Marco approached me to tell me he was dying. No, this is not strictly true: he approached to ask who I was and what I was doing standing alone at one of the street-side tables outside a pintxos bar in San Sebastian, Spain, with a glass of wine and a notebook.
I was not yet curious about him—though I would become curious suddenly, the way a seal becomes curious about the human who pokes at its glass—but he told me anyway: that he was born in the Bronx, that he was a chef in Amsterdam, that if what I wanted to do was become a writer, that was what I should do.
Strangers have always wanted to tell me things. There was the man in the Think Coffee on Third and Mercer who’d recounted the dream of the knife going through his head. In Washington Square Park, Seth Hornaday had told me about his prophetic visions, his philosophy of the afterlife, and the inheritance structure of angels. On Whitney Avenue, Tony D’Angelo explained how his sister had excluded him from the inheritance of their grandmother’s home, leaving him on the streets. At the Hungarian Pastry Shop, countless men and women confided in me about old lovers. I had brown eyes and a notebook, which I think made me approachable, and I liked to look right into people’s faces as they passed, which I think made them approach me, and I would listen to them hungrily, chin on hand, with uncertain yearning, which kept them talking. It seemed so much easier to be vulnerable with strangers that it started to surprise me that we didn’t all just kiss each other on the subways as soon as we made eye-contact.
“Here’s something for you to write about, maybe,” Marco said, pointing to my notebook. “I’m in San Sebastian because it’s my favorite place in the world. I’ve had a really crazy life, but I learned yesterday that I’m not gonna have—such a crazy life—anymore. I’m really sick, and I probably have a year left. So I got on the next flight and now I’m here.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. My friends don’t know what to say, even my mom doesn’t know what to say.” And, after a pause: “I didn’t want to make it awkward, or to make you sad. For some reason, I just wanted to tell you.”
Down the street there was a festival. Two paper-mache figures—one pasty-faced man and another peach-colored woman—operated by stilt walkers, towered above the crowd, preceded by a horde of boys running away from the girls who chased and whacked them with lopsided balloons. Small children and their stroller-pushing parents plodded behind. Marco was telling me about the best Spanish tortilla he’d ever eaten and asking if I wanted to get a drink. Had he changed the subject because I was uncomfortable with death or because he was? I was wearing my woven red earrings and I could see them in his glasses. I could see myself, too, as he must have seen me, flushed and smooth and perfect in the dim light.
I said yes to the drink, and we wandered to the steps of the church with glasses of Txakoli (the dry Basque wine poured from a height with a flourish to reduce its acidity) and then to the street outside another pintxos place where I bought us both shitty Crianza and we leaned towards each other against a wall, and eventually to the plaza, where we sat in the red light of a café and he tipped the waitress more than the price of our drinks (“I might as well spend my money,” he said with a sadistic shrug). Over the next four hours, it felt like he was trying to figure out how to tell the story of his life, lumbering around in it the way one stumbles about in a dream. He became proud when he told me about his restaurant with its homemade pastas and its slow-cooked meats. We talked politics, of course: what it was like to be an American in Europe when we were both so deeply ashamed of America, and we talked about feminism and the relative status of women in the U.S. and the Netherlands, and we talked about food—the food we’d eaten in San Sebastian, the extravagant meals he made for his friends (“Even if I’m just gonna make for a starter, a single gnocchi, in a wedge of pumpkin, with a little Bolognese—the real kind they make in Bologna, which is just a cream sauce with a little bit of veal—I’m gonna make it two days in advance, because it’s more flavorful that way”), my grandfather’s famous cheesecake (“He would cut it with dental floss”), a raw egg cooking slightly amidst a pile of grilled mushrooms—“Am I boring you?”
“No,” I said, knowing I would love him quickly if I tried his Bolognese.
We talked about his illness. The cancer had started in his leg and after two years of chemo they thought it was gone. At his routine checkup the day before, they had found three new tumors, one of them lodged irremediably inside his lung. I asked about the chemo and he said, “Imagine putting your head in a food processor.”
But mostly, we talked about his lovers. There had been many of them, and while talking about what felt like everything, he kept coming back to them, as if he couldn’t help it, because they were there, in everything, and to ignore them would have been spurious, would have undermined this whole exercise in recapitulation. It reminded me of the time that a girl in my writing workshop had accused all my poems of being “about kissing,” and I’d been embarrassed until I learned she had never kissed anyone before. It was as if, filtering the sand of his life through his fingers, Marco’s lovers were what he still held in his palms.
“We fell in love at first sight,” he said about one of them. “We met on a plane.”
“Were you sitting next to each other?”
