Everything I Did In Madrid
By Merritt Tierce
On the train the man is sitting in my seat: Plaza 6D. I don’t care. I sit down next to him and put on my big studio headphones and wrap the travel pillow around my neck with the opening in the back, a gray collar. The man has a cold. He sleeps in fits and wakes frequently to cough or blow his nose or answer his phone. He steps over me to take the calls. The fifth time he steps over me, when I have for perhaps nearly half an hour been struggling to remain in my own plane in spite of my body’s need to throw itself into some other plane, to demonstrate through a riot of discomposure and rule-breakage that it resists its new knowledge, I want to ask him why he chose to sit in 6D instead of 6C.
I don’t know how to say this in Spanish though. Borges said that Spanish is a hopeless language and takes fifteen words to say one thing. He also said that there are two stories, one about a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and one about a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.
I wish I had known this when I got to Madrid. It would have explained what happened in the museum. The museum is concerned with the second of these stories and as I walked in concerned with the first I was bound to struggle.
In the train station in Madrid the first thing I do is buy an orange juice. Dime, guapa, says the man in the cafe. Un zumo de naranjo, I say. I hear him making fun of my saying naranjo instead of naranja to the other man. I don’t know how to say I know you’re making fun of me. Once I get to the Mediterranean there will be a plaza, Plaza de Las Naranjas. Red tile suelo, white stucco walls, orange trees in a square, each with its own square brick planter set into the suelo. I do not know what to do when I arrive at the plaza so I sit on a bench. It is hot and it is siesta and the plaza is empty except for me and two old women with a dog that doesn’t move.
Oranges fall from the trees. In the bed of each brick planter lie between three and eight fallen oranges. Not knowing what to do I have moved around the square counting and averaging. Only one orange falls while I am counting. The women leave with the dog, which moves reluctantly. I stay, wondering if anyone picks up the fallen oranges.
In Madrid after I drink the orange juice I want to call someone. I want to call you. I cannot talk to you any more than I can talk to the man in the café. I buy a phone card. I try to use it at a pay phone, having decided I will call someone who doesn’t know you as this is less painful than wanting to call you and having only those who knew you out there to be called. The voice on the phone tells me I cannot use the card for some reason I don’t understand. All I catch is No ha sido validado at the end. I can never remember if the phrase to use when someone steps on your foot on a train is No has ido nada or No ha sido nada to say It’s fine, don’t worry about it. They sound the same.
Before, I had planned to go to the Prado at this time. I am in Madrid for only a few hours between train rides on my way to the Mediterranean—Marbella—and the Prado is right up the street from the train station. Since now it is after, not before, I do not know what to do. But I put my suitcase in a locker and walk out of the station.
I sent you a postcard from the last museum I went to, which overlooked the Mediterranean from Barcelona. I went into the museum from the back side, and an old man was descending the steps as I went up. It was just the two of us around but he had to say ¡Joven! twice before I stopped. He was standing three steps below me. He had an eye patch and was shorter and smaller than me and his skin was thin like a sheer curtain. ¡Oye! he said anxiously. He spoke to me as though he didn’t want to but the duty had been laid on him. ¡Oye! ¡Ten cuidado! Te roban. I understand the words but don’t know what he means. ¿Cómo? I say. He repeats it. I say Vale, gracias, and continue up the steps.
After I leave I sit on the steps to write a postcard to you. The postcard is a picture of a statue in the museum called Descansol. It is a woman, a woman made of white marble, she is naked. She is sitting with her knees folded under her and she is leaning on a rock and her hair covers her face and in her posture is the greatest loss. I wrote on the postcard what a Catalunyan man told me, that descansol is a word you cannot translate.
