Far From Home

by Jessica Rozycki

“I’ve never been to a club before,” I told Carlos. Spring in Madrid was a lot hotter than I had anticipated; I wore a simple grey tank with black shorts and sneakers, having been promised that I didn’t need to wear anything extravagant.

“Well, you’ve been to a gross frat house basement,” he replied. “It’s kind of the same thing. Except here, the drinks are overpriced and there’s more than one bathroom.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at that, knowing the scene he was describing all too well after two years at Boston University. But just because I was familiar with it didn’t mean I was a fan. “Great.”

I had to admit I was a little nervous about joining Carlos on his family vacation this spring break, but I was definitely enjoying myself. Even though we’d been dating for over a year when he asked me to come along, there was still a part of me that felt like I’d be intruding. It took some serious convincing from his parents and brother before I truly considered it. But they assured me plenty of times that it was their idea to invite me along, and after another round of reassurance from Carlos and his family, I decided to say yes.

This was our last night in Spain, and Carlos had asked his parents if they’d be okay with just the two of us going out somewhere. Seeing as it had been a busy week of being in the sun and meeting up with family, Ana and Luis didn’t mind staying at the villa to pack and prepare for our flight the next afternoon. Carlos’s brother, Sal, was already asleep by the time we got ready to leave, so he definitely wasn’t worried about missing out on anything.

But I didn’t expect Carlos to bring me to a gay club.

“My cousin comes here all the time,” he told me. “It’s 18+.”

“Where did you tell your parents we were going?” I asked.

“Just dancing somewhere. Which is technically true.”

I leaned into his side as we waited in line to pay the cover. I felt Carlos curl his arm around my waist, his hand coming to rest on my hip and gently smoothing over the fabric of my shirt. The conversations around me were loud and fast, as they had been all week. I thought after taking years of Spanish in high school I would at least be able to hold a conversation, but the natural elegance with which everyone here spoke the language – including Carlos and his family – was no match for me. The best I could do was listen carefully and try to pick out a few words I recognized. But the further we got inside the club, the more scattered everyone’s conversations became and it was impossible for me to keep up.

Carlos and I walked over to the bar, surprisingly finding two empty seats. The chalkboard above the cluttered mess of tequila bottles read “¡Viva la lucha!” and I wanted to ask Carlos what that meant. But first I had something to take care of.

“Can I order for us?” I asked him.

“You don’t need to speak Spanish, Benj. The bartender is going to know you’re American anyway.”

I very rarely volunteered to speak Spanish around Carlos because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But it was our last night here and I felt confident enough to at least get us drinks. I challenged him with a sharp look, my eyes squinted and an eyebrow raised.

“Okay,” Carlos surrendered with a small chuckle.

“What do you want?”

“Just a beer.”

I smirked, knowing he was trying to make it easy for me, but I wasn’t going to complain.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked as he placed two coasters in front of us.

“Una cerveza y un Rebujito, por favor.”

The bartender gave me an encouraging smile and nod before turning back toward the register. I couldn’t help my goofy smile in response.

“Not bad,” Carlos said as he leaned his elbow against the bar.

“I hope so, I’ve been practicing that all day,” I admitted.

Carlos rolled his eyes, but laughed all the same. He had such a gorgeous smile, which is what I’m pretty sure initially attracted me to him when we met last year. And as of recently, he’d been going a little longer without shaving, leaving a slight stubble on his face for a couple of weeks at a time. While it definitely took some getting used to – and I hadn’t exactly admitted it to him yet – I was learning to like it.

“You know, I realized something,” Carlos said. “We haven’t taken any pictures together this week. Not in a while actually.”

I couldn’t help but cringe a little in response; I wasn’t really a big fan of taking pictures. “Does that mean you want to?” I asked as the bartender came back with our drinks.

Carlos rested his chin on his fist, pleading with a smile, not even needing to say anything. But when I took too long to answer, he said, “Please, Benny?” He knew I was a sucker for when he called me that. “Do you know that McKayla thought we broke up because I hadn’t posted a picture of us on Instagram in a while?”

My mouth dropped open and I laughed. “Are you serious? That’s hilarious.” McKayla wasn’t the brightest of Carlos’s friends, but still, it was kind of hard to believe. “So you want to post a picture of us to prove we’re still dating.”

“Of course not,” Carlos said, as if it was silly for me to have made that assumption. “I don’t need to post anything – not if you don’t want me to – but I think it would be cute.” He held my hand and kept it in place between his two hands making a plea. He kissed my knuckles and tilted his head. “Estamos muy lindo.”

I sighed, figuring it really wasn’t a big deal that I give in. I had to admit that Carlos was always very considerate of the fact that I didn’t like to take pictures all the time. And it was a special occasion.

Without answering, I relented by pulling my phone out of my pocket and handing it to him. Carlos smiled his cute smile and immediately shuffled his bar stool closer to me. “You’re the best,” he said before pressing a quick series of small kisses to my cheek.

