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Raccoons, complete destruction, Andalusia, hickeys, statuesque resemblance, pink clothespins, Tinder intercambio, small plastic horses, ruffled gowns, coppers, infestation, incomprehensible finales,
tinto de verano & The Boss.

A narrow hallway with yellow walls. Canary yellow, like a ripe lemon or a taxicab. Faux-hardwood laminate flooring, rapping echoes from shoes at all hours. The kitchen, modern and clean. Shiny, candy-apple-red cabinets, barren. The bedroom windows overlook a lazy, serene courtyard. One large tree is visible outside amongst the nearby apartment buildings, a tree so remarkable that I wonder if it is older than the city itself. Four beds, one nightstand. I live here.

There are eighteen guest beds in the hostel, ten in one room and eight in another. Only one of the guest rooms is infested with bedbugs. Check-in for guests is from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sheets cost an additional one euro. My boss is Joaquin. I found him online. He comes between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., counts the money in the Ikea desk drawer and sends us volunteers a spattering of Facebook messages about HostelWorld reviews.

everything will be solve the day i build the website for rating HW customers via their email

so hostels can forsee bitching review in advance

its clean but people sucks

He wears red Puma sneakers, the same loose sweatpants every day and T-shirts with large holes in odd places, almost like he had been in a sword fight. He says he is a professor at the university, but I wonder if he teaches in the same clothes. Maybe? Joaquin is always “completely destroyed.” Like, if you ask him how he’s doing—”What’s up? How was your day?”—the answer is always the same: “I am completely destroyed.” I guess he means tired.

Compass RoseM   y first impression of Joaquin was from Facebook. He friended me after I replied to an ad he listed on WorkAway, a site for volunteers looking to exchange labor for accommodation. His Facebook name is Joa Quin, like it would be such a horrible breach of privacy if anyone knew his full name. He has one profile picture. His photo is cropped across the middle of his chin, eyes red from the flash, no bend of a smile, darkness behind him. Kind of like a raccoon you catch with a flashlight going through your garbage. Completely destroyed.

Three months after I graduate college, I’m working at my dentist’s office. I hold spit cups for patients and sanitize metal tools. Joa Quin messages me the date that I could start work and some directions to the hostel from the bus station. I book a flight, and a bus. I forget to return my scrubs.

I trace the trail of dirt footprints with my gaze, and I don’t move. I just let it be.

My bus arrives in Sevilla at 5:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. I’m the only person in the city who is awake. The duffle I filled with clothes and books and shampoo does not have wheels, nor straps to wear on my back. The two nylon handles dig into my bare shoulder and the weight of my life rests upon my hip. I hobble away from the only place I know in the sleeping city, the bus station. Joa Quin’s directions omit words like “left” or “right.” Turn Calle Hernando Colón. Metal cages protect the shop fronts. Turn Menéndez Pelayo. Names of streets are indicated in mosaic tile on the sides of the buildings. Calle San José. My eyesight poor. You will see a church. Do not turn at the church. Vines dangle from a canopy between the stucco apartments. I move toward the building, squint at the tile. Plaza de los Curtidores. A girl buzzes me in; we tiptoe toward the bedroom and she whispers inaudibly and points to an empty top bunk. Someone snores. I haul myself onto the mattress without brushing my teeth or going to pee or getting water, all things I yearned for during my labored journey. I sleep, without a blanket. The welcoming arms of the tree stretch toward me through the window.

Compass Rose

The work schedule rotates every two weeks, so I work either forty hours or twenty hours. In addition to accommodation, I receive a stipend to cover my food: twenty-five euros for a forty-hour week, five euros for a twenty-hour week.

