Buenos Aires, Past Subjunctive

Diana Heald


On a sunny corner at the heart of the Cementerio de Recoleta sits the graceful Art Deco mausoleum of socialite Rufina Cambaceres. The tour guides who lead flocks of foreigners to Buenos Aires’s most popular tourist site regale them with rumours of Cambaceres’s death: nineteen years old, mysterious circumstances, a jilted lover, perhaps buried alive. Though her story is maudlin and likely apocryphal, it compelled me to make frequent pilgrimages to her tomb during the four years I lived in Buenos Aires. I often wandered the maze of decaying monuments looking for her: a delicate woman in a flowing gown, carved out of marble, standing in front of a closed door. Her hand presses against the knob, her bare feet rest lightly on the steps, her head turned to glance backward over her shoulder. Is she entering the grave or leaving it? Seen from the left, Cambaceres smiles gently; from the right, she appears mournful, an effect augmented by the stained tears decades of rainfall have etched across her cheek. Perhaps I felt a subconscious affinity for the ambiguity in her marble evocation: another forlorn young woman on a threshold, slipping back and forth between one world and the next. 

In high school in Washington, DC, I studied Spanish diligently, making flashcards to commit vocabulary words to memory and copying out increasingly complex verb conjugations in my marble notebooks. In tenth grade, we learned the subjunctive, a grammatical mood that initiates the speaker into the realm of the unreal, the alternative: dreams, doubts, contingencies, regrets. It exists in English, too—we use it when we say, “If I were you,” the were connoting a theoretical slippage of the self not reflected in our concrete and singular shared reality—but we use it unthinkingly, often incorrectly substituting was for were, the indicative conjugation of to be grounding us in the here and now. Profesora Muhaya told us Spanish-speakers used this verbal mood frequently. My classmates and I set about memorizing its conjugations and the phrases that would be our queues to deploy them: Quiero que, espero que, deseo que… I was hooked. Learning a new language offered me the tools to begin to speak a new self into being, a place to articulate desires I had not yet voiced. I had an acute longing for a life somehow bigger, grander, more vibrant and exciting than my misunderstood and lonely suburban adolescence permitted, hours spent daydreaming alone in my bedroom. At twenty, after four more years of classroom study, which armed me with theoretical knowledge of the subjunctive but little practical experience with its uses, I took my teachers’ advice and enrolled in an exchange program with the Universidad de Buenos Aires. My hopes stretched far beyond the program’s confines: secretly, I planned a permanent escape from the U.S., hoping to use the grammatical architecture I’d memorized to construct myself anew. 

I imagine many countries are consumed with the subjunctive idea of alternate pasts, alternate futures; Argentina is certainly one of them. In the 19th century, the nation had one of the world’s richest economies: the bustling port city of Buenos Aires was well-situated for Atlantic trade; the fertile soil of the Rio de la Plata Delta just north provided lush, arable farmland; vast expanses of flat grassland pampa to the south and west rivaled the North American west in their suitability for cattle ranching. At the turn of the 20th century, architects imported from Europe designed the city’s Beaux Arts public buildings, cafes, and opera houses, and constructed wide, jacaranda-lined avenues and ornate rose gardens, earning the city its enduring reputation as the Paris of Latin America. During the Novecento, Italians arrived in Buenos Aires in the same droves as at Ellis Island; my first Argentine boyfriend and his best friend poked fun at their ancestors for choosing the wrong port of call, sacrificing the wealth and opportunity future generations might have had if their families had instead emigrated to New Jersey or Chicago. Their last names—Pellegrini, Del Giudice—evoke the oft-repeated truism that there are more Italian surnames in Buenos Aires than Spanish ones; in fact, the last names of my string of local love interests offer a primer on 19th century Euro-Argentine immigration patterns: García, Grimberg, Kaleff, Cohen, Korol. The nation’s economic and political fortunes entered  into decline in the 1930s, when, to sum up a century in a sentence, an alternating pattern of corrupt, right-wing military dictators and corrupt, left-wing socialists wrested power back and forth over the decades, resulting in the repressive Perón years, the horrific human rights violations of the 1978-1983 military dictatorship, the cocaine-fueled inflation of the ‘90s, and the 2001 economic crash, which rendered the peso worthless overnight. In 2005, I arrived with four busloads of other American exchange students to a country just beginning its next cycle of boom and bust.

