And when will her eyes, staring at me
Because she sees only her departure from me,
See me left here. Further adventure is further delay.
I used to count the days. I do not want to count the days.
— Ann Lauterbach, “Clamor”
An old friend emails wondering if I could meet a friend of his for coffee. We do meet, even shake hands. The coffee shop is packed, but I seek out a quiet spot in a corner, wipe the table surface with a Kleenex. I’m nervous, increasingly anxious. I don’t act nervous in public, though, only privately, in my own head, or alone in the bathroom at work. There, I scrub my hands, counting to thirty, once every half an hour.
My friend’s friend’s name is Josh. He lives, usually, in California but is here in Barcelona for a few weeks. A writer, my old friend told me. Though I realize, upon meeting this guy, that my friend meant journalist. Josh writes about climate change—specifically about the impact of industrial farming on global warming. Part of his visit includes visiting Spanish hog farms for a sort of exposé piece he’s working on. He gives me all the details—pigs injured, unable to walk, piled on top of one another, open sores on their bodies, the stench that gets stuck in your nose. I know the stench well, but just listen, nodding. I’ve lived here twenty years, have spent a lot of time in those agro-industrial towns that stink of pig. I know about the poverty, the on-the-job injuries, the polluted drinking water.
Josh tells me about the slaughterhouses around Vic, where immigrants from Morocco prepare the pork products and fleshy old Catalan men drive trucks that transport the meat throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. I know those towns from another life, years back, but Josh isn’t interested in personal anecdote. He likes statistics and horror.
“We don’t eat pork,” I tell him as we’re leaving the café. “My husband’s Muslim.”
We stay in touch, Josh and me, texting every few days once Spain enacts the strictest lockdown in all of Europe. We’re jealous of the Italians who are allowed outside once a day for exercise.
Josh sends me articles he’s written, links to other articles about the links between industrial farming and novel corona viruses. Those first few weeks I’m so hungry for information. I read the internet at night, after spending hours on the phone with my parents, my brother, friends I haven’t seen in years. I exercise on our terrace—jump rope, do rounds of burpees, run in place—and talk to the neighbors as they lean out over their balconies—we spread rumors, listen to other peoples’ rumors about the safest supermarket, how to disinfect groceries, what might stay alive on cardboard, vegetables, meat.
The woman who was once my mother-in-law sends me a text message. M has been running a fever for three days. I call her straight away. My first husband can’t eat or sleep. The fever makes his spine hurt. He can’t get comfortable in bed. His cousin is on a ventilator, two other cousins—late fifties—and their parents have died. My former mother-in-law whispers all this to me from her kitchen in a town, just an hour outside of Barcelona, that smells, always, of pig. She tells me she is giving him liquids—consommé, water, herbal tea—and paracetamol every six hours. I can hear him coughing in the background. My own chest tightens; I walk outside to the terrace, in the rain, not wanting to hurt my second husband’s feelings. If he were talking to ghosts, it certainly would hurt mine.
That night, while chopping onions, my husband cuts his thumb. The blood gushes under the stream of cold water from the sink. I wrap his thumb in toilet paper and an old washcloth. We live in the middle of the city, pharmacies have always been opened twenty-four hours, but now everything is closed by eight. I make a grocery list for the following week and include first-aid kit!
Our friends Maite and Luke have moved to the country, near the border with Aragon, a few hours southwest of us. They made the move just before lockdown, arriving by train to the town of Tortosa on the evening of March 10th. A local farmer came and picked them up, drove them the thirty kilometers to their new home, an ancient stone house, three stories, without heat or working electricity. Neither of them drives.
Luke calls on a Friday evening to say Maite has had the baby, right there at home. Everything is fine. Their plan has worked. Luke has been obsessed with this idea for years—getting off the grid. They have left the city in time, they have a house, the children, vegetables, goats. Money, I suspect, somewhere, but those are things we never ask.
I ask if I can speak to Maite, but Luke says she’s asleep.
A few years ago Luke wasn’t having children because he didn’t want them to starve or have to kill others for food. “But this,” he says, “this is too good to miss.”
