The Seahorse and the Cow

12 Feb

<By Robin Kilmer>

There is a dead seahorse in my room.  I am told it is a male. I purchased him in Argentina from a Colombian who got it from a boy on a beach in Peru.  He was naturally mummified by unusually high salinity in his home waters.  His body is shaped like a question mark and death caught him at the precise moment when his tail was curled in a dainty coil.  The seahorse’s thin hide is unremarkable; it is his skeleton that inspires.  His bones are a series of Lilliputian flying buttresses that come together to form tiny triangles and polygons on his body.  The perfect spiral of his tail evokes a geometry of infinity—of a never ending cycle.

Unlike the architecturally magnificent skeletons of sea horses, human bones must interact with the flesh in order to aesthetically please.  Some of my favorite bones are the mandible and the clavicle.  A fresh, flawless canvas of flesh stretched over an easel of bones yearns to be blemished with scars that narrate our existence.  I have a two-inch long vertical scar on my left arm from the time I tried to open a wine bottle by sticking a nail in the cork and pulling it open with the claw of a hammer.  My ex-boyfriend Leonardo has a scar on his lower abdomen from where his appendix was removed.  There is also the trace of a cut a cut across his left eyebrow. At first he said it was from when he fell off his bike.  Then he said it was because he was hit with a baseball bat during the riots over the devaluation of the peso.  The story has been revised many times, and I’m sure it will be revised many more before I know the full truth.  His worst scars are a series of horizontal tracks in the middle of his inner arm that form a jagged and sinister barcode.

The mummified sea horse came into my life the same night as Juan Manuel.  It was August of 2008, and the first time I returned to Buenos Aires after spending a whole semester there in 2006.  I was sitting at the large table in the common space of a hostel in San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires and one of the cradles of Argentine tango.  It is therefore fitting that I was reading the Spanish edition of a book about Argentine tango.  I looked up from the book to see three backpackers trooping in looking quite exhausted.  It was clear they had stayed at the hostel before as Marco at the front desk greeted them by name.  They were from Colombia.  Andres was a doctor.  His pretty wife with long black hair was Carolina.  They were accompanied by a tall, thin character with a modest beard, shoulder length hair and high cheekbones; he could have passed as Jesus.

That was Juan Manuel.

Later that night, after dinner with a friend, I found myself sitting at the table again, speaking to the trio.  This time Juan was clean-shaven and scrubbed—but not too scrubbed.  Instead of looking like Jesus he could have passed as a South American Kurt Cobain.  It turned out that Juan was Andres’s brother and he came to Buenos Aires to study at one of the city’s many culinary schools.  He earned money as a street vendor to pay for room and board.  Someday, when he returned to Colombia, Andres was going to buy him a restaurant.  Juan saw me as a potential customer and wasted no time in bringing down his wares.  He had three small suitcases full of bracelets and necklaces he made himself.  It was the kind of jewelry worn by college students who, after returning from travels in South America, proclaimed a renewed interest in the Spanish language, Che Guevara and Manu Chau.  Being a college-aged foreigner he probably expected me to buy a necklace or bracelet.  But I did not need jewelry and politely declined his merchandise.

“Okay, well I have some stones.” He started unwrapping semi-precious stones. They were nice, but there was nothing I could do with a stone.

“No thanks,” I said.

“No problem,” he said, unfazed.  “I have something else I think you’ll like.”  He disappeared, leaving me with Andres and Carolina.

Juan returned carrying a small white box.  He opened it and took out a wad of newspaper, revealing two dead seahorses.  I had never been this close to a seahorse, dead or alive.  Actually they were in such perfect condition that I half expected them to start flopping about—or whatever it is seahorses do—for want of water.  Juan explained that they were mummified.  These I knew I could not easily find in Buenos Aires.  I bought one of them for twenty-five pesos—roughly eight dollars.

“I was wondering who would buy these guys,” Juan said.  He seemed pleasantly surprised that I went for the seahorse instead of the jewelry.  “Here, take a little bracelet too.”  He gave me a blue bracelet with three wooden beads.

