By Gaither Stewart
The last time I saw Algodón was in the instant before the medics pulled the sheet over his face. From my fourth floor balcony across the narrow street I could perceive the regular features of his handsome face now turned pale gray; it didn’t show a mark from his fall.
Awakened by the hubbub of sirens and shouting from the late night restaurant next door, I had leapt from bed and run to my balcony. I had a premonition that something concerning me too had taken place. In the first moment I saw only mobs of people gathered under the scaffolding of the construction site—police, emergency personnel and dozens of denizens of the Buenos Aires night.
Earlier that evening between 10 and 11 I had seen him enter the side door of the hôtel particulier just opposite my apartment just as many times in the weeks before. He had glided up the steps of the main house in his familiar masculine arrogance. As he approached, the door opened to him as always. Soon after the dim upstairs light came on.
A half an hour or so afterwards something unexpected and unusual happened. Lights showed dimly inside the attached building under reconstruction. The illuminated section of the rising hotel was in the rear and shared a common wall with the mansard level of the mansion. Behind the flimsy cloth screen covering the façade of the work site that I knew so well, a tall dark figure flitted across my vision.
It looked like Algodón.
I waited a bit longer before deciding that the screen, the dim lights and the shadows had distorted my vision. I went back to bed to read and begin my struggle for sleep.
I was not surprised at the hour since I had seen the man I called Algodón entering or leaving the entrance to the mansion at many different times. Sometimes he arrived late mornings; other days he came in the early afternoon; or he appeared out of the dark of the calle in the after-dinner hours. One afternoon I held to my post in a chair near my balcony window and waited to see how long he stayed. After an hour or more he still had not come out again.
I realized Algodón did not live in the mansion. That he was such an assiduous visitor however made his appearances all the more mysterious. Some nights shortly after his arrival the feeble light would come on in the room just to the right of three French windows. Other nights the mansard apartment near the common wall with the hotel under construction would illuminate.
I had come to imagine he was the lover of someone in the mansion. When at times I perceived an inexplicable tingling of jealousy I changed the scene: he became the thoughtful son visiting an aged and invalid mother.
My feelings of jealousy were unexpected since I am not a jealous person at all. In fact I am above all indifferent. Besides, in that period I was traveling with a Frenchman from St. Bart who was off on an extended business trip in Patagonia. I was, so to speak, left alone to ponder Algodón the man … and Algodón the boutique hotel. The way he entered the elegant mansion so possessively, so poised and imperturbable, had at first irritated me. I had the absurd thought that he should be coming to me instead.
As the days passed I felt my normal controls departing a little more each time. Feelings of propriety or dependability or supportiveness abandoned me. I felt only egoism and selfishness, as if he were mine. I felt distant from the world, hypnotized by the immediacy of his presence, seduced, as if something strange and obscure, unknown and unnamable were driving me to mate with him.
Such wild sensations were new to me. How could they be explained?
I came to suspect my feelings also had to do with the mansion … and somehow with the building being restructured, too. And, in another part of my mind, there was also a deeper conflict that seemed to exist in the roots, perhaps in the very origins, of the two buildings.
I perceived that Algodón had something to do with both.
From the morning workers hung the great cloth screen across the façade of the building attached to the right side of the French mansion with the explanation that the “Algodón Boutique Hotel With Restaurant and Bar” was being born, I’d had the strange sensation—actually not a sensation, rather a premonition coupled with female intuition—that its name would somehow change my life.
The Spanish word for cotton after all meant something to me personally, a woman originally from the American Deep South. For that reason, to my ears it rang anachronistic on a building attached to the perfect Parisian hôtel particulier just under my eyes. In my mind there was a contradiction and great confusion between the future Algodón on the left and the hôtel particulier on the right. The irregularity of the movement, the steady to and fro of the workers in one, the almost secret entrances and exists from the other.
