She was scratching his back as the taxi weaved in and out of Granada traffic on the Gran Via en route to the bus station. A song came on the taxi radio, a flamenco song that Jimmy was sure was being played at that very moment inside the Courtyard of the Lions in the Alhambra and was being broadcast live through the taxi driver’s radio. The swords were fresh with blood. These gypsy swords were not yet buried. Jimmy turned around and looked out the taxi’s rear window with Vera’s nails still on his back. He saw the large, dripping orange sun high in the sky and the Alhambra on the hill, the red tower and the flags in the mountain wind.
He knew he would never hear the song again. When the song ended, there was no voice to give it a name. It was followed immediately by forgettable Spanish opera. No, he would never hear the song again. He would never hear a song like that song again. It belonged to the ages. When Lincoln died, they said he belonged to the ages. When Garcia Lorca died, they buried him for forty years, forty years in the wilderness, and they still haven’t found his body even though they continue to dig for it.
Vera was the president of the University of Illinois’ Red Bison club. She was responsible for protecting the environment in Champaign-Urbana. She was also a high-ranking member of the Sierra Club, which did a lot of the same. He never met a girl like her before. He never met a girl so passionate about something so selfless. He was grateful she too had decided to study in Granada during her junior year of college.
She was always talking about how great he was. She said he was a great short story writer and he would be famous one day. He showed her his damn writing once in Federico Garcia Lorca’s park across the street from his host family’s apartment. He read to her as they sat close to each other, too close for the occasion, on a bench in front of a fountain, the species of fountain only found in Granada. It was a setting better suited for a young man to kneel and propose. There were too many trees and flowers, there was an unidentifiable aroma of Chinese gardens mixed with Moorish spices, but far beyond gardens and spices. It was what dripped from the sun into the bubbling foam of the fountain. He could feel Lorca’s eyes on the back of his neck. Lorca was watching the scene from a window, writing about what he saw. Vera was probably a lizard and Jimmy may have been a vulture, as Lorca saw it. But it called for something more than the reading of a short story.
But name one other city in the world more synonymous with the death of a poet than Granada.
Inside the Granada bus station, she expressed some concern.
“Are you sure we don’t have to book a room? There’s a payphone over there. I can call some of the places he mentions in this book,” she said.
“We’ll be fine. There aren’t nearly as many tourists in Salamanca as there are in Granada,” Jimmy said. “There’ll be plenty of rooms.”
She fell asleep shortly after they connected with another bus in Madrid. Jimmy wanted to have a beer with her inside the Madrid station but she said she just wanted to find the “new bus” and “close her eyes for a while.” Travelling through the barren land of La Mancha had made her sleepy. She was staring out the window and pointing things out to Jimmy at first, but the landscape began to repeat itself and she grew silent. The night sky was clear in Madrid and the sun of Granada was now replaced by a Madrid moon.
From Madrid to Salamanca, she snored loud enough for the old woman sitting in front of them to shoot her a look of death. Who’s death wasn’t clear at the time. Jimmy just smiled at the woman and stared at Vera. There were only four other people on the bus now besides Jimmy, Vera, and the old woman. The bus had been as full as the moon before they arrived in Madrid.
Jimmy did not have the heart to wake her. She told him two days ago she was having a hard time sleeping because her host mother made a lot of noise late at night and early in the morning. Vera ground her teeth and licked her lips between snores. Jimmy imagined twenty years down the road, watching her lick her lips as she slept, their teenage son out on a date, she told him to be home by midnight. It was one now, still no sign of the boy, but she was out cold, snoring and licking her lips. He would place both hands under his head and stretch his elbows out. People rarely understand how good they have it. He would stare at the fan and the white ceiling that surrounded it, a fan with a flow not too different from the fountain in Granada, and think about the night on the bus to Salamanca.
The bus pulled into Salamanca’s station and Jimmy gently shook the snoring girl until she woke up. Her black hair, black enough to be suitable for Andalucia, was scattered in threads that were running across her forehead, eyes, and nose. They were running away, really. Her eyes were still closed when she said, “Are we in Salamanca?” She said it in a voice that was somewhere between sleep and consciousness, left behind in some inn between Granada and Salamanca, maybe La Mancha, where they served potato chips, orange Fanta, and green olives to the passengers for a few coins while the driver poured petrol into the tank. Her voice was somewhere in La Mancha, sitting and waiting for something or someone in La Mancha.
