MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Catalan Gothic

Eric Michael Bovim

I told him to dry off, sent the girl away, told him to get moving, that we were going to pack up because we were leaving this hotel.

“Where are we going, Daddy?”

“Some place more Spanish.”

The woman at reception, same as yesterday, tensed up when I announced my precipitous early check-out. Is something wrong? I assured her the hotel was fine, but that we wanted to be closer to the heart of the city. You have booked for a week, she said. You will lose your deposit. That is fine. She picked up the phone and spoke in French to someone. An older man in a navy suit appeared and introduced himself as the General Manager and said he wanted to be certain my stay had been pleasant. I tried my best to assure him but they seemed unconvinced. They watched us all the way to the elevator, not waving.

“Hotel Lloret,” I told the taxi driver.

“What is that?” Colin said.

“We are going to a more special hotel. More atmosphere. Less American things.”

“Why?”

“Because we came to be in Spain. This is not being in Spain.”

“Oh. Is there a pool?”

“No—and there’s no room service. There is the Ramblas,” I said, pointing out the window.

The taxi retraced our route from yesterday morning, all the way up to the top of the Ramblas, the Messi ad visible from across the Placa Catalunya. The hotel was still there, just as I recalled it, the neon cursive sign, the rooms with their balconies, the street noise. The driver stayed in the car as I lifted the luggage to the curb. I gave him some coins and he left us. Colin was sullen. For a moment, I thought about summoning another taxi and going right back to the Hotel Arts. No, you won’t. You make this work, show this boy that you can make anything work, that there’s more to Spain than a corporate hotel.

We took a room on the third floor, two balconies and a cathode-ray television with just one grainy English-language channel, CNN International. There was a bathroom and a king bed, some café chairs you presumably could take out onto the balcony. He was sullen when we entered but perked up a little at the view. I set the chairs outside and sat down to draw him out.

“Isn’t this magnificent?” I said.

He read my every micro-expression and gesture before he decided to answer. “I guess. Why did we move again?”

“The other hotel was very beautiful, amazing. But did we fly here to eat chicken fingers and speak English all day? I want you to experience Barcelona. This is a special hotel.”

“Why?”

“Because mommy and daddy stayed here once.”

He took that in, could not conceal a widening smile, and stared out onto the Ramblas where a man had decorated himself in silver foil and metallic paint and was posing for pictures as the Tin Man.

“Really? In this room? Why were you here?”

“Not this room. One just like it. I had just moved here. Mommy came to visit me. I was poor. This was what we could afford. You know what? Of all the places in the world mommy traveled, she always talked about this hotel, it’s little balconies and the view of the street at night. Mommy loved to be outside.”

He was smiling: “That’s so cool. Alright, fine, I understand, daddy. Now, can we go get the black rice you promised?”

His hair was matted from the chlorine.

“You take a quick shower, get ready, and we’ll go for lunch. I know somewhere good where they have it, OK? We have the party tonight too, remember.”

He was unusually pliant and went straight to the bathroom and took a long shower, while I sat on the balcony smoking a cigarette I had stashed from Carmen’s supply. I checked my phone for the time and saw a text arrive from Arnaud: “Mr. White, such a pleasure, please inform me of your decision, we are most eager to get started with you and no one else.”

I took a long drag and noticed a Mexican food chain from America had settled in across the street, scarring the view. There was a breeze and some ashes flew into the room. I thought briefly of Veronica, her long auburn hair bouncing on the bike trail, the sleeping Danube winding through hills, and I opened the notes function on my phone and typed in some ideas of where that story would go, my mind was alight with ideas, bullets in the sky, and I went dreamy indulging the notion that she would invite me to her performance of Bruckner’s symphony and seat me onstage, in the fifth violin chair, so I could experience the music as a virtuoso does, her hair in a bun while she sawed away on her violin, head tilted as if looking into a painting, and I thought of the way Ariadna was examining Monica’s art, her solemnity and recognition that each of those paintings had a molten core, even for realism, it’s not what you paint but what you omit and can the subject feel the omission, her death was stained on us like indigo, her spirit found its way into the oddest things, the unnamable bug sounds in Christ Church, there was no billboard wisdom that could chase her out of my life, I wanted her there and perhaps Carmen was right that my canvas could expand, her spirit enmeshed into the oddest things, this hotel, the moon, she loved squid ink rice and, of course, this boy.

“Daddy what are you doing?” He had a towel wrapped around his waist.

