In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…
Sam Coleridge said that; and good for Kubla. I hope it was worth his trip. See, I had been traveling too, and had found a stretch of sand all to myself in Tarifa, Spain. It was my own Xanadu, my own refuge by the edge of the mindless Atlantic, and that was a fine thing too. A long beach, a lot of time, soft sun and no wind at all is a dangerous combination of circumstances for a mind with no responsibilities that is bound by nothing. You go places, you scheme, you imagine and if you don’t mind your feet, there’s no telling what kind of foot prints you might leave behind.
I know this, of course, and the dangers that go along with it. These things happen to me all the time and are just another of my many occupational hazards. That doesn’t stop me though, from doing things that lead me to skip town on a train bound for the south of Spain, so far south that I could see Africa. Which is a fabulous thing to do, as far as sporadic weekend trips go. Think of it; I spend 5 hours on a train with strangers and weirdos and at the end of the ride I reach a point of land that, when I get around to standing at its tip, I can no longer get any further south and still claim to be in Europe. And I would argue, as you might guess, dear reader, that if you can stand on a piece of land where simply by standing on the tips of your toes you can see Africa, you’d be some kind of noxious fool, hell-bent on failure and general life-suckage to NOT jump on a boat and actually GO to Africa.
Because why not? It’s the right thing to do after you spend a night filled with electro-Brazilian remixes, Moroccan tea infused with strange liquors and beautiful German women who smell of clean sheets, sun-dried in fields of soft jasmine. It’s the right thing to do when you sleep with her easy smiles and then wake up to bathe in the ocean with the grit of sand and the smell of salt and the sway of the waves. And if a thing like that is worth doing (and it is, it IS), then it’s worth doing right.
The beaches of Normandy the night before never meant so much; but that’s exactly what Tarifa was on the night I arrived. Full of meaning and metaphor, foreshadowing and hubris… a magical place to be in, for sure. The 1940′s French coast must have had an aura around that time, eh? And we’ll get to all that soon enough because that’s literary stuff.
But before we do that we’ll rant a bit… this is a strange life I lead. The constant travel and the lack of anything resembling routine is sometimes unnerving in its lack of stability. The possibilities and opportunities for reflection and contemplation run dangerously deep, and sometimes a bit too often. That these times of contemplations and reflections come while I’m mostly alone is more a matter of my present working conditions than anything like actual loneliness or even depression. Honestly, I don’t have time for that. But in reading that last paragraph I realize that I still have to watch what I write – if I’m not careful I might end up talking to myself, or preaching, which is worse. And only a jackass would do that, so what’s the point?
Right – there is none, so let’s get back to the story, which is a nice one, I think. It’s got train rides with bar encounters on the train, which are great and always very different and special. It’s got lesbians and drunk poets, Spanish-Brazilian competition, Irish politicians, Moroccan markets and metal tea bags, haggling with mosquitoes over rugs and drugs, long walks on the beach, successful sexual relations, interesting situations in foreign pharmacies, narrow streets, insufferable siestas, variable wind conditions, lots of whiskey and what might have been the touch of God.
Like some of the stories I tell, this has some elements of truth. Also like those stories, I won’t tell you what those elements are, unless I feel like it. So don’t ask. Besides, at this point in time the thing hasn’t been written yet, though some of the pieces are floating around in my head, which is a mess right now. And usually, too.
Kurt Vonnegut had a wreck of an apartment, as I understand, and would say to his guests, “You think this is bad,” and then tap on his index finger to his temple, “you should see what it’s like in HERE.”
I gotta say… that’s comforting.
Also, on that tangent: in his office, my Grandfather has a portrait of Albert Einstein that I’ve always really liked, of Einstein giving a lecture on the nature of the universe, which is something most people don’t even bother trying to understand. Very intimidating, you know, the nature of the universe – like writing something good, only on a totally different scale. Anyways, this is what is written on the portrait: Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.
This is also comforting.
But this doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t – at the time of this writing – written this story yet and that I’m here, talking about it, somehow. As far as details you should know before I get started, there is only one: before any of this happened, I didn’t know the Spanish word for “condom”. Needless to say, I learned it. This part is true.
Ok. Quid pro quo. The story…
PART 1 – ESCAPE FROM MADRID
The nightmare wore on.
In that drab conference room the minutes moved slowly. On that Spanish afternoon, surrounded by suits of unimaginably bad taste, he felt his pulse slow to a crawl and his lungs become almost apneic. Jesus, he thought, even my vital signs seem to be shutting down. Oscar clutched his knuckles tighter and tighter and they turned white with his frustration that his day was being wasted in a stale government office in a concrete building from the 70′s in downtown Madrid. He’d been sitting through hour after hour of tasteless executives who couldn’t recall their own childhood or even how to open excel documents on their own. Old farts who excelled at spending public money, they sat at a dark mahogany table, bored and dressed as if it were still 1974, like the picture of King Juan Carlos that hung on the wall from about the same time, when the old ball-buster still had some color to his hair.
“And if you’ll bear with me as we transition into slide 24 of this presentation, I’d like to talk about some of the industry trends concerning IT savings initiatives…”
Oh my god, thought Oscar, I don’t know if I can handle this.
He looked at the carpet under his tan leather shoes and noticed it was tightly woven, almost not carpet at all. A faded light brown, it darkened the room much more than was aesthetically acceptable and made the whole place feel like a casino bar at 2 in the afternoon. Seriously.
A government building is almost always guaranteed to have ugly insides; I know all about it. I have worked in the city and state halls of Kansas City, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, and I have an intimate knowledge even of the interior broom closets of the San Francisco City Hall for reasons I can’t disclose until some statutes of limitation expire.
This part is true.
But this place was too much. Aside from the creepy little men who waddled its hallways wringing their sweaty, greedy palms and twisting mustaches while mumbling giddy IT chuckles, the place was made up almost entirely of plastic walls and vinyl made to simulate fake wood, of metal desks that recall old NASA buildings and industrial pencil sharpeners built into the walls. The walls themselves, raw concrete that dampened the air, were painted a matte white, sometimes with a green stripe. This was perfect for reflecting the fluorescent lighting that flooded the hallways and could leave you with cataracts within weeks. Strewn everywhere was aging electronic equipment from a time of Atari controllers, when we as a species hadn’t yet figured out human-computer interfaces beyond a cube-mounted stick. The corridors were dark and beige and the elevators took forever; they were painted orange inside and the glue from the mirrors that had been missing for a long time was still caked on the wall, along with the lint of hundreds of unsuspecting jackets.
Oscar could barely stand it. Sure, he understood that kind of ugly; it is foul, tasteless and smells very strangely of the bottom of old men’s shoes. He also understood that changing the decor of a government office is no quick matter and requires crossing enough red tape to stain your skin.
But it was the people that were simply too much for Oscar. The assistant to the minister of public affairs could be seen at one of the corners of the table in a bright blue tie on a sky blue shirt of mysterious stains and a purple suit made of various strange polymers (all of which repel flames, I’m sure) with lapels that recall the fins on a ’59 Cadillac. Is that kind of assault on decency necessary? Oscar applauded the gall but wondered if the man didn’t have anyone in his life to stop him from walking out the door looking like he has the visual equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome?” It was abhorrent, all of it, and Oscar wanted out. Now.
And in as much as they were responsible for it dragging on and on, these men in strange fibers of strange colors were just itching to leave that meeting too, if only so they could go sign papers or whatever men like that spend their afternoons doing. But Oscar was on the verge, and it is not with these lizards, Oscar said to himself, that I intend to let my afternoon die. Nooooosssir.
No one really noticed that when the final words were spoken Oscar shook a hand or two furiously, gathered his things and headed out the door in a fit of despair, frantic and charged.
He bolted, stopping only by an unoccupied office to grab his books and disappear into a cab in Madrid…
PART 2 – ON THE TRAIN
Oscar resurfaced from the metro after making it to his hotel where he had changed rapidly out of his suit and stored some bags for the weekend. He intended to be back Sunday night. He had to work on Monday morning, after all, and Oscar was no degenerate slacker. But he was tired of the bullshit.
At the Atocha station, the main exit point located in east-central Madrid, Oscar looked around for the ticket booth, or some way to determine train schedules. With beach clothes in his bag, he had a mind to head to Lisbon and score him some surf. Yet there in the train station, he heard ominously telling things from a Dutch-sounding guy.
“… yeah, man. Dani said Biaritz was as flat as your mom. Crazy, uh?” The second guy had replied, strangely enough, with an Irish accent:
“No shit, mate. I told you there was no swell anywhere in the North Atlantic this week. There won’t be surf anywhere between Casablanca and Galway Bay. Balls; you know what we should do is go to Tarifa. There’ll be girls in Tarifa.”
Good enough – thought Oscar, I’m good with that.
South it was, then. The train bound for Algeciras near Gibraltar was going to be leaving shortly and Oscar made the quick decision, dashing up to the ticket counter when he saw it left in 10 minutes and he didn’t yet have a ticket. Thankfully for Oscar, he was in Spain and timeliness is not a Spanish priority. He bought his ticket, pausing only to ask the girl at the ticket booth if the weather in Tarifa was any good and if the train would leave on time.
“Hombre, she said, accusingly, this is Spain.”
“Right,” Oscar said, smiling at her and turning away. He walked impatiently through the security check and then dashed for the platform, arriving just on time.
Naturally, the train would be leaving 15 minutes later.
“Balls,” Said Oscar, understanding what the girl had said.
When the train for Algeciras left he was on it, car 4, seat 8D, headed south and facing that same direction. Personally, I’ve never understood how some people can travel 5 hours facing backwards without wondering that they’re not going in the wrong direction.
Success, he thought, I’ll be at the southernmost tip of Europe in time for drinks.
But with no comfort in the seats and a 5-hour train ride ahead of him through enough Spanish country-side colors to put an Adobe Photoshop ad to shame, I was thinking Why wait?. Oscar thought this too, apparently. A sociable venue would be needed though, and he thought that he could surely find something more talkative and interesting than the seat next to a middle-aged accountant studying for some kind of test. Given the foul mood that those purple-suited old lizards had put him in throughout the afternoon, the bar on car number three seemed like the right place for him, even if it was the ONLY place…
PART 3 – THE BAR: CAR 3
As he stumbled into car number 3 he was initially let down even though he wasn’t surprised. And why should he be? Oscar and I share the same fantasies and the gap between those fantasies – of being the bold and single business traveler with an expense account the size of Andorra’s economy – and reality, has been made very clear, at least in my professional years since college. Oscar had – no doubt – picked up on this by now.
The main difference being that there are females in these fantasies. Pretty females. Attractive females. Accessible females, on average under, let’s say, 45. Not the case in this so called reality. At least not often, in any obvious way or with any regularity. What a sham! You know those stories of the young suit on the management fast-track, ear-marked for 80-hour weeks for the next 20 years and all the young succulent secretaries and flight-attendants he can fit in after the red-eye and before the early-bird, or even in between the bulkheads on said flights?
