As Franco Died
Paloma was working on this expression back in 1975, when the dictator was dying. She’d close her eyes halfway and shake her head slowly, as if considering a point and finding it too pitiful for words. John Lewis first noticed it in the basement cafe of the Arts and Letters Department, la Facultad. She was down there with her philosophy friends, drinking espressos and smoking Ducado cigarettes, probably talking about the horrors of Pinochet in Chile or the latest American outrage, maybe that tacky McDonald’s near the Plaza de España. John remembered watching as she closed those dark green eyes halfway and shook her head, exhaling a lungful of smoke.
Now he saw the same expression, refined through 20 years of practice. It was a thin, angular Paloma on Larry King Live, talking in English about her political action committee and the importance of returning to traditional American values (Paloma? American?). Then Larry asked her something about President Clinton. The eyes closed, the head shook, the mouth, barely open, was surely going through the motion of exhaling a Ducado that she’d never dare smoke in public, if she still smoked at all. She had it down, John thought. He pulled his chair close to the TV to see if she still had the same crooked front tooth.
Funny how the memory works. John supposed there were entire years in the ’80s that he didn’t think of Paloma. Months at least. In airports sometimes he’d hear a Spanish voice shouting some typically Spanish word, like “imbecil,” pronouncing the “c” with the Castilian “th”, and he’d remember her. And sometimes he saw elegant curved noses like hers, and he wondered if she’d cut her long black hair, if she’d ever married. But in his postings in Quito and Managua and Cabo Verde, noses like Paloma’s were rare as fresh bagels; months passed between sightings. In Washington, of course, they were more common. John’s upstairs neighbor, K. Swartz — Kitty, Katie? — was a man-sized bureaucrat at one of the Departments, either Interior or HUD, who thumped against John’s door when carrying groceries upstairs. His first few months at the apartment, John mistook the banging for knocking, and opened the door, only to find himself face to face with a large, apologizing figure in a purple parka. With her green eyes and red hair, an accent from Philadelphia or Baltimore, his neighbor couldn’t have seemed less Spanish. Her nose, though, was a graceful, slender arch. Pure Paloma.
In these early spring days of 1996, John didn’t have to conjure Paloma from random words and body parts. The real Paloma was speaking to him all the time, from TV, the Post’s Style section, even the magazines in checkout lines. She had married an American publishing heir, dropped her two surnames, Ruiz Goicoechea, and emerged as Paloma Pollack, the foreign-born goddess of the new right. John first came upon this new version about two months before, in The Wall Street Journal. The article described a glamorous Spaniard with a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne who had followed a path of her husband’s money right to the summit of the Republican Party. Nowadays she was sailing in Long Island Sound with William Buckley and showing up at fundraisers on the arm of right-wing senators and pundits. People compared her to Claire Boothe Luce, even to Jackie Kennedy.
Something about Paloma’s spectacular flight left John feeling angry and unsettled. At first he blamed the politics. He looked at this glib new philosopher of the right, with sculpted cheekbones he’d never even seen in Spain, and wondered just how low she’d dive for money and fame. Following his daily routines in Washington, taking the Metro, shopping at Pathway, eating alone in the State Department cafeteria, he carried on imaginary debates with her, positioning himself as a poor but virtuous leftist, and ripping into her as a shill for cattlemen, oil companies, even racists. In one of the debates he got a bit carried away and called her a “whore.” She slapped him in the face and called him “hijo de la chingada” — a Mexicanism Paloma would never use. John revised the scenario and pointed out her hypocrisy more delicately. This reduced Paloma to tears. “I know, I know,” she lamented in accented English, sounding like Ingrid Bergman. “Mightn’t there be some way,” she ventured, “that we could use these millions, together, for something worthwhile, something we’d be proud of?”
John pictured himself shaking his head slowly, with dignity, and then asking if she acquired those cheekbones through diet or surgery. More tears. Paloma telling him about the long years of therapy that followed his departure from Madrid. The anorexia, the surgery. In this scenario, John consoled her with a pat on one newly hollowed cheek. “Whatever you do,” he advised, “don’t let them touch your nose.”
Now that he was growing used to the new Paloma, the politics hardly fazed him. He’d always regarded her politics as a fashion statement. Socialism, platform shoes, Roxy Music, hash… They were all part of the university package in Madrid that year, when the Generalísimo kept getting sicker. Back then, with helmeted soldiers guarding the door of the Facultad, politics were just something to talk about, in hushed tones — and even quieter if you had any connection, no matter how remote, to the bomb-throwing Basques, the ETA. Just a year earlier, they’d blown up the car carrying Franco’s likely successor. (It had landed in the tower of a nunnery.) So as far as Paloma and her friends were concerned, ETA was leading the anti-Fascist fight.
Twenty years later, John wasn’t too fazed by her shift from ETA-sympathizing socialist to Republican. She was just keeping up with the times, like a dentist who switches from silver to ceramic fillings. In fact, John himself had wandered politically. Who would have thought back in 1975, when Franco and Pinochet and Somoza all appeared to be members of the same nasty club, that John 10 years later would be organizing the “contras” from his political post in the Managua Embassy? In his imaginary dialogues with Paloma in the mid ’80s, she was the one attacking from the left.