Jimmy helped her to her feet.
“Let’s go, sleeping beauty. You were snoring louder than a fat man,” he said.
Her eyes were wide now. She seemed embarrassed. Jimmy absorbed the green of her eyes. It was the green of her eyes that he first noticed in the Spanish composition class.
“Oh my God! Are you serious?” she said.
“You’re a window rattler,” Jimmy said in his best John Lennon voice. He did a great John Lennon. Back in eighth grade, he and three other buddies performed as the Beatles during the school’s talent show. They performed the song “Help,” and they wore black wigs and suits and ties. The other three actually played guitar and drums, Jimmy couldn’t play any instruments. He wasn’t musically inclined, but he introduced the band to the audience in his Lennon voice and made small talk with the crowd and told jokes the way John Lennnon did. They won the talent show, Jimmy and the lads.
“Stop kidding around,” she said as she retrieved her school bag that also served as her travel bag from under her seat. She packed light. She would have made Rick Steves proud. It was just one more thing Jimmy liked about her.
“Was I really snoring?” she asked. She asked in a way that told Jimmy she was worried he would find her less attractive. She had no idea how much he loved her, he hadn’t told her yet. He was planning on telling her that night, or the following night, but he was going to tell her in Salamanca.
“Yes, you were really snoring. It was kind of cute though,” he said.
“Oh, shut up,” she said as she brushed past him, her shoulder knocking into his shoulder and her school bag, which was strapped over that deadly shoulder, giving him a love tap in the ribs. She walked down the aisle and off the bus as if she was travelling alone. He chased after her, but not too fast. He liked observing her from a distance. She was the most authentic human he’d ever known. He never thought he would meet a human so authentic, let alone a woman.
She walked into the station and waited for him. She did not turn around. When he arrived at her side, she spoke.
“Should we wait for a taxi?” she asked, looking across the station.
“Sounds good,” Jimmy said.
They walked across the small station and exited through a glass door that slid open as they approached it. They were standing on a platform where they had expected to see a line of taxis ready to whisk them away. But there were no taxis. What they did see, after about five minutes, were giant raindrops splash against the empty platform. It was a slow, loud rain, a different rain from the Gypsy feet pellets of Granada. This was a Holy Procession rain, for the time being.
“Great, we have no room, there are no taxis, and now it’s raining,” she said. “I guess we’re sleeping in the bus station tonight.”
“Did you pack an umbrella?” he asked her.
“No, did you?” she replied.
“No,” he said.
“Of course not” she said.
“Jesus, I thought Spain was supposed to be the driest country in Europe. I never thought I would need an umbrella as often as I do,” he said.
“Well, now you know,” she said.
She hadn’t made eye contact with Jimmy since they were on the bus. Now, she was staring at cars driving down on a slick street in a foreign city, cars that were not taxis, tires that splashed rainwater onto the platform’s curb, miniature waves across an asphalt beach, and she was shaking her head.
Jimmy stared at the yellow line, which ran down the center of the road as the rain grew heavier. The line was shiny and blurry.
“Well, we might as well start walking before it gets even worse,” he said. He wasn’t looking at her either now. He was talking to the sliding glass door. This had the potential to be quite the little disaster.
“Walk where?” she asked. “We don’t even know where we’re going”.
He looked straight ahead. There had to be something out there.
“South, we’re heading south. Right now, I have more confidence in south than north,” he said.
More cars were driving south than north. They had to be going somewhere.
“You don’t even know if that’s north, south, east, or west. We’re just going to walk with no sense of direction and get soaked. I don’t mind getting wet if we have a destination. It’s not that bad walking in the rain when you know you’ll be somewhere soon, but to just walk aimlessly in the rain is madness. You’re crazy, Jimbo,” she said through clenched fangs.
She had called him “Jimbo” only twice before, once as they walked up a steep hill towards the Alhambra instead of taking a bus, and once when he accidentally knocked over a small pitcher of sangria, most of which landed in her lap, along with orange and pineapple slices, in a restaurant called El Chikito, which was one of the favorite haunts of Federico Garcia Lorca. He never told her people sometimes called him “Jimbo,” because they didn’t. It was something she invented and he wasn’t too crazy about it.
“Just shut up and walk,” he said.