“No, we were both standing up and stretching and then we made the most intense eye contact, and then she looked away, and then she looked back, and I meant to say, hi, I’m Marco, but instead I said, when I look into your eyes I feel like I’m looking into my own eyes, because we literally had the same eyes, but it was such a cheesy line—oh, she was amazing…”
Another woman had once broken a champagne bottle over his head. “She liked me to punch her in the face during sex,” he said. “Not like a little slapping around, like really punched, and at some point I was just like, I can’t do this, I love you so much and I cannot punch you, and we got into a fight, and she was drunk, and she broke the bottle over my head.”
Diana was the love of his life. She’d been pregnant at one point, but she’d lost the baby. His one great regret, Marco said, was not having a family, though it would have been terrible to leave a wife and children. He’d always assumed he’d be a father—it was never really even a question. “I think because my parents were kind of fucked up and I always thought I would do it better,” he said.
He and Diana had been engaged, and then they’d both fallen in love with the woman renting the other room in his house. They had all lived together for a while, as a three-way, and it was so good while it was good, but Diana grew convinced that he loved the other woman more, and she was afraid of the seriousness of his illness, and he was afraid of the seriousness of his illness, and the seriousness of what was between them, and it all began to seem irreparable, and then it ended. He hadn’t told Diana about his new diagnosis. “That’s gonna be hard,” he said, a laughable understatement that felt like a revelation about the absurd inadequacy of language.
“I can’t imagine,” I said again.
“A lot of people, when I tell them what’s going on, say, I can imagine. But I think that’s what they mean. That they can’t imagine.”
The stories about Marco’s lovers were bad and random but wonderful because they were the stuff of a life, of his life. I imagined these were the scenes that played over in his mind while he stuffed a ravioli, or rode a bus past the canal houses, or mourned the death of a friend back home, or waited in the emergency room for the doctor to see him. I don’t think anybody quite knows how to talk about the people they’ve loved or the sex that they’ve had, and that most of us eventually just decide on something as a compromise. Every so often, there will be a book or a poem that will make me cry, and I’ll think: that’s it! That’s how you talk about it! But then I’ll be in bed again, and it’ll be snowing out the window on the metal roof of the red house and the woman I love will be beside me breathing warm shallow breaths and I will realize that I am wordless again.
All night his phone rang. His Dad wanted to come to San Sebastian; so did his best friend. He ignored all his mother’s calls, saying he would cry if he picked them up. “I’m actually doing pretty okay now,” he said, turning to me for confirmation. “Aren’t I?”
It was past one a.m. and I imagined that the night would end in Marco’s hotel room. Had he suggested it, I would have gone. It felt more like inevitability than desire: telling somebody you are dying is an even easier intimacy than the kind that comes with sex. It makes you more vulnerable than showing somebody your body or your poems. But Marco offered to walk me back to my hostel, which was not a way into my bed, since he knew I was sharing a room with five other people, one of whom, I’d told him, snored so loudly I’d created a new playlist to drown him out.
“It’s kind of far,” I said.
“Like over two miles away on the other side of a forest-park.”
“I’ll take a taxi back.”
“You don’t have to walk me.”
“I know that.”
We set out away from the old town. The sea, which by day heaved with surfers and sunlight, was a glossy, rumbling gray beneath the small, yellow moon. By the time we reached the highway, it had started to rain: a gauzy sort of mist, like a woman’s sheer stockings, the kind that soaks you so slowly and completely that you don’t realize you’re wet until you’re drenched.
“I think if I could do it over I would be a botanist,” he mused, as we plodded up a steep hill.
“I think botanists are the ones who are going to solve the world food crisis.”
Everybody has their things, I thought, as it began to rain more seriously. Of course it was raining. I had always loved the rain. When I was a child and it rained, I would roam my city for hours, feeling that I was always on the precipice of something. The rain would incite a wildness in me, especially when it was hot summer rain and the steam rose from the sidewalks like dew. I thought of a walk that Leo and I took through Central Park many years ago, when I had been feeling very beautiful, but had realized, when I arrived at my apartment, that my makeup was smeared unceremoniously over my face in what my mother called “raccoon fashion.” This was when I was just beginning to love Leo and there wasn’t any sadness, yet. That was what my writing teacher had asked me when I told him I was in love for the first time: Is there any sadness, yet?
The rain loosened the leather on my sandals so that they sagged around my feet. Marco shook the water out his hair. I felt that we were very far from the sea and the city. The highway had road-signs that read “FRANCE,” which seemed unreal to me, like a careless detail in a low-budget film. When we reached the park, it felt impenetrable, like a deep wood.
“I know I made the right decision, coming here,” he said, as if saying, thank you.
