Antje came to Spain three years ago. She worked as a hotel maid in San Sebastián, where she met Mathis and married him. He was a manager at the hotel. He was eight years older. She was twenty-four and had left Germany after her mother died. Her mother had been in Kabul, serving as an engineer in the Bundeswehr. Antje had never traveled abroad before.
Mathis lived in a bungalow in the hills. It was a single room with a small backyard and a partial view of the coast. Every morning he went for a run and then they went to work together at the hotel. It was on La Concha Bay and ten stories tall. Each room had a balcony, a large flat-screen television, and seashells in a glass bowl by the bed.
Sometimes she passed Mathis along a corridor. They kept their relationship to themselves even though everyone knew. Once, she heard two maids mention how dull he was. How plain. She admitted to herself that they weren’t entirely wrong but it was what she wanted.
Mathis was kind and responsible. Considerate. He was from Paris, where his family was, and he was handsome, with his pale eyes and his trim beard. They were often together. They swam, cooked, shopped at the markets. He took her to restaurants and bought her nice lavender soap tied with a ribbon. He showed her how to garden. They left food and water out for the stray dog that sometimes visited the backyard.
He hated to read. So she lay beside him in the evenings and read to him, practicing her Spanish, and without telling him she veered away from the story and invented her own. Some nights he noticed, pinching her. Other nights he didn’t.
It never bothered her that he was older. She was still in awe of how different her life was now, how far away she was from her solitude and her boredom, a town she never felt was hers but her mother’s, and now her mother’s ghost’s.
Mathis told her she didn’t have to work any longer if she didn’t want to, that he would care for her. But she liked the work, it kept her busy, and she liked heading down to the hotel with him every morning, riding on the back of his motorbike.
For a while they were happy. He wanted to start a family. So they did. They had a child, a boy, but they lost him after only a week. The doctor said there was something wrong with his heart. Or that was what she remembered him saying as she walked out of the hospital alone, past an ambulance rushing someone in, past the courtyard and the garden.
Antje walked and walked. She walked out of the city and along the coastal roads. She was barefoot and she walked for hours. The weakness and the pain of her body grew numb. She was bleeding from somewhere but she didn’t notice. She heard cars speeding by and felt a kind of emptying, like parts of her were being unfurled into the air. It was difficult to move her eyes. The road and the sky became a single point she couldn’t break through.
Then, when she couldn’t go on any longer, she felt a shift inside of her. A restructuring. As though there was something new inside, somewhere beneath her ribs. Or something old she never knew was there.
When she looked up it was evening. She was sitting in the train station with her hands on her chest.
Mathis was beside her, holding her shoulders.
“Let’s go home,” he said.
He stood and she followed him, and they returned home, and she didn’t think the days would pass, but they did.
She continued to work at the hotel. Mathis did, too. They rode down on his motorbike every morning as they had done before. She accompanied him on his errands and they went to the beach for a swim. They swam parallel to the coast. Her skin darkened and her hair turned paler than she imagined it could. She kept it in a braid; it grew longer, all the way to the small of her back.
One day Antje opened the door of a hotel room to find Mathis there. She stood still, gripping her cart, unable to move or speak. He was sitting upright on the edge of the bed, in a suit that didn’t fit him properly, holding the glass bowl filled with seashells. He turned. He didn’t seem surprised to see her at all.
“Oh,” he said. “I just wanted some quiet. That’s all.”
She would’ve come to him if he had asked or made some gesture. But all he did was return the bowl to the table and sit back down, and she closed the door and cleaned another room instead.
Mathis didn’t come home that night. And for the rest of that month there were nights when she remained alone. She assumed he began sleeping in the hotel room. Antje didn’t bring it up; she was relieved.
She stayed in the backyard, lying on the hammock he had bought. She drank wine, read a book to practice her Spanish. She started another to learn Basque, too. She watched satellites gliding across the sky. Nights smelled like fire. Sometimes the stray dog appeared, lay beside her, and looked out at the sea.
Antje left the television on while she cleaned the hotel rooms. In each room she picked a different station. It was like entering pockets of the world, as though she were a great traveler.