I had the cigarette hanging from my lip. Quickly I snuffed it out on the balcony and stomped methodically on it as if it would vanish. I closed my eyes and laughed inside. Sooner or later our children must learn that their parents are not perfect.

“Well, daddy was smoking.”

His eyes widened.

“I am sorry.”

“So, technically, you weren’t smoking because it was in your mouth but you weren’t breathing in. Right?”

“Uh…right.”

“Also, cigarettes can help with stress. Did you know they contain a drug in them that relaxes people? I searched it up. It’s true. Nicotine. It comes from plants.”

“Why were you looking that up?”

“I saw you smoking in Barbados and I researched it.”

I felt so relieved. I kissed his forehead and tasted soapy water. I wiped him off. I told him to get dressed and ready to go. The day had just started.

“We are going to have an adventure now!”

“We are going to have an adventure. We’re going to La Boqueria. Then we are going for a long walk. Then we’re going to a party.”

I changed my shoes and locked the door behind us. We walked down the flight of stairs to the street and headed in the direction of the sea, walking on the busy promenade under the denuded trees. The sun was hot and I took off my jacket. I had given Colin a few euros that he was tossing into the hats and guitar cases of the various street performers. In ten minutes, we were at the Boqueria. It was cool once inside and smelled like fish and raw meat. Skinned rabbits hung from their skulls. There were bins of exotic mollusks and langostinos squirming in Styrofoam containers. Every thirty feet was a food stand. At three o’clock, the place was packed, locals and very few tourists, men squeezed together at the counters with their cañas and Albariños. I bought Colin a little bag of spiced candied almonds for a euro. We negotiated the crowd and waded to the back, along the way I asked a man selling salted cod to point me towards the paellas and I kept walking towards the back, and we bought some candied apricots for another euro and almost tried the cheeses but the line was too long and Colin was hungry. There was room for us to sit down at the paella stand. They were using butane tanks to fire the burners, and had three massive paella pans going, the final one pure black rice with rings of calamari. He fixed us two plates, topped it with a dollop of aioli. It tasted of the sea. Colin was eating, not talking. Eating and smiling and not talking. I ordered un Estrella and bought him a diet Coke. I showed him how to mix in the aioli and the garlic intensified the fish flavor.

“Daddy this is my new favorite food!” His lips and teeth and tongue were black from the ink.

“It’s incredible. That’s true.”

“Es lo mejor de Barcelona,” said the man cooking.

“Mejor de Barcelona, si,” said Colin.

I paid ten euros each and we took a long walk down to the waterfront. We sat down outside at a café at the Maremagnum. Colin said he was willing to try an horchata, and I ordered another Estrella, and I asked the girl to bring an American paper. I had bought some postcards on the Ramblas and gave them to Colin to fill out. She brought an International New York Times. I sat and looked out to the water. The view felt different from the one this morning. It was nice to enjoy some stillness. We watched the boats at sea until it began to darken and get chilly.

I heard my phone vibrate. Another text from Arnaud, petitioning for a call in two days. I didn’t reply. Colin seemed tired from being sedentary so we walked back to the hotel.

I told him to get dressed fancy for the party. I put on a nicer shirt, cologne, looked at myself. Then I undressed and hopped in the shower, changed my razor and shaved, redressed and reapplied the cologne. He had on a white shirt and navy blazer, looked like he was going for First Communion. He asked for some cologne too. I splashed some on his cheeks with the back of my hand. He said he needed to shave. Maybe tomorrow, I said.

I hailed a taxi and asked him to drop us off near the Picasso Museum, so we could walk to the gallery. We were right on time, which meant very early in Spain. I thought we could kill the time by wandering the Gothic streets. I realized we had not done this yet at night. I realized we had only arrived yesterday, although it felt like a week. I realized I had no firm plans yet for Thanksgiving, that my only accomplishment, so far, was changing hotels and hiring a babysitter.

At night, the streets of the Gothic Quarter were enchantingly lit, and we drifted in and out of the side streets off the Carrer Montcada until it seemed like we had seen
the same stone building with arches twice before. I assured him we were not lost. I wasn’t going to use the map function on my phone, out of respect for Carmen. Somewhere on the Caller Mirallers I stepped into a dark wine bar and asked about the gallery and he pointed me further down the street and said it was on the left. We were now thirty minutes late, so, for Spain, more or less on time.

We walked further for a while until I saw them, a double-take: Monica’s paintings shone through the windows in the night because they had hung them all prominently at the entrance of the gallery. Carmen kissed us both as before and Ferran gave a bear hug. There were already forty or so people milling about, a table of tapas and cheese and some flutes of cava.

