I thought I smelled smoke coming from my living room in the middle of the night. Walking across cold tiles in bare feet, my eyes felt swollen and my head was still heavy with the glue of deep slumber. A tiny, orange glow in the pitch black revealed Gino's presence from six feet away.
"I told you not to smoke in here."
"I needed to see you."
"We agreed on three weeks."
"It's been four weeks, three days, twelve hours—"
I waved my hand in the air. It was always the same with Gino. "I don't necessarily want to be away from you, but I need to be alone."
"Is that why you came to Barceloneta?"
"My father lives here," I said as a lame excuse.
He saw through this. "You haven't said a word to him in almost twenty years. Why do you want to see him now?" he raised his voice and slurred a few syllables, exposing both his flair for drama and his alcohol consumption.
"He sent me a note." It's true, it wasn't a bona fide reason, but nothing I could say to Gino about my father would be acceptable. He not only had heard the family saga but had watched much of it unfold. I could barely understand my connection to Gino, let alone explain it to someone else. But I was a modern woman with old world ideas, and monogamy was as engrained in my programming as was being female. He came home every night, paid his share of the bills and didn't run around. These virtues alone presented an irresistible alternative to the chaos of growing up with Rascal Perez.
He pulled the chain on the lamp beside the wooden chair.
Shielding my eyes from the light, I leaned against the wall. "Rascal needs me now."
"The last time you needed him, you ended up with a black eye."
"I don't need to be reminded."
He stood, all six foot two inches of him, and slammed a glass he had been holding against the marble coffee table. "What makes you want to help him now, for God's sake? You refuse to be with a man who loves you but choose to help one who's treated you like a stray dog all your life. If Rascal thought he could get a fair price, he'd sell you to the damn gypsies."
"I know what he is and I know what he isn't. If you don't understand, then I can't explain it to you."
From the open window behind the couch, a breeze blew through the room and vacuumed up all the stale air and smells leftover from supper. It lifted the bottom of my nightgown a few inches and its cool tongue caressed my bare thighs and belly.
"You're what I don't understand," he said in a gentler voice.
I knew he didn't, and when I looked up into his face, I noticed his eyes were red and swollen. When he got drunk enough, Gino could cry if the phone rang. I went to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. He didn't move from the living room.
"How did you find me?" I asked him, realizing all the while that anything he said now would have to be edited for content. He was loaded and I had hurt his feelings — a recipe for disaster.
"Sonya's son knows Luis from the fruit market. I found him in that bar on the promenade. The Mandolin something."
I smiled. "The Harp and Mandolin. You probably saw Rascal without even knowing it."
"Does he drink there?"
"He owns the place. It was the first thing he did when he got back from the war. He came to Barcelona with a pile of money, God knows where he got it, and bought a little shack in Barceloneta that had a caf� next door."
"It's a sissy name for a caf�."
"Actually he plays the mandolin in a group. They perform down at the waterfront here on Friday nights in a fishing boat with lights on it. People sit on the docks drinking wine with their feet in the water and listen to them."
I heard his heavy footsteps against the wood floors as he followed the aroma of coffee. How do you know this, he asked with thickly knitted brows. I poured my strong coffee into two glass mugs and brought a small pitcher of fresh milk to the table. Gino looked up but said nothing. I'd always been able to read his thoughts, but tonight was different. Red, irritated and overtired, he looked as if he could either strangle me or fall asleep any second. In his condition, I would have been safer chumming for sharks.
"I'm all out of sugar," I said and involuntarily smiled, remembering the cold day twenty years ago when I ran out of my apartment with no coat on and borrowed a pound of sugar. This is how adulthood started for me. He was my only neighbor at the time.
With a wounded expression, Gino smirked and loosened the same white necktie he wore every day. He saw my eyes on it.
"Why don't you wear any of the ties I bought you?" I asked with no emotion in my voice. He could tell I didn't care what tie he wore and was just making nervous conversation. I tapped the table with my fingertips.
"I don't like them as much as this one."
"A white tie makes you look like the mafia." Gino grabbed my hand gently and rubbed it with his fingers. He looked up into my eyes and then quickly away.
"I read about your show in the newspaper," he said.
"I was hoping they'd print something about it. Now more people will come."
"Did you have many students this week?"
"Just one or two in the mornings. I've been closing the studio after lunch every day. I'm thinking of taking some time off after the recital."
He pulled his hand away and sipped some more coffee. The wind howled outside, and when another breeze blew through the house I smelled the alluring, familiar scent of low tide.
"For how long?" he asked.
"I don't know yet. A few months maybe."
"Everybody's unhappy these days. Depressed, restless, busy every day doing nothing."
