THE END OF 06: STUPID AMERICAN
Excerpts from old travel journals, stitched together for flair
George W. Bush is President and Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back. The wars rage on. Depending on the source, 650,000 Iraqis have died or maybe just 50,000, no one can ever say how many for certain. There is confusion over what constitutes a casualty. Some lives matter, others do not, some deaths are casualties, others par for the course. Borat premieres and Sacha Baron Cohen make benefit for the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. Children of Men and James Bond play in London theaters. The Children of Men long take leaves theatergoers in awe, Daniel Craig in a Ford makes them laugh. Wikileaks is founded and Google buys the video streaming website called YouTube. There is a shooting at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania that leaves five schoolgirls dead. The youngest to die is seven years old, the youngest casualty is six years old and when fully recovered she will never walk or talk again. The victims' families offer the shooter’s family immediate forgiveness, they hug each other, they hold each other, they say of the gunman, “We must not think evil of this man” and the American press does not like this. North Korea's underground nuclear weapons testing triggers seismic events, the US Geological Survey records a 4.2 on the Richter scale. North Korea threatens nuclear war, China sounds the alarm. Russian journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya is murdered in Moscow on Putin’s birthday, assassinated, shot four times: once in the shoulder, twice in the chest, once in the head. Kyle XY is on television. Kyle XY is a teenaged boy without a bellybutton who awakens naked in a forest outside Seattle. The Scream is recovered by Norwegian police in surprisingly excellent condition, it is put on display for five days only and the exhibit draws thousands. The Janjaweed attack Sudanese refugees. Sudanese children use colored pencils to draw what they have witnessed — men on horseback, men in trucks, executions, beheadings, guns, blood, fires, bombs, tears, their homes. Orhan Pamuk wins the Noble Prize in Literature and later is sued for being offensive, he says he was addressing issues related to free speech, he is ordered to pay a fine. There is widespread cooling in the US housing market but the Dow Jones sets record high after record high. Limbus infantum, the damnation of infants, is under review. Will or won’t the unbaptized be admitted to the Kingdom of God? Warrantless domestic wiretapping is permitted. Protestors chant “No justice, no peace” in Lafayette Park and call for the President’s impeachment. I am in Europe studying writing, film, and history. I have been advised not to tell anyone I’m American. The school director says, “Do not travel alone and if someone asks, say you’re Canadian.”
Having missed my flight from Amsterdam to Madrid I am on a 26 hour train trip that begins at the Amsterdam Airport. I arrive at the flight gates and am greeted by a flight attendant wearing a lime green pillbox hat with dark piping and a lime green uniform with the same dark piping. She looks at me through tarantula eyelashes and says, “You are late. You are very late.” I tell her I know this and ask her if there’s anything she can do but she only smiles and shakes her head.
I leave for the train station. The day is dreary wet and warm. The station atrium feels like a food court. The woman at the booking counter is friendly and we develop an excellent working relationship.
“I am trying to get to Sevilla,” I tell her. “But I missed my flight. Anything you can do?”
“When do you need to be there?”
“Whenever. I just want to be there at some point and ideally I’d like to get my money’s worth out of this Europass.”
She does her thing. Taps the keyboard, pauses, squints, taps, taps taps, purses, squints, taps, and says, “I can get you there in 26 hours.”
The route brings me from Amsterdam to Brussels to Paris to Madrid to Sevilla and costs $79.
The train to Brussels is unremarkable. No part of it is memorable other than when the sun shines over the green straights dotted with narrow houses and front lawns striped with narrow trees. Clouds rib the sky with chicken bones and the train rocks on its tracks, sways, sometimes it dips into this countryside spread out like a pastel painting hung above a posh living room sofa and I feel like a guest in someone’s home. There is a group of people in the same study abroad program as I am on the train. They are all going to Brussels. I say I am going to Sevilla. They say, “You are alone?”
We say goodbye on the platform. They look at me with pity and fear. They look like scared goats bundled in neat clothes, carrying backpacks and wearing ball caps.
On the train from Brussels to Paris a middle-aged man sits next to me. He wears a brown leather cap, a brown leather jacket and reads from a newspaper he pulls from his armpit. He unrolls it. He reads it. He scoffs. He looks at me. I look out the window. He says something I do not understand. He looks away and returns to his paper. He reads. He scoffs. He goes through the entire paper this way letting out pffts and hehs and snorty little laughs like humanized sleep apnea. He finishes with the paper, rolls it back up and slides it into his armpit. He leans back in his seat, pulls his hat over his face, crosses his arms over his chest and sleeps. But only for a minute. He snaps awake and says to me, “Who are you?” in a French accent. I shift my eyes from the window to look at him but I keep quiet. “Where are you from? Who are you?” I turn to him. I do not like his face. It is tight and beady. Balled up like a rose, pulled in, layered, beet-red anus mouth. I do not like how close he is to me and I especially do not like how quickly he got there. I decide this man must take it.
“I am an American,” I tell him.
He snorts quickly. “No you are not,” he says. “Are you?” He leans in, inches from my face, inspecting me for my Americaness. “No,” he says. “Pfft! Stupid Americans don’t leave the country.”
“I did,” I say.
He takes the newspaper out from his armpit and unfolds it. He slaps the front page with its image of war. Orange burning fire. Black silhouettes. Crying women. Rubble. Bodies. Words I cannot read, except for one: Bush. He slaps the image and says, “Then you, you did this? You did this?!” I tell him I did not. He tells me, “But Bush you are American, he is your President.” I tell him I did not vote for Bush and the man howls with laughter. Literally. Grabs his belly, brings up his knee, and howls. HOOOOO. People turn in the aisle and look back at us, at me sitting beside this man. “Of course, of course!” The man says laughing, wiping tears from his eyes. “Anyone who leaves America did not vote for Bush. That is how it works isn’t it? Isn’t that right? Only stupid American vote for Bush. Right? They are stupid American, not you, right?”
I tell him, “I don’t know.”
He laughs. Speaks French. Mocks me.
“I don’t know. I do not know. Ah, you do not know, stupid American. You are stupid American.”
I decide to stop talking. It is hard to tell the difference between the passionate and the unhinged when there is a language barrier. I decide to observe the man instead. The man speaks in French. Gestures his hands theatrically, a wayward composer. He laughs and crouches, slouches as he does. I watch him bounce around in his seat saying things to me I do not understand. I can feel my chest tighten and burn. I think of getting up and finding a new seat but I am too stubborn. I sit like a statue and stare. The man stops his laughing for English.
“You are American and now you don’t talk,” he says with a smile.
“It’s hard to talk to you,” I say and he gives up. He slaps the air with his hands and scoffs.
“Americans,” he says. “They live with the stars.” He leans back in his seat, pulls his cap over his eyes, and goes to sleep.