“This is so incredible, Carmen. Thank you so much,” I said. Colin stuck out his hand to shake hers.

“You are most welcome. We thank you for bringing such special art into our lives. Ferran says there is a dealer here from Madrid who wants to meet you and ask about more pieces. This way, this way! Colin, look there is Jordi, go say hi!”

Carmen escorted me through the crowd, put a cava in my hand, and took me to the dealer, an older Catalan man living in Madrid who, indeed asked about more pieces. After brief discussion, he said he wanted Monica’s triptych, at least what I had described to him, sight unseen. Ariadna materialized. She looked too beautiful. I put the cava in her hand, she nodded and took a sip. The dealer thanked me and handed me a card. When he left, Ariadna and I made small talk together.

“Colin is very sweet. Jordi talked about him all afternoon.”

“That’s good to hear. He doesn’t have many friends.”

“Yet.”

“You are right, yet.”

“You should say something, to everyone, a big toast,” she said, her feline composure intact, the flute upright.

“I suppose you are right again. Carmen didn’t need to do this for us. By the way, your English is superb.”

“I studied in the U.S.”

“Where?”

“NYU.”

“That’s a fine school. You weren’t tempted to stay in New York?”

“Honestly, Spanish men are more fun.”

“You are right again. Amazing.”

“I was kidding.”

“I know.”

She tried to pass me the flute but I demurred.

“Not to drink, but to clink the glass for your speech.”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “Would you do it for me?”

When the group heard the crystal ringing, they quieted and turned to us. Colin was towards the back by the Miró with Jordi. I looked out and saw Ferran with his arm around Carmen. Ariadna stepped away and joined the group. I had given talks and speeches to rooms bigger than this before, but I didn’t know what to say now. I started by thanking people, Carmen and Ferran, the guests who came to view the art, and I wanted to thank many others too, Sally, Margaret, Hawthorne, even Dr. Weller, but I kept my remarks crisp and tight, only enough to say that tomorrow was Thanksgiving, and that indeed a gathering this grand and wonderful is cause for celebration. And I looked around and held the silence to acknowledge the way Monica was hung all around the room.

Colin was the first to clap. Then the room exploded with applause. Random friends of Carmen’s and Ferran’s came to embrace me and to tell me what I had done was a beautiful thing. Guests, the men and the women, were cupping my cheek in their hands, touching my shoulders, and I saw her canvasas in the perfect tungsten light and heard her telling me to go, go and live my life again, and I saw our boy and his new friend laughing about something and I turned and looked for Ariadna.

She took my hand and said goodnight and that she would like to see us both tomorrow for lunch.

The walk back to the hotel was chilly, cold enough that I bought Colin an FC Barca windbreaker at a kiosk along the way. He said he was still hungry. We went inside the cafe beside the hotel where all the men were drinking sherry and watching tonight’s match. I ordered us bowls of Catalan sausage and white beans. The beans were creamy and oily with the butifarra and Colin ate his entire plate and half of mine. We walked up the stairs to our room and as soon as I unlocked the door, it flew open from the wind; I had inadvertently left the balcony doors open, and now there was street noise and a few leaves blowing around the room. I shut the doors and Colin went into the bathroom to get ready for bed.

I checked my phone one last time. There was another text from Arnaud, the same message as before, sent an hour ago. I watched the car lights circle La Plaza Catalunya and heard Colin singing in the bathroom, factored in the cost of missing out on more of this life, then wrote a very polite email declining the position and hit send.

I sat in the balcony chair for a while, not smoking, watching a man far down the promenade juggle swords, then fire, then both. In my news browser, I spotted a story on the fight for Mosul, and Trump was surging in the head to head polls with Clinton. I clicked through to the New York Times, but their paywall blocked me from the news. I typed the search term into Google and saw fresh stories on all the wires. The brutality of ISIS was unthinkable, medieval but worse because this was 2016. The article said the militant leader had tied eight boys to flagpoles—these were boys under 12, allegedly from the resistance, whatever that could mean in bomb-battered Syria—and killed them with a chainsaw. I scrolled to keep reading but the story was interrupted by a mobile ad about summer barbeque grills, offered at a thirty percent discount. It was horrific. I closed out of the browser.

