Far away and so close architecture's frozen music looms over our inarticulateness. For the first time we are extensions of place; we see ourselves in historical perspective; and not knowing our history, we babble. Our hands are still. Pleasure is diversion.
Shannon is telling me something about Spanish Morocco and how the anarchists supported Moroccan independence in hopes of starting a scuffle between Spain and France. She tugs at her cigarette. Nobody else cares. We Americans always end up with large mugs of beer at our table while the Spaniards, expressing and emoting and gesticulating, sip beer from their small glasses. Of Shannon's outer life - selling educational material over the telephone for the same company that had in the past run the English language school she'd worked at - I won't write. A Pakistani man is standing over us, whispering, balding, holding roses like they're a newborn. We ignore him. He walks away, lets a string of tourists pass along the busy sidewalk, and checks for a coin or two in the slot of the public telephone's change redeemer. Shannon says something that forces me to quickly decide whether I should defend America. I've become vaguely political.
Iowan Mike's been drinking steadily since we all met at the beach midday. He's been in Barcelona since before the '92 Olympics and remembers what it was like to live as a king. He's like an abandoned cathedral, some sacred project given up on because those who came after him falsely believed it was will-less muscles that were supposed to lug the stones. He knows six or maybe seven languages, and when Shannon, who seems to be wrought with the guilt of a child, wants to order more tapas, she has Mike do it for her. She makes lame attempts to hide her shame by turning the language into a joke. "Where's the camaro," she says, laughing, afraid to say the word for waiter, the word that she knows: camarero; afraid of hearing herself speak with botched accent. Of us all, she has the most respect for language and for the people that speak it. It's never a matter of glottal stops and starts, but of being naked and walking among mirrors. She prefers a silent cage rather than the appearance of disrespect. Anti-tourism taken too far. I admire her for sacrificing herself. If reality is a matter of noise, language, simple phonetics, she lives elsewhere.
And so do the over-dressed Chinese women at the beach; offering massages, carrying cheap Johnson & Johnson baby oil, yelling, "Mah-sa-hay muy bien, Mah-sa-hay muy bien." They are elsewhere. And Shannon speaks confidently to them - and them only - using her Spanish. That the on-the- move-masseuses are over-dressed brings me both relief and sadness. Relief because perhaps they're not selling their bodies, perhaps they couldn't be talked into it. Sadness because I wonder if they have nowhere to put their clothes, that they carry with them everything they own. And I wonder also if they wouldn't be better off selling their bodies. (Another wave of sadness as I contemplate what this says about me. Self-reflection tends to end badly.)
Many industries' published images portraying a soft blue-green Mediterranean keep the grimy ebb and flow sub rosa; the tourists march and spend and sigh, constantly talking themselves into satisfaction. Three Dutch women lie next to us, perfect breasts, well placed hip tattoos of Chinese symbols that reach back to the thing in the darkness that preceded the light of language, a cryptic cataplasm for the westerner's vague sense of intellectual inferiority. Shannon tugs at her cigarette. Iowan Mike is speaking to the Dutch girls, undaunted by the six breasts, the likes of which, as far as I know, never hung out on the Jersey Shore. He's been here long enough to speak to strangers naturally. There is nothing that he explicitly wants. If the Dutch had been responsible for any large, media covered, 20th century war, unconscious prejudice would demand that I believe their language is ugly. As so, it sounds only slightly off putting, like the clamoring of the tourists' voices at the café along the beach, interrupting the warm low-tone surf of the Mediterranean splashing about in its bathtub.
Beach. Café. Bicycle. Narrow streets. I know these words. They never fail me. I own these words. Potatoes. Vino. Sack of potatoes. They are my vocabulary. Good. Very good. Thank you. Excuse me. I like. Olives. I have. I want.
"I lie to old ladies in the elevator of my building. There, I've said it." Shannon says this absent of puffed up self-importance. The waiter brings four plates of small fried things to the table and then disappears quickly, moving sideways through the sitters and loafers. She's neither proud nor objective concerning her own qualities, but searching for reasons for what's gone wrong; too brave to limit these transgressions to the fault of having no language. Mike's got twenty years on us. We - Shannon and I and others - I think confirm Mike's instinct that returning to the States would be the wrong thing.
