I’m woken up by the same alarm that has dragged me out from the oblivion of sleep this past week: the blithe voices of children, the footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people who met on the square and wanted to share details about their lives. And I exist at the periphery of all these moments, a speck smaller than all of them.
I sit upright on the bench. The dirty blanket slides down my torso. At least the coat kept me warm enough, because the nights will only get chillier and chillier. And then I’m hit with the same pangs of hunger that I’ve needed to get used to recently. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday at midday, when I managed to snatch some half-eaten food that a family had left at the outside table of a restaurant. At least the waitress didn’t shout at me.
I rub my eyes, and when I blink the sleep away, I catch an old woman giving me a look of pity as she passes by. Even though it must be around nine and a half in the morning, there are already a good amount of children playing happily in the playground at the center of this square, under the supervision of their relatives. I must be an uncomfortable sight, but at least people pay me as much attention as to the garbage bins. While I like that most people ignore me, it’s unlikely for anyone to throw money my way when they’d prefer I didn’t exist.
I have woken up tired for years, but never as exhausted as when I abandoned my boyfriend’s apartment last Thursday. It’s like my brain never shuts off entirely at night, maybe because some part of myself needs to remain alert in case some marauder realizes that I’m a woman. I don’t want to imagine what some of the night crawlers in this rotten world would do to me, but I can’t help but picture those things anyway.
After I pee in the public bathroom close to the imposing cathedral, one of the main reasons I’ve stuck around this area of Gros, I return to my bench and set up my piece of cardboard. If I’m very lucky, some of the many strangers that walk through this square will throw enough coins my way that I’ll be able to eat some breakfast, far enough from other customers that they won’t smell my stink.
As I wait, my mind insists on torturing me with pointless worries. For example, how many of these mornings I’ll have to endure before I manage to write another word, and whether the words that I write will be published this time. I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat today, and I haven’t written anything in a year and a half. Still, that’s what my broken brain focuses on. I have no business continuing in this world, and yet I go on. Is it the same for the veterans, the other homeless that barely remember having lived in an apartment? Do they also wish to disappear, to finally be freed from the involuntary effort of being?
Around an hour and a half later I’ve only gotten three coins of twenty cents. My stomach keeps gurgling, my throat is parched, my saliva tastes like cat breath. I hear footsteps much closer than the other passersby dare to come, and when I lift my gaze, it falls on a woman in her mid twenties who is approaching me with determination. Her long, apple red hair is flowing in the breeze, and both her facial features as well as her slanted eyes evidence that she’s Asian. Plenty of Asians have settled in the Basque Country, mostly Chinese, but this one looks fancier, like those Japanese girls that I saw in videos as they walked around the futuristic streets of Tokyo. She’s wearing a striped, red, navy and white scoop neck sweater, as well as a black pleated skirt that covers her knees. She’s holding a book with her right hand, but with the other she’s holding the strap of a small backpack. When she stops a few steps away, making it obvious that she came for me, I want to hang my head low. She looks so young and full of life. Although I want to ask her to leave me be, maybe she’s a tourist and will consider that throwing some coins my way is her good deed of the day.
I can tell she’s about to speak to me, but I’m stunned by the familiarity in her kind eyes and the slightly raised corner of her mouth, which reveals a dimple under a prominent cheek. That’s not the way you look at a stranger.
“Uh… Hello,” I say with a dry, weak voice.
The girl nods as she drops her gaze to my piece of cardboard. Her sympathetic expression makes me uncomfortable, and it’s the first time that anyone has regarded me as a full human being since I stopped living in an apartment last week.
“That doesn’t look like much. Will you be able to eat some breakfast?”
Her voice is lively and achingly young-sounding, but I’m surprised by the lack of accent. She must have been living in this area for a long time, or was even born here. Perhaps her parents are Basque and she was adopted.
“Not yet, no,” I say ashamedly. “But I might get lucky yet.”
She’s shaking her head as she smiles.
“And what if it doesn’t happen today?”
I can’t help but furrow my brow. What’s this woman’s deal?
“It will. I just need a little more time.”
The woman grins, showing perfectly-shaped white teeth with prominent canines. I would have expected teeth like those in a Hollywood movie, but not belonging to someone who would interact with me.
“I love that you retain hope! It’s important to keep your spirits up.”
“Yeah, it is,” I agree while trying to hide my embarrassment. “I don’t think I would be able to speak one word if I had run out of it. So… did you want to make me feel better at this hour of the morning?”