So they were both hypocrites, unless Paloma had experienced some sort of yacht-deck epiphany, which John doubted. What irked him, he realized after a week or two, was her stunning success. John’s slog through the State Department couldn’t compare, and this made him question his path through life.
Back in Madrid, he’d been the ambitious one, the good student who filled notebooks with synopses of Carlos Fuentes and Garcia Marquez novels, in Spanish. He was the one headed for law school in America and maybe politics, or a career in high diplomacy. Maybe he’d write books. Paloma? She flitted around with those ragged philosophy friends of hers in oversized black sweaters, smoking, ordering cognac with the espressos in the cafeteria at the Facultad. John could remember her flunking an Unamuno seminar — flunking it! — and then shrugging her shoulders and blowing out smoke, calling the course “un coñazo,” a lewd word for boring. John could remember her joking about it with all those friends of hers, the guys with the half-grown beards and the eyes at half-mast, as if they’d been out in the gardens smoking hash, or up all night fucking. Or both. When he walked up to her table that day, looking concerned, and asked if it was true she’d failed the test, those people made him feel like the Joe College, the earnest American who actually cared about grades. Paloma performed her shrugging routine and gave him every possible signal to take his concern and his L.L. Bean sweater and neatly combed long hair to an American table. That’s when John started thinking maybe she was sleeping with one of those guys.
That was John’s greatest insecurity, and regret. Ever since those college days with Paloma, he’d largely steered clear of women, following a path of sexual non-intervention, mostly because he was chicken. A close call came around every five years or so. There was a Peruvian woman he danced with one evening in Lima who squeezed him tight and kissed him softly on the neck. When she asked politely for his phone number, he made one up. And then once while waiting for a bus in Caracas he somehow found himself kissing a woman. But when her bus came, she said goodbye and waved to him from the back window. Now it seemed like a dream. So while Paloma was busy tangling with people, getting bruised and muddied, and using them to climb, John was avoiding potential messes.
Not that he didn’t have his pride. He looked at himself at 41, with his flat stomach and graying temples, a face with some nice angles to it, and he liked what he saw. He was proud of his knowledge, his taste in jazz, his political savvy. People appreciated his humor. Why should he be alone? Maybe Paloma’s return was a signal of some sort, he thought. A chance to hit the reset button.
He resolved to make use of her. The trick was to let people know, discreetly — without bragging or name-dropping — that he and Paloma had been an item that year that Franco was dying. If word of that connection spread, there was no telling the impact it could have on John. As he saw it, a revamped sexual identity could open all sorts of opportunities in the dating world, or at least make him feel better about himself.
Since then, he’d raised the matter a few times at work. But it was a challenge to steer his State Department colleagues from politics to sex. One day, he saw Luis Bravo, of the Brazil desk, reading a Washington Post article about Paloma in the cafeteria. “Funny thing,” John said, as if the thought just occurred to him. “You see that woman, this Paloma… Pollack?” He reached across the table and put a finger on Paloma’s picture, leaving a smudge on it.
Bravo took a bite from a leg of fried chicken and nodded.
“I used to date her, in Madrid. Twenty years ago.”
Bravo looked at John blankly.
“Back when Franco was dying,” John explained. “For a few months.”
Bravo nodded and wadded his chicken in one cheek, to talk. “Franco was dying for more than a few months.”
“I mean I dated Paloma for a few months,” John said, already regretting bringing it up.
“Was she a… Fascist back then?” Bravo asked.
“No,” John laughed. “Closer to a Basque terrorist.”
“Hmmm. Looks like she’s going to endorse Dole one of these days.”
This wasn’t going anywhere. John piled some coleslaw on a piece of toast and took a bite. “Really quite a beautiful girl,” he said. “Confused as hell, but beautiful.”
Bravo nodded and turned the page. John wondered if bureaucratic routines at Foggy Bottom were grounding down people’s curiosity. He tried bringing it up a few more times. But everyone focused on her politics. Maybe, he thought, they just didn’t know him well enough to ask the kind of personal questions he wanted so badly to answer. Rosa, the secretary at the Central America Desk, came closer than anyone else. “She’s a very … swank woman,” she said. “Have you called her?”
John said no, not yet anyway, and walked back to his desk wondering if “swank” was a word.
Watching Paloma on TV later that night, he started to feel angry. What other country in the world would let a foreigner play domestic politics like this? There was Paloma, running a hand through her thick, shoulder-length hair, calling the president “spineless.” Asked about his Bosnia policy she made that face again — the eyes closed, the head shaking — and finally selected a word for it: hypocritical. “We Europeans know something about duplicity,” she said, citing Tallyrand and Machiavelli. “But to wrap himself in such a blanket of virtue…” She started to repeat the gesture, but cut it short and said, “This time I honestly think he’s inhaling.”
