'Sea Lo Qué Sea…'
We got drunk in Matalascañas off of anis liquor and water. My roommate, Stefanie and I all took turns drinking from the same plastic highball glass because we only bought three to begin with and had already broken two. No one wanted to leave the beach to get more. Stefanie had no personality, but we hadn't come to that conclusion yet. We had come to a conclusion about the size of her breasts and that was good enough for the time being. There was no vodka in the supermarket and we had asked them what the locals around here drank. Anis liquor and water they told us. It was hot, and the vodka and soda we had bought the day before was all gone. We still had plenty of ice, but only the anis to substitute for a real alcohol, and the water to dilute it. We should have known—there had to be something wrong with any alcohol that needed diluting. The bus ride back to Seville was sweetly sickening and we couldn't get the taste of the anis out of our mouth until the next morning. Even then just the thought of it was enough to bring back the rush of overbearing sugar cane that didn't taste any better no matter how much water we cut it with. No one threw up, despite the bumpiness of the road that tossed us out of our alcohol and saccharine induced comas every few minutes. My señora's empanadas didn't taste half as bad as usual that night. I had made a couple of mistakes in Spain though, and the anis was the least of it.
Like when Liz walked in on me and Maria-Jose in our hotel room in Lagos. Almost ruined the entire trip to Portugal. Technically, that hadn't happened in Spain, but it had started there. It was going to happen sooner or later at the rate we were going though. I was better off without Liz. I think.
“Qué es mejor qué churros y chocolate? ” Don't tell me, I said, free churros and chocolate? My roommate laughed. It was 4 a.m. It was a Saturday, but it might as well have been a Tuesday. We were no drunker than usual. Maybe even less. Tex Mex was closed already, or maybe they had simply run out of enchiladas at that point. Either way, we figured our last resort was a hot thick pastry boiled in oil, dipped into melted chocolate. It was like a triple bypass waiting to happen, but man was it good at 4 por la madrugada . Sometimes it felt like not even New York could match the energy that Seville had in the early hours of the morning.
Seville was our playground and at night we were its rulers. I think about it now and can't help but shake my head—it was gluttony of the worst kind. Food, alcohol, girls. It's a good thing that I didn't get too used to it otherwise coming back to America would've been even more of a reverse culture shock than it was. I regret ever having returned. I think that was the biggest mistake I had made. Bigger than Lauren. Bigger than Stefanie. Bigger than that night in Portugal. Although, the night itself wasn't really a mistake.
The way it all turned out wasn't the way I wish it had turned out. Sure, it was the way I had planned for things to turn out, but I had made those plans before I met Liz. I once heard that you won't find what you're looking for until you stop looking for it. I stopped looking and Liz fell into my lap. I met her on a Tuesday. I had ordered Johnny Black straight up, on the rocks, to appear sophisticated. I'm a gymnast too, she told me. From there it was like we had known each other for years. All the time Lauren sat five feet away mocking me to my face. How second grade, I had thought. We started holding hands on Thursday.
That had bothered a lot of the other girls, apparently. Morynn told me so on a train ride from Tangiers to Marakkesch two months later. What the fuck was the hand-holding all about, she had asked. I didn't know I had told her, lying only partly. It wasn't the vibe that I had meant to give off. We spent the next four days in Morocco without mentioning Liz again. She did mention Maria-Jose—once on the train ride back to Tangiers, and again on the boat ride back to Tarifa, but she let it drop as quickly as she brought it up. Morynn wasn't really a mistake. She was Venezuelan, hot and fun. The kind of girl I was looking for.
I didn't actually kiss Liz until the following Wednesday. We had spent almost every moment between Spanish classes together for over a week before I had finally found myself alone in a room with her. But this was not what I had come to Spain for, I told myself. No relationships. No drama. Only fun, I told myself. She had quickly become my best friend and a whole lot more at the same time. Had I met her in any other place, at any other time, we'd probably be dating right now. We'd be in love and engaged at this point and I would dream every night about the holidays during which I could fly out to Seattle to feel her skin against mine, to swallow her whole with my eyes and to stay up all night listening to her whisper in my ear. We'd walk through a park in Seattle and it would start to rain, because it always rains in Seattle, and we'd sit under a tree, our arms wrapped around each other, getting wet, but it wouldn't have mattered because we'd have been comforted by each other's body heat and we could stare out into the rain and not worry.
