There is an image in my mind of four near-strangers sitting Indian style on cold cobblestone in the shadow of a cathedral’s bell-tower. It’s not yet midnight. There are people milling about the streets, but the neon signs of bars are quiet, sleeping.
A two-liter bottle of Coca-cola sits between us. It is filled with coke and red wine. The Spanish boy next to me calls it Calimocho and asks me if I’d like a sip. I pass, my fingers fascinated by the tuft of grass tangoing with cracked cement near my feet. He hands it to the woman next to me. Her hands are small and bird-like, painted black or navy or dark red. She tells me that she paints her nails every morning so that the paint will never chip. I imagine the layers like the rings of trees, digging into the beds of her fingers.
Her lips linger far past politeness. She chugs a quarter of the bottle, smacking tongue to lip, wiping the coke that drips along the corners of her mouth with the back of her hand. She wears the kind of perfume that reeks of unapologetics, so she passes the bottle to the man to her left without saying a word. She tells us that she is just passing through Madrid. She complains about the metro system and the men who hit on her in the clubs. She smiles and I wonder if she wants us to ask more questions.
The next man grabs the plastic bottle’s neck slowly, grudgingly. He is an American student and I can tell that he does not want to drink, but he drinks anyway like I know I will when the bottle passes my way in a few minutes — neither one of us wants to be that American, the one who says no to things like red wine and the insisting of Madrileños. He takes a sip, grabbing for tobacco and some rolling papers from the pocket of his denim jacket. He passes the bottle and attempts to roll his own cigarette — the tobacco sticks to his fingers and his nails rip the paper.
The bottle arrives back in front of me. It’s not that I’m afraid to drink this drink (I’ve had weirder), but I feel as though to drink or not to drink is something that isn’t totally up to me. I feel as though I should feel lucky to be in this particular situation with Europeans that have chosen to spend time with me and this other American student. I feel as though it’s expected of me to entertain them with stories of growing up in Texas, feel as though it is my place to take the drink prepared for me without complaining. I have no reason to take a stand or to tell him no, so I sip and swallow without a word.
The drink is sour and sweet and bubbly and thick, all at the same time. It tastes like the unidentifiable punch you’d find at your parent’s Christmas party: vaguely alcoholic, quantity over quality. I wonder how much of this I’d have to drink to get drunk because I have to wake up in a few hours to catch a flight to Paris. I feel silly and pretentious and stupid all at the same time, almost laughing out loud at the insignificance of my worries about calculating intoxication so that I might be able to catch a five-thirty shuttle to drive me to the airport. I think about the homeless man I passed this morning without even pausing to drop a cent piece into his upturned hat and the mother and father I’ve left behind in the United States who are financing this expensive soul-searching I’m doing and feel queasy. I take another sip and pass the bottle.
We talk in broken Spanish — the shards of mispronounced words and misinterpreted grammar poke at my throat, leave scars along my tongue. I am exhausted of misunderstandings of having thoughts about big things but feeling like there is no one to understand them. Certainly not these half-shadow-people who are no more than a passing breeze in my life.
Lost in thoughts the bottle returns. It is half-empty and it’s already 1:00 AM, so I decide to drink. It tastes the same but I can’t help thinking about how the drink is now almost equal parts coke, red wine and other people’s saliva. And not even the saliva of people I know or like, but the saliva of mouths that I do not trust. What things have slipped through these mouths? How many times have these mouths sipped at other mouth’s drinks without a second thought? How many curse words and racial slurs and poorly conjugated verbs have wiggled their ways out of these mouths?
The crackle of neon turning its self on. The bottle lays sideways on the ground, drained and useless. The shadows creep from the neon signs and the bell tower hums. I stand up and thank the man for the coke and wine. Calimocho he reminds me. The other two stand with me. We part for separate corners of the city while the man sits against the steps of the cathedral. He does not move but spins the bottle on the ground idly. It swerves like a drunken compass, pointing everywhere, pointing nowhere.