It begins here.
As people pass by La Iglesia de San Marcelo, in Don Torcuato, just outside Buenos Aires -- that is, "people" as "some people," that is, not all, but enough to make the gesture notable and customary -- they make the sign of the cross, ended by kissing the thumbnail. Not all, as I have said, and there are distinctions. Men wearing white business shirts and mute-colored ties with cellphones clipped to their belts usually do not. Women do, mostly, even a woman shepherding three children, pushing one in a stroller, dragging a second by the wrist, keeping an eye on the third -- she releases the wrist just long enough to get in the cross and the kiss, then grabs back the wrist before the child realizes that he was, for a moment, free and now is not, that is, before he feels any regrets for his missed liberation (there will be time reserved later for that). Older women and younger women -- women with pannier-like purses hanging from their shoulders balance-beamed, right-hand/left-hand, by small cloth bags holding a bit of shopping from the confiteria or the carnirceria, or women with hip-hugging skirts and midriff chemises and that curious practice of wearing a brassiere with clear plastic straps as if to say they are not really wearing what they are clearly wearing, that what is being lifted up is not uplifted at all. Years and fashions apart, but as they pass the church, an act as if they are one: north, south, east, west, kiss the thumb, and continue passing. Young boys will do it, even if they look thuggish or are made opaque by their earphones or bob -- knee to knee, instep to instep -- a soccer ball, old men, too, half-hinged forward at the waist by a stiffened back, pants too tightly cinched, open-necked shirts with frayed collars: top, bottom, side, side, kiss. People in the passing busses, people in their passing cars, they do it, too.
Who knows why they do it, why the automatic gesture, even if a long (or even short) time ago some of them decided not to go to the church anymore -- it gives them comfort, I suppose, though I wouldn't presume to say what comfort it gives. It certainly shows how old forms have a hold on us even if they no longer have anything useful to teach us. Whether this is good or bad will never be answered to anybody's satisfaction.
As I said, it begins here.
A young woman and a young man pass by, together, together in that young man/young woman sort of way, loosely linked, not at all embarrassed about touching each other, where they are is where centers the world. She wears a black chemise, spaghetti-strapped, unbra'd, low-hipped jeans -- Levis -- her hair black and straight, without barrette and tangled. He sports a shirt with Boca colors, cargo shorts, hair black, too, but his is curly. They come from the corner, where they have just crossed the street, and in their shambling intimate way they are talking, tossing back and forth jokes and barbs and gossip. And as they cruise by, they both without hesitation make the sign of the cross and kiss the thumb. Not two steps beyond that, responding to something he whispers in her ear, she smacks him, hard, on the upper right arm -- really smacks him, the report of it jumps off the stucco'd walls of the church courtyard. Her reaction to her reaction is immediate, a soothing gesture, the palm stroking over the reddened skin as if to wipe it away, but she is, at that same moment, fierce in her voice and set in her face, she does not like what he has said, but she continues to smooth his arm even as she lobs her words.
He laughs, laughs it off in that way that while he knows perfectly well that she is right for being offended he is not going to admit that he did something stupid and thoughtless, so he continues to joke with her, which only has the effect of making her feel that what she feels is not important to him at all, which makes her angrier -- but she does not pull her hand away from his arm, she now rests her hand on his forearm, connected to him through anger and skin.
He takes her by the upper arms and looks her straight in the face and for a moment he is not laughing and she is not angering and though the cars and busses brute their way by, that does not in the least make them flinch or glance away and lose focus. His hands do not clench, in fact the fingers hardly dent her browned flesh, and she does not stiffen in reproach but lets her body lean into his grip. Then they kiss, once -- not shallow, not deep, not forced, not unwanted -- then they separate again, arms length, and he cocks his a head a bit as if to say, "Okay?" and she tosses back a slat of hair, refusing to look down and away as young women are sometimes taught to do to signal that the male's gesture is both alpha and omega in the negotiation just done, and instead she leans in to nuzzle him nose to nose then softly, with exquisite calculation, head-butts him, just hard enough to let him know what he needs to know if he is to continue walking down the street with her. He laughs, lets her go, they turn, they walk.
