Second Prize Winner of the 2014-15 Writing Contest
BELLAS ARTES BY CHRISTOPHER BELLO
The cleaning lady let me in and had me wait in the living room. Old wooden tiles and high ceilings. A carefully arranged collection of mismatched stuff. Stiff Victorian sofas, a minimalist red coffee table and Hollywood chairs. A five-foot globe and a Turkish rug. A dark painting of dead sunflowers next to modernist doodles and World War II propaganda. From the couch, I could see yellow-red-blue cloth laid out over a long oak dining table. At its center stood a large origami swan made of magazines. Trinkets were scattered on the shelves: a silver-painted Buddha, collectible race car models, a vintage china dish. Yet despite all its seeming incompatibility, it wasn’t messy; it wasn’t cluttered. It was a harmony of here and there, of then and now. A confusion of cultures and eras balanced in their differences.
A couple minutes later, Hugo stumbled into the room, panting lightly and apologizing profusely. You see, he had this hearing at the Tribunal and went out for a quick lunch and lost track of time but here he was and could he get me some water? When I told him that I went to the University of Chicago, he grinned and told me that the Chicago Boys did great things here. He was sweating through his suit. He wasn’t fit but he wasn’t fat, either. He told me he was 30 but he looked at least five years older. He kept running his thick fingers, tense and grey from smoking, through his receding hairline. His round face always looked a little tired, a little bit sad. He insisted that the other three roommates were young and everyone was cool, laidback and down to have fun. This year, there was a French exchange student, a Catalan Ph.D. candidate in Antarctica international law, and Felipe, another environmental lawyer like him. A couple days later, I moved into the empty maid’s room behind the kitchen.
After a week of vagabonding through the city, I had finally found a home. I felt relieved. Yet somehow I still felt lost. My newfound apartment provided me with a bed and windows and old silver kitchenware that I could tell myself were mine but this stability was delicate and superficial. It was home and it wasn’t. It took weeks before I bothered to buy hangers, before I replaced the thin blanket on my bed with a duvet. In the five months I stayed there, I never bothered to buy a proper pillow, opting instead to sleep on a thin plastic cushion I found in the living room. I felt like I was just fleeting by, like this apartment, this city, this country wasn’t really my own and here I was, my days numbered so why settle in.
What first struck me about my new Bellas Artes neighborhood were the stray dogs. They seemed to be on every corner. From the apartment terrace, I could watch them float by the dreadlocked street vendors who sold soy burgers and incense sticks. They snoozed by the subway entrance; they lay by the street-side cafes. At peace without purpose. Despite the occasional limp or scratch or smog-muck greyness settled in their fur, they looked healthy. They rarely barked and never bit and in the winter months, some wore sweaters sewn by graceful Santiago souls.
Hugo and Felipe lived across the street from a park that stretched along the river Mapocho. That park became my favorite pocket of the city, tucked between the crown of oriental plane trees that lined the cobblestone backstreets. They lived on top of a French bakery in one of the last low-rise European apartment buildings downtown. After Pinochet took power, international real estate developers flooded the city. Tall boxy buildings swallowed up colonial houses. A few miles up the river, the business district with its glossy hotels and shopping malls towered above the city smog.
In this corner of Santiago was all of Chile. Here were its indigenous trees and rivers and roots, its European buildings and bricks. Here was the American neoliberal dream with its high-rises along the river like reeds. Here was a mutt of cultures and in some strange way, I felt like I fit in. Born to Mexican and Belgian immigrants, I spent my life split between the US and Spain. I was from all these places and I was from none of them. The European and the Mestizo. I, too, felt like the muddle of old world and new. It was in this context that I got to know Hugo and Felipe.
Most of what I learned about Hugo I learned through Felipe. They had been living in the apartment for four years, longer than anyone, and had known each other since law school. Despite his stutter, Felipe talked and joked profusely about the Chilean soap opera that he thought was his life. The day I met him he went on about this woman at work who he just could not stop flirting with but she was seeing someone else but the two were taking a break and man Chris do you think I should go for it?
