Another tale from the annals of my splendidly misspent youth. As usual, I have changed the names, out of a rather quaint sense of propriety.
Well, there we were, the lot of us squeezed comfortably into the crevices of a small, 5th floor pension a block from Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona. What did we expect? When you’re young, love blooms early and often, or at least what passes for love, some combination of lust and infatuation, I suppose. Mother Nature gives us a double shot of hormones to get us making more of ourselves before we get distracted by life’s illusions. For ordinary mammals, this is pretty straightforward; for us humans, anything but.
The Pension Fontanella was, above all, cheap, and the landlord easy going. For 50 peseatas a day, about 75 cents in the exchange rate of the day, you got a bed in one of a half dozen or so rooms with anywhere from two to six beds each. In the morning was an included breakfast, of endless coffee, scones and butter, sometimes jam. For another 30 pesetas, you could go down the street a ways to the worker’s cafeteria and get an enormous midday meal consisting, typically, of a giant bowl of paella, a grilled meat and potatoes course, and flan for dessert, all washed down with a Coca Cola bottle filled with cheap Spanish wine. We thought Europe on $5 a Day, a popular guide book at the time, was woefully extravagant.
I won’t say the Pension Fontanella was a den of iniquity. It was 1970. The world was in one of its usual celebrations of youthful exuberance to accompany the coming of age of a postwar cohort, and the horrors of AIDS were nowhere on the horizon. There were drugs, yes. The landlord doubtless shared a portion of his profits with the local Guardia Civil. It was 1970. Mostly hashish, taken with a kind of connoisseurship: Moroccan blond, versus Lebanese red, etc. Personally, while I had indulged lavishly while in military service, I had lost interest since my discharge. I had come to find that while the first half hour or so of getting high was pleasant enough, after that I would often want to do something, and the hash haze became an obstacle. Take whatever that says about the military as you wish; it was a different institution back in the days of Vietnam and the draft.
Anyway, as I said, there we were, merrily hopping from hash to hash and bed to bed, all bedazzled by the sheer possibility of life, blissfully ignorant of folly and its curses. We played music; I imagined myself to be a competent guitarist and passable singer, mostly because of my friend Sid, who was so brilliant that when we played together, it made my amateurish thrashing about sound like intentional rustication.
Then, in walked Inga, and set it all a-tumble.
She wasn’t exactly beautiful, though her features were regular enough. But, musically, she was head and shoulders above the quotidian, workmanlike talent we were used to. It was the way she sang, with her eyes, gliding atop the effortless guitar lines with a sublime inevitability. She made the trite seem fresh, and the fresh seem stunning; most of all, she made it seem personal to every male listening. I was smitten. So were we all.
She had arrived in the afternoon from nowhere in particular, and half the denizens of the pension sat far into the night under the spell of her singing and playing. I fell asleep with the resolve that, in the morning, I would find her, and away from the rest of her admiring audience, I would have a chance at connecting.
Well, morning did come, and I found her, but not alone. There she was at the reception desk, guitar and backpack all cinched up and ready to go. Next to her was Billy, whom I had come to consider a good friend. They were checking out. Together.
Blap! Just like that. I lost my moorings. I stammered a “good morning,” and asked, “What’s going on? Are you leaving?”
“Yeah, Billy said, smiling broadly. “We’re heading for Ibiza; the boat leaves in an hour.” Inga beamed radiantly. I was crushed.
“I gotta go,” I said lamely, I could feel their quizzical stares as I headed for the staircase and out the door.
Well, it’s an old story, I guess, ruefully celebrated in many a folksong:
For courting too slowly you have lost this fair maiden
Begone you will never enjoy her
Begone you will never enjoy her
– I once loved a lass
I walked down the street to a pub we occasionally patronized for special occasions. It’s bar, lined with tapas the length of it, was a major attraction that outweighed the price of the beer. Inside, I found Will, Sid’s brother. He looked up and saw my face.
“You too?” he said.
I nodded and let out a sigh, and sat down next to him. It was beer and calamares for a long, long brunch for us. Not quite equivalent to true love, but it would have to do.