Despite rattling along much too fast for its precarious state of disrepair, the bus takes a long time to get anywhere because of frequent local stops. I slump in a window-seat near the rear watching the Argentine Pampa slip by. We stop at another town and the bus fills up. A young woman sits down next to me and shifts her worn shoulder-bag to her lap while I size her up from the corner of my eye. The first thing I notice is that she's clean and decently dressed, then that she's pretty and quite thin, about eighty per cent Spanish descent, twenty per cent Indian, I'd say. I'm a hundred per cent American, at least according to my passport, but I've spent most of my sixty years overseas, the last twenty in Argentina.
The rest of the passengers are school children in their obligatory white smocks on the way home from school, tired farm laborers and haggard women carrying shopping nets filled with long thin loaves of white bread and noodles.
They don't look directly at me, but I know they're glancing out of the side of their eyes. I have a black-streaked gray beard, aquiline nose and full lips. My balding pate and face are deeply tanned. I wear horn-rimmed glasses which have become part of my face over the years and I have on my usual traveling outfit consisting of jeans and a dark-red cotton shirt and a lack leather vest that doesn't button, just for show. My backpack is in the overhead luggage rack.
The young woman opens her bag and takes out some copy-books and begins to correct arithmetic exercises.
"School teacher?" I ask, straightening up and smiling.
"Yes," she answers shyly and crosses out an error with a red pencil.
"In that town we just passed?"
"Yes, and in the next one too."
"Two jobs. In English that's called moonlighting."
She smiles, puzzled, and turns her head towards me: "La luz de la luna?”
"Do you know English?"
"A little. Why do they call it moonlighting?"
"It's just an expression, I suppose because the second job is usually at night, by la luz de la luna."
"I see." She bends again to her work.
"Which town do you live in?"
"The one we're coming to."
"Oh, is it far away?"
"About fifteen minutes."
So I have about twelve minutes to decide whether to proposition this girl and three to do it in. She seems ideal - about twenty-five, a school teacher so not completely ignorant, poor and hungry, probably supports her widowed mother on her miserable salary. What do I say? Come live with me and be my love? She might have a brother who'd kill me. No marry, no girl. Oh well.
My dollar pension is more than enough for us to live in what to her would be relative luxury, and all I need is someone to warm my bed at night without wearing me out, wash the dishes (I'd cook), hold up her end of a reasonably intelligent conversation and be willing to learn.
"And you? You're not from around here," she says, and I’m encouraged.
"No, I live in the Capital."
"Are you a tourist?"
Could this be irony? What would a tourist be doing in this God-forsaken place? "No, I'm on my way to the mountains for a few days." There are quicker ways to get to the mountains, but I like slow buses; I have time. So maybe I am a kind of tourist after all.
"Somehow It's sad that you are able to go to the mountains for a few days while people are hungry here." She says it as a simple fact, without bitterness.
"It's unjust, I know. I wish it weren't so." I do, too, sort of.
"Are you rich?"
"No, I have a good pension though."
"Ah, a politician."
I laugh. "No, I worked for a foreign company. My name is John. What's yours?"
She closes the copy-books and puts them back in the bag. "María."
"What original names we have."
She smiles and the ice is broken. I have a wife back in Buenos Aires who won't like this. We've lived together for thirty-five years, the last ten for convenience and to avoid the embarrassment (and cost) of divorce. But I've had enough of pretense and this trip is for the express purpose of finding a place to live in pleasant, natural surroundings with a docile young woman. I could sound María out now and say I'll come back to get her once I've found a suitable place in the mountains. She'll think I'm Joking, but will guard in her heart the possibility that it's a serious proposition. She has nothing to lose and everything to gain, in my not-so-humble opinion.
The roar of the motor abates. "Nice meeting you, John," she says, starting to rise. "I hope you have a nice time in the mountains."
"Come live with me and be my love," I say in English.
She stares down at me with her large, almond-shaped brown eyes, translating mentally. She flushes, smiles modestly revealing perfect white teeth, and says, "My English isn't that good." Then she pushes her way to the rear exit as the bus pulls off the road and brakes in a swirl of dust.
A moment later I see her stride purposefully across the town square, punctuated in its center by a statue of the Libertador, General San Martín pointing eternally towards the Andes, which he crossed, and Chile beyond. The warm constant breeze presses maría’s thin skirt to her thighs and her blouse against her breasts. A tall young man with a black mustache approaches her obliquely at an angle calculated to avoid being seen. He leans over and whispers something in her ear and she turns around quickly and a smile of delight transforms her face. They kiss briefly and she takes his arm. She talks animatedly as they walk to the far side of the square, probably about the old lecher she just met on the bus. Whatever it is, her companion throws his head back and laughs heartily.
The bus pulls away and a sweaty old man smelling of cheap wine and tobacco sits next to me. I slump down again and watch the implacable Pampa continue to slip by.
© Frank Thomas Smith
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