Without even thinking about it, I turned my head and kissed him on the mouth. My hand brushed against the stubble on his jaw and Carlos moved even closer to me. I was kind of surprised, because while he was definitely an affectionate person, he was usually more cautious about this particular type of display when we were in public. Maybe it was the fact that we were at a gay bar and in another country. Either way, I was going to enjoy every moment. Kind of like how Carlos liked the idea of posting a picture of the two of us together, it was a reminder – mostly for ourselves – that we didn’t need to be afraid to share our relationship. Carlos and I certainly never tried to keep anything a secret, but sometimes people posed so much uncertainty it was hard to be completely open. But I didn’t like thinking about that.

Carlos lingered for a moment more before pulling back, only slightly; I was still close enough to see my own reflection in his eyes. “Benj,” he whispered. Another quick peck. “Querido.”

I let a small smile escape. Carlos explained to me once that his mind was constantly switching between English and Spanish, and when we were kissing, he sometimes lost track. It was still a little overwhelming that I could cause such an effect on him. But after picking up on a few of his endearments, I admittedly loved those moments when he got caught up and let one slip. It was something special between us.

I kissed him once more and then said, “You know, I already agreed to take a picture with you.”

Carlos ducked his head and chuckled. He held my hand that was still resting on his cheek and said, “I’m really happy you came this week.”

“Me too,” I said. “Thanks for bringing me here.”

Carlos threw one of his arms over my shoulder and set the front facing camera on us. I smiled gently – not showing my teeth, which was a repercussion of having braces for three years in high school – while Carlos grinned brightly as ever. His head leaned into mine and I held onto his hand, anchoring myself, in a way. Carlos was always a sure way to keep me grounded.

After he snapped a few photos, he sighed and said, “The lighting is awful.”

“I could take it for you, if you’d like.”

We both looked at up at the woman who was offering to take our picture, her hand hesitantly outstretched in the direction of my phone. She had big, bright eyes, a ponytail full of blonde hair with streaks of pink, and with her welcoming smile, I could see a slight gap between her two front teeth. If her accent hadn’t hinted that she was from somewhere in the UK, her look practically screamed it. She was adorable.

Carlos and I exchanged glances and he nodded at her. “That’d be so great. Thank you.”

“No problem,” she said as Carlos handed her the phone.

This time, Carlos put his arm around my waist and leaned his body into mine. It was already warm in the club, but I was still able to feel the heat from his body pressing into mine. I leaned into him as well, my hand resting on his back and slipping two fingers through the belt loop of his jeans. I had to admit, my smile was more genuine this time.

“Oh, that’s precious,” the woman said as she snapped a few and then returned my phone.

“Did you already make new friends, Lucy?” a gentleman walked up and asked. He looked at his watch and continued. “I was in the loo for two minutes, tops. That has to be a new record.”

Lucy rolled her eyes at him and said, “I was just doing them a favor.”

“Sorry about that,” the guy continued with a light chuckle. “She has this condition that causes her to make friends everywhere she goes.”

Carlos and I laughed along. “Not exactly a bad problem to have,” I said.

We all introduced ourselves and fell into easy conversation about being on vacation. The guy who joined us, Finn, was Lucy’s husband and they were in Madrid to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. I couldn’t help the slight skepticism that flashed in my mind at the two of them spending time in a gay bar, but they seemed nice enough, so I forgot about it after a while. We all eventually decided to move to a more comfortable table with our drinks.

On our walk over, I leaned in close to whisper in Carlos’s ear. “Is this okay with you? I know you wanted just the two of us to hang out tonight.”

“Totally fine,” he replied. “I’m having a good time.”

“Me too.”

Lucy and Finn asked the two of us about Boston when we told them we were on spring break. The closest they had been to our city was when they took a trip to New York in the winter to celebrate Christmas with some friends. I couldn’t quite understand why anyone wanted to travel to the East Coast during the coldest and most touristy time of the year, but based on their stories, it seemed they had a great time.

“Boston isn’t quite as crazy as New York, but it has its own style,” Carlos offered.

“Are you planning to stay there when you’re done with university?” Finn asked.

Carlos and I looked at each other and shrugged. “I’m not sure,” I said. “We still have two years left so I guess we’ll have to see.”

Lucy sipped her drink and asked, “Is that where the two of you met?”

We nodded.

“That’s something special,” she added. “No need to rush it.”

Carlos and Finn went on to talk about how they both played soccer – of course, it was “football”, according to Finn – and my mind got lost thinking about my time at BU.

I hadn’t met Carlos until our second semester freshman year. I had spent the first half of the year hanging around with my roommate and other friends we’d made in our dorm; it was the typical college scene of weekdays in the library and weekends in the heart of Boston with all of the other students in the area. Then in February, my roommate had some buddies on the club soccer team and brought me along to one of their games. The season was over, but the guys on the team managed to find other people who wanted to play in the dead of winter and set up a couple of scrimmages. I hadn’t really been looking forward to sitting in the bleachers when the weather was less than 40 degrees, but I was promised a fun time with good people, so I went for it.