When she was a child, she had often watched The Time Machine. The Morlocks had terrified and enthralled her. And Yvette Mimieux was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. For a long time she was convinced that Rod Taylor was her father. That he was on a very long journey. She rooted for him.
She was making a bed one morning in the summer when an image appeared on the screen that made her stop. It was a clip of a city building with a burned hole in its side. As if the structure had rotted away. There was smoke everywhere.
A bomb had gone off in the northwest, in Galicia. It happened at dawn and the building had mostly been empty. Still, the television showed a young woman tripping over the debris as police officers rushed to her. She was wearing a blue dress. The dress fluttered and showed off her hips. The footage was shaky but it looked as though the woman was gripping her wrist. That she was missing a hand.
She listened to the calm voice of the reporter. She didn’t understand all of what he was saying, she had never heard some of the words in Spanish before, but she tried. She kept staring at the woman who by now had a blanket over her and was being taken away.
Antje jumped when a man entered the room.
The man was her age. He was wearing a dark suit. It was his room. He smelled of cologne and chewing gum. He apologized several times and then they were both silent. He glanced at her chest and her legs. He leaned against the wall. He tried speaking to her and she pushed her cart out the door, pretending not to understand.
Antje forgot to turn the television off. She could still hear it as she walked down the hall. She didn’t turn, knew the man was there, staring.
She kept picturing the woman in the dress, gripping her wrist. Was she missing her hand? She wasn’t sure anymore. There had been something dripping down the side of her arm. Or perhaps that was just the dress. She wondered if the woman had been returning from a party. A late night. It seemed that way, the kind of dress you wore to a party.
The first time she ever passed Mathis in the hall, he was talking with hotel guests. She slowed down with her cart and eavesdropped on what he was saying to them. He thought she slowed for him, not for what he was saying. Then, later, she did slow for him.
All that seemed so long ago.
She went inside to an identical room and started the vacuum. She pushed it back and forth; the noise filled the air.
He said he wouldn’t be gone long. Just a few days. He was attending a conference. Mathis kissed her then, quickly, and it startled her. He didn’t notice.
The stray dog appeared, licking the back door and wagging his tail. They had never let him inside but she looked at Mathis and he nodded. The dog leapt onto the couch.
“His name is Rofo,” Mathis said. “Someone told me that.”
Rofo placed his head on Antje’s lap. She wondered what kind of dog he was.
“He’s an Akita,” Mathis said. “Those dogs from Japan.”
She buried her fingers into Rofo’s fur and played with his ears. In recent months his muzzle had begun to gray.
“We’ve never been to Japan,” she said.
“No,” he said, “no we haven’t.”
He rolled his suitcase to the door. She watched from the couch, suddenly missing him before he was gone.
“Mathis,” she said.
They smiled at each other. He seemed to her so much older then, so much older than he was. The gray had started in his hair, too. For the first time she noticed the loose skin of his hands, the visible veins.
She said, “Bring me back something. A souvenir.”
She said it because he used to. The house was decorated with things he had brought back from the hotel conferences: a snow globe, a set of Brisca playing cards, lavender soap, a shell from a different coast.
“I will,” he said, and she petted Rofo and listened to the taxi go down the road.
She went to the hotel all that week. She took on extra shifts. She had the motorbike to herself so she spent time on the bay. It was July, the peak season, and all the hotels were full. On the beaches and the verandas there were so many languages and accents.
She smuggled some cleaning supplies from the hotel and cleaned the bungalow. She slipped into the pace of work. When she was done she stood in the center of the house and looked around at the accumulation of their life together, the three years she had been with him.
Mathis called once. They talked to each other about their days.
She fell asleep in the hammock. She woke to something licking her fingers, shrieked, looked down at Rofo underneath her. She laughed. She thought of the child. This surprised her. She hadn’t done so in a while. She concentrated on the boy but nothing came; she was met with a blankness, as if someone had carried him into a far corridor she couldn’t find. She kept thinking this would change, that she would discover him again as time passed.
She wanted to do better. She kept saying this to herself. That she wanted to do better.
