Saturday, September 4, 2010

The end of summer

I've been promising this one for a while. Even in middle of this overdue spring-clean, this particular post has been sitting on the shelf for too long. I've tried to tell it in other places, to varying degrees of success; if I get it right this time, you'll understand my reluctance to tell it until now.

I was back in the States for three weeks in late summer, visiting friends and family in three states, going to a wedding, and playing guide on a friend's first trip to Burning Man. I came back newly shaved, in long shorts and sandals and wearing a fading sunburn, to a particularly bitter Berlin night; between August and September the seasons had lost no time in turning. When I got home I changed to jeans and a light sweater and dug a heavy jacket out from a storage box to hang on a hook by the door.

So I was excited to get one last weekend of summer when I accepted the invitation of, oh for lack of a better let's call them Gin & Tonic, a married couple and friends of mine from years back, formerly lawyers as well, who made their leisurely and elegant departure for Barcelona about the time I fled, ragged-edged, to Berlin. I'd been at their wedding, which took place upon a particularly lovely coast in Brazil during a February when New York (so I read barefoot on my work-issued Blackberry) was being paralyzed by ice storms, and they've always been good for a timely escape to the beach.

Airfare within the E.U. is astoundingly cheap, due to new competition from discount upstarts like Easy Jet and Ryan Air, and refreshingly easy, so long as one stays within the Shengen countries that have reciprocal recognition of each other's visa procedures. We landed at Barcelona International at perhaps eleven, and by eleven-ten I was off the plane, across the tarmac, and looking pitiously from baggage claim at the travelers from America and a dozen other countries still huddled behind great glass walls and waiting for the clerk at passport control.

I think I've mentioned this before, but it continues to astound me how much better the Europeans are at the ordinary daily actions that make up living. I ran out of my German toothpaste in America and had to spend the next week brushing with one of the major brands—of course it was flavored like mint candy; of course it was extra-whitening. You can't buy toothpaste that tastes like toothpaste, or makes no claim to give you a gleamingly, blindingly white smile. (I know, because I have sensitive teeth that are made more sensitive by whitening toothpaste; the ingredient that makes it whitening is an abrasive, often silica, and the mechanism by which is works is to strip off a thin layer of enamel.) You can't buy hand soap that isn't anti-bacterial and doesn't thereby contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistent bacteria strains. You can't buy a human sized portion of food or get anywhere without a car or buy a bottle of beer and sit down outside to watch the sun set. The magnificently lubricated process from seat 32D to the full-faith-and-credit of the airport concourse struck me, of course, but I'd become rather adroit at simply filing such observations in the single file labeled "things we keep doing wrong for no reason."

I had waited at the airport for the other couch surfer's plane to land, scheduled to be perhaps a half hour after mine. We have a fair bit of history, I and—let's call him Diz for the moment. Now there are, as it turns out, two terminals in Barcelona's airport, so I spent a long time wondering where the heck his plane was, anyway, while he grew increasingly frustrated with why I was not where I repeatedly had told him I would be. Well, I say "increasingly frustrated," but there's a limit to how sharp an edge one's temper can take when it's seventy-seven Fahrenheit and breezy in Barcelona. When I finally caught up to Diz, he looked immaculate, in pressed shirt and sunglasses, and betrayed little if any irritation at the situation, despite having been directed to wait for me for almost an hour in a smoke-free zone.

As I mentioned, we have a fair bit of history, Diz and I. I mostly know him through the Gin half of G&T, who introduced us years back. We spent a couple of weeks splitting hotel rooms when we went to G&T's wedding in Brazil, and spent a fair bit of time comparing our respective lamentations about the rest of our traveling party. It turns out Diz shares my mellow sourness, which probably explained how well we got along together more than anything except, of course, the fact that we were the only two smokers on the trip. I've given up the cigarettes since then, but not the generally pissy disposition, and I was looking forward to seeing Diz probably as much as I was to seeing Gin & Tonic. Not half as much as I was looking forward to the beach and the last hot gust of summer, but still.

On the first night we headed to the football stadium. Gin had got four tickets to Barca-Madrid, which at the time of purchase was supposed to be a crucial match for both clubs, but which quickly turned into a laugher in the home team's benefit. Messi single-handedly dribbled through walls of defenders to punch in one of the later goals, and even to my untutored eye, it was obvious why Gin called him the game's best active player; it was a marvel to watch. Sloppy defense predominated on both sides of the field, and the home team won 5-3.

The trip out of the stadium involves a long trek that winds, multi-tiered, until it deposits the swimming crowd out onto the street and a wait for a taxi. We head home first, where Gin hands us the spare key and gives an introductory lecture on procedures for the weekend. Diz and I step outside and I'm sure look absolutely bewildered as our eyes race up and down through the brief visible stretches of the neighborhood's narrow streets scanning for any sign or symbol of a bar.

G&T have a much nicer place than is my place in Berlin. Which is to say, it makes me realize at once what a shithole I've managed my way into, tidily ordered and swept and mopped once a week though it may be. The airy room, not so much hemmed as canopied by the high, arching ceilings, don't shout out loud the proper luxury they've managed to achieve but rather mention it off-hand, casually misstepping with the sort of clumsiness that only sophistication can manage as to remind the visitor of his left-handed rubeishness. It seems to say, "Oh, but surely your place is just as nice, right? In its own way, I mean." The balcony framed by a pair of enormous French doors forms the vortex of a perfectly formed home that feels easily taken for granted in the Old World and naturally would command a year of Ivy League tuition to rent in the New one. And they're paying more for it than I am for mine, significantly, but I can't spend minutes there without getting the feeling that they know something about how to do this expat thing better than I do, that they have realized something that's still escaped me. The feeling lasts a moment, until I realize that of course they know how to do this thing better than I do. It's not just Tonic's international background or that Gin lived in Europe for years before I met him in New York. It's just another drumbeat of a slow, steady song reminding me that I haven't got a clue what I'm doing here.