The train arrives in Paris. I take the Metro south to another station where I'll board the train to Madrid. The Metro goes above ground. I see Paris for the first time and it is beautiful, dirty, and overcast. There is graffiti on Parisian bridges. It rains in Paris. Both of these things surprise me. I arrive at the train station with an hour to kill. I go into a cafe but no one will serve me. I go to the bathroom but don’t have any change to unlock the doors so I leave for a liquor store. I buy a bottle of whiskey and as I am paying the cashier smiles and speaks to me. I have no idea what he is saying. I just smile. He keeps speaking. I keep smiling. He looks at me. He is tall with messy hair that is graying above his ears. He is thin and wears his glasses at the end of his thin nose. His shirt is worn, his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He is a man I want to throw my arms around. His hands are sinewy and tan. I like the way he looks at me, I like how he talks to me, I like the sound of his voice — a velvet lounge interlude between acts, low and deep, a current maintaining the mood while the drinks refill and band sets up — I wonder what he is saying to me, I cannot understand a single word. When he hands me the brown bag with my bottle of whiskey wrapped up inside he looks right at me, right in my eyes, stares right in me like I am his business, looking down from the top of his long, thin nose, ice blue eyes polished like sea stones, crystalline and eager and I cannot stop smiling at this man, soon I am giggling, I am an idiot for this man. He keeps his hand on the bag even though I am holding the bag. He keeps talking. That voice. We are both holding the bag, gripping the bag, dry paper on fingertips, heat from his hands, this man’s hands, radiates onto mine. He says something that feels like a wave lapping my skin and I can’t take it anymore, I say it.
“I don’t speak French.”
“I don’t speak French,”
I nod, “Oui?”
He takes his hand off the bag and says something that sounds like “Morrissey” he waves me away and slams the cash register closed. It is then I decide to leave.
I use the change from my purchase to open the bathroom then spend the rest of the time sitting on a bench in the station watching the trains come in. There are a lot of short women bundled up in black clothes walking around like hobbled babushkas sifting through passing waves of tourists carrying shoulder bags, dragging brightly colored luggage. The tourists move at a pace that distinguishes them as being here for a purpose, and damns them, they will only see the sights. When the trains pull in I want to stand at the very edge of the platform so the tips of the trains bump the tip of my nose as they come to a stop. I do not do this. But I really want to. I watch the conductors pull up the train bellies and unload stacks of luggage and boxes and bikes and strollers. There are dog crates and long packages. I pay for the bathroom again and manage to get a chocolate croissant at a cafe with only a handful of eyerolls. I eat it quickly and get crumbs everywhere. I am covered in flaky pastry. My train arrives. I board.
Paris to Madrid is the longest leg of the journey and it is also overnight. The travel agent from Amsterdam booked me a sleeper chair, unknowingly she booked me a sleeper chair next to a newlywed couple from Boston. It is very odd. I’m not sure I want to interact with them. They both wear green Red Sox hats, hers has a red B and his has a white B. There’s an avid recklessness to them, it spills out their mouths, I cannot object to it, I am unsure if I disagree or if I am jealous. I disagree because they are loud and the loud things I enjoy are loud because I made them loud, they are intentional. These two are loud and unintentional, they comment on everything.
“Oh my God, did you see that?”
When the steward asks them where they are from they say in unison, “Boston.” They disturb me. I pretend I don’t speak English, in fact I pretend I don’t speak any language at all. When the train steward comes through with dinner options I point out my selects and don’t make a sound. I keep quiet the entire ride. The couple from Boston engage in conversation with anyone who will listen. They are on their honeymoon. They are going through Europe.
“Well, not actually,” the woman tells the steward. “We started in Paris and now we’re going to Madrid and then we’ll fly up to London. I’ve always wanted to go to Spain and he’s always wanted to go to Paris.”
“Always,” the husband chimes in.
“Yeah,” she continues. “And we both wanted to see London so we figured we’d end there and fly out of there.”
“It’s the fastest route home too,” the husband says. “Figure we’ll be beat from so much traveling we’ll want to get home as soon as possible toward the end there.”
I eat my meal and when I am finished I pull my whiskey from its brown bag and sip from it until I am sleepy. The steward dims the lights and eventually turns them off so the only lights on are two parallel blue bands that line the center aisle. I look out the train window. The sky is navy then it is black and for a while I see my reflection without any idea who it is. I think of that boy who asked me, “What’s another word for mystery?”
“Enigma,” I told him.
Then later he sent me a card and inside it said: You are an enigma.
I am covered in shadows and when the cabin lights go out I see nothing at all.
I wake up early in the morning to a full orange blue sky that sweeps out across rolling lands of Spain. Crosses dot the landscape. Crosses are everywhere. They rise in lines across the land. They rise in orange heat. I fear the church. Franco and the Roman Catholics. I imagine: Miro The Reaper. Dali The Face of War. Goya The Third of May. I see the steeple rise in the distance and feel l have entered a land I do not respect. What have I awoken to? What world is this? I am afraid. I stare and stare as the orange day rises and night’s navy blanket recedes to brilliant red. The scene is lit in primaries. The egg yolk yellow of a rising sun changes the shape of things and I feel so stupid. The idiot returns. They are not crosses. They are telephone poles. Wooden telephone poles rising and falling in lines, rising and falling up and down across the plains. My mind has played tricks, my mind sees history, my mind sees fear and the fear it sees is me in mine.
There are no crosses, there is Spain, and it unfolds before me in mounds of orange, red, and yellow. The glow rises and the blue returns. Soft blue early morning sky brightens the gray train car. I am the only one awake. I watch and I watch and I write:
One man stands with grey hair in a red sweatshirt holding the leash of a dog who patiently sits waiting for nothing but the chance to move again. Although it is wrong to say the dog’s waiting for the chance when moving is part of his duty. When his man moves so will he. But now his man is still, standing upright, looking outwards, so for now the dog is still, sitting patiently, obligingly between an orange rock and the worn sneakers on his man’s feet. The sky behind them is blue. Day’s virginal illusion. Day’s perfected poker face. Morning’s early and appears like a beginning. The man pays no notice to his right. Ignoring the sound of jackhammers turning holes, and certain mechanical hands tearing up one surface and then the next. As the sun moves higher and higher (its favorite sleight of hand) shadows of pueblos and crosses begin again their daily emergence on the horizon, lying just above the recently displaced ground. The five man crew’s iridescent neon uniforms and silver bullet hard hats fail in their seduction. The man’s eyes show no affection to their workingman’s glitz. He does not flinch as the train blows by. He does not object to how the train’s speed leaves his sweatshirt fastened tightly around his torso. So, like the dog waiting by his feet, the man stands patiently, obligingly beside the day’s digging of a hole and the steady passing of a train.
The next week I read these words aloud in my travel writing class and when I finish reading a boy excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns to class he writes this down on a piece of paper and gives it to me:
I want to wrap myself in these words and take a lovely nap, on a cloud, in winter.
I want to take these words to dinner and spend all my money on the world’s finest wines and then take the words home and bed them.
And I do not know if he is asking me on a date but I wish that he would. He takes his writing seriously. He is kind to me. He makes me laugh and most importantly, he knows how to calm me down. I am nothing but curious when it comes to him. But, he has a girlfriend in New York City, she is studying to be an actress, and I respect commitments.
One night he and I get very stoned. Very, very stoned with two Dutchmen who meet us by the horse paddock. We stand around the Dutchmen’s car that is parked on the dirt road next to the paddock. The dirt road leads to a blueberry field that I walk to at night when I want to disappear, and ride my bike to during the day when I want to hide and write, some days I spend the whole day in the field with a bottle of wine and a couple of joints and a chicken salad and peach sandwich I buy from the bakery down the street. I lie down on my back and I read and I write and I watch the golden green brown colors flicker on the tree leaves and stare out at the flatness of the land. One day I pass another student smoking on the dirt road and he tells me, “This reminds me of home.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Where are you from?”
And we laugh.
