Finally, thankfully, at last, you are invited out with the others. You, the tall white exchange student in a class of Spanish kids, in a small town in the upper left corner of Spain. Basque Country. Some of them wear ETA patches on their coats and fantasize about the prospect of Basque independence. Some of them twist their names to sound differently than how they are spelled. Pedro becomes Pedu.
You haven’t become anything. You still have the name nobody can pronounce. Which, back home, is as plain as a school hot lunch. For the masses and a little embarrassing.
Let’s be honest, you have not been invited out until now because you have not been any fun. You have been moping through the first six months of this experience that everyone from your parents, to the random people you met on the airplane on the way over, said was going to change your life. You have spent most of your time aching for anything with the faintest whiff of Americanness. You even miss Dairy Queen! You hate Dairy Queen! You worked there all summer, sweating and stippling your forearms in flea-flicking specks of oil.
Listen, a small tragedy happened somewhere over the Atlantic: most of your CDs went missing. A thick, zip-bound portfolio of plastic discs you spent most of your summer job money on. There must have been over $500 bound up in that thing. A point of pride. How much you care about music. Now all you have left is SmashMouth. You are homesick to an extreme degree. How many times can you listen to Walkin’ on the Sun and still be called sane? And what can it mean that the music you were listening to on the way over was SmashMouth, a band you have come to recognize as demonstrably terrible? Why do you even have that CD? No wonder this year has been going to shit. You cast the curse yourself. So you bought The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill from a superstore in Bilbao. Now that’s all you listen to, though your host mother judges. Hip-hop, she says, almost choking the h’s.
But, six months in, things are about to change.
What happens is two things. First, your friend from home, Tom, the one who you can seamlessly toggle between watching Airplane and talking about girls with, is on his way over to visit. In fact, maybe he’s in the air somewhere now? Over an ocean. Getting up from his seat, stretching his legs, asking for a ginger ale. Time change and travel duration being math and concept you can’t quite get a hold of. In any case, he is coming and this makes you see your stay here through his eyes. You anticipate what he will think of the girls, of the beaches, of the comparably unfettered life kids your age enjoy, abuse, languish in. How he will relish all that you have left on the table. And this anticipation brightens you enough that when Raul, a popular boy in your class, steals Desi’s thong from her gym bag, by far the most beautiful girl, you find yourself beckoned into the flock of boys who cluster in the bathroom and take turns smelling it.
It’s thin, just a little louder than a whisper, electric green. Too little, it seems, to be of much use. You think of the way your penis dribbles sometimes after you pee and if you don’t shake it off correctly, the race of drops down your inner thigh. Did it work the same way with girls—women—and if it did, this poor strip of fabric was not enough.
Luis offers it up to you with both hands, as if it were something holy, and Raul watches. They all watch. To be called gay here is the worst of insults. You cannot risk being called gay. Not with Tom so close to arrive. So you dip your nose into Luis’ hands and inhale deeply. Like something from the beach. Like urine. Another thing entirely? Shit? Vagina? It’s disgusting and it’s incredible and you wish you knew more, but would never actually ask and risk seeming like you don’t know everything. It is important, this much you at least understand, to seem like you know everything. You smile in the way you think makes you look handsome. More to the left than the right. A smirk you will later recognize, when you are looking over photos from your past, that comes off as constipated. And the other boys, usually they only speak English to you, ask you in Spanish how you like it.
Me agrada, you say, and all of them laugh and laugh and you find yourself carrying along.
Then, when badass Desi discovers what has happened and reacts in a way that shocks everyone by crying and going to the teacher instead of beating someone up, the teacher, Mr. Lipsky, an American like you, but with a hitched gait from some past disease and a wife, the rumor is, much too attractive for him, turns as red as a tomato. He stands before the class, waiting for the culprits to come forward, biting his lower lip so that the white whiskers at the very edge stick straight out.
First Raul, and then the others, stand and admit their role. It seems honorable, like the final scene in a movie, and you can’t imagine anyone back home coming forward like that. The teacher asks if anyone else was involved. You find yourself compelled to rise, an instinctual act of bravery that is unlike you. The teacher shakes his head slightly, as if you have let him down above all others, dear countryman, but also you can see something else underneath. That he has pitied you. Now he will have to reconsider.
