I am doing the tightrope walk of organizing a date while sitting here under a plant that’s sprouting from a stone patio, with a view of the mild, mid-afternoon bustle of a middle-classish, family-friendly neighborhood, my back to the door of a $7 per night Airbnb in Colombia.
(In a cave with my book, Odd Jobs & After Hours. Get your copy on Amazon here.)
Food delivery guys on motorcycles with insulated red backpacks putter at slow speeds down the block. The U.S. Marine veteran in the room next to mine is also out on the porch. He is cursing the snot out of a video pundit on his iPhone, and chain-smoking.
And I am tapping, backspacing, Google translating, and double-checking my way through a Whatsapp conversation with a Colombian girl named Carla. We matched on Tinder.
Through clumsy, ham-fisted, beginner Spanish, I am laboring to achieve that detached yet interested, breezy yet clear, kind of gamesmanship that Whatsapp flirting requires. (What? You’re above it? You’re telling respond when you see a message and not when an appropriately coy period of time has passed? You get to the point and you don’t waste anybody’s time? I doubt that, friend. I doubt that very much.)
Ah, but Colombia! Colombia is a nation still capped by the cosmic dome of Catholicism. A people still cupped in the hands of God. Not like the bloated, broken, chimp children of the USA, desperate to suck all the money, food, and flesh they can into their faces while their little rock plummets through the void.
For this fundamental fork in our cultural backgrounds, when I asked for her address so I could send her a cab to pick her up, she snapped back, “A cab? To my address? I’m not a prostitute!”
Now, I thought I understood that in Spanish but I used Google translate to be sure.
I put the phone in my pocket, a take a walk around the block. When I get back to my Airbnb, there is another message from Carla.
“In the USA, the man can go over to a woman’s house for a first date, but it is different here.”
“I understand. I was only trying to offer you a ride to the restaurant.”
“Yes, I don’t have a bike or car, I need a ride.”
I set the phone down again. What’s caused by the language barrier here, and what’s her? Is it even worth the trouble of explaining to this…woman, that cabbie’s need, and actually outright demand, addresses? You can’t coo gently to them like homing pigeons, and let instinct guide them. Go where you feel, cabbie. She’s out there, somewhere. A new message banner appears.
“Can u send it here?”
She drops a pin at a cafe that logically must be within walking distance of her house.
“Yes. Does 6 work?”
“Can we do 8?”
“See you then!”
Time to whittle, time to pace, time to kick cans, and kill time.
But time does move on, and 8pm does arrive, and here I am in collared shirt and slacks, leather shoes, standing on a corner outsides a parrilla place.
Parrilla. It means grill. That seems kind of general. I read the Spanish menu posted outside the joint slowly, guessing my way through words I don’t know.
A cab pulls up to the curb, and out steps Carla, looking more or less like her pictures. Black hair, and good looking, like many Colombianas. Skittish steps. Darting eyes. (Is this neighborhood scary? Am I?)
We meet and do a quick cheek kiss. She laughs at my clunky Spanish. We get an outdoor table. I can pick out what she does: nurse, and share what I do: writer.
I manage to ask her what’s best on the menu, and she points to a mix of grilled meats over a bed of french fries. It has chicharrón, sausages, a grilled steak, some kind of sauce drizzled all over it. Peppers and onions in there, too. We get one of those and two mai tais.
Soon that becomes two mai tais for me, and one for her, because the bartender is quite talented, and all communication is a taxing effort.
She says something fast, something that ends in a rising, questioning tone.
“No sabo,” I say, and shrug. She bursts out laughing. I sip my mai tai, analyzing this. Smiling. Clearly, I am funny. And this is good. Right?
She types at blistering speed into Google translate on my phone. She shows me her English message.
“I can’t believe you said that!” it reads. “When someone speaks bad Spanish we call them no sabos. If you want to say I don’t know, say no sé.
I laugh and say no sé, no sé etching a deep, dark mental note.
The mixed grill over fries arrives. It’s a banger. Hot, fresh, and tasty.
We eat and chat about music, and movies, and work, and life, and English, and Spanish, and the USA, and Colombia. The mixed grill disappears, and the check appears.
Blue-raspberry and red raspberry lights blast through the windows of the restaurant. Sirens wail. The heroic Colombian police department is doing a slow, loud roll down the street. Restaurants and bars up and down the block give their lights the double blink.
“Curfew!” she says.
“For COVID?” I ask. She nods. Spanish roars out of a police megaphone. I check my watch. 10pm. A whole city on high school curfew hours.
I pay the check, and we’re out the door.
There are just so many cops! And that megaphone message, which is definitely enforcing curfew runs on a loop. People are vanishing left and right.