We headed back to the soccer house afterward, and through a friend of a friend of some guy who lived there, I was introduced to Carlos.

I remember thinking he was attractive the moment I saw him, with his stunning golden eyes, scruffy hair, and a small stud in his nose. But it wasn’t exactly one of those moments when you see someone and you just know. We kind of had to warm up to each other. Carlos seemed to be a little more shy than the rest of the guys on the team, and while I definitely noticed the obvious glances and smiles, I wasn’t completely certain he liked guys. Eventually I figured the worst that could happen was that he would say no, so before I left I went up to him and said, “We should hang out soon.” To which he replied, “Yeah, absolutely. Can I get your number?”

My thoughts were interrupted when Lucy squealed with delight. “Oh goodness, this song is brilliant.”

Carlos’s face lit up and instantly turned to me, pleading with giant puppy eyes. I knew the song was one of his favorites. I noticed Lucy was doing the same to Finn.

“You two go out there and we’ll catch up in a bit,” Finn suggested. I nodded along with him, thankful we seemed to be on the same page. Carlos and Lucy practically bounced out of the booth and onto the dancefloor.

“She’s so sweet,” I said to Finn.

He nodded and said, “She’ll definitely give you a toothache.”

“Did you two meet in school as well?”

“Oh, no,” Finn replied. “Luce and I have known each other forever. We grew up in the same neighborhood and were together through most of high school. University was a little bit rough, but it was one of those things we decided would really test our relationship. We got married not long after graduating.”

“Did you go to the same school?”

Finn nodded. “Pretty attached, actually, and we eventually realized that we were missing out on really exploring how we wanted to get on during that time in our lives. So, we actually broke up for a bit.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a pretty mature decision.”

Finn shrugged. “Lucy’s always the one with her head on straight.” He paused to chuckle. “Well, not completely straight. There was another girl in the picture for a while.”

It took me a while to process what Finn was saying, but once I did, everything seemed to click into place. “So, Lucy’s part of the community.”

Finn smiled and looked over to where Lucy and Carlos were dancing. “She told me when we were kids. She would say ‘I like everybody’ and I never really understood it. But once we were old enough to be more independent, I knew it was an important part of her life.”

Our conversation brought me back to a thought I’d had when Carlos and I were getting our drinks. I looked past Finn, bringing my attention back to that chalkboard on the bar. I knew that “viva” meant live, but I was lost on the rest.

I pointed behind Finn and asked him, “How’s your Spanish?”

“Viva la lucha,” he read aloud. He then reached for his phone and said, “My Spanish is horrid. But my Googling abilities are quite good.”

Finn conducted his search and then passed his phone to me. I tilted my head at the screen and my lips twitched into a smile.

Long live the fight.

I finished what was left of my drink and watched Carlos and Lucy dance. I loved seeing him so carefree. It had taken a while for Carlos to be more comfortable with letting his guard down around me. He was incredibly studious, always prioritizing his homework and exams over soccer games and frat parties. Even when he was in the company of his friends or on the field, his demeanor was so different from those moments we spent alone – so careful and calculated. I remember the shock that overtook his features the first time I reached for his hand in public. He reassured me that it wasn’t something he was ashamed of, but with the relationship being so new, he needed to take baby steps before reaching my level of comfort. So, I waited. And the more time we spent together, the more he began to open up, and the more I wanted to prove to him that he could trust me. And now, watching him dancing and laughing and making friends with strangers, I started to understand why he might have brought me to this particular club. Even if the night wasn’t spent by each other’s side, it was spent free of judgement, free of uncertainty. It seemed that those moments tended to be more rare, as well as more special.

“I’m going in,” I told Finn, gesturing to the mass of people swaying to a song I wasn’t familiar with. “Joining me?”

Finn gestured for me to go along without him. “I’ll finish my drink – Lucy won’t leave me alone for too long, I can assure you.”

I nodded and headed over to Carlos, placing a hand on his shoulder when I was close enough. He smiled when he saw me and simply guided me closer to join him.

Lucy leaned in and said, “Where’s the bum?”

“Finn’s finishing his drink,” I told her.

“I’ll round him up,” she said before heading over to the table.

I turned back to Carlos and wrapped my arms around his neck. He hugged me back instantly, and then pulled away to look at me when he realized I wasn’t dancing.

“What’s up?” he said.

“Thanks for bringing me here,” I told him.

“You already said that.”

“No, not just vacation,” I said before gesturing around us. “Here. Thanks for bringing me here.”

Carlos let his hands travel down the length of my arms before holding my hands and giving them a sure squeeze. “It’s not too much?”

“Definitely not,” I assured him. I leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Especially if we can make out some more.”

Carlos started laughing and wrapped me up in another hug. “Obviously,” he replied. “But first, you’re dancing with me.”

I snaked my arms around his waist and let my hands travel into the back pockets of his jeans. I kissed him and said, “Anything for you, mi querido.”