No one robbed me in the museum but the next day I will find out what I lost while standing on the steps with the old man. It was precisely at that time, you see. That night I do not sleep and neither does the city. It is the festival of San Juan and even young children are in the street at 2:00 a.m., I listen to them run and clatter, and they chant as they run. They sound possessed, they chant with such violence, mingling meanness and delight. They set off fireworks and dogs bark frantically. The trash trucks are out sounding like they are dumping a thousand televisions into the street, great heavy metallic thudding and cranking. Cars honk and motorcycles disgorge their popping hot muffler flatulence. I’ve been let into the sound and fury circle where children’s chants signify nothing. For all I know they could be shrieking I’ll be here when you get back. A crowd of men comes up the street, singing drunkenly, I am lying on my sweating back with no view but the ceiling fan but I can hear in their song how their arms are draped around each other, they are the children grown and whipped, meanness turned to brotherhood and delight punctured by any old grief but still ambulatory.
When I get to the Prado the ‘r‘ for una entrada gets stuck behind my front teeth like peanut butter. I am surprised, usually that is not one of my problems. The man at the taquilla doesn’t care, he takes the money and I go inside.
Everything inside the museum is about the second story. Walking to the museum I felt only a minimal desire to get there, based entirely on the idea that I had nothing else to do. Fear of disappearing into one of the vast spaces between moments occasioned by the first Borges story encircled my heart like a creeper vine, strangling me. Me equals my heart in the previous sentence. Walking up the street equals reaching into my chest and pulling back the vines, placing only a finger’s width between the next step and expiration. With my arms pulling back these vines and my heart exposed, my T-shirt torn and sticking to ventricles here and there, I look like Superman in the frame where he pulls his plainclothes off to reveal his suit, signifying impenetrability. I wish I could pull out my heart and signify this as well but I know my heart would just trail up the street behind me, stuck in the vines, catching on trash and attracting dogs. Walking to the Prado I have no persuasion at all that anything in the museum will address the compression of the vines on my fingers.
You know what happens in a museum: the walking living examine the still. But at the Prado I wanted only to find the bathroom, I was filled with water. I could not find the bathroom. I asked people, they told me, I went there, just another Goya. I wasn’t able to see anything. Instead of looking I felt myself looked upon, great canvases assembling roomfuls of people in period dress to gaze on me, all of them telling me where to find the bathroom in languages so old. Christ upside down in a stairwell, the canvas black except for his dirty alabaster body hanging out of it, over the railing. It’s that way, back where you came from, he says. I have gone down these stairs twice though. I am lost. The only sign around says El Greco Velazquez Ribera Goya Raphael Rembrandt Bosch Durer Rubens with an arrow. I leave, I have failed.
I walk into the royal garden adjacent. Each plant has a bronze sign near it disclosing its name. I need a corner, my body is full of water. I walk away, away, away, I find a bench that abuts a hedge. The hedge has been shaped to form a wall right up against the bench but I sit down on the bench the wrong way with my face in the hedge. I have trouble wedging my knees in and the hedge has a five-pointed leaf. Perhaps it is a holly bush, I do not see a bronze sign anywhere. I press my face, my skull, my whole head into the pointy hedge. It hurts. Looking through the hedge I see a sign on the other side, directing to a toilet. I pull my head out of the hedge and walk that way. Water runs down my arms like sleeves. The small sound of water falling on leaves. I come to a pond surrounded by families. A cat sits meditatively on the lawn by the pond, tail over paws, upright, ears erect. The cat is surrounded by ducks. A duck emerges from the pond and showers the cat with its body-flick but the cat does not react. I am afraid for the children, I imagine the cat will spring and kill that thoughtless duck, snap its neck, drag it off into a pointy hedge. The small sound of webbed feet dragging on leaves.
These are all fragments, I feel fragmented, pieces of shells and stones on a beach like the one where I saw the couple, he on his back, a large Dane perhaps, she on top of him, small, brown. They were out there where anyone could see, not even under a palm tree, but as I walked past they kissed and he smoothed his hand up the back of her thigh, lightly, then snuck his fingers under the edge of her bikini, gently, I could see his fingers reaching her and I could see in her knees the press, release she felt in her place up against his belly.
