“Sergio,” Dean Kippler said, “I’d like you and Dr. Sanchez to head up the trip to Spain this summer.” No small talk. No ‘how you doing?’ Just an announcement phrased as a request. I knew what he was thinking. My selection made perfect sense. After all, I was the university’s only European History professor. However, if he had looked at me, he would have seen that this was not the same as telling me to teach a course outside of my specialization; this was not drafting me to chair a committee that was a colossal waste of my time. He might as well have asked me to walk a bed of hot coals.
I was about to say impossible, to hell with the job, when Carmen Sanchez walked into the room. I vaguely knew the name from the class that many of my advisees wanted for their art credit, but I had never seen her or talked with her. When the dean introduced us, she shook my hand with a firm, elegant squeeze. There was no attempt to fit in with the culture of a small Texas college, no jeans or t-shirts, no dress suits. No outlet store’s seasonal style. No. Carmen was wearing a black flapper dress, red leggings, and a gorgeous silver scarf. She was stunning.
“So we are to be travel friends,” she said. I stood there silently for a few seconds, trying to gather my thoughts.
“It looks that way,” I said.
Initially, it was to be a greatest hits thing: Madrid, Barcelona, Toledo. But when the dates of the trip started to get firm, Carmen said, “We’ll be there during the hogueras! I haven’t seen them since I was a kid. The students will love it.”
Although it was presented as a team-led trip, Carmen was our real guide and teacher. In this capacity, she never ceased to amaze me. During our first museum tour, she gave a lecture on Goya’s “Savages around the Fire.” I knew Goya for his “Nude Maja” and “Saturn Devouring his Son,” but Carmen knew how to weave it all together with the smoke and shadows of his lesser-known works. She had that cool, European accent that makes all educated Texans feel like they should never speak again. She did beautiful things with her second language, things that I could never do, never get away with. The way she paused, inserted a Spanish word, and then went on to explain how the English equivalent only captured a portion of the significance. She would take us as far as our language would allow, and we would all be left with a sense that there was so much more to the world than our little university town.
For the days leading up to the Bonfires of San Juan, we took the students to different parts of Alicante to watch the artists at work on their gigantic wood and papier-mâché set pieces. There was one of a waiter with five hands, each holding a mug of beer, another one had a bull with nostrils the size of craters, and one included Quixote with a neck like an ostrich. They were weird, gorgeous, and mesmerizing. And each one would be burned to the ground on the night of the summer solstice. There was no escaping the flames.
Of course, just being back in Spain meant that my time here as a student swirled around in my head with “Boots of Spanish Leather” playing in the background. I tried to belittle my crazy little crush, my moments of madness with Raquel. I was doing okay, at least I think I was, until we arrived at an hoguera of a peasant girl carrying a basket on her shoulder. We had seen other female hogueras, and not a one of them moved me in the slightest, but this one was different. She didn’t really look like Raquel, but she had a certain air about her. It was as though she could turn the mundane into the beautiful with a flick of her wrist. Maybe it was the position of her hands, the slope of her neck or the curious, oval shape of her eyes. I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t place it, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.
I turned away from the hoguera, pivoting so that my back was to it, trying to shake the spell. The students were gathering in a semi-circle, waiting for me to speak. I blinked a few times at the cloudless summer day, cleared my throat, and then drifted into a perfunctory lecture about the history of summer solstice rituals in agrarian life.
“Besides,” I said, “Spain has lots of fascinating rituals and traditions: bull fights, flamenco, the Fallas, and Three Kings Day, just to name a few.” My words ceased and the students smiled politely, just as they did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in my survey classes.
When the students left to walk around the figurine, she pulled me aside.
“Excuse me, Sergio, but what was that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Those empty words you just dumped on the square.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not . . .”
“You cannot even begin to know Spain without understanding the hogueras,” she said. “The bull fight is a distraction, a sham, a nostalgia kick for old people and tourists. I don’t know anyone who goes to them, but this, this is real.”
We stood there watching a man diligently dabbing the tiniest bit of paint on the cheeks of his wooden peasant girl. “You’d think they’d just slap them together,” I said, as the sculpted girl’s cheeks went from candy apple red to coral red, turning what had looked like a sunburn into a blush, and giving her face a dreamy, distracted quality.
“I mean, why all the work for something that’s just going to be burned in a few days?”