The contradiction between French architecture and Algodón under construction and the role of this actor-like interstice nearly drove me crazy.
The thing about the hôtel particulier in the middle of this city rich in French architecture was that it was so perfect. Too perfect, I began to think with growing trepidation. The wall along the street, the carriage entrance in the center, the two side entrances into no less perfect miniature houses set perpendicular to the street, together with the main three-story mansion formed a classical courtyard. All three buildings were topped with dark gray Parisian slate roofs. Seen from my balcony, the scene just under my eyes resembled a theater stage. Yet there was that disconcerting matter of the architectural perfection. The false windows like trompe-l’oeils on the right and left wings perpendicular to the street disturbed me. And why the rare openings of the main gate from street to courtyard? Why the frequent opening and closing of the narrow pedestrian door of the gatehouse on the left?
And evenings, why only the pale light in one apartment on the second floor? Why the general lack of movement?
Why the mystery?
Because of the hotel name spelled out in great letters always looming before my eyes, I had begun calling the actor Algodón, liking the sound. Yet, despite his elegance and smooth composure, there was also something not exactly sleazy but irregular about him, not something I could define as false, but nonetheless deceptive. I imagined he could be a lawyer or for some crazy reason maybe even a cosmetics surgeon.
In any case I suspected, somehow I knew, that he was not what he seemed. But there are many such types in Buenos Aires, where many people, at least in this barrio, dress with such flair that you don’t know who they are in reality.
Imagine my disconcertment when a neighbor reported the rumor that the Algodòn was to be an exclusive hotel for exclusive transvestites. Now I personally have absolutely no problems whatsoever about transvestites. I feel solidarity with them as much as with women in general. For in my thinking they are women somehow born in the wrong bodies. And what kind of a god did this to them? If they want tits, need tits, why not? And if their penis bothers them, why not try to eliminate it, or disguise it. That is the way I feel about it. There is anyway something fundamentally tragic in the idea of a person born in the wrong skin, as I have learned as I pass through life. The potential tragedy concerns us all in one way or another. Who has not felt at one time or another that she or he is in the wrong skin, in the wrong person or time, or, in this case, in the wrong sex? It seems like ingenuity, the adamant insistence of scientists and doctors on the separation between physical bodies and the souls or spirits of human beings … the intimation, the accusation that being in the wrong skin is the choice of a soulless human being and therefore rejected by the contemporary world. The differentness lodged within the wrong skin chides the wronged soul and urges it to be loyal to itself and above all not to betray its true self. This voice speaking of a destiny to accomplish is irresistible—or it should be. That destiny is not abstract. It demands action and fulfillment. For how can a woman live in the body of a man and not be alienated from life?
In those days and nights and weeks I thought intensely about the transvestites who in Rome where I live were for some strange reason nearly all Brazilians, all looking for a home.
Yet, my mind continually brought me back to Algodón. It couldn’t be only chance, I thought, that I had even noticed him at first, then spied on him and searched for him. It was as if in this immense city my path had to cross his, as if we somehow belonged to each other because at some point our diverse trajectories intersected, by way of some mysterious order or underground faith or secret organization, or perhaps, I came to think, by that beautiful word, Algodón.
So I can truthfully say that my perplexity about the boutique hotel in no way derived from reservations about transvestites. On the contrary. One of my reservations was the necessity of a special or exclusive hotel for them. Why exclusive? And for what? To exclude them even more? To put them on some kind of exclusive reservation? Another ghetto?
No, none of that. Above all, I was disconcerted by the discrepancy, the chaos created by the physical proximity—the one building attached to the other—between the boutique hotel and hôtel particulier, on one hand, and the name Algodón on the other. And to think that I myself magnified the confusion in my mind by naming the mystery man in black, entering and leaving at such odd hours, Algodón.
If I just didn’t like that word so much!
