I had a road trip that lasted nearly a decade and have been meaning to blog about some of it, so...
A bunch of the boys was whooping it up at the Malamute Saloon. Well, not quite, except for the whooping part. We’d arrived in Bogota a couple of weeks past and nightlife settled on an unexceptional club in a mall a block from the apart-hotel where, for safety’s sake, our employer deemed we should stay.
The club may have been unexceptional but the weekend house band wasn’t. We’d quickly developed a taste for the cumbias that were their staple. It was in the mid-80s and I’d be working with three colleagues, Ronaldo, Dominic and Charles (Chuck) in Bogota for several weeks.
Ronaldo was born in Cuba but had lived in New York from childhood. Don't call him Ron. That's Spanish for rum. Diminishes the brand, his I mean. Spanish was his first language and his English was unaccented. He resembled Pele in looks, build and age; so much so that in Chile and Taiwan we were stopped for autographs. As my Spanish was still at the training wheels stage, we let him do most of the talking. Dominic was as plain as Casanova and just as successful where it counted. Chuck was from Queens and looked like a cross between Goldfinger and Archie Bunker. His parlance was more Bunkerish. There’ll be more about him whenever I figure out how to write the office romance-triangle-sabotage episode.
We were a lively bunch who rang up big bills, tipped well and usually closed the place. With Ronaldo as the only black and I as the only natural blond in the place, we stood out. The club staff took a shine and on the Friday, there was a bit of commotion as one of the band’s singers, a hot looking Colombian woman, and the guitarist, her protector if not her boyfriend, came up to say hello. Ronaldo was attracting the attention. He had a great smile (hey, I’d smile a lot if I looked like that too) and an easy-going, charming manner.
But that’s not the main story. Ronaldo and the singer had a quick, whispered exchange and we said we’d see them tomorrow. Saturday night saw us back there but the singer wouldn’t even look our way. Nor would the guitarist. No matter. The band was great as usual and we were enjoying ourselves. The folks at a nearby table sent us drinks and we returned the favor. Around 11 the stage guy announced last call. It seemed that Monday was election day and no alcohol could be served the day before. We were ready for another 4:00 a.m. jive so were plenty miffed. There was general milling around while everyone implored the waiters for doubles and triples. But they were having none of it.
The folks who’d sent us the drinks came over and introduced themselves. There was Victor, around 30, short, curly, light brown hair; a big, barrel-trunked affable guy who seemed blessed in perpetuity with a good mood. His wife was Valeri. Either she’d been out in the sun waaay too much or she was in her late 30s. Dirty blonde hair, probably dyed, but a sleek trim body which her leopard skin, one-piece, form fitting jump suit showed off to great effect. Marco was Victor’s wingman. Probably mid 30s, longish black hair, moustache, facial scars, acne and otherwise, and eyes that had that remorseless, penetrating shark’s look even when he was smiling. Probably the last things a few folks ever saw. Big, lean and muscular. Didn’t talk too much and I didn’t want to find out what did the talking for him. I kept my distance. His girlfriend, Sonia, was early 20s and one of those Colombian beauties. Black hair, shoulder length, fresh unblemished skin that was pale olive, perfect teeth, smiled and laughed a lot but not too much, and a sweet, unspoiled demeanour. There were a couple of others but memory fades.
Ronaldo handled the conversation while my beginner’s Spanish taxed whoever was politest. Then Ronaldo announced “C’mon, we’re going back to Victor’s place”. In those days I was up for anything, unless it involved crossing someone like Marco. We got into their cars and eventually arrived at a lavish mansion. Victor woke up two of the security guards to let us in. It was after one but no matter, Victor called a few friends and soon enough a rousing party in their fully furnished basement bar was in swing. No beer, some wine and one of those sour citrusy libations that can put you down for the count before you know you’ve been hit. And some Johnny Walker Black which Victor appeared to buy by the case.
I was starting to chat with Victor who spoke some English. A modest vocabulary but decent accent. As people do, we switched between English and Spanish. My Spanish vocabulary was much bigger than Victor’s English but my accent, well, let’s say that John Wayne would have sounded more authentic. One of Victor’s guests sashayed over and insisted that Victor give us the tour.
Upstairs we went. We were shown several rooms but the years and the Johnny Walkers have obscured the memory of most. The kitchen was the size of my apartment back home and grandiose by Architectural Digest standards. The living room was stunning. Ceilings that must have been 15 feet high, mahogany everywhere, a chandelier that wouldn’t have been out of place in Versailles, and sofas, armchairs and hassocks made with the skins of creatures that Victor alone put on the endangered list. And some European paintings whose provenance piqued my curiosity. Through it all Victor seemed almost bashful, shoulder shrugs, self-deprecating chuckles and an “Oh, this old thing?” tone of voice. Valeri was rattling off the features in rapid Spanish like she’d committed the inventory to memory. Marco kept in the background, occasionally sharing a muttered utterance with one of his amigos.
The second floor wasn’t part of the tour so it was back down to the barroom. Victor poured me another tankard of JW and we resumed chatting. I was in high spirits, to put a spin on it, and in one of those guileless, take-things-as-they-come moods. So I complimented Victor of the beauty of his house and asked him what he did. “Pilot”. And who do you fly for?, assuming it would be Avianca, the national airline. “For myself, private flights”. And where do you fly? In retrospect I’m astounded that Victor hadn’t shut me up by then. “Central America, Caribbean, Cuba”. Finally the peso dropped. “OK Victor, no preguntas mas”. He just laughed and we turned to the dance floor.
Valeri urged me on. I could muster up a rock waltz now and then but the intricate stuff requiring timing and coordination stumped me. No matter. Valeri took me in hand just as the JW entered warp speed. Maybe in Cohen’s bar it instils wisdom; rather the opposite in the southern continent.
The next couple of hours exist only in shards and fragments. I was on the dance floor with Valeri a long time. The leopard’s claws contracted but I was conscious enough to know there was a lion keeping watch and something even more dangerous nearby. Still, that lithe, firm body, well, children might read this blog, right? At some point my glasses flew across the room. Dominic was chatting up Sonia.
Finally it was time to leave. Victor and Valeri drove Chuck and I back. As we said our goodnights, Valeri reminded me of her name several times, “Valeri, Valeri!” and gave me her number. Victor may not have been watching as she shoved the paper in my pocket.
The next afternoon when I came to, I struggled to piece together the night’s events. Kingsley Amis’s hangover description impinged:
“His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.”
Finding the paper with Valeri’s number brought a few things back. I doubted that I’d made out with her but couldn’t swear to much. I pondered calling her. Too dangerous given the crowd she ran with and even a gentle guy like Victor would be bound to set an example. Or have Marco take care of it. But the promise of that body!
Calling that day would be too soon, especially if they felt even a small fraction of my aftermath. I’d call Monday. Thank her for having us over and play it by ear. Best to avoid further involvement but tough to resist an invitation to a coffee or whatever.
Monday evening, after pacing a bit, I called. Busy signal. And another 5 minutes later. And again half an hour later. Ditto an hour later. Tuesday then. Same result. Same deal Thursday. Again on the weekend. Once more the next week. I gave up. Victor changed the number. Or Valeri wrote it down wrong. Or they’d set it up for outgoing calls only. I gave up.
A month later and it was our last week in Bogota. One of the folks at the office wanted to stay in touch so he gave me his number. Then he took the paper back and added a 6 before it. He explained “All the numbers in Bogota start with a 6 so we never write it down.”