula's brother, who by then could drive his father's car. We didn't know exactly where the girl had gotten off the bus, just that it wasn't too far from the windmill—the park has a Dutch-style windmill that doesn't produce anything, it's just a chocolate shop for tourists. Walking among the trees, we discovered paths and a house that had maybe once been part of the estate. These days it's been refurbished; you can visit it like a museum and they even hold exclusive wedding receptions there. But back then there was just a park ranger who took care of the place, and it seemed to be holding its breath among the pines, secret and empty.

Maybe she's the park ranger's daughter, Paula's brother said, and he brought us home laughing at us, the silly girls who thought they'd seen a ghost.

But I know that girl wasn't anyone's daughter.

1991

High school was never-ending. We started hiding bottles of whiskey in our backpacks and sneaking to the bathroom to drink from them. We also stole Emotival from my mother; Emotival was a pill she took because she was depressed, et cetera. It didn't do anything much to us, just brought on a terrible fatigue, an exhaustion that made us fall asleep in class with our mouths open, snoring. They called in our parents, who thought that since we went to bed very late, our morning comas were caused by a lack of sleep. They were just as stupid as ever, although now they were less nervous about inflation and the lack of money: the government had passed a new law declaring that one peso was equal to a dollar, and although no one entirely believed it, hearing dollar dollar dollar filled my parents and all the other adults with happiness.

We were still poor, though. My family rented and Paula's family had a half-finished house, with old-fashioned, interconnected bedrooms. It was disgusting: her brothers were older and she had to walk through their rooms to go to the bathroom; sometimes she saw them masturbating. Andrea's apartment belonged to her family, but they could never pay their bills on time, and when their electricity wasn't getting cut off, their phone was. Her mother couldn't find any work except as an old people's nurse, and her drunk father went on throwing money away on wine and cigarettes.

Even so, we three believed we could be rich. We thought that being rich was something that lay in our future. Until we met Ximena. A new classmate, she came from Patagonia and her parents had something to do with oil. When she invited us over we ran all through the house, bumping into each other as we tried to take it all in at once; we would have taken pictures if we could. The living room had a little bridge over an indoor pond with floating plants, water lilies, algae. None of the rooms had tile floors; they were all made of wood, and paintings hung on the white walls. The backyard had a pool, rosebushes, and white-pebbled paths. Seen from the street the house didn't look all that pretty, but inside it was madness, all those nice things, the scent of perfume in the air, armchairs of colored velveteen and rugs that were neither frayed nor worn. We detested Ximena immediately. She was ugly and had a vertical scar on her chin, and at school they called her buttface because of it. We convinced her to steal money from her mother—it was so easy for her!—and we used it to buy drugs, sometimes pills from the pharmacy. These days they're really strict, but back then if you just told the pharmacist you had an autistic brother or a psychotic father, they would sell you medication without a prescription. We knew the names of some medicines for psychosis, because we wrote them down whenever someone mentioned them. When we took the blue pills that we avoided forever after, poor Ximena went so nuts she tried to set the fine wooden floor of her room on fire, and she went on and on about all the eyes she saw floating around the house. We weren't impressed. The year before, one of the hippies at the artisan market had been put away after he'd eaten too many mushrooms. He said there were tiny men only a few centimeters tall who were shooting little arrows into his neck. He wanted to pull out the imaginary arrows so bad that he scratched at his neck until he almost slashed his jugular with his nails. He'd always wanted to be Paula's boyfriend—he called her his “spiritual companion.” Paula stole acid from him to take on our birthdays. He had only a few teeth, and his friends called him Jeremiah. They took him to the psychiatric ward in Romero and nothing more was ever heard from him.

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