As Franco Died
Paloma was working on this expression back in 1975, when General Franco
was dying. She'd close her eyes halfway and shake her head slowly, as
if considering a point and finding it too pitiful for words. John Lewis
first noticed it in the basement café of the Arts and Letters
Department, la Facultad. She was down there with her philosophy
friends, drinking espressos and smoking Ducados, probably talking about
the horrors of Pinochet in Chile or the latest American outrage, maybe
the tacky McDonalds near the Plaza de España. Then suddenly she closed
those dark green eyes halfway and tried that headshake, exhaling a
lungful of smoke as she did it. John remembered wondering who the hell
she was imitating.
Now he saw the same expression, refined through 20 years of practice.
It was a thin, angular Paloma on Larry King Live, talking in English
about her political action committee and the importance of returning to
traditional American values (Paloma? American?). Then Larry asked her
something about President Clinton. The eyes closed, the head shook, the
mouth, barely open, was surely going through the motion of exhaling,
though she probably gave up cigarettes long ago. She had it down, John
thought. He pulled his chair close to the TV to see if she still had
the same crooked front tooth.
Funny how the memory worked. John supposed there were entire years in
the '80s that he didn't think of Paloma. Months at least. In airports
sometimes he'd hear a Spanish voice shouting some typically Spanish
word, like "imbécil," pronouncing the "c" with the Castilian "th", and
he'd remember her. Sometimes he saw elegant curved noses like hers, and
he wondered if she'd cut her long black hair, if she'd ever married.
But in his postings in Quito and Managua and Cabo Verde, noses like
Paloma's were rare as fresh bagels; months passed between sightings. In
Washington, of course, they were more common. John's upstairs neighbor,
K. Swartz -- Kitty, Katie? -- was a man-sized bureaucrat at one of the
Departments, either Interior or HUD, who thumped against John's door
when carrying groceries upstairs. His first few months at the
apartment, John routinely mistook the banging for knocking, and opened
the door a few times, only to find himself face to face with a large,
apologizing figure in a purple parka. With her brown eyes and red hair,
an accent from Philadelphia or Baltimore, his neighbor couldn't have
seemed less Spanish. Her nose, though, was a graceful, slender arch.
These days, John didn't have to conjure Paloma from random words and
body parts. The real Paloma was speaking to him all the time, from TV,
the Post's Style section, even some of the magazines in supermarket
checkout lines. She had married an American publishing heir, dropped
her two surnames, Ruiz Goicoechea, and emerged as Paloma Pollack, the
foreign-born goddess of the new right. John first saw her about two
months before in The Wall Street Journal. The article described a
glamorous Spaniard with a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne who
had followed a path of her husband's money right to the summit of the
Republican Party. Nowadays she was sailing in Long Island Sound with
William Buckley and showing up at fundraisers on the arm of right-wing
senators and pundits. People compared her to Claire Boothe Luce, even
to Jackie Kennedy.
Something about Paloma's spectacular flight left John feeling angry and
unsettled. At first he blamed the politics. He looked at this glib new
philosopher of the right, with sculpted cheekbones he'd never seen in
Spain, and wondered just how low she would dive for money and fame.
Following his daily routines in Washington, taking the subway, shopping
at Pathway, eating alone in the State Department cafeteria, he carried
on imaginary debates with her, positioning himself as a poor but
virtuous leftist, and ripping into her as a shill for cattlemen, oil
companies, even racists. In one of the debates he got a bit carried
away and called her a "whore." She slapped him in the face and called
him "hijo de la chingada" -- a Mexicanism Paloma would never use. John
revised the scenario and pointed out her hypocrisy more delicately.
This reduced Paloma to tears. "I know, I know," she lamented in
accented English, sounding like Ingrid Bergman. "Mightn't there be some
way," she ventured, "that we could use these millions, together, for
something worthwhile, something we'd be proud of?"
John pictured himself shaking his head slowly, with dignity, and then
asking if she acquired those cheekbones through diet or surgery. More
tears. Paloma telling him about the long years of therapy that followed
his departure from Madrid. The anorexia, the surgery. In this scenario,
John consoled her with a pat on one newly hollowed cheek. "Whatever you
do," he advised, "don't let them touch your nose."
Now that he was growing used to the new Paloma, the politics hardly
fazed him. He'd always regarded her politics as a fashion statement.
Socialism, platform shoes, Roxy Music, hash... They were all part of
the university package in Madrid that year, when the Generalísimo kept
getting sicker. Back then, with helmeted soldiers guarding the door of
the Facultad, politics were just something to talk about, in hushed
tones -- and even quieter if you were working for the bomb-throwing
Basques, the ETA. Now, John regarded her shift from ETA-sympathizing
socialist to Republican as simply a matter of keeping up with the
times, like a dentist who switches from silver to ceramic fillings. In
fact, John himself had wandered politically. Who would have thought
back in 1975, when Franco and Pinochet and Somoza all appeared to be
members of the same fascist club, that John 10 years later would be
organizing the "contras" from his political post in the Managua
Embassy? In his imaginary dialogues with Paloma in the mid '80s, she
was the one attacking from the left.
