The First and Last to Leave
For the second time that year, he woke before the dawn and rode to the end of something beautiful. For the second time that year he greeted the gray morning from the lonely seat of an airport terminal. This time he was alone, but he always was eventually: every flight was lonely in its own way, even with his brother beside him there had been a distance that was spanned by memory and held apart by the immeasurable gulf between two separate experiences, between two different souls.
"Wing it, you said. There are plenty of hostels, you said. You'll just take whatever comes, you said. Well, you got any ideas?"
"Calm down, it's early, you'll be all right."
"No I won't, I will not be f-"
"Hey hey hey, no swearing, not today. You know how this works, you keep walking."
"Do I get to keep talking to myself in public? We made fun of a kid in college who did that."
"We were asses in college."
"Changing the subject, you know there has to be an internet cafe somewhere. We passed one back near Puerta del Sol, we could try to find it again."
"Not now, I'd rather wallow."
"Oh come now, let's enjoy this. It's not often we get tossed into a city with nowhere to stay and no one to contact and no one to talk to. It's an adventure. He got you through worse than this. Wasn't this the whole point, trust God and see where you end up?"
"The plan was to trust God and end up back at the same hostel, preferably in the same room, less one drunk Canadian and his four a.m. hookup."
"You have an odd notion of trust."
He wished it would rain. This damned environment lacked empathy.
On the other side of the street a girl walked by wearing a black bra and gauzy, cream-colored top. Sheer, like this loneliness, he thought and turned his eyes to other things. He wondered if his soul was as clearly displayed as her undergarments. Did the passersby see him and read his story, see the outlines of the Galician hills and the prayers of thanks and desperation and exhaustion? Did the lights of a candellight procession shine out from a misty night in Fatima into the bright morning sun? He doubted it. Too much else to see and do and hear for those old sights and silences to mean anything. He was just another traveler. Where are you from? How long are you here? Where are you going?
Art heals a multitude of sorrows. How strange that it should do it with sorrow. He wandered the rooms of the Prado slowly, not as a critic, for his skill and knowledge was too little for that. Nor did he wander as he had so often before, checking off the famous paintings, nodding and pretending to appreciate while wishing only for a seat and a drink. No, he took his time and his care, and he drank. He did not drink them all. Some he tasted and liked not, others drained him as he drained them, returning again and again to the storms sweeping across the bay toward St. Jerome's cave, to the Holy Family resting on their flight to Egypt, surrounded by the greens and blues and grays of a countryside that had never harbored their journey except in the eye of a painter. An excellent draughtsman with a flight of beauty to quell the ache that had chased him through the day, he drank until he was full, and then drank some more. And then the waters rose from the canvas and carried him and filled him and took him until they spilled silently from the corners of his eyes, and he knew that in his loneliness he was not alone. He smiled.
The church of St. Michael proved elusive. He wandered in and out of Plaza Mayor with no luck, no forturne, and no success. At length he surrendered. Verdi's Requiem was sold out, and the church he had sought seemed to desire not to be found. His feet turned back toward the hostel. Perhaps he could pass the evening at the Flamenco class they were offering. He soon found himself walking down Calle de Toledo, with a church ahead on the left. San Isidro wasn't the one he'd been told to seek out, but he went in, thinking that he didn't need to return to the hostel at the moment anyway.
Inside he found a group of maybe ten women praying the rosary in a side chapel.
Might as well, he thought. He didn't know the prayers in Spanish, but that didn't matter. So he joined them, a young American, picking his way badly through the prayers, trying to pray in Spanish but switching to English most of the time, so he kept his prayers sotto voce. Eventually he learned the second part: Santa María Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. He never figured out the first half of the prayer.
Art and prayer. I guess I'm still a pilgrim after all. Where are you from? How long are you here? Where are you going?