Mint Juleps and Determinism
Every day for the past two months, Sebastián had come face to face with that jeering row of men in suits and Humphrey Bogart hats, with their machetes raised high above their heads and cigarettes drooping from their mouths. By now, he was sick of that sepia rabble.
He’d also had enough of those three foreigners babbling away outside. He wished they would shut up. This was a library after all. Ok, so technically they weren’t in the library. They were in the exhibition space, just through the open archway, but they were making such a racket that it felt like they were sitting right next to him, shouting in his ear. They didn’t belong here. This was his special place—the Luis Ángel Arango library had been his sanctuary for the last year.
‘You know I’m researching a paper,’ he would lie when Sara asked why he hadn’t come home until 9pm, yet again, or why he needed to disappear every Saturday into the city center. That she had believed he spent so much time researching a subject as dull as insurance law showed just how little she must have thought of him. Or, perhaps, she had never believed him. Perhaps the pretense had suited her, too. By spending more and more time apart, it had been easier to act like they were still meant to be together. But they hadn’t been able to pretend forever.
It had all come to a head one Sunday several months’ back. They had been forced to spend the entire day together trapped at home by one of Bogotá’s thundering, apocalyptic rainstorms. They had bickered from the moment they had opened their eyes in the morning until they had got into bed that night, backs turned against one another. Three days later, Sara had moved back in with her parents.
He didn’t miss Sara. He didn’t miss her constant calorie counting, or her hour-long nightly phone calls to her mom who lived just ten blocks away, or the way she snapped if the maid moved her beauty products around on the shelf in the bathroom. But now, in his early thirties, Sebastián was living alone for the first time in his life, and the echoing silence of the apartment was asphyxiating. And so he continued to go the library every evening after work. Using books to escape the loneliness of singledom just as he had used them to escape the loneliness of his marriage.
‘Kant thought understanding the idea of cause was fundamental in understanding our experiences. The laws of deterministic theory are such that the state of a closed system (for example, the positions and momenta of particles in the system) at one instant determines the state of that system at any point in the future. Regardless of how remote the cause might seem from the effect.’
He had to read that paragraph three times. His attention kept getting yanked away by those damned foreigners discussing Sady González.
Sebastián had first heard the name Sady González two months ago, on May 10th, the day he had signed the divorce papers. He had left the notary’s office and come straight to the library, where a big sign announced the first ever public exhibition of González’s work. Even though he hadn’t recognized the name, Sebastián had quickly realized that he was already intimately familiar with González’s images. What Colombian didn’t know those pictures?
On April 9th, 1948, following the assassination of presidential hopeful Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Bogotá had erupted. As people charged to the streets with clubs, shotguns or whatever was at hand, as they broke into hardware stores to steal machetes, axes, gunpowder, anything that could help them to ravage their city, as tram carriages burned, and bodies lay where they had been slain, González had grabbed his camera and run out to record it all.
Thanks to González, ‘El Bogotazo,’ the day Colombians had run raving mad through their capital city, killing each other and burning historic buildings to the ground, couldn’t be dismissed as a myth, an exaggeration, or another chapter in the country’s story that was more magic than real. His pictures were an eternal reminder of the truth of that day.
Sixty-seven years later, those photos now hung inside oak frames on the walls of the high-ceilinged lobby, together with his pictures of society weddings, kite-flying competitions and beauty queens.
“Guys, look at this one,” one of the Gringas called to her friends in a high-pitched tone that cut right through the library’s silence, “La Rebeca en el Parque Centenario. I’ve never heard of the Centenario Park, have you?”
“No. But it looks stunning doesn’t it? It looks like something you’d find in Madrid or Paris, not here. I wish we still had parks like that in Bogotá,” the other Gringa answered.
Sebastián stared through the archway to the exhibition space outside, giving the foreigners the meanest look he could muster—even though they had their backs to him. The three of them moved on from the photo of the Rebecca statue in the park and paused in front of the next image. It was of a corpse lying on the steps of the Presidential Palace, disfigured and naked except for a few scraps of underwear, a left shoe and a necktie. It was Juan Roa Sierra, Gaitán’s alleged assassin. He had been dragged through the city by the screaming mob and dumped there for the President to find when he got back to the Palace with his wife after an exhibition opening.
The foreigners were quiet now. Finally, something had shocked them into silence. As Sebastián watched the three of them, dumbstruck by the sight of Roa’s ruined and broken body, a satisfied smile crept across his face. At that very moment, a woman appeared in the archway. Their eyes met and she smiled back at him. Sebastián immediately averted his gaze.
