El Pollo

This is a selected story from Barcelona, or Notes from the Shallow End, Pt. I.

Alba and her parents lived in Vilassar de Dalt, a residential area twenty-five minutes northeast along the coastline from Barcelona full of red-orange roof tiles, penny-sized mosquitoes, and sun-beaten sidewalks littered with dog shit. I was to stay in Alba’s younger brother’s vacant room on the second floor for two and a half weeks during which I would accumulate dirty laundry inversely proportional to the room’s supply of tissue paper.

 

Alba picked me up from the airport in her mother’s car and had the courtesy to scream and shout as I came out of the gate for international arrivals. She grabbed my suitcase, I grabbed it back from her, and we were zipping down the freeway ten minutes later. We spent the car ride reminiscing about our time at Penn and discussing our pleasant disbelief that I was in Barcelona over a year after our goodbye in Philadelphia.

 

“I had people from Penn tell me, ‘I’m going to come visit you!’ or ‘We’ll keep in touch,’ blah-blah-blah,” Alba recounted. “But they never did, and it was just so fake, you know? So I was super excited when you said that you were going to be in Barcelona in June, before I left for Brazil.” Alba had received a job offer several weeks ago to work overseas for a major Spanish corporation and she was leaving in August.

 

“You think you’re excited? Imagine how I felt to know that I would have a place to stay for free for two and a half weeks in Barcelona.”

 

“Well, it’s not exactly in Barcelona.” Alba ran her left hand through her black hair that went down an inch past her shoulders.

 

“But basically the same thing, right?”

 

Si. You can either ride with me on my scooter into Barcelona in the morning or take the bus whenever. I’ll give you all the information you need when we get to my house.” I rolled the window down and let the full blast of wind hit me and untidy my hair that I had put in a bun.

 

“Wow-ow-ow, your hair is so long, guapo.”

 

“Things change,” I smiled at Alba, who saw me with a buzz cut last May. “And some things don’t. For example, I still can’t speak Spanish for shit.”

 

“You might regret that, just a little bit.”

 

“What? No. No regrets.”

 

Upon arriving at the Andilla residence twenty minutes later, I immediately regretted that I never learned Spanish. Alba’s mother was home, and she greeted me with the Spanish custom of a kiss on each cheek.

 

“What are you?” She wore a thin brown dress and her steady gaze reflected that of her daughter’s. Her resemblance to Alba made me think that women her age shouldn’t be looking this good.

 

Yo soy mucho bueno,” I responded as I dragged my suitcase up the stairs. I could hear Alba laughing her head off from the kitchen downstairs. Mrs. Andilla chuckled and attempted to correct my Spanish.

 

“No, no, you are, ah, wrecked,” she pointed out with a perfect, white smile.

 

Si,” I agreed with her assessment of my energy level, “yo estoy, can–… con–… Uh, no. Sonado. Estoy sonado.

 

Alba intervened to act as our translator. Her mother left us to go to the kitchen, and Alba accompanied me to my room.

 

She explained that her father, with his balding head, deep cleft chin, and thin, silver-rimmed glasses, didn’t speak any English. Her mother, whose English knowledge was limited to sentences accompanied by animated facial expressions and weaving, dancing hand movements, knew give or take fifty words in English. Alba’s two younger brothers who spoke English were both abroad.

 

“In other words,” Alba joked as she exited the room and stepped out into the hallway, “I have all the power in this house!”

 

Of course, I could have cared less whether it was Alba, Alba’s parents, or their black mutt Pingu who held all the cards in the Andilla household. I walked out to the veranda connected to my room as Pingu licked my knees with his wet tongue, and the expanse of the Balearic Sea sitting behind the houses and gardens of the Vilassar de Dalt residents greeted me. A breeze blew from the sea rustling the trees and provided a slight and temporary reprieve from the orchestra of the cicadas. The air smelled blue, and a little boy’s laugh ricocheted its way out of the window of a neighbor’s house and spilled out into the empty streets.

