As usual Papa is late. He promised us to come on time today but at 3 PM we still haven’t had lunch.
“I am starving!” I tell my brother. The truth is that by this time I should know better and eat first. I get angry with myself for believing it might be different this time.
We are sitting in the living room watching TV I go into the kitchen. I never saw another kitchen like Mama’s. The orange tiles are so shiny that they always look new.
There is such harmony in this cleanliness that I feel uneasy disrupting it. The envelope is sitting on the table.
“Let’s have a sandwich, Geri. I can hear your stomach growling, too.”
Geri is my brother. He is 12 and I am 15. My parents divorced two years ago and from that time we were thrown into this Saturday ritual. My father comes once a week on Saturdays to pick us up for lunch. By now. we know plenty of restaurants in mi Buenos Aires querido and we are very proud of that. It is really important for a teenager to grow up distinguishing different qualities of service.
Papa loves to make us wait. I know it has something to do with the envelope, but he is not aware of that. If you ask him why he arrives so late each time, he will tell you he just ran late. Papa is the head of the gynecology department in a big public hospital and also has his own practice. He works in the morning in the hospital, then he goes home to change clothes and later on he comes to visit us. Like the doctor that he is. A doctor’s visit.
We don’t know where he lives. We don’t have a telephone number to call him; all we have is a pager number. During working hours we can call him at his medical practice.
“Gra, let’s bet a pizza. Is he going to come at 3:30 or 3:45?”
Gen looks upset. He misses Papa. We only see him once a week and I don’t think it is enough for the boy. He is an adolescent and he is going through many changes: school, neighborhood, friends.. .Just like me, but I always think of him as my little brother.
Papa is living with a woman he probably began dating when he was still married to Mama. Once I found some make-up in our car when I was 11 or 12. It did not look like Mama’s. They are living together in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, but we don’t have his address. I just know that it is about two hours from home. I saw her a couple of times. I don’t like her. Perhaps because she took Mama’s place. She looks skinny and nervous like Mama, but much less educated.
My parents never stop studying. In our family you have to keep studying until the last day of your life. I seem to be following in their footsteps. Nearly every day after school I have my private language lessons. The few times I saw Papa’s girlfriend I felt like speaking French.
Even though my father and his girlfriend live far from us, my father set her up in her own business, a grocery store, a few blocks from our apartment. I do not understand. Of all the neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, why did they have to choose ours? I only hope Mama doesn’t come across her.
“Ring, please ring!” I shout to the intercom. Amazingly it rings. My father is waiting downstairs.
“Don’t forget the envelope,” Mama screams from her bedroom.
They don’t give me a chance to forget… the dear envelope.
We wonder what restaurant is open at 3:42 pm in Buenos Aires. We decide to try our favorite restaurant on Montevideo Street. Montevideo Street is full of restaurants, close to the theaters and movie houses located along Corrientes Avenue, in the center of town.
We don’t go to the theater with Papa, but we go to restaurants. It has become a ritual to choose the one that will hold our talking and breathing for the next two hours. We like nice restaurants, not too fancy, not too humble. We care—or Papa cares—about the service. The waiter has to be polite and has to know what to recommend. In Argentina in the 1980’s el mozo, the waiter, is generally a man. He has to be able to do more than just enumerate the dishes of the day. He needs to know which cut of meat is the best one of the day.
It is true that Argentinians love meat. We know about every cut of the cow; we learn it in kindergarten. Meat means cows for us. Meat has to be red. Don’t tell me chicken is meat. I will laugh!
In this particular restaurant on Montevideo Street we love the waiter He is friendly and caring. I am sure he realizes that Papa is divorced because he treats us very warmly. It is still not so common to see divorced people in Buenos Aires, and we look like an outstanding example. This middle-aged man with two kids at lunch on a Saturday.
Argentinian food is influenced by Italian, Spanish and French cuisine, among others. First we eat an appetizer. One of my favorites is lengua a la vinagreta, cow tongue cooked in vinegar with spices. Later on a main dish, like lomo al champignon con papitas noisettes—boneless fillet with mushrooms and little potato balls. Of course don’t forget the dessert. What about a charlotte? Vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate on top. Delicious!
Usually after lunch we enjoy seeing art. We know every museum in town and every new exhibition. Art is our passion. The three of us gather around a picture, and for a moment we are reunited in a sort of familial peace that only we can understand. It is a kind of magical peace.
We love the Museum of Fine Arts, Museo cle Bellas Artes, the main art museum in the city. It is located in the placid and aristocratic Recoleta neighborhood. During the weekends an artisan fair in the park gives the area a more casual and relaxed air The artisans display crafts of unique beauty for the tourists and for us portenos. I enjoy going there and, even more, taking presents home.
During these hours I can forget about the envelope. I don’t want to wake up from these rare moments of contentment. For a few hours we are happy and relaxed talking mostly about art and school. Geri and I know that the moment we change the subject the spell is gone. And we want to keep it alive as long as we can.
But every journey has an end. We are in the car nearing home. I begin to imagine what is going to happen when I give the envelope to Papa. He is going to open it, unfold the paper that Mama wrote so carefully, and begin to shout about how much money she is asking for.
I don’t want to know how much she wants. I don’t want to know how much he is willing to give her I don’t want to negotiate. I need shoes, it is true, but I need my teenage years too. Many times Geri and I have begged Mama and Papa to make a different arrangement. Maybe to see each other once a month and work out their financial situation. Papa always says no! .A flat and clear no! He apologizes, saying that every week money flows in a different way and he is not sure how much cash he can offer Everything depends on how many patients he will see in his office. Still he always says no to our request.
The envelope is his power over us. It makes him feel powerful. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks we are eager to meet with him just to get the envelope. El famoso sobre
I know he is not going to let it go. Probably we will have to suffer through the envelope ritual for many more years. Who knows what is inside others peoples’ minds? Even when one of them is your father.
Graciela Berger Wegsman, a writer and translator, is a native of Argentina. She lives in New York City.