Amor, 2003

Hip New Yorker meets his match when he falls in love with a passionate young woman from Spain and is forced to explore his own personal depths as he tries to penetrate and understand her elusive depths.


Escrito con cariño por

John E. Leahy

Chapter 1

I can stand on the corner of Broadway in my old neighborhood in New York and see a lot of the places where things happened. I reflect back that a young man can be cruising along, exploring and enjoying the various fruits of mortal existence, and then one small woman can pick up the box that is his life, give it a vigorous shake, and toss the contents to the wind. I think I have finally recovered enough of those scattered fragments to tell the story of Carmen.

I thought Carmen was cute the first time I met her, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by her beauty. I met her in the park the same day I got back to New York from a canoe trip in Maine. Carmen was basking in the sun on a blanket near the soccer field. Miguel, a carpenter from Peru, introduced us. I squatted on the grass and tried to remember my high school Spanish. Carmen was visiting from Spain and spoke only sporadic words of English. I liked the way she moved closer to talk to me.

As we chatted, the ebb and tide of the game flowed energetically back and forth, with shouts in Spanish contrasting with the subdued English conversations of affluent Americans walking past with their dogs. Beyond the field, the sun blazed a golden reflection on the Hudson River and glowed over the cars crawling home on the West Side Highway. Miguel translated the difficult words as Carmen and I began our first probes. She was 23, worked in a hospital laboratory, and was here on vacation for three weeks to visit her brother.

For Carmen’s turn, she asked me what type of women I found attractive. Her direct question caught me off guard and I gave an evasive, embarrassed response. To gain time, I asked her what type of men she liked and she announced ingenuously that she liked tall, blond, blue eyed men. I have blond hair and blue eyes, but am standard height for an American man and spend a lot of my time on the basketball courts where I am short in a tall man’s game. My immediate idea was to introduce Carmen to my pal Kowalski. Kowalski is taller than me, rippling with muscles, and of course, blond and blue eyed. Women always flirt with him at parties. It didn’t occur to me that the average height of Spanish men made me look tall in Carmen’s eyes and I hadn’t yet seen Carmen rise to her feet to show that she herself was barely five feet tall.

Miguel slowly sipped his bottle of Beck’s beer as he watched the game and allowed Carmen and me to converse. I frantically searched the deeper recesses of my brain to pull out basic vocabulary words and hoped she wouldn’t get bored. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but I was curious. Carmen leaned towards me as I talked and squinted in her effort to understand. A sentence could take minutes.

The sun descended over New Jersey and Carmen pulled a tee shirt over her swimsuit and tucked it around her knees. I looked at her more closely and realized that she was actually quite pretty. Her black hair was clipped up casually in the back. She wasn’t wearing makeup and her fair skin showed faint freckles. She told me that her province, Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, had been settled by Celtic people and that redheads, bagpipes and kilts still endured.

A shout went up as a goal was scored. The players began wandering off the field and the game ended. Carmen’s brother, Juan, tumbled wearily on the grass next to us and wordlessly took the bottle of beer that Miguel opened for him. Juan took several deep gulps, wiped his mouth with a dusty arm, and stared into the sunset over the Hudson. After a minute, he half turned and said “Oh yeah, you met my sister?”

Carmen and I continued our chat and I was beginning to quite enjoy it. Even through the gaps in the vocabulary, there was an allure in Carmen and the flattery of an attractive woman being attentive. Carmen had already seen the usual New York sights, but knew nothing of the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. We agreed that I would pick her up the next day and show her something different.

Chapter 2

The following morning I felt a pleasant anticipation about our appointment. I really knew very little about Spain and had little interest or curiosity. It was 1981 and Spain had recently emerged from under the numbing thumb of Franco’s long dictatorship and it was not the womb of avant guarde thinking that I was accustomed to with my hip New York lifestyle. However Carmen seemed fairly attractive and nice to talk with and the day bode well. An almost cocky nonchalance framed the usual enjoyment of the morning coffee and perusal of the New York Times. A relaxed hand lifted the phone at the designated hour and a steady voice prepared itself for the approaching interview. I dialed Juan’s number and waited. There was nobody home.

Puzzled, I checked the number and redialed. Same result. “Probably in the shower” I thought, and gave her a generous 20 minutes to practice the feminine arts before the mirror. I called again. Nobody home.

I looked at the kitchen clock to verify the time. I mentally scanned our closing dialogue from the previous day for possible errors. Alles in ordnung. Perhaps she was still in the shower or maybe visiting her brother. It took ten minutes to walk up Broadway to the hardware store where Juan worked. He hadn’t seen her and answered my inquiries with a gruff shrug of the shoulders. “Women!” he muttered, and turned his attention back to the Daily News on the counter.

I returned home and redialed. The feminine arts should have had the situation entirely under control by now. Carmen answered the phone. My broken Spanish and her nonexistent English occupied five minutes of time to inconclusive result. I asked her for the third time with fatalistic acceptance of defeat if she wanted me to come over. Her reply had all the resemblance of the negative. I was quite confused. “Oh well, easy come, easy go.” I resigned myself to being discharged from tour guide duty and was surprised at my disappointment. This girl didn’t seem to make much sense. But just as I was preparing to hang up, I suddenly heard her ask what time I would arrive.

“So you do want me to come?”


I was confused again but now felt a smile easing my tense jaw muscles.

Twenty minutes later I knocked on Juan’s tenement apartment door. Strange smells of Caribbean cooking lingered in the hallway and Salsa music played loudly upstairs. White people rarely ventured onto this street and I felt a twinge of alien insecurity. Thirty seconds passed and I heard steps behind the door. Four locks were unfastened and the door slowly opened. Carmen stood in the doorway. I was mesmerized. Standing before me was the most dazzling goddess I had ever seen in my life.

The feminine arts slaughtered me. There was no contest. It was only maximum self-discipline and a nod at the noble concept of dignity that prevented me from staring with bulging eyes. Carmen’s hair was sleek and shiny and combed down to her shoulders. Her lips were red with lipstick and her large eyes were sharply defined with eyeliner and mascara. Her blouse was tucked into tight shorts that just ventured to the top of her thighs. A blue plastic belt and matching blue plastic sandals set her immediately apart from any American girl. She looked sexy yet still sophisticated. The blue plastic sandals fascinated me. No girl I had ever known would have dared to wear such an unapologetically ornamental item.

Carmen showed me into the living room and I sat on the sofa while she took the armchair next to me. I rested the Spanish-English dictionary on the coffee table within easy reach. The apartment had windows on the airshaft and was dark even though the sun was shining brightly on Broadway. Carmen smiled and asked me about my studies. Referring frequently to the dictionary, I told her that I had studied geology, astronomy and literature, and was now surviving as a part time construction worker between voyages to remote corners of the globe. Carmen told me about her life in Spain, her boyfriend that she would probably marry, and the rest of her life that would follow suit in a predictable, safe and well-charted pattern. She spaced out the course of her life to its conclusion along the armrest with measured chops of her hand. “Poom. Poom. Poom.”

We sat chatting for hours. We didn’t drink. We didn’t eat. We didn’t listen to music. We didn’t watch TV. We just talked. The apartment got darker and the afternoon waned. Brooklyn still waited patiently for its visitors. At 5:30, Juan came home. He glanced at us as he passed through the living room and commented brusquely. “Quite a marathon session.” He rolled a couple of joints in his room and headed back out for the park.

I feared overstaying my welcome but finally suggested that we set out on our original plan for the day, even though it was now evening. Carmen surprised me by agreeing enthusiastically. We walked down the grimy, graffiti covered stairwell. A huge cockroach darted into a crack under the stairs on the second floor and Carmen winced.

“My brother lives in a whorehouse!” she hissed. “If our parents saw this horrible place, it would be a scandal.”

I knew Juan’s life style valued music, marijuana and soccer over a lucrative career and material wealth, and wasn’t wholly unsympathetic, but I didn’t feel inclined to enter into a family battleground. I already knew that his parents were furious because he had dropped out of medical school. Besides, everybody hates cockroaches.

We turned the corner onto Broadway and I offered Carmen my arm with comic gallantry. She refused the proffered arm on philosophical grounds. “I think it is very traditional and unequal for the woman to take the man’s arm. I prefer holding hands.”

I was taken by surprise yet again, but eagerly held out my hand. She took it and we began promenading down Broadway like old lovers. It felt odd to be holding hands with this girl that I’d known for less than one day, but I was delighted. We walked quietly for a block or two while New York City swirled past us. Tired men in business suits straggled home, kids chased each other around the sidewalk, and couples searched for cozy restaurant nooks for romance and dinner. I looked at Carmen and she looked back at me with a smile.

“Are you happy?” My lack of vocabulary made me simple and direct. Carmen smiled again. “Si.” she replied.

We stopped in my apartment to get my car keys and Carmen looked around curiously. She examined all the details as if weighing them for evidence about their owner. I gave her a quick tour of the small apartment. In my room, she picked up a photo of my mother and sat on my bed gazing at it pensively. I sat at the foot of the bed and told Carmen about my mother and her childhood in the logging towns of Oregon. I soon had to resort to the dictionary and we sat together thumbing through our conversation companion. The dictionary rested on my thigh and I tingled at the pressure of her fingertip as it ran down the page. Carmen told me about cooking in Spain and I couldn’t pronounce the word for onion. We stared into each other’s eyes unguardedly as she repeated “cebolla” over and over again for my edification.

The evening slipped past in a calm euphoric fog as the afternoon had. Hours evaporated. I had no idea what I was doing and couldn’t determine what I wanted to happen. I only knew that it was pleasant. Carmen picked up a blue bandana from the night table and put it around her neck. I reached my hands to her throat and gently tied a knot in the bandana. Carmen looked directly at me while my fingers lingered at the knot and rested against her skin. My face leaned through the dreamscape towards hers.

Chapter 3

I was in an unexpected blissful reverie. Yesterday, I had come back from an exciting 10 day canoe trip through the north Maine woods to return to an uncertain future of seeking work that would pay for my next adventure. I wanted to see the world any way I could and build up a repertoire of exciting tales to tell the grandchildren on my knee some day. I wanted to bite off as big a chunk of life as I could in the short time allotted to me. My vision of life didn’t extend much beyond this ill defined limit, and certainly didn’t include careers and nine to five jobs.

Carmen was giving and very passionate. We didn’t make love the first evening but touched each other all night. By the dull light of the bedside lamp, I traced my fingertips around the edge of a faint scar on the right side of her belly. She told me of a cooking accident while frying potatoes with hot olive oil. I slowly kissed the inside of her thigh. Carmen pressed her fingernails into the back of my head. She raised my face gently with her hands so I could see her face. “Te quiero.” She murmured. I frowned with incomprehension and began to reach across her body for the dictionary. Carmen smiled. “I love you.”

I was stunned. She was way ahead of me. Sensations and feelings were reeling through me in such a cluttered blur that I couldn’t sort them out. It always took me a long time to observe a woman to determine if she interested me profoundly. Physical beauty was recognizable instantaneously but the more subtle points of a woman’s character came out more slowly. And certainly, lively wit or eyes that expressed understanding, would accentuate hidden beauties not so discernible at first glance. It was always that way. A woman who understands my particular brand of sarcastic humor, a woman who fills the empty moments by just being in the same room, a woman whose soothing conversation fills the lag time between orgasms with a tranquil pleasure, a woman who makes me happy by standing next to me in the supermarket checkout line, this woman always reveals surprising features of beauty with time.

Carmen eyed me inquisitively. “Me quieres?” I thought I understood and paused to consider the grammar for verification. “Do you love me?” She knew the phrases that interested her. I could never love anyone so quickly. “Yes.” I answered simply. Carmen smiled happily. “You love me?” “Yes.” I had no option. She closed her eyes and kissed me. I kept my eyes open and stared at this wondrous creature.

Morning sunlight began filtering through the window curtains as Carmen’s back arched in a last spasm of rapture. Her eyes were clenched tightly shut and her forehead was creased. I watched her contorted face with fascination. Finally her grip around my neck began to slowly loosen and her breathing became more calm. A tired but happy smile played about the corners of her lips. She gradually opened her eyes. “Now you.”

When I finally lay back exhausted, I put my arm around Carmen’s shoulder and closed my eyes. Carmen put her thumb on my eyebrow and pulled my eye open. “No duermes.” She whispered. Carmen didn’t want us to sleep. We only had a short time to be together and we needed to profit from every possible minute. I laughed, but I kissed her and stayed awake.

Chapter 4

Later that afternoon, we were still awake. I was tired but curious about what Carmen might want next. Carmen wanted to go to a fish store. We walked up Broadway to the shop on 108th Street and Carmen rigorously inspected the octopuss for freshness. She was going to prepare her regional specialty, pulpo, and the octopuss had to be absolutely fresh or it would be like rubber. When we got back to my apartment, she asked for scissors and to my amazement, proceeded to snip the tentacles into bite size bits. She boiled the octopuss and carefully took it out before overcooking it. She put the bits on a wooden chopping board and covered them with olive oil, salt, and paprika. The chopping board was placed on the table along with a small glass filled with tooth picks and two glasses of red wine from Rioja. She explained patiently to me that pulpo was usually accompanied by the acidic regional white wine drunk out of flat porcelain bowls, but this was not available in New York. I sat down and scrutinized the purple nobs on the tentacle bits dubiously. Carmen speared a chunk with her toothpick and popped it in her mouth. I steeled myself and followed suit. After surpassing the initial shock, I found it delicious and succulent.

The next day we were still awake and Carmen was still wearing the blue bandana around her throat. The guys I usually worked with were painting an apartment nearby so Carmen and I went to visit them. The crew was a hard drinking group of Vietnam vets who were studying economics at Columbia University and painting apartments on the side. None of their coarse charm was wasted on me, but they clustered eagerly around Carmen and raucously teased us with graphic portrayals of our presumed recent activities. I was at first apprehensive about Carmen’s reaction to this rough teasing, but she immediately felt the warmth behind the hard language and responded with embellishments of her own. With a mischievous, sly smile, she took me behind a closed door and began breathing heavily and moaning loudly. I joined in and we performed a duet for the uproarious delight of my friends.

That night we were still awake. Despite the fact the we hadn’t slept for almost three full days, Carmen was rigidly insistent that we shouldn’t lose precious time together by sleeping. So far, all my pleas to her rational sense had been in vain. She merely responded by singing a line from a John Lennon song, “Our life together, is so precious, together.” Her argument was armored for strength with conviction, passion and personal determination. My argument was bolstered only by frail logic and reason. I was too tired to even make love any more. We remained awake.

About eleven o’clock, I took Carmen down to the park to walk Nansen, my German Shephard, named after the Norwegian explorer. Few people venture into the park after dark, but I was a frequent visitor with my dog. The post-game beers with the soccer players could also last well past sunset. Someone would bring a few six packs and we would play mini games of two against two on the concrete pathway till midnight. Nansen would trot about on her own or sit with the beer drinkers at the sideline of the game. I always had the feeling I had been transported from the familiar Anglo New York City I grew up in, to some working class neighborhood in Lima or Guayaquil.

The street lamps were out and Carmen and I were sitting on some rocks in the dark. The night was quiet and no other people were within 10 blocks of us. Nansen sat nearby with his ears gracefully erect and attentive to the night sounds. Some bats fluttered over our heads and Carmen shuddered with alarm. “Murcielagos!” The bats came and went while I practiced the new vocabulary. Suddenly, I narrowed my eyes, glowered menacingly, and dropped my voice to a soft whisper. “I am the Vampire and the murcielagos are my soldiers.” I hissed quietly. Carmen looked at me out of the corner of her eye. I continued hypnotically. “My dog is the Wolf of the Night.” I was having fun clowning and could barely keep a straight face. “Soy El Vampiro.” I raised my eyebrows and opened my eyes wide for dramatic effect. Carmen jumped up to her feet and took off sprinting. I was surprised by her reaction but, shaking with laughter, I loped after her.

Carmen was running full speed ahead and I was laughing so hard that it took me almost a hundred yards to catch up with her. I grabbed her elbow and spun her around towards me. Her face had an expression of terror. I was so stunned I dropped her arm and she took off running away from me again. I still couldn’t take her fright very seriously, but I began a steady apology and explanation that I was only joking as I trotted along next to her. I was in excellent physical condition and there was no way Carmen could actually run away from me. We continued side by side, with Carmen racing for her life and me jogging comfortably and trying to reassure her that I had only been trying to make her laugh. My limited Spanish and frequent spasms of uncontrollable laughter didn’t make a very convincing argument and Carmen didn’t break her stride until she got to the top of the steps at 103rd Street and finally saw other people again. Some dogwalkers were chatting and smoking cigarettes, so Carmen felt sufficiently out of immediate danger to let me sit her down on a park bench and talk to her. For the next fifteen minutes, I apologized and explained sincerely. Carmen told me she got scared because she really didn’t know me well and perhaps it had been my sinister intention to lure her to such a dark and deserted place. She had stopped trembling and her breathing had slowed down to normal. I kept breaking out into laughter and Carmen got angry with me, so I had to start apologizing again. Her anger didn’t last long though and a few minutes later she let me kiss her. The dogwalkers left and we went back to my apartment to stay awake together for yet another entire night.

Chapter 5

The next day we had a picnic in Central Park with a friend of mine, I can’t remember who after all these years. The lack of sleep made me feel like I was walking through a dream. A wave of adrenaline energy would pass through me and then the next minute I would be barely conscious. Although we stayed awake to be together, making love had been out of the question since the second day. I was simply too drained physically. Carmen was beginning to become upset about this. She seemed to need physical reassurance that I loved her. At the picnic, Carmen had my friend take some photos of the two of us with her camera. In one picture, we are kissing tenderly and romantically, and  in another I am pretending to bite one of her breasts. These are among the few photos of Carmen still in my possession. They are starting to yellow with age but the playful sparkle in Carmen’s smile is still fresh and vibrant as she looks down at my mischievous and sensuous clowning.

After five sleepless days and no evidence of Carmen relenting in her determination to spend every possible moment together and awake, I told her we had to sleep. I sat her down next to me and held her hand and explained to her patiently but firmly that sleep was a biological necessity. Carmen was extremely upset. What about our love? It would have to continue in dormant form for at least a few hours, I insisted. I was no longer capable of functioning without at least one normal night of sleep. After 30 minutes of discussion, Carmen reluctantly relented with only a trace of a pout, and for the first time she and I snuggled up together in my bed and actually slept.

We awoke sometime in the middle of the night and got up as if it were morning. Time had lost all relevance in our love vigil. With Carmen’s distraction, I had put off going back to work and one hour in my bedroom was like any other. We touched each other and talked about our childhood and homes. Carmen told me what a shy, sweet brother Juan had always been, and how shocked she was to see him again after ten years in this country, and how he had become so street tough and hard. He didn’t even speak Spanish properly any more. He spoke like a Puerto Rican. That was the most shameful thing of all. Carmen swore that no matter how long she lived away from home, she would never lose her proper Spanish.

Our repose had been refreshing, but I still felt too exhausted to make love and this again seemed to upset Carmen greatly. After all, we had just slept almost seven hours. We had only made love once and that was 4 days ago. Didn’t I find her attractive? Maybe I wasn’t really the passionate and sensual man she had taken me for. Was I even gay? I fielded the barrage of questions with bewilderment. At first, my answers were good humored and almost flippant, but as the questions got tougher and the inquisition showed no sign of being satisfied, frustration and discomfort crept gradually into my responses.

The rest of the day fluctuated between tenderness and tension. Carmen didn’t mention it again but she was clearly upset that I hadn’t made love with her in several days. I was groggy and not wholly coherent, and this didn’t help my efforts to understand or console Carmen. We still enjoyed plenty of good humor and enjoyed just being together, but there was an underlying current of dissatisfaction that called for resolution. I desperately longed for another full night of sleep to recuperate my strength and mental faculties. Carmen wasn’t an adversary to be taken on at anything less than full strength.

Sleep and rest were still to be postponed however. Some friends invited me to a small dinner party on the East Side and Carmen was eager to see an American social evening. As we got ready to go out, we shared a sweet moment of togetherness, followed directly afterwards by another one of Carmen’s consciousness jarring surprises. I was brushing my teeth when Carmen elbowed her way next to me in front of the mirror and began putting mascara on her eyelashes. We stood tightly packed next to each other, engaged in our separate operations, but content to be so close together. I glanced in the mirror at Carmen and she looked back at me out of the corner of her eye. “Para!” she ordered. “Stop!”

“What?” I protested innocently through toothpaste bubbles.

Carmen ignored me and concentrated on her eyes. I continued to stare at her in the mirror with a big grin. Toothpaste and saliva ran out of the corner of my mouth and dripped off my chin and down the front of my tee shirt. Carmen looked up at me again and broke out in a giggle.

“Que idiota!”

She returned her focus to her lashes and I frothed merrily and leered at her. “Give me a kiss, Muñeca.” I puckered my frothy lips at her. Carmen snorted in feigned exasperation and elbowed me sharply in the solar plexus. Gasping and choking on tooth paste, I gagged uncontrollably into the sink while Carmen serenely added the last delicate touches to her lashes. She admired the results critically from all angles while I struggled to recompose myself next to her.

We completed our tasks and Carmen reached for her toothbrush. I took it from her and told her to open her mouth. Carmen obeyed and I began assiduously brushing her teeth. I bent over to peer into her mouth and Carmen watched my eyes as I worked. I glanced up at Carmen’s eyes and thought I detected an emotional moistening. I pulled my hand out of her mouth and told her to spit into the sink. Carmen reached up on her tip toes and placed her lips against mine in a passionate embrace. I wrapped my arms and her toothbrush around her in a deep kiss. The next instant, Carmen shot a half pint of warm toothpaste and saliva into my mouth, and I was again wretching over the sink and Carmen was chortling with hysterical laughter.

Fifteen minutes later, I came from the kitchen to the bedroom to find Carmen finished with her dressing. I was struck by her beauty and paused in the doorway to watch her. Carmen looked up at me and resumed her attentive adjustement of her skirt belt.

“Don’t look at me.” She said.

“I can’t help it.” I answered, staring at her.

“Para, Jack!” Stop, she ordered.

I crossed the room and took Carmen with one hand while my free hand picked up the dictionary. “I want to tell you an American slang expression.” I told her.

Carmen waited while I thumbed quickly through the pages. When I found the word, I put the dictionary down, composed my sentence, and bent down with my hands on my knees to look Carmen straight in the face.

“You are a fox.” I carefully pronounced every syllable.

“Thwack!” My cheek resounded from a sharp slap. Carmen had hit me as hard as she could. I was still bent over with my hands on my knees, but my ears were now ringing from her blow. I blinked in disbelief. “You hit me. Why?” were the only words I could utter.

“You called me a whore!”


“I’m not a whore!” Carmen folded her arms indignantly and her eyes flashed angrily.

I tried to quickly synthesize what had just happened, with limited success. “I was trying to say you are beautiful.” Carmen looked unmollified and suspicious. I protested my innocence and explained the derivation of the slang expression at length. Carmen slowly softened but it took me ten minutes to cajole her with my poor Spanish before she would finally let me kiss her.

This crisis cleared, we were finally on our way in my old Toyota to the dinner party. I took the FDR Drive and Carmen perked up as we moved into the flowing traffic. “Corre, Jack! Drive faster!” I put the gas pedal down further and zoomed into the passing lane. “Let me drive.” Carmen said and she squirmed over and put her foot on the gas pedal. The speedometer shot up another ten miles per hour. Carmen’s face was flush with excitement as we zipped through the traffic. We slowed down and shifted gears, with Carmen insisting on operating the stick shift while I pushed in the clutch. Then we had to switch with me back on the gas and Carmen holding the steering wheel. When we got to our exit near Sutton Place, I was somewhat relieved while Carmen seemed greatly pleased with her adventure.

Our host that evening was the cousin of my friend and I had never met her or any of the other guests besides my friend. The apartment was small but in an elegant building with a doorman and a wonderful view of the East River and the lights of Queens and Brooklyn. The half dozen people assembled were mostly in their late 20’s and early thirties, some medical students and two young lawyers. The conversation had some mild and polite wit, which never seemed very original and stayed well within safe bounds. In fact, it rarely strayed from the realm of local politics and television shows. I translated occasionally to Carmen, but found it difficult to keep up the pace and discriminate between the tepid general tone of the comments and the rare tidbit that seemed worth translating. Carmen’s lack of English fluency was revealed during the initital introductions. The group was always polite to her when passing the salad, but the conversation flowed around her in English. After dinner, Carmen occupied herself for quite sometime with a Rubik cube. I thought she was well entertained and dedicated myself to throwing in more risqué humor to the stuffy atmosphere. Several hours went by and I was enjoying my role of injecting life into the party. After one particularly well received jest, I was elated with my success and went to check on Carmen who was looking at the books on the living room shelves. I put my arm around her shoulders and tried to kiss her on the cheek. Carmen pushed me away without looking at me and continued her perusal of the bookshelf. I was stunned by her reaction. I grabbed her arm and turned her around to face me.

“Oye, que pasa?” I asked. Tears were forming in her eyes.

“Nothing.” She replied and turned away from me and looked back at the books on the shelf. I grabbed her shoulders and spun her sharply back to look at me.

“Talk to me.”

It dripped out slowly at first but then gushed out in an angry explosion. Nobody was talking to her and even I had abandoned her to go make everybody else laugh and I wasn’t even considerate enough to translate for her even though I knew perfectly well that she didn’t speak English. But, I protested, most of the conversation was too boring and stupid to translate. I was saving her the trouble of hearing a lot of ridiculous crap. No matter. She should have been included. She wanted to talk too. How would I like to be excluded like that? And these people were cold and horrid. I was shocked. Hadn’t they been very polite? “Yes.” Carmen shot back. “Like good waiters in a restaurant, but they never even tried to talk to me.”

Carmen wanted to leave. Concerned faces appeared in the living room doorway, and then discreetly disappeared. A line a of hot sweat formed on my brow. Carmen disregarded our audience and no longer bothered to keep her voice within a decibel range that I found comfortable. It would be awkward to leave suddenly, but Carmen was obviously very hurt and even through my embarrassment, I realized that I needed to refocus my attention on her needs.

“Just 20 more minutes.” I promised. We rejoined the group and I attentively translated every syllable for the next hour and a half. Carmen jumped in with some comments of her own and soon she was the center of attention. When we eventually walked out to my car, Carmen held my arm with both hands and leaned against my shoulder. Her face shone with a happy smile as she recalled bits and pieces of the discussion and queried me for background details about personalities and American culture.

Carmen snuggled next to me and slept like a contented baby all night. When we woke up the next morning, she was still ebullient and I finally felt refreshed. My body was repowered and had thrown off the sluggish lethargy induced by five days of emotional intensity and sleepnessness. We drank our coffee leisurely and affectionately. As Carmen served me my second cup, I pulled her down on my lap and we stayed like that, talking and sipping coffee, and occassionally referring to the ever present dictionary. While we talked, I gently played with her hair and sniffed the fragrance of her perfume rising off the warm smooth skin of her neck. Carmen used a very distinctive perfume that I had never smelled before and I was already associating the fragrance with her. I began rubbing the tip of my nose lightly against her neck below her ear and Carmen stopped talking in mid sentence. We looked at each other and smiled. Carmen got up off my lap, took my hand, and led me to the bedroom.

The tension between us from not making love since our first day together, made me anxious at first. I desperately wanted and even needed to please her. However, my anxiety evaporated instantly the moment I penetrated her and confidence surged powerfully through me as Carmen’s body shuddered with climax after climax. Beads of sweat dripped off my eyebrows onto Carmen’s face.

I was now all powerful and using Carmen’s body as a tool of sensuality, reading her reactions and imagining how it would feel when I touched her. Carmen sensed the relative psychological relationships and seemed to get especially excited by being the object of pleasure. She enjoyed playing the role of being beautiful and attracting the attention of the man, allowing the man to conquer and win her, and finally giving herself and her body to the man to satisfy his own hedonistic desires. She encouraged me to tell her exactly what I wanted to do with her and to describe what I was doing while I was doing it to her. Hearing the description seemed to augment the physical sensation, and if I embellished and invented a story, her excitement grew even wilder. I obliged her and got a thrill at seeing how far I could make her lose her senses.

We were happy about what we had accomplished together and we made love again and again. Even after climax there remained a strong urge to touch her, to pinch the skin of her waist between my thumb and forefinger, to clutch her hair behind her neck, to taste her mouth.

Chapter 6

In the afternoon, Carmen was sitting across from me on the floor. She was wearing one of my tee shirts pulled down over her hips. She wore nothing else except black high heel shoes and my blue bandana. Our conversation lapsed into a cozy silence. I watched her and she glanced sometimes at me and then back down to the tip of her shoe that she was slowly rubbing against the inner calf of her leg. A mischievous gleam came into her smile and she looked back up at me.

“Jack, pretend you are a photographer.” Carmen straightened her back and pushed her breasts out. The fabric of the tee shirt draped gracefully over them and accentuated their form. I slouched back in the sofa and held my hands before my eyes to oblige her. “Click.” I said.

Carmen changed her pose, with one knee up and her torso twisted towards me. She gave me an alluring look. “Click.” Carmen changed positions again. She liked this new game. For me though, it was getting tedious. I indulged Carmen’s enthusiasm for playing fashion model with little interest. My mind wandered to the book I had been reading last week, before Carmen crashed into my life.

“Jack. Pay attention!” Carmen snapped me back to the present. “Click.” Carmen got up and went to the other room and returned with her camera. She resumed her poses and I took several real photos of her.

“Take off your shirt.” I told her. She studied me for a moment and then whisked the tee shirt up over her head. She was now wearing just the high heels and the bandana. I told her how to pose and she dutifully obeyed my commands. I liked this new game.

The photos were gorgeous when they eventually came out. Carmen was stunningly beautiful and sculpted with soft curves. In one of my favorite photos of her, she is sitting naked on the floor with her ankles crossed. She is leaning back with her hands on the floor behind her. Her breasts are brazenly exposed and she is staring back at the camera with a look that is both defiant and vulnerable. I treasured these pictures for many years until Carmen finally ripped them to shreds in a jealous rage one night. I even secretly hunted down the old negatives and reprinted them, but these also were lost to posterity when they got stuck together by cat urine. The session ended with one last photo of Carmen kneeling in front of me and holding my erection up to her waiting mouth.

The next day after breakfast, Carmen and I were in the bedroom, she getting dressed and I puttering aimlessly. Carmen had been within arm’s reach constantly for ten days and the relentless intimacy was slowly grinding at my nerves. I felt like reading or writing or just being able to breathe freely in my own space. I picked up a book and put it down. Carmen watched me as she brushed her hair with her head tilted sideways.

“Are you ok?”

I grunted impatiently in reply and thumbed through a stack of magazines on the night table. Carmen continued watching me and brushing her hair.

“Are you sure you’re ok?”


My eyes creased with annoyance. I wasn’t in the mood to be interogated. Carmen watched me for another minute and then stopped combing her hair. She clasped her brush in front of her with both hands and stared down at it mournfully. Then she quietly grabbed her bag and picked her clothes up off the bed. She kept her back to me as she started packing. I sucked in a deep breath of irritation. Damn! Now I’d hurt her feelings. All I wanted was a tiny bit of space.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m going back to my brother’s house.” She answered without turning around.


“Because you don’t want me here with you.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I know it’s true. You want me to go. You are tired of me.”

“I didn’t say I want you to go.”

“Do you want me to go, Jack? Tell me.” Carmen looked at me with sad eyes. A reprieve of one hour would have been refreshing.


“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” I nodded, frowning. Carmen scrutinized my face for signs of sincerity.

“No. I’m going.” She turned her back on me and went on with her packing.

“Carmen.” I put my hands on her shoulders and she trembled slightly, but continued packing. “You don’t have to go.”

Carmen turned to me again. “It’s better if I go.”


“You don’t want me to stay with you.”

“But I never said that.”

“Do you want me to stay”

“Yes.” I said, and I meant it. It was tormenting me to see her looking so sad. Carmen’s face lit up with a flush of happy hope.

“Are you serious, Jack? Do you really want me to stay with you?”

“Yes!” I burst out laughing and the nervous strain broke. Carmen hugged me and I squeezed her petite body against mine. “Yes Muñeca, stay with me.”

Carmen was radiant. I was relieved to see her smile again. As she preoccupied herself with unpacking her bag again, I thought to myself that I wasn’t capable of seeing her unhappy.

Chapter 7

A couple of nights later we went out to a bar in Tribeca with a friend of mine. In those days it was a scruffy but cozy little place with 75 cent draught beers, sawdust on the floor, and a juke box full of Motown and R&B tunes. This was still the era when Tribeca lofts were affordable to artists. Now it’s a sedate café where waiters wearing crisp white aprons serve mozzarella and fresh basil sandwiches. On weekends the bar was always packed and the patrons worked up a sweat dancing to Aretha Franklin on the dance floor that consisted of any space left after shoving the tables against the wall. People went there to have a good time more than to pose and look good, and that’s what I always liked about the place.

As we pushed into the bar, Grace Slick was ringing out “Don’t you want somebody to love?” I spied a gigantic black man in the back and waved to him over the roiling crowd. Monty was an institution in this bar. He was from Panama and loved to dance. He was extremely polite and always smiling and the women felt comfortable and protected in his presence. I bought gin and tonics at the bar and then introduced Carmen to Monty. She was elated to meet someone who spoke Spanish. Later, she told me this was the first time she had ever had a conversation with a black person.

Carmen was happy and bubbling with enthusiasm. She grabbed my hand and pulled me into the dancing throng every time the juke box played a song she liked. I was happy inside and proud to have such a beautiful and vivacious woman attached to me. I had already noticed that all the other men, and even women, always stared at Carmen and watched her from across the room.

Somewhere around our third gin and tonic, Carmen pushed herself up against me as we rested near the window. She reached up on her toes and kissed me with cold, wet lips. I felt a smooth sliver of ice cube slide onto my tongue,  accompanied by the tangy taste of gin and tonic. Carmen leaned back with a wicked and delighted grin. I chomped the ice and swallowed. Carmen laughed and pulled me back out to dance.

About 2 AM the bar was still packed with dancing bodies. I was leaning up against the cigarette machine chatting with my friend and Carmen was standing at my side. Beer bottles with cigarette stubs floating in them, half filled glasses, and overflowing ashtrays littered the top of the machine as well as the window sills and tables. Parts of the floor were wet and slippery from pools of spilled beer. A thick haze of cigarette smoke hung beneath the low ceiling. A stunning blonde girl in a red dress was swaying sensually in front of us. Her red dress was cut low in front and displayed a mesmerizing view of ripe cleavage. Her eyes were closed and she moved as if she were enjoying some intense sexual dream. She was impossible to ignore while at least one drop of blood still pulsed through the veins.

“My god, is she beautiful.”

It just slid out. It was merely a clinical statement of the obvious, unavoidable truth. It was uttered with sterile objectivity and was totally devoid of any longing or lust. My friend agreed with the sentiment and the general conversation was resumed. Carmen remained silent. Half an hour passed and my friend and I were still talking. I was winding down and my dancing fever had calmed. So apparently, had Carmen. She continued to be quiet. I asked her several times if she was ok and she always nodded yes, so I continued my conversation.

When we got tired of being jostled, we moved to another bar on Hudson Street that was calmer and more conducive for chatting. Out in the street, I again asked Carmen if she was ok. “Yes.” Her answer was short and clipped. We installed ourselves at the bar with Carmen on a stool to my left. I stood leaning with my forearms over the back of another stool and talked on with my friend. We ordered a few beers and my friend asked me why Carmen was so quiet. I shrugged my shoulders and we resumed. I was absorbed and oblivious to the activity passing around me till out of the corner of my eye I noticed Carmen winking and smiling down the bar. A man in his thirties with dark Mediterranean features was leaning towards her several stools away. I watched like a spectator as he came over and talked to her. After a few futile attempts, he turned and asked. “Does anybody here speak Spanish?”

I told him I did and he asked if I would translate for him. I agreed with ironic amusement and proceeded to act as intermediary. He invited Carmen to join him at an after hours club. He politely invited me also and then smiled eagerly at Carmen, waiting for her answer. I translated his invitation and told Carmen that as far as I was concerned, she was free to do as she wished, but it was almost four o’clock and I was going home. She could go off to the after hours club with this guy if she wanted and take a taxi home later.

My reaction, which had seemed quite reasonable and liberal to me, for some reason displeased Carmen visibly. Was I going to just let her go off late at night with a stranger? She demanded. “I’m not telling you what to do.” I responded philosophically. “Do whatever you want.” Carmen was furious.

“You want me to go with him so you can go back to that girl in the red dress.”

“What?” I creased my brow in disbelief. A lengthy huddle ensued. I propped my hands on the back of Carmen’s stool and talked to her calmly, but firmly for the next ten minutes. My face was close to hers and she looked me in the eyes as I explained at length and in detail that the girl in the red dress meant absolutely nothing to me, and that she was the only girl I was interested in. Carmen was doubtful of my sincerity at first and I was obliged to repeat and elaborate certain fine points of my feelings to her satisfaction. She seemed to enjoy what she was hearing and looked happy again for the first time in over an hour.

Carmen’s admirer was forgotten and ignored. After several minutees of being left out of a discussion conducted in a language he didn’t understand, he had pragmatically given up and diverted his attentions elsewhere. Last call had come and gone when Carmen and I finally resurfaced from our intense tete a tete. Now that I was once again aware of the rest of the world, I felt some sympathy for Carmen’s admirer. I didn’t bear any ill will towards him and didn’t think he had wronged me in any way. We actually seemed to be more in agreement than in opposition since we both obviously shared the sentiment that Carmen was an extremely attractive woman. In fact, I felt that he had been somewhat ruthlessly used as a pawn in Carmen’s tactic to make me jealous. I hadn’t reacted with jealousy or anger, but Carmen had extracted the ultimate victory that she wanted. She had secured herself in her position against the perceived threat from the girl in the red dress.

I apologized to Carmen’s admirer and explained the situation briefly. His disappointment was evident but his response was gentlemanly. I collected Carmen and we left. Carmen didn’t even so much as glance at her admirer.

On the way home, I was feeling frisky and compelled by drunken ardor. Driving up Riverside Drive there is a narrow strip of grass and trees separating the main roadway and the parallel street. When I came to a short sidewalk between them, I impulsively swung the car up over the curb and drove the twenty yards of sidewalk to the service drive. I wanted to give Carmen a thrill. She giggled appreciatively with delight. I drove onto the street again with a loud bang as the curb smashed unforgivingly against the fender. I gave an unconcerned laugh and drove on with my beautiful, laughing woman in my passenger seat.

We got home about 5 o’clock and made love. Carmen was exceptionally passionate and begged to be penetrated over and over again. I began to take pleasure in manipulating her sensations. I pulled out of her and then asked her in a whisper, with my face hovering just above hers, if she wanted more. Each time I withdrew, she gasped and crinkled her forehead and pleaded me to enter her again. Each time I demanded more loudly and harshly, and then answered her pleas with  harder and harder thrusts. Carmen came again and again and I finished in a furious pounding sweat. When I finally collapsed on top of her, she wound her arms tenderly around my neck and clutched me tight.

The next day, Carmen’s admirer made another unexpected appearance. We were lying on the bed chatting and I asked her if she had found her admirer good looking. I was confidently waiting for her to reply in the negative, but she surprised me. She said he had beautiful eyes and fine, black eyelashes. I hadn’t noticed such interesting features myself. Carmen then went on to astound me even more with the unsolicited disclosure that she would like to make love with him, but only if she could look at me in the eyes the whole time. I wasn’t sure if I felt comfortable with this image. I was fascinated to hear a woman speak so openly about her deep sexual fantasies, but I was less certain about my ability to share my wealth. At least, her fantasy left me confident that I was the undisputed Alpha wolf.

“Can we include the girl in the red dress?” I was only teasing her.

“Hijo de puta!” Carmen pouted and turned her back on me angrily.

Chapter 8

Juan came over the next day. His face was taut with irritation. He greeted me with a brusque handshake and turned to his sister. Carmen sprang lightly towards him and gave him a kiss on each cheek which he received stoicly. He then launched a spirited tirade at her in spanish that was too fast for me to follow. Carmen reacted indignantly and the two siblings argued vehemently in the hallway while I stood by uncomfortably. After several minutes, Carmen turned on her heel and strode regally to the bedroom with a last dismissive comment. Juan threw his hands up in disgust and turned away. I had no idea what the argument had been about or what I should do. I offered Juan a beer and he accepted with a nod.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as Juan took a slug from a bottle of Dos Equis beer.

“Shit.” Juan looked at me with a rueful shake of his head. “Her boyfriend is calling from Spain every day. You guys do what ever you want, but I don’t want to be in the middle of this shit.” Juan took a long pull at his bottle. “And I’m not going to lie to the guy for her. She’s got to deal with her own shit.” He drained the bottle and handed it back to me. “Fuck it. I have to go back to work.”

Juan left and I went to the bedroom to talk with Carmen. She was concentrating on brushing some of Nansen’s dog hair from a skirt. “Look what your dog causes.” She said peevishly without looking up from her brushing. I asked her if everything was ok. She looked up quickly and ignited. “It’s none of my brother’s business.” Her eyes flashed with anger. “I’ll call Spain later. The time difference is six hours. He’s still at work now.” I left Carmen to mind her own affairs in peace.

A couple of hours later, Carmen did call her boyfriend in Spain and chatted lightly and cheerfully with him for ten minutes. She highlighted some of the interesting places she had seen and things she had done, but steered around any mention of me, or of not staying at her brother’s house. When she got off the phone she seemed calm and happy. I suggested that we take Nansen for a walk and she enthusiastically agreed. Nansen ran on ahead, waiting at each corner for my spoken command to cross the street. Carmen held my hand tightly. As we headed to Riverside Park, we passed some handsome brownstones. Carmen pointed to them and said “I want to come back to New York and live with you here.”

Carmen had succeeded in surprising me again, but a warm feeling spread through me as I imagined life on a permanent basis with this beautiful and unpredictable girl.

Chapter 9

Several dreamy days later, it was suddenly time for Carmen to return home to Spain. I had just spent three weeks with Carmen constantly by my side. I was feeling a bit claustrophobic and ready for a break, but I was amazed at my tolerance for her proximity. An evening at a time is my limit with most people. Carmen alternated between emotional outbursts, where she clung to my neck and kissed me with tears in her eyes, and businesslike execution of the task of packing her clothes. During the latter, I was sometimes ordered to perform certain duties which I invariably did to unacceptable standards until she finally chased me away so she could finish the delicate job properly.

Juan came to the airport with us and the three of us were quiet for the whole trip. Juan looked taciturnly out the taxi window. Carmen sat in the middle, holding my hand and looking straight ahead. I looked out my own window, and gave an occassional glance and a quick smile to Carmen, who squeezed my hand in return. There wasn’t much to say at this point.

Earlier this morning, Carmen had asked me if I was going to miss her. I told her directly without imagining her reaction, that I thought I would miss her in a couple of weeks after I had time for the whole experience to sink in. Carmen also asked me if there was another woman in New York that I was attracted to and I had answered her honestly that there was. I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind, but in general, I considered myself free and unattached.

“In that case, I’m going to lose you.” She pronounced fatalistically. “Even if you say you love me, if she is here and I am in Spain, you will go with her.”

I didn’t agree with her theory. I believed that a strong love would conquer all obstacles of time and space. In any case, I wasn’t even sure if I was in love with her. I desperately needed some time alone.

The farewell at the airport was mercifully swift and businesslike. After checking in, Carmen had just enough time for a series of kisses, and then she was gone to her boarding gate. The last thing she did before leaving my side was to unfasten my blue bandana that she still wore around her neck, and press it into my hand. “Now you will always have something to remember me by.” She laughed light heartedly and disappeared. Juan and I turned and left.

Juan was in a hurry to get back to his house. There was a soccer game on TV. A South American World Cup qualifying match if I remember correctly. Peru against somebody. My mind really wasn’t on the game. Several of the soccer players from the park came and crammed into Juan’s living room to see the match. Miguel brought over some ceviche he had made and several bottles of wine were opened. Instead of enjoying my freedom and fresh air, I found myself imagining Carmen’s face on the TV screen. In the middle of the raucuous enjoyment of the game, I was quiet and reflective.

Chapter 10

When I had told Carmen that I thought it would take me two weeks to start missing her, I was being sincere. If anything, I was exaggerating my emotional attachment to say what she wanted to hear. I really hadn’t expected to ever miss her at all. It had just been a fantastic, almost surrealistic adventure of sex and passion that didn’t have any place in my long term life plan. Or so I thought. It didn’t take two weeks. After only two days, I realized with an overwhelming wave of panic, that I was completely empty without Carmen and that I needed her more than I had ever needed anything in my life.

Two days later, her first letter arrived. Carmen had put some drops of her perfume on the envelope and I recognized her before I even opened my mail box. She wrote that she loved me. And so for the first time in my life, I became acutely aware of the postman’s daily routine. When he arrived at noon and left only bills, I cursed him. Twice a week he flooded my soul with warmth by leaving Carmen’s latest avowal of ardor.

I realized that the pleasure I had so taken for granted during Carmen’s visit in New York, was now desperate need. My entire day now was spent thinking about Carmen, imagining what she was feeling, and making the first plans for her to return to live permanently with me. My mind raced with imaginative ideas of how to show Carmen my deep romantic attachment to her. The typical traditional love letter wasn’t sufficient as a vehicle to express my greater than ordinary love. I required a more elevated mode of expression. I refused to debase my powerful emotions with a gesture so trite as to merely say “I miss you. I love you.” I needed no less than a poetic gesture. At times ideas would occur to me that struck me as so simultaneaously innovative, symbolic and hilarious, that I would break out in laughter where ever I was and feverishly go about putting my new inspiration into action.

One day I received a sweet letter from Carmen, in which she described for several pages how she missed me, thought about me all day, and wept in her bed at night. The image of my sweet soulmate suffering for me and her frank expression of vulnerability touched me deeply. I pictured Carmen’s sad eyes and a brilliant flash of creativity burst in my brain and inflamed all my nerves. I masturbated on her tender words and wrote, “I love you.” next to the stain, and mailed the letter back to her. I was almost giddy with my exploit. I was certain that this was a truly original declaration of passion. Nobody in history could ever have thought of this before. It was the poetic gesture that matched our intense and unparalleled love. I eagerly anticipated Carmen’s response.

A week later Carmen’s next letter arrived, but she obviously hadn’t received my poetic mastepiece, because there was no reference anywhere to my correspondence. I read impatiently through her account of how she wanted to move out of her parents’ house and the family conflict this was creating. Unmarried young people, especially women, almost never moved out on their own in Spain in those days, and even today, it is customary to remain at home until marriage. I was proud of Carmen’s courage and modern attitude. There was something special about her. She also had the power to defy convention and the desire to explore beyond the normal boundaries.

Carmen’s next letter didn’t come for another two weeks. My nervous system was beginning to show the first frayed edges of strain. I had sent her a poetic gesture of genius proportion and she hadn’t even replied. I had pondered the reason for her failure to communicate without satisfactory result. When I saw the familiar red and blue edge of the international post envelope and breathed in the fragrance of perfume that she doused onto each letter, I was greatly relieved and happy once more. Maybe she had been a bit shocked by my brilliant declaration of passion and possibly even indulged herself in one of her adorable pouts, but now I would bask in the warmth of her soothing words.

Carmen’s neat caligraphy left me puzzled and almost stunned. She told me that a doctor in her hospital had invited her to go to Mallorca for a week with him. He was going to pay all the expenses and it wouldn’t cost her a thing. She was planning to move into her own apartment in the old part of town in October. She signed it “kisses, Carmen.” There was no mention of our relationship and still not a word about my ejaculatory poetry. I pondered the thoughtless oversight and wondered why she was suddenly so keen to go to some bourgeois beach resort in Mallorca, of all fucking places.

Carmen didn’t write again until September. My torment became excrutiating over the latter part of the summer. I was wracked by doubt and uncertainty, but under no circumstances would I lower myself to the undignified posture of writing to her and demanding an explanation. It was impossible that a love as strong as ours could unravel even in the course of a lifetime, much less after only a few months. Of this I was confident, but my dreams and plans of a future with Carmen were demanding fuel. Her new letter was brief and apparently written while she was in a hurry. She described her trip to Mallorca with Luis in one concise sentence and continued to say that she wanted to go to medical school, but her father was refusing to help her. One expensive university failure in the family was enough and this was his final word. Carmen was convinced that her father would help her if she were a son. It wasn’t fair. She signed the letter by saying she had to run.

Her letter left me dissatisfied and nearly cross with her. Carmen was being almost negligent. However, I didn’t want to become petty and selfish. I spent my days thinking about how I could help her attain the goals that she was now concerned with. I admired her spirit and wanted to support her in her struggles.

Carmen’s last letter came in December. I had spent the last few months working as a research assistant for a physics professor and saving money for a trip to Spain. Carmen’s letter extinguished all the lights of joy in my soul. She quickly discharged her obligation to her conscience by tersely informing me that our relationship in New York had been nothing more than a summer romance that had ended for her when she got back to Spain. The distance was simply too great. She added in a couple of brief sentences that she hoped everything was well with me and wished me a merry christmas. With the meanest hypocracy she signed the letter, “Love, Carmen”

The universe became a grim and hideous place with no hidden alcoves of happiness. I was incredulous. The unthinkable had occurred. Our iron bond had been shattered. Life held a capacity to be more horrible than I ever could have thought possible. Bleak despair reigned in every interminable, pulsating second of every black day. I had never known a depression so absolute or a reality so bitter. And what the fuck was a “summer romance” any way? That was the most incredible bullshit I had ever heard.

The next day I met Juan in the park and told him about Carmen’s letter. Juan kept his eyes on the soccer game as I feverishly elaborated on every detail and nuance of her letter. Juan shook his head and rolled a joint. “I told you man. My sister… too much pepper.” He lit up the joint and refocused on the game.

I determined to carry on with my plan to go to Spain the following summer. Juan was going home for the first time in ten years and he had invited me to come and stay at his family’s house. He enthusiastically described playing soccer on the beach, Spanish wine, and the fresh seafood. Best of all, we were lucky because his father had pulled some strings and gotten some tickets to the soccer World Cup for us. Several matches would be held in their hometown and we were getting a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was sure that Carmen and I would be fine once we were face to face again. Our love for each other had been far too strong and special to be resisted if we were together.

