In contemplative diary entries, Ricardo Romero records life in a locked-down Buenos Aires.
And suddenly, with the prospect of these days where the unreality of our daily lives cracks open to reveal the reality of the details (the parts, the fractions are clear but not the whole: the whole is hardly the story we need, the law of gravity that prevents our world from dispensing of us), suddenly, then, we discover that making a bed, turning on a stove, regulating the temperature of the shower, are innocuous tasks to us. Time becomes visible. And the time we see is undone: a cotton sock turned inside out, with all its loose threads on display.
They wander from room to room, somewhere between bored and crazed. Nobody knows it better than children of five or six: the direction we attribute to time is an arrow pointed at the heart of our fear.
In any case, there’s no use dramatizing, it’s not necessary. Do we have to choose what clothes to put on every day? What criteria do we use for that? I put on a red T-shirt because it matches the armchair in the living room, where I’m going to sit and read. I blend in. Is there something superficial about that, something we can rule out? Is it the superficial itself that we should rule out, or the meaning we wish to assign to it, no matter the cost? I contemplate the open wardrobe. When I look inside the wardrobe, the wardrobe looks inside me.
Sunday. Late afternoon. The surfaces conspire. My proof is the noise of helicopters—which is as if silence had a screw loose—the sirens that get closer but never arrive, that retreat without completely fading. Must I blend in, must I try to go unnoticed, as Girondo would say, between the furniture and the shadows? Thought is the heartbeat that gives me away. The loose screw of the silence that inhabits me, the sirens that surround my accidental existence without ever getting close to it. This accident. This unimaginable event. That is what I must remember. That I am unimaginable.
Going shopping is usually a wasted moment during the day. Today, however, standing on the pavement a meter apart from the person behind me and one meter from the person in front of me, I felt it was a worthwhile moment. I had a sudden unexpected impulse. Something active, invigorating: the urge to read. It would have been the best moment in the day to do it. I didn’t have a book with me, but this got me thinking about all the people in the queue. Suddenly I imagined lines of readers, focused people studying math, learning how to make a clay oven, or scribbling in the margins of a reference book the key bullet points for understanding a language they don’t know. A meter in front, a meter behind. Sun blazing. We can’t focus in our houses and so we go out to buy a lemon, 100 grams of mortadella, a bar of glycerin soap, and in the shelter of that wait, that tiny future transaction, we lose ourselves in thought. We are unimaginable.
“In this symbolic confinement, we are not prisoners of the same thing all the time.”
To lose oneself in thought. In this isolation, the “self” is harder to find. We have no points of reference to help us see with relative clarity where we begin and where we end. What we are and what we aren’t. I don’t want to hide away among my heirlooms. These days, the air is thick with anxiety and we drift in it. And anxiety is an unnecessary appropriation of the world.
At a distance of one meter, other people’s faces become important. We look at one another as if we know each other from somewhere and we can’t remember where.
At a distance of one meter, other people’s faces become suspicious. We look at one another as if asking ourselves: who’s dreaming this, you or me?
It’s hard to imagine this Sunday sun over the empty city. It’s hard to imagine the city empty. It unnerves and captivates me; I don’t know how to relate to it. How do you get into this city? Am I outside it or am I part of this spell? I am part of it, I assume, and as soon as I do, the unmistakable sound of clattering plates reaches my ears. I remember, I imagine, I predict: it is the morning of a Monday or Tuesday later in the autumn. The middle of April, let’s say, 20 degrees, sunny, southerly breeze. A beautiful morning when I’ve gone out to take care of some paperwork downtown. I’ve finished and I’m in a good mood. And the good mood makes me peckish. I go into Café Paulín, at Sarmiento 365. I sit down on the second stool on the left side of the U-shaped bar. I don’t have to think. I order a tortilla sandwich with watercress and a beer. I shrug in front of the mirror covering the entire wall opposite me, I let myself go. And while I wait, I once again admire the speed and skill of the man who, inside the horseshoe bar, moves plates and drinks around, hands them out. He is tall, with long arms and big hands, which, rather than making his work clumsy, allow him to reach every corner while standing in the same spot. He talks to one person, talks to someone else, calls out orders over the intercom. The plates clatter and slide, get where they need to go. I focus on his speed; I sense the exaggeration in his movements. He’s fast, yes, but it’s also an act. Or rather, he steps outside of himself so that he can contemplate his speed just as I’m doing, and then in that contemplation, his skill acquires style. I savor the tortilla sandwich with watercress, the beer. At some point, without looking at myself in the mirror, I shrug my shoulders again, let myself go. People come in and out of Paulín. The city is never empty. The Sunday sun is never entirely real. Somewhere, the barman from Paulín is performing his juggling act for himself, and in his skill, time and space clatter, slide, get where they need to go.
A moment of epiphany. Autumn made itself apparent not in the change of weather, in the rain predicted since the day before yesterday, but in retrospective reflection, in the brief stocktaking that accompanies the act of getting dressed after a shower these days. I realized that I had been wearing nothing but Bermuda shorts for over a week. The transition to long trousers, albeit ripped denim, had something inaugural about it, as if I were a boy in the olden days, becoming a man. Putting on socks added to this. For an instant, as I tied my shoelaces, I felt like a man who knew what he was doing.
