I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
- Elizabeth Bishop
I’m back in Spain, again. Sitting in a metal chair perched on a crooked sidewalk, drinking a tiny glass of beer and slowly dispatching with the potato chips that came along with it. The sun is warm on my ankles, but the rest of my body is still in the shade, and I lean my shoulder against the cool rough stone of the storefront, enjoying the contrast of sol and sombra.
I first moved to Madrid at eighteen, to go to university, but also to put three thousand miles of water between myself and my life. It became my city. I loved leaving my little basement studio off the Plaza de España, passing the fountain and the statue of Don Quixote; the way the sky was absolutely blue and the sunlight sliced across the city’s facades in hard hot angles, even in winter. I stayed for four years, studying, but also hitchhiking and sleeping on beaches and in caves, falling in love and listening to the old men play flamenco at El Soleá. Dismantling cigarillos and rerolling them with hash in the languorous summer afternoons at Retiro, writing poems and throwing them away.
That was then. I’ve come back to Spain, after three years living in the flat wet marsh of Southeastern Virginia, to decide if I’m still the person I was when I lived here, or if I’m the one I’ve been impersonating as of late: an adult, a professional, one half of a very serious relationship. The man I’m in love with has purchased a ring that he uncomplainingly secrets away when I tell him I’m leaving. I do not know this. The man I’m in love with does not speak the language on my tongue. I am trying to decide if it matters.
Someone’s left a newspaper on the next table, and I swipe it. The wife of one of the 11-M bombers claims she had nothing to do with the attack: without her los resultados de sus acciones hubieran sido el mismo. To me, that hardly seems an absolution.
I was in this city when I heard about the 9/11 attacks, when I marched in protest after the U.S. invaded Iraq, when Madrid grappled with the train attacks at Atocha Station. The physical detachment I felt from my country amplified year by year into ever-greater psychic distance. Like any and every immigrant, I felt at once defensive of my country and ashamed of it. Visiting my parents, I found my homeland unrecognizable: angry, belligerent, jingoistic. I couldn’t reconcile that new landscape with the one I’d so lately abandoned.
My empty glass has been replaced with a full one, and I put the paper aside, wipe the grease from my fingertips with a wax paper napkin. I think I want to return to the U.S., but I’m not sure if I can. Live in a small city, drive myself to the grocery store and the library and wherever else I need to go. I’m not sure I like myself there.
I am not sure I like myself at all.
What do you do when the course of your life does not align with the narrative you’ve created for it? How does a person decide between two lives they very much want to live? Is there a way to safeguard against resentment without giving in to platitudes about love and fate and gratitude?
Years later, someone I thought of as a friend will ask me if it was hard, leading a small life after having lived a large one. At the time I will be offended, insulted at the insinuation that my life has somehow telescoped in size or importance. Later, I’ll wish I’d told him that all lives are small lives, that it doesn’t matter if you are living yours in Spain or in Virginia. The cartography of daily existence is necessarily internal, private, small.
I do not know, in this moment, that I will return to the rivers and bays of Tidewater, that I will marry the man who waits for me there. I do not know that we will live in a red house surrounded by trees, that we will have a son, that we will wake up one November morning in that red house and I will once again realize I do not recognize my country.
By chance, I will have something of a map to follow. I’ve already returned once, twice, to a country I didn’t know. I will find my way again.
But today I know none of this. Today I am in Madrid. There is someone playing music on the third floor. The summer light is June light and the breeze in the shade is drying the haet of sweat beneath my breasts. I pay my tab. I choose a life.
R.K. Thompson is a writer and educator living in Portsmouth, Virginia. By day, she teaches Spanish culture and literature to high schoolers in the International Baccalaureate Program, and spends her evenings and summers writing and searching for snails with her toddler. R.K. received her M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches fiction workshops at the Muse Writers Center and ekphrastic poetry to foster teens through Seven Cities Writers Project. (photo courtesy of Lenny Gonzalez)
R.K. wants you to check out the Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit corporation devoted to sharing the craft of writing in non-traditional settings such as domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, senior living facilities and prisons to give voice to underserved communities. Visit www.7cwp.org