By Vera Brenner
To dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19)
‘The trick is to find a guiri. They’re all lonely. And they all have their own rooms.’
My friend Raúl had adapted to the new circumstances right away. When it came to sex, in Cádiz foreign girls were your best bet. And during carnival, sex was what it all boiled down to. Raúl had come home all the way from Germany to be part of the fiesta.
The music was pumping in the huge pavilion. Green laser beams cut through fruity artificial fog and the fancily dressed masses were swaying back and forth like wobbling vodka jelly, caught in an infinite loop of ‘Danza Kuduro’. Like remote-controlled puppets, we threw our hands in the air to every ‘las manos arriba’ and circled our hips with each ‘cintura sola’. Sweat trickled down my spine and belly and drenched my Superman costume, which was already covered in the piss, greasepaint and vomit from the last four days and nights.
‘Nevermind guapa,’ I said ‘the left one hurt anyway.’
‘Sorry.’ She turned and tried to make the pain go away by rubbing her nicely rounded ass against my crotch in circling movements.
‘I’m Paco,’ I shouted into her ear.
Spanish name, not a good sign.
‘Wanna rescue me, Superman?’ She added more pressure to her rubbing. ‘I lost my hose. Got a replacement?’
I squeezed her tits. They felt very good. ‘You from Cádiz?’ The all important question.
‘You Superman or Sherlock Holmes?’ she turned and forced her tongue into my mouth.
She tasted like beer and vomit. I made her drink some of my vodka-red bull. Then we kissed some more. It tasted better this time.
I pulled her out of there just before midnight. It was dark outside, the moon only an echo of a crescent over the skeletons of the abandoned bridge pillars protruding from the bay. Rocío puked on the esplanade.
‘Got a place we can go?’ she asked.
I shook my head. The room in my mum’s flat wasn’t an option. ‘Your place?’
‘My parents would love that.’
So she was from Cádiz. We were all in the same boat here. The banks had quit offering mortgages to first time buyers, rooms for rent were as rare as rain in July and the only ones who could afford the soaring room prices were Erasmus students from Germany or wherever they came from. We all lived with our parents instead.
‘Let’s go to my car.’
The old Seat had served me well during the previous years, but the MOT was due and my finances were at a low ebb. For the time being I’d left it in front of the harbour entrance where parking was still free.
I led her over there. Some punks had smashed my mirrors, but that wouldn’t stop us. I flung the door open and pushed Rocío onto the back seat. From the corner of my eye I saw that the passenger window was missing. So was the radio. And why did the car reek of piss? Rocío pulled up her skirt and spread her legs as far as the tiny space would allow. I stood on the pavement and wrestled my cock out of the Superman onesie. My phone rang. I let it go to voicemail. It rang again. Rocío puked into the foot well.
I slid my cock back inside the costume and shoved Rocío into a more decent position. Maybe some other day.
‘I feel like shit.’
‘I’ll take you home.’
But first I had to call my mum back.
‘What are you still doing out in the streets? You have work tomorrow,’ Mum shouted.
‘On my way.’ I hung up. What would I give for a place of my own.
Rocío clung to me and between my injured foot, her high heels and the alcohol in our blood, we staggered along the dockyard.
She stopped at a bench that was facing the non-existent bridge. ‘So you saved me after all, Superman. But I’ve to leave you here. We turn that corner, my parents will see you. One of them’s always waiting up ‘til I’m home.’
I rubbed my left ankle.
‘Did that glass really hurt you?’
‘It’s an injury from the days when I was still going to be a professional footballer. It just hurts sometimes.’
‘You should see a physiotherapist. There’s a good one at Plaza Mina.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind.’
She kissed me and she was gone.
At seven thirty the darkness behind the bridge pillars gave way to the first signs of violet, pink and orange. I’d missed Sunday mass due to excessive alcohol consumption and needed to make up for it.
‘Today is the beginning of Lent,’ the priest began his sermon. ‘And these are difficult times. Some might think that nowadays life already feels like a continuous Lent.’
The people around me nodded and made approving sounds.
‘And yes – we have reason to be sad. As it is written in Nehemiah: our faces are sad when the place of our fathers’ graves lies in ruins. Yet – there is hope.’
