Photo by Soban
This blog post appeared in my old school blog back when I was living in Argentina. I loved this story so much, I’m bringing it back. Enjoy.
Around midnight, the front door of my apartment building glides open always with a simple buzz and click. I don’t turn the nob. I don’t search for the key. From a distant podium beyond the glass windows, my doorman Sebastian recognizes my face amidst the darkness of the city streets and simply pushes a button to let me in automatically. This is a standard Argentine cultural norm: to have a doorkeeper tending your apartment entryway. My doorkeeper, though, is probably the most unique one in the city.
Frail yet spry, Sebastian reminds me of a slightly older, slightly skinner, slightly balder Orville Redenbacher, minus the black frame glasses. When I walk through the door, he rises from his chair, quickly interlocks his hands behind his back, and bows congenially, his red tie slipping out of his plaid black and tan sport coat. Immediately, he reaches for the wayward tie and puts it back into place with a tap and sweeps off the front of his suit. And then, he smiles, though I always notice that he is missing exactly one tooth on the left side.
My portero, or doorkeeper, thought I was German, so for a while, he’d greet me with “guten tag” and bid me farewell with “Auf Wiedersehen.” I found his mistaken salutations so adorable that I never wanted to correct him. There eventually came a day, however, when he finally asked where I was from. “California,” I said with a sheepish grin, uncomfortably twisting my blue Converse shoe into the ground as if I were putting out a cigarette. But he only smiled and said with a nod, “very well then, Auf Wiedersehen.” And he walked away whistling.
Sebastian has been, in both metaphoric and literal ways, my key to life in Buenos Aires. When I moved into my apartment, the landlord presented me with an ancient golden skeleton key that someone strategically carved out in a labyrinth of sharp metal turns, corners, and edges in order to make getting beyond the front door of my apartment nearly impossible. The key never worked, which was much unlike the ease-filled process of waltzing through the front door downstairs after Sebastian opened it. Upstairs with the skeleton key, I tried the gentle jiggle. I attempted the sneak samurai turn key (I don’t even know what that would be, but basically I snuck up on the door then tried to quickly twirl the key in the lock). I even had pep talks with my front door, begging it, “please. Please accept my key and let me in.”
Getting that key to work, however, was more difficult than coaxing a crying bride out of the bathroom. That was until the moment I’d hear the elevator crank into action and minutes later, Sebastian would peep his head out to find me crying on the ground, begging my door for mercy. He’d always shake his head, extend his hand, take the key from me, then open my front door with complete aplomb. The routine made Sebastian and I fast friends.
Over the passing weeks, I’d return home to enjoy midnight chats with Sebastian, and every day he’d continue to open doors to this foreign cultural world with insights on Argentine cinema, politics, and societal norms. One evening, I entered the building to find Sebastian with his tie untucked, wiping away tears. With a few passing words, my portero eventually opened a new door for me: the door to his heart. He allowed me to linger on the stoop of his life trials and feel with him the painful rhythm of passing lives: the pulse that reminds us everyday that we are alive while others whom we have loved simply are not.
He had been listening to a local radio show when a man called in, begging God why his little girl was just diagnosed with cancer. There were a number of callers who, thereafter, expressed their sympathy over the radio for this man’s sorrow. Even though Sebastian did not phone in, he commiserated with this stranger as he sat alone in the hallway until he opened the door for me. With eyes like reflecting pools, he confessed to me that his own daughter died at age 17. As he recounted the loss, a withdrawn tear escaped, rolling down the steep staircase below his eyes. The other tears, however, he struggled to keep locked up. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but sometimes we just can’t see through until someone opens up.
I didn’t turn the key farther to find out how exactly she had left. I simply shared a quiet, teary eyed moment in the doorway with Sebastian, relating to him quietly in the same way that he had related to the caller on the radio.
Out of the silence he suddenly said, “God will never give us reasons for why people come and go. The comings and goings are just cosas de la vida … a part of life.”
At the end of our silent memorial, we parted ways with a mutual Auf Wiedersehen. I took the elevator to the fourth floor, then when I reached my entryway, I was able to open my door without hassle; I know for sure because Sebastian taught me how to use the key.