All it would take is one shot of courage, downed neatly like an ounce of vodka. Isabella had already consumed a significant amount of spirits that evening, which left her veins coursing with both self-hatred and elation. Everyone was already passed out in the master bedroom, but she couldn’t sleep yet. She was drawn to the floor-to-ceiling glass window, the centerpiece of the nth random chic apartment she’d found herself in this summer. Do it now. Jump before you lose your courage again. You’re so weak.
She teetered in her 6-inch heels, pitching forward toward the glass. In that moment of inertia, she remembered it all. It was so cliche, she would’ve hated it, had she not been fully immersed in what flashed before her, somewhere deep in her mind’s eye. The laughs, fights, smiles, screams, but mostly, the sheer monotony of an average, but happy, childhood. Then, the perpetual discomfort of adolescence, the wearing of a mask which she never seemed to fully shed. The day her mom died with no warning from a brain aneurysm and everything changed. Two years of unfathomable darkness. Moving into college. Change. Christmas break of freshman year when her dad told her he was moving to California to live with a Brentwood divorcee named Lydia, who he had met online. More college. Sweeping loneliness. And now, a summer interning at Vice and going out incessantly and taking lots of photos in the East Village and Bushwick with random people that she rarely saw again. What a sad ending to a short life, she thought, more annoyed than scared, as the dark edges swept in.
Someone threw water on her face. It was that hipster Asian boy with the Jigglypuff tattoo on his skinny bicep. Benji.
“Are you okay?”, he asked, the panic on his face already starting to subside as she listlessly jerked around.
“Sorry about the water, but I wanted to make sure you weren’t dead. You hit your head on the glass hard. You probably would have fallen through, but it’s reinforced. My dad is really paranoid about stuff like that.”
She gave him a confused look, and he continued.
“Anyway, want to smoke a blunt? I need to calm down, you almost gave me a heart attack laying there like a corpse.”
“Uh, okay,” she agreed.
She didn’t particularly like it, but weed usually put her to sleep in seconds. Benji led her to a door she hadn’t noticed before, and opened it. Inside was a bed, dresser, and a mammoth poster of a castle turret next to a river.
“Where’s that?”, she asked. She was strangely drawn to the image; it tugged at her like a shifty-eyed painting of a Renaissance courtier, which always seemed to be watching from every angle.
“That’s the Torre del Oro, in Sevilla, where I studied abroad last semester. My favorite place in the world.”
“I think I want to go there. I’m going to go,” Isabella declared, taking a hit on Benji’s bed, before falling into a dreamless sleep.
Meredith Darwin cried during the entire flight to Madrid. All 8 hours of it. Shortly before landing, she spent 15 minutes in the plane bathroom, utilizing her arsenal of Sonia Kashuk products to eliminate any and all evidence of airborne grief. By the time she finished, she looked almost as good as her mom did in the 1984 Miss South Carolina pageant photo which hung in their foyer. Minus the crimped hair and white crochet bikini.
Meredith wasn’t even sure why she had cried. Of course she would miss her family, and her Delta Gamma sisters, and her cozy, Palm Beach pink-painted room at the sorority house. But she had been planning to study abroad in Sevilla for years, ever since she was 15 and spent 2 days singing in the lofty Catedral with her high school choir. She couldn’t wait to experience Spain again, this time for months instead of days, and without having to conduct elaborate schemes to sneak a glass of sangria. Or at least that’s what she had thought.
Using her tennis-toned arms, she jerked the last piece of her Lilly Pulitzer luggage set off of the carousel. Her face looked calm, even friendly, but her breathing was growing rapid and she felt slightly faint. She popped a Xanax as effortlessly as a Tic-Tac, and headed to the tourist stand where she was supposed to meet the rest of her group.
