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The Most Beautiful Day of the Year

ISSUE:  Summer 1991

David was talking, slowly and with concentration, choosing his words carefully, sometimes haltingly, as he did when he was trying to get something right. I couldn’t remember how we had gotten onto the subject of Spain. Mary had told a story about a man she had known who had asked her to go to Australia with him. That was three years ago, before I had met her. She said it made her feel funny to think how everything could have been different if she had said yes. Then one thing led to another, but I hadn’t followed closely.

We were out on my second floor porch. It is open to the sky and has a low wooden railing. At eye level catkins and swollen buds made thin veils of yellow and green. Farther off, over the roofs of the nearby houses, I could see the steeples downtown and the courthouse dome. The sky was so blue it seemed to vibrate.

I leaned back and put my feet up on the rail. David’s wife and daughter were away, so Mary and I had invited him over for a drink after dinner. Mary and I had quarreled just before David had arrived, but now she rested her hand on my shoulder as she listened to him. Telling her story about the man who had asked her to Australia had seemed to settle her down. Something was blooming down in the yards, and the air smelled sweet. I breathed in deeply and tried to relax.

David was holding a big glass of ice water in one hand and slowly shaking his head. “I never wanted to go to Pamplona,” he said. “Most of all, I did not want to go to Pamplona for the Festival of Saint Fermin and the running of the bulls.” He paused for a minute. The sun was beginning to drop through the phone wires and the tops of the trees. When he started again he was staring at the roof of the house next door, as if reading something there.

“We were on a city bus in Munich, standing up and hanging onto the chrome bar overhead. We swung around a corner and she saw the poster in Spanish on the side of a building. She said, “I want to go there. David, let’s go there.” I didn’t say anything. It was early June and the festival was a month away. But, when the time came, even though we were in London then and had found an inexpensive bed and breakfast with a family in Clapham near a tube station and were going in every day to the parks and museums and plays, even though we were having a fine time, when the date rolled around she hadn’t forgotten. She had been thinking about it the whole time.”

The effort had gone out of David’s voice. He still spoke with concentration, but more fluently now. I took my feet off the railing and turned toward my friend. Mary shifted her arm across my shoulders.

“We took the train to Southampton and a boat to Cherbourg,” David said. “Then to save money we hitched and it was surprisingly easy. People were willing to pick up a couple. Sherry always looked good, even though we were living out of our backpacks. She was tall and slim and wore her dark brown hair short. Even from a passing car, I suppose, her smile was arresting. I stood behind her at the side of the road and we both held our arms out straight with our thumbs pointing up.

“We made it to Spain in three days, sleeping in our tent among the cars in roadside campgrounds. Our longest ride was from north of Bordeaux to Biarritz with a French truck driver. I think he only saw Sherry—I was kneeling a few yards away getting the water bottle out of my pack. He pulled his whole semi rig over and we both climbed up. He was a young guy with black curly hair and he looked a little startled when I jumped in, too, but he didn’t say anything. I sat in the right bucket and Sherry bounced along, sitting on a hump between the seats. It was hard to talk with him because of his southern French, but between the two of us we did all right. His name was Bernard.

“We were with him all afternoon, and in Biarritz he took us to supper at a boarding house he knew. The place was all truckers except for Sherry and me. They were all about Bernard’s age, and they all wore fitted shirts with the short sleeves rolled up high over their biceps. In a front room waiting for supper Sherry and I sat to one side while the drivers took turns playing foosball. They lifted and tilted the game and banged it down, laughing hard and cursing each other in phrases I couldn’t make out. They seemed to be ignoring us, but I wondered whether part of the show was for Sherry’s benefit. Then we were called to dinner by the woman who ran the place, a solid, gray-haired woman of about fifty. The men quieted down the minute they stepped into the dining room, as though the woman in the white apron and lavendar print dress were their mother. She sat down at the head of the long wooden table and started the bowls of food around—green beans, parsleyed potatoes, small pieces of beef in a dark peppery sauce.

“There were eleven of us. Some of the drivers kept quiet and ate hungrily, eyes on their plates. Three live wires entertained the rest, joking and arguing, putting away the food and talking out of the sides of their mouths. I wasn’t understanding very much because of their accents and slang, but every once in a while one of them would shoot a glance at me or Sherry, mostly at Sherry. She had a way of paying attention, with her eyes flashing around and a half smile curving up on one side, that would make her the center of a room. She didn’t have to say or do anything, but she was avid, and those around her would sense it, and they would perform for her.

