By: Paula Ramirez
The Two Fs of Self-Discovery
She came out of nowhere. Bursting from the swirling crowd of monochrome, the short, characteristically middle aged woman entered as though already mid conversation. As though I’d rung her up in the morning and told her to meet me here, at the beginning of the Puente de Isabel II on the sunniest day of winter. Inserting herself into our duo naturally--me and my roommate of two months--she introduced herself with imploring eyes and a firm handshake as Susan Martin-Cobble. She wasted no time in getting the usual pleasantries out of us. But she didn't care, really, and neither did we, if we were being honest. In a slew of pedestrians, we were insignificant Americans and she, a mild inconvenience.
“So what are pretty girls like you doing in a place like this?” she asked, smoothing her feathered hair. Susan was a sight. I noticed immediately the diamonds scattered across her person. The hung or sat on her ears, her wait, her wrists. I slipped my hand in my coat pocket, feeling for my wallet almost instinctively as passerbys brushed past me on all sides. Only the affluent can afford to be so casual.
She shot me a look and pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head swiftly. “I was just like you when I was in college.” My eyes darted instinctively, accidentally, from my companion’s destroyed jeans to the woman’s blue tracksuit and visor. I pulled the hem of my skirt lower quietly. Not pausing, Susan steamrolled on. “Hm, but I’ll bet you anything I’m freer now than you are,” her cryptic statement paired with a cryptic wink.
“Do you travel much?” I asked politely to move the conversation along so we wouldn't be late to meet our friends for lunch on the river banks.
“Oh, honey I just got back from a weekend in the Alps! You wouldn’t believe the chateau I stayed in. Courtesy of my ever so generous ex-husband.” She stroked her blank ring finger fondly and beamed at us.
“I’m going to Geneva this weekend!” said Louise, my roommate. “I can’t wait to see the mounta—”
“Of course, Geneva is vastly overrated,” dismissed Susan. “If you really want to know the dreamiest trip I’ve ever taken, it would have to be summer of 2005. I spent three weeks on an intercontinental cruise. Girls, when you get the chance, you just must do it!”
Louise kept quiet despite having spent a semester at sea. I thought about the price of tuition. Susan barreled on, oblivious. “I’m sorry, I know we just met and this may seem out of the blue, but I feel an obligation to tell you what no one told me when I was your age.” She didn’t look apologetic. “I can just tell we’re so much alike.”
Louise and I exchanged glances silently. Better to let her monologue run its course she implied with a flick of the eyes. I nodded. Why fight her. She was clearly alone and clearly harmless and maybe well-meaning. If she needed to impart some wisdom so she could go home and tell all her friends about the good she did in Europe, we could be her anecdotal Americans.
Susan took our silence as an invitation, which I suppose it was. “Do either of you have boyfriends?” We shook our heads and rolled our eyes defensively.
“Good. Now do you want to know the secret to having a fulfilling, I mean really fulfilling, travel experience?” she’d lowered her voice as though the crowd of street traffic we parted was eavesdropping, straining to hear her every word. We nodded obediently.
Susan glanced over her shoulder theatrically and leaned closer to us. “Leave the boys at home. Fuck them and forget them.”
Louise let out a sharp bark of incredulous laughter and I choked down a snort. “Really, girls. I’m sorry to be crass, but my only—and I mean only—regret is spending so much time in my twenties looking for a man to settle down with. And for what? My ex-husband still ended up having an affair ten years ago.”
She held up her hands to silence our noises of discomfort masked as sympathy.
“All the sudden I was alone for the first time in twenty years, and I didn’t recognize myself. My years as a young woman were preoccupied by the need to get married, and once I’d done that, before any of my friends, I might add, whoever I grew up to be was filtered through him. I didn’t even like him that much and yet I didn’t know who I was without him.”
She swatted at my waist, “Oh, I can see you feeling sorry for me. Don’t. It was my own, nearsighted fault. Anyways I turned out alright. If I had to marry a cheating good-for-nothing, at least I married a rich one.”
