This morning my son said, “Papa, ¿que
es un cobarde?”
He was sitting at his table eating a piece of basil bread. I was about to get
into the shower and therefore was totally naked.
I said, “A coward is somebody who lets their fear define them.”
He said, “Ah, vale.”
(He speaks Spanish, I speak English, but we understand each other. Most of the
I got into the shower and turned the water on. Then I thought, Maybe that was
a little too abstruse for a three-year-old.
I went ahead and lathered my hair up with this new shampoo my wife had bought
and suggested I use because of my dandruff problem. In the middle of this, my
head covered in suds, I began to worry I was a coward.
Did I let my fear define me?
Because that sounded like a description of the last ten years of my life.
I rinsed myself off, got out of the shower, observed my face in the mirror. My
eyes stared at themselves staring at themselves. It was enough to drive you crazy
with hopelessness. I looked the same as usual, except that I was starting to
look like an old piece of shit. Pretty soon my face would fall apart. It was
already happening. How many years did I have left in that face?
It was true. I was so afraid of the world I refused to live in it anymore.
taken up residence among people who spoke a language I barely understood, and
I liked it that way. I couldn’t imagine how they put up with understanding
one another every second of the day.
I opened the door and walked out into the living room. My son was jumping on
the sofa, wondering if I was a coward. Or maybe he was just jumping on the sofa.
Who knows with somebody so small and bilingual?
My wife said, “Hey, you’ve got a pot belly.”
She was drinking a glass of orange juice at the table.
I said, “Where the hell did you come from?”
“I got fired.”
My son screamed, “¡Vamos al parque! ¡Vamos al parque! ¡Vamos
“What happened? How?”
“My boss—I mean, my former boss—has an inferiority complex.”
“So? Doesn’t everybody?”
“Wow, I never thought of it that way.”
“Me neither. I barely know what I’m talking about.”
My son said, “Estas naked, Papa.”
Sometimes he mixes in a word of English for reasons no one on this earth can
explain to me.
I picked my clothes up off the floor and put them back on.
“Do we have any money?” I said.
“We won’t starve.”
My son said, “Cobarde, cobarde.”
It was a hot day in Madrid.
Blue skies. Summertime.
My wife getting fired had turned the day into a kind of holiday, so we went
downstairs and caught the number 75 bus to Callao. When we didn’t know
what else to do we just got on the bus and went somewhere, anywhere.
It was around noon. There were so many people walking up and down the Gran
Via I got dizzy. There was movement in every direction. New buildings were
up. And everybody looked so different from one another. How many variations
of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth were there in this world?
This was before they ripped the fountain out at Callao and turned the place
into a gigantic Christmas tree stand. My son got up on the edge of the fountain
ran around it. I chased him, but that made him go faster. I didn’t
trust the color of that water. And the trash and pigeon feathers whirling
there gave me pause. And the plastic bags floating like bleached out lily
pads—disgusting. And, Jesus, a used condom right there in the daylight, flung
down in the busiest place for hundreds of miles. DON’T STEP ON IT! DON’T
STEP ON IT!
I pulled my son off the fountain and hoisted him onto my shoulders. He stuck
his fingers in my ears. I took them out and held onto his hands.
We set out walking.
My wife said, “I’m just going in here for a minute,” and
she went into a shoe store. I stood outside with my son on my shoulders.
“Ah, fuck it,” I said.
“Quiero un helado,” he said.
“It’s the wrong weather for ice cream.”
He said, “No hace frio.”
It was true. We were sweating all over each other. I’d lied to him
without even thinking.
“Well, you’re not stupid,” I told him.
My wife came out and I told her to buy an ice cream. She had the money.
“We’ll get one later.”
“Why not right now?”
She didn’t answer, but I didn’t care. In such heat I didn’t
have the energy to understand how her brain worked.
We walked to the Plaza Mayor. I kept my son on my shoulders even though my
feet were getting sore. I didn’t want him straying near the people dressed as
Mickey Mouse. Some villain would put a balloon sword in his hand, then I’d
have to give him money. But I wouldn’t have any money. Then Mickey
Mouse would get angry and take the sword back and my son would cry.
My wife said, “I love Madrid.”
It annoyed me to hear her say that, so I said, “It scares the crap
out of me having five million human beings right outside my bedroom window.”
“You let the silliest things fill you with fear,” she said. “That’s
no way to live.”
“Silly things? What silly things?” Then I said, “What are you
accusing me of?”
But I knew, I knew. We’d had this conversation so many times, in so
my many different forms. Yes, we were forever trying to navigate the throbbing
jungle of my psychoses.
“Well, I just don’t know,” she said.
Then she said it again.
The exact same words.
I went crazy inside my head for a few seconds.
“Quiero un helado.”
“Come on, get this guy an ice cream.”
