I saw her last week, on my way back from Valparaiso. It was close to ten at night, and I was on the train, the Metro de Santiago (headed towards Los Dominicos), sleepy and quite tired from the two-hour bus journey and thinking already of the nice little (albeit cold) walk from Baquedano station to our Barrio Bellavista apartment along Dardignac Street. She got on from Las Rejas, along with a few others, including whom I initially thought was her boyfriend but was actually, I soon figured out, her father. (They seemed very close, you see, and in Chile I find that being very close is often expressed in public displays of affection.) He had his back to me, so that as they talked I could see only her face. Like most Chileans, she spoke too fast—demasiado rápido—her loud, unguarded words like a burst fire of Spanish, rata-ta-ta, quite impossible for me to understand.
Still I couldn't help but listen in. I couldn't help but steal a glance whenever she crackled with laughter at something her father had said. It was the laughter of the young; indeed, she could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen. She kind of reminded me of a young Mena Suvari—in both American Beauty and Loser—plucky and capricious, with her blue American sweater, her black nose piercings, her loud auburn hair, her moody mascara, her red nail polish (that more than verged on being bold), her rugged brown leather bag, and, finally, her orange rolling luggage, which, as we thundered past station after station, she handled expertly with one hand and secured between her two sneakered feet.
Instantly I began to wish that I knew where she was going, and why. Perhaps she was off to study somewhere outside the city or country, or to spend the last of winter with distant relatives in a warmer place, or to find a good job, wherever the train took her, wherever the plane flew her. This was the only thing I'd become certain of: that she was headed to the airport. I was eavesdropping on a tender goodbye. The father, in his slickly gelled hair and black leather jacket, holding her hand, hugging her, kissing her, maybe with his hushed, fatherly Español (barely audible to anyone with manners) making her promise to take good care of herself; and so before long her tears replaced her laughter. She wiped them the way the youth often do: without care, without shame, and without fear.
I have since looked out for her face in the streets of Santiago, among the groups of students who seem these days to regularly clash with the police, protesting boisterously against the Chilean public education system. She could very easily belong here, in the middle of the crowds that gather at one of Santiago's many plazas—yet she couldn't. Her unrest must be of a different kind: less like theirs and more perhaps like mine. It is in any event a useless search: how can one find if one can't see? Just a couple of days ago, while walking around Plaza de Armas, I inhaled something in the air that began to make my eyes burn and my nose runny. It was tear gas, canisters of which, along with water cannons, are used by the police to subdue the student protesters. Later in the day I was convinced that the sense of panic I'd felt upon realizing what I inhaled was, in many ways, a kind of passage. A Chilean moment, if you will—my first. Ignorant of the science of lachrymators, as well as of the bigger goings-on in Santiago, I exaggerated the dangers of exposure to tear gas and, with calamitous nerves, snuck into a half-empty shopping mall, my face covered in a scarf.
Suffice it to say that I have not come across her again; I probably never will. Yet no matter how little I see or how blindly I roam, there is at least this memory, this mentally photographed image that I have, and can look upon, and surrender myself to, invariably rousing a raw, primitive feeling deep in my gut that, when she comes back, the young girl on the train will have grown into a woman.