He knew she would react badly to what he said, but he didn’t care. Right now his top priority was to avoid the rain as much as possible. He walked under storefront awnings. Thankfully, most of the stores had large awnings. Every store was closed, or at least every store looked closed. He did not turn around to see if she was following him. She could sleep inside the bus station for all he cared.
He passed many storefronts before he heard an approaching splashing sound made by small female feet. He tried walking faster to prove a point, but the splashing grew louder and closer. Finally, he felt a soft punch on the upper right side of his back, just below the shoulder. She had arrived.
“So, you were going to leave me at the station? What kind of a man are you?” she asked out of breath. Her voice wasn’t nearly as angry as Jimmy thought it might be. She appeared almost happy to be standing at his side again.
He gently pushed her up against a door under a yellow awning. He kissed the top of her dripping head which made his lips, which had, beyond explanation, remained dry during the walk from the station, as wet as the middle of the street.
“I’m going to tell you something important tonight. But for now, just grab my hand and we’ll run through this monsoon until we find a hotel. It will be vacant, I promise you. It won’t be long. I want to hold your hand,” he said.
He said “I want to hold your hand” in a John Lennon voice.
“Can you keep up with me?” she asked with a smile.
It had been established long ago she was much faster than him. They jogged together in Garcia Lorca’s Park every other morning and by the second lap around the fountain, he was sucking wind while she was picking up speed. She also once challenged him to a race from the park’s entrance to Lorca’s house, the Huerta de San Vincente, a twenty-second race, tops. She beat him by five full seconds. She ran track in high school and was even offered Division II scholarships. Jim didn’t play any sports in high school, even though he was six-foot-five and basketball thin. He really looked like a basketball player. He looked so much like a basketball player that the basketball coach tried persuading him to try out for the team his sophomore year. But Jimmy refused. He had flat feet, size fifteen flat feet, and running up and down the court at breakneck speed and then having to shuffle his feet in front of the always quicker offensive player in a textbook defensive position with the coaches’ eyes on his feet at all times was too much for him to bear. His feet became a combined 26 inches of pain after ten minutes. But she had small, high-arched Serbian feet. She could run for days. He knew this latest proposition would get a big kick out of her. He wished he had thought of it sooner.
She took off at full speed and he tried keeping up like a dog on a leash. His right arm was completely stretched out and his grip of her hand soon became a grip of her wrist. He could have stopped the madness at any time, but he let her drag him through the sidewalks of Salamanca because she was laughing louder than ever before. He almost tripped twice, and he would have undoubtedly taken her with him. He could be incredibly clumsy and you didn’t want to be anywhere near the gentle giant when he was tripping and falling.
After five minutes of running, Jimmy heard a car approaching slowly behind them. It sounded like it was driving up to the curb. He heard gentle splashes of rubber rolling over rain puddles. He knew it was a taxi.
“Hold up!” he shouted at Vera.
He was completely out of breath. He squeezed her wrist and gave it a little tug in his direction. He may have been slow, but he could be strong. The little tug was all that was needed to stop her in her tracks. He realized then how much stronger he was than her, how much stronger a man is than a woman.
He turned around and looked at the taxi’s white passenger door, white with a red sash that ran diagonal across the door.
“We got a taxi!” Jimmy said to Vera.
The taxi driver reached over the passenger seat and lowered the window. He was middle-aged and had black curly hair and a thick black beard that covered his face and neck.
“Do you need a taxi?” the driver shouted through the rain in Spanish in the gravelly voice of the Spanish smoker.
“That would be great,” Jimmy shouted back in Spanish.
He was still holding Vera’s hand when he opened the door to the back seat. He let Vera get in first.
“We’re trying to find a hotel. Do you know of any that would have vacancies now?” Jimmy asked in Spanish.
“Let’s try the Hostal Plaza Mayor. I think it’s the best one for the price and I have a feeling that it might have a few vacancies. The weather has been nasty here the last week. I don’t think we have too many tourists now,” the driver said.
“Let’s try it,” Jimmy said.
Vera placed her head on Jimmy’s shoulder as the taxi slowly moved away from the curb and into the street and rain. Jimmy stared back at the sidewalk. They walked and ran for only fifteen minutes or so, but it seemed longer. That stretch of sidewalk would always belong to him, Jimmy said to himself, even if he owned it for only fifteen minutes.
