This story is taken from Tizón’s third collection, Técnicas de iluminación (Lighting Techniques) published by Páginas de Espuma in 2013. Eloy’s arrival at the publisher was a long-awaited pleasure that began just like that: he said he was going to give us a manuscript and then we both laughed nervously. When someone tells you that they’re going to get married and then react before you have a chance to, you begin to suspect that something might not be quite right. The beginning of this story, with its masterful pair of short phrases, offers the first key to a tale that explores the depths and complexity of human reactions. How did we react when someone we know got married (they’ll remember for sure)? How do we react when someone appears or disappears from our lives? How do we react when in a life in which we share everything we’re taken by surprise or make a discovery or are caught off guard by a chance event? A group of confused but enterprising characters with their whole lives ahead of them. A trip with a purpose. And a wedding. No: ‘the’ wedding – the titles of stories aren’t chosen carelessly, not by Eloy at least. Their reactions (oh, the reactions…) to strangeness and uncertainty. In its unique way, the story reflects the rhythms of the world. Our world.
– Juan Casamayor
For Isa and Germán
She was going to get married, she said.
And then she started to laugh.
She’d decided to drop out of university halfway through the year, weren’t expecting that, were we? Sofia blurted it out all in one go without stopping for breath. She said that she was in love with a guy from her home town who wore chess-player’s glasses, they were sending him to work overseas with a foreign-research grant, and rather than letting go of him she wanted to marry him, the guy from her home town, and go with him so they could live together in Melbourne or wherever he was going, and she was leaving all her books behind, everything else could go to hell, she wanted to travel.
Sofia was telling us all about it, but we were surprised that she was telling us anything at all. We barely knew Sofia, we weren’t close, we saw her every now and again and said hello and goodbye in the lift or when we passed her in the halls of the Faculty of Education. She was always nervous, agitated, arms full of notes, blowing her fringe off her forehead even though it always flopped back down and covered her eyes. Oh, that rebellious fringe. We instinctively knew we should ignore her when we sat at the same table in the students’ canteen or in the reading room in the language labs.
One day she brought a basket full of turtles into class.
We neither liked nor disliked her. She was just Sofia Ardiles, with her academic folders, her notes, her grating nervousness, her green fingernails and her untameable fringe flopping over her eyes, but the three of us had been friends since childhood, inseparable, from nursery school to flatmates in a student flat, always together, clones and complete opposites, the three of us like islands united by the very thing that separates them. We shared the same past – Rodrigo, Mario and Samuel – and we exchanged long, knowing gazes that declared, we’re close friends, we don’t need words to understand each other.
But there she was, Sofia, stubbornly insisting on inviting us to her wedding, someone’s actually getting married for once, she said to us breathlessly, blowing the fringe off her forehead, even though it fell back down immediately, covering her eyes, as though that meant something, and maybe it did. Who knows? She took bundles of pages from her bag and solemnly, like a spy, highlighted rustling road maps to explain how to get there, right there, and then the phone numbers of youth hostels, campsites, toll roads, bridges and bypasses, handing out cards printed with the dates and routes highlighted in fluorescent marker, all to convince us to accept the invitation, please, please, please, we had to be there, anything to make the trip to Mudela del Valle, the chosen venue for the event about 600 kilometres north of the city, easier. It’s full of mountains, rocks and cows, you can’t miss it.
Go to a stranger’s wedding? Rodrigo thought. Why not? thought Mario. The weekend of the wedding is still a long way off, and we don’t have anything better to do, thought Samuel. We didn’t need to think twice, at the time we’d have taken any excuse to get away, a wedding is an excuse, we said to ourselves, it’s not a big deal.
Nothing special planned, no girls or exams on the horizon, so one Friday after dinner we pooled our money to get a wedding gift for Sofia, threw three dark suits, new shoes, white shirts and black ties into the boot of the car, filled a vacuum flask with coffee, put lots of CDs in the glove compartment – running out of music would be unthinkable – and set out in silence on the long journey north on the impulsive adventure of going to Sofia’s wedding in Mudela del Valle with no real idea as to why we were going or what we would find when we got there.
We travelled expectantly, taking turns to drive the mustard-coloured convertible Mario’s father had loaned us, telling us to take care, not to do anything crazy, he didn’t want to see a scratch or a dent on it, understand? Here are the keys, they flashed in his hands, Rodrigo, Mario and Samuel, the three of us were inseparable, friends from childhood.
