Mojitos, Madrid, Wilco, Ávila, heart murmurs, tapas, kisses, Palacio Real, Khaleesi, Airbnb, libertad & Sevilla.
Mojitos, Madrid, Wilco, Ávila, heart murmurs, tapas, kisses, Palacio Real, Khaleesi, Airbnb, libertad & Sevilla.
John F. Kennedy Airport
I spent sixty-six dollars on mojitos and ten dollars on a beer for the redhead I decided would be my best friend this semester. It makes sense. I met him freshman year and we met again last spring, climbing roofs and getting yelled at during a day party. He tried to help me down, but my body was too heavy for him to really do much. I jumped.
We board the plane and I sit between the two boys who will become my sun and moon. (My Sun and Stars, the Khaleesi would say.) Skipper looks at me and smiles. We are more than excited, though some of us show it more than others.
I turn to the redhead and marvel at our game, “language mastery.”
“Wanna learn Japanese?” I ask.
“Let’s learn Japanese in Spanish,” he says. I spend the rest of the flight trying not to fall asleep on his shoulder, because this semester is my time and wouldn’t falling in love again be the worst? So I hardly sleep at all. Instead, I watch Frozen on my tiny television screen. One time, he falls asleep so close to my shoulder that I can feel his breath on my jawbone.
The redhead owes me ten bucks.
When we land in Madrid, I connect to the free Wi-Fi and receive a message about our host: He looks like Ben Affleck. I share it with the fifteen wide-eyed American students standing around me. We search for our bags, then stare at Miguel, the “Ben Affleck” impersonator. Vanessa cocks her head. “Maybe if you squint…?” she says.
We sleep in the bus. We stare at the yellow-green landscape, which is thirsty from a lack of winter rain. I think: this is not what I thought it would be.
Yet I miss nothing, nobody.
We are going on a hike and I am, once again, drunk. I think the rest of the group thinks this is a pattern of mine. (I never proved them wrong.) To be fair, it was part of a plan all of us had to get drunk at the top of La Piedra. I just beat them to it.
The redhead and I leave them behind. We kissed last night, really kissed, all heat and movement on a dance floor we’ll soon call “Wednesday night.” I pulled away from him and said, “This can’t be weird, though, okay?” But I pushed my lips against his before he could answer.
THE REDHEAD AND I LEAVE THEM BEHIND. WE KISSED LAST NIGHT, REALLY KISSED, ALL HEAT AND MOVEMENT ON A DANCE FLOOR WE’LL SOON CALL “WEDNESDAY NIGHT.”
It is not weird. Until I see him waiting for me at the bus stop. He knows I’m drunk, but he is too polite to call me out. We sit awkwardly, the opposite of last night when his hands were in my hair and on my waist.
“I’m drunk,” I blurt out. Tom laughs: “I know.”
I resist the urge to nestle into his shoulder on the drive to La Piedra. We giggle and I know my face must be red. Am I sweating? Probably. I spent too long staring at his eyes, which are deep pools of something dark and shiny. They make me think there is something deep and dark inside his being, too.
When we get to the top, I feel like flying. “This!” is all I can say. Tom is the only one who can hear me. He doesn’t respond. Maybe he is flying too.
This is the first time I see Tom laugh until he cries. James told a joke no one else heard, something about how damn big the Palacio Real is, how the kings and queens could never be sure what was in the place, sometimes stumbling over things: “Oh, look, a lava lamp!” Tom is nearly purple, his face redder than his hair.
We choose rooms at the hostel, falling seamlessly into a pattern that will stick: I am with Tom and Skipper and Vanessa. The other boys choose this room as well, and Emily slides in next to Ness. My bed is on the bottom, next to Tom’s. After the bar, he holds me through the night. I have a terrible habit lately of jerking as I fall asleep. My body does not trust itself. My mind does not trust my dreams. It will eventually fade away, but the first few months, Tom squeezes me tighter every time my body spasms.
When we wake up, it is no longer a secret that Tom and I were intertwined all night.
“Come on, you guys, it’s our last day,” someone says. Someone else throws a pillow; Tom snuggles into me. “Five more minutes.”
“Leave them alone,” Ian mutters, winking at me.
