Apr/May 2019  •   Fiction

Near Misses in Madrid

by Eli S. Evans

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Twenty years ago at this time, I was living with my girlfriend in Madrid for what we'd intended to be a year but would turn out to be a bit less than nine months. We had just graduated college when we went, and we both had aspirations, mine perhaps more well-defined than hers, that would almost inevitably involve continuing our education in so-called "graduate" conditions, and so this year in Madrid was serving as the sort of youthful adventure that would confer upon us, wherever we ended up next, a kind of real-world credibility our peers who'd foregone such adventuring would lack.

She was my first girlfriend, and upon commencing our relationship, we'd transitioned almost at once into a domestic arrangement—I'd spent most of our final year in college living in her apartment, while still paying for my room in the apartment I'd rented the summer prior with friends who vaguely resented my absence—and so I just sort of assumed, as one does, that we would spend the rest of our lives together. By the time we got to Madrid the September after the summer after our senior year of college, though, this vision of the rest of my life, resigned to it though I was, had become a more or less unhappy one. At that point, for example, she'd already thrown a shoe at me on two occasions.

Not long after we got to Madrid, I became, despite the fact I had no symptoms to speak of, other than an occasional feeling of fatigue and, from time to time, a canker sore in my mouth—symptoms that could as well have been symptoms of having not gotten enough sleep the night before, and indeed I was frequently suffering from a lack of sleep as a result of my ruminations—absolutely and incontrovertibly convinced she had infected me with the HIV virus.

The reason I believed she'd given me the HIV virus was that while she was my first girlfriend, I was not her first boyfriend. Prior to the beginning of our relationship, she'd dated the tattooed man in his late-20s (to me, at that age, he might as well have been 40) who'd been her team leader when she'd worked a couple of summers earlier for the Seattle branch of a nationwide fundraising organization with a focus on environmental causes (I tried not to picture her standing outside of supermarkets holding clipboards, waving down pedestrians she'd identified as potential donors).

Back in those days, AIDS awareness organizations produced a lot of publicity reminding you that when you had unprotected sex with someone, you were also having unprotected sex with everyone said person had ever had sex with, and after a first failed attempt to consummate our relationship using a condom, we had transitioned directly to unprotected sex. I knew she'd not used condoms with the tattooed team leader because the subject had regrettably come up, and since he'd not used condoms with her, I assumed he'd not used condoms with the other people with whom he'd sex, and since he was much older than we were, and apparently the kind of person with whom people had sex, since I knew of at least one person with whom he had, I imagined he'd had sex with plenty of people who, if they were having unprotected sex with him, had almost surely had unprotected sex previously with other people who, according to the same logic, had themselves previously had unprotected sex with other people, and at some point in all of that exchanging of fluids, I concluded, it was all but inevitable the HIV virus had found its way into the equation.

Looking back, needless to say, this logic doesn't hold up, for the simple reason that prior to the beginning of our relationship, my girlfriend had been tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, all of which came back negative, and because—she told me when my anxieties about having contracted the disease from her had become so intense I could no longer keep them to myself—before having unprotected sex with the tattooed team leader, she'd insisted he produce proof he, too, was free of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, which he did in the form of his own negative test results. Accordingly, I attribute my stubborn certainty she'd infected me with the HIV virus to a.) the fact that I suffer from a severe anxiety disorder, which I've spent the better part of the two decades since then trying to manage, and b.) the fact that blaming her for infecting me with the HIV virus gave concrete form to my feeling that a lifetime with her would be a life not worth living and, in that regard, a kind of death by another name.

My general feelings of despair and resentment at having been infected by her with the HIV virus aside, only two incidents from those not-quite-nine months in Madrid have managed to remain clear in my memory, as opposed to disappearing into an admixture of other memories from other times and places (or the same place, since the circumstances of my life have brought me back to Madrid at least a dozen times since then) or breaking apart as into the pieces of a puzzle that can never be reassembled.

The first took place in the fall, when we were living in a rented room in an apartment owned by a French woman and her husband, an exiled Turkish communist with a pronounced limp and a truck driver brother employed by a German trucking company who would occasionally crash at the apartment when the route he was driving passed through the area. The apartment was in a building in a fancy neighborhood but was not itself in especially good condition. The French woman and her husband had been earning a relatively meager living teaching French language classes out of their living room, but in light of the rise of English as the global lingua franca, interest in French amongst that sector of the city's population interested in learning marketable foreign languages and able to pay someone to teach them had been waning for years, and by the time we moved in, their business was virtually extinct.