I strip the beds, collecting the white sheets in my arms, forming a pile so large I cannot see around it. I load the washing machine. I clean the men’s bathroom. I half-ass try to clear the mold in the shower. Someone asks me for directions to Alcázar. I don’t know. I point to the bulletin board across from the check-in desk at the door. I clean the women’s bathroom. An orphanage of travel-sized bottles lies on the windowsill: abandoned L’Oréal, half-empty Neutrogena. The washing machine sings. I gather the damp white bundle into a plaid shopping bag and walk up the flight of stairs to the rooftop. A weathered wood table, some chairs. Laundry lines with pink clothespins. The leafy top of my tree spitting distance from where I stand. I spread the tangled sheets across the line, my fingers imbued with the scent of fabric softener. October sun tickles my pores. I go downstairs and sweep the laminate floors. I fill the red bucket with warm water. I mop the bedrooms, the kitchen, the living room, the yellow hallway. I wait, stranded at the check-in desk, until the floor dries. A guest emerges from a room, wordlessly crosses to the bathroom and shuts the door. I trace the trail of dirt footprints with my gaze, and I don’t move. I just let it be.

Compass RoseI’m practicing my Spanish. That’s what I tell people when they ask why I live in Spain. Tinder is the best way to connect with language partners, for intercambio. My Spanish isn’t terrible, but the Andalusian dialect is terrible. Words are shortened and strung together, rhythmic emphasis completely different to what I’d learned in school, da-da-da-da-da-da, vale? The equivalent would be to move to Birmingham, Alabama, to practice the English you’d learned from a British teacher. My intercambio partners laugh at me, but patiently. All of the men I meet are as tall as I am, towering at five feet, five inches. Sometimes they hold my hand and sometimes they kiss my cheek. They buy me cervezas; we nibble on croquetas and olives. When I tell my friend at home about my intercambio partners, she laughs. She calls it something different: Tinder Food Stamps.

This is how I meet Novio. He does not have the typical dark Sevillano look. Novio is tall, with a shadow of a beard, light-brown waved hair and blue eyes. He does not speak English. At all. We drink cervezas and mime back and forth, laughing between broken syllables. When he holds my hand, he laces his fingers in mine so that the soft pockets of skin between our fingers are touching. We walk along the river and I ask him how to say “toes” and he tells me and I can’t believe that such a cute English word is such a mouthful in translation.

She wipes her finger across the trail of eggs, smears it across the white wall.

We lay together in Plaza de España. Mosaic alcoves depict cities and villages of Andalusia. It is also a film site in Star Wars, but I don’t know this until years later. Vendors lay knickknacks like small plastic horses and decorative flamenco fans on large blankets on the ground. They shout prices at passersby donning visors and camera straps. They shout at us: “One euro!” Novio leans toward me. “See? Now they think I’m a tourist because I’m with an American.” He chuckles and playfully pokes my side. I’m disappointed that I will never fit in, but I don’t tell him because I don’t want him to laugh at me. We walk over to another garden within the park. Trellises woven with ivy and other flora surround a bronze bust and a couple of benches. The bust is tall, his fixed gaze staring right over the top of my head. His face is serious, frown lines prominent and brow bone pronounced. “This is my great-grandfather,” Novio says. He has an odd sense of humor, but I laugh anyway. He points to the nameplate and I shut up. I look at Novio and I look at the bust, and I look back at Novio. The similarities emerge: thin, pursed lips, ears slightly out from the side of the head, round but strong chin. I never would have thought this bronze bust looks like Novio, but once I have this new information, my eyes shift focus, my brain playing tricks. I ask him why there is this bust, this ivy, this garden in his honor. He tells me a story, pausing sometimes to gauge my comprehension. Vale? I understand little of what he says, but I nod and smile anyway.

Compass Rose
N   ights that I don’t have to work and that I don’t see Novio, I walk. Moonlight beams a spotlight on the sleepy Spanish city. A man plays flamenco guitar each night near the cathedral. His cap likely conceals a balding head, and his faint laugh lines and crow’s-feet are reminiscent of the gentle pencil marks of a blueprint. His guitar case lies ajar at his feet, the few coins bared under the yellow streetlight. Tourists hesitate as they pass him. Some pause, straggling behind a group to absorb the melody emanating from this strange man’s fingertips. Standing, they tower above him. The man sits upon a stool, hunched over his instrument like Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, dwarfed by the monumental cathedral. He never lifts his head, just nods gratefully at the click of more coppers tossed into his case.

