On the Beach Near the Hospital del Mar
Martin at the beach, but not alone. Annalise is there too, on her towel beside him, in sunglasses and a large straw hat. The hat has a white band and is tipped forward slightly to shade her face. She might be asleep, her arms, stomach, legs, exposed to the sun. The beach is crowded. Towels are laid hem to hem, a host of tanning bodies stretched from the road to the sea. People are talking, laughing, playing tinny music over small plastic speakers. From time to time, they stand, then run at the water. Barcelona in the afternoon. The sea at the end of the avenues, the city rising into the hills.
Martin reads. Annalise has brought a book also, but it lies next to her on the sand. Now she rises. Props herself up on her elbows to look out at the ocean. On her left ankle Martin has noticed a tattoo, the design aggressive but fluid. He thinks it must signify allegiance, but to what or whom he does not know. He is waiting to ask about it, when the moment is right.
Hey, Annalise says, pointing with one hand, placing the other on his arm. What do you call that, what that man is doing?
Martin puts his book down and looks. He tries not to think too much about her hand resting there on his arm. He plays it cool, says, Parasailing, I think.
Stupid, says Annalise.
What, the word or the thing itself?
She wobbles her head in theatrical deliberation. Both, she says. The word, it sounds important, but because the thing is stupid, the word becomes stupid, too. Empty.
Martin, amused, grunts, and wonders whether he should pick his book up off his bare chest, if Annalise is done speaking. At parties, Martin has observed that she will often erupt with thoughts after a long period of silence, seizing the conversation in order to drag it two or three topics back, and so Martin now waits. The two of them sit quietly for a moment. The water is a heavy, painted blue. There are no clouds, no wind; breakers rumble and hiss under the chatter of the crowd, the honking and growling traffic. Seawater skims lazily along the wet sand, retreats, evaporates, and Annalise, it would seem, has nothing else to say.
Together, Martin and Annalise turn their heads to watch a loud discussion that has erupted nearby. Martin is surprised but pleased at the fluidity of the way this happens, their watching together, the unconscious connection. The discussion is taking place in a language Martin doesn’t understand among five people, three men and two women. Martin figures them for Scandinavians, maybe Swedes, by the way even the most brunette among them is still arguably blond, including the one woman in dreadlocks, and the way the men, with their round glasses, and thin, swept-back hair, all slightly resemble a young, lithe Orson Welles. Martin has never been to Sweden. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s gone alone.
A girl in jeans and a t-shirt approaches the Swedes. She has been wandering the beach all afternoon, passing out bright green pieces of paper, and now she hands the Swedes a flyer and tells them, in English, about the deals or drinks at a particular club, the DJs, etc., and the Swedes take the flyers, listen politely, and thank her. Then, loudly, they go back to their discussion, and the girl moves away. She stops to scan the beachgoers.
Hey, Annalise shouts at the girl. Can I get a flyer?
The girl looks at Annalise, looks away quickly.
Halloo, I want to go to your club, Annalise says. Here, a flyer, please.
The girl is frozen in place, clutching her flyers, staring now at the sand, now at the sky. Martin notices a saccharine, mocking edge in Annalise’s voice: she is using the flyer girl to pass the time, and Martin, realizing this, realizes also that Annalise might be bored, and so he becomes slightly, secretly, alarmed. He picks up his book and aims his sunglasses at the page in front of him and, caught between pity and a desire to play along, attempts to grin.
Come on, please, Annalise says. A flyer.
At last, the girl looks directly at Annalise. A momentary pause, as if considering options, and then an obscene, levered gesture (“up yours”) in the middle of the hot and crowded beach. The girl turns and walks away.
Rude! Annalise shouts after her.
Martin lowers his book. If she gave you a flyer, he asks, would you actually go?
No! Annalise says. No way. Those clubs are awful, and besides, all our students, they go there.
So much of their lives is delineated by the choices of their students. In their time off, it is hard for Annalise, Martin, and their co-workers to find a space where they will not be discovered in a state of relaxation and transformed into a responsible party. Annalise and Martin are not even educators, they are administrators, coordinators, further advice and cultural knowledge follows on the next slide, please. The students, almost all American, are shipped over a semester at a time to accumulate an experience of Spanish culture, gulp down gallons of sangria, collapse from heatstroke in the cable-car down from Montserrat. From a seat along the edge of the Plaça de Catalunya (where Martin sometimes grabs a few quiet minutes alone, between office errands), the students can be seen crossing in large packs. Their shoes, their clothes, their determined walk and unmitigated volume of conversation make them easy to pick out. They are like zebras, Annalise once said, crowding together to confuse their predators. And Martin has seen those eyes on the edge of plazas flick across his young charges; part of his job to warn the students, to educate them, to intercept their naïveté, and also, from time to time, to rescue.
