La Sagrada Familia – Redfern Boyd
We drank red wine lounging on a white bedspread. These were the danger days.
“When are you going to play me your song?”
I was singing along to the Spotify station, something about being in love with a car. If I took care not to look at Merin, the singing might mellow me out until the Mediterranean heat seeped into my veins. I trusted it would happen soon: we were approaching our twelfth hour in the city and had twenty-one left.
“Can’t hear you.”
Distorted echoes knocked from cream wall to cream wall, skipping the corners, skimming the curved ceiling. The windows stood ajar. We only had to lean out far enough–or, God forbid, brave the rickety balcony encircled by scaffolding–to glimpse the carvings on a slice of the Sagrada Familia.
We could not distinguish what the carvings were. The great Gaudí’s ambition was vast and unrelenting, and it had outlived him. All we were guaranteed were scenes of redemption and retribution, side by side, when we came closer.
Our flight from London had landed that morning, December twentieth, a Saturday, at ten o’clock. Fall term was through, exams still a month off. The shuttle into the city tinted its windows severely and we had to squint out at all the places we’d heard of for the first time or for ages. Merin scribbled almost without interruption in her worn leather notebook as we jostled along. By the time we reached the alley where we would stay, it was one o’clock. To get there we had crossed a plaza, bright with citrus and loud with jumbled Romance languages, where browned travelers sheltered from the sun in the shadow of the monstrous cathedral. Sixty degrees Fahrenheit, a glaringly blue expanse stretching over us for miles. America kept its hold on me through a lack of fluency in centigrade.
The flat was on the third floor, or the fourth floor off the ground, accessible only by staircase. The lift looked as though years had passed since anyone had given it a second glance. We’d tried the button out of curiosity, and a dog began barking from somewhere up the shaft, so we made our peace with the stairs. Inside, using the key from the combination-locked safe, we found two queen beds, a kitchen separated by a curtain of beads, and a wooden piano.
“Wow,” I said as I pulled my suitcase along, a two-wheeled hand-me-down from my parents. “Sebastian didn’t mention the piano.”
Merin dropped her overstuffed backpack to the floor and put a hand on her hip. “An upright guy indeed.”
“Ha.” I glanced between the beds. One sat in the outer room, one behind the half-wall next to a long window. Comparably wide, flat, low. I sat down on the first one, lay back, and stretched out to my full length. Stiff.
In the corner of my eye, Merin brushed aside the beads and took a gander around the kitchen. She might have thought the cool, evaluating hand she ran over the countertop and tiled backsplash would go unnoticed; but three months of acquaintance was enough for me gather that she had a thing about kitchens. Not cooking. No, she washed dishes fastidiously, and since the flat had no electric dishwasher, she was free to clean to her standards. It must have excited her.
Her voice spiraled out, hollow, from the narrowness of the kitchen.
“Bed get you down?”
“Kitchen get you off?”
I decided to offer my help when the time came, even if the chances of her accepting it seemed small. Last month she and her three housemates, in a tenuous truce between warring factions, had thrown a party. She was sick of fighting over TV monopolies and rubbish removal. One Wednesday night they filled the place with distracting people. The radio blared and everybody drank too much. I’d stayed behind only for her to bat me away from the sink and consign me to vacuuming confetti and popcorn kernels out of the living-room rug.
“I’ve got a system,” she’d said in her soft, clipped Midlands accent.
“All the other names on your lease have gone to bed,” I’d protested.
“I’ve got a system.”
My task took not a little time, but hers took longer. For five minutes I stood in the kitchen doorway, watching her work, tracing the angle of her head bent in concentration, following the circular motion of her hands soaping and rinsing and drying. And still she hadn’t noticed me, so I retreated into the living room and dozed off at one end of the sofa. Around five a.m. I’d woken up and spotted her asleep at the other end. A few feelings struck me in that moment, not all of which I could name, but the discomfort of being the only one awake in a house that was not mine drove me to hop over the coffee table and sneak out the back door.
We’d never spoken of it. Next time we’d seen each other, I’d said, “Great party,” and she’d said, “Thanks.”
Maybe by now I merited a place in her system. Knowing each other better by a whole month could make a difference. A month held weight in our lives: I had recently turned twenty-two, and Merin was over a year younger.
