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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Balle

The dance rose and rose to an impossible crescendo.  Hands exploded across strings.  Feet pounded the stage in perfect time. I was dazed by the blur of clapping hands and the whirl of colored costume. It all revolved around the pivot of the woman I’d followed across the city.  It built and built and built until I was almost breathless, completely immersed. Then, with a final fusillade of chords and a closing barrage of stomped feet, it was over.  The audience applauded wildly as the artists somewhat uncomfortably bowed and left the stage. For me, it was unresolved, insufficient.  I caught one last look of her as she glanced over her shoulder and disappeared again through the door.  The lights came up, scattering the dying applause and leaving me empty.
While everyone else fled the lights, leaving in their groups into the comforting darkness of the night, I sat back down at my table and contemplated the remnants of my drink.  At a tap on my shoulder, I looked up to find the room deserted except for waiters stacking chairs.  The hand tapping my shoulder belonged to the guitarist who spoke to me in deep, gravelly Spanish shrouded in cigarette smoke. He could tell I didn’t understand a word so switched to English.  “You come with us,” he said with a smile.  Several others from the show stood behind him.  I don’t think I smiled, but I nodded in agreement and followed them into the dark, flowing with the current of the night.
We strolled down the streets, the dancers talking in Spanish and laughing, me next to the guitarist, a shadow detached, floating on unnoticed. I enjoyed the tone of their banter, even if I couldn’t understand the words.   We piled into several small cars and drove out of the close city streets, blurring past the headlights in the broader avenues.  The streetlights bathing the pavement split into separate pools splashing farther and farther apart until only the blue light of the stars and the moon poured over the open fields outside the city.
Our convoy slowed, turning to crunch down a gravel driveway flanked by gnarled old trees.  A low house hunkered beyond the dancing shadows of a fire that backlit a wall of stones stacked by hands unknown. I followed the group through a cut in the ancient rocks and watched them melt into the tribe already there, the newcomers greeting shapes rising from blankets, logs, and chairs arrayed around the fire.  I nodded greetings as they introduced me in Spanish.  An older man lifted a wineskin toward me, telling me how to use it with gestures as translation. I took it and downed a night-cooled stream of the red wine, then passed it back. 
The smell of smoke awakened ancient, disembodied feelings of happiness stored like cobwebs in the DNA. Wine helped, too. Conversations ebbed and flowed, lapping comfortingly around me like the murmur of a mountain stream. The guitarist was busy talking to the old man who offered me the wine. No one else seemed to speak English, leaving me alone to watch as the group passed bottles and wineskins and plates of food around the fire.  I sat silently, my presence accepted, even welcomed. They felt no more need to acknowledge me than any of the other spirits sharing the night with them. It left me feeling like a voyeur from another world, watching lives I would never live. 
It didn’t really feel all that different than the way I’d spent the majority of my adult life: watching things happen from afar, wanting to be something other than I was. We all do this, especially when we are young. This is why we chase adventure late into the night, but eventually we have to deal with the reality of what is, to embrace it. Instead, I was living my life in my head; a spectator whose existence came more from the anticipation of what might be rather than what was. 
One of the men returned from beyond the wall with two guitars, handing them to the old man and the guitarist from the flamenco show, who strummed absently as he continued the conversation.  Some of the younger men set about building up the fire as the cold of the night tumbled down off the mountains and stole in close around us.  The flames licked high into the night sky and the crackling timbers sent embers toward the stars. 
Another car pulled off into the drive, the beams of its headlights carving through the mist suspended above the field. Another wave came through the same cut in the stone wall, obscured by the waving colors and roiled air of the fire.  I looked down at my feet, then up again to see her face, a mirage floating among the dancing flames.  When my eyes met hers, our gazes locked.  I felt electrified, but ashamed, seeing her smile just as I looked away.  She went to the two men with the guitars, greeting each with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek.
I remained fixated on her until I was startled by the approach of one of the new arrivals.  I recognized him as one of the cantaores—the singers of the flamenco.  “My name is José.”
“James.”
I shook José’s roughly calloused hand. The gypsy was a disaster of a man.  Long, curly hair framed a face weathered like none I had ever seen.  A cigarette dangled from impossibly wide lips on a drawn face, making him look like a cross between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with a Spanish twist.  A bottle of wine dangled from his hand, the dark glass scuffed from repeated use. It bore no label. He sat down next to me, took a pull of wine and handed it over. 
“Traveling?” he asked. 
“Yes.” 
“Where is home?”
I swallowed a mouthful of wine. “I don’t know,” I rushed out hoarsely.
“Aah.  You are gitano.”
Gitano?  Gypsy?” I thought for a moment.  “Yes, I guess I am in a way.  Are you?”
Si, soy gitano.  We are all gypsies.”
“What does it mean—to be a gypsy?”
