Lesley_M_M_Blume_Everybody_Behaves_Badly

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Lesley M. M. Blume. She is an award-winning journalist and a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, and her new book is called Everybody Behaves BadlyThe True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Bill Hillmann author photo

So, you’re an author, a journalist and a bull runner. Did reading Ernest Hemingway have anything to do with these life choices?

Hemingway has everything to do with those choices. I hadn’t read a book until I was 19. I took Professor David McGrath’s Hemingway class at College of DuPage and it changed my life. I sat down in the library with The Sun Also Rises and read it in one six-hour sitting. That experience made me want to be a writer and want to go to Pamplona and run bulls. When I want something, it usually happens, eventually.

Mozos CoverI slept in doorways, on curbs and benches. It gets chilly in Pamplona at night, even in July. I got really cold. Cops would wake me and move me along. Other times partiers would offer me a drink and try to pull me to my feet. In my tired wanderings I stumbled across the Hemingway statue outside the arena. He looked stoic, full-bearded and happy. There’s a curved brick slope at the foot of the statue. It made for a comfortable bed. Surprisingly no one bothered me and I slept well there at the foot of Papa Hemingway as fiesta rambled on a half block away.

Querido person who stole my iPhone outside of a kebab restaurant in Barcelona at 4 a.m. and the prostitute who molested me immediately after:

I just wanted to get the Canadian girls’ email address and some fourth meal, not an unexpected $749 Verizon purchase upon return to the States and an aggravated right nut.

Shifty Thief, you’re a heartless motherfucker. Can’t you find a way to target individuals who actually listened when the Verizon associate told them getting the insurance is a good idea? But, Shifty Thief, I must be honest: Easy target aside, you are good at what you do. I don’t even know when you got me or what you look like, and I had even sobered up. I either placed it on the counter at the kebab restaurant and you swiped it, or I didn’t get it all the way back into my pocket and you picked it when I was molar-deep in some rolled-up European tastiness. I never thought I’d like any combination of food that included cabbage, but I was wrong, and no matter what you might have lifted from me, Shifty Thief, I’ll always have my cabbage epiphany.

Me falta tiempo para celebrar tus cabellos.
I don’t have time enough to celebrate your hair.

-Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XIV from 100 Love Sonnets

Two Pilgrimages

By Ryan Day

Essay

“Which way is Chueca?” asked a girl, American, about twenty with a pink streak in her hair and a shirt that proudly announced the Pope’s upcoming visit to Madrid. “I am B-O-R-E-D to D-E-A-T-H with these pilgrims.”

I pointed down the road.

“Are you going to the kiss in?”

I shook my head.

“I didn’t come all the way to Madrid just to pray.” With that she was off in the direction I had pointed her.

Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

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:

  1. Live healthy
  2. Read
  3. Buy a basketball (where?)
  4. Get jobs (acting, meet Almodovar, etc.)
  5. 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:

Hana!

Tul!

Set!

Net!

Tasot!

Yosot!

Ilgob!

Yudol!

Ahop!

Yeol!

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.

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Who’s he?”

“Were you raised in a bubble?”

“San Pedro.”

“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.

 




José de Sousa Saramago, Nobel-winning Portuguese author of the novel “Blindness”, et al., died today at the age of 87 in Las Palmas, Spain.

The Milk!

By Ryan Day

Humor

It is a Spanish custom that women who appear in films must spend at least half of their screen time topless. My girlfriend is a radical. She spends half her time in a bra.

My girlfriend is an actress.  Recently we attended a screening of a short film in which she plays a woman from India who is held captive by a well-built Spaniard for unknown reasons (unknown to me, because though my Spanish is pretty good, I always miss some crucial plot elements). My favorite part was when she attacked the door with a hammer, screaming in a Hindi accent. My girlfriend is badass, I self-congratulated.

My least favorite part was when she seduced the well-built Spaniard in order to put him off his guard and escape. She really seduced him. She’s a hell of an actress. This is all make believe, like the transpirings on the other side of Mr. Rogers’ magic trolley tunnel, I told myself, squeezing her hand for reassurance.



Let me back up to the moment of our arrival at Barbú, the bar where the short was screened. I’ll translate literally, to maintain all of the awkwardness to the Guirri (that’s the Spanish for Gringo) boyfriend, and to indulge my own inner Hemingway wannabe.

“Hello, gorgeous woman!” says the actor, Pablo, who was soon to be straddled by the person with whom I share a sleeping space.  Pablo and my girlfriend, up on a giant screen, every man in the room psychically projecting himself through the magic of the cinematic suture into Pablo’s position. He grabs my girlfriend firmly by the shoulders and plants two kisses.

“Man!” she says, as if this needs any reinforcing. “Handsome! How handsome you are!”

Here in the bar, they continue holding hands as they speak from a distance of four inches. I linger awkwardly to the side. This is Spanish talking. I learned long ago not to stare straight into a conversation.