Enormous though it is, every place gets cramped when its occupancy is doubled by even nominally welcome houseguests. Diz is to sleep in the guest room; I sleep on the couch. I offered to take the couch as an act of cheap charity to Diz, but also out of great indifference, as I tend not to mind sleeping on couches, and might even say I enjoy them as well as a guest-bed. Still, it likely comes to the greater discomfort of our hosts, who as a matter of habit and routine rise earlier than I do, even slumbering as I am on a couch in a brilliantly sunny room with a single sheet and pillow. Each morning I wake, blurry eyed and embarrassed, to find that breakfast has begun, that all the other occupants have risen at the customary hour for grownups, that only what appears to be a teenager or college student remains asleep on the extralong sofa in the living room. There is only one bathroom, and it connects directly to G&T's bedroom, so showers are accomplished in shifts, a great curtain shifting either to separate the master bedroom from the bath when its our turn, or else the two rooms from the rest of the apartment when it's theirs. Those nights we don't head out to a restaurant, dinners are prepared by T. The kitchen is perhaps the only part of the apartment that feels a bit cramped when more people than she is in it. I wonder if this is not an oversight but merely an expression of the traditional division of household labor that's evidently ingrained itself even into the architecture here.

Days are predictably spent absorbing ultraviolet rays. G&T live a few blocks behind the back of the Gaudi museum, the front of which looks out directly onto the ocean, but the trip to the beach somehow involves travel that is both lengthy and complicated. Their neighborhood is made of tall buildings built unbelievably close and divided by incomprehensibly tortuous streets. Automobile traffic presents no issue, as impossible in the streets, narrower at places than even one of those new microsized Smartcars. Not a single straight street is to be found in the entire district, each instead veering left and then right and occasionally horseshoeing around. The streets are irregularly marked by signs affixed directly on the sides of buildings approximately ten feet up, and it takes me til the end of the second day before I master the order of turns to complete even the relatively short trip to their building when unaccompanied. The buildings are high enough to block out the midday sun and, except for the occasional plaza or unusually wide intersection of three streets at cross-angles, feel like they're not merely towering over one but bending overhead, as if bending over the street below but arrested just as the instant of collapse. Nevertheless, the tight passages are somehow comforting rather than claustrophobic, almost as though the endless surfaces of brick and steel felt to the weary mind like soft blankets in the warm, sea-salty air. If I were a psychotherapist, or had one, I might linger over the possible association with the womb. As things are, I smear more sunscreen on my neck and ears and ask how far we have yet to go.

Once we finally have wound our way out of the dark labyrinth, we have to cross the space in front of the museum before searching for a possible crossing to the zippy oceanside boulevard. The museum's enormous round plaza feels like a grand yet unraised archway, flushing us out from what now seems near-nighttime into glorious sun. From there, we proceed down a long boardwalk before finally reaching the beach itself. The boardwalk's an impressive bit of construction in its own right; a great sculpture that reminds me of Calder but which is almost certainly something inspired instead by Miro stands roughly at the meridian of the Gaudi, and we pass on the left side toward the beach. Off in the near distance to the right is a row of immediately new, almost insistent construction projects, capped at its near end by an enormous sail-shaped hotel, a precise-enough replica of the more famous building in Dubai. The walk toward the beach ambles artfully around the last block of storefronts and apartments, pushing back the last fringe of the city so gently that one doesn't realize he's been swept, arm across shoulder, past a metaphorical velvet rope and escorted out of all memory of urban civilization. To repeat myself somewhat, were I a psychotherapist I might perhaps wonder at the metaphor of being birthed from tight, stony encapsulation into the blinding wilderness of white sand and blue skies. But the way it actually happened was I immediately felt like I was getting a sunburn and reached for the rubber tube of Neutrogena.

Ahh, the beach, the beach. The beach ran forever in at least one direction, the other appearing closed off by the new windsail building. Clothing is optional here, both tops and bottoms, for either gender, and I'm reminded again this is never really the attraction you hope for. A dozen or more topless women are in sight more or less at every moment, but it seems I've matured since being thirteen in this particular way, if (as is likely) in no ways besides: being thirty, it takes more than a woman being topless to excite me. Not much more, I'll grant; being topless and more attractive than the average Congressman, for instance, or being topless and not simultaneously attached at the hip to a svelte, blond Dutch boyfriend, would probably do it. Yet the application of even these forgiving filters quickly reduces the population of half-naked women to a null set. I note, silently and with some irony, that if the thirteen-year-old who eventually would grow to be me had been less obsessed with the possibility of someday seeing a topless woman he might never have bothered to learn the meaning of "null set." Or more obsessed, maybe, is what I'm trying to---I don't know, and while I'm at the beach I can't be bothered to think that hard about such things.

Mere existence on the beach is almost narcotic; although I can recognize perhaps seven distinct languages being spoken, everyone falls into a wordless, spontaneous order, guided by nothing except possibly some hidden code in the rhythm of the waves. Despite the blinding sunlight and (comparative) absence of needles, the scene would remind one of an opium den; Coleridge could have finished "Kublai Khan" uninterrupted, here. Without even being instructed, I adopt the local accustom of assuming every red mammoth to be a German on holiday. The crowd is international and universally adopts a posture of lethargic enthusiasm. A tall, lanky man whom G eventually recognizes from one of his language classes stomps down the beach wearing a broad grin and what looks like a thin carpet rolled up roughly.

