SOMBRA Chapter One
Tavo - Los Rolling Stones
A few months earlier
As if a hungry dragonfly perches on my index finger, I suspend the stylus over the vinyl on my grandfather’s record player, allowing it to hover until the album spins up to speed. I inhale, position the tone arm, and place it at the beginning of the song. The needle scrapes, then catches in the groove. The speakers pop and crackle as the album rotates for part of a turn before the song plays.
While I wait for the music, I push my damp hair off my forehead and rub my jaw, scratching the dirt out of my two-day-old stubble. I’ve gotta get out of this sweat-soaked T-shirt as soon as possible. My hand digs in my pants, rearranging my cojones, which stick to my thigh. Going commando in forty degree Celsius weather messes with the huevos.
Before I’m adjusted, the music starts, and a choir’s trilling the teeth-clenching opening of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones.
My sentiments exactly.
Not to be ungrateful, but it’s the anthem of my life. Once the song finishes, I won’t complain again. But right now I’m pissed off, I smell like horse shit, and I’m sick of the fallout from my latest blunder. So I allow myself to indulge in some self-pity—at least for the duration of the last track on side two.
Huffing, I sit on my bed and unlace my boots, perspiration pouring down my brow as the music plays. After a dismal morning spent spreading horse manure in the huerta—the olive orchard—while fending off the “help” of my annoying youngest brother, the “attention” of the fucking stalker girl next door, and an afternoon “discussing” my future with my mother (she’s not fond of my go-to-America plan), then back in the orchard for more work, I’m beat. Back sore. Feet tired. All my muscles used. I would’ve rather exhausted my body in a different way.
Nope. No such luck.
I’ve got to shower before dinner and clean off the stench of the fertilizer, so I strip off my T-shirt. But after shoving off my boots and socks, I flop on my back and can’t help but hum the Rolling Stones song.
Pretty soon I’m feeling better, singing the verses and thinking about my kindly grandfather, who’s likely taking a nap at the moment. My abuelo has a great collection of music, mostly on vinyl, which I’ve pretty much co-opted. While it’s unusual that we still have this old thing, it’s not if you know my grandfather. He didn’t buy a television until 1991. He’s the type of old-school Spaniard who insists that life was better when Franco was in power.
“Less crime,” he says.
Less freedom, too. I definitely disagree with him, but he assembled a fantastic collection of music during that time.
Aww yeah, I sing. I prop my feet up on the iron footboard of my bed and put my hands behind my head. Harvest time will come soon, and I really don’t have time to rest, but I’m taking it anyway.
Normally, I’m upbeat, but I haven’t been lately. Most of summer I’ve been worn out and pissed off. Now, the familiar song lulls me like an advertisement for Prozac. Got discontent? Take a half hour of los Rolling Stones.
My angry muscles loosen as I sing, but not my mind.
Will I ever get a break? Not if I keep beating myself up for what happened last month.
It was a fucking mistake.
I fucked a mistake.
I gave in to years of flirty glances and alluring smiles, but it lead to … a nutty devotee who’s increased her concentration on me fifty-fold. She just won’t leave me alone.
Today, even though she was wearing a tiny crop top and shorts that showed the bottom of her culo, she followed me around in the orchard asking if she could help. Wearing so much makeup you’d need a sandblaster to take it off and barely-there sandals that made her first get a blister and then a thorn.
And then she wanted me to carry her.
Rolling my eyes to the ceiling, I exhale, trying to get all of the air out of my body as if that would expel her memory from it.
I roll onto my side and fumble in the bedside table for my sketchpad and pencil. Where is the woman who comes alive when she’s with me, the one who’s an explosion of flavor on my tongue? Who gives herself to me so that I can give myself to her?
Nowhere. That’s where this woman is. She doesn’t exist. Not here. Not now.
And the way it’s going, maybe not ever. Taking my pencil, I start capturing the way the white egret I saw earlier looked standing on a rock at the base of the creek with a dead fish lodged in its throat. How the hell would it get that down?
I got ya, buddy. I know just how you feel. Life’s hard to swallow sometimes.