"I never said I was unhappy," I shot back. "It's just that I'm 46 now, too old to dance the way I used to or dance the way Flamenco should be done. I don't have the same agility anymore. Besides, Miguel's coming here soon when he graduates, and I don't know. Actually I'm thinking of selling the studio."
I got up and started pacing, as was my custom when my thoughts and emotions got all knotted up. Gino had paid half the down payment on the studio, so he had stake in the matter. Any rash decisions would be unfair. Though I knew this consciously, I also knew the artistic agony of creative burnout. I was already there. "Rascal's sick, Gino. I feel it in my bones. Forget it. I know you don't want to hear about him."
"Please," he said beckoning me back to the table. "If all I can have of you right now is coffee and talk, then talk. Go ahead and tell me about the bastard if you need to."
"I don't know how, really. I've spent so many years trying to extricate him from my mind, it feels strange to be talking like this."
"When did he contact you?" he asked.
It was an honest question. I knew what his reaction would be to hearing that I'd known about him all this time and had lied about not having seen him in so many years. My instincts told me to play it safe, but at my age this charade exhausted me. Risk didn't mean what it used to anymore. I looked around the room. I listened to the outside drone of faint voices mixed with the buzz of streetlights and rubber tires against the road. At once, I felt myself disconnect from the coffee and Gino and the years of baggage between us and revert back into my past. I pictured myself taking an elevator down to an imaginary basement. When I stepped off of the lift, I returned to the only happy day of my entire childhood. Though part of me could still see Gino fidgeting at my table and sucking down the last of the coffee, another part saw Rascal in the creaky wooden rocking chair of our summerhouse in Cape Cod. For two weeks every August, we drove east from San Diego and stayed with my mother's parents in their house by the ocean. It was in this house that the sea embedded its alluring tangle of sounds and smells in my consciousness, and it was largely because of this feeling that I moved to Barcelona. As Gino sat a foot in front of me waiting to hear my answer to this eternal nagging question, Rascal rocked in the creaky chair playing his guitar and singing me the old Cuban melodies that his mother sang to him. It was boiling hot that day in the cottage and the car wouldn't start. When we set out on foot toward the beach, the sky turned dark and rain covered every square inch of the landscape. So we hooded our heads with beach towels and ran back to the cottage, opened all the doors and windows and sat with Rascal all afternoon, listening to his songs and wild stories. That day was the only time I recall when we had an actual conversation. He was drunk but I was too young then to understand how this affected his speech and behavior. He rocked in the chair with his guitar and I sat on a braided rug on the floor by his feet. In between verses, he'd ask me questions.
"What's Valencia going to do when she grows up to make me proud?"
I'd just laugh nervously, as I was unprepared for his questions and unaccustomed to interacting with him. Sometimes I said I would grow up to be a prima ballerina. I knew I wanted to dance even when I was eight. After the rains stopped that day, my mother took me to the little store in town to buy a toothbrush and a comb since I'd forgotten to pack them in my pink suitcase. When we got back, Rascal had cooked steaks on the grill. We ate supper outside on the wet grass under a tapestry of stars. My brother and I walked down to the beach with him after dark and put our hot feet in the ocean, and Rascal carried me back to the cottage on piggy back singing the whole way in his low, gravely voice. That melody is forever in my ears.
Gino Malagaris was lying on the living room couch when my brain returned to the here and now. He was snoring, but only feigning sleep.
"Gino," I nudged him.
He moaned and sat up. "So you don't want to tell me after all then."
"Tell you what?"
He scowled and crossed his arms in front of him. Gino had learned all my tricks of evasion.
"All right. Rascal sent a note to me through a friend."
"What friend?" he quickly retorted. He was on to me.
I put up my hands and sighed. "I send over a plate of paella and a thermos of gazpacho to his caf� every Sunday. Leanne from the studio drives it over there."
For several minutes he said nothing. "You pay her for this?"
"Yes. I pay her."
His jaw was clenched, but I could tell he was trying not to react.
"I've been doing this since I first moved here. I found him through a private investigator."
"You could have just walked into the local post office and perused the Wanted posters, since he's been arrested so many times."
The intent was mean spirited, but based in truth.
"Does he know it was you all this time?"
"I didn't think so until I read the letter he sent with Leanne last week. He said I use his mother's recipe for gazpacho and he'd recognize it anywhere."
Gino got up and stood by the door. "What does he want with you?"
"He wants to give me something, he said."
"It's a trick, Val," he said pointing at my face. "I hope you know he's playing a game, manipulating you for his own warped amusement."
"Maybe once in your life you could stop being a damned stereotype."
