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Veronica held her breath while she wiggled her bum and soft hips into her white jeans— her summer pair. By some miracle of the flesh, they still fit. She remembered buying them years ago, many miles away from this quiet hotel room, with the high ceiling and the bunched-up sheets, the cool plaster walls and the stacked pillows; and the tall pale blue shutters closed for modesty against the sun and street.
The tiled floor was smooth and cool to her naked feet. Through the window, she could hear the ringing voices of several builders shouting in Catalan, wheeling materials in and out of the church across the square. She could pick out a few of the words. Vale, vale. All the men sounded high-spirited, even though they were working so early on a Saturday morning. She buttoned her silk blouse and leaned against the wall to peep through the vertical gap in the shutters. Directly below her in the narrow street a mass of dark curls floated above a man’s broad, squat shoulders, covered by a damp blue t-shirt. He was barrowing cobbles, and whistling. Hovering like that made her think about what she had done half an hour previously, and her pelvis rocked forward involuntarily, knocking the wooden slats. In the bathroom Jordi was exiting the shower, also whistling, while he towelled himself. She wondered, for a split-second, if men here thought all foreign women her age were easy to get into bed; then furtively checked her bag to make sure the gifts were there.
He strode out holding a towel to his chest, with fresh boxers on. His pale, strong legs were thick with dark, curly hair. He appraised the length of her, put on his wire-rim glasses, then looked at her again.
You look like a teenager. She knew he would have said this to many other women, on many other occasions. She did not rise to the bait. He moved closer.
You not wearing a bra? He traced the line of her spine lightly through the material; cool for the end of May.
I don’t need one, do I? She laughed and cupped her own breasts for a second, which were like a young girl’s. Her blouse was loose over the top of her jeans.
He shook his head. We are meeting my father. He was rifling through carefully pressed designer t-shirts, in his case on the floor. Besides, you are a beautiful woman. He glanced at her while she put her hair up.
She was sure he was speaking his truth, but that did not mean he particularly paid her much attention when she was lying in bed with him. It was altogether an unsatisfactory arrangement, and now she was meeting his parents, who did not speak English, in a last-ditch attempt to solidify a long distance romance that had been stop-starting for months. She unbuttoned her blouse and he turned away to get dressed.
It was Christmas in Barcelona when they first met, and Veronica had booked the trip wishing good luck into her life. She wanted to forget several things: loss of job, last boyfriend, bad financial decisions. She was sick of juggling all the feelings of failure, any one of which might smash and release an easily detected bad smell, like rotten eggs, all around her, if she didn’t keep putting a good spin on things. Stay positive. It was wearing. She wanted to go somewhere foreign, and just be herself for a while.
The good thing about being somewhere foreign, she had realised very early on, was that she really did feel most like herself when she was travelling. It became a lifelong habit, a calling. Of course she could adopt another persona, create a false picture of education and privilege; which perhaps her static set of parents, with their myriad health problems and their typical, stubborn belief in her ability to achieve her personal best, might have preferred for her. But she never did it. The repeated missed opportunities, over three continents, and decades, confused her. So why did she feel constantly inadequate at home? She counted down the days before the flight; making bland hot drinks for office colleagues, and watching the strands of lights go up in her city, festooned in exactly the same fashion as they always had been.
She wished she could exist in two places at once.
As she took the bus into the centre and found her room in a shared loft, smiling at younger travellers on the curved iron staircase in the apartment and smelling cheese and strong coffee wafting from behind ornate wooden doors, she intuited, once again, that she could care less. She wanted to change and curl her hair; Jordi was coming to pick her up at this address and would take her out in 40 minutes. He already had the whole evening planned.
Just like my grandmother used to make! He had finished eating a plate of dark, flat field mushrooms and was watching her.
She sucked broth off a soup spoon and chewed one of the huge, boiled pasta shapes from her bowl. It was very good indeed and tasted like the streets smelled, undeniably of this place. He smiled and poured another glass of wine for her. She liked this traditional restaurant. She liked him. She looked into his hazel eyes and realised she liked him very much, this stranger who had answered her advertisement, and many others, surely. A young, solemn Catalan tour guide; tall enough for her to tip her head back when they were walking, seeing the city from his shoulder. A firm hand.
She didn’t ask him in the first night, but he kissed her in any case. The next day, she went out to explore the markets and Gaudi and the Ramblas while he was at work. When she got back he had taped a folded note to her room door. I came and you not here. Jeje. I come back, 7pm. Wear your coat.
