This story originally appeared in the journal Cottonwood
THE LIFE DON’T EASY WITH YOU
It was still dark, but he could just barely make out the first signs of an antiseptic airline dawn coming over the wing. No use trying to get any rest now, so–gingerly–Dan climbed over the sleeping people next to him as credits rolled on the screen and arms popped up to switch on the reading lights. In the galley he asked for a cup of coffee and stood looking out the window of one of the rear doors.
I have your letter of November 12 and what I feel is a great emotion because everything you write is exactly what I would have written. . .
The cabin had the clean, metallic smell of liver paté–it was the smell of travel and novelty. He looked out the window, but what he saw was mostly the same face he’d been concerned with all his life; there was pallor and fatigue on it now, besides the usual wistfulness.
It is very depressing, Dan, for me to be thinking of nothing but you. Such a short and strong romance as ours was (less than a week!) leaves its scars, and I tell you they are love scars. The day you left I went up to the observation deck and watched your plane disappear into the sky, and I cried, I’m ashamed to admit it.
He drank his coffee and peered out at space and himself. It wasn’t so much that he was thinking about the letter: rather, it had become part of him now. Or he had become a part of it, flattened himself into a two-dimensional being that inhabited the pages, the lines of that letter, breathing in and feeding on its Spanish vowels and its simple thoughts–it had been, after all, written by a twenty-year-old.
It made me so happy when I read you want to move to Spain! We’ll be the happiest lovers in the world, I know we will. And the picture you sent me made me feel content. I do want to be honest with you–as our relationship was. And I will tell you everything, if I go with boys. These days I have had a chance to be with many. There is one very blond norteamericano who is 24 but I couldn’t, I couldn’t! He’s so different from you.
Do you think you’ll forget me very soon?
In another message–this time a card–Víctor had drawn two excited stick figures on either side of the Atlantic: one in New York, one in Barcelona, and above them like a banner he’d written: WAITING THE MOMENT OF THE COLLISION. The printed message on the card said, in Spanish, La vida no es fácil sin tí, or “Life isn’t easy without you.” But Víctor, with his limited English, had tried to translate it for Dan and had come up with: “The life don’t easy with you.”
And there had been other cards and letters, and Dan had even called a few times. By the end of November he’d made his decision to give up his apartment and his job as a paralegal and leave New York.
After your plane flew into the clouds it was very hard, very hard! Walking by the places where we’d been was always terrible. You say that soon we’ll feel all right again, but all right in what sense if we’re always going to want to be together? This city is so big and so sad in the autumn and in the winter, Dan, you have no idea, you can’t imagine.
He felt more refreshed than anyone, though he hadn’t slept. Woken up by lights and flight attendants coming around with breakfast, the passengers’ faces looked puffy and disoriented.
Then, a few moments after breakfast, Dan did close his eyes. He didn’t have to think about Víctor’s body, because that body was there always, in him, now even a part of Dan’s way of viewing the world: it was young and sullen, worked-out and smooth, conscious of its effect on others. It was active, agile, alive, edible, but still finding out who it was and what others wanted it to be.
And as the sun warmed him for the first time in months and the plane began its descent, he finally fell into a sort of sleep. And in this semi-sleep he saw Víctor standing in a shower like a statue as water poured over him; one after another men passed by and paused to take in the sight. Víctor didn’t smile but allowed himself to be admired. Nor did he make any of the funny, hedonistic movements people make as they’re showering. Madre mía! someone said, with the hoarse voice of a man old enough to be the age of Víctor’s father’s father. He stood unsmiling, physique glistening, matchless.
At the Madrid airport the immigration officers looked bored. They stamped passports and smiled indulgently at the passengers and waved them into Spain. Dan wanted to stick together with the American people who had been his neighbors on the flight, but now that they were on the ground they worried about changing money and taking care of other business, and promptly left him to his own devices.
On the half-empty shuttle flight to Barcelona the Spanish crew perfunctorily handed out nuts and juice. Dan was reading the in-flight magazine and missed out on the snack: the flight was so short that apparently there was only time to serve those who waved and shouted for their food.
And then the coast came into view: the waterfront of Sitges, with its palm trees, its church, its jetties, its light blue little harbor. Víctor had showed him the town back in November. They had been walking on the promenade when suddenly, as if determined to form a moment of complete and overpowering beauty, Víctor began quoting poetry, something by Machado:
Caminante, no hay camino,
Sino estelas en el mar.
