Leaving the Atocha Station

by Ben Lerner

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Leaving the Atocha Station
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Ben Lerner

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Excerpt: 'Leaving The Atocha Station'

On the highway to Toledo we passed several tour buses full of what looked like Americans, digital cameras already in hand, and as we drew past them I expressed infinite disdain, which I could do easily with my eyebrows, for every tourist whose gaze I met. My look accused them of supporting the war, of treating people and the relations between people like things, of being the lemmings of a murderous and spectacular empire, accused them as if I were a writer in flight from a repressive regime, rather than one of its most fraudulent grantees. Indeed, whenever I encountered an American I showered him or her with silent contempt, and not just the loud, interchangeable frat boys calling each other by their last names, calling each other fags, and the peroxided, inevitably miniskirted sorority girls spending their junior year abroad, dividing their time between internet cafés and discotecas, complaining about the food or water pressure in the households of their host families, having chosen Spain over Mexico, where Cyrus was, because it was safer, cleaner, whiter, if farther from their parents' gated communities. I had contempt not just for the middle-aged with their fanny packs and fishing hats and whining kids, or the barbate backpackers who acted as though failing to shower were falling off the grid; rather, I reserved my most intense antipathy for those Americans who attempted to blend in, who made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen, who refused to speak English and who, when they spoke Spanish, exaggerated the peninsular lisp. At first I was unaware of the presence in Madrid of these subtler, quieter Americans, but as I became one, I began to perceive their numbers; I would be congratulating myself on lunching with Isabel at a tourist-free restaurant, congratulating myself on making contact with authentic Spain, which I only defined negatively as an American-free space, when I would catch the eyes of a man or woman at another table, early twenties to early thirties, surrounded by Spaniards, reticent compared to the rest of the company, smoking a little sullenly, and I knew, we would both know immediately, that we were of a piece. I came to understand that if you looked around carefully as you walked through the supposedly least touristy barrios, you could identify young Americans whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise, probably living on savings or giving private English lessons to rich kids, temporary expatriates sporting haircuts and clothing that, in hard-to-specify ways, seemed native to Madrid, in part because they were imperfect or belated versions of American styles. Each member of this shadowy network resented the others, who were irritating reminders that nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is, and that their soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire's packaged tours.

Toledo itself was lousy with tourists despite the fact that it was winter. We dodged and mocked them as we ascended the narrow streets toward the giant Alcázar, a stone fortification built on the city's highest point, which Isabel assumed I would find of particular interest because of its famous role in the Civil War, or at least its role in Nationalist lore: a bunch of fascists held out against the Popular Front, which laid siege to it, until Franco arrived with the Army of Africa, an early and highly symbolic victory for the Nationalist cause. As we walked around the giant structure, which had to be largely rebuilt after the war, she recounted facts I barely followed about historical figures of whom I'd never heard. Then she began to ask me questions about my project, which had never interested her before.

"How did you choose Spain over, for example, Chile?"

"So much has been written about Allende," I said, although I had only the vaguest sense of who Allende was.

"What makes the poem an effective form for a historical investigation?" I inferred from the words of hers I understood. I was surprised to find myself inclined to defend a project I'd never clearly delineated, let alone ever planned to complete, as opposed to conceding its total vacuity.

"The language of poetry is the exact opposite of the language of mass media," I said, meaninglessly.

"But why are Americans studying Franco," she asked, gesturing toward a group of Americans being led around the Alcázar, "instead of studying Bush?" She said it as if every American tourist were planning a monograph on El Caudillo.

"The proper names of leaders are distractions from concrete economic modes." I was trying to sound deep, hoping concrete and mode were cognates. My limited stock of verbs encouraged general pronouncements.

"Why aren't you studying the American economic mode?" She was angry.

"You can't study a mode of production directly." And with my manner, I said, "I am delivering a fact so obvious it pains me."

"I'm sure the people of Iraq are looking forward to your poem about Franco and his economy." It was the first unkind thing she'd ever said to me.

I met this with silence, so as to allow her to imagine an array of responses I was in fact incapable of producing, and I held this silence as we left the Alcázar and descended back into town toward the cathedral, where there were some famous El Grecos, although if I never saw his torturously elongated figures or phantasmagorical, sickly coloring again, it would have been too soon. What disturbed me as we walked was not that Isabel was pissed off, and certainly not

that she thought my project was absurd or that she found me to be a typically pretentious American, but that our exchange, despite my best efforts, and perhaps for the first time, had involved much more of the actual than the virtual. I'd said, as usual, nothing of substance, but the nothing I'd said just languished between us; I didn't feel her opening it up into a chorus of possibilities, and the silence we were now maintaining was the mere absence of sound, not the swelling of potential meanings. This was in part because my Spanish was getting better, despite myself, and I experienced, with the force of revelation, an obvious realization: our relationship largely depended upon my never becoming fluent, on my having an excuse to speak in enigmatic fragments or koans, and while I had no fear of mastering Spanish, I wondered, as we walked past the convents and gift shops, how long I could remain in Madrid without crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency would render me devoid of interest.

From Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. Copyright 2011 by Ben Lerner. Excerpted by permission of Coffee House Press.