But this was Spain. Spain was different.
Liz and I had sat in a bar two days after Lagos and talked, both of us with tears in our eyes. It was too late to go back now, but at least we finally both got our feelings out in the open. I didn't want to spend time with anyone else but you, she had told me. I didn't want to kiss anyone else but you. And I was ok with that. That's what scared me the most. That's what was scaring me away.
Her words had echoed my thoughts and for the first time since arriving I suddenly wished that I was somewhere else. I had made the kind of mistake that I told myself I wouldn't.
I guess that was the real mistake. The whole melodrama and emotion bit—I didn't need that shit. It's what I had come to Spain to leave behind. Liz was a prude anyway. Not at all the kind of girl that I came to Spain for. Maybe in a different time and a different place…
Maria-Jose was a cheerleader and flat-out gorgeous. She liked to drink too. Almost as much as I did, and that's saying a lot. I met her two days after arriving. She was the first girl I had kissed, outside a night club, ten feet from the Guadalquivir River on a September night as hot as any that I had experienced in New York in the middle of August. When she found me and spoke to me the next day it took me moment to realize what was happening. This is Spain, I reminded myself, not America: forget everything that you know about yourself; you're confident and hot, and all the women want you; that's your story and you're sticking to it. Oh, you want to get some coffee? I have a Spanish class right now. She looked genuinely disappointed.
“Maybe later then?” she had asked. Uh, sure, was all that I could manage—I could call up neither my confidence nor my knowledge of Spanish to take the conversation any further. You're in Spain, I scolded myself and stood up straighter. I had always wanted to be with a cheerleader, I thought and smiled at her.
We went out all the time, sometimes five nights a week. Most of us were still drunk in class the next morning. At night, it was either Maria-Jose or some other girl, but during the day Liz was my alma gemela , my soul mate. During the day we would split a napoleon over coffee, usually at the little restaurant/bar on the corner at the end of the block. Sometimes we would wander and look for new cafes or restaurants in which to have our coffee and chocolate-filled pastry. We did our best to avoid the Starbucks. I tried to avoid holding hands too, but I failed at that. And anyway, I really only did it because she wanted to.
You like Liz. Maria-Jose's tone was accusing. I had no intention of lying to her. I like you too, I told her. You like her more, she shot back. I wondered if what I was doing was right. I decided that it wasn't wrong. Mira Maria, I'm here to have a good time. We had that conversation at least twice. Okay, she said and looked down. I snuck out of her room that night like I had done the previous night, trying to avoid the creaking floor-boards and the slamming doors. I would hum the Mission: Impossible theme to myself as I crept through the sleeping apartment. It took a little getting used to that she still lived at home, but I guess that was typical in Spain. I had gotten pretty accustomed to sneaking out by November, until one day her mother had decided to get up half an hour earlier and walked out of the kitchen as I walked out of Maria-Jose's room. Chalk one up to the most awkward meetings list. Buenos dias. Buenos dias. Ella sienta mejor? Uhh, si, hasta luego.
I had stopped holding hands with Liz by that point. Not that I cared. It was an oversight to have started holding hands in the first place. First it's your hand, then it's your heart.
As we settled into a routine, life became less exciting. Familiar bars, familiar restaurants (although I swear, we could not get enough of the nachos and enchiladas at Tex Mex—they must've put drugs in their cheese, or something), familiar girls. Of course the first month was impossible to repeat when everything was fresh and new, you didn't know every girl's name and you communicated by winking and ordering body shots. Didn't really speak as much Spanish as you think we would've, being in Spain and all. That was a mistake too, but at the end of the day you're just so tired, and plus almost everyone else is speaking English to you and around you, you stop bothering. The bartenders knew our names, the bouncers stopped hassling us, and our señora stopped asking if we'd be home for breakfast. Not that it took her longer than all of three seconds to burn some toast for us and put it on the table next to a jar of strawberry marmalade. The first month was special, unique; different than any month that had ever come before it and any month that would come after it. We celebrated September with a trip to what used to be thought of as the end of the world. Cabo San Vicente —Cape of St. Vincent. Here the tide turned for the English against Spain over 200 years ago. The Spanish Armada was defeated and the world order was turned on its head. I suppose the deterioration of the Spanish empire was inevitable to anyone paying attention. At the rate that it was going, its downfall was bound to happen sooner or later. It took a special set of circumstances though for it to have happened on that night. One day, Spain is on top of the world. The next, England has turned Spain's world upside down. At least the Spanish have a sense of humor about it. I wouldn't have, if it had happened to me. If my world was turned upside down in one night, I think I'd be pretty pissed. Well, they did have 200 years to cope with it. They were probably pretty pissed back then—it was they who had screwed up, thinking that they were untouchable. Hard lesson learned. Time makes all things fade though.