Oscar had been becoming steadily more aware that roughly 75% of flight attendants are sour, bitter or unsalvageably unattractive; 10% of them have already or are about to lose their jobs; at least 10% are gay men from Houston. The rest are mythical beings, at best. At least, that was Oscar’s observation on his airlines. I tend to fly more of the newer low cost flights where the newbies begin and are therefore at least younger, if not hotter. But given the livestock-esque treatment some of these airlines provides to the cattle it herds, I don’t see much glamor or high altitude fashion forthcoming. There’s only so much you can do with a brown/orange t-shirt, fast peanuts, no signature scarf and only about 40 minutes of flight time over the L.A. basin or from Munich to Geneva. In fact, I think I only know one cute young flight attendant and she works on an airline I never fly, on a route I’d never touch as it comes far, far too close to L.A. to be worth the chances. It’s a very large risk to take. Not the flying, mind you – just being over anything south of Ventura and north of San Onofre without having your hands on the controls yourself is accepting a certain level of risk that I find a little beyond me.
No. The traveling exec-to-be, knowledgeable, experienced, multi-lingual, under 35, with all his teeth and no significant childhood traumas is the corporate world’s answer to dancing albino tiger cubs. Flamenco-dancing albino tiger cubs. With rainbow whiskers. And chocolate tails. The corresponding female colleague is, then, very much like Lance Armstrong’s second nut, which is to say, not there at all.
So you can see that it’s a very lonely road that people like Oscar and I walk. And while at least he does it well enough, it’s not for everyone, and even I look around sometimes and wonder how I got here or why I persist. But the loneliness is also a constant reminder of how different I am from most of my peers, how far I’ve strayed from the flock. And that’s often validation too.
Oops; speaking of straying, this is not all that related to our story, so let’s not go all crazy here like a drunk poet on a train that has had no alcohol – let’s focus. The bar, remember, that’s where Oscar was just walking into.
So the bar was a let down, and I wasn’t surprised and neither was Oscar. It was filled with men and two largely unattractive bartenders.
Oh well, thought Oscar, I’m here for a drink and surely these old bags can provide THAT. His spirits were lifted a bit when one of the drunks started talking politics and the other hopeless crazies decided to get in on the fun.
“Just because I’m a drunk Irishman doesn’t mean I’m not RIGHT, dammit!” he babbled at a Spaniard, who had half a finished brown bottle of beer in front of him. The name of the label looked unpronounceable to me. “This shit with explosions in Pakistan is just like what’s happened in that African country…” he trailed off.
“Qual?“, barked the Spaniard, his tan Mediterranean skin toned as if he was constantly being basted in olive oil, a sharp contrast to the gibberish-spewing, pale-faced Irishman, who was so white he could have been an iPerson.
“Qual?“, he asked after a moment of total silence from the Irishman, whose head was down, his chin on his chest and his hair blending into his beard. Since Oscar was sitting with his back to the Irishman’s and wanted more entertainment, he shoved him between the shoulder blades, getting an elbow right in the crack between the blade and the muscle. It’s a classic move on the rotating stools in the computer engineering lab during finals at university. That really freaks out the Computer Engineering kids and Oscar figured, why not? How’s THIS guy different?
Right – he wasn’t. So Oscar shoved the medial side of his olecranon process just under the Irishman’s right scapula (he hit him in the back with his elbow) with an upward motion that stings like anyone’s business but doesn’t do much damage.
“Whwwooooo SHIT!” He jerked his neck back and his eyes popped open the size of dinner plates, from what I could see of his reflection on the car’s window.
“Qual?“, the Spaniard shouted again.
“A… ALL of them, you insensitive fuckgrgrrgrrgrgrggrgrgrgr!” He retorted – kind of – and went right back to sleep, this time with his forehead fully on the bar. Classic. It wasn’t even 6 pm yet, and here this Irish dude is passed out on the bar in car 3: the bar car. It was almost cliche, I think. And that was that. It was enough entertainment, in any case, and at least good enough for Oscar to stare out the window for the next 20 minutes or so to admire the long rolling hills of olive trees, dry brush and ruins of stone farm houses on deserted hilltops that guarded nothing but rich colors for a long time in any direction.
Then came the next batch of trouble. Oscar was still staring out the window when they walked in. And his thoughts – oh I saw how they stuttered! He was thinking of clean beaches that stretched for miles in both directions with no human in sight, and an island out in the water, close enough to swim to. But their presence stirred him like sudden sunlight reflected from an eyeball and his daydream warped and twisted, the mental equivalent of water up his nose.
He continued to look at their reflections on the window which he faced. He followed them until they sat at the bar and his line of sight was blocked by a large white guy who might have been Hungarian, based on his accent. Or not; what do I know? Hell, he might have been a line backer on the Raiders or a Russian hit man; one thing is certain; his mustache was definitely from Texas. There are always out-of-place strangers on a train that all the weirdos ride.
And thanks to the encouragement of Jack Daniels, who seldom lets down his friends in their time of need, he turned his head to look directly at them instead. One of them, it turned out, was plain as all plain can be; mousy brown hair in a boring brown bun that did NOTHING for her and glasses that matched the fashion ideals of a 9 year-old boy. Her outfit hid any redeeming features she might have had and she wasn’t aware of anyone in the bar but her friend.
And neither was anyone else, for that matter. Who could blame her? Her friend was a stunner with jet black hair, a mouth of snow-white pearls in a row, olive oil skin with green eyes like the widest of fields, and she was not being modest about the body she put that head on. There were strategic curves everywhere on that girl, and Oscar thought the train would derail. Frankly, I did too. She wore a shirt that said, “Eat me, I’m tasteful” and had a lip ring to boot. Her tits were mindless invitations for the eyes of men and Oscar enjoyed the moment of voyeurism as much as I’m sure she was enjoying the attention. Everyone got a real good look at her since they seemed to be ordering and not aware of any curious eyes.
Which turned out not to be true at all! The cunning little foxes, they were looking at Oscar on the reflection after he’d turned to look at them directly. It took me a while to figure out why they were pointing at the window, staring for a while and then smiling and tossing their hair whenever Oscar looked back their way. I’m kinda slow like that sometimes. I’m a very innocent man, you know?
But Oscar is not. Soon enough he was walking towards their end of the bar in need of another drink and absolutely positive that he was dealing with a sure winner here. Flirting via bar car reflections around large white Hungarian men is not something to be done lightly and he figured this girl must mean business.
“Un Jack Daniels con yielo, por favor,” he ordered, right over the girls. The plain girl stood back and gave him a tight-lipped, “I’m impressed” look with one eyebrow raised, then looked at her friend, who remained mostly expressionless for a few seconds.
Oscar can be a pretty cool guy. From his standing position, he looked down where they sat, both staring up at him; his right hand on the cash in his pocket as he ran the other hand through his longish crew-cut hair. He smiled with one side of his face.
“What are YOU drinking?” he asked them, purposefully avoiding the eyes of the pretty one with the tasteful shirt and the sparkly things on her jeans.
“Oh, she’s having tea…” he looked over at the hottie for a moment and she smiled for the first time, “… and I’m just having a coke. How can you drink that stuff PURE?”
He let his smile remain, but he didn’t say anything, nor did he make any attempt to explain it with a shrug or a look. It was starting to look easy.
“What’s your name?” Asked the cute one.
Jesus, thought Oscar, this is going to be TOO easy. Then he answered. He ONLY answered. And his drink arrived.
“Gracias,” he thanked the lady in Spanish, and handed her a blue-ish green-ish bill. The plain one turned her back to the bar.
“Are you going to Algeciras too?” She asked him. Oscar inserted a pause, but continued.
“No, Tarifa. For the weekend.” He turned to the pretty one. “You’re going to Algeciras?”
“Yeah. She lives there and we go to school in Madrid.”
“Home for the weekend?” Oscar replied, with what I thought was a little too much interest in his voice. The plain one answered.
“She’s coming to stay with me and meet my family. We have next week off.” This instantly brought a thought to my head: no wonder those chums at the train station thought there’d be girls in Tarifa this weekend – school vacation… interesting.
“Sounds like a real hoot,” said Oscar, oblivious to what that meant. And so much for cool; even I had noticed how strange that one sounded. “Meet my family?” Ah, spare me, Oscar; pay attention!
But no. He turned back to the pretty one. “So, is it as windy in Algeciras as Tarifa? They say it’s the wind capital of the world.”
“Not as much,” she said, suddenly, all her smiles gone and most of her interest fading. Oscar was confused. The plain one finished her coke.
“What do people do for fun in Algeciras?” he asked, losing his track, wondering why he wasn’t the center of attention any longer. They looked at each other in response to his question. He didn’t notice, and pushed his luck.
“I mean, where would I go in Algeciras to find fun people and run into you?”
He was in a bog of trouble and it would take him too long to climb back out.
The girls looked at each other. The plain one looked back at him.
“Well, we’re together, so, you know, we don’t really need to go out.” Oscar felt the whole train shudder. He’d missed a step, or at least, he thought the train did.
“I see.” But then the pretty one finished her tea and stood to go.
“We’re going back to car 4 now.”
“Bye,” cooed the pretty one, leaving Oscar with his unfinished whiskey.
He finished it.
They’d meant business alright! And HO, HO! What business, indeed.!
Look: I have been had by lesbians before, but Oscar’s Jack Daniels hubris really took a hold of him there. It all occurred to me way after it all started of course, and by the time I understood what was going on, they had already confounded Oscar and had their fun, like kittens unaware that the mouse they’d just batted around for 10 minutes had better things to do and places to be like the other end of the bar; like staring at the sun setting, fast and hard on the right side of the south-bound high-speed train moving across the Spanish landscape.
After they dismissed themselves Oscar had plenty of thoughts to go back to until the next interruption, and many minutes passed. The next interruption came after it was dark, when it no longer mattered out which side of the train Oscar stared.
Two very intoxicated Scotsmen who had clearly not even been to their seats in the last 4 hours noticed that Oscar was writing and they wanted to contribute. I know how that sounds, but let me assure you, he had it under control. He was not going to let it turn ugly like I had in Barcelona only a few months before.
They had been drinking gin, they said, which is a vile thing to drink straight up and by itself, sin nada. It’s an Englishman’s drink, a lonely man’s drink for dark times by a gray stone bridge, or the edge of a marriage on the rocks, which is the same thing. In any case, they had lost all sense of reason but they were at a sentimental stage, very docile and very focused. They really wanted nothing from him except to let them write a poem in his notebook, to which Oscar conceded.
I wish, dear reader, I wish I could write here what that drunk wrote. I really do. The words I caught when he read it sounded like they fit so well together, bits of black and white, like chess pieces on a checkered board, soulless demons falling into their rightful punishments in the dark red blackness of hell, screaming flamenco angers, clapping passions and castanets, beating rhythms onto the hard wood like the clickety-click of our train on the rails in the dark Spanish country-side. Tch-choon, tch-tchin, tchchoon, tch-tchin, tchchoon, tch-tchin… and so on.
