The following is a story from the most recent issue of Mississippi Review, vol. 35, no. 1&2, spring 2007, $12.5o; Frederick Barthelme, editor. This is their annual MR Prize issue containing the poetry and fiction prize winners, along with several runner-ups in each category. Mississippi Review has been published steadily since 1971, and is available in some bookstores, through DeBoer and Ubiquity distributors, and directly through their website (linked above).
In Madrid, at Kiko’s
After my father’s funeral I left Ohio and went back to Madrid. Days later we had another party. Kiko and Christina sat on the mustard-colored couch I’d pulled from our street. It didn’t have cushions, so we used folded blankets instead, but they weren’t fluffy in the same way. High or not, the two of them looked like creamy dark-haired elves. Kiko’s decaying flat was where the three of us lived then, and he’d painted each wall a different, bright shade. For all the parties I decorated the large cold rooms with candles. Everyone had taken something different, and we were waiting for it to come on. For us, it was mostly Ecstasy. I’d never had this opened feeling in the Midwest, but in Spain I felt more allowed. I could call myself anything and no one would know the difference. Confidence, I dimly reasoned, might be geographic. I was somewhere around twenty-four, five.
People were in groups of two or three, and I inserted myself near Kiko and listened to his jagged Spanish accent, hoping for the good feelings to start. Sometimes they didn’t. Our friends mixed, mine trying to speak Spanish, theirs English, and all the people were dancing in a harmless friendly way. Months later Kiko’s liver got really sick and I’d left, but the entire time I was there I loved Kiko and Christina fiercely and easily in that non-exhausting way love often works when you know you’re going to be attached to someone only for a short time.
Quickly I found there was one man at the party I hated. He was British, and all his stories were about how much money he spent. “Kiko, okay,” he said, “stop holding out and give us more.” The man’s eyes were already shaking. Kiko didn’t speak English, so I translated as he studied the Brit. Kiko gripped the Brit’s wide shoulders so he’d relax and I told him, None left. The Brit’s eyes blinked so fast they seemed to curl inwards until finally someone offered him another bump. I hated him because he kept saying everything was just so crazy and his tongue would dart out the side of his mouth. When he moved out on our small balcony I wondered what would happen if I shoved him off. It wasn’t that far of a drop. I got a drink, which scattered my hate for a little while, but it all came back together later.
I distracted myself by talking to a beautiful boy with dark wavy hair, a round kind chin. He reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t think who. David was his name. The last syllable pronounced closer to a th: Davith. We tossed that back and forth. I’d never known American could be considered exotic, but for some reason it was, and I thought it better not to question it. This helped me be bold in Spain in ways I wasn’t in the Midwest. I never thought I could choose before. Davith took my hand and pressed it into his. I could tell he took care of things. He had green-hazel eyes with little lines and when he opened his mouth to speak I saw it was big and gentle. It seemed like a safe place to crawl inside . He’d probably like it if I did some damage too. We both knew what would happen.
“I sell restaurant supplies,” he said. It took me some time to understand because I didn’t know the word supply in Spanish, but it didn’t matter, because anything he said sounded like seduction.
“I teach English,” I said.
“You told me,” he said. I looked around, searching for something else to say.
On the corner table sat untouched plates of jamón serrano, sweaty Manchego, chunks of bread. Of course no one was eating. Kiko had asked why I wanted to put the food out in the first place. I told him it’s polite to have snacks, but he was right, the pink thin slices of pork looked sick. I broke free from Davith to quickly transfer all the food into the darkness of the kitchen. No one should have to look at it. I shoved everything in the corner. I turned and watched a group of three people firmly reach for each other until they formed a kind of knot. Their heads leaned in as they whispered their secrets. I stood some ways away and strained to hear what they said. They radiated absolution, but I was scared to be too near. Months ago, in Ohio, I’d insulted my father as he drove me to the airport, trying hard to strip him of his dignity, and then I’d stolen some of his money. Then he died.