Chapter 11

June arrived with few notable additions to my life and I flew to Paris. My plan was simple. I would work my way towards Galicia and spend a couple of weeks with Juan. I felt pretty confident that this would be enough to spark a reunion with Carmen. In the mean time, I could visit with a friend in Paris.

Monique had spent a year studying in New York and had gone out with a friend of mine. We had always gotten along very well and she was quite enthusiastic about me staying with her. When I arrived at her tiny apartment in the 18th arrondissemont, she greeted me warmly and introduced me to her boyfriend, David. We chatted into the evening with Monique translating.

About 10 o’clock, Monique and her boyfriend engaged in a rather lengthy discussion that appeared to finally become somewhat heated. I had no idea what they were saying and just sank comfortably into the sofa and tuned out. Monique’s boyfriend finally got up, quickly said good night with a tense smile, and left.

Monique closed the door and sat next to me on the sofa. She propped her hands against the sofa at her sides and leaned her face in towards me. “Alors?” Her smile was teasing.

I was several steps behind her. “Was David upset about something?”

“Yes.” Monique’s smile dangled six inches from my face.

“What was he upset about?”

“You are staying here with me and there is only one bed.”

The fragrance of Monique’s hair curled through my nostrils. She remained close to me and continued smiling. Monique watched me as if she was amused by my discomposure. I knit my brow and tried to digest the sequence of events over the last ten minutes. I wished I had paid more attention to the discussion they were having.

“Just because there is only one bed doesn’t really mean anything.” I offered hesitantly.

Monique smiled even wider at me. “He knows we are going to make love.”

“Ah.” I nodded my head knowingly. That was clear enough for even me to decipher. Monique’s lips still hovered close to mine. I abandoned myself to the vagaries of destiny.

I eventually dallied for two weeks with Monique. Without ever taking my eyes off my goal of Carmen in Spain, I enjoyed the sights and tastes of Paris and equally, the tastes and caresses of Monique. Every morning I would go to the patisserie at the corner and gluttonously gobble several fine croissants and pastries. Every afternoon, Monique would come home from the university and make love with me.

I was surprised at first to find myself making love with my old friend Monique, but she told me she had always been attracted to me when she had lived in New York, and the idea quickly began to feel normal. Life with Monique was comfortable and easy. She never got angry or upset and we could discuss anything in a reasonable and calm way. She was fair and good humored and always ready to make love.

One day I had a restless yearning for a hike in the woods. I pictured myself on mountain top, looking out at the view and feeling the wind blowing through my hair. Monique liked the idea, even though she had never gone hiking before, and even suggested a place she knew.

That afternoon, Monique borowed her father’s car and we drove out of Paris towards Fontainebleau and parked her car by the side of the road in a wooded area. The blood of my adventurous Nordic ancestors raced in my body in anticipation of forging courageously through the unknown forest in the timeless challenge of man against nature. My daypack contained the usual Davy Crockett essentials. A small bottle of water, a compass, waterproof matches, and my camping knife. Monique opened the trunk and pulled out a wicker basket laden with cheese, baguettes, apples, pears, and a bottle of red wine. I was considerably disheartened when I realized she intended to carry this gourmet feast on our wilderness survival trek.

“Are we taking all this food?”

My protest was more a rhetorical question. Monique glanced up at me with some surprise and plopped a folded blanket in my arms.

“Are we taking this?” I was incredulous.

“Of course.” Monique was incredulous.

“What are we taking a blanket for?”

Monique eyed me as if I were some quaint savage. “We might need it.” This simple answer seemed sufficient logic for her and I decided to swallow any further argument. I could carry the stupid blanket if she really was so muddle headed as to think we would need it. I could tell that Monique really hadn’t ever gone hiking in the woods before.

Our expedition finally set off. I pushed off to the front to blaze the trail in my well worn hiking boots. Monique followed hesitantly, fastidiously trying to avoid getting mud on her tight white jeans and her spotless white tennis shoes. I had to frequently stop and allow her to catch up. After a mere ten minutes, Monique horrified all my finer woodsman sensibilities by asking for the water bottle and draining almost half of it. She handed the bottle back to me with a smile and told me happily that she was thoroughly enjoying roughing it.

I looked at Monique’s tight white jeans and thought about Henry David Thoreau. What would he think? Monique followed my eyes and laughed playfully. She turned around and let me regard her tight white jeans from behind. They fit her remarkably well. Monique was giving me a mischievous look over her shoulder. Another idea supplanted Thoreau in my head and I lunged for the tight white jeans. Monique giggled with appreciation and managed to not move away fast enough. She gave a slight whimper of protest and then melted back into the clutching hands of her captor.

I had suddenly lost interest in the idiotic crusade through the primeval forest. Monique’s back pressed against me and my hands felt around for her breasts. She reached her hands behind her and into my shorts. I noticed a soft looking patch of grass and pointed it out to Monique. Monique turned and kissed me and then ordered patiently, as if addressing a mentally deficient, “Take out the blanket.” I saw clearly. Monique really was an experienced hiker.

I have a few photos of Monique from the days I spent in Paris. In one, taken early in my stay, she is dancing in black see through tights. She is tossing her hair to the music with a wild smile that is full of lust for life. In another, taken as I am leaving for Spain, she looks sad. She is looking down at her hands pensively and you can read melancholy in her face. I didn’t understand her sadness then, but looking back over time, it strikes me when I look at this picture. Monique tried several times to persuade me to get a job and stay in Paris with her, but she accepted it without complaining when I repeated my original plan of traveling to Spain to see Carmen.

Chapter 12

I hitchhiked from Paris to the south of France. When I reached Tarbes, I headed south on a small road that wound into the heart of the mountains. Lush green valleys speckled with pastures, stone walls, and cows opened up surprisingly between the peaks. The road ended at a village square with mountains disappearing into the clouds on all sides. I was on my way to Carmen, but first I wanted to hike in the Pyrenees.

A middle aged man in blue work overalls gave me a ride to the last village. He asked me what I was going to do there.

“Go hiking.” I replied.

The man shrugged and said casually‚ “Might be some snow.”

That night I drank beer in the village cafe and slept in the modest inn above it. In the morning, I planned a hiking route at the park office. According to the park ranger, my route normally took 10 hours and ended up at another road to the west that crossed into Spain. However, it was still early in the season for hiking and he didn’t have a recent report on trail conditions. I stuffed a loaf of bread and a chunk of fresh local cheese into my pack. No picnic basket this time.

The trail began at the end of the village and went steadily up for two hours. The sky hung low with grey clouds and thin wisps of mist hovered low over the ground. It was the first week of June but the air was chilly and damp. My breath puffed out in little clouds of vapor as I climbed. The mist soon turned into thicker patches of fog and the visibility closed down to less than 50 yards at times. My hiking boots were treading more and more often on snow.

There were no other hikers out on the trail yet and the only sound was the wind occassionally whistling through rocks in the mist above me. I had climbed above tree line and grey rock and white snow made up the scenery. I knew from the topographic map that I would soon arrive at a large glacial bowl with steep walls dropping down to a lake. The trail followed along the left shore of the lake and then up a steep slope to cross a pass into the valley system beyond.

Thirty minutes later I reached the lip of the bowl and looked down with astonishment at the winter landscape. The lake was a jumble of cracked and heaved ice plates. Snow covered the ground except for where rock outcrops jutted out starkly. A few yards from where I stood the trail disappeared under deep snow and from there I could only estimate its location from the map.

I took out my binoculars and looked over to the other side of the bowl with my stomach tightening in a pang of nervous apprehension. The map showed two passes, each leading to a different valley system, separated by a ridge. My compass readings showed about 12 degrees of angle between what looked to me to be the two passes. My guess was that the trail went to the  left of a slight hump in the ridgeline of the bowl. If I guessed wrong, I would end up following a drainage system to the north instead of to the west. Water would be available at lower altitudes on the other side, but I only had enough bread and cheese for one day. I didn’t want this 8 hour jaunt to turn into a survival trek on account of navigational error.

I sat down on my backpack and munched some cheese. I wanted to calm my nervous tension before taking another compass reading and making my decision. Sweat steamed off my head even though I wore only a tee shirt and rainjacket. The wind had stopped and the low clouds enveloped the bowl like a wet, grey blanket. I checked my thermometer: 38 degrees fahrenheit.

After a few minutes I began to cool down and I put on a heavy sweater. I took several fastidious compass readings and reaffirmed my first guess about the pass. I was about 95% certain. I set my course as close as I could to the trail and set off into the bowl. At times, the trail was discernible as a beaten hard trough in the snow. The rest of the time I took my best guess and picked my way along the slope. Sometimes my boot would break through the crust and my leg would plunge thigh deep into the snow. It was about two kilometers to the far side of the frozen lake and it took me over an hour to stagger the distance.

The far side of the bowl was a steep skree slope leading up to the pass. I started up the slope with my feet slipping in the loose stones at every step. The skree rolled and slithered downhill under my feet and I made slow progress. I went three steps up and two steps sliding backwards. After 15 minutes, I felt like I was still near the bottom of the slope. However, I did reach a stone cairn marking the trail and I was relieved that my navigation had been accurate.

With my advance continually thwarted by the awkward and treacherous footing, it took another hour to persevere to the top of the slope. The trail wound through the narrow pass with steep rock walls rising on both sides. A wooden sign proclaimed “Col D’artouse, Altitude 2872 meters”. I dumped my pack on the ground and sprawled on top of it for ten minutes, resting my aching legs. I stared dully out over the white and grey terrain that I had spent the last couple of hours traversing. When I could finally convince myself to move again, I dug out my camera and put it on automatic for a self portrait. In the picture, I am sitting on a rock next to the altitude sign. My hair is wet with sweat and hanging bedraggled in my eyes. My face is lined with exertion.

I had already taken pictures of the icy lake, the snow covered terrain, and the dautning skree slope. I was looking forward to showing these pictures with a nonchalant pride to Carmen. I imagined her pulling her breath in sharply as she realized the rigors I had undergone on my lonely road to her door and back into her life. After looking through the photos, she would turn and fix her big eyes on mine with deeply felt tenderness. Her eyes would moisten and her hand would reach slowly out to softly touch mine. I was melting into the warm softness of my fantasy when I was jerked back to the world of rock and snow by a chill blast of wind blowing through the pass. I shouldered my pack and marched off. I was still several days away from Carmen’s smile.

After 15 minutes of picking my way through the rocky pass, the terrain opened up into a wide snow field with boulders protruding from the snow and rocky cliffs dropping down hundreds of feet. I had no idea which way the trail went. I took the path of least resistance and threaded my way along some rock outcrops so I wouldn’t have to flounder through the snow.

The first series of rock formations ended in a precipitous drop so I worked my way back and tried a different set of rocks. This route also ended in an impassable jumble of tumbled boulders coated with a green sheen of ice. I set a course straight down the middle of the snow field between the protruding boulders. For 15 minutes I hopped from stone to stone or walked as lightly as possible over the crusty snow surface, occassionally plunging through with a jolt up to my ankle. I came to the top of a long steep slope that fell away beneath me and disappeared into the mist. On either side, jumbled boulders hugged tight to the steep rocky walls. The long valley in front of me was filled with swirls of fog. The vista was forboding but also beautiful in its chilly, grey grandeur. The depth of the dark misty valley looked impenetrable and intimidating.

The snow slope below me was too steep to consider. My eyes scanned the rocky terrain on either side for a possible route down. A cold breeze blew across the snow field behind me and whipped  around my neck with icy licks. The prospects for navigation were not encouraging. I shivered and shifted my weight. The next instant, my feet shot out in front of me and I landed hard on my rear end. I was off down the steep slope like a toboggan. The snowy terrain whizzed past me. The icy snow granules stung the palms of my hands. Snow drove up my shirt under my back pack. I was about to jam my boot heels into the snow to brake my slide but it occurred  to me that I wasn’t getting hurt and I was actually going in the right direction. I crashed down the slope panting with exhiliration.

In a blur of adrenaline and a spray of snow dust, I ground to a breathless halt at the bottom of the slope. I reassured myself that I wasn’t injured anywhere and took a deep breath to calm my pounding heart. My palms were red. I stood up and shook the snow out of my shirt. The slope stretched up into mist. I had just slid several hundred feet on my rear end in a matter of seconds. I laughed out loud into the mist at the idea that I would have spent at least an hour clambering down through the rocks if I hadn’t slipped and fallen on my ass.

From this point on, the trail was easily visible and descended at a moderate rate with the snow cover gradually giving way to lichen speckled rocks. After an hour of steady marching, I realized that I was no longer in mist and the temperature was a good bit milder. My thermometer read 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

I had gone through the most challenging part of the hike, but it was now clearly evident that I wouldn’t make the road by dark. Late in the afternoon the trail wound around the edge of a lake. There were patches of snow along the rocky banks but no ice in the water. A stone hut sat on the far side and I decided this was a perfect shelter for the night.

The hut was dank and dark, but it felt like a protective refuge in the middle of the grey darkness that was enveloping the lake outside. The mountain peaks surrounding the lake were still lost in the dull metal colored clouds where they had stayed hidden all day. I sat on a rock by the edge of the water and ate some more cheese and bread for dinner. There was no wind. The humid air swallowed the sounds of my breathing and the scuffling of my boots on the gravel. I looked out on the bleak scene and felt immensely pleased with the story I would be able to tell Carmen in a few days time.

Chapter 13

The following morning dawned grey and bleak again, but after an hour on the trail the sun broke out and scattered the clouds. I was soon stripped down to tee shirt and shorts and basked in the heat of the sun on my skin. The rocks and lichens and shrubs also all seemed to savor the new warmth and the whole landscape seemed to be drying out. By early afternoon I reached the road that crossed into Spain and walked a couple of miles to the border.

A small bustling café stood on the other side of the border. The dim light inside contrasted with the bright sunshine outside. Empty cigarette packs, cigarette butts, paper napkins, and other trash was heaped up on the floor against the bar. A small middle aged man emitted a string of gutteral curses in Spanish, accompanied by several hand gestures of disgust, and stalked away from a video gambling machine to lean his elbows cantankerously on the bar.

“Manolo! Otro tinto!” he called out gruffly for another glass of red wine.

A young man poured him a glass of wine and seemed completely unphased by the brusque manner. He came over to me and stared blankly at me as I stammered my request for red wine in bad Spanish. Then he gave me an expressionless nod and poured me some wine in an eight ounce glass. I paid him an equivalent of 10 American cents and slowly sipped my wine. The video gambling machines kept up a constant racket of loud electronic music playing the same child’s jingle over and over again. One man kept his back to the sunny windows as he concentrated on the video screen. He popped in 5 peseta coins one after another without comment or even blinking. The belligerent man at the bar crushed his empty cigarette box and tossed it with a grimace into the garbage pile by his feet. A woman wiped her hands with a waxed paper napkin from the bar and this too found its way to the waiting comrades on the floor.

I finished my glass and ordered a second. Ten cents for a glass of wine! What a joke! I could get sloshed for a handful of spare change. The wine began taking effect after all the walking in the warm sun. I began standing up taller and straighter. By the next glass I was feeling positively cocky and self assured despite my strange new environment. I had been leaving 5 pesetas for a tip after each glass of wine and now asked the bartender if that was customary. He shrugged and said “If you want.” I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth but the money was a paltry amount. He took the 5 peseta coins without comment or expression. The belligerent man suddenly turned in my direction and asked me where I was from.

“New York.” I told him.

The man’s face lit up with a friendly smile of recognition. “Broadway?” His two front teeth were missing.

“Si. Broadway.” I smiled at him. He responded enthusiastically but I couldn’t make out the words. After several repetitions, I finally deciphered “Rockerfeller Center.”

“Si, Rockerfeller Center.” I smiled at him again. The man happily puffed a cloud of pungent cigarette smoke into my face and beamed. Then he yelled out to the bartender to buy me a glass of wine and the young man served us both wordlessly. The man and I clinked our glasses and drank. He beamed at me again and said “Empire State Building.”

I nodded and smiled enthusiastically. “Si, Empire State Building.”

The man exploded into an eruption of laughter and yelled to the man who was concentrating on the video gambling game. “Oye, tenemos un americano de Nueva York!” he shouted. The second man joined us and peered at me through thick glasses and dense cigarette smoke. The bartender kept one eye on us as he bustled about, pouring wine and wiping the bar with a rag.

The second man tapped my shoulder with his finger and said emphatically “Times Esquare.”

“Si, Times Square.” I was still responding with genuine enthusiasm to the open friendliness but it was becoming laborious. The conversation continued. I smoked several of the man’s black tobacco cigarettes, “Ducados”, that felt like hammer blows to the chest. I bought a round of wine and left another tip for the bartender. After two more wines, the men fell into a heated dispute over some minutia of American geography that was incomprehensible to me. I watched like a spectator as they raised their voices until the second man threw up his arms with a disgusted “Coño!” and left the café. The first man leaned against the bar with his back to me, muttering curses.

The bartender asked me where I was going in Spain and I explained to him that I was in love with a girl in Galicia. The bartender dropped his rag and propped one elbow on the bar as I told my story. The belligerent man fell asleep with his head on the counter and his cigarette burning in the ash tray. The bartender listened with interest to the tale of Carmen and offered me a Ducados and refilled my wine glass free of charge.

I had one more glass of wine and suddenly felt my enthusiasm diminish. Words now required some effort where just moments ago they had gushed out of me like water from a fountain. The bartender went back to his duties and I stared at the flashing colored lights on the video gambling game screen. My chest felt thick from the cheap black tobacco cigarettes and my stomach was experiencing the first uncomfortable twinges of queasiness. The belligerent man woke up and called out for a brandy with a slurred voice. The sun outside the window had gotten lower and no longer blazed with brilliance and warmth.

I ascertained from the bartender that a bus would be coming by shortly that would take me to Jaca. The bartender then pushed a pile of 5 peseta coins across the bar towards me and told me that it wasn’t necessary to leave tips in Spain. I pushed them back across the bar and told him to keep them. We shook hands. “Good luck with the girl in Galicia.”

Chapter 14

Jaca was hot, dry, dusty, and noisy. Newspapers and ice cream cone wrappers littered the street in front of the colorless hotel. In the morning I hitch-hiked to Pamplona under a relentless sun. It was afternoon when I arrived and as I walked past the large cafés, I looked in through the wrought iron bars of the windows and saw dark rooms full of old men, smoking and playing dominoes. I seemed to be the only person outside in the heat. In the center of town I drank a beer in a bar where a bull fight was on TV. A guy with long hair and a denim jacket with cutoff sleeves asked me where I was from and I told him about myself and Carmen. He listened and then clapped me on the back. “I hope you get the girl back.”

I continued hitch-hiking and got to the beach town of San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay by evening. A magnificent horse shoe shaped harbor with a sandy beach stretched along the waterfront buildings of the old city. San Sebastian has always lingered in my mind as an enchanting place and as I explored the ancient streets and strolled along the beach, I told myself that I would return someday with Carmen. I still have yet to return to San Sebastian.

The following morning I wandered along the beach towards the rocky cliffs at the outer tip of the eastern side of the harbor. I found a snug little café perched on the cliff’s edge. Windows looked out over the harbor and waves crashed furiously against the rocks directly below. I drank coffee and wrote post cards to friends back in New York. To an old girl friend who had remained a close confident over the years, I wrote “I am getting so close to Carmen. I can feel her.”

Carmen was still several days away. I traveled by bus across the rocky north coast of Spain, stopping briefly in grimy Bilbao and continuing on to enjoy a late afternoon walk along the beach in Santander. I sat down to rest on a bench looking out to the sea. I was hot and tired and sweaty from carrying my heavy backpack for several miles. Some sand had worked into my hiking boots and was burning my heels. The sun shimmered with a dazzling brilliance on the water. I could think of only one thing. I was going to Carmen and I was going to recapture the love I had lost. My stomach muscles fluttered and tightened.

The next day I took a train that chugged interminably through the green mountains, stopping in Oviedo and Gijón in Asturias, then down to Leon and finally passing through Lugo in Galicia. I spent several hours talking with a soldier who was going home to his village on leave. He had been drinking beer all morning and told me repeatedly and enthusiastically that his favorite cigarettes were Ducados. He launched into a profoundly felt analysis of why he didn’t like Marlboros, but had trouble coming up with words appropriate to do justice to this lofty theme. He finally squinted through the swirling pungent smoke, coughed thickly, and declared earnestly that he just liked Ducados better. He offered me cigarettes incessantly and seemed to swell with pride every time I took one. I smoked his Ducados and stared out the grimy window.

Chapter 15

I arrived in La Coruña at one in the afternoon. Juan met me at the train station with a power handshake and his gruff smile. “Hey Bro, welcome to España. Dinner is at 3 so we have time to hit a few bars. I’ll introduce you to the local grape product.”

The main meal in Spain is at 3 PM and the streets were full of people going home to eat with the family. Juan guided me through the commercial pedestrian zone in the old town. The streets were narrow and joined together at irregular intersections with individual buildings jutting out at various angles wherever their long deceased owners had decided it was convenient to build. Each building and small shop was different and unique. The windows of bakeries and jewelers elegantly displayed their wares. The windows of restaurants presented lavishly ornate plates of lobster, calamari, mussels, crabs, and octopus. Girls glided past in short pleated skirts of pastel colors. A monotonous cry toned out over the street noise and I saw a blind man standing against a wall, endlessly repeating his odd refrain. Juan explained that he was selling lottery tickets.

Juan led the way in his usual taciturn manner. It wasn’t his style to ask about the friends back in New York or the details of my trip. My mind was overwhelmed by the strange sights and smells and I was content to not be distracted by small talk. No mention was made about Carmen and I didn’t ask. We stopped in a shabby door way with dull colored paint flaking off the wall of the building. As my eyes focused in the dim light, I saw through the cigarette smoke that the tables were old wooden wine casks standing on end. At the far wall were several wine barrels on their sides. One of the waiters was filling a bottle from a spigot at the end of a barrel. Smoked hams and strings of dried sausages hung from the ceiling.

We stood around one of the wine cask tables and the waiter brought two glasses of Rioja tinto. I took a sip of wine and lit one of Juan’s cigarettes. As nonchalantly as I could manage, I broached the subject that was consuming me. “So, how’s Carmen?” I looked down at the glowing cigarette tip as I flicked the butt end with my thumb nail and flung the ash onto the floor in a maneuver that had been perfected by many evenings spent in taverns and watering holes from Patagonia to Alaska.

Juan grimaced. “My sister’s changed. She’s high society now. She thinks she’s a fashion model. Forget her. You can do better. Listen to this. This is Miguel Rios. He’s been playing rock and roll in Spain for years.” Juan lit a cigarette and absorbed himself in the music. “Jailhouse Rock” in Spanish reverberated in my ears. I took a swig of the strong red wine.

At 3 o’clock sharp we were at Juan’s house. His parents greeted me warmly. His father, Juan Senior, was only about five feet tall and I saw at once where Carmen got her spunk and fizzle. Carmen, of course, was not there. Nor was she there the next two days. I was disappointed but also realized that it wouldn’t be good politics to inquire excessively about her. Juan had already made his position on the matter clear and his parents didn’t have any idea that there was a connection between myself and Carmen. In fact, her independent ways seemed to be the cause of a good deal of controversy in the family. One morning I heard her father rage violently about her hospital being nothing more than a whorehouse.

Instead, I tactfully passed the time with Juan, going to the beach when the sun came out and acquainting myself with Spanish bar culture when it rained, as it often did in Galicia. And then there was the World Cup. The World Cup for soccer was being played in Spain. The following week, Juan and I had tickets at the Riazor Stadium for Poland against Cameroon and Peru against Poland. Then there were several games on TV every day. We usually joined Juan’s father at his favorite bar, the bodega with the wine casks for tables, and watched the games on TV along with the boisterous crowd. We would have plates of sliced dried chorizo sausage and wash it down with hearty Rioja tinto.

Everyone in the country was wildly excited about the tournament. Local sentiment had made the home team optimistic favorites for the cup, but tempers were rubbed raw in Spain’s first game by an embarrassing one-to-one tie against lowly Honduras. The crowd in the bodega was confident and jocular as the game began. Spirited jokes about sweeping Honduras off the old continent flowed like the wine from the casks. But after only seven minutes and still during my first glass of wine, Honduras shocked the self assured partisans in the smoky bar by scoring a goal. Disbelief, betrayal and anger reigned. Some men looked grimly on with their wine glasses clutched tightly in their hands. Others gave vent mightily and cursed the players who had been national heroes only scant moments ago. At half time the score still stood one to zero. There were no smiles in the bodega. However, there was no lack of bitterly voiced opinions about Spain’s poor performance, which was a national disgrace. The tension remained drum tight and surly in the second half until a foul by Honduras in the 65th minute produced a penalty kick and an uproar of celebration in the bar. The relief of the tension made the men almost giddy. Everyone was on their feet and they all exploded with joy as the penalty kick tied the score. Glasses chinked. Faces cracked in toothy grins. Backs were clapped thunderously. Juan’s father joked with a friend on the other side of the room at the top of his raspy voice. Juan gave a quiet relaxed smile. His teeth were stained a dark maroon from the wine.

Chapter 16

Saturday found me in a state of great agitation. Carmen was coming this afternoon for coffee and cake along with some uncles, aunts and cousins. In the morning, I had developed my photos from the Pyrenees and had already looked through them half a dozen times. I looked through the dark, snowy pictures again with pride.

When Carmen arrived that afternoon, she kissed my cheek and sat on the sofa between her aunt Teresa and her cousin Carlos. During coffee, the conversation pulsed around me in Spanish and I kept a vigilant watch on Carmen with furtive glances. Carmen appeared to have limited interest in the general conversation, or in anything else for that matter. When the cake was all gone, the children ran down the hall to play boisterously and the adults got up for brandy, cigarettes or more coffee. This gave me a chance to slip in next to Carmen on the sofa and I showed her my stack of photographs. Carmen took the photos and gazed at the top one without expression. “Where is this?” she asked. I eagerly explained how I had hiked across the Pyrenees from France. Carmen knit her brow. My blood pounded through my veins as I watched her face for reaction. Carmen stared at the forbidding landscapes of the first three photos with a blank look on her face. Then her ears pricked up at some remark in the general conversation and she shot out a sharp rebuttal, waving one of my photos for emphasis. Her father emitted a thunderous response. Carmen shrugged and wrinkled her nose and looked down again at my photos. Her cousin Carlos was now directing a calm academic argument against Carmen’s father who erupted with snorts of derision. Juan quietly sipped his brandy as the storm raged around him on either side. Carmen flipped through the photos quickly, listening to the conversation. Then she jolted back into the argument again and continued flipping the photos without even looking at them. After passing through the whole pack twice, she finally laid them down on the table without acknowledging their existence again and joined into the verbal fray unfettered.

Carmen’s father dismissed the learned arguments of Carlos with a wave of his hand and an abrupt “Coño!” The discussion completely forgotten, he turned his attention to me with a grin. Had I ever tried aguardiente? A bottle of homemade brandy had been bought from some local farmers. Carmen’s father stood watching me as I took the first cautious sip. His cigarette ash was an inch long and hung miraculously to the tip, defying the laws of gravity. My eyes followed his hand movements and I wondered when the ash was going to disintegrate onto the floor. The first drops burned my tongue and alcohol fumes gagged my throat.

Carmen’s father roared with laughter and poured us both another aguardiente. He raised his glass to propose a toast. His cigarette ash was still intact and erect. “Saúde! Pesetas! Y forza no cu, como porco no focinho!”

The room erupted in laughter. Juan translated for me. “It’s an old peasant toast in Gallego, the language of Galicia. It wishes you health, money, and strength in your dick, like a pig has in his snout.”

Carmen’s mother, Rosa, yelled at Juan Senior to flick his cigarette ash and he growled back a guttural “Bueno, mujer!” He stubbed his butt out but the filter remained smoldering.

Carlos looked at his watch and announced that it was getting late. Everyone got up to go. Juan thumped me on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s go. Time to hit the bars.” I nodded and darted across the room to Carmen. She kissed my cheeks with a bright theatrical smile. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” I was buoyant.

Chapter 17

Juan and I strolled through the old town. It was seven o’clock and the streets were full of life again. We had gone for a swim and played barefoot soccer on the beach at the Playa del Orzan in the center of the city. A dozen players, ranging from a young boys to one grizzled old man with a friendly twinkle in his eye, had gravitated together around a soccer ball. Beer bottles were stuck into the sand for goal posts and the game began. We churned through the soft sand pushing a ball that wouldn’t roll and sprinted along the hard packed wet sand closer to the water. Sometimes we splashed through the rippling waves that fanned out slowly, trapping the ball suddenly in mid dribble. The old man with the twinkle was lithe and skillful and always gave a friendly laugh when a goal was made no matter which team scored. Juan took the young kids under his wing and instructed them in the finer points of soccer technique. He showed them how to stay patient on defense and force the attacker to commit himself first. He scolded the kids impatiently when they didn’t perform with discipline and applauded them enthusiastically when they got it right. When the game ended, Juan patted them both on the head with gruff friendliness and they scampered off smiling. The old man with the twinkle waved goodbye and trotted energetically down the beach.

The town center was a narrow isthmus only five blocks wide. On one side was the beach. A long parabolic stretch of sand butted up against the modern buildings that lined the Paseo Marítimo. We climbed the steps from the beach to the top of the sea wall and bypassed the numerous new bars with their fashionable plate glass walls. Disco music blared out of a doorway and Juan scowled and spat. We stopped in a small market for a coke to quench our thirsts and then continued on to the part of town that wasn’t so trendy and more within Juan’s limits of acceptability.

We crossed over to the port and ambled past the sidewalk archways and the façade of the Avenida de la Marina that faced the harbor. The waterfront of La Coruña was famous for its myriad of windows, or Las Galerías, as this architectural style was called. The older buildings were faced with an unbroken pattern of small glass panes. Some of the more ornate buildings had colored stained glass sections bordering the clear cristal. The inviting tables of the cozy out door cafes under the arches were beginning to fill up with well dressed customers, drinking coffee and gazing out at the marina.

We continued on past and turned into a narrow side street and ducked into a grungy little bar. The ubiquitous video gambling game was crooning its hunger for pesetas with its usual loud tinny voice. Crumpled paper napkins and countless cigarette butts littered the floor under the bar. Juan ordered. Two glasses of red wine were put on the bar along with a felt lined jar containing five dice. Juan taught me the rules and soon the game was accompanied by tapas. Little plates costing between 20 to 50 cents were scattered around us on the bar, just leaving enough open space for the dice game. The house specialties were potatoes flavored with paprika and mejillones or mussels. After savoring several rounds of tapas and a dozen dice games, the bartender counted the plates by their size and calculated our bill.

We went out into the street and joined the throng that was moving ceaselessly back and forth from bar to bar, or just stopping in groups and chatting. There was no World Cup game that night and everyone was out “tomando copas”, or bar hopping. This part of town was a pedestrian zone and the narrow streets were packed with diverse levels of inebriated life from wall to wall. The women all wore the latest fashions and hair styles. They were all sexy and beautiful. The spanish men were generally more conservative in their dress. Most men wore slacks and a short sleeved dress shirt with a sweater draped around their shoulders and the sleeves tied around the neck. Some of the younger men wore denim jackets and jeans, Levis of course.

We stopped into one crowded old bar for another tinto. The tapas in this place were chunks of chorizo sausage and a few pieces of fried potatoes skewered on toothpicks. Each one cost about 20 cents. Everybody stood where they could and drank their wine quickly. This was not a sit down, white table cloth, cork sniffing, discussing-the-full-bodied-bouquet, elegant, imbibing ceremony. This was gulping it down from a straight glass, a cigarette in the same hand as the glass, the other hand employed in conversation or slapping a friend on the back, and then yelling to get the bartenders attention for another tinto. Juan and I bent our heads close together to exchange a couple of comments.

We continued on to another bar and sat at a long counter. Here we ordered tortilla español and cortitos, small 4 ounce glasses of beer. Tortilla español is the ubiquitous Spanish national dish. It is quick and easy and served in almost every spanish house at some point during the day. The dish is sort of an omellette made with fried potatoes and onions. It is usually eaten hot but often kept cold for snacks or late dinner. We ordered tapa sized portions so we each got small squares of tortilla on tiny plates. We wolfed these down in three bites and were getting up to go when a loud “Coño, que haceis aqui?” announced the arrival of Juan’s father.

Juan Senior was already well lit and in good form. In rapid machine gun fire he threw out a stream of jokes and friendly insults at the barmen and several of the other denizens of the establishment. Juan Senior was well known around the town and a chorus of raillery greeted him. Quick as a whip, he retorted back to each sally and the whole place broke out in an uproar of laughter. Juan nudged me in the ribs and nodded towards his father. “My old man.” he chuckled. Juan Senior threw his cigarette butt down on the floor and yelled out to the barman to come over. He introduced us saying that this was his son who lived in New York City and I was his American friend from the United States of America. The barman gave a look of surprise and curiosity. He wiped his hand on his white apron and shook hands with us. “From New York City?” Then the bar owner came over and Juan Senior introduced us to him. A small group gathered around us. The barman wiped glasses with a cloth and listened to the conversation.

“Radio City. Las Rockettes. In New York they have beautiful women, no?” “Yes, but the women here are beautiful too.” “Your president, he’s a cowboy.” This brought laughs all around and I had to smile. I was getting used to the Reagan jokes in Europe and besides, I didn’t vote for him.

The owner brought us to a table in the back and sat down with Juan Senior, Juan and myself. A waiter brought a bottle of champagne and served the four of us. Laughter and banter flowed between Juan Senior, the owner and the waiter. Juan grinned quietly.

We finished the bottle of champagne and the three of us went off to another restaurant. Juan Senior exchanged a few jokes with one of the waiters and soon another bottle of champagne was being uncorked. We were almost through this bottle when a platter piled high with langostinos was set in the middle of our table. I had never seen langostinos before. They were some kind of cross between shrimp and lobsters and were about four inches long. Juan showed me how to pull the head off and peel the shell in one step. He sucked the juice out of the head and smiled blissfully. I contented myself with eating the meaty tail. Another bottle of champagne was opened to wash down the langostinos.

We left the restaurant on somewhat uncertain legs and continued on to another of Juan Senior’s old haunts for still more champagne. Juan’s face was lit with a smile and he even joined in with boisterous jokes and laughter. Juan Senior spoke a smattering of English and eagerly slurred vaguely recognizable words to which I usually could only respond with a smile and a nod. I reciprocated by standing up and offering my rendition of the old peasant toast in Gallego. I got just enough of it right for both Juan and his father to chortle with laughter.

We worked our way slowly back towards the house, stopping at several more bars along the way. In one, a lively discussion broke out between Juan Senior and several other men who all seemed to be at least as drunk as we were. I had no idea what the discussion was about and the argument raged unintelligibly around me. One man attempted repeatedly to inject his opinion into the forum but nobody would pay him any attention. Juan Senior ignored him and argued vehemently with three other men. The neglected man stood right next to Juan Senior and kept trying to interject with no success. Finally he gave up and came around to me and jabbered at me incoherently for ten minutes. I didn’t understand a single word he said as he harangued me with vivid hand gestures and animated facial expressions.

As we left this bar and half staggered up the dark streets, Juan Senior stopped in front of a car parked at the curb and unzipped his pants. He let loose a powerful jet of piss against the door of the car. Juan protested with a bemused laugh. His father leaned back and arched the urine stream onto the roof of the car. “The bastards always piss on my car so now I’m pissing on theirs!” he growled.

We stopped in a couple more bars and drank some wine and brandy before finally arriving at Juan’s house. Outside in the street, Juan Senior had to pee again. There was a traffic sign across the street with horizontal red and blue stripes painted on the pole. Juan Senior unleashed an arc of piss all the way to the top stripe on the pole. When he finished he zipped up his pants and cackled with delight. “OK Jack. Now your turn. Let’s see how high you can go.” I took my place in front of the sign post and waited. Nothing came out. Juan and his father howled with laughter in the street behind me. I stood there in front of the pole with my shoulders hunched over looking down at my lethargic apparatus. Finally a few squirts spilled out and splattered against the base of the pole. Juan’s father merrily claimed victory in the contest. A window opened suddenly and I heard the voice of Rosa demanding to know what we drunken idiots thought we were up to.

Chapter 18

My hangover the next day could be generally summed up as excrutiating pain. My head felt as if someone had cut a circle around the top of my cranium with a circular power saw and then lifted up the top of my skull by the scalp and rubbed rough-grained sand paper vigorously against my brain. I followed Juan down to the beach for a morning swim like a mentally retarded puppy following its mother. The cold water seemed to help but I was still overwhelmed by waves of paralysis at regular intervals. Juan looked stoic and grim. However, he did have a solution. We stopped in a bar and ordered tintos. “At least we’ll get some vitamins.” Juan forced a wry grin. We lit up some cigarettes and proceeded with our cerebral reconstruction.

After two glasses of wine, Juan had returned to a jolly state of mind and was once again enthusiastic about life in general and especially for soccer, which, for Juan, was even higher on the priority list. We had tickets for the Poland-Cameroon game that afternoon. Juan talked animatedly about the Indomitable Lions, as the Cameroon team was called. It was the first time Cameroon had qualified for the World Cup and they were developing into a Cindarella story. In their first game they had surprised all the pundits by playing a spirited and skillful game and tying Peru. Of course, everyone expected the well respected Poland to make short work of the new boys on the block.

A group of fans in front of us had a gigantic base drum and they kept up a steady beat throughout the game. They were also well equipped with wine skins, smoked ham, and big loaves of bread, which they passed around to us. “They’re peasants from the countryside.”  Juan informed me discreetly. “Salt of the earth, bro.” Juan passed back the wine skin and gave the man with the drum a power handshake. The guy smiled jovially at us and went back to banging on his drum and screaming out at the field. Cameroon played Poland to a scoreless tie and delighted all the fans that were rooting for the under dog. After the game we wound our way slowly home, stopping off for tintos at various bars along the way.

Carmen didn’t call. The next day she came by the house to eat and when I found a chance to be with her alone, I asked her about yesterday. Carmen apologized for not calling and said vaguely that she had been busy. She told me she would call Wednesday evening. Rosa entered the room at that moment and I had to be content with her promise.

Chapter 19

Carmen called at the appointed time and asked me if I liked crepes. There was a nice bar in the old town that served great crepes. I didn’t want any crepes but I was tranquilly happy to be finally meeting alone with Carmen. It would be like when we were back in New York together. It had just been a rough start to get things going again. Juan was incredulous that I would miss the Germany game that night. He just shook his head in disbelief at my folly.

An hour later, I met Carmen in the street outside a fashionable looking establishment in the old town. Carmen was stylishly dressed in a miniskirt and high heel shoes. The interior of the bar looked modern and chic. The waiters and barmen strutted and postured with obvious self-importance. I could imagine Juan scoffing bitterly about the pretentious atmosphere. I was sure he wouldn’t be caught dead in this place. He would probably wrinkle his face and sneer “Fucking disco people!”

We sat at a table and ordered. Carmen got an apple crepe with chocolate ice cream. I ordered a glass of beer. I took out a cigarette while we waited for her crepe and offered one to Carmen. She accepted and clasped my hand while I held a match for her. A calm feeling of interior well being spread through my guts. I exhaled a satisfied puff of smoke and gazed around the bar. Carmen asked with a warm smile if I had been to the beach. We chit chatted brightly about the beach and the weather. Carmen emphatically told me I should go to one particular little beach near the Torre de Hércules. It was her favorite. It had a very narrow strip of sand between craggy rocks that jutted out into the water. It was only a five-minute walk from the Club Del Mar, but still it was usually deserted.

I was so content to be talking with Carmen once again that I didn’t notice that we never strayed away from the superficial. The conversation lapsed into silence. Carmen shaved off a curl of ice cream with her spoon and closed her eyes as she delicately slid the tip of the spoon inside her red lips. She breathed in deeply as if enjoying a languorous moment of sensual pleasure. I recognized the look on her face. She looked just the same as when she was losing herself in the passion of lovemaking. She opened her eyes suddenly and caught me staring at her. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“I was just thinking how beautiful you are.”

Carmen didn’t respond. She cut another piece of crepe. A slight frown of irritation seemed to crease the corners of her mouth. She popped the last morsel of crepe into her mouth. She elegantly wiped the corner of her perfect lips with her napkin and pushed her sleeve back to look at her watch. “I have to go.” A meaningless smile flitted briefly across her face and then she turned to the waiter by the bar and asked for the bill. I pulled out my wallet but Carmen insisted on paying. Outside in the street, Carmen reached up on her toes and kissed my cheeks. “When can we get together again?” I asked. “I’ll call you.” Carmen answered with a look of deep sincerity and walked off.

It was not quite ten o’clock and my date was already over. I stopped into a bar to digest the events of my short interview with Carmen. I continued this process of assimilation in several more bars and soaked up significant quantities of Rioja tinto to diminish my disappointment. About 2 AM, I was walking past one of the more chic discoteques when I noticed some tall black men outside the entrance. From their accents I could tell they were Africans and suddenly realized with a thrill that they were members of the Cameroon soccer team. I approached them and enthusiastically engaged them in conversation. I told them with great animation about watching their games against Peru and Poland. The players were polite if not actually reciprocal in their zeal for my society. After several inarticulate sentences on my part, they turned away and refocused their attention on a couple of Spanish girls that I had only been vaguely aware of until now. I suddenly realized with a slight twinge of embarrasment that I had intruded on their pick up scene and that they were much more interested in Spanish disco queens than in drunken soccer fans. My embarrasment was only slight though because I found the whole scene so amusing that I thought it was worth a bit of embarrasment.

Chapter 20

One day after the midday meal, Juan stubbed out his cigarette and got up languidly from the sofa. “Come on, Bro. It’s time for something special. We’re going to drink quemadas.”

I followed Juan as we wound through the twisted flagstone streets in the old part of town. Juan was taciturn as usual so I contented myself by enjoying the peculiar street scenes. Besides, I had plenty to think about. I hadn’t heard from Carmen in several days so I had called her. Carmen greeted me very politely when she recognized my voice. I invited her for a drink, but she said she was tired. She had promised to call me back the next day, but that was the day before yesterday. I didn’t want to be unreasonable or demanding with Carmen, but I couldn’t stop thinking that if I told someone I would do something, I would make sure I did it. I tried to imagine reasons that would prevent Carmen from phoning me.

Juan and I came to an unmarked door and entered a dark little bar. The room had five empty tables. An old couple came out of the back and smiled at us. We sat down and Juan ordered in Spanish. The old woman smiled and disappeared into the back. The old man leaned on his elbows on the counter and stared vacantly through his cigarette smoke at the floor. After several minutes the old woman brought out two tea cup sized ceramic bowls. Slices of lemon floated on the clear liquid. Juan lit a match and ignited the brew. Blue flames danced on the surface of the bowl. Juan took his spoon and stirred the sugar up from the bottom to the flame. A pungent aroma of citrus and steamy young brandy filled my nostrils.

“Quemada means burnt in Spanish. Keep stirring until you burn off all the sugar.” Juan explained. I stirred until the flame died out and then tried a tentative spoonful. The steam entered in my nose and the alcohol vapors from the aguardiente invaded my sinuses. The sweet lemony taste was smooth on my tongue and burned on my throat. I was delighted. What a wonderful concoction!

We slowly drank our bowls. I realized that the bar served only quemadas. There were no other bottles of liquor behind the counter and no beer taps. We finished our first bowls and ordered seconds. Our sporadic conversation grew in animation and our laughter began ringing off the battered old walls. Juan beamed an uncharacteristic cherubic smile. More customers came in and soon a festive and boisterous atmosphere reigned.

Two quemadas later, we stumbled out into the blinding light of the late afternoon sun. We glided through the stone streets of the old town with mirth bubbling out every pore. A couple of blocks away from the bar we passed an open window with an old man leaning out. We were laughing at a joke Juan had just told when we looked up and caught the old man’s eye. The old man nodded in salutation and we said “Good afternoon.” The old man observed that we were having a good time and Juan replied that we were coming from the quemadas bar. The old man laughed and declared that they made terrific quemadas. We stopped and talked with the old man who leaned further out his window to hear us better. The conversation flowed as naturally as if he were an old friend and we were sitting around a table in a comfortable bar. The old man even went as far as to try to lean over and slap Juan on the back after a witty interchange. He had to clutch onto the window sill to keep from tumbling out onto the street, but he seemed to hardly notice the awkwardness in his laughter. After about ten minutes, he told us to wait while he went off to get a bottle of wine. Juan looked at me and winked. “You never know how you’re going to get drunk here.” He laughed.

The old man returned with an odd pair of glasses, a bottle, and a bottle opener. He passed the glasses down to us in the street and then began to work on the bottle. The cork was sticking so he passed the bottle down to Juan accompanied by many words of instruction. Juan grinned and industriously applied himself to his task and in a few moments we were rewarded with the satisfying pop of the cork and the gurgle of red wine flowing into our glasses in the street. I now understood that the old man had made the wine himself with grapes from a family farm near town. He was very proud of the quality of the wine and Juan and I enjoyed it immensely. Juan gazed at his glass earnestly and pronounced the wine to be top class quality. The old man visibly swelled with pride and pleasure. We drank several more glasses and soon the bottle was finished. The old man invited us to come into his house. He walked over to the door next to the window and opened it. We went in and the old man went off to fetch another bottle. He brought back another bottle of wine and also a bottle of brandy. The front room had several paintings on the wall and the old man told us he had painted them himself. He proudly gave us a tour of his paintings scattered throughout the house. We finished the second bottle of wine and said good bye to the old man. He told us to come back again some day.

Chapter 21

The next morning when I was clearing the cobwebs in my head with coffee, Juan came running into the room with a look of hilarity on his face and beckoned me to follow him. We went to the front window and looked out into the street. Two well dressed men were staggering down the sidewalk. They were bumping into each other and careening off the parked cars in their efforts to navigate a straight line. At times they linked arms and tried to make it down the street as a team, but with the same results. Juan was laughing hysterically. “Look at these guys. It’s nine o’clock in the morning and they’re just coming home. They can’t even stand up straight.”

The men across the street stopped and fumbled with cigarettes. They dropped several on the pavement to be lost forever, but finally succeeded in their mission. One man put his hand on the shoulder of the other and began slurring some kind of sincere declaration, but the other man lurched away from him and the hapless couple wobbled off around the corner. Juan was clutching his sides with laughter.

I was amused but inside I felt drawn and sober. Carmen hadn’t called and I was debating the proper response. Should I simply go see her and ask her. That seemed direct and simple. On the other hand, human beings didn’t seem simple and logical. How would she react? Would she think I was being pushy and inconsiderate? Was it better to take my time and give Carmen as much space as she seemed to need? How long could I tarry in Spain before I wore out my welcome at my friend’s house?

A few hours later, I found myself wandering alone in Carmen’s street. I was still undecided. I walked past her building and continued down to the next street corner. I stopped and looked in a shop window as if I was contemplating a purchase. After about a minute my eyes focused on the contents of the display window and I realized that it was a lingerie shop. A middle aged woman inside the shop was gazing back out through the window at me. I walked back down the street and entered Carmen’s building.

Carmen had been sleeping. She opened the door drowsily and we went back to her bedroom. She got back into her bed and pulled the covers up. I sat on the bed next to her and we chatted. My stomach was tight but I was happy that I had successfully gotten this far. Our conversation was friendly, but not personal. I needed to change the tone somehow. It was time to achieve the objective that I had come all this way for. While we continued our small talk, I considered my next move. I was uncertain what to do. Finally, with no decision ever consciously being made, I leaned forward and kissed her. I sank luxuriantly into her lips. I remembered our first kiss on my bed in New York. All my dread and anxiety from the last year flowed out of me like exhaust going up a factory smoke stack. We kissed for about a minute. I felt again Carmen’s soft pointy tongue against mine. Then suddenly she turned her head away. I was left bent over her ear. “What’s the matter?”

Carmen turned back and gazed at me for several moments. “I don’t love you now.” She said tonelessly.

Carmen watched my eyes for my reaction. Time and feeling congealed into a thick viscous liquid that I had to swim through. I remember, as if in a bad dream, straightening up and thinking that I had to react to the horror of my reality with all the dignity I could find within myself. I would not show bitterness or lack of grace. I would take the blow straight in the face and keep on going without so much as losing focus for an instant, just like on the soccer field. I would be stronger than pain. All the childhood fantasies about glory and courage in a battle or in a desperate arctic survival escapade, looked frail and unimpressive now when confronted by the confirmation of all my shattered dreams. “You were kissing me!”

“I know.” Carmen gave no further explanation. She looked searchingly into my eyes as if trying to gauge how much I was suffering. I was determined to remain dignified at all costs.

“Bueno. That’s the way it is.” I forced a smile. I hoped it looked casual and not as strained as I felt.

“We can still be friends.” Carmen assured me with sincerity.

“Of course.” I continued to wear the mask and forced another smile.

“We can go out for dinner tomorrow night. I’ll show you a nice restaurant that makes great mariscos.”

“That would be great.” I felt an exhilarating wave of relief flood through me. At least Carmen didn’t hate me and still wanted my company. It seemed to mitigate the sting, even if only slightly.

“I’ll call you tomorrow evening.” Carmen said.

That brought my visit to a close. I went to find Juan and tried to patch my wounds with copious amounts of Rioja tinto.

Chapter 22

Juan and his father were dozing off in their armchairs. Rosa was focused intently on an old rerun of Bonanza on the TV. Big Hoss was growling in a guttural, dubbed Spanish voice. I pondered Carmen’s behavior on the previous evening. We had talked two days ago and agreed to meet in a bar in the old town. She didn’t show up and didn’t call to cancel. By now, she had done the same thing several times and had always given a curt and unconvincing excuse when finally pressed for an explanation. Suspicions and resentment began to crowd in against my attempts to be fair and objective. A deep seething anger began to boil and percolate through my soul.

I got up and wandered off to the room where my pack was and opened it. The blue bandanna that Carmen had worn in New York was still folded neatly on top. I had brought it with me with the idea of giving it to her as a present. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I noticed my camping knife and put that in my other pocket. Nobody in the house noticed when I slipped out the door.

