Most weekends during the first phase of my research, my Spanish tutor, Jorge, whom the foundation paid to help its fellows move rapidly from proficiency to fluency, would drive me to a campsite forty minutes outside of Madrid where his friends from the language school went to get high and drink, swim, hook up. They called me El Poeta, whether with derision or affection I never really learned. I bought most of the beer and I was also buying my hash from Jorge, who radically overcharged. The campground itself was nothing to speak of: a clearing with a couple of fire pits, a fair amount of litter, although I never saw anyone near the site except for us, and we were careful to clean up. It was less than a hundred feet to the lake. It was usually warm enough to sleep outside. Few words were addressed to me when the five or six of us were sitting around the fire drinking and smoking my hash or the powerful weed Jorge introduced as it got late. I almost never spoke, although I tried to smile, and to imply with my smile that I understood what was being said around me, letting it fluctuate as though in reaction to their speech.
One night when I was particularly high, I gradually realized Jorge was saying my name, not Poeta, saying it sharply, and the others were looking at me with anger, disbelief. Then I realized that I had been smiling my smile, just holding it there, paying no attention, while one of Jorge's friends, Isabel, was telling what must have been a tragic story or confessing something painful, at least her voice was quiet and her tears were catching firelight. It took me what felt like a minute to work my face out of the smile, a smile they thought was my response to Isabel's plight. On this rare occasion I decided to attempt speech: I didn't understand, I tried to say, or I didn't listen, but whatever I stammered was unintelligible, barely Spanish. All I needed to say was that I'd zoned out, drifted off, was terribly sorry if Isabel had thought I was smiling at her story, but I couldn't think of how to say this or any other thing. Worse, the smile came back automatically as I guessed they were telling me how fucked up it was to react to whatever Isabel was describing in this way. Then Jorge's friend Miguel, who was either related to or enamored with Isabel, threw his can of beer at me from across the fire and told me to wipe that smile off my face, if they have that expression in Spain. I laughed involuntarily, nervously, except that to my horror my laugh didn't sound nervous, compounding the insult to Isabel, whose head was now in her hands. Isabel rose, left the fire, and headed for the lake, followed by the other two women in our group, while Miguel approached and stood over me threatening something; Jorge held him back. I was at least by this time repeating I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but Miguel broke loose or Jorge released him and he hit me in the mouth.
It wasn't a powerful blow, but I figured I should let it lay me out. Miguel was screaming at me and the noise brought Isabel and her friends back from the lake. Miguel allowed Jorge to pull him away and calm him down. I could taste the blood from my mildly cut lip and I bit hard to deepen the cut so that I would appear more injured and therefore solicit sufficient sympathy to offset the damage my smiling had done. As I covered my face in my hands and writhed as though in pain, I was careful to spread the blood around, and when I picked myself up and reentered the firelight Isabel gasped and said my mother, my God. I walked out of the ensuing silence down to the lake and began to wash my face. After a few minutes I heard footsteps on the dry grass: Isabel.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"No, I'm sorry," I said. "I don't understand what story you said before to me," is probably what I said. "My Spanish is very bad. I get nervous."
"Your Spanish is good," she said. "How is your face?"
"My face is good," I said, which made her laugh. She undid her hair and took the scarf and dipped it and wrung it out and used it to wipe the rest of the blood from my face and then dipped it and wrung it out. She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening's general drama, though the moon wasn't full. Her hair was long, maybe longer than the guard's. Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I'd enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she'd said about the moon was childish. She asked me if I knew a poem by Lorca, this time about something that involved several colors and required her to softly roll her r's, which I couldn't do. She offered me a cigarette and we smoked and I looked at the water and was sober.
I wanted to know what she had been crying about and I managed to communicate that desire mainly by repeating the words for "fire" and "before." She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a house- hold or the literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds. Her uncle had died in a car crash a year ago today in a street in Salamanca; she had helped have her junky boyfriend hospitalized over the summer and now he wouldn't see her and had moved to Barcelona; her parents, who lived in a small town, were having their home foreclosed upon and she had been sorting through boxes of childhood toys; she had broken with a sibling over the war. This ability to dwell among possible referents, to let them interfere and separate like waves, to abandon the law of excluded middle while listening to Spanish—this was a breakthrough in my project, a change of phase. I kept quiet, modeling my face on the San Leocadio.