I stand with the boy from class and the two Dutchmen, who for some reason we just know, I’m not sure how we all became friends, the Dutchmen just appeared one day with weed for us to smoke. Someone must have met them, I didn’t get the backstory. That night we smoke what the Dutchmen call “The Tulip.” It is a four inch long joint with a large tulip-shaped bulb at the end of it that we are told has been soaking in hash oil for days. After smoking it I am terrified. I am convinced I have permanently erased the entirety of my mind. I begin to panic. We leave the Dutchmen and return to my room for safety. We sit on my bed and draw and listen to music. The boy from class plays Sufjan Stevens. I tell him to shut it off. He says why. I say, “There’s no blood in it. The guy’s got no blood!” He just looks at me. I say, “I am a tabula rasa.” He keeps the music as is. “Put on Cohen,” I say, I mumble. He plays Newsom…We sailed away on a winter’s day with fate as malleable as clay…and it is perfect.
I lie there staring at the ceiling, low soft brown wooden beams, cream stucco walls. I live in the servants’ quarters of a 14th century Medieval Castle in southeastern Netherlands. I am taking classes on writing, film, and history — Russian history and a class called, History of the World Since 1914, which is basically World War history. The teacher is German and pronounces fascism as fa-schizm, which of course makes me laugh, which of course makes him angry. I can’t help myself. Fa-schizm. Shazam!
For one assignment, I put together a beautiful presentation on Ernest Hemingway and World War II. It is supposed to be a team project but my teammate is a dope. He delays and postpones and cancels our meet-ups. He is obsessed with one of the other students, another actress from New York who talks about her film auditions, which involve learning how to ride a horse, bareback. I cannot place her as a person but her sexuality is ripe. She exudes it. She gets cozy with one of the bartenders at a hostel in London we all stay at when on a group excursion. We stay there twice and the second time he waits for her. I watch him wait for her. Every woman who walks in the bar another bartender says to him, “Is that her? Is that her?” He says, “No, wait. I’ll tell you.” He fixes his hair, straightens his shirt. And when she finally arrives, when she walks through the bar door into the dark blue scene of unmemorable music, sticky booths, watered-down drinks, the man’s face lights up. “That’s her,” he says.
She puts on plays in the barn and watches Marilyn Monroe movies in the rec room. She is tall and thin and very, very beautiful. She turns the boys and teachers to putty. It is fun to watch. Men are so predictable. I leave my partner to his desires and make the presentation on my own. The night before it is due he messages me “holy shit we have to do that project!!!!!!” I tell him it is done. He says, “Can I see it?” I tell him he has to come over to my room right now because I am going to sleep, which of course is a lie but I am done with him, I have been done with him for weeks. He makes a point of telling me that he is in the beautiful actress’ room and that it will take a while to get over there, she lives in the main part of the castle, probably in a turret. I tell my partner, “It is now or never.” He says he’ll be right there.
He arrives at my door in under a minute. He is sweating, out of breath, and visibly terrified. I show him the presentation and his jaw drops. He picks it up with his hand and rubs his chin and grinds his teeth. “This is really good,” he says. In my head I say, Of course it is. But out loud I say, “Thanks.” Then he leaves and the next morning we make our presentation to the class and I of course have a panic attack presenting, so I get a B and the dope gets an A. I am angry but the teacher sees no reason to accommodate my anxiety.
“But I did everything."
“But you did not present.”
One day the meek will inherit the earth.
I stare at the ceiling. Dark brown intersecting beams hang low, the indents of dormers cut into the room, between them a solitary open window looks out at the old stables, to the barn where the computer room is, where they teach classes, where the laundry is, where I’m sure other things are and have been and will be. The soft light in the corner glows shadows on shapes that rise like buildings on walls. The room is yellow and brown and black with the night sky in the window. The boy from class sits at the edge of my bed and I let out a moan. I am too high, I am uncomfortable. He shifts closer to me on the bed and looks at me. He looks concerned and something else. I can see it in his eyes. I can see that heavy thing, that weighted thing, that secret thing, I feel him cast an anchor inside me. I want him to kiss me the way he wants to kiss me and I know we both know he never will. I get up from the bed and go to the corner sink. I turn on the faucet and dunk my head under running water then return to bed with a cold, wet facecloth. I lie down and drape the cloth across my forehead. We stay together most of the evening, listening to music without talking and in the morning we sit together smoking cigarettes on a bench next to the castle moat. I feel erased but the fear of losing my mind has passed, it’ll come back, I’m sure of it. I feel emptied and blank, I just pressed the reset button.
When the train pulls into the Madrid station I have to move quickly. My train to Sevilla departs in less than twenty minutes, there is no time for mess-ups. The train is packed. All the seats are taken. It is loud. There are families with small children, girls in bright pink shorts with bows in their hair and boys in assorted blues holding plastic toys. Everyone has a bag or two on their laps. A heavy-set middle-aged man sits next to me. He wears a tame brown suit and a white button-down shirt with the first few buttons unbuttoned. He reads from a newspaper and I stare out the window. The land darkens the farther south I go, there is more brown, less orange. The heat from outside seeps in through the train windows and mixes with the cold air conditioner. Along the window seams a microclimate of humidity leaves small wet beads, droplets on the windowsill. The day will be very hot and immediately I regret my packing: one book, one journal, one dress, an undershirt, a T-shirt, jeans, a scarf, and sneakers. The man in the brown suit turns to me and says something quickly. It is weighted like syrup. Castilian. He switches to English.
“Are you French or Algerian?” he asks me.
“I am American,” I tell him. He jerks back in his seat.
“American?” he says. “You look French. What are you doing on this train?”
“I am going to Sevilla.”
He laughs. “Aren’t we all?”
“I am studying in the Netherlands and we have a week off.”
“Ahh, the Netherlands he says,” and simulates smoking a joint. We laugh. “It is beautiful up there. It is beautiful down here, too. Enjoy your stay.” He returns to reading his newspaper and I return to looking out the window and we do not exchange another word until the train arrives in the station. When we stand to disembark the man in the brown suit says once more, “Enjoy your stay.” He nods and smiles and moves aside so that I may exit first.
I take a break in the atrium of the station. The ceiling is vaulted and grand. In the center palm trees and palmed trees grow tall, lush, green. I smell the dirt. I smell the heat. It rises around me. I sit down on a bench and watch. Women push neatly dressed babies in strollers. Men carry leather briefcases with wide straps, they wear their shirts unbuttoned. I see chest hair. Teenaged boys with gelled hair stroll around looking, looking, they seem content looking, strolling, they laugh and point and sit down and stare at passersby the way I do. They eat candy. Young women chatter and stroll, coy softness seeps out their eyes, they giggle on bare legs and sandals, painted toenails. An old woman sits down beside me and fumbles with a plastic bag. Contents fall out, she collects them and slides them into her coat pockets, a beige gray trench coat, and throws the torn plastic bag in a trash bin. People gather, they bustle but don’t hustle, that is apparent, they are going about their days at their own pace not the day's, not an external push, not a demand, they are part of the day, they are in it. I look around at the shops. I need a toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. At the far end of the station I spot a store that can help me. I buy all three needs then head to the bus terminal.
There are signs outside where the busses pick up, paper signs taped to poles and windows that inform us about construction and changed routes and different drop-off locations and route numbers not being what they used to be. My high school Spanish gets me through 80% of the text, I wing it. I board a bus that seems right. I sit in the front and watch for sights, for signs. I will know when I am close. I think. The bus heads in the proper direction toward downtown Sevilla. It makes a few stops, it travels around a park, I recognize nothing, spot no helpful signs. The bus stops at the far corner of a park heated and lazy in high sun and the bus driver turns around and waves for me to come to him. He asks me where I am going. I tell him the name of the hostel I’d like to get to and he says okay I will drive you there. And he does. He drives me there — no — he drives the entire bus there. The bus is full of people but no one seems to mind. Everyone on the bus keeps up their chattering or staring out of windows or reading of books or newspapers. No one seems bothered by this personal detour. There is an energy, the air is hot, and all of it is calm. There is a liveliness that’s kind. The bus driver stops at the end of a narrow cobblestone alley lined with red and yellow brick and stucco buildings with balconies full of plants and colorful rugs draped over railings, bamboo shades block sun from blinding people living behind windows. He tells me to walk down there, the hostel will be on the right. I thank him, he says it’s nothing. He opens the bus doors. I am the only one to exit. The bus doors close, the bus drives off, and I walk down the alley alone.