He started reading again ‘the state of a closed system (for example, the positions and momenta of particles in the system) at one instant determines the state of that system at any point in the future. Regardless of how remote the cause might seem from the effect.’
He glanced up, careful not to catch her eye again. The woman was walking towards him. She was slim and delicate, but also self-sufficient looking in a khaki jacket, jeans, and Dr. Martens boots, and she had a functional-looking bag slung across her body. She sat down at the table in front, with her back to him. She had short, impish hair. Her neck was bare.
It was so strange to see the exposed skin on the back of a woman’s neck. Nearly all Colombian women had long hair running down their backs, hiding their necks from public view. As he moved his eyes from the rounded little bone at the top of the woman’s spine, along her neck and up to the soft fuzz at her hairline, Sebastián wondered if this was what it was like for men in olden times. Did they feel this kind of rush when a woman raised her skirt an inch or two to expose an ankle or a flash of calf?
The woman’s hands were trembling. She was holding a black and white postcard and was examining it carefully. It must have come from the library shop. Sebastián recognized the image. It was one of González’s photos. It was a picture of two girls in school uniform, probably fifteen or sixteen, standing on a street corner holding hands. One of them had her back to the photographer. The other was staring straight into the camera with wide eyes. González must have been across the street from them when he took that shot. From his vantage point, he was able to capture both the schoolgirls and the rabid mob, just around the corner, charging in the girls’ direction.
The woman reached into her handbag and took out a guidebook. It was called ‘Bogotá: A Walk Through The Enchanted City.’ What an odd title, Sebastián thought. He could see no enchantment in this scarred metropolis, assembled in a chaotic fashion on a tableland in the Andes, with its persistent clouds that crouched on the mountain and threatened rain, even on the sunniest of days.
The woman consulted the book’s pull-out map, placed the postcard in the middle as a page mark, put the book under her arm, and got up to leave.
Sebastián watched her walk away. Should he try to stop her? Should he speak to her—ask her who she was and what she was doing here? No, she was already out the door and passing through the exhibition, walking past the three foreigners who had resumed their chatter. He couldn’t get her attention now anyway, and he had nothing to say to her even if he could.
He started reading again—‘…the state of a closed system (for example, the positions and momenta of particles in the system) at one instant determines the state of that system at any point in…’
Maybe he could ask her about the guidebook, pretend he was looking to buy one…but why would he need a guidebook for his own city? He looked up. She was now out of sight. It was too late. But if he ran, he could catch her. He might just have a chance. No, it was stupid. He’d look like an idiot running after her. He wouldn’t catch her anyway. But he might. No…but…screw it—he grabbed his jacket and rushed out.
The woman was now at the door to the building. Sebastián paused next to the row of González photos on the wall, unsure. The woman pulled an umbrella from the bag. As she was opening it, the postcard fell from the guidebook in her hand and fluttered to the ground. She didn’t notice. She took off along the street, her umbrella held in front of her in a vain attempt to block the sideways rain.
Sebastián ran to the door. This was his opportunity. He retrieved the postcard from the doorway and stepped out into the downpour.
“Excuse me,” he called, speaking in English. He assumed she wasn’t Colombian. Huge droplets of rain pelted his face, and he had to squint to see. “Excuse me, your postcard,” he called again, louder this time so she could hear him over the din of the rain.
She turned around.
He ran the short distance between them.
“This is yours, yes?” he pulled the postcard from his pocket and handed it to her. “You dropped it as you left the library.”
For the first time, he was able to look at her face. Her eyes were a dark grey. Her features were fine. There were a few small lines on her forehead, but otherwise her skin was luminous. She was definitely in Sebastián’s target ‘thirty to thirty-five’ age bracket. Sebastián’s closest single friend was Pedro. No matter hold old Pedro got, the age of his girlfriend remained a constant twenty-five. A week after his divorce, Sebastián had spent a disastrous night out in the Zona Rosa with Pedro, trying to dance Reggaeton and make conversation over the din with Pedro’s latest girl’s friends—most of whom had just graduated from college. After that, Sebastián had sworn off twenty-something women—not that any of them had been too keen on him either.
The woman raised the umbrella higher in an attempt to cover Sebastián from the rain. “Get under, it’s pouring down.”
Sebastián took a half step towards her, trying to get under the umbrella’s shelter without encroaching on her personal space.
“That’s ok. It’s the least I can do. Are you headed up this way?”
“Yes, I am,” Sebastián said. His Transmilenio station was in the other direction, but he wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to talk to this woman.
