On my last night in Barcelona, I went for a walk.
There was a park across the street from the guys’ apartment, and I took long, slow steps through a thick tree canopy and past still water. I watched a raft of ducks squabble in the lake; the wrought iron fence keeping me from the water was warm in early June.
When I left the apartment, the sun was beginning to set. Darkness closed in as I watched a group of children herd around the towering monument in the center of the park, two girls in neon pink leggings and tank tops ran past.
To the southeast was the Barcelona Zoo, and a little further north than that stood the Parliament of Catalonia. If I turned around from where I stood and walked straight I would come across a small row of museums; yesterday I strolled through this same park and pointed at a group of kids sitting outside the Museum of Natural Science.
I tapped my nose, “That’s what weed smells like, Jameson.”
Jameson inhaled eagerly, everything Jameson did was eager.
Jameson wasn’t with me this night, he was in the apartment with Amelia and Timothy watching Friends. I strolled slowly around the back of the monument and in the back the park was utterly still, and almost entirely dark.
I could hear the hum of the city beyond the trees and the worn path. Cars honked outside Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf and somewhere a few miles away I knew my classmates were cloaked in weed and drinking themselves sick until daybreak.
My old classmates, now.
At the end of the path I encountered a table tennis tournament. Some played fast, others leisurely. Just behind this was a stretch of grass bordered by two paths. I walked the one on the left, toward the museums, and watched a young couple toss a blue Frisbee between one another.
Two elderly men sat on a bench to my left, conversing quietly. And beyond them, walking toward me, were three men with dark skin. I cannot tell you why the one caught my eye, all I know is for the briefest moment we made eye contact and my heart felt at peace. My fear for my classmates, my anxiety at the future, my longing to stretch that final day with Amelia and Jameson, it all melted away.
We passed one another, and then:
I knew it was him calling and I turned around. He waved and smiled at me, and motioned for the two men with him to go on ahead.
“Hola!” I called and glanced left and right to make sure there were enough people around before I engaged with this man, “Hablas Ingles?”
He walked toward me and smiled the same amazing smile – I thought of Ishmael Beah and my class’ study of A Long Way Gone. “Yes, of course!” He smiled and reached me and I cannot fully explain but there was something about him utterly calm. “May I ask your name?” He asked.
“I – uh – Grace,” I admitted, I didn’t quite see the problem with telling him my first name.
“Grace,” he looked pleased, “A beautiful name – a genuine name. Grace,” He considered the name deeply and then said, “I am Abel, I am from Ghana.” He stood a few feet taller than me, expectantly. “Grace, how long are you in Barcelona?”
“Oh, I’m leaving tomorrow.” I said, which was true. Even if I weren’t, I doubt I’d admit to this guy how long I was sticking around.
“Ah,” His expression didn’t fall, I only caught a hint of remorse and then his smile was back. “Grace, I wanted you to know. I looked at you, and felt the beauty of your soul. You are beautiful, you are genuine.” He repeated those two words again and my insides twisted, what a curious thing to say. Then he cleared his throat, “I am sorry Grace. But is there a way we might stay in contact? Facebook, or a phone number?”
The tension returned to my body and I glanced again at my surroundings, there were still a number of people nearby. “I’m so sorry Abel, but I can’t give you that information right now.” I told him.
Abel smiled again, “You are nervous, I understand. That is okay. I am glad I met you Grace, may I hug you?”
I tucked my hand into my pocket to clutch my phone, and my other hand gripped my purse to swing it. “Yes,” I answered and I gave him a one-armed hug. He kissed my cheek softly, both of his hands gentle against my shoulder blades as he leaned down.
“God bless you Grace,” Abel whispered in my ear and he turned away and continued down the path. I watched him walk away and reassessed that I still had everything, I watched until he had turned the corner and exited the park.
I turned back and I continued to stroll down the path, away from my encounter with Abel. I looked behind a few times, but no one followed me, and the paths I walked remained crowded enough. I wondered how I would describe this to my friends, I was sure as soon as I brought up my soul they would write him off as a stoned weirdo. Which I guess could be true, but he didn’t seem weird. He seemed – well, he didn’t seem normal by any means either.
The further I walked the less real he seemed, the fewer details came to mind of Abel from Ghana. He faded to a strange ethereal memory, someone who stopped me in the park just to say my soul was beautiful.
Abel remains one of my final memories of Barcelona, one of my last true goodbyes after high school (despite our efforts, I saw very few friends before I left Romania and moved back to America, and many of those goodbyes were left incomplete.) When I reflect on Barcelona I think of warm heat and long walks through a bright city and their amazing zoo. I think of waving to Jameson as our taxi drove away and I think of the bright red cake at the last café we went to.
Barcelona was the cool wind at the beach and watching Amelia’s arms on Jameson’s back. Barcelona was the balcony out the apartment window and sitting in Starbucks just thinking. Barcelona was the plans that fell through and the final days of drama that were so high school. Barcelona was the leather-bound notebook I bought in a store where the air was clotted with ink and the too-sweet vanilla latte from the café across the street.
Barcelona was the beautiful raw joy in Jameson’s laughter and the light in Amelia’s eyes and Timothy’s slurred confusion returning at dawn after wandering the city. The clack of the train and the warmth in the night air surrounded us in days that seemed infinite but were all too finite.
After Barcelona the days whirled by. Hasty goodbyes and late nights packing and long days working. A hundred introductions, half a dozen planes, packing and unpacking and packing again as I cast myself from state to state over the summer. From relatives to university orientation to summer work.
When I look back on high school it seems distant – physically and emotionally. The things we said and the people we were seem different. Now I work on assignments well in advance and my summer job took great strides in combating my social anxiety. My headlong infatuation with a friend seems silly, the things we got worked up about and what we let hurt us seem insignificant. I believe they were important at the time, but what often gets to me is how much more there is left to our lives, how blinded we were to that.
Moving into my college dorm room was the eighth time I’ve moved in my life. It was one of the more significant occasions, but perhaps not the life-altering transition people say it is. It wasn’t moving in on August 24th that set the next phase of my life in motion.
It was everything about the summer. It was my wonderful job and the beautiful weeks with my baby cousin and the joyous celebration of my grandpa’s 90th birthday. It was the eye exam where I was told PLEASE OPEN NEW CONTACT LENSES ON A REGULAR SCHEDULE and it was having my wisdom teeth extracted and taking off for Delaware’s beaches anyway. It was the heat waiting for my friend outside CVS and the anxiety coiling around my chest as an anxious mother yelled at me on the phone in Los Angeles. That transition was about the goodbyes that didn’t happen and the introductions that will last for years to come, it was about three hours of sleep and my dad cracking a smile with, “we’ll be in Malaysia if you need us,” before they drove away.
It all began under those bright streetlights in Barcelona and the sun glittering off the mosaic benches. It began with Abel from Ghana and the sushi place Timothy liked and the realization that we had thoroughly outgrown our classmates. It was crying when we pulled back into the garage after the flight home to Romania – which wasn’t home, really.
It was understanding that those days that couldn’t go fast enough had blurred into new days that went by faster than any of us realized we wanted.
To me, Barcelona was a perfect and imperfect ending to high school and beginning to university. Because unlike the memories in Romania which mold together and are tainted by one another, Barcelona exists solely as itself. As our classmates when not weighted down by academia and a parent’s expectations, as the reality of who we can all begin to become.
-Grace T, October 2017
*All names have been changed for individual’s privacy