John remembered smoking hash with Paloma. One of her Basque friends had sneaked in from Morocco with it and he gave Paloma a piece about as big as a chicklet, wrapped in tin foil. One evening in October, she and John were walking from the University to the Moncloa metro stop. They were barely flirting at this point, John remembered, doing the double-cheek-kiss routine to say hello and good-bye. His Spanish wasn’t very good yet, and she spent a lot of time correcting him, and laughing about his mistakes. On a whim, John had taken a couple semesters of Hungarian at Bloomington, and Paloma liked to hear him speak it. They developed a game. Sometimes when they passed policemen, or one of the armed soldiers posted around the university, John would raise his voice and start waving his arms, sprinkling Franco’s name into Hungarian sentences he remembered, such as “My dog is brown” and “I am fine, thank you, and you?” Paloma would look up at him, nodding earnestly, and then, when they were past the bewildered policemen, break into a high, whinnying laugh. John could still hear her, laughing until she coughed, and feel her grabbing his elbow, hugging it to her chest. Sometimes she turned towards him and held his face in her hands, and then brushed his long brown hair across his forehead, or traced his eyebrows with a finger. No one he knew had touched so much, or so casually, as Paloma.
That evening she pulled him by the elbow just at the mouth of the Metro and said, in English, “How about a promenade in the Parque del Oeste?” John nodded eagerly. He pictured the two of them on a park bench, his hands exploring under her big black sweater.
They walked down the slope of the dry, barren park, which looked to John like a goat pasture. Paloma hunched down in the shadow of some bush and began to burrow through her purse. She pulled out the square of hash and a Ducado. “You don’t have a Winston?” she asked, saying that good “canutos” were made with blond tobacco. John, disappointed that she wanted drugs, and not sex, shook his head. He looked up towards the traffic on Avenida Moncloa, and across the park toward the palace of the Bourbon kings. There just had to be policemen patrolling this park, he thought.
Just a few weeks before, the whole junior-year-abroad delegation had made a pilgrimage to the American Embassy in the Barrio de Salamanca, where a stern young woman showed them poster-sized pictures of Americans in jail on drug charges. She also warned them about politics. “You have no political rights here, no free speech, no right to assembly.” She went on and on about what a repressive place Spain was, and finally asked if there were any questions. A latter-day beatnik from Wisconsin — John could remember his ponytail and goatee, but not his name — raised his hand and said, “If nobody has any rights around here, why are we, like, so tight with Franco?” That got a laugh. But the diplomat matter-of-factly mentioned the quid pro quo, the American air base at Torrejon, the Navy base at Rota. And she added that sports fans could listen to pro football and the World Series on Armed Forces Radio.
As Paloma worked on the joint, John was on all fours behind the bush, looking for police. “Shouldn’t we do this inside someplace?” he asked in his halting Spanish.
Paloma had a pile of the dark Ducado tobacco on one of her notebooks. She was carefully grinding the hash into in, and then packing the mixture back into the cigarette. “Don’t be such a burro,” she snapped. “They wouldn’t recognize this if they found it in their morning chocolate con churros.”
“But they might recognize it” — John wrestled for a moment with the past subjunctive — “if they came upon two students smoking it behind a very small bush.”
“Then come on!” Paloma stood up and lighted the lumpy, reconstituted Ducado. She took a deep pull on it, and began walking toward the Avenida Moncloa. John hurried to his feet and trotted after her.
He didn’t like that image of himself running to catch up to Paloma. Looking back, from his study in Arlington, he pictured himself hunching to brush the dirt from the knees of his khakis, brushing his long hair from his eyes, following this woman without as much as a whimper, even if it landed him in a Spanish jail. All this just to smoke hash, which he never liked, especially mixed with harsh black tobacco. He smoked it that night, though, walking past the crowded shops of Arguelles, and past the traffic cops, exchanging the canuto with Paloma. He remembered looking at it as a game of musical chairs: whoever was holding the cigarette when they got busted would go to jail.
That night, Paloma’s laugh whinnied higher than ever, and when she grabbed his arm, she clenched it tight to her green pea coat. They took the Metro all the way out to Alfonso XIII, to the Cineteca. But the Godard movie showing was sold out. Instead, they sat in a little bar, Paloma drinking beers and eating tapas, probably chunks of Spanish tortilla, or maybe anchovies, and John soothing his aching throat with chamomile tea. He hadn’t known the word for chamomile and improvised, saying “camamilla.” But even as he said it, he knew it was terribly wrong, coming out like “bed of mine.” Paloma shrieked with laughter, repeating “cama mia,” as the waiter stood there in his dirty white jacket, probably wondering if she was laughing at him. Finally Paloma looked at him and said, “Manzanilla, té de manzanilla.” Then, done giggling, she repeated it a few times for John. Looking at her leaning across the table, her frank, bloodshot eyes staring at him as she repeated “té de manzanilla,” John had a feeling that with a little initiative on his part, she would go to bed with him. The only problem was logistics. He couldn’t very well take her back to his apartment near the Glorieta de Bilbao, where he lived with an old Spanish couple. They couldn’t do much behind that bush in the Parque del Oeste. He remembered formulating a proposition in his hash-added brain as she told him about her family, her Jewish father, a professor, and her Basque mother, and her little brother, Pepe, who didn’t think about much more than the Real Madrid football team.