I stayed in touch with Leonardo after I left Argentina.  I was in contact with him enough to keep abreast of his troubles.  He told me about the time he went to the hospital because his hand got smashed during a fight in a bar.  I knew about the time he stopped working because he had fallen off the bandwagon and lived in the streets of Buenos Aires because couldn’t pay the rent.  I was also aware of the time he quit his job in the orchestra of a nightclub because he thought the owner was in the mafia.  When I first met his mother she asked me if I had been looking for an adventure in Argentina—glancing at Leo as she said this.  All I could do to respond was laugh.  She laughed with me.

It was after I saw the barcode scars that I started pressing him for information about his past.

“What happened?”  I kept asking him.

“Nothing,” he kept saying for a while.  But I kept asking.

“I didn’t really want to tell you,” he finally said one say as we were strolling on the banks of the Rio de la Plata.  “I’m afraid of you judging me…but you haven’t stopped asking…”

“I won’t judge you.”

Leo divulged that not only had he been to rehab, but was also clinically insane.  I was not surprised by such drastic news, as the scars had already spoken volumes.  Nor was I afraid.  I hoped it was water under the bridge and thought I could help him.  It’s amazing how naïve a twenty-one year old can be.

When Leo realized that I was not going to eschew him for his past, he wanted to spend more time with me.  Initially the feeling was mutual.  A classical guitarist, he never went anywhere without his guitar in tow.  It was his one constant in life.  I would wake up in the morning to him playing Catedral.  He introduced me to the works of Augustín Barrios and Andres Segovia, as well as the Tango, Argentine Folklore and the Flamenco of Camaron de la Isla and Paco de Lucia.  Leo would smile patiently if our conversations were punctuated by me having to flip through my pocket dictionary to look up a word in Spanish.  In the mornings he would buy pastries for us to eat, with our backs against the wall in his room at the flophouse that had been plastered over the summer with smashed mosquitos.  He marveled at my gall every time I took the bus across town to visit him in that room in la Constitución, deemed the South Bronx of Buenos Aires.

He was very sweet, but his alter-ego was Machiavelli, and Machiavelli came to town whenever Leo had the slightest drop of alcohol.  Leo as Machiavelli was paranoid, aggressive, thought the mafia was on his tail, and that the Universe and everything and everyone in it was conspiring against him.  And always at the height of his delusion he would accuse me of being a floozy who was shagging half of Buenos Aires.

Things had not ended well between us.  The last time I saw him was in July of 2006 when he stole my cell phone.  I always tell people that I let him have it—which isn’t untrue.  He had taken it from me thinking I was contacting that ever present figment of his imagination: my other lover.  I managed to grapple it from him and hail a cab.  With Leo in hot pursuit I threw myself into the vehicle and used all my force to pull the door shut as quickly as possible.  But instead of hearing the satisfactory sound of the door slamming against the body of the car, there was a dull thud of metal on flesh.  Leo had been diving into the car to try to stop me and to my horror his head had prevented the door from closing.

“OH MY GOD!”  I forgot that I was trying to get away from Leo and took his face gently in my hands.

“Are you okay?!?  I’m so sorry…”  I was in hysterics.

Leo was not looking at me when he nodded yes.  He was looking at the phone that had dropped to the floor. He grabbed it and left the cab.  I followed, furious at myself for being compassionate and furious at him for taking advantage of my compassion.  I ran after him.  A line of people waiting for a bus turned to watch our artless tango unfold.

Leo was furious too, but not at having a door slam on his face.

“Robin, why would you do this to me?”  He was referring to the fictitious other lover.  “I would have gone to the United States with you,” he continued desperately.  The spectators laughed, knowing that it is nearly impossible for most of them to even visit the United States ever since the economic crisis.

I wasn’t paying attention to them or what he was saying.  I couldn’t help but notice that the force of the door slamming on his face had caused a gash over his right eye.  Now there was a tear of blood going down his cheek.

“You’re bleeding,” was all I could say.

“I’m fine.”