“Fuck! Man! How many people, no?”

“Yes! How many people. Fuck. It’s true.”

“Let’s go! And you? How are you? How do you walk?”

“Come on! Good. Good. I go good. I mean, I’m not working with any beauties like you, but it’s work, no?” He makes the ubiquitous Spanish gesture of sliding a hand back and forth through the air, like a salute that departs from the chin, but keeps getting sent back to retrieve additional whiskers.

“Yes. Working with you was the milk. Man! The milk!”

“I know it! This job today, ufff. I shit in the whore ocean!”

She puts a hand to her heart. “What pain that gives me.”

“I shit in everything!”

“What pain!” she says.

“Well, let’s go! There is to find seats and the people they are filing in like one testicle [or egg; readers’ choice]!”

“Fuck!”

“Fuck!”

Hands finally part. Two more kisses are exchanged. Guapos and Guapas abound. Venga. Vamos. Nos vemos despues. Vale. Ciao. Hasta ahora. Un beso. Otro para ti. Hasta luego. Adios. Vaya que bien verte, no? Vaya. Hombre. Tia.

Two Spaniards parting can be a lengthy process, even if it is only to cross the room, watch a short film and reconvene immediately thereafter. As a foreigner I never know when to hang up the phone or walk away from a friend on a street corner. I almost always feel as though I’ve cut the other party off before they are permitted one of their customary goodbyes. I think a definitive number needs to be chosen — 3, 5, 7.  It doesn’t really matter, but there must be certainty.

So the movie begins, and shortly thereafter, the passion unfolds.  My girlfriend squeezes my hand, smiles and rolls her eyes to make me feel better. Not that I feel all that bad. It’s more disembodied than bad. Watching the person you know more intimately than any other person in the world change into a violent Indian warrior woman and make passionate love to a muscular, mustachioed member of the Guardia Civil challenges some strange dissonance between what you know to be so, and what is ‘happening’ right in front of you. It’s sort of like free Buddhism lessons. Everything is an illusion. Reality is formless. She tickles my palm with her fingernail. I’m split in half. I’m floating through the room in a meditative bliss.  Well, maybe not bliss, and maybe not meditative.  More like stunned ambiguity. I float to the other side and see the dreaded Pablo. Joder!



What is the writing equivalent? Writing a sex scene? Writing a kiss? Not a fair comparison. While it certainly involves some level of dissimulation, it lacks the embodied bits that make it so disconcertingly real.  I think writers should get to practice their scenes with other writers. At least writers who date actors. It’s only fair.



When the movie ends, Pablo returns to our side of the bar.

“Hello, Aunt,” says Pablo.

“Uncle!” she says.

He ushers a slender fellow in solid black to his side. “He is Javier my boyfriend,” says Pablo.



Still, though…



I really really meant to write something about how sweet it is to be in Spain writing stories and reading all the things I’ve been meaning to, but I went for a coffee, opened the paper and BOOM!

Yesterday’s article in El Pais, Spain’s biggest national paper, had a rundown of the immigration debate in Arizona. Oddly, the article seemed most outraged about Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s strange demand that the prisoners in his system wear pink underwear. That quirky bit of homophobia has never really struck me as central to the debate, though it is troubling, and if not cruel, certainly unusual.

Of course, they also showed photos of the march and rally in support of the law. Signs reading ‘go home illegals’, and ‘for English press 1, for deportation press 2’ and somewhat out of place ‘an armed society is a civilized society’ and even more confusingly ‘Karl Marx was not a founding father.’

These are not things I overheard, but signs waved high for all to see.

The article made the clever choice to introduce Arpaio as ‘of Italian origin’.

The rally was in a football stadium where a majority of the workers were of Latino (which determination, ironically enough is also Italian in a sense) origin. They were the only visible attendants, according to the article, that were not white.

“Can you hear me Mexico? Can you hear me from here? You should be clear that this land is our land, not your land. We paid for it. We worked for it,” said Larry Wachs, a journalist from Atlanta.

Who are we? I don’t mean that in any national existential angst sort of way, but seriously, who is this mythic ‘we’ that ‘paid for’ and ‘worked for’ this land? The bold and industrious English, who sailed over here and set up shop in a way that is not unambiguously heroic? The Germans or Italians or Irish or Norwegians or Danes or Czechs or Poles who came for myriad reasons at different historical moments? The Africans who were dragged here, only to suffer three centuries of slavery before being released into a battle for equality that’s still underway? The Indigenous who wandered here God knows when and have suffered indignity after indignity since the establishment of the colonies? The Chinese who labored in the construction of our nation’s infrastructure and later sat in prisons for the crime of being Japanese? Who are we? And why did only the white ‘we’ show up to this battle (covered/sponsored by Fox News)?

