I first met Isa at a Reyna concert in October of 2015, in the autumn of my fourth year living in Spain. At that point I hadn’t been planning to meet anyone or start anything serious. I was just looking to have a good time, the same as I had been doing for the previous three years. I had never heard of Reyna, but my friend Alfie convinced me to go with him to the show. Alfie was almost four years older than me: I was twenty-six and he was nearly thirty. He considered himself a writer and although we both worked at the Universidad de Castilla-la Mancha helping in the English department, most of my free time was spent playing soccer or going out drinking with the Erasmus kids. Alfie had the ability to lock himself in his room for hours on end, poking away at an old typewriter he had bought at the Rastro flea market in Madrid and lugged back on the bus to Ciudad Real.
Reyna wasn’t well-known in those days. Alfie had heard about her through a Spanish guy he had been seeing. He told Alfie he loved him and wanted to move back to London with him at the end of the year. Alfie fell hard for the guy and took up all his interests and hobbies for the two months they dated. This was typical Alfie. I had known him for three years and had never known him to do anything different. By the time we went to the Reyna show, they were only weeks away from their inevitable split. No man could tolerate the strict writing hours Alfie kept.
Reyna was a small-time singer-songwriter from Córdoba, a beautiful Andalusian town not too far south of Ciudad Real. She was my age and had been singing since she was a teenager. She composed the most stunning songs, these heartfelt ballads that impacted her audiences so completely because it seemed like she was tearing her own heart out on stage and leaving it there for everyone to see. She breathed raw emotion and vulnerability in an age of pre-packaged pop designed to be played in clubs full of jumping college kids. She was too real to be taken seriously on a large scale. I say that now with the full knowledge of everything that was to happen after our summer with her, after I met at her acoustic show at Pachamama, a little tea bar on Calle Real.
Alfie and I arrived with Seba, the man he was seeing, about half an hour before Reyna was meant to go on stage. I thought it odd that the concert was being held at a tea house and not a proper concert hall, but I would later learn from Reyna herself that the bar held a special place in her heart; she had visited that venerable establishment once as a teenager with a friend when she happened to be in Ciudad Real, and loyalty was as big a thing for her as nostalgia. The management had always treated her well and she saw no reason not to return the favor. In any case, it’s not like she was drawing crowds big enough to move a few streets over to the Sala Majestic, the biggest indoor venue in town. The night I went with Alfie and Seba there couldn’t have been more than sixty people sat at the small, round tables in front of the stage, which itself was a platform a foot off the ground. As luck or chance or fate would have it, Isa was one of those people.
She was sitting at a table in the front of the room, right up next to the stage. I followed Alfie and Seba to a free table near the back of the room. The tea bar was packed already, so early before the show was set to begin. I realized that Reyna’s fan base, while small in number, was passionate about its guitar-plucking goddess to an almost unreasonable degree. We were lucky to find a table in the end. Seba went to order teas for the three of us, leaving Alfie and I to our own devices. We whiled away the intervening minutes talking politics, as was our wont. We usually talked about our respective countries, the UK and the US, although Spanish politics had become a bigger topic of conversation as we learned more and grew in unearned confidence. We were criticizing Rajoy, a favorite of our pastimes, when Seba returned with two of the squat cups of tea. He bent down and kissed Alfie on the forehead, telling us he would return in a moment with the third. We continued slamming the prime minister for some measure that the Partido Popular had just passed in the Congreso. The scent of the scalding tea wafted into our nostrils. I felt a deep serenity wash over me. I waxed poetic and stopped talking. I fixated on my surroundings, on the ambient, foreign chatter. Alfie must have been overcome by the same sensation, as our conversation stopped dead and the two of us gazed upward toward the blank ceiling in a stupor.
Our reverie was shattered by a piercing scream that rang out like a shot from the bar. “¡Tía! ¡Tanto tiempo!” Alfie was shocked into action, startled to such an extent that his knees jumped up into the underside of our wobbly table. Our cups of tea shuddered, catapulting burning water into the air, several drops of which landed squarely on my bare forearm. I reeled off a line of expletives in Spanish, eliciting a series of chuckles and snorts from nearby tables. Alfie glared. “Mate, why do you always have to speak in Spanish? You can’t even say ‘fuck’ properly like a bloody English speaker?”
