Paul Lask, formerly of Chicago, has been living in Santiago, Chile, since mid-2012. He is at work on a novel.
They left town at dawn, heading east into the mountains. When the sun hit it exposed lines in Carlos’ face that weren’t there the night they met. She had seen the scars of two barbell eyebrow piercings on the dance floor that night. They struck her as warning signs of trashiness. He turned out to have a good sense of humor, though. He was a little full of himself — enough to keep a short goatee and hand her his business card when he thought he was losing her in the conversation — but Sarah told herself it was a healthy vanity. Plus he hadn’t made the first move, even after they sunk the bottle of Carmenere at his place afterward.
Now they were driving the curvy roads at the foothills of the Andes. They told each other travel stories. They had already (that night with the wine) done the backstory thing. Sarah was from a small town in southern Wisconsin, and he was from Buenos Aires. That was where his wife lived while the couple took their break. He had no children.
She had just finished a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, turning 23 in July. Carlos was 34 and had dropped out of college years ago.
She told him about her post-high-school-graduation trip, when she and a girlfriend on a whim bought cheap plane tickets to Cancun. Carlos told her he’d traveled throughout South America, and once backpacked from Rome to Barcelona.
He smoked too much, she now noticed.
Sarah smoked only when she went out. She didn’t know the last time she’d bought a pack. The cigarettes in Chile had shock photos on them, hard not to notice, and she turned to look out the window; it was early November, springtime here. Just outside Santiago the land opened up and turned to flattish, bushy desert dotted with paddle-armed cacti blooming pink and white flowers. After an hour the road dipped in and out of valleys, where a river fed the willow and cottonwood trees that were deeper green and moving in the light wind. The trees, and the water, which was the muddy color of the Wisconsin River, reminded her of home.
Though this was the most non-touristy thing she had done since being here, she kept cool. She asked for a cigarette. She thanked him for remembering she was a vegetarian, and after smoking made them Gouda-on-white-bread sandwiches with mustard. They ate. Carlos was one of the many she’d met in Chile who drank mate tea in a gourd with a silver straw that looked like a spoon. She partook, pouring hot water from his thermos, and they took turns sharing the gourd. After 15 minutes or so she felt the mix of caffeine and nicotine and food move her bowels. She doubted she could wait until the border to use the restroom.
He pulled into a gas station off the two-lane road. There were no toilet seats in the damas bathroom, a whitewashed cinder building aside the station. She listened to the river outside the window near the ceiling, doing her best to balance herself.
When she came out she saw he was petting a stray dog, a charcoal greyhound that was the envy of the small pack of dogs watching from across the road. There were rags of snow left on the mountains in the distance. He asked if she was OK. Sarah was warm with embarrassment, and evenly said she was fine, thanks.
Getting in, Carlos made a joke about how hard she slammed the door. She hadn’t noticed, but was glad he had changed the subject away from her health.
As they drove she talked about Santiago. She soon found she was just telling him things she’d seen and done to keep the conversation moving.
She asked if he’d seen the locks on the bridge over the Mapocho River. They were supposed to symbolize love, she said, attaching a lock to the gate of the bridge and throwing the key into the water. She told him a student told her that they did the lock thing in Paris. She taught English as a Second Language for an institution, and went into the skyscrapers and drank coffee with people she considered powerful, those who needed to learn English so as to give talks to others like them, those in the mining and telecommunications industries — they knew what was going on in Paris.
He said it was a strange form of love. Locking it up and throwing away the key. She hadn’t thought about it that way, but could see what he was getting at.
She didn’t want to talk about love anymore, and so brought the conversation back to her disappointment with her work.
It was not why she’d studied literature, she said, to spread English like some missionary. Then again, Sarah wasn’t sure why she’d studied literature, other than she had always loved to read and write. She told him this was pretty much her essential dilemma, not wanting to teach businesspeople anymore. It was going to be the determining factor for how long she would stay in South America.
He told her he sometimes had the same conflict with his work. That he had not gone into photography to make money, originally. He wanted to shoot boxing and street art, two of his interests.
No, Carlos said when she asked — he did not box anymore. Or make street art. He joked that when he was old he would like to vandalize billboards. But really, he said, you have to make a career. If you can make money doing something you love, then you’re lucky.
* * *
She had already OKed him online. His business card had a link to his website, where his portfolio with the corporate photographs (mostly of sports drinks, cars, and 7-11-style snacks) confirmed he was on some level successful. She emailed him and said she’d enjoyed hanging out that night, and they began a conversation. They avoided social media, sticking to email, and after two weeks she admitted that her visa was expiring soon, and that she needed to cross the border to renew it. He had offered to give her a ride. Now they were here.
