Freedom is a Fragile Word

Julia Hones

It did not matter to me that I’d be sharing the bathroom with fifteen others, nor did I care about sleeping in a room with five women I’d never met before. The plan was to spend a three-week vacation in Pinamar, a seaside resort that brimmed with pine trees and extensive beaches. Being a university student, I could not afford sumptuous hotels, so the “youth hostel” was a suitable alternative: all I wanted was to enjoy some quiet time by the sea to relax, read and, if the chances were in my favor, meet interesting people. 
      Our room was clean, with high ceilings, a window that overlooked the beach and bunk beds positioned against dark yellow walls. It was a sunny day and, unlike my roommates, I had woken early on that first morning and walked downstairs to buy my breakfast from the small cafeteria, next to the lounge. I sat at one of the tables and relaxed, savoring my sandwich, sipping my coffee, thinking about how lucky I had been to find an affordable place in such a beautiful seaside resort - Pinamar was a city chosen by many affluent people - so this hostel allowed me to have a cheap vacation in an expensive place, but I also relished the adventure of being alone while living alongside strangers from all walks of life who looked forward to spending their days at leisure. 
        The spacious lounge had an array of tables and two big windows through which the bright summer sun poured in. A wooden door led to a patio where a group of visitors was sitting on the floor. The patio was inviting. I sat on a yoga mat I’d laid on the ground, contemplating the forest of pine trees before me, breathing in the cool ocean air. I closed my eyes for a minute to enjoy the warmth of the sun on my skin - I had taken off my pareo(1) and my blue bikini was the only piece of cloth that covered my body - and then, with my back leaning on the wall, I made myself comfortable to start reading a book. 
         “Hi, I’m Alberto Marone.” My eyes met those of a man standing close to me. He wasn’t tall, had dark round eyes, olive skin, and short curly black hair, but the most interesting feature was that the look on his face resembled that of an eagle. It may have been the way his eyes were fixed on me, the glint of them or their expression. I found him attractive.
         “I’m Isabel.”
         “I haven’t seen you here before. Have you just arrived here?”
         “I arrived yesterday evening.”
         “Is this your first time here? Let me know if you need anything,” he said as his eyes traveled over my body to end up on my face with the hint of a smile. “I like Pinamar, and I know the place well. I’ve been coming to this hostel for years, I know the people,” he added. 
            I sighed and reached for my pareo again. With my bosom and my legs safely covered, I grabbed my book and opened it on the first page, trying to concentrate on the sentences.
            “I really like this hostel. It’s a good place if you are single,” he said, then fell silent.
             I said nothing, but rested my eyes on the pine trees to dissolve the tension created by his words. My action may have falsely conveyed the message that I had lost interest in my book, an excuse for him to resume the conversation.
             “I’m a photographer, by the way. I work for ‘Faces and People’. I’m sure you’ve heard of this magazine.”
              “Yes.” It was a magazine that dealt with celebrities; I had no interest in it.
               A few feet away from us, a group of people were drinking mate (2). Their voices floated in the air, muffled by the soft breeze, mingling with the tunes of the birds in the forest. I noticed a tall lanky man sitting on the opposite corner, staring at me - he was not part of the group of people. Soon I got distracted by a woman with kinky red hair who came out from the lounge to approach us.
              “Hi Alberto .Good to see you!” said the red-haired woman.
               “Hi. This is my friend Monica. She’s a photographer and a painter. This is Isabel. I’ve just met her here.” 
               “Hi, nice to meet you, Monica”
               The slender woman raised her hand as a sign of greeting. Then she took a white hat out of her bag and put it on.
               “Hey, we’re room-mates. Did you know that? I saw you yesterday,” Monica said to me. I noticed how her lips were constantly twisted into a wide smile. Her pale complexion glowed in the sun. 
               “No, I didn’t know.”
