My dad was born in 1952 in a house in Blancafort, a small town in Catalonia of a little over 300 residents, but moved to Mexico as a teenager. I spent many of my childhood summers in his hometown cruising around the countryside on my bike and eating paella with distant relatives to whom I’m still not quite sure how I’m related. But the summer of 2002, when I was 13, was the most memorable summer of all.
Roser Balta stretched her towel across the grass surrounding the shimmering town pool almost every day that summer. She wore a black bikini and smoked like a movie star, occasionally sharing small talk and a knowing giggle with a passing acquaintance. She would sit there for hours but her fair skin never seemed to burn, and I don’t remember her brown curls ever getting wet.
Some nights I would sit on a bench under the canopy of the trees in the town’s main plaza across from a fountain. She and her friends would strut by wearing miniskirts and lots of makeup, half lit by the glare of street lamps. They’d get in a car and speed off into the night. Not much later, the automated bells in the church—which still has a bomb lodged in its steeple from the Spanish Civil War—would strike midnight, and I would go back to my house.
The nights Roser stayed in town, she and her friends would smoke Marlboro Lights by a dumpster next to the town’s wine cooperative. My cousin Anthar and I would ride our bikes by the girls and wave awkwardly through the sweet smell of fermented fruit and cigarette smoke. We would pop out of a narrow street next to them, then speed down a concrete ramp. My grandfather, who had been mayor of Blancafort, commissioned the ramp to connect the cooperative with the town’s main street.
Roser’s father was the mayor now. We had to have so much in common.
One night, just as Anthar and I waved and were making our way to the ramp, a girl with olive skin who always sat next to Roser called us over. “You always leave in such a rush. Why don’t you ever stop and chat?”
I didn’t know what to say, but Anthar managed to say something charming. My cousin’s Mexican accent really amused the girls. All except Roser, who stared off into the night sky while puffing away.
Nevertheless, with one foot on the muddy pedal, I decided it didn’t matter that she was two years older than me. I was going to talk to her.
“Which house are you from?” was the first question that came to mind—houses in Blancafort have names and my grandfather used to say he could tell which house a kid was from just by his face. Roser turned her almond eyes slowly towards me, smiled her perfect smile, and said, “I live in one of the new houses by the pool.”
Now what? I was so proud of myself for coming up with that first question, but I hadn’t really thought about what I would say next. Roser gracefully broke the silence by asking me which house I was from, and before I knew it, we got into the habit of talking every night.
We talked about our hopes and dreams. I didn’t know what mine were yet, but she had a very clear plan.
“You mean, like art?”
“No. I want to work at a beauty salon.”
“I want to wax people. I like ripping people’s hairs out.”
All I could think at the time was that it made sense for a girl that beautiful to want to devote her life to the pursuit of beauty.
I was in love. I couldn’t sleep, and not just because the mattresses in Cal Silo, my family’s house, felt as if they were made of straw, but because all I could think about was when I would see Roser again and all the wonderful things we would talk about.
I was riding my bike with Anthar one day when we saw Roser and her friend, to whom Anthar had become close, sitting on the steps of Blancafort’s modest community center. Anthar had an inspired idea. “Why don’t I go ask them if she likes you, too?”
I sped off as fast as I could down my grandfather’s ramp, turned left, and left the town. I pedaled onto the highway under a vast blue sky. On one side, vines and rolling hills. On the other, Blancafort’s steeple hovering above the ancient houses with names. I circled the town once before rushing into Cal Silo, where I sat in the living room and waited for Anthar to return with the news.
“What did they say?”
“You’re red and sweaty.”
“I was on my bike. What did they say?”
“She said there’s no time for her to be your girlfriend because you’re leaving in two weeks, but that maybe you could have a rollo.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s like a fling. She said you should go meet her tonight where she smokes.”
I took a shower and put on my best shirt. It was a navy blue polo shirt with two horizontal turquoise stripes across the middle. I put on my khaki Bermuda shorts, brushed my teeth, sprayed on some extra deodorant, and rode my bike up the hill to the dumpster.
She wasn’t there. I waited in the dark, listening to the sounds of crickets and the distant roar of motorcycles. Out of nowhere, Roser’s friend showed up, smiling. “She says to go meet her down by Cal Canela in ten minutes.” That was all the way on the edge of town. I biked there, shaking. The street was narrow and paved in cobblestone. It was quiet. Roser was sitting, smoking, leaning on a large oak door facing an orchard. I put my bike on the floor next to her.
“So…I like you and I want to know if you’ll have a rollo with me.”
“I like you, too…Yes, I would like that.”
She took one last puff, put out her cigarette, and said, Ja saps que m’agradas—you know I like you—and then she kissed me on the lips. But not just once; she kept going. I could feel her tongue and I could taste the cigarettes and her mint gum and I didn’t know what to do. After a few seconds she stopped. “Calm down,” she said, putting her hand on my knee. My whole body was shaking and even my legs were turning red. We kissed a few more times until the church bells announced midnight and I had to go.
I only saw her once more before going back to Mexico, and I don’t really remember what happened in those long ago days of being 13. I didn’t go back to Blancafort until five years later, and at first, not much seemed to have changed. Old people still sat outside their houses, their sense of style unaltered since 1940.
One night I went to the pool. It was the hangout spot for the older kids now. Some of my childhood friends were sitting around a plastic table drinking beer and smoking. I joined them and we started catching up. About an hour later Roser walked in in skintight jeans and stilettos.
She didn’t recognize me at first, but when she did, she sat down next to me, lit up a smoke, and started some polite small talk.
“You hadn’t been here in a long time.”
“I know. How have you been?”
“I’m good. What are you doing now?”
“I’m about to start college. You?”
“I’m working in Montblanc, the nearest city.”
“Oh, wow. What do you do?”
“I work at a beauty salon. I wax people.”