Courir jusqu’à New York
by Nicolas Ancion
English translation by Sofia Cimon
for Qabiria Studio
Running to New York
(Well, that’s just the temporary title. If you don’t like it, tweet about it!)
Having two lungs and set of legs is not enough to run; what’s most important is a good reason to get going. Generally, when someone speeds up, we think they’re trying to get somewhere faster, that they’re in a rush. Yet nothing is farther from the truth. We only ever run away. We only run really fast when it is from ourselves.
I am not pounding the pavement in worn runners, panting and sweating to get home faster. How stupid would that be? Home is where I left from. No: if I run in circles between both fortifications of Carcassonne, it is to expel the gunk out of my lungs. Because I want to feel my t-shirt drenched in sweat. To empty my mind completely.
This morning, I received a kind of letter you don’t receive often in the course of a lifetime. Maybe once, if you’re lucky. Or twice, ok, but never more, that’s for sure. It had been sent from Spain. I thought it was a bit sad that the stamp was priced in euro, like everywhere else, and not in peseta. But the post stamp left no room for doubt: it was from Barcelona.
I don’t know how you feel about Barcelona, its wide avenues and stately homes, the sea licking the edge of the city, the unfinished cathedral with monstrous looking towers. Personally, I must admit “it’s complicated” between me and Barcelona. I’ll explain, but later. My body is getting tired after going thrice already around the fortifications. You would have to see them. On the right, majestic ramparts over ten meters high with towers made of big stones topped with pointy little roofs looking like Chinese hats made of slate. On the left, the lower fortification blocks the view of the landscape. Vineyards stretch miles on end, as far as the eye can see, split, further down, by a river, even older than the bridge over it.
I went running to lighten my mind but I am only feeling heavier and heavier. My thighs feel like a ton, my calves are tight. I probably hoped to run fast enough to lose myself, but I am still here.
So is the letter.
It was signed by a man named Ramon Perez Arribas. You can imagine how shocked I was. Or not, you can’t imagine, because you don’t know yet that my name is Miguel Perez and that Ramon is, or rather was, none other than my now deceased grandfather, as he so carefully explained in his letter, meant to be sent to me after his passing and that I received this morning.
Don’t assume that I was saddened by my grandfather’s passing: I wasn’t at all. Without news for over twenty years, I thought he was long gone; never that he would reach 92 years old. Who knows, maybe a vile temper and burning bridges with one’s family can be a fountain of youth.
Speaking of bridges, I am nearing the main gate. My t-shirt and hair are soaked. All I want is a nice shower and a bottle of water. Past the drawbridge, I turn left and take small steps down to the center of Carcassonne.
You must wonder why I am writing to you now after so many years. It is, quite simply, to let you know that I have died. This letter was sent to you by my attorney following my last wishes.
When I left France to return to Barcelona in 1979, I was hoping to recover the house your grandmother and I had left in 1939 after Franco took the city. I took all administrative steps, even negotiated with the new occupants, but nothing worked. Everything was lost. I should have done like everyone else, bowed my head, and accept the dictatorship.
You don’t know me but let me tell you, that wasn’t my type. I did not have much money, I wasn’t that young (I was already 56 when I returned to Barcelona), but I decided to start a business. I had kept good relationships with some French winegrowers. Over fifteen years, I earned my fortune selling expensive wine. Although I was never able to recover my parents’ home where I had spent my childhood and met the love of my life, I bought a villa, which you were never told about, overlooking the Gracia quarters. It has a superb garden with lemon and orange trees. I don’t know if you have children, but they could play in it throughout the year. The beach is nearby, and life is easy.
It would be unfair to simply let you inherit the house. You are your deceased father’s only son, but I had two. Your uncle Alejandro is likely still living somewhere in the States. He and your father did not get along, as certainly know, I never had any idea why they hated each other so much. I didn’t speak more to your uncle than to your father. I haven’t been able to find him, but I know he has a daughter, Ana, who must be about your age. I am old, I don’t know anything about the Internet, and have no interest in hiring a private detective to find my son and granddaughter, who I have never met.
You have to do it. I gave specific instructions to my attorney. If you find family in the United States and bring them back to Barcelona, you will inherit the house and much of my assets. Everything else will go to your cousin and uncle if they agree to make the trip.
Nothing saddens me more than the family having been torn apart. If you can bring together both branches of the family tree, you will live a long and happy life in Barcelona. If you can’t, my wealth will go to my wine-import business, which I have left to an old business partner. To get you going even faster, I specified in my will that you have a month to meet my attorney, until he considers that you have called up your search.
You may be thinking I have lost my mind, which is not impossible. If you knew me, you would know that I am actually crazy, and have been for a very long time.
Life is only worth for the crazy moments, when losing control makes us feel our own heart beat, as I do signing this letter to be handed with my will to my attorney.
Good luck. I hope with all my heart you will succeed in finding your uncle and your cousin to bring them back here, in Catalonia, for the opening of my will.
I trust you.
P.S.: Please fin enclosed two photos of the Barcelona villa to give you idea of what to look forward to. Good luck!
Coming out of the shower, I can’t avoid glancing at the two photos. The first shows the superb façade of a large house with big white windows over a shadowy garden. It must date from the late 19th Century, when the middle class still had a taste for beautiful stones and enjoyed unlimited construction budgets. From the patio, steps made of stone lead to a garden, looking more like a park.
The second photo was taken inside the house. In front of a marble fireplace, two leather chairs seem to be waiting for the next thick novel to be read, or another endless scarf to be knit. On the mantel, a large mirror reflects a dark wooden bookcase filled with old books. I can hardly imagine a better incentive for a guy like me, who spends his Sundays in flea markets digging for old books in dusty crates. If Ramon wanted to lure me into this quest, he could not have found better bait than rows of old leather holding together thousands of pages.
In another life, I think I would have like to work as a bookbinder, to spend days on end surrounded with books so loved by their owners as to pay to protect them against the passing of time. Yet, I only work in an insurance company, not even selling contracts (I am not much of a smooth talker), just staying put behind my desk spending days processing, stamping, stapling and copying. I send letters and faxes and I wait for each day to come to an end.