We entered my hostel’s fluorescent lobby and I asked the man at the front desk if he would call my friend a taxi. “A qué hora?” he asked.
“Ahora,” I said.
We waited in the rain for the cab. It was only when the car pulled in that Marco asked if he could kiss me. I nodded; he kissed me. His face was wet. He asked what I was doing the next day. I told him I was going to Pamplona for the end of San Fermin.
“I’ve always wanted to go to San Fermin,” he said. These two things hung between us: that it was the last day of the fiesta, and that he had one year left to live.
“I’m taking a 12:30 bus,” I said.
San Fermin was as wild as Hemingway made it out to be. The population quintupled for the fiesta, and all the city and surrounding countryside came out to drink in the streets. Every man, woman, and child was wearing the same outfit: white pants, a white shirt, and a red Basque handkerchief tied around his or her neck. Some had added personal touches like Basque berets or political pins; I’d never felt so out of place in a black t-shirt and jeans. By this point, everybody had been drunk for eight days straight. Each bar, shop, and restaurant that wasn’t closed for the festivities had a makeshift bar right up front where they were selling to-go cups of beer, sangria, and sometimes greasy bocadillos wrapped in soon-to-be greasy napkins. Everyone was out: the little boys and girls with their tiny kerchiefs fastened around their tiny necks; the grandmothers at the much-sought after tables at the bars, here again after so many years; the young men who touched each other with exuberant affection, as American men so rarely do; the teenagers on the ramparts, like a surreal Photoshop job with their smartphones and plastic bottles of Don Simon pasted atop traditional garb and medieval walls.
And then there were the bulls. They had the bristled snouts of pigs and the thrashing tails of angry horses and curved, sharpened, off-white horns protruding from each ear like giant teeth. Their bodies swayed and swaggered like the bodies of lumbering men, but when they ran they did so with the grace of the hockey player who transforms so completely from an awkward, oversized boy on linoleum to a dancer on the ice.
We walked the city’s narrow streets, navigating the crowds with some combination of touristic awe and New York impatience. We kept ending up at the same plaza where one man was selling ham sandwiches and another was playing electric guitar. All the streets looked the same during the fiesta. We strayed out to the city walls and I darted into a watch tower to peer out of its arrow-sized window. I stepped into a puddle of pee and Marco called me “stink-foot” for the rest of the day. We couldn’t figure out how to get close to the river, though we both loved rivers. From high above we could see the way it snaked around, mossy and green. I thought it was part of the vegetation at first. We met a Canadian boy named Matt who assumed we were a couple. I wondered if he was curious about us, our age difference, what we were doing together. He asked where we’d been and what we did. “I’m a student,” I said.
Marco said, “I’m retired.”
“What, did you win the lottery or something?”
“Something like that.”
Matt chattered excitedly about the morning bull runs. There had been seven gorings—puncture wounds from the horns—that year, and over a dozen more injuries from being trampled or thrown. He told us, enthusiastically, about the man he saw picked up by the horns of a bull, plastered against its broad, bristled forehead, then flung against the dusty floor.
“People can die that way,” Marco said.
“I know.” Matt grinned. “I’m kind of a thrill-seeker,” he confided, proudly.
We’d missed the morning run but we were there in time for the evening fight. Neither Marco nor I was into it. We’d spent the whole day feeling close to death already. The thrill of the bullfight is that the matador comes close to death but walks out of the ring alive. This is what everyone comes to see, year after year: men coming close to death but not dying. Or maybe the point is not that the matador survives; maybe people secretly wish that they will see him die. Yes, that would be something you would remember for the rest of your life. Or do they come to watch the bulls, who, like men themselves, are confused and provoked and occasionally beautiful before their quiet deaths?
You find out that you’re dying and suddenly you become much more careful. I suppose it’s about what reminds you that you’re fragile. Years ago, Marco would’ve run with the bulls. He did a lot of drugs and he had a motorcycle. His mother said it was a miracle he was still alive, which was one of the best things anybody had said to him in the past two days.
Dying also reminds you to be kind to other people. He saw a mother and daughter fighting on the street and interrupted them to say, “Whatever you’re fighting about, it isn’t worth it. I just learned that I’m very sick and have a very short time left to live, so take my word for it. Whatever it is, it isn’t worth it.”
The woman and girl gawked at him and then at the ground and then back at him, but they stopped fighting. “Was that a very weird thing to do?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Should I not have done it? They stopped fighting.”
“I don’t know.”
“I really think the chemo permanently fucked up my judgment about how to be socially normal.”
