Esther: The Hello
One evening in Barcelona, Alba took me to meet a friend of hers. He had his photo exhibition at a private marijuana club, where people register to become members and smoke doobies. I wondered aloud on our scooter ride there whether that kind of venue was popular in Barcelona for artists, and if so, what that said about the cultural difference between the US and Catalunya in its open acceptance of the relationship between art and recreational drugs.
“No, I think he just wanted a place to smoke pot,” answered Alba. I shrugged.
Located in a gritty, grey alley with corrugated shutters covering the stores that had closed for the evening, the entrance of the club sported a green FC Barcelona logo whose soccer ball was instead replaced by a hemp leaf. “PRIVAT” written in bold, black, capital letters adorned the wooden gates of the club, and I looked over my shoulders before entering. Inside, a second, electronically locked door barred our path, and a gruff voice barked at us in Spanish through a slit. Alba responded that we were here for a friend, and the voice unlocked the door for us to step in. The insectile eyes of a balding, bearded hefty man sitting behind a counter and a dank, skunk-like stench assailed us as we passed through the door. After a quick conversation between Alba and the man, we signed a couple of papers and were granted further entry.
The club contained seven tables with black leather sofas and a bar on the far side that served beer and weed – two euros for a bottle of Estrella and four euros for a pop of hierba. A DJ squiggity-squigged on his set, and the yellow lamplights glowed above photographs of exotic models and odd props placed around boats and bedrooms. A lanky guy in a red Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts waved to Alba from behind a haze of smoke puffed out of his joint, and Alba promptly introduced me to him. Esteve, Alba’s photographer friend, followed up his introduction with a warning that his English was for shit, which I nodded at and refused to believe. He gave a tour of his photographs, hanging at different heights from the walls, while explaining their backstories in Catalan and laughing at the stories with Alba.
“I have two questions,” I turned to Esteve. “First, where do you find these beautiful models? Second, where do I find these beautiful models?” Esteve laughed and replied that he “just had to make a few calls,” which I found to be peculiar since whenever I make a few calls it goes straight to voicemail.
“You can meet some of them if you’d like,” Alba suggested. “Two of them are sitting right there.” She pointed at a sofa where two dark-haired women and two hair-chested men sat. They looked over at us and waved. “Let’s go sit down with them!” Nervous, I asked her if she knew them. She replied that she did and that they were both friends of hers. First, we went to the bar to order a couple of bottles of beer.
Alba and I sat down with the four Catalans. I only remember introducing myself to the girl across me, Esther. Her thin, pink lips graced my cheeks when she greeted me, and she had strong eyebrows and a warm, natural smile that gave me tunnel vision. I leaned over and put my arm over my crotch where I had a slight boner.
I struck up a conversation with Marina, the girl sitting next to me, but I kept glancing back at Esther to watch her reaction when I talked and cracked jokes. She laughed at least once, and I bit down on my lips to suppress a goofy grin, which instead caused a goofier expression. Regardless, she kept most of her conversation to the guy next to her, and I imagined that the man with tree trunk arms was her boyfriend. After an hour or so of babbling and getting potato-chips-baked, our friends got up to leave. Again, Esther imparted two kisses, and I cradled my bottle of Estrella in my hands as I watched the party exit the club.
“Well?” Asked Alba. “What did you think?”
“They were beautiful – and Estrella, my Dog. I was like a kid. Or still am, clearly, from how excited I was just to be sitting five feet away from her.”
“Her name is Esther and Estrella is the beer. She thought you were cute, you know.” Alba dropped this statement casually, and I puckered my lips.
“Tell the beer I thought it was cute as well. More than cute, even – potable.”
“Qué tonto, Hans. I’m serious!” I responded with a no. “What do you mean, ‘no’? She thought you were cute.” I asked if she was single. “Yes, of course.”
“‘Of course’! Wanking Tits of the Gods, why the hell do you tell me these things after the fact!” I clutched at my bun and pulled the hairband off, unraveling my mat of hair.
“What? Oh, come on, don’t act like such a child. Find her on Facebook or something and talk to her. I’m sure she’d grab a drink with you.” I began to tie back up my hair, and Alba laughed. “You know, like a date? Do you know what a date is?”
“I do know what the fuck a date is, thank you very much. It’s an old wooden ship built during the Civil War—“ Alba fell backwards onto the couch and attempted to hide her awkward, deep laughter behind her delicate hands.