As I draw, I think about the dead fish. I’ve fucked too many of them. Not literally. I mean, potential partners who just lie there, with no sparkle or pasión. It’s almost as bad as the jaded ones using you to maneuver out of their positions in life. I don’t blame them. I’m doing it myself. But it doesn’t make for a deep connection.
I apologize for being callous.
But it’ll be a relief to go back to school for fall semester next week, because the less time I spend around here, the fewer chances I have at run-ins like today. And thankfully, I’m just about done until harvest.
While caring for olive trees most of the year is rather low maintenance—similar to the laid-back people of Andalucía—I needed to get things prepped, so I’ve been spending hours and hours out among the wide-spaced trees in the blistering heat of summer, mowing weeds, clearing away dead branches, and irrigating. The manual labor in the early morning combined with the generous time I’ve frittered in the bars of Granada—some of which don’t open until two a.m.—mean I’m one tired and querulous motherfucker.
I need some time off.
I need a fucking siesta.
I watch the record player spin.
Most of the time I stream music on my phone. But on days like today, I want—need—to zone out and play records. There’s something soothing about watching music playing. Watching sound. A contradiction.
And this song? Joder. One of the first English tunes I ever heard, it’s still one of the greatest. After listening to it hundreds of times and searching for the lyrics online, I know every word, like I know the Lord’s Prayer I repeat by rote at the cathedral of Granada. But unlike that prayer, every word of this song hits me behind my belt.
Maybe someday I’ll just find that I get what I need.
There’s a knock on my door.
At least they know to knock now.
I haul myself off the bed and answer it. My older sister, Mari Carmen, holds her hand up to knock again, and before I can say hola, she’s nattering away.
“¿Tavo, me haces un favor?”
What else is new? She’s twenty-four. I’m twenty-two. So it’s been roughly twenty years of her asking me for favors.
I yawn and scratch my belly. “¿Qué te hace falta?”
She eyes my bare sweaty chest with disgust, her long hair flouncing over her shoulder, and asks in Spanish, “Can you pick up la estadounidense from the airport?”
Mi madre decided that since I moved into the casita, this little cabin, we have an empty room in the main house, so we might as well rent it out. Tomorrow, Kim Brown from Iowa, EE.UU. is coming to stay.
While I’m intrigued to meet someone from the United States, judging by my quick take of her Instagram, we have nothing in common. I’m not into oversize coffee drinks and fast food.
“Why can’t you get her?” I ask her in Spanish.
“Because Jorge and I have an appointment with the priest tomorrow.” Jorge’s her fiancé, a policeman. It’s at the point where we call him novio, not amigo. That means it’s serious and exclusive, although even an amigo is a boyfriend. My mother approves.
It’s all right for Mari Carmen, but marriage isn’t for me, at least not now. There’s too much I want to do first.
Still, a drive to Madrid? That will take most of the day. Lately, I’ve found myself needing to get away more and more. A practice run for when I finally move to America. Maybe I can grill Kim Brown about what it’s really like.
Evaluating my sister’s pleading eyes, I nod. While I could give her a hard time, I won’t. “Sure. I’ll go. Give me her flight information.”
“I’ll text it to you.” Mari Carmen pauses, finger on her lip. “Can you make sure to set her up on the Wi-Fi once she gets here?”
Farmhand, chauffeur, and now, information technology specialist.
At your service.
She looks behind me and gestures at my sketchpad. “Did you draw that bird just now?”
Most of my family thinks my creative work is a waste of time, so I’ve stopped showing them any of it. “Yeah.”
“It looks pretty good.” Her smile is genuine, and it makes me feel better helping her out.
Mari Carmen turns on her heel and prances back to the main house.
I stretch out my fingers and take them in. So I get callouses on my hands, and I have bitterness in my heart. Es nada.
Closing the door behind my sister, I drop my pants and head to the shower.
The song has ended. I’m done with my complaints. Now it’s time to suck it up.
I can’t get what I want. And even if I try, I can’t get what I need, either.
* * *
Goddammit, my mother invited Sonia Molinero for dinner again.
The fucking mistake who I’ve seen twice today.
The fucking mistake who still doesn’t realize she was a fucking mistake, much to my regret. I know this because while we sit outside at the picnic table, she’s pressing up next to me so close she’s practically crawling into my skin.
