Isn't it strange how certain stories get recycled on an endless loop at family gatherings while others get skipped over like stones across the water never to drop beneath the surface. Every time someone mentions Spain, there are the funny stories of my sunburn and the overnight train ride shivering on a hard bench across from the Japanese couple who merely dropped their chins to chest to sleep peacefully while we restless Americans twisted and turned, grumpy and complaining. And how the Spaniards simply stepped outside for a smoke while the strike left us stranded in the middle of nowhere just a few miles outside the Madrid border. But no one talks about my brother’s heartbreak as we traveled, him dutifully showing his little sister around the tourist sites. And no one mentions the outing that cut short my innocence and that will forever haunt my subconscious.
My pent up energy ready to explode, I instinctually rebelled when my older brother said he would lie down for a nap upon arriving in Córdoba. I simply couldn't hide in his heavy shadow any longer. Energized by a 16-year-old independent streak, I instead head out to the park to read a book on my own. Not paying attention to the name of the hotel we had just checked into and too engrossed in the mesmerizing sites to pay attention to street names, I wandered down the cobblestone with a book locked securely under my arm.
I reveled in the romantic scent of freedom, alone in a foreign country, finding my own way, Spanish words bubbling up and sporadically popping effervescent from my brain. Finding an empty park bench, I sat down purposefully and strategically avoided any prying eyes of passersby determined to lose myself in my own version of this moment and not wanting a mirrored reflection of myself as an awkward American staining my experience. I have no idea what I was reading or even if I in fact was reading. It was more a staking out of place, a reclaiming of identity in a foreign land with no reference points.
I don’t know how long I sat before I noticed a slight change in the light sifting through the canopy and had that entrenched sense in my gut that it was time to head home. But just as my muscles were contracting to stand, I caught sight of some teenage boys in my peripheral vision and decided to fall engrossed in my book for just a few more minutes until they meandered by. But no matter how hard I tried to ignore them, I eventually could not deny their incessant attempts to get my attention, first gradual like they were calling a cat “psst” then angry guttural sounds as they grabbed their crotch, each egging the other on.
Finally looking up, and my eyes fell on the leader of the pack with his dark hair falling in soft waves. His body formed a staggering S, all bravado with sleepy eyes that drilled into me. I gradually became aware like a camera coming into focus that he was standing too close, and the others were forming a semicircle around us blocking any view of a now almost entirely empty park. Startled and confused by my rapidly changed environment, I strained to understand their Spanish words that were hitting my brain like staccato notes. Something hard and bitter was getting caught in my throat and tears threatened to sting my eyes as I desperately tried to decode the situation. The next thing I knew, he was next to me embracing me, and I was numb, as if I were watching the scene from outside my body. My skin felt hard, the border of my being closing off in defense to the intrusion like even the cells of my body were uniting, squeezing the space between them to create a more defined barrier.
The next thing I remember was the sound of dried, crunching leaves behind the bench and looking at the branches of the trees towering above me while a disembodied voice was telling me something I couldn’t understand in tones no longer aggressive but sated, soft and wistful. As if waking from a dream, I struggled to remember who it was that was talking to me, this stranger who was whispering as if we had known each other for years. Disoriented and stunned, I had the sudden relief that he was telling me goodbye. He pulled my hand open in front of him and gently placed an earring in it as a parting present. I stared in disbelief that he thought I would want a memento to remember this night. When I sat still as stone, he placed it in my ear and then was gone. I watched like a stunned animal as he strutted off with his fawning posse in tow.
Blinking, I quickly become aware that I was alone in a darkened park without any sense of from which way I had come. The darkness of the trees was now feeling oppressive like they were tightening in around me. My breathing grew heavy and my chest began to heave. No time for tears, I staggered out and head instinctively in the opposite direction from which they had sauntered.
Reappearing abruptly from what seemed another dimension, my eyes searched desperately from right to left for landmarks. The families that were strolling through the streets earlier had all gone home and were surely gathered around their tables sharing a warm meal. The quaint corner stores had all pulled the shutters and locked up for the night taking their comforting chatter with them. The Spanish phrases that I had diligently studied on the airplane over the ocean had all drained from my head. This must be how a deer in headlights feels. The light was rapidly fading so I randomly chose a direction that seemed vaguely familiar and walked as if pulled by a deep yearning to forget. But as I turned each corner only to find a less and less familiar street unfold before me, the sinking knowledge of how incredibly protected I had been my whole life smacked me in the face. How stupid! This proud, independent, free thinker finally facing her own flimsy grasp of the world. I was suddenly a character in a dark novel. Toni Morrison would have a heyday with me, wandering aimlessly with glaring white skin glowing in the darkness like a beacon of naiveté.