He hardly seemed to realize he was on a crowded, hot, and stinky bus. He was too consumed with listening to the hand-held transistor radio pushed up against his ear and sticking his head out the window to whistle at pretty girls passing by.
He was clean-shaven, clean-cut, wearing soccer shorts and a soccer jersey. He looked about 16 years old, with boyish eyes.
It was a few minutes before he realized I had sat down next to him, too busy was he with the beautiful portenas walking the streets. But he took a breather from the cat-calls and noticed me scribbling away in my notebook next to him.
"What are you writing?" he asked in Spanish.
"Oh, just some notes for work," I said.
One simple question turned into a harmless and kind conversation between two strangers.
"I live in the provincia with my parents," he told me. "For now," he quickly added, as if to imply that provincial domestic life was not at all the be-all and end-all to his future. We both laughed. It was a cute attempt to sound like he had the 19 years he claimed.
I know to keep boundaries firm and walls high in Buenos Aires. I don't carry anything with me on the streets, besides a few coins for the bus and a notebook, unless I absolutely have to. That day on the bus I had the bare minimum--my coins, my crappy cell phone, one barely-working pen, and a notebook. I was not in danger of losing anything valuable. Moreover, as for personal safety, we were on a crowded bus in the middle of broad daylight. I felt secure knowing I was surrounded with onlookers and bystanders. I felt safe enough to continue with a simple conversation. And I felt happy to continue this simple conversation. I thought that an exchange of words could only bring a tiny ray of sunshine to both our lives, as kind interactions with strangers so often have the power to do. So we chatted on.
And then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to face an Argentine woman, with long dyed blonde hair and eyes hidden behind large sunglasses. She was beautiful, but not in a Palermo-boutique way. More in a tough, don't-mess-with-me kind of way, if that makes sense at all.
"Where are you from?" she asked in heavily-accented English.
"Estados Unidos," I responsed, not wanting to use English and exclude the young man from our conversation.
She did. "Be careful with who you talk to," she said as she pulled her sunglasses to the top of her head. She didn't take her eyes from mine. In the heavy moments between her words, I was acutely aware of the young man next to me, and how me must have known what was being said. No language barriers can disguise such warning tones.
I nodded and said thank you, about to turn back around.
"I'm serious," she said. Still not taking her eyes from mine. I met her stare and for a few seconds, felt suspended in a panicked frozen moment. I was aware that the woman was absolutely correct in her warning (though as a general rule to be careful, not in regards to this young man, as we were not sharing personal information and it was a simple, harmless conversation). Buenos Aires has seen its share of tragedy, and a lot of people have learned the hard way not to trust, including, I am sure, this woman. There were probably many people observing the young man and myself who were thinking the very same words, but no one cared enough to warn me. Though I sincerely do not think there was any need of a warning, I also sincerely think this woman was trying to the right thing in the way she knew how.
Only her doing the right thing perpetuated a stereotype; it was a small push to continue a cycle of have's and have-not's, and the bitterness and resentment between the two. I did not want to add to this young man's shame.
I turned back around. The woman kept looking at us, watching out for me, I know, and the young man and I continued our conversation. However, he knew and I knew that we had a guest in our conversation, and it was stilted. Perhaps out of desperation to make a connection, he forwardly asked if I wanted to do a language exchange. "No, no," I said, and we both laughed, knowing I would say that. Then it was my stop, and I rose to leave.
"Chau," I said hurriedly with a nervous half-smile (what is wrong with me that I couldn't forget about the woman's watchful eyes??!!) and hustled off the bus.
"Chau, Sarah!" he called from the bus window. I froze. I couldn't respond; I hadn't even asked his name when he asked for mine. I thought I hadn't wanted to add to his shame, but how is such an attempt possible, or even sincere, when you don't even ask someone's name? I was--am--just as guilty and I knew it loud and clear in that suspended moment.