Note to the Reader: Perhaps you would prefer to separate the cured meats from the ailing souls, rather than believe that the following is any more than dark pun. That humans are born to do battle with their faults by any means, however, is nothing new and nothing sacred.
We were seated at a tight table not large enough to rest one's elbows. Across a gap to our left, wide enough only to exit crab-wise, a group of boisterous Brits wildly gesticulated and, diagonally to my right, an old man in his 70s hunched, hook-like, over his plate of ham. My companion and I chatted in staccato, concentration greatly reduced by hunger. Having no menu for the moment, I discretely scrutinized the old man: humble and yet impeccably dressed, spirited. This sometimes happens to old men, who give over some of their determination to the women who often outlive them. Sitting across from him was a woman of about 50, who might have been his nurse. She was talkative, yielding, almost too gentle, with that unhurried pace that never reaches a climax or an ending, as if, from experience, considering the next thing in her monologue in case her last remark was met with silence. They considered the menu and she ordered more tapas. Then, noticing that we had no menu, she passed us theirs. We thanked them with a nod that might have been a bow, exceedingly politely, as travelers do when no language has been established.
Whole plates of cured meats lay on the tables around us. The meats reflected warmly through the effervescent steins. The setting was the Cervecería Allemana, a tapas bar of the highest order before Hemingway ever sat there, and long after he has gone. There is no statue commemorating Hemingway the alcoholic, leaning on the bar as there is at the Floridita in Havana. The restaurant seems to have changed little from that time, unaffected by the world outside. Old bullfighting photographs decorate the dark oak columns. I could barely make out the old painting of the very same room hanging in the back. Blackened, it seems, by its own matter, and benefiting from no direct light, it confused for a moment the situation of the loud, already old-fashioned, but concurring dimension in which we were sitting with another that was relative only to its own extemporal truth. As stories, once told, obliterate the memory of the events that fertilized them, its calm momentarily subtracted the sounds and smells of our continuous present and served to put me at ease amidst the chaos.
The elderly, black-waist-coated waiters delivered hundreds of tiny white plates without fanfare. Amidst the clatter of plates they emitted curt soundbytes of conversation at a different decibel. As the glue that holds things together, or a musical instrument that only becomes apparent when it takes the bridge, they picked up the theme of the unfinished conversation, returning it to each quartet or duet in a brighter timbre. We ordered and felt more jolly as, almost immediately, the sangria arrived.
I did not expect the woman to be American because I was looking at the old man and he, with a gray driving cap and a suitably somber gray wool coat, was decidedly European. His face was marked by cancer spots and wrinkles as rocks by the sea become plagued with splotches of moss, xanthoria and other minerals of different sizes and colors. My companion, having sized up the woman by her awkward blouse, girlishly shoulder-length light brown hair held back by a headband, and her chubby cheeks, began speaking with them.
Where are you from in the States? he asked. She answered with a smile that she was from Chicago and he was Italian. My companion and I introduced ourselves and told them we were from Oklahoma and Boston respectively.
The Italian was in town to lecture to students from all over the world on genetics and she was, in her own words, being a good wife and accompanying him. They were staying in the big, white hotel across the square. What common points of reference have we? Behind the statue of poet García Lorca, he said. In the same hotel with a Latin American pop star heartthrob, said his wife. We had indeed seen them both on our way to the restaurant. The pop star had a crowd of no less than forty girls huddled at the entrance around the clock for a chance to scream, swoon and faint at the sight of his perfection. This morning, she said, she had taken pictures of the screaming girls. Every morning for four days they had been snapping pictures of her as she exited. In their hysterical trance, as if unconsciously, their cameras were at the mercy of their manic and verging hands. The flashes only stopped once she had waved her plump Midwestern hand and stopped to grin silently amidst the shrieking. She laughed mischievously at her reversal that morning.
Just then our food arrived and the Italian, apparently reducing the conversation to the basics in order to allow us to eat said, I know one woman from Oklahoma. She says she's an Okie.
