All I ate that night were the four figs I bought in the Roman market of Barcelona known as La Bocaderia. That, along with the bottle of scotch I later carried in my back pocket, would be my sole sustenance as I walked up and down La Rambla looking for trouble and direction. One of these is easy but direction can be complicated in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. The streets are so narrow most get no direct sunlight, even on the last floors. The space between buildings where people dry laundry usually fits one towel at a time and on plants that are strung between houses, the flowers spread their stamens an extra millimeter for that much more exposure.
It was still early when I met them. The five ladies were in the most unremarkable of places: a Pakistani convenience store outside of the post office building by the ribeira. They were trying to buy boxes of wine when I became impatient with their indecision and poor Spanish. I sneaked in line in front of them to get my scotch. They thought I was a local, and when I asked them where they got their delicious-looking shoarmas, a string was plucked and they asked me to join them. We were a handful of twenty-somethings with nowhere to be in Barcelona so I had no idea where the night would take us.
“DeWar’s?” said a sexy Tennessee voice next to me. Meg’s accent so bewitched my attention that I almost dropped my liquor. We were walking along the docks by the old port headed towards a street carnival with rides and colors and plenty of noise. “Disappointing,” she flirted, “I thought you’d have gone with the Jack Daniels.” My kind of girl to be disappointed in a thing like that.
Kat, the short blond with an English accent looked away from Meg and me at the other girls and made a case for where we should go. She wanted little more than to lay on the beach and drink all night long.
Classy, I thought. The other blond, LeAnn, turned at this and whined something about wanting to get drunk and find a club. She was pretty in a classical sense, bland and uninspiring. The kind of girl anyone would hit on without much intimidation. Her squawking, overdone and relentless, annoyed the piss out of me, though, and I was ready to bolt if they decided to go to a club with the squeaky wheel.
“I’m down for whatever,” said Amanda, a plump Jersey girl with a perfect Bronx accent. She was very pretty nonetheless and looked the most comfortable in her black tank top, which was sort of sexy, and managed to mostly hide her more boisterous rolls. What to me seemed like a superficial confidence was probably a defense mechanism from growing up around boys who seldom forgot to let her know that she could stand to lose 15 or 20 pounds. “I just think we need to start putting fun things in our bodies soon,” she said. I liked her immediately.
Veronica, the tall brunette from Ontario never really participated in the discussion, her eyes constantly wandering from the tops of the buildings on the avenue to the tips of the masts on the harbor. She was fun; boys we ran into that night were all over her and she had no idea what to do about it. She had a radiant smile and the kind of hair that you love to have brushed over you face by accident when she turns around too suddenly. She asked me if I had a preference and I opened my scotch, passing it around to Meg and Amanda.
“Clubs bore me,” I told her. “Barcelona is a city of movement, and I like to be on the street to see it unfold.” Kat’s eyes lit up at this and we stayed on the steps by the marina for a bit, watching the people go by and taking turns at the box wine and my scotch.
Hours seemed to pass and we all became more and more light-headed. The people that walked by those steps barely noticed us. So accustomed to a life on the business road, alone on the trail of corporate death, I forget that there are connections to be made, people to meet along the way. I’d become numb to the soft presence of female company, even if it was sipping scotch on the concrete steps of urban Spain, discussing the intricacies of Brazilian Barbecues.
“It’s all about the rock salt,” I explained to Meg, whose stare was fixed on my words. I didn’t care what we talked about, so long as the night went on. From Kat I learned that they had all just met each other a few days before through their school programs and were all teaching English for a few months. In that sense and for the first time in many months, I didn’t feel so far removed; so alone.
“Where can we get some cocaine?” I heard Amanda ask Veronica as casually as if she were asking for the time. At first I looked at Meg to see if she was a part of that scene but she seemed uninterested.
This is good, I thought — that means they don’t have any right now. I think they noticed my apprehension and interpreted it as judgment. The truth is that I was pretty much up for any kind of trouble we could stir up that night — I just wanted to steer clear of ugly turns, like being arrested on narcotics charges and that kind of thing.
“It’s not that big a deal,” LeAnn offered.
