Jeremiah lied every night. After prayer circle the youth group would discuss what concrete steps they’d taken to establishing their church here, in Buenos Aires. And every night Jeremiah, who would’ve spent most of the day walking aimlessly around the metropolis, lied. He said that he’d witnessed to a drunk in Bosques de Palermo, or to a divorcee in a Cafe Havanna, or to a toothless communist in a parillada. He’d seen these people during his wanderings, but he never talked to them. If he did occasionally talk to cashiers, bus drivers, and the like, it was never about Jesus. The other youth group members usually managed to bring one or two fellow college kids to the drafty space they’d rented between a cell phone store and a butcher shop. Jeremiah had zero new-comers in two months. One night Pastor Jeff pulled him aside after share circle.
“You’ve been on my heart a lot lately, Big J. I hope you know that. And I just wanted to have a one-on-one to see how everything is going. If maybe there’s some way we can better make use of your time.”
The other youth group members went to Spanish classes at the University by day. Jeremiah already knew the language because of his Spanish grandmother, and had his days to himself. It was agreed that he help the others with the language in the evenings, though only a couple of the quieter girls actually took him up on this.
“I’ve been trying. It’s just everyone here’s so Catholic.”
Pastor Jeff assured Jeremiah that he completely understood. He only asked that Jeremiah make a solid commitment to getting one person, just one, to come to Bible and Bites. Jeremiah said he would do his best, and then skipped dinner to go for walk around the neighborhood.
As he was stepping out of the building, a policeman got off a bus dragging a kid about Jeremiah’s own age behind him. Once on the sidewalk, he slapped the kid on the back of the head, booted him on the butt, and called him a maricón. He then let him go and himself got back on the bus. The kid walked past Jeremiah, rubbing the back of his head. One of his eyebrows was pierced, and the other had three vertical lines shaved out of it. He wore an adidas track suit that swished as he walked. He caught Jeremiah staring. He smirked as he took off his white tennis hat. “Que?” he asked. Jeremiah looked away.
Jeremiah replayed the scene in his mind. He wondered what the kid had done to deserve that. Lost as he was in such thoughts, he walked farther than he’d meant to. He had left the dorm’s neighborhood, but he wasn’t sure in what direction he’d gone. He turned down a street he didn’t recognize at all. It looked like medieval Europe. Part of it was the trees. With their thick, gnarled trunks, they could been older than the buildings they stood in front of, which themselves had an immovable aspect unique to the oldest of buildings. He stepped under the trees and was surprised to find that it was already night under there. The street itself was cobblestoned, and in the extreme darkness it appeared wet. Another pedestrian passed by him, but Jeremiah hardly saw them. It was as though they were gliding past each other underwater. After they’d passed, Jeremiah craned his neck to look back. They might’ve done the same, it was too dark to tell.
He had to strain to hear his own footsteps. He looked at the backs of his hands, and then his palms. He laughed without knowing why. It felt good here, there was that. So good, in fact, that once he’d reached the end of the tree shaded street, he turned around and did it all over again.
Now he wanted to stay out a little longer. Perhaps there was more to find. He’d noticed the train tracks before, but had never walked along them. He found a way in and started down them. After a couple of minutes the kid who’d been kicked off the bus came towards him. Jeremiah stared for too long again, and the kid stared back. “Que onda Yanqui?” he said when they were near, each one on their own set of tracks. Jeremiah tried to respond, but only managed to make a sound that died somewhere in the back of his throat. A few steps after they had passed each other, Jeremiah craned his neck to look back. The kid had turned to look too. Jeremiah snapped his head forward.
During the day Jeremiah continued exploring other neighborhoods; Recoleta with its middle aged women in fashionable pants suits, giant sunglasses, and white high heels; San Telmo with its aging intellectuals in wool vests; the skater kids by 9 de Julio with their adidas warm-up pants tucked into their socks; the garrulous drunks of La Boca in worn slacks and wine stained oxfords. At night he walked the tree shaded street and the train tracks. It wasn’t long before he saw the kid from the bus on the train tracks again. This time the kid pointed directly at Jeremiah’s chest, at the blue youth group sweatshirt with its crucifix insignia. “Evangelico?” he said. Jeremiah nodded, to which the kid pointed at his own chest and said, “Satán!” with a laugh. He motioned for Jeremiah to stop. He told him that his name was actually Manolo, not Satan, and offered to sell him marijuana.
“Evangelico.” Jeremiah said while pointing at his own chest. Manolo slapped himself lightly on the head, “Ah claro, disculpa disculpa.” He wanted to know what, if anything, Jeremiah did for fun. Did he even ate ice cream? When Jeremiah said of course he did, Manolo threw his arms up in relief and offered to take Jeremiah to the best ice cream spot in Buenos Aires. He promised that it was close and that he would get Jeremiah back home before his bed time. Jeremiah said that he didn’t know, but Manolo insisted, “Te invito.” He assured Jeremiah that he was not, in fact, Satan.