In the Spanish class I will attend when I reach the Mediterranean we spend the first hour discussing a graphic representation of Crónica de una muerte anunciada. I am the only person in the classroom who has read this book although a Polish woman has seen the movie. The maestra asks everyone in the class except me to hypothesize in Spanish about what happens in this story, based on the pictures in the textbook, and then at the end I am asked to tell the true story. Lo siento, I say, es que no me acuerdo. Lo siento. Hay una mujer y hay amor y la mujer muere. Es todo. I don’t even bother to put it in the past. No tengo nada más, lo siento.
This is simplistic and disappointing to everyone and reveals only what was already obvious from the comic strip in the book. I leave at the break and don’t go back. I am stuck in the first Borges story although I am adrift in a city next to the Mediterranean, not the sea itself. I wander the city because it is impossible to go anywhere with intention, I have a map but am doubly thwarted by streets with no names and named streets that do not appear on the map. The streets do not run straight, they bend and tip and branch, as I float above myself walking around in them I notice they look like the tree tangle of a mapped river’s origins.
All of the buildings are white. Flowers gush and burble out of every location. A pot, a crack, I even pass a man sitting at a café table and a flower has grown in his ashtray. He has bogarted another flower in the corner of his mouth and I see some leaves sprouting along his shoelaces. There is no excuse for all this verdance. The whiteness, the flowers—flagrant. I am offended. I need to know the names of the flowers, especially an orange blossom I see fallen everywhere, it is like carpet. I do not ask anyone because if you ask someone what the name of something common to that place is you mark yourself from elsewhere. If I signify that I came from some other place I remind myself I must return there and I remind myself what is now missing so I do not ask the name of the flower.
But on one walk I pause on the island in the middle of a roundabout like the Little Prince on his small planet, waiting for the cars to zoom past like circling rockets so I can cross the cosmos. I am feeling panged by the nameless orange blossoms when a breeze from the Mediterranean blows some of the flowers over my feet and I suddenly think Mimosa. They are mimosa trees, I’m sure of it, sure that I’ve read of mimosa blossoms in stories. I remember a couple in a café where I worked long ago, they came at nine in the morning and sat on the patio under an awning and watched it rain all day. They drank pitchers of mimosas for six hours. Gradually they fell over on each other. He was leaving the next day. I feel strangely elated that mimosa is probably the same in Spanish and English and I cry, for the first time, unsure of whether I am weeping at the relief of knowing the word for something or because the man had to leave or because you died.
I had to travel on the day after I heard the news, the same day after the night I didn’t sleep, and the cover of my Eurail pass said in jaunty font, Eurail! 1959–2009. This is your span as well, I am disheartened that what I have always read of death is true, that suddenly everything signifies the loss, everywhere one turns.
In the Spanish class the maestra is plump like all of the Spanish women I see, her body is full of good living and no desire to leave. A desire to leave will thin a body. I think you wanted to stay, which made your heart too fat, and your body wanted to go, which made it too lean. The Spanish maestra laughs whenever she says anything, I study this curiously, my curiosity but an attempt to block the laughter from annoying me, an attempt that fails after only several laughing statements. I try to focus on thinking about what it would be like to be so full of joy that explaining a verb tense would be funny instead of focusing on how to say in exactly fifteen Spanish words Please excuse me but your laughter is so jarring to me at this time.
Modernity is always impious. I discover this on a walk up into the hills, I am trying to walk away from the Mediterranean and the tangled streets. I walk up into the villas. Absent rich people must own these estates, there are Dobermans and German shepherds and the villas have names rather than numbers: Casa Verde del Paraíso. Tribes of workers surround each estate—landscapers, contractors, security, housekeeping—but no actual dwellers ever appear. As I walk I listen to stories via some modern technology, I listen to a character of Isaac Babel’s say You must know everything and this becomes my cadence as I walk. You must know everything. I move the emphasis with each repetition. You must know everything. You must know everything. Etc.
This is how I hear the Borges story in which the idea of the two stories is related. I say modernity is impious because it seems immodest, impious, undignified to me to be employing modern technology under the circumstances. It wants propriety. Under the circumstances everything should revert to manual and natural operations only, nothing digitized or automated or mechanical. Would Borges have stooped to use any modern technology to keep up his study of Anglo Saxon after he heard some terrible news? No. Disrespectful.
