Six olives contain as many calories as a small steak. Could that be right? She’d read it out of the corner of her eye in a magazine belonging to a woman in a faded ski sweater sitting next to her on the metro. It came from an article about common dietary myths featuring surprising graphics: a large cup of cocoa is as fattening as a mid-sized ice-cream, fifty grams of peanuts or half a litre of beer; six olives were the same as a small steak, etc. Could that be right? She’d never really understood how calories work; it had never been an issue for her. Maybe they were just making it up. According to her Chinese doctor, calories weren’t what mattered; they were part of it but mostly it depended on your body and the type of food in question.
She walked hurriedly down the platform of Chacarita station. Now that she was about to see Espina, she began to ask herself why she had insisted on meeting in person and whether it was a good idea. What would the doctor think about what she was doing? What was she doing? Nothing. She was meeting up with Javier Espina so he could give her a copy of his next film and then maybe they’d go for a coffee. Espina had written to her out of the blue to ask whether she could translate some subtitles for him. She hadn’t heard from him for months. He could just have emailed her the script or a link to the film, but something made her say that she’d love to, why didn’t they meet up? She’d hesitated over signing off with a kiss, a hug or just ‘best’. The latter seemed too formal and the former implied some form of inappropriate physical contact. She ended it with a simple ‘thanks’. Espina answered four days later. A curt note saying that he could make her a copy. She said great, if it’s not too much trouble, and again got stuck over the sign-off: she could ask him to leave it at somebody’s house or with the secretary at school. But that would be too cold and distant. Then again, suggesting they meet for a drink would be too much. In the end, she said they could meet up one afternoon in the week; she got out of school at three and passed by Chacarita station on her way home. He liked that idea, but when he asked when, her mental schedule cluttered up instantly. This week was difficult, but next week was fine. Ten days of silence, no word from Espina. She was the one to get back in touch, apologizing: she’d been so busy, this week would be difficult, too, but next week for sure. A few days later Espina sent her a blank email without a subject line or anything, and she answered it with the suggestion that they meet at four at Chacarita station, if that was OK with him. On the Tuesday Espina wrote to confirm and gave her his new number, just in case. That Thursday, at lunchtime, she sent him a message saying that something had come up, sorry, they’d have to do it another time. In fact, nothing had come up apart from an inexplicable argument with Adrian that morning and an overbearing anxiety as the hour of their encounter approached. By putting ‘time’ instead of ‘day’ she hoped to clear away a mist that had grown stifling. Espina was patient and understanding. Or maybe he just didn’t care; maybe this was all in her head. After several more back and forths, they ended up arranging to meet at the same place, at the same time, on the same day of the week. A Thursday; this Thursday. A month and a half, twenty emails and fourteen text messages later, here she was.
It had been silly to suggest they meet in person, she realized that now. But not that silly. The silly part was the thirty-four messages. She’d calculated on arriving a little late, ten or fifteen minutes… but now she’d left it too long, and when she didn’t see him standing under the main arch of the station she regretted her tardiness. What if he’d got impatient and left? She scanned the faces of the passers-by with the same manic, flickering intensity as she looked at the newspapers and magazines in the kiosk in the main hall. She couldn’t help scrutinizing typos, lapses in grammar or bodily flaws: a woman who was so short and fat that she looked wider than she was tall; a guy who was missing an arm and had the empty sleeve tied around his neck; another with a pock-marked face, as though he’d suffered from a virulent form of chicken pox or had been spattered with a pan of boiling oil when he was a boy. Although she kept repeating to herself that there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, what she was doing had been a little wrong ever since she’d started to feel guilty about writing to Espina and insisting they meet. She was stepping back into a minefield she’d thought long since buried many metres below ground. In a nuclear bunker. And now she’d insulted him by arriving so late. Guilt began to bubble up from some hidden deposit in her body.
