Photograph by aya padrón
by Jessica Sequeira
The day a tank drove through the plate glass window of the Bar Británico, I happened to be sitting at a badly-positioned table, shoved into a corner between bar and bathroom. At the time I complained to myself about my bad luck; if the café weren’t absolutely full I’d have chosen any other place. I have a very specific idea of my ideal spot: next to the window, or tucked away in some warm and welcoming corner, far from the chatter of tourists and the invisible path repeatedly traveled by the waiter. What was hardly enviable under normal circumstances, however, that day saved my life.
Those sitting beside the window died instantly. Even where I was, the damage was considerable. Shards of glass flew in our direction from seemingly unpredictable angles, or angles only predictable for someone with a solid knowledge of physics. But physics has never been my strong point; nor would it have helped in the 0.02 millisecond interval between my observation of the tank and its sudden eruption through the glass.
When I say “tank”, I want you to imagine something as concrete and solid as what confronted us. The newspapers the next day, which I wouldn’t read until later, named the model: a Merkava Mark 4 equipped with a digital C4IS battle-management system, designed for maximum damage. It’s not as if the loss of the bar itself was irreparable; it had never been particularly attractive, or a tourist draw like the Tortoni. It even seemed to take pride in its homely brown appearance, the poor service of its waiters, its coffee always (and this varied unpredictably) either flavorless or burnt. And yet the café had its loyal following. Lately the place had become a meeting place for gays, attracted by its discretion and lack of pretentions. A kind of neobohemia got together there frequently, filling the place with conversations amplified by wine and newspapers scattered behind.
What was I — an extremely infrequent visitor of that bar I’d never liked — doing there at all? I’ll tell you now, if you can stomach a bit of metaphysics.
Everything you see is a replica, a live version of what already exists as descriptive information on the Internet. How can we know that what we see in reality corresponds with its virtual version? To ensure that no discrepancies exist, people have been distributed in different neighborhoods and paid to evaluate if reality matches its representation. These people are called “confirmers”; for six months, I worked as one.
The work was fairly easy. We’d be passed lists of landmarks with short descriptions, which we were requested to either confirm or alter. You might object there must be an easier way to do this. Perhaps this is the case, or perhaps not. A place like the Sacre Cœur in Paris or the Colisseum in Rome might see its image on the web corrected by anonymous users. So many people visit that real information accretes, conglomerating into an accurate representation, while misinformation drops away. But this city remains full of mysterious pockets that require state intervention in order to remain virtually up-to-date.
This is part of why I was hired. The other reason is government policy. Now that machines do everything, the constant demand is for more jobs, even if they aren’t necessary in the final account. Do the walls really need repainting? Does the street really need sweeping? Am I necessary or not? The question has never mattered much to me, then or now. Usually I was just happy being in the open air.
But that day was particularly cold, and the pleasure of being outside has its limits. This is not an extraneous detail; if it weren’t for that cold, I wouldn’t have entered the café. When a growing numbness in my hands prevented me from effectively holding a pencil, I took refuge in the bar on the corner of Av. Defensa and Av. Brasil, pulling out my notebook and ordering a café doble to warm up.
Like I said, the location of the table blackened my mood, as did the sound system blaring a repetitive modern pop song. All the same, I was being productive. I’d begun to assemble a first version of my report, detailed and well-organized, with minor observational lacunae I planned to fill after finishing my coffee. That’s when the tank burst in.
Scholarly books, books I will never read, give various possible explanations for the entrance of the tank. These theories can be largely divided into the following categories:
— The driver was lost
— The driver was confused
— The driver was drunk
— The driver was mentally instable
— The driver had an objective, wishing to do harm to innocents out of ideology, a specific person out of revenge, or the café as a form of aesthetic protest. This category overlaps with the following
— Conspiracy theories
The reason there are so many versions is obvious. In reality, no one knows why a tank would drive at full speed through the window of that café, that day in particular. This is the fundamental and unavoidable conceptual problem.
At school we were always taught that machines and people possess different attributes. Yet I’ve never been completely able to rid myself of the feeling that the tank itself had bad intentions, that its pointer trained on the café had something malevolent in its form. Obviously this is a retrospective reconstruction of my feelings, an attempt to give them clarity. Immersed as I was in my notes, I never even saw the tank’s pointer.
At the Hospital Argerich an attractive woman tended to me. The adjective “attractive” is generally used to describe women who are well-formed rather than genuinely beautiful. For this reason I would like to clarify that this one was both attractive and beautiful. Her attractiveness, however, did not appear to extend to her personality; so, at least, was my first impression. Her manner was that of distracted efficiency, bordering on irritation.