The old man switched to filing the space between the fingers of his girl, thinning and shaping them ever so slightly, giving them a curve that seemed like a supplication. He took a few steps back from his creation, wiped his forehead with his beret and glowed with satisfaction.
“¿Para qué tanto trabajo?” Carmen asked in Spanish, and then in English “Why all the work? Ask him!”
I laughed a little and kicked at the ground like a schoolboy.
“Go ahead. Ask him,” she said, nudging me forward.
“Just seems like a waste, that’s all.”
She gave me a mischievous look, and then hollered for the man to come over.
The old man shrugged his shoulders when she finished asking him my question, and his brown eyes studied me for a second: “¿Americano?”
I nodded, a little embarrassed that my answer said so much to him.
“Es como la vida. Just like the life. All this labor, no, and then poof,” he snapped his fingers and waved them in the air over his head.
The man went back to work and never even looked over at us again. He seemed completely absorbed in every imaginable shape and shading of his creation.
“You see how deeply it matters to him that he gets it right.” The man rounded the edges of one of the girl’s earrings, making sure that it looked more like an oval than a rectangle.
“And look at his girl: you see the lines of her face. You see the look in her eyes and the curve of her lips. There’s your history; not kings, queens, and battles.”
That stung a little. My face twitched as I thought, not only of Raquel, but also of all my classes and lectures over the years. None of them really had a heartbeat. They were smoke rings in the air.
“Think of it like one of the bullfights your Hemingway wrote so much about,” she said.
“There are also three stages to the hogueras, and each one has its moment of elegance: the artist placing the finishing touches on his creation, the sculpture glimmering in the twilight, and the fire, like a clean kill in the tercio de muerte.” She pretended to stab me with an invisible sword, and I could have melted right then and there. She was so beautiful, so intense, so eager for a grown man to learn.
On the night before the burning, Carmen offered to take me to a harbor restaurant, while the students went off for a night without their teachers. I wanted to take a taxi, but Carmen insisted on walking.
“You do not even know how to connect the barrios,” she said.
“I do too,” I said, but she ignored me.
“It’s too easy to come here and blow past everything on the main roads. Besides, most of the walk is on the paseo.”
We left the hotel and started walking towards the sea. There was a big intersection, then a narrow street that snaked all the way down to an enormous walkway, which separated restaurants, bars, and apartments from the beach. There were statues and palm trees here and there along the paseo, and most of the restaurants and bars had tables and chairs outside on the edge farthest from the beach. The whole place tingled with life: old women walking together with their husbands trailing behind, young kids goofing around on skateboards and rollerblades, blankets spread out with things for sale—watches, toys, cigars, and scarves. Musicians playing guitars, accordions, and even violins.
We strolled slowly along the paseo, people watching and savoring the parade of life all around us. It was like we had been doing this our whole lives. Everything felt vaguely familiar, but I was so wrapped up in the bustle of life that I almost walked right past it.
I stopped and turned to look at the cream-colored apartment building. “That’s it,” I said, “La Gaviota.”
She looked up at it, but didn’t say anything.
“I stayed there when I was a student.”
“I should have guessed,” she said. “Now it makes sense. You had that look about you.”
Carmen smirked and tilted her head, then asked, “What’s her name?”
“Raquel,” I said, feeling ridiculous. I tried to change the subject. “I didn’t know it was so close. All this time, it was right here. There’s my room,” I said, pointing at the big window overlooking half the balcony.
I kept my gaze on the balcony for a moment longer, and then I turned and saw the seagull playground on the edge of the beach. It was exactly the same as when I had been here.
“You want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s so stupid.” I walked over to the playground and sat down on the bench in front of it. There were older kids playing on the slides, bridges, and climbing walls, while younger kids rocked back and forth on the large, plastic seagulls. The swings were empty, just hanging there, barely even moving in the breeze.
“I’m sorry, Sergio,” she said, sitting next to me. She reached over and touched my arm, her fingers graceful and reassuring.
“That’s where we were,” I said looking at the swings, “right there.”
I managed a little smile and told her all about Raquel. There was nothing special about my story, except that it was mine. I kept tacking back and forth, like the whole world depended on me getting it right. It gushed out in bits and pieces, as the baby-blue evening sky morphed into darker hues, before finally settling on the navy blue of a Mediterranean summer night.
