Perdido: Un Sueño
by C.J. Casey
2nd Draft, November 2013
There’s a crack in the mirror. The crack weaves and winds across the glass like lightning, and he has to angle his head far to the left or the right, but it’s worth it. The crack has displaced the glass, and if he put his face over it, it would make the right half of his head shrink away like it was running from him. That is too close to reality for him to be comfortable with that.
On his first night in the hostel, he hung a towel over it so he wouldn’t catch his reflection by accident, but the towel keeps falling down. Now it lies crumpled and bright crimson in the sink. If the bare bulb over the sink catches it just right, it looks like it’s shining with it’s own light. If the bare bulb catches him just right, it’s easy to believe that it is.
Bella Vista, Santiago, Chile. City of beautiful trees stretching over forty-year-old scars of the revolution. Empanadas stuffed with cheese and onion and everything imaginable. Palta, a word that has edged out ‘avocado’ in his vocabulary because it tastes better than anything he had eaten in the United States. Sickly-sweet wine and brandy and ice cream mixed in a thumbprint-covered pint glass that truly left him as wobbly as if a real terremoto were shaking the ground beneath him. The Andes, always to the east and watching over the city with an implacable, abiding eye.
He had come here from La Serena in the north, and some indistinct time before that, he had been on a trip to the Galapagos. When their ship had docked back on the mainland, he postponed his ticket on a spur-of-the-moment half-fueled by something more alcoholic than it tasted, and half-fueled by a cry of “When am I going to be in South America again?” Somewhere along the line he had rescheduled his flight so it left from Santiago, and he had wandered into the city from the ancient, baked desert of the north. He had three days before he had to find the airport. Three days to wander the city, notebook in hand, writing down everything and trying to make the voices in his head be productive and tell him a story.
Today was day two.
He walked down the age-darkened wooden staircase that clung to the very edge of the old house. It was early, especially for this part of the city where everyone either left just before dawn for work or came home just before dawn to sleep it off. Bella Vista wasn’t known for much else… the zoo and the national park topped with its alabaster-bright Virgin Mary, a few galleries, and places to suck down caffeine or food to carry as you walked from one bar to the next to the next. It was expected of anyone who stayed in Bella Vista that either you weren’t bothered by the noise at night, or you planned on being worn-out enough to just not care.
The few people scattered and dropped in the common room of the hostel looked like they had been painted into the overstuffed chairs. They might be different than the people who were there when he checked in a day… no, two days ago, but he couldn’t be sure. The woman behind the battered particleboard counter was the same, though, and though she looked even more tired than she had three days ago… no, two… she was just as stunning and quietly beautiful as he remembered.
“Ola, Daniela,” he said in his best Spanish. If he really concentrated, he could speak so that the Chileños only snickered a little.
“Ola, buena’ dia’” she said back, swallowing her esses like everyone in Santiago did. “You are leaving today?”
“Um, no, err… yo vuelta… err…”
“You wish to stay another night?”
“¡Yes… err, sí!” He smiled and pulled a few bills out of his pocket. “¿Se puedo, no?”
“Yes, it is possible. You may also speak English here, with me. I lived in Tennessee when I was a little girl.”
“Oh.” He blushed. Again. He had been struggling with his Spanish the whole long road down, but he still had so much more to learn. Like with his writing. Like with letting things go. Like with letting too many things go. Like with…
She rattled off a string of numbers and they slipped through his ears before he had a chance to grab at them.
“¿Que?” he stammered.
“You will just stay one night? It is cheaper for three, if you stay. But it’s no problem, Señor Daniel,” she said, and took his money.
“Daniela y Daniel,” he said and laughed. She giggled, once, and handed him some change.
“I see you later, maybe,” he said, and then tried “Hasta maña… err… hasta luego y tardes y…”
“Bye bye, Señor Gringo,” she said, and waved. He was caught by surprise, and even though most of the city was still closed, he blundered out the door and into the morning.
