The first few weeks of my hostel year were, by far, the most fun. I was 19 years old, still very much in “tourist mode”, and had money. I went out a lot. I got drunk a lot. I hooked up with strange women from all sorts of far-flung nationalities. I had my first real taste of stable adult freedom (not the fleeting freedom one feels during a trip somewhere, but the kind that creeps up on you when you suddenly realize “holy shit, I can do whatever the hell I want any time I want it”). I was sorely craving this after years of living in Barranquilla and going to a Catholic school. It was a crazy, hazy, wonderful time that will probably not be repeated ever again.
It was also the period during which I made the most friends. To be entirely honest, after a few months of living in a hostel, the sheer novelty of meeting strangers from all over the world and forming deep meaningful friendships wears off. When you’re actually trying to get through the makeshift ‘everyday life’ routine you’ve fashioned for yourself (for which ‘hostel life’ is a hindrance rather than a perk), you start closing yourself off. You’re a lot pickier about who you talk to, especially when you’re working and going to school full-time like I was. You’re picky of how you spend your time, especially if it’s going to rob you of sleep. But for those first few weeks, I was open, I was eager, I was fucking psyched to be meeting all these international weirdos. So a ‘gang’ started to take form, of which I was an active (and very zealous) participant. It included people from all corners of the world, some of which I’m still very much friends with, most of which I’ll never talk to again.
Because this was an international ‘backpackers’ hostel, you didn’t really see a whole lot of people from Argentina. But there was this one guy– this really nice, slightly older, grey-haired Argentine guy from somewhere up north, I think. At least he claimed to be from up north. Truth be told, now that I think of it, he had all the smarmy charm of a fast-talking porteño. His name was Maximo, and although he did have a certain air of douchiness about him, he was always pretty nice to me. I liked him okay. We weren’t best friends or anything, but he was one of the first Argentines I developed something of a friendship with.
Maximo didn’t really do much. He hung around the common area a lot, smoking cigarettes in the backyard. He asked a lot of questions. When we went out, he wouldn’t join us. I thought he was a bit of a misanthrope, but as it turns out he had other reasons to stay close to home base. My friend Marcela, who was the receptionist at the time, let me in on the fact that hostel management had found out that Maximo was a drug dealer. He stuck around all day, struck up conversations and would eventually peddle all kinds of narcotics to the hotel constituency. It’s kind of a brilliant plan, if you think about it. He was like an Argentine Jay & Silent Bob… except, uh, he was one person… and instead of a convenience store, he stood in… a hostel living room… this comparison doesn’t really hold up, and I am abandoning it.
Regardless, the determination was made that Maximo had to go. So hotel management told him to pack up and get going. However, they didn’t want to be upfront about it and tell him the true reason for his departure, but instead concocted some bizarre story about how the room was overbooked and he already owed the hostel money. When they told him this, Maximo was flabbergasted and suspicious. He contested their claim that he owed them money, they didn’t budge, and it escalated into a bit of a confrontation that resulted in the hostel owner becoming involved, then it intensified into something of a shouting match.
My mom, who lived in Buenos Aires at the time, was in the kitchen with me while this went down. She had made me dinner, because she’s that kind of mom, and we were eating together when we heard the shouts coming from the front desk. We rushed over there and observed from a distance as Maximo spouted off claims that hostel management were a bunch of bigots who were kicking him out because they only wanted first-worlders in the rooms. After a few minutes of this, I had to go: I had a party to get to. My mom stayed behind, doing the dishes (because she’s that kind of mom). I said goodbye and went off to my party, leaving Maximo’s indignant braying behind. When I came back the next morning, he was gone. So was all of his stuff. I thought “oh, well, that’s the end of that.”
The next day I had a conversation with my mom and she told me everything that went down. Apparently, in my absence, things got even worse as Maximo verbally threatened everybody involved, telling them that they messed with the wrong person. That they were making a grave mistake. That there would be blood. I shuddered as my mom told me this, but quickly wrote it off as the empty threats of a corner drug dealer scorned, incensed after having a prime selling location snatched away from his hands. If nothing else, I was at least glad I didn’t have to be present during the debacle, as those sorts of confrontations make me extremely nervous; what if he had pulled out a gun and killed all my new friends?!
Later that afternoon, I was in a net café. During my first year in Buenos Aires I didn’t have a computer of my own, so I depended a lot on these establishments to get my daily dose of internet, which at the time consisted of listening to music on Radio Blog Club (a sort of pre-Pandora, I guess?), chatting on MSN Messenger and trolling around MySpace. All of a sudden, a “new contact” notice on MSN Messenger popped up on the bottom right corner of my screen, and a little chat window appeared. It was someone calling themselves “F”.