When the evening finally comes, I can sit with my books, stare at them for hours and photocopy. The most beautiful, those with the old engravings of wild animals, exotic tribes or maps of faraway lands with forgotten names, are posted on my blog, my own little passion. Maybe it was my first inheritance passed down by my grandfather, unbeknownst to him. We both love beautiful books and wonderful wine.
Toweling my hair off, I think how said it is to discover that a person so close was so captivating, without even knowing him. I have no memory whatsoever of this grandfather returned to Barcelona. In the family album recovered from my deceased father’s apartment, I only found one photo of my grandfather, on the very first pages, standing in black and white in front of a fountain with my grandmother and the brother I have never met. My father is four or five, and his brother seems eight. The photo bears no mention of a date or place. It must have been taken in the area. I recognize the how the light of the South squints my grandmother’s eyes. I know she died at the end of the century. My dad went to her funeral alone in Catalonia. I knew her so little that I did not even feel I had to take a day off work.
I regret it now; had I gone, I would have met my grandfather. I could have talked to him about books, I could have seen his house. Did my dad say anything afterwards? I have no idea.
I lay the photos on my desk. I walk to the window. Long stringy clouds rip across the sky, torn apart like my family over two continents.
That’s where I should have started: under the shower. Earlier, I made my decision. I will find my uncle and cousin. There is no way I can pass up such an opportunity. I put up the photos right at eye level on my computer to keep my search focused on why I must find two strangers exiled across the ocean.
I turn the computer on, the fan purrs and the hard drive tickles its metal box. What time is it in the United States? The country is too wide. The Sun runs to its coasts when it gets tired of us. It is probably still night over there. To know exactly what time it is for them, I would have to know where they live.
The speed at which Google provides results is inversely proportional with that of my dusty computer. Just a few minutes suffice to track my uncle. He was an easy target, as the owner of a Soho restaurant in the early 2000s. I find his photo in a restaurant review describing him as a food pioneer, heir to Catalan cuisine and to French tradition. Why did my father never speak about him? In my childhood memories, he played the role of a somewhat bad guy, who had spent years fighting with my father, after stealing and then breaking his toys. No word was ever spoken about his cuisine.
After two hours, I know I will never find him anyway. He threw himself under a metro on a December night in 2005. His suicide was briefly reported in the media as the reason for his restaurant closing. What if the daughter has also died? Who will I have to take to Barcelona attorney to bear witness? Unfortunately, I find nothing.
All I have left to hope is to be able to find my cousin.
The first blow to the jaw is always the worst. After the sight has gotten blurry, the pain slowly makes its way to the brain, and the skull starts pounding. Before you have any time to recover, the second blow hits, generally in the gut. You fold onto yourself, and you drop to the ground just long enough to take a knee in the nose or an elbow in the back of the neck.
After you’ve curled up on the ground, there is nothing to do but to wait while all hell breaks loose on you. Roberto knows it always comes to an end, sooner or later.
- This is just a warning, yells the bigger of his aggressors, while the small one shuffles through Roberto’s pockets.
Roberto guesses that they always attack in pairs and that their kind never travels alone. He would do the same.
He feels hands on him searching for his wallet. His entire body is in shatters. Pain permeates his whole body like cold air on gates at the train station. The worse is now over; the storm is blowing away.
- Roberto! says the big one a few inches from his bleeding ear. You have two weeks, get it? Two weeks and that’s it. We know where you live, we know your family. If you don’t pay up, we won’t get you, we’ll get them.
Silence returns to the back alley. The attacker starts chewing loudly enough that it sounds as though his mouth is measuring the passing of time.
- And we have no reason to spare them. Get it Roberto?
- There’s nothing in his wallet, T.J.
- So how about you feed it to him, just for fun.
Trying to fight back, Roberto turns his head from side to side, but the smaller man stuffs his wallet between his lips and presses so hard that Roberto’s jaw almost dislocate. A wave of nausea moves up from his stomach.
When they start laughing, Roberto wishes he had strength left to jump at their throat and pull out each of their teeth one by one. But he can barely open his swollen lids after the sound of his attackers’ steps fades in the night.
Without any control over his muscles, Roberto is unable to stand up, and shuts his eyes for good, resolving to sleep right there in the gutter until things get better.
Unfortunately, things never just simply get better. As a matter of fact, they often get more complicated and generally worsen. Possibly for the first time in his life, Roberto wishes to see the police appear in the backstreet, and hopes a patrol brings his attackers in for a night in custody. This, without alleviating his pain, would have made it more bearable. He drifts into a dream where he has no smashed head, no nosebleed and no black eyes.
The cold is tiring, but so is seat’s foam too worn to protect the butt, and the unbearable engine noise that cannot be escaped. Tarek shivers in his overalls and neon jacket, despite his multiple layers of clothing and two pairs of socks in his reinforced boots. Nothings seems to block the damp air of the river from freezing his blood every morning until the smoldering Summer. But Tarek loves his job. Before driving the sweeping machine, he was a garbage man and collected garbage on foot. Although he never complained and enjoyed talking to people on the street, as a way of meeting people, he doesn’t miss his broom and his shovel, perched on his elevated seat overlooking at the rotating brushes sweeping the streets and gutters. Not even when he must cut of his engine to pick up a drunk sprawled right in his track on a backstreet corner right under the emergency ladder of a formerly red brick building to pick him, only to realize his head has been smashed and is now sitting in a puddle of blood.
No regrets, even when he has to drive the bum in his machine in the middle of the street to the hospital, where an EMT asks why he has a wallet in his mouth, and when nurses asks him to fill a form after bringing him in.
At that point his only regret is to be unable to read. So he hops back on his machine and looks at the time. He has already wasted too much time with this loser. He has to go back to work. Unless it’s cleaned regularly, New York is a disgusting city.
Miguel Perez is sitting in his living room. He almost bought a plane ticket for New York City but stopped right before entering his credit card number.
He’s tracked Ana, who lives in New York City just like her father. He’s found no photo of her online, only a partial profile on a professional networking website. It has no email address, but the site provides a messaging system for members. Within minutes, Miguel registered. But then, is at a loss for words.
Where to start?
He is quite proud of his search, thinking anyone not as familiar with the ways of the web, less experienced with search engines and searching bargains online would have, long before him, exhausted all tracks and ideas, and ultimately given up.