Conservative, I mean here the word itself not the ideology or the people who ascribe to it, refers to the preservation of something, no? It means to limit change. It is tied to an ideal and static moment, an edenic past, an originary place that depends on mythology to make it more pure than the present. To conserve something is to save it as it is, which in a world subject to physical laws and the perpetual movement of time, is impossible. So, I guess my question is, what exactly is it that people are trying to conserve? Was it represented by the homogeneity of that rally’s attendants? At what moment exactly do you locate the United States that is escaping into some threatening new entity, the United States that is and can remain ‘our land’.

That type of thinking, the type that leads people to concrete imaginings of some certain, codified establishment of borders between nations and people, of the investing of nationality with a substantive reality beyond the coincidence of location and time, is to me, well, totally foreign…

And so, I want to establish a nation for people who fear those who believe fervently in nations, and to draw up a long, meandering and in places nonexistent border that can be respected or ignored by the UN and all its constituent nations at their whim. The border will probably loosely trail the equator. Which side of the equator is ‘ours’ will remain undetermined until some future congress, which shall meet at an undetermined time and which shall consist of undetermined members, convenes…

We will have passports drawn in crayon and stamped with lipstick-y kisses. Our origin myth will be that one day from the chaotic ashes of beaurocracy and hate rose a Phoenix who flew drunkenly around the planet with a crayon in its beak dividing the world roughly in two, but not indicating which side was inside of the border and which side was out. We will wander back and forth until we are certain, which may be forever. Also, in honor of the bird (Is a Phoenix a bird? or does it enter into dragon territory?), their shall be regular festivities which will include hefty amounts of drink and failed efforts to draw straight lines. We will seek that bird until we die. One day, we hope, we can all be just as free as that bird. Oh, I’ll leave you to guess as to our national anthem, ahem…

Oh, yeah, and at the suggestion of that duder from the rally’s sign, Karl Marx will be our founding father, or at least one of them, possibly the other Marx Brothers will be asked to sign our Declaration of Complete and Utter Dependence… on What We Are Not Sure.


It certainly wasn’t THE mistake; there were probably a number of those, but the first thing I did wrong was have the cab driver drop me off three blocks from my apartment, instead of right at the front door, especially knowing that neighborhood’s reputation.  I must have felt like walking a bit.  It was five in the morning after a long Sunday night and I was drunk.  Most of the time drunk means you’re stumbling about, a bit stupider than when you began the night but, sometimes, when you’ve been drunk long enough, when you’ve started early in the night and kept it up, somehow teetering on the line between life-of-the-party and asshole-of-the-evening, you manage a kind of comfort with the drunk, a sort of calm-in-the-storm.  It’s hard to imagine but some part of your mind gets used to the world from inside the bottle, maybe the way veterans, having seen too much of the shit, can just nod their heads at the most atrocious things and whisper, ‘FUBAR,’ and just know they must go on.  I prefer to think of it like musical theater, all optimism, the way the drunk character in the play can magically stand up and exhibit textbook choreography, dancing down the pavement, toes tapping on benches, where even the stumbling has style.  So I was when I got out of the cab on the Avenue Gran Via, a notoriously seedy street in Madrid, clad in Tyler Durden’s three-quarter length, red-leather Jacket.  Some girl has kissed me that night, and I was grinning a silly grin.  I’m sure it wasn’t the grin the mugger saw.

  I had been this way many times before.  Most night’s I would walk down this alley, away from my apartment, heading to Gran Via to pick up a cab and start my night.  I usually stopped in a little place that made me ham and cheese sandwiches.  The waitress there was attractive, and would smile at my broken Spanish and pour me extra Sangria without charge.  At this hour there weren’t many people around, just a few homeless, and I whistled a bit, whistling the sort of too-chipper melody, I suppose, only a fancy foreigner might find appropriate in such a dark little alley. 

  A little man approached me, the kind of character who would be best played by a swarthier version of the big-eyed, creepy fellow in Casablanca, who gets shot within the first couple of scenes for trying to smuggle some important German papers.  At the time, he instantly reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor, all bent over, face lined with craving.  He held his hands out, humbly asking for anything I could spare.  His Spanish was worse than mine, and he was probably one of the recent migrants from Northern Africa who filter into Europe through Spain.  Coupled with hand gestures for what I think was ‘sandwich’ or ‘bread,’ and something to do with his mouth, he kept pace with me, pleading a little, saying how hungry he was.

  Now a days, in San Francisco, where any walk through the streets means requests for change, I’m hardened, but at that hour, in that town, I felt a little sorry for him, and handed him some of what I had.  It was hardly anything, just some of the bigger coins I had left-over.  And it’s not as though I felt he needed to be particularly grateful or anything, but the way he seemed to sneer at the coins I gave him, it just didn’t seem to fit the natural order of beggar and giver.  It wasn’t much that I gave him, but it was enough to buy food.  “Sorry, Sorry, really, that’s all I have for giving,” was all I could say in Spanish, and he pleaded further, but slowed his pace, receding back into the scene as I carried on down the alleyway.