The sound of the rain against the windshield and the beat of the windshield wipers put Jimmy in a bluesy trance. He felt something he hadn’t felt all day. He felt tired. But the rain was much softer now than it had been when he and Vera first stepped foot on the bus station’s platform. The driver was oblivious to the changing pattern of the rain. He looked at the radio more than the road. He was listening to the news and he kept playing with the volume. The voice came in strong and then faded away. Then it came in strong again. Jimmy was too tired to apply the proper concentration to translate to himself the news of Salamanca. It was a foreign language during the drive.
The taxi eventually stopped in front of an entrance that read Hostal Plaza Mayor. It wasn’t that far from the bus station. They could have walked if they had known where they were going.
It looked like a hotel, not a hostel. There were four flags above the Hostal Plaza Mayor sign. One was Spain, the other was for the European Union. He didn’t recognize the other two, but he made an educated guess. One was the flag of the region, the other was the flag of Salamanca.
“Are you sure this is a hostel?” Jimmy asked the driver.
“Yes, a hostel. The nicest one in Spain,” the driver said in a manner that suggested the topic wasn’t up for debate.
“Can you wait here for a minute? I want to make sure there are vacancies,” Jimmy said.
“Sure, sure. Take your time,” the driver said with a sincere smile.
Jimmy opened the door and got out of the taxi. He then took Vera by the hand and helped her out of the car. She hadn’t said much since they stopped running down that sidewalk, which already seemed like hours ago. She was leaving the talking to the men.
Jimmy and Vera entered the tiny lobby. It looked Alpine. There were wooden beams across the white ceiling. The desk behind which the pleasant, smiling old man stood, was solid wood. The hotel key rack behind the old man was solid wood. There were plenty of keys hanging on the rack, a good sign. There was a wooden grandfather clock to the left of the old man. It was taller than him.
“Welcome to Salamanca? American?” the old man asked.
His hair, which Jimmy was sure had once been jet black, was now as white as the ceiling. There was not one strand of black. His skin was tan, as if he was a Chicagoan just home from a three-week vacation in Florida. His face was still manly with sharp features, quite handsome. His glasses were not the glasses of an old man; they were stylish enough for Jimmy to wear if he needed glasses. The only thing old about the man was his age.
“Yes, American. We’re from Chicago. Tell me, do you have any vacancies?” Jimmy asked.
The smile never left the old man’s face. He shrugged his shoulders as if the question was almost silly.
“Of course, plenty of vacancies. Don’t worry. How long do you plan to stay?” the old man asked.
“At least three nights,” Jimmy said.
“Fine, fine. I will need to see your passports first,” the old man said, still smiling, still showing healthy, white teeth.
Jimmy gave his passport to Vera.
“She’ll take care of the passports and signing in. I need to pay the taxi,” Jimmy said.
“Fine, fine,” the old man said.
As Jimmy headed out the door, he heard Vera speaking with the old man. Her voice was very pleasant. Her Spanish was better than his. She could talk in Spanish in different moods, which is a great demonstration of fluency. Jimmy almost always talked Spanish in one mood, a wooden presentation, as if he was concentrating too hard on translating the English to Spanish before speaking, and while listening as well.
Jimmy approached the driver and handed him cash, paper Euros, a nice little stash that included a nice little tip. The driver shook Jimmy’s hand.
“Enjoy your stay,” the driver said.
But Jimmy felt the situation called for more.
“Thanks for everything. You really saved us tonight,” he said. He shook the driver’s hand a second time.
The driver rolled up the window and waved at Jimmy one last time before slowly backing away. He drove gently, he drove like someone who respected his surroundings, someone who knew the entire city was a heritage site.
Jimmy stared at the road in front of him. The rain was little more than a refreshing mist now. That passed quickly, he said to himself. The road wound towards a sandstone arch. He was sure the plaza, the most beautiful plaza in the world he was told by many in Granada, was just beyond the arch. He imagined the pictures he saw of the sandstone buildings, lit up at night under black and blue clouds, a night like tonight. It looked like everything was made of gold. Sandstone under the moon’s light, under the light of lamps, looks like solid gold. A golden city, Salamanca. He would tell her he loved her tonight, in the plaza. The bars would be open late into the night. After they unpacked their things, they would go for a stroll through the plaza and he would find the right bar, maybe there would even be seats outside the bar, seats on the plaza itself, and he would tell her for the first time he loved her.
The flamenco song he heard inside the taxi on the Gran Via in Granada came back to him now. He told himself, staring at the sandstone arch, he would remember it for the rest of his life but he would never know its name.