We headed back to Vilassar de Dalt on the scooter, and I spent the rest of the evening in my bed, laptop open, contemplating whether or not to ask her out for drinks. The last time I did something similar was when I sent an e-mail to a girl with fashionable glasses and the perfect ass I had met at the library asking her to grab coffee with me. The girl never responded, which was the sensible thing to do, and I wondered what kind of a loser asked a girl out via e-mail. Past midnight, I messaged Alba and asked her for Esther’s last name, although I should have simply walked up to her room instead. Regardless, Alba the Informant gave me the information I needed, albeit laced with middle school level teasing and exaggerated amount of exclamation marks, and I remembered then that being teased online was better than in the inescapable confines of my friend’s room.
I found her on Facebook, the smile in her profile picture twisted into a playful smirk, the left side of her lips pulled up higher than the right. I stared at it for four, five seconds, wrote her a message, and went to bed. I woke up twice during the night covered in mosquito bites, which made going back to sleep even more difficult. The next morning, a message in my inbox read that she could do the coming Thursday or Friday evening – two or three days away from today. I replied that Friday evening sounded perfect in a manner that failed to reflect how actually excited I was, bounced on my bed for a couple of minutes, and waltzed into the kitchen downstairs to prepare breakfast for myself. I played “Unsquare Dance” on my phone as I rummaged inside the fridge for something to spread on my toast when Alba walked in.
“Bon dia, guapo,” she yawned as she gave me a peck on my cheek. “Heeeey, someone’s in a good mood this morning!” She winked and sat down at the coffee table.
“What could possibly be the reason, right?” I explained to her that a date had been set up for Friday.
“One ladder ahead of you – she told me about it already. Look at you, asking a girl out on a date and being all grown up. Really proud of you, Hans.”
“Hey, man, I’m no kid.”
“‘Hey, maaaan…’ Haha qué tonto. Your American English is so silly sometimes. It doesn’t even make sense. Why am I ‘man’ when clearly I’m not?”
“You know, you say ‘clearly,’ but I’m not sure you know what that word means—“ She laughed as she got up to whack my arm, and Friday came around unceremoniously.
I woke up before the alarm rang. I hopped in and out of the shower and dressed myself in a record time of under five minutes. Of the few things I looked good in, I looked good in black, so I wore a black t-shirt even though weather.com stated that Barcelona would be melting in the high thirties by one p.m. I put on a pair of clean boxers and a pair of can’t-remember-when-they-were-clean grey pants, grabbed my backpack that contained a Kindle and a map, and headed out to the bus station. My phone informed me that it was nine thirty a.m., meaning I had ten hours to kill before meeting up with Esther. I realized I had no clue where we were meeting up or going, but I figured that issue would be solved later on that day. Pushing aside the question of location, I moved on to a more pressing issue: how to not come off as a loser to Esther. I couldn’t go to a gym to make my emaciated veins pop out thirty minutes before the date, which meant that everything hinged on the conversational aspect of the date. And if I were to place all of my eggs in the conversation basket, I didn’t want to answer, “What did you do today?” with “Um, nothing really interesting.” To be thought of as uninteresting or mediocre would be more damning than the girl knowing I had a rather small penis. Plenty of dates have turned out fine with the latter; none have with the former. Since I hadn’t seen Sagrada Família, I meandered up the hilly streets of the northern side in an attempt to see the famous tourist construction site.
When Alba first showed me around the neighborhoods of Barcelona, both the grey, narrow side alleys and the broad main streets spooked me as being indistinguishable from any of the other countless grey, narrow side alleys and broad main streets that streaked and weaved like arteries through the city. Trekking without my native guide, I found them even more indistinguishable. Flags of Catalonia hung in different sizes from empty balconies and glaring windows, dirty children player footie using a broken down wall as a goal, and the shuttered shops stood in silence, staring at me in rows. Here, a square with a running fountain attracted two mothers and their sons who splashed each other in leftover puddles; a man sat under a willow tree in front of the square’s church and gnawed on his fingernails. There, a monument of a robed woman with inscriptions in Catalan leading to a street – hadn’t I walked down here a couple of days ago? – where two men sat on a cement doorstep petting a napping dog.
I pulled out my phone every ten minutes to confirm with the compass app that I was headed north, northwest toward the rough direction of Sagrada Família, but the dictatorial heat of Spanish sun and the déjà vu of uphill twists and downhill turns acted as scabs of doubt, itching to be picked. I gave in and stopped at a café to use the Wi-Fi. A tall waitress without any makeup asked me what she could get for me, and I replied in broken Spanish that I would like a café con leche. After she left, I opened Google Maps to see whether or not I was close to my destination. I had been walking for almost an hour from the bus stop, and sweat soaked my back from carrying my bag up the labyrinth of neighborhoods. The map, loading piecemeal and pinpointing my location with a blue icon, displayed that I had overshot the Sagrada Família by a couple of miles.
“¿Perdón?” The waitress, smiling, stood behind my left shoulder with my coffee in hand. I stuttered out a couple of nadas, and she walked away giving me curious glances after setting the coffee down on my table. I decided to recoup, took out my Kindle, and gargled out some laughs reading Ham on Rye. An hour later with a full belly of coffee and Bukowski, I checked the directions to Sagrada Família. Having screenshotted the streets I need to take, I paid for my coffee and left the café to continue on with my journey.
I arrived at the never-ending construction site forty minutes later, the hub of groveling, sweating tourists heading in the same direction being the most significant indicator that I was on the right path. Around the base of the church, a serpentine line of men, women, and screaming kids waited to purchase a ticket to go inside. I remembered Alba had warned me that I needed to buy a ticket online the day before if I wanted to go inside, but stubbornness had won out so I walked around the outside of the Sagrada Família in a clockwise fashion. I faced the backside of the church from a nearby park, where I stood to admire a beautiful blond woman reading a book on a bench.
Making a mental note to buy a ticket when I got back home, I walked downhill and stopped by a sandwich restaurant that blasted air conditioning and an American Top 40 radio. I ordered my lunch and received a message from Esther that she couldn’t make the date tonight due to a change in plans. I ate my sandwich while staring at my napkin and asked Alba on Facebook what she was up to for the evening. I informed her that tonight’s plan had fallen through. She apologized and suggested that we go grab drinks with her friends. I agreed, but not before sending some messages to Esther to try to coordinate drinks for another day. I waited for a response.
El Pollo II
After spending the night at Alba’s boyfriend Dani’s apartment – Alba on his bed, me on the living room couch – we arrived back at Vilassar de Dalt one morning stinking of sweat and sporting ruffled hair. I headed upstairs to brush my teeth, change my clothes, and spend the rest of the day in the sun with Bukowski or Grass. I threw off my dirt-covered and sangria-stained J. Crew shorts onto the bed, rummaged inside my suitcase for something to wear, pulled out my black soccer shorts, sniffed my armpits, and made a mental note to put a deodorant in the next fifteen minutes.
“Or,” I thought, “I could just take a shower.” After a deliberation that involved smelling my towel and my hair, I decided that I could go without showering for today since I wasn’t going out anywhere. I headed back downstairs into the quiet kitchen where Alba sat curled up in a metal chair at the coffee table. Her fingers tapped the keyboard and rolled over the mouse pad, her eyes flickering up and down following the stream of words and pictures that appeared before her. I mentioned to her that I was thinking of sitting outside and taking the day easy, and she gave a curt reply that denoted fatigue or inattention, maybe both. On the other side of the glass door that separated the kitchen from the patio, Pingu huffed-and-puffed and stuck his tongue out.
“Ya goofball, come on inside.” I opened the door, and Pingu trotted inside while I stepped over him and onto the patio. I crinkled my nose and glanced at Pingu.
“Is Pingu covered in shit or something?” I asked Alba.
“What?” She took a look at the dog, called him over, and grabbed him to examine him closer. Pingu began licking Alba’s bare legs. “No, he’s clean. I mean, he’s a stinky dog, sort of, but there’s nothing on him at least from what I can tell. Por qué?”
“Porque something smells like blue-fuckin’-waffles.” The pebbles of the patio crunched under my feet as I scoured its eight-by-sixteen square meters. I found nothing that explained the rankness, and Pingu came back outside to join me with his tennis ball grasped in his jaws. I shook the ball out of his mouth, winded back my arm, and launched it over the wall of shrubbery and into the front yard. Pingu, who had tracked every movement of the ball, shot between the walkway that connected the patio and the yard. I followed him, and at the end of the path in front of the garage door laid the source of the pungent aroma.
“Aw, for fuck’s sake.”
“What is it?” Alba’s voice sounded from inside.
Under a cloud of feasting flies, the carcass of a black pigeon lay on the cement. Instead of eyes, only the blank sockets remained, and a straggling line of ants crawled over and along the dead pigeon’s body carrying their afternoon meal clasped in their jaws. I walked back inside and informed Alba of the situation, who reacted to the news by squealing and sticking her tongue out.
“But the bird out there still looks pretty fresh, you know? Only a day or two old, maybe. This summer in Philadelphia, whenever I had to cross the South Street Bridge to get to Penn Park to play soccer, there was this pigeon that had been sliced in half and its guts were just splattered out there to cook and rot on the sidewalk. I had to pass by it every time, and it would smell worse and worse–“
“Stop! Qué asco, Hans! I hate hearing about dead animals and these things.” Alba’s face had turned pale, and her hands clutched her face and her two index fingers plugged her ears.
