Unlike everybody else I know in Buenos Aires, my friend Estela is a faithful vegetarian. She gave up eating meat a few years ago, which is not an easy thing to do in Argentina, a country in which the average person consumes 150 pounds of beef a year—roughly two servings per day.
“What turned you off the stuff?” I asked her recently as I sawed my steak knife through a haemorrhaging sirloin the size of a clay brick. A large group of us were dining on the pavement outside a local parilla and our huffy waiter had served Estela a towering plate of chargrilled onions. “Was it the environment? The rampant inflation? Your clogged bowels, maybe?”
Everybody turned to look at Estela, who dabbed her lips with a large, cream-coloured napkin. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “I just don’t like the taste. I feel the same way about whisky. Also, semen.”
One of the great things about living in Buenos Aires is that there’s invariably a Freudian psychologist sitting at your table, waiting to pounce. “Very interesting,” said Manu, clearing his throat and adjusting his little round spectacles—which, like Freud’s original glasses, I’ve always suspected to be a cheap prop. “Do tell us more.”
Estela reached catlike for a menthol cigarette. “Whenever I’m with a man,” she explained, matter-of-factly, “I never swallow. It’s just…” She paused to blow a musing cloud of smoke into the warm night air. “Not my style.”
There was a moment’s silence, before Fabian, an exquisitely bronze fitness instructor who was sitting at the far end the table, looking musclebound and moisturised, gave a grunt. “You’re crazy. I love it.”
“We know,” everybody said.
“I love it, too,” said Milagros, a conservatively dressed contract lawyer, who’d stayed quiet until now. She studied the end of her fork. “With some men, it tastes like the fried potatoes at this restaurant: very salty.”
When you live in South America, you have to get used to this sort of thing. No one talks about the weather here, and introverts are rarer than honest politicians. Estela had just entered her third new relationship in as many months, and earlier, when she’d arrived at our table, she took her seat, saying in a coquettish voice, “Pablo is really hot, and the sex is wild. I want to tell everyone about it!”
As for me, I instinctively clam up whenever anyone asks me about my private life. “How’s Catherine?” the people I know never stop inquiring. “How’s your relationship?” To which I shrug, saying, “Fine, fine. You know. How’s your work going?”
I used to believe this was a male thing, because the only time I ever heard men talk about relationships was to moan about the person with whom they’d chosen to spend their lives. “Every time she speaks,” one English friend said to me a few years ago about his new wife, “I want to go outside and shout into a hole in the garden.”
“What hole?” I asked, causing him to sigh into the receiver.
“I’m digging one.”
Then I wound up in Argentina, where people talk to me like I’m their sex therapist. My first week here, I met a man named Gaston, who told me he was in psychosexual analysis because, in his words, “I masturbate too much.” This, within thirty seconds of our introduction.
“Oh?” I said, racking my brain for a way to change the subject. “Wow. That must keep you busy.”
Gaston’s bloodshot eyes lifted to the sky. “Well, let’s see. It’s at least four… I’d say, on average, six times a day.” He unfurled his calloused fingers and started to count. “Once in the morning, obviously. Twice at work. Then the rest when I get home.”
For some reason, I pictured Gaston butt naked in his kitchen, making soup. Then I asked him what kind of work he did.
“I’m with the government,” he said, adding, “but I live with my parents, in the house I grew up in.”
I nodded. “That makes sense.”
But it didn’t, not really. I tried explaining to Gaston that, where I’m from, people tend not to volunteer information about self-abuse, however gruelling they find it, and certainly never to strange foreigners with notepads.
“Why not?” he asked—leaving me, as is so often the case here, completely lost for words.
A few weeks after Gaston’s confession, I found myself sipping champagne while a woman with two college-age children reviewed her husband’s girth. “His penis,” she said, gesturing elegantly at the midpoint of her tea-length evening dress, “is just about right for me. I’d say it’s a comfortable fit.”
In normal circumstances, this sort of thing might not have shocked me, but I’d yet to be introduced to the woman, and she was addressing a small crowd of us, at an Embassy party. There was no playful note in her snappy voice, no snort in her reshaped nose, or wink in her steady dark eye. She was perfectly sober and, I later discovered, a figure of some note in Argentine society. “I’m satisfied by him,” she said, gazing meditatively over towards the bar, where her overstuffed husband was gulping whisky with some diplomatic stiff. “For now.”
“Where am I?” I asked my friend Zahra one day at lunch in a favourite restaurant on Avenida Callao. She shook her head as I held mine in my hands.
“In Argentina, a person is expected to openly discuss their sex life,” Zahra explained. “It’s considered very rude here not to share every detail. For example, my husband and I had sex this morning and he gave me two orgasms, one with his tongue. Which is why I’m smiling a lot today. Have you noticed?”
