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When In Rome?
In the narrow, crooked alleys of the fringes of Barcelona the trash littered the streets and most of the shop doors were closed. There were still open bars, but most of them barely made enough money to continue to pay rent. Some of them used to have steady flows of customers, before the tourists moved to the eastern sections of the city. Some of them did not. Occasionally a misplaced sightseer would wander through with a camera. They would stumble around looking upward at the peaks of the buildings, for they seemed to remember all of the beautiful pictures of Barcelona from the magazines being of steeples and cornices and ornate masonry. Some wished to take similar pictures so that they could boast to their coworkers, “I was there, were you?” Others were simply tired of meeting the gazes of the bums and winos that littered the area, a feeling that perhaps combined with some inward disbelief that such a run down place could have nice pictures taken in it. They all eventually left. Some became scared by a foreboding denizen; others simply became bored, tired by their fruitless attempts at photography. The natives watching them come and go gave them blank stares and never spoke unless asked a direct question. Even then they did not always respond. It was not considered a dangerous area, but the answer to whether that was due to a lack of danger or simply a lack of reports varied by opinion. Whatever else might have been said about it, it was quiet. Until work hours were done for the day and the drinking began there was hardly ever a soul to be found.
Nathan displayed a calm composure as he walked in what he believed to be the general direction of his hotel. It was early morning, or late night, and the indigents were either passed out or talking to the unresponsive walls around them about whatever woes were on their minds at the moment. Nathan and a few of his college pals had flown from one of the great American Universities to spend a weekend of enjoying their youthful independence. Through this enjoyment Nathan had developed a strong headache, and the few streetlights that still shone hurt his eyes. He wore the Ray-Bans he had bought at a boutique earlier in the day to shield them. It occurred to him that perhaps this was not a good time or place to be displaying expensive sunglasses, but he decided the benefits outweighed the risks. He listened as the murmur of epithets hurled at an impassive audience was broken by the sound of raucous laughter and whooping.
“That puta was fine, no? Did you see the look on her face when she spotted El Pantera?” The other boys laughed, not laughing would only make them seem dull. None of them called him “El Pantera” even though Fernando would have liked them to. His exploits were anything but impressive; any one of them could have accomplished the same. Still, he was their leader, and they enjoyed the companionship of la basca.
Nathan stopped to put his glasses away, but the sudden light made him fumble and drop their case. The gang came around the corner just as he picked it up. The five boys noticed him and their laughter changed tone. “What’s up ese?” asked Fernando. The basca chuckled.
“Wassup? You guys know where Maria Clare Street is? I gotta find my hotel.” Nathan said.
“Yeah, we know where it is, what hotel you staying in hombre?”
“I can find the hotel all right, I just got so mixed up in these streets that I can’t find the right road.”
“C’,mon bro, we will take you there,” said Fernando. The other boys were looking at each other knowingly.
“Eh… on second thought I think I can probably find it myself, I don’t want to give you guys any trouble.”
“Oh it’s no trouble ese, we got you bro. Plus you never know who is out on the streets this time of night, you might want us around.”
Nathan shifted his weight to the other foot. “I would really rather just find it myself, I think I can manage on my own. Thanks though.” His face was tightening around the edges, his jaw clenching and brows drawing slightly inwards.
“I guess you are new to the area, when you said you don’t want my assistance it kind of hurt my feelings. Me and my boys are some of the most helpful guys around, and we feel like we’ve got an obligation to help out as much as we can.” Fernando was walking up to Nathan, while the rest fanned out, blocking the street behind him.
“Look, I’m not looking to offend anyone, and I definitely don’t want a fight, but if you guys won’t back down I’m just gonna go, and hope you guys are okay with that.” Nathan had clenched fists, and was ready to leave when he could. He wasn’t ready, however, for the right hook that caught him near the base of his left cheekbone, landing with a grisly crack and a blinding flash of light and sending him spinning around to catch himself on the unconcerned wall. He didn’t wait for the inevitable second one, but scrambled to regain his balance, and sprinted in the opposite direction. The echoes of laughter and flung expletives careened down the narrow streets, gleefully dancing circles around the swiftly dissipating fog in Nathan’s head. The bums waved a perturbed hand at Nathan, as if it were he who had interrupted their philosophical discussions with the stars, but he noticed neither them nor the pain that spasmed his jaw like an involuntary shiver; all he thought of was escaping. The gang chased after him halfheartedly, but dropped off when they decided that they were either content with his deserted sunglasses or convinced that they had not wanted to chase him in the first place. Nathan eventually lost his breath and ability to ignore the pain that was now blinding, and collapsed on the nearest corner with a streetlamp, unable to drag himself any further.
He was found by a passing stranger and taken to the hospital, where he was treated for a shattered mandible. He overcame the lasting effects of the drinks from the night before, and after that the pain that came from having his jaw wired shut. He eventually even regained the weight he lost from being on a liquid diet, but he always felt that he had lost something on that night that he would never get back. Something about the imprint of the flash of light tugged at Nathan’s mind, a hint of something he could no longer return to. Nathan spent the remainder of the weekend sober, and although he returned to an atmosphere of familiar tedium at its end, he felt something intangible and pure had been shown to him. He felt that he had both gained some sort of wisdom from the experience and lost a false sense of invulnerability, and he was grateful for it. On the other hand, Fernando forgot all about the event, and knew only that his new sunglasses helped immeasurably in his pursuits of love in the well-worn alleys of a forgotten part of town.