Tonight’s teniente is American, an awkward man-child wearing elegant, Italian leather loafers. His long, yellow hair falls in his face as he speaks. She selects him as he stands at the bar near the top of La Plaza de Cascorro in the afternoon, one of two boys swaying from beer and the weight of their backpacks. They stumble in as El Rastro closes, while merchants disassemble their stalls with the rustle of tent fabric and the clatter of metal framework on stone streets. His companion wears a white t-shirt with a screen print of the former American president’s face with the words “No lo quiero tambien” written underneath it. He is more beautiful, both more lithe and more muscular, but he wears faded, black sneakers.
She picks the one with the nicest shoes. She is, after all, a woman of Madrid and knows the value of such things, what they say about a man.
She eyes the door as he stares at her. She knows how many whispers it takes to make a man desert his friends in a strange country. One. If it’s the right whisper.
As they exchange introductions, she touches his knuckles, runs her index finger around his palm. Then his hand is in hers, a locked grip as she pulls him to the door despite his lock-kneed walk and his fumbled goodbye to his friend.
She doesn’t like to touch them, but it’s all part of the charade, to appear solid, to act as though skin and fat and hair were her natural element.
Since the night she died, she’s been called beautiful five thousand, two hundred and seven times by five thousand, two hundred and seven different tenientes. Each one has his own, peculiar stiffness as he clings to her, as his veneer of restraint chars and peels back like pages in a burning book. Capacity for speech goes first, especially when they try to describe her.
“Beautiful” is most frequent. And its synonyms. They deteriorate from there. “Well-developed for a young senorita.” “Pretty for a Spaniard.”
She’s been called a coquette, a bloomer-girl, a muchacha liberada, a long-haired garçonne, a Daisy Millerite, a hottie. Once, she tossed a handful of an English merchant’s escudos down a drain when he asked if she was a whore. “Would a whore do that?” she said over the sound of coins splashing into sewer water. Then, she danced closer to him and took his arm.
They compare her to mothers, wives, long-lost girlfriends. They liken her to food, skin like milk, lips like cherries. Some foreigners mention Dulcinea, another non-existent Spanish girl who overtook a man’s mind. A simpleton’s comparison. How many men’s minds has she overtaken? Try counting stars.
She takes him on a long Metro ride until sunset. A journey in the wrong direction. The penultimate part of her game. Each stop jostles her closer to him, and they shudder each time the trains embark. He’s too shy to really carry the conversation, so they listen to the velvet-voiced announcer read the names of each stop.
“Proxima Estacion… Tribunal.”
“Proxima Estacion… Rios Rosas.”
“Proxima Estacion… Alvarado.”
She’s taking him to Plaza de Castilla, where the two Puerta de Europa skyscrapers loom across the street from each other, slanting forward like two limp erections made of black amethyst, facing off.
He says he wants tapas. Sure, he does.
They’ll eat something and she’ll show him the Real Madrid fútbol stadium, because he asked her to show him the “real Madrid.” He’ll get the joke, and laugh as if it’s genuinely funny. Only then will she ask him to return to her home.
They all leave something. That part, she controls, somehow, in a spectral way that even she doesn’t fully understand.
The story the locals know, the one the old men tell the children on Calle del Sacramento, recounts how a soldier spent the night with her and left his sabre, returning the next morning to find the house empty and in shambles, everything dust-covered and withered with age. His sabre sat alone in the center of the room. He fled in terror.
That’s only part of the story.
They don’t know what else happened to that soldier. Or of the other men who came and went, and what they returned for.
A German left his watch, and returned home deaf, an unceasing ticking sound in his ears.
A puppeteer from Roma left his marionette, and spent the rest of his days subject to sudden convulsions, often spinning without warning, walking as though he were floating, his arms flailing at his sides.
A young writer whose manuscript sat on her floor for an evening found himself illiterate, stringing words together in meaningless order.
One drunkard returned merely out of confusion, but he had left her chamberpot filled without emptying it. The stench never left him.
Many years. Many tenientes. And yet none have had the same precise fate as the others. She decided this, long ago, when it all began, and prides herself on consistency.
What will this one leave?