“Hey,” I said, still flat on my back, “come tell me what you think of this.”
She laid her secondhand suede jacket on top of her backpack and flopped down next to me. “Ow. Ah. God.” She winced. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Wanted you to hurt like I did.”
“Well, this doesn’t look promising for the other one.”
“For all we know, the other one is that much more comfortable compared to this one.”
“Only one way to find out.”
She sat up, with some effort, and I gave her my arm for a lift. We went over to the other bed with the same red accent pillows and put our hands on the comforter and I knew I was right.
“Oh, yes,” Merin sighed, throwing herself down.
I followed suit, more passively, sinking, allowing myself to be received into a downy grave. “This is more like it.”
“Shall we share this one, then?”
My left hand, hanging off the side of the bed, twitched. “It’s certainly big enough.”
She rotated toward me, eyes closed, exhaling contentedly. I stared at the ceiling, no longer quite so ensconced, the safety of the grave falling away, leaving the corpse exposed.
For a few breathless minutes we were at one with whatever we were then and whatever awaited us. Finally I sat up and pulled her up and we went about making ourselves at home. Unpacking our suitcases, rearranging our backpacks, aligning our phones, opening the windows. Flooding the space with life. The air smelled as though the sun had steeped in it like tea for centuries. An arpeggiated mandolin tune drifted from down in the street.
Once the place looked as much ours as it could, Merin ducked behind the beads again and I sidled over to the piano. I hesitated momentarily and then slid onto the bench.
“Let’s see what this baby can do.”
“Can’t call it a baby if it’s an upright,” said the hollowed voice.
“Keep that up and you’ll run out of piano puns.”
“When do we go exploring?”
“Cool your jets.” I ran a finger over the dusted keys. “Stay awhile.” Sebastian understood the importance of keeping an instrument in good repair. The G5 sounded about a quarter-step out of tune against the G4, but that was my worst complaint.
“What are you playing?” Merin emerged holding a clementine.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Cowl bowl.” She pointed back through the beads. “Don’t change the subject.”
“Nothing, just–something buried.”
A nervous rash crept up my neck. “An outtake. From an early Radiohead album.”
I considered myself a person of evolved tastes, delving into the depths of music I liked and browsing the forgotten bits; but I couldn’t abide the thought that anyone who followed me down would see who I was. My companion of choice was a shrill, shrouded alter-ego demanding that I hide under a bushel and keep myself safe.
“It sounds good. I like them.” She put a slice into her mouth. “Don’t let me stop you,” she added, but there was no way I could go on.
“Got anything of your own?”
“Oh, God, no.” I laughed. My original material stayed under the bushel. “Have you?”
“Well–hang on.” She set the half-peeled clementine on top of the piano, walked into the inner room, and knelt behind the far side of the bed, next to the window.
By now I was used to her notetaking, but it took me aback that she would share with so little persuasion. As if she should amaze me more. As if I should be any more desperate to be her, with her beautifully balanced speech and her English control and her judicious ability to observe the world, to not take anything too seriously, and yet to respect everything.
But that wasn’t the truth. I didn’t want to be her. I just didn’t want to be without her.
She returned holding the leather notebook, from which she drew a sheaf of half-sheets. “I mean, they’re poems, but–”
“Which are just lyrics before music.” I extended a hand. “Show me what you got.”
“Let me find one I think is–”
“First one you touch. Don’t overthink.”
“No buts. Hand it over.”
She plucked a page from the sheaf. “See what you can do.”
My eyes were absorbing the shape of the words before the page was in my hands. Rows of tidy lettering, syllabically symmetrical but not rhyming. “Where has this been all my life?”
“You like it?”
“It’s fantastic. Why haven’t I seen it before?”
A flush bloomed across her face. “I didn’t know you had an eye to that sort of collaboration.”
“Well, I do now.” I swung my legs over the bench and set the page on the ledge. “Be careful what you show me.” There was no structure in my head yet, no skeleton drawing itself out bone by bone in pop revelation, but I would coax it out.
“Shh, I’m working.”