The man nears and what seemed like a carpet turns out to be a construction paper recreation of a marijuana cigarette, far, far larger than life size. He's approaching group after group of sunbathers to hand them a sheet of paper that leads "Big Spliff" and describes the screenplay the tall man has authored and the production of which he is trying to finance by soliciting wary beachgoers. The plot is absurd, transparently born of the Big Spliff Guy's love affair with what he conceives to be his own deep, abiding intelligence and preternatural wisdom. The protagonist is a tall man toting a large spliff, a latter-day messiah who bestrides the beach as a colossal waste of time, bothering people who just came to sit in the sun. Well, you write what you know, I suppose. The style is self-indulgent and frankly amateurish, although clearly the product of someone who fancies himself a writer of the first rate. The flyer promises knotty philosophical problems and delivers about what you'd expect from a guy toting a big spliff, deliberate musings on whether what I think of as the color blue really looks the same as the color blue to you, man. One cannot fault the author's energy and enthusiasm for his subject matter. The picture scrawled of Barcelona looks like an awful lot of fun, even as it doesn't look an awful lot like the Barcelona I've seen so far. "Condoms and samosas offer testimony to the fact that the last night was not uneventful." I object to the gratuitous litotes, although one might well wonder that I don't cheer for it. The samosas line confuses me, so I ask G&T about it.

"Oh," says G, "vendors sell them at night. It's just like street food, for after a night of drinking." Every town's got its own specialty, I think; pizza in New York, felafels in Berlin, hot dogs somewhere else, probably.

"Oh," I say, as my mind fails to turn. After a beat I realize it hasn't resolved my confusion at all. "Wait—but then why would the samosas be near the condom wrappers? First, why are the condom wrappers on the ground at all; are people having sex on the beach? Not that I'm thinking of coming back later just to watch, mind."

"Of course not."

"But even if they are, what the hell is supposed to be the association? Are people supposed to be fucking on the sand, and immediately rolling off to grab a snack? 'Baby you were wonderful. And can I interest you in a samosa?'" G&T laugh, and Diz pulls another drag from his cigarette, although none of us move from our

Nights Diz and I head out to get impossibly lost in the city. Miss XYZ knows from the city and has directed me to try out a bar named for a particularly famous alcoholic-in-recovery. It's the sort of sourly dark joke for which we share an appreciation. That's perhaps one of the reasons she still keeps me as a friend; god knows it's a mystery to me, sometimes. I forget to look up its directions, though, so we don't make it to the Dryout Tavern until perhaps the third night. The first night, after the football match, Diz and I opt to stick close to home. This is out of an abundance of caution rather than a dose of laziness, as neither of us has any confidence of our ability to find our way back from anyplace not with direct line-of-sight to the front door. Directly across the street is a place just closing up; next door is a place that should have by now, to judge from the sparse clientele. We both pretend we're just grateful for the nightcap and try not to look too obviously forlorn at the absence of any women. The next night we head out farther, and the next farther still. The second night, G takes us to an absinthe bar, which underwhelms on every metric except the strength of the booze; it's overlit and almost looks like an American country bar, rather than the bohemian den of iniquity one would expect the Green Fairy to inhabit.

We don't realize it at the time but Barcelona's at the height of its real estate and tourism bubbles, and within the Euro Zone prices are comparably quite high. Bars charge more for beer than in Berlin by a fair margin, and more than I remember them costing in New York, even. Each night we eventually give up and head back to streets and the beach, where sidewalk vendors sell fifty-cent cans of Estella for a euro, which is still a pretty good deal. The dealers can't possibly make enough to afford Barcelona at those rates, I wonder, so it's an "aha" moment the first time (not the last) when I hand over a five for the beer and accept my change along with a whispered invitation to purchase one of their other fine wares, for obvious reasons not one they are advertising to the general public. I thank you for your kindness, Senor, but I have no need for hashish at the moment, I say in perfect Catalan. (Or else I just shake my head no.)

Diz occasionally drops out of the bar we're visiting in order to grab a cigarette. I have quit; he has not. Possibly that was one of the things that made us so tight, in the old days, was that I could always count on Diz if I needed a smoke buddy, and I never of course said no, myself. At G&T's wedding, the two of us bought short piles of cigarette packs and lighters, since we knew between the two of us we'd eventually get through them. In Brazil the packages are required to include a photograph of some horrifying illness or other that you get from smoking in addition to the textual warning, which was amusing to those of use who couldn't read Portuguese. The tracheotomy was blatant, and the dissected human heart, oozing plaque, even more so, but some of the others were ciphers, causing a table full of drunk Americans to scratch their heads as they lit up. One picture showed a dustbin of dead rodents and insects, which was never satisfactorily resolved but which we eventually decided probably meant that the same chemicals as are in pesticides are in cigarettes. Another showed a cigarette that was let smolder until the entire length was but ash and drooped over almost like a candy cane; I'm still rather proud that I was the one to figure that this was a warning that cigarettes cause impotence. One of our more health-conscious traveling companions, exasperated one night, asked us how the hell we could look at the picture of someone's lungs being removed and want to smoke. Either Diz or I responded candidly, "I don't know. It's like I see the picture, and I realize that the cigarettes are bad for you, and I wonder if I'm going to have my lung taken out, and I get stressed, and when I get stressed... I kind of need a cigarette." Some of the others may have laughed, but we weren't joking.