Behind her sunglasses, Annalise smiles. Martin goes back to reading. A woman walks by at the waterline, hawking, in English, cigarettes—in the other direction comes a girl selling Juice, Juice, Juice, and the two stop to have a short conversation. Behind them the sea glimmers. As the women talk, they catch sight of something—the flyer girl, moving along the beach, who, realizing she is being watched, attempts a friendly gesture, which is not returned.
No, no, I can’t stand it, Annalise says, standing, readjusting her swimsuit. I’m going in, are you coming?
Martin wiggles his book at her without looking up.
Klootzak, Annalise hisses, then turns to start threading her way through the crowd. As she walks, Martin cannot help but raise his eyes to follow her. She is tall, taller than him, with long arms and legs that might seem disproportionate, even monstrous, if she were not able to maneuver them with such control. Her swimsuit, still wet from their initial dip, shines in the arch of her back, the curve of her waist. There is a slight oval of sand on the back of her right thigh; Martin notices it as she nears the waterline, and as if sensing his stare, her hand brushes it off, almost involuntarily. She steps into the sea, careful, jumping slightly with the waves, holding her hands out in front of her as if to sense the ocean bottom. Finally, she dives, her head reappearing a few yards out. There is a boyfriend, Martin knows, back in Rotterdam—Annalise has sometimes ducked away from dinners with friends to answer his calls. The boyfriend has never visited. Martin has never met him, does not know if she keeps pictures of him in her apartment; there are none on her desk. When the calls do come, Annalise invariably answers in great fusillades of Dutch, which Martin, of course, cannot understand, and at first, when she would retake her seat at the dinner table, Martin would ask if everything was all right, to which Annalise would raise her eyebrows, put on a cherubic face, and reply, What do you mean?
Martin goes back to reading, cannot focus with the noise around him. The Swedes are attempting to picnic, but have attracted gulls. The dingy birds squawk and nip at the Swedes’ toes and hair, waddle in awkward ambush around the potato chips, and when the Swedes swat angrily, shouting in their northern language, the birds, prizefighters in a barroom brawl, duck the blows without taking flight.
Meanwhile, on the road behind Martin, a march passes, shouting, chanting, dropping firecrackers in the street. Martin tries to keep himself from flinching every time one goes off, but eventually he curses quietly and lowers his book to wait. Separatists, maybe, or Podemos, or even something more Catholic—a local saint being feted, again in this century as in the others. Martin refuses to look. He merely hopes the march will pass quickly and one of the Swedish fists will flatten a gull to warn the rest: what’s theirs is theirs, not for the taking.
Oh my god, Annalise is saying, arriving wet, throwing herself down on the towel beside his. She is trying not to laugh. Martin, you will not believe what I have just seen.
Peter is here, says Annalise.
Ok, says Martin. He does not like their British co-worker and knows Annalise is no fan either. He waits. She is leaning in close, conspiratorial. One sharp movement and their faces will collide. Martin can smell the salt on her limbs. He catches himself grinning, attempts to stop.
He is with that girl, Annalise says. The one who went to hospital last week.
Annalise nods and points down the beach, but when Martin sits up then stands to get a look, Annalise stage-whispers Get down! as if the noise of the people, the birds, the traffic behind, will not obscure them.
Do you see them?
Do you see how she has her hair? The doctors had to shave some off, above her right ear. Right here.
She traces a circle above her right ear. Something like twenty stitches, Annalise says.
A bad fall?
Drunk, like they always are, running down some stairs to catch the last Metro. I got the call last Saturday night, maybe two, two-thirty in the morning. I was there when she woke up. She was crying like, oh, oh, I want to go back to Minnesota! Saai! Then Peter comes in at six.
Let me guess, says Martin. Oh, ‘ello, got it unda control, love?
Did he wink, too? He usually winks.
He did! Of course. So gross.
Martin shakes his head, says, Peter, what a sleazebag.
Yes. ‘Sleazebag.’ The word I wanted to use but forgot.
He could be fired. Should be fired.
That is my hope.
In front of them, the Swedes cry out. A seagull is flapping away with a sandwich clamped in its beak, and Annalise, on her stomach, turns her head away from Martin and lowers it to her towel. He watches her part her legs a few inches, her small ankle tattoo flashing green and blue and angular. Americans are so stupid, she says.