The hostel is quiet and humid. Andalusian tiles line the walls in dizzying vibrant patterns commanding a reverence I can’t pin down, they radiate with history, they are what’s permanent, they hold the stories. Green leggy plants drip from the ceiling and hang from the wrought iron railings that line the tiled mezzanine floor above. The woman at the reception desk tells me everyone’s at the Plaza de toros, there is a bullfight this afternoon, there is still time to make it, she can bring me there if I’d like but we’d have to leave now. I am conflicted. I don’t want to see an animal die and I think I want less to make cultural judgements, I tell the receptionist I would like to go. She makes a phone call, speaks quickly, pauses, then looks upset. She hangs up the phone and tells me it is too late. I am relieved. She gives me my room number and tells me she will move me in the morning. I ask why. She says the only room available has four beds three of which are occupied by men. She asks if that is okay. I tell her that is fine. She promises to switch me in the morning to a double with another woman and to let her know if there are any problems, she stresses the word any.
The room is dark with brown walls and two bunk beds. There are bags on all the beds except the top bunk against the far wall. I climb up and take a nap. When I wake it is early in the evening and I am starving. I head to the reception desk and ask the woman if she recommends anywhere to eat and she looks disturbed. “Oh, you, well,” she stutters. “I’m not sure what’s open right now.” Then she says it. “Siesta.” Siesta. Ah, the word excites me. A country with a respect for naps. She tells me there will be tapas served later on the roof at nine. They are free for all guests. “There will be music,” she says. She still looks concerned. But where will I eat now, she wonders, what will I do? “Thank you,” I tell her. “I’ll be there.” I smile and turn away and walk past the pretty walls of Andalusian tiles, the blues and oranges, yellows and reds, all of it so perfect like a field in spring, like a garden in summer and I keep walking out the heavy oak door to the alley and decide to go right.
I walk and I walk. The sky gets darker and the temperature drops. I get closer to city buildings, tall buildings, the urban darkness of black and that teal-navy blue that reflects off window panes at night. The splash of buildings. Faint neon signs. The sky darkens and I no longer feel like I am in a foreign country, just in any city’s, which is every city’s, financial district after hours. I spot a light on in a one-story building with a stacked orange clay shingle roof. I walk to it. I enter. It’s a bar. The chairs are up on the tabletops and the stools are all pushed in. There is one man, an older man, white hair, button down, red tie, mopping behind the bar. He looks surprised to see me but waves me in. We are the only people there. I sit down on a brown leather stool with a brown leather seat back and he asks me what I’ll be having. I tell him a whiskey and he says, “Hota e bay?”
“Si,” I say. “J&B.”
He sets a glass down in front of me and plops one ice cube in. Then he starts to pour and he keeps pouring and I can see his eyes look up at me as he pours, I can see him watching me watch the pour and I can see his eyes move up and down like elevators waiting for me to say when, and when it’s full I say that’s good and he looks relieved. He wipes sweat from his brow. I ask him if there is anything to eat. He says he’ll see what he can do. He leaves for a while. And I stare across the bar at the mirror at my reflection. I am 21 but feel like I am 101. I am small but feel tremendous. I am alone but feel accompanied by centuries of voices. The bartender returns with a plate of bread and cheese and sliced tomato. I thank him for it and he returns to his mopping. And for a while we remain like that together in time, just the two of us in the bar, he with his mopping and me with my whiskey and cheese. When I am finished I pay him and leave.
Shops are starting to open. I decide it is a good idea to find a grocery store and get some provisions. There are ample cigarette butts on a single strip of street to last a daily smoker at least a month if they were cigarettes not butts depending on the amount doled out and the frequency of smoke. There are tar blots and bubblegum spots on the sidewalks and oil stains and rubber tire marks on the street. Trash cans smell like rubbish as any trash can should. There are paper leaflets plastered to curbs. What am I looking for? An air appears, it wraps around me, it’s tangible, heavy, familiar, warm. I am a little drunk. I could be drunk all day, no, buzzed, I could be buzzed all day, not drunk, on an even keel, buzzed. Sober = please kill me. Buzzed = life is manageable. Drunk = who knows who you’ll meet. I often wonder, think of the people who met me drunk, What version of me did you meet? The grocery store is brightly lit as any grocery store should be. Lately everything has a tint of blue to it. The overhead lights add hues that aren’t disruptive, not even unexpected, they aren’t distracting, they’re just there, noticeable, I see them. If I were to paint the market right now the walls would be the color of my sheets, baby blue, and there’d be spots of red and yellow for ripe tomatoes and bell peppers, there'd be no green just the silver and white of the produce bins, the freezers and tiles of the floor. I’d start crying if the colors on my palette were accurate.
On the walk back I meet two British people, Rosa and Daniel. We are all headed in the same direction, we are all staying at the same hostel, we have all been English majors at some point in time. They are here to teach English as a second language, they are looking for jobs. I fall in love with Daniel when he starts saying out loud the same observations I’ve been collecting in my head. I fall in love easily. Daniel thought the telephone poles were crosses, too. “There are so many cigarettes on the ground,” he says. He was unsure of going to the bullfight so he got lost on the walk over, he spent his day by the Guadalquivir writing in his journal, taking note of the hurriedness of tourists, the loudness of Americans. “They're so demanding,” he says.
“That’s what you were doing?” says Rosa. “We were worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” Daniel says. “I'm at my best when I'm alone.”
I want Daniel to love me but I have nothing to show, nothing to say. I watch and I watch and I watch. Back at the hostel it is time to gather on the roof for tapas. I hide my plastic bag full of crackers and fruit under my pillow like a squirrel then meet Rosa and Daniel on the roof. There is a man from Australia playing Bob Dylan covers. Rosa says, “I’m going to need a drink. Without a drink this will be sober, I mean death.”
“It’s the same thing,” says Daniel.
“Huh?” Rosa asks.
“Nothing,” he says. He looks at me briefly then looks back to Rosa, who is tall and full-chested, blonde haired, and lively. She wears a red floral dress that is as good as spring itself. I imagine she is a great cook, she bakes, she is the type of woman who owns a wok, who may not keep the cleanest house but always has something “going” on the stove. I wonder what it must be like to be loved by Daniel. Quick-witted, dry. I wish he would like me, if only for a little while.
