~This story was previously published in Artisan, a Journal of Craft (2005).
Alice, who one cold February day abandoned her career as a Kelly Girl, sublet her small, bad-smelling apartment on Broadway and 107th Street and flew away to live in Spain, began to realize on the airport bus entering Madrid that the line between spontaneity and insanity was finer that she’d thought.
Brushing away doubt as though it were a spider, she hailed a taxi at the Plaza de Colon bus terminal, gave the address of the Pension Rosa – selected for the admittedly corny reason that it faced the Palace Hotel recommended by Hemingway – and insisted, politely but firmly, upon being allowed to inspect the room she’d reserved before taking it.
“Como mi casa en Nueva York,” she murmured, meaning that the room on offer was as dark and smelly as the Upper West Side studio, though the landlady accepted the perceived compliment with a faint relaxation of her scowl.Days later, reflecting on the pass her life had come to, Alice would recall that this had been the only occasion when anyone in all of Madrid had come even close to smiling at her.
Every morning, she took her café con leche and roll in the pension dining room in the company of two middle-aged women who looked like sisters and who spoke neither to her nor to each other.
Fearfully, the pair lifted their heads as Alice seated herself at the oval “family-style” dining table, made the sign of the cross in unison, and returned their gaze to the crumbs on the tablecloth.
Generalissimo Franco had been dead four years, but Alice decided the Spaniards had not truly absorbed the news; even when drinking beer at sidewalk cafés they appeared joyless and furtive, like a dog that jumps on a sofa but keeps an ear cocked for its owner’s return.
Having consumed as much hot milk as the eagle-eyed landlady would allow, she set out on a series of trivial errands planned the night before with a view to avoiding spending the entire day in her nightgown reading Daniel Deronda under musty blankets.
In a dusty perfumeria near the city center she purchased individual sachets of shampoo and conditioner every day from a gentle, dour man who, she hoped, might worry if one morning she failed to appear.
Just imagining herself choking to death on a heel of bread in her pension room, her partially-decomposed body shipped home after being identified through dental records because the landlady (who, after receiving Alice’s advance deposit stated flatly that she hated Americans) had thrown away her passport – filled her with horror; a horror that was curiously tinged with pleasure.
Knowing that she could avoid this grim finale to her Spanish adventure merely by dropping a few postcards in the mail, Alice wrote neither to her family nor to her faithless ex-boyfriend.
Let alone begin the novel she’d come to Madrid to compose; after a week of speaking to no one, there were no words left in Alice’s head.
Museums, it turns out, are an excellent refuge for the mute: ticket sellers there are so accustomed to foreigners so that that whole transaction can be effected by raising one finger.
Near the Pension Rosa Alice discovered a convent which housed a small collection of saints’ bones and teeth cradled in jeweled coffers; beside each display a card described the martyr’s final, gruesome agony in a detail that could only be called loving – this gallery became Alice’s favorite haunt, although she appeared to be the only tourist who ever bought a ticket from the nun who guarded the entrance from her hard wooden chair.
Once outside again, in the sharp spring wind, Alice sighed deeply and proceeded with her afternoon project, which was to familiarize herself with her new city by taking different buses to the end of the line and back to the Pension Rosa.
Perhaps, at this point, she could have acknowledged that she’d made a mistake – that Madrid was not the heart’s balm of blue skies and hibiscus she’d anticipated, but a gray expanse of overbearing government buildings hunched around treeless plazas; the madrileños who sat opposite her frowned as if they’d hailed this bus for the sole purpose of letting her know how deeply they deplored her hanging blonde hair, her baggy jeans, her clownish running shoes – yet she saw, suddenly, why heretics upon the scaffold did not recant, but glowered defiantly back at the crowds.
Quite simply: they were thrilled to be the center of attention.
Regarding each boarding passenger with interest, as though they were fellow-guests arriving at a party, Alice tried to imagine their lives: the working-class housewife, with her plump folded hands and splayed thighs, the office worker wearing a hand-knitted pullover under his thin suit jacket, the haughty schoolgirl who had no idea how brief her perfect loveliness would turn out to be.
