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from the April 2004 issue

Hotel Almagro

When I first moved to Buenos Aires I rented a room in the Hotel Almagro, on Av. Rivadavia and Castro Barros. I was finishing the stories for my first book and Jorge Álvarez offered me a contract to publish it and gave me a job in his publishing house. I prepared an anthology of North American prose for him, from Poe to Purdy, and with what he paid me and with what I was making at the university I had enough to get set up and live in Buenos Aires. At that time I was working under the Introduction to History professorship of the College of Humanities and was traveling every week to the city of La Plata. I had rented a room in a boardinghouse near the bus terminal and would stay three days a week in La Plata to teach my courses. My life was divided, I was living two lives in two cities as if I were two different people, with different friends and different networks in each.

What was the same, however, was my life in the hotel room. The empty hallways, the temporary quarters, the anonymous atmosphere of those places where one is always in transit. Living in a hotel is the best way to avoid falling into the illusion that one "has" a personal life; of not having, I mean, anything personal to recount, except for the traces that others leave behind. The boardinghouse in La Plata was an endless old house converted into a kind of makeshift hotel run by a perpetual student who lived from leasing out the rooms. The owner of the house was checked into the Las Mercedes hospice, and the guy would transfer a little bit of money to her every month to a post office box there.

The room that I rented was comfortable, with a balcony that opened out to the street and a very tall ceiling. The room in the Hotel Almagro also had a very tall ceiling and a large window that looked out over the back of the Boxing Federation. The two rooms had a closet that was very similar, with double doors and shelves lined with newspaper. One afternoon, in La Plata, I found a woman's letters in a corner of the closet. When one lives in a hotel room one always finds the traces of those who were there before. The letters were concealed in a small opening, as if someone had hidden a package of drugs. They were written in a nervous handwriting that was hardly readable; as is always the case when one reads a letter belonging to someone whom one does not know, there are so many allusions and implications that one can decipher the words but not the meaning or the feeling of what is going on. The woman's name was Angelita and she was not willing to be taken to live in Trenque-Lauquen. She had run away from home; she seemed desperate; she gave me the impression that she was saying good-bye. In the last page, in different handwriting, someone had written a telephone number. When I called they picked up at the emergency room of the City Bell hospital. No one knew any Angelita there.

Of course I forgot all about it but some time later, in Buenos Aires, lying down on the bed in the hotel room I decided to get up and examine the closet. To one side, in a small opening, there were two letters: they were a man's response to the woman's letters in La Plata.

Explanations I do not have. The only possible explanation is to think that I was involved in a divided world and that there were two others who were also in a divided world and that they went from one side to the other just like me, and that, due to those strange combinations produced by randomness, the letters had coincided with me. It is not strange to encounter someone whom one does not know twice in two cities; it seems stranger to find in two different places, two letters from two people who are connected between them but whom one does not know.

The boardinghouse in La Plata is still there, as is the perpetual student, who is now a peaceful old man still renting rooms to students and businessmen traveling through La Plata on the Southern route of the Province of Buenos Aires. The Hotel Almagro is also still the same, and when I walk on Av. Rivadavia toward the College of Philosophy and Letters on Calle Puan I always go by the front door and remember those times. Across the street is the coffeehouse Las Violetas. Of course one must have a peaceful, well-lighted café nearby if one is to live in a hotel room.

From Formas breves (Buenos Aires: Temas Grupo Editorial, 1999). By arrangement with the author.

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