“Tavo,” she purrs in my ear, as my mother sets down the white asparagus drizzled with olive oil and parsley. “That night was amazing. On so many levels. When can we do it again?”
I try not to make my cringe visible because I don’t want her to think I’m an asshole for several reasons. The main one is that her family owns the neighboring property. Even if I never wanted to see her again, I would. They’re the press for our olives. Our families have worked together for generations, and she comes to dinner all the time.
Yet another reason not to mix pleasure with property lines.
And on paper, I should like her. We’ve grown up together, and in the past few years Sonia’s changed from the brat next door to a very attractive woman, with long, slender legs, small breasts, petite hands, and narrow hips. Glossy, sooty black hair frames her reddish-brown eyes, which are spiked with anthracite. Those sharp eyes don’t miss a trick.
But apparently they missed a trick last month, and now I can’t get rid of her. What a waste of my last condom.
“You’re so good,” she whispers. “I’ve never had anyone do that thing you did before. And I want it again and again.” She darts her eyes over my shoulder, but no one’s heard. “Can I come by some time?”
Why is she making such a big deal about doggy style? She doesn’t know what I’m really into. She’d run screaming.
The last thing I want to do is lead her on, but I can’t just tell her to go fuck herself at the dinner table. She’d probably handcuff me to her to watch.
I shudder. I mean, I’m not opposed to handcuffs, and I actively like watching a girl get herself off. But not her. It’s just too much. I don’t know any way to handle this other than to tell her the truth. “I don’t think so, Sonia.”
She gives me a big smile and a look of understanding. “Oh, I know you’re so busy with the orchard and with classes. Just know if you ever need a break …”
If only she could take a hint. Again, I don’t want to lead her on, and I don’t want to be an asshole. I don’t know what else to say. “I’ll probably be busy.”
She pouts and picks at her plate.
My eyes roll up to the heavens, and I pray I can leave this table soon. No chance, though. Our traditional dinners take hours, with several courses and animated discussion. The warm, lovely night means we linger outside. Normally I bask in this atmosphere. Not tonight, though. I’m trapped. I focus on everyone except the woman at my side.
Guillermo, my seventeen-year-old youngest brother, discusses proper pruning techniques with my grandfather, who tears a piece of bread off and pops it in his mouth. In between begging to help me on the farm and annoying the fuck out of me, Guillermo’s been belligerent lately, and I don’t know why. At least he’s leaving me alone right now, although he keeps checking Sonia out in her tiny dress. Antonio, my middle brother, twenty, lists all the things he needs for college in a diatribe to our madre, who’s appearing particularly tired—especially when he mentions a new wardrobe, iPhone, and computer. He’s our resident geek. At the other end of the table, my aunt Valeria, uncle Juan, grandmother, sister, and future brother-in-law debate the latest political scandal.
All pleasant and normal. I’m still trapped.
From the other end of the table, Guillermo swivels to squint at us. Sonia turns away from him, and her polished finger traces my jaw.
I rub the back of my neck and take a sip of wine.
How do I let her down easy?
I can’t. I fucked this up. I shouldn’t have said yes.
“¿Más vino?” I ask, scooting a centimeter at a time away from her.
She bats her eyes and holds out her glass for more wine.
I pour, then eat in silence.
When we’re done with the primer plato, I help my mother clear away the dishes, desperate to get away from Sonia. Once in the kitchen, my mother leans against the counter and wipes her brow. Her hands tremble, making the dishes clank.
She’s been “off” all day, and it’s concerning me.
“Madre. What’s wrong?” After depositing my dishes, I take the plates from her and set them in the sink.
She slides her hands down the front of her black slacks. My elegant mother always dresses nicely, even for a simple dinner at home. She’d dress this way for the apocalypse. Schooling her features into false brightness, she crosses and uncrosses her arms. Her voice rises an octave. “Nothing. It’s all fine. Don’t worry.”
Now I’m really worried.
Ever since my padre died, I’ve been handling the orchard, but I know she still frets. “Is it about the crop? I think the harvest yields will be up.”
“Ojalá.” It is her fondest hope. But her flat tone tells me she’s not convinced.
“We may even need to hire help.”
Shaking her head sadly, she wrings her hands. “We cannot afford it.”