  I’ve always been a bit suspicious of people when I’m out in the big world, having grown up in a city whose idea of crime usually involves accountants, but I swear that little guy was keeping up with me.  I knew he was hoping to beg more, well, that’s an awful way to put it.  I knew he wanted more money.  Who knows if he was really hungry, but he was persistent.  He appeared again at my side.  Again, he was hungry.  It wasn’t enough.  He lowered his hand, marking a mark of height in the air, and said something that sounded like ‘daughter.‘  I apologized and apologized.  I knew I had a couple of the smaller coins left in my pockets, smaller ones that weren’t even worth the giving, but I just wanted to be home, and his weathered, sad face, his broken Spanish, the way he sort of hobbled after me, more in show than because of any real physical malady, I just didn’t want to be bothered by him anymore.  The truth is he just wasn’t at all that likeable, not even in a pitiable way.  Maybe pain and suffering are ugly, and maybe I was just uncaring to that, but something in his nature or presentation, it didn’t say ‘poor me,’ it was just sort of pathetic, almost slinking.  He was, I am sorry to say, the way some old furniture is beloved and worth the mending, and some is just that-crappy-old-chair.  Some stains, some dirt, carry memories, and others are just dirt, and you toss the chair, throw it out, with no sentiment, glad to be rid of it.  I apologized, shaking my head, and walked on with purpose.  He stopped, and sunk away, eyes burning a hole in the back of my leather jacket.

  Just a couple of blocks from my apartment, I heard footsteps.  Fucking footsteps.  Even then, without any time for reflection, even as the suspicion turned to fear, my mind jerked in revulsion at the cliché and monstrous irony of hearing menacing footsteps behind me.  The scared, nervous voice in my head, the sensible one muffled by the booze, it was yelling out.  This is the scene where the woman walks through the poorly lit parking garage, or the scene where the reporter in the thriller, having just learned of the CIA’s corruption, quickens his pace.  All of the shots are of feet, fast paced, in rhythm.   First it’s the victim’s, short and quick, then the dark, determined, clip-clopping of the pursuer’s.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing footsteps behind me.  I was terrified.

  I turned, just in time for him to grab me, the little man, his face now twisted in desperation.  His right hand was holding onto my left wrist, tight.  His left hand, his left was holding a knife.  He stuck the knife against my stomach, against the leather of my red jacket, holding the sharp point against the leather.  “Money!” he shouted in Spanish, “Give me! Give me the money!”

  “I don’t have any!  I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I lied, not even realizing it was a lie, pulling my arm back as he gripped tighter, as he poked a little harder into me with the short knife.  I dug around in my pocket with my free right hand, making a gesture, showing him the few meager coins I had left, his head shaking, jerking, disapproving.  In my head, we argued for minutes.  In my memory, my Spanish was fluid and clear, and I conjured sentences, and I struggled, unable to pull away, unable to even realize any specific danger, only to feel that everything was dangerous, the way some pain is everywhere at once.

  I was wearing a money belt.  It had everything in it.  Idiot tourists, on their first trips abroad, they buy these things to keep their money safe, out of sight, out of their backpacks and their wallets.  They tie them against their stomachs where no pickpocket will think to pick.  They feel safe, adapted, prepared.  The danger is handled, they think, their heads all caught up in some small brochure-scenario, never realizing the simple truth that things they don’t carry can’t be stolen.  I was that idiot.  I had everything in there, credit cards, traveler’s checks, passport, student ID and enough cash to feed any need.

  The little man was nervous, was panicking, and was starting to shift his attention from his hand gripping mine to the hand holding the knife.  His left hand came at me, and he pawed at me with it, frustrated, reaching in my jacket, clawing at my shirt pockets, still holding the knife loosely.  He must have known just where to look, because he suddenly took hold of my shirt and wrenched it up, out of my pants.  He was going for the money belt I was wearing.  It wasn’t there. 

  That general suspicion that I had, that naive, close-minded, picket-fence insecurity instilled in me by a safe, wary, conservative town, hadn’t trusted the belt entirely.  A week earlier, seeing all the other students I knew pulling up their shirts every time they went to buy something, I had decided the whole thing was too obvious.  I had started tucking the belt below my waist, fitting it just under the belt-line of my pants, where no-one could see it unless they really had a mind to dig.

  When he jerked up on my shirt, his eyes focused at my waist, surely expecting a prize, I froze, certain, certain of nothing, afraid of everything.  I still had the dozen or so small coins in my right hand.  Without thinking, I threw my left arm out hard, the arm he was still holding onto, throwing his balance off, and simultaneously threw all of the coins at him, half, I suppose, to distract him, half, maybe as a kind of meager, dim-witted assault.  All of the motions, being pulled to the side, the coins at his face, it was just enough, he was off of me, and I turned, running.  I ran, ran those couple of blocks to my apartment in the dark, my feet pounding into the pavement like hooves, my whole body a machine of speed and desperation, an animal in terror.  I never looked back.

