You arrived in Barcelona with no plan other than to experience it. In your head it was a gothic place, all teetering Gaudiesque towers and endless nights. The reality of it wasn’t too different: the maze of laneways off the Ramblas pumped their dark sensuality like a medieval carnival, night and day, and there was a vibrancy to the roaming crowds of rich and poor. Barcelona didn’t wear the pristine frilliness of Germanic cities, it had its own dirty-sweet, lived-in charm, like a treasured vintage dress. The Gaudi buildings weren’t everywhere, as you had expected, but the place was beautiful and unlike any other you’d been in. Arriving in October, you found the city still basking under summer’s heat and you were glad of it, after a rainy Dublin September.
The studio you rented was in El Raval, overlooking a busy laneway that was chock-a-block with cheap Indian restaurants. It took two months for you to adjust your body to the rhythms of the neighbourhood: quiet mornings, noisy nights. The women in the flat opposite—there were five of them and two small babies—were performers, seamstresses or prostitutes: spangled, sequiny costumes lounged on rows of wall-hooks, or sat in their laps for mending. You could lie in your bed by the window and look across the alley, through the railings of the balcony, into their flat. They may have been Cuban: they shimmied and shuffled together every afternoon to Latino music, swinging the children in their arms occasionally and shouting at each other constantly.
Five days a week you pulped fruit and vegetables into long glasses for thirsty tourists. Seven nights a week you played with your new friends: a gaggle of Aussies, Catalans and Brits, with the odd Kiwi thrown into the mix for flavour. Xavier—beautiful, angry Xavier—was a native. You met him, ridiculously, in an Irish bar called The Ramblers. Like most Irish abroad, you flocked to the Guinness sign when it presented itself in your first week in the city. The workers in the bar were all English, the beer was twice the price of everywhere else, but the music was from home and it was comforting, some nights, to hear familiar accents.
You had spotted Xavier early on in the evening; he didn’t look like any other Catalan you’d met. He wore a raggy T-shirt, his head was dirty with stubble and he looked belligerent and unhappy. But he was watching you, just as you couldn’t stop watching him. Chatting with your workmates, you flicked your eyes in his direction from time to time and he stared back. It was late when he came up behind you at the bar and wound his hand into your hair, like a snake.
‘Your hair is like ashes.’
‘Is that a compliment?’
‘Yes,’ he said, but pronounced it ‘jess’. He asked if you were from Ireland and when you said that you were, he just nodded.
‘Are you from Barcelona?’
You leaned your head back off the end of the bed; the balcony door was open to let what small breeze might be blowing in through the studio. The ceiling fan was frozen again—it gave off an eerie whine that sounded like cats in heat. With your eyes half shut, the green ceiling-rose seemed to shiver and spin. Xavier was sucking at your throat, pumping your breasts between his hands and grunting with each thrust he made. Sweat slid from his thighs to yours, from his belly to yours. His long body cleaved onto you in a perfect way. Like he said, you were a fit. Your neck was sore from holding it back over the hard edge of the mattress; you opened your eyes fully. The Latino women were watching you and Xavier: they had gathered on their balcony, and they languished there, staring at your heaving bodies as if they were looking at a film on TV.
You locked your eyes onto the eyes of the eldest woman, the one you had christened Rosa because of her china-doll red cheeks. She fanned her face with a magazine, then raised one eyebrow at you. You smiled, lifted your head and kissed Xavier deeply, forcefully. He said he was going to come and you matched his jutting and urged him on until he released himself into you with his familiar whimper. You kissed wetly, for a long time, and when you looked across the alley again, the women were gone.
Xavier rolled a joint for the two of you to share and you sat up in the bed, watching his nimble fingers skin, flame, crumble, roll and light. It would’ve taken you ten minutes to do it, so you were glad he was rolling and not you. He offered you the first drag and the smoke hit the back of your throat like pepper. You breathed long on its heat again, then handed it to him.
‘You know, in Ireland we pronounce your name Ecks-save-yer. Or some people just say Save-yer.’
He snorted, blowing smoke through his nose in ragged puffs. ‘Say that again. Ecks-something?’
‘Ecks-save-yer. It’s terrible, isn’t it? Ecks-save-yer, come in for your dinner, it’s gettin’ cauld.’ You laughed. ‘The way you say it is just so much sexier. Xavier. Xavier.’
‘I like your name too. Lillis. It’s pretty. What does it mean?’
‘Oh, it’s just the flower, the lily. It’s Greek. My mother has absurd taste—she called my poor brother Robin, like the bird, and he’s this enormous, grizzly thing.’
Xavier pressed his hand into your stomach, rubbing at the mingled sweat that was still gathered there. You loved the look of his honey-brown skin, with its lattice of tattoos, against your body which stubbornly stayed pale as milk.
‘I wish I had a tan,’ you said.
‘I like your skin,’ he fingered your shoulder, ‘it’s like the inside of a turnip.’ Your face must have dropped. ‘I mean that in a good way,’ he added, smiling, and he kissed your nose. You touched the raised veins on his inner arms; they were as darkly blue as a tracery of rivers on a vellum map.
‘You’re so gorgeous, Xavier.’
He leaned over and kissed you, long and lovingly. The smoke had made you both sluggish and his tongue felt thick and welcome against yours.