“I can walk with you and share the umbrella until my hotel. It’s a few blocks up this street.”
“Sure, thanks.” They started walking, settling into a natural joint rhythm after a few steps.
“So what brings you to Colombia?” Sebastián asked.
“I want to get to know my heritage. I’m half Colombian. My Mom’s parents were both from here, but my Mom was born in the US. My Dad’s parents were Irish.”
“So you’re an Irish Colombian. I haven’t met many of those. Although did you know Simón Bolívar’s aide de camp was an Irish man called Daniel O’Leary?”
“No, I hadn’t heard that.”
“Yes, and O’Leary’s son was called Simón Bolívar O’Leary. Isn’t that a great name?”
She nodded and fell silent. He’d bored her with his talk of long dead generals—too much time in the library and not enough time in the real world. He really was out of practice. It had been well over a decade since he’d last done this.
They continued to walk up the steep cobbled street. It was lined on both sides by one and two story colonial houses with clay roofs. Many of the houses were painted light pink or blue or green, which gave the place a cheery feel despite the heavy grey sky that was bearing down on them. Occasionally, a detailed mural, probably painted by some famous graffiti artist trying to make a valid but indecipherable point about social injustice, disturbed the pastel prettiness.
All along the street a typical cross-section of La Candelaria’s population was crowded in doorways trying to escape the rain: a lady with a wheelbarrow of avocadoes, an old man in a suit selling lottery tickets, the ‘minutes’ salesman with six mobile phones chained to an iron pole, a phone for every operator, and a pair of blonde back-packers dressed in flip-flops and shorts. The tourists had obviously been fooled by the heat and blue skies of the morning and didn’t know to look towards the mountain to figure out how the day would turn out.
Sebastián thought about all of those eyes watching him and the woman as they walked past. If González were here now to snap a picture of them, they would probably look like a couple, huddled together under her umbrella. If a picture tells a thousand words, then such a photo would lie a thousand times over, because their physical closeness masked the fact that they were strangers. He didn’t even know her name.
“I’m Sebastián, by the way.”
They walked past a man holding ten fishing rods.
“What’s with the fishing rods?” she asked Sebastián.
“He’s selling them.”
“What? On the street?”
“Yeah, you can buy anything on the street in Bogotá.” She started to laugh. It was an authentic giggle that rose from deep within her, lighting up her face. “What’s so funny?”
“Sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. It just seems so surreal to me. Like I get people buying cigarettes, arepas, hot dogs, or juice on the street. Those are spur of the moment buying decisions. But how many people do you think see him as they are walking about town and just, on the spot, think ooooh I need a fishing rod?”
Sebastián had often seen that man walking the streets peddling his wares. It had never before occurred to him that fishing rods were kind of an odd thing to be selling on the streets of the capital city. Just at that moment, a man walked past carrying close to fifty loofahs.
“And, after fishing in the puddles, if you want to take a shower in the rain, well he’s the man to speak to,” Sebastián said in a deadpan voice, making Erin laugh again. “Was this the heritage you were thinking about before you came?”
“Actually, no. But, after what I witnessed at the exhibition today, and after everything my grandmother told me about El Bogotazo, it’s nice to see that you Colombians are still nuts, but in a good way now.”
“We are the best kind of crazy,” Sebastián said, whilst at the same time wondering why he had used ‘we’ in that sentence. His life was pretty dull. Unfortunately, no one could accuse him of being a lunatic.
“Well, here’s my hotel. The rain is still pretty heavy. Are you going to be ok?”
“There’s a French bakery around the corner. I’ll probably wait there until the rain eases off.”
“Ok, if you’re sure. It was really nice to meet you.” She looked towards the door of the hotel and back at Sebastián. “If it’s just round the corner, I can walk with you. I feel bad leaving you in the rain like this.”
“You’ll have to let me buy you a coffee then.” Sebastián held his breath and prayed he had sounded casual.
“It’s a deal.”
For the next four hours, over coffee, almond croissants and meringue au chocolat, they chatted without pause. He told her a little bit about his work, “I teach finance law. It’s not the most exciting thing, but the pay is ok, and I don’t have to work long hours like my banker friends,” and also a little about his marriage, “we met in college. Three years out of college, we were both earning decent money, and we thought it was time to become independent of our parents. All we really wanted was to move out of our parents’ apartments and buy property, and for some reason getting married seemed like a prerequisite for doing that. Not the best reason to get married, but not an uncommon one here. We stuck it out for six years. We must have been happy in the beginning, but I can’t really remember that. All the good stuff has been obliterated by the memories of our epic fights over where to put the bathroom mat and things like that.”
