Emily comes on a cloudless day, and her heart clenches on the stale-air plane with the vastness of it, and only a little panic. Flying above the ocean can only compare with swimming far down below it, and she has only ever been level with the sea. I come on the same day, but I’ve got a different view. I have already gone scuba diving; my heart will never seize the same way.
At the hotel we become four, and sleep is assigned to us by a woman named Maria who appears like a collective vision out of our dreams. Where we are from, it is still dark; people are still fidgeting and fucking and fighting under covers. We are somnambulists.
The four of us sleep like children: helpless, without cares. There will be time enough to see sights. This Maria assures us in her language, and it is like a lullaby to us: sonorous, meaningless.
Once, my mother forgot me in the grocery store. String beans, strangers. Intercom pagings, fruitless. A cot next to the lost-and-found in the manager’s office, where he slept between shifts beside a box with one sneaker and a vomit-stained sweatshirt to put food on the table. Bought with time-and-a-half that surrounded him in cornucopia abundance during his waking hours, when the itch to just fill his pockets and walk away through automatic doors was at its worst. Six, drifting to sleep with a dirty salmonella thumb in my mouth, I wondered through the haze what my new supermarket-life would be like: butcher for a father, produce aisle for a playroom; my cash register dreams. No thought of my frantic mother, racing back through red lights. Room in my head for only ten items or less.
Our luggage is minimal, pared down and packed tight by our mothers; but reasons and rationalizations we brought in abundance. They pack light, even if they do not hold up well. There are the reasons we tell our parents so they will open their wallets, and then the ones we tell our friends and lovers back home so they will hold us close even while they let us go. There are the ones we tell ourselves, and there are the ones we won’t. (Moira’s new journal: crisp, clean, necessarily Moleskine: “I am Hemingway. I am Fitzgerald. Gertrude Stein am I. Roar. Hear me, etc.”) The ones we didn’t bring, that it didn’t occur to us we’d need, we pick up here like shaving kits from the hotel reception. (She never thought to try and find herself before she came and made herself so lost.)
Public and private and precious, all different and all the same: come to be something we aren’t, and people we don’t know.
Moira wakes before the rest, her internal clock adjusted first because she lives outside of time. Outside of ours, at least. In someone else’s epoch.
She leaves to find a bullfight and a Spanish fuck. She will not be back for dinner.
I’m sorry, did you just call me a cultural imperialist? Exactly what the fuck do you mean by that?”
Moira explains to Rob that she’s just not sure she understands why the hell it is we have to meet at Starbucks every time.
Our jumbo-jet, high-speed-train velocity of the first week has come to a screeching halt, leaving us faced with the easiest and most awkward task of our trip: daily life. We must figure out how to fill the hours of our sun-baked foreign lives, between the basic student-bodily functions of note-and-meal-taking, without our American staples of work-study and self-inflicted extracurriculars.
Emily, wired on a European-strength espresso and without a jot of studying to do till finals: “Maybe I’ll look for a job. I went to the library yesterday, you know, to do some of the suggested reading for class. Four hours I was there. Four hours, and only four of us in there. No one came into the library for four hours. I think maybe people don’t do the suggested reading here. Maybe I’ll look for a job.”
It is the pitiless, unpitiable affliction of too-much-time. It is like a penis or an electron microscope in Emily’s hands. She does not know what to do with it.
People come to this town to lose themselves, beckoned by pamphlets that promise narrowwinding streets. They amble aimlessly and two abreast, past flower-draped balconies and peeling whitewash, holding hands and wondering what Love is like. More twists and turns mean more corners around which it could be lurking at last: this is the secret hope that the heart-stopped newlywed shares with the would-be divorcée.
Emily, who does not enjoy being lost, is from a small town in Iowa with a name none of us can remember. The only time she’s ever traveled before, not counting her half-hour drive to and from college, was a class trip to New York at age sixteen. It was the first time it occurred to her that her life could be taking place somewhere else, without her.
Here, she cannot help it, but her heart beats a little faster when the narrowwinding streets of the old city fall away to neat outskirts, where the avenues form right angles and the palm trees line up in rows: soft echoes of the City. A city that was never hers.
She fights it, tries to savor the half hour it takes to reach a place that Point A to Point B should mean a ten-minute walk. A trick of culture in urban planning, this way that a people enforce their pace of life. A required full stop for the smelling of roses.
But perpendicularity, Oh.
Maybe it reminds her of a common thread: we are not all so different that culture cannot be surmounted by a ninety-degree turn.
Or maybe it reminds her of the home she keeps waiting.
A secret about Moira: she is no Hemingway, and she knows it. Her Moleskine is full of passages copied from slim books of Spanish poetry she buys from streetside stalls: stolen words to give her new life style and her notebook substance.
