» Nonfiction

Somewhat Involved

I barely remember what her cat, Coco, looked like—that’s how quickly he died after I arrived. I know he was white because in the months following his death, I would find white hairs clinging to my clothes after sitting on the living-room couch. Norma kept him in a cardboard box in the laundry room so that he couldn’t try to walk and further injure himself. He smelled like urine for the last week of his life. She woke to that odor one morning. He had used his last bit of strength to tip the box over, drag himself through the kitchen, down the hall, into her room, and under her bed to die. Though she was in mourning and felt guilty for not having taken him to the vet sooner, it only took a few days for her to start talking about replacing him.


Her younger daughter, Laura, was planning to move out, and her older daughter, Florencia, had moved into her own apartment years ago. Norma divorced their father, who died in the early nineties. She would soon be living alone, and I suspect this was part of why she decided—or why her daughters convinced her—to host a foreign-exchange student. She was to be my “host mother” for five months. The term makes it sound like a parasitic relationship. At bottom, it was economic: in exchange for money, she gave me a bed and served me dinner. On the housing form used to match students with families, I marked that I wanted to be “somewhat involved” in my host family’s life, rather than “very involved” or “not at all involved.” To me this meant we would eat together, converse casually, and go about our days separately. We would become minor characters in each other’s lives.


For the month leading up to my departure for Buenos Aires I debated whether I wanted to go at all. I managed to convince everyone, including myself, that my hesitation had nothing to do with the impending breakup with my first boyfriend. He would be away the following semester, and we decided staying together for that long at that distance would be too difficult. During the winter vacation before I was to leave, I made up a slew of perfectly sound reasons to stay, and my real mom and I mulled them over for hours at a time. We wrote long pro-con lists and forgot to change out of our pajamas. She joked that it felt like we were in some kind of absurd play. Clarity, like Godot, would never arrive. After a couple of weeks, bored by my indecision and annoyed with our circular dialogue, I decided to go.


The life Norma and I shared could have constituted the second act of the play. The costumes were the same. We often shuffled around her bright top-floor apartment in our pajamas late into the afternoon. The action would center on Matters of the Heart before branching like blood vessels into other themes, always returning to the same place. At first, my Spanish wasn’t as good as I thought it had been. Being heartbroken in a foreign language felt like doing advanced math with a migraine. She spoke in a fast, muffled twang that even her daughters sometimes struggled to decipher, while the halting train of mumbles into which my English had recently deteriorated was even less comprehensible in Spanish. I hardly registered my sighs; they had become my normal breath. But sighing around a good mother is like sighing into a megaphone. Her ears twitch at the smallest hints of anguish. Norma was especially eager to check in, probably because she had no one left to take care of, and because her daughters seemed to deprive her of any discussion of their private lives. She used these phrases that knocked me out with their poetry. “Te ves caído,” she would say. In my immediate, half-literal translation: You look fallen.


At first, I didn’t see what the big deal was with Buenos Aires. I decided the people were unfriendly and the empanadas were bland. I had to force myself to leave the apartment, descending twenty floors in a harshly lit elevator, where every surface except the floor and door was a mirror. There was a me standing in front of me, a me hovering upside down above, hundreds of me on either side lined up like slouching soldiers. I stared at the ground until stepping into the world.


I brought stories home to Norma. I recounted how an ancient, nearly toothless man in the nearby town of Tigre tried to “buy” my friend, presumably for sex, as we stood on the bank of a river. Norma sat wide-eyed as I told her about the boy who I saw dangle a puppy off the side of a tall building for several seconds before hugging it to his chest, caressing it, comforting it as if he weren’t the one who had just threatened its life. “The things that happen to you!” she would say.


