Quarantined

a man with a face-mask next to a sign that reads 'Argentina'

by Roberto Fox (as told to Frank Thomas Smith)

If I were to tell you that Matthew Jones feels bewitched, bothered and bewildered I would be putting it mildly. He is sitting in an apartment with its spectacular view of Palermo Park in Buenos Aires wringing his hands and pulling his hair. Actually, he doesn't feel bewitched because he doesn't believe in witches, but bothered and bewildered, yes.

He left Salt Lake City by car the previous day, arriving in Chicago's O'Hare airport in plenty of time for American's flight to Miami, from where he flew to Buenos Aires. He couldn't have flown from Salt Lake City because he would have been recognized at the airport by everyone. But nobody recognized him in Chicago, Miami or – least of all – Buenos Aires.

Once settled in first class, he had a glass of champagne, dinner with Chilean tinto and a sleeping pill. He slept almost all the way to Argentina's international airport at Ezeiza, Buenos Aires. He had no checked baggage, only a backpack carry-on, so he was one of the first through customs and immigration. The immigration agent frowned at the Argentine passport Jones showed him, with the name Matheu Tomás Jones. He answered before he was asked. He had no exit stamp from Argentina because the passport was new, issued by the Argentine consulate in Washington, where he had been living for several years. The agent shrugged, stamped him in and said, Bienvenido a casa, Señor Hoe-ness.” A young woman dressed in white handed him a printed page when he passed through the exit. Something about a “Cuarentena”. He stuffed it into his pocket without reading, to be disposed of at the next waste paper receptacle.

It has now become necessary to explain how and why our hero, Matthew Thomas Jones, had an Argentine passport with the name Matheu Tomás Jones. I had intended to do so later in order not to interrupt the rhythm of the story, but it is already confused, so the time has come.

It was like this, explained to him by his father when he was old enough to understand. He was born in Argentina because his father was a Mormon missionary – not one of those young men in jackets and ties, who travel the world signing up souls for paradise, but a real missionary who stayed several years in each country. His church in Utah had transferred him from Salt Lake City to Buenos Aires when Matthew was minus eight months old. One day, when he was minus one month old, his father, who had been pondering about his son-to-be's name, was on a train or bus in Buenos Aires province passing through a provincial town called Matheu. He thought: aha, that must be Matthew in Spanish, and the town is named after Saint Matthew of Biblical fame. When Matthew was a week old, his father went to the Buenos Aires registro civil in order to give his son a legal name and inform the British Hospital, where he was born, what it was. Normally he wouldn't have bothered, but the hospital office told him that it was mandatory. Those days Argentina only accepted Spanish names, the more Biblical the better. Matthew's father told the clerk his son's name was Matheu. The clerk, a matronly lady with a slight mustache, smiled and handed him a pencil and paper. After Matthew's father (whose Spanish was very very basic) wrote the name Matheu Tomás on the paper, the clerk shook her head and said Matheu was not acceptable. “Why not?” he insisted in English. “It's in the Bible, for God's sake!” What he didn't know – and why should he, there was neither Internet nor Google then – Domingo Matheu was one of Argentina's founding fathers, and Matthew in Spanish is Mateo. When the clerk realized that she couldn't make the crazy gringo, who was complicating her day, understand that only names “on the list” were acceptable, she decided to call her boss for help. The supervisor, who prided himself on his very basic English, told Matthew's father firmly that the name Matheu “no can be acceptable for Argentine baby”. But Tomás is okay. (Matt's father somehow knew beforehand that Tomás is Thomas in Spanish.)

“First of all,” he said, his voice rising, “my son is not an Argentine baby, but an American one, and second of all that name is one of Jesus's disciples for Christ sake!”

The supervisor shrugged and said to the clerk, who had asked him what the man said, “He's out of his mind. Put any ridiculous name he wants for his brat. They won't be here long anyway.”