They began their climb into the mountains. His car reminded her of her friend’s shitty cars in high school. A couple of the heating vents on her side were busted, the CD player face was either stolen or forgotten, and it was dusty inside and out. She liked that he’d left a moccasin bead bracelet around the base of the gear shifter. It added personality.
Now and again she saw train tracks along the side of the mountain. He told her they were there for when they the days train cars hauled minerals from the rock instead of semis. The tracks were skinnier than American tracks, and at some points they disappeared into what looked like a landslide. In other parts there were long barns built to protect the train cars from the weather, the barn walls and roofs collapsed here and there. Road signs indicated the number of the curve they were passing. She didn’t like how hard he took the turns, often whipping around and having to hit the brakes before a lumbering 18-wheeler. He would hop over to pass the trucks, and Sarah couldn’t help but grip the handle above the door. To distract herself she read the Spanish words on the truck doors or along their sides. They passed a matching trio with dusty blue canvas tarps over their trailers, and she recognized the word Bolivia among the faded gold-lettered words.
He apologized again for the heat not working. He had suggested in his last email to bring something warm, that the altitude at the border was high, the temps low, and sometimes the traffic backed up. She had worn the hand-knitted wool sweater she’d bought from the open-air market the week she arrived in Santiago. It was still cold then, two and a half months ago. She had successfully passed through a season. Though she Skyped home weekly, she had no yearning to go back. She harbored a vague idea of graduate school but feared the loan, as well as having lost the patience to study literature academically.
At one point she pulled the visor down to block the sun. She selfishly studied her face in the mirror for a few seconds, her sunglasses, honey-colored bangs riffling in the cool air, the point of her nose pinkish from having been outside with a book yesterday, her lips dry. Before taking lip balm from her bag she peeked over at him. He also wore sunglasses. There were smoker’s crags in the black stubble growing on his cheeks, deep smile lines and the onset of crow’s feet spreading out from behind the glasses. He tamped out another smoke, his third or fourth this hour. She liked that he smoked soft packs. There was something older and rugged about it. He put the pack back in the little nook against the odometer glass, next to the pack of cinnamon gum he chewed between cigarettes.
About halfway up the mountain he pulled onto a gravel fan and suggested they get out and take pictures. She had her pocket digital, he a bulky camera with a big lens. She looked down and saw the road corkscrewing up and he told her the Spanish word for this, which sounded like escargot — a road that resembles a snail shell. She took a picture of the road, as well as the jagged mountaintops around them.
He set his camera on the car and set the timer. Sarah raised her sunglasses as he walked over, and at the last second reached over and raised his. He laughed. She felt his hand on her hip, just above the waistline of her jeans. It was a firm hold. She also had her hand on his side and was a little disappointed in his softness — if you were going to smoke so much, then you shouldn’t also eat too much. They got back in the car and started the last leg to the border.
* * *
He pulled into a huge tent with fans in the ceiling twisting out the exhaust smells of vehicles waiting to cross. She gave the agents in the booth her passport, its pages crisp and its visa boxes empty of stamps. Another agent looked in the trunk, tapped the Ford’s bumper with his baton. A few minutes later they were granted access to Argentina.
They began driving down the mountain to a town halfway to a bigger town called Mendoza. The plan was to have lunch in this halfway town.
Carlos had told her there were beautiful things to see on the way. That this was one reason he’d like to take her into the outer heart of his native country. The other reasons were still in her inbox — he had fun that night, dancing and drinking and talking. He thought she was smart. He thought she should consider staying in Santiago for a while, making sure to add that he didn’t want anything serious, just a friend. She could not say what she wanted. She did not want to go home and face the next step in her life yet, not even knowing what it was. She didn’t want to be a cliché, falling in love with someone in another country, either. Of the two options, the love one to her seemed better. Ultimately, she’d let life take her where it wanted for a while. To read and run in the morning as she always had, but to give some months up to contemplating her place.
They stopped at what translated to the point of the Incas. It was an area in the rock where the Incas had built bathhouses. A resting place. Leading to it was a natural bridge formed of the rock, whose bright yellow resembled limestone. There was a wood fence blocking it, so they walked down behind the few small hotels and shops. It was warmer down here. Desert again. There was a man far away raising and dropping what appeared to be a sledgehammer. But he was too far to hear, and there were heat lines rising off the ground, further obscuring him.
She refused another mate gourd when he offered a few minutes later.
But please, she said, have one, I like it here.
They sat in plastic chairs at a small table facing the gravel parking lot. She listened as he spoke with an old man in a ballcap and dark denim coat. The old man sounded jovial. Through translation she was told that the old man said the wind was going to pick up in about two hours. That a group of Chileans had asked him to put the upbeat music currently playing on the speaker attached to the awning of the restaurant. The lyrics to the song translated: When the singer stops / Life stops / Because life is a song
She liked that. She would have been happy staying at the point of the Incas― perhaps she could get a job here cleaning the tiny hotels, washing dishes.