Maybe they could get a car somehow, John was thinking as they made their way along the Gran Via. Or maybe visit a cheap hotel in Lavapies, near the flea market. But as the hash high gave way to a headache, he escorted her wordlessly down the Paseo de la Castellana, toward Plaza Colón. He left her at the door of the majestic apartment building, planting little dry kisses on both cheeks.
The Larry King show was over. John turned off the TV and walked to the kitchenette looking down at his stomach, wondering if it was as flat as it used to be back in Madrid. Maybe not. He made himself a ham and cheese sandwich, using Dijon mustard instead of mayonnaise, and opened a Michelob. What was it, he wondered, that led Paloma to the top while he was still schlepping around a bureaucracy, looking for an excuse to tell people about his brush with fame? She was gorgeous, for one thing. That didn’t hurt.
But John himself wasn’t so bad in the mid-70s, once you got past that ugly haircut. There was this one girl, Pat Donaldson, who yanked him by the elbow in the hallway, right after the Art in the Prado lecture. She backed him into a little nook by a bulletin board and whispered urgently that he was the best-looking guy in the program, and that she had to have him. Pat was a blonde, a little heavy. She laughed a lot and had a sparky Wisconsin accent. Her Spanish was miserable. But still, the Spanish guys paid a lot of attention to her, which was new for her. She was screwing them more or less continually, and bragging about it. Thinking back, John realized that this fact cheapened the compliment she paid him that afternoon in the corridor. But something about the way she looked at him, and the breathless way she spoke, made him believe, even now, that she found him very sexy.
Should he call Paloma? Say hi? He thought about it for a few minutes, finishing his sandwich and then opening another beer. He’d have to say something, propose something, wouldn’t he? Like getting together for a drink near DuPont Circle, or maybe on Capitol Hill. And then what would he tell her? That he was a bureaucrat with one eye on his pension plan, and that her politics disgusted him? Perhaps if he kept quiet about her politics, or even tacitly endorsed them, she could find him some kind of job, maybe in the White House.
He considered that briefly. What if she reached across the coffee table and grabbed his arm, just like the old days, and said she just had to have him? He pictured her reclining in a dark-windowed limousine — no cramped Deux Chavaux this time — looking up at him with those green eyes half closed, her tongue running over that crooked front tooth.
John called Maryland information and asked for Paloma Pollack. No listing. Alexander Pollack? Ditto. He’d have to dig around to find the number.
He wondered how she’d remember him. She’d certainly recall those afternoons in cafes, sitting at tables littered with papers and books, and John introducing her to the Latin American novelists, to Cortazar and Fuentes, even as he was having to look up three or four words every page. She found it amusing. As he talked to her about Rulfo’s magical realism and Carpentier’s baroque style, John had a feeling he was on a stage, auditioning for her. And even if he managed to pass the test, sex itself would be another pass-fail exam. He always suspected that no matter how he performed with Paloma, she’d be smirking with those smug friends of hers at the Facultad about her friend, the Yanqui.
One time, John recalled, she brought along one of her small dour friends, Manolo, to the Café Gijón. He had a crush on her, John could tell. It was as if Paloma had set up a duel. Manolo attacked first, ripping into John for Vietnam and racism and McCarthyism… the usual complaints. Manolo was Andalusian, from Seville, and John had trouble understanding his rapid-fire Spanish, which sounded almost Cuban. But he sat and smiled, nodding occasionally, looking concerned when he thought it appropriate, raising his eyebrows at Paloma, from time to time, as if to say, “Your friend’s a passionate one, isn’t he?” Finally, when Manolo put a Fortuna in his mouth and asked around for “fuego,” John put together an answer. Speaking very softly, he said: “If I understand you, your arguments, you say that you live under Fascist rule largely because my Fascist government supports your Fascist government, as part of its own imperial designs, no?” The Spaniard nodded nervously and looked at Paloma, who was watching them both, amused, over the rim of her coffee cup. “If we both live under Fascist rule,” John continued, “then there is no place for blame. We are victims of a similar system, and our only choices are to commiserate or rebel, no?” That seemed to defuse Manolo. He abandoned the cafe a few minutes later, heading toward the Prado with his books, and leaving John with his bill. John remembered a feeling of victory, and perhaps the first triumph of his diplomatic career.
By then it was getting colder in Madrid, and darker. John walked Paloma home, down the Castellana, past the kiosks brimming with the latest news on the Generalísimo. Grave. Peor. Sufre. He remembered seeing the vendors cooking chestnuts over oil-drums, and asking Paloma if she wanted some. “They smell better than they taste,” she said, smiling. A few blocks later, as John walked along holding a paper cone full of chestnuts, trying to figure out how to eat them, Paloma brought up the discussion with her friend. “You know, you tied Manolo into knots. But you didn’t say anything,” she said gravely.
