I wish I could tell you about the South of Spain. The way it actually was. The endless sea. Palms nodding gracefully at the sea. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the unbearable heat, the purple sun setting behind the mountains, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.
But whenever I start to talk about the South of Spain, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Iberian peninsula is like, and first thing you know I’m telling about the lizards, the bugs, and the lion cubs and baby chimps that somehow got dumped in your lap when you least expected it. Your picture got snapped and you were obliged to pay for the Polaroid picture. As souvenirs. For five dollars!
Okay, so I changed the words a bit from Tales of the South Pacific, but I suspect only diehard James Michener fans will notice. The story I am about to tell is true, truer than I care to admit. I chose to adapt the first two paragraphs from the classic novel, because the south of Spain is just as exotic to me as the South Pacific would be to a more sophisticated traveler. My story is a jumbled version of South Pacific, The Drifters, Swept Away, Shirley Valentine, and sadly, Against All Odds. So, how did a nice Jewish girl from Long Island end up with the history and the memories that I have?
This is a story of a functionally dysfunctional character. The beauty of this tale is that, right from the start, it leaves a lot of room for character development, the foremost desirable factor in a great book.
Until recently, I never revealed the events of my past to a soul, except to the man I ended up marrying. He had to know. Someone had to know the entire story, not just the partial truths that my sisters, my mother, and each one of my friends had heard through the years. I was too young (emotionally, if not chronologically) to have lived through these experiences and process them accurately. I am still not sure that I can make sense of it all.
With the Moody Blues song, “In Your Wildest Dreams”playing softly in the background, the movie version of my story begins.
In 2006, two pretty, suntanned, American eighteen-year-olds flip-flopped their way into the marble lobby of an upscale, but not obscenely opulent, apartment building in a built-up resort area on the Costa del Sol in Spain. They were hot, tired, and irritable, one more noticeably irritable than the other. The less irritable girl promised the more irritable girl that this would be the last thing they tried before they gave up altogether. She acknowledged that their mission seemed like a (pardon the expression) quixotic search, but they had come this far, and she was not ready to give up. The more irritable girl made it known how eager she was to get to the beach.
The girls approached the concierge and asked in Spanish if he knew where they could find Antonio Salazar Luque.
The concierge answered without that glint Spanish men tend to have in their eyes when they speak to beautiful teenage girls, “¿Por quérazón queréis saber donde encontrar a Antonio?”(Why do you want to find him?)
The absence of that glint was significant to the less irritable girl, who had read her share of mysteries. “¿Antonio?”
“Mi madre conoce a su hermano.”(My mother knows your brother.)
“¿Es tu madre Annie?”(Is your mother Annie?)
The jaws of the two irritable girls dropped simultaneously, knowing that Annie had not seen Antonio’s brother in more than twenty years and that their mission was complete. They could not hide their smiles. Antonio, still poker-faced, asked the less irritable girl if she would like to speak to his brother. Still in shock, she nodded yes.
Antonio took out his cell phone, dialed, waited a moment and said rather coldly, “Aquíhay alguien que pregunta por tí, quieres hablarle?”(There’s someone here who wants to speak to you, do you want to speak?) He then handed over the phone.
“Hello,”she said in English.
“Annie?”Antonio’s brother said.
No matter how many times I tell this story, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. Yes, I’m Annie. Yes, I hadn’t seen Antonio’s brother in twenty years. Yes, the less irritable girl is my daughter. And no, I don’t know how, after all that time, Antonio’s brother was able to recognize my daughter’s voice as mine.
Note to the casting director of the movie version: The actress who plays me (Katie Holmes or Keira Knightly, if I’m lucky) must be able to cry a lot and easily on cue.
I was in Lexington, Kentucky, accompanying my youngest son at an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament. I left my Jordan with his coach and friends in the swimming pool at our hotel and disappeared on my own for a while. So there I was in T.J.Maxx, minding my own business, when I got the call from my daughter Marielle, the less irritable girl, from Spain.