Though a homebody like me, Norma enjoyed having people around, especially her daughters. Every once in a while, Florencia, Laura, and I would sit around the glass dining-room table to work, and Norma would walk in and just stand there, smiling, rubbing her hands, sometimes finding an excuse to talk to us (Did we need more light?) before walking back into the kitchen. While I tried to cobble together enough ungrammatical interpretations of whatever dense piece of Argentine literature my professor had assigned that week, the sisters did real work. Florencia was a human rights lawyer at a major NGO, a teacher, and was studying for a master’s degree in public accounting to boot. When police unlawfully arrested a couple dozen women at a peaceful demonstration on International Women’s Day, Florencia, who had attended the demonstration dressed as a witch, defended several of them in court. Laura was a professor and economist with a socialist streak. Once, as we were sitting down for dinner, she pointed to the television, on which a handsome reporter spoke of economic decline, and said, “Hey, those boludos screwed up the colors on my graph.” While Florencia looked exactly like her mother—tan, short, pursed mouth, chestnut hair—Laura, who was taller, pale and freckled, with coarse black hair, must have inherited all of her father’s features. I wondered if this had anything to do with the fact that Norma didn’t get along with Laura as well as she did with Florencia.


“Every time they leave, every time I see the door close, I die,” Norma confided after they had left one night. Florencia had come to help Laura move the last of her things into her new place. “Kids fly the nest earlier and earlier these days!” Norma said. Laura was twenty-nine and Florencia thirty, and I think if Norma had it her way they would never have left. “When we have children, we introduce infinities into all of our emotional equations,” wrote the essayist Adam Gopnick. “Nothing ever adds up quite the same again.” My first heartbreak must have looked like basic algebra to Norma, compared with the inexplicable calculus of watching her daughter—a dead ringer for her late ex-husband in drag—abandon her childhood home.


Norma sat for hours watching political programs. Of this fixation she once told me: “My friend says I should stop watching these shows because they make me bitter. She suggested I watch telenovelas instead. Imagine that!” At the beginning of each day, Norma would click on the boxy television in the kitchen and say, “Let’s see what death there is today.” Usually she said it gravely, other times matter-of-factly, even casually, an existential shrug. The opinions she voiced in response to these programs had only two settings: absolute agreement and hostile dissent. “Exactly!” she would shout. Or, “What a moron!” Sometimes she would talk at me about national politics, using terms I didn’t know and rattling off names that may as well have been the names of soccer players. “Exactly!” I would answer. “What a moron!”


She hated the president, Macri, and flung insults at him when he flashed onto the screen. Her favorite was “Hijo de padre” (Son of a father), a feminist revision. She was half-jokingly incensed that I went on a date with a guy who voted for Macri. When I came back from our second date, at the end of which he made it his goal to prod my uvula with his tongue, I told her, “He kisses like he votes.” I never heard her laugh so hard. “Muy bien, Willy,” she said.


I once meowed when I saw Macri on the television delivering a speech, knowing detractors did this when he spoke in public. They called him “Macri Gato.” In Argentine prison slang, the “gato” is the person in prison who is second in command to the “boss” and does all of the boss’s bidding. The joke is that Macri is the “gato” for big corporations. Norma cackled, then sighed.


“Oh, Coco. I need a new cat. But I’m not ready yet.”


“When you’re ready, I’ll catch a stray for you,” I said. “What kind do you want?”


“One with yellow fur and green eyes,” she told me.


I have blond hair and green eyes. I was about a month into my stay and already she had begun talking about how much she would miss me when I left. I must have smiled at her skeptically. “No, no! Completely unrelated,” she said. She had nothing to say for the green eyes preference but explained that she preferred lighter fur to darker because it was easier to see the cat’s skin that way, easier to detect wounds.


The extent to which she considered me part of her family became clear one day when she asked me to pick up some pastries for her at the bakery down the street and I forgot. “You did me wrong,” she said, “I’m marking you, like I mark my daughters.” Another ominous poetic phrase. I said I forgot to pick up the pastries, and it’s true, but I think I forgot on purpose. Her complaints about how little my study-abroad program paid her and her requests that I do little favors and chores for her had been growing concurrently. In the beginning, I was happy to replace a lightbulb or run to the store for some oregano, but it became hard not to see these requests as attempts at getting her money’s worth. Her gentle (if witchy) admonition dispelled my suspicion and left me embarrassed for ever having it. I remembered her other motherly dictates. “Put on a coat, I’m cold,” she would tell me as I walked out the door. I was always to move the basket of apples away from the microwave before using it, “To prevent them from maturing too quickly. To keep them sweet, like you.”


She was fascinated by Tinder, which I had been using. “She doesn’t want me to date anyone,” she told me, pointing at Laura who had come to eat dinner with us.