They hung out a few times after that. Manolo showed Jeremiah a famous empanaderia, walked him down a culvert where kids their age smoked weed and made out with their girlfriends, took him to a part of Bosques de Palermo that had an astonishing number of stray cats in it, pointed out the transvestite prostitutes on their way back from seeing the cats, and, always and no matter what else they were doing, showed him video after video on his phone. Clips of street fights, cruel pranks, soccer riots, and lurid reggaeton music videos. He would sidle up very close to Jeremiah to show him the videos, and he always smelled of menthol cigarettes and musky cologne.
Jeremiah began skipping his tutoring sessions in the evenings to hang out with Manolo. Eventually Pastor Jeff pressed Jeremiah about what he’d been doing with all his time if he wasn’t tutoring, if he still hadn’t gotten anyone to come to the church, not even for Bible and Bites, not even for Movie Night. “Maybe,” Pastor Jeff offered, “you’re out there looking for yourself? I know how it is at your age. But just remember that whatever you’re looking for is not of this world. Remember to find yourself in the light of God’s love.” And so Jeremiah imagined himself with a flashlight, the beam the deep crimson glow of the Sacred Heart. This was something he’d started doing on this trip, trying to take the words in sermons and in the bible as literally as possible. He meant no disrespect, it was just the only way he could pay attention to words like that now. Otherwise they lost all meaning. And so in this instance he imagined himself with the crimson flashlight in hand, searching the darkened streets of Buenos Aires. He came upon the tree shaded street. There he found himself cowering on a dank stoop. He shined the light on himself then, but his other self would not look up. He kept his head buried in his arms as the light shined on him.
After his talk with Pastor Jeff, Jeremiah started doing some tutoring again. One of the quieter girls, Taylor, was picking up the language fast, and she too had taken to going off on her own to explore the city. She visited museums and attended dance performances, though she always made sure to be back in time for prayer circle.
After one of their lessons she asked Jeremiah where it was that he went all the time. He must have been feeling stir crazy because without thinking twice he offered to show her. He had them leave the dorm at twilight so that he would miss prayer circle. Taylor wore sandals with jewels on them and a purse he had never seen her use before. She had also put on some eye make up. They passed through a fancy part of the neighborhood on their way to the tree shaded street. She slowed to admire the spacious cafes and brightly lit clothing stores. When they turned the corner onto the tree shaded street, she hesitated.
“I know,” Jeremiah said, “Super dark.”
She said it felt about ten degrees colder under the trees. Jeremiah agreed and breathed in the cool, almost minty air. After the tree shaded street they passed all the warehouses and junk yards that led to the train tracks. There was more and more dog shit on the sidewalk to dodge. Jeremiah stepped in it about once a week and was barely bothered by it; it was good luck if it was your left foot, or so Manolo said. Someone yelled at them from a passing car. Taylor asked what they had said. Jeremiah hadn’t quite caught it, but he knew it wasn’t howdy. When they finally reached the train tracks she stopped and looked back the way they’d come.
“I might catch a cab back,” she said.
He asked what was wrong. She said that she didn’t know, that maybe she’d just been expecting something different.
“And now that guy is staring at us.”
Jeremiah looked over. Manolo was crouched against the railroad wall, smoking a cigarette slowly and deliberately while staring right at them. Jeremiah waved.
“You know him?” she asked.
“A little, yeah.”
“Then why didn’t he wave back?”
Jeremiah said he didn’t know, though of course he had an idea. He walked her back to the street to catch a cab. She made room for him in the backseat, but he remained standing, holding the door open.
“You’re not coming?”
“I think I’m going to stay out a while.”
She scooted over to get a better look at him. The orange glow of the streetlight illuminated her face. There was a spattering of freckles across her nose that he’d never noticed before, and her make-up highlighted the inquisitiveness of her expression.
“What’s going on with you, Jeremiah? These aren’t nice places. And that guy looks dangerous.”
“It’s just a style.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but are you, do you think you’re still walking with Jesus in your heart?”
He put his hand over his heart and felt it beat. He imagined a tiny Jesus living in there, seated in an armchair, watching Jeremiah’s life unfold. What would that tiny Jesus say, he wondered.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Manolo was still at the tracks when Jeremiah got back. There were big clouds passing in front of a big moon and the world felt three times its usual size. Manolo stood up from the wall just as the clouds cleared. For a moment, he was bathed in moonlight. They both were. Light glinted off his gold chain as he walked up to Jeremiah. He smelled of menthol cigarettes and musky cologne. His hand was warm, despite the cold.
Christopher Williams lives in Oakland, where he works as an interpreter. He hopes you’ll check out his fiction blog at christopherpaulwilliams.wordpress.com. Last month he had one visitor. He believes that if we work together, we can double that number.
Charles is a lover of all things San Francisco. His fiction writing includes stories of traveling abroad, baseball, a misguided youth on the streets of SF, and other tales of life in the city.