Fabienne François

Paul is in love with La Verónica. He copies verses from Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada and slips them into her green shoulder-bag. She, “La Veró”, sleeps with Paul when she is lonely. She tells me about his love-making sounds and how he tastes like sugar, but I’ve come to find that out on my own.

I’m in love with no one. My semester abroad in Chile has come to end, and all I can think about is that I’m six weeks late, and that I’m usually like a Swiss clock.

I met them both at the beginning of the semester when I attended the gringo-chileno mixer sponsored by the University of Chile’s Linguistics Department. “Ángela, you’re just going to meet hippie kids there!” my host-sister mocked, as I got up to leave the house. She was finishing up her law degree at the austere Facultad de Derecho. My heart skipped a beat at her comment. Oh, to have someone real to talk to! I had grown tired of mingling with the cliquish gringos in my program. Their petty concerns irritated me: “There’s no central heating in my Chilean family’s house.” “They speak so fast; I can’t understand anything!” “I know. I miss America, too.”

On the micro-bus ride to downtown, I gripped the pole before me. I couldn’t ignore the curious stares from the other passengers. All I could feel were my cheeks growing warm in embarrassment. From the minute I had stepped off the plane, Chileans had stared at my braids and skin color and cooed over my accent: pero hablas tan bien el español! Disbelieving my gringa status, and ignoring my grammatical mistakes, they claimed that I must be Brazilian or Colombian.

“My grandfather spent time in Cuba before he passed away,” I explained to my host-mother the first day I arrived. She traced her own Spanish, German and English heritage with pride.

“That explains it, Ángela,” she said to me with a satisfied nod. Despite these nonsensical assurances of belonging to la raza latina, I was still a gringa. The U.S. stamp above my passport photo declared it so. No matter how many telenovelas I watched to up my Spanish vocabulary, my history, my pop-culture references, my outlook—all were American. Still, I wanted to believe I could immerse myself in Chilean life. Stepping off the micro-bus, I crossed my fingers.

At the mixer, we faced one another from opposite sides of the room, the Americans from my university’s study-abroad program, and the Chileans from La Universidad de Chile’s Facultad de Filosofía y Letras. Someone uncorked a bottle of Carmen and spilled it on the carpet. A few of the Chileans approached and introduced themselves to me. La Verónica was the first. She pushed up her black frames and admired my Converse sneakers. We spoke about obscure Icelandic bands and she offered to make me a mix. Paul kissed my cheek and spoke English to me in his exaggerated British accent. He explained that his mother, an ardent fan, had named him after a Beatle. By the end of the night, I had given La Veró my host-family’s phone number. She put it into her Nokia phone and lit a cigarette. Later that night when I climbed into my small twin-bed at my host-family’s house, I smiled into the pale quarter-moon. I finally had made some friends.

I didn’t have any of the same classes as them because I wasn’t majoring in Linguistics. I took classes in Ceramics, Chilean Modern Literature, a grammar class with my gringo compatriots. So we met after classes were over, at the little french-fry stand outside the Facultad. I passed the mural of Che on my right and headed up the steps until I reached a little round table of Chilean emo kids, dressed in snug black jeans and cleanly-white Adidas. They had tattoos in discreet places so that their Christian Democrat parents didn’t see. Because I asked, I saw what was supposed to be “love” in Sanskrit or Japanese on a hip or a buttock. La Veró’s tattoo, of a minotaur crying tears, was on her arm, because her mother didn’t care. It was in homage to her favorite band, Radiohead.

“Ángela!” That day, La Veró pushed the ashtray away and stood to greet me.

“Veró” I said to her. We hugged and kissed each other hello.

“How’s El Coto?”

“Same as ever. Boring. Qué fome.” I shrugged. It happened though, that I was taking one class of Chilean Spanish Linguistics with a professor of theirs that semester, a man all the Linguistics students at the Facultad called El Coto. “His goat beard was even more distracting today.”

“Have you ever noticed, Ángela? He tugs on it when he gets excited about something,” Paul put in.

“He was scratching it when we got back our tests. I failed,” I admitted.

“But who cares, right?” La Veró consoled me. “You’re learning more chilenismos with us than you ever could with him.”

“True. And I calculated the amount of credits I need to transfer over to my university yesterday. It turns out I don’t even need this class. But still, what a drag. Qué lata!”

