La Rambla



La Rambla, like any street, has two ends: One leads to the center of Barcelona, the other leads to the Mediterranean Sea. The street performers leave by the sea end each night—I don’t know why they always choose to go that way. They wave goodbye to me now, as it is past midnight, and like a school of fish in Brazilian-carnival-like costumes, they sashay toward the moonlight-spilled ocean.

“Fernando!” they call out to me. Some walk over and playfully mess with my hair. They like doing that because I was born with dwarfism, with a large head that only reaches their waists. They think of me as a little brother, although I am older than most of them.

I watch them disappear into the horizon where land and sea meet. Of course, they don’t really walk into the water. They must turn left or right at the Columbus Circle, but how would I know, since I never follow them? Anything is possible on La Rambla.

I am the only performer who goes the other way, toward the center of the city. The others do not know where I go, or what happens there, either.

The autumn breeze feels cool in my face as I bike along the empty street, with rows of plane trees on either side. I wear a canvas bag across my chest and carry a ladder under my arm. Inside the bag are the things I use to make a living: knives, flammable juggling balls, gas lighters and torches. I use the ladder to climb up to my small performing stage, higher than everyone else’s, on La Rambla.

It takes me about 15 minutes to reach the other end of the street. There, right before the downward staircase leading to the metro station, is La Ballarina, a life-size marble statue. I hop off my bike. It is for her that I come here each night.

The sculpture stands on a pedestal, with her back to the city, facing the street. She is positioned in an arabesque, balancing on one leg en pointe, the other leg extended behind her. She stretches one arm at a 45-degree angle before her, as if reaching toward something in the direction of her gaze. She looks proud but sad, with her chin tilted upward and her eyes cast down.

What is she is gazing at? Some say she is looking toward the Mediterranean Sea, her real home, for she was a mermaid before being turned into stone. Some say she is looking at the future of Barcelona. Yet others call her the guardian angel of La Rambla. I read all of this in a guidebook about Barcelona.

“Buenas noches, Lena,” I greet her, bowing with one arm over my waist.

Behind me, I can hear the yellow-eyed man snoring. For as long as I can remember, there has been a man sleeping under the bench across from Lena. The man has just one good eye, and when he’s awake it glows with a cat-like ferocity. The other eyelid is sewn shut, in an uneven line, as if a kid had done it for him.

I bring out a piece of cloth and a bottle of marble cleaner from my canvas bag. I position my ladder next to Lena’s pedestal and, taking a step up the ladder, start wiping her foot. There is a tiny speck of pigeon shit on the ballet slipper strap. As I work on the stain, I can feel the veins and muscles on her fully stretched instep—so fine is the sculptor’s work. Lena’s ballet skirt has the weightless appearance of silk, and as I wipe across its surface I lighten my touch.

When I was still a child, a storm flooded La Rambla, toppling trees and power lines, and in the process, Lena’s arm broke off. Back then, it was Papá who juggled the fire torches while I collected tips for him. I waited many days for the city to fix La Ballarina, until I realized that no one was coming.

I found that people walked past the ballerina sculpture without noticing her. On a street known for its “human statues”—artists dressing up as trees and bronzes and such, tourists show little interest in actual inanimate objects. How funny that a statue was trying to look human, while humans pretended to be statues.

I took it upon myself to mend Lena’s arm, and over the years I have made it my personal duty to keep her clean and presentable. There is still a slight crack on her shoulder blade, from where the arm broke off.

Since the first time I noticed Lena, I have grown from a child into a middle-aged man, the tips of my black sideburns turning silver over the years. But Lena has remained exactly the same. Almost. If you look closely, you can see some very tiny lines forming around her lips and the corners of her eyes. Weather cracks, people would say, but I know otherwise. Also, just to be objective—not that I care the least bit—her breasts have sagged a little.

As these thoughts go through my head, I realize my hands have lingered on Lena’s small breasts. A tiny sigh escapes her lips. The marble begins to feel warmer and the texture of her skin softens. I feel tiny, rhythmical heaves under my palm. Color rises to the surface of her skin, a healthy, rosy color. I put my hands to the sides of her waist, knowing what is coming, and soon I feel her weight falling against me, the delicate balance of the arabesque position lost with the suddenness of turning from stone into flesh.

Lena seats herself on the pedestal, always needing a few minutes to rest her muscles.

“Couldn’t they have given me an easier position to stand in all day?” she complains, massaging her calves. Her hair, which a few seconds ago had been a tight bun carved into white marble on the top of the head, has unraveled. It falls down her shoulders in waves of auburn locks.

“An easier position wouldn’t be so pretty,” I say with a smile.

Every blink of her sea-green eyes and every movement of her silky hair blowing in the night wind reminds me of her mortality, which, less than a minute ago, had been nonexistent. The flush on her cheeks, her wince of pain, give her a new look of vulnerability. Now, she bleeds, hurts and ages.  

“Shall we go?” I ask, extending my hand in invitation.

I wait for her to place her hand over mine, to smile shyly as she always does, as if she is agreeing to a dance. Instead, Lena frowns.

“You promised.” There is a sense of betrayal in her voice.

“I’m sorry,” I say quickly. “I missed you.”

Lena lets out a long sigh. “Never mind. Let’s just enjoy the night while it lasts.”

Her words, though spoken gently, pierce me. “I could not keep myself away,” I say. “Forgive me.”

With Lena sidesaddled on the backseat, I ride past the fountain in Plaça de Catalunya to my apartment three streets away.