We eat squid and paella and all sorts of crustaceans I can’t identify. Sea creatures and cut fish float in small plastic tubs full of different colored sauces that we scoop out with ladles and wrap in soft tortillas and eat while listening to another man play guitar. This man is also Australian, there are many Australians in Europe. This man I do not like. He is tall and blonde and looks like a Ken doll, and for some reason this means we must like him. Most of the women on the rooftop seem to, they gather around him when he starts playing songs I do not recognize and clap after each song. One woman whoops and says, “Yahhh!” Later I learn he is one of my bunkmates, he sleeps below me, and pokes fun at me for what he calls, “Diary Time." I walk away from the crowd and sit down on the ledge. The dark city twinkles with rooftop lights and I stare at indiscernible building shapes without much thought beyond:
I am in Spain, I was supposed to be here five years ago. Five years ago I was supposed to travel to Sevilla with my Spanish class. I chose it over Barcelona because I am un chien andalusia. Five years ago I was sixteen. Five years ago was 9/11, all trips were cancelled, and everything changed. Five years ago we watched a plane fly into the South Tower on live television and listened to the woman, “People are jumping out the windows over there! They’re jumping out the windows, I guess because they’re trying to save themselves…They’re telling us to get out but there’s nowhere to go.” And the newscasters, “That is about as frightening a scene as you will ever see…Thousands of people are dashing up Broadway…The city this time of year is extraordinarily pretty and you look out there today and you see this gaping hole…The whole side has collapsed? The whole building has collapsed…Reports of a fire at the Pentagon…A plane down in Pennsylvania…They’re patrolling Lafayette Park with automatic rifles…Good Lord…We are getting word the planes flew out of Boston…Air travel in this country has come to a halt…We watched the towers disappear from the skyline…We’re shutting down everything…It’s a clear day and it’s a disaster.” Five years ago my mom got cancer, then my cousin died of cancer, then my aunt got cancer. Five years ago everyone asked, “Where are you going to college?” Five years ago I’d go to the beach and bury my body in sand, silica, glass: an atomically disordered solid to silence the beating waves and crying gulls. Five years ago life lost meaning and I floated away. But I’m here now. I made it to Spain.
The first Australian, the one who sang Bob Dylan, leans against the ledge beside me. He is tall but shorter than the other Australian. He is dark haired and very fit, biceps defined, taut like a swimmer's.
“Guy’s shifty, ya think?” he nods at the other Australian surrounded by women.
“Not my cup of tea,” I say.
“I thought ya were French.”
“I get that a lot.”
“Ya here tomorrow?”
“Wan me t’show ya around?”
He laughs. “Well lemme know. I’m goin there in the mornin.” He points to the Cathedral of Saint Mary.
“That’s where I want to go.” I have a thing for Mother Mary, I can't explain it except to say she's always been a comfort.
“Let me take you. I don bite.”
“Are you going to want to talk the whole time?”
He laughs. “Ya don have to talk if ya don wanna.”
“Okay, see ya in the mornin’.”
Morning arrives and the heat is blazing. I wear the white undershirt I slept in, and with nothing to wear but jeans, I wrap my scarf around me like a skirt. I take coffee from the lobby to the bench out front and sit watching the windows wake up. One by one they open from behind wrought iron grates, women beat rugs on the railings and water hanging plants with plastic watering cans, water drains out their bottoms, drips in soft pecks on the cobblestone road. A man turns on a small television with bunny ear antennas and stands in front of it making breakfast, frying eggs. A woman drapes a cobalt blanket over her window’s ledge, she waves to me. One of the hostel receptionists comes out and joins me. His name is Mateo and I am in love with him too. I met him last night on the stairs going down from the roof. He was walking up with a metal tray stacked with clinking glasses in one hand and a full pitcher of sangria in the other. I held the roof door open for him. He thanked me and smiled and I envisioned our life together. Now he sits next to me on the bench and speaks to me softly like the Frenchman from the liquor store. He looks at me with those anchor eyes desperate to land and asks what I am up to today. When I flounder in Spanish, trying to get the words right with the Australian and the Cathedral, Mateo says he speaks English.
“It’s okay. That’s a pretty skirt.”
“It’s actually a scarf.”
He laughs. I sip my coffee.
He peels an apple with a knife he pulls from his back pocket. Like the Frenchman from the liquor store he too wears a worn button down shirt with the shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. So this is my type? His hair is brown and full, a little wavy, falls like a neat mop down his forehead and neck. With each pull of the knife I watch his forearm muscles flex and thin bones shift like waves across his hands. He lets the apple peel fall to the ground, it lands like a coiled snake. He picks it up and folds it, then puts it and the knife in the same back pocket. He looks at me again with warm eyes I am already living in — our life is kind, he lets me write, he does not push me, he does not yell, he does not try to become me, he lets me dream, he is his own person, he lets me watch, he doesn’t fear me and he doesn’t get angry at my tics and silences, he lets them play out, he never calls me “impossible”, he just loves me, loves me, loves me.
“You exist somewhere else, don’t you?” he says. I feel like I am talking to the soul of a horse. Or a whale. A horse-whale. He is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. I can’t speak. He moves his hand through the air between us, steady, straight, cutting it horizontally like a layer cake, then stops and lets it hover right above my left thigh. His tan, bony, long-fingered hands, topped with fingernails cut short are inches from touching me. “You’re on a different plane, aren’t you?” He pulls his hand back to his lap and bites the apple. I can only smile. It is nice to be seen. “Let me know if you need anything.” He gets up from the bench and walks down the alley, raising his arm at the elbow and eating the apple, the butt of the knife poking out from his back pocket shines silver in sunlight.
As if on cue, the Australian man pops out the hostel front door. His muscles are larger in daylight. He wears a black tank top and swim trunks. He is all muscle, very tan, and very invested in making the most of every day. He smiles with every word he says, lifts his eyebrows up a little, hint hint get wha I’m sayin, I learn everything’s an adventure, life’s an adventure, he and I are on a European adventure fated by place, determined by time. We walk to the Cathedral. The sun beats. The red bricks, ceramic tiles, wrought iron, all of it heats. I sweat. He does not talk except to dole directions. “Ova here.” He moves quickly. Talks quickly. But does not say much. We arrive at the Cathedral and it is all a blur. The more I want something the less I see. Gothic vaults, smell of cinnamon, orange trees and cypresses, Patio de los Naranjos, Sancta Sanctorum, Moorish belltower (formerly minaret). It is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world built on the ground of the Almohad family’s great mosque. Ablution among the naranjos, then Roman Catholic sacraments. Holy, holy sacrosanct religion trades, devours, desiccates: Catholic dominion glows yellow gold inside and out. 80 chapels, 45 scenes from the life of Christ carved in wood, covered in gold. Goya, Murillo, Zurbarán are on display. Christopher Columbus is entombed. A stuffed crocodile, El Lagarto, a gift from a sultan hangs above. My belly aches. I lose focus. There are too many people. I can’t dream, I can only be in this time, now. There are tourists with cameras slung around their necks, bellies bulge, babies cry. The ramp to the tower is crowded with footsteps, children run, women yell, someone says, “Get down from there!” There are people people everywhere. Some wear silver bracelets, silver watches, wide sunglasses, painted nails, chipped nails, ponytails, black shoes, sandals, khaki shorts, cargo shorts stuffed with what? water bottles, binoculars, maps, lanyards, candy bars. So many languages. It is cool on the ramp out of the sun, and cool in the stairwell, and cool in the bell tower. I look out and see the clay roofs, red tar roofs, white stucco, orange sides, all of it stacked together, the sun blazing, blue sky, there is a pool, a rooftop pool, surrounded by astro turf, two women sunbath on their stomachs, bikinis, tan backsides to the world, a man walks out and joins them, towel draped around his arm. He takes off his shirt. Hairy white chest. And dives into the pool. I photograph them and the Giralda, the Lady of Sevilla. The Australian asks if he can photograph me. I feel part of his collection: Girls I Met Abroad. He wants to keep going, to keep walking, I want to sit by the river like Daniel and write down my thoughts. I want to watch things, life, people, the current, see it. I’m done checking boxes. The Cathedral I dreamt of and saw, meant nothing, did nothing, I want to keep those moments to dreams and return to the everyday monotony that whispers complete as a sneak, people consulting maps, taking group polls, the peeing and the pooping, the eating, loving, laughing, crying, hating, forgiving, repeat? Sure. All that monotony persists. The moment is the special event and that is what I want: special, not popular. The Australian leaves without much prying. I walk to the river and sit with my cigarettes and watch.
