I leaned against the bar, empty pint glass slipping through my fingers.
‘Double vodka, please. Neat,’ I shouted to the barman, my voice barely audible over the ‘Grease Megamix.’ My friends were scattered around the club, chatting up random birds. Flashing lights illuminated smiling faces on the dance floor.
What the fuck is everyone so happy about?
They sang along to the same shit songs that played here last night and the night before and every other fucking night for fuck knows how long.
I looked down at the twenty-pound note in my hand and the credit card I inserted into a cash machine earlier to withdraw sixty pounds on credit. I’d marched a twenty into the bank and used it to pay off the card’s minimum balance for the month. Well, that’s another sixty quid in debt.
The vodka went down in one.
I peered at my watch through blurry eyes. I always stood in this exact spot, at this exact time, surrounded by these exact people. At work, I liked the rules, regulations and boundaries of accounting, but its rigidity had infiltrated my social life.
A steroid-inflated bouncer stared me down as I left the club alone. Wanker.
The late-night crowd lumbered along the pavement, seemingly lured by the smell of frying grease. Their vacant eyes looked through me as I weaved between them in the opposite direction, past the queue outside the chippy, past the brawling outside the taxi rank and towards the edge of town. One route home was direct, along a brightly lit dual carriageway lined with retail parks. The other was bleak and littered with dilapidated warehouses. I found myself taking the latter.
My short-sleeved shirt was no match for a January night in Northern England. My teeth chattered, and my breath condensed to mist. I thought of Spain and its sunshine, beaches and cocktails. In the summer, I’d go there and escape the monotony of my life for two whole weeks. But then I’d be back, tanned, blond and broke again. I’d grind away at my shitty job for another year until the next brief escape.
I shuffled towards my parents’ semi-detached house on a council estate in Warrington, a small town near Manchester where I grew up. My dad hadn’t worked in years, not since they closed the coal mines, and my mum had to quit her cleaning job due to a heart condition. They relied heavily on government benefits. I needed to pay my way, but I earned less than minimum wage at my accounting apprenticeship.
A large portion of my wages went to my parents for board and lodgings and a third of the cable and electricity. They itemised the dial-up internet and phone bills, so I paid for my portion of those, too. Then there was a car loan, petrol and insurance.
As I stumbled under a decrepit railway bridge, I envisioned a future I had no control over. I’d pass my exams and become a fully qualified Chartered Accountant at age twenty-two. Next up, a pay rise. I’d spend it on a new car, clothes and flat to reflect a professional life I was already disillusioned with. Debt repayment would devour the rest. Many kids from my neighbourhood ended up either addicted to drugs or selling them. I escaped an inevitable path, just to replace it with another one.
Near an abandoned factory, I imagined my future family. My missus and I work all week and spend Sundays round my mum’s, where she cooks in the tiny kitchen until Dad comes home from the pub, bringing with him the smell of sweat, beer and cigs. He sits on the sofa because I’m in his chair. He won’t look at me or speak to me. Instead, he clears his throat repeatedly with increasing volume until I vacate it. After a tense dinner, we say ta-ra and go back to the house we can’t afford.
My vision continued on and on, as I walked past the rusty gas tower and the collapsing brick chimney stack. An indistinguishable blur of work, sleep, holiday, drunken nights out and more debt. The debt. My mind always came back to the debt. Suddenly short of breath, my heart picked up speed like it was trying to escape through the walls of my tight chest.
The credit cards, the store cards, the car loan, the interest, the late fees, the guilt, the shame. The fucking debt.
I looked to the sky and inhaled sharply.
‘Fuuck! Fuuuuck! Fuuuuuuck!’
I screamed until my throat burned, looked to the empty night sky again and fell into the road. The blaring horn of a speeding taxi startled me back onto the pavement. The screaming stopped.
I cut through the park where a dark, empty field stretched out in front of me. Wet grass stuck to my perfectly polished shoes. In the playground, the trousers my mum had ironed for me now dragged through a thick layer of damp dirt. My shoes were now partly submerged in mud. On any other day, this would have bothered me, even with no one around.
I tried to yell, ‘Get me out of here!’ but my voice broke, and the words caught in my throat. No one could hear me. No one was listening.
Finally, the field gave way to pavement. With each step, the mud from my shoes dried and crumbled, leaving a trail on the concrete. Grass shook loose until only a few stubborn blades remained. I walked in silence, hands in pockets and head down, the hairs on my bare arms at full stretch, searching desperately for a source of warmth. Road signs became clear, and streetlamps shone brightly against a lightening sky.
At home, I sat up in bed, shivering under my duvet. I covered my face with my cold hands and gasped for air amid shallow breaths. Tears streamed down my cheeks and through my fingers. There, in the dawn light, something had changed.
