There was an ombú tree in the manicured garden behind the Museo Larreta in Buenos Aires. The first time I’d seen it, I’d circled it, admiring it, but maintained the appropriate distance out of respect. It was old, massive, and its roots rose out of the ground, inviting climbers, but I’d been raised in a country where parents sued neighbors if their child fell out of a tree on their property. My porteña friend, Yani, laughed when I told her that, like I was joking, and said that wouldn’t happen, of course I could climb it.
That summer in Buenos Aires was the first time I’d come close to having my life together. Living in a friendly household with roommates like Santiago, the intellectual from Colombia who, when I came home at night exhausted from hours of roaming the city, slightly drunk, smelling of dried salt and sweat, would invite me into his room and read Galeano while I reclined on his bed and he leaned back in his chair, white dress-shirt unbuttoned almost all the way, wind making his window clatter in its frame. Making enough money to pay my bills by teaching in the mornings, spending afternoons at museums, wandering the necropolis of Recoleta and dancing chacarera in the street, I told Yani that I felt something unusual, that I was happy, that the only thing minimizing my happiness was the fact that it was temporary, since I’d only be there for the summer, and that I knew that one day, if I finally settled somewhere and reached a state of regular happiness, I would get cancer or the world would end.
She slapped my words away like a superstitious person might rush to say knock wood and look for a surface to touch, and said Oh no! I won’t let myself – I won’t let you – live that way. That’s a life of despair, that’s the kind of fear that’ll kill you. And I trusted her and let myself believe in her optimism, because I loved her and her friends and admired the way she would toss a bright scarf back over her thin neck and breeze out the door with me as if whatever was outside that threshold could only be good. A person who did that had some answers, surely.
Several years later, back in the States, I felt that Buenos Aires feeling returning, that early morning happiness that had grown rusty in me. For the first time, I was in a good relationship, had money to pay student loans, a job I liked without a single difficult coworker to kick up my temptation to hate humanity, and –most suspiciously of all – my own apartment in the city I loved, the noisy chaotic and walkable city with that combination of concrete and grass, nature and art, graffiti and beauty, a city not unlike Buenos Aires.
All of that good luck made me wary. My boyfriend laughed at my cautiousness, so slowly I allowed myself to grow trusting, planting flowers in the community garden like I’d be there to see them grow, even speaking and writing openly about my happiness, tempting the gods. This was it. This was adulthood. This was the life I’d imagined in my oppressive childhood: a full life, a good one.
And now as my boyfriend is packing our things, he’s reminding me of how quiet it is in my hometown, how nice my parents are to offer their basement, and how he’s sure they’ll stay nice, people mellow in old age, right? And that he’ll be there with me, and not to worry about things I can’t change, like losing my job, like not knowing the last time I saw my friends would be the last time until – well, he doesn’t finish, but he means until this is all over.
Until the end is over? Do the end times end with anything other than nothingness?
He tells me to stop calling it the Apocalypse. It’s just temporary, until this is all under control. This.
I ask him, How do you return to normal after this? And how do you not feel angry over all the waste?
All the time spent learning how to live in the city. All the time living in apartments with a half-dozen roommates and sticky kitchen floors and stickier showers to finally find a neighborhood and apartment we could afford to live in. The succession of terrible jobs that taught me more than I wanted to know about Human Resources and employment laws. My community of friends that had taken years to grow. The pup on the flaming sword plant that was finally ready to be transplanted. My desk, that I’d found the perfect location for, my neighborhood, where I’d found the best pupusas, the used bookstore with the eclectic genres, the Japanese store with the pens that wrote smoothly and didn’t leak into my bags. Well, the pens won’t be wasted, my boyfriend cuts in, optimistically.
The neighbor I hated for so long for leaving their dog, an unrecognizable breed, small and cute and loud, alone all day, but just recently bonded with over our shared love of UK garage music. All for nothing.
All these years of socialization to city life, and now what, to forget it all and go live in the place I’d worked so hard to get away from?
I want to email Yani to say I told you so, but I know she’d meant well, and it seems a petty use of time when I should be packing.
And my boyfriend is piling our bags at the door, humming, like we’re going on an adventure, like unemployment or the unknown future doesn’t bother him, like my parents’ basement is exactly where he wants to be.
Willow Barnosky lives in Northern California. Her fiction appears in Severine, The Honest Ulsterman, Spelk, Ellipsis, The Write Launch, and elsewhere. She works as a Virtual English Language Fellow, teaching and training language teachers in Poland. She can be found on Twitter at onomatopoesia and at willowbarnosky.com.