So they were both hypocrites, unless Paloma had experienced some sort
of yacht-deck epiphany, which John doubted. What irked him, he realized
after a week or two, was her stunning success. It begged a comparison,
and John, at 41, had little to brag about. Back in Madrid, he'd been
the ambitious one, the good student who wrote synopses of Borges and
García Márquez, in Spanish, on those empty pages at the back of the
books. He was the one headed for law school in America and maybe
politics, or a career in high diplomacy. Maybe he'd write books.
Paloma? She flitted around with those ragged philosophy friends of hers
in oversized black sweaters, smoking, ordering cognac with the
espressos in the cafeteria at the Facultad. John could remember her
flunking an Unamuno seminar -- flunking it! -- and then shrugging and
blowing out smoke, calling the course a “coñazo," a lewd word for
boring. John could remember her joking about it with all those friends
of hers, the guys with the half-grown beards and the eyes at half-mast,
as if they'd been out in the gardens smoking hash, or up all night
fucking. Or both. When he walked up to her table that day, looking
concerned, and asked if it was true she'd failed the test, those people
made him feel like the Joe College, the earnest American who actually
cared about grades. Paloma performed her shrugging routine and gave him
every possible signal to take his concern and his L.L. Bean sweater and
neatly combed long hair to an American table. That was when John
started thinking maybe she was sleeping with one of those guys.
Now John wondered whether at that moment in the Facultad café, Paloma
was pronouncing him -- perhaps for the first time -- a "dweeb." Back
then he didn't even know the word. But maybe as he made the decision to
retreat from that table, choosing not to mix it up with that cynical
bunch of Spaniards, not to laugh and agree that the course was a coñazo
and that grades didn't matter, and not to take the even gutsier
approach, to tell them they were full of shit. Maybe this retreat
charted his course for the next 20 years. From Bloomington through all
his postings in the foreign service, John had been following a strict
course of dweebish non-intervention. He'd hardly mixed it up with
anyone. There was a Peruvian woman he danced with one evening in Lima
who squeezed him tight and kissed him softly on the neck. When she
asked politely for his phone number, he made one up. And then once
while waiting drunk for a bus in Caracas he found himself kissing a
woman. But when her bus came, she said goodbye and waved to him from
the back window. Now it seemed like a dream. So while Paloma was busy
tangling with people, getting bruised and muddied, and using them to
climb, John was avoiding potential messes.
Not that he didn't have his pride. He looked at himself at 41, with his
flat stomach and graying temples, a face with some nice angles to it,
and he liked what he saw. He was proud of his knowledge, his taste in
jazz, his political savvy. People appreciated his humor. But his
romantic life was at best a decimal. Just a couple of weeks before, he
heard a secretary at Foggy Bottom laugh quietly into the phone, calling
someone a "dweeb." The way she lowered her voice when she said it,
looking at him through the corner of an eye, made him worry she was
talking about him. The thought mortified him.
That's when he resolved to make use of Paloma. He pictured her, much
pudgier back then, scrunched into the backseat of that deux chavaux,
pulling her skirt up and murmuring, "¡Qué frío que hace!" Now, at 40,
that same woman had turned into something of a sex symbol in America,
at least for the Washington crowd. This left John facing a singular
challenge: How to let people know, discreetly -- without bragging or
name-dropping -- that he and Paloma used to be an item that year that
Franco was dying. And, more important for John's battered self esteem,
that he'd had sex with her.
Since then, he'd raised the matter a few times at work. But his State
Department colleagues were so tuned into politics, it was hard to steer
them toward sex. One day, he saw Luis Bravo, of the Brazil desk,
reading a Wall Street Journal article in the cafeteria. It was
something about Republican fund-raising, and had a dot portrait of
Paloma halfway down the column. "Funny thing," John said, as if the
thought had just occurred to him. "You see that woman, this Paloma...
Pollack?" He reached across the table and put a finger on Paloma's
picture, leaving a smudge on it.
Bravo took a bite from a leg of fried chicken and nodded.
"I used to date her, in Madrid. Twenty years ago."
Bravo looked at John blankly. John figured he was probably wondering just how to ask about sex.
"Back when Franco was dying," John explained. "For a few months."
Bravo nodded and wadded his chicken in one cheek, to talk. "Franco was dying for more than a few months."
"I mean I dated Paloma for a few months," John said, already regretting bringing it up.
"Was she a... Fascist back then?" Bravo asked.
"No," John laughed. "Closer to a Basque terrorist."
"Hmmm. Looks like she's going to endorse Dole one of these days."
This wasn't going anywhere. John piled some cole slaw on a piece of
toast and took a bite. "Really quite a beautiful girl," he said.
"Confused as hell, but beautiful."
Bravo nodded and turned the page. John wondered if bureaucratic
routines at Foggy Bottom were grounding down people's curiosity. He
tried bringing it up a few more times. But everyone focused on her
politics. Maybe, he thought, they just didn't know him well enough to
ask the kind of personal questions he wanted so badly to answer. Rosa,
the secretary at the Central America Desk, came closer than anyone
else. "She's a very ... swank woman," she said. "Have you called her?"
