The Expedition

I still don’t know why we took the girls to Hijar. As time went by I started thinking about that afternoon as two different expeditions. We were bored as usual and that trip was just an excuse to do something different. Some years ago we would fight with sheep and play games, ring doorbells and run away as if people didn’t know who we were. Last spring some older guys decided to go fishing on the river and we tried to convince them to take us with them. They didn’t agree and it was definitely a good thing, for a couple of days later they were caught by the police. Some girls didn’t think of those trips as casual things. María and Belén had been telling us about Joaquín, el Puntillo, a guy they had met at a party. They told us we had to go to Hijar one day. On those early September days — we only had class in the morning — we all went to the school, where we had appointment with Joaquín and his friends.

There were eight of us. Four girls had come, including Esther, the shiest girl who usually never hung out with us. María e Belén — the prettiest of all — were the most enterprising girls, but we all thought Natalia was the brightest. Among the boys, Christian was the only one who didn’t come. He was my best friend. We were all part of the five-a-side football team. Unlike other teams, we usually played with a 2–2 scheme, not a rhombus. Manuel was the first reserve, he played as a side back. He attended extra classes and had troubles pronouncing certain words. He had a childish handwriting. Our middle school professor (who was our art teacher in high school) would always say: «Christian, you’re as smart as you are lazy; look at Manuel, he always tries hard despite the struggle it takes». The other Daniel played far back, on the left. He was a great player. Miguel, the tallest one, played on the left. He was left-handed and scored more goals than everybody else. We used to call him el Ruta, a nickname he inherited from his father. One day, somebody told him: «You’re so slow! You’re slower than shit!» It was an offensive nickname. Daniel Lafaja’s nickname wasMonreal or Monri. He had inherited it as well, but it wasn’t offensive. I played on the right, in the front. My nickname was the Doctor, for my mother was the village doctor. They would also call me Rodríguez, for it sounded like a very exotic surname.

We had moved to Urrea four years earlier. Urrea is a village in Lower Aragon and it’s inhabited by about seven-hundred people. I was one of the strangers, and so was Marcos, the Barber, who had lived with his grandmother ever since his parents got a divorce. On weekends, we would often go to Zaragoza because of my father’s job. At the beginning many things seemed strange — people would come to our home without any notice, there were boys of various ages in the same class, the whole class would go out after school to look for stray dogs or cats to mistreat. Once, when we got back home from a weekend in the city, we found our dog almost blinded: they had shot him with an air gun. When I arrived in that village, my elementary school teacher used part of each Monday morning to talk about my classmates’ behaviour at the Sunday mass. Only three boys of my class — which put together the fifth, fourth and third grade — didn’t attend mass: my sister and I, and the mayor’s son, whose nickname was the Mayor. The village women would clean the church. During the holy week almost everyone would dress up as penitents and play the drum and the bass drum: I never took part in those rituals. An older boy had started picking on me, but for some reason then he stopped beating me and throwing balls at me as we played football. He even started visiting me and going around with our bikes with me. I would do some things on my own, but I also joined some collective activities: the five-a-side football team, the theatre group, the athletics club.

Miguel was the cool guy of our class and he had gone on a date with a girl who was starting high school (and whom I liked, by the way). I didn’t know how things could go with those girls, some would flirt with older guys, but most of us had never been on a date nor had ever kissed a girl. The important girls — especially Belén and María — usually hung out with the other Daniel and Miguel, and they would treat us with disdain as if our existence were an annoying thing that couldn’t be avoided.

Last year my mother came to school to talk about sex education. She explained the most basic things among nervous laughter and stupid jokes. The most unforgettable moment was when someone asked her: «Excuse me doctor, how do lesbians do it? With their nose?» My mother stood silent and severe, she thought about it and then said: «There are various possibilities. For example…»

The fact that my parents were more liberal than the other parents of the village caused a sense of suspicion in some of my classmates. They liked coming to my house and look at the photographs in my father’s magazines (all of my high school classmates had come to look at Cicciolina in El Europeo). They thought I’d tell everything to my parents and that they knew everything about them. I didn’t tell everything and I certainly didn’t think my parents were interested in the secrets of Urrea’s fifteen-year-olds. Yet, that summer, after my mother had told a high school girl to use a condom when she had intercourse, Miguel grabbed me by the neck and blamed me for telling my parents they dated. That’s how I found out they were dating.

I knew the road to Hijar very well, for I had to take it a couple of times a week during the athletics club training. Hijar is five kilometres away from Urrea: that’s where all the buses arrive, where my father used to buy his newspaper, and where a health centre had been built a couple of months earlier. That centre had caused a great debate in the village: some people felt closer to Hijar, whereas some other felt closer to Albalate, Arzobispo, another village. A younger girl’s mother came from Hijar. Her nickname was the Hijarana. It was offensive.

The schools were on the other side of the Martín river. You could cross it thanks to a bridge made of benches and old appliances. I had written a short story about a guy on a bike who once saw a girl there, he followed her, crossed the bridge and entered a different world, an imaginary Africa, where he lived in an Indian Jones film parody. My classmates didn’t know anything about that short story and I wasn’t even thinking about it when I met Joaquín as I was going to school. He was there with three friends of his and a white scooter.

They were all a few years older than us. They were wearing t-shirts, jeans and boots. Our clothes were sportier. Joaquín and his friend had piercings, the other two didn’t. They said hello to the girls «Who are they?» Joaquín asked María.

«They’re just some guys from the village».

