~ This story was previously published in New Letters (2014).
Ramón del Solar Astigarraga is a pain in the ass. If I hang my sheets one millimeter over his window he shouts to the whole neighborhood that I am blocking his light. When I pulled up a strip of carpet, he accosted me in front of the newsstand: What the hell are you doing up there? I can’t breathe from all the dust you’re generating. This man has the disposition of a rotten onion, and the last person on earth I would like to be is his son.
Not long ago I had a dream and for once, it was a good dream; I stood knee deep in a clean and clear lagoon, with dolphins at my ankles, a monkey hugging my shoulder. Not far away was a waterfall—ice blue and beautiful. Elisabeth was there. I knew by the way she’d pulled her hair back, just a few wisps hanging about, that she cared what I thought, and the feeling was divine. I was out in the world in a real way, which is how I might like to live the rest of my life.
When I woke, though, I was not in the outer world, rather, deep inside it, flattened by a hangover on my mother’s squalid couch. Outside it was misting lightly, xirimiri, mislaid droplets too weak to find their way to earth. Elisabeth was not in my arms but exactly where I left her, the 5,000 miles of sea and soil between us not even a remote measure of how far apart we were.
Same old. Plenty lost, but nothing gained in all the years I’d been gone, least of all, any idea who my father was.
Who lays carpets across a whole apartment in what must be the soggiest region of Spain? The worst is my old room. There are flecks of dust and plaster embedded in the treads, years of insect shit and dried semen, and with every strip I pull up, I cough it all in. I swear I am going to stop, but after spitting out the particles in the sink, I am back, tearing and scraping until my arm goes numb. In one spot, the adhesive is three inches thick so I empty a whole bottle of glue remover; the glop of putty slides onto the blade, exposing the golden treasure—virgin pine, old as the building itself. The wood is speckled with streaks of yellow and mottled brown, but far more palatable than the carpet.
Everywhere, dozens of putty-filled plastic bags litter the flat. I have inhaled cases and cases of this nasty liquid, but I will win this fight, even if it means tumors will one day swarm my organs like parasites. I drain another bottle in the far corner and kick the empties to the doorway. I am working over Ramón’s bedroom tonight and could be making an effort to keep the noise down, but I am not.
And yet: I am old enough to know that every battle won is another lost. After inhaling I don’t know how many bottles of glue remover, I wake with the first splinters of morning light, my hair stuck to the floor as if caught in a girl-fight.
The putty knife is in reach. A hack here, a tug, seven slices, freedom. But the bathroom mirror is as brutal in its honesty as the razor is dull, and once the left side comes off, the rest must follow.
Now I do look like a cancer patient. The uneven stubs around my face cannot pacify the gaunt and hollow edges. My ears stick out like a Martian’s, the mirror laughing at this man barely resembling the boy who’d plotted his escape all those years ago. How many times I swore I’d get out. And how this grubby mirror laughed back at me.
Today, the tone hasn’t changed, only the message:
This may not be the face you grew up with, idiota, but it is most certainly the face with which you will grow old.
For someone who complains about how much noise I make, Ramón del Solar Astigarraga makes a lot of fucking noise himself. When his alarm goes off at 6:37 a.m., he opens his shutters, thunderous like the initiation of the Tamborrada, the winter drum parade. After, he turns on Radio Euskadi and then the kitchen exhaust, ferocious as an airplane engine. Not much later, like a hunched-over Raymond Burr, he leaves with a big black bag, slamming the front door. No single man in his 70s can create that much garbage. He is either smuggling body parts or running revolutionary taxes for ETA.
One morning I am ready: I wait behind the front door and jump out of the shadows like I am the star of a noir film. Except it is sunny. And not yet 8 a.m. I stretch my leg in front of the bag.
“Where are you going old man?”
Ramón cackles and steps on my foot hard. He has a lot of power for an old man. I move out of his way.
This is morning. By afternoon, it is as if I have turned my back to the ocean, the way the fatigue rolls over me. There are chains on my wrists, leads on my ankles and I have to lie down; anywhere will do. One day I am on the beach when it hits; I unfold my jacket and the second my head makes contact, it is as if I have swallowed a whole bottle of Ambien. I wake up 45 minutes later, the ocean roaring in my ears. Another afternoon I stretch out on a bench in the Plaza de Gipuzkoa, waking when I realize the pangs in my legs are from sticks that two boys are throwing at me.