I thought about a sabbatical from not just the news but also my device. I had read an article recently about a man in London who’d given up his phone altogether, tossed it in the Thames for good. He was doing fine, the piece suggested. I wasn’t fine so I certainly couldn’t do worse. Maybe the time away from my digital life would rewire my brain, let the neurons reset, unwind me in the warm bath of life. I took a deep breath and inhaled the night. There was no sensible place to toss a cellphone. Did you burn it to fry the connections? I thought it was exceedingly unnecessary to walk all the way to the Mediterranean to dispense with a phone I could just as easily crush or throw out the window, but then it felt more like a true genuflection to the idea of abandoning the phone to turn its demise into a ritual, to summon Colin for one more round, to lead him out of the hotel late at night, through the Gothic maze of alleys, and back down to the Maremagnum, which is exactly what I did. There was just enough height due to the elevated boardwalk, enough people because of the nightclubs that it didn’t look odd to see a man stooped over the rails dropping a hand-sized computer into the sea of antiquity.

It was gone as soon as it hit the water. I felt oddly neutral, disarmed and dismembered, human alas.

“Why did you throw it away, daddy?” Colin said.

“It had nothing left to say.”

The moonlight across his face made him look older, hardened features that would likely emerge when he was a teenager. He was a handsome boy, indeed, every part his mother. There lives the dearest freshness deep down inside of things. He was not going to be any trouble for me, this old soul. I sensed that he was trying to decode what I had said. I sensed all his formulated questions, one by one, float out of his head into the over-touristed night, unasked, as we just sauntered from the waterfront past the Cristobal Colon statue, pointing to the New World in the wrong direction, and then we strolled Las Ramblas and watched the street performers, the Moroccan acrobats, the mute wrinkled Catalans who painted silhouettes for twenty euro, and we bought FC Barca hats because we didn’t really know any of the player names on the jerseys.

And we waded into the Barrio Gotico for what seemed like eternity, losing ourselves and finding new ways to get to the same place, which, tonight, was the Plaça de Santa Maria del Mar. There was a crowd in the great square as an acoustic guitarist was playing under a palm tree, sending notes up to the balconies and into the sky.
The doors were wide open. He took my hand and we walked inside; the nave was tall and wide, like something hollowed out, Catalan Gothic. Visitors were lighting votives, others kneeling in deep prayer in the back rows, some sat hands folded, gazing up at the crucifix. I could still hear the music; I looked back and the doors were still open wide.

I felt my pockets for coins. I pulled out a handful and there in the pile was something I did not expect, a coin with a perfect circle in the middle, an old 25 cent peseta. How did this get here? They had phased out the peseta in 2002. It fit neatly between my thumb and forefinger, had a certain ancient heft. There must be currency like this still in circulation, ending up in tourists’ pockets, expatriating the country, purchases made partially with non-money. I checked to see if there were more. This was it.

Colin said he wanted to light a candle. I handed him a euro. He looked at it and made a comment, knelt at the flickering altar, and I handed him a stick that he used to steal fire from another candle and he lit his own. There were yellow tulips out of season at the base at the feet of the Virgin Mary, the only icon in her namesake church.

When he finally rose, he had that look you see in people long immersed in prayer. His cheeks were flushed. I fixed his hair and handed him his jacket. We stepped back into the cool night.

There was a little wine bar across the square, a scattering of tables outside and a dark interior, jazz playing, those big champagne bowls they use in France, so many Grand Crus and Reservas on sale by the glass.

We crossed the square and I handed Colin a fist of coins and he sprinkled some in the hat where the man was playing Jeux Interdits. There was a congregation of admirers, mostly locals. I found us a table and sat down and looked up at the moon.

I ordered a glass of Ribera del Duero, a Fanta de naranja for Colin. He poured the soda into his glass. The wine was amazing, smooth and concentrated. They gave us a little dish of chorizo and marcona almonds. We ate them quickly and the waiter brought a second dish. We sat for a while saying nothing, just the arpeggio of the guitar and the crisp night. Every time I sipped the wine it seemed to change. Like people too. We decline in the wrong climate, improve in others. I thought about Monica hanging in the La Ciutat Vella under tungsten light. She would have been proud of me. I thought about Hawthorne in Brioni commanding his new forces, and I wished him well as some stray gauzy clouds drifted across the face of the white full moon. I thought about how capturing these past few weeks on paper might anthologize a defining period of my life. I had time. The cathedral bells rang to mark the new hour from somewhere deep in the maze of Barcelona’s lamp-lit magic streets.

And as I drank the last sip I thought about another but knew better. I got the bill and left a good tip of euros along with the peseta coin. Colin wandered over to the guitarist and sat down in the crowd. He turned and looked at me as if to ask if this was okay. I stood up to walk over. It was fine, I nodded. There was nowhere else to go.