The collection bag was passed around.
‘There is hope when we shoulder our responsibilities.’
I took one euro out of my wallet.
‘Let us not close our eyes to the ones around us, but let us remember that we are one family in this parish.’ He raised his head and his piercing eyes looked straight at me. ‘Never forget: he who does not provide for his relatives, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’
I dug out my wallet again and put five euros in the bag. Then we all lined up to get the black ash cross painted on our foreheads. Mass ended and I was saved again for another week.
When I came home from work that night I took my laptop and went to Plaza Mina, where the city offered free internet. All the benches were filled with people staring at their screens. For what felt like the thousandth time I tried to find a flat share, but there wasn’t a single ad. I scanned the job sites. I worked as an engineer, but my boss only paid a trainee salary. German companies were advertising engineering jobs in Stuttgart. Some even paid for a language course. The bloodsuckers lured us in. No job offers in Spain. From my class of graduates I was the only one with a so-called job. All others had given in and were studying German to work in the land of Europe’s self-appointed saviours. Soon my generation would be non-existent here. But I was Spanish and I loved my home. I didn’t want to live in a rainy country with bad-tempered people. I also couldn’t leave Mum alone here with my dad gone and my brother, Juan working in Seville. But life felt very different already. I couldn’t remember when I’d last spent a Sunday with my friends drinking at tapas bars or getting wasted on sunny beach terraces.
I was just going to call Raúl on Skype when a guy wearing a motorcycle helmet ran towards me, snatched the laptop from my hands and scrambled onto the backseat of a waiting scooter. Off they went.
I was never going to find a better job or a room of my own.
O be joyful (Isaiah 66:10)
A week later my foot was still hurting and I went to the physiotherapist.
The receptionist led me into the treatment room. ‘Please take off your trousers, shoes and socks, the therapist will be with you shortly.’
I did as I was told and lay down on the massage table.
’You can take off more, let me see what I missed…’
The therapist had a big grin on her face. She had long blonde hair and was wearing a short lab coat, almost as sexy as her fire-fighter dress. Only this time she wasn’t wearing high heels.
‘Rocío.’ I grinned. ‘Nicely played.’
She blushed. ‘I don’t trust myself when I’m drunk and couldn’t be sure I wanted to see you again. If I’d felt too embarrassed, I wouldn’t have treated you.’
‘Glad you came to your senses.’ Was she wearing anything underneath?
She touched my foot. It felt very good.
‘So, what do you do?’ She leaned forward offering an interesting view of her dark green lace bra.
Her fingers seemed to suck all the pain out of my ankle. I told her about my work and tried not to think about her almost-naked body under that lab coat.
‘At least you can leave,’ she said. ‘My degree isn’t accepted in other countries.’
‘I’m not going anywhere. This is home.’ And Rocío proved that our women were so much better looking than any guiri.
After fifteen minutes she stopped. ‘That should fix you.’
‘So I won’t have to see you again?’
‘You can always invite me to dinner.’
‘If you’re up for a dinner around eleven at night.’
‘How about Friday?’
‘You have to pick up Mr Sanchez in Granada. Go there tonight, find yourself some free place to stay and bring him here tomorrow by eleven.’
‘I’ve plans tonight.’
‘Oh. You have plans. Meeting some nice girl, are you?’
‘How do you think we’re supposed to compete with German engineers, when all you ever think of are parties and girls? You want to keep your job?’
‘Well, there you go.’
Cantabria was probably the most German part of Spain. No parties, no sex, just work and rain.
At ten thirty that night he handed me his car keys. I left Cádiz through our former industrial zone. At the Delphi factory, the lonely banner reading ‘No one closes Delphi’ had come loose on one side and was fluttering in the wind. The 4500 jobs that had been there were long gone, including my father’s job.
I reached Granada around two in the morning and the friend with whom I’d planned to stay, heard neither the doorbell nor his phone. So I lowered the passenger seat into a horizontal position and made myself comfortable.
I drifted in and out of sleep until around half past four when a couple lurched past the car.
‘Let’s go to your place,’ the girl said.
‘Not an option. Would wake up my parents,’ the guy responded.
‘Thought you lived alone.’
‘No babe, can’t afford it anymore.’ He pushed her against the wall and pressed hard against her. ‘Don’t you feel how much I need you?’
