By Frank Thomas Smith
I didn’t go down to the school that day because I wanted to, but because they asked me to. It’s important to understand that, because otherwise you might have the impression that I was looking for what I found. But I better start at the beginning to show you why I am in this remote place and what I have to do with the school.
I’m a journalist, which usually means frustrated writer, and certainly did in my case. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina by my Anglo-Argentine parents. My great-grandparents were Anglos – great-grandfather British, great-grandmother American – and their descendents intermarried within the Anglo community, sent their kids to bilingual schools and spoke English at home. In a country like Argentina knowing English fluently is a great advantage because foreign companies, be they American, British or Japanese, need bilingual people. So when I finished university I got a job right off with PanAm (since defunct) as a ticket agent at the airport, despite having studied literature and philosophy. Actually it was fun and was a great opportunity to meet lovely, “free-thinking” girls – at that time still a rarity in Argentina - especially flight attendants.
But I got bored after a while and went to work for the Buenos Aires Herald, a pretty good English language daily which won fame as the only Argentine newspaper that wrote the truth during the military dictatorship – the one in power when Argentina, with Diego Maradona, won the soccer World Cup. They paid less than PanAm, but I didn’t need much and it was what I wanted to do. There was no outright censorship, I mean you didn’t have to submit your editions to the government before printing. No, their censorship method was fear. Every owner, editor and reporter of the Spanish language publications knew that if they printed something the junta didn’t like their life would be in serious danger. There had been one courageous magazine that tried to tell it like it was and the owner-editor – a Jew, which made it easier – was tortured before his planned assassination, but pressure from abroad, mostly from the Carter administration, saved his life and they gave him a one-way ticket to the States and a warning never to come back.
The junta figured that they should leave the Buenos Aires Herald alone because of its contacts with the U.S. and British embassies, as well as the fact that only foreigners and Anglo-Argentines read it. But it finally became too influential abroad, with stories being reprinted in the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others, so our masters decided that enough was enough. A few anonymous phone calls to the editor and his wife did the trick. Not that he was a coward, quite the contrary, he had printed really inflammatory stuff as far as the junta was concerned. But a threatening phone call from someone you know is serious and quite capable of eliminating your family one by one by “disappearing” them is different from a bluff. So the editor, an American (anyone interested can find out his name easily), finally decided it wasn’t worth it, and accepted a job as editor of a newspaper in North Carolina. He asked me to come along. I hadn’t been threatened directly, but some of my articles were the most damning – along with his editorials of course. He assured me I’d be next and recommended that I get out while I was still alive because as an unknown outside Argentina, they might not even bother to warn me first.
So I wound up in North Carolina, but didn’t stay there long. New York City beckoned. I got a job as a reporter for Newsday, the Long Island daily which had won a couple of Pulitzer prizes. It was considered a stepping stone to the Times. I fell in love and married the assistant editor, which was a mistake, probably because an Argentine macho simply can never get used to living with his female boss. Very funny. There were other reasons of course, but I’ll leave it at that.
As correspondent for the paper I was able to travel to various continents and countries, which I wrote about authoritatively, but learned that you can never really know anything about what’s going on without having lived in the place for at least a couple of years and speak the language. But I’m digressing.
Finally I wrote a book, a novel with Argentina and Chile as background. I can give aspiring writers some advice based on that experience. Getting a book published is harder than writing it. So the best opening is to know someone in publishing – or know someone who knows someone. My wife – ex-wife, that is – knew someone and the book got published. It didn’t sell very many copies, the fate of most books, but it at least gave me a literary biography. Also, if you are from a third-world country, or can pretend to be, it’s a big help. And the more miserable the country the better. You can get speaking engagements at universities, some of which pay very well. An accent helps, something I don’ t have naturally, but it’s easy to put one on, however slight. I was invariably asked when my second book would appear. My answer was that I didn’t have time to write it. This is a great opening for a grant, which I received from a do-gooder foundation. (I’m getting to the point, don’t worry.)