I sit on the steps above the flamenco guitarist. I’m invisible. These concrete steps are an ideal reading spot. They are wide enough to perch comfortably, but not so wide that it is uncomfortable to lean back if I wish. They are well lit, and unlike a café or bar, I do not have to pay to sit here. I read. I hear the rhythm of the horses’ hooves as they lead carriages back to the cathedral. The man takes a smoke break; the laughter of drunk students ricochets through the narrow streets and the horses march on. The melody continues, and it is only when he is packed up that I realize the music has stopped.

On my way home, men in orange jumpsuits hose down the winding deserted streets. I remove my sandals and splash about the cold puddles with my naked toes. They shut off their hoses while I pass. I wonder where the strange man with the guitar disappears to in the cracks of Sevilla.

Compass Rose

W       hen I wake up in the morning, I check my arms and legs for bites. The bedbug situation is dire. Guests approach me at the check-in desk, showing me swollen red marks on their arms, their backs, their legs. “Oh yeah, mosquitos are the worst,” I say. A girl from Argentina brings me into the infested room. Her eyes are wide; I can tell she genuinely believes I do not already know. “See? These are all of the eggs.” She traces her finger from the bed along the wall to the window. Small fuzzy gray dots look like dust, barely there but still visible to the naked eye. She wipes her finger across the trail of eggs, smears it across the white wall. I tell Joa Quin that the guests are starting to speak up; what should I do? i cannot speak of this right now Kelsey i am completely destroyed. I strip the beds and carry the mass of sheets as far from my chest as I can without seeming suspicious. I wash them at the hottest temperature because Joa Quin says this kills the bugs instantaneously. When the washing machine sings, I walk up to the rooftop with the wet bedding and hang it on the lines with the pink clothespins to dry in the sun.

Compass Rose

Grocery List:
rice cakes
sweet potato

If I can afford it:
sliced turkey
alpro vanilla soy juice box cartons

Sometimes Novio picks me up in his little silver car. We drive and we talk. He drives me to the big grocery store so I can buy food. He drives me to empty parking lots so we can make out. He drives home because he has to use the toilet. “Wait here,” he says. “Ten minutes.” I nod and plug my phone in. I listen to “Hello” by Adele for ten minutes. I start to scream the words as I learn them. I’m crying in his little silver car. He comes back, tells me he has a surprise for me. He says it is a special date. He leans over the gearshift and kisses me as though it is the first reunion after we have been separated by a gruesome war for six years and I am his true love. He drives me to a lookout point outside of Sevilla. Windshield wipers screeching back and forth. We share an umbrella, look out at the yellow lights of the city as though through smudged glasses. The wetness of the night blurring and muting the light, but the cathedral, unmistakable, Gothic, grand. His arms around me, me holding the umbrella above us. Hermosa, no?

Compass Rose

I’m hungover one day at a vegan café in Triana. When I finish my meal, I lie down and close my eyes. I’m hit by a truck. Not really, but that’s how I feel, completely destroyed. I think I’m asleep; I hear a muted lullaby. Hey little girl, is your daddy home? Did he go away and leave you all alone? I perch up on my elbows and look around. Music of my people, music of my home. Bud Lights at the Jersey Shore in dive bars with loud amps and low AC. A man opening his wine stall hums along. Tell me now, baby, is he good to you? I dance I twirl I hop I smile I cry I sing. The man laughs and turns up the volume and at night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head. The man cheers, “Bruce Springsteen!” I tell him I’m from the same place as Bruce Springsteen. I tell him my dad loves Bruce Springsteen. I tell him people play Bruce Springsteen at all of the bars in the summer, at the beach. I don’t think he understands anything I say. “Home,” I say. “This is home.” He nods, comprehensively.