Eventually I quit by using a pill that blocks all the receptors in your brain, so that smoking a cigarette cannot reinforce the chemical side of the addiction. It also means that the cigarette no longer has any effect on the smoker, doesn't relieve the craving for nicotine. Normally, the relationship between a smoker and his cigarette is a really intimate thing; the addiction creates a void in the smoker's psyche that the cigarette is able to fill precisely, and uniquely—there's never anything else like it. That's the reason we weren't joking when we said the anti-tobacco ads made us need a cigarette, because any stress a smoker feels is never really relieved as perfectly, as neatly, as by a cigarette. In the same way, nothing else serves as a self-congratulation so well as a cigarette, nothing else captures the subtle poignance of a high moment. Smoking understands a smoker like no lover or friend he'll ever have, knows exactly what he needs and wants at any of a thousand moments. Probably nothing else humankind has ever touched has ever fit so perfectly into a 4pm escape from the office and also into the ten minutes right after sex. And like he'll do for no lover or friend, the smoker forgives smoking's faults, even becoming blind to them. Nonsmokers complain about the smell, which makes no sense to him, because the smoke doesn't smell like burning weeds; in the mouth of a smoker, a cigarette develops this sort of tinny savor, sour and pleasant all at once. It's the simplest, most complete relationship there can be: A smoker feels cravings, has a cigarette, no longer feels cravings. On the pill, however, you feel cravings, you smoke the cigarette, and the cravings are still there. Actually, it's a bit weirder, because cigarettes no longer taste good; they smell to the smoker like they do to a non-smoker. But the cycle of addiction is broken, so after a few weeks the physical addiction is gone, which isn't much comfort, because you realize that what you thought was a physical addiction was really, profoundly psychological, and there's no pill you can take for that. Eighteen months of breathing clean, I can state with certainty that I'm under no chemical temptation to light up. But still I sometimes remember how damn cool it felt to light a cigarette, and sometimes miss the gesture of it. The feeling of it—the high, the mellowing, the relief—that's all gone, but its pale reflection remains, like the echo in one's memory of a song all but forgotten. The image of myself as a smoker, nickel-plated lighter and matching cigarette case, dressed sharply and thinner than I am, drawing coolly, even contemptuously on the filter tip... I do sometimes miss that romantic vision. Sometimes.

I certainly don't miss being addicted, or the physical limitations imposed by smoking, which I'm only now beginning to realize, in full. I've been off the things for eighteen months, now, and for the first time since I was twenty-three I can run farther, faster, than I could a year ago; for the first time as an adult I feel better, healthier, than I used to. In Berlin I run eight miles along the Kanal and my time on the mile sometimes dips below eight minutes (I know, but it's a big deal for me). While in Barcelona, I run along the beach at sundown, following a four-mile stretch of boardwalk and matching the tempo of my trance-and-progressive iPod playlist, and when I reach the end of the beach I don't feel half-done yet, but I'm reluctant to run on the streets and turn back. All I could say about it is nothing new to people who run, and entirely inexpressible to those who don't, but the runner's high is a cliché for a reason. Sixty minutes on the track makes you feel brand new. Your body feels realer than it ever has, like you've only just learned how to make yourself move; skin hot under a layer of sweat feels tight, elastic, and it stretches over muscles that squeeze like there's nothing you can't lift or jump over. Your heart feels strong enough to power a car engine and your lungs feel like they could stretch to the size of a room, and even if you've got a bum knee, it hurts in a way that somehow makes pain feel like pleasure. You're delirious and clear-headed and feel like you could do anything; I don't have any real experience with drugs but I can't imagine anything, anything, feels this good. Even a shower and dinner and three hours of drinking and trying (once again) to find women and failing (once again), I feel serene.

On our way back that night, I realize I utterly have neglected to count the floor of G&T's apartment. I think I shall certainly recognize the door, but after the first few floors I realize I'm completely at sea. Their building has a central stair way that's gorgeous but not exactly confidence-inspiring, winding upwards in a steady if uneven spiral and bounded by a thick bannister constructed of heavy, dark wood. Nevertheless, the wood gives off a feel of being from perhaps a century before the last one, and each floor is just enough dissimilar from the one just below it that an upwards-bound traveler is bound to get suspicions about the professional rigor of the architect. (The guy who designed the balcony and the bay windows, of course, you can't help but have absolute faith in.) Fortunately, Diz is there to point the correct doorway out to me, as well as to puzzle out which key on the heavy keyring is the one that opens the chamber door.

After a few days our cultural inertia starts to feel inappropriate, given the present location, and Diz and I spend an afternoon at the museums. G&T are busy with other things, but they're able to show us how the trains work; the museums are at the top of a hill serviced only by a trolley line that seems otherwise completely unconnected to Barcelona's transit grid, and I'm pretty sure I would have gotten entirely lost if they hadn't held my hand through it. We see the standing exhibit at the Picasso museum and another at the one devoted to Miro, whose early works look suspiciously derivative of Picasso's. Then again, an awful lot of painters in the early 20th century seem to be consciously or otherwise imitating Picasso, or so it seems I remember having heard sometime. If true, that would I suppose explain Picasso's reputation as the century's greatest artist, if nearly all his contemporaries found his approach so compelling as to see no other way to keep working but in imitation of him, like every ambitious author trying to match James Joyce. But then I'm not entirely sure that I'm remembering this the correct way. Indeed, I'm not even confident in saying Picasso is the greatest artist of the century, and it feels like that's the sort of thing everyone should be able to state with a fair bit of confidence. I shake my head, regretful at not having obtained a better education in the humanities, and walk through the rest of the rooms pretending to have a meaningful appreciation for the works on display.

Near the museums is the hilltop complex Barcelona built for the Olympics in 1992. It's truly monumental, enormous and white and gleaming, and empty except for a dozen other tourists, a handful of locals working food stands, and an extended family of languorous but technically wild dogs.  Diz and I walk through the arena for the track events, then down a grand collonade that concludes with an enormous modern sculpture we're no better placed to appreciate for all of our recent civilization, and instead look out over the city that we don't really recognize.  