When Matthew's father went to the American consulate to register his son, the American clerk there, who looked astonishingly like the clerk who attended him at the registro civil, mustache and all, brushed aside the Argentine birth certificate and asked him for the baby's name. “Matthew Thomas Smith”, the new daddy answered. He had come prepared to argue that the name should be in English; now it turned out that no argument was necessary. The clerk filled out a form for a U.S. birth certificate, had daddy sign it, excused herself and returned fifteen minutes later with the birth certificate embossed with the consul's signature. Why Thomas? You may be asking. Well, Thomas was Matt's dad's Uncle Tom, his hero, a soldier fighting with Patton's army marching north through Italy during the Second World War. He was a sergeant, but suddenly his letters to his parents read “Private Thomas Smith”. He explained that he requested being downgraded because he didn't want to bear a sergeant's responsibility for his comrades' safety. That may sound unbelievable to you, and you're probably right, but Matt and Tom's parents believed it, and that's what counted.

Matt headed for the taxi line outside the airport and was soon on the autopista heading into the city of Buenos Aires. That's when he heard about the cuarentena. He had been wondering why there was so little traffic, but attributed to it being Saturday morning. The driver said something in Spanish about American Airlines. Matt had lived in Argentina only three years after his birth and, since his parents spoke only English at home, the only contact he'd had with the Spanish language was from the nanny/maid his mother hired – something they could never have been able to afford in the U.S. Matt felt closer to María Elena than to his own mother. He even remembered her name and intended to look her up someday. He also studied Spanish, feeling that it had something to do with his destiny. He asked the driver to please repeat what he said. The driver, recognizing a foreigner when he heard one, spoke slowly and clearly: “That may have been the last American Airlines flight to come to Buenos Aires for a long time.”

Aha, yes, la cuarentena – the quarantine – they had been talking about the possibility before he left, but only the possibility. He had hoped that cooler heads would prevail. That they had begun it in Argentina already surprised him greatly; it would be an unpleasant surprise indeed if it interfered with his travel plans.

He told the driver to let him out a few blocks from the address he had given him. He wanted to walk a little and get some air after sitting for so many hours – although reclining at almost 180 degrees in first class is a far cry from sitting. The taxi let him out at the corner of Avenida Cabildo and Calle La Pampa in the Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The driver pointed down La Pampa as the direction he was to walk. He tried to warn Matt about walking during the quarantine without an acceptable destination, such as a pharmacy or a supermarket, but Matt just smiled. Avenida Cabildo is a wide street full of elegant apartment houses and stores, but they all seemed to be closed. Matt's stomach sent a danger signal up to his heart, but Matt – a man in love, after all – shrugged and turned into La Pampa Street anticipating the softly anxious arms of the woman he had fallen in love with only a few weeks before at a mayors' convention in Miami.

Flora (María Florencia) was an interpreter for the twenty-four U.S, Canadian and Latin American mayors. Even the few who spoke both languages preferred to speak in their own, so the interpreters were busy. All the participants were booked in the Hilton and Matt and Flora arrived at the same time, even rode up to the seventh floor in the same elevator. He asked her what floor she was going to in order to press the button. “Oh, me too,” he said, “what a coincidence.” Later she said it was karma. Who knows which of them was correct. When, as it turned out, they had adjoining rooms, Matt was already in love, something he was ripe for at forty-two years of age, unhappily married and feeling unappreciated.

When it was his turn to speak at the conference, he mostly ignored his prepared speech and, to his own surprise, mentioned that he had been born in Argentina – something he never mentioned in public in order to protect his all-American-boy image – and thus had a special place in his heart for the political colleagues present and, especially, “my Latin American friends”. (As he said that he was looking up at the interpreters' booth and, although it was impossible to determine, at Flora who blushed as she translated his words into Spanish.)

Meeting in the hotel bar after the meeting was inevitable. Matt was leaning on the bar when he saw her walk in. She stopped and looked around the crowd. She had changed to a blue cotton dress which reached just barely below her knees. It was loose, but showed off her modest curves well. Her long brown freshly washed hair sparkled under the ceiling lights. Matt slipped off his stool and hurried over to her before someone else (several fellow mayors were already eyeing her) could beat him to her.

