I pulled a packaged alfajor that I bought for breakfast at the bus station out of my backpack and got into my new hotel room hide-a-bed. The photo on the foil packet of two sugar cookies held together by a thick layer of dulce de leche and coated in shiny chocolate promised a good time, but what the actual snack delivered, to my amazement, was a sensation that felt like 400 calories of pure, uncritical love. I spent some time in bed smelling the package.
When I offered the wrapper to my Israeli friend Hadar for her to smell, she turned me down from her bed, where she was examining the split ends of her curly blond bangs while she smoked.
“Disgusting,” she said. “Sweets are disgusting.” She pronounced the second syllable in a throaty way, but the amount of time and spit she spent on the second syllable seemed uncalled for.
“All right then. I guess we can’t party together,” I said, because in the Brazilian hostel where we met days earlier, on the night bus down to Buenos Aires, and even in the bus station where that morning we decided to split a hotel room, the talk had been about nightclubs. According to the backpacker buzz, Buenos Aires was a cheap urban destination populated with good-looking people and sophisticated discotheques.
So far our impression of Buenos Aires was that it was cold and not Brazil, the beaches of which we had left only because our visas expired. Our room in Buenos Aires was classy, though. At $4 a night it had hardwood floors, a view of the capital from the balcony, and only a bit of a mysterious urinal cake smell. We lounged for a while and waited for the Israeli guys we had ridden with on the bus from Brazil to get back from purchasing a brick of hashish so that we could tell them we had ended up at the same hotel.
“I need new pants. Show me your pants,” Hadar said. I lifted up the wool blanket so I could show her the black nylon pants I was wearing. I liked them, at least when I didn’t have them on because they packed up small and they almost never had to be washed. “Uffgh,” Hadar said. I lifted up my the pants at the ankle to show her the fuzz-covered long underwear I wore under the pants for bus trips with air conditioning and in cold countries. “Disgusting,” she said. “You need new pants.” She had big clubbing plans and I think she didn’t want to be deemed ugly by association with backpacking pants I could clean with a sponge.
Hadar was wearing black stretch pants paired up with an orange fleece, a turquoise scarf, a cowboy hat, and full-fledged hiking boots. She had a big chest, a tiny waist, and proportionate hips, and she almost never opened her eyes entirely when she spoke. Her physique and demeanor in that outfit gave her the look of an ice skater at practice tired of, but used to being dropped.
“So let’s catch up with those guys later and go buy pants,” I said, and that morning we rallied our energy and put on all the clothing we owned to go outside and see what kind of pants the city of Buenos Aires had to offer us. I also knew that if we were going to “party,” I was going to need more sugar, and I wanted to scout out where I could score my next alfojor.
We passed the capital, tango demonstrations in the street, and a rally of the mothers of the disappeared on our way to check out the pant selection. When we arrived in the little white-walled boutiques on Calle Florida which didn’t carry anything in our size or price range, the saleswomen let us know without words that they pitied us for thinking we could find something for our bodies in their stores.
Hadar was sure we would find pants in the bigger chain stores. We picked out the largest clothes we could find and tried to get into them while we talked through the dressing room curtains. Hadar told me she had made the money for her trip to South America by posing as an art student in Madrid and selling paintings of famous Spanish places that were actually painted by Chinese people who she guessed had never been to Spain. I couldn’t get the largest-size jeans over my knees. I aborted pulling them up mid-mission because the fabric where the thighs should have gone was wrapped around my calves and felt tight. Hadar said that by the time her money ran out and she had to fly back to Israel, she would have to decide if she wanted to move back on the Kibbutz she grew up on near Haifa, if she wanted the Kibutz to pay for her Naturopathy school. Then she announced, “Disgusting,” and told me to come in her changing room. She was looking at an image of herself in the mirror with a pair of jeans on that wouldn’t zip up. She said that that exact size in that same store fit in both Israel and Spain. She said it like the two nation states were on her side in the cold war of women’s clothing sizing.
I left Hadar in the dressing room to stretch clothes she had no intention of buying so I could ask a sales lady about larger sizes. I pointed to my thighs. She looked pained at the idea that I would do something as humiliating to pants as wear them in a size that large. She said the store didn’t make them in the equivalent of an American 10-12. I asked who did, and she tried to think about it for a moment. She walked over and talked to another sales lady, then came back with the verdict: She didn’t think anyone in Buenos Aires made pants big enough to fit me.
I walked back to the dressing room and announced to Hadar that Buenos Aires and possibly the Nation of Argentina had officially deemed us too fat for pants. On the way back to the hotel Hadar picked up another pack of cigarettes, and I picked up another chocolate-covered alfajor.
When we got back to our hotel room the Israeli guys we knew from Brazil were in there smoking the new hashish like it was their job. They had gotten our key from downstairs, they wanted to know at what point we would be ready to club, and they also wanted to use our bathroom because they had a room so cheap it didn’t have windows or a toilet that worked.
At the nightclub I felt worse than normal. It looked like the kind of place you might see featured in Dwell or Architectural Digest. It was a three-story historic building furnished with red velvet drapes and lounging couches and pillows. In the magazines they would blur the light and the dancers to emphasize the energy and ambience, to convey that if you were here in this exotic location, people would love you and you wouldn’t even feel like yourself.
But I was there and when I saw the couches that well-dressed clubbers were lounging on seductively, I just collapsed on one in my nylon pants, long underwear, and trail running shoes. I think it was a combination of a sugar crash, sleep deprivation from the night bus, and culture shock. The Israeli guys danced, and Hadar sat by me and pointed out girls that she thought might wear a bigger pant size than we did. Inside the dance club I felt cold and strange and unfriendly.
In the following weeks I recovered from my discotecque breakdown and walked alone around Buenos Aires a lot. I thought it was beautiful, and that it was not just the discotheques that were sophisticated. The city had nice galleries, used book stores, and parks, and I started to ask around about possible jobs and housing. But when Hadar one day proposed we make our way north toward Bolivia, I packed up some foil packets of mini alfajors, and dark chocolate alfajors, and agreed to move north with her. And I am not entirely blaming the pant issue, but I think some resentment lingered. It was hard to envision myself living long-term in a city that wouldn’t allow me wear its pants. • 11 March 2008