Boys Like Blue Eyes, But Only Sometimes

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***This is autobiographical, but names have been changed.  The narrative elements, like the repetition, are intentional, as it is creative non-fiction.  The phone number is obviously fake.

“You can go if you really have to, but just leave this part of your body here,” Michael said.  He held his hands parallel to each other, one cutting across my abdomen and the other across my upper thighs, then gestured to the area between them.

I felt cut up, as if his hands were knives that had actually sliced my flesh, but also stunned into silence.

That part of me doesn’t talk, I wanted to say.  That part of me can’t have a conversation with you or keep you company.  That part of me doesn’t know how to read or write or do math or play lacrosse or earn a 4.0 GPA.

Of course, that’s not what Michael wanted.  He wanted parts of my body to receive parts of his body.  He thought he was a gentleman about it because he always tried to ensure that I got off too, to ensure that he was “giving me pleasure.”  He thought he was a good guy because he put effort into making me orgasm, failing to take into account that I wanted to be listened to rather than gotten off.  Failing to take into account that I wanted to be seen as a person, not as a sex organ with a brain and heart as accessories.

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I shouldn’t have been so stunned. When we were in middle school, I was, shall we say, undeveloped.  I was thin all around, and flat chested at an age when girls feel like having boobs is crucial to existence. One sultry summer day, a mutual friend of ours arranged for us to go over Michael’s house to go swimming in his pool.  I was excited since I had a colossal crush on him and hoped he might be noticing me too. I found out later, from the friend who accompanied me, that Michael had said that my gut poked out farther than my boobs after seeing me in a bathing suit.  My friend looked at me mournfully, like it pained her to relay such information when I’d just told her that I had a crush on Michael.

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I shouldn’t have been so stunned.  When I got to high school, Michael and I dated for a six weeks.  After those six weeks, he got frustrated that I wasn’t willing to lose my virginity yet and remarked to the same friend who accompanied me to his pool two summers earlier, who relayed it to me, that he “only dated her [me] to get some, and I [he] didn’t get enough, so there’s not point in us being together.”  My friend looked at me mournfully again.

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I shouldn’t have been so stunned.  After one promising day together my junior year of high school, I thought that Michael and I might end up dating again.  I was still holding on to hope, walking around with a picture of us in my binder at school and that I looked at between classes.  Michael had fractured his leg, so I baked him peanut butter cookies and brought them to his house as a get well gesture. We spent a an hour talking, and he thanked me for them twice.  So when I saw his name on my caller I.D. (finally!) one night a few weeks later, adrenaline pumped through me. I thought he was calling me to invite me over, or to tell me that he was already on the way to my house.  I willed myself to stay cool, calm and collected as I picked up the phone to avoid sounding overeager.

“Hey.”  I sounded cool, calm.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Not much, what are you up to?”

“Yeah, not much.  I was just wondering if you could give me Megan Smith’s phone number.  You guys are friends, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, hold on, I have to look at my contacts.  I don’t have it memorized. Give me a second.”

“Oh yeah, take your time.”

“Ok, it’s 555-555-5555.”  I didn’t even miss a beat.  I was pretty sure my voice gave nothing away.  Megan and I were good friends, almost best friends, and I vowed not to let Michael liking her get in the way of our friendship if it turned out she liked him back.  Megan was gorgeous, and she had a big chest.  I refused to let myself feel jealous, and I didn’t.  I knew it wasn’t her fault.

“Ok, thanks.”

“Oh yeah, no problem.”

“I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Sounds good.”

“Bye.”

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I shouldn’t have been so stunned.  When I was home for Christmas break my freshman year of college, Michael and I ran into each other outside the A&P in town.  We were both running errands for our families as they prepared dinner. I liked that Michael did whatever his parents asked of him without arguing.  I had recently dyed my hair dark. He’d always had a thing for blue eyes, and he stood outside my car and gazed at me while we talked even though it was cold outside.  I had finished shopping and was on my way home, seated inside my car with the heat on, but he was waiting to go into the store.

He was in no hurry though.  He asked me about college, and if I had been back home at all before that day, and when I thought I’d be back in town next.  He’s falling for me, I thought to myself.  I can see it in how he won’t look away.  I hadn’t been thinking about him or our failed high school love since I had been away focusing on school.  Still though, his next words had an effect on me:

“Your eyes are so blue.  I like your hair dark. It makes your eyes look even bluer.”

I forgot about college.  I forgot about my classes and the papers had written and the final exams that I had aced.  I was back home and the boy from back home  was as important as he was back in high school.  All he had to do was say three sentences.

“I should get going.  I need to get these groceries home to my mom, and you look cold,” I said.  I can’t tell you why, because I didn’t want the moment to end, but I guess I was trying to end the conversation first so as not to appear needy.

“Yeah, when do you leave again?”

“January 20th.  They give you a whole month off for Christmas break at college!”  I smiled brightly.

“Ok, have a good night.”  He kissed my on the cheek.  That as his custom, because his family is European, but it always made me feel special.

A week later, his name was lettered against the glow of my caller I.D.  Finally!

“Hey.”

“Hey, Stacey, what are you up to?”

“Not much, just hanging around the house,” I said.

“Yeah, I was kind of bored.  My car’s been at the shop for the past few days.  I thought you might be bored too. Do you want to go to Walmart?”