According to him, Hugo’s family was close to Pinochet, who sometimes used Hugo’s family’s summer ranch for low-key meetings with close confidants. He said that Hugo was not necessarily a strong supporter of the late dictator the way his rich, right wing family was but he sympathized with a lot of the regime’s policies that he claims helped get Chile out of their third world status. Hugo’s words, Felipe said cynically, not mine. Hugo’s family owned a prominent pisco distillery in the famous Valle del Elqui and a beach house in La Serena, a sun washed city along the Northwestern coast. He grew up reaping the benefits of the lucrative copper industry. His dad and uncles and grandparents were all engineers or businesspeople who helped run the mines up North in the dry Atacama wasteland. After graduating first in his class from Santiago’s Opus Dei university, he went on to join the family industry and work at a prominent law firm that specialized in defending Chilean mining companies against lawsuits related to the environment and dangerous working conditions. Now he’s an independent legal representative for all kinds of companies looking to navigate Chile’s environmental laws.
Despite it all, Hugo would spend his weekdays getting drunk. He rarely woke up before ten. One Thursday afternoon after three days out drinking at a friend’s estate, he staggered into the apartment with sunglasses hiding bloodshot eyes. Despite his reserved disposition, Hugo was a charmer. He loved to flaunt his connections and his social circles. When my mom, a fashion designer, came to visit, he threw a small dinner party for her. Over white wine and quinoa, he told her all about his artist friends and of all the textile manufacturers he could put her in contact with.
People would trickle in on random nights as I was doing homework in the dining room. Hipster types with thick black buns and shirts buttoned to the neck. Girls wearing flashy bags and high heels. Mercedes, a sweet girl who liked to spend entire afternoons in the living room talking of opening a restaurant downstairs: stylish French-Italian bites, cured meats and good cheese. Sometimes, they brought in statuettes and abandoned art pieces from the flea market and they’d spend the night on the terrace spray-painting and collaging. She was a yoga instructor. Her dad had been one of Pinochet’s top generals.
Some mornings, I’d walk into the kitchen to find empty glasses and bottles, cigarette ash and the faint after-smell of his homegrown weed. His life seemed to be a string of lazy Sunday afternoons wandering from one boutique hotel bar to the next with his entourage of eccentric friends, wandering to and fro.
Sometimes, when Hugo brought people to the apartment, I’d go out for walks. I wanted to feel like I was busy. Or rather, I wanted to give Hugo the impression that I was busy, that I wasn’t just sitting there watching and listening, although most times I was. I walked through the dusty spray-painted streets. I walked by the street vendors with their antiques of gold and bronze and through the shady foliage of city hills, the soft hum of lampposts along the river. In some ways, I looked up to Hugo and Felipe. They felt like older brothers, like visions of what life might be in ten years. I was a tourist in my apartment and in this aimless adult-life that felt unsettlingly similar to what I had now.
After dinner one night in the business district, Hugo really talked to me for the first time. He told me about how his dad had died of cancer when he was a kid, leaving his mother and maid to raise him and his seven siblings. He grew up playing little league baseball in the upscale neighborhood of Vitacurra, where the American expats lived. When he moved downtown four years ago, his mother was shocked – over by where the Peruvians sell their plastic rosaries and stolen clothes, their used books and broken toys?
Felipe is Hugo’s isomer. In a lot of ways they’re the same: children of the Chilean upper class and bright environmental lawyers. But Felipe is mestizo: thick black hair, a beard and dark olive skin. Hugo is pale and clean-shaven and proud of his European heritage. When I told him that my family was living in Spain, he was quick to share that he often visits his cousins in Madrid and that his family still has their Spanish crest. Felipe, though, likes to see himself as a patriot. He parades through the apartment with nothing but boxers and a vintage Chilean soccer jersey. Last summer, he spent thousands of dollars to go watch the national soccer team play in the World Cup. He cried when they beat Spain and again when they were kicked out of the tournament.
Felipe respects Hugo even though Felipe hates Pinochet unconditionally. He likes to think that Hugo is the product of his environment. The morning of September 11, he told me not to leave the house. It was the 41st anniversary of Pinochet’s coup d’état. On that day in 1973 Pinochet had bombed the presidential palace and took power. In his first month, he imprisoned 40,000 political enemies, causing thousands more to die and disappear. Every year since his ousting, protestors on both sides of the political spectrum take to the streets, setting fires and makeshift bombs. The wounds are still raw, he said. Although his parents hadn’t been persecuted, he had uncles and cousins who had been exiled to the Southern tip of the country where the winds are strong and it rains for days. Over breakfast, he showed me a ten-cent coin from the dictatorship years with the engraving of a woman breaking chains bound to her wrists. Under it was written: September 11, 1973: Liberty. Despite their conflicting family histories, he knew Hugo wasn’t to blame for his parents’ contribution to the Chilean dictatorship. They saw one another as constants, as anchor to their younger years. In some ways, Hugo saw Felipe as another painting on the wall that would always be there, a familiarity in an apartment of coming and goings. To Felipe, Hugo was the comforting reminder that he was no longer alone.
