The Size of Regret
Vela / April 2013
Crammed in a small phone booth, I gripped the receiver in my hand like I was afraid to let go. The sounds of the chaos outside— screaming, half-naked men and women running through the street —were muffled, and I felt, with the glass doors closed around me, sheltered for the moment.
“I’m so sick, Mom,” I said. I was 17 years old, it was my first time abroad, my first time, even, east of Nevada, and I was lost at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, my boyfriend and his three friends traipsing somewhere through the wine-soaked streets. I had come to Europe with a bladder infection I’d contracted the week before we departed, and had accidentally left my last-minute antibiotics behind. I thought of the orange bottle now sitting on the edge of my desk back at home.
“Where is Adam?” my mom asked, her voice tight. Unfortunately for my mother, this was not the first time I had called her to say I was alone, abandoned in some city square or hostel, wishing I’d never left home to begin with. I didn’t say anything, just let out a sigh of exhaustion.
“Adam needs to get on a train with you and get you to a hospital or clinic, or something,” my mom said. “Now.”
“I know,” I said, holding back tears, remembering the times I’d tried in the past few weeks to do just that and failed. A month into the trip, I finally made it to a doctor in Switzerland, but the prescription had done little to help, and the infection seemed only to be getting worse, progressing into fever and ache. I suppose that if my mother had had the money to fly me home, she would have. But the idea never even occurred to me – I had some fatalistic desire to see this thing through.
A man burst into the phone booth then, throwing back his head as he poured wine into his mouth, little streams of it trickling down his face onto his neck.
“Vino?” he slurred, holding the bottle out to me.
“Is that Adam?” my mom asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll find them. I always do.”
“Are you getting out of Pamplona?”
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re heading to Nice, I think.” I shook my head at the man, but he didn’t move.
“I love you,” I said, and hung up, steeling myself for a moment before pushing against the vino-toting dude and making my way out of the booth and into the madness of the streets.
The next day at the train station, I sat on a filthy metal bench, paralyzed by uncertainty and fatigue. I wanted out of Pamplona, but Nice had never been the plan. When we’d left California, we hadn’t bothered to make an itinerary, but the one place I was sure I wanted to go was Isaba, a small town in the Basque country where most of my Basque relatives still lived, where there was a storied Gorrindo bar and old aunts and uncles whom I’d only seen in black and white photos on my father’s dining room walls. This was one of the few plans I’d had when I dreamed up this trip back in California, working two after-school jobs to save up for it, eager not just to see another continent but to get on a plane for the first time in my life. But that idea felt like a dim memory then, as I sat there, tired and sick while Adam studied the map of southern France. I didn’t have the will to press on, to get on a train and go further north to a small, cold mountain town I didn’t know to find family I’d never met. I was hungry for warm weather, a new language, sand between my toes. So we bought tickets for the next train to Nice, which got us in late that same night.
As a rule, small hotel owners were predisposed to hating us from the moment we showed up: we were broke kids, unapologetically American, dirty, and at least four of us were pulsing with teenage testosterone. We’d been screamed at, thrown out, looked at with disgust. But Henri, the sweet old man who owned the small hotel in Nice where Adam and I stayed, was different, kind – maybe because it was just the two of us now that we’d parted with the other guys; maybe because he could see that I desperately needed him to be. I can’t quite recall his face but I remember his tall stature and grey hair, can see his attic office where we met him, the messy desk where he sat, a small lamp lighting the tiny, otherwise barren room. It looked like he’d been alone for a very long time.
I knocked softly on his open door. “Do you have any empty rooms?” I asked. He looked up from his desk, and nodded, smiling.
“150 francs,” he said. He must have seen the disappointment in my face – or could tell, just by looking at us, that we needed a break – because he hurriedly amended the amount. “But I can do 100.”
Henri guided us down the skinny, dark hallway to our room, where there were French windows that opened onto the main street, thin white curtains undulating in the nighttime breeze. The place was dingy, the wallpaper peeling, but it was a palace compared to the dank hostels, cold parks, and rocky beaches where we’d been sleeping the past few weeks: there was a toilet and small tub next to a lone sink, a bed with clean, white, sheets. Pamplona had been a punishing finale to our three weeks in Spain, and seeing these small comforts was an almost heartbreaking relief. I’d been sick the entire trip, but I was now at my sickest.