As she was approaching the meeting spot, a tall, dark-haired Spanish girl cut in front of her. Her luggage was metallic silver and seemed to almost mimic the glossy sheen of her hair. She was deeply tanned with achingly beautiful yet unusual features. She looked like a gypsy from an old set of playing cards. Except she was dressed in J. Brands, an artfully ripped white tee, and a crimson motorcycle jacket. She was too edgy to get a bid to Meredith’s sorority, which favored pastels and pearls over Comme des Garçons. But she looked like the kind of girl who could definitely steal away a DG’s boyfriend. Good thing she was Spanish.
“Perdona,” Meredith said to her, suddenly parched from her pill swallowing. “Sabe si el agua es bueno aqui? Tengo sed pero no quiero estar enferma del agua.”
She was pretty sure the water wouldn’t get you sick here, but then again, she had also thought that about Cancun. Best to ask a local, rather than end up in the hospital on her first night. That would be so embarrassing.
“Um, the water’s fine I think,” answered the Gypsy-like girl in perfect English.
She started to turn away, but Meredith felt a strange compulsion to keep talking.
“Are you in SSA? Students Studying Abroad?” The girl made a flat line with her lips which could almost be a smile and curtly nodded.
“I’m Meredith Darwin, from University of Kentucky. What about you?”
“My name is Isabella Name. I go to NYU.”
“Isabella? Isabella Name?”, Meredith almost shrieked.
Calm the f down, she internally chided herself.
She had been trying to find her roommate, Isabella Name, on Facebook for days to no avail, and was extremely stressed about it. She had spent more than a few hours contemplating the odds that someone with no social media presence would be a cool roommate. They didn’t seem high.
“Yes, I’m Isabella,” said the girl disinterestedly, while scanning the airport for the SSA representative who was supposed to meet them.
She hates me, Meredith thought. I wonder why. Meredith was one of the most popular members of her sorority, and usually had more iMessages than she felt like responding to. Maybe it wasn’t too late to hop back on a plane home, because Isabella seemed hardly impressed with Meredith, and probably no one else would be either.
The SSA representative was almost as impersonal as Isabella, ushering them onto a coach bus. then dropping them off at a fancy hotel in the center of Madrid with scarcely a word spoken.
“Hotel Plaza Mayor,” she said finally, pronouncing the last word like “Platha”.
Before Meredith could ask what that meant, she handed them their room keys and hopped back on the bus to pick up the next group of SSA students from the airport.
“Room 33, I wonder if that’s on the third floor.”
When Meredith was nervous she talked a lot.
“Okay I think we’re almost there.”
“Okay, we’re here.”
“You go first.”
She was beginning to feel like the spectre of Patrick Swayze speaking to the immutable Demi Moore in her favorite movie, Ghost. Isabella was completely and utterly ignoring her.
The room was sparse yet elegant, with sunlight streaming through the window, and a view of Madrid’s bustling Puerta del Sol. Before Meredith could capture an Instagram of the street, Isabella shut the curtain and flopped down on her bed. When Meredith returned from brushing her teeth and fixing her makeup in the bathroom, her roommate was silently sleeping.
Even though she knew she should rest too, she couldn’t. Her body felt weak from exhaustion, yet fueled by an adrenaline-induced kinetic energy. Maybe she should shower.
As she turned toward the bathroom to disrobe, a loud knock rang out. And again. Tentatively, Meredith opened the door.
“HEY Y’ALLLLLLLLLLL,” screamed a spritely, slightly elfin-looking Indian girl with an incongruous Alabama accent. She was 4 feet tall and 70 pounds, or at least appeared so. She was literally hopping back and forth in her Ugg boots, unable to contain her excitement. “DO Y’ALL WANT TO COME TO THE PRADA MUSEUM WITH US? I LOOOOOVE SHOES.”
“Um, I think it’s actually an art museum, the Prado, but I would love to come”, said Meredith. “I’m Meredith, by the way.”
“I’M DURGA!!! DURGA DERVISH!!! MEET US IN THE LOBBY IN 5! I’M GOING TO GO GET EