Just Once

Just Once

Translated from Spanish by Annette H. Levine


had just stopped dating a guy I didn’t care for. Ariel wanted me to meet Paco. ―He´s cool like you, you’ll get along. He phoned him. I felt strange about Ariel setting us up. I went along with it anyway, trying not to think about it. One guy after the other. It was like I just needed to hook up with someone, whether Ariel set me up with them or not. ―Don’t go out with those galoshes on. Change your shoes, Ariel said as he pointed to my blue rubber boots with the white pin stripe. I was wearing them with my mustard colored corduroys, the pants I tried on to see if I was fat, thin, or somewhere in-between. I was skinny. Summer was ending and I had lost weight. That made me feel good. I felt attractive. I had bought myself a pair of fitted light-blue velour pants. I put them on right away, proud that they were my size. Paco and I went out for a drink. I chose the same place I had gone to with the previous guy. I already knew the place. Guys didn’t matter much to me. The bar was in an old building that had been restored, one of the few that remained in Recoleta. It was overflowing with plants both inside and out. None of that really mattered to me. It was all just a formality. We had to fuck right away and move on.

Paco´s personality was of little interest to me. I pretended to care. I was trying to tell one guy apart from the others. I wondered why I got involved with guys that I didn’t find attractive. This did nothing but concern me. The romances I had fantasized about never became a reality. I always felt like I was missing out on something. I ordered a shot of Tía María, cocoa and cream cognac. Paco laughed. He told me it would damage my liver. I was embarrassed. I couldn’t tell him that I wasn’t even sure I liked the drink. I ordered it because it was the same one I had ordered with the last guy, who already went nameless. That was another mistake that I had to put behind me quickly. I had to cover it up with yet another one. The next would be better. Paco ordered tea. I also started drinking tea. I adapted quickly even though the taste did nothing for me. Trade one habit for another. And may it last as long as possible, without having to stop and think about it. It was an unstoppable machine that no one could halt, like a bulldozer, and nothing would remain standing. Demolishing, demolishing everything. I was twenty-one, Paco was twenty-two. I studied Biology but it was clearly one more thing I disliked. I wanted to study Drama. I wanted to be an actress. Working toward a professional career was just one more torture.

Paco´s mom was French. She had immigrated to Uruguay as a young girl. She married Paco´s father, a divorcee thirty years her senior. Money was important to Paco, to me as well, and also to his father. Paco criticized him, accusing him of doing some questionable work during the Dirty War. Paco even asked his father to buy him a copy of Nunca más for his birthday. ―The one by the CONADEP, he told me with a triumphant smile. Along with his studies in Economics at Universidad del Salvador, Paco took some philosophy courses at the State University. I also sensed that he could settle for just about any girl. I knew I shouldn’t talk to him on the phone. It was a bad idea. It wasn’t the protocol. That’s how it would all fall apart for me. One Saturday I gave in and called him at noon, before he called me. Or maybe he was never going to call at all, and then he would have saved me the trouble. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to set up a date. Maybe he was good looking. Physically, he wasn’t bad. He was pretty tall. He was blond as a boy, and had thinning brown hair when I met him. ―My hair began to fall out when I was twenty, because of anxiety, so I went to therapy. He had light brown eyes. An athletic build, not fat or thin. I didn’t dwell on those details. I walked over to his place. Six blocks downhill from Avenida Las Heras to Libertador along Rodriguez Peña. I arrived, not knowing what for. Everything was useless. I had fallen into the irreversible trap. We were going to fuck and I was going to feel unappreciated. We had to get it over with quickly. Paco lived in a luxurious apartment with his parents and his two sisters, one older and one younger. He hated the older one and loved the younger one. His younger sister was away in Israel for a year. Inés, the older one, came into the kitchen, and the three of us talked for a while. He had two other sisters from his father’s first marriage. They were about his mother’s age. ―My father married his daughter, Paco explained to me. I listened to everything, withdrawn. I could neither immerse myself nor detach myself entirely. Doing something more prudent or being patient was simply impossible for me. I had to fulfill my destiny.