All these years later, that blank line on my birth certificate should not matter so much, but it does. My father could be anyone. Ramón del Solar Astigarraga. The gnarly bastard who drives the number 19 bus. A retired linguistics professor in Salamanca. A corpse rotting twenty feet from my mother at Polloe.
At my mother’s funeral, just for fun, I asked my auntie Lola.
“Lauren Postigo,” she hissed from her wheelchair. “Everyone knows your mother adored him.”
Aside from absolute impossibility, it’s completely implausible: Even though he was married twice, Lauren Postigo was gayer than shit, and I can’t sing to save a slug.
My auntie Lola has had dementia for five years; the last time I inquired, she told me my father was Antonio Tejero, leader of the failed 1981 coup. She jabbed her bony finger into my cheek so hard I thought she’d pushed a tooth loose.
How else do you think your mother got that apartment so cheap, Don Tejerín?
The odor released when I separate the carpet from the foam permeates the flat, like soft cheese left under a hot sun. But there is no stopping now. My room is almost finished, the final strip unearthing a few childhood treasures—a crystal opaque cubanita marble, a ripped page from Capitán Trueno, and a faded picture of Wile E. Coyote from a Chicle Dunkin.
My brother’s room is not so simple. It does not take a genius to understand why this room has not been touched for years. Even now, it feels the height of disrespect to sweep my arm through his shelves. But sweep I do, and amongst the moldy underwear and handkerchiefs, I find scraps and scraps of paper, the edges darkened like coffee stains. On one sheet, a letter from a girl he liked, describing his eyes as moons of love, on another, explicit detail about what a fuck-up I was.
I don’t read past the third sentence.
I know he didn’t mean it, but after I have wiped his closet clean and emptied the last bottle of glue remover, I step outside for a smoke. The burned hedges, the rusted railing, the cracked cement, all of it so blurred, I can’t tell if the mist, xirimiri, is in my eyes or the air. I don’t even see Nuria, my upstairs neighbor, until she is practically in front of me. I jump to open the door for her, but my arm, numb from so much scraping, gives way, and the door slams into her leg.
“Sorry,” I say, trying to prop it open with my hip.
She points to my arm. “You all right?”
Nuria specializes in craniosacral therapy and is small and cute. As she talks, I notice she has nice torpedo tits. When she says I should stop by some time for a treatment, I tell her I will.
The only other person in this building who talks to me is Marisol. She brings me pastries and sits in my kitchen relaying her ailments. She also makes sure I know that my mother talked about me. All the time. “Your computer business in Oakland. Your beautiful bungalow. Your lovely girlfriend. Your mother was very proud.”
I don’t know whether to believe her. Because these were not conversations that passed between my mother and myself. As Marisol feeds me creamy truffles and fruit tarts, she also tells me intimate details of how her husband had to piss 27 times in the night to push out kidney stones the size of golf balls. And she wears blue pointy shoes. They are like the ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, except they are a crazy lady’s blue.
My mother never had a nice word to say about Marisol, but after I have been home for two weeks, I see a lot of kindness in this woman. She is cheerful, a philosopher, checking the progress of my floors, reminding me not to work too hard, to love every day, appreciate my other half before she is gone.
Which she is. I don’t elaborate, though. Marisol’s eyebrows are stripped off, the space delineated with a thin pencil line. Underneath, her eyes are clouded from cataracts, but she sees better than anyone in this building.
The first time Marisol knocked, it was a 1-in-100 day—the sky as pure blue as a stilled ocean, a dry breeze to wipe off the sweat and tears and blood. I stood at the kitchen window, my circuits overamped—the same view from so many years back, before everything went south—the clotheslines on the neighboring buildings, the rabbit-eared antennae on the tiled rooftops, today replaced by the digital ones.
All those years ago, I did not covet. I was too young to understand the meaning of longing, and as such, did not ache for anything except my mother’s rice and langostinos, she scolding me when I dropped the shells on the floor.