(Wayfarer, there are no roads,
only wakes in the sea.)
After Sitges, the Garaf Mountains, and he saw the winding road they had taken on Víctor’s motorcycle. And then swiftly the plane descended, passing low over the huge city, sunny and sleepy in the morning.
When they landed Dan began to fret: What would Víctor think of his looks? He’d been improving himself at an expensive gym during his last months in New York and he’d bought stylish clothes he hoped were flattering. Perhaps Víctor hadn’t really liked the clothes Dan had worn on his trip, during their time together.
As he waited by the carousel he could already see Víctor waving to him from among a handful of people collected outside the baggage claim area.
His luggage came out quickly. People stared at the piles of suitcases. He pushed the heavy cart through the exit, and Víctor held out his hand:
“How was your flight?”
“It was good–I didn’t sleep too much. Thanks for coming out to meet me. God you look great! Different somehow.”
“They tinted my hair.”
“The modeling people. I work as a model now. It doesn’t pay much.”
“Where are we going?”
“To a pensión. It’s called Hostal Soledad.”
“I see,” said Dan. “Hotel Solitude.”
“If you don’t like it,” said Víctor, “we’ll find something else for you tomorrow or the day after.”
“Good idea.” Dan was heartened by “we.”
“Let’s get a taxi.” And he led Dan to the taxi stand. “Time’s passed quickly.”
“I knew it would.”
“And a lot’s happened,” said Víctor.
They got out of the taxi in front of the pensión, on a dark little street in the Barrio Chino near the red-light district. The driver wanted to charge too much. “It’s the heavy bags,” he kept saying, “they have stones in them.” Víctor argued. Finally he got the man to lower the fare and they brought up the suitcases, which did feel as if they were full of stones.
“That driver was a son of a whore,” Víctor said.
It was cold in the pensión.
They talked to a big woman who seemed to know Víctor. She showed them a small room, almost a cubicle, with a balcony overlooking the street. There was a single twin bed–and Dan’s heart sank. There was a night table. There were no pictures on the walls.
“Yes, fine, I like it,” said Dan.
“Sure?” Víctor asked, coming up very close behind him–almost touching him!
“It’ll be fine for me.”
Víctor kept on talking to the landlady, a talkative woman who started into a very long story. Dan didn’t get any of the Spanish now. Understanding native speakers talking to each other was always a challenge. He sat down on the bed, resigned.
But when the woman finished her story, they hauled in the bags from the front entrance of the pensión. Once they were all in, there was barely any room to move around.
Dan did not want to be in that room with Víctor. What was the use? Nervously he started taking things out of his backpack and setting them out on the bed–the novel he was reading, the shabby cosmetic bag he’d had since he was thirteen, his ticket back to America which he suspected he would never use.
Víctor–leaning against the wall, watching him–had never looked better and probably knew it. “You’ve come so bundled-up from New York,” he said to Dan. “But it’s mild here. Nineteen degrees.” And still Dan could not look him in the eye. He was afraid. “I didn’t sleep all night,” Víctor said. “All night I was thinking of coming to meet you. Shall we walk?”
Dan smiled. “You love walking, don’t you?”
They walked along Las Ramblas. It was Saturday morning. Businesses were opening for the day. This is where I am going to make a new life for myself. A new country. And I am twenty-three. I am twenty-three. . .
They walked to the bottom of Las Ramblas, to the statue of Columbus, and toward the beach at the Barceloneta.
“I’ve got a lover,” said Víctor.
“Yes, well, I think I knew. I wasn’t sure.”
“It’s the person I mentioned on the phone, the second time you called.”
“But at that time. . .?”
“Yes, at that time it wasn’t serious. But it’s been over a month. That’s a long time for me.”
“I’m sorry, Dan.”
“I feel for you.”
“I can’t tell you how hard this is for me.”
“And my lover wants to meet you. He wants to be your friend, too.”
Dan turned quickly and looked at Víctor who was looking down at his feet and picking at his calluses as he walked.
“Yes, he wants to meet you. I think it would be fun! He understands what’s going on. He knows everything! God it’s been hard.” Víctor sighed. “His name is Fernando. You’ll like him.”
