Short Fiction: Counting Stars in Sant Andreu
“No, no paella for me, thanks.” The three other American students joined the wait staff in gaping at Kora as if she had just politely declined a blood transfusion.
Their server flailed his arms everywhere and exclaimed something stern at her in Spanish. It might as well have been Dothraki. Kora felt like she was trapped in a silent movie filled with exaggerated gestures and the inability to scream.
“He said, ‘But you’re in Barcelona!’” hissed Pete, the group’s increasingly insufferable self-nominated translator. After a mere two semesters of Spanish, Pete felt he was equipped enough to guide them around the city. Kora suspected that he was simply too cheap to waste Euros on a dictionary, no matter how vital.
“Just ‘cause it’s a big deal here doesn’t mean I have to eat crap I don’t like.”
“She’s right. You shouldn’t waste calories on things you don’t like,” Bradley said, matter-of-factly.
Kora grimaced at her. Bradley was the predictably uptight child of WASPs who had oh-so-progressively given their daughter a boy’s name. What better way to courageously fight gender stereotypes than to saddle your kid with a name that will be forever confusing for teachers, employers, and significant others alike? Kora was all for the evolution of social norms, but she had no patience for a passive ingénue.
“Don’t make a scene. I’ll just get cannelloni or whatever.” Thankfully, most restaurants they ran into had at least one benign dish to accommodate unadventurous American travelers and their picky children.
Marshall frowned at her, tossing his wool scarf over his shoulder with a flourish. It was 82 degrees outside. “Why’d you even come?”
“Well, Gaudi’s architecture is fascinating. Besides, Professor Zheng said seeing it would inform our films,” Kora replied, emphasizing the last word to prove that she remembered Marshall’s rule about only referring to movies as films. He was the unbearable type of media studies major who liked to start his friendships by leaning into the unsuspecting new person and cryptically whispering, “Rosebud,” and who wouldn’t shut the fuck up about the films of the French New Wave. Oh yes, Truffaut, blah blah, Jean-Luc Goddard. Marshall was determined to change the world with a revolutionary exposé on things that everyone already knew but chose to ignore because recycling and taking public transit are hard. His life had been lived a hundred times over, but he was too starry-eyed to see it.
Pete continued to conduct a secret conversation with the server that none of them understood. From their tones, Kora got the feeling that Pete was apologizing for her, but Pete could have just been enjoying the excess laughter that comes with barely knowing how to speak a language. Bradley flirted shamelessly with the mustached man who poured their water; he wore more fashionable clothes than the rest, clearly young, and the iron claw on his left pinky hinted that he was hooked into the underground cocaine scene that Kora had been warned about.
Kora suddenly felt tired. She stared at her plate and let her eyes blur out of focus. 65, 66, 67…She ate her tepid cannelloni in silence, counting every second until they reached their hostel and she could black out until tomorrow. 73, 74, 75…
Pete had ruthlessly scoured Airbnb until he found a charming apartment in Milan, and Bradley’s father had gotten them a hell of a deal on a hotel in downtown Paris, but Kora had, to put it plainly, fucked up. She had waited until the last minute to book their Barcelona lodgings, so it wasn’t much of a shock when they pulled up to their hostel in Sant Andreu and were greeted by three prostitutes out front. Kora wondered if the one with a harelip did well.
“Kora, what is this shit?” Pete heard himself say, dropping his duffel bag.
Bradley was equally nonplussed. “Better pick that up; I bet abandoned goods don’t stay abandoned for long around here.”
Kora took a second to drink in the crumbling façade. This place screamed The Pit and the Pendulum; she could almost hear Vincent Price’s distinctive cackling in the distance. She wanted to remember all of it well so she could describe it in detail to the police after they inevitably found the four of them chained up in the basement. Then she looked at Pete, clicked her tongue once, and started kicking his duffel bag, slowly inching it closer to the entrance. Pete didn’t try to stop her, even after he realized what she was doing. It seemed fitting.
The inside of the building smelled like the exhaust fumes of a laundromat, sort of like carpet, mildew, and detergent had an orgy and didn’t bother to air things out after. Every surface was somehow both clean and dirty; the building had seen many years of someone scrubbing the floors and walls furiously with off-brand cleaning agents that had also slowly stripped the paint away. The walls were so stark that Kora would have even welcomed a “Hang in There!” cat poster.
