THE SPANISH CRISIS

Fall 2020 / Issue 108

Sarah Viren

The night Dominick and his friends got on the One Line and Dominick wouldn’t shut up about the girl from the party with bunny-soft lips, the metro car was empty except for an older woman reading a book near the front. The boys took seats in the middle section. It was odd to find an empty car on a Friday night in Madrid, almost impossibly odd, and one of them likely said as much, probably Jorge, who, of the three of them, was the most likely to comment on the obvious. Nathan Matías was the most likely to agree with what anyone said about the obvious or about the girl with bunny-soft lips. And Dominick, sitting across from them, was the most likely to talk stories. He was the loudest among them, which some girls liked but a lot of them didn’t. They told him he sounded too Spanish.

They were all in eleventh grade at the American School in Madrid. Jorge was a Spaniard, but he’d lived in the States and spoke perfect English. His parents were diplomats. Dominick was born in Missouri. His parents decided when he was six that the United States was fucked—their words, not his—and they’d uprooted the family and moved to Madrid. His dad did website design and his mom taught English and debate at the American School, which is how he got a spot there in the first place. She had been the Missouri State debate champion back when she was his age.

Nathan Matías was an American, too, but he’d just moved to Madrid in ninth grade. He was rich and tall and good-looking, with a Justin Bieber shag and sleepy eyes that the girls liked, but his Spanish was still pretty rough. At the botellón earlier that night, Dominick had mocked him every time he slipped up. “It’s echar un polvo, man, not hecho polvo,” he’d shouted when Nathan Matías had basically said that he liked being tired when what he’d meant was that he’d like to get laid.

“I’m telling you,” Dominick was saying now, leaning across the aisle to stare at Jorge and Nathan Matías. “Her lips were extra soft, like she’d rubbed them in baby bunnies. Or like they were baby bunnies and kissing them was really just my whole body curling into a nest of bunnies deep in a forest somewhere.”

“Fuck,” said Nathan Matías.

“Hombre,” said Jorge. “That’s kinda gross.”

“Not gross, man, fabulous,” Dominick said. “It was like Disney mixed with porn.”

The woman at the front of the metro car was facing in Dominick’s direction, but she never looked up, not when the boys got on and not when Dominick started talking too loud about the girl with bunny-soft lips, first in Spanish and then, when he noticed her sitting there, in English.

She was at least sixty and had the look of someone who’d worked in an office her whole life. Her short hair was thinning, and, beneath it, you could make out the slightest glint of white scalp. She looked small and was wearing gray slacks and a partially unbuttoned red peacoat. Her handbag was big enough to hold a human head. Dominick would’ve bet ten Euros that she was reading The Alchemist.

“But the best part is what she was doing with her hands,” he continued, looking over at the woman again. She didn’t look up from her book—even when it was clear he was staring. There was only a set of sliding doors between her and Dominick and his friends. She suddenly seemed so close.

Of the three of them, Dominick was the only one who lived near old ladies like her. His parents had bought an apartment in Alcorcón just outside Madrid because it was one of the few places they could afford and still have money to fly back to Missouri each summer to visit family in the Ozarks. Alcorcón was a midsized city, but it often felt like a village. There was a pedestrian walkway running through the commercial district, and it was there that parents and kids and tired, sad-looking old women went for a walk before dinner every evening. As a kid, Dominick used to like to watch those old ladies, walking alone, and try to imagine what their lives were like.

“Where are their families?” he’d asked his mom once when he was probably seven or eight. He’d never really known an old person. His dad didn’t talk to his parents anymore—they were hypocrites, he’d said—and his mom’s dad had died of a heart attack before he was born. His grandmother he could remember, but just barely. She’d died in a car wreck the year before his parents moved the family to Spain.

“Why don’t you go ask?” had been his mom’s response. He knew she was joking, but then one day he did. The woman he approached wasn’t all that old, probably fifty or sixty, but she had the same bowed look of most of the older women he saw walking in their town.
He was alone that day. His mom had sent him down for bread. The woman was just coming out of a café, probably heading home. She had short hair—like the woman on the metro car—and eyelids that were beginning to droop over her eyes, which he realized were green when she turned at the sound of his voice.