"You should talk," he said, and kissed my cheek before walking away.
Three days later I called the pay phone at the Harp and Mandolin. I asked for the owner and said it was personal business. A gritty, smoker's voice answered with an abrupt hello.
"Alonso Perez?" I asked just to be sure.
There was a short pause on the other end of the phone, during which I gazed out my kitchen window at a prized view of the Collserola Hills west of town. The sun was spilling its yellow paint on the rolling landscape and lit up every bump and nuance. I could have stayed there an hour looking at the same thing.
"It's Val," I said. Nothing more was needed.
"Valencia?" he said with a heavy squeak in his throat. "Is it you?"
"Yes. Do you want to meet me tomorrow?"
"Tell me where and when."
The next morning, I found my father, Rascal Perez, leaning against a mosaics gallery in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona called Castaways; seemed a fitting combination. Smoking the same brown cigarettes he'd smoked when I was a child, his eyes were following the curves of women's bodies as they walked past him. Some in shorts and huaraches, some with short skirts and high heels, and elegant silver-haired sophisticates in long black linen. Though folklore regarded him as one of Barcelona's most renowned con men, he was an ultimate sucker for women. I laughed to myself as I approached the gallery, watching his long-haired, razor stubbled head jerk left, then right, giving equal consideration to every woman that passed before him. He didn't see me until I was just about stepping on his feet.
His movements froze when he caught my eye. "I would know that face anywhere. Valencia, Valencia. Thank God you look like your mother."
I allowed myself to laugh at the sentiment, though still kept most of my heart locked up in its cast iron vault. He grabbed me and held his arms around me for several awkward minutes. I tried not to pull away. "Do you still play the mandolin?" I heard myself ask for no reason.
Rascal shook his head and smiled, showing teeth cast in gray from so many years of smoking. He was still leaning against the outside wall of the gallery. "You know that I do."
"Why do you say that?"
"You show up at the waterfront to hear the quartet every Friday night. How do I know this? Because you arrive at the same time every week and sit in exactly the same place. You've even worn the same color pants the last few times. Do you think I don't know this? Do you think I don't nearly cry every time I taste your gazpacho? If you think just because we haven't spoken all this time that you're not a part of my life, you're not as smart as I always thought you'd be."
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and considered his monologue. He didn't speak for a while either; just puffed away on one cigarette after the other looking at girls. The front of the gallery always impressed me as being gaudy. Most of the mosaic pieces on the walls inside were smallish, neat, and conservative. But the gallery's exterior had a twenty-foot tall red and green giant fish monstrosity leaning its hideous mouth down to the front door with brightly colored tiles surrounding it, all wrapped around a thick black pole. It made me dizzy to look up at it. Rascal put his cigarettes away and motioned for me to follow him.
Well that's that, I thought. He knows that I know, and I know that he knows. It didn't mean anything, really. We'd secretly been part of each other's lives for a long time. Knowing this didn't change the dynamic of a father and daughter not speaking a word for sixteen years.
Gino seemed to sum it up nicely once. He said, "Rascal's a hardened criminal, Val. No one could ever have a normal relationship with someone like him." But I knew now that I neither wanted nor needed normalcy in my life. I taught Flamenco lessons at my own dance studio and produced marginally commercial watercolor paintings on the side. I spent most mornings cooking, hardly ever wore shoes, never shopped in the same place twice and stayed up all night planning the phases of my life. Normalcy, to me, had always been attributed to people who get up at 7:00 and go to work in a climate-controlled office, stand around a communal coffee machine gossiping about whoever called in sick and leaving at the end of the day to go home to a night of watching television. I hadn't owned a television in ten years. I washed all my clothes by hand and would have gotten cream for my coffee every morning by milking the cow out back if I had one. I was perfectly satisfied living this 19th century life, where technology played no role and the day's considerations involved long walks to the market, teaching in my studio, visiting friends, and staying up reading by candlelight. Of course I enjoyed the luxury of refrigeration and modern plumbing, but there were still plenty of places in Barceloneta that had neither. It was known for being a "modernized" 19th century fishing village with lots of seafood restaurants and boats docked in the harbor. I suspected that Rascal liked the same things about this place as I did. After all, he'd been here for thirty years.
I followed him down a dreary, smelly alley between two rows of brick buildings, nudging my body against the dirty dumpsters to avoid stepping in puddles left over from yesterday's rain. Smoke from his perpetual cigarettes drifted in my face, which in part masked the rancid smell of spoiled milk and moldy bread. We stood side by side on the edge of a main street waiting for the cars to go by, then crossed to continue our alleyway pilgrimage. We entered one of the long brick buildings on the right through a large, steel, white painted door that led to a warehouse space.