John said no, not yet anyway, and walked back to his desk wondering if "swank" was a word. He'd have to look it up.
Watching Paloma on TV, he realized that he'd forgotten to look up the
word. That was the afternoon the deputy chief of mission in Paraguay
read his political file on labor unions, and called up for
clarifications. Then John had to brief the assistant undersecretary on
Bolivia and Ecuador, bring him up to speed for an Andean meeting in
What other country in the world would let a foreigner play domestic
politics like this? There was Paloma, running a hand through her thick,
shoulder-length hair, calling the president "spineless." Asked about
his Bosnia policy she made that face again -- the eyes closed, the head
shaking -- and finally selected a word for it: hypocritical. "We
Europeans know something about duplicity," she said, citing Tallyrand
and Machiavelli. "But to wrap himself in such a blanket of virtue..."
She started to repeat the gesture, but cut it short and said, "This
time I honestly think he's inhaling."
John remembered smoking hash with Paloma. One of her Basque friends had
sneaked in from Morocco with it and he gave Paloma a piece about as big
as a chicklet, wrapped in tin foil. One evening in October, she and
John were walking from the University to the Moncloa metro stop. They
were just flirting at this point, John remembered, doing the
double-cheek-kiss routine to say hello and good-bye. His Spanish wasn't
very good yet, and she spent a lot of time correcting him, and laughing
about his mistakes. On a whim, John had taken a couple semesters of
Hungarian at Bloomington, and Paloma liked to hear him speak it. They
developed a game. Sometimes when they passed policemen, or one of the
armed soldiers posted around the university, John would raise his voice
and start waving his arms, sprinking words like "Franco",
"Generalísimo" and "falange" into Hungarian sentences he remembered,
such as "My dog is brown" and "I am fine, thank you, and you?" Paloma
would look up at him, nodding earnestly, and then, when they were past
the bewildered policemen, break into a high, whinnying laugh. John
could still hear her, laughing until she coughed, and feel her grabbing
his elbow, hugging it to her chest. Sometimes she turned towards him
and held his face in her hands, and then brushed his long brown hair
across his forehead, or traced his eyebrows with a finger. John had
slept with a couple of women by this point in his life. But none had
touched so much, or so casually, as Paloma.
That evening she pulled him by the elbow just at the entrance to the
Metro and said, in English, "How about a walk in the Parque del Oeste?"
John thought she wanted sex and agreed. They made their way down the
slope of the dry, barren park, which looked to John like a goat
pasture. Paloma hunched down in the shadow of some bush and began to
burrow through her purse. She pulled out the square of hash and a
Ducado. "You don't have a Winston?" she asked, saying that good
"canutos" were made with blond tobacco. John, disappointed that she
wanted drugs, and not sex, shook his head. He looked up towards the
traffic on Avenida Moncloa, and across the park toward the palace of
the Borbón kings. There just had to be policemen patrolling this park,
Just a few weeks before, the whole junior-year-abroad delegation had
made a pilgrimage to the American Embassy, where a stern young woman
showed them poster-sized pictures of Americans in jail on drug charges.
She also warned them about politics. "You have no political rights
here, no free speech, no right to assembly." She went on and on about
what a repressive place Spain was, and finally asked if there were any
questions. A latter-day beatnic from Wisconsin -- John could remember
his ponytail and goatee, but not his name -- raised his hand and said,
"If nobody has any rights around here, why are we, like, so tight with
Franco?" That got a laugh. But the diplomat matter-of-factly mentioned
the quid pro quo, the American air base at Torrejón, the Navy base at
Rota. And she added that sports fans could listen to pro football and
the World Series on Armed Forces Radio.
As Paloma rolled the joint, John was on all fours behind the bush,
looking for police. "Shouldn't we do this inside someplace?" he asked
in his halting Spanish.
Paloma had a pile of the dark Ducado tobacco on one of her notebooks.
She was carefully grinding the hash into in, and then packing the
mixture back into the cigarette. "Don't be such a burro," she snapped.
"They wouldn't recognize this if they found it in their chocolate con
"But they might recognize it" -- John wrestled for a moment with the
past subjunctive -- "if they came upon two students smoking it behind a
very small bush."
"Then come on!" Paloma stood up and lighted the lumpy, reconstituted
Ducado, took a deep pull on it, and began walking toward the Avenida
Moncloa. John hurried to his feet and trotted after her.
He didn't like that image of himself running to catch up to Paloma.
Looking back, from his study in Arlington, he pictured himself hunching
to brush the dirt from the knees of his khakis, brushing his long hair
from his eyes, following this woman without as much as a whimper, even
if it landed him in a Spanish jail. All this just to smoke hash, which
he never liked, especially mixed with harsh black tobacco. He smoked it
that night, though, walking past the crowded shops of Argüelles, and
past the traffic cops, exchanging the canuto with Paloma. He remembered
looking at it as a game of musical chairs: whoever was holding the
cigarette when they got busted would go to jail.