The grant would enable me to take a year off work to write my novel. In New York, though, I’d have to write it living in a one-room hovel a la Raskolnikov. In Argentina, because of the favorable exchange rate, I’d be comfortably ensconced in a three-room Buenos Aires apartment or a house in the hinterland. I decided on the latter. I should mention that during my absence the Falkland Islands war had taken place, the military junta deposed and a semblance of democracy had returned.
An Argentine writer friend – a middle aged lady who was an expert at milking the third-world angle, in fact I met her at a writers’ colony in Iowa – suggested the Traslasierra Valley, a picturesque area five hundred miles west of Buenos Aires in the province of Córdoba. I remembered the name, I had gone there once as a child with my parents before they broke up. It seemed like fate, so that’s where I went. I was able to rent a beautiful house with a hectare of garden and a swimming pool for three hundred bucks a month, which wouldn’t have paid for a closet in Manhattan. I spent a week in Buenos Aires, my hometown, before going there, looked up old friends, especially girlfriends, but they were all married, marriage still being a big deal in Argentina, avoided relatives and finally boarded an Aerolíneas Argentinas plane for the one-hour flight to the city of Córdoba.
It was a workhorse Boeing 737 with six-seat-across rows. I chose a window seat near the front, because those are the best seats for short flights when the weather is good and there’s something to see outside; they’re the worst seats at night during long flights because you have to step over four legs to go to the toilette or stretch, so an aisle seat is preferable then. The worst is the middle seat, a.k.a the squeeze-seat. I approached my window seat and wasn’t too surprised, because it happens all the time, to see someone sitting in it. When you point out that they’re in your seat, they feign surprise, look at their boarding pass, say “Oh!” or “Ah!” and wait for you to insist. They will have to squeeze out to the aisle, let you in, then go on back, usually to the squeeze-seat where they belong. A black man, Brazilian I assumed, with long legs was already seated in the aisle seat, which is where long legs belong, for they can stretch at least one out into the aisle once everyone is seated.
“This is your seat?” she said, looking up at me with large, almond-shaped Audrey Hepburn eyes. “How do you know?” She was more rounded that Hepburn, but just as beautiful in a different way, with long black hair tied back with what I later saw to be a piece of red string. Her skin was dark, olive really, and she had high cheekbones and a delicate nose and a slightly jutting chin. “How do you know?” she said with a smile revealing large white teeth, made whiter by her dark complexion.
“My boarding pass says so.” I also smiled, already recognizing that this was someone I should get to know. I held out the pass with the window seat, 4F, plainly visible. She squinted at it and said, “Oh, I have one of those too.” She started to rummage in her knapsack, which she’d hauled from under her seat. Meanwhile a line of passengers had backed up behind me waiting to pass. “Do you mind?” a sweating woman behind me asked. She was too fat to squeeze around me.
The black man, who turned out to be American, said, in English, “It’s only an hour flight; cool it, man,” assuming that I’d understand him. He hadn’t understood a word of our short dialogue, but the situation was obvious.
“It’s all right,” I said to the young woman, “stay where you are.” Then, to the American, in English, “Do you mind?” He stood up as far as he could, hunched over, and let me pass into the squeeze seat.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the young woman said to me while I was buckling my seat belt, “the flight attendant showed me to this row and I didn’t realize the seats were numbered.” She looked sincerely worried and I believed her.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, “it’s only an hour’s flight.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“It’s only and hour’s flight, man,” the black guy said, “you done the right thing. They couldna made these muddafuckin seats any smaller, could they?”
“You a basketball player?”
“You got it – and I shoulda bought two seats. You ever hear of a team called “Atenas”?
“Yes, one of the best Argentine teams, from Córdoba. Is that who you’re playing for?”
“Right, maybe Ginobili played for them?”
“I don’t know, the last years before the NBA he was in Europe.”
“Don’t blame him. Europe pays better than here.”
“But living costs are much higher there, so it probably works out the same,” I consoled him. I like professional basketball, so the conversation wasn’t uninteresting, but I wanted to turn my attention to the girl. “Well, good luck,” I told him as we were taking off. I leaned toward her with the pretense of looking out the window. “Buenos Aires is a beautiful sight from the air,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “I never saw it before.” She was clutching the arms of her seat, one of which we shared.