Josh, the journalist, has tweeted a picture of his new baby, born in March. She’s in his wife’s lap. A Spanish wife and a fat baby, neither of whom he has ever spoken of in my presence. Apparently, he isn’t as worried about climate collapse as he once led me to believe. We may be trapped in a tiny flat in Spain, but Loli keeps us entertained, he tweets.
We’re allowed out and can walk about freely now, but we don’t go far. We go, mostly, to the park. The evenings are longer, there is a special quality to the twilight, an hour of almost gauze-like blue. You can see the stars just beyond the haze.
I wake up in the early mornings with my heart pounding, wanting to call people up: Maite, Luke, Josh the journalist, and ask them how they do it, how they decide to have children amidst all of this. How do you turn towards joy? I want to open their skulls and understand the moving parts—the fear and the facts and then the pure abandon.
In Kuwait, my sister-in-law is pregnant with number three. Her second child was born here, in Barcelona. A perfect homebirth, obviously. The whole family is vegan in order, presumably, to fight climate change, save the hogs, the chickens, the cows. I have wanted, at times, to ask about flying so much and having not one, but two, and now, three children. Have wanted to ask about all of this in terms of the carbon footprint. But I have always kept my mouth shut. When they lived here I held the children on my lap, read them stories, found the tiniest cups at my house for their almond milk. I have been kind. Married for the second time, I am calmer, sweeter; I pick my battles.
When they—my husband’s brother and his wife—left Spain, it was in a rush. There was so much to pack, so many boxes to ship. Their second baby wasn’t yet a year and their eyes looked all hollowed out and wild with worry over spending thousands of euros on storage containers. Anyhow, they left the baby’s birthing blanket with us; it is stored in our bathroom, high up on a shelf, wrapped in red plastic. Where did they get bright red plastic? Every time my period arrives, the bright red bundle accuses me.
My sister-in-law has never asked me if I’ve ever given birth or where I might store my birthing blankets, but then, why would she? She has apartments to furnish, schooling to arrange.
My husband is afraid of me. Of my sobbing fits, of the hauntings. I am forty-one. When we met I was thirty-six. You had so many years before me to have taken care of this. He said that once, in a fit of rage, but it isn’t him I judge as cruel. The only people I blame are other women, for their pity and one in particular who said that mother nature is always wise.
“Let’s just try,” he says. We walk through the park every evening in the still blue light. We allow ourselves to discuss the want, the turn. We admit, finally, how alone we are.
“If something were to happen to me, at least that way my family would have a connection to you,” he says.
And I know that this is right. For a child they would visit me in some far-flung future. If not, I am nothing to them. A strange woman in Spain.
Maite and Luke visit with the baby. We walk through the park in our masks, in the dense heat and pollution, the tiny diesel particles nestled there in the pockets over our noses. They want pizza. Apparently you can’t get decent pizza in the country.
We leave them to it, walk home, hope for rain.
Josh writes to say they are leaving, flying home to California. Baby, Spanish wife, the entire little family. He’d like to meet for coffee, and I agree. We sit on the steps of the cathedral. He’s come alone with all his American giddiness. The elegant luxury hotels along this square are boarded up, reminding me not of Spanish summers past but of the blighted American city where I was born.
Josh shows me pictures of the hog farms in Torelló on his phone. For thirteen years I went to that town every Sunday for lunch. My ex-husband, fully recovered except for the fact that he can’t smell or taste, lives there now.
When our divorce was made official, the notary read out a long statement in thick Castilian Spanish explaining that our marriage had ended without producing any offspring. We paid him 300 euros in cash, and he stamped several copies of paperwork with his official stamp, also bright red! The paperwork is in my desk, at the office, where I haven’t been since March.
Josh and I sip coffee from paper take-out cups, sit a few feet apart, talk about shows on Netflix, and our mutual friend. Nothing more about swine. I can be giddy too. I too have turned toward joy.
My husband and I are living dangerously and have decided to take the train up the coast, toward France. We haven’t been swimming all summer, nervous about the crowded beach in Barcelona. But it’s raining. After suffering through the worst heat of the summer we’ve chosen the coolest, windiest days to escape.
Still, despite the cold, we swim. Every time I go under water I imagine it could be the last time like this, that next summer everything will be different, that I will have a baby, three months old.