Just as she knocks her forehead against his, just at the moment of loving collision, an elderly lady wielding a cane and wearing a straw sun hat passes them, going in the opposite direction, towards the corner that they have just crossed. She can not but notice how they treat each other and equally so she can not stop herself from making a clucking noise, often written in novels as "tsk tsk tsk" but which sounds nothing like that at all, since the tongue flicks down from the palate and -- and, well, there is no need to go into a full vocal schematic to understand that the elderly lady does not approve of them, their public display of affection (is this what passes for affection these days? she huffs accompanied by rat-a-tat-tat of mental "tsk tsks"), their blocking the sidewalk, their self-absorption, their standing in front of the church while they -- well, in the half-dozen steps from passing them, cane-end tamping the ground three angry times, to the gates opening on to the church courtyard she has built up a complete head of steam against the young and how the world will go further into hell by way of their handbasket and by the time her dissatisfaction begins to plume outwards like steam from a fumarole, her right hand under the levitating draw of the church has begun to rise to her own corrugated forehead, where the fingertips touch the dry skin, then lower to touch the bony breast plate, then cross to touch the thin scrim of left-shouldered blouse, traverse to the right shoulder, ending with the unpolished lips against the unpolished thumbnail. And under her breath she whispers, as she watches the retreating backs of the young man and young woman, something like "to the greater glory" or "deliver us from evil" (these untethered fragments can float up from anywhere), the prayer to the loving christian god doubling as a pox upon their bodies and their openness.
She pivots her body to aim at the corner to be crossed, not an easy thing do when one is wearing, underneath the thin beige blouse, a half-slip, an industrial-strength brassiere whose reinforced darts and seams uphold the unsung-to breasts that long ago gave in to gravity's legislation, and a corset to grip her osteo'd lower back in a completely unloving embrace. Step, tam, step, tam, she makes her way to the corner.
The traffic being what it is in Don Torcuato, headlong like the bulls in Pamplona, street lights are, at best, a suggestion about how a driver should conduct himself or herself when sharing the road with other vehicular'd human beings -- and like most suggestions, ignored if inconvenient, followed if either helpful or unavoidable. The taxi driver, with his fare in the rear seat, sees the blinking green light and knows, because he is paid to know these things, that the yellow light will pop up, followed snap by the red light, in a period of time shorter than it will take him to make the corner and make the turn and carry his fare closer to where he will get out and pay him some money.
In normal times, no problem -- a red light is nothing much to worry about. But an old lady crossing the street when the walk light is clearly on her side and giving her the perfect right to be in the crosswalk as the taxi driver barrels forward changes everything, and his brakes catch in time (a small benediction of thanks for that because it has been some time, he admits to himself, since he has been able to afford the necessary maintenance to maintain what he should have been maintaining all along -- things as prosaic and resurrective as working brakes).
The old lady gives him a glare -- shoots him a glare, really, since, irritated by the young couple, her head of steam has not lessened, and so she releases her glare at the taxi driver the way an artillery officer would unleash his cannon. He pays the ocular barrage no mind -- if he reacted to every dirty look thrown at him by a just-missed pedestrian, he'd be sick at heart every day and unable to ply his trade. A rubbery hide is requisite for a taxi driver, it acts like a corset, and it also helps to have a snappy clutch-foot and pile-driver brake foot and a penalty-shot accelerator foot, not to mention an arsenal of high-caliber profanities and gestures balanced by a tanguero's facility with the notes of daily conversation. The fare in the back seat had such a one in the front seat.
