La Fiebre del Calor
The heat hits us like a brick. As we exit the arrivals hall, I hold my passport against my forehead. The minute we reach shelter, Gabriel pushes me up against a wall and hugs me. A blowfly of light hovers over his watch face. When he finally pulls away, I burst into tears.
‘What’s wrong?’ he says.
‘I'm sorry, I can't help it,’ I blubber.
‘Well, you’ll have to,’ he says, grinning. ‘I’ve waited six months for your visit. I think I can hug you all I like now.’
He brushes my shoulder. The steam of his touch evaporating quickly on my skin. Picking up my pack Gabriel guides me towards the carpark. As we pass by a cluster of motorcycles, a boy with green eyes like slices of kiwi fruit swaggers towards us. Proudly, he asks me in broken English if I can take a photo of him and his friends.
I turn to Gabriel. Gabriel has disappeared from my side, wandering instead towards the ticket machines. I nod at the boy and he hands me his camera. The gang fires machine gun Spanish at each other as they bolster around him. To their communal cheer, I take a photo. Then they cheer and whoop as they gather to inspect their prize. As they lope back to their car, Gabriel strolls back with a ticket, waving sardonically at them as they’re swallowed by buttocks of traffic.
‘That was weird,’ I say to Gabriel, as I open the truck door.
Gabriel winks, pushing his glasses up his nose.
‘Welcome to Spain,’ he says.
On the highway, the sun flings spores of pink and gold. Even though it’s evening, the pick up is boiling. I roll down my window. The wind laps my face like a dog. Gabriel howls along with the radio, which is playing a Spanish pop song. Out the window I groan, and he laughs. It’s good to see him.
We arrive at the casa el campo on sundown. As I walk from the gate to the paved pathway, I’m struck by the charm of the building, whose walls are composed of stones the colour and shape of seashells. Inside the casa, the corridors are framed with bookshelves, the walls, watercolours; but in the living room, Gabriel has set up a video game console, a basket of washing, a pile of cookbooks, and a plate of just cooked zucchini chips. By the time I’ve finished my self-guided tour, nursing a book I’ve stolen from the bedroom, the sizzle of meat is guiding me back to the kitchen.
On the verandah, Gabriel has set up a table, tossing napkins at me and wiping his glasses on his apron. From the duty free section at the airport, I’d nicked a bottle of wine, and now I open it with gusto. For my first meal, Gabriel has prepared a feast of jamon serrano, cold salad, Spanish tortilla, pastries, meat and chocolate cake whose slices are so huge they settle like mud at the bottom of our stomachs. Afterwards, we drink the tinto, the cool wheels of pineapple orbiting around the insides of our glasses.
‘This is amazing, Gabe. Honestly, I’m so stuffed I can hardly move.’
Gabriel shrugs. ‘You’d better be. I spent all day preparing it. More?’ he says, holding up the wine jug.
I nod. Gabriel moves towards me, continuing our conversation about the past. As he talks, his voice sounds both distant and close at the same time. Mid-way through, he gets up to refill our drinks. I close my eyes briefly. As I doze, a thick blanket sneaks up my legs. Through the red haze of my eyelids, I sense a shadow moving across the wall from the door. I reach out to the figure as it pauses at the end of the bed. Something warm and prickly pushes against my fingers. Then the heat is retracted. The shadow recedes.
‘I’m so happy to see you,’ I mumble, folding into the arms of sleep.
Before arriving I had sent Gabriel a list of things I wanted to do while visiting, which included going to see the bulls. This morning Gabriel wakes me early to begin the long journey to the arena. In the kitchen we throw coins of banana over our muesli and eat quickly, talking about the recent financial crisis, and unrelatedly, grape-picking. Then we get in the pick up and start the long drive.
