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Chasing Shapes



I met her at the park on a sunny day. She had violet-coloured eyes. Contact lenses she ordered from Malaysia. The pupils were bright like large purple verbenas sprouting from her face. She was tripping on acid.

It was the first thing she told me. “I’m on acid.”

I fell in love. During our relationship, she went back to an ex-boyfriend and couldn’t make up her mind between us.

“You’re not boyfriend material,” she once said.

But I didn’t care. It made me like her more. I was constantly seeking her approval. People jokingly say that in order to get someone interested in you romantically, you should ignore and treat them badly. People say behind every joke there’s a grain of truth.

And the other thing about love is that everything your partner does is perfect. At the beginning. Everything is seen through a different angle. Things that may be red flags are OK.

I like to remember her as she was that first time. Her giggling was constant and contagious.

“That’s how large a blue whale is.” She pointed to a five-story building in the distance.

Being around her, I saw the world in the colours she wore. It was like she painted my vision in pastel tones. She wore a pink fluffy bucket hat, orange tinted sunglasses, and a light blue skirt. We sat on a picnic blanket, her knees pointed at me. Green veins crisscrossed her pale legs. The idea of blood pumping through those veins keeping her flesh alive excited me. She had wild yellow hair that smelt of watermelon. It made my heart bolt like a yo-yo. As the sun set behind the thick trees, darkening the world around us, she inched closer to me, until our bodies almost touched, but nothing happened.

That same week, the second time I saw her, I proposed my love to her. It was at a house party. I was sat on a sofa, blocking her passage.

“Let me climb over you.” She jumped over my legs.

“Please. Be my guest.”

I was full of lust for her. I always was when I was with her.

That night, she wore black contact lenses. Her pupils and iris were a black void and the sclera was stark white. She curled her hair. It came out of her middle parting like flaky parmesan breadsticks sold in delicatessens, coiled and compressed.

I gave her a compliment. “You look bad ass.”

She studied medicine at the public university.

“The only muscle that never tires is the heart.” She messed with her dress. “If you live to age 70, your heart will have beat 2.5 billion times.”

“My heart beats for you.” I placed my palm gently on her lower back and kissed her lips.

It started in the basement. The house had a dark basement that seemed like it was made to survive nuclear warfare. There was loud electronic music, a blinding strobe light, and a small silver disco ball dangling from the ceiling. The objects danced together and created an intoxicating mirage. She grabbed my shirt and led me to a room, up three steep flights of stairs. Then we were naked. I was on top of her, pushing my pelvis against her, as if searching for something, driving her small frame into the cold sheets. She moaned lightly into my ear and wriggled her toes. Her hot breath filled my limbs with goosebumps. Then our skin tore away from each other. We lay side by side, gasping and pulling for air, staring at the bland ceiling in silence until a fist banged on the door.

Nine months later Sofia was born. Four months after Sofia was born, we broke things off. I moved and got a room with ten beds. It was in a hostel in the centre of Buenos Aires called Milonga. It was the cheapest thing I found, a level above homelessness. I got a job as a busboy in a restaurant called Pericles, located next to the hostel.


People say the best way to get over a girl is to find a different girl. I met Milagros on my third night in Milonga.

The hostel was a house in a previous life. It had a large open courtyard and infinite staircases that made it look like an M.C Escher drawing.

Most of the guests at the hostel were in transition, looking for work and apartment hunting. I befriended a Uruguayan hairdresser, a Chilean chef who did coke, and an Argentine built like a bull who smoked forty Marlboros a day. All we did was smoke pot. When we weren’t smoking pot, we’d talk about how we wanted to smoke pot, or whether anyone had pot on them. If no one had pot on them, we’d hatch a plan about how to get some.

Milagros had short black hair and a pointy nose. Three pimples in a perfect line like Orion’s Belt graced her right cheek.

Once she was alone, I went up to her. “The symmetry of your face is unlike any other.”

She brushed her hair behind her ear and smiled. Her skinny wrists were like twigs. I was afraid they’d snap if she tried to carry something heavy. She glanced at the kitchen, as if she was expecting someone.

“Call me Milagros. I study film and TV at university.”

Mee-LAH-grows.

“Do you write?” I asked.

She grabbed my collarbone. “Where can I score some weed?”

“I know a place.”