“When the banter got loud and the driver across from me waved his fork in the air, making a speech at the big guy next to him, the proprietress interrupted with a quick remark. Then she got up, went out, and brought back a pot of coffee.

“Sherry and I finished, paid for our meal, said good-bye to Bernard, and went outside. It was still light so we walked the few blocks back to the highway and had luck right away. A French couple in their thirties picked us up and drove us all the way to San Sebastian where we took a room for the night.

“The next morning we went to find the train for Pamplona. The station was full and noisy. We bought third class tickets and went out to the platform. There were other tourists among the crowd, conferring in small groups, bent over their tickets with their luggage piled around them. A company of Spanish soldiers were boarding. The soldiers already in their compartments were hanging out the windows and shouting at those on the platform, waving long green wine bottles at them. None had guns, and they all kept their cloth hats tucked in their belts or pockets. They must have been on leave to go to the festival. They heckled the women, calling for them to come in for a drink. The red stripes on their shoulders and arms showed bright against the dark olive cloth of their uniforms. Sherry smiled at them and then smiled at me.

“We boarded our car. There were no compartments and no other foreigners. We and the rest of the third class passengers—mostly old people or mothers with small children—sat on flat wooden benches with no backs. When the train started the one bare lightbulb swung on its wire in the middle of the car. I watched the ties slip past through a hole in the floor between my feet. It was a festival train today but also a daily local, and it stopped at every small station along the way and sometimes where there was no station, just a road crossing at the edge of a field. The land was flat and dry, and the windows of the car were dusty. At each stop a few passengers got off or on. At one stop a mother with a baby in her arms boarded. Another child, wearing only a blue and red striped T-shirt, hung onto his mother’s skirt. They got off at the next stop, the little boy dropping to his bottom on the metal stair and then hopping down to run across the stones and cinders of the roadbed in his bare feet. I looked at Sherry. She was sitting up straight and quietly taking it all in, but I couldn’t guess what she was thinking.

“It was a long ride. The last third of it we were traveling beside the Arga which ran slow and brown between the pulp mills. Below each mill it carried a thick coating of brown foam which gradually thinned and dissolved before the next spill-point. When we rounded a curve I could see soldiers with their heads and arms out the windows of the cars ahead. At stops I heard their bottles shattering next to the tracks. I had not wanted to make this trip. The car rocked, the fouled Arga slid behind the dusty windows, and I felt as though I were being drawn down into a steep tunnel. I didn’t know where it led but it got darker as we went. I closed my eyes for a minute, then turned to look at Sherry. She felt my gaze, turned toward me, gave me a level look, and took my hand.

” “It is very sad,” I said. I didn’t like the note of complaint I heard in my voice.

” “Yes,” she said. “It must be hard.” Her voice was grave and full. We both looked around at the old men, young women, and small children sitting on the wooden benches. A small white goat was tied in one corner of the car, straw scattered on the floor around it. I remembered our small room in London, the gulls over the boat to Cherbourg, the ride across the Loire two mornings before in the little car of a beautiful woman who said she was a painter. I wanted Sherry and me to be someplace else. I pictured a round wooden table in a sunny room, her on one side, me on the other. Then I looked at her as she looked at the others.

“At Pamplona we stepped off the train into a jostling crowd and wedged our way slowly with our packs on our backs across the platform, through the station, and into the street. People were shouting to one another, hurrying singly or in groups in every direction away from the station, heading down side streets or craning their necks looking for taxis. I heard half a dozen languages as we crossed the avenue and moved together instinctively to escape the crowd and get our bearings. At a sheltered corner we checked our map and headed for a central square. Along the way we stopped a boy and asked him about places to stay. He was about 14, not very tall, and he took us in with a wide, dignified gaze. He listened to Sherry’s broken Spanish with great courtesy—I didn’t speak any Spanish—and he told us that, yes, one could camp for the festival very conveniently in a little park right behind the Plaza de Toros. And so we walked directly there and pitched our tent almost literally in the shadow of the bullring.

“It was a very small triangular park just to the north and east of the bullring. There were tall full trees and grass and nothing else. It was not usually a place for camping, but now it was dotted with tents and with people resting or milling about, adjusting their equipment. Most of them looked like students or young married couples, Germans and Scandinavians and Dutch I guessed. Sherry and I pressed the stakes down into the turf with our bootheels, tightened the guy strings, and slid our packs inside the orange nylon tent. I went and filled the water bottles at a drinking fountain. When I got back Sherry was inside sitting up with her legs crossed. I crawled in, too, and lay down on my back.