I have a terrible habit lately of jerking as I fall asleep. My body does not trust itself. My mind does not trust my dreams.
We split up because the girls want to go shopping and I do not understand how much you can buy when you’re supposed to be saving for four months of perpetual travel. I am happier, though, because Tom and Skipper wander Parque Retiro with me. I rest my head on Tom’s crisscrossed legs and close my eyes. We’re talking about something that doesn’t matter. My eyes shut. My senses are heightened. I can smell Spanish flowers. I can taste last night’s tequila and limes.
“You guys want to go?” Skipper asks. He checks his watch for the fifteenth time. I stand and walk. I do not wait. I drag my fingers through the garden, slide petals between my fingers and graze metal structures in the path. I breathe. I am happy. This is a moment I will miss.
“We should probably go,” Skipper says when I return. We have a train to miss at 4:30, and he is anxious. I sit down next to Tom, place my head on his shoulder. It is a bold move because we are sober. We sit like that for a moment. Then he moves his arm around me, invites me in.
“Five more minutes,” he says.
I will never see Tom so happy as when he is listening to Wilco play “Hummingbird” live in a rainforest-themed club. We were soaked from the rain. His lips were pink from my lipstick. His eyes attached to Jeff Tweedy. His arms were around Vanessa, Skipper, James and me. I watch his face light up. This is the first time I know I am going to fall in love. Maybe that will be easier to admit when I’ve lost him. Maybe it is harder to accept love when it is simple.
My mom has a funny way of lying to me when I know she’s telling the truth. Instead of crying, she raises her voice louder and louder until my brothers and I aren’t sure if she’s talking to us or the God she swears she loves. Instead of “sorry,” she darts around the words “I love you” and dives into “but….”
My mother tells me I feel things more deeply than other people. The first time she told me this, she had her hand pressed against her forehead. She told me I would surely fail if I didn’t learn to compartmentalize. “Stop. Wallowing,” she said, slouched against the doorframe. It was as if my weakness drained her. The last time was after I watched my grandfather redefine “love” with his hands all over his new girlfriend. My grandmother had died just six months earlier. I fell head over heels for a bottle of Merlot.
My mother was the first to discover my heart murmur. I have a pin-sized hole between my heart chambers. It makes me wonder if my sleep spasms are my heart skipping. I now have annual echocardiograms. I live with restrictions on scuba diving.
My mother tells me I feel things more deeply than other people. She told me I would surely fail if I didn’t learn to compartmentalize. “Stop. Wallowing,” she said, slouched against the doorframe.
Last summer, when she found birth control pills in my suitcase, she screamed and cried and told me how I’d disappointed her. I could not see how.
“Yes,” I said, “it is mine.” And she sobbed to my father about how they had raised their daughter “wrong,” how I was hell-bound for unhappiness because none of my relationships meant anything if they were built on the foundation of physical affection.
You can see why I did not want to introduce her to Tom when she and my grandmother flew to Spain to visit.
He is frustrated when I tell him she will know him as “my friend.”
“She won’t understand,” I tell him. “She’ll try to have The Talk with me, tell me that you’re not worth it, that we’re not worth it…”
“She will not,” he says adamantly.
“She will,” I say. “Please, Tom, just be my friend this week.”
“But Annie,” he replies, “I’m not your friend.”
When my mother and grandmother arrive, I tell them and cry.
“Did you like Tom?” I ask. My mother shrugs.
“I don’t really know him, Annie,” she replies. Sensing something deeper, I prod further, and she resists: “We’re on a train, Annie. Your grandmother is right there.”
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask, pushing harder.
“What’s so special about this one?” she counters. I turn my head sharply and stare out the window. We are traveling home from Ávila. It is another city with a view, but this one is littered with hollow churches and statues of Saint Teresa and an eerie quiet that makes me anxious to leave.
“He treats me better than anyone else,” I answer, finally, wondering if this is enough. Now it is her turn to be silent, for a moment, before she says, “Okay.”
The last thing she says to me before we arrive back is, “You know, if you choose to sin, you’re taking his soul down with you.”
