The young woman and young man were already committed. They only spoke with one another in Spanish, the predominant language around them, even though her mother tongue was Swedish, and his English, and she could almost speak his language as well as he.
They had each been living in Madrid close to a year. The beige of the city, the wine and sage smells, sounds of scooters and car horns daily seduced them. He worked as an English teacher and she at a hostel, jobs typical of young foreigners. They met three months earlier at a bar with low light and expensive drinks that catered to twenty-something cosmopolitans. A bar with thick black framed urban photography and topaz yellow walls. After a few drinks she admitted she wanted to see him again, but this would be the last time she’d speak with him in English. She was ready to live in the Spanish language, she said, it had for a long time been her dream. Though she had laughed earlier that night, when she said this she was far from laughing. She was twenty years old and he twenty-six; her conviction, he thought, a sign of her youth. He wanted so badly to be with her, he accepted the young woman’s challenge. He’d become a caveman in their new common tongue, if only to spend more time with her.
From then on when they conversed with one another they kept a dictionary on hand. They laughed at their misunderstandings and their circuitous way to say the most basic things. How exhausting sometimes, but to her it was worth it.
Soon she quit her hostel job and began a new one at a library, shelving books six hours a day for low pay. Despite the pay, her new job drew her closer to her dream. She repeated this phrase often, and he believed her.
To both of them this romance was a welcome adventure. They drank cheap Tempranillo reds and made love nearly every night. They talked and talked and talked and talked, always in broken Spanish. Once, they lay in bed and she explained her life before Spain, labored for an hour through a tale of growing up in a village near the Arctic Circle. She flipped through the dictionary and found the word for reindeer. His confused look prompted her to push the dictionary across the cotton sheet. Snow, too, she said in Spanish, the word isn’t sufficient enough, cold enough. And frio isn’t cold enough either for what we have in the North. She of course said this obliquely, and, they both knew, incorrectly.
How strange, he thought, how distant her former life was from anything he’d ever known, though he was raised rurally as well. He had at least lived in other large cities besides Madrid.
When his turn came to speak, he explained growing up in the United States. He had to look up the word landlocked, for which, in Spanish, there was no exact word. Sin acceso al mar seemed the opposite of poetry, and he pondered at this loss. He suspected one was confined to the words available in the language one spoke. There was much more to her and he knew it. Who was she in Swedish? In English? In her own head, outside of any language at all? The two of them, however, remained faithful to the arrangement, which he was still learning to accept.
On a busy autumn day they were strolling down an ancient narrow street, when another young man ripped the purse from her shoulder, and sprinted off. As the stranger fled, the young woman yelled in English, Thief! She ran a few steps after him and gave up. For a moment she stood there in silence, leaned against the wall of a butcher shop and wept into the crook of her arm. In English the young man said, It will be all right. We’ll replace everything as soon as we can.
She looked up from her damp sleeve, scowled, and said, Tú no entiendes. He said to her in Spanish that she was mistaken, that he did understand, that she was sad because she lost her purse, an understandable emotion. She told him to leave her alone, and she walked in the direction of the thief. He wanted to follow her but stopped himself out of respect for her adamant wishes.
Days went by and she didn’t return his phone calls, nor did she answer the door when he knocked. He went to the library and they said that she had quit. She wasn’t at any of the usual places either: the bars, restaurants, their favorite square. He searched and searched, and the last day of his search, he found himself on a familiar bench wondering, remembering, confounded. He considered whether something terrible had happened to her.
His visa was scheduled to expire in some weeks and he still planned to renew. He vowed to take an advanced Spanish class when he found the right one. Maybe he would try to improve his cooking too. Start drawing again, writing in a journal. Improve his life. He often found himself at the old bar where they’d met. He liked to sit alone and talk to the bartender in English.
Jason Christian was born and raised in Oklahoma. His fiction and essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University, Co-Director of Delta Mouth Literary Festival, and Nonfiction Editor at New Delta Review. He lives in Baton Rouge.
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