“Ma, I tried to find Francisco’s brother, but he wasn’t where you said he’d be, and I had no other way to find him.”
“No problem, sweetie. It was so long ago when he worked there, people’s lives change. I didn’t think you’d find him anyway.”
“Not!”she giggled. In an uncharacteristically exuberant voice she said, “Ma, I spoke to Francisco—he’s still in Finland. Ma, he sounds soooooo nice. Ma, he recognized your voice, I mean my voice, immediately. Ma….he must have really loved you.”
I didn’t care how much this international call was going to cost—I ran out of the store, glued to her every word. My jaw quivered and tears welled up in my eyes. I just want to clarify that although I had tears in my eyes, they weren’t actually pouring out, they were just dripping down a bit. In the movie version, the tears should be extremely visible. The “tears pouring out of my eyes”part will come much, much later in the story. When I tell that part of the story, there will be no need to exaggerate.
Marielle was traveling through France and Spain and wanted to show her friend her grandparents’apartment where she had stayed the summer when she was six years old. She had called me a few days earlier to ask me how to get there from her hostel in Nerja on the Costa del Sol, approximately an hour away. After I gave her directions, I asked her to walk a few buildings down the street to see if she could find Francisco’s brother, Antonio. He had worked as a concierge there in 1994, which was the last time I had contact with either of them. I told her to introduce herself and see if she could find out where Francisco was. And so she did.
Marielle was conscious of Antonio’s rather unpleasant demeanor and tried to keep the conversation with Francisco short. She didn’t want to take advantage of Antonio’s kindness, particularly because he did not seem so kind. It was nice of him to offer the use of his cell phone for a potentially expensive international call, but she sensed that he was eagerly awaiting her departure. She told Francisco in Spanish that it wasn’t Annie, but her daughter, “No, soy su hija.”
Francisco responded, “You can speak English.”Marielle gave him my e-mail address and home telephone number. They exchanged pleasantries and hung up. Apparently, Francisco’s excitement was palpable right through the phone. And contagious. Antonio’s mood notwithstanding, Marielle and her friend were high from the interchange, and called me right away with the news.
My children had known of Francisco’s existence for years. Under most circumstances, it would be inappropriate for a mother to talk to her children about her past romances, but for one particular reason, Francisco had become a household name in our home. The year I turned forty, I had the pleasure of developing adult onset acne. Commonly attributed to stress or hormones, it was noticeable and I was, even at the age of forty, pathetically self-conscious about it. My husband, who is not typically overly critical or mean-spirited, mentioned this malady in an unkind way in front of the children. As a retort, I told him that my ex-boyfriend Francisco would kiss my pimples when I complained about them. After the obligatory “Eww,”the kids forever referred to Francisco as the “pimple sucker.”No harm, no foul, I figured, considering he was four thousand miles away in Finland and I assumed he would be hopelessly unreachable for just as many years.
So, you might ask, how did I meet Antonio’s brother in Spain more than thirty years ago? I never took for granted the events that led me there to begin with, just as I never tired of looking at the glistening Mediterranean from my terrace. Every single day, when I walked out of my building, I promised myself that I would always remember how lucky I was to see those arid ominous mountains beyond a foreground of bougainvillea. We all have opportunities. Opportunities that we pass up, opportunities that we jump upon. Some, of course, are more enticing than others. Would I have jumped on this opportunity if I had not had such a difficult year? If I had not had experiences that I was hoping to erase from my memory’s database? If I were not running away from my health issues, my past, and my future? If I had anything else to do?
I always believed that we all have a place on the planet we would like to visit if money were not a consideration: Rome, London, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Dalmatian Islands. If ever there is a lull in a conversation, I will question anyone where he or she always wanted to go.I am often surprised by most answers, and even though I shouldn’t be, I am more surprised when people don’t have an immediate answer. Or when they can’t come up with an answer at all, saying that they don’t like to travel. My travel goal was to see the Royal Palace of Thailand, different from my father’s choice, which was The Alhambra, a palace in Spain.
