James and I met Rosina and Rebbecca in Tae-kwon-do class, in a dojo around the corner from our hostel near Plaza Dos de Mayo in Malasaña. Malasaña is a trendy neighborhood named after Manuela Malasaña, a 15-year-old girl who resisted being raped by French troops in 1808 and was therefore executed. I don’t know when it became trendy.
James and I were fond of making lists when we arrived in Spain. Here’s one:
- Live healthy
- Buy a basketball (where?)
- Get jobs (acting, meet Almodovar, etc.)
- Only Spanish girls (must learn language)
The Tae-kwon-do studio was called “El Dragón del Sol,” and run by a Master Han. Master Han spoke little to no Spanish but commanded respect in his dojo. Master Han did this by kicking in the neck anybody who stepped out of line or disrespected his Masterness. We felt that Tae-kwon-do would, to a degree, take care of our “Live healthy” goal. Classes were held on Mondays and Wednesdays at 2:30, right in the middle of the siesta hour, explaining why the only students in Master Han’s class were James, Rosina, Rebecca and I along with a group of Korean expatriates. Classes were held in Korean and occasionally Master Han would try to speak Spanish to the four Americans, with little success.
“No chistes. No chistes,” he roared, as James and I, like any self-respecting children of the 80s, demonstrated the “Crane” technique from The Karate Kid. “Respeto!” As James and I fought to compose ourselves, Master Han completed two roundhouse kicks, one to my neck, the other to James’ sternum, James’ height being an obstacle insurmountable even by the high standards (and kicks) of Master Han. For the duration of our first class, James and I would behave and again did our best to stifle laughs when Master Han would deliver another devastating kick to the neck of one of the Koreans.
This class focused on punching:
We were exhausted by lesson’s end. And while “Choices for Healthy Living” (we’d amended our goal to an ethos) had been checked off the list for the day, we decided to strike up a conversation with the two American girls with the green belts who looked wildly attractive, effectively throwing rule 5 out the window. We convinced the two girls to join us after class for cocktails.
Rosina and Rebbecca had recently moved to Madrid, too, six weeks before James and I arrived. We were intimidated by their green belts, which signified that they were “plants growing their leaves,” at least that’s what they said. James and I, as novices, started out with the ignominious white belt, signifying we were “innocent,” in addition to having no fighting skills whatsoever, other than being able to count to ten in Korean, which isn’t much.
The two girls had, as I had, spent a year in Madrid on a study abroad program during their junior years in college and fell in love with the city. Rosina had long red hair, almost too long. Rosina was almost too much everything. Her nose bordered on a kind of Bob Hope ski-jump nose, but fell just short, beguilingly short. Her eyes too, splashed with strokes of blue and green looked almost freakish, but again, came up short of freakish and had a cat-like quality. Her breasts bordered on the too-big, her tan bordered on the too-tan, her comportment, almost too-flirty. She grew on me gradually, then breakneck. Rosina enlisted astrology often, her favorite holiday was Halloween (her Mom was a witch, she claimed), she never learned to swim and toward the end of our relationship, she’d put a knife to my throat and start pushing. At first I thought she was shy, which true in a way, but the reality was the Rebbecca was devastatingly unshy.
“If you think we’re going to go back to your shitty hostel and fuck you, you’re still paying for these drinks, but we’re not and you’ve got another thing coming,” she said, after countless cocktails at a Sidra bar, still in our Tae-kwon-do gear, something I felt empowering.
“Think,” James said.
“You misspoke or you don’t know the expression. It’s ‘You’ve got another think coming.’ It’s okay, even Judas Priest misuses it.”
“Were you raised in a bubble?”
“So, yes,” Rosina chimed in.
“Master Han isn’t the only person who’ll kick you in the neck, my pretty peliroja.” There’s nothing like a girlfight, or even the prospect of a girlfight to get men riled up. We had had plenty of cocktails and I suggested that we might all be more comfortable at our hostel where we had wine in a box and some music.
“Didn’t I just say we weren’t going to fuck you,” Rebbecca reminded me.
“What if I made love to you,” James asked, I thought cleverly. It was uttered with such innocence. James was tender that way and I mean it.
“You Texans are unbelievable.”
“Unbelievable in our sensuality?”
“No, in your idiocy.”
“That’s all men, Rebecca,” Rosina reminded her.