“What? Why not? We make enough from the sales of olives to last all year. Plus we’re renting out my old room …”
She sighs and shakes her head again. “No. It’s not enough.”
“Why not? It seems fine to me.”
“Gustavo.” She cricks her head to the side to see if anyone is coming in. Seeing none, she squares off to me, her voice lowered. “Before your padre died, he borrowed money from Señor Molinero.”
News to me. My hand scrapes my jaw. “Why?”
She turns her back to me and begins ladling out the second course into a serving dish. Lamb chops stuffed with raisins served with fried fava beans and rice. Her next words are spoken to the pan, not to me. “Expenses had gotten too high. You know farmers. We’re the biggest risk-takers there are. So when the crop prices were too low, your padre borrowed money so we could make it that year. Thankfully Señor Molinero was there to lend to him. To us. We signed a promissory note, and he holds a mortgage on the property. We’ve been making the annual payments to him out of the harvest. But those payments are small. The big payment—the balloon—is due next year.”
“The whole balance?”
“How much is it?”
“With interest, more than we make in five years of harvests.”
I blanch, then pull up the collar of my shirt, covering my mouth and nose. Thinking fast, I struggle to figure a way out of this. “We’ll pay him back. I’ll get a different job somewhere. We’ll win la lotería. I don’t know, we’ll pay it back.”
“Impossible. If Señor Molinero calls the loan, we will lose our land. He’ll foreclose. And he has the right to seize our bank accounts. Take our future income except for minimum wage. Spain has just about the fewest protections in Europe.”
“I had no idea we had a problem.” But I did. I’d seen my beautiful mother become more drawn and haggard over the summer. I didn’t question her finding ways to scrimp or earn more money, like renting out the extra room. It makes sense now.
She arranges the food on the serving tray and pulls a large spoon and tongs out of a drawer, then drops them with a clatter. As she picks the utensils up and wipes them off, I catch the palpable sadness in her eyes. Clearing her throat, she goes to speak and stops. When she speaks, it’s tentative. “I hate to mention it, but Señor Molinero and I have been talking, and he thinks you and Sonia make a good match. Eduardo has informed me that if you marry his daughter, he will forgive the debt.”
“If I marry Sonia, we don’t owe any money,” I repeat in a voice devoid of emotion as I struggle to process what she just said.
“It’s a combining of assets, Gustavo. He would count it as a dowry. A gift.”
I repress a dry heave. “Are you seriously asking me to marry her?”
She pats my cheek. “Is your family not worth this little sacrifice? You are my good son, and you will do what’s right in your heart, because you honor your family. You will do the right thing.”
“I don’t even like her, Madre,” but she’s nodding along as I speak, not hearing me.
“She likes you. She positively glowed when I asked her to dinner tonight. She specifically wanted to know if you’d be here.”
“That’s because”—joder—“she’s been a pest my whole life. I don’t know why she’s stuck on me, but a crush isn’t enough to marry her. Besides, why can’t Guillermo or Antonio do it? Maybe one of them likes her.”
Dios, I should not have given in. I’m the biggest idiot. I don’t know how to fix this. Sonia’s childhood attachment to me—all those times she followed me around the property picking olives—has now gone stalker-level. Did she plan this? Did she tell her dad to tell my mother that I needed to marry her? Of course she did.
My mother’s nostrils flare. “She likes you. She asked for you. It’s not like you’re interchangeable. And besides, Guillermo is still a boy. Antonio shows such promise as an engineer. You, with your course of study, will have plenty of time for the farm.”
I’m about to explode, then hush my voice. No one outside needs to hear this. “That’s ridiculous! I’m going to the United States. I don’t have plenty of time for the farm.”
“Don’t use that tone, Tavo. You can still travel. Just come back here.” My mother’s face starts to crumple. “If you don’t, what will she tell her father?”
“Don’t let her hold us hostage!” I seethe.
“She’s not holding us hostage. For what it’s worth, I like her. She has a good family and will make you a nice wife.” With a snap, she picks up the serving dish and utensils.
Sweat beads around my hairline. “She won’t. I know she won’t.”
Again, I want to tell her that we got together, and it was a complete and total mistake.
Like I can tell my mother that.
