Another idol on my road to becoming a tough leathery sexually-charged mature Spanish woman.
This place is so crammed I can barely find a place to stand. I post up wedged in-between an old lady in a floor length fur coat and fuchsia lipstick, bocadillo of ham in one overly-ringed, fleshless hand; and a group of college-aged Spanish suburbanites shouting wordlessly to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” and spilling their dobles on the napkin-littered floor. Pablo dropped his sandwich and is mocked. It’s not quite 4 pm. The walls are lined with colorfully-wrapped ham legs. I suspect at least the uppermost level must be papier-mache (how could this much ham exist in the world?) and the barmen are grizzled and in clean crisp uniforms of starched collars and red and blue vests. Two out of four have a gold medallion of some version of the La Virgen nestled in wiry chest hair.
The food is cheap and decent. The drink is cheaper and less decent. I partake of both.
The bar is a ring Four people-deep and everyone stands and I sip my beer looking across at punks and abuelas in furs and tourists and middle-aged men in gold and polyester. There are no cliques here; leisure is communal. An intense amount of eye contact is acceptable in Spain. At least four sets of eyes are fixed on me. I’m suddenly conscious of how high the waist of my pants is. I’m still too soft for this.
The sandwich is good and the meat is ribboned with fat. Between bites I’m sending lewd messages to a guy a thousand miles away. Electronic love has lost all its taboo in a world where I have two apps on my phone that can get me bottom-shelf sex with a flick of the wrist. These are the kind of messages that shouldn’t see the cold light of day and I’m not entirely sure how the cloud works but he’s got a way about him and you can tell by my dark lipstick that I’m a hedonist. Send.
I had a bad breakup a year ago and broke up with the city of San Francisco too. Came to Spain on an easy visa for a change of scenery and for Hemingway. The scenes changed but I have no stomach for bullfighting.
It’s the 21st century and hence socially acceptable to online date, I tell myself. Now my phone buzzes whenever another single person crosses my path within a certain distance. A moving panopticon of the lonely that radiates out from me 500 feet in all directions (really it uses meters but I still haven’t internalized what that signifies in the practical world). At some point in London whilst hiding from the rain in a vintage shop I couldn’t afford I crossed one such and for months we’ve built a rapport based on blind optimism and the emotional convenience of distance. We’ve never met, but people are willing to cast their nets wide in the digital age of disposable profiles. On the back of three Moscow Mules I recently booked a ticket to see him because one must take chances or else what’s the fucking point. Because these are the times we’re living in.
I have nothing to anchor myself to reality except my faith in proactive choices.
Don’t tell my mom, she’d worry.
And for reasons like this I’m always broke; I have grand visions of fantastic life and vibrant joy and whiskey sex and parties and black poetry. I’ve lived it in small spurts always peppered between long blocks of confused idolatry of inconsistent men and jobs of small responsibility and even smaller consequence (and even smaller paycheck). I get restless: I’ve changed apartments eleven times in ten years. I’ve done all the drugs, the sex and the rock and roll and all I have to show for it is anxiety, feelings, and damaged hearing. I’m too sensitive for one-night stands but I like the concept. I’m too old for drugs; they work too well now. I don’t own a hairbrush; I still fuck up my spin cycle; I’ve had my heart broken twice; none of it has sounded good on paper.
I’m quite a catch.
In my revery an abuela has managed to displace me in my sanctuary of counter space with two sharp elbows akimbo and the unapologetic aloofness of someone who lived through Franco and accordingly merits such compensation. I am powerless in the face of such humanity.
I reach into my pocket knowing I can pay for this meal entirely in coins because I’m a goddamned adult. I count them out on the two square inches of dry bar top remaining to me whilst periodically checking my phone because it stopped doing notifications months ago (strains and pressures from its international lifestyle), which I consider a personal affront. My friend Phil mutters something about all the dick and dinner I could be missing. He’s not wrong, but I’m a boheme and consider my privation to be of a deeper, more profoundly poetic variety.
My dopamine levels are depleted from the weekend so I’m feeling morose in a very Victorian way. The carbonation of the beer is helping with that.
Damn people and their jobs and their private lives and their self-control.
A sudden twinge in my left knee reminds me that I should get it checked out before I go. It’s been various states of swollen for a while now, likely something to do with the knee-level metal posts lining every sidewalk in the city. The bane of the walking texter. But then I remember it’s Sunday and am relieved that there’s no one to call; pronounced fear of second language phone calls.
Idly contemplating how many shades of black to pack.
The only thing keeping me here is a great quality of life and friends in low places. Why would I ever leave. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but if moss is a sense of material accomplishment and progress in meaningful work, then I guess I gotta reevaluate a few things. Take stock of assets and liabilities. I could always focus on the benediction of my fervent joie de vivre. That particular joy of living is worth its weight in good wine and prophylactics. When I’m lucky.
And I’m often lucky.
(Only time will tell).
Christ the reception in here is poor, I can’t be sure if my wanton dispatches are even getting through. I gotta get the hell out of this place and onto higher ground (physically and metaphorically). I hope this barkeep doesn’t mind a fistful of damp coppers, because that’s what I’m leaving him. And a glass smeared with my darkest lipstick.
The air is hot this time of year in this part of Spain. It feels baked. The doors and windows of all the tabernas and cafes and restaurants are open to the night and people fill all the space on either side and in between. The music of shouting voices and eighties Spanish ballads are thick on the air and stick to it. The night smells like dust and piss and cigarettes.