It was an abandoned parking lot ten blocks from the hostel and five from the Faculty of Medicine (where Sofia’s mother studied). In the middle of the parking lot was an enormous tree that sprouted from the concrete floor. The wide roots of the tree sprung up, breaking through like the claws of a T-Rex. Goths, hippies, and punks hung out there ingesting and selling drugs.

“Who were you visiting in Milonga?”

“Oh.” Milagros grabbed the back of her neck. “Nobody.”

The dope cost 300 pesos. We rolled a spliff and smoked it on the way to Alamo bar, famous for its cheap beer sold in huge pitchers. It was believed the staff put something in the ale to make people more inebriated. Milagros almost dropped our jug as she carried it to our table.

“My last screenplay is my most personal.” She struggled to pour the beer into the cups. “It’s about a university girl who finds out she’s pregnant after a one-night stand.”

“How does the story end?” I took a long sip of the cold liquid.

“I don’t know.”

I played with my jacket’s zipper. “A child is a massive duty.”

Milagros jumped in her seat. “I think the best thing is not to wait for responsibility. I think it’s stupid to wait. The best thing is to plunge into whatever it is you want. The responsibility will become necessity.”

“I have a baby.”

Before she could say anything, I grabbed her face and kissed her. I didn’t close my eyes. She did. Our lips locked for five minutes until she pulled away. A staff member tapped her back. It was closing time. We were shuffled out of Alamo. Outside, people congregated looking for somewhere to go.

“Let’s head to your place.” I blew on my fingers, trying to keep warm.

“Where I live, I’m not allowed visitors.”

We braved the cold streets holding hands.

At the entrance to Milonga I stopped her. “Wait here. Trust me.”

It was four a.m. I rang the bell until Jorge, the receptionist, appeared. He gave me a sleepy look before he recognized me. I waited in the reception area for Jorge to head back to his room. Then I let Milagros in. One person saw us. A guest. An English man who slept all day. At night, he’d watch repeat Premier League matches on his laptop and sip a big bottle of Quilmes. The only take-away he ordered was Pericles. Pizzas, milanesas and empanadas were his livelihood. At the hostel they created rumours about him, that he was wanted by Interpol for drug trafficking and murder.

I couldn’t take Milagros to my room. It had guests. But my friend Marcus was in a suite with two beds. One of them was unoccupied.

I knocked on his window. “I brought a girl with me.”

“Be quick.” He snatched my spliff and went to the patio.

The room was musty and badly lit. Milagros took her shoes off. On the edge of the bed, I pulled down her trousers.

She caressed my lap. “What’s wrong?”

“I had too much Alamo beer.”

We cuddled. Marcus got into his bed shortly after and started to snore. I thought of random words so I’d fall asleep…

elephant, drill, tinfoil, evaporation, seminal, curse, bow and arrow, Himalayas, camera.

The next day before lunch, I left the room with Milagros. We were hungover and hadn’t had food, water or sleep. At the exit I kissed her goodbye.

As I was about to enter my room, a voice stopped me. “Hey!”

I turned around. It was Jorge. “Where did the girl sleep last night?”

I was too hungover. I couldn’t lie. Jorge knew. He opened his arms and let them fall against his thighs, making a sharp slapping sound.

“You know we don’t allow visitors.” He pointed to a poster with the hostel rules. “You have until the end of the month. Then you have to leave.”


As usual, Pericles had no customers. El Sirio, the owner, was at the cash register, opening and closing the drawer, hoping money would magically appear. He grunted as I entered the restaurant. His customary greeting.

In the kitchen, three cockroaches scattered into cracks in the walls. The smell of overcooked dough filled the hot air. I watched Rufina, the fat Paraguayan cook. Large beads of sweat steamed on her forehead.

“About time.” She flicked a piece of crust into her gaping mouth.

I was ten minutes early. Sat on the bucket used for peeling potatoes, I lit a cigarette to wait for my shift. From the shadow of the back wall, Motoneta Nardiello glided into the light, sternly puffing on a Pall Mall. Motoneta got his nickname playing for Boca Juniors in the sixties, running up and down the wing. He barely ever spoke, but when he did, I made sure to listen. Sometimes I wondered if he was real or the ghost of Pericles. He was at the restaurant every afternoon to smoke away from his nervous wife. He suffered from advanced lung cancer. He was eighty-three years old.

I dug into my raincoat pocket and found half a joint. I dangled it in front of Rufina, to tempt her. Rufina’s amber eyes lit up. She stared at the pizza oven, like she was trying to do difficult arithmetic.

Then she sprang into action. “Break!”