‘Oh baby.’ She tried to kiss him.
He zipped down his fly and pushed her head down. ‘Go on babe. Suck it hard!’
‘Everybody can see us here.’
‘Let’s do it between those cars.’ And down they went right in front of me.
From the sound of it, it was going to be a quick one, but then she screamed. ‘Ah, shit! Shit, shit, shit!’
‘What’s the matter? Don’t stop!’
‘No, shit! There’s dog shit everywhere down here!’
‘What do you mean? Oh, shit! That’s disgusting!’
I have to admit, we don’t take the ‘Scoop the poop’ slogans too seriously in Spain. They tried to get rid of the stuff and rubbed their hands and asses against my bumper and bonnet. Then they hurried away. Not much passion left, I suppose.
I drove around the city in search of a car wash, but nothing opened before nine, so I used the T-shirt that I was wearing under my work shirt to scrub the car as clean as I could.
I picked up Mr Sanchez at seven thirty. He looked like he was in his sixties; he was overweight and he liked his cerveza, as I found out at eight when he suggested we stop at a service area.
‘I’m supposed to get you there by eleven,’ I said, but I was craving a coffee so I stopped.
‘No harm done if we get there a bit later.’
He obviously didn’t know Alejandro well.
Mr Sanchez ordered two beers.
‘I have to drive. I’d rather have a coffee.’
‘Coffee? No way to start our relationship, amigo. And a little cerveza won’t stop you from driving.’
So cerveza it was.
‘You work for that bastard Alejandro?’
‘He pays you?’
‘Lucky you!’ He laughed. ‘But there’s no future for you here. Go to Germany. They’re looking for engineers. I worked in a factory there when I was young. Best social security system ever. Became a sick leave expert. Wanna know how?’
The beers arrived and he held up his glass.
‘Call me Manolo.’
We chinked glasses.
‘So I told the doctor ‘bout my kidney pain and he made me piss into a plastic cup. But I’d come prepared. With a needle I pricked my finger and dropped some blood into that cup. So imagine what happened, when the results came back.’ He inhaled half of his beer. ‘Straight to hospital, it was. Kept me and my needle there for three weeks, trying to figure it out. And after that, I had to stay at home for another three weeks. Paid vacation. Cheers to that!’
The rest of the glass was gone.
‘Time of my life. Nice women, blonde ones with blue eyes. You should go.’ He waved at the bartender and put two fingers up. ‘Now I’m into trading.’
‘What do you trade?’
‘Properties, my wisdom and my connections. I can get you anything. What do you need, son?’
‘Oh, I have just the thing for you. A nice room in the centre of Cádiz.’
‘Seriously?’ I couldn’t believe my luck.
Two more beers arrived and Manolo held up his new glass, halted midway and kept it there until I’d gulped down my first. I raised the new glass and we chinked.
‘You can move in today after my meeting with Alejandro.’
‘Oh! Shouldn’t we take a…’
‘And because I like you so much, you get the room at a special price, three hundred fifty.’
Three hundred fifty euros was half of what I earned. Would I be able to survive with what would be left? And could my mother cope without my monthly contribution to the household expenses?
‘Cheers to that,’ he said.
When I’d emptied the second glass the deal began to sound good.
‘You’re late! I told you to bring him here at eleven!’ Alejandro’s eyes were bulging in rage.
‘It wasn’t my fault.’
‘You’re wasting everybody’s time! Sit down and make up for the lost hours!’ He stormed into the conference room and slammed the door.
I hurried to the car and sped to the nearest car wash. I had to make it back to the office before their meeting ended. At the first car wash, four cars were already queuing up. I drove on. The second car was decorated by graffiti that read ‘Closed by Angela Merkel’. At the third car wash I managed to get the car cleaned, but only after listening to the attendant complaining about the crisis for endless minutes. I paid with my last ten euros and rushed back to the office.
The conference room was deserted. No sight of Manolo.
‘May I ask what you’ve been up to now?’ Alejandro asked.
‘I cleaned your car.’ Surely he would like that? I showed him the bulk of gas, toll, and car wash receipts. ‘I spent 138 euros overall.’