 

“Quit tastin’ me,” I told the licking Pingu, who bounced out of the veranda and under my bed before fetching a worn-out tennis ball and dropping it at my feet. His tail wagged in an almost perfect four-four time.

 

I decided to take myself on a quick tour of the house. I plodded down the steps on which Alba’s mother and I had our multilingual conversation. Ending up at the main hallway with the house entrance ahead of me, I entered the door to the left of me. Inside, Alba and her mother argued in Catalan and ignored that I had stuck my head in. I decided to leave them be, stepped back, walked to the door to my left ten feet away, pulled the door, and found an opened garage.

 

In front of me, a black Suzuki motorcycle stood alone, leaning to the left and forming a seventy-five-degree angle with the floor. To my right, wet clothes hung from clotheslines and lined the wall. To my left, cardboard boxes, smelly gray rags, bug sprays, cleaning supplies, plastic chairs stacked upon plastic chairs, framed paintings, a white washing machine, a chipped and aging cabinet, green garden rakes, dried clothes, dusty hats, battered and stickered motorcycle helmets, old books in Catalan, and a transparent plastic container containing some steel contraption were pushed up against the wall and inevitably formed a cascading mountain in a shape resembling the letter “b”. The sunlight trickling down from the opened garage door made visible the dust particles, lazily floating in the air. A black blur of mangy fur dashed out from behind me with a tennis ball in its mouth and rolled around in the grass lawn.

 

“Pingu!” I called out, but after pausing for a couple of seconds to shoot me an expectant gaze, he ran off out of my line of sight. As I started to walk out of the garage to follow him and his tennis ball, Alba’s endearing, thick accent called me back into the kitchen.

 

“Hans, let me make a lunch for you!”

 

Instead of walking back through the garage, I strolled through the gravel-filled patio placed between a wall of trimmed greens and the redbrick of the house. A yellow ladybug trudged its way along the edge of the patio’s black dining table and flew onto the folded parasol. I reached the glass door that connected the patio and the kitchen and stepped in. An exasperated Mrs. Andilla walked out of the kitchen through the door and into the main hallway with her hands in the air.

 

“What happened?”

 

“Long story,” Alba grumbled. “Is chicken okay?” I replied that it was, and she began grilling onions, mushrooms, and two chicken breasts on the stove.

 

I pulled up a chair and sat down at the glass coffee table. My back faced a cabinet full of biscuits, crackers, and cereals, and I faced Alba’s back as she hopped from one spot on the tiled floor to another with a black spatula, white t-shirt, and short, blue shorts. The aroma of the food wafted out the open glass door and lured Pingu into the kitchen. He rolled over onto his back when he realized that he was getting a tummy rub.

 

Que tal? How are you feeling? Jetlagged?

 

“A little. Not planning on sleeping until the evening though – don’t wanna make it any worse than it already is.”

 

“Did you sleep at all on the plane?”

 

“Mmm. No.” I had been awake for seventeen hours now, but it was only two in the afternoon in Barcelona. My left eye had intermittently been twitching since the past hour. The mirror I used at the airport revealed that my eyes had a saggy, haggard look to them and a couple of zits had formed on my face during the flight – one near the corner of my mouth and the other on my forehead above my left eyebrow. I had tried popping them but my fingers slipped and I ended up scratching myself.

 

Ohhh, come on, Hans, you need to get some rest.”

 

“That can wait.” I grinned as my stomach let out a half-hearted growl. “Lunch? Not so much.” As I waited for Alba to finish preparing our lunch, her friend Davíd stopped by to say hola.

 

Dave stood five-foot seven, barely taller than Alba. He had short black hair, an almond tan, and freshly shaved stubble on his stereotypically Catalan face. Alba introduced us to each other, and it was to my relief that he could speak English.

 

“I’m sorry my English is not very good,” Dave began.

 

“Jesus fuck, no – are you kidding?” I turned to Alba, “Does he realize he can speak English a million times better than I can speak Spanish or Catalan?”

 

“Multiplying zero times a million is still zero,” Alba chirped. I waved her off.

 

“So, what’re you up to, Davíd?”

 

Que?”

