I’ll tell you a story about the person I was if you promise you’ll never go looking for her.
I woke up in Spanish class to the teacher yelling at me. Her name was Sonya, or some name that sounded like Sonya. I remember opening my eyes and realizing that my head was on the round table, drool dripping onto my chin, and Sonya was slamming her hand in front of me, sending reverberations into my jaw and temples.
I should have known I wouldn’t get away with sleeping in class. There were only five people in the six-week Spanish language college credit program, for one thing. Me, my roommate Elenore, two exchange students from Italy, and Adam. Adam smirked at me while Sonya yelled. Maybe she wasn’t really yelling, maybe she was just lecturing.
“I’m going to say this in English so you understand,” she told me. “Catherine, you can do whatever you want. You can drink all night and sleep all day. I am not your mother. I am only your teacher for these six weeks. No one is making you be here but you.” I zoned out after that because I was looking at Adam. He had these green eyes with crows’ feet, dimples like craters, and small, sharp teeth. He was looking at me like, you silly girl, and I couldn’t tell if it was playful or pitying.
On the first day of class, one week after I arrived in Buenos Aires, Adam and I made eye contact and I knew right away he was the person I was searching for. He looked like he wanted to wink at me but decided against it. He looked like he had stories to tell me, and I wanted him to be one of mine. He looked like he knew how to drink whiskey like water. It’s funny that I could tell who was a drinker and who wasn’t just by looking at them. I can tell now, even still.
We did introductions in Spanish. I said I was fifteen and from Boston. The truth was that I was from Worcester, two hours from there, but I told everyone Boston. I believed that the truth was my own to mold. I told the class I wanted to be a translator someday for foreign movies. When I’d applied to the exchange program back in September, I’d told my parents I wanted to be a business translator. They were very proud of me. They paid for the whole thing. The truth was I didn’t know what I wanted to do at all. There were only two things that I wanted: to be on my own in the world, and to have as much alcohol as I pleased. I chose Buenos Aires because I read that they were lackadaisical with enforcing the drinking age. That, and the city seemed cosmopolitan. I imagined myself in a red dress, dancing a tango. I imagined I’d meet the grandson of an escaped Nazi and he’d be irreparably damaged because of his family history and we’d make love. It hadn’t happened yet, but there was still time.
Adam said he was thirty-three and from Los Angeles. He’d worked as a diving guide before driving his car all the way to Central America. I wanted to ask if there was a highway running through the Amazon, but decided against it. I’d wait to talk to him until the moment was right. I was good at these things. Adult men were easy to charm. They got flustered by youth, as if they had been young but never looked it square in the eye before.
“You are not hurting anyone by showing up in this state,” Sonya was saying now. “You are not hurting me. You are not hurting your classmates. You are only hurting yourself.”
While she talked, the Italians looked out the window and giggled to one another. Elenore was looking down at her hands, which had long fingernails and were always dry. She looked embarrassed for me, which made me angry. I wasn’t ashamed of myself, so I didn’t understand why anyone else should be. A person ought to have a say in how people feel about them.
At eighteen, Elenore was older than me, but she was a square. At first we’d bonded over Disney movies––I pretended to like Tangled better than Frozen to win her over––and I thought we had a real shot at friendship, but then she refused to buy me liquor at the convenience store down the street from our host family. “I’ll share it with you,” I’d told her, but she shook her head and stared at the ground, the same way she did now in the classroom. I went into the store and bought the liquor myself. The cashier didn’t look me in the eye. When I realized he wasn’t going to ID me, I asked for a pack of menthols.
After that I only had to worry about Elenore narc-ing on me, which I knew she wouldn’t. She was far too nervous and good. She still let me share her headphones on the train ride to our classes. She thought my water bottle was filled with water.
Sonya was still talking. I couldn’t believe she was really going off on me. I wanted to take a sip out of my water bottle but it seemed too risky. I wanted to put my head back down on the table and sleep for twenty years, wake up on some mountainside and find that I had missed everything, but that I was older and I was happy.
Two weeks before this, on our lunch break from la academia, I’d followed Adam down the winding staircase, past the security guard with the detailed mustache who spoke only Spanish.
“Can I bum one?” I’d asked. He was leaning against the stone wall, sparking a cigarette with a clear lighter. It was cold out even though it was July, the South American winter something I never got used to, and I was wearing a knit pink sweater that revealed a sliver of my stomach.