My story really began with my father’s fascination with the Spanish Civil War. Many New York liberal, intellectual-types from that generation were supporters of the cause célèbre against Franco, and my father was no exception. And really, who doesn’t like a good fascist dictator story? My father’s dream was to travel to Spain. And after Franco died, to return to Spain over and over again to see the topless sunbathers. Yes, my father did tell his daughters that. What a guy!
As soon as my parents had enough disposable income, they went to Spain. The castles, the museums, the mountains, the sea, the warmth of the culture. They were not disappointed. So, not only did they go to Spain, but almost instantaneously, my parents decided that they would like to spend their retirement there, or at least a few months of the year. Opting not to buy in Miami Beach, as many Jewish retirees did in those years. On their third visit to Spain, my parents stood on a barren hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean with a Spanish man with Spanish blueprints and invested in one of the largest real estate companies on the Costa del Sol. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. As they were years away from retirement, they expected to rent out their condo to tourists during the year, thus having an alternate source of income, and use it for vacations in the meantime. Maid service, view of the sea, their beloved cuisine, what could possibly go wrong?
This is where the similarity to The Drifters comes in. The narrator of that story was an American sent to Spain to help straighten out a major real estate debacle that was crippling the Spanish economy. That part of the novel was based in truth. A truth my parents knew all too well, having invested in the company that was the primary source of the problem. This gigantic corporation unexpectedly and suspiciously declared bankruptcy before most of their properties were completed. Thus the coastline of one of the most beautiful and tourist laden countries of the world was lined with buildings in various stages of development/disrepair. For close to a century, Spain was the tourism center of Europe, and much of its economy was dependent on foreign trade and investment, as well as tourism. In addition to aesthetic issues, there were, understandably, many reasons why the Spanish government was not happy with the conditions of these buildings (empty shells of buildings had insurance liabilities, were breeding grounds for rodents, etc.). After Franco died, the royal family was back on the throne, a new prime minister was in power, and the government snapped into action. They agreed to invest a substantial sum of money to get these buildings operational if they had the cooperation of the original investors.
This brings us up to May of 1980. My parents, who assumed that they had lost all their money, were thrilled to learn of the option presented to them. Because their particular building was practically completed, they were advised that they only had to invest a nominal amount (a few thousand American dollars) to get the keys to their condo. And so they did.
The southern coast of Spain was different then than it is now. When I arrived, Franco had only been dead for five years and the Spaniards were still trying to get a working government together. The Basques were bombing the tourist areas, and I was naïvely unaware of the insidious drug trafficking and political turmoil that existed, and apparently still exists in Spain. Living in a resort area was much too much fun for me to have concerned myself with politics. I was not, however, above being annoyed when I was told that I couldn’t store my belongings in lockers at train and bus stations, because of terrorism. Terrorism. It was such an alien concept to me that I obnoxiously perceived it as nothing more than a hoax, probably perpetuated by the media. I was twenty-three years old, and even though I would have been considered reasonably intelligent by most who met me, I can say now, see now, that I was not. Not even remotely. Just the fact that I was living in Spain and did not concern myself with what was happening there politically is proof enough. With each word that I write, you will see just how intelligent I wasn’t.
I was finishing my Masters in Social Work at New York University. I had been living in Greenwich Village with two roommates and was “unofficially”engaged to Bill, someone with whom I thought I was madly in love. Even though Greenwich Village was considered a Mecca to the creative, rebellious, and bohemian, I was, by no means cool, a hippie, or sexually liberated. I can honestly say that I did not know one person less cool than I was. I was smart and pretty, and could be witty, so I didn’t have to be cool. Believe it or not, that’s kind of how it worked, particularly with the guys I dated, who tended to be considerably older than I. I think this is because older, or should I say, more mature men are less apt to consider their girlfriend’s breast size a status symbol. Flat-chested women were often heard pontificating that there is an inverse relationship between a man’s maturity and the breast size of the woman in his life. Needless to say, I was one of those pontificating women.