“Fine. In all seriousness, what’s happening to the bird? Is someone going to clean it?”
“I think my dad will take care of it when he comes back.”
That sounded like a fair answer to me, so I proceeded to carry on with my plans, albeit with minor changes. I made coffee for myself using the coffee machine, and instead of going outside into the miasma, climbed upstairs to my room, where I rummaged my Kindle out of my backpack and plopped on the bed. I opened Bukowski’s Ham on Rye:
I was in the 4th grade when I found out about it. I was probably one of the last to know, because I still didn’t talk to anybody. A boy walked up to me while I was standing around at recess.
“Don’t you know how it happens?” he asked.
“Your mother has a hole …”—he took the thumb and forefinger of his right hand made a circle—“and your father has a dong …”—he took his left forefinger and ran it back and forth through the hole. “Then your father’s dong shoots juice and sometimes your mother has a baby and sometimes she doesn’t.”
“God makes babies,” I said.
“Like shit,” the kid said and walked off…
I read for an hour, at least half of it spent on laughing, decided to jerk it real quick to some porn on my computer, and fell asleep afterwards.
My nap came to an end after fifty minutes. I woke up to shouts in Spanish of different pitches coming from all over the house. The bass – I recognized it as Alba’s dad’s – grunted and spat out a bunch of nos. The alto – Alba’s – attempted to beg and negotiate something from the way her sentences dragged out a word or noise towards the end. The tenor – Alba’s mom’s – provided immediate, longwinded responses to Alba’s pleas. Pingu provided the percussions by barking and howling at the other dogs in the neighborhood. I got out of my bed and walked out into the hallway where Alba, coming down the staircase, sighed and rubbed her arms. I inquired about the reason for the impromptu performance of the Andilla Symphony.
“So, my dad told us to clean up the dead bird.”
“Like, right now.”
We headed downstairs to the garage to examine our dead, odorous friend. Its smell had gotten stronger, and Alba made a barfing expression. She remarked that this was a disgusting, un-Catalan affair, and her dad poked his head into the garage and barked something out in Catalan that included my name. I asked Alba for a translation.
“He said, ‘Be a man and clean it up, Hans.’”
“As opposed to what, ‘Be a woman and give birth to a healthy son?’”
“I don’t get it either. Let’s just get this over with.” I agreed, and we proceeded to look for a shovel of some sorts to scoop up the goop and plop it in a trashcan somewhere. Five minutes later, Alba’s father put an end to our search by informing us from the kitchen window that there were no shovels in the house.
“Okay, fuck it,” I told Alba. “You know what, I’ve picked up plenty of dog shit in my life, and I’m going to treat this dead piece of chicken just like another pile of dog shit. I need a plastic bag and a pair of gloves.”
“Are you sure?” Alba’s concern wasn’t fooling anybody – her tone failed to conceal her relief and joy that the American staying at her house and eating all the food for free volunteered to do something useful for once. “There are latex gloves in the kitchen, I think. I’ll find the plastic bag for you.”
I plodded into the kitchen to grab my latex protection while Alba’s father, standing in front of the sink and enjoying a watermelon, eyed me with glee. Alba called to him from outside that I was looking for a pair of rubber gloves, and he pulled them out of the second drawer to the left of the stove. He then pointed to the roasted pigeon outside, said something in Spanish, and laughed.
“Sí,” I replied, “esta un pollo. La comida para la cena.” This caused Mr. Andilla to choke on and spit out a piece of watermelon that he was eating. I thanked him for the rubber gloves and snapped them onto my hands.
I walked back outside through the garage and stood a foot away from the decaying carrion. Squirming in her grey tank and light blue shorts, Alba hastily handed me a plastic bag and backpedaled into the corner of the garage. I sucked in a deep breath, reminded myself that this was just like picking up dog shit, and squatted down to the level of the pigeon. As my hand went through a scooping motion, parting the sea of flies that hovered around the bird, I expected some guts and insides to slop its way out of the pigeon. This was where my theory that picking up a ripe, rotting bird was just like picking up dog shit fell apart at the sinews.
The bird felt soft. As I lifted the pigeon in order to place it onto plastic bag, a glut of yellow-white maggots spilled out from the bird’s undersides like writhing candies from the corpse-piñata. One of them covered slimy extract landed on my shoe. Alba, who had been watching from behind me, shrieked, causing Pingu to begin barking up a storm. I flipped the bag inside out so that the bird was securely enclosed, tied a knot on the bag, and rammed the maggot on my shoe against a jutting rock on the front yard. I looked back at where the bird had been, and maggots wriggled en masse like fucked-up frat boys at a college party.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” croaked Alba.