His searches are like his runs: restless and single-minded. He never stops before reaching his goal.
But sitting on the couch, he ponders. Information in hand, he may be an email away from a major blunder. How to explain simply to his cousin what he expects of her? Can he just show up in her life and ask her, albeit politely, to hop on a plane to Barcelona? Could a few words of introduction and explanation convince this perfect stranger to do anything for him? It is highly unlikely, and he can’t resist an attempt.
Dear Ana, dear cousin
You have probably never heard about me, or even known you had a cousin. But here I am.
My name Miguel Perez Arribas, the son of your uncle Raul, who you may never have heard of either. Apparently our father’s didn’t get along much. It’s no big deal, let bygones be bygones : we should not bear the weight of old disputes.
I am planning a trip to New York. Do you think we could meet? I would love to get in touch.
Do you have children? I am a young old man, like we say in France. I never married and have no children. I live in the South, in Carcassonne. It’s very pretty town, but tiny in comparison to New York. I work in insurance.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Your cousin Miguel
Immediately after hitting “Send”, Miguel feels as pumped as a tire getting some new air. He craves sauerkraut, an hour run, and he could actually jump into the Atlantic to swim across the ocean. Pacing in his apartment, he can’t even watch TV. He ends up grabbing his jacket to hit the pavement.
The cool air slapping his face is exactly what he needed. Slowly, his ideas fall into place: it is obvious none of this will lead anywhere. But who cares? Searching only took up one Saturday.
The thought lingers until Sunday morning, while he digs in piles of books, until Sunday night, when he checks for the hundredth time whether his message garnered a response.
Of course, nothing. That would be too easy if those few words were enough to counteract years of being strangers.
On Monday morning, Miguel has no desire to go to work, only three blocks from his house. The sun is already shining behind the trees on the boulevard. He raises his eyes to catch sight of an airplane in the blue sky. As usual, it belongs to a low cost airline and is too weak or not reliable enough to be flown outside of Europe or over the ocean, least of all to New York City and his cousin.
Mondays at work are always the worse. Not only must he catch up with all the messages sent during the weekend (sixteen on the agency’s answering machine), the long string of faxes and the infinite number of emails, but also listen to the unbearable weekend tales of his colleagues. Each new week brings the same “incredible” stories that are nothing but boring in reality. They tell, brag and specify how they cooked the sauce, where they stopped the car, what bait caught the fish. During their few seconds in the spotlight, they never notice eyebrows rising or forced smiles of the audience. For once, Miguel has a real story to tell: not funny, not ridiculous, but extraordinary. Precisely, too extraordinary to be shared with the colleagues he so hates.
He remains quiet near a shredder as it destroys forty-three pages of an old compensation file, in hopes to finally forget the office chatter.
At three o’clock, the incredible finally happens.
You must be lucky: I never come to this website, but I got an email telling me you sent me a message.
Do I remember you? I have a photo of you with your parents when you were little, sitting on the dash of a car (a Renault!). I got it after my father died a few years ago. It was a very difficult time.
I have no siblings and no cousin on my mother’s side. I would love to meet you! When are you coming to the US? If you come to New York and if you want to see the real city, you can live with us in Harlem. It’s very different from Carcassonne! We have a guest room so you can come whenever you want.
As for me, I work in a call center. I manage the administration and the appointments of medical doctors. My boyfriend, Roberto, works with computers, he is also of Spanish descent. He’s very nice.
It was great to hear from you.
Less than two hours after receiving her response. Miguel asks his boss for a week off. He’s accumulated so many days off he could take a whole month.
- A cousin! Says the boss. I have about ten and I could live without about half of them. If you want more living next to your house, you can have mine.
In the evening, Miguel buys the cheapest flight he can find, via Munich, and jumps around with joy in his apartment after the transaction is finalized.
Nothing seems to settle his excitement; he needs a run. In a shapeless red shorts and a white t-shirt, small strides take him on the boulevard around the fire station, before he speeds to the Aude river that runs across town.
He could easily run hours on end on this favorite itinerary of flat, peaceful and shadowy terrain, lost in his thoughts and immersed in the constant movement of his body.
He, who has never left Europe or spoken English with anyone else than lost tourists and has hardly ever slept in any other bed than his own, is now set for a seven hour flight to America and his skyscrapers, burgers as big as watermelons and the probable effects of jet lag.
Maybe in a few months, he will be sitting in his beautiful new home, with thick novels on his lap and a glass of Spanish wine in his hand, listening to the faraway Barcelona bustle under the smoldering sky. His feet are numb, and he feels like flying. Needing a tougher challenge, he crosses the Old Bridge, picks up some speed and runs up the hill to the Medieval city. With that much stamina, he could run to New York and Harlem without even catching his breath.
I took the day off for your arrival. A visit from across the pond is quite exciting!
Please forward your flight information, and I will pick you up at the airport. I can’t wait to meet you!
See you soon,
There is no use in meaningless details: the white wine going to his head and the spilled coffee after the in-flight meal, the endless customs line, the search by a rough-looking agent who gets a giggle out of his perfectly pressed socks folded in pairs. What’s important is the piece of paper with Miguel’s first and last name, held horizontally by a tall brunette smiling from ear to ear when he comes out of the gate.
- Welcome to the United States, Miguel.
He can’t decide between dropping his suitcase to kiss his cousin, or just smile without slowing his pace. Pushed by the crowd of travellers, he carries on and gets out of the way.
- I’ll get your suitcase, says Ana
- No, I need the exercise, I’ve been sitting for almost eight hours.
- It’s this way.
She leads him to an elevator.
In the metro to Manhattan, Miguel realizes he had expected a car ride, not to be picked up and taken to the metro.
During the hour-long commute, Ana is often silent, with a toned down, somehow smaller version of the smile she bore when she greeted him.
Riding well into the city’s outskirts, Miguel looks at the rows of brick buildings, the straight streets, hanging streetlights, wide sidewalks and the rows of unknown storefronts. Underground, he observes commuters: tired, worn out, and bloated, nothing like what he imagined to see in the United States.
