By The Time This Reaches You I’ll Have Fled
It had been three months since Rob last received a postcard from Carmen. She never missed a month before now. In the two years since he last saw her, he hadn’t stopped thinking about her. They met, on a sunny morning in a café near the bay in San Sebastian. He had been walking the cobblestones that bent around the beach when he saw her sipping coffee on an open-air patio. All Spanish women were lovely, but she was something else. He rested against the railing that separated the walkway from the sand and pointed his camera up the bay at the sailboats crammed into the wharf. He moved his lens along the plaza, past a large carousel and a small park with elaborate hedge sculptures until it settled on her.
She was looking out at the blue water, occasionally lifting a porcelain cup painted with a blue pastoral scene. Her fingers were long and delicate and touched the cup lightly. When she sipped, her lips parted rather than puckered, and she closed her eyes and smiled. He watched her for a long time, and then he went over to her.
“Pardon me,” he said. He held the camera up for her to see.
She smiled and said something in Spanish.
“Just do what you were doing,” he said. He waved toward the bay.
He wasn’t sure if she understood, but she looked again to the water. On the table next to her cup was a collection of postcards and a pen. The shutter snapped many times, but didn’t seem to disturb her. In a moment she began to write.
“No one writes letters anymore,” she said, with her head down as she scribbled. Her hair hung over the side of her face so her voice sounded like it came from the air all around him. “I just told my sister I was dreaming of what to write when this curious man came with a camera.”
“I hope it wasn’t a bother,” he said.
“It was no bother. It was fun.”
He put his camera down and sat at the table. A man came and he ordered coffee like hers. He made small talk while he waited for the coffee. He told her he was taking pictures for a travel magazine. Then the coffee came.
“I’m only in Spain a little while,” he said, “but can I call you for dinner?”
“All talk on phones is awkward,” she said. “You never get to say what you really want. So send me letters. Even better, send me postcards. I want to see all the places you see.” She took one from the stack and wrote her address on it.
It made him nervous. He wanted to see her again. After a minute he said so.
“You will,” she said. “There.” She pointed to a long concrete stall with boards covering the openings. “Tonight we will eat fish by the bay.”
Virginia stirred in bed beside him. Her knees were curled up to her chest, and she had tucked the bedspread tight all around her. She moaned an elongated “no.” Rob rolled onto his side and watched her features shift in the dark. A lock of thick black hair stuck to the corner of her mouth, and he brushed it away. He thought about waking her, but for a while she was quiet, then began to snore.
The sky outside his window turned from black to navy blue. He got up and crossed the room to his desk by the kitchen. It was a small apartment, but he didn’t have much: two chairs set across from a small round table, his bed, the desk, and bookshelves with novels he meant to read and travel guides to places he wanted to go; his camera bag and tripod hung from a coat rack by the door. After returning from Spain, he never went anywhere else.
He kept Carmen’s postcards in a cigar box on his desk. He sat down and turned on the lamp and looked back at Virginia. The light barely touched her and didn’t disturb her sleep. He took the postcards from the cigar box and read them from the first to the last.
For a while her postcards all began with “How I miss you!” and then she would tell about her life in Oña with her parents and grandmother. At 25 she was the youngest of four—two brothers and a sister, all married and living in cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. She was finishing a degree to teach English to Spanish children. “My English grows and grows,” she wrote in one note. “These postcards are so fantastic practice. I met some Londoners the other day and they said…” It was hard for him to read on the first time. He imagined tall clean-faced boys with charming accents. It frustrated him to not be there to get between her and the better-looking men to be found there. But in another, as if responding to the fears he never expressed, “Spanish men are so boring. They are so concerned with their faces. They are like women, they never grow any hairs.” She asked questions about his life and about the city. St. Louis was one of those cities she would have heard of but had no way to think about. He didn’t want to tell her much. He had a decent job doing commercial photography for catalogs and magazine ads, though it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He went to Spain on assignment for a travel magazine, but it was a one-off gig that never amounted to more. He wanted to make it seem he could be back in her country at any moment, and he wanted to be. Instead he told her about the Arch, the City Museum, and the Mississippi River. That seemed to satisfy her.
Almost a year before, she wrote, “I cannot live in Oña any longer. It is filled with lechers and old women.” And in the next month, “I am in Alicante now. It is warm here all the time, it is filled with young people, and I go to the ocean every day.” The front of the postcard showed a marble statue of a skinny bearded knight, a look of almost comical concentration on his face, squinting into the distance. Fat pigeons clung to his spear and his shield. Beyond him stretched a spit of white sand and blue ocean. All the people he could see had their backs to him, all broad, well muscled and tan. He could pick out no women except among the shapes that floated in the waves. The furthest one out looked like Carmen, though he couldn’t see her face, and it seemed to him every other figure was marching into the sea to meet her.