That night, Paloma's laugh whinnied higher than ever, and when she
grabbed his arm, she clenched it tight to her green pea coat. They took
the Metro all the way out to Alfonso XIII, to the Cineteca. But the
Godard movie showing was sold out. Instead, they sat in a little bar,
Paloma drinking beers and eating tapas, probably chunks of Spanish
tortilla, or maybe anchovies, and John soothing his aching throat with
chamomille tea. He hadn't known the word for chamomille and improvised,
saying "camamilla." But even as he said it, he knew it was terribly
wrong, coming out like "bed of mine." Paloma shrieked with laughter,
repeating "cama mía," as the waiter stood there in his dirty white
jacket, probably wondering if she was laughing at him. Finally Paloma
looked at him and said, "Manzanilla, una taza de manzanilla,"
pronouncing the Zs with the Castillian Th. Then, done giggling, she
repeated it a few times for John. Looking at her leaning across the
table, her frank, bloodshot eyes staring at him, John had a feeling
that with a little initiative on his part, they'd have sex. The only
problem was logistics. He couldn't very well take her back to his
apartment near the Glorieta de Bilbao, where he lived with an old
Spanish couple. They couldn't do it behind that bush in the Parque del
Oeste. He remembered formulating a proposition in his hash-addled brain
as she told him about her family, her Jewish father, a professor, and
her Basque mother, and her little brother, Pepe, who didn't think about
much more than the Real Madrid football team. Maybe they could get a
car somehow, John was thinking, or visit a cheap hotel in Lavapies,
near the flea market. But as the hash high gave way to a headache, he
escorted her wordlessly down the Paseo de la Castellana, and left her
at the door of the majestic apartment building, planting little dry
kisses on both cheeks.
The Larry King show was over. John turned off the TV and walked to the
kitchenette looking down at his stomach, wondering if it was as flat as
it used to be back in Madrid. Maybe not. He made himself a ham and
cheese sandwich, using dijon mustard instead of mayonnaise, and opened
a Michelob. What was it, he wondered, that led Paloma to the top while
he was still schlepping around a bureaucracy, looking for an excuse to
tell people about his brush with fame? She was gorgeous, for one thing.
That didn't hurt. But John himself was a fairly hot number in the
mid-70s, once you got past that ugly haircut. He remembered all the
attention some of the American girls lavished on him. There was this
one girl, Pat Donaldson, who yanked him by the elbow in the hallway,
right after the Art in the Prado lecture. She backed him into a little
nook by a bulletin board and whispered urgently that he was the
best-looking guy in the program, and that she had to have him. Pat was
a blonde, a little heavy, actually pretty fat. She laughed a lot and
had a sparky Wisconsin accent, which made her sound like a chipmunk.
Her Spanish was miserable. But still, the Spanish guys paid a lot of
attention to her, which was new for her. She was screwing them more or
less continually, and bragging about it. Thinking back, John realized
that this fact cheapened the compliment she paid him. But something
about the way she looked at him, and the breathless way she spoke, made
him believe, even now, that she found him very sexy.
Should he call Paloma? Say hi? He thought about it for a few minutes,
finishing his sandwich and then opening another beer. He'd have to say
something, propose something, wouldn't he? Like getting together for a
drink near DuPont Circle, or maybe on Capitol Hill. And then what would
he tell her? That he was a bureaucrat with one eye on his pension plan,
and that her politics disgusted him? Perhaps if he kept quiet about her
politics, or even tacitly endorsed them, she could find him some kind
of job, maybe in the White House.
He thought about that for a while. What if she reached across the
coffee table and grabbed his arm, just like the old days, and said she
just had to have him? He pictured her lying back in a dark-windowed
limousine -- no cramped deux chavaux this time -- wearing nothing but a
mink stole, looking up at him with those green eyes half closed, her
tongue running over that crooked front tooth.
John called Maryland information and asked for Paloma Pollack. No
listing. Alexander Pollack? Ditto. He'd have to dig around to find the
He wondered how she'd remember him. She'd certainly recall those
afternoons in the Cafe Gijon, sitting at a table littered with papers
and books, and John introducing her to the Latin American novelists, to
Cortazar and Fuentes, even as he was having to look up three or four
words every page. She found it amusing. As he talked to her about
Rulfo's magical realism and Carpentier's baroque style, John had a
feeling he was on a stage, auditioning for her. And even if he managed
to pass the test, sex itself would be another pass-fail exam. He always
suspected that no matter how he performed with Paloma, she'd be
smirking with those friends of hers at the Facultad about her friend,
the Yanqui. One time, John recalled, she brought along one of her small
dour friends, Manolo, to the Cafe Gijón. He had a crush on her, John
could tell. It was as if Paloma had set up a duel. Manolo attacked
first, ripping into John for Vietnam and racism and McCarthyism... the
usual complaints. Manolo was Andalusian, from Seville, and John had
trouble understanding his rapid-fire Spanish, which sounded almost
Cuban. But he sat and smiled, nodding occasionally, looking concerned
when he thought it appropriate, raising his eyebrows at Paloma, from
time to time, as if to say, "Your friend's a passionate one, isn't he?"