“But why get down about some drag of a class,” Paul said. “La Franziska is having a carrete.” A carrete was a party, one of the first Chilean slang words I’d learned that semester, typically held in someone’s basement, barn or garage. “Carretear” was the verb, and it involved bad pot, along with the kind of cheap red wine that came in a box, mixed in with Coca Cola, and, sometimes, shooting pool. Most people played Takka Takka—in English we called it “Foos Ball”. I didn’t learn to play it until I got to Santiago and met up with La Veró and Paul.

Although I didn’t smoke, over the course of the semester I learned to stand the smell. I even bought a little lighter from one of the cheapo stores downtown. It looked like a miniature cell phone. I would press down on the cell phone antenna to make the flame appear. “Ánge, tení fóforo? Got a light? Thanks, baby. Pucha, that thing is cute.” And though I made a poor drunk, I learned to savor the taste of a “chop”, or watered-down beer, in the bars of Nuñoa. I had a particular affection for one bar because its name, “El Amor Nunca Muere”, read like a bad Mexican soap opera.

“It’ll probably be the last carrete for the semester,” La Veró sighed. She brought me away from my thoughts and lit another cigarette. I watched the smoke rise in the air and tried not to think about going home.

“All the more reason to celebrate,” Paul said, looking at me.

We celebrated La Franziska’s twentieth birthday in Peñalolén, a town an hour outside of Santiago. Taking the commuter train from downtown, La Veró and I watched the Santiaguino grey buildings give way to grasslands and open fields.. When we got off the train, we walked up a winding dirt road. Cradling the flowers and wine we had bought, we paused here and there to take in our lush surroundings. It happened that La Franziska’s house was a modest red farmhouse surrounded by acres of green land and horses. La Franziska greeted us with a clap of her hands and guided us to the barn where the party would be. A few of my gringo compatriotas had also been invited, but, aside from a polite nod on both sides, I spent the evening with my Chilean friends. Soon, the sunny day turned into starry night. We sang “Feliz cumpleaños” as La Franziska blew out the candles on her birthday cake. Eventually, her parents left to go to bed. We turned up Manu Chao on the small portable CD player.

To the music of “Me gusta marijuana, Me gustas tú,” La Veró plaited her long red hair and pouted, because Paul was crouching over me and showing me how to aim with the stick. “Eight-ball to the corner pocket,” he said, flashing a grin. And when I did shoot the white ball to its target, he gave me a great big hug. I buried my nose into his shirt and smelled the husky cigarros he smoked. I had drunk one part orange juice, two parts vodka and the smell of marijuana was turning my head. Paul steadied me and patted my butt.

“How could you do that to me, Ángela?” La Veró whined after we had finished the game. When she spoke English while slushed, she sounded like Kate Winslet.

“No hice nada” I said to her. “It was nothing.”

“You were holding onto him.”

“My feet were unsteady. It smells here,” I said.

“You betrayed me.” Tears ran down La Veró’s cheeks. She drank from her cup of orange juice and vodka. “I will never trust you again.”

Ten minutes later someone put on Chayanne’s romantic opus, “Dejaría todo”, and we were singing along with the words. It was dark in the barn and some couples were dancing, others making out against the walls. When the song was over, I fanned my brown fingers out. How lonely they looked without someone to hold onto them! I looked then at La Veró’s face; her tears had dried and her eyes were drooping low as she leaned against the wall. I put one arm around her waist and threw her arm around my neck. I led her to an unoccupied couch and put a blanket around her soon-snoring form. As I turned to go outside for some fresh air, I felt someone put his arms around my waist and pull me backward.

“Putalawea! What the hell, don’t do that!” I jumped at the surprising contact. I turned around and saw that it was Paul.

“Tranquila, nena,” he smoothed my hair with his hand and gave me an apologetic look. “I’m just saying hello.”

“You scared the shit out of me.”

“Aren’t you being a bit dramatic, Ángela?” He raised an eyebrow. “I was just trying to get your attention.”

“Well, now you have it,” I said, my cheeks flushing. I felt suddenly claustrophobic and stupid.

“Come with me,” Paul said, taking my hand.. “You don’t look so good.”

Outside, we leaned against a tree. Or, rather, I leaned back, taking deep breaths in and out, while Paul put his arm around my waist and pressed his nose against my cheek.

“Feeling better?”

“A little.”