I followed Seema, my roommate and an actual model, into a dark bar called La Candelaria. Steamy warmth blurred the windows and soothed my frozen cheeks. Young Spaniards chatted in groups, sipping beer or wine, or danced on the crowded floor, clapping overhead to a Latin beat.
The world buzzed. Y2K Global Meltdown narrowly averted, the air was now filled with the hope and potential of a new millennium.
I dumped my peacoat on a stool, adjusted the spaghetti strap on my tank top, and leaned over the bar to order myself a ginebra con limón—a gin and Lemon Fanta mix that glowed under the blacklight. I’d won a scholarship for a study abroad program and chose to take these extra classes pass/fail, locking in my 4.0 GPA before graduation. I wasn’t really studying abroad but partying abroad—making up for lost time. I’d only started drinking alcohol once I turned twenty-one, because an underage drinking citation could have: A.) Kept me from getting a teaching job and B.) Disappointed my parents.
I loved making my parents happy. As a nurse and mechanic, they worked long hours to provide me and my sister Cassie with a safe and stable life in Pittsburgh, and I owed it to them to be good and work hard, too.
For as responsible as I was, I’d also craved adventure for as long as I could remember. When I was two, I’d often climb my bookshelf to enjoy the view of my bedroom. The next year, my dad came into my room to find I’d cranked open the window and climbed outside to hang out on the ledge.
As a teen, Dad’s stack of old National Geographic magazines called to me from the basement. I’d sit on the floor, pouring through musty back issues in wonder. I was very aware that Pittsburgh was just one speck on the globe, and there was a whole world out there, where people lived life in entirely different ways. I wanted to eat their food, listen to their music, and immerse myself in their cultures. Every afternoon after school, I watched Globe Trekker, envious of the travelers and longing to feel the awe of unfamiliarity.
We never went abroad, and I knew few people who had. Our childhood vacations were a week at Virginia Beach, or visiting Great Uncle Aleksy in Gerardville, where we toured a coal mining museum and drove by the Mrs. T’s pierogi factory. I loved those vacations, and I was lucky to have parents who could and would take us on vacation at all. But those trips didn’t satisfy my curiosity about the rest of the world.
I sipped my gin and scanned the room. Spanish people seemed rude by American mores—nobody made eye contact or smiled on the sidewalk. But if you chat for a few minutes in a bar, they’ll invite you to their home for dinner. Stop a stranger in the street for directions, and they’ll escort you there. I loved meeting Spaniards, and since nobody in the city of Valladolid spoke English, I considered my nocturnal excursions an integral part of my education.
Seema smoothed her dark hair and reapplied her lip gloss. Immediately, an eager young man appeared by her side. “Hola.”
“Hola,” Seema said, without a hint of her Indian-English accent. “Me llamo Seema.” She leaned in to kiss his cheeks.
“What do you want to drink, bonita?”
She ran her ﬁngers through her hair again. “Tequila, gracias.”
He delivered a tall, thin highball glass brimming with golden liquor. Seema’s doe eyes grew bigger
“¡Un chupito!” I teased, demonstrating the size of a shot glass with my pointer finger and thumb. “She just wanted a shot!”
He nodded, delicately took the glass from Seema, and tossed half the tequila on the ﬂoor. He handed it back. “Aquí, now it’s a shot.”
We cracked up and Seema took the shot. I noticed two guys joking around at the bar. The tall one’s smile lit up his handsome face.
I pulled Seema to the dance floor and positioned myself in Hot Guy at the Bar’s line of sight, attempting to dance seductively to a techno remix of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining.” I shimmied to illuminate the body glitter on my chest.
He and his friend stared but didn’t approach. As a blond, blue-eyed American, I was considered alluring in Spain, and this allure gave me an assurance I never had before. Or it could have been the gin.
I asked his friend, “Do you want to dance with us or just watch?”
They laughed and replied, “Just watch!”
Hot Guy’s name was Miguel. He placed his kisses close to the corners of my lips, and his subtle touch made my skin tingle. We met his brother and friends and talked and danced until closing time.
Seema and I grabbed our coats and stepped onto the sidewalk. The overcast sky reflected the city lights, giving the night a yellow glow. A few snowﬂakes drifted onto the empty street.
Miguel followed us outside. “I want to make dinner for you sometime,” he said. He entered our apartment phone number in his cell under the name mi niña—my girl.
“Is that because you don’t remember my name?” I joked as he pushed the glowing buttons.
He feigned offense. “¡Claro que no, Estefanía! I will call you tomorrow.” He leaned in for two more kisses to say goodbye while a gust of wind swirled the snowﬂakes around us like glitter in a snow globe. As Seema and I walked home, I couldn’t feel the cold on my flushed skin.