It was the night of the potluck. I’d brought an onion, two bell peppers and an armful of street-vendor tomatoes for vegetarian fajitas, and you brought a maroon-stained hookah and a Cheshire grin. You lived near Atocha, the great intersection of this city. Your apartment loomed marble-columned and brass-gold railing with two entry doors with locks and a man sitting at the front desk. The rest of us lived in small, shoddy apartments that barely stretched five floors into the cloudless Spanish sky. We lived lives of creaky staircases and noisy neighbors; you were all elevators and soundproof walls.
This is not a love letter, but it could have been. I won’t lie and tell you that I never wrote a poem about you, I did, two in fact. They were bad, I think because I tried to write them in Spanish. You never fit.
You’re wearing bootleg jeans and a white t-shirt. I try not to stare at the v of flesh at your neck, try not to dizzy myself at the touch of your arm. I think about how my mouth wants to kiss your mouth. I think about you saying my name and how safe it feels slipping through your teeth. I like looking at your lips, how they form and run over my syllables.
If you hadn’t told me about your girlfriend I would have grabbed your elbow or spilt my drink on your shirt or laughed at your jokes and pressed my wrist to your chest. I would have pretended to pluck a loose string or feather from your hair, would have lingered at your ear and brushed back something of a stray-away.
Instead, I ask you if you wanted to chop the onion I’d bought at the convenience store around the corner. You ask me how you should cut it and I tell you that I don’t care. You ask me small dices or large chunks. I tell you to cut medium-sized half-moons. You laugh and ask me if I’m always thinking about images for poems. I tell you yes and expect you to understand, throwing a diced bell pepper and half a tomato into the pan.
Jessica brings in a bowl for sangria. You volunteer to run to the liquor store for five bottles of red wine.
Do you wanna come? you ask me.
Oh no I should probably stay here someone’s gotta stir this sauce and well you know pepper won’t grind itself!
You shrug and are out the door and the room feels vacant, like a pool drained of water — it is all space and memory.
You’re renting the apartment from a fashion designer who spends her weekdays in Paris. The living room is lined with mannequins and swatches of flimsy fabrics, sketches in colored pencils, thumb tacks strung together by strings. Someone asks if they can smoke inside and you shrug your shoulders and purse your lips. The someone doesn’t understand your mystery and puts the cigarette away. You wink at me and I accept the secret with a giggle and a scratch behind my left ear.
I move to stir the vegetables and salsa simmering in a pot on your stove. You come up behind me, breathe something about flames down my spine, ask if I’d show you how to caramelize the vegetables. I say it’s easy you just have to let them sit for a while, undisturbed. You crack open a corona and offer me one. Any beer other than Estrella costs almost a sixth of a poor American student’s weekly food budget, so this is special, an offering. Let me undisturb with you, you say, and so we stand next to each other and watch the sugar seep from the vegetables, watch it bubble and stick to the sides of the pan. You put your arm around my shoulders. I’ve never wanted to memorize anything more than the feel of the hairs of your forearm brushing against the nape of my neck. It’s a feeling I’ve been searching for in every bar, every street corner of this city.
The difference between us is that you can hardly remember anything but this adult city life and I can’t do anything but remember my past, young and un-citied. You are the one who teaches me how to get the attention of a distracted bartender, how to navigate crowded streets with elbows and shoves, how to smoke street-hash out of plastic water bottles without coughing too much.
These things seem important and you are brilliant at them.
But this is not love. This is a potluck. With plates of food and other people who are cramming themselves into the kitchen. Your arm falls and it’s time to unstick the sugared vegetables from the pan. There is something beautiful about the way they cling to each other but there isn’t time for thinking about these things because there are people waiting.
I pile the vegetables on a platter. We lift our drinks with a ¡Salud! and grab from the random assortment of plates piled in your cupboard. They burst like a kaleidoscope of all the people who have lived in and left this city—there are three or four of each pattern (blue-rimmed, plastic silver, clear-faux glass, rainbow swirled), artifacts of the American lives that have crammed themselves into this apartment. I wonder about the things you’ll leave behind, the things that will pass from your ghost-hands to the next season’s wide-eyed students and if they’ll think of you.
These thoughts are heavy, too heavy for fajitas and sangria. This is just dinner, one of many we will have together, these misfit toy students stuffed in apartments that are too big for their barely-20-something hearts. If this isn’t love I’d like it to be, like to draw you into my room and shut the door, would like to write poetry while you lie in my lap, would like to untangle myself from your breathing in the morning and ask you if you want to shower with me, would like you to run through me like a river until my pebbled heart erodes into sand, until all my body can do is fade into you.
But this is dinner and these are forks and this is not what it could be. The meal is done and the dishes are dirty. You volunteer to clean them and ask if I’d like to join. I apologize and say no, that I’ve got to get going. The metro will close soon and I don’t think I want to walk home alone tonight. You say you understand and turn toward the sink. I can’t tell if you’re hurt or sad or thinking about whether or not you’d like to come home with me. But you say nothing and I leave.
You live one metro stop from me on the Blue line and four stops from me on the Yellow with a transfer in Sol. Normally, I would get off at Anton Martin on the Blue line but there is a woman in my car with a stereo and a microphone — she sings a heart-wrenching yet nearly incomprehensible version of “Taking Chances” by Celine Dion. We are alone save a small dozing man in the back pocket of the car. I decide to stay with her for a little longer because she is nearly crying from the effort and I am nearly crying because I think it’s a sign from Diós. We reach sol and I give her 5 euros and leave the metro station.
As I walk home, I realize that I’ve left my pan at your apartment. I almost turn back but decide that I’d rather let you keep it. If this something between us is not permanent then at least the pan will be — I imagine your hands watering and soaping it, your thumbs massaging grease from its skin.
But this is imagining and these are streets and soon the street lamps will shut off.