The day Mathis was due to return, she woke early, when it was still dark. It came to her then, like an unfinished thought from a dream. She put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She left food and water out for Rofo. She was carrying a small shoulder bag she found in a hotel room years ago. She took Mathis’s motorbike, crossing the bridge over the Urumea.
The morning was already hot and dry. At the station, Antje found a bench. Announcements came through on the loudspeaker. The giant timetable above her changed. On a television there was an update on the bombing, men with rifles and helmets storming a home. She waited to see if they would replay the clip with the woman in the blue dress. People entered the station and left.
She stood when the train arrived. She watched the gate. Soon, the passengers began to appear until there was a crowd, and Antje scanned their faces. Mathis wasn’t there. She waited a little while longer, for the gate to empty, but he still didn’t show. She sat back down. She thought she got the information wrong. She took out her phone and called but he didn’t respond.
She didn’t know how much time passed. She stared at her phone in her hands and when she looked up a man was staring at her from across the station. Antje didn’t recognize him at first. She thought it was Mathis, of course it was him, and she waved and made her way toward him.
But it wasn’t him. It was the young man from the hotel, the one whose room she was cleaning when he came in. He was wearing the same suit. His hair was combed and he smelled of the same cologne. He said, “There you are!” and smiled. He looked down at his shoes and kept his hands in his pockets.
“Are you going on a trip?” he asked.
She was about to leave until she realized she was nodding. She heard her voice. She said she was. She said, “Yes.”
He asked where.
She looked behind him at the television, where they were showing the bombed building.
“Galicia,” she said.
She said this without thinking.
The young man’s eyes brightened. He said that he was, too. And that the train was boarding. They must hurry. He offered his hand. And before she understood what was happening Antje took his hand and followed him. They passed through the gate. She saw her legs and feet moving down the platform but it seemed as if she weren’t moving at all. Stopping at an open car, she concentrated on the softness of the young man’s hand.
“I am so glad for this,” he said, and helped her up.
Her mother often took her on the train. Antje couldn’t recall where they were going
to or coming from. Only the train. And the changing portrait framed in the window:
their conjoined reflection, her mother holding her from behind, and beyond that the shifting skyline. She hadn’t thought of this in a
long time. She leaned against the window now and watched the country appear and vanish: the churches, the fields, the sun, and all
He had introduced himself as Félix. He worked for a popular clothing company and was on his way to a textile factory in Lugo, in Galicia. She recognized the company name because Mathis had bought her one of their shirts for her birthday last winter. A shirt with printed dots she once wore to a hotel event with him, not realizing it was a formal affair. She had retreated to a corner, angry at him for not telling her until he pulled her out for a dance, not caring if people saw, and he showed her the steps patiently, as though they were alone in the room, and in that moment she loved him.
Across from her, Félix was asleep with his mouth slightly open and his tie loosened. She was surprised by his normality. There was an ease between them she wasn’t expecting: They had slipped into conversation, about the clothing company, the factory, his fear of flying. He seemed different to her now than he did in the hotel. He seemed very young. And happy. He had even offered to buy her ticket when the conductor came by, but she had bought her own even though she couldn’t afford it.
She hadn’t known what to say when Félix asked at the start of the trip how far she was going. She thought of the clothing company and said she was visiting Lugo, too, and he said, “Because of the wall?” and she nodded and said, “Yes, I always wanted to see the wall.”
“It’s not to be missed,” he said. He apologized again for the other day, about startling her. He wanted to know about her work and the hotel and how long she had been in Spain and everything. She answered what she felt like answering, often not with the truth, and avoided what she felt like avoiding. He didn’t push. It reminded her of the way some animals made their presence known, once, and then went to their corner.
She was wondering about the bombing and, as if he were reading her thoughts, he told her it was okay, it was on everyone’s minds, it had happened in Pontevedra, all the way on the coast, far away. No one was killed. Only a few injured. He heard those responsible were separatists. That it was about Galician nationalism. He brought up the Basque Country, where San Sebastián was. He thought the notion of discovery and exploration within us was corrupt. It was a notion of conquest. We were defined by collision.
