We can’t just sit around here smoking and looking at each other, he says.
I know he’s right, but I’m afraid to him leave alone.
Don’t worry about me, he says as if reading my mind.
Liz lives in a small city called Santander on the northern coast of Spain. She’s supposed to be attending university and taking a year off before college. But really she just spends her days lounging around her Spanish family’s house, skipping class, and fucking their oldest son.
I fly to Madrid and Liz meets me at the airport. As the plane touches down something inside of me snaps. I have been unmoored, set adrift in the world. It’s the first time that my grief has made sense.
Grief is like another country, I realize. It’s a place.
Liz and I only spend an afternoon in Madrid. We are thrilled to be together. The world is ours for the taking. We hop a midnight train to Paris, smoke cigarettes in the couplings between cars. We meet a handsome young Spanish boy our age, and the three of us lean back against the wall of the coach, averting our eyes as we try to awkwardly to bridge the language barrier.
Paris and then Basel, Brussels and Amsterdam, Rome for a week, and then into Barcelona. We pass ourselves from family friend to bunk-bedded-hostels and then back to family friends again. We sit in bar after bar, smoke a thousand cigarettes, huddle over crumpled maps, flirt with boy after boy. We fight too, grow sick and tired of each other, and walk silently down empty, echo-filled streets.
I have nightmares most nights, my mother in a bathtub of blood, my mother like a zombie, my mother, my mother, dead over and over again.
Liz strokes my hair as I dial the numbers that reach my father’s voice back at home. I sob into the phone, and his voice is metallic through the lines in between my halting breaths. I am worried about him. Is he lonely, is he sad too?
Yes, Claire, I am.
From Rome we go to Barcelona, and then up to Bilbao where we take a bus to Santander. I lean my head against the window and my tank top clings to the sweat on my lower back. We’ve been traveling for a month now. My life back at home seems incredibly far away.
In Santander we spend our days at the beach, giggling, as we lay topless on the sand. At night we sit in dismal bars and smoke Ducados because they are the harshest, smelliest cigarettes we can find. My trip is coming to an end. In a few days we will travel back to Madrid together. I will fly home, to Atlanta, to my father, to that gloomy and hushed house.
I shudder when I think about going home. It’s easy here in Spain to forget about my life in Atlanta. This trip, these foreign streets, have quelled the blackness gnawing inside of me.
But it is still there. I feel it at night when I lay in bed next to Liz, trying to fall asleep as I listen to her quiet nighttime breathing.
I hate myself.
I dig my fingernails into my palm.
I actually hate myself.
Fat, hot tears roll down my cheeks and I lie still so that I don’t wake Liz.
We spend the last few afternoons seated on the patio of a little cafe, sipping espresso and beer and writing postcards. I write a few to Christopher and think about those cards traveling half way across the world to the P.O. Box on Haight Street.
Sitting there at the cafe, my skin feels lonely and tight. I miss being touched. I tilt my neck, stretching the muscles from my collarbone up through my jaw, and I catch the eye of a young man a few tables over. I look away and out at the ocean. I can feel his eyes on me, traveling through my red tank top, across my breastbone, over my lips. I looked back and he looks down, marks a page in his book, and gets up from his seat.
As he walks toward our table, his coffee cup in one hand, I reach into my bag and withdraw my camera. In Spanish I asked if he will take a picture of us. Liz looks up from her book. She’s been lost in reading, has no idea of the careful dance that has gone on between us. He answers me in English, takes the camera and stands back a few feet. Liz and I lean into each other. We’ve done this a hundred times in the last month.
His name is Alvaro. He is Spanish, has been studying at Oxford. He comes from a wealthy family, is home on break, just out for the afternoon, enjoying a coffee, the sunshine. His hair is thick and lustrous and his dark eyes sparkle in the afternoon light.
Do we want to meet him for drinks later that evening?
Years later I won’t remember anything about the landscape of Santander. The layout of the city, the size of it, the streets will escape me completely. But I will remember the bar where we meet Alvaro. The three of us sit upstairs at a little table and I do all the things I always do for boys. I match him drink for drink. I talk about Vonnegut and Hesse. I quote Keroac and I French-inhale my cigarettes. I lean forward so that the shallow curves of my clavicles become deeper, and I look away when he looks at me.
The moment Liz leaves for the bathroom he is kissing me.
I already know I will sleep with him. I knew it the moment I reached into my bag at the cafe, my fingers closing around the sturdy weight of my camera. Knew, as I handed it to him, my fingers brushing his, that this was the final piece of the trip. I will sleep with a perfect stranger.
Do I want to see his family home, he asks between kisses. I do.
Liz is worried and I am drunk.
I’ll be home by dawn, I reassure her as I climb into Alvaro’s convertible.
I wave to her, my gaze fastening on her frame for just a moment before I swing back around in my seat, lifting my face to the wind that whips down over the windshield.
If Alvaro and I talk during the drive it’s only about trivial things. Mostly there is the road, dark and rushing before us. Despite the alcohol swirling in my veins, I feel incredibly present to this moment. I am distinctly aware of what I am doing. I know that I am eighteen years old and that my mother is dead. I know that I am in the passenger seat of a strange boy’s car, that we are winding along a nighttime road, that there is a town glimmering with little lights below us, that I am somewhere in Spain.
It’s one of those moments that will be easy to return to, for years to come.
The house is impressive, beautiful stonework makes up the exterior, landscaped pathways lead to various entrances, and the whole property is perched on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Biscay. We stumble through the rooms under the pretense of a tour. I am never scared of him. He is young and clumsy. It is obvious that he comes from a good family, that he is trying to impress me.
His hands are on my lower back. I focus my eyes on a suit of armor, he points out the family emblem emblazoned on a shield. In another room I fall back onto a bed, Alvaro on top of me. It is over within minutes. I open my eyes for just a moment before it ends though. His are closed tight.
Remember this moment, I tell myself and I know that I will.
Afterwards, we lay still, the thing done. A sheen of sweat glimmers across his neck and shoulders. I close my eyes again.
After a few minutes I get up to the use the bathroom and I realize that the condom must have broken. I return to the room and his eyes narrow in fear when I tell him.
We are suddenly young again. Whoever we were both pretending to be, those people are gone in an instant, replaced by two teenagers, half-dressed and nervous with each other.
Moments can be so simple sometimes. In this one I realize that I have convinced myself that nothing could ever hurt as much as my mother’s death but in fact, the opposite is true.
Tears well up in my eyes. It occurs to me that I have been pretending, that I thought I deserved this. For the first time, I feel the knife slide in just a little.
I turn my head to one side to hide my tears and I feel Alvaro’s heavy silence.
I’ve never done this, he whispers.
I turn back to him, searching his face.
A few days ago his girlfriend of two years – his first love – left him. His voice is a whisper as he tells me this. She already has a new boyfriend.
I knew, Alvaro says, the moment my fingers closed around your camera, that I would sleep with you.
My mother is dead, I say in response. She died a couple of months ago.
I knew I would sleep with you too, I say.
We spend the rest of the night talking, face to face, our legs crossed Indian-style on the bed, and then perched on stools at the kitchen counter drinking cold juice, and later back in his car, the stars are high and clear above us.
It doesn’t occur to me until later how much this night is like the one I spent with Michel, but when it does, I will again marvel at the power people have to unlock each other.
On the drive back to the apartment where Liz lives I lean back into the leather bucket seats of the convertible, and gaze out at the first vestiges of dawn rising pink and rosy over the bay. We pull over, not wanting to return just yet, there is still more to say. The little town lies sleeping before us, the tiny lights twinkling in the early morning twilight.