“Hi, Florencia,” he said, and took her outstretched hand. “This place is crowded and more for drinking than eating.” She smiled, anticipating the obvious. “How about going to a nice restaurant. I'm starved.”

She tilted her head and frowned slightly as though considering the options. Then, with a lovely smile, “I'm hungry too. By the way, my friends call me Flora.”

“Wow, beautiful, flower?”

“No, flower is flor.”

“Oh yeah, but masculine.

She laughed. “Actually bisexual, grammatically at least. Do you know a good restaurant near here?”

“No”, Matt said, “but let's find out from the concierge.”

The concierge was more than accommodating. He told them that he knew an excellent Cuban restaurant, but it wasn't very near. They have a car, however, which can be here in five or ten minutes to take them there. His extravagant smile revealed a gold tooth – or so it seemed to Matt. Although he conceded that it could have been the light. He asked Flora afterwards, but she hadn't noticed it, although she laughed at the idea. The car was a stretch limousine with room for ten passengers, but Flora and Matt were alone, which caused him to worry about how much the culinary adventure would cost. But, he mused, sometimes you must invest in order to get the best results. They arrived so soon that it seemed they could have easily walked without working up a sweat.

Actually it wasn't even a real restaurant, but chairs and tables set in the open air, covered with some kind of transparent material instead of a roof. You could see the stars. A slight, salty breeze from the invisible ocean made for a pleasant atmosphere. “Un drink para estartear?” the nattily dressed waiter asked in Spanglish.

“I think I'll have a beer,” Matt said. “Do you have Bud?

The waiter stared at him as though he had cursed his mother. “No, señor, Bud ees pees. We have the wonderful Cuban beer, Bucanero!”

Matt shrugged. “Flora?” She agreed to try it.

The food was indeed good, and the Bucanero beer better and much stronger than Bud. It didn't take long for them to decide that their meeting was “made in the stars” (Matt) or “karma” (Flora). Neither had any doubt that they would sleep in the same hotel, the same room and the same bed that night.

“Café?” the waiter asked, interrupting their mooning.

“Hey,” Matt said, looking at him curiously, “are you related to the concierge in the hotel?”

“Sí, my braather. Gracias for to asking. Do you want café Americano or buchito?”

“What's buchito?” Matt asked.

“Cuban café.”

“I'll have buchito,” Flora said. “After all this is a Cuban restaurant.

“American for me,” Matt said. “After all, this is still America.”

The waiter nodded and went back to the kitchen. Flora and Matt were silent, both slightly offended. The waiter was back with the two coffees before either of them could think of something appeasing to say. “Para la señora, buchito,” he said with a smile, placing the cup in front of her. For the señor, americano, he said with a frown, placing the cup before Matt.

“The bill, please,” Matt said. “By the way, what's the difference between buchito and americano?”

“The difference?” the waiter answered, dropping the phony accent. “There is no difference; they are the same.” He bowed, giggled, and left.

Flora and Matt looked at each other and began to laugh hysterically at the same time. They had barely recovered when the waiter returned with the bill, which Matt considered reasonable, considering the entertainment and the promising karma.

The next morning, in bed in his room – which was larger than hers, he being a delegate, she a mere interpreter, the lovers were faced with the eternal question: what now?

“Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Matt Damon, Matt?”

He sighed histrionically: “Yes, practically everyone.”

She laughed. “Sorry, but it's true.”

“Let's change the subject.”

“Okay. What now?” When Matt frowned instead of answering, she asked, “Are you married?”

“I'm a politician in Utah. Of course I'm married …. but on the verge of becoming unmarried. How about you.”

“Happily divorced.” She pulled his ear. “Can politicians in Utah be divorced.”

“Those who have caused a divorce through their own poor choices can repent and be forgiven,” Matt quoted.

“So you're gonna repent?”

“Yeah, for being stupid. Mitt Romney's my friend. He'll probably run for president. No problemo.” He caressed her lovely backside. “When will I see you again?”

“I have nothing scheduled for the U.S. this year, so I don't know. This might be a one-night-stand.”

