It is easy in a country that is not your own to get to feeling a little displaced.
I’ve been ghosting around the northern parts of this city, windblown and sore, for weeks on end now, wondering why a place I used to know instinctively as home no longer feels quite that way. The streets are wide here, the glorietas full of traffic. There are no trees to shade pedestrians, no tiny, quirky cafés with white-lacquered furniture and intently smoking patrons. This is a barrio of young immigrant families and skulking, elderly widowers who populate the bars at all hours of the day, of little old women who teeter arm in arm to the market in a creaky, wizened defense lines of menthol and tweed skirts. They peruse aisles together and wait in line at the checkout in pairs and threes and fours, adopting female counterparts to supplement the memories of husbands no longer at home, waiting for their suppers. It is strange here, I think. This is not the place I have come to call home. And so I walk south, although it is beginning to get dark and October carries a tinge of winter this year that cannot be ignored.
My footsteps, smaller now, slower, laboring under the strain of a tensed and pained body with a back taut with twinges, trace a path down through Cuatro Caminos, Canal, Bilbao. We continue, my ghosts and I, along Fuencarral; the hubbub of pierced faces, silky chestnut hair, tight-ankled pants and leather handbags swirls me to Gran Vía, the crosswalk, the people, the lights. Descending Calle Montera is when I begin to feel it: a lightness of the soul, a consequent ironic smile. I really look up for perhaps the first time in all this walk and catch the street lamps flickering on. The whores peek out from shadowy grooves they’ve seemingly spun out of air and the anonymity conferred by culturally trained blind eyes. Their hips, jutting out above skin-tight skirts, are glazed in dapply artificial light. I pass the gold pawners–even without their vocal contributions, those neon vests would still shout their office–and notice a definite ascension of the heart, begin to make note of the people around me and distinguishable conversations. This is the reality I know, the Madrid that is mine. By the time I reach Sol, carefully edging past the crowds to slip down side streets I know like the back of my hand, I don’t navigate at all, allowing muscle memory to chart a path to Barrio de las Letras, to a place for which my heart’s chosen to pine when it chants “home, home, home.” I was happy there. I was protected and well loved and, most importantly, I was known. My Marco, Juan Carlos, Alessandro, Matteo and Marian and Fran. The cast of characters changed frequently, but the love never did.
I do not go in because, really, it’s enough to know it is there, that they’re there. I approach the stoop and regard the panel of buttons beside the door. I could call them, Juan Carlos and Ale, and I know I’d be well received, whisked into the living room and fed cakes and tea and peppered with affectionate queries about my new home, my job, my life. And yet, I don’t press a button, I do not reach for my phone. I pause, gaze up at the balcony that used to be mine. There is a soft light on inside, and it’s warm and diffuse against the insistently blue night sky visible down at the end of San Agustín. I needed this moment of knowing home existed, of knowing someone I love is still inside.
When I go, I visit a few favorite old haunts–an asian grocer where I’d always buy tofu, a frutería, a flower stall in the plaza nearby–and hop the metro back up to my strange new apartment, placing my blooms in a green glass jug. I feel more at peace now, just knowing that if I need it, San Agustín and at least some of the people it’s given me to love are still there and a phone call away.
It is easy in a country that is not your own to start to feel a little displaced, and easier still when the home you left in the place to which your passport says you belong is no longer yours. For now, San Agustín is there. For right now, I think of it and I feel calm, seeing behind my closed eyes a golden glow suggestive of the one creeping down to the street, lighting the chilly cheeks of a strange girl who used to live at the apartment up at which she gazes. Though it is no longer her home, she still feels a crazy sense of attachment, a sense of entitlement to its stability and warmth, to its loud wooden floors and leaky shower, to the idea of a place where her friends are still waiting.