Expensive Nights

This Friday night doesn’t look like a party night. It’s almost eleven. After a couple of ineffective calls to my friends it seems that I have to go to bed early. A couple of beers in the bar nearby and I’ll hit the sack. I moved in here a little while back. I live with a friend in an apartment in La Merced, an old neighborhood of English houses, most of them decaying, turned into car dealers, into tidy fronts of insurance companies, into rubble. The La Merced that I walk surrounds the southern side of el Parque Nacional. That park is a route for all types of cruelty that necessity and trends oblige: prostitution, drug-addiction, athletics. Organ trafficking.

The building we just moved into is a beauty. An Italian architect built it in the fifties. Thanks to a stroke of luck, number 410 of this masterwork of space is our new abode. Just a while ago an acquaintance asked me to stop calling it a masterwork of space. I guess I’ll listen to him. But to stop calling it abode, on the other hand, is going to take much more time. Many of the chicks that have been hanging around here have been dazzled. After the courtesy tour ends, they repeat with insistence how fascinating they would find it to live in a place like this. I’m not, of course, part of the plan. Not for now, I quietly comfort myself.

I go out to play my beery part. In the corridor that goes to the elevator I meet Felipe, who’s accompanied by a beauty that I’ve never seen before in my life. Felipe is the friend I moved in with. We’ve known each other since kindergarten. On rigorous alcoholic nights, I observe him, and even though this might sound exaggerated, I remember the little brat that had snacks with me, and who celebrated piñatas and birthdays—the ones with surprises and clowns. He is tall and thick, although I wouldn’t say he’s strong. More than ten years ago, when we were little—and even then he was two heads taller than me—Felipe arranged his fist into my face. I can’t recall the reason—my fault for sure. My right cheek turned slightly red, but I felt no pain. That episode doesn’t prove his weakness; it proves the spirit of his friendship.

Once we know each other’s immediate plans, Felipe and his friend invite me back to the apartment to join them for a bottle of wine. The offer makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know why they’re asking, since everything suggests this is a romantic evening. Anyways, I accept.

Both of them sit on the bit of furniture we own while I take charge of the glasses and the bottle opener. Once they are served, I take little part in the conversation. I nod, move my head, offer an occasional opinion here and there; the minimum not to appear rude. I focus on her figure and her gestures. She has mentioned her name. I don’t remember it. Her hair looks like an image out of Ian Fleming. I wait for the right moment and announce my departure to the bar nearby. I do that while getting up, just to give it a sense of urgency, but they seem attracted by the idea and want to join me.

What’s best about this building we moved into recently is the elevator—despite its inutility; nonetheless. We are lucky, because for whatever reason it’s working. Sometimes, when I get in, I feel sad that it is not retired yet—I don’t know, placed somewhere where it can be admired only.

We get off and walk out of the building. Four steps and we’re in the bar. Two acquaintances are in the place—one of them with his girlfriend. What a surprise. The greetings are effusive. I think there are good vibes here.  Though we’ve been in the building already for a couple of days, this is our first visit. The place is called Gabinete, and I would dare say that Felipe and I are very happy about feeling great in a bar so close to home. Compared to a lot of the things that happen in Bogotá’s bars, this closeness could result in a not-insignificant advantage. I try to imagine one of those things and its associated advantage, but the truth is, besides a big fight with a quick exit, I can’t think of any. Perhaps all the things that I think happen in the bars of Bogotá don’t happen. Felipe offers me the first beer. I take him by the arm, say thanks and make that happy-to-see-you face.

We are all set: Felipe and his friend; the two we ran into; and the girlfriend of one of them. The conversation goes back and forth: our arrival to the building, the upcoming presidential elections, a pain in the rib of the acquaintance’s girlfriend, the death of the father of a person they know and whom I barely have heard of. Everyone seems to get mournful at this point. It’s not exactly death. They are afflicted by the memory of the words of the deceased’s son. Very painful ones, they say. The words made everyone laugh during the mass, but they were painful. Something about the comedy that life is, and the way his father had taught them that, and how, then, one shouldn’t respond with something that drifts too far from the aesthetics, too far from the comical.  So the son asked for applause instead of weeping, and everyone clapped vigorously, but they also cried, cried a lot, because his act had ended. I was terrified at the beginning. Then I got distracted.

