The ocean cradles the sliver of land like a proud mother. Its narrow body comes into focus head on, as if we were falling from the heavens. We fall through clouds, through blue sky and sunshine. Movie directors call this point of view a push shot. Slowly, we push forward, the topography becomes visible, and we discern the buildings, rivers and land patches. Faster now, we move to the rooftops. The domed churches ancient and brooding watching over the progress of the city. Castles crumble like abandoned lovers and don’t care to comment on the new hotels in the old plazas. Citizens, tourists, and pigeons occupy the plazas. On and under the brawny, wide Giant Ficus trees Great Cormorants, Red-knobbed Coots, and expectant young girlfriends gather for photographs.
And we move faster still to the Plaza ______________ where the heat is made stronger by the swarming masses. The ocean can be heard faintly, or maybe imagined from here. The large stones that form the ground in the square are hot. The breeze that blows across the Plaza is hot and it mingles with the scent of coffee and stone as it travels up and up into the hotel rooms. There with the balconies open are empty rooms, rooms with chambermaids cleaning them and some with lovers in the throes of passion. Some…some and some…
“Bullshit, this is absolute bullshit,” Dan thinks.
He presses exit without saving, pushes his laptop away and walks over to the balcony. The room is hot, but he knows that if he turns on the air conditioning he’ll be asleep in no time and he desperately wants to write something. It’s the middle of the day, besides.
He can hear Jessica’s soft snoring coming from the bedroom. She always makes noises in her sleep. Bringing her was almost an impulse. His short story collection won a prestigious award and was accepted for publication just before he graduated with his MFA, but it wasn’t selling as expected. Dan’s professors had fully endorsed his short story collection, they wrote blurbs, and made their support clear to the prize committee. After the poor sales and shaky reviews they more than just hinted that his next book needs to garner critical attention. And that if he can finish it, and if it is well received, there is the possibility of a teaching position at his alma mater. He took the prize money and went abroad to try and finish a novel. Mostly, he wants to believe he deserves all of this, that he’s earned it.
He looks around the room disappointedly. There is a knock at the door.
It’s the bellboy, personally escorting his room service. Dan’s amused. He’d tipped too well when they arrived at the hotel. The bellboy is checking how deep the well goes.
“Señor, here is your Sangria and bread!” Dan puts his index finger to his lips to quiet the young man down. He points to the bedroom as he leads them in.
“Señor, my apologies.” The bellboy says and glances at the laptop, notebook and pencils.
“You are a writer Señor?”
“Usually,” Dan replies shortly.
“Usually, Señor?” The repeated sound of Señor is beginning to taste like a tequila hangover.
“Yes, but I’m having difficulty writing.”
The bellboy listens with a concentrated look. Dan wonders if priests don’t make the same expression when they hear confession.
“I’ve been told writers just tell people’s secrets. That they change names and places and a story is born.”
The bellboy hastily pours the sangria in a tall chilled glass and heads for the door.
Dan almost lets him. What nugget of inspiration could he mine from this bellboy’s obtuse opinion of writers?
“Wait! Come and sit down. Let me hear something about this island.”
“Really Señor, I couldn’t. There is so much for a bellboy to do in a hotel such as this. Any opportunity missed…” He rubs his gloved fingers together absentmindedly at his sides.
So Dan pulls a ten from his linen shorts and tips the bellboy. Smiling cheerfully, the bellboy pours himself a half glass of sangria and begins to describe in detail the Battle of Cadiz.
“First Señor, what you must understand about my people is…”
The bellboy explains that the island is the oldest city in Spain, and probably in all of Europe. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and ultimately the Moors had ruled it at one time or another.
“Then of course the English came, those barbarians, they would attack any patch of land with a few buildings on it.” The bellboy looks to Dan for agreement, and he nods thoughtfully.
The bellboy speaks of patriotic peasants and farmers who took arms and formed a militia for Don Francisco del Castillo, the Marquis. Someone always rose from the most mundane avenues of life to defend the little island. Dan listens intently to this because the bellboy is energetic. His charm alone has Dan inspired, so he listens and tries to record every detail.
The porter who pushed the cart in stands by it transfixed. He can’t be older than fifteen but he’s thoroughly engaged. If not by the story then by the way the bellboy tells it. And when the bellboy comes to the final campaign, when the English were finally pushed back he ends his discourse with these thundering words:
“And that Señor is only a fraction of what there is to know about Cadiz!”
“Here you go.” Dan tips him, fills a glass of Sangria and starts eating a piece of buttered bread. He nods goodbye to the porter.