The paseo and the playground hummed along as always. People made their way up the wooden walkways from a nighttime stroll on the beach, cleaned their feet, put on their sandals, and walked on their way. Others were dressed for dinner. Kids of all sizes kept to their games—running, shouting, climbing, and laughing, walking as fast as possible across the rope bridge before sliding down to start it all over again. Before long a boy and girl sat down on the swings and started tuning their guitars. They twisted around, looking at each other, playing a chord, chatting a little, then playing some more. They had their whole lives ahead of them.
The lamps along the walkway flickered and glowed a hazy yellow, so Carmen and I stood up and made our way to the harbor. She asked a few questions along the way, not prying, but just showing that she understood.
Eventually, the paseo came to an end, and we cut across a parking lot and passed through a maze of fishnets drying on the dock. I smelled the fried fish before I even saw the restaurant. I shook my head, thinking this was the true Alicante, the one I never knew in my college days. No tourist spot, no English menus, just a chalkboard on a wall announcing the fish and seafood that would be served today. There were some tables inside, but everyone sat outside on red plastic ones that advertised Amstel beer. We ordered a semi-sweet white wine, Marina Alta, and a mix of plates, ranging from gambas to sepia. Everything tasted real, smelled real, none of the plastic seafood that I had grown up eating when we vacationed in Galveston. My fingers actually smelled when I peeled the shrimp; I looked at them and glowed like a boy roasting his first marshmallow.
We swapped a few more stories about our experiences in Spain or in Texas, before I finally asked her about her interest in Goya.
“Must go back to my childhood. Like everything, no,” she said, then paused to finish her glass of wine. “When I was sixteen my home here in Alicante caught fire. I was in our television room in the basement, barely even conscious, when my uncle arrived and carried me out. I remember bobbing up and down in his arms. It felt so safe, so secure, like nothing bad could ever happen to me. When we got to the kitchen, he tucked me in closer to his body and ran through the flames. I still have a scar just below my knee from where the fire licked me as we made our way to the front door,” she said, putting her foot up on my chair with the grace of a ballerina to show me the mark.
“Lucky,” I said.
“Yeah, but he wasn’t so lucky,” she said. “His lungs were weak and the smoke . . . well, the smoke just . . .” She stroked her scar up and down with her fingers and then circled it a few times before resting her hand on it. “He lived for a few days, hooked up to machines in a hospital, but never woke up. I miss what we had.”
She had phrased it so beautifully in her Goya lecture—“We’re all just savages drawn back to the fire.” What could I say to that? Nothing. So I bent down and kissed the fingers that she left over her scar. She looked at me, her brown eyes and my green eyes hovered for a still moment, and then she smiled, a pained, tenacious smile. She moved her hand up and ran it through her hair, laughing a little and leaving her leg there on my chair. I leaned over and rubbed my nose around and over her scar. Then she lifted up my head, dropped her knee, and gave me a tentative kiss. It felt so good that we kissed again, with a little more conviction, and then a third time, just to be sure. Next thing I knew, we were kissing like teenagers, and the world was made up of the splash of waves against the dock, the taste of white wine, the smell of fried seafood, and the mysterious touch of lips on an Alicante night.
I could tell by the way the students looked at us the next day that we had been the subject of their gossip. None of it mean-spirited, mind you. Just the amused discovery that their teachers still have a pulse. After making a last tour of the hogueras, the students chose to watch the burning from a high-rise bar called Panorama, which Carmen had recommended, while we went to meet some of her friends down at the beach. We paused on the way to watch some of Spain’s most famous figures burn to ground. There was something refreshing about the fatality of art that was not meant to last, but it still pained me to see the peasant girl perish. The world would be a little emptier without her.
The beach of daytime towels and lounge chairs had been transformed into a maze of bonfires big and small. It was radiant and humming with life. Groups of people glowed around the fires: eating, drinking, talking, laughing, and singing. Uneven circles of friends and family huddled around makeshift fires all the way from the shoreline to the paseo, and from one end of the beach to the other.
“God, it’s beautiful,” she said.
“We’ll never find them,” I said, looking out at all the people. “They could be anywhere.”
“He said to call when we got to the playground.”
My eyes must have betrayed me, so she quickly added, “Not that one. The one shaped like a pirate ship. There’s more than one swing set in the world, you know.” Her lips formed into a little half smile, and she bumped me with her hip.