I waited to touch a finger to the keys until she had put on her headphones and was obviously listening to something and not pretending. Then I worked straight through an hour without feeling a minute go by. It was only when I noticed the clementine had disappeared from the top of the piano that the reverie let go of me. I sat back.
Merin stretched diagonally across the bed, two-thirds into a biography of a painter she loved and I’d claimed to have heard of. Her legs were wrapped in black cotton; her toes flexed and pointed absently in lime green. It occurred to me that I was lucky the piano faced away, or I might have made less progress.
She looked up, too quickly for me to look down, and slipped the headphones around her neck.
“I’ll let you be the judge.” I went over and settled on my edge of the bed. “It came pretty easy, given that it’s the greatest fucking poem I’ve ever read.”
She chuckled. “Please. I’m hardly Keats.”
“You’re right.” I tucked my left foot under me. “I never liked Keats. Too sentimental. You’re more Whitman. With a touch of Neruda.”
She was bent over the book again. “You only say that because we’re in Spain.”
“A happy accident.”
“Isn’t Neruda the one who writes odes to socks?”
“I prefer to think of it as a commentary on the beauty in ordinary things.”
“Come off it.” She turned a page. “Keats does the same.”
“Yes, but he drowns his subjects in cliché like a–like a hollandaise sauce. Whereas Neruda talks plainly and simply about plain and simple things.”
“Like jam,” she muttered into the pages.
I snorted involuntarily. “Exactly. Like jam. Whether it’s…I don’t know, revolution, or a country, or an orange.”
She raised her head.
“Revolution is plain and simple? A country is plain and simple?”
“Fine”–I rolled my eyes–“if you put it that way, an orange isn’t plain and simple either. What I mean is he makes difficult things sound plain and simple. You get it?”
She nodded. “I get it.”
Silence fell between us and we looked in different directions.
“Should we go now?” I blurted.
“Oh. Right. Probably. Before it gets too late.”
We got up and began to search for our day things.
“Wait,” she said, “you have to play me this setting.”
“You’ll hear it later.” I waved a hand and slid into my oxfords one foot at a time.
“Oh, so you rustle me out of my work and then deny me a hearing?”
From a squat in front of my suitcase, I spoke over my shoulder. “It needs to sit for a bit.”
My fingers found the crushed vinyl of raincoat. I rolled it up and jammed it into my shoulder bag.
“Come on, Charlotte.”
“Art seems different with a buffer of time. You know that.”
“Fine.” She brought one foot up over the other knee and laced up her boot. “I’m sure it’s good enough not to need time, but whatever you say.”
She didn’t know what she was talking about. I was bold to even call myself an artist. I could not presume to shirk the methods of the heroes, and I could not have faith in myself, let alone tolerate any faith she had in me. But I swallowed the anxiety and slung on the bag and said, “Ready?”
We stayed three hours under the incandescence of the blessed, necks bent back in arcs, mirroring the halo of cavernous rainbows. There must have been a great number of us milling about inside, though we looked like so many ants on the marble. We all moved in a dumbstruck glide, overwhelmed by the power and the glory.
Merin and I walked toward the enormous open doors and never said a word. Three hours of observation had filled me with awe from my belly to the drums of my ears and left me with the feeling that there was nothing I could say that had not already been said.
The sky had darkened by degrees all afternoon, and a whispering drizzle reached us as soon as the current of exiting visitors carried us out under the front façade. We changed routes midstream and stopped at the far-right arch just as the rain picked up; we drew back but could not go far without colliding with a neon block of scaffolding. Beside the red stone pillar of the arch we hunched down on the concrete. My oversized raincoat was our best defense. I slipped the left side over my shoulder and gave Merin the right side.
By then the full force of a storm had ambushed the plaza, dispersing tourists in a flurry of spreading umbrellas and squeaking rubber soles. The green of the park across the way deepened before our eyes, and the thick trees swayed. The air turned chill in the crooks of our bodies. Even on the topmost step we were barely separated from the majestic thrash. Haphazard rain pecked at us. We bowed our heads toward our knees and huddled close–one motion from either of us and our foreheads would have touched.
“Psst.” I nudged her. “I’ve got an idea.”
“What is it?” she said. I could feel the heat of her breath.
“I’m going to inch out.”