I start losing interest in being here. I get up and walk around the bar. It’s a big house, full of separated rooms united by the music and décor— predominately wood. I think more than a bar for dancing it’s an elegant place to pass sorrows. There’s another floor. I’ve seen people go up many times and never come down. At least not by the same stairs. More than curiosity, which I don’t have, what drives me up is boredom. It’s not them or their company. They are friends and acquaintances, and their conversation is fine. It’s the night itself, its tepidness, its indecision. Nights without character bother me. What bothers me the most is not being able to give them one. Before I ascend I decide to get another drink to justify the effort of having my shoes on. A move from beer to something stronger will be necessary. Gin, Bretaña, and lemon, please, I say.

My encounter with the upstairs turns out to be up to the gin’s standards: official-sized foosball in a fancy room. An official-sized foosball, close to home, and with reasonably-priced beers? The night is getting better. The neighborhood is opening its arms to me. I feel a tiny bliss: maybe other things will improve too. Maybe it’s not that late for partying. I go downstairs two at a time to tell Felipe about my find. I control the childish agitation that fills me and say: There’s an official-sized foosball in the bar next to our house! Felipe shares my excitement, takes his beer and suggests that we go and try it.

We play for a good while. It’s so big that normally it has to be used in pairs. There’s a certain amount of people and we take turns. I wish they’d go away. Especially the first couple we play against. I don’t think they do anything other than play foosball. They are masters of the technique, which lets them play more because whoever wins stays, like any idle thing in life. We order a couple of gins and I start to plan my training hours. To be sincere, the calculations are not encouraging. Reaching a competitive level could take me up to three months.

About an hour must have passed. Felipe and his friend have returned to the bar table. They got bored, I guess. I too start to feel dizzy and I don’t feel like keeping my eyes on the freaking little ball anymore. Coming back to the table is embracing the end of the night, and the capability for that kind of thing is what I lack. I think about it twice. I come back and it’s like time is being stolen from me. I look one way and fifteen minutes; I look the other, and twenty more. Another drink, and with each more time is stolen. I think I’m getting drunk. I think I’m feeling well. Like when I discovered the foosball. Overthinking gets into me and I’d like to go upstairs and keep playing, but my legs are not obeying anymore. Besides, I’m on my way out. I’ve been on my way out for a while.

What do my eyes see! This Friday night keeps its surprises. Just when I decide to call it quits with this tepidity and go back to throw myself on my mattress, these women with pretty cheeks appear. To see them as women of pretty cheeks is, to this point, an image that could only occur to a drunk or a naïve observer, so I’m ashamed at the glimpse of consciousness that I get from both. The women appear as though they’ve existed for centuries and own the bar. They are Carolina and her two long-time friends: Catalina and Piedad. They sit and say hello. Know that they are the center of attention. Beautiful women, or the ones that put in the work to be, take advantage of that circumstance as though the existence of all living beings within a mile depended on it. That is why, it occurs to me, the perception of beauty is not a question of circumstance, and it is better not to combine one of these circumstances with a glimpse of love. Because when you fall in love like that, like I’m falling in love now (I’m exaggerating, it’s clear), with their elemental gesture, bringing their glasses to their mouths, when you fall in love like that, with that circumstantial beauty, you are lost. Fully and ruthlessly in love. Because you will keep looking for that gesture in her and in every other girl, and you will not understand, until a lot of sorrows have passed, that it wasn’t her or her gesture, but the circumstances, the cruel and unrepeatable circumstances. (Shit, the things one is capable of saying.) I gulp another one, long just to shake the overthinking, and I come back to the table that moves between the greetings and hugs of the new company.

Felipe and I have known Carolina for a long time. We went to the same school. We saw each other grow up. For me, she was always a distant figure, surely more Felipe’s friend. Catalina and Piedad are the closest intimates of her wanderings. I don’t think I can remember a single recent time in which the three of them weren’t together—the type of squad that you keep running into here and there, any day, any party; something like what’s happening tonight: pure sidewalk coincidence.

