by Bill Pieper
One of the world’s great walking cities. That’s what everybody said, and he’d sure spent time walking this past week: isolated amid the body crush of the tree-shadowed Rambla, or aimless along the glassy harbor to Barceloneta and the crowded beach beyond. Or inland on the hushed slopes and lanes of Montjuic, or in the echoing, walled Ciutat Vella. Anywhere he hadn’t been with Renee, basically, because it was also a shit-bad place to get dumped by your girlfriend. Not that there were good places, but Barcelona rubbed salt in it, because the whole damn town, especially couples, seemed to be having such a great time.
With no warning, she had taken off to be with some guy in Lisbon she’d fallen for via a connection she wouldn’t reveal. Except she’d been corresponding with him secretly most of last year. Cam was forbidden to follow her, too, but how could he, with classes due to start?
He’d applied to a grad program in urban planning at the main university here, had been admitted and jumped at the chance. Made quite the step up from Chico State, where he and Renee met. Not planning to stay, she’d tagged along for a supposedly romantic vacation, but now he thought it had just been a scam to put her within an easy train-ride of the intended future lover. That’s what hurt most, the scam, and his mind couldn’t get past it.
Still, if he hung on, maybe things would shape up once the fall term began and he moved into the international student dorm, surrounded by gardens facing the art museum. For now he was stuck at the same gritty hotel in the Poble Sec that he’d shared with Renee, where the scent of her Escada perfume never quite cleared, windows open or closed. What else, then, but go out and catch the sights—Roman ruins, landmark Gaudí buildings, the endless stalls at the Boqueria market overflowing with everything from jewelry to octopus.
As for indoor places, he’d found exactly one that wasn’t crawling with tourists or trendy professionals, and where he sort of felt comfortable: the Café Pujols, not too far from where he’d be moving. Almost like time had stopped, it had low ceilings, a worn marble counter, scarred wooden tables, creaky chairs, a primitive espresso machine, a menu of traditional fare like gildas, albondigas and carrilladas, and ancient wine casks along the back, one of them rigged to dispense the house red from a hidden reservoir.
Taped to a wall by the door were news clippings and photos under a hand-made banner proclaiming, in Catalan, what Cam pieced together as Celebrating Sixty Years of the Pujols Family. More recently, someone had crossed out Sixty and written in 61, which itself had been revised to 62. Even so, Catalan was a pain. He thought his Spanish was good enough for academic work, but hadn’t figured on a regional language for daily use.
Also on display was a classic nudie calendar, hanging alone near the end of the counter. An unclothed female, probably in her early twenties, like Renee, smilingly seated on a draped chair in partial profile, with pale skin, smooth, full breasts and lightly marcelled, mid-length red hair—a color more common here than he’d realized. From three or four tables away, no matter the elaborate Catalan script, Cam could track the day he and Renee had arrived from Paris, the day she had taken off, and the days he’d spent walking. The photo was sexy, too, in a way that made the porn on the web look gross and worthless.
Presiding over all this was a tall, appealing woman, late forties probably, who wore jeans and striped, boat-neck pullovers. Without apparent effort, she managed to greet the regulars flocking in after 1 p.m. and again after 8, as well serve beer and wine, take orders, wait table and handle the cash. Her name was Marta, he gathered from overheard conversations, most of them rattled off in Catalan he couldn’t otherwise pick up.
Her husband ran the kitchen, and his dark curly hair, with eyebrows in a low-set line across the bridge of his nose, signaled Pujols genes according to the doorway photos. Marta and her expressive face had been nothing beyond polite the few times Cam had gone in, but her eyes had a lively sparkle, and from her constant motion, it was no mystery that she’d kept her figure over the years. As of his last visit, two days prior, she even recognized him, or seemed to, which the desk guy at his hotel never was willing to do.
Today, feeling truly beaten down, and nursing a blistered toe after walking dozens of blocks to and from Gaudí’s vast Parc Güell in the hot sun, Cam needed refuge and hadn’t expected the Pujols to be open. Most places like it closed from four till seven. But on whim, he’d detoured past, and found the door ajar. So, in he went, the lone customer, and sat at the counter, his shoulders slumped forward over his elbows.
Against a background of murmured voices from the kitchen, no one came out, and he unthinkingly braced his foot on a cross-piece between the legs of his stool and took off his shoe and sock. Exposed, the blister was red and nasty because it had popped. Then footsteps, Marta’s footsteps, and a tingling sensation spread down his neck.
“Hola,” she said. “Americán? No hablo Inglés.”
He nodded and in Spanish ordered a coffee. Above her shoulder, the calendar’s sexy allure jumped out at him, and he was close enough to read not just the days and weeks, but the year: 1988. He’d been fooled because everything else had matched up with 2016 on his phone app, which flummoxed him into words that he wouldn’t have spoken in any language, given a moment to reflect. “Wait,” he said, pointing. “That’s you, isn’t it?” Immediately he felt like an idiot.
“Si,” she replied, smiling broadly and standing a little straighter, the same smile as on the wall, the teeth older and more worn, and the red hair gone more to brunette, but still…
Turning from him, she moved toward the wine casks in a way that seemed languorous, fumbled with something near the cash register and came back carrying two full glasses.
“I didn’t order that,” he said.
“No, I did.” She put one glass in front of him, dropped a band-aid next to it and took a sip from the other. “Salut. Now we will talk. You are not the first or the last…how you say… homesick student to come in here needing a mother. Spanish, Catalan, we will find a way.”
Bill Pieper, who lives and writes in Northern California, is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has studied both creative writing and philosophy at Sacramento State University.
Stories by Bill have appeared in the Blue Lake Review, Red Fez, Farallon Review, Primal Urge and The Scarlet Leaf Review, among others. Links to his 2014 collection Forgive Me, Father and all his published work can be found at Authors Den.