That's right, my companion said with the embarrassed chuckle that often caps awkward conversations definitively.
We had ordered a battered codfish and a spicy chorizo sausage plate -- one lone, short and stumpy, pink and juicy chorizo rolling about unsteadily on a white saucer. Our Russian salad arrived, a variation on the theme of a Salad Olivier. However at the Cervecería, they made it with olives. Russian salad is a popular tapas in Madrid, but should be called the Russo-Mediterranean salad, since it transmogrifies significantly as it travels south. Sometimes it comes with tuna fish instead of putrid meat, another time with chorizo. A Russian would have been less than consoled by the imperfect imitation. In all, it turned out to be a meager meal.
We were batting around the last pieces, and stealing glances at each other to gauge the other's interest in the last morsels, when the woman offered us the remainder of their plate of lomo and serrano. It was too much for them, she insisted. We accepted it gladly and, bound to our seats by an array of thinly sliced meat, which one cannot eat quickly, we started a conversation in earnest. She talked for a long while and we got the fundamentals of what had been their varied lives -- he had been the consummate leftist academician and she a hippy.
He was used to having a microphone clipped to his lapel, but the excitement he had for his subject was evident without it. He sat with his hands in his lap and leaned forward ever so slightly. It seemed his stiff body would not allow him any further incline. His minimalist movements showed him to be strangely shy, though his speech showed nothing of the sort. And though his lips moved incessantly, he could hardly be heard, especially over the din of the Cervecería. His words traveled not five inches from his mouth before dying out, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. I had to lean, unsustainably, across the gap between our tables. I would have fallen into his lap had I not leaned back at that moment, and at the same moment I gave up the hope of hearing everything.
The repetition in the woman's and my companion's speech carried the main gist of his conversation to my ears. He explained that he was working on prenatal DNA testing. He had recently had a breakthrough in his research that led him to believe that they would soon perfect a method that did not require direct samples from the fetus. With this controversial step aside, he said, prior concerns and roadblocks could be lifted, and skeptics who had thus far had an inflated sense of righteousness could be easily put aside. He was sure we knew what this meant, he said; no more babies with Down Syndrome, no more hemophiliacs or birth deformities. This was going to revolutionize humanity.
His voice flickered in and out and, as he finished enthusiastically, I focused on his eyes. He nodded after his sentences, and wore a smile throughout like a child telling about his birthday party.
When his wife took back the microphone, so to speak, it was a relief. He was also a sculptor, his wife added. She, too, was an artist who took nature photography, with a real eye for anthropomorphic irregularities in plants. We managed to reconstruct, with some repetition from his wife, that he had taught all over the world, on five continents, and had even taught in Cuba. He had subsequently ripped that page out of his passport. Can one do that without its being noticed? I asked.
Well, in any case he has a few passports. You can't stop an old Italian communist, his wife said.
Oh, I see you're a lefty, she went on to my companion, who was spearing a piece of lomo with his left hand, as if to acknowledge him as part of the club. I used to hang out with a group of lefties in Chicago. That's where I met my husband. Hey, I even met Woody Guthrie once.
The observation sounded normal. The word was in its place in the furniture of the conversation, but surely she was talking about his manual dexterity. The conversation balanced precariously on the edge of a non-sequitur and I seemed to dive off a deep end into some kind of underwater logic. Perhaps I hadn't been understanding correctly the whole time. I had felt like I was missing something bigger in the Italian's monologue, but hadn't I understood anything? My balance was thrown, and I was no longer capable of carrying on polite conversation, but instead obsessed over the word. Language often shows us something we can't otherwise see, and I was searching for it.
No way, my companion was saying, perking up. Another lefty.
First, I racked my brain for any remainders of trivia telling if Woody Guthrie wrote lyrics and drew with his left hand. I couldn't remember. I suddenly became hyper-aware of our eight hands, as if this was what we had been talking about all along. I am a righty, but often find myself in the company of nothing but lefties. I searched out everyone's hands to see if this was the case. The Italian held his right hand, the hand closest to us, under the table and so I assumed he was a lefty too. It occurred to me that maybe everyone had tacitly agreed upon the direct correlation between left-handedness and left-thinking politics. This seemed absurd. I looked at my own hands as the conversation continued. A glint of light caught on the irregular thumbnail on my right hand. It had been caught in a car door when I was young, and had grown with large vertical striations ever since. The conversation had moved on without me.
Woody Guthrie, what did he die of? He had a genetic disorder, my companion said.
Oh, that's right, Huntington's Disease, she said.
The Italian perked up and looked at all of us a bit accusingly. Why are you talking about Huntington's Disease?
We're talking about Woody Guthrie, honey. Woody Gu. . .
Oh, he said, and got quiet again, receding into the dining hall chaos.
So, did the story in the news recently about Jason Watson's racist comments have any interesting repercussions in your field? I asked, trying to engage him once more.
He got excited again, and with a sharp movement brought his left pointer up to his temple with his thumb tucked away in his fist. My companion and the woman were on to the Prado Museum versus the Reina Sofía. He twisted an imaginary screw into his head and bit his lip, frowning to show he thought Watson was crazy. He was telling me something, but again it was impossible to hear, even more so since Goya and Velázquez were in competition for favorite in the abyss between our two tables. The Italian's movement to bring up his hand had been so quick that he lost his balance slightly, and his right hand, which had been resting heavily like a lapdog, came out from under the table. In a flash I became fascinated and afraid, the cured lomo in my mouth slowed itself between my teeth and showed itself for rubber. What I had seen was one enormous finger that took the place of pointer and middle.
I remembered that the Soviet Union, the rigidly leftist state that it was, trained children with natural proclivities toward their left hand to go against them. This fact always seemed to him the most ironically unjust flaw in the all-encompassing ideology of the Soviet Union and neo-communist groups. It would have made for a powerful symbol to have the entire nation write with their left hands instead of their right, if they were going to manipulate something decided by birth.
At a few key times of frustration he shouted that, because using his right hand would have made him even more of an outcast, he had to use his left. It allowed him to remain a skeptic of everything. Instead of harnessing a powerful ideological symbol, his hands came to be brute weapons and, if not consciously secreted away, withering accessories. Still, he found his place in a particular communist youth group that was not so scientific in their selection. As long as he sat at the end of those long lunch tables in school, his perversity was paid no notice.
From his loss of balance, I could tell that he had been forced into becoming a lefty early on, though even his own instincts slanted toward the right. This remained true, even after years, more than half a century of them, of denial; his instincts could not be numbed. I imagined that from the earliest consciousness he had learned it was better not to pick things up with his right hand in front of strangers lest he send them off screaming. And there he sat, endearingly old and grandfatherly, yet a successful scientist with a secret in his very hands.
His parents coached him towards his left at an early age and when he first enrolled in school, and with every succeeding year and subsequent teacher, he was made to feel like an enemy of the people.
The right's natural ability to surprise took on the left's unfortunate ability to offend, and in the heat of his youth he embraced it until, in early adulthood, he realized it was a dangerous game. He had been different. He had no choice. He spent his early life with his hand in his pocket. Later, he enjoyed his hours alone in the laboratory when he might air it unselfconsciously.
His finger wasn't to him personally so much of a burden, except perhaps when shopping for gloves, but he could not ignore the reactions of others. He discovered its kinky advantages in his thirties, when he became more comfortable with himself and was a rising star in the genetics world. A bit late, but worth the wait, he almost embraced his strange deformity; it was a great asset in the bedroom. All the gigantic finger's characteristics were physiologically proportional relative to each other and healthy; only its diameter was two fingers of even a large human hand. It was greatly superior to the bloated chorizo. Approximately the size of the silencer of a gun, the whole deformity was crowned by one gigantic and perfect nail.