I began walking aimlessly towards the center of town. Carmen’s actions burned in my brain. She hadn’t even been considerate enough to call and say she couldn’t make it and hadn’t bothered to call today to apologize. That would have been just simple courtesy. I searched for any plausible excuse. She wasn’t sick. Her mother had been talking about her this morning. Carmen had actually called and asked her mother to look for a pair of earrings and then hung up. She hadn’t asked to speak to me. She seemed to be deliberately avoiding me. Then why was she wasting my time telling me she was going to meet me if she didn’t have any intention of doing it? My blood steamed hotter. What a childish, rude and irresponsible way to behave!

I was stupefied that Carmen could be so shallow and callous. I was disgusted. And I was angry. If Carmen didn’t want to see me, that was one thing. Playing this ridiculous game of making appointments and then standing me up was something else entirely. It was just plain insulting. I wouldn’t treat the most loathsome pest in such a despicable manner. I didn’t need her humiliating insults and I was certainly not going to allow her to treat me like a clown.

I remembered Carmen’s reaction to the Chinese silk shirt I had bought in Chinatown and mailed to her as a present. She had never acknowledged it until I asked her about it last week. With a matter of fact air of nonchalance, she had informed me that she had shortened the sleeves to fit her, but she really didn’t like the color very much. I never saw her wear it and didn’t even see it in her apartment.

I looked up and realized I was in the old town, not far from Carmen’s apartment. An inspiration that had begun when I had absently picked up my knife now crystallized. Consistent with my affinity for poetic gestures, the sheer symbolic beauty of my new idea thrilled me. Never before in the long tumultuous history of passion would any lover leave his mark with such a subtle yet deep incision. Of all the men that Carmen would toy with so wantonly in her self centered life, I would certainly stick out as one she would never be able to forget.

I was giddy with the euphoria of artistic creativity. I was the Van Gogh of the rat race modern world. Once again I was going to define my life with individual and unique actions. My satisfaction at tweaking convention and conformity caused a vein of serenity to thread gracefully through my love sick torment.

A minute later, I was standing outside Carmen’s building. The door to the street was open and I walked up the rickety wooden staircase to the third floor. The building was quiet. I knew Carmen was at work. I flicked open my camping knife and ran the blade through the blue bandanna. I brought the knife up over my head and plunged the point deep into the old wooden door of Carmen’s apartment. The knife reverberated for a moment and became still. The blue bandanna hung from the blade like a drooping adornment. The job done, I turned and walked calmly back down the stairs. At the building entrance an old man came in and greeted me warmly. “Buenos tardes, señor.” I answered with a tranquil smile.

Chapter 23

Several afternoons later, Juan took me on a stroll to see a 12th Century Romanesque church. We explored the gloomy interior and Juan pointed out architectural features of historical interest with the familiarity of a tour guide. It had never struck me before how deeply proud he was of his home town. It was like peeling the layers of an onion. I was so accustomed to his New York street tough persona that his calmer exterior in Spain caught me by surprise.

We emerged to the warm sunlight and wandered slowly about the church garden. We passed a couple of long haired guys and a girl in jeans who were sitting on top of the garden wall. A familiar aroma wafted into our nostrils and Juan smiled broadly. A couple of friendly words of greeting were exchanged and next a hash pipe was passed to us. Juan relit the pipe and breathed in deep. He nodded his head with approval and coughed. As always, he offered me the pipe and as always, I declined.

The two guys were sketching the old church. The pipe passed back and forth. Juan became engrossed in a passionate discussion about art that moved too fast in Spanish for me to participate. I leaned against the garden wall to one side. I tried to follow the discussion and intermittently glanced furtively at the girl. She looked about 19 or 20 years old. Her jeans had a fringe of flowers sewn down the leg seam. After a few minutes of listening to the art discussion, she came around to me to talk. I was delighted. She seemed quite stoned, but she was so pretty that I didn’t care if she said anything coherent or not. Her front teeth had a gap between them and the imperfection made her even more desirable. She had an intangible quality of allure that induced an uncontrollable itch in my hand to just reach out and caress her. As she talked to me, she looked into my eyes with an unguarded and open expression that bordered on vacuous. Her young woman’s body and her ingenuous attitude radiated an innocent sensuality and approachability that crashed loudly against my sex radar. For twenty minutes we made conversation that appeared meaningless but in fact acted as a vehicle to spur on our growing mutual infatuation. This was not a convocation of like cerebellum, but rather a violent collision between the primal feminine and masculine spirits.

The girl said she had to leave and turned and said good bye to the long haired guys. They kissed her cheek and resumed their meeting of the minds with Juan. She turned to me with an unspoken invitation to accompany her and we strolled slowly off down a narrow street towards the port. We walked several blocks until we came to a building with arches along the façade. We went behind an arch to enjoy the coolness of the shade. The girl stopped with her back against the stone wall of the arch and I began kissing her. The girl kissed me passionately and pressed her body tightly against me. I pushed my body against hers and squeezed her against the stone wall. My mind and stomach were fluttering with wild excitement. We were hidden from the street and I let my hands roam free to explore the girl’s curves and soft spots. I lifted her tee shirt and almost let out an audible gasp. I kissed her smooth cleft and felt her breasts rise against my face. Her bra had front hooks and a moment later her testament of eternal feminine splendor was revealed in this alcove behind a stone archway.

Her breasts were like firm sponges. I was in ecstasy. I was fascinated by their shape, their smoothness, their texture, the delicate upward pointing nipples. At that moment, for some idiotic reason, it occurred to me to ask her how old she was. Maybe I was curious to see if she was old enough to even consider a relationship with. Her answer drove a chill through my brain. “Sixteen.”

I vividly remember the thought passing through my head that I didn’t know about the laws in Spain, but I could be arrested in the United States for this act. In fact, I had never in my life touched the breasts of a sixteen year old girl. What I don’t remember, is if there was even the slightest pause of hesitation before my lips and fingers returned to their beckoning destination. The girl looked down and watched me as I worked industriously on her breasts. Occassionally, she closed her eyes and sighed deeply. I lingered in paradise for several minutes. I felt like I could spend the rest of eternity in this bliss, drooling and attached to these wonderful tits, and never again experiencing even the meagerest inkling of intellectual process. However, after a couple of glorious minutes in which the male gender went a long way to atoning for the agony of eternal lost opportunities, the girl suddenly pulled her bra back into place and pulled her shirt back down. It was so sudden and I was so focused on my occupation that my front teeth nearly got tangled up in her bra snaps. I looked up at her in what must have been an expression of dismay.

“I have to catch the bus and go home.” The girl explained.

“OK.” I tried to catch my breath. A lot more had happened than I had anticipated and I tried to quickly ascimilate the recent proceedings. I also tried to determine what I should do next. How could I be as nice as possible to this girl and also not deny the natural craving that was invading and conquering every recess of my being.

Several confused and awkward minutes followed as I walked her to the bus stop. I wasn’t sure what kind of conversation to initiate and the girl seemed stoned out of her mind. We exchanged several disjointed fragments of verbal communication of which I can remember nothing today. I believe I asked where she lived and didn’t have the slightest clue where it was when she told me. We may have discussed meeting again or maybe we didn’t. I can’t remember. I can only remember for sure the blood boiling feeling of her firm and slightly squishy breasts in my hands, and the temporary euphoric release from the overhanging, heavy gloominess of the finality of knowing I had really lost Carmen – the only woman that really mattered.

Chapter 24

A couple of days later, I decided to cut my losses and leave the country that had been such a sad experience for me. Juan urged me to stay until the World Cup was over, but I couldn’t stand the heart break. I wanted to move on and leave my aching memories of Carmen behind. I hadn’t seen her again since I left my knife stuck in her door and I knew there would be nothing more to say between us. I had an old friend living in Italy and decided it was time to visit him and recuperate my spirits.

I ended up spending the rest of the summer in the ancient university town of Perugia. Of course, I was still there when Italy beat Germany in the finals to win the World Cup. I spent that evening in a small park at the end of the Corso with a gorgeous girl from Slovenia. For a brief pair of weeks this Slovenian girl replaced Carmen in my heart and my dreams, but although we met for lunch or ice cream every day, she remained aloof and my dreams and longing were never realized. She was intelligent, conversant, athletic and energetic. These qualities, combined with beautiful blue eyes and a stunning hour-glass figure, made me imagine her potential as a life partner. She was also though, matter-of-fact and cold. At least she was to me. She was always friendly but distant, and I couldn’t break through the barriers. I eventually tried hard enough to be rewarded with a detectable twinge of irritation in her attitude. At that point, I called off my assault and satisfied myself bitterly with her friendship and an unrequited lust.

On the evening of the final match, the Slovenian girl and I were the only people in the streets. The rest of the world seemed to be inside someplace watching this climactic game. Juan would have been disgusted if he had known I hadn’t bothered to watch the game, but this Slovenian girl was so beautiful. We chatted and joked on a park bench and I sank deeper in love with her by each long, slow breath. Every once in a while, a terrific shout would erupt all over the town and we knew that a goal had been scored. When the game finally ended and Italy had become the World Champion, the entire population poured out into the streets and flooded up to the Corso on the hilltop in the old town. Laughing and cheering people poured past us as we stood against a wall watching the jubilant procession. Some were waving flags. Some were singing. Some were chanting football songs. Quite a few jeered at me good naturedly with the taunt “Tedesco! Tedesco!” Because of my blonde hair, the crowd took me for a German.

Chapter 25

I spent the next two years in New York, working part time in the university geology labs, part time as a theater carpenter, and part time humping sofa beds up flights of stairs for an Israeli moving company. Any time left over, not counting of course the soccer games in the park, I spent in intermittent but feverish bursts of activity, writing my own plays. The theater where I worked produced plays that were mediocre at best. They did however cater to the politically correct fashions of the moment and this seemed to satisfy the primary artistic concerns of the directors. Take no chances. Safe art. I ground my teeth with frustration backstage.

I played soccer with Juan regularly and we frequently emptied a bottle of wine after the game in the stillness of the darkening park. I never asked him for news of his sister and he never mentioned her. It was as if this painful episode had slid out my life and the gaping wound caused by my passion had sealed shut.

It was then on a June evening that two of my friends showed up at my house with a quart of Jack Daniels and a newly hatched plan for a trip to Spain and Morocco. Of course, I was to join them. I had several reservations about the idea. My friends didn’t. They just poured out shots of Jack Daniels and outlined the travel itinerary. My dread of inserting myself into Carmen’s life again was ultimately swept away by the seductive tingle of a new adventure and the enthusiasm and alcohol vapors exhaled in copious quantities by our gallant Troika.

Few memories remain from this trip. Certainly, the castle ruins in the mountains of Asturias, some cold beers on a oppressively hot afternoon at a terraza in the Plaza Mayor in Avila, the somnolent procession of camera toting tourists through the sultry grandeur of the Alhambra in the numbing heat, the roasted leg of lamb at an outside restaurant in a small alleyway in Madrid, are all images imprinted in my mind. However, two moments of passion will still be remembered when the rest of the trip has blurred into the lost times of my past. Of these two memorable moments, one was comic while the other was a bittersweet heart squeeze that would turn my life.

The first took place in the beach resort town of Torremolinos on the southern coast. For anyone wanting to learn about Spain and its culture, this is a town to avoid. It is full of sun starved English and Germans and is complete with English style pubs and German restaurants so that the tourists can experience a warmer and sunnier version of their own countries. We blundered into this gaudy vacation mecca by chance at the end of a long day of driving and booked a hotel room by the beach.

My comrades went off to bed after dinner and wine, but I was still prowling the bustling streets in a state of drunken enthusiasm for life. The tourists were numerous and I almost had to push my way through the crowds on the sidewalks. My inner fires were well lit and I was ready and eager for new adventure. Among the tourists there were of course, many attractive women.

One girl in particular almost made my heart stop. She was, without doubt, one of the most lovely and sexy women I had ever seen in my life. Her blouse was tied at her belly, displaying an enticing slice of skin above her closely fitting jeans. She looked at me with large round eyes and smiled shyly, yet invitingly. We gazed at each other as we passed by and I turned around to stare after her. She also turned and stopped and the crowd parted around us. We smiled at each other and I walked over to her. She said hello in a soft coquettish voice and told me her name was Lola. I was joyously melting into a puddle of happy goo on the sidewalk.

“Do you want to make love?” she asked.

My mouth almost dropped open with surprise at this delectable suggestion. My heart began pounding on my ribs. I was about to offer my arm to this gorgeous creature to allow her to guide me to her love nest, when through the almost impenetrable haze of alcohol, my eyes finally focused on the light shadow of stubble, artfully masked by makeup, on her upper lip. I stepped back and concentrated my impaired brain to its maximum. My inspection proved that the new heartthrob of my life was, most definitely, a man.

The cruel disappointment was mixed with mirth. I threw my head back and laughed. My beautiful girl looked suddenly forlorn at her lost opportunity, whether for love or business I wasn’t sure. I put my hand under her chin. “You’re really beautiful, but… sorry.”

I retreated back into the crowd chuckling at my mistake and decided I should call it a night while I was still vaguely capable of distinguishing between the available genders.

The second memorable incident was more opera than light opera. From the moment my friends suggested a trip to Spain and Morocco, one unavoidable consequence loomed as an unpleasant specter in my imagination. As all three of us were friends of Juan, we would naturally have to pay a visit to his family in Galicia. This would entail the possibility of seeing Carmen, and I was certain that I would not receive a warm welcome from this quarter. In fact, I imagined that news of my imminent arrival would be sufficient motive for her to occupy herself elsewhere on the day of our visit. The whole prospect made me so uncomfortable that at first I refused to even consider going. My comrades were persistent in their arguments however, and I finally let myself be persuaded. Perhaps a small part of me was curious to see Carmen again.

Fortunately for the state of my nerves, Galicia was scheduled to be one of the first stops in our circle around the country and after one afternoon of anxiety, I would be able to relax and enjoy the rest of the tour. Accordingly, after stops in Toledo, Salamanca and Avila, I arrived again at the house of Carmen’s parents, the scene of so many heart-wrenching memories two years earlier. The door opened and none other than Carmen greeted us with a welcoming smile. I let the others enter first to give Carmen the opportunity to discretely avoid me if she wished to do so. She did not however, and surprised me greatly by turning to me last and kissing me on both cheeks. We didn’t speak a word but our quick glances at each other were soft. In place of the bitter hostility I had anticipated, Carmen’s greeting was warm and even affectionate. My stomach tightened and my heart pounded.

For the next two hours we sat in a circle around the coffee table with Carmen and her parents. Neither Carmen nor I added much to the conversation, but cautiously glanced at each other when the chance occurred. My insides felt wildly excited. Carmen was as sparkling and beautiful as ever. I knew that I would never see her again, but even so, I realized that she was the one woman for me, the woman I wanted to have grandchildren with. The certainty that this would never happen made me sad, but sitting in the same room with her and seeing her apparent friendliness towards me, filled me with a buoyant yet quiet joy.

The afternoon waned and we got up to go. My two companions took their leave with jovial laughter and banter with Carmen’s parents. Carmen turned to me to say goodbye. I cupped her face with both my hands and kissed her on each cheek. Carmen looked at me for a moment, sucked in her breath, and turned quickly away to say goodbye to my comrades. Our eyes met momentarily again as I passed through the door. Once outside, I almost floated along the pavement. My friends were in good spirits after our visit and looking forward with jocular humor to vinos and tapas. I was in reverie. I now knew again that Carmen’s eyes were the most entrancing that I would ever see.

After leaving Galicia, we spent three weeks traveling in Spain and Morocco and my last meeting with Carmen faded into a bittersweet memory. It stood out as something I would never forget, but I was also resigned to fate. I would never see Carmen’s eyes again, and I threw myself into the sport of tasting as many of the fruits of womanhood as I could. After all, life goes on.

Several months after this encounter, I found myself one day, for reasons of no concern here, at the Fulton Street Fish Market in New York City. It was a cold gray November afternoon and I was moodily leaning over the railing and looking at the water flowing by in the East River. I was drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup and warming my hands with the steam rising out of the slot in the lid. I wasn’t sure why I was feeling moody, but my disposition and appraisal of life seemed to match the weather. My mind reached back through time to Carmen’s smile as I watched the current roiling past me. In the months following Spain, I had not thought often about her. What was the point? Her face appeared in my mind now from a distant memory. I remembered staring out over another rail at the gray water and the dull hills of the Moroccan coast when I was on the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta. The excitement of seeing Carmen again had still been fresh in my guts as I watched the water bubble madly past the hull. Now as I stared into the expressionless and dark East River current, I drank my coffee and thought about Carmen. It would be nice to have contact with her again. Just to talk to her.

Suddenly, a flash came to me that filled me with happiness. Maybe I could never see her again, but I could send her flowers. It was a bit crazy to send her flowers out of the blue like that, but what I felt for her seemed a bit crazy also. I resolved on carrying out this idea immediately. I threw the last sip of coffee down my throat, slam dunked the Styrofoam cup into a garbage can, and strode vigorously off to find a flower shop. Now that I had a mission, I had purpose and serenity. Within an hour I had sent Carmen 15 red roses. The note accompanying them read “15 roses for 15 wonderful days in New York. Un beso. – Jack”

With the mission of making a romantic gesture accomplished, I proceeded to put it behind me with an uproarious night of heavy drinking in the warm company of friends at a series of neighborhood bars.

Chapter 26

One year later I received a letter from Carmen. The episode with the flowers had long since receded into a pastel memory. I was pleasantly surprised to recognize Carmen’s neat hand writing on the envelope and eagerly opened the letter right by the mailbox. Her letter was short but her tone was friendly and sincere. She thanked me for the roses and declared that she didn’t feel that she deserved them. She said that she thought she hadn’t been very nice to me the first time I was in Spain. An exultant glow swept through me. Carmen had surprised me again. I knew I would never see her beautiful eyes again, but the vindication of her affectionate letter left me with a peaceful inner feeling. I could continue my life free of the remnants of torment caused by the disappointment of my first trip to Spain.

A year after that, I went to Argentina to visit a friend that had studied sculpture in New York and played soccer with us in the park. I stayed at his place in Buenos Aires for six months and worked in an experimental theater. It was an invigorating and productive time for me and I wrote two plays during my stay. The first play I wrote on a series of restaurant table napkins on an excursion to Montevideo. On another trip I explored the picturesque Andean town of Bariloche and sent a post card to Carmen. Six months later, Carmen replied with another short letter. She didn’t say anything very personal in her letter, but the tone was again friendly. I didn’t think as far as to imagine that I would ever get back together again with Carmen, but her letter moved me to a far greater pitch of excitement than anything else that was happening in my life.

The following year Carmen and I exchanged two more letters. There was still no deep personal substance in our communications, but it seemed that it was lying submerged just beneath the surface, waiting to get out. We just needed to punch through the layer of ice that inhibited our thoughts and made us shy. It seemed such a shame to me that two people that liked each other so much should be destined to be separated by such distance.

Throughout the last several years, I had gone through several girlfriends and a number of sporadic one night stands. The girlfriends were all nice women. They were all attractive, intelligent, reasonable, and pleasing to make love with. I broke up with all of them. I just didn’t seem to care quite enough to make the commitment. I did remain friends with most of them. The break ups were amicable and respectful. The one-night stands were welcome moments of hedonistic pleasure.

One evening in February, I was sitting in my room. Carmen’s last letter was in my hand. It had arrived two months ago. Three of my friends were in my living room, drinking beer and chatting. Carmen and I had been writing back and forth to each other for several years now. At first it had been a pleasant and soothing surprise to learn that she didn’t harbor harsh feelings towards me. That alone had been enough to make me feel good. Lately, a different feeling was creeping into my consciousness. A vague frustration was brewing, that her occasional friendly letters weren’t sufficient. There was something undefined and unfinished. I mused over the facts as I compiled them. I knew that I loved Carmen. I also knew that if I didn’t go back to Spain to see Carmen soon, I would never do it and I would certainly never see her again. I had money in the bank.

Half an hour later, I went out to the living room and announced to my friends that I had booked a flight to Lisbon. I would take a train up through Portugal to La Coruña. The time had come. Either I would win back the love of Carmen or I would spend two weeks eating great food and drinking good Spanish wine. It would be good no matter what.

My friends were greatly amused by my sudden decision. Two of them had met Carmen and made knowing commentary about the romantic streak in me that was showing its ugly tail again and sending me yet another time back across the Atlantic after the same girl. The third friend hadn’t ever heard the story of Carmen, but that didn’t diminish in the slightest, his relish at jumping on the band wagon and taking fiendish delight in envisioning a wide pallet of humorous emotional disaster scenarios that he outlined and embellished in detail for our entertainment.

Chapter 27

A week later, I flew to Lisbon and took a train going north. The train crawled sluggishly through endless towns in Portugal. Green olive trees and vegetable gardens mixed with dry dust under the hot Portuguese sun outside my window. I was exhausted from the overnight flight and drifted in and out of a restless doze. My entire being was far too agitated to sleep. I had embarked on another mad uncertain venture and the stakes were high. My stomach was in a constant turmoil and my gut muscles were taught. Mixed in with the hope and the anxiety was the wisp of a familiar feeling of an odd contentment. I was on an adventure again. As crazy as it sounded even to me, I realized that this feelings-sharper-than-usual situation was my true element. It was the rest of the ordinary moments of life that stretched out like empty chasms of insignificant events.

That night I stayed in Porto and rambled the streets and bars along the River Douro until I had anesthetized my frazzled nervous system enough to sleep. The next morning I continued on my way to La Coruña. The mountains of Galicia replaced the Portuguese villages and the train still made slow progress.

I arrived at the La Coruña train station in the afternoon. The northern coast of Galicia was cloudy and cool. The sun that had been so hot in Portugal hadn’t shown its face since the River Minho at the border. I wandered through the center of town and found myself remembering the familiar streets as if from a recent dream. It had been four years since my last visit and six years since my first disastrous attempt to come to Spain and win Carmen back again. It was now seven years since I had last heard Carmen whisper passionately that she would love me forever.

I booked a room in a hotel and prepared myself for the big moment like a warrior preparing himself for the last battle. My stomach was tight. I couldn’t eat and the rancid coffee from the train made my stomach feel even more twisted. I looked through the phone book for Carmen’s name. There were seven listings with the same name, but only one stood out with the same address. I cleared my throat, took a deep breath and told myself somewhat unconvincingly that no matter what happened now, this was interesting and fun and I should go along for the ride. And if Carmen didn’t answer? No matter. I would call back again. If she had gone out of town? I would be here calling her when she came back. In the mean time, I would patronize the wine bars, eat octopus and langostinos, and buy cheap black tobacco Ducados cigarettes to keep me company.

I dialed Carmen’s number and listened to the phone ring. I was grim with fatalistic determination and felt nothing at all except the heaviness of my hand as it held the receiver to my ear. I breathed in and I breathed out again. My palm was damp and I rubbed it mechanically against my pants. I looked straight ahead at the wall above the bed and breathed out slowly again. I heard a click and then Carmen’s high voice answering. “Diga.”

“Hola Carmen. This is Jack.”

“Where are you?” Carmen asked the question without the slightest trace of surprise or tension creeping into her voice. It was as if the plumber had called to announce that he would be 15 minutes late.

“I’m in La Coruña.”

“Are you going to come over?”

“OK. How do I get to your house?”

Carmen gave me instructions. “You should take a taxi. It might rain.”

“That’s ok. I’ll walk.”

Carmen now lived out on the peninsula near the Torre de Hércules lighthouse in a complex of modern apartment buildings. It was about a mile past the old neighborhood where her parents lived. The complex was the latest addition to the city that was encroaching on the rocky shores surrounding the lighthouse built by the Romans 2000 years ago. The building wasn’t regal but it was on the luxurious side. I was torn between the reflex to condemn it derisively as bourgeois, and the reassuring feeling of comfort and orderliness.

Carmen opened her door and kissed my cheeks. Her fragrance penetrated through me. I was in her apartment. Carmen looked older than I remembered but she was still beautiful. She looked more mature now. Her figure was still a stunning hourglass. Her eyes were still large and inquisitive. I noticed fine lines creasing the corners of her eyes that hadn’t been there before. It didn’t matter. She was so beautiful. She was even more beautiful with her older eyes.

Carmen was wearing sky blue running pants and sweatshirt. She invited me in and I looked around at her neat and chicly decorated living room. The furniture was new and a glass framed poster hung over the rose colored sofa. A large chess set with figures cut out of stone was displayed on a shelf. Nina Simone was singing soft jazz vocals on the tape deck.

Carmen offered me a seat on the sofa and sat on the love seat facing me. I didn’t want anything to drink so Carmen tucked her feet under her and asked me how I’d been. She seemed perfectly relaxed and I found myself surprisingly calm also. She didn’t bother to ask me how I came to be in La Coruña. It was if my being there was just taken for granted. We talked of our lives over the last few years and the afternoon hours went by effortlessly. We could feel that we both wanted to be there and there were no awkward lapses. Even the pauses in the conversation were filled with a pleasant sensation.

Carmen told me that the chess game had been brought back to her from Prague as a gift. We began to play a game. I wasn’t a good chess player, but Carmen was worse. She played with aggressive feistiness and absolutely no strategy or attention to logical consequences of her moves. I began easily trapping her, for which Carmen began to truculently berate me. I took piece after piece and each time Carmen gave a surprised squeal of anger. I offered to retake my moves but Carmen refused haughtily. She struggled on with fewer and fewer pieces. I teased her as I took her queen after a particularly poignant blunder. Carmen shot vertically into the air from her seat. “Que cerdo!” What a pig, she squawked.

“I’ll give you another chance.” I said, reaching out to replace her queen.

“No!” Carmen commanded. She propped her elbows on the table and leaned over the chessboard. A gleam of joy shone in her smile and she took one of my pawns with her bishop. She jutted her chin out defiantly at me and raised her nose aristocratically in the air. I took her bishop with my knight and Carmen writhed in chagrin. “Dirty Pig!” she uttered.

I couldn’t contain my mirth and I burst out laughing. “Ja! Ja! Ja!” Carmen mimicked me in her Spanish accent that made the ha ha’s sound guttural and strange to me. “Ja! Ja! Ja!” I mimicked her back, attempting to copy the Spanish nuance. Carmen broke into laughter. “Que idiota!” she said, looking at me archly.

“Do you want to play another game?” I tried to be diplomatic again.

“No. We aren’t finished yet.”

Fifteen minutes later Carmen was down to her king and two pawns. I had only lost three pawns and a bishop. She refused to give up and cede defeat. I methodically trapped and took her two pawns. Carmen frantically scurried her lonely king around the board trying to avoid the final deathblow. I hunted her king down and put her into checkmate. Carmen grandly rose from the table and strode out to the kitchen. I began putting the pieces back in their positions.

“Do you want to play again?” I called out.

“No.” she replied sharply.

I put the chessboard back on its shelf and sat at the table again. Carmen returned from the kitchen with a yogurt and a spoon. She came over to me and sat down astride my lap, straddling my legs and facing me. She delicately dipped the tip of her spoon into the yogurt and inserted it into her mouth, sucking the yogurt off luxuriantly. She gazed into my eyes challengingly as she slowly drew the spoon out from her lips. She dipped the spoon back into the yogurt and held it up in front of my face. I opened my mouth and Carmen dexterously slipped the spoon in. My tongue languidly curled around the spoon. Carmen stared alternately into my eyes and down at the spoon in my mouth. A slight smile of mischievous pleasure turned up the corners of her mouth. She dipped the spoon back into the yogurt and I opened my mouth expectantly. She turned the spoon to herself and spooned the yogurt elegantly into her own mouth. I watched her without uttering a word. Carmen took several more spoonfuls for herself and then gave me another. Her sumptuous enjoyment of the taste and texture of the soft yogurt was as evident as her playful delight in teasing me with an occasional spoonful when it took her fancy to give me one.

Carmen finished the yogurt and took a cigarette. She lit it and breathed the smoke to one side. Then she placed the cigarette in my mouth. I inhaled and blew the smoke out to one side. I remained sitting with my hands hanging down at my side. Carmen perched comfortably on my lap like a cat sitting on its owner’s chest and licking itself with self-contentment. I was savoring the sweet sensation of achieving my dream. However, at the same time, a disturbing and distasteful bit of reality was intruding into my victory celebration. My recent steady diet of coffee, cigarettes and tension had produced a tightness in my guts that was almost unsupportable. I desperately needed relief. But business must be concluded first. I reached up and put my hands on Carmen’s hips. She serenely put her cigarette down in an ashtray and put her arms around my neck. We kissed slowly and softly at first, then deeper and harder. The taste of Carmen’s mouth was familiar as if I had just kissed her yesterday. After several minutes we came up for air. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. In this private sanctuary, I passed a long and liberating stream of pent up methane and sulfur dioxide.

Another notable change had occurred in my life since my first acquaintance with Carmen. In the era between the advent of birth control pills and the widespread outbreak of aids, condoms had not been considered so essential. The common sexually transmitted diseases of the time were cured by ten days of tetracycline accompanied by abstinence from alcohol. A legacy from one of several one-night stands within an 18-day viral gestation period was the shocking sight one morning of a cluster of tiny blisters on the shaft of my penis. I had no idea what they were but was alarmed enough to go immediately off to a public clinic.

The waiting room at the clinic was hardly a reassuring environment. About twenty people, all poor blacks and Hispanics, were waiting stoically on plastic chairs to see the overworked doctor. I sat quietly with my poisoned penis amidst a flowing chatter around me detailing the various ailments and sufferings of my neighbors. When my turn finally came, I was ushered into a private room and told to wait. Several minutes later, a middle-aged doctor came in and asked about the reason for my visit. I began telling the doctor about the little blisters on my penis and he abruptly interrupted and instructed me to drop my trousers and underpants. I stood in front of him with my trousers around my ankles and he bent over with his hands on his knees and squinted at my penis.

“You’ve got herpes.” He announced curtly and stood up and turned around to rummage through some stacks of pamphlets. He found a sheet of paper that he was looking for and turned back to me.

“You can pull your pants back up. Here, read this.” I pulled my trousers back on and scanned the two-paragraph information pamphlet. I was so distressed by the infamous word “herpes” that I could barely focus my eyes on the print. I had only vaguely heard of herpes and had no idea what it really was. And now I had it. And there was no cure! This was stated quite bluntly in the first paragraph.

Three minutes later, I was in the street, blinking at an innocent sun and terrified to the core by this revelation that I was now bearing the infamous and incurable herpes virus. Within a month or two I had done enough research and networking to learn that I could live with herpes without any major impact on my life. It didn’t cause me any physical discomfort but it would reappear at sporadic intervals and was contagious during these episodes. The ultimate effect was that I would forego making love during the ten-day periods of the occasional outbreaks. This caused some infrequent frustration, but seemed like an innocuous minor irritation compared to the more serious consequences of AIDS that spread into the heterosexual population a few years later.

By random chance, a herpes episode had broken out the day before I arrived in La Coruña. I cursed my luck at this timing, but knew there was nothing I could do about it. As Carmen and I resumed our embrace, I said that I had something I needed to tell her. Carmen listened attentively as I explained the medical details of the virus. Since Carmen was a nurse, she was accustomed to discussing health issues and asked insightful and thoughtful questions with a professional demeanor. Finally she was satisfied and announced that it was a small problem that we could live with.

Carmen wanted to see what it looked like and I showed her. I didn’t feel any awkwardness about exhibiting my impaired penis to Carmen and she examined me with clinical coolness. Rather than be embarrassing, the situation seemed intimate and brought us closer. The warmth of the intimacy and the bond of trust created a sensual attraction between us that totally overpowered any potential discomfort that could have arisen. Carmen concluded her examination. Then she gave me a playful tug and giggled. I put my hand on her breast and pushed her gently back on the sofa.

Other parts of me were not infected and I labored delicately and rhythmically with the tools at hand on Carmen’s body as she lay below me. Each touch and caress of every part of her charged me with high-voltage. Carmen extended her arms over her head with her eyes closed. She was the essence of vulnerability. I gradually ran my hands from her hips along her ribs to her arm pits and slowly along the length of her arms, pushing a light pressure against her wrists, her palms, and out to the tips of her fingers. I unhooked her bra and opened it, exposing Carmen’s firm and pointed breasts. I kissed her in the spot between them and ran my fingertip around the circumference of first one and then the other without touching them. Carmen remained with her arms above her head and her eyes closed, allowing me to freely touch her as I wished. My mind was jammed with so many different feverish desires that I could scarcely decide which part of Carmen to touch next. I kept up a light and steady rhythm with my caresses but slowly increased or accentuated to push Carmen to her crescendo. Carmen arched her back and shuddered with sharp spasms. Her last tremor elongated and rippled slowly through her entire body down to her toe tips that shivered faintly.

Chapter 28

In the morning Carmen told me she couldn’t see me any more. Yesterday her boyfriend had been out of town and today he was coming back. I had to leave. I kissed her good bye and left her apartment. I walked back through the rain to my hotel in the center of town. I was dazed by the turn of events of the last 24 hours. I had, against all my expectations, actually succeeded in winning back the love of the woman of my dreams and now I had just as suddenly lost her again. I was tightly clutching a fistful of air. I walked moodily along the sea wall lining the Paseo Marítimo by the beach. It was high tide and waves occasionally crashed against the wall and sprayed over the top. I was drenched and chilled but unconcerned about anything except the turmoil in my heart. I hadn’t even had time yet to figure out what had happened to me. All I knew for sure was that Carmen had turned my life upside down again.

I got back to my hotel room and changed clothes. There was a train to Lisbon leaving the next morning and I decided to take it. In the mean time, I would get something to eat and in the evening I would revisit the bars and drink wine. I was satisfied with my achievement of regaining Carmen, even if it was only momentary. However, another part of me was disturbed and moved more powerfully than I had felt for anything in my life.

That evening, I was puttering about in my hotel room preparatory to hitting the bars, when there was a knock on my door. I was puzzled at who would knock and thought it was someone from the hotel. I opened the door and there stood Carmen. She wasn’t dressed casually this time, but was wearing a short black skirt, a stylish red blouse, and high heel shoes. I was spellbound by her beauty. Carmen looked directly, but uncertainly at me and walked slowly past me into my room. We stood in the middle of the room staring at each other.

“How did you find me?” I finally was able to overcome my surprise and ask her.

“I called all the hotels and asked for you.” Carmen spoke softly and watched me intently for my reaction. “Como estás?” How are you? She asked.

“I’m confused.” I replied truthfully.

“I am too. I imagined you walking around all night in the rain by yourself.” Carmen paused. “Last night was wonderful. I like being with you.”

“So do I.”

“What are you going to do now Jack?”

“I’m going to take the train to Lisbon tomorrow.”

Carmen paused again. “Jack, I have to go to work now. I’m on the night shift at the hospital. But before I go, I want to ask you for one last thing.” I nodded my head and Carmen continued. “I want you to lie on top of me.”

It was an unusual request but I agreed. The idea attracted me. We lay down on my bed with our clothes on and I lay on top of Carmen’s petite body. Carmen squeezed her eyes shut and clasped me tight around my neck.

“I want to feel your weight pressing down on me.” Carmen murmured. I pressed down on Carmen as hard as I could and she gasped for air. Her face contorted and she pushed her torso against me. We remained like that for several minutes until Carmen opened her eyes again and said that she had to leave for work. Carmen kissed me at the door and then slowly walked out without looking back. I watched her until she disappeared down the stairs.

Chapter 29

I began writing a letter to Carmen on the train to Lisbon. I told her that I loved her more than any woman I’d ever met in my life and that in some part of my mind I’d never forgotten her through the years since we met. I wrote about how I had thought about her constantly after she left New York and how I’d wanted to help her achieve her goals. I told her of my despair the first time I’d come to Spain and I told her how radiantly happy I felt now, knowing that she still had affection for me. I arrived in Lisbon and continued writing in restaurants, in cafes, in bars, and in my hotel room at the end of the night. I ignored my surroundings, talked to nobody, and focused feverishly on pouring my heart onto paper. The next afternoon I mailed the 18-page document to Carmen. Now I had nothing else to do except wait for her response.

My return flight to New York didn’t leave for another ten days, so I made myself comfortable in Lisbon. I found a cozy hotel under the shoulder of the Castello do Sao Jorge that looked down at the city center from a high hill on the south side. The hotel was an old structure set back about 20 feet above the street level. A door in a high wall on the street opened into some stairs that led up to a courtyard garden and the hotel building behind it. On the top floor of the hotel there was a cupola with windows that looked out in every direction over the red tile rooftops of the city. Late afternoons would find me ensconced with a cup of tea and a book and a background of the sun setting over the Lisbon harbor. I was making an effort to read a book in Portuguese and in the margins of my dictionary I can still read the notes I scribbled while composing my letter to Carmen.

During the day I explored the old town and took scenic rides on the ancient trolley that snaked through the narrow twisted streets. I would stop for lunch in some small untrendy neighborhood restaurant and eat bacalau, or cod, which seemed to be the local culinary specialty. Then I discovered the beach town of Caiscais about 30 minutes by train from Lisbon center. Caiscais was the playground and primary nightspot for Lisbon. I would take the train out at midday and play soccer on the beach all afternoon. I became friends with a very skillful player from Angola who had played in the second division of the Portuguese league when he was young and now worked in a bar. He invited me back to his room after the game one evening and we drank rum and talked about soccer and women. On other evenings, I frequented the numerous bars in Caiscais that catered to the throngs of tourists that came mostly from Britain and Germany. One night I drank English ale in a British style pub and on another night paused briefly in a German tavern where waiters dressed in lederhosen served German beer. Even though Lisbon and Caiscais were popular with Europeans, I enjoyed a mysterious aloofness of being by myself in place devoid of droves of American tourists.

Chapter 30

I flew back to New York and called Carmen. We talked for four hours. Several more long calls followed and I quickly ran up a phone bill that far exceeded the price of an airline ticket back to Spain. Carmen wanted to know how we would live. Where would we live? All the details of survival that I was willing to improvise when the time came were the main items on Carmen’s agenda. She wanted to live in Spain because it was the best country in the world. I considered this uninformed opinion to be the height of daft absurdity since the cutting edge of modern ideas, music and art were all happening in the United States, but I magnanimously admitted the possibility of living in Spain. That could be a cool adventure. Carmen claimed that the quality of life was better in Spain than in America. The food was better, the wine was better, there was much less crime. I stifled an irritated expression of impatience. Carmen informed me that she, like everyone in Europe, had five weeks of vacation every year. I paused. Until I sold myself out and joined ranks with the employees of corporate America, I would continue living without any paid vacation or even health insurance. I told Carmen that if she came to the US she could work in a lab, doing the same job she was doing now, and even go to medical school if she wanted. We could live in New York. Carmen wouldn’t even consider any other part of the US.

We finally agreed on a trial vacation together for one month in the south of Spain. Carmen didn’t feel comfortable driving a long distance from La Coruña by herself, so we scheduled a rendezvous at the Porto train station in the north of Portugal. Carmen rented an apartment for us in Puerto Santa María, near Cádiz. She wanted to be cautious and prudent, taking things one-step at a time. She didn’t want to jump rashly over the cliff’s edge. Now, at the age of 30, Carmen seemed to have become less impetuous and reckless. She said that if we got along well during this trial month that we could think seriously about a more permanent relationship.

I had to wait six more excruciating weeks before it was time to board a plane once again for Lisbon and set off nervously to see Carmen. Now that I knew again that Carmen loved me and I was entering cold-blooded and soberly into a relationship with the woman that I was yearning, I found myself more nervous than I had ever felt. I realized that didn’t really know Carmen that well. I had spent one afternoon and one night with her in the last seven years. What was so irresistibly attractive as a remote dream, now loomed as a terrifying immediate reality.

I finally flew to Lisbon and took the, by now, familiar train to Porto. When I saw Carmen at the station, I felt frozen. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. I was wearing green army fatigues and a tee shirt, while Carmen was fashionably dressed in a skirt and high heels. She was pretty, sure enough, but she seemed more formal than I had been imagining. Carmen gave me a quick kiss and then we went quickly off to her car. Carmen asked politely about my flight and I stammered awkwardly with my rusty Spanish. Carmen didn’t seem to understand my banal response and I finally tired of trying to make the clarification and abandoned the effort with a dissatisfied feeling of self-reproach. A lengthy pause ensued as Carmen drove us to our hotel. She looked tentatively around at the traffic and winced as another driver cut her off sharply. We proceeded slowly along the avenue towards the harbor with all the other cars zipping past us.

We arrived at the hotel and parked. Carmen opened the hatchback of her Renault 5 and asked me to carry her garment bag. I had never had a girlfriend with a garment bag before. Backpacks were more typical in the crowd I usually ran with. We put our bags down in our room and Carmen occupied herself with hanging up her various skirts in the closet while I sat on the bed and watched her. When she was finished she turned to me and asked if I was ready for dinner. I said I was and got up to go. Carmen looked critically at my tee shirt and asked if I had a nicer shirt to put on. I rummaged through my pack for a shirt with long sleeves and grumbled to myself that the social revolution of the sixties was slipping away from me fast.

We ate dinner in the hotel dining room and drank a couple of glasses of wine. Carmen seemed a bit distant while we ate. Her responses to my descriptions of my recent life and activities back in New York lacked convincing enthusiasm. She said she was tired from her long drive down from La Coruña. Even the wine we drank didn’t succeed in breaking the subtle layer of ice that I perceived between us.

After dinner we returned to our room with minimal conversation and an uneasy tension still separating us like a flimsy lace curtain. My apprehension about the situation merged with my fatigue from the overnight flight and subsequent train journey, and between them I found myself wistfully yearning for a spot of consoling solitude. I had just accomplished my goal that had stretched out over seven long and sometimes painful years and now part of me desired to escape to a private bedroom where I could just jerk off by myself and fall asleep peacefully. But of course, the rest of me was thrilled just to be in Carmen’s presence again. I was also curious to see what would happen next.

I would have been content at that moment to curl up in bed with Carmen and just fall asleep with her. There was nothing in our current situation that was even remotely erotic or intimate. I was indecisive. What should I do now? Carmen was not indecisive.

“What do you want to do now?” I asked her, feeling foolish after fumbling with the contents of my backpack and procrastinating as long as possible.

“Make love.” Carmen answered matter-of-factly. She began undressing and I followed her lead. It was delicious to touch and taste her body again, even through the nervous discomfort. On top of all my uneasiness, a mortifying dread of not satisfying my partner sexually had crept into my psyche. I felt like I was with a brand new person, a complete stranger, and my virility was suddenly at stake. To my great relief, my apparatus functioned as if it had read the scope of work plan and complied with all specifications. The job came off more or less satisfactorily and Carmen appeared to approve of the proceedings and drifted quickly off to sleep afterwards. I smiled to myself and savored the gratification of lying in bed with my queen. It hadn’t exactly been a Hollywood reunion of passionate lovers, but I was here, as usual, and even more importantly, so was Carmen.

Chapter 31

In the morning, we set off in Carmen’s little yellow Renault 5 and drove to Lisbon. The easy joking atmosphere still hadn’t returned between us, but I felt more reassured than on the previous evening. I told Carmen that I had felt apprehensive about making love the night before and would have been content to wait. She creased her forehead with a frown as she looked out the windshield in front of her.

“It was logical to make love.” She said flatly. She continued looking ahead at the highway and we were quiet for several minutes. Then Carmen reached her hand and felt for mine. She held it while she drove and only let go of it to change gears, but then took it again. I looked out the window at the Portuguese landscape for a while and then read a magazine, holding it and turning the pages with my remaining free hand.

When we arrived in Lisbon, we went to the same hotel with the rooftop cupola in the old part of town. Carmen was delighted with my choice of hotels and I was relieved and happy that she was content. When I took her up to the cupola, she absolutely glowed sublimely. We stood by the windows with our arms around each other’s waists and looked out over the rooftops of Lisbon towards the late afternoon sun over the harbor. We were beginning to feel like a couple.

Carmen was charmed by Lisbon. We strolled through the same twisted streets that I remembered from a couple of months earlier and took a scenic ride on the old trolley. We just jumped on spontaneously without knowing where the trolley was going and got off at a random street corner that looked like a cozy destination. We stayed for four days in Lisbon. The first night we drank Porto in a café after eating cod with fried potatoes. Carmen said Porto was her favorite drink and it was common and inexpensive in Portugal and even in Spain. Every restaurant and café had a long list of brands on the menu and I was determined to get to know them all. It quickly became our custom to drink a few glasses of Porto in the evening.

I took Carmen out to the beach at Caiscais one afternoon and introduced her to my Angolan friend. He was playing soccer on the sand, but came running over to greet me with a big smile. He shook Carmen’s hand warmly and spoke to her in a jumble of mangled Spanish and Portuguese. He wished her lots of luck and happiness with me and told her what an excellent fellow I was. Then he dashed back to his soccer game and waved as we strolled off.

Our third night in Lisbon, we ended up in a discothèque just outside of the northern edge of the city. Our evening had been lovely and romantic. We had eaten dinner at a restaurant with sidewalk tables and drunk a bottle of red Portuguese wine. Then we strolled through picturesque downtown Lisbon and when we found a cozy looking café, we stopped and had our customary glass of Porto. Now at 3 AM, we were perched at a small round table with bar stools, surrounded by flashing strobe lights and fashionably dressed revelers. Glasses of gin and tonic sat in front of us accompanied by a debris of empty glasses from our previous rounds. We had been dancing off and on, but the music was mostly boom, boom, boom disco and not my style. However, Carmen wanted to dance and dancing was always something that we seemed to do well together. The physical sensuousness and sexual magnetism that we felt for each other seemed to express itself naturally in the rhythm of dancing. However, one song in particular grated on my nerves. It was sung by some English peckerhead named Rick Astley. I had never even heard of him. The syrupy romantic lyrics, his wanker voice, and the Brit-sells-out-to-disco crap music style made me grind my teeth. Every time Carmen heard it, she would jump up and head for the dance floor or just gyrate in place. She had a tape of his in her car and I had already developed a strong aversion to everything about him.

I had survived dancing to Rick Astley’s wafer thin disco ballad about how he would love this girl forever and ever, and Carmen was happily recounting the tale of a wedding she had recently been to. Carmen seemed to have gone to a lot of weddings lately. They excited her because she and her other girlfriends would get decked out in their finest clothes in what seemed to me to be some kind of fashion Olympics. She was mercilessly telling me the tedious details of every hem and collar and I was maintaining a frozen smile.

I was bored. My friends in New York would never have done anything like this. They all wore jeans or army fatigues and tee shirts and would have considered it incredibly vain and simple minded to put so much emphasis on superficial beauty. The superficial beauty actually was something I liked about Carmen, but not to such excess. The fact that she would use lipstick and mascara at a time when all the women I knew in the US considered such things archaic symbols of suppressed womanhood and male chauvinism, charmed and attracted me. Carmen balanced out the two concepts of striving to be an independent woman and also be a sexy woman that was attractive for men. She had told me once that she liked to look beautiful for herself because it was what she liked and made her feel good about herself. I liked her attitude and thought it was a lot stronger than the defensive, anti man rhetoric that I heard so often in New York.

But then Carmen began telling me about the fur jacket. I was sipping my gin and tonic, feeling relaxed and satisfied from having spent a pleasant evening with a woman I had made love with several times that day. I was placidly letting Carmen ramble on about this wedding that seemed anathema to me, but had obviously given her a lot of enjoyment. From the sketchy details I remember, it was a gray fur jacket, if such a thing is possible, and was cut off sharply at her waist. Carmen was embellishing the scene with vivid descriptions of the accoutrements and side orders and was in her full glory. I visualized animals writhing in agony with their legs bit cruelly in steel traps and their blood staining the snow under the evergreen trees. I remembered reading a description of an animal chewing its own leg off to escape the trap and the trapper finding only a bloody leg as the reward for his work. Carmen was serenely illustrating something to do with the sleeves. A searing hot revulsion flooded through me. This was well above and beyond any acceptable limits. I was very confused about my own feelings. All I knew was that an iron barrier had been suddenly erected between us. How could I feel the noble passion I felt for Carmen when she had cheapened herself by being so insensitive and ignorant about the great causes in the world? The pressure against my head felt explosive. My resentment and abhorrence flared inside me like a spark landing on a pool of gasoline.

I got up with clenched teeth while Carmen was in mid sentence and wandered off through the crowd. I didn’t look back. I just walked. I past the coat check room and went out into the parking lot. I didn’t know what I was planning to do. I only knew that I had to leave. I wasn’t capable of listening to Carmen describing that monstrous fur jacket without a care in the world or a thought in her head. I was deeply disillusioned. How could the girl I loved and revered so much let me down so horribly? I paced around the parking lot and out into the road. I turned and walked back into the parking lot again. Carmen’s little yellow Renault 5 was parked next to a BMW. I asked myself what I was going to do. I had no answer. Ten minutes crept by in agonizing second by second clarity. I went over to Carmen’s Renault 5 and sat on the hood. Then I leaned back and rested my back against the windshield. I just stayed like that smoking cigarettes.

The click of high heels on the gravel made me look up just in time to see the stony look on Carmen’s face as she unlocked the car door and slipped inside. I slid quickly off the hood and grabbed the door handle. I pulled the door open, but Carmen reached out and shoved my hand away from the door. She didn’t even look up at my face. I tried to pull the door again and Carmen screamed sharply and punched my arm. I let go of the door and Carmen slammed it shut. She started the engine and backed out. I stood there and watched as she drove away down the dark street. I didn’t know what I should do or what I wanted to do next. I began walking down the dark street after her.

It was getting light by the time I got back to the downtown part of Lisbon. The streets were deserted except for a few shopkeepers beginning their morning chores. By the time I had walked up the hill on the southern side of downtown and reached the hotel, it was almost 7 AM. As I approached the hotel, Carmen drove up in her car. I stopped and waited while she parked. She got out and she shoved brusquely past me to the hotel door. I followed her in and went up the stairs behind her. When Carmen reached the garden in front of the hotel, she turned and confronted me.

“Are you ok?” I asked.

“Where did you go?” she demanded.

I began telling her about my reaction to the fur jacket and what it meant to me. Carmen interrupted me impatiently and told me that she had been afraid to drive through the old town by herself so late at night so she had gone to a gasoline station and waited in her car until the sun came up. I told Carmen how I had walked all the way back, but she seemed unimpressed. She reiterated that she had been afraid to be in her car in the streets by herself at four in the morning. She was afraid that her car might break down in a deserted place and some thug might rape or kill her. I thought this was a bit over dramatic, but swallowed my incredulity. I tried to describe again to Carmen how grueling it had been to walk six miles at four in the morning, but again, Carmen was noticeably distracted and inattentive. She insisted on returning to the same theme of being so afraid to be by herself so late at night. I was becoming vexed. For god’s sake, I thought, “You’re in a bloody car. You just drive back to the hotel. This is Lisbon, not the South Bronx.” I was at least judicious enough not to voice my thoughts. Carmen obviously wanted to be comforted after what she considered a harrowing and unnerving experience. Her fear and distress had totally displaced her anger at me. She just wanted to be consoled, like a little girl that had been lost and just been found.

