2017-04-19 07:45:02
Love Issue: In Spain, Secrets and a Possible Betrayal

For our first-ever Love issue, we asked four authors to recount times when love and travel intersected in their lives. Here, Alexander Chee writes about a possible betrayal in Spain (below). Jami Attenberg recalls how a friendship deepened in Sicily. Sarah Hepola remembers a road trip — and an uncertain future — in Mexico. And Sloane Crosley looks back at a relationship that took three trips to kill.

We also have six writers recounting transformative moments that happened while traveling; a roundup of new hotels and resorts for all kinds of relationships, and a collection of readers’ stories of loves found and lost on the road.

It was summer 2005, and I was in Spain, and I told myself I was in love.

M., as we may as well call him, my boyfriend at the time, was taking classes in an immersion school there. He had been hired by a private college in New York to teach French, and then, after he accepted the job, was asked if he could also teach Spanish. He said yes and began looking for immersion programs.

This was his first job after finishing his Ph.D. in comparative literature — he was a scholar in medieval French literature, with a specialty in sodomy — specifically, the history of the idea of pleasure during sex. It was something he always had the presence of mind to joke about — part of what I liked about him. He chose Granada because it has many excellent immersion schools (for reasons I’ve never understood) and because he had always wanted to go to the city of the poet Federico García Lorca.

M. loved poets, wrote poetry, sometimes wrote me poems, and his favorite poets all seemed to have met violent or tragic deaths, including Lorca. The day we visited Lorca’s house in Granada, we found the whole of it kept much as it was when he was there. I noticed the roses in the vases were almost gone, ready to be replaced, while roses bloomed outside. I imagined the poet had planted them, or at least tended them, but I didn’t want to ask in case it wasn’t true. I can still see the shrug as the tour guide said, “Yes, he was the son of a wealthy man,” a detail I wrote down in my notebook, along with how we all then looked at the beautiful wooden desk that seemed like a boat. I didn’t know why the guide said that and still don’t. Just as I don’t know why a book of his poems on the desk that day was open to “Poet in New York” — his other city.

Lorca’s murder had made him Granada’s presiding ghost. If his body had vanished at the hands of fascist murderers, he was everywhere there now, his face and words on mugs, T-shirts, restaurant menus and graffiti nearly anywhere you looked.

Unlike M., I already spoke Spanish. I needed to go to Paris and London to research my second novel, so we planned a summer trip across Europe to combine our aims, beginning with me in London and Paris, where he would join me, then Granada, beginning in July and concluding in late August.

We were still getting to know each other then, boyfriends in a literary mode. Our love was just seven months old, and built out of romantic email after romantic email, romantic trip after romantic trip, until here we were. I was increasingly aware, though, that just a month before, I had been buying phone cards in Paris to call him from the glass phone booths still everywhere then, and the urgency to talk to him faltered now that we were together. And so I was at once happy, sure I was in the most fulfilling relationship of my life, and also sure that I didn’t know him well enough — that I was even making a mistake, the size of which was as yet uncertain because it was still happening.

The street to our apartment in Granada that summer ran roughly parallel to the Rio Darro, a trickle for many years now, really, and that summer, always full of stray cats and dogs and the occasional ducks, which during the worst of the sun hid in the shrubs — a bright seam of green foliage in the dusty city, hiding what water remained.

M. had chosen our apartment because it was opposite the Alhambra, the magnificent historic Moorish palace on the hill across from our neighborhood, the Albaicín. The Darro ran between us. Our roof patio was opposite a simple mirador with a fountain, where there always seemed to be people playing guitar and smoking marijuana, with whom we exchanged waves. The apartment was simple and clean, its magnificence concentrated in the patio view of the palace and the city. Each room was on a different floor off a spiral staircase, the apartment as winding as the hill it was on. We left and returned by climbing a series of winding footpaths and side streets, and if I was confused, at night, I was always able to follow the guitar music home.