Bill, the older brother of my college roommate, lived and practiced chiropractic in Pennsylvania. He would have been sent from Central Casting to epitomize a tall, dark, handsome leading man: gorgeous smile that flaunted his perfect white teeth, wavy dark brown hair, hazel eyes with eyelashes that, if you didn’t know better, you would swear had mascara on them.
At best, long distance relationships are problematic. Ours should not have been. We did not have any of the typical problems that many couples have. No external conflicts (parental interference), baggage (even though he was nine years older than I, he had never been married and had no children), religious, political, or social issues. We generally enjoyed doing the same things. There was no reason to believe that we would have had financial problems. I made peace with the fact that we would have to live in Pennsylvania (Bill was not licensed to practice chiropractic in New York), a bit more than a two hour ride from NYC. I didn’t think I would mind. In short, we got along very well and I was crazy about him. And I believed that he was crazy about me.
For years, our relationship was characterized by alternating euphoria and unanticipated breakups, rendering me confused and depressed. I still don’t get it, but I certainly don’t need to now. I was entirely too naïve to have seen that Bill was not right for me. He, however, almost a decade older than I, should have known. He should have known himself well enough to acknowledge that he was not the marrying kind and never should have let it go so far. In retrospect, his indecision and inability to commit to our relationship was the best thing that could have happened to me.
So one fine evening in May, after a harrowing day at the inpatient psychiatric unit of Metropolitan Hospital (where I was a social work intern), I was packing for another weekend of bliss. Bill caught me just as I was running out the door to catch the Metroliner to Philadelphia. He called to say that he was going to be extremely busy and would not have time to spend with me. He would prefer that I didn’t make the trip that weekend. I heard the infidelity in his voice, which by this point, I became an expert at detecting, and confronted him with my suspicion. He confessed, relatively unabashedly, as I recall. In the course of almost three years, it had happened a few times. Well, I was only aware of it happening a few times. It always followed a particularly idyllic weekend, usually one when we talked about our future: when we would get married, the specific details about our wedding, how lucky we were to have found each other. The stuff that most couples who think they are “in love”eventually end up talking about. I was careful never to bring up the M-word. Being quite a bit younger than he and outrageously insecure, even after many years, I was intimidated by him and feared that my future happiness could be dashed if he perceived me as coming on too strong. I never had to bring up the subject; he was quick to fantasize aloud about our future together and there was never a sign that a one-night stand and breakup would be imminent. After a few times though, I began to expect it.
There I was: sad, angry, all packed up, and nowhere to go. So I did what any mature twenty-three-year-old would do. I called my mother. My parents returned from Spain the day before with news that they actually took possession of the condo that they had purchased ten years earlier. I never needed an invitation to visit my parents. Usually, when I went to see them it was because I genuinely wanted to. However, if too much time elapsed between visits, requests from my father came via telephone in the form of an order, a guilt producing suggestion or manipulative begging. That night’s invitation came from my mother, “I don’t want you alone and depressed when you can be home with Ryan.”(Our golden retriever.) That line of reasoning never failed.
Until then, any reference to their misbegotten Spanish purchase was spoken in low, embarrassed tones. That night, my parents were elated that this phantom place actually existed, that it was “really quite lovely,”and that it was theirs. My wheels were turning. No question went unasked and no question went unanswered without their enthusiasm and pride. My last semester of school was rapidly coming to an end, my lease was up, I had no job, and seemingly no fiancé. I was certain to get graduation presents (all my grandparents were alive), perhaps enough to sustain me for a summer, at least, in an apartment where I would not need to pay rent. In an instant, I had it all figured out.