She didn’t understand him completely. She kept picturing the woman in the blue dress, holding her wrist, the colored drip like a streamer or a belt trailing behind her.
He tried not to think about it too much, he said. He believed that if we worked hard we would find our ways. He blushed at his own earnestness. He liked history, he confessed. He smiled again. She liked that he smiled often.
“I am glad you’re here,” Félix said, and he shut his eyes and fell asleep as though he had turned off a switch.
It was a long journey but she didn’t mind. She watched the morning turn into the afternoon, the daylight shift and move. Every now and then the train slowed and made stops, picking up and dropping off passengers. There were stretches when they traveled undisturbed across the country, the world moving as though a great hand were pulling her along. In the last few years it had always seemed like she was the one moving. She settled into her seat, facing the stranger across from her, and her eyes grew heavy and closed.
Her body shook. She woke, thinking she was falling, and grabbed the armrests. At first she didn’t recognize the train car she was in or even where she was. The sun was still high, brightening the passing landscape and the empty seat in front of her. Then she remembered Félix. Saw him clearly in her mind. Where had he gone?
Gripping the seat, Antje looked around at all the passengers in the car. She wanted to speak but no sound came. She was unaware that she was holding her breath until the train shook again and she surfaced.
Félix appeared, walking slowly down the aisle with two cardboard trays. They were filled with beers and sandwiches. He said he hoped he hadn’t startled her. He was wondering if she was hungry. She was. She hadn’t eaten all day. She took a bite of the sandwich and another, calming. She drank the beer. Félix had combed his hair and tightened his tie. She smelled toothpaste on him.
“We’re almost there,” he said.
They had crossed into Galicia while Antje slept. They were now approaching Lugo from the north. They passed highways and a soccer field. Concrete high-rise buildings painted in different colors, a bright orange, a green. Silos. It was almost six o’clock but it still looked like morning outside, the summers much longer here. Félix tapped a finger against the window, at a large building in the distance.
“The factory,” he said. “We’re going there.”
She didn’t correct him. She saw the wall. It surrounded the town. She had never seen anything like it before. It was as though they were approaching a kingdom. There were high gates and towers and the remnants of enormous turrets.
“Roman,” Félix said. “They’re Roman. Third century. There used to be a moat. Imagine.”
She pictured the moat and the sentries and all the villagers. The king and the queen. The days and the wars. And then the train entered the Lugo station and they were disembarking and moving quickly down the platform. Sitting in the car, she had grown used to keeping still. She took his hand again and stayed behind him as they walked through the station that resembled the one they had left—the vaulted ceilings, the timetable, the giant clock.
The factory was on the outskirts of the city, at the edge of the woods. They took a taxi. At the gate, Félix told the guard that Antje was observing, a new hire. He said all this naturally, as though he had done this before. Passing through, he winked at her.
The building was tall, modern, with many windows. On a high floor, she spotted a janitor lifting a mop. On another, a woman stepped into a glass elevator and descended. Félix knew her. They embraced at the entrance and then the woman embraced Antje, too.
Her name was Camila. She was perhaps thirty and there was a conservative beauty to her. She was wearing a dark suit and heels. Her eyes were black with mascara and she smelled of a nice perfume. She walked with quick steps as she took them on a tour.
It was after hours and the building was nearly empty. On each floor Antje could hear the faint hum of a vacuum. They entered rooms filled with worktables and machines, others with tailors’ dummies and drawings. Boxes were stacked in storage, many with stamps from Indonesia and Morocco.
They weren’t there for very long, less than an hour. They ended on the top floor. It was a large room that had been painted a shade of yellow. One side of it was all glass and the sun was coming through. The entire city and the surrounding woods were visible: the winding streets, the spires of the cathedral, people walking the length of the city wall.
Behind her, clothes were hanging on racks. There were dozens of them. Shirts, pants, dresses, and sweaters, all of them organized by color. Félix examined them, taking notes on a clipboard. She wondered if there was an order for how they arranged the colors. She was about to ask but then Félix told her that he had to step out for a moment. He said that he’d be back. That Camila would be here.
