We didn’t know anyone in Bilbao, so we managed our expectations. We wandered through the old town, a knave of streets and warrens so narrow as to be almost unnavigable were it not for the fresh, new signs erected by the city’s mayor that pointed towards the park or the river for the benefit of tourists, such as us, and despite needing them, we scorned the signs, deciding they were garish, and vowed we would not depend on them to make our way around.
After an hour of walking, we found a small, subterranean bar packed to bursting, and though it was early, the loud and raucous nature of the bar gave us hope for our evening. Everyone was drinking carmine colored cocktails, served up, which made the teetering and slumped alike appear suave and glamorous. We asked for two and found they were bitter and strong.
“No wonder everyone’s here!” exclaimed my wife, who liked to drink tomato juice and gin on weekend afternoons while she scanned legal briefs or watered the ferns. “What a terrific little invention,” she said, sipping. “And we thought Bilbao might be dull.”
The construction of the bar was such that despite being very crowded and very loud, there was not much anyone could say without being overheard, and so we were immediately interrupted by a tall man who had applied a prodigious amount of product to make his thick, black hair wave back over his forehead in a very particular way. Now, the hair had reawakened, and the foremost lock had detached itself and fallen across his forehead, making him look forlorn and a bit untethered.
“Bilbao? Dull?” he repeated in disbelief. He leaned on the barrel next to ours. He appeared to be alone, though there were many empty glasses around his elbows. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing at all,” I interrupted, fearing he might become aggressive. “We’re loving Bilbao.”
“How long are you staying?” he asked, as though he didn’t quite believe us.
“Just the night,” said my wife.
“It’s not enough!” he said, seemingly appalled.
“We have to catch a train in the morning,” she offered, which was true—our itinerary along the coast was brisk. My wife preferred larger cities where there was always something new to try, somewhere open late. It had been my idea to travel through the sleepier northern towns, though I kept each of our stops quick, as a form of compromise. But the man was not interested in our logistics.
“Come,” he scoffed, and pulled me away, leaving my wife alone at our barrel.
“You must see the city properly,” he told me, as we approached the bar. “It’s lucky you ran into me, as I was about to go home.” He proceeded to order a round of drinks while greeting everyone at the bar. “Chaval!” some called. Others clapped him on the back. I wondered if this man was some local celebrity, or just a drunk who was humored and well-known. I insisted on paying.
The man reached over and squeezed the bartender’s shoulder. “This is my new American friend,” he told the bartender.
“Go home!” the bartender replied.
He led me away and back to my wife, who’d struck up a conversation with a stocky man in suspenders. I was accustomed to this type of development, since though my wife was very faithful, she had an open face and handsome figure and was often approached by strangers.
“Everyone is wanting me to go home,” the man confided to us. “Tomorrow is the derbia.”
I was about to ask him what the derbia was when the man in suspenders beckoned us outside, where everyone was smoking. “Come,” the man said. “My agent is here. I will introduce you.”
“What sort of agent?” asked my wife. She enjoyed collecting these details—was the sort of woman who preferred the middle seat on airplanes.
“Chaval!” called the man in suspenders.
“Is that your name?” I asked him. “Chaval?”
“Of course not. You do not know my name?”
“How would we know your name?”
He adopted an expression of mock woundedness. “Because it is very famous.”
“You must forgive us,” said my wife. “We’re just visiting.”
“That is the problem with Americans,” the man sighed. “They know nothing of football.”
“So you play?” I asked. “What team?”
He threw back his head and beat his chest in an alarming gesture. “Athleeeeetic!” he called. Others outside the bar echoed him.
“Come!," our new friend added, "I have something to show you.” He called to the man in suspenders in a language we couldn’t make out. Even a northern accent on the Spanish threw off our tenuous grasp of the language, but the Basque tongue was entirely unfathomable. After only a day in the north, my wife and I had decided we would not even attempt to understand it. We followed the man away from the bar and down an alley. His hands shook as he lit a cigarette.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“How pesky,” he said, looking down at his trembling fingers, and though his English was good, I wondered where he’d learned this particular word. “Here,” he said, as we turned onto a wider street, and were ushered into an emptier bar hung with red and white bunting and a sandwich board announcing the following day’s match: Derbia 21:00 - Athletic Bilbao v. Real Sociedad. A pair of old men sat hunched over plates at a back table. The bartender sat on a stool.