(Now, I know this part of the story may sound incredible, but they’d just built a Walmart about a half hour from where we lived.  It was actually exciting because it was 1) nice. I had no idea most Walmarts were hood until I saw other ones when I got older and 2) it was a thing to do.  We lived in an extremely rural town, so as unbelievable as it seems, having a Walmart nearby provided a place where teenagers actually went for their leisure time).

“Yeah, what time?” I agreed immediately.  I was in pajamas and calculating how fast I could pull together an outfit and put on makeup.  I was already putting on lip gloss.

“As soon as you’re ready.”

Ok, he wants to go ASAP.  I can rush, I can rush!

“Ok, I’ll pick you up in about twenty minutes.”  I focused ons ounding calm so as not to betray my excitement.

“See you soon.”

I found my tight jeans, put on makeup, and sprayed myself with CK1, the perfumed I’d been wearing since 5th grade.  This was it. I knew this was finally it. He wanted to hang out and really do something together. It was almost like a date.

It was already 9 pm, and cold since it was December, but there were lots of stars out.  How fortuitous! How romantic!

I had my phone out on my lap, prepared to call Michael when I pulled up to his house, but he was already outside, ready to get into the passenger seat.  I took it to mean that he was as excited to see me as I was to see him.

“Hey!”

“Hey!”  I could smell his cologne as we hugged.  I could make out his dark lashes and caramel skin in the moonlight.  I forced myself to back out of the hug even though I wanted to cling to him.  I focused on remaining cool, calm and collected.

“You’re driving stick smooth as hell!” he exclaimed approvingly as we pulled out onto the road.

“Ha, thanks!  I’ve been driving stick for over a year now since I got my license.  I guess you haven’t been in my car in a long time.”

“The last time I was in your car was right when you first got your license.”

“Oh yeah, I was a little rough on the clutch then.  After two weeks of having it, I was fine. I just had to get over being nervous.  I was driving like this by January of last year.”

“January.  So your birthday is in January?  Did I miss your birthday?”

“Well yeah, but it’s December, not January.  It was the day after Christmas.”

“I’m sorry.  You know how I am.  I just can’t ever remember people’s birthdays.  And they always remember mine.”

“April 4th,” I replied automatically, taking my hand off the wheel and turning my hand upward to make a sweeping gesture as if I were presenting something. Michael’s birthday was blazed into my memory.  Apparently forever, since I still somehow remember it.

“Your memory is amazing.”

“Ha, not really.”

“Hey, Stacey, on the way back from Walmart, can you drop me off somewhere?  It’s right down the road from Walmart. You don’t have to drive out of the way or anything.”

“Sure, where?”

“It’s right on the same road as Walmart, on the way back.  My girlfriend’s house.”

“Oh, she doesn’t have a car?”  What kind of person our age doesn’t have a car?  She lives near Walmart? That’s the trashy part of town, I thought.   I could hear my voice drop a few octaves, giving away my feeling of having been used.

“No, it’s not that.  I mean, yeah, she doesn’t have a car right now.  But I wanted to see you.”

“I can drop you off there.”

“Ok, but you know I did want to see you, right?”  He actually seemed a little nervous, anxious to smooth over any negative feelings I may have.

I never wanted to make it hard on Michael by being honest.  I smiled. “Yeah, it’s no problem.”

“Ok, great.”

When we got to the store, I pretended to look around at things.  Fortunately, Michael wasn’t paying too much attention to me, so I didn’t have to work hard to hide my feeling of despondency.  He needed something for his car, so that was his other reason for suggesting our late night trip.

“Have you been snowboarding at all since you’ve been home?” Michael asked when we got back in my car.

“Yeah, but only once.  My muscles were really sore after because I haven’t been working out like that and so-”

“Can you take a right here?  It’s right here.”

“Oh yeah, which house is it?”

“The one in the corner.”

I pulled up.  “Here you are.”

“Thanks.  I’ll see you soon.”

I won’t see you soon.  I won’t see you until you need something else from me.  Instead of saying what I thought: “Yeah, see ya.”

I thought I couldn’t call Michael out for using me because I thought it would make me look suspicious. I believed that if I said directly, “Hey, you only called me  so that I could give you a ride to your girlfriend’s house because your car is at the shop,” the situation would be uncomfortable. I thought that acknowledging the truth would reflect poorly on me, and make me look pathetic or needy or clingy.

I held off from crying until I parked safely at home.  Then I sat in the car and let it out. The tears felt hot coming out but got cold immediately in the freezing temperatures.  I sat and sat until I was sure my parents had gone to bed because I was embarrassed to be seen crying. The funny thing is, I like the color of my eyes when I cry because their color gets more intense.  I looked at myself in the visor mirror for a moment. My eyes were bloodshot, yes, but also extremely blue. But Michael wasn’t there to appreciate them.

I shouldn’t have been so stunned.

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22 in Barcelona- Finding My First Apartment

On the way to one of my interviews, the bus driver struck up a conversation with me and asked where I was from.  He was grandfatherly, and I had the naive notion that every encounter with another person, no matter how random, would result in some kind of good fortune for me.  Because I was so brokenhearted from Tony not wanting to be with me and struggling to find work, I believed the universe was going to even things out on my behalf.  I had not yet learned that Satan works actively to keep you down, to keep you in danger, to keep you in such constant struggle that peace eludes you.