When I arrived, blood covered my hands and body, emerging from a countless number of wounds. I didn’t feel much pain, likely due to shock. Some, yes; I don’t wish to exaggerate. But I remained conscious, never stopped thinking. It struck me, for instance, that if the tank had crossed the Parque Lezama en route to its act of destruction, the landscape would have altered appreciably, and I’d have to redo my report. This realization increased my bitterness toward the perpetrator considerably.
The nurse helped me into bed and then left briefly to go fetch something. My powers of attention, always operating in short bursts, now followed their natural tendency to the point of parody. The coat rack drew my attention completely: not the entire thing but a part of it, the heads of four horses, all golden. I didn’t like their eyes; they didn’t have eyes, just stared blindly into the room.
When the nurse returned I registered that her hair wasn’t gold like that of the horses, but a lovely brown. She noticed me staring fixedly. “Do you like horses?” she asked with a new interest, while cleaning my wounds with an alcohol that made me wince. “I don’t have much experience with them,” I admitted. “I grew up in the city.”
My own failure of invention disappointed me; so often an easy lie can smooth the way for things. Precisely at that moment, however, she’d applied the first swab soaked in ethanol, and the pain temporarily overwhelmed my creative faculties. “I love horses,” she said to my relief. Perhaps my artless reply had nevertheless hit some target. “I grew up in the countryside and used to have three. When I was eighteen I came here to study medicine. Now I hardly ever see animals anymore.”
“It’s possible all of it has to do with that,” I murmured. “The tension between city and country resolving itself in political violence…” As so often before, I’d said some non sequitur out loud I’d meant to think privately. It was alright though; she was smiling. Then she lifted her hand and applied the next swab.
I opened my eyes. The nurse’s face was very close to mine. I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by. I remember starting to tell her a story, then falling asleep; it’s possible that this happened several times. The gray light entering the window told me it was morning; the tank incident had taken place the morning of the previous day. She pointed to a tray with orange juice, two slices of toast, a newspaper. “Look how the papers explain it,” she said. “According to the reports, it was a man who had a grudge against England because his father died in Malvinas.”
Could it really have been so simple? How had he gotten hold of the tank in the first place? But it appeared this hadn’t been overly difficult. The boy had studied a few years at the military school on Avenida Almirante Brown and still had contacts there. Even if they hadn’t been so crazy as to give him the tank directly, they’d entrusted him with the key, or at least enough to leave him alone with it two minutes while they took a call. The military school was just a couple perpendicular streets from the bar; the risk of being stopped while covering that distance was small. It was early still and only a few people were out, apart from the homeless asleep on their benches.
But the most interesting questions are never logistic, but philosophical. Why did this happen? What were the driver’s motives? What are anyone’s motives? Why do things happen the way they do?
“This is the way I see it,” said the nurse. “The driver’s girlfriend probably left him; he was desperate. He wanted to do something so grand it would transform him into myth. Of course he knew he wouldn’t survive it. The choice of that set-up was necessarily ridiculous. But the extremes of death and absurdity were necessary to raise him to the level of legend; only then would she respect him.”
She finished her spiel and then blushed slightly. I looked at her without saying anything. Her version implied a deep romanticism about the act’s symbolism, a symbolism taken to its extreme to negation. The entrance of the tank could stand for many things all opposed: hatred and love, honor and self-humiliation, desire to restore good faith and death impeding this from happening.
My wounds healed more rapidly than expected. I took up my old job in the city again “reconfirming” the area near the ex-Británico, and went on seeing the nurse. In the area surrounding her parents’ house in the countryside, she introduced me to her horses and we explored the unmapped landscape.
She wasn’t far from the mark when she said the story might be sentimental, despite its macabre appearance. And not just for the driver of the tank, though who knows: perhaps her version was true. At the hospital, she only touched me to take temperature or change bandages, yet those were intense, hallucinogenic nights.
At some point I began spinning out a story for her, a narrative with branching possibilities regarding why the incident might have occurred. Using cliché elements (tank, honor, death, love) I produced drama and speculative entertainment, which served where clumsy attempts at conversation had not. I never knew where the tale would go next; I didn’t read the newspaper to learn what “really” happened. Everything was invented as I went along. And these stories, radiating out from a basic absurdity, laid the groundwork for an act of creation, an act whose effects would remain real even if the tank never existed at all.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.