But the poor kids were so drunk and unable to tell the train’s swaying from their own that their talent was lost as scribbles on the page. One of the them felt energized from the hopeless gibberish he wrote and sprinted to “get the guitar.” His more coherent friend told Oscar (with surprising clarity) after the poet had left, “don’t worry. He doesn’t play the guitar. We don’t even have a guitar and this is our stop anyway.” The he finished his gin and went to go find his reckless friend. After the Scotsman left, with a strange suspicion on his mind, Oscar smelled the gentleman’s glass. It reeked of water and ice, but certainly not alcohol, or gin, for that matter. For some reason, Oscar had been had. Again.
Why does this keep happening on this train? he wondered…
PART 4 – THE ARRIVAL
People on trains are usually interesting to a fault. I have such a hard time squeezing my life story or even an executive summary of it into the 40 seconds or so that it takes to properly introduce yourself to the attention of train people and yet they do it with such ease. Oscar had this problem too, and hadn’t understood it until then. The distinction is this:
They are all lying.
Oscar reasoned that that must be it. It’s the only explanation that both fits the facts and still passes the statistical taste test of unbelievable bullshit. And while I can’t speak for Oscar here, I’ll tell you how I feel about this, which is: I’m fine with it.
Yeah, that’s right. Smile and enjoy the stories, I say. Recount them to your peers and colleagues if you must. Hell, you might even pass them off as your own, if you’re into that kind of thing and can get away with it. Just don’t believe what these train freaks tell you; not for a minute. Things are not what they seem. Or what they say.
The train passed some more towns: Cordoba, Rondo, something else he didn’t remember. Some of these towns had dark and uninviting concrete pillars at the station; damp corners and dark and empty platforms. No one got out and I didn’t see anyone get on, which weirded me out a bit. In places like that I often get dragged off the wagon, sinking into nerdy philosophy surrounding stories like the Matrix, and wondering if there aren’t other corners of our world or our universe that aren’t accessible to most, but within reach of some. I get to wondering what would happen if I had been the only one who stepped off the train there, in that place, and walked into the unforgiving darkness with swagger and purpose, and only a small bit of fear. What would I find and what dangerous adventures would I be dragged into? Though the answer to that is probably a whole lot of nothing, the thought keeps me focused. Like Oscar was after such a strange day that still wasn’t over. Like the view of the Mediterranean near Tarifa.
And soon the train was in Algeciras and even in the scurry for out-bound transport he managed to catch a cab. There must’ have been 120 people hailing 20 taxis at that otherwise empty train station in the south of Andalusia, but with a sharp whistle, a keen finger and a cold stare, Oscar motioned for the taxi to stop right in front of him and it did. He’s quite a guy sometimes.
The ride from Algeciras to Tarifa might have been mildly uninteresting except that Oscar could see lights on the other side of what was obviously – even in the pitch black of the moonless night – the Mediterranean Sea. It was Africa. Oscar had already panicked once but he was much calmer now and besides, there was no one to call. He was on his own.
But on top of that, the cabbie had the news on the radio and though it was in Spanish, Oscar could understand all of it. I was surprised to note that I was hardly paying attention to what language was being spoken. And there were some pretty big haps: apparently the King of Spain, good ol’ Don Juan Carlos, had sort of lost his composure in an economic summit of Latin-speaking nations and interrupting the obnoxious platform ramblings of Hugo Chavez, the King asked the Venezuelan Dictator why he wouldn’t just shut up. “Por que no te callas?” he’d asked. Good drama.
When he arrived in Tarifa, Oscar still needed to find a place to sleep. He circled the town with the taxi driver, who made some suggestions about where to stay and what not. All uninteresting places, with no class and no character, and just crawling in magazine adds and reeking of international chain. Oscar wasn’t feeling it no matter where the cabbie took him. It’s possible that Oscar just didn’t want to “get taken” somewhere, I don’t know. Given his penchant for the dramatic and a flare for independence and “freedom from the establishment” (as Oscar says, sometimes), it makes all kinds of sense that he wanted to find something on his own; that he wanted to struggle a bit. He liked to figure things out on his own; it makes sense to him. Oscar suggested to the cabbie that he drop him off in the old town and let him fend for himself, even though it was approaching eleven at night and getting pitch black with no sense of direction.
“Are you mad?” the cabbie asked Oscar in Spanish. “This place is packed with degenerates and drug-crazed hooligans. You need rest.”
“Nonsense,” Oscar told him,” I’ve had all the rest I need. I just got off a 5 hour train ride with drunks, politicians, lesbians and other such lying scum. I can handle it. Besides, they can’t touch me here; I’m one of them.” Here Oscar paused and watched the driver get the fear, the mad suspicion that he was carrying a hooligan, a degenerate that could, at any moment start spewing anti-government dogma, talking of free Basque states, support for the ETA and the madness coming from Catalunia in those days. His knuckles turned white with a furious fear and he gripped the steering wheel with angst and anticipation of what would come next.
“This is fine here,” Oscar finally told him with a dismissive wave of his hand. He’d let the cabbie fill himself with enough raw tension and hoped the driver would relax his death grip on the steering wheel. He couldn’t afford to have a cardiac patient on his hands, and there was no need for that kind of behavior; he’d had his fun and saw no reason to drive that man to the brink of ditching his cab outside the Tarifan city limits and run yelling into the Andalusian brush as if driven by frightened fire ants out of the suspicion that Oscar was one of them. Besides, he had things to do. Oscar gave him a twenty and some coins but he didn’t watch the cabbie leave, lest he driving away at obscene speeds. He had nothing but a book, a journal, a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a mind for fun. He had things to do…
PART 5 – THE GIRL
Oscar walked towards the most visible building in the old town, the church. That’s often a good place to start in ancient towns like that, especially in Europe. It was a dark night, no moon in sight and the lights from the town plaza were shrouding any faint stars that might have peaked through the blackness. Strangely, the air was hardly moving at the wind capital of the world at the mouth of the Mediterranean. It was even eerier than Oscar realized at the time, and I’m not sure if he later found out that there was no wind at all anywhere on the Mediterranean that night. Think of that.
At the church, Oscar went left, heading up a narrow alleyway that was well lit but no more than 4 feet wide. There was a bright light about 40 feet down the tight-fitting street coming from some kind of wooden door that was swung open. All kinds of raucous laughter could be heard coming from the space and it picked Oscar’s curiosity. It was past eleven at night but that is early in Spain and there were very few people out, except, apparently, in this place. In Spain people don’t usually leave the house at night until sometime after eleven, assuming they’re in for an early night. Also, it was Thursday so the outside crowd wouldn’t be arriving until tomorrow, and this explanation satisfied Oscar for why the town seemed so still except for whatever light was at the end of this narrow tunnel of a dark street.
For the time being Oscar was stuck with the weirdos – locals and regulars who came for a break, who stayed for the rest and later couldn’t leave for various reasons that are, frankly, beyond my ability to explain. It turns out, as it were, that they were not as bad as the other strange folk from both my and Oscar’s travels, like gambling freaks from small silver mining towns in Nevada or queer drunks from Catholic weaving towns in rural Brazil. Or people from Florida, for that matter. No, no – these freaks were friendly and good natured and meant well.
Take Juan Luis Jr., Bar proprietor (est. 1968) and self-proclaimed “regular guy”, as burned onto a plank of driftwood that he hangs over his bar. A fat man who mocks his own mass (a comfortable 280 lbs.), he will cook, serve and entertain all of his guests, all 8 of them, which is all he can fit into his establishment. He’ll accomplish all this without missing a smile, and probably a hearty laugh as well. He serves up some of the best wine (and chicken) in the city and this is one of the many signs that hang on his wall (I’ve done my best to translate it from the Spanish):
We serve delicious free-range chicken; very wild
With legs like Ronaldinho,
Thighs like Jennifer Lopez,
Breasts like Elsa Pataski,
and the attitude of its creator, Juan Luis Jr.
That’s a hell of a sign. A bit crass, but you know: small town.
He had dusty bottles of wine on the 3 inch shelf on his wall, and judging by how level it isn’t, he didn’t hire anyone to do it. He had memoirs stapled everywhere, a kitchen the size of a small KIA and a bar made of unfinished raw Gaulish Pine. Wines with names like “Azpilicueta“, “Prado Rey“, “Oriza” and a homemade label of “Criado Alhambra“. I wondered about that one, but did not doubt. The liquors this man had were unheard of and dustier than the wine. Pictures of torreiros were hung on the wall next to the garlic and the onions. In short, there washad oodles of charm and character in that place.
I can handle this, thought Oscar.
It’s usually guaranteed, 100%, when Oscar tells someone that he’s Brazilian, that the reply will go something along the lines of “aaaahhhhhhh… Ronaldiiiinnhho, eh? Very good Futbol. Veeeerrrrry good, Ronaldinho.” And so on, referring to the Brazilian star that plays for Barcelona. It changes over the years, from Pele, to Romario, to Ronaldo, and now the new phenom. In a few years it’s sure to be “aaaahhhhh, Robiiiiiinho, eh? Very good Futbol, that Robinho, yes, very good.”
Juan Luis Jr. was no exception. But Oscar didn’t mind. The food was spectacular and just listening to the fat man make fun of himself, tell six jokes a minute and cook at the same time made it all worth any cringy sentiments he had towards people’s most natural reactions to his ethnicity. After eating half a chicken and drinking some of the man’s wine, Oscar took further notice of a sign with a journalist’s picture and her email. She was Dutch, he noticed, and Juan Luis noticed him checking it out.
“She’s a good friend of mine,” he said in Oscar’s direction in a friendly Spanish tone.” She travels the world and writes stories and mentions me sometimes,” he said with some pride.
“What kind of writing does she do? Is she a novelist or more of a journalist type?”
“She’s done both, but usually she works for the New York Times. Says that’s a very good newspaper.”
“Is that what she says?” Oscar couldn’t hide his smile.
“What’s your business here this weekend?”
“What makes you think I’m here just for the weekend?”
“Please. I’m Juan Luis Jr. – did you see the sign?” Oscar smiled. “I have the attitude that makes this chicken. And you have it written all over your face.”
“What? The chicken?” Oscar said, only half-joking. Juan Luis liked it.
“I had to get out of Madrid for a little while. Too much, you know?”
“Selah, my friend, Selah.” Yikes, thought Oscar.
“How about some port?” Asked Juan Luis, insistingly. Oscar did not refuse.
“Is it okay if I write down her email? I’m a bit of a writer myself,” said Oscar, and The Proprietor conceded. “But tell me, why do you have her email address on the wall?”
“So that people ask me about her.” The proprietor smiled coyly. “Drink up, friend. Your drink is on the house.”
After his drink he thanked The Proprietor, who wished him well, and then Oscar wandered off in search of a temporary abode. He headed back towards the church, and once on the main street, just in front of the crumbling church, he turned around. He’d heard the eight footsteps of the people behind him; two guys and two girls. Oscar assumed they were together; after all, these were twenty-somethings, kids; no older than Oscar. They must’ve been two traveling couples, or something. They were hipsters minus the scarves; people on their parents’ dime with no particular mission other than fun, distraction and perhaps some political complaining, though it would never escalate into a discussion. Company that Oscar could hardly relate to, but could certainly use: besides the occasional glaring hypocrisy, they were nothing like the suited lizards back in Madrid. Oscar noticed a Brazilian accent in the English of one of the guys in the group of four and decided to talk to them, to hell with the fact that he himself looked menacing and weird, a lonely guy walking around the old square by the church at almost midnight with no sense of direction and nothing but his torn and worn backpack from 8th grade. No – there was no time to worry about things like that.