In the short time I have been home, Marisol has labored to fill my stomach with sweets, because like all women of her legion, she is certain she knows how to cure this sort of hunger. But how can she? How can she possibly know the hours I spend in this spatial vacuum, imagining everything as it was back then, today even, how the birds still fly with effortlessness, that same pine tree outside my window that does nothing but lean with the wind, dropping a few cones every year that may seed. And what does it care? Its only job is to grow taller to outlast the competition. Eventually it will block the view from my window, but by then I will be as stooped as Ramón, my eyes clouded like Marisol’s.
One afternoon, over a creamy pastel vasco, Marisol mentions she is planning surgery, and I tell her I will take her to the clinic. She unleashes a wide smile and kisses me on the cheek, as if I am her dead husband, Benicio, or perhaps her son Telmo, who drowned years ago. How does she smile after having lost so much love?
Some might say it is because her eyes are so cloudy. But this is not blindness, it is kindness.
The only love I have lost is Elisabeth and that was my fault. And she’s not even dead. I could still have her.
Except, I can’t.
A few days later, after leaving Marisol at the policlínica, I walk to the beach. The children build forts and castles, while their parents engross themselves in dark and violent Swedish detective novels, and lithe Italian tourists make out on their towels.
It is a gorgeous day, but once again I am flat as the sea. I cannot situate myself in the present, only the past, in the very first place I kissed Elisabeth, right there, between the ramp and the beach chairs. The sun was behind the island, the moon was rising across the bay, a quarter moon, but my heart was utterly whole when I touched her. The first time we went out, she was wearing two bracelets, and when the waitress admired them, Elisabeth slipped one off her wrist and handed it to her. She didn’t even think about it; she is just like that, a goodness of heart that most of us can only dream of possessing. She will give to everyone.
Except me. She is done giving to me. And so I sit, lost among the demise of what was. My business, gone. My mother, six feet under. Nothing to my name but a rancid apartment, whose upkeep and taxes I cannot afford. There is one old lady, grateful for my help, except even that I cannot do right, my mobile and then the nurse buzzing angrily at me that I am late to fetch Marisol.
For a few hours her vision is blurred—they have done both eyes at her insistence—and now it is my turn to bring food. The next morning, however, she opens the door, giddy. She stayed up late counting stars, the morning dawning with colors as intense as cans of fresh paint. Her eyes are clear and she cannot stop scanning the room, the sky, and now, my face. I don’t know if it is me she sees, the little boy I once was, or Telmo. He was one year younger than me. We never had much to say to one another; at school, I teased him mercilessly, stole his soccer balls and flung them over the fence onto the railroad tracks.
I have no idea if Marisol knows this. When she raises her hand to my face, I step closer, allowing her fingers to follow the line of my jaw. Her tips pressed to my chin, she tells me she has been given another life.
Will I have to wait until I’m 83 for mine?
The following Sunday truly is a sun day, rare in these parts, the heat smoking the mist off the street, blowing shotgun blasts at the worms and slugs on the asphalt before they can make safe crossing. I do two loads of laundry, and when I open the back window to hang it on the line, the Ave Marias call from across the courtyard. From the front patio, Leonard Cohen croons that Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, everyone finding their way to God today. Even the cat quartet has assembled outside, emboldened by the heat. They are better than television, these four: queen Cookie, fat and white, while Dexter, a slim Siamese, seems to have it over on Hugo, except when Misha, a scruffy calico appears, they gang up on Dexter and harass him back under the stairs. Until Cookie meows at them to break it up, and they all scatter like rats.
When I pull in my clothing the next morning, I see that I am missing my favorite shirt. It is a 3-euro T-shirt Elisabeth bought me years ago and I cannot be without it. I scour the bushes, but there is nothing—no skimpy lingerie, no boxers, just three cracked clothespins. Then I remember Ramón hung his sheets out yesterday.
He opens the door slowly, ogling me, as if he cannot believe I have the temerity to penetrate his space.
“What do you want?” he bellows, his voice like a lion. The volume must be fueled by all that air in his huge stomach.
“I’m looking for something I lost.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“I’m not here to philosophize, old man. Do you have my shirt?”
Ramón mumbles something unintelligible and shuffles into the back room.
His flat is laid out exactly like my mother’s. The kitchen has been upgraded with shiny laminate cabinets and a black granite countertop, but the living room walls are identical to hers—dark, and covered with ashen oil canvasses. A row of 70-cent Señorío de Ochoa wine bottles lines the top of his bookshelf. On the hall table is a jumble of pictures. At the very end is a small one with him, my mother, Marisol and some other original owners of the building on an outing in the country. Ramón has his arm linked through my mother’s. I am slipping the photo down the front of my pants when he steps back into the hallway with my shirt.