I shrugged and said nothing. Alfie’s Spanish was nothing to write home about, and he knew it. It’s not like he had ever tried to learn it, anyway. He got by with the bare minimum, and he was lucky that there were enough guys in their twenties who spoke English. “Anyway, Danny,” he continued, “look over there, at the bar. That was Seba who let out that otherworldly screech of a banshee. Looks like he must have run into an old friend or something.” Still rubbing the three or four spots on my skin that had been burned by the flying water bombs, I craned my neck to the far side of the room toward the bar, peering through the mass of people who had assembled in the room for the imminent concert. Seba was caught in animated conversation with a young woman who looked to be about the same age as me. She had chestnut hair and brown eyes. She wore black Vans and tight blue jeans with a white and red pinstripe tee. To say that I was immediately transfixed is an understatement. I was done and gone, a lost cause in that moment, irrevocably changed from the man I had been a second earlier. Alfie asked me a question that I didn’t hear and I made no effort to find out what he had said. I stared across the room, fixated on Seba’s friend.
I willed Seba to bring this woman over to our table and was overjoyed when I saw the two of them making their way toward us through the maze of tables and chairs and human legs. Seba sat the third cup of tea down on the table and allowed her friend room to approach the table. Alfie and I stood to greet the newcomer. Seba introduced her to us as Isabela, and after we exchanged the customary kisses on either cheek, she told me that she preferred to go by Isa. I told her it was a beautiful name. We found a fourth chair for our table and set it up next to mine. Her table had already been overrun by a group of teenagers who had been scavenging vacancies. I asked her if she had come alone and she told me no, that she had come with her twin brother Sergio, but that he was a guitar player and was backstage with Reyna preparing for the show. I asked her if they played together, her brother and the woman we had all come to see. Was he a permanent part of the band? She replied that he wasn’t, that her brother was a functionary who worked for the government of Castilla-la Mancha in Toledo. He wrote songs in his spare time and had met Reyna when she had played for the first time at this very venue.
We would have continued speaking if circumstances allowed. Alfie and Seba were canoodling on the other side of the table and had left Isa and me to our own devices. After the emotion Seba had shown at first seeing his long-lost friend, he was now failing to pay her any attention whatsoever. Just as our conversation picked up steam and the night took on a sheen of excitement it had lacked at the start, a tall, slender woman walked onto the stage and sat down on a chair, picking up her guitar and thanking the audience for being in attendance. This, I surmised, was Reyna. Isa clapped and whistled along with the others in the room. I joined in as I studied the young woman seated on the stage not twenty feet in front of us. She looked completely normal to me, which of course is what one would expect; she was and is a completely normal person. But it is of course difficult to look back now and remember what things were like before she became mega-famous in Spain and in most of the Spanish-speaking world. Her early appearance has little to do with the way she looks now. The thing I remember most was her dark hair and the long bangs that were cut in a perfectly straight line just above her eyebrows.
She began to speak to the crowd, as if picking up a conversation that had been cut short months before on her previous visit. Her fans hung on her every word, laughing when she told a joke and clucking their tongues when she relayed a story about an injustice visited upon her by an ex-boyfriend. She began to strum her guitar and got into a lyrical ballad about her fight through the break-up she had just described. It was called “Trozos de mí”. I immediately loved the song but couldn’t stop focusing on Isa, seated to my left, her shoulder resting just inches from mine. Never had I felt such an odd sensation, that of thoroughly enjoying an event but desperately wanting it to be over at the same time. Isa seemed to be savoring the show in a deeply personal way; most people around the room felt as if they knew Reyna personally, such was the power of her welcoming personality and the intimate nature of her shows. But Isa really did know her. They were friends, even.
