A Perfect Day

— Cecilia Pavón


“A Perfect Day” was originally published in Spanish as the chapbook Un día perfecto (Ediciones Overol, 2016).

Any writing that doesn’t move toward love will crash against a wall or some
other hard surface, like that time the brakes failed on a train entering Once
Station. It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m recalling a perfect day. All my stories
are about thinking or remembering. Though I was on the verge of writing
a story about murder. The inspiration for it came from a beautiful ceramic
sculpture my eight-year-old son made: four knives sticking out of a coarse surface,
with moss green enamel. The knives are each a different size, gray, and
laid out from largest to smallest. However, this isn’t the time to talk about
knives; it’s the time to talk about a perfect day…
January 20, 2016, was a perfect day. A scorching hot day in Santiago, Chile.
I arrived there hand-in-hand with my son, who was visiting his Chilean father,
after having crossed the mountains by bus and waited five hours at customs.
Hordes of Argentines—yes, “hordes” is the most apt term—waiting for their
chance to enter our neighboring country spurred on by hopes of finding cheap
goods on the other side of the Andes. All thanks to the famous exchange
rate. As if the Argentine peso no longer existed. As if it were just a ghostly
figure dancing around the American dollar. And it doesn’t exist; it’s just a
weak abstraction floating around a more powerful one, a fistful of dry leaves.
The outgoing president wouldn’t let us buy dollars. They needed them for
state industries. The incoming president deregulated the exchange of foreign
currencies. According to his campaign, his platform was based on commerce
and freedom. Commerce and freedom. It’s only been a month since Argentines
can buy dollars officially, and already they flock in droves across the border to
buy clothes and computers imported from Asia … Clothes and computers: the
two things that define my life. My computer, because it’s where I write, and I
write for a living. (I’m a woman who writes for a living.) And clothes because
they’re the most accessible resource I have to turn myself into a woman and
to be a woman who writes.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016, I met up with Gary and Eugenia to go
shopping at the Costanera Center Mall. A friend of Gary told him that from
his building’s balcony, the mall looks like a lit cigarette. There, you can find
all the brands we don’t have in Argentina because of the high duties on textile
goods under Néstor and Cristina Kirchner: H&M, Forever 21, Topshop,
Banana Republic, Gap … all brands that are certainly out of vogue in Europe,
but in this part of the world, still cause a furor. One of the main attractions
of the shopping mall is a waterfall with images and words projected onto
it amidst the free-falling drops of water. It’s twenty-six feet wide and forty
feet tall, designed and built by the German company OASE, according to
Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, you can find the history of every Chilean malls. I
don’t know why I decided to Google this information or why I’m transcribing
it here. Perhaps because it caught my attention that the company responsible
for the Costanera Center Mall’s branding highlights this waterfall’s existence
as the mall’s main attraction. Or because, despite having spent six hours in
this mall, I never saw the images or words that the falling drops of water are
supposed to display. I don’t think anybody has seen them because they’re just
accessories to the ecstatic experience of consuming. Or perhaps some child
has seen them. That could be it. When I read about the waterfall, I immediately
thought of contemporary art: senseless words and images flowing in
free fall to inspire transactions in the market. On Wikipedia, I also found
the history of the first Latin American mall, which opened in Chile under
Augusto Pinochet’s government: “The Parque Arauco Mall opened to the
public on April 2, 1982, with an opening ceremony the following day led by
commander-in-chief of the Chilean Navy and member of the Chilean military
junta, José Toribio Merino.” That same date, April 2, in Argentina, the
Falklands War began. Could you say, then, that on April 2, 1982, two wars
began in the Southern Cone? Well, in reality it was the same war, but that
would take a lot of effort to explain. Suffice it to say that there is a singular
war moving articles of clothing, arms, and works of art around the world.
In reality, it doesn’t matter where malls come from (or where they go).
What matters is that they exist, like perpetually lit cigarettes. Or perhaps
like gigantic fridges on this suffocatingly hot day of early 2016. It’s the hottest
day of the year, and there is almost nowhere with air conditioning in
this city. Electricity is expensive in Chile, and only huge companies like the
Costanera Center Mall can afford AC. And I’m heading there, on the subway,
completely alone, reflecting on my life, which is what I always do when I’m
traveling alone on public transportation. My son is with his father’s family,
and Fabio, who was my partner for seven years and always came with me to
visit Chile, left me exactly ten months ago for an American girl. Samantha,
a rich girl from California. She came to Buenos Aires seeking refuge because
of problems with her fascist father—another war, it would seem. Fabio met
her in one of those touristy bars and kept a secret relationship with her going
on for two months. I realized something was going on with our relationship
because he started compulsively reading books in English. Then, one morning
after breakfast, he told me he was wildly in love with a foreigner. I’m still
upset about it all, and he never spoke to me again, save for in brief, biting
emails. Cold. Lacking affect. Where he would say it was all fate. That he’d
found the love of his life. That I, too, would soon find my true love … Soon.
I don’t know if it’s a form of torture or because I am a woman who writes,
but I read the articles and poems Samantha publishes online. They’re in
English, but I can understand them because I studied English when I was a
kid. She is also a woman who writes, like me. And now that she lives on this
side of the world, she’s developed an interest in Latin American literature.
She recently published a dossier on Bolivian poetry, which at the end of its
introduction said, “The poets of Bolivia form one small part of a worldwide
movement in which nations as we know them disappear, along with progressive
‘developmentalist’ thinking, to leave only the pure flow of cash, art, and
