December 9, 2018
Alejandra took inventory aloud. Sixty bottles of wine, two-hundred cans of beer, ten russian salads, five platters of Manchego cheese, twelve bags of crackers, three bags of chips, fifteen bowls of hummus, three plates of fried peppers, three cakes, two coffee thermoses, fifty wine glasses, one portable DJ set, ten black and silver balloons, a few dozen loose photographs, five tablecloths, a pair of sparkly pants, and one lace shirt.
We packed the car with all the stuff and pulled onto the main road Alejandra calls her hometown a city and it is, for this part of Spain. It has a train station and hair salon and several department stores selling perpetually-discounted purses. The surrounding landscape of Castilla La Mancha is flat and brown for miles. That day, the cereal grass was dead and the vineyards were parched. The olive trees, on the other hand, were ripe for picking. December is olive season.
We drove to María’s house to pick up more stuff. Her mother opened the door.“This is scary,” she told me, watching María and Alejandra trying to wedge a paella pan full of meat stew between the boxes of wine glasses. “Please don’t invite me to your weddings,”she said. They had invited to her to their joint twenty-fifth birthday party, but she’d declined.
We drove to a small suburb outside of Toledo. María was at the wheel. She had never used an automatic car before so she slammed the breaks at each roundabout and all the stuff poured over me in the back seat.
They had rented a six-bedroom house with two patios, two large salons, a basement, an empty hot tub, and an empty pool. When we arrived at the house, I walked down to the basement and saw an aquarium. There was a white clownfish with a bulbous red mass of fish flesh that looked like a brain pouring out of its skull, and a slender silver fish that looked like a shark. There was also a fish bobbing just under the surface of the water, its mouth agape. It was either dead or dying. I couldn’t tell.
The house had cost them €600, which neither of them could afford because they’re students with low-paying part-time jobs. In their three invitations — a save-the-date, a follow up, and a don’t-forget— they’d asked people to pay them €20, which covered a lot of wine, appetizers, a meal, and a place to sleep that night. The man who rented them the house thought they were organizing a wine tasting, not a birthday party. He seemed suspicious when he saw us unload everything from the car.
Alejandra was almost crying from stress. “I will never do this again,” she said, hours before the party even started.
She had me drive us to her grandmother’s house in Toledo so we could pick up three pots of migas, a dish of pan-fried bread, garlic, and chorizo. I had forgotten how to drive in roundabouts, and Alejandra didn’t remember where her grandmother lived, so we were lost for a while on the lonely highways of Castilla La Mancha. Eventually we arrived at the apartment. I did a bad parallel parking job, we got the migas, and I drove us back.
An hour after the guests arrived, we all stood around a long table staring at the food. It was 4 p.m., a little later than normal lunchtime, and we were all hungry, but we were waiting for orders from Alejandra to eat. When she instructed us to begin eating — “Why are you waiting?” — people piled their plates.
Even though I lived with Alejandra’s family for a few months last year and hung out with her occasionally, I didn’t really know anyone there. I knew her brother and his friends, who had harvested grapes with me last fall. When we were picking grapes I’d overheard three of the guys assign women rankings based on their perceived hotness. In response, I had delivered my first feminist rant in a foreign language. I used the word machismo a lot, and they rolled their eyes at me. That was the last time I’d seen them, so things were sort of awkward.
People were mingling. I hate mingling, especially in Spanish. I have limited experience interacting with young people here, and my closest friends in Spain are 50-year-olds. I talked to one girl for a while about her diet, and I chatted with another girl about her photography classes. “That’s really cool,” I repeated, because I didn’t have much else to say. She took photos of Alejandra and María holding wine glasses and pretending to look happy.
As it started getting dark I realized there were still at least six hours of the party left. People moved to the basement, where a DJ was playing club music. Alejandra had set-up a bocadillo station “so people can make their own bocadillos when they’re hungry, and I don’t have to deal with it.” I stared at the dead fish in the aquarium and texted Alejandra’s mother, asking her to pick me up. A few minutes later, Alejandra stormed over and started yelling at me. She did not want her mother anywhere near that party.
I responded as I usually do to anger: I started crying. This was embarrassing, since I wasn’t sad. Alejandra retreated to the bathroom, and one of her friends took me into another bathroom, told me about how stressed Alejandra was, and strategically managed to place us both in the same bathroom so we could reconcile. Women always reconcile in the bathroom, I thought. We hugged and I told her it was okay, that I was just tired.
She found a friend who could drive me back to her parents’ apartment. Her friend was a mechanic who had lived in the same town his whole life. We drove in silence.
When I returned to the apartment around midnight, Alejandra’s younger sister was about to leave. Sometimes she stays in to make pizza and watch dubbed American television series; other times she’s out until 7 a.m. On weekends, teenagers usually hang out at the plaza across the street from the apartment, drinking liquor from paper bags. This is called botellón.
She left. I went to bed, listening to the chatter of drunk teenagers from the plaza below as I drifted into sleep.