Finally, when Manolo put a Ducado in his mouth and asked for a light,
John put together an answer. Speaking very softly, he said: "If I
understand you, your arguments, you say that you live under Fascist
rule largely because my Fascist government supports your Fascist
government, as part of its own imperial designs, no?" The Spaniard
nodded nervously and looked at Paloma, who was watching them both,
bemused, over the rim of her coffee cup. "If we both live under Fascist
rule," John continued, "then there is no place for blame. We are
victims of a similar system, and our only choices are to commiserate or
rebel, no?" That seemed to defuse Manolo. He abandoned the café a few
minutes later, heading toward the Prado with his books, and leaving
John with his bill. John remembered a feeling of victory, and perhaps
the first triumph of his diplomatic career.
By then it was getting colder in Madrid, and darker. John walked Paloma
home, down the Castellana, past the kiosks brimming with the latest
news on the Generalísimo. Grave. Peor. Sufre. He remembered seeing the
vendors cooking fragrant chestnuts over oil-drums, and asking Paloma if
she wanted some. "They smell better than they taste," she said,
smiling. A few blocks later, as John walked along holding a paper cone
full of chestnuts, trying to figure out how to eat them, Paloma brought
up the discussion with her friend. "You know, you tied Manolo into
knots. But you didn't say anything," she said gravely.
John shrugged. "That's politics, no?"
It was dark when they reached her apartment building. Emboldened by his
political victory, John tried to move the kiss from the cheeks to the
lips. But Paloma swung her face away from him, whipping his extended
lips with her hair. "Pssst. The neighbors!" she said.
"What about the neighbors?"
"Shhhhh," she said quietly, pursing lips that John wanted so badly to
kiss. "You don't understand." As he walked away, humiliated, still
holding the chestnuts, she called after him, "Don't look for the
answers in Mexican novels, Juanito."
That was the Paloma now conquering America: imperious, teasing, smug.
John found himself hating her. He walked around his apartment with a
bottle of Michelob in one hand, a copy of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia
in the other. Thinking about Paloma soured him on Spain. He put down
the book and picked up the Post. He paged through the entertainment
section, looking for strip clubs. He saw one called "Stiffy's," which
struck him funny. Maybe he'd go. But what if someone from work saw him
going in? John sat down in the living room with the paper in his lap
and took another drink of beer.
That evening after Paloma teased him, John did some teasing of his own.
He called the señora at his house and told her he wouldn't be home for
supper. Then he took the metro at Rios Rosas, switched at Cuatro
Caminos, and came up at Argüelles, just across the street from the
Parque del Oeste. The stores were closing. He could hear the music from
a discotheque, a block away -- "Voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?"
-- and he was convinced it was talking to him. He crossed the avenue
purposefully and made his way down the row of tall, dingy dormitories,
Los Colegios Mayores. He found Pat Donaldson in the basement café of
her dorm. She was drinking Té de manzanilla and reading some book of
Spanish poetry, probably Machado. When she saw John, she hurried over
to kiss on both cheeks, pressing much closer to the mouth than Paloma
had. "Want to go out dancing?" she asked, before he could say a word.
He remembered trying to focus that evening on Pat's face, which was
very pretty, and not on her large body. They sat in that café, talking
about the art course they took together. Pat couldn't wait to get past
the medieval stuff they were studying, the Hispano-Flamenco and the
Maestro de las Mil Virgenes, and start on Goya and Velazquez. John
nodded, thinking about little but sex. Finally they went up to her
room. She held him tight by the elbow as they climbed the stairs, and
whispered something to him about her period. John was more relieved
than disappointed to see that Pat's roommate was there. "Well, I've got
to go," he said, kissing her on both cheeks. She tried to get him to
stay, to wait a while. Things could be worked out. But he shook his
head and heaved his book pack over a shoulder. Pat, though, didn't give
up so easily. "A group of us are going to Segovia this weekend," she
said. "You want to come?" John, anxious to leave on good terms with
her, said yes. He kissed her again, this time almost getting the
corners of her mouth. She pulled him close. Then he broke free,
hurrying down the hall, down the steps, out into the cool November
That was the night Franco died. It was dark when John woke up the next
morning. He crept into the kitchen, as usual, trying not to wake up the
señora, and turned on the gas for his shower. Waiting for it to heat up
the water, he flipped on the radio. He heard a classical dirge and then
a man's voice announced that the general “falleció" at 2 a.m. John
thought he knew what this meant. But he scampered into his room to look
up "fallecer," just to be sure. The dictionary left no doubt. He looked
out the window, half expecting to see explosions of some kind, mortars,
the first battle of a renewed civil war. But the street watchman, "el
sereno," was huddled as usual in the doorway of the shoe store, and a
few early-risers were walking, as usual, toward the Bilbao metro. He
heard the señora shouting to him that he left on the gas. John hurried
toward the shower, telling the señora on the way that the Generalísimo
"Ay, no me diga," she said, crossing the front of her nightgown.
John nodded somberly. If the señora was 70 now, he thought, she’d been
30 when Franco marched his troops up from Morocco, starting the civil
war. He tried to imagine Gerald Ford as president until the year...
2014? The señora started to cry, murmuring something about "pobrecito."
Then she crossed herself again, said, "Qué en paz descanse," and told
John to hurry with the shower.
