A short story.
March 1, 2007
Mar 1, 2007
20 Min read time
A short story.
Russell Crowe’s driver was a wiry Irish guy with colorful tattoos on his arms, and although I don’t remember his name, I do remember that he spoke slowly in a Belfast brogue, smoked a lot of hashish, and projected a tough-guy attitude to match his boss’s. They’d come down to shoot Proof of Life, and Quito was so newly out of the rainy season that the waterlogged asphalt still emitted steam on sunny days. There hadn’t been a revolution in over a year, and the city buzzed with anticipation. How long could the current president last, we wanted to know, as if being president were some kind of endurance test. I predicted he’d be gone in two months.
The film crew hadn’t been down long before my girlfriend Lenka started sleeping with Russell Crowe’s driver. She didn’t do anything to hide the affair; that wasn’t her style. She didn’t flaunt it, either. To her it was natural and not worth making a big deal about.
Lenka and I had been living in an apartment in lower Batán for about a year already. We’d go to the TGIF in Quicentro Tuesday nights for burgers, to Menestras de los Negritos for ceviche on Sunday mornings. Weekends we danced at Seseribo with our friends. Then the movie people showed up and it seemed like everyone we knew was suddenly connected to the film. The movie people threw extravagant parties all the time. They talked shop incessantly, about how so-and-so was hung-over, or how the B-camera’s speed was all wrong, or whatever. They invaded El Pobre Diablo, a bar where I used to be the only regular gringo.
After they came down I’d just sit at the bar drinking that wine that tasted like chlorine, and staring at Lenka as she laughed, teeth bared, clutching that Irish chauffer’s arm.
• • •
A month into production, they all went south to shoot scenes in the jungle. I took Lenka to dinner and said, “You realize that they’ll be gone in two months, don’t you?”
“Of course.” She was grinning. She had a maddening habit of smiling through our arguments. “What about you, how long are you going to stay?” she said.
“I’ll stay longer than two months, that’s for sure.”
“What if this revolution that you forecasted doesn’t happen? What if our economy recovers?”
“Then they’ll say I called it wrong. I guess I’ll look like a fool.” I paused. “And I might lose my job.” At the time I was giving weekly status reports to Priya Singh, the portfolio manager of a hedge fund in New York. At first my forecasts were rosy, but then I changed my mind and suggested she sell short on the sucre—the Ecuadorian currency. “There’s no future here,” I said. If I were wrong, our clients could lose tens of millions of dollars.
At dinner, Lenka said, “So, if Ecuador does well, you fail. And if we fail, you do well. I think you have put yourself in a very shitty position, love.”
I nodded. She had a talent for cool precision. “Whatever happens,” I said, “it won’t be in the next two months.”
“Unless it does happen in the next two months,” she said. There wasn’t really any point in arguing with her. We weren’t talking about politics anymore.
We were at the Argentinean restaurant, and the lights had died just after we ordered. There were a lot of unexplained power outages in those days. So we sat in near-total darkness, candles swaying between us, our shadows flickering. The way I remember it she was smiling at me, but in truth I don’t know if I could see her and, to be honest, I don’t even think I was looking.
• • •
Well after I’d decided I disliked him, I talked to the driver and found him distressingly likeable. We were at the No Bar and he was wearing a tank top and I noticed his chest was scarred. When I asked about it he explained that he used to be homeless, “drifting about the place, and some junkie stabbed me while I was sleeping in Copenhagen.”
“Oh,” I said. “But now you’re living large.”
“Right,” he said, and looked at me a little warily.
We went on to discuss how in Ecuador there didn’t seem to be such a pathological obsession with celebrities. Crowe had just finished shooting Gladiator and wasn’t quite the mega-star he would soon be, but his life was changing daily, according to the driver. I said that the fantasy of celebrity was so ubiquitous in the North that it seemed like mass hysteria. “They package it as attainable, and that’s how they sell it, but in Ecuador it’s just too remote to qualify for consideration.”
“Yeah,” he said. He had a swig of beer. “Up there, they sell it by the counter in the grocer, next to the chocolate bars—those photos of beautiful smiling millionaires, you know? When I started driving Russell I wanted his life, but now I wouldn’t trade places with him, ever. Down here, people get that. They see the lie right away. Now, to me, it’s just some fucking job.”
Then he asked about my job. I decided not to tell him about the hedge fund (too ugly) and instead focused on some freelance writing I was doing for think tanks in DC, which were, I admitted, rather more conservative than I. Back then—in that period after the current Bush took office but before the towers fell—all the think tanks were conservative. I had no choice. That’s what I told myself, at any rate. It’s what I told him, too. But by the time the movie people showed up, I’d already changed my forecast and was predicting trouble for Ecuador. I started writing about how the World Bank and IMF were being too generous with them. That’s when I said the Ecuadorian president would be gone in a matter of months. My audience was almost exclusively bankers in New York who had an interest in Ecuador, so a gloomy forecast would actually hurt the country. I tried not to think about very much.