As they waited, the fare, distracted by something loping through his mind, did not at all pay attention to the taxi driver's assessment of the government's latest stupidity -- there were so many, who could keep count anyway? who would want to? -- and so therefore did not take note of the elderly woman crossing the street or her steely stare or the ribs of her autocratic corset or eventually her dismissive back as she reached the other side of the intersection or the taxi driver nosing forward, inch by inch, into a stream of traffic unwilling to give him an inch, the red light stretched like an elastic by the taxi driver's impatience.
Finally -- finally! -- green, and he slingshots around the corner and the fare, suddenly realizing where he is, taps the driver's right shoulder and bleats out "Here, here," and the pile-driver brake foot and snappy clutch-foot tap dance the car to a commanded stop, in front of La Iglesia de San Marcelo, and the taxi driver half-turns to face his fare, a ready now-it's-time-to-get-paid look on his face -- half-courteous (since it is always important to be courteous before the money is paid) and half-impatient -- that changes, with just the slightest twitch, into irritation -- a half-millimeter drop of the uplifted forehead, a slight droop at the ends of the smile -- as the fare hands him a 100-peso note -- true, he hands it to him with some apology in his face but, because he is distracted, the fare doesn't spare much apology -- and for the taxi driver the situation suddenly changes because if it had been a few degrees cooler this day (but it was 33 in the celsius and a little humid) and the old lady hadn't laid those accusing eyes on him and he had made the red light (and his family at home had not been breaking his balls, but that was another story), he might have let it go, taken the note (of course with reluctant fingertips to show the fare how disdainful he was of people who came so unprepared), riffled through his own wad of notes and made change. But the "ifs" don't happen and so (without knowing why he is doing what he is doing -- this is really not like him) he says he can not take it, can not make change, that he doesn't carry that kind of change on him, and doesn't he, the fare, have something smaller, after all it was only a five-peso ride, why should he, the fare, expect him to have change --
The fare, distracted, does not catch all of this and still dangles the bill, waiting for the transaction to go forward as it is supposed to, and as he looks around he sees the splotched white front of La Iglesia de San Marcelo through the dust-scrimmed window, and without thinking, that is, in a gesture as autonomic as breath in/breath out or digestion, he brings the hand holding the note to his forehead, to the V-point just where his suit-jacket buttons, to the left-padded shoulder, to the right-padded shoulder, and then the nail to his lips, where the note, for a moment, thumb-and-finger-pinched, looks like a napkin wiping his mouth.
The taxi driver, stopped mid-complaint, watches the fare, lowers his head a bit to see through the dust-scrimmed window that yes, he had forgotten, they have stopped in front of the church, and in a lever-action that equals and comments upon and echoes the other man, makes the sign of the cross. When the fare finally turns his face to the taxi driver, this time with a little more readiness to it because whatever is distracting him has left off distracting him for a moment, he proffers the note again, and this time, still venting a bit of irritation (which goes to show that even in a moment of transformation the taxi driver feels a need not to give up the slight superiority he had when he first refused), the taxi driver takes it, unearths his bankroll (from some crevice in the car, to foil any robbers, he has had those before), and makes the change. The fare thanks him, cranks open the door, steps out, and only catches a faint tang of ozone as the ecologically unsound taxi spews back a plume of grey smoke as it threads into the traffic weave.
The fare, standing on the curb, looks left, looks right, makes no move. He doesn't really see the young man and young woman coming along, returning from wherever they had gone, this time eating ice cream. As they pass behind the fare, the young man mimes pushing him off the curb and out into the traffic, and the young woman smacks him again, this time playfully, not hard, the sting of affection rather than insult, and they smile at each other. And, like choreography, they switch their ice-creams to their left hands and with their right hands touch forehead, solar plexus, shoulder, shoulder, buttoned with a kiss, the burden that had been on the back of Jesus now borne on the fronts of bodies moving forward into their daily grind while eating ice cream.
The fare, looking left (he notices the couple, then forgets them), finally turns right and walks away. He walks as if he is now not distracted, as if whatever he came to do now begins here.