I tossed away my latex gloves in the kitchen trashcan, and Alba told her dad to look for a spray to kill the larvae. I opened the fridge to see if there was anything to eat for lunch. Alba’s dad tapped me on the shoulder, and I turned around.
“Tenemos un ‘pollo’ para su almuerzo.” He glanced back at the window where the blue plastic bag and its contents lay and nodded in their direction. “Esta alli.”
Alba mentioned that she was really going to throw up now and headed towards the downstairs bathroom. Her dad strutted behind her flapping his folded arms and making pi-yo, pi-yo noises.
Esther: The Goodbye
I received a message from Esther on Saturday, a day after I tried to get in touch with her. She apologized for the date falling through, and we scheduled another one to meet up for drinks. Eight o’clock in front of the Boqueria, she suggested, and I replied that I’d see her then, wherever the holy fluck the Boqueria was located. I googled the place, took enough screenshots of the direction to fill half a gig of memory on my phone, and headed down to Plaça Catalunya that day with the sole intent to make this date happen. I found a playground off of La Rambla to do some quick push-ups, and the mothers of the children at the park called over their kids and held them close until I had left.
The entrance to the Boqueria, or Mercat de La Boqueria, stood between Carrer del Carme and Passatge dels Coloms, large enough in regards to the size of the building and the crowd that flowed in and out for anyone to find. At the front of the metal roof under which fruits stands and sea food shops hustled away, an ornate, circular glass emblem adorned with a crown glimmered from the reflection of the fading sunlight. I waited as shoppers and locals weaved around me, and tourists wearing fanny packs posed while their companions clicked away at their cameras. Eight-o-five, read my phone, and I tapped my worn-out leather shoes against the sidewalk next to a piece of fallen apple slice. I glanced over my shoulders and saw a slim, ringed hand waving from behind a couple of tall, chuckling men.
“Ciao!” The voice cut through the chatter and onomatopoeia that pervaded La Rambla, and the crowded mob of passersby parted – at least it seemed that way – to present Esther. Clad in a smooth black dress with a deep neckline, Esther stepped up to me in a matching pair of black sandals and leaned her face up to impart kisses on my cheeks. “I hope you, um, aren’t wait too long!” I began to blubber that I had just got there anyway and that it wasn’t a problem, but she stopped me in the middle of my bumbling to apologize for her poor English. She turned to face me while apologizing and laughed, leaning her face down towards her collarbones like a mischievous student who had been caught pulling a prank by her teacher.
“So, where to?” I asked.
“Sorry?” She squinted her eyes, and I rephrased my question. “Oh, um, I know a place! Come with me.” She led me down to a side street and past old couples dining on tables with flower vases. We made small talk about how our days went until we reached the glass entrance of a two-storied hole in the wall. Inside, yellows wallpaper and two grey gentlemen strumming guitars and humming an unfamiliar song nodded at us, and Esther asked in Catalan whether we could sit upstairs. One of the men eyed Esther up and down, rubbed his mustache flecked with bits of cigarette, and smiled. We ordered a couple bottles of Moritz, which were served and opened on a wooden table covered with a red-and-white checkered table linen. Sitting across from Esther, I downed half the bottle in a protracted gulp.
“This is a nice place!” I remarked as I felt a burp make its way up my throat. She nodded and said that it was a very Catalan bar. I asked her to explain what she meant to a very ignorant American, and she pulled out a cigarette before proceeding.
“You don’t mind, I hope?” I shook my head. She could have pulled out an assault rifle. “Do you, uh, smoke?”
“Not my thing.” She lit her cigarette, took a few puffs, and began her explanation.
“It’s a very Catalan bar because… Well, the two man you see downstairs? You see them, yes?” I told her that I did. “They sing Catalan songs.”
“Oh yeah?” The men kept their conversation to themselves and the strumming of the guitars occurred in intermittent brrraaaaans, but Esther informed me that they would start playing if we stay long enough. “How long is long enough?”
“I don’t know, actually.” She shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait, I suppose.” She smiled, not particularly at me, but through me.
“Do you know any of them well?”
“Yes, yes. Many of them. Do you know the history of Catalunya?” I answered that I knew a little bit and regurgitated the information Alba had fed me during the trip. “Ah, okay! So, the songs are very, very… ah, what’s the word?” I put my hands up in the universal gesture, and she pulled out her phone to pull up a translator app. She showed it to me, grinned, and declared, “My best friend.” After a couple of seconds, she exclaimed the word she was looking for, “patriotic.”
“They’re very patriotic?”