She had bought a few lovely dresses in the winter sales and a scarf for a friend back home, but she decided to keep it and looped it around her shoulders, because it matched one of her dresses. Just for her. She was going to be indulgent. And she was.
They were both naked when he picked up the camera. Let me take one of you, he said.
Really? She knew people did this. But it felt strange, and not necessary. Taking photos will steal my soul, she teased. I want to remember you, he said. She hid her face in the pillow. We won’t see each other after this? He didn’t answer. He drew his tongue down her spine instead. She arched herself to make sure her skin kept in contact with him, anticipating the end. It was quiet, then she heard the slide of the shutter. She looked past her shoulder to see him peering at the rectangular screen, straddling the end of the bed. Like Botticelli, he said. He showed her.
The most perfect, inviting and caressable backside glowed above the rumpled sheets. Could that be how she really looked? Or just how he saw her? A good eye for the frame, she said, and she laughed. Botticelli, eh? She handed back the camera; then realised it was hers. Thank you, he nodded, and settled down next to her to tell her all about his plans for his artwork, his language classes, and moving to another European city.
And because she believed in the ability of his talent to transform, and he had glimpsed her not usually-noticed beauty, they continued on for another terrible, longed-for, sleepless, overstretched, passionate and lying-through-the-teeth six months, travelling to both countries, until Jordi made a decision to introduce her to his parents, for better or for worse.
On her last day, it was the weekend. They walked through the markets and the bars; sometimes catching a warm whiff of sewer over the air, turning colder outside. When they entered the cathedral together, she photographed rows and rows of lit candles in red glasses, each glowing like inflamed hearts. He proudly showed her the ruins, where the yellow and red stripes of his country’s flag spilled down past the Roman columns into green gloom. She liked his ordering—his history, culture.
The last place was a small shrine set in the wall juncture of two cobbled streets, away from the crowds. Someone had left a half-eaten Christmas biscuit, its white baked icing attracting tiny droplets of condensation, by the statuette’s feet.
He straightened his glasses. A very young girl, who would not pray to their Roman gods. She has— how do you say? The courage of her opinions. So they put her in a barrel with knives, and other bad things, and rolled her down this street. But some people saw her here— and he pointed to the roof, above the place where they stood. And sometimes, these stories say, when the barrel smashed, there was just a dove inside. Flying! A white bird.
How old was she?
Young. Thirteen years?
They were quiet. Veronica fought an urge to scrape the surface of the biscuit with her fingernail, and taste it. He waited. There was a draft of cool air that lifted her curls past her eyes. Jordi hooked his finger around them and pushed her hair, repeatedly, behind her neck. Her eyes were glassy. He kissed her then—a kiss deliciously inappropriate for the audience of a girl-martyr— apologising for everything in advance, and dispelling her mood.
The bells were ringing in Besalu. They had let the older couple walk ahead down the limestone steps to the centre of town, because he had taken a phone call from another of his women and they were having a row.
When is this going to stop? she hissed. Somewhere down a hot, bright alley, Jordi’s father cleared his throat. They had taken hours over a spectacular lunch with regional specialities in honour of her visit— fish, wild boar stew, local liquors. Many tiny, but lethal glasses. She was going to get to the bottom of it.
Nica. He held her shoulders. She has her life, I have my life. I love you. But when he said it, he looked at the ground. Truth! She felt vindicated. He couldn’t claim her now.
Later, he sent a link to the photos of the trip: Girona, his approving parents, the other fortress towns and cities. She did not view them. They were, as far as she was concerned, false representations. His father wrote to her in Catalan. She wrote back that his son had not honoured her, in the same tongue. He sent a further email but she deleted it before opening. She felt slightly guilty, but knew instinctively that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in these matters.
She was glad she had never confessed she loved him too, but then worried that if she had, it may have changed the outcome. Too late now. She blocked his email address.
If she had not been so rash, she would have received this last, emotional message:
Nica! I have to tell you! Last night, I was in bed— well, you can guess! I am not a saint, it’s true! Amor meu, you were here with me! It’s a sign! Not all of you — just, jeje, the Botticelli! It’s real! Floating above the bed… like angels! You stay with me… and I think… you forgive me, yes? I am so happy… you stay! I saw you! All of you! And now, we try!