By the time he finished reading the last postcard, the sun was up. It hadn’t yet risen above the tall buildings outside his window, but already the light of day out-shone the desk lamp. He switched off the lamp, stood and stretched and looked at Virginia. She was on her back now. He could see the shape of her breasts through the old shirt he gave her to wear and the flat plane of her stomach where the shirt was pulled up a little.
In the sober light of day it seemed less exciting that Virginia was in his bed. He felt a dull sense of regret that they had only slept, but it was mixed with relief. Nothing about them changed last night, so he could relax and act normal. He took some clothes with him into the bathroom and showered. He took a long time. He started out thinking about Carmen. He thought about the give in her flesh when he squeezed her arm or wrapped his arms around her waist. He thought about how his fingers would have sank into her ass cheeks. Before he finished he was thinking about Virginia. He thought about climbing into bed and sliding his hand beneath the shirt he gave her and under the elastic band of the pants he gave her.
When he finished he came out, and Virginia was still asleep. She was on her side now, facing where Rob had lain. Rob stood at the foot of the bed watching her. Why not go for it, he thought. He and Virginia had been friends for a while, shared the same interests and opinions of things. He only had to make a move. The only reason he hadn’t made one yet was Carmen. She had blinded him to other women.
“Dude, are you watching me sleep?” Virginia said. Her voice came out thick and slow. She propped herself up on her elbows. Her hair was a tangle around her head, under her eyes was puffy and flushed.
“I was just thinking,” he said.
“You were just thinking about what?”
“I mean I was only thinking, so I wasn’t really seeing what I was looking at.”
“Don’t look at me when you do that, okay?” She had a way of looking at Rob that made him feel wrong, whether he was or not. “I’m still a bit freaked out,” she said.
Virginia had come to him last night. She came in like a wild bird and flew around the room talking fast and in half-sobs. Rob poured her a glass of wine, like he always did when she was upset. A man she went on one date with had been calling her yesterday. She hadn’t been excited for a second date, so she ignored his calls, letting them go to the machine. The man filled up her answering machine with threats and angry messages. When she saw him out the window of her apartment at the payphone across the street, she called the police. The man jumped into his Buick when she saw him, and sped away. Because she didn’t know anything about him other than his name and the kind of car he drove, the police could do nothing but take the tape and wait for something more to happen. They suggested she stay with a friend for the night.
“Sorry,” Rob said. “Do you want breakfast?”
Virginia took last night’s clothes into the bathroom. Rob heard the shower come on and he cleared the wine and beer bottles from the coffee table and made eggs and toast for them both and sausage for himself. He was sitting in the chair facing the bathroom, both plates on the table, when she came out.
“I feel stupid for being here,” she said.
He looked up at her. He hadn’t touched his eggs.
“Not stupid, I guess,” she said. She came and sat in the other chair. She pushed her eggs around on her plate then got up and crossed to the kitchen in six quick strides and got the ketchup out of the refrigerator and came back. “I just feel like this guy ran me out of my home. I feel ashamed.”
“You shouldn’t,” Rob said, “feel stupid or ashamed.”
“I know, and I don’t. It’s smart really, being here.” She pushed her eggs around in the ketchup and ate them in three big forkfuls. “If he broke into my apartment, I couldn’t fight him off, and that’s not me being weak. That’s just fact.”
She showed him her arms as if he needed reminding of the shape of her body. The thin arms, the long curve of her nose, the large wet eyes. Each part considered separately made her seem sickly somehow, but together they were beautiful.
“Will you come with me to the apartment later?” she said. “I want to grab some things.”
“Of course,” he said.
Virginia lived only a few blocks away, so they walked to her apartment. It was mid-afternoon and cool in the shadows of the tall brick buildings. They were quiet, and Rob was glad for that. He was deep in the new thoughts he was forming about Virginia. He concentrated on the rhythm of her hard-soled shoes on the sidewalk. For every two steps she took, he took one. He was very conscious of the way she swung her arm, and he swung his to match it.
They rounded a corner and stepped into the sun. On the street, parked cars lined both curbs, and the sunlight off the fenders and windows blinded him so that he fell out of step with Virginia. She was up the steps to her building before he recovered.
“You don’t have to come up,” she said. He stopped there on the bottom step looking up at her.
“What if he’s up there?” he said.
Virginia looked at the door. Her knuckles turned white around the pink canister of pepper spray attached to her keys. She looked small and breakable against the large heavy wood door.
“He won’t be,” she said. “He’s only left creepy messages on my answering machine so far. And if I can’t walk in my own damn front door by myself in broad daylight, I might as well give up right now.”
He wanted to tell her that was stupid, but she looked down on him and her eyes were big and wet and bright. And then her key made a sharp sound in the lock and she was through the door, and in the window above the door he saw her running up the stairs.
He waited. He heard the pop and crunch of tires slowly turning in the street. When he turned to look, a long white Buick moved past, picking up speed. Through the back window he saw the driver’s long brown hair moving in the wind and he thought he saw a pair of feminine eyes looking back at him in the rearview mirror. Then the Buick was too far away.
