Make love not war (part 1)

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.


One Response to “Make love not war (part 1)”

  1. A lovely post, touching and well written. Reminds me of bits of my own life too 🙂

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