Archive for July, 2010

Make love, not war (part 3)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on July 27, 2010 by cockroach1

The thing about Corazon was that he was beautiful; he became physically almost irresistable to me, as tasty and inevitable as a cigarette to a smoker. Wiry, put together without an extra inch of fat on him anywhere, the exact combination of smooth and hairy to make him a man without being a caveman. He had a small, sensual mouth with which he could flatter or kiss you into submission. His eyes were almond-shaped and uptilted, so pretty they were almost feminine, with bovine lashes and a gaze that could be gentle, penetrating and at times verging on sly. Yes, he had short bandy legs, but who’s perfect? He had capable, precise hands that calmed me when he placed them on my skin. He was warm and tactile, affectionate in the way a European man no longer is these days (unless he is hopelessly in love with you) for fear you might ‘read something into it’ or ‘get the wrong idea’. There was something in him that was sleek, agile and slippery as an otter. I loved his body, from his toes up to the bald spot on the top of his head. When he was with me, he was really with me, in public but especially at night, and when we slept he held onto me so tightly I could barely breathe. I lay awake and half-stifled sometimes listening to him snore and feeling protected from the dark for a few hours.

There was something a little mad about him that attracted me to him. Not as mad as the Pirate or as mad as Gali who was intense, brooding and troubled. Corazon was the quieter, shy one by nature, but inside and struggling to get out there was something dark and rebellious that occasionally gave him moments of brilliance, as though he had swallowed a rock star. He made me laugh: anyone who can perform a naked dance around my bedroom that comes across as half Sheherazade and half Monty Python and leaves me helpless with the giggles gets my vote.

I was renting a box room from a moody Cuban ex ballet-dancer and long term Madrid resident who had jumped ship while touring Europe with the Cuban National Ballet years ago. He was a difficult landlord. I had known him for a few years, the ex boyfriend of a friend. Some of the time he was upbeat and fun, gregarious and grinning whitely from ear to ear though you always got the impression it was one of his stage smiles, the same one he would plaster across his features backstage, lighting up like a lightbulb a second before leaping out toward the footlights. On other days the mask would slip and there would be dark moods, his eyes glittering cold and hard, doors closed a little too firmly behind him, inexplicable silences and the refusal to make eye contact.

The flat itself was modern and clean though there was a maddening collection of clutter. Most of it was Santeria paraphenalia: strange pots and urns littering the tops of bookshelves and blocking access to windows, their lids sealed down with masking tape to contain the spirits within. The only other resident was a terrapin- also there as part of his Santeria beliefs. Terrapins are kept in the house as protectors, snapping up evil spirits and bad energy as they cross the threshold. There used to be two of them, as there should be, guard talismans like this should come in pairs, but one of them had died, which didn’t bode well for the levels of negative energy in the household.

I grew quite fond of that terrapin during my stay. She was a strange alien little creature who lived in a murky fish tank in the bathroom, which if it wasn’t emptied regularly enough would start to smell green and darkly fishy. There was no natural light in the bathroom so when you came home and swtiched on a light she would appear out of the murk, her back legs spread comically as her feet propelled her up and down the tank, her front paws scrabbling desperately against the glass. I felt sorry for her stuck in there all day, so when I was in I usually lifted her out of the tank and let her prowl around the flat. I couldn’t stand the sight of those fleshy reptilian paws pressed up against the glass like little hands, the beady, myopic eyes blinking and the straining pitiful neck as she struggled to be let out. When you liberated her she patrolled the periphery of the flat with the attention to detail of a jobs-worth security-guard. She loved to crawl behind things, under things, down the sides of things and sometimes could be found round the back of the telly performing a dry front crawl, all four paws paddling frantically as she tried to free herself from the tangle of cables. Occasionally, she struck out and marched determinedly across the parquet from one side of the room to the other. The sound she made was distinctive, and had you not known it was her, would have been distinctly sinister. It was a kind of heavy, limping, clump-footed shuffle, a crippled zombie in hob-nailed boots, something dragging a heavily-shod, steel-pinned leg behind it.

She could hardly be called a pet, but I did become fond of her. It’s hard to form a bond with something that is by nature shy and suspicious and could easily have the end of your finger off with one snap of its bony jaws. And you can’t exactly stroke or cuddle something that can make its own head and limbs disappear in a flash and become little more than a rock hard chip-shop pastie. But there was something vulnerable in the fleshy pads of her paws and in the little curl of a tail peeping out of her shell. The Cuban was cruel to her. Sometimes he would pick her up, turn her over so she was balancing on the curved centre of her shell, and spin her round on the parquet floor very fast. Then he would flip her back over and laugh at her as her head and limbs emerged shakily and she lurched around trying to regain her balance. It spoke volumes to me about his level of empathy, or lack of it. I asked him not to do it but he laughed and said she didn’t mind, she was just break-dancing.