“No, Flora. I love you, really. I'll think of something.”

“I love you too, Matt, but I just can't think of what you can think of to bring us together.”

“I'll think of something,” Matt insisted. “It's in the stars.”

What Matt thought of was the trip to Buenos Aires where we left him turning on to La Pampa Street. He had walked several blocks and had just crossed Avenida Libertador when a police cruiser pulled up next to him. He saluted the cops and kept walking. One of them got out of the car and called after him: “Señor!” Matt stopped: “Moi?” pointing at himself.

Documento,” the cop said, holding out his right hand, with his left hand on the butt of the revolver hanging from his hip.

Matt reached into his jacket pocket and fingered both of his passports, which he could differentiate by feeling their patterns, He decided on the U.S. one and a corresponding dumb gringo act – which wasn't far off the mark of truth. The cop looked at the photo, then back at Matt and said, “Adónde va?” Matt opened his eyes wide and dumb. The cop pushed buttons on his cellphone and showed it to Matt: Where are you going?

“Oh, of course.” He opened his address book to the letter F and showed it to the cop, who called to his buddy in the car that the address is on the next block, “La Pampa 1290. I'll take him there, just in case.”

Just in case of what? Matt thought. They walked past a small football stadium, silent now because of the quarantine. After crossing the street they walked past several four-story apartment buildings set back about fifty yards from the street behind manicured lawns.

The cop pointed to the gate of number 1290 and followed Matt across the manicured lawn and past several jacaranda trees in bloom. The cop looked at the address in Matt's address book before handing it back to him. “Departamento 4A,” he said and pressed the doorbell to that apartment. “Sí?” came the answer.

“Policía”, the cop said. “Tengo un tipo aquí que dice que es amigo suyo: Matheu Tomás Hoe-ness.”

It took a moment for Flora to process this information, then she said, “Sí, sí, que pase. No hay problema.” The buzzer indicating that the front door's lock was released, buzzed, Matt pushed the door open and the cop gave him back his passport, and saluted with two fingers.

“When you didn't pick me up at the airport I was worried,” Matt told Flora in her bed, nuzzling her neck behind her right ear.

“The news on TV said that all incoming international flights were canceled because of the pandemic, so I thought you....hey! You know we're quarantined, don't you? That cop could have arrested you.”

“I didn't know. In the States they were just starting to talk about a possible quarantine there. That's why I wanted to come here to you before it was too late. They must have begun the quarantine here while we were in the air.” He buried his face in her long brown hair.

“How will you get home?”

Matt sat up, or, rather, jumped up sitting: “O my God! How will I get home?”

Just then they heard a noise in the hallway, like a door slamming. In fact, it was a door slamming. The bedroom door opened and a man strode in, thick Latin mustache and all. He was shorter than Matt, but twice as thick. Flora pulled the sheet over her breast and Matt got out of the bed stark naked. He grabbed his pants off the chair near the bed and struggled to put them on while the intruder was calling Flora a puta and several other names beyond Matt's vocabulary. He strode up to the bed with his clenched fist in the air over Flo and screamed something Matt did understand: Te voy a matar! But Flora had a small tube in her hand that she held up to the man's face and squirted pepper spray into his eyes before he could hit her. He screamed like a stuck pig, grabbing his eyes, making it worse.

And our Matt? He looked around the room for something that could be used as a weapon, and spotted a meditating Buddha watching its navel. Matt didn't know what it was made of, but when he grasped it by the head with one hand, it seemed heavy enough. He went behind the moaning, cursing intruder and brought Buddha down on his head with force. Buddha shattered in many pieces and the intruder collapsed on top of Flora. “Hijo de puta!” she yelled and pushed him off with her feet. He fell to the floor next to the bed.

Flora and Matt were both in shock, so their first exclamations made little sense. Finally Matt sat down on the bed and said, “Do you know him?”

“My ex-husband, Gustavo, the hijo de puta!.” She pushed herself to the other side of the bed and stood up. As she was getting dressed, she said, “What'll we do if he's dead?”

