San Francisco el Grande Basilica
“I speak English.”
The old man tells us that he was stationed in the Philippines and learned the language there, although we don’t understand him well enough to gather much more. The three of us wait in the cold for the doors to open. The old man says they should be opening soon and gestures to his watch. My friend and I have not quite adapted to the fluidity of Spanish time. Ten minutes after mass was scheduled to begin, we see the priest step out the front of the Basilica to open the gates.
The priest, not yet robed and still turning on the lights, walks the length of the church, and flame-shaped light bulbs illuminate at the ends of candelabras flanking each column, one-by-one. The wooden pews creak when we take seats toward the back. Every sound reverberates throughout the Goya and Zurbarán filled basilica, and we adopt a stillness out of reverence for the art and for God and for the old man unraveling his scarf toward the front. Someone puts on music and a female voice covering Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” crackles over the intercom.
A graying woman stands at an alcove to our right and prays while looking up at a marble sculpture of the crucifixion. She wears brown fur like the other women who are beginning to drag their stockinged feet down the aisle, spotting the pews with their rabbit and fox and chinchilla. The woman rubs her hand on Christ’s foot as if to sooth Him. She looks up at His face with both gratitude and longing before slowly leaning in to kiss His cold marble feet. Euro coins clink as they’re dropped into the slots of a prayer candle machine, and plastic candles light up with each clink in the name of someone loved. Clink. Clink.
Mass is a blur of Spanish echoes. I scan the dome from left to right and then right to left, trying to identify the various biblical titans depicted in stone and in the celestial paintings, which together guide the eye toward the ascending Virgin at the center of the dome. Little crosses are signed over foreheads and lips and hearts, and I think of my father’s bowed head hovering over my short grandmother. Her arms moved up and down in quick succession, signing the cross all over him as she prayed in rapid Spanish. “She’s blessing him,” my mom whispered to my brother and I as we watched on with our big Protestant eyes. I think of Florida’s humid summers. Of sitting with my grandfather for the last time in the shade of their Sarasota home. I can remember how he crossed his legs and the hat he was wearing, but I don’t know what we said or how long we sat there. Something turns inside me.
In the silence following communion, the basilica fills with a white noise. The soft hum of stillness. The buzz of whispered prayers and sneezes and dragging feet and the sound of wet lips parting from marble and the clearing of throats.
There is a man in a room somewhere brainstorming an idea among his colleagues. “Ok, so picture this,” he says. “We open on a diverse group of twenty-somethings in Madrid, Spain. Guys and girls. They’re walking around the city. We see the big basilica there. They’re having a good time, cool street scenes, yada, yada, yada. Then,” he holds up his hand, “one of the girls has the group stop to take a picture. Maybe they’re in a really bustling place now, Puerta del Sol or something, and they’re taking a bunch of pictures, and we realize they’re tourists, but their nationalities remain ambiguous, okay. So cut to Mercado San Miguel. The kids are making their way through the crowded market looking at all of the fresh foods, trying tapas and cheeses and gulas, et cetera. We can tell there’s a language barrier when they’re ordering, lots of hand gestures and that kind of thing. Then we see them dancing in a bar. But still clean and wholesome and all of that. There’s some old school music playing, and they’re doing the twist.” He stops and does the twist for his colleagues, humming a tune and snapping his fingers. “Right? Right?” he laughs. “Everyone is having a good time. Some locals even join in and they’re all dancing together and whatnot. Cut to the street again. It’s night—late. You can tell they’re not really sure where they’re going, but they’re all doing their best to navigate with a brave face. One kid points in some direction and they follow, real carefree. Then they’re in the metro looking at a map. They’re starting to look a little tired, but not too tired. Inside the train they’re yawning a little and one kid rests her head on a guy’s shoulder. Young love? Maybe. They get off the train and go with the flow of the crowd until they surface at a metro entrance. They’re walking down the street and pop into a convenience store where they get some snacks and grab some Cokes out of the cooler. They pay and leave and, as they’re walking, one of the girls, a girl next door type, opens her Coke and stalls a second to take a sip.” He stops and mimes a sip from an imaginary Coke bottle. “The group keeps walking, but she lingers. She’s tired and wants to enjoy the refreshing taste of Coke for a second. She looks at the bottle, smiles a little, and lets out a little, ‘Ahh.’ She looks up and we see a sigh of relief. It’s the basilica again. They know where they are. They’re almost to their hotel or hostel or wherever’s safe. We see her running to catch up with her friends with the basilica ahead of them.” He holds up his hands, palms out, thumb-to-thumb, and spreads them wide as if opening a curtain. “Coca-Cola. A taste of home. Wherever you go.” He takes a breath and his shoulders relax. He loosens his collar. “Whaddya think?”