“I do want to make you feel better, for sure, but not as a random stranger would! My name is Chieko.”
For a moment I wonder if I should have a name, living in the streets.
“Ah… I’m Izar.”
“Chieko Sekiguchi. That’s how you call me.”
She holds out her hand. I hesitate, but I shake it, and she squeezes it warmly.
“I like your name,” she says. “It’s so nice to meet a writer.”
I’m shocked. She knows me, or at least what I have done.
“I like your books, too,” Chieko continues. “Your stories are very beautiful.”
Maybe I should feel better, appreciate that someone who knew I existed and who had taken time to read some of my stories bothered to approach me and treat me with such warmth, but I’m ashamed of having fallen this low, of having become a non-entity. My life is over. Nobody should be interested in hearing about me anymore.
Although I feel light-headed, I stand up so I can face this Chieko like a human being. My legs are already tired. I’m slightly taller than her. I don’t want to stand too close, because my breath must stink.
“Thank you, Chieko,” I say as I try to keep my voice steady. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay such attention to me. I suppose it can’t be more obvious that I’m doing poorly, huh…?”
“You don’t look bad at all! I mean it!” she says, and she beams at me like an angel. “Are you hungry?”
“Let’s go find someplace where we can eat breakfast together,” Chieko adds.
She’s already turning, but I shake my hands to gesture that she shouldn’t worry. I try to smile, but my lips refuse to obey.
“No, that’s okay. I’m sure I’ll end up getting enough money to grab a bite.”
Chieko’s bright smile falters. She hadn’t expected me to resist her offer.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be glad to treat you!” she says. “I’ll buy us both something to eat.”
“I’ll be fine.”
I sit down dismissively. Chieko tilts her head as if she’s trying to comprehend why I’m refusing.
“Aren’t those coins, less than a euro, all the money you have? Haven’t you slept on this bench?”
I shrug and nod. My stomach grumbles again as if chastising me.
“I don’t need your help, Chieko, or anybody else’s beyond the money some will throw my way. I appreciate that you’ve read the stuff I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean much right now.”
“No, it doesn’t. But I still want to help.”
Chieko’s eyes shine with compassion and understanding. I lower my head.
“I’ll figure something out. Please… leave me alone.”
She doesn’t leave. My gaze remains fixed on the pavement between her legs. She’s wearing garnet red tennis shoes, which don’t match well with her black pleated skirt, but they look expensive. I can tell she will stand there until I address her again, so I sigh and lift my gaze. Chieko is smiling.
“You are a beautiful person, Izar. I wish you the best, and that you will be able to do what you want.”
“You are a stranger. I’m not sure how you’ve ended up reading my books, as they didn’t reach that many people, but I’m not the person you believe me to be. And if you truly want me to be able to do what I wish, you need to leave me alone.”
“So you can rot by your lonesome, is that it?”
I couldn’t have looked more bitter. Chieko laughs affectionately as if trying to make me smile, but I refuse. She then shows me the cover of the book she was holding. It’s one of mine.
“You wrote this!”
I avert my gaze. I couldn’t feel more distanced from the version of me who struggled the whole way through, until a publishing company printed my stories and delivered them to bookstores.
“Yes,” I mutter. “I did.”
“Come on! You are still the person who wrote it. You are not as bad as you think.”
I take a deep breath, then rub my eyes. I don’t want to face her cheerful expression.
“Chieko… You are annoying me. I beg you, please let me rot in peace.”
“Nope! You shouldn’t be here, Izar. A prodigy like you shouldn’t be sleeping in the streets.”
I’m getting dizzy, both from the hunger and the anger that’s building up.
“You’re right. I should not be here. I’m going home.”
I stand up and start walking away from her, abandoning the few coins I’ve gotten so far, hoping that I’ll be able to come back for them, but Chieko steps forward and grabs my hand. I’m too stunned to speak.
“I know you won’t return to your boyfriend’s place. You expect me to walk away, and in a while you’ll come back and you’ll either continue to sit here, hoping that kind strangers will give you enough money so you can eat, or you’ll move to some other square in case I choose to come by again.”
“How do you…?”
This Chieko appeared out of nowhere holding one of my books, and she knows that I lived with my boyfriend. She hasn’t come across me by coincidence. But how would she know about those private details of my life? I never became famous enough that people would pry into my life like that.
“You are right,” I say somberly. “I can’t go home. I have nothing left.”
Chieko offers me an understanding smile.
“Because that boyfriend of yours cheated, didn’t he?”