On the trolley back downhill we hear English in an American accent floating up from a pair of blondes standing in front of the next care. The look in Diz's eyes gives away exactly what he's thinking, as I'm sure does the mirror-image of it in mine. We invent a pretext to swap our car for theirs and start a conversation. (Actually, now that I think about it, there may actually have been vomit in the first car we boarded. Which isn't to say it was the best way to introduce ourselves, all the same.) They seem nice and quite attractive, but something odd hangs about them that I can't place until they say (of course!) they're from Los Angeles. My snap judgment is that the shorter of the two probably has the better body but wears too much makeup. It's a relief when Diz says he prefers her, as I think I like the taller one. Call them Polly and Anna, the shorter and taller respectively—actually, I can't remember their names now, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if those really were their names; the encounter had that kind of artificial feeling. We talk on the short trolley ride and then part; Polly hands Diz her card and we leave with the undefined plan to meet for a late drink over the next couple days.

Diz and I amble our way back to G&T's, have a late lunch. When we speak, we each take turns avoiding the subject while utterly failing to convince the other that we're anything but single-minded on the question of what, precisely, it will take to sleep with the two Americans. When it comes up that evening, I say we should call them immediately to make plans to meet that night sometime after dinner, since we're only there for a few more days. G insists we should wait another day. Diz seems unsure, persuadable either way. This goes back a long way with G and me; in law school we had late-night strategy sessions on particular bedding techniques when we were supposed to be reviewing Property. (To this day, I cannot articulate the difference between interests appurtenant to a property and those incidental to said property, but can declaim at length why a single woman is more likely to go home with you the week before the start of summer of winter holiday, or before spring break, too, so long as the next week isn't taking her to Paris or a beach somewhere.)   

Polly's card has a cellphone number and also her email; the domain of the address is her-full-name-dot-com. While G is out running errands and I'm distracted with something or other, T and Diz discover that she's an actress with a decent-sized list of credits, and uncover this exceedingly unsafe-for-work clip. (I don't care where you work, do not click on this until you're safely at home on a browser that doesn't record your search history.) T and Diz shout to me across the room until I come to watch; the three of us are all fairly drop-jawed and stunned into silence. I didn't remember Polly looking like she does in the clip, exactly—she wore nearly as much makeup, but it wasn't done so professionally, and her hair was straighter and pulled into a ponytail. But after the second or third viewing, the liquid-crystallized image and my shifting memories start to coincide: it is her; it must be her. T makes G watch, too, once he returns, and he roars with laughter and claps his hands. It seems he finds it entirely hilarious, what Diz and I have gotten ourselves into. I try to suppress the pangs of resentment at Diz, that between the two of us and the two Los Angelinas, he's been allocated the softcore princess.

G declares that we should make no definite plans but place a casual call late in the evening. I suggest an earlier call instead, to inquire at least about where they expect to be, and G declares it idiotic, saying that it would look overeager, even desperate. T jumps right into the conversation, to joke with her husband at my naivete. I keep it to myself, but I think there's no harm in making plans a night earlier but that with the clock running out on our trip there's more than a little to be lost by foregoing a night, even if we don't wind up reaching the conclusion that is, erm, ultimately desired. No harm, I think, in putting in an evening of introductory banter and scouting of relative levels of interest, before making an attempt toward the final event the night after.

"Look," G tells me, "what are you going to do? Give these girls a call and say, hey, it was great meeting you two hours ago, whaddya say we meet up again two hours from now?" He laughs at his own suggestion, and T chimes in enthusiastically. "Naw," he goes on, shaking his head demonstratively, "you gotta give it at least a day." I try to explain myself, but they're each having none of it. T takes G's side in the argument, and although I love them both as dearly as my own family, I feel a seconds-long twinge of cruelty toward them as they cackle at my ineptitude.

Diz still looks unsure but at first accepts the appearance of consensus as evidence of G's proposal being the shrewder one. Later he wants to revisit the issue; I'm frustrated with the process and snap a bit. "Look," I say, "either you make a decision, or I do. I don't particularly care, but I don't want to be on the special committee for the resolution of whether and when to call these broads." (I don't actually use the word "broads," but later, in exasperated reflection, it seems the mot juste.) Somehow the solution is reached to call later that night but to suggest a meeting the next evening. Diz places the late call, and they're out already. He can hear male voices in the background, laughing and speaking in English. G grins and says we should have expected it, that a chick like that walking through a town like this of course she's going to gather male attention like thistles onto wool socks. (G doesn't actually use this metaphor. But it strikes me as a better choice than the one he actually used and I've since forgotten; who doesn't like wool socks?)

Instead, the four of us head out for drinks, although only Diz and I stay out more than an hour or so. G&T take us to a place they know, a cafe dimly lit and furnished in dark, heavy wood. It's the sort of place that immediately makes me think of Europe even though I've probably seen them more often in SoHo or on the LES. After G&T head back home to get ready for tomorrow's early start (we've made plans to visit the local wine country), the unhappy couple order a last round of drinks before looking for another bar. The spot we ultimately wind up is covered in white plastic and lit in neon, so that the room acquires a foggy green feel. Diz is mellow, or at least seems it, and my mood lightens considerably after we run into a trio of German girls. They're from the west and I'm pretty sure they're speaking in a dialect, but it's pretty embarrassing how bad my German is. After all, I've been living there for the whole summer by now. I speak a few words, and when Diz asks if they understood anything I said, they shake their heads. I recite the lyrics of a song I just heard at Bootie Berlin, and they look at me at first like I recently wandered out of the woods for the first time since before the era of commercial air traffic. They know the song, it turns out, but its vintage makes it about as appropriate a card to keep in one's vest pocket as the lyrics to "Black Hole Sun." Or "I Kissed a Girl" (the first one. The good one.).

