by Janice Lichtenwaldt
The old man’s classical flamenco guitar echoed off the walls of the ancient passageway, mixing with the sharp stench wafting up from the ground. The smooth cobblestones glistened red in the moonlight snaking into the narrow alley. Small chunks of pineapple and pear filled the crevices between the stones.
Fighting back the urge to vomit herself, Allison listened to the scrape of chairs around the corner and pictured the bar patrons moving tables.
“How the hell did we get here, Connie?”
Connie answered with another round of purging, barely missing Allison’s new purple and green espadrilles purchased just that afternoon at La Manual Alpargatera. Allison didn’t flinch and continued her duty of holding back Connie’s silky blonde hair.
“Estimat, puc ajudar-te?” came softly from the alley entrance.
“Fuck off,” Connie answered from her bent position, dragging the back of her hand across her mouth, catching a long string of drool swinging from her chin.
“Woah, Con,” Allison said, brows furrowed. Allison turned to see an older lady standing at the entrance of the alley. It was the same woman who had tried to sell them roses at their table earlier that evening.
“Hello. We don’t speak Spanish, I’m afraid.”
“Hmm…well, that wouldn’t help you much as I was speaking Catalan,” the old woman said smiling. “Your friend seems to be in need of some assistance.”
“I’m fine. Leave us alone,” growled Connie.
“What is wrong with you?” Allison pleaded under her breath. “I’m so sorry. I’m not sure what’s going on with her. She drank too much sangria. We’ll be fine…but thank you. I appreciate you stopping to check on us.”
“It is my pleasure, mija. These streets can be…” the old woman hesitated, “…difficult for new comers.”
Connie leaned her ass against the brick wall, still bending over with her hands on her knees. A vicious growl resonated deep in her belly.
“Look, lady. We don’t need your help. Go. Away.”
Allison’s mouth hung open. Her cheeks burned and not because of the glass of sangria she’d consumed. She looked from Connie to the old woman and back.
“Connie!” she hissed.
When Allison turned back again, the old woman was gone.
“What the hell is wrong with you? How could you be so awful to her? This is why people hate Americans!”
“Shut up. I need to go to the hotel.”
Without waiting to see if Allison was following, Connie stumbled across the plaza toward their hotel in the Born quarter.
The next morning Allison left Connie snoring in the hotel room. Allison knew Connie’s morning ritual, as in, “there was no morning.” Allison had several hours to kill before her traveling companion would be functioning. Stepping out onto the narrow Carrer de l’Argenteria, she was witness to a spectacular Barcelona morning. She tilted her head back to marvel at the strip of Mediterranean blue sky visible between the buildings. Morning sunbeams caught the edges of the small iron balconies above her, casting long vertical shadows cross the walls of hotel. The sparkling ocean air carried hints of orange blossoms and, more importantly, fresh coffee.
She headed east on de l’Agenteria toward Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. Allison nodded at the locals on her short walk to Plaçe de Santa Maria. She enjoyed witnessing their efforts as they prepared for another busy day of catering to tourists as well as residents. Delivery trucks navigated the skinny streets while shopkeepers wheeled hand trucks back and forth. Allison felt at home surrounded by the bustle of preparation. It had a unique feeling to it, like potential energy waiting to be released.
“Bon dia preciosa. Què puc aconseguir per vostè?
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak Span….er…Catalan.”
The young man behind the counter grinned from ear to ear.
In decent English he said, “Pardon my mistake, Miss. What can I get for you this morning?”
“I’ll have a cortado and…” she perused the pile of pastries, “…the butter croissant, please. Hey, how would I say that in Catalan?”
The young man smiled and said, “M’agradaria untallat i un croissant.” Allison tried to repeat it back several times, butchering it less with each attempt.
“You’ll get it soon enough. Please sit. I bring to you.”
Allison loved his broken English. She loved even more connecting with another human. Warmth spread across her chest that she hadn’t felt in several days. It felt good not being in the same space as Connie for a little while.
Wandering out onto the café patio she took a seat at a shiny metal table directly across from the Basilica. She drank in her surrounds. Plastic-lined boxes of locally caught fish, crates of milk and cheese, loaves of freshly baked bread, and baskets of deep green leafy vegetables dotted the sidewalks in front of restaurants and cafes surrounding the plaza. Like a gaggle of chickens, several well-dressed older women helped each through the bright red and black iron lace doors of the church.