We arrive at the arena a couple of hours later. The entrance to the stadium is literally overflowing. After several frustrating minutes of standing in the line, I wave down a drink vendor. By the time he’s moved on, shouting ‘Bebidas!’ to the wilting crowd, I’ve already started inhaling my ice cream. At the entrance to the stadium we climb the cool, concrete stairs towards the seating banks. Around us, the crowd ripples like a giant organism. We join in as we sit down with the chanting, shouting ‘Olé, olé, olé!’ Then the horses start riding into the arena. The crowd begins to cheer.
The bull enters the arena. The mixture of heat, blood, and the knowledge of what is about to happen make my stomach churn. In the arena, the bull kicks dust into the air as the matador, glittering like a scarab, swans towards centre stage. Quick as a flash, the matador lunges his knife. The bull staggers a little as the sword slips into its spine. Then its legs buckle, and it’s on the ground. The crowd roars. Gabriel and I clap politely. The matador bows with a grand flourish.
Before the crowd congests again, Gabriel grabs my hand and we’re clambering and climbing over people towards the exit. Outside, the stadium, we race each other to the pick up, fighting to get to the driver’s seat first. Gabriel wins, taking the keys off me with a triumphant grin. As we kick onto the highway, I turn to Gabriel, laughing.
‘Well, that was an experience.’
Gabriel unwraps a chocolate bar and throws the wrapper onto the dashboard, a foil butterfly. ‘You don’t say.’
‘Well, I can’t imagine that would have been much fun alone. Lucky I came to visit,’ I say, stretching my arms out the window.
Gabriel shakes his head, the sun buttering up his arms as we emerge from underneath the shadow of a bridge.
‘Well, no, actually…I don’t mind being alone. It’s a simple life.’
‘For a simple person.’
‘Who’s calling who simple?’
As we round a corner, Gabriel swerves to miss an oil spill. The oil dissolves as we pass it. I look into the rear view mirror. The road behind shimmers with an identical shining puddle. I shake my head.
‘And that is why I should drive,’ I say.
We arrive at the casa del campo just on sunset. After stopping for petrol, Gabriel let me drive the remainder of the trip. As soon as I enter the living room I collapse on the couch. Briefly, I dream about Gabriel. When I open my eyes a few minutes later, I see Gabriel’s face looking down at me, thin strands of his hair sticking up on his head, like a surprised coconut.
‘I had a nightmare.’
‘Must be all that lonely travel talk. You just need a drink.’
I close my eyes as Gabriel goes to the kitchen. When I open them again, a glass of water with little cubes of ice floating merrily in it flickers in front of me. For a second the glass disappears. Then the glass returns, my head stops spinning, and a warm hand is rubbing my back, smoothing the day away. By the time Gabriel turns on the TV to watch the soccer, I’m already asleep.
The next morning we wake early and head to the museum. At the station, the metro is almost empty, and when the teenager sitting next to me spindles up to stand, I spread my bag and newspaper across the seats. The metro takes off as the carriage doors close. The movement of the metro jolts both Gabriel and I around. When he slings his arm around my neck however, I instinctively move away.
‘You can’t do that,’ I say, in a low voice, ‘people will think we’re together.’
‘Why not?’ he says. ‘Maybe we are.’
I adjust his grasp on my neck. As he slips his arms around me, I close my eyes, hoping to feel him more intensely on my skin.
‘Look,’ he says, pulling me closer, ‘I just want you to know that having you here has been, you know…great.’
‘You know what I mean,’ he says, flushing. ‘I’ve just really enjoyed being able to discover each other, you know, out here in the country. ’
‘No worries,’ I say.
Gabriel smiles. ‘I have to admit, I was pretty surprised when you came out of that airport terminal.’
I nudge him and he ropes me in. As the metro shoots into a tunnel, he tries to explain his theory. Discovering a person is like discovering a great painting, he says, eyes alight. Up close, you can never see the full picture – and when you stand back to take it all in, the details are lost to the bigger picture. So every time you look at a painting, your perception of it is shifting as you’re constantly adding new information.
‘Which is what it’s like getting to know someone,’ he says cheekily. ‘Do you think that theory is worth a risk?’