“Like I told you before, it’s not that I don’t want you to date. I just don’t want to help you set up a dating profile. It’s weird for me! Why don’t you just go out to a cultural center to meet people? Or go out dancing.”


“What, you think after my divorce I didn’t hit every dance floor [actually, she said, ‘every danceable place’] in this city?” Norma retorted.


Laura and I laughed, but Norma didn’t understand what was so funny. Having already eaten, she was painting her nails a pearly pink at the kitchen table. It was impossible to eat the beef she had prepared without also tasting the nail polish.


The only photo in her apartment was a black and white portrait of Che Guevara propped on a bookshelf. He smirked through a scraggly beard, reclining in a chair, holding a cigar between his forefinger and thumb. He had no use for the top four buttons of his shirt. This man who cared so deeply was carelessly handsome. I imagined him picking Norma up in an olive jeep, a black beret about to slip off his head, cigar clenched between his teeth, one hand on the wheel and the other around her shoulder. He drove fast but slowed down when she asked him to. Her face was all powdered up, as it was even to go to the supermarket. But tonight was different. He was taking a night off from the revolution to twirl Norma into tomorrow. They were going to hit every danceable place in the city.


Typically, she left the apartment only for groceries or to go to the bank, though every once in a while, she went to the orchestra, usually alone. The performances took place in what used to be the Buenos Aires Central Post Office, now named La ballena azul, the Blue Whale. The auditorium lies several yards off the ground on finlike stilts, and its silver grooved exterior resembles a blue whale’s throat. She would come home late and rave to me about the show, gesticulating wildly like a conductor, exasperated by the impossibility of putting such an experience into words. After emerging from the Blue Whale, she seemed to have a renewed faith in the world. She walked with the light step of someone who never lost faith in the first place. If she paid attention to the TV at all, she was more generous with the newscasters. She hummed as she stirred rice, and I didn’t mind that we wouldn’t eat until midnight.


She left the radio on all day so that the apartment wouldn’t be silent. It didn’t matter what the music was; it was just noise to her. Because she didn’t understand English, the American pop songs that blared unceasingly couldn’t be anything but noise. Normally these songs would be nothing more than noise to me too, but when you’re heartbroken, you’re in thrall to the saccharine. For months, they picked at the scab with their stories so unspecific they weren’t stories at all, and yet they were everyone’s stories. I wanted to gag every singer who could see “it” in your eyes or was thinking about the way you looked that night.


The stereo hunched beneath the stairs to the second floor of the apartment, where I stayed. On my way to my room, I would sometimes lower the volume what I thought to be an undetectable amount, but Norma would turn it back up within minutes. Neither of us had acknowledged these little battles of attrition until one day I was coming down the stairs and she looked at me as she cranked up the volume. “Willy, I need this. I need the radio.” She told me the noise was a proxy for the indistinct chatter of real people. Maybe it even created the illusion that she was throwing a party where the guests were always just about to arrive.


She might have actually thrown parties, but most of her friends lived about a ten-hour drive away in her hometown of San Luis. Not long after college, she left to work as a chemist at the military hospital in Buenos Aires. This was in the late seventies, during the country’s last and most violent dictatorship, the seven-year period when as many as 30,000 Argentinians were “disappeared.” In the same hospital where Norma managed a laboratory, where she mixed chemicals and cleaned beakers and checked items off of lists, people who were considered a threat to the dictatorship were being tortured. They might have been brutalized with electric cattle prods, as so many were back then. Torturers closed the blinds and muffled screaming with loud music.


I wanted to hear more about her past, but she was mostly uninterested in the subject, or else unwilling to share. She would dangle intriguing details only to demur when I followed up, sometimes before I even had the chance. One day I drove with Florencia and Laura to the ritzy suburb of Pilar for their friend’s birthday party. Before we left, I sat with Norma in the kitchen as I waited for the sisters. “I used to live out there… but that’s a part of my history I don’t want to discuss,” she said, cutting herself off as she unfolded and refolded a towel. Another time, when I was on my way to Tigre, she started telling me how her late ex-husband used to take her there on his boat for the weekend. “Those must have been beautiful weekends,” I suggested. I heard the naïveté of my words as soon as they left my mouth.


