The man sitting across the aisle from me openly peruses a Penthouse, which, for some reason, no one seems to take note of but me. I’m cradling a coffee and watching the day gather in the east. The image of my face appears in the window, ghostlike against the blur of the rolling landscape. Every so often another train will pass in the opposite direction; the indistinct faces of other passengers flashing quickly before me like grainy celluloid images. People with identities and dreams and triumphs and losses and stories all their own who’ll appear before me in a flash then vanish forever, as I to them.
I’d made my way south from Madrid, stopping first in Toledo before continuing on to Grenada by train. The plan was to stay a day in Grenada before heading for the Costa del Sol but there’s an allure to Grenada that makes it almost impossible to leave. Each building seems coaxed to life from the pages of some Period artist’s sketchbook. I don’t have a hotel of course and by now I’ve all but sworn them off for I’ve discovered that places like train stations and airports make perfectly fine respites for the destitute.
I wander Grenada’s narrow ancient lanes, all the while photographing the timeless cathedrals and plazas that seem to blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. It occurs to me that if I could lay the blueprints for my own parcel of heaven, it would be modeled after here. The brightness of its days and its ever-present waft of citrus and spice. I’m happy here. The happiest I’ve been in a while. I’m not looking forward to leaving and it’s at this point that a strange thought begins to take root: maybe I won’t. How easy it would be to jettison the weight and the burdens I’ve been dragging along with me all these years like a slug trail. Here was a chance to start fresh. Year Zero. The accepted norm has always been to finish college then look for a job, settle back into the tepid water of domesticity then live and breathe until they carted you away. This heavily trampled path was a value of a social norm that adorned life with words such as good and complete. But it’s here, as I eat a Nutella-slathered crepe and watch a street mime pull an invisible rope that I realize the values of social norms are nothing more than temporary agreements comprised of strung-together subjective truths. There are so many subjective truths, I realize with a shock that’s comparable to having just discovered a partner’s infidelity, that there really must not be any at all. But just as sure as the wind shifts, the idea of blazing my own trail evaporates. The resolve, which just moments before had been accompanied with trumpeted bullfighting fanfare, dissolves into an annoying Annie Lenox song I’d heard earlier that I’m unable to pry from my mind. And so, after taking in a cheap Flamenco show at a neighborhood tablao, it’s back to the train station for some shut-eye. My train leaves in the morning.
With just two days left in Spain, I finally reach my much-anticipated destination, the Costa del Sol; a sliver of gold beaches and promenades along the Mediterranean on Spain’s southern coast. It’s so warm that I stow my jacket and other clothes from my backpack in a rented locker at the station before heading out into the stickiness of the morning.
Along with the avoidance of hotels, I’d built an immunity to the souvenir-buying impulse, which hadn’t been easy. A set of bull-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers and some bullring drink coasters would have given my dining room table some major sophistication points, and nothing says fashionista more than your very own felt-and-plastic matador hat. But with my time in Spain now drawing quickly to a close, I finally relent and buy, of all things, a snazzy-looking cigarette case stenciled with an intricate Moorish star.
After grabbing an early lunch of paella and beer at a nearby pub, I make my way down to the beach. I hadn’t packed a bathing suit for the trip and wasn’t about to buy one, figuring that if the plump, butter-basted hams that were walking around here in Speedos weren’t breaking laws, neither would a young college guy wearing just his boxer shorts.
Later that night, sunburned and smelling like sea kelp, I head back to the same pub. The food is cheap here, the atmosphere light. I soon discover that it’s a popular place with the British ex-pat crowd, a raucous group who speak an esoteric language of backslaps and inside-joke insults. They look, act and sound like the people in every bit of footage I’d ever seen of British soccer hooliganism and, if for no other reason than being just the wrong bee in the wrong hive, I drink my beer and keep bracing for the impact of bottle to come smashing across my face. But that’s the thing; despite being an obvious outsider, just about every person I make eye contact with acknowledges me with a friendly nod. One guy approaches me and “welcomes” me. When I casually mention the piano, he asks if I play. I tell him that I do, just not so much the classical stuff.
“Does this look like a concert hall to you?” he asks. He guides me over to the lonely upright near the bar and pulls a chair up for me. Flipping open the keyboard cover, I check its pitch. The years of second-hand smoke have taken its toll, giving the piano a tinny Old West saloon sound. And speaking of smoking, the keys are as yellow as a smoker’s teeth. Names and initials had been carved into its casing, drink ringlets dotting its frame like smallpox. I play a quick scale and a few chords then begin playing some workable Joplin. Before long, a crowd has gathered. One guy, a Latin Tom Arnold look-alike, is the first to lay some cash before me. When someone graciously sets a jar down in front of me, the other patrons follow suit.
I can’t drink anymore, not only because of my already staggering level of intoxication, but because I know that there’ll be hell to pay in the morning. I’m notoriously delicate when it comes to hangovers. In order to keep from barfing, my body must remain in a level, perfectly horizontal position while being insulated from all sounds and bright lights for a period of no more than nine hours after waking. That’s going to be tough to pull off in a place like this. Yet, afraid to seem rude or ungrateful, I finish off the last glass of beer anyway. Then, with a labored puff of my cheeks, I push myself away from the bar and stumble off to find the bathroom.
There’s a wall of framed black-and-white pictures in the hallway outside the bathrooms and I stand teetering for a few moments looking them over. Beach scenes and old cars and snapshots of the pub from throughout the years, taken in a backward chronology of Kodachrome to black-and-white. Then, without so much as a quick pass around the place to say goodbye to my new friends, I head out the door and into the warm night.
The bloated moon hangs low in this foreign sky, orange and infected-looking. Out on the water, boats rise and fall on sightless waves. Lights, a faint and shimmering line of them, dot the horizon. I can’t recall seeing anything so far along in the distance during the daylight other than the thin edge of where sea met sky. It’s disorienting, as if part of the Spanish coastline has folded in on itself. But then it occurs to me that what I’m seeing is in fact Africa.
I find a patch of cool sand and for a long time sit staring out at the starry sky. It’s the same one from my childhood although it all seems so very different; kind of like being a kid and seeing your teacher outside of school. No one back home knows I’m even here and for the first time since hopping that plane in Detroit, I start to feel genuine fear. Whereas before it had all been simply an adventure; some sole eccentric attempt to inject myself into something that the trajectory of my life would have otherwise never encountered, all I felt now was sheer cosmic loneliness. In a little over a month I would be done with college and yet I was about as sure of what to do with my life now as I was at the start of my freshman year. By no means was my sense of importance even approaching normal-size, having been directly or indirectly responsible for so many other self-inflicted psychic casualties over the years. And so, for these reasons and others that are best reserved for therapy, I suppose I had little confidence to commit myself to any sort of favorable future sense of accomplishment.
But I had to give myself credit.
Going on a trip like this, with its clumsy meanderings and disjointed array of unplanned and strung-together events, was a hell of an undertaking. Like writing a novel, the need to travel long, far and alone was born from someplace deep and inarticulable; something that needed to be fished from the drain stop of the soul, brushed off, and examined in a better light. The time I’d spent alone on this trip was cathartic and vital. It’d given me the time I needed to transition to a new stage in life and adjust for changing times…and I’d done alright.
Looking back out across the Straits I suddenly feel close to my grandfather who, some fifty years before, had made this very passage on a U.S. Naval ship en route to Europe to fight in the War. Life is uncertain, he’d say to me right now, and although it helps to be driven and focused, most of what you will endure or amount to will be the result of nothing more than good luck and timing. Whatever you do, try not to fear it, for it’s the fear that feeds the bad luck.