Dan dresses and is ready to go. He grabs his old canvas bag off the floor. A thought nags at him. Should he break it off? He cares for Jessica, but that is what complicates things. He needs time and space to write, but relationships demand time. He doesn’t want to try and write in spite of her. He can’t be the hermit novelist he’s supposed to be when he’s with her. A hot breeze creeps through the open balcony. It’s humid outside. Dan steps onto the balcony and sees the sun dropping. A dark growth of rain clouds approaches and the sky looks like a strange Janus mask over the ocean. He’s sweating, but he hadn’t realized until now.
A soft rumble of thunder startles him. He grabs his notebook. The letter is short but to the point:
We need to talk. I don’t know if this relationship is what I need right now.
I’ll be back late.
One last look around then he stuffs the notebook and some pencils in his bag and runs out.
The lobby is packed. People are escaping the heat, coming in for dinner, returning from the beach. Dan spots the bellboy directing traffic and hustling tips. He signals him over.
“When do you get off work?” Dan asks.
“I am working a double shift today, Señor. Why, do you need a guide?”
“You read my mind.”
“I’m sorry, perhaps tomorrow?”
“No, I’m leaving tomorrow.” Dan replies.
“Go by yourself Señor. How is your Spanish?”
“Dos cervesas, por favor. Donde esta el Hotel Madrigal?”
“Perfecto, Señor!” The bellboy laughs.
A young man walks up and speaks to the bellboy in Spanish. The bellboy puts a hand on his shoulder and Dan notices he is speaking sternly.
“This is my cousin, he just finished his shift, so he will accompany you into the heart of the city on the public bus. See the sights. Enjoy yourself.” The bellboy says excitedly.
The bus is full of people in hotel and security guard uniforms. Little old ladies sit with their grandchildren. Young people laugh and chat in Spanish. The bus stops just as he was growing accustomed to the hum. The bellboy’s cousin motions to him, and they jump off. They are in a small plaza, he opens his arms wide in a “here it is” gesture. Then he turns and walks away. Dan doesn’t try to stop him. Instead he looks around at the narrow streets and the old buildings. It’s dark now and very humid. The storm clouds are almost over the island; sporadic flashes of lightning illuminate the sky flickering like an unreliable light bulb. Dan sees bars, cafes, and restaurants in every direction. He walks out of the plaza, down the narrowest street he’s ever seen, in search of the coldest beer he can find.
Every time he tries to stop for a beer some famous statue or ancient church grabs his attention. The cobblestone streets are comically narrow and Dan feels hemmed in, but they always open into another small plaza. Dan wonders how old the bricks are and how many plazas there are on the island. He studies them and makes mental notes so he can describe them later.
He wonders how old stuff like this endures. This old-world refuses to die, like so much old literature that never goes out of print. He questions what he’s really doing on the island to begin with. Place is a writer’s invention. This isn’t the 1920’s or 30’s when writers travelled around for inspiration. Having the support of published faculty and prize committees is the new Paris.
His shirt is damp with sweat. Crowds of people out for a good time try to get past him. He apologizes and they laugh at him the way denizens laugh at tourists. The streets are lively now and the bars, cafes, and restaurants full of music, laughter and talking. But Dan doesn’t want to be surrounded by any of that. He wants a quiet place to write some things down, so he walks for a bit, an itch caught in his throat and he tries to cough it out.
He needs a cold beer. The street opens into a tiny square the size of a living room. A dark one-story building grabs his attention. The front door leans open but no noise comes from it, only a faint light. Above the door the sign reads, El Vigilante. There’s a cop car parked on the side, so he takes a chance and walks in. It’s dark inside but cool and comfortable. He can make out silhouettes at tables and unlit corners. He goes to the bar. Next to him sit a shot glass and a bottle of clear liquor. Dan asks the bartender for a beer. He’s grateful for how cold it is and drinks it one gulp.
“Uno mas.” Dan says.
“Bueno.” The bartender replies.
Dan drinks half of it down, belches loudly, and sucks down the rest of it. The bartender brings him another.
He takes out one of his notebooks and begins writing. The light’s bad but the beer makes him feel good and refreshed. A policeman sits down next to him, pours a shot of the liquor, and passes it to Dan.
“A su gusto.” The policeman says.
“Es Americano.” The bartender replies.
“Oh! I can exercise my English!” The policeman exclaims.
“You mean practice.” Dan replies.
“Yes, let’s practice my English. Hahahahahha.” His speech is slurred and Dan realizes he is gently swaying. He isn’t gone yet, but a few more shots and his night will be over soon enough.