“Do you have a family?” he’d asked in Spanish.

Her eyes got smaller and she grabbed the strap of her purse in her fist, pulling it to her chest.

“Don’t be a dumbass,” she had said, and before he could answer, she’d walked away.

He never spoke to anyone on the streets after that. And in the years that followed he stopped wondering about the secret lives of older women. He entered middle school, made more friends, met girls. He still looked at photos of his grandmother every once in a while, but older women started to seem less like a mystery and more like a nagging reminder of something that once was.

On the metro car, the woman flipped a page, then held the book in one hand as she scratched at the hairline along the back of her neck. There was something familiar in the way she held her back so straight and the book so squarely before her. It was as if she were trying out for the role of old woman and had just now perfected the posture. Dominick suddenly wished she wasn’t there.
“So what’d she do, bro?” Nathan Matías said when it was clear Dominick wasn’t going to finish his story. “Give you a dick massage?”

Dominick ignored him and continued to stare at the old lady. “I bet you ten Euros she gets off at the Cuatro Vientos stop,” he said.

The other two looked over and for a moment the woman glanced up at them. Dominick still had his cup from the party and tilted it back and forth so that the ice clunked against the plastic. In a bag at his feet were two Coca-Cola bottles and one nearly empty bottle of vodka. Nathan Matías had a cup, too, and every once in a while he passed it to Jorge. Dominick did the same from across the aisle. The woman returned to her book.

“She’ll go home to a dirty apartment and masturbate watching Saber y Ganar,” Dominick continued, looking just past the woman at an advertisement for some restaurant or hotel that read ¡pare aquí!

Nathan Matías laughed hard, spitting part of what he had been drinking back into the cup.

“What the fuck, man,” he said. “She might understand you.”

“No way,” Dominick said. “I know that type. She’s Franco-era. The only English she knows is ‘Santa Claus’ and ‘Tank you.’”

Both boys laughed that time, but neither of them looked over at the woman again.

“I bet she hasn’t had sex in thirty years.” Dominick raised his voice slightly, unable to stop.

“Hombre!” Jorge warned. He reached across the aisle and grabbed the cup from Dominick and downed the rest. “She’s an old lady.”

“And she really might understand you,” Nathan Matías added.

“You’re a bunch of pussies,” Dominick said. He turned to face the woman and yelled: “You’ve got awesome tits!”

The woman looked up at the sound of his voice. He waved at her. She stared hard before looking back down at her book, shaking her head.

“See.” Dominick turned to his friends. “Don’t you think if she understood English, she would’ve beat me flat with that rock of a bag?”

His friends laughed, Nathan Matías the loudest. “Sick, man,” he said.

It got quiet again, but Nathan Matías interrupted the silence.

“So what about the girl?” he asked. “What was she doing with her hands?”

Dominick looked back at him, suddenly annoyed that Nathan Matías was there, too. Even the name Nathan Matías pissed him off if he thought about it too much. It was like trying to make a sandwich out of American and Spanish names and then coming up with something that made no sense in either place. He’d heard it was some sort of compromise between Nathan Matías’ parents, one a Spaniard and the other a conservative Republican from Texas.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You come up dry again?”

“No way, man,” Nathan Matías said. “The Spanish girls love me.”

“Whatever,” Dominick said.

The announcer made the call for the next stop, Colonia Jardín, and repeated that this would be the last train for the night. The boys were quiet as the doors opened and closed, but no one else got on their car. They could hear high-pitched chatter coming from somewhere else as the metro pulled away from that stop and toward the next.

Their car was warm. The woman laid her book facedown on the seat beside her while she undid the last buttons of her peacoat and took it off, folding it gently in half and placing it on her lap. Once all was back in order, she picked the book up again and continued to read.

“Including Bunny Lips, I made out with three girls tonight,” Dominick said after the screeching had stopped and they were again surrounded by tunnel. He was still looking at the woman but talking to his friends. “They were all good, but Bunny Lips was the best. She got my dick so hard.”

Jorge laughed. Nathan Matías finished his drink.

