Carla was the master of this game.
When she sat down, Sol realized she had already made her first fatal mistake. Carla would be fashionably late, meaning she had lost the upper hand.
For a second, she weighed the possibility of throwing her latte in the trash and sneaking around the corner to return only after her friend had arrived, but abandoned the idea. What if Carla caught Sol sneaking out? There was nothing as humiliating as that. The best she could do now was pretend she was fine with it. Nonchalant. Not a care in the world, least of all Carla’s judgment. She found a book in her purse and opened it, sitting back and pretending to read.
“Hi, Sol, how great to see you. It’s been such a long time, hasn’t it?” Carla appeared from behind her, shooting kisses through the air. “What are you drinking? Smells like vanilla,” she said, grabbing the drink in her hand to sniff it, making the row of golden bracelets on her wrist clink together as she moved. “Oh, I could never drink that. So many calories.” Bang. The first shot had hit its mark.
“Hi, Carla. It’s… It’s skimmed milk and a non-sugary flavoring that’s zero calories,” Sol tried, suddenly wanting to throw the beverage at her tall, skinny, exquisitely dressed and coiffed companion.
“Oh yes, but you know, my body is just too weak to handle all that artificial stuff. You’re so lucky it doesn't affect you.” Bang. Another one. Carla sat down, leaned back and crossed her legs, leaving them pointing toward the window. She placed her black coffee and sparkling water on the table.
Sol glanced at her legs, which were pointing at Carla. That had been her second fatal mistake, again being too eager. She leaned back, forced herself into the same position. Why am I moving so much?
“How lovely to see you, Sol. And don’t you look amazing? Did you lose weight?”
“I don’t think I did.” She didn’t want to feel so good about the sudden validation, but it was unavoidable.
“And what are you wearing? That’s so canchero,” Carla went on, opening her mouth wide as she spoke, articulating with purpose. “You fill that shirt so well.” Bang.
She was the master of this game. Aim, focus, pull the trigger.
At least this time Sol had two weapons of her own. She was the bigger success now. But first, she needed to get the housekeeping out of the way.
“So, how do you want to go about organizing Jimena’s birthday? I was thinking about…”
“I know, she needs all of our love right now, poor thing. After what happened with Fede and all. Can you imagine how he just left her? In the middle of preparations for the wedding and all.”
“Yes, she’s feeling pretty vulnerable right now. That’s why it’s so important for this party to go well. I was thinking…”
“You know, it’s her 35th birthday, so it needs to be in a nice place. And it’s so important for it to look good, not just for her but for, you know…” Carla rolled her eyes. “So she doesn’t look needy, to everybody who follows her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, just something that looks good on the ‘gram, you know. We can’t just organize it in any neighborhood beer joint.” Bang. Direct reference to Sol’s last birthday. Damn, she was good.
“I just want her to enjoy herself.”
A little girl with dark hair walked up to them, with a cookie in her hand and her eyes set on Carla. Sol watched as Carla turned to the girl, gave her a polite smile and turned back, crossing her arms across her chest. The girl stayed next to them for a minute, staring and stuffing the cookie in her mouth until her mother called her away. Nobody could get enough of this woman, despite how cold she was. Maybe that was just why.
But Joaquin couldn’t get enough of Sol. That was what he’d told her, what she kept repeating in her mind now.
Carla took a sip from her coffee, the corner of her mouth twitching lightly for the bitterness. “I agree. But you know, after the breakup, she’s the one who’s left looking bad. And we need to be good friends, get her looking like the winner. Come on, Sol, you know this as well as I do. Jimena might be the influencer of the group, but we all studied marketing.”
“Yes,” Sol nodded. This was her chance to tell Carla about her promotion, the one that finally put her in a winning position. “Speaking of which…”
But Carla managed to interrupt. “So, I’ve got this fabulous place in Palermo. It’s very exclusive, just the look we need. And the best part is that I’d bet Fede couldn’t even get in on his own. Not without using Jimena’s name, at least.” She chuckled. “What a loser.”