Sergio walked on stage halfway through the show to a sea of applause and appreciative whistles. He was a regular and a crowd favorite. As he was from Ciudad Real, many of the people in the tea bar that night probably knew him personally. He was dressed in tight blue jeans and a dark red flannel shirt, and the way he walked and held his guitar made it difficult for me to see him working in a stale government office somewhere in Toledo. I leaned over and whispered in Isa’s ear, asking her in Spanish, “Does your brother have any aspirations of being a singer professionally?” She shook her head. “No, not really. He’s fine being a functionary. He’s always had this creative, musical side to him. But he hasn’t played in a long time. He wouldn’t be here if Reyna hadn’t forced him.” I wanted to ask her why that was, why her twin brother had given up music, but on stage he had begun to sing an original piece and the room had fallen silent.
He played three songs before joining Reyna for a fourth, called “Pasiones”, one that she announced that the two of them had written together two years before in Córdoba. When they had finished Sergio rose to his feet and basked in the adulation of his hometown crowd, bowing several times when they rewarded him with a standing ovation. Reyna was beaming at him and gave him a long hug and kiss before allowing him to leave the stage. Alfie leaned over to me at that point and said, “I think Reyna is sweet on that Sergio bloke, Danny.” I limited myself to a nod in response, but I had a similar feeling when the two of them embraced. The only thing was that I didn’t see the feelings coming primarily from the Andalusian with the powerful voice, but rather from Sergio. I was filled with a sudden urge to know the details of the relationship between the two.
I might not have discovered much about Reyna and Sergio’s shared past that night, but I did have one of the more memorable evenings of my post-college years in Spain. After the show, Isa grabbed me by the hand and led me, Alfie, and Seba backstage to meet Reyna and Sergio. Of all the moments with Isa that I will describe in these pages, of all the times we touched over the next several months, that first contact between her left hand and my right is the one I recall the most fondly. The unexpected jolt of electricity that arrested me in that moment told me things about my future with Isa that I could not have expected. In an instant, I saw us sharing pints at sweaty bars and taking long walks through El Retiro and jaunting around Europe and sharing a flat in Lavapíes. My future flashed before my eyes, a daring, brilliant vision of what life might be like with this woman I had known for no more than two hours. I had never felt anything so intoxicating. I followed her backstage. I would have followed her anywhere.
The backstage was nothing more than a private tea room with a plain wooden table and paintings of people drinking cups of tea in front of an assortment of British landmarks. Alfie whistled as we entered the room, past the teenaged employee who had been strong-armed into working as a security guard for the evening. “Fucking ‘ell, Danny, just like the paintings my parents have got hanging up all around the house in London. Teatime and Blighty go hand in hand, don’t they? Just like the Spaniards and their bloody tapas.” Seba shot him a dirty look as I let out a muted laugh. On the other side of the room, Isa had gone up to her brother and Reyna and exchanged the customary hug and kiss on each cheek. They conversed in Spanish for several moments before Isa brought them toward us.
She introduced them first to Seba, explaining that they were old friends from primary school, but they hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, since Isa had lived in Prague. I found myself immediately mesmerized by the idea of living in the Czech capital with Isa, perhaps in a small house in the old quarter near the river. I mentally filed away a query as to the reasons behind her stay in Central Europe. For the moment I was being introduced to Sergio, the twin brother with the musical gift and Reyna, the touring singer-songwriter whose real name, I finally discovered, was Claudia. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted for a while. I found her to be enchanting. It is easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight, but she had an electricity about her that excited the spirit. It is no surprise to me that she has gone on to attain such a level of renown.
I couldn’t have known it then, but the lives of everyone in that room would be changed indelibly that night. Alfie was inspired in such a way by Reyna’s music that he let his mind return to the streets of Glasgow for the first time since he had fled the British Isles years before. Claudia, the woman behind the household name that Reyna would one day become, would make a decision with Sergio that would affect their partnership forever, and Isa and I would begin dating within a few weeks, such was the power of the attraction that we both felt for each other at that cramped tea bar on Calle Real. That night was the start of something big. We just had to go out and claim it.