“It was a simple, peaked, two-person tent, so Sherry’s head brushed the nylon on one side and her hair crackled when she turned to look back at me. “It’s five o’clock,” she said. “Let’s relax a minute then look around.” I nodded and continued to rest my head on my pack. She turned her back to me, reached forward, and zipped shut the tent flaps near my feet. Then she took out a pot and poured in some water. She wet a wash cloth, soaped it, and washed her face. After she dried her face she took off her shirt and bra and continued to wash. When she raised one elbow over her head and sponged her side she looked like a painting or a sculpture. Looking at her like that made me go perfectly still inside.

“”You should clean up, too, David, it feels so good,” she said. I sat up, took off my shirt, and washed. Then we both lay back, side by side. The orange nylon, a couple of feet above us, shifted with a breeze. I could hear voices nearby. I turned onto my side, toward Sherry. Our skin in the orange light glowed. I reached out my arm and laid it across her ribs below her breasts. She turned her head to the side and looked at me.

“She was 19, I was 20. We had been together for three years, though for the last two I had been away at college and she had been living at home, first with her mother in Des Moines and then with her father in St. Paul, working at whatever jobs she could find and saving for this trip. We had seen one another every two weeks or so, one of us making the 200 mile drive each way, wringing out of a week-end all the intimacy we could, famished for each other. It hadn’t mattered what we did—a walk downtown, lunch in a park, a drive to the country—the simple point was to be together inside that clear light, stunned by the seriousness of this first attachment, charmed by every detail of the other, the tilt of the head, a sudden joke, relaxed laughter. Sexually, she had led the way forward, gradually but with certainty until we were lovers. She was like an explorer at the edge of a new continent, methodical so as not to miss anything—the widening vista with every step—but also intrepid, making straight for the unexplored interior.

“In late winter she went to Greece to stay with an uncle who worked there; in the spring, when my classes had ended, she traveled north and I flew over to meet her in Germany. In the days before she left for Greece, when we were planning our travels together, when we looked up from the maps and calendars spread between us, her eyes took me in and in. But now, in our tent in Pamplona, as they had from the day she met me at the Frankfurt airport, her eyes fixed on me hard, looking at me, at me, holding me out. Anyway, that’s the way it felt.

“”Are you getting hungry, David?” she asked.

“”Yes,” I said. “Let’s go find something to eat.” We dressed, slipped out of the tent, and headed for the Plaza del Castillo.

“We walked uphill across the street from the bullring. The wall of the building beside us was covered by posters, all identical, all like the one Sherry had spotted in Munich. Against a blue background a great black bull’s head faced forward. The photo was cropped so that the left margin sliced the bull’s face in half—one nostril, one great horn, one black eye staring out. In the lower right corner red letters announced in Spanish, “Pamplona, Saint Fermin 7 to 14 of July, 1972.” Below the posters beggar after beggar sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. If they suffered a wound or a deformity, they had removed their clothing to bare it. One had rolled up his pants, exposing a leg twisted grotesquely at the knee. One sat shirtless, both arms pink stumps just below the shoulders. We emptied our pockets of change into the hats and baskets on the ground in front of them, but there were too many. We crossed the street to the bullring side. Two Spanish boys—six or seven years old—raced toward us. Both wore khaki T-shirts. One shirt said “U.S. Army” under the picture of a tank charging through a jungle; the other showed a B-52. They dodged between us, shouting to one another, and tore away. At the top of the street we were near the front of the bullring. A wide ramp cut down into the pavement, the chute where the young men and the bulls entered the ring after their run through the streets. Beside it on a thick pedestal was a granite bust of Hemingway staring forward just above our eye level.

“When we arrived at the Plaza it was already beginning to fill up. Around its edge in the shade of a broad tiled awning people filled the doors of small hotels, restaurants, and bars. Beyond the awning, in the sun, others sat at black, wrought-iron tables placed close together on the paving stones. We circulated in a crowd between the tables and the low square of shrubs that defined the center of the plaza until we saw two empty chairs at a table where another couple sat. The couple saw us looking and waved us over. We introduced ourselves and sat down. The man told us his name—Roberto—and reached across the table to shake my hand. His smile was white and even. He wore a blue blazer over a gray knit sportshirt. His short black hair was combed straight back. There were a few gray hairs in his trim moustache, but he wasn’t much over 30. Then he introduced his wife, Renata, who nodded and smiled without opening her mouth. When she smiled her lips made a little pout, except that the corners were turned up and her eyes were shining. She was beautiful, like an expensive bird. She wore a bright flowered sundress and her dark hair swept back from her temples and forehead in a dramatic way. Roberto and Renata had ordered aperitifs, and when the waiter brought them I asked him to bring two more.