That night I meet Rosa and Daniel at an outdoor bar for tapas and drinks. Daniel tells me I remind him of Karen Carpenter. Rosa says I am much prettier than that. Daniel doesn’t look at me for the rest of the evening. Even when I am talking he keeps his head down and fiddles with a napkin or traces the rim of a glass, shakes it when it is near empty, clinking the ice, separating it from its frozen stack, then one by one knocks ice cubes back. We leave for a flamenco bar. We sit at long wooden benches and watch a woman in a black and white polkadot dress entertain the crowd with snaps and stomps and oh so sexy hips, she weaves back and forth across us, arms up, arms down, wrists flit, skirt flounce, jaunty, fast, quick shake, stir in us something, all of us sweat. Three men, her band, sit behind her. They yip and haw, clap, her castanets snap, their guitars quicken, all of it takes off and ends with a feverish stomp, stomp, flash. After the show we cool off outside on blue metal chairs tucked beneath draping neon palms. Daniel still will not look at me, now he hardly speaks. Rosa talks. We watch her instead. Rosa is smart and kind, warm and good. I imagine she does not know strife, how else can someone be so sure? Rosa does not get discouraged. Rosa moves onward with a clip. I am in love with Rosa too. She mentions something about return travel being difficult. Something about a holiday. That’s why there was a bullfight. I think she looks beautiful.
The next day I get up early and decide to follow the sunlight. Wherever it shines I’ll go. It leads me to La Universidad de Sevilla. The front gate is open, I walk inside. It is cool and grand inside and I seem to be the only one there. Light falls through stained glass skylights. I walk the marble halls and walk the marble stairs. I photograph the marble Grecian statues tucked away in alcoves, positioned at the base of stairwells, graffitied with blue ball point pen and red marker. One has its lips and nipples colored in red. Tattooed in blue ink on its bicep are the words, “Corzo I love you.” I photograph that too. I make my way to a lecture hall, and run up and down the tiered stairwell separating banks of immobile wooden desks bolted to the floor, ancient desks. A rolling green chalkboard looms behind a large oak desk and worn brown leather swivel chair both centered on a platform at the front of the hall. I pace back and forth on the platform giving a lecture on free speech and love to the empty room. “Offend! Be offended! And do not tolerate hate! Let your love be as free as a dove!” I fill the empty room with my ideas and write a poem on the chalkboard:
The absence of permanence begins
in empty spaces
holding the weight of what used to be.
Time is the illusion we die by,
call to the waiter for more,
then abandon like a rotten friend.
I try to translate it to Spanish. I give up. I sit in the leather swivel chair and kick my feet up on the desk. I laugh and leave the room.
I find the library and mezzanine study hall full of wooden desks. I photograph the drawings and messages scrawled on the desks:
U.S.A. = [drawing of a swastika]
Doodles of Mickey Mouse.
Doodles of Willy Wonka done in white-out.
I love Texas Ranger!
Sevilla es tierra de MC’s
Rainy Mondays feel like Fridays when you’re smiling at me
You burned me out but I’m back at your door like Joan of Arc coming back for more!!
Into the river below
I’m running from the ferno
They’ll think I’m insane But you
All know my
Take all the blame the
Front pass the fame. – Billy Talent
I go to leave but the arched door I came through is barred shut. I go to a side door and it’s locked too. I walk around and around and every door I come across is locked. I start to panic and start running down the hallways looking for a way out. A poster on a bulletin board catches my eye. It’s of a pink umbrella placed upside-down in a pair of lace-up black leather shoes. It reads:
A CONTRATIEMPO Tragicomedia excentrica de la vida cotidiana.
I unpin it from the bulletin board, fold it up, put it in my pocket, and keep running down marble stairs over marble floors looking for a living soul, looking for a way out. I find it in a courtyard. The door is not locked. I can see the marble checkerboard courtyard lined with cypress trees in wide stone pots. The door is not locked but a locked and barred gate separates me from the outside. I can see the sky. I start screaming. Timid at first. “Hello? Hola? Help?” Nothing. Then louder. “Socorro! Ayudame! Hello! Va aqui! Ayudame!” The more familiar the words become, the more natural they feel in my mouth, the louder I scream, and soon I am yelling, “SOCORRO!” at full volume with my eyes closed like a crying cartoon baby. And then it happens. A well-dressed couple enters the courtyard. They both wear sweaters around their necks. They both wear pressed khaki shorts. They both look alike, as certain couples tend to do. Mirror me, mirror me, be me, be me. Be my affirmation! They hold hands. They stand in the center of the courtyard like Shining twins staring at me — a screaming, sweaty woman behind a giant iron gate. They approach.
“Cerrado,” I stumble. “No puedo salir.” They look at me dumbly, they turn to walk away, they wear white sneakers and white ankle socks. I must stop them. I panic. I speak rapidly in English and the man cuts me off.
“Estudiante?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “I was just walking around the university but now all the doors are locked and I can’t get out.
“You are…American?” the man says.
“We are French,” he says.
“Does it matter?” They look disturbed. I can’t be bothered. “Can you see if there’s someone out there who can unlock this?” They look suspicious. “Please,” I beg. They keep hold of one another’s hands. With her free hand the woman shifts her sweater on her shoulders so it drapes more evenly across her back, a woven cape. With his free hand the man wipes a stray bang off his perspiring forehead. I imagine their sex is fast and followed by showers. She washes the sheets. He asks, “Is this okay?” and places a pillow under her head. I can feel the sweat between their palms and hear that suction suck. They turn their backs to me and leave. “Please!” I shout after them. “Please!” I hear their footsteps weaken then disappear, soundless, gone through what I can only imagine is a tunnel to the street outside. I can’t see it, I can’t access it, I can’t get out. There are no more sounds. I scream again but my words echo. I begin to panic. Tomorrow is Sunday. If what I’ve read is true, nothing happens in Spain on Sundays except church. If tomorrow is Sunday, there is a good chance I will not be rescued until Monday. I decide to hunker down. I will drink water from the water fountains and if I must, I will throw a chair from the study hall at the vending machines and break open their plexiglass front. I will survive off candy bars, water and chips. I will not starve in La Universidad de Sevilla! And then I hear the jangle approach. A dark-haired older man with a gray stubble beard emerges from where the French couple left. An older man with a ring of keys clipped to his blue jeans. An older man I take to be the janitor. He walks slowly toward me and stands before the locked gate. He looks at me. I start to speak, “Sorry, I was just walking around…” he looks away and down at the keychain. “Thank you.” He rifles through the keys, flicks them around the wide hoop, finds one among many and slides it into the keyhole. He pulls open the heavy gate, it creaks, he stands aside. I exit and we stand face to face in the courtyard. He is soundless, his eyes like darts without violence, just focused, lasers, precise. Naturally I am in love with him but I am also afraid. He knows more than me, much more, I can feel it pulsing. I thank him again and leave. Outside the university I start laughing hysterically. I also start running. Sprinting and laughing down the sidewalk like a streaking maniac. I can’t control myself. I am ashamed and overjoyed. I am an idiot. I am free. I pick up speed and keep running and laughing. A man stands up from a bench, he claps and screams, “TE QUIERO!” I dip into a bar.