“I have a hot plate, if you want it,” Henri said, watching me as I looked around the room. Adam and I locked eyes – a hot plate! – and nodded vigorously. We’d been surviving on stale bread and thick logs of salami that had sweat for days in our backpacks — my six years of principled vegetarianism went out the window two weeks into a trip with little money and four meat-hungry American boys. We took off our packs – we could do that, we realized, take off our packs, lay them on the floor, not having to worry about getting them stolen from beneath our heads – and collapsed onto the double bed. A cool breeze came in through the windows, washing over us, and Adam inched his hand toward mine. I put my own over his, not quite taking hold of it but letting him know the feeling was reciprocated, the feeling that maybe, without his friends and the pressures of assaulting bulls and drunk Spaniards, Nice would be different. Nice la Belle, Nice the Beautiful. Maybe the fights we had ignited in the months before we left and stoked in the time we’d been in Europe would dissipate, his jealousies and our betrayals fading into the background. Maybe just the comfort of this little hotel room would be enough to fix us, to maybe even fix my body. I got up and took a long, blessedly hot bath, and when I returned to bed, he’d abandoned me for sleep.
I woke the next morning to the sounds of cars honking, engines revving, people cursing at each other on the street. The light peeking through the white curtains was glaringly bright, and I squinted as I sat up and looked around the room, assuming Adam would be up as he always was. In the first months of our relationship, he’d bring me breakfast in bed when I slept over at his house, trying to wake me with the scent of food. But this morning he was still asleep next to me, his dark brown hair a tousled mess.
I tiptoed across the room to the window to get a good look at Nice. We were right on one of the main streets that led down to the crowded beach, and it was polluted and loud, clogged with the traffic of cars, Vespas, and bicycles. I had not expected Nice to look quite so urban, had dreamed the city to be what I needed it to be at that moment: soft, sandy, quiet and warm. A vacation from the exhaustion of travel. But Nice, I would find that day and in the days that followed, was a party town, not a place for convalescence. The indulgences of wealthier and more sophisticated Cannes seemed to give Nice a chip on its shoulder, a need to announce, with beaches covered in tanned, drunk, half-naked beauties, that it was having just as much fun.
I sat down on the window ledge, the heat of the sun warming my face. We had come here on the heels of an insane, hellish Running of the Bulls, an all-out party that would put New Orleans’ Mardi Gras to shame. By the end of our week there, all of my shirts were stained with wine, my knees bloodied and skinned from falling on the hosed-down cobblestone of Pamplona’s streets, my back aching from the constant weight of my pack and the nights of sleeping on cold ground. Driven by the insane bravado that only teenagers possess, we hadn’t called ahead to secure a room the first night of the festival, and were forced to stay in the only place left with empty beds – a cold flat with a sticky concrete floor, eighteen dirty mattresses strewn across it, an open window that let in air and the noise of the street, the clamor of hundreds of people banging on pots and pans. The rest of that week, we slept in parks so cold we could see our breath when we woke at dawn to find our thin sleeping bags wet with condensation, our bodies shivering, the lawns and open squares covered with sleeping people so deeply drunk you could mistake them for the dead. But anything was better than that flat.
I regretted now that we had deliberately set out on this three-month journey without an itinerary. This was our first “backpacking” experience, and we wanted to do it right, which meant doing all we could without a road map, literal or figurative. At 17, I didn’t yet have the need for a safety net. Preparation, it seems, is for those who have stacked up an inventory of regrets, and I was, at that point, still gloriously free of them.
And yet I could feel something hunting me since we’d gotten to Europe, and more than ever in our hotel room now, the shadow of whatever it was to come, hanging over things – the small white tub in the corner, Adam stirring beneath the covers, my long, knotted hair tracing the window ledge as I bowed forward, holding my knees to my chest. It had been with me, even, on the plane ride over, causing me to wonder if we should have come – our relationship was falling apart, and we had talked briefly about canceling the trip, even breaking up. I could feel it beneath the more urgent sensation of the infection inside of me, the feeling of a fire having gone through me, like everything inside of me had been scorched, rubbed raw.
