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12 days in Madrid

Updated: May 13

Austin was waiting for me at the airport in a white linen shirt and short robin blue shorts with a rose that matched my dress and he looked so much taller than everyone around him and when we hugged and kissed I heard an "awww" and I assumed it was for us, and we hadn't shared the same space since early March but in the taxi all we did was smile a lot and squeeze each other's hands.


There's a lot to remember: the too-high slit in my dress and the way Austin caught himself on the rails and how we went to the gym and back to the apartment and then back to the gym and how I gave him my death stare during abs and the way he smirked at me when I held his shoes. How on the way back from the gym we tag-teamed a conversation with an elderly German-Spaniard who spoke only a little English, a man who told us he hopes he'd see us again, a man whose sister was sick. How there were sharp bread crumbs on the bed and the vinyl tile that stuck to my feet until I swept them up and how I stubbed my toe over and over on the screen door whenever I tried to throw something away. How through the bathroom's open window you could hear the the clanging of the neighbor's pots and pans against the incessant whining of a child and you could smell the spices wafting in and how we had a lot of envy even though we stuffed ourselves daily with tapas and tintos. How the clothes line hung over someone else's roof and I lost my towel because I didn't think something so heavy needed pinning and it looked so fresh crumpled down there next to Rugrats boxers and T-shirts soiled by rain and time and I just kept wondering how often the people below looked through their windows to the sky.


I want to write about the stone steps and the sweltering heat and Austin saying "nos pones" and how we both got soaked from three stories above when buckets came down and locals squirted us with plastic guns; how much we laughed about things that underwhelm; how he asked me at a dinner table in a narrow alley how worried I was about spending so much time together and I said, Honestly, on a scale of zero to ten: three, and how we only drank a little wine but we ate what I thought were the best croquettes and we talked about beauty and how our past experiences shape us, how sometimes I admit I want certain things because I'm trying to restore a sense of balance and heal some decade-old wounds. I want to write about sitting at the window of that one bar on that one street and the way my body leaned, the way I sipped my drink and smiled at Austin and said over and over how much I loved the 90s rock music and gothic vibe, how magical it feels to be in a dark den when usually there's so much light. I want to write about how Austin was there for me, in ways I will keep private, and how he cares for me, in ways I want to share: how he gazes at me and makes sure I'm the comfiest and takes me to a club where we see costumed dancers spinning on hoops and poles and how he holds me on the bus if I'm starting to fall and how he gives me the last patata. I want to write about the way my body felt after I ate ten pounds of meat and cheese and the way my body felt when it wasn't feeling its best and the way my body felt when it was, when I was doing salsa with him in a hot room.

And I want to write about the shadow puppets, and how shadow puppets remind me first of sleepovers, of Danielle and I taking turns holding flashlights that twist at the end; and then of dad laughing harder than I'd seen in years when his big bird hands took flight above mom's death bed four years ago, and how she couldn't speak but she smiled; and now of lying next to Austin in Madrid, the air conditioning blasting cold-enough air onto his side of the futon as we stared at the ceiling at our bad animals.


I took us to Barcelona on a three-day surprise trip I'd planned in April after I saw that the composer for The Last of Us, Gustavo Santaolalla, was performing at an outside venue. But I'm not actually a planner and so the concert was the only thing I'd planned, and when we arrived at dinner time on Monday we were starving but couldn't find anything good. We sat at a cafe in somewhat of a Chinatown and I drank the worst mineral water of my life and then we got tasty but not mind-blowing pastries and ate them by the beach, but the beach was really ugly with construction and trash, and we walked past a sewage plant that literally gagged us and by the end of the trip birds had shit on our shirts and what I remember most of Santalolalla on Tuesday was the way he screamed into the microphone against loud drums as I sat there in shock popping months-old Skittles into my mouth.


What I remember of Barcelona is the hot vintage stores and Austin's allergies from the arctic apartment air and the English menus and how we were the only ones inside the "famous" overpriced paella restaurant and how we had to rush because we were late to the only plans we had, and how we drank delicious cava sangria but when I squeezed myself past a three-person family to use the bathroom before the concert began all three of them looked like I'd ruined their lives.


