It is Claire’s third week in Argentina, and things have not been going well.
Claire is at a bar. She is standing before a man. His friends are dancing round to that same awful reggaeton, trapping her in a corner. Not this, again. The man says something unintelligible (her Spanish hasn’t improved) and his friends laugh. Where the fuck is Dayana?
The man slithers towards her. “Machismo” isn’t just a word down here, it’s a culture. Claire’s in Argentina to teach English at a school for a few months. Every time she leaves the house, she subjects herself to this bullshit. Tall, blonde, and pretty fit, she might add, she’s used to a little attention. But on the way to and from work, five days a week, huddles of men point their bodies at her in grotesque ways. And under the dark of night and alcohol, they are bolder still. They have no shame, and they are disgusting.
He is only a few feet away. Her heart beats heavy in her chest. Whispering something in Spanish as he comes ever forward, his arms like snakes ready to smother her. She feels the space behind her evaporating as she crawls backwards, his eyes burned intently on Claire.
And that’s when the man reaches to put his hands on her.
He doesn’t, more or less, because the paved road turns to gravel and one of the tires skips over a big, ugly rock.
Claire is waking up. She is on a bus. Alone, far away from home back in Tenafly, NJ, celebrating the fourth anniversary of her twenty-first birthday. By herself. She was dreaming of the guy at the bar. The other night. Not even in her sleep is there haven from his hands, those claws…FUCK! How long has she been sleeping?
Out the window, there are fences and shacks smattered on rolling plains. Everything looks barren under the sweltering Argentinian sun. Is there anyone still on this bus? An indigenous lady, knitting or something, and another local already grinning at her. The type of older man that sits by himslf, mumbling under heavy breath, more to himself than to Claire. These are the ones that scare her most. She looks away, hurriedly.
What if she’s missed her stop? She needs to know where the bus is, currently. The weekend was spent visiting a friend from the varsity soccer team in a town to the south, a mini-vacation to celebrate her anniversary. Her friend, Dayana (Hamilton College, Class of 20-08), had been a walk-on their freshman year, and in their senior year, captain over Claire. But now they’re friends and Claire isn’t mad about it or anything. She gets up, leaving her backpack in the seat beside her, and advances towards the lady in the front. The lady is wearing a blanket as a top, dyed blood-red, and carefully matched to a festive jungle-green bottom/blanketdress. Claire clears her throat before she speaks.
The lady hardly looks at her and says something in rapid indigenese. Then she looks away, the matter having been settled, evidently.
“How come I’m the one who’s down here and you’re the one who can’t speak Spanish??” she asks, in English.
Claire approaches the driver.
“Sientate!” he barks, not taking his eyes off the road.
This means “sit yourself.” Great, thanks. Claire turns around and there he is, perched in a back corner. She sighs in admission, and then advances, carefully. She is already planning how to ask “are we near the bus stop?” in perfect Spanish.
The first thing she notices about the man is that he’s missing his front right tooth. He has the balding appearance of someone that’s worked outside all his life but only has two or three outfits, and it slaps you in the face, the stank of these 25-40 years. You can never tell with them, down here. Obviously, he hasn’t shaved in a while.
She looks him in the eyes when she speaks.“Nosotros cercas Santa Rosa?”
“Siii,” he lisps. “Very close.”
Claire doesn’t trust him. “Parada for Santa Rosa? Comprendes?”
She smiles politely then turns back to her seat, gracias. Ten bucks says he comes and sits next to her. Ummm…okay. Before Claire can even look over her shoulder, he’s in the seat the row across.
“Donde eres, where you from?” he asks, in well-rehearsed English, and with that annoying habit of asking a basic question and then following it with the obvious translation. As if she didn’t already know. Or is he trying to show off?
She looks out the window. “United States.”
“Oh! Nueva York! Me encanta your city!”
Claire frowns. “Cool.”
“I live in East Village!” She doesn’t believe this. “Cuantos años tienes, how old you are?”
“Twenty-eight,” she lies.
“Tienes un novio? You have boyfriend?”
Every guy here and this bullshit. The same three questions. You ask a guy around here a simple question and he thinks it’s an invitation. Only he doesn’t want your story. He just wants to know how old you are and if he can fuck you. Like the man, the other night.
He is still grinning, expectantly. What kind of guy walks around so nonchalantly, missing a front tooth? Claire realizes he has asked her a question and it has been a few seconds since she last spoke.
“Yes,” she lies again. “He’s waiting for me at the bus stop.”
“I live in Santa Rosa, tambien. Muy cerca parada. Very close.”
Claire is still gazing out the window. In her dreams there is never a happy memory of her knee in his groin. Just his hands, reaching for her. Claire will listen to a few more things in Spanish she doesn’t understand, and then she will smile politely and he will go away.
“Donde vives, where you live?”
Claire replies without thinking, and then realizes how STUPID THAT WAS, and spins to deny or elaborate. “No, I mean, yo signifco-”
“Yo tambien! Yo vivo muy cccerrca!” Claire doesn’t believe this. She doesn’t like it, either. Her eyes fall from his face to his hands, calloused and worn, but folded almost delicately, Claire notes, in his lap. Another twenty bucks says that this is a guy who doesn’t wash his hands very often. The thought of touching either one is repulsive.