* * *
By noon, he had gotten lost twice, on both sides of the Río Mapocho, the sluggish muddy river that lingered as long as possible before finally heading to the Pacific. He had maps of a sort, though he didn’t think his guidebook, snatched from a paperback swap in another hostel in Peru, was as updated as the authors claimed. What really threw him off, though, was the light of the sun. He had never really thought about where the sun was in the sky, beyond how far east or west it was. Now, he was painfully aware that for the 27 years of his life, it had also ridden south. The sun in Ohio rose in the southeast and set in the southwest. It made perfect, logical sense if he thought about it, but until crossing the equator… hell, until somewhere in southern Peru… he had never thought about it. And now he was stuck with it. He had been caught unprepared.
Somehow, the sun was harsher here, coming from the north. The shadows around his feet refused to lay where they were supposed to, and half the time, he would catch himself nervously looking around, wondering where his shadow had gone off to, before seeing it on the other side of his legs. It was silly, asinine to be worried about such things, yet every morning he went through the same five-second panic. It was similar to how every night, he had to look up in the sky and see if Orion was still upside-down. Solid facts of nature that he’d taken for granted seemed perverted here in the south, even though he knew that it was his own fault that he thought it was backwards. It was taking him quite a while to get used to it all.
He didn’t have anyone he could talk to about it. His Spanish wasn’t even close to competent enough, and the English-speaking Chileños couldn’t understand what the fuss was. The one time he had called his family in Lima (Ohio… he couldn’t even begin to talk about the one he was in a few weeks ago, not yet) they just wanted to ask if the water in the toilets really swirled in the opposite direction. Nothing else he had seen or experienced mattered.
He wound up back on the north side of the Mapocho, even though he only remembered crossing the river once, in a cafe just a few blocks from the Zoo and the absurd-looking hill that looked plopped down in the middle of the district. The second he saw an empty chair, he made a beeline for it, knocking his backpack off his shoulders as he went. Sitting down would make everything better, or at least manageable. In here, the light looked just as it did everywhere else. The hipsters and students and loners lingered over their espresso and tea and coffee helado just like they did everywhere else. He had come to Chile for a change, but here he could get a handle on the few things that were different. Here, he could deal with it all.
Some days his Spanish was better, but this was not one of those days. He managed to spit out the words to get an espresso without mangling them too much, and walked back to his laptop. The computer and his plug adapter was his only connection to a world he’d left. He couldn’t imagine travelling the world without his tether, his continent, packed up in his bag.
Not that Daniel ever did anything with the tether. There was an angry number in the corner of his G-mail tab, one that was larger every time he opened it. He knew who they were from, and they’d still be there when he went back to North America. They always were.
The rest of the day dragged until the sun finally started angling toward the Pacific and he went to find a place to eat before going back to the hostel to write. He had been too overwhelmed that morning to get any work done, and too hot and exhausted and drained in the afternoon, plus he’d had to read the news of what was happening in the US once he cleared the Chilean newspapers and flyers off the table and plugged his laptop in. So he made a hasty promise to himself to get at least a page down once he was back at the hostel. He hadn’t written… hadn’t done anything… the entire week that he’d set aside to write, of course, but he would. He had to. He promised himself yet again.
And he would have, too, had not all the plugs been taken, leaving him no place to charge his laptop. By the time he dug a working pen out of his luggage, he was too tired to focus on his story. Still, he didn’t feel too bad about it. He had nothing but time down here in Chile… no friends, no contacts, no commitments. He could write tomorrow.
* * *
There’s a crack in the mirror. The crack winds and weaves across the glass like lightning, and he has to angle his head far to the right or the left, but it’s worth it. The crack has displaced the glass, and if he put his face over it, it would make the left half of his head shrink away like it was running from him. That is too close to reality for him to be comfortable with that.
The little hot water pitcher in the room refused to boil water for his tea, so he went downstairs even earlier than usual. The people in the chairs still looked painted there, and if he looked away from them, he could swear that their bodies didn’t actually exist outside of the chair, like they really had been painted on. Even when one of them shifted in her chair, it didn’t spoil the illusion.