“Cañas for my friends, Hector,” he said, beckoning us to the bar. My wife loved these small glasses of beer, which she found quaint and ladylike. Framed photographs covered the walls, of teams clad in red and white jerseys, though the teams appeared to be of all ages and degrees of professionalism. He stopped beside the two old men and pointed to the photograph hanging above their table. It was a roster photo much like the others. He indicated one of the players. “See?” he said, “there is me.”
He left us to peer at the photograph over the patrons’ plate of lomo and peppers. The man in the photograph may well have been our new friend, though he appeared younger. Our cañas were poured and he called us over to drink them. As we were leaving I offered to pay. “How very kind,” he said. “Hector,” he saluted the bartender, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Won’t you be playing?” I asked, as we stepped into the street.
“I will not,” he said.
“How come?” My wife accepted his offer of a cigarette, which surprised me, since she didn’t normally smoke.
“I am, how you say—benched!” he laughed, then spat.
“Are you injured?” asked my wife, looking him up and down.
“Of course not,” he said. “Mira—” he bent to roll up one leg of his dark trousers, then pivoted, revealing his calf. “Touch it,” he ordered, offering her his flexed muscle as he looked back over his shoulder. “Touch it.” She did. He motioned to me. “Come, touch it.”
I bent to run my hand over the distinct bulge of his prominent and well-defined calf muscle. This appeared to please him, and he rolled his pant leg down, as though there was nothing more to say.
“If you’re not injured,” I pressed, “how come you aren’t playing?”
He stopped and looked at me. “It is a story,” he said. “Come.”
We emerged onto an unfamiliar street lined with shops, mostly closed. We proceeded along it until he ushered us once more into a dim bar, though it turned out to be filled only with the agent and a woman wearing a platinum wig. They were arguing loudly.
“Chaval!” the agent called.
“Chaval!” our friend replied. “This is Philomena,” he introduced the woman in the wig. “She is good luck.” He went off to order more drinks.
I moved to follow him but my wife clasped my elbow and spoke through her teeth. “Let him. He’s the football star.” She drifted away to speak with Philomena. The man returned with our drinks and he and I settled into a sticky booth.
“Do you have children?” he asked. I shook my head. He squinted at me, as though suspicious. “Then perhaps you will not understand.”
“Do you?” I asked. He pushed the lock of hair back into place and pulled a wallet from his pocket. The hair promptly fell back across his forehead, and he produced a photograph of an infant wrapped in a red and white blanket.
“This is my daughter,” he said, “she have two and a half months.”
“She’s beautiful,” I said, though the image made me feel both repulsed and engaged at once. My wife had convinced me it would be better to pursue our careers and spend our youth traveling the world than to worry about children. Nearing 40, we were now both firmly committed to this choice, and were passing the point when it might be feasible to rethink it. But the child in the photo was indeed striking. Swaddled and splotchy, it wore a discerning expression.
“She looks like me, no?” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed, and this seemed to please him.
“Good,” he said, “I can see you understand.”
“Of course.” I nodded, hoping to encourage him.
“Her mother is beautiful, too,” he began. “But unfortunately, she is a whore.”
I stopped nodding and frowned. It was unclear whether he meant this literally. “I did not know it when we met, but she had been with the captain of Real Sociedad before me.” He paused, as though expecting a response, and I gasped, which seemed to be the correct one. “As you can imagine, I would never have married her if I’d known this, but when I found out, it was too late.”
“But surely you should take comfort she married you and not him,” I said. He considered this, but shook his head. “Here,” he said, “this is not so easily forgiven.” He finished his drink and motioned for another. “In Bilbao, we keep our allegiances.”
I glanced over to check on my own wife, who was deep in conversation with Philomena and the agent. “So we are facing off for the coin toss in the—how you say derbia?”
“Derby?” I suggested.
“Yes, derby. Very important match for Euskadi, for the Basques.”
“Of course,” I said.
“And the motherfucker leans in and asks me whether I am enjoying my wife’s special trick—my wife has a trick, you see, she does a particular thing with her tongue—but before this, I knew nothing of their association. So I could only punch him in the head for making comments about my wife. You would do the same,” he said, and I nodded, though I’d never actually hit a man, and considered this a source of secret shame.