Learning that Marco was dying reminded me to be kind to people, too. I felt that this was, in some sense, why I was there with him. I felt that he was asking me for something that it was not so hard for me to give him, and that I was giving it to him because I wanted to.
It took me some time to figure out what exactly he was asking for. At first, I thought it might have been sex, or simply someone to talk to. But I came to understand what mattered about me in this situation: it was most important that I was a stranger, and then that I was young, with my life mostly ahead of me, and then that I was beautiful. I showed off for others for him. I put on lipstick and men looked at me, and I let them look at me, and I let him take my arm. I came to understand the stories of his many love affairs as something of a question, to which my answer was: yes. It felt so simple to be this for him: a lover.
By ten o’clock, the fiesta was in full swing and we were a part of it. It had everything to do with being eight drinks in. Before, we had watched the crowd; now, we moved with it, swaying and bumping and spilling beer on one another. When we brushed up against someone, we stayed brushed. It was like the subway at rush hour, an excuse for people to touch each other.
At a few minutes to midnight, the whole city and surrounding countryside crammed from the streets into the plaza of the ayunamiento, where the flags hung out of the church like so many bright green tongues. The crowd roared its response to each bang of firework. Then the clock struck and the chant started. It was a gleefully mournful dirge: pobre de mi, pobre de mi, the fiesta is over, poor me, that swelled with the crowd and their raised candles and their waving handkerchiefs and me in the middle with another beer in one hand and a cod-garlic bocadillo in the other. Marco was looking at me as I looked out at what felt like everyone in the whole world. I could tell he was jealous of me and my life and my sandwich, which was a much better choice than his lomo con pimientos. The music was getting faster and faster, like an impending storm, and suddenly the chanters were singing with joy, ya falta menos—we’re already closer to next year—and when the people dispersed, they dispersed to sleep all day, but not before dancing all night. Everywhere, there was music; everywhere there were people.
We decided to go back to the Plaza del Castillo, the exquisite square with the covered archways in the center of town where earlier we had seen beautiful people drinking on a beautiful terrace. The place, when we finally found it, was called the Casino Nuevo and it was the second floor of the famous Café Iruña. It was a ballroom like I’d never seen before, like what I imagined they must have at fancy, old-timey hotels, with black and white tiled floors that shone with grease and liquor and a bar that glistened with mirrors like the lobby of an Upper East Side apartment building. The dance floor was a sea of bodies in white and red, all in pairs and somehow gorgeous when they danced together, though they were mostly in their fifties and sixties and even seventies, which made me and Marco laugh, and made us both young, and lovely, and then we were twirling with old ladies, and learning a line dance, and then we were drinking gin and tonics and making out on the balcony, as we had seen the couple do earlier, when we had pointed and called them beautiful.
The matadors had worked expertly, waving the cloth and moving their bodies in a measured game of seduction. They know how close sex is to death, how easy it is to toggle from one to the next. “I love life,” Marco said, between kisses. “I don’t want to die.”
I can’t remember leaving the Casino Nuevo or walking to his hotel room or getting undressed. I know that he fucked me in the ass, because I remember saying, “I’ve never had a cock up my ass before,” and “Oh my god that hurts so much,” to which he said, “It hurts?” Afterwards, I know it struck me that he was going to die, that that was the whole reason we were there, and I felt so sorry for him, like death was something nobody deserves, though it is the only thing we all do, and I wanted to say, I’m sorry you are going to die. It was the only thought I could think of and I started to cry. I hadn’t meant to. I started to cry and the more I thought it, the more I cried, and turned away from him in the bed. When he tried to touch me on the shoulder, I said, “Don’t you comfort me,” which he understood, and didn’t comfort me, and the next thing I remember, I was awake and it was morning.
In the morning, he buried his face in my legs and he cried. “I’m not even scared,” he said. “I just don’t know what to do.” I wanted to tell him it would be okay, but we both knew what would happen: he would die and I would live. So I stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head, like a mother would, and he seemed small, though he was a very large man, curled up against me and sobbing in earnest.
Back at the hostel I hadn’t ended up staying in, I ate the included breakfast, took a shower, then checked out. I avoided the old town for the rest of the morning; the prospect of seeing him again was exhausting. I drank a café con leche at a table on the street. The city felt so different with everybody back in regular dress, all with the kinship of a shared hangover. It felt like New Year’s Day. I wandered the streets for a while and glided slowly through the market, looking at the vegetables. I waited thirty minutes on the line for the best pastries in Pamplona, flaky chocolate gorritos that melted all over my fingers in the sun. I drank a lot of water. It felt good to be alone.
