:: 2021 EMERGING TRAVEL WRITERS’ PRIZE WINNER ::
Chipped cups, isolating afflictions, floating harmonics, dinged-up cookie tins, slightly barking laughs, panels of dark blue & Barcelona.
You sit at a stone picnic table in Parc Güell. This is your second time in Barcelona. It’s too chilly to sit for long, but you need a place to be.
In the distance is the ocean, a panel of dark blue. Before the ocean is the city, blocky buildings and scattered minarets coalescing into a mottled terra cotta. Just below you on the hill, set like a stage, is a terrace, framed by the Serpentine Bench. Because it’s Gaudí, the bench curves with mosaics and is peopled with tourists, even in February. A guard stands in a neon-yellow vest, eyes level, thinking his thoughts.
You are here because you walked here. You took the long way from Poblenou, passing first along the beach, empty of humans but teeming with shadows from each undulation in the sand.
You are here because last September you had a few days on your own before visiting friends in Berlin, and you came to Barcelona just because. And you met Federico—an image served up by an app on your phone. He had the look of someone with sufficiently interesting stories to fill an evening, and the face of a legionnaire in profile.
It moves only if you pedal it forward, moment by moment, as if up a steep hill, and you have to find the words to say to him, or you might roll back down, pulling the days with you.
You are here because Federico lives here, in an old rectangle of a house with brown tile floors and chipped espresso cups and little rooms like train cabins. A house you didn’t think you’d see again, until you messaged him months later, from back home in San Francisco. He replied as you mounted the steep part of Duboce Avenue, palm trees on your left, Buena Vista Park jutting ahead—and the air turned bright and the greens of the trees dilated and the blue sky buzzed.
You are here because there came more messages, and then plans: a trip, together. Ten days, first to Budapest, then back to Barcelona. Crazy, you would say. You’d spent one day with this person. But it was him. And that house, those floors, those cups, those rooms.
You are here, with your journal and pen, because you have three days left in Barcelona. “Have fun,” messaged your friend. “Then you’ll come home and start your new job. It’s just a few days.” You can’t explain that the time is not passing on its own. It moves only if you pedal it forward, moment by moment, as if up a steep hill, and you have to find the words to say to him, or you might roll back down, pulling the days with you.
As he works, he plays a song you know. A harmonic floats by, followed by another, over a guitar that strums, paced like a full breath in, a full breath out, redolent of drifting, of things you wonder when you’re twelve. If you were writing this scene you would say no, not that song, not here.
In Barcelona, the first time, it was an easy story to tell. You “fell in love.”
Not literally, you’d say, but that’s what it felt like, swiveling on a stool in a bar that was like a dinged-up cookie tin, amidst dusty decades of local soccer trophies and foosball tables with hand-painted players, as the proprietor, Simón, silently and gruffly slid dish after dish of manchego and crackers and olives to the two of you. “He never gives me all this,” said Federico. “I think he’s in love with you.”
Later, you followed Federico up to the roof of his house, to a terrace where you couldn’t quite see the ocean. You watched the sky turn middle-of-the-night silver, eating cheeses that had just arrived from his parents in Brescia. “I wasn’t going to share this,” he said, cutting the pecorino with his left hand. “But you are nice.” In English, he sounded more Spanish than Italian, flicking his r’s. He had the build and the energy of a heavy, coiled rope.
He’d slept on an uncomfortable couch, he told you, back when he’d been a manager at Ducati in Milan, as a way to wake up early and paint. Since then, he’d painted murals from the Netherlands to Togo, and now he was exploring social isolation, depicting people who were beside one another but staring at screens. He fought with every gallerist. “I am kind of a dictator,” he chuckled, emphasizing the second syllable of the word.
“Do you know where you’re going?” You smiled and said yes before you could think and kept walking until you turned a corner and pulled out a map.
He told you about the back pain that had ended his soccer career, an isolating affliction with no apparent cause. You told him about going to boarding school, the most elegant way you’d found to run away from home, and about the man for whom you hadn’t quite been able to move to Paris years later. He talked about the woman who had left him abruptly when he’d lived in Canada, of her reticent beauty: “Smiling, but with a tear.” You talked about ethnography and gentrification and all the things that had nothing to do with the you who was a corporate lawyer who billed her time in six-minute intervals and was on vacation for exactly eleven days.