Carrying out the tray, she calls over her shoulder, “It’s the way things are done all over the world. People marry who their parents choose because their parents know what’s best for them. Their parents see beyond what they can see for themselves. Of course her father would want you, our oldest son, to marry his daughter. To keep the land in our families.”
I run and stop her before she goes outside. “That’s positively medieval.”
“It is. And it isn’t. It’s the way things are done around here—”
Cutting her off, I hiss, “No. Not so.”
She points a laden finger at me. “If you don’t, we will lose our home. Our home for centuries.” She raises the tray to walk around me. Her now-flinty eyes lock on mine, but there are tears behind them. She’s giving me a brave face, and I read so much into it.
My jaw muscles contract. I cannot promise her I’ll marry Sonia. But I cannot tell her I won’t.
* * *
After dinner and driving Sonia home, thankfully with a minimum of pawing at me by her, I find my grandfather. He and I plunk our culos on a stone wall that faces the hectares of olive trees. In daylight, it overlooks the landscape, which undulates off to the distance. The city of Granada is just south of us, and beyond are the mighty peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In late summer, there’s no snow, but come winter they’ll have majestic white caps. Right now there are a few points of light on the ground, but we’re mostly illuminated by stars. The incessant clicking of the cicadas creates a strange but comforting night song.
He lights a cigarette, inhales in satisfaction, then gestures over the dark countryside. “There is no finer land in all of Spain.”
“This is probably true, abuelo. Although I haven’t seen all of Spain.”
His snap-front hat hides the twinkle in his eyes. “You aren’t missing anything.” Then he sighs. “I don’t have many harvests left. It is your responsibility to take care of the huerta. You must ensure that generation after generation of de la Guerras grow up knowing how to make the superior olive oil.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. “I know, abuelo.”
“You hesitate?” His hand reaches for mine to give me a quick squeeze. Warm, dry fingers extend from his craggy hand with thin skin and prominent bones.
Kicking at the stones, I grumble, “It’s not what I want.”
After a drag on his cigarette, he asks, “What do you want, my nieto?”
“You know. I want to go to America. I want to sing. Play my guitar. Paint. Draw. Perform. Travel. Create. Explore.” I want those things so badly they make my stomach jumpy.
He raises a shoulder. “You can still travel and do those things. Just come back home.”
My words come out with quiet vehemence, especially after the conversation with my mother. “No. I’m not going to be tied to anyone or anything. I’ll pick where I want to live and what I want to do. I’m not going to have it decided for me.”
“When I was a young boy, I wanted to do that.” He pats my hand, and I feel like a child.
“I’m not a boy.”
“No. But you have much to learn. I learned that there is value in honoring tradition.”
“I do honor it. But I want to get out of here.” I pinch my lips together. “Don’t you remember what it was like? You have all this American music. Didn’t you want to go there?”
“No. I just liked the music.” He grasps my shoulder firmly. “I talked with your mother and Señor Molinero. His daughter wants you to marry her. She has always been enamored by you. We have discussed this since you were young. He wants you to make his daughter happy.”
I’m nauseous. I have no one, no one on my side. I ask quietly, “Abuelo, do you think that’s fair?”
“Life isn’t always fair, my Tavo. When Franco was in power, we did not have the freedom to choose for ourselves. But life was better.”
“No. It’s better now. We have all this opportunity, and we can make ourselves whatever we want to be.”
“The simple fact remains that if we don’t do something, the property will go out of the family after six generations. And that cannot be.”
The wind is knocked out of me. Because although my mother said it before, it hadn’t hit me until now.
I’ve been served with a life sentence. The fate of my family is on my shoulders. And I’m not free to do anything different. All I can say is, “I know, abuelo. I know.”
And I don’t say any more. Wishing things were different is a fool’s desire. Because no matter how hard I wish, I’m never going to be able to escape my obligations.
After talking with my grandfather, I shuffle back to my casita. I pull out my guitar and sit on the stoop.
My fingers aren’t only rough from working the huerta. I have callouses from playing the guitar as well. I begin strumming with my pick, playing the complicated Spanish guitar I learned from my father.
I sing as the stars come out and the lights extinguish in the main house. Once I’ve sung out my lament, I go inside and crawl into bed alone.
But I don’t sleep for a long time.