Or, A Different Kind of All Nighter
She scanned the bread aisle with her index finger and read the prices out loud to herself. Through the grocery store window, I saw her lips move and her head rise and fall in front of the stacks. She shrugged off the pricey breads and continued to search for the biggest loaf for the least amount of Euros. Her hair fell out of a makeshift ponytail, and sand dusted her cheeks. Barcelonans weaved around her and hurried toward the cash register. They wore nice suits and fancy euro pants, tight from the waist to the ankle. Mary, my wife, did not fit in. Her ragged tank top strap fell off her shoulder. Her face was clean of makeup, and instead of a stylish leather pouch, she held a worn-out cloth bag in her hands.
I sat outside the store on the curb and watched the chic Spaniards glance at her when they passed her on the way to the cashier – the cashier that raised her voice and yelled for Mary to hurry because the store needed to shut its doors for the night. Mary continued to scan the bread and finally grabbed a long French loaf and a bottle of water before taking her place in line behind all the people that would have a place, other than on the street, to sleep that night. She looked out at me. Panic had struck her eyes, the glare of the window shining in them like lightning hitting a blue and green pool.
Six hours earlier, we stood in our Barcelona apartment in the Le Exiample district of the great Catalan city. We had rented the one-bedroom flat for a month’s stay. I looked down at my ID and debit card that sat on the kitchen counter and decided to not take them on our daily trip to the beach. We’d always taken ID and cards to the beach before, and since we did, we had to take turns getting in the water, one person watching our bags and the other bobbing in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. I wanted to swim together, to play beneath the sun, and maybe act romantically like they do in the movies. So I left my ID and cards on the kitchen counter with hopes of being George-Clooney sexy on the Barceloneta sands.
When we got back from the beach, I swung our apartment keys around on the tip of my pointer finger and whistled a tune to make Mary laugh. I had my romantic kisses in the sea and bought a bottle of wine to drink before heading out to dinner. It had the makings of perfect day until I dropped my spinning keys down the thin opening of the elevator shaft. They fell all the way to the bottom and shone up at me from the concrete floor like the teeth of a metal enemy. We had no other keys, and we were locked out of our apartment without a phone, without money, and without our passports. We were screwed.
The apartment manager had closed up shop for the day, and once we let the exterior door of the apartment complex slam behind us in a fit of indecision, we knew we would be sleeping on the streets of Barcelona with a beach bag, towels, and beach clothes. The street, the sun, the scurrying pedestrians all became blurry behind a fuzzy wall of the different reality I had created for us.
It’s crazy how many times we counted our money. Just like we return to the refrigerator every five minutes when we’re bored with the hope that something new will be in there, we shuffled through our money again and again with the hope a bigger bill might have hidden itself behind the smaller bills during our first, third, and ninth count. We used two of our seven Euros to call the US Embassy in Madrid, dropping each coin in the pay phone and knowing once it went in, we wouldn’t be able to get it out. We’d hoped there’d be a safe house. We’d hoped there’d be a way to get a bed for the night. We’d hope the embassy would throw us a life vest.
“You didn’t bring ID or money with you to the beach?” the embassy agent asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, that wasn’t bright,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Well, I would suggest finding a piece of grass in a well-lit park,” he said.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s all I can do,” he said. “Without ID or money…and we’re located in Madrid.”
If it were just me, if I weren’t there with Mary, I wouldn’t have been scared, and I would have used the remaining Euros to get a nice buzz on and slept on a park bench. Ten years earlier, I had backpacked Europe with my friends, and we slept on benches, on lawns, and in trees. We were five young men together. Everything changes when it’s you and your wife. Everything is scary. Everybody is a threat. And every boneheaded, key-dropping mistake is amplified with a desire to protect the one you love from the threats of nightly homelessness.
After bouncing ideas of where to sleep off each other (while I can’t say literally bouncing because of my anger at culture’s misuse of the term, it felt like we were throwing hard suggestions at each other’s faces), we decided that the train station seats would be the most comfortable and safest for our homeless night, so we boarded the metro, used two of our seven remaining Euros to by a pass, and exited the underground station into the bustling Barcelona hub.
Right before Mary went into the market to buy rations for our night, we stood outside and bickered about what would be best to buy, knowing that we would exhaust most, and probably all, of our remaining cash. I wanted to buy water, water, and more water. I felt hydration would be more important than sustenance. Mary said that we needed some kind of food or we would become cranky and combative. Without food in my stomach, I was cranky and combative and fought with her about what to get. We decided on two things right then: first, the next 18 hours would suck, but we would be just fine; second, if we fought and didn’t laugh our way through it, just like we’d made it through every other struggle in our lives, then the night could become one of worst.