She smoothed her hair again.. This time there was a faint tremor in her hand. I cleared my throat.
“I’ve seen the world two times over,” she continued, “ I’ve met the most interesting people and seen the most unbelievable things. And he foots the bill quietly and never says a word.”
I stared at her carefully preserved skin as she explained her paradox of love and finance. She needed his money as much as she needed her freedom. Maybe even more. But they two were isolated in her mind. They sat in neat boxes and existed without acknowledging the other’s presence. It was impossible to tell if she saw her life as a cautionary tale or a self-help testimony. Change Your Life! See the World! Marry Rich!
Susan was still talking, but her voice had lowered even more in volume and slipped an octave. At some point in the conversation, she stepped closer and adopted a more maternal gaze.
She sighed. “I got the chance to track myself down when I was older, and we get along great,” she said with a sad smile. “But I’ll always wish I’d met myself when I was twenty-three.”
With this proclamation, before we could react appropriately, to she reached abruptly for our hands and looked steadily into Louise’s eyes and then into my own. She was beautiful. Despite the cracks stemming from her thin lips and a dulling parlor, there was an unsettling clarity in her gaze.
And then she was laughing. It was a strangled, wheezing sound that broke through the dull murmur of the crowd of pedestrians around us. We joined, and the three of us stood still holding hands, gasping for air and squinting in the sunlight.
“I won’t keep you any longer,” she said finally, wiping a drop of moisture from the corner of a creased eyelid. She pulled me into herself quickly, kissing each cheek and briefly squeezing my arms. She smelled expensive. She grabbed Louise’s hands and repeated the gesture, leaving a faint stamp of orange lipstick on each of her cheekbones.
“I really do hope you have the best time!” said Susan, pulling away and stepping back into the street. She slipped a pair of sunglasses, diamond studded, onto her face. “And don’t you dare forget what I told you!”
“Fuck ‘em and forget ‘em!” we screamed after her retreating form, before it disappeared into the crowd.
She turned around, beaming, pulled the visor off her head and waved it in the air wildly. “Fuck’em and forget ‘em!”
* * * * * *
La Vida de una Patrón de las Artes
Pastel houses are ugly. Ice cream cones and beach fronts too. Decrepit urban development isn’t made better with a coat of paint or a wrought iron balcony.
But I can't look away.
My head turns with each swell of the accordion, and I buy into the diluted nostalgia for an era I never had any chance of knowing just like they want me to.
I bike past the same man and woman, two blocks from each other, playing beaten up accordions for the tourists and the cathedral goers and the rollerblading teens. They play La Vie En Rose, inexplicably. I like the woman’s playing better than the man’s. She doesn't retreat when it’s raining or when it's hot outside like he does.
One day I stopped traffic to listen. But she wanted to talk. Of course, she didn’t say, but the way her weathered fingers slipped over the gritty keys was more inviting than any ‘hello’ so far.
Assorted European passersby part around me and my borrowed bike as I stand in the road, eyes fixed on her downcast gaze, and, after months of we finally talk.
You're another one of them, she says, and I know to her I’m a part of the masses of foreigners.
But I'm here, aren't I? I ask.
The song leaps laughingly and her gaze meets mine. I guess that's true. But you're not so different, you know. You pedal by without stopping, too.
You've noticed? I ask.
And I don't like that boyfriend of yours, either, she chastised with a flick of the wrist and a drag of the keys.
I take the long way to hear you. I say.
I don't care, guapa. She's laughing now. Face turned up to the light filtering through orange trees. I'm here with or without you.
The song is over and she places her accordion neatly under her small fold out chair and drops into it unceremoniously.
I'm still stopping traffic, and now she is looking at me.
So I do all I can. I step away from my aunt’s friend’s daughter’s bike and I place a couple of euros in her cardboard box.
I’ll see you tomorrow, I say.
But she's silent now, eyes no longer meeting mine.