Sol smiled, looking for the words to say. She was dying to get to her real point, that she had finally scored a win, but Carla was stalling. “That’s great, just great. Do you know if we can book it?”
“Oh yes, I know the owner. We went on a couple of dates and he’s kind of in love with me, but…” Carla let her words drift off as she looked out at the busy Avenida del Libertador, with cars speeding to the center of the city of Buenos Aires as if trying to win a race. "I've got my eye on someone else."
“Okay, so, you’ll get the venue. What’s the food like?” It was Sol’s turn to interrupt.
“Oh, tt’s very chic, Vietnamese-Peruvian fusion. I’ll talk to the owner to make sure all dietary restrictions are taken into account because, you know..." She rolled her eyes. "Jime’s Instamodel friends can be a pain.”
Was there a hint of jealousy in her voice? Were Jimena’s influencer colleagues on a higher tier of fabulousness in her mind?
“You’re so great, taking care of all the small details,” Sol smiled, looking for the sneakiest entry into a masked insult, just like Carla did it, putting a selective emphasis on words she felt would hurt her the most. “I know those influencers can be a tough crowd. But I’m sure they’ll see you’re making a big effort to keep them happy.”
Sol wanted to make Carla feel just as pathetic as she did, but if the bullet had hit, her friend wasn’t showing it.
“It’s a lot of work, but you know me, always hustling. You have to put in the hours for things to work out.” This felt like a jab towards her, but Sol didn't flinch this time. Carla took a deep breath, preparing for assault. “Oh, speaking of which, can you imagine I got a promotion? I'm the director of marketing now. I’m not going to lie, it feels amazing after all these years of hard work.”
“That’s great, congratulations. Me too, actually. I got promoted,” Sol managed to say from behind her teeth.
“Oh, that’s great, Sol. Aren’t we just such a success, all three of us? Who would have thought it when we first met in college? I know your company is much smaller than mine, but it’ll look almost as good on your resume. And the money will come, I promise.”
Sol sank into her armchair. Goddamnit, there it was again. Bang, bang, bang. She had to give it to Carla, the woman was good. Unwavering, committed to the task, a true pro when she was going for the kill.
But Sol still had the ultimate trick up her sleeve.
They had all fallen in love with Joaquin in their first year studying marketing. He was the guy everyone wanted: from a very wealthy family, with an angelic face, an athletic body and a rebellious attitude that made him all the more appealing.
Joaquin had quit after the first year, switched to sociology. He had too much good in his heart to stay tied to capitalism in his life’s work. And just like he would have in any other field, Joaquin had become a success. Publishing books, regularly appearing in the media to speak about important societal issues. Who wouldn’t want to look into those ice-blue eyes, even if it was through a screen?
They’d stayed best friends, all secretly and obviously harboring the desire to be with him. Even Jimena. She may have spent the last five years with Fede and planned a wedding, but she would have left him for Joaquin in a heartbeat, everyone knew it. Fede probably did, too. Maybe that was why he'd left, finally getting tired of being compared to the impossible standard set by their friend.
But the only thing that mattered now was that whoever got Joaquin would be, now and forever, the winner.
And that was Sol. She needed to steer the conversation to the right topic, to lead Carla into her trap. Focus, Sol, focus.
“Should we go over the guest list?”
“Of course. So, I’ve already made a list of the influencers who need to be there, I’ll email you the spreadsheet. But we have to talk about the people from school.” Carla grimaced. “Do we have to invite everybody? I mean, Magui and Melody? And Pablo? Ugh. I mean, you get me, right? They don't exactly have the right look, and it’s not even like Jime is in contact with them anymore.”
“Whatever you say, Carla. But Joaquin is coming, I suppose.” Mentioning his name out loud made Sol’s heart race.
“Of course, I don’t think he’s ever missed one of our birthdays. Not even yours,” Carla said, then noticing her insult had been too direct. “I mean, it’s in the middle of summer, nobody’s even in the city.” Just a tiny little knife between the ribs, this one.