My eyes widen. Chieko’s expression manifests that she’s aware that she shouldn’t know that information, but that she’ll open up if I give her the opportunity.
“Yes,” I confirm. “He did. He’s a bastard. He fucked several women, and I had enough. Who the hell are you, Chieko?”
“I’m your friend, Izar. You’re not alone anymore.”
My nostrils dilate. I feel as if she’s pressing the tip of a knife against my belly.
“Hey, let me buy you some breakfast, alright?” Chieko insists. “You’ll need all the strength you can get.”
We don’t have to walk far. At the end of the large square, passing by the side of the cathedral, we cross the stone-paved, one-lane road. Chieko points at the outside seating area set up in a roundabout. It’s separated from the adjoined road by glass panels, and the tables are covered by patio umbrellas. The morning light is bathing the glass panels in gold.
“I think this is where we should eat,” Chieko says, smiling. “It looks very inviting.”
“It does, for sure. Not only too expensive for what I could afford in my circumstances: they also wouldn’t like me as a customer.”
Chieko pats me on the back of my coat. I narrow my shoulders.
“But you are with me, so that’s okay! I look quite fancy, don’t I?” she says. “And it will be much cheaper than a regular restaurant. Come, sit down, and let’s have breakfast together.”
I choose a table distanced from the two couples that are enjoying their coffees. I worry about them smelling my stink, as well as glancing at me. Once a chair supports my weight, I realize that Chieko, who has sat down in front of me, is looking up at the nearby cathedral. As she has her head turned, I notice a wart-like protuberance behind her ear, but I had just realized that it was made of a plastic-like material when Chieko turns her head towards me again.
“You aren’t from here, are you?” I ask her.
“Because I’m Asian?”
“Because you keep looking around as if you haven’t seen this part of the city before.”
Chieko smiles mischievously.
“You’re right. You are good at noticing things. That’s your nature as a writer, I’m sure.”
“Any regular person would have been able to figure that out.”
I was about to ask her about her lack of accent, but a waiter approaches us. I can barely look at him in the face, because anyone can tell that I’m homeless. Chieko assures me that I can order whatever I want, and this being a restaurant as well as a bar, I take advantage of my mysterious new friend and I order a coffee with milk, as well as a plate of Iberian ham and two eggs. Chieko giggles, and orders a cappuccino for herself. Once the waiter leaves, I keep my mouth closed for a few seconds. I’m salivating too much and I might end up drooling.
“Anyway, Chieko, I want to clarify something,” I say. “I’m not a prodigy. I never was.”
“Maybe you think too little of yourself.”
“That’s not true. I was a precocious child, sure, and I wrote almost every day, but it had little to do with talent and more with my wish to escape into my daydreams. It just happens that when my father sent that manuscript, the idea of a thirteen years old girl who managed to publish a book was a notion that they could sell to the newspapers. And he worked in the industry anyway.”
“Yes, I remember. It was quite popular, and even got some awards.”
I squint towards the sun, letting it warm my weary face. Its warmth feels so different now that I can anticipate a proper, even excessive breakfast.
“Isn’t it true that all the cells in a human body get replaced in around seven years? I haven’t been that young girl for a long time.”
Chieko smiles as if humoring me, highlighting her dimples.
“You’re right. In fact, you don’t look like someone of twenty seven. You look younger than me, I have to admit.”
“Very funny. I look very aged for my thirty one, and it’s going to worsen now that I live in the streets.”
I smell my plate of Iberian ham and eggs before it arrives. Once the waiter places it in front of me, its aroma makes me want to cry. I hurry to dip bread into the runny egg. The taste explodes in my mouth. I’ve never eaten something so delicious. I close my eyes and let the taste linger. I had almost forgotten who granted me this breakfast, and when I open my eyes, Chieko is sipping her cappuccino. Her expression has turned serious.
“I’m sorry for what happened with your boyfriend.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Chieko. Nobody forced him to cheat on me. And it wasn’t the first time, either. I forgave him last year because… I couldn’t afford not to, I suppose. I hoped to write again, and I can’t go back to working in an office. I couldn’t stand it. But this time, I had enough. Of him, of my parents, of struggling… So that’s that. I left his place, and I will never go back.”
Chieko puts her cappuccino down. I don’t know how much time passes before she speaks again, but I’ve kept busy savoring the salty ham.
“But you mustn’t give up on writing,” she says. “I have faith in you. You’ll be fine.”
“Let me ask you something: do you write, Chieko? Are you a creative person?”
