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For her thirtieth birthday, she gives herself a trip to Buenos Aires. She is going to look for the protagonist of her next short film: Inés, a young woman around her age, the daughter of her father’s half-sister. When her grandfather remarried, with three sons from his first marriage, his dream came true: he had a daughter, Inés’s mother.
The young woman lives in the same house where her grandfather spent most of his life, in a neighborhood called Parque Patrícios on the east side of the city. She had just one vague memory of this childhood place: a long, dim hallway where, over twenty years ago, when her grandfather was still alive, she learned to ride a bike. She had not returned to Buenos Aires since.
If she had only a faint memory of the house, she remembered clearly the afternoons spent with her cousin when they went to visit their grandfather. Inés was even shyer than she was, which had seemed impossible to her until they met. On one of those afternoons, walking side by side in the hallway of the house, she had offered her hand and Inés had accepted with a naturalness that won her over immediately.
Inés inherited the house that the law had originally left to her mother and uncles. There were no complaints. Due to distance, indifference, or the unease that accompanies such transactions, they had let the family estate go its own way. Things were usually like this between them: objects and affections were relinquished little by little until they became matters of the past.
Before leaving on her trip, she wrote her itinerary in a notebook with a blue cover. Day 1: neighbourhood reconnaissance. Day 2: introductory visit. In the remaining days, a few more meetings to better get to know her future character. WHY HER? she asks in block letters in the centre of a blank page, before closing the notebook and packing it in her suitcase.
She lands in Buenos Aires on a hot February day. The temperature, according to the radio in the cab on the ride downtown, is about 36˚C. A cloak of humidity covers the urban landscape. She does not recognise the streets through which the taxi driver leads her, though the surroundings of trees, houses, buildings, shops are strangely familiar.
She wants to get to her hotel room quickly, drop her things and go out for a stroll; to find a café and sit at a table by the window with her notebook and the fountain pen she bought for the occasion. The hotel, recommended by a friend who has just been there, is on Charcas, at the part where it widens like a boulevard, with flower beds in the middle.
She doesn’t trust her memory, so she writes everything down. (It’s a habit she’s had since she was a child; even then she found herself chaotic and the smooth lines of the paper promised to order her thoughts). She wants to record her arrival, its sensations and images, already thinking about her departure, when everything she’ll have lived through will seem unreal.
She forgoes the reconnaissance visit. Unexpectedly, she feels anxious about standing before her grandfather’s house and she knows that once there she won’t be able to resist ringing the bell. The next morning, with the address jotted down in the blue notebook, she catches a bus to Parque Patrícios.
She sits in the last row, next to the window. The bus takes a long route following General Urquiza until it reaches its final stop under a viaduct. She verifies on a map that Calle 24 de Noviembre is just one block over, but she’ll have to walk up it another four or five to reach her grandfather’s house.
It’s very calm for ten-thirty on a Tuesday morning. She walks along streets that are empty, nearly dead. Has she been there before, once? She can’t remember.
She feels the strangeness increase at every corner. She is still not sure what’s drawing her there. What made her think it would be a good idea to go back to that place long lost in her memory? She walks away from her grandfather’s street. She needs more time.
She goes up Catamarca, taking no interest in what she sees. The houses, with their low Persian blinds, look abandoned. The bars are deserted. Everything is decaying; there’s no intensity, no mystery. What has she been waiting for? She doesn’t really know. To go back in time, maybe. To identify suddenly with this once-familiar space. Instead, she finds a neighbourhood that does not welcome her, that does not even notice she is there.
The house will be there as though time had not passed, she consoles herself. And there it is. Not wanting to get too close, intimidated by the real presence of what moments ago had been sheer memory, at first she observes it from a distance. It’s more severe than she anticipated: one storey, painted white, with granite edging under the windows (two rectangular windows, one on either side of a black wrought-iron gate).
She worries that Inés will leave the house at some point, perhaps with a child in her arms or pushing a shopping cart. Undoubtedly, she’ll find it strange to see a young woman standing there across the vacant street, surveying the entrance to her home. Maybe she will recognise her, though it’s unlikely after so many years. She doesn’t even have long blond hair any more.
She decides to wait behind a tree a few metres away to protect against a possible surprise. Just then she notices a detail that had escaped her: a placard on the door of the house. It’s a wooden rectangle painted white with red borders and blue block letters saying STYLIST.
The word puzzles her. She knows nothing about Inés’s profession, nor whether she is married or single, if she has children, but now she realises that she had assumed, only because Inés still lived in that house, that she must also be heir to the values of another time, without a career, dedicated exclusively to home-making.
Now she imagines that Inés has converted one of the rooms of her grandfather’s house into a sewing studio. She has hired employees, each with her own Singer sewing machine bought on installments with money earned from their sales. These days she only makes the sketches and supervises their execution.
She finds herself creating a world on the other side of the still-closed gate, a life for Inés, who has become her character before she has even met her. Does she really need to? Is it necessary to ring the bell and introduce herself, ask questions, disturb her with her possibly unwanted interference? What difference would it make to actually meet her?