“You are fucked up, guapo. More fucked up than I thought.”
I set the picture back on the table.
Ramón holds my shirt as if he is considering making me a deal. But then, with the force of a boxer, he shoves it into my chest. When he pulls his hands back and crosses them across his chest, though, even I can see they are trembling.
With the same swift pace it arrived, the sun disappears. There are days where it rains so much the fish complain the ocean has run out of salt. Other days it is xirimiri all day long. I don’t bother with an umbrella, but it always feels like we are waiting for something; there has to be more, the atmosphere cannot hold this much moisture. Some days the droplets are so light I cannot see them, but outside I can always feel them, like someone else’s tears.
Saturday night the doorbell rings. It is Nuria. Do I want that craniosacral treatment now? Luckily, I have showered, and my hair has grown back to a respectable length. I apologize for the mess—the furniture is all piled in the corner of the living room. The only place to lie down is my mother’s bed.
This is fine, she says, pressing her fingers into my neck. The release is like an acceleration of a Maserati on the autobahn, the energy exploding from my shoulders to my toes before I can get a breath in, and a few minutes later, when she starts to work on my chest, I can’t help myself. We both know this is why she has come at 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and she is equally happy to forgo the craniosacral work for more conventional Saturday evening exertion. Until Ramón closes his shutters, clanking the metal bar like the opening and closing of a corpse drawer in the mortuary, maybe like my mother in that drawer.
From there, I cannot get back, the image entrenched: my mother and Ramón doing this one floor below, she like a corpse, or even worse, enjoying herself in his hairy arms. I apologize to Nuria and mutter something about possible nerve damage from the toxins in the glue remover, the even more repulsive thought now occurring to me that perhaps it was not downstairs, but in this very bed. As soon as Nuria is gone, I grab the blankets and make myself a sleeping mat as far from my mother’s room as possible.
In early September, a wave of heat so ferocious lands, the only relief is the beach. I wait out the inferno in the dark, my shutters drawn, not stepping outside until 4:30. Just as I arrive downtown and drop my towel to the sand, there is a collective rise of fear as everyone on the beach spots it together: the wind off the ocean like a cyclone, sweeping up sand and grit as it landfalls. Before I can collect my towel, the stampede begins, a wave of humanity racing from the sea as if fleeing a tsunami, everyone elbowing one another to escape. Even on the boulevard and the walk home, where the wind is calmer and the temperature has dropped, the dread remains, as if something worse than a freak galerna, an autumn wind storm, has actually come to pass. It seems absurd, but I cannot shake it, and at the hill in front of my flat, I see it: an ambulance at the building, a stretcher with a blanket pulled over the head.
I first pray it is Ramón, immediately ashamed then for wishing it is anyone. So I pray
it is a mistake, or Dexter or Cookie, or an ancient, senile neighbor I don’t know from a nearby building.
There is only one person who wears pointy blue shoes, though, one toe visible at the edge of the blanket. Nuria is talking to the ambulance driver and breaks off when she sees me. I walk right by her, taking the stairs two at a time. Upstairs, I drag my mother’s mattress into the living room, yank the headboard off the frame and toss the disassembled bed in the hallway.
There are 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year, but how do you measure anyone’s life? By their worthless collections of gaudy figurines and antiquated picture frames? The number of hams they’ve sliced? The volumes of dust and thickness of carpet they lay down to cover what they could not stand to see? Marisol may have been a bit loopy, but she lived while she was here. There is nothing for me here now; I just need to finish the damn floors so I can sell the flat and get out.
After pulling up the last of the carpet, I call three sanders. The first, José Ramón, slams the heel of his cowboy boot onto a floor board in the bedroom and shakes his head. “The wood’s been eaten by carcoma. Your beams are so rotten they won’t hold the weight of the machines.”
José Mari doesn’t even get past the entrance. He twists his finger into a small hole in the wall, half a kilo of grainy material spilling out. “Franco. Cheap fucking bastard. Walls of sand and floors of sawdust.”
