“Feliz Navidad!” a couple called out to me, drunk, arm in arm, carrying each other down the street and I hurried on through the snow.
I knocked on the security door, the iron grid banging and rang the buzzer a few times, but the party was loud and no one heard me. I threw a snowball over the fence. There was a shriek and some laughter inside. “It’s Juan” I yelled, “someone come let me in”.
A moment later Isabella opened the door, the stem of a wine glass between her thumb and forefinger, still laughing over her shoulder. Juan, you’re here. Yes friends, it is good to be known. It is good to have a beautiful girl open the door for you with a glass of red wine in her hand. I kissed Isabella on her warm cheek and hung up my coat. I knocked the snow from my boots and stowed them in the drying rack. It was a welcoming sight out of the cold, all those furry boots lined up next to each other, like a herd of bison gathering near each other for warmth.
Inside it was warm and full of life. Everyone was flushed and everyone was drunk. We are not so carefree now as we used to be, that’s true, but still, we are not weighed down all together, not yet bound by obligations, financial, familial, emotional. We haven’t slowed like our friends in the firms and banks of the city, those who cut off all their hair, and took off their armbands and whom we never see any longer. We, those of us who stayed here in town, we still move with ease.
There was wine on the counter top, beer in the fridge and tapas on the table, talk of politics, Basque nationalism, elections in the UK, the decay of punk rock and MTV. I got talking to a girl who is moving to Argentina, following another girl there. I said I admired her courage. I wish I had chased a girl to another country when I was still young enough to do such a thing. I am getting too heavy for that now. Not just my belly, but my head too. I am slowing down. You can fight the atrophy, but only for so long.
The political types were gathered in a circle, shouting at each other in the corner of the room. Some with sensible agendas and others with Utopian nonsense, but I liked the sense and the nonsense just the same. It all made me happy. These energetic people, still struggling to change the world. Still believing they could.
Guerrilla Urbana played loudly on the stereo and I liked it all very much. It felt good to be here tonight. I imagined if I were some stranger, that I might hurry past outside in the snowy street and overhear these conversations, and the shouting and the laughter, I would be very envious of it. But tonight I was inside, in from the cold and it was the lot of some other man, some other me, to hurry by in the snow.
I drank wine and watched Alicia, our host, dancing in the dining room. Everyone was in love with Alicia. It was hard not to be. She slid her shiny black shoes across the floorboards, showing the butterfly tattoos on her wrists, shaking her long blonde hair in front of her face and swishing her blue dress in her hands. A little bird with her crooked nose. She had a kind of elemental beauty to her, something of the bones and not of the flesh. I think of ancient Euclid, drawing her portrait in the dust and admiring the rhythm of the angles.
I thought I was in love with Alicia at one point myself, long ago now, in another life. At the time it was a painful thing to carry, but now I am thankful for it. I’ve found there is a splendid lightness in letting go of the past. Montaigne says: “When life is over, we are taught to live our lives” - a splendid and divine irony, that we finally understand how to live precisely when it no longer serves us any purpose. Despite Montaigne, my soul grows lighter by the day, I’m sure of it, as I throw out these old feelings like pebbles into a lake - and so when my time comes, I hope to greet it lean as a feather bone and light as air.
Roberto arrived soon after I did. He and Alicia had split not three weeks before and I was surprised to see him that night. He was very drunk, or very high, or perhaps both these things at once. A burnt scent of hashish followed him in, wafting like a ghost. He had a huge smile on his face, but seemed to me very, very sad. Like a clown at Carnivale, with his grin painted on in black paint.
He saw me and hugged me: Juan. Juan, mi hermano. He kissed me on the cheek and then, strangely, on the nape of the neck too. I wanted to wipe it away. That forlorn lick. As if the sadness might catch. But it seemed impolite or lacking in some kind of compassion to do so.
Because Roberto deserved pity. He deserved our compassion. He and the ghost of hashish, that followed him about the room.
And I could understand. I could imagine it. Once upon a time, not so long ago, he was wrapped in the warm centre of the universe - and now he was out in the cold, made mortal like the rest of us, a stranger hurrying by outside, envious of the warmth within.
That’s the unfair power that beauty I think, that beauty of the bones - it’s favours raise a man up to a feeling of godliness, so suddenly and so swiftly, that he can feel the very gravity shift beneath his feet - but the fall from grace it is just as swift and all the more shattering for it. And then, cast out, a man finds his godliness was only conditional. A dispensation, granted only while she shared his bed. Because in the end it seems, they are the beautiful creatures and we are just their cage, they the little birds and we their keepers.
After midnight, there was a Navidad ceremony. It was good fun. Presents bought at charity stores and super markets or rummaged from own cupboards, we wrapped in brown butchers paper and were distributed at random by Alicia.