“No, it’s an awesome feeling,” Amanda said. “For about 30 minutes you’re the absolute coolest, most interesting, creative and fascinating gift to humanity on the scene. You can do anything, and you get this ‘thing’, where you can feel it in your teeth…”
“You’ve never done coke before?” Kat interrupted. I realized suddenly that I couldn’t really explain why.
“Nah,” I said, making something up as I leaned back on the stairs. “I’m kind of a hubris-filled asshole without any drugs at all, and turn into sac of dangerous thoughts on just a couple of martinis. Too scared what would happen to me on cocaine.” The truth is I’d once asked my flat mates about doing coke.
Wait a minute, they’d said. No… No. NO.
You, Oscar, cannot do cocaine. Sorry, but it’s out of the question. Absolutely no way. There are some people that just cannot do cocaine, opined one of them.
You’re one of them, said the other. Don’t even think about it. I asked them why not.
Listen, she’d said, too many people become violently certain of how absolutely great they are on cocaine, and you don’t need the help.
There’d been fear and certainty in their eyes and they know me pretty well, so I’d lain off the topic. But I was curious now in that marina in Barcelona, where I was sitting with the five English teachers, telling Meg about Brazilian rock salt, listening to Veronica and Amanda go on about finding cocaine, putting up with LeAnn whine about a finding a club scene and watching Kat’s body groove indifferently to a reggae beat in the distance.
As if summoned by the conversation, three scummy white guys approached our group, their wife-beater tank tops stained with the sweat of many Barcelona nights, their jeans hanging off their boxers like their ridiculous dreadlocks. Fabricated Spanish accents dragged their greasy tongues and their swaggers were so pronounced that I thought at any moment at least one of them would lose their footing and collapse on the pavement.
“Uh-oh,” I heard Meg start, “hold on to your purses!”
“Hey baby,” one of them coo-ed, “you want fire?” I looked at Veronica, who’d been struggling with Kat’s lighter.
“You make fire?” She asked, mocking him with a caveman voice. But the dude was so into himself that it backfired.
“I am fire,” he replied quickly and very seriously, deepening his voice with the aura of a man who has too many buttons undone on his shirt and too much hair dancing on his chest. His face erupted in a disgustingly entrancing smile that infected some of the girls enough to keep him around for a bit. He took from his pocket a few small paper packets and showed them the white powder inside.
“Hold on to your purses!” Meg shouted in between the sentences of our conversation.
I took a swig of my scotch as a sort of toast to my non-involvement in that scene and peered out onto the harbor over the discussion of the girls and the cheesy pickup lines of the idiot cocaine peddlers. The boats swaying gently on the harbor were so much more interesting to me at that moment. I had nothing to do with their mess. The tall sloops and the wide catamarans helped my thoughts drift toward my reasons for having come to Europe in the first place. There was, of course, the five weeks of vacation and the more reasonable approach to the question of work-life balance. It was all part of the master plan that there was also something to chase here, some ideal that America could no longer hold for me, and I’d known that I would find it in a more ancient place, with more history and less memory.
Partially, I’d come to escape the stifling feelings of despair that I’d sunken into after a bitter divorce, but mostly I’d come to escape a connection with the attitudes I was beginning to find so aggravating in the social order, in the mores of people’s lives. The things people around me were starting to collect, to covet, it was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I was constantly feeling like I was in the wrong place and in order to escape the tedium of a blank personality I didn’t recognize, a life indistinguishable from anyone with a similar-looking apartment and an easily-labeled career, I would have to find an environment with which I wasn’t in constant opposition. I needed a new rhythm. And it had to be more than the corporate equivalent of a semester abroad – I needed to become one of these people; learn their language, eat their food and breath their air. I needed to see myself in their faces.
I feel at home when I see the villages surrounding European towns. Familiar to me is the sound of horseshoes on cobblestone, the sight of snow on ancient stones, the feel of moss on wood. I feel rejuvenated by the green of the grass in the north of Europe, and by the black dirt in the south. I feel invited by the narrow streets to explore the winding Roman ways and the bike paths that lead out of a city, seemingly into nowhere. I am attracted to the well-kept autobahns, the many languages and the attitude of dour insistence that some things do not have to be replaced by a more efficient technology or system; they are ends, not means to be run over on the way to the next errand.
