Authors: Ruta Sepetys
Ana checks the register in her apron pocket for her assigned guest.
She knocks lightly on the door. No reply.
Using her passkey, she lets herself into the room.
Warmth. Quiet. The air-cooling is turned off and the door to the balcony stands open. The sheer pearl drape rises and falls on the hot breeze.
Most tourists want air-cooled rooms along with their ice. But this guest is different. This visitor welcomes the hot, dry breath of Madrid into the large suite. His clothes are not yet tucked into the drawers or closet. They spill from open suitcases on the floor amidst other litter of arrival. Stacks of newspapers and magazines sit atop the coffee table. A magazine title,
, calls out to Ana. Resting next to the newspapers is a yellow box labeled
GE PHOTO FLASHBULBS
Hotel guests bring an array of expensive belongings. A man from Illinois works for a company called Zenith. He has “transistor” radios in a rainbow of colors, small enough to fit in your pocket. A musician down the hall has a portable record player housed in a suitcase. How do they earn the money to buy such things? The petit lobster appetizer on the hotel menu costs more than most Spaniards earn in months.
“They often leave food untouched, just sitting on the tray,” she tells her brother, Rafael.
“Sure, it’s not expensive for them,” he explains. “American
men have something called ‘minimum wage’ for working. One U.S. dollar per hour. And that’s their lowest wage. Can you imagine?” Rafa leans in toward Ana. “Those rich Americanos are happy, not hungry. Put some lobster in your pocket for me,” he says with a conspiring nod.
Ana laughs at her brother’s teasing. Their older sister, Julia, does not laugh. Julia worries. When not holding her baby, her hands hold each other, wringing twists of concern.
“We have five mouths at the table now. No one can lose their job,” says Julia.
Ana loves her job, along with the English classes and the relaxed American atmosphere it provides. She could not bear to lose the position. But Rafa is right. Most guests at the hotel have never known hunger—not hunger for food, nor hunger for life.
Her family has known both.
An open magazine sits quietly on a chair. A photo of an American family stares at Ana. She gently sets down the towels and bends to pick up the magazine.
American girls wear cuffed socks with black-and-white shoes. They stare at pictures of singers who perform something called rock-and-roll music—music considered indecent in Spain. What would happen if Spanish girls wore pants on the street? Would they be apprehended? Would an unmarried woman in Spain ever be allowed a passport?
Ana dreams of travel, of one day leaving Spain. What lies outside the country’s borders is untouchable for families like hers. For decades, Francisco Franco has believed that outside influence will corrupt Spain’s purity and identity. The train tracks in Spain are purposely wider than the rest of Europe’s to prevent unwanted entries and exits.
“Spain needs money and foreign investment, that’s why Franco
allowed the American hotel,” claims Rafa. “
, a castle in Spain for Americanos,” he laughs.
It’s true. After years of isolation, select industries have been invited from America—tourism, motion pictures, and oil. Americans stay at the Castellana Hilton. But the Hilton has more than just hotel rooms. It has a business office. Ana’s English is strong. Once she’s worked at the hotel for two years she may apply for a position in a different department. The secretarial team from the business office travels with executives throughout Spain. They leave Madrid.
A key clatters in the lock. A tall young man with dark hair enters the room. They both jump, startled. The magazine flutters to the floor.
.” Ana greets the guest as instructed.
The young man stands, holding a camera. He stares at her, then looks nervously about the room. His clothes are different from those Ana sees in magazines. Most Americans are polished and tidy. This boy is handsome but rugged. His hair has a mind of its own.
His low voice breaks the silence.
“Lo siento. No era mi intención asustarte.”
“You didn’t scare me,” smiles Ana.
“Oh, you speak English,” he says quietly.
“And you speak Spanish very well,
, but not Spanish from Spain. Perhaps you speak Spanish”—she pauses—“from Mexico?”
The side of his mouth lifts, almost reaching a smile. “Texas. Must be my accent. But my mother is from Spain.” He points to the door. “My parents are in the suite down the hall.” He attempts to smooth his tousled hair and that’s when Ana notices. His sleeve is torn.
He sets down the camera and moves to retrieve the magazine. Ana reaches it first.
She feels his eyes upon her as she swaps the magazine for the towels.
“Ah, yes. Your parents are the Mathesons of Dallas. You arrived
yesterday. Welcome to the Castellana Hilton,
. I hope you are enjoying your stay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nods.
Unlike “sugar” or “doll,” Ana has been told, “ma’am” is a term of respect, not endearment. She looks at the young man. At most, she is two years older.
“My parents,” he says quietly. “Have they stopped by my room?”
His shoulders retreat with relief.
