The Plains and Pains of Spain


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.


Feeling Pretty But No Longer (As) Stupid

Feeling pretty encodes itself in your emotional memory in ways that return to you a decade later.  When I was younger,  I had more fun when I felt pretty, I found it effortless to be kind to people when I felt pretty, and I was more apt to be extroverted.  On days I felt pretty, with a tan and my makeup done well , my insecurities tucked themselves away and I could be the best version of myself.

Anthony and I went to the pool at our apartment complex this past Saturday.  It was a beautiful day, around 80 degrees, although it was hot on the plastic reclining chairs.  But there was a nice breeze blowing, and I paid attention to the beauty of the wind in the trees and the magic of the pool water glistening in the sunlight as it rippled in the wind.

I dipped my legs in and made my way back to the reclining chair, where I let the sun dry my skin.  The sensation of my skin drying and the greenery surrounding me relaxed me completely.  It was a sense of deep relaxation, the kind that tells you you’ll sleep well that night and well into the next day, that you feel rarely.  It’s in those moments that I can feel my mind romp, and am reminded of this line from The Great Gatsby: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.”  While I don’t think our human minds can come close to our minds romping like God’s and actually find this line slightly blasphemous, I thought of it because summer vacation allows me freedom of thought that often gets lost in the day-to-day shuffle of the grueling 9-5.

Anthony and I went back to the house, where I showered and put coconut oil on myself.  My shoulders were a deeper brown than they had been for years.

And that’s when I remembered how much a Spanish ex-boyfriend loved my shoulders when they got sun.  One day, we’d spent hours on the beach and come home drunk on sunshine.  I had purposely let myself burn.  He saw my skin, taut and pink, and kissed it and said “Que guapa.”  His words were like a drug to me, and I wanted to throw my naked body in the sun after he said that.  I wanted to hurt myself mildly if it meant making him happy.  I believed I needed for him to think I was pretty to believe I was.

Now I recognize my foolishness for what it was.  I would no longer hurt myself for anyone else’s happiness, and I’m married to a man who would never ask me to.  He sees me every day, sometimes looking pretty but more often not, and I’m confident it doesn’t change how he feels about me either way.  Somehow, the older I get, the more often I feel pretty, regardless of my outward appearance.  It turns out you can have fun and be kind and extroverted whether you “look pretty” or not.

Creative Writing Exercise

I used this exercise from someone else’s blog:

Poem response:

Primal Peace

The paltry grandeur of diamonds does not compare

To the vastness and power of earth and air

The wind prods clouds through iguana blue sky

Trees shake in communion that money can’t buy

That which springs from the dirt is close to the earth

And alive, alive

Jesus was right: The rich shall be poor, while the poor of the earth thrive

Short story response:

Beep beep beep.  Beep beep beep.  Michelle’s alarm clock went off at 5:00 on Friday morning.  Beep beep beep.  Michelle stretched a tired arm to the clock to switch off the beeping and heard the words “paucity of spirit.”  Startled, Michelle thought someone was in her apartment.  The words were muddled and she struggled for a moment to put the words in order in her brain.  She looked around her bedroom, still dark except for the nightlight near the door, and saw that it was empty.

“Huh,” Michelle thought.  The voice was strange, but she quickly dismissed it as the tail end of a dream.  There was not time for pondering anyway; Michelle put on her gray scale outfit for work, drank her coffee that was set on auto every morning, and walked out of her gray scale apartment to catch the subway.  This was New York, and there is no time for nonsense.

Michelle ignored the squirrels beside the street and the sound of people’s shoes against the sidewalk and made it to her subway and sat down.  On the morning commute, Michelle was normally so immersed in scrolling through her meetings and organizing her day that she never noticed other passengers.  Leaving her neighborhood at this time of day, she only ever saw working professionals, usually equally engaged with their phones planning their days.  Michelle was relieved it was Friday, both because it was the end of a grueling work week and because Friday was her day to meet with her therapist.  She and all her friends had therapists; for some, getting one was as casual as purchasing a handbag, but Michelle had been with her therapist for three loyal years.