“Well, yes. And no… What’s this guy saying?” she asked, leaning toward the television. Maybe I had located the limit of “somewhat involved.”


The housing coordinator for my program—a chain smoker with nothing but jokes and gossip to tell—had informed me at the beginning of my stay that Norma was the direct descendent of Justo José de Urquiza, an Argentine general and president of the Argentine Confederation from 1854 to 1860. I pretended to have just noticed that she shared his last name and asked Norma whether he was a relative. She confirmed that her grandma was one of his twenty-three children. He had lots of extramarital affairs but gave all of his illegitimate children, including Norma’s grandma, his last name. Norma seemed to think this was generous of him. I asked more about her family, about whom I knew almost nothing, I who had been using her mother’s old sewing machine as a desk upstairs, pumping the rusted foot pedal as I did my homework. I knew she had seven siblings, but I didn’t know she was the youngest. Five of them had died and the remaining two lived far from the capital. “I’m the lone baby,” she said.


We were a couple of glasses into a bottle of cider she’d bought to celebrate me finishing my final papers, when she said, “How lucky you didn’t fall in love with someone here. Being in love from that distance—no. It’s too hard. You already know.” Sometimes it works out though, I argued. My parents had started dating when my dad was living in Florida and my mom in California, I told her. “But how old were they?” Early thirties. “Ah, well then of course. Your mother was a plane searching for a hanger.” She made a gesture with her hand that was supposed to mimic a plane swaying in the sky, which was when I realized how drunk she was. I laughed and asked if this was an Argentine saying.


“No, I came up with it just now!”


Norma and I had our only real argument during my last week. She had just been bickering with Laura when she came into the living room, where I was reading and listening to music on my computer. She turned on the radio, drowning out my music. I waited until she walked back into the kitchen to say, “How about I play you something,” as I plugged in my computer to the stereo. “No, I need it for the sound,” she told me, agitated. “Right now, it’s just about the sound. And besides, not everyone is going to like your music.”


Earlier that day, my ex-boyfriend had called to ask if I was still in love with him. We had broken up five months prior, though we continued to speak every few weeks, apparently just enough to sustain his attachment but not mine. When I told him as gently as I could that I wasn’t in love with him anymore, he said thinking about me on his worst days had been the only thing keeping him from killing himself. We stopped talking. During the months that followed, I had nightmares about him leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge. In that moment with Norma, I was feeling scared, irritable, unwilling to bear the mark of loving and of being loved.


Rather than walk away or apologize, I shared an obvious and impudent observation: “It’s funny how the same things that keep one person from going crazy are the things that drive other people crazy.” Either she didn’t understand, or she thought I was being overdramatic. She furrowed her brow at me and then walked into the kitchen. I’m marking you, she had said. Later, I apologized and so did she, explaining that she had been fighting with Laura all day. “No pasa nada,” I said, which means “Don’t worry about it,” but translates literally as “Nothing happens,” as if taking forgiveness a step further by erasing consequences altogether. “Well, I love you very much,” she said.


On one of my last nights, Norma asked me to play some music as we prepared for my going-away dinner. Laura was making gnocci with cream sauce in the kitchen and the whole place smelled like butter. That afternoon, a woman from the countryside had delivered two cats to Norma, both of which had yellow fur and green eyes. One hid behind the out-of-tune piano in the living room, and the other curled around my neck, purring. A few friends, both Argentinians and Americans, were on their way. I asked Norma what her favorite song was. “Oh, play Mozart’s ‘Piano Concerto 21’! I cry every time, every time.” The song started to play. Strings sidled up to meet a hesitant piano in midair. Outside, there were no stars, but you could see the lights of the surrounding buildings for miles through the sliding glass doors that let out onto a terrace. The lights glowed at eye level, like stars glimpsed through airplane windows.


She didn’t cry, just stood beside the dining-room table, as she had when her daughters and I were working, and she told me the song reminded her of being in love. The melody had coaxed more out of her than any of my questions had, and opened the door for one more: “How many times have you been in love?” I asked. Four, she said, a number that tells as much and as little as pop song choruses. Then she closed her eyes just as the piano took hold.



Will Howard

Will Howard’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Hotel Amerika, Passages North, and elsewhere. He’s a 2021–2022 Fulbright Fellow in Spain.