“So you can sing them?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“No! Oh, no, I’m a bad, bad singer! Terrible!” I told her I didn’t believe her. She waved her hands in front of her, her head shaking sideways with it as she giggled. I egged her on, and in retrospect, asking a date to do something she finds embarrassing on the first night hanging out is probably one of those actions that keep me single. While I pleaded and she refused, the man with the cigarette-specked mustache came up to our table from downstairs and asked if we would like anything. Esther requested more beer, and we began round two.
Esther expressed her thoughts using her hands – during the entire evening, her hands fluttered, weaved, shook, waved, clenched, relaxed, pointed, clapped, and drummed. As we exchanged the trivialities – she studied communication, I had two siblings; she wanted to visit the States, I wanted to know what it meant to be human – I sipped away at the hoppy Moritz, bubbling, bubbling, bubbling away. I wanted it to fizz forever.
“Why did you agree to grabbing drinks with an American – a giri – like me?”
“I mean, if I were you, I’d be pretty intimidated.” I gave her time to look up the translation for “intimidated.” “It’s really cool, and I’m not complaining a single bit. I guess I’m curious. It’s not something that I see in my dates, that kind of confidence, and maybe there isn’t an explanation but—“
“I thought it would be fun. Interesting. Different.”
“Can I tell you something?” She laughed and said of course. “I was absolutely scared shitless for this.” She gasped and began to crack up. “No joke. I was sure I would embarrass myself and you would think I was a big ol’ loser.” She asked how that was so. “My history speaks for itself. Done a lot of, uh, embarrassing things at these kinds of things.”
“Like?” Muffled giggles.
“I threw up on a date once.”
“No!” Another batch of laughs.
“And that was only two months ago.”
“Oh, no!” Heaves.
“The girl never called me back.” We were the only two people at the place, but we were making as much noise as a crowd. The music of the guitars lofted from downstairs and complemented our banter with its smoothness. The sunlight outside dimmed and disappeared, while the yellow flickering streetlights glowed and illuminated the stream of people that flowed past the entrance of the bar. An hour passed, and I had switched to the seat next to Esther. She had a dinner obligation she had to have been at forty-five minutes ago, but she waved it off as being “it’s-a-ok” and “here-better.”
“So, I show you some of the Catalan songs I was talking about.” I wasn’t sure whether it was her or her third beer talking, but I gladly accepted her offer. She pulled up the song on Spotify and began playing it on her phone. The singer had a soft, sad voice, and his delicate rolling of the rs prompted the light drumming of the table by my fingers. “You like it?”
“I like it.”
“I told you I am a very bad singer.”
“I know.” She cleared her throat, glanced at my eyes to check if I was serious, and gave a stifled, embarrassed laugh. And then she began to sing. It wasn’t very good, and it was beautiful. After thirty seconds of so of an uninterrupted solo, the staircase rumbled under the stomping feet of the elderly Catalan guitar man. He gestured and exclaimed that Esther had been singing. Esther, her face red, played it off, but the man wasn’t going away and spoke Catalan in a rapid fashion. I asked for a translation.
“He wants me to come down and sing outside.” I looked at the man, stuck both thumbs up, and grinned.
“Perfecto!” I took Esther’s arm and we headed downstairs, both of us trying to hide our laughter. The man pulled up a chair for himself and handed a book full of song lyrics to Esther and began strumming up a tune. Esther accompanied the gyration of the guitar strings with her voice. I watched a few steps back and caught the sidelong face of Esther as she concentrated on each pronunciation. A couple of songs later, we left the bar and I walked her to the train station that would take her back to her hometown outside of Barcelona. Her stride was measured but she swung her arms by her aside with energy.
“Can I tell you something, too? About tonight?” I replied that of course she could. “I thought tonight was, uh…” She stopped and turned her body to face me. “Going to be a disaster!” She tried to continue her explanation, but she had to wait for me to stop laughing, which took a while. “No! I mean, I can’t speak very good English, so I didn’t know if this was going to be good or not.” I told her this was the first time a girl told me that she thought the date would be a disaster. “Well, it wasn’t.” I didn’t think so either, I said.
“I guess it’s good bye now? You’re late for you dinner as is.”
“Yes, yes. But this was fun, and I’m glad we did this.”
She gave me two kisses, we ciao’d, and her dress shook from left to right as she descended the steps of the subway. I stood there, not waiting for her to look back but to watch the crisscross of people wade through the evening at Plaça Catalunya. I started my return journey to Alba’s boyfriend’s apartment, and a man stopped me on my way to sell me cans of Estrellas, a euro for a pop, from a plastic bag. I bought two, sat down at the foot of a monument off of La Rambla, and wished the evening wasn’t so chilly.