Felipe works ten-hour days as the youngest junior partner in his environmental advocacy law firm and teaches on the side at one of Chile’s most liberal universities. When he had spare time, he’d watch Chilean TV shows and have a few drinks at the apartment with whoever was around. One day we watched a soccer game together in his room. He was excited and giddy with liquor. Clutching a pillow and cross-legged on his bed, he’d shout and curse and laugh at the TV, relishing in childish delight. He wasn’t good with parties anymore, he’d say. Those days are gone; the hangovers last too long now.
Felipe worked those 70-hour weeks so that he could spend an extra week every summer falling asleep in the sun-soaked sand of some Caribbean island. Every year, he’d put in his 70-hour weeks and do it all over again. This year, when he came back from his trip, he told me that he had spent his time at an all-inclusive hotel in Cartagena. One day, he went scuba diving out into the deep. When he came up from his underwater exploration, he saw nothing but blue. Sky and water and silence. His boat had left without him. He spent an hour treading water and waiting. If it wasn’t for a party boat passing by, who knows.
He said it had reminded him of the time he lived alone, before he moved into the apartment with Hugo. He never told me much about those days but it was the first time he had admitted to being truly unhappy. He said that in those winter months, he’d get home late and alone, waiting with the lights off for his Chinese take out to arrive. That summer, Hugo took him in. They’d go to the farmer’s market on Saturday evening after the crowd had dissipated and stuff themselves with steamed artichokes.
I rarely ever saw them together. Even in the apartment, they almost never interacted beyond kitchen small talk. Sometimes, I would find them gossiping in the hallway about some mutual friend from law school. They’d share a quick story together over dinner about some legal project they’d been working on but for the most part, they kept to themselves. They had different friends and different schedules, different interests and conflicting opinions. One time Felipe was going on and on about this woman he met in Cuba who was coming to visit him. Hugo snapped. No one cares, I’ve heard this story three different times, told three different ways. I never heard them fight. To some extent, I feel as though they lived together out of habit and stability, like an old couple that had grown accustomed to each other’s presence.
But despite their differences, they lived a parallel life together. They mirrored each other. I could hear youthful carelessness in Hugo’s giggly snorts and in Felipe’s giddy nervousness. One time Felipe came home bruised and shriveled, like a kid scratched up from the playground. He had borrowed his friend’s motorcycle after work and spun around the office parking lot until he slipped off onto the pavement. Neither could cook nor clean. Their rooms were college dorm room messes. They seemed oblivious to the broken light bulb at the end of the hallway or the dust on the living room bookshelves. They lived harmoniously in their shared state of grown up boyhood.
Although I should have expected it, I was surprised when I heard that Felipe was moving out. I only had a few days left in the semester when my Catalan roommate broke the news. We were sitting on a park bench, enjoying the early summer sun. He said that Felipe told him that he wanted to live closer to work. But it couldn’t be. Why now? It seemed too easy of an excuse. We lived a 10-minute drive from his office and I had never heard him complain about his commute. The rest of that week, before I left back home, there was an eerie quality to the apartment. It wasn’t that there was tension or resentment. It was the opposite. Things were too normal, too unperturbed. Felipe continued to stop by Hugo’s bathroom to ask for toothpaste. I never talked to either of them about it. They both seemed at peace with it as far as I could tell. Maybe they were pretending, maybe they were relieved. Maybe both. In a matter of a few weeks, Hugo would be alone, the three of us students back home and Felipe gone. Each their own way and on to the next batch of students and lawyers and yoga instructors. I think that’s why Hugo rented out rooms to us. He didn’t need us; he didn’t need me. He had more than enough friends who could move in permanently with him. He had more than enough money to live alone. He enjoyed this in and out, this coming and going. I sat on that bench in silence for a few more minutes, watching the dogs.
This piece was published in the Fall 2015 issue of Sliced Bread Magazine.