El Sirio shuddered in his chair. He tapped a pencil on his bald head, hunched over a small notepad with numbers scribbled on the squared pages. Imaginary calculations about non-existent customers. If I was to look at the journal it would be gibberish. Random divisions and multiplications to keep his mind busy. As we passed him, he didn’t look up and mumbled.

We walked down the block and stopped at the corner. We could still see the red Coca-Cola umbrella that designated the entrance to Pericles.

“El Sirio wants to talk to you.” She let out a mushroom of smoke.

“Why does he do this? He tells you he wants to talk to me, instead of directly talking to me.”

“He says it lowers the impact.”

It was Friday. Pay day. I knew what El Sirio was going to say. How he didn’t have money. How the money was coming soon. I’d been working at Pericles every afternoon for weeks and received nothing.

“I have a baby.” I took a long and lazy toke, keeping the smoke in my lungs for as long as I could.

In silence, we let the high take over. For the dopamine to act as a chemical messenger. It was the only way to make our jobs bearable. I felt my heartbeat quicken. Then the world had a buzz it hadn’t had before.

“He went to Disneyland. I haven’t heard from him since.”

She always talked about her boyfriend, who was married to another woman and had two children. He lived close to Pericles. That’s how Rufina met him. The man used to dine at the restaurant. Now he only ordered takeaway.

“I miss him dearly. What am I going to do?” She wiped her tears.

“Once you have a baby, your life is never the same.”

Then she started to trot towards Pericles.

“The pizza!” Her thick thighs brushed together with every step, ruffling her sporty trousers.

I looked at the frame of her figure dimmish until it disappeared. Then I made my way to the restaurant, making sure not to rush. I heard them argue from the street.

“You stupid cow!” El Sirio said. “How could you forget?”

“Why don’t you do something about it?” Rufina barked.

The smell of burnt food was pungent. Thick grey smoke emanated from the kitchen into the dining area.

“Get that thing out of here. Bad for customers.” El Sirio turned back to his notebook.

What customers?

I opened windows for the smoke to clear and waited for the spoiled pizza to cool. It was a piece of coal. Then I chucked it in a garbage bag and dumped it outside. I observed the night sky and took a deep breath.

“Why don’t you just die!”

It was El Sirio’s voice coming from the restaurant. Then Rufina screamed. It was a high-pitched sting like a screwdriver piercing my ear canal. I ran.

“Why don’t you just die!”

I dashed into the kitchen. Rufina was sat on the pizza dough table. El Sirio held a mop over his head, like an executioner about to give the final blow. Then he brought it down with a clonk. At the last moment, the rat jumped. Rufina shrieked. The little creature zigzagged across the dirty kitchen floor. It scurried under my legs into the dining area. I followed it with my gaze until it hopped onto the pavement.

“Why didn’t you squish the damn thing?” El Sirio was frozen, crouched over the mop. “There’s a delivery for you.” He grunted and dusted off his shirt.

At the first intersection I realized I’d forgotten to talk to El Sirio about getting paid. I thought of other ways I could make cash. Every idea I had would take too long or crumble at the first step because I had no capital to begin with. Loans were no good. I needed something quick. The only thing I could think of was crime. I dangled the takeaway box and texted the mother of my baby.

Hey, been thinking of Sofia. I have some money for you. Can we meet sometime at the park?

I bought a pack of cigarettes. Their price had increased. Every week everything was more expensive. Inflation!

At the corner of Callao, I waited for the little green man to appear so I could cross. The traffic was incessant. There was a woman in front of me. She was plugged into her earphones and a tote bag hung from her right shoulder. She glanced both ways, ponytail flying side to side. She took a step and a motorcycle hit her. There was the dull thump of plastic against flesh. The woman’s feet sprung into the air. Her body moved liked a pendulum until it dropped onto the tarmac head first. The motorcyclist sped off. I heard the gasps of men and women. A crowd circled around her. A couple of pears fell out of the woman’s bag and lay on the crosswalk. She was unconscious and a narrow line of blood appeared on her temple.

Someone tried moving the woman but another person intervened. “Don’t move her head!”

I cursed myself for not saving her. I should have pulled her back.

She would have stared at me with yearning. “You’re such a gentleman.”

Then we would’ve gone out for dinner.

Back at Pericles, Rufina struggled to make eye contact. “El Sirio left.”

I opened the cash register. Empty. “Did he pay you?”

She shook her head and pressed a butcher’s knife against her throat. “Now’s our chance to burn the place down.”