On the other side of thick yellowed glass, a tired woman who used to be beautiful stared blankly back at them. She had either recently shot up heroin or simply was as disinclined to be there as they. In order to avoid another unintelligible scolding and silent movie scream, Kora silently slid their reservation paperwork through the small opening between the counter and the woman’s glass shield. In order to read it, the woman held wire rimmed glasses up to her eyes without putting them on, as if denying her reliance on them. A few seconds later, she retrieved a handful of keys and slid them back through the opening.
“Room 11. You share with two other. Here are keys to locker 25. Sheets are on bed.” Kora was startled by her deep, throaty voice. The woman reminded her of one of those tired, hunched Russian ballet teachers; she half-expected the woman to ooze some classic Marlene Dietrich-ism about men preferring women who are interested in them over women with beautiful legs.
Pete cleared his throat. “Um, I brought my own sheets. For a twin bed. Are they twins? Last hostel I stayed at, I got herpes from the sheets.”
“Beer and whiskey available in basement. Free,” continued the woman who used to be beautiful, respectfully glazing over Pete’s outburst. She had a business to run, after all.
Everyone seemed to perk up at the mention of gratis alcohol, even if they did need to go to the basement to get it. At least we’ll be good and drunk when we’re kidnapped in the night, Kora thought. She noted the lighting – terrible – and counted the seconds until they reached their locker. 11, 12, 13…
They placed all of their unwieldy belongings in their giant dented locker but kept their passports, phones, wallets, and jewelry on them. Pete kept his items in a money belt he ordered from Skymall magazine, the sort that thieves could spot under a tourist’s shirt in about three seconds. Bradley flaunted her jewelry with the pride and ignorance of a person who could easily replace anything they lost, and Kora kept one hand in her skirt pocket at all times, ensuring that she maintained constant physical contact with her passport and wallet. Marshall didn’t own anything valuable, out of principle.
It was in this way that they presented themselves to the other unfortunates staying in the hostel. Kora noticed four dark-haired boys – all over 18 but too joyful to be over 25 – clustered at a table in the corner of what can only be described as a bomb shelter lunchroom. Everything in the basement was shiny and metallic – tables, light fixtures, intentionally uncomfortable chairs that ensured no one would linger long in them. Maybe this shabby makeshift hostel-brothel had been a school, once.
A fifth boy – slightly older, a man, really – stood over the same table, smoking a cigarette as he observed the others playing some card game. It looked heated, but the playful glints in their eyes made it clear that they all knew each other, and well. The standing man draped his free arm around one of them, displaying a physical familiarity that made Kora feel uncomfortable. She felt even more uncomfortable when the standing man heard her footsteps and looked up at her in response.
Before Kora knew what she was doing, she blurted out, “You can smoke inside here?”
“Sure.” The standing man removed a half-empty pack from the inside of his suede coat and offered it to her. While he held his coat open, Kora saw the glint of what she hoped was a lighter.
“No. I mean, I’ve never – I don’t do that.”
“It’s bad for you. And it’s banned everywhere in the US. Indoors, anyway.”
“Maybe that will make it taste better for you.” He extended his pack of cigarettes again, and this time Kora took one. She visibly struggled with determining the correct end to put in her mouth, so the man took hold of her hand, turned the cigarette around for her, and held it just in front of her lips. Kora recoiled a little, startled by the physical intrusion. She heard Lauren Bacall in her head: “You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow.” Kora opened her mouth.
Bradley had already elbowed her way into the middle of the fray; she knew how to play whatever game they had going and stood to make a killing with her dumb blonde act if they were betting real money on hands. Marshall noisily dragged a chair over from another table, scraping the floor so that no one could possibly ignore his entrance. Pete went straight for the bar, eager to find a way to cope with the situation.
The four boys didn’t speak much English, but some of them made an effort.
“Where y’all from?” Bradley asked coyly, batting her eyelashes and exaggerating her debutante accent as her first plan of attack.