Corazon used to stay at mine every so often. The first time they met I could see Corazon was a little intimidated by the big, black, gay musculature. The sort of body you only get with a mixture of genetics, half a lifetime spent in a sweaty gymn pumping iron, and/or steroid use. After that Corazon nick-named him The Tortoise after our unusual pet. There was something tortoise-like about the cuban if you thought about it- the smooth, cue-balI head and the long sinewy neck. I could see The Tortoise weighing up Corazon in turn and I knew that he found him attractive. Unfortunately our bedrooms were separated by a thin wall and my landlord probably heard a lot more than he cared to of our sex life. I know I invited Corazon back a little too often for his liking, although he could hardly complain as I was paying full rent and was present in the flat for barely ten days out of every month. I know we made a noise and I know we came back drunk and I too would have found that annoying. But there was also that squeamishness that some gay men feel when faced with the fact that there are handsome, virile and well-hung men who would rather spend time in bed with a woman than with them, and the final insult is to have to listen to it as well. Ah, the sound of a man and a woman pleasuring each other- how disgusting! Yet the same men have no problem slurping around in sweaty, verucca-infested saunas ripe with all imaginable bodily fluids, engaging in totally anonymous and hardcore sex. But a heterosexual couple enjoying each other- euwww!!…..

The nights I was with Corazon I slept deeply, safe and snug as a baby, with his sinewy limbs coiled round me like a snake and his head burried in the hollow of my neck. I don’t know why he held onto me so tightly, after all it was me who was drowning not waving. However badly he behaved in the end, however selfish his motives, I still can’t be angry with Corazon because he gave me a warm body to hold and the feeling of hot breath in my ear as I awoke. He gave me life rather than death- insistent, persistent Death who stalked me everywhere. Always there to remind me, two steps behind, demanding my attention like a hungry dog, attempting to blacken every precious waking moment. When I was with Corazon I forgot about my morbid stalker briefly. He gave me Life with a capital ‘L’ and he gave generously.

Sure, he lied to me as well, but he was Argentinian of Italian descent. You can’t have everything. I wasn’t his ‘girlfriend’ exactly and I knew there were other women. At the beginning he told me once,

‘I don’t know why, but I think about you when you’re away on your trips. I’m supposed to be a mujeriego (womanizer) but look at me, here I am again with you. I keep coming back to you, it’s like I can’t get you out of my head. I don’t know why that is.’ I had a couple of theories but I wasn’t going to share those with him. Especially after he had shown me some more old photos from the precious stash in the shoe box under his bed.

‘That’s my Mum and my ex girlfriend,’ he had said neutrally. I glanced at him then back at the photo, deciding not to mention it. The ex girlfriend looked like his mother and I looked like both of them. Well-rounded, bosomy blonds with blue eyes and pale skin. Who cares exactly why someone is attracted to you- even if it’s because subcosciously you remind him of his ex or of his mother. The important thing is he’s attracted to you. After a while he stopped mentioning other women though I knew they were still there filling his time while I was away. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to see other people, and I am basically monogamous by nature, at least until the novelty wears off. Like Janis Joplin I believe ‘Just one good man, it ‘aint much but it’s everything.’ So I allowed Corazon to flatter his way in like a skilled gatcrasher charming his way into a party.

One evening in a crowded bar, his arm round my waist, on one of the few occasions the Pirate wasn’t there he said, with what I took to be the insecurity of a younger man,

`You’ve done everything with men already, haven’t you?’

I laughed and kissed him.

‘I wouldn’t say that. I’ve got a few years’ headstart on you I suppose.’ He raised those luxurious eyelashes and stared at me for a minute.

‘Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to try?’

I took a sip of wine and felt myself blushing. I lent over and whispered in his ear,

‘Well,… er…. I wouldn’t mind trying….’

He listened intently and then grinned and nodded to himself as though he had won a point in a chess game due to a very clever move. Then he told me slowly and deliberately,

‘Well, I’m going to do something to you that no other man’s ever done. Just you wait and see.’ He seemed very confident he was about to dazzle and delight me. I was intrigued, I must admit. What stategic sexual assault could Napoelon possibly have up his sleeve for me?

‘Really? What’s that then?’

