Not the Sangria

Alone at a sidewalk cafe at midnight
Plaza de Colon
Madrid, Spain

The waiter slips me another sangria. I haven't asked for it; it's a gift. The first has gone to my head. I shouldn't drink another. I really should go. But I close my hand around the glass, staying a little longer in this outdoor cafe across the boulevard from my hotel, far away from palaces and tourists and the famous nightlife of Madrid.

A polished baby grand piano is inches from my table. A slim man in black with a face younger than his grey brillo mane is playing a Spanish tune. Nearby, quietly dignified, an ancient woman with a sienna wash in her hair is singing along. All around me are older women, alone, dressed in their best, here to sip and sway late into the summer night.

Sophisticates dressed in Prada and Armani air kiss each other in greeting then sit at the table near mine. I am caught watching them and I quickly look away. Spaniards stare; I can't get used to this. When I look back, she is so very casually still staring at me. With sangria bravada, I try to stare her down: I lose. I smile into my glass, looking once again away.

The chatter volume rises. Good lord, the piano player is now playing "Feelings." It seems so wrong. The air is filled with words I don't quite understand, a Spanish ensalada of alphabet sounds, and all I hear in my head are the lyrics of this lounge lizard standard.

A young couple hops off long skateboards and waits to be seated, ordering coca-colas. Just beyond them, a costumed man gilded like a dandy Goldfinger sets down a tip jar, steps up on a box and freezes, miming a statue of Don Quixote.

A man, leather-skinned with a limp arm in a scarf sash, drops in a coin for Goldfinger Don Quixote, then walks into the cafe. He points, asking to sit at a tiny table with his back to the music, then orders a beer, drinking it with his strong arm, setting it down harder than he has to. A woman, big-boned, red-headed, green earrings dangling, takes the table by him facing the music and orders ice cream. The waiter says something to them both as he brings the ice cream; they laugh. When he leaves, they keep talking in side glances as they sip and sup, their body language the language of strangers.

My waiter swishes by on his way to the table of ladies past me, twirling his full serving platter, a balancing act; take one beer off, turn to keep the others from falling, take another, turn, another. Another. Another. He twirls, it seems, just because he wants to. Then suddenly, he stops. His free hand whisks a woman's purse off the back of her chair and places it in her lap with a rush of words and a sweeping gesture toward the dark. We have been cautioned, here in Madrid, that pickpockets are among us. An epidemic. Gypsies, they say. Or Russians. I've seen one only a few hours ago. Diversion, screams, running urchins, police from nowhere. Tonight, here in the cafe, as I take another sip of the sangria, I remember to check my pockets and purse yet again, slower now as the sangria settles.

I feel a breeze. The women at the table beside me have all opened their hand-fans with a dozen flicks of their wrists and are fanning the breeze in time with the piano player's new tune, "Guantanamero."

"Yo soy un hombre sincero..."

It is the only Spanish I have understood all day. Perhaps because I don't want to, I am thinking as the sangria warms me.

There is something strangely stirring about not being in the world of their world of words. This should feel wrong, bad, disquieting. Lonely. Instead, I feel connected in a whole other way. I recognize it, welcome it. It's almost spiritual, this feeling of quiet flow. The world is big; I am small. I'm unknown here, oddly free and easy.

The piano player, dear god, is now playing Billy Joel. "The Piano Man."

"Man, what are you doing here?" he sings.

What am I doing here? Why do people like me go anywhere we don't "belong?" Why do we wrangle passports and hurdle airport lines, suffer bone-jarring long flights, and hazard the goodwill of cultures not our own?

Tonight, I think I know. I am here because I need, sometimes, to be outside words, outside language, outside myself.

The old, old woman sitting ringside near the piano gets up to go. The waiters know her, one taking her arm and escorting her to the sidewalk's "door." She pauses there, smiling as he bows to her, then she slips slowly into the dark.

Finished with their cokes, the skateboard couple passes, brushing my blouse. Out on the sidewalk, on the edge of the cafe's glow, they set their skateboards side by side, step upon them, and then facing forward arm in arm, roll into the dark, gliding by a watching Don Quixote.

I check my bag again, and resist the impulse to check the time. Then taking another soft sip, I lean back in my chair, staying just a little longer in the flow of the sangria gift's warm red glow.

Back home, back in my world of words, I'll have tales to tell of pickpockets and palaces. And when mine aren't dazzling enough, I'll tell other people's stories, running with the bulls, street brawls with streetwalkers: The expected. The exciting.

But this moment, this is for me.

Is it the sangria?

Perhaps. But no matter. No matter at all.