“The square was so busy now that we had to lean toward one another and speak loudly to hear. They were from Mexico City, in Spain on holiday. Roberto’s family owned ships. He was beginning to take over some of the management. They spoke no English, but some French. Since I spoke no Spanish, the four of us, two Mexicans and two Americans in Spain, did the best we could in French. We laughed about it. Roberto ordered a bottle of wine and four glasses.

“They had rooms in a hotel not far away and looked at us with astonishment when we said we were staying in a tent. “Aren’t you afraid someone will take your things?” asked Renata. She had a way of asking a question, then turning her head a little, aiming with one eye. Her crest of dark hair cocked when she turned her head.

” “There’s not much to take,” said Sherry. “We carry our passports and money, so there are just our tent, sleeping bags, packs, some clothes, and a pot.” Roberto and Renata tipped back their heads and laughed, looked at each other, and then looked at us. They couldn’t stop smiling. I ordered a bottle of wine like the one Roberto had ordered.

“The sun had set and the plaza was getting louder and louder. We had to draw our heads close together over the table when one of us spoke. Through the jammed square from time to time groups of young men in loose, white shirts and pants would run, dodging and pushing their way through the crowd and winding among the tables. The red bandanas they wore around their necks bounced as they went. They would run with the bulls in the morning. Roberto explained that the fighting bulls were brought to town down the Arga, taken off their boats, and penned near the river. Each morning at seven those needed for the fights in the afternoon were run through the streets to the ring. The bravest runners entered the ring just ahead of the bulls. “Will you run, David?” he asked.

“I told him that I had never considered it, that I thought it was a foolish thing to do, that I had never understood the impulse to seek out danger for the sensations it produced. He nodded gravely.

“Another group of young men dressed like the others wound among the tables. They looked like they had had a lot to drink and they were ecstatic. Three of them carried hammers made with plastic handles and foam rubber heads. They were hitting everyone they passed on the top of the head with the hammers. They passed our table and hit each of us on the head with the light foam hammers. We grinned at each other and shook our heads. Some strands of Renata’s hair stood straight up. I realized that I was quite drunk.

“Sherry suggested that the four of us look for something to eat. She and I had been hungry for a long time and the table we were at was just for drinks. Roberto and Renata said they knew a place nearby so we all stood up and tried to move together through the mob. It was dark now and pockets of revelers in the crowd were dancing to loud music from portable radios. Fireworks began overhead and the whole crowd seemed to move up and down. Sherry and I got separated by a group pushing through from the other way. I turned in a circle and tried to see her, but couldn’t. The faces around me, lit green then white then red by the fireworks, grinned and sweated as they bobbed up and down. A man wearing a large black bull’s head danced toward me, waving his horns from side to side. More dancers clung to him in a gyrating line. When he stopped and pawed the ground he seemed to be pointing at me. Then a man nearby took out a handkerchief and waved it at the bull and laughed. The bull rushed forward comically, trailing its line of dancers. When a red plume of fireworks lit the square I saw Sherry about 15 feet away sitting up on Roberto’s shoulders waving at me. I forced my way over to them and they plunged ahead through the crowd. Renata was there, too, and she laughed at me and smiled. I grabbed her hand, and we pressed after Roberto and Sherry in the direction of the restaurant.

“The restaurant was in a side street off the plaza. It was below street level, and a narrow staircase led down to it. A row of incandescent bulbs lit the stone sides of the passageway a warm yellow. The stairs were filled with people waiting for tables, but Roberto, with Sherry in tow, squeezed down and disappeared while Renata and I waited at the doorway by the street. A few minutes later Roberto reappeared at the bottom of the stairway and waved us down. As Renata and I wedged past the others, I felt them looking at us. When we reached the bottom Roberto had disappeared again. A waiter led us through a crowded main dining room to a smaller cavern-like side room carved out of the same yellowish rock of the stairway. There were about a dozen tables, all of them full, and the walls reflected the chatter of the diners. Open torches on the walls threw shifting light and broad shadows. I followed Renata and the waiter to a small corner table where Roberto and Sherry sat waiting for us. Sherry beamed up at me. The look on her face said, “Aren’t we lucky? Isn’t this wonderful?”

