It’s bittersweet, this travelling thing. As you go along and find new places, there’s always the knowledge that you can’t stay. When you meet new people along the way, the knowledge that you’ll soon have to leave them. A powerful sense of being transitory. When you’re really on the road it gets exaggerated. In a few hours’ conversation on a bus, or a night drinking in a hostel, occasionally you get this feeling that this is someone with whom you could develop a long friendship, given time. But you’re catching the 6 a.m. colectivo to the mountains, and they either live here or they’ve already bought their ticket for the desert train, so you part ways before these spots of potential have time to do anything but flicker.
When you stop for longer amounts of time, then some of the potential can actually be followed up. I’ve made a lot of those travel friendships – the kind that are all about entertainment and festivity – and I’ve made a few more substantial ones too. Sometimes I just feel greedy, asking myself why I’m spending time and effort on new friends when I already have so many with whom I struggle to stay in contact. I’ve known so many good people. Not that I’m easy – the ones I truly value are a small proportion of those I meet – but over the course of a life they’ve built up. It helps that I’m massively nostalgic, so when someone is associated with an event or time that was important, they remain immensely loved, even if our actual relationship was brief or not especially profound. Some people I know only have a handful of people who are really important to them. I have at least dozens and they probably number into the hundreds. But of course keeping track of them is hard, and can make you doubt the sincerity of your attachment. Facebook, for all the stick it cops, has actually made a huge difference in being able to keep tabs on those people. But I keep finding that however they build up, there’s always room for more.
I left Buenos Aires just over a month ago now, and it wasn’t easy. My plan was to head to Salta to meet two of the pirates from the Antarctic ship, then go pretty much directly to Brazil. I would have to go back through BA, but only in transit to connect to a flight. I knew by the time I got back from Salta, my version of BA would have changed. Washington had already gone. Alex and Ani were due to move back to Australia in my absence. Clemenceau’s girlfriend was arriving from France to take him travelling. And seeing Nora again for a brief instant would only make things more difficult. So I had already decided to pass back through with my eyes closed, and my goodbyes had to be said in advance.
Clemenceau had recently moved into an apartment with a busy professional Peruvian girl. It was one of those nice new neat little chocolate box jobs, everything white and shiny and organised. Had it been back home all the furniture would have been from Ikea. He was obsessively concerned about keeping it spotless so as not to tick her off. Every time we cooked it would be washed and cleared up within five minutes of eating. He dried everything instead of leaving it in the draining rack. Whenever we finished a beer he would run the bottle out onto the balcony, in case it left a smell in the house. Twenty minutes before she was due home each night would be a frenzy of wiping and checking and polishing. This was utterly hilarious considering the traditional state of Clemenceau’s bachelor quarters both back in La Casa Teixera and then in the Malaysian Pyjama Ghost’s house. It was like having a punk band come over at 9 pm and ask if you could just turn the music down a bit, please?
But for the last two weeks I was in BA, she went on holiday. Given I couldn’t walk at this stage, I went to live with Clemenceau. I got there the day after she’d left, and the place had exploded. Every possession Clemenceau owned had been unpacked and scattered over every available surface. Cups, glasses, plates throughout the wreckage. “I’m sorting out my stuff,” he said defensively, “so it has to get bigger before it can get smaller.” His rationalising program went on for the next week or so, till I got sick of it and rationalised it all back into his suitcases. He didn’t seem to notice.
I soon found he was being kind of cranky and snide. I thought it was a personal space issue. I wasn’t too sure. Then after a couple of days it finally came out. I said something about Brazil. “Ooh,” he said. “Look at me. I’m Mister La-di-da, Mr Oh, It’s So Cold, oh, I don’t like winter, oh, I think I’ll just go to Brazil.” It took a while to sink in. I had been treated to several days of passive-aggressive bitchiness because… my friend was mad at me for leaving. When I thought about it, it was actually absurdly sweet.
