“So you’re gonna go to the game with your dad,” I said. “That’s perfect.”
“I know – it’s gonna be awesome.”
“In the meantime, I’ll take the ladies to La Latina. You want to meet back at the hotel at what time?”
“Probably around midnight. Oh, by the way, I told my parents you’re thirty.”
“You – you what?” I stammered, stopping in my tracks. “Baby, you’re amazing.”
He shrugged. “That’s how old I thought you were. I didn’t know you were 37 until we booked our trip to Granada, when I saw your passport.”
Gradually, we resumed walking. I said, “You mean – we were dating for a month before you found out how old I really am?”
“You don’t look it, so what’s the difference?” he said.
I didn’t know which I liked better: the fact that he’d never thought it important enough to ask my age (unlike Spanish men who tended to ask as the second question after “What’s your name?”), or the fact that once he’d found out, he didn’t think it was important enough to mention.
I thought we’d covered everything during the series of interviews I gave him during our initial dates: “You know I’m a lot older than you, right?” He’d answered, “I’m OK with that.” We’d never actually talked numbers.
In the abstract, of course, age doesn’t matter. Just like race and nationality don’t matter. Just like everyone should follow their dreams.
Right. So Taj told his parents I was thirty, because in the abstract everyone is equal and should do whatever they want, but when those principals become applied to real situations, people may react in ways that are not convenient for everyone involved.
Hey, it’s tough enough meeting your boyfriend’s family for the first time.
Taj’s dad met us in the lobby. I was pretty nervous, but his huge smile and infinitely relaxed appearance put me at ease instantly.
I thought his demeanor pretty impressive, after enduring an overseas flight and less-than-ideal arrival. Taj had already told me that when he was taking his family on the metro, from the airport to their hotel, a crazy street person had threatened to attack his mom. Taj had to literally hold off the crazy woman.
“I did this to her,” Taj explained to me earlier that day. He put a strong forearm across my collarbones in demonstration, but I imagined this could be very effective if he’d used his arm to hold her back strongly. “I don’t hit women,” he explained, “but she was messing with my mom, and I really wanted to knock this bitch out.”
Fortunately at that point the train had stopped where Taj and his family were getting off to transfer. They were already going down the escalator, leaving behind the crazy woman. Apparently she had begun to shout for the police herself, presumably because Taj was trying to protect his family, so then some officers came and took care of the situation.
I found myself feeling very sad about this very unusual Spanish reception; I had not seen, experienced, or even heard about any kind of violence in the city. Okay, there were reports of things going on in certain shady places, but this was the metro in the middle of the city.
Taj’s family, though, seemed to have recovered without incident.
His mom immediately struck me as every bit the southern belle, slender and beautiful. “Hi Liz! It’s so nice to meet you!” she said, shaking my hand. She had a lovely music to her voice.
The hotel room was large, painted dark gray with black and stainless steel accents, and looked onto Gran Via from a height of three stories. A wall-mounted flat screen babbled cartoons in German over Spanish subtitles.
The younger girl, Brianna, needed an iron for her dress, so I offered to go downstairs to ask for una plancha. When I returned with it, Taj and his dad had to get going, to not be late for the futbol game.
While Brianna ironed her dress, Katelyn was ironing her hair with the straightener. This bewildered me, as her Katelyn’s voluminous coal-black mane was straight before she began applying heat to it. When she finished, Brianna took over the same spot beside the main bed (the girls had bunk beds along the wall) and began painstakingly to press her own long brown hair, despite the similar apparent lack of any previous curl or frizz.
After salads and wine at Artebar, we wandered the cobblestone streets. I concentrated hard on keeping my sense of direction through the spiraling, uphill paths and plazas strewn with outdoor tables. Finally we settled on a bar whose huge projection screen was visible from the outside. We thought it would be fun to watch the Real Madrid/ Barcelona game that Taj and his dad were seeing live at that very moment.
“Eight months or so.”
“And you’re teaching English too, right?” Meaning, like her brother.
“Yup.” I knew she’d probably ask me why I’d come to Madrid and I wanted to head that off, because it’s easier for me to tell a half-truth when I volunteer it, than when I’m asked a question. “I was living in Boston and I had to get out of there.”
“What were you doing in Boston?”
“Teaching people to dance.”
“Oh, that’s cool. How old are you?”
Crap. “Thirty.” Change topics quick. “And you – you’re in school, right?”
“Yeah, hotel management.”
“Taj said you’ve been kicking ass on your exams. That’s awesome.”
“Yeah. I’ll be done in June.”
“Hey, it’s two to one. Barcelona is winning,” Brianna broke in. We all looked toward the screen.
“Really? Bastards,” I cried.
“How much of the game is left?” asked their mom.
“Looks like it’s almost half time,” I said.
“You know Taj played soccer for a long time,” said Katelyn.
“Yeah. He told me.”
“From when he was, like, five, till he was seventeen. He was good. I mean, he was really good.”
We were standing relatively close together in the crowded bar. Her eyes didn’t leave my face. I suddenly realized it was somehow very important that I understand her message.
“People would go to the games just to see him. He was the best. And he was so funny too.”
I looked at her expectantly.
“When the other team had a penalty kick, everyone else would stand with their hands on their head. But he would stand there like this.” She put one hand to her forehead and the other fist in front of her crotch, as though to protect it, while downcasting her eyes in an impervious expression. Her already-familiar features, now arranged to imitate the brother she had known all her life, startled me with the resemblance.
Real Madrid wound up winning, in a close and exciting game.
The bar crowd erupted in a whooping, jostling and dancing mass. Someone had turned up the techno music. A short, black-haired and stubbly Spaniard – shorter than all of us women – began to happily and drunklenly careen in our general direction.
I turned Taj’s mom and sisters. “There’s a great place I wanted to show you. Are you ready?”
Although it was about 11:30 on a Saturday night, El Mercado de San Miguel was still open. It’s a long building made completely of glass, with fruit stands and wine bars and juice bars scattered throughout. You can walk down the central aisle past tapas counters, little fish markets, baked goods stands, chocolate, nuts, flowers, you name it. In the center of the hall are a group of those high tables without chairs, where Spaniards stand and eat and drink and yell and laugh and curse.
Brianna and Katelyn loved the chocolate counter. It was getting close to Easter so the candy person was selling plenty of dark chocolate eggs and bunnies decorated with yellow and purple icing. There were also some actual eggs in cups of chocolate, sitting inside a refrigerated case.
“Euw,” said Brianna. “Are those real eggs?”
“Looks that way,” I said.
“That’s disgusting,” said Katelyn.
“Yeah. I really have no idea why somebody would do that,” I said.
As we were walking toward Opera metro – to which we were now closer than the La Latina stop – my phone rang. It was 12:15 already. “We’re on our way,” I told Taj, “and we’re bringing snacks.”
“We were like four rows back from the field,” he said when we’d returned to the hotel.
“It was awesome,” his dad agreed.
I looked at their shining faces. They hadn’t seen each other in over a year. I was glad Real Madrid had had the courtesy to win the game.
“Well,” said Taj’s dad, looking at his son, then across to his daughters, then me. “We’re gonna be turning in. You kids have fun.”
“Yeah, I’m pooped!” said Taj’s mom.
“You guys have had quite a day,” I said.
“Let’s go,” Taj said to me and his sisters.
“Wait!” cried Brianna.
“What?” said Taj.
“I have to re-straighten my hair,” she said, plugging in the flat-iron and then looking at Taj.
I failed to suppress a laugh of surprise.
“I do too,” Katelyn warned.
“Well hurry up,” Taj shouted, as one can only shout at siblings.