I will crush you with tenderness
She decided she wasn‘t going to make love with him from the moment she saw him. As he was driving, Rosa smiled inwardly: life could also be that way, with a handsome man, in a handsome car, on an island, travelling to the place that had attracted her with the coldness radiated by its name. Tefia's Agricultural and Penal Colony.
'I didn't know there was a concentration camp here,' he had replied on Tinder a few hours earlier, and suggested they see it together. And on the way he'd show her a very nice beach.
She put on her bathing suit and a beach dress, and went on a journey with the stranger. They might have not met, it was even more likely that they wouldn't, after all she hadn't even had Tinder a few days ago. But as she watched the couples around her, her sense of inadequacy grew stronger with each passing day. And even though she had sworn Tinder was territory she would never step into, those days of studiously avoiding the sight of hands, lips, bodies in contact, she gave in and installed the app. She lingered on the first picture for a long moment before sliding a finger to the left. A few photos and a swipe of the finger determined the chance of meeting someone or not. What if she was wrong? If she rejected the right ones and chose the wrong ones? How could she know? From a few pictures? In fairy tales, the suitors went through nine mountains, slaying dragons and bearing golden apples, before being chosen, while here? A few pictures. She hadn't made a mistake with swiping her finger to the right on the picture of this Miguel in a white shirt, jeans, dark glasses, and scruffy beard.
Indeed, she had not. She felt his presence beside her, his strong hands expertly steering, his deep voice reaching her with his questions. And then she blurted it out: you are the first man from Tinder I am going out with, also the first one I have chatted with. It was like telling him she was virgin which, in a certain sense, she was. Oh, really, I’m flattered, he said with a smile, warmed up especially for her.
The beach was dramatically beautiful. He deftly hopped from stone to stone and when he moved away from her, he turned and looked at her through his glasses. They both pulled out their phones at the same time, like cowboys before a duel, and each took a picture of the other. She headed for the shelter of a rock formation where he caught up with her and offered her his hand.
‘There's a very nice restaurant nearby,‘ he said. ‚Shall we change the plan and leave the camp for another time?’
Well, if there will be another time... She didn't say it, of course, said “sure“ instead and followed him back to the jeep and then into the restaurant with big windows which framed a view of the shimmering sand and the ocean. As they dined and talked as if they had known each other for years, she immersed herself in momentary perceptions - the fruity aftertaste of the wine, the melting of the white fish and sautéed fries in her mouth, the sparkle in his gaze. The balancing act of contained attraction was masterfully executed, but on the way back, just before she gave him an internal applause for scoring so high, he suggested showing her something else. Then, as they walked along that other beach, silent in the darkness, under the star-studded sky and thin moon, and especially when he stopped and turned to her; she felt her first disappointment. Really? So predictable and orchestrated like in a cheap romantic comedy? No, thanks. She turned her head so his lips landed on her cheek. The few steps back to the jeep were in another season, a sudden autumn in which every glow had faded. She felt sorry for him, he had tried so hard, and before she got out, she leaned over and kissed his lips dryly. A glimpse at him informed her that his confident air had returned. See you tomorrow, he said.
The next afternoon, on a secluded beach where their half-naked bodies relaxed, he broke off an inconsequential sentence, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, and she, swept away by his passion, responded. But not all the way.
And so it went for six days. They kissed on all the beaches on the north and south coasts. They kissed in the hallway, the living room, and the big bed in his nice one-story house. But if he reached into her panties, she pulled away, cool and locked. They went on long walks in the moonscape of the island, not holding hands. He did hold her hand though in the dusk of the car after the cheesy romantic film, chosen by her, that they saw in one of the two cinemas on the island.
On the last day of her stay, they decided to visit the concentration camp. He had not called her the day before, and when she got into the car, he told her he had barely slept. He had been at a bar with a male friend who wanted to introduce him to a woman, they had danced salsa, and at dawn he had driven her to the airport. He had only slept three hours. But you knew you would be up early, she said. Yes, and now I'm here. Tired, why didn't you cancel? I didn't want to.