“I suppose it was, but the noise echoed in the cave-like room and bars of light and shadow played across our faces and the sense which I had felt on the train of descending through a steep, dark tunnel returned to me so that I sat quietly, barely following the conversation and hardly tasting my food when it came. Roberto had ordered and the table was full—big shrimp stained red with spices curled on a plate of rice, wedges of tomatoes in a bowl of oil and vinegar and basil, two small chickens baked and cut into pieces, medallions of beef in a shallow bowl of gravy, young carrots lined in rows on a platter, a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white. The others spoke rapidly and ate hungrily, but my appetite had vanished after a first small helping. Roberto gazed at Sherry steadily as she spoke, glancing quickly at his plate to guide his fork. Renata turned to me from time to time and smiled. Her lips were glazed with juice from the chicken. I looked at Sherry across the table from me speaking quickly and lightly in her excellent French, red light glowing on her face, her eyes dark with the excitement of festival. I could have reached across and touched her wrist, but I felt I was looking through a doorway from another room.

“I felt that way—like an onlooker from another room—for the rest of the night. We finished our meal, paid for it, and returned to the plaza and danced in the crowd to the staccato music of a Spanish band. Roberto danced with Sherry, I danced with Renata, I danced with Sherry, Roberto danced with Sherry. Even after we said good-bye to the other couple and left the plaza, the echo between my acting self and my watching self whispered eerily in my head.

“We walked through the dark streets arm in arm toward the bullring and our tent, the noise from the square slowly receding behind us. My legs felt unsteady from the alcohol and fatigue and Sherry was leaning against me heavily. As we stepped off a curb a car plunged around a corner, caught us in its lights, and blared its horn. I jumped back and pulled Sherry with me. The car swished past us, its right-side mirror brushing the front of my shirt. “Merci, David,” said Sherry, dreamily. All night she had been pronouncing my name in French, with the accent on the second syllable. She didn’t seem to have noticed that we had almost been hit.

“We reached our tent, went in, and spread our sleeping bags as we always did, unzipping them flat and laying them out, one on top of the other. We undressed and crawled between them. Immediately Sherry pulled me to her, then onto her. She was vigorous and direct. When we had finished, we turned onto our sides, still facing one another. “Ço, va, David?” she said, and immediately fell asleep.

“I rolled onto my back and lay there in the dark and listened to the cheerful music still sounding from the square. Some people seek excitement and others seek peace. I loved the relish with which Sherry sought experience, her hunger for the world, her open delight, but I could not love what she loved. The thought of six more days of noise, crowds, drunkenness, and choreographed violence made my breath come in quick, shallow pants. Sherry’s avidity charmed me as it charmed the others—it was one of the things I chiefly loved about her—but I felt myself gradually becoming merely one of her experiences, one of the less satisfactory ones. The thought that I was losing her filled me with dread. I thought these things—or felt them—and then fell asleep suddenly as if falling from a ledge in the dark.

“The tent glowed bright orange inside when the sun rose. We woke early and Sherry checked her watch. The bulls would be run at seven. We cleaned up and dressed quickly, went out, and walked alongside the bullring as we had the day before. At the top of the street where the ramp cut down to the opening of the ring five streets converged. In the wide intersection workers pulled large wooden blocks out of square holes in the pavement. Then they dropped timber pilings into the holes and fastened heavy board railings to them, making a fence that would stop a truck. Two parallel fences about thirty feet apart formed a chute from the ramp of the bullring, across the broad intersection, to the narrow issue of Estafeta Street where the bulls would emerge near the end of their run. A crowd was beginning to gather, so Sherry and I moved up next to the fence just where the ramp began to descend toward the 20-foot portal low in the bullring’s side.

“In just a few minutes the intersection was filled, and we were pressed to the heavy boards of the barrier. Then we heard cheers and shouting from blocks away as the bulls and runners approached. I had seen pictures. I could imagine the streets, onlookers leaning from the windows of the stone facades where the buildings made a narrow channel. I could picture the runners looking back over their shoulders at the bulls and cows that lumbered in a group with their heads low. Then shouts rose from the far side of the intersection. I lifted Sherry onto my shoulders so she could see over the others next to us. “Here they come, David,” she said, and I could feel her thighs flex as she strained higher to see.