John shrugged. “That’s politics, no?”
It was dark when they reached her apartment building. Emboldened by his political victory, John tried to move the goodnight kiss from the cheeks to the lips. But Paloma swung her face away from him, whipping his extended lips with her hair. “The neighbors!” she said.
“What about the neighbors?”
“Shhhhh,” she said quietly, pursing lips that John wanted so badly to kiss. “You don’t understand.” As he walked away, humiliated, still holding the chestnuts, she called after him, “Don’t look for the answers in Mexican novels, Juanito.”
That was the Paloma now conquering America: imperious, teasing, smug. John found himself hating her. He walked around his apartment with a bottle of Michelob in one hand, a copy of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in the other. Thinking about Paloma soured him on Spain. John sat down in the living room with the newspaper in his lap and took another drink of beer.
That evening in Madrid, after Paloma teased him, John did some teasing of his own. He called the Señora at his house and told her he wouldn’t be home for supper. Then he took the metro at Rios Rosas, switched at Cuatro Caminos, and came up at Arguelles, just across the street from the Parque del Oeste. The stores were closing. He could hear the music from a discotheque, a block away — “Voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” — and he was convinced it was talking to him. He crossed the avenue purposefully and made his way down the row of tall, dingy dormitories, Los Colegios Mayores. He found Pat Matthews in the basement cafe of her dorm. She was drinking chamomile tea and reading a book of Spanish poetry, probably Lorca. When she saw John, she hurried over to kiss on both cheeks, pressing much closer to the mouth than Paloma. “Want to go out dancing?” she asked, before he could say a word.
They sat in that dreary cafe, talking about the art course they took together. Pat couldn’t wait to get past the medieval stuff they were studying, the medieval stuff, and Hispano-Flamenco, and get started on the marquee headliners, El Greco, Goya and Velazquez. John nodded, thinking about little but sex. Finally they went up to her room. She held him tight by the elbow as they climbed the stairs, and whispered something to him about her period. John was more relieved than disappointed to see that Pat’s roommate was there. “Well, I’ve got to go,” he said, kissing her on both cheeks. She tried to get him to stay, to wait a while. Things could be worked out. But he shook his head and heaved his book pack over a shoulder. Pat, though, didn’t give up so easily. “A group of us are going to Segovia this weekend,” she said. “You want to come?” John said yes. He kissed her again, this time halfway onto her lips. When she pulled him close, he could see her roommate sitting cross-legged on the bed, looking bored, as if she’d seen the same scene many times. Feeling hot, and corralled, and a little embarrassed, John broke free. He hurried down the hall, down the steps, out into the cool November night.
That was the night Franco died. It was dark when John woke up the next morning. He crept into the kitchen, as usual, trying not to wake up the Señora, and turned on the gas for his shower. Waiting for it to heat the water, he flipped on the radio. He heard a classical dirge and then a man’s voice announced that the Generalísimo “falleció” at 2 a.m. John thought he knew what this meant. But he scampered into his room to look up “fallecer,” just to be sure. The dictionary left no doubt. He looked out the window, half expecting to see explosions of some kind, mortars, the first battle of a renewed civil war. But the street watchman was huddled as usual in the doorway of the shoe store, and a few early-risers were on their normal trek toward the Bilbao metro. He heard the Señora shouting to him that he’d left on the gas. John hurried toward the shower. He stuck his head in the kitchen, on the way, and said, “Señora, falleció el Generalísimo.”
“Ay, no me digas,” she said, crossing the front of her nightgown.
John nodded somberly. If the Señora was 70 now, he thought, she was 30 when Franco marched his troops up from Morocco, starting the civil war. He tried to imagine Gerald Ford as president until the year… 2014? The Señora was starting to cry, murmuring something about “pobrecito.” Then she crossed herself again, said, “Que en paz descanse,” and told John to hurry with the shower.
That frosty morning he walked all the way to the university, expecting to see something momentous. But except for some black crepe hanging from public buildings and the banner headlines on newspapers, he was disappointed. Cafes did the usual business. Buses ran. Construction workers at Cuatro Caminos warmed themselves with red wine and brandy. But when he reached the university, he found armed soldiers standing at closed gates. Classes, they said, were postponed for a week.
He started to head home when he heard some honking. It was Paloma, her friend Pilar, and two young men — Manolo and one other — in an old car. They were all beaming, paying no attention to the soldiers. Paloma leaned out a window and told John they were heading to San Sebastian for a week. They’d already swung by his house to invite him, and learned from a teary-eyed Señora that he’d walked to school. Didn’t he want to come? John looked into the crowded car, a Deux Chevaux, and wondered where he’d fit. He hesitated. “Come on,” Paloma urged him, telling him she had cousins to stay with up there. Pilar told him to jump in. Even Manolo, who had seemed so sullen at the Cafe Gijon, urged him on. He told John they’d be driving through the Rioja region, and would drink plenty of the best red wine. He held up a boot-shaped wineskin and smiled broadly, exposing a row of crooked teeth.