Just leaning forward I got a spray. I cupped my hands, collected a few droplets, and tossed them sideways. She squealed. I shrugged off my half of the coat and descended several steps. It was a frigid downpour; it plastered my hair to my forehead and cheeks and rendered my long thin sleeves useless. Merin looked disarmed. I lifted my chin.
“Take your revenge, if you dare.”
Another handful of rain and she sprang up, shoving her arms through the sleeves. We dodged each other on the stairs for a long minute or so–all time is long in the rain–and splashed each other with all the water our pruned palms could hold until we fell against the railing, soaked to the bone, gasping for air.
The stairs tumbled slickly from the point where we stood, all possible paths converging into a single silver slide. Stray pedestrians skittered past on the walkway, panicked in the presence of God and His works.
I steadied myself on the iron bar and panted.
“Should we go?”
“Probably.” Her voice sounded far off through the rhythmic veil.
The railing guided me earthward in steady increments. Wetness blurred my sight; but turning back I could still see Merin’s dark locks, flattened and clinging to the sides of her face, and her clear eyes, illuminating the dim evening in place of a moon.
And now we were back for the night, drying off, listening to our curated radio, massaging our feet, and trying not to dwell on what we’d missed. The cathedral could easily have taken three days. But we had an itinerary, and a Malbec from the corner store for two euros.
“When are you going to play me your song?”
“Can’t hear you.”
I stopped singing only to take the occasional sip. Whatever it was going to do to me, I intended for it to happen slowly.
“Listen to this.”
I turned my head. Merin had pulled up some article on her phone.
“If Gaudí had continued working at his original pace, with his original technology, until the cathedral was finished according to his original blueprint, it would have taken him two hundred years.”
“Which tells us”–the offending song had ended, and I took another sip–“that he forfeited the right to gripe about how long his wife took to get ready.”
“Was he married?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
With a sigh she rolled away from me, onto her side, and swiped at the screen. A new song started and made me sit up.
“This is a good one.”
I ratcheted up the volume on my phone and lowered my feet off the bed and moved away in long strides. In the middle of the floor I pointed my right toe, snapped my right ankle in against my left, spun once, and stretched out a hand.
“Dance with me.”
Merin glanced over her shoulder. “I thought I was being your fact-checker.”
“I was being facetious. Come on.”
She shook her head. “I think the wine is getting to me.”
“The wine,” I said impatiently, “makes it easier.”
I took a few paces toward her. It mystified me that she would freely part with something as personal as a poem but shrink from dancing in private.
She crossed her arms. “We’re not doing another thing until you’ve played for me.”
“Please,” I begged. “This will loosen me up.”
“All right. But immediately afterward. And no complaining.”
I sighed. She laid her phone face-down on the bed and came to me on the carpet. I took her hands and we twirled. It was one of those songs that is enjoyable and hard to dance to. The shifting time signatures leave the dancers’ hearts to beat separately, to stutter out of sync. Our feet stumbled between each other and we were never quite sure where to look. “Give a little love to me,” we sang softly, “take a little love from me, I want to share it with you.” With so little space between us I wondered if the volume was high enough to mask the pounding in my ears and my chest. The last chord had hardly cut off when she said, her breath shallow, “Well then,” and gestured into the outer room.
I took a pull from the pit of my stomach and walked to the piano and sat at the bench, muttering, “This is it.”
She was standing several feet behind me, and as I played she drifted closer. I took almost a full verse to find the groove of what I had composed. The piano chords were slow and sparse, but still my fingers trembled on the keys. I was afraid of what she would hear. I was afraid of the sound of her words in my voice.
I finished with my heart in my mouth. I felt her over my shoulder. After the last pedal tone had died, I looked up. Her eyes were smiling.
I looked down. “No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s an attempt. A start.”
She leaned her elbows on the top of the piano. “You wrote it in an hour. I’m not sure what you expect from yourself.”
I fiddled with the page and ran my finger along the perforation. “It needs doctoring.”
“I liked it, Char. Are you hearing me?”
“The bridge is wonky, and this chord progression is unnatural, and these syllables don’t fit–”
“If you want to call it a work in progress–I suppose–”
“I don’t know why I even tried.”
