In a basement bar, in the old Arab quarter of Granada, I watch his fingers strum and pluck and caress the guitar. On his right hand, long, ivory nails catch the strings and make them sing. The guitarist sits forward in the wheelchair, as if he will stand up at any moment and take a bow.
I sip tea from a small glass, a mint leaf dancing near the edge, and tap my foot. The flamenco rhythms put me in a trance, a spiral dream. I start tracing the spokes on the large wheel until I get dizzy. I want him to play me.
When he takes a break from the music, I think of possible causes for his injury. Something heroic. During an earthquake, he rescued a little girl, pushing her to safety as the ceiling fell around him and severed his spinal cord. Or he took a bullet during a political riot, sacrificing his health for his ideals and passionate beliefs.
I'm pleased that I decided to wear my silver dress tonight. The fabric drapes softly in front and reveals my entire back. It drove my ex-husband wild. I wore it to a benefit once, something I'd helped organize, and I was exhausted by the time we got home. I fell asleep in the chair but he lifted the skirt anyway and told me there were certain expectations if I wore a dress like that.
I don't believe him anymore. Now I'm spending his money as fast as possible all over Europe. This dress looks fabulous.
The guitarist finishes his water and lifts the guitar to his lap. For a long, painful moment, he decides what to play next. He starts a haunting melody in a minor key and immediately I want to kiss away his sadness. What causes such melancholy?
He continues to play until it's unbearable for me. I breathe noisily, letting the air fill my head and block the sound from entering my ears. Finally, everyone applauds. People drift upstairs or to the restrooms. I sit down next to the guitarist and offer him a cigarette.
"Thanks," he says. I hold the lighter near his face and wonder how fast he could wheel backwards if I brush the flame across his cheek.
"You're British," I say, surprised. I mentally check off "bullfighting injury" from the list.
"And you're American," he says.
"How could you tell?" I tease.
"Spanish girls don't dress like that." He wouldn't be able to lift up my skirt if he tried. I am thrilled.
"Sunset or sunrise?" I lean toward him.
"Do you prefer a sunset or a sunrise?"
"Depends where I am, I suppose." He sucks on the cigarette and blows perfect circles of smoke. Experienced. I like that.
"You didn't answer my question."
"Look," he says, "I don't need to pay for any company tonight, if that's what you're after."
"No, no," I say, "I'm a tourist for God's sake."
"Don't say God." His arms are large, his eyes dark.
"Why? Are you religious?"
"The opposite, actually, I just don't like that word."
A large man with a chipped front tooth approaches the guitarist and says something in Spanish, a phrase that's not in my guidebook. He picks up the guitarist and carries him up the stairs like a bride, then returns to get the wheelchair. The chair itself is plain, like the kind they give you in the hospital.
I ascend the stairs too, but he is already gone. I must find the source of his sadness. In a wheelchair, with the black guitar case strapped to the back, he is easy to locate, even in the night. He rolls down Calle Calderería Nueva. I trail behind him, his silver storm cloud.
The guitarist takes a side street, stops in a kebab place, and orders a lamb shwarma. He chews each bite almost twenty times. Far too long. The tahini sauce soaks though the napkin, dribbling onto his black shirt. Damn, he says.
My cover is blown when two Spanish guys whistle and catcall. I wish I knew some dirty Spanish.
"Cállete," I say, shut up.
It only encourages them, so I duck into a bar and head to the women's bathroom. I adjust the flesh-colored pasties over my breasts. Still fabulous.
When I step outside, the Spanish guys are gone and the guitarist is nowhere to be found. My heels click on the stone like the noisy secondhand of a clock, the seconds ticking away. At midnight, I may turn into a pumpkin. Where is my sad prince?
I find him smoking on a corner of the Gran Via. They have colorful lights strung along this street. Every night is a carnival here.
"Those things will kill you," I say, gesturing toward his cigarette.
"No matter," he says, "can I bum another?"
"Not unless you come home with me," I say.
"I don't want pity sex. I'm not in the mood," he says.
"Neither am I. I have a little balcony off my hotel room. You can smoke all you like."
"Fine. Where is it?"
"Two blocks. This way," I say. He follows at my hip. My head is light and the challenge excites me.
When we get to my hotel, I send him up the tiny elevator—there's only room for one unless I sit on his lap. I take the stairs. As I unlock my door, I momentarily forget what the room looks like. I hold the door for him like a gentleman.
The walls are pale yellow, the bedspread is deep red like the pictures of Mars from far away. I wonder about the logistics of seducing this man and making love instead of sadness. In the bed? In the wheelchair? Clearly I will be taking off my own dress.
He stops by the window.
"Would you like a drink?" I say, surveying the minibar.
"Depends what you want. We could get pissed, or you could seduce me. Not both," he says.
"Make love," I say.
"Why not both?" I say.
"I have a catheter. I have to take it off when and if we do anything. I have no control over my bladder," he says.
I slide the first strap from my shoulder, then the other. When I peel off the pasties, sticking like band-aids, I am naked from the waist up.
"I'm going to need some help," he says. He produces a cylindrical pump from his backpack and explains how it works.
We make love in the wheelchair. Our love is like a child's sand castle: wet, misshapen, precarious. I wait for the tide to come roaring through.
"Why don't you stay? We can have breakfast tomorrow," I say. I've helped him onto the bed. We lie there together.
"How have you been hurt?" he says. He stares at the ceiling.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't see how that's any of your business."
"You want me because I can't hurt you," he says. His eyes are watery. I rub my cheek against the shadow under his chin.
"Maybe," I say. "Please don't go."
"I must," he says, "Help me into the chair."
"What do you mean, 'no'?"
"I don't want to," I say.
For a moment, I have complete control over another human being. The wheelchair is just beyond his reach. I stare at the space between his fingertips and the chair. Then I feel sick.
I could leave him there, humiliate him. Instead I push the wheelchair to him and he lowers himself into it. He finishes buttoning his shirt.
"I can't hurt you," he says, "but I can't protect you, either."
The guitarist opens the door with one hand, pushing with the other. The big wheel catches on the threshold. He tries again and the door closes behind him.
From the balcony, the carnival lights glow above happy drunk people.