The shortest boy, who wore a brown newsie hat that looked like a gangster had once sewn money into it, perked up at the question. He replied helpfully, “From Nice. We are méchaniciens. Going to Madrid to work on cars – Formula One!”
“Cars? What, like NASCAR?” Marshall scoffed, crossing his arms. “That’s such a waste of gas and really bad for the environment.”
The dealer cocked his head at him, incredulous, his thick, curly hair bouncing slightly with the movement. “What do you know about it, you Michael Bublé-looking motherfucker?”
The prostitute with the harelip came in then, asking them in perfect English if anyone wanted to come outside for a cigarette after she took a piss. The boy whose red facial hair only grew in patches shrugged, launched himself out of one of the shiny chairs, and accompanied her outside. He had marks on the backs of his legs from the chair’s punishing metal grooves, but he didn’t seem to mind. Kora pulled her skirt down so her legs wouldn’t suffer the same fate, then took his seat.
“Have you ever met anyone famous?” the standing man asked, deftly lifting an abandoned chair and setting it down next to her.
“I don’t live in Hollywood.”
“I thought all of America was Hollywood, basically.” He sat.
“Have you been?”
“It’s a landfill of McDonald’s wrappers and crushed dreams, basically.”
“Ah, so you’re a poet. Like Joni Mitchell,” the man mused, emphasizing the second syllables of each name: JoNI MitCHELL.
“More like Dorothy Gale. I’m from Kansas. It’s near Chicago, I guess. That what my dad told me to tell people.”
“Oh sure, tornadoes, the Wizard, Toto.” He waved the list away with his hand, then he looked pointedly at her feet. “Your red shoes, they are where?”
“I left them at home. So I’d blend in.”
The prostitute with the harelip and the boy with the patchy facial hair returned. Her cheap red lipstick was smeared and he was still fastening his belt. The three other boys slapped him on various body parts in a showing of approval, welcoming him right back into the game. Bradley was now wearing the newsie hat and sitting on the lap of the dealer, whose oversized features made him look like he was born with a cigar in his mouth and hopelessly naked without one.
“So, that’s how you call yourself? Dorothy?” the man asked, smiling when she coughed in kneejerk response.
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“Now that is new.”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s only fair.”
The man scratched the back of his head at that, taking time to consider it. He was balding slightly, but Kora thought that was fine.
“Okay. I’m Damien.”
“Like the son of Satan?”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“You know what I mean.”
Damien looked at her and let the left side of his mouth curl up into a smile. “Sure.”
They both started at the sound of someone throwing up. “Jesus, Pete!” Marshall exclaimed, his hands up in a vain effort to keep clear of the vomit that was now all over his superfluous wool scarf. The boy in the green and white striped shirt laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair.
“Aw, get Monsieur Bublé the fuck out of here!” yelled the dealer, who now actually had a cigar in his mouth and had had enough whiskey to enable his true personality to shine. Bradley giggled, but only because Pete hadn’t thrown up on her; that, and the boys had been letting her win all night without knowing that she didn’t need the help.
The bartender, who had the same dissatisfied expression as the woman who used to be beautiful, was now at Marshall’s side, restoring what was left of his dignity with a damp towel. This couldn’t have been the first time something like this happened here. Pete was on another planet, pickling in whiskey, but he seemed to be feeling better. Kora could see that he still had his money belt, so he was probably going to be okay. Marshall, though, might never recover.
“Is that a line?” Kora asked, tilting her head and squinting at him.
“That guy, he vomited.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I know a place. The stars are out.”
“I’ve seen the stars before.”
That was true. The four boys and Pete and Bradley and Marshall and the disinterested bartender faded away, now distant memories of sounds and shapes. The whiskey was strong. Damien smelled like rain and the smoking area outside of a theater, roughly how she imagined Humphrey Bogart smelled on the set of The African Queen.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.” She counted the seconds until they got outside. 42, 43, 44…
After spending a few hours in the bomb shelter lunchroom, Kora was grateful for the feeling of the night wind on her face. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to watch the prostitute with the harelip give some faceless John a blowjob across the street. But she could still hear it.
“There they are,” he said, whispering right next to her ear. His breath felt different from the wind. She opened her eyes to see if he was telling the truth.