“It was so hard last night I couldn’t sleep. I want to hurt you as little as possible.”
“Nice of you,” said Dan, “but couldn’t you have said something before I sold my things and gave everything up?”
Víctor raised his voice a little now; it sounded very young: “But I needed to take a look at you again, to make sure. And when I saw you coming out of customs, I knew right away. You see?”
“Yes, now I see.”
“When you left two months ago, that was it. You never mentioned coming here to live until your letters. But in the meantime what was I supposed to do?” And Víctor walked on, in his usual way, head lowered, picking at the calluses. “I went out. I was miserable after you left. I cried when I saw your plane disappear into the sky–I cried.”
“Yeah, I know.”
They passed the junglegym they had climbed together back in the fall. They passed the jetty where they had gone to watch the waves.
“But we’re going to forget the past!” said Víctor, “and we’re going to be friends. I don’t have many friends here. I need more friends.”
“It is a little hard for me to be around you, Dan–you seem so sullen. But we’ve got to try! And now I’m going to leave you because last night I didn’t sleep a wink. And tomorrow at nine o’clock sharp I will be at your pensión with my lover and his car and the three of us are going to the mountains.”
But Víctor never showed up the next morning.
Alone on his first full day in Europe, Dan did the paseo by himself. He ate his meals in cheap restaurants. Early in the evening it started to rain and he went back to his pensión, happy to have his book. Still on New York time, he sat up reading all night.
On Monday he started looking for work, and on Wednesday he found a job at a small, Spartan little school called LOOK English. The pay was pretty low. By the end of the week he still hadn’t heard from his friend.
Maybe if I had worked out a little more fanatically back in New York. . . Maybe if I’d lightened my hair or worn my contacts I would have been more appealing as I came through that door. Or if I’d worked on my posture a little bit.
His first Friday night in Barcelona Dan stole out of his pensión in a long black overcoat. They don’t know, no one knows what happened. I will be new for them, I will still have a chance.
It was snowing in the mountains and it was bitterly cold. His room had no heating, and he walked the streets more bundled-up than he had been in New York.
He passed bars, and people passed him, singing and clapping. Around the opera house prostitutes, male and female, waited in the cold. He recognized one of the women from his pensión, where she lived with her baby. Her dusty clothes hung on her like the wings of a fly.
Young people noisily crowded into cars and tumbled out of bars and clapped and sang and gave each other very public, very long kisses mixed with drink and fun and music. Shining motorcycles covered the sidewalks in front of the discos. Dan went to Gris, Monroe’s Gallery, Bronx, Martin’s. By three o’clock he was heading back to his pensión when a young man asked him for a hundred pesetas.
“I don’t have any money.”
“You afraid of us?” There were four or five of them.
But then Dan started running, near all the cars by the Plaza de Cataluña. Drivers braked when he saw them. Someone was running behind him, running fast, determined, strong. Dan pounded on the windows of cars, begging for help, unable to believe this was happening. Then he decided to stop: if he ran much farther he would end up in dark streets, so it was better to let whatever was going to happen take place right there in the middle of the crowds and the cars–maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. He sank to the pavement in the middle of the square and accepted the blows in a fetal position, shielding himself as best he could. When the youth vanished, Dan got up and went over to a taxi. The driver was looking at him. “Am I. . . am I. . badly. . . damaged?” he asked the driver in his Spanish.
“Would you mind holding on a second?” the driver said, glaring at him. “Can’t you see I have a customer here who is trying to pay?” And in fact there was a man hunched in the back seat carefully counting out his money with the dim help of a flashlight that the driver was shining on his hands.
February 19, 1985
How’s life in New York? I’m doing well here. Sorry I haven’t written so far, but my life is so full! As I wrote you in my other postcard my friend met me at the airport and we’ve been inseparable ever since. He spends the night whenever he can and the landlady brings us cafe con leche and croissants to the room, and we eat on the balcony. It’s warm for February. Sometimes we put on helmets and drive to the beach or rent a car and drive all the way up to the mountains to go skiing. He has taught me how to ski and snowboard and I’m getting to be almost as good as he is! Teaching is great and I barely have any time for reading. For Holy Week we’re thinking of going to Mallorca or Marbella. Anyway hope all’s well with you–
During the next few weeks his classes in the LOOK English Academy started out with comments about his injuries and how his recovery was going. His students shook their heads in disbelief at what their city was coming to.