As Michelle reminded herself of her appointment schedule, two passengers next to her became unusually chatty.  Michelle kept her eyes on her phone, planning, but their voices were impossible to ignore despite the fact that they were barely whispering.  “Big Indian Mountain, pick up in the Bronx, Big Indian Mountain, pick up in the Bronx, Big Indian Mountain, pick up in the Bronx.”  Who were these people?  And why was it that every time Michelle looked at her phone, all she heard were these phrases repeated?  Why was Michelle able to hear their plans at an elevated decibel level when all other passengers seemed unperturbed?

“Focus!” Michelle snapped at herself.  She had always had the ability to drown out outside noise when doing work.  “You need to get your job done!”  Michelle got off at her stop and made her way into the office building, ready to obey her inner steel-edged voice.

The day was a whirlwind of meetings, and Michelle skipped her lunch to keep up with the workload.  By 5 pm, she was hungry and a bit on edge, aware of the empty vastness in her intestines that caffeine had burned through.  She imagined papers fluttering throughout the whole building as everyone tried to keep pace with the demands of crunching numbers and increasing profit.  She laughed at the image for a moment, and then snapped at herself again.  “Get your work done!” she barked in her brain.  A tree scraped her office window, and Michelle saw that the sky was losing its blue.  The office seemed smaller as it got dark out.  Michelle pushed down the urge she sometimes felt to be in open fields, away from the city, letting the wind rush through her long hair.   She pounded the keyboard mercilessly, the edges of her fingers red.

By 5:45 pm, it was time to leave.  Michelle texted her therapist to tell her she might be 1-2 and a half minutes late, but no more than that! Her therapist replied, “Take your time.  I’m always here.”  Michelle sighed a relief, thankful she’d found such a reliable therapist.  She’d heard horror stories from her friends of being criticized rather than supported in therapy, and Michelle didn’t think she could handle that on top of a 60-70 hour workweek.

Michelle grabbed her black laptop bag and packed up her laptop and folders to finish at home.  She appreciated how glossy the top of her desk and the freshly polished floors were, since her company had hired a new cleaning staff, and shut the lights off.  The room was swallowed by the lack of light.

Michelle made her way to the elevator, rubbing her neck with her left hand and carrying her work bag in her right.  “Hold that, please!” came a voice from behind her.  Michelle stepped on and held the door with her work bag.

“Michelle, hi!” said Brad, the newest hire from accounting.

“Brad, hi,” Michelle  muttered, resisting the urge to look at her email on her phone because she knew it was rude. She was still rubbing her neck with her free hand.

“Is your neck bothering you?” Brad asked.

“Isn’t everyone’s after work?” Michelle replied, not wanting to seem like she thought her pain was special.

“I’m sure it’s common.  I find that hiking on the weekends helps me unwind after the crazy weeks here.”

Michelle tried not to scoff.  Brad had been there for three weeks and was talking like he was a veteran.   “That’s nice,” she said, out of automatic politeness rather than real interest.

“You should come with us sometime.  I could pick you up and show you where the pickup point is,” Brad continued.

“This has been a busy week,” Michelle hedged, not wanting to appear rude, but knowing that she had to put in a good 6 hours on Saturday to stay on schedule.

“It’s up to you, but I think you’d enjoy it.  Send me a message if you change your mind,” Brad said as the elevator opened.  They walked out to the sliding glass doors, ready to part ways.  “We go to Big Indian Mountain to hike every other Saturday.  There’s a pickup point in the Bronx on a coach bus so no one has to worry about driving.”

Michelle must have indicated recognition on her face.  “You know it?” Brad asked.

“I’ve heard of it,” Michelle said, still surprised.  “I think I’ll go with you after all.  You have my address from the work picnic sign up sheet?”

“Sure do,” Brad answered.  “Can you be ready by 9 tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, I’ll see you then,” Michelle answered.

“Sounds good.”