All sit at the table. Felipe starts to discuss things he knows I’m interested in and on which I could speak the entire night without stopping. He wants me to get into the conversation. He’s giving me space to outshine myself because he sees I’m moved by Catalina’s presence. But I must look more like a plant waiting for water than a normal person, so my tireless friend tries to make me notice how guevón, how idiotic I am. I look at him and I’m grateful—I’m so grateful that I feel like standing up and hugging him. Fortunately I contain myself and avoid a next-morning joke or an immediate one. Catalina realizes Felipe and I are looking at each other and that there’s something going on between us. Catalina discovers, I’m afraid, that I am drunk, that I don’t talk and, moreover, that I have these quiet urges to hug my friend. Hope she doesn’t find out that I’m nervous. Hope she doesn’t think of speaking a word to me because I’d have to leave the table and go to the bathroom.

What’s up, Augusto, how’s everything? Catalina says, like nothing is happening, like we’ve spent an entire life together. And she’s beside me, in the chair that someone suddenly freed without even giving me the chance to speculate about this torture. Those lips move for me. Again she moves them: Augusto, are you okay? Woman of fair cheeks and fleshy lips, how dare you ask me if I’m okay, haven’t you seen my legs cross from side to side seven times in the last fifteen seconds since you arrived? But I compose myself and tell her: Ah? Yeah, fine, I’m fine… and yourself? How’s everything?

From here on things get hairy. Felipe sneakily makes fun. He’s happy for me—for the possibilities he wants to glimpse. He’s happy because he must be tired of having Sunday breakfast with any of his girlfriends and Augusto, the violin, plus his solitude. I think of her face on a morning of drowsiness and nonchalance. Her face on my pillow giving meaning to the act of opening one’s eyes. And those eyes, deep hazel eyes, disturbing, capable of upsetting the quietest men. I talk but actually I focus on her way of talking, on the impetuous ease with which she combines Medem’s poetics, his last movie—which I watched yesterday with my friend Piedad—and my upset stomach, which for some reason I mention and about which she kindly cares: Do you feel better? No, Catalina, I don’t feel better. The fact that soon you will leave fucks me up. I take a lot of water for those kinds of illnesses. Water, of course, you pure organisms fix things with simplicity. Come on, that must be psychosomatic. Here the only psychosomatic thing is you. But yeah, the speech never makes it out of my mouth. If I’ve learned anything when I get drunk, it’s to remain silent.

The bar is about to close. In a movement generated by Felipe, his drunken intonation and his enthusiasm, all of us agreed to come to the apartment to finish the night, to not let it die early. It’s an obligation to start taking advantage of adjacent entrances—an advantage that in my current state I’m thankful for and use with serenity. In the first elevator round, the most euphoric and loud of the two that seem necessary, go Felipe, his gorgeous companion, the two acquaintances from early in the evening (one is called Eduardo, I finally recall), one of their girlfriends, and Carolina. I wait with Catalina, Piedad, and two more characters that are clearly going to our house but whom I’ve never seen in my life. I think they are friends of one of our acquaintances. I can’t remember the moment they appeared. The elevator’s way back feels like an eternity. I don’t feel like saying anything. Those silences in building corridors at two in the morning seem obligatory, and we respect them. Every one of us that is here.

At home things feel nice. They are our first spontaneous guests and we take care of them, showing them the corridors and rooms. We take care of the drinks, of listening to their suggestions on matters of decoration, and answering with the story of what work it was being there, freshly out of the mother pouch, shitting ourselves before the imminence of independence, in the face of the anxiety of running out of Fab.

I look for Catalina. Her armor remains firm. The constant presence of her friends intimidates me. Actually, it doesn’t intimidate me, just decelerates me. I down another drink and then I get closer and offer her a whisky. She’s drinking little because of the innumerable excuses her street minions back up. I, however, get more lost. All I’m thinking of—brain-dead thinking—is the possibility of behaving like an asshole. I don’t want to talk too much, but at the same time I’ve got the guts and feel that it’s now or never. Catalina must know now, not tomorrow, that I could go crazy for her (I’m not exaggerating, that’s clear).

