You raise your head as someone sets a camera down on the bar next to you.
With a knowing finger pointed at the lens, you clear your throat to say, “Cubrir aqui. Bloody arena hacer… cómo se dice—scratches, doesn’t it?” And you are making inane “hhsh,” “zhhsh,” sounds and sharp, linear movements with a nail in the air all the while tapping the neck of the lens somewhat frantically—when you finally look over to see who is settling into the chair by you.
It is a woman, beneath the mop of shortly cropped curls and freshly-pressed man’s shirt and trousers. Her aristocratic nose is inclined slightly upward on her dewy face and her eyes glint down at you.
She looks you over slowly. Your guts make a sudden effort to simultaneously punch straight out of your body and shrink into themselves. Your head is spinning. You wish you had less to drink.
“Your Spanish is atrocious,” she says eventually, in perfect, clean, posh English. She looks away to order a cerveza. Then she reaches into her breast pocket and tosses the lens cap on the bar. You look at her. She looks back.
She does not seem to have any inclination of putting the lens cap on.
The lens cap is the focal point of your vision as the world swims around you. It sits like a personal affront, tickling at the back of the inside of your brain. But it another moment you know you will not touch it. You decide that you are very glad for the amount of alcohol you have had.
“Are you here to photograph the conflict?” you ask.
She looks down at her camera. “The thought has been on my mind,” she says. “I would like to. Really though, I should confess I know nothing about cameras. Took this off a friend before they arrested her. She didn’t want them confiscating it.”
“Yes,” she says.
“What for?” you ask.
She looks over at you again. Her chin juts out defiantly beneath the sharpness of her cheekbones. The light in the bar casts her face in shadows, making it more severe, more…refined. She says, “For leftist student activism. We were in Germany, gluing anti-Nazi posters on the walls by night. They took her one day, said they had questions for her. Released her soon enough, but I haven’t talked to her since. I left Germany. Kept the camera.”
You look down and take the opportunity to casually grab for the lens cap and put it on the camera. You feel a quick spurt of fury at yourself, but the alcohol dulls it and it quickly dissipates into general disappointment. Your head is throbbing. The room is threatening to spiral out of control, so you grasp at something to say: “Why did you leave? Were you afraid?”
She laughs in a quick, loud burst. “No, heartbroken.” She grabs her beer and gives you wolfish grin over the edge of it as if the two of you are sharing a delicious, dangerous secret. You feel the heat creep up to your ears. She licks her upper lip, knocks the rest of the beer down and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. You have to look away.
Your gaze lands back on the camera. You feel unsettled. And, irrationally, somewhat upset. You are not at your sharpest right now, but you swear she has expertly, invisibly knitted an uncrossable distance to herself. Or perhaps she aims for distance from herself. And if she brings you along for the ride she can make it that much more real.
You ask, “What brought you to Madrid?”
“Like any good young Bolshevik, I came to lend a hand in the conflict against fascism.”
“Are you a member of the party?”
She huffs out some air. “No, I belong to no party. But I had some friends from when I was out here to study the language. As an Oxford undergrad. Hardly knew the difference between Communist and Labour parties back then, but I learned quickly. I was there during the Granada student revolts, in ’29. Now I’m here again. It seemed there was nowhere else to be.”
Without your permission your hand is tapping nervously against the camera.
She asks, “What about you, what brings you here?”
“The countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be,” you quote. You give the camera a push to make it perpendicular to the table. Then you put one hand on your empty glass and one under your thigh.
You look at her and say, “I am here like you, to document the Republic’s defense of Spain. But I am here for a lot of things. I am here to prove myself to the newspaper circuit back home. I am here because no one back home wants to listen and I want to wake them up—because Spain is everyone’s fight. I am here because there is beauty in hope and hope in ideals and these Spanish ideals—they draw like moth to a flame.
“And,” you hesitate, but for some reason it feels very important to say it out loud. “Like you, I am running away.”
Your blood thunders hotly in your head, your hands, your knees. You feel the truth of what you said, it fills you. Everything seems to be unfolding, uncurling inside you and around you both. You can almost—
“You are right,” you add, “there is nowhere else to be.”
She smiles and you, you cannot breathe.
“Then perhaps we two escapees can help each other out.” She reaches a hand out. “I’m Alexis Storm. Call me Lix.”
“Randall. Randall Brown.” You stick your hand in hers. And it is a done deal.
Later, as the bodies fall around you and keep falling, you will each question each other, and the war, and why are you here. She will call you a coward, obsessed with making a name for yourself and unwilling to pick up a gun for what you truly believe in. You will accuse her of getting off on the loss of control, the chaos and violence and death. Of being attached to conflict the way you are to alcohol, as you watch her throw herself deeper and deeper without any care for her physical body. And of course after that there is Sophia—
But that is all later.
For now, as you catch each other’s eyes over a toast to a new partnership, you feel as if understanding flows perfectly between you and Lix’s membranes, as if it connects you into a single conjoined organism. As if only your two hearts—right here, right now—beat in the entire world, in perfectly synchronized rhythm. And there is nowhere else to be.