Corazon arranged his handsome features into a seductive smile and his eyes took on that sly sheen as he gazed into mine, took my hand and told me,

‘Yo te voy a querer y todo.’ (I’m going to love you and everything.) A clever trick- he had outmaneouvred me emotionally and verbally. I felt foolish and was thrown off balance. Here I was with the quickfire response of a puta de alma (natural born whore) and he had presented me with a romantic promise. I have a suspicion that Italian and Argentinian boys, on reaching puberty, are given a handbook containing romantic and flowery chat-up lines, just as French girls are given a handbook teaching them all 47 ways to tie a neckscarf. So I knew Corazon’s romantic drivel was nothing more than that, but it was touching to hear the words. Words like that are so scarcely heard, they feel like the offer of cool water in the desert. I allowed myself to savour them along with the kisses that came after them. What a shame it wasn’t true! Within a couple of months he had dumped me, and not in the kindest of ways.

I’d had my suspicions, an instinctual acknowledgement of the slightest waning in the regularity of his texts and a longer delay in his response time to my messages and calls. A woman can sense these things, whether she wants to believe them or not. I’d been away. I was back for a while and didn’t hear from him for a few days, longer than usual after returning to Madrid. Then we arranged to meet one evening. I spent the afternoon preparing for my date- depilating, styling my hair, painting my nails, I even bought a suspender belt and new stockings at Corte Ingles and was wearing them to meet him. I saw him picking his way through the crowd on Gran Via but the smile was soon fading from my face when I kissed him and asked him how he was and grinning, he declared,

‘I’m fine! Yeah, really great actually. Especially as I just got back with my ex this week. You know, Cati? Well, we’re back together and I’m moving in with her.’

The nonchalant cruelty struck me like a stone in the midst of the hustling crowds and the bright neon lights.

‘Come on,’ he said, taking my hand, ‘let’s go for a drink.’

He took me for a last drink in a bar we used to frequent which was above a cramped carpark. We liked the bar because it was so weird. There was a bay window in the overhang above the car park entrance which was swathed with brown curtains and stuffed with chintzy chairs and a low coffee table. There was a gentle sleaziness about the place and the constant rumble of cars in and out of the garage that reminded you of the lobby of a two star motel. Faded sofas and wilting pot plants, shabby wallpaper and old photos on the wall. Strangely soothing naff seventies music. The sparse clientelle were somehow furtive as if to match the surroundings. It was the perfect place to get dumped. For an hour he grinned and grinned.

‘I was always in love with that woman.’ he said and I nodded mutely. ‘I can’t believe it, we’re back together!’

‘Me neither.’

‘And she’s going to set me up with a job as well, she knows someone who can get me into an estate agent’s and it’s a really good job. (It was a good job back then, on the tail end of the housing boom. I imagine he hasn’t had such a lucrative couple of years recently.)

‘The old enchufe’, eh? (Old Boy Network)’ he continued,

‘I’ve been really lucky. And she has a really nice house, a big one. On the outskirts, you know, not here in Madrid. It gets a bit much dossing in the centre in these rented flats.’

That at least I could understand. Surely he had made the decision partly out of economic necessity, which was at least comprehensible for someone in his situation. Yes, it was a cold-hearted, business-like, self-interested decision, not one based on love and passion. That somehow made it better for me to stomach.

‘And how about you? he asked. ‘Still going to carry on travelling and living it up at the weekends? You know, at some point in your life, you have to settle down and get things sorted out properly. You can’t drift for ever. Not at your age.’

‘You patronising little fuckweed’ was my thought at that precise moment but he misread my expression of contempt for one of yet more sorrow.

‘Hey, come on, cheer up. At least I had the decency to meet up with you to tell you to your face! I could have just ignored you. I could have just never answered your calls again. I haven’t even told some girls, I’m just ignoring them, but I’ve met you to let you know…. Huh? I’m here, aren’t I? And I’ll still be here for you. Remember, you’re not alone in Madrid.’

‘Oh, you have no idea how alone I am.’ I thought. ‘Whereas you will never be alone for another night of your life.’

At that moment I hated him. I hated him so much that I had to excuse myself, choking as I threaded my way through the armchairs to the toilets, where I locked myself in a cubicle and cried fiercely with my head against the wall until I felt vaguely sick and had the hiccups. It was such a vile combination of disappointment, anger and humiliation. And yet somehow I let him carry on and on, when I should have thrown a drink over him and walked out. I just didn’t have any fight left in me. It was yet another painful dose of loss, and loss was the one thing I couldn’t bear right now. I re-did my eye make-up and made my way back, a little unsteadily, to the lounge.

‘All right now?’ he said, patting my knee and beginning to look uncomfortable.

‘Er, listen, another thing,’ he went on. ‘Just because, you know, I won’t be seeing you any more doesn’t mean you can’t see the Pirate. I think you two should stay in touch. You can still be mates. He’s ever so fond of you.’

‘And I am of him. He’s a great guy.’