In the morning, you saw him standing in paint-splattered sweatpants, cut off at the knees, before a canvas taped to the wall. He didn’t see you. The shadow cast by the window frame shot straight across the room and rippled when it hit his shoulder. He looked at a photograph in his hand and back at the canvas, outlining a young man with spiky hair, the planes of his face and bicep slightly distorted, gazing at a space where a screen would be.
Your hug goodbye became a resting state, one that someone would have to do something to end, which you eventually did by saying, because it was something to say and because it was true, “I have to go.” And, to give yourself a reason that wasn’t yours, “You have to work.”
“Okay, go.” A mischievous grin. “But you better hurry.” A challenge. You ran to the door, swinging your arms in a mock sprint that was nearly a sprint, and were out on the sidewalk when you heard his voice and turned, seeing his face, squinting slightly into the sun. “Do you know where you’re going?” You smiled and said yes before you could think and kept walking until you turned a corner and pulled out a map.
He makes you feel like you are standing on red earth in bare feet, under a generous sun, surrounded by things that grow—a baby, a cat, grassy fields—waiting for him.
In Budapest, he walked with a forward pitch. You remembered this walk, his nutty skin, the resting furrowed brow, a slightly barking laugh. He kept his camera around his neck, ready, as his eyes scanned for passersby on their phones, potential subjects for future works.
You stopped in a bookshop that served coffee and rustic, homemade cakes. “I like this place,” he said. “It’s authentic.” Sitting opposite one another in worn, mismatched armchairs, you shared three slices of cake: carrot, almond, chocolate-hazelnut. He told you that you ate delicately. You laughed and said you are just a slow eater. Before you stood to leave, he kissed the back of your hand, and then the palm.
There were the banalities for which you’d had neither time nor need before. Should we get yogurts for the fridge? I need your passport number. Like familiar playing pieces in a different game.
He hadn’t liked where you’d put your suitcase. It was a new one in happy blue, which you’d used to wheel your things out of your office when you left your job, two days before flying to Budapest. He’d said that he noticed these sorts of things and you’d said you hadn’t thought it would be in the way. You zipped up the suitcase and pushed it to a different corner of the room, the plastic scolding against the floor.
He had the build and the energy of a heavy, coiled rope.
At a bar, he took your hand and pulled you from the barstool to dance. No one else was dancing and it wasn’t really a dancing bar and you were the couple that didn’t care.
You took the subway one evening, grasping its brown leather straps for balance, to the Széchenyi thermal baths. You saw Federico’s eyes dart around the entrance hall, steamed chlorine echoing with slapping sandals and yelling families. The woman behind the counter explained that you access the outdoor baths through the changing rooms, the men’s is this way and the women’s is that way, and before he could hesitate you said, “See you on the other side!” and grinned as enthusiastically as you could, charging off to the women’s lockers. Later, when you’d reunited in the hot water, mist coiling up and unraveling into the night, teenagers splashing nearby, he smiled and thanked you. “Sometimes, I need to be pushed.”
At baggage claim in Barcelona, he hid behind you as your head swiveled, looking for him, and then he jumped out and kissed you. That was the last time both of you really laughed.
He starts teaching Italian by video at 7 a.m. Soon after that, an intern who is helping him with his exhibition arrives, then he is off to shoot his documentary about Poblenou, then he’s back at the house to grab something. Even before you’d left San Francisco, he’d told you he’d be busy in Barcelona, that “you might hate me, jaja.” Jaja indeed. Who couldn’t have fun in Barcelona anyway?
But the little rooms throw sounds at one another, like the knock of the bolt when you turn the key the wrong way in the front door again, or the wheezing of the stovetop espresso pot when the coffee bubbles over again, and Federico comes into the kitchen and you feel him wince, so you remove the range and wipe down the stove again, first with a sponge to clean it and then with a towel to dry it, and now you station yourself before the stove when you make coffee, training your eyes on the treacherous pot. He notices the wrinkles in the bedspread because you cannot make the bed exactly as he does, because you are a throw-the-duvet-over-the-whole-thing type of person, and he says something about being from the north of Italy and having high standards, and then he is off again.
You awake to a face on the wall, its gray pallor telling you that morning is hours off. It’s the spiky-haired boy, now calcified in paint with his friends and his inattention.
He shows you a clip of a comedian who sings “My Heart Will Go On,” except instead of words, the comedian makes sounds that sound like hearing people making fun of deaf people, and you don’t laugh. You show him a clip of a parakeet who mimics a couple having a top-of-their-lungs fight, except instead of words, the bird makes sounds that sound like words, and he doesn’t laugh.