For my part, I wanted Carmen to recognize the physical struggle of my late night odyssey and I still wasn’t appeased about Carmen’s ignorance or lack of interest in the great political and social issues of the world. Carmen’s evident anguish weakened my stern resolve, even though I was acutely aware of her occasional theatrical embellishments. Then I would think again about the gray fur jacket, cut sharply at the waist, and the animal in pain, and my blood would boil again. Carmen reached her hand out slowly to touch mine. Her eyes were hard with determination but moist with tears welling up. She touched my hand and I wanted to flinch as if a hot ember had landed on my skin. I let her put her small hand in mine and slowly closed my fingers around it. Carmen leaned her forehead against my shoulder. I stayed frozen for half a minute and then leaned my head against her hair. Through the smell of cigarette smoke I could still smell her familiar fragrance. We rested slumped together exhausted in that posture for about twenty minutes without saying a word. Finally we lay back on the bed and Carmen nuzzled against my chest with my arm enveloping her. She fell asleep and I stared at the ceiling trying to figure out what had happened. A minute later I was asleep too.

Chapter 32

It was noon when we woke up. We looked at each other for a few seconds and finally my mouth twitched with the beginning of a smile. We both burst out laughing and hugged each other. I couldn’t control the ridiculous smile that spread across my face.

“Que idiotas!” Carmen’s eyes were shining with mirth again. I grabbed her and rolled on top of her body. Carmen put her arms around my neck. Our lips were only an inch away from each other. We looked affectionately into each other’s eyes and we both knew what we needed to do next. We ran into the shower. We absolutely had to wash away the repulsive smells and grime of the long previous night. We took turns washing each other’s bodies. Slowly our passions became aroused and the looks that we gave each other changed their tone from joyful tenderness to a playful inquiry. We answered our own unspoken questions wordlessly. I turned Carmen around and she put one foot up on the rim of the bath to make herself as accessible to me as possible. I bent my knees and crouched down as much as I could. I fumbled several times trying to gain the aperture. My equipment was ready but the physical mechanics were stymieing me. Carmen reached her hand back and gently guided me in. I had to bend my knees even farther to push into her. Carmen gave a slight groan and pressed her shoulder and cheek against the white wall tiles. I could see one eye squeezed tightly shut and her forehead creased in concentration. A strand of her wet hair was pasted to her chin. Spray from the shower splashed against her clenched eyelids and made her wince. I pushed into her rhythmically and Carmen’s breathing accelerated to match the pace. However, the mechanics were simply too much for me and I had to abandon the effort. My thigh muscles were aching horribly and my knees were shaking like jelly from the exertion caused by the unnatural position. Moreover, I felt myself gripping onto the smooth porcelain bath floor with my toes so that I wouldn’t slip and crack my head open. I turned Carmen around and kissed her. We toweled each other dry. Carmen took my hand.

“Vamos a la pista.” Let’s go to the playing field, she said.

Chapter 33

That afternoon we strolled hand in hand around the old Castello do Sao Jorge on top of the heights. We sat by a cannon portal with a vista sweeping out over the roof of our own hotel and then on to the Praça do Comércio. We chatted comfortably as if the horrible argument of the night before had disappeared into the distant past. I hadn’t reconciled the politics of fur jackets, but the issue had moved away from the top of the agenda. Carmen looked out happily at the broad horizon of red tile rooftops and angular television antennae. “Lisbon is our city.” She declared. “It’s a special place for us, Jack. We should come back here often.” I nodded and squeezed her hand. We’ve never been back.

On our way back late in the afternoon, we were walking down the middle of the street near our hotel. The street was quiet. I suddenly noticed that two guys were coming up behind us. I realized that there was nobody else in the street. My New York street radar snapped into action and warning sirens started blaring. The two guys separated and sauntered up on either side of us. Carmen was carrying her handbag in the hand that was next to me. The guy on Carmen’s side reached over, almost nonchalantly, and grabbed at the straps of her handbag. Reacting without thinking, I pushed the guy’s hand away and shoved Carmen ahead towards the hotel entrance. I turned and faced the two guys and they stopped short, as if surprised by my quick action. “Run to the hotel!” I told Carmen and she scampered off. I backed away from the thieves, keeping myself between them and her. They advanced slowly several steps and then just watched as I gained the hotel door and closed it behind me. Carmen was waiting for me. I pushed her up the stairs ahead of me and we didn’t stop until we got into the garden in front of the hotel building. I hugged Carmen and felt her heart beating rapidly. The incident was over in less than 30 seconds and I hadn’t even had time to figure out what was happening.

Chapter 34

The rest of the trip doesn’t stick out in my mind with such singular clarity as the images from these first few days. I can catalogue a few places that we visited and vaguely remember some sizzling fights and fiery sex, but it all merges together in a dim miasma. Parts of the blur are comforting and joyful and other parts jar against the jagged edges of our intrinsic differences as human beings that had lain hidden like treacherous reefs.

We spent two nights visiting Carmen’s girlfriends at a beach town in the Algarve in southern Portugal. My only recollections are eating fried shrimp that came in a rolled up cone of newspaper and serenading Carmen one afternoon. The fried shrimp were terrific. There was none of the American mania for heavy breading or cocktail sauces for dipping. The shrimp were small and just served with slices of lemon to squeeze. We tossed handfuls of shrimp into our mouths like popcorn.

My romantic serenade the next afternoon fell a bit flat perhaps. I had been dispatched by Carmen to fetch something from the trunk of her car and I found myself in the dirt parking lot under the beach apartment window. I had been a bit bored by the conversation of the three women and the idea of a little self-entertainment appealed strongly to me. The window was open and I launched into “The Street Where You Live” from the musical “My Fair Lady”. Maybe it was another of those romantic scenes that I had always fancied myself playing. Anyway, I was in fairly good voice and when Carmen and her friends came out to the balcony to see what was up, I became even more theatrical and hammed up my performance for my audience, throwing in a few dance steps and twirls and flourishes. I heard Carmen say something about me singing and the three girls listened for ten seconds or so. Then as I was pushing my musical way into the nether regions of my memory of the lyrics, they turned to each other and resumed their conversation. I grabbed the requested item (sweater, skin lotion, tire iron – I don’t remember) and joined the ladies on the sunny balcony.

We left the Algarve and pushed on to Puerto Santa María in southern Spain, where Carmen had rented an apartment for us near the beach. Days were usually spent with a trip down to the beach and evenings out for a drink. We made several day excursions. We spent one day in the Doñana National Park, a botanical reserve in a marshy area at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Carmen was delighted to photograph flamingos and egrets and a couple of other creatures she’d never seen before. Another day we drove through some rugged arid hills covered with pine trees to the Pueblos Blancos, the White Villages. I have two photos from Arcos de la Frontera. One picture captures the intricately curved patterns of the black wrought iron window bars contrasting against the gleaming white painted walls and the gray, well fitting street cobble stones. In the other, Carmen is leaning against a white wall next to a window with spiral-patterned bars. Carmen is dressed casually in light cotton pants that are light blue with white flowers. She’s wearing white flat shoes that are almost slippers and a white knit sweater. Her shoulder length hair was just pulled back behind her head. Some frizzy strands had slipped out and were blowing in the breeze. Carmen is looking straight at the camera without smiling. Her eyes are penetrating, yet sad. She has a vulnerable look about her, like I should take care of her forever and ever. Probably though, she was thinking to herself “Hurry up and focus that thing, you idiot!”

I still have a few other photographs from Puerto Santa María. They’re mostly of Carmen. In one she is posing by the pool in a swimsuit and a wide brimmed straw hat that she had pulled down over her eyes. Carmen loved hats. She didn’t get excited about clothes shopping usually, but hats were a particular delight. It’s coming back to me now how Carmen could disappear in a hat shop and try on every single hat in the place. A tremendous bore for me, of course. In the other photo, Carmen is on the balcony of our apartment wearing the same blue pants with the white flowers and my sweatshirt. The sleeves are twice as long as her arms and make her look like a cute little clown. In this picture, she’s looking back at the camera with unguarded tenderness splashing out of her eyes and her friendly smile. There’s also a picture of me taken at the beach in Puerto Santa María. I had forgotten how I had let Carmen cut my hair to look like Bruce Willis. It made me feel very uncomfortable because it wasn’t me and I always resented her for having done it, although I would never have wanted to hurt her by telling her that. I felt ashamed of myself every time I looked in the mirror and never let her cut it again. Now, I wouldn’t consider it so important, or at least I think I wouldn’t. Maybe I would if someone pushed me.

One day, we seemed to never get very far from the apartment and made love over and over again all day. The last time, I think I was going for the record more than for passion. Another day at the beach, we found a secluded dip in the sand dunes, hidden by clumps of grass, and nervously made love on a blanket with one eye open for any passerby that might stroll too close. One night I drank too much brandy on top of what ever else I had poured into myself, which probably consisted of the usual suspects, beer, wine, Porto, and gin and tonics. I managed to stagger back to our apartment with dignity preserved and proceeded to install myself stoically at my allotted position, hovering over the toilet bowl. Carmen stroked my shoulder and wiped the vomit off my chin between the gut wrenching discharges.

We planned to make a trip to Sevilla. Carmen had told me it was the most beautiful city in Spain, but we never made it. We did go to Cádiz. We arrived in the afternoon and saw the port. After dinner of fried calamari, we walked through the dimly lit long and narrow streets of the old town to a movie theater. The streets were quiet and deserted but the movie house was crowded. We found empty seats in the last row and were enveloped by a cacophony of sound that didn’t diminish in the slightest when the house lights went out and the movie began. All through the movie, people talked loudly, made loud jokes, threw objects around, and laughed at the antics in the crowd as much as they enjoyed the proceedings on the screen. My sensibilities were seriously bruised. As far as I was concerned, this was boorish behavior at its zenith. Carmen sensed my outrage and endured the movie in silent shame. It was the way these simple people enjoyed the cinema, she explained. She felt this explanation was inadequate to appease me and said no more. After the movie, we had to walk back through those same long dark streets and my New York danger antennae were at full alert, but Carmen said the streets were safe. We were in Europe, after all.

Chapter 35

At the end of the month, despite the several horrific fights we’d had, Carmen declared our trial period a success. I was a bit surprised and dubious. I wouldn’t have classified the amount of arguing we did to be the successful beginning of a relationship, but Carmen seemed convinced and I was relieved by her easy interpretation. We hadn’t laid out a well-charted course for our next step after our trial stage and Carmen now took charge of affairs. Carmen wanted to go back to La Coruña and clean up the loose ends in her personal life. She intended to make a clean break with her boyfriend of many years and inform her parents to prepare the way for my entry into the landscape of La Coruña.

Before I thrust myself back into her life, Carmen had been about to finally give in and marry the same boyfriend she had been with when I first met her in New York. She had broken up and gotten back together with him several times over the years. Sometimes the decision had been hers and other times it had been his. She had tried to satisfy her unfulfilled longings with sexual flings on the side that left her ultimately feeling lonely. He, in turn, had infuriated her by sleeping with one of her best friends. I eventually met this other girl several times and, even though I was in the heat of being in love and not inclined to even look at other women, I couldn’t help but furtively glance at her voluptuousness. Given all the rocks in their road, Carmen had nevertheless finally agreed to marry him and he was building a duplex apartment for them overlooking the sea. Carmen would certainly not be looking forward to duplex apartments living with me.

While Carmen was taking care of business on the home front, she wanted me well out of the way and I was ordered to go anywhere I wanted and then come back to La Coruña after the dust had settled. I decided to spend the time by making a little journey to France and Germany. First, I would go to Paris to visit Monique. Carmen and I separated in Madrid. She continued northwest to Galicia and I planned to hitch hike through the Pyrenees at Andorra and on up to Paris. Somewhere north of Lleida, I got picked up by three Moroccan men in their 30’s, on their way in a beat up old car to work with a cousin in Paris. They looked a bit scruffy, but were very friendly and spoke French with accents as heavy as my own. They assured me they would take me all the way to Paris and I was delighted with my fantastic luck. However, at the border between Andorra and France, we were stopped and asked for visas. I wasn’t aware that France at that time was requiring visas for everyone entering the country. I now discovered that the Moroccans had known all along. The driver had a visa but the other two didn’t. They had been hoping to get through customs undetected. Permission to enter was denied for all four of us. I was told to go to the French embassy in Barcelona for a visa. We drove back to a café in Andorra and discussed our alternatives. After two coffees and five cigarettes, the Moroccans decided to wait till dark, when the two men without visas would walk across the border on a footpath while the driver went through customs and met them on the other side. They invited me to join them on their stroll and again reassured me that after getting past this brief obstacle, they would certainly give me a ride all the way to Paris. I didn’t like the idea of traveling all the way back to Barcelona and was tempted to take them up on the idea, but my discretion finally overcame my laziness and I bought a bus ticket for Barcelona.

I spent several days in Paris with Monique and her husband. Monique still treated me with great affection and obvious deference. Her husband didn’t seem to mind our close relationship and we all got along amicably. He was an engineer and rather quiet. He didn’t seem like the type I would have expected Monique to be with, but they seemed to coexist peacefully. As usual when I’m in Paris, I went to the Bois de Boulogne on Sunday and played soccer in one of the pick up games. The only other memory that sticks out through time from this sojourn is a photo that Monique took with her six-month-old daughter cradled against my shoulder. Her daughter would be a teenager by now and I’ve never seen her since.

Monique wanted me to stay with them in Paris, but I hitch hiked to Munich to look up another old friend, Udo. I had met Udo in Alaska on another one of my early wanderings. I lost contact with him several years ago when a pickpocket in northern Brazil relieved me of the burden of my money, passport and address book. He was someone that I didn’t want to lose track of and I hitched two days to get to Munich to look him up. I got a ride the first day by a couple from Strasbourg who invited me to stay with them that night. Late the next afternoon, I was in the center of Udo’s village outside Munich trying to get my bearings, and the first person that walked past on the street was Udo’s girl friend, Klaudia. She had stared at me in bewilderment for a moment before recognizing me.

I first met Udo some years ago in Alaska. Partly to see the world and partly to forget a girl that I hadn’t been very successful with, I hitch hiked around North America for about six months. I camped and hiked in the Canadian Rockies and worked at odd jobs, in various remote places like Beaverlodge, Alberta and Petersburg, Alaska, until finally racing in a last minute mad dash – taking turns driving from Albuquerque to New York in 39 hours – to reach my parents’ house in time for Christmas.

Most of this trip belongs to a different story, but I got to know Udo as we disembarked from the Inner Passage Ferry at Petersburg. He and Klaudia and I were the only ones left on the quay as the ferry pulled away and continued on its way to Seattle. I was broke and running low on food supplies and hoping to find a spot of work to keep me going. It was early October and the fishing and logging seasons were shutting down for the year. The constant cold rain of the Pacific Northwest coast winter had already begun.

Udo and Klaudia had begun trudging stoically into the little town with their heavy backpacks and a large cardboard box bulging with food. I struck up a conversation with Udo and learned that they had been kayaking all summer on the Noatak River in the Brooks Range. Udo didn’t strike me as overly outgoing at first, but his calm self-assured manner of describing his adventures intrigued me. He evidently didn’t feel the need to embellish his exploits with extra bravado. He reduced the descent through one roaring, life crushing set of rapids to a light chuckle, accompanied by “Oh, we had a bit of a hard time with that one.” Klaudia later filled me in on some of the more white-knuckled details.

I found a Salvation Army post in town and the man in charge said we could camp out on the floor for a few days, even though he was closing down for the year. After a couple of days of hanging around the docks in the rain and spending long hours drying off in the town library, a herring boat came in and I worked for two long nights unloading herring. My task was simple and not very intellectually challenging. I had to open up brand new cardboard boxes and place them on a conveyor belt so the next person in line could line them with a plastic bag. The boxes would move down the line to the chute where the fish tumbled and slid down from the boat and were packed into the boxes.

When the fish were all packed and the cannery was cleaned up, I was told that there would probably not be any more work until spring. I wasn’t concerned because I was one hundred dollars richer and could get on the next ferry and continue my journey to Seattle where I had a cousin. However there was a big hitch. I was richer but I didn’t actually have the money in my pocket. The cannery told me they would cut me a check one week from Friday. I could ask them to mail it to me in Seattle, but I was still two days ferry ride away and I had no food left. As an alternative, I could cash in my ferry ticket and have money to buy food while I waited in Petersburg for my check, but the man at the Salvation Army had told me that he was going to close and I would have to move into my tent in the cold rain.

As I mulled over my decision, I sat at a table in the Salvation Army center and ate my last two slices of bread topped with sugar from sugar packets I had taken at a café. There was a ferry tomorrow. In three days I would have my next meal after I found my cousin in Seattle. Udo came in from the rain and greeted me cheerfully. He lowered his massive body onto the bench next to me and threw back the hood from his rain jacket. Water dripped off him onto the table and the floor. The extra dampness didn’t disturb me. My boots had been wet for the last five days since my tent got flooded in the park in Juneau. Udo took out his pipe and watched me as he lit his pipe. He asked me why I was eating bread and sugar. I briefly told him my story of being arrested in Canada for working illegally and of how I now found myself with less money than I had anticipated. I explained my current predicament of trying to get to Seattle without waiting in the rain in Petersburg for my check. Udo puffed his pipe calmly as he listened to my story. After I finished, he slowly knocked the ashes out of his pipe and then pulled out his wallet. He fished out a $5 bill and handed it to me. “Maybe this will get you to Seattle.”

It did indeed get me to Seattle. I bought bread, peanut butter and jam and hopped on the next ferry. My food lasted easily through the trip and I arrived without mishap in Seattle. Well, the zipper on my only pair of pants broke open as I walked off the ferry and I only had 8 cents in my pocket so I couldn’t call my cousin and ended up walking in the rain for hours through the streets with my fly open. Finally, a drunken hippie picked me up in an old car and drove me around till we found the right address. “If we don’t find your cousin, we’ll just go to a bar and grab a few beers.” the guy had laughed. In any case, that fades into another story and the upshot with Udo was that many months later, when I was back in New York and working again, I sent a $5 check to him in Germany and we had stayed in touch ever since, even visiting each other while in transit on various trips. That is, until I was robbed in Brazil and lost my address book.

Now I had hitch hiked from Paris to Munich to reestablish contact with this old friend while I waited for Carmen to clear the way for my return to La Coruña. As I walked with Klaudia back to their house to see Udo, I remembered my first trip to Munich. I had visited Udo at the end of the summer after unsuccessfully trying to win back Carmen so many years before. Then, it had been late September and Udo had taken me on a short kayaking trip in the mountains in western Austria. When we returned to Munich, I spent a day helping him pick plums from the trees in his back yard. Late that afternoon, Udo lit his pipe, surveyed the baskets of plums we had collected and gave a satisfied nod. The corners of his eyes crinkled under his bushy blonde eyebrows in a boyish smile. “We did good work today so tonight we should have some fun.” Just by chance, I was visiting during Oktoberfest. Udo told me that ordinarily he wouldn’t go near such a tacky tourist rip-off event like Oktoberfest , but there was one thing there he really liked and he wanted to show it to me. He told me the name in German and it meant nothing to me, so he tried to describe it. The closest description he could manage was that it was like a little train that you sat in as it went around. I imagined the battery driven carriages that snaked slowly through fairgrounds like long golf carts and wondered why Udo’s adventurous spirit was attracted to such a lame activity. I wasn’t too thrilled about going to a tourist event, but I was willing to go along if Udo wanted.

Oktoberfest was held in an enormous fairground. The crowds of people were so thick that you had to constantly push your way through openings between oncoming revelers just like walking down 5th Avenue. All the usual carnival rides and entertainments were there and at least a dozen beer tents, each the size of a football field. Finally we turned a corner and Udo called out eagerly “There it is!” I looked past the strong man sledgehammer and saw at the end of the avenue past three long beer tents, the hugest roller coaster in the world. Udo was clapping me on the back and clucking like an excited rooster. I felt a dark dread and foreboding. I hate roller coasters!

Udo would not be denied. I attempted weakly to protest that I preferred to wait while he went on the blasted contraption by himself. Udo brushed this objection aside with a hearty laugh. He grabbed my shoulder and dragged me gleefully to the ticket booth. I really didn’t want to have anything to do with that roller coaster. I love adventure and exploration, but I hate the feeling of uncertainty that someone else is in control and I can’t do anything about it. For many people, this is a thrill. For me it is torment and angst. I don’t even like being in the back seat of a Volkswagen. Even though I can tell myself intellectually that the probability of risk is within epsilon of zero percent, I still don’t find anything pleasing in the sensation of a roller coaster ride. In fact, for me they are nothing more than unmitigated psychological torture and I had hitherto felt some comfort thinking that I would never again subject myself to such abuse.

All my dissent was in vain. Like a steer to the slaughterhouse, I was meekly lead by Udo to my seat and strapped in. The “little train” began to move and I shut my eyes. The roller coaster began with a long ascent up to a high peak, from which it plunged into the bowels of the earth at break neck speed, curled and veered, and did a complete vertical circle that held you in place by virtue of centrifugal force during the gruesome split second spent upside down. Udo chortled and bellowed with merriment. I squeezed my eyelids together and clamped my fingers around the metal bar at my waist. My fingernails almost scratched straight through the solid iron rod. When we hit the peak after the long slow climb, Udo yelled out encouragingly “Look Jack, you can see the Alps from here!” I did not doubt his words and presumed that one could, in fact, distinctly see the Alps if one were only to open one’s eyes. I did actually open my eyes once. We were plunging straight down to the ground at the speed of light to certain doom and destruction and I shut my eyes tight again for the rest of the duration. I blindly felt my stomach being thrown from side to side in my abdomen and listened to the screeches of joy and terror all around me. The horror finally abated and I tumbled weak-kneed out to safety, surrounded by delighted children of all ages. Udo pounded me on the back with exuberance. “Come on, Jack. Let’s do it again!” I shot a sharp glance at his grinning face and staggered off to the nearest beer tent for a liter of restorative pilsner. Udo would acquiesce momentarily, but not be refused permanently. Through the most intense cajoling my manhood has ever been subjected to, I was coerced to join him on six more vomit inspiring rides of sadism. The cumulative effect of these was to leave me in such a trembling state that only another dozen liters of beer could begin to remedy the damage. The result of this medication was that Udo got lost driving home and finally pulled over in a side street where we spent the rest of the night in alcoholic coma. Klaudia, was not at all pleased about him not coming back home and didn’t seem to buy his story of sleeping in the car. She marched angrily off to their bedroom in the middle of his explanation and slammed the door.

I finally received the all’s clear signal from Carmen and retraced my steps to Carmen’s waiting arms in La Coruña. As I recounted the events of my trip, I gushed passionately about Udo and his adventurous exploits. Carmen seemed puzzled by my enthusiasm for him. Getting lost on a solo hike across Greenland and being saved by Eskimo hunters, mountaineering in the Himalayas, getting attacked by a wild pig in the interior of Sardinia while surveying for his geology thesis, kayaking through the canyons of the Nahanni River in Northwest Territories, none of this seemed to impress Carmen in the least. “But what is he like?” she kept on asking. I thought the stories were illustrative enough of what he was like. I still hadn’t learned to appreciate the different perspective that Carmen used in her assessments of character. The things that were so important to me and that I shared with Udo were often meaningless to Carmen’s experience and priorities.

Chapter 36

I settled in somewhat uncertainly with Carmen in La Coruña. On one hand, I was more happy than I had ever been in my life to be living with the woman of my dreams, but I wasn’t in my element and this wore on me as time passed. I was accustomed to doing things in my own way in the socially fluid atmosphere of New York and not worrying about the opinions of others. This was not so easy in La Coruña. La Coruña was a small city in a far corner of Spain and not as cosmopolitan in attitudes as Madrid or Barcelona. Carmen also still had her family to deal with and, as modern and independent as Carmen was, she was an unmarried woman in a fast changing but still fairly traditional society. I found myself being instructed to put on a nice shirt and pants and forbidden to tell certain gossipy members of her family that I was actually living with her.

Carmen, for her part, was ostracized by her old group of friends. Most of her friends hung out in a group with her old boy friend and therefore contacted Carmen with less frequency as time went on. Carmen was left as an isolated outcast and she, like me, was forced to seek out new friends for our social life. Such was her reward in her old social circles for her great love for me.

Carmen sensed my restless need to ramble and see new sights and we took frequent day trips or weekends excursions to the far corners of Galicia. Carmen was proud of her region and she took great delight in driving me to all the special places she knew of. Since Carmen had been cut off from most of her old friends, we were left alone to pursue our explorations by ourselves without the disruptions of invitations for dinner, movies or vinos. We took sandwiches with us or ate at particular restaurants that Carmen wanted to show me. All the food in Spain was wonderful, but one of my favorite places was a tiny shop under the arched façade along the Avenida de la Marina facing the port in La Coruña. Carmen would buy us sandwiches of hot roast pork. They were nothing more than dripping tasty pork slabs on rolls of white bread. They were divine. At first, I thought it was blasphemous to make a sandwich without the trimmings of mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce and tomatoes, but I acclimated to the novel sandwich philosophy at the first bite.

In a series of outings, we explored the rocky Costa de los Muertos, the Coast of the Dead, until we had covered every kilometer from Ortigueira in eastern Galicia all the way to the lofty cliffs of Cabo Finisterra at the western most point of Spain. We drove winding, misty roads lined with phalanx after phalanx of slender eucalyptus trees that had been introduced and were now dominating much of the local forest. We passed farms with old people working in the fields and the traditionally shaped hórreos, or small granaries that perched on top of stone pillars to keep out the rodents. We probed craggy peninsulas and pulled into tiny fishing villages tucked away in hidden harbors. Carmen usually had a destination in mind that she wanted to share with me. In one town it was a little dingy restaurant behind the dock where the fishing boats came in. We had a fish stew that was the house specialty. After eating, I passed the bar on the way from the toilet and one of the fishermen nodded to me. I nodded back. We struck up a conversation and he ordered two glasses of the slightly acidic Galician white wine. When he heard I was from New York he squinted with astonishment.

“Joder! De Nueva York!” He prodded his friend who had been smoking a Ducados with his back to us. We chatted about fishing and the weather and I bought glasses of wine for the three of us. I explained to them that Carmen was my girlfriend and they turned and nodded politely to her at the table. Carmen smiled back. She seemed to be enjoying watching me enjoy myself and showed no signs of impatience at being left by herself at the table. After the second glass of wine I shook hands with the fishermen and excused myself to join Carmen. When we went out to the car in the afternoon sunshine, Carmen laughed.

“You’re just like my father, always talking to everybody in any place.”

Another trip, Carmen took me to a seaside village where the women wove lace. As we walked through the narrow streets, I was aware of a brisk and steady clicking noise all around me. Several old women were sitting in the sun by the stone wall above the harbor with their work. Strands of thread hung down and were wound around oblong wooden bobbins. Their hands flew in a rapid blur of flurried movement as they crossed the threads around the pins with the thread bobbins click clacking against each other with each maneuver. Carmen talked to one of the ancient ladies about her work while I looked on and feigned interest. The women were making handkerchiefs and scarves. The size and complexity of the pattern seemed to depend on the skill of the lace makers and their dexterity with the bobbins. Carmen bought a lace something or other for my mother and this is still buried somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam of my parents’ house.

Yet another day we visited a town that made ceramics designed in the traditional style of Galicia. Carmen again talked to the craftsmen while I fidgeted. She bought a set of plates that she always cherished. I have no idea what finally happened to these plates with their colors and patterns that eventually became familiar even to me. My keen aspiration to explore the human experience hadn’t yet expanded its horizons sufficiently to include lace and ceramic.

We also explored the mountainous region of the Sierra de Ancares along the border with Leon. This area had the highest mountains in Galicia, some with elevations of six thousand feet. We drove deep into the interior and went on several hikes along dirt logging roads and pathways through grassy pastures and spreading chestnut trees. Carmen turned out to be a strong hiker and we took long walks with no other comforts than sandwiches, apples, and a water bottle.

Parts of the Sierra de Ancares had been quite isolated until the very recent past. Several medieval villages of stone houses had only received electricity and paved roads in the mid 1980’s. These villages gave me a lost, mournful feeling. The original populations might have been several hundred inhabitants, but over the last twenty years so many of the younger people had left to look for work and an easier life with modern comforts that only a dozen elderly grandparents now remained, surrounded by empty, silent houses. A car sat incongruously parked besides a stone dwelling built a thousand years ago to house both the farm animals on the ground level and their owners upstairs. The body heat given off by the goats and cows used to rise through the floor to heat the human quarters. The alleys between the houses were large flat flagstones covered in most places by a layer of straw. Billions of flies droned lazily in the afternoon sun. In one village a woman invited us to share some stew she had made for lunch. We chatted for an hour with her and learned the history of the town. In the 1960s there had been 135 people living there and now there were only eight. They had received electricity last year and she pointed out the TV antenna that stuck grotesquely out from her roof next to the kitchen chimney. Up the street from her, an ancient woman in black widow’s garments was silently sitting in her doorway shelling peas. Carmen asked permission to take her photograph and she assented without smiling. Carmen framed that photo and I still remember the woman looking up at the camera with her gnarled expressionless features.

On a different trip we went to Gijón to visit a friend of Carmen. Chechu was gay and had been Carmen’s hairstylist in La Coruña until recently moving back to his home province of Asturias. Since most of Carmen’s friends had little contact with her, she was left with the various friends that she had made on her own, independent of her old group. I asked her on several occasions if she felt lonely or hurt since most of her friends had forsaken her, but her defiant and blasé response was to assure me that she wasn’t upset and even understood why her friends were now standing by her old boyfriend who now had nobody else to turn to for solace from his heartache and loneliness. It wasn’t until several years later that Carmen moaned plaintively to me in a moment of lonely frustration that she had written letters to all her friends in La Coruña but nobody had ever written back. It probably took several more years for the extent of her sadness to finally sink into to me. Perhaps at first I felt that she was better off without friends that would drop her so easily, but then I considered that such as they were, they were her friends.

I didn’t have much in common with Chechu, but he was polite, considerate, and soft spoken. He was extremely affectionate with Carmen and she soaked up the warmth like a dry sponge. Carmen had a propensity for erupting with fervent optimistic feelings in response to friendly gestures from others and she could quickly absorb herself in enthusiastic plans for the future with new friends. For my part, I searched for something in common to create some sort of bond with Chechu as a friend of Carmen’s. I felt that he did the same for me too, but it was not a natural mix. He was very discrete and not overtly effeminate, but rather gentlemanly in a quiet way. He was if anything perhaps a bit paternal towards us as a couple even though he was about our age. Carmen once commented that she wanted Chechu to be the godfather of our future children. This brought a quiet happy smile from Chechu and an unspoken pang of apprehension from me. Without harboring any hostile prejudice against Chechu for being gay, I was much more comfortable with the idea of Udo as the godfather of my children.

Chechu was certainly, if nothing else, the perfect host. For the whole weekend he acted the gracious guide and showed us the local sights. Saturday afternoon we strolled around the port and El Muro, the boardwalk above San Lorenzo Beach, and looked out over the Mar Cantábrico, along with the throng of ice cream eating families, couples, and groups of friends enjoying the warm sunshine. As we walked, Carmen asked Chechu inquisitively about his ex boyfriend. Carmen wanted to know all the recent updates in his story. Chechu answered her questions and finally turned to me and recounted his tale, interspersed with emphatic or explanatory annotations from Carmen.

Chechu had recently broken up with his lover in La Coruña and that was the event that had propelled him to move back to his hometown. He had been in love with a man named Diego and lived with him as a couple for the last two years. Chechu cared very deeply for Diego still and a muted melancholy tinted his easy smile. But Diego had been very unstable emotionally and completely imprudent financially. He frittered his way through Chechu’s bank account and finally was unfaithful to him with a waiter in a restaurant that Chechu had taken him to on his birthday. That had been the final straw. Chechu didn’t lose his temper with Diego but just calmly told him that this relationship wasn’t going to work and that he was leaving. Three days later he bought an apartment in Gijón and departed. I had just arrived on the scene in La Coruña about this time and met Chechu as he was packing his last belongings. Carmen had been distraught to be cut off from yet another friend. Chechu hugged her for a long time and told her that she should bring me to Gijón to visit him. And so, one month later, here we were.

In the late afternoon, we walked up a cobblestone street from the marina with the thousands of moored yachts and entered a crowded but cozy bar with rough wooden tables and chairs. The waiter came over and Chechu ordered Sidra. The regional beverage of Asturias was hard apple cider. The waiter returned with a bottle and pulled the cork. We had one glass for our table. The waiter held it tilted at waist level and poured a spout of clear Sidra out of the bottle held above his head. He poured about an ounce into the glass and handed it to Chechu. Chechu knocked it back in one gulp and gave the glass back to the waiter. I looked on in fascination as the waiter repeated his performance of pouring the bottle from the height of his ear into the glass held below his waist. The waiter gave the glass to Carmen and she too finished it with one swig. The waiter again poured out another shot of Sidra and it was my turn. The glass was about three inches tall and wide, but its walls were very thin delicate crystal. I gulped down my Sidra and returned the glass to the waiter. The waiter shoved the cork back in the bottle, set the bottle on the table and moved on to the next table. We continued chatting and ten minutes later the waiter returned and repeated the ritual of pouring shots of Sidra for each of us. Chechu ordered Cabrales, a local cheese, and bread to go with the Sidra. The waiter brought back a block of blue cheese on a wooden tablet. The combination of the sharp, salty cheese with the Sidra was sublime. I don’t remember how many hours we stayed in the bar or how many rounds of Sidra we went through, but I do recall vividly the resulting intestinal and cranial turmoil later that night. Between the fruit and the alcohol, my insides were assaulted savagely from both ends. Carmen administered her tender mercies like a hovering saint as I groaned in Chechu’s bathroom. Chechu himself lay passed out on the sofa and Carmen and I ultimately retired to his bed when I finally was able to safely extirpate myself from the confines of the toilet.

The following weekend, Carmen decided to give me a special treat. Carmen knew how much I loved the outdoors and camping and, with not a little fan fare, she borrowed a tent and took me to the nature reserve on the Islas Cies. We drove to Vigo on the western coast and took a ferry to the main island. The boat was crowded with families and when we docked everyone trooped together along a dirt road to a bustling campground. Campsites were packed together tightly and hordes of kids ran around laughing and yelling between the tents. Carmen pitched our small two-person tent in a tiny space sandwiched tightly between two large family sized tents. Our neighbors were drinking wine and talking loudly while frying potatoes on a gas stove. They had a large framed mirror leaning against a tree next to their tent. The family beyond them had both a television and a radio playing at the same time. The local version of camping differed tremendously from mine and I felt a mounting abhorrence percolating through my nervous system.

I needed to escape the hubbub of the ant nest campground. Carmen and I walked to the high rocky hills on the other end of the narrow island. Once we got past the boat landing, we didn’t see another person or hear a sound except for the wind and the cries of the sea birds. Carmen sensed that the raucous atmosphere of the campground displeased me and she was somewhat subdued. The trail was littered with ice cream wrappers, potato chip bags, and beer cans. My face was taut and I knew that Carmen was aware of my dissatisfaction. I tried to overcome my disdain and say something to cheer Carmen up and show her that I was enjoying myself, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Waves of anger at the ignorant peasants that indiscriminately jettisoned their rubbish into this natural paradise flowed through me and I found myself unjustly venting my frustration at Carmen for having brought me here. When we arrived at the high point, we looked out over the cliff face to the ocean. Carmen carried her camera slung around her neck and had eagerly looked forward to taking photos of the sea birds and their colony among the high rocks. I peered over the edge of the rock face and looked down. At the bottom of the cliff was a huge mound of garbage. I unleashed a contemptuous “Fucking pigs!” Carmen looked over the edge and she suddenly sucked in her breath as if she had been punched in the solar plexus. I raged silently at the despoiled scenery. Carmen’s face went white and her mouth was set in a firm thin line. Through my anger, I sensed Carmen’s mortification, but I was far too upset to do anything to comfort her. We walked back along the trail without touching each other or speaking. Carmen had a crushed look on her face. I wished I could suck back in that harsh judgmental comment and make Carmen laugh, but I was too agitated to open my mouth. My foul humor lasted all night and into the next afternoon when we drove back quietly to La Coruña.

Chapter 37

My first month in La Coruña was a leisurely exploration of the town and the Spanish language. I developed a pleasant morning routine of reading the newspapers, either El País or La Voz de Galicia, in a bar over café con leche. On other days I borrowed Carmen’s bicycle and, even though it was comically undersized for me, pedaled through all the side streets and alleys in town until within a few weeks I knew my way around La Coruña as well as any of the inhabitants. One day I discovered a pick up basketball game in a schoolyard and became a regular in the afternoon games with the young bucks of the neighborhood. They had recently begun broadcasting American basketball games on TV in Europe and I found that my new comrades were more au courant about the new stars than I was. They pumped me avidly with questions about the “Peestones” and the “Neeks” that I wasn’t able to adequately answer. I chuckled to myself at the irony that I wanted to learn about the local soccer teams and yet found myself wracking my brains to remember the sports page headlines from the previous NBA season back in New York.

I frequently met Juan Sr. at the bar at one o’clock in the afternoon for vinos, especially on days when Carmen was working. Juan Sr. worked until one in a laboratory and then made a beeline for the bars near his house. On most days I could find him at a corner bar on the Avenida de Navarra near his street. From outside I could see his diminutive but rigidly straight-backed form in front of the counter with one arm gesturing and trailing a cigarette. I could also hear his guttural voice rising above the voices of the other men he was arguing with.

“Joder! Coño! But didn’t I already tell you….That happened in the reign of Carlos Quinta. Si, Señor!”

Juan Sr. was standing straight as a miniature Torre de Hércules with his right arm out and bent at a right angle in front of his chest. He rhythmically punctuated his discourse by pumping his hand in short sharp downward strokes with his fingertips pressed against his thumb. He saw me come in and his bellicose scowl transformed into a wide smile.

“Hombre! Que hay?” He clapped me on the back and turned brusquely away from his adversaries. “Estos no tienen ni puta idea! These idiots don’t have clue.” he growled under his breath. The other two men flicked their hands up and turned away to their wine glasses at the other end of the short bar. “Pablo. Give us two Marques de Riscal.”

Juan Sr. bought us a round of tintos. He lit a cigarette and was looking over at the other two men as if monitoring their conversation. I remembered the bars he used to frequent during my previous visits to La Coruña. He haunted the same two establishments every afternoon and evening. As I recalled, they were like courtyards of his castle and the patrons were his pals. Since my return however, I had never seen him in either of these places. Juan Sr. was listening intently to the discussion at the other end of the bar between the two men and the bartender. His jaw and neck were taut and he looked like a fighting cock about to plunge into the fray with a fury of sharp ripping talons. I tapped him on the arm to get his attention and asked him why he never went into the other bars that he used to like so much. He stared at me for a moment trying to penetrate through the obstacles of my primitive Spanish. He finally deciphered what I was talking about and ejaculated a sharp “Bah! Those hijos de putas!” He threw up a dismissive hand that abruptly closed the topic and walked over to join in the general discussion. I sipped my wine and watched the commotion. A minute later, I caught Juan Sr. saying the phrase “Like the poet said….” then the word “cojones” for balls, and then continuing on until all the men burst into laughter, while Juan Sr. dramatically concentrated on lighting another cigarette. The two men bought us a round of tintos and five minutes plus another cigarette later I returned the favor with a round of tinto for us all. Juan Sr. put his arm around the shoulder of one of the men and burst into a melody in a thin wavery voice. The other man stepped forward facing Juan Sr. and joined in, singing in a strong voice with one arm held out theatrically. Two more songs later it was a quarter to three and the bar was closing for the midday mealtime. I went with Juan Sr. to his house and ate with him and Rosa and Carmen who joined us after getting out of work at the hospital.

I had difficulties adjusting to the big meal at 3 PM and the deserted silent streets at this hour of the day. I often got the urge to go buy something without looking at the clock and then would feel a spasm of frustration when I got down to the empty streets and realized I had to wait until 4:30 for the shops to reopen. Even the concept that everyone in the country would perform the same activity at the same time of day on a routine basis went against my free wheeling grain.

I got along well with Juan Sr. He seemed fond of me and appeared to enjoy my company. His hobby was sailing. He often took me into a back room of his apartment that he used for his study to show me drawings of ships or other nautical artifacts. One afternoon he greeted me impatiently in the street in front of his house. “Vamos, Jack!” He lit a cigarette and stumped off down the street. I followed after and Juan Sr. explained. A replica of the Niña, one of Christopher Columbus’s ships, was in port. It was on display for several days in preparation for the upcoming quintcentennial celebration of the first voyage of Columbus.

The ship was moored at the harbor in front of the arched doorways of the Avenida de la Marina. A small crowd of spectators milled about the dock and several soldiers stood guard, looking vacant and bored. Juan Sr.’s eager gaze took in the breadth and width of the boat. He stood with his back rigidly upright and pointed out the various aspects of rigging and the construction proportions of the keel that defined the vessels sailing ability. I didn’t know much about sailing, but Juan Sr. explained enthusiastically and in great detail. “Fijate, Jack!” He tugged quickly at my sleeve and pointed with his cigarette clutched between two fingers. I leaned over to put my ear closer in an effort to follow Juan Sr.’s fast Spanish. Juan Sr. looked out at the boat as he spoke. I tried to follow his gaze and his pointed gestures to appreciate what he was telling me. Juan Sr. ambled off to get a different viewpoint and I followed three steps behind him until he stopped to show me something else that had caught his eye.

We inspected the ship for an hour and then ducked into a bar facing the waterfront. We had a glass of wine and Juan Sr. stared at the wall behind the counter in silence. He frowned as if deep in thought and suddenly tapped me on the arm. “I want you to name your first son Juan, after me. It’s a tradition in our family that the first born son is always named Juan.” I froze on the inside but smiled back at Juan Sr. It had never occurred to me before that my children might have Spanish names. The idea was a bit of a shock and I realized that I felt a subconscious cultural prejudice. Without ever thinking about it, I had assumed that my children would have English names. I wanted to make Juan Sr. happy and I replied that I would do as he wished. Juan Sr. looked content and almost relieved and turned back to his wine and his contemplation of the wall behind the bar. I felt somewhat uneasy about the commitment I had just made. Carmen and I had already fantasized about the names we would give our future children and I had already set my heart on these names.

Another of Juan Sr.’s passions was studying English. He had been taking English lessons for six years and was very proud to tell his friends and family members that he could speak English. Whenever the occasion arose in the bar to hear a soccer star interviewed on TV or to read a newspaper article or even a matchbox advertisement in English, Juan Sr. would rise to the occasion with a flourish and take center stage with a dramatic translation. And woe betide any bystander imprudent enough to take issue with Juan Sr.’s version of the queen’s English. Juan Sr. would draw himself up to his full diminutive height and draw on his personal linguistic authority to completely browbeat his opponent into submission. “When I was in New York…” he would begin, wagging his finger challengingly in the face of his antagonist. With the full weight of his two week sojourn to visit his son the year before I met Carmen, his knowledge of the English language stood uncontested in any bar from the Torre de Hércules to the Plaza de María Pita.

Juan Sr. went to class and did his homework diligently and worked with the other students to help them with their studies. The fact that he was forty years older than most of the other students didn’t seem to deter his enthusiasm or diminish his energy in the slightest. He would get phone calls at home, from classmates younger than me, inquiring about puzzling points of grammar. I would listen to him looking up his references and quoting them authoritatively and emphatically.

“Si, señor! The infinitive of the verb…and the past participle …it says right here on page 157…No. That’s the subjunctive. The subjunctive is used only under the following conditions. Let’s see. Joder! Where’s that definition. Yes! That’s right. On page 94 and I quote. “The Subjunctive form…” Bah! Que idiotas! Who wrote this shit! Anyway, the problem in question number 7 is about the past participle. Understand? Entendiste? Bueno, hasta mañana.”

Unfortunately, for all his zeal, he had great difficulties with English pronunciation, so much so that I usually found it easier to understand him in his full paced Spanish than his halting English. He was not shy about trying, for which I gave him great credit, but his tongue didn’t have a natural faculty for mouthing English sounds. He seemed to get frustrated if I couldn’t understand his attempts in English so I made an effort to understand him. Sometimes I just smiled and tried to at least give the appearance of understanding and hoped he hadn’t said anything important. Occasionally I found him waiting for an answer and had to scramble quick to cover myself.

I had brought a video camera to Spain and one day I accompanied Juan Sr. around the historic part of town, filming his narrated guided tour. We came to a house with double paneled doors. The top panel was ajar and we could see into the entrance hall. “You see? The old doors were like this with two panels.” Juan Sr. pointed out to me. I scanned the camera over the stone walls covered with plaster. A wrought iron street lamp hung from the wall by the corner of the old building. A window balcony on the second floor was lined with an intricately curved wrought iron railing.

“Ven aqui.” I heard Juan Sr.’s voice beckoning and went to follow him to the next point of interest. I apparently forgot to switch off the camera because the next minute of bouncing footage showed our feet walking along the pavement annotated by garbled bits of mundane dialogue, sometimes in incoherent Spanish on my part, and loud bursts of engine noise as a motorbike sped past us in the narrow street.

We stopped at the Casa de las Tomassinas, a square house several stories tall with iron trellises lining the window balconies. “It’s a very old and beautiful house. I don’t know how old it is but it is beautiful. It’s owned by the widow of Franco”


“Yes, Franco was a Gallego. He was born in Ferol.” Juan Sr. made a grimace of disgust and moved on to the little park in front of an old church. “This is the Iglesia de Santa María. You can see it’s Romanesque. It was built in the 12th Century.” Juan Sr. gazed admiringly at the stone church. “Do you want to go in? Do you have enough light for your camera? See, over there in front. That girl is painting the church. That way she immortalizes it. Y la chica es lo mas guapa, eh? And the girl is gorgeous, isn’t she.”

I followed Juan Sr. as he strolled into the dim church and down the aisles between the pews with his hands clasped behind his back respectfully. I chuckled to myself to observe his marked deference to this place of religious worship. Like me, Juan Sr. was an atheist and believed, as Karl Marx quoted, that religion was the opiate of the masses, invented by ancient ignorant men and still followed unquestioningly today by the sheep of the world. But art is another matter entirely. There was no doubting the magnificence of the old church. Juan Sr. tugged at my sleeve. “Jack, mira.” He led me to one side and pointed up down the rows of columns. “Look. The columns are crooked.” Indeed they were. They were tilted slightly from the vertical angle of the walls.

We continued our tour and Juan Sr. stopped in one street and pointed to a house that was covered with construction scaffolding. A short matronly woman ambled out of the building next to it and crossed the street near Juan Sr. “Hola.” Juan Sr. greeted her. “Buenos tardes.” The woman answered. “We lived here for many years when I was young.” Juan Sr. told her. The woman turned and looked back at the building next to hers with her hands on her hips and her stout bosom thrusting out as she gazed up. Juan Sr. leaned against the corner of a building with his hands still clasped behind his back when he wasn’t using them to point out something or gesticulate while he talked. “Do I know you? My father used to be a medic at the hospital. No? Ah…Oh, you see there? That window! During the Civil War a bullet hit the building over there.” Juan Sr. still leaned against the wall but pointed with his finger across the street. “They fired a pistol and the bullet went into the window frame of that window over there. Right on the first floor. The bullet was buried into the window frame and we dug it out later with a knife.” Juan Sr. moved away from the wall and approached the woman to point out where the bullet had hit and show her the size of the bullet hole. “I was just a kid and I was standing right over there watching on that day.” The woman stood with her stocky stance looking back at the building and nodding her head to Juan Sr.’s story.

A few minutes later Juan Sr. steered us into a small park around the corner. Walkways of small round fitted stones separated tiny garden plots of palm trees, azaleas, and trimmed hedges. “In this park they used to sell churros on the sidewalk.” A delighted smile sprung to Juan Sr.’s face as he reminisced about the long fried dough pastries. “The most delicious churros you ever tasted. I used to sit on a bench over here and eat them. A painter used to come and paint with acrylics. His name was Concho… Conchado… Concheru…. They said he was crazy. But I liked sitting with him because he always gave me paper and acrylics and let me paint.” Juan Sr. almost giggled with delight and his face split open in a wide grin at this ancient memory from his childhood. “Yes, over here was where I used to sit.” Juan Sr. pointed to a stone bench under a palm tree. An old man with sun glasses sitting on another stone bench silently watched as Juan Sr. showed me the landmarks of his story.

We walked along a high stone wall and turned a narrow corner. “Here is the Plazuela de Santa Bárbara.” explained Juan Sr. A little square opened up with two rows of acacia trees shading the golf ball sized paving stones. A stone cross was mounted on three stepping stones in the middle of the plaza. The long stone wall ran along one end of the square. The plaster had deteriorated in places, exposing the brick beneath. An arched wooden door stood open in the middle of it and a carved stone frieze of the Final Judgment, well worn with time, adorned the wall above the door. Old two story houses with shuttered or iron trellis covered windows faced the square on the other sides. I was delighted with this tiny oasis of tranquility. Juan Sr. strolled in front of me with his hands clasped behind his back. “That’s the Convent of the Bárbaras.” he said quietly, pointing to the stone wall. “Here in this plaza, they played concerts in the evenings, mostly choral. Many people would come and the plaza would be filled.” He paused and drifted back in some ancient cherished memory with a look of contented reverence on his leathery face.

We went around another corner and through a little park with walkways lined with trimmed hedges. Juan Sr. pointed across the street. “That’s the Iglesia de Santo Domingo. It was built later. In the 18th Century, I think. It’s Baroque. Look at the tower on top. Do you see how it’s tilted to one side?” Juan Sr. chuckled. “It was an error in construction.” He shrugged and moved on.