“Yes, he’s such a good friend, isn’t he?”
“I know. And he’s having such a tough time right now, with everything, we all need to be here for him.“
“Yes, we’ll be there to support him."
She had been. If only she could tell Carla about it.
It had been a first for Sol, to be alone with Joaquin, but it wouldn’t be the last time.
He’d invited her over for dinner and to discuss some work-related issues. Joaquin had started a podcast to accompany his new book that was coming out later that year, and he’d wanted some marketing advice.
Even after all those years they’d been friends, Sol had been nervous to be with Joaquin all on her own. But thanks to the bottles of malbec he’d kept opening and the relaxing music, they’d been getting closer and closer to each other, touching each other’s arm when speaking, growing comfortable with closeness.
She had never imagined reaching that kind of a relationship with Joaquin, couldn’t even have dreamed it. He had always been unattainable for all of them, finding his girlfriends from outside of their social circle, beauty queens from upper-class families. On top, they were all intellectuals, full of profound thoughts about politics and social inequality. Too rich, gorgeous and smart for them to compete with.
But now, something has shifted in Joaquin. He had been looking deep into Sol's eyes, touching her arm, sending goosebumps down her spine. Joaquin had seen her for the first time, in a way nobody had yet seen her in her entire life.
“Everything’s changed in the last couple of years, even before I broke up with Valentina,” he had confided in her. “I’ve been feeling lonely for a long time, but I never imagined that would happen. That she’d do that, cheat on me."
"Well, just remember it's not your fault. Hurt people hurt people, and all that," Sol recited a line she had seen in a self-help book.
"I know, it's her issues, but I didn't want to see it. And even after I found out about it, I wasn’t prepared to leave her.”
“What made you decide?” Sol had tried to keep her voice as stable as possible, but Joaquin’s body inching closer to hers had made it harder.
“I knew you’d ask that. You’ve always been the smart one, haven’t you?” Joaquin’s dimple had shown. “Remember that trip I made to Córdoba? I went to the mountains, told Valen it was a boys’ trip but in reality I wanted to disappear alone. You know, I haven’t told anybody else this story, and I probably never will, but…“ Joaquin had stopped abruptly, giving her a glance that was almost humble.
“What happened?” Sol’s ears had started burning up. She was the first one he’d told this story to? “Don’t worry, you can trust me, you know that. We’ve been friends forever.”
“I know, Sol, and I appreciate your support more than anything. So, yes, I think I can confide in you, but promise not to laugh.”
She’d nodded in response.
“So, I went out on the mountains and hiked for the first day before I set up camp. Then I found a great spot, shielded from the sun and the wind, so I pitched my tent. After a little while, at sunset, while I was cooking myself some noodles on the fire, I noticed there was an owl on a tree right next to me. Looked like your common barn owl, and it was staring at me, or so it felt. I managed to take a picture of it.”
Joaquin took out his phone and scrolled for a second before leaning even closer to Sol, showing her the screen. It was a blurry closeup of something brown in the middle of green leaves, with specks of blue sky in between. She couldn’t distinguish an owl.
“Oh wow. So, how did the owl make you change your mind about Valentina?” she’d said, trying to stay calm with Joaquin’s arm grazing hers.
“So, I know this might sound strange, and that’s why I haven’t shown the picture to anybody. People would just think I’ve gone crazy. But sitting there with the owl, I suddenly just felt this amazing connection to the moment. To being in nature, being one with the world for once, not just looking at my phone. I mean, apart from taking the pictures, of course.”
Sol had nodded. “Of course.” It was different, wasn't it? Joaquin was different. So his moment of connection with nature was far less profound than she'd expected. Maybe you just had to be there to get it.
“And I just sat around right there, next to my tent, feeling so incredibly lucky that I was there without Valentina. I spent such a long time trying to drag her out of Buenos Aires, but she never wanted to go anywhere. She only wanted to be in places where she could be seen, you know? It’s the politician’s daughter in her, I guess. But I just can’t live like that. I want to be in the moment. Like right now.”