I didn't speak to Liz for two days after we returned to Spain in October. She got drunk and made the mistake of opening the wrong door at 5 in the morning. I wasn't about to be the one to try to make amends. Months later, I found myself having a conversation with Maria-Jose that I already had at least twice before. I don't want you to think that I'm a bad guy. I'm a nice guy, I swear. I'm not like other guys. Maria-Jose's look said no te creo , but she didn't say anything. She looked away again and shrugged. We took a walk to an abandoned carnival ground that night and smoothed out our differences. This is what I came to Spain for, I had told myself as I looked up at the stars. I'm happy, I told myself. Yes, I thought, happy as could be. Maria-Jose never asked about the other girls, but she suspected. She never let on that she knew, except sometimes when she was drunk, and we were drunk fairly often, but we always smoothed it over afterwards. It's pretty easy to smooth things over when you're not emotionally attached. One night the English do something unexpected and the world is never the same again. Things like that are a lot harder to smooth over. I guess things like that never get smoothed over.
Liz and I would finish each other's sentences. After a while, we didn't even have to do that because we knew exactly what the other one was thinking. We would just smile at each other in secret recognition that we were on the same page, a page that no one else knew existed, and everything else was trivial. She was familiar and comfortable, and at the same time every time that we met up was fresh and exciting. As if we had never put sugar in each other's coffee, or taken little bites off of the same pastry we would buy for one another in that little restaurant/bar around the corner down at the end of the block. I had goose-bumps every time, as if each time was the first time that I would coyly intertwine my fingers with hers and squeeze gently. It should've lasted forever. It was so perfect, now that I think of it, that it couldn't have lasted very long. Not in Spain. When you're young you go to Spain to live. When you're old you return to Spain to dream. You go to Spain to satisfy a different kind of need. I had known all of this before I had come and I kept it firmly in the forefront of my mind as I lived from day to day. We lived for today and we didn't think about tomorrow. There will be time to think about tomorrow, tomorrow. But for now, let's drink. Bottle of whiskey, bottle of coke, bag of ice, 4 plastic highball glasses. They called it a lote . Un lote de whiskey con cola . Could substitute vodka for whiskey, and orange soda for cola and the price would be the same. Multiply that by five and we were our own private party, surrounded by dozens of other private parties, of which no remnants would be left in the morning save the hundreds of plastic bags in which the alcohol had been carried to the scene of the crime. Some empty and broken bottles were inevitable too. It was okay though, because they cleaned it all up the next day. Spain cleans itself—keeps itself spotless. You can make one hell of a mess at night but in the day everything would be alright. As if nothing had happened the night before in the first place. Sometimes I wished that little men in orange coveralls would suddenly appear at my door. We're here to clean up your life; we hear that you've really fucked it up. Come right in, I'd say, and I'd usher them into my apartment quietly, as if I was worried about Maria-Jose waking up and walking into the kitchen to see what the fuss was all about. And we'd sit down at the kitchen table and the men in the coveralls would look at me and not say anything. If they would have said anything, it would just have been something along the lines of, why are you wasting our time? There's nothing to clean here. This is exactly what you wanted for yourself. We should be so lucky. They would shake their heads because there were a lot of plazas and streets that weren't clean that needed their attention and, why was I wasting their time anyway? I'd offer them coffee for their trouble, delay them from leaving, but they would only shake their heads again before getting up and heading for the door. Don't know why we're here in the first place, one would say to the other. Must have been some kind of mistake. And then they'd be gone and I would be left there, sitting alone in the kitchen, drinking my own coffee, and be perfectly fine. Because, after all, this is exactly what I wanted—this is what I had come to Spain for.