• • •
When I moved to Ecuador I was 27. I brought camping gear, Spanish-language tapes, a Lonely Planet guidebook. By the end of the first week I’d signed up for salsa-dancing lessons, visited the major historic sights around Quito, seen an Incan ruin, seen the obelisk on the equator. I’d read the whole guidebook and had begun to make arrangements for a trip to the Galapagos. I wrote postcards that contained a lot of exclamation points. Lenka was my salsa teacher, and I was smitten from the first lesson, when a strand of her jaw-length hair got caught in the corner of her mouth while she was spinning. But when she asked for a volunteer, I never came forward. I preferred to watch. I remember that she had a casual grace that barely gave a hint of the dance’s structure but came off haphazard and improvised. And though I practiced in my room constantly, hoping to impress her, she didn’t seem to notice.
One morning about a month after I arrived I saw a security guard chasing a thief down the street in front of the Internet café. The guard was firing his revolver into the sky and blowing a whistle. I’d never seen anything like it, so I got up from my PC to watch. They rounded the corner, and when I looked back I saw a pretty blonde tourist standing alone and crying while blood dribbled from her crushed nose. Myself, I was mugged four times during those first months, but no one ever hurt me; they just put knives to my throat and I cooperated. At the time I felt that the robberies were a kind of karmic penance I owed for my lucky life.
In the end, those Spanish tapes never made it out of their box and I never went to the Galapagos, and after Lenka moved in I never danced salsa again. Once we were together, I discovered how violent her love was: not quite a typhoon, it seemed more geological—a volcano, maybe, or a tsunami. She punched, kicked, pinched, and bit me, so much so that, in a photo from a trip to the beach, I look as though I’ve been hit by a bus. Mostly, her outbursts were attempts to express an affection that, due to the force of its pressure, erupted violently. When she was actually angry, she would just vanish for a few days.
The fifth time I was mugged they took my belt and tennis shoes. From then on I paid a security guard two dollars an hour to escort me around La Mariscal, the tourist neighborhood. I told him that if he ever had to use his shotgun in my defense I would give him an extra $100.
• • •
When the Irish chauffer said, “Have you met Russell?” we were at a sports bar where Russell Crowe hosted a weekly bash. Russell’s co-star Meg Ryan was, as usual, a no-show. Lenka was doing paperwork at the dance studio that night, but by then it wasn’t clear which one of us she was dating, anyway. The movie people had returned from the jungle and had another month. When I told the chauffer—whom I now considered my sole friend among the film crew—that I hadn’t met Russell, he said, “Come with me.”
I’m six foot two, and Russell Crowe is about my height but feels taller; and while I’m built like a economist, he’s built like a goddamn gladiator. I’m told that, as an actor, he’s sensitive and talented. I wonder what that means. As an analyst of the Ecuadorian economy, I was considered insensitive and talentless, even though I cared more about the country than any of my colleagues.
In greeting, Russell Crowe squeezed my hand, hard. “Where’s your football jersey?”
I hadn’t realized I was supposed to wear a football jersey, so I tugged on my cream V-neck sweater and said, “This is it.”
“Is that some team from San Francisco?”
“Oh.” I was caught off-guard. “Am I supposed to be offended?” My question was, as I recall, much more sincere than seems plausible now. I watched his interest in me vanish. He turned and said something to his driver. They both laughed, heartily. I’d never heard the driver laugh like that before.
That’s more or less it. I knew that Crowe was picking up the tab, so I went to the bar and ordered a filet mignon and a tall glass of their most expensive whiskey. I held the whiskey while I talked to the film’s accountant, who refused to divulge the particulars. When the steak arrived, I downed the whiskey and moved the food to a Styrofoam box, which I gave to a beggar boy on the street outside.
• • •
Like a lot of Ecuadorian women Lenka preferred foreigners to locals, but she was not a gringo jockey—one of those local girls who’ll sleep with any gringo on the off-chance that he’ll decide to bring her home with him. Lenka liked the turbulence and verve we brought to the everyday. “In your hometown, you are probably just as boring as the guys who live here,” she once said, of why she liked men on holiday. When I asked her if she’d ever want to live in the North, she said no. “I look at the movies and I know that I don’t want live anywhere near people like that.” Anyway, she said, she couldn’t leave her mother. Her mother was a widow who’d been driven insane by an inoperable but not life-threatening brain tumor.
