The first thing I see when I open my eyes is Montse sleeping in the bed across from me. I’m sweating, my mouth is chalk dry and tastes like acid, and my head is throbbing. I start to recollect how I got here.
My first memory is of the previous morning in Madrid’s metro. Aside from a box stored in Chicago I am carrying everything I own in the world: two large backpacks, a box of books and records and a guitar. My classes are finished, and the other Americans are on their return flights. I have three weeks left in Spain. My visa is expired, and somehow during the last twenty-four hours my passport has disappeared. I lock my bags in a metal cage in the basement of Madrid’s grimy transit station, and get on a bus to meet Montse in her pueblo. This is all I have learned about Ossa de Montiel: population 1500, known for being both a setting in Don Quixote, and a local center for cocaine trafficking for which it is called Ossa La Blanca.
In the next clear memory Montse and I are walking down a hill on a street lined with rows of tightly packed houses. The earth around the pueblo is dark, the buildings are faded white, and the sky is gray, all of which make colors appear brighter. A small, thousand year old church sits at the bottom of the hill near the edge of town, and across from it, in an empty lot behind the old bullfighting ring someone keeps a small snail farm in a dried and abandoned laundry pool. We walk over a dry riverbed to a park with a pump fountain in the center. Montse takes cold water in her hands and throws it at my face, laughing and kissing me hard when I recover.
Montse and I started together through an argument about bullfighting. She studies filmmaking in an institute near the University, and was the conversation partner of a friend of mine, although the only time I’ve heard her speak English is in bed. She is caring, and reckless, and impossible, and terrified of dying, and she would always rather dance than speak. The first night we spent together she woke me up in the morning by improvising poetry in my ear. For problems that have never been fully explained, but are likely related to La Blanca, she has only just restored a relationship with her parents. Montse is also incredibly beautiful, and in front of the fountain her dark eyes and hair are glowing against the neutral colors of the town.
‘Life is different here, no?’ I ask her, drying my face.
‘Yes,’ she laughs. ‘Time moves slower here than in the cities. Sosiego.’ I don’t know the word, and it doesn’t translate well with a dictionary. ‘Look, this is sosiego, this is what the pueblo is about…’ and she takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. ‘An hour here is a month in Madrid.’
I am in Ossa because of the quinta: a dinner for Montse’s graduating class, held in the crowded dining room of a local restaurant. Montse introduces me to three guys sitting at the end of a long table and sits herself further down the table. Across from me is Juan Pablo, a soccer player in Albacete. He is drunk and excited and whenever there is a shot in the game playing on the TV behind me, he has a small seizure. We talk about the game. To my left is Jesus, who is quiet and intelligent and twice during the chaotic dancing and drinking games turns to me sadly and says,
“These people are crazy…”
We talk about Cuba. The kid cross corner from me is named Manuel, and is a plumber’s apprentice. He is sullen and barely speaks, but always fills my glass when it is empty. I struggle at a few points in the conversation, and realize that Ossa has its own vocabulary. The fireplace in the corner, for example, is not “el fuego” it is ‘la lumbre‘, and the alcohol is getting us ‘chispao‘ rather than ‘emborachado‘.
Plates of food come out (one is local snail) and they start telling me jokes, which almost all depend on pueblo words. Most of the time I don’t understand the joke, but the scene is so hilarious and drunken that I am really laughing. The Spanish is so difficult that I wouldn’t be able to tell if the jokes were about men, and I expect several probably are. During the whole dinner Montse is partially visible in a group at the far end of the table, occasionally making eye contact and smiling curiously. After the plates are clear the waitress comes around and puts bottles of liquor on the tables. Juan Pablo hands me one.
‘You are going to get chispao with us.’ I respond with sign language, filling four glasses.
In the bathroom mirror my face is pale and still has traces of vomit on it. Also, I am wearing a too-small pair of Montse’s yellow pajamas, which I could not possibly have put on myself. I wash my face with cold water and remember sosiego. I try to take a long deep breath, but I get a wave of nausea and end up coughing pitifully and laughing. After the quinta the crowd moved to the local spot, Bar Texas.
I remember Montse comparing me to the Americana décor, and I remember countless more introductions. I remember losing an arm wrestling match. I remember stumbling into the bathroom to the blurry scene of a kid stuffing a plastic bag in the pocket of another (La Blanca). And I remember one final, fatal scene. An acquaintance puts a glass of beer in my hand and tells me:
‘In this pueblo the men drink beers en un traigo!’ In one gulp. Our glasses clink. After that my memory can only reproduce some fuzzy light and one final feeling of throwing my head towards a toilet bowl.
Montse’s mother is in the hallway when I step out of the bathroom. Undoubtedly I met her the night before, but I have no memory of it. I make an introduction and something of an apology, still wearing her daughter’s pajamas, which she may have helped me get into. It’s tense, but she speaks in a forgiving tone and tells me to come downstairs, that it is 3:30 and the food will be ready soon.
Montse’s father, a stocky and cheerful man who I have met, is reading the paper in front of la lumbre. Without looking up he starts laughing. He asks how I’m feeling and without waiting for a response tells me in a Barcelona accent that he had the same first night in Ossa thirty years ago. There is a cup of coffee on the table along with a bottle of brandy, which is physically painful to look at. I tell him honestly about the final, fatal traigo. Still laughing, he reassures me that life is regularly much slower here, that time is different, and once he uses the same word, sosiego.
It brings back a missing hour from yesterday. Just before the dinner we stop at Montse’s uncle’s house and she shows me his sculptures in the backyard. He has welded parts of fences, furniture, windows, and clocks around old photographs and drawings to make incredible patterned structures that hang from the walls. On the way out I ask him stupidly if the sculptures mean something besides their appearance. He laughs sadly, and never answers. On the way out, Montse’s explains that he assembles them from parts of abandoned houses because it helps him make sense of a mental illness.
Montse’s father pours a tiny trace of brandy into another cup of coffee and pushes it towards me.
‘It’s older than you are,’ he says winking over his glasses. I take a long deep breath. Montse is awake, laughing with her sister in the kitchen. Her father asks me if I know the Spanish saying, ‘Tiran mas dos tetas que dos caretas.‘ Approximately: “Two tits pull more than two wagons”. I’ve heard it before, but it has never felt so true. It’s not only about Montse, or her tits, but the attraction that is the reason I am where I am and not where I should be, in Madrid, trying to get a passport.
In twenty-four hours Ossa de Montiel has turned me into a disaster, overwhelmed and confused, the cells in my body dehydrated, my vocabulary rewritten, dressed in Montse’s yellow pajamas, trying to assemble confused pieces of memory into something I can rationalize. I am far from my home, being pulled closer everyday to Montse and her crazy draw, which I cannot practically be with much longer, and cannot possibly leave easily.
‘Good morning,‘ Montse says in English, standing in the doorway laughing. I take a swallow of my coffee.