He ate in restaurants. Once, he had coffee with one of the other teachers. He said good-morning and good-night to his landlady. The room was cold and he slept in his clothes.
In a bar one night he had a few beers with a young man named Pablo, a law student. They got excited by each other and talked about the differences between America and Europe. Dan was pleased to be practicing his Spanish a little, although in the beginning of the conversation Pablo had been determined to try out his English.
“Come back to my room if you want,” Dan said. “The landlady will be asleep.”
Walking in the streets of the Barrio Chino, they spoke of movies, language schools and, again, the differences between America and Europe. Dan liked Pablo. He liked his voice, his enthusiasm. And Dan smiled–he’d always known it would just be a matter of time before someone new came along and his Spanish life would start to take off; it was just a matter of persevering. And the streets no longer seemed dingy and run-down but full of a typically Spanish blend of romance and poetic mystery. Dan was happy.
“How can you live like this?” Pablo said, seeing the mess in his room.
They spent an hour together. When Dan asked for a phone number Pablo, dressing quickly, said, “Sorry but that’s not usually a good idea–it’s to protect the families, you know.”
A few weeks later, at the baths, he met a young man who worked as a mechanic in the metro. His name was Mariano.
They made a date to see each other again, and Mariano came over with a lot of presents: some sweets, a metro key-chain and the International Herald Tribune. They had dinner in a Chinese restaurant, but by the time they got back to the hotel they both seemed less excited by each other. Mariano was unhappy with some of Dan: “You’re starting to lose your hair,” he remarked, a little appalled, in the same tone he might have used if he’d said, “I didn’t know this was going to be the deal!”
April 30, 1985
Dear Joseph and Debbie–
How have you been? I was hoping to hear from you. Life’s good here. Holy Week was great. We went to Ibiza. My lover has friends who own a disco there. One day we took a ferry to Formentera–it was the best time I’ve ever had. Take care, stay in touch–
It was summer and Dan was teaching an intensive English course at the LOOK English Academy. At night the Hostal Soledad was unbearably hot and he couldn’t sleep, so he’d given up on sleep and started spending more time in the bars.
At one of these bars he met Javier, a dapper, awkward young man several years younger than Dan. “Where are you from?” Javier asked.
Because of the AIDS scare, Dan often concealed his nationality and told people he was German or Dutch: he could have passed for either.
They left the bar together. Kittens scurried by in the moonlight. Shutters banged shut. Old facades sheltered quivering pigeons.
“Are we going to my place?” said Javier. “I’ve got an arsenal of hashish up there.”
Javier’s room was even barer than Dan’s. Besides the bed and a sink, there was a table with some money on it, a Bible, and a box of cookies. Javier had several joints already prepared and gave one to Dan. He didn’t take one for himself but just sat on the bed and talked. “Have some cookies.”
Dan smoked and ate some cookies, and began to get very stoned. Suddenly Javier said, switching from Spanish to English–in a perfect Cockney accent– “You know, I ‘ate Germans.”
“I despise Germans. Look at my face. Look carefully. Do I look Spanish to you?”
“I don’t know. . . I knew there was something about you. . .”
“And I ‘ate Germans. Do you want me to tell you what ‘appened to the last German I ‘ad up here?”
“Them cookies you’re eatin’.”
Dan froze: the accent was authentic. Gradually Javier’s face seemed to elongate.
Javier went on: “Do you want me to tell you what’s in them cookies? Do you want me to tell you what I did? I ‘ate Germans.”
Dan stood up. “These cookies are fine. Don’t try to tell me they’re not fine!”
Javier laughed. “Count to ten and you’ll see. Go ahead. Count slowly!”
Javier’s face became paler and paler, more haggard, the nose longer.
“So–you’re an Israeli.”
“And I publish leaflets.”
Dan ran to the door, opened it, ran to the front door–and out. He didn’t trust the elevator, so skipping steps, sometimes three at a time, he rushed down four flights. Halfway to the bottom he heard a voice not far behind him: “Are you afraid of me?” And then laughter. . . laughter. . .