So when the driver continued asking questions about where I lived, and where I would live when my single month of renting there was over, I had a presentiment that he would have a lead on some information about an apartment.  He did.

He looked at me in the rear view mirror and said, “My daughter has a room to rent.  The apartment is very nice and well-kept.  It’s just her and her daughter.  It’s an interior room, 300 euros a month.”

He wrote the address down with the monthly rental rate.  I double checked the price to make sure I’d understood.  I immediately felt a mixture of pressure to rent the apartment because the bus driver was being nice to me and a feeling of relief that I had a place to live.  I felt overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with the city the uncertainty that surrounded me.  On the streets, I was afraid of being targeted for pickpocketing because I looked so obviously foreign and was not yet fully bilingual.  I still had to concentrate fully on conversations to understand what was going on and respond appropriately.  I was always exhausted from the effort. I thought that figuring out living arrangements would take some of the pressure off that I felt.

So I told the bus driver I’d call his daughter, and I did.  We arranged to meet at the metro nearest her apartment.

Irma would remark later how she knew who I was the moment she spotted me.  She said it exultantly, like that fact indicated some superior prescience on her part.  I was 5’8″ and bright blonde with pale skin.  Not recognizing me as the person who had called her would have been nearly impossible.

The sidewalks were crowded when we first saw each other from opposite sides of the street.  Evening was falling, and her ample figure was lit from behind by the light being emitted from the storefronts.  She held her daughter’s hand and waved at me vigorously with her free one.  Her thickness was unusual for Spanish women her age, so I noticed it.  She had tightly curled hair, bleached blondish, that fell past her shoulders.  She was energetic in her movements.

“Holya, soy Stacey.  Usted es Irma?” I asked politely.

She smiled widely and said yes, and that her daughter was Carla.  She told me to follow her lead and we walked toward her apartment.

She made small talk about the neighborhood on the way, pointing our grocery stores and places to use internet.  I asked her about internet at the house, explaining that I would need it for job searching.  She said that someone was coming over to help her install internet that week.

As we approached the apartment, I noticed graffiti on some of the buildings.  The streets felt dark and narrow.

When we got inside the actual apartment though, I was pleasantly surprised.  Smooth hardwood floors and a large open living room greeted me when Irma opened the door.  There was a large open kitchen to the right of the entryway, and baskets of fruit seemed like a good open.

My bedroom was small and an “interior” room, which meant it had no outside windows, just a small rectangle near the ceiling where light from the living room entered.  It had a closet and a bed and a nightstand.

She showed me the bathroom as well, since all three of us would be sharing it, and it too was more spacious than I’d expected.  After the house tour, we sat on the couch.  Irma continued to make small talk about the program on the television.  She mentioned that things were difficult with her ex-husband and that he was not a good father to Carla.  Carla commented on things in the conversation, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying because she poke only Catalan.  I told Irma that I had never met a Spaniard who didn’t speak Spanish.

“It’s that we always talk to her in Catalan.  Sometimes I talk to my father in castellano, we talk to each other in castellano, but-” and here she turned to face Carla, “we always talk to her in Catalan.”  She then translated what she’d said for Carla, who looked at me through thick glasses and tried to hug me.

I could see that Carla had some sort of cognitive disability and didn’t know how to interact with kids her age, so I just tried to smile.

I felt uncomfortable in the neighborhood, depressed by the fact that my room was windowless, and awkward that this 8-year old was developing a bizarre and instant attachment to me.  I didn’t want to live with a woman Irma’s age and an 8-year old.  I needed friends, desperately, and was aware that this living arrangement wouldn’t lead to me meeting people my own age.

Still, the apartment outside of my room was in good shape, I reasoned with myself.  But it probably wouldn’t have made a difference either way.  After a half hour or so of chatting, Irma asked me if I wanted to move in.  I didn’t want to appear impolite or have to continue to search for an apartment.

Against all my instincts, I said yes.

22 in Barcelona- Love and Near Disaster

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A month or so after moving in to the apartment at Calle D’en Robador, Armin and I began spending more time together.  One night he knocked on my door while I was looking for job openings on my computer.  He said he would leave me alone when he saw that I was busy, but I told him to come in.  Since my bed took up most of the room, leaving only about a two foot wide path on the side of it to exit the room, I didn’t have any chairs.  He sat on the bed next to me, then asked me if I wanted to watch a few scenes of “Pride and Prejudice.”

I said yes, so he got his computer and reclined on the other side of the bed, leaning with his head on one arm facing towards the computer.  I did the same.  I could feel the heat between us, and my pulse quickened.  After we were done watching, he put the computer screen down.  I tried to appear nonchalant in spite of the thunder in my chest.

We talked a few minutes, and Armin reached his hand over to place it over mine.   My hands were cold but his were warm.  I could feel myself melting, magnetically drawn to him.  He brushed my hair from the side of my face and left his hand there.  Then he kissed me.

My heart rattled in my chest, and I tried to calm it.  We kissed for a few minutes and talked some more.  It was already late, so Armin went to his bedroom shortly after.  I felt euphoric, and thinking about someone other than Tony for a night felt like a relief.