She popped a French fry into her mouth. I instinctively glanced towards the table alongside ours, which was populated by four senior, well-heeled ladies sipping strawberry lemonade. They could hear everything we said, but not one batted a blue-shadowed eyelid.
“Oh, they all do the same,” Zahra said, following my gaze. “Believe me, those oldies know everything there is to know about each other’s husbands: every dirty secret, every secret fetish. It will all be common knowledge, endlessly chewed over at lunch and afternoon tea.”
This scared me. “Does it work both ways?” I asked. “Do the men here tell each other everything about the women in their lives?”
Zahra laughed. “Of course! What we like to do in bed, how we taste, all the stuff we scream out loud. I know my husband tells his friends everything about me. He even shows them the photos he takes.”
I raised my eyebrows. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?” Zahra said. “I’m proud of my body. Don’t you think I should be?”
She cocked a hip in her chair, thrusting out her chest. The buttons started to strain on her frilly white blouse.
“I really must meet your husband one day,” I said.
When I got home, I typed “Sex in Argentina” into Google. The top result was for a website called “Swingers in Argentina”.
“Do you want to have a threesome?” it asked. “Find boys, girls and liberal couples with whom to fulfil your warmest desires.”
I didn’t click on it. Catherine had crept up behind me after a lengthy session in the gym. She bit into a freshly peeled carrot. “What are you doing?”
She leaned over my shoulder, gleaming with sweet-smelling sweat as she read aloud from the list of 232,000,000 search results. ““Find out everything you need to know about Argentina’s famous sex culture in the form of hourly sex hotels.” Ugh. That’ll be a hard pass, thanks all the same.”
Known locally as telos, the sex hotels are dotted all across the city, in every variety of neighbourhood. For the most part, they are frequented by priapic, fumbling teens, but I’m told by those in the know that they also moonlight as safe houses for BDSM experimentation. The idea being that you can do things in sex hotels that you could never do in your crowded apartment building, unless your neighbours are all hard of hearing. Rooms are rented for anything between two to eight hours at a time. Longer stays often include a free breakfast, and some telos offer generous discounts if you can prove it’s your birthday.
“You’re not tempted to try one out?” I asked Catherine.
“Ooh, gross.” She shuddered, as if someone had slipped an ice cube down the front of her sports bra. “Imagine the bedsheets.”
When Buenos Aires placed fifteenth on a list of ‘World’s Sexiest Cities’ in 2019, Catherine and I celebrated with a midnight swim in our rooftop pool. We were loose with wine and we put on a show, splashing about in the water, which was still tepid from a blast of late afternoon sun. Like always, the city was wide awake. TVs blared. Somewhere, meat was grilling, its fatty scent wafting idly across the terraces, making my stomach protest in sudden and improbable hunger.
Catherine paddled towards me. Wrapping her lean, silky legs around my hips, she crammed her wet nose into my ear. Curious neighbours were sitting on their balconies, observing our sensual little moment. I could hear the muffled strains of an old tango recording, and for a few thrilling bars, I almost understood why people here enjoy sharing their most intimate adventures.
Catherine reached for a glass of aromatic Torrontés she’d poured herself downstairs and placed poolside. She gave me a quick sip, then took a longer one herself, giggling at us. Her legs tightened around my buttocks, supporting her weightless body. Over her shoulder, I spotted a portly man on the balcony of an apartment across the street. He was pointing a professional camera with a long lens our way.
“Is someone photographing us?” Catherine asked, reading my face.
I nodded. The wine felt sour on my tongue.
Catherine pressed her cold lips against mine, then slowly pulled them away, throwing her head back to dip her wheat-coloured hair in the water. “Oh, let him. It beats all the men taking voyeuristic photos of me on the trains with their phones.” She twisted round to look, her breasts lifting momentarily above the surface of the water, before slipping out of sight again. Our shameless neighbour continued to snap photographs.
Then, with what I remember as a crack, the power went out across the entire barrio, plunging the buildings and tree-lined streets into darkness. A communal groan rang out, jaded and long-suffering.
“For the love of God!” someone shouted from the roof of a nearby building. “What a city!”
“Go back to your mother’s cunt!” an unidentifiable voice yelled back.
“Fuck you and your mum’s a whore!”
“What are they shouting?” Catherine said into my ear, her arms draped around my neck.
I said nothing, just scanned my eyes over our funny little block, silhouetted now against the aubergine night sky. My fingers were turning pruney. Catherine’s chest rose and fell with steady, contented breaths, and I wondered what everybody was getting up to behind their sleek black windows, knowing that if I cared enough to ask any of them tomorrow, notepad in hand, they’d gladly tell me every single disgusting detail.