After my shift, I went to Alamo. Milagros was drinking alone at the bar.

“You look desperate.” She gave me a cold look. “I can read it on your face. Desperation is never good.”

We stayed until closing. Then we found a small, pebbled alley. It was poorly illuminated. She pushed me against the wall and undid my belt buckle. My trousers fell to my ankles. She knelt down. I forgot who I was. The minutes flew by.

“Hey.” It was a deep voice.

I opened my eyes. A man wearing a tracksuit was standing two metres away, watching us. It was hard to make out his face but his small beady eyes glittered under the street lamp. The way he was stood, it was like he was ready to pounce. Milagros rose to her feet and I fumbled with my pants.

“I live close by.” He buried his hands in his pockets. “You two are welcome to come.”

Milagros pulled me and we took off. I started to laugh like I was deranged, wondering how long the man had been watching without us knowing. I turned to get one last look at him. He hadn’t moved. I saw the glimmer of a gold tooth.

Once we turned the corner, I felt safe. “Can’t we go to your place?”

Milagros shook her head. “No visitors. But I know a place we can go.”

I craved warmth and a spliff to take off the edge. I wanted to lose track of everything.

At the end of Juan B. Justo, a man jumped over a derelict wall, like a monkey. He landed on his feet with a swish, arms out wide. The man was hooded and a scarf covered his mouth and nose. Only his big brown eyes and black bushy eyebrows were visible. He took two quick steps and snatched Milagros’s purse. She didn’t let go. They tussled and pulled it between them. Finally, the man realized he lost and climbed back over the wall. I grabbed her wrist and heard a couple of explosions. Three large bricks were thrown at us. They missed and crumbled on impact. We ran across the avenue. The slight buzz of traffic lights rung in my ear. From the other side, I stopped to look at where the thief had come from. It was dark but I could make out a large scrapyard. The silhouettes of two bodies jumped across the heaps of scrap, scurrying back to safety. A cab stopped in front of us.

In the backseat Milagros clenched her fist. “Fucking cunts!”

She paid for the motel. The place didn’t have a sign. Only a big black portal and the number, 2666.

“How do you know this place?” I opened our room.

She didn’t answer.

Under the bedsheets, bathed in bright red light, we shared a joint. Through the wall we heard thumping and the muffled grunts of an unknown couple. I took a deep breath and sighed. Would Carlos Tevez perform at Boca Juniors when he got back from China? I stubbed the joint on the ashtray, afraid I would fall asleep with it lit in my fingers. Milagros, flat on her stomach, turned onto her side. I felt her stare and observe me.

“What?”

She giggled and pointed at my pelvic area. “They are funny looking things.”

I pulled the bed sheet up to my belly button.

“What’s it like having one?” she inquired.

“I don’t think about it. It’s just there.” I pointed at her hips. “What’s it like having one of those?”

I watched as she shifted onto her back. She tugged on the bedsheets and they rustled. Then she ran her long nails across her belly in circular motion. The hairs on her neck stood. There was a mirror on the ceiling. She stared at our bodies through the mirrored reflection.

“We have to be extra careful. Always prepared to fight. This city is dangerous.” She rested her head gently on my chest. “What are you going to do about El Sirio? I can help you.”

I thought about what Milagros had told me before. How I was desperate.

“I have some ideas,” I said.

She moved her head off my torso. “I’m pregnant. A nurse raped me, so I escaped from the madhouse.”

I sat up.

“But I’m not ill. My mum is.”

“No, you’re not mad.” I re-lit the joint.

“Did you know Buenos Aires has the most psychiatrists per capita in the world? Everyone here is off their head.”

The phone rang. It was reception. Our time was up.

“What are you going to do? Where are you going to go?”

She peered at me as she dressed. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

In the bathroom I splashed water on my face. Back in the room, Milagros left the door open. I could see the shadowy hallway. She’d gone. She left me, drenched in ugly red light.


“Stop twitching.” It was the mother of my baby. “You’re making me nervous.”

I couldn’t help myself. I was eager.

She didn’t wear contact lenses. Her eyes were natural green. She wore flats, a knitted sweater and blue jeans. Nothing like the types of clothes she used to wear. Not like the mother of my baby.

“This park,” I said. “It’s where we met.”

Her hair, it was picked up in a bun. It accentuated the oval shape of her face.

“The money. Do you have it?”

I rummaged around my jacket pocket.

