Want to Escape the City?

Want to Escape the City?
Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

I slept with A.

Then I slept with C.

Then I slept with S.

Then I slept with T.

Then I slept with K.

Then my mother died and I moved to Barcelona.


It’s winter. The town is dead. I surface at Plaça de Catalunya and walk south on the Ramblas. It’s not cold—I’m overdressed. My back is sweaty under my backpack. I sit on a bench and pull out my guide book.

El Raval, page 79. Boadas, cocktail bar.

I put the guidebook back in my pocket and walk round to the bar the long way. I pass shops I passed yesterday: a cobbler’s, a marijuana club. Boadas is at number one. Smoked glass and mahogany. I swing through the door.

There’s a man at the bar, and a man behind the bar, and a man in the corner, arguing with another man. I climb onto a stool next to the man at the bar and order a Dama Blanca from the man behind the bar. He’s not attractive. His face is too soft, too blurred at the edges.

“Una Dama Blanca,” he repeats and turns away from me.

I feel a shot of guilt. A lady in a bar alone: my mother would be horrified. I breathe in and out and unzip my backpack. A lady carrying a backpack: my mother would be horrified by that, too.

I shake my mother out of my head.

The man beside me clears his throat. He’s well dressed, elderly. “You are in the first cocktail bar in Spain,” he says, in English.

I pretend he doesn’t exist. I watch the bartender add the egg-white, dry shake and add the ice. I imagine his Boston shaker in my hands, the cold spreading to my fingers. Stop shaking when your hands get cold. That was with C, or maybe with S—the night I came with C and left with S. The bartender taught me how to make White Ladies. I take out my verb book and lay it flat on the bar.

“You are a student?” says the elderly man.

I sigh. “I’m studying.”

“Ahi está,” says the bartender, double-straining into a coupe.

“Catalán?” says the elderly man, peering over my shoulder at my verb book.

“Spanish,” I say. I take a sip of my Dama Blanca. The Conditional Mood, reads my verb book. Dependent upon conditions.

Your hands wouldn’t be shaking if you weren’t cold. That was with A, who came before C and S, and who I left because my mother told me to. We stopped outside Selfridges on our way home to his. He cupped his hands around mine. You are cold, he said. The shop windows were bright and full. It was nearly Christmas, over a year ago. I’d left my gloves in the café.

I’d met A on the District Line earlier that evening. My mother disapproved of public transport. She disapproved of A. She approved of C, though, because C took taxis. C also played podcasts during sex—about cricket at first, and then about rugby, because cricket fucked with his pace. C was a deeply boring man. I slept with S to make C leave me. It worked. C and S are brothers.

I look up from my verb book. Dependent upon conditions. My face is reflected between the mirrors behind the bar and behind me: back and forth between them. The door to the street swings open and closed and a young man limps inside. He ducks behind the bar and nods to elderly man beside me. “Hombre!”

“Denis,” says the elderly man, “this young lady is learning Castellano.”

“Ah,” says Denis. “You are a student?” He says this in Spanish.

“I’m studying.”

“I’m Spanish.”

I smile. Denis is handsome. “I like the shape of the language in my mouth,” I say.

Denis smiles. “Another?” I have finished my Dama Blanca.

I nod. I miss A’s shape in my mouth. The Selfridges windows were done up like fairytales that night: the girl with the needle, the golden goose. It spread its golden wings over a mannequin in a black dress. What do you want for Christmas? said A. The label read: Price on request.

Denis pours my Dama Blanca. I look back down at the Conditional Mood.

There was a pane of glass between me and A and the mannequin and the goose. But we’ve only just met, I said. A pulled me closer. Let me buy you that dress, he said. I’ve never bought a Christmas gift before. I felt the mannequin’s painted eyes on us—on my hands in A’s. I saw myself from her point of view. I didn’t look sad. I didn’t look lost. A and I looked right together. If we’d been the window display and the mannequin had been looking at us, she’d have bought my dress.

I take a gulp of my Dama Blanca. “It’s an honour,” the elderly man is saying, “to host a person of your quality in this bar.” He says this last part in Spanish. Una persona de su calidad. I haven’t been addressed by the formal pronoun, su, since I arrived in Barcelona three days ago. Or perhaps the man beside me is talking to Denis. A person of her quality. Su.

The citrus in my Dama Blanca sticks to my lower lip. I lick it. It’s bitter. I take another gulp.

Denis is watching me. I close my verb book and ask for the bill. To be. To have. Conditions not guaranteed to occur. I miss A. I tilt the drink down my throat. My legs are firm beneath me as I stand and find my guide book. La Ribera, page 92. When I walk, I will walk with purpose. My backpack is not a tourist’s backpack—it is by Chanel. It was from K, who came after T, who came after S and C, none of whom I loved.