I didn’t seek Armin out to spend time with him, as I knew we would eventually see each other at the apartment.  I was also so busy with job searching and working that it left me no time to seek him out.  I didn’t know his class schedule, but I assumed that’s where he was when our paths didn’t cross for a few days.

Saturday morning that weekend, I went to the kitchen to heat up some breakfast.  As I stood there, stirring my food, Armin came up behind me and touched my back.  When I turned around, he surprised me by sweeping me into his arms and kissing me deeply.

I went light-heated as I kissed him back.  I stumbled a little, but he held me strongly in his arms.

“I’m running to the store.  Do you need me to pick you up anything?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks.”  I wondered if Armin knew how much of a struggle it was to make my voice sound normal.

“Ok, I’ll see you later.”

“See you.”  I was still struggling.  As he turned and left the apartment, I was dumbstruck.  I could feel warmth tingling throughout my body as my heart felt alive again for the first time in months.

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“He’s handsome!” Shannon gushed the first time she met Armin once we were in the privacy of my bedroom.

“Really?  You think so?” My self-esteem was so low at this point that I somehow felt flattered that Shannon found the boy I had made out with attractive.

“Yes, he’s so tall and strong looking.”

I began to get excited talking about Armin.  Shannon knew that we had kissed, but I had made it seem insignificant at the time.  The combination of us having kissed a few more times and the fact that my friend found him attractive made me hopeful that something more would develop us between us than just occasionally making out.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time together,” I said with what was probably embarrassing enthusiasm.  “The other night we watched another movie together.  Then last night all of us hung out, but we snuggled on the couch after everyone went to bed.  It felt so good.”

I saw a concerned look pass Shannon’s face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Well, you just broke up with Tony.  You’re really vulnerable right now.  I don’t want to see you get hurt again.  I thought you were just having a little fun with him, but it seems like your heart is in it now.”

I could see that Shannon’s concern for me was genuine.  I was tempted, but only for a moment, to push her comments aside.  I wanted to believe that Armin cared for me and that my failures of love would be redeemed.

Thankfully, this thought passed as quickly as it came.

“You’re right,” I said.  And even though I didn’t want to accept it, I knew she was.  I had not yet learned to “guard my heart,” but that was the first time the secular version of that idea entered my mind before it was too late.

When Armin brought a girl home a few weeks later, after we’d made out a few more times, I heard them talking all night in Armin’s room.  And as they laughed and talked and I heard her scream intermittently with pleasure, I was grateful to Shannon.

Listening to them in the room next to mine could have been another thing that took me down with another crack in my heart.  Thanks to Shannon’s warning, I didn’t allow myself to get swept up in a fantasy of being Armin’s girlfriend any more after that day.

Without Shannon’s words, my hope would have grown.  With each kiss, I would have fallen more for him, believing he would help put me back together after Tony.  I’m thankful to Shannon for saving me from my own false hope.

But how many times had I been a victim of my own false hope?  How many times had I spent the night crying in college because I thought some boy and I were going to end up dating, or dating longer, and didn’t?  How much heartache would I have saved myself if I’d simply guarded my heart, and my body, until the I met the right man who declared his intentions up front?

Many, many, and much.

22 in Barcelona- First Friends

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Shannon and Meg were the first friends I made in Barcelona.

I met Shannon at a language institute where we both worked.  The school was British, the owner was British, and all the employees, other than us, were British.

Shannon had an incredible short haircut, thick and angled just at the chin.  It was so trendy and hip and becoming on her that it was unreal.  I told her I loved her haircut the second or third time our paths crossed in the staff room.

“SO many people tell me that they want this haircut!” she said enthusiastically, but not arrogantly.  I could tell it was true, and I felt she had the right to brag.

Shannon invited me over one day to her apartment and I met her friend Meg.  We clicked effortlessly.  Shannon lived in Badalona, about an hour outside of Barcelona, and Meg lived in Jaen, a small nondescript city in southern Spain.  They regarded the fact that I lived in Barcelona as glamorous and cosmopolitan.

“Isn’t it amazing?  I can’t believe you live here!  You must love it!” Shannon said to me the first night they came to hang out where I lived.

I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to respond.  I wanted to feel what Shannon felt.  I wanted to regard the world I was living in and being within walking distance of the sea with wonder.  I tried to muster up something positive, some sort of affection for the city.  I tried to appreciate the beauty of the Modernist buildings or the theatrics of the street performers.

But try as I might, I couldn’t.  Where I should have been filled with wonder, there was only a hollow.  No matter how I decorated the stained walls of my windowless room at the apartment or gazed at museum art or world-famous architecture, I couldn’t see it as beautiful.  I had lost the capacity for appreciating beauty.

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As Shannon and I became friends, I shared with her how I had moved to Barcelona to be with a man who shattered my heart.  I spent much of my time crying, and each moment was a long stretch of difficult time.

“When you feel like you need to die, just let yourself die.  Just lay down and let yourself cry and be sad.  That’s what my therapist told me when Dave and I broke up.”

Shannon may never know how much that statement helped me.  She continued by explaining how she had gone on “anti-psychotic” meds when going through her breakup.  As she explained it, the pills disrupted her neurotransmitters in her brain so that she would thinking about and reliving her breakup.  The description scared me.