Usually she is satisfied to copy out these passages onto sepia-tone picture postcards and mail them home to people who try to care about her: to her parents, who cannot read Spanish and frantically feed her messages into web translators to make sure they aren’t suicide notes, she sends the ones about love; to an ex-boyfriend whom she never wanted back until now, she sends the ones about death — because she knows they will delight him. Lost youth she sends to her younger sister; birds, butterflies and miscellaneous nature she sends to her bewildered academic advisor, for kicks.
Recently, though, Moira has ventured into the realm of translation — that literary half-light between personal achievement and plagiarism. On the back of a shoplifted postcard showing a royal palace she never toured, she writes:
Content the tree that scarcely feels,
more the callous rock,
because it already feels not,
for there is no pain greater
than the pain of being alive,
or greater sorrow than the conscious life.
To be, and know nothing,
and be without certain course,
and the fear of having been,
and a future terror…
and the sure dread of being tomorrow dead,
and to suffer for life and shadow and for
that which we do not know
and barely suspect,
and the flesh that feels its way with fresh bunches, and the
tomb that waits with its funeral branches,
and to know not where we’re going,
nor from whence we’ve come!…
For a day afterward, she feels … not quite pride, but at least a reassuring sense that the food she eats and the space she fills is not wasted. In bed, she shows it to a French exchange student, who glances for a moment between the original and its ugly sister before lying back down to sleep.
“Nice,” he says. “But in Spanish, eet rhymes.”
Emily talks. She asks questions she already knows the answers to (Where is the bathroom? How much does this cost? Could you give me the time… ?), pretends to be lost when she knows precisely where she is, so she can solicit directions — a path, a plan — from strangers. On the bus, she talks to elderly women so they won’t have to talk to themselves. Because they are old, they do not dally in chit-chat — no time for shallow compliments or comments on the weather, which they are wise enough to know interest nobody but oneself, like the recounting of dreams over breakfast — and because they can’t hear her questions anyway, or don’t care to, they sing her scratchy-voiced stories of the men who made their lives hard (with chores, with children), whom they only started loving after their deaths.
But what Emily craves is conversation. She wants to stage her life in a different language. For characters, she wants natives. Still, her frumpy American dress means she is politely ignored, because it marks her as temporary. No one needs a fair-weather foreign friend.
Finally, she learns with whom to start conversations: eager street vendors trying to sell her a pair of earrings; immigration-minded local students who want to improve their English, or at least screw her. She learns to be a whore of language, and put out in exchange for the small gratification of sweet nothings in her ear.
I don’t have much time left,” Moira divulges after a liter of cheap wine shared on a street-corner curb outside the Cathedral. The novelty of open containers and public intoxication is long over, having become — like this country: piercing, unreal — eerily commonplace.
Of course, there is always something slightly uncomfortable about being here, like those too-tight shoes Moira bought with the faint and fading illusion that tomorrow when she puts them on, they will finally feel good, or at least feel like nothing at all.
But sometimes, after she and Emily walk by a crumbling tile facade and realize neither one looked twice, they spend the afternoon roaming around trying to pinch each other awestruck and permanently wide-eyed. Because that is what made Moira’s heart race and her mouth hang a little open for two weeks straight of her life; that is what Emily’s parents paid for. That is how they think they should remember this place: exotic.
“I don’t have much time left,” she repeats, because the booze makes us forget to ask follow-up.
Rob thinks she is telling us we don’t have much time left abroad; I think she is telling us she has AIDS.
“Youth won’t last us forever, you know.” The booze makes her feel profound. “At some point, my hair will turn gray and my tits will sag. Next year, we’ll graduate and have to find jobs. No one really lives to be 80 or 100, because everyone stops living after 30. Maybe 35.” We sit quietly as she sentences us to death. “We have to go somewhere. Fast.”
We choose the train for its velocity: we want out, we want up, and we want it quick. But we also want to see where we are going, and what we are leaving behind. Bus commits the grave sin of slowness; but plane is the greater evil, because it clouds our vision.
Means first, destination second: motion is an end in itself. We choose a place practically at random, from a railroad schedule someone produces at Starbucks the night before. Far enough away to take us sufficiently out of our element; close enough to make it back for breakfast tomorrow morning. We’ll stay up, passing the night on bar stools and park benches to save money, and to remind ourselves that we’re alive.
We arrive to find that the city we have chosen by stroke of fate lies in a state of festival chaos. There are costumes where it is not Halloween, dancing and drinking in the street where it is not Mardi Gras, and fires burning everywhere in simulated Rapture. Outside the train station, the smoldering papier-mâché eye of a prize-winning effigy stares across the platform. They will burn their best and most beloved to the ground, dance on the ashes.
In the local supermarket, Emily selects provisions to keep us alive through the quick-falling night. Rob carries the loaves of french bread and forties of beer slung over his arms and back: he is good for something, and that is brute strength. Moira stakes out an empty stoop on a curving sidestreet where we sit to eat and watch the drunken crowd reel past. Moira thinking, for there is no greater pain than the pain of being alive, or greater glory than the unconscious life.