And that’s when Claire’s eyes drift a little bit further, over to the man’s pockets, and she sees the hilt of what could only be a knife.
Okay. There are any number of legitimate explanations why he might live close to her and have a knife in his pocket that don’t involve rape or her blood on his hands. He could be a fisherman, or, a…farmer. Or, uhhhh…fuck, is that a knife!?
The man’s eyes are burned on Claire. He is saying something she can’t understand, rambling with this terrible excitement. She wishes her Spanish were better. Claire doesn’t know if it’s better to try to ask him to go away or to sit here patiently and wait for him to stop talking. Why the hell is he missing a tooth? Those cracked lips, those rotten teeth, the guy would actually look better if someone would just knock them all out. She hopes this won’t have to be her, but she’s glad that she took that self-defense class for a gym credit, after the bad thing happened. With that guy, back in college…take control, Claire, take control.
“How do you know English?”
“I tell you, I live in East Village!”
“You mean lived.”
“Your English isn’t very good for someone who lived in The States.”
“I try to learn. Mi hermano, my brother, he live there. You know Manhattan?”
“Everyone knows Manhattan.”
“Siii,” the man hisps. “Capitol of the world!”
“Okay, so you lived in Manhattan, or your brother does?”
“Los dos. Yo solo para un poco.”
“English, por favor.”
“Porque no te gusta hablar en Español? Why you no like speak in Spanish?”
“Me gusta just fine, I just prefer English.”
The man stops smiling and furrows his brow. Smiling was better than angry, Claire decides, missing the man’s missing tooth. He sits back in his chair, does something like wipe his hands on his jeans, but really thinking about his knife…stay calm, Claire, stay calm…what is she supposed to? Just fucking wait here? This bus needs to stop. Now.
…And just like that, it does. The screeching breaks sound like they might fail any minute. But this doesn’t matter anymore. None of this matters: these shitty breaks, this shitty driver, this shitty bus, this shitty country!! Claire turns for her bag without looking from the man, except her bag feels bigger and heavier…whatever. She will smile politely, say “Adios,” and then he’s history.
But of course the man is already standing, ushering her forward with those blackened hands. He is grinning again. Skipping any pretense of formality, she rushes forward, past the indigenous lady and the driver and into the night. The streets are as empty as the dark. There is no one waiting for her. She struggles to throw her bag over her shoulder.
Okay. Maybe if she looks him dead in the eye and finds the right words, maybe he’ll hesitate. Plus, there was that self-defense class. For gym credit. She hears the man getting off the bus. Then there’s his knife. She could run, but running would be the worst way to draw unwanted attention to around here.
So she’s power-walking like her life depends on it.
“Espera! Espera!” the man calls from behind. Claire doesn’t know what this means, but she can assume it’s something vulgar. Back in the direction the bus came from, just look at the girl and the way she moves! It’s only a few blocks to her apartment. She turns off the gravel road and onto broken concrete. Her bag feels heavy. Why did she need three pairs of jeans for a weekend?
She hears his heavy footsteps coming for her.
“Señora! Espera! Not safe!”
“Not with creeps like you in this world!” she shouts back. He is only a dozen feet behind. As the man chases after her, his eyes and his mouth agape, swallowing the night. Those hands… Claire is more or less running now. Shallow breath, focus on breathing. Is this panicking? At the end of the block, she turns left, towards her street. This is that part of town, with the convenience store, and the gas station. There is a light on inside, a man waiting in the doorway, but there’s no way she’s stopping, to ask him for help. Her bag feels heavy, her jeans are like bricks. Maybe if she drops it suddenly she can get him to trip.
Claire looks over her shoulder. He is only a few feet away. She peels her burden from her shoulders, he’s like right there, she drops it. Yet instead of tripping (that was so close!), the man picks up the bag, chasing with the same mad intensity. But four years of varsity soccer and she’s off! There’s no way he’s catching her now!!
“Señora! Tu mochila!” Claire is almost at the end of the block. The turns left again, and home is like right there and her KEY IS IN THE BAG, YOU FUCKING IDIOT!
She sprints towards the walkway of her apartment, nestled like a beacon amongst the dead lawns. Mamá or Papá better be up. At the door, frantically beating her fists. He can’t be far behind. She pounds and she wails but it’s too late, nobody is coming, and she doesn’t have to turn around. She can feel the space around her evaporating. She can feel the hand on her shoulder.
“Señora! Tu mochila! I have it for you!”
The man is holding Claire’s bag in his other hand. He gives it to her. Then just like that, he turns to leave. Claire is safely delivered and he’s gone, waving as he heads up the walkway. Halfway down the block, to a house on the right, he reaches into a pocket and pulls out a large pair of keys, calmly. The man turns around again, smiles once more, and then disappears inside.
“But why…were you missing…a tooth??” she sputters, aloud, to no one in particular.
Claire can hear someone stirring in her apartment. She’s facing out towards her street. She’s looking at all the houses, not knowing which are still occupied, or how many neighbors she has. There’s a full moon for swear-to-god the first time since she’s been down here, and a quiet moment, then the sudden realization that this man now knows where Claire lives.