I lost my zeal to fight.  I had no heart to wrestle with a delusional, bleeding man over a cell phone.  I headed back to the cab while Leo stationed himself near a curb to search for proof that this other lover who had nearly cost him his head was more than just a figment of his imagination.

Two years later I was hesitant to tell Leo I was going back to Argentina, but contacted him anyway a week before coming.  We agreed to meet up.  I hoped we could be friends.  I was on my way out when I saw Juan was in the common room reading my book about Argentine tango, which he had taken an interest in and asked to borrow the day before.  He closed the book when he saw me.  He smiled and asked me where I was going.  I explained that I was meeting up with someone.

“A lover?”  He asked.

“An ex-lover.”

People have a tendency to be more direct when traveling.  There is little time to beat around the bush and think about reasons why you shouldn’t do or ask something.  So I wasn’t surprised when Juan asked me if I was going to sleep with the said ex-lover. For some reason Juan thought it strange that my plans were not of an amorous platform, so I explained to him that though I hoped we could be friends, as Leo was clinically insane.  I recounted the phone incident, expecting Juan to concur.

“You’re crazy,” is what he said instead.

“What?!?  How can you say I’m crazy?  You don’t know anything about me!”

“Well, I already know you’re crazy.”  The Jedi calm with which he stood by his statement unnerved me.

“No, you don’t understand, I’m not the crazy one; he is!  Don’t you think he sounds crazy?”

“I’m not talking about him.  I’m talking about you.”

“Okay, explain to me why you think I’m crazy.”

“You’re crazy because he’s done all these things yet you are still going to see him again.”

“…Oh.”  I said in concession.

“Where are you meeting him?”  If he was smug he did not show it.

“There is a free classical music concert twenty minutes from here.”

“Sounds interesting.”  There was a pause as Juan considered what else he could say to catch me off guard.  He smirked and said,  “I’m coming with you.”

“Don’t you dare.”  I was getting angry now.

Juan laughed.  He was only trying to make a point.  Meeting up with Leo was not within the realm of logic.  But since when did matters of the heart ever make sense to the brain?

Leo was late to the concert—accompanied by his guitar of course.  He looked more pale and thin than before, but we greeted each other with smiles and a hug.  I noticed that the gash I had given him was healed and now he had a scar over each eyebrow.  Leo joked that his face was symmetrical again.

The orchestra played the works of Poulenc, Tchaikovsky and others.  As a lighthearted finale, they decided to play a Beegees number.  Leo was a musical purist.  He looked disgusted and got up to leave.  “I’m not staying here to listen to this tomfoolery.”  I let him go.  He was waiting for me outside when the concert ended.

“Let’s get a beer,” he said.

“I thought you said you weren’t drinking anymore.”

“Yes, but this is a special occasion!  I have to offer you something.  We’ll split one.”

He insisted that he would be fine and I wanted to believe him, hoping Leo was capable of staying out of the cycle of drinking, raging, remorse and the depression that him back to drinking.  For some reason it seemed unlikely, but denying him a chance to prove himself was the same as admitting defeat.

We went to a supermarket to buy a liter of Quilmes and sat down at the curb outside.  There was an urban guard standing on the corner.  Many corners in downtown Buenos Aires are occupied by the Guardia Urbana.  They are easily identifiable by their reflective orange vests.  These otherwise normal looking blokes stare intently at passersby.  Perhaps the man rested his gaze a moment too long on Leo before returning his interest to the other pedestrians.  Leo immediately started getting defensive, taking on an aggressive tone that heralded the arrival of Machiavelli.

“What is he looking at me for?  He probably wants to take my guitar.  He’s waiting for me to make a mistake so he can take me to jail and steal it.”

“I don’t think he’s looking at you.”  I said, knowing anything I said was useless.

“I hate this place.  There are no good people in Argentina.”

“You don’t think you’re a good person?”  He ignored my question.

“You’re so lucky.  I don’t know why you’re here.  You have everything you need in the United States.”

“There are many things here that you can’t find in the United States….”

“You don’t know anything.”