The Brazilian was from Belo Horizonte, it turned out – a central Brazilian town which I neither know from personal experience nor is it high on my list of destinations. It’s right down there with Detroit, Des Moines or Utica. I’m sure it’s a fine city in the middle of nowhere in a Brazilian state in which I have very little business. But it’s just not a priority, you know?
But so much for all that. The Brazilian guy, whose name was Gabriel, directed Oscar to a hotel by the church and invited him to meet up with their group once he’d settled in.
“We’re going to a place called Raizes, which is just across the street from the place I told you about,” he told Oscar. Foolish, but nice, as far as protocol goes.
Let me explain: it was a group of two guys (Brazilian and Spanish) and two girls (both German). Oscar had no bad intentions, mind you, nor did he suspect mischief of any kind from any front, including his own. All he saw was an opportunity to not spend the night alone, which was optimal given his ongoing state of social-hermit. But if that Brazilian guy had any intentions with those German girls – and I suspect he did – he should have sent Oscar to Tangier fast and forceful.
But he didn’t.
Naively, Oscar got himself a single room and quickly went to the bar they’d all mentioned, Raizes, which is a small place, well-run by a dude who is high pretty much twenty hours a day. At least. The rest of the time he’s asleep, which is when I imagine he sobers up a bit since it’s hard to sleep and smoke at the same time. Given the guy’s demeanor, it’s a good life for him, I think.
In any case, he made them all caipirinhas and the next thing Oscar knew he was deep in conversation with one of the German girls. Jana, pronounced with a ‘Y’, which makes a guy like me weak in the knees. She explained to Oscar that she and her friend had just met Gabriel and the other Spanish guy, with whom Oscar never spoke, nor did I learn his name in any other way.
And why should Oscar have bothered himself with the Spanish guy? He had the attention of a beautiful German girl with a name that makes a Euro-crazed man mortal and whose accent, particularly when she pronounced his name, made Oscar behave like a controlled epileptic, shivers running down his back and all kinds of impulses being held back. So who cares what the Spanish guy’s name was?
Right. No one in this story does. And when she told him that they’d just met these guys, that these were not boyfriends and that these were free-wandering girls with all the rights, privileges and possibilities entitled, all kinds of lights and bells went off in Oscar’s head. It looked like a riot in there, with police beatings and sudden mayhem when he realized that this amazing creature – with a smile that softened hard surfaces; with eyes… no, not just eyes, but a look that dented perceptions and a wild flirtatious laugh that could captivate your attention even in high winds and rough seas – that this girl was available. To boot, she seemed to be honing in on him. What was he going to do with this?
“Let’s go to that bar that has Moroccan tea in the metal chain mail,” suggested Jana’s friend, which seemed to excite Jana as well. Oscar was down, and finished his caipirinha.
Somewhere between walking to the next bar and the narrow alleyway the two of them found themselves alone for a few seconds. Her friend and the other guys were either ahead of them or behind, Oscar wasn’t sure. But he and Jana had stopped walking while waiting for the rest, and found themselves in between a closed boutique and a dark alleyway with only a park bench visible anywhere in the surrounding 3 meters. It looked like a scene out of a Carey Grant movie where the lamplight is showing you only what you need to see and the darkness is covering everything else in the scene. No distractions. Oscar caught both him and her staring at each other from head to toe, enjoying the fact the other was looking too. She let him finish taking in her neck lines, the soft lick of her lips and her shockingly blue eyes and then she leaned in and pressed her lips to his. He returned the gesture, still surprised that things had taken this turn. She pulled back and licked her lips without smiling. She looked at him and her eyes said, in every language I know, “what the hell are you waiting for?”
Then Oscar got over his moment and wrapped one hand around her slim waist, bringing her hips closer to his own, and kissing her as a girl with eyes that blue deserves to be kissed, leaned back and held tightly while the other hand slipped from her face to her neck. Between them was barely enough room for the warm breeze that was picking up in that dark night with no moon.
Sure, Oscar had nothing to fear; but that’s never been what makes a man fearless. Doing what he does with some benefits along the way, Oscar has no anchor; no worry to slow him down. But I tell you, since I know: he would’ve kissed her just the same. He’d do it again in a snap.
And it seemed to last 20 minutes, that kiss, that moment. A moment broken off from time. A moment that was theirs, and even the city, the coast, all of Spain might as well have been deserted, as there was only the two of them, held tightly in each other’s arms in that smallest and most hidden of cobblestoned squares.
Eventually the rest of the crew caught up to them or came back for them or whatever. They went to the place called Casablanca, which I thought was a stupid name for a place that close to Morocco. There, things quickly became a blur. It was a series of moments clouded by a haze of mojitos and Moroccan tea and drunken kisses in dark corners filled with the apprehension of who would make the next move and what it would be. I know that Gabriel and the Spaniard left Oscar with the girls at some point in the night, but I couldn’t say if they were pissed at the momentum they’d lost or if they were just too tired and too drunk to carry on the charming fight. And who cares? Oscar owed them nothing and if those two dudes lost anything there that night it was their failure, not mine, not yours, and certainly not Oscar’s.
Oscar settled onto the seat with Jana flirting mischievously between him and her friend, who often got up to got get more tea. The pace of things quickened. The tea was sweet and the music was loud and Jana’s friend, in an effort to secure a man for the night was doing shots of some French liquor that smelled like it was sweet but she claimed tasted like Kentucky
“How is it that a lovely German girl gets to know about Kentucky bourbon?” Oscar asked, tactlessly. Jana didn’t seem to notice anything hostile in his voice but her friend sure did. She stopped showing any sign of fun and got up to get more tea.
Oscar was pushing some kind of limit, being awake and smelling French liquor infused with Moroccan tea… things have boundaries, he tried to remind himself, but Jana was too enticing and the tea was too sweet, and he let the blur take over for a while. At least until Jana’s friend suddenly appeared and cleared up all the cloudy haze of comfort and anticipation, saying she wanted to go home.
What a ball-buster, man. Jana had no choice. He cursed her silently, but a part of him thanked the heavens for an out for sleep. Something good would come of all this, at least.
“I’ll walk you two home, if that’s alright,” said Oscar. Jana’s eyes lit up, and to her friends’ detriment, Jana said it would be lovely.
After the scene mellowed and the exhaustion set in Oscar took the girls to their hotel, his own body pleading for rest. They directed him to the blue door on the steep street up the small hill from the old church. Oscar bid Jana’s friend goodnight and they all exchanged phone numbers but Jana wasn’t done with her moment. The night stretched before them like a black rubber band under tension wrapped in no silver, and neither of them wanted to let go and have it come snapping back. They snagged the moment mischievously.
“Are you sure you have to follow your friend into that blue door?” Oscar asked her. She casually closed the door to the hostel and stayed on the street, with her elbow on Oscar’s shoulder and her forearm behind his head, her fingers playing with his hair. Between kisses she managed to tell him she didn’t want to sleep behind her own blue door. After making out with her on the steep cobblestone street outside her hotel for a while, afraid she was going to head for that blue door, Oscar let a smile crawl up his face and while she kissed his neck, he guided her back towards his hotel with his hand around her small curvy waist. She made no attempt to suggest otherwise, asked him which way to walk and didn’t return to those blue doors until the next morning… bourbon.
PART 6 – THE NEXT DAY
In the morning there was much noise and commotion outside of Oscar’s window. It started early, way before it was time to open the shades and let the light flood that small single-bed room. A bread market, it seemed, had formed (cultivated?) right outside his flat, and since sleep was impossible in that heat and that haphazard noise, Oscar and Jana made good use of their time in that most secluded of rooms, knowing full well that so long as they stayed in that room, there wasn’t a person in the world besides the inn-keeper who know where they were.
She left after all was said and done with no promises, no commitment. Just an expression of the desire to continue later what they had started the night before and that morning. Oscar was fine with this.
“Maybe I see you again tonight?” Jana asked with a smile, her eyebrows lifted in anticipation of Oscar’s boyish ‘yes’.
“I’d be terribly disappointed if you didn’t,” he said. Then he saw her change her complexion.
“Have some condoms tonight, eh?” She scolded him, pouting her cute lips and pretending to be mad. He put his head down and pretended to be submissive. She liked it and stroked his hair. Then she grabbed her things and left.
But she’s right, Oscar thought to himself, why don’t I have condoms? A mission, he decided.
Oscar had come here looking for surf but without a swell, well, what is a man to do? It’s not like there’s any sense in moping about the town with sad looks and griping about the lack of surf. This makes especially little sense if you’ve woken up next to a beautiful woman who has no agenda other than fun and still smells like she did the night before of freshly washed sheets that were sun-dried over fields of jasmine. I’ll say this: CK and Davidhoff have yet to come close to creating a fragrance that soothing.
I don’t know how many men have woken up to that marvelous a creature in that marvelous a place. How many, I wonder, have followed the whole affair with the simple pleasure of toast and coffee and a strong breeze in an ancient port city square, more alone and less lonely than any man before conceived, only to run off to the beach with nothing but a book in their bag and all the time in the world. I doubt many have shed all their clothes and bathed in the ocean using nothing but cold brine and sand to cleanse the pores on their body. Beyond, a vast ocean and behind, a vacuous beach that stretched for kilometers in both directions with naught but a fisherman every so often. Glorious. I doubt that more than a few, and far fewer than some have splashed and awoken their faces with the cold waters of the Mediterranean, taken from where it meets the unforgiving Atlantic to purge them of woes and corporate filth while retaining the touch of a woman’s skin that still danced lightly on the surface of their fingertips. Gaea is an amazing thing indeed and we are reminded of it mostly at times like that.
Well, if it’s anything to anyone… Oscar has.
So he walked up and down that beach, reading from Kurt Vonnegut and wondering things when the wet lick of the waves would touch his toes. He did not have a concept of time in his mind. I lost track of it myself, to tell you the truth.
He walked north-west for many kilometers, crossing some rivers that splashed the cuffs of his pants. Occasionally he would stop and listen to the wind that was picking up in gusts, and would settle down for brief intervals. It stroked his ear lobes, and brought a salty taste to his lips. He thought of all the waves and on all the beaches he’d ever surfed at. He tried to remember all the solid moments with all the girls he’d been with, the wet kisses, the first touches, a hand slipping beyond where it was expected but finding, instead that it was welcomed there. He thought of these as conquered moments, victorious drafts of a fate as yet unwritten. He smiled for much of this time. Sometimes he forgot, but that’s only because he was too busy watching a wave break, too awed by the whitecaps in the distance, too anxious by the lick of the wind on his face.
After a few hours of this he discovered that he was hungry and that it had all been enough of this silliness. He needed food and probably drink as well, and for that he would need to head back to town.
… well. Tarifa had another thought for him.