Your group comes to the end of the hall that houses two portraits of Maria Isabel of Portugal, Queen of Spain, who was instrumental in acquiring what would eventually form the collection of the museum you are standing in—Museo Nacional del Prado. You gather around Venus y Marte. For some reason this marble statue of Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, holds everyone’s attention a little longer than the other sculptures you’ve seen. “It’s so life-like,” someone says. It resembles many of the nude statues you might recall seeing in your text books: Venus’s drapery is falling away and Mars, with the exception of his centurion helmet, bears only a very conveniently placed leaf. But the heart races as you circle the thing. You can feel the blood rush to your cheeks, and you think you can almost see them blushing, too. The marble takes a fleshy hue as you examine it in detail, unsure if you just saw a pulse in the stone. If the drapery really is sliding ever so slightly more down Venus’s thigh. If you can see her belly expand with an inward breath. She clings to her beloved, whose right hand is firmly planted on his spear, which seems to pull him in the other direction. You can see the strength in his grasp and his forearm. You want to slide your fingers between his and pry the spear loose. To feel the heat of his palm as you guide it toward Venus, freeing him from his calling to a full embrace. His chest rises and his skin tightens around his ribs. You know this feeling, of being torn between two things. One hand on the spear, the other on a lover’s back. Her cheek rests on his shoulder and her hand, on his neck, tries to pull him in. You think of the boy on the plane. How tired you were of trying to sleep upright without dozing off onto the people sitting on either side of you. You were buoying in and out of a half-sleep haze when you saw him across the aisle. He was just your age and looked so kind. How easy it would’ve been to have a shoulder to rest on. To slide your hand under his arm and to feel the warmth of his cheek on your forehead as you fell deeper into his shoulder, soundly sleeping and safe.
You circle the statue once more, after admiring the lovers for some time. The landscape of their flesh comes alive at every curve and joint and dip in their bodies, quietly filling the space at the end of the hall.
You walk away from the sculpture, and you don’t tell anybody about the boy on the plane.
I can hear children playing a block away. Soccer or tag. They’re running around, chasing each other and laughing. Their puffy coats hang at their shoulders as they halt for a breath. If memory had a voice, it would sound like this. The others are asleep still and the two of us get ready quietly around the make-shift beds we’ve been sleeping on during our stay. We communicate with smiles and hand gestures (a raised index finger to indicate that another minute or two is needed) as we tip-toe in and out of rooms, brushing our teeth, tying our shoes, and looking for our coats with as little noise as we can manage. We shut the door behind us, closing the children’s laughter in the apartment with the dreamers, and it almost seems inappropriate to break the vacuum-like silence of the hall by saying, “Good morning.”
Opening the door to the street feels like a splash of cold water to the face. The energy from the playground is louder than it was from the apartment, crying out, “We’re alive here and right now!” We make our way down the narrow sidewalk to Carrera de San Francisco, where cars and mopeds zoom by. People walk their dogs and old ladies cloaked in fur coats pass by in twos, arm in arm. Birds gather in the Plaza de los Carros, fluttering up and down as people walk through. We walk into + Que Pan, the pastelería where we’ve gotten our coffee almost every morning of the trip.
“Dos café con leches, por favor.”
The waiter asks us something in Spanish that we don’t understand, and I respond with “Sí” or “Gracias” or simply a dumb look.
We sit down at the same marble top table. It is calm here. When our cafés arrive, we greet the waiter with, “Gracias,” “Gracias.” We pour sugar into our cups and stir. Taking my first sip, I look around the room. A man walks in carrying a box of baguettes from two buildings down where everything is baked. At some tables newspaper pages open and turn and flip over. A woman is trying to get her son to finish eating and talk on the phone at the same time. A young couple walks in and steps up to the counter looking flirtatiously at each other. Waiters bustle back and forth. We’ve been in a dream all week, but everyone else is carrying on in their usually way. They are not moved by us. Soon we’ll wake up and go about our own morning routines. I look across the table at my friend. Her head tilts to the side, and her eyes dart up as if she’s remembered something. Her lips part and she takes in a short breath as people do when they’re about to speak. •