I walk through hedgerows of people drinking and smoking out to the edge of the street. I slide along the outside, slick. There’s a bar around here that gives glasses of wine and some decent if not bottom-shelf ham for a euro. I have no particular destination but I feel a ghostly pull at my elbow when I pass the place.
I came back to Madrid to find meaning as if it were some ephemeral thing floating out there, wild and thrashing, what a reward to hook the beautiful damn thing. I’ve read in good books that that’s not the way it works but what the hell does anybody know. I mean really. The world is full of this kind of mystic junk to find and I’m covering a lot of ground. That’s the only reason I go anywhere. Sometimes we turn so far inward that it’s hard to tell if we’re more neuroses than person. I narrowly miss getting taken out by a Renault full of teens in the cross walk.
Farther up the street are middle-aged immigrants selling Spanish beer from trolleys they hide in the trash, waiting on corners splitting the tide of street revelry like rocks in a stream. They profit from the crisis because everyone’s too broke to get bar drunk, or don’t see the point. The white noise is deafening, the plazas are all full, the sidewalks are full. In the narrow streets and alleys the cars try to push through it all and somewhere in that throng is an Argentine kid with a guitar and a guy with dreads and rhythm sticks. Correction: single dread.
This is the kind of night that feels heavy, like nothing is in your control. That’s not the night and it’s not Spain and maybe you’re going to bring your problems with you or maybe there’s nothing to figure out.
People care about you and they understand.
Everyone’s drunk and everyone’s smiling and everyone wants me to venga tomar algo. Americans don’t like to be touched they tell me, patting my back and handing me a cup of red wine and coke zero. San Francisco’s beautiful, it’s their dream to go there. Someone has some hash.
A municipal police car rolls up across the plaza. In one big choreographed movement everyone throws their cans/cups/bottles (but not the hash) and runs.
There’s always chanting coming from somewhere. We have a new king, and flags of the Spanish Republic in Exile add dark marks of color up and down the dunny streets that run past the four large open windows; Ni rey, Ni reina. The same breeze that ripples their dissenting reds, yellows and purples slides along the sticky table, fluttering last night’s rolling papers across the un-mopped floor, where they stick to something horrible that I stepped in this morning. All the glasses are full of cigarette butts and warm gin. We’ve had about eight going away soirees and if I have to break up any more coke parties in the bathroom to brush my teeth, I’m going to renounce my residency.
I haven’t written for days because I’m not a writer, and my thoughts are manic and punctuated by drunken outbursts and ill-begotten lusty messages (mistakes in Spanish grammar take the bite out of both). The apartment has smelled of heat and cigarettes for days, and suitcases in various states of packing represent the disparate plans and departure dates of the three of us who live here: San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg.
At this point my eyes are dull and I need a drink. From one of the small balconies I can see into the closest old-man bar (the only variety worth a damn). Someone’s at the gambling machine and the barman is waltzing alone in the street spilling a glass of the light vermouth for which this place is famous. The sun isn’t going down but my worthless phone is stuck on Icelandic time, and doing the math I determine it is indeed not too early to indulge. It’s been a day that calls for drinking, for godsake.
I leave the spite email I’d been impassively drafting, a response to one I’d gotten hours before bearing ill news about the disintegrating San Francisco life I’d abandoned to its fate nine months ago. Both my best friends are banging my ex and fighting about it STOP Everyone is depressed STOP Bad sex and Jameson are the new religion STOP. I’ll be back there in three weeks and all I can think about are cheese steaks, large coffees, and punching my ex in the dick. I managed to relate this desire to my roommate in French and feel that fact alone moves me up to a level C1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
I grab a general amount of currency and head downstairs.
The legions of day-drinkers draped across public spaces and plazas add an urgency to these last few days. I stop to check my broken phone at the corner where I traditionally catch some rogue wifi. At this hour post-siesta there’s no hope in rousing the other “expats” from their youtube hangovers, and frankly this drink needed to be drunk alone. Furthermore there’s no response to the flurry of weirdly-phrased Spanish come-ons I fired off to a couple of second-stringers late last night, because I have a misplaced need for affection at that hour. That’s certainly for the best, though that boldness will haunt me in the cold light of day when I cross them at the grocery store whilst buying spreadable cheese and diet coke.
I stand at the bar surrounded by old men shouting “venga coño” at various members of the Spanish National soccer team featured on the tv-vcr combo perched in the top corner. This is where I pick up most of my functional vocabulary. Once the bartender comes in from dancing, shirt glistening and thirst unquenched, I order a tall glass of the same vermouth that his mirth advertized, and reflect on the decisions I’ve made.
I have an aversion to success and am debilitatingly self-reflective, it’s true. That needs to be taken into account. But goddamnit, I don’t understand the world anymore. Spain has certainly put that into perspective. Everything around me has disintegrated into mayhem, and that is oddly freeing.
Spain just scored a goal and someone’s abuelo is buying the bar a round of tiny beers.
I’ve learned to accept that seeking catharsis in mutual understanding is a fool’s errand and not the point. We’re emotionally developed enough to render rational thought not only inconvenient but impractical; contradiction is no impediment.
The barman gives me mushrooms as a free tapas, God’s most fucking inglorious food.
Everyone can do what they want, just be direct, that is the only salvation. And that helps free everyone from the burden of frustration.
And then I would have more time to drink vermouth.
I’ll be gone for nearly three months and maybe nothing will change here just as, disappointingly, nothing has changed back home. People will still struggle, and drink in the streets and yell and scream all night because of it. And I’ll make bad decisions and I’ll forgive unforgivable things, but then maybe that’s a clear sign I’ve got too much free time.