“By the time I recalled I was in San Mamés on the pitch, it was too late. I’d been ejected.”
“No!” I said, since by now I’d discovered the role I was meant to play.
“Yes! And though my teammates pitied me when they heard my story, they were still very displeased, since at that time I was responsible for scoring many goals. Naturally, my wife was in the stadium, so I went to ask her what the captain of Real Sociedad meant, since as I’m sure you understand, I was very distraught and in need of an explanation.”
“She called me a child and an animal. I said, Make up your mind! and she said, An animal. So we fought, and she told me the captain of Real Sociedad would not have lost control of himself in such a manner.”
I shook my head, and glanced again at my wife, huddled with Philomena and the agent over a dish of potato chips. I wanted some of the chips, and stood to reach for them, but the man grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back into his story.
“I did not know she was already pregnant, but she had confided in my friend on the team, to ask how I might react, and he came then to pull me away from her and knocked me out with a terrific blow. Our coach was very unhappy. Fighting amongst teammates in the Cathedral—he took this very seriously.”
“The Cathedral?” I asked.
“San Mamés,” he explained, horrified once more by my ignorance, “is the oldest stadium in Spain. It is called The Cathedral.”
“Of course,” I said, nodding.
“If I had not been so important to the team, I would have been suspended then, but I was given some permissions for my talent.”
“In the U.S.,” I offered, “athletes can get away with almost anything.”
He waved away my comment.
I finished my drink, and was quick to order two more. “To my new friend!” he toasted. “It’s lucky you met me when you did—I was about to go home.”
“Do you need to go home?” I asked. “To see your family?”
“Who will show you where to go?”
“You’re right,” I agreed.
“Yes,” he said gravely, taking a drink. “Otherwise you would be in a tourist restaurant.” He shuddered.
“But the incident," I pressed him, "that was a year ago. Why are you benched now?”
“After, my wife admits to her relations with Real Sociedad—we have names for these women, women who chase footballers—but she swore it was an accident, that she was not that type. I decided to give her another chance.”
“I’m glad,” I said, and he nodded.
“But the next time we play Real Sociedad, it happens again. I cannot handle it, the thought of Real Sociedad and my wife. So I fight him.”
“On the field?”
He shrugged. “I am like the bull.”
“Were you suspended?”
“A red card,” he shrugged again. “And a warning from La Liga. But you must understand, this man was insufferable. He insinuated the child might not be mine.”
“I’m glad you understand,” he said, reaching across the booth to clasp my shoulder. “Adidas did not, nor Petronor.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, though I was becoming curious myself about the truth behind his statements.
“Once they’d voiced their displeasure with my ‘violent reputation,’ the club soon followed.”
“They fired you?”
“Suspension with review—” he sighed. “Benched!” This word seemed to cheer him.
At that point I rose, since I had glimpsed my wife through the window and wondered what she might be doing. I went outside and found her smoking against the bar as Philomena and the agent argued.
“Philomena is bored,” my wife informed me. “They want to go somewhere new.”
“What would you like to do?” I asked her. Part of me wished she would suggest we go off together and enjoy the rest of our evening alone, though we were often alone, and I didn’t want to do this so much as hear her say she wanted to.
“Philomena says there’s a place we can dance.”
“So early?” The night already felt accelerated. I wanted to slow it down.
The man joined us, saying he would take us where we wanted to go.
“Is it far?” asked my wife.
“Not at all.” He beckoned to his friends, who followed behind, continuing to argue in their pinched, impenetrable accents. I found myself marveling at the full and unrestrained manner in which the man was living, despite having an infant at home, how he seemed not at all encumbered with his domestic responsibilities. “Would you like something to eat?” I murmured to my wife, “I imagine our party will be breaking up soon, anyway.”
“Why do you imagine that?” my wife asked.
“He has the derby tomorrow,” I said.
“Philomena says they’ve been out since yesterday,” said my wife, tottering slightly, unaccustomed to the cobbles. “I don’t see why he’d leave now.”
“He has a baby at home,” I said, but my wife only rolled her eyes and lowered her voice. “I’m pretty sure they have drugs,” she whispered. “Could that be fun?”
“Perhaps,” I said, though I wasn’t in the mood. So few things felt new anymore, but I didn’t like to be left behind. The streets had filled with men and women leaving work. “Will they be broadcasting the derby in Oviedo?” I asked the man.