So as the days and nights and weeks passed, I asked myself over and over what I could do in order to resolve the entanglement in my mind. Sometimes I felt the presence in me of an unconscious goal toward I didn’t know what. But most certainly of something I would never have even considered in my former life. Yet, my unexpected sexual attraction, if it was that, provoked the suspicion that it was my unconscious becoming conscious. At the same time it was as if something in me did not agree with my feelings.
But then, what about Algodón? What was his role in the mystery? More than that, why did he even have to have a role here? Or was the mystery—if it was a mystery!—only a creation of my fervid imagination?
I do not believe—rather I have never wanted to believe—in destiny. Destiny does come to us at times in such mysterious and unrecognizable ways that we are seldom aware of the omens and signs that have floated around us. Yet, we often feel something, something we call premonition or presentiment. Only later, after the fact, do we become conscious of what was a clear sign.
It was like that with Algodón, just a man passing through a gate.
And now he was lying on a slab in a morgue somewhere.
The unrecognized gut feeling of the pain to come, the horror, the torture, the self-sacrificial torment!
My mind still in the shambles of misconceptions and misconstructions, I had begun to suspect that despite my close observation, I had missed those telling signals and signs of the nascent tragedy. I blamed the huge city for blinding me to what was happening just under my eyes. So close but so distant. My balcony window was separated from the pedestrian entrance that Algodón used by no more than twenty-five meters distance, most of which was vertical.
Yet, we had never spoken.
I didn’t know who he was or what he was doing.
I didn’t believe he had ever noticed me. He didn’t know of my existence nor that I was jealously waiting for him and spying on him. He didn’t know that he had the name Algodón. Not even that.
Algodón, I began telling myself, was a fiction, a creation of my imagination. I had only dreamed what for some days afterwards I believed I might have seen.
Perhaps for that reason the next evening I couldn’t resist. I rang the bell at the main gate of the mansion. Almost immediately a tight and a rather choked male voice asked who I was. As if he had watched me cross the street and waited for my ring.
I asked to enter. I was a neighbor and I wanted to extend my condolences.
To someone. To anyone.
The gatekeeper I had seen many times led me across the familiar courtyard and up the steps I knew so well and introduced me into an entranceway of black and white checkered marble.
A heavy door opened toward the rear, I entered, and the door closed behind me. Immediately the street noises were smothered. The scene before me was cinematographic: a funeral wake of a sect, a secret society, candles burning everywhere, about a dozen people seated at a long table laden with food and drink.
The doorman offered me a chair. No one looked at me. Everyone ate and drank or cried in silence, I imagined, for Algodón.
I felt disgust when the next day police swarmed over Algodón’s territory, across the courtyard and in and out the French doors. Each insisted on tapping on the false windows.
That night, for the last time, I stood at my window, clasping a newspaper to my breast. I felt abandoned. Abandoned by Algodón. Was it all a fiction or reality? Reality and illusions had been transformed and transfused. Officially the Deputy Minister of Economic Development had fallen during an inspection of a construction site in the barrio of La Recoleta. Yet, reporters spoke of a pornographic productions company headquartered in the hôtel particulier. The exclusive boutique hotel was to become the new center.
For my part I did not reveal to anyone that I might have seen two figures together with Algodón in the mist and the shadows on the scaffolding that night. I had come to think that perhaps that scene and Algodón as well were only illusion.
Now I know it is true that something always remains. Algodón’s appearance was a sign of change in my life. I have become aware of an unexpected wildness in my spirit, as if I too were in a deviant body. Until Algodón, I had been unconscious of my spying nature and the possibility of jealousy.
Algodón’s existence nourished my egoism. His disappearance made me aware of the full significance of the nada of my life ... and of my true differentness.
Algodón evanesced in the night, leaving in me a sense for adventure in dark dimensions distant from mine of before.
Our lives crossed only for a brief moment.
Different destinies erased that brief intersection.
© Gaither Stewart.
Gaither Stewart is a writer and journalist residing in Rome.