I looked at Corazon, his handsome, smug face with its almond eyes and its sensual, lying mouth. I wanted to say to him- yes, the Pirate is a great guy and I ended up with the wrong one. He’s so much better than you. And here you are passing me on to your friend as a guilt offering.

‘Well, there you go, then! You see, every cloud has a silver lining. Give him a call. Er, listen, why not give him a call now?’ He glanced at his watch. Cati was obviously waiting.

‘He’s out working tonight. He might be expecting you to call and have a drink. I er… I’ve got to go now.’

Corazon left and I stood under the flashing neon sign with cars crawling past me and into the carpark. I called the Pirate and asked in a little voice if he wanted to meet for a drink.

‘Ah.’ was all he said. ‘He’s told you. I’m on the corner of Calle Huertas. Come and get me.’

He had folded up his stall and it was propped against the wall by the time I got there.

‘Not working?’ I asked him. He pulled me toward him and gave me an almighty hug.

‘Nah, not any more. Let’s have a drink, eh?’ He always knew exactly when and how to behave like a big brother.

I looked up at the Pirate and the amused glint was no longer there in his eyes. They were wide and staring, the irises too small as always. With the sparkle gone out of them like this he looked scary, disturbed, like someone who’s forgotten to take his medication.

‘What a bastard.’ he said. ‘He’s shafted us both and he doesn’t give a shit. And for that old slapper. I hate her!’

I had to agree. How could he have left us both? I was glad I had overcome my slight initial resistance and.had called the Pirate. I’d thought it might feel strange with just the two of us, and it did a little, but not for long. At least we had each other now.


Make love, not war (part 2)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on July 22, 2010 by cockroach1

And so Corazon became my sweetheart at least for a few months. There were some extras thrown in for good measure- he came as a box set of young men: for the price of Corazon you also got the Huertas Pirate and an occasional drinking buddy of theirs- Gali, a Lost Boy bizarrely named after Galileo Galilei. I say bizarrely because he couldn’t have been any less of a thinker and philosopher than his namesake. Gali had more frat boy good looks than brains, and was the original angry young man. He was a dispossessed middle-class Madrileño, soft-faced and hard-hearted. The vulnerable and confused casualty of a divorce and a society undergoing great changes, he alternated between moments of unbearable sweetness and flashes of casual racism, which I wasn’t to find out until later.

At the time I was still travelling for a living so on the sporadic weeks and weekends I was back in Madrid I spent most of my social time with these three, ‘perreando por las calles de Madrid’ (hanging around like stray dogs on the streets of Madrid. ‘Perreando’ literally translates as ‘dogging’ but trust me, it doesn’t mean that.) Thus began a process which I was unaware of until recently when the observation dropped, unexpected from my mouth during a conversation with la Contessa. I lost my brother, aged 29, and ever since then have been surrounding myself with surrogate little brothers: a process that has continued until today, six years later, when one of my closest friends, the Ponce, has just turned 29 himself. The Huertas Pirate loves to pull me up on this, observing ironically ‘You keep getting older and they just stay the same age, huh? What are you, some kind of vampire? Is that why you look younger- do you bathe in their blood or something?’ But the trend began with him, Corazon and Gali, a trend which, back then at 35 would have labelled me a ‘puma’, and these days a ‘cougar.’ They became my tribe, my substitute kid brothers, my protectors, my flatterers and in one case (for the time being) my seducer.

I can only imagine that to them I was a trophy blond, and that they were as happy having me along as I was happy to be asked along. Back then I dressed more provocatively- plenty of cleavage, always in heels, short skirts and full make up, so from three penniless late-twenty-somethings more accustomed to the brush-off from women there were certainly no complaints. There was a frisson of attraction running four ways as ingrained as the lettering in a stick of rock, which sometimes blurred with alcohol and dope.

The Pirate approved of my liaison with Corazon and told me his previous girlfriend, Cati, was a controlling bitch and hated her lover’s best friend. Corazon was never allowed out of her sight and his every move was monitored. I could see how your typical Spanish girlfriend would take exception to Corazon’s best mate- childhood buddy come all the way from Argentina with him, the person who made him laugh the most, who took him out for wild nights on the town, the person who dragged him out of his shell, who knew all his secrets. To a jealous Spanish woman used to treating her man like a naughty schoolboy, permitting this and denying him that, his best friend would have set off alarm bells.