Joaquín didn’t utter a single word and we didn’t try to talk to them either. We just stayed there for a while, Joaquín took a cigarette and offered it to María. She took it. We didn’t have any cigarettes, at that time we didn’t smoke regularly. Some guys who were one or two years older than us would smoke in the back of a bar — the Chulo — in somw sort of private area. Joaquín didn’t offer us any cigarettes. Joaquín’s friend asked if he could take his scooter. Joaquín said yes. «But be careful. If something happens I’ll chop you head off».

Joaquín’s friend drove around the sports centre a couple of times.

«I’ll drive you if you want» Joaquín told María.

A few minutes later another guy came, he was riding a bike and had a bag full of beers and crisps. They made some calculations and divided the content. Joaquín offered a beer to the girls, but they said no. María said she didn’t like it, she only liked peach schnapps. Nobody talked to us and our presence just didn’t make sense. We stepped away and stayed in the shade. Joaquín was talking to María and Belén while one of his friends was trying to talk to the other girls. We thought about playing videogames, but someone eventually said no. We regretted not having a ball with us. We found a rock and threw it against the basket to see if someone would hit it. The other Daniel won. We got bored a bit more. Then we went to the village shop and bought some orange drinks and sweets. We played videogames for a while. The girls were still there talking to Joaquín and his friends. We stepped closer, perhaps food was giving us something to do. Esther said it was time to head back: we had to walk for an hour and she didn’t want to arrive back home at night. María and Belén wanted to wait a bit longer. Joaquín offered to take her on a ride with his scooter. I realised María and Belén weren’t thrilled about that invitation. It seemed as if Joaquín still thought Esther was hot, and for the first time I realised it was true. Esther said no and that she wanted to go home. I believe that stubbornness came as relief to us, for Miguel said it was better to go back to Urrea. María smoked one last cigarette and chatted with Joaquín, half flirtatiously and half insolently. Then we headed back.

About a hundred metres from the school, on the left, was a hill: that’s where the school was, and on the right the village. The four of us went up, the girls kept going on the street. As we got on top we started screaming:

«Hijarans!»

«Losers! Fuck off!»

«Fucking Hijarans!»

Manuel was the most enthusiastic: «Poofs! Fuck! Son of a bitch!»

Then we went on walking. We mocked Manuel because he seemed crazy. He just laughed.

After three or four minutes we heard the noise of a scooter. We couldn’t actually see it, for the road took a turn. When we were about to cross the river, we saw Joaquín coming on his scooter together with the bike guy and their three friends running behind them as if they were their squires. We thought (or at least I thought) they wouldn’t cross the river.

As soon as we crossed it we started walking quickly, almost running. The girls were with us, a bit further back. Two or three hundred metres after the river, we saw Joaquín and his friends again. «Hey, wait. Wait. We won’t do you any harm» they said.

At the moment we all wanted to run away, but it was too late. They were there. We stood there in line, on the corner of the street, facing Joaquín, who got off his scooter, and his friends. «What did you say?» he asked.

«Nothing.»

«What do you mean? We heard you.»

«We said: Hijarans. Fuck off.»

«That’s it?»

«That’s it.»

«Who said son of a bitch?»

«We didn’t say that» Miguel said.

«We heard someone say son of a bitch.»

«No» I said.

«I think you did. Paco, did you hear it?» One of the boys nodded. «I heard it too. Do you think we’re stupid? So, who said it?»

«We didn’t say it. Leave us…»

Joaquín grabbed Miguel, saying: «Who do you think you are? Paco doesn’t have a mother, you dumbass. So tell me who said it» He shook Miguel and pushed him back. Miguel fell on a bramble. He didn’t get hurt, but his t-shirt got ripped. He got up immediately.

«We didn’t say it. Leave us alone» Miguel said. He was about to cry and a little burp came out of his mouth as he was screaming. Joaquín laughed scornfully, his friends laughed happily.

«You know what, we’ll let you go if you really burp.»

The situation was delirious. I couldn’t help but smile. Joaquín saw it and came towards me. «What are you laughing about?» he asked me.

«Nothing.»

«Let’s see. Burp.»

I told him I couldn’t do it on purpose. Joaquín didn’t believe me, he thought I was joking. He burped to show me how to do it. I said ok, but I couldn’t do it. He insisted. I tried, but the only thing that came out was a click, like that of empty guns in films. Joaquín said: «That sucks. Are you a poof?»

«Come on, try again» Joaquín said.

At that moment, as I was about to open my mouth, almost certainly about to fail, Manuel burped terribly, a powerful and long burp, longer than Joaquín’s. There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Joaquín laughed, his friends followed along and we laughed too. Even the girls laughed in the back. The situation was suddenly calmer. «Fuck, you sure know you way» Joaquín said to Manuel. He gave him a pat on his shoulder and they let us go. We got back to the village as it was getting darker. The following day, as we were telling Christian this story, Miguel told me it had been kind of fun, for nothing had happened to me. He also told Manuel he was a jerk. They started fighting and we had to separate them. I don’t know whether the girls went back to Hijar or not, but they never asked us to go with them again. We never talked about that expedition again. Not a long time later, my mother was transferred to another village. Before Christmas came we had already moved. I never went back to Urrea and I haven’t seen any of my classmates in over fifteen years. I heard Manuel died in an accident with a tractor. I know some got married and had children. I sometimes drive near Hijar, but I haven’t seen any of my classmates in over fifteen years. And every time I drive by I still feel like taking that road again.

Written by Daniel Gascón.

Originally published here.

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