I was rescued from the kitchen by a thin couple who’d been eyeing me. I let them talk me into the empty white room. Both of them wore black and had square-framed glasses. They said they studied semiotics and giggled. We tried to talk about that, but it went nowhere. Their attention was excessive and hungry, and I let them devour me with it. They wanted to do something that night that both of them could share, talk about later. I liked their focus and was flattered to participate. They asked what Ohio was like as their fingers kneaded mine. Not everyone owns guns was all I could think of to say. Only maybe half. They asked me about fatness and TV shows, and I babbled in a frivolous way so none of us would pay too close attention to where everyone’s hands were. We had a little show going. Some people glanced in.
“Well, there’s lots of space for graveyards,” I said. This stopped them, so it could have been I didn’t know the word for cemetery. The whole time their eyes kept meeting, but missing mine. Loneliness started hammering at my chest and I couldn’t catch my breath. Something wasn’t working and their hands felt cold and rough. I gotta go, I told them, and left them there to gnaw on each other.
I stopped in our tall yellow hallway. The walls were crying, but not sadly. I ran my hand down the soft painted stucco and hundreds of years came off under my nails. In my mind, my future stretched out before me like a sun-soaked highway. Before, I didn’t mind waiting to find it, but now it’s all I thought about. I was trying to get one of those yellow, haloed moments that just opened up and I didn’t care where it went. Like the time I was with my first love on our cozy damp futon, exhausted and sore. I was twenty and amazed at the beauty of his chest, the wood paneled walls, and how sweetly the room smelled of us. It was late afternoon, humid in Indiana, and we were naked, eating cereal and drinking wine. I’d just won a game of gin rummy and he leaned in to kiss the long scar on the back of my calf, a leftover from falling on a broken gin bottle at one of my parents’ parties. My dad had quickly poured whiskey on it to sterilize the wound. My first love ran his lips over my puffed-up scar until my whole leg started to glow. I walked differently, stronger and more tenderly after that. Where was he now, with his wet yellow mouth?
“I need more,” I said into Kiko’s pointy ear when he walked by.
“None left,” he answered. “You always want,” he said. A wave of broken grins sailed across his lovely jaundiced face. I pinched him, he hugged me. We had something. Small, beautiful Christina came over, and we all laughed about nothing. We gripped hands and a swell of euphoria welled up, then broke, and I felt so flooded I thought I might drown. I rooted in my brain for a word and hallucinated love. I whispered my idea to angelic Christina and she congratulated me on my syntax. My Spanish was so much better when I was high. What I imagined fluency would feel like, sentences spinning out of me carelessly.
Soon they moved away to talk to other people, and the familiar restless itch began to eat at my stomach. I looked around at what I could do. Some people I knew were dancing. They pulled me into their hot sweaty circle, and I let them wrap their snaky arms around me. The Brit ran his sarcastic hand through my newly short hair. Christina had cut it with meat shears. This is how it looked, blunt and staticky, when I stood next to my father’s casket. It’d been months since I’d seen him, but he was serene in a way that was new. He didn’t look like himself, and I wanted to close the casket because it seemed profane that everyone should be able to look at him so openly. I tried, but the fat hand of the funeral director stopped me. No, no, his shook head said. After, I got drunk in honor of him. I think we all did but I can’t remember. Then there was yelling, and I used my free ticket back to Madrid.
In the spirit of things, I folded into the mass of dancing people. Arms and faces blurred into a mosaic of strange fellowship, an attempt at family for the evening. I looked around Kiko’s bright blue living room, at all these strangers whom I wouldn’t know next year. Dancing next to all of those people I realized there were only two, maybe three, that I’d miss, but that’s probably how it is everywhere. Who misses everyone? There’s always a hierarchy of missing. Someone passed me a joint, other people were doing lines. I danced with the Brit, found out he was a friend of a friend, his face a smeared smile under his beard. I forgot I hated him until he grabbed my head to kiss me. A gesture of goodwill or beauty, but I didn’t like it. He reminded me of no one I’d ever known. His English accent disgusted me. It was so arrogant. Who was he to judge? He kept talking about how Americans were Britain’s children and so that made me, in some confused and stupid way, his long-lost child.