“There’re so many.”
“Yes, because you see? There is no moon.”
Kora looked up and the sound of the hooker giving head faded away. Still gazing at the sky, she felt herself reach out and take one of Damien’s hands in hers. It was a little chalky, and his fingers were long and spindly, like those of a violinist.
“Go ahead, count them.”
She snatched her hand away from his. “What?” She felt another silent movie scream coming on.
“You like to count things.” He reclaimed her hand, gently. “The head, it nods when you do it.”
“So what? It’s not like I need to do it.” She didn’t let go, so he wrapped his long fingers over her knuckles.
“I don’t know about that. It helps, I think.”
“Okay. Counting gets me through things. From one thing to the next.”
“Well, what, then?”
He looked at her as if he was surprised that she didn’t already know. “Counting, it’s how you possess the seconds.”
“We can’t own them.”
Damien shrugged, frowning with a smile in his eyes. He knew that she knew he was right.
“The one with the harelip, she does well,” Damien remarked as the prostitute emerged from the park across the street, wiping her mouth. In the glare of the streetlight, she almost looked like a red light district Brigitte Bardot.
“It is exotic.”
“It’s a living.”
“Have you ever…”
“Paid? No. But it is not unheard of here, or in my hometown.”
He gripped her hand tight. “Why aren’t you counting?”
“I don’t think I need to.”
“It’s okay. Go ahead.” He let go of her hand and she felt his presence move away from her.
Kora looked up at the stars, feeling the pleasant familiarity that came with anticipating counting wash over her. Before she could begin, her eyes were drawn to Damien, who had made his way across the street to sit on a splintering bench and talk with the fallen Brigitte. He rested an arm behind her, casually, like they were old friends and the corners of her mouth weren’t crusted over with a stranger’s ejaculate.
Damien just did things. She marveled at how he didn’t seem to think much about it or suffer from the fear of failure that kept Kora from doing so many things she knew she wanted to do. Kora wondered what would happen if she just did things.
She strode over to the bench where they sat. The two of them had stopped talking organically by the time Kora arrived. Damien looked up at her, eyebrow raised, while the prostitute buried her face in her phone. Kora cocked her head sideways and bobbed her head at him once, expectantly, needing him to just get it.
He laughed a little, stood up, and took her hand. “Come on.”
After it was over, he asked her if she wanted another cigarette, but in a whisper. Only after they were basking in sweat did they bother to try to keep it down for the benefit of the two Romanians pretending to sleep in the bunkbeds across the room.
“I was a virgin,” Kora said, as if this was news to him.
“I was, too, once. Do you feel different?”
“No. Nothing changed. Should probably wear off-white at my wedding, though. I’ll call Mom in the morning.”
“No. She likes to plan.”
Kora put her second cigarette out in her third glass of free whiskey, which she hadn’t bothered to finish. Her movements were clumsy; she was still drunk and she couldn’t feel her legs.
“You haven’t told me where you’re going. Or your last name.”
“Does it matter?” Damien said again, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke to the side, away from her face.
“Why not? There’s Facebook.”
“Kora, you’re sweet.”
“Let’s wait and see.”
“What for?” he asked, genuinely intrigued.
“Things change. Maybe you’ll hate the smell of gas and the way you cut your hands on cars every day.”
“For dreams, people put up with many things.”
“You’d like Kansas. There’s still prairie grass by my house. It smells like straw swept clean by a boundless wind.”
“A poet, I told you,” he said again, smiling and leaning in for another kiss. Kora turned away, suddenly uncomfortable with the intimate act despite lying naked next to him. She didn’t know why she still felt shy; after all they had done, there were no more secrets. “You, what do you dream?”
Kora thought of her idol, Julie Taymor, the first woman to win a Tony for directing a musical, toiling alone in the 3am stillness for ways to turn the Lion King masks and puppets at her disposal into greatness. “I want to make movies that change everything.”
“So why wait?”
“It’s one thing to want something, another to do it.”
“So? Do it.”
“You just asked me if it matters.”
“Kora, look; if you wait until tomorrow, it will be tomorrow. And you’ll still be waiting.”