A thunderstorm groaned and coughed outside while I stood inside the Barcelona International Airport. The flight monitor in front of me flickered and displayed that Flight 8527 to Berlin Tegel Airport at 2:10 p.m. had been delayed another three hours. The clock read half past five already. An American behind me went into a tirade riddled with f-bombs, and delighted children in colorful clothes ran off to play some more at a miniature playground.
I found a seat in the waiting area next to a middle-aged woman rocking jeans and a red jacket over her white blouse and glanced at what she was reading. She took a quick sideways peek at me and smiled before she stuck her nose back into the blue paperback book, a collection of poems by an author I didn’t know, and I pulled my Kindle out of my backpack, sandwiched between my legs. I opened to the middle of the book Game of Thrones, where some poor chap is getting slashed to bits and boobs abound like cornfields in Nebraska. After four minutes of the same thing, I wondered when the last time George R. R. Martin had seen an actual pair of tits, and I thought back to the last time I saw an actual pair of tits. I remembered that they were nice – beautiful, even, in their perkiness and warmth – and lost the desire to read about the collection of repetitive characters, waiting within those pages to have their throats slashed open and their breasts exposed until the end of time.
I put down my Kindle and began surveying the crowd of travelers that huddled in the lounge longing to take off in their night flights. Across me, a couple sat in silence with their hands on each other’s thighs. The man, whose receding hairline clashed against his ringless left hand, yawned and eyed his petite significant other who had fallen asleep with her mouth open and pointed at the ceiling. A trickle of drool crept down from the right corner of her mouth, and her boyfriend reached into a pocket to wipe the spittle away with a handkerchief. In a row of seats next to theirs, two brothers, neither above ten years of age, scuffled over who got to use the armrest. Their mother, despite her protests, looked away for a moment to plead the father to quiet them down, and the bigger son managed to get a hefty jab into the ribs of his brother. The father, not bothering to look up from his smartphone, ordered in a monotone voice for the two of them to settle down.
“Excuse me,” the red-jacketed woman next to me whispered, “would it be okay if you could watch me things for me while I go to the bathroom? It won’t take very long.”
“Of course,” I replied with a toothless smile. I watched her butt wiggle under her pants as she scurried in the direction of the bathroom and averted my eyes to a new target when a blond woman walked past me in short shorts speaking German to her parents. I stared at the parents – the father, German in the creases on his face, and the mother, German in her lack of fashion sense – trying to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Ich hab die Nase voll,” huffed the father. The mother nodded and adjusted her wire-rimmed glasses. The daughter shrugged, and I begged her silently to not sit down out of my line of sight. She ignored my plea as if she could not hear them. Disappointed, I went back to my book and waited for my neighbor to come back. Several minutes she arrived and thanked me. I got up out of my seat and decided to walk around; my stomach had started growling, so I followed the sign that read “Burger King é” I arrived at my destination and found four lines consisting of seven or eight people each snaking from the cash registers to the back of the restaurant. I murmured an audible “Fuck me,” got in line, and tapped out the beat to “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Half an hour later, I sat down with my double cheeseburger, large fries, large glass of Cola, and an invisible scarlet “B” for eating Burger King. At the table behind me, a small girl with curly brown hair aged six at the oldest laughed as her father told her a bunch of Dad Jokes.
As the hustle and bustle of customers sat and slouched on the greasy plastic chairs, gorged down saturated fat and cholesterol, smacked their lips and burped like a satiated orchestra, only to leave behind a waste dump of mangled ketchup packages, chewed-up pickle slices, stained napkins, knocked-over paper cups, and crumpled receipts on the table, an aged man wearing a BK visor plodded from one table to another with a bag in hand collecting the trash. The wrinkles on his tawny skin added depth to his facial features whenever he scrunched up his face at a table with its conglomerate of waste. When there were no tables to clean, he stood in the corner of the dining area, a blank stare etched on his dark brown eyes that lay buried deep into his face under the black, washed-out visor. Veins thin and thick mapped the man’s forearms like a valley of rivers, and his bowed back told of his years. He dragged his left leg not in a noticeable way, but enough that it explained the cause of his plodding. His coughs that crept up on him once ever three or four minutes sounded violent, and his frame shook under the oversized grey polo uniform he wore. Customers only bothered to look at him when his hacking cut the silence of the dining area, and even then, those stares returned after seconds to the meals in front of them.
“Daddy,” the girl behind me whispered in a squeaky voice to her father, “that man looks sad.” Her father, contemplating the aged worker, nodded at her observation and kept his eyes locked on the man. “Daddy, can I go hug him?” The father met his daughter’s request with a raised eyebrow while I raised his reaction by another eyebrow.