“Did she want to put it on the kitchen ceiling or something?”
Sebastián smiled, “Not exactly. But our arguments did reach that level of ridiculousness; each of us taking diametrically-opposed positions on the smallest of things. The bathroom mat was a symptom, as they say, not the cause. We just brought out the worst in each other.”
Erin also told him about her job, “I’m a photographer, mainly corporate brochures and things like that, but I’m trying to break into travel photography,” and a bit about her past relationships, “I’ve had three serious boyfriends over the last fifteen years. I lived with one of them for a while. I’ve been single for over a year now.”
Mainly, however, they talked about movies, music, travel, politics and books. It had been so long since he had done this. Simply sit and enjoy a stimulating conversation with a beautiful woman. In fact, it had been a while since he’d had a really good conversation with anyone, beautiful woman or otherwise. Apart from Pedro, who only talked about girls and bars and what car/watch/TV he was planning to buy next, all of Sebastián’s friends were married with small children. They rarely came out anymore. They were too busy hoisting themselves up the career ladder on three hours sleep a night. When he did see them, the conversation focused on baby stimulation classes, school applications, mortgages, or, worst of all, how Sebastián was doing after the divorce. You could say a lot about Pedro, but at least he would never give you a pitying stare, and he’d never ask, ‘How are you?’ in that tone people reserved for the terminally ill and the recently divorced.
“So, tell me,” Sebastián said to Erin, “is there something special about the picture on the postcard you bought?”
For the first time all afternoon, she paused before answering, and Sebastián worried that he had overstepped the mark. Perhaps the warmth and coziness of the bakery had made him believe there was an intimacy between them that didn’t exist.
“I think it’s my Grandmother,” she finally responded. “The girl looking at the photographer looks really like her. She was at school in Bogotá that day. The nuns heard on the radio that there was trouble in the city, and so they just told the pupils to go home. Can you believe that? They just sent them out on to the streets to fend for themselves. She was just fourteen.”
“I know, the same happened to my grandmother. I can’t imagine the schools doing that these days.” Sebastián remembered interviewing his grandmother about El Bogotazo for a school project when he was a teenager. He couldn’t remember now much about what she had told him. He had got the impression that she wasn’t entirely comfortable having to relive that day—even if it was to help out her favorite grandson. “Did your grandmother get home ok?” Sebastián asked.
“Yes, well not home exactly. Her family was from Santander. They owned some land there. Her best friend was the daughter of the local doctor. They were both sent to high school in Bogotá, and my grandmother was living with her friend’s aunt at the time of the Bogotazo. When word reached the town that they had killed Gaitán, the liberals in the town went wild. They came to attack my great-grandparents’ house. The family had to escape out back via the river. They had to spend two days hiding in the undergrowth in a canoe further downstream. My grandmother’s older sister was just eighteen and had a three-month-old baby with her. Can you imagine that? A teenager, with a babe in arms, hiding in a canoe for two days, knowing there is a mob out there who wanted to kill her family, just because of something that happened thousands of miles away in the capital.”
“That’s horrible.” Instinctively, Sebastián reached over to touch Erin’s hand. For the first time he noticed her pink, unpolished fingernails, sensibly cut down low. “Did they get out ok?”
“Eventually, under the cover of night, they made their way to the local police station. The police said the only way they could protect them was to put them in jail. So the whole family had to sleep in a cramped rural jail cell that was designed to hold just a couple of prisoners. Meanwhile, my grandmother was still in Bogotá. By some miracle, they got back to her friend’s aunt’s house ok, but my grandmother was going out of her mind worrying about her family. She couldn’t get in touch with them.”
Erin nodded in agreement.
“How long did they hide out in the jail?” Sebastián asked.
“A few days, I’m not sure. It was too dangerous for them to go home, so the family fled by bus to Barranquilla. On 29 April, my grandmother finally managed to get a flight from Bogotá to join her family. By then, it had been three weeks since the Bogotazo. My grandmother always tells the tale of how everyone on the plane was chain-smoking. She even asked the young journalist sitting next to her for a drag of his smoke. I can just picture her, a young girl in a sensible dress, alone and scared, puffing away with the rest of the passengers. Eventually, her family got papers to move to the US, my great uncle was already living there and helped them out. And my grandmother never returned to Colombia, but she’d tell me about it a lot as I was growing up.”
‘Well, at least they got out. The violence following El Bogotazo was horrific. It was probably better for them in the US.’