José Luis enters the living room, tentative. But he doesn’t say no right away. He walks the whole apartment, pressing his toe carefully where the floor gives way. He cannot make miracles, he says, but he does have a light machine, and he can foam the weak spots to shore them up. A week later he comes as promised, first to foam, then sand. He scrapes the wood down two layers, splashes on a bit of stain to even up the mottled spots, finishes with three coats of varnish, and good to his word, leaves the floors looking decent. He knocks 20 euros off the bill, telling me there were two spots where the foam bubbled up in my mother’s bedroom and he couldn’t reinforce under the board. He offers to replace the planks, but these floors are 60 years old and there is no guarantee there will be a match, so I tell him to forget it, and he does, and so do I.
Two weeks later, far too early in the morning, the doorbell rings. Realtors are not supposed to come by without calling, or before eight in the morning, and yet they persist in buzzing unannounced at all hours.
On the other side of the door, though, it is not a prospective buyer.
It is Elisabeth.
I am unshowered and unshaven for three days, the sleep clinging to my eyelashes.
“You look awful,” she says, kissing me quickly and stepping into the kitchen.
“Did you come all this way to tell me that?”
“I had a conference in Paris. I wanted to see you before I went home. I felt bad about how we left things.”
I open the shutters to allow in the morning light. Ramón is hunched in the garden below, picking up the empty beer bottles and sunflower seed bags kids use as condoms. He is like a silver fox, his hair greased back.
Elisabeth takes my arm. I think she will say something nice. She has come all this way from Paris to see me.
But I am wrong.
“When I first met you, you bent like him, but with humility. With the curiosity of a young man. Your desire to know the world was irresistible. Now you stoop like him. With cynicism.”
I straighten up immediately to prove that I share not a trace of DNA with this man; yet, she still lets go of my arm. And now she is sad. I am sad, too. I clean myself up and we leave the flat because it is making both of us sad.
Elisabeth has not been here in years, but she remembers everything, so we go for a sandwich at her favorite bar, a little dive with sheets of sawdust spilled across the floor and tiny wooden tables and chairs. Within three seconds I am in love with her all over again; the way she sits down next to me at a table for four when she could sit across from me; the way she eats off my plate as if we are one; how she is not afraid to rest her hand on my knee in spite of all the hurt we have allowed ourselves to inflict upon one another. I hold onto the underside of the table to not be swept away by thoughts of everything that draws me to her; how she can land a half-million dollar grant with ease, bathe her crippled and bitter father with absolute tenderness and forgiveness, navigate anywhere in the world with little effort, but when sweeping, leave tiny mounds of dust in each room, as if she has thought of something far more pressing to do between the time she gathered the piles and returned with the dustpan.
I am still ruminating on all of this the next morning when she suggests we hike Adarra. I agree, but a third of the way up the mountain, I know this was a terrible mistake. I can’t talk. I can’t even think. It is all I can do to get one foot in front of the other, while people jog past us to the top. Elisabeth is a faster hiker than me, same as she is quicker than me at most everything. She strides up the trail the same way it seems she left me—swift and silent. She does not have to tell me I have been smoking too many cigarettes and that I am lousily out of shape—I know. But she doesn’t have to keep going as if there is a race to the top, while I stop to keep my sides from splitting. At the peak, we eat quietly among the granite and the horseflies, everything soured, the silence accompanying us on the way down. When she twists her ankle crossing the stream, I do not move to help her, instead, holding my distance, smoking, while she massages her foot.
But back in the flat, as she steps out of the shower, I pull her down next to me on the mattress.
“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” I say, when I see the look on her face.
“Yes, it does. You don’t know what it is to give your love to someone who can’t accept it.”
“But I love you,” I say, as if all the problems of the history of us can be reduced to the simple matter of her not being able to see the obvious.
“Maybe,” she answers. “But what does that mean if you can’t hold that love for yourself?”
And yet, she cannot let go either. When she holds me, I am like a dying soldier in his comrade’s arms, a sick baby in his mother’s embrace, a man in his lover’s grip. I could die in here and it would be all right. There is no one else in the world who can do this for me. But when I kiss her, she turns away.
“You know, you can follow your heart without breaking it. You don’t need me for that.”
But I do. I need her for that. For all of it. Even if she no longer wants to be needed that way.