Adam rolled over so that his face was to me now. Just the summer before when we’d met at a summer arts program in California, I’d found so much beauty in that angular, asymmetrical face, his lashes gentle against his skin, those crooked, mismatched teeth, all fuel for my obsessive teenaged love, my first love. Looking at him now, I struggled to remember that beauty. Mostly, I could only see his physical shortcomings: his stunted height, small shoulders, the pimples along his hairline. Whatever I’d glimpsed before had become ugly and twisted, and I decided then, as I was studying him, that it was probably best if I stopped trusting both my mind and my heart.
The blinding sun filled my vision as I came up for air, the salt of the water stinging my eyes. The day’s heat moved in a visible wave over the pebbled beach, the bodies of the hawkers and tourists blurred. Pepsi Pepsi, Coke Coke, the hawkers called, like tireless, squawking birds. When we’d reached the shore, I’d practically sprinted into the water, the hard little pebbles burning the soles of my feet. The ocean was a powerful anesthetic: In it, I was almost free from discomfort and pain.
Out on the street that morning, the sun had been scorching. We moved ourselves through crowds of men and women, as I tried to ignore the sensation of mounting pressure in my bladder, Vespas whizzing by us, kicking up trash that whirled around our legs. On the way to the shore, we passed by a tiny cheese shop, stacks of Brie, Gouda, and Camembert looking tauntingly plump and delicious in the window. I stopped and felt around in my sweaty money belt for a few francs.
“How about a little cheese and a baguette for the beach?” I asked Adam hopefully. We each had our own funds, but Adam was always making me feel guilty about spending my money on superfluous things like decent food and a place to sleep.
“We don’t need any expensive-ass French cheese,” he sneered, disgusted by my request, and began walking again, with me reluctantly following in his tracks. When had he become like this? When had I become like this, cowering, unable even to buy myself a hunk of cheese? When he finally fell asleep on the beach, I resolved, I would sneak away and buy every kind of cheese I wanted, squirreling them away in my bag.
Out in the water, I shielded my face from the sun and scanned the beach, my body bobbing up and down in the small waves. Adam was buried in a book, that furrowed look on his face that I’d first seen the summer before when we’d met—the one that said he was thinking something fierce and singularly unique, that had made me want to know him, and be known by him. Around him, people were laughing, the sound traveling out to me, large and loud, and the slate-colored beach looked suddenly as frightening and huge as the ocean used to look to me as a child. Adam had taught me to push past that fear of the expansive and unknown, and he’d brought me fully and completely into the highs and lows of that experience: cliff jumping, hitchhiking, hallucinogen-taking, sex, playing hooky, running from the cops through the dark in the Oakland hills, bottles of tequila clanking in my jacket. Just let yourself go, he whispered, trust me – and I ran wildly down that impossibly steep hill, worried I’d hit a rock and go careening or slam into a tree, but trusting him to guide me, his heels shocks of light in the dark, the cold East Bay night air around me. And I kept running, long after he stopped, all the way down to the street, and found myself alone, having pushed too far, too fast. I’d lost every kind of virginity to Adam, and I didn’t know how to move in reverse now, to go back to the point where the guard rail fell away and turn the other, safer direction instead of moving knowingly, inexorably towards a series of mistakes: leaving behind those pills, getting on a plane, gritting my teeth and keeping up with their pace. Drinking through the pain. I didn’t know then that the sickness of that summer would become permanent, morph into a severe chronic pain condition that would, in many ways, define my adult life. I may have been starting to understand what regret was, but it would be a long time before I understood its depth or size.
I swam toward shore, the force of gravity working against me as I reached rocky sand and struggled to climb out of the ocean. I walked quickly over the hot pebbles and lay down next to Adam on my tiny “travel towel,” which was in fact not a towel at all, but a 36-inch piece of purple felt that barely protected me from the heat of the pebbles. The hawkers moved past us yelling, Pepsi Pepsi, Coke Coke, and then, in a whisper: hashish hashish. Adam looked up from his book.
