He took a large sip of his cerveza and watched another one of the prostitutes on la Calle de Montera get brushed off sheepishly by a passing tourist. The street was littered with them. Every ten feet, it seemed, a young woman in four inch heels stood with her arms folded, her tight dress short enough to be considered a shirt under any other circumstance. They operated in a perfect row, forming a slalom course of temptation all the way down the hill to la Puerta del Sol.
“Una cervesa grande,” he had said to the waiter after he settled into a chair at one of the few empty tables clustered in the center of the street. The city had yet to cool off from the heat of the Mediterranean sun, despite the late hour. He had been unsure if his request was understood, never mind grammatically sound, until the waiter returned several long, hot minutes later with a giant mug of sparkling gold. Over the edge of his glass he watched the prostitutes as one by one they broke rank and approached a prospective client, placing their hand on his forearm while walking a few steps alongside. Twice, he saw one take the bait, and they walked down the street together before disappearing out of sight.
He chuckled each time at the shy, awkward reactions of the approached men. Yet as an outlet for his own frustration the spectacle was not wholly as satisfying as he had hoped. This damned city. It had been two full days since he had held a conversation with another human being. Surrounded by other people, yet completely cut off from them by language, he was drowning in social isolation.
Earlier that afternoon, as he wandered from plaza to plaza through the Gordian Knot of choppy streets that is the Centro district of Madrid, he had come across the James Joyce Pub. Traditional, familiar Guinness signs hung over the sidewalk out front, and as he peered in through the doorway he noted that it had all the trappings of an Irish-American pub. Everything from the worn bartop to the shadowy booths in the dim-lit corners of the room was hewn from some unknown dark lumber, no doubt tinted further by the residue of decades of cigarette smoke. The backbar showcased stained glass portraits of Irish writers through the ages: Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey. Thank God, he thought, at the very least they'll have an English version of the menu and an English-speaking staff.
Wrong on both counts. He'd been able to stumble his way to a half pint of vino blanco, and had selected two unknown courses at random off of the prix-fixe lunch menu. He expected something traditionally Spanish and was braced for the unfamiliar. Not a picky eater, it hardly mattered, yet he was nonetheless surprised when his chicken wings and fried battered cod arrived successively.
There was a strange, dissociative sensation to foot travel through this city. While it had character in spades, it lacked in tall, visible landmarks. No street seemed to be entirely straight, or entirely flat, and as a consequence sight lines were extremely short. It was like sailing through a thick fog, and seemed to instill the same edginess. Small plazas would appear out of nowhere, branching off again in four or more directions, and there seemed to be no thematic clustering into neighborhoods or boroughs.
He had taken a cab straight to JFK after signing the divorce papers, and upon arriving walked straight to the first wall of screens listing international departures. He made note of several, and snaked his way through the retractable line dividers to the nearest ticket counter. Rome was full, as were Nice and Barcelona. Madrid, however, still had quite a few seats still available. He handed over his passport and credit card, and they were returned a few minutes later with a printed boarding pass. Simple as that.
He had been blindsided by the demand for a divorce, and the affair that motivated it. She hadn't asked him to move out — she was moving in with the Devil to start their happy little life together. But he couldn't stay. He needed to step out of his life for a bit, and go somewhere unknown and unfamiliar. And somewhere much warmer than New York in early Spring. Madrid so far had been all of those, but most of all it had been stressful. Spanish was enough of a hurdle. But after twelve years of devoted monogamy (or so he thought), he had been banished once again to the world of the available, and found he had forgotten how to communicate as a citizen of singledom.
He finished his beer, and spotted his waiter addressing a table of young Spaniards who had just seated themselves. The waiter finished taking their drink order and started to walk briskly by him. He raised his hand quickly to attract attention, but did not snap his fingers as he had seen others do. It seemed uncivilized. “La cuenta, por favor.” He spoke softly and hesitantly, pantomiming a signature on the palm of his left hand with an imaginary pen held in his right, just to be sure. He had only just learned that one earlier that afternoon, while flipping through an English travel guide to Spain in a bookstore. The check, please.
In a few minutes, there was a small silver dish holding a handwritten receipt on his table. Four euro coins tumbled out of his hand into the dish, and he stood. The beer had relaxed him, and taken the edge off his empty stomach.