“But I’m older than you,” I said.
“I mean figuratively, you know, symbolically,” he said.
“Look,” I said, “come this way.”
We went into my room and shut the door. I didn’t like him, but I let him kiss me, put his fingers inside me. He tasted angry, and his tongue jerked in and out of my mouth. I slapped him for fun. He turned his head so I could hit the other side. I smacked harder and we laughed. I’d forgotten his name. He pushed me on the bed and unbuckled. We could communicate easily.
“This is repulsive,” I said, but I was smiling. “Does this mean we’re still related?”
“Come to Daddy,” he said.
I pushed myself off his chest. He thought I was teasing, saving some for later. But it was just that I was reckless, bouncing my desire off someone to see if it would stick, have any effect. If it wasn’t in this country, it was in a bar, at some other party. I’d put anything in my body to see if it turned into love.
“I know this game,” he said happily. I left him there with his pants down. I searched him for any kind of shame, but left disappointed.
I fled into the bright green dining room and found Davith talking to a Spanish girl. I slipped my hand into his and her smile didn’t falter. She carried herself like a float queen. Her long hair fell in perfect curls, and she smelled like flowers. I couldn’t help touching her. Her smile said, Please don’t. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to impress her. Underneath us, most of the old parquet tiles were broken. I flipped one over with my shoe to show them the cool, packed dirt. This is where I live, I said. They laughed at my gurgled sentence, thinking me cute. Then they said something I didn’t understand. I stood there with a nervous smile until Davith pulled me into him. Proof that something I had he wanted.
We went to sit on the stained mustard couch, and I felt his muscles tense and give under my hands. The music was going and everyone had crowded into Kiko’s blue room.
“You’re beautiful,” Davith said, as if he meant it.
“Say something else,” I replied. He spoke in long sentences, and I translated them in my head.
I avoided the eyes of the Brit, but then looked at him when I kissed Davith. He stared and licked his lips. He was letting me know how wrong I was and that he liked it. He didn’t have to say anything. This warmed my chest in a cold red way. The skinny couple laughed in the corner, but not mockingly. Kiko and Christina danced together. Other people were smoking, drinking orange juice, conjugating verbs. Everything seemed to be turning out okay, or at least not horribly.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered into Davith’s ear, but he didn’t know what I was talking about, and I wasn’t sure either. But I knew I was. All I wanted was for him to forgive me, but he refused to understand. Anyone could baptize me, maybe even in the bathtub. Then all I’d have to do was let the dirty water circle down the drain. It could be that easy. Christina might do it for me, but she was busy. I almost asked the Brit, but then I heard him say the words so crazy to the beautiful Spanish float queen and I abandoned my plan.
Sometime later I led Davith to my bedroom. It was so effortless. He was soft and big and surrounded me. I felt small under him. He hugged me, pushed my hair off my face. Something shifted in my spine and my face was falling down. I felt leaden. Things started. He responded and we got into my bed, but I was so wound up I could barely breathe. I heard my housemates laugh in the other room. The Midwest and its long flat roads were far behind me. My father was dead, and I was more glad than not but I wasn’t thinking that then.
“Spain is beautiful,” I said in Spanish.
“Why did you cut your hair like that?” he asked.
“I like it,” I said. No way was I going to sleep with him now.
I watched the light creep in under the French doors, trying to make its way across the old ceiling. Davith started rubbing my back, trying to get me to breathe, calm down. I felt his skin on mine, but he could have been anybody. He was soft and too gentle. I wanted passion! I wanted him to rip my clothes off. Cover my mouth and hold me down like that other one did. Instead, he kissed my body up and down, curled around me. I’d just learned that in Spanish you say me voy when you are close to coming. I wanted to go, but he wasn’t going to take me anywhere. The light finally stuck itself onto the old faded ceiling, behind both French doors. Davith thought I was cold, so he hugged tighter. I think there was more speed in my pills than MDMA. It took me years to unwind.