“It’s very dark in here.” Dan says, looking over his shoulder.
The policeman puts his arm around Dan.
“No worry. This bar is only police. Everybody here, police.” He says, lifting the shot glass to Dan’s mouth. “Too much beer, and too much pee-pee.” The policeman and the bartender laugh.
Dan swallows the drink quickly; it’s sweet and burns a little bit, tastes like licorice. The policeman grabs Dan’s notebook.
“Ah, you are a Poeta?” He asks.“No, a writer.”
“Is the same thing, Poeta?” The policeman reads through it and frowns a bit. “You are writing about Cadiz” He asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“What is your book about?” The policeman asks.
“A lot of things.” Dan pours himself two more shots.
The policeman frowns again.
“Poeta, what do you know? Are you in love? What do you love?”
Dan has another shot then stares the policeman in the face.
“I’m not sure.”
“Ay no, Poeta. You are supposed to be full of passion! You should know more than ‘I not sure.’ Eh?” He mocks Dan’s voice. “Why you write, eh?”
“I’m trying to get a teaching job.”
“Oh, to be a big profesor? At la Universidad?”
The policeman’s face becomes sad. He looks at his own face in the mirror behind the bar. Dan notices his eyes water a bit but his expression becomes hard. He looks every bit the cop now.
“Why?” The policeman asks, the jovialness gone from his voice.
“I,” Dan stops and doesn’t repeat ‘I’m not sure.’ “Security, stability, respectability, success and on and on.” He says.
“You want to be instrument. Uh, instrumento del systema!” The policeman shouts.
“An instrument of the system?”
“I am instrumento del systema. I am the law. I keep the people in the line of the systema.” He takes out his gun. “Out of line, boom!” He exclaims.
Dan wants to jump back but hesitates. He read somewhere that if you move suddenly in the presence of a gun the person holding it might flinch and accidentally shoot you. The bartender comes over nonchalantly.
“Vamos Pedro. Guarda el arma.” The bartender says.
The policeman puts his gun away. He reaches over and places his hand on Dan’s forearm.
“The system make us hard. It make us cruel, Poeta.” He begins to whimper. “You want power? To say “you are smart” and ‘you are not smart.’ Is this it?” He grabs the bottle and takes a long swig. “I have seen so many lose in this game, Poeta. The power goes here.” He points to his head. “You have permission yes, to be hard and cruel, and to hurt. You want this? To be famous and to have power?” He pours Dan a shot.
The bartender brings over another glass. The policeman and Dan sit quietly and drink in rapid succession. Drink after drink Dan feels himself falling into the bottle. The lower the liquor goes the farther he sinks into the ground.
“I don’t know what I want!” Dan yells. “I don’t know.”
Dan slurs his speech, and the room starts slowly spinning. Thunder echoes through the door from outside followed by the sound of rain like rice falling on the ground. The policeman lets out a loud laugh as the tears stream down Dan’s face. Dan begins to laugh and cry unsure of which emotion he wants to give into.
“You want to live, Poeta, to live. Sometimes the mistake we make stay with us a little time. But the mistake we no make never leave us.” The policeman slides off the barstool, adjusts his belt and pants. He pours the last two shots of the second bottle. “Let’s come on.” He says.
“What?” Dan asks.
“Let’s come on. I know a party, Poeta. You need a party.”
He grabs Dan’s notebook, stuffs it in Dan’s bag, and drags him out of the bar.
“Ciao, Pedro. Ciao Poeta.” The bartender sneers with a wave of his hand.
A steady rain falls and while the policeman fidgets with the car door Dan lays his head on the bonnet. The cold rain feels good on his head and he’s sweating, and feels like his chest is on fire. But the rain stops abruptly. By the time he gets into the car the humidity returns and his wet tee shirt is the only thing keeping him cool. Lightning flashes across the purple sky and thunder cracks the muggy night. The policeman reaches over and starts the car. Dan sees the steering wheel between his legs and jumps upright.
“Vamos, Poeta. You drive. Me boracho.”
Dan swerves up and around the narrow streets following the policeman’s directions as best as he can. They go down a street and at the end of it Dan sees that the ocean isn’t too far away. There’s a layer of clouds in the foreground, over the sea, but just beyond it is colorful starry sky.
“Here! Aqui!” The policeman yells.