“Ven. Come on. We’ll go to the Jardín de San Carlos.” We walked down an alley and then through an arched passageway that passed under a rambling eighteenth century building. The passageway ended with a tall wrought iron gate that opened onto a large garden. A large dog meandered in front of us along the stone pathway. “Here is buried Sir John Moore.” Explained Juan Sr. “He was killed during the Battle of Elviña against Napoleon on January 16, 1809, when the English evacuated Spain.” Juan Sr. looked down pensively at the stone coffin surrounded by bayonet blades set upright in a row along the top of the wall of the tomb. I began filming the old library that we had entered through when I suddenly heard Juan Sr.’s banter behind me. I turned and found him engaged in a discussion with two old men seated quietly on a wooden bench under the spreading branches of a tree. Juan Sr. was hovering over them and gesticulating excitedly while the two old men slouched back and looked up at him calmly.

“I remember they used to play music here at night and we would come to dance.” The old men nodded their heads in acquiescence of the memory. Juan Sr. demonstrated a dance step with his arms held out to an imaginary partner. “One night that famous band, what was their name?…. Las…” Juan Sr. muttered several variations on a theme until one of the men suggested the name of a band and Juan Sr. shot his arm out and snapped his fingers. “Si, si, señor! That’s it! I remember them because I was standing right there under that tree over there.” He whirled around and pointed and the two men followed his gesture. “Ah, it was beautiful music. We had such a good time in those days. Oye Jack, let me introduce you to two old revolutionaries. These two guys were fighting in the trenches in La Guerra.” I said hello and the two old men smiled back up at me tranquilly.

We said farewell and walked off down the pathway. “The guy with the moustache was a real hijo de puta.” Juan Sr. said quietly to me when we were out of earshot. “He was a Franquista, a supporter of Franco. He did some things during La Guerra….” Juan Sr. didn’t finish his sentence but let it trail off into a whistle while he snapped his wrist twice emphatically.

“Really?” I inquired fascinated. “And nothing ever happened to him?”

Juan Sr. shook his head. “That’s the way things were.” He paused for a moment to reflect. Then he erupted fervently. “Bah, Coño! What can you do? That was a long time ago.” He shrugged and moved on towards a plaque that described the battle in three languages: Spanish, Gallego, and English.

Carmen’s mother Rosa, on the other hand, was not entirely on my side from the first. I was acceptable as an amusing and colorful, almost too colorful, friend of her son, but as a son-in-law, I was certainly not what she wanted for her daughter. Carmen’s ex boyfriend definitely was. He had an established career as a respectable engineer with an affluent salary, and he undeniably lacked the wild, unpredictable and incomprehensible streak that she observed in me. Rosa was always polite to me and superficially friendly, but there was never anything more than a tacit grudging acceptance on her part towards me. The only compliment I ever remember coming from her was Carmen telling me once that her mother had said I had nice teeth. Whenever I came to the house, Rosa greeted with a cheerful “Hola Jack. Do you want a coffee?” if Juan Sr. and I came back from the bars a bit drunk, she would shake her head with a disapproving cluck and pronounce “What a pair of bums!” Otherwise my relationship with Rosa never developed much further. She made no inquiries into my past life in New York or my interest in theater. She inquired after the health of my parents when I received letters from them, but our conversations didn’t go further. For my part I was also polite and eager to be friendly, but I was unable to discover any common ground for conversation. Rosa was from a small town in southern Galicia. She had met Juan Sr. at a dance when he was stationed there in the army as a young man. Her family had been respectable but modest and she had grown up with the ideal that a woman’s role was to keep the house and be in charge of the home economics. This duty she discharged with efficiency and dignity. Every morning she went off to the mercado, the central market place. Like every town in Spain, La Coruña had a market for fresh produce in a long building full of stalls of vegetables, fruit, fish, cheese and meat. I had gone to the mercado with Carmen several times. It was colorful and pungent and raucous. Shoppers pushed their way through the crowded aisles. Venders competed with their neighbors in calling out their wares. The sharp aromas of fish and cheese permeated the air. Rosa prided herself in always bringing home the best bargains of the day.

My own mother was an academic like my father and was accustomed to devote more of her energy and passion to her research on the migratory patterns of birds than to the cataloguing of her culinary accoutrements. Dinners in our family had always been delicious but somewhat haphazard in schedule and format. The discussions around the dinner table were lively and usually about politics or literature, and of course, bird sightings.

Chapter 38

I passed most of my time in La Coruña in a cloud of romantic and sensual bliss, tinted at the edges sometimes by a fuzzy confusion about why I was doing things. The novelty of living in a new place with strange customs and routines was exciting in a way, even if I found it stifling. Intermingled in our leisurely lulls of passion and contentment were occasional spats of fierce interpersonal combat. Since Carmen and I were both very determined and willful individuals, these conflicts grew to unnecessarily exaggerated proportions of enmity and caused far more damage than they should have been permitted to. Our battles sometimes took on the appearance of two great blocks of granite smashing against each other with neither side ceding a millimeter.

Carmen was temperamentally explosive and my obduracy in clinging to my philosophical and artistic beliefs, regardless of the resulting turmoil, provided an ample supply of detonating sparks for her volatile tinder. I had worked hard during a painful adolescent process to formulate the set of values that defined my brave new world and I was unwilling to dilute them in the name of romance. The first offensive object to appall my sensibilities was an expensive looking green marble cigarette lighter that occupied center stage on the coffee table. I picked it up one day and scrutinized it with distaste. The damn thing wasn’t art. It was just a typical bourgeois coffee-table gift and I despised it and everything it represented. No prisoners! No compromises! I compared it mentally to the dusty unframed oil canvasses painted by various friends that adorned walls or leaned indolent and neglected against crowded bookshelves in my New York apartment. That at least was supporting real artists and not some phony hand-rubbing dealer with a pompous ponytail.

Carmen brushed past me to open the window as the Galician rain had stopped and the sun was momentarily shining. “Do you like that, Jack?”

I wrinkled my face as if I had licked a drainpipe. “It’s horrible.” I groaned.

Carmen wheeled around with an expression like a wasp had stung her. She quickly grabbed the lighter out of my hands and placed it abruptly back on the coffee table. “Que imbécil.” she snorted and stepped indignantly towards the door.

“Why don’t we throw it out the window?” I was half teasing her maliciously and half venting my frustration.

Carmen spun around sharply. “Idiota! That was a gift from my old boyfriend. It has sentimental value for me because he gave it to me. Even though I’m in love with you, I still like it and I want to keep it. You aren’t being sensitive!”

“Sensitive? About what? About phony bourgeois pseudo art?” Now it was my turn to snort with indignation. “Es una mierda. It’s shit.”

Carmen left the room without saying another word. I picked up a book about small particle physics that I was laboring through and simmered in my convictions about the glory of the human struggle to rise above mediocrity and ignorance. Carmen simmered in a stew of her own and refused to speak to me for the rest of the afternoon until I guiltily went off for a stroll and returned from the old town with a decorative trinket that put a happy smile on Carmen’s face and a faint moistness in her eyes, but which has long since perished in a pile of shattered fragments when Carmen threw it past my ear and smashed it against the wall during a subsequent difference of opinion over a forgotten topic.

Another unpardonable offense against the human spirit was Carmen’s Rick Astley cassette. Every time she put it on, I would stop whatever I was doing and bolt out of the apartment and refuse to come back in until the pollutant had been flushed from the airwaves. It was insufferable commercial pop music garbage, not art. I couldn’t tolerate it in the house. It was bad enough to be subjected to it in discotheques, but all the music in discos was crap anyway. One day Carmen and I were engaging in an absurd and meaningless skirmish over whose fault something or other was. Carmen knew that it had been my fault because she distinctly remembered telling me so and so on Thursday morning before going to work and therefore in the afternoon I had obviously committed the error in question. I, for my defense, was attempting to get it through her cement cranium that yes, she had in fact uttered those exact words on Thursday morning before going to work, but that had nothing to do at all with the sequence of events later that afternoon. I hammered my point home with relentless pursuit and clinically pure logic. Only the most pathetically mental deficient could possibly consider countering the argument that I was so efficiently putting forth. Carmen listened for several minutes with her face set in flushed determination. Finally, while I was still in mid sentence, she got up, went over to the stereo and put the Rick Astley tape on full blast. Then she turned around and stared at me with her arms folded. I glared back at her and stalked out of the apartment.

Looking back through the soft distance of time, I realize that I have tempered some of the carnage that we wreaked on each other during our sporadic flare-ups and lent them a more affectionate and almost vaudevillian comic tone in my reporting. While not altogether unwarranted, this doesn’t quite do justice to the occasional excesses of our clashes. Carmen, when roused in anger, could instantaneously metamorphose into the aggressive and stubborn fury of a cornered wolverine. Indeed, I can easily claim that, while the happiest moments of my life occurred enclosed in Carmen’s tender arms, I can also state with academic clarity that the most malicious assaults I have ever endured were inflicted on my person by that same angel of mercy. At the edges of the bright sunny horizon of our life together, dark clouds were beginning to form.

Chapter 39

We met some of Carmen’s old friends at a trendy new bar near the Playa del Orzan. The bar was named the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a shimmer of glass, zinc, and neon. A flashing neon bridge arced across the mirrored wall behind the bar. The slick haired owner greeted us with fanfare that struck me as being strictly commercial. When I was introduced as an American, he clapped me on the back with a big smile and pointed at the neon bridge. He beamed at Carmen’s friends as they complimented him on how wonderful the bar was and then he moved on.

We ordered a round of gin and tonics and stood in a tightly packed group, ebbing with the crush of the crowd. Dance music pulsed loudly and I could barely follow the conversation. Carmen and her friends talked amongst themselves with animation and I sucked my gin and tonic through my plastic straw. One of Carmen’s friends, Margarita, finally spoke to me. I pointed to my ear and asked her to repeat. She leaned closer and I finally understood “So Jack, what do you eat in America, hamburgers?”

A wave of vexation flashed through me. I was fed up with this question and the automatic assumption that nobody in the United States ever ate anything besides hamburgers. I thought of the roasts, casseroles, stews, pastas, and curries I had been nurtured on and was appalled to think that the American palette was reduced to a strict regimen of hamburgers in the popular international opinion. I tried to explain the beef, the steaks, the pork, the chicken, the fresh vegetables, the salads… My description was evidently not very convincing and I quickly lost my audience. Margarita began following the conversation next to her and jumped in with her elegant sun tanned shoulder facing me.

The conversation flowed around me without touching me again and I sank back into the pounding of the beat, accompanied by the plastic straw in my gin and tonic. I sucked the ice for a few minutes and finally offered to go order another round. I received smiles all around when I brought the drinks back and then I settled into the background while the conversation resumed.

My eyes passed over the twinkling neon atmosphere and the faces of the young, well groomed crowd. My mind wandered back in time to an equivalent frustration with international perception. That time I was in Germany, on a visit to Udo after my disastrous first trip to Spain and Carmen. President Reagan and the Republicans had been in office at the time and I myself was not an admirer of American politics. I found my reception as an American individual to be friendly, but I was constantly brought to task to explain the cold war politics of Reagan and the conservatives on the American political spectrum. Over bottles of wheat beer and hand rolled tobacco cigarettes, I was mercilessly grilled by an unsmiling inquisition one evening.

“Remember. It is here in Germany that will be the front line if war with the Soviet Union breaks out.” I was reminded with serious looks and supercilious nods.

“That’s why we sometimes say ‘Better red than dead.’” Udo laughed. The expressions around the table remained sincere while Udo’s bulky frame shook with mirth.

“How is it possible that you Americans voted for Reagan? He will destroy the world. And we will be the first. The Russian tanks and missiles are all aimed at Germany.”

I endeavored to explain that not all Americans were right wing conservatives or Republicans and that there was certainly a significant minority that didn’t approve of either Reagan’s foreign or domestic policies. The image of my father pounding the table during one of his frequent dinner time harangues against “those damned idiot Republicans” would certainly have been a comforting sight to Udo’s friends. As the platoon of empty beer bottles gradually grew to a regiment and the ashtray filled up to the rim, I finally grew weary of the anti Reagan discussion and an amusing idea came to my mind.

“You know,” I announced and acquired center stage with all the sincere Teutonic faces focused on me. “You Europeans have a lot to thank Reagan for and you don’t even know it.” I paused. There was complete silence at the table as my audience waited in anticipation to hear what I could possibly suggest that they had to thank Reagan for. “Without President Reagan, what would you have to talk about all night?” I grinned. The faces looking back at me were expressionless. A long moment passed and one guy with round wire rimmed glasses finally responded.

“Yes, that is clear.” He said methodically. “But I still do not see how Americans can be so right wing as to elect Reagan as president.” At this point I gave up. The general discussion resumed, roundly condemning American political naïveté. As I glanced around the faces I noticed a twinkle in Udo’s eye.

The memory made me chuckle. I suddenly snapped out of my reverie and realized that Carmen and her friends were all looking at me with puzzled looks. “What are you laughing at, Jack?” Carmen asked. Again, a ring of expectant faces was surrounding me.

“Oh nothing.” I replied and sucked nonchalantly on my gin and tonic straw. Carmen shrugged and turned back to her conversation with a guy with mousse spiked hair and alligator polo shirt.

Chapter 40

Carmen and I were enjoying coffee and the late afternoon sun at a table outside a café under the arched façade along the Avenida de la Marina. A guy in his mid twenties with short blond hair, running shoes, khaki shorts, and a tee shirt came walking briskly up the sidewalk with a daypack slung over one shoulder. His tee shirt was emblazoned with “Hard Rock Café Madrid”. My eyes followed him for a few paces and then I looked over at Carmen. “American.” She said. I nodded and grinned. I looked back at the guy and he looked up and caught my eye. It was still too early for the streets to be filled with the evening strollers and there were few other customers seated at the cafes lining the Avenida de la Marina. The guy changed his course and walked straight over to me. He looked at me, nodded to Carmen, and addressed me in atrocious high school Spanish. “Donde está La Plaza de María Pita?”

I smugly responded in Spanish in what I was proud to think was almost a passable Galician accent. The American tourist squirmed uncomfortably in his attempt to comprehend. I began feeling sympathetic for him and asked him in Spanish where he was from.

“Estados Unidos.” He answered unassumingly.

“Whereabouts?” I gave in and decided to let the poor schmuck off the hook and show my hand. Besides, what did I gain as a human being by showing off my superior knowledge of the local language and culture over a newcomer?

“California. Los Angeles. How about you?” The tourist smiled and looked obviously relieved to meet someone who spoke English. My sympathy evaporated. I am a New Yorker after all and I never want to set foot in Los Angeles.

“I’m from New York.” I said wearily. I was ready for this American tourist and his Hard Rock Café tee shirt to hit the road. The tourist beamed sweetly and guilelessly at me and gushed with unbridled enthusiasm. “Cool!” My hard, crusty prejudice softened and I asked him to join us for a drink in what seemed to me to be the local custom of hospitality.

The tourist accepted gratefully and pulled up a chair. I introduced him to Carmen and asked the waiter for three Estrellas de Galicia, the regional beer. I translated the difficult passages in the conversation and tried not to grind my teeth over the tourist’s terrible Spanish for the rest. Carmen chatted comfortably with him and I exulted in the tourist’s obvious deference to me as a seasoned local and to Carmen as a slightly older but beautiful and charming woman. The first beer lead to an enthusiastic second and my wit in both English and Spanish was creating a happy shine over our table. My intrinsic love of travel and my curiosity about new places took over and I realized that I was enjoying the tourist’s company in spite of myself. The second round of beers disappeared and we were in full flush of contentment. The waiter came back and looked at us expectantly.

“Uno mas?” I asked keenly. Carmen shrugged her assent.

The tourist fidgeted for a moment. “I don’t know. I already had two beers.” He knit his brows and calculated his options. I began losing interest at his obvious reticence. “Well…” He glanced at his watch and looked almost anguished over this momentous decision. “I guess one more wouldn’t hurt.”

Our conversation continued in a lively tone about the places we had been to and seen. Carmen gave the insider’s scoop about Spain and Galicia to compliment the guidebook phrases flowing out of our companion. By the end of the third beer, our vivaciousness began to diminish. We finally exhausted our easy convenient points in common and our conversation began sputtering in occasional interludes of silence, during which we all gazed out at the sun setting over the harbor. We got the bill and Carmen and I insisted on paying for everything. The tourist was so flabbergasted at such extravagant generosity that I almost lost my patience and turned sour on my fellow compatriots. We exchanged contact information on scribbled napkins and parted with effusive declarations of good will.

“You guys are a really cool couple. It was nice to meet you.”

I clapped him on the back. “Hasta luego and good luck!” Carmen kissed him on both cheeks and he went off along the Avenida de la Marina glowing. Carmen and I walked quietly hand in hand to her little yellow Renault 5 and drove up the hill towards home. I sat comfortably in the passenger’s seat and felt relieved to be alone in the familiar company of Carmen again.

Chapter 41

Carmen took me for a special culinary treat the next afternoon. One of the rarest and most expensive delicacies in Spain is a barnacle like crustacean called percebes. They grow on the rocks in the tidal waters all along the Atlantic coast as far as Morocco, but the best and largest are from Galicia. Divers scrape the percebes off the rocks in the surf. It is a dangerous and difficult job and that is what makes percebes so expensive. Ironically, it is sometimes easiest to find the best percebes in Madrid since the most prestigious restaurants buy up a large part of the supply. Carmen was taking me to a local establishment that was reputed to specialize in high quality percebes.

The décor of the restaurant was plain. There were no table cloths on the wooden tables and a TV blared in one corner. Two elderly men were quietly drinking wine at the bar. Carmen’s friends, María and Roberto, joined us. We were the only customers at the tables. María and Roberto both worked at the hospital with Carmen and they chatted about work while I took in my surroundings.

The waitress brought out our order of percebes and a bottle of chilled white Albariño wine. The percebes were served on a small plate with a set of long sharp pins in a little glass. I looked perplexed at the heap of shells on the plate. The percebes were about an inch and a half long and the open bottom of the shell was about half an inch in diameter. Inside the shell’s opening I could see something dark and glutinous. They were served by themselves without any sauce or accompanying side dishes. It did not look appetizing. Roberto took a pin and inserted it into the shell’s opening and dragged out the soft body. He popped it into his mouth with a grin and chewed once and then swallowed. He cocked his head to one side and pronounced his judgment. “Buenisimo!” He looked up at the waitress who was still standing by our table waiting for our verdict. “Muy rico!” he told her. The waitress smiled broadly. “They were brought in this morning. We buy them directly from a man who collects them.”

The waitress went off and everybody took up pins and proceeded to disembowel the small crustaceans and consume the extracted contents. I plunged in skeptically, more for the spirit of adventure than for the expected pleasure of the palate. The percebes body, when I finally managed to pull it clumsily out from its shell, looked to me suspiciously like a long stringy nose bugger and did not inspire the slightest yearning for ingestion. I plopped it onto my tongue and deliberated. The texture was a bit like an oyster and it had a slightly salty tangy taste. I didn’t find it revolting, but I couldn’t say that I found it very pleasant either. Carmen and María and Roberto were watching me and grinning. “Que te parece, Jack? What do you think, Jack?” Roberto laughed. I nodded my head dubiously and they all laughed. “Vale la pena? Is it worth it?” María asked. “I’m not sure yet.” I answered and reached for another percebes. You can try everything once, I always say.

María had studied medicine in Italy for a few years and I was delighted to exchanged travel notes with her. She had studied in Bologna and I told her of my experience in Perugia. I felt a natural affinity for María because she was the first of Carmen’s friends that I had met that had been outside of Spain. We even exchanged a few sentences in Italian until I exhausted my vocabulary.

We worked steadily at the mound of percebes, but I preferred the wine and the conversation. While the others ate with relish, I applied myself with less gusto and the pile of empty shells on my plate grew conspicuously slower than the ones on all the other plates. The waitress came back and Roberto asked her how the percebes were prepared. The waitress grinned, clasped her hands, and uttered an old refrain in Gallego. “Auga a ferver, percebes botar, auga a ferver percebes sacar.” Carmen smiled and translated to Spanish for me. The gist of it was boiling them in water with salt and then covering them with a towel until they were ready to serve. Carmen told me that preserving bits of wisdom with rhyming refrains was common in Spain.

As we drove back towards home, Carmen asked me what I thought of the percebes. She looked straight ahead through the windshield at the road, but I knew she was anxious to hear if I had been pleased with this regional delicacy.

“They were interesting.” I began tentatively. I felt Carmen sag almost imperceptibly with disappointment. “I didn’t like them as much as I like pulpo and calamari. I love pulpo. That’s my favorite. Oh, and langostinos too.”

“Don’t forget the shrimp. Remember that fried shrimp we had in Algarve and Cadiz?” Carmen was glowing with pride at my approbation of Spanish cuisine.

“Yes, they were great.” I smacked my lips with comic exaggeration. Carmen twitched her lip in a mischievous smile.

“Spain has the best food. Ja! Ja!” I was always amused by Carmen’s pronunciation of “Ha! Ha!” because in Spanish it is Ja! Ja!” and with her Spanish accent the “J” is pronounced like an English “H”, but it is hard and guttural.

“Yes, it is good.” I agreed, contentedly recollecting some of the outstanding and sometimes surprising meals I had experienced in Spain. “We do have good food in the United States, you know.”

“Yes, I know. Hamburgers!” Carmen laughed.

“Oooohh.” I sighed. “We don’t all eat hamburgers, we’re not all cowboys, and we don’t all like Madonna songs. I’m not a flag waving patriot, but there are some great things in America and some interesting regional variety.”

Carmen gave me a patronizing sideways glance and drove on. The light turned red and she had to stop short. “Hostia!” She exclaimed.

I waited until I could regain her full attention and resumed. “We have a varied regional cuisine and a rich musical heritage including blues, jazz, folk music based on old Irish and British roots, bluegrass, Zydeco and Cajun music from New Orleans, Norteño, and not to mention good old rock and roll.” Carmen nodded her head. She peered through the rain splattered windshield and concentrated on the traffic in front of her. “Spain has the best food.” Her eyes crinkled in teasing laughter and she pursed her mouth to keep a sober expression. My cheeks twitched uncontrollably and I split into a wide grin. Carmen stretched her arm across my lap and gently took my hand. I raised hers to my lips and kissed it. We both looked out at the wet gray street. “Que idiotas somos a veces. What idiots we are sometimes.” We laughed together and held hands until Carmen had to shift gears to turn into our street.

We entered our building and I held the door open for an attractive blonde woman. “Buenos tardes.” said Carmen politely. The woman nodded curtly back at Carmen and stared at me for a moment as she strode out. “Que hija de puta!” Carmen growled after the woman was gone.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“My downstairs neighbor. She has problems. She is so high strung. She complained last year about my bed making too much noise when I made love. Can you believe it? She has a lot of nerve. And it was a brand new bed. I bought it when I moved into this apartment. I was so embarrassed I went out and bought a new bed. Lo que ella necesita es un buen polvo. What she needs is a good lay. She’s just jealous because she never fucks.”

Carmen’s direct approach to human nature surprised but also delighted me. She went straight to the heart of issues that everybody felt but wouldn’t risk talking about. This was one of Carmen’s qualities that endeared her to me. We got out of the elevator and Carmen began fumbling with her keys at the door. She dropped her keys on the floor and picked them up and tried again. The key ring slipped out of her grasp onto the floor again. “Jo!” she exclaimed irritably as she bent over to pick them up again. I picked my key out of my pocket and slapped her on the ass as I stepped forward and quickly unlocked the door. I threw it open with a bow and a flourish to let her pass into the apartment. I couldn’t resist digging the knife in to tease her.

“Stupid Spanish people! They can’t even open the doors of their houses with help from Americans.”

Carmen whirled around. “Bo! Jack, que estupido. Eres un imbécil! No tienes ni puta idea. You don’t have a fucking clue.” Carmen bit her lip in determination. “The Spanish are always better than you ignorant monkey Americans.” Carmen picked up four rolls of toilet paper from the broom closet and walked down the hallway to the bathroom. “Do you need so much toilet paper after eating such great Spanish food?” Carmen spun around with a squeal of fury and a look of challenge in her eye. She grabbed one of the rolls of toilet paper in one hand and heaved it awkwardly in my direction. It bounced of the ceiling and one wall and came to a stop at my feet. As I bent to pick it up, another roll of toilet paper went whizzing over my stooped body and bounced off the telephone. I straightened up with the roll in my hand and Carmen was winding up for her third pitch with a blood thirsty look on her face. Her arm swung in a long arc through the air and she launched the roll straight onto the floor halfway down the hallway. I laughed heartily at her pathetic attempt and the blood shot into her face in rage. Carmen grabbed the last roll and whipped it at me, but this also ricocheted harmlessly off the wall and landed on the floor behind me. Carmen panted and glared at me. I smiled back nastily and rubbed the roll of toilet paper in my hands dramatically. Carmen suddenly realized that she was out of ammunition and squealed. “No Jack! Don’t you dare!” I cocked my arm slowly back and took aim. Carmen turned to shield herself from my salvo. My eyes focused on her curvaceous round bottom and I let fly. Bullseye! Carmen shot into the air and yelped with indignation. “Hijo de puta!” She scrambled to gather up the roll and I jumped to picked one up from the floor behind me. We both turned at the same time and launched our missiles at each other. Carmen’s roll hit the ceiling not far from the light fixture and mine bounced off the wall near Carmen’s head. We both dove again to collect ammunition and both came up firing. “Idiota!” Carmen shrieked her war song. “Puta!” I yelled back as I picked up three rolls and fired them all in one shot gun blast. One roll struck Carmen in the knee and another clunked her in the head. Carmen picked up all three rolls and hurled them all back in rapid fire succession, totally ignoring the roll that blasted against her shoulder. “Imbécil! Americano!” She cried. I chortled. I closed one eye and stuck my tongue out one side of my mouth in an exaggerated aim taking. Carmen turned and peered over her shoulder. “I’m going to hit you right in the ass!” Carmen stuck her tongue out defiantly. I let my projectile go and Carmen shut her eyes. I missed! The toilet paper skipped past Carmen on the floor and banged against the bedroom door. Carmen whirled with a smirk. “Ja! Ja!” she taunted with her Spanish accent pronouncing the hard guttural “j’s”. “Ja! Ja!” I mimicked her accent and exaggerated the guttural “j’s” comically. “Stupid American!” Carmen screeched and we both dove again for loose rolls of toilet paper. Something thumped against my head and made me drop my roll and Carmen giggled with delight. I grabbed the roll again and we fired simultaneous volleys that bounced off of both of us. My blood was racing with the thrill of the sport. Carmen suddenly pouted as if she were going to cry. “Bueno, Jack.” It was almost a plea. I raised my arm mercilessly for another fling at my defenseless target. Carmen put her hands on her hips and gave me a theatrically sad look, resigned to her defeat and her fate. I checked my throw and we gazed at each other, both slightly out of breath from the frenzied skirmish. Suddenly we both burst out laughing and rushed towards each other. We kissed passionately and hugged each other tightly. “Te quiero mucho, mi amor.” Carmen whispered into my shoulder. I passed my lips softly against Carmen’s black fragrant hair. “I love you too, Muñeca.”

We picked up the toilet paper and put it away and then went out to the kitchen for some aperitivos. We had some green olives stuffed with anchovy and a tin of white asparagus. Carmen placed these on a little dish while I opened two bottles of Estrella de Galicia. The combination of salty olives and a beer before dinner had become one my delights in Spain. We settled on the living room sofa and turned on the TV. As usual, there was nothing of great interest to distract us. It was still summer and the soccer season hadn’t started yet, which was just as well for Carmen since she hated soccer.

“The weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow so maybe we can go to the beach in the afternoon.” Carmen suggested hopefully. I nodded unenthusiastically. I preferred something more adventurous like exploring the mountains, but Carmen had been very sweet about doing a lot of things that I wanted to do lately and I felt that it was her turn to choose for a change. The beaches in Spain were all topless, which seemed like a mature attitude towards the human body. It would be considered extremely childish and crass to drool of course, but I found the temptation for the occasional surreptitious peep at the women around me irresistible. So we made our plan. I would buy some slices of ham, oranges, and some fresh bread rolls in the morning, while Carmen went to her parent’s house to drop some papers off, and then we would drive out of La Coruña to one of the more secluded beaches. We sat cuddled up on the sofa discussing the finer details of our planned schedule and the cooperation between us made us both feel very affectionate and intimate. I took Carmen’s hand in mine.

“Do you want to come with me?” I looked at her with a sincere expression.

“Where?” Carmen gave me a puzzled look.

“Over there.” I pointed across the room. “Next to the bookshelf.”

Carmen smiled tenderly. “Que bobo eres, Jack! How silly you are.”

I gave her hand a tug and nodded my head in the direction of the bookshelf. “Vamos.” I got up from the sofa and Carmen joined me. We held hands as we walked across the room together. We stopped by the corner of the bookshelf and stood together, still holding hands and grinning at each other like a pair of baboons.

“We are here together at this bookshelf.” I told Carmen solemnly. “Just you and I. Nobody else. We came on a trip together to be here. All the way across the living room.”

We stood still holding hands. I looked down at the spines of several books on the shelf in front of me. I read the titles. My eyes rested on “The Perfume” by Patrick Suskind. I hadn’t read it but Carmen had said it was wonderful. I felt Carmen’s slightly moist little hand in my clasp. Carmen stood next to me, quietly immersed in her own thoughts.

Chapter 42

I spent the next morning in a deserted restaurant, drinking fresh squeezed orange juice and café con leche while Carmen was attending a class for work. Carmen was very determined to advance herself professionally and frequently took courses and attended conferences. I read the news in El País and then worked on an outline for a play that was taking shape in my mind. It was a philosophical and religious satire and I chuckled to myself as I tweaked the nose of the pompous and pious. The atmosphere in the restaurant was very attractive and cozy and I enjoyed going there in the mornings when I was alone. The bar counter was made of blue ceramic tiles and the windows all along the south wall faced a square and let in lots of sunshine on the days when it wasn’t raining. I went in several times a week, but the bartender acted as if he never recognized me and he paid no attention to me after serving me. He went quietly about his business getting food prepared for the customers that would come to eat later. I was usually the only customer and the anonymity suited my mood and my writing. Carmen had never set foot in the place even though it was only five blocks from her parents’ house.

After a couple of hours of feverish scribbling, I exhausted my creative energy and my mind began to reemerge in the world of the here and now. I was elated with the progress I had made in structuring the new play and the fragments of scenes and dialogue that had flowed out onto the paper during my coffee inspired fecundity. But now I felt clenched and restless and drained. A high school girl walked passed the windows and my eyes followed her graceful stride until she disappeared around the corner. Writer’s workshop was officially closed for the day.

I said “Buenos dias.” to the man behind the bar and he nodded back to me. I went to buy our food for the beach and decided to look into Juan Sr.’s favorite bar to join him in a glass of wine. I found him drinking red wine with another short man about the same age. Juan Sr. introduced him to me as his brother, Ramon. When Ramon heard that I was from New York, his eyes lit up.

“I love Broadway shows. Gene Kelly?” Ramon skipped a couple of delicate dance steps. He was remarkably light footed despite his plump physique. Ramon beamed at me. He put one hand on my shoulder. “Do you like Fred Astaire?”

“Yes, he’s a great dancer.” I tried to sound convincing. The truth was that my modern hip New York lifestyle didn’t include many song and dance numbers from the 1950’s. Ramon beamed even broader. He said something completely unintelligible and I asked him to repeat. He happily obliged but I still couldn’t hear over the constant chiming of the electronic gambling machine. I leaned my ear towards him and finally, through a very thick accent and a brutal mispronunciation, I discerned something recognizable.

“Ah….Singing in the Rain.”

Ramon let out an ecstatic laugh and executed a dapper twirl. “I adore Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly is the best American dancer in the movies.” Ramon turned and addressed the other men that were standing at the bar with their wine glasses and watching his performance. One of the men nodded in acquiescence. After considering the matter for a moment, a second man declared that for him, Fred Astaire was the best dancer. Ramon stiffened and launched his rebuttal with fervor. ”No.” he said dismissively. “Didn’t you see American in Paris?” He pirouetted across the floor to the 25 peseta peanut machine.

“Bah, coño! No tienes ni puta idea!” Juan Sr. burst into the discussion with his cigarette and finger pointing at his brother. “You don’t have a fucking clue! Didn’t you see Fred Astaire in Top Hat?” He pronounced the “H” so hard and guttural that it took me a moment to recognize the English word. “Entonces! He’s right. Fred Astaire is the best dancer.” He pointed to the second man who nodded in exoneration.

Ramon rejoined the fray and stood face to face with the second man, arguing vehemently while Juan Sr. argued over his shoulder. All five men bellowed their opinions at the same time like a pack of dogs snarling over a single bone. I ordered three vino tintos from the bartender with the fracas boiling behind me. Through the tumult I heard someone say something that could very well have been “Ziegfield Follies.”

I handed the new wine glasses to Juan Sr. and Ramon and the argument dissipated as rapidly as it began. The three men turned back to their glasses and Juan Sr. and Ramon came back quietly to our place at the bar.

“Where are you staying, Jack?” Ramon asked.

“At Carmen’s house.” I answered matter-of-factly. I was surprised by the question. Where else would I be staying?

Ramon asked me several more questions and we conversed lightly for several minutes. Juan Sr. quietly drank his wine to one side. Ramon laughed and smiled pleasantly and I felt very much at ease chatting with him. Juan Sr. put his empty glass on the counter. “I’m off.” He announced and went out the door.

“Hasta luego.” I called out after him.

Ramon insisted on buying me another glass of wine and I couldn’t refuse his persistence. Finally, I disengaged myself and went home after promising to have drinks with him again.

An hour later, Carmen came home. When I heard her key in the lock, I came out to greet her with a kiss and a smile. Carmen greeted me with a stony look of anger.

“What did you say to my Uncle Ramon?” she demanded furiously.

“What?” I was brought up short.

“How could you be so indiscrete? Don’t you have any respect for me and my family? My father is completely disgusted with you and so am I.!”

I was flabbergasted. “Muñeca, what is this all about?”

“Don’t call me that! You know perfectly well what you said.” Carmen’s features were twisted with wrath.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Didn’t you tell Ramon you were staying at my house?”

I blinked at Carmen in disbelief. “He asked me where I was staying and I told him.”

“You told him you were staying here.” Carmen stated accusingly.

“Of course. This is where I’m staying. What did you think I was going to say?”

“You could have said anything. You could have said you were staying in a hotel. You didn’t have to answer him at all. It’s none of his business. You shouldn’t have told him anything.”

I was stunned. Carmen was wound up with fury. “What goddamn difference does it make?” I snapped. I was getting irritated myself by now.

Uncle Ramon is a terrible gossip. He’ll tell everybody that a man is staying in my house and everyone will think I’m a whore! You shouldn’t have said anything to him.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I sputtered.

“No, it’s not. And my father is very angry. Why didn’t you think?”

“Carmen. This is crazy. What did you want me to do, lie to your uncle?”

“I don’t care what you did but you shouldn’t have told him you were staying with me.”

“That’s so dishonest!” I protested.

“I don’t care!” Carmen shrieked.

We glared at each other with open hostility. There was not the slightest hint of mitigating humor behind the raw anger and wounded feelings. I was in a shock of disbelief that Carmen could possibly be so nasty. How could she suddenly turn on me so violently? And how could she be so unreasonable?

“Eres un idiota!” Carmen almost spat the words at me.

“What?” I croaked incredulously. A solid iron band of resentment suddenly forged around my heart. My jaw muscles tightened and my stomach grew queasy. “That’s enough.”

I went quickly to the bedroom and gathered my clothes and stuffed them briskly into my bag. I came out to the living room and picked up my books. Carmen stood in the kitchen doorway watching me.

“What are you doing?”

“Me voy. I’m leaving.”

I shoved the books into my daypack while Carmen looked on in silence. I picked up my bags and stepped grimly towards the door without looking at Carmen. Carmen spun on her heel and put her back to me. She delivered a parting shot over her shoulder as I walked out the door. “Ve te a la mierda! Go fuck yourself!”

I walked and I walked and I walked. I walked straight ahead at a brisk pace with determination in my stride. The train station was on the other side of La Coruña and it took me about an hour to reach it. I didn’t care how long it took. The schedule was not important. Every second was a horror no matter where I was or what I was doing. There was a train for Madrid leaving at 7:30. I bought a one way ticket.

I was left with four agonizing hours of waiting. I couldn’t distract myself in any way to ease the passing of the ticking moments. My stomach felt stretched tight. I went over the events of the day in my mind to sort out some kind of logic in this disaster that had so completely destroyed the life I had worked so hard to build with Carmen. I mentally reviewed every syllable that Carmen had uttered, but failed to find the slightest shred of mitigating reason. I burned with a hard anger that merged with hatred. I didn’t need anybody in my life that would treat me like that. I was better off by myself than to live with that kind of behavior. I paced around the train station and walked through the streets surrounding it with these unpleasant thoughts whirling through my brain. I hadn’t eaten anything all day except the fresh squeezed orange juice when I was writing in the restaurant in the now distant morning. However, food was completely out of the question. I stopped at one corner bar and drank a couple of tintos and smoked a few cigarettes. Even alcohol and tobacco seemed unappetizing and my body rejected them as much as my entire soul rejected the constant pling plonging of the stupid electronic gambling machine, with its obnoxious cash register sound effects when three damn cherries or three idiot oranges came up for the lucky gambling addict. What the hell difference did it make anyway? The ugliness of the bar was no worse than any other place on earth to me now. The acrid smell of burned black tobacco from the bartender’s Ducado made me wretch with revulsion. I threw my cigarettes in the trash and left the bar. Walking seemed to be the only acceptable activity and the closest thing to solace.

I walked for several hours without taking in my surroundings. I came back to the train station with tired feet and aching shoulders from my pack. My train was scheduled to leave in half an hour. I passed a public telephone. Without taking the time to reflect or consider, I fished out some loose pesetas and began dialing. Carmen answered the phone in a thin voice that sounded as if it were traveling a great distance.


The iron band around my heart constricted and I stood with the phone in my hand, unable to speak. There was a pause on the phone. My brain seemed to be frozen. Carmen broke the silence with a wavering voice.

“Donde estás? Where are you?”

Carmen sounded as if she had been crying. I was too clenched in my guts to alter my emotions. Like a large ship in the ocean, I just couldn’t change directions quickly.

“I’m at the train station.” I finally forced out in a monotone.

“What are you going to do, Jack?” Carmen asked softly. There was no more anger in her voice, just vulnerability, as if she had surrendered to her fate.

“I’m going to Madrid.” I answered her flatly.

“What are you going to do there?” she asked again, even softer still.

My stomach roiled. I wasn’t enjoying Carmen’s obvious distress. I wasn’t seeking revenge and I had no desire to make to make Carmen suffer. I just felt sick. “I’m going to take a plane to New York.”

There was another short pause. “Please come back home, Jack.” Carmen almost choked.

My heart pounded against its constricting iron band. This was an alternative presenting itself that I hadn’t foreseen. My head was too tight to think.

“Bueno.” I heard myself say.

“Are you coming back home, Jack?”


“I’ll wait for you.” There was still no sound of hope in Carmen’s thin voice.

I hung up the phone and cashed in my train ticket in a daze. I was physically and mentally exhausted, but I still walked all the way back to Carmen’s apartment near the Torre de Hercules. I couldn’t imagine sitting still in a taxi or bus for even a moment. When Carmen opened her door to let me in, she clasped her arms tightly around my waist with her body pushed close up against mine. I let go of my clothes bag and put one arm tentatively around her shoulders while I still held onto my day pack with the other hand. My insides were still wound tight from anger and my head was too tired to think. I wasn’t sure that I wanted Carmen at all. I felt a great gaping bleeding wound and nothing else. I was amazed at how exhausting the emotional strain had been. Carmen and I moved slowly to the bedroom and lay down on the bed without talking. Even speaking seemed violent enough to jar our delicate bond of union. We finally fell uneasily to sleep.

Chapter 43

The next morning Carmen and I padded dully around the apartment like two wounded soldiers. There was no conversation, but whenever we had occasion to speak to one another, it was soft and gentle, as if we were both afraid of hurting each other again. Carmen brought me a coffee and said she had to go out for a while. She looked confused for a moment, then gave me a quick, sad smile and left without another word.

I got dressed and went down to the street. It was a typical Galician late summer day. The sky was mostly cloudy with occasional patches of blue giving hope for a sunny afternoon. I strolled down to the shore behind Carmen’s apartment and clambered over some craggy rocks overlooking the crashing waves. The breeze through my hair seemed to blow out some of the evil vapors of the day before and I began to relax a bit. I really didn’t know what to do. One part of me was still too traumatized by the conflict to desire any part of a relationship with Carmen and sent me sharp stinging warnings to retreat in good order while it was still possible. My other part remembered Carmen’s gentle tone of voice this morning and her almost tragic plea on the phone for me to come home yesterday. If only it was as simple as just coming home.

After a while I walked up to the Avenida de Navarre and had a quick black coffee standing next to stacked cases of empty Coca Cola and Fanta bottles in a dingy bar. I went back to the apartment and let myself in. Carmen came out of the bedroom to greet me.

“Jack, I went to talk to my father and everything is ok now.” Carmen looked at me without expression, waiting for my response.

“Bueno. That’s good.” I tried to make a display of good will but I was still very reserved and withdrawn. I had recoiled emotionally so sharply that it was difficult to rein in the downward spiral of hurt and resentment. My attempts to overcome my reaction were on the intellectual level more than the emotional. Carmen stood quietly before me with her feet together and her hands clasped in front of her. She was dressed up as she usually was when she went down to the street, with black high heel shoes, a short skirt, and a blouse. Her mouth showed a hint of a shy smile, but the corners of her eyes betrayed faint creases from the strain of doubt. I realized she was waiting for my judgment like a prisoner awaiting a sentence. The sudden recognition of the extent of Carmen’s bravely hidden torment struck me like a sledgehammer. My heart sank to an even lower depth of depression. The iron grip of revulsion finally released me. At last my face could manage a genuine smile of warmth.

“Bueno, Muñeca. I’m glad.” I put my arms out and Carmen poured herself joyously into them. The relief on her face was evident.

“Are you ok, Jack?”

“Si, Muñeca. Are you?”

We sat on the sofa together and Carmen told me about her conversation with her father and how his anger had flashed and then slowly dissipated. He still needed a little convincing this morning but Carmen had worked relentlessly on him until he gave up and went off to the bar to escape the pestering of women. Carmen’s description of his final irascible submission made me laugh out loud. Carmen giggled as she mimicked his gesture of weary capitulation as he went out the door. We were happy to be sitting together in harmony again with the dark cloud of discord safely beyond the horizon.

“So, what about the beach?” I suggested. “We still have our food.”

“Si, vamos.” Carmen jumped up sprightly.

“But first,” I paused, considering a detail that was still left unattended. “Let me go to the bar and have a glass of wine with your father.”

“Ok.” Carmen beamed. “I’ll get everything ready and wait for you.”

I jogged up the hill to the Avenida de Navarre and found Juan Sr. in one of the bars near his house. He was in the thick of a heated discussion, apparently concerning bullfighting technique because he was demonstrating proper form using a newspaper as a cape. Several men were watching him critically and one wagged a disapproving finger in his face. Juan Sr. turned in disgust and noticed me lounging at the bar where I was taking in the show. He clapped me on the shoulder.

“Hombre! Que hay?”

Behind him, the man was still arguing and Juan Sr. turned back and reengaged his opponent. I watched with amusement for several minutes as the battle raged on with every participant showing his particular version of the style in question. Life had evidently returned to its familiar normal rhythm. I tapped Juan Sr. on the arm to get his attention long enough to wave good bye. Juan Sr. half turned towards me and put a hand on my shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something to me, but one of the men made a comment about Juan Belmonte, a famous bullfighter, that inflamed him so ardently that he immediately forgot about me. I went off to rejoin Carmen.

Chapter 44

Through a chain of personal connections, Carmen arranged for me to teach English at a local youth center. It wasn’t a large salary, but it was at least pocket money to defray expenses. I went to meet the young man in charge and told him I had a few questions to ask him. I wanted to know about text book materials, curricula, and course outline specifics. The young man beckoned for me to follow him and we went across the street to a bar. He ordered two coffees and pulled out his cigarettes. I accepted a proffered cigarette and we sipped our coffees and smoked. The young man rested his arm on the bar and stared vacantly at the wall. I interrupted his reverie and pressed my case about the text books and course outline. The young man listened to me and then shrugged and looked back at the wall. I was perplexed by his response. As I considered my position, the young man offered me another cigarette with a friendly smile. Again I accepted and the young man resumed his contemplation of the brick wall behind the bar. When we finished our cigarettes, he paid the bartender for our coffees and we went back to the youth center where he clapped me on the back with a cheery smile and left me to my own devices.

Back at the house, Carmen dug up an old English grammar book and I used this to develop an outline for my course. I broke down the main elements of each chapter and imagined how I would present them to my students. I was amazed at how much brushing up I needed to do myself to understand the finer grammatical points well enough to be able to explain them to an audience. I was more than just a bit nervous about my upcoming debut as professor.

The next Monday I was guided to a classroom by the young man and left in front of a gaping group of seated children ranging in age from seven to thirteen. There were about 15 kids in the class and they all stared silently at me, waiting for me to address them. I introduced myself and wrote my name on the blackboard because that seemed like a good thing to do. I told them I was from New York City in the United States. After that I wasn’t sure what to say next. I took my notes out and shuffled through them. I saw the notes about the grammar points that I was planning to teach, but the transitional words leading me from my introduction into the lesson were eluding me. The annoying thought that I was quickly developing a paralyzing case of stage fright in front of a bunch of children began to take root and I felt tension in the pit of my stomach. I shuffled again through my notes. A hot flash spread across my forehead. The kids stared at me expectantly. I realized with horror that if I didn’t speak within the next 20 seconds, I would become frozen with fear and be a laughing stock in the eyes of these damned little brats. I had to say something, anything. I had to say something right now! My inner voice screamed at me. I cleared my throat and began speaking. I soon flowed naturally into the lesson and the crisis was averted. The kids continued to stare at me apathetically.

As the lesson went on, I warmed to my task and began enjoying it. I realized that I was the unquestioned authority of the English language and my pronouncements would not be challenged, if indeed they were listened to at all.

One little girl named Teresa was extremely shy and wouldn’t say a word. With my confidence waxing strong I tried to entice her to say something in English. I bent down in front of her with my hands on my knees so that my face was down closer to hers. Teresa refused my attempts to make her speak. Each time I entreated her to speak just one word in English she shook her head in the negative. I was determined to open her up to the joys of learning and experiencing new aspects of life and I continued trying to elicit at least a syllable in English. Suddenly, the little girl burst into tears and she covered her face with her hands. I was mortified at what I had done and jumped to console her.

“It’s ok! It’s ok! You don’t have to say anything. Please don’t cry!”

Teresa finally dried her tears and I was left with a quivering thought that on my first day as a teacher, I had succeeded in making a seven year old girl cry. Mercifully, the class hour ended and I was able to go home and plan out my next day’s lesson.

As the days passed, I got over my nervousness of speaking publicly in front of my juvenile audience, and they in turn, lost their awe of the new American professor and their quiet respectful comportment of the first day became a distant memory. Each day I labored to prepare a flawless lesson in English grammar and each class my students devoted 100% of their attention to maliciously pulling each other’s hair, gleefully squawking at the tops of their voices, and throwing wads of paper at each other. When I quizzed them it appeared that they knew even less, if that was possible, than when we had begun. I was mystified. If the parents were paying for their children to attend a private class, then why didn’t they apply some pressure on their kids to take it a little more seriously? Carmen finally offered a possible reason. She suggested that the main thing was that their kids were studying English with a genuine native speaking American. This gave them something they could tell their friends and neighbors. It was a status issue. Of course, it would be even better if I were from England, where they spoke proper English, but even so I was still a feather in their caps. Nobody really cared if the kids actually learned to speak any English. Nonetheless, I continued to prepare my lessons diligently for my brood of apathetic pupils.

Chapter 45

During the course of living on her own over the last several years, Carmen had changed in subtle ways and developed some eccentricities, as people often do when living alone without the necessary compromises that come with sharing living space. The first thing I noticed was that her penchant for wild adventure and thrill had slightly diminished. She didn’t drive so fast through the narrow streets like I remembered her doing when I first visited Spain. She seemed to have become more cautious and circumspect. Even as I reflected on this I recognized that this prudence had extended to her deliberation about following her emotions to reunite herself with me as opposed to the instantaneous passionate leap she had made when I first met her in New York.

When I moved in with Carmen in La Coruña, I found her very exigent about her sleeping conditions. She insisted on absolute total darkness in her bedroom and total silence. She worked on rotating shifts at the hospital and had to adapt her sleeping schedule frequently. When I needed to fetch something from the bedroom while she was sleeping, I would attempt to silently ease the door open and steal into the room. Carmen would inevitably wake up and chastise me crossly.

Another aspect of Carmen’s sleeping was much more disturbing. During my first days in La Coruña, she informed me before turning out the light that she sometimes walked in her sleep. She asked me to watch out for her and if I ever found her sleepwalking I was instructed to keep her away from the window. Carmen was very apprehensive of falling out the window in her sleep and insisted that we close the window enough to prevent this. I was somewhat disturbed by this discovery about Carmen’s psyche. It wasn’t part of the sexy and alluring image that had made me fall in love with her. However, I tried to comply with her demands and attempted to understand her needs. Carmen showed a feisty and brave face to the world, but there was still a frightened little girl deep on the inside. I was probably the only person to share her intimacy enough to witness this deep anxiety. With the passing of time though, this anxiety of Carmen’s seem to gradually fade. After I had been with her for a while, she announced one day that she felt much more tranquil and calm emotionally and noted that she hadn’t walked in her sleep while I was there and didn’t think she would do so again.

Another intimate confession that Carmen told me was that for the past few years, she had gotten into the habit of picking up strangers at bars. She had done this even when she was going out with her old boy friend because she hadn’t found their relationship satisfying. Carmen enjoyed sex and was quite relaxed with her own sexuality, but this was not the primary thing she was seeking. She was looking for the intimacy and tenderness that can come with sex, but found that this ingredient was missing from these encounters. She frequently felt lonely and empty the following day, but the urge for contact at the most personal level drove her to continue looking.