Later, Raul invites you to the Casco. It’s a legendary place. A place your host mother has told you never to go. But you go. You tell her you are only going as far as Algorta. But you go. You even buy wine and a liter of Coke, like you know they all drink. The shopman doesn’t ask your age. You are too tall. Or too foreign. Or he doesn’t care. If this were a musical, you’d dance out of that shop with your two plastic bags held aloft by centrifugal force—which you are learning about in class. Tomorrow, when you pick up Tom, you will be able to reference last night. Last night I went out. Last night I bought booze. Last night…
You meet them on some steps just outside the Zazpi Kaleak station. You raise your hand and say aupa, hello in Basque, and good for you, nobody calls you out on your accent or your affect. They straddle mopeds, they smoke cigarettes. They look like gods. Raul specifically. Long hair down to his shoulders. A leather jacket for god’s sake. You feel like a little old lady, weighed down by her shopping.
Luis takes the plastic bags from your hands, pours the Coke to glisten down the steps and make room for the wine. Raul pulls you over and tells you he has weed. He assumes that you, an American will know all about it. You play along. Yeah, yeah bro. But when he produces a black, pudgy square of something, you wonder if you have misunderstood. Weed is green? A three-leaf plant? If you aren’t mistaken, with little flowers? Perhaps this is actually something harder. Heroin. Or crystal meth. The truth is, you have never done anything outside of smoke a couple of cigars, drink a couple of beers. You are wholly unqualified to identify drugs. Coffee still sends you spinning. Heroin seems like a bad choice. You wonder idly, if doing it once can really hook you. Black tar.
Raul lights a corner of the little smudgy thing and it crumbles into his palm. He pinches this stuff into the slit of a cigarette. It looks, for a moment, like the belly of a dead perch. Those are the fish you and your dad never try and catch but seem to hook regardless. The ones with the slimy spines that cut his palm when he tries to unhook them, make him suck his blood, spit into the lake you visit every summer, just the two of you. Father and son. Masculine field trips into the wilds where you can practice the art of man. Huh, huh! Those trips you always feel a little unqualified for? As though there were some training material you weren’t given but which is absolutely vital. Your dad is forever cursing the perch, at one point yelling into the water, wondering where the trout are. You don’t care. You hum happily along. The ones you fry up taste good, better than normal fish, maybe because of the work, the pain. But they don’t leave you full when you go to sleep and you always wake up, hungry and urgent to try again. As if perhaps it is your fault there aren’t more trout in the lake? Just give me another chance?
Raul licks the spliff closed, healing the joint, and rubs it back and forth. It is no longer a fish and—a bit of familiarity in the scent—most definitely weed. Or a variant of it. A crumble of the drug sits in the corner of his mouth. You watch it ride his words. You’re staring at his lips. He has a mustache, as nobody else does. He lights and drags. He passes it to you. You take it and inhale. You will do anything, you realize, and this thrills you more than it scares you.
Raul stands and you see his fly is halfway down. You wonder if he wears underwear. Before you came here, you read somewhere that European men don’t wear underwear and this terrifies you. Imagine if you too were compelled to do away with underwear. So far, nobody has come for them. You will stay on guard.
You are laughing, and you cannot stop. You are laughing and you see yourself from the outside. You are a machine that is made to laugh, only something has gone wrong and you are wearing yourself down. The components you are made up of weren’t meant to handle this kind of load.
You ride the back of Raul’s moped and he tears through the streets on some kind of invisible line that only he can see. A directive of safety, despite all speed, all risk, you will arrive unharmed. You pass a moped going the other way. A woman is driving this one, with a man sitting behind. He reaches up and grips her breasts. She honks her horn. Raul turns his helmeted head and you think he is saying something but it is lost in his helmet, outside yours, who can tell. You hold tighter as he turns. You try not to think about the woman on the moped. About the heat between your legs.
