"Shiner plunges into the dark recent history of Argentina in this thriller that tells a gentle love story against a backdrop of sheer terror... Shiner gracefully and efficiently tells his moving tale within a tight frame."
The first time I saw her was in the chrome and cracked- plaster lobby of Universal's Buenos Aires office. From where I stood, on the other side of the glass wall that separated our servers from the noise and dirt of the city, I got an impression of power and grace from the way she held herself, saw long dark hair and a flash of gold at her ears and wrists.
She was one more beautiful woman in a city full of beautiful women, and young, not much past thirty.Yet something made me look again. Maybe her nose, which was long and slightly crooked, as if it had been broken in the distant past and never properly set.
She was deep in conversation with the receptionist, a young guy with a dark suit and a permanent five o'clock shadow. It seemed like he was not giving her what she wanted, though I couldn't hear their words through the glass.
She glanced up at me and I thought she would look away, bored or even annoyed by another wistful male gaze. Instead she let me see something else, a question, an urgency.
I found myself, to my surprise, mouthing words to her in Spanish:
<<Can I help?>>
She gave me a rueful smile and a small, tilted shake of the head that said no, thanks.Then she turned back to the receptionist and I forced myself to walk away.
It was my first full day on the job. I'd been in the city for a week, moving into my tiny apartment, opening a bank account, putting a local chip in my cell phone, contacting old friends. I also called my favorite of the tango teachers I'd worked with on previ- ous trips and scheduled some private classes. I drifted from one thing to the next as if in a dream, sometimes looking up to realize I didn't remember the last ten minutes.
In terms of time zones, Buenos Aires is only an hour ahead of North Carolina.What I was feeling was not jetlag but culture lag, life lag. I could focus my brain on no more than one thing at a time, and my feelings had shut down entirely.There had been too many shocks in a row, more than I could bounce back from.
The Buenos Aires office existed in another era from Universal's vast campus in Research Triangle Park. My cubicle had gray metal walls instead of taupe fabric. Bare fluorescent bulbs hummed from stained fixtures on tile ceilings instead of being tucked away in recesses.The background sounds came from cars and buses six floors below and not from piped-in white noise.
I'd lost most of the morning tracking down a laptop and a port replicator, a mouse and monitor and keyboard, and I spent the af- ternoon getting my email id and installing software. By suppertime I had managed to connect to the repositories in our upstate New York headquarters, check out my programs, and write exactly three lines of new code. I felt as pleased with myself as if I'd won a mara- thon, and about as exhausted.
But that night, on the edge of sleep, I thought of her again.
My first trip to Buenos Aires had been in 2003, three years be- fore. Universal had flown me down to meet the local programmers assigned to the governance software project.They would report to me in North Carolina, and I would get my choice of the most interesting parts to write myself.
I arrived at the end of September, as spring was lighting up the monochrome streets. In what spare time I had, I wandered the city and let the strangeness settle on my skin like the dust and grit in the air. It reminded me of Paris, but a younger Paris, sprawled across wide avenues dotted with plane trees and purple jacarandas and the swollen trunks of palos borrachos. Most of the grey stone buildings had gone up between 1875 and World War II, when Argentina was one of the ten richest nations on the planet.The architectural style was massive and European, with wrought-iron grilles and balconies full of flowering plants, arches and domes and the occasional red- tiled roof that gave everything a Spanish accent. And now primary- colored storefronts erupted from the ground floors, even as sprays of black graffiti on the endless corrugated metal security doors provid- ed a reminder that the days of first-world status were long gone.
The sidewalks swarmed with pedestrians, men in dark suits and women in black dresses and heels. Despite the formality of the clothes, it was a city where both sexes greeted each other with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It was a city with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, where newspaper kiosks sold the novels of Borges and Cort?zar, and bookstores lined Avenida Corrientes. It was also a city where the homeless slept in doorways and the weight of 13 million people stretched the city's resources to the breaking point. Cartoneros went through the trash on the streets for scrap cardboard and plastic to recycle, and crafters in the plazas made stunning art from cans and bottles and folded subway tickets. And it was a city of tango music, bandoneones and violins and pianos, the heart-wrenching melodies that evoked the giant, echoing ballrooms of the 1930s, and the insistent rhythms that whispered of seduction.
My first morning in the city, groggy and stale from ten hours on an airplane, I wandered into the flea market at Plaza Dorrego and saw an older man dancing tango, not in the clich?d fedora and ascot, but bareheaded in a loose white shirt, his long gray hair slicked back, a dark-skinned and eagle-beaked son of indigenous Americans named Luis Ortega, though everybody called him Don G?icho. I saw the joy in his dancing and the pleasure in the eyes of his partner and I was hooked.