Alcohol and pleasure made her sleepy. “So come with me, then,” she murmured, her eyes drooping. She started counting the seconds until she fell asleep. 27, 28, 29…it wasn’t working. She always had a hard time sleeping in strange beds, and Damien’s body next to hers was too warm.
“Stop counting,” she thought she heard him say. The inside of her head was finally silent. Then she fell asleep.
“There is a certain beauty in the stillness, Sylvie,” Daniel remarked, securing an errant strand of blond hair behind Sylvie’s ear. Sylvie blushed, held her mark, and then Kora let her actors relax while the set dresser added a few more empty bottles of whiskey to the scene. Kora managed an exhausted glance over at the clapperboard in the second assistant camera’s hand; in the course of their five-hour shoot, he had smudged the chalk next to the word Production, which had originally read, Time in Your Hand.
Ever since her directorial debut, Kora had been churning out one after another of her own brand of romantic comedies. She thought of them in almost a scientific way: follow the formula, hire the beautiful people who could act a little and were trending on Twitter, mash their faces together, and repeat. After eight years, it had grown fairly tiresome.
That was, in fact, why she was making this film, and in secret. Kora had funded Time in Your Hand almost entirely out of her own pocket, and there were more than a few people in her life whom she paid to lose their shit over her doing this exact kind of reckless thing. She had kept it mostly quiet, but now they were close to wrapping and the real work was about to begin. She wished she could just shake the collective public and scream, “But this story isn’t bullshit!” into their trash-consuming faces, but her PR people had informed her that things didn’t quite work that way. There was an angle that they were interested in working, however, and the five little words that described it made Kora want to pull her hair out: based on a true story.
Kora liked money and the comforts that it afforded well enough, but she wasn’t ready to give up that piece of herself. Not yet.
For the last three nights, she had started, written, and deleted dozens of Facebook messages. They all started with some hollow greeting that she knew to be woefully inadequate:
Hi Damien Damien, hello Bonjour! Salut, ça va? Sorry if this is weird, but
She could successfully pitch a rehashed boy-meets-girl-but-oh-noes story to a boardroom full of high-powered studio execs with millions of dollars on the line but she couldn’t write out this simple invitation. It was just him. But it was him.
Eventually she sent something short that she worried, later, was too curt:
D - I made this thing that I actually don’t think is garbage. You might be interested. Let me know if you want to come see it. - K
The private screening was in three months; that was a reasonable amount of time for a person to plan international travel, no? But would a reasonable person even fly in, after all those years of distraction and occasional exchanges of electronic pleasantries? Sure. Why not? Why not.
Kora closed her eyes quickly and tightly, trying to fight the pain that came with accidentally applying mascara directly to one’s eye. Formal affairs tended to be far more complex for her than necessary. Chemicals on her face and in her hair, devil peep toe heels that made her feet bleed, designer attire that needed to match (but not too much, for some reason). She frankly didn’t see why she couldn’t just wear her favorite white Sharon Tate shirt with the red star and the old pair of jeans that became her second skin when she was working. If everyone in attendance was uncomfortable, then why were they doing it? Who was the masquerade for, really?
The doorbell rang. She groaned. There were few things she hated more than people who were early, or even on time. Miria was generally great, but Kora thought her assistant should’ve known better by now.
Still frantically trying to claw the mascara out of her eye, Kora threw her whatever-brand-was-hot-now formal purse over her shoulder and stumbled to the door. Its excessive sequins scratched at her back; she opened the door and made one grab at readjusting the purse before she looked up.
“I want to come see it,” Damien said, shrugging at her.
She remembered, suddenly, the silent movie screams of her introverted youth.
“Well, I’m going to murder Miria,” Kora said, 100% certain that her assistant was responsible and that she now wouldn’t be able to avoid the press’ questions about based on a true story with Damien on her arm.
“It’s not all her fault,” Damien offered.
He grinned mischievously at her, stepped on his cigarette, and held his arm out to her. She sighed and drank him in with gleeful resignation; deep in her gut, she knew this moment should be filmed, lest it be lost to time. Something about “here’s looking at you, kid.”
Copyright Alexandra Lucas 2016