As he approached the town from the ocean like so many breezes before him, a strange and eery feeling came over him that something was wrong, or at least very different. There were no people on the streets. Nothing was open. Everywhere he turned there were closed shops and cafes with signs reading “closed from 2-5″ or “Back at 6.”
Back at 6? he thought. What the hell is going on here? Does the whole town have, like, afternoon plague or something? What could knock out an entire town? Toda la ciudad? All of it? And just until 6?
And then it hit him: siesta. Duh. You’re in Spain now, Rube.
But this wasn’t just an afternoon nap, you understand. This was serious. Everyone was out. Even the plants and the trees seemed to slouch a bit. He searched the narrow streets but found nothing there but soft sunlight, where sound doesn’t carry well and is muffled by the soft stucco on all the curves and corners of so many white and off-white buildings. The whole thing had kind of a religious intensity to it and creeped him out a little bit. Even the indecent hours between 3 and 7 in the morning when the madness stops and the bullshit sleeps aren’t this still, this dead. For Oscar, it was like being the last person on Earth. What a drag it was to be a writer then instead of a musician!
After last night’s series of events, for which Oscar was grossly unprepared, nothing was more important than that by dinner-time that same day he have on him at least a few condoms. Oscar, is not, after all, stupid.
But as the town was seemingly deserted and all the pharmacies he’d seen so far were utterly and inescapably closed, the situation was grim. He went into a slight panic, roaming the narrow and shaded streets of the town like a rat in a labyrinth, looking for a hunk of cheese, or in Oscar’s case, a pack of rubbers. It seemed that every corner he turned he could see 2 or 3 pharmacies, their green neon crosses, international symbol for chemists, were hanging over the shops by the streets; but all of them were closed. He began to suspect foul play as nothing could be this bleak. Remember, he was also hungry.
After about 10 minutes of aimless and panicked wandering, Oscar found a green cross that was turned on, illuminated, surely the likeliest place to buy condoms. It looked small and conservative but Oscar had never had any reservations about purchasing condoms. He’s walked right into any of many LongR#8217;s Drugs stores and in front of 7 perfect strangers inspected the condom rack to carefully make his selection. He’s proceeded to the checkout, maybe with a couple other items, maybe not. He’s stood in front of another handful of perfect strangers and waited for the checkout person to ring him up as if he was buying milk, vegetables or socks. Instead, the name of his product of choice has clearly shown up on the cash register’s green screen for all to see: CONDOMS – 6 PACK.
Oscar really didn’t care about any this. He’d look right at the clerk when handing him/her his cash/credit card. They both (we all, actually) knew what that thing he/she’s handling is for, and probably where it will be eventually, possibly even soon.
And so what? None of this has never bothered Oscar. He figured he’d walk into this Spanish pharmacy, find the condoms, pick them out, hand the clerk some Euros, walk out of the place with his head high and ready for the night; mission accomplished, done with the whole affair.
Mind you, Oscar didn’t know the word for “condom” in Spanish at the time, and neither did I. I think I’ve mentioned this somewhere. Well, here it is: this is almost the point in the story where you get to watch him learn it. Because how hard could it be to use his broken Spanish to describe the simple device? How complicated could a situation get that Oscar, the brave, the bold Oscar couldn’t handle it in Spanish?
The answer is: complicated, indeed.
As Oscar walked under the green cross and through the pharmacy doors, the first thing he noticed was the small size of the store. With standing room for about 6 people on the customer side of the cash register, there wasn’t much looking around to be done. He looked around and became worried since he saw no signs of condoms on any of the racks. Suspecting that they were kept behind the counter, Oscar prepared himself mentally for the task of asking the pharmacist to fetch them for him.
That’s when Oscar saw the old ladies. They congregated in that store of medicines and creams, pills and ointments and all kinds of cotton balls, latex gloves and band-aids. Just no goddamn rubbers.
There were 3 of them, hunched and gossiping over the counter, stirring all kinds of nonsense and moving their arms erratically as they spoke.
Walking purposefully into a Longs Drugs or a Rite-Aid and picking out condoms amongst a sea of strangers is one thing… but interrupting the only three people in a pharmacy the size of a small bathroom, the only three people not sleeping in a catholic town to ask for sexual protection in the dead of the afternoon siesta is something else altogether.
But Oscar is not one to falter without at least trying, and he approached the counter, speaking in frightened and slightly broken Spanish. I was afraid for him.
“Buenas Tardes, sir. How is everything?” asked the dark-haired middle-aged lady on the other side of the counter. She gave him a strange look.
“Ummm… necesito… I mean, I need… ummm… I don’t know the name for it, but it’s… ummm…”
“Is it a well-known brand?”
“… ummm, it’s not a brand. It’s, ummm… gosh, this is hard…”
“Is it for head aches?”
“[smiling] no, it’s not for head aches…” Oscar looked around and met the old ladies’ gaze with frustrated tension. “It’s, um, for protection… uh…” He wanted to say ‘sexual protection,’ but he didn’t know why he couldn’t. It should be said that he had no idea what kind of reaction that was going to provoke from the Shakespearean witches in the corner. What if they’re nuns? he wondered. And when are they going to wrap it up and leave?
“What kind of protection? Like, for stomach?”
Jesus!, Oscar thought, wondering how much more uncomfortable a situation could get, and considered that he may have to resort to pointing to his crotch in order to get his idea across.
“Is it protection for your joints, like knees and elbows?”
[long exhale] Christ. Way off.
“No, no, it’s… oh, sweet lord, this is hard.” Oscar was starting to get nervous and drawing a blank. Curses; more stares from the ladies who now huddled and payed attention to nothing but this painful exchange. Oscar couldn’t take much more of this and wondered if he should crawl back out to the street like a defeated rat and search for a larger, more open place where he could be more anonymous. I thought that was silly of him; “how much more anonymous can you get, Oscar?” I remember thinking. “I mean seriously… a hole in a wall pharmacy at the tip of continental Europe, 600 km from anyone who even knows your name, let alone who you are. Who cares what they think?”
But Oscar wasn’t seeing this reason; it was enough to be flustered from the lack of vocabulary and fluid speech, to say nothing of the specific and very dire need he had of getting his hands on a stupid pack of condoms. And all he could see and all he could feel was the pounding stare, the prodding and judging eyes of the catholic grandmothers some footsteps away from him, soaking up his humiliation like it was the only excitement they’d have for the week. It was making it impossible for him to act, to be indifferent to the situation and the surrounding people; he felt like he was 8 again, a second-grader standing in line at the cafeteria and wanting to ask for ice cream, knowing full well that the money he’d been given was for milk. All he had to do was ask for ice cream and he’d get it, but the consequence is that everyone knew he’d have asked for ice cream, and they would judge him and probably his mother would find out and then the jig would be up. He wanted to leave with some dignity, while he still had it, and he formulated a plan.
“Can you give me a moment? I’ll be right back; I’m just going to ask my friend outside what it’s called…” and he took off up the street, trying to get out of ear and eyeshot of the ladies and the pharmacy and get his thoughts together, and in English.
Jesus, what happened in there, he wondered. And what now?
Oscar walked in the general direction of his hotel, hoping for an answer and planning to just sleep and handle it later if none came up. But he stumbled across a red metal shack, a magazine stand, and blessed purple jesus, it was open. Inside was an old gentlemen. Oscar grabbed his opportunity.
“Good afternoon, sir, is all good?” Oscar is fluent but sometimes he still translates and between you and me, it sounds silly in Spanish the way foreigners sometimes sound in English.
The old man looked up from his newspaper, already worn and frayed around the edges from being folded and unfolded all day long in that tiny booth. His pipe lay on the counter carelessly, still warm and smelling of aged tobacco. He smoked so much that his fingers stained the newspaper, not vice-versa. The pages were white still, fresh from that same day but covered in yellow-brown blotches from where his fingers had held tightly all throughout the day.
“Yes, yes, all is very well.”
“Please, perhaps you can help me with something… I can’t [for the life of me] remember the word for something I need to buy.”
There was a short pause.
Right, Oscar thought to himself, best not dilly-dally.
“At the pharmacy; what do you call the thing for sexual protection?”
Blank stare. Shit.
“You know? The rubber thing you put on yourself for safe sex?” Oscar was nervous now. But the old man smiled.
“The rubber thing YOU put on yourself for safe sex, kid,” and he let out a loud noise that sounded like cross between clearing his throat and a single laugh. “I never worn one of these condones in my entire life! Back in my day we didn’t have none of them problems you kids have and now? Well, now, the wife is out of commission (if you know what I mean) and it’s not like I’m running around the neigborhood and can’t nobody tell who I’ve been with, you know? Bah, as if I could even leave this little booth if I wanted to! Heh!”
Oscar laughed with the old man, and asked him to confirm the word for the accursed rubber.
“Condone,” repeated the old man. Oscar smiled with a sigh of relief, thanked the old man and made tracks back to the pharmacy. He was confident that he’d face their angry catholic stares with witty and heartfelt indifference now, and send them back to their boiling pots and their gossip potions or whatever. Stupid hags.
But when he got back to the pharmacy some 3 minutes later, the green lights were off, the iron curtain was down over the door and the old ladies were nowhere to be seen; the place was totally closed with only a sign on the front door behind the iron grill that had come down over it: “Back at 6 – home for rest”.
Fuck this place, thought Oscar.
Eh. Bob Dylan said that you might never beat them but you don’t have to join them… Oscar, however, saw no harm in that – he was hungry and tired and he knew that when he woke up there would be food and place for condones, and if he played his cards right, a beautiful German girl. So be it, he thought. Back at 6, indeed.
When he awoke he was still hungry and stepped into the first decent looking place he found, which was easy. He solved his hunger problem with a swordfish steak and a fine and full-bodied Spanish wine. After Oscar paid the bill, however, he understood that he was hungry for something else. It too, was full-bodied and went well with meat. In this case, though, Oscar would have to entice it with a fine Moroccan tea at the Misiana Lounge.
A phone call and a couple of text messages later, Oscar was looking at her again through the bottom of his glass of Moroccan tea. She was smiling eagerly…
PART 7 – AFRICA
He lost himself in her body and her scent. His mind was left at the door and the night was navigated with lust and instinct. The anticipation of what they’d denied themselves the previous night was put to rest the moment Oscar locked the door to his room. What little sleep they got lasted until the first beam of light sneaked past the wooden grill on the window, and just about the time that the bread market was taking shape outside again, with enough noise to drown out their moans of pleasure and orgasm. She, pleading him not to stop; he, grunting like so many grizzlies in California. They made love again to the sound of people on the street who were buying bread and fruit at the market that bloomed so naturally on the street below.
The warm morning was barely noticed since they’d sweated the night away in each other’s arms, but when he could no longer function as a human being she left him in that bare room alone with his thoughts. He slowly came back into himself and remembered that he had things to do. Africa was waiting only 35 minutes away.
With enough time and lots of money, any task can be accomplished, any place can be reached, any person can be found. Oscar had the rest of the day and a ticket to Africa was only 55 Euros, so that part was easy and far from dramatic. Except for the posters of the wanted members of the ETA terrorist group… Oscar paused at it and looked hard.
