Robinson Markus is a political science and film junior at Northwestern University. He's currently building Community Currency, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that seeks to erase educational inequities through the collection of wasted foreign currency. In his free time, he reads anything you put in his hands.
Don Pedro found himself in a contemplative, melancholy state as the train rolled through the vast, brownish countryside. He had taken the ride once a year for a short 30 years now. He enjoyed its repetitiveness –- the subtler insights one discovers on the 7-hour train in late September. The trip was etched into his brain. He marveled at its consistency, envisioning the beaten-down villas and downtrodden farmers near Aranda de Duero, the straight-shot to Burgos, and finally the color and flair of Vitoria-Gasteiz -- the final sign of the film festival's proximity within the hour. Don Pedro knew every sight and stop on the journey to the San Sebastián, yet he was afraid of everything familiar to him this time around.
The flat, dull Castilian land echoed the machinations of his brain. 2 hours of sleep. 7 hours left. He usually felt that the train's pace provided just enough time to gaze out and appreciate his surroundings; it affectionately fit in with the Spanish lifestyle. Although, at first, he struggled with a 3-hour chat before, during, and after dinner, he eventually understood why the Spanish value time differently. He had accustomed himself to, and now appreciated, the dangling conversations that meander throughout the Spanish lifestyle. Today his impatience ran up his spine.
He didn’t feel like sleeping. Aside from a yabbering elderly couple scouring around for seats, the car was scattered with silence. The British wife could hardly get a few words out in her harsh cockney accent before Don Pedro's fluent English met her broken Spanish. He listened, oddly carefully, to the two bicker-backer over the window seat. Soon enough he sat in an uncomfortably restless silence.
He stared down the slim, black bar that vertically divided his window's quadrant. Its existence was meaningless. It cut up the window, obscured Don Pedro’s view, and provided no structural integrity; he enjoyed it. He discovered cooperative game theory between this 2-foot bar, the tannish telephone poles of the Spanish countryside, and the jagged “kak” noise his car made every few seconds against the rails. As the window bolted on at 75 km/hour, Don Pedro’s mind played its own game. He examined if, at the exact moment the train “kakked” against the rails, his little bar could perfectly obscure a telephone pole in perfect synchronicity. A tad short of the pole. Tad long. Way long. Short. Short. Long. Upon perfection, he stared out without looking at anything, with a slight smirk curving up the right side of his face. With no prior reasoning, rationale, thought, or planning, nonsensical beauty was created purely within the confines of his mind. He pondered over the purpose of a purposeless black bar, amused by the miniscule, serendipitous boundary between pure reason and absurdity.
The ticket inspector was a balding, Spanish man in his 50’s, who appeared as if he had meant to leave his job decades past. He habitually lumbered through the aisles. Like clockwork, he would walk 3 steps, swivel his head to the right, and lay out his right hand without the slightest eye contact. After stamping the right side, he would automatically shuffle his left foot around and lay out his left hand. He did this 1,366 times in one day, and had little interest in the slightest alteration.
Despite the complete lack of personable engagement between both parties, the inspector’s visit put an end to Don Pedro’s little game. He accepted that one cannot stare at a window bar while maintaining sanity for seven hours, and so he did little more than stare vacantly at the seat in front of him. He felt sunken. His head raced as time slowed. His heart clamped inward. His shoulders locked up against his spine, and suddenly a shudder sprinted up his course, tightened back. His breathing was now audible across the aisle, his eyes widening with a manic, paced anxiety. He dashed off as he tried to run away from his head. He ripped the bathroom stall’s lock across the door, plunged into his seat, and cripplingly withered over himself. Why? Why did he have to be on this train in this state? His lifelong conversations, his decisions, his thoughts -- they had all put him here right now. His thoughts felt like trains speeding along in every direction until they all violently smashed into one another as a flurry of tightened, anxious tears burst out.
He threw water on his face, hurriedly, trying to break out of his situation. He stared, firmly, with a twisted, intense yet forlorn gaze into the mirror. As time continued to unwind, he watched his hands slowly reduce their quiver. His shoulders loosened up, his throat breathed through a full gust of air, and as the harsh stare of his big, brown eyes reduced to a gaze, he felt attached to himself once again. Consciously, he placed his hand on the door handle, exited, and walked back to his seat. After a few seconds of a tense reflection, he laid his head against the glass window. The rough, functional quasi-pillow reflected his condition all too well.
He wrestled himself up as the train pulled into its next station, and glanced at the master clock that towered over the train station. It was 11:48.