He said, “Okay?”
“Okay,” Antje said, and watched him go.
They were now alone, Antje by the windows and Camila by the racks. Antje followed Camila’s reflection moving across the room, her heels tapping the shiny floor.
“Why don’t you try something?”
Antje laughed. She lifted a hand and shook her head.
Camila stopped at the end of the rack. “Please,” she said. She pointed to the clothes. Pick something. She was holding her smile.
The room appeared much smaller suddenly. Antje approached and browsed the clothes, moving from color to color until she reached a blue dress in a middle rack. She hesitated. It looked like the one from the television clip, sleeveless and long. The skirt swayed as she lifted it.
“Perfect,” Camila said, taking it from her.
She waited for Camila to show her where to change, to point to a door, but she stood very still by the racks, holding the dress for her and watching.
“Please,” she said again, and gestured for her to go on.
The evening light had settled on the trees; it shone through the room and now on her skin as she took off her clothes. She kept glancing at Camila, whose face was expressionless. Then she carried the dress and stood in the middle of the room. The sun felt good on her naked body. She turned. It touched her neck and her chest and her stomach and it felt good. She opened her eyes. Below her, a car was leaving the factory, a guard lifting the gate. She thought the guard looked up. She thought it would bother her. She stayed by the window and stepped into the dress and she heard Camila’s steps echo in the room, smelled her perfume, and felt the woman’s fingers zipping her up.
Camila turned her around; she lifted Antje’s hand and spun her. She took out an eyeliner pen. She said, “Keep still,” and drew around Antje’s eyes. She told Antje to blink. She darkened and shaded. She put on lipstick and blush. She took out a pocket mirror and held it up.
“Gorgeous,” Camila said, and Antje smiled at her painted face in the tiny circle.
She kept the dress. She wore it that evening, stuffing her clothes into her handbag as she and Félix left the factory for the city. They had dinner in a square that had a tall water fountain, strings of lights, and live music. She wanted him to order for her. He ordered mussels and shrimp and ham and wine, and they ate with their fingers and tore off pieces of thick bread.
He didn’t believe how long her hair was. She undid the braid and showed him.
She liked watching him eat. He was unaware of the crumbs on his chin, the oil on his lips. Mathis wiped his mouth after every bite. She noticed this when they first met and it hadn’t changed. She found herself reaching for her phone but stopped herself. The audience clapped after a song and she clapped, too.
As it began to grow dark, Félix took her up to the wall. They walked the city perimeter,
peering down at the old buildings and the bright neon signs of the stores. She imagined again how it once was, the forests and the river, the pockets of villages and farms. She asked Félix what Galicia meant. He didn’t know. He heard it was Celtic. He heard it had to do with milk. Or the hills.
She said that for someone who enjoyed history he wasn’t very helpful.
He grew embarrassed and she touched his face and slipped her arm around his. She almost tripped on the path and leaned into him. They were slightly drunk. The first stars appeared. They circled the city as it transitioned into nighttime. On the wall there was a poster protesting the bombing; another, farther on, in support of it, resistencia galega spray-painted on the stone.
Félix was from Madrid. He was twenty-four years old, the same age as when she came to Spain. The clothing company was his family’s. Next season he would travel to Morocco, to a factory there. It was a way to see the world.
Listening, it occurred to her that he and Camila were lovers. Or had been. Antje had no proof of this but felt certain all the same. She thought they made a pretty pair. She repeated the words a pretty pair to herself and wondered what Félix’s parents were like. How much they saw each other. She had only met Mathis’s parents once, at their wedding. They seemed tired to her, resigned to their child’s foreign life.
She liked the feel of her arm around Félix’s. The way she settled into him like a lock. This young man whom she had only known for a day.
A dog crossed their path, jumping onto the edge of the wall as though it were a racecourse. He looked like Rofo. They watched as he passed them, jumped once more, and went down the steps of the wall and out of the city toward the high-rise buildings. Lights were coming from a distance, reaching the sky and shifting.
“Come on,” she said.