Meanwhile, people go back and forth, screaming and talking and dancing, and it’s Felipe that opens the bathroom door and others that close it. The bathroom becomes the center: we go and come from there when suddenly, zuas, a bad memory comes up: once, I lost something important in the bathroom. I can’t verbalize its name; whatever it was, I want to remember it as stupid and vulgar, although I don’t understand why. My memory and my stomach plot against my less noble organs and it seems they want to throw me on the floor. But just now she takes me by the arm and offers to keep the conversation going. She’s early by seconds, and gets me out of the pain of the memory because she seems to still have some words for me—confusing, encouraging, indifferent words: this is a clear-cut city, her face, her lips, the downtown, she says. The fold of your left brow, I say—she missed that. In silence, staggering, I thank her for taking me by the arm. I listen to her, delighted, not wanting to imagine what’s to come and paying attention, at the same time, to the salsa verse of Ismael Rivera that rumbles in our living room turned now into a dance floor: cuándo yo saldré/ de esta prisión/ que me tortura/ me tortura el corazón/

A couple hours after Rivera’s chorus and with the same poise conserved throughout the night, with the same smile that, I imagine, has burst into tears the several men and women fucked up in her wake, Catalina says her goodbyes, gives me a kiss on the cheek, and disappears along with her friends, through the corridor that goes from the immense white door of my apartment to the elevator. In that moment, a neurotic neighbor, who, I discover, lives in the apartment across, opens his door and starts to yell. Somebody behind me (I’m almost sure it’s Eduardo the Courageous) shouts at him to take a Valium, while I choose to close the door and feel like I was left here, solely, with the problems that this presence has created. Catalina’s presence, not my neighbor’s. I remain dazed and calm, thinking that I will need a plumber to unclog the toilet.

All the people, as though assuming Catalina was the flame that fueled the night, decide to depart as well. Suddenly, the living room becomes a great silence, like a monster that got tired of shooing and lay down to sleep. I raise my head and find Felipe lying in a corner with the appearance of a serene drunk detached from the world. There’s no trace of the chick that he came home with. Probably he told her about the mystery of the zygote reproduction. I move him over and feel the weight of an obelisk. The effort to take him to his bed, and accommodate him in such way that he can throw up without choking, wipes out the little thing Catalina left in me, so I leave his room to look for mine and the mattress that I insist on calling bed. Before lying down, I look through the window and undress. The hills are covered. I could say fog wraps them up, but the truth is they are indifferent to that volatile plumb. Lying down, I let my eyes sink while one of those certainties gets stuck between my chin and my shoulders: Catalina will never be mine. My house’s, maybe; mine, not ever. It’s not that bad. It’s dawn, and everything starts to fall apart.

Juan Álvarez holds an MFA in Bilingual literary creation from the University of Texas at El Paso and PhD from the Department of Latin American and Iberian cultures at Columbia University, New York. In 2010, his essay about the insult and offense as political instruments in the crisis of independence in Colombia obtained the Premio de Ensayo Revista Iberoamericana by the Ibero-American Institute of Berlin. He has published the novel Dead Candidates (Candidatos muertos, Planeta 2016 c2011; Sudaquia NY, 2014). Juan has been part of several anthologies in Colombia, México and Spain. In 2011 he was elected “One of Latin America’s 25 Best-kept Secrets” by the Guadalajara International Book Fair. From 2010 to 2012 he was part of the development team of urtak.com. From 2008 to 2011 he was editor of the literary magazine ‘El perro’. Juan is currently writing his new novel which has been already acquired by Seix Barral Colombia. @_JuanAlvarez_

Valentina Calvache is a bilingual writer concerned with the liminal intersections between fiction, fashion and cultural production. Her work has been published, among others, in Exclama, Don Juan, Revista Antioquia, Bacánika, Antología de cuento Instituto Caro y Cuervo, Idartes. She is currently an MFA candidate in writing at UCSD.