I grip my bag and keep it secure against the front of my body like a pale child; I’d been warned about the pickpockets. My eyes dart and skip as the doors slide shut, and a window is inserted between me and the platform. On it is a reflection. A reaffirmation. My braid, my clothes, my face. I am the odd one out here, a tourist from any cold angle and a wide-eyed Asian still enjoying her unfettered youth, and yet bothered; so trivially and powerfully bothered. The train lurches into movement and the setting behind the window blurs into chaos. A foreign tongue announces the next stop and I don’t understand any of it, but it’s not the destination I’m listening for.
I am spending a day alone in Madrid and riding the subway to a different part of town, pitifully self-conscious of my alien status. New to this country and to life. A double handicap. But no one seems to care.
Some cities you simply belong in. Your home town, of course, but also the new soil which you carefully set foot upon, treading softly until you realize your character and disposition have taken root so gently and seamlessly, much sooner than expected. And in some cities, you’re simply an outsider for a long, long time; maybe forever. It seems that Madrid and I dance like the latter pair. The overwhelmingly passionate social energy is something I would rather sit back and observe, sipping my personal mug of tea.
In some places you belong, and in some others, you remain on the fringe. Or perhaps you are one of those perpetual fringe-walkers.
After a morning of aimless wandering, I push my way to the front of a tapas bar for lunch. They really only sell one thing, so all I have to say is “calamari”—in a half-American, half-attempted-Spanish accent—before I receive a thick sandwich of nothing but bread and deep-fried squid. I munch, standing there by myself, wordless and dumbly staring into space as the men produce sandwich upon sandwich. There’s no one here to impress. I let my hair fall and my fingers get greasy.
I could count the Spanish phrases I know on one hand. But even the hola and the gracias don’t make it through my lips when I browse a clothing store. They stew inside like underemployed Ph.D. holders and only escape through my breath as silent ghosts browsing the earth, the way Korean poetry does, or all the anger I swallow and circumvent. I am afraid of judgement. I am afraid of failure. I hide like a monster from lamplight. Instead of poking my head in with a strained smile, I would rather stand wholly on the outside and look in through the window; confess my foreignness with both hands held up and pray that they speak English.
I find the perfect water bottle on an aisle just out of reach. I do not ask anyone to take it down until someone catches my dilemma first.
But I get through the day. Do things, go places, get through the day. I Google Maps the day. I intuition the day. I walk and walk and walk the day. At least I have time—and healthy legs that will carry me as far as I want.
Despite the stifling heat, I am seized by an uncalled impulse to sit around at a park and read. I didn’t bring any of my books with me, and on another day, I would probably have called it quits and gone back to the hotel. But not today. Today, I find a small secondhand bookstore and duck into the corner labeled ingles. I find something perfect and only a little obscure, which is just enough for me. For three euros, a collection of short stories titled Dislocations.
Trudging to the park, I look down at my phone, where I am suddenly pulled into an uneasy social situation back home. An instant fatigue mounts my shoulders and presses me into the asphalt. An immense tiredness, the fist of an oppressor, a ghost that ties itself to your feet and dances with ceaseless mocking steps. You can’t shake a shadow you invited.
But I turn my phone off and buy an ice pop. You can’t, Madrid whispers. You can’t make everyone happy. The whisper rises to a stirring murmur, coming to me in waves of dry heat. You can’t make everyone happy. So I tell it I know. That’s why I turned my phone off, dear city, dear hot steaming elbowing cussing love-making dancing pickpocketing bar-hopping tapas-crawling city. Thank you.