One day that fall, my girlfriend alerted me to the fact that her period was meant to have begun two days earlier and there still was no sign of it. Although I'd more or less accepted as my lamentable fate that the two of us would spend the rest of our lives together, the thought of being saddled with a child at such a young age, and a child moreover comprised in part of her genetic material, was not merely unpleasant but intolerable, and I determined I would have to kill myself before it was born. Rather than throwing myself headlong into the pleasures of living, however, or setting about getting my affairs in order (in reality, I didn't have all that much in the way of affairs), I spent the next couple of days moping and brooding and wallowing, and at the end of the day, I would think about how I'd wasted one of the few days remaining me in this world moping and brooding and wallowing, which would cause me to mope and brood and wallow some more.

(Incidentally, during the time I thought she was pregnant, I was not only no longer convinced my girlfriend had infected me with the HIV virus, but saw with great clarity how absurd and irrational I'd been in believing she had.)

So it went until, another day or two after that, her period arrived, later than expected but in good form. Another day or two after that, on a Sunday, we were out for a walk in the Parque del Buen Retiro (and I was back to believing, with such certainty it was actually nearer to knowing, that I'd been infected by her with the HIV virus) when we came upon a woman pushing a stroller, approaching from the opposite direction. Every few steps she would lean forward and smile or coo, and seeing her do that, I felt a slight twinge of regret for my own baby who never was. I suppose it was for that reason that when we crossed paths, she heading toward the so-called Estanque Grande, or Large Lake (more literally, "Large Body of Standing Water") and we away from it, I peered into the stroller to have a look, and consequently discovered, where I'd assumed I'd find a baby, nothing but a baguette wrapped in a swaddling blanket.

The second incident took place in the spring, when the two of us were living in a little apartment in a small, old building in an old working class neighborhood in the northwest part of the city, bound along its western perimeter by a wide avenue lined with tall, modern office buildings, most of them erected during the two decades and a half that had passed since the end of the Franco regime. The apartment had no heat, and had therefore been very, very cold during the winter and chilly spring months we'd spent in it, and its back windows looked out on a vacant lot and, across that lot, the backside of one of the aforementioned modern office buildings, its glass and metal exoskeleton always glimmering and gleaming in the daylight.

The lot, meanwhile, was occupied by a large population of feral cats, whose comings and goings and occasional catfights, especially because we did not have a television, made for perhaps the most interesting available distraction from, among other things, my preoccupation with having contracted the HIV virus.

One night, my girlfriend and I cooked fish for dinner, and when we'd eaten what we could (not as much as we'd planned, because the fish was not very good, or perhaps it was good but had been poorly prepared), we brought the leftovers downstairs to a place next to our building where an access point to the vacant lot was barricaded by a slatted iron fence. Only a couple of cats approached, mewling nervously, as one or the other of us slid a square of tin foil with the fish bits scattered atop it between two of the slats.

We spoke kindly to them about how much they would enjoy this little treat, and for a moment I think the two of us felt a certain affection for one another emerging out of this small act of kindness for others we'd undertaken, and I thought maybe we should have a child together, after all. As soon as the fish was on the ground and out of our hands, however, what seemed like a hundred more cats sprung out of the high grass, blurred streaks of fur under the half light of the nearby streetlamps, and a vicious brawl broke out. The two of us beat a quick retreat, but the sound of their yowling and screeching followed us up the stairs, and we continued to hear it through the back windows of the apartment long after nothing of the actual fish bits could have remained for them to fight over.

Why, as opposed to all of the things that must have happened during those months in Madrid, have these two incidents remained so clear and prominent in my memory? My suspicion is it is because from the outset, dense with pathos and symbolism, they struck me as, individually but even more so in combination, almost ideal material for a story; and yet, as the passing years became decades, it was a story I never could quite figure out how to go about telling. I'm not sure what the problem was, but in so far as I'd be more than happy to forget that time in my life once and for all, I am relieved to have finally solved it.