I open my mouth to say something, but the metro slows and the doors hiss open. Untangling myself from Gabriel, I swing my bag over my shoulder. At the carriage door I hear Gabriel give a shout, but by the time I turn around I’ve already stepped onto the platform. Gabriel is nowhere to be seen. I spin around again, calling his name. From the bottom of the escalators, a man with a baseball cap looks at me. Calmly, I tell myself he’s waiting for me at the exit and head towards the escalators. As I reach them, however, my arm is snapped up. My body is stretched out across the conveyor belts. The baseball capped thief stares at me blankly as he adjusts his grip on the strap. Then there’s the sound of tearing. The next thing I know my bag is scooting up the escalator. Heart pounding, I gather myself and leap up the escalator. By the time I reach the top, however, the thief is on the ground. Someone with a similar build to Gabriel, but who isn’t Gabriel, is tackling the guy and yelling for the station guard. Then a hot gust of wind blows through the station entrance; and the man walking towards me now is Gabriel; Gabriel’s hands grabbing my bag; Gabriel’s arms cycloning me into a hug; and in a moment between confusion and clarity, my mouth half-open in the first vowel of his name, I sob as it’s Gabriel whose mouth is whispering into my ear, Gabriel whose breath is tickling the nape of my neck; and it’s Gabriel whose tongue is shaping the words that are telling me what an idiot I am, a bloody stupid moronic idiot, risk of the heart, you idiot, not of your arm; it’s Gabriel, sweet Gabe, Gabriel.
We report the attack to the police. The policewoman who interviews me listens to my broken Spanish with the patience of a primary school teacher. Despite our language barrier, she seems chuffed to be speaking with me and offers me a boiled lolly as I leave. Walking us out, she ignores Gabriel’s offer of grammatical correction as she fumbles for a farewell, and bids me a safe journey.
In the car, I lean my head against the window and pretend to sleep. The image of Gabriel morphing in the metro station playing over in my mind. I slip into a light doze. A few minutes later, I rise to Gabriel shaking me. We’re back at the casa. Once inside, I throw my bag on the couch and bid Gabriel goodnight. His fingers slip past mine as he turns on the TV. Exhausted, I fall straight into bed.
The heat is unbearable. It’s not until a few hours later that I manage some sleep. Later, I feel Gabriel’s warm body join mine on the bed. Moving away, I try to find a position in which I’m not suffocated by the heat. Eventually I find relief on my side.
The fever rises insidiously. In the middle of the night, I throw the sheets off the bed and roll onto my back. My lips swell. My pulse drilling against my neck, I kick my clothes off, savouring the coolness of my bare back on the sheets. In my delirium I roll away from the hot log of a body beside me. A few minutes later, I realise I’m shivering. I roll over again, banking up against the hot log. A cold chill passes over me. Running a palm over my forehead, I realise I've stopped sweating. Shivering, I reach my arm out for the sheets.
When I open my eyes I realize I’m alone.
I wake in the morning to a gentle breeze. For a few moments, I lie in bed watching the white flags of the curtains surrender themselves through the window. A streak of sunlight peeks into the alcove above my feet. Slowly, it dissolves into a corner. Then I press the backs of my arms against the mattress and push myself upright.
Next to me, Gabriel’s place on the bed is empty. As I search for my clothes, I kick over a glass. Pulling my singlet on I pad my way to the kitchen, trying not to make too much noise. The kitchen tiles are like sheets of ice. As I open the fridge, I catch a flicker of something in the steel of its door. I turn around. Behind me, there’s nothing.
When I return to the bedroom, the sheets are cool. On the other side of the bed, I fluff the pillows and gather the remainder of my clothes. The room feels empty, as if I was alone, and always had been. Picking up the book I had selected on my first night, I return it to the bookshelf at the end of the bed. Gripping the bedpole, I catch my breath.
I head into the living room. The air is cool. Outside, the air shimmers.