Paco brought the newspaper. He asked me what movie I wanted to see. I thought we’d screw right away, without even going to the movies. The movie thing irritated me. I went along anyway. I remembered that Ariel told me to go out with Paco, and there I was, following orders. Paco spoke French really well. He told me that when he finished his degree in Economics he was going to do graduate work in France. I was envious of his fluent French. I felt inferior. I tried to bolster my confidence by reminding myself that I spoke English. I couldn’t. I was injured from the very beginning, ever since I picked up the phone and called him. That’s when I started falling. Nothing would catch me. The apartment was certainly enormous, but gloomy. Paco told me that his parents were spending the summer, as they always did, in Pinamar. And so they had closed up the apartment so no one could use it. Paco thought about changing his lifestyle—he would spend the weekdays at his parents’ home in the country, El Indio, and spend the weekends at their apartment in Buenos Aires. He also told me that his father watched porno flicks. He rented several on the weekends. After the movie we went to his place. That’s what had to be done. I didn’t really think about anything at that point, but the notion that things wouldn’t work out was floating around in some corner of my conscience. We fucked. I don’t know how it was for me. I felt insecure, exposed, ashamed… of myself and of him. Something I would have preferred not to happen had happened, but it couldn’t have been avoided. I felt cheap and dirty. I didn’t know what to do. And I was so far from love.

Paco brought a mattress into the bedroom. He let me sleep in his bed. The whole thing was awkward. The next morning he looked at me coldly. I sensed that he wanted me gone. He told me he was going to have lunch with a woman who had helped him and had given him a place to stay during a trip he made to the U.S. He was bringing her a gift. By that point I lost interest in anything he said. Things were bad. ―Come on, I’ll take you home. I peeked into the dining room. It was full of English mahogany furniture. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the sofas were covered with a light blue floral print. I didn’t like anything. There was a cross on the wall. Paco told me they weren’t Catholic. Being Jewish, I was used to dating Catholics. I preferred to. I never felt Jewish. I found any semblance of myself repulsive. Paco pointed to a white Mercedes Benz wagon. ―That’s it, he said. I wasn’t surprised. Anything was possible. I was upset that he was dropping me off at home. I didn’t understand why. The car thing turned out to be a joke. We took the Renault. It made no difference to me. When we got to my place, I got out of the car feeling awkward. I was sure he wasn’t interested in me. Three days later, I called him. Again, I knew it wasn’t a good idea. But I couldn’t help it. I thought I would never see him again if I didn’t call. I had to see him. After calling him, I regretted it.

Paco came over. I was living with my parents, but they had bought me an apartment that I was about to move into. He spoke into the intercom: ―I’m looking for umm… I think he said my name, Leila, afterwards. I felt awful. We ended up strolling around the square in Recoleta. We sat on some swings. It was a pleasant evening in April. It wasn’t cold. Paco confessed that he didn’t really want to have sex with me. He was just fulfilling Ariel’s wish. He had done something like this many other times in his life, especially when under his father’s spell. I didn't know what to say to him. I was overcome with anxiety. It felt like the world was ending. I wanted Paco to keep dating me. I couldn’t handle his rejection—I couldn’t even bear hearing it. I realized it was stupid to stay there. All that psychoanalytic interpretation crap was his problem (it had nothing to do with me). I should have told him to go to hell. Instead, I stayed. The worst is that we continued seeing each other. We didn’t fuck. We went to the movies once in a while. One day he told me he had a penile infection, transmitted through fecal material in the vagina. He contracted it from a girl he saw every now and then. And, she was Silvio Rodriguez’s lover. ―I’m telling you because once…, he said, proud to share the girl with the Cuban composer. I was speechless. One Saturday I called him from a friend’s place. He asked me if I was interested in joining him and some of his friends that night. We were all going to watch a video together. I went along. It was all meaningless. They were a couple and we weren’t. I envied his friends. It seemed like Paco and I were dating. But we weren’t. And I clung to that relationship hoping that we would have sex again. He came over my place afterwards. I was living on my own. I figured that we were going to fuck. That didn’t happen. I asked why the hell he had come over. I screamed at him, I screamed a lot. I couldn’t take it anymore. He had worn me out. He left. He took the elevator. He couldn’t open the door to the street. It was locked. He came back up and I escorted him back down to let him out.