ideas.” “The pure flow of cash, art, and ideas …” Now that I think of it, that
German company OASE must have had something similar in mind when
they built the waterfall of images and text that form over drops of water at
the Costanera Center Mall.
Personally, I didn’t have any thoughts in particular when I reached the
first floor of H&M, where Gary, Eugenia, and I agreed to meet up. I had the
equivalent of one-hundred-and-six dollars in Chilean pesos on me, which
I’d taken out of my meager savings to spend on clothes. I’m forty-three, and
I make a living giving poetry workshops in my living room. I think people
sign up for my workshops because they like what I write. Sometimes I
fantasize over the idea that they think I am close to poetry. I like thinking
that, wherever it may be that poetry exists. “Anybody can write something
brilliant,” I tell them. “What’s hard is to connect to brilliance.” And where
does poetry exist for women who write? I’m going to confess something I
truly feel bad about. It’s a childish sentiment, but it’s something I felt. A
feeling I had and it was mine and, for that reason, it was valid. Perhaps by
putting it into words here, by managing to get somebody else to read these
words turned into litterature, perhaps I’ll manage to make this terrible feeling
leave me and vanish. I walked into the H&M hoping that the clothes I
would buy could help me get a boyfriend back in Buenos Aires. As I’m now
writing it, I realize that over all these months, my loneliness made me fantasize
that fashion could save me. The sadness of loneliness made me have
such wretched feelings like the thought that dressing well could make somebody
love me. And a woman who writes always writes about love. Because
if I stop to think about it, that’s the only reason I was buying clothes there.
To find love. Because if there is anything I don’t need, it’s more pants, more
dresses, more miniskirts, more shoes … More clothes imported from Asia
in shipping containers over-packed like coffins on ships sailing through the
South Pacific. Such a beautiful ocean—why must they ruin it with enormous
cargo ships filled with gray boxes! Why must the world be like this?
It’s hard to be a woman who writes. Literature is the most important part
of any writer’s life, be it a man or a woman. And literature has no body;
words have no shape or color. But women writers must think about dressing
like women all the time in addition to thinking about our books. We must
make countless minor strategic decisions about our wardrobe in order to be
women. Being a woman is like being a cross-dresser. Or worse. Because at
least cross-dressers can exaggerate, but we women cannot. We must be discreet.
We must fix ourselves up, but it can’t be too noticeable… I’m thinking
of presidents’ wives. All the newspapers do is talk about their style. As soon
as their husbands take power, hundreds of articles come out about what the
first ladies wore to such-and-such event. If the wives of the most powerful
men only serve that purpose, what’s left for the common, poor women? For
the poor women writers at the vanguard of a war?
But on that day, buying clothes was an excuse to get together with Eugenia
and Gary, whom I don’t know why I hadn’t seen in over seven years. As soon
as they came into sight, I realized I love them so much. That they are incredible
humans, filled with goodness and light. And I was grateful to be in that
mall, circling sale tables with them. Now the clothes faded into the background;
they were just the vehicle for our reunion. The kindling that reignited
the flame of our friendship. We tried on everything we thought looked
good and asked each other how it fit, giving each other fashion advice. And
in the fitting rooms, we caught up on what had happened in our lives during
the years we’d spent apart.
“Tonight we’re hosting a reading at the house. We just published a zine
with poems by one of your friends. We took them off her Facebook without
asking,” Eugenia told me as I tried on black tights with fluorescent tribal patterns
from the sports section. “Do you think she’ll mind?”
No. How could she be bothered? On the contrary, women poets want people
to publish them. Furthermore, this girl … My words trailed off as we heard
a deafening siren go off. Confused, people began to run. They all dropped
the clothes they were carrying, leaving the floor covered by small blotches of
disconnected colors, not unlike a Cy Twombly painting. I took off my tights
as quickly as possible and left the fitting rooms as fast as I could, naked from
the waist down. Because I didn’t have my shoes on, I quickly realized that
the floor was wet and waves of freezing water were rising. The emporium of
the democratization of European fashion was about to flood. There had been
some problem with the fountain in the main hall, and water was gushing
from a broken pipe. In Chile, people always say that water is scarce, but in that
moment, the eternal snow of the Andes seemed to have melted all at once to
come through that broken pipe. And not only did H&M’s clothes float; every
brand did. The mall, cylindrical in shape, became a giant washing machine,
all the merchandise intended to make women be loved now drifted with the
tide in this enormous steel structure. Everything was wet, and the fabric of
the pants and dresses swelled and grew compacted.
Anybody who didn’t make it out in the first five minutes (perhaps because
they were overwhelmed watching the spectacle or kept looking for their
friends and family) now had no choice but to swim to the main entrance.
With water up to my waist, it was impossible to swim with my clothes on,
so I had to get undressed. Luckily, all I had on was a light skirt, and it was
easy to take it off. At this point, all I had on was my underwear, and I swam
breaststroke to the mall door. There were a few minutes there where I held
my breath and closed my eyes, my mind going blank. Then, with my mind
blank, I had a vision. I saw my next boyfriend. He had no face, but I could
see his hands. They were big and rough, and they were sewing. I saw us in
my cozy living room, sprawled on the floor cutting and sewing clothes for me.
Countless beautiful articles of clothing made just like that. I don’t know if I
would call them dresses, cause they were more like giant bags (but with frills
and interchangeable parts) and the fabrics were coarse and tattered in dull
colors. But they were incredible because they made me into someone else—a
more serious, open person. Nothing further from the clothes at H&M. That
was a perfect day.

Translated from the Spanish by Jacob Steinberg