They traveled in silence. In Tefia's Agricultural and Penal Colony the silence was full of ghosts. Barracks-like buildings enclosied a rectangular courtyard. For twelve years, from 1954 under Franco’s law regarding vagrants and bandits, between eighty and one hundred homosexuals were detained there, sentenced for their sexual orientation. They had performed hard physical labour, been near starved and brutally mistreated .She had read a novel about this. But the reality was stranger and stringer. Perhaps even more so because she was standing in the centre of the camp with a man she was strongly attracted to and whose eyes she could not see behind the dark glasses. He did not touch her as he listened impassively to her quiet account of what had happened at that place. He was cool and locked just like her body had been in the days before. Too bad, because her resolve to not make love to him had begun to waver, and she had allowed herself the fantasy of spending her last night on the island with him. But there had to be foreplay that did not involve dancing until dawn with another woman. Nor did it include his exhaustion on that last day.
‘The Tefia prisoners are said to have built Gustav Winter's house in Coffete,‘ she said. ‚Have you seen it?’
‘No,‘ he answered. ‘What’s so special about it?’
‘Everything is special about it, from its mysterious owner to its secluded location.’
She talked briefly about Gustav Winter, the German opportunist who managed to acquire a large territory of the island in the forties, even though the law prohibited the sale of land to foreigners. His house was constructed, under strictly secret conditions, at the deserted and hard to reach mountain slop over the beach of Cofete. Stories included Nazi espionage and plastic surgery to change identities.
‘If you weren't so tired, perhaps, we could have seen it,‘ she concluded.
He accepted the challenge and drove more than an hour and a half to the other end of the island. After a series of hair pin bends round sheer drops, they finally reached the house. Built on several platforms with stone struts to align with the slope, stretching towards the ocean, it blended with the landscape with its sand colour. As they walked around it, she thought of the men of Tefia who had built it, stone by stone, and had died to atone for being different, for loving outside the norm. On a summer night, years ago, she had walked alone down a deserted street. A couple stood in a doorway, kissing hungrily. There was such a raw passion in their kiss that she slowed her pace not to disturb them. As she drew closer their faces broke away and she was startled to find they were boys. There was something about that moment that stayed with her, a challenge to the notion of a love scene involving a boy and a girl, a man and a woman, Klimt's kiss. It was that kiss however, between two boys, that stayed with her; it was that moment that evoked in her a longing for such a kiss.
It was not until they were down on the warm sand that Miguel turned to kiss her, and the passion of the previous days returned to convince her that last night's woman and dancing did not matter. She returned his kisses with a hand framing his face, but when he started undressing her, she stiffened and gently pushed him away. They lay side by side, and he said: I'm sorry. I understand that you want something I can't give you, and I respect that.
On the way back, Miguel every so often stifled a yawn. They dined in a restaurant in a seaside town, still in silence. ‘Now we're going to a bar to dance, right?’, she said, looking at him with narrowed eyes. ‚You can go to a bar, I'm going home’, he replied, and she heard the irritation in his voice. ‘Just kidding’, she tried to laugh. He just shook his head. After a moment, he looked at her and, quite casually, asked if she would spend the night with him. He had not invited her to stay until then. She thought for a brief moment before answering: yes. Somewhere deep inside her, his sudden coldness had fertilized the idea of making love to him. Not to surrender to him, no, but to show him what it means to make love, to break him with her tenderness, in contrast to his passion.
In his bedroom, she stripped naked and went to take a shower. He lay down with his back to her. When she tried to hug him, pressing her body against him, he moved away and mumbled that she was disturbing him. And then fell asleep. She lay beside him wondering what had happened. He obviously wanted to punish her, which further spurred her to proceed with the execution of her plan. To break him with her tenderness. She calmed her breathing for now and went to sleep as well.
The light of the encroaching day woke her up. She looked around, she was alone in bed. She heard Miguel snoring from the other room. The heaviness of last night returned, accompanied by a feeling of irreversibility. And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps all was not lost. The snoring stopped and a moment later Miguel entered, still sleepy, his hair tousled. He greeted her and settled beside her. She turned to him and kissed him. He returned her kiss, with no trace of the previous passion. She slid her lips down his neck. Despite her best efforts, the response she received from him was not satisfactory. She mounted him and began to move slowly. He lay with his eyes closed and his brows furrowed. Then he suddenly opened his eyes, twisted round and held her down on the bed. He entered her quickly. After a few blind thrusts he withdrew sharply and came on her belly. Then he relaxed next to her, his eyes closed again. But before long, he stood up, walked into the bathroom, and the sound of running water reached her through the open door. He came back in, wrapped in a white towel, and began to dress. She stared at him in disbelief:
‘Was that it?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I thought we were going to continue...’
