“The divorce was hard.”
That was her answer when her mother questioned the solitary trip to Spain. She had told her mother she needed some time alone. She said being in a completely new place on a completely different continent would help her refocus. That was the word she had used, refocus. It would help her clear her head and sort things out so she could refocus.
But her mother hadn’t understood.
The truth was she needed more than just time to clear her head. She felt lost and incomplete. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for or what she needed, but something inside her thought that maybe she would find it under the wide open skies and endless olive fields of Spain.
But she had not found it. The lonely shopping trips, the contemplative walks down ancient streets, and the solitary people watching sessions on cafe patios had left her empty. The skies had been gray and cloud soaked. She hadn’t even set foot in an olive field.
Spain had done nothing to fit the missing piece back into place.
And she didn’t expect the tour of the Alhambra to be any different. But here she was surrounded by romantic gardens and strangers, the tour guide’s monotonous voice drilling into her brain through the radio headphone sitting in her ear.
She couldn’t focus on the guide’s speech. His lecturing reminded her of the long one sided conversations that characterized her marriage. It had happened so slowly, she didn’t realize it at first. Subtle dismissals of the details of her day that upset or frustrated her and comments implying that her ideas were impractical, her plans were foolish, and her dreams were naive became more blatant and commonplace as the months turned into years. Her contributions to conversations became shorter and less frequent, as her role was reduced to that of an audience attending a long and droning lecture on boring daily minutia.
The people around her started moving and she realized the guide had finished his explanation of whatever it was he had been talking about. She felt like a zombie as she followed the group into a long and narrow courtyard with an arched colonnade on three sides. A fountain ran down the length of the space. The others started taking pictures, stepping into the enclosed space to get a better look around. But she couldn’t move any farther than the colonnade. She stood paralyzed between two columns, her chest tight and her heart fluttering. The air was too thick and heavy to breathe. She bit her lip and leaned against a pillar.
When she had stepped through the gates of the Alhambra that morning, it felt like she had stepped into the distant past. The fountains and flowers and architecture sang of history. This hilltop had housed soldiers and sultans. This hilltop was the place where Columbus had stood before Isabella and asked for ships to find a new trade route to India. This hilltop was the place where Washington Irving had written some of his most famous works. And there was no mystery as to why Irving had found inspiration within the walls of this citadel. If there was anywhere in the wide world that magic could exist, it was here.
But the magic of these romantic gardens gave her no comfort. It was not the kind of magic she needed. She stepped away from the colonnade, her ragged breathing calming as she withdrew. In the covered walkway, the memory of her mother’s voice echoed with her footsteps.
Her mother had also given her lectures. Long disapproving lectures that urged her to wait. You’re young, you have plenty of time, take some time to work things out, wait, give it time to make sure. And she had tried, really she had, counseling sessions and compromises and reevaluations of who she was. But there was something inside her that she could not ignore. Something thrashing against her chest, her ribcage preventing it from spreading its wings to their full width. Her mother didn’t understand. All the waiting and trying was forcing her daughter to forcefully contain a part of herself that was not meant to be caged.
The guide’s voice came through her ear piece, startling her as it called the group to reconvene. She walked around the edge of the courtyard under the shelter of the walkway to the meeting point. Joining the rest of the group, she followed the guide numbly as he droned on through the gardens, talking about the tile mosaic here, the carving there, the fountain in the courtyard just through this door. She could not focus on these wonders; they all seemed vague and ill-defined compared to the void she had hoped to fill with this trip. She let the beauty and intrigue of her surroundings slide over her with indifference.
In the Alcazaba, the guide stopped by a tight, narrow spiral staircase that was gated off. Blackness seeped up the stairs from where they curved into the rock beneath them. Her stomach tightened and quivered as he told them about the dungeons with deep, claustrophobic cells that lay at the bottom of the staircase. In fact, he went on, the whole hill was catacombed with dungeons and passageways. He found it unfortunate that these underground marvels were closed to the public.
Finally he moved the group to the courtyard of Carlos V’s palace, a huge circular space enclosed by a double tiered arched colonnade. She forced herself to follow as the guide led the group out into the center of the courtyard. Another informational lecture that she was too distressed to pay attention to poured into her ear. She stood on the fringes of the tour group and stared at the stones that paved the floor of the plaza, feeling claustrophobic and confined. The guide ended the lecture with an endorsement for some art exhibit on the second floor of the palace.
“We will take a break now so that you might explore the area or have something to eat,” he said. “We will meet at the Wine Gate at 11:30. Please enjoy!” The tour group split into smaller units of families and couples, but she stood in the center of the circular colonnade alone. Warmth drew her gaze towards the sky. The clouds were clearing and behind them was a blindingly brilliant blue sky. She hadn’t felt the sun in days. She closed her eyes and tipped her face upwards toward the warmth and light like a lone sunflower growing out from the tight spaces between the paving stones.
Something fluttered inside her chest.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled her cell phone out of the inside pocket of her windbreaker to check the time. A note card, worn and tattered, clung to the back of the phone.
She recognized it immediately. Her breath caught and the fluttering inside of her intensified. She unfolded the note and exposed it to the sunlight.
“I love you!” it read. It was an old promise hidden in an old coat pocket for her to find. Over the years it had been passed on from coat to coat until it was forgotten in the depths of this little used windbreaker. It expressed a one sided promise that had not really been about her.
The longer she stared at the note, the stronger the fluttering within her grew. It began to pound against her and soon she felt like she was holding in the turmoil of the ocean on a stormy day.
She had been wrong when she told her mother the divorce was hard. The divorce wasn’t hard. What her marriage had become was hard. It was easy for her mother who was looking in from the outside to say, “Wait. Take some time and try to work it out.” But when she was being strangled by the expectations of domesticity and barred from the wide open world by the white picket fence; when she was forced to hide the qualities in her that sparkled and shined to avoid the scolding and scorn that would rain down because she did not fit the image he wanted her to fit; when she was told to give up because her dreams were unreachable and her desires impossible; when she was treated like a fool, like her ideas were ridiculous and irresponsible, like her solutions illogical and stupid; when she was locked in a small cage of mockery and judgment to keep her under his control; when she realized she was missing a piece of herself and that she would never find it while trapped behind the bars of her marriage, it was hard for her to find the motivation to “wait and try to work it out”.
She had not wanted to end her marriage, but she couldn’t allow the piece of her that wanted to fly to be caged for the rest of her life. What was hard was coming to the realization that she had to choose between those two paths.
Everything else was just legal paperwork.
She shifted her attention to the circle of blue sky above the colonnade. She had not intended to bring this cage with her.
She stared angrily upward. She was not going to live bound by bars under a sky circumscribed by someone else’s expectations of who she should be. Not her mother’s. Not her ex-husband’s. Not anyone’s.
Crushing the note in her fist, she crossed the courtyard and walked through the colonnade. She tossed the crumpled note into a trashcan as she left the palace.
Outside, she looked up at the bright, unbarred sky and let the magic of the ancient hilltop set her free.