5. Acontecimiento y Resultado
Now that he knows it will happen, he overflows with stupidities. He tells her things he’s been told not to do in Spain. Don’t say you’re an American. Don’t sleep on the Metro. Don’t help old ladies who fall down in the street because they’re pickpockets in disguise. His voice lowers. Don’t go home with strange women.
She leads him to her apartment. He walks a step behind her with both arms wide, almost touching the walls on each side of the narrow interior street. He sings and it echoes through the alley.
If he were observant, he’d notice that the neighborhood is far too old, the furnishings of her room far too elegant. His mind is elsewhere.
She offers him wine, and when she returns with two glasses—she must enjoy wine while she can, after all—he has already emptied the contents of his backpack in her hallway. Looking for contraception, no doubt. He retrieves a wrapped, brown paper sack, unrolls it to show her what he purchased at El Rastro.
“Teniente!” she shouts.
He holds a metal soldier, a statue the size of a girl’s doll. The tiny man stands contraposto, haughty in his armor and comb morion with one foot against a rock, his left hand on the scabbard of a sword, ready to draw it.
“That’s his name?” he asks. “Tenny-Enty?”
“No. Teniente.” She punctuates each word with a hand gesture, moving in sequence from left to right. “Teniente. Capítan. Comandante. Coronel.”
“Oh. Lieutenant. He’s an officer.” He salutes the tiny soldier.
Snatching it from his hands, she holds the statue, her thumbs against its metal throat. She runs her right hand down its side, along his left arm toward the sword.
She jerks the sword from its scabbard, holding its pommel between her thumb and index finger. She swings it lightly a couple of times. She smiles again, searching for words he’ll recognize.
“Por envelope!” she says.
He smiles and nods, apparently unaware that he had purchased an expensive, faux-antique stand for a letter opener.
“Envelope,” she whispers again, running the tiny sword down her side, against the inside of her thigh. This is what she will keep.
She pounces. For a moment, before he touches her, she sees the room fill with blue officer’s uniforms, feels a bayonette against her throat. She recalls the convulsions of death and what followed. She remembers the first time she returned to the room, how it glowed with glamour and pain when she brought her first teniente there.
Is it fair? To inflict on this one a smaller version of the same fate as that first one, the one the old men recount over espressos on Calle del Sacramento? No more or less fair than what happened to her. She is what she is. Routine habit. Vanity. Flares of spite. Desire for revenge. For her, none of these things end with death.
She never sees them return, but she knows how it will end. By the time he returns to her apartment, she will be elsewhere, gone to the place even she cannot explain.
Perhaps when he walks into the room, he will think he’s arrived at the wrong destination. He’ll see the rotting floorboards, the water-stained wallpaper.
Then, he’ll see the tiny sabre.
Then, perhaps he will scream. Or wet himself. Or fall to the floor, approaching his lost object on his knees.
He will feel the first pierce when he touches the tiny blade lying there, in the middle of the molded, antique room. He’ll see another, identical sword protruding from his side, or his chest, an arm or a leg. He will clutch at that sword to pull it out. His hand will grasp air. He’ll bring up only his fist. Then, pain will shoot through his neck or his back. He’ll feel the weapon’s weight somewhere else. Perhaps, if he’s particularly dull-witted, he’ll do this several times before he understands.
He may need confirmation. Perhaps he’ll find an old man, who will lean over his cane and say gravely, in careful English, “Senor, I see no sword, but truly I know it is there.” Or perhaps, he’ll simply run out the door clutching his back or side, and the old man will just shake his head, whisper “Mal suerte,” and return to his affairs.
Each step he takes, he’ll feel the dagger that only he can see as it trembles inside him. Exquisite, ceaseless pain.
Mal suerte? Perhaps. But when tonight’s teniente dies, the pain of the sword will leave him. He’ll never return to that room, compelled to go through it all again.
And yet, that night, after he’s caressed her shoulder and moved from the bed, as she begins to sleep, waiting to return to wherever she goes, something like disappointment flutters in her stomach. She’s let herself down. Giving the same fate twice to two different men. Perhaps it was inevitable. Even if she hasn’t grown lax or softened by time, this moment had to arrive. She feels the future and the past, indistinguishable from each other. For her, there will only be other tenientes, nights spent wandering Madrid, and a room on Calle del Sacramento waiting for them to return.