October 07, 2016
Our final university exams were in two days. Grito would probably pass because despite everything, he’d been staying up and studying. La Canaria was sure to fail, and she’d get sent back to the Canary Islands, where they were rioting, and I’d have to deal with a blubbering Grito. As for myself, I just didn’t know.
We’d spent all semester protesting, gathering in the plaza and marching for the Communist Party, for democracy, for the legalization of divorce and abortion, for jobs, for anarchy, for anything except what we’d always known. Our dictator general finally dead and there would be democratic elections soon, the first in more than forty years, but we didn’t really know what they would mean. We’d stayed out all day, screaming and drinking, pinning the Communist Party’s hammer and sickle to our bags and jackets. La Canaria walked around with safety pins she’d stolen from her part-time job at La Reina Tailoring, and a couple of potatoes cut in half, offering to pierce anybody and anything.
At night, fights would break out with the right wing, facha students whose fathers were all members of the old guard. We tried to stay clear of them because the fachas were armed and we were scared they’d use the guns they had sometime soon. So we’d go to El Bar Chico, where they played the newest bootleg copy of the Ramones on loop and set fire to pictures of our dictator general. The bar filled with smoke and ash fell on our hair. Everyone knew we’d grabbed the photos from the altars by our grandmothers’ beds, but we acted like we hadn’t. Like we’d sneaked into officers’ houses and stolen them. Like we’d torn them down from municipal buildings. Like we were ridding the whole city of his face when it was really just our own apartments.
We couldn’t be expected to go to class anymore. We had exams to take, but nobody knew what to write on them, which history, which present. Even at our facha university, some teachers were passing students for writing anything. Or they failed anyone who’d missed a day. Poor Marco tried to hang himself when he got his first exam back. He used a shoelace and it broke. But our courses were just another dream of that chimerical spring. They couldn’t be real because nothing had been for months.
Dusk, and I was supposed to meet La Canaria and Grito under the big clock in the Plaza Mayor like always. I walked away from my abuela’s apartment on Calle Grillo. The crowds grew thicker the closer I got to the plaza. Students who had already taken their last exams carried each other on their shoulders, cheap bottles of cava in their hands. They poured out the bottles on anyone passing by. Those who had just graduated lugged buckets of red paint for scrawling their initials on the university walls. They dipped their brushes into the paint and left trails of red across the plaza’s stones. Someone had gotten into the Plaza Hotel and hung a big hand-painted flag of a crossed-out swastika from a balcony. The city had emptied out for the summer, all the officials safe in their country houses. We were the only ones left.
La Canaria and Grito detached themselves from a group under the clock and made their way toward me. Grito had on his backpack, but it wasn’t full of just books anymore. Odd shapes pressed against the olive-green canvas. A crowbar stuck out the top.
La Canaria was wearing the top to a kid’s Superman pajama set. Her jeans had started to split where her homemade bleach experiment had worn through the fabric. The night before she’d made me style her hair like Patti Smith’s on the cover of Horses, but it coiled up as soon as I chopped any length off. “I’ll shave it like a Tibetan monk,” she said, but Grito bribed her out of it with some hash he’d been planning to give her anyway.
I tried not to look at Grito, ponytail getting greasier each week, pelvic bone pressed against his once-white T‑shirt. On the front he’d written NO WORK, ALL DAY and freckled it, either accidentally or on purpose, with cigarette burns.
La Canaria hummed a song from a show last week, “Wha, wha I wanna wha — how’s it go?” but Grito ignored her, walking and rolling a cigarette at the same time. “Wha, wha, bu, bada, ba!”
“Shut up,” he said, “you don’t even know the song.” He flicked a speck of tobacco off his tongue.
“You’re wrong, tío.”
“Then how come you don’t know the words?”
“I do! It goes like this.” La Canaria pulled on his ponytail and shouted in English, “‘Rot riot, I want that riot!’”
The crowd of students beneath the clock tower had started to thin, everyone choosing a favorite dive to start the night. The lights from the empty buildings winked down at us. Across the plaza at Café National, girls my age sat eating cream puffs and pulling at their pleated polyester skirts to be sure they completely covered their knees.
“Look at those virgins,” La Canaria said. “They are in for a rude surprise.”
“You going to El Chico tonight?” I asked Grito. “Nah,” Grito said. “I got something else to do.”
We started at the bar under the philology library, with its low ceilings and cracked leather saddles for chairs. A leg of Serrano ham, carved down to the bone, sat on the counter. It was the kind of place we would never go, old-fashioned food and paintings, except for what it had in back and who was always coming in and out because of it. A newspaper clipping of the dictator general’s wife hung on the pig’s hoof like a mortuary tag. Marco, in a turtleneck and scarf, was in the corner with a bunch of boring types I didn’t recognize. We pushed through the crowd and found a table. Marco came over to us as soon as we sat down.