Rebecca was indeed naïve, but she was put together so well you overlooked it. Even in a crappy, sweaty dobok, the sartorial requirement for Tae-kwon-doers, she looked like she could insinuate herself anywhere. She was part Croatian, part Basque and all San Pedro. “Pedroids, we’re called.” Like Rosina, Rebecca was beautiful, but in a more glamorous way. She is the girl that guys refer to when they make that outrageous hourglass motion with their hands. Her Spanish was the best out of all of ours, and she even enlisted the telltale lisp into her linguistic repertoire. ‘Barcelona’ became ‘Barthalona’, ‘cerveza’ became ‘cervetha’, ‘sí’, became ‘thi’, and tho on. It drove James crazy. Later, when she would hold forth in Spanish, and he’d heard just about enough of the lisp, he would get in her face, perform a long, drawn out raspberry, then usually recite some Master P lyrics. Master P was a steadying force in James’s life, more so than myself, his family, God, anybody. Master P grounded James. But now, on first meeting, I think he thought Rebecca’s lisp was exotic.
We finished another round of drinks and after a few more attempts to swindle these girls back to our hostel, we ended our little party with kisses on both cheeks from both of the girls, “an extremely minor orgy,” James pointed out. At least over here, you get a kiss. It’s wonderful. No matter what kind of begrimed boor you are, no matter if you wake up alone with no wife to kiss, no husband to kiss, no nothing. All you have to do is meet somebody and instead of that cold, sacrosanct and generally stateside handshake, you get a kiss. It’s perfect. We parted ways, James and I heading back to our hostel, on the way to which, we were violently attacked, set upon by refuse from the gutters of the Gran Via.
I always thought of Europe as an inordinately civilized place, a place that learned something from centuries of senseless suffering, scorched earth, Inquisition, fixed bayonets and countless wars of varying degrees of foolishness. I thought of tulips in Amsterdam, innocuous teas in London, cuckoo clocks in Geneva, and beguiling Flamenco in Madrid. What a crap thing to think. Nobody learns anything, nobody and nothing changes—we only pretend to change. The tulips are laced with arsenic, the tea is thrown in your face, scalding, bubbling your skin, the cuckoo clock comes crashing down on your skull and the Flamenco is danced on your ribs. But in part, James and I were to blame: If you’re donning the white belt of the self-defense novice, it behooves you to change into something less targetable before you hit the streets. That’s not Europe, that’s anywhere.
A group of four, maybe five kids around high school age approached James and me along the perimeter of Malasaña. They were drunk, like us, and were passing a two liter bottle of orange Fanta that must have been mixed with vodka. Nobody is ever attacked by dudes drinking just orange soda—that wouldn’t sit right with the cosmos. My Spanish was pretty good and I heard the boys remark on the fact that we looked like fags and then something about “cinturones blancas,” or white belts. I said to James, “Look out. These little bastards are going to try and fuck with us, I think.” James snarled, “Whatever.” There was a good thirty feet between us and the knot of rambunctious street kids. One of them was wearing a shirt that read, “Queen Bitch.” I thought of David Bowie, then how it was an improbability that the kid even knew how vampy and feminine his shirt was, then I thought to run.
“James…run!” I did an about face and started off in the opposite direction. James, steeled by alcohol and forgetful of the semiotics behind the wearing of a white belt, charged toward them. Goddamnit, I thought, then said. I did another about face and ran toward the mess. James was already on the ground, having been kicked in the groin. The Queen Bitch was kicking him in the head. I assumed “Naranhi Junbi Sogi,” or “The Command Position,” trying to remember to release some of the air in my lungs, but not all. I felt ridiculous and wish I had just rushed them ala a Texas street fight. As I stood with my feet shoulder length apart, focused on my breathing, one of the kids threw a rock at my face that hit me square in the nose. Blood rushed down my face and I was blinded by my tears. I stayed in the Command Position, wobbling. Then came a flying kick to my sternum from one of the sauced-up tatterdemalions. I went down hard. I never threw a punch. I didn’t even have the chance to count to ten in Korean. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was being choked.
I woke up to James wiping my face with the arm of his dobok. I still couldn’t see anything but I could hear James.
“I thought you meant run toward them, T. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. God, you look like shit. Do you want to go to a hospital? C’mon. I’ll help you.” James tried to pick me up, but I was too heavy. He heaved me up for a moment, then we both collapsed again to the pavement in front of a sex shop, groaning, wheezing and broken. I sat crumpled in his lap, a huge vent from the sex shop gushed fetid air scented with fruity sanitizer out onto the street. James rubbed my head and apologized some more as sex exhaust flooded our nostrils.