Erin shrugged, ‘I suppose you’re right. They didn’t have it easy though. My great-grandfather went from being a reasonably well off landowner to working as a laborer on construction sites. My grandmother had planned to go to university to study fine art but it wasn’t possible for her to continue studying in the US, especially as she didn’t speak English when she arrived. She didn’t even finish high school. But I guess I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t moved to Boston and had my mom there. I can’t imagine my mom would have met my dad if she had grown up in Colombia.’
Sebastián had lived in Bogotá all his life. In school, he had studied El Bogotazo and the ten years of countrywide violence to which it had given birth. The city had been shaken to its core that day, and the reverberations were still being felt over six decades later. Sebastián had never really appreciated before just how much El Bogotazo had altered the lives of so many families. Like the children who had grown up without fathers, or the Colombians who had fled the country, and all they knew, to start a life elsewhere. And yet, at that moment, Sebastián felt no sadness for his country, for what had happened during El Bogotazo or the violence that followed…because all of those things had brought Erin here, to this French bakery, in an old colonial house in La Candelaria, and into his life.
“I think this meringue au chocolat might just be the most delicious dessert I have ever tasted in my life,” Erin said, scraping the final remnants of chocolate off the plate with her fork. “Do you want to share another piece?” she asked in a mischievous voice.
Sebastián smiled at her. Why had he spent so many years living with a woman who not only restricted her own calorie intake but also watched over his like a dictator?
He called the waiter over and they ordered two more coffees and a meringue, with two spoons.
“So, now you know what brought me to the library today. What about you? What were you studying back there?” Erin asked.
The words of the essay came back to Sebastián, 'the state of a closed system (for example, the positions and momenta of particles in the system) at one instant determines the state of that system at any point in the future. Regardless of how remote the cause might seem from the effect.'
Why had he been sitting in that chair at the moment she walked in? The library had many rooms. He had chosen that one at random this morning. Why had he even been at the library at all? Going to the library was a habit he had got into to avoid being at home with Sara in the final year of his marriage. It was a habit he should have broken by now. But something had kept drawing him back there.
“I just like reading,” he said.
“What’s your favorite book?”
Sebastián scrambled trying to remember the last piece of great fiction he’d read, “Probably The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and yours?”
“The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David Embury.”
“Is that a novel?” Sebastián asked, hoping it wasn’t the winner of last year’s Pulitzer and he’d just made himself look very uninformed.
“No, it does what it says on the tin. It’s a cocktail recipe book.”
“That’s your favorite book? I guess that’s your Irish side coming through,” he teased. “But there are lots of cocktail books, why that one in particular?”
“Because it’s not just a list of recipes, it’s a treatise. It was written by this Manhattan tax attorney in 1948. He loved cocktails and felt the world needed to know the right way to make them, i.e. his way. I admire his passion. And the book has stood the test of time. People still buy it today.”
Sebastián pictured this David Embury in 1948, in his New York law office, probably dressed in a similar fashion to some of the men in González’s pictures, hammering out his opinions on cocktails on a typewriter, whilst González was wandering the streets of Bogotá photographing the mob and two terrified schoolgirls within their midst. He thought about how one of those girls had traveled to Barranquilla three weeks later and then on to the US. He thought about how, 67 years later, they were sitting here looking at a postcard of González’s photo and talking about Embury’s words.
“I’m serious, it’s a great book,” Erin went on, “you should try his mint julep sometime, it’s the finest I’ve ever tasted.”
Sebastián stared into Erin’s eyes. They were a misty grey, with a few flecks of blue, just like the Bogotá sky at daybreak.
“I will,” he said, and then, feeling emboldened, “in fact, how about I cook you dinner tomorrow night and you can make the pre-dinner drinks?” He extended the invitation casually, on a conscious level all he was thinking about was the possibility of having dinner and drinks with this woman the following night. But he knew that nothing is trivial. Our destinies are woven together with the actions of the present and the past, both big and small, often shaped by people we have never even met, people whose names we will never know.
“It’s a date,” she smiled.
There was a large wooden-framed mirror hanging on the wall opposite. Sebastián glanced over at the reflection of the two of them sitting in the middle of the cafe. The place had been done up to look like it would have in the 1940s. If it weren’t for Erin’s short hair, their smartphones on the table, her camera, and their clothes, the image looking back at him could well have been one of Sady Gonzalez’s photos. One of his more genteel shots from the pre-Bogotazo period—back when Bogotá was still the Athens of Latin America, more famed for its culture than its conflict. It was both a snapshot of the past and a glimpse into the future.