I curl away to the side of the mattress, my hands pressed hard into the floor. “You didn’t need to travel halfway around the world to throw shrink-talk at me,” I say. “You could have sent me an email.”
She stands silently, sliding into her jeans, and then to the other room, where I can hear her collecting her clothing from the line, her little jars from the bathroom, and then shutting the front door behind her.
At first I do not move. For a long time. But when enough time has passed that I am certain she is halfway to Madrid or Barcelona or wherever it is she is flying home from, I go into my mother’s room and position myself on the board that Jose Luis was not able to salvage. I rock while it creaks, and together, my feet and I, we do this for a long time. I rock, the board creaks, and the faster I move, the louder it gets. I don’t even know why I left anymore; there is so much I hate, and so much I loved that was lost to me, while I have gained nothing in my years abroad. Nothing. And here I am, throwing my life away just as my mother did. What I wouldn’t give to be one of those babies on the beach with a handful of sand and one ridiculously simple question in that unformed mind: Should I mouth this or should I not? Same as a train that only has to pay attention to whether the signal light is red or green, stop or go, every detail of life reduced to effortless binary decisions.
I can hear Ramón below me, but I don’t stop. I rock on the board so hard it cracks, and when it first splinters, it is maybe two in the morning, but I don’t need light to know there’s something under it, that’s why the foam wouldn’t take. I do not reach for the object, I just rock on the board all night long. Ramón is banging on the ceiling and the harder he bangs the harder I stomp. I can outlive this old man; I will outlast this old man, that’s how much I hate him. When the board finally cracks in two, I reach in and pull out a small metal box. I do not have to step outside now to feel the mist, xirimiri. My tears are like this, they have no strength, they will not come and do what they have to do.
Someone bangs on the door, but I will not open it because I am so mad that if it is Ramón I will give him a smack to the side of his head with this plank. I am so angry I will hit whoever it is with the wood, and if it is Ramón I will smack him doubly hard because if this man is my father, he must know it, and if he knows it and has kept it from me all these years, what else is there to do but meet him with a smack to the side of the head?
I do not sleep. I watch the night sky, silent and still, until the first pinch of dawn arrives. It is the color of metal. It is like watching a skin of darkness unfold, same as opening a tin or peeling back a lid on a metal box hidden underneath a floorboard to reveal something new and something old. When the transition to daylight is complete, I walk downstairs and wait behind the front door, the plank still in my hand.
Ramón emerges not much later, letting the door slam behind him. As he reaches the bottom step, he says, without turning around, “I know you’re following me.”
“Of course I’m following you, old man. I want to know where you go.”
“I’m not telling you.”
“I don’t care if you’re not telling me; I’m going with you.”
“Fine. Just get rid of that stupid plank. You look like you’re going to hit me.”
We wait for the bus, Ramón at the front of the line, me at the back, the mist heavy by the time we step off downtown. He shuffles along the promenade, the big black bag slung over his shoulder. On the beach, teenagers map out football fields in the sand for weekend championship matches. Ramón walks at a brisk pace through the pedestrians, not stopping until he arrives at Eguzki. I follow him into the spa, but he blocks my way.
“I’m not paying for you. You run.” He points to the beach.
I roll up my pants, and clutching my shoes by their laces, jog along the water line for 15 minutes until I collapse. After he has finished his hot water baths, we take the bus home in silence. In the kitchen I can smell his filet through my exhaust fan.
The next morning, Ramón is waiting for me, exactly the way a father might wait for his son after school.
“Guapo,” he says. “You are in terrible form. You are way too young to be in such bad form.”
At the beach Ramón orders me to run, and I do, all the way to Ondarreta and back, until my legs feel like they will fall off. This time, Ramón is waiting in his swim trunks. It is cold, but Ramón pushes through the waves. I will not be outdone by this ancient man, so I go under too, the salt stinging my lips.
The following morning Ramón doesn’t even say anything to me, just hands me the bag to carry for him on the bus. At the beach, I run again, this time toward the port, past the women selling sardines on paper towels, along the elevated Paseo Nuevo, the ocean raging below with winter psychosis. I position myself 20 feet from the stone wall to keep from throwing myself in. I have no desire to die, but neither do I want to live inside this snake skin, always dry and ready to shed, only to be replaced by an equally ugly one underneath. No, I do not want to die, only to free myself of mass, like the surfers, buoyant on the waves. On the way back I feel a sharp pull in my calf, the familiar draw of a muscle reforming. After he finishes at the spa, Ramón buys me a glass of Patxaran, the sweet liquor like a sedative, and back in the flat, I sleep until morning.