Allison released a sigh, craving the comradery she had witnessed just as her coffee arrived. The smell of the brown liquid alone was enough to kick off fireworks in her head. Her first sip was divine. The rich nectar spread across the back of her tongue like warm velvet. She savored that first feeling of caffeine entering her system. Coffee was a true blessing.
After a few more sips and an initial tear of flakey butter croissant, inspiration sprang up. Cortado in one hand, Allison leaned down to her right and dug in her boho bag. She expertly located her trusty Uni-ball Air pen and also grabbed the silk and stone-covered journal that had made its way to the bottom of the bag. The journal felt natural in her hands. She ran her thumbs across the smooth purple and yellow stones sewn into the light-green silk cloth cover. The pattern created a raised labyrinth she would solve each time before opening the journal. The cloth itself had absorbed a woodsy scent from the incense she stored with it. Two long pieces of purple silk acted as bookmarks, each one tied off with a small chime. The journal had been a gift from her mother. She often found herself absentmindedly writing poems into the book.
This particular morning, after finishing the labyrinth ritual, Allison carefully plucked at the silk bookmark. Sweet chimes tinkled as she flipped the pages to the entry from yesterday. She ran her finger over the light brown splotch of yesterday’s cortado and reread her words, a frown tugged at her lips. It recounted the scene Connie had made at Razzmatazz, the giant dance club in Poblenou. A small sigh escaped Allison as she put pen to paper to capture the drama from the night before.
A crystal clear picture immediately surfaced of the old woman who had tried to sell them flowers and offer assistance in the alley. Her fingers had been spindly, bulging at each knuckle. The backs of her hands were a relief map of blue veins and each fingertip was inky black from knuckle to nail. Deep crevasses of experience ran down the length of her face. Paper-thin pale lined lips pulled across worn yellow teeth. What struck Allison most were the woman’s kind violet eyes that pierced through ancient folds of weathered skin. They glittered with vitality, a sense of mischief, and deep wisdom.
Coffee exploded onto the cobblestones as Allison’s knees rammed the table.
“Oh dear. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just hoping you could move your chair a bit.”
In front of Allison was a young mother navigating a baby jogger through the café tables.
Both women tried to regain their composure.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Just too deep in thought.”
“Let me buy you another coffee.”
“No, no. That isn’t necessary.”
“But I insist. What was it?”
Allison told her and watched helplessly as the woman bounded off toward the café leaving the baby jogger next to her. She tentatively peered around the edge of the stroller. Giant blue eyes fringed with white blonde eyelashes stared back at her. A toothless smile and gurgling giggle erupted from the infant. Warmth radiated from Allison’s core in waves through her entire body. She fought an intense urge to pick the baby up and cradle it.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” The young mother had returned with their coffees.
“She is amazing.” Allison’s eyes sparkled with wetness. “Thank you for the coffee. I appreciate it.”
“It is the least I could do.”
The two women sat in the plaza chatting for several minutes while the baby entertained herself with a bright purple wood star, chewing every point with abandon.
“Jesus, you get up too damn early.”
Connie slammed down in the chair next to Allison.
“Fuck me. My head is killing me. Give me that.”
Connie grabbed the cup in front of Allison and drained the remaining liquid.
“That’s not going to do it. Waiter. Waiter!” Connie snapped her fingers at the young man who had helped Allison earlier.
As Connie dictated her order to the server, Allison felt herself shrink into her chair. She stole a glance at the mother who seemed bemused by the situation.
“Allison, thank you for sharing your morning with me and baby Alicia. It was a pleasure,” she said to Allison with a knowing smile. “I hope you have a peaceful day in our beautiful city.”
“Thank you. Oh, and thank you for the coffee!”
The woman nodded, stood and left, deftly pushing the baby jogger through the café tables not once acknowledging Connie’s presence.
“What a bitch.”
“What? What did you say?”
“That woman. Dude. Why were you even talking to her? You really should be careful about who you talk to.”
“Connie…You are…” and before Allison could finally give Connie a piece of her mind, Connie’s body convulsed. Her eyes grew big.
“Oh god. Oh god. Not again.”