We were holed up in that flat for most of the fortnight. I physically couldn’t leave, and he didn’t. The furthest he went was the shop around the corner. We sat and festered in there, cooking new variations on pasta and eggs, washing dishes for the next round, and if not either of these two things, facing each other across the dining table, glued to our laptops, feverishly building and fixing websites. Him for his thesis, me for Wordplay. We truly started going a bit mad. We ended up speaking entirely in in-jokes and non-sequiturs, in a weird melange of French, English and Spanish, with voices and characters in profusion. In the supermarket and the street we would do the same, perplexing all those around. The same when occasionally Carmen came over, looked at us strangely for half an hour, then made a cautious retreat.
I saw Nora the night before I left. I’d hardly seen her in weeks, since she got edgy about my departure and retreated into less threatening territory. Finding space to be alone with someone in this country is hard work. Scattered all around the towns are couples out on the street, on park benches or folded into whatever slightly-occluded doorway they can find, making out with a desperate kind of hunger. It’s because rent is expensive compared to earnings, so a lot of singles stay with their parents even into their 30s. Then those who don’t move in with girlfriends or boyfriends have to share accommodation in ways that we wouldn’t believe. Ani’s sister lives with two other women in an apartment, with a single and a bunk in the one bedroom that they all share. Nora lives with her folks, both siblings and several dogs in the one smallish apartment. She’s 24 and still shares a room with her brother. Bunkbeds again. Clemenceau’s apartment was a single-room studio deal, with two single beds next to each other, even though his housemate was a professional in her 30s. The simple luxury we all have of the freedom to do what we want in our own personal space basically doesn’t exist.
Clemenceau tactfully excused himself to go for a drink when she arrived, so we did manage some quiet time, and talked well. The level to which we can communicate has advanced so far from when we met. She’s a strange girl, odd in a lot of ways but endlessly interesting. It’s difficult, when you know you’re seeing someone for the last time. Every gesture and word is significant, a nostalgic link to something else that happened. You pay attention to everything. You try to drink them in, to fill yourself with this image of them so that it will stay stronger and clearer, so that you can carry it with you. You want these moments to exist indestructibly, though you know that inevitably with time they will start to blur around the edges. We said goodbye down in the street and there was that sweetly painful last moment, the kind I’ve had a few of now over the years, when you breathe in someone’s scent for the last time, feel their body pressed against you. Then she pulled her pointy hood up and was away, looking like a little elf skipping between the parked cars, until she disappeared around the corner and out of sight.
I was asleep when Clemenceau finally came home. He leaned on the buzzer for so long that I scrambled out of bed and into some clothes in a bewildered panic, feeling like a Guantanamo inmate been broken in for questioning. When I got downstairs to let him in it became clear why. He was drunker than I’ve ever seen another human being. He emerged from the shadows swaying like a pine in a high wind, and holding some sort of club. Closer inspection revealed it to be a thick black-painted table leg, with ragged chunks of nails and timber attached to one end. “I’m too drunk to even think about being drunk,” he pronounced with a heavy slur, twitching his weapon wristily like the world’s worst baseballer at the start of a killing spree.
“The fucking light,” he muttered, swishing ineffectively at the modest recessed halogen overhead. “There’s nothing good to smash here.” He tried to follow me into the lift, but got rather more wall than doorway and rebounded away. He spun a few yards back then unsteadily lined himself up for another tilt, tottering like a newborn giraffe. “Come towards the light,” I said, feeling like I should have been saying this to his bullet-riddled body in rural France in 1943 as he told me through shivering lips that he was cold, so cold. On his second attempt he breached the aperture more or less cleanly, just clipping the edge, and his momentum carried him into the back corner, where he regarded himself in the double mirror and chuckled throatily. As the lift took off he staggered like it were the pitching deck of a Gulf fishing boat during an ear infection epidemic. On the way out his bony French elbow triggered the emergency alarm. “Oh, I’m trash,” he muttered. “That’s what you say? I’m a fucking trashcan, Jefferson.” I dragged him from the scene. He spied the light from our open doorway. “Hey, look. We have a place to sleep.”