It is on top of the metal staircase, that he is first shocked by the city and the fragrant and spicy asphalt aroma, crowds, exotic lines of the cars, and the houses with so many outdoor staircases to the ground floor. They have to walk several minutes, paced by the wheels of the suitcase wheels bouncing off the cracks in the sidewalk, to get to Ana’s decrepit building.
- I’m sorry, the stairs aren’t very clean but…
She doesn’t finish her sentence, but after taking his first step into her sixth floor apartment, Miguel wants to add any of the following:
… her place is even more disgusting
… I’d rather sleep on the doorstep
… at least it’s probably too dirty for cockroaches and rats.
Miguel stands silent in the door, almost reassured by the staircase. Staring at the dusty studio furnished with only a broken table, a clothing rod and a large double bed, surrounded by piles of clothing and covered with dirty dishes and a laptop computer held together by duct tape.
Two windows open on a blind wall and a dozen air conditioning systems.
- The bathroom is in the hallway, says Ana as if nothing was more natural.
- And the guest room?
- The guest room. In your email, you said you could have me over…
Ana suddenly stares intently at a dust bunny. She doesn’t say anything.
- Ana ?
- Oh, yeah, right. No problem. I can borrow a mattress from a friend.
To put it where? Michel wonders. On the piles of clothing or in the hallway?
He’s dying to ask her why she bothered offering him a bed if she didn’t have the space. He easily could have booked in a hotel. It would actually have been a very good idea
- Make yourself at home. I’m going to get us something to eat. Make yourself comfortable
Even if he tried, he couldn’t make the place any messier. Just as he is about to joke about it, the door slams. She is gone.
Miguel doesn’t quite know what to do. Open up his suitcase? He has nothing to put away and couldn’t even put his toothbrush on the tiny sink filled with dishes, or even less in the shared bathroom. Looking over the studio, he tries to understand. It’s not really lacking storage space, just organization. It looks like a human dwelling inhabited by wild animals. Miguel understands that if his cousin lives in such dire premises, chances are slim she could afford a flight to Barcelona. He will have to front her ticket until she pays him back after cashing in on her share of the inheritance.
Suddenly, the apartment door opens, interrupting Miguel’s nap on a chair near the sink. Ana comes in with a man wearing old black jeans and t-shirt. He has bloated cheeks and puffy under eye circles, and yellow, purple and red bruises.
- Miguel, meet Roberto
- My pleasure.
- Hi, says Roberto while shutting the door. So you’re the cousin?
Before Miguel has time to respond, Roberto pulls a bottle from under the sink, grabs two dirty glasses and rinses them in water.
- Sorry dude, I have no wine, just whiskey.
- No problem, I am not thirsty anyway.
- Not thirsty? You don’t need thirst to drink. Come on, have one. Don’t be a pussy.
Handing him a tall glass of whiskey, he chugs his in seconds.
- To friendship between Spain and America!
Miguel hesitates for a few seconds.
- You don’t drink? he asks Ana
- I can’t, I’m pregnant.
She turns to her boyfriend, who softly strokes her face before turning to Miguel.
- You don’t like whiskey? Sorry, but I’ll leave vodka to Russians and I can’t afford brandy.
Miguel dips his lips in the glass and takes a small sip.
- You don’t need to make it last, it’s not a vintage. It’s cheap liquor.
- Leave him alone, says Ana, sounding slightly amused. Can’t you see he’s exhausted?
- You want to sleep? Take our bed, Miguel, no problemo. I have some shopping to do.
He turns to Ana:
- Did you get some money?
- Shoot, I totally forgot. I was too busy thinking of picking up Miguel.
- Would you happen to have 20 bucks, cousin? asks Roberto, totally casual.
Miguel wonders what the 20 dollars are for. Whiskey?
- I’ll pay you back today when we go down to eat, promises Ana.
The money doesn’t bother him as much as the idea. Miguel would never dream of borrowing money from a new houseguest, or from anyone.
Reluctantly, he hands him the money. Roberto thanks him warmly, asking whether he intends on finishing his whiskey and, after getting a response, drinks it straight up and runs down the stairs.
After a long silence, Miguel asks:
- What happened to him?
- He fell off his bike. He bumped into a sidewalk and flew over the handle. Maybe he’d been drinking. I would never ride around here, it’s too dangerous.
- I would never drive a car, adds Miguel
- But it’s easy, the streets are really wide. Not like in Europe with the narrow streets. It’s been forever since I’ve been, I’d love to go back.
Here’s my chance, thinks Miguel. I only have to seize the opportunity.
- You’d like to come to Europe?
- Oh yeah! She smiles just like she did in the airport.
- I may have a good reason for you to come, if you want.
- Really? Her eyes are as wide as limousine wheels.
The door opens to Roberto looking grim.
- Ana, darling, we have to go get the mattress.
- You don’t have to. I won’t bother you any longer. I’m going to go to a hotel. It was very nice of you to offer.
- The hotel? This isn’t good enough for you?
Without thinking, Miguel backs off, raking his brain for something to say, but to no avail.
Roberto fidgets as if he were clutching his fist before throwing it in someone’s face. He gets close to Miguel.
- I’m kidding dude! You can go to a hotel. We just wanted to get to know you better.
Whew, that’s better, although the humor of Miguel’s hosts somehow escapes him. He sinks in a chair with metal feet and a molded plastic back.
- I need to talk to you for a minute, says Roberto to Ana.
- I can leave if you want, offers Miguel.
- No worries, you stay here. We’ll go outside.
Even whispered behind the closed door, Miguel can hear the tone of the argument. They both return, looking concerned.
- Is there a problem? asks Miguel
- If there only was only one… answers Roberto, before walking to the window, raising his eyes in search for a bit of sky, and asking Miguel:
- How much money do you have with you?
Miguel is aghast. He knows exactly how much but has no intention of telling Roberto.
Slowly, Roberto walks towards him. Ana, cross-armed on the bed, stares at the wall as if counting tracing the mold with her eyes.
- It’s a simple question, his eyes locked in Miguel’s.
- I don’t know.
- How much can you take out of your card?
Miguel is losing control over the situation.
He is not lending money to anyone and he urgently needs to find his way out of the situation.
- If you need money, I think I know an easy way to get it.
Roberto stops and looks incredulously at Ana:
- Easily, without risk?