The problem is that every house, every apartment, every home, is a convention. And this soft imprisonment jeopardizes that convention. Familiar shapes revolt under my watch. They don’t want to continue being what they are, they don’t want to continue being mine, responding to my level of demand. Not even bodily conventions are upheld. Yesterday, a while ago, as I was tying my shoelaces for a moment, I felt like a man who knew what he was doing, until I realized that I’d moved on to the third shoe.
And what if it was a matter of dismantling the frame? Wearing a patch over one eye, as if peeping through a keyhole. Covering the left eye one day, and the right eye the next. Sabotaging the synthesis. Allowing a cross-eyed poetics to make me bump into the doorframe and my thirst for predictions.
Another Sunday. There is no direction to the light, so there are no shadows, only furniture. Or rather, even the shadows are furniture. And they are all closed off. Furniture everywhere, lurking, overflowing with the things I’ve been dragging from house to house, city to city. I count the houses and I am not surprised. It’s a lot of places. But this evaluation doesn’t interest me, I don’t want to open the drawers and wardrobes to blend in with who I was, to become a shadow and a piece of furniture as well. What interests me now is finding an act that saves me and gives me continuity. I don’t have to think about it much: making the bed. I make the bed every day, and until I make it, I don’t feel like I’m ready to face what comes next. We get up, have breakfast, Victoria reads the news to me. At some point, the day summons us and we each start doing our own things. The first thing I do is make the bed. I am fully aware of the origin of this impulse. I lived for several years in a studio apartment in Córdoba, and in a boarding house in San Telmo during my first years in Buenos Aires, and in both places the bed was the central piece of furniture, the star around which the other furniture orbited, all satellites without their own light. By simply making the bed, the home was in order. But it wasn’t just that. I now clearly see that in my varying degrees of isolation during those times, making the bed was a way of keeping a lid on the opaque power of things, the mystery that does not ask to be solved. It was a way of making peace and living with it. Isn’t that arduous coexistence with mystery the very thing that poetry asks of us? Nap time is over, Victoria gets up, makes tea, sits down to read. Trying to go unnoticed, as if I had no more intent than the breeze that ruffles the curtains, I slip into the bedroom and make the bed again.
“Mask-wearers always look as if they want to say something to you.”
In the first week, the terrace became a place for socializing. Neighbors and pets went up there and we saw one another, sheltered by the enthusiasm of recognizing that we not only live in the same building but that we also live in the same world. An unprecedented civility allowed us to chat as we watched someone else’s dog lift its legs perilously close to our freshly laundered sheets. Formally, ceremoniously, we all picked up the dog turds. Then came the withdrawal: we carried on going up there, but we began to avoid each other, the silences were no longer so comfortable, and everyone craved their own schedule, their own corner. We have now entered a third stage. Naturalization. The terrace is like a city square, as magnificent as the Red Square in Moscow, the Garay Tower two blocks away like a cubist Kremlin. We inhabit it as if we’ve always been there. I’ve just confirmed it. When I went up there to read today, near my corner I found a dog turd, blackened by the days. Everything is where it should be.
Soft confinement, fluffy anxieties: every time I want to name this experience, I can’t help but use adjectives. That is, I suppose, because I am experiencing it more like a symbolic confinement than a concrete one. It is not as if we aren’t limited. But they are fragile limitations. They do not put up the concrete resistance that would force us to summon willpower, constant discipline. Many things in our lives are on pause. But what are those things? In this symbolic confinement, we are not prisoners of the same thing all the time, and we find that unsettling. In fact, we are not prisoners all the time. But why have I suddenly started speaking in the plural? Not because I think I understand the transversality of this experience, dazzled as I am by the word “confinement.” It is just an attempt to sustain the fiction of the masses. There is no tragedy without an echo.
I now have my homemade mask, fashioned out of an old sock. Victoria watched a tutorial on how to make them. I put it on and, inevitably, look at myself in the mirror. Okay, so I’m not Juan Salvo. I stop looking at myself and am taking it off when something makes me come back to the mirror. The mask effect, which I’d noticed when I saw people wearing them in the supermarket, is emphasized. Mask-wearers always look as if they want to say something to you. Now I am a mask-wearer and I don’t know what I want to say. With half my face covered, the amount of information offered by my features is all concentrated in my eyes. Eyebrows, forehead, they all frame the eyes, which no longer hide behind the rest of my features. It is as if they are accentuated. As if, finally, they are undressed. What an opportunity. What insolence. What a great capacity for synthesis.
I go out shopping. I no longer have the sock-mask, I have a more sophisticated one. Walking to the supermarket, I decide not to use it. And then I decide to use it. What is at play in these decisions? The gaze of others, my gaze? With the mask on I cannot breathe very well, and my glasses fog up. As I stand in line, I read. Every now and then I surreptitiously sniffle from the threat of an allergy attack. Once inside the supermarket, I walk around. What did I come to buy? It’s as if I’m snorkeling in a pool. I gradually get annoyed. A bad mood creeps in. By the time I return home, my bad mood is in full swing. I take off my shoes, wash my hands thoroughly, throw the mask on the table, wipe down the packaging with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. The bad mood is, in a way, like that cotton ball with alcohol. It purifies me. It does away with over-acting. Because, no doubt about it, I am over-acting. That’s not to say that I find the dystopian protocols of these days unnecessary. I mean that there’s no contradiction. Because over-acting is part of the protocol, it is what they’re asking of us. It’s what we’re asking for. We are bad actors who suddenly find themselves in a leading role.
"120 escalones" © Ricardo Romero. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Charlotte Coombe. All rights reserved.