She takes a deep swig of her boxed wine, says, “We need costumes.”
Out of plastic bags and party refuse, we fashion our Carnival-selves: with a discarded wand and cardboard crown, Moira is a fairy. Emily a bride, Rob a pirate. I am something composed of their leftovers and aborted attempts at alternate identities, and I am beautiful.
A passing child asks Emily what I am. She shrugs. “Nothing. No one.”
We follow the slow, fumbling crawl into the center of the city, through alleys lined with bottles and sprawling bodies, the difference between wasted reveler and wino lying only in the possession of a return ticket home.
A warm drizzle begins to fall. Emily wraps us in the remaining plastic, and we huddle in the shelter of some nearby church steps.
“Some weather,” Moira says. “Mainly on the plain, huh. Do you see any plain?” And she waves her wine box in a wide arc at what we are to understand is the surrounding coastline, splashing a group of strangers clustered alongside us.
They curse in six different languages at once, like an Indo-European Scylla, turn their six heads to identify the culprit. From our excessive apologies and ethnic ambiguity, they stick us as Americans. But they ask us anyway, to make us admit it out loud.
“And you?” Moira asks.
“We’re locals,” one guy drawls in Italianized Spanish. “You want the grand tour?” His friends chuckle, and I could swear their laughter, too, comes in six different accents.
“Right,” Moira leers. They — international, sophisticated, impeccably dressed — are just as drunk as us. “What did you have in mind?”
The Italian, briefly taken aback, recovers his cigarette cool and waves us behind him down a street that leads to a plaza full of unburned effigies awaiting the flames. We have to wait for the rain to die down and the papier-mâché to dry before they’re lit, so the Italian sits and passes around a bottle he pulls from his coat pocket. The night starts to fall faster, blacker.
He tells us his name is Luigi, setting off a round of introductions and both-cheek kisses. We are still awkward when we try it, stuffing right hands back into our pockets and bumping heads with our partners. Moira and Emily have to remind themselves each time that the event is not just a joke at their expense.
One of the Europeans leans in to kiss Emily and gets her in the eye — perhaps not European after all. When Emily starts to greet him in Spanish, his friend leans in to explain that he’s only visiting, not studying here, so doesn’t speak the language. Emily tries her English, then her high-school French on him — nothing. He tries something on her that sounds like he is choking on saliva, then a couple variations on the same phlegmatic theme. She shakes her head. There are none of the same words inside their heads, and everything in their lives is called by a different name.
He takes her hand and squeezes it.
We lose Rob first, to the night and the crowd and the streets and the city. No one notices when it happens, and no one is sorry. We don’t wonder where he is when the fires start, or if he can see them from there; when he’s gone it’s like he never was, and it does not seem strange how temporary this would make him in our lives. We have never yet been able to conceive of permanence.
I push past Emily and her foreigner to get a better look at the flames, see her whisper something in his ear.
Up closer, where the ash and the wet mingle to smell of burning hair, I find Moira hugging herself against the wind and staring up at the in-between place where the fire blurs into the sky. She is whispering too, and standing next to her, I am the only one to hear:
“I want in my soul the inspiration deep, profound, immense: Light. Heat. Aroma. Life.”
I don’t remember what happens after that. I wake up in a seedy hotel room wearing a vomit-stained sweatshirt, a dirty thumb in my mouth for the first time since I was six. A laugh comes from the bathroom, in some foreign accent.
But there is no time for tears, or wondering what my new seedy hotel-life will be like. I am of the world of the return ticket home, and my train leaves in twenty minutes.
Outside the bathroom in the concession car, I find Emily clutching her belly. Motion is making her sick.
I ask her about her foreigner. Doubled over and smiling at the floor, she says his friend told her he’s going back home tomorrow and she’ll never see him again.
I think that’s the end of it, but then she tells me a story.
In the story, I disappear with someone, and Moira finally finds her Spanish fuck. Emily and her foreigner wander off to sit on the rocky cliffside of an ocean that touches both of their countries as well as this one.
She wonders aloud about plunging to her death. He says something, and she wonders aloud if he is wondering aloud the same thing.
She shivers with the cold, and he lies beside her to protect her from the wind and surf. He is like a cave, and she pulls down two pairs of pants, and in the end, it’s not so hard to figure out what to do with it.
Afterwards, she gets an idea. She tells him that she loves him, that she will always love him. First in English, then again in Spanish. French, too.
“I wanted to see how it felt to say it, how it sounded in my voice.” She laughs. “It sounded wrong in every language I can speak. If there’s a way to say it, I don’t know what it is.”
When we get home, breakfast is waiting. Instead we sleep. There will be time.