“What does it mean to be gitano?  In a way, it has come to mean being without a home.  Uprooted and itinerant.  Because of this, it also means to be completely submerged in the moment.  In the emotion of the moment.  Let me explain like this.  When I come to a wedding and I sing for my family, my friends… the emotion builds and it takes me over I might tear at my shirt.  And I will tear it, even if it is the only shirt that I have.  The shirt doesn’t matter to me, because I have my identity, which means I have my family and friends, and I have the emotion.”
“I guess I’m not a gypsy then.  I’ve lost my family and walked away from the few friends I have.  As for the emotion, I feel the emotion of your music or of a story, but when it comes to real life, I am numb.”
“No, friend, you are more gypsy than you know.  It will all come.  Your family is all around you. But you can’t chase being a gypsy. You think it is about adventure always somewhere foreign, far from here and now. It isn’t. It is about embracing the adventure, the mystery in your own circumstances. You have to feel. This is the problem.”
José stood, holding his cigarette as he drew the ember down to his fingers.  “You see, too many times and they become numb. They can still be burned, though.”  He flicked the cigarette into the fire.  “You see the world through different eyes.  You are a traveler, an itinerant.  You are gypsy, like us. But you can’t be a true gypsy without community.”  He smiled, rearranging the wrinkles on his face into an expression of great kindness.  “Tomorrow, we are all gone. Tonight, we are brothers.” He turned and walked to the other side of the fire coughing a deep, wracking cough.
The guitarists began to play as José took his seat on a thick, upended log.  Out under the stars, the sound escaped into the night, leaving the music more distant, more grounded. José watched with quiet contentment as some clapped along while others took turns singing.  It was truest here.  Fire, song, and dance offered up to the stars.  It was primordial, stoking the embers deep inside. 
There was something about drink and music that calmed me. I felt most at ease at a cozy bar with a jukebox or a band. It turned down the noise in my head about what had happened and what was next and instead conjured the good memories of the past. A doctor told me it was called self-medicating.
Some time after the guitarists began, José stepped up to sing, goaded by the younger folks in the group. I watched across the fire, transfixed. José sat rigidly upright.  As he sang, his body convulsed with the emotion pouring forth.  His eyes shut tightly, hands painting the story.  His head jerked with the song, flinging the words out as if exorcising himself of them.  Around the circle, some watched intensely, others had their eyes closed in concentration. Heads, bodies moved with the music. Hands clapped. Then she stepped up to dance. I could only see her from the chest up, floating above the flames; her dark face painted by the manic dance of light and shadow; the primeval flicker of oxygen and life being converted to heat and light. José sang, “El sueño va sobre el tiempo…
As I stared at the flame-licked spirit, I relaxed completely for the first time in memory.  No one here knew me or paid me any mind.  They had few cares and no pretensions, leaving me welcomed, innocuous, unexplored.  I’d read once, “When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist.”
We are fragile creatures. Forget the mess that high explosives could make of our bodies, or highway speeds, or even a few grams of well-placed metal. The weightiest bit of us, our very being that we seek our entire lives to create and perpetuate—or flee from—is impossibly light and transitory. Once we step away from the tiny circle of people we know and have convinced of the essence of our being, everything we are flutters away into the nether. Such a revelation would make most people extremely uncomfortable, but I was used to it. Every few years I moved to a new world. I was used to not existing. But someday, we have to grow up and deal with reality.
For now, I may not have existed, but at least I didn’t have to deal with my reality for a while.  Here, no one knew me.  They didn’t care about where I’d been or where I was going.  I was no hero, no warrior, no failure.  A slate wiped clean.  Nonetheless, I had to come to terms with some things. Maybe then I could disappear completely.
The hard darkness of the night gradually gave way as the sun poured color on the world once again. She danced, I remembered that. And I remembered the guitar. I remembered the weight of the wine bottle hanging in my hand. I remembered feeling a part of the night. I had been happy and almost slipped the burden, but as dawn crept over the hills to light the damp morning chill, I could still feel it with me.
An ancient pick-up truck departed the road, the mist parting and swirling around it as it creaked to a rest. The guitarist had disappeared during the night, as did José and the girl, vanishing only moments before the sun snuck over the horizon. A handful of gitans were wisps of morning fog floating toward their cars and leaving me a forgotten party guest without a ride. As always, the night left me empty, depressed, and alone.  Two weathered gypsies poured from the cab of the just-arrived truck, looking like they’d come in from the fields of another century.  They carried burlap sacks of food, set them down on the hood of an old Fiat.  The remnants gathered, subdued and hungry.
I hung back, walking slowly toward the group as another man hopped down from the bed of the truck.  He had a head of dark hair and a broad mustache, but was clearly not a Spaniard. Large hands and ropy forearms jutted from the rolled sleeves of white linen shirt tucked into dark brown tweed trousers.  His eyes conveyed a jovial mischief layered over something far darker. They were set under a pronounced brow and a powerful jaw.  He walked toward me with a disarming smile, asking in the plain, open English of the American Midwest, “Well, hello!  Where are you headed?” 