There were heart-breakingly sweet photos of them back in Mar de Plata as young boys playing football together, smudgy seventies Polaroids where they grinned into the camera with front teeth missing, raffish hair, scrawny sparrow legs with scuffed knees sticking out of their shorts. I adored the Pirate and had no intention of separating him from his best friend. I couldn’t imagine one of them without the other. It seemed that my affection was returned. The Pirate was the smiling priest at the altar of our affair, blessing us and witnessing our union. I remember once near the beginning in a dark club the three of us were laughing and hugging and the Pirate urged us to kiss each other as, according to him it was ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful’. He slung his arm around our shoulders and pulled us together until our faces were touching, then disengaged as we obeyed and kissed each other passionately in front of him. When I pulled away finally all I could see were those round owlish eyes watching intently, his head cocked on one side and a sentimental smile playing across his lips. Later, in the advanced stages of drunkenness he cornered me outside the club toilets and gave me that same look, while helplessly shrugging and mouthing words that never came out of his mouth, like a fish trying to tell me something from behind the thick glass of its aquarium. The Pirate and I had more moments like this over the next couple of years and those words were never clearly expressed, only hopelessly mouthed, a twitching of the facial muscles, but no sound, beneath those sardonic bulging eyes with pinprick pupils.

There were few occasions when I was actually alone with Corazon, except for in bed, and even then we were not always entirely alone. The boys moved to another shared room, this time an even more bizarre set-up. Whereas before they had rented a ‘room’ which was 2 single beds side by side in a converted living room which was cordoned off from the dining table area by the presence of a solid, bulky wardrobe as incongruous as a bouncer at a children’s tea party, the next flat was en even more weird example of unregulated immigrant rental hell.

It was an attic flat that had been split into a warren of clumsy lodgings. Off the main stairwell and passageway you stepped straight into the kitchen. To get to the boys’ room you had to climb a treacherous wooden staircase to a mezzanine over the kitchen. The space under the stairs was cordoned off by a curtain, blocking from view a camp bed on which you could normally find a curled-up South American exhausted from shift work, beer on his breath, snoring loudly. The boys’ room was in the slanted rafters and had two single beds side by side on the only available floor space. The only section of the room high enough for you to be able to stand fully erect was in the centre directly underneath the skylight. Then the room sloped smaller and smaller to the far walls. This meant you had to move around the room like a constipated ape. Many times I cracked my head on that sloped roof and saw stars. There was one Saturday evening, I seem to remember it was Corazon’s birthday and the Pirate had given him a bottle of Fernet Branca, which they had the disgusting habit of drinking with Coca Cola: I don’t advise it. It becomes a kind of evil witches’ brew with pale green scum floating on the top and gives you the kind of hangover that makes you wish you had a brain tumour instead. Halfway through the bottle the Pirate gave us a moving demonstration of the Disintegration of Man as a species, aping the drawing following the stages of man in reverse, from fully erect Homo Sapiens to knuckles trailing on the ground. There was no privacy in the flat at all, what with Snorer under the stairs, then the Peruvian couple who cooked endless fritanga (fried shit) in the kitchen below, impregnating the room with the smell of cooking fat. So it was little further imposition to sleep sometimes curled up with Corazon while the Huertas Pirate lay a foot or so away from us in his own narrow bunk. He always promised to roll over discreetly and face the wall, and was normally so drunk he passed out almost immediately.

The Italian pretence had been dropped by the second date, and there was a certain pleasure in being seduced by an Argentinian. It’s always satisfying to deal with an expert, whether it’s a plumber, electrician or chef. He called me late one night, the same night I had returned from a long haul trip. I hummed and ‘ha’-ed and said I was tired and jet-lagged.

‘But you have to see me tonight.’ he cajoled. ‘It has to be tonight.’

‘Why?’ I smiled into the phone.

‘Don’t you know what day it is?’

‘Er…. Thursday? Not sure.’

‘No, no the date, what date is it today?’

‘The 25th of April.’

‘Exactly! So you have to see me tonight, you see, it really has to be tonight.’

I still didn’t get it, so he explained it to me slowly and carefully.

‘It’s the 25th of April, the day the British invaded las Malvinas. So today especially, in memory of all the people who died on both sides of that conflict, you and I have to meet in order to make love, not war. It’s your political duty, you have to come out with me. You have to do it for international relations, this isn’t just about you and me any more. It’s bigger than that, it’s important. And I missed you, I can’t wait until tomorrow…’

How can one argue with that? I certainly didn’t.