Chieko licks some coffee foam from her upper lip, and looks at the building front to our left as if trying to remember.
“I suppose anyone would consider me a creative person, although I’m going through a dry spell at the moment. I’ve never technically written anything, in that sense at least.”
I gulp down some of my warm coffee. I was feeling like crap this morning, but I can hardly be more grateful towards this rich-looking stranger who has bought me a tasty breakfast.
“Then let me tell you something: people who romanticize writers might as well romanticize peeing in bottles and keeping a collection of them. That was a compulsion. I did it because my father was too busy with his job as a publisher to care for me, and when my parents’ marriage fell apart and the both of them abandoned me, I needed to escape to those fantasies. That was all it was: my inability to deal with reality in a healthy manner.”
Chieko looks down at the table as if saddened, but then she holds my gaze and narrows her slanted eyes.
“You said was. Was a compulsion. Do you intend to never write again?”
I was prepared to confirm it, but I stutter instead. I feel as if I was about to give up on breathing. But I hadn’t lied nor exaggerated about the role that writing played for me.
“Chieko… I have been writing since I was a girl. They published that silly book when I was thirteen. Even that story was about me escaping from my troubled parents and living in the woods among magical creatures. I’ve published maybe six or seven books afterwards, I can’t quite remember now, and each of them sold fewer copies the older I got. I have a single story to tell: that of wanting to escape from a life in which I am unhappy. There are only so many ways you can portray the same brokenness. And… are you aware of my issues with my parents once I grew up? You knew about me living with my boyfriend, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Yes, I knew. Your father betrayed your mother and left her for another woman. Then both of them betrayed you, as they focused on their new families. You were pushed to the sidelines. They shouldn’t have treated you like that.”
My throat feels dry, but I can drink some more coffee.
“You must be my number one fan, Chieko.”
She giggles. This girl looks so carefree that along with her clothes and perfect teeth, I wouldn’t be surprised if either she or her family are millionaires. I better hold on to this one.
“No, that’s an honor reserved to someone else I got to know to some extent. But I’ve gone over your stuff, learned about your background, and… came to care about you. Which is why I couldn’t let you rot in the streets, could I?”
“I appreciate that, Chieko. I really do. But if you care for me as a writer, you’ve met me at the worst time of my life, because the notion of pushing myself to delve into creating fiction again makes me nauseous. Producing those books involved me delving into a personal hell, only to come out scarred further by the experience. You could say that at least other people got some enjoyment out of reading the result, but what does it matter at the end of the day? I never sold enough copies that I could write for a living, and my experience working in offices solidified that I was too broken to survive in the real world. I needed someone to pay for my expenses. That first time he cheated on me… I suppose that although I had expected people to betray me like my parents did, I had held on to the hope that this one person wouldn’t. Afterwards, even though I stayed with him, I did it because I didn’t want to struggle on my own. I couldn’t love someone like that anymore. But what I can’t take are the constant betrayals over and over, knowing that the person who is supposed to care for you, love you even, goes out to screw other women only to come back home and smile at you as if he wasn’t stabbing you in the gut. Everybody has their breaking point, and last Thursday I discovered mine. I stopped caring, not only about that cheating son of a bitch but about myself, about the future, and whatever could happen to me. And I tell you all this because you seem to believe that it was a great thing that I wrote those books. After so many years of pain, of squeezing so many tears out of these weary eyes, I found myself on the streets with only thirty euros to my name. I wasn’t worth anything else.”
“I don’t think that’s true, Izar Uriarte.”
I sigh, but I appreciate her support, as well as the egg that my stomach is digesting.
“Of course you don’t, you are the image of hope. I can’t imagine anything bad happening to you. Anyway, those thirty euros are gone. I didn’t even get to spend them all, because someone stole my last ten euros note, or I lost it.”
Although I laugh nervously, Chieko stares at me as if she’s about to ask me something important.
“So then,” she says, “you have nothing left, no money, and you’ve given up on writing.”
“What are you going to do from now on?”
“I was thinking about staying in Donostia and begging.”
Chieko tilts her head and purses her lips.
“So do you intend on being a homeless woman for the rest of your life?”
“Probably. I can’t think of anything better to do. I guess I’ll find out how that goes.”
I smile, but I feel my throat choking up. I lower my head. I feel the warmth of Chieko’s hand as she takes mine, that I was resting on the table, and she squeezes it gently.
“I don’t think that’ll go very well for you, Izar,” she says.
I wipe my eyes.
