The roosters of Mallorca
A slow death in Spain
Claudia, smoking—of course, she’s smoking—has plans for the roses.
The roosters in Mallorca yawp at a sun that is nowhere on the horizon. It is still a deep, dark night in the Mediterranean, and the girl in the mansion—down a thousand stone steps from Iglesia parroquial de la Transfiguración del Señor, a church that sits high atop the city of Artà—is in bed and having trouble breathing.
Claudia, my former lover from decades ago, is dying.
I have come to Spain this New Year’s week to say goodbye.
I have also come to say hello.
I haven’t seen her in 22 years.
Twenty-five years ago, outside a comedy club in The Bahamas, Claudi—I always dropped the a when speaking of her—stood looking at my publicity photo on the window. I watched her from inside the club. I was 37. She
She was smoking.
She was always smoking.
In 25 years, we only saw each other for 12 weeks—12 weeks.
This will be the last one.
She is still always smoking.
Everyone at the house at the moment has a cigarette lit. We are at breakfast around the table and Klaus and Julia, her friends from Germany who are visiting; Sebastian, the gardener, who picked me up at the airport; Bodi, the guy who renovated the house; and Paddy, the bodyguard of the European cyclist, Jan Ullrich, are all encased in smoke.
“Lance Armstrong is an asshole,” Claudi says when I ask if she knows him.
It is a statement as funny in German as it is in English.
There are jams, breakfast meats, bacon and eggs, breads and croissants, salmon, pastries, cheeses, coffee, espresso, Diet Cokes, and bottles of water with and without carbonation. In the competing words and hands slicing the air, the wafting of the smoke, and the sound of lighters being tossed and retrieved from the table, Claudi smiles.
This is how she wants it.
My mind wanders. I look at these Germans and Spaniards and think, inexplicably, of the energy of post-war Europe and the Marshall Plan, of divorced American Jews and young German girls finding each other in the Caribbean, and of Prosciutto and Capicola. This is all a testament to Liberal Democracy. Autocracies didn’t do this.
Why in God’s name am I thinking of this?
Because the good guys won.
It reminds me of something Claudi said when she came once to Las Vegas to visit me. We rented a red Miata and drove to see a matinee of “Schindler’s List.” As we walked to the car, after the movie, she draped her arm around my shoulder and said, “I think it was a good war for you to win.”
Claudi wears hair extensions now to make herself feel more, as she told me, “like a girl again.” She wears hats, too, because she’s cold. And self-conscious. The extensions are blonde; her hair is brown. Her body is covered in tattoos. There is a globe above her wrist and a poem on her upper back. Her kids’ names are on her fingers. There are others, too, including a wolf (or maybe it’s a gargoyle) on her shoulder.
She’s 5-feet-7-inches and less than 100 pounds. In places on her body, her skin is tight and resolute against her bones; in other spots, it is saggy and resigned. Flesh without adhesion. Her veins no longer give blood easily. The cancer is now in her lungs, stomach, lymph nodes, and kidneys. Only one kidney, though, she reminded me.
“That’s why they give you two. One always works.”
“You look good,” I say.
“No. I have no ass.”
She gets up to get a coffee. Her pants won’t stay up.
One of her four dogs, Amigo, has peed in the living room. Two of the guests walk into town for bread and, of course, more cigarettes. This, too, is how she wants it to be. She wants a house full of people. She wants to laugh and be followed around by dogs and hungry friends. She wants a house full of candles. She doesn’t mind the dark. She will not lie in bed, nauseous with nose bleeds, shivering under a blanket.
Her first lover (I was her second) keeps sending flowers. He tells her he is leaving his wife to marry her, though she hasn’t seen him in years. Every morning since I’ve been here, and this is the third, he sends another dozen red roses. She called and told him to stop; still, he keeps sending them, sometimes twice a day. Finally, she dumped the roses on the floor and sent him a picture with her heel on them.
That morning—the first one after she came to the comedy club in 1994—I was in bed in her condo, looking at the harbor between Paradise Island and the main island of New Providence, listening to a 10,000 Maniacs CD and eating Macadamia nuts. I heard her singing in the shower.
