The car was parked on the street where three out of the four of us lived. The trunk was open, and we were loading in our luggage while waiting for G. His being late surprised us less than the amount of stuff he had with him. He’d brought a flamenco guitar, a backpack full of books, and a bunch of random equipment that, if I’m remembering correctly, he’d found on his grandfather’s farm. We all laughed at the beekeeping gloves, the coveralls, the ridiculously high boots. That day, everything made us laugh. For example, we cracked up when we noticed we’d each packed at least one instrument. Keep in mind that Ernesto was a pretty serious guy, Alejandro wished he was, and G.—probably the smartest of us four—lived and breathed militant Marxism the way some people do literature, like a rare sin of youth. It’s possible he kept analyzing things while we laughed, thinking about how it wasn’t really a coincidence, how at the end of the day the four musicians in question were four middle-class guys (lower-middle, in his case; middle-middle in mine and Álex’s; upper-middle in Ernesto’s—in any event, back then everyone in Spain belonged to some variation of the middle class unless proven otherwise) and three of us had studied the same subject at university. In short, sociology had already concluded that our similarities would far outweigh our differences.
At the time, we young people were forced to choose between spending the summer mixing drinks at some Mediterranean beach bar, making sandwiches or looking after some adorable brat in London and (theoretically) learning English, or harvesting grapes in the South of France. Option three would help us meet several of the demands placed on men like ourselves: being lean and tanned, doing some form of manual labor (this adds a whiff of social legitimacy to the résumé of any middle-aged professor or lawyer—the cliché being “I lived through tough times too”), et cetera. Harvesting grapes was a hazy, ill-defined thing that we coined experience.
Take me, for example. I was traveling because I knew I would write about our trip one day, not the way I am now but the way I plan to avoid in these pages: like a writer. It took six years for the corpse of fiction—which has been rotting inside me since those long months in France—to turn to dust before I could tell the story of what really happened. Ernesto, I figure, was trying to make amends for his original sin: being born rich under capitalism. He didn’t need the money we would make harvesting grapes, that’s for sure. I have a hunch that Alejandro’s intentions were the same as mine. G., on the other hand, did need money and might have been fleeing the burden of earning a steady living by turning his first postgraduation summer into a teenage holiday, not unlike a return to Paradise Lost. Or maybe he was trying to get away from his family. In any case, we’ll have to infer my friends’ motivations from their behavior. For the time being, let me just stress that none of us was traveling for money, hence our insistence that money was our only reason for traveling. Money, we all know, makes it possible to talk about things without addressing them directly.
We were happy on the road, and happiness can’t be narrated. By the time we got lost, the names of French towns were already littering the highway signs. Thanks to my dad being Algerian, I spoke French better than the rest of the crew and should have been the one to ask for directions, but by that point I was experiencing a mix of joy, exhaustion, and Stendhal syndrome. On the one hand, rural France is achingly beautiful. On the other, it’s covered in a variety of grasses, which I’m allergic to. The last thing I remember before I drifted off is Ernesto—the other one of us with a basic grasp of French—walking toward a couple at a tiny gas station somewhere, his slender figure cut by the sun and circled by shades of yellow and green, grass and trees and flowers.
I was strolling through the countryside and soaking up nature when it started getting dark. Suddenly I felt a rifle against my shoulder and realized I wasn’t on a stroll but fighting in the battle for the independence of southern France, which in the dream was—and this is something I can get behind—a legitimate territory of the Algerian people. I saw three French soldiers in the twilight and was seized by terrible doubt: to kill them or to run. I couldn’t remember my orders and was neither ethical nor strategic enough to settle
that internal dilemma.
G. woke me as we were entering Aire-sur-l’Adour. (I realize the name Aire-sur-l’Adour is jarring, and pretty unbearable to anyone with even a vague sense of aesthetics. If this were a piece of short fiction, I might have changed it. But it isn’t, so I’m leaving it as is, just as I have the names of my friends.) Arriving somewhere unfamiliar tends to awaken an ancestral fear. You don’t know if you’re going to find shelter, a cave, or an overhang to start a fire under. Aire-sur-l’Adour tacitly conveyed welcome: a quaint town with gable roofs and pristine streets where polished people read the news on the sunny terraces of beautiful cafés couldn’t possibly be hostile.