I have an idea for a story on this walk. The idea is inspired by the fact that I need to write down some ideas for a story—a different one—and have no pen, only the stupid modern implement through which I am listening to stories. I knew it was a bad idea to leave the house with no pen and I did it obstinately because I am angry at my brain, as that is where the terrible news resides. I did it to punish my brain for knowing the news.
Since I don’t have a pen I try to remember the beads of the story idea mnemonically, my brain tries heroically to remember each piece of the code as if to appeal for clemency in the matter of its knowing the other thing. But ultimately my brain gets confused, the You must know everything litany interfering with the mnemonics.
This makes me think of a writer who runs. He can have ideas only when he runs. However he has a problem remembering the ideas until the end of the run so he decides to run with a dictation machine. It’s not a dictation machine, it’s a tiny tape recorder, it’s not a tape recorder, it’s one of those electric sticks that records the sounds on nothing. In digital no-space. He runs with it once and he records each idea in panting running speech. When he gets home he is excited, but when he presses play the machine has failed him, nothing has been retained. He does not resolve to discover how to properly work the machine. He just takes this as a bad sign and places the machine on the mantel, among his other signifiers. It joins a rotten orange, a flower, a bottled ship, a train ticket, an eye patch, and the universe on the mantel.
He doesn’t know why he can have ideas only when he runs. Some writers write from high, some from low, although low is really another high. Some writers write from isolation, some in the kitchen, some on schedule. He writes from running, so he asks a friend to run with him and help remember the ideas. To keep the ideas safe he limits himself to four words signifying ideas and his friend to three, since his friend is new. But he cannot keep himself from having more than seven ideas and cannot decide if it is better to truncate the run before the eighth idea comes—and he can never know when that will be unless he runs right up to it—or if it is better to risk losing some ideas by trying to remember more than seven. On the very first run he chooses the risk and they get to thirteen when he starts to panic so they jog in place at a café and explain to a young fit-looking man sitting there what they are doing. They beg him to come with. He downs his espresso and hops up. The runner- writer and the friend give the espresso man their original seven ideas, with both relief and trepidation. As they run they take turns shouting the ideas, reminding one another if one forgets an idea, they do not discuss the fact that this means they are each remembering all of the ideas because this discussion would cause fear and forgetting.
After a mile or so they begin to feel too full. The runner likes to run to the sea and back but knows they are still at least two miles from the sea and calculates that this will result in at least thirty-three more ideas that have to be retained. He realizes they need more runner-rememberers. He leads them through a park where some young women are playing a game of pick-up basketball and the three men run straight into the play action, the runner-writer steals the ball and dribbles it as he jogs in small circles around the key while the women yell at him. Eventually they understand the severity of the situation and they agree to go with the runner-writer and the friend and the espresso man. Each runner bounces the ball as he or she recites his or her code words and then bounces the ball to the next runner.
They run farther and farther and the runner-writer smells the salt-wind of the sea and knows they are close to the point where they can turn back. But he begins to be afraid, privately, that even if they remember all the idea words, when he gets home there will be so many that he will have forgotten what some of them meant and he will have only a paper with words on it and no story. And after he persuaded all these people to help out and sweat and give up their café afternoons and ballgames. But he can’t focus on this fear because another idea is coming, there are too many coming and he is sure that the woman on the end has forgotten one of her words. He cannot ask anyone if they have any ideas about how to carry the extra ideas because that would interfere with remembering the original ideas. But he solves this problem in some magical way and by the end of the story he has everyone in the world running with him right up to the ocean, remembering.
This is the story idea that came to me when I was trying to hold all the codes for the other story idea I had. That other story had something to do with the level test they make you take at a language school, with being asked if you are a beginner. Something to do with the first two questions anyone asks anyone else from anywhere: What is your name, and Where are you from. There was a part about getting lost in a city— left on Lolita, right on Princesa, you must know everything. I can’t remember the rest of that story. All I know is you died.
This story was initially published in Issue 8 of H.O.W. Journal.