Alfonso is half an hour late. He doesn’t call to tell me this, nor does he apologize when he finally shows up where we've arranged to meet, on the corner in front of the convenience store. He just kisses me on the cheek and asks, Do you like Arabian food? He asks it in Spanish, and I have to get him to repeat the question two more times. Árabe is the word I’m not getting, not with the way he crushes the r and turns the b into a v.
Should we be talking in English? He asks me in English, after the third and final attempt. I pout. It was just that one word! I protest, and he laughs and unlocks the car. The door on my side scrapes the curb as I pull it shut—You sank the car! He says, but he’s not angry. He’s used to the screech of the door against the high sidewalk, and jokes that if I weighed just a little bit less, the car wouldn’t sink so bad. I know he is teasing, though, because he told me the other night that I should eat more, and ordered us both desserts.
I decide, as we drive down Godoy Cruz, past the horse-racing track and the massive banyan tree, past the lime-green Chinese restaurant and the tiny gas station, that I won’t be mad that he showed up late. Even if I said something, he’d just remind me that it wasn’t his fault—I don’t have a watch, remember? He’d say. And I’d have to admit that I’ve used the same excuse. Anyway, I tell myself, leaning back in my seat and watching the lights of Palermo flicker past, isn’t the strange slow motion of time the sweetest thing about this place? Alfonso turns up the music, explaining that the man singing is an Alaskan guy who grew up in Buenos Aires. We listen to his raspy, folksy voice, and cruise up and down the nighttime streets.
The bars we speed past are crowded with trendy twenty-somethings. Knee-length stiletto boots; tight jeans and leather jackets. The girls have this hair, this amazing long hair that reaches down past their ass, and the guys hold their women close to them, kissing them, eyes closed. We drive down the series of streets named after Central American countries—Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Honduras. I tell Alfonso, in Spanish, that I like this part of town because the streets remind me how far I have come. Which one’s your favorite? He asks, and I tell him, without hesitating, Nicaragua. I tell him I liked the heat there, I liked the poets, I liked the blue waters of the Corn Islands and the way, in the evening, the sun made everything pink.
The Arabian restaurant, when we arrive, is so jammed that we have to add our names to a long list, a list that a bald man holds with importance at the door. He is smoking, smoking and ushering people in and out, and there must be thirty or forty people waiting for him to call their names, standing there beneath the plastic awning in the sweet, unexpected warmth of this springtime night.
Let’s go for a beer, Alfonso suggests, after we’ve added our name. How long is the wait? I ask, and he tells me it’s enough time to have a beer. I don’t push it. This is like him ringing the doorbell late and not apologizing; this is the way time works here. It’s like Harrison, one of the other English teachers at Conviven, told me on the bus ride home the other day: Time is more fluid here, he’d said, just like everything else. He’d grinned, then kissed me on the cheek and jumped off the bus—his stop. I watched him lope away with his long legs and cropped hair, his blue eyes, down the cobblestone street and out of sight.
Although the Arabian restaurant was jammed inside and out, the streets around here are empty. We peer into the windows of bars that are silent, the stools and counters gleaming and unused. Spooky, I say. It’s a vicious cycle, Alfonso tells me. The place is empty, so no one goes in. No one goes in, and the place stays empty. I practice saying ‘vicious cycle’ in Spanish; Alfonso makes fun of my accent. I remind him that at least we’re speaking in Spanish, right? He shrugs, nods, and takes my arm. Here, he says, and points to a little pizza joint with a couple of outdoor tables and a few waiters standing around smoking.
Alfonso orders a big bottle of beer, which comes with little dishes of chips and peanuts and crackers. I’m starving, Alfonso admits, pouring the beer into squat jelly jars and then reaching for a handful of peanuts. He asks me if I’ve eaten, and I tell him I have—Hours ago, I say. I can’t wait until midnight for dinner, I joke, and he shrugs. Is it midnight already? He asks, and checks his wrist for a watch that isn’t there. Then he laughs and grabs for another handful of peanuts, tossing one at me, aiming for my shirt’s v-shaped neckline.
I like Alfonso because he tosses peanuts at me, and he doesn’t care about time. He doesn’t get stressed about it, even though he works as an attorney and knows his minutes are on the clock. I like him because he chats with the tall, African-looking waiter who comes out and refills our glasses of beers and our dishes of peanuts and chips. The two of them guess where the other is from, ignoring me, and I like this. Everyone chats here; everyone has the time and the interest for a brief conversation. We finish our beers and pay the bill. Our table will be ready now, Alfonso says.
And it is. We go back to the Arabian place and wait just two minutes at the door, the patio still jammed, until the man with the list and the cigarette calls our name. He doesn’t show us in, he just directs us inside and up the stairs. Take the table with silverware on it, he says, and checks his list to call out the next name. After we sit, Alfonso orders without consulting the menu, and this is something I like, too. He rattles off a list of dishes, and asks for a bottle of wine. Hot, thin bread arrives in a napkin-covered basket, and sparkling water, and then the plates come, one after the other, now stuffed grape leaves, now falafel, now a type of meat pie and a type of cheese casserole and a tart, lemony salad. The wine is cold and tastes like flowers and oranges both. We eat and eat, using our fingers and not our forks, and after a while baklava arrives for dessert, and possibly the best coffee I’ve ever had, sweet without being sugary, grainy and rich without being cloying. Every bite requires you to close your eyes, because with them open, your senses are overwhelmed. I am stuffed, I am sleepy; I’m in heaven.
Just before we leave, I check my watch. It’s 3 AM. The restaurant remains full; the waiters hurry around. I catch Alfonso looking at me; he shakes his head. I pull my shirtsleeve down over my wrist to cover my watch.
Time is a different animal here, Alfonso says. It’s another thing altogether, than what you know. He pulls me closer as we make our way though the restaurant, towards the door, squeezing between tables and chairs, diners and servers and the man with the list. So forget it, Alfonso whispers, and hustles me out the door.
And he is right. Here, time’s a river, and because it moves like water, it would be stupid to try and cling. The sun setting down doesn’t mark another hour; the thing is the glimmer, the long shadows of the trees. And this night is not the minutes; it’s not the morning growing closer. It’s the moonlight, it’s the coffee, it’s the not-so-distant summer on the wind.