Make love not war (part 1)

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on July 17, 2010 by cockroach1

Have you ever had one of those ‘out of the body’ moments where just for a second you step outside your physical self and observe yourself in a detached manner? A few years ago, not long after moving to Madrid I found myself hovering metaphorically in the living room of the house I was sharing, and looking down at the person I had become. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I saw a woman at home alone on a Saturday night wallowing in self-pity with the gusto of a hippo let loose in a mud bath. A half-drunk bottle of rum on the table, a half-eaten dinner into which I was weeping and just to lift my mood, Chavela Vargas croaking on the stereo with that voice halfway between a sob and a chain-smoker’s death-rattle,

‘Corazon, Corazon, no me quieras matar, Corazon…’ (‘Sweetheart, Sweetheart, surely you don’t mean to kill me Sweetheart….’) After a moment’s observation, I concluded that I looked totally ridiculous and it was time to snap out of it. It was time to put the lipstick on and get out there, after all, it was Saturday night in Madrid. I showered, primped, silenced Chavela and went out to find the Huertas Pirate.

A word of advice- never listen to Chavela Vargas just after you’ve been dumped. Listen to her when you are feeling cheerful and then you can appreciate the ironic tragedy of her torch songs. Otherwise you could take her seriously, and then you might as well have the pistol, the pills, or the noose ready and waiting. She has the most wonderful and touching lyrics: ‘Dejastes tantas luces encendidas y no se como voy a apagarlas…’ (‘You left so many lights on and I don’t know how to turn them off’). She sang at Euro Gay Pride a few years ago, and it was a high point to see her tottering out onto the stage on Plaza de España, frail and brittle but feisty like a little old lady made of twigs tied up with string and bundled into a black dress.

I headed to Huertas and found the Pirate at his usual spot. There was a group of young female tourists, probably English, clustered round his stall picking things up and cooing over them. I watched him for a minute. He was a real pro. He could sell snow to the Eskimos, that one. He held up the earrings, then the mirror, and all the time touched them gently, on the hand, on the cheek, pulling back their hair and tucking it behind their ears, resting his hand casually on their upper arm, tugging softly at a sleeve, a collar, a shoulder strap. All the while he swayed around in that particular expressive Argentinian fashion, as though his feet were rooted to the spot and the rest of him had come over all Italian. As usual they bought his earrings, hoping with their 3 euros to buy more than just the cheap handmade jewellery, and the prettiest ones gave him their numbers, or at least told him which club they were going to so that he could come and hunt them down after work. Later that night we went out and got disgustingly drunk together and it helped. You see both of us, in a way, were getting over a break up. Both of us in our own way had been dumped by Corazon.

I met Corazon on a drunken Saturday night in Huertas, with a girlfriend who was about to leave Madrid to move back to the States. This was our goodbye piss-up, and boy, did we do it in style. Years later, as I look back on this night, it has taken on mythical proportions, almost as though it were the last wild night out of our youth. Awful things happened almost immediately after this night out, officially bringing the era of fun and frivolity to a close. Besides there is a shelf-life to these kinds of nights and that kind of behaviour. She has since grown up, got married and is about to have her second child, while I am well-past my sell-by-date and not exactly stale but no longer fresh. That night had all the perfect ingredients: cocktails, fun, dancing, and attractive foreign men. I remember we were leaning against a wall adjusting a shoe strap or something, laughing in that way you only do at two a.m on a Saturday night in a foreign city after several drinks.

Suddenly and seamlessly we found ourselves accompanied by two equally drunk young men, considerably younger than us (though not young enough to put us on any kind of offenders’ register) and both very good-looking. Like most Argentinians they initially introduced themselves as Italian, though by that point we hardly cared. They took us to a club with them, and in the way cells divide and multiply, we broke off into two couples. My friend ended up with the tall one with chiselled features and large intense eyes that stared out at you with the permanently cheeky and amused expression of an owl who’s just been told a hilarious joke, and I was allocated the short balding one with the delicate latino features and the eyelashes that went on and on. It’s a strange phenomenon that I always end up with sex-hobbit; maybe it’s something about the large smothering bosom which must send them into an overpowering ‘Come to Mummy’ trance. Either way I’m not complaining. Bring it on, Napoleon, give me your best shot….

In the club we cosied up to each other under cover of the darkness, noise, and smoke, pushed together by the tidal sway of bodies. The sex-hobbit accompanied me to the toilet and waited for me outside, a touching gesture of insecurity and male possession, afraid that another beast of prey may come along and snatch me from his jaws if he left me unattended. Halfway up the stairs he pushed me slowly but insistently against the wall and kissed me for a very long time. I had the distinct impression that ‘aquí hay tomate’ (‘There’s tomato here’ which makes absolutely no sense when translated literally but means something like ‘I’m onto something here.’) Chemistry is a funny thing, so fickle, unpredictable and uncontrollable. I had to admit the kissing had given me a fickle, unpredictable and uncontrollable desire to sleep with him. Back upstairs he insisted I have his phone number, and as I was saving the number he grabbed the phone off me and told me ‘Who’s this? You have to save me as Corazon. I am your corazon now.’ Only an Argentinian can get away with a comment like that. Only a handsome one who delivers it in an ironic, smirking fashion. The Ponce calls Argentinians ‘Italianos caducados’ or ‘out of date Italians’. Like Italian compliments Argentinian ones always sound like practised lies, but elegant and pretty ones, and it’s all in the delivery.