I once went with Lenka to visit her mother, who sat in her little room in the dilapidated hospice in South Quito, smiling and staring out the window at an old rust-scarred ice-cream truck. I couldn’t tell if she even knew we were there, but Lenka seemed to think so, because she held her hand and talked to her. She talked about me, her “boyfriend,” who seemed, she said, speaking Spanish very slowly—she was still under the false belief that I couldn’t understand her when she spoke fast—“pretty good, even if he’s stupid.” She winked at me. I smiled. Then, speaking much faster, Lenka muttered about her job and other news. It felt like eavesdropping, so I tried to tune her out, staring at the ice-cream truck. But then, mid-ramble, I overheard her say she hadn’t felt this hopeful about a man’s prospects in a while.
The following day, Lenka and I went to Otavalo, a little town with a big indigenous market an hour north of Quito. I bought a couple of alpaca sweaters. We had lunch. When we got back to her car we found that the passenger’s side window had been smashed.
“That’s nice,” she said.
I swept the glass cubes off the seat and offered to pay for a new window, but she shook her head. As we drove out of town it was very sunny and the wind blew hard in the window, so I closed my eyes. Eventually she said, “What did you leave in the car?”
I didn’t open my eyes. I’d seen it all on the drive up: the vastness of the Andes, cut so roughly that they might have been etched yesterday by suddenly absent glaciers; I’d seen the crimson poppies blooming on the narrow grassy strip between us and the abyss. “Why do you think I left something in the car?” I asked.
“Why else would they break the window?”
“I left my sunglasses on the floor,” I admitted, but didn’t tell her that they’d cost me $200, which was almost exactly twice her monthly salary at the dance studio. At the time, I thought I didn’t want her to know how little money meant to me, but it was only later—when it was too late—that I realized she cared far less about money than I ever could.
• • •
Although Russell Crowe’s publicity department has sculpted him a reputation as a blue-collar bruiser, he’s just another rich jock with a chip on his shoulder. If there was a locker, he’d stuff guys like me into it. He’d pin us down and fart on our heads, because we’re the other type of privileged white guys. In Rolling Stone, my kinsman Moby once described an incident where Russell Crowe accosted him in a loo: “He grabbed me and threw me against the wall and started berating me for being an American. He was like, ‘You stupid American, your country, you think you own the world.’”
The obvious irony is that Crowe and his ilk think they own the world. The more brutal irony would be that we stupid Americans are right: we do own the world.
Unlike Moby and me—who are far too eager to appear brainy and weak—Crowe fashions himself a brawny and sentimental lug. When he wears his father’s war medal to award ceremonies and reads poems and beats people up and cries, he reminds me of the current president of the United States.
• • •
One misty morning in Quito the cast and crew of Proof of Life—a title that had long since developed an unpleasant double-entendre for me—packed up their equipment, left their key cards at the front desk of the Swissôtel, and hurried off to Mariscal Sucre airport. They checked luggage, waved goodbye, and vanished. The city was baffled at first, and then went back to normal. A week later, Lenka, who’d disappeared before the Proof of Life people had, returned home. In the back of my mind, I’d already begun the dreary business of unhooking myself from her. It’s a task I’d done before. Spiritually, it’s not unlike moving out of a beloved house: the work is monotonous, but never fails to surprise in its difficulty. I remember that the sun was setting, and I was boiling water for ramen. She looked tan and radiated an unfamiliar vitality. When I asked where she’d been, she turned on the smile: “I went to the beach.”
“Without your chauffer? Gosh, how on earth did you get there?”
“Let’s not bother with that. I will sleep here tonight with you. Then, maybe tomorrow, I will take my things away.” Her use of maybe seemed artfully ambiguous. “I want to live with Marta in the countryside. She has a house in the north.”
“I remember. You pointed it out to me when we went to Otavalo.”
“I forgot.” I couldn’t tell if she was lying.
I know Lenka dated foreigners mostly because they were exciting, but I wondered how many times she had been through this exact process: the late-afternoon breakup in the kitchen with a guy who once claimed he’d stay forever but had changed his mind. I put the wooden spoon down and looked at her. She was cracking open peanut shells and setting the peanuts aside, and for as long as I live I will not forget the look of calm concentration on her face. I waited until she stopped, then said, “When did you know I was going to leave?”
She squinted at the ceiling, then shrugged and popped a peanut in her mouth. I watched her jaw flex as she chewed. “You used to say that Ecuador was recovering, and then one day you changed your mind. You said the president would be thrown out just like the last eight presidents. It was—I don’t know, maybe during Carneval, but that was when I knew.”
“Do you want a peanut?” she asked.
As I lay beside her that night, not letting myself fall asleep, I listened to the buzzing streetlight outside. We were naked, and her skin felt incredibly hot to me, as though she were feverish, burning up from the inside, and I wondered if it was leftover heat from the beach. The streetlight cast a little peach glow on her sleeping face, and I lay, staring at it, wondering if I would ever be so completely in love again.