‘Oh, I have other things to do today.‘
‘I feel you very cold.’
‘Sorry. I don't feel connected to you.’
‘Since yesterday. I didn't appreciate your jokes when I was obviously so tired, but I still kept my word.’
‘Then why did you invite me?’
‘To check how I would feel. To see what would happen.’
‘Why did you let me proceed if you didn't feel connected?’
‘Out of curiosity.’
‘In a relationship there is...’
‘We don‘t have a relationship.‘
Rosa got up and went into the bathroom. She dressed with her back to him and refused his offer of breakfast.
‘I imagine that never happened, I want to forget it,‘ she told him as they drove.
‘Yeah, it was nothing special,‘ Miguel replied.‘All the other ways, when you rejected me, it would have been much better.‘
They were silent, waiting for the moment when they would part, never to see each other again. When that moment came, Rosa walked the few metres to her studio, flopped down on the bed and covered her face with her hands.
Miguel reached his house, made a coffee and sat down on the porch where he had had lunch with her for the past week. As he drank the coffee, he almost automatically picked up his phone and opened Tinder. He glanced at the picture of the woman who appeared. Briefly, he hesitated, but then closed the app and put his phone away.
They met at Atocha. Both stood in front of the memorial inside the station. They looked at each other. He noticed that she was tearful.
‘You knew somebody?‘, he asked her in Spanish.
‘No. But it's terrible.’
'Yes. It's awful,' he said and invited her to coffee.
They sat in one of the cafes overlooking the station's tropical garden. She sipped her coffee and told him, in halting Spanish, how she had come from Sofia to interview the Bulgarian woman who had been sitting across from the terrorist but had miraculously survived. The friend with whom she was travelling had died on the way to the hospital. Nely had emerged from the attack with multiple injuries but alive. Alive.
‘They saw him leaving his racksack and leaving…’
‘Didn’t they have any doubts?‘
‘She told her friend it could be a bomb and then the first explosion, in another compartment, went off. Nely told her friend to run, but she didn't. She herself managed only two steps. Two steps that were critical to her survival. Isn't it strange that two steps can sometimes literally be the distance between death and life?’
He was half-Colombian, half-Italian, but lived in Tenerife, where he worked in a bar.
‘My father is from Rome and I have never been there, can you imagine?‘ he said.
Their cups had been emptied for a while now, but they couldn't move from their seats.
‘Why did you come to Atocha?‘ she asked.
‘To remind myself that life is a precious gift. Tenerife can be a very depressing place.‘
‘I have been to Tenerife. For one night.’
‘And how did you find it?’
‘Maybe it's time for me to leave it and move somewhere else, somewhere less awful.’
‘For example, Sofia.‘
‘I'm getting married next week.’
The loudspeaker announced that the train to Rome was arriving in seven minutes on platform two.
‘I see... Rome remains an option though," he said and smiled as well.
‘Sure. All roads…’
‘Does your path lead to Rome?’
‘Maybe. If you invite me‘
The loudspeaker announced that the train to Rome was arriving in two minutes at platform two.
‘I am inviting you. Now.’
‘Fine‘, she said.
It was a self-service, the bill had been settled. They jumped and ran downstairs, reaching the platform, panting, just as the train was arriving. Its doors opened two steps away from them. People getting down and up, a final whistle and away it went.
He looked into her eyes.
‘Were you ready to do it, at least for a moment?’
‘Well, would I have run otherwise?!’
He walked the two steps to her, cupped her face and kissed her. Completely detached from the reality of people arriving and departing, and from their own lives, they kissed.
They were avoiding each other’s eyes, as they climbed the stairs back.
Few months later, she was having dinner with her husband when her phone rang. She heard his voice: ‘I’m in Rome and thought…’
‘You got the wrong number,’ she said, left the phone back on the table, walked the two steps to the fridge and poured herself a glass of wine and offered one to her husband. Back at the table, she sipped from the wine, her face a shade paler.