Compass Rose

Our hostel advertises super-fast Wi-Fi. Joa Quin is paranoid that lazy people will uncover the password and use our super-fast Wi-Fi from the plaza below, slowing the connection for guests. For anyone in Sevilla in need of free, super-fast Wi-Fi, here is the password, as handwritten on paper on the informative bulletin board for guests:

Wi-Fi J

The only rule of the hostel: No guests allowed. Joa Quin mentions something about how the hostel is not technically legal. Nobody from Sevilla is allowed to come to the hostel, or know where we work. Novio lives with his grandmother in Triana, and she is always home. One night, fingers entwined, we stumble through the alleys of Santa Cruz. We had a couple of carafes of red wine; he told me that I have beautiful eyes and I asked him if he enjoys to ride bikes. ¿Te gustas montar en bicicleta? The cobblestones glisten, wet from an afternoon shower. The night is silent apart from the dull hum of traffic on the avenue, several blocks away. I’m the kind of drunk where my face is flushed and everything is hilarious. Novio’s mouth is soft and wet and he lifts me so my legs are wrapped around his waist. He kisses my cheek and my neck and my chest and I look around and think how different the world looks from up here.

The man takes a smoke break; the laughter of drunk students ricochets through the narrow streets and the horses march on.

I bring him to the rooftop, with extra blankets from my room and one pillow for us to share. La Giralda pierces the black sky and my tree hushes in the breeze. It’s chilly but my skin is hot from the wine. The weathered wood table collapses beneath us, and I think it’s hilarious. Lying naked on a pile of crap, beneath the judgmental watch of the stars, Novio smiles. Eres mi primera Americana. You’re my first American.

I tell Joa Quin that the Germans broke the table. Focking Germans party idiots Nazi.

Compass Rose

There is a churrería around the corner. When the wind blows a certain way, I can smell it from my bedroom window. An old man spirals dough into the hot oil. I hear it sizzle and crack. I’m drooling. “Two euros, please.” He wipes his fingers on his striped apron. Mostly copper coins spill from my hand to his. He places the churros in a paper case on the counter between us. ¿Azúcar? I nod expressively. Sugar crystals rain onto the luscious dough. My first bite warms me to my center. I groan with pleasure. Eyes close. It tastes like indulgent relief. The inside of my mouth so wet, savoring every piece.

When he holds my hand, he laces his fingers in mine so that the soft pockets of skin between our fingers are touching.

I find an open-air market one day, exploring a northern neighborhood of the city. I find vintage postcards on a table. I want to buy them, but when a fat man smoking a pipe tells me the price, I cannot afford them. I find Feria posters, sketches of women in pink and orange and red ruffled gowns alongside a silhouette of La Giralda. I want to buy one, but I cannot afford it. I find a leather-bound notebook, the leather worn but the pages blank. I run my fingers along its spine. I want to buy it, but I cannot afford it. I find piles of books that I cannot read. I find an oversized fuchsia button-down shirt. There is a paint stain near the bottom, at the front. I cannot afford it. I buy it anyway.

Compass Rose

N       ovio and I break up. I don’t really know why. I thought he said that he wants me to come meet his family in his hometown, a mountain village a couple hours’ drive. Maybe he said that he is going to see his family and he won’t see me again. I’m not sad, but I’m kind of annoyed because I still have two weeks in Spain and I’m overdue for some groceries. That’s a total lie. I cry so much, even Novio cries. I cry so much and I don’t even know what he said to me.

Volunteers have the privilege to lock the bathroom door during slower hours. In the women’s bathroom, there is just one latch lock on the main door. The toilet stall is private, and there are two semi-private showers and two sinks. To lock the door means to cut off access for guests to the toilet, showers, sinks and mirrors in the women’s bathroom. When the guests go out to tourist, I grab my towel, my face mask and an orange Ikea mug of tinto de verano. I slide the latch across the wood frame. Daylight gushes through the windows. I play music, The National or Arctic Monkeys. I paint my face. I inspect myself in the mirror. Rogue hickeys left over from Novio or new moles on my back from the sun. The water pressure is weak but the warm water feels soothing on my skin. I ignore the knocks on the door.

Kelsey Swintek is a writer and lover of daffodils. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in comparative literature and art history. She currently lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her best friend (and sometimes mice) in New York City. Find her on Instagram as @kelseypizza.

Lead image: Erik-Jan Leusink

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