I had come to find a new path, since you can only walk one. I’d realized that I’d gone astray after years of being surrounded by notions and traditions that I found disgustingly convenient in America. I’d grown to see Europe as my Virgil to find my way out of the Hell towards which I was rapidly headed. What I’d been through had left me feeling abandoned from myself, but I thought that if I stayed afloat on this new wave, if I could stay high enough on the crest I was riding to feel the wind pass through my hair, I might just sight the port I was looking for in a direction away from the high water mark of the flood that almost drowned me before.
Eventually the douche bags left; something to do with crushed aspirin and $108 a gram. Nobody was really torn over the loss, though some of them were starting to feel restless, like there was more to do that night.
We ran into Fred, one of their other friends. Fred was a Spaniard — a local — and had already, it seemed, taken a liking to all of these gals. He wore a red shirt that closely hugged his torso, which was not as toned as it may have been in the recent past. Probably from a combination of beer and whiskey, he’d developed a gut deserving of politicians and publicity agents, and he smelled of sand and cheap French cologne. He was, however, the type that knows the scene, that knows the schedule. He is the type that knows the people and knows the lines. I could tell right away that Fred was a natural catalyst. If our pack had been a movie, he’d be the producer. And he was good at it too.
“Veronica!” he yelled towards us across two lanes of traffic, “Como estás?!!” He greeted her with an enviable hug and she pressed her beautifully supple breasts against him, shouting hellos to the other girls who hugged and sharply greeted some of the other boys in Fred’s entourage.
It wasn’t so much that I felt threatened by those boys, but their presence and the reactions of my newly-made acquaintances reminded me that for all my efforts, I was alone in that sleepless city, in that warm country, in that large continent.
“Good to meet you, tio,” he said to me, introducing himself. I shook his hand and then stepped back as he continued his greetings. I thought of reaching for my whisky. Who does this guy think he is? I thought. LeAnn whined again about cocaine and clubbing or something equally dull and Fred snapped his neck in her direction, almost fast enough to break it himself.
“That is ridiculous, kiddo, especially on a night like this.” I liked the way he said, ‘kiddo’. “There are concerts on every plaza and every corner tonight, and there’s madness on the streets. You want to pay cover charges and waste your time to dance with foreign dudes, cool…don’t take it out on us.”
My eyes gleamed and my lips curled a soft smile. Well now, let’s not be hasty, I thought. He and I made small talk as we walked a couple of blocks, past a falafel place towards the Plaza Catalunia, slightly ahead of the others. Fred spoke of his time in Barcelona as an extension of his clubbing experience in Paris. He’d been raised speaking French but his native tongue had always been Spanish, especially when he’d noticed that the smiles were warmer, the beer was colder and the nights were longer.
“I am a creature of the night,” he told me. “People criticize the French but no one fucks with Spaniards.” He paused, then added: “especially in Catalunia!” He fist-punched the air in front of him as if there were a gathered crowd that was going to go absolutely NUTS.
“The four red stripes on the Catalan flag,” he explained, “are the blood-stained fingers of a dying patriot running down his friends’ golden shield as he pleaded for glory.” I looked at him in reverence, wondering if he was for real. I started realizing how drunk or possibly tripped out he was when he saluted the flag three times in ten minutes.
But he kept on it, rambling into furies of incoherent rants about life in Catalonia and I tired of it. Soon I was back in Veronica’s arms. The evening had taken a steep turn, now following Fred and his friends around town. They were pretty cool cats though, and everybody was enjoying themselves.
We hung out and lost a few people on the long walk towards the concert areas. But the conversations were varied and many, and much like marching troops, if a group is too large and a few go missing, you don’t really notice until you’re looking for specifics. Eventually, we even lost Fred.