F: Hey man it’s Maximo.
Me: Oh hey, Maximo. How’s it going?
F: Hey, did they ask you to leave?
Me: Excuse me?
F: Did they ask you to leave the hostel?
Me: No… why?
F: They told me they had asked everybody in the dorms to leave, because a bunch of beds were reserved. This is fucking bullshit.
Me: Sorry, man. Don’t know what to tell you.
I immediately realized that I shouldn’t have denied it right away, but whatever. I told myself he’s probably simmering in his anger, it’ll pass and we’ll probably never hear from him again. A few minutes passed, and then I received the following message…
F: Jorge, I like you. You’re a good guy. I want you to leave the hostel immediately. There’s going to be blood.
As soon as I read this sentence, I started freaking out. My pulse started racing. My heart started beating frantically. All the gruesome possibilities of what this could mean rushed to my mind, as well as the question of WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO. I don’t manage well in high-stress situations like these. This is not one of those times I can crack a joke and make everything okay. I can’t simply bullshit my way through a hostel massacre. I can’t pretend that I know what I’m doing, like every single other time I’ve ever been faced with an obstacle in my 19 year old life. Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. What the hell do I do?!
So I plead with him. I say “don’t do this. Think about it. It’s not worth it. Killing is a crime. It is also morally reprehensible. You’re better than this.” Every piece of clichéd garbage I can think of to keep this fucking psychopath from unleashing his fury onto this house full of well-meaning yet managerially-incompetent people. And he keeps throwing the same lines back at me– “they messed with the wrong person. There will be blood. You need to leave the hostel.” I even try to play the sympathy card at one point, and I go “I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO.” to which he simply responds “I’m sorry. ”
That moment when you appeal to somebody’s humanity with all the desperate energy you can muster and all they have to offer back is a stern “I’m sorry” causes your stomach to drop, much in the same way it did back in high school, when you would beg a teacher for a passing grade otherwise you’d have to go to summer school and oh God please please just give me a passing grade I promise I’ll study harder next time please.
And here I am, 19 years old, in a net café in Buenos Aires, sweating profusely, rocking my chair back and forth like an autistic child, freaking out like I’ve never freaked out before in my life, and seriously weighing my options. What the hell do I do? Do I rush back to the hostel and tell them? Do I call the police and notify them of the situation? Fuck, when a crazy murdering drug dealing psychopath tells you to do something, shouldn’t you take heed? Do I simply pack up and leave? Isn’t it every man for himself in this crazy, fucked-up world? WHAT THE HELL.
After a few minutes of my silence, Maximo sends me an invitation to view his webcam. I immediately decline, because, FUCK. He says “accept the invitation. I want to show you something.” and I stare at the screen for a good five minutes before I finally send him a response: “No, thanks. I’m good.” His retort was simply “accept it”, and in my mind I read it like the gritted-teeth orders of a smiling psychopath about to stab you to death, so I took a deep sigh and I accepted the invite
As his webcam image starts loading, I picture all sorts of things on the other end. I picture his crazy, deranged smile, with his head cocked slightly sideways as he polishes a giant knife. Or his gun. Or his gun collection. Fuck. What if he owns a gun collection? My stomach is queasy and my hands are visibly shaking as I wait for several long hours (actually, about 30 seconds, but it felt like several long hours) for the image on his webcam to come up. I brace for impact… but nothing could prepare me for the image that comes up.
It’s my mom.
It’s my mom, smiling wide, waving at me.
It’s my mom, smiling wide, waving at me… from the row immediately behind mine, in the same net café I was in.
And as the initial confusion gives way to a rushing wave of relief, as the immediate “oh, you bitch!” impulse subsides, I can’t help but also feel a sense of bemused pride. Pride in my mom, for knowing me so well and playing me with such ease, and for being the best practical joker I’ll ever meet. Because goddamn this was a perfect prank. Because that night, after I left the hostel to go to my party, Maximo didn’t threaten to kill everyone, he simply packed up his stuff and grumbled away. Because it was all a story. Because while I was freaking out like a crazy person, my mom was right behind me, watching delighted as I rocked back and forth, trying to stifle her laughter. Because Jesus fucking Christ, am I proud to be this woman’s son and to have inherited at least a portion of her sense of humor.
My mom is a jerk, but she’s also kind of a genius. Don’t mess with her.