That frosty morning he walked all the way to the university, expecting
to see something momentous. But except for some black crepe hanging
from public buildings and the banner headlines on newspapers, he was
disappointed. Cafés did the usual business, buses ran. Construction
workers at Cuatro Caminos warmed themselves with red wine and brandy.
But when he reached the university, he found armed soldiers standing at
closed gates. Classes, they said, were postponed for a week.
He started to head home when he heard some honking. It was Paloma, her
friend Pilar, and two young men -- Manolo and one other -- in an old
car. They were all beaming, paying no attention to the soldiers. Paloma
leaned out a window and told John they were heading to San Sebastian
for a week. They'd already swung by his house to invite him, and
learned from a teary-eyed señora that he'd walked to school. Didn't he
want to come? John looked into the crowded car, a deux chevaux, and
wondered where he'd fit. He hesitated. "Come on," Paloma urged him,
telling him she had cousins to stay with up there. Pilar told him to
jump in. Even Manolo, who had seemed so sullen at the Café Gijon, urged
him on. He told John they'd be driving through the Rioja region, and
would drink plenty of the best red wine. He held up a boot-shaped
wineskin and smiled broadly, exposing a row of crooked teeth. John was
paralyzed. He said he didn't have any clothes with him. But Manolo said
his house was on the way. John asked how long the drive was. What's it
matter? Paloma said. Fifteen, twenty hours. John wondered about the
sleeping arrangements. He pictured himself lying awake in an attic as
Paloma slept with Manolo. But leaning out the car window in a big wool
sweater, flushed and radiant, Paloma was going on about what a great
fun they'd all have. They'd see the cathedrals in Leon and Burgos, the
wine country in Rioja, the Pyrenees. "And we can even stop in Segovia
for lunch today," she said. "See the aqueduct and eat suckling pig.
It's so tender, they say, you can cut it with the plate." Manolo
laughed and added that "cochinillo" was delicious with Rioja wine.
Then John remembered. "Oh," he said, looking disappointed. "I forgot. I'm supposed to go to Segovia this weekend, with friends."
"Cancel," Paloma said matter-of-factly.
Paloma shrugged, looking hurt. "Oh well," she said. "Maybe some other time."
Manolo put the wineskin back under his seat. Even he looked disappointed. "Hombre..." he said.
"No, no," John said, waving them on.
The car finally pulled away, toward Argüelles. Paloma looked back one more time.
As John pictured the scene 20 years later, he tried to read her
expression. More than angry or sad or betrayed, she looked perplexed.
John often regretted his decision. Looking back, he saw that Paloma and
her friends were celebrating a new beginning, the first political
change in their lives. What better way to celebrate than a road trip?
John ended up traveling to Segovia as a member of Pat Donaldson's
entourage. When he met her at the bus station, she was already sitting
with another American, a studious engineer from Purdue named Greg. It
turned out she'd arranged to meet yet another American in Segovia.
John, it seemed, had given up the trip to San Sebastian for a place in
a line of lonely, horny ex-pats. When they got to Segovia, Greg walked
next to Pat most of the time, and John tagged along behind, as if he
didn't care. Luckily, they never ran into the other American. But Pat
did find a Spaniard with a car. John remembered sitting in the back
seat with Greg as the Spaniard, his name long forgotten, drove
recklessly through the brown prairies, pointing out things to Pat. She
grabbed his hand and rubbed it, saying, "Verdad? Verdad?" in her
miserable Wisconsin accent. That night they somehow managed to sneak
into the same hotel room. But just as John and Greg were readying to
negotiate sleeping arrangements, the Spaniard knocked on the door. So
the amenable Americans lay on blankets on the floor, pretending to
sleep, while Pat fucked the Spaniard. In the middle of the night, the
Spaniard woke up with a start. He dressed loudly, hopping near John's
head as he pulled on socks, and hurried out of the room. As soon as he
was gone, Greg rose like a zombie and crept wordlessly into bed with
Pat, and the humping began again. John tried not to watch too much.
What would have happened, he wondered, looking back 20 years, if he had
demanded his turn? Would Greg have returned to the floor? It was a
question that never came up, probably because all of them could tell
that John wasn't the kind of guy who would get up from the floor. Even
as John spent long hours speculating about his own future, what kind of
woman he would end up with, everyone else had him down as a dweeb, for
life. That's why Manolo had been so friendly! John had never considered
this before, and it depressed him. He walked into the kitchen for
As he opened the last Michelob, he heard a thumping from upstairs, then
some shouts. A chair falling over? Then a door slammed and someone
pounded down the stairs. He braced himself, beer in hand, hoping that
his neighbor would keep running down the stairs, past his door. But she
stopped and banged. "Mr. Lewis!" she shouted. "Fire!"
