Issue 210, Fall 2014
I worked nights as a phone operator, and it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The money wasn’t good, but it wasn’t awful either, and although the place looked inhospitable—a cramped office on Guardia Vieja, whose only window looked out on an immense gray wall—it was a pleasant place to work: not too cold in winter or too hot in summer. Well, maybe I got cold in summer and hot in winter, but that was because I never managed to figure out how the thermostat worked.
This was in 1998: the World Cup in France had ended and, a little while later, after I’d been working at the job for a couple of months, they arrested Pinochet. My boss, who was Spanish, put a photo of Judge Garzón on a corner of his desk, and we placed flowers around it in thanks. Portillo was a good boss, a generous guy; I rarely saw him, sometimes only on the twenty-ninth, when I waited, with some stupendous circles under my eyes, to pick up my paycheck. What I remember most about him is his voice, so high-pitched, like a teenager’s—a common enough tone among Chileans, but, for me, it was disconcerting to hear it from a Spaniard. He would call me very early, at six or seven in the morning, so I could give him a report on what had happened the previous night, which was pretty much pointless, because nothing ever happened, or almost nothing: maybe some call or other from Rome or Paris, simple cases from people who weren’t really sick but who wanted to make the most of the travel insurance they had bought in Santiago. My job was to listen to them, take down their information, make sure the policy was valid, and connect them to my counterparts in Europe.
Portillo let me read or write, or even doze off, on the condition that I always answer the phone in good time. That’s why he called at six or seven—although, when he was out partying, he might call earlier, a little drunk. The phone should never ring more than three times, he would tell me if I took too long picking up. But he didn’t usually scold me; on the contrary, he was quite friendly. Sometimes he asked me what I was reading. I would say Paul Celan or Emily Dickinson or Emmanuel Bove or Humberto Díaz Casanueva, and he always burst out laughing, as if he had just heard a very good and unexpected joke.
One night, around four in the morning, I received a call from someone whose voice sounded mock-serious or disguised, and I thought it was my boss pretending to be someone else. “I’m calling from Paris,” said the voice. The man was calling direct, which increased my feeling that it was a prank of Portillo’s, because clients usually reversed the charges when they called. Portillo and I had a certain level of trust between us, so I told him not to fuck with me, that I was very busy reading. “I don’t understand, I’m calling from Paris,” the man responded. “Is this the number of the travel insurance?” I apologized and asked him for his number so I could call him back. When we talked again I’d become the nicest phone operator on the planet, which wasn’t really necessary, because I’ve never been impolite and because the man with the unrealistic voice was also unrealistically nice, which was not usual in that job: it was more common for clients to show their bad manners, their high-handedness, their habit of treating phone operators badly, and surely also laborers, cooks, salespeople, or any other of the many groups made up of their supposed inferiors.
Juan Emilio’s voice, on the other hand, suggested the possibility of a reasonable conversation, although I don’t know if reasonable is the word, because as I was taking down his information (fifty-five years old, home address in Lo Curro, no preexisting conditions) and checking his policy (his insurance had the best coverage available on the market), something in his voice made me think that, more than a doctor, he just needed someone to talk to, someone who would listen.
He told me he’d been in Europe for five months, most of that time in Paris, where his daughter—whom he called la Moño—was working on her doctorate and living with her husband—el Mati—and the kids. None of this was in response to my questions, but he was talking so enthusiastically that it was impossible for me to break in. He told me how the kids pronounced French with charmingly correct accents, and he also threw in a few commonplace observations about Paris. By the time he started talking to me about the difficulties la Moño had been having lately meeting her academic obligations, about the complexity of the doctoral programs, and about what kind of sense parenthood made in a world like this one (“a world that sometimes seems so strange nowadays, so different,” he told me), I realized we’d been talking for almost forty minutes. I had to interrupt him and respectfully ask him to tell me why he was calling. He told me he was a little under the weather, and he’d had a fever. I typed up the fax and sent it to the office in Paris so they could coordinate the case, and then I started the long process of saying good-bye to Juan Emilio, who fell all over himself in apologies and politeness before finally accepting that the conversation had ended.
Back then I’d picked up a few evening hours teaching at a technical- training institute. The schedule fit perfectly: the class was from eight to nine twenty p.m., twice a week, so I could maintain my nocturnal rhythm, getting up at noon, reading a lot, and all was well.
My first class was in March 2000, a few days after Pinochet returned to Chile like he owned the place (I’m sorry for these reference points, but they’re the ones that come to mind). My students were older than me: they were all at least thirty and some were in their fifties. They worked all day, and only with a great deal of effort could they pay their tuition for programs in business administration, accounting, secretarial studies, or tourism. I was to teach them “Techniques of Written Expression,” according to a very rigid and outdated syllabus, which encompassed composition, grammar, and even pronunciation.