Theoretically we’re on holiday, but I still log into Arabic class at 5pm on Tuesday. I’ve been studying since June, but haven’t quite mastered the alphabet or even basic conversation. Still, I keep at it. I like the sounds, the sense of purpose I feel when I pronounce an entire phrase.
We’re learning the family. My connection here is bad so I get pixelated faces and static on all the guttural h’s. Do you have a daughter? The teacher is asking me. Bint. Of course that means daughter, what else could such a word mean? I get it. I associated it from the first lesson on the family with a bundt pan, a little loaf cake, a bint, daughter. I never doubted it.
Yes, yes, I say. 3andé bint.
“Agnès,” I tell the screen, her name is Agnès. Pronounced in Catalan. It’s a lie that comes so naturally. A lie I’ve told so often, to taxi drivers, seatmates on airplanes, busybodies at the office. Because I could have a daughter, named Agnès, age ten.
We move on. To Nina’s okht and kheyy, thank god.
My period arrives our last morning at the beach. One day early, familiar as my own palm.
It feels as if I never left, Josh writes from the US. He seems happy back in California, at his parents’, with his wife and the baby. Still, on Twitter he is all anger and righteousness, warning of the coming pandemics, seasons of perpetual forest fires.
It feels as if we’ve never left either, as if we never went to the beach for those three days in September. We’re back to working all day in the tiny apartment and then our evening walk through the park.
Sometimes my husband calls his brother in Kuwait and I shy away from the video—scared of seeing or being seen. I wave from the background, careful not to glimpse the children or the pregnant belly. I’m ashamed of my envy, yet also surprised at how capable I am of protecting myself. I study Arabic.
She might have the babies, but I can memorize verbs, practice linking the letters.
I ovulate, according to those little sticks desperate women age thirty-seven to forty-two purchase on Amazon, every month on day thirteen. We’ve always known this though. I’ve been pregnant before; I know how to count days. Then, every month, I begin to bleed on day thirty-one or thirty-two. My husband, the first time it didn’t work, way back in the summer, said, staring at the ceiling, that he was devastated.
Then, the next times, said nothing. He goes outside to the terrace to talk with his brother. When he comes in, mobile tucked in his back pocket I ask, “Hey, by the way, is she having a boy or a girl?”
“Don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never asked.”
I know he is loyal and so this is true. A mercy.
That night we pray together. I don’t know enough Arabic to pray properly, but I wash with my husband. I hate the feeling of water along my sweater sleeve, of washing only certain parts. “No one likes it,” my husband promises.
He tells me I don’t need to cover my hair. He asks me to come stand next to him, so that we are together—our feet even. We can do whatever we want, so far away from family, our own languages, anyone blood related. We can cherry pick, invent a whole new religion. Even this I’m willing to try.
On Christmas Eve my husband’s niece is born. Her name is Hilda Marie.
His mother asks him why we haven’t yet, and I can’t fully understand his answer, but later, as we’re walking past the cathedral at dusk, he says that he told her to stop asking, that there are many reasons, things she doesn’t understand.
We are, I realize, for the first time, fully together in this. Finally, he too has been hurt.
New Year’s Eve and I’m evil again with grief. Now that the new baby has arrived, safely, fully, I feel authorized in ridding myself of the middle one’s birthing blanket. They have never asked us to mail it. The boy is three years old. While my husband is out, I carry a chair into the bathroom, climb up, and remove the red plastic bundle that is shoved between the top shelf and the plaster ceiling. I unwrap the plastic, sitting on the floor in case there is anything that I really shouldn’t throw out. What exactly I don’t know: blood stains, a piece of a heart, a limb? I find two blankets—one made of cotton the color of dark denim, the other a handmade quilt in apricot and yellow. There is also something that surprises me: a string of wooden beads, a rosary. There, is, I suppose, always a comfort in counting.
MADELINE BEACH CAREY is the author of the story collection Les filles dels altres. Her work has appeared in El Món d’Ahir, de/rail, RIC Journal, The Sultan’s Seal, The Momentist, Southword, and elsewhere. Carey has been the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Edward Albee Foundation, Faber Residency, Hawthornden Castle, Greywood Arts, and Ventspils House. She teaches at the Irish Writers Centre as well as privately. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she lives in Barcelona, Spain.