We must be a funny sight, a dwarf riding a kiddie bike with a beautiful woman twice his height behind him. Thankfully, Lena has the grace of a true ballerina and is able to easily keep her legs raised above the ground for the entire 10-minute ride.

My apartment building stands in a very narrow lane without streetlights. Our only illumination is the waxing gibbous moon. As I bring the bicycle to a stop, I’m not sure how the rest of the night will proceed.

“Let’s not waste time staying mad at each other,” she says.

We undress and get into bed, but her words have poisoned the mood, the expectations. When she moans and digs her fingers into my back, I do not know whether it is the pain of ecstasy or sadness. As I breathe the floral scent from the nape of her neck and bury myself into the hollows of her flesh, I feel that I am hurting her somehow, placing my own pleasure before her happiness.

Afterwards, we are drained, the sheets underneath us damp and rumpled. Both of us shift around, trying to get comfortable. We’re tired, but I can feel both of us wanting to get away from the bed.

I look at my watch. The hands show five past three. Since it is summertime, we have perhaps two more hours together.

The blue moonlight comes in through the window and shines a streak across the bed. Lena studies her reflection in a hand mirror, tracing the tiny lines on her face. No one, taking one look at Lena’s thick, dark lashes and sea-green eyes would notice anything but her beauty, but to Lena, those first hints of wrinkles might as well be acid corroding her skin.

I remember the first time I showed her a mirror, how she had laughed at the idea of spending any time looking at oneself when there is so much else to experience in the world.

A month ago, however, she asked me not to wake her again. She said that stones are meant to lead a much longer life, that she was giving up too much for her half-human existence. What irony, for she is becoming more human than she knows. “What would people think when they see that the statue is growing old?” she said.

Reluctantly, I agreed. But I’ve broken my promise, again and again.

“I guess it’s easy for you to give up on me,” I say. “You are not the one who has to live with the memories.”

She puts down the mirror and looks at me. Her large eyes dance from side to side:  calculating, torn between vanity and affection for me. She’s still so innocent about the ways of the world that the idea of hiding one’s feelings is foreign to her.

“Statues aren’t supposed to age,” she says carefully.

“People don’t even notice you,” I mumble, then regret it. “I’m sorry,” I quickly add.

Lena looks away. 

“Shall I cook something for you?” I ask, rising from the bed.

There is only a wooden table to divide my bed from my kitchen. From the fridge I take out a bowl of chopped wild mushrooms, green onions and spinach. I also take out milk, goat cheese and three eggs.

“What are we eating tonight?” asks Lena, creeping toward the side of the bed that is closer to the kitchen.

“Quiche,” I say.

“What is that?”

“You’ll see.”

I sauté the fresh shiitakes, black trumpets, morels and chanterelles in melted butter, adding green onions, garlic and goat cheese. These I spoon into a piecrust. I pour eggs, milk, salt and pepper into the filling and set the pie into the oven.

“How long before we can eat?” Lena asks. She’s always hungry during our nights together.

“About 20 minutes.”

Lena comes over and sits at the table, her lean body wrapped in the bedsheet. Her pink leotard, skirt, tights and ballet shoes are in a pile at the foot of the bed.

Suddenly she rises and picks up the tights and puts them on. She laces up the ballet shoes, crisscrossing the pink ribbons over her ankles. She steps into her leotard, and ties the skirt around her waist with a floppy bow.

I help her push the table toward the fridge, creating a tiny space between the stove and the bed. In that tiny square, not much larger than the area of four or six pedestals, she starts to dance.

She opens her arms to the sides of her body, and looks toward the tip of her right middle finger. She raises an arm and takes a few steps forward, always with one pointed foot crossed behind the other. Her eyes follow her right arm, her gaze in the direction of her movements. At one moment, she lifts her chin proudly; at another, she lowers her head in sadness. There is no music, but I can hear the melody in her movement and feel rhythm in her every gesture. In one bold step forward, she balances on one leg en pointe and raises the other leg behind her, ending in the familiar arabesque.

I clap fervently. “Bravo!”

Lena smiles, her eyes cast to the ground. “Thank you,” she says, and returns to the table. “Which is more beautiful? The static pose of a perfect arabesque, or the one I did just now—in motion but lasting only a second?”

I think for a few seconds. “They are both beautiful because they are both done by you.”
I take the hot quiche from the oven and put it on the table between us. I cut Lena a large slice.

She takes a bite and opens her eyes wide in surprise. “Amazing!”

“You like it?”

She takes another huge bite. “Food is one of the best parts of being human,” she says with her mouth full.

I watch Lena eat up half the quiche. “Have you been happy with me?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says, smiling, not even pausing to consider. Her expression reminds me of watching kids on La Rambla, an ice cream cone in one hand, a balloon in the other, their eyes darting back and forth on the street, taking in every detail, feeling that now, right now, is the best moment in their lives.

While the sky is still dark, I take Lena back to her pedestal on La Rambla. I can hear the sound of her breathing in the silence of the night. Let the sun never rise, I plead. On La Rambla, such a wish is not completely impossible, I think.

“People have many theories about your gaze,” I say. “I have never asked you—what are you looking at?”

“I don’t know,” she says sadly. “When I turn back to stone I forget everything. Only my sculptor knows the answer.”

“When I was a kid, I thought that you were watching over me. Guarding me.”

“Well, who knows? Maybe I am.”

Is this the last night between Lena and me? I do not know, and neither does she, but when the first ray of light reaches her, she will turn back to stone, assuming the arabesque position in which she was created. As another day on La Rambla begins, she will be free from wondering.

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