We unwrapped the presents and there was much laughter and clapping. A candle, a can of something sweet, a children’s book. I got a pair of shoelaces, bright pink. Roberto was standing on the fringes, holding onto the neck of the small child-sized guitar he always kept slung across his back. I’m going to sing a song, I heard him say, slurring his words and speaking to no one in particular. I forgot to bring something, but I’ll sing a song instead. He was speaking to everyone and also no one, to the tiny brass Jesus nailed over the doorframe, to the cracks along the wallpaper and the ceiling. But then he was next to me, saying breathily close: Juan, mi hermano, I am going to sing a song.
It is a particular kind of sin, when a performer desires an audience but the audience does not desire a performance. And poor Roberto wanted an audience very much. I think he saw some kind of redemption there, a salvation for his turmoil.
He stumbled into the middle of our circle, brown butchers paper crunching underfoot. He knocked over a bottle, which Isabella deftly saved emptying onto the carpet. Quiet he instructed us and slung his guitar over his big barrelled chest: quiet now everyone, I am going to sing a song.
I confess friends: I wanted to disappear into a crack between the floorboards. For shame I could not watch, I looked away, slunk down, trying to miniaturise beneath my hat, like a mouse shrinking into a hole in the skirting board. What kind of man I am.
Roberto hummed a note and strummed his guitar, two chords over and over. His long dark hair falling over his face.
I imagine Kakfa’s ghost, in a shadowy corner of the room, underneath the brass Jesus. He is laughing at my shame and my vanity, as I huddle beneath my hat like a church mouse.
Roberto started to sing his song, disregarding bourgeois niceties like rhythm. I had once tried writing songs but found they had no content, no centre, no heart. Empty cups with no water to fill them. The only poetry I got out of the experience was burning the notebook where I had written them down.
Roberto’s singing voice was by turns loud and booming and then soft and vulnerable. That quavering I knew, was the animal inside of him trying to speak to us. The way when a dog’s whines in distress, it will almost seem to form human words.
I couldn’t decide if Roberto’s song, this whole scene, was profound or profane. That wounded animal moaning somewhere down there. Trying to express, to expel, and perhaps to punish.
Mostly I felt my own terrible lack of charity. Because friends, truth now: I desired very much to be away from it, from Roberto, a fallen man, a falling man, with his wings clipped off. My compassion it seems, was somewhere outside in the snow.
Then the song was over and Roberto walked away quickly, his cheeks very red, his long dark hair stuck to a damp forehead. Someone pressed play on the Guerrilla Urbana CD and the dancing began again, conversation resumed, the arguments about politics and art and MTV.
Valencia appeared beside me soon afterward and with hot breath, whispered in my ear: you are so quiet Juan, always so quiet, come have a drink with me.
Later, outside, she told me I should take her home, that she could make me happy. I have not much charm and not much to say, but sometimes that doesn’t matter, and it is precisely for my silence and for my stillness that I am granted the better moments of my life.
Long past midnight and Valencia slept. Wrapped in a little ball of sheets on the edge of my bed. I admired the curve of her lower back. Sexy, in that it made me think of sex, but nothing higher. A beauty of the flesh, but not of the bones. Something that would thicken and coarsen with the end of youth, and eventually distend and extinguish.
I could not sleep. I went into the kitchen and smoked a cigarette. And another. And then another. I thought I had quit, but I suppose one does not really quit anything - or anyone. You keep throwing the pebbles out into the lake, yet they keep appearing in your pocket. Punished with memory, like Prometheus in chains.
I looked out the window at the snow. It was falling softly now. The cloud had passed over and tomorrow would be clear and cold. It would start getting light soon. I could hear the chirp of the first birds. But still I could not sleep.
I thought of the all girls I had never chased overseas when I was young enough. The dances I never danced. The jokes I had never made. The biting retorts, the lost loves, the grazed knees. Regret is the price we pay for being alive I think, the little drops of poison that age you slowly.
Valencia stirred in the bedroom. I’m cold Juan. She said quietly. Come hold me.
I am a lucky man really. I do not deserve it. Any of it. I go over, back to bed and slide in beside her. And I think then, as I hold Valencia to me, that whatever the meaning of that evening was, of Roberto and his song, it was still I who lacked for compassion. And that makes me the sinner. That pitilessness, it reveals me, if only to myself in this morning hour, and you my friends who have an eye to watch. That is my secret. I am the true interloper. I am the one that people should turn their compassion away from.
And I am sure I hear it then. Kakfa’s ghost, in a corner of the room, behind a lampshade, laughing at vapid thoughts which give nothing to the world but themselves.
I bury my face in Valencia’s neck, and put pillows over my ears, and sleep my monstrous sleep.