The shadow of the past subjunctive, what was not but might have been, was present like a phantom second city at every turn. In San Telmo, south of downtown, elegant 19th century mansions half-reduced to rubble had housed ten families before they were converted to bars and hostels for foreigners like us. A friend rented a room from a wizened grande dame, María de la Montaña, a Miss Havisham of the Southern Cone, who pulled tattered Mainbocher ballgowns and moth-eaten furs from her closet each Saturday night to attend the opera at the Teatro Colón. Even in the richest neighborhoods, with their steely commitment to the modern—white Miami-esque luxury condos in Palermo Parques, slick glass corporate towers crowding the Puerto Madero docklands—this implicit rejection of the past only made it loom larger. I lived in a cell-like maid’s bedroom owned by a divorcee in her fifties and her teenage daughter, tiptoeing up the back stairs past their tearful nightly standoffs at the kitchen table, the daughter’s gelatinous ñoquis cold and untouched on her dinner plate. Growing more frail by the week, she refused to eat in protest of her parents’ recent divorce, perhaps hoping the outward manifestation of her pain would usher in an alternate reality that brought her father back. 

At the University of Buenos Aires, I studied literature on Tuesdays in a crumbling brutalist structure festooned with banners of socialist protest slogans demanding fair pay for Latin America’s leading intellectuals, who taught us Foucault and Derrida while children prowled the aisles asking us for spare change. On Wednesdays, I took French lessons on the top floor of a repurposed Belle Epoque palace, warming my hands around a plastic cup of burnt coffee as great frigid drafts rolled in off the Rio de la Plata, rattling the ancient window casings. A fellow student named Germán often walked me to the subway after class, crossing the emptying Plaza de Mayo at dusk. In casual conversation, outside the French classroom, we were no longer equals. “Your spoken Spanish is very good,” he told me one day, “but you don’t understand anything.” Guidebooks and my exchange program discouraged us foreigners from bringing up the dictatorship: the state-sanctioned murder of tens of thousands of intellectuals, socialists, and students, ending just 22 years before I arrived, festered in near silence. The concrete facts of the recent past still were too hot to touch. In the underpass below Autopista 25 de mayo, on our way to a Boca Juniors soccer game or a steak dinner at El Obrero, we saw a giant human figure outlined in bricks, an unofficial memorial to the 1500 Argentines who died in the hidden gas chamber below us, and said nothing. 

I had arrived in Argentina shy and self-conscious, just a few months out of my teens, often paralyzed by the presumed judgement of others. The new language and my status as a foreigner broke me open; I could remake myself in whatever image I wanted. Subjunctive verb conjugations formed in my mouth unbidden, dreams and desires clearly articulated. What I wanted most urgently was to be loved, in a way perhaps I hadn’t been as a child; Spanish was my passport to it, or so I thought. Gradually, an alternate self was born, friendlier, more confident, befriending bus drivers and kiosco owners and eating alone in restaurants. I willingly altered my name, went by dee-AH-na, pronounced phonetically, and gestured voluptuously with my hands—brushing the tips of my fingers under my chin to illustrate my indifference; pinching my five fingers together and moving my hand back and forth to indicate “Me estás cargando,” you’ve got to be kidding me. Those who knew me in both languages found the difference uncanny and preferred the Spanish me. “Más cálida,” they said, “más abierta.” I thrilled at passing, refining my accent until it took strangers a few minutes to realize I wasn’t Argentine. With a few months of immersive study, I had mastered the unique rioplatense verb conjugations and the dialect’s basic vocabulary, pronounced with my new boyfriend Mariano’s middle-class Italo-Argentine accent. Driving around the city in his battered hatchback, we’d sing Marco Antonio Solis’s corny love song to each other, “Si no te hubieras ido.” Hubieras, second person singular, past subjunctive of haber, to have. If you hadn’t left me, the song goes, I would be so happy. (A year later Mariano did, for a job in the US. When I next heard the song on a taxi radio, I wept and asked the driver to please turn the music off.) In my class on literary theory, I learned the word lacuna, so close to the Spanish word for lake, laguna, that I began to imagine the gaps in language as deep pools somewhere in my mind, portals I could slip through from one self to the next, in a constant state of reinvention.