In the first classes, I tried to comply with what was asked of me, but my students came to class very tired from their jobs, and I think all of us got bored. I remember the desolation at the end of those first workdays. I remember walking along Avenida España after the third or fourth class, stopping at a hot-dog stand, ordering an Italiano, and thinking that I should tackle that feeling of wasted time head-on. After all, I was there to talk about language, and if there had been one constant thing in my life it was a love of certain stories, certain phrases, a handful of words. But it was clear that, up to that point, I hadn’t been able to communicate anything. “Interesting class, Prof,” one student told me at the entrance to the metro, as if fate was trying to dispel my dark thoughts. I hadn’t recognized her. To combat my shyness, I opted to teach class without my glasses, so that I couldn’t make out my students’ faces, and if I had to ask a question, I’d just look toward some undefined place and say, What do you think, Daniela? It was an infallible method, because there were five Danielas in the course.
The name of the woman who talked to me in the metro wasn’t Daniela, but it rhymed: Pamela. She told me that she still lived with her parents, that she didn’t have a job. I asked her why she went to school at night, then. “Because it’s hot during the day,” she answered, flirtatious and disdainful. I asked her if she went to school at noon during the winter, and she laughed. Then I wanted to know if she really thought the class had been good. She looked down, as if I’d asked her something very intimate. “Yes,” she told me, and then, almost a station later, “Interesting.” We got out together at Baquedano, and I kept her company while she waited for the bus to Quilicura.
It hadn’t been rare when I was at university; there were tons of examples: male teacher with student (male or female); female teacher with student (same); and there was talk of a few salacious cases (perhaps somewhat exag- gerated) of a male teacher with two female students, and a female teacher with three male students and a female librarian (in the library, on top of the returns desk). So I thought it wouldn’t be that serious an infraction if I tried to make something happen with Pamela. She wasn’t short or tall, not fat or thin: perfect, I thought (I’ve never known how to answer those kinds of questions: do you prefer dark hair or blonde, et cetera). I knew for certain that there was something in her voice, in her attitude, in her eyes that I liked.
I was engrossed in these speculations when I reached the office. I poured a coffee and smoked one cigarette after another (Portillo didn’t smoke but he still allowed us to), thinking about love and also, I don’t know why, about death, and then about the future, which wasn’t my favorite subject. I thought how it was the year 2000, and I remembered the conversations we’d had as children, as teenagers, about that far-off future year: we had imagined a life full of flying cars and happy teleportations, or maybe something less spectacular but still radically different from the soulless and repressive world we lived in. I must have fallen asleep thinking about that, but the phone woke me up shortly after, at one in the morning. It was my boss calling to remind me that at three a.m. they were going to shut off the water. While I was filling up the thermos and the sink, I thought of myself, probably for the first time ever, as a solitary person.
According to procedure, fourteen days after the first call took place, we had to contact the client (the pax, as we called them) and ask how their illness had turned out and what their opinion was of the service they had received. This part of the process was referred to as the social call, and it was the last step before closing a file (oh, what strange pleasure we felt when we finally closed a file). So I picked up the phone and I called Paris: Juan Emilio was still at his daughter’s house, and it was she who answered—la Moño didn’t strike me as quite so friendly as her father: “Call him later,” she said dryly. That’s what I did. Juan Emilio seemed moved by my call, which tended to happen, because some of the clients thought we were calling out of personal concern, as if some sad night operator would or could care about a compatriot on the other side of the world coming down with a slight cold.
Toward the end of the conversation, Juan Emilio asked me if I liked my job. I replied that there were better ones, but that this one was pretty good. “But what did you study?” he insisted. “Literature,” I replied, and he let out a chuckle. I hated when people asked me that question, but neither his question nor his laughter bothered me. Over time I learned to accept and appreciate Juan Emilio’s crescendos of laughter, minimal at first, and then frank and contagious.
Four or five days later, now back in Chile, he called again. It was seven in the morning, and I was fast asleep in the office. “I want to know if you’re okay,” he told me, and we got caught up in a conversation that would have been normal if we had been two teenagers becoming friends, or two old men trying to combat the inertia of a Monday at their retirement home. I thought Juan Emilio was pretty crazy, and maybe I felt proud to participate in his madness. “Pax very friendly, calls for no reason and thanks me again for the service,” I wrote in his file. But really there was a reason for his call, although I think that it only occurred to him as we were talking: he asked me to be his teacher, his guide in reading. “I need to be more cultured,” he said. It seemed simple: I would recommend books for him to read, and then we would discuss them. I accepted, of course. I proposed a monthly sum and he insisted on doubling it. I offered to go to his house or his office, although I didn’t really see myself taking the metro and a shared taxi to cross the entire city every week. Luckily, he wanted the classes to take place at my apartment, every Monday, at seven in the evening.
