She was a bohemian girl with lots of life to live fast. Only in her early twenties but making up for time lost to who knows what. To books or the slow Cheshire-cat vanishing act effected by her best friend, a dreamy childhood with the wrong doors unlocked like her outsize painting ambition or the inability to trust those she knew, apart from her great-uncle of the round head and romantic aspiration who died but first told her in his French accent that he wanted to leave her a little money saved up from teaching so that when she found herself in the funeral-home room alone with his ethylated body he appeared to wink and say, go ahead now, enjoy yourself the way I always meant to. Her uncle who read books in many languages and taught English to foreign girl students from Asia while never forgoing his strong Sex Appeal cologne because how could he keep himself from falling in love with students to the point that the cashier at the local cinema knew him by the jokey line he used whenever he took a new one out: But are there greater discounts for the sexy senior citizens? He had gotten poorly embroiled with the last Korean student, one who would not so much as kiss him if he did not marry her, saying: The cow won’t give milk unless you feed it, this girl his greatest disappointment since only death separated him from the love he thought might one day still be his, the love first whispered by French poetry and later mouthed by smoke rings in American kisser films he’d managed to see back when some still called Zimbabwe the Belgian Congo. His real dream was to have become a painter in Tahiti. And so with her uncle’s sum of unused pleasure she planned to go to Europe because she too had read a book about an enchantress in Spain and a book about traveling boys and hijinks that made escaping the slate gray a correct course of action. And then everyone had told her stories about the Alhambra in Granada, saying so determinedly it really was the place she had to visit, a near peak of European civilization given that it was the last time so many ideologies about love and faith interpenetrated, such possibility flourishing in that moment if you could only travel back and alter later history in which all streams continued in their straitened way. But you must go to Granada, they chimed, while she kept opening her Spain guidebook to the quotation from the medieval king who said there is no pain worse than being blind in Granada and so it was confirmed, the message, especially as both her parents had started dwindling at the peripheries, a death moving toward the core: Clearly there was no pain worse than living life too slowly.
Once there, she bought a small guitar from a courtly guitar maker who asked if she would like to come by some night despite his wife and colicky grandson, while also failing to know where someone could take guitar lessons authentic to Andalucía. Leaving the guitar maker’s small, cramped studio, carrying the guitar, she recalled a story she had read as a child about a happy pig named Pearl who found a magic bone, and was going to stop to get coffee on her way back to a hostel populated by Viking descendants but instead a gypsy intercepted her with his El Greco face, all massive, drooping eyes and aquiline nose as he unhanded her of the new guitar and started singing right there to her in the Plaza Mayor where she knew she had landed in the center of the thing she had envisioned but had not named.
You have killed me with your walk, he sang, strumming her guitar, stretching it out—camino-o-o-o, making his chin wobble with each O. Behind each wobble lined up a gaggle of ancestors with the question of whether he could live up to them. He did his best. After his song was done he asked her with some seriousness to come live with him in the small cave up above where tourists walk, white dwelling caves honeycombed into the hills facing the Alhambra which perhaps a king had made as a testament of love to his wife, a story that endured in a way that made her question if she would ever really know what it meant to fall in love despite her schooling in all the songs, because what had she ever known? Granada was either stripping her bare or layering on a new scrim since she was feeling more or at least feeling someone else’s more. In most ways she was bad as the gypsy singing premature songs of love her way, the blinds of not truly seeing him, and it was not only risky but imaginary to throw yourself so in the thrall of someone else when anyway wasn’t it always chemical? She had been curious about people throwing their hats down before her but didn’t know if she had ever really thrown her hat down to someone or just to the sheer joy of their throwing their hats down. Was she to be so deprived of experience? Love, to love, to fall in love. She had climbed mountains but never fallen. Others had been obsessed, sometimes with her, and was she only to know escape and absconding? Yet what was the strange thrill of the gypsy singing to her? It had to do with all stories conjoining in a spot just above her navel as if she were not on the road seeking but at both source and end, inside a kaleidoscope. This itself is a story about the problem with the picturesque and how it links with the picaresque and how certain girls are prone to confusing the two, going out to wander the landscape with something like one of Claude Lorrain’s mirrors turned backward at the landscape. If something seems correct enough in its set details they forgive enough to think here lies fulfillment until fulfillment itself gives them the lie.