* * * * * *
We were swept out of the jazz club in a whirlwind. In perhaps the only time in recorded history, locking eyes with a member of the trio onstage actually worked. I blinked as little as possible as the band members made their final introductions and played one more song; a cover of “If I Fell” because it could be nothing else. The last moments lingered until the lights came up and the crowd was free again to shout their drink orders one over another and animated conversation filled the room again.
No longer safely stowed behind the kit, the drummer pushed his way through the crowd, stopping only to accept compliments and a glass of wine.
Introductions were made in a flurry of apologetic Spanglish and we moved outside. The streetlight made him look older. Less mysterious. But still we, me and my roommate of two weeks, stood on the cobblestone and accepted the glasses they, him and him and his friend of ten years, offered us.
Of course he was boring as hell. But his friend, the quieter of the two, was impressively sad. And drunk.
“You’re students?” Asked the drummer, touching my arm unnecessarily.
“Of what, exactly?” blurted the friend, grabbing my arm to steady himself.
“Art history,” I said. I lied. Why not. Maybe it would be true in a perfect world: the one this encounter begged for.
His eyes, dulled by the wine, flickered for a moment. He nodded slowly, turned to Louise as if to ask her the same, but then swiveled back to face me, shaking his head almost angrily.
“Why history? Why does it matter?” he demanded, unaware, I’m caught in a lie.
“Alvaro teaches history at the high school!” explained the drummer, happy to be able to contribute to the conversation. “He’s studying for his master’s now.”
Shit. I fumbled and paused but no one seemed to notice. “Do you like to teach?” I said finally, an attempt to divert.
“Yes. But why does history matter?”
Intercepted. “It’s all we are and all we have,” I offered.
“No. We both know it doesn’t mean anything.”
“You’re the one who’s getting his masters in it,” I said, trying to laugh and drink and change the subject at the same time.
He scoffed, “I hate it. It’s meaningless.” He seemed to really mean this. It’s obvious the moment he says it. The drummer looked away, Louise drank, and we all realized how predictable we must look. Two young American girls standing on the street corner way too late at night with men who are way too far our senior.
Still, there’s something in his newly awakened expression that tells me this hatred he harbors in the streetlight is devotion by sunlight. He’s not shouting, exactly, but there’s a new edge of aggression undeterred by the alcohol. He’s not flushed, exactly, but he’s loosened his collar despite the biting cold.
And I knew the bastard was fishing for my reaction. But I was annoyed. His cryptic interrogation had yet to adopt a condescending tone, but it was coming.
“So why invest so much time and money in it?” I asked, pretending the trap he set didn't exist. “And why teach? The kids can tell if you don’t give a shit, you know.”
He smiled and leaned back on his heels as soon as I snapped. Pleasantly sad again, his brief hostility a slip of the tongue. “It was an accident,”
“Come on dude,” I said, picking up the interrogation where he left it. “You’re so cryptic.”
They thought this was funny. And it was. Sort of. But he still hadn’t answered my question, and it was getting colder.
“I was going to be an academic,” he explained, the drummer verifying his words with enthusiastic nods. “I was going to converse with Spain’s brightest and argue with her geniuses. But my father was a teacher and his father before him, so I made a decision and found myself back in a high school teaching history to teenagers who didn't give a fuck about me or my potential.” He ashed a cigarette I hadn't noticed him light.
“And I love it,” he admitted reluctantly, unprompted. “But I really wish I didn’t.”
We stood, for a minute. He doesn’t want my validation and I don’t want to give it to him.
“To el professor!” Shouted the drummer, raising his glass, shattering the silence, and sweeping the his long time friend’s uncomfortable declaration under the rug immediately. We lifted our glasses and drank quickly, but I met Alvaro's eyes for a moment and saw a second of frigid resentment clearly before he looked away.
Now someone was hitting it off with someone else and this stranger’s vocation was long past importance. It's not that I had anything he didn't. Hardly. Yet I could tell he and I both knew that I, at least, could still look for something he found long ago.