‘You can shove those receipts up your ass! Not only did you keep my client from arriving here on time, I hear you also bored him with stories of your sad little life. You’re of no interest to Mr Sanchez. His connections might have supplied us with new contracts, but after you pestered him he will probably think about it twice!’
‘Don’t you dare talk to him again.’
This probably wasn’t the right moment to ask him for Manolo’s number.
Sunday evening, I was finally free for dinner. Rocío picked me up on her scooter. I wrapped my hands around her waist and we rode along the bay. Her hips were firm and muscular under her dress. Her long hair was flowing out from under her helmet filling the air with a fruity smell. I wanted to inhale her, drink her in, stop the scooter and take her right there. Maybe she would let me take her to a private spot on the beach later on. We passed the mall and jolted over a barely tarred track to a sandy parking place right on the waterfront. Although she’d somehow managed to drive in them, Rocío couldn’t walk on the sandy ground in her high heels, so she took them off and walked barefoot. She had perfect legs and she looked stunning in her black dress.
Wooden fishing boats were rocking on the waves. The fishermen stored their equipment in skewed corrugated iron shacks overlooking the bay. Diego’s shack was adorned with a crude, concrete terrace where he grilled fish for the locals.
We sat down on what had once been white plastic chairs and Diego decided to serve us mackerels with piriñaca. No candles decorated the table, no table cloths and no glasses. Below us the fishermen tied up their boats and stored their equipment. Rocío kissed me. The fishermen bantered and whistled. We sipped our beers from freezing cans, squeezed fresh lemon over the fish and vegetables and dug into the food.
Flickering orange lights marked the coastline. I took a picture of the view and another one of Rocío and sent both to Raúl.
‘things ur missing out on’ I texted.
‘asshole’ was all that came back.
Fog rose from the ocean and got caught in the abandoned bridge pillars.
‘When I was young my parents always told me how the new bridge would boost our economy,’ Rocío said.
‘The bridge was the reason why I became a civil engineer. I was so excited when the works finally started. It should have become one of Europe’s highest and longest bridges and I so wanted to be part of that!’
An enormous cruise ship entered the bay and anchored behind the bridge pillars. Our view was gone.Even the cathedral towers disappeared behind the floating skyscraper. German party music sounded from the deck.
We gulped down the rest of the food and asked for the bill.
‘Fourteen euros, cash only,’ Javi said.
‘I’ll take care of this,’ I said. Even I could afford to invite my girl to dinner at Javi’s.
I leafed through my wallet. Gas receipts, toll receipts, car wash receipt. No money. I began sweating. I looked again. Gas, toll, car wash. Nothing else.
Rocío took out a twenty euro note. ‘Here you go.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ I was glad it was dark and she couldn’t see the colour of my face.
I didn’t really feel like taking her to a hidden spot on the beach anymore.
He rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2)
‘I’m giving a lecture on superficial and profound foundations two weeks from now in Madrid,’ Alejandro told me some days later. ‘You’ll prepare a script, around one hundred pages, and a PowerPoint presentation with two hundred charts. It’s for the Society of Civil Engineers, all experienced professionals, so don’t try to fool me with any of that Wikipedia bullshit.’
‘What about the projects I’m working on? Can they wait?’
‘Are you nuts? What would our clients think? You’ll prepare this after work.’
The cold north wind brought me to my senses. At least I still had a job.
I called someone I knew, placed my order and went to the candy shop that served as a front for the drug business. Maybe Alejandro wanted to reimburse me for this?
From that day on I lived at the office. At least I didn’t have to look for a room anymore. The pills kept me going and whenever they stopped working I slept under my desk for half an hour and then took more. Every other day I hurried home to shower and get some food. Rocío rang on the third day, wondering what had happened to me. I told her what was going on.
‘So you’re officially his slave now?’ she asked.
‘What can I do?’
‘Don’t know. Not this.’
‘I’ll make it up to you afterwards.’
She kept calling over the next few days, but when she realised nothing changed, the calls stopped.
I became a copy and paste expert. Most of the time, I had no idea what I was putting together, but for once Alejandro was satisfied.