On our last full day in Barcelona we got lucky; we popped into a narrow, empty restaurant with only one cook and a lady I assume was the owner, and when Austin ordered she beamed and complimented his Spanish. In the distance, the cook tied on his black cap as the lady left the restaurant and returned with a freshly purchased package of shrimp. She came back often to chat, showing us pictures of places we decided we actually don't want to go, and after our meal she gave us little aperitifs and then a free slice of cold banana cheesecake to share. We stayed there for a long while, soaking in the Afrobeat and interior brick.

Later that day we lay on a nicer section of the beach, but it was still crowded and the ocean was still loud and we didn't even step into the water: we said we'd come back after dinner, but finding dinner took forever. In one restaurant the owner motioned to my bikini top and asked if I had a shirt (I didn't), so we found somewhere outside instead, first a place with a subpar Tinto de Verano and a hurried waiter balding on only parts of his scalp, and then the restaurant where we spent a longer time-- somewhere a group of older locals coalesced as the night went on.

I tried clams for the first time and ate nearly as many as Austin, spooning up the garlicy, oily sauce between bites of patatas and occasionally dipping in bread, swallowing the little bites of meat and saying wow.


We went out twice a day, sometimes more, ordering drinks and tapas and sometimes only drinks because they came with small tapas: a free bowl of chips or peanuts or corn nuts, even gummies and slices of bread with triangular queso (cheese) or a layer of jamon (stringy ham). It was easily one of the most incredible things about being in Madrid, sipping a cocktail or Tinto de Verano (red wine with Fanta) and waiting in suspense for whatever random appetizer the waiter decided to give us. I always hoped it would be chips or peanuts, but many times it was acetuna (olives), and Austin would look at me with sympathy.

We ate so many potatoes because along with chips, patatas are on every menu, patatas frites and patatas con aioli, served with little forks on a platter big enough for two. We also ordered many croquettes, essentially egg rolls with ground beef or ham or potatoes or cheese or any variety of things stuffed into a crispy shell.

We talked a lot about how trying new things can give you momentary highs, so I tasted many foods I wasn't sure I would: shrimp that’s yummy but better without the face; lobster tail that tasted too much like the sea; salmon cold and smoked that's better baked and spiced; bites of muscles that I swallowed but did not exactly enjoy. Austin liked Gazpacho, a spicy tomato soup that has good flavor but disrespects the law of soup by being served cold. And then there was one thing I'm glad I didn't try: we ordered Manitas de Cordero without knowing what they were, until our waiter made a series of twisted faces, asked us if we were sure (we weren't) and then got someone who speaks English to explain to us not only that it was chopped off lamb feet but also a heavy winter meal, entirely inappropriate for a casual summer evening in Madrid...


On our last night in Madrid, we bar-hopped on Calle de la Cava Baja, a popular street for doing just that; it was quaint and crowded but still everyone spoke Spanish. We started the night at Taberna la Concha, a restaurant known for homemade vermouth. We sat downstairs on wobbly seats and watched as the waiter spritzed Austin's martini glass with gin, then added vermouth on top of cylinder ice and sprinkled Campari on top. It was incredibly smooth; I should have tried it before I had my sangria, because red wine was all I could taste. The next restaurant was a lot calmer: we drank white wine in a narrow apartment courtyard decorated with green plants and misters and then split what I thought were the most amazing croquettes and then moved on to the next one, where we sat at a high-top table in the front and Austin pulled me into dancing a couple songs of salsa that played on the TV. At the last bar I sipped a white wine but then made eyes at Austin’s beer, which turned out to be lemon Fanta with Mahou on top, and the young bartender paid attention: he grabbed my wine glass and switched it out with the lemon Mahou. The more Austin and I drank, the more we talked to each other in Southern slang.


Austin and I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid, and he talked to me about color and composition as I squinted and stroked my beard, and then we strolled from painting to painting and decided the overarching themes were naked angels and Jesus. There was The Lactation of St. Bernard and, on a separate and less Holy floor, Goya's giant eating a human, tearing and ripping at its flaccid neck.


After dinner in Barcelona, we walked out on the promenade as a drum band in the distance began to play and it was maybe my favorite moment in that tourist town, holding on to Austin at the cement wall, watching interpretive dancing in the foreground and the drummers in the back, catching glimpses of a fisherman between big boulders; watching one man read with his legs crossed and back perfectly straight, wondering how often he comes there to do just that. Contemplating what makes community and life and how it was 9 pm on a Monday and so many people were out, and in America so many people would be getting ready for bed because everyone lives to work, but in Spain it’s the other way around, each night begins at 8 or 8:30 and even small kids stay out until midnight.