The three of us shared everything, morning, noon and night, secrets and debts, joys and hangovers, books, highs and lows, Sundays stained with sadness, days spent staring at our hands, the odd casual girlfriend, everything in triplicate, even that unforgettable afternoon when we discovered, high on amphetamine-induced enthusiasm, the Gran Vía in Madrid with all its signs lit up against the gassy-green sky and the row of flaming houses like quartz in chrome desert light. The light suddenly went crazy, it turned crude and stupid, it became a bipolar light, and at that moment, right at that moment, a Chinese woman’s hair suddenly burst into flames.
So we left the neon lights and plateaus behind, the abandoned graffiti-spattered cement factories, the pine-tree-lined ring roads, unlikely flower beds tucked between two concrete blocks, fields of sunflowers with centre partings, the blond fire of the corn fields, progressing through the night, going north, inexorably north, towards Sofia and her wedding in the mountains, which, for some mysterious reason, seemed to be reeling us in, hypnotically dragging the three of us along on invisible threads, guiding us through the mist.
The road was a conveyor belt of bonfires. Someone rolled and lit a joint, and we started to pass it around, taking turns to toke, singing songs in a chorus, one of us singing the first notes and the others following him, the smoke twisting into slow spirals and opening aniseed flowers in our lungs, and suddenly it started to get hot, don’t you think it’s hot? And we laughed for no reason, all three of us in the car, on the eve of a wedding, the ember burning against the dark glass in a little motorized torch as the night flowed over the roof of the car. Mushrooms started to grow in the glove compartment. The motorway unfolded as we went, turning into a cylindrical tube that sucked and sipped at us, and the air smelled of menthol mouthwash.
The final stretch of the journey was quite a lot slower and more tiring than we’d expected; some of the local roads weren’t very well signposted, or there were roadworks and we got lost a few times, turning around pointlessly, going back on ourselves, thinking we were finding our way. Dizzy and exhausted from all that circling around, we finally parked up for the night to grab a brief nap in the convertible’s seats, next to a poorly lit village petrol station, a hamlet of white cubes squeezed unattractively into the foot of an ashy ravine amid the intermittent barking of dogs, a Romanesque church tower, tired muscles, the odometer spinning around more and more slowly, the never-ending ribbon of the road that wound back up into our dreams, again and again, with its saurian dotted line.
Purely by chance we woke up in Mudela. We’d reached our destination just when we’d given ourselves up for lost. We just about had time to spruce ourselves up at the petrol station, empty our bladders, change our clothes, shave quickly and run along the cobbled streets to the town hall in the centre of the plaza, under the watchful eyes of locals with agricultural expressions and rustic hair, to join the crowd hailing the newlyweds with shouts, whistles and confetti.
It was a beautiful May morning, barely a cloud in the sky, just the right day to recover from a tiring journey or maybe for a civil marriage. Maybe the weekend wasn’t a lost cause after all. We were at the wedding, and we were still travelling, eating up the miles, checking road maps, examining signposts and the faces of the other guests as they passed by, flashing lights and savoury crackers, hard shoulders and cleavage, an intriguing combination.
Tables. Chairs. Trees with giraffe necks. A finger with surgical tape pointing at something in the distance: there. The blue puddle of a lake in the mountains. A high sleepy sky dominated by a huge operatic cloud. Next to it, a more timid, blurry cloud with shifting colours, like when you look at a 3D photo without the proper glasses.
There are a lot of us, about two hundred. Four large barbecues are roasting an endless array of meat and fish. Because we don’t know anyone and no one knows us we sit at the table for single people, surrounded by single men and women, not close but not too far away from the four-layered wedding cake.
So the hours passed and the sky filled with more clouds and changed colour gradually, the waters in the lake trembled and rippled and smoothed over again and again, all day and all night, and we were all a little smart and a little dumb, a little handsome and a little ugly, a little quick and a little slow. In the tent lit up with paper lanterns there followed jokes and games, the popping of corks and commotion and squeals from the children’s table.
Butterflies flitted in and out of the tent, somersaulting among the guests, their wings flashing in the iridescent reflection of a glass of wine or hypnotized by the glittery flash of a fork.