Matt unhelpfully replied, “What'll we do if he isn't dead?”

Silence, with no answers. Finally Matt said, “We could roll him up in a carpet and dump him in the river. Do you have a carpet?”

“Or in the lake, it's closer,” Flora said. Then, “I don't have a carpet, but maybe I could borrow one from...er...no, nobody.”

Suddenly Gustavo groaned. “He's alive,” Matt exclaimed. “Do you have rope to tie him with?”

“In the kitchen, I think.” She ran through the dining room into the kitchen. Gustavo moved his legs like on a slow-motion bicycle. Flora came back with a role of duct-tape. “This is what they use in the movies,” she said. They bound his wrists with the tape, then, while Matt sat on him, Flora bound his ankles and legs. They were just in time, for he opened his eyes and emitted a stream of obscenities which Matt was luckily enough not to understand. He emptied a pillowcase of its pillow and stuffed it in Gustavo's mouth.

The bell rang. “That's the upstairs bell,” Flora said. Someone's right outside the door. She peeked through the viewer and saw two policemen standing there. One of them rang the bell again. “Just a minute,” she said, then whispered to Matt. “What will we tell them?”

“How about the truth? I can't think of anything else that would work.”

She opened the door. “Everything all right here? We got calls about screaming,” the older cop said, the one with the bigger mustache.

“Not really,” Flora answered. “This guy, my ex-husband,” she said as she walked through the living room to the bedroom, followed by the cops, “broke in and tried to kill me.” They looked at the trussed hulk with a pillowcase in his mouth in astonishment. “You did this?” the younger cop exclaimed. That was Matt's cue to step in from the balcony, where he had hoped to somehow become invisible. But now he realized that that was impossible. “Actually, I helped,” he said.

“And who are you?” the older cop asked.

“A friend,” Flora interjected.

The cop help out his hand to Matt. “Documento.” Matt fingered his passports and selected the Argentine one.

“There's a court order for this tipo not to come near me,” Flora said. He's violent!” Matt hadn't known about the court order, so he could have kissed her on the spot.

After she showed the police the court order and they had taken Gustavo away, “Let's go out on the balcony,” Flora said. They were on the top floor, the fourth, and the balcony overlooked Palermo Park, one of the largest and most beautiful parks in Buenos Aires. Flora brought a bottle of Corona beer from the kitchen. “At least it's not Bud.”

“Did you know that Bud is good for the brain?”

“Really? How?”

“It made Bud-weiser.” She punched him on the arm, but laughed anyway. “That's awful.”

“I know,” Matt agreed. “I promise not to ever say it again.

A pigeon flew across their view, followed by a second one in hot pursuit; both landed on the same branch. “Do you think they're in love?” Flora asked.

“Definitely. What else?”

“Well, there's sex.”

“One doesn't necessarily preclude the other,” Matt said bud-wisely. “Hey, what am I gonna do to get back home?”

“When are you expected?”

“Is today still Friday? Tuesday. I'm supposed to be hiking till then in the Utah hills.”

“I don't think so,” Flora said. “The government announced today that all flights to and from Argentina have been canceled, until further notice.” She took his hand. “It looks like you'll have to stay, darling, until further notice”.

“When I don't go to the office on Wednesday my secretary will call home. Gretchen, that's my wife, will say I didn't come home. I hope she won't add that she couldn't care less.”

“Gretchen? Is she German?”

“No, a great grandfather was, but for now let's stick to the problem.”

“OK, so then what?”

“After a few more days they'll call the police and the manhunt will begin.”

“Like on television. Will it be on television? I mean are you important enough?”

“Not enough to make a big deal,” Matt admitted, grinding his teeth, “but the unexplained disappearance of the mayor of even a small city in Utah is news.” He stroked his chin. “Eventually they'll find my car in the airport parking lot in Chicago.”

“Will that mean that they'll know you flew off somewhere?” Flora asked.

“Well, it could also mean that someone bumped me off in Chicago and flew away himself.”

“Why would anyone want to do that? And where's the body?”

“What body?”

“Yours, who else's?” She began to laugh.