“Sweetie, why…” The dad, measuring his response, rapped his knuckles on the table, his Fossil watch gleaming on his left wrist as the light reflected off of the silver frame. He observed at the dried-up old man, studied the eager face on the bobbling head of his daughter, looked over at the worker again as one of his coughs interrupted his task of cleaning the mess left on one of the larger tables, and placed his head against the palm of his hand. “… Why of course, honey. Go right ahead, and tell him, ‘Gracias.’” The elated child, wearing a pink dress with frills, skipped over to where the worker leaned over a table with a rag in his hand, grabbed him from the side, and hugged him. Realizing she was a lot shyer than she had anticipated, she mumbled out a “Gracias” and looked up at the stranger.
The old man glared wide-eyed at the girl hugging him, and his wild eyes dashed back and forth at the seated customers until he found the girl’s father gesturing with his hands that everything was fine. The girl thanked him again in Spanish, let go of him, and stood there watching the fidgeting creases on the man’s face. The man let go of the wet rag he held, wiped his hand against his apron, and, smoothing his hair with his left hand, patted the girl on her head with his right. Not knowing what else to do, he turned around, ignoring the two tables with trash on them, covered his face, and tiptoed into the bathroom. I grabbed my backpack, threw away the trash on my table and the other two, headed out of Burger King, and walked back to the flight monitor in the waiting area that instructed that boarding was to begin in an hour.
“About fuckin’ time,” I overheard a young man grumble among the mass exodus of passengers that headed to gate H4. “I can’t believe that a flight would be delayed by eight damn hours. Un-fucking-believable. I completely missed my connecting flight!”
We boarded the plane, and I sat in an aisle seat next to a huffing, puffing overweight man from Frankfurt. The German captain announced that the flight would take two hours and twenty-four minutes. As the airplane took off from the runway, I gazed out of the window of my row where Barcelona, turning dusky by the inch, flicked its lights on one bulb at a time. We climbed and climbed while scarlet flowed out of the sunset. Night arrived, and Barcelona blinked and breathed, glowing in its goodbye.
“The city’s radiant arteries
are a faint, luminous sea anemone
slowly withdrawing from the vastness.”
Before leaving for Barcelona, I had a short e-mail exchange with my grandmother. It began when my grandmother’s husband showed the graduation photo he had taken, which I had posted on Facebook with one of my late uncle’s poems attached to it. My uncle Ian had attended Penn as a graduate student, and I wouldn’t have known about the university and applied to it had it not been for his time there. I wanted to honor him somehow, and my grandmother thanked me during our conversation for my gesture of remembrance.
It was during this conversation that I came across one of my uncle’s poems. My grandmother mentioned that he had written it while he was in Barcelona. I asked her for it, and she shared it with me:
“Tapas Bar, Calle Escudellers, Barcelona”
After grocery shopping I
stop by for coffee at the tapas bar.
Inside there’s sawdust on the floor,
and it’s still dark, as if the morning
weren’t the start of a new day but a
continuation of the night before.
Already drinking tinto with tortillas
several salty men sit at the bar,
being ribbed by an old woman with no teeth.
Shortly after I sit down she lifts
her shirt up slightly to expose her paunch
and the man next her pulls it further up
over her breasts, and squeezing at a dug
he checks it like a loaf of bread or meat
for sale in the mercado up the street.
She says her only pleasures are to eat
and sleep, then slaps her crotch
repeatedly and with great strength and gusto,
to demonstrate the region’s perfectly
without sensation. This accompanied
by laughs and densely worded argument,
another round of tit-grabbing,
then pointing by all at cocks and cunts.
Afterwards we all feel quite content,
happy to begin the day’s affairs
with breakfast at Café Escudellers.
I read it once, twice, and many more times. As my departure date for Barcelona became closer and closer, I kept going back to it late at night when only the dim glow of my laptop screen lit the dark living room and reflected off of my pale, unwavering face.
As was the case with the aforementioned poem, Ian’s literary influence on me came after his death. There’s great tragedy in that – I wonder what could have been had I read his poems while he was alive and talked to him about them. That, as is the case with suicide, is a road strewn with painful “what ifs,” leading only to a desolate precipice. But if there were any sort of beauty – a silver lining, a saving grace – it would be that his poems were still there for all to read even after his death.
My uncle was a complicated man. He was flawed. He was brilliant. He suffered from bipolar disorder and bouts of depression. He weaved webs of poetry. He struggled with alcohol his demons, but he also fought them. He grew up in a torn family and made a violent mistake. He played catch with a high school me on the front lawn of my grandparents’ house in Houston, and he told me that I had a helluva arm even though I knew I didn’t.
My uncle is a loved man. He is missed, and he is remembered. He proves that our creations live beyond us, and his poems bloom with every reading. To him, I dedicate Barcelona, or Notes from the Shallow End.