McDuffie, Anne, Colorado Review: a journal of contemporary literature
The night before I left Madrid for good, Rene took my hand in both of his. For a man, he had small hands, but his thumb and forefinger met easily around my wrist. He said something to me about his country, a saying they had, muneca delgada, cuerpo delgado. Slim wrist, slim body. I had put on weight--it was my first year away from home--but I hid it as well as I could under baggy sweaters and an oversized mili jacket I'd bought at the flea market. My first thought was that he was making it up. I so often had trouble believing him. Muneca also means doll, and I could never use the word one way without thinking of the other. That was my second thought. I looked at my hand lying limp in his and withdrew it. He had never talked to me like that before. Maybe I should have ... Maybe you and I should have ... Now I can't remember the words he used. Did he say quizas? Or a lo mejor? Both mean maybe, but quizas always sounded more neutral to me, a lo mejor more hopeful, mejor meaning better, lo mejor meaning best. His expression, and the tone of his voice, were neutral. He was talking to me as though we had just met, and I wondered if he thought he owed it to me. It occurred to me that my father might be right about him.
I should have known the first time I saw Rene that he wasn't Spanish. Without meaning to, I caught his eye--and he looked away. That night, my roommate Linda had come out with me, and it unnerved me more than I would admit to walk into Cafe Central with her. I was used to going alone. Live jazz gave me a reason to be there--I could sit near the stage and drink cheap Aguila drafts without feeling too conspicuous. It wasn't that I wanted to be alone, but I had yet to meet any "literary pilgrims" in Madrid--by then, I had read Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation several times and took it as my bible. It stood to reason, I thought, where there was jazz there might be writers. I'd invited Linda that night, half hoping she'd come and half expecting she'd say she needed to study--I was afraid, then, I'd talked it up so much that an actual bar, smoky and loud, would disappoint her. The place was full that night and everyone was sharing tables. I saw Rene sitting against the wall with another man, who glanced expectantly at each of us as we came through the door. Rene's eyes roamed aimlessly; his face did not disclose what preoccupied him. His distraction distracted me, and I looked a beat too long, but to my relief he didn't take it as an invitation. He looked away. And then Linda was standing over them, smiling and gesturing at two empty chairs, and they were trying gallantly to stand in that narrow space, mouths working though their words were lost in the din, faces lit and arms extended in a pantomime of welcome.
We just managed to introduce ourselves before the band struck up another number, and we were excused from saying any more. There was a quartet that night, one expat American and a few of the local guys, playing some kind of bebop that bristled with unexpected rhythms. I tried to lose myself in it, but the relentless arpeggios resisted me, leaving me feeling restless and wrung out. I noticed that Rene kept glancing at Linda. She was tall and blonde and athletic, an exotic among the Mediterranean beauties of Madrid, and she was used to getting a lot of attention. I knew it annoyed her, but she covered it well. Spanish men all paid the same compliments and made the same tired pun on her name--linda means pretty-- but she would laugh each time as though she hadn't heard it before, while nodding to let them know, however subtly, that she had. She was just as patient with me, which always irritated me though I knew I should be grateful. She lent me her lecture notes for the classes I missed and only murmured espanol por favor when I disregarded our agreement to speak Spanish in the apartment. Her apologetic smile suggested I might be doing her a favor, but we both knew I depended on her far more.
After a while, I noticed that Rene was working at something on the table in front of him. …