Thy King cometh onto thee (Matthew 21:5)
Early on Monday morning, two weeks later Alejandro finally left for Madrid and I stumbled home. That day Spain was celebrating the bicentenary of Europe’s first liberal constitution, proclaimed in Cádiz when it was still among the richest cities in the West. The new bridge should’ve been inaugurated during the celebrations. At the corner of Calle Ancha and San José police blocked my way. Two black limousines crept up the street. The first stopped right where I was standing. I stared into the car and looked straight into the eyes of King Juan Carlos. He’d become old. Big pouches nestled under his eyes. For an eternal moment we stared at each other. Then he opened his mouth. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I could have sworn he said ‘Vete’, leave. He yawned, closed his eyes and his head sunk into the soft, cream coloured cushion attached to his leather headrest. The convoy carried on. Queen Sofía followed in a separate car. She didn’t look at me.
I slept the entire day and then called Rocío.
‘You’ve been released?’ she asked.
‘Don’t be mad. Let’s go out and enjoy the celebrations.’
The city had put up a stage on Plaza Mina, where artists performed flamenco. We listened to the melancholy songs that told of jealousy, lost love and despair. Afterwards the musicians continued playing and the entire plaza erupted into a dance. Children, parents and grandparents joined in to dance Sevillanas. Proud Spanish women held their heads up high, pushed their breasts out and moved their arms around their heads and torsos to bewitch their partners like puffed up peacocks in a mating ritual. Rocío’s face almost brushed mine, but before I could touch her she was gone again, keeping her distance.
I’d made plans for our evening and they started with drinks in a new beach bar.
‘Hey Rocío, amor, what’s new?’ our waiter asked in a German accent. He was blond, tanned and wearing surfer shorts and flip flops.
Rocío smiled. ‘Hey Wolfgang. This is my friend Paco.’
‘Oh! The invisible friend. I hope you take good care of my angel.’
He took our orders and disappeared.
‘How do you know him?’
‘They invited me for drinks at the opening. It’s a shame you had to work.’
I looked around. None of the waiters were Spanish.
‘So the Germans are even stealing the few new jobs that we get here?’
‘Don’t be mean. This is a tourist spot. Tourists don’t speak Spanish and none of us speaks any foreign language.’
Wolfgang returned with the drinks and I downed the vodka-red bull in one go.
‘Should I get you another one?’ Wolfgang asked.
‘That’s all for now. Thanks.’ I turned to Rocío. ‘Hey, I…’
‘I could take my break now,’ Wolfgang said and sat down at our table.
‘Oh great.’ Rocío smiled at him. ‘So how’ve you been?’
‘Actually,’ I said ‘I changed my mind. Why don’t you get me another one of those?’
‘A’right, mate.’ Wolfgang disappeared again.
I leaned over to Rocío and held up her glass for her. ‘I have a surprise, but you need to drink a little bit faster…
‘What’s the rush?’
‘The café where my mum’s working will stay open late because of the celebrations so we have the flat to ourselves.’
‘Oh,’ she grinned and inhaled her drink. ‘Let’s go.’
I left money on the table and we passed an astonished Wolfgang who was just returning with my second drink.
‘That one’s to go,’ I said and grabbed the glass from his tray. ‘Enjoy your break!’
‘I’d long given up all hope,’ Rocío giggled.
We rushed home and up the stairs, into the flat. I opened the door to my room and I stopped dead in my tracks. My brother was sitting on my sofa, bent over, his head in his hands.
‘Juan! What are you doing in Cádiz?’ I pushed Rocío back into the living room and motioned her to leave.
Juan looked up. ‘Moving back in.’
I cast one last look at Rocío who rolled her eyes and left.
Juan was staring at the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge that our father had given me when I started out at uni and Dad was still the proud head of our family who thought his sons were the future of this country.
‘Another one down,’ he said.
I opened the closet and made space for Juan’s clothes. The sofa would be converted into his bed, and I’d have to share my room again.
The next day Alejandro was still in Madrid. I went into his office. I had to find Manolo’s number. Juan would be on the dole for six months, so he could support my mother. I flicked through the rolodex on Alejandro’s desk. Nothing under M, nothing under S. I went through all his drawers in search for some other form of address book. Nothing. I stared at Alejandro’s office phone, praying for a call from Manolo. Nothing happened. Then I saw the letters M.S. next to the upper speed dial button.