I listened to Carmen’s revealing anecdotes in trepidation. I realized that she was trusting me with her most private secrets. They made me feel uneasy, but I tried to conceal my apprehension and reward her trust by listening. I began realizing some things about myself in the process. It was easy to hear intimate details when they coincided with what I wanted to hear. Carmen liked to whisper in my ear and tell me how much she loved me. While I sometimes found the frequent repetition a bit tedious, at least the general theme was pleasing. It was quite another matter to handle confidential secrets of an unexpected and disconcerting nature. A young man’s romantic fantasies didn’t include accepting the rough with the smooth. These self realizations didn’t become apparent to me all at once, but crystallized gradually over the passing years in retrospect.

Chapter 46

I missed my regular sports regimen in my new home. I played basketball sometimes with the young bucks at the school yard but I was still missing an important part of my life. Carmen sensed my loss and tried to make up for it. She borrowed a tennis racquet for me and we embarked on the occasional intra relationship tennis tournament.

Our matches were hotly contested, on Carmen’s side at least. Racquet sports were not my passion and my ability level was mediocre in my most glorious moments. Still, that was enough to effortlessly give Carmen a merciless thrashing. Carmen scratched and clawed to achieve victory in every game and, if it suited my mood, she sometimes won. We played by very strict rules, with Carmen playing the enforcing arbitrator. I was to deliver a soft bouncing serve precisely at waist level where her forehand stroke would be waiting for it. On the frequent occasions when my offerings were not up to spec, I would receive a crisp bark of disapproval. I usually found it amusing to humor Carmen but one day her complaints were too petulant and too frequent for my patience to bear. I ground my teeth in anger and slaughtered her pathetic volleys until a wistful look in her eyes betrayed her humiliation and I immediately began losing a string of deftly returned shots from a far happier Carmen.

Chapter 47

Carmen and I walked hand in hand under the covered sidewalk to stay out of the drizzle. The upper stories of the building above us hung out over the narrow street supported by pillars. The broad paving stones of the street glistened from the rain and puddles reflected the gray sky. We were hoping it would clear up in the afternoon for our visit to the historical cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela, about 70 kilometers south of La Coruña. The radio had said it would be sunny, but in Galicia you never knew.

Santiago is home to one of the great cathedrals in Europe. It was the destination of medieval religious pilgrimages for centuries, bringing pilgrims from all over Europe. Santiago is also a university town. Juan had spent several years there, spending more time in the bars than in the library before finally deciding that medicine was not rock and roll enough. I went there with him once during my first unhappy visit to Spain and we had ducked into bar after bar all afternoon.

“How would we live in New York?” Carmen asked anxiously. We had begun having this discussion lately. We knew now that we wanted to live together but the question of where still lingered. Carmen believed that Spain was the best country in the world to live in. The food was the best. The people were warm and friendly. The vacations were a very reasonable five weeks minimum. Moreover, she lived within walking distance of a beautiful beach that sometimes even had sunshine. For me, Spain was one of many fascinating places in the world, but not necessarily the best. Accustomed as I was to my modern, cosmopolitan, New York City lifestyle, my experience in La Coruña seemed provincial and stifling. I yearned for the free wheeling and less conformist attitudes of Manhattan.

“I always find some work in theater. We could fix up my apartment or move to a bigger one someday.” I glossed over the probability of finding a large, affordable apartment in New York’s tight housing market. I had to admit that Spain was much better on that account. Our money in New York would never buy an apartment as luxurious as Carmen enjoyed in La Coruña. “You could work too or even study. Maybe I’ll even use my geology degree someday.”

Carmen furrowed her brow in thought. I could feel her apprehension and doubt. She had mentioned once before that she thought we would split up if I moved back to New York and I had urgently argued to persuade her and quell that fear. As we strolled with Carmen’s high heels clopping on the smooth paving stones, the drizzle came to an end, but the sun remained hidden behind its heavy gray veil. At Plaza de Obradoiro the shrill strains of a bagpipe came to my ears and I saw a man dressed in a kilt playing a gaita.

“Ves, Jack? See?” Carmen pointed at the reminder of Galicia’s Celtic heritage.

We stopped in a bar and had some tapas of tortilla español and chorizo and a glass of tinto. A family with two young children were seated at a neighboring table and the little boy, who was about four years old, ran over and stared curiously up at us. I winked at him with my mouth full of tortilla español and he burst into a happy laugh. Carmen stroked his head tenderly and the little boy ran back to his parents who smiled at us.

“Que precioso. He’s so cute.” Carmen murmured. “We will have beautiful children like that someday, Jack.” Carmen reached over and squeezed my hand. I smiled at her with my mouth again full. Carmen reflected pensively for a moment. “I need to give tenderness to somebody.” she announced as if it were a sudden revelation. “I need to give tenderness to you but I need to give it to a child as well. I think it is my nature.”

I smiled at her and squeezed her hand in return. I had always imagined myself teaching my son how to play sports. Carmen released my hand and I was finally able to pick up my fork again.

After we had satiated our hunger and thirst, I was suddenly impatient to get moving again. Carmen was lingering over her coffee while I had already drained mine. I sat chomping at the bit with caffeine induced impatience coursing through my system. Carmen sat serenely staring out at the gray street. We had decided to quit smoking definitively, but this had been easy since both of us were casual smokers and it was not an urgent call for nicotine that was fueling my agitation. I was simply in the mood to move at my own pace and think my own thoughts, completely unencumbered by another person’s limits. I was seized by the urge to charge off down the street, take photographs of the cathedral and read about its history, while Carmen was content, just sitting and enjoying the moment.

“Lista? Ready?” I asked eagerly.

Carmen looked up. “I’m not finished yet.” she replied blandly.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I shifted in my seat and tried to wait patiently. I grit my teeth in irritation and wished that Carmen would speed it up a bit so that we could get going. My impatience finally got the better of me.

“Are you going to finish your coffee?” I asked, a bit petulantly perhaps.

A look of annoyance flashed across Carmen’s face. “Vete a la mierda! Go to hell!”

Carmen abruptly got up and purposefully strode over to the bar and paid our bill. She picked up her bag and moved to the door without giving me a glance. I followed her to the street and caught up with her. Carmen marched forward without saying a word.

“Are you angry?” I asked.

Carmen shrugged but said nothing and continued looking straight ahead. I was vexed, partly at myself for having been impatient and partly at Carmen for getting angry when all I wanted was to get up and get going. We walked along in silence for several streets until we entered the wide square in front of the cathedral. The tension from the unspoken conflict was building up inside me. Memories of every unreasonable, angry argument we’d ever had flashed through my mind, as if telling me “Watch out! Here we go again!”

The narrow street opened up onto an expansive square with the massive block of the cathedral on the opposite side. Directly across from us, two broad stone staircases went up on either side to the front entrance. Carmen and I drifted into the square and I tried to take in the myriad of architectural details on the building’s façade.

I took my camera out and began framing possible photos of the cathedral. Carmen had taught me a few basics about photography that had never occurred to me before and the photos I took had improved considerably ever since. Previously, I had just pointed the camera at any scene that looked interesting to my naked eye, without any assessment of how the developed image would appear. Now, I was much more selective and often would pass up a stunningly visual panorama if I thought the contrast of light and shadow or the depth perspective weren’t adequate to yield an interesting result. I already had a large enough collection of confused and nebulous images in my possession from my earlier journeys around the globe.

Even from the center of the square, the cathedral in front of me filled the frame viewed through the lens. I backed up in an attempt to fit the entire height of the towers into the frame and began fumbling with the camera case. Carmen reached out and silently took it from me to give me a free hand. The gesture softened the tension between us and I pushed my jaw deliberately into smiling position. The corners of Carmen’s mouth twitched in response and she looked at me momentarily and then we both looked back at the cathedral. It was a relief to have dissipated a large part of the strain, but I wasn’t capable of making the big leap back to normal relations immediately. The transition in my nervous system seemed to take some of time for adjustment. At least my breathing had slowed down to more of its normal pace and the tightness in my stomach had unclenched.

I backed up further, trying to capture the photo I wanted. From the corner of my eye I noticed Carmen turn to look at me and an idea struck me. I pretended to stumble backwards with theatrical exaggeration, clutching onto the shoulder of a small passing boy, who giggled with his friend as they scampered away. I looked over at Carmen with a big grin. Carmen shook her head at my clowning and turned away, but I could see the distinct beginnings of a smile. Joy flooded through my entire being and I hustled over to Carmen. She looked up at me with surprise as I wrapped one arm around her neck and pushed my nose into the familiar scent of her hair. I kissed the temple of her forehead and she pressed her damp jacket against me. Then she pushed me away quickly.

“Anda, Jack. Go take your photo.”

But there was a softness behind her teasing grin.

Chapter 48

November arrived and with it the time had come for me to return to New York. A friend had arranged a position for me at a reputable Off-Broadway theater and the exposure there would help me in possibly producing my own plays someday. I found that I missed the English language, not merely for conversation, but for intellectual pursuits. Words were my tools of trade and my working vocabulary was in English, not Spanish.

Carmen at first had great misgivings about leaving her comfortable life in her home country, but she gradually warmed to the idea and ultimately became thrilled to imagine living in New York. Her mind was eased tremendously when she discovered that she could take a leave of absence from her job and work on a scholarship for a Spanish doctor now conducting research at a lab in New York. We determined that she would follow me to New York in a few weeks, giving me time to put my apartment in order. I planned to paint and plaster the crumbling walls before Carmen arrived. I also needed to bring my things back from storage at my parent’s house in Vermont.

I thought I would be bringing back my old dog, Nansen, as well, but dear old Nansen succumbed to old age and quietly slipped away from life about a week before my return. Being absent from my old friend’s side during his last moments tormented me with grief, but I told myself that he had enjoyed a long and happy life and he had always been quite content to stay with my parents in the country during my various voyages. My emotional bond with Nansen was deeply affectionate and this was something that Carmen seemed unable to appreciate. During the tearful day when I received the letter informing me of Nansen’s death, Carmen didn’t seem as genuinely sympathetic as I would have liked. She had not grown up with pets in her family and a dog represented to her something that was cute but also full of nuisance hair that covered clothes and furniture. I finally tried to philosophically accept Nansen’s passing as part of the natural flow of life, with the new replacing the old.

A Czech friend of mine named Pavel had sublet my apartment during my sojourn in Spain. Pavel had managed to spirit himself out of Czechoslovakia when the Communists were still in power and had gone to university in Edinburgh. He completed a Masters degree in English literature then moved to New York where he received a second Masters in international politics. He lifted weights religiously and worked as a mover for several years before getting his cushy job at the university computer center. It was Pavel who had introduced me to the grunt world of moving for casual labor. During that phase of his life when I first met him, his daily routine had consisted of waking up to a few snorts of cocaine, rushing off to the toilet for a coke fueled purge, humping stacks of book boxes up flights of stairs all day, and then flexing his muscles in the university weight room or playing soccer in the park.

Pavel moved out and I reestablished myself in my old digs on the Upper West Side. While taking inventory in my closet, I noticed that my suit, which I hadn’t worn in over five years, was in a new garment bag. Upon inquiry, Pavel informed me that he had needed a suit for a job interview and had taken mine to a tailor to have it altered to fit him properly. It was now of course too tight for me to wear. I contemplated murdering Pavel for a brief moment for being so cheeky, but I found myself so amused at what he had done that I could only praise him for being such an outrageous rascal. Pavel took my suit along with the rest of his belongings to his new apartment.

I scanned my abode and took stock of my realm in all its glory. The walls hadn’t been painted since Carmen’s first visit to New York, and they had been badly in need of it then. The plaster over the water pipes in the kitchen had disintegrated and in spots was nothing more than a powdery chalk. Long sheets of dried paint curled off the ceiling in my living room and hung poised to drop onto the battered antique dining table. Loose paint and plaster needed to be scraped and repaired in smaller spots all over the apartment. The floor boards had been beautiful oak parquet when the building was built in the early twentieth century, but after eighty years of foot steps it had deteriorated to an appalling condition. Part of the sub flooring had given way in the bedroom and the floor was now so tilted that a marble let go by the door would roll and accelerate its velocity until it thunked against the closet at the far end. A leaking faucet in the bathroom sink needed replacing. It was a daunting, time consuming, and very dirty task that I had to look forward to, but I wanted to charge ahead and get it finished before Carmen arrived. She had vague memories of urban squalor from her first visit and perhaps had even found it sort of perversely romantic, but this time I thought it would be preferable to surprise her with a cosmetic face lift. I plunged in to work and covered everything with plastic sheets to protect it from the dust I was going to create.

I had learned most of my painting and plastering skills from a Vietnam War vet named Rob that I met at the university. He was from a line of three generations of German painters in Brooklyn and was studying economics between bouts of heavy drinking and weekend painting jobs. Rob was a splendid craftsman but his drinking forays consumed so much cash that he was constantly short of funds and he had to continually start new jobs to get the infusions of down payments into his coffers. The result was that he juggled all his contracts, left tools and half completed work in apartments all over the city, avoided phone calls from exasperated clients, and was crushed by the depression of failure, which in turn pushed him to drink to escape his troubles. Ultimately, he couldn’t even pay his employees.

The first time I went to work for Rob, I showed up leisurely about two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon after a late night of pub crawling. Rob and his crew had started at eight, pub crawl or no. Rob merely glared at me for a moment over his shoulder when I arrived while his crew greeted me with jeering banter.

“Nice of you to join us.”

“You worthless jerk off, Jack!”

“Did the little prince sleep well?”

“What was her name that kept you up all night?”

“You mean what was HIS name?”

With the crew cackling merrily at my expense, Rob put the finishing touches on his plaster and set his tools down. “So you told me you know how to paint, right?”

I snorted confidently. What was there to know about painting? You dip a brush in the bucket and you wipe it on the walls. It wasn’t a big deal. I had done it a couple of times when I was a kid when my parents had painted our apartment. Some friends had come over and my brothers and I and even my sister had been given brushes to attack the walls with. Rob gave me a two inch brush and took me to a staircase in the rear of the apartment.

“Start with the columns of this banister. This is oil paint so don’t let it run and don’t get any drops on the floor. I need somebody to help me cut in later so if you’re good enough you can help me with that. I’ll come back later and see how you’re doing”

Rob went off and I began meticulously daubing the tip of my brush delicately into the paint. With great fastidiousness I carefully applied each gentle stroke and was very proud when I finished the entire first column without getting a single drop of paint onto the floor. Forty five minutes later I finished the second column and again was pleased with the cleanliness of my work. Twenty minutes later I was half way through my third column when Rob returned. I applied a couple of aristocratic strokes and glanced back proudly over my shoulder at him. Rob ignited in a volcanic eruption of Brooklynese and flying spittle.

“Who the fuck do you think you are, Michael Fucking Angelo? Use some fucking paint?” The veins in Rob’s neck bulged out from his passion. He roughly snatched my brush, plunged the bristles half way into the paint, deftly flipped it up, and gave three quick long strokes along half the height of the column without spilling a drop. He slapped the brush into the paint can again and in less than ten seconds finished the column. He moved onto the next column and polished it off in half a minute. Perfect strokes, neatly cut in at every corner, and not a drop on the floor. I was properly chagrined for my ignorance and hubris. Rob thrust the brush back in my hand impatiently. “That’s how you fucking use paint. You put it on the surface and spread it out. Then you put some more on. You don’t fucking sit there like a dipshit and rub the shit in. At that rate you’ll make a fucking career out of one fucking staircase.”

Despite my disastrous rookie debut, I was still included for beers at the bar with the crew after work. Rob treated everybody all night and the beers were joined by shots of bourbon as we moved from bar to bar until we finally made it back to the Upper West Side after midnight. Eventually, I learned to paint and plaster fairly competently from Rob.

My apartment renovation had progressed to the point where I had accomplished just enough to cover my face with a thin veil of chalky dust when Pavel showed up with Juan and Miguel and several other friends to welcome me back home. They were, of course, heavily armed with bottles of wine and other assorted beverages. Miguel had a bottle of Inca Pisco, a kind of grape brandy from Peru, and Pavel had a bottle of plum schnapps made on his uncle’s farm in the Czech Republic.

Juan greeted me with a brotherly headlock. “So, you crazy bastard, you couldn’t keep away from my sister, eh?”

Miguel opened the bottle of Pisco and offered it to me without even taking his battered leather jacket off. Pavel looked on the scene with theatrical distaste. He waved at Juan and Miguel with feigned superiority. “I found these two alcoholics drinking in the street and decided to bring them up to welcome you back.”

Juan pumped his forearm and gave Pavel a defiant upraised fist. “Fuck this guy. Just open that bottle of schnapps. We’re thirsty.”

Miguel laughed at Pavel’s clowning. “Que cabron!” He clapped me on the back “Bienvenido, Jack.”

The stream of Pisco was already creating a warm glow on its descent through my innards.

The rest of the day was lost in festive revelry that didn’t expire until five in the morning at a bar off Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. The following day existed only as a dim memory of pain. My plastic shrouded apartment waited for the opus to commence. Carmen’s arrival date remained the same and I now had two days less to prepare for her. I attacked the crumbling plaster with an energetic frenzy and sheared long sheets of old paint from the ceilings. By the end of the first day, piles of broken plaster and paint chips covered the floors and all the plastic encased furniture. Dust was everywhere. My nostrils were coated with fine white dust. And the more old paint I scraped, the more remained tantalizingly ready to just pop off at the slightest caress of my scraper. The job was endless. In one spot, I was able to count at least seven distinct layers of old paint. The plastering and painting itself would be easy and only take a few days, but removing the old deteriorated based was taking forever. The first week passed. I felt like I needed to draw the line somewhere and just stop, but I was driven on by the thought that if I didn’t prepare the surface properly now, the new paint would just flake right off again. I tried to quell my anxiety and picked up my scraper with determination.

Chapter 49

I picked up Carmen at the airport in the old red van with the yellow door that I used to haul equipment and set design props. Carmen poured herself tearfully into my arms when I met her outside the customs gate. She held me very tight for a minute and then pulled herself back together. Some friends had given her a farewell party and she was sad at leaving behind the people that loved her. I was chagrined that her emotions were focused on other people instead of me, but I managed to console myself that I was her object of solace. As we ground our way through the stop and go traffic of the Van Wick Expressway, I began alerting Carmen as to the state of repairs I had been making in the apartment. Carmen seemed distracted and unconcerned about my discourse on plastering and paint chips.

After spending half an hour searching for a parking space between Broadway and Riverside Drive, I finally spied a car nosing out from its parking spot and zoomed over to take its place. I took Carmen’s suitcase with one hand and led her by the hand with the other. I gave one last wan smile of apology and opened the apartment door. Carmen walked in behind me and gazed around at the scene of colossal destruction. I had swept the six inch deep piles of paint chips against the corners of the walls to create walkways through the apartment. Paint chips were scattered on every plastic coated surface and dust covered everything and hung heavily in the air. Carmen gazed around her and bit her lower lip. She said nothing and her face was expressionless. I looked at her with my breath held as if waiting for a blow. My shoulder began to ache from holding her heavy suitcase. Carmen’s eyes fixed on a huge mound of paint chips against the wall at her feet.

“Oh Jack!” she wailed. “How could you be so stupid!” There was unmistakable fury in her voice.

I apologized fervidly and protested at length about the arduous nature of the task. Carmen refused to be mollified. She pouted and looked unconvinced by all my explanations, enthusiastic projections and promises. I was sickened by my own disastrous failure to please her in her welcome to her new home and also frustrated by her lack of sporting attitude. I found a dust free part of the closet where she could store her suitcase and then we went out for a rather somber dinner at a Chinese restaurant around the corner.

The next morning, Carmen woke up before me and, attired in the least fashionable clothes she could find, industriously applied broom and dustpan to my piles of paint chips. I got up and joined her and we shared a dusty hug. My heart skipped jubilantly around my chest cavity for joy at Carmen’s rejuvenated good humor. The paint scraping was finally finished and I could show Carmen some of the tricks of trade I had learned about plastering during my construction work days. I took an old slab of wood and plopped two scrapers of joint compound on it. I stirred it around with my scraper until I had shaped it into a donut ring. I poured water into the ring until it was filled to the rim. I explained to Carmen that joint compound by itself was very plastic and easy to work with, but it contracted when it dried and wasn’t good for filling large holes, which I had in abundance. However, if I mixed the compound with the plaster, it wouldn’t contract when it dried and would still be easier to work with than straight plaster. Carmen listened attentively and watched my preparations. I poured plaster into the water inside the ring of compound and quickly began mixing it all together. I explained that now I had to work fast because I had only a couple of minutes to apply the plaster before it set up and became too hard to spread. I swiftly used up the batch of plaster mix and filled up the first set of holes.

I was confident doing this kind of work and Carmen seemed impressed by my competence. She helped me fill the rest of the holes and even mixed and applied a batch of plaster herself. This achievement left her glowing with pride and she returned several times to admire her handiwork.

“My plaster is better than yours, Jack.” She teased impishly.

I threatened to catapult a glob of compound at her with my scraper and she squealed in protest. Carmen was happy again and I was happy too.

Chapter 50

Last night we had gone out for a few beers with Juan. Carmen and Juan weren’t as close now as they had been when they were young, but they were still family and both glad to be living near each other. They had developed widely contrasting lifestyles and attitudes in their adult years and this left them with somewhat limited common ground for conversation. Juan embraced the New York City rough and tumble street life, a fervent anti establishment perspective, and a rock and roll raison d’être. Carmen, for her part, had very much immersed herself in the professional world and enjoyed a world which included the trappings of comfort that a professional salary would afford. Despite the sibling differences, Juan’s usual gruffness was tempered by a mild open smile as he sat with his bottle of Becks beer quietly listening to Jimi Hendrix on the juke box. Carmen was relaxed to have something familiar and comforting in her new foreign surroundings and was obviously relieved to be able to communicate with someone in her language instead of existing full time in a world of meaningless babble.

This morning Pavel came over to help us paint. He didn’t go into his job at the university computer center until mid afternoon and had volunteered to give us a hand till then. Pavel and Carmen rolled the walls while I rolled the ceilings and cut in all the corners with my brush. Pavel had brought coffee and Danish from the Hungarian Pastry Shop and we noshed on these while we painted. I had put on a tape of Dwight Yoakam and his rock a billy version of Long White Cadillac was energizing my work.

“Why don’t you take that country crap off!” protested Pavel.

“That’s Dwight Yoakum!” I exclaimed in indignation.

“He’s crap, whatever his bizarre name is.”

“He’s not crap. He’s a great artist. But of course you wouldn’t understand about that.” I retorted.

Pavel made an incredulous face. “Art!” he mimicked me with derision as he ran his roller down the wall. “Only an American would have the gall to associate country western music with the concept of art.”

I explained to Carmen that Dwight Yoakam had a sardonic approach to country western music that made him seem intelligent and interesting in addition to just being a good musician. Pavel scoffed derisively. “He’s just another inbred hillbilly whining about his ignorant, wasted life of falling in love with sheep.”

Carmen looked puzzled. Pavel explained to her in exaggerated simple English. “Stupid American shit.” The stupid American part Carmen got right away.

“Shit is mierda.” I explained.

Carmen nodded with satisfaction. “Yes, you are right.” She pronounced carefully to Pavel.

Pavel cackled with mirth. “You see the result of your attempt at brainwashing this sophisticated European girl about your brutish and barbaric culture? Why don’t you put on some techno?”

Carmen heard the word “techno” and wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Please no.” she said firmly. “This is, how you say Jack, shit?” This time it was my turn to laugh. I felt a glow of warm affection for Carmen for, even though she did have the almost fatal defect of liking Rick Astley, the rest of her musical taste was well within acceptable bounds. She may not have been steeped in the richness of American traditional music that I cherished so dearly, but her musical horizon did include such palatable features as U2, Nina Simone, Simply Red, and a variety of British rockers. I had a long list of musicians I wanted to expose her to, starting with Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg, and then moving through the blues to the fiddle and banjo of bluegrass, and then to the Louisiana accordion of zydeco, the fiddle of Cajun, the Mexican influence of Norteño, and finally challenging her with the lyrics and personae of song writers like Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt. I wouldn’t, of course, expect her to like everything that I showed her, but I was determined that she would at least know of the existence of the different musical styles so she could choose for herself what she liked. The one thing that was absolutely certain was that I wasn’t going to let Pavel pollute the peaceful air waves of my house with that idiotic, mindless, boom, boom, boom, crap techno that he loved so much, and I was grateful that Carmen and I were in unison on at least this one crucial issue.

Carmen adopted the ostentatious molded plaster fake fireplace in the living room as her personal project and began industriously and meticulously painting with a one inch brush all the innumerable small ornamental indentations covering its surface. I went over behind her and watched her for a moment and then began making a few quick, impatient strokes with my four inch brush. Carmen stepped back and stared at me hostilely with her hands on her hips. I saw her out of the corner of my eye and jumped back as her free hand slapped at my shoulder.

“Jack!” she spat out reprovingly. “Go away!” she commanded.

I left Carmen in charge of the fake fireplace and retreated back to rolling the ceiling. Pavel smirked and nodded in Carmen’s direction. “Fuck you.” I growled tersely at him. Pavel chortled.

“Be careful with her, Jack. She’ll cut your little testicles right off if you piss her off.” I nodded ruefully at him and grinned at Carmen who looked back with a haughty glare. She hadn’t understood what Pavel said, but she knew it was about her and she wasn’t going to give me the satisfaction of asking for a translation. Pavel hooted.

Chapter 51

Carmen began exerting her proprietorship over her new surroundings. All my possessions, which hitherto were accustomed to having me as their feudal lord, suddenly found themselves bending to the iron will of a new master. With the apartment newly plastered and painted and the floors rebuilt by a friend from my old construction work days in exchange for future free labor, Carmen turned her imperial attention to other sectors of my domicile. Nothing, neither my furniture, nor my adornments, nor any of my domestic accoutrements escaped her critical appraisal.

The first victim was my cherished skull painting. An artist named Teddy that hung out at Gus’s bar on 106th street had painted it. He gave it to me as a present one night when he brought the canvass into the bar after finishing it. He had been drinking from a pint of whiskey that he kept in his jacket pocket and was already quite drunk when he entered the bar. I had been discussing politics with some other patrons when Teddy made his boisterous entrance. I tried to ignore his obnoxious intrusion at first, as he stood weaving unsteadily behind us with a bottle of Heineken in one hand and a lit cigarette hanging from his lips. He squinted belligerently at us through the smoke from his cigarette and the alcohol induced fog in his own mind. With his other hand, he thrust the canvass out for our inspection. When I finally let myself be distracted enough to turn around and take a look at it, I found myself instantly drawn to his painting. I found it eerily and piercingly evocative. There was a powerful questioning quality of the vacant eyes and a malevolent leer in the jaw bone that seemed to transcend the mystery and frailty of human existence. I heaped praise effusively on Teddy for his creative genius and he was emotionally touched to the point of putting his arm around my shoulder in maudlin affection. Nothing would satisfy him except that I accept the painting as a present. Despite the fact that I had never wanted to court Teddy’s friendship, I was very pleased with his gift and looked on him with considerably more warmth afterwards, even though he did usually become tiresome when he drank too much, as was his custom. I took the painting home and it had remained propped up against a wall on top of a book case ever since. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Carmen thought it was hideously ugly. After a brief and bitterly contested skirmish, the painting was forthwith banished to be turned face to the wall in the rear of my bedroom closet.

The next item for Carmen’s chopping block was my cutlery. Like French aristocrats loaded into tumbrels, my random collection of forks, spoons, and knives was unceremoniously discharged from service. Carmen went out shopping by herself, armed with only a minimal vocabulary in English, and returned with a new matching set of cutlery that was more according to her taste. She gave my old motley set away to the Dominican wife of my building’s superintendent. I deplored the unnecessary expenditure and mentally calculated the number of six packs of beer I could have purchased with the value of the new forks and knives.

Carmen stood rubbing her chin and perusing the scene of cozy decrepitude that constituted my living room furniture. I caught her in the act of making another executive decision by fiat.

“Jack, we need a new sofa. And also a nice chair”

“Carmen, a chair is something I put my ass on. I don’t want to spend a lot of money for something I’m just going to put my ass on.”

“Jack, don’t be stupid!” Carmen rapped out.

I didn’t pursue the issue further. I meant it facetiously, but there was a serious aspect to my comment. A principal philosophical tenet of mine was that one should be comfortable in one’s own home and being comfortable meant being able to put one’s feet up on the furniture while relaxing. I didn’t want to have a house full of furniture that I wouldn’t be allowed to put my feet up on. If I wanted to see furniture like that I could stroll over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Louis XIV vintage sofas belonged. In any case, I didn’t have the money for a new sofa. Carmen did. She asked me where she could go to buy one. I told her I really didn’t have a clue. Most of my furniture were either old stage props or had been pulled off the street after being discarded as trash. I explained to Carmen eagerly that if you drove around exploring on garbage pick up day in the affluent neighborhoods on the East Side, you could sometimes find very good quality furniture on the street. Carmen gave me a thin smile and picked up the phone.

Ten minutes later, after a brief consultation in Spanish, Carmen was headed out the door to meet the wife of the Spanish doctor that Carmen was going to work for. She was back later that afternoon directing workmen who were delivering the new item. They were Hispanic and Carmen ordered them about mercilessly, shifting the sofa twice before she was satisfied. She also had them remove my old one to the street. They answered her very politely and formally in Spanish with “Si, señora.” and hustled to carry out her every command. As they were leaving, I gave them ten bucks each and told them they could keep the old sofa if they wanted it. The men grinned placidly at me and said “Gracias señor.”

After closing the door, I went back to the living room and regarded the new intruder in my domain. It had a certain pastel quality. That is to say that it had a recognizable and distinct color. That, in and of itself, was enough to distinguish it from its predecessor. The dominant color of the palette featured in most of my furniture pieces might have been described by a generous interior decorator as regal grime. Carmen came out of the bathroom.

“Jack, the faucet still leaks.”

“I know. The threads are worn out.”

“Can you call the superintendent, please?”

“Now? We looked at it together last week. He showed me…”

“Jack! Please will you call him now? I didn’t come here to live in a porqueria.”

I stifled my protests and called Manny, our Dominican super. Manny came in a few minutes later with his five kilogram key chain jangling at his waist.

“Hey Jacky, how’s my man?” Manny gave me his usual slick smile, revealing his missing front tooth and slapped me five. He straightened up when he saw Carmen and said with a sober and subdued voice “Buenos dias, señora.”

“Manny,” I began, without confidence and hoping my mechanical superior wouldn’t consider me a typical middle class fool incapable of understanding or solving problems in the real world. “Can we do something about that faucet in the bathroom sink?”

Manny laughed mockingly and I winced. I knew he was going to chide me like this. “Jacky, you forget what I say, man? We look at that last week. The…, what you say, threads, they no good, man. You got to take it out the whole thing, man. I tell you like that last week, Jack. You don’t listen me?”

I began translating for Carmen and Manny cut in and began explaining in Spanish, moving over to her and twirling one finger inside his other cupped hand to demonstrate how part of the faucet screwed into the sink fixture. Carmen crossed her arms and said evenly “Look, I don’t care what you do. I want a faucet that doesn’t leak.”

Manny looked over at me inquiringly for a moment. I was frozen. I knew the landlord would balk at paying for a new sink. Manny shrugged his shoulders. “No problem, Jack. I change it for you. I got to find a part. I come back later.” He nodded deferentially to Carmen. “Señora.”

Manny came back 15 minutes later with a beat up looking replacement faucet. There was old paint encrusted around the spigot. I shuddered with misgivings. Manny bent over the sink and the bicep muscle under his tattoo bulged out from his tee shirt sleeve. After fifteen minutes of grunting and sweating, Manny stepped back and proudly displayed to me the fruits of his craft and labor. He turned the faucet on and off several times to demonstrate that it didn’t leak. He grinned at me. “All right, Jack? Now your señora going be happy?”

I was dismayed. The new mismatching faucet was a horrible eye sore. Its aesthetic defects clamored for attention from even the most insensitive observer. Carmen came in and peered over our shoulders. I saw her expression change from bland curiosity to outraged fury in a twinkling. “Are you joking?” she exploded in Spanish. She gave Manny a withering glance and glared at me. “Jack, what is wrong with you? Take this stupid thing out, right now.”

Carmen withdrew abruptly. Manny looked after her in momentary consternation and then recuperated with a shrug of his chin. “What you want me to do, Jack?”

I arranged for Manny to get a brand new fixture. The next day he came back and installed it. It was shiny and cheap looking. It contrasted noticeably compared to the other old stately fixture. Carmen was not satisfied in the least and accompanied Manny to the hardware store and personally picked out a set of sink fixtures that were to her liking and which made me gulp with anxiety when I saw their price tag. That concluded the saga of the leaking bathroom sink faucet.

Meanwhile, Carmen had focused her attention on my semi-antique wooden dining table. The finished surface was admittedly scratched liberally and I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this was part of its charm, but I did regard it with some degree of affection and managed to appreciate it for the visible remnants of its past glory. It also had carved claws for the feet of the legs and I had always liked the time consuming craftsmanship that had gone into their production in a way that modern manufacturing wouldn’t allow for. The clawed feet were also somewhat worse for wear. A previous owner had kept several cats and it had been convenient for them to sharpen their own claws on the table feet, with the result that the original carving could still be discerned by a studious eye, but the more recent reworking was considerably more evident. I considered that a truly fussy person might hold this as a fatal flaw, but I had always maintained a peaceful coexistence with my furniture in a you-don’t-hurt-me-and-I-won’t-hurt-you laissez faire atmosphere. The new marshal in town had a different zero tolerance attitude towards the miscreants and felons that populated my furniture world and Carmen announced that she was going to purchase a glass top dining table.

This was beyond my limit of flexibility. I mean to say that I don’t believe in defining my persona by the objects in my possession but a glass topped table was just way too bourgeois for me to accept. I had to draw the line somewhere. I was willing to be fair and share my castle with my woman, but there does come a point when a man must stand up for his principles.

The glass top dining table was delivered the next afternoon. Pavel came over to claim my old wooden table. He gazed admiringly at the glass topped table and asked puckishly “Can I have the new one instead?”

I was inclined to accede to his request, but I bitterly replied in the negative. His glance fell on our new sofa. “How about the sofa?”

Chapter 52

Carmen began working part time in the Spanish doctor’s lab and studying English in a course taught at a nearby church. She went off confidently on her own to her new job, taking two city buses to get to the lab, but was very apprehensive about her first class in English. I dropped her off in her classroom the first afternoon, holding her hand as we combed through the subterranean levels of the church searching for the room. I gave her a kiss at the door of the class, briefly shook hands with the instructor, and gave a final wave of encouragement to Carmen, who sat stony faced in the polyglot sea of pupil faces. I felt a pang of paternal concern as if I was leaving my child by herself for the first time at kindergarten.

I knew why Carmen was nervous but I couldn’t really understand it. She had told me, upon me pressing her for an answer, that she didn’t like to do things she didn’t do well. I was surprised to hear this sentiment. I always thought it was hilarious when I tried to speak a foreign language and made idiotic sounding mistakes. It was part of the fun of learning. Carmen on the other hand, simply felt mortified when she made mistakes in front of people she didn’t feel intimate with. What a sharp contrast to her father, I couldn’t help thinking as I remembered Juan Sr.’s delight in attempting the English language regardless of the verbal carnage in his wake.

When Carmen came home from her first class though, she was fizzing with excitement and enthusiasm. She hadn’t been the worst student as she had feared, but even seemed to be one of the more advanced ones. She told me proudly that her pronunciation was one of the best in the class, especially compared to the Asian students whose verbal offerings were almost completely unintelligible. She didn’t say this in a gloating way, but with a mixture of relief from avoided embarrassment and a genuine heartfelt concern for her fellow students. I reflected that Carmen had an instinctive tendency to bond with a group whereas I tended to remain more solitary and be more discriminating about whom I chose as my friends.

Carmen animatedly described her classmates. They were immigrants from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Iran, Ethiopia, Senegal, Russia, Poland, and a slew of Latin American countries. Carmen had never known such an international mix of people before and she was thrilled to be part of it. The other students had mostly come to the US without the advantages of much education and were hoping to improve their lot by hard work. There weren’t many professionals like Carmen, who already had a comfortable standard of living back in her home country and had come to the states purely for personal motives. Carmen was flirting with the idea of going back to university for an advanced degree if she stayed in the US, but it wouldn’t have occurred to her to leave Spain for this reason.

At her new job, Carmen was able to work with the Spanish doctor in her own language for the time being. She was still working in her familiar field of hematology so she found learning the new techniques to be challenging and interesting rather than intimidating. She found the doctor to be friendly on the surface, but somewhat ambitious and manipulative.

All in all, she was settling in comfortably in her new surroundings. On her first sortie to the street, I had rigorously instructed her about street safety, about knowing who was behind her, about having her house key in her hand so she wouldn’t spend a vulnerable minute in the building entrance fumbling for keys in a purse, about watching her wallet at all times, and other survival tips to guide her through the uglier realities of life in New York that weren’t issues of such concern in Spain.

I was working at the theater and doing moving jobs with the old van to make extra money on the side. I continued inching forward on several writing projects and always carved out time somehow to go down to the park and play soccer several times a week. In the free time left over to us, I took Carmen on tours of the city that I was born in and knew in such intimate and affectionate detail. We walked all over Manhattan. We strolled past art galleries and flea markets in SOHO, through the exotic color and grime of Chinatown, the sidewalk forests of the flower district around 6th Avenue and 30th Street, the Roosevelt Island Tram, the quiet elegance of Sutton Place, the UN, the hidden grace of Tudor City, the revolving planet at the Daily News building, the lions at the library on 42nd Street, and of course the site where I lived when I was a kid on 40th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues in a five floor tenement walk up that has long since been condemned and demolished.

I took Carmen to eat fresh bagels at H&H on 80th Street and Broadway. We shoved our way through the crowded madness to savor the pungent aromas of cheese and coffee at Zabars. We went to Oppenheimer’s butcher shop on Broadway and Harry himself served us small sample slices before we walked out with a bundle of Lachschinken and Weisswurst. We ate falafels. We ate Sicilians at Vinnie’s Pizzeria on 74th Street and Amsterdam. We ate pastrami on rye sandwiches all over town, searching for the ultimate pastrami experience. We ate Sabarett hot dogs with mustard, sauer kraut, and smelly onions from the carts on the street.

I embarrassed Carmen terribly one night in front of Lincoln Center as the patrons of the opera were flooding past us, dressed in their finest. The hot dog vendor had the audacity to charge us $1.85 for each hot dog. I was outraged and furious. I told him sharply without mincing my words what the going rate for hot dogs was and informed him that I was not some dumb tourist from out of town. Carmen backed away with her hot dog as I raised my voice in the flush of anger. The vendor didn’t even have a sign posting his prices. I was born in New York and I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of. Carmen edged farther down the street as more passing opera patrons began taking notice of my dispute.

I took Carmen to Central Park. We strolled hand in hand through the overgrown tangle of the Ramble. We lingered in the romantic seclusion of the stone bridges and fountains in Shakespeare’s Garden. We looked out from the heights of Belvedere Castle at the expansive view of the playing fields and the reservoir beyond and the tall apartment buildings ringing the park on 5th Avenue and Central Park West. We ambled past Bethesda Fountain and watched the roller skaters dancing to disco music. We sat outside at the row boat pond cafeteria and contentedly munched on hot dogs and French fries. I took her to see the model ships sailing across the boat basin. Carmen clutched my arm with both hands and watched with enchantment as children clambered on the Alice in Wonderland statue. I told her I used to play on this same statue when I was a kid.

“I want to have niños preciosos like that with you, Jack.” Carmen murmured. I gently put my arm around her shoulder and she leaned into my body and watched the children.

I took her to the mound of rocks just north of the model boat basin and showed her how my friend and I had hid behind the stone wall like in a fort and shot at the Indians or Nazis or whichever imaginary foe was attacking us. We visited the zoo and I again embarrassed Carmen by excitedly shouting a greeting to a Slovenian furniture refinisher that I knew from the theater and whom I unexpectedly recognized in the crowd near the monkey house.

Of course I had to take Carmen to the Museum of Natural History. Every time we were in the vicinity, I would drag Carmen into the museum. Since I went in so often, I would donate only 25 cents for each of us for our voluntary entrance contribution and visit a different exhibit each time. Carmen usually humored my zeal and was happy to learn all the new things I was showing her. Occasionally my excitement would get the better of me and I would blindly push her a bit too far.

One day we made a shopping trip in midtown, from where I insisted on walking back at least as far as Lincoln Center so that I could show her Christopher Columbus’s statue at Columbus Circle. From there I stretched our tour to stroll past the boutiques and restaurants on Columbus Avenue. As we got to 77th Street and the old red brick of the museum came into view, I got a flash of excitement to see the Pacific Northwest Indians wing and remembered ecstatically that Carmen hadn’t yet seen this particular exhibit. I gripped Carmen’s hand tighter and pulled her along.

“Come on, Carmen. It’s only four o’clock. We can go into the museum for twenty minutes.”

Carmen made a tired grimace. “Oh Jack, not now. I’m tired.”

I vetoed her objection. “There’s plenty of time to relax when you’re dead. Just twenty minutes. It’s really great. You’ll like it.”

Carmen continued to protest. “Jack, I’m sure I’ll like it, but can’t we wait for another day? I’m tired. I want to go home.”

Carmen’s remonstrations were in vain. My momentum was unstoppable. I whisked her across the street and into the 77th Street entrance. I put down our 50 cents and took her, hand in hand, to the Pacific Northwest Indians exhibit.

“The reason why they made the totem poles is fascinating. Look at the houses they lived in. see how they were constructed? Wow! Look at this canoe! Can you imagine the work it took to build it with the tools they had?”

I gushed with gleeful zest. Carmen nodded woodenly as I remarked on each point of interest. I was tempted by a powerful urge to zip off for a quick peek at the African mammals before closing time, but I noticed the stoic patience veiled underneath Carmen’s thin smile and checked myself.

“Vamos a la casa? Should we go home?” I asked her.

“Si.” Carmen answered simply.

Fatigue showed around Carmen’s usually lustrous eyes. Against all my principles of New York life, we took a taxi home instead of walking over to Broadway for the bus or the subway. It always galled me to pay the exorbitant cost of a taxi, even though I had driven a cab myself when I was 19 and fully appreciated the rigors of a cabbie’s life. I would typically walk up to twenty blocks and take the subway if my destination was further. Today I reluctantly broke my iron rule and acquiesced to a taxi. I did however, insist on walking to a street corner so that the cab would be going in the right direction and then we got out at the corner of Broadway so that the meter wouldn’t run up an extra dollar going around the block to deliver us to our door. Carmen fell asleep with her head against my shoulder before we even reached 86th Street.

Chapter 53

As Carmen’s acquaintanceship with the English language progressed, she began to take an interest in the hundreds of titles of books on my shelves. My total lack of interest in furniture was balanced by a passion for books and music records. I was proud of my collection of the great literary works and plays that I thought should be preserved for future generations and that I wanted to leave to my own children someday. One night Carmen asked me about some of the authors and I zealously supplied her with full and detailed descriptions. She asked if there was a book that might be easy for her to read.  I deliberated for a bit and scanned the titles. My eyes fell on “The Wind in the Willows”.

Carmen was charmed by the illustrations of Rat and Mr. Toad and a delighted smile lit her face. She turned to the first page and began mouthing the awkward English words. By the end of the second sentence, her smile was already fading into dismayed frustration. She asked me to translate half of the words and suddenly the meaning was illuminated and the delighted smile reappeared. We settled back against the pillows and I began reading and translating to Carmen with one arm around her shoulder. Carmen looked at the illustrations and followed the printed words with her wide eyes. I reached the end of the first chapter and noticed Carmen’s soft, regular breathing. Her eyes were closed.

Carmen asked me to read to her again the next evening. After a long and challenging day dealing with the rigors of her new job, her English lessons, the New York city streets, and her lover’s personality, she was ready to be sheltered and pampered for a little bit before drifting off to a peaceful slumber in our bed,

“Mimame, Jack. Pamper me.” Carmen whimpered coaxingly, with the blankets up around her chin. I humored her mood and tucked her in like a little girl. When Carmen was feeling cozy enough we went through another chapter of “The Wind in the Willows” until Carmen finally yawned. I slipped out of my clothes and crossed the room to turn the overhead light off. The room went black and I ducked silently down to the floor at the foot of the bed. I froze and several silent seconds went past. Carmen stirred.

“Jack?” I remained motionless. “Jack? What are you doing?” Carmen called out into the darkness. I saw the lump of Carmen’s foot sticking up under the blankets. I stealthily reached out one hand and then with a lightning fast jerk seized her foot. Carmen shrieked with alarm. “Que idiota! You scared me to death!” I collapsed on the floor clutching my side with laughter as Carmen hurled invectives at me from under the covers. “Imbécil! Hijo de puta!”

Chapter 54

One evening Carmen and I went out for a walk in the neighborhood. We had already made love and were feeling relaxed and unified. Carmen had stepped out of the shower and was bent over the sink in her panties to apply her lip stick and mascara. I came into the bathroom and went up behind her to look over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror. Carmen smelled fresh and clean. I ran one finger tip slowly down the ridge of her spine. Her skin was smooth. A naughty leer crinkled the corners of my mouth. Carmen glanced at me in the mirror and frowned. She brushed the mascara carefully into her eye lashes. I watched her movements. Carmen could feel me watching her. I held one hand poised over her shoulder so that Carmen would notice it. Carmen continued with her mascara but kept glancing to see what I was doing with my hands. I put my hand behind her back so she couldn’t see it. She waited for the touch. My hand stayed just a hair from her skin in the middle of her back. I reached my other hand in front of her and raised it in front of her breast. My palm was almost touching her nipple. Carmen put some last touches on her mascara and stopped. We both stayed very still with my hands next to her body but not touching her. Carmen set her front teeth together and breathed. As her chest heaved her nipple rose closer still to my palm. I could enclose my hand around her breast and squeeze it at any moment. I could feel Carmen’s tension as she anticipated the places where I would touch her. She didn’t know when I would touch her but she knew it would be soon. Maybe one second, maybe ten seconds, maybe 30 seconds. She could imagine my fingers closing slowly around her breasts. I softly stroked the middle of her back between her shoulder blades. Carmen gasped and reflexively recoiled from the ticklish touch, shooting her breasts straight forward against my other hand. I left my hand open and stroked her back delicately again. Carmen’s flinch drove her nipple into my palm. I caressed her back again with just the lightest brush of a fingertip. Carmen ground her teeth. She grimaced and sucked in her breath sharply. She bit her lip and ground her breast forward into my hand. She glared at me defiantly. I narrowed my eyes in a mischievous smirk and squeezed Carmen’s breasts with both hands. I pulled her firmly towards me and leant my face forward to hers. She bent upwards and closed her eyes to kiss me. I put my lips close to hers but didn’t kiss her. I blew softly on her lips, moving in a slow circle around her mouth. Carmen smiled as she saw the new game. She darted quickly up to kiss me but I jerked my head just far enough away to stay out of reach. I blew gently on her lips again. Carmen kept her eyes closed and searched for my mouth. I flicked my tongue out and touched her upper lip. Carmen flashed her tongue out in response but too late. I touched her lower lip and pulled back quickly. I squeezed her breasts gradually harder. Carmen gnawed the corner of her mouth. My fingers were gripping her tightly now and it hurt her a little but also accentuated her tension. I slowly pushed my thigh against her groin and pressed it against her. She leaned back against the sink with her breasts pulling at my grasp. Suddenly, she clenched her forehead with her eyes tightly shut and a tremor passed through her slender body. Several more spasms convulsed through her until she finally sank back, almost limp in my still firm grip.

After we both showered again, we went down to the street hand in hand. We went into the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue. I didn’t like religion but the cathedral was a beautiful and impressive building. Two disheveled and foul smelling panhandlers asked for spare change on the stone steps leading up to the pointed arch doorways. We stepped inside and the traffic noise from the street faded as if muffled by the silence. A chair scraped against the floor halfway to the altar and the echo came clearly to our ears. The vaulted stone ceiling faded into the gloom above us. We strolled quietly down the dim corridor past alcoves with statues and expansive tapestries hanging on the walls. The muted colors of the tapestries blended with the subdued tone of the huge building’s twilight interior. We passed several people kneeling in prayer at various altars. I made a wry face.

“Look at those pathetic bastards.” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth to Carmen.

Carmen squeezed my hand sharply. “Callete! Shut up! Don’t be a clown.”

“It’s against human dignity to kneel down in front of anything.” I protested.

“I don’t care. I’m not religious either, but be quiet.” Carmen said in a whispered hiss and pulled me away from the kneeling figures as if to make sure I wouldn’t start a philosophical debate with them.

We walked out into the chill wind on Amsterdam Avenue and crossed over to the steamy coziness of the Hungarian Pastry Shop. The Greek owners of the pastry shop were part of the multinational group that met in the park every day to play soccer. In fact, there was frequently a knot of soccer players sitting at a table with the owners, drinking coffee, expressing strong opinions about the Italian League game of the week, and hoping to win the affection of one of the pretty waitresses.

“Hey Malaka!” I greeted one of the owners. The owner gave a quick glance around to see if there were any Greeks within ear shot who might be offended by the slang and gave a friendly reply.

“Malaka, how are you? Is this your gorgeous new girlfriend that I heard about?”

I introduced Carmen. The Greek shook her hand and spoke the only Spanish phrase he knew to her. “Como estás, bonita? How do you do, beautiful?”

Carmen beamed. The Greek laughed and put a hand on my shoulder. “Jack, have a seat. Order anything you want. Today it’s on the house in honor of your lovely woman.” He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze and turned to speak to the next customer at the counter.

About twenty small tables were packed tightly together in an intimate and simple atmosphere. Paintings by local artists decorated the walls. We found an unoccupied table squeezed in between a young woman who was wearing wire rimmed glasses and underlining sentences in a Renaissance art history text and a young man with a bushy beard and a beret who was reading the Village Voice. A gorgeous Ethiopian waitress set our cappuccinos on the table and glided gracefully on to another table. The young man with the beard and beret followed her movements out of the corner of his eye. The Greek came over and slid two plates of chocolate cake onto our table. He gave us a wink and walked off.

“He’s very nice.” Carmen smiled happily as she savored the thick chocolate.