He seems to look not at you, but at someone just to your side, and he is polite to that person, he asks her what she did that day, he tells her he is tired. That person tells him she saw a flamenco performance in the afternoon and visited the Miró museum. He says he has never been.
You awake to a face on the wall, its gray pallor telling you that morning is hours off. It’s the spiky-haired boy, now calcified in paint with his friends and his inattention. Federico snores beside you. You feel loneliness as a physical object, for the first time: a concentration, about the size of a gumball, lodged in the top right corner of your heart, so tangible that you are more surprised than pained.
You think of what you would say as a girlfriend, or a friend, but you don’t have their histories, their reasons. You don’t know what they would know: whether this is how he is when he’s stressed, or wants to paint and doesn’t have time, or just doesn’t like someone very much.
Federico suggests going to Simón’s bar. At last! He takes your arm as you walk, and the red door creaks open, and the trophies and foosball tables are as you remember. But the air doesn’t crackle, and Simón gives you one plate of snacks. It’s a bar, as it has always been.
In the dusty pre-dawn, you look at his face as a form. You touch your finger between his brows, tracing along the ridge of the nose, down the slope of its side, across the cheekbone to the temple, and then over the edge of the ear to the lobe, cool and soft. Such a different topography from what he would find if he did the same to you.
There is a new collection of people around the Serpentine Bench, except for the guard, who remains, pigeons pecking at his feet. Three girlfriends huddle together, maneuvering a selfie stick to frame the optimal ratio of faces, Gaudí, rooftops, and sea, taking care to omit the guard and the pigeons.
You wonder if the friends are here on a whim, or if they’ve always wanted to come to Barcelona, to drink sangrias in the Plaça de Catalunya and catch the eye of a dark-eyed boy who might suggest they go someplace just a few turns from the plaza, someplace they wouldn’t have found on their own.
As they adjust their positioning—elbows out, chins jutted—you want to tell them: it’s okay to take a selfie. Even in a place where millions of people have taken millions of selfies. It’s okay if you leave your suitcase open and don’t make the bed. It’s okay if the coffee spills and you have to wipe it up, or if you just leave it for later because there are too many other things to do right now, because you’re on vacation, because you’re in Barcelona for only a few days, and you’re here only because you felt like coming here, and who knows when you’ll be back, or why, or with whom. It’s okay if you don’t want to smile with a tear. It’s okay if you just want to smile. I hope everyone likes your pictures. I hope you love them.
He notices the wrinkles in the bedspread because you cannot make the bed exactly as he does, because you are a throw-the-duvet-over-the-whole-thing type of person, and he says something about being from the north of Italy and having high standards, and then he is off again.
Later, you could tell a story about how you enjoyed those last days after all. About Federico making risotto with pecorino from his parents (asking you to light just the red and white candles, and not the blue one, when you set the table) and showing you how his family tamps their risotto down with the back of the spoon so it fans out on the plate, cooling the rice. About the raucous celebrations with his documentary team, after they’d finished shooting. About the next morning, when you reached for the alarm and he looked at you with winter-blue eyes and said “No,” and he said other things in Italian that you could listen to only as sounds, and then it was too late for you to take the metro to the airport, so he pulled your suitcase, rumbling across the empty, early morning street, to a cab.
Later, you could tell a story about how you smiled and laughed those last days because you decided to feel like smiling and feel like laughing. Because you had no time to feel otherwise. And then you grew warmer and lighter, and you felt Federico grow warmer and lighter, and it was curious, and a little lonely, to see that this was a thing you could do.
Later still, you could tell a story about David. About finding him, like a vast-rooted tree, searching and certain. About recognizing him, finally, as your setting.
But now, your eyes follow the sea to the city, to the snaking mosaics, to the guard and girlfriends and pigeons, to the table where you sit, to the words you have written, the things you will say.
You cap your pen, close your journal. You walk down the hill, back to Poblenou.
Here. Limbs upon limbs. He holds one of your hands to his chest; the fingers of your other hands play amongst one another, a moment gliding, a moment clasped. There are so many touchpoints between you, there isn’t one sensation that surfaces, just an overall warmth, a resting-upon.
Vero Lee is a writer in San Francisco.
Lead image: Miltiadis Fragkidis