She snatched the page and waved it in my face. “You demanded that I give you this.”
I stared at her. I’d never seen her more than mildly annoyed. If she laid a hand on me it might burn.
“I planned to show you the finished product,” I said quickly. “When it was finished. And it wasn’t. But you–badgered–”
“Well, I don’t think you would have waited too long. You clearly wanted my approval.”
I tried to swallow the hot lump at the base of my throat.
“And now you have it.” She thrust the paper on top of the piano. “Are you saying it doesn’t count?”
“No.” I violently wished for the words to explain that nothing about her didn’t count.
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying this was a mistake and I’m not an artist. I’m a pitiful imitation.”
“Oh, stop.” She turned away.
“No use denying the obvious just to salvage my self-esteem.” I leaned on the ledge.
“Charlotte, you’re not an idiot, so don’t talk like one.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek.
“First of all”–she turned around–“self-esteem doesn’t come from someone else. Second of all, you didn’t consider that I might have been insecure about this hodgepodge of words?”
She pointed to the page.
“No. You didn’t even let me choose one of my finished ones, or halfway decent. And you look at it for all of two minutes”–snatched it up again–“and say it’s the greatest fucking”–threw it down–“well, it isn’t! You’ve read better. I’ve read better. We both know it.”
“You’re shortchanging yourself.”
“Have you listened to yourself lately?”
“The composition doesn’t do it justice,” I spat.
“I’m no different to you.” She folded her arms. “I’ve got demons to deal with every day.”
I cut my eyes at her. “What are your demons?”
She gave me a sorry look and walked back to the bed and lay down with her book. After that she didn’t speak to me for twenty-seven minutes. I went to my suitcase to retrieve my pajamas. She took our wine glasses to the kitchen and began to rinse them, soaking a sponge with suds, handling the stems with sensitivity.
I called, my top half over my head, “I suppose I should arrange for a joint copyright?”
“Piss off, Charlotte.”
I sat up in bed. Half an hour ago, at twelve, we had turned in without saying goodnight. A fragrant dampness washed the room through the open window. The sky beyond was a drunk lavender. Merin’s wrists draped over her edge of the mattress. The wide neckline of her nightgown had dipped off her left shoulder. I adjusted it with the lightness and precision of a surgeon, and my index finger grazed her collarbone.
For a moment I did not breathe. I was less anxious to see her stir than to hear what was inside of me in that immaculate silence. Then she shifted onto her back and I followed her lead.
I released a soundless breath, little by little.
“Have you slept at all?”
I swallowed before lying. “A bit.”
There was another beat. I moved my right hand so the back rested against the back of her left hand.
“I’m still trying,” I whispered.
I turned my hand, covering hers.
She paused before saying, “Mm?”
And one more pause.
Her palm turned to clasp mine.
Everything we had taken care to hide was revealing itself. I shifted to face her. In the purple darkness I could barely see her eyes. I leaned in and our mouths touched. When we came apart I stared at her, neither asking what I wanted to ask nor saying what I had so carefully prepared. The idea of talking seemed loathsome all of a sudden. So we kept quiet and let the darkness move us. We had no soundtrack, but I heard the perfect accompanying song in my head, the one where a king bee misses honey.
Whichever of us woke first is lost to memory. We dressed for the day before sorting through the night’s clothing, returning to each her own. We said little, if anything. Then we ambled down the street to breakfast in a café whose proprietor spoke no English but was very kind and our conversation started over again, small. The sun reached all corners of the city, but the pavement edges shone in the wake of the rain.
Many of the shops were closed on Sundays, but we divided several hours between a small used bookshop and a thrift store whose signs proclaimed it was soon to go out of business. Both were run by ancient single people with no better pastime than to keep their establishments open on the Lord’s day. They either had outlived their faith or felt so close to meeting the one they believed in that any appearance in church might as well have been a formality. The bookshop air was musty and made me cough just to turn the pages, and I saw no titles I recognized, even in the English section. Inside the thrift store Merin and I peered through thick glass casing at the inlaid gemstones of the dead. We each bought a scarf: mine black and sheer, hers teal, like a peacock.