Something about it didn’t move right to him, didn’t find a place in his stomach in which to settle. The six faces he saw posted, the six names, they seemed familiar to him, like neighbors he could relate to. He knew nothing of their plight, had no knowledge of their cause. It had something to do with cultural continuity and self governance… probably more complicated than that and Oscar certainly didn’t have the facts. Still; they looked like actors in a movie. Not quite a GAP commercial, mind you, but good looking and brimming with emotion. It was hard to label them as terrorists, especially without knowing what they’d done, and who was accusing them and under the light of what sovereignty…
“Excuse me,” Oscar asked one of the guards at the passenger terminal, “but what are these people wanted for?”
“Ah, si, senor – these people… well, they planted bombs in cars all over the country-side and blew them up, know? and they also participated in exploding those trains in Madrid in 2004.”
“Really? These are the Madrid train bombers?” Oscar asked him skeptically. He felt the man wasn’t saying the whole truth and he wanted to give the GAP models a chance.
“Well, no, ETA did that. These people are part of ETA, see, and they must be caught.” He said the last part as if his boss would be proud that he was so adamant about his own attitude. “They each each planned separate attacks that killed 2 or 3 people each.”
“Oh,” Oscar mumbled. “You mean they don’t even know each other? Are you sure they’re not, like, a band of poor kids of Basque farmers, rising up to protect the lands and ways of their forefathers?” Oscar asked naively.
The officer chuckled. “They’re not innocent, or excusable, senor, if that’s what you mean. It’s easy to get caught up in the plight, even if you understand it. But these people killed other people so that the rest of us would be afraid. Don’t joke with yourself: they must be caught and answer for their actions.”
“Oh,” Oscar mumbled again, very disappointed. “You mean you’re sure they’re not actors? They really look like it.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, senor.” Oscar thanked him, but he was pretty sure the man was at least partially lying. There had to be a story there with those faces, those Basque names…
Once he passed all of the terrorist screening points and all the posters of his characters, Oscar climbed on-board the ship and found a place on the deck where the wind was already blowing – and man, it moved! Towards Africa, the boat then stirred.
With Spain and Europe behind him and Africa in front, there was nothing else to do for that moment but put his head down on the port side rail of that ferry, soaking in the Mediterranean spray, look to the distance and feel whatever he felt.
The spray was as thick as it was inconsistent and much of the time Oscar was tempted to get back inside where it was warm and where many of the questions that confounded him out there were never asked. He resisted.
Some time passed and a lightness fell over Oscar.
When the boat stopped he stepped off casually onto the asphalt deck and waited for an obvious sign of the guide. An official looking man with a very Moroccan mustache and aviators that reflected even the look of god barred Oscar as he stepped off the ramp, asking for his papers. Passport control, thought Oscar. Either that or the first sign of trouble. Little did he know, it was kind of both.
But he soon spotted another man in a white cloak that went down almost to his ankles. The cloak had a large pointy hood that hung down the back, making the dark-skinned man under it look like Obi-wan Kenobi in a culty kind of way. Weird. But the guy was nice enough, pleasant and all that. He told Oscar his name was something complicated and that he should call him Mr. Danny instead.
“Vale,” Oscar told him, which is a Spanish way of saying, ‘okay‘. It was all the same to Oscar and he stood there, waiting for the other tourists in the group there in the hot sun that was baking the asphalt of the parking lot of the dock. Mr. Danny started telling Oscar not to worry about being on time for the last boat, that he would make sure they got there on time. Oscar wasn’t worried. This was exactly what he wanted: to be as far away from the depressing corporate atmosphere he’d been surrounded by all week. To feel distant from those gray men, those old lizards that talked in vague terms with hidden meanings and could never be counted on for any kind of action. There, on the asphalt dock of Tangier, only 35 minutes away from Spain, a good 6 hours from Madrid and with two days of random encounters, calculated risks, passionate mornings, heavy whiskeys and exotic teas, he was immeasurably farther from that reality than he’d been in his whole life. Missing the boat back was the last thing on his mind.
A Mediterranean-looking couple stepped off shortly after that and had a slightly more difficult time with the passport goon than Oscar had had, but they soon were past immigration and had found the guide who called himself Mr. Danny. They introduced themselves as Marcel and Marie-Claire. He was French-Basque, he said, and she was French from the Riviera, somewhere near Nice, I think. He talked easily, shook a firm handshake and said little. He was wearing a decidedly un-Basque Hawaiian shirt when he approached the place where Oscar and Mr. Danny were standing, cargo shorts from Banana Republic or something and leather clogs. He looked like he’d just stepped off a plane from from AspenHilo but was diverted instead to Tangier for some reason. She, on the other hand, was the complicated high-maintenance type. Her neck dripping with pearls, a red and gold shawl over her shoulders, her hair dyed jet black, her face caked in makeup and lipstick and her heels screaming for the destruction of all cobblestone streets. Oscar despised her immediately.
A mother-daughter duo stepped off of the ferry boat shortly after the French couple and had an even harder time with passport control. The mother looked sick to her stomach with fear as the large man shoved his hand out to reach for her passport. Oscar watched them stand there silently as the aviators scanned the documents intently. Aviators are a great tool for inspiring fear. So is a tight .357 magnum held discretely under your fake Armani suit. And that jack had both.
When they came through they were speaking a very Mexican-sounding Spanish, apparently quibbling about the sunglasses the mother had lost on the thirty-five minute voyage across the Mediterranean from Tarifa. The daughter was young, maybe twenty-one, large Chanel-branded sunglasses and dressed as if she had a slim, tight little body. She didn’t, really. And she wasn’t much on the attractive scale either. One less distraction, thought Oscar.
The mother introduced herself and her daughter to Oscar. Maria and Ana, respectively, from Seville.
“Seville__?” asked Oscar. “Your accents sound Mexican, no?”
“We live in Madrid. We’re definitely not Mexican.” Ana said.
“What about you?” Asked Maria.
Oscar told them the tale of being Brazilian but growing up in California, learning Spanish from a mix of taking it in high school and dating Mexican girls.
“I’d say it’s about 5% classroom learning, 70% Mexican girls and the rest still needs some work,” he chided. Mr. Danny came in to the conversation about then, and said, “Ahh, Brasileiro? Ronaldiiiiiinho, eh?!”
Oy – so expected…ah well, thought Oscar. It made him feel at home in that strange place that looked creepily like an Islam version of the port of Santos, between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Mr. Danny attempted to tell them about the route they’d be taking up through the streets of the old and very poor quarter of Tangier but it didn’t make much sense to anyone without being there already, and the asphalt was getting too hot and unbearable. The five of them got on an air-conditioned bus and headed off towards the city, which wasn’t far off. On the hill just west of the ferry station, Mr. Danny wound them through the haphazardly curved and steeply inclined streets of the historic quarter. As in most old cities, strange sights and sounds abounded. People sometimes kneeled in a direction that seemed random to them at first until someone pointed out that they were kneeling on rugs in the direction of Mecca. Oscar though this was pretty awesome.
The whole time he noticed the ornate corners on the buildings, the laughs and cries in the shadows and deep insides of the tightly packed buildings. Some of them were homes, and others were shops selling anything from flat bread to candy to spices, from haircuts and shaves to fake Gucci Jeans – I didn’t know Gucci made jeans; how about that? Adorning the walls and the structures were mixtures of colors that are simply not done where I come from.
Into that decrepitly poor old quarter of the city they climbed, for a wide open view of the Atlantic through a broken city wall where poor children no older than 4 hung around to ask for money. Mr. Danny shooed them off from Marcel, who was having a hard time using his French to tell the kid to bug off. Most people there speak very good Spanish, but the French was hard to come by. Oscar found himself silently trying to ignore the many outstretched hands that seemed to moved along with him, the finger’s strokes like individual prayers that burned his guilty conscience for wanting to help but judging them instead. He didn’t even look at their faces.
Further down the street the begging children were gone, replaced by older boys and young men, peddlers of small trinkets, souvenirs, post cards and anything else that can be carried in small quantities to be sold on foot along the calle. These are not passive people in their charge of offloading as much of their merchandise as they can; they are known as mosquitos and swarm right up to anyone or any group, pushing things like miniature wooden camels, small congo drums, beads, necklaces, sunglasses and a smorgasboard of other possibilities. They hover around and follow you along the streets long after you say ‘no‘, making offers so low it would shame you to accept them in any market. Prices vary and anything can be had for a tenth of the asking price, because they are so poor they will take any margin they can, period. And they are not shy about exploiting the human soft spot for pity, flat-out describing what they need to you, and if only you would buy their camel, then they could eat today.
Oscar heard their pleas, as he’d heard them a hundred times before in a hundred different cities in Brazil, in Thailand, In Vietnam, in Cambodia… There was always this conflict of wondering what was the point of helping one today. It won’t make any difference, and you can’t help them all. Surely it’s better to help one of them, even just for today than to do nothing, but how do you chose which one to help? Oscar was not there to buy, but he felt terrible for these people who were just doing what they do everyday to survive.
What more could he do?
Mr. Danny guided them past a few other markets and into a building from which Oscar could hear the faint wail of Moroccan Flamenco, and realized they were going for lunch. Excellent, thought Oscar.
The place was decorated with white walls, red cushions and gold linings, adorned with ornate etchings on the ceiling and elaborate wooden chair backs. Everything showy was ornate. They were seated next to where the band was playing and the waiter brought them all a small cup of Moroccan mint tea and Oscar got all giddy. He loves Moroccan mint tea. So do I, for that matter. Who doesn’t?
When the soup came like a freight train of colors, the smell of cinnamon could have knocked over a buffalo. A smile creeped onto Oscar’s lips completely without control. Then came the large plate of saffron chicken & cous-cous and the table became so bright & yellow so suddenly that he almost jumped back.
“Aaahh!” he started, then suddenly became aware that others were staring at him with reproach and disapproval. He looked around in silence, then stared down at his mouth-watering and alarmingly bright meal and raised both of his eyebrows with a tight-lipped look of confusion as he took in the scent and prepared himself for delicious food. What was wrong with those people? he wondered. I wish I knew. Oscar certainly didn’t.
After lunch Mr. Danny strongly suggested that they tip the musicians and Oscar felt more than happy to do so. He had been completely taken by the mix of sounds and the distinct rhythm of Moroccan flamenco while eating his bright yellow chicken. He lost himself in his imagination, speculating on the exchange of cultures that had taken place between the Spanish and the Moors, the Visigoths and the Romans and everything else in between in this region of the world over the last thousand years. The beat of the music had kept him going and he was fine forking over a couple extra shells for it. Maria and Ana, on the other hand, raised a fuss.
“I told the travel agency that I’m a vegetarian,” Ana gripped.
“I didn’t much care for the music either… why should I tip them?”
Jesus, thought Oscar, lighten up. When in Rome and all that shit, you know?
But they didn’t know. Oscar was always disappointed when he actually came across people who feel that way.
After lunch they were taken into a studio were rugs were sold. I had seen it coming from a mile away, and Oscar had too. I was even starting to wonder when something like this was going to come.