As we headed out for tapas on Sunday, July 16, we noticed a few families, and stern-faced single men, toting big water guns. It all unfolded slowly at first, with a water gun here and there, but by the late afternoon Austin's neighborhood of Vallecas had exploded into a full-on street festival with music and beer and Spaniards dropping big buckets of water from their third-floor balconies as adults everywhere were snickering and laughing and squealing and attacking. Some people had super soakers, others the little guns you could tuck under your arm; others pesticide sprayers. Austin and I were called out for being tourists with no guns and attacked again and again as we hurried through danger zones, cracking up while avoiding eye contact as much as we could, which made us perfect targets. As it turns out, The Naval Battle is a decades-old tradition rooted in this ideology:

The Naval Battle celebrates and strenghtens thevallekanismo: the neighborhood as a frame for social mobilizations. Through this symbolic device, the long history of political demands, neighbors’ struggles, anarchist movements of Vallecas, become part of the process of constructing the neighborhood identity.

That's a lot of academic speak but basically it's a big-ass water fight that locals have used especially in recent years to cool down from the dangerously hot summer temps and unashamedly act like kids.


We danced four times, six if you’re counting the two times Austin convinced me to dance salsa where no one else was. In front of all these people? I’d ask, which I know is the wrong question or at least the wrong person to ask the question to, and he’d say he doesn’t care, and I'd try to explain that it's not so much that I don't want to be seen as it is don't want to make a scene--that I don't want to inconvenience or annoy. So he'd take me to the side and we'd dance a song or two and then sit back down and sip our drinks and I always imagine what others say if they watch; either: wow they're good or wow they think they're good, but I know, I know, it doesn't matter when you're having fun.


The first night at Discoteca Azúcar in Madrid there weren’t tons of people and maybe only one other man asked me to dance, and it was my first time dancing with Austin since February and I felt totally off. Sometimes dance is like that, so we tried again a few days later: I wore one of my favorite dresses, a cobalt blue with cut-out sides, and Austin and I danced right away and right at the front when we came in, and it was all so much better and felt so good, until a wardrobe malfunction stole the show so that all I could do was sip water and watch Austin dance and wonder whether the women who asked me whether my dress was broken were actually being as nice as I thought. There were so many days and nights in Spain, but Booty Night we remember.


On Saturday night we took an Uber to Medias Puri, an underground club. We walked into the club at 11 pm and were just about the first people in the room; there was a loud DJ and we danced bachata and sipped our strong drinks until suddenly the room had filled up and exploded into performers in red feathers doing interpretive dance; when the double doors opened, the crowds funneled in to see men on arial poles and mermaids on hoops. Between 90s blasts of Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls there were acrobatics and the crowd bursting into song and strobe lights that made the whole place dizzy.


I came here again and again and attempted to write but I didn't know how to start, how to write about the experience without saying too much or too little. But I've decided to say all of this: that being with someone again in the way that I am adds these extra layers to every day, how it engages the senses in a different way than being alone--how instead of saying "the city was so beautiful" you get to brush your hand against someone as they turn to see the lights; instead of saying "there was a sunset and a drum circle and ocean waves" you get to share the boardwalk and debate what's worth saving in the shallow sea: sunglasses maybe; body yes, even in the deep.

But this isn't me advocating for one above the other; I know that solo travel can mean I walked around for miles but was so distracted by my own thoughts I don't remember a thing, but I also know it can mean I took the dirt shortcut past white flowers and heard so many birds and the experience isn't at all you telling it later, the experience is wrapping your own arms around your cold body at 4 am and listening to the click click of your boots; the experience is finding that equilibrium between self and place, a peace and strength that comes from sensory engagement when there's no one beside you to short-circuit you there.

And I know that partnered travel can mean We walked around for miles and I was ready to go back but I know my partner wanted to stay; I know it can mean If I were alone I would have put myself out there more and done X, Y and Z; but I also know this, that every once in a while (and for however long) you're in step and tempo with another human so that when you think about whether you would have had a better experience alone, you see instead what you would have lost or missed. You see instead that sometimes (and for however long), opportunity cost is less about the ways you would have validated or asserted yourself in the world and more about what you've gained by sharing your time and space: the melted chocolate and churros, the clams, the conversations that feel even richer when you have them past midnight, and into dawn.

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