 

“Oh, hm.” I spoke slower this time, “‘What-are-you-doing-this-summer?’”

 

“Ah, yes! Sorry, my English is not very good.” I laughed and shook my head. “I do castell. Do you know what castell is?” I replied that I didn’t. “It’s a long, human… ah, what’s the word? ‘Building’?”

 

“Okay, the food is ready,” Alba interrupted, “let’s eat outside on the patio and I’ll explain.” We seated ourselves and Alba brought out the chicken and grilled onion and mushrooms. The sun was blinding by this point, so I went back upstairs, two steps at a time, to grab my sunglasses from my room. When I came back out to the patio, it was even hotter than I when I had left. Either that, or the cicadas were louder.

 

Bon apetít. So, what castell is is these things where the people climb on top of each other to form a human tower. Because castell is Catalan for ‘castle’.”

 

“A-ha.”

 

“It’s super Catalan. The men that do this dress in traditional clothes and they take it very, very serious. They practice regularly to perfect it, right, Davíd?” David nodded his head in a thoughtful, slow motion. “Super, super Catalan. Like paellas, or Gaudí. Do you know UNESCO? It’s registered by UNESCO as the heritage thingy.”

 

“And just last week,” Davíd interjected, “we reach eight levels with three people each level!” The significance was lost on the ignorant American, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Until that week, we had never did more than six levels with three people. But we did seven so very easy that we said, ‘Hey, why not try eight levels!’ And we did it, and we begin to all cry and hug each other we were so happy.” I remarked that I thought that was really cool and interesting and began to dig into my chicken.

 

“Oh,” I observed, “the chicken’s undercooked.” And it was – the outside of the chicken, while crispy and appetizing, opened up to reveal the pink meat inside.

 

“Undercooked? What do you mean ‘the chicken’s undercooked’?” Alba snapped.

 

“Well, look,” I showed her the chicken. “It’s totally pink. I mean, it’s not a problem, I’ll just put it back on the stove and—”

 

“No, you can eat it like that. It’s fine.”

 

“What? The fuck I can. I mean, I’m stupid but I’m not that stupid.”

 

“No, see, you’re not understanding: Barcelona chicken is happy chicken. It’s actual chicken, not the hormone-stuffed animal they call a ‘chicken’ in the US. I’ve eaten these ‘undercooked chickens’ (or whatever you want to call it) many times and do you know how many times I’ve gotten sick?” I asked how many times. “Never. Seriously, this is how we eat it here. The chicken is clean and it’s okay to eat.” My protests were met with, “Quit being such a little baby about it!”

 

Regardless, Alba’s argument sounded an awful lot like the “Cigarettes-done-never-kill-no-one-shoot-mah-ol-grampa-Billy-Bob-smoked-twelve-Camels-a-day-and-that-dadgum-sunnavabitch-lived-til-he-was-eighty-seven!” argument. I took the plate back into the kitchen, plopped my opportunity for a Darwin Awards on the frying pan, and started up the stove.

 

“Come on, Hans, now the flavor is going to go away!” Shouted Alba from outside. I noted that I preferred flavorless, cooked chicken to an orgasmically flavorful, undercooked bastion of Salmonella. Alba finally trudged into the kitchen after thirty seconds to badger me into taking the chicken off the frying pan. The chicken still didn’t look completely cooked through.

 

“Look, Alba, unless the dish is called a vagina, I prefer the things I eat to be dead and thoroughly cooked.”

 

“Okay, one: disgusting. Two: I promise it’s fine. Quit being so American and be acceptful of other cultures. Isn’t that why you’re traveling, to try different things and become cultured?” Before I could reply, she took the chicken, dumped it back onto my plate, and walked out to the patio with it. Defeated, I followed her outside and sat back down at the table.

 

While I mulled whether it would be wise or not to still eat the undercooked chicken, Davíd began telling a story that involved him, his male cousin, and another girl in the back of his car last Saturday.

 

“Well,” I thought to myself with raised eyebrows as I cut a pink piece of meat and shoved it in my mouth, “this can’t be as bad as that.”

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