"Where are we going?" I asked him, sorrier by the minute that I ever agreed to this meeting.
"I want to give you something."
I was feeling restless now, and my hands tingled. The temperature in the building was about ninety degrees. I wondered if we could be in the basement of the Italian bakery where I'd bought loaves of bread. Rascal walked slower now as we made our way through a labyrinth of pipes and storage containers. On the left was a wall of heavy steel drums, most likely filled with flour and sugar for baking.
We slowed our pace as we came into a main room with hanging lights and tables set up in rows of four across. It looked like a caterer's kitchen after serving a party of fifty, with rolled up tablecloths on each table, splattered flour covering everything — the floor, chairs, boxes stacked in one corner, and dirty plates were stacked in a huge stone sink against the back wall. Rascal stood firmly in one spot surveying the room with his eyes and senses. Like a hound, his sniffed the air and walked into an adjacent office, then another, then back to the room we'd started in.
"How's your dancing going?" he asked moving toward the steel drums we'd passed on the way through the other warehouse, obviously to divert my attention from his ineptitude.
I didn't answer. My fists clenched involuntarily, but there was no sense in avoiding conversation. After all, we'd spent the last sixteen years doing that like two foolish old ladies feuding over an adolescent dispute. I'd always been intrigued by human behavior as it relates to grudges and family history. Even if the reasons are just and you were deliberately wronged, there was no avoiding the cold fact that time dilutes all feelings. Anger, resentment, hatred, even love. I watched Rascal Perez pace the floors of the warehouse wringing his hands and mumbling to himself in Cuban, and tried to resurrect the same potency of my hatred for him into my heart. But all that was left of that now were a few dark shadows scattered on some hazy memories.
"Ah ha!" I heard him say from the other side of the wall. He was trying to pull away one of the heavy drums but it wouldn't budge.
"Help me with this, Valencia. Please?"
I got on the other side and tried to pull it out from the wall, but it didn't move.
"How do you know this is the one?" I asked.
He pointed to some yellow lettering on the side near the base of it. The steel was stamped with the word 'Mondrago.'
"What's in here?"
"Something I've been keeping for you for a long time."
"Why do you want to give it to me now?"
"I have my reasons," he said.
Some voices could be heard from the other side of the warehouse, maybe the caterers coming back downstairs to clean up their mess. While Rascal searched for a crowbar or similar tool, I sat on one of the individual drums and thought about the fish I would be catching in the morning. After a month of being without me, Gino was ten seconds away from a full-blown coronary. He had sustained the requisite amount of torture and I got a few days of solitude. So I'd agreed to go fishing in the little cove off of the harbor where we fished every day when we first met.
After thirty minutes of he and one of the bakers from upstairs struggling with the drum, they finally pried the lid open enough for Rascal to stick his hand in. Flour landed all over him and the floor as he pulled out his arm with a box attached to it. He smiled at me and held up the box like it was a forty-pound bluefish. With tufts of flour in his hair and on his forehead, he looked just like the Rascal of my childhood — comic, unkempt, and teeming with ideas and energy. As I looked at him, I felt invisible icicles in my heart begin to melt.
"I found it. Come over here," he said moving toward the back door that had been propped open a few inches. He blew off most of the flour and wiped the rest of it off on his pant legs.
"Why was it buried in flour?"
He rolled his eyes. "It's a safe place. Don't you think?"
"Depends on what it is," I suggested as a question.
He ignored me and fumbled with the box's miniature padlock, pausing after each step to wipe his shiny brow with flour-covered fingers. He pulled out his key ring and stuck a tiny key into the opening. Finally, after a minute, it clicked. The box, lined in red velvet, contained something wrapped in sheer white lace. After another brow wipe, he removed the lace with the care of a surgeon during a heart transplant.
"Take it," he said.
Three folds of the lace, then the untying of satin ribbon and I found a gold medallion. Not a color of gold I recognized from my own jewelry collection. Could it be solid, I wondered carefully picking it up. Its hefty weight betrayed its general age; the ornate etchings on the back showed 18th century artistry. On the front was a large, square ruby dulled by dust and years of neglect, maybe even centuries, and four brilliant blue sapphire baguettes on the top and bottom of it. The gems were sunk low into the setting, allowing the refined beauty of the gold to overtake its embellishments. I could hardly breathe for a minute. When I glanced at Rascal with my head still pointing down toward the box, I saw tears in his eyes.
"Where did you get this?" I asked in a whisper, subconsciously protecting that which had just become mine, or else out of fear of it being stolen from me.
