We met at a nightclub called Doblón on March 11, fewer than 12 hours after an international terrorist organization bombed four train stations in Madrid. That afternoon we had each joined thousands of Spanish protestors in the plazas with white-painted palms raising their hands in uproar and then silence, chanting and then falling to their knees asking for an end to violence. Apparently while I videotaped the protests with excited notions of making a documentary about it, he walked around the University district holding up a sign that read “Estados Unidos está con vosotros” (The U.S. is with you) and received waves of applause.
That’s how it always was with us: I was concerned with the future and the long-term consequences of my actions, while Nathan did what he felt like doing in any given moment. With respect to the protests I admired his approach; in other matters I just wanted to slap him for his inconsistency. Studying abroad in a country where dancing with strangers on the glistening narrow streets until 7 a.m. is normal, secretly I longed for a sort of stability that Nathan didn’t seem to offer—more specifically, I wanted to hear words like “I only want to dance with you, Julie, always.” The more time we spent together as amigos, the more I began to suspect that always is a word as nonexistent as wireless networks at the beach—then again, with time one never knows.
At Doblón when he jolted his hand towards me and said, “You’re American too, right? I’m Nathan,” I thought he looked like the sort of slightly-handsome, slightly nerdy type of wavy-haired guy with glasses whom I would have pined for in high school; the type who prioritized baseball and point-and-explode video games over spending time with any “unpopular” girl like me. But now I was both out of high school and out of the United States, and in Sevilla Nathan and I were far removed from any social context in which we would have been judged as popular or not among other Americans. By default we were unpopular among Spaniards our own age—no one likes a stuttering fool who’s only sticking around for nine months and, in Nathan’s case, no one likes a stuttering fool who came to Spain to teach another country’s imperialistic language (that is, English) for four months.
I told Nathan how my father, whom I hadn’t spoken to in two months and who hadn’t even “had time” to see me during winter break before I flew out of Chicago O’Hare, had called my European cellphone after the news of the Madrid bombings hit the States and demanded that I pack my bags immediately.
“You’ve got political instability over there, they only recently came out of a civil war!” my father said over a surprisingly crystal-clear telephone connection. “Your mother and I talked and feel that you should return home as soon as possible.”
I didn’t tell Nathan how much this call infuriated me—apparently my father was living in 1944, not 2004—but did make it clear that I needed to come up with a convincing counter-argument to the charge that the entire Spanish territory had become to dangerous to inhabit.
“Tell your parents that you’re going to study in Israel instead, and they’ll let you stay in Spain,” Nathan said.
I laughed. “Hah, because obviously Israel is much less safe than Spain right now, right? So what if I want to go to Israel one day?”
“Say, ‘Mom, Dad, you were right, Israel is too dangerous. I’m going to Iraq.’”
Besides our shared Jewish-American city-kid backgrounds (he was from Boston, I from Chicago) and desire to learn Spanish, my extensive iTunes music collection seemed to constitute the commonality that drew Nathan to my terrace night after night.
“Already you have a boyfriend!” my roommate Christina whispered the second night Nathan came over to our shared apartment.
“Oh, we’re just friends,” I said blushing. Of course I found Nathan attractive, and did hope he would become my boyfriend, but for fear of jinxing such prospects I did not admit my thoughts.
“Friends? Impossible! All men want is sex!”
Tall and slender bronze-skinned Christina, born to an Italian father and a Dutch mother, was studying to become a professional interpreter, and her ability to switch between languages was incredible. Before coming to Sevilla she knew Dutch, French, English, and Italian fluently, and when she first introduced herself to me in Spanish my jaw dropped open in amazement: having never been to Spain before, she already spoke like a true Spaniard! Her English, while she sometimes had to search for complicated words, also sounds perfect, though she wished she could “sound more American.”
But despite minor linguistic challenges, the more Nathan came over, the more I wondered if he and Christina were communicating better than he and I. Christina, the same Christina who hadn’t believed in “just friends,” would periodically pull up a plastic chair between us on the terrace and argue with Nathan about everything from politics to popcorn flavors. Facing them, I sat quietly, my eyes bouncing back and forth as if observing a tennis match. Christina slammed her delicate nail-polished fist on the card table, Nathan waved his hands in nonsensical motions. Christina’s deep brown eyes popped out of her green-lined lashes, Nathan’s bushy eyebrows formed a V above his pointed nose.
No one asked what I thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Darfur crisis, or Howard Zinn. In the interim I poured them each a glass of sangria.
“So you are here teaching English until June?” Christina asked him one night.