“Bullshit,” he said finally. “I’d believe two, but not three.”

“Fuck you,” Dominick said. “What do you know about Spanish girls anyway?”

“I know enough to know they don’t like you,” Nathan Matías said. And for a moment it seemed like either he or Dominick was going to stand up, but Jorge stepped in. He always did.

“Don’t be a punk,” he said to Nathan Matías. “And Dominick, finish your fucking story.”

But the doors opened again, and this time someone did get on: a couple, probably about five years older than Dominick and his friends. The girl was good-looking, though her eyes were a little big. The guy had thick eyebrows, a closely shaved head, and the body of a rock climber. They found seats at the back of the car. Once the metro had lurched to a start, the girl got up and sat on the guy’s lap.

Dominick looked over at them and then back down at his own feet. The truth was he’d never really done much with girls. He’d kissed a few in Spain and once he’d made out with his cousin’s best friend back in the Ozarks. He’d even convinced her to take off all her clothes, except her panties. But when he’d tried to touch her, she’d pushed him away and said she was saving herself. He’d gotten pissed and never spoke to her again. Not that he spoke all that much in general on that trip back to Missouri.

When he was a kid, he loved the Ozarks. Every time they visited, he felt like someone’s exotic pet. His cousins asked him to teach them swear words in Spanish and his aunts and uncles cooed over his good manners and tidy style. His parents always complained about the trip in the weeks before they left, but once they were there, they disappeared into the landscape. His mom drank Coors Light on the dock and his dad talked about baitfish and the Tigers’ new quarterback. They let all the cousins call him Nick. They rarely fought.

But at some point, things changed. His cousins said he’d turned into a snob, and once, when he said it was disgusting to eat a hot dog on the street, his Aunt June had slapped him hard across the face.

“Get off your high horse,” she’d said, and his parents hadn’t done a thing.

The past two summers it was he who resisted the trip to Missouri and his parents who talked more about missing home. Spain was in full-on crisis by then, and even the American School was talking about layoffs. Whole families showed up outside grocery stores begging for food. In Madrid, a woman walked into a bank and set herself on fire. Another woman was stabbed to death by her husband. He said he’d been fired from his job and when he came home and she refused to have sex with him, he just lost it.

And then there’d been the affair. It was over now, but his mom sometimes tried to blame Spain for what she’d done. His dad told her to stop using debate tricks to avoid responsibility, and she’d yelled back that it was his idea to up and move the family to this fucking country in the first place. Mostly Dominick stayed in his room and looked at pictures of naked girls online. Nothing really dirty, but at least it made him feel good.

Dominick hadn’t realized he’d been staring at the couple making out at the other end of the car until the guy looked up and stared back at him.

“You want my girlfriend?” he asked Dominick in Spanish.

Dominick looked back down at his feet and shook his head.

“I think you do,” the boyfriend said, pushing his girlfriend onto another seat and standing up. The girlfriend tried to pull him back down.

Dominick kept his eyes on the ground, shaking his head. His friends looked anywhere but at the guy walking toward them.

“Or maybe you wanna kiss me?” the guy was saying, now standing in front of Dominick. He smelled like hashish. To avoid his eyes, Dominick looked toward the front of the car and saw the old woman staring at him.

“He didn’t mean it,” Jorge said finally.

The guy moved closer. His crotch was now in Dominick’s face.

“Say something.”

“Man,” Dominick said. “Man, I was just thinking. I wasn’t even looking.”

“Where you from, fag?” the man said.

“He grew up here,” Jorge said. “Let him be.”

The old woman continued to stare, but like Nathan Matías she was quiet. She looked at Dominick with the same expression she’d had when he’d told her he liked her tits. Like she could see through him.

When Dominick turned his head, the guy was unzipping his fly. He tried to stand up, but the guy pushed him back into his seat. He heard the girlfriend yelling something, “stop” maybe, but a second later, the guy’s dick was in his face and then Dominick felt his shirt and pants grow hot and wet. Drops of piss misted his chin. He could feel the old woman staring. He could hear the girlfriend scream and then, he was pretty sure, laugh softly. The tunnel was dark around them, but the bright lights of the car illuminated everything.