This time when Sarah got in the car she was conscious not to slam the door.
They drove another three kilometers. He called them clicks. He asked if she had heard them called that before. Clicks. She had not. They say it in the war movies, he said.
He pulled off the road to a cemetery boxed off by a rock wall, explaining this was where they bury people who die in the mountains. If they don’t find the bodies, the family can still petition for a spot. He said he had taken good photos here.
She said she had a friend back home who had shown her some pictures taken in a cemetery one day. They showed weird orbs of light, which the friend claimed were ghosts.
That’s cool, he said.
The cemetery was centered by a big but climbable slate rock, a mini snail trail twisting up to it. Along the trail were the shrine-like graves. Flat headstones fastened with the fork and spoon the climber was using when they found the body; a bottle of wine for a lost relative; carabineers and rope and shoes in the dirt next to graves. Cemeteries did not move Sarah. Aside from her sister’s grave, she did not visit them, especially random ones, where she felt disrespectful, if anything. But she had gleaned from talking with Carlos — his music and movie preferences, his website — that he liked darkness offset with humor, and perhaps had a latent patriotism. It seemed his favorite memories were from Argentina. She wondered how long he and his wife were going to be separated. She wondered what his wife would think if she saw him with her. She was ready to go back to Santiago, slightly worried that the wife would be at the halfway restaurant, even though it was over a thousand clicks from Buenos Aires.
It was as they were turning to leave the cemetery that she saw the horses coming down a mountainside trail. She told him to look. There had to be eight, no, ten or more in the line. Nearby was a dilapidated train bridge over the river she assumed the horses were on their way to drink from. The dust they kicked up swirled in the first hints of wind the old man had predicted. They went to the riverbank to get a better look. He corrected her — they’re mules, he said, which the closer she got the better she could see their stunted size. They had a good laugh at that.
As they approached the bridge she could hear their hoofs clacking along the wet rocks below. The water was about 30 feet down, and on the bank the first thing she saw was a dead mule. Its head was missing, and its ribcage was shined clean from the running water. The others paid it no attention. Raised and dipped their heads in the stream. He snapped photos. It bugged her that he took seven or eight pictures at a time — digital laziness, she thought. If he was using film he’d have to work harder for the shot. She didn’t want to look at the dead mule anymore.
They walked the ties of the train bridge to the other end. There was a rusty banister along the side she used to steady herself, not looking down. She felt they were being childish like this because they’d run out of things to talk about. They crossed back.
As they left she saw the mules, various shades of gray and black and brown, stepping out of the water and up the bank to continue their mysterious journey.
After a long lunch and an espresso they started back. There was no wife surprise. But she knew from the morning and talking at lunch that she would not be seeing him again, and this made it easy for her to seem lighthearted. He pointed out the pope-hat peaks of one mountain range. She smiled and thanked him again for bringing her. She was enjoying the way the late afternoon light exposed crevices and folds in the walls of the towers.
They had to wait in a line of cars on the slight hill down to the Chilean border. It was just steep enough for him to cut the engine and drift in neutral when the line moved. This wasn’t a tent, but a few kiosks, and being out of things to talk about he smoked quietly while she studied their surroundings.
Up here it was cold again. A handful of goldfinches were weaving around, their bellies bright in the last of the sun. A couple guys about her age got out of the car in front of them. They wore hair gel and sunglasses, and started to dance a little, the sort of dancing that involves shoulder shrugging and light bouncing. She could hear the low thrum of the bass from their car.
When it was their turn they got out and he spoke with the border worker through the kiosk window. She handed her passport into the window. Was relieved to see the worker bring down the heavy stamp. Was soon back in the Ford heading down the mountain toward the desert.
It was there that she thought she said goodbye. The sky was a mix of orange and pale blue and the dark hills in the distance rose and fell softly. She had gathered by now that Carlos had a temper, and she didn’t want to put herself in danger or walk away with bad memories. She was being nicer than usual. Anyone who knew her would have seen through it.
In an hour they were passing lines of shanties along the river, swift with snowmelt, then were in the outlying region of Santiago. A million lights twinkled across the bowl of the land. The sky was more navy now, not quite dark, and the graffiti on the bridge tresses and shuttered stores was like a story both discombobulated and somehow coherent. Sarah was quick not to linger in the car when he dropped her off. It was normal here for people to kiss on the cheek when greeting and departing. She leaned across the gear shifter and hugged him goodbye, and he kissed her cheek. She was afraid he might try to hold her firmly again, but he did not, and she knew that he knew they would never see each other again.