I leave the bar, cross the Ramblas and keep going. This street would be narrow for London, but it is not narrow for Barcelona. The clothes shops on either side of me light the air around them. As I walk east, though, they disappear. The street converges to an alley. I picture my hands in A’s again, our hands reflected in the mannequin’s dress. I’d rather you married a cat than married that man, said my mother. I slammed the front door and took the Tube to A and my café.

What could I do? My mother was dying.

I step out of the alley onto the Via Laetana. The air is clogged with dust and diesel. To my left, a crowd of American tourists stands next to a bus. “Amber,” one says to another. “Amber, is that a gaudy?” I turn right. I walk faster. Una persona de su calidad. I pass a La Caixa and a Subway. My decision depended on my mother’s condition.

The bar I’m looking for is on a street off this lower part of the Via Laetana. I put my guide book away, hold the map in my head and follow it. Hardy palms and wintersweet garnish doorsteps and windows. Here it is: I recognise the man in the brimmed hat stencilled onto the glass door. He was in the guide book. I turn the handle in his hat and step into the darkness. Inside, there is a row of stools and a mirror. I feel another shot of guilt. A woman in a bar alone: my mother would be horrified. What is my reason for being here? I need a story—I need something to laugh about to the man beside me at the bar. But it’s too early, or too late: the bar is empty, and there is no man.

The bartender is staring at me. I catch my breath and reach for an explanation. “I’m a bartender,” I say. “I have come to try the best cocktails in Barcelona.”

The bartender nods. This means he doesn’t believe me.

“My mother’s ill,” I say.

The bartender nods again.

“My mother’s dead,” I say, brazen. “A Dama Blanca, por favor.”

The bartender flips a coupe out from under the bar. A and I would go down to the cafe together on weekday evenings, after sex. (A dash of triple sec. The bartender stirs.) I’d go home to my mother, but first I’d go to the cafe with A. (The bartender stirs again.) We never talked about my mother. We just drank coffee and held hands. (The bartender stirs again.) My mother and I never talked about anything, not even when we both knew she was dying. (The bartender strains my drink into the coupe.) I want to see the world through your eyes—A said that once. I wish he could have understood.

I miss A more than I miss my mother, even though my mother’s the one that’s dead.

I drink my Dama Blanca. The coupe is thick with frost. I sip and wait and sip and sip again. My fingers leave prints on the glass. I want to see the world through your hands, I think to myself—about A, I suppose. This bartender looks like a happy barracuda, whatever a barracuda is. Some kind of lizard.

I look at the ceiling. It is a long ripple of wood. Lights well from it at intervals and a belt of rope runs from one fan to the next. I think of the scene from It’s A Wonderful Life I clung to as a child: Mary, George, and the chicken rotating, looped to the record player. I glance at the bar and am surprised to find my verb book open. To be. To have. If we had been. If we had had. I down my Dama Blanca and it is sticky in my throat.

“How much?” I ask the bartender. He writes the price on a piece of paper, puts the paper on a silver dish, and puts the dish on the bar in front of me. I count out the euros, and he counts out the change. Perhaps a barracuda is an eel. I imagine this bartender swimming through murk, weaving his way between weeds.

I slide my wallet into my backpack and slide myself off my stool. The room slides around me now, gathering fuzz. I leave the barracuda behind me and float out into the street. I look at the book in my hand and find that it is my guide book, not my verb book. I decide to read it as I walk. No shame. No shame—that’s what my mother said when she found out A was Somali. I open my guide book to any old page. Day Trips from Barcelona: Want to escape the city?

I trip and stumble and stop reading. I am walking what I think might be north. Shadows pool at the base of the street lamps, stretching in many directions, as if each lamp were four. I only saw A once after my mother told me to cut him off. He met me at the cafe, to give me back my things: a pearl earring, fake, which he thought was real, a pair of socks and my Spanish verb book. I was already planning to move to Barcelona. I was going to move here with him.

The buildings have fewer windows now. They are expanses of pale stone turned inwards, away from me. A narrow street spits me out onto a wider one. There are people around me suddenly, in heels and coats. They are a crowd. I look for a megaphone, for metal barriers, but there are none. The crowd is a net. It catches me. Its faces are bright. Spanish rolls through its many throats. I would have been. I would have had. I translate what I can of what I hear back into English.

Nina Ellis

About Nina Ellis

Nina Ellis is a British-American writer and teacher based in South London. Her short fiction is published or forthcoming in American Chordata, Litro, 3:AM Press and various zines.

Nina Ellis is a British-American writer and teacher based in South London. Her short fiction is published or forthcoming in American Chordata, Litro, 3:AM Press and various zines.

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