We were going to have sex.

Not right then and there, I mean. But it was in the cards. We’d been together a month, taking it slow, but things were steadily becoming more aggressive physically, with hours spent mapping the terrain of each other’s bodies with hand and kiss. We would have done it already, except for that particular monthly quirk of her biology. It was inconvenient but not earth-shattering. I’d already waited twenty years, so it wouldn’t kill me to wait a little longer. Especially when the sex was quite literally a promise.

My lack of experience wasn’t for a lack of trying. But when you spend your adolescence as the only “out” atheist in class after class of conservative Christian kids, conjugal invitations are not exactly forthcoming. College was a much better environment for that sort of thing, even if it did take me a while to wind up with a girl who was interested in more than just some marathon make-out sessions and heavy petting.

She had been sexually active for a couple of years, which was a huge relief; at least one of us would have some idea of what she was doing. For myself, I was confident my immense enthusiasm would compensate for any lack of skill (note: this is my go-to policy for most situations in life). It helped that she was sweet about my virginity, and seemed to relish the prospect of deflowering me.

But my masculine pride would not go completely unappeased, and I still felt obligated to bring something other than a can-do! attitude to the table–er, bedroom. After a little time pondering the issue, it hit me: birth control. There was no reason I should leave the onus for protection on her. If I was going to engage in sexual intercourse, it was my job—no, duty—as an enlightened male of the new 21st century to actively pursue and engage in responsible birth control.

A rare non-square high school pal had given me a three-pack of basic Trojan condoms as an off-to-college present but they were past their expiration date, so I threw them out. It would be a simple matter, I thought, to procure some more. So I shrugged into the full-length black trench coat I wore at every opportunity back in those days, and set out to walk the mile or so distance to the nearest Walgreens. It was a serendipitous wardrobe choice, as I’d left my umbrella at home and halfway there the winter clouds unleashed a torrent of rain, huge frigid drops lashing against my face. I kept walking, head down into the wind, coat wrapped around me, refusing to retreat in the face of the unforgiving elements. I was a man on a mission.

My bravado collapsed the moment I reached the store. For starters, I had no real idea where the desired item might be located, as I’d never had cause to purchase them before. Searching for the aisle marked “Birth Control” proved futile, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask. I finally found a section euphemistically labeled “Family Planning” at the far end of the same aisle as the feminine hygiene products. An inordinate amount of female shoppers seemed to be in the area, so I circled the store a few times, collecting a basket of household items I didn’t need as camouflage for my real goal. When the coast finally seemed clear I made my move.

As usual, I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into. The selection was more than I’d bargained for, column after column of brightly colored boxes, each advertising some different flavor, texture, or scent. Trojan Magnum. Durex Xtra Pleasure. Lifestyles Tropical Scents. Condoms that advertised raised ridges, bumps, reservoir tips, vibrating rings, additives like spermicide or benzocaine. Natural condoms claiming to be made out of lambskin (lambskin?! Eww!).

Like every other California public school kid I’d had my mandatory Sex Ed classes and witnessed the ritual with the condom and the banana, but I was woefully unprepared for phrases like “zesty mint” and “ecstasy twist.” Did these things matter? Was the female reproductive orifice actually endowed with such a discriminatory sense of touch (and apparently, one of taste as well)?

And the lubricants! All those little bottles, lined up like soldiers on the shelves below, ready to be sent into the sexual battlefield. What in the hell were they for?! Did some people really need a ¼ gallon of personal lubricant at a time?

And most importantly, should I buy some?

I stood there, frozen in a state of priapic doubt in the middle of the drugstore aisle, befuddled by the sheer volume of available options for my sexual needs.

Other shoppers tossed wary glances at me as they passed by, and they were right to do so. I was damp, disheveled, wearing a black trench coat, and staring ardently at a wall of prophylactics. The basket at my feet already contained ballpoint pens, shoe polish, razor blades, rubber dishwashing gloves, and a jar of peanut butter, so who knows what kind of deviant evening they thought I had planned. Even I thought I was some brand of pervert, and it was certainly only a matter of time before the employees showed me the door. Or just called the police.

I finally settled on a 12-count variety pack, trusting to my girlfriend’s greater experience in the matter to make the final selection when the time came.

As soon as the choice was made and the box was in my hand, something came unlocked inside me. In one instant I went from being the poster boy for anxiety, self-conscious on cosmic levels at being seen with my purchase, and in the next I completely quit caring what any asshole thought about it. Because it was in that moment, box in hand, that the reality of the situation finally crystallized:

We were going to have sex.

I had condoms, and a girlfriend, and would soon be enjoying both in tandem. Let the world envy my fortune!

I abandoned my basket of unwanted items there in the aisle and strutted up to the register, “Stayin’ Alive” spinning on my mental jukebox. The cashier was a bored-looking girl about my age, who only made the bare minimum eye contact with me when she saw what I put in front of her. Her eyes flicked up to my face once, and then away, but long enough for me to see the light of curiosity in them. Oh, yeah, I thought. She knows.

“Is this is all for you today?” she asked.