How far could one flee on a train from Chacarita station? General Lemos. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She was sure it was him, the sudden rush of blood left her in no doubt. Espina’s expression looked like that of a man who wasn’t very happy to have been kept waiting. Instead of apologizing, she asked him how he was with a shamelessness that surprised her, because somehow it seemed aimed at sabotage, ensuring that their meeting would be over in the blink of an eye having collapsed under its own weight. Espina stepped back to a respectable distance. Fine, he replied, barely opening his mouth. It sounded warm and welcoming, he wasn’t upset. There was something about his half-open mouth and the gleam in his eyes, the disproportionately large nose that somehow suited him. There was definitely something about him. After he’d been so prominent in her thoughts for the past few weeks, and having gone so many months without seeing him, she had to readjust the image she had of him in her head to fit the one standing right in front of her. She imagined that he must be doing something similar and tried to fix her features into the position that she thought suited her best. They’d last seen each other in the summer and had ended up so close to one another that all she’d been able to see were his cheekbones, eyes and some of his hair as he kissed her so passionately that there was no way she could have resisted, not that she had wanted to.
Espina wrongfooted her by asking whether she had time to come with him, he had to go somewhere close by. A short walk. She said she did, she was free until seven. They crossed the avenue to the entrance to the municipal cemetery. Then, as always, every day of the week, people were coming and going, wandering around the city of the dead with its neighbourhoods for the rich and poor. The idea of going for a walk around there came as a relief. It was an innocent setting, a neutral balm upon a potentially explosive encounter. There was nothing wrong with going for a walk with a man she’d kissed six months ago, a man she thought about every now and then, a man she wanted to see again even if she was ready to stop him short if he tried something. She wasn’t going to sleep with him, just for a walk. Not even a drink. But if there was nothing wrong with it, why was she feeling this combination of excitement and guilt?
She asked if they were going to the cemetery. Espina said they were going to a cemetery but not the municipal one. A small British cemetery next door. He had to take a photo of a particular grave to send to another film director, a friend of his. It was a slightly irritating job he’d been putting off for weeks because Chacarita was out of his way. They passed by the flower stalls and large portico and went on along the deserted pavement that ran around the cemetery wall. Espina was wearing a checked shirt, a heavy coat and dark trousers that had seen better days. She had made sure to wear everyday clothes: the black trousers that were a little tight on her, the green jacket, the shoes that Adrian had brought her back from his last trip and her favourite coat that winter, a black waterproof one with a hood. These were definitely her ordinary work clothes, but maybe she’d put a little more thought into the combination. Or maybe it was just the unusual touch of eyeliner and wearing her hair loose with a shaggy, side-swept fringe. There was definitely something. She’d noticed it this morning at school, the eager way in which a couple of colleagues and many of the fourth- and fifth-year students had looked at her.
The scant sunlight that filtered through the thick foliage of the huge trees lining Avenida Elcano was insufficient to burn off the perennial dampness. Across from the road curving around the cemetery was a railway line heading west from the station. On the other side of the rails and chain-link fences she saw the squat houses of a neighbourhood that looked completely inaccessible from where they were, although an iron footbridge appeared further on. They talked to the beat their footsteps on the pavement. Conversation flowed, hopping from topic to topic: they tried to decide whether it was cold or not, whether the temperature could still be described as mild, which of the books by a friend they had in common was their favourite, how exhausting it was to go back to work at the school after the winter holidays. A trip to a festival in South Korea that Espina had had to turn down.
Espina said that she looked different. So he remembered her face. Different in a good or bad way, she asked. Good, of course. His lips formed his characteristic half-smile, revealing just a couple of teeth. His eyebrows arched, and his eyes settled on hers as he waved his hands to lend emphasis to what he was saying. He had grown unexpectedly eloquent. Or at least they didn’t stop talking for the entirety of their walk. Ten minutes along the wall of the municipal cemetery, passing the occasional side entrance, the odd locked gate, not much else. At one point she started to worry. Where was he taking her? It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Espina – although if she thought about it, what did she really know about him? – but if something happened to them, if they were accosted by a stranger, for instance, they’d have to shout pretty loud for someone to hear. We’ll be there in a second, Espina said calmly with an adventurer’s aplomb. It was as though he were getting ready to grab her arm, drag her to the next station along the line and jump onto the first train that came along to take her far away from there. Far, far away. Not that they could go very far on that line. The suburbs, or maybe a little further.
Wasn’t it strange, he was saying now, that Chacarita Cemetery had been built on what had then been the outskirts of the city and now it was right at the centre? Why had she told him that she was free until seven if they were just going on a brief detour, with maybe a quick coffee at the station afterwards? Who was asking these questions? Were they coming from her, or was this Adrian’s voice echoing inside of her? The guilt started to well up inside her again, and this time it must have reached the surface because her neck and face had grown warm. She was blushing as if she’d been caught with her hand in the till. Now she didn’t know what to think or what to do. She checked the time on her phone and started to write something endearing to Adrian. Then she thought again and put the phone back in her coat pocket with the message only half written.