What light was hitting the streets of Santiago this early slid in through the doorway, pushing the grey darkness out of the way and replacing it with a grey light. A few shadows seemed stuck to the cracked particle board of the hostel, but he didn’t pay them any mind… he was ready to pay Daniela for another night and then go about his day. He already had the bills in his hand when he looked across the counter and saw someone completely different staring at him.
“Oh, umm, hi, Buenas Dias.”
“Buena’ Dia,” she said, in a perfunctory voice.
“¿Err, vuelto… me gusta dorme una noche?”
She snorted and rattled off the price, in English. He paid it and then took a chance.
“¿Daniella esta aqui?”
He looked again to see if maybe he had been tricked by a different shirt or hairdo, but this woman was completely different. Daniella had the honey-blond complexion of a Spanish Chileña; this woman had dark hair and a pinched, narrow mouth. She was probably as old as Daniela but she looked much older, at first.
“¿Err… the other… otro Daniela?”
“No hay niguna otra Daniela.” She finished writing his receipt and handed it to him. “¿Señor Daniel, sí?”
“Yes. Err, are you sure? ¿Err, cierto?”
“Yes, I am sure. Pancho!” she yelled, and he turned around anxiously. He remembered Pancho from his first day… he was a young man a little shorter than himself, and he did work around the hostel. Except this man was twice his age and looked nothing like Pancho. He looked just off the boat from Germany, perhaps, or someplace in northern Europe. Before Daniel could say anything, the man pushed back and began chattering in Spanish.
“Bye,” he said, waving at her. She flicked a hand in his direction, and then peeked over Pancho’s shoulder.
“You leave tomorrow, no?”
“I might,” he said. “I might stay.”
She snorted and started talking to Pancho again, and he could tell that as far as she was concerned, he no longer existed.
He was even more confused this time, but he shouldered his bag and walked out into the street.
* * *
Today, he had planned to go to the zoo but at the gate, he turned and walked up the hill instead. Cerro San Cristoból wasn’t the tallest hill in the city, and on a steamy summer’s day like today, just a few weeks before Christmas, he didn’t plan on having anything but a good view of the smog. But wandering around with a bunch of children and animals did not seem like something he could wrap his mind around, not today. He had been so upset about the issue with Daniela that he couldn’t write, of course, and that meant he had gone more than a week without putting his pen in his notebook. He had come down to Chile… he had kept going after the Galapagos tour… in order to find time and space and motivation to write, and he had all three. But he wasn’t worried. He figured that the walk up the mountain would calm him down and maybe inspire him to finally finish the story that he knew was trapped in his head. Maybe the air at the top of the mountain would fill his brain and allow the story to finally free itself, since it wasn’t doing anything productive, locked up in his head like it was.
The trail wasn’t crowded at all, though every so often he would see a person or a couple sitting on one of the park benches underneath the trees lining the pathway. The benches were usually just uphill from one of the many bends in the trail, affording the viewers pretty views of haze and sunlight and the suburbs that spread like clumps of oil on their way to the Andes. Around the time he passed the third group, he started to notice something, but he was able to choke it down and convince himself that it was simple paranoia, or nervousness, or culture shock. At least, he was able to for another three benches. Then he stopped, slowly turned around, and looked at the couple behind him.
They were two women in their fifties, Chilean, wearing identical blue shirts, and looked like they were having a fun, lazy day in the park. He couldn’t be sure but he thought they might be an actual couple, or at least they were very good friends. They were both sweating a little but had smiles on their faces and were passionately talking about… well, Daniel wasn’t exactly sure, but whatever it was made them happy. And they hadn’t been moving at all until after he rounded the corner. Now of course, they were moving and talking like they had been all day long, but he was certain that they had been motionless until after he rounded the corner. He was also pretty sure he had seen the same thing the whole way up.
Eventually, the one closest to him dropped her smile and curtly said something. He didn’t understand her words, but he knew exactly what she meant.
* * *
The top of the mountain was even more anti-climatic than he’d expected, but that could have been because he was paying more attention to the people around him. Every so often, he still saw one start up a second, a split second after he saw him. When he finally sat on the bench next to the statue Virgen de la Immaculada Conceptión and watched, he also noticed that everyone around him was on a pathway around the park. They all walked in the same oddly-elliptical pathways, back and forth and around. And when two would leave, two more would come in. It was a very clever fake but it was a fake, none the less.