By mid-afternoon we had exhausted all options within a reasonable distance and begun to make our way back along the sleek cobblestones whose condensation collected in the cracks. Without consulting each other we found ourselves climbing the steps of the Sagrada Familia again. Morning masses were over, although there was a shimmering afterglow of incense and a few stragglers–leftover worshipers, or perhaps just tourists–circling the reflective perimeter.
It was only right that we should end up back there. It is the place to go back to. The cathedral changes with every visit and every visitor; it deepens, it spirals away from the viewer in all directions, it grows more unknowable. Every day a person steps in is the first day of the rest of her impossible life. And it becomes her home, because it is too massive to keep her or anyone else out. Each visitor is a refugee, an adopted child of the Holy Family, those Refugees of refugees, who did not choose one another but stayed nonetheless.
Now, under the halos, I was not in control of myself. I was afraid I would spill the awful jagged emotion of last night and finally leave myself no defenses. My head twitched, my eyes scanned fanatically for images of family, of the Madonna and her child, of the husband who all the priests I knew pretended was more than a proxy father. But the grandeur swallowed them, or me, whole.
“What do you think of the second time around?” I glanced at Merin, several feet from me. My hands fidgeted in my sweatshirt pockets.
“I think it isn’t the same somehow,” she said. This made me achingly sad. I turned away.
“I don’t understand,” she said after a moment. The strain in her voice gave me to believe she was craning her neck, too.
“How could a human being have done this if he’d understood how long it would take?”
“He had to express the inexpressible.”
“But he must have known”–her voice traveled to my left–“that he would run out of time.”
“Maybe it wasn’t about him.”
We stood stationary for a while.
“There’s so much we haven’t seen,” she murmured.
“Well, we had to start somewhere.”
“What if we don’t get back?”
I inclined my head toward her. “We’ll get back someday. I mean, you can take a holiday here any old time, if that’s what you want.”
“What if I run out of time?”
It was only the genuine worry, almost panic, in her eyes that told me she was not joking.
“Merin, that’s silly.”
“No. No, it isn’t. This architect was gone before he could finish.” Her hands had begun to fidget also. “By that timeline, I’m done for.”
I stepped closer to her. “Merin…”
She drew back. “Don’t, Charlotte.”
“Can’t what?” My voice was low. I touched her elbow.
“We shouldn’t have.”
She was drawing her elbow away, too, but I held on.
“I’ve seen everything I wanted to see, Merin.” My eyes certainly betrayed me in all my wretched sentiment. “I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”
She glanced spasmodically at my hand, then twisted free and split for the open entrance. The oncoming breeze slapped her hair back as if she had crossed into a wind tunnel.
“Merin!” I trailed her back through the outrageously carved doors. “Merin!”
A terrific crash from above stopped us in our tracks. She was at the edge of the top stair, I a few paces behind, our faces fixed upward.
At once the sky opened. It was time, again. The concrete steps and walkway glistened in a matter of moments.
My hand dumbly explored the contours of the bag on my hip. No raincoat. I laughed. “Can you believe this?”
She turned with a faint smile, the fringe of her hair dampened by the blast, and I couldn’t tell the water streaking her face for rain or tears. Her lips moved. I had to hurry to her side before asking her to repeat herself.
“I might die, Charlotte.” She cast her eyes over the shuddering plaza. “I might die.”
I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with that. I looked in the direction she looked. I hoped she might let me take her hand but never asked aloud.
There was no one in sight. The trees bent deferentially to the wind. Beyond the park, along the avenue, power lines draped from their poles like the bloodless flags of fallen nations. And Merin and I on the steps, waiting out another thunderstorm together.
Redfern Boyd is a writer, musician, and amateur travel photographer. Much of her creative and academic work deals with pop music, childhood trauma, and things famous people have said when they thought no one was listening. She holds the MA in English Literature from Central Connecticut State University, where her poem “Igor Stravinsky Awaits the Arrival of Dylan Thomas” won Blue Muse magazine’s 2018 Leslie Leeds Poetry Prize. Her essays and poems have appeared in several other anthologies and publications, including Outrageous Fortune, Transformations, and New Rivers Press’s Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan. A New England native, she currently resides in Berlin, Germany, where she writes for the Galatea app.