Jacqueline and I stroll through the sand back to the promenade. I thought that we would cross the stretch of gardens, but instead she guides me along the low wall that delimits the western edge of Ondarreta beach, past the open courts of the tennis club, which are half-filled with players that intend to sweat their way through the remaining hour of sun on this October afternoon. We leave behind two teenagers on their bikes, a group of seniors walking their dogs, a mother pushing a pram. All thankfully absorbed in their own little worlds, without a second glance to spare for the couple walking past them.
Jacqueline tugs on my arm to stop me. On the opposite side of the narrow road, a canopied entryway flanked by tennis courts leads to an outdoor café, although a sign next to the entrance calls it an English pub. To the right of the overhang of palm trees that line the outdoor café, the apartment buildings built on the terraced slopes of Mount Igueldo look so close that I want to figure out how crazy rich I’d need to be to afford them.
“Have you been here before?” Jacqueline asks.
“Are you kidding me?”
“But it’s nice enough, right?”
“And likely expensive.”
Jacqueline takes my hand and pulls me into the pub’s grounds. Past the tall hedges meant to offer some privacy to the tennis players, the spread-out tables and chairs are white and plasticky; likely promotional items from some brewery. The folded parasols stick out like erect, hooded penises.
I choose a table distanced two empty ones from a family that has come to watch their kids play, judging by the flamboyant tennis bags. Our table has been placed next to a hedge, but on the opposite side of the terrace, only a chain link fence separates us from two ongoing tennis matches in which men wearing shorts are pursuing a bouncing ball to whack it severely.
I take off my backpack and put it down next to my picked chair. I roll the sore shoulder that had endured the weight all the way from my apartment. Jacqueline observes me as I exaggerate a grimace of pain.
“Are you into tennis?” she asks.
I narrow my eyes at her. My girlfriend has seen me cry during the strain of merely exercising to a YouTube video in her living room, yet she asks me if I would enjoy witnessing a more gruesome torture.
“I don’t know much about tennis except that it’s a sport, a horrifying fact, and that it involves two men hitting each other’s balls.”
“It can also involve two women hitting each other’s balls, or a combination of genders hitting each other’s balls.”
“I was unaware of such crude details of the game.”
“Oh yes. Men are not the only ones who get their jollies from other people’s pain and humiliation.”
Spike’s stupid horse face flashes in my mind, and I find myself scratching my cheek anxiously. I clear my throat.
“Well, if the sport also mixed species, I may have found it intriguing. What, does tennis get you off, Jacqueline?”
“Oh, I wish,” she says, sounding wistful. “But I do love to see two people compete over something, it’s fascinating. One of these days I’ll drag you down here to play.”
Although Jacqueline smiles, my skin prickles with unease, to which also contributed the loud thwack of a racket hitting a ball behind the hedge that separates us from another tennis court.
“I think you meant bring.”
She crosses her arms and tilts her head as if she intended to look stern, but the silly grin betrays her.
“You know what I mean, don’t you, sweetie? The same way I got you to sweat with me in the living room, you’ll learn how to whack tennis balls.”
My muscles complain in anticipation.
“A simple glimpse of you, with your graceful yet commanding presence, suggests that you were born with the tennis skill and an instinct to use it as a choice in warfare.”
“I know I’m gorgeous, Leire, and you are just changing the subject.”
“What I meant to add is that, in contrast, I’m lucky if I can rely on enough energy to remain coherent throughout a whole workday.”
Jacqueline shrugs cruelly.
“Well, now you’ll have to adapt to a life in which you play tennis all day long. But don’t worry, I’ll show you the sport in the most unusual ways.”
A ball hits the chain link fence, making it rattle with a metallic sound.
“Once you experience such a level of second-hand embarrassment, you’ll regret it,” I say wearily. “In any case, please let’s sit down. Gravity is torturing me more than usual.”
When I plop myself down, the plasticky chair creaks. Jacqueline rests her hands on the back of the closest chair, which is facing the hedge.
One of the tennis players behind the fence shouts incoherently; sportspeople believe they have the right to annoy others in such ways. The man swerves to intercept an incoming projectile, and I imagine his sweaty penis flopping around inside his shorts. The glans must be shaped like a tennis ball.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to enjoy this place…” I mutter. A chill shoots up my spine, and I go wide-eyed. “W-wait a second, tennis?!”
“What sudden realization has horrified you?” Jacqueline asks patiently.
“Is this where you met…? I mean, you did date a whole lot of tennis players…”
“I’ve never dated a tennis player. However, I have fucked a couple of them, and yes, I met them here. One of them was trying to lose his virginity.”
I sit bolt upright as if someone just offered me a cupcake.
“What does that have to do with anything?!”
Jacqueline’s eyes shine with mischief.
“He wanted to have sex with me, I wanted to have sex with him, and we happened to play tennis together.”
I try in vain to suppress a shudder.
“I’d rather not hear about your conquests. So why have you brought me to this restaurant in particular? To see how I’d react? To hurt me?”
“No, baby! I just like this place and it’s relatively close to my apartment, plus, I didn’t think you’d mind.”
I lower my head and rub my temples.
“I’m in no shape to pass any type of test. I’ll warn you: if those men approach us to greet you, I may implode.”
“Don’t worry, they wouldn’t recognize me looking like this. But if we had to avoid the locations where I met my lovers, we’d barely go anywhere.” I feel the blood drain from my face. Jacqueline reaches for my hand and squeezes it gently. “Oh, you know I’m joking, right?”