“Look,” I said, extending my left arm in front of her, “ there’s the obelisco.”
She laughed. “Small, isn’t it?” We hit an air pocket and the plane jumped. I had slyly rested my arm on our shared armrest, so when her body stiffened she grasped my wrist. I gently placed my hand over hers. She was so nervous she probably didn’t even notice it. When the plane had passed through some bumpy clouds and reached cruising altitude and the sunlight, she let her breath out and withdrew her hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, smiling at me. “I’ve never flown before.”
“I guessed that.”
“Because I’m so nervous?”
“No, because you didn’t know about the seat numbers. Do you live in Córdoba?”
“Not yet, and not in the city. But I will be living in the Province as soon as I get there.” I had to think a moment to decipher that and when I did I asked, “Really, where in the Province?” I was prepared to change my plans about going to live in Villa de las Rosas, despite having already paid a deposit on a house, and say that I was on my way to wherever she was going…but I didn’t have to. “Villa de las Rosas,” she said. “It’s a small town on the other side of the Sierra Grande, I’m going to teach in a school there.”
Some people say they don’t believe in coincidences. I counted myself among those who do, and persisted in that opinion even after this remarkable event. “What a coincidence!” I exclaimed.
“Not a coincidence really,” she said. “I’ve been studying and preparing myself to teach in a school like that one for some time now. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
“I’m sure it is, but I didn’t mean that. You see, I’m also going to Villa de las Rosas where I don’t live yet, but will once I get there.”
“Cielos! If I believed in coincidences I’d certainly agree that this is one,” she said smiling at me with those huge black eyes.
“But you don’t believe in coincidences – so what is it?”
“Karma, maybe, or maybe just synchronicity.”
That didn’t surprise me at all; she had the slightly kooky look of a new age cum Jungian innocence. “Ah yes,” I said wisely, “karma.”
The one-hour flight extended to a taxi ride to the bus terminal in Córdoba and from there a three-hour bus trip over the Sierra Grande to the Traslasierra Valley and the village of Villa de las Rosas. I paid for the taxi, but Mireya insisted on paying her own bus fare. We had a lot of time to talk and get to know each other.
“Do you think our meeting was karma?” I asked her as El Petizo – The Runt – our aptly named bus, groaned its way over the sierra. A loaded question, women like to believe their love affairs are made by the stars, and I was already determined to turn our meeting into just that. Cynical I admit, and yet, well, you’ve heard of love at first sight and, corny as it sounds... this was it.
Following script she should now blush, look at me sideways, raise her eyebrows and shrug her shoulders coquettishly.
But she didn’t do that. Instead she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Sí.”
We arrived finally in Villa de las Rosas as the sun was setting painting the sierra behind us a rose color and I wondered if the town was named after the flower or the sunset. By then we had agreed that she would stay at my place (plenty of room, I’d insisted, which was true) until she found someplace to live. Her salary at the school was meager because she taught painting only two classes a day because, she eventually admitted, she was still weak from a bout with cancer, now in remission. She did look for a place to rent, but found nothing satisfactory within her means. I hoped she wasn’t looking very hard, for I offered to let her stay with me; I wanted, in fact, very much for her to stay, and she knew it. Finally she agreed to stay if she could pay me rent. We both knew this for appearances’ sake and I of course agreed.
She talked a lot about the school and the Weltanschauung behind it, which was something called anthroposophy or spiritual science, although I couldn’t see what was scientific about it. As far as I could make out it was a combination of Buddhism, Christianity and eastern and western philosophy. One of its most important principles was reincarnation and karma. Mireya, though, inserted her own ideas (“research” she called it) about the indigenous people of the area in which we were now living. They were called the Comechingones, and there are none of them left, although artifacts abound, along with names of streets and, especially, inns. The main drag (a dirt road) of the village in which we lived is called Intiuán. But that’s all new age fluff; no one really cares about the Comechingones – except her. She was convinced that she was one of them in a previous incarnation. Now that may sound absurd, but in reality she was one of the most practical and realistic people I’d ever known. And she’d studied all there is about the Comechingones, which amounted to the Spanish conquistadors’ documents. She meditated and claimed she had confirmed her previous incarnation as a spiritual fact. That was all right with me, it neither upset me nor made me jump for joy. What did I know? But then one warm night when we were wrapped in each other’s arms under the stars, she confided two things to me. The first was that if she hadn’t been ill and with a short life expectancy, she’d never have become my lover – at least not so soon. The second was that I had been with her during that previous incarnation as a Comechingon. That was a bit much for me to chew on, but I all I said was, jokingly, “Ah, I thought you looked familiar.” She laughed, poked me in the chest with her elbow and rejoined, “You’re still a materialist, but you’ll see.” I kissed her and she agreed that now was more important – at least for the evening.