 

  Upstairs, outside the little apartment where I was living for the semester, I made a commotion, voice trembling, shouting, and then trembling again.  My Spanish “father,” answered the door, and seemed not to recognize the obvious fear in my eyes.  He was a daft guy, the head of the “family,” which consisted of he, a middle-aged, unemployed man, his mother, sweet, parrot voiced, and senile, and four cats who had a tendency to stare.  He was a silly man, I thought, overweight and under-experienced.  We had had lots of pointless arguments, and were generally ill suited, but just then, I wanted him to save me.  I tried to explain, but could only muster a few, basic terms, my fluid Spanish now lost.  With a mix of incongruent words, as though painting a scene like a child with all the wrong colors, I tried to tell him I had been mugged.  “Man…knife,” I started out.  “Money.  He wants money.  The man with the knife wants money.”  It was enough.  He understood.

  We sat there for a moment, me still panting, shaking, him considering, I could see, the situation deeply.  “Lo siento, Tomas…lo siento,” he said, “I’m sorry.”  He paused, and looked up.  “Quieres leche?”

  I stopped, as though hearing a piece of glass shatter, my mind cracking from the absurdity.  “Milk?  Do I want milk?  NO!  No quiero leche!  Quiero fucking justice!  Quiero revenge and goddam, oh, goddamit, I don’t know.  Fuck!”  I screamed back at him, venting all the rage, all the simple, plain fright and vulnerability I felt.  A man, a knife, my God, and how I had ran!  Fucking milk!?

  “Lo siento, Tomas,” he said, apologizing again, not for the silly offer of milk, but for my fear.  He was genuinely sorry for me, and concerned, and I saw the sincerity in his face as he got up to go back to bed, leaving me be, and I knew I didn’t need to apologize for being so ungrateful. 

  I spent the rest of the night in my own head, no longer afraid, but helpless, my mind retracing every move, cursing my stupidity, cursing the little-man’s very being in the world.  I reenacted the scene, over and over, inserting new triumphs where I had been afraid, and vengeance where I had ran.  I pictured karate classes, and the weeks ahead where I would turn the tables, where I would repeat the dark-alley walk, again and again, this time perusing him like some vigilante whose thirst for revenge can never be satisfied.  I shuffled about in bed, limbs restless, eventually getting up and pacing about.  My safe, small world was breached.  The simple things were useless.

  Finally, giving up on sleep, I went back into the now quiet kitchen.  I leaned against the wall and watched a bit of the morning’s light creep in through the windows, watched in brighten up the alley below, filling in the dark spaces.  My eyes traced back along that alley, over the stains, over the dirt, my mind grappling at the meaning of Spanish signs in this and that shop window, trying to understand, to make sense of the place.  Exhausted, I settled in a chair, leaning against the window, looking out.  I reached over for a cup, and poured myself a glass of milk.

The story of ‘my most-memorable train ride’ is often elicited, and appropriately renamed, by many differing topics of conversation.  Sometimes it’s somebody talking about how drunk they got one night, or how paranoid.  Occasionally, it’s just a mention of hash, or how hash is more prevalent in Europe than it is in America.  On these occasions I sometimes change the tale to include words like devilish or exotic, giving it a more melodramatic air, and am sure to mention the many strange smells that passed by my nose that night.  My favorite point of entry is when somebody brings up chardonnay, or languages, or anything to do with translation, because it always gives me warrant to start the story early enough to really set up the wonder and horror of the night.

The train was the overnight from Lisbon to Madrid and I was nineteen, maybe two months in on a semester abroad program in Spain.  I was with two other students, Peter and Beth.  Peter was a bit older for college, maybe twenty-three, but it was all in good fun for him, his parents having owned this or that company that secured him a life of ease.  Beth was beautiful, and had the most charming quality in that one could never quite tell if she was utterly daft or simply demure.  I used to take her out for drinks, with the two of us talking for hours, me never taking my eyes off of her pleasant face, and I could just never tell, was she dumb, or just mysterious?  She was the sort of girl that made a man question his own judgment.