Friday, I get ready to part with Ramón at the spa, but he grunts and ushers me inside. The athletic instructors work the old folks through the circuits, a few of them sunning themselves in their black Speedos on the balcony. Ramón heads for the Exercycle, barely able to lift himself onto the seat. Once he starts pedaling, I grab a set of ten-kilo weights. I have no idea what I’m doing, so I copy the man next to me—30 years my senior, up and down, up and down, up and down, until I feel the burn in my arms.
Ramón alternates swimming with his indoor workout and soon enough I have some idea which days to bring my sneakers, which day my swim trunks. On Fridays, he takes a break from the circuit and does the baths—five pools of differing temperatures and salinity. Today we are surrounded by the ladies—as Ramón calls them—in the vast pool with high pressure jets on our backs. Above the din, Ramón grunts out hellos to many of them, mostly his age. “Your mother,” he begins, but I stop him. When we finish the baths, there is no more discussion of that—just the futility of building a walkway to nowhere along the coastline when there is no respectable bus station, the criminality of downtown traffic, and the latest spending spree by our balding, corrupt, socialist mayor.
On a cold day in December, Ramón and I wait for the bus, heads down against the wind. Because it is Friday, I am expecting a lounge in the warm baths, so when Ramón points to the beach, I am disappointed. I can run the length of it now without collapsing; still, when I return, I am shocked to see him waiting for me in his swim trunks. The water is icy, the temperature differential hitting me like a blow to the back of the head as I duck under. When I come up for air, Ramón is waiting for me, laughing. He laughs and laughs and laughs, and for once, he is not stooped, but straight, as if immune to the frigid water shriveling his skin. I submerge once again, and break the surface to find him roaring with laughter. We are alone out here, only meters from the shore, and there are no sounds except Ramón cackling, and my teeth chattering. We are not in a lagoon and there are no monkeys or dolphins, but for one split second, it seems there may be no other moment that matters except this one.
Satisfied I have suffered enough, Ramón takes me inside to the baths, and between the frigid sea and the warm water, my body opens up like an orgasm. On the way home we stop at Bar Astelena, and over a bottle of tinto and a plate of codfish, as he eyeballs the very young and very fit ladies, I let him tell me exactly what I need to know about my mother.
Back at the flat, my third biweekly repatriation check of 418 euros from the provincial government pokes out from my mailbox. The rooms no longer smell of fetid cheese, just the sweet tangerine odor of fading varnish. There have been no buyers, no realtors, no one for a few weeks. Just me. And enough of these checks to hang onto the flat if I choose to do so.
When I get into bed, even Ramón is quiet downstairs. We are both thinking about what he told me, his one regret that he has been waiting to share with me, and about what was in that box and what was not.
In that box were 15 pictures. Of my brother. My mother. My stepfather. A charm necklace from my great-grandmother. Match sticks. And no pictures of me. Just as there were no pictures of me in Ramón’s apartment.
His one regret? How much he liked my mother but was too scared to invite her out for a drink all those years.
In my wallet I have one photo of me with my mother. I was a shy boy, my hair cut short and obedient. I am on a metal swing, she pushing me from behind. My arms are closed tightly around the chains as if I am afraid of falling off. My mother is looking not at me but across my shoulder into her future. The photo was snapped long before she married, before she had my brother, her legitimate son who brought her legitimacy—unlike me, who brought her nothing but embarrassment. A humiliating snapshot of those treacherous and tortured days long before she was happy, and then had her legitimate son and husband ripped from her in a car accident, long before her remaining son deserted her when he couldn’t stand to see her desert herself anymore.
I am falling hard and fast into a sleep of subterranean depths now, the salt and sea so embedded in my skin I can taste them with my mouth closed. I am so tired I don’t think I will wake up even when Ramón bangs his shutters. The quiet is so profound, it is as if the whole neighborhood has gone to sleep, even the cat quartet hushed.
