International Institute , Madrid
On the morning of September 5th, 2001, instead of going to class, a student panicked and ran into the bathroom on the first floor of the International Institute in Madrid, Spain. As the clock struck eight, a monastery silence reigned over the building.
Staring so deep and hard at his reflection drew an excessive amount of strength and soon the student was overwhelmed and needed to sit down. He pressed the stall door, which opened like a confession booth.
Whats wrong with me? He asked.
As he waited for an answer, he stared up at the birds walking along the parapet.
Im living in a city without a single person who speaks my language . . . I could disappear tomorrow and nobody would know Im gone.
The rules of the study abroad program in Spain dictated no English allowed. The student saw this as a harsh and impossible demand. There were several other study abroad programs in the International Institute, none of which had to follow the same absurd rules. Americans chattered endlessly in the halls, unaware of their own freedoms. The sound of their carefree voices was the constant backdrop to his day. He lurked in front of the bathroom before disappearing into it, unable to communicate his frustration.
The walk from the Senoras apartment to the International Institute took approximately thirty-five minutes. Walking in the city of Madrid was like making ones way through a giant abyss, the immensity stretched to invisible corners, with crisscrossing roads and similar-looking plazas, and soon the endurance of walking became painful and self-conscious.
Of course, he was thinking of what awaited him at the Institute, what he would have to endure once he was there. The tiniest things transformed into a rash of paranoid fantasies. A little sweat, breaking out on his temples, gave him the sensation of razor blades.
At a certain intersection, construction workers swarmed the sidewalk. Cigarettes burned down to their teeth as they shouted orders in raspy, phlegmy voices. Then came the jackhammers with a crescendo of shrill intensity.
Lethe ran down a stone alleyway into a wide-open plaza, breathlessly watching the stones pass beneath him. Finally he arrived at a chamber of the city hidden from the march of pedestrians and the wail of traffic. Inside this serene plaza, a cluster of old men sat with their legs crossed, reading the morning paper. Sunlight scattered in equal measure on the fountain and across the granite stones. The plaza formed a mosaic under the big-domed sky. A lazy dog with thick, yellow bristles breathed heavily under one of the old mans chairs.
Lethe stood next to the fountain, debating whether he should go to class this morning. The yellow dog looked up at him.
Whats wrong with me? The inner voice said.
Then, one of the Spanish gentlemen smiled wistfully, as if recalling a far-off dream. The Moorish columns of the city glinted behind him.
Lethe glanced back at the dog, and saw how perfectly content it was . . .
Que Vida! Que Vida! The old man shouted.
The other men in the chairs hardly moved; they were like the dog, barely awake.
Que Vida! Que Vida!
It was too late to make it to his next class. He decided to stay here.
--Scenes from The Novel of Life