"My grandfather Ignacio married a Flamenco dancer from Andalusia in 1910. You were named after her. When my grandmother got older and couldn't dance any longer, Ignacio convinced her to open a dance studio to pass on some of what she'd learned in her career to young dancers wanting to learn the art form. So one day a young woman showed up at one of her beginning classes and introduced herself as Marta Luna."
Oh my God, I thought. My grandmother was Marta Luna's dance teacher? Marta Luna, the most renowned Flamenco dancer in all of Spain and the model on which all aspects of modern Flamenco were based? How could I have not known this? I glared at Rascal disapprovingly, trying to gauge how much of this story was based in reality. And though as a con artist he had little credibility for telling the truth, a part of me believed him. He was breathing heavily and kept wiping his palms on his pants. I could tell he had been waiting to tell this story for a long time.
"What does this have to do with the medallion?"
"It belonged to Marta," he said as if she'd been a personal friend. "Your grandmother was her dance teacher for almost twenty years, and in all that time she never let Marta pay for a single lesson. I suppose she showed so much promise and dedication to the art that she didn't want her to worry about mundane things like money. Marta married an archaeologist who spent his career digging up artifacts from shipwrecks."
My throat got tight and my vocal chords constrained. I could hardly pull any air through my nostrils to fill my lungs. The smell of fresh bread and cigarette smoke filtered down to us from upstairs through the vents. I felt both nauseous and elated.
"He found this medallion, the Mondrago Amulet as it was called, buried in the ocean floor thirty miles off the coast of Barcelona in 1957. Later, they discovered that it came from a shipwreck found close to Gibraltar, but at the time he was doing research on the Justina, another shipwreck. I don't remember the details of it, but he laid legal claim to it and the other artifacts he found at the same time. He sold all of them privately but kept the amulet for Marta. She loved the big red stone. Said it had some power over her that connected her to dance. When my grandmother had her knee operated on for the last time, she threatened to sell the studio. More than just a dream to her, it had been the whole reason she got up every morning. But after a difficult recovery, she said the desire to teach had left her heart and her mind. That there was no wisdom left to pass on. So Marta went to see her in the hospital and brought her this box as payment for all the years of lessons she gave her. She said in it she would find her reason to keep teaching and to keep dancing. I know you are having these same thoughts, Valencia. So now I'm giving the medallion to you."
How did he know this? Paternal instinct? After all, the only person I'd told about it was Gino.
"Because you want me to keep the studio open?"
He rubbed his chin. "So that you'll stay connected to your past. I think this medallion meant more to my grandmother than all the years she was a dance teacher. Like Marta, it had a power over her. She kept it as a reminder of who she had been and why she chose her one path in life. You own your own destiny. You always did. And no matter what happened with me and your mother I always knew you would turn out all right."
Yeah I did, no thanks to you, I thought. But no matter what I had felt about him all my life and what I was feeling now, I knew what he said about the medallion was right, because as I held it I felt a warm energy in my hands, both subtle and intense at the same time. There were no words to describe this. I felt frozen in that moment like I had temporarily disappeared from the bakery warehouse and was transported somewhere back into my family's ancient heritage. Maybe to Andalusia in the 1950's.
I found Gino, this time, on the rickety bench on my back porch with a pitcher of his famous margaritas. My backyard had a partial view of the hills leaning over Barcelona. When I sat down beside him he didn't even look up.
"What did he give you this time? Another black eye?" He turned to me. "Looks like you escaped that at least. A rash, then? Or a guilt trip?"
"He's got a lot of nerve."
"He's not so bad," I said, hardly believing those words could come out of my mouth. I remembered, then, that the amulet was still in the pocket of my jacket.
"So what did you decide to do about your studio?"
Now that Rascal had given me a piece of my heritage, the fate of my dance studio seemed altogether small. A week ago, I was fatherless with a husband I couldn't be with any longer. But now, my life was different, and the capacity of my heart to feel and love seemed infinite. Gino looked at me then the way he had looked at me years ago, like I was his beautiful Flamenco princess. All the years of broken promises and disappointment, of distance and longing, that had passed between us since then were masked by an unspeakable power in his eyes. Not as volatile as passion or as restless as infatuation, it was more like friendship. The deepest and rarest of all friendship. The kind that's transformed over time out of chemistry and nature, and only found on the other side of pain. In his frozen expression was a gesture of acceptance. I knew he would learn to live with whatever decision I made. Stay or quit. Teach or retire. To him, I would still be long-haired Valencia the Flamenco dancer, who borrowed a bag of sugar from him once.
Without answering, I let the distant Collserola Hills hold my gaze while I sparked an image of a young, long-legged gawky girl knocking on the door of my studio.