“Then they were in front of us, a mixture of Spanish men and tourists bumping shoulders and running onto each other’s heels as some looked forward to the portal of the ring and some looked back toward the bulls. The first runners passed us, descended the ramp, and entered the ring. Next there was a clot of them. Two collided and fell. One scrambled to his feet and ran ahead. The other rolled to the side of the chute and cowered on his side against the fence with his legs pulled up to his chest. More runners flashed by, looking back. Where the ramp fell away from street level one lost his balance and fell. Another, looking back, tripped over him and fell beside him. Then others were on them, dodging or falling. Everyone was looking back at the bulls. They did not see those who had fallen and they ran upon them and also fell. I remember thinking clearly and slowly, “This is not supposed to happen.” There were a dozen men and then more who had fallen and become entangled halfway down the ramp. They struggled to stand. The onlookers to the left of us leaned down into the ramp to grasp the reaching arms and pull the men out. Men were being hauled out one after another. Then I turned and a bull swept by the fence. The muscle at the base of its neck, like a prizefighter’s whole back, flexed as it ran. The horns went out from the sides of the head then curved straight forward. The bull was running fast when it entered the ramp. It lowered its head and seemed to leave its feet. It drove hard into the fallen men. Then another bull came. And then the rest of them.

“There were minutes of confusion as the runners who were still able to move struggled into the ring or to the ramp’s edge to be pulled out. Some of the bulls followed the cows into the ring; others stopped and probed the injured with their horns as if pushing food with a fork. Some brave men ran up out of the ring and waved their arms, attracting the remaining bulls in to be penned. Finally the attendants with stretchers arrived and hurried into the ramp.

“Sherry slid down from my shoulders and took my hand. I had no idea what to do next. I could not relax my arms or legs, and my tongue tasted of metal, like when you’re hammering and hold the nails in your mouth. Without saying anything we drifted with the dispersing crowd, moving in the direction of the squares downtown. Ambulance sirens thrilled up and down for several minutes as we walked aimlessly through streets we didn’t know. When we came to a cafe we sat down.

” “Coffee?” a waiter asked in English, and we nodded. We were sitting at a table outdoors in a small square we hadn’t seen before. At its center a white cupola, large enough for just two people, sat empty. The waiter brought our coffee. I looked across the table at Sherry. She was staring down into her cup.

“Two young men, Americans, sat down at a table near us and ordered big breakfasts. They were about our age. One had red hair and a bad complexion and he said excitedly, “Somebody at the hotel was saying two guys were killed by the bulls during the penning this morning.”

“His friend pushed strands of long black hair behind an ear and answered, “Yeah, we’ll have to go tomorrow. Why do they have it so damn early?”

“Sherry looked up from her coffee and our eyes caught. “That was a terrible thing to see,” I said. Sherry looked back down and didn’t say anything. I regretted what I had said. I had not meant it to be an accusation, but she took it that way.

“After a minute she looked up and said, “We didn’t cause it by looking at it, David. It’s part of the world, and I want to understand it.”

“I answered instantly, without thinking: “And I don’t want to live like this, dragged through this. I want to be with you, but not this way.”

“Then, as if she had wanted to say it for weeks, she answered: “David, you’re suffocating me.”

“The morning was hot. The windows of the building across the square mirrored the sun in blinding sheets. The cupola was freshly painted and very bright. Everything was becoming very bright, and I felt a little light-headed.

“We finished our coffee, paid for it, and left. Again the streets were full of people. We passed the morning speaking very little, walking and looking. We bought bread and cheese and cold beer for our lunch and walked back to the tent. We sat beside the tent in the shade of the big trees and ate. Afterward Sherry said she would take a nap. I asked if it would bother her if I took a nap too and she said it wouldn’t. It was hot in the tent so we rolled up the door and opened the vent at the other end. A steady breeze moved through. When we lay down on our backs our hands touched, so we held hands and Sherry fell asleep quickly.

“I lay still and tried to think of a time before we had started toward Pamplona, but everything else was distant and unreal. My mind was full of the images of the morning. I saw the first bull frozen in the air, its front legs up and its head down, plunging toward the pile of men in the ramp. One of the men was sitting up, another runner fallen across his lap, pinning him. He sat there and looked straight at the bull in the air coming at him.