But hearing her story helped me heal.  We were the same age and I thought Shannon was beautiful.  She also had a boyfriend she’d been with for a few years since the terrible breakup with Dave.  I felt like if something so traumatic had happened to her and she was doing comparatively well now, it meant that I’d end up ok too.  I felt less pathetic knowing that Shannon had had such struggles with a breakup herself.  Since she was pretty and hip and cool, I had hope that I could be those things again one day too once I put myself back together.

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It’s been a decade since I moved abroad with the naive notion that the world would make itself into my oyster.  I dated other men after having my heart shattered and then finally got married to the right man in 2016.  I haven’t seen Shannon since 2009 when she moved back to the United States, although we did keep in touch for a few years after that.  Does  she even remember our friendship?  Did it mean as much to her as it did to me?  If we had met at a different time and place, would we have clicked the same way?  Was part of the reason our friendship felt so effortless because we were both left out by Spanish society and the Brits we worked with and needed each other?

I don’t know.  I only know that I might not have made it through that year if not for Shannon and Meg.  The universe has a way of trying to save you when you’re at rock bottom.  And in spite of all my sleepless nights during that time period, every ended up working out in the end. After a decade, I can see Barcelona’s “arco de triunfo,” arch of triumph, as beautiful.

22 in Barcelona- continued

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My Polish roommate, Monika, enjoyed talking about getting drunk before she did it, getting drunk, and talking about her drunkenness afterwards.  The day after a night spent drinking, she cheerfully shared stories of how she had acquired various bumps and bruises.  I don’t remember her ever being hung over in spite of how much she drank, which was a lot.

One night, I was awake and aware she wasn’t home by 3 a.m.  I considered whether or not I should worry about her since I knew she was out with a few men we had met that night and decided against it.  She was more reckless than I was and had willingly chosen that life.  One day she shared a story of how she had fallen asleep on the street the night before during a drunken escapade.  Miraculously, a Polish couple came across her passed out on the street and took her into their home to sleep it off.  Monika was nonchalant about the story, as if were not so strange that an older harmless couple from her native country should come across her passed out on the streets of Barcelona and ensure she stay safe that night.

Maybe she was on to something.  Maybe God cared for the reckless no matter how the reckless had tried to force Him out of their lives.  Maybe I could have lived less cautiously and turned out fine in the end, but the risks I took were enough for me.  I admired Monika’s recklessness but didn’t have the same in me.  Even when highly intoxicated, I always got myself home and showered throughout high school and college.  No matter how tired or drunk I was, I valued getting into bed clean too much to do anything else.

When you’ve lived most of your life cautiously, having a friend like Monika has an appeal.  For a year, I lived vicariously through her.  I knew I didn’t have it in me to have one night stands or spend the night sleeping in a Barcelona gutter until someone carried me into their house, but it was exciting to hear stories of these things firsthand.

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Some nights, my roommates and I went out drinking.  We did so one night when my then-boyfriend was away in Argentina visiting family.  After a brief conversation in the living room to rally everyone to get dressed to go out, Armin, Monika, Mara and I took to the streets of the Gothic quarter at 2 a.m.  We all bought a few beers for a euro each from “Los Pakis,” the Pakistani men who walked up and down Las Ramblas, seemingly at all hours of the night, peddling beers and samosas. The samosas were packed with vegetables and tasty, not too spicy, curry.

After making our purchase, we opened our beers almost in unison, and the tabs popped and the beers made a satisfying hiss.  “I’m finally living the life of the young,” I thought to myself, or something like it.  Buying beers together, and drinking them together, and being expatriates together produced one of those rare happy moments in which everyone could feel secure of their status within the group.

For some reason, we decided to drink our beers on the steps of the metro nearest our neighborhood for a few minutes.  I must have caught a buzz by then, because I started to dance.

“Mira como bailas!” Monika said, admiring my twirls.  She looked at the others and said, “Baila muy bien!”  Then she looked at me and said, “I like you like this,  You’re fun.  Why are you always so quiet when you’re with Mariano?”

I didn’t know what to say.  The question brought me down from my buzz. I stopped dancing and wondered if what Monika had said was true.  I was never that into Mariano and had no reason to be anything other than myself since I felt no need to impress him.  He’d told me he loved me when we’d been dating for only a few weeks. I dated him in large part because I was reeling from rejection by a man whom I was still in love, and the rejection had led to feelings of the most profound loneliness I had ever experienced.

Why was I so quiet when I was with Mariano?  I recognized that Monika was right after a few moments of considering it that night.  I shrugged in response and said, “No se, no me habia dado cuenta.”  I was telling the truth; at the time I didn’t understand that I was quiet and wounded and had been made to feel small by the breakup that had broken my heart.  I thought my words and my bad haircut and my acne had driven Tony away, and my words were the only thing of those three that I could control.  Fewer words meant less risk of someone discovering that you weren’t that wonderful.  So I remained quiet when I wanted to tell jokes and dance and act a bit foolish.

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The beers bought on the street and metro and the bad relationships the lights bringing the night to life in Barcelona feel far away now.

I’m in Delaware, 4000 miles and a lifetime away from the Modernist city.  My husband’s rhythmic breathing beside me is predictable and comforting.  Outside, it’s 15 degrees, and the snow that has been falling all day continues to fall.  I can hear the sound of the beeping of the plows backing up and the scraping of metal against ice and snow and pavement.