She noticed expatriates: they were mostly women – some looking as old as thirty, whose Indian-print skirts and Earth shoes betrayed how long they’d been in exile, and who lugged their heavy canvas bags of English teaching materials with such an air of weariness that Alice surmised they were all in love with Spaniards who never intended to divorce their wives, no matter what permissive laws were passed by the new democracy – or perhaps she only understands this limbo now, in retrospect.
That day, she may only have supposed that the tired, pale woman who plopped down beside her on the bench of the bus was in need of a friendly greeting in her own language, and in answer to her compatriot’s question of why she was in Spain, Alice plunged in eagerly, describing her last temp job on Canal Street, where she’d been given boxes of manuscripts to xerox (“I was distracted because of a problem I was having with my boyfriend, so I didn’t even look at what I was copying until mid-morning when there was a paper jam, and I realized what I had in my hand was a page of fiction, if you could call it that, and that the men sitting at typewriters in the next room were all writing these books as I photocopied them; you’d think there’d have been sighs or moans but there was nothing like that; just men staring at the keys with bored faces, and one of them got up and came over to the copy machine and told me he’d thought this job was too good to be true, but that it was more tiring than he’d imagined to think pornographic thoughts eight hours a day because his mind kept wandering to his phone bill, and when I laughed he said all he really wanted was to go back to Spain, where he’d been working on his screenplay and living cheaply, and I just stood there with that page in my hand and decided the answer to my problem was to just leave, and I started calculating how much temp work I’d have to do to earn a ticket, because you can make good money temping if you never turn down work, and I became so enthralled with this idea that I ignored the guy, who since it was New York found rudeness sexy or something, and when he called me a few days later to ask me out I said I was on my way to Madrid and he said – you won’t believe this – he said, ‘but you can’t just run away from your life.’
Unbeknownst to most people, you can just run away,” Alice concluded.
“Very true,” the American woman nodded, hoisting her bag onto her knees.
“Well, here’s my stop; don’t worry, you’ll find something here – what did you say your job in the States was again?”
“Xeroxing,” Alice whispered, mortified, and turned quickly to look out the window.
Yes, she’d already gone completely mad from loneliness and was raving to strangers.
Zapatos: the bus chuffed up the Gran Via, through the shoe district, but when Alice read the word on storefront after storefront, she didn’t think, “shoes,” she actually saw the things, hundreds of pairs, even after she closed her eyes – brown and black and tan, with their heels and laces and straps dancing in the middle horizon of her brain, and this is what she would remember of that far-off time in Madrid, and of the foolish twenty-two-year-old she’d been: not her humiliation and flight, nor the days and nights of morbid fancies and thoughts of death, but how a new language suddenly took up lodgings in her mind – in gleaming, dreamy pictures.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
After many years of working as journalists in Latin America, my husband and I moved back to the States in 1997 with our children when he got a Nieman fellowship at Harvard. As the trailing spouse, I got to take classes, too, so I signed up for a fiction workshop with Anne Bernays. Our first in-class exercise was to write a paragraph in which each sentence started with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. Out of that assignment came this story. I’ve written dozens of short stories since then, but this one is perhaps the most literally true—I was still in terror of newspaper editors finding a wrong fact—and the only thing I made up was the protagonist’s name. When I was twenty-two, the idea that you could change your life simply by going somewhere else had seemed like a revelation. Later, of course, it’s not so easy to do. But there’s nothing more American than that: lighting out for the territory.
ABOUT KATHLEEN WHEATON
Kathleen Wheaton is the author of the collection, Aliens and Other Stories, which won the 2013 Washington Writers Publishing House fiction prize. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Narrative, the Potomac Review, the Baltimore Review, and New South. She has received three Society of Professional Journalists awards for feature writing and she is a regular contributor to Bethesda Magazine. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband.