Light knifed across the stark grey ceiling. Pain curled in my gut. Sweaty salty upper lip. Knees pulled to my chest. Slitted curtain. Slipping into and out of lucid dreams: Late summer bright suits and sundresses. Grass blades tickling my back. Fighting for a share of blanket on the hilltop. Birds formed a wheel overhead. When I shut my eyes, my body shook itself awake.
Stepping off the bus after a bracing three hour ride from Barcelona to Cadaqués, I sit on a dirty bench waiting for a woman to meet me with the apartment keys. The afternoon sun hammered down. Behind me, tourists wandered up and down the narrow streets. The dark blue harbor was littered with white buoys and fishing boats. Children played on the rock beach with their families, splashing among the rocks in sandals and colorful swimsuits. I fished my camera out of my backpack, took a photograph.
What wasn't visible in the picture was a stiff, unceasing wind. Over that hour, it continually kicked dust up into our faces. My eyes itched and watered. I shut my eyes, replaying the winding path through the cliffs to this cove.
From the depths of memory, I was reminded of a passage in Gabriel García Márquez's story "Tramontana," where he and his family hide in their Cadaqués house from the tramontana, "a harsh, tenacious land wind that carries in it the seeds of madness, according to the natives and certain writers who have learned their lesson." At one point in the short story, the narrator decides to take his children out after many days of wind to see the harbor because "the weather still had an unrepeatable beauty, with its golden sun and undaunted sky… [until] at last, we were convinced that the only rational course of action was to remain in the house until God willed otherwise. And no one had the slightest idea when that would be."
The day after I arrived, there was a torrential rainstorm. I stood for hours beneath the eaves of a garage, listening to the thunder, stepping into and out of the deluge. Slate stairways became swollen tributaries feeding the Med. Having fled the never-ending California drought, I smiled and smiled.
The room tipped back and forth. Tired. Hungry. Groping for the bedside table. Water and sleep and water and candy. I am proof you can survive on a single package of gummy bears. I proved this by sucking on each bear individually until it collapsed into a puddle on my tongue.
This week, I planned to wander the Costa Brava. For a few days, I would wander downtown Cadaqués and spend my time on the rock beaches, working on my tan and finishing the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire sequence. Mid-week, I was going to hike the four miles up into Cap de Creus Park, packing in water, bread, and cheese. Hike my way up dry scrub-scarred cliffs. Trace the footsteps of Éluard and Hemingway and Márquez through olive groves. Meander slate-paved zigzag streets. Drink silty red wine tapped from a cask in the corner of a sleepy cafe. In the margins, I would meditate and write. I had a list of topics prepared months in advance, for this time away from work and everyday life. I had put off writing about these subjects. I thought they needed uninterrupted attention. Fear, addiction, failure, depression, loneliness, anxiety. The things people confront daily, yet rarely face head on.
The streets of the city were impossibly pictureseque. Even recently constructed apartment buildings had a precise geometry, no matter which way you looked at them. Green slice of lawn, punctuated by a football. Two scooters angled in by symmetric slate staircases. Rowboat resting under gnarled trees. Wet pastel shirts flapping on a clothesline strung outside the forest.
Book slap on the tile floor when it fell out of my hands, waking me. Fished the book off the floor. Thought I finished the second paragraph this night. Nine in the morning? Twenty-one in the evening?
On my second day, I hiked over to Port Lligat, north of the city center, where there is a clear view of Dalí's house. You could see how much work he had done over 40 years with the architecture, the interior design, and the overall decoration of the property, shaping it all to his artistic whims and routines.
Dalí set up a mirror in his bedroom in a particular location by the window, so when the sun came over the horizon at dawn, its first rays would shine in his face and wake him. He would go paint for hours while his wife slept in her own separate bed on the other side of the room.
I fingered the blister packs of medication, Braille lettering raised on a blue serifed box. Spent five minutes contemplating a miniature piece of toast. Didn’t know they sold these pre-made in plastic trays, forty for a euro. No idea how they stay fresh on the shelf.
Taking a bite. Willing the food to stay down. Washing it down with water from a 1.5 liter plastic water bottle. Half a dozen empty on the counter. Admiring the form of them for an hour. Each bottle fitting perfectly in my hand. When drained, almost no energy required to collapse them. Water we have little choice but to drink, bubbling through sand from an unknown source, immortalized on a colorful bottle sold for 79 centos.
Brief Skype conversations with my wife. The connection was just good enough for voice, sometimes a little video if we were lucky. We’ve been married for over fourteen years. We would be apart for two full weeks. She was a thousand miles away, in Lithuania, on a writing fellowship.
There was the echoing laughter of families during the siesta, heading off to nap away the heat of the afternoon. I ate ceviche and omelette and drank Amaro during late night dinners. Watched a man paint in his studio, the canvas looking like a video game celebrating what the Olympics might look like two hundred years in the future. Caught the scent of petrol from mopeds buzzing their way up slender alleys. Walked the streets at midnight, placing my hands on the rough white walls of buildings, feeling their stored heat.
Dusk cycled into darkness as I dragged a white lawn chair into the darkness of the back porch to read fantasy and eat dried apricots. Mosquitos fluttered around my ears. Turned up the volume on the crickets. The wind blew unceasingly against the apartment building, but in the courtyard, I was shielded from the chill.
The pharmacy was five blocks away. It took me half an hour yesterday to walk there. Wrote the symptoms out. I should start by listing the symptoms and I should go back. This blurry language bled out of my head when I was sixteen. Maybe they are still open. There are no words on the red paper I am writing with the ballpoint pen its cap still on. The medicine isn't working. Maybe I should take more. I couldn’t explain the symptoms. My Spanish was broken. I don't know Catalan. Google Translate you don't know what to say.
I was doing an excellent job of avoiding writing, so I decided to take another walk with my camera. Wandering through a church graveyard about ten minutes from the city center, I saw immensely detailed tile illustrations, celebrating activities that the person loved doing before they died. I study each one intently: boating, gardening, spending time with family.
I carry a small beat-up journal when I travel. I've had this one for over two years. I use it to record my attachments, things that I realize when I'm reflecting on everyday life. Only one statement can appear per page, written in big block letters. I can only read a few pages in the journal before I am overwhelmed.
Lying in bed that evening, after cooking myself a bachelor's pot of rice and vegetables, I read the entries from front to back. All I could hear was the echo of the words as I took them in, the feelings they stirred up.
"I am attached to being cared for as the best way to prove that I am loved. I don’t consider what I do for myself as being valuable and caring for myself."
"I am attached to worrying. :)"
"I measure my self worth based on newly considered things, rather than living with any one thing until I discover I will never fully know it."
You can't live in a feeling forever, inhabit it like a home that you left long ago or hope to reconstruct it from sticks and glue when you see it falling into disrepair. When two sound waves are in a particular phase with each other, they cancel each other out. Both of them had to come from somewhere.
I think I'm getting better. I remember eating. On Skype with Mary. Debating whether or not she should fly here to help me if I can't travel back.
I've had it worse. In my early thirties I lost ten pounds off an already thin frame due to an infection. In this case, I was bedridden, smelly, not caring about my personhood, not caring about the plan or the quick epiphany or the last dog days of vacation where the sun glimmered above the patio while people ate tapas and bread dredged in salt and olive oil, pacing rooftop decks before returning to their lives that were always there in front of them, every detail not tentative. What would happen in two hours, let alone two days. I can't imagine moving five feet let alone the thousands of miles.
Late afternoon siesta, but I can't sleep. Staring at the blank page of the ceiling, I will myself into a swimsuit and walk to the closest beach. Shucking off my sandals, I slosh my way into the water, rainbow-slicked with oil and seaweed. Taking a deep breath, I plunge under the chilly water. Push my way out past the barrier. When I come up for air, the wind tousles my hair. It isn't until a few hours later, after eating a plate of pasta and sauce, that I begin to feel weak, curl up under a blanket under my couch, and vanish.
On a red park bench outside the church halfway to Port Lligat. Can't stand yet. Morning heat already rising. Clutching a water bottle in one hand and my stomach with the other. Another half mile to reach Dalí's house. Still not well, but feeling the edge of better. Breathless. Maybe I'd get there today. Maybe not.
Scrolling through photos on my camera. Almost all taken before I was ill. Sculpture. Painter. Courtyard. Sea. Tomb.
I stare up into the tree above me as it shifted in the wind. Clouds: patterns forming and reforming themselves. This world I had no control over.
Márquez: "At the end of two days we had the impresssion that the fearful wind was not a natural phenomenon but a personal affront aimed by someone at us, and us alone… But it must have been something like the dark before the dawn, because after midnight we all awoke at the same time, overwhelmed by an absolute stillness that could only be the silence of death. Not a leaf moved on the trees that faced the mountain. And so we went out to the street… and relished the predawn sky with all its stars shining, and the phosphorescent sea."
I put the camera aside. Shutting my eyes. Why isn't this enough.