“This isn’t enough.” She measured the weight of the bills in her palm.

“I’m getting more today.”

Then she offered me Sofia. She was huge. I couldn’t believe how quickly she was growing. I couldn’t believe I’d brought her to life. I felt like crying. We strolled around the Taras Shevchenko monument. I thought of what would happen if I dropped Sofia and got scared. But I didn’t want to give her back. Sofia’s weight felt great in my possession and her smell was amazing. I buried her small face in the blanket so the wind wouldn’t hit her. What if I fled with Sofia? What would happen?

I tried to hug the mother of my child. I playfully tapped her bum.

“Stop.” She grabbed Sofia.

We stood underneath the shadow of the monument in silence. Without Sofia in my arms, I felt how I’d felt before, full of longing, and empty, like I’d lost something I’d never be able to recover. A sense of terror overcame me. Under my thick wool sweater, a warm droplet of sweat crawled down my ribcage. I shivered.

“I’ll let you know when you can see her again.”

“When?”

She started to move away.

“Let me know. Please,” I called out.

She marched towards a big black SUV with tinted windows. Had it been there the whole time?

“Bye, Sofia. I love you!”

She picked up her pace. A tall and round man awaited them. He was like a bodyguard with his dark sunglasses and suit. They didn’t acknowledge each other as he closed the backseat door behind her. I was unable to see whether there was anybody else in the car. Before the man got in the driver’s seat, he gave me a quick glance. They drove off.

I arranged for Milagros to pick me up. I waited, rubbing my hands to keep warm. She took hours. Once the monument’s shadow was long and narrow, she arrived in a silver Mercedes Benz.

“Where did you get this?” I got into the passenger seat.

She planted a kiss on my cheek. “Where to?”

“Pericles.”

Milagros was a careful driver, which is to say she was slow. She did everything methodically and used the indicators when they weren’t necessary.

I formed a fist. “When we get there. Keep the engine running.”

Her knuckles tensed on the steering wheel.

“Just keep the engine running.” I clenched my teeth.

There was a big fire truck and police cars in front of Pericles, impeding transit. Red and blue lights flashed off the surrounding buildings. A perimeter of yellow plastic lines had been set around the restaurant too. The crowd of on-lookers loitered and made exaggerated gestures as they talked.

“Wait here.” I got out of the car. Then I approached a bearded cop. “What happened?”

“Gas leak,” he said out of the side of his mouth.

He turned away from me.

“Is anyone hurt?” I asked.

“One old man died on the scene. Two injured are in the hospital. We have the situation under control.”

I navigated the crowd to get a closer look. The heat hurt my face. I took off my jacket. The windows to Pericles were shattered and the fire-fighters struggled to eradicate the flames. I stared at the fire and wondered what would’ve happened if I’d been there. Would I be dead?

Then I felt bad for El Sirio, although maybe I shouldn’t have. He opened Pericles 15 years ago. It used to be a popular spot on an important boulevard. Busy. That was a life time ago. The economy crashed and fucked everyone and Pericles had become a shadow of its former self. Now, it had been burnt to bits.

I went into the hostel to get my things. They fit into one bag. All my worldly possessions were in that bag. I threw it into the car’s trunk.

Then I turned to Milagros. “They say Motoneta Nardiello is dead.”

I took out a spliff. It was perfect, nice and slim, my best work yet.

“No.” Milagros lowered my arm. “No more weed or drinking for a while.”

We examined the fire-fighters as they ran in and out of Pericles. The flames were incessant. They emerged from the broken windows and sent black fumes into the air.

“Motoneta Nardiello is dead,” I said. “He’s dead.”

“I know how the story ends. The one I was writing, remember?” Milagros rested both hands on her stomach.

“The father. You were visiting him that night we met at the hostel. Were you not?”

She switched on the radio. We contemplated everything happening outside from the comfort of the car, like it was a movie, in complicit silence. Eventually, the fire was brought under control. Slowly, the crowd dispersed.

“If it’s a boy, will you call him Angel Osvaldo?” I put the joint in my pocket.

“Why?”

“That was Motoneta’s real name.”

Then I crumbled the rolling paper in my fingers. The tobacco and pot broke into small lumps. At first, it was painful. I ruined a perfect joint. But once that feeling was gone, it felt superb. I kept on dissolving the little pieces, making them as tiny as I could.

 

Thomas McEvoy is British-Guatemalan and was born in Paraguay. He holds a master’s in Latin American Studies from the University of Sheffield.




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