- Of course, says Miguel, glad to get back the upper hand. It’s an inheritance. There is money for you in Barcelona. Ana’s and my grandfather has left us some money, on the condition that we agree to get it in Spain.
- An inheritance? When were you planning on telling us?
- I don’t know. Now?
- Wait, says Ana. It’s not your money, Roberto. It’s my money. And Miguel is not your cousin, he’s my cousin. Right Miguel?
He agrees without speaking a word, wondering how much time he needs to grab his suitcase and get out the door, and whether the two basket cases would catch up with him. He really wants to risk an attempt, but that would mean definitely giving up the house in Catalonia.
- This is my apartment. So what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours? Why do you have to make everything complicated?
- I make things complicated? Have you even looked at yourself since you’ve fallen off your bike? I have to live with this, day in, day out.
OK, forget the suitcase, thinks Miguel. I don’t care to lose a couple of boxer shorts and neckties.
Roberto grabs Ana by the neck. His right hand is fidgeting again, as if he was working hard not to slap her in the face.
- We don’t even know how much is the inheritance, hisses Ana. For all we know, there is no money, only debts. Like your inheritance. If you had heirs, they’d only get empty whiskey bottles and a ton of debts.
Miguel has made up his mind. He grabs his chance and tries for the door, turns the handle and pulls. It doesn’t budge: it is locked.
In normal circumstances, waking up means stretching out, opening the eyes, recognizing the familiar dwellings where one has fallen asleep, and yawning until one has found the energy to stand up.
Miguel comes to with a throbbing temple and a screaming shoulder. His eyes open on a dusty wooden floor and an open garbage bag where something is obviously moving. A rat or a mouse? He’d much rather not know. Slowly, he crawls to the door, avoiding the bag. He looks around: no one is there. He pieces together his memories, two brutes in dark clothing, the cousin he’s just met, and her boyfriend with the smashed head.
He’s not crazy enough to linger another minute.
Miguel gathers up his strengths and sits on the floor. Slightly dizzy, he looks at his watch, still in French time, which doesn’t help much. He takes a deep breath and crawls on all four to the table, pulls himself up and proud to be able to maintain his balance.
Next: take the suitcase and go.
Two very simple tasks, if they are accomplished in the right order. First, get the suitcase, then, run down the stairs to the street and hop on a cab.
It all seems so simple.
Suitcase in hand, Miguel passes what remains of the doorframe with a sigh of relief, aiming for the bottom of the stairs. Even after countless mistakes made in the last few days, he’s going to make it. No hurry…
He slowly goes down with great care not to make any noise, but muffled voices arise from the staircase. Reason for concern? Certainly not. Six apartments on each of the six floors, certainly account for a great number of people who could be whispering. Miguel stops, pops his head above the ramp and looks down.
He could swear he just saw a face that quickly eluded his sight. Voices have quieted, and each passing second seems to thicken the air, as though the dampness and the silence made it perceptible to the touch.
Miguel’s bad feeling doesn’t dissipate. He just wants to get out as quickly as possible and disappear in the urban maze, out of this dark area and into the real city.
Oh well. He’s not going to spend the night in the staircase. He grabs his suitcase and goes down the first flight of stairs.
On the second floor, cops burst out of nowhere: on the floor above blocking the way and below the staircase. Miguel doesn’t resist: he has done nothing wrong. He smiles to them and tries to walk past them.
A police officer with a mustache starts reading him a long list that bears a faint resemblance with a poem he had to learn at primary school, so long ago ne can’t even recall the title.
Two words stand out: under arrest. That, he understands.
- I’m sorry. He drops his suitcase to the ground. I haven’t done anything. I am innocent.
Innocent, you bet, as if we weren’t guilty since birth. After landing the day before, he is now arrested in a dirty Harlem apartment, wondering what they have against him. They don’t tell him anything. Well, not in a language he understands. Before fully grasping what is happening, Miguel Perez Arribas is driven in the back of a police car to the Harlem police station.
They take his shoelaces, belt, papers, watch, suitcase and phone. With no further question, they throw him in a cell with men who seem to know the place well. Maybe the Harlem police offers a discount after ten visits. The men around him all seem to be regulars. Miguel is hungry and thirsty. He would ask for a drink but has a feeling that the less he asks, the more he will get.
He sits on the long bench, at the very end, near a tall black guy without shoes who carefully peels off dead skin with two left fingers. Another old man wearing two snow jackets hums while standing on only one foot, obviously belonging in a mental hospital rather than in a prison cell. And why not take the guy who’s “interviewing” all his cellmates with his air microphone? At least this one has a name: Erik.
Miguel longs for a cozy bed, a warm consulate or a private jet to France, or why not in a palace with a view on the Hudson River, or a run on the Carcassonne fortifications. Everywhere but in this horrible damp room between calloused feet and drunken howls.
Hours go by, slowly, without music, without anything. There is no escaping himself, exactly like at a funeral, his own funeral. When Erik approaches him for his interview, Miguel tells him he doesn’t speak English. “Neither do I” responds the crazy, walking away talking about crack and child abuse.
A policeman yells his name with such a perfect accent that Miguel almost hears the voice of his own grandfather.
He is lead to a small office where a rotund police officer asks him in Spanish:
- We can question you in Spanish if you want. We currently don’t have a French interpreter.
Miguel agrees, and he is taken to another office for questioning.
He is simply accused of drug trafficking (his suitcase contained twelve grams of crystal meth, a popular drug in the neighborhood where he was to lodge) and murdering a dealer by gunfire four weeks prior.
Miguel Perez Arribas has the weight of the Empire State building pushing down his shoulders. He doesn’t know where to start. Deny everything? Claim his innocence? Would it not be easier to plead guilty and to accuse himself of killing JFK and attempting to kill Ronald Regan? He would be deemed insane and… end up in jail with all the others but with a chemical straitjacket. Four weeks ago, he wasn’t in the US. Of course, this would not clear him of the drug charges.
- What about a lawyer? Do I not have the right to an attorney, like everyone else?
The cop shrugs his shoulder and informs him that because of a phone problem in the cell area, he will have to wait to make the call. Miguel has nothing better to do.
- We said we were bringing him here to extort him some money, yells Ana to Roberto, who has his back to her.
He carefully inspects the studio door, so beaten that it will have to be replaced entirely.
