The thick curtains were drawn against the afternoon sun so that the room on the third floor of the Santa Dympna Hotel felt set in night. A thin thread of light beneath the front door was all that penetrated the darkness. The stagnant air hung heavy in the room making the distant murmur of the city viscous, as if it were passing through molasses before reaching Bernard’s ears.
And so he waited, seated on the edge of the threadbare skeleton of a bed, metal springs exposing themselves through the fabric. Bernard’s sweat-soaked cotton button-down clung stubbornly to his chest, and his hands shook as he tugged at the opening of his shirt. The radiator hissed and clicked and whined, scolding Bernard and punishing him with its overpowering heat.
The darkness will help, he thought, to calm his nerves. And for a moment, it had. The stillness of the black had washed over him like a cold tide on a hot summer’s day. But the events of the preceding weeks came rushing back, each time sending him into a state of renewed fear and anxiety.
Time to go.
Bernard had bought an antique European flop when he arrived in the city, a compact two-door hatchback in sky blue, like a rusted homage to the Argentinian flag. Cheap and inconspicuous. The car was parked in an alley behind the Santa Dympna and, with only a leather-bound suitcase that now held the entirety of his worldly possessions, Bernard took off, navigating through the narrow, cobblestoned roadways. Though the winter air outside was frigid, a healthy pulse ran through the twisting veins of Salta’s colonial-era streets. By the time he made it out of the city limits, the sky had darkened and Salta had devolved into a rocky desert wasteland. The mostly silent drive was broken up at random intervals by howling winds that rattled Bernard’s tin box of a car, both his hands clutched on the metal steering wheel at each gust.
And then for long awhile, it was still, and the dreamlike landscape, awash with the same crags and cacti and coarse sand, sent Bernard drifting into a timeless vortex. The exhaustion from his lack of sleep was finally catching up with him, and the dull hum of the wheels against the semi-paved desert roads left him in a trance. Several hours (two? five?) drifted by when a dust-like snow began to fall. Bernard squinted in disbelief, unsure if he had fallen asleep and was now dreaming. Though it was cold, and though it was winter, the snow appeared paradoxical against the arid backdrop. Soon, it was coming down in sheets. Visibility dropped to zero as Bernard turned on the windshield wipers, which groaned, useless as they swiped across the glass. But just as suddenly as the snowfall began, it stopped, like a curtain lifted. The gray of the sunless sky cast a ghoulish patina across the desert, now covered in a layer of what looked more like volcanic ash than snow.
Ahead, Bernard saw a burgundy SUV pulled over to the side of the road, the elderly driver waving his arms as he saw Bernard’s car approach. Bernard hesitated, but pulled over just ahead of the old man, who, with his wild tuft of white hair and grey cardigan, reminded him of his grandfather.
“Um...habla ingles?” The old man mumbled gesturing with his hands, as if it would help in the event of a potential language barrier.
“Yes, what’s seems to be the problem?” Bernard replied, approaching the man and his SUV cautiously.
The old man sighed with relief, “You’re American?”
“Glen,” he said, offering his hand to Bernard.
“Cary,” Bernard replied, shaking Glen’s hands.
“Well Cary, I pulled over when that snowstorm passed through, couldn’t see squat. When I tried to start the car up again…” Glen shrugged.
“I would give you a jump, but I don’t think I have any cables in my car. Do you?”
Glen shook his head, “I have a cellphone. Batteries are dead though. Mind if I give it a quick charge in your car? I can give my hotel a call and have them send a tow truck or something.”
Bernard was reluctant to linger around longer than necessary. Two stalled cars on the side of the road might attract unwanted attention. But Glen’s presence and that peculiar moment of normalcy in what had been a whirlwind few weeks was grounding and comforting in a way he desperately needed. And besides, Glen’s had been the first car Bernard had seen in several hours. It was unlikely another would pass anytime soon.
“So, where you headed Cary?” Glen was seated in the passenger side of Bernard’s cramped car waiting for his cellphone to charge. He spoke genially, reminding Bernard more and more of his grandfather, affectionate even among strangers. He felt cautiously at ease with him.
Without thinking, Bernard replied, “Not sure yet,” instantly regretting his honesty.
“Ah,” Glen said knowingly, but without judgment. “I won’t ask you what you’re running away from, that’s none of my business. But let me tell you kid, and this comes from experience, 9 times out of 10, it isn’t worth it. These roads you’re going down now, they will just lead you right back where you started. If you run away from a thing, that’s all your life will ever be.”
There was a pause. “I made some decisions…poor ones in hindsight.” Why am I telling him this? “My life hasn’t exactly gone to plan since then.”
“Life never goes to plan.”
The tow truck came and went and Bernard moved on, less certain of his intentions then when he had set out on his journey.
The dense clouds set low were unfamiliar. His eyes burned from fatigue and he squeezed them shut, desperate for relief. When he opened them again, it was pitch black. He was back at the Santa Dympna, metal springs digging into his pants.
Written by: Sam Chow
Photograph by: Becky Lee