La Latina, read a heading in the Madrid section of the travel guide. He'd walked into the bookstore after finally giving up on trying to make sense of the city on his own. Just south of Plaza Mayor, this neighborhood is packed with lively pubs and clubs whose patrons spill out into the streets and don't go home until the sun comes up. He walked south, then west. Plaza Mayor, cobblestoned and lamp-lit, was filled more than anything, it seemed, with strolling couples arm in arm. He crossed quickly, avoiding eye contact with anyone, and exited back onto another narrow street.
The street moved steeply downhill, then banked around to the right. He recognized Botín from the travel guide as he passed it on his left. The oldest restaurant in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway's. He kept moving.
Soon he was being swept along by packs of young Spaniards, filling the sidewalks and most of the street. Around the next bend was a supermarket aisle of bars, each one a revolving door of shouting and laughing carousers. Voices and fragments of conversations found him as he passed each doorway or open window. He walked slowly, straining for the familiar tones and rhythm of a language he recognized.
There must be other English speakers in this damned city. Someone, anyone, he could talk to. But where were they? There was no symbol, like the groove on his finger where a ring had once sat for more than a decade, that allowed him to identify and be identified by for his situation.
It was enough. Another day had passed and he'd failed to make a connection. He crossed the city quickly via major streets, and retreated to the privacy of his hotel room. He took two gulps from the open bottle of red wine still sitting on his night stand, and went to bed.
He awoke to a muffled crash, followed by unison laughter, and rapid, incomprehensible Spanish. He grunted into the darkness, stumbled to the French doors leading to his tiny balcony, and peered down at the street. One of the last patrons to leave the café across the street had knocked one of the metal outdoor tables over as he made his less than graceful exit.
He sat on the edge of his bed and rubbed his eyes. He fumbled for his cell phone on the table beside him and flipped on the display. 6:15am. Half the city was just going to bed, and had decided to wake him up in the process. Well, fuck. He was up now, and edgy. His jeans were on and he was walking through an empty hotel lobby into an dark, empty street. He started moving.
Even if he still felt alone, at least now there was congruity with his situation: he was alone. Only the larger avenues showed signs of life, as the remaining revelers made their way home. They ambled hand in hand, or walked in step with their arms around each others shoulders.
He came to a large boulevard carving a valley through the city. Nothing moved, and he began to cross without looking. The sky was starting to lighten to his left, which would have to be East, which meant he was heading South, probably approaching— Stop. He didn't want to know where he was, or where he was going. He reached the other side of the boulevard and returned to the shadows of the side streets.
He walked with pace, taking corners aggressively, exhibiting a sense of purpose when he had anything but. He wound himself deeper into the coil of the city, altering course at will, perhaps crossing his own path at times, losing himself in the morning twilight. At each intersection he chose arbitrarily, understanding the senselessness of the journey itself: each street led to other streets, and they all led nowhere. He stopped only to buy a can of beer from one of the men who came out at sundown to peddle cervezas out of shopping bags to drunk tourists on the street. The beer was not cold, but he handed the man a euro coin, took a large swig, and moved on.
He stopped at a trash can in the middle of a wide pedestrians-only street and finished the rest of his beer in one go, tilting his head back to catch every drop. He tossed the can and paused a moment. He had been here before. It was completely empty now— except for her.
She stood under a small tree planted in the middle of the street and looked up towards la Gran Via. He was below her on the hill, and she hadn't seen him yet. Small, blonde, in a white dress and too-high heels. He started walking slowly up the right side of the street.
She turned to look down to the other end of the street, and he saw for a moment, beneath the heavy makeup and fake eyelashes, the too-familiar face of dejection. But when she saw him, she smiled, and he smiled back.
He continued his slow walk, and she came up alongside, resting her hand on his forearm.
“Hola,” he said.
“You are handsome,” she replied in stilted English. “Want some company?”
“Cuánto?” he asked softly.
“Eighty euro,” she responded, her eyes brighter now, hopeful.
He stopped and look down at her and smiled resignedly, without parting his lips. Then: “Bueno.” He took her hand. “Vámonos.”
They turned down a side street, then another, smaller, alley. He stopped and turned to face her.
“Aquí?” she asked with uncertainty.
She didn't object, and he backed up against the centuries-old brick behind him. He pressed his palms against the cold stone, lifted his face to the grey pre-dawn sky, and sank into the deep, warm shame that spread slowly through his abdomen.
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