- And? If we wanted money, it was to pay back my debts, and we’ve actually just erased them.
- Sure, but my cousin just wanted to meet me, and now he’s accused of murder.
- Meet you? He came here because he needed you to get his inheritance. We’ve worked hard enough to come up with something believable. He wanted the money, that’s all, just like you and I. He didn’t have any card in his sleeve like we did, but he wanted the same thing.
Ana stands up and picks up the garbage bag, and gathers some detritus with her hands.
- It makes a huge difference, Roberto. We got him on purpose, and he got screwed over. And now he has to defend himself of something he didn’t do.
- You worry for nothing. I won’t change my mind. You had never met that cousin. You didn’t know him. Why do you care so much that he is in jail?
Maybe because he is her cousin, wonders Ana, swiftly correcting herself. If she chose him to set her trap, it was precisely because her father and grandfather had always taught her to hate him and his family, especially his father. She was hoping to extort him some easy money, at least two or three thousand dollars, nothing compared to the palace he was hoping to get. She was probably right. He believed her, and flew all the way here. They could have gotten a lot of money. If only Roberto…
- Just because he didn’t do anything wrong. You saw he was a nice guy.
- And so?
Ana doesn’t follow the full extent of her thought.
- Would you think it was fairer that police would question me because I lost some bets while I was drunk?
- Twenty thousand dollars Roberto. You gambled twenty grands you didn’t have.
- I was hoping to win them back. I could have won forty if that fucking bulldog hadn’t folded to a stupid poodle.
- You know perfectly well it’s all set up. But you still get high and gamble, as excited like a virgin in a brothel.
Roberto finally turns to Ana, offended. He kicks a pile of clothing.
- You never came
- I don’t need to go to see the outcome.
- And when did they offer to erase your debt?
- TJ told me to meet him, and I didn’t have a choice. Because I didn’t bring the money on time, I had to do something else for him. They wanted me to take the blame for a gunshot murder they have been dealing with for weeks and that they wanted to clear up. They wanted me to go to jail for them.
Ana is sitting on the ground, looking stern. She listens on.
- Then, I thought of your cousin and our plans for him. It was risky, he could not have come here, or sent us the trip money from France, but I thought that between jail and taking that gamble, I still preferred to try.
- And why did you not tell me anything?
- I was afraid you’d freak out and keep him from coming.
- You are so sad. You cover your ass by getting yourself into even more shit. What do you expect? That he’s going to think he must have killed that guy but forgot all about it? For sure he’s going to guess we trapped him, and honestly, beside us, I don’t know whom he can suspect. All he has to do is talk to the cops, give our address and our description. If they find an interpreter, they can easily prove his innocence with his passport. He has an actual alibi.
- You think they’ll come for us?
- I don’t see any other way. It’s the only credible theory. Only we could have incriminated him. I don’t even know how the police got his name.
- Well that one’s simple. I spoke with a couple moles in the neighborhood and I told them I saw your cousin kill the dealer. When the police hear the same story from two witnesses, they consider it as truth.
- And how did they know he was with us?
- Anonymous phone call, form the public phone near the grocery store.
- The one with all the cameras to prevent shoplifting?
Robert clears his throat, lowers his eyes and stares at the floor.
- You called form the grocery shop, hoping they would not see you?
- Well, yes, I think..
Ana sighs, jumps up, walks to the window, and throws an empty can to the street.
It takes so long to fall, as though it would never hit the ground.
Then a metalling bouncing noise six floors down triggers a string of swear words. Roberto laughs, putting his arm behind Ana’s shoulder.
- I did mess up, but it could have worked. And cops can’t always put two and two together. For all we know they’ll really accuse your cousin.
Ana turns around and kisses him, with her back to the window. Far away, a siren calls away.
When they get Miguel from the group cell, he is near fainting. Still as thirsty, even more hungry, he wants to piss so badly that urine feels about to seep through his nose. He can only take small steps to the reinforced steel door, clenching his thighs together.
- Everything all right, big guy? Asks the police officer before putting on the handcuffs.
Miguel has too many problems to give a truthful answer.
- Are you hungry? I have good news for you. Charges have been dropped, well, almost. Someone wants to see you. He says he’s your lawyer but we didn’t let him in.
Miguel doesn’t understand and remains silent.
- Let’s go to the interview room, for your little tête à tête. All right with ya?
Miguel doesn’t know what to expect. One of the apartment intruders in a dark suit? Another stranger come out of nowhere talking nonsense?
With no time left to ponder, he stands before the wooden door with a dirty top window. He can see the outline of a tall silhouette in the room. When the agent opens the door, Miguel comes face to face with Roberto in a tie and rumpled suit of an undefined color somewhere between green, brown and gray.
- Counsel, erm… counsel? asks Miguel
- Zingaro. Your cousin sent me. May we have a word alone please, sir? He asks the police agent.
After the door is shut, Roberto’s expression closes with it.
- Cops don’t believe you’re a lawyer. You didn’t even take a name of a registered counsel.
- Who cares? I’m not here for fun, Miguel. Listen to me because I’ll only say this twice. Got it?
Miguel takes a deep breath and sits on the table, with his feet on the chair.
- You’re in deep shit. Here, they don’t mess with gunshot murder. Your visa to the United States won’t be enough to innocent you. I can get you outta here. I can get the two witnesses who said they saw you shoot retract their declaration. If I can convince them, you’ll be out tonight because I’ll tell them I planted he rocks they found in your suitcase so that they wouldn’t be found on me.
- And then?
- And you’ll be free as a bird.
Suddenly overwhelmed by fatigue, Miguel can only hear his stomach grumbling. He can’t stand any more explanations, from anyone.
- I am innocent. I am willing to go to court, Roberto.
- In three months? Have you ever been in jail? You won’t make it three days. Not even two hours! Jail around here has nothing to do with the luxury hotel you just came out of. You’re pretty cute. You’ll do really well. You know what they call the wedding night, here in New York?
- Ok, what do you expect from me?
- Well, not much. I have a couple phone calls to make before everything is sorted out. There’s only one point we have to agree on.
Miguel rubs his legs. If his bladder doesn’t explode, it’s only because his stomach will blow up first, worn by the acidity of digesting on an empty stomach.