Later, we are at tapas with the whole team. My mother, grandmother and I have come from drinking with my host parents, where my grandmother slips into long-forgotten Spanish and I am forced to translate back and forth between my two families. Somewhere in between, my mother manages to make biting comments about Tom and me, about me not studying enough, about me not having an internship secured for the summer, about a million things. When we reach tapas, I am drained. Tom arrives a few minutes later and sits across the table. Skipper approaches my mother immediately.
I am claustrophobic again, a feeling I thought had evaporated and yet here it lands, crouching between my shoulder blades and pinching my lungs.
I disappear inside the bar—Enebro, the one with the owner I know. I wait at the bar with Dani, the bartender, who gives me a tinto de verano. Tom follows.
“What are you doing in here?” he asks. I cry into his shoulder, smearing my mascara on his button-down shirt.
“She’s so hard on me sometimes,” I whisper. He kisses the top of my head, brings me closer to him.
He says, “ I know.”
He says, “We never have to go back out there if you don’t want to.” I grab at his shirt, take fistfuls like a child.
“Never?” I ask. He kisses me again. I taste salt between our lips.
“Never,” he says.
“Don’t worry, my love,” he says. “No te preocupes, mi amor.”
He has picked up a habit of slipping Spanish phrases into sentences, particularly when comforting me. “No te preocupes,” he says: don’t you worry. “Todo saldrá bien,” everything will be okay. “Lo que tú quieras,” whatever you want.
“Te quiero,” I love you.
“Te quiero,” I want you.
When I talk myself through our loss months from now, I will say over and over, “We’ll always have Sevilla,” but that is not even true. Our Sevillian Spring Break will disappear into the corner in my heart that cradles the places attached to people: Ringing Rocks with Brian, Peru with June, Cancun with Avery…Sevilla with Tom. Sevilla, it turns out, is his.
Tom and I once again take over the master bedroom, which has the only bathroom in the whole place. It is an interesting game we play: quiet when the “kids” are sleeping outside, loud when they leave. Naked when they won’t dare enter, grabbing at shirts and sheets when they knock loudly, apologetically—“Are you guys…uh…can we come in?”
Our Sevillian Spring Break will disappear into the corner in my heart that cradles the places attached to people: Ringing Rocks with Brian, Peru with June, Cancun with Avery.
Exhausted from the first week city-hopping in Italy, we do not leave our Airbnb until nighttime. We go for dinner in the city and the miraculous Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions held in the city center. Our friend Armando the Theologian is there as well (of course), and we meet his parents and find he is a direct mini-me of his father (although his parents’ accents are slightly less Cuban). My body retches at the scent of incense, so I have to stay a few paces away from the celebration. Tom stays back with me.
“I didn’t really want to hang with Mando anyway,” he says, but I catch him standing on his tiptoes to sneak a peek of the floats.
Walking around Sevilla, we are captivated by its unpretentious ease and sacred simplicity. It does not make a conspicuous effort to be anything more than a beautiful city in the middle of the most beautiful country in the world. It only exists, and it encourages those within its walls to do the same. Be. And we do. We are. We live as we wish to. We drink what we want and we are what we want. It is new, different, a perfect summary of Spanish libertad.
One night, I sit outside with Vanessa and over a few bottles of wine we manage to share our lives. We cry and hold each other and I tell her how I’m scared of losing everything I worked so hard to gain here.
“What if we go back and everything’s the same?” I ask. Vanessa, trying desperately to hold on to the boy she left behind, shakes her head emphatically.
“What if we go back and everything’s different?” she asks.
Sunday morning (or perhaps Saturday night), Tom and I play Easter Bunny. We bought little goodies for the others (including nips of alcohol for the “grown-up” Easter Bunny in all of us) and made a scavenger hunt full of clues. It was Tom’s idea.
“It’s something my mom does,” he says, shrugging, capturing my heart even more.
I wake up with a little handwritten note next to my head, signed “The Easter Bunny,” in Tom’s handwriting. It is a note I will lose somewhere in Sevilla, a permanent signature from him to me, with the real message unwritten: I swear I loved you, once, I swore our love would last.