The avenue curved in such a way that the German Cemetery almost snuck up on them. Espina told her that it was just a few metres more, and before they got to the end, or the beginning, of Avenida Elcano, on the western side of the gigantic expanse that was Chacarita Cemetery, opposite the first stop on the Lemos line, they arrived at the British Cemetery. They went in through a gate in the iron railings. It looked completely deserted. They walked up to a chapel. It was like a small park, a veritable secret garden of peace and quiet with paths wending around carefully tended lots, austere monuments and a silence broken by the remote sound of cars and buses heading down the avenue, the occasional train stopping at the station and intermittent birdsong. It was the meadow on the other side of the rainbow, an oasis in a bustling city. Espina seemed to know where he was going, and she let him take the lead. He had to take a photo of a grave he and a British friend of his had visited ten years ago. The grave belonged to the friend’s grandfather. He remembered that it was to the left and next to the wall but not much more. He knew the name and surname: they could go and look it up in the administrator’s office, but that wouldn’t be so much fun, he said.
They wandered around, peering at gravestones, reading names and inscriptions. No one else was to be seen, although there was ample evidence of the caretakers’ work: a rake and a shovel leaning against a tree, a neatly coiled-up hose, a tap with an erratic drip, recently mown grass and a wheelbarrow that was empty save for a metal watering can. Most of the trees were pines and limes, but there were others she didn’t know the names of. Was Espina the kind of man who knew the names of plants and trees? From the night that he’d kissed her on the film producer’s patio she remembered the warmth of his lips and how her body had throbbed and her left leg had juddered. Plus the sweet smell of summer flowers. It must have been jasmine.
The main asphalt path was criss-crossed with narrower gravel ones that were in turn crossed by even narrower trails only wide enough for one person. As they walked along them, they brushed against each other, or Espina stopped to let her pass and she could feel his eyes on her – they were rather less discreet than his half-smiles – on her back, the back of her head, neck and hands. They stopped in front of an ivy-draped grave. It belonged to the Hermosilla family. Her eye was caught by an inscription: Nemesia C de Hermosilla. 19th December, 1865–4th May, 1958 next to one for Sara Hermosilla. 16/11/1896–10/5/1958. One was much older than the other, but they’d died only six days apart. As though after the death of her mother, the daughter had died of sadness at the age of sixty-three, she said. Or maybe they were in a traffic accident and the mother died immediately but the daughter lingered on for a week, said Espina, who was immediately distracted by a stone that read: Peter Doherty, died 20th November, 1938. And then by one for Alejandro Rendina, who died in February 1968, two days after he was born. Espina said that he found the death of a baby devastating but also perfectly pure.
Espina pointed to a wooden bench sitting in a pool of winter sunlight. How long had it been since she’d slept with someone who wasn’t Adrian? Was that a good thing? Was that what it meant to be in love or was she just doing her duty as a girlfriend? Would five years with Adrian be the equivalent of three or four months with a guy like Espina, like with the olives and the steak? An extended, three-month weekend before he left you for the star of his next film. But what did that have to do with anything? They cut across a section of plots without tombstones or inscriptions. The earth was disturbed as though someone had recently been buried or old remains had been dug up. The soil had a different consistency under their feet. It was still loose and their shoes sunk in deeper than elsewhere.
It was originally called the Non-Conformist Cemetery, and its first location was on the corner of Juncal and Esmerelda. The first occupant had been one John Adams, a thirty-year-old carpenter. Before that, non-Catholics had been buried by the side of the river. As well as the British, it was also occupied by Germans, Americans, French and Jews. It quickly filled up, and they opened a second one, Victoria, which was shared by the British, Americans and Germans. Victoria Cemetery was at what’s now known as Pasco and Alsina. She knew where that was; her grandmother lived a couple of blocks away. You know where the plaza is now? Well, a hundred years ago it was a cemetery, but the city grew and the local residents campaigned to have it moved. So land was set aside behind Chacarita Cemetery: one section for the British and other Anglo-Saxons and another for the Germans. Meanwhile, Victoria Cemetery was abandoned. The decades passed, and it became a wasteland. A little while ago they turned it into a plaza. The graves weren’t moved, at least not the ones belonging to families that couldn’t afford to pay for the transfer. Any that were at least a metre and a half below ground were left intact. A few years ago they were doing renovation work in the plaza, and when they dug up the sandpit they found a marble tombstone for the grave of ten-month-old German girl along with bones, necklaces and bottles.