“I hadn’t quite figured that out yet.”
“We’ve spent the night in Sevilla.  We’re headed for Madrid.  Why don’t you come along?”
I would normally cringe inwardly at such a gregarious offer, but saw this as a way to keep moving.  “Sure. If you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.  As soon as these guys drop off breakfast, they’ll be on their way.”
I followed the man back toward the truck. Looking over his shoulder, the man continued, “I’m traveling solo for this leg, so I could use the company.  I’ve been traveling around following the fights on and off with some friends.  Last night was a real show.” I nodded, not really wanting to discuss it.
The two Spaniards returned to the truck and clambered into the cab.  I followed the other American, hopping in the bed of the truck. The engine fired and we held on to the sides as the truck bounced out of the driveway and onto the road. Soon we were climbing and descending the hills on side roads, the fine dust coating us, leaving each breath with a dry, soft sting in my nostrils and a paste in my mouth.  The man reached into an old, green knapsack and came up with a bottle of Fundador.  “Here,” he thrust the bottle at me. “This’ll wash the dust out.”
I took a swig, cleansing the dryness away and feeling the burn roll gently down.  I handed it back and he did the same.  The truck came to a gentle, puttering stop as a herd of sheep flowed across the road, a boy walking slowly behind to prod the stragglers along. We sat idling with a quiet rhythm as the flock crept slowly over the road, its shape constantly shifting as some slowed or stopped and others plodded around.
The sky was a uniform blanket of dirty white.  The wind picking up as clouds of darker grey began to climb and spill over the hills.  There was no rush, no impatience.  It would never have occurred to the shepherd to hurry his flock ahead of the truck, nor to the drivers of the truck that they were being inconvenienced.  The sheep were there long before the roads and the trucks. There was an order to things that relieved us of the self-righteous indignation of the inconvenienced. I heard the faint roll of thunder far in the distance.  The flock was sweeping slowly into the field next to the road where the wind painted changing swirls of greens and yellows in the sea of grasses.
“Did you see the corrida yesterday?” he asked.
“Yes.”
“It was quite the performance.  The cornada Antonio received was very bad, but they were able to sew him up just in time.  I think he’ll be back.”
I shook my head slowly, side to side. I felt as if everything had slowed down for once. I was sluggish, in a peaceful way.  “It is amazing that he would come back after that.”
He dismissed the thought gently. “It’s what they do… and who they are.
“They come from humble backgrounds and a culture that believes that life is much shorter than death. Today, we’re so jealous of life that we don’t even enjoy it. We expect immortality and demand protection from any ill fortune. We can’t appreciate things the way the old cultures did. Bullfighting is a spectacle that still draws people paying money to see death in the afternoon, but the art has vanished for most. The rest of us, we don’t live, we obsess about keeping alive, but not living.”
I stared out at the thunderheads brewing over the hills.  I considered how I’d spent the night like a voyeur on life, watching but not living. It was not a new feeling. After a bit, he knocked back another slug of Fundador and I spoke. “So, as life becomes longer and more comfortable and seemingly more important to us, we lose our perspective on it?” 
“In a way.  I don’t think that some peasant breaking his back in the fields had any more perspective than most today.  But take the gypsies you were with last night.  They live their life to the fullest here and now, without preoccupation about all of the stuff most fawn over.  They have no delusions about changing the world or perpetual peace or immortality.  They just live.”
The truck started moving and we bumped on along the road in silence. Rain shafts poured down on the distant hills.  The storms developed there as the craggy rocks directed the wind skyward, carrying the vapor to lofty, frigid heights.  Vapor became water, gaining weight until it came down in torrents on the barren rock, flooding crevices and canyons and rushing downward in mountain streams, beating relentlessly against stone and soil until it became a quietly burbling brook rolling through the flat lands where the grass stayed parched and brown, the fragrance rising in the heat and riding the wind to me.  The spare smell of that heat-dried grass was the essence of my idea of Spain.  It was the smell of the oppressive, languid summer giving way to the fall ferias and the harvest.
This snapshot of the changing seasons, the certainty and gentle relentlessness of the cycle appealed to me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in one place long enough to appreciate a year of seasons. Maybe my last year of college. I hadn’t seen anything grow and change other than in snapshots; not my family and friends, not my town, not even my children. I’d like to spend an entire year looking out of the same window, sitting on the same porch every day, and seeing the world change and change back again. I’d grow a garden, too, tending to it day after day. I’d always marveled at old men and their gardens, their lawns. It must be how they connected to the reassuring relentlessness of the seasons.
As I looked back across the truck, the arm stretched again, offering the bottle. I took it and washed away the dust once more. The wind blowing over the open bed of the truck kept the fog of drink away and left only the warmth.


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