               “I’m going for a walk along the shore now. The day is beautiful. Enjoy yourselves, guys!” Then she scampered towards the beach with the deftness of a butterfly, her black dress waving gracefully around her body. After she had disappeared behind the sand dunes, I squinted at Alberto who was talking to a guy from the small crowd on the other side of the patio. The guy handed him a guitar, and, within a few minutes, Alberto was by my side again, embracing the instrument with care, his fingers dancing through the chords.
               “You play well,” I said.
               “Thanks. What song would you like to hear?” he asked shooting his eagle look at me.
                 “Can you play “Girl Paper Eyes?” 
                 I was sure he would not be able to play it.
                “Of course” 
                 Not only did he play it, but he also sang it in his masculine mellifluous voice.
                “Girl, where are you going?
                 Don’t run anymore, stay with me until dawn,
                 Girl, little feet…”
                The soft music blended with the breeze that stroked our hair. 
               “You play and sing very well.” I noticed a lock of his dark hair swaying in the wind over his head. An urge to laugh tickled my stomach, like a wave, rising up to my lips, ready to burst out, but I resisted the temptation and looked up at the sky. Two seagulls were shrilling above us with inordinate intensity. They may be about to mate, I thought. Then I gazed at Alberto - his lock of hair kept dancing to the breeze - and thought there was indeed something animal-like about him despite his smooth voice and his debonair manners. 
       “What are you planning to do in the afternoon?” he asked.
       “I want to read my book on the beach.” 
       “May I come with you?” 
       “Sure.” The moment I answered I doubted myself. Did I really want him to come with me? 
       Later that day, after lunch, we met on the same spot to walk down to the beach together. Contrary to what I had thought, Alberto was sagacious enough to realize that I needed some quiet time to read, so he lay in the sun without saying a word. In the evening, he invited me to an art and crafts fair in downtown where some acquaintances of his were exhibiting their work. We took a bus to get there. It was nice to get around with somebody who was deeply familiar with the area, so I welcomed his help to guide me through the town without mulling over it. It might as well have been that my loneliness fitted well with his companionable nature. The fact was that his presence made me feel safe, and this sense of safety created in me the idea that I had more freedom. 
      The following day, in the evening, we sat at one of the tables in the lounge, talking.
      I said, “I’d like to go to the beach tonight. There’s a full moon today.”
      “Sure, that’s a great idea. There’s a nice deck where we can sit and enjoy the view.”
      And so we did. He led me to the deck which was located two hundred feet away from the hostel. We clambered up some stairs to sit on it and contemplate the velvety darkness made up of ocean, sand and sky. The moon stared down at us, bathing the landscape with a milky glow. The whisper of the ocean soothed me as much as the fresh air that slid in and out of my nose. I made myself comfortable by crossing my legs under my wide black skirt, my hands resting on either side of my body, while a soft breeze caressed my face. Very gently, Alberto placed his hand on mine, swathing it. Then his fingers began to draw circles on the dorsum of my hand and after a while they paused. They crept up my arm – I had no sleeves - to reach my shoulder, then crawled down slowly back to my hand again. Circles. Pause. Swathe. His touch was pleasant.
        I would have liked to stay there forever had it not been for a sensation of uneasiness that began to stir in my mind. Somehow, I was not able to dispel it, despite the peaceful landscape around us. Alberto asked me a question; his voice was sweet and calm.
       “Isabel, wouldn’t you like to make love on the sand under the stars?”
       “No, that’s crazy.”
       “Why? Think about it. It would be an unforgettable experience, we can even do it right here,” he drawled, eyeing the ocean before us. Then, he turned to me, his ardent black eyes flashing, and added, “Under the moonlight, you’d like that, I’m sure.”
           Before I could say anything else, his lips reached mine and his hands hiked up my skirt and rushed to grab my thighs.” With a horrified yell, I jerked away, jumped off the deck, and dashed into the darkness towards the hostel. By the time I stepped into the lounge, my body was quaking and my heart thumping as if it were about to burst out of my chest. People were wandering around, chatting, playing board games or drinking. It was as though I had walked out of a nightmare into a peaceful world, foreign to the hostility I’d jostled with seconds before.