She rummaged in her bag for cigarettes. It was her first of the day. She couldn’t stop herself from telling him that the Chinese doctor she went to, whose name was Alejandra but she was fully Chinese, had told her not to smoke more than one or two a day. She had enough fire in her lungs already. But that wasn’t a bad thing at all, she hurriedly explained. Every time she went to see the doctor she got her talking. She valued everything she had to say about health and life in general; the doctor had a special kind of wisdom. Ever since he’d managed to get control of his vices, Espina had discovered that tobacco was the most pernicious but also the most inoffensive. To smoke a cigarette, he said longingly.
Espina asked her how her classes were going. Suddenly, talking to him about her work at school or the fact that he was showing interest in her everyday routine made things seem different, more vivid. She was glad that he was close by. It made her feel calm, bigger, inspired, and she didn’t think it ridiculous to assume that he was feeling the same way. He asked her if she was translating anything, and she made something up about a book of essays that were turning out to be pretty difficult, it was taking her longer than she’d expected. Maybe being close to Espina would mean that she lived life more intensely and stopped putting off what was really important. Then he asked after her students, how it felt to teach a class of teenagers, and she started to say that it was fine, it could be unbearable at times, but she liked it. He was a disaster at secondary school, but if he’d had a teacher like her, he said, he’d have learned English just to please her. He broke into another of his half-smiles.
Right behind the bench where they were sitting was a tombstone commemorating the Byrding family. Over the years it had been split in two by a tree trunk, very gradually, millimetre by millimetre. She could count the number of times they’d met on one hand, but each encounter had revealed a new facet of Espina. She was gradually beginning to sense that behind the womanizing dandy was something genuine and fragile, brilliant, if a little petulant. Her posture was defensive, as though she were anticipating some kind of move. The time he kissed her, an impartial observer, someone from the outside, a linesman or arbitrator of seduction, would not have ruled that she tried to push him away. But neither did she fully go along with the kiss. Rather, she allowed herself to be kissed until Espina pulled back a little to breathe and broke the spell. Then she’d said that she had to go, that this was wrong, very wrong. She had a boyfriend, please understand. She said sorry several times and then please as he walked her to the door.
Some time ago, when he’d just started out in the world of films, he’d worked for a film festival in the city. It was his job to accompany the foreign guests on their visit, day and night. One year he was tasked with accompanying Keith Reitzal, a kind of cult director. He was fun and jolly in spite of his years and asked very little of him. Except for one morning, the second to last, when Reitzal asked him to go with him somewhere: it was a ‘matter of life and death’. We got on the metro at Abasto and got off at Lacroze. I thought that he wanted a slice of pizza from one of the famous places around there, or maybe he wanted to visit Chacarita Cemetery to see the tombs of Gardel or Gatica. But we passed by the gates of the municipal cemetery and went on down the same pavement we came down today. I was surprised to see him walking so confidently through a little-known part of the city, somewhere I’d never been before. I suggested we take a taxi, it might be dangerous around here, but Reitzal said no. He was determined, he had to walk just like he’d done the last time. So you’ve been here before? Years ago the same festival had organized a retrospective in his honour. This isn’t my first visit to the city, but I fear that it might be my last, he said. He walked faster than I did. I had to make an effort to keep up. I started to worry about him, he looked as though he might collapse at any moment. When we finally got to the British Cemetery we went in and he led me straight to a grave at the back, to the left, next to the path that runs along the wall. There, we found a tombstone for someone with whom he shared a name: Keith Reitzal. His paternal grandfather. A British engineer sent to the Argentinian affiliate of a shipping company. He’d come with his wife and three children. My father was the youngest, he was just two at the time. Shortly after his arrival my grandfather was in a fatal accident at the port. At first, Keith’s grandmother decided to stay in the country: the company gave her a very generous pension and the house where they lived was a small mansion. But she couldn’t manage, she didn’t know the language and she had to raise three children on her own, so they went back. There were attempts to repatriate the remains, but then the war came and after that… Reitzal said, waving his hands in the same gesture he used to illustrate matters of ‘life and death’, it came to seem less important. His father always talked about his own father’s far-off grave in Argentina with a pain that was only alleviated by the knowledge that he had been moved to the British Cemetery, as though it were a foreign embassy of death, a small, neutral outpost of posthumous diplomacy.