“Hey, that hurt.” I said.
“Ah, my tough little Tejano,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows at her words, but she was already looking down at her phone. She was about to dial the number, when Raul, her friend, waved both his hands over his head. She was so happy to see him that I felt a little jealous. They ran to each other like long-parted lovers and hugged for an eternity, rocking from side to side, while I looked on awkwardly.
Raul noticed me, and said “This must be Sergio.” We shook hands and made our way over to the group.
Introductions were made all around and I kissed a dozen cheeks without remembering anyone’s name. They all switched to English for me, and we did the whole “what do you think about Spain thing” for a few minutes.
One of Raul’s friends, Mikel, I think, handed me a wine skin, and nodded for me to take a sip. I lifted the bag away from my face and squirted the red wine into my mouth. I was doing all right, until I flicked the bag up to stop the flow, sending a splash of wine down my shirt. Everyone laughed like they were expecting this, and Mikel slapped me on the back.
“Like this,” he said, and flawlessly executed the procedure. “It takes practice. You’ll be a pro by the end of the night.”
We sat around the fire eating Spanish omelet, chorizo, cheese, and bread.
Raul started tuning his guitar, and Carmen said, “Oh no. We’re in for it now.” Raul smiled at her and asked if I played an instrument. I shook my head no, and he asked if I knew the Spanish boleros.
“Raul! Not those old, whinny songs,” someone said.
“Oh, my heart is so broken,” someone else said.
“The bolero,” Raul said with pride “is like the blues.”
“The only thing it has in common with the blues is the letter b,” a dark haired woman said.
“Not true, not true. The summer solstice has always been the night for love.”
“No, seriously. There is proof in the number of engagements, even the birth rate nine months later. This goes back to our ancestors, back to pagans even.”
He sang, and reluctantly, then enthusiastically the others joined in around the campfire. Carmen sang, while I hummed along, following only snatches of the song, but eventually picking up a chorus or two.
After a half dozen songs of unrequited loves and puzzling betrayals someone shouted that it was midnight. Everyone seemed to know what this meant, and started to make their way down the ocean to put their feet in the water. Then they lined up and took turns jumping over the fire.
“You’re supposed to make a wish and then jump the fire,” Carmen told me. Her face was tense, her hands gripped the sides of her blanket, and the light had gone out of her eyes.
“You go ahead, Sergio,” she said. “I don’t care to jump.”
“Oh come on. We’ll jump it together,” I said. She blushed, while the ones who had already jumped laughed and egged her on.
“What?” I asked. “What did I say?”
Raul handed me the wine skin. ‘You’ll need this, amigo.” I took a drink and for once the red wine did not drip down my shirt. I felt triumphant. “I did it,” I screamed. Raul patted me on the back and Carmen gave me an amused look. I kneeled down in front of her and kissed her forehead. She released the blanket, muffed my hair with her hands and smiled.
“Jumping together . . .” she said, searching for words. “In the old days, way back when, that was the couple’s way of telling the world. It was a sort of announcement.”
“Oh—” I said.
“That’s putting mildly,” Raul said. “But anyway. It is just old story nonsense, superstition. You watch me jump again and then do the same.”
Sure enough, he trotted up to the flames and jumped right over, landing on both feet without so much as a stumble or a groan. Impressive, I thought.
“I haven’t jumped since I was a girl,” Carmen said.
It took me a second to understand. The wine was making me sluggish.
“You mean, since your uncle?”
She nodded, while rubbing her hands up and down her legs. She shivered a little, and then looked over at me.
Everyone’s eyes were on us now and a thick hush fell over our little circle. The waves still ebbed and flowed, other voices from other fires still sounded, but those circles and that ocean were another world. Carmen and I studied each other, brown eyes-green eyes wondering what exactly was being decided here. She sighed, shook her head, bit her lip, but then her face softened.
She let me help her to her feet, gathering up her flowing orange skirt in one hand and holding onto mine with the other. With our fingers wrapped together, we sized up the flames. It was really just a tiny fire. No reason to be afraid. She gave me a sudden, firm kiss on the lips, we touched foreheads, and then we turned our gaze to the challenge before us. We took off running, stumbling a little in the soft sand. We righted ourselves, laughing; then we took three more steps and leapt into the air, easily clearing the flames, and came tumbling down on the other side.