Joaquin had been staring at Sol, and she had been scared to make even the smallest move, afraid it might break the spell. Was this really happening? Luckily, he had kept talking.
“But I… I noticed I didn’t want to be alone. That I wanted to share that moment with somebody else, someone who would appreciate it. Someone truly unique, like you.” Joaquin had reached out to remove a strand of hair from Sol’s face, carefully placing it behind her ear, then looking at her again as if in search of confirmation. She had managed to nod, and he’d moved forward, placing a careful kiss on her lips.
That had been the best night of her life. He had been sweet and tender, but so passionate. Somebody so attractive being so smart and so good in his heart was just an impossible combination. When she’d left Joaquin’s apartment in the early hours of the morning, it hadn’t been awkward like it always was with other guys. They knew each other. There was trust.
They had agreed to keep things on the down-low for a while. He had a lot going on, with the podcast and his book launch, and he had only just moved out from Valentina’s place. She needed to give him time to get settled, and she would.
Even if it meant having to listen to Carla without spilling her secret, Sol thought as she tried to reconnect with the conversation taking place in front of her. She wasn't going to give out a name, but she could certainly tease it, couldn't she?
“...Those two, single at the same time, can you imagine?” Carla was just finishing a monologue about her single friends.
“I know, they haven’t been single in a while. But how are things with you? Are you seeing someone?”
Carla leaned back with a sly smile on her lips. “Maybe.”
Ugh. Now she had to pretend she was interested before getting to her own secret.
“You’re not going to tell me who he is, right?”
Carla shook her head. “But I can tell you he’s an amazing, interesting man.”
“I’m so happy for you.”
“Me, too. Can you believe this happened? With my impossible work schedules and all?”
“You’ve always been good at finding the time.”
Carla allowed the side of her lip to raise slightly. “Don’t worry, you’ll find somebody, too. There are guys for everyone. Have you tried the apps? I mean, I’ve never tried them, haven’t found the time, really, but for someone like you they might be a great solution.”
The urge to blurt it all out burned on Sol's tongue.
“I’m okay, Carla, really. I’m actually seeing someone. He’s pretty great. It’s too soon to share with you guys, but I think you’d like him.”
Just enough of an eyebrow raise from Carla to keep Sol's adrenaline high and her heart pumping so loud in her ears she wondered if she would burst.
“Oh, I really do hope so, Sol. I hope you find the kind of guy I’m with right now. He’s just so amazing, supportive, kind. Someone who truly uses their intellect to help others. You’d love him, too.” Carla smiled.
She seemed truly happy about being with this man, Sol realized as she examined the small wrinkles around Carla’s eyes. It was the first time she was smiling with her eyes as well as her lips.
But there was something else, too.
This dance, they both knew what it was for. For the win. They both wanted to come out with their news, so why didn’t she?
Carla wouldn’t keep this from her, except for one reason. For the first time, probably in her life, the guy was important enough to keep him a secret.
The implications made Sol dizzy.
“He’s just finished a relationship, though, so we’re going to keep things on the down-low for a while. But he’s such a great person. He told me this, I don’t even know how to explain it, this incredibly moving story about when he realized he was with the wrong person, that he needed someone like me in his life. I was just floored.”
Sol sat back on her chair and took a deep breath, summoning her inner hunter. Her inner Carla.
“And then, he showed me this picture he’s never shown anybody, of that very moment of clarity he got. It was so touching, to see how important I was to him. It was…”
Sol straightened her back, lifting her chin a little in order to look at Carla down her nose.
“...A barn owl,” Sol said, with just a hint of a smug smile, like she’d learned from the master. “A blurry picture of a barn owl, sitting on a tree somewhere in Córdoba. And he only showed it to you, nobody else, because you're just so goddamn unique, aren't you, Carla?”
Bang. Carla’s mouth was wide open.
Aim, focus, shoot.
About the author
Finnish by birth, porteña at heart. Recovering political ghostwriter. Fiction, relationships, politics, bad puns, popular and unpopular opinions. Occasional dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best.