He looked at me curiously before handing me one, like he was deciding if he should or not. This was all a performance, an act to establish plausible deniability. We both knew that he was going to give me the cigarette. He leaned over and lit it for me, and I inhaled deeply with my face still close to his calloused hands.
We didn’t speak for a moment, and then he said, “How come you don’t try?”
“I do try,” I said automatically.
“I heard you speaking Spanish en la calle the other day. Why don’t you ask them to put you in the advanced class?”
“I can’t read or write it.”
“That’s funny,” he said, looking me up and down. His eyes lingered briefly on the crescent of my exposed stomach. “I always thought speaking was the hardest part.”
“Have a drink with me after class.”
I watched him open his mouth, then close it again, like we were underwater. For a moment I thought he’d say no, but the moment passed and he just shrugged.
“Sure, kid,” he said, and then I knew for certain that he was living life in his own private movie, just as I was. It was a movie full of glamorous shots in bars, lines stolen from black and white films, the concept of South America layered over the real thing, detectives unraveling meaningless threads and then growing bored, vodka and whiskey taken straight. It was a movie that ignored the blood vessels beginning to burst in eyes and the missed calls from families, the amassing of burned bridges and the mornings when we’d wake up sweating out a perfume of toxins, which smelled acidic and like ourselves. Living in my own private movie meant that every belief I had was a costume, every consequence I faced merely a plot point. Being a character instead of a person meant that I existed outside of time.
“You have so much potential, Catherine,” Sonya was saying. She picked up a blue whiteboard marker that smelled like poison. “I only hope that you see it, that you use it one day.” I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see her. When she stopped speaking, there was a silence so loud I could hear blood rushing through the meaty coils of my brain. I wished I could close my ears.
After Adam and I had sex the first time, he left to use his hostel’s community bathroom while I wrapped myself in the moth-eaten bedsheet and lay on my back. The cavern between my legs ached, and for a moment, I felt a clarity in my mind that hadn’t come in almost a year, since before I started drinking. Someone had thrown a glob of what looked like peanut butter on the ceiling of the room, and I stared at it. This is not all there is, the peanut butter glob seemed to be saying. All was laid bare to me then, and I saw myself as Sonya and others now did: a girl who thought only of the next drink, who was so strung out she was talking to a wad of peanut butter. You still have time, the glob told me. But what if I don’t, I thought. What if the movie is all I am. Then what.
Now that her lecture had concluded, Sonya went on to a lesson about the future conditional tense. If it had rained, we would have taken a cab, she translated on the board. If he had called, you would have answered. If I was different, I would not have come. We translated her sentences and I stared at the whiteboard until the letters swam.
I imagined Adam coming to me after class, offering sympathy and a cigarette even though he knew I had my own.
“Are you okay?” he would have asked me, if he had done this. “Sonya was right, but at the end there, she was beating a dead horse.” And I’d have said, “I’m not dead yet. Why does everyone talk to me like I’m dead?”
But of course, he said nothing to me after class. He walked past me like we didn’t know each other at all, like we hadn’t spent hours in a bar together near la cemeteria the week before, playing cards and making up strangers’ life stories. “She’s in love with another man,” he’d whispered to me of the fat woman who sat sadly at the end of the bar. “He’s hiding a dark past,” I’d said of the bearded young man in the corner booth. I liked people with a dark past because their poor choices were reasonable, built up of cause and effect. A fatherless daughter becomes a prostitute, an abused child becomes an addict. Everything makes sense, all boxes accounted for. I often made up dark things about my past to explain why I was the way I was, or at the very least, to appear more interesting.
When the bar closed that last night we were together, Adam picked me up and put me on his shoulders and we stumbled back to his hostel, past the people who stood there like ghosts, offering to exchange US dollars for Argentinian pesos. They chanted cambio, cambio when they saw us, but we shook our heads and laughed at them, marched onward with the exhausting jubilance of a movie still playing long after the end credits have rolled.
But the day that Sonya yelled at me, he walked past me after class like none of that had even happened. I closed my eyes and wrapped my arms around my stomach, felt the July wind streak across my cheeks. Adam descended down the steps to the train and disappeared. I knew that eventually I would feel shame, but I didn’t think it would be any time soon. I was already planning to let all of this fade away.
It did not fade, of course. It just evolved, settled into the cavity of my chest like a benign tumor. It will not dislodge itself, and so the past is a person I carry inside me, this girl I no longer recognize. She’s dormant, curled up like a wolf sleeping in a moonless winter, and her chest rises and falls with slow trepidation. If you gaze too long she may start to unfurl.