At night the gypsy and she did the deed, only one of them blushing in the dark on the floor in the gypsy cave though somewhere she was also numb because she didn’t stop to ask what, for all that singing about her eyes and voice, her smile and a chance at amor, amor, what about him was fulfillment? She had chosen this, it was no rape, he was dead center with her but was there any vastness other than mammal embrace or the satisfaction of being in a cave with an avatar of Granada reaming her out of thinking? There was a mystery they tried to extract out of the other, one she would never solve, his animal breath in her ear, her face on the stone floor, the two of them more ancient because of the Alhambra beyond the window, timeless. Happy to swallow him in, this smooth genie, imagining him her conqueror while at the same time being the filmgoer curious about what the next scene in the movie will bring. She almost knew enough to name it but still woke the next morning inquisitive about life, her cheery guitar next to her in its opened blue plush case, one she loved as it also seemed to promise an interesting future. The gypsy took her to a special tetería where they sat on beaded pillows and he drank Moroccan tea broken only by song when he needed to illustrate a point about love, attachment, loss. What did they talk about? Guitars, his family, I love you so, singing like an animal in full display, throat full, eyes flashing. Midday they went to see his stern aunt rehearsing and there encountered the source of the wobble, the severe mannerism demonstrated by his own romantic uncle. To sing gypsy guitar, you had to hurt and when you hurt most you were to open your mouth wide and let out the longing she had read about, duende another flame over centuries. How good to hurt and know loss, to feel passion-ion-ion, tremble, vibrato, melisma, words that appeared in the girl’s head like keepsakes from another realm. There she was deep in the cave with the gypsy family, a dusty moment out of time only she got to applaud since no one had any idea where she was. While no one in the gypsy caves seemed surprised to see her and such lack of surprise almost traveled far enough to create belonging. She had come along, toting her guitar as both a coin of the realm and earnest passport, something they had never seen held by a tourist. The aunt happened to be a beautiful narrow stern bird skilled in fortunetelling. She put her hands on the girl’s rib cage and waist to calibrate the instrument: You would be good, she determined. At first the girl thought good at baby production but the aunt knew the question had arisen and spoke over her shoulder. A good dancer, she said dismissively, meaning the girl lagged only a few centuries behind. Was this then the story the girl was in, in which she would learn to be a flamenquera from this stern woman who brooked no fools? Good at dancing and fallen in love? Late afternoon the gypsy brought her to the small blue-painted subterranean room, blue to keep away the evil eye, in which perhaps his mother lived with his older sister and a bunch of children with parentage impossible to align and the gypsy’s mother grew keen on telling her all the grimy details of one granddaughter’s illness with such compelling force that her eyes barred all new stories. Within such chaos she was capable of fixing on the one tale with its point shriveling away, one the girl felt she almost reached but did not. No es comprensible, she wanted to say, instead saying, yes, claro, I understand. Afterward, along the road back to the gypsy’s little cave, he beckoned her to stop at a small counter of a restaurant where they shared a cheese sandwich as if already a couple with life behind and ahead, having shared and continuing to share. He would wear his wifebeater T-shirt, his skin glossy under her fingertips. Later with her useful waist she would dance for his aunt but really for him and on her epitaph you could read about acceptance, belonging, having traveled far from your original ideas. When it came time to pay for the meal, she told the counterboy, another cousin of the gypsy, that it was her gift. As if on cue the gypsy unrolled a song about how he could never thank her for the brightness of her eyes, a song perhaps made up on the spot despite the legacy of the chin wobble. In the full of afternoon they went back to his cave in theory to put her guitar down but more to lie once more on the floor of the cave and spill acrid red wine from a leather bota into their mouths before entangling, rectangles of sun stretched long over skin, his chest almost a smooth boy’s though light caught the end of each hair, her foreigner’s hand rippling over the brilliance. You will learn guitar well, he said, laughing. Did a bubble of a question start in her throat then? When they were done, she emerged into an unusual hour, everything lit from within, little fairy lights popping on, strung up outside the white-plastered cave doors facing the Alhambra, the palace tucked into its hillside just as they were tucked into theirs, with everyone along the gypsies’ winding cobblestoned road up the mountain knowing flamenco was good business. Produce romance for people and they get happy, said her gypsy, plus they pay more. Every little cave they passed had candlelit tables for two. Candles are important! he started to sing, hand on the back of her neck where only an hour earlier he had been holding her down. Now she knew he was making everything up in the received mode, his family singing him as it had sung for generations while she felt so moorless. As the sun sank behind the Alhambra, the tourists started to rise in an obedient swell, twos, fours, family units up into the arc of romance, craning their necks, and through their eyes she saw the charm of the day lit up almost too garishly, the glowing white of the caves and she in it with them, able to see what the tourists saw as much as what the gypsies did, the double frame giving her courage less about some story and more about this life of hers at this center, not skulking to the fringe of things, this knowledge being what she