And strangely he did become my Corazon (Sweetheart) for a while. In his own way and for his own selfish reasons Corazon saved me from a terrible fate: that of being alone when it was what I least needed. After that night I never expected to hear from him again. When I did hear from him it was a month later and there had been a sudden death in my family. I was walking around with my insides turned out, raw as if freshly grated all over. I was surprised that he called me.

‘It’s your Corazon. Do you remember me? I want to see you again.’

When we met again I thought ‘Yes, you’re shorter than I remembered. But you’re also much more attractive.’ He was boyish and pretty, it couldn’t be denied. I had been drunk but not out of my mind. He had short bandy legs but he was young and good-looking and he was there in front of me. He took me to a dimly lit, intimate arab tea house and we drank mint tea together and talked. He insisted on paying and was attentive.

‘You see, I don’t just go out and get pissed. I can hold a conversation as well.’ he told me solemnly, as if it was important I understood this point about him. It was true, he could hold a conversation. Strangely enough though, I can barely summon up one conversation I had with him, and we had many. I never heard a word he said because I was too busy looking at him and enjoying his physical beauty.

We talked and flirted in the subdued light of the tea house, smoking and sipping our mint tea. He was an electrician by trade. The Pirate was a womanizer and vagabond by trade, moving from city to city, following the endless round of Spanish fiestas and setting up his stall selling hand-made jewellery. They had come from Argentina together a few years ago and had grown up in the same town- were, in fact, childhood friends. Life was hard in Madrid but at least they had each other.

‘My brother just died.’ I blurted out one point.

‘I’m sorry’. He stared intently at me and took my hands in his. I think he really was sorry. But whereas I was warning him that I was fragile and asking him to treat me carefully like a china cup- ‘….please don’t drop me because I will smash’, he heard instead an alluring combination of sincerity, rawness and instability that added up to a perfect formula for getting me back into bed.

That night I fell into bed with him as if stepping off the edge of a cliff into a deep chasm, holding hands. I held onto him very tightly. He felt like a lifeline or an umbilical chord- my last tenuous link to life. There had to be some respite from the nightmare and this was it. He was vital and alive. His pulse throbbed in his temple and in his throat. On the narrow bed in the cramped room he shared with the Huertas Pirate (who, presumably, had been given a tenner and told to go out and not to come back until the next morning) he wrapped himself round me and said ‘You’re not going to leave me to sleep here alone, are you? Don’t go home. Stay here and sleep with me Stay with me’. This is what differentiates an Italian or an Argentinian from, say, a Spaniard or a Brit. After thirty you are so used to being treated like Rita in Rod Stewart’s version of ‘Stay with me’ that this is what you have come to expect: ‘So in the morning please don’t say you love me ‘coz you know I’ll only kick you out the door. Yes, I’ll pay your cab fare home, you can even use my best cologne, just don’t be here in the morning when I wake up.’ To have a man ask you to stay with him, or for him to fall asleep with you in his arms before he has propelled himself from the bed like a missile into his clothes and out of the door is quite unusual. It doesn’t necessarily mean the man has any more feelings for you than the one who has become a blur, a whizzing sound and a plume of dust, but at least it shows a modicum of human warmth before the inevitable approach of winter.

Cockroaches and coffee

Posted in mean streets with tags , , , , , , on July 9, 2010 by cockroach1


Recently it’s been hot. Holiday hot. Fruit has sagged and rotted in the fruitbowl in my flat, the air conditioning at work has broken down and is being fixed by a regiment of technicians while the students and I sweat and puff our way through classes, trickles of perspiration running down the middle of my back, and dripping from the ends of my hair. With the heat comes a cocky army of cockroaches who have stayed out of sight all winter, and when they have put in an appearance have been little yellowish-brown ones who are nowhere near as repulsive as their fat, black cousins. But the big boys are back in town, and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

I have taken to turning off my computer modem at night, as when I don’t do it I invariably find a small roach basking on its warm surface in the morning as though stretched out on its own personal sunbed. I found a small brown one reclining on my bread knife in the middle of a small pile of breadcrumbs the other day. Literally living on the knife-edge, cocky little bastard. Then the other night I discovered, just as I was going to bed, a huge glossy black monster waiting around nonchalantly by the front door like a cold war spy lingering in a rainy park with a newspaper under its arm looking out for its contact. Shifty, wary, and alert but unflappable as though it was highly trained and had every right to be there. It didn’t even run away when I loomed over it then veered away. I was too tired to start with the shoe/the rolled up newspaper/the upturned Tupperware container and the broom, so I just turned my back on it and went round the L-shape into the cubby-hole which is my bed’room’, got into bed and switched the light off. Surely it wouldn’t come all the way over there while I was sleeping. Surely….?