“What are you laughing about?” Matt said. “This is serious.” When she couldn't stop, he had to laugh, too. “I need another beer,” he gasped. When she returned with two more Coronas, he said, “they won't find out I flew to Miami, because I used a false name. Then in Miami I bought a ticket to Buenos Aires using my Argentine passport: Matheu Tomás Jones.”

“That's quite close to Matthew Thomas Jones, I'd say.”

“Yeah, but you're not Sherlock Holmes and neither are they. Why should they check flights from Miami to Buenos Aires anyway?”

After pretending to think a while, Flora said, “And when this quarantine is over, what will you say when you go back?”

“Yeah, well, I've been thinking about that. I mean what can I say, that I was kidnapped by a ravishing Argentine interpreter and brought to Buenos Aires for no particular reason. I was kept in a luxurious haunted house until I seduced the zombi's daughter and escaped by the foreskin of my penis?”

Flora fell on the fall laughing uproariously, and Matt soon joined her. “Anyway,” Matt went on, “what would I do here? I have about a thousand dollars in my pocket, which will last for a while here because of the favorable exchange rate, but afterward? I can't use my credit card, it'd be traced.”

Suddenly a cellphone rang. “O my God! - my phone!” He fished his phone from his backpack and opened it. “It's an ad from Verizon, they want to sell me credit, which means I don't have any. I gotta throw this thing away.”

“Don't throw it away, Matt. It's a beauty, an I-phone, hard to get here. Just take the chip out and buy an Argentine one.”

After Matt removed the chip and looked around for someplace to burn it, Flora said, “You know Matt, I know something you might do here to earn a living.”

“What? I refuse to imitate Matt Damon.”

“No, listen. A friend of mine, Luisa Segovia, is a well known Argentine author. She lives a few blocks away. Anyway, her new book is about to be published. Do you know the title?”

“Don Quijote?”

“No, stupid: Acuarentenada.

“Quarantined?”

Yes. She wrote it before this corona virus appeared and people are actually quarantined. It's about a woman, a writer, who is quarantined in the States, Miami, I think. It's prophetic!”

“Yeah,” agreed Matt, “it's me in reverse.”

“Yes, but don't make me laugh again. You see, Luisa's books in English are translated and published in the U.K. But she doesn't like the translations or the publisher, says they're too fucking British. That her heroine is Argentine-American and most of the action takes place in the U.S. of America, so the language should be American English.

“Whoa, mi amor,” Matt interjected. “My Spanish isn't nearly good enough to translate anything. And I don't know anything about translating anyway.”

“No, but I do: I've translated several English language books into Spanish. And now Luisa wants me to translate her new book into American English, because I lived in the States for a few years.” She paused for breath as the pigeons crossed again in the opposite direction. “You see, I translate into Spanish, my mother tongue, but never from Spanish. I think only native speakers of the receptive language can really do that well, professionally.”

“The pigeons just came back,” Matt said. I guess their trip went well. At least they're not quarantined.”

“But with your help, Matt, I could translate the book and you could point out where what I write doesn't sound quite right; we could discuss it and correct, or at least improve it.”

“Maybe it's a sign,” Matt said.

“What?”

“The pigeons.”

“What do you think?”

“It sounds interesting. We could give it a try. It's better than a job as a bilingual gas station attendant.”

***

That's basically the end of the story. Flora told Luisa that she'd try the first chapter, and that she had a native “estadounidense” [United States-er] as collaborator, who wishes to remain anonymous. It worked out very well. The book was published in New York, and it became a best-seller, helped enormously by the media calling it “prophetic”. Matt's body was never found – obviously. The Mormons decided that he had been kidnapped by Satan and carried directly down to Hell as punishment for having voted for Bernie Sanders, an agnostic Jewish socialist.

“You know Matt,” Flora said to her now established partner and bed-mate, “despite all the pain and suffering that corona virus caused, it didn't do us any harm at all.”

“None at all,” Matt agreed. In fact I am eternally grateful to la Señora Corona for giving me freedom and … “

“And?”

“And you.”