Shannon continues, "I'd rather tell them I'm coming back from the market. Even though I'm standing there without any bags in my hand, that's what I tell them. I know how to say that. It's a lie. But it's one of the few sentences I can put together."
Mike enjoys our confessions. It must seem to him that that's what we're doing here. I confess. You confess. We confess. When he senses that Shannon's beginning to doubt herself, doubt her doubts; when she begins to hear herself with that new pulsing auto-auditorial nerve of hers, Mike restores her faith in expression by placing his hand on Shannon's knee and giving an attentive nod of his head that says: "Go on." My eyes meet with the waiter's, and I raise my empty mug; a gesture I've been making for years. Now I know gestures move mountains, render them permeable in ways that language never could.
"I don't say a word to them, the old ladies." I say this to let Shannon know silence is an option, and to deflect whatever affection is forming between her and Iowan Mike.
"Ah, the tour de force of evasion can't even make small talk," Mike says. "This isn't the States. You can't just be liked for any reason whatsoever. You have to give...something. You want to take without giving. That's what an expatriate is. Damn, man, you should learn from the immigrants...the ones with brown skin...They don't expect to be liked, and they give, constantly. Culture isn't this infinite resource that you have any special right to. It will dry up. In some ways it already has. I sometimes wonder what this city would be like without the South Americans."
A throng of pigeons at my feet pulses and practices at eating. Old Spanish women remember, remember, seventy years ago when it was almost normal to eat the pigeons from the street and piss and shit in a bucket filled with sawdust. The pigeons' eyes implicate. Old Spanish women's eyes bestow grief and loss. Even in my bed, Shannon couldn't tell me why she was here, tele-marketing in English overseas. "I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque." From New Mexico to Barcelona; from the lobby to the third floor; from the separation of home to the relief found in each other's bodies; all traveling is tinged with a constant and pointed fatalism. Small lies and light humor are tourism's byproduct. We're super-tourists. We continue to look without seeing. We babble in the shadows of architecture.
"As for the old ladies, the Old Spanish ladies, maybe you're right to keep silent when in their presence. I don't think it's respect with you though. I think you could care less about them. You pretend to see things that aren't there, and you dress these things with honor, but when the elevator door opens, that's that. You're done with them, and move onto whatever's next. You don't care where you live, do you?"
Shannon eases back in her chair. I imagine she's dreaming about family reunions, trees, familiar music, gentle things which preceded her radical politics and general railing against everything closest to her. She's a serious girl - organic, before the word became pre-fabricated - but caught in those peripheral moments when she is the audience and nothing else, one senses her awe at things both big and small. Awe, silence, and now she must learn to speak. A Portuguese guy intones a profitable Bob Marley song that everybody knows. English speaking tourists smile at the familiarity and safety found in the sing-along. A hat is peppered with coins. Africans pawn pseudo-designer Italian handbags, bigger than my backpack. Maleese and Ugandans whose laughter commences in the gut. There's English everywhere. Euros change hands as boyfriends and husbands wait two steps behind their designer happy partners.
But before she'd evaded my questions in the darkness, we kicked away our clothes and I carried her weight to the bed, licking the caked sea salt from between her breasts. Give and take had not yet formed, our breathing separate, heavy with the day and the days before that. Nudges, plunges, half rolls; and a rhythm was found, the arroyo vanished. I grew inside of her when I thought I couldn't grow anymore. A Moveable Feast fell off my night table. A siren heard from the street, neither of us certain whether it was a police car or an ambulance. "I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque." Deep in the night she left by the stairs. I whistled in the dark.
About the author:
Marc Gulezian lives in Barcelona and works most nights as a bread baker. Every millionth baguette he quits his job, writes, and is always surprised when his stories see the light of day. His work has appeared or will be forthcoming in Thieves Jargon and Unlikely Stories.