It began to end in June. We had been back for a month, maybe more. I’d spent weekends with his family, he with mine. I’d traveled up to Boston, where he was working a demanding internship that might have led to a job in the finance industry (it didn’t). He did a lot of buying and selling of companies that we weren’t allowed to talk about. He came to New York, where I was quickly becoming disillusioned with the non-profit work to which I’d planned to devote my life. I was quickly falling out of love with my home there as well.
I’d like to say it was the distance that kicked our asses, but I think it was actually our over-eagerness to compensate for it. We saw each other every weekend for a little while (for a long while), and that was too much.
“I just want my freedom,” he says the night things spiral out of control.
He’d come to New York to go to a Mets game with his friends. He saw me in the morning, gave me a birthday present: a journal, a card, a turquoise necklace with “Adventurer” engraved on the back.
He’d come to New York to go to a Mets game with his friends. He saw me in the morning, gave me a birthday present: a journal, a card, a turquoise necklace with “Adventurer” engraved on the back. He left at noon, but he planned on staying with me that night. I text him later, asking how we are going to meet up. He invites me to hang out with him and his friends.
“You should come,” he says. “It will be easier that way.”
Later, when I am free, I text him again, trying to find him. He evades me and finally I ask, “Are we going to meet up or what?” And he tells me no, he’s going out to the bars with his friends—I cannot join, I am not 21 for 26 more hours—but he’ll “text [me] later to let [him] in.”
(“This isn’t Spain anymore,” he says later, sobbing in my bed. “You’re not the only one I want to hang out with. I have to be able to see my friends.”)
I tell him on the phone to go out if he wants to, but then to stay instead with his friend.
“I need my stuff,” he says. “My stuff is in your room.”
“You can get it now, or you can get it tomorrow morning,” I reply. “Doesn’t matter to me.”
“That would be at, like, 6 a.m.,” Tom says flatly.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I repeat, calmly. He is silent.
“I’ll come now,” he says.
We meet on a street corner halfway between where he was (on 6th) and where I was (on 10th). A taxi stops, and we ride back to my apartment on 31st and 9th. Inside the taxi, he erupts, spewing words at me that sting my skin, spit on fire, pausing only to apologize to the driver: “I’m sorry, sir, I just, I’m sorry.”
I do not register what he yells. Even though I’m (mostly) sober, I still won’t remember in the morning. All I can fathom is his voice, angry and strained, screaming at me (did he just curse?). I grow small in the seat, try to imagine Spain Tom doing this, and I can’t. Next to me a redhead is hurling anger at me carelessly, painfully. Todo saldrá bien, I think, staring straight ahead. It will all be okay.
In my room, he grabs his duffel bag, turns to look at me.
“Aren’t you going to ask me to stay?” he spits.
Somehow, we spiral into a discussion where he begins to tell me he’s worried his family doesn’t like me; he’s worried his friends don’t like me; he can’t be the guy who forgets all his friends because he has a girlfriend; he hates those guys.
“I need my freedom,” he repeats, and I am struck by the truth of this statement and yet the irony.
“We talk for maybe an hour a day, see each other some weekends,” I say halfheartedly. “You can’t get much more freedom and still be in a relationship.”
He begins to cry, rocks back and forth on my bed, and soon I am crying too. I do not understand how we have gotten here. The other weekend, the Fourth of July, I was mean about him going home first. I thought we were going to have more time together; was that too much pressure, did I hurt him too badly?
“What am I doing?” I keep repeating. “What part do I have in making you feel like this?”
He begins to talk about his internship, about how stressed he is. “I can’t travel this much, Annie, I can’t be in three different places on the weekends, I can’t do it.”
I do not mention our spring break (perhaps that is not fair), nor every weekend we had abroad (perhaps that is not fair), but instead hold his head in my lap and let him cry.
“Sometimes I lie to you just because I don’t want you to get mad at me,” he says, and I am at a loss. “I didn’t know,” is all I can say. My perfect world shatters at his feet, my image of a Spanish “us” that I did not know could be broken, my Tom, my “Tomás,” my whole world.
In the morning, he apologizes. “Do I need to change the way I love you?” I ask, and he swears no, that was not his intention, please don’t. I barely hear him, distracted by what I will later disregard: my own heart, not murmuring but screaming and breaking and begging to be set free.