Somehow we ended up just the girls and me again. Meg had dropped when the effects of the whisky turned to moaping about her boyfriend, which was a shame. She’d called him in between swiging Dewar’s with me and taking hits of a joint the other girls had rolled. They’d had an argument over what I’m sure was something stupid and then she started crying about bad intentions and wanting closure and it ruined her spirits for the night.
It’s a rookie mistake and I hated to see it happen but by the time it hit there was just nothing that could be done for the poor girl. She left us near a metro stop and I never saw her again.
So, for the ones who remained, I bought them a drink, thanked them for the wonderful evening and watched a couple more disperse into the thick Catalunian crowd. The tighter you grip things as slippery as grains of sand or drunken girls, the more they will slip through your fingers, so I rolled with it. The remaining ones, Amanda and Kat, wanted to go dance in the calle. So we went.
As the night wound down I found myself with Kat, the only one left. We hadn’t planned it, but there we were on the edge of Port Vell, smooching like teenagers, impossibly drunk, the DeWar’s long gone. Kat had a tight little body, short and petite like a back row volleyball player. There was no reason not to — there were no more fireworks and we no longer knew what to do with ourselves. Kat had gotten very stoned at some point in the night and more recently I had seen her eat a variety of pills — a sort of bite-size fun pack of drugs — and she was starting to show the signs. She was agitated and becoming more so with every car that zoomed past the street behind us, and Barcelona is a city of traffic. She was in for a fast night.
At some point after two in the morning I was leaning against a dim lamp post in the dark by the harbor. She was pressed against me, occasionally kissing me and letting me run my eager hands over her tight waist and stomach, but mostly pushing herself off of me and singing unheard of off-key tunes into the night. Something about rocking the boats to sleep.
“They’re yachts,” I tried to correct her, but that was deemed irrelevant. Whenever she left to sing to the boats, my heavy eyes tended to wander over the darkness, through the tight streets of the Gothic Quarter, piercing the blackness that covers the Mediterranean, and glossing over the people that still roamed thinly all about us. Barcelona never sleeps completely.
Then I saw Fred coming at us from the street. From the way he was running I knew something was wrong. He was storming at us without his shirt like a mad bull set loose. When he got close enough I saw that on his face he wore eyes different to the ones I had seen earlier that night. The in-control producer, the knower of places, names and lines was completely gone. He’d been replaced instead by a hurricane of ego and looked like a violent maniac who was so into the rich and complex nature of his personality that he was about to fly over the old port fueled by the steam in his ears and the coke in his head.
Kat was oblivious to the imminent problem. I considered warning her but there would’ve been no point; she had moved on to being preoccupied with the frog she claimed sat on the lamp post, calling her ‘dark things with a frown on its face’. Nonsense, of course, but how could I explain it to her in time? She had stopped listening to me and was delirious, and I could see I was about to have a mess on my hands.
Fred, meanwhile, was showing no signs of slowing down. He was out of his mind, too much cheap coke in his blood, too much weak beer; too many dames to chase and none that were going home with him. He ran, throwing his thighs up and lunging them forward like a desperate beast. I had time to duck, which I did, and just in time to see him grab Kat’s arm and jerk her into the water with him. She yelped like a stepped-on bath toy and took a sudden short breath before she hit the water 8 feet below like a floppy pancake. She didn’t even know why it was happening.
As out of his head as he was, Fred knew exactly why he was there – he couldn’t have told you with any sense or coherency but he knew. He wanted the third boat on the 2nd pier; a yellow-hulled catamaran. He wanted to commandeer it, as it were. The Marnette, out of Genoa, I think, and docked in Barcelona. He wanted to untie every line on the hull and raise every sheet, make fast the rudder and ride the currents out to Majorca like one of the ancients.
The Marnette, by the way, was a 32 ft. catamaran that had no sail, no lines and had been stripped of every instrument on board. She wasn’t carrying a drop of gas and was essentially a fiberglass shell. The owner — a short French-man by the name of Pierre de Curr, who had a BO problem — had put into Barcelona for a repaint on his way to Morocco and the Marnette was a sitting duck.