We three had spent the weekend in Lisbon collecting memories fit for any adventure in a foreign land.  There was the cab driver when we first arrived who told us to watch out for hash dealers.  (Actually, he told us to watch out for dishonest hash dealers, as they tended to show you a great piece of hash and then sell you a hash look-a-like that was really some kind of compacted chocolate.)  There was the famous pastry shop which sold little half-dozen boxes of something like custard pie and which was so busy, bustling, and baffling as to feel more like a crazy buy-run at a stock exchange than a simple bakery.  On the beach, the morning before we were set to go home, we watched fishermen pull a net onto the shore that had been dragged over a mile out by a tiny, two-man boat.  The fishermen then picked a small amount a fish from a large pile of mostly jellyfish, jellyfish that the men would pick up with their bare hands and toss aside back onto the sand, probably to die.  Later, we found an old book store which housed old, dirty comics from the fifties down in the basement.  I had picked up a little novel there, one of the few choices the shop had in English.  It was a strange, embarrassingly erotic story that a professor of ancient Persia wrote about a young man of maybe fourteen, who suddenly became the sultan, and was basically trapped and confronted by all the mystery and maliciousness of the harem.  I had sat alone by the water with that book for maybe seven hours before we all boarded the train back to Madrid and had decided, once everything was well stashed in my bunk, to join everyone in the dining car, the one place on the train where there was room enough to be sociable.

Wine was still new to me then, and Peter offered me a glass of what he was having first thing upon sitting next to him and Beth in the dining car.  There is nothing quite like the sudden shift a semester abroad in Europe brings for a youth than the ability to eat, drink, and smoke, freely, openly and, more often than not, all at once, with no thought of taboo.  Even two months into the experience, and feeling practically native, I relished it, and set a pack of cigarettes in front of me the way a guy places quarters to reserve the next big game on the pool table.

I think, between my options of a cold ham sandwich and something that might have been chicken, I must have chosen the sandwich, because whatever I ate it was salty and meager, and I recall needing a second glass of whatever this delicious vintage had been, right away.  I asked the server what it was that I had been drinking, what it was called, hoping he was one of the staff who would understand and tolerate my moderately broken Spanish.  “El Blanco,” he said, and gestured towards a series of bottles behind him.

“Ah…si.”  I tried to scrunch up my face and raised my eyebrows thoughtfully, hoping it would look impressed by the details he had provided.  “Yes, the white.  Yes, well…that was very good, thank you.  I think I’ll have another.”  Two glasses, as they tend to do, turned to three.  I had never been much of a drinker, having something of a hereditary curse as a hybrid between my father and mother’s constitutions.  My father’s side of the family could drink, and did.  My mother’s couldn’t.  The result was the ability to drink whatever I wanted quickly and impressively, often finishing my first three before anyone else had done with their one.  This would be followed by a wink, smile, and subsequent vomiting, which in turn would be followed by hallucinations of a mother who, I am sure, had told me so.  But Europe had tempered my own constitution, developed it to enjoy the finer things, and I had been encouraged by a number of fantastic nights with few regrets.  The four of us sat there, laughing over our weekend and over our drinks, trying each to recall which moments had been more amazing.

While Peter was telling a pot story (Peter was nearly always telling a pot story because Peter was a California pothead and had, for the entirety of the two months abroad, being trying to find marijuana in an area of the continent which was essentially without), I absently reached for my pack of cigarettes and leaned in to ask the server for an ashtray.  He handed me one from behind the counter while pointing out towards the end of the table and said something too quickly for me to understand.  I looked where he had pointed and saw an old Portuguese gentleman sitting there, leaning hard against the bar, with the same bottle of the wine I was drinking in front of him.  “Oh, yes, si.  El vino es muy bueno.”  I told the server how much I liked it and thought, since he’d asked, that I had better have another.  I asked him for one and lit my cigarette.

“No, no, no!” The server started yelling, waving his hands back and forth.  He pointed out towards the bottle again.  He said ‘fuera,’ outside. 

Peter noticed and said, “yeah, guy did the same thing to me earlier.  You have to smoke out there, in between the cars.  I guess it’s a non-smoking dining cart.”  I winced, feeling a bit let down by my first real prohibition from the relishing free-for-all, and gestured to the group that we ought to step out for some fresh air.

The smoking area, as it were, was nothing more than a pathetically enclosed section between two cars.  The way a convertible feels when its roof hasn’t quite sealed to the frame, the area was shockingly windy and open feeling and we took our places besides eight smoking men, all of us grappling for something solid to hold on to.  I had brought the ashtray that the server had given me, assuming I was meant to use it out there, and felt damned silly, watching my ashes fly around everywhere but the ashtray, until I noticed that each of the men was holding an ashtray as well.  I smiled at them, lifting up my useless ashtray, and they, in turn, lifted theirs, nodding back as we shared our little inside joke.

The smoking area turned out to be the true social arena of the train.  There was the three of us, the Americans, and then a coupling of four other nationalities: two Spaniards, two Portuguese, two Italian and two, well, we never did figure out where the last two were from.  And with this mix, we shared stories.  The details of the stories, like some great game of telephone where you start with, ‘the boy sat on the chair,’ and end up with some warning about a purple monkey, are all impossible to remember.  In one story, the last two gentlemen, the two from lands unknown, were laughing feverishly.  They agreed on key details and passed them on to the Italians.  The Italians, in turn, would recount most of what they had heard to the Portuguese, who then explained things to the Spanish.  After laughing for some while, the Spanish then told me, and I pieced together enough of what I’d understood, along with whatever extra details were needed to make sense of things, to let my friends in on the joke.  Meanwhile, the other passengers were standing there, waiting expectantly, timing my explanation of the story with how they knew it.   “…and so he tells her, he already had his shots,” I finished,  and the smoking area erupts.  Everyone laughs.