“I don’t care. I guess that… I have given up. Can you blame me? I can’t even blame myself. I’m sick of all of it.”
Chieko looks at me with sympathetic eyes.
“Wouldn’t you prefer to go somewhere else?”
“Somewhere else where? Where is there a place for me?”
Chieko rests her face on her palms. She has finished her coffee, but she seems content with witnessing how I take my time with my breakfast.
“You can’t stay in the streets of Donostia forever.”
I finish my second egg. Chieko seems to be waiting for me to come up with a plan for my future.
“Whether I can or not,” I start, “it might do me some good to finally be alone for a while. Everyone I’ve given my heart to has betrayed me. I guess it’s time to learn the appropriate lesson, don’t you think?”
Chieko shifts in her chair. A car goes around the roundabout, the noise of its engine splashing against the glass panel that separates the outside tables from the road.
“Didn’t you enjoy travelling the world back when you were much younger, with your parents?” she asks.
I guess that information has appeared in some press note.
“I did, actually. I was happy with them, and I felt safe, before I knew what they were going to do. I was naïve, as a child who daydreams about magical beings can be. I didn’t know anything about the world back then, nor about how people work. In any case, are you suggesting that I should travel the world again?”
Chieko smiles at me, and despite my mood, that bright face makes me want to believe in something better.
“Maybe you should,” Chieko says.
I eat the last bit of Iberian ham, and savor it carefully. I can’t rely on Chieko paying for my next breakfast.
“I think I’m done with adventures,” I answer. “And I need to be alone.”
Chieko leans back on the chair and stares as if daring me to hold her gaze. I can’t get over how red her hair is. It looks too good to have been dyed, but I have never bothered to look into such matters.
“Would you have been happier in another era of this world?” she asks.
I don’t know what to say. If she had asked me that question when I was thirteen, I would have answered without hesitation.
“I feel too old for such hypothetical questions.”
“You’re thirty one years old, Izar Uriarte. You can’t afford to be afraid of the future, not to the extent that you won’t prepare for it.”
“I guess you have paid enough to lecture me… Well, do you actually want to know if I would have been happier in another era?”
“Yes, I do. So, if you could choose an era of this world, or of humanity’s presence in it more accurately, for you to live in, which would you choose?”
“Probably the Renaissance.”
Chieko smiles playfully.
“What’s so great about the Renaissance?”
“Well, there was the invention of the printing press, a huge step forward. And I would have preferred living during the golden age of chivalry, as opposed to the iron age of capitalism.”
“You are Joan of Arc material, aren’t you?” Chieko says with amusement. “The Renaissance was a very different time.”
“I’m just saying that it might have been better. I would have had a more appreciative audience.”
Chieko leans on her elbows as she smiles at me.
“It would be nice, wouldn’t it? To disappear from here?”
I sense a fatalistic tone, or maybe I’m imagining it, but I want to clarify the point.
“I don’t want to die, Chieko. I wish I hadn’t ended up like this.”
“Then you shouldn’t have given up on your life.”
I shrug, then slouch on the chair.
“What’s done is done. Besides, I’m going to end up dead sooner or later anyway.”
“It’s going to be sooner. This current existence of yours doesn’t have a future.”
“Well, I prefer this one over the others.”
“Because it’s mine.”
Chieko crosses her arms, her first defensive gesture. She seems to have come to a conclusion.
“If you think you are done, will you follow me? I can offer you some other place.”
“What kind of place?”
“You’ll see. It involves a certain amount of trust, although I know that will be hard for you.”
I feel a sudden coldness on my skin. Chieko is still smiling, but she has become a bit more solemn.
“You are enough of a fan that you wouldn’t want me to be homeless, I understand that. But what is your intention with all of this? You searched for me and approached me deliberately.”
“You’re right,” Chieko answers calmly. “I had a purpose in approaching you, and I still do, Izar Uriarte. I intend to preserve your life, and your talent.”
“Do you mean preventing me from dying in the streets?”
“Yes. Because in less than a week you’ll be a bloated corpse floating in the Urumea river.”
I stare at her in disbelief.
“You are… one odd person, Chieko.”
“I don’t know if I’m odd, but I think you’ll like what I have to offer. If you really want to live, then it’s better to go with me now.”
Chieko gets up from her chair and looks behind me, probably to signal the waiter for the bill. I’m confused, but I stand up as well and rub my cheeks.
“I will follow you then, if only because you are more likely to feed me than any of those strangers.”
“I thought you were going to say something like that,” Chieko says with a smile. “Let’s get out of here.”