In Café Alex you ate bruise-tipped asparagus spears, pimentos that were both smoky and sweet, and beef tomatoes slick with olive oil. Xavier poked at his dish with a cocktail stick—every so often stabbing a piece of feta or a glossy green olive—and swigged mightily at a bottle of beer. Night had closed down fast over the city; Xavier looked at his watch, said he had to meet someone about something. He was jittery and seemed angry again but you were afraid to ask who he was meeting and why. You gulped at your wine and talked about the letter your brother had sent, all about the new boy he’d met and how he thought this one was ‘the one’.
‘As usual,’ you said and smiled, thinking of Robin. A sudden compassion for him welled out of nowhere and you realised you were missing him a lot. ‘Robin’s great, you know? We get on well, more like friends than brother and sister; I can really talk to him.’ Xavier barely lifted his eyes to show he was listening, so you shut up and concentrated on eating. It was late and this was the first meal you’d had all day.
‘Let’s go,’ he said.
‘I’m still eating.’
‘Just hurry up.’
‘I don’t want to hurry up, I’ve loads left.’ You pointed at the various tapas dishes ranged around your plate. Xavier stood and hovered over the table clicking his fingers, in an absent, urgent way. In the end, you slugged back your wine and stuffed the last of your food into your mouth; a slew of oil rilled down your chin and you wiped it away as you followed him out onto Plaça Reial.
The square was heaving with people: open-air diners, buskers, jugglers, wanderers and tourists. You stopped, looked around and spotted Marina, the small girl from London who often came into the café you worked in. You waved, but she looked like she was off her head: her eyes were closed and she was playing a tin-whistle; her head lolled and she lurched from table to table, begging for a few pesetas. A huge-armed man with a cluster of dreads at the nape of his neck stayed near her, watching, never letting her stray too far. Looking at him watching Marina made you feel sick. Turning around, you realised that Xavier was gone, lost in the mill of people on the square.
You were a little drunk and you didn’t like the idea of having to walk the dim alleyways alone. Running into the middle of Plaça Reial, you hoped to see Xavier ahead of you, but you scanned the crowds and didn’t find him. You walked quickly up a narrow street, nearly tripping over two people who were sprawled on the ground in the dark. The night’s heat gathered around your face and your upper lip began to dampen; you folded your arms around your body, dipped your head and ploughed through the people walking towards you. Then, realising that you probably looked agitated, you slowed your pace and stepped more surely; you were glad to see the lit-up markets stalls of the Ramblas ahead. Hearing someone running behind you, you turned to see Marina coming up the alleyway. She was clutching the tin-whistle and her bag of coins; she banged into you and grabbed at your arm.
‘Please, please, help me. You know me, you know me,’ she babbled. Her eyes were rolling in their sockets and she looked feverish, but her clutching hand was strong on your arm. You told her to calm down and glanced behind to see if her dreadlocked minder was coming after her.
‘Marina! Marina! It’s me, it’s Lillis,’ you said, shaking her. She seemed to be asleep on her feet. ‘Can you run?’
She nodded, her head bobbing like a toddler’s, so you dragged her, half-running, up the alley to the Ramblas. Once there, you weaved through people and crossed the road into El Raval, then took a roundabout route to your studio on Carrer de Sant Pau, where you shoved her up the stairs ahead of you.
You woke to a rhythmic pounding on the door. When you opened your eyes, you saw the back of Marina’s short dirtyblonde hair beside you on the pillow and couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t Xavier. The wheening of the ceiling fan blended with the thumping that went on and on. You remembered what had happened.
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s me. Who do you think it is?’
You let Xavier in.
‘Where the hell did you get to?’ He saw Marina on the bed, still dressed in worn ski-pants and T-shirt. ‘What the fuck is she doing here?’
‘She had nowhere to go.’
‘Get her out of here, she’s a dirty junkie.’
‘She’s only a kid.’
‘Get her out! She’s a fucking pro,’ he shouted.
‘Keep your voice down, Xavier. This is my place and I’m letting her stay.’
‘Do you have any idea who her pimp is, Lillis?’
You shook your head.
‘It’s French Bernard. Do you know him?’
‘I’ve seen him. Big. Dreadlocks.’
‘You don’t want to make an enemy of that man, believe me, Lillis. I should know.’
‘What could I do? She just needed a little help.’
‘For your own sake, and mine, get rid of her.’ Xavier was pointing his finger into your face. You pushed it away.
He let a roar and kicked at the leg of a chair, sending it skidding across the tiles; it crashed into the wall. Marina didn’t even stir.
‘Lillis, make a choice: if she stays, I go.’
You looked at him, at the raw anger that tensed his whole body. Then you looked at Marina, curled on the bed like a baby.
‘I think you’d better leave.’
Xavier threw up his arms. ‘You crazy bitch.’ He turned away, then swung back, went to say something and stopped himself; he crossed the floor, opened the door and looked at you.
‘Thank you, fuck you, and good bye.’ The slamming door made you wince.
‘Goodbye, Xavier,’ you said to the air.
Marina sat up, rubbed at her eyes. You smiled at her. ‘How are you doing? Breakfast?’
She stood up out of the bed, reached for her whistle and bag. ‘I have to go and find Bernard,’ she said, ‘he’ll be looking for me.’
‘Wait, Marina.’ You put your hand on her shoulder. ‘Will you be okay? Will Bernard not be angry with you for running off?’
Marina shrugged. ‘Thanks, Lillis. For the bed. See you around, yeah?’
You let her go.