I don’t know how my parents, who are normally very perceptive, didn’t realize where my investigative line of questioning was leading, but they were not catching on at all. It was too far-fetched for them to put it together or to take my plan seriously, even after I laid it all out for them. Live alone three thousand miles away? I barely spoke the language, knew no one in Spain. They didn’t seem to care that I was just a few months shy of my twenty-fourth birthday, that I lived in Manhattan for five years, and that living in a resort town would be much easier and safer than living in New York City. They knew that as a social worker, I survived visiting clients in the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York, possibly in America. Yes, they knew all about it, but no, they were not going to let me go.
My parents, only having three well-behaved daughters, were free from most of the troubles associated with raising adolescents. One of my sisters got drunk in high school once, and the worse thing I ever did in my youth was to call said sister a “stupid idiot.”My other sister never did anything wrong at all. In an effort to keep us safe, my mother did her best to instill her fear of strangers in all of us. She must have slacked off a bit with me, her youngest, or I did not seem to have the same complacent nature that my sisters had. While they have certain personality strengths that I do not possess at all, I believe that I had then and continue to have now the most adventurous spirit of the three of us. I had to lobby hard to attend New York University because, according to my mother, no one went to schools in the city—everyone went to campus schools. To add insult to injury, I was becoming a social worker. Not exactly a safe career choice. Not exactly what my phobic Jewish mother had in mind.
After my mother’s vehement refusal, I needed an ally. My father, in general, was more apt to listen to reason; in fact, he was the one who allowed me to go to NYU, despite my mother’s objections. He wasn’t opposed to my plan, plus he saw this as a chance to get his money’s worth from his investment. The onus was now on him to figure this out. He had his concerns, of course, but did agree with one of my most salient points that by living in Spain, I would perfect my Spanish, ultimately making it easier for me to get a job when I returned. And, he reasoned, this trip would get Bill, whom he had never liked, out of my life for good. He convinced my mother to let me go if I could get a friend to go with me. They conceded that this person would not have to stay with me for my entire trip, but they just didn’t want their baby stepping off a plane, alone, in a foreign country.
With a minimum amount of research, I found someone to accompany me. Jocelyn, my oldest, most daring, and well-traveled friend did not need to be cajoled. A seasoned traveler, she spent a summer working on a kibbutz when she was still in high school and spent an entire year studying Chinese in Taiwan when she was twenty. We grew up living a few houses away from each other on Long Island. We walked back and forth to school together every day, were often in the same classes, did our homework together, had the same friends, and went to the same parties. Our parents were friends, our sisters were friends, and until we went to college, we spent more waking hours with each other than with anyone else in our lives. If I misplaced my shoes, they could just have easily been in her house as my own.
I was a good student. A very good student. A member of the National Honor Society, I alternated between Honor Roll and High Honor Roll all throughout high school. The math and science courses I took were called “accelerated”in those years, meaning that I attended classes with students who were one year older. This was no small feat, and for that, I would be regarded as one of the smart ones in my grade. Sadly, I never felt smart, even after learning that I had a genius IQ. Why? Because Jocelyn was my best friend.
I don’t think that there was any doubt that Jocelyn was the smartest girl in my high school, and today, she is still one of the smartest people I know. And I don’t mean in the mathematical, scientific way that one often associates with raw intelligence. There may have been girls in high school who scored higher on intelligence tests (me, perhaps?), but none that would impress a person the way that she does. A voracious reader, she has an uncanny knack of retaining knowledge, even when the subject matter does not particularly interest her. That’s what separates her from anyone else I know. I too, have a good memory, did my share of reading, and can impress people with snippets of information, but we’re talking small potatoes compared to Jocelyn, and I was keenly aware of my shortcomings. I always felt that if I didn’t know something it was because I was lazy or actively chose not to know it. Nuclear fission, the internal workings of an engine, etc. Jocelyn chose to learn everything. Including Mandarin Chinese. It was, however, my astute observation, not hers, of likening “chanquetes”to sperm that may or may not have changed my life, but that would come much later. With my parents’permission and Jocelyn’s commitment to accompany me, my trip was all set.
Excerpted from "This Nearly Was Mine: A Novel" by Nancy Farkas. Copyright © 0 by Nancy Farkas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.