John opened the door and saw his neighbor for the first time without
her purple coat. She was standing wild-eyed in a grey sweatsuit, red
hair he'd never noticed falling down to her shoulders, yelling
something about a fire extinguisher. John ran to the kitchen and
grabbed a small red unit by the refrigerator and ran up the stairs
after her into a smoke-filled apartment. The TV was on, playing for an
idle exercise bike. "In here!" she shouted from the kitchen. John
hurried in and saw a plastic trash can lying on its side in the middle
of the floor, burning. "Shoot it!" the woman screamed as John tried to
read the instructions. Something about pulling a pin out..."Shoot it,
Goddamn it!" He saw a plastic pole. That must be the pin. He grabbed it
between his thumb and forefinger and pulled. "Give it to me!" she
yelled. John swung away from her, to keep control of the extinguisher,
and looked at the pin. He was pulling the wrong way. He gave it a yank
in the other direction and it came out. Then he calmly pointed the
apparatus at the fire, which was melting the garbage can, sending inky
threads of petrochemicals toward the ceiling. "Fuck!" she yelled. He
pulled the trigger and a blanket of white powder buried the flame with
Silence. Then John could hear some popping and crackling from the
remains of the fire. The coat of white powder seemed to hiss. He heard
canned laughter from the TV in the living room, and he could hear the
large woman next to him breathing heavily. What was her name? Kitty?
That didn't seem to fit such a large woman. She was still staring at
the remains of the fire and listening to it. "It's sorta like it's
talking, isn't it," she finally said, looking up at John and smiling.
"Kind of like Rice Krinkles," he said.
"Or Krispy Kritters."
They both laughed.
"I'm sorry I screamed at you," she said. "But I was thinking, here's my
kitchen burning down, and this guy, he's like, reading the goddamned
"It had this pin in it..." John started to explain.
"Listen," she said, her voice brightening. "Would you like a beer or
something?" She stepped over the remains of the trash can and opened
the refrigerator door. "I got some white wine in here too. And
Stolichnaya vodka in the freezer if you want something..."
John started to back away. But he stopped when he saw the smile drop
from her face. "Well, I guess I could have something..." he said. "You
have some lime or lemon for that vodka?"
It turned out her name was Katie. She moved the exercise bike and
installed John in an easy chair near the TV, with a tall glass of vodka
on the rocks, and hurried off to take a shower. By the time she came
back, dressed in jeans and a blue blouse, and the red hair tied up in
back with a ribbon, John had worked his way through half his drink and
was having a very hard time concentrating on what appeared to be a
hospital soap opera on TV. It seemed to jump around so much, from one
character to the next. Even the picture seemed to bounce.
Katie sat on the couch with a big glass of white wine. She grabbed the
remote control and starting switching the channels, confusing John even
more. She settled back on the hospital show and turned up the volume.
John sipped his vodka and looked at her. The nose. It really was like
Paloma's. But her face was half again as broad, with rosy cheeks, and
deep-set brown eyes. Something serious was happening on the hospital
show, and her eyebrows were knotted with concern. She took a big sip of
wine and swallowed it without removing her gaze from the screen. She
was actually pretty, John said, once you got past her size. He figured
she was at least six feet tall, and probably pushing 175 pounds.
Commercials came on. Katie muted them and swung around toward John and
told him about herself. In short order, she managed to let him know
that she was 37, divorced, originally from Philadelphia, and still with
some friends there -- though her ex-husband was there, too, which was a
downer. She worked three floors down from Bruce Babbit at Interior, she
said, and made it clear that she wasn't a big admirer of Newt Gingrich.
She didn't like Clinton too much either, but would probably vote him.
She said she didn't especially enjoy TV, especially the Thursday night
line-up. Just then the hospital show came back on, and she un-muted it.
John emptied his vodka glass and tried to look at the TV. The picture
seemed to jump around even more. Now he had trouble understanding what
the people were saying. He looked at Katie. Something about her
reminded him of someone. Was it that woman he kissed at the bus stop in
Caracas? Or was it just that she was wearing Paloma's nose?
He cleared his throat to say something. She looked at him. "You need a
refill?" He started to say no, that he'd had enough. But just then the
commercials came on and Katie, working against the clock, grabbed his
glass and hurried into the kitchen. He heard her unloading an ice tray
and pouring. "You know, I guess I should do something about this trash
can," she yelled. "I can't like just, leave it here. Smoldering, or
whatever it's doing."
Commercials were still on when she got back. "Tell me about yourself,"
she said, handing him the drink. "I hardly see you, except when I bump
into your door in that ridiculously small landing there..."
John didn't know where to start. So he told her about himself and
Paloma. He told her how they met at the Facultad, about how Franco was
dying and it seemed that everything was headed for radical change, even
civil war. Katie listened intently, keeping the TV on mute, even as the
hospital show ended and the local news came on. John told her that long
before Paloma was a friend of Newt Gingrich, she was a socialist of
sorts, who smoked hash that her friends brought up from Morocco. He
told her about walking past the cops talking Hungarian.
"My folks are Hungarian!" Katie said, nodding intently.
"No. But go on."
Fueled by the vodka, John was content to keep on talking. He enjoyed
listening to his own sentences, his touches of Madrid color and
history. He was a good story teller, he thought, when he put his mind
to it. But he could see that Katie was waiting for this relationship he
was describing to flower into love, or at least something in that
realm. If he ended the story with that sad little scene where he
refused the ride to San Sebastian, she'd most likely turn her attention
back to the TV. So he changed a few things in his head and kept
talking. He told her about the day Franco died, how he walked to the
University and found it closed, and how Paloma and her friends pulled
up next to him in that ancient Citroen and asked him if he wanted to go
with them. To Segovia. Naturally, he hopped in.