Connie leapt up and ran to a nearby trashcan and retched up the coffee she’d just consumed. There was nothing else to offer the can after last night but the heaving kept coming. Allison felt a presence at her side and looked up. The server had Connie’s coffee and tomato toast. Their eyes met and Allison just shook her head.
“Could you bring some water instead?” The waiter happily retreated back to the café.
Once the water had been delivered Allison packed up her things and helped Connie back to the hotel.
“This is the worst fucking trip EVER,” Connie moaned from the hotel bed as Allison gently floated an off-white knit blanket over her.
“Would you like some water?”
“No. No. I just want to die. Ok? Can you go and leave me be alone?” The typical bite wasn’t in the words. Allison knew for sure Connie was in a bad way.
“Sure, no problem. Text me if you wake up and feel like meeting up.”
Before leaving Allison ensured the blackout curtains were doing their job and put a bottle of water next to Connie despite the refusal. She gathered her bag and quietly pulled open the door.
“Thank you,” said a meek voice from across the room.
“Feel better,” Allison said, hardly believing the words of gratitude.
Allison left the hotel feeling lighter than she had since the beginning of the trip. Connie was a handful and had always been so. However, she hoped they could work out their differences and what she just witnessed gave her hope. The first few days of this trip were some of the most painful moments she’d spent with her stepsister. Allison never understood Connie’s animosity toward her. She suspected it had something to do with Connie’s parents divorce. Allison’s mother had been a beautiful woman with an even more beautiful soul. Allison’s birth father had never been in the picture. Allison was excited when they moved in with Connie’s dad when she was 10. Her mother was excited for Allison to have a sister in Connie. Connie’s dad, treated the girls equally in all things, from praise to discipline. While Allison appreciated the fairness, Connie spent more time keeping score. If Connie felt the score had become out of balance she’d punish Allison in small but significant ways. Allison spent the next six years trying to ensure fairness in all things.
Everything changed the day of Allison’s 16th birthday. Connie was in a rare good mood and had been looking forward to Allison’s party happening later that night. As they got home from school Connie raced Allison to the back door and barged in first, before stopping cold. She turned and pushed backwards, trying to push Allison out the door before she could see her mother dead on the kitchen floor. It was one of the few times Connie had shown any overt compassion. From that point on, Allison knew there was decency somewhere deep down and she chased it. The sad part was, the more Allison tried, the more Connie retreated.
The day after they graduated high school two years later, Connie was gone. She’d left a note for her father explaining her plans. There was a postscript for Allison: “P.S. Stay out of my room and no, you can’t wear my clothes.”
Allison spent the next four years attending college, earning degrees in English Literature and Women’s Studies. She lived at home and took care of her stepfather. After her mother died he had started to collapse in on himself. Connie’s escape accelerated the process. By the time Allison was graduating from college, he was in hospice. The doctors had no explanation for his condition. Allison suspected a broken heart but kept her theory to herself. She’d heard from the caregivers that Connie had been to the facility to be with her father but she herself never saw her.
He finally passed in mid-July. He had been kind enough to make all the arrangements in advance. All Allison had to do was make a phone call to put the process in motion. The afternoon after he died there was a knock at the door.
“I forgot my key,” was all Connie said as she shoved her way in with two giant suitcases and headed straight to her room. Allison just shook her head and closed the door quietly.
Three months after their dad’s death, Allison and Connie sat in two large leatherback chairs facing a polished mahogany desk behind which sat Harold Stevens, their father’s bald and pudgy lawyer. Allison noted he was in desperate need of an ear hair trim. Harold cleared his throat and began to read the will.
“To my beautiful daughters, my greatest wish is for you two to find a way to love each other as I loved you.”
Allison reached a hand out to Connie who brushed it off and shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“To Connie, I leave $750,000 and my Corvette.”
“To Allison, I leave $500,00 and the house. Thank you for taking care of me. It is also time to pass along a few belongings your mother asked me to keep for you. I apologize I did not give these to you sooner. I could not give up any piece of your mother. This I give you unconditionally.”
Harold unlocked the top right drawer of his massive desk. He lifted out a shabby, unfinished wood box that had seen better days. It was scarred with deeply burned black glyphs and designs Allison didn’t recognize.
