Chapter Forty-two

I had just returned from Grenada when I inadvertently set another misadventure in play.
Diego wanted to know how I had enjoyed the tour, and had me babbling praise and gratitude non-stop for several minutes. “Wasn’t there anything that went wrong?” he interrupted with a grin.
I thought about it a moment, and decided to pass over the Malaguena business.
“Well,” I mumbled, “it was disappointing to be so near the Mediterranean and not actually see it . . .”
Diego’s answer was to bustle over to the phone. “You’re going to see it,” he declared with fervor. “You’re going to see the Mediterranean. As it happens, two of my brothers are there right now – at my parent’s villa – and they owe me a favor.” He snatched up the phone and began dialing.
I was knocked off balance: Diego had never mentioned the villa before. His job was nothing special, his apartment was small, and his sister worked as a nurse. It had never occurred to me that his family was anything more than middle class. How could they afford a Mediterranean villa?
I was to learn during the rest of my stay that Diego’s family owned a total of four apartments in Madrid: Diego’s and another in the same building; and two more – one a penthouse – in another, larger building in one of the city’s better districts. And, in addition to the villa in Decia on the Mediterranean coast, Diego’s family owned another villa in the mountains near Madrid where the wealthier Madrileños go to escape the summer’s heat.
Another shock: Diego’s phone call had turned ugly. He was shouting at someone – in Spanish, of course. I didn’t know what had excited him until he slammed the phone back on its perch.
Los marranos!” he groaned. “After all I’ve done for them! Well, they’ll damned well do as I say this time. You’re going to Decia and that’s final!”
And when he explained that he had phoned one of his brothers in Decia and met resistance to my proposed visit, I blurted: “Oh, God, Diego! I don’t want to see the Mediterranean that badly. If your brothers don’t want me to come –”
“No!” Diego interrupted. “The villa is empty. My younger brother has moved out to be with his stupid friends. My older brother doesn’t live there: he has his own house in the village. Why shouldn’t you go? All they have to do is meet your train in Alicante and take you to the villa. It’s the least they can do after all I’ve done for them. Why only last month . . .”
“But if they don’t want me to come –” I whined.
“You’re going and that’s that!”

And so I found myself on the train to Alicante with a sinking feeling that no one would be there to meet me when I arrived. I had learned a little more about Diego’s brothers: the eldest taught tennis in Decia, and the younger one should have returned to his university classes in Barcelona after March break, but preferred to hang out with other truants in the little beach town. Would either of the brothers meet my train? Even Diego wasn’t sure, so he mapped out a ‘Plan B’ for me involving a short bus ride to my final destination. I stood around the Alicante railway station for a half hour, and when no one approached me, ‘Plan B’ beckoned: I slunk off to the bus station.
What happened next might remind you of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” – when Cary Grant descends from a bus to find himself in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, South Dakota, soon to be buzzed by a murderous crop-duster. The bus had left me at a crossroads well short of Decia. Once it strandedhad rattled out of sight, a frightening silence descended. It was about noon but the Spanish sun had done little to lift the April chill. I had all but made up my mind to start walking in the direction the bus driver had indicated, when I heard a car approaching. It stopped nearby and a woman in her thirties left the car and approached me. My first impression of her was that she looked unhappy.
“Are you Diego’s friend?” she asked wearily. Her accent was something other than Spanish. As soon as I replied, she took my suitcase and put it in the back seat of the car. “Please get in,” she invited.
Once we were underway, she identified herself: she was the Dutch-born wife of Diego’s older brother. She offered no explanation for his absence or for that of the younger brother – at either the Alicante station or there at the crossroads. Instead, she launched into a lengthy description of her own troubled situation.
She didn’t get along with either brother and had almost decided to return to Holland and her family and friends. Her confession continued non-stop until we arrived at her home and she had installed me in the living room with a cup of instant coffee. Why was she confiding in me, a complete stranger?
“God knows where those two are now,” she told me gloomily. “They said they’d be here later, but what does that mean?” By then I had every reason to feel uneasy, not to mention foolish for having landed myself in such a situation.
What had I got myself into?
The eventual arrival of the brothers around nightfall did nothing to cheer me. A few terse sentences were exchanged with the wife, in Spanish, and I was bundled out of the house and into a waiting car. The drive to the villa was completed in total silence. A cot, piled high with bedding, had been set up in the living room. I hardly had time to thank them before they were gone.
I might have been expected to stay awake, worrying about the brothers’ cold reception, but the day’s traveling had exhausted me. I slept soundly under that excess of bedding they had left me, and only came around when the sun came pouring through the uncurtained windows to spotlight my cot. It had been cold and dark when Diego’s brothers deposited me in the villa, but the morning sun’s rays were warm and the living room windows gave me a fine view of the sea: the Mediterranean that had eluded me in Granada. I was looking down from a hilltop at a wide beach and a cluster of buildings: one looked like a restaurant or bar.
The villa’s pantry and refrigerator had been left empty, except for a few stale crackers and something in the ‘fridge that had turned green and unidentifiable. I slammed the door on the smell and went back to the living room to dress.
The long downhill walk to the beach exacerbated my hunger. I arrived at the restaurant ready to accept anything for breakfast. Just as well: the Spanish think foreigners make far too much of their first meal of the day. Madrileños often leave the house in the morning without eating, and grab a sweet roll and a coffee on the way to work. And out here, far from the city, I knew I’d be lucky to find even that.
Sound poured mercilessly from a TV high in one corner of the restaurant. On the wide screen, the glossy host and hostess of a morning show were welcoming a shapely blonde dressed in a tight-fitting safari costume. The introduction over, one of the TV cameras gave us a much wider view of the studio and a hidden orchestra launched into jungle music. What the cameras revealed explained both the guest’s clothing and the band’s music: the rest of the studio’s stage had been set as a jungle scene which the guest entered, looking warily over her shoulder as she fought her way through the fake underbrush.
Suddenly, three black warriors came bursting through the shrubbery, brandishing spears. At this point another camera angle, even wider, brought a giant aquarium into the picture, set just below the stage at the woman’s feet. With a final look over her shoulder, the guest approached the container, stripped off all her clothes and dove in. I almost choked on my sweet bun as the studio cameras fought each other for the best shot of her naked body swimming languidly in the clear water.