That night they ate very tender suckling pig, and washed it down with red wine. Rioja.
Katie shook her head. She hadn't heard of Rioja.
Just a detail, John said. But if she ever went to Spain, she should keep it in mind. "It's sort of oaky."
Anyway, afterwards, the four of them walked around the city. They
looked at the aqueduct, which the Romans had actually constructed, some
2,000 years earlier, without even using mortar.
"They used rocks," Katie said, nodding, eager to get back to the romance.
"Uh huh. Big stones."
After the walk, they headed back to the hotel.
As he told the story, John saw that by putting all the other people in
the car, he'd undermined the romantic connection between himself and
Paloma. By this point, though, there wasn't much he could do about it.
They walked up one of Segovia's steep cobblestone streets toward the
castle. They found a little Pension, and somehow they managed to sneak
into the same room. "We probably wouldn't have dared do that if we
hadn't been drinking so much wine," he said.
Katie nodded, anxious to hear how the young Paloma Pollack would handle these three hot-blooded men in her hotel room.
Paloma made it clear that she wanted to sleep with John, and John
alone, John said. But he was shy back then, and felt uncomfortable
about the whole affair. He couldn't really be in the same room with
these other two guys, but he didn't want to kick them out. So,
magnanimously, he suggested that all three men sleep on blankets on the
floor, leaving the bed for Paloma alone. The other two agreed. They all
went to sleep. Next thing John knew, one of them was up in the bed with
Paloma, having sex. Very loud, passionate sex.
Katie leaned forward. "Did you... just watch?"
"I probably shouldn't have," John said. "But yeah, I did, a little." He
told her that Paloma was much bigger back then -- almost fat, he
noticed, seeing her naked for the first time.
As John told the story, he could guess that Katie was expecting some
sort of orgy. But even with all the vodka, he just couldn't deliver
one. They finally fell asleep, he said. Then the guy in bed woke up
with a start and hurried out of the room, swearing in Spanish.
"But didn't he come with you, in the car, from Madrid?" Katie asked.
"Yeah, he did. But I guess he had some sort of appointment or something..."
At this point in the story, John considered putting himself in the bed
with Paloma. He found it very hard, though, to change the story. "Next
thing I know," he said, "the guy next to me's getting up, like a
zombie, and crawling into bed with Paloma."
"You're kidding!" Katie said, getting into it. "I think that's where I
might 'a drawn the line, like said, 'Hey, there, Paloma. Like, HELLO!
Like, EXCUUUUSE ME."
"And the way she paints herself now," Katie went on, "as a model of
virtue." She shook her head, marveling. "But three's golden, right?"
"Not that night," John said, smiling fondly, as though the undivulged memories were almost too precious to share.
He finished his second glass of vodka and looked at Katie, who was
still waiting for him to continue the story. "You know," he said. "Your
nose is exactly like Paloma's. You ever notice that?"
"You're kidding." She ran a finger along the curve of her nose and
seemed to ponder it for a moment. "You want me to put on music, or
"Ok," John said. He didn't feel like moving or talking anymore. He just
wanted to sit there and let his head spin, and listen to this large,
friendly woman with the Philadelphia accent, who now knew more about
his junior year in Spain than all of his colleagues at the State
Department, combined. He started to regret that he'd lied to her about
that night in Segovia. He looked over at her, hunched over the stereo,
wiping a CD on her blouse and placing it in the machine. The blue
ribbon that held back her hair was falling off. Why did he have to lie
to her? John felt his nose running. He sniffed, and wiped an eye with
The music came on, some kind of soft jazz with strings. Katie walked back toward John and saw right away that he was crying.
She rushed toward him, saying, "Aw, what's the matter?" She sat next to
him on the couch and grabbed his hand. John looked at her through his
tears and saw a pair of brown eyes and knotted brows swimming about six
inches from his own.
He said, "I just..." But he couldn't finish the sentence.
"Awww," Katie said. She ran a hand through his hair, trying to comfort him.
They sat there for a minute, listening to the music. Finally, John
said, "You know. That scene I told you about in Segovia? It wasn't
exactly like that."
"You were the first one, right?" Katie said, sounding like a mother pepping up a six-year-old.
He shook his head, and she pulled her hand from his hair. "That wasn't Paloma in the bed. It was somebody else."
"Tssst. That doesn't matter," she murmured, snuggling closer to him. "But you did know Paloma Pollack, back then, right?"
John nodded. "I just switched her with this woman, because... Oh I
don't know why I did it." He was finished crying now and a little angry
"Kiss me," Katie said. Her voice was about an inch from his ear.
He turned to her, suddenly finding her beautiful and wondering if it was the alcohol.
"Kiss me," she whispered.
John obediently inched toward her and closed his eyes.
"Hold it right there," she said, putting up a hand. "Keep your eyes open."
"I want you to remember who you're kissing. Understand?"
John smiled and kissed her, first on the tip of the nose, that beautiful nose, and then on the mouth.