Friday, January 9, 2009

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER


Coming soon: My misadventures in Bogotá, Colombia. (In the meantime, see the photos above for your viewing enjoyment.) But first things first. Two days ago I was reminded -- again! -- of why I love Buenos Aires. It's not just the whole absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder thing that some 10 days away caused to bloom in full force, or the fact that it's so good to be back to the faded glamour of BA, where the air (despite the "good air" literal translation of the city's name) is occasionally unbreathable, the people too pushy and the sidewalks littered with dog poo.

The thing is, in Buenos Aires, even a trip to an internet cafe can be an adventure. Many months ago, I went to one in order to print out a homework assignment for my Spanish class. As usual, I had a problem with the computer-community printer link and asked the attendant for help. Boy, did I get more than I requested -- personable service indeed! As he leaned down beside me, he used one hand to maneuver the keyboard and the other to squeeze and stroke my lap. What kind of wanton hubris is this?! I thought to myself, channeling Tommy Lee Jones in The Client.

Honestly, I was slightly flattered. Although hardly porteño hot, the internet cafe employee had that semi-attractive guy-on-the-street appeal that you probably wouldn't really notice unless you actually made contact with him, for whatever reason. (How's that for a ringing endorsement?) But I also wondered, Is it so obvious that I play for that team? After all, I was fresh from my Pilates class and looking my absolute butchest (of course, truly butch guys never use words like "butch," but I'm hardly what the Brits would classify as "camp"). More importantly, I worried that some other client would notice his brazen come on.

Thankfully, I managed to scram with my pages, my dignity and mi pantalones de gimnasio intact and put the whole episode out of my mind. Well, after I shared it with a few close friends and and some well-chosen strangers. Then two days ago, I found myself in a bind. I had an afternoon of meetings with writers for the Time Out travel guide that I'm currently editing, and I had to print copies pronto. My only choice was to return to the scene of my previous embarassment, as it was the only internet cafe with a printer conveniently located between point A and point B.

I prayed my previous "suitor" would no longer be working there (and truth be told, I prayed a little that he would). Alas, he was. I asked for a computer with a connection to the printer, and after shooting me a wink of recognition, he professionally directed me to a computer close to the front. Moments later, he was by my side, offering his help should I need it. He patted my leg, squeezed my shoulder and went on his way. I prayed I would be able to make it on my own, but once again, the computer-printer connection went awry, so I approached the bench.

He came over, did some quick maneuvering, more or less kept his hands to himself and -- voila! -- my pages began to emerge from the printer. So far, so good. I went to the counter to pay, and he helped all of the other customers before turning his attention to me. "Sería 16 pesos," he said with a mischievous grin. As I pulled out my money, he fixed his eyes on my face, smiling the entire time. Taking my 20 pesos, he began to interrogate me. "¿De donde sos?" New York. "Estás en Buenos Aires solo?" Yes, just me. "No tenés novia [No]... novio [No]... pareja [No]?" I tried to remain as calm and casual as possible. No girlfriend, no boyfriend, no pareja -- that's "couple" en español. (Incidentally, I would be asked the same question two more times in the next 24 hours, and each time my response would be greeted with equal parts shock and disbelief.) "¡Qué pena! Y sos tan hermoso," he said, hopefully, eyes still fixed on me, even as he was counting my change. He handed it back to me: 20 pesos, 10 pesos, a pair of two-peso bills, the entire time looking into my eyes and not at the cash.

It took me a second to realize that he was giving me change for a 50, not for the 20 that I had given him. He had been so preoccupied with flirting that he didn't even realize what he was doing. I stood frozen in front of the gum and candy display, answering his questions quickly and mechanically but not sure how to respond to this money thing. He handed me the bills, smiling, flirtatiously, hopefully. I could have sworn I even saw a twinkle in his eye. I stood there smiling back, politely, mind racing, honesty impulses bubbling under but not quite over. For the first time since I had stepped inside the internet cafe, I didn't know what to say.
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