The naked woman in the giant fish tank was arousing enough, heaven knows, but more stimulation was waiting out on the beach once the sun was high enough. About half of the younger brother’s delinquent friends were women, and they had descended on the beach: not to swim – the Mediterranean was still far too cold for that – but to sun themselves and attract male attention. They certainly had mine. And as I strolled the beach for yet another look, I met the younger brother coming the other way.
“Whoa!” I slavered. “Will you look at that? And her – the one in the red bikini. Lord, what I’d give to be your age again, you lucky pup! What you’ve got here is a bachelor’s smorgasbord!”
I continued in that juvenile fashion for as long as it took me to realize my companion wasn’t reacting. Curious, I tore my eyes away from the smorgasbord to see why he had fallen silent. He was staring at me and shaking his head.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
N-nada!” he stammered.
“Hey!” I chided. “I’m not that old, you know. How did you expect me to react?”

That night the two brothers returned to the villa, all smiles. I was their amigo, and – no arguments! – I had to come with them to their favorite restaurant that very night where the Dutch wife was waiting. During the ride to the restaurant, the car rocked with gaiety. It was fiesta time! Once at table, I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything. And the next day, the younger brother came around with several friends to clean out and restock the refrigerator.
What had I done? What had brought about the astounding change in the brothers’ attitude towards me? I’m ashamed to admit that the explanation didn’t occur to me until several months after I had returned from Europe:
I was describing my Spanish adventures to a friend, beginning with an account of how I had met Diego.
“He was the perfect guest,” I declared. “When he came home late, he wanted to know if he had disturbed me coming in.”
“Where did he go?” the friend asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered with a shrug. “He did mention going up on the mountain. Mount Royal, I guess.”
My friend gave me a knowing smirk. “With his fairy friends. The guy was gay, didn’t you know? The mountain’s become their favorite haunt in the summer.”
I objected strongly at the time, but later, when I thought about it, my friend’s conclusion made more and more sense. It explained too much. Diego didn’t have a girlfriend either in Montreal or Madrid. The acquaintances he had introduced to me in Madrid were all unaccompanied males: one – Diego’s neighbor – was swish enough to be a caricature: patterned silk wrapper, eye shadow, the works. But wasn’t Diego entitled to at least one weirdo friend?
But what really confirmed the explanation I had been offered was the change of heart his brothers had exhibited in Decia. When Diego phoned from Madrid to ask them to welcome “a friend I met in Canada,” they no doubt thought they were being asked to entertain one of Diego’s maricón buddies – and an aging one, at that. But when I enthused over the exhibition of female flesh at the beach, the brothers realized they had made a mistake: I was macho after all: one of them, only older.

Not much later, tragedy added a final confirmation to the explanation. Diego and I had established a steady correspondence since my stay in Madrid. I was kept busy replying to his long letters describing his further adventures in the travel business. Suddenly, his letters stopped coming.
The next news of Diego came in a letter from his sister, the nurse. He had died that Spring. There was no mention of AIDS, but the inference was there in her letter. She enclosed what could be described as a non-sectarian ‘mass card’ – a sort of souvenir from his funeral.
It read:

Enjoying now, in fullness, life and light,
and experiencing limitless love.


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