            I plodded up the stairs to my bedroom, willing to slump onto my bed. I tried to read a book, but my mind kept jumping back to the scene at the beach. “Stay here!”  Alberto had screamed with fury as I bolted out of his hands on the deck. It terrified me to think about the way he had snapped out of that friendly state into a blast of rage, ready to force me into something I had neither predicted nor expected. 
             There was no way I could concentrate on my book. My emotions kept swaying between the burden of fear and that of guilt. After all, I had been the one to carry myself to the brink of that dangerous situation, allowing myself to be alone with him on the desolate beach.  Yet all I’d wanted was to enjoy the seashore at night without realizing he was not the casual friend he’d pretended to be. Paradoxically, I had chosen to go with him because I’d felt safer by his side. It suddenly dawned on me: had I been born a man I would not have to fret over a visit to the beach at night all by myself - I would have the freedom to do it without relying on somebody else’s company.
    The next day I woke up to the birds tweeting and the sunlight filtering through the fine curtains. All my roommates were sleeping soundly, except for Monica whom I found in the bathroom, brushing her hair. 
     “Hi! Nice to see you! How’s everything going?” 
      There was always the same soft, lighthearted tone in her voice. I began to wash my face while I watched her brushing her hair, smiling at me through the mirror. I noticed that she always smiled, and that, despite her friendly easy-going nature, she was a solitary woman who came and went as she pleased with the grace of a bird. It appeared to me that she was able to get a positive perspective out of every situation she encountered for her smile was always there. 
        I was tempted to challenge her by disclosing my experience with Alberto the previous night, but I stopped myself. I could foresee she would be on his side, biased by the affection of a friendship that had started many years ago. I was nobody but a stranger to her. It had been touching to see how she treated him - he was like a baby brother to her - and he was nice to her too, but not affectionate. 
       Later that day, I saw Alberto roaming around in the lounge, falling in and out of conversations with people. At some point I caught a glimpse of him talking to the lanky tall man who had been staring at me on the deck the day before - I heard he was also a photographer who had visited the hostel for a few years - but Alberto did not try to approach me. In the meantime, I had the chance to socialize with others, read and go for walks along the shore. 
       The lanky man who had stared at me the previous day said something about his hobbies while I was enjoying a glass of orange juice at the cafeteria. He sat by my side quietly after making some remark about the weather. Engrossed in my plans for the day, I didn’t pay much attention to him, but after a moment of silence he added casually, “Interestingly, I was reading something about relationships between men and women the other day.”
  “Being caressed is much more important to a woman than the act of penetration. In fact, some women prefer no penetration at all.” He peered out the window and then turned to scrutinize my face. I gulped down my drink and flounced out in a huff. It occurred to me that Alberto had been spreading stories about us.  
    When I turned eighteen, my argentinian mother explained to me that showing my affection to a man was not in my best interest. I would be dumped, looked down upon, and even considered some kind of whore. I would be the prey, the trophy that would turn into ashes   if the man - the winner- reached his dirty purpose, something I was not supposed to let happen. “Proceed with caution. Never give yourself away, you are not that kind of woman. What will people say about you? Behave like a lady.” 
         Suggesting a visit to the beach at night with Alberto had not been a lady-like idea, but I would not let this incident discourage me. I clung to the idea of a quiet vacation by the sea and I would not give up on it.
         The following morning the television blaring at the cafeteria startled me. A news photographer had been murdered the previous night in Pinamar, not far from the hostel. I took my tray and chose a spot next to Gabriel and Alice - I had met them the day before and I enjoyed conversing with them. 
         “I wonder if Alberto Marone knew this photographer,” Gabriel said as he flipped through the pages of his newspaper with avid interest. “His name was Jose Luis Cabezas”. 
          The words “Alberto Marone” made my heart speed up. My cheeks have already been colored by the sun so my blushing will go unnoticed, I thought, as I felt a wave of heat suffusing my face.  I noticed that most people at the cafeteria were focused on the television screen except for Gabriel, who read the newspaper while sipping his morning coffee.