The night goes on like this for an hour or so, with pauses for heated discussions on what word, exactly, one was trying to say.  Peter and I get into an argument with the Italians over who’s the better actor, DeNiro or Pacino.  There’s lots of hand gestures.  Our friend, Beth, the attractive, blonde one who speaks the least Spanish, gets the most attention, and the men gesture extra hard in jumbled conversation with her.  I dropped in and out of the smoking area, sometimes leaving for the bathroom, sometimes for another glass of the white, and would always return to massive confusion, where Peter is pretty sure that someone mentioned hash to him and Beth isn’t sure who touched her ass.

As things went on, Peter seemed to befriend one of the Portuguese fellows.  He was tall and swarthy and looked just the way a seasoned traveler ought to, with long, dark hair, and a satchel at his side.  It might have been the language barrier, and I’m sure part of it was, but he had a way of trying very desperately to explain everything he wanted explained to us.  I watched as he spoke with Peter and Beth, his body language intent, his eyes almost too sincere, and he gave me the sort of wary feeling one has when confronted by a street poet, or homeless man.

Peter was in especially high spirits while talking with the traveler, because he had managed to meet up with a friend in that weekend Lisbon who had just come from California, a friend who had pot, and the traveler was suggesting we roll a joint of his hash mixed in with Peter’s pot.  This seemed like a very agreeable proposition to all of us.

I should pause here to catch up with the shabby job of counting my drinks.  With good conversation, I’m afraid, I’ve always had a weakness for the drink, and given the mighty bout of international conversation, coupled with the sheer strain of desperate translation, I had been thirsty, by this point, for about seven drinks.  I mention this because, as most will attest, it is precisely at seven drinks that many of us start making our best and worst decisions, where judgment seems to flip entirely on its own head, so that good ideas are bad and bad ideas are just the thing.

As drugs go, and without words, the four of us moved in unison out of the smoking area, through the dining car, and into the aisle of one of the quiet, mostly dark sleeper cars.  The traveler had papers, and we watched as he went through the careful motions of rolling a joint, pressing here and there with this thumbs, tamping down the mix of pot and hash with his forefingers, making careful work of the ritual.  Peter, the main supplier, got the first hit, with the traveler going next.  When it came to me I enjoyed it, slowly, free to breathe in deeply with my lungs, already hardened by cigarettes.  As I smoked, the traveler spoke.  Most of it was in Portuguese, as his English was quite bad, and I tried, as I had before, to pick out certain words, anything that sounded like something in Spanish.  He spoke of light, of a road or roads, and often of a girl or girls whom he seemed to know intimately.  I passed the joint on, noting the dry, pasty texture in my mouth, breathing in the air of the sleeper car as if to ready my body for a ride.

As we stood there, the four of us puffing and passing, my joy, my being in the moment, turned to criticism. The traveler, as a person, seemed wholly impractical.  I’ve never been a fan of people who lean on the new age side, and I became very paranoid that this man, that all of his words, his pleadings for something to do with the light, his love of the road or roads, girl or girls, were all just, well, there was no intelligible word for it except ‘nonsense,’ really.  It’s bullshit I thought, all bullshit.  And I resented his suave and his sexy.  He was exactly what you’d expect in that kind of moment, hair masking just one of his eyes, his mouth never quite smiling but always seeming positive or intense.  There were moments in his stories that he’d pull his eyes back from some distant thought and look right at Beth, with Peter and I left out as clearly as if he’d grabbed her by the arm and pulled her aside.  It was jealousy, plain and simple.  I still didn’t have a fix on whether Beth liked me or not.  She never seemed quite eager for me to make a move, but then again, she’d always say yes to going out for a drink, and in the same way, she didn’t seem to reject the attention of this traveler or ask for it either.  I was leaning against the wall of the sleeper car now, my back curled and rolling against the metal surface as I rocked to and fro with the rhythm of the train.

In retrospect, there are many points in any long night when one has the opportunity to call it quits and go to bed.  It must have been the jealousy, because I didn’t take one of them.  Past two or three in the morning, I sat there with Beth and the Traveler, playing some kind of physical defense between the two.  Peter had long since gone to our bunks to pass out, and by this time I was sitting on the floor myself, afraid to leave, but too tired to make any real show of things.  I figured that without me, with so much language barrier, there wasn’t much for them to say.  I figured maybe I could just leave, and they’d be too confused to go on.  But he was a man, and she was a woman, and I also figured that such obstacles had been overcome before, as nature designed them to.  So there I sat, patiently, annoyingly, sipping on my final glass of wine, listening to the traveler, interjecting half-hearted critiques of his tales, and giving up just as quickly as the translation became too difficult.  Finally, the night was called.  Beth and the traveler hugged farewell, and he and I shook hands, giving a measure of due respect for our roles well played.  I had won.  That is, until I stood up.