She tells me she needs a ride home, and I tell her I know. As I tap on my phone for a ride, she taps me frantically on the shoulder.
Two cars, two cars! You’re an honest woman, Carla, I got it, I know, we’re cool. The Uber I call for her arrives. And look at me, Captain Charming, I open the door for her. She sits in the cab, steps out suddenly, then gives me a quick kiss on the lips.
“Hide while your cab comes!” she says.
It’s interesting advice, probably wise. I nod.
Then I’m alone. It’s me, the law, and the great specter of COVID-19, making its deadly post 10pm rounds.
Giant potted plants line the outside of a hotel on a corner. I dart over, and crouch behind one plant before the police pass again. Red and blue lights wash around the round, matte ceramics of the plant pots, and shine through their spiky fronds. There’s that same megaphone message again.
The Uber driver sends me a message.
“Sorry! No rides after 10pm for COVID.”
No, that can’t be right. I try three more Ubers, but all decline. I try two yellow cabs. Same deal, no rides after 10pm.
I peek out from behind the potted plants at the empty street.
So here we are. It was 15 minutes to get here by car, which is (maps tells me) an hour fifteen by foot.
Hmm. Cops are out, I saw them tapping people on the shoulder to get them going on their way. Right now, the streets are empty.
What’s the move, here? Stick near buildings and start speed walking the hour fifteen back to the Airbnb?
It’s the only option, and I had better get going. Maybe I can periodically check to see if there’s a rogue driver looking for a final fair of the night.
I get going. Tap, tap, tap. Leather dress shoes, not too grippy, pretty hard-bottomed, on the empty street. Battery life dying fast. I take a notebook out of my pocket and copy down the street turns down in case the battery dies mid-journey.
Ten minutes into the walk. No signs of cabs or Ubers. Compliance all around.
Fifteen minutes into the walk, with the longest steps I can manage. Red and blue lights shine around the corner, so I step into an alleyway. The cops drive past while I’m crouched behind a dumpster. Then it’s back to hoofing it, to pitter-pattering along, making the big long trek home.
Twenty-five minutes into the walk, and 10 percent battery life left.
Ding! It’s a Whatsapp from Carla.
“Home safe! Smiley emoji. Thank you for lovely time. I’m going to bed now.”
And I look up at two stars, shining in the night between the buildings, and I take a deep, sweet, fresh, breath, and write back, “Happy for you! Sleep well.”
Then it’s back to the hike. Police sirens again. They’re getting louder faster which means that they’re not after me, they’re after a real crime. Right? I crouch next to a set of steps under an awning, and a squad car barrels down the street, sirens screaming.
Half an hour left to walk, and that’s easy, that’s doable, that’s practically recreational, but these dress shoes are hard as marble slates on the bottom, and they feel like they are too small now.
It’s around then I start turning over in my mind, “two cabs, you can’t ride with me then tell the driver where to go after, I’m home safe, I’m sleeping, that’s all that matters. I’m good! That’s all that matters!”
Not because I really mean it, but because it makes me laugh, and a little angry, and that keeps you going, going, going.
Phone is dead. Going off my paper directions. City zombies appear. There are maybe twelve homeless people in this next stretch of road. Swaying back and forth. Screaming into the night. I should take a right turn and try to get around them. But can I course-correct after the detour? Should I walk between them instead? They’re skinny, they’re not too dangerous. Right?
Or maybe…Or maybe they’re fueled by bitterness, hunger, and crack fumes, maybe they’re armed with shards of broken window wrapped in rags, and garden hoses with nails driven through the end to make spiky whips. Maybe they’ll smell Gringo on me, and descend like drooling junkyard dogs.
I take the detour, and trust I can still find my next turn.
My collared shirt is soaked with sweat. Feet still mad at me for wearing dress shoes for this unplanned hike.
Wait a minute. Who is this? One moped rider is going down the street. I step out and wave at him to come over. He’s a delivery driver going home. I can tell from the insulated red bag behind him. I hold up some peso notes and point at the address on my paper.
He gets it.
I climb aboard behind him, and he zooms through the final stretch of my walk-in about 7 minutes, even with a detour to avoid a police curfew checkpoint.
I thank him and hand him the pesos. I reach into my pocket for more to give him, but he refuses and drives home.
The veteran is still on the porch, still watching videos, still chain-smoking.
“Date go well?” he asks.
I do a quick recap of the date, the curfew, the trip back, and he finds the scenario hysterical.
“Put that story in your book!” he says.
Let myself into the room. Turn on the shower. Kick off the dress shoes.
I step into the cramped, narrow shower.
Didn’t get mugged! Didn’t get fined for violating curfew! Didn’t get lost. But wait. Did the date go well? Did I do OK? Was I weird? Ah, forget it.