might claim. All this had happened in little more than a day. Her insides sore but in a good way, the tiredness under her eyes carrying everyone else’s reportage but she no longer had to tote around the contours of herself. The gift the gypsy had given her was dissolving a bit and she wished to help the cause of dissolution by welcoming the craning tourists into the aunt’s cave while standing aside so as not to take a seat from paying customers while the stern bird began her dance, heels tatting the pulse while the tragic face twisted to tell of horror, loss, and union so doomed you too lived at the molten core. The gypsy played with his uncle and because this time the uncle gave his all, the gypsy did too, fusing in music so that the tourists shivered in the cave because they too lived at the heart of experience, Spain, the Roma. After, she helped fold seats and then went back to a different uncle of the gypsy’s and until late, for free, for no other outsider but her, bands of gypsies drank and sang, making ribald, inclusive comments that named her almost an honorary man due to foreigner status, one of few women in that room, so many rough hands placed over hers to teach her guitar, because she was the ilk of girl who was going to learn flamenco guitar. The next morning by some arrangement she did not quite understand they went to some other uncle’s cave, bigger and better whitewashed, where the uncle told her he was the last of a rare kind of fortuneteller while her gypsy stood by. The uncle explained that he needed to look right below her breasts to determine her fortune and because she was so very much mid-experience she lay on the table, shirt off, letting the uncle tell her fortune from small invisible marks he could ascertain only if he got close enough to either kiss or scrutinize her skin, all while her gypsy stood looking out the door with his face telegraphing an important errand he had almost forgotten and in this the question in her throat grew, she wanted to ask something but had no clue how to form it.
Once the fortunetelling session was over, they stopped by his mother’s, who reminded her of the sick granddaughter and how the illness progressed after which her gypsy suggested they go get coffee in the square where she ran into a friend from school named Lincoln and his new French girlfriend, Nathalie. Because they invited her with them to the beach somewhere for a day or two, she made apologies to her gypsy because she needed to think and gathered her backpack from the hostel’s locker since despite his singing entreaties she had not fully decided to go on living with him. And so she went with Lincoln and Nathalie to stay in their tent on a beach and at night shifted her attention from the massive caterpillar heave of their sleeping bag or how unequal the two of them were, Lincoln less besotted with Nathalie than she herself was when surely Nathalie deserved better. Why had they asked her along after all? The triangle confused since by day she loved Nathalie’s broad-cheeked wistful charm, so bruised and Gallic, all of them rumpled and the two girls buying eternal friendship bracelets from someone on the beach but after a couple of days of sandy headstands, fish dinners, and talks containing the magic of the future in which they would never again meet, she said goodbye and headed back, feeling herself wise and weary on the train to Granada. In the main café in town she ran into her gypsy, handsome and magically wearing a green bright buttondown shirt she thought she had lost in her hostel. Maybe she had left it at the cave? All he kept saying with a kind of force was: Did you not bring me anything from your trip? How could you not bring me anything? Gone were the songs and the wobble. In that second she may have understood him saying that her main failure was that she had not yet given his mother money for the sick grandkid. Understanding that for him she may have been something just a bit more or less than a walking dollar sign. Whatever he had professed before, during, or after lay intimately close to a performance of feeling. I cannot let you go-o-o. She had windmilled into his story in which feeling was king. Would it matter that she had been set in his midst? After her, would there not be other travelers, toting their guitars, waists, hunger? After he left, she stayed in the café, mournful. A drummer she had seen in a circle, a drummer from Sierra Leone named Prince, came up to ask why so sad? And she told him and watched his moonlit drum circle that night before going to stay on his floor where she pretended to sleep when he began to touch her bent elbow after which she became the one living with him, eating peanut sauce with rice, the hands of all his friends also dipping into the one bowl. The drummer played bass guitar, a simple unskilled stuttered reggae one-two, but really loved drumming more and said he wanted to marry her which seemed a plausible version until the day she took him to the doctor for his cough and there in the waiting room he told her that he always thought the children of a blonde woman and a black man were the most beautiful so that she saw he lived in a saga with little to do with her and so returned to Connecticut where at the post office she kept getting letters saying I want to come, I really want to marry you but did not keep up correspondence because too easily she recognized the particular American fairy tale the drummer wanted to live. And when years later her children called to her from downstairs, in another story she probably failed to recognize, a heated moment of dissatisfaction, she came across these yearning letters nestled into the blue plush case with the guitar long since broken, the blue still so untouched and bright, something you might pet to see the fur angle to catch the light, and considered what yarn she might be able to spin for those children about the great and almighty Alhambra or the song of the gypsies but then realized, too, she had never once seen the Alhambra from the inside and anyway would whatever tale she might be able to summon ever count as anyone’s idea of a gift?