I wanted to text Marco to ask if we had had sex without a condom, and if so, what his status was, but I didn’t want to complicate things—to complicate the lover thing—by telling him how little I remembered. I didn’t blame him for fucking me in the ass; I assumed I had asked him to. The only other time a man had asked if he could fuck me in the ass, I had asked him why he wanted to, and he’d said the submission of it turned him on. If you’re giving me your ass, he’d explained, you’re giving me everything. This frightened me, and I had not let him do it.
What reason is there not to give each other what we can? Nobody has the promise of tomorrow, Marco’s father had told him.
I always knew life was short but I never knew it would be this short. I love life, I don’t want to die. I’m not even scared, I just don’t know what to do.
In the morning, Marco cried because he was going to die. But why had I cried?
It couldn’t exactly have been that I was sad he was dying; that had been virtually the first thing I’d learned about him. Part of the reason that I was there was that I, unlike his parents or friends or ex-girlfriends, couldn’t possibly take his death personally. If I was upset that he was dying, I was upset that death has to happen to people, especially young people, who never imagined not raising a family or not growing old. Was it that Marco made death feel real, or feel more real (how could death ever feel real?) because it became clear to me how absolutely powerless I was—we all were—against it? Maybe that was why I was crying. Or did it have to do with the sex, how much it had hurt, and how confusing it was to have blacked out for the beginning of it? Or was it how far I felt from home? I felt suddenly like an adult, by which I mean I felt I was taking on something I could bear, but I also felt very young, like I had a life ahead of me, like I was not going to die for a long time. I couldn’t imagine dying. I couldn’t imagine anything but being young.
As I cried, it became clear to me that it was foolish to think that being with Marco was selfless. We cry because we’re vulnerable and we’re vulnerable because we need each other. I have never had much interest in being invulnerable. In being with Marco—as with sex in general, and the intimate conversations I’ve had with so many strangers, and writing—I was seeking the fulfillment of my vast, bewildering need to be vulnerable. I recognized that after a while he would’ve driven me crazy and that he did not have a perfect body. But he had a good face and nice eyes and if you looked closely, freckles, and most of all, he needed me, and inside need is a tremulous potential for closeness that opens and closes like a hot pink lung.
Marco still texts me every once in a while. Usually he sends photos of his face: his face on the train home from Utrecht, his face outside a bocadillo shop called Oink, his face with the ocean behind it, or a rainbow arching above it, his late-night face, sinister and worn, with the caption, Do I look like I’m dying? Sometimes he texts to say he is thinking about me. I will be completely honest, he writes, I think about you often. You stand in my mind as a point of stability.
I don’t think about him too much. My life rollicks along. I’m living in my first apartment and planning two theses and falling in love. When I do think of him, if I haven’t heard from him for a while, I think he might be dead. I don’t reach out to him even if I want to, because I’m afraid he will not respond, and then I’ll know that he’s dead. It confuses me to think this, and to think it so lightly. It confuses me that he would even want to text me, when what transpired between us was so clearly delineated by time and place.
In January, he leaves me a voice message. It’s the first time I’ve heard his voice since that morning in the summer, and it sounds different than I remember: lower, more feeble.
Hey there, uh, I’m going in for my surgery now and just wanted to let you know that that’s happening and say thanks again for the part that you played, so important in this whole process, um, yeah I was just thinking about you so I just wanted to let you know, and uh, hopefully I’ll uh, be done in a couple hours and I’ll be okay, okay, bye.
The loneliness in the message overwhelms me. I wonder if he is waiting to go into his surgery alone. I listen to it in the morning, at the little window-table where I eat breakfast. I sit at the table for a long time after I’ve finished my toast. On the window sill we have three plants: a cactus, a dead orchid, and a miniature palm with profuse thin leaves like wild hair that we call Joaquin. The light filters through the spaces in the leaves, and at certain times of day, makes shapes against the wall. I feel a rush of tenderness for the way the light is, the weird beauty of it, which makes me want to cry, which feels absurd.
I think Marco is probably dead now. That was the last time I heard from him, and now it is March. I realize that I think this as I write it. I am writing in the kitchen of my childhood apartment and my mother is cutting a pineapple across the counter. She hands me a cube. “An especially sweet one,” she says.
I remember returning home on the plane from Barcelona. The woman next to me was afraid of flying and she clutched our armrest during the descent until her knuckles turned white. I peered out the window as my city grew larger and more real. I loved it and everybody I loved was inside it. I heaved my backpack onto my back, floated through the airport, and stepped out into the sun. It was a hot day and it smelled like trash. My dad picked me up in the car and it was remarkable how casually we could talk after all that time apart. There was traffic snaking back from the Holland Tunnel, but out the passenger window was the river, and beyond the river was the world.