John was paralyzed. He said he didn’t have any clothes with him. But Manolo said they could drive by his house. It was on the way. John asked how long the drive was. What’s it matter? Paloma said. Fifteen, twenty hours. John wondered about the sleeping arrangements. He pictured himself lying awake in an attic as Paloma slept with Manolo.
Paloma, flushed and radiant, was going on about what a great fun they’d all have. They’d see the cathedrals in Leon and Burgos, the wine country in Rioja, the Pyrenees. “And we can even stop in Segovia for lunch today,” she said. “See the aqueduct and eat suckling pig. It’s so tender, they say, you can cut it with the plate.” Manolo laughed and added that “cochinillo” was delicious with Rioja wine.
Then John remembered. “Oh,” he said, looking disappointed. “I forgot. I’m supposed to go to Segovia this weekend, with friends.”
“Cancel,” Paloma said matter-of-factly.
Paloma shrugged, looking hurt. “Oh well,” she said. “Maybe some other time.”
Manolo put the wineskin back under his seat. Even he looked disappointed. “Hombre…” he said.
“No, no,” John said, waving them on.
The car finally pulled away, toward Arguelles. Paloma looked back one more time.
As John pictured the scene 20 years later, he tried to read her expression. More than angry or sad or betrayed, she looked perplexed.
John often regretted that decision.
He ended up traveling to Segovia a day later as a member of Pat Donaldson’s entourage. When he met her at the bus station, she was already sitting with another American, a studious engineer from Purdue named Greg. It turned out she’d arranged to meet yet another American in Segovia. John, it seemed, had given up the trip to San Sebastian for a place in a line of lonely, horny ex-pats. When they reached Segovia, Greg walked next to Pat most of the time, and John tagged along behind, as if he didn’t care. Luckily, they never ran into the other American. But Pat did find a Spaniard with a car. John remembered sitting in the back seat with Greg as the Spaniard, his name long forgotten, drove up and down the narrow streets, pointing out things to Pat. She grabbed his hand and rubbed it, saying, “Verdad? Verdad?” in her miserable Wisconsin accent. That night all of them managed to sneak into the same hotel room. But just as John and Greg were readying to negotiate sleeping arrangements, the Spaniard knocked on the door. So the amenable Americans lay on blankets on the floor, pretending to sleep, while Pat went at it with the Spaniard. In the middle of the night, the Spaniard woke up with a start. He dressed loudly, hopping near John’s head as he pulled on socks. Then he hurried out of the room. As soon as he was gone, Greg rose like a zombie and crept wordlessly into bed with Pat, and the humping began again. John was too upset to watch.
What would have happened, he wondered, looking back 20 years, if he had demanded his turn? Would Greg have returned to the floor? It was a question that never came up, probably because all of them could tell that John wasn’t the kind of guy who would get up from the floor.
Remembering that long-ago weekend was depressing. John walked into the kitchen for another beer.
As he opened the last Michelob, he heard a thumping from upstairs, then some shouts. Then a door slammed and someone pounded down the stairs. He braced himself, beer in hand, hoping that his neighbor would keep running down the stairs, past his door. But she stopped and banged. “Mr. Lewis!” she shouted. “Fire!”
John opened the door and saw his neighbor for the first time without her purple coat. She was standing wild-eyed, wearing blue jeans and an orange hockey shirt, red hair falling down to her shoulders. She was yelling something about a fire extinguisher. John hurried into the kitchen, grabbed a small red unit by the refrigerator and ran up the stairs after her into a smoke-filled apartment. The TV was on, playing for an idle exercise bike. “In here!” she shouted from the kitchen. John rushed in and saw a plastic trash can lying on its side in the middle of the floor, burning.
“Shoot it!” the woman screamed as John tried to read the instructions. Something about pulling a pin out…”Shoot it, Goddamn it!” He saw a plastic pole. That must be the pin. He grabbed it between his thumb and forefinger and pulled. “Give it to me!” she yelled. John swung away from her, to keep control of the extinguisher, and looked at the pin. He was pulling the wrong way. He gave it a yank in the other direction and it came out. Then he calmly pointed the apparatus at the fire, which was melting the garbage can, sending inky threads of petrochemicals toward the ceiling. “Fuck!” she yelled. He pulled the trigger and a blanket of white powder buried the flame with a whoosh.
Silence. Then John could hear some popping and crackling from the remains of the fire. The coat of white powder seemed to hiss. He heard canned laughter from the TV in the living room, and he could hear the tall woman next to him breathing heavily. What was her name? Kitty? He tried to picture the name on her mailbox. Something with a K…
She was staring at the remains of the fire, and listening to it. “It’s sorta like it’s talking, isn’t it,” she finally said, looking up at John and smiling.
“Kind of like Rice Krinkles,” he said.
“Or Krispy Kritters.”
They both laughed.
“I’m sorry I screamed at you,” she said. “But I was thinking, here’s my kitchen burning down, and this guy, he’s like, reading the goddamned directions.”