He walked through the streets waiting for the poison to take effect, ready to hale a taxi at any time. It was late. Occasionally at intersections he’d come across bonfires not understanding what they meant, not appreciating all the customs of La Noche de San Juan. He walked until he came to the Paseo de Gracia and realized he would probably live. He went into the “Drugstore,” meeting place for foreigners of all types, transvestites, punks, Arabs, whores, pushers, madmen. The usual middle-aged painted French woman approached him. She was not selling her body. She sold poetry. She recited in thickly-accented English as he swigged beer to celebrate not being poisoned. Her poem ended:
I am Queen of the sweet life,
And you beautiful slaves
Make Company to me.
He paid her a hundred pesetas and she went away, to serenade others. A few minutes later he could feel the ineluctable pull of Kiss.
As he paid at the entrance he couldn’t help noticing the swastikas. They were advertising “Salon Kitty Night,” which was supposed to happen in two weeks. “Be sure to come on Salon Kitty Night, boys!” said the man in the cloakroom. The posters with the swastikas showed several Nazi officers at a table enjoying a cabaret evening, behind them a travesti spotlighted on stage. “Daft cunts,” said the man next to Dan, in a Scottish accent. “Never seen such bad taste in my life! Homosexuals exalting their murderers!” Though the man was speaking English, his tone drew the attention of some of the patrons and staff, who gave him a worried look. Dan went inside.
It was three a.m. and full and dark. He’d come at the right time. He ordered a whisky at the bar and stood watching the dancers under a poster of a bare-chested brawny youth and the words–in English– NOT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL. And for a while he danced by himself, his drink in his hand. “Smile!” someone said, “it’ll look much more attractive.” They played Alaska Dinarama and the music from Rambo and Prince and Boy George and Dan drank and watched those who really could dance. His contact lenses began to bother him in the smoky air and he felt tired but it was too early to be tired and it was Saturday. Out of the corner of his eye he could make out the mute spectacle of the Scotsman tearing down one of the Salon Kitty posters that lined the walls. The bouncer and another employee grabbed him before he could do too much damage, and dragged him out. No one seemed to pay much attention, and the late night life of Kiss went on. After a while he was saturated with images of Spanish youth, and the call got harder and harder to resist. Dan went down the steps to the “dark room”; here they noticed him a little more. There was life in this subterranean landscape, and his body surrendered to it, to the possibilities of escape. He unbuttoned his shirt and felt a cold hand on his neck and a warm hand on his chest. I’m home. I’m home. It was easy and predictable and no matter what happened in the world, there would be a welcome at the end of the week for him here–a seemingly endless supply of welcome. Then, under dim red lights, sprawled and half-drooping against the wall, he saw a young figure, familiar somehow, being slowly devoured by a trio of famished admirers. It was a memorable tableau of frenzied need. Something strange–more than excitement–happened inside Dan as he looked on. He couldn’t believe his eyes, and yet he could: it was obscurely, obscenely right, because sooner or later everyone ended up at Kiss. Occasionally the youth would come out with a word or two of Spanish slang meant to excite. He was in good shape, terrific shape. And sometimes he allowed himself to be kissed. What had happened to his shirt? It was gone, in his back pocket or on the floor, like other shirts in the room. He didn’t smile. For a moment he glanced at Dan but didn’t seem to recognize him, or pretended not to. And it was all right: this was no place for crying, or reminiscing: it was a dungeon packed with fifty, a hundred men all with high hopes. Dan got very close.
His dried-up lips dipped into the damp salty skin of Víctor’s neck.
Wayfarer, there are no roads, only wakes in the sea.
It was light when Dan got back to the Hostal Soledad. He called in sick and went out on his little balcony. Trucks rumbled by, rolling doors came up with a thunderous noise, pigeons descended on the narrow streets and the roofs across the way. It was smoggy and hot. Dan got out his pen and pad and started a letter to his former college teacher:
July 18, 1985
Hi Professor Danto,
I know you won’t remember me, but I was your student once. You told us we could get in touch with you anytime if we had a “philosophical brainstorm” to share. I always admired your style, you know. In fact you are one of the most admirable people I have known, so that’s why I want to write you even though my brainstorm isn’t particularly philosophical. I want a confessor, I guess. Could you be my confessor, please?