The following morning, I walked around the city while she moved her things out. When I returned that night, I found she had taken everything except for my clothes, which were strewn around the wooden floor of our room. I used my clothes as bedding and slept there.
• • •
Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid were divorced by the time I came back to New York to give my status report to Priya Singh, and the tabloids were full of the news that she’d cheated on him with Russell Crowe while in Ecuador. For his part, Quaid said it was more complicated than that, which everyone understood meant that he’d been unfaithful, too. Nonetheless, in the checkout lines across the country there was a lot of talk about how movie stars like Meg Ryan are too self-absorbed to sustain a relationship.
The hedge fund, being an ethereal subsidiary of another firm, didn’t have a physical office, but Priya worked in midtown. Originally from Bombay, she was educated in London and her accent was proper, although she cursed like a sailor. Once, after she’d been burned by a colleague, she went after him and dismantled his business, then told me to make sure everyone knew, “so they’ll know not to fuck with me.” At the time, I found it surprising that she had so much rage, but now I see it makes sense.
When I came in to give my report, I told her I’d made some miscalculations in Ecuador. The president had rallied, I explained, and it didn’t seem like he’d be ousted after all. Also, it looked like Ecuador would be eliminating their currency altogether, and switching to the U.S. dollar, so my proposal to go short on the sucre wouldn’t bear any fruit.
She winked at me. “You mean that we’re going to get fucked.” “Right. That’s exactly what I mean,” I said.
Her smile softened into kindness. She lit a thin bone-colored cigarette and dropped the lighter into her desk drawer. “So, do you have any plans?”
I shrugged. Apparently, I’d lost my job. I watched her suck on the cigarette, then exhale. She had luminescent skin and wore beautiful Chanel suits. I looked at the bookshelf where a few photos of her son and daughter were propped up against the book spines. I shrugged again. Behind her, a brass statue of Ganesh sat on the ledge beneath a window facing lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center was still intact, presiding over the skyline.
• • •
My ticket to Quito was still in my briefcase, and I didn’t really want to remain in the States, so I deposited my severance in the bank and went back. Not wanting to risk bumping into Lenka, I picked up my things from the apartment in Quito and went directly to the coast, where I rented a bungalow an hour south of Esmeraldas. There, I did some fishing and tried to write something honest about the Ecuadorian economy, but found I wasn’t able to. My place was on a cliff over the beach between two towns that had been mostly abandoned during El Niño. I had air conditioning and a view of the sea. The house stank of mildew and was often infested with ants, but it was cheap and faced the sea, and there was no one nearby, so I liked it.
For the first time in my life, I found myself living without many of the accoutrements of a modern life. There was no television signal and no place to rent videos, no convenient way to get online, no ATMs, libraries, shops, hospitals. There were surly fishermen who carried rusted machetes. There were a couple of small and dilapidated hotels. There were many abandoned buildings, some of which were seven or eight stories tall and looked forlorn, like eerie monuments to miscarried dreams.
I took up jogging and started learning how to cook fish and plantains. I painted the house blue, then yellow. Up the beach one of the hotels housed a nearly functional pizza restaurant and was owned by an alcoholic Spaniard who enlisted me as his drinking buddy. His wife, a younger local woman, was openly having an affair with a fisherman. At night we smoked cigarettes, watched the lights of the fishing boats on the horizon, and talked about his wife. A family of whales was in the area, and sometimes when we were drunk we’d wade out just far enough to drop underwater and listen to their songs.
Increasingly, the purpose of life seemed to be to discover what I could do without. That September, when word came down about the situation in New York, I worried about my friends there, but never called to check on them.
I heard that Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe had broken up and that their movie was a dud. The Spaniard got a copy of the movie in Atacames and we sat together watching it on his VCR, eating pizza, and drinking aguardiente. It was the first movie I’d seen in half a year and yet I could barely pay attention.
I got an e-mail from Lenka once, around then. She said she’d married a Canadian and they were moving to Montreal. She said that if I was in New York, I should come up to visit. There were exclamation points everywhere in the message, and I could hear the timbre of her voice in the lines—the whiplash verve, pulling hard at the edges of every clause, and threatening chaos. I responded, briefly, to say that I was glad she was well and that I wasn’t in New York. I contemplated telling her I’d gone back to Ecuador, but decided against it.
That’s pretty much the whole story. Except that I still do think about her sometimes. I wonder what’s become of her and that Canadian, and I wonder if she thinks about me, too, but it seems unlikely. I wonder what it looks like where they live in Montreal. I like to think it’s far outside the city, and I like to think there is a field of wild poppies near their house—the poppies with their fuzzy green stalks and limp petals that look like they’re about to fall off. They might have a swing-set in the backyard, and as the sun dips down the poppies stand as tall as they can, hoping to get that last bit of light before the day ends.
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March 01, 2007
20 Min read time