Roberto lingers in silence for a moment:
- It’s only a matter of price. Witnesses can be bought. It’s not cheap but it can be done.
- How much?
- Ten thousand each. I’ll take care of transferring the funds. You give me the money and I’ll launder it. Delivery will be untraceable. It’s like magic. You make an international transfer and I’ll do the rest.
- And how much for your services?
Roberto smiles. Miguel realizes it’s the first time his face lights up this way. Above his dimples, his eyes glisten and his teeth are almost white.
- I want nothing at all, Miguel. It’s my fault if you are stuck in this situation. The least I can do is try to help you, you’re really like family.
- Ana knows you’re here?
- Actually, it’s her who’s sent me. She’d be super mad if she knew what I told you but it is the truth.
- Twenty grand. I don’t know where to find that. It would be easy in France, I’d call my bank, drop by after leaving the station and it would be done.
- Can’t you call them?
- With what phone? They took mine.
- If that’s your only problem…
Dropping a knee to the ground, Roberto pulls a paper-thin phone out of his shoe.
- Roberto Communications at your service..
Miguel takes the phone and stares at the screen for a few seconds.
- I don’t know the phone number.
- It’s not a problem. Here in New York, we have that little thing called the Internet, where you can find just about anything, jokes Roberto.
- You can find it, Miguel.
Without any alternative, Miguel takes the phone back. After three minutes, he has his bank’s phone number.
- Call them and ask for an international funds transfer.
- I don’t know if they’ll do it if it doesn’t go on a bank account.
- If you don’t call, they certainly won’t do it.
After dialing, Miguel puts the phone to his ear.
- No, wait, I’ll put you on speakerphone.
The distorted sound of the phone speaker fills the small room. After a few seconds of silence, a soft woman voice says that the phone has insufficient credit to complete the phone call.
- Shit, says Roberto.
- Don’t worry, if I told you I’d wire the money, I’ll do it. You have my word for it. I’m a good guy, you know it. And I know that you are not the kind of person to let me off the hook.
- You got that right.
- Can you get me out? As soon as I’m out, I’ll send you the money.
Roberto hesitates. If Miguel doesn’t pay, how will he put pressure on him? He’s not short of ideas: hitting him in the ankles with a baseball bat, or asking his back alley buddies, following him in Harlem on a motorcycle. A decision will have to be made, and fast.
A few knocks on the door signal that the interview is over.
The door opens.
- Time’s up, gentlemen. I have to bring you back to your cell, big guy.
Roberto barely has time to slide his phone in his shoes and to stand up, pretending to fix his necktie.
- We had a very good conversation, he says to the police officer who doesn’t even listen.
He’s already reached the hallway, dragging Miguel by the elbow to the dark cell. His prisoner doesn’t even lift his eyes but when he smells that horrible urine stench, he asks the guardian whether he can go to the bathroom.
Miguel makes a beeline to the faucet and gulps a full liter without catching his breath, and then goes to the urinal. He has never better understood the expression to “relieve oneself”.
How did it all start? When did events really take such a turn for the worst? Miguel couldn’t tell. Maybe when he received the letter from his grandfather. Probably when he decided, like an idiot, to fly to New York. There is no way of telling for sure. Maybe everything had already gone sour much earlier, while he was stapling and stamping and had no idea of what was yet to come.
When the wannabe reporter approaches once again, Miguel makes him a place between him and the toe picker. Without waiting for the question, Miguel grabs the air microphone and starts speaking French.
- I don’t know why you’re here guys. I don’t even know why I’m here. It doesn’t matter. I won’t be here long, I’m only passing by. One day I’ll have to be back where no one expects me. So long and farewell. I am sure there’s a place where no one expects you either. Keep it preciously.
- Shut up! Yells a man wearing a beard and sitting on the opposite bench.
It is precisely when the metal door opens.
- Perez Arribas, time for your walk.
My walk? What walk?
Miguel stands up and leaves the cell.
The police captain himself insists on apologizing. The whole affair was nothing but a very bad experience. Both witnesses recanted their testimony, the captain admits it’s increasingly common. They’re not fooling him, he knows they are false witnesses paid to accuse one another for the benefit of a crime warlord or another.
- Our experts determined that the rocks found in your luggage were not crystal meth but colored plastic. They got a chuckle out of it. Nothing illegal, let me tell you. You can bring them back to France.
Just when the captain ends his speech and stands up to shake his hand, Miguel has to ask:
- I am sorry, captain, but I haven’t eaten anything since I landed, and I’m starving. Would you have a banana, a sandwich, a doughnut, or whatever? I’m afraid if I get out like this, I’m going to pass out. I can pay for it, it’s not a problem.
The captain looks at him kindly above his round belly.
- Of course. We would never let a descendent of the Sun King starve! I’ll get someone to get you a bite to eat.
Five minutes later, Miguel is sitting with two police officers in shirtsleeves watching a car chase on TV. They brought him two thick burgers, two servings of fries, a bucket of cola and a tiny green banana. He eats slowly, chews interminably, bite after bite, to avoid indigestion.
- Do you have a city map? He asks the cops sharing his table.
- Of course, chuckles the skinnier of the two, wearing a beard on his peanut shaped face and yellow complexion. It’s on the wall.
Miguel stands up, suckling his bottomless drink while staring at the island of Manhattan
- Where are we, exactly?
The other stands up and shows him.
Miguel bends his right leg back and holds his food for a whole minute, keeping his eyes on the plan. Then, he stretches the other leg.
On the map, Miguel sees he is five blocks away from the nearest metro. When he comes out of the police station, after being briefly blinded by the light, he quickly recognizes the familiar silhouettes of Ana and Roberto sitting on the stairs of a pretty flowery house.
- Miguel, we are here.
Miguel probably thinks he is transparent or invisible, but he stands out on the street. All passers by take long hurried strides to quickly arrive where they will soon after leave.
- So how’s it going? How bad was jail?
- Not as bad as I thought. But still.
- Come on, I’ll buy you a drink to celebrate your release.
After a brief hesitation, Miguel takes a look at Roberto, then at his cousin. Bad idea. They both seem to tighten up like the stakes of poisonous flowers.
- I paid for everything myself, says Roberto. I had to pawn my car.