A knock sounds at the door. His blue eyes flash wide and a finger flies to his lips, requesting silence. Ana stands facing him, clutching the towels.
The knocking continues, followed by a woman’s voice behind the door.
“Daniel, are you back?”
He looks to Ana and shakes his head quickly. His lips form the word
, followed by a sheepish grin.
Ana stifles a laugh, trying to contain her wide smile. She hates the spot of gold that tops her lower side tooth.
“Maybe he left the radio on and that’s what you heard,” says a man’s voice.
Daniel mouths the word.
Ana points nearby. He leans across her and snaps it on low. He smells . . . nice.
After a few moments, Daniel cocks his ear toward the door. “I think they’re gone,” he whispers. He exhales deeply, as if trying to calm himself. “Sorry about that. I’m trying to avoid my parents.”
“Yes, I can see that,” she says with a laugh. She turns and takes the towels to the bathroom.
The telephone rings.
“Aw geez, now they’re calling from their room,” says Daniel.
She wants so desperately to be conversational, to discover why he’s avoiding his parents, but heeds her sister’s warning. “Is there anything you need,
? If not, I’ll be going,” says Ana.
“No. Thanks a lot for your help.” He pauses, looking at her. “Say, your English is better than my Spanish. Are you from Madrid?”
Ana looks him straight in the eye. She smiles and lies.
When I first went there, to Spain in ’55, you had the feeling of depression when you got into Spain, repression. It was true. Everybody was careful what they said, what they did, how they disported themselves.
, U.S. vice consul, Bilbao (1955–1957)
Oral History Interview Excerpt, April 1994
Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection
Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Arlington, VA www.adst.org
. These are the words used to describe Miguelín, the new bullfighter.’”
Rafael looks up from the newspaper. His friend Fuga sits on a crate in the cemetery shed and nods, urging Rafa to continue.
“‘Following his presentation at Las Ventas in Madrid,’” reads Rafa, “‘this
assures audiences that he is one to watch.’”
Fuga points to the image of a matador in the newspaper.
, that’s him, Miguelín,” says Rafa. “Shall I show you how to write his name? I’ve told you, if you’re going to be a famous bullfighter, you have to learn your letters.”
The offer is ignored. Fuga teeters back on the arthritic box, stabbing the dirt with a shovel. His mane of black hair, wild and unkempt, cannot conceal his feral eyes. Those who pass him look twice. They not only see him, they feel him. He is a gathering storm.
Fuga’s gaze ticktocks between Rafa and a miniature plywood casket, the size of a large shoebox, that sits near his feet.
, another baby?” says Rafa.
Fuga says nothing, just stares at the little coffin.
Some friendships are born of commonality. Others of proximity. And some friendships, often the unlikely ones, are born of survival. Rafa and his friend are comrades of hardship. They refuse to speak of the boys’ home in Barcelona. It was not a “home.” It was a hellhole, a slaughterhouse of souls. The “brothers” and “matrons” who ran the institution took pleasure in the humiliation of children. The mere memory is poison.
The torments, like mental cockroaches, still crawl through Rafa’s mind: holding a coin against the wall with his nose; kneeling on chickpeas; being held down and burned with cigarettes. He remembers pure fear causing him to wet the bed, then the brothers tying the soiled sheet around his neck, insisting he wear his cowardice like a cape for all to see. He remembers losing weight, losing his hair, losing his courage.
Stop. The word reaches him before his friend’s punch. The sting of pain is the customary antidote, a promise fulfilled when memory grabs hold. The memories are poison. Don’t take the poison.
Fuga nods, his fierce eyes softening beneath the wilderness of his hair. His hand suddenly extends from his pocket, offering a small mandarin to Rafa.
Rafa craves the citrus of the orange, but it’s too generous. He can’t take his friend’s only meal. He shakes his head.
Fuga shrugs. “
, ask her?”
“Her” means Julia, his older sister. The favor is one only she can fulfill.
, I’ll ask her.” Rafa tears the newspaper into a stack of neat squares. “Ana says they don’t use newspaper in the American hotel. She says the guests are provided rolls of soft white tissue in the toilets. When you become famous,
, you’re going to buy us all white tissue for the outhouse.”
Fuga stares at the baby’s casket. “No,” he hisses. “When I become famous, I’ll unmask the evil homes and rescue the children.” He stabs the shovel into the dirt. “Tell me the words from your book again.”
He is referring to a thin volume that Rafa cherishes. It’s a favorite book of his father’s, containing the philosophy of Seneca.
“Gold is tried by fire and brave men by adversity,” says Rafa.
,” whispers Fuga. “I will emerge from this fire and when I do”—his head snaps to Rafa, wild eyes ablaze—“I’ll burn them all down.”