   It didn’t take me long to get hooked to the morning news. Jose Luis Cabezas worked for a news magazine that investigated cases of corruption in which the argentinian government was involved. He had been ordered to kneel down and then shot to death after he left a party where he had been taking photographs of rich businessmen. 

            “I feel sad for Cabezas’s family. He had three kids. They did not just kill a photographer.  He was a father and a husband. It’s heartbreaking,” Alice sighed.
           “Do you know why they killed him?” asked Gabriel, as if he were about to tell us an important secret.
            “No, it’s not clear to me.”
            “Well, here’s the thing. He took a picture of a multimillionaire businessman, a fat cat involved in some fishy business with the government.”
            “Killed for taking a picture? That makes no sense.”
             Gabriel scratched his forehead as he spoke. “Just recently, this multimillionaire said that taking a picture of him was like shooting at his head. He was proud that nobody had ever done it, but then Cabezas was able to get the snapshot of him a few days ago while the businessman was strolling on the beach, with his wife, here in Pinamar.”
             “Why didn’t he want to be photographed?”
             “He’s a powerful man and wants to go unnoticed. Cabezas and journalists from the same magazine had been threatened. They’d been warned that something might happen to them if they tried to look into his business.”
             Somebody from a table next to ours blurted out, “Why did he take a picture of him then? He knew he was a dangerous man!”
             “Do you really want to know why? Because Cabezas was a brave man trying to awaken society! The powerful businessman has ties with the government. Cabezas was just doing his job, trying to expose a reality that this man preferred to hide away.” Then Gabriel turned to us with an expression of disgust and snarled, “No wonder people vote for the same corrupt president twice in this country, and then they wonder why somebody would risk his life for the betterment of his country.”
           “I didn’t vote for him,” he retorted.
           “Everybody says the same damn thing, but our president, married to the fat cats, won the elections twice.” 
            “It’s sad and tragic. But Cabezas had been threatened before he was murdered. This means something,” I said.
            “Of course, it does! It tells us that impunity is the law. We live by the law of the jungle. The powerful and the rich are the ones who pay for the political campaigns, go figure,” Gabriel said, extending the palm of his hand toward me as I nodded quietly.
             Over the next few days, the media would spread a slogan: “Don’t forget Cabezas.” These words were on signs everywhere with the picture of the photographer. Journalists knew that the murder would be buried under the ground of impunity, so they concentrated their efforts on educating the public to prompt a fair investigation that would shed light on the case and bring justice. The night of January 25, 1997 was not to be forgotten. People took to the streets to raise awareness; the eyes of the whole country were now focused on Pinamar. 
              I needed a break from the heated discussion, so I left the cafeteria. As I walked through the lounge, I caught sight of Alberto who was sitting on a stool by a window, leaning forward, his hands resting on his knees. As he frowned, his eyebrows drew a rueful expression on his face. He seemed to be staring down at the ground, but he was deep in thought, his lips tightly closed. 
              I broke the silence. “Did you know Cabezas?”
              “Yes, I did. He wasn’t my personal friend, but I did know him. I’m shocked.”
              His eyebrows frowned even more, his forehead crinkled. 
              “I’m very sorry. It’s awful,” I said.
              “Life is ephemeral, Isabel. We are alive today, but we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few hours.” He threw his eagle look at me, and then continued, “Being a photographer can be very risky. We need to make the most out of every minute of our lives. We can’t waste time. Isabel, there’s something between the two of us. Why can’t we make love after all? It may be the beginning of something…”
                  I gave no answer; I knew it was time to walk away.
                I didn’t see Alberto again until the following day, in the afternoon. I was lying in bed after lunch, reading. Monica was also in the bedroom, stuffing clothes into a set of drawers. Somebody knocked at the door. It was Alberto.
                “Monica, I came to say goodbye. My vacation’s over. I’m going back to Buenos Aires this evening.”
                “Bye Alberto. Have a great trip. We’re going to miss you here,” said Monica.
                 Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see Monica leaving our room, and understood at once that her intention was to clear the way for Alberto. It may have been a secret pact between them. 
                 “Isabel, here’s my telephone-number.” He handed me a piece of paper. “Please, call me.” I took it without saying a word. He hunkered down by my bed, fixing his round eyes on my face. I pretended I was reading my book.
                  “Isabel, are you going to call me?” 
                  “Maybe, I’m not sure.” I was lying.
                  “Please, do. I’ll look forward to your call, okay?”
                  “Why can’t we just be friends?” I blurted out, testing the waters. I was curious to know what he had to say; my eyes took a break from the book and posed on his face for a minute.
                     “I wouldn’t be able to be your friend,” he spluttered. Then he began to lecture me, waving his hands like an orchestra director. “When there’s physical attraction between two people, there’s no possible friendship. Monica’s my friend, for example, because we’ve never been attracted to each other.” 
                      “I see.” I returned to my book without saying anything. 
                      “I have to go now. Please, call me when you go back to Buenos Aires. Are you gonna call me?”
                      “Maybe,” I said while I pretended to be reading. I was no longer the scared woman on the deck. I felt powerful: Alberto was squatting by my side, begging me to ring him up, and I could sense how the uncertainty of the situation was gnawing at him. He wrestled with himself, his pride thrust aside, to convince me. I was the one in control now. His physical power meant nothing.
                      When he had finally left the bedroom, Monica came back in, smiling. She glanced at me and said, “Are you okay?”
                      “I’m fine, thanks.”
                      Then she approached the window, took a deep breath and shut her eyes. Her smile faded, but there was a hint of deep pleasure on her expression. She opened her eyes gently.
                      “The scent of the pine trees brings me memories,” she said.
                       “What kind of memories?”
                       “A guy I was in love with. We used to go for walks to a place with lots of pine trees.” She climbed to her bed with alacrity and sat on it, embracing her legs. “But it’s over now.”
                        “Do you miss him?”
                        She stared out the window, as if trying to figure it out. “I rarely do. I loved him, but I love my art even more. People deceive me all the time, but my art is what gives me unconditional joy. It will always be there for me as long as my eyes are open and seeing.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Over the years, I’ve learned to stop trusting people. I only trust myself. Don’t get me wrong, when I find common ground with somebody, I rejoice in the experience, celebrate it, but I don’t expect anything from people. I always have my art to go back to,” she said shaking her head, gazing out at the azure vastness of the ocean glittering in the summer sun. “Art is what enables me to be myself, to connect with the mysterious, to feel love openly without fears. It sets me free.” 
                       Her eyes focused on the ocean with an absent look. She was there, and yet she could have been in a thousand other places, her mind traveling to the past, pondering about other people and experiences. I lay in bed, lulled into the beauty of the confession she dared to share with me. I had been disappointed many times – walking away had become a painful routine in my life - so there was a mysterious sense of relief in listening to her. 
                       The slogan became a reality in my head, an everlasting imprint of my sojourn to Pinamar. I never forgot Cabezas. Needless to say I never went back to Pinamar for a “quiet vacation by the sea”.  I neither called Albert nor saw him again, either. Two years later, though, I read about him on the newspaper. 
                    “Alberto Marone, photographer of ‘Faces and People’ magazine, was beaten for taking a picture of a soccer player who did not want to be photographed. As a result of the blows he was left unconscious and was taken to the hospital, where he later recovered.” 
                        When I read the news a part of me wanted to protect him, to console him. It was as if I had been taken over by an uncanny maternal instinct, irrational as it was, to shield him from the wilderness of the world. A few weeks later, however, I learned that he decided he would not sue the man who had beaten him. I wondered whether he had been bribed or coerced into following a different course of action. My desire to protect him collapsed into pity and acceptance. After all, he belonged to that wilderness; we clearly belonged to different worlds. 


1) Pareo is the term applied to any piece of cloth wrapped around the body. It’s mostly worn by women.




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