It was called an academy, supposedly to convince tourists like Marcel and Marie-Claire that this is where the artists make the quality products that we’d later be shown, but Oscar could see it was clearly a warehouse and besides, he’d looked behind the rugs that hung on the walls like curtains and he knew what was behind them, backing them up as legitimate artisan craft.
A whole lot of nothing.
As the man talked about the rugs and how they’re made, he spoke of their quality, their fine weaving and the special dyes that have been in use for centuries in Morocco. He touted the stronger selling points, naturally. Oscar listened distractedly, sitting in a corner with a blank notebook, pretending to write so as to avoid being hassled by one of the academy representatives, also known as a rug salesman.
Soon after the speech was over it started, the mosquitos swarmed and the selling started, strong-arming some while sweet-talking others. The head rug guy, stout and unshaven, smelled of a damp cloth that has been left too long in a kitchen sink; he snorted a lot and hardly ever looked you in the eye. He had latched onto a tiny helpless-looking Asian girl, roughly college age. She was standing across the room from him, about twenty feet away and he moved in for the kill, knowing exactly how to attack her. He began by offering her nothing but options, and then moved on to making her uncomfortable. Oscar watched the whole thing with intrigue.
“You tell me which one you like.”
“Oh, no thanks. I’m not going to buy one, I just want to look.”
“No, no, little miss. Not to buy. Just you tell me, I’m curious – I’m curious man; just which one is your favorite?”
“Oh. Well, ok. Um, well, they’re all so pretty…”
“You tell me; choose there which one you like best. Which color? Not to buy; just your favorite. I want to know.”
“Well, um, I guess the orange one is pretty…”
There it is, thought Oscar. That’s step one right there: showing interest. Let’s see how deep she digs her grave.
“Okay, you like the orange one… [Yelling in some Arabic language] – BADR, my son!”
“No, no, you don’t have to…”
“It’s ok, it’s ok, he has strong back, and you must see it if you like it.”
“Ok, but I’m not going to buy it.”
Like hell, thought Oscar. Just you wait.
“You like another one? No, this one you like it. It’s a good price. I do one hundred Euro for you because you’re pretty lady.”
A young boy about 16 appeared, shy and meek, not meeting many eyes. “Get the orange one for her. You like him? This is my son. Badr. It means ‘moon’. You like him? You marry him, take him with you – he give you good life: he never sleeps; lasts all night.” At this the boy rolled his eyes, like this happens all the time. But nobody is paying any attention to the kid. His father’s scraggly beard, like his persuading voice, commands the attention of the entire store.
“I can’t take a rug, sir.”
“Ok, you don’t marry Badr, but you like the orange one, it’s pretty. I give it to you for fifty Euro. It’s a good price.”
“It’s very pretty but it’s too expensive. I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy a rug today.”
“You are traveling, yes? You are a student in America? Where do you study?”
“I go to UCLA in Los Angeles.”
Dear me, thought Oscar. She’s doomed.
“Los Angeles is wonderful place in America,” said Badr’s father, “you are lucky to be study there. I give you the rug for 40 Euro miss. That’s it; no more talking. You give me 40 Euro and you get the rug, Ok.”
She faltered. Oscar saw it. In the meantime he continued to stand in a corner, pretending to write notes in his journal. This saved him from interruptions, much like I was when in Thailand. No one has ever tried to sell me stuff while I’m writing either.
The young girl didn’t marry Badr, but she did become the proud owner of a Moroccan rug. Good for her. As we were leaving the academy she passed Oscar, carrying her rug.
“Nice choice on the orange,” he told her.
“Thanks,” she said, “I paid more than I wanted to for it, but it was my favorite one in the stack.”
“I’m told the price for them on the street is ten Euros,” he told her, testing her reaction.
“I know,” she said. “Actually, he talked it down too fast. I’m trying to spend as much of this money as I can so that my boyfriend knows I didn’t ask for too much and will give me more next time I leave for the weekend.”
Christ alive, I know nothing, thought Oscar. Why do I bother? Why not just assume they’re all lying?
“Don’t you study at UCLA?”
“All I know about UCLA is that it’s in L.A., and if that beard in there thinks he can sell me on ‘Los Angeles is wonderful place’,” she mimicked his voice, “then he’s a bigger tool than that son of his.”
Oscar watched her tour group walk away, amazed at how naive he is when his guard is down and his assumptions are up. Apparently it’s not just train people who are habitual liars. My god, he thought, is there any way to know?
From the rug academy Mr. Danny strolled us through some more narrow and winding alleyways in the old poor quarter, passed some mosques and more children, who looked up and asked for money. Oscar walked straight; he couldn’t handle pleading eyes like that.
They were taken to what Mr. Danny told them was a traditional pharmacy, which Oscar thought was an odd attraction to stage. But it turned out that pharmacy there referred to a place that sells traditional eastern and middle eastern products: herbs and spices, both for medicine and cooking, and possibly other, shadier uses. The lead “pharmacist” was dressed in a white coat and had a mustache resembling Borat’s. In fact, he looked like a cross between Borat and the Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. His white lab coat wasn’t fooling anyone but his bullshit explanations and products put a smile on Oscar’s face nonetheless. It’s amazing how similar two cultures can be while having so little in common on the surface. He was duping those people in a fashion very similar to how a Brazilian would go about it, throwing arms around shoulders, talking about coffee to lighten the mood, busting the “my friend” this and the “good price” that… bait and hook: classic third-world selling strategies.
The products were things like Roza Mesquita & aloe vera, ginger and ginko biloba, teas, creams, scents from rare trees and their flowers even though the labels all clearly say Lyon, France. Details, man.
His show included Ginseng, which he described as an aphrodisiac as well as a good supplement for memory and concentration. Oscar wondered how on earth that goes hand in hand. Like, when was the last time that you were able to study while horny? How does that work?
Without much time to ponder that a length, Oscar was beginning to become fed up with the bullshit. Ok, he thought, so the tour is a means both to boost sales by bringing the tourists to the parts of town they wouldn’t find on their own, and at the same time educate them about some of the realities of life in Tangier. Fine. But can someone tell me the goddamn truth for once today?
Oscar left the pharmacy, intent on following Mr. Danny only far enough to get him out of the twisted and hidden alleyways of the old quarter and back to the docks. As they rounded the 3rd or 4th bend, there were swarmed by about twenty-five mosquitos and to Oscar’s horror, Maria started asking them how much for a congo drum.
It was a flurry of offering wooden camels and sunglasses, slinkies and knives. I overheard one guy asking if anyone wanted weed. Maria was surrounded and she was going to have to deal with it herself. Even her diva daughter stepped back from the scene.
After our group had paused for even a moment, there was no avoiding the gaze of the mosquitos, no way of walking away from the fact that the seller’s laziness to work is topped only by their refusal to back away from a sale once it’s begun. That phenomenon is both a reason for their poverty as well as their method of survival in it. It all comes out in the wash for them.
But once the attack had begun and escape became impossible, Oscar ducked into a nearby jewelry shop, correctly reasoning that the mosquitos would not enter the place. To compound his nightmare, there was Marie-Claire, trying on more necklaces and haggling in French with the shop owner while Marcel sat idly in a corner, giving her more cash for more necklaces.
Oscar had been sure that she was wearing every necklace she owned on her neck at that moment, but Marcel assured him that “Her Majesty” there owns a great deal more back in France.
“Wait. ‘Her Majesty’? You’re not in on this fiasco?”
“Bah! It’s all an endless nightmare, man, a goddamn pile of fucking bullshit, is what it is. But, kid, you can’t expect a relationship to work on just your principles without making any concessions. You’re not marrying your army buddies, you know.”
“She likes this shit, and I decided a long time ago that it doesn’t change me for her to like this and occasionally indulge, so I put up with it. The list of my things that she puts up with is much larger. You won’t love someone successfully until you learn that your way may very well be the right way, the best way, whatever. But your principles guide you, not her. Your way is not the way that will lead to the two of you working together. Your way is what keeps you balanced and you follow that for yourself, and she has to understand that. But don’t impose it on her. Remember: you don’t love her because she wears or doesn’t wear rings and necklaces; you don’t love her because she looks sexy in a two-piece or because she can recite pi to fifty digits. All that will go away, she’ll change her tastes, she’ll gain weight, she’ll decide she wants a tattoo on her butt…whatever. But none of that matters because you love her for who she is and what she makes you want to be. And hopefully that’s just yourself.”
“Hmmm. That’s fucking interesting man, that’s fucking interesting.” Oscar thought it was pretty interesting.
“Forty years, kid. You can’t help but be wise if you survive forty years of this.”
“You make it sound like an endurance trial.”
“Heh!” He scoffed. “Shows what you know.”
“Listen, with all due respect, and not to change the subject or anything, but are you mad, ducking in here like this?” Oscar asked him, “she’ll be shopping now until approximately the end of the Bush presidency and we have a boat to get on in thirty minutes.”
“Ah, don’t fret,” he told Oscar, “she’s not as high-maintenance as she comes off.” Oscar was amazed. “Besides, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, and these beads are so simple.”
Oscar waited next to Marcel, putting up with the chatter of the stone beads rather than stepping into the madness outside. He was feeling uneasy. Not just about how the tour of Tangier had been turned into a feeding frenzy for the sharks to sell cheap trinkets to the meek and inexperienced, but more worrisome to him was that he wasn’t feeling like he was as far from those lizards back in Madrid as he wanted to be. He was starting to get the impression that people are the same shades of gray no matter where you go. In fact, the only thing that seemed to matter were the people that had some definition to their tone, and those were scattered in every which way across the globe.
Finally Mr. Danny came in, telling them that they needed to get going for the boat; Oscar was the first one out the door. He knew that they would have to pause for a moment down there and wait for some kind of transport to the docks. Convinced that everyone had to be down there soon, he wasted no time and made no eye-contact with any mosquito on the street, walking full speed ahead. At the bottom of the hill, far from recognizing where he was or knowing how to get to the docks, Oscar looked around. For the first time that day he was seeing Tangier the way it really was; not as a tourist destination, but as a city, distinct from any other but with many of the same highlights and problems. He saw the traffic congestion on the embarcadero off to his left. He noticed the business men drinking coffee and tea in the town’s square off to his right. He saw banks closing, bakeries mopping up to close shop and school children walking in packs. He saw junkies wandering and chatting aimlessly by a statue and a couple kissing on a street corner. A slightly darker tone to the average skin color, a religious institution that was basically the same with a couple of plot variations and camels instead of horses…but mostly very familiar. He was sure that the same horrible aspects of his job existed here too, as far away as he thought he could get from it over the weekend. There was no running from that kind of evil, he reasoned.
He reached into his pocket to make sure the coins were still there. He’d been told that tipping the guide a couple of Euros was a polite way of saying thank you and he was ok with this too. When Mr. Danny got them to the docks, he wanted to be ready without fussing and stumbling over the matter.
As Mr. Danny came strolling down the hill, Marcel and Marie-Claire right behind him and Maria and Ana trailing behind them, Oscar breathed a sigh of relief. _What could go wrong now, righ_t?