She hesitates. She knows that it’s time to make a decision. She has flown from Rio de Janeiro to meet a young woman who has become a stranger and to suggest, in a language she speaks with difficulty, the improbable: that they become close again. In her notebook, she carries a photo of the two of them holding hands in front of the wrought-iron gate.
She will not be able to turn around and leave as though she had never been there. She will not be able to give up an encounter that had seemed vital until just a few moments before. She takes a deep breath and, clutching her notebook like a lifebelt, crosses the street toward the entrance to the house. She rings the bell.
Minutes pass and nothing happens. Finally, someone appears behind the iron gate, a man of about forty, in slippers, Bermuda shorts and a jersey from a football team she doesn’t recognise. In shaky Spanish, she asks: Is the stylist here? The man nods yes, pointing to the hallway ahead of him. Last door on the right.
For once her memory does not betray her: the hallway exists and it is nearly identical to the image she has retained of it from childhood, although it is brighter now as the midday sun pierces forcefully through the bars of the gate; the ceiling is flaking in places, as are the walls, treated poorly by the humidity; the beige ceramic floor is worn with age.
She walks slowly in the direction the man indicated, glued to the wall as though she were hiding from someone. At the end of the hall, an opaque glass door. She knocks and waits. The young woman who opens it has straight black hair down to her shoulders, very pale skin, big eyes with full lashes. It is Inés.
Without saying a word, Inés offers her a chair to sit on and quickly disappears behind one of the doors that opens onto the inner courtyard, where she awaits her next move. The courtyard is a three by two rectangle, decorated with plant pots in various sizes, some empty, a poster of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, and another of the same football team that was on the jersey of the man who let her in (San Lorenzo, she now learns).
Ten minutes later, Inés reappears, now with her hair pulled into a bun and dressed all in white, in long trousers and a t-shirt. Inés approaches her and, to her surprise, delicately messes with her hair, saying something about the cut that is hard to understand. Inés asks her to follow her and goes toward the other door that leads to the courtyard, opening it and letting her walk through first.
What she sees is nothing like what she’d expected. In a corner of the room, to the right, a white sink with a chair in front of it. On the left wall, above a small bench, also white, a round mirror in front of a worn black leather armchair. At the back, a Formica cabinet with clear doors and several shelves where different shampoos, conditioners, dyes and other products of the sort are carefully aligned.
Inés guides her to the left side of the room and pulls out the armchair near the bench, offering her a seat. She obeys, still under the influence of surprise: she leaves her blue notebook on the bench and sits down. Their eyes meet in the mirror. Inés smiles as a formality, without recognising her. She looks at her attentively, waiting for her to say why she came. Quiero pintar mi pelo de rubio, she says, breaking the silence. Bueno, Inés replies. No te lo vas a cortar? No.
From a drawer under the bench, Inés takes out a chart of dyes in various colours. She chooses the lightest blond, almost white. Inés asks if she doesn’t mind bleaching her hair and she shakes her head no. The two make their way to the sink in the corner of the room. She feels like she is in a dream, incapable of controlling her own movement.
Eyes closed, she abandons herself to the woman’s soft hands. She feels how pleasant it is to be in someone else’s care: time decelerated, all sound distant, no thought beside the sensation of no longer belonging to herself. She wishes she could stay there for hours. Inés’s voice interrupts her trance with a question: sos de acá?
She does not know what to answer. Is she from here? Not exactly. Her father is from here and she was born in Brazil. Vivo en Río de Janeiro, she ends up saying. Qué lindo! She waits for other comments that do not come: perhaps she’ll remember she has relatives in Brazil, a cousin she has not seen in years. Inés says nothing else. She dries her hair with a towel and takes her back to the chair in front of the mirror.
She prepares a white mixture in a plastic container and starts to apply it. She knows it will be a slow process and the inevitability of the wait is agonising. Why didn’t she say who she was as soon as she arrived, avoiding all the theatrics? What’s this story about dyeing her hair blond? She’s never done that before. She won’t recognise herself. She feels like a fool.
Inés leaves her alone in the room with a few magazines. She returns at regular intervals to check how the process is going. After half an hour, she brings her back to the sink to rinse out the product. Then she applies another and leaves her alone again, until she finally returns and says that it’s ready. The two make their way once more to the sink in the corner of the room. With her head washed and wrapped in the towel, she sits in the chair to see the result of her impulse.
With an air of suspense, Inés asks if she is ready. She replies that actually, no, because she has never coloured her hair before. She was blond as a child, but over time her hair got darker. She had curls down to her waist, she explains in faltering Spanish. Inés looks interested in this fragment of biography. Then she says that she never imagined that one day she’d have the courage to dye her hair, but it felt like the right thing to do at that moment. Así es la vida, Inés replies with a shy smile.
Translated by Hilary Kaplan.
Hilary Kaplan is a poet and translator of Brazilian poetry and fiction. She received a 2011 PEN Translation Fund award for her translation of Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas (Phoneme Media, forthcoming). She teaches in the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College.