The driver hits a pothole; something clanks. Blades of streetlight slip into the van, like swords thrust into a magician’s box—but the trick’s gone wrong. The driver doesn’t know I’m here. I want to shout, bang on the floor, but I’m too weak; getting weaker fast.
Hours ago, on the Puerta del Sol, I was considering dinner, guidebook in hand, when a woman with a wild frizz of hair made a conjuror’s flourish—and set a basket full of scarves aflame. The fabric shriveled quickly, giving off ugly smoke. An enraged vendor chased her through the crowd, and I heard, behind me, a stranger call my name.
A woman, smiling slightly, all in blue. Hair cut quite short. Hadn’t we met on the bus to Matadero Madrid? No, the museum: in front of that big Velázquez of women weaving.
She’d just eaten an apple, and still tasted of it when we kissed: fresh and crisp, with a slight flavor of salt. (Jalilla? Was that her name?) We walked on, talking; paused near a high black gate, its padlock carelessly painted red, and kissed again, more slowly. I liked her smell, the feel of her short, soft hair, the crepe of her shirt. The buckle of her belt pressed into my stomach, printing unseen designs into my skin.
Should we stop for a bite? A plate of custard and pork? Some hot polenta?
We wandered, paused, wandered some more. All around us, strangers went their ways.
“I’m really up for anything,” she said.
The night romance of the city made little differences sparkle. I kept encountering things I didn’t quite know how to see: suet studded with cloves? A row of shuttered windows painted crimson. A toy store lit only with candles, crowded with grown-ups moving and talking among dolls and dinosaurs, stickers and blocks, potholder looms and simplified puzzle maps. I thought I saw reflected water flickering: the bay so close you hear it slap the boat ramp. For a moment I stood near dripping stacks of traps, an overlooked crab still struggling in one.
Shivering, cold, I lie where they dumped me, in the back of a service van. Lights slide along the roof and down the walls, flare and go dim.