That luscious, light curl of brownish-blonde hair that danced across the right side of her forehead flashed into his mind; it fell onto his shoulder as it moved, ever so slightly, back-and-forth to Elton John crooning that “this one’s for you” as the two danced as one under the Chicago Skyline. He was thrown onto the dark, glimmering blue of Lake Michigan – the Navy Pier. The entire scene seemed to be a wedding gift from the city itself, perhaps a last farewell for Peter. The two stared out onto that water the whole night, joyously ignorant of any life direction, until it turned every shade of blue. She had been in the United States for 5 months. He knew nothing else.
She broke the aura of the evening, pondering the inconceivable, inevitable idea of an entire life together.
“It’s 11:48. Where will we be at 11:48 in 5 years from now?”
Tension rode through the tone of the newlywed’s words. A moment passed, as the young man locked his eyes into the water.
“Well –- I suppose -- when that moment comes, I’ll probably say... ‘Oh wow! Look! It’s 11:48! Remember that question you asked on our honeymoon? Well we made it!’”
He reveled in his self-aware ignorance, and she couldn’t help but smile and embrace the crazy, happy-go-lucky kid on that twilight night.
As the train pulled away from the station, Don Pedro asked himself why he had not seen Lake Michigan glimmer, shine, or smile for 41 years now.
His head had no conception of night or day. The car was rather full as he brought himself back into his immediate surroundings. Across the aisle, two younger Madrileñan girls, of about eight and ten, glowed with excitement while they battered their parents with questions. Why did the train smell funny? Did grandma have any presents for them? Which hotel are they staying at? Will grandma take them to the zoo this time? How much longer on the train? Why does it keep stopping? The girls and their parents, however, were not functioning at the same pace. As the mother closed her eyes for a half-nap, the father acceptingly turned to engage his daughters, diving into a fierce, joyful explanation of a tiger’s claws that gleefully terrified the children.
Don Pedro’s ears perked as he picked up English a few rows behind him.
“It lets you break out of the cycle, you know?”, said a young, rebellious voice that reminded Don Pedro of his fellow creative writing students during his DePaul years.
Another deeper, calmer voice chimed in, speaking in a slow, reactionary manner.
“We’ll always be in the cycle. It helps you recognize your place in the world – understand how you fit into everything that’s out there. That’s not breaking out. That’s stepping back.”
The first voice took a purposeful, half-second pause. He spoke with a rebellious fervor.
“We left the US for a bit because of the xenophobic, racist sexist who holds our highest office -- the vacantly-minded narcissist who ensures that our country is fucked in every imaginable way, while simultaneously guaranteeing that everyone on this train thinks we want ‘America First’ branded onto our foreheads. Yeah?”
He continued, with a newfound motivation and momentum.
“Exactly. We broke out. We came out here for classes for a few months. We ignored -- rejected -- everything inside our country. Acid does the same thing for the individual. It lets you realize how to pave the right way when it didn’t exist before. Escape everything around you to find what’s real.”
“You’re escaping the real,” a third friend interrupted. He spoke with a calm assurance. “You never get out of it. You just learn to accept what’s out there.”
As Don Pedro looked back over at the sleeping children, he suddenly realized he’d been eavesdropping for the last 30 minutes. Good – the more distractions the better.
When he gazed back out the window, a brown hare scattered across the barren plains.
What was its name? Doña Maria convinced him to buy it after they bought their two-room apartment in Malasaña. Whenever it twiggled its jet black ears, she would giggle, turn to her husband with her serene, carefree smile. Aside from that rigid white splotch that sprinted up its forehead, black fur ran down its face and camouflaged its eyes. Its color ensured he always forgot the furball existed until illuminating the room. It was quite an odd rabbit. Many nights, after the two got home from an exhibition, gallery, or shoot in the Cascorro Factory, they would sit down for a crammed, candlelit dinner.
They were living inside madness – la movida madrileña. Post-Franco, the young couple lived, worked, and breathed the artistic chaos that rumbled out of their neighborhood, which had never heard the words “status quo”. Their films were at the center of a skirting dash to get out everything that had been pushed deep down during El Generalisimo’s rule – sexuality, expression, and any drug you could smoke, shoot, snort or pop. It was a beautifully absurd time. The creators, the thinkers, and the doers all worked together whenever they pleased, and for the first time in a long time, everyone in Malsaña knew they were in the good old days.
Whenever they sat down at their 4'x4' oak table that they received from the coffee shop owner down the block who never took off his bike helmet, the cage behind them would scrim, skram, and skirt; the rabbit would slash its paws and claws against the locked-door of the wire mesh cage. It would clash its teeth on the bars -- gnawing as if it had never thought of chewing its way out before this very instant. Every night, for the length of a full dinner between the young couple, it would chew past the turn of each hour. The next day it would do exactly the same thing. Don Pedro could never tell whether the rabbit forgot yesterday's attempts or whether it practiced a blind, respectful optimism.