I died. It was the other night. I was doodling a spider web here on my bed when something went wrong. I stared and stared at the web and got lost in it. I spiraled into it and couldn’t get out. I heard voices. A choir of voices. I couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying but I knew what they meant. They were reaching out to me. I left my room and I walked. But in my mind I’d died. Has anything like that ever happened to you, professor? I would have liked to talk to someone. There are a few teachers at the school where I’m working, but I didn’t want to bother them at three o’clock at night. I walked for an hour and it passed. Nothing like that had ever happened to me in my entire life.
I can’t stand looking at the walls here. They’re full of stains on the right side of my bed. I’m surprised the landlady hasn’t said anything. I try to cover the area up with pillows, I try to be careful, but more stains just accumulate. One day she’ll notice and then what am I going to say? Should I just sneak out of here in the middle of the night? Sometimes I can’t sleep thinking about all those stains, they could be scars on my face.
This is my storm. I’m telling you this because I always looked up to you in class, even though I was quiet and didn’t participate. I guess I saw you as a father figure, because I didn’t have any father. The days are getting short. This is Barcelona, España, and it’s one in the morning in New York. You are sleeping. Or are you? Before I left New York I thought of going to see you in your office. That would’ve been nice, but
He was very tired. The sun hit his face and the swallows wheeled wildly through the morning air. He leaned over and looked down at the street below. The owner of the shoe store was having a smoke in front of the bar next to his store. He stood directly underneath and Dan could easily have spit on his head. A motorcyclist was waiting on his rumbling Vespa for the light to change. He wasn’t wearing a helmet–or socks. Dan was only three stories up and could almost see the hair on his bare ankles. Another rolling door went up with a horrific noise–this was “Mister,” a men’s clothing store. Two or three old ladies, pulling along their little shopping carts walked heavily toward the market like grey old urban pigeons. A decrepit little man stationed himself at the entrance to the Hostal Soledad and began selling garlic. “¡Ajo!” he cried. “¡Ajo! ¡A veinte duros la bolsa! ¡Mire que ajo más majo! ¡Ajo! ¡Ajo!” Look what nice garlic I have at a hundred pesetas a bag! Garlic! Garlic! He was there six days a week, that old, old man. Sometimes it sounded like the beginning of a chorus of different kinds of green grocers gradually joining in until the immense lament of the sellers reached a grand climax to drown out every other noise of the city. But this never happened. He was never joined by anyone, and just went on alone: “¡Ajo! ¡Ajo!” A taxi drove by with the serious, urbane voices of the morning news commentators from Madrid. Dan smelled coffee and seafood and liquor and exhaust as the sun warmed him.
He tore the letter to Danto out of his notebook and crumpled it up.
The sun lit the balcony and the swallows did their swirls and people shouted their Spanish shouts below. A scabby, obese woman began to mop up the balcony right across the street. She gave Dan a suspicious look, as if he had no right to be standing there in the sun of his Hostal Soledad.
Waiting for the plane, he wore his long black overcoat. It was a small airport. Perhaps there was a strike going on, because the floor was littered with waste from days and days. Barcelona had looked so important and imposing to him, in the beginning, almost a year ago.
“Will this be your first time in Italy?” an Englishman reading a paper asked him.
“Yes, that’s right. Never been before.”
“But you’ve got people there?”
“No, no one,” said Dan, smiling.
The man sat back, looked at him thoughtfully.
And then someone came along offering to shine shoes. Dan refused at first, but then realizing his mistake he changed his mind.
And for a few minutes, for a few pesetas, he let a stranger take care of him–he felt the shoeshine’s hands almost massaging his feet. The hands were massive, powerful, hands of labor, struggle, dirt. Expert hands. With black, badly kept nails. Dan wanted to remember them. It was important to remember them. One of his last images of Spain. He thought of all the other things those hands–usually the right one– almost certainly did besides shining shoes: he saw the warm hand manipulate a cigarette and a cold can of Coke, he saw it fork food to his mouth in a blue-collar restaurant with a menu del día for five hundred pesetas, he saw it handling the levers of a game in a penny arcade, he saw its nails being pared, the parings falling away uselessly to a bathroom floor, to be gathered up later and thrown out like trash.
Too soon it was over. He paid and watched the shoeshine walk off, pointing to men’s shineable shoes and then to his kit, moodily muttering his pitch.
© 2012 Alex M. Frankel