Juan Emilio was short, redheaded, dandified. He dressed with awkward elegance, as if his clothes were always new, as if his clothes wanted to say in a loud and energetic voice, I don’t have anything to do with this body, I’m never going to get used to this body. We made a reading list that I thought might interest him. He was enthusiastic. I liked Juan Emilio, but the warmth I felt toward him was tempered by an ambiguous, guilty feeling. What kind of person could allow himself, when he was of working age, such a long European vacation? What had he done all that time, besides take his grandchildren to all the ice-cream parlors in Paris? I tried to imagine him as one of those millionaire Chileans who flew to London to support Pinochet. I tried to see him as what I supposed he was: a full-on cuico, conservative, bourgeois, Pinochetista or ex-Pinochetista, although he didn’t talk like a cuico and his opinions weren’t so conservative and inflexible—at least you could talk to him, you really could. He was also discreet: he looked around my small apartment on Plaza Italia without revealing that it seemed a poor and run-down place to him. Later I thought, to mollify myself, Manichaean-style, that no Chilean executive would have a daughter studying in France, that France was the worst place in the world for the daughter of a Pinochetista.
The classes at the technical-training institute, meanwhile, improved. I started to use my glasses so that I could pay more attention to Pamela. A pair of dimples insinuated themselves into her cheeks, and the way she did her makeup was odd: she drew a too-thick line around her eyes, as if fencing them in, as if she wanted to keep them from jumping out of her skull and escaping. One night we had to go over the various kinds of letter writing, and I rambled on ineloquently until I had the idea to give them an exercise. I asked them to write a letter that they would have liked to receive, a letter that would have changed their lives. Almost all of them did predictable things, but there were four who took the exercise to its extremes and wrote texts that were savage, devastating, beautiful. One of them ended up crying and cursing his father, or his uncle, or a father who was really his uncle—I think we were all uncertain on that point, but we didn’t dare ask him to clarify.
I saw that moment as my chance to change the course of things. I devoted the next few classes to lessons on letter writing, always trying to get them to discover the power of language, the ability of words to truly influence reality. Some of the students were still uneasy, but we started to have a good time. They wrote to their parents, to childhood friends, to their first loves. I remember one student who wrote to John Paul II to explain why she no longer believed in God (her letter prompted a horrible and convoluted fight that almost came to blows, but in the end, we were all better for it). By now they liked the class: the only thing they wanted to do was write letters, express feelings, explore what was happening to them. Except for Pamela, who avoided me and abstained from class participation. And, despite my best efforts, we hadn’t run into each other in the metro again.
One night, at the beginning of class, a student raised his hand and told me that he wanted to write a letter of resignation, because he was planning to quit his job. He started talking, then, about the problems he had with his boss; I tried to give him advice, but I was possibly the least qualified person in the room to do that. Someone told him he was irresponsible, that before quitting he should think about how he was going to live and how he would pay for school. A weighty and serious silence followed, which I didn’t know how to fill.
“I want to write the letter,” he told us then. “I’m not going to quit, I couldn’t, I have kids, I have problems, but I still want to write that letter. I want to imagine what it would be like to quit. I want to tell my boss how I really feel about him. I want to tell him he’s a son of a bitch, but without using that word.”
“It’s not a word, it’s several,” said a student sitting in the first row.
“It’s four words: son of a bitch.”
We started on the letter. We wrote the first paragraphs on the board, but because the class period was coming to an end, we agreed to pick up the exercise next time.
Only there wasn’t a next time. I arrived on Monday just early enough to pick up the folder and go to the classroom, but the building was boarded up and there was even fresh paint on the facade. The institute no longer existed. The students explained all this to me, devastated. They had already paid their tuition that month, and a few had even paid the whole year in advance, taking advantage of a discount.
That night I went with my students to a bar on Avenida España. They didn’t usually go out together and they’d never become friends, so while some of them told about their lives and got to know each other, the rest just focused on their beers and churrasco sandwiches. Pamela was at the opposite end of the table with another group and never talked to me, but I timed things so that, after leaving the bar, we met on the way to the metro. I went with her again to the bus in Plaza Italia, and when we said good-bye she told me that she felt overly watched by me, but that if I didn’t look at her so much, maybe she would start to like me. “But we’re never going to see each other again,” I told her. “Who knows,” she replied.