One of the groom’s brothers, who had his arm in a sling, went up to the podium and recited a poem that he’d written especially for the occasion. It earned applause. A portly red-nosed man in a military uniform sang a song, and all the guests joined in the chorus with more enthusiasm than skill. There was more applause. When night fell and the desserts were served, it was time for the toast. We drained our glasses, the champagne flowed everywhere, the band started to play and the couples went out to dance. We took turns dancing with some very tall girls we’d just met at the singles’ table who’d come to support the groom, not very pretty but very friendly, and we drank several Martinis with them and had to slip out to the portable toilets a few times, dodging children of all ages who were running all over the place, sprinting, playing, jumping and laughing: a rainbow of children.
The moon rises among the trees. Sparklers are lit. Channels of light and shadow lick at the hands and faces of those present. A professional photographer wanders around taking snapshots on the fly, and a bunch of amateur cameras buzz and store their own digital memories for posterity.
It was after midnight when the tall girls who were friends of the groom came to sit on our laps without asking permission, and then it was us sitting on the laps of the single girls to keep the joke going or because the feast had gone on for so long that we’d forgotten what we were doing there and why and didn’t understand when they said, “That’s not fair! You’re cheating!”
Finally, not long before the party came to an end, someone came over from behind and covered our eyes with their hands, asking “Guess who?” and there she was with her shining eyes, puffing on her fringe, she seemed excited, touching us, mussing our hair, stroking our chins and hands, and we started to tell her how beautiful she looked, but Sofia cut us off saying that it was nothing and saying again how much she loved us, she loved us all so much, especially the three of us, really. She hated the idea that she’d be losing us, she hated being away from us for a second, never, never, never, she’d rather lose a limb.
And then she started crying, nervously drying her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. She hugged us all as she said in an amusingly serious tone, “I’m not crying, I’m not crying even if that’s what it looks like.”
And we squeezed her so tight that we could feel her pounding heart and pulse, and she trapped our heads in her hands and stared hard at us, like she was bewitched, through her damp tears, frenziedly kissing our foreheads, mouths, teeth and hair, once, twice, thrice and swore by everything sacred that we were her best friends, her soulmates, that she loved us more than anything in the world, she adored us she said, crying, coughing, hiccupping and then laughing, oh, I’m so happy, am I going mad?
And she made as if to go. She took a few steps away but came back straight away, spinning away, she couldn’t leave us, she couldn’t separate herself from us, asking if we wanted more cake, insisting that we have something more to eat and drink, we were too skinny, our hair was too long and also we were her favourite guests, we weren’t to be difficult, come on, wasn’t the cake good? We had to have some more for her, for Sofia, she’d loved us from the first moment she saw us in the halls of the Faculty of Education, it was love at first sight.
“Are you trying to piss me off?”
And pretending to be offended she shoved a huge slice of cake in our mouths, so big it barely fit, Sofia almost choked us, our mouths were full of cake, it was hard to swallow that much sponge, we had to wash it down our throats with cava and chew hard, but we had to admit that it was good, that couldn’t be denied.
She went off, but then she changed her mind and came back because marriage was, could be, a dark and intimidating place with no simultaneous translation available, like getting dizzy or falling, incomprehensible, like that chair over there, no, like that one, but we, scruffy-haired boys, wouldn’t understand it, I’m so thirsty, I’m so hungry, I’m everything, and there was the grief and courage involved in getting married, adding another surname, having to live so far away from home, the fear of forgetting everything some day, our faces, and dying alone. So she asked our permission to name her children after us when they came along as a tribute to this moment, Rodrigo, Mario and Samuel, she said them all together: rodrigomarioandsamuel.
And, moved by her own show of emotion and the idea of those three bewildered children (as though their lives were in danger), Sofia hugged us again and kissed us on the lips, on the chin, on our eyebrows, snuffling our necks and saying once again how much she loved us, she adored us, she really loved us, the three of us, she wasn’t exaggerating, yes she did, no, and as she said it she shed tears of laughter, grief and laughter.
And then her husband with the chess-player’s glasses came up from behind with a wink. He put his arms around Sofia’s waist and started to nibble her ears and kiss her neck, inhaling his wife’s perfume, now mixed with a little sweat, and started to dance with her in a funny dance, jumping a little, but then they started to dance for real, dancing and dragging her away little by little outside the tent, a goodbye waltz, taking her away from us without her really realizing it, they had to go, my love, my life, a taxi was waiting for them at the entrance to the venue with its headlights on and all their luggage inside, goodbye, Sofia, goodbye, and she pouted, blew her fringe out of her eyes, waving goodbye and blowing air kisses, Sofia never tired of being happy and sad.