Surely enough there it was the following morning when Cocky called round for a breakfast meeting. And yes, it had come all the way round in the night to be next to the bed. I hadn’t noticed it, or it had wandered out of its hiding place after I had got up, as I turned round by the bed to find it standing there in the way, between me and the rest of the flat. I squeaked like a girl and lobbed a shoe at it, which hit it blind side and sent it skittering across the floor, revolving gracefully like Bambi over the sheen of my parquet. Then, in a balletic tackle and shoot that was worthy of the World Cup, Cocky stamped on it and kicked it out of the front door. Goal! Viva Venezuela!

This evening, sitting here on my sofa with my laptop in my lap, I looked up to see another little roach scurry out of the gap under the bathroom door. It received a hurled flip-flop in reply, and turned straight back round and under the door again. I feel as though I am under seige. I don’t want to start with the paranoia, that would be bad. Once, when I was a student, we had an infestation of ants in our house that just wouldn’t go away, and after a few days i remember flinching almost constantly, as everywhere I looked I could see crawling black dots out of the corner of my eye, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. I am starting to visualise shiny black creatures in every corner, on every wall and under every piece of furniture. This weekend just gone I replaced all the traps in the flat, so that once again it is positively land-mined with tiny charnel houses of poison and death. This means I haven’t seen any more black, glossy, enormous bastards, but the juveniles appear to have lived on to fight another day.


Overheard in the local bar this morning round the corner from the centre where I am currently giving intensive summer courses. I walked into the middle of one of those bar conversations between men that went like this:

‘In Barcelona they fined a guy €3,000 just for throwing a cigarette butt on the floor! Can you believe it?’

There was much tutting and shaking of heads. The bar was thick with smoke, at least four people smoking in a space no more than fifteen foot square. A young guy at the end of the bar (also smoking), commented

‘Well, legally they can do that here as well, they just haven’t yet.’ This was followed with more tutting and mutterings ‘Jo…’ which is like saying ‘Fu…’

Then the barman contributed,

‘Yeah, here in Madrid they get you for traffic offenses. They haven’t moved on to fag butt offences yet.’

A moment later I overheard this conversation initiated by the barman, regarding the request for an unusual category of coffee (of which there are many: café con leche, cortado, solo, cortado con leche, americano, carajillo etc):

‘You want a what?’

‘A short American.’

‘You can’t have a short American, that doesn’t exist, that’s an Italian.’

‘All right, I’ll have an Italian then.’

‘There you go…. one Italian. Short and very strong.’

You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

God bless you, Milady

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies on July 4, 2010 by cockroach1

As I was returning home the other day I came across a workman outside the main door, buzzing to be let in. They have been doing works somewhere upstairs in the exterior part of the building for a couple of weeks now. He was short and stocky, wearing orange overalls and a faded and cheese-holed yellow t-shirt. Under his arm he clutched a coiled length of tubing, and he was also carrying a box full of nails and screws.

‘Good afternoon.’ I greeted him as I fumbled for my keys. He nodded, smiled, and continued buzzing, though no-one answered.

‘Not listening out for you?’

I found my keys and started jigging them in the lock. There’s a trick to it, like a skillful lover you have to know exactly how far to push it in, then pull back out, then twist it ever so slightly, otherwise you haven’t got a hope in hell of the door opening.

‘Es que…with all the banging and that, they can’t hear me ringing.’ He shrugged. What can I do? I moved aside to let him in.

‘Please, after you.’

He sidled in through the door sideways, grinning at me and had he had a forelock I know he would have been tugging it.

‘Thank you, Señora,’ he said as he passed me and headed up the exterior stairway.

‘Gracias Señora, y que Dios te bendiga con dos niños preciosos.’ (Thank you, Madam, and may God bless you with two beautiful children.)

‘Er…. you’re welcome.’

Now, for starters, it seems a little out of proportion that I merely opened a door for him and in return God should give me two beautiful children. How is this poor man used to being treated, I asked myself, to be so very grateful that I stood aside and let him in the building? But shortly after that came the reaction, a little like a spoilt child on Christmas Day: ‘Um… yeah, that’s nice of you and everything, but what am I going to do with two beautiful children? I wasn’t even capable of looking after one beautiful dog. Is there any chance of taking it back and getting something I really want?’…..