She tried to follow the dog but lost him. She followed the strange lights in the sky. Félix caught up to her. They entered a maze of sidewalks and climbed a pedestrian bridge over a highway, heading out into the country. She forgot what time it was, whether it was early or late. She was suddenly filled with energy. She was on an unpaved road and she kept walking.
“Antje,” Félix said, and she ignored him.
The distant beat of music reached her. She heard her name again and she couldn’t recall if she had ever told Félix her name. She thought of the day she opened the hotel-room door to find Mathis sitting on the edge of the bed. The bowl of seashells. His solitude. How it made her feel like someone else. How she knew in that moment that what was broken had already existed long before they had met. How it was still with her now, here.
The music grew louder. The grass brushed against her skirt. A long breeze. Félix still behind her. She reached the ridge and stopped. A stone mansion stood in the far distance, without a roof, with broken walls. Ancient. Lights spilled from inside, across the grounds and into the air. A DJ was on a platform wearing headphones and leaning over turntables and a laptop. Hundreds of dancers surrounded him. They were all wearing bracelets and necklaces that glowed, jumping and spinning, their arms reaching into the air.
She went down and made her way through the crowd. She lost Félix. She climbed over what had been a wall to a room. She thought she saw Camila, reached for her, but it was someone else. She watched a boy’s body moving as though he were tied by strings. And in the shifting light she saw that there were other rooms and halls, the remnants of them extending across the field, all of them filled, and Antje danced and stepped farther in.
What could it have been? What had Félix offered her? She had known so clearly that morning; she had been so sure. Later, watching him from across a hotel room, their clothes damp from sweat and their bodies still carrying the energy of that field, she kept waiting for it to return, wanting it to, like a thing she could grasp and swallow. Paint herself with. Then in the morning, as he slept, Antje changed back into her clothes, hung the dress in the closet, and left his room, shutting the door.
She never saw him again. She went to the rail station and took the first train heading east. Lugo and its city walls slipped away from view. She sat by a window and thought of Mathis, wondering if he was in a town like the one she had been in, if he was alone. She tried calling him. She counted the rings. When it prompted her to leave a message, she began to talk, telling him where she was, where she had been, unaware that she was speaking in German.
The train crossed the country. Antje slept. Dreamed. She swallowed a ball of thread and the ball exploded quietly inside of her. She felt a great relief that she had contained it. In the weeks after they had lost the child, Mathis had come to her, lying on top of her, and she had let him for a while; and then it grew unbearable and she struck him and pushed.
He didn’t touch her again, not that night or the night after, and the days went on but she was never able to tell him that it wasn’t the child she was thinking of but the desert where her mother had been, the desert and the man approaching her mother’s Humvee, his hands in the air, all their lives strapped across his torso.
She lived long enough to drag someone out of the wreckage. Her mother without her legs. Her mother the engineer.
In that last year Antje mostly saw her through a computer. On the screen she was always under a tent in the desert as though she were on holiday. The video often froze, and it was just her mother’s voice and her frozen image, caught with her eyes closed.
“I can still see you,” her mother always said. “Keep moving.”
She returned to San Sebastián in the evening. It was as if she had been gone for a long time and no time at all. She breathed in the night air outside the station. A policeman and his dog were making their rounds, the dog sniffing the parked cars and Mathis’s motorbike, which was where she left it.
She was heading toward the bike when a shadow frightened her. Convinced that she was hallucinating, her body went still and then trembled as a monster took shape under a street lamp. It had black eyes, pale skin, and horns, but as it approached she saw that it was a costume, and the person came up to her and bowed.
She couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman inside, young or old. The person lit sparklers and offered her one. She held it and watched as the person left and joined a group of others that had appeared, all of them wearing different costumes and waving sparklers. She thought she heard German. And then, later, other languages.
In the distance, the city had changed. She didn’t see until now. There were banners hanging above the streets. New lights. A summer festival had begun.
When the sparkler dimmed, she started the motorbike and pulled out of the station. She had yet to reach Mathis; she didn’t know if he was home. She slowed at the station exit. Traffic was moving across the bridge over the Urumea.
Antje waited for an opening.