She was a great studier, not only of anthroposophy but also of languages. She knew some English, German, Russian, even Chinese, but couldn’t really speak any of them. She would often ask me to explain English expressions. One evening, having read and been enchanted by Poe’s The Raven, she said, “The meaning of the word ‘nevermore’ is obvious: nunca más”. (That is the title of the book written by the presidential panel which investigated the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Argentine military junta during the seventies and early eighties.) “Has it been translated into English? Is the title Nevermore?” I told her that I didn’t know if it had been translated, but if so they probably used ‘Never Again’, because ‘nevermore’ is too poetic. “But it’s a beautiful word,” she protested. I agreed. “And what is the opposite, the antonym?” she asked.
I thought a moment, then said, “evermore”.
She almost swooned. “Ah, lovely, I love that word, evermore, evermore, evermore! What would it be in Spanish? Para siempre? No, too pedestrian. Let’s see what the dictionary says.” She rushed into her study and, after a few moments, called out: “eternamente!” She came back clutching the dictionary. “Evermore – eternamente, that’s us, mi amor.” And she kissed me on the lips.
I didn’t have anything to do with the school at first, except to pick her up after class. It was only two kilometers from the school to home, but mostly uphill, and I didn’t want her to overexert herself. Gradually I got involved though. First one of the teachers had the idea that the school should have a web page and they asked me to design it, or rather Mireya asked me for them, and it was of course she who told them that I knew how to do it. I asked them for pictures and written material to put in the page. They gave me some pictures, but little usable text. I didn’t want it to be full of Rudolf Steiner quotes, so I read up on the educational method and wrote the text myself. Then they wanted me to be on the Board of Directors. I refused that, but found myself involved in a number of projects anyway, to the extent that the locals began to think of me as one of “them”. And in a way I was, having become convinced that the educational method was superior to anything I’d ever seen, and it must be heaven for the kids, I thought, compared to the hell of my own primary schooling.
I finished my book at the end of the year allocated to me, and sent it to the foundation which had financed it. They liked it and sent it to a publisher who also liked it and sent me a one-way ticket to New York in order to sign a contract and talk over its contents. I exchanged it for a round-trip ticket, which was cheaper than the one-way according to inscrutable airline logic. It was just at that time Mireya was due to go to Buenos Aires for a hospital check up, so everything seemed to fit in. What she hadn’t told me, though, was that she had been feeling poorly lately. At the hospital in Buenos Aires they told her that the nodules in her left lung had grown. She had already had an operation on her right one, and it was half its normal size and she needed to have another operation. So while I was being wined and dined by editors and a new agent, they were operating on her in the German hospital in Buenos Aires. She survived the operation, in fact it was successful, but she never left the hospital; they found a brain tumor, inoperable, and that combined with weakness from the operation was too much for her heart and she died a few days later.
I had been calling home with no answer, when she should have been back, so I began to worry and called a neighbor who told me the news. Mireya had been cremated by then and her ashes were in her family’s plot in Buenos Aires.
I finished my business in the U.S. and went back to Villa de las Rosas. Everyone was most sympathetic. I was devastated but didn’t show it. I stayed home and drank and walked farther up the sierra than I’d ever gone, maybe hoping to get lost, I don’t know. Royalties started to come in from the book, not in the Harry Potter league, but sufficient to last me quite a while without working. My New York agent was on me to write another book, but I had no desire or will to do so. I told him I’d translate the published one into Spanish. He said they could get a translator for that, but I insisted on doing it myself; it would keep me busy without having to think creatively. And it did. Gradually I came back to life and even agreed to be on the schools’ Board. I thought, knew, that Mireya would want that.