“It had this pin in it…” John started to explain.
“Listen,” she said, her voice brightening. “Would you like a beer or something?” She stepped over the remains of the trash can and opened the refrigerator door. She said she had white wine in the fridge, and Stolichnaya vodka in the freezer, “if you want something.”
John started to back away. But he stopped when he saw the smile drop from her face. “Well, I guess I could have something…” he said. “You have some lime or lemon for that vodka?”
It turned out her name was Katie. She moved the exercise bike out of the way and installed John in an easy chair near the TV, with a tall glass of vodka on the rocks. Katie settled onto the couch with a large round glass of white wine. She flashed a smile at John and made a small toast with her glass. When he didn’t appear to see it, she shrugged, still smiling, and reached for the remote.
John was gazing dumbly at the TV, wondering what he was doing with this neighbor and whether he should have another drink. When Katie started to zip through the channels, it almost made him dizzy.
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. She was leaning forward, the remote in both hands, intent, as the channels flipped by.
John turned his head to look at her more closely as he took a sip of lemony vodka. The nose. It really was like Paloma’s. But her face was broader, with rosy cheeks, and deep-set green eyes.
She’d settled on a hospital show. Somebody was in bad shape, maybe dying. Katie’s eyebrows knotted with concern. She took a big sip of wine and worked it down her throat in shifts. She was actually fairly pretty, John concluded, just a large person. Basketball players, he thought, must have mothers her size.
When the commercials came on, Katie muted them. She swung around toward John and told him about herself. In short order, she was 37, divorced, originally from Philadelphia, and still with some friends there — though her ex-husband was there, too, which was a downer. She worked on the third floor at Interior. She assumed John wasn’t a big fan of Newt Gingrich. She wasn’t either. She wasn’t crazy about Clinton, but would vote for him. She said she didn’t especially enjoy TV, especially the Thursday night line-up. Then the hospital show came back on, and she un-muted it.
John emptied his vodka glass and tried to look at the TV. The picture seemed to jump around even more. He had trouble understanding what the people were saying. He looked at Katie. Something about her reminded him of someone. Was it that woman he kissed at the bus stop in Caracas? Or was it just that she was wearing Paloma’s nose?
He cleared his throat to say something. She looked at him. “You need a refill?” He started to say no, that he’d had enough. But just then the commercials came on and Katie, working against the clock, grabbed his glass and hurried into the kitchen. He heard her unloading an ice tray and pouring. “You know, I guess I should do something about this trash can,” she yelled. “I can’t like just, leave it here. Smoldering, or whatever it’s doing.”
Commercials were still on when she got back. She handed the drink and asked him to tell her about himself. “I hardly see you, except when I bump into your door in that ridiculously small landing there,” she said.
John didn’t know where to start. He started to tell her about growing up in Bloomington, the university town where his mother taught sociology…
“Hold that thought!” Katie said, jumping to her feet. “I’ll just be a minute.” She hurried into the bedroom, looking over her shoulder at John, before she closed the door, and giving him what might have been a wink.
John waited quietly for a minute or so, expecting her to emerge any second. He wondered if might be putting on a bathrobe, and tried to come up with something to say if she made a move on him.
Five minutes passed. At least it seemed so to John. He wondered whether just to go back to his apartment. He crept to the bedroom door and put his ear up to it. Not a sound. He figured she was on the toilet, and again considered leaving. But that might hurt her feelings. So he sat down again, and took a big sip of his drink.
He started to imagine being in a relationship with Katie, a serious one. Which apartment would they settle on? Would they have sex before breakfast? Watch a lot of TV? He found these questions intriguing.
Then he thought about Paloma. He hadn’t mentioned her yet. Somehow it seemed like he should. It wouldn’t be to impress Katie, necessarily. He considered it. Maybe a little.
He took off his shoes. Then he leaned back on the sofa, and stuffed a couple of pillows behind his head. Might as well get comfortable, he thought. For all he knew, she was asleep in there. He took one more gulp of vodka, put down the glass by the sofa, and closed his eyes. He wondered how he would describe his relationship to Paloma, where he would start. He pictured Katie coming out of the bedroom in a bathrobe. Nothing skimpy, not for a woman her size. She would sit on the corner of the sofa, giving herself the option, with a sideways swing, to joint him horizontally, or to stay at arm’s length.
In his mind, swimming with alcohol and desire, the scene moved forward. He heard himself describing the Facultad the year Franco was dying. Soldiers with machine guns patrolled the university, to put down any leftist uprising (most likely in the law school) when Franco finally died. And every day on the TV, the anchors would go through his daily symptoms. He was at the point where about six different critical conditions were killing him. It was a race to see which one killed him first. But they were taking their time. Months dragged on, and the Generalísimo kept dying.
He pictured Katie nodding, and wondered if she knew who Franco was. Maybe he should throw in more background.
Instead he went on to tell her that long before Paloma sailed on yachts with William F. Buckley, she was a socialist of sorts, who smoked hash that her friends brought up from Morocco.
