He was looking at her too much. He couldn’t help himself, so he decided to step outside while she waited in the line to check in her luggage.
His lungs were aching from all of last night’s smoke. He lit one only because he was unsure of what to do with his hands, himself. Perhaps, he thought, puffing on a cigarette would allow him to channel the mighty indifference of Bogart. His gaze fell upon the wooden ripples of the terminal’s roof supported by enormous yellow arms, outstretched as if in surrender. In the distance, framed by one of the obtuse arches of the terminal’s roof he could see the four towers set against an unusually cloudy backdrop.
Hardly mighty and even less indifferent, his thoughts turned to their walk through Puerta del Sol just an hour before. The square was wet and shining after an early morning drizzle. Street cleaners in bright green and yellow uniforms swept up all the crushed Mahou cans and crumpled wads of protest literature, their long shadows striping the rain-slicked plaza. The pedestrians shuffling through the square were either rubbing the sleep out of their eyes on their way to work or young fiesteros staggering down the steps to the Metro to sleep the new day away. It was 8 a.m.
‘It feels so foreign,’ she had said.
‘We’ve never seen Madrid at this time of day.’
He had wanted to comment on her word-choice. He had wanted to say other things, as well. Instead he just nodded and adjusted his posture, throwing his shoulders back into a pose of feigned self-assuredness. The only audible response she received was the hiss of the plastic wheels of her two suitcases rolling behind them on the wet slabs of stone.
When he smothered the butt atop the trashcan, he turned to look at the four towers once more. They made him think of gravestones. He then chuckled quietly at his propensity for melodrama as he stepped back into the terminal.
It was easy to spot her strawberry blond hair, done-up in a tasteful bun. Looking how she looked, one never would’ve guessed that she had been out dancing until five that very morning. She was still standing in the line and did not see him as he made his way past her and all the strangers orchestrated and coordinated by straps of black vinyl.
From the wall he was leaning on he watched a pretty Colombian mother dancing with a stroller, the infant inside it giggling all wide-eyed and dumb. A trio of old Portuguese men with smoke-stained beards laughing and hugging. A Dutch couple with immense packs strapped on their backs, their hair tied back in matching, greasy blond ponytails staring up at the gate listings.
He watched the other strangers pass, listening to the soft, orchestral amalgam of foreign tongues humming under the high ceilings of the terminal. He wondered where the strangers were going, where they were coming from. He wondered who was waiting for them.
‘Hey,’ she said, materializing beside him.
‘You ready?’ he asked.
She shrugged, then nodded once without looking at him. They began walking towards the security checkpoint, the heels of her black boots clicking on the marble floors with authority, direction. Their procession was wordless, a certain sense of finality silencing them. She along with her clicking heels stopped at the gap in the vinyl straps.
‘And what about you?’ she asked.
‘Estás listo?’ she said, her prairie tongue jabbing the language.
He managed to smile. They hugged. They said their thank-you’s. Their good-bye’s. She asked him a question to which he could only shrug. He asked her to tell everyone back where she was going that he sends his regards. Since they were neither European nor lovers, no besos were exchanged.
Finally, they exchanged sad, corner of the mouth smiles and she began to weave through the vinyl-guided lanes. With all the turns and lanes of vinyl vacant, her winding back and forth seemed ridiculous. Taunting. They didn’t know whether to look back at each other or not. He watched her walk a few yards, then turn, walk a few more, then turn again until at last she reached the stacks of plastic basins and metal archways and young people dressed in an authoritative manner, with plastic badges on their chests and batons at their hips. She placed her black boots and her purse and her coat in a plastic tray. A young woman yawned, then hailed her through the metal detector.
Once she stepped back into her boots and gathered her things, she looked at him and smiled. They waved once through the glass and across the distance. Then she was gone.
His feet were cemented where he stood, where he had watched her disappear along with all of the comforts and familiarities of where she was going and where he was from. Over the last two weeks her presence had poured upon him. The silent, incessant burden of being a foreigner had been flung aside and forgotten during her stay. As he stood there, his boots sinking into the marble floors of the terminal like wet concrete, the weight of the aloneness crawled back up his spine and situated itself upon his shoulders.
He stuffed his hands into his pockets and sniffed once. He refused to let himself cry over her departure, for they were not lovers and he sure as hell wasn’t European.
After a minute of huffing in place, restraining all facial twitches and blinking hard as the weight settled back into its place upon his shoulders, he finally did it.
He succeeded in freeing his left foot from the quickly setting mold and gave a little Charlie Brown kick with his heel, the impetus which managed to float him down the channels of marble and glass and steel and down the escalators and through the turnstile and down another escalator to the platform and onto the train back to his apartment where no one was waiting for him.
With his forehead pressed against the glass of the window the black pits of the tunnel swept before him, and he thought of the last question she had asked him.
‘When are you coming home?’
Even alone on the train, his shoulders curled once again. To him, the idea of home had always been elusive and opaque having grown up in the purgatory of joint-custody. The word meant little more than a place to lay your head and keep your things.
As the train crawled out the tunnel and into the gray morning he thought of his vagrant’s dogma, one which had shielded him from the constraints of complacency and commitment as he trudged into adulthood, an armor he was certain he’d wear until his last days. To have a home, he knew, was a surrender to ordinariness, a forfeit of the freedom that only the absence of a foundation can allow. Home is where reside those who wait, and those who wait, he knew, held the shackles of love behind their backs.
But as the train inched into Chamartín and the bases of the four gravestones greeted him to his right all daunting and dumb, he began to reconsider.
Jakob Guanzon lives in Madrid, Spain where he writes and teaches. His work has previously appeared in From the Depths, Five Thôt, and BioStories.