The party at the end of the world
Punta del Este, Uruguay–The cabbie drove a straight path through s-shaped curves at 120 kilometers per hour. When the olive-skinned Uruguayan was a child, there no doubt his crayons ran outside the lines. The white dotted lane dividers weren’t even seen as a suggestion. They didn’t exist to our driver. The solid white mark indicating the shoulder should’ve meant something, but when the curve was about to go right, the Mercedes’ wheels slipped onto the shoulder and hugged the edge of the road. The cabbie was listening to 1980s American music and relaxed like he was kicking back for a Sunday drive. It was 11:45 on a Friday night and I was in Uruguay’s version of an Formula 1 taxi.
We were on our way to the wrap party after a week’s worth of work. As we stepped out into the marina air and looked up at the palms, an aged man ran zig-zags on the sidewalk. Possessed by drink or betrayed by his mind, the man took Montgomery Burns-style swings at passers-by. He chased one young man off the sidewalk with atavistic screams and wild half-punches. I crossed the street with my companions as the old man babbled in Spanish. If I could have understood him, I’m pretty sure I would’ve heard, “The end is here! The world ends tonight!”
Moby Dick sits on the opposite side of the street from the harbor. I expected something along the lines of a Jimmy Buffet-styled beach bar with giant photos of whalers and rum runners on the sea. Instead I got an old bar with stone walls, wooden porthole windows to nowhere, and quarters so tight a fat man couldn’t fit in the bathroom doors. The Jamseon advertising gave the place away as an Irish pub, but I decided to stick to local brew. Last time I got silly in an Irish bar, it turned ugly. This time, I sat back and drank the Zillertal. When compared to the Patricia I’d been forced to drink most of the week, it was refreshing. We were happy to be in Punta. After a week of paying $22 for club sandwiches in the neighboring La Barra, getting out into the comfortable little seaside community was a welcome getaway from a week’s worth of stress.
We three chroniclers of the game were the first to arrive. We sat on backless benches and wondered aloud if we were even in the right place. It was after midnight and the place was empty. Within half an hour, that would change. The top level of the place teemed with unsteady revelry. People who I’d never seen take a drink poured tequila and beer down their throats with abandon. Women forgot themselves and all their mother had taught them. Men ignored their lives and pretended they were someone else. Somewhere in the room, a female superhero I called Wondrous Woman walked through the crowd exhibiting her superpowers in way that one friend called “fashion forward.”
The party raged past 2am, past 4am, and all the way until the sun began to rise over the Atlantic ocean. The midnight doomsayer had long since gone to sleep, a drunken acquiescence to the inevitable. By the time morning came, the dozens of people who started the party had turned ravenous. There had been enough booze. There had even been food. Something, though, had been missing. It was unclear what the party people couldn’t find, but something–maybe meaning–was absent. Leaders fell. Love got lost. Mascara streamed down crying faces. Eyes went sideways and begged for forgiveness. For once, I was a happy bystander as the world fell apart around me.
The entire scene reminded me of The Last Poker Game, an underground card room I once saw turn inside out. Where once there had been order, people set reason aflame just to watch it burn. I wondered if the screaming old man on the sidewalk had actually foretold the end and the language barrier had left me in the dark. Watching the others, I feared I would again let myself get caught up in the Bacchanalian release and go unintentionally over some dark edge.
This time, I managed to walk away unharmed. I helped steer a couple of people toward reality and left the others to fend for themselves. By the time the sun came up at 6:30 in the morning, I was in another cab and speeding back toward La Barra. The old man at the end of the world may have met his maker that night, but the rest of us would live to see another day. After bearing witness to what might have been the end, the new morning was beautiful. If I had been born with a painter’s hand, the canvas would’ve looked like the Atlantic that morning.
The sun and water turned the sky into morning lavender. It was the color of hope, again.