“Nice scarf,” I said.
He sat down and, when we ignored him, pulled out a history textbook and started reading.
“You heard about that show tonight?”
“Yeah, Mosca, everyone’s heard about it,” Grito said. “Is that where you’re going?”
“Let’s go,” La Canaria said. “Los Pasotas — I saw their flyer. They look hot.”
“Where the hell did you see their flyer?” Grito said. “Look at this sapo,” La Canaria said, ignoring him and turning to Marco. She picked up her too-full beer and slammed it down on the open pages of Marco’s textbook. The foam sloshed over the sides and pooled in the gutter. The muscles in Marco’s arm shook, but he didn’t wipe up the beer.
“That a Falange manual you reading?” La Canaria said. “How to suck fachahead?”
Marco shook the beer off his pages. “Say it,” he said. “I don’t give a fuck. It doesn’t make you a pig to study.”
“No, my citizen,” Grito said, and clapped Marco on the back. “The industrious Spanish male is the backbone of the fatherland.” Grito had been studying, too, but he had the sense to do it in private.
The door to the print shop hidden in the back of the bar opened, and a young guy in a worn wool jacket hurried out. We pretended we didn’t notice — we certainly weren’t going to stare or say anything — but we sat quiet and important, like we breathed the same rare air, even though all we were doing was drinking beer close to where others risked their lives. He brushed his hair out of his eyes and I recognized him — Felipe, a doctoral student. He’d been friends with my brother. He spotted me and took a step toward us, but I looked away. Marco opened the textbook again and bent the spine completely back-ward, cracking the cheap glue binding. He skid the book across the table and onto the floor. The people behind us cheered.
“It’s a pretty minor text anyway,” I said.
“You would know, Mosca.” Grito finished his beer and got up to leave.
Los Pasotas sounded the same as all the other bands who had started up in the cities and come out here at the end of their tours, but better, because they were in the ear-bleeding present.
“See those shirts they’re selling?” La Canaria shouted at Grito at the bar. The band had made T‑shirts with a photo of a dead rat belly-up in a gutter. They were to pay for the trip back. “Get me and Mosca one to share.”
I pulled some coins out of my jeans and handed them to Grito. He came back wearing the shirt.
“Pendejo,” La Canaria shouted, and wrapped her arms around him. She took the rubber band out of her ponytail, and her hair collapsed around her face, jagged and perfect somehow, just like the album cover. She must have ironed it straight. I was trying to dress like Patti Smith, too, in my black turtleneck and cheap rings. I liked the fact that she was ugly and looked like a boy and didn’t give a fuck she couldn’t sing — that was real punk. But La Canaria was going to steal her from me, too.
La Canaria broke away from Grito and pushed through the crowd to the bathroom. When she got back, she had on thick eyeliner and peacock-colored eye shadow, like the girl selling T‑shirts, and her hair slicked back with someone’s pomade. I wanted to get away from her, to get away from Grito slobbering all over her. I pushed closer to the band until I was right in front, in the shifting semicircle around them and their noise. Just a drummer and two electric guitars. They all had their shirts off, and sweat dripped down their chins and sprayed off their hair when they shook. At first they stuck to covers of the Clash that we’d heard when Samo snuck copies of the record back from London and fleeced them at El Chico. The records had disappeared immediately, gone before I could scrape together enough pesetas to buy one. Soon the band wasn’t singing in bad English or Castilian or singing at all. That was fine. The crowd pressed tighter around me, the space between audience and sound shrinking. Pressed up against the speakers, the band’s three chords churned my bones to paper, water, ash. We wanted to thrash to music that had no words, that had no music. There were no words for what we wanted, no sense to be made. We didn’t want to build anything new. That was the general’s line.
The band stopped playing and the crowd booed. We could finally stay out as late as we wanted — no law that closed the bars
at ten — but our shit town was the end of the line, and the band wanted back on the road to Barcelona before the sun rose. Grito wanted to go with them.
“Cabrón, what are you going to do in Barcelona?” La Canaria teased. But the truth was we all wanted out.
On the street, Grito walked away with La Canaria.
I caught up to them. “Where are you going? To El Chico?”
“Actually, I’ve got an action tonight,” Grito said. He wrapped his arms around La Canaria’s torso, tucking his thumbs into the mounds of skin that eased over her jeans, looking at me the whole time. Oh yeah, Grito, I wanted to hiss. Be on your guard. Because at any moment I might start giving a rat’s ass.