She gave me some money. I took my son off my shoulders and we went into an
ice cream shop. There were about 47,000 different types of ice cream and
know what half of them meant.
I said, “What color do you want? Red? Blue?”
“Fine. I’ll have yellow. Wait, I don’t even want ice cream.
I want a beer. But I probably won’t get one, will I? I probably won’t
My son watched me have a conversation with myself in English. I wondered
what it was like for him. I mean, fully understanding a language you’d
never spoken must be kind of strange.
I said, “Life is beautiful and so are you.”
“Vale, Papa, vale. Dame el helado.”
I gave him the ice cream and we went outside and sat on a bench.
My wife was gone.
There was a guy sitting cross-legged on the ground playing a flute. He was
pretty good. He had gray hair, red ears, and a cat in his lap. A white cat.
He had a
sign out, but I didn’t read it. Didn’t care.
My son went over and looked at the cat and ate his ice cream with a tiny
plastic utensil that was like something from the emergency room. The guy
his flute and told me his cat was hungry. I didn’t give a shit about
the cat, and I knew the guy was lying and that we probably hated each other,
I gave my son a few coins to give to the cat.
We hung around for a while. When my wife came back we set out walking again.
My son wanted to go on my shoulders.
I said, “Hey, you’ve got legs.”
He fell on the ground and said his legs were broken.
“Yeah? Well, my spine hurts.”
My wife said, “His legs are the size of your arms.” She was laughing.
“What? What?” Now I was confused.
“Me duelen los pies.”
I said, “Someday you’ll have to push me around in my wheelchair.
Maybe next week.”
He called me an idiot—eres idiota, Papa—and said he was going to exchange
me for a new father. I said that was wonderful, that would be perfect. Then
I dragged him by the arm down Calle Santiago, which always seemed like part
a different city, a smaller city. Habitable. Maybe it was the shade. The
coolness. My son’s screams echoed off the quiet buildings.
In the Plaza Oriente he escaped from me and dashed into a shrubbery maze.
like going in those things (this wasn’t the first time this had happened)
so my wife followed him in. The bushes were only two feet high but I got
disoriented. I got tired and cranky going around in circles with these little
me and my son who was forever racing away from me like something in a dream.
He had more power in a short maze like that, and he used it against you.
He was in his element while I ended up questioning the whole enterprise of
He wrapped his arms around the magnolia tree at the center of the maze. My wife
got a hold of him. But he hung on. She was pulling on his legs, and he was screaming
and almost horizontal. It was like some sort of tableaux-vivant of fledgling
“Ah, hell,” I said.
I sat on the edge of a fountain—so many fountains in this hot, dry city—so
many fountains and pigeon feathers and shopping bags - and I looked the other
way, pretending I was free to do whatever I wanted, and what I’d chosen
was to sit on the edge of this fountain.
Then I heard my wife say, “Leave that man alone.”
I turned and saw my son interrogating a man huddled inside the hollow center
of one of the bushes that punctuate the royal palace gardens. Homeless people
dragged mattresses into these large round bushes and lived in them. It was sad,
but what could I do about it?
I went over to help my wife and save my son.
The man was sitting inside the bush.
My son was saying, “¿Por qué estas alli?”
“He lives in there,” I said. “Leave him alone.”
“He doesn’t have a house. Some people don’t have houses.”
I felt awkward speaking in English in front of this stranger. The man smiled
at us from within his bush, which somewhat unnerved me. He had a couple of teeth
I was thinking I should say something more, explain this all a bit better. Then
I stepped in shit.
“AH, JESUS! ULLLLH!”
“CALM DOWN!” said my wife.
“I’m calm, I’m calm, I’m calm.”
My son was crying.
Oh, this was vile. This was enough to set me back.
I scraped the shit off my shoe with a stick, lifted my son onto my shoulders,
and off we went.
My wife, always the wit, said, “You love Madrid.”
I said, “What time is it? I want to get a beer before the Chinese closes.”
We caught the number 41 bus. It was full of old people who’d spent
half their lives figuring out how to get by in a fascist dictatorship. I
what something like that would do to you. They scared me. I was sure they
were all harboring some sort of secret, a common misunderstanding of the
were living in. I almost took my shoe off and threw it out the window.
The Chinese was open. The Chinese guy sat behind the counter watching a Chinese
movie. Without even looking at me he said, “Cuanto.” He knew
me well. Ignoring him, I took a beer out of the cooler and grabbed some stickers
son (he liked to plaster his stuffed animals with race car stickers), then
I climbed the stairs to our apartment with my shoe in a shopping bag.
No one came out to question me on the first or second or third floors.
That was some good luck.
On the fourth floor I opened our door with my key.
It was a good door, thick and solid. No handle. Just a keyhole.
When we were all inside, I shut it behind us, locked it, and hung the key on
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