The rest of my night was a blur in the worst of all ways.  Mostly, people refer to the end of their nights as a ‘blur’ because they only remember bits of them.  For me, I remember everything, but it was as though the recording of the memory was flawed, like watching a home movie a kid might have shot, the lens never quite settling on one image or another.  I remember everything, and all of it is blurry.

The spins had set in first, a deep, internal, swinging of the senses, like a carnival ride you can’t get off.  I had given a polite but urgent goodnight to Beth and made what felt like a quick and nearly dignified run down the corridor of the sleeper car, my hands planting themselves against the walls to steady myself, my footsteps a slow, purposeful count in my head.  Bed.  Bed was the only answer.  And then, swinging myself up to my top bunk, bed was the worst thing ever.  In bed it was dark, dark enough for the spinning to really grab me, to suck me down like a drain.  I got out of bed and headed for the bathroom, certain I was falling off the end of my own mind.

Our train had two unfortunate qualities of design.  First, there was only a bathroom on every third sleeper car, and second, every sleeper car was an exact mirror of the one before it, so that traveling from one car to the next one had the utterly discouraging feeling that you had just come from exactly where you ended up, a kind of twilight zone effect in real life.  I was dashing between the cars now, debilitatingly sick and yet still paranoid and self-conscious enough that I didn’t want to make a mess in the bathroom nearest my bunk.  Somehow, I had decided that this would lead back to me, and the shame of it, of everything that I thought was coming, was enough to keep me moving.  From one car to the next I ran, each car looking just as the one I had left, only reversed, the path now on the right, the rooms now on the left.  It was completely dark outside, so despite there being windows all along the aisle, the lights inside the cars made them all reflect, and the feeling, along with the rumbling below my feet, and the seemingly never-ending maze of cars compounded my nausea and paranoia to an extent usually reserved for villains at the end of their run.

Finally reaching the bathroom, I locked the door, inhaled deeply and threw-up in the sink, not even able to make it to the toilet.  The sink was tiny, built for compact and bare use like a sink in an airplane.  I collapse on the floor and huddled myself against a low towel rack with no towels to comfort me.  The next three hours were utter misery.  I had managed to take my contacts out and put my glasses on in the bunk before trying to get to bed, and squatting there I took them off and put them back on again, over and over, neither my stomach nor senses at ease with a clear world or a blurry one.  The sink, too small for more than the rinsing of hands, was filled over with my vomit, and as the train rocked and rolled along, so did the vomit.  Occasionally, it splashed out, the way water might out of a bathtub in a happier moment.  Except for the sick, shame was the only feeling I had, sitting there in a wrecked bathroom, with bits of my vomit splashing against me along with the motions of the train.  ‘Wretched’ is the word.  I was, and was feeling, wretched.  After those hours in the bathroom, I tried to get up again, tried to make it to my bunk, and did so, thankfully, without waking up Peter or the other passengers in our room.

Morning had come, and as the train began to slow for the station I awoke, and ran off, still sick, but nearly sober, down the corridor with all of my luggage, locking myself in a new bathroom.  I was too embarrassed to go back to the first bathroom, and tried my best to clean myself up, rinsing my mouth, changing my sweater, wiping little dried, pink specs from my glasses.

When the train finally pulled in, I left quickly, and hurried along the platform towards the exit, hoping my friends might find me eventually, but too scared to wait around in case anyone called after me, half expecting some train authority to seal off the station.  I looked back at the car that I had exited from, and counted back two, three, four cars, to the car with the bathroom that I had destroyed.  It was a disgrace.  It was disgraceful.  I pictured some poor bastard who worked there, checking all the rooms after the passengers had left, finding the state of that bathroom.  I pictured some other, poorer bastard, who didn’t even find it, but who was called in to clean it. 

The night had been amazing.  I had learned about, and communicated with people from all over Europe.  We had connected, in some way, and really fought for that communication.  And the night had gone on, and so had the drinks.  I had been a free agent, a man on my own, living my own life, living the memories I had set out to find.  A joint had led to conversation, and conversation led to jealousy over a school-boy crush.  All of it had led to the bathroom, like some great, tragic catharsis of all my travels.

I stood there, at the end of the platform, looking back at that haunting sleeper car.  Some messes don’t deserve to be cleaned up, not by anyone.  Better that they just detach the car, haul it to some great train graveyard, some place where I could go, years later, to laugh about the experience, and lower my voice, and tell my children, “be careful, because amazing nights can lead to disgrace, and no beautiful memory should end with ‘I told you so.’”