Dominick closed his eyes just as the announcer made the call for the next stop. For a moment he could see the Lake of the Ozarks. They say it has the body of a snake, but you’d never know that looking out at it from ground level. From that perspective, the lake is only flat blue-gray water and the distant roar of outboard motors. His grandmother used to call it “the little man’s paradise,” and when he was young he thought that, by little man, she meant him. Only later did he realize she was talking about poor people.

The guy was laughing hard as he zipped up his pants, and in the next second he was in his seat at the other end of the car again. He and his girlfriend got off at the next stop, still laughing.

For a long while no one talked. There was just the whirl of the metro and the sound of pages turning. Dominick could taste salt, smell sourness. The wet heat of the piss had begun to cool and his shirt clung to his chest. He remembered how he’d pissed his pants once walking home from school. He was seven years old. It was soon after they’d arrived in Spain and the sense of cultural disorientation had only made the accident worse. Everyone seemed to be staring at him. By the time he got home, he was crying hard. It was the last time he remembered really bawling like that, like it might be possible to get every feeling out and be done with them for good.

When Dominick finally spoke, it wasn’t to his friends.

“I bet you’ve got a bunny in that bag.” He opened his eyes and turned to face the woman at the other end of the car. “That’s your girlfriend, that bunny. And you take her home and sleep with her.”

His friends stared and then, as if the world had suddenly grown hilariously tiny, they both began to laugh. The woman continued reading her book, its back turned toward him now. Dominick could see it wasn’t The Alchemist after all, but something by Ernesto Sabato. He recognized the cover from his Latin American literature class the year before. It looked like she was close to the end.

“I bet you’re so lonely, you sit by yourself every night in the bathtub eating chocolate and crying about how long it’s been since you got laid,” Dominick continued, still in his seat, empowered by the sound of his own voice.

“Gross, man,” Nathan Matías interrupted. “I don’t want to think about her naked.”

“Shut up,” Dominick said, and stood up. He realized he was drunk.

“You’re so lonely you wake up in the morning to an empty bed and then you just go back to sleep.” He walked closer to her. “You’re invisible. We’ve forgotten you exist.”

He knew the woman could hear him, but she kept her eyes on her book. He thought he might take it out of her hands. Actually, he wanted to do more than that, he realized, and the realization made him sweat. He wanted to push her off her seat and knock her to the ground. He wanted to kick her in the stomach, between the legs. He wanted to hear her scream and beg him to stop. He wanted to take his dick out and piss all over her, all over that bag and her neatly folded peacoat. He wanted the roaring in his ears to stop.

The announcer called out the next stop and repeated that this would be the last train for the night. Dominick sat down in a seat by himself and wiped the piss splatter from his cheeks. Neither of his friends were laughing anymore. What that girl with bunny-soft lips had been doing with her hands, really, was pushing him away. She’d said she had to go. She’d told him to leave her alone.

As the metro slowed, the woman closed her book and clutched it with her free hand. She unfolded her peacoat and put it back on. Jorge and Nathan Matías looked down at their feet, but Dominick stared. It was the Cuatro Vientos stop.

The woman stood as the metro came to a stop. She put her bag over her shoulder, the book clutched to her chest, and passed between the rows of seats where the boys sat. She didn’t need to go that way. She could have left through the door closest to her. But she chose to pass between them.

Then, for a moment, almost as if it were an afterthought, she paused before Dominick. His pressed jeans were soaked at the crotch. He smelled like one of those defeated old men, drunk or passed out, who were now so common in the city.

It would be best if she let him be. If she just walked on and forgot about the boys on the Metro that night. That is what it means to survive as a woman. To not be anyone. But she reached down anyway, and she touched his shoulder. She held it there for only a second.

“Stop,” she said in English.

When the doors closed behind her, the silence of the metro car was replaced with the dim hum of the station. The woman turned to find the boy staring at her, his face growing smaller in the window as the metro pulled away. She stared back at him as if from across a stretch of time instead of space, until eventually the metro picked up speed and the boy and his friends disappeared into the darkness of another tunnel.