I don’t need to pop beer tabs in unison with anyone to feel like I belong.  I drink sleepytime tea while my husband sleeps.

Most of the time, it’s just the two of us. I never feel alone.

22 in Barcelona- continued

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Rain was rare in Barcelona, but very unpleasant when it came if you were unprepared.  I spent a few hours each day traveling from one workplace to another to teach English, so the weather had a disproportionate effect on me.  Unlike other white-collar workers who stayed dry in their offices, I was almost as affected by the weather as those who made their living in the street.

When the rain came, I sometimes stopped in one of the cheaper cafes for a pot of tea.  When it was time to move to my next location, I would walk as close to the buildings along my route as I could.  This usually kept me slightly drier than walking along the streets normally, as the buildings had a slight overhang or the height of them offered me a small measure of protection.  But sometimes it made me wetter, as when I walked into the part dripping off the roof where the rain had collected and become heavier than the regular rain falling because of my rushing.

These are things that happen.  Everything’s a gamble, even trying to stay dry in the rain.

There was a cafe that I walked by frequently at which I desperately wanted to have a cup of tea.  It was typically full of people, and I was drawn to the energy of it.  Every time I passed it, I thought about how much I wanted to go in with my notebook and sit down and write where there was a lack of loneliness.

I checked prices on the menu by the door one time, and it was 6 euros for a cup of tea.  The cups were huge and beautiful with the widest brims I had ever seen.  I could have sat with such a mug for an hour.

I never did though.  The closest I ever came was to step in one day that it was raining hard.  I was caught out in it, and tired of being cold, and I thought it might be the day I finally treated myself to that cup of tea.

But I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t part with the six euros when I only made a few hundred euros a month.  I couldn’t bear the idea of having to work an exhausting extra half hour with kids to make up for my indulgence.

The waitress tried to seat me as soon as I entered.  I lied and said that I was waiting for a friend and that I would sit down when she arrived.  The waitress was displeased by my words and made no effort to hide it.

I still really cared what people thought of me at that age, so I felt frightened by her look.  I had no confidence because of my own poverty and felt I had no right to take up any room in a crowded cafe, so I left after less than two minutes.

I don’t remember if I took the metro home or forced myself to walk, wanting to save the metro trip.  I do remember arriving home with feet soaked through.

But at least the tea was free at home.  I drank a cup of it, alone in my room, imagining that I was back in that crowded cafe with beautifully wide-brimmed cups.

22 in Barcelona

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In Barcelona, rain was rare.  Writers who have lived in other European cities seem to write a lot about the rain, and the wind blowing in the rain, and the way the streets looked in the rain.

But my equivalent of that is Barcelona in the sun.  For that’s what the beaches and buildings and beautiful happy people mostly were- sunstruck.

You could mount a Bicing bicycle, which we did once, and glide down down down to the sea with the sun above you and the wind beside and around you.  One thing that living beside the sea taught me was that the trip downward was easy but that the same should not be expected when returning home.

But the way down was beautiful.  Watching the sky rise higher and higher as the ocean got bigger and bigger- frighteningly big until you think it may swallow you up- that was the view that rewarded you if you took the time to ride a bike.

I lived only 3 blocks from Sagrada Familia then.  I remember the way the lights looked against the tall stone spires at night, and being overwhelmed by the detail on the structure, and the way my eyes drank everything in the day I entered, elated by the beauty and artfulness of it.

My apartment was in a good, safe neighborhood that year.  I enjoyed walking along La Diagonal on the large squares of smooth concrete, to the metro, and to Michael Collins bar, where they sometimes played music like The Cranberries.  All it took was hearing “Dreams” once to make me a faithful patron and a drinker of beer even though I find it bitter.

All of this was later, in the good neighborhood, after I’d had my fill of the one in the red light district.

When I first moved to Barcelona, I took up residence in Calle D’en Robador because the lover I’d moved for Barcelona for didn’t want me after I made the transatlantic trip.  So instead of spending my nights trembling in ecstasy, to Calle D’en Robador I moved.  He did have the decency to help me move my things in with his Jeep.

When we pulled up to the apartment he said, “Hay muchas putas en esta calle.”

“Putas, donde?” I asked.

He gestured about a dozen women in short clothes and high heels that lined the street in front of my apartment.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly aware of my surroundings and my own naivete.  Securing an apartment had been so pressing that I had not had time to observe the street the apartment was on.

I was hoping to make friends with my roommates when I moved in to distract myself from my broken heart, which I did.  I have a series of memories of time spent with them that co-exist with the painful probability that I’m the only one who was generally sober enough to remember them.  One roommate was trying to sleep with me- nothing more, as I was not the kind of girl he wanted to date- and a few other girls too.  On what would be the last night we would ever see each other, he held my hands inside his own, hugged me, told me he knows people always say they want to keep in touch and then don’t but that he really did want to.  I believed everything he said because he was German and because he had never pretended he wanted to date me while trying to sleep with me.  I believed that only Americans were insincere in that way of pretending to want to continue a relationship, and perhaps Spaniards since I had recently been so profoundly rejected by one.

I had only become aware of that American insincerity because a college roommate once told me that Americans say things like “We should get together” without ever meaning it.  Until she informed me of this, I had spent my whole life confused, believing that many dozens of people wanted to spend time with me and wondering how it was that everyone had so much more time than I did.