Hey now, says Martin. He does not like this side of Annalise, of many of his European friends. To blame mistakes on nationality, not provinciality or mere youth. It strikes him as lazy and closed-minded. Martin has always wanted to be exempted from this, for his foreign friends to finish these statements by saying, but you, Martin, you’re all right. To this end, he has tried to defy them all. He has studied and speaks near-perfect Catalan, whereas Annalise cobbles together what words she knows with Castilian. Yes, but this is only your second language, she always reminds him. It’s my fourth.
You find these kids just as frustrating as I do, Annalise says, still not looking at him.
Martin is inclined to defend the kids, to point out that they’ve never been outside the country on their own before, that Europe is so far, that in America, it’s just the same country for thousands of miles in every direction. Europeans have no concept of the scope of the American continent. Americans have little idea of what’s outside it. He tries to tell the kids: one day you’ll be in a job interview or something, and they’ll look at your resume and see, oh, semester abroad in Barcelona, eh? That’s a party town. The challenge, while you’re here, is to create a different story.
He tries to convey to them, also, the very adult dangers they face in this city, dangers that do not exist in, say, their small college- or hometowns. He cannot say it directly. He cannot say: It is not like this where you are from! They already know, to some degree, but Martin will not be the one who arms them with this idea and sends them out into the night. It inspires a wildness in them, a rash and corrupting zeal, and then their phones are plucked from pockets at clubs, they pick fights and lose, and maybe every third year or so, they are a tragedy, a small headline in the papers back home, a parent sent over for the body.
He has not said a word of this. Aloud, he has always fumbled the argument.
They waste this city, Annalise says.
Well, maybe, says Martin.
They don’t care, Annalise says. They have no sense of time. They wander and look at all the attractions, and that’s the first week, done. Then it’s two months of sangria, of me and you getting called to the hospital at two in the morning.
Sangria is disgusting, says Martin. All that fruit.
Yes. I know. You and I know this, ok. But think also, this year, right, it is said that Sagrada will finally be finished. It takes one hundred and fifty years to build. These kids are the last to experience this moment of creation, the construction. To visit at this time is almost like to participate. After this the thing will just be there, to be looked at. No more anticipation. Then they will go home and tell stories of having only seen a thing, and so what? That is the world, full of things to see. They are – what is the word – inert. Inert attractions. Pfff, she says, waving off the idea. So passive.
She has said all this without facing him.
It’s true, Martin says, Nobody realizes that time is precious until it has passed.
On her stomach, Annalise twists her head to look at him, sees his expression, and sticks out her tongue at him. It reminds Martin of a small and strange fruit, one that he might bite into. She turns away again, saying, Shut up, American.
Martin smiles. The sea glitters. Gulls continue to circle. Groups of people break up, withdraw, and are quickly replaced. Somewhere behind him, firecrackers continue to be set off. The reports are muffled by distance and the city’s concrete mass, but still adamant. The march is threading back and forth through the streets. Martin has been here too long, maybe. He needs to move his body, he has not stood up for at least an hour, the heat and sand have dried out his skin. He rises.
You’re leaving? Annalise mumbles, as if falling asleep.
Going in the water.
Martin steps through the bodies to arrive at the edge of the sea. He has swum in the waters off Thailand, off Chile, taken a dip in Lake Malawi, but he no longer mentions this to people. There used to be a moment when he would do so, even eagerly, but he can no longer summon the enthusiasm to transform these memories into stories. Despite all he has managed to see in his life, he remains still, and in this past year, he has given up plucking gray hairs from his head and begun to worry about the soft fuzz growing from his ears. He is floating in the water.
He lowers his feet, discovers the seabed. Large container ships crawl silently across the horizon. Some head north towards the port at Marseilles, others south for the gauntlet at Gibraltar and then the open ocean. The sun is beginning its long descent behind the hills. In the evening, the sun gone, the city will move to its sidewalks, the students will gather on their barstools to conceive new forms of catastrophe.
Along the shore, he sees Peter and the injured girl, sitting side by side on their towel. They are close. Martin cannot, from where he is, interpret the distance between their bodies. He paddles down the shore a little, low in the movement of the waves. Saltwater slides into his mouth. He coughs it up. He watches the two talk, the girl typing into her phone. Peter talking, gesturing, talking. Martin waits, hoping to return to Annalise with something more, something that will make her laugh. The girl is nodding, focused on her phone, until finally, it seems Peter achieves a punchline. The girl throws back her head and laughs. Martin cannot hear the sound of it, only the noise of the crowd, and under it the licks of water lapping at itself. Peter is smiling too, no longer talking, in on the joke perhaps. In the midst of her laughter, the girl drops her phone and puts a hand to the side of her head, wincing. Peter reaches over. He puts one hand on her back, uses the other to lift her hair and look at the wound.