It is cool and dark inside. Red stools, red booths, red glass lights. Music a sad trumpet. Floorboards wide, wooden with black knotted spots. I take a shot at the bar then take a seat in the far back corner. The bartender brings me a menu. I order whiskey and bread. The bartender kneels down on the ground, “Is that all? How about some fish?” I agree to the fish. I drink my drink then get another and leave time for my last love’s ghost.
Do you talk to yourself? he asks.
I talk to myself all the time.
In front of the mirror?
Of course. That’s how I talk to you.
I live in you?
You live in me.
I never told you: My hands cupped under a running faucet can hold water for 26 seconds (maybe two or three seconds more) before water slides between my fingers and runs down into the drain. And that’s with water! Now imagine your heart. I can hold your weight, you see?
Love lies naked on the sheet says it’s never been loved. But I love you, I say. Fingernails run into air as white highway lines fall into asphalt, no man’s land, keep turning.
Love cries in my arms. What do you want? I ask. To always have you. Moving hands and fingertips, palms across my body. Where are you? Why’d you go away?
A group of American pilots come in and break the spell. My fish arrives. I take out my journal and record dialogue between bites:
He just got divorced.
Hey, I’m single you guys get used to the wild life.
Over compensation right away. Finds another girl and gets married.
Fine by me.
I’ve got a couple kids. I only do 230 a year.
I do 900, too much for family.
900? 630 for me.
I fly with great guys, quality guys.
We got to the point where we wouldn’t fly into Bluestar.
The guy trashed the interior. I said, “Don’t you ever set foot in my charter again!”
Doofus of a guy, really gay, a broker.
It like the lemon law. They found the problem, I can’t tell you what it is, it’s too informative. Sort of obscure ground, but they found the problem.
The maid of honor was a hammer.
No she was a hammer. She was gorgeous.
Young and single in the city. Now that’s the life.
Siesta that’s one tradition they got right.
They eat dinner here at like 8:30 9 o’clock.
I pay my tab and leave.
Back at the hostel Rosa and Daniel ask if I want to go for a walk by the river. I tell them I am too tired and need a nap. We decide to meet up later for tapas and drinks, but as soon as I get into bed I fall asleep and do not wake up until morning. That morning I take my coffee up to the rooftop and Mateo is there watering potted plants with a green garden hose.
“Mi alma,” he says to me. “Buenos dias.”
I can only smile. The man reduces me to giggles and smiles.
“It is your last day, no?”
I nod. Then the shorter of the two tall Australians appears on the roof.
“Ya still he-ah,” he says to me.
“Yes,” I say. Mateo turns back to the plants. The Australian walks toward me and sits beside me on the ledge. His tan muscles bulge and glisten with sweat in the sun. He walks with that confidence specific to men.
“I’m headed to Portugal, do some surfin, wanna come?”
I tell him I can’t, I’m leaving today. “I have to go back to school.”
“Alright, suit yo’self. I can’t wait around for you to change ya mind tho, love. Gotta get a jump on the day. Stay ‘way from dodgey Australians, ya he-ah?”
“Nice meetin ya.”
“Nice meeting you too.”
The Australian leaves the roof and I am once again alone with Mateo. I try to think of something to say to him, anything to say, something to ask him, have him turn back to me, clear up any confusion, I am not interested in that Australian!, look at me, please look at, and all I can think to say is, “Is your shirt as soft as it looks?” Rosa appears before I get the words out.
She steps onto the roof holding a yellow coffee mug, the sun in her eyes, she blocks it with her palm, she looks beautiful. Her hair is wet from the shower and clings to her head, water beads drip down her chest. She wears a blue sun dress dotted with yellow flowers. It hangs from spaghetti straps down her breasts and hips without tugging, just so, I want to crawl into her. Beautiful blonde Rosa comes toward me smiling.
“Missed you last night. What happened?”
I tell her about my day’s adventures. The walking and following sunshine. My exploration in the university and subsequent imprisonment, my lunatic running, and daydream afternoon whiskeys. She laughs. “You’re funny aren’t you.” I tell her I am more of an idiot than a comedian and she laughs again. “Well, did you get your ticket for today?”
“Yes, for your trip home. Remember I told you, there’s a festival, you can’t hop on a train right now.”
“Yes, love. Everyone’s leaving today, they’re heading home. Best get a ticket now, here I will help you.”
She hops up with efficiency and heads to the stairwell. I turn to Mateo. He smiles, I smile, he waves, I wave, he knows, I know. Mi amor. Mi alma. Goodbye. Adios.
I join Rosa in the computer room. She pulls up the train station’s website. There are no tickets. Absolutely no tickets.
“Better luck heading down there. They might get you on a bus but you can’t buy those tickets online." Rosa knows everything. "Better hurry.”
I give her a hug and tell her I love her. We exchange emails. I grab my bag and run to the bus stop.
At the station depot there are people everywhere walking about in brightly colored spandex clothes. The air is thick, skin is warm. Strollers and luggage. People are everywhere there is a buzz but everyone is calm. We are just all in space and time together. There is a grayness to the scene in the concrete and silver busses. There is that smell of cooking meat in dirt, it is the oil and the grease, it is the scent of sweat, it is the river and the dust and the late night laughs that stay long after the moon is out of sight. There is a heat to it, a particular heat that filters through clothes and seeps into skin, we are one among many, all the same, all connected and somehow we all know this.
I buy a bus ticket to Madrid that will get me to the airport ten hours before my flight. It is my only option. I board the bus and sit up front. I like looking out the wide front window. A man sits beside me. He smiles, I smile back. The bus departs. Almost immediately I have to pee. I look to the back of the bus. There is no bathroom. There are people. Every seat is full of people. Overhead racks are full of suitcases and duffle bags. Some seats have two people — a woman and a baby, a woman and a small child, always a woman and another body on her lap, never a man, the men hold newspapers. Out the window the city disappears. There is nothing but land. I remember the crosses. The telephone poles appear, rise up like crosses in the countryside. I begin to count. I have to pee, counting helps, something to do. I am quite sure I’ve counted an hour. I am on a six-hour bus ride. This bus must stop. I keep counting. I stare out the window. The countryside. The sky darkens, loses its blue, its more of a grey out here, overcast. Brown hills give way to green hills, all if it is muted. Every now and then a house appears in the distance, small white adobe. The crosses proliferate. I believe I have counted two hours. The bus keeps going. My bladder expands. I am a thin person and when my bladder expands I look pregnant. It pushes out my pants, which pushes out my shirt. I pull my legs up and rest my knees on the seat-back in front of me to alleviate the pressure my waistband puts on my bladder. I think, This bus must stop. I remind myself of the facts, This is a six-hour bus ride. No bus can drive for six straight hours. Can it? I think, This bus must stop, it must. Then the question, But when? The bus keeps going, I keep counting. Tick tock tick tock. More brown hills giving way to green, more crosses popping up. It must stop. I compare the embarrassment of peeing my pants versus telling the bus driver to, “Pull this bus over immediately! I’m going to pee my pants!” For some reason, I settle on peeing my pants in silence. I count some more and decide that when I have counted what I presume to be the third hour, which may very well be just the second hour or even just fifteen minutes (a full bladder does a wonder on time) that is when I will start the process of peeing my pants. I will pee just a little to let the pressure out. Then, near what I presume to be the third hour, the bus pulls over to the side of the road, in front of a white adobe shack with a gas pump.