“I lay in the tent and listened to the cheering from the bullring. The real fights were late in the afternoon, but an exhibition was underway with young bulls and novice matadors. I heard the shouts go up with each pass of the bull. I pictured the young matador, the bull lunging by, the horn close to the jacket’s brocade. It reminded me of the car the night before, its side-mirror brushing my shirt, and the rush of heroism I had felt and the little interval of peace after that. I wondered how desperate you had to be to press yourself up against that danger, to do it deliberately or to need to watch the one who did. I thought of the Arga, foamy and brown, the children on the train, the beggars by the ring, the bared pink stumps, the posters above them—one dull black eye in the shadow of the horn.

“The cheering from the bullring continued. From another direction I heard the music of guitars and shrill flutes. A steady murmur of voices came from all around. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and left the tent and began to walk, wondering if there was quiet anywhere in the city. As I walked, I used my ears to guide me away and eventually found myself in the narrow streets of a residential part of the old town. There were apartments above and shops and bars below. Loud music or the sound of television came out of the bars, so I entered a side door and began to climb a flight of wooden stairs. The sounds of the street became more distant as I rounded each landing. When I reached the sixth floor and the stairway ended, there was quiet. I sat down on the floor of the top landing with my back to the wall.

“There was an apartment door a few feet to my left at the beginning of a dim hallway. Behind it from time to time I heard a woman’s voice, and then, barely audible, the low vibration of a, man’s reply. They were speaking very softly because their voices were no louder than the other sound, the steady dropping of beans or peas one by one into an empty pot. I sat and listened to that steady dropping, the sound of dailiness, and to the soothing murmur of the woman’s voice and the man’s reply. Then, after what seemed like a long time, I got up, went down into the streets, and walked back.

“When I returned Sherry was sitting up in the tent and getting ready. The night before we had agreed to meet Roberto and Renata and go to the bullfights and then to dinner. I lay down on my back beside her and put my hands behind my head. When I thought of the bullfights, my throat tightened. I stayed on my back for a few minutes and made my decision, then I sat up. I told Sherry that I wasn’t going, that she should go ahead. I also told her that I wanted to leave Pamplona. I suggested that we get on a train in the morning and go to Menton in France. We had been told of the good beach there and of a hostel on a hill above the town. We could swim and lie in the sun. I said I thought we needed some quiet so we could talk.

“She had made a decision, too, and it was as if she had been waiting for me to say something like this. “Maybe we need some time apart, “she said.” You go ahead and leave. I want to stay. Afterwards, Roberto and Renata are going to Ibiza and I’ve always wanted to go there. I’m sure they’ll let me go with them.”

“Her eyes fixed me in hard focus. This was the moment I had felt coming, and my paralyzing fear of it had helped bring it on. I had not been good company, and I was being dismissed. The shock I felt was more of recognition than surprise. I agreed meekly that we would take “some time apart.” I told her I thought I’d leave right away. We made arrangements to exchange letters, then she left to meet Roberto and Renata.”

David paused. It was dark now but by the dim light of a streetlamp I saw him sit back and draw a breath. I could imagine him at 20. In fact, by this light he looked 20, clean-shaven and with a wide-open expression on his face. He had gone completely inside the story he was telling. He focused on a place in the air between us as if something hovered there, and he took a drink from his glass without moving his eyes. Mary uncrossed and recrossed her legs. It was quiet for a minute and then she said, “What happened to her? Did you see her again?” David glanced at Mary and then back to the point in the air between us.

“I saw her two months later,” he said. “I was going to school in London that fall, and she came to visit me. I had a room in a dormitory, and when we had turned out the lights and gotten into my creaking single bed she told me that she had camped at a beautiful spot in Ibiza after Roberto and Renata left, that she had pitched the tent under a big tree and tied colored scarves to the low branches. A German photographer camping nearby had taken pictures of her and called her “the gypsy lady,” and she had made love to him. She told me as if she were sharing an intimate confession that would bring us closer together. I got out of bed, dressed, and walked all night in the streets. She left the next day.

“She found a job taking care of a child for a family in Nice and I visited her there during my travel break in November. I was to leave Europe in less than a month and wanted to see her before I left. I told her that I could not go home and leave her behind, that I thought it was wrong and that I would worry about her. I asked what she was going to do, what I could do. She told me, in effect, to get on with my life. And eventually I did.

“She stayed in Nice that year and was in Paris for two years before she came home. Friends have told me that she’s married now and lives in New York with her husband and their children.

“Those last two times we saw each other, nothing had changed. We struggled against the break we had made in Pamplona, but there was always a line neither one of us could cross. When I think of the end of it, I think of the tent by the bullring. Before she left Sherry had hugged me and looked at me with sympathy. She looked at me as though I had just been called into the army, as though she knew it would be hard but also believed that I must do my duty. Then she slipped outside.