The bar announces last call, but the night still feels young, so Diz and I accompany our new companions to the boardwalk. On the way, I grab a six-pack of Estrella from one of the vendors and politely decline another invitation to purchase some of the guy's undisplayed wares. The five of us sit at the edge of the wood and watch the ocean, and talk for what must be at least an hour, perhaps more. I'm the only one drinking, Diz the only one smoking, but the three women seem to enjoy the company in spite of the two gentlemen providing it. I can't figure out which of two of them Diz is more interested in, so I take the safe bet and start talking more to the third, which reveals itself as a disaster when we get a quiet moment alone and I make a delicate proposition in hushed tones. She is, alas, flattered but spoken for; "I'm freshly in love" are, I think I remember later, her exact words. (T will find this formulation hilarious, for what it's worth. At this late remove I have to say I agree, although at the time my sour mood kept me from chuckling along.) The fumbled call and the late hour dictate that nothing's to come of the evening, and we don't even bother to ask for phone numbers or emails. Diz and I head home a little after they leave us into a night lightening already in the east to shades of dark purple-rose, and I think about toting the last untouched two cans of the sixpack back to G&T's fridge before tossing them in a trashcan.

A little more than two hours later G&T roust me from the couch. The next half hour I spend cursing the very existence of wine country; I'd curse my own mother if it was she who was keeping me from getting a few more hours of sleep in a proper bed, or at least on a reasonably soft couch. They've rented a car and the drive is nice, but I'm too tired to put up a suitable face of touristic astonishment. G asks from the front seat if I'm still sullen from not having called the Los Angelinas earlier. I should hold my tongue or laugh it off, but lack of sleep impairs my already poor conversational judgment, and I respond testily that being on vacation means there's no rule about waiting two days to call. T tells me again I would have looked ridiculous, and I think she means it in good humor, and I try my best to laugh at myself for her benefit. The Spanish countryside is pretty; all or nearly all the wine cellars are closed; the only place open for lunch has only salad and rice. Even this far inland, the Spanish summer has lingered pleasantly into summer, and the warm back seat and slow hillside curves rock me to sleep on the ride home.

I get the feeling I am not the only one holding back conversation as we take the subway home from the car rental. By the time we get home I am brimming with energy, not nerves or nervousness or anger or agitation, just a feeling allover that my limbs are charged with potential, muscles twitching and blood overflowing with carbohydrates. I tell Diz I'm going for a quick run while G&T are taking their turns in the shower. I do intend it to be short, notwithstanding my mood, but when I finally break through the carnival crowds and hit the straightaways, I feel my legs and lungs working in tandem like I can't remember them. I run until the boardwalk ends and further and still don't feel tired, and when I check the time on my iPod, I realize I'm going to be an hour or more in total, and also that I'm making great time. I practically fly back. After I've run seven miles I run into a football or rugby team fresh into their evening lap; even this deep into my run I match their pace, which isn't bad (although I concede that an amateur track team would have left me in the dust).

Confused by the placement of the carnival rides, I take a wrong turn and wind up running an extra mile or so down another pier; when I get home it's been ninety minutes. Since I checked my midpoint time, I've been worried that Diz would be miffed. Understandably so, given my short temper about delaying things with the American women even this late. But when I come through the door, he looks relaxed, sitting comfortably in a chair and reading a magazine. Grinning wildly from adrenaline, I can't keep a properly demure face when I apologize for having taken longer than I'd let on, but he waves me off; dinner isn't even quite ready yet, and he's already made plans with the American girls to meet in a little more than an hour. I map my run online and find that I went more than ten and a half miles in ninety minutes, for better than eight-and-a-half-minute miles. This information promptly goes into a status message update, with immodest punctuation.

Dinner is pleasant, and any lingering sour feelings toward G&T have been thoroughly extinguished. Afterward, Diz and I head out. Polly had suggested a place that's only a short walk from our place; Diz has a smoke and I grab a loose beer on the walk over. The place is done up like a German beer garden, with sculpted wood and fake greenery suggesting indoor tree growth; high tables and stools are carved from solid trunks or their plasti-wood approximate. By the time we get there, I'm entirely relaxed, like the entire trip has been exactly what I had wanted.

When we see Polly and Anna, the two of them are surrounded by Spanish and American men, and it's not hard to tell why. Both look stunning, really, hair and makeup and all the rest of things I really don't understand at all quite obviously having been labored over for some time. (Well, I assume labored over for some time; like I said, I don't understand these things at all. Maybe it's possible to make ninety seconds' preparations look like ninety minutes', if you know how.) They smile and throw their arms up when they see us; the men encircling them don't immediately scatter but look pretty pissed at our arrival. One of them keeps up an attempt at making conversation, although pointedly not with either Diz or me, but the rest of them sip their drinks and look conspicuously over their shoulders for other nocturnal opportunities. Diz has a grin that matches my mood as we settle down around the newly-cleared table.

Despite the plan of the evening that Diz is to take Polly's dance card and I Anna's, the two women keep orienting the conversation at cross-purposes thereto. When we get a moment alone I suggest to Diz that it seems Anna's more interested in him and perhaps we ought to switch, expecting at the very least a sarcastic reply, since my entirely disinterested recommendation does have the upshot of my being paired with the girl an entirely indecent movie clip. But if he feels any resentment he doesn't let on. I'm never sure if he was being sincere or just covering up to get along; I'm not sure which possibility would make me like Diz more, but either way, he's always been a great guy like that.

We pair off, and Polly and I speak at length. After swapping backgrounds and comparing LA to New York, she steers the conversation to fairies. I think I do a good job covering my surprise when she reminds me (I had forgotten) of the obvious connection with a bar named "Fairy Bar". They're everywhere, fairies are, singly on the menus and bar coasters, painted in clusters on the walls. Diz and I even had passed a mannequin fairy on the way in, next to which the two women will pose for multiple photographs later, as Diz and I are trying not to look like we're hurrying them out. I look again around the bar, and in the folds of what I'd taken to be fake trees, I gradually pick out the long, yawning faces of sculpted dryads. (Yeah. The place is called The Fairy Bar, and it took me this long to figure it out.)