You can endow a moment like that and replay it forever, if you want, which I did, which I am doing now.
Maybe if we had stayed in the Bahamas—that was the line.
What would she do in America, though? What would I do in Germany? Of course it didn’t last. Of course we didn’t stay together. The years passed, the decades passed. I got married and divorced. A friend of hers called to tell me in broken English, “You know she got a baby.” Then she got another one. Her parents died. My mother and son died. I got married and divorced.
We didn’t talk. We didn’t write.
Then, weeks ago, a message: “Would you come?”
She was dying.
How do you say No? How do you say Yes?
“You need to decide, Ba. The doctors say there’s … hope,” she said through a crackling connection.
“What?” I asked.
Did she say there was hope or was not?
She said it again, but again the connection was bad. She was crying. How many times can you ask someone to tell you she’s dying? And how do you tell the people in your life, the people you love—the people you love now—the people to whom you want to return and resume your life that you need to go see someone you used to love but barely know?
We are back on an island.
“You put the Nutella in the refrigerator?”
“No good?” I asked.
“Very bad. Go get wood from the garage. The fire is almost out.”
“Stop being so demanding.”
“I am German, remember?”
“I don’t know anything about chimneys.”
“Ach, you Americans!”
“We won the war, okay? We don’t have to know anything about chimneys if we don’t want to.”
The same joke for a quarter century.
I got the wood. I made a mess of the fireplace. The fire went out and the candle wax ruined the table.
I would be in Mallorca for five days. She would then go to a clinic in Frankfurt.
“How long will you be in the hospital there?” I asked.
“Four months, if I live.”
There is music in the kitchen—it is loud and obnoxious. She lost much of her hearing when her Tinnitus wasn’t treated in time. She listens to Eminem, tortured European vocalists, and a satellite radio station that only plays cover bands.
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room,
And you’re so kind and careful not to go to her too soon
I remember her body firm and alive, tan and wet, on a beach in the Bahamas—and I remembered it as I helped her put a pain patch on her lower back one morning here. If you put your head to her chest, you hear the missing breaths. When she tries to find a comfortable position, which she can’t (for there is a tumor protruding from her stomach) you hear the grinding of breath and bone and sinews. Her body seizes up and she winces. Just hold on to me, she seems to be saying, it will soon be over. I do. I try to mirror her breathing, as if that would help.
“Exhaling hurts more than inhaling,” she says, as the pain subsides.
We took a walk my last night. The stars, made of hydrogen and helium and conjecture, made her smile. She knew constellations and saw astrological beacons, which she pointed out to me.
I looked. I didn’t see what she saw.
“I want to fight,” she said.
“I also want to close my eyes sometimes and not wake up again.”
“Are you scared?”
“No. I was in a coma once. I knew I was. Was OK. I heard people around me crying. I wanted to say, ‘No, no, don’t.’ Then I felt myself coming back and I said, ‘Well, okay. For them, for my children, I come back. But I didn’t have to. I’ll be up there and it’ll be OK,” she repeated. “And then I’ll send thunder bolts down to burn your ass.”
We went back inside. I had to leave for the airport at 3 a.m., so we stayed up and sat near the fire she had ultimately decided I would not be in charge of. She talked of her son and daughter, who will be with their father, a man she never married; talked of her parents, refugees who came to Germany in the early 60s after fleeing communists and fascists, and how they started a business making valves and seals for ships broken down at The Port of Hamburg. Her family moved from great poverty to even greater wealth; and she talked of how she moved from Ireland to Brazil to Austria to the Caribbean and the friends she left along the way.
“It was easy for me to give up connections,” she said. “I had to. I always had to.”
Her fire was perfect.
“Their bodies,” she said of her dead parents, “went through too much.”
And then I had to pack.
“Did you steal my Johnny Cash T-shirt?” I asked.
The taxi came too early. There was no choreography for this anyway.
“No words, okay?”
I can’t remember who said what at the door.
On the way to the airport, through the night and the stars and the roundabouts on an island without traffic lights, I heard the roosters again.
¡Quiquiriquí … Quiquiriquí … Quiquiriquí!
The day was out there somewhere.