Ever since his father’s death Reitzal had wanted to come to the country, but he’d never had a chance. He wasn’t going to go all that way just to visit a grave. Then he was invited to attend the festival. Back then he was still young and had walked on his own. But this time, he told me, as strange as it might seem, he’d agreed to come to talk about one of his films, something that he didn’t really do any more, just so he could stand in front of his grandfather’s grave. So what happened? she asked. Reitzal stood quietly for a few minutes, said Espina. The old man’s expression grew solemn but peaceful. I held out for as long as I could, but eventually I asked him if he’d rather be alone. That’s the last thing I want, he said. I don’t want to be alone. Like the sun, one should never look death in the face for too long. Take me away from here. Before they left the cemetery, Reitzal looked up at a Latin inscription. I asked him what it meant, and he told me in English that it was something like: ‘He who believes in me, shall live in death’. We hailed a taxi, and he asked me to take him for a drink. He had a craving for a herb-based German liqueur, but the closest thing we could find was Fernet, which he drank on its own with ice. Then he had another, and then we took a taxi so he would arrive in time to answer questions from the audience at the theatre where they were showing his film. That was at least ten years ago. He’d seen Keith at several other festivals across the world, but he’d never come back to Buenos Aires. A little while ago Keith had asked him to do him the favour of taking a photograph of his grandfather’s grave. He needed it for the cover of a book he was writing, an autobiography of a seventy-eight-year-old man, he said. Espina couldn’t decide whether he thought it was a great idea or just macabre.
As the afternoon went on, she felt them growing closer and closer. Their bodies, however, didn’t move at all. Espina sat upright and moved his arms as he spoke, his eyes shining. Every now and again he rubbed his nose and energetically scratched his head. There was something in his gestures, in his posture, in the way he was, a grace that could overwhelm any form of resistance. At one point he stretched out his hand to swipe at a mosquito, and she leaned back instinctively. Easy, he said. Espina was handsome. When he gave her an envelope containing the DVD with the copy of the film, he moved a little closer. A couple of nights later, watching the film alone in bed, she couldn’t help remembering his warm lips, the crazy beating of her heart, the mental effort it took to keep her leg still and the sweet smell of jasmine. But there was also the afternoon in the empty cemetery, hidden in a corner of the city, whiling away the afternoon with their chatter, as though they’d been teleported to the north of Europe for an hour and a half.
Throughout the afternoon she’d been worried that Espina would try to kiss her before they said goodbye and had mentally prepared a number of different ploys to evade him. Please, please. Actually she just had one: she’d been with a man for years. It had been right there, on the tip of her tongue, so much so that even though Espina never made a move, she said it anyway. He’d asked whether they lived together and she’d said, We have moved in together. It was an odd, stupid choice of words by which she’d meant that they had lived together in the past but it hadn’t worked out. But, of course, he’d interpreted it differently. He’d thought she’d just moved in with him and was living with him now, a misunderstanding that took a long time to clear up.
They would see each other again, many times, but they didn’t know that then. She asked him about the German Cemetery. It was similar to this one but neater, better looked after. Why don’t we take a peek? It’s just about to close; maybe they could do this again some time, he said. She thought that now the silent walk back to Chacarita would be awkward. Maybe it was better to say she was in a hurry and take a taxi. Had he meant to say that he wanted to see her again? She’d have agreed in a second, she’d have signed up right there and then, although she didn’t like to lie to Adrian. Telling him that she was going on walks around secret corners of the city with Espina was out of the question. Was it? She’d have to do something about this.
As if he knew that a kiss in these circumstances was out of the question, Espina had been cautious and carefree. He hadn’t made a move, or if he had it was imperceptible, millimetre by millimetre. She felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. What if he wasn’t attracted to her any more? She stood up and, rubbing her arms, said that the cold had got into her bones, they’d better go back. It was getting late.