From the pastry shop we wended our way towards the eternal bustle and light of Broadway. On 110th Street I showed Carmen the gargoyles perched on the façade of an apartment building, peering down on the unsuspecting pedestrians below. On Broadway we passed a busy Chinese restaurant. Through the window I could see two friends hunched over their drinks at the bar.

“Come on.” I pulled Carmen by the hand and gave her a conspiratorial grin. “I want you to meet some interesting characters.”

The restaurant was brightly lit in a phosphorescent glare. Three pretty girls were sitting at one end of the bar and my two friends were at the other end. I made a conscious effort to not glance at the girls. Even if Carmen didn’t say anything I knew she would notice and I wanted her to feel that she was the only woman I wanted to look at. My friends sat huddled in quiet conference at the far end of the bar. I tapped one of them on the shoulder. A big burly guy in his late thirties with a bushy beard and long hair tied in a pony tail turned around.

“Oh, Jack. And his lady love.” He laughed with a merry twinkle. His voice was highlighted by a marked New York accent. “You must be Carmen. Welcome, or as we say in español, bienvenido. My name is Bill”

Carmen looked confused at the quick flow of English, but pleased to be greeted in her own tongue. Bill took her hand and leaned forward on his bar stool to kiss it. Carmen smiled brightly and gave a slight mock curtsy. Bill laughed and took a puff on his menthol cigarette. He leaned towards Carmen again and said impishly but slowly to allow her to understand his meaning. “You” he pointed his finger at her. “look nice and intelligent.” Again he gestured by pointing to his head and giving the thumbs up sign to illustrate his words. “Why, porque, are you wasting your time with this loser?” He pointed to Carmen and then to me with an incredulous expression. As Carmen looked confused he pointed to me and gave a wry face. “Jack is no good.”

Carmen finally understood Bill’s teasing and lit up in a laugh. “Yes, you are right. Jack is very stupid.” She pronounced carefully. Bill leaned back and roared with laughter. His companion looked on and smiled calmly. I chuckled and squeezed Carmen’s shoulder. Carmen looked at me mischievously.

Bill wagged a finger at me. “Be careful, Jacky. This one’s ready for you. Ooh, ooh, a joke. Carmen, what’s the fastest way to a man’s heart?” Bill accompanied his words with hand gestures. “Straight through the ribs with a sharp knife.” After a momentary lapse, Carmen burst into mirthful laughter. Bill leaned back and sipped his Chablis.

Carmen turned to me with her lip curled in mock challenge. “Be careful.” She said slowly in English. “I want your heart.” She jabbed her finger into my ribs and gave it a twist.

Bill exhaled a huge cloud of cigarette smoke and leaned his head back in laughter. His companion chuckled. I turned and introduced Carmen to him. “Hi.” He said quietly. “My name is Kazimeras.” Carmen shook hands with him. Kazimeras looked shyly at Carmen from under long locks of hair that hung down over his eyes. What could be seen of his eyes had a certain bleary quality. It was now eight o’clock. I knew that Bill and Kazimeras got out of work at five. I quickly calculated how many drinks they could have put down if they had made a beeline for their bar stools directly from their office at the university computer center. Carmen squinted at the unfamiliar name and Kazimeras explained. “It’s Lithuanian for Casimir. He is the patron saint of Lithuania.”

Bill tapped Carmen on the arm. “Just call him Kaz. That’s easier.” He leaned back and nodded to her encouragingly.

I translated the missing links and Carmen looked interested. “Are you from Europe?” she asked.

“No. I was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, but most of my family came over from Lithuania.”

Bill leaned in again and said in a conspiratorial stage whisper to Carmen. “Rich people.” He rubbed his thumb against his finger tips. “Me, I’m from the Bronx.”

Carmen grinned. She turned back to Kaz. “How many time you live in New York?” Carmen struggled to string the English words together.

“My parents sent me here for law school. I dropped out in the first semester. I’ve been here ever since.”

“Not always here in this bar though.” Bill leaned in again. “Sometimes they throw him out so they can clean the joint.”

I translated and Carmen laughed. The Chinese bartender came over and Bill ordered us gin and tonics. He ordered another glass of Chablis for himself and Kaz had another vodka and tonic.

“Do you really come here often?” Carmen asked.

“Everyday.” Bill declared emphatically. Kaz nodded sheepishly.

“Why? It’s a Chinese restaurant.”

“To drink alcohol, of course.” Bill chortled. He made a motion of tipping his thumb into his upturned mouth and clucked his tongue. Kaz looked on and grinned. Bill bent forward towards Carmen. “Seriously, here we can always get a seat. It’s not exactly a hip hangout. And there’s nobody to distract you from your task with a load of pseudo intellectual bullshit. All the other bars around here are jam packed with clever college kids who don’t know squat yet never cease squawking their opinions about how to run the world. I don’t have time for that shit.” Bill reached for his wine glass and lit another cigarette. A folded piece of newspaper lay next to his glass. I could see that Bill had been working on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Every column and row had been filled in. On the bar next to Kaz lay a book. I could just make out the title, “Die Räuber” by Friedrich von Schiller. Bill turned back to us. “The last time I went into Gus’s Bar, about six months ago, some 19 year old started telling me about reality. Shit. I showed him this and told him this was reality.” Bill lifted up his Grateful Dead tee shirt and revealed a long white scar across the folds of his ample abdomen. “Vietnam, 1969, thank you very much for the lesson in reality.”

Carmen recoiled with a start. Kaz looked out from under his drooping eyelids. “That’s a gorgeous belly you’ve got there Bill.”

“Thank you. It’s all mine. I’m going to give birth to a case of Chablis. Oh, another thing that’s good about this place is that it’s a short stagger to the subway station at closing time. The only problem is that I usually pass out on the train when I’m going home to the Bronx after a soiree of boozing. Then I shuttle back and forth from one end of the line to the other like a fucking ping pong ball for the rest of the night. When I wake up a few hours later, I just pray I’m going in the right direction.” Bill took another puff, and then his face brightened as he thought of something else. “By the way, if you ever eat in here, order number 16.” He sipped his Chablis and watched us over the rim of his glass.

“What’s number 16?” I asked.

“I have no fucking clue. I just order number 16 in every Chinese restaurant I go to.” He hooted with laughter.

Carmen and I finished our drinks and went on our way. As we left the restaurant, I glanced back and saw Bill and Kaz hunched together over their drinks again. Carmen took my hand and we strolled down Broadway. I looked at Carmen and laughed. “What do you think?”

“Eran simpaticos. They were nice. Do they really go there every day?”

“Most of the time. They work with Pavel at the computer center. Pavel says the only thing he does there is play chess with Kaz all day.”

“Kaz is very handsome.”

“Really? I never thought about it, but I suppose he is handsome. I always see him when he is drunk and trying to focus his eyes through the vodka.”

“They drink a lot, don’t they?”


Carmen frowned with maternal concern. “Why do they drink so much?”

I sighed. “I don’t know.”

We got to Gus’s Bar on 106th Street and decided to go in for a drink. The place was busy. The dining tables were filled. A jazz combo was setting up its equipment. We found two vacant stools at the bar and settled ourselves in. The tip of Carmen’s nose was red from the cold wind whistling down Broadway. The bartender attentively looked at Carmen and waited for her order.

“Porto?” she asked tentatively.

The bartender winced and shook his head regretfully. Carmen settled for a gin and tonic. The tender nodded and glanced inquiringly at me. “Molson, Jack?”

The door opened behind us and a chill draught nipped the back of my neck. Carmen shivered. A couple moved slowly down the narrow passageway behind the bar stools. The guy was dressed all in black, with a black leather jacket, black scarf, black leather gloves, black slacks, and black shoes. He smiled and shook my hand. “Hello, Jack.” He unbuttoned his jacket and revealed a black turtle neck sweater. I introduced him to Carmen and he shook her hand. “How do you do? My name is Hakan.”

The woman also wore a black leather jacket with black slacks and red felt lined high heeled boots. She had long dark hair and under her jacket she wore a bright red tight fitting sweater.

“Hello Jack darling. How are you?” She kissed me on the cheek and then turned to Carmen and embraced her also. “Hi. My name is Kelebek, it means “butterfly” in Turkish.”

I translated for Carmen. Hakan and Kelebek were both from Turkey, but had met and married here in New York after coming to study. They were both in PhD programs at the university. I told Carmen in Spanish that one was studying economics and the other was in political science but I couldn’t remember which one was which. Carmen tightened her lips and gave me a fleeting but meaningful glare. I offered my stool to Kelebek but she refused it emphatically.

“Oh no. I’m fine. Thank you, but it’s really not necessary.”

Carmen got up and stood leaning her back against my shoulder. She gestured to the vacated stool. “I want to stand. Please sit.”

Kelebek was hesitant. “Are you sure? I don’t want to take your seat.”

Carmen was firm and Kelebek was finally was finally convinced. She sat down with a delighted purr. Suddenly she straightened up and turned to Carmen. “My cousin went to Malaga. He loved it.” Carmen nodded. Malaga was in the south of Spain on the Mediterranean coast and quite different from her home in Galicia. “Oh, have you been to the new exhibit at MOMA?” Kelebek gushed.

Carmen looked at me ad I told her that Kelebek was talking about the Museum of Modern Art. Carmen looked back at Kelebek and shook her head. Kelebek slapped the back of her hand against my elbow. “Jack, you must take her to this exhibit. It’s wonderful! We went on Sunday. Please promise you’ll take her there this weekend? It’s only here for one more week. It would be a shame to miss this golden opportunity. Which artists do you like most, Carmen?”

Carmen glanced at me uncertainly. She had been to the main art museums with her brother during her first visit to New York, but she was not in general a zealous art aficionado. If she saw something that pleased her, she said she liked it and she didn’t give a damn about whatever brush stroke technique had been employed in its production or what pithy symbolism was represented by a painting’s imagery.

“I like Van Gogh.”

Kelebek sighed passionately. “Ah, he is exquisite. There are some marvelous Van Goghs at the Met also.”

Hakan had procured two bottles of Becks and was quietly following the discussion.

“Play any soccer lately, Hakan?” I asked him.

Hakan frowned. “No, it was too cold. And those idiot Ecuadorians never pass the ball.”

Kelebek harrumphed impatiently. “Soccer! You guys always talk about soccer when you’re together.”

Hakan bit his lip in irritation but said nothing. I grinned at Kelebek. “We have to have our fix and then we can be three dimensional human beings again.”

Kelebek slapped at my elbow again. “They are like children.” She said conspiratorially to Carmen.

“Yes. Like kids.” Carmen proudly showed off her new vocabulary of American slang.

“Hakan, do you have the cigarettes?” Kelebek demanded with a touch of frost in her voice. Hakan silently reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. He took one out and gave it to Kelebek who put it in her mouth and waited expectantly for a light. Hakan fished out his lighter, lit her cigarette, and put the lighter back in his pocket.

Kelebek took a sip from her beer bottle and turned to Carmen. “Where did you get this beautiful coat?” She fingered the hem of Carmen’s shearling coat. One of the first things we had done after Carmen’s arrival was to go shopping for a warm coat for her. In La Coruña the temperature never got very cold and Carmen didn’t have anything in her wardrobe that was adequate protection for the New York winter. I suggested a down coat to keep her warm but Carmen took one look at a woman wearing one on Broadway and pronounced it unfashionable. It was now out of the question. She would rather be caught dead than seen in such an ugly and shapeless garment.

Hakan excused himself and went off to the men’s room. Kelebek listened distractedly to Carmen’s explanation and watched Hakan push his way to the rear of the bar. She sighed and looked at us both. “Why does he have to be so difficult?” Sadness showed through her frown. “We had another fight tonight. That’s all we ever do. He comes home moody. I ask him what’s wrong. He doesn’t want to talk to me. I get upset. He gets angry. And he won’t even tell me what he’s angry about.” Kelebek looked at us with a forlorn expression of despair and lost bewilderment. Carmen nestled more snugly against my chest. I could smell her hair and her perfume. Kelebek took an elegant puff on her cigarette. She turned to us again. “Why can’t we be two love birds like you two?”

I thought frantically to come up with some kind of joke to alleviate the tension and the awkwardness. Carmen pressed her shoulder into my chest. Hakan came out of the men’s room and made his way back to us. Kelebek took his beer bottle from the bar and held it out to him.

“Here’s your beer, darling.”

“Thank you.” Hakan replied with formality.

The jazz combo started up. The group was made up of a saxophone, a trumpet, an acoustic bass, and drums. The hum of conversation at the bar continued, underlying the music, but in more subdued tones. We had another round of drinks. At the end of the set, Hakan and Kelebek took their leave and went home, but not before making us swear a pledge that we would visit them for a home cooked Turkish dinner.

During the interlude while the band was taking a break, the bartender switched the sound system to an FM station on the radio. Then he looked up as the door opened and groaned under his breath. “Oh Jesus!” Then, more audibly, he greeted the new customer. “Good evening, Teddy.”

Teddy was staggering down the aisle behind the bar stools. He looked up and squinted belligerently at the bartender. His hands were jammed into his pockets and a cigarette hung from his lips and trailed smoke up past his ear. He nodded gravely to the bartender and reached between two chatting customers to shake his hand. He looked at the couple that he had interrupted. “Good evening, folks.” He said brusquely. “And how are you all tonight?”

The couple nodded shyly and Teddy let out a bellow of laughter. “Yeah, we’re havin’ a good time!” He turned his back on them and moved farther down the bar. He reached two women in their thirties who were conversing together and stopped and stared into the face of one of them with his head cocked back.

“Well, good evening.” An oily smile spread across his face. The women ignored him as if he didn’t exist and continued their conversation without missing a beat. Teddy remained staring at the women with his head cocked back for a long moment and then finally shrugged and continued down the bar. He noticed me and smiled.

“Mr. Jack, the next George Bernard Shaw. How are you, sir?” He shook hands with me ceremoniously. “And who is this ravishing woman?” Teddy directed his squinting eye at Carmen. He flicked a wave of hair that had fallen into his eyes. “You have excellent taste in women.” he said after I made introductions. Carmen looked at Teddy guardedly.

A patron wanted to move past Teddy and asked him politely “Excuse me, can I get through here?”

Teddy turned and stared at the man with his chin jutting out. “Yes, you may.” He answered without budging an inch. The patron waited and looked confused. Teddy stared at him for a moment longer and then turned and loudly asked the bartender for a Budweiser. When he was served he drained half the bottle instantly. Then, bottle in hand, he moved back down to the two women and lit a cigarette. He stood behind them smoking and finally leaned in and said something to them that made them both shake their heads and laugh. Teddy drew back with a satisfied grin. The opening guitar licks of Stray Cat Blues by the Rolling Stones came over the sound system from the radio and Teddy pricked up his ears. He put his beer bottle down and began picking the introductory notes on his air guitar. The rhythm section joined in and Teddy ground out his air guitar chords with his jaw sticking out in a contortion that scrunched his eyes shut. Mick Jagger’s voice began singing the lyrics and Teddy joined in when he knew the lines.

“I can see that you’re just 15 years old. Oh yeah!” Teddy thrust his pelvis out suggestively.

“I bet your momma don’t know you can bite like that. Yeah, bitch!”
Teddy’s brow was sweating profusely. He flicked his damp hair back off his forehead. A wet patch was spreading across the chest of his shirt. The woman closest to him leaned away and looked at him with annoyance. The bartender leaned over the bar and called softly. “Teddy.” He beckoned with his hand to tone it down. The jazz combo began resuming their places to start the second set. The bartender turned off the sound system, cutting short the last chorus of Stray Cat Blues with Teddy in full voice.

“Hey!” Teddy whirled around at the bartender. “What are you doing?”

The bartender ignored him and moved down the bar to a waiting customer. Teddy glared after him wrathfully. He pursed his lips and shook his head. “That’s sacrilege!” He yelled down the bar at the bartender. “You just turned off Stray Cat Blues, the anthem to horny, sweaty, animal lust!”

The jazz musicians waited tentatively for the ruckus to quiet down. Gus, the bar owner, came out of the kitchen where he had been enjoying a quiet glass of wine. He came over to Teddy and calmly put a hand on his shoulder.

“Come on, Teddy. Go home. You’ve had enough tonight. Come back again tomorrow.”

Teddy glowered at Gus. “Why? What did I do?”

“Just go home. I don’t want to hear any fucking bullshit. Come back tomorrow when you’re not so drunk. I’ve got music here tonight.”

Teddy sullenly tied his scarf around his neck and buttoned up his jacket. Then he whirled abruptly and lurched towards the door. He careened against a bar stool and nearly stumbled but, after pausing for a moment, continued out the door without even looking back at the person he bumped. Gus shook his head wearily. “He’s always drunk, that fucking guy.”

We finally left around midnight. In the middle of Broadway, several of the South American soccer players from the park were sitting on a bench and drinking beer despite the chilly weather. They recognized me and hailed me to come over and drink some of their beer with them. I waved and said I had to go home. We got to our street and walked up to our building. When we were still about twenty feet from the entrance, I looked behind and noticed a black man hurrying towards us. I stiffened reflexively and quickened my pace but then recognized that the black man was Jacques, a friend of my Haitian neighbor. Jacques was also from Haiti and sometimes played soccer in the park. He came up to us with his chin hidden in his collar from the cold but a big friendly smile on his face.

“How are you, Jack? My god, it is cold tonight!”

I shook his hand and introduced him to Carmen. He shook Carmen’s hand and addressed her politely.

“Hello. I am very pleased to meet you.”

Carmen and I finally got to our apartment. After the long evening, it was a relief to be alone with Carmen. We closed the door.

Chapter 55

Christmas! Carmen was coming with me to my parents’ house in Vermont for the holidays. I was looking forward to introducing her to my family. My parents had moved their careers in academia from New York to the quieter setting of southern Vermont after my siblings and I had moved out of the apartment in New York. My brother was flying east from Colorado to spend a few quiet days with the family before going down to New York for a wild weekend with his old friends. My sister and her husband had closed their herb tea shop in Seattle long enough to spend the holidays in Vermont as well. The family would pass the holidays as it had for many years: eating big dinners, drinking wine, and cross country skiing.

I would also be introducing Carmen to the sport of cross country skiing. In fact, I would be introducing Carmen even to snow and winter itself. Carmen had seen half an inch of snow during a storm once, but was more accustomed to the gray rain of winter in Galicia. I liked to cross country ski frequently and I decided to buy Carmen some skis in the hope that she would enjoy it enough to accompany me. We went to a camping equipment store and looked at the skis. The ski department manager shook his head doubtfully when he measured Carmen’s tiny feet for the boots.

“I’ll look in the back.” he said and disappeared. While we waited for his return, we looked at jackets, gloves, and hats. I made suggestions and offered helpful explanations. Carmen looked through the racks and shelves. The blue zippered jacket, complete with gore tex and pit zips, that I suggested, she rejected in favor of a bright yellow pullover. When I showed her a bin of inexpensive woolen watch caps, Carmen just grimaced. She selected a head band that wrapped around the ears, but didn’t disturb her hair. It also was yellow and combined with the yellow pullover.

After twenty minutes of searching, the ski manager returned with a satisfied smile and a shoe box in one hand. “I’ve got it.” he pronounced proudly.

He took a pair of gray boots out and assisted Carmen into them. She squeaked around the floor tentatively and looked from every angle at them in mirrors. After several minutes, she nodded her acceptance and I felt a great wave of relief. The manager took the boots and began to carefully place them back in the box, making gratified comments about the quality of the boots and the satisfaction they would render for years to come. Carmen leaned towards me and whispered in my ear. At first I didn’t understand and she had to repeat herself.

“Can you ask him if he has these in white?”

Bless him! He did find a pair in white. It took a while, but to the man’s credit he did not blink an eye at the request.

“Certainly! I can go look.” He said jovially and again disappeared into the bowels of the stock room. Eventually, he emerged triumphantly waving another box and Carmen got what she wanted. She walked about the store happily trying out her new, white ski boots.

On our way home we emerged from the subway into the frosty street and heard a merry bellow behind us.

“Merry Christmas, good folks!”

Teddy was beaming at us and radiating good will. He was sober and seemed quite genuinely jolly.

“I apologize, ma’am, but I can’t remember your name.”

Teddy seized Carmen’s hand and kissed it with theatrical gallantry.

“My name is Carmen.” Carmen pronounced carefully, with an amused smile.

“Ah yes, that’s right. Don’t shoot me Jack. I was a bit buzzed that night.” The words gushed out of Teddy breathlessly.

“Have you been back to Gus’ Bar?” I asked.

Oh sure. Teddy shrugged. “In fact, I went back there later that same night and Gus bought me a drink. I didn’t leave until five. I was so blasted I decided to take the subway instead of walking.”

“But you only live on 112th Street!” I interjected.

“Like I said, I was blasted. It seemed to make perfect sense at the time. I walked down to the 103rd Street station to take the subway to 110th Street.”

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of his story, but Teddy leaned in insistently to continue. Carmen looked on, puzzled.

“But check this out. This is the best part. I got tired waiting for the train and I lay down on the bench and fell asleep. I woke up when people started coming down to go to work and I realized that a thief had stolen my shoes and my wallet. And my wallet was in my back pocket and I was lying on top of it! I never felt a thing. Whoever did that was a true artist and I salute him. I couldn’t even get angry. I had too much respect for his artistic genius.”

I clutched my stomach and staggered from laughter. Teddy grinned with defiant pride.

Carmen and I packed that night for the trip. That is to say, I spent approximately three minutes thrusting extra underpants and tee shirts into my pack and then hovered like a restless wraith while Carmen meticulously folded and carefully placed her things in her suitcase. Occasionally she dispatched me to fetch various items until I realized that there was a hockey game on TV and began balking at her requests. Carmen asked irritably if I couldn’t get something from the bathroom for her since I wasn’t doing anything. The Rangers were on a power play at the moment and down by one goal in the third period, and after finally hearing her request upon the third repetition, I observed that her legs seemed to be in remarkably good form. Carmen did not seem pleased by my compliment and swatted me with the New York Times sports section as she went by. A minute later, she called again from the bedroom with a note of petulance in her voice. My magnanimous nature and intrinsic desire to help my fellow man rose to the surface. I jumped up to comply with my love’s slightest wish. There was a time out in the game and I had almost an entire minute remaining to devote to Carmen’s caprices. The object of Carmen’s desire was an item last seen in the bathroom.

“En seguida, mi querida pequeña gotita de acido sulfurico. At once, my dear little drop of sulfuric acid.” I saluted with a flourish and spun around to race off on my errand. I ran back to her, stamping my feet and making as much noise as possible and holding out the aforementioned desired object. “Aqui está, mi amarganesa. Here it is, my bitterness.” I often invented words in Spanish to suit my needs.

Carmen bit her lip trying not to laugh. “Tu sabes muy bien que estoy siempre muy dulce. You know perfectly well that I’m always very sweet.” she protested vigorously.

The next night we loaded ourselves into my beat up old van that I used to transport theater set props. I always breathed a sigh of relief when I arrived at where my van was parked and found it still intact. Crack addicts broke into all the vehicles in the neighborhood, looking for anything they could sell for a fix. I was on first name basis at a glass specialist shop in Long Island City. Even if there was nothing in the van for the junkies to steal, it still cost me sixty bucks to buy a new window.

We chatted for a couple of hours as we drove north and then I flicked on the radio and scanned the stations. It was mostly static but I became suddenly alert when I faintly heard the distinctive sounds of a hockey game. I twisted the dial back and forth trying to get clear reception. A light snow was falling and the transmission faded in and out. It was third period. The Rangers were actually winning three to one. Carmen looked pensively out through the windshield at the cones of light illuminating the softly falling flakes and the headlights of the sporadic traffic approaching from the opposite direction. The crowd suddenly groaned and I knew that a goal had been scored. I leaned closer to the radio. The Rangers had given up a goal! Three to Two! I cursed. Carmen was still lost in thought. The reception faded and I fiddled with the dial again.

“What do you think about the name “Marcos” if we have a son?” Carmen suddenly broke her silence, but continued peering intently into the darkness in front of her.

“Um…” I turned the dial as gently as I could, barely touching it with one fingertip and pressing my other fingers against the dashboard to keep my hand from shaking. The reception came in loud and clear. Penalty against the Rangers!

“Damn!” I hit the steering wheel with my palm.

“Jack! Attiendeme! Pay attention! Leave the radio alone.”

I tried to give Carmen the reasonable percentage of my attention that she deserved as my cherished and loving partner in life.

“What? Marcos? Maybe.”

I twisted the dial again and the broadcaster’s voice became audible again. “Kick save and a beauty! Rebound. Save, and a faceoff.” I took a deep breath.

“How about Marcello?” Carmen’s voice flashed across my consciousness.

“Marcello is interesting.”

“Here’s the faceoff. The Rangers lose the draw. Shoot! Score! No. Wait a minute. The referee….” Static obscured the rest. I wrenched the radio knob frantically. Seconds passed. I heard the broadcaster’s voice for a split second and then static again.

“Jack! You’re not listening to me!” Carmen complained.

“Un momento.” I moved the dial rapidly back and forth and then scanned very slowly and fastidiously. No success either way! The lights of a gas station appeared. I worked the radio furiously but to no avail. We reached the gas station and I braked hard and pulled in. Carmen shot forward against her seatbelt with a squawk. I spun the van around and rocketed back onto the highway going back down the direction from where we came, spinning the radio knob all the while.

“What are you doing?” Carmen squealed.

“Just a minute!” I protested.

The broadcaster’s voice became audible for a moment and I stepped on the gas to speed back into range of the radio waves.

“Jack!” There was unmistakable annoyance in the ring of Carmen’s voice now.

“I need to hear what happened. The Rangers were winning.”

Jack, please stop the vanand go back. I am tired and I want to get there as soon as possible.”

The broadcaster’s voice became distinctly audible and I held up my hand to silence Carmen. Carmen let loose a verbal eruption of exasperation and reached over and snapped the radio off. I gasped.


“Bueno, Jack!” She cut me off. “No seas imbécile! Don’t be an idiot!”

I reached for the radio and Carmen slapped my hand.

“Carmen, just five more minutes!” I appealed to her reason and sense of fair play.

“Are you joking? Jack, turn the vanaround! Joder, que idiota!”

Carmen was furious. My nervous system was charged with bottled up suspense, but I saw that it was hopeless. A driveway appeared in the headlights and I slowed down and turned the van around. We resumed our journey north. For the next forty five minutes, the frost inside the van was colder than the temperature outside in the snow. The casualty report showed no serious injuries however and when I finally ventured an exploratory peace feeler comment, Carmen had already calmed down and replied sweetly. I heard on the news the next morning that the Rangers lost five to three.

We finally reached my parent’s 200 year old farmhouse late in the evening and Carmen kissed both my mother and father on the cheek. They were charmed with this greeting that was not customary in the United States. Christmas passed pleasantly. I was kept busy translating as everyone in my family was curious about the new girlfriend that I finally seemed serious about. Carmen thrived at the center of attention and even showed some capability to communicate with the limited English vocabulary that she had acquired, mostly from listening to songs from the Beatles.

Carmen was pleasantly surprised by the pancake breakfast and even seemed to delight in skiing when we all went out on the trails through the woods near the house in the afternoon. We took some of the easier trails and Carmen kept up without a problem. As we were returning towards the house, she asked for a steeper hill. I took her to the top of an incline about a quarter of a mile away and told her to just sit back down on her skis if she got out of control. Carmen pushed off with a determined gleam in her eye and crashed on her butt with a shriek half way down the hill. I raced down to her but she was already up and brushing off the snow from her fanny. She was hooked, but cross country skiing wasn’t exciting enough. I promised to take her to a downhill ski center the day after Christmas.

Carmen received a scarf and a pair of gloves from my parents for Christmas and she was pleased. I gave her a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, as her first book in English. She eventually read it with my help over the next several months and greatly enjoyed it. My sister and her husband gave Carmen and me a collection of herb teas, accompanied by an explanation that it was more for her than for me because I didn’t like herb tea. Carmen thanked them graciously and then winked to me surreptitiously as she turned away, since I knew that she didn’t like herb tea either. My brother gave Carmen an “I Love Colorado” stuffed bear, which surprised me by pleasing her immensely, despite its childish simplicity. Carmen gave me a pair of dress slacks, which no doubt were of fine quality tailoring, but still left me unenthusiastic at best.

All in all, it was a successful introduction into my family life and everybody got along with good humor and I was greatly relieved and gratified. We piled back into my junky old van and headed for New York. For the first couple of hours we reviewed the events of the holiday and then began thinking ahead and making plans for our New York apartment. I wasn’t in agreement with several of the implied changes that Carmen had in mind and Carmen began to lose her patience with what she considered my burro obstinacy. Carmen’s voice began to rise in pitch and my nerve endings began to tingle dangerously. As Carmen’s incessant voice of complaint bore mercilessly into my brain, an idea struck me. I chuckled to myself anticipating the comic levity I was about to inject into this fatiguing tirade.

I used earplugs for hearing protection when we were doing set construction at the theater and I had some scattered on the floor of the van. I groped on the floor behind me and grabbed a packet of earplugs. Carmen continued her harangue unabated. I squeezed the first soft foam earplug into my left ear on the far side from Carmen and then inserted the other one. Carmen didn’t realize what I was doing at first and carried on her disgruntled speech. Finally she looked up at me and noticed the earplugs. I looked over at her and grinned. Carmen ignited in fury. I burst out in mirthful laughter, but Carmen didn’t see anything humorous in my antics. I clowned and cajoled her but with no effect except that she became even more livid. “Que imbécil!” she spat out as a final pronouncement. Then she folded her arms and stared in stony silence through the windshield for the rest of the trip. When I parked the van in front of our building, Carmen got out, marched furiously to our apartment and slammed the door as I struggled with our bags. She wouldn’t speak to me again until sometime the next morning. When I came to bed that night, Carmen was already tucked in on her side with her back to me. I put my hand gently on her shoulder, but Carmen reached around and swatted my hand off. I resigned myself to the solitude of the doghouse. I was just dozing off to a troubled sleep when Carmen rolled over, gave me a quick good night kiss, and rolled on her side with her back to me again.

Chapter 56

After several weeks of classes, Carmen’s confidence in English began to flourish as her fluency rapidly increased. She was more outgoing by nature than most of her classmates and her initial shyness soon wore off. I stopped at her class to pick her up one night and found her in the midst of a discussion with the other students and the teacher. I heard the high ring of her laughter, accompanied by other more reserved laughing voices, before I even reached the class room. I entered the room and watched for a moment as Carmen addressed the group clustered around her. Carmen was apparently organizing a dinner party and the other students piped in with enthusiastic expressions of support in a hodgepodge of dissonant accents. The teacher looked on from the back and beamed.

Carmen noticed me and took me by the arm and introduced me. “Jack, we are making a dinner party. I want to do it at our apartment. Everybody will bring food.”

I nodded my acquiescence and the group of faces surrounding me grinned back. A young Japanese man came forward and took my hand. “Hello. My name is Gen. Thank you. You are very kind.”

“Our house is open for you.” I opened my arms in a welcoming gesture.

“Yes. It is small but we make the best we can do.” Carmen added.

Gen smiled broadly. “Do you like sake?” he asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. I was not very experienced with sake. “I will bring some good sake for you.” Gen gave me a thumbs up sign.

Carmen gave a few last words of organizational instruction and told our address repeatedly and it was arranged. A pot luck dinner party was scheduled at our house for Saturday evening. The students would all bring typical dishes from their home countries. Since Carmen was the hub of the group discussing details, we were the last to leave.

On Saturday, Carmen wanted to shop for food so we strolled up Broadway, stopping at the fish shop for octopus and squid to make pulpo with paprika and fried calamari, and then the grocery store for potatoes, onions and eggs to make tortilla español. On 107th Street we ran into Pavel and stopped to chat. Carmen exchanged a few sentences of salutation in English and looked thoroughly pleased with herself.

Pavel turned to me with a smirk. “Did you enjoy the hockey game last night, you loser Rangers fan? Your miserable team got completely thrashed.” Pavel cackled mirthfully. I glared at him with enmity. The hated Islanders had beaten the Rangers 4 to 1 last night and that shithead Pavel was an Islanders fan. Other than that he was an ok guy, but he never failed to gall me with his chortling whenever the Islanders won. I could count on a harassing phone call during the third period if the schmuck Islanders were up by a comfortable margin or at the very least sometime the next morning. He was like clockwork and never missed an opportunity to slip the knife in. Of course, I did exactly the same thing to him when the Rangers won, but the Rangers, being what they are, gave Pavel more occasion to chortle than me.

I noticed that Carmen was shifting her weight from foot to foot as the cold was penetrating through her shearling coat. I was about to suggest that we continue on home when Pavel was greeted by a large, thick necked young man in a suit and dress coat. Pavel introduced us to Tom and explained that they lifted weights together. Tom had gone to the business school and still used the university gym. I mentioned that we had been out shopping for Carmen’s dinner party and that she was going to prepare some typical Spanish dishes. Tom’s face lit up in a friendly smile.

“Spanish? Oh, that’s great! I really like spicy food! And I love tacos!”

Carmen looked confused for a moment as she followed the English words but suddenly her expression changed as if she had been smacked with a fly swatter. “I am not Mexican. I am from Spain!” she announced very deliberately and proudly. Her eyes flashed with anger and the corners of her mouth twisted down disdainfully.

“Oh.” Tom almost stammered with surprise. “Isn’t the food in Spain like the food in Mexico?” he asked tentatively.

“No!” Carmen ejected the word and turned her head away in disgust for a moment. “She turned back and demanded “Why do Americans always think that Spain and Mexico are the same? We are different countries.”

“Oh,… sorry.” Tom apologized with embarrassment. “I didn’t know.”

“Actually, the food in Spain isn’t usually spicy at all.” I explained, trying to mitigate the tension.

Carmen shivered and we said good night. Carmen managed a smile for Tom but I could tell she was still seething inside. We continued on our way. After several seconds Carmen snorted. “How can Americans be so ignorant?”

That night over half of Carmen’s classmates showed up and twenty bodies jammed themselves into our small apartment. Many of them had never been invited to an American’s home before and were rather timid at first. The first guests to arrive were Youseff, a young man from Senegal and his wife. They arrived punctually on the dot so of course we still weren’t ready and I spent several awkward minutes making small talk while Carmen applied her last touches in front of the bathroom mirror. Our conversation alternated between my bad French and Youseff’s rudimentary English. They were extremely polite and formal and sat stiffly on the couch until I thought of soccer as a possible conversation opener and Youseff’s eyes brightened. He told me about playing barefoot in his village and about how all the men and boys would gather in the small bar to watch broadcasts of soccer games on the TV. His wife, Fatimata, sat quietly but smiled broadly whenever I looked in her direction. Carmen finally came out, accompanied by a torrent of words and Youseff laughed merrily as she greeted him and Fatimata. Carmen briskly whisked Fatimata out to the kitchen where Fatimata actually seemed to look more comfortable and Youseff and I were about to resume discussing the comparative merits of soccer stars Pele, Maradona, and Michel Platini, when the doorbell rang and the rest of the guests began to flood in.

A crowd of people stood in the living room making rounds of greetings in a cacophony of accents and a collection of pots and platters of food spread over the surface of the kitchen table. Carmen called greetings to all the newcomers, kissed her guests on the cheek, gave hurried instructions about where to put the food down in the kitchen, and shouted at me in Spanish to take the coats into the bedroom. There was no longer any difficulty initiating conversation. I now was besieged by a series of hosting tasks, first to open several bottles of Rioja tinto, find wine glasses or some approximate equivalent for everyone, offer beer and coca cola to non wine drinkers, put platters that needed to be reheated in the microwave, plus anything else that Carmen might suddenly think of that required urgent attention.

I lit several candles that were stuck into wine bottles, with old drips of melted wax coursing down the sides of the bottles in multicolored layers. For some soothing music background and an example of sophisticated American culture, I put on some blues with Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim. Gen arrived with sushi and two bottles of sake as well as some small porcelain serving bottles and cups. He put one bottle in the refrigerator to serve cold and decanted part of the other into one of the small porcelain bottles and began heating it in a pot of water on the stove. Carmen began setting food out and told people to help themselves. A confused hubbub ebbed and flowed through the apartment and I caught snatches of conversation that were frequently non sequiturs as the level of mastery of the English language was not uniform. Juan arrived carrying two bottles of Marques de Riscal wine and immediately rummaged around the kitchen drawers for a cork screw after kissing Carmen hello. He popped the cork and went around the living room pouring wine into cups for everyone. Gen tugged at my sleeve as I was on my way to the refrigerator to fetch a beer for Youseff. Gen insisted that I drink a cup of warm sake together with him and we hovered over the crowded kitchen table while Carmen buzzed around us putting more and more plates out. The sake was delicious and I was very impressed with the delicate flavor and the warm glow in my belly. Gen was delighted to share something from Japan with me and quickly poured out two more cups. Juan walked in and Gen promptly grabbed his arm and obliged him to drink several cups of warm sake as well. We were rapidly turning into a merry triumvirate, pouring more warm sake into the little cups, making toasts to each other, to our home countries, and even to the fine institution of drinking itself. Carmen finally shooed us briskly out of her way so she could serve food and I suddenly remembered Youseff’s beer. I dived to the refrigerator and hustled out to the living room with a Pilsner Urquel only to find Juan refilling Youseff’s glass with red wine. Masoud, a student from Iran greeted me and I gave the beer to him. He offered me a toast and I looked around for a glass to join him with. Juan quickly sloshed some wine into a coffee mug and pushed it into my hand. He filled his own glass and the three of us drank a toast. Carmen called out for me to get more napkins and I rushed back to the kitchen.

Copious amounts of food were now displayed on the kitchen table and the pungent aromas were spreading throughout the apartment and making everyone’s mouth water with anticipation. Fatimata, Youseff’s wife, had prepared thebouidienne, a fish, vegetable, and potato stew, served with rice. Youseff related with shy politeness that the dish was quite common in Senegal and described how the meal was prepared. Fatimata looked on with quiet pride as people sampled her dish. Masoud had brought mirza ghasemi, eggplant fried with garlic and tomato on rice. Dorota, a slender young woman from Poland, had contributed kielbasa with scalloped potatoes. María Lucia, a cocoa colored mulata with green eyes from a small town near Cartagena in Colombia, had made tamales with chicken, and arepas stuffed with fried egg. Hector, a short, middle aged man from Bolivia with a humble attitude and a timid smile, had brought a spicy chicken dish. I deduced, but was never completely sure, that the fish and shrimp stew with potatoes had arrived with a couple from Ecuador, Pedro and Antonia.

People ate sitting any place they could find or simply stood and held their plates. Conversations in mangled English hummed constantly between mouthfuls and laughter was frequent. The students and their families were all recent arrivals in the United States and all shared the same experiences of bewilderment, excitement, anxiety, and frequently homesickness. All were immigrants except for Gen who was employed by a Japanese trading firm that had brought him over to work in the New York office to replace a colleague who had died suddenly. I found myself standing next to Hector and chatted with him in Spanish. Hector was working for an office cleaning firm where a friend of his was a foreman. His mother was in the hospital in Cochabamba, Bolivia and he had come to earn money to send home since he was the only one in the family who was unmarried. He hoped to work for a few years in the United States and then return to his country with enough money saved to start a small business. I read enough into his story to suspect that discretion should prevent me from asking about his green card status.

Dirty plates began piling up in the kitchen and people chatted and drank more wine and beer. Gen was turning out to be the class clown and he was blithely making silly jokes in his fractured English to Dorota and Masoud with his eyes narrowed to slits. Dorota held her hand over her mouth as she giggled uncontrollably and Masoud egged him on with gleeful words of encouragement and unrestrained laughter. Pedro and Antonia were having a lively discussion in Spanish with María Lucia and Youseff was examining some of the books on the shelves. Fatimata sat quietly looking on at the animated group. Carmen took my arm and reached up on her tip toes to talk into my ear. “Vamos a bailar!”

I looked through my collection for some good music while Carmen shoved the furniture to one side to make space for dancing. As the introduction base line of “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett began reverberating through the floor boards, I began weaving towards Carmen with my waist swiveling to the rhythm. Carmen responded by angling towards me, looking archly over one shoulder from the corner of her eyes as she slithered across the floor. She alluringly slunk right past me with her shoulder almost brushing across my bobbing chin. The guests all watched their hosts and applauded. Carmen spun off and grabbed Hector who danced a bit stiffly but with a delighted grin on his face. Gen seized Dorota by the hand and Masoud stood in the middle, clapping to the beat. Pedro and Antonia and María Lucia joined in and I took Fatimata’s hand and tried to jerk her up from her seat on the sofa. She resisted and pulled her hand back, laughing with embarrassment. Youseff took her other hand and together we levered her up. I put an arm around each shoulder and they did the same and we danced around in a little circle. Carmen danced over and pushed into the interlocking arms and beckoned the others to join in. We all made one big circle and danced around and around. Carmen suddenly broke off and twirled into the center of the circle. She plucked up Hector’s fedora and plopped it onto her head with the brim tugged down over her eyes. She leaned back and stretched her leg out gracefully with her toe pointing straight out and then stepped and whirled. An almost naughty grin curled her lips. She danced in the middle of the circle and everybody applauded. After a few more steps she merged herself back into the ring. I broke off next and strutted into the center with one hand placed cockily on one hip. I danced by myself for a few beats and again rejoined the group. Gen pushed Dorota into the middle next. She convulsed with self conscious laughter for a moment and then burst into a sexy set of thrusts that drew a loud ovation before she jumped quickly back into the ring, covering her face in gleeful embarrassment. Pedro called for Youseff to jump in and Youseff shrank back and pointed back at Pedro. Antonia prodded Pedro and he took a deep breath and swaggered into the center. He danced alone for a moment and then pulled Youseff into the middle with him. Youseff and Pedro gurgled as they danced together and then both fell back into the ring.

The song ended and everybody clapped excitedly. The tape continued and Aretha Franklin began belting out “Respect.” I had put on a collection of American classics from the 1960’s and 70’s that would all have been familiar and recognizable tunes to my circle of American friends. Tonight’s audience however, had never heard most of the songs or even of the musicians and were dancing out of sheer exuberance for the lively rhythm, perhaps slightly inspired also by alcohol. I played some Talking Heads, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, more Wilson Pickett, and even a blue grass fiddle number called “Armadillo Stomp” by Commander Cody that had everybody spinning around with interlocking arms square dance style. We kept dancing for about an hour until the apartment began getting hot and everyone’s forehead was glistening with sweat.

Gen approached me and asked if he could do something special. He had a tape cassette and he explained that it was traditional music from his home region of Tokushima. I put his cassette on and Gen began explaining to the group that in his province the traditional Awa dance was performed every year at a festival. He adroitly demonstrated the movements of the dance, both the male and female parts, swaying to the rhythm. Then he turned to me and said. “Now you try.”

I attempted to emulate the precise and elegant maneuvers but could manage only a brutish parody that sent gales of laughter rippling through my audience. Gen grinned and applauded my efforts. I felt incredibly foolish but couldn’t stop laughing. Gen waved his arms and beckoned for everyone to join in and soon the group was hopping and stumbling about in a hilarious distortion of the Awa dance. Finally everybody collapsed and wheezed breathlessly into their wine glasses and beer bottles.

The party descended to a calmer tone. The conversation skittered along in hitches and starts as the speakers coped with their language disadvantages in a relaxed and genial communication. More wine and beer were drunk and Carmen produced a chocolate cake and served up small plates for everybody. I noticed Juan and Gen come surreptitiously back in the apartment door. Gen had a notably glazed look in his eyes. Juan grinned at me from beneath his own heavily lidded eyes. Juan sidled over to me and remarked casually “Nice view from your roof tonight.” A distinct aroma of burnt marijuana laced his words.

Sometime about 2 AM everyone left all at once amidst a flurry of good byes. Juan stayed to enjoy a last glass of wine. Carmen sat leaning her head against my shoulder on the couch. Juan took out a roach and lit it with a match, holding it like pincers with two finger tips and then taking a couple of quick puffs. I chuckled reflecting on Gen’s glassy introverted comportment towards the end of the party and the contrast with his earlier good humored animation.

“Gen sure got quiet after he got stoned.” I remarked.

Juan nodded and relit the roach for one last puff. “Yeah, it was his first time.”

Carmen stiffened and frowned at her brother. “You shouldn’t have introduced him to marijuana.” She declared vigorously.

Juan remained unperturbed. “Why not? He started talking about it and said he wanted to try it and I had some reefer on me, so…anyway, like I always say, better to learn with somebody responsible you can trust than some rip off dealer in Washington Square Park.”

Carmen sighed and put her head back against my shoulder. Juan and I talked about soccer for a while and suddenly I remembered a song on a Procul Harum album I had just bought. I wanted to jump up and play it for Juan because I knew he would love Robin Trower’s guitar solo. Carmen’s head rested heavily on my shoulder and I noticed that her breathing had become soft and regular. She was asleep. The guitar solo would wait until another night and another exchange of ideas over a few glasses of wine. Juan tip toed out and I took a sleepy, but contented Carmen into bed.

Chapter 57

Carmen neatly folded her clothes and placed them fastidiously in her suitcase. There was a meticulous routine to Carmen’s packing that was already familiar to me. It filled me with a twinge of sadness even though I knew it was only going to be a short separation. Carmen’s six month scholarship had already expired and she was going back to Spain. A plan was already in the works for her to get an extended one year scholarship working at the same lab after spending two months briefing the staff at her hospital back home about all she had learned in New York. I silently watched her concentrate intently on packing her clothes so they would be well protected during her journey. Carmen folded a blouse and tidily tucked it into a corner of the suitcase. As I watched her, I felt far away from her as if her consciousness was so absorbed by protecting her clothing that there was not even a scrap of thought left over for me. I knew it was a selfish thought, but I indulged myself momentarily and let a wave of sentiment wash through me. Carmen seemed like such a brave little girl, preparing for her trip that meant our separation without any sign of hesitation. She turned suddenly and looked at me. I thought I detected a distant tenderness in her eye.

“Jack, can you get my hairdryer from the bathroom?”

I smiled to myself as I complied with her request.

I drove Carmen out to the airport that night in the old beat up van. Her departure was delayed and we sat side by side next to each, holding hands quietly. We were already missing each other. Carmen was my favorite companion in the world and I just liked having her near me. I had grown accustomed to discussing the day’s events with her and filling many small moments in her company. We waited for the announcement for her flight without much conversation. The light touch of our hands said everything. We were together, but both lost in our own thoughts about our approaching separation. Suddenly an idea came to me. It rose like a warm bubble from my soul. It brought an uncontrollable smile to my face. I thought about spending every day with Carmen.

“Carmen, do you want to marry me?”

Carmen turned to me quickly with a startled look. “What?”

“We could live in the same country together without worrying about visas if we get married.”

Carmen looked confused. She thought for several moments. “I need to think about it. I’ll call you from Spain.”

We lapsed into quiet again but the pace of our breathing seemed to have increased in velocity. We were both very conscious of each other and even the lightest touch. Carmen’s flight was announced and she kissed me on the cheek and disappeared through the gate’s metal detector. I watched her slim figure in her elegant brown leather skirt until a stout gentleman blocked her from my view.

Chapter 58

I didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, yet here I was on a plane back to Spain to get married. I had always believed in the relationship, but marriage to me was just a contract to protect children and property. If the relationship was strong it would function and no signed piece of paper would make it work if the relationship wasn’t strong enough. The ceremony, the rings, the happily-ever-after, that was all bullshit. I wanted to live with Carmen for the rest of my life and have grandchildren with her and grow old with her and I was going to marry her so that we could legally live in the same country together. But it was clear in my mind that we would live together because we were deciding to do so, not because any external force like a signed document was obliging us to live out a lie that made a mockery of our love. Carmen, for her part, although not as fervent as me about the philosophical ramifications, was in accordance with the basic logic and point of view.

Carmen picked me up at the Madrid airport with her little yellow Renault 5. It had only been three weeks since her departure from New York, but our passion on seeing each other in the flesh again was explosive. After a tightly clutched embrace at the terminal gate, we raced out to the parking garage. As soon as we got into her car I practically ripped the buttons on the front of her blouse open, peeled her bra down off her breasts and sank my face against her warm flesh and rubbed my cheeks slowly against her nipples. I sucked her nipples deeply and Carmen gasped sharply. A family came looking for their car and we straightened up and Carmen buttoned her blouse quickly.

We drove through the hot glaring streets of Madrid towards the house of Carmen’s aunt, Mercedes, where we planned to spend a few days before continuing on to La Coruña. Carmen held my hand as she drove and only let go of it when she had to shift gears. Carmen looked so beautiful to me and the outline of her breasts under her blouse and the smoothness of her thighs beneath her short skirt were building a raging fire in me. Carmen was biting her lip and rubbing her thighs together with frustration. The thought that we would have to make conversation all day before we could be free to touch each other’s naked bodies was an unbearable torture. The traffic came to an agonizing stop. The cars around us beeped their horns in impatience. Carmen squeezed my hand. I noticed a hotel up the street and pointed to it. Carmen took in an involuntary deep breath and smiled with a gleam of excitement.

Ten minutes later we had parked the car and checked into a hotel room. We shed our clothes and I climbed on top of Carmen and penetrated her immediately. She gave a little huff as I sank in my shaft and her forehead crinkled as she pinched her eyes shut. I pushed all the way into her and just stayed there, savoring the feeling of being entirely submerged into Carmen again. It felt so wonderful I didn’t even feel the need to thrust in and out, although the idea of doing so was tantalizing as well. I luxuriated in Carmen’s warm cavity and then began plunging into her in a frenzied violation. Carmen shuddered in a crashing climax in a few scant minutes. I didn’t let up the intensity for even a moment and Carmen quickly came again and again in rapid succession. Carmen’s face looked like it was going to shatter from the strain as she came a fifth time and I suddenly felt the uncontrollable surge swelling up from deep behind my testicles. I propelled powerful spurts of semen into her like rocket blasts and finally drooped my sweating torso down over Carmen’s sweat glistened white breasts. I lay on top of her, just breathing. Carmen looked like she had swooned. A lock of her hair was plastered against her wet forehead and a line of sweat ran down her cheek and into the corner of her mouth after falling from my own steaming brow. Carmen’s legs were still splayed wide apart and I was still sunk deep into her, too exhausted to withdraw myself.

We took quick showers and checked out of the hotel. It cost us about a hundred dollars and we had been in our room for less than an hour. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. We could still get to Aunt Mercedes’ house in time for dinner at three.