John went through the rest of the story, all the way to the pathetic scene by the university, where he refused the trip to San Sebastian. He rewound that scene a bit and omitted the embarrassing details. Maybe some he’d tell her, he thought. But not tonight.
In his mind, she was sitting right next his head, her big globe of white wine in hand. She was looking down on him gently, with the TV on mute. All he had to do was change a few facts in the story, and keep telling it. The day Franco died, he’d say, Paloma and her friends drove to the university to pick him up and go… to Segovia. Naturally, he hopped in.
That night they ate very tender suckling pig, and washed it down with red wine. Rioja.
Katie nodded, smiling.
“It’s sort of oaky,” he said.
Afterwards, he went on, he and Paloma and the other two walked around the city. They looked at the aqueduct, which the Romans had actually constructed, some 2,000 years earlier, without even using mortar.
“They used rocks.”
“Exactly. Without mortar.”
Then they headed back to the hotel. They walked up one of Segovia’s steep cobblestone streets toward the castle. They found a little alberga, and managed to sneak into the same room, something they wouldn’t have dared do if they hadn’t been drinking so much wine.
John, his hands under his head and his eyes closed, pictured Katie nodding, eager to hear how the young Paloma Pollack would handle these three hot-blooded men in her hotel room.
John wondered himself for a minute or two, than then started gently snoring. The scene continued in a dream.
He didn’t really want to be in the same room with these other two guys, but he didn’t want to kick them out. So, magnanimously, he suggested that all three men sleep on blankets on the floor, leaving the bed for Paloma alone. The other two agreed. They all went to sleep. Next thing John knew, one of them was up in the bed with Paloma, having sex. Very loud, passionate sex.
Katie leaned forward. “Did you… just watch?”
Paloma was much bigger back then — though nowhere close Katie’s size, John told her. (Nothing against large women…) She rolled around with that guy, oblivious to the two men on the floor, doing it in every conceivable position.
Katie was leaning forward, eager to hear about this developing orgy. But John couldn’t deliver one. They finally fell asleep, he said. Then the guy in bed woke up with a start and hurried out of the room, swearing in Spanish.
“Next thing I know,” he said, “the guy next to me’s getting up, like a zombie, and crawling into bed with Paloma.”
“You’re kidding!” Katie said, getting into it. “I think that’s where I might ‘a drawn the line, like said, ‘Hey, there, Paloma. Like, HELLO! Like, EXCUUUUSE ME.”
“And the way she paints herself now,” Katie went on, “as a model of virtue.” She shook her head, marveling. “And… you?”
“Not that night,” John said, smiling fondly, as though the undivulged memories were almost too precious to share.
He looked up at Katie, who was still perched on the corner of the couch, waiting for him to continue the story. “You know,” he said. “Your nose is exactly like Paloma’s. You ever notice that?”
“You’re kidding.” She ran a finger along the curve of her nose and seemed to ponder it for a moment. “You want me to put on music, or something?”
“Ok,” John said. As she fiddled with the stereo, he started to regret that he’d lied to her about that night in Segovia. Why did he have to lie to her?
The music came on, some kind of soft jazz with strings. Katie walked back toward John and saw right away that he was crying.
She rushed toward him, saying, “Aw, what’s the matter?” She sat next to him on the couch and grabbed his hand. John looked at her through his tears and saw a pair of green eyes and knotted brows swimming about six inches from his own.
He said, “I just…” But he couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Awww,” Katie said. She ran a hand through his hair, trying to comfort him.
They sat there for a minute, listening to the music. Finally, John said, “You know. That scene I told you about in Segovia? It wasn’t exactly like that.”
“You were the first one in, right?” Katie said, sounding like a mother pepping up a six-year-old.
He shook his head, and she pulled her hand from his hair. “That wasn’t Paloma in the bed. It was somebody else.”
“Tssst. That doesn’t matter,” she murmured, moving closer to him. “But you did know Paloma Pollack, back then, right?”
John nodded. “I just switched her with this woman, because… Oh I don’t know why I did it.” He was finished crying now and a little angry with himself.
“Hey.” He felt a hand on his shoulder and opened his eyes. Katie had come out of the bedroom and woken him up. She was still in her orange hockey shirt. “Sorry I took so long in there,” she said, adding no explanation. She sat on the same corner where John had pictured her. “Oh look,” she said, bending down and looking into his eyes. “Have you been crying?” She wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and dried it on her jersey.
“Allergies,” John said, sitting up. He realized that after all the work he’d gone through to tell her his Paloma Pollock story, she hadn’t yet heard a word of it. He couldn’t imagine going through it all again. And it was probably time for him to go. But Katie was looking right at him, into his eyes, and smiling. She was trying to tell him something.
“Do you know Paloma Pollock,” he said.
She looked surprised by the question. “Not personally.”
“I mean, you know who she is.”
“Her nose,” John said. “It’s a little like yours.”
Katie smiled, looking a little confused. “Is that a good thing?”
“Oh yes,” John said.