But Fred never learned these facts since he couldn’t even climb aboard — he’d splashed into the water with Kat and then tried to swim out to his object only to find his legs could barely keep him afloat, to say nothing of being able to climb aboard a catamaran. Kat had to go fetch him where he was hanging from the unpainted hull of the Marnette like a wasted barnacle. After wretching him from the ship she dragged him back to the dim lamp post and pushed on his butt from below while I fished him out of the water.
“Marnella!” he shouted, almost crying, clinging to the pole for support and slurring the bubbles on his voice with resolve, indifferent and unaware that he didn’t even have the right name. “My love! My Roman Mother! You are my urn, on your deck I sit. My soul, it burns, Marbella! To Rome I’d turn, but no winds blow, so to Majorca I shall go!”
“Quiet down, you animal.” I snapped at him, thinking about the panic that place would turn into if the cops were to descend on us now. Two drunk gringos, one of them stoned and delirious from a bag of fun pills, dragging out of the harbor a small, French-looking Spaniard who was completely out of his head on coke and bad beer. Even in that late hour a crowd had started to gather, and there were now some twenty to thirty middle-aged Nordic-looking tourists staring on while the sloppy Spaniard danced to his own poetry. Which was actually quite good, I thought. Those tourists must’ve been feeling so far from home at that moment. They may even have seen a drug stupor before, here it was just so romantic.
But it would become chaos, I decided. I didn’t want him to be in this state and belligerent, so I tried to calm him down with some sense. “The Marnette was stripped down, mate. There was nothing there for you.”
“There’ll never be one quite like her,” he whimpered. It was pathetic. “She had so much to give.”
“She had nothing, kid. She was a dud. A bonafide carcass and if you keep on acting like a noisy ape you may end up looking like a similar shell in a Catalunian prison,” I told him.
“Don’t you be talking about my Marla that way. I know capabeta, man. I’ll kick you upside down.”
Sigh. “You don’t know capoeira, Fred.” I tried to say it without sounding condescending, but I tire of that.
“The hell you say — let me go! I’m going to show you the shinga.”
“Dammit,” I muttered under my breath to no one in particular and I started to worry. Spain, and the Catalonia region in particular, is not a good place to be caught with your pants down, filled to the brim with alcohol and cheap drugs and in the company of boat thieves who can’t stand up, let alone performing some aborted version of a strange Brazilian dance. My consolation was that the stoned pill repository I had made out with, the one dripping by the dock grinning about frogs no one else could see, was not my problem. What worried me was Fred, this looming bin of craziness, a bomb about to click. He was fast becoming an issue and I could only guess at what he’d put into his body to do a 180 like he had.
Fred started to ginga. Well, I thought, at least we look like clowns, not vandals.
“Let’s go steal gas station pump handles!” opined one of Fred’s friends who had been watching the act the way normal people stand in line at a grocery store.
Kat, still soggy from her unexpected plunge in the harbor blurted out, “we’ll be like the vandals that took the handles from that Bob Dylan song!”What? I thought. This girl is losing control and fast. And right there it hit me — the answer: how to get out of this whole mess of drugs and jackass gingas. I was leaning against another light post and now stood up straight to face the music.
“Kat!” I called, “come ‘ere and show Fred how to ginga. He doesn’t move right.”
“Hee-hee.” She giggled as she made her way over to where he was; the dancing equivalent of a stutter. She watched him for three seconds or so and then she took the bait.
“Fred, you suck. You don’t move right.” And she started to move around like a lazy octopus, crouching low to the ground and waving her arms slowly in front of her loopy body. It might have been hilarious somewhere else, in another time. But I knew what was coming and I knew I had to get out of there very soon. People gathered and Fred was really into it now, having turned it more into something resembling a Native American rain dance than anything I’d ever seen in a roda and Kat was starting to follow suit. What I’d created was shameful, but what could I do?
The crowd was starting to really thicken and I stepped back into it. Someone had already called the Policía. I heard sirens approaching, but I wasn’t interested. Already that situation had nothing to do with me anymore. I was alone again, losing myself between the narrow streets, deeper and deeper into the old Roman structures of some European city. Alone, where I feel so at home.
Hotel Cuatro Naciones, room 119 — Barcelona, Spain