“What a second. What does he mean ‘unconditionally?’” Connie demanded.
“I am getting to that ma’am,” the lawyer said and then continued to read.
“Your mother and I…”
“She wasn’t MY mother,” Connie spit out.
“…made a choice to blend our families. We were not successful in bringing the two of you together. As my dying wish, I ask that you give it one more, genuine attempt. To that end, before my attorney will release the funds or the titles to the car and house, you must take a month-long trip together. It is an absolute requirement of this inheritance. My attorney will provide you with the details of the requirements. Allison, your mother had planned to take this trip with you when you were old enough so I have selected Barcelona as your first stop. You will stay there at least one week. After that, the destinations are up to you two. Please see this as the opportunity it is. You only have each other now. Don’t waste this moment. I love you both deeply. Be well. Live life to the fullest. The rest of my estate will be liquidated and donated to the charities I’ve indicated to Harold.”
“Do you have any questions, ladies?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? YES, I have questions!” Connie raged.
After arguing at great length Connie finally turned to Allison as if noticing for the first time she was there.
“Can you believe this shit? I mean…” Connie trailed off.
Allison sat stone still clutching the box in her lap, tears running down her cheeks. She was emotionally spent. In a second show of decency, Connie stopped her rampage. Instead she turned to Harold and said, “When do we leave?”
It was still early when Allison reemerged onto the street. The air had warmed up significantly. Allison took off her light green sweater and tied it around her waist exposing her freckled shoulders to the sun. She thought for a moment and then decided to head to Park Guell. She knew Connie could care less about the Guadi architecture. The morning passed into afternoon without incident. By 3pm Allison was back in the Gothic quarter enjoying a cerveza on the Rambles. As she watched tourists and locals stroll up and down the pedestrian walk way she heard her phone chime. The text read: I’m not puking anymore. Where are you?
Allison typed back, Rambles across from the Boquariea. Within seconds her phone chimed. I’ll meet you there.
Allison prepared herself for Connie’s arrival. Allison wanted this to work but was also not interested in continuing to be beat up day after day. She was too old for this shit. The table where Allison had staked her claim was adjacent to roadway for vehicles. Due to the plethora of tourists milling about and not paying attention, drivers were typically forced to go at a snail’s pace.
Something made Allison look up from her phone. She saw Connie coming out of one of the narrow streets that spilled onto the Rambles. At the same time she saw a young girl with pigtails eating a giant ice cream cone. The vignette made Allison smile. And then the smile faded. A delivery truck was barreling down the side road. Without thinking, Allison leapt from her chair. The next moment she was holding the girl in her arms leaning against a wall, heaving. She noticed the girl had managed to keep her ice cream cone.
“What the fuck just happened?”
“Are you ok, little one?”
The girl just stared at her and then started to wiggle out of her arms. Before Allison could do anything about it, the girl had disappeared into the crowd.
“Dude, are you ok? One minute you were at the table, the next you were on your ass here. What happened?”
“I…I don’t know. I saw a truck and a little girl and, I just reacted.”
“Well, that little shit is lucky to be alive. Can we get a drink?”
Allison looked at her stepsister.
“Can you handle it?” Allison teased.
“Fuck you. And…yes, I’ll slow my roll tonight,” Connie said with a hint of humor.
They grabbed Allison’s bag that had magically not been stolen and headed toward the beach for cocktails.
Three figures stood in the darkened archway of a stone passageway watching the two women, walking arm in arm toward the beach.
“She’s the one,” the crone said satisfactorily. “She survived my Sangria.”
“I agree,” said the young mother while her baby suckled. “She survived my coffee.”
“I agree,” came solemnly from the pig-tailed girl popping a last bit of ice cream cone into her mouth. “She simply survived.”
“She’ll be back,” predicted the mother.
“Yes. And soon,” said the crone.
“Let’s make sure we’re ready,” the child instructed.
The three figures joined hands and formed a circle facing each other.
“We are the Crone.”
“We are the Mother.”
“We are the Maiden.”
“We are the One.”
Joined hands intertwined and raised into the center of the circle. The three figures began turning counter-clockwise, spinning faster and faster, blurring the shapes into a single entity. The spinning stopped suddenly.
“Blessed be,” the lone woman said.