A few days later I felt bad for having insulted him. I went over to his place. I had bought myself a blue sweater with shoulder pads and a scoop neckline to wear especially for this visit. Things were going from bad to worse. My goal had become complicated. I realized that I shouldn’t have called him and asked his forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? He was the one who had offended me. I didn’t really know why we stopped seeing each other. In December he called to invite me to his birthday party. I assured him that I would be there. When the time came, I was stuck in bed and couldn’t get up. I stared at the clock. I convinced myself that I would get up just a little later, until I realized that the party was over. It was a relief. A month later I saw him again in Pinamar. Who the hell knows why? I probably felt compelled to show my sister that I was dating someone. She was married and I couldn’t be left single like an idiot. A woman on her own wasn´t just a nobody, she was something much worse. Paco picked me up on his motorcycle. Everyone thought we were dating. The truth is that Paco didn’t want to have sex with me ever again. I didn’t pester him about it. Nor did I have the courage to keep from seeing him. Once, we went to a beach far from downtown where there were some straw shade umbrellas and a wood hut with a sand floor and a straw thatched roof. A breeze reminded me of pleasant beach trips during my childhood. Paco and I strolled along the shore until we could barely see the hut. We sat on the beach near a sand dune. I took my bikini top off. I told him that I was going to sunbathe like that, to tan my breasts. Hardly looking at me, he said that his sisters also tanned topless.

A short while later, or maybe it was a year later, Ariel told me Paco was going to complete a Master’s degree at a university in Washington D.C. He also said Paco was dating a girl who lived in Longchamps, a neighborhood near Ezeiza or on the way to Ezeiza. They only saw each other on the weekends because of the distance. I went to see Paco off. He was with his girlfriend, a thin, petite girl with long chestnut hair. She was awkward, but tried to look sexy. I was surprised that she was Paco’s sweetheart. He was embracing her. I felt hurt and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I tried to be nice to them both. Years later, I found out that after receiving his MA in Economics Paco was living in Paris. He was also studying there. Paco and I set up a date in the Latin Quarter. The café was called Les Oiseaux. I felt guilty about meeting him. I had come to Paris with my boyfriend and I knew that meeting Paco made him jealous. I was late for our date. Paco looked at his watch. He said he was about to leave. I felt bad, it wasn’t intentional. I had mistakenly taken the subway in the opposite direction. Paco invited me over to his place for dinner. He made pasta with sauce, and a salad. He served ice cream for desert. He told me about his studies in Economics, and I told him about the show I had performed in. One of his sisters had sent him an excellent review from Clarín about my role in ―A Streetcar Named Desire. We reminisced about when we had dated. We had fucked just once. Six years later we were having dinner in his Paris apartment. Paco was going out with an Argentine girl. His younger sister (the one he adored) was also living in Paris, and was studying Philosophy. Maybe his girlfriend was the one studying Philosophy. It was confusing.

I left in a hurry, as if something horrible had happened. My boyfriend was anxiously waiting for me. He wanted to come and get me at Paco’s, but he didn’t know the address. He asked me about Paco, if he had been my boyfriend. Every once in a while I thought about Paco. I pictured him as a researcher, just as he dreamed. He might be a well respected Economist. I thought he’d never live in Argentina again. He was a French citizen. And his parents, seeking to improve their quality of life, moved to Montevideo where their dollars were supposedly worth more. Seven years after that meeting in Paris, we crossed paths in a theatre lobby in Buenos Aires. A girl was with him. She appeared to be a friend of his. He greeted me. He seemed the same as always, overflowing with hysteria that was seemingly kindness. Paco asked me what I was up to. I told him I was married and had a daughter. Him too. And what are you doing? Are you still acting? Paco asked as his wife offered me a mint. ―No thanks…yes, of course, I’m rehearsing Trescientos millones by Roberto Arlt. We’re opening next month. And you? ―I sell cars, he answered with a smile, ―I sell cars. And he took a card out of his pocket that said Car-one, where he wrote down both his home and cell numbers for me.