“The moment she was gone my anger flared. I packed roughly, rolled out of the tent, hoisted my pack to my back, and strode away for the train station. I got lost among narrow streets in the old part of the city and that made me angrier. I had not felt anger for weeks—I had been drifting in a haze of sadness and dread—and I realized that this anger felt good. I prodded it and provoked it, telling myself how wronged I had been. I was walking fast, talking to myself, whipping my thigh with a strap from by pack as I went. I wasn’t thinking of where I was going. Then the street I was in opened into a broad intersection and I looked up and saw the bullring. I had walked in a circle and this fed my rage. Then, without thinking, I wanted to see Sherry, wanted her to see my anger. I wanted to retract my meek acceptance of her dismissal. I leaned my pack against a tree, bought a ticket, and entered.

“The bullring was like a football stadium with two tiers, only round, and it was full and loud with cheering. Somehow I had imagined that I would walk in, spot Sherry, and confront her. I stood near the top of the lower tier and looked at the thousands of people. As I scanned the crowd—the strangers nearby in row after row and the thousands of faces like swaying dots across the stadium—I realized for the first time that I had lost her. My anger vanished, and all its vehemence poured into grief, then panic. It seemed that the whole world was in there, sitting in rows, circle upon circle, speaking dozens of languages. My chest and throat ached, and I held myself rigid, gripping an iron handrail. Then I looked into the ring and saw for the first time the matador facing the bull.

“He held himself straight, but gracefully, his legs together, his left hand casually resting on his hip. His right arm was at his side, and the muleta in his right hand was draped at his feet. His back was to me, and the great black bull, ten feet beyond, stared at him. It raised its head, and the colored banderillas shifted at the base of its neck. Then the matador extended his right arm, opened the cape, and bowed slightly toward the bull. He shook the cape once and the bull charged. It burst through the cape and raised its horns, goring the air. As it passed, the matador twisted slightly at the waist and swept the cape over the bull’s back. The matador’s legs remained together, and his heels stayed flat on the ground. Then he turned and faced the bull again.

“He executed three more passes, and each time there was a moment when the matador and the bull made a single shape, the man standing still and poised with the horns and great black shoulders inches from his chest. The crowd raised a triumphant shout with every pass. Then with his right hand the matador drew the sword from the cape and sighted down the thin blade over the horns of the bull. With his left hand he held the cape low on his right side. When the bull charged fast the matador drew its head down with the cape, leaned close over the horns with his body, and drove the sword between the bull’s shoulders. The sword entered to the hilt as the bull lunged, head down, both front hooves in the air. The bull wheeled and faced the matador who stood still with his arms at his sides. Then the front legs buckled and the great bull collapsed and did not move again.

“The crowd erupted with jubilant cheering and kept it up. They were on their feet, shouting and waving their arms. Several men in the seats nearby were clapping each other on the back and nodding their heads. Suddenly I felt exhausted and I realized that my face was wet. I let go of the handrail and clapped my hands for the matador, clapped hard with the rest of the crowd as he bowed and accepted their cheers. They were still shouting as I turned and made my way out of the bullring.

“My pack was still leaning against the tree where I had left it. I strapped it on, walked to the station, bought a ticket for Menton, and left Pamplona.”

David stopped, and we all sat quietly in the dark. A few moments passed, then David set down his glass and said, “Well, that seems like a long time ago, now. I was pretty young.” I sat back in my chair. A breeze stirred the branches around us. Nobody said anything, but none of us seemed to want to move. I could have sat that way for a long time, with Mary to my right looking up through the trees and David to my left, relaxed now, his arms crossed and his legs out straight in front of him. But it was getting late, and soon we all stood up and stretched.

Mary and I walked downstairs with David, then out to the front yard. We stopped at the curb and stood in a small circle to say good-bye. David tipped back his head and took a deep breath and rocked forward on the balls of his feet. “It’s a beautiful night.” he said. “Today was the most beautiful day of the year so far.” We all agreed. Then David got into his car and went home.

Mary and I went back into the house, and I returned to the porch and sat down. It was very quiet, and I could hear Mary moving in one of the rooms. I leaned back and put my feet up on the rail. Through a network of branches the stars showed clearly. I found the constellations that I know, the groups of stars we have named with stories. The air smelled sweet. I took a deep breath and entered the dark house.


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