Such a bad liar, thinks Miguel, his hands clenched on the suitcase containing nothing of specific interest: socks and underwear, workout clothes, nothing supposed to make it that heavy.
- I could use a drink, I haven’t had anything all day. They let me die of thirst. Where should we go?
After sharing a glance with Roberto, Ana suggests a pizza joint, Roberto a bar. Miguel points to a neighborhood restaurant across the street.
- No need to go very far, these guys must have beer.
The trio walks in. Roberto and Ana take the booth near the bathroom, and Miguel drops his suitcase.
- I charged my phone, says Roberto. No more cuts. This time we can call.
Miguel looks at the time.
- I’m afraid the bank is closed at this hour.
Roberto stiffens up again on his booth, his gaze as dark as his dirty apartment’s sink.
- Something tells me you always have a good excuse to avoid it paying. I thought you were a man of your word.
- My word means everything to me, you both know it. I said I was coming to New York, and I did, right?
Miguel feels the tension rising instead of dropping.
- You should both chill, says Ana. Here are your beers. We all need a drink.
A waiter dressed as a fancy penguin in over pressed clothes and a strand of hair on his forehead puts three glasses on the round table. Miguel distributes them.
- Ladies first, he says, putting the first bock before his cousin.
The second goes to Roberto, and he takes the third, raising his hand for a toast. But an accidental elbow movement launches a small beer tsunami to Roberto’s shirt and pants, who reacts with a strand of bad words to vulgar to be printed.
Miguel stands up:
- Don’t move, I’ll grab some paper towels.
Reaching the bar in long strides, he takes a big breath and, without looking back, crosses the double door to the sidewalk. Behind him, he feels like he can hear his cousin’s voice.
Too late, he’s already a few meters ahead. Looking straight ahead, scanning the entire street without turning his head, Miguel barges ahead in the direction he’s studied on the map. Stretching his long legs in high hopes that the lights would work his ways. Crossing the first corner diagonally, slithering between a slow cab and a stopped delivery truck. New York is busier than the fortifications of Carcassonne, he thinks. He hops on the sidewalk, slaloms between two sandwich men promoting bespoke suits and an all you can eat Indian buffet. He has time for neither.
At the end of the street, Miguel understands Roberto and Ana’s panic as they run behind him. Taking a left to a narrow passageway between two shops, he hopes with all this heart to reach anything but a closed courtyard. He is relieved to discover the small garden with a tall wooden gate. After a split second, and hearing footsteps behind him, he decides that turning around is out of the question. Miguel puts his foot on a garbage can leaned against the gate and, with a skillful movement, steps over the fence.
He lands in yet another green area, perfectly identical to the first one, with the same small alley to the street. He sneaks cautiously, all senses keenly aware of his pursuers, almost hearing their footsteps in the alley between shops. Holding his breath, he dashes into the street. They are not there!
His plan worked.
By the time they walk through the gardens, he’ll be long gone.
- He’s here! Ana yells.
She went back into the first alley. Roberto’s swear seems so close that Miguel sprints even faster to the next intersection. He has to gain back his advance.
Long strides, regular breath: Miguel knows how to race. Speed is far from being everything. You have to become one with the ground, understand it, anticipate your efforts and seize the opportunity. A group of teenagers block the sidewalk: Miguel barges in the middle, arms raised like a cycling champion arriving alone at the arrival, yelling in French:
- Move! Move!
The teens laugh as they open the way, looking at him run. They have their back to Roberto, who rolls in their group like a bowling ball onto pins, in full speed. He bounces against a hairy man wearing a cap, recovers his balance by grabbing a passer by, but his head hits another man’s elbow. The impact is such that it can be heard above traffic. Taxis slow down, a biker comes on the sidewalk to check out the scene. Just as he takes off his helmet to mess up his hair, Ana punches him in the face. He drops the helmet, she picks it up and hits the biker who hasn’t recovered his balance. Ten seconds later, she is zooming on his motorcycle between stopped cars up to the sidewalk chasing Miguel, still far ahead.
Slowly, she gets on the pedestrian way in a garage entrance. With a finger on the horn and the other on the gas, she goes straight to her target.
Miguel feels the danger behind. Glancing above his shoulder, he sees the motorcycle just in time to cross the street to the opposite sidewalk.
A few dozen meters away behind, Roberto is trying to catch up, still a bit knocked out. After a moment of hesitation, she doesn’t wait for him and speeds up on the street when she realizes the Miguel is about to disappear in the first street on the right.
She puts the gas to the max, lays on the steer to be more aerodynamic, without seeing another taxi, who hasn’t seen her either, and speeds up suddenly to get the green light. The impact is horrendous, the car hits the sidewalk, the bike falls on Ana, pinning her down.
Roberto runs to the scene.
- You have to get up, Ana, he’s running away. He’s running away with our money.
- It’s too late Roberto, it’s too late. He’s gone.
Roberto lifts his head. His girlfriend was right: Miguel is no longer in sight.
Out of breath, with lungs on fire, Roberto gets back on the chase. Trotting more than running, he glances on the right, crosses the other street just as Miguel, behind him takes small strides after hiding motionless in the dusty entrance of a small hardware store.
He walks away, talking increasingly longer strides and then, when he feels neither Ana nor her abominable boyfriend could see him, he starts running for good, holding nothing back like you run when you know you have won the game, like you cross the field after missing a goal on an impossible set, like you run to hold the one you love after weeks without her, like you run after eluding death.
Miguel barely saw New York. No Statue of Liberty, no World Trade Centre Memorial, no Central Park. Nevertheless, he is happy.
He is alive, standing in the metro, his wallet in his pocket, and credit card in his bag. He has no suitcase and no cousin, and only one thing in mind: getting to the airport as soon as possible and hop on the first plane to Europe.
The house in the hills of Barcelona is long gone. The dream has faded and Miguel thinks that it’s probably a good thing. At that very moment in the metro, in a rumble of wheels and old rails, and wind and straight tunnels, he continues on his path in the belly of Manhattan. He craves calm, a glass of rosé on the balcony, a walk in the middle of the night by the river.
He has his whole life to go back to New York.
There is no doubt that he will be back. He has a suitcase to recover in a Harlem bar.