In another place, you are all puddles on the sidewalk eating French fries with little wooden forks. Tomas is playing Rage Against the Machine on his Walkman. You all take turns listening. The foam on the headphones is coming apart like ticking on an old pillow. He thinks Rage Against the Machine is the best band ever. Or you think that’s what he is saying. You agree without stopping to think about it. You promise yourself that the next CD you buy will be a Rage Against the Machine. It will not.
A small kid walks down the street with a stick in his hands, emanating an aura of power, even you recognize that, though you do not understand why. He comes up to you and brings the stick down on your thighs. It stings so bad, you think you might be cut. A hotness dribbles out that feels like blood but when you touch your pants, you can’t feel any wetness. The kid is watching you. He is calling you names. He is eight years old and he is calling you a cocksucker. The juxtaposition between his little, still-plump body and the hard, grown up words is hilarious. And insulting.
Fuck! you say, such a delicious word, even if you are late. You feel emboldened by the night, by being out here, invited along. By the fact that the kid is tiny compared to you. By that word which can mean everything. Fuck. He can’t call you those things. You’re going to push him. You’re going to show him. You have never been in a fight before, but you are sure you’ll be able to handle this kid. Only Raul holds you back. He whispers wetly in your ear that you should be careful. You imagine him biting your earlobe and then push the thought away. Later, when you sleep, you’ll have a dream where you and Raul are in a giant eagle’s nest, naked, thrusting your erect penises at each other as if you are jousting. What does that mean? But who cares? You don’t care. Only out of the shadows come two dark men. Huge in leather jackets, thick beards. They are laughing and drinking. They are watching the child smack the drinkers and call them cocksuckers. Raul drapes an arm around your shoulders, tells you to watch. One man dares to stand up to the kid after he snatches the beer from his girlfriend’s hand, takes a sip, and then smashes the bottle to the cobblestones. The man hits the kid, who cries out. Then the two men dispatch the boyfriend with swift, efficient violence and they all disappear.
Later, on a hill, Raul pushes you into a girl who is a head shorter than you. You feel strangely betrayed. But before you know it, you are kissing her. You can’t get enough. It hurts, this kissing, and you know that all of the people, Raul, Luis, Tomas, the girls’ friends, are watching. They are so happy to be watching. They are laughing.
You come with me? the girl asks.
And you think you should, shouldn’t you? Imagine telling Tom about this night. Imagine showing up at the airport still a little drunk, hiding it from your host dad but winking. This is why you have come so far. Something like this girl is why you are in someplace like this.
Si, me agrada, you say and you pick up your coat from the pile of coats you all made when you got to the top of the hill and were hot from the climb, and you turn back to the girl, who waits like moonlight.
Luis leans in, skinny gross Luis who likes to imagine aloud what every vagina might feel like in terms of fruits. He tells you: She has a mustache. Bigote. And, in case you didn’t understand, he holds his finger beneath his nose and smiles.
Fuck off, you tell him in English. And when you walk to the girl everyone is laughing, and even if she does have a mustache, you can always claim to have been drunk.
The girl takes you to a private place in the park made from the doorway of a long-shuttered building. Maybe it was once a bathroom, or a maintenance hut. It’s silly, you think, for anyone to build anything in a park and expect it will be used as intended. It is covered in graffiti, strange smells truant around it, there is garbage everywhere.
You sit on the ground and she straddles you. You feel like a god, out here in the open with her. You kiss and touch her small breasts outside her clothing, squeezing like you saw the man do on the moped, until she pulls your hands off and you just focus on kissing. You do this for an eternity. Until the backs of your knees ache and your penis feels raw from her constant sliding back and forth. You ask her for her number and she tells you what you think is, that would be nice. But you don’t exchange numbers. She just walks you to the metro and there, in florescence, you see that she does, indeed, have a mustache. Not quite to Raul’s level, but better than yours.
You say goodbye. You do not kiss her, though you think you could have.
You make the last train of the night and one stop down you see Raul waiting on the platform. He is drunk and zombie-eyed and while you were with the girl, he was into something bigger. He sees you, at the last moment, and dodges away from his traincar, sticking a hand into yours. The doors chomp shut on him and you worry he will be torn in two. Only the doors open again and an automated voice chindes him to stand clear of the closing doors.