He scoffed. “The Derbia Euskadi is the most important match in the north!”
We passed a café with another sandwich board: “Aquí está la Catedral” it said, giving me an idea.
“Have you considered a public apology?” I asked the man.
“For what?” he asked.
“For attacking the other captain. It could be a sort of confession—you could ask the fans to forgive you.”
“But I do not regret attacking him,” he said, squinting at me.
“It would be for your public image.”
Philomena led us into an alley and down a flight of steps. “I will think about what you say,” he said, patting me on the back. “I am glad I met you.”
My wife and the agent had fallen behind to light fresh cigarettes, but Philomena insisted the agent knew where we were going. We entered a room entirely empty but for a bartender and a man in a sound booth whose face was obscured behind scuffed Plexiglass. There were no stools or chairs, the space meant to be filled with writhing people at a much later hour. Without the people, it was just a soundproofed box with dirty floors. The light bulbs were the rusty color of our earlier cocktails.
The agent entered several minutes later with my wife. They began to dance near me, separately at first, which didn't bother me, but then closer together, their movements intimate and languorous. They swayed in the center of the room to the slow beat and Philomena soon joined them. It occurred to me they’d likely taken some of the drugs, and I felt disheartened my wife had made no attempt to include me.
I stood with the man by the bar, who was now running his fingers through his hair in an almost constant effort to keep the forelock out of his face. The gesture highlighted the fact that his hands were shaking badly. “You should go home,” said the agent, coming over to throw back his drink before returning to the middle of the dance floor to lie flat between the swaying women. He mimicked the actions one made to create a snow angel but eventually ceased, leaving Philomena and my wife to dance around him. They seemed to enjoy this additional obstacle, and made a game of skipping over his limp, extended limbs.
“Yes,” said the man, though we’d been sipping our drinks in silence for some time now. “I will do it.”
“Do what?” I asked, raising my voice. The beat was unhurried and interminable, but very loud.
“I will go to the Cathedral.”
“We will all go,” he said, with a marked reverence. “You will be my witnesses.”
I looked over at my wife, who was twirling with her face turned upwards. It had begun to feel as though we had endless time, and nothing to fill it with, like a great white sheet that might fly off the line. Evenings like these felt like pegs. I was suddenly very excited to tell her of our plans. The man clapped me on the shoulder. “To my clever American friend,” he said. “I will do as you say. I will go to the Cathedral and ask for their love and forgiveness.”
“To fresh starts!” I toasted.
“To my daughter!” he crowed.
I raised my glass again to the notion of that craggy, thoughtful child.
“Athleeeeetic!” he howled, beckoning me to join, and when I did, to yell it louder, with more abandon. “Athleeeeeeeetic!” we called. And it was true that it was joyous to bellow at the top of one’s lungs.
Then I glanced over to see my wife, mid-twirl, trip over the agent’s arm. I jumped over to steady her and she fell against me.
“We’ll be right back,” I called, and led her outside, despite her resistance. We walked to the end of the alley and around the corner as I told her my idea, but she did not seem to fully grasp the plan nor its import.
“I was having a good time,” she said, and while I was disappointed that she did not share my enthusiasm for the unfolding drama, I was confident she would be glad of it the following day, when the prospect of a new, small city where we didn’t know anyone would pale before the prospect of the derby.
When my wife felt steadier, we returned, only to find the man and Philomena coming up the stairs, claiming they were headed to another, better place, and that the agent had gone on ahead of them. “It is the best establishment in Bilbao,” the man promised, putting his arm around Philomena, leading the way. My wife’s teeth had begun to chatter, either from the drugs or the dropping temperature, so I put my arm around her as well.
The man and Philomena were better at this style of walking and soon outpaced us. I had them in sight and thought nothing of it when they turned, a block or so ahead, but we discovered no trace of them on the next street, a wider and busier avenue than most in the old town, and filled with people. I scanned the crowd for Philomena’s wig, but even this did not yield any leads, and so we were left to wander the narrow lanes of the Casco Viejo until my wife reluctantly agreed to be taken back to the hotel. With no hope of being able to retrace our steps, we followed the bright, lurid signs until they led us to the river.
The next morning we awoke, and with a sense of loss and exhaustion that far outweighed our circumstances, caught the first train to Oviedo.