“Yeah, well, it’s funny, I’m going home to New York for Passover and I’m thinking about just staying there.”
Sangria almost came out of my nose. The night before he told me he would bring me back his favorite Rolling Stones album.
“So your teaching position is ending soon?”
“Actually, I quit two days ago.”
“Really?” I interjected with feigned calmness. He had told me work was just fine.
“Yeah, you know, it was only 8 hours a week, 10 euros per hour. So besides a few Spanish classes I’ve been taking, I really don’t have much reason to stay.”
Was that a challenge to me? To Christina? I couldn’t decide whether I should feel sad that I would have to spend the last two months in Spain without him, jealous that he might like Christina better than me, or relieved that he might never return and I wouldn’t have to continue wondering why he showed no interest in me as a girlfriend.
Rather than dwell on such complications, I took a short trip to Valencia with Christina to witness the famous festival of Las Fallas. Each year local artists work day and night on huge, elaborate paper-maché and wood sculptures called fallas with different social and political themes, and on the week of Las Fallas the sculptures (ranging from 7-feet to about 72-feet high) are displayed on all of the streets. At midnight on the last night of the festival, each of the hundred sculptures, except the winner, is burned to the ground. Among two million people, Christina and I found ourselves edging our way to the front of the central plaza to watch the burning of a 20-meter caricature of Pedro Almódovar and two other Spanish directors trying to soar in a spaceship above American movie icons. The cremation didn’t last more than 20 minutes, but watching that intricately-crafted tower inflame and then fall to the ground, piece by piece, made me wonder about this idea of renewal, this strange way of attaining a fresh start for the spring. Is that what we are meant to do—work so hard to make something look perfect, and then destroy it so we can make something else? Does destruction necessarily lead to renewal?
As soon as I came back to Sevilla Nathan invited me, invited just me, over to his apartment to showcase his famous cooking. But when he opened the door he seemed different, distorted in appearance and behavior. It was almost as though I had willed him to change so that I would no longer lament that our friendship was going nowhere. During our awkward conversation over dinner, I decided would have much preferred the discarded chicken noodle soup in the dog’s bowl to what Nathan had tried to serve me.
“Isn’t it good?” he said, helping himself to a second bowl of his rice and mushroom dish and gobbling a spoonful of the creamy slop. “This is definitely one of the best things I make.”
That night Christina and I, in a giggling fit of girlish gossip, compiled list of all of Nathan’s good and bad qualities and determined that he was, over all, the parody of the perfect boyfriend. He seemed incredibly smart, but couldn’t carry on a decent conversation. He thought he was funny, but he really wasn’t. He loved to cook and relished his own cuisine, but his mushroom risotto tasted like warm vomit. He was Jewish, but took dietary laws to a hypocritical extreme, using only plastic plates and utensils in his shared apartment but accepting whatever dishes and forks restaurants present him. He wrote and published short stories, but the grammar, content, and style of the sample he showed me reminded me of something a fourth grader would conjure up. He would be attractive if there weren’t something slightly bloated about his face, with too-round glasses and too big of a smile. If I could have contributed my own falla to Valencia’s annual ritual, it would have been a paper-maché sculpture of Nathan grinning too widely, holding a plastic plate of moldy rice in one hand and a notebook of scribbles in the other, with the caption “The Date from Hell.” It would have been the perfect addition to the mass cremation of all the caricatures of the past year, expunging the bad to make way for the good.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) came up faster than I could have imagined, and before we could decide any more about Nathan, it was decided for us that he would return to Boston. On the night before his flight, he came over listen to music and chat, and when midnight rolled around I alone walked him down the stairwell, down five flights of winding marble steps illuminated for only 20 seconds after the switch is pushed, so the final levels were descended in complete darkness.
When we reached the door, he motioned to hug me, but instead pushed his mouth on mine and made awkward sucking movements.
I politely pulled away when I realized that this moment to which many boy-girl relationships develop didn’t feel very beautiful at all. If only he had given this moment some semblance of importance, I could have showed him how to seal it with a perfect kiss, if only he’d expressed that “Leaving on a Jet Plane” sense of urgency of bittersweet goodbyes. I wanted to hear Chantal Kreviazuk singing “So kiss me and smile for me / Tell me that you’ll wait for me / Hold me like you’ll never let me go…”
“Cool?” he asked, with a wide-eyed smile.
Sighing silently, I studied his face for a few seconds so that I would always remember the only person to whom I would ever say goodbye with one obscene yet strangely-appropriate word: “Cool.”
The falla was burning down to its last embers, extinguishing itself with the hush of a wooden door closing, closing, latching, closed.