“Laced with grit, art, and angst, this evocative novel explores the intersection of privilege and survival, “good” and “bad” behaviour, permanence and the ephemeral… it reminds us of the power of our choices, but also shows how serendipity can, in a moment, change what we think about ourselves and the world.”—Leesa Dean, Author of Waiting For The Cyclone
I pushed out through the front door of the building and walked away from the apartment that was no longer mine. Barcelona had turned ugly. The leaves of the palm trees were dead and brown, the cobblestones of the sidewalk broken and dirty. Even the sunlight looked damaged – gritty and soot streaked. I brushed away the first few tears that came, but after a while I didn’t bother. Nobody was paying any attention to me. It was late Saturday afternoon and the Gothic Quarter was gridlocked with last-minute shoppers: teenagers with cell phones, parents with strollers, couples holding hands and taking up way too much space.
The old itch was starting under my skin, but I ignored it. I just needed to sit down somewhere and collect myself. A bar across the street looked dim inside and not too busy. I reached into the pocket of my trench coat for my wallet, then checked my other pocket. For a second, I thought I’d been robbed. Then I remembered the sign at the Boqueria market warning about pickpockets; that I’d moved my wallet into my shopping bag for safekeeping – a bag now sitting on Peter’s kitchen counter. After throwing my keys at him, the only way to retrieve it would require doing things I couldn’t face: standing on the wrong side of his locked door, and begging to be let back in.
Peter wanted to send me back to Canada, but I wasn’t going to go.
The itch travelled up my arms and converged in the centre of my chest, a maddening spiky mass that needed to be torn out. I stepped into a souvenir shop and walked up one of the aisles, past the magnets, T-shirts and statuettes: tacky souvenir versions of all the attractions I hadn’t had a chance to see yet. At a rack of postcards, I stopped. Slowly, I spun the carousel, reviewing its contents – famous paintings by Velázquez, Miró, Goya, Dalí.
I checked the mirror in the corner of the shop. The sales clerk was busy with a customer at the cash. I slipped a Picasso postcard into my pocket, and the prickling scratch in my chest was soothed for a moment by a warm rush of heat.
Time slowed as I moved toward the exit. I saw the cashier’s finger pressing down hard on a ribbon she was tying, the customer shifting his weight from foot to foot. In the front window, the pages of a book had turned yellow from the sun. The bamboo wind chimes jangled like hollow bones as I opened the door to the street.
A block from the shop, I glanced back. No one was following me. In my pocket, the shiny surface of the postcard felt reassuring – I deserved to have at least this tiny thing. I walked for several minutes, feeling buoyant and indestructible. Peter wanted to send me back to Canada, but I wasn’t going to go. I had a three-month tourist visa. Maybe by the time it ran out I’d have found some way to belong in this city without needing to be his wife.
“Niki, I can’t marry you,” he’d said. For a second I’d wondered if he could have found out about what I’d done on my last day back home, but I didn’t think that was possible. Something else had happened. An affair with one of his new co-workers maybe, while I was busy packing up our apartment in Toronto. When he denied it, I called him a liar. So then he admitted the truth: “I didn’t miss you,” he’d said. “I didn’t miss you when you weren’t here.”
I pulled the postcard from my pocket. It was a portrait of an asymmetrical woman, the two sides of her face so dissimilar they could belong to different people. I stopped in the middle of the surging crowd on Portal de l’Àngel, unable to take another step. As I looked around, only two people made eye contact: an old woman begging in front of a restaurant and a homeless man sitting on a piece of cardboard beside the Zara entrance. The man had scabby bare feet and long dirty hair. His eyes pinned me in place. He knew what I knew: that in just one moment, everything could change; that the change could leave you invisible, except to others who were unlucky. I had a strong urge to go and sit beside him, to let myself sink down to the ground and then stay there.
Beside me the roll-down door of a dress shop clattered shut. The woman closing up the store clicked a heavy lock in place, then pulled on her motorcycle helmet and hurried to the curb. She had somewhere to go, or someone to see. Those were the reasons that kept people moving – kept them from sinking to the ground. I needed a destination, but the only place I could think of was the Boqueria. I’d been shopping at the market every day – had been there just this morning. I loved the tall pyramids of brightly coloured produce, and the vendors who called out terms of endearment as I passed: ¡Cariño! ¡Querida! ¡Mi amor! They sounded like a giant family all clamouring to feed me.
As I touched its edge, I remembered the rush of stupid joy I’d felt holding up the little red square, imagining the white walls of our new home filling up with a colour that I loved.
I looked around, trying to choose another destination while avoiding the homeless man’s eyes. Up ahead was a sign for the metro. As I walked toward it, I folded the postcard down the middle and dropped it in a trash can. At the entrance, I stepped onto a long silver escalator and let it carry me down. I would ride the trains until I figured out some other way to move.
A line of people were waiting to feed their tickets into the automated turnstiles. When it was my turn, I just climbed over. The soles of my boots smacked loudly on the other side. I smoothed my skirt over my leggings, then headed off down a long damp hallway to a set of well-worn stairs. On the platform below, I waited for the train.
There was only one thing in my pocket – a paint chip sample I’d been planning to show Peter. As I touched its edge, I remembered the rush of stupid joy I’d felt holding up the little red square, imagining the white walls of our new home filling up with a colour that I loved.
The tracks of the metro seemed especially close. I turned and placed my hand on the tiled wall, feeling the solid surface beneath my fingers. After a moment, I began to draw with my fingertip, tracing the skyline view from Peter’s balcony onto the wall: the Gothic cathedral’s spiky roofline, and beyond it the wide avenue of art nouveau buildings, then the distant curve of mountains on the horizon.
When the train came, I got on and looked back at the blank stretch of tiles. Maybe if I stayed underground long enough, the city would look beautiful again when I came back up.