You are horrified. You cannot imagine the cruelty that is about to come your way. How much fun Raul will have mocking you for kissing the mustache girl. He will tell Tom, who will spread the tale back home. You’ll never get away from it.
Instead he just sits next to you, smiling dopily, and falls asleep on your shoulder in the swaying lullaby of the last train, empty and light-filled. The train rocks on, shedding passengers, until you and Raul are the only two you can see. You sit erect and no longer feel the slightest bit inebriated. His long, lank hair smells of oil, too long unwashed, and you find yourself growing hard. The train approaches the Algorta station and, stuttering and slow, it stops. Some kind of trouble there, ahead in the darkness. Raul softly stirs. His hand travels down and you find yourself angling your hips toward it. He undoes your pants and pulls you out, right there, in the wash of light, the darkness outside complete. He laughs even as he begins pumping up and down, a furious work, too hard, really, too fast, but you find yourself aching toward the pain. You come just before the train starts up again. You are all rushing forward. Then he is gone, his station, and you are scrambling to contain yourself, and you still have stops and stops to go before you reach home.
That night, you can’t sleep. You can’t understand what happened or what it might mean. These kids you’ve met here, they go out all the time. There is no such thing as a school night. And you can’t imagine facing them tomorrow. Raul. You consider pretending to be sick, but your host mother is supposed to pick you up early from school so you can go to the airport and get Tom. This lie would complicate that. You try and sleep. You get up, stare at yourself in the bathroom mirror. There is some redness there, on your upper lip. A rasping. Holy shit. The girl with the mustache. Raul on the train. Your jeans and underwear are already in the washer downstairs.
One day, fifteen years on, you will tell this story to two friends while you are playing instruments, jamming, trying to live lives outside of your wives and your kids, and it will kill. It will be the best story they’ve heard in a long while. Your terror, red lip, will be the punchline. And it will hold none of the weight outside your mouth that it did when it was stuck inside your gut.
But now it is much more than a story. It is the end of your life. You can’t sleep. You think you would rather die. You imagine someone back home dying. Someone close enough to you that it would be a no-brainer to return for the funeral but not someone so close to you that it might actually fuck up your life.
You feel evil. Sinful. Beyond redemption.
You will come back to Spain one day, with your family, and you’ll feel all of these things again. As if they are secreted by the benches, the metro stops, the town square that you spent a year lurking around. And one morning, you will wake up before them and go out on the balcony of your hotel with a coffee and a book, a stolen moment, of which you don’t get too many, and you will see, shambling down the street, the grownup version of Raul. He will be wearing a too-big suit. He will have a mustache and beard. You will almost call out, but you will not do it, in the end, until he is too far away to hear, your call little more than a yelp, and he will turn and disappear.
You lay there, in your tangled bed, and think up the best strategies. You are sure you will be mocked. Should you fight back? Make fun of Luis’ smelly funk, Tomas’ acne? Or maybe, a crazy part of you chirps, maybe you own the whole thing. Say, yeah, I don’t know, maybe I liked it.
And then your host mother is waking you up. Your host father is smiling over his newspaper. You are getting the train and then the bus. You are walking the winding road to the school. You are sitting at your desk. You are watching your classmates arrive, one by one, with the stories they have picked up the night before.
In two weeks, in three, Raul will be caught on the train with a man twenty years older than him. The man will be arrested and Raul, though everything was supposed to be kept anonymous, will be flayed alive by your classmates. They will be gleeful, to reshuffle the social order. They will call him maricon and ask him if the reason he grows his mustache is to have a place to wipe away all the cum he gets on his lips. Despite not making a lot of logical sense, it will be ruthless and cruel. You will not stand up for him and he will take it all silently, sometimes looking to you, asking you, it seems, what you think of all this. One day, he will shave his mustache. One day, he will be gone. Transferred to another school. Living with his aunt in Cadiz, in the south of Spain, down, down, down away from everything that knew him.
But that’s not right, is it? You did manage to call out from the balcony that day, loud enough that Raul turned and looked at you. You waved, he waved back. You still wonder if he recognized you.