The hair, those eyes. Carmen, he thought. For a moment his heart sped up, even though he knew it hadn’t been her. She would never come to the U.S. He felt like a fool to have wasted so many years on pining for a woman who never conceived of coming to him. He was realizing now just how one-sided everything had been. Write to me. Come visit me. Think of me. It had been on him to act the whole time.
It embarrassed him to think of the last postcard he sent. On it the St. Louis skyline was cast in grey and blue on the bank of the Mississippi. The arch rose high into a field of pink clouds and seemed to hug two buildings beneath it, separating them from the cluster of hotels and skyscrapers. On the yellow ribbon of the Mississippi, a casino barge churned its way toward the arch as if to pass through it, out of one life and into the next. On the back he had written one line, thinking that he was bold, that he was ready. “If I come to Spain, will you marry me?”
Now there was Virginia. He could imagine a life with her. She was close and real in a way that Carmen never was. He had held himself back dreaming up a time when he could get back to her. He was thinking of what he would say to Virginia that night when she came out the door. Her face was red and the makeup under her eyes was smeared.
He started up the steps to her, but she waved him off.
“Let’s just go,” she said.
They walked back the way they came. He put his arm around her shoulders, and after a moment, she put her head against the side of his chest. It felt good. They walked like that, awkwardly bumping hips, for a block. He kissed her hair. A few steps later she sat hard in the dark doorway of a breakfast diner and cried. She gasped for air and sobbed loudly.
Rob didn’t know if he should touch her or not, so he didn’t. He was ashamed to have been thinking ways to convince her to be with him. He knelt down beside her. He would wait.
Across the street people slowed and looked their way, but none stopped.
The next morning Rob woke up alone. Virginia had fallen asleep drunk in one of the chairs. He hadn’t been able to wake her. The morning sky was grey and made everything look dull. He showered and dressed and when he came out Virginia had moved to the bed, blankets pulled up over her head.
He checked the refrigerator, then left a note saying he would bring back breakfast. In the foyer at the bottom of the stairs, he checked the mail from the day before. On top of a stack of white envelopes was a postcard. He stared at the picture without seeing it. He didn’t want to turn it over, and then he did. He read the message on the back, and then he read it again. It was short, only one line: “You will never come to Spain.”
The words were small in the middle of the card. They drowned there in all that white space, seeming to shrink to nothing. A series of slashes and dots, right down to ellipses, dot dot dot. That was it. What more was there for him to say? His lungs felt too big for his chest. He flipped the postcard over then back. There was only her name and the fat Spanish stamp showing some side-facing portrait of a bearded king. The city on the front was Segovia. There was no return address on the other side, but he knew that she had moved there. And he knew she was right, that he would never make it back there, that he was always never going to make it back. He was still looking at the postcard when he stepped off the curb.
He heard the keen of an engine in high gear, felt the metal bumper nuzzle into the fabric and then the flesh around his knee, felt the rubber sole of his sneaker bite into the pavement and his leg below the knee hold firm as the rest of him bent into the long inexorable thrust of the white Buick’s hood. The rubber gave before the remaining tissue of his knee, and he slipped onto the hood of the car and slid toward his own reflection, eyes wide and uncomprehending, red mouth open in the O of an apology, and then another pair of eyes behind the glass, round and glassy and they held each other there. They were soft, perfect blue eyes surrounded by long delicate lashes and for a moment he fell in love with those eyes, even as he felt the cruelty and contempt in them. Rob saw long brown hair around a man’s long flat slab of face and thin lips pulling back from a pink triangle of tongue caught between long white teeth until it disappeared under the crawl of cracks that shot out from beneath his body.
As if in sleep, Rob rolled away, saw a seething grey sky and thought he was falling into it. Then there was white and wounds of rust, then sky, then his arms were open though he didn’t open them, and he thought he might fly to Spain.
Then he was on his belly. He couldn’t feel anything. There was a short screech of tires. A car door opened, and from a window above him a woman screamed. Then the car door slammed, and the high keen of the engine was carried away.
All Rob could see was the postcard—the Roman Aqueduct in Segovia humped its blocky way from the right hand edge of it, diminishing into the upper left corner. Beyond its skinny arching legs, he could see a city square, the median filled with tall mounds of lush green grass covered in bruise-red flowers. The people were little more than upward brushstrokes, but he thought they looked happy, moving fast through their lives. In the foreground drab cobblestones radiated out from the aqueduct like bad teeth jutting unevenly and at odd angles. This side of the aqueduct seemed tucked under a separate oppressive sky. An old woman clutched at the neck of a long brown coat and the knot of a black kerchief. She moved forward, but against a tremendous force. He could only see the half-moon of her face, wrinkles creasing every inch, lifeless brown hairs escaping the edges of her kerchief, her eyes squeezed shut, and she was smiling, but it was a terrible smile of grey square teeth full of menace. And he was in it, he was there. It was his whole world.
Finally, Rob felt pain in every part of his body, and he cried out for Virginia.