There's no good way to say what comes next, no way that reflects well on her or on me. She, um, believes in fairies. I stumble carelessly into the conversation, mentioning a personal favorite coffee table book with pictures on each pair of pages of a fairy drawn so as to suggest it was smashed between them. I also mention having been to Iceland and that many adults there actually believe in elves and won't move large stones in case it's possibly and elf's home. "Oh, well that's the difference between elves and fairies," she says. "Elves will bother people if they feel like their territory is getting squeezed, but fairies will be nice to you as long as you're respectful." She tells me of the ritual she'll perform before pushing her lawnmower around her front yard, in order to give the creatures fair warning of the barbarous shearing she's about to conduct, and she frowns when I mention an old coffee table book of drawings purporting to be the remains of fairies that were smashed between the pages. I'm pretty daft, but it doesn't take too long before I learn to shut up and nod appreciatively at my good fortune of having met such a fascinating conversationalist.

Fortunately the paired-off thing doesn't last too much longer, and we join the conversation between Diz and Anna. Diz and I are pretty obviously (from each other's perspective, if not necessarily so blatant to the girls) trying to look like we're doing the inquisitive, respectful first-date thing without letting on that we've seen clips of Polly topless. She and I seem like we have at least something in common, having both escaped tiny interior-Western towns for the big city; we seem to have the same indifferent sense of alienation from the people we grew up with, or at least those who stayed there. Despite the fairy thing I think I have a moment of intellectual connection when I bring up Neil Labute; she's a fan, and I tell her I saw "Fat Pig" in New York with Jeremy Piven. She perks up at the mention of Piven's name but doesn't let on that she's been on "Entourage," and I don't mention it.

Eventually the everywhere-present fairies lose their luster, so we head back to Notable Alcoholic Bar, where our companions are a big hit. The place is positively jammed, with only one bartender. Our friends are evidently a big hit with the owner, though, as their glasses are the first refilled throughout our stay. I, however, am ignored when I stand near them, and I start slipping away to place my orders from elsewhere in the bar. Between that and Diz's occasional cigarette breaks, we get separated several times from the Angelinas, who anyways have been wrapped up by the owner/manager in conversation and champagne cocktails. The place is crawling with beautiful women, though, which may not quite tempt us to terminate our evening with the two of them but nevertheless alleviates any separation anxiety that might otherwise have begun to boil up. We drift away, order drinks, talk to people elsewhere in the bar, float back, catch up with our companions, then drift away again. Rinse, repeat; we're already in a lather.

The last time we return to the bar, they look animated. At first I think they're excited or happy, but once we hack through enough of the crowd that we can hear them, it sounds like they're on the edge of a fight. Or at least Polly seems on the edge; Anna seems almost amused. We're careful not to ask too much, but we get the impression that they're arguing over whether a local woman whom they'd met in the toilets had been genuinely friendly towards them (as was Polly's contention) or was sarcastically making fun of them (Anna's).

"I'm telling you, sometimes I just get connections with people, and I got this really powerful feeling with her. Although we don't speak the same language, I could just tell by her eyes that she was a really kind person."

Anna is unimpressed. "But I understand Spanish, and she was calling you 'a dumb bitch.'" She pauses, then revises and extends her remarks. "I'll grant that you do have a gift for forming connections. It's just this one I don't think you made it, quite."

Diz and I exchange millisecond glances and do a heroic job keeping straight faces. The two of them go back and forth like this for several minutes until reaching some incomprehensible compromise that allows Polly to save face. The spat has left them off-put, however, and we soon leave.

They invite us to come back to their apartment. Anna suggests we smoke either marijuana or hash, whichever they have, once we get there. Diz politely accepts; I tell her I'll pass. She asks if I'm sure. Pretending to crack under the pressure of interrogation, I do as best I can to make it sound sheepish and interesting when I say I've actually never tried it. (I realize it's not the best entres, but given the source material of my life I do what I can.)

The girls' apartment is reasonably tidy and relatively plain. It's laid out like a modified railroad, with a narrow entry hallway running past the small kitchen and a cramped bathroom and a pair of bedrooms at the far end, past a living room framed on one side by a couch and on the other by a squarish mass that I eventually realize to be a raised guest bed. It feels like an American apartment, almost, one of those places inhabited by college students in their year of off-campus living and the first couple of years after graduation before they finally manage a grownup-sized income. I wonder at feeling so much at ease, given that we've arrived nearly to the crucial moment, until I realize that for the first time I am in an apartment not significantly nicer than as my own, that for once I feel I can play at the level of the room.

Anna brings out her stash, and Diz sits beside her on the enormous mattress and starts rolling a joint. I'm at first expectant when Polly says she doesn't want any, thinking it might make a common front out of the two of us, but quickly I change my mind and decide I'd be better off if she shared it. Anna asks me if I do, and I tell her again that I've never tried it. She shrugs it and takes the first hit before passing it to Diz. She asks Polly again if she's sure.

"I will if he does," Polly says, meaning me. I've really never tried it, though offered many times, but it seems I've never felt so tempted. "Well," I manage to stammer out, trying to cover my indecision, but I decide not to. Anna shrugs both her shoulders and eyebrows in unison, and they continue to pass the joint back and forth. The conversation, meanwhile, between Polly and me has drifted a bit. With the air clouded with the smoke from the joint, as well as of our conspicuous refusal to share it, I'm having a hard time steering matters in any direction at all, let alone in the specific direction I'm hoping things progress. Minutes pass awkwardly, and I start to wonder what the heck I'm doing, and how I ever got to this age if this is all I'm capable of. And then I start to wonder about a great many other things.   