This is the story Martin will bring back to Annalise. She will lean in to hear it, he imagines. They will conspire to know something new, together. When he turns in the water, to his surprise, he sees that Annalise is sitting up and talking to one of the Swedish men. She is laughing. The Swedish man sits down on the sand beside her. Martin realizes how much he has drifted with the current, past where Peter and the girl are. He tries to head into shore, the water pushing against him. He no longer thinks of Peter and the girl, he thinks of Annalise, sitting thigh-to-thigh with the Swedish man.
There is a thrashing behind him. Someone or something lands on his shoulder. At first he thinks it is an insect, and he jumps, nearly swats, but when he turns himself around in the water, he sees that it is the injured girl, immersed to her neck, her head carefully kept above the waves, her hand frozen mid-recoil.
It is you, she says.
Hi, says Martin. Hello.
Martin, right? You work for the school.
Martin looks toward where she had been, only moments ago. Peter now lies on his back, sunglasses on, sunning himself. Martin thinks he can see Peter smiling, as if in a stupor.
To the girl Martin says, Yes.
You’re always hanging around that Dutch woman.
We’re friends, yeah.
Friends? Ah! The girl nearly squawks. He recognizes her, now, from the deranged thrust of this laughter. He remembers the orientation session he’d run, when he’d held a clipboard that listed her name.
Yeah, she says, shaking her head and closing her eyes slightly. She is not interested in her name, is not interested in saying: I’m actually here with Peter. You know, the British guy?
Martin nods and flicks a glance up at the sunbathing form.
He said he wanted to make sure I’m not stuck inside all semester. After I left the hospital I pretty much stayed in bed, so, yeah, nice of him, I guess.
She accompanies this last statement with a dismissive flip of her hair. Martin sees the black stitches on the shaved side of her head, the red and puckered skin, and when she sees him looking, she flips her hair back. Then her eyes snap fully open and look directly at Martin.
We’re just hanging out, she says.
My friends will be here later, once they’re back from hiking.
There is a moment of quiet between them, where Martin looks at the beach, the city, the road along the waterfront, all in fear that if he looked back, he might discover that she is still returning his gaze. Martin realizes that as she talked, she has shifted them slightly in the water, rotating until she is between Martin and the shore.
You know, Sarah says, everyone’s going to be disappointed. We thought you and her were this like, really cute couple.
Something about the proximity of this girl makes him uncomfortable. He needs to get away, back to Annalise and the Swede. That image is burrowing into his thoughts. He has lost sight of Annalise’s place in the crowd and is looking at the beach over the injured girl’s shoulder, when he sees Peter, sitting up, watching Martin and Sarah in the water. All this is a distraction. The girl is still talking. They’re not really my friends, she is saying. They’re just people in the program that I get along with. They’re just the people that are here. I don’t think we’ll ever be, like, truly close.
He wants to go to shore but when he moves to the right, she is there, talking, and when he moves to the left, she blocks his way in to the shoreline, talking, circling. She is floating on her back, with her legs outstretched towards Martin. At one point, her toes collide with his chest, and she smiles at him, says oops… but does not push away. She continues to float, as if waiting.
I’ve got to get going, Martin says.
Oh, she says, her voice clutched. She stops moving around in the water. Well, come by and hang out later. I want you to tell me what it’s like! Living here, I mean.
By the time she finishes saying this, Martin has already fled the ocean. He hurries along the waterline, scanning the crowd. He adjusts his gait, his posture, to seem casual and unconcerned. He does not slow down. Peter is still watching him. Neither man raises a hand to wave. Martin looks for Annalise, but he can no longer pick her out from among the crowd. There are too many people. Twenty or thirty languages scattered along the beach, entire nations come to lay in the sun at the far edge of Spain.
The flyer girl is crouched on the sand, smoking a cigarette. She is wearing jeans—torn open at the knees—and a t-shirt. Compared to the crowd, she seems overdressed. She is deeply tanned, black-haired and long-limbed: her ankles drown on their way into her sneakers. As he passes, she says, Your girlfriend is mean.
Martin stops. Sorry, what?
Your girlfriend, the girl says. You know that she is mean, yes?
Martin considers correcting her.