When I take a deep breath, my belly growls.
“You sound like a hungry bear,” she says. “I’ll go order two lattes and a plate of spicy potatoes.”
Jacqueline takes off her purse and leaves it on the seat of the chair next to me, claiming it for herself. She struts away down the corridor between the tables and its occupants, as well as palm trees, towards a two-story building, which is painted watermelon pink, has Greek-style columns guarding the front door, and features a signboard that brings attention to the word ‘Wimbledon’. A toddler totters into my girlfriend’s path, but Jacqueline, instead of punting the tiny creature, crouches enough to pat the toddler’s head. The kid keeps waddling away until a man in his late thirties, presumably the father, hurries after her and scoops the toddler up, to the little girl’s displeasure. The father glances at Jacqueline, who’s walking away with a spring in her step, and my girlfriend’s long legs clad in thigh-high tights must have registered in his depraved mind, because he does a double take.
At the table where that toddler originated, a pair of nine-or-ten-year-old kids are running around and taking turns hiding behind chairs from the other’s murderous impulses. Meanwhile they scream and laugh, oblivious of the lives being crushed around them.
A weight is pulling down the inside pocket of my jacket, as if I had stuffed in there a block of lead. I slouch in the chair, take a deep breath of the sea breeze, and close my eyes.
My nose gets molested by the smell of salty food, hot coffee, perfume and sweat. My ears are assaulted by the hubbub of nearby conversations, the brouhaha of strung-out children, the whaps of taut nets getting abused by errant balls, the grunts of men who’ve just hit a projectile into someone’s sternum, and the cries of their opponents as they fight for their lives.
The sound of a tennis ball smacking hard rubber reaches me muted, as if I were sinking to the bottom of a lake. A rumbling is building up under my consciousness: a herd of stampeding horses bearing down on me. Once it reaches me, my body will crumble like made of cardboard and plaster.
At the edge of hearing, someone whispers my name: the gurgly voice of a female who needs to swallow a build-up of phlegm. I sigh, then dig out my phone and hold it to my ear; nobody would consider me crazy for talking to a phantom as long as they can picture a presence talking from somewhere else on this wretched planet.
“Who’s there?” I ask weakly.
“I am a caryatid,” the female voice whispers.
“And what the hell is that?”
The female presence remains silent, but I feel her breathing near my nape.
“Are you a friend?” I ask.
“I am not a friend.”
“A stranger, then?”
Something hits the canopy of a nearby palm tree. When I open my eyes, a tennis ball bounces on the terrace between the tables. A smiling kid runs to grab the ball, then tosses it back over the fence.
“I asked you something, intruder,” I say gruffly. “Are you listening?”
“I’m always listening to you, and I answered: I am not a stranger.”
A few gulls scream as they fly past. I wipe my sweaty palm on my denim trousers.
“What do you want from me? Do I have to take revenge on these tennis players? Or are you the vengeful spirit of someone I killed in a past life?”
“I am not a spirit.”
An electrical zap makes my brain tremble. My eyelids twitch.
“You aren’t any fun either,” I say, my voice cracking. “I’ll tell you what you are, though: a burden that I carry on my shoulders. And I’m sick and tired of carrying it, you’re just too heavy to bear. So tell me, what can I do to get rid of you?”
The horses are galloping towards me. Their hooves are thundering, their nostrils foaming. Their eyes are hollow and hungry.
“You think that your suffering will end if you get rid of your consciousness,” the caryatid whispers.
I cast my gaze down at the fossil grey tiles of the terrace. My shoulders sag, my vision blurs. I blink the sudden surge of tears away.
“Well, it would end. What else do you expect me to do?”
“You might find a cure for your malaise, but you’d miss out on experiencing the world.”
“How about showing yourself if you are going to insist on bothering me?” I complain in a croaky voice.
From behind me, a tan-colored bust creeps sideways into my field of vision. Her Hellenic face resembles a cliff. Despite the serenity of her expression, her nose has been chiseled off, her cheeks are worn like rubbed with sandpaper, her lips and chin are nicked like pecked at by crows. She’s marred by downward, soot black streaks as if someone had toppled an inkwell on her head.
I roll my eyes.
“Oh, fuck off.”
My backhanded swat pops the vision like a bubble.
I draw a deep breath, inhaling a cocktail of smoky smells that are getting drowned in the sea breeze, then I place my phone on the table.
As I sink in my chair and I rub the bridge of my nose, I grow paranoid: what if someone witnessed me assaulting a hallucination?
Seated near the trunk of a palm tree as wide as an Egyptian pillar, two middle-aged women, both sporting a layered bob and a chiffon scarf around the neck, nod gravely at each other’s words. A woman in her early twenties beams as she hunches over to feed with a spoon the concealed baby inside a pram. A bald guy dressed like an electrician guffaws and slaps his knee while his mate slugs a pint of foamy beer. A solitary woman in her mid-forties, who’s wearing a gingham dress and white sandals, pours wine in her glass. On the other side of the fence, a sweaty man twirls his racket, then he strikes a pose and swings at an incoming ball.
Why would I be surprised that otherworldly apparitions feel familiar, or at the most annoy me for invading my personal space? I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by incomprehensible monsters. I’m stuck in a low-budget horror movie, doomed to witness it while drooling all over myself in a state of undiluted panic.
For how long must I walk the same ground wearing this human costume, for how much time must I endure being me? Three more decades going by averages, four or five if I’m unlucky, six or seven if the universe despises me like I’m sure it does.