Carmen and I arrived in La Coruña the next night and the date of our hastily arranged wedding was less than a week away. There would be no fancy ceremony. We would see the judge, utter the required mumbo jumbo, sign all the proper forms, eat a big dinner, drink some champagne, and move on. Carmen’s family and her aunt from Madrid would be there and my parents and brother and sister were flying over for a few days. I hadn’t planned to invite anybody in my family because I didn’t want to make such a big deal out of the occasion, but Carmen had insisted.

Even though we were downplaying the formality of the upcoming nuptials, a number of preparatory tasks demanded attention and could not be ignored. Neither could an insidious feeling of finality that, against our wills, managed to seep into our subconscious minds and augment the tension that was gradually enveloping the event. The mere logistics alone of our relatively modest marriage were making Carmen feel harried as she spent hours on the phone, scheduling an appointment with the judge and restaurant reservations, coordinating transportation and lodging for friends coming up from Madrid. My parents would stay with us and my brother and sister had rooms reserved at a modest but decent pension near the center of town.

I lurked in the background trying to offer assistance or just stay out of the way of Carmen’s growing impatience. We had already endured several unnecessary arguments sparked by the general state of tension. My own anxiety began to mount as I helplessly witnessed what I had hoped would remain a simple affair, spiral out of my control and assume a life of its own. I resented this external intrusion into my sovereignty and personal tranquility. Carmen shrugged off the sovereignty issue as if it had been just an extra layer of clothing draped over her and slowing her down.

“Jack, what are you going to wear for the wedding?” she asked me crisply while running down a list with a pen.

“This is just another normal day and we are just going to sign some papers in front of another human being who happens to work as a judge but is in reality no better or worse than any other human being. Normal blue jeans and a tee shirt will be sufficient.” I was about to continue and embellish upon the theme of equality and the intrinsic error of lavishing undue prestige on arbitrary titles and uniforms, but Carmen was not in the mood for philosophical discourse. She whirled on me with her eyes blazing.

“Jack! No seas imbécil! Don’t talk like an idiot!”

I glared back at her. This wasn’t personal. It was a matter of ideals. What had the Sixties been all about? What about revolution and the advancement of social mores as we progressed from our outmoded traditional and hypocritical values? Was I destined to be just another hypocrite, crumpling under pressure and abandoning my avowed beliefs? What kind of Brave New World could we possibly build if we caved in and conformed every time the going got rough?

The phone rang and Carmen answered it and was immediately immersed in logistical details. Our discussion on this delicate point of philosophy was indefinitely postponed, but it would necessarily have to be revisited eventually. The anticipation of this looming confrontation was unpleasant and I grumbled to myself as I restlessly prowled through the apartment.

Late that afternoon, Carmen and I went to a café for hot cocoa and churros. We dipped our churros in the cocoa and ate in an uneasy silence. Carmen was preoccupied with the myriad of organizational details that were spinning through her head and I was sullenly resentful about feeling left out of the decision making process for an event in which I was one of the two protagonists. Carmen and I were sitting at the same table together, but a distant coolness seemed to separate us. I decided to swallow my pride and sacrifice a point of philosophy to make the peace.

“I’m going to buy a suit. Blue pinstripe. Three piece, with a vest.” I announced as I placed my cup in the saucer.

Carmen looked up sharply. Instead of appearing pleased, lines of irritation creased her forehead. “No.” Her face jutted forward with the emphasis of her exclamation. “That’s too formal. We’re not having a formal wedding.”

I sat back flabbergasted. This absolutely was not right. “No. If I’m going to get dressed up, I’m going to do it right and with dignity. I will wear a three piece, blue, pinstripe suit.” I delivered my pronouncement firmly. I had made my decision and I would stand by it.

“All you need is a pair of slacks and a nice shirt. That is how men dress in Spain for informal occasions.” Carmen sputtered furiously.

My resentment boiled. I was not a child and nobody was going to tell me what clothes to put on my body. “I’m going to wear a suit.” I repeated resolutely. “Besides, I’m not Spanish.”

“Ok, that’s it! Forget it. I’m not getting married.” Carmen picked up her napkin and threw it back down on the table. She stared vacantly out the window with her chest heaving in anger. I sat rigid, almost unable to breathe, as if a powerful fist had punched me in the gut. Carmen’ face seethed with hostility so I chose to stare at neutral ground, choosing at random a floor tile to the left of our table. Carmen slowly recomposed herself and resumed eating her churros. My stomach felt like a giant egg beater had whipped them into butter. I couldn’t touch the rest of my cocoa. Carmen drained her cup and got up to leave. Not knowing what else to do, I got up and followed her out.

True to her word, Carmen called off our wedding. She made the necessary phone calls and cancelled everything. I had to make three agonizing phone calls to alert my family. My parents were due to arrive the day after tomorrow and my brother and sister on the following day.

My mother and father were greatly concerned. My mother was calmly stoic. I thought I detected a quiet sadness in her voice as she said they would come over any way to see if there was some way they could help. Her reaction reminded me of the time when I called home to inform them that I had been kicked out of the prestigious New England prep school where I attended three years of high school. My father seemed shocked and he bombarded me with questions about what had happened, until my mother took the phone back from him and told me we could talk later when they were in Spain and a few days had passed to allow everyone to cool down.

My sister railed at me in frustrated anger when I gave her the news. “Oh Jack! You’re such a retard! Oh god! I shouldn’t use that word. It’s not politically correct. But you are beyond the pail! You really ought to read…” She mentioned some hearts and flowers, new age self-help and communicate-with-your-softer-side kind of crap. Fortunately, she was still able to cancel her flight. It was a good thing Carmen and I hadn’t put off our argument one more critical day.

My brother, on the other hand, howled with laughter. “Way to go, Jack! Identify those important issues and stick to your guns!” I didn’t appreciate his sarcasm and hilarity at my expense under the circumstances, but I had to admit he did make me laugh. He had to hang up because he had a date lined up with a really hot chick with big hooters. He also cancelled his flight.

Carmen and I continued to coexist together in a limbo. I assumed that our relationship was over. Carmen surprised me by giving no indication that we wouldn’t sleep together that night. Granted, there was none of the light hearted humor that usually accompanied us, but I did find myself crawling tensely into our bed with Carmen and spending a solitary and restless night on my side of the bed. Conversation between us was at a minimum and the dull, brutal seconds ground slowly by.

When my parents arrived, I passed the worst afternoon of my life. We picked them up at the airport and Carmen kissed them politely on the cheek. My parents greeted Carmen warmly and embraced me with warm looks of concern. We went straight to Carmen’s parent’s house for coffee and pastries. Carmen sat facing my parents and me on the sofa between her mother and Aunt Mercedes. A tray of pastries lay on the coffee table amidst scattered coffee cups and saucers.

After the formal introductions, Carmen and her family sat with their faces set in stony expressions of anger. Aunt Mercedes made a sharp comment and I bit my lip. My parents looked towards me expectantly. I was the only bilingual person in the room. I ignored their gaze. Rosa also made a comment of displeasure and Carmen chimed in affirmation. Mercedes nodded approvingly. Rosa sat back with her arms folded across her chest. Juan Sr. sat quietly and stared into his coffee cup with his jaw set firmly. Mercedes uttered another exclamation of exasperation.

My mother lightly touched my wrist. “What did she say?” she inquired gently.

Aunt Mercedes said that I’m an idiot.” I explained. My mother drew back sharply but both she and my father strained to smile diplomatically.

Carmen shot out a bitter comment. Rosa added an epithet of her own. Mercedes sniffed irately. Juan Sr. remained silent. I sensed that he was struggling between his natural affection for me and his deep wound of disappointment. Rosa unleashed another crisp expletive and Carmen nodded her agreement. Again my mother raised her eyebrows at me for a translation. My stomach roiled.

“Carmen’s mother said I’m an imbecile.” I explained.

Again my mother straightened up as if shocked, but she and my father continued to wear the mask of diplomacy. This routine repeated itself for almost two hours with me translating the angry condemnation of my character and intelligence and my parents wearing frozen smiles of politeness.

Finally, the tortuous afternoon came to an end and we went to Carmen’s apartment. My mother summed up the hostility over coffee with the philosophical observation “Well, they must be very upset.”

I still didn’t know why Carmen and I were spending time together and Carmen floored me when she told me quietly that night that she wanted to fly back to New York the week after I returned.

“I want everything to be like before. Let’s just live together and forget about being married. It was a mistake.”

I was astounded but felt the tight ball in my solar plexus unclench noticeably. I had plunged so deep into despair that I couldn’t see how we could possibly continue on together as a couple and with all my emotional momentum moving in the direction of facing up to our final separation, I didn’t seem capable of suddenly changing gears and reevaluating our situation in this new light. In fact, I didn’t seem able to function or think any more at all. All I felt was exhaustion and throbbing depression, as if a heavy weight was pushing down on my skull. Carmen also seemed grim. Her face was expressionless and dull.

Chapter 59

My parents went back to Vermont. I flew back to New York. Amazingly enough, Carmen came back to New York and rejoined me one week later. We were scarred but still alive and still together. We acted cautiously towards each other at first, but with time our confidence and trust in each other regrew and we finally resumed our former affection and relaxed sense of humor and intimacy.

Carmen continued working at the lab part time while she continued with her English lessons. I still worked on theater sets in various capacities and was always ready to earn a few extra bucks on the side with moving jobs, providing they didn’t conflict with my soccer schedule. The script for one of my plays was accepted by a theater agent for review but it was shortly afterwards rejected politely as being too irreverent for the average theater audience.

Carmen’s classmates were glad to see her back and were all disappointed when the story of our aborted marriage leaked gradually out. Gen had begun playing soccer with me in the park and was now learning from the South American players the juicer street rudiments of a fractured Spanish that competed in incoherency with his minimalist English. Everybody liked Gen because of his infectious smile, but no one was truly certain about what he was saying in any language and, judging by his reactions, vice versa was also apparently true. His command of English was competent enough however to delicately extract the truth out of me about my sudden trip to Spain and subsequent absence from soccer. His fluency was also proficient enough to pass on the acquired information to the Polish girl Dorota, for whom he had developed a violent crush, apparently due primarily to the somewhat prominent stature of her nose, which to Gen, was deliciously erotic. At a bar after a soccer game he once confided in me that since girls in Japan all have petite noses, a girl with a big nose was a creature of stunning and irresistible beauty to him. He summed up his infatuation for Dorota with the admiring comment that “Her nose is good enough to bite.”

For her part, Dorota, though she was amused by Gen, was greatly puzzled by his comportment and kept her relationship with him strictly platonic, despite their frequent after school trips to the bar together. She did however, rapidly pass the story on to Masoud and by the time Carmen walked into her third week’s lesson, she was greeted by a room full of concerned looks and delicately uttered condolences. Carmen came home furious and flayed me alive for my indiscretion. It didn’t escalate into a major war fortunately and I was back in sufficiently good graces to receive the good night kiss.

Weeks passed and the heat of the New York City summer rolled into August. One Monday morning found us both in the apartment, Carmen studying her English lessons while I was earnestly concentrating on editing a short story that was part romantic farce and part philosophical satire. It was a fairly nice day by New York summer standards, which is to say that the humidity was less than ninety percent for a change, and I had been planning on taking Carmen out across the George Washington Bridge for a hike in a park. I also needed a spare part for some repair work on the old van so I wanted to pass by a junk yard.

The phone rang. It was Gen. “What are you doing today?” he inquired. I explained to him about the hike and the junk yard. “Why don’t you and Carmen get married?” he suggested.

“That’s a great idea. Now I need a park, a junk yard and a justice of the peace.”

Gen and I both laughed heartily. “Can I come too?” Gen asked.

“Sure. Why not? We’ll probably need a witness anyway.”

“What does Carmen say?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I should ask her.” I took the phone from my ear and got Carmen’s attention. “Gen says we should get married today. Carmen tilted her head quizzically and regarded me with suspicion. I grinned at her. “Do you want to?”

Carmen shrugged. “Ok, if you want.” She focused her attention back on her English lesson.

An hour later, Gen and Dorota were seated on some padded blankets on the floor of the cargo space of the van and Carmen was perched in her accustomed place in the passenger seat as we drove out of Manhattan. About forty minutes north we found a justice of the peace at a town clerk’s office and made inquiries. We discovered that New York State had a mandatory forty eight hour waiting period between the time of registration and the time of the marriage ceremony itself. Carmen and I calmly signed our names in the registry book as if we were applying for a driver’s license. We were relaxed and just having fun without any stress. We stood looking at each other for a moment. I smiled and Carmen gave me a sly wink back. Gen grabbed Dorota’s arm, lead her up to the desk and tried to sign their names in the registry as well. When Dorota realized what he was doing, she spun away from his grip and covered her mouth as she convulsed with laughter. Gen pretended to be wounded to the core and rubbed his eyes as if he was sobbing with tears. Then he dropped to one knee in front of Dorota and clutched her hand and pleaded with her to marry him. Dorota had to lean against the desk to keep her balance from laughing so hard. Carmen swatted Gen gleefully on the shoulder and Gen got slowly to his feet with a mournful expression. The elderly woman behind the desk watched Gen blankly, apparently not appreciating his antics. Gen turned to her and asked her in his broken English if she would marry him. The woman just shook her head slowly and stared at Gen in disapproval. I took Dorota by the arm and hustled her and Carmen outside. Dorota was nearly limp and leaned against my shoulder as we made our exit. Gen caught up and wrapped his arms around all of us and we huddled together in a little group in the parking lot. Gen summed up the wonderful warm occasion with a totally incoherent statement that stacked one non sequitur on top of another. It didn’t matter. He beamed guileless affection at us and we understood.

We piled back into the van. “And now for the main event.” I turned around and grinned at my attentive audience. “Off to the junkyard!” Gen and I roared with hilarity. Dorota shook her head and Carmen turned away towards the window.

Gen invited us all out for sushi and sake at a restaurant in midtown that he claimed had the best sushi in New York. He insisted that I try various types of sake with him and we were soon quite the merry pair of fellows. I kept up a steady patter on the theme of junkyard jokes that Gen enjoyed immensely. Dorota joined in the fun wholeheartedly for the first fifteen minutes but her hilarity tailed off gradually after she noticed that Carmen’s bemused smile had disappeared and been replaced by a hard set jaw. I unfortunately, was too carried away with the jovial effects of sake and Gen’s jolly companionship to notice the darkening mood of my nouvelle fiancée.

I finally made one junkyard joke too many. Gen snickered with his head resting on his arm which sprawled across the table. Carmen slapped the table sharply.

“Bueno! I’m not getting married if you don’t stop.”

I quickly responded to the sirens and flashing red lights and took Carmen by the hand and looked her in the eyes with sober sincerity. I told her I was sorry and that I really did love her and really seriously wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Carmen looked at me guardedly as if deciding whether to put her faith in me or to stab me in the eye with her chop stick. She began to sigh and a softer look of capitulation was just creeping into her eyes when I caught a glimpse of Gen’s grinning face. That was too much. I melted into a shimmering glob of laughter and Carmen pushed me back and whacked me several times on the shoulders. I recovered myself and grabbed Carmen’s hand again.

“I really mean it. I really want to live with you and have children named Carlos or Maximilian or Natasha or Bob. I don’t even care if they don’t have names. We can give them numbers if you want. But I want you to live with me because I love you, even if I do make junkyard jokes.”

Carmen eyed me warily. “No more junkyard jokes.” She set the conditions.

“I promise.” I said solemnly.

I looked over at Gen and stifled a laugh. Gen was grinning broadly at us.

“Bo!” Carmen erupted and jumped up and thunked Gen on the head with her knuckles. “You too!” she threatened. Gen put his hands up to defend himself. Dorota giggled. Carmen sat back down with her back straight, but an irrepressible smile was twitching her mouth. Gen proposed a toast to the happy couple and we raised our glasses with a contented chink.

On Wednesday afternoon we were back at the courthouse to be married. Dorota and Gen were with us again and we were accompanied this time by Pavel as well who skipped out of work for the afternoon with the departing comment to Kazimeras “That fucking pinhead Jack is actually getting married. This I have to see.” Kazimeras himself declined to come since he had to meet Bill at the Chinese restaurant at 5:30.

When we called Juan to tell him we were getting married the next day, he snorted cantankerously. “You guys are crazy!” A big delivery of cement bags was coming in at the hardware store where he worked so he would have to forego joining us. “Why couldn’t you guys wait till Friday? I’d take the whole day off and get drunk.”

It was a sunny afternoon without the brownish gray haze that tends to grace the New York skyline in August. We were in a festive mood. I had rustled up a faded blue dress shirt and a pair of black slacks with pleats. I was looking comparatively dapper and formal, but Pavel pointed out repeatedly with glee that I had neglected to shave that morning. Carmen wore a stylish red blouse and a short black skirt with shoulder straps that framed her breasts smartly. We both had shorts and tee shirts in the van for the barbecue afterwards.

While we were waiting for the judge, a man was marched past us with his hands cuffed behind his back. The man and his police escort disappeared through a door. We were all quiet for a moment and then Pavel chirped up. “A good omen for your marriage.”

We were still laughing when the judge walked in. We asked if we could perform the ceremony outside in the sun and he replied with a smile “Why not?”

Carmen and I stood side by side next to some shrubbery near the parking lot and faced the judge who began reading out the marriage litany. We dutifully answered the posed questions until the English words began coming too fast for Carmen and we had to stop and translate. Everybody spoke at once to explain one particular passage and Carmen didn’t know who to listen to. “Can I read?” she finally asked and the judge turned his book and pointed at the sentence with his finger.

I glanced at Carmen. She glowed with beauty and she wore a charming smile that was a mixture of timid uncertainty with the foreign words and the thrill of enjoying her own personal moment at the center of attention. I felt a self satisfied smirk trying to invade my face, but I fought it off with determination and focused on the judge. The procedure was over in a matter of minutes and the judge shook our hands warmly.

Pavel wisecracked to the judge. “By the powers vested in you, you should do the proper thing and throw this guy in jail.”

The judge replied softly. “I’m leaving him in a different custody.” He smiled and departed. Pavel and I spluttered with merry laughter and then translated for the others who had been staring at us blankly. Gen and Dorota then reached into their pockets and pulled out handfuls of rice and began showering Carmen and me. Pavel produced a two pound bag of rice from his day pack and blasted me with a broadside of grapeshot. I was still recovering from the impact and shaking the rice out of my hair when he hit me with another. I grabbed Carmen by the hand and we ran into the parking lot to escape him. Pavel chased us with a fiendish cackle and unleashed another barrage. Streams of rice trickled under my collar and down my back. I stopped and yelled at Pavel while Carmen ducked behind me for safety. Another gale of rice buffeted us and we ran on. Suddenly I stopped and turned on our pursuer and grabbed his bag of rice. Pavel clutched the bag with one hand and with the other hit me with one last fistful of rice. We both tugged at the bag. Some rice grains had flown into my mouth and I spit them out to one side. The bag ripped and the rice tumbled onto the oil smeared asphalt. Pavel had to support himself on the hood of a car from laughing so hard and I stood panting with part of the tattered rice bag in my hand. Then Pavel gave me a hug and embraced Carmen as well and wished us many years of happiness. Carmen and I kissed and our friends applauded. Then we all hopped into the van and went off to a park for grilled steaks washed down with the warm cheap champagne that Pavel had bought at the last minute.

When we called my parents that night to give them the news, my father let out an exclamation of happy relief. My mother blessed the occasion with understated stoicism. “Now we can get down to business.”

Chapter 60

In mid September we flew back to Spain for a second marriage for the Spanish family and friends. There would be about forty people invited. We would sign our papers in front of a judge and then peel away, en masse, to a bar overlooking Playa Riazor, where the modern apartment buildings lined the avenue running along the beach. This would be followed at three o’clock by dinner at an elegant restaurant, where an entire separate room had been reserved for us. Carmen had bought a dazzling white dress, fashionably low cut at the bosom and not at all the virginal bridal gown. I would wear a dress shirt and a pair of slacks. Agreement was universal and cordial relations reigned.

For the week we were to spend in La Coruña, Carmen’s friend from the hospital that was subletting her apartment, had move in with his girlfriend and vacated the apartment to us. Two days before the wedding, a childhood friend of Carmen’s named Raul arrived from Madrid with his wife. Carmen and Raul had become close platonic friends during their high school days and spent afternoons discussing Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse and other adolescent angst themes. Raul’s father had spent his life in the bars and died of liver disease while Raul was still a teenager. Raul also had a strong affinity to drink and the doctors had already warned him about his liver. His wife, Luisa, was from a village in the rugged mountains of Extremadura in southwest Spain. She worked in a restaurant and took affectionate care of Raul, even in his most tragic moments of alcohol instigated infirmity.

When I emerged from my shower the next morning, Raul invited me to go out with him to buy cigarettes. We went down to the street and ambled over to a modern and clean bar in the lobby of a hotel near the beach. Raul settled himself on a bar stool and bade me sit on the stool next to him.

“Hombre!” he grinned at me. “Que te parece? Una cerveza o tal vez un coñac?”

Raul greeted the bar tender jovially and ordered us both coffee and brandy. Raul opened his pack of Ducados and insisted that I take one. I wasn’t in the mood for either alcohol or cigarettes, but it seemed that the most convenient way to bond with Raul and the easiest way to pass the time in his company was to join him. The brandy went down into my empty stomach with a warm unexpected smoothness and I was not reluctant when Raul ordered a second round for us. I coughed on my third Ducado, but the sharp black tobacco smoke went wonderfully with the alcohol and augmented the delicious, decadent sensation of our morning binge. After several brandies, we were ready to move on to some lighter fare and Raul ordered us some beer. The bar tender set two glasses of beer in front of us that were a delight to behold for their sheer beauty. Beads of perspiration rolled down the sides of the glasses and a perfect one inch head of creamy foam rose in a mound just over the rim of the glass. I reached for another cigarette. Raul snapped out his silver cigarette lighter and gave me a light.

“What a perfect way to start the day!” I chuckled to myself. “OK, only this once.”

My healthy instincts as an athlete wouldn’t permit me to adopt this as a daily practice as Raul evidently had done long since. On one of our trips to Madrid, Carmen and I had stayed with Raul and he had taken me out for a morning walk “to get the newspaper”. Our walk took us far as the newspaper kiosk in front of his apartment block and then into a bar two storefronts down from his door. I had insisted on a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice while he had a brandy and coffee and Ducados for breakfast. He had insisted that I join him for his second brandy and afterwards we had tucked away yet another before he was ready to go home from our walk.

The morning of our wedding arrived and Carmen winced when she witnessed me peeling my dress shirt out of my back pack. It was one great collection of wrinkles, looking more like a coiled brood of snakes than a garment. Luisa snatched up my shirt and ironed it as stiff and flat as she could. An hour later we were in the middle of a large group of friends and relatives in front of the ayuntamiento. Most of Carmen’s old friends had shown up and she was radiant with pleasure at their presence. Since I knew most of them only as the casual introductory acquaintance, I lingered in the background like one of the spectators or distant relatives.

Carmen flit from friend to friend, making jokes and enjoying her place as object of attention. After a few minutes she came over to me and took me by the arm.

“Jack, Abuela wants to say hello to you.”

I passed self consciously through the center of the milling group to where Juan Sr. was standing with his back erect, smoking a cigarette. Next to him was a hunched and even more diminutive elderly woman with a walking cane. I leaned forward and kissed Carmen’s grandmother on her wrinkled cheeks. Abuela beamed up at me and said something to me in her creaky voice that I couldn’t decipher. I bent over with my hands on my knees and put my ear as close to her mouth as I could. A video camera recorded the proceedings and showed me bent over in apparent conversation with Abuela for quite a long while, as Carmen’s friends and relatives greeted each other in a rapid flowing twirl of dialogue and embraces. In fact, I rarely understood what Abuela was saying to me, but she was very sweet and full of evident good will towards me and I gallantly tried to give the appearance of comprehension and eagerly replied whenever I could. While Carmen darted through the crowd, exchanging kisses and compliments, I was able to stay in the background with Abuela and avoid the awkward conversations with Carmen’s friends, for whom I was just a weird, unfathomable, two dimensional, hamburger eating American.

The hour of our appointment arrived and Carmen and I were ushered into the judge’s chamber. A dour faced judge faced us from behind her desk and asked us several questions and gave us several documents to sign. At no point in our interview did she ever come remotely close to smiling and when our paper work was completed she dismissed us unceremoniously.

“Que cabrona!” hissed Carmen as we filed out. I asked her what the problem was and Carmen answered in a whisper. “That judge is an old, hija de puta, conservative Franquista. She didn’t approve of us marrying outside of the church.”

The next morning, we were sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspapers after breakfast. At least I was going through the motions of reading the newspapers, but after the wine and champagne of the previous day, it was sometimes all I could do to prop the paper in front of my face and gaze dully at an unspecified fuzzy spot in the middle of the page. Raul and Luisa had taken a taxi to the airport early in the morning and Carmen and I were left alone again.

Carmen tapped my newspaper and arrested my attention. “Do you love me?”

I groaned silently and braced myself for what my premonition told me was going to be a nerve stretching interview. “Of course I do. I told you just last Wednesday, don’t you remember? Oh no, what am I saying. How could I be such a silly ass? It wasn’t Wednesday at all. It was Tuesday. I remember now. It was the same day I went to the dentist on 72nd Street. I asked you for a dollar for the subway and after you gave it to me I told you how much I loved you.”

“Que idiota!”

“Si, but I am YOUR idiota!”

Carmen shook her head slowly and looked at me as if I were a slow learning child fumbling over my shoelaces. I sat grinning back at her like a hyena. Taking its cue from this small moment of tenderness, nature took its course and we retired temporarily to our private sanctity of romance. The subsequent nap was highly satisfactory for my hangover.

When we woke again in the afternoon, I was able to piece together fragments of memories of our wedding party. Our whole group arrived at the bar over looking the beach about one. I recall drinking several gin tonics and looking out the windows at the waves washing in on the sun lit beach. I can’t remember any dialogue at the bar, only the bright sun on the sand outside. My memory of our dinner at the restaurant is also spotty. I recollect a few wry observations made to a group of Carmen’s male friends over hors d’oeuvres and champagne, but the comments either didn’t translate well or the wit was just not appreciated by the audience and I received polite smiles in return for my efforts at being clever. Years ago, I probably would have been able to report with reasonable certainty where we went afterwards for the evening, but I am in no way able to do so now. I can merely attest that we were out in clubs till quite late and I consumed a liberal amount of libations, purely for ceremonial reasons of course.

Carmen and I spent a nice warm day together and finally managed to pull ourselves together enough to go out and find some quiet tapas of pulpo, followed by albondigas or Spanish meatballs. Back in Carmen’s living room, we curled up cozily on the sofa and flipped drowsily through the channels. I was even trying to find the energy to become enthusiastic about the soccer highlights. Carmen was sleepily pressing her cheek against mine and I could smell the familiar scent of her breath as its warm stream flowed past my nose. We migrated instinctively for bed. Carmen snuggled under the blankets. I stood naked next to the light switch. Carmen gazed at me from under the covers with love pouring out from her eyes. We shared a tender moment together. I switched off the light. Darkness enveloped the room. I dropped silently to the floor and froze without even breathing. Several seconds passed. Carmen bolted up in the bed.

“Jack!” she squeaked. “Where are you?”

I made no sound.

“Que idiota!” Carmen whimpered. I reached up noiselessly and suddenly grabbed her foot. Carmen shrieked. I chuckled and joined her in our bed.

Chapter 61

I poked my fork at the crusty edges of melted cheese that were laminated to my plate and glanced greedily at the alluring portion of Croque Monsieur still remaining on Carmen’s plate.

“Mira, alli!”

Carmen looked across the street where I was pointing and I deftly speared her Croque Monsieur and shoved the whole bit into my mouth. She turned back to find her plate empty and my cheeks bulging. I munched happily and grinned at her with a corner of crust still protruding from my lips. A curtain of frigidity dropped over her countenance and she rose without a word. I washed down the enormous mushy wad of chewed Croque Monsieur with a last gulp of beer and signaled the waiter for the check. By the time I got out of the café to the street, Carmen was just barely visible two blocks ahead on Rue Rivoli. I followed along, keeping her in sight, but annoyed enough to not run and catch up.

We were on a honeymoon trip to Paris. It was our last trip in the yellow Renault 5 since Carmen had decided to sell it before returning to New York. As usual when we were in Europe, Carmen drove and I vigorously occupied the passenger seat, scouring through the collection of music tapes for the perfect song for the moment, or reading articles in El País or some book about French history or philosophy and enthusiastically capsulizing the main themes for Carmen’s benefit. Now however, my plans for a pleasant afternoon stroll past the used book stalls that lined the Seine seemed to have capsized in another ugly emotional squall. Carmen stopped to look at some birds in cages that were offered for sale on the sidewalk and I came up along side her.

“Hola.” I ventured tentatively. Carmen gave no response and continued to exam the diversity of the sidewalk stock. I moved out of the way of the stream of passing pedestrians and thought of our scheduled rendezvous for dinner with Monique and her husband at 6:30. I still had at least three hours to achieve a peace armistice.

“Do you want me to buy you another Croque Monsieur?”

Carmen nodded her head in the negative without looking at me.

“There’s a café over there. I’ll buy you two Croque Monsieurs, or ten if you are that hungry. Or a pizza, or a steak.”

Carmen just wandered off, inspecting some other senseless bit of bric-a-brac for sale. I tailed after her morosely. It was a warm, sunny day and ordinarily it would have been a thrilling pleasure to gawk at the flood of diverse humanity flowing by, but now the multitude that jostled its way past me was just a constant irritant. I stood next to a tree by the curb and watched Carmen who passed methodically down a row of charcoal sketched portraits for sale. I briefly imagined punting her into the Seine and then considered my more pragmatic options. Carmen ambled at a leisurely pace down the street and I trudged along in formation, about ten paces behind and keeping as close to the street as the traffic, trees, and strategically placed dog shit would bear.

Unfortunately, it was hopeless. Carmen was too incensed to calm down and when we finally dragged ourselves back to our tiny hotel room in the Latin Quarter, she excused herself from our dinner engagement. I protested and reasoned with her, but she steadfastly refused to go anywhere with me. She curled up in bed with a fashion magazine, probably Elle in Spanish if I remember right. I made excuses to Monique and her husband at the restaurant, claiming sudden illness, and then downgrading the severity when they expressed dismay and genuine concern. I headed off their compassionate impulse to visit Carmen in our hotel room, by finally admitting that we’d had an argument.

“Oh. Is that all.” Monique sighed with relief. She clucked a glib chuckle and patted my forearm. ‘You’ll be ok in the morning.”

With that, the issue seemed to be resolved in Monique’s mind and she focused on the traditional French meal that she had invited me to. I recall dimly that the food was good and the wine abundant, but my memory doesn’t serve me in finer detail. The weight of discord pressed down on my mood.

When I returned to the hotel, Carmen was asleep. I crept cautiously into the bed next to her and she woke up drowsily. “I’m sorry.” I muttered softly. Carmen reached one hand behind her and briefly squeezed my hand and then she rolled back on her side and fell back to sleep. In the morning, the sun shone in through the window curtains and also from Carmen’s face.

On our return trip to Spain, we stopped at Chartres to visit the cathedral. As we walked from the parking lot, equipped with tourist information brochures in half a dozen languages, I explained to Carmen that the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres was widely considered to be the finest example of Gothic architecture. I had read about it during an introductory art history course in college and I endeavored eagerly to impart all the details I could remember to Carmen. The traffic coming out from Paris had been hellish and, despite my navigational skills, we had gotten lost and Carmen’s first-cup-of-coffee-in-the-morning sanguinity had long since been replaced by a sand paper textured mood that brooked little patience with didactic husbands. On top of everything else, the late September afternoon was turning rather warm and our experience in the stop and go traffic without the benefit of air conditioning had frayed nerve endings even more.

Carmen snorted with indignation and demanded skeptically “What’s so much better about this cathedral than the one we have in Santiago?”

It was a losing battle. Carmen remained peevish, at best, and barely tolerated the various aspects of the 12th and 13th century architecture I was pointing out with the help of the guide brochure and she wouldn’t even deign to glance at the “hijo de puta” Romanesque Rose window that I so unwisely drew her attention to.

Our cultural detour had been a dismal failure but as we got back in the car and headed south, the temperature cooled and so did our tempers. Although I had been percolating with discontent on account of Carmen’s boneheaded refusal to appreciate a momentous monument to man’s artistic achievements, as we poured over the road map together to determine the best route, the cooperative nature of our discussion sprouted harmonious feelings between us again. We swung back on to the highway and the banter resumed its usual lively pace. As the sun headed below the horizon I took my habitual great pleasure in shouting out “Luces!”, or “Lights!” a split second before Carmen thought to turn her headlights on. Carmen responded with the customary “Bo!”

Chapter 62

Carmen was sitting on the floor of our living room and crying. I walked around her as I passed through the room and she remained squatting in misery, taking up as much of the passageway as possible and sporadically unleashing pointed barbs at my passing presence. I can’t for the life of me recall what the whole hullabaloo was all about, but the misery index was driven up with certainty far further than the occasion merited. In any event, the result was that Carmen was squalling on the floor and I was grinding my teeth in wrath at her truculent forte of fomenting dispute.

We were in New York. Several months had gone by, punctuated by the occasional spat, the concomitant moments of resentment, the subsequent peace feelers, the almost forgotten anger, the clenched teeth that bit back the venomous attack to give yet another chance, the frustrated reflections about who said what totally erroneous comment that marred an otherwise glorious sunny walk down Broadway, the various attempts to illustrate the lunacy to a friend only to receive a non committal and wholly unsatisfying response acquitting guilt or citing mitigating circumstances, the slow thaws and gradual recuperation of trust, the smiles that unlocked the bolted doors of affection, the warm merging of our bodies in the clutch of a desperate embrace like shipwrecked sailors grasping onto to floating pieces of driftwood, the shy emergence of a trial laugh, the flood of joy at realizing that all hope was not gone, the easing back into the comfortable roles of routine emotional stability, and the final coup showing once again the strength of our relationship as the sassy teasing reinserted itself again into our repertoire.

“This relationship is over.” Carmen pronounced.

I paused in mid stride and glanced down at her hunched form on the floor. “Fine, just leave me in peace!” I strode off with strong steps towards the bedroom. “If I could only close the door and make her go away.” I thought to myself. “Or better yet, drop her out the fucking window.”

“After we are separated, I hope you go out with other girls and find out that I’m not the worst woman in the world.” Carmen shot at my receding back.

I didn’t have the slightest interest in going out with other girls, no matter how superior to Carmen they were. I just wanted to be left alone. I stepped around Carmen as I went to and fro in our small apartment. Carmen wept in abject despair. I felt the pressure pushing against my skull with unendurable force and wondered when the bone was going to burst with my brains blowing against the ceiling.

Thirty horrid minutes slogged brutishly by and the intensity of Carmen’s weeping began to subside. She finally picked up a book of Garfield the Cat cartoons and began listlessly thumbing through the pages. While I rummaged in the bedroom closet I heard a distinct chuckle. Carmen remained squatting on the floor with her cheeks streaked with tears and translated the English text to herself. Her eyebrows lifted with the beginning of a guffaw, but her heart was still too heavily burdened to actually pull it off. As I passed through the room again several minutes later, there was an unmistakable agonized smile playing across her features. When I walked through a few minutes after that, she was actually laughing out loud. She looked up at me with her tear streaked cheeks.

“Jack, is it really so terrible being with me that you want to live without me?” There was no attempt at manipulation, just a little girl in complete despair. I was still annoyed and steeled hard against her, but I couldn’t stand seeing her so unhappy. I damned her in my heart for creating such a horrible situation, but finally coerced myself to make the first difficult gesture of softness towards her. Carmen soaked it in like a dry sponge sucking water. I stopped next to her looked down at her as calmly as I could manage. Carmen looked back up waiting for the slightest sign of tenderness. With iron cold, rigidly set anger filling my being, I pushed myself to reach out and touch her hair. Carmen’s relief at the touch was a physical snap of tension. Tears gushed out of her eyes and she sobbed, staring at me, as if pleading me to fix everything. I had mentally and emotionally accepted her declaration that the relationship was over and I couldn’t extinguish my anger so abruptly. I felt like a battleship trying to reverse direction. I sat next to her, looking down at the floor. We sat side by side both looking down. Our thighs and the backs of our hands were touching. We both breathed and sat. My head was clenched and I felt exhausted.

Carmen asked softly. “Jack, what are we going to do?”

I couldn’t think. I searched frantically for an answer, but was frozen. Carmen waited. After several minutes of silence she asked with a quivering voice “Jack?”

“I know.” I responded. “I’m thinking.”

Carmen waited a minute and then asked again. “What are you thinking?”

A hot flash of frustration flooded through my clenched head. “Don’t interrogate me!” I snapped. Then I softened. “I’m just trying to think.”

Carmen recoiled as if she had been struck a sharp blow. Minutes passed. My head was too tense to process any coherent thought. All that I could grasp is that I needed relief from this grip of tension. A tear rolled down Carmen’s cheek and I noticed out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t want her to cry. I didn’t want all this anger. I reached my arm behind her and forced myself to put it around her shoulder. I was so angry with her that I couldn’t stand to touch her, but I couldn’t witness her being so unhappy. Carmen stiffened at my touch. She turned slowly and looked inquiringly into my eyes.

“Can we be ok together, Jack?”

I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t think so, but I had to say something to soothe her agony. “Perhaps.”

Carmen looked down and twisted one hand in the palm of the other one. I squeezed her shoulder and she leaned into me. Several minutes passed. We stayed in the same position, both looking down gloomily at the floor. Finally I pulled her shoulder into me more tightly and she turned her head and pressed her face against my chest. I reached my other hand up and softly stroked her head. We went to bed and slept like that, pressed together but not speaking. The grim depression continued to next morning. Carmen didn’t want to open her eyes. I make her some hand-squeezed orange juice and coffee and brought it to the bed. Carmen sat up and said shyly “Gracias.” A smile now came with natural ease to the corners of my mouth and Carmen’s face burst into a happy smile in response. Carmen started laughing and I laughed with her. She launched herself across the bed to lasso her arms around my neck and the coffee spilt over the pillows.

Chapter 63

The next afternoon I walked passed a construction site in midtown. As usual, there were plywood barriers around the perimeter with observation holes drilled through the plywood. Small knots of pedestrians were standing and peering in at the construction work through the holes. I stopped at a vacant hole and absently watched the beehive of activity in the deep foundation pit. An excavator dug dirt out of the bottom of the pit and loaded it onto a dump truck. On the sidewalk near me a laborer started jack hammering the concrete pavement. A warning whistle sounded shrilly, advising the world that a bulldozer was clattering in reverse.

My mind drifted to Carmen. I reflected back to the romantic passion of our early acquaintance. I realized that Carmen had not turned out to be the girl of my dreams and that my expectations had been disillusioned. I asked myself a question that had never occurred to me before. Had my expectations about Carmen, or for any other human being that might have been in her place, simply been too demanding and unrealistic? Was it fair to her to place her against such an idealized measuring stick? Suddenly another question occurred to me. Had I lived up to Carmen’s expectations? In my blind egocentric self confidence this question had never appeared on my radar screen. I had only noticed when Carmen’s defects scraped harshly against my projected ideals. The thought took shape in my mind that we hadn’t really initially fallen in love with each other but with the idealized images that we had assumed of each other. Now we were both becoming gradually disillusioned as we slowly got to know each other intimately and peeled away, like layers of an onion, the facades that we presented to the world to create more flattering self images. I now was familiar with Carmen’s petulance and insecurities that made her lash out defensively at me sometimes. Carmen for her part, was all too familiar with my pedantic tendency to show her every minute aspect of culture that I thought she should be aware of, my overbearing opinionated propensity to intellectually browbeat her when she expressed an uninformed viewpoint, and even the acrid sulfuric odor of my farts when I gluttoned myself on too much pasta or during my daily morning purge.

Now that I seemed to have gained a new awareness and sudden insight in the mechanics of our relationship and even into my own psyche, I questioned myself where this realization would lead me. The concept of dissatisfaction in my relationship with Carmen had never crystallized clearly enough to be recognizable before and it seemed to beg a formal reaction of decision on my part. Images of Carmen’s face when she was happy and when she was sad flashed through my mind and a warm swell rose through my chest. I visualized her in one of her moments of abrasive anger and, viewed through the mitigating distance of time, the image almost made me giggle. It came to me that I believed I had come to love Carmen and care for her, not as the idealized woman who was so easy to love, but as she really was as I had come to know her, with all her faults and sharp edges.

This realization of the depth of my new love thrilled me with an abrupt burst of enthusiastic energy. I had to go tell Carmen at once! I turned to go and lurched blindly into the spectator at the peephole next to me. I impatiently ran to the subway and went home as fast as I could. Carmen was cutting potatoes to make tortilla español when I burst into the apartment. She came to greet me with the sharp knife still in her hand and gave me a kiss on both cheeks.

“Carmen, te quiero! I love you!” I bounced in front of her like an excited puppy.

“Y yo a ti. I love you too. Jack, can you go to the store and buy some eggs? We only have one left. You forgot to buy them yesterday when I asked you to.” Carmen turned and went back to the potatoes on the cutting board. I went up behind her and put my hands on her shoulders and kissed the back of her neck. Carmen scrunched her shoulders and wriggled away. “Anda, Jack! Ve te rapido. Tengo hambre. Go to the store. I’m hungry.”

I grinned to myself and went off to do Carmen’s bidding. The glow of my realization about the evolution of my love for Carmen warmed me all the way to the Korean deli at the corner.

Chapter 64

A few weeks later we had another cataclysmic row. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, but the pain and impact on our mutual trust was shattering. We made up after a couple of days, but felt shaky for a while. A month afterwards it happened again. Each time, it bit off a piece of our confidence in each other and seemed to leave an emotional scar that would be covered over with affection, but would never actually disappear entirely from the depths of our psyches.

We spent the next two more years together in New York. Carmen received her green card and began working directly for the lab as a US resident. After all the anxiety about the immigrations interviews where the INS ruthlessly tries to uncover fraudulent marriages, ours passed routinely. There was no doubt in the immigrations official’s mind that we were a newly wed couple in love. We looked like we belonged together. It was one of our good days.

While Carmen pursued her career ambitions in the medical world and talked about going back to university, I pursued my own elusive goals of the understanding of mankind through the expression of theater. Personal recognition and success as well as a complete understanding of the human condition remained unattainable. I thrashed away at my manuscripts and flirted with the edges of the accepted art world, but to no immediate avail.

I distinctly remember an evening out for coffee with a colleague of hers from the hospital who had obviously been making an attempt to make her acquaintance. He was overtly ambitious and pompous, yet Carmen galled me by listening to his conceited patter with deference. She sat with her chin propped in one hand and her eyes shining with admiration of his confidently expressed medical profession expertise. He paid scant attention to my comments and basked in Carmen’s attention. At one point I made a satirical joke. Carmen’s colleague looked at me without expression and resumed talking to Carmen. Carmen glanced at me with blazing eyes. I thought the guy was a putz, but I desisted from further inflammatory commentary. Ultimately, this was an insignificant side event in our history since we never saw this colleague again, but it did illustrate Carmen’s professional ambition and what seemed to me to be an exaggerated respect for people with titles. I would have spent a far happier evening with a dishwasher if he was honest and good humored and not full of shit like this guy. In any case, I supported Carmen whether she wanted to go back to university or follow her career path through the position she already had. It was her career and her choice. I began suspecting she was somewhat less enthusiastic about my direction and ambition and noticed more frequent suggestions about malodorous life menu items such as law school. The distinction created a subtle rift that was not lethal, but nonetheless noticeable as a blip on the distant edge of the radar screen.

Several trips we took together stand out over the years in my memory in contrast to our daily routine but never dull lives in New York. I took Carmen on a trip to bask in the sand dunes of Cape Cod and bicycle past the old whaling captain’s houses on Martha’s Vineyard. I even took her camping in the Adirondack Mountains in spring when patches of snow still covered the ground and Carmen surprised me by enjoying a frigid morning dip in an ice encrusted stream. She did insist on applying lipstick, but she carried the small tube in her own pack and I ultimately couldn’t find a reason to forbid it. It was unconventional by all standards of mountaineering lore to be sure, but wasn’t fighting against unreasonable conformity my philosophical mainstay? The incident caused me to review my entire concept of which prejudices I condemned and which ones I condoned.

I also took Carmen with me on a small weekend moving job to Pittsburgh. The van’s electrical system shorted out on the drive home and the headlights refused to come on as we were driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at dusk. As visibility declined, the tension grew with trucks whizzing past our dark and barely visible vehicle. We finally reached an exit and found a motel before the night fell completely pitch black. I fretted over the cost of repairs, but Carmen was enchanted by the real live authentic American diner where we ate meat loaf with canned string beans and instant mashed potatoes with gravy.

Another trip took us with a cheap flight to Las Vegas where a rented car allowed us to escape that temple of unrestrained garish vulgarity and make a scenic circuit of desert magnificence in Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion. A surviving photograph shows Carmen turning in surprise as I snapped a picture of her when we got out of the car to gander at the rocky shore of Lake Powel, her high heel shoes juxtaposed against the sage brush and brick red gravel. In another, she is seated with her size 4 white sneakers, tight flowery shorts, and Raybans on a stone wall in Bryce Canyon with a squad of towering and sculpted sandstone spires marching off to the horizon behind her.

Carmen had the keener interest in photography and took most of our pictures, so most of them went with her when we split up. I now have only half a dozen photos that pictorially chronicle our relationship during those next years together. One of my favorites was a photo at a Halloween party. Carmen is wearing a French maid’s outfit with a pink satin apron and a pink heart across her bosom. She maintains the elegance, grace and poise of a queen but with the suggestive maid’s outfit she is as sexy as any Hollywood starlet. I, on the other hand, have a knife handle sticking out of my neck and fake blood and gore pouring out of the nasty ghoulish gash. I have my arm around Carmen’s waist and a sly grin as I gaze at Carmen’s loveliness with a wicked, sharp fanged lust, while Carmen looks blithely back at the camera, unperturbed by the voracious and eerie monster at her side. We sent this photo of the happy couple along with Christmas cards to our friends during our second or maybe third year together in New York. Unfortunately, this photo is now lost and there is a gap in my photo album where it used to be.

Somehow in the twists and turns of our relationship, we finally managed to have one argument too many, get angry at each other one time too many, and our love bond snapped from fatigue. Maybe it didn’t actually snap with brusque elasticity, but just sag and bow until it collapsed under the weight of repeated blows. Our relationship had been frayed by the occasional conflicts, but the surviving sinews of affection had always remained strong. However, there was a cumulative effect of pain, a living history of archived memories that came to the surface with each renewed bout. Finally one day, we both found ourselves simply too exhausted to fight and we both let go. I just didn’t want to get angry any more. For good or for bad, I retired from the field of combat. The dreams, the hopes, the plans, came to a crashing end. The lights went out.

Chapter 65

I went to meet Carmen at Le Pain Doré, her favorite coffee shop in our old neighborhood. When I walked in, Carmen jumped up from her table and ran to hug me with tears in her eyes. I enveloped her petite body with my arms as if I was protecting a small child. She pushed her face as deep into my chest as she could and hid there. Carmen’s stylishly revealing summer dress and black high heel shoes contrasted sharply, yet at the same time sensuously, with my bare biceps, ragged sleeveless tee shirt, and several days of new beard. After a minute, her shoulders heaved in a choked sob and then she straightened herself up and regained her composure.

We sat down facing each other and the waitress came for our order. After not seeing each other for three months, I was surprised to hear how proficient her English had become as she spoke to the waitress. As always, Carmen and I spoke only Spanish together. We were accustomed to each other that way. Carmen asked for a chocolate cake and a cappuccino. I ordered nothing. I don’t like pastries or drinking coffee in the afternoon. A short burst of resentment flashed through me as I reflected that she had put off seeing me for four days and now we were doing it on her terms, in her chosen place. However, this resentment was smothered in the next instant by a bubbling excitement to tell her about a new Cajun restaurant I’d found in Tribeca. As I was describing the music and the ambiance, I noticed that Carmen was regarding me with a patient smile that was tinted with tenderness. I realized that I had immediately fallen into the familiar habit of enthusiastically showing her something that excited me a lot more than her.

I dropped the description of the restaurant in mid sentence. Carmen took a bite of her chocolate cake and focused all her attention on savoring the rich flavor. The Cajun restaurant had slipped quietly from the scene. Carmen poised her fork for another delicate attack and a larger question surged to the top of my brain.

“Oye, y nosotros? Que hacemos?” What about us, I asked her. “Is this separation for real?”

Carmen licked a chocolate smudge from her lip and shook her head in determination. She creased her brow thoughtfully. “Oh yes, it is real. I’m not going back.” Carmen spoke firmly and resolutely.

The ultimate finality of our relationship washed through me with a shudder like a ship crashing against a rocky coast. Carmen cut another slice of cake with her fork. All of a sudden, anything else we could have done together for the rest of the day seemed totally meaningless. I stood up and Carmen looked up at me with surprise.

“Have a nice life.” I said.

I turned around and walked out into the street without ever looking back. I never even pondered Carmen’s reaction, whether she cried at the table or just quietly enjoyed the rest of her chocolate cake.

That was years ago, and I haven’t seen Carmen since. I heard from Juan a while back that she has remarried and has a baby girl. My first reaction was a gut tightening thought that this baby should have been our baby. However, I am also glad for her that she has finally at least had the baby she wanted so much.

How many mistakes did I make? How many things did I do wrong? How selfish was I? These are questions I will always ask myself and perhaps answer in a melancholic drunken stupor, only to discard the next minute, somewhere onto the tumultuous seas of human emotion and self perception.

Even though we’ve both moved on with our lives, I still look back at times and think about her. So many mixed memories. A kaleidoscope of pain and sweetness. It doesn’t help me to carry around bitterness for this woman who was so important in my little life. I prefer to remember the happy times we had and the genuine tenderness we felt for each other, when we weren’t too preoccupied with fighting over some long forgotten, unimportant issue. As the remaining years of my life spread out before me, there will be days of sunshine and nights of loneliness, new friends, new lovers, the final sickness and ultimate death, the last years spent with still unknown laughing grandchildren or perhaps in solitude. There will always be some ache in my heart when I remember her. She was my Amor.

The End