Strangely enough, he started to enjoy it. It was amazing to see all the trouble they had gone through to make it look real, to give it that sheen of verisimilitude. But when the couple he had seen on the path walked past him… carrying different bags, wearing different (matching) shirts, but obviously the same actors, he decided it was time to go.
He got lost twice more on the way to his hostel, even though it was damn near on the slope of the mountain, or at least only a couple of blocks away. When he got to his room, he barely spared a glance at the fellow-travelers painted into the furniture (one of them painted in a slightly different position… she looked younger than the others, and more worried, like she’d passed the point of realizing she had waited long enough, but didn’t think she could get up yet). He made it to the tiny room he’d rented, locked the door, and pulled out his notebook, anything to force himself to write.
Four hours later, he gave up, ate some dry food he had in his bag, and went to bed early. He didn’t think it would be smart to go out in town tonight, especially not if whomever was doing whatever he was doing knew that he knew what was going on. Whatever it was he knew. He didn’t know. He’d write later.
* * *
There’s a crack in the mirror. The crack winds and weaves across the glass like lightning, and he has to angle his head far to the left and the right. Nothing works Nothing ever did. The crack has knocked out a bit of the glass, and if he puts his face over it, it would obliterate part of his head. This is too close to reality for him to be comfortable with that.
The water feels drier than usual but he washes up in the sink as well as he can. He almost packs his travel bag but decides that one more day in the city will be good. He could use one more day to eradicate the effects of yesterday.
He went downstairs expecting to see the same bodies implanted in the chairs. They were, but this time they were staring at him. All of them. None of them moved, but whenever he turned to look around at them, their heads were still pointing directly at him.
Behind the counter was a different woman again… blonde, but from a bottle, and made up more than either of the other two had been. She looked at him like she had no clue who he was, and that, at least he had been expecting.
“Hola, Daniela,” he said, snickering at how he’d figured their game out… whoever ‘they’ were.
“Daniel. Señor Daniel.”
She looked at him, her lips twisting down to her chin.
“Daniel. I… Daniela knows me.”
“Yes, yes, I know, but the other Daniela knows me.”
“No hay ninguna Daniela.”
“Well… I’m Daniel.” She looked at him blankly and he tried again.
“Soy Daniel. Daniel. El Gringo. ¿Señor Gringo?”
She shook her head.
“Usted no es Daniel,” she said. “¡Pancho!”
A short, stubby, muscular man came up behind him. He looked Mapuche, or from one of the old tribes in the south of the country, and he had apparently left his sense of humour back home. Daniel had never seen him before, of course, but that didn’t surprise him. Nothing surprised him, or ever would.
“I… wait, do you speak English?” he asked.
He didn’t believe her but he couldn’t argue. “I… hoy carte identificá.” He reached for his wallet and of course felt nothing but flat pocket.
“Puedo andar mi camar y…”
Pancho… this Pancho… grabbed his shoulder. He didn’t pull him or hurt him, but he knew he was going nowhere until he chose to let him.
“¡Señor Daniel!” Daniela said to someone at the other end of the room.
Walking toward them was a redheaded man in an informal suit, carrying a black backpack. Pancho unflinchingly steered him away and Daniel heard the scene play out behind them.
The man… he couldn’t call him ‘Daniel…’ spoke Spanish, though with a distinct American accent. And as he spoke to Daniela, he heard the details of his own story come out. The man had gone on a trip to the Galapagos, had decided to keep going south, had fallen in love with Santiago. Now he was off to a job interview, and if he got it, he would stay even longer. He’d been there for a week, and he would stay if he could… his family in Lima (the Ohio one, he explained) would come visit. They loved that he was a writer and living outside the US.
Daniel felt in his pockets but as he already knew his keys wouldn’t be in there. He was almost relieved that they weren’t.
He found an empty chair and sat to wait with the others.