“Damn straight,” I said. I paid cash and told her I didn’t need a bag, and she blushed as she handed them back to me. I didn’t. I held up my hand for a high-five. “C’mon!” I said, “Give it up for safe sex!” With another blush and an embarrassed smile she did, lightly slapping her palm against mine.

“Have a nice evening,” she said.

I didn’t answer. Slipping the box into my coat pocket, I ambled out the door, strutting all the way home. I didn’t give a damn that it was still raining.


Dear L:

Before I left Madrid this past June, you had sent me a correspondence which had this as its final paragraph:

Please write. Write sometime and tell me things about your crazy country, full of enormous highways, tall cities, weird people, strange drinks (like Dr.Pepper, the most disgusting drink ever made after cicuta, I guess), blonde girls, cute dogs, creepy perfect neighbourhoods [sic], great writers, great musicians, great…and a long etcetera of lights and shadows of that hard to understand country you come from.

That’s quite poetic L, right there at the end with the lights and shadows etceterrata. You must be something of a writer yourself and-being Spanish-you write quite well in English. I know because I try to write in Spanish and it is widely considered to be the final and most difficult faculty to master in any second language.

Tomorrow I return to your country.

I’ve kept a numbered list of things that have caught my attention over the past 10 weeks.

Many of these things have occurred over the past five years since I’ve been gone so what I’m observing are not necessarily changes that have occurred overnight.

I hope this suffices to recap my summer sojourn back in Freedomland**.

1. Flags.

This country is so jam-packed full of flags, it’s alarming.

I relate this because your country is virtually flag free compared to the US.

Many other countries I’ve visited don’t seem to have this flag fetish.

What gives?

After 911, the flag industry raked in so much cash over the course of several years that even the steady descent into widespread unpopularity that the president has experienced hasn’t even really affected their presence.

I offer a personal example: My mom spent around 1000 dollars erecting a flagpole replete with a brand new red-white-and-blue flag atop and the accompanying lights.

Not actually my parents' house

Some say freedom isn’t free; I agree, it–or at least the symbol of it–appears to cost about a grand.

I took pictures whenever I could over a 10 week period.

Without even really trying, I took over 50 photos.

My assumption is this: Many US citizens feel that the USA is–without question–the best goddamn country on earth, and in order to announce their pride to every other citizen they see, they pump flags like fists at rock concerts.

I read once that given your country’s history of dictators and royal tyrants, Spanish people inherently despise and distrust any institution that governs their lives.

So showing national pride isn’t something you want to do that readily.

Maybe in a few decades (if we’re all still collectively kicking), when America’s self-asserted world dominance in the world has been weakened, its citizens won’t be so quick to sport flags that to many in the world mean the complete opposite to what they mean to US citizens.

(If you don’t understand what the above statement means L–and I assume you probably already do– read a little bit of Noam Chomsky, peruse Zmag.org or even just listen to any Rage Against the Machine song.)

2. Automatically foaming soap.

(I call it autofoap or even just foap.) All over this land in both the public and private spaces I visited, autofoap has taken the US by storm (por huevos).

Somewhere in the course of the past five years (most acutely in the past two or three) regular liquid hand soap was replaced with autofoap. Apparently, it removes the burden caused by non-foaming soap.

It’s lather-free.

I wonder what this means, if anything.

It could mean we’ve reached new levels of laziness or that the general public was extremely jaded on the old liquid hand soap, so much so that this subtle and clever move has us entranced. Will the US ever go back to non-foaming hand soap or is this foap here to stay?

A good question.

Answer: probably.

What’s next, L?

Sustainable energy?

Self-driving cars?

Water bottles that automatically unscrew their lids, crawl up your arm and pour their contents down your throat for you?

3. Coca Cola with vitamins. This is actually somewhat of a spin off caused by Red Bull’s steam-rolling of the energy drink market. When I was here a few years ago, I remember there being the normal variety of soft drinks along with Pepsi and Coca-cola drinking waters. Now there is virtually no end to what’s on offer.

Actually, that’s not true: There are two kinds offered. One offers vitamins and minerals and one offers only antioxidants. Of course the vitamins are rather sparse (only 25% of the daily recommended value of B6 and B12 and niacin – what the hell is niacin anyway?). The other one is mixed with green tea. Now if they could only find a way to fit a burrito in these cans, I’d consume them like Spaniards do olive oil and cigarettes.

4. Pharmacies have overtaken the corners of many cities throughout the Midwest (and presumably the rest of the nation).

Farmacias in Spain are everywhere as well, but they seem to only sell drugs that are purport to improving health or allaying pain.

Pharmacies in the US have a small back corner section where you can fill your prescriptions and a capacious mini-supermarket design of row after row of generally useless shit…

OR shit you can buy at any general store or supermarket.

When I left five years ago, these pharmacies were in existence, now they are taking over street corners all over this great land.

It’s good to know that when you’re getting low on your anti-depressants you can also pick up some stationary, cigarettes and any other last-minute school supplies.