The night before we end for good, I tell my mother I am going back on birth control—a brutal necessity, I’ve decided, because if not my words, they would be our insurance bills’, blaring in bold: Mirena, synonymous with Disappointment, Betrayal, LYING.
She does not take the news well, which surprises no one yet hurts me just the same. Luckily (I thought), I had cleared my breakdown with Tom first, asked yesterday, “Will you be free tomorrow? I’m going to need some support.” He said yes, but now that it is “tomorrow,” he cannot call; “I’m at a work event,” he texts me, “and then we’re going for drinks, but maybe later?” I do not respond.
“I really needed you tonight,” I say later, breaking the radio silence.
I know, baby, the text reads. I’m sorry.
“That’s not really enough,” I reply.
What do you want me to do, leave a work event to call you?
“Of course not.”
Then I don’t really know what you want.
“Look. I’m coming to Rhode Island this weekend; I surprised you in Boston last Wednesday. I’m bending my life around for you, and you can’t even be my boyfriend for an hour?”
Yeah, I guess I can’t.
I miss everything, everybody.
He calls me the next day to confirm it, but I already know.
“Hey,” he begins. “How are you?”
“Good,” I reply, carefully. “And you?”
“GoodIthinkweshouldbreakup,” in one breath.
“Okay,” I say.
I miss everything, everybody.
Before he goes to his house, he comes to mine. It is three weeks after we officially declared it “over,” and today is the first day the redhead texted me, perhaps to warn me of what is to come (him). I have been at school for a week, and I am enjoying (somewhat) my new status as Annie, Independent Woman. Grown-Up. I kept my unspoken promise to my host family to be who they think I am, and I am proud. It is the longest I have been single in college.
I lead him to my room, and he notes immediately that of all my pictures hanging on my walls, he is nowhere.
“Nice,” he says, nodding to where I hung a map with string connecting some key moments to the places where they happened. Sevilla is there. So is Amsterdam, Cinque Terre and some places he didn’t accompany me, like Budapest, Prague, Peru.
“Thanks,” I say. We stare at each other for a moment, launch into small-talk dialogue. I am struck by how little has really changed between us; how dare he leave this behind.
“Well,” he says when it appears we have run out of things to talk about. “I should get going.”
“Wait,” I say, take a deep breath to release what Vanessa and I rehearsed earlier. “I want to get some things on the table, you know, so we don’t make a fool of ourselves later, so we know exactly where we are headed, all that…”
“Okay,” he says and sits on the corner of my bed.
“I just…” I start, then breathe again. I did not cry when we first broke up and I will not cry today. He has no right to see how much he’s hurt me. “I don’t think I was treated very well this summer. But…that’s not how I’m going to remember this…thing. I want you to know, I—I want to thank you. You gave me the world; I mean, literally, look at everywhere we got to go. You were my adventure for four months and—and that last one, or two, or whatever…that’s not you. That’s not us. So…thank you, I guess. I’ll always, always treasure what you gave me.”
He looks at me, smiles sadly.
“Thank you,” he starts, shaking his head, staring at his hands. “You were my first real relationship, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better… This summer—I don’t think this summer was a fair representation of how awesome we really were… You were the greatest first love I could’ve asked for.” I look at him, I smile, I pretend it still makes sense for us to not be together, and then he opens his mouth again, closes it. Stares at his hands. Opens.
“And…I still love you,” Tom says. He looks up at me. “Forever.”
My voice has been stolen again. All I can do is crawl across the bed and hug him. Before I know it, he is kissing my neck, my cheek; we are kissing, twice, gently. The same hunger is not there, and when he lets me go I fall back on my knees. He stands, and I stare at him, feeling every inch of loneliness. He looks into my eyes, holds out his hands, brings me into him, holds me, kisses me twice more. It is the last time we’ll ever hold each other, and I leave a bit of me in this moment. No te preocupes. Todo saldrá bien. Lo que tú quieras. Te quiero.
Annie Kuster is the winner of the 2015 Nowhere Fall Travel Writing Contest. She is a senior at the University of Notre Dame studying Anthropology and International Economics. She is currently looking for a job that will allow her to continue traveling and writing about the world. Her roots are in Clinton, New Jersey, where her family still lives, including her two younger brothers and a black lab, Jasper.