The day it stopped hit him like a brick. Maria had just finished on the set of Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, and she was working through a structure for her new screenplay. They both knew it would get the truth out about the HIV epidemic, but neither of them had any idea how. Don Pedro was picking up freelance writing whenever it came to him, but Madrid's business community didn't comprehend the merit of hiring an audiovisual essayist for press releases and grant writing. During the day, he would sit, alone, in his apartment, skimming through the papers for any paragraph that would get him a few Euros. He sometimes felt that the magic dust that clouded his youth was fading.
She came home late. As the lights flickered, frustration from a long day on set stomped through her boots. In a slow, surreal, flashing moment, they sat down and looked across the table at the person they found themselves with at 27. She brought back a margherita pizza from "Ay Mi Madre," so the two sat down in a dawdling apartment, occasionally interrupted by the opening and shuffling of the cardboard box.
"Did you find anything today?" Her voice uncomfortably trudged along.
"Sent an inquiry in."
A silence sat over the room, as the two, simultaneously, existentially visited the condition of their life.
She glanced up at the round clock that ran a minute early.
"Do you know what time it is on that clock?"
He looked up at the clock that read 11:47. A smile at the clock moved to Maria's glowing face -- a visual reminder that gratefulness is often forgotten.
He slowed time down. Something was off. His ears, suddenly surprised by the lack of sound from the corner of the room, drifted his focus over to their restless pet. It sat there -- in a seemingly pleasant silence. It acted as if, at a time when questions about the past, present, and future were spinning through Don Pedro's head in a manic discord, every atom in the universe had decided to unify to create this tranquil moment. The rabbit did nothing else but sit there -- accepting the present in everything that it was.
"Maria. I love you."
The brakes screeched –- Vitoria-Gasteiz –- 3 hours left. As the train began to board, a spacy, gawky man kissed a loved one a short goodbye as she disappeared into another car. He was wearing a mauve and black button-down with floral patterns sailing out and through one another in every which way -- a coke-fueled fossil of the 80’s that belonged on Hunter S. Thompson. He wore Lennon shades that didn’t exactly fit his stretched face, yet somehow they combined with the frazzled, uncombed black hair to form a strange, post-modern creative aura. After slogging his eyeballs over the numbers and letters in the aisle, he slid into the open seat to Don Pedro's left.
A tad more energetic, Don Pedro brought out his copy of The Road to Wigan Pier. As he began to ponder the American paradox between those who need socialism and those who approve of socialism, he drifted off with Orwell just barely within the grasp of his sliding, drowsy hand.
Orwell dropped to the floor as Don Pedro startled his head up to the right. He looked over the man's composure and complexity for a few brief moments.
He answered sternly; stress, frustration, and emptiness piled on as he re-engaged himself.
“I apologize –- but -- I could not help but to notice your readings. You speak English, eh, completely, yes?”
An .mp4 video was paused on the man’s laptop.
“Is the phrase, eh, to ‘spill the beans’, something you say ... normally?”
Don Pedro eyed the man's dark, greenish-brown pupils.
“Spill the beans?”
The man paused, and then spoke with more energy.
“You see, to ‘spill the beans’, it is the subtitle for the film. Is this a normal, ah, expression for the English speaker?”
Don Pedro shifted to the .mp4.
“Do you ... translate films for a living?”
The quixotic figure hunched his brow. He shifted his weight around, as if simply uncomfortable with answering questions, and reluctantly spoke.
“No, no. I am, the director. I question how the subtitle is appropriate for the film.”
Don Pedro focused on the man.
“Ah - yes, yes, it is said often. Are – are you going to San Sebastián?”
The Director twitched his eyes straight back to Don Pedro; his mind had just remembered it was still in conversation.
“Yes, yes I am. And you are to – Bilbao?”
“Ah. Well. The film, it shows tonight and tomorrow. I will be there for answer, a few questions tomorrow, if you would like.”
“Unfortunately I won’t be watching any films.”
“You are visiting family?"
A silence passed while the conversation carried on.
“I'm introducing a film.”
The director perked up, examining Don Pedro’s melancholy face with his own squirrely head.
“Ah! It surprises me we have not met. Which is your film?”
Don Pedro stared straight at the black bar.
“It is not my film. It is my wife’s – Maria Visgarret.”
The Director locked his eyes down.
“I – I – I apologi –
“It's ok. You couldn't have known."
“No no no, truly I apologize. I – the chance of a person such as, ehm, myself, starting this conversation – I cannot -“
Don Pedro sat on the Director’s words, and the Director swallowed them.
“Thank you. You’ve helped me more than you could ever know.”
As the heavy, bulky train doors swung open, Don Pedro felt present. He shook the man's hand and trotted off, insurmountably content with everything he would never understand.