I decided to leave before he got himself worked up into a proper rage.  This was his cycle, not mine.  I had learned by now that I could not help him out of it.  “Well, since I don’t know anything, I guess you probably don’t really need my company.”  With that I got up and left, grateful he didn’t follow me like he would have two years ago.

The next day Juan, Andres, Carolina, and other guests and staff of the hostel sat down to a feast in the common space.  Juan prepared the beef in the patio outside.  Other guests brought some red bell peppers and bananas to throw on the grill, and I provided some red wine.

It was the wine that helped catalyze the feast in the first place.  I purchased it earlier that day at the La Feria de Mataderos outside Buenos Aires.  The fair caters to tourists looking for gaucho merchandise and artisan goods.  Juan was with me when I sampled it at the wine booth.  I wondered what he had to show for his culinary schooling and was trying to think of a tactful way to find out.

“I’ll buy this if you do an asado tonight.”

Juan capitulated easily.  After all, Andres and Carolina were going back to Colombia the following day, so what better way to send them off than with an Argentine style barbeque?

After the fair we went to the market to get some beef.  At the butcher a pig’s head smiled vaguely at our feet and a cow had been disassembled into many pieces.  Its stomach, looking like huge, deflated, bizarrely textured balloon dangled inches from our faces.  Its innards were twisted into ropes of sausage, and its red muscle fibers were laid out in chunks in front of us as Juan chose the best cuts.  Except for those that I had already seen on a plate, the cows, pigs, poultry and goats whose bodily expiration was put on display at butcher shops around town were the only dead creatures I saw besides the seahorse.

As manifested by the visit to the butcher, the demise of the cow contrasts starkly with that of the seahorse.  The mummified seahorse appeals to the eye while remaining outside the circle of life and death, its flesh providing no feast for the usual agents of decomposition.   The beauty of the dead seahorse is that it remains as solidly intact as it was in life, but the beauty of a dead cow on a grill is that is has been so tampered with that it does not resemble its original form.  In death the cow becomes a medium to create something that is beautiful to us, whether it be a t-bone steak, a sirloin steak, a stir fry, or a hamburger.  The dead cow pleases the tongue and remains solidly in the circle of life—its flesh contributing to our flesh.   In one life cycle there are multiple other cycles: some are functions of the body, others are functions of the mind and heart.  The beginning of one cycle is always marked by the end of another.

The feast had gone well and accolades went to the chef.  It was a wordless conversation at the table.  One guest expressed satisfaction with their dinner as they noisily masticated their meat.  Another concurred by sucking zealously on the bones.

The night wore on, the wine was drained and everyone set off to bed, leaving just Juan and me.  Eventually all the beef was gone too, and the only flesh left to be enjoyed was each other’s.  Juan invited me to his room in the hostel.  Juan was running his fingers along my hips—to see if the structure was sound?  To search for stories?

“What a lovely bone,” he finally said, and then drew his lips to my hip and gently bit it.

Robin Kilmer studied Latin American and Iberian history at Bard College.  She taught at a public school in the Bronx for three years before deciding to pursue her lifelong passion in writing.

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3 Responses to “The Seahorse and the Cow”

  1. john didrichsen February 14, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    Excellently written, almost masculine in its subject and tone. Robin Kilmer: female Hemingway, travelling through South America recounting the brave individualist’s quarrels and contretemps in an old city’s underbelly. Good show!

  2. mom February 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    your mom just read this.

  3. tia corby February 16, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    Mi sobrina ea una bella a chica lista!
    I really enjoyed reading your story Robin, you did a wonderful job of weaving together the prose and the dialogue to good effect. So many lovely bits and turns of phrase -”Lilliputian flying buttresses” – wonderful – ‘While I was away’, wandering in your story, I was also remembering what it was like to be 20-something again and traveling… a bittersweet armchair daydream… I agree “matters of the heart rarely make sense to our brains”. Keep writing, mi sobrina, I’m looking forward to your next post! We’ll be sure to create some adventures worth recounting when you come west next month! lv tia corbie

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