“Baños!” the bus driver shouts and opens the door. I am the second person off and the first to the bathroom. I sprint to it. Bladder aching. I pee and I pee and I pee. The bus driver refuels the bus. I board the empty bus and one by one my fellow passengers re-board. The man beside me smiles as he sits down.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Amsterdam,” I say.
“Oh, you are Dutch?”
“No, I’m American.”
“American?” he smiles. “What are you doing here?”
“I go to school in the Netherlands. We had some time off and I’ve been trying to get to Spain for years.”
“What did you think?”
“I love it here.”
“And now you are going back, back to school?”
“Are you flying out of Madrid?”
“Why are you on this bus?”
“Ha! Good question. I messed up. I didn’t pay attention to the holiday train travel.”
“Oh, we are peas in a pod.”
“Yes, I came down to visit my mother. I live in Barcelona. Sometimes I am careless.”
The bus driver boards the bus and walks down the center aisle counting passengers as he goes. When he walks back to the front of the bus he closes the door and starts the engine. We are on our way. My seat mate and I talk casually throughout. His name is Raul. He is going to stay with his friend, Jorge, in Madrid. Jorge is picking him up at the depot. Jorge has an apartment in downtown Madrid, Raul is going to stay there for a couple of nights before flying back to Barcelona. “What time is your flight?” he asks.
“Five in the morning.”
“Five! You’ll be waiting for hours.”
“Sometimes I am careless.”
“It’s okay, I’m good at keeping busy.”
We get quiet for a while. I take to reading my book. He reads a newspaper. As we approach Madrid the sky darkens, it never loses its overcast gray, just goes straight from grey to black and soon the city lights start to appear on the horizon. Raul is texting on his phone. He looks up at me sometimes, I can see him out of the corner of my eye, texting, then looking, texting, then looking.
“Look,” he says. “If you don’t want to wait at the airport, you can have dinner with me and Jorge. He says it is okay for you to come over.” Pause. “If you want.”
I say yes automatically. I say yes all the time. I say yes to things then watch the fall out. I say yes because I hate fear. I say yes because I love knowing. I say yes because I am curious. I say yes because I’ve known too many dead people who didn’t get to say yes. I say yes because I’ve known too many old people who regret not saying yes. I say yes to things. I say yes because I know how the days go by weeks go by months go by years go by how most of life goes by unnoticed. I say yes and I pay the price. I suffer and I live. I say yes and I go. I say yes and that is why I said yes to getting in a car with two strange men I met in Spain.
“You will?” he looks amazed.
“Yes,” I say. “I will.”
He texts some more.
“Excellent, great. Jorge says okay.”
As the city gets closer we get quiet again and I think of what I’ve said yes to.
The bus arrives at the depot and Jorge texts to say he is stuck in traffic and is running a few minutes late. Raul and I sit on orange plastic chairs and eat French fries in the food court. The food court is loud and bustling, the air is thick, the light is yellow, the walls are brown, there are more bodies and more sounds and more distressed energy, it feels more American somehow. It gets to me. He sees it.
I tell him.
“I don’t know you and I don’t know Jorge and here I am agreeing to get in his car and go to his apartment and have dinner with you just so I don’t have to spend ten hours waiting at an airport.”
“I was surprised you said yes.”
“I say yes to things. It’s sort of a problem.”
“You don’t have to come. I can walk you to the airport train, or leave you alone, if you want. It’s up to you.”
We get quiet again.
He asks me if Americans are really calling them freedom fries.
There is a woman with dark hair and greasy bangs, she wears a light blue tank top, her skin ripples through it, she drags a young boy behind her, he whines. There is an old man reading a newspaper on a bench, sweat stains reach from his armpits to his waistline. There are gummy splotches on the ground blackened by dirt and hair. There is a quickness and odor to the sounds. People laugh and hurry up escalators. The world whizzes like a carnival. The merry go round goes round and round and someone calls out an order. The din rises and falls with elevator dings, Going up? Or is that in my head? I am doing the thing I do when I am nervous. Pick, pick, pick, pick. Jorge calls. He’s out front.
“Want to come?” Raul looks at me. Raul is older than me but not by much. He is neatly dressed. He is tall. He is an attorney. Abogado, one of my favorite Spanish words. His face is kind. He is eager. He seems not to have spoken to a woman in a while. He is nervous.
And he smiles. We walk to the front of the depot and parked directly out front is a late 70s model Mercedes-Benz, black with tan leather interior, worn but clean. Inside sits Jorge, bald and heavyset. “Hi!” he screams. Raul opens the back door for me. I climb in. Raul sits up front and we’re off.
I zip through Madrid with two Spanish men and city lights zip by me. The sidewalks lit by awning lights and street lamps bounce lights off people’s heads, the hair of Madrid. I feel an expanse beside me but I cannot see what’s out there in the night sky. I know nothing about this city but it feels good to be in it. There is nothing like city energy at night. “Casa de Campo!” Miguel turns from the passenger seat and nods to the emptiness. “Casa de Campo! Come back some time, I’ll take you!” I roll the window down and let in the city. The heat roars the cars honk. We are flying. In a black Mercedes-Benz through downtown Madrid, Jorge plays music I’ve never heard and never hear again. It’s fast but full of something. I want to say a Spanish soul but what does that mean? How does a Spanish soul differ from any other? Jorge plays music and I stick my head out the window like a dog. I am a cliche. I catch the air in my mouth and play games with my hands. We whiz through traffic, speed around cars, slam on the brakes at each light. The buildings rise up, tall all around. Red brake lights flitter. White headlights glare bright in our faces. I see them, these two Spanish men, in profile. They are smiling. And then we arrive. Jorge pulls into the driveway of a tall high-rise building, the garage gate rises in the air at the click of a button and there I am in a parking lot beneath an apartment building in Madrid. I am doing everything I’ve been told not to do, I am doing everything and then some. I am traveling alone, I am telling everyone who asks that I am American, and now I am in a parking garage with two strange men fully intending on going up to their apartment and joining them for dinner.
And that’s all that happens.
Jorge’s English is not as good as Raul’s, so Raul does most of the talking. I learn Jorge lives with a man who grows weed but the man is not home at the moment. Jorge has made paella in a beautiful white corning ware dish. He serves it to us on his balcony, which is ten stories up with a view of downtown Madrid. We eat and drink wine, then whiskey, then rum. We share stories. Jorge practices his English. I practice my Spanish. We laugh. We drink some more and the evening goes on. We have another round of paella sitting out on the balcony ten stories up looking down at Madrid. Jorge remembers there’s a cake in the fridge. He brings it out to the balcony. Slices it, thick slabs of chocolate, passes us each a plate. We drink more rum and laugh about America’s wars. The waste.
“This,” Jorge says. “We forget.” He motions at the three of us sitting together. “This,” he says. “Is why life.”
We sit outside like this talking and eating, drinking and laughing, until two in the morning when Jorge says he is tired and if I want a ride to the airport we best leave now. We pile in the elevator, warm as friends, and get back in the old black Mercedes-Benz. We drive through city streets emptied of cars, stripped of their early nighttime energy, and listen to none other than Miles Davis with all the windows rolled down. At the airport, Jorge turns from the driver’s seat.
“Thank you for yes,” he says.
“Thank you for everything,” I say and kiss his sweaty forehead.
Raul gets out and gives me a big hug. He says, “I will think of you every day. Write when you can!” He kisses my cheek and smiles a free smile. We go our separate ways, they drive away in the black Mercedes-Benz, and I walk through the automatic sliding doors to wait for a flight to go back to the Netherlands to be with my classmates who’ve all been told the world’s too dangerous for them.