After my German roommate left, I messaged him on facebook a few times to arrange a time to talk, but he responded months later or not at all.  We had not exchanged any other method of communication, and he rarely went on the website.

One day I was walking through El Raval, through the winding streets where some people sold their art while others sold their bodies, wishing I had someone in whom I could confide over a cup of tea.  I didn’t though, and I suddenly knew my German roommate and I would never speak again.

“Oh,” I said for the second time, suddenly aware of my surroundings and my own naivete.

Finally Bilingual

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When I was 24, my then-boyfriend and I took a long weekend trip to Paris from Barcelona.

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We arranged for a reasonably timed flight, leaving then-boyfriend’s crappy apartment around ten a.m. the day of our departure.  Neither of us was used to getting up and out that early.  We both had a lot of bad habits, and one of them was staying up until 4 a.m.  most days.  This mattered, since we took a nap when we got to the airport and nearly missed our flight.  I woke up at the last call before takeoff, shook then-boyfriend awake, and we dashed to the boarding line like characters in a sitcom.  We fought briefly, then fell asleep.

Since it was already blisteringly hot in Barcelona in June, we had packed short-sleeved shirts and shorts when we were leaving for our long weekend.  We were used to sitting on the Barceloneta beach for large stretches of time and frequent thirst.  For some reason, neither of us considered that different latitude and longitude would equate to different temperatures even though we were both college-educated and prided ourselves on being cultured and bright.  This mattered since it was between 50 and 60 degrees in Paris when we arrived.  Then-boyfriend asked around about the most reasonably priced outerwear in the area when we arrived, and we fought briefly about which direction to go.  Then we bought sweatshirts and longer sleeved shirts at some crappy souvenir stand we both would have normally avoided.

I had booked our hotel, a 50 euro a night luxury suite according to the photos, because we had had a negative experience staying at a hostel with no heat in Greece a few months prior.  Besides, I reasoned, you only live once and we were young and pretending to be in love.  This hotel choice mattered, because two men approached us on our way back to it one night, grabbing at me in a way that should have frightened me.  Then-boyfriend started screaming in French, but everything was happening too fast for me to understand anything other than the fact that we were outnumbered 2-1 since I was tiny and weak.  So I grabbed then-boyfriend and started running away from the danger.  Thankfully, even though I was tiny and weak, I was also pretty fast.  We waited until about a half hour after this escape, then fought briefly over where to eat our pastries from a boulangerie. 

Once safely back at our hotel, we noticed a rank odor in our room and ants crawling on the carpet.  We thought we could live with it, but this mattered because the rank odor was due to water backup in a bidet.  This meant there was water backup in the shower and the toilet, and that none of the plumbing would work properly during our stay.  Then-boyfriend reasoned with the hotel owner, who was reluctant to hear him out at first, and our room got upgraded to one with a balcony view and a working bidet.  Then-boyfriend wanted to have sex, so I pretended I did too, because that’s always easier.  Afterwards, we fought briefly and went to the Latin Quarter for dinner.

Our last day in Paris, then-boyfriend and I fought.  Not briefly.  I had wanted to visit the Louvre and Versailles, but we had only a few hours and had run out of time.  This mattered because I didn’t think I’d ever be back in Paris and had complied with everything that then-boyfriend wanted until that point.  So I pressed and whined a bit.  Then-boyfriend lost his patience.  Then-boyfriend cursed me out in Spanish, his first language and my second.  This mattered because it’s much easier to win an argument in your native language when the other person is not quite as quick.

Then, some volcano in me erupted, and out poured words of lava.  Suddenly, I was not just an americana dating an Argentinian.  Slang flew off my tongue like I was an argentina myself.  I shot back profanity with whip-like efficiency.  I used words filthier than anything I would ever say in English.  I told him I hated him, and his brother, and his roommates, and cursed the day he was born.  I said I hated his crappy and dirty apartment, that his job was pathetic, and that he deserved it when he found out the girl he had dated for five years before we met had cheated on him.

I held my chin up, not ashamed of my accent.  I was finally fully bilingual.  We both knew it.

“Te he ensenado bien,” he said.  “I’ve taught you well.”

 

 

 

 

 

Dreaming of Flight: Why I Write (Flash essay)

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I’ve always had an obsession with flight.  In one of my earliest remembered dreams, I achieved it: with no device such as a hang glider or air balloon attached to my body, I flew about 30 feet above ground and struggled to land safely.  Big thrill mixed with small fear as my stomach made sense of the zero gravity sensation and my feet stumbled uncertainly to regain balance on the ground.  I remember being aware that I was dreaming, that my alarm clock would soon buzz to wake me up for school, and wanting more.   I wanted more aerial experience, soaking up each moment of my dream as I made my way back down to earth.  Even now, I can see the driveway and the house I lived in at the time clearly, can see the pavement coming closer and closer to signify that the time of dreams being realized was closing.

In fifth grade, I took my first plane ride, and the thrill of being 39,000 feet above the earth is more salient in my memory than the trip itself.  By that time, I had learned enough of the basic principles of physics to know that jumping off of the highest chairs in the house with plastic bags above me air balloon style would not lengthen the time it took for me to land.  As my body grew, so did my knowledge of gravity, and both made me feel heavy.  This was the year I wrote my first love poem; it was about how seeing my crush “makes my soul take flight.”  Cringeworthy, I know.  But apparently my crush satisfied part of my longing to be free from my earthbound state.