Mary walked out of the store with our bread and water, and we found our seats in the heart of the train station to wait out the night. At eight o’clock, the train station rumbled with travelers. Backpackers, ratty and disheveled, leaned on their packs and played poker. Young men flirted with their young female companions. Spaniard families read books. Spanish parents reprimanded Spanish children. The McDonalds line stretched from the counter, weaved its way through the restaurants seats, and flowed out into the terminal. Travelers held tickets and gazed up at the departure board. Their tickets would take them somewhere that night. They were transient, and we watched the one group of backpackers move out and another move in. Departing families vacated their seats and arriving families walked from train exits to the glass doors that opened up into the city. For three or four hours, we watched people come, go, and come and go again. The warm sun from the beach and stress of homelessness tired Mary out, so she placed her head on my shoulder and fell asleep while I watched the departure screen become emptier and emptier. Our fear had decreased for a bit.
The last train left at 11:55, and when it departed and when no other departures appeared on the board, security moved from the other end of the train station and kicked out anyone who had not gotten on a train. The station was closing, and the guards swept out all the loiterers, like us. They pointed to the clock and said, “son las cuatro en la manana.” We would have to find another bed, outside of the train station, until 10am that next morning when we would find our way to the apartment manager’s office on knock, stinky and gross and tired, on the door. The glass doors to the station closed. Security guards stood on one side, and Mary and I, along with about forty others, stood on the other. We’d been dumped on the Barcelona streets with everyone else who had nowhere to sleep that night, many of which did not make good company.
The train station fell dark behind us. We laid out our towels on the concrete next to the entrance and lay down next to each other. Some young travelers huddled next to us. They used their backpacks to create walls around them and laid their sleeping bags on top of their unraveled mats. They, like my friends and I ten years earlier, were prepared, male, and unthreatened by the buzzing and spinning drunks and transients that circled around us. For the most part, everyone kept to himself or herself. They shared our uncomfortable plight and just hunkered down with books, flashlights, and beer and waited for the sun to rise over the Barcelona skyline.
We watched some of our homeless peers climb into cars with prostitutes and climb back out of those cars just a little while later. We watched some head to close down the bars and return drunk enough to sleep soundly on their concrete bed. The hookers, the drunks, the backpackers were all harmless; they just found their way to make it through the night. But some, like the three men who howled at the moon, drunk and stoned and hopped up on something, put everyone on edge. Maybe it was their bare-chested cries into the night or the way they ran toward everyone who tried to sleep and shouted into the air or maybe it was the way the looked at everyone – a gaze that didn’t drift away with humility or shyness, a gaze that panned in like a cameraman hoping for the money shot. It may have just been the way they fought with each other, each man standing his ground and puffing out his chest and yelling back at his friend.
Mary, next to me on the ground, wound herself up tightly like she were playing dead in front of a bear. At one time, one of the men came so close to use that she grabbed the bag of my leg and squeezed hard, pushing her fingers into my calf. I could hear the sound of her teeth clamp together. It was his eyes. So distant. Without any fear. Locked on something that I couldn’t see. Like a wave crashing and then receding, he got within a couple feet of us, smiled hugely, his grin unveiling black gums, and then receded.
I did not sleep. I kept one eye on them until they burnt out and practically fell to the ground like a meteor that had lost its tail and dropped out of the sky, only a shred of the fire it had once been. But by the time that had happened, we had made it through the hours without sleep, the train station doors reopened, and all of us, tired and sleepless, rambled back in.
An hour later, we found ourselves on the beach of Barceloneta, a return to where we started, but with no money, with very little water, and added bags beneath our eyes. Again, we laid our towels down on the sand, but this time we did not lie down, but instead, stripped off everything but our swimsuits and plunged into the cool waters of the Mediterranean Sea and watched the sun rise from edge of the world. Its rays, at first, dropped a path of light from the water’s edge to us, and then, minute-by-minute, the light grew to cover the sky and the tiny waves lapped against our back. The beach, except for a couple elderly Spaniards and bottles of beer that had been dropped there the night before, was empty. Waves cut paths into the sand. Seagulls dropped out of the sky to pick up scraps of food that had fallen off the tables of the beach pubs, and Mary and I stood in the water, hungry, tired, and happy to be alone at our beach.