“Bacán. Good,” Paul said.. He kissed my cheek.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Being friendly. Didn’t you know? Chileans are really friendly.” He kissed my lips and I kissed him back. In the darkness and the quiet of the Peñalolén night, he touched my skin and I tasted his. Soon, the unzipping of his pants didn’t seem cheap or awkward, just natural. And also soon, he brushed his lips over mine and made a little strangled sound in his throat.

“I came too fast,” he said.

“Don’t worry about it,” I responded hastily, mostly because I hadn’t expected any of this. And now that it had finally happened to me, my first time, I didn’t feel different, just the same girl I had always been.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” He touched my hair and smiled.

“It was fine,” I said, pulling away, although I wasn’t sure that I was fine. I put on my underwear and pressed down my skirt. La Veró was still sleeping inside, but for how much longer? What would she say once she found out? My thoughts spun. “We’d better get back before someone misses us.”

“Hey, oye,” Paul said.

“Hurry! Apúrate!” I told him. He zipped his fly and ran a quick hand through his disheveled hair. But it was silly to rush him, everyone was drunk or asleep when we re-entered the barn. Had I known we would just be listening to one of the gringos screaming for the next hour—he had burned his index finger on a candle and wouldn’t stop bellowing about it—I could have pressed my nose into Paul’s skin and inhaled his scent for a little bit longer; I might have had something lingering to hold on to as a memory, instead of just grunts and tree-scrapes.

“I want kisses, too!” I yelp in Spanish. It’s my last night in Chile and I’m drunk, totalmente curada weón. I’m lying on La Veró’s small bed while she and Paul make out on top of me.

“Do you?” Paul asks me. I touch the bedcover with the flat of my hand. Because I can still taste the cheese curls and gin I’ve thrown up, I finally shake my head no.

“Do you ever notice bad things happen at these parties?” I ask La Veró after we leave La Blondie, an underground nightclub in downtown Santiago—my fourth week in Santiago, and, at this point, I still know very little about Chilean youth culture. Sin is one of the favorite topics of the Catholic priest on the Catholic channel that my host-mother watches weekly—but then there is La Blondie. Here, teleserie stars make their appearance, along with vampire impersonators. Gay couples can dance and kiss without censure. La Veró, Paul and I dance frenetically to Björk, only to be pushed out because a fight happens between a drag-queen and a “vampire”.

The final carrete is at La Veró’s house in Quinta Normal, and it’s just the three of us. Because La Veró isn’t upset that no one else has shown, she plays this one Incubus song over and over again on her computer, “Wish You Were Here”. Also, because it’s just Paul, La Veró and me, Paul mixes all the alcohol on hand into one bowl and divvies up the contents.

“Come, Ánge. It’s your last night!” Paul encourages, proffering a drink. I shake my head no and he gives me a kiss on the lips. I take it from his hands.

To the sound of “Án-ge-la! Án-ge-la! Án-ge-la!” I drink one round after the other, until my cheek hits the porcelain bowl and La Veró is rubbing my back. “Are you sick, baby? Throw it all up. You’ll feel better.”

Because I’m nauseous, I lay in bed with a plastic bag and stare at the ceiling. Because I’m sick, they come in and disturb me—falling on me and swallowing each other up with their tongues. I close my eyes and begin to push and kick. Hard. “Get off me,” I say. “You guys are heavy.”

“Qué pesada! Stop that,” La Veró responds. She pushes me off the bed. I fall to the floor, on my side. I hear unzipping, panting, and groans. I crawl out of the room on my hands and knees and lock myself in the bathroom. I vomit some more and wonder if I’m real. First I smile at myself because I realize I’m a bad cliché. And then I begin to cry, because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how long I stay just like that, my back against the bathroom door, big wet tears soaking my chin and top. It’s past midnight, and my flight back to the States is later that afternoon. It’s Christmas in four days.

The morning comes in with strands of white light. It’s cool, but it warms up fast in Chile. I wash my face and quietly get my bag to leave. I gently close the front door behind me so I don’t wake Paul and La Veró and have to say good-bye to them. I walk to the corner, hailing a micro-bus to Providencia—the ride back to my host-family’s house is a short if rumbling one, and I grip the seat ahead of me with both hands, though probably not only because of the shocks from the road.

Fabienne François is a graduate of Swarthmore College. She lives and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first published story.

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