They stop in front of an old house squeezed between even older buildings. It has the look of an antique church. The doors are shut but the sounds of women laughing, and of music, are like a warm hand pulling you out of the cold. When they walk in a few people shout, Pedro! The policeman whistles very loudly through two fingers and announces:
“This is my friend. El es un Poeta Americano!” The policeman holds up Dan’s hand like he’s just won a boxing match. “Have fun, eh? I’ll be back. Maybe.”
A round woman grabs the policeman by the hand and drags him to a circular dance floor in the center of the room. All around it are little tables where men and women sit having conversations, and smoking cigarettes. The dance floor is full and loud. Dan makes his way to the bar, his head starting to clear. People pat him on the back, and occasionally someone says “Hola, Poeta.”
“Un aguardiente por favor.” Dan says.
The bartender gives him a glass twice as big as the one he had at El Vigiliante. He cups it in his hands, savors the first taste, and lets out a soft moan. Almost immediately he thinks of Jessica. He wonders if she read the letter. Has she left the hotel? Is she at the airport? Oh God, is she waiting for me? He drinks again and finishes it. He signals the bartender. This time she fills the cup and some of it spills over onto the bar. She smiles, and hustles back to other customers. Dan turns around to observe the scene. The place is packed. There’s no sign of the policeman on the dance floor. Couples huddle together here and there, whispering, dancing, or kissing.
A voluptuous redhead touches his face. Her hand is warm. It is a big hand, yet slender. Her eyes are hazel, almost green, and she’s voluptuous and beautiful.
“You came with Pedro, right?” She asks.
“The policeman. Yes.” Dan replies.
She lets out a short laugh.
“Pedro is not a policeman. He’s an armed security guard. The police here are very serious people.” She leads him by the arm to a table in a dark corner of the room.
“I’ve known many poetas, but you seem different. There’s no mischief in your eyes and no longing.” She lights a cigar. There’s a drink in front of her. It looks like whiskey or scotch.
“I guess I just don’t know what I want.”
A man walks over and grabs her by the hand.
“Con su permiso, Poeta.” The man says, as he whisks her to the dance floor.
Dan turns to watch her walk away.
“Dance, dance, dance, baby.”
The voice comes from an adjacent table, a woman with jet-black curly hair and a complexion like oatmeal, sitting and drinking tequila. She is also voluptuous, dressed in black, and a notebook and pens lie on her table. Dan walks over to her and sits down.
“You know she’s right.” The woman says in flawless English.
“Listen, I’m not a poet. I’m a writer.” Dan replies.
“Is that what your body tells you?”
“Don’t be sorry, be in the moment.” The woman says. “The body, your body, the bodies of the people around you, what do they say to you? What do you feel? Do you ever stop and feel?”
Dan tries to down his very large cup of aguardiente but can’t. His head is spinning again.
“I guess I’ve never really thought about it.” He’s sweating profusely.
“I’m sorry.” Dan replies.
“Do you use your eyes to see or to assume?” Dan turns red. “Every poem needs a body in
it doing something, feeling something, and so does every good book. Doesn’t every character need, want, desire, lust, hate, celebrate and suffer? Doesn’t every great poet?” She laughs wildly. “Aren’t you suffering in all that doubt and dizziness?” She drains her glass, holds it up, and a bartender appears immediately to fill it.
“Tell me, Poeta. What does your body tell you about me?” She scratches the stubble on his face, grabs the back of his head and buries his nose into her neck. “What does it tell you about my perfume, my breath?”
“I…I don’t know…” Dan sits motionless, his head spinning with her words, and aguardiente. “I’m sorry, I need some air.” He runs out of the house.
“Don’t be sorry!” The woman yells after him. “Be a poet!”
Dan runs outside, the urge to vomit welling up inside him. He sees an alley a few buildings away and runs in. He vomits loudly and embarrassingly followed by deep chest rattling coughs. Then it starts pouring rain. He opens his mouth and lets the rain fall in, he gargles repeatedly and spits. The rain is cool and he stands there rubbing it on his face, hair and chest. His head is pounding. As he steps out of the alley he sees people running for cover under awnings, and in the small vestibules of the houses on the street. Mostly, they’re young couples, laughing, hugging and kissing in the rain.
‘Time for a cab.’ He thinks.
Dan slowly walks down the hill toward a small lively square. There’s an outdoor bar with music playing and people drinking and slow dancing. The scene makes his brain tingle. It feels like dozens of fingers are tickling his brain and his stomach settles, and his head feels heavy but stops pounding. Again he thinks of Jessica and of the book deal he should be ecstatic about. But he suspects he doesn’t deserve the praise, the book deal, or any of it. It’s the system. Pedro is right.