Maybe tonight Ramón won’t bang his shutters. Maybe tomorrow morning he won’t turn on Radio Euskadi so loudly. Maybe tomorrow the xirimiri will turn into real rain and the whole atmosphere will let go, water falling in sheets the likes of which no one has seen since the days of Noah.
Or maybe not.
Ramón del Solar Astigarraga is not my father.
Tonight, though, just tonight, I don’t think I’d mind if he were.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain, rarely even originating there. Rather, it blows, blusters and bursts in every imaginable permutation off the Atlantic Ocean, from the country’s westernmost tip, all along the northern coast from Cantabria to the Basque Country. One form of this precipitation, endemic to Spain’s northeastern neck, is unique in both characteristic—drops so diminutive they defy gravity, preferring to tack horizontally, and in nomenclature—xirimiri, a Basque word supposedly originating from the onomatopoeic alliteration txirri-txirri, txirriki txirriki, which translates roughly to “little by little” and “on and on.” And so xirimiri is, a mist so fine and unremitting that strangers to this wet and windy part of the Iberian Peninsula could remain unaware of its presence in the atmosphere until that abrupt moment they notice a moist, spidery film across their clothing.
I first encountered xirimiri over 30 years ago on my first trip to San Sebastian, the scenic and gastronomic epicenter of the Basque Country. My girlfriend and I, fresh out of college, found the locals quite friendly, particularly the men, one of whom gallantly rescued us from a group of drunk cretins, and then, as if to apologize for his brethren’s bad behavior, insisted on giving us a midnight tour of the city. We wandered the narrow cobbled streets packed with reveling weekenders, climbed Mount Urgull for sweeping views of the bay, and chatted for hours on the damp sand of the famously picturesque half-shell beach that anchors the city, all amidst an unrelenting mist nuzzling every inch of exposed skin. Our otherwise informative tour guide had no explanation for this odd moisture other than to shrug and say: xirimiri. As if vocalization of the word were explanation enough.
Two years later I married that friendly tour guide and we made our home in the states, returning to San Sebastian in the summers. Some years later we bought a fixer-upper flat in a working class neighborhood, our building still inhabited by many original owners who had moved in almost 50 years ago, midway through Franco’s reign.
Subsequent summer vacations were spent scraping tiles, painting walls and pulling up carpets, and although I found no treasures underneath the rotted floor boards, just woodworm holes and dust, while immersed in quiet, repetitive labor, my brain emptied, providing space for the genesis of this piece. As we physically stripped the apartment to its bones to create a new nest for our family, for my husband, in a city he once called home and no longer could, my protagonist, a young emigre returning home following a failed relationship and the death of his mother, began to demand first billing in this story.
Like so many words in the global lexicon, xirimiri cannot be translated. Spanish has co-opted and remodeled the word into sirimiri, zirimiri, chirimiri. But no matter how you spell it, this steamy, vaporous dew belongs to the Basque Country, in the same way that my husband, all the while insisting he’d left San Sebastian for good, would, on those wet, wet mornings, open the shutters to a grey overcast sky, plunge his hand out the window and shout, almost triumphantly, xirimiri! The kids and I would resign ourselves to a day in, while my husband would excitedly prepare for a day out, grabbing an umbrella, a raincoat, and then, his bathing suit. For him, xirimiri was a homecoming. A signal that although he had relinquished so much by leaving, some pleasures, including those morning swims in the mist, the same ones he’d relished throughout his youth, could not be taken from him.
Watching my husband celebrate xirimiri, I began to see that even if you can’t recover what you’ve forfeited by emigrating, that returning home with fresh eyes and making peace with what you’ve lost, may actually provide a gratification equally rewarding, if not better.
For my protagonist, the journey was not quite so smooth, nor was his relationship with xirimiri so amicable. Regardless, after he’d been able to open his eyes to a different kind of future than the one he’d been seeking, by the end of the story, I like to think, he found his own form of resolution, xirmiri and all.
ABOUT DIANA FRIEDMAN
Diana Friedman’s work has appeared in numerous publications including New Letters, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, Sport Literate, The Baltimore Sun, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and Whole Earth Review, and has been anthologized in Defying Gravity and For the Love of Baseball: A Celebration of the Game that Connects Us All. She is the recipient of the Alexander Patterson Cappon Fiction Prize, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and her work has been twice selected as a finalist at Glimmer Train. www.dianafriedmanwriter.com
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