I returned to the U.S. for twelve brief months to finish college, then departed again for Buenos Aires, this time hoping to settle there permanently. I took the first job I found, working without a visa at a luxury travel agency for rich Americans, arranging wine tastings, tango shows, and private glacier hikes. They had no patience for the bureaucracy and tedium that was such a feature of my life abroad: crowded subways, phone and electric bills paid in cash, hour-long supermarket lines. I pitied them, seeing how they consumed a curated version of Argentina offered up by tourism boards and travel magazines that had so little to do with real life. I learned to slip airport employees a wadded $100 peso bill to procure access to wheelchairs and luggage carts for our prized clients, intuiting that the most important part of my job was to ensure Americans never know how often money greased the sticky machinery of Argentine bureaucracy. My job was to preserve a sanitized version of the country I felt proud to see through. Tourists ate steak so tender it could be sliced with a spoon but knew nothing of the 50% taxes President Cristina Kirchner had recently placed on its export. After the tourist season ended, the cattle ranchers in the Delta erupted in protest, setting their crops ablaze and letting the smoke waft southward, blanketing our city. But by then the travelers were gone, taking home with them an image of Argentina as Europe on a budget, its rich cultural capital at the forefront, the economic consequences of inflation and corruption hidden offstage. 

Still, it was easy to be caught up in the dream of Argentina as a foreigners’ paradise, swelling with expats when the US economy crashed in 2008. Lured by the favorable exchange rate and the promise of endless quantities of cheap cocaine, the city filled up with the hopes and dreams of enterprising American ex-financiers intent on selling Argentines what they didn’t know they wanted: co-working spaces, Tex-Mex burritos, email newsletters, frozen yogurt. Starbucks cropped up like mushrooms after rain, displacing the old cafés serving thimblefuls of rich espresso, a complimentary dry butter cookie alongside. I judged the other expats, though I ate their burritos, but I struggled to make local friends. Argentine social circles seemed to calcify in childhood, closing around themselves to the exclusion of others no matter their linguistic fluency. Instead, I befriended transient outsiders—Swiss, French, Mexican, misfits from rural Patagonia fleeing the south for the big city. And I attracted a series of Argentine boyfriends with my exotic blond hair and tall, lithe frame. I leaned into their preferences, highlighting my hair blonder still, waxing and tanning myself in the cheap beauty salons on Avenida Santa Fe. The men often seemed more interested in how I looked on their arm entering a Palermo disco than whatever substantive qualities I possessed underneath, but even I couldn’t have articulated what those qualities were. 

In my third year, passing through the Plaza de Mayo downtown in the late afternoon, I found myself surrounded by a shower of white petals, a harbinger of the coming spring. Delighted, I held out my hands to catch them, only to realize they were not flowers but shredded office paper, pouring from the windows of the sedate buildings in protest of a new government policy I hadn’t heard of. As a foreigner, I was always doing this—seeing beauty where it didn’t belong, where it could only exist to someone still so ignorant of Argentina’s political and social reality I could consume its symbols but not their meaning. A few months later, I rushed to my balcony, captivated by the vibrato of heavy rain on corrugated metal rooftops, only to find the night was clear. The sound I was hearing was Avenida Cabildo, half a block distant, swelling with protesters banging spoons on metal pots to protest government corruption. I did not join them. 

In late spring of the year I was 24, the life I had taken such pains to construct began to come apart. My latest boyfriend left me for a Mexican pop star whose music seemed to play in every cafe or shop I entered, mocking my newly tender heart. Another group of expat friends returned to their countries of origin, and then my family called me with news from back home: my grandfather was sick, and soon my mom was, too. I had left the travel industry for what I thought was a dream job, working in fashion sales, but the designer had run out of money and the collection never materialized. Past midnight on a warm night, leaving a rooftop party alone, I walked down Calle Guatemala towards Godoy Cruz, looking for a taxi. As I entered the shadowy pool between the phosphorescent spheres cast by parallel streetlights, a group of young children surrounded me. Though I pulled my handbag back from them in time, I stood stunned as a girl scaled my torso like a flagpole, then felt a tug and snap as her warm, dry hands circled my neck. She was two blocks away, wild with laughter, before I realized she’d made off with my gold necklace, my lucky charm. I chose to take it as a sign. No hay mal que por bien no venga, my friends reminded me the next day. The sentiment is close to “Everything happens for a reason,” but translates literally as, “There is nothing bad that doesn’t happen for a good purpose.” The “good” in the idiom arrives in subjunctive, theoretical and unrealized. I looked for it in vain, seeing only loss. 

A few weeks later, in line at customs on my way back from a day trip to Uruguay, a ferry ride I took every few months to renew my three-month tourist visa, the immigration agent slammed his fist down on my stamp-filled passport. “Yo sé lo que estás haciendo,” he said to me, and for the first time since I’d arrived in Argentina, I pretended not to understand, sensing trouble. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t speak Spanish.” He told me he was quite sure I did. “You have no work visa,” he said. “The next time you come through here, I won’t let you back in. Go home, American.” Argentines were always asking me what I was doing down there, so far away from home—I had always answered them glibly, but his words felt prescient: the life I had built for myself was poorly constructed, too thoroughly engineered by childish hopes and dreams, too permeable to reality’s increasing intrusions. Considering it now, I feel a rare tenderness for my younger self: it seems a teenage, overly literal logic to imagine the solution to my loneliness was to move to the opposite side of the world, where summer was winter and the stars were flipped and the water circled the drain backwards, and assume in this upside-down land, I’d belong.

A week after my 25th birthday, with fall’s first chill, I rode through a maze of highways towards the setting sun and Ezeiza airport. Returning to the U.S. was like a death, one I struggled to accept. I flew down for New Year’s with a suitcase full of expensive lingerie to rekindle another old romance, the easiest way I knew to keep a foot in both worlds. We spent the first sweltering week of January in a standoff, glaring at each other across the turquoise lozenge of his parents’ pool in a dusty western suburb. He called me when I got back to New York to tell me he’d met someone just before I arrived; the dark weight in my chest signaled it was time to let go, to learn loneliness was a condition to live with, rather than to run from. I tried to let new life take root at home; ever so slowly, it did. 

In my memory, the years I spent in Argentina unfold as an endless string of sunlit Sundays, the day when Argentine families of a certain social class gather on rooftop patios or weekend houses in the verdant Delta to grill asado: lit coals, the kettle boiling water for mate, Malbec uncorked on the table, kids and dogs underfoot, then gathering around the table for the sacred meal. Monday through Friday, I studied or worked, and on weekend nights, I danced until sunrise at the string of nightclubs along the costanera on dance-floors sticky with spilled Fernet and Coca Cola. But I mostly spent Sundays alone, not by choice but because in this culture that so valued belonging, I never did. Instead, I wandered aimlessly through the city’s northern neighborhoods, buying clothes and supple leather handbags in an attempt to fill the hole I’d brought from home, the air heavy with parrilla smoke wafting out of a thousand doors still closed to me.

Yet even now, thirteen years later, I sometimes pass a family on the streets of Manhattan speaking Spanish with a certain lilt, taste the jammy burnt sugar of dulce de leche on my tongue, see a flag in that familiar stripe of white and pale blue, and a portal reopens. I’m transported back to a place, a life that has gone on without me. In Buenos Aires, it’s late spring as I write this, and in my mind’s eye, the jacarandas release clouds of purple blossoms along Avenida del Libertador, the sun scorching the turbid brown river. I imagine Maria de la Montaña selling another fur or diamond at the Feria San Telmo because the foreign students don’t come to stay with her anymore; my old boyfriends fire up the asado, butterflying links of chorizo with the flick of a knife for their laughing progeny. In the cemetery, the statue of Rufina Cambacares presides over a steady flow of tourists, posing for smiling selfies with the symbol of a nation’s wistful melancholy. If I think about Argentina for too long, my brain begins to ache, entering its familiar subjunctive spiral: what could have been, should have been, might have been, if… I mourn all the selves I’ve been and lost, the ones I dreamed of becoming and never did. I wonder who I would have become if I’d never gone to Argentina, or if I’d figured out a way to stay, to make a home on the other side of the world. I miss the version of me who believed I could access another self with a twelve-hour plane ride and the mastery of an alternate grammatical mood. Now, even when I visit, though the language returns, I can no longer find the girl who once inhabited it. Instead, when I grow homesick for a country that was never mine, I recite the last lines of a Borges poem, a requiem:

A mí se me hace cuento que empezó Buenos Aires

La juzgo tan eterna como el agua y el aire. 

 “It seems like a story to me, that Buenos Aires had any beginning/ I judge it to be as eternal as water and air.” But of course, when I translate it, the portal closes; the shimmering mirage disappears.

Diana Heald

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Diana Heald is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, where she's a nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her essays have been featured in DIAGRAM, Off Assignment, Chronically Lit, and elsewhere. She's currently at work on a memoir about coming of age on antidepressants.


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