The streets are crowded. Dan scans the square for a cab but sees nothing. He stops and leans against a short stone building, the cacophony of the crowd luring him into a trance. Young couples kiss and walk holding each other tightly. Their clothes wet from the rain so that he can easily imagine them naked. And what he wants for them is a dark quiet room to make love in. Somewhere hot, with only the sparse wind of this humid rainy night, coming off the ocean, through a small window. The sounds they’d make, the moaning, the pants of deep satisfaction competing with a small and antiquated fan. Dan looks up at the stars. They blink in spite of that ridiculous cluster of cotton shaped clouds that’s lingered all night. On the horizon he sees the navy and purple of night becoming morning’s pale blue. And when he lowers his gaze back to the street he sees the bellboy. There he is across the street running into a dark vestibule with a beautiful girl. They kiss as if to keep the other person’s lungs filled with oxygen and just when it seems they’ll burst, the bus boy drops to his knees, raises her skirt, feverishly tugs at what must be her underwear, and disappears into the darkness of her exposed thighs. “What does your body tell you, Poeta?” The words creep up his throat with the bile he vomited. He desperately wants to listen to his body, to know what it was saying. ‘I just want to know.’ Dan thinks.
He manages to walk another half a block and sits at the foot of a statue in the plaza center. The ocean isn’t far away. He can hear waves and sea gulls are hovering in the sky. Just as he decides to fall asleep there he hears the customary greeting he’s been hearing all night.
“Señor?” The bellboy asks. “Yes! You’ve had a very good night, no?”
“A little too good. Can you help me get a cab?”
“Oh no, Señor, better. Come with me.” He helps Dan up.
“Please, call me Dan.”
“Ok, Señor Dan.” The bellboy replies.
They walk a block the bellboy’s motó. The smell of the sea invades the air and the waves crash like cymbals. They ride off, haltingly at first, and pick up speed gradually.
“Is the ocean near by?” Dan asks.
“Yes.” The bellboy replies.
“Can we go there?” Dan asks. “And please, what’s your name?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t ask sooner.” Dan replies, and Arturo the bellboy smiles.
The closer they get to the ocean, the more multi colored shanties Dan sees. They almost remind him of the Caribbean, its pastel colored, tin metal roofs, but they more closely resemble full houses than the little shacks he’s seen on vacation with his parents, in places like the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.
Small and modest, the houses are quiet, as if they, like the people in them, sleep. The sun rises slowly over the pinkish blue and orange sky. The wind teases between whipping and caressing. And the ocean, reaching greedily at the shoreline calls to Dan.
They dismount and Dan walks as close to the ocean as possible without getting his bag wet. There, he collapses on the ground, pulls his notebook and writes as if he’s stabbing the paper.
“Let me know when you are ready.” Arturo says taking off his clothes then jumping in the water and swimming far out, so that Dan can barely make out his figure in the waves.
Dan fills countless pages before he looks up again. He thinks of Jessica. He thinks about how he is always thinking he’s a writer and never believing it. He wants to be certain what his body is telling him. He wants to be absolutely sure but he is thinking about it instead of feeling it. And his head hurts but more than that his heart hurts because somewhere in the deepest part of him he knows he’ll never write his novel. Not like this. The story he wants to tell is a different one. Not of old cities but about discovering new feelings. There’s so much to feel, so much more. He’s barely feeling at all, and he weeps right there in the sand. The tears and the sobbing make him ashamed because he can’t stop it. He slams the notebook down and out falls a loose-leaf sheet of paper. He opens it and realizes it’s the letter he wrote Jessica. In his hurry he forgot to leave it on the table. He rips it into tiny pieces and lets the wind take it. The wind that’s been building with the dawn, blowing sand in his eyes.
Dan stands, takes all of his clothes off and rushes into the ocean. His head and lungs pounding but he dives in and swims further and further out. The bellboy calls to him. Dan waves, and about fifty feet from him stops for a moment and waves again, he takes a deep breath, so deep his throat hurts, and goes down. With all his strength he swims into the dark cold waters. He feels the dark and wants to go deeper, not farther, but deeper, deeper than anyone or anything he knows. A kind of frenzy and madness overtakes him and Dan decides that if there is a bottom, he wants to feel the bottom and nothing else. He swims and swims until all he feels is darkness, until the water becomes cold and his skin gooses. He kicks his arms and legs until his head and chest scream for mercy, and when he looks up he sees Arturo far away, waving his arms and legs, and beyond Arturo, light.
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