5. On July 5th, 2008, the temperature was oppressively hellish around the mid 90s with heavy humidity.

Every public place I entered today – the library, supermarket, pharmacy and a restaurant – were all frigid.

In the restaurant, I actually looked down to find my nipples hard.

I should have brought a sweater with me in the dead of summer.

So, L, why is the temperature of American air conditioning so high, you ask? I used to think it was so people would eat or shop as quickly as possible and then get the hell out so someone else could do the same thing quickly. Maybe not. Maybe an obese population requires unusually high temperatures indoor.

This temperature extremity is alarming for a reason I wrote in my first TNB piece and which I don’t think I can restate any more clearly:

The largest source of greenhouse gases is electric power generation.

Air conditioners use around 1/6th of the electricity in the US and on doggishly hot summer days, they can use up to 43% of the peak power load.

So as the environment gets hotter, we’re going to need a lot more air conditioners to keep the indoors cool.

This will, in turn, make the outdoors even hotter.

If you love air conditioning, this is definitely the place for you.

6. 99% of Americans constantly confuse Spanish culture with Mexican culture. Stephen Colbert, famed American satirist for his hilarious fake news show The Colbert Report, devastatingly revealed his own ignorance one night (but was safe because only 1% of the country knows about this) by putting Spain on the new terror list watch.

Since Iraq and North Korea are no longer on the Axis of Evil, he said, we’re going to have to pick another country to put on it. He started reading some headlines, found that Spain extended legal rights to Apes. (This is a true story.) After lashing into the mere idea of it, he blurted out, “Taco Shells? Freedom Shells!” The crowd roared with laughter.

I mentioned this to some friends who watch him and they immediately said that he knew what he was saying and that the joke was kind of double joke, referring to US backlash against France’s rejection of supporting the US’s invasion of Iraq. It was also, they pointed out, a joke making fun of people who think taco shells come from Spain.

There is no doubt in my mind that Colbert is one smart guy. Satire at this level is rare and very welcomed. But he really didn’t seem to be making fun of people who think tacos come from Spain AND people who supported banning the word french with fries. It felt like–at least in the moment–he really thought tacos came from Spain.

And this is unsettling because it has been my experience with pretty much every other American who hasn’t been to Spain.

Currently, in pretty much every way minus the language, Spanish culture is very distinct from all countries in Latin America. This means that your people don’t eat Burritos every day because it is not Spanish cuisine; it means that you, L, or your countryfolk don’t wear Pepé Gonzalez sombreros or play mariachi music, that “Oh, no I haven’t been to Spain but I have been to Cozumel” means nothing; Tortillas are not made of flour or corn but eggs and potatoes and Jennifer Lopez only speaks Spanish, is not Spanish.

I’m not positive about this L but I think this is a cumulative effect of American’s general ignorance of world geography largely caused by their own bloated and unjustified sense of self-importance, Mexico’s adjacent placement and that the language spoken throughout all Hispanic America (i.e. all countries south of the USA minus Brazil and the French colonies) is the same language spoken in Spain. Oh yeah, it’ also used as an adjective for anything that comes from Spain, as in Spanish wine. This trifecta of reasons has even America’s foremost satirist confused.

7. American politics = Hollywood spectacle.

It’s unfortunate but true. It’s less about what you say or what you mean and mostly about image and perception.

I’m afraid we are doomed for the rest of our lives to have to endure corruption on such a widespread level.

I am very willing to lay down my keyboard, get grassroots and take up arms in front of the white house, demanding the power be given back to us, the American people.

But only if many other people are.

Do you think anyone is with me, L?

No, me either.

Let’s hurry up and wrap up this correspondence so I can get back to checking my email and sharpening my cynicism.

8.** Why I call the USA Freedomland? I call the USA Freedomland because it’s virtually impossible to listen to any of its politicians speak without overusing the word freedom. In fact, they speak in vast excesses of loaded terminology like democracy, freedom, terrorism, etc. If you check out Publicrhetoric.US, you’ll see an analysis one of Bush’s last speeches on Veterans Day. Freedom outnumbered the second most common word, security, by more than 2:1.

Freedom was used 21 times while security only reached 10.

It has become such a loaded word in the USA that it has essentially become meaningless. If all I did was listen to its political speeches, I would have to draw the conclusion that the USA invented freedom.

Not only did they invent it, but they are coveting it like Tokein’s ring.

They will let other countries have it, but only if those countries allow Starbucks and McDonalds in.

These companies are icons of freedom, or free or open (American-friendly) markets.

When I visit the USA, I don’t see freedom so much as excessiveness and apathy.

Compared to most European societies, it seems like a immature and jovial population that is dedicated firmly to its football (or sports in general), driving, working, gas, fast food, being the best, buying in bulk, celebrity worship, reality television and its disposable and iconic to-go coffee cups.

Every one has these.

Recycling is optional.

We are hellbent on freedom at all costs.

Whatever that means.

And we want to make sure that you and everyone you know is aware of this.

America, with all its faults, is at once the best and worst this world has to offer.

I highly recommend you visit someday.

All the best.