I had never been to Spain. We had come by train, leaving for Madrid from Paris in a trenhotel, an antique overnight train, spending a night in Madrid before going to Granada on another train. I remember best the six hours of olive trees and little else, the landscape sere and sparse. I counted the people I saw in between: a gang of six men on horseback with guns, and, separately, a single man on a tractor.

We arrived and did our first shopping at Corté Inglès, pure tourists; after all of those olive trees, we bought a bottle of flor de aceite, a raw green cold-pressed Andalusian olive oil that impressed us as being as smoky as our favorite whiskies. We made a first dinner of bacalao sautéed in butter and leeks, with brown rice and lentils, and a salad of beautiful green tomatoes and manchego, dressed with the olive oil and some sea salt bought in Paris.

M.’s days at the school began early and were long, and left to my own devices, I would write for a few hours and then walk through the side streets, where I mapped the ancient cathedrals, most of which had been mosques before the expulsion of the Muslims, and then had the traditional breakfast of bread with tomate, a fresh tomato purée on toast, and olive oil. In Granada, there are usually two kinds of olive oil on the tables to put on, it seemed, anything you ate, but especially for this.

My Spanish was a Mexican Spanish learned during a summer immersion program 20 years earlier, and I knew Spaniards condescended to it. As I practiced speaking again, I listened for the differences and adapted accordingly. It was the first time in a long time that I had no direct obligations — I was there just for the fun of it. So I busied myself with finding the best of the cheap wines sold at the candy shops, seeing flamenco performances, eating churros late at night, ordering a salt-baked fish and watching as the waiter cracked it open and filleted it tableside. And I wandered the Alhambra in awe at the tile, the gardens, the lushness made possible by the ancient waterworks, left behind by the exiled Muslim engineers.

We became obsessed with a panadería that sold bread made with whole wheat grown locally, staffed by the most expressionless girl ever, a paragon of the Granadian phenomenon of mala folla, a famous expression of local exhausted disinterest that doesn’t even rise to the level of contempt, and which, once we learned about it, we looked for everywhere. I practiced asserting myself with the same flatness at an ancient taberna we favored, where, under the smoked ham hocks hanging over the bar in rows, the hooves facing the ceiling, I would order quickly, in my best casual quick Spanish. A moment’s hesitation and the bartender’s eyes would flick away to whoever was ready.

At first we imagined this practiced detachment was a legacy of Franco, and of socialism — a reluctance to participate in capitalism? But why was it Granadian exclusively? Why would their disappointment be greater than that of all of Spain? We never found the answer.

It is hard to think about him at this distance, easy to think about Spain.

I would be right about the mistake he was. What I would learn in the year we were together after this, but did not know then, was that there was someone M. was pretending to be with me — someone content to be monogamous.

For example, easily the biggest attraction besides the Alhambra in Granada is the hammam, the baths. M. went, but I never did, which seemed innocent to me until it did not. And there was the night he came home late from a gathering with friends from the program. He was drunk and fell asleep quickly. I found his clothes in another room — something he had never done before. It was as if he wanted to hide what had happened in them. But this didn’t matter enough yet, not enough to put a stop to it.

I liked M. I was having my first summer in Spain and he was good in bed, funny at dinner, smart about books. Enjoying that was not a mistake. Hiding himself from me was. When I eventually discovered the truth, I was more offended that he wouldn’t tell me. He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.

Some things I remember very clearly from that summer: learning to love the feel of cold red wine in my mouth on a hot day. The beautiful boy on the bus the whole way to the beach at Carboneras from Granada, burning the back of the rubber and vinyl seat with a lighter, but slowly, never enough to catch fire, who stopped only to take pictures of himself on his phone. The man putting saccharin in his fresh orange juice. And the streets paved with stones taken from the river, smooth and shining in the dark, like the backs of fish.

M. can keep his secrets, I told myself then. I have this. That was my bargain. I still think it is a good one.