I pressed and waited, my heart pounding in my chest.
‘Yes?’ Was it Manolo?
‘Paco here from Cádiz.’
‘You’ve taken some time to call me back, amigo,’ Manolo said.
‘I didn’t have your number.’
‘I left a message with Alejandro after you suddenly disappeared.’
‘He must have forgotten about it.’ The bastard. ‘Do you still have the room?’ I didn’t dare breathe.
‘It’s your lucky day, amigo. I didn’t have time to deal with the issue. The room is yours if you want it. I’m in town on Friday, so let’s meet then.’
I called Rocío.
‘Any plans for Friday night?’
One of you will betray me (Matthew 26:21)
Manolo led us into a narrow dark street.
Rocío squeezed my hand. ‘This is so exciting!’ She smiled at Manolo. ‘Thank you so much.’
We climbed up the steep stairs behind the garbage containers and entered the flat. It stank as if we’d stepped into a life-sized ashtray, but it was just the living room. A tiny window opened to the staircase. Neon lights illuminated the room. Three Chinese people were smoking in front of the TV. Rocío gripped my hand harder.
The girl introduced herself as something that sounded to me like Chung Ching Chu.
‘But in Spain name is Belén,’ she added. Did she know that Belén meant Bethlehem?
She showed us the kitchen. We were greeted by overflowing ashtrays and innumerable bottling jars filled with eggs, chicken feet or other, best left unidentified, animal parts. Rocío’s grip started to feel more like an iron vice now.
‘You like?’ Belén asked.
‘Very inviting.’ As long as I never had to eat with them.
Manolo led me to my room. It was probably six square metres. A single bed, a damp mattress, a couple of hooks in the wall, no window. All mine for 350 euros.
Rocío looked as if she was going to faint. I kept my money and dragged her out of that place.
When I texted Raúl about it later he sent me a picture of his large room in Stuttgart.
‘consider ur options’ he replied.
The next Thursday everybody was supposed to go on general strike. The protesters forced those working in shops and bars to close down and join them. My mother lost that entire day’s salary. In my office we were all grinding away. From about eleven we heard them shouting ‘No a la reforma laboral’. Rocío rang.
‘Where are you?’
‘Can’t make it.’
‘But it’s a general strike. You have to!’
‘My contract ends next week and I need a new one.’
‘Are you coming Rocío?’ a guy with a German accent shouted in the background.
‘Right. Gotta go, Wolfgang’s waiting. You do what you have to do.’ She hung up.
When the protesters marched past our office and realised we were still inside they threw raw eggs at our windows and tried to force up the iron roller shutters. But around half past one, everything went quiet. They’d probably all gotten hungry and returned home for lunch. And after that they all seemed to need an afternoon-long siesta.
Rocío never rang again nor did she pick up the phone when I called her. Alejandro didn’t say anything about a new contract.
‘Should I come back on Monday?’ I asked him on Maundy Thursday. It was the most important Christian holiday, but what did he care?
‘You’ll get a new contract. Three months, five hundred euros.’
Five hundred euros was only two hundred less than what I got at that moment.
Into thy hands (Luke 23:46)
That evening I bought plastic bags, a shovel and a silicone spatula at the local Chinese shop. Thus equipped, I went to the esplanade, the residents’ favourite place to take their dogs for walks. I scooped up the entire length from the harbour to the beach and returned to the office. Alejandro’s car was parked in its usual spot. With the spatula I rubbed the shit deep into the radiator grill, the venting slots and into every gap between the doors and the car body.
Then I went home, took a long hot shower and texted Raúl.
Maybe the heat or the smell of incense and sweat tainted my senses or maybe God really heard me, but after a while I didn’t notice the weight anymore. I felt happy and lightheaded.
The next morning I took down the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and packed my suitcase.
The next German intensive course in Stuttgart began the following day.
Born in 1975 in Germany, Vera Brenner has spent her professional life creating content for TV and film. To tell more compelling stories and explore other cultures she emigrated to Spain in 2007. Since 2012 she has been studying a Creative Writing MFA in London. Her work has appeared in ‘Big, Red & Shiny’ and ‘Words, Pauses, Noises.’
Featured artwork: “Sweet Lies”, by Merlin Flower