“Look at this big guy,” La Canaria said, leaning back into Grito. “He thinks he’s Che. You got an action tonight, Che?”
“Yeah, chica,” Grito crooned into her ear. “Tonight we are gonna fuck shit up. Wanna come?”
Under the railway bridge built to carry soldiers and equipment to the new U.S. military base, two punks tore up old shirts and handed them out to people who didn’t have bandanas. A crowd of us waited in the dark, sticking to the shadows of the bridge’s cement foundations, only a forearm or slice of neck visible when a train passed above. La Canaria pulled an old marmalade jar from her jean jacket. It was full of the liquor that Samo, who’d finally gotten fired from El Chico, had been making in his bathtub, though La Canaria said, “He doesn’t have a bathtub, idiota, this is bidet brew.” She gulped from the jar. It made her cough and sprayed out of her nose. She laughed and shot some at Grito through her teeth. The liquid sparked in a shaft of orange streetlight before it hit him. She passed me the jar. The liquor tasted like paint thinner, and the second I swallowed, I could feel it carving away at mucus and tissue, anything that was soft inside me.
When Grito finished the jar, tilting his head back and licking the rim, La Canaria pulled out another with the sardine label still on it. More students and punks pushed under the bridge, backing us against the damp foundations. We spit and swallowed, snorted and coughed. Grito passed the final jar La Canaria had brought. Felipe from the print shop, my brother’s old friend, passed me a bottle and smiled. He moved to the front of the crowd, and someone handed me another unlabeled jar, and I drank the liquid along with the gob of spit floating on the surface. Grito jumped out from under the bridge and threw a jar at a passing train. It only hit the railing, but others followed him. We stood in the rainbows of glass shards that collapsed back on us.
We pulled our bandanas over our faces and moved out from under the bridge. We were out on the streets. The streets opened for us. “Like a puta parting her thighs,” Grito said. No, I thought, like a river without sediment, like waking up in water and screaming to be carried downstream. We were carried, weightless, awake through empty streets. Bottles tossed at streetlights. Bring on the dark. Give us impediment. We frightened the city, emptied it of people. All that was left was their droppings. We broke windows, pulling kid leather gloves, feather hats, riding whips out onto the street.
“I wish Alexis were here,” someone whispered in my ear, the voice impossibly clear and solid under our screams, and for a moment it was like I could see my brother standing beside Grito, a pile of stolen fedoras in his arms, neck arched back in a laugh, proud that we were doing something finally. I felt like I hadn’t felt in years, like I was alive and awake, like he was smiling at me. Like he was all around me, though he could not be there, though only shadows danced behind Grito, and who could have even whispered his name? I reached through a broken store window and pulled out a toaster oven and threw it on the cobblestones. Give us impediment. Give us something to tear down. We turned onto Calle de la Gloria. We saw the parked government cars lining the street as we wanted to line it, filling space with black metal and shining chrome as we wanted to fill it. Why were all these cars parked outside municipal buildings late at night, at the beginning of summer? Why but for us? We surrounded the cars. Grito pulled the crowbar out of his backpack. We climbed the cars, made them sway under our weight. Grito stood on a hood, raised his crowbar, and crashed it into the windshield.
“What the hell are you doing?” A man in a suit broke through the crowd. He grabbed Grito’s shoulder and tossed him off the car. The man was twice Grito’s size, his hair cleanly clipped and his fingers thick from having been broken many times. He pinned Grito to the cement.
“Get off him,” I shouted, and kicked the man in the back. He barely noticed.
“Get out of here, you fucking facha!” someone behind me shouted. We tugged and kicked at the man until he turned around to face us. Grito grabbed the crowbar that had fallen out of his hands and swung, cuffing the man’s shoulder. He fell backward onto the pavement. We kicked him until he was still.
We could have kept going, but we didn’t. A kind of pulse stopped us, a lack of inertia when our boots hit flesh that didn’t resist. The man slowly pushed himself up onto his knees, one arm hanging limp. His face was bloody and his breathing whistled through broken ribs.
“Idiotas,” Samo said beside me, “he’s a police officer.”
“You think I give a fuck?” Grito shouted through his bandana, still breathing heavily.
The man lifted his broken face to us and grinned, his teeth dripping red.
Grito dropped the crowbar. We turned and ran.
GABRIELLE LUCILLE FUENTES’S work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Slice, Pank, The Georgia Review, The Collagist, The Coffin Factory, NANO Fiction, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Bread Loaf, and Blue Mountain Arts Center. She holds a BA from Brown University, an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently pursuing a PHD at the University of Georgia. She has lived in Spain and France and grew up in Wisconsin.
Excerpted from The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. Copyright © 2016 by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. Reprinted with permission from Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.