The Lonely Seacoast

img_0926When I first moved to Barcelona, I spent a few months crying, horrified by all the feelings I’d suppressed all those years growing up.  Distance from the site of trauma allowed me to acknowledge things I’d buried in the earth’s crust as they made their way to the magma chamber and up through the conduit to the throat.

Finally, like lava from a volcano, emotions began erupting outside of me after many years dormant: pain, grief, fear, loneliness, heartache and regret.  And just like lava, they burned and left my skin charred.

After the initial scalding, I scraped off my cinders and got myself going the best I could, even as fresh burns were made.  This meant working- a lot.  I took any job that was offered to me, even if it meant traveling for two hours round trip to teach one hour.  I knew I had to do whatever I could to be as busy as I could and not give myself any more time to think.  It was the only way I could come up with to staunch the molten flow.

I looked tired much of the time because I was.  I was hungry, and looked it too, but was just young enough still to almost pass for pretty.  Only almost- I had hollows beneath my eyes and the ghost of loneliness on my back.

One of my jobs was in a small town I can no longer remember the name of, an hour ride from Barcelona.  I left every Friday as evening fell, and rode the train along the coast, watching the daylight wane over the ocean.  I tried to ignore the loneliness and the reflection of my face in the glass as I looked out the window.

One day at the end of October, we finished our English lessons before the Halloween break from school.  The building I worked at looked like a castle inside, with chandeliers and room after room where you least expected them.  Stepping inside was like stepping back in time.

The school had been decorated for the “holiday,” and even I had a moment in which I could appreciate the beauty.  Everything looked festive, and I felt that slight excitement that accompanies an upcoming special event.  Spiderwebs and spiders had been hung on the chandeliers, and the ambience was palpable.

After the kids left, I tried to hold on to that feeling- the first positive feeling I’d had in months. In that moment, I had forgotten some of my burns.  I was desperate for more forgetfulness, but it was like chasing a feather in the wind.

I gathered my workbooks and packed my bookbag.  I walked out of the language school, down the avenue that led to the train station.  During the day, there were shoppers going in and out of the stores and others sitting at the tables and benches in front of the cafes sipping their espressos and horchata.

At this time of night though, I was the only one on the street.  It was a street exclusively for pedestrians and was vacant at night with no traffic and no lamplights.  I walked towards the train station, feeling small in the darkness.  It must have been cloudy, because I could see neither moon nor stars.

I felt a cold wind at the back of my neck, an unusual thing for the temperate coastal climate.  I imagined myself, already on the train, looking at the vast ocean.  Wave after wave would be rolling toward the shore, but it was too dark for me to see them.  Everything felt large and blank.

I hurried my steps. Already, I could feel memory singing my skin.  I felt nauseous as I caught a whiff of my own burnt flesh.

The Park in Florida

These are the kinds of days Ash and I used to ride our bikes in the park.  The park was small: just two swings, a slide, and a dirty sandbox next to a pond.  There were Florida Pines everywhere, and their brown needles covered the hard dirt ground.  At the far end of the pond was a run-down trailer, its cream paint blotched with rust.  It had a degenerate beauty that gave you hope.  It was the same kind of hope that looking at things and people that are old and broken-down gave you if you squinted.  Inherent in these things is the knowledge that if humanity could just get it together, there’s nowhere to go but up.

The bank of the pond nearest the slide was littered with broken bottles that glittered in the sun.  Somehow a few fish survived in the pond.  I imagined what their insides looked like- tough intestines that could withstand such smut.  Certain creatures survive against all odds.  But then, sometimes men came and fished them, lured them onto one last merciless hook that the fish couldn’t escape.  Insides slain, their black bead eyes always gave up a few moments before the oily body, full of the wisdom of years of fighting.

A woman whose face and gums appeared to be decaying sat beside the pond and fed imaginary pigeons pieces of bread incessantly.  Her face was skeletal, the valleys underneath her eyes deep and dark.  The whites of her eyes were fresh and clear, like the whitest frosting of a wedding cake.

And this, along with the  mile stretch of road that led from Ash’s house to it, was our kingdom.  It was rundown, it was dirty.  It was a magnet for the lost, although we couldn’t recognize it then.