Anna and Diz, sitting shoulder to shoulder, both have soft smiles on their faces as they stare vaguely into the middle of the room. Anna's dress is pulled up perhaps an inch, and Diz is gently massaging the exposed length of her lower leg. Feeling more than thinking that the moment is right, I slide my arm around Polly's shoulders.

"Stop it," she says. "I... I don't like to be touched." I pull my hand back, completely unsure of what to say or do. She sits beside me, and we are both still and silent. Across the room, Diz and Anna are still looking in our direction, but neither of them gives any sign of having heard what's just been said.

Polly finally gets up to use the restroom. Again sensing more than thinking, I take the moment to leave, too; while I'm fumbling around the kitchen under pretense of looking for a glass to fill with water, I decide it must have been the thing to do to give Diz an opening to make a move on Anna. Perhaps if left alone, the two of them can manage to introduce a more amorous tone to the late evening. Yes, I conclude; that was why I left, in the hope that Diz and Anna can set a positive example for the rest of the class. Certainly it's a more dignified picture than that of me fumbling through a cupboard of dishes in the hopes that a more compelling strategy eventually strikes me or Polly creeps up behind to wrap her arms around my neck, either of which would seem at this point equally a miracle. When the toilet flushes before I have heard a bedroom door latch closed, I decide the jig is up and return to the living room a pace behind Polly.

She sits, then I do, then she shifts a half-foot in the other direction. "Sorry," she says, unconvincingly. "I really just don't like to be touched." If I still believed the excuse a moment ago, the halfways reemphasis seals it as pretext. Later I'll rationalize, reconceptualize my mental state as a product of rejection and bewilderment, as an emotional expression of my diminished self-worth or else misdirected frustration and resentment, but in the instant I feel nothing. No: I feel like nothing. I feel like half a man, minus one-half a man. The joint is long-since finished, and Anna soon stands up and announces that she's going to bed. The other three of us don't even need to say as much, as everyone else's plans have been pretty solidly established by the circumstances.

"Do you think if I'd shared the joint, she would have?" I ask Diz as we're halfway down the street from Polly and Anna's.

"No," he says. He pauses only enough to finish the drag from his cigarette, and he knows immediately what I'm really asking. "I think they just weren't in the mood because... I don't know; they just weren't in the mood."

"Do you—?" I start, then stop, then begin again. "I'm not saying I know everything about women, but I know, well, I know at least enough to know what I've done wrong most of the time, or have a good idea of it. And I have no idea what the hell just happened back there."

Diz draws from his cigarette again but doesn't say anything for a moment. "I don't know either," he offers finally.

"I feel like shit," I say.

We walk in silence for a bit. The streets are empty and the city feels deserted; we walk on, matching its silence. Before we reach reach the block where we're supposed to turn left, I speak again.

"Gimme a smoke." I don't know if I expect him to argue with me or smirk triumphantly at the collapse of my willpower, but I'm relieved when he does neither. He just pulls a pack of Marlboros from his pocket and gives me a cigarette, and then his lighter. The first drag I only take into my cheeks, like I'm afraid of coughing after so much time away from them, but the second time I put the filter between my lips, I pull from the very bottom of my torso and fill my lungs with smoke. It's nothing like I remember, at first, but gradually I recall the dim memory of the first few cigarettes I ever had. My brain at once starts racing, chasing down the first memory of my throat feeling scraped from the heat of inhalation, the sensation of ammonia on fresh, pink lung tissue as distinct as if alveoli were taste buds. It hurts, it honest to god hurts, yet I deny the reflex of coughing, force myself to suffer in it. After another drag, I'm high, my head spinning, but the cigarette has no other consequence. No stress is relieved, unless by the gradual, plodding disappearance of memories behind us as we walk; no poignance or significance appears as if by magic in the clouds Diz and I are blowing beneath lowered heads.

When we get back and climb up the winding staircase in the dark, I step out onto the balcony. A man stands in the plaza below, swaying either from alcohol or from being still awake at five in the morning, and speaking to a woman. They're both dressed fashionably, at least as well as I can tell through the dark and the distance. They speak a while, in tones too low to be heard from the fifth floor or whichever one it is we're on. Diz goes to sleep but before he leaves, I ask for another cigarette. I lean over the balcony to smoke it and watch the man and the woman below. I can't help myself; I obsess over the question whether he will succeed where I so distinctly, undeniably failed, but after another moment they part, marking the end of the evening with only a lengthy embrace. As I snap the glittering butt-end over the balcony onto the empty street below, I reflect that I hadn't managed even that much.

I fly late afternoon the next day. Diz and I relate the story in installments, over breakfast and then during one last trip to the beach. T asks me which was worse, the night before or the German telling me she was "freshly in love," and I look at her like she's crazy. I tell her it might be the worst I've ever felt, and realize at once that I've no idea the words. My feeling is trapped in the inadequacy of my language; on any other day this might be a pretty big let-down for an aspiring writer but feels insignificant today.

"But why?" T asks, the genuineness of her feeling obvious on her face. I have absolutely nothing to say and just shrug.

I have leave them on the beach in order to pack in time to make my way to the airport. I don't think there's any way, really, to say goodbye properly when the people you're addressing are lying on beach towels; somehow the message never really seems to get through. I walk back, shower, and sign a card to leave beneath a gift bottle of wine on G&T's dinner table. I can't bear to put on my jeans, and so when I get to Schoeneberg after nightfall and step out into the Berlin night in autumn, I'm wearing shorts, shivering all the way to the U-Bahn station.   

1 comment:

  1. welcome back, good post.

    I wish I believed in fairies.