All Clemenceau’s bedding had been to the laundry that day. He collapsed on his bare mattress, rummaged through the bags of clean laundry in a haphazard fashion, and eventually pulled out a pair of jeans. He looked at them for a minute as though perhaps they had the answer to some deep and pressing question, then draped them over his chest and went to sleep. So did I. Since the beds were next to each other I was woken up a while later when he got out of bed. One of the dining chairs was sitting nearby, its white seat glowing in a pool of streetlight. Whether this helped confuse his visual metaphor centre, I don’t know, but Clemenceau wandered over to it, regarded it for a moment, then casually started pissing on it.
“Whoa whoa whoah!” I yelled, jumping up and grabbing him by the shoulder. “No! Bathroom. There.” He wandered off. I looked around vaguely, in one of those Oh-Christ-what-the-hell-do-I-do-about-this moments. Eventually I just threw a couple of towels on the chair and went back to bed. Screw it, I thought. I’m leaving tomorrow. It’s his house.
We both went back to sleep. A while later though he got up again, went straight over to the same chair, and was about to repeat the dose. My brain must have been on alert, because I woke up as soon as he moved and yelled at him before he had time to start. He stumbled obediently away to the bathroom. Playing nightwatchman to a bladder-happy Gauloise was really not how I had envisaged spending my night. The fact there had been a second incident made me start strategising. I made sure the bathroom light was on and the door open for a visual clue, moved the tempting chair outside, and heaped a few clean towels on my pile of belongings at the end of my bed just in case his wanderings should take him there. Then cautiously back to sleep.
It must have been a longer gap until his next excursion, because I had time to fall more deeply asleep. My internal alarm sensors were still wired enough to trigger me awake once he started moving, but it took a little longer to swim up to the surface. So I was aware of his actions a couple of seconds before I could respond with my own. With his first chair unavailable, he walked around to the far side of the dining table, pulled out the chair there, and started pissing on the tabletop itself. “What are you doing?!” I managed to get out. By then I was completely perplexed. This just did not make sense. He looked up at me with one eyebrow cocked (among other things) and said, “I’m pissing on the table,” in a slightly puzzled tone, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. It seemed that all those weeks of self-repression and neatness had finally found their outlet.
“No!” I yelled, as though talking to a dog, and that alone was enough to fire whatever lagging synapse it required, as he immediately turned and wandered off to the bathroom again. I threw some more towels on the table. Tomorrow was going to be laundry day all over again for one Frenchman. Naturally enough, in the morning he didn’t remember a thing, or claimed not to. But he didn’t seem perturbed, just found it puzzling and gently amusing. But then I guess that we’ve created so many stupid anecdotes in each other’s company that this was just an extension of the legacy.
Dusk was just starting to come on by the time I had to leave the next day. The quality of the light at that time, of the dying day, always makes those moments prime breeding ground for nostalgia and melancholy. It was impossible not to succumb to it. I was leaving a town where I had felt at home, and leaving a little life that I had scraped together for myself. I was leaving friends who had owed me nothing at all when they met me, but had been good to me for no other reason than that they liked me and I liked them. It feels like an extraordinary privilege sometimes when strangers put their good faith in you, and treat you like you’ve added something to their lives. Clemenceau walked a few blocks with me to take a cab. He is one of life’s natural cynics, the kind whose normal mode of interaction is through smartarse remarks and irony. But I hugged him in the street and suddenly all his bluster was gone, he was just this slightly awkward bony shy Frenchman, not much more than a kid, who was a bit angry that I was leaving him and a bit sad that I was going. And he blushed a little at the hug, as though it were unexpected, and I crossed the road for a cab, and he stood a minute in his blue velvet jacket looking skinny and thoughtful and like he wasn’t quite sure what to do, and I was struck once again by just how fucking sad life can be, travelling or not, the way you find people and pass chunks of your precious existence with them and love them and then lose them again, just breaking off from each other like debris in a river and swirling away.