When they’d all gathered, Mr. Danny started to give them a story about how he’d love to take them down to the docks but it was time for him to go home and that he had to run, but that if they walked along the embarcadero for 15 minutes, they’d probably still get the boat on time. He made no mention of immigration. Oscar was furious, and left the coins in his pocket. He was about to start when Marie-Claire jumped on it.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “You told us there would be transport. It’ll take us 15 minutes to get down to the boat but there is still immigration we have to cross. There won’t be enough time.” Oscar had no chance to chime in with support to this. She grilled Mr. Danny to no end until he got on his cell phone and called up for another bus, which came immediately around the corner.
Marcel looked at Oscar from the corner of his eye and smiled briefly.
Nothing is what it seems.
There are other ways to drink Johnny Walker on a boat than from a paper cup… but not for Oscar, and not that day. And certainly not on that boat, the thirty-five minute trans-Mediterranean from Tarifa to Tangier and back, his 5 hour African excursion. With Africa behind him now and only the black shores of Spain in the darkness ahead, Oscar finally had a moment to switch off the paranoia and constant vigilance necessary to survive a Moroccan Market. Outside, in the depths of a darkness only possible on the ocean and in the company of Johnny Walker, he let the salt spray do its thing.
In the bar inside where he’d procured said Johnny there had been another Asian girl who’d tried to start a conversation with Oscar but he’d left her for the cold of the deck, not wanting to hear anyone else’s stories that night. Tired of lies, of deceit, of hidden agendas and the effort it takes to keep them up, he contemplated the day’s events and his level of involvement in them. Is there anything at sea as violently peaceful as the collision of the two wakes of a double hydrofoil in black waters on a moonless night, he wondered, lit only by the pure white aft floodlights of a ship’s deck? I think not. I think Oscar agreed. It was, in any case, the only thing that Oscar was sure of at that point.
But it’s calmer than a Moroccan market, that much I will say, and at least you know what you’re dealing with. A market only in the strictest definition of the word, where every alley, every doorway, every corner is a place to peddle; where you can be sold rugs, drugs and a variety of other trinkets whether you want it or not. Getting through it with any success takes an extra level of awareness of surroundings.
But only because you’re constantly guessing what the other person really wants. Why does it have to be this way, he wondered.
Oscar is the kind of guy that needs a spray of ocean mist on his face every so often to calm him down, to distract him from his disappointment in people. Otherwise, things up there can get ugly. Light as a kiss or ardent as a slap to the face, Oscar needs it, yearns for it, and could very well start misbehaving and acting like an asshole if he goes too long without it. He might start knocking people’s hats off, snarling and stepping off of sidewalks suddenly just to see the look of horror on the face of unsuspecting drivers on crowded intersections.
So he was out on the deck of the ferry, alone in the darkness, even though the sign clearly said,” The deck is off limits while at high sea.” In his defense, he hardly thought the Mediterranean counted as “high sea.” And who would’ve thought it even had forty knot winds in the dead of night? Marvelous stuff.
Of which I’ll say this: as much as I love it for this very reason, the ocean is a frightening place at night. It’ll overwhelm a man with its size during the day, sure enough, but on a windy night it needs no mass; it needs no horizon, no vast size or immeasurable dimensions. The dark depths are too deep for comprehension and the fury of the dark winds surpasses even that of a jealous woman. All you can do is let is slap you in the face and pray that it won’t heave you overboard where there are sure to be lot’s of large things that would love to eat you. And Oscar braved it just the same. Because he needed to.
Yeah. Just let the salty tears stream and lick them off, if you can. Johnny Walker is ever a friend in times like that… that should’ve landed in
PART 8 – TOUCHED BY GOD (and the loss of the girl)
Oscar’s feet carried him out towards the docks, past the weathered wharf buildings, the aged stone guard towers. He walked beyond where the asphalt turns to gravel, turns to sand, and finally to a sea wall made of broken boulders and chunks of concrete; the southernmost tip of continental Europe.
Back from Africa a few hours before, he’d been trying to get a hold of her, of the soft-scented German girl, Jana. He wanted more of that blond distraction of light blue eyes. of jasmine sunshine like spring; he wanted more of that feeling of conquest over the night, of surrender in her arms and death in her strong lips. I knew Oscar would not see her again, and though she said she’d call him after she had dinner with her friends, he probably knew the ruse was up as well. Things were stirring all over at the tip of that last of peninsulas.
The wind was already raging by the time he took off his shoes, rolled up the cuffs of his pants and stood facing the mass of air that was blowing almost at hurricane levels, forcing its way out of the Mediterranean through the narrow straight and out to the Atlantic. It rushed into his nostrils and tickled his nose hairs. His eyes watered and the excess cloth of his pants fluttered behind him like a flag in a gale.
The lights of Tangier flickered in the distance. Behind him where he stood facing the sea, Tarifa began to fall silent for the night. A couple of kilometers away a clock near the church gonged twice. Oscar pulled his phone out of his pocket and it confirmed for him: two in the morning. Two am and he had a mass of air to deal with by himself. It was strangely alluring.
He was so frustrated with what he’d seen in Tangier. All of that distance from Madrid to Tarifa to Tangier and back – all of those people from the girl to the ETA terrorists, Mr. Danny, Marcel and Marie-Claire…nobody turned out to be what they seemed. It made him question how he’d been judging the rest of the people in his life, how he’d judged those men back in Madrid, how he’d judged every corporate sleaze he ran into on a regular basis in his life, and all the women he’d accepted, and all the ones he’d refused…
It began to drive him wild with rage and confusion, a loathing of his very core. He was agitated and the whiskey had not yet worn off. And he could’ve just stood there, feeling the wind on his face like ten thousand kisses jostling their lips at him, or ten thousand voices sounding reproach. He could’ve let Africa be just another spot of land across just another spot of water. He could’ve let the five hour train ride be just the traversal of so many kilometers between two Spanish cities. He could’ve let all the people of this story have been just random people that happened to fall short of his expectations…
But that would be so unlike him, wouldn’t it?
He climbed up on the wall and let himself enter a state of anger and frustration fueled infinitely by imagination and fantasy. A momentary dream to end a nightmare; a place where he controlled the next step. He chose a relatively flat rock and pulled up his hood; it blew right off again. He put it back on and held if for a while, turning his head obliquely in the wind so that the hood stayed on. He leaned his body toward the wind and relaxed; it held him up, surprisingly. He leaned out further; it pushed harder. He stood there for what might have been minutes but seemed like hours, and sleep was nowhere in sight. Time froze there and the darkness became penetrating. The wind howled.
“ARE YOU NOT CONTENT?”
Oscar jolted, thinking he was out in the spit alone, and suddenly hearing a yell. He looked around and saw no one. The wind was picking up, screaming furiously now, and Oscar let himself slip into that state again, giving in to his frustrations…
“WHAT DO YOU WANT OF ME?” a voice said in the wind. The sound was quickly carried far out into the ocean. Within seconds it was miles away.
“WHO AM I TO YOU?” The voice said again. It surprised me as much as it surprised him. Oscar realized that the voice was his own.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?” the voice asked, which meant Oscar had asked. His stoic silence, callous and sedate was gone from him now, and he became frantic.
Standing there, challenging, pushing, punching the wind with his arms and open palms, with staunchly expressive and passionate words and entirely unrehearsed questions, Oscar delved into himself. He turned inside out, exposed his insecurities to the violent wind and let it do with them what it would. He shouted madness, terrors long forgotten, admitted to crimes and petty offenses. He cooled off his temper in that wind, released old judgments, forgave himself some harsh prejudices and re-stirred old thoughts of world conquest and the invincible feelings of his youth. He let that wind take some of him with it.
He wondered where it would end up, that part of him already on the wind. But it didn’t really matter by then where it went; he was free of it.
I don’t think there are many people who behave this way, who step out on ledges and scream their fears and doubts into a fierce natural force, into the shifting winds of trade, powerful gusts that can knock a man unconscious with nothing but air, and in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve heard of a few, and have known even less than that. People with this kind of inclination, people who have this low an opinion of the status quo are typically not found within the establishment, owning large bank accounts and steering large corporate clients through the IT world, like Oscar. You would not look for them in CPA firms and international brokerage houses; you would not expect them to be mistaken for adults, because the grown-ups we’ve all grown up knowing don’t do this kind of thing; heroes do; crazy and vicious madmen do.
But Oscar does it all the time. He lives and exists in his own definition of the world. He occupies theirs, the other’s, for a large part, but every so often he comes to this… he comes back to this. It re-stirs the sentiments that define him, even if I can’t define them with much surface here.
It added a resolute texture to my life to see that a soul in as dark a place as Oscar could have rounded perdition’s flames and returned to find a foundation in the wind. It adds volume and flavor and it reminds me that I don’t have to define myself through the times when I’m not in that wind, when I’m not in the clutches of the forces of nature, or even the claws of my own heart.
EPILOGUE – THE DEPARTURE
The train had left at seven that morning, an inconvenient time that had Oscar getting out of bed at half five to pack, check out and find a taxi back to Algeciras since, bless them, no buses run that early. He inhaled some toast and coffee at the train station while staring out at the Rock of Gibraltar and barely made the train on time.
As the morning star had risen over the horizon and then faded along with the lights of Africa into the dawn across the straight of Gibraltar, Oscar had sat alone in that empty room of his. So much had happened in those twenty four hours and he was still trying to cope with the whole affair; still trying to make some sense out of the situation. The room’s simplicity was in stark contrast with the rest of the weekend and made it that much more troubling, seemingly exposing every bend and color that the dynamic events had exhibited. He had waited a while the night before, still hoping for her call but it hadn’t come. The pillow still smelled like her soft hair and the sheets of her smooth skin, the faint jasmine getting fainter. Oscar thought of taking them, of leaving his clothes.
Make room for the scented stuff, he thought to himself, but what was the point? It would fade, just as those lights across the straight did now, and he waited.
Across the sunny Spanish country, the colors built up again. The steady and rhythmic chugging of the train distracted his thoughts but focused his ease. Time slowed to a crawl and Oscar did not leave his seat. She was on his mind only as a fading scent, a wispy vapor that barely clung to the curtains of his eyes and whose pheromones were briefly strewn across his mind whenever the curtains were suddenly pulled and the darkness fell for a while. He checked his phone but there were no text messages. The batteries were almost dead now, and would go at any minute. He wrote some words on a blank text message which went like this:
Content we met,
embraced and intertwined,
and when came time to say goodbye,
I, thief, stole hints,
your female scents,
and smiling eyes.
He hesitated. Then he hit send.
I’m not sure how she took that or what she did with it, but what I do know is that Oscar never learned for sure that she even received it.
Sitting at a window seat this time, Oscar pressed the side of his face to the glass. Echoes of the wind outside could be heard as the train tore through it. No songs or voices or any other kind of mystery stirred the atmosphere outside the train. Oscar got up and went to car number three. Empty at this time of morning, he ruled out bourbon, and asked no one in particular for a cup of black coffee.
Under his breath he mumbled, “Pour the bourbon out into the wind.”
- Misiana Lounge, Tarifa, Spain