When I was 21 and studying abroad in Valencia, Spain, a friend of mine took a trip to Greece during our spring break.  She gifted me an owl key chain upon her return, an item I cherished even though my minimalist tendencies typically make me eschew souvenirs.  I became entranced by the owl’s face, by the size of its eyes in proportion to its skull, and by its adaptations for night flight.

Night flight represented the ultimate freedom.  Proportionate to my love of flight was ans is my love of the night.  I love the aesthetics of the clear lines of shadow and silver hue of the earth illuminated by moonlight.  I love the ideas that come to me, how being away from demands of daytime spurs new ideas, reminding you that we were made for more than just toil for a paycheck. It’s usually at night that words weave themselves together in my brain with little effort on my part, spawning my best ideas.

This love of night, and love of writing, are part of what made me think living in Barcelona after college would be enjoyable.  The modernist city boasts beauty beyond measure at all hours of the day and night.  Some of my most vivid memories are of admiring La Sagrada Familia lit up against the dark sky, walking down Passeig de Gracias admiring the masterfully artistic storefronts in the evening hours, and of drinking pots of tea in cafes while filling my notebook.

It was this year of my life, living in Barcelona at 22, that I first tried skydiving with an ex-boyfriend.  I had hoped to experience the zero gravity sensation that I’d had in my dream around age 8, had hoped that the six minutes above earth, surrounded by nothing but air, would fill some need in me.  I had heard from other people that the time went slowly for them, that they “felt like (they) were up there forever.”

I didn’t share this feeling.  As my feet met earth, I felt disappointed that it was over, that I’d just spend $300 on what felt like a few seconds of freedom.  I remember asking myself why I couldn’t feel grateful to be safely back on earth as others around me landing seemed to be.

Since then I’ve taken countless other flights and gone parasailing.  I’ve jumped off of the highest cliffs I can find into quarries and swimming holes, making note of every sensation before plunging into the (usually) cold water.  Always, the pull of the earth is too strong, and the flight home from vacation too brief.

So I search out other ways to remind myself I’m alive.  I need an escape from the day to day labor of grading papers, of filling out endless hours of paperwork, of being contained by the modern world in such a way that my wings feel cramped for 50-60 hours a week.

As hard as I try, I cannot recreate my flight dream each night, although I have had it once since then, probably about a decade ago.  As much as I would like to jump off cliffs or go skydiving on a weekly basis, the need to work for survival obviously makes that unrealistic.

But sometimes, when it’s 10 pm and I have to be up in 7 short hours, I don’t go to bed. Sometimes, pen in hand, I stretch my wings.  Sometimes, when the demands of life preclude the possibility of physical flight, I write. And every once in a while, when conditions are right, I achieve zero gravity right there.

The Plains and Pains of Spain

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People sometimes ask me what I remember most about Spain.  The obvious answers  to that are probably things like “the art,” “cheap wine,” or “the nightlife.”  I took part in all of those things, and yes, the culture intoxicated me.  Like any other 22 year old, I was seduced by the lights of Plaza Real and the constant theatrics of Las Ramblas, where I lived one year during my time abroad.  I took frequent walks around Barcelona when I was in between lessons teaching English as a Foreign Language and tried my best to soak those things up, aware that I would never be as young or free again as I was in those moments.

But living in Spain also wounded me.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was already wounded, and Spain failed to heal me as I’d hoped.  I lived a few blocks from the sea one year, and a few blocks from Sagrada Familia another year.  I lived well, albeit frugally, teaching for a few hours a day.  I enjoyed my job because most of my adults were students, got a ton of sun since it was almost always shining, and lived within walking distance of a carnival of bars and clubs to go dancing.  I knew all those things would be available to me before I moved there, and they were some of the things I thought would heal my wounded heart.

But they didn’t.  The process of recovery was more complicated and required that I face what haunted me head on.  I didn’t know that then though, so I spent a few years “experimenting” with drugs and alcohol and sex and abject loneliness.   They were all things I had experienced before, but I pushed each one to its limit in Spain, a counterintuitive response to feeling vulnerable and far from home.  Having no safety net turned me into an Icarus, but it was recklessness rather than hubris that drove me on.

The thing I remember most then, is not the art or the cheap wine or the nightlife.  It is leaving the window open and listening to the clatter of my neighbor’s dishes and the smell of olive oil as they prepared tortilla de patatas.  In the United States, such sounds are seen as an inconvenience, and most people are irritated by the smell of someone else’s dinner.  But when you’re 4,000 miles from home, and loneliness is breaking your spirit, it brings comfort.  The sound of someone else’s dishes made me imagine the family eating off of them.  It made me remember taking walks in the United States late at night in the town I grew up in, pausing in front of the pools of warmth coming out of people’s windows, and wondering what the lives of the home’s inhabitants were like.  It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, exactly, to be listening to some other family living their life.  But I was somehow drawn to it and knew to go silent when I heard it begin, to listen carefully and open my window to smell more acutely.  It somehow sustained me in the bright Barcelona sunshine that felt like winter.