The original school house is an old, sturdy rancho made of adobe which, according to Sebastián, the gardener, is haunted by a boy-in-white; nobody took him seriously because none except him had ever seen the boy. The rest of the school (small detached buildings housing two classrooms each) had been built around it. Now it was mostly the kindergarten, with one room used as an office for all the administrative work. At a meeting one Sunday when the secretary was home sick we needed some papers, the whereabouts of which only she knew. We didn’t want to bother her, so I went to the office on Sunday afternoon to look for them in order to have them Monday morning.
I was sitting at the desk going through a thick file of unorganized papers when a cloud opened and a stream of light came through the window in front of me illuminating the dust particles in the air. I looked up and saw a figure in white pass quickly outside across my view through the window. I thought immediately of Sebastián’s ghostly boy-in-white and sat there trying to decide whether to look outside or leave well enough alone. Finally I shrugged off my fear of the unknown and stepped outside the door. An Indian girl stood next to the clay oven watching me. I knew it was Mireya, though her face was different, more indigenous-looking, that is darker, with higher cheek bones, more slanted eyes (less Audrey Hepburnish), somewhat shorter, older (I remembered reading that in the spiritual world everyone is 33), still beautiful. She seemed to be waiting for recognition, then when I whispered her name in a language I didn’t know she smiled and approached me slowly and with her left hand extended. She spoke in the language of the Comechingones, which I understood, saying, “Will you come with me?” I replied affirmatively in the same language, although I really only thought it. I extended my right hand and just as she was about to touch it the cloud closed, the stream of light disappeared, she withdrew her hand and I fainted.
When I didn’t return to the meeting one of the teachers drove to the school to find out what happened. She found me sitting up, having just regained consciousness. She insisted that we go to Doctor Luna’s house in her car, leaving mine at the school. The doctor examined me and found nothing wrong, he thought my fainting was caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, which was now normal. The teacher drove me home and told me to rest, that she would call in the morning to see how I was. I went to bed and slept through till this morning. When I went into the bathroom to shower and looked in the mirror I saw the face of a very old man staring back at me. Hair and beard white, wrinkles and all. As I looked I could see myself growing older by the minute. I was very tired and my bones ached, so I made my way, haltingly and with difficulty, back to bed. The cloud closed too quickly, I thought. If it hadn’t I would be with her now. But soon, very soon, I would die of old age and it would be accomplished. I must have fallen asleep again (old people do that), for I was woken by an insistent telephone. It was the teacher: “Are you all right? You took a long time to answer.”
I’m fine,” I said automatically, although I didn’t believe it yet.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Well…I’ll see you later,”
I replaced the receiver and walked quickly and painlessly into the bathroom. It was my old, (that is original) forty-two year old face watching me from the mirror with what looked like bemusement. “No, Mireya,” I said to the other face in the mirror behind mine, “it’s not time. We’ll have to wait. But what’s a few years, (decades even) compared to evermore?”
When I didn’t return to the meeting one of the teachers drove to the school to find out what happened. She found me sitting up, having just regained consciousness. She insisted that we go to Doctor Luna’s house in her car, leaving mine at the school. The doctor examined me and found nothing wrong, he thought my fainting was caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, which was now normal. The teacher drove me home and told me to rest, that she would call in the morning to see how I was. I went to bed and slept through till this morning. When I went into the bathroom to shower and looked in the mirror I saw the face of a very old man staring back at me. Hair and beard white, wrinkles and all. As I looked I could see myself growing older by the minute. I was very tired and my bones ached, so I made my way, haltingly and with difficulty, back to bed. The cloud closed too quickly, I thought. If it hadn’t I would be with her now. But soon, very soon, I would die of old age and it would be accomplished. I must have fallen asleep again (old people do that), for I was woken by an insistent telephone. Naturally I couldn’t answer it, nor had we any desire to do so.
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© Frank Thomas Smith