The two of them were in love, and they floated off into their future lives together enveloped in the smell of dying flowers from the centrepieces, bottles of champagne, the smoke from the candles and marijuana and all the terrible music from the speakers, wedding music, not good or bad but a little hollow and horrible, the kind that if you’re not careful can scratch at your heart and make it bleed.
A pear-shaped boy, dead tired, fell asleep in his chair, slumped against the backrest, and an oaken old woman, who looked as though she was made of sacking and umbrella frames, pointed her finger and said, “Innocent.”
A few groups were starting to leave, they were going away, hugging each other and slapping backs, endless farewells that lasted hours, the circles started to disintegrate, it was getting late, and the children had to go to bed: it would soon be dawn.
The soldier with the red nose applauds the moon. A guest leaves and then comes back to get her shawl. She crosses the empty tent, picks it up and takes a last swig from a randomly selected glass, then goes back the way she came.
The champagne continued to flow, the musicians went on playing like they were fighting, but something was broken. It was obvious that the party was coming to an end. The aftermath of Sofia’s wedding was that of an earthquake, with overturned chairs and tablecloths stained with circles of wine, leftovers from the banquet left steaming among the ruins. When the bride and groom disappeared from our sight we sat silently at the singles’ table for a while, drinking without knowing what to say, and then someone suggested going out to greet the new day together, why not?
And together we got up – why not? – and left the tent in the company of those three tall girls who were growing taller and more beautiful by the second, laughing uproariously for no good reason, constantly jumping around on long legs clad in purple silk stockings, their thighs flashing everywhere.
We stumbled along with the three single goddesses on our arms along the lake shore, laden with glasses and bottles of vodka and whisky and gin and all the experience of the wedding in our eyes, and outside rosy-fingered dawn started to stretch out like an octopus, tinting our cheekbones in soft lilac, making us look like aliens. It felt like twilight. It was pleasant to breathe in and out, the cool air cleared our minds. We fell down onto the grass. The girls complained, they were cold under their strappy dresses, and without a word all three of us took off our jackets at the same time and like old-fashioned gentlemen hung them on their bare shoulders to keep them warm.
They must have liked the noble gesture a lot because they thanked us by rubbing their scented heads against our chests, kissing our lips tenderly and furiously. We set about doing that for a while, kissing, exploring each other with our tongues, it was just a naughty, innocent game, meaningless messing around, so we thought at the time, blind to any future that might involve a silhouette sneaking up from behind the scenes and dragging us offstage.
We looked at the tree trunks and the clouds, the beaks of the birds and the fireflies, the mirror of the little lake and the large and small rocks. We were, we suddenly realized, the only people left at the party, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, half-finished glasses, unfinished stories, crushed cushions, melted ice, the final embers of a human adventure that had begun a long way from there a long time before.
Why don’t we go to Portugal? one of the girls suggested, and the idea was so crazy and delightful that it had to be considered, yes, it was very tempting, suddenly a fragment of an intricately patterned mosaic wall appeared before us, a glass of vinho verde, the rumbling of a fountain in the cloister of a luminous convent, the Atlantic sky, the open sea, gravely wounded by seagulls and palm trees, the scribbles of electric cables and a tram struggling up a steep, almost impossibly narrow rua, all kinds of things. The syllables of Por-tu-gal knocked around our heads, Portugal folded into three equal parts like a letter held in the hand of a passer-by (fate?) to be dropped into the nearest post-box because the important thing wasn’t staying or getting to or being anywhere but to prolong the journey a little longer so we’d always be anticipating what was to come, never looking back.
A new day was dawning, and before continuing our journey to the mosaics we spent a while lying all together in the wet grass of the meadow under the starry firmament in the middle of May with our glasses on our stomachs and invisible crab claws pinching us from the inside, up and down, watching the quiet dawn on the shore of a calm lake, pretty drunk and exhausted, feeling a kind of melancholy in our guts but also euphoria at how well everything had gone, not a single flaw, perfect, we all agreed that it had been worth it. The light was like crumpled muslin. This was how our friend Sofia’s wedding in Mudela came to an end, with the six of us lying still, enjoying the moment, listening to the world breathe, the silence broken only by a distant cricket.