“Remember that hash dealer with the cowboy hat, the one from San Sebastian who sold us that shitty hash?” He asked. “That’s him,” he said, pointing down the beach at one of the sunburnt hawkers. I laughed. These hashish dealers seemed to be Europe’s modern-day gypsies, and it was impossible to escape them, wherever we went.
He looked down at me and smiled, his face blocking the sun, a halo of light around his dark face as he leaned down to kiss me. It was a short kiss, but a soft one that contained in it the vestiges of our first kisses on a hillside, kisses so eager we ended up rolling, incrementally, to the very bottom of the hill. This was before we’d ever had sex, before I’d lost my virginity, before I’d sprinted down that hill and ended up on the street, confused and alone in the dark.
In that week in Nice, we adopted a routine that may have looked romantic from the outside, if a little hedonistic, but, in reality, it was pretty bleak. In the evening we’d return from the beach to the hotel, cook dinner and get drunk on cheap wine, have sex, and then fall into a deep slumber at 8 pm, thinking we’d nap for just a few minutes. We’d end up sleeping through the night, waking in the morning, hungover and groggy.
Everything we did during that week was in avoidance of the fact that our teenaged, one year relationship was, as Woody Allen put it, a “dead shark,” and that, worst of all, we had killed that shark ourselves. Adam’s anger and my physical pain had worn me down, and Adam, too, seemed spent: He was no longer yelling at me, and I wasn’t begging for his forgiveness. We had dug past anger and deep into some territory that for me, at that age, was still unknown: the territory of resignation. In every meal, every time we had sex, we moved further and further from each other and ourselves. These rituals were numbing: sex was an anesthetic, sleep was a drug to drown out its depressing aftermath, and wine, well, we all know what the wine was for. I’d never before felt what it was for something to be over, had never ridden something out to the end of its line. And I had only just lost my virginity that fall, was only beginning to understand sex and the realities that came with it.
One night, I woke up around 10 pm, a few hours into one of our evening “naps.” Searing pain had roused me, the feeling that someone had cut me open inside. I sat down on the toilet next to the tub and saw that I was peeing bits of blood, a symptom, I knew, of a very severe bladder infection. I turned the hot water on full blast and climbed in, too impatient to wait for the bath to fill. Lying there, my body full of chills, the burning intense, I had an idea: I pulled down the movable showerhead and pushed in the valve that diverts the bath water to the shower. Then, turning the water from hot to scathing, I brought the showerhead to me, pressing it against my groin.
And this self-searing became a ritual of its own kind, something I did either very early in the morning or late at night. It was painful but purifying, burning away the pain for a little while, numbing it out. I know now that it must have done damage, contributed to the chronic pain condition that would, for a long time, ruin sex, and dramatically slow the pace of my life. But at the time it provided relief, and that was all that mattered to me.
It was an embarrassing routine I attempted to hide from Adam, but one night he woke up and found me in the bath, my eyes closed, my thighs burning red.
“What are you doing?” he said, alarmed. “Why are you sitting down? Why are you all red?”
I opened my eyes and flinched as though he were about to yell at me, but instead he kneeled down on the floor and gently took the showerhead from my hand.
“This can’t be good for you,” he said. “The water is way, way too hot, Simone.”
Tears began to roll silently down my face. He looked like something had just struck him, and whatever it was, it had come too late. He reached out and touched my arm but I moved away from him instinctively, feeling like his touch might undo me.
I have always been a bit evasive, been afraid of people “finding me out” – for what, I’m not sure – but this was when I moved from evasive to inscrutable, learned to lead two parallel existences – the one I showed to the outside world, and the other roiling just beneath my skin. Long-term physical pain is not unlike grief; it’s storming constantly beneath the surface.
“Can you hand me a towel, please?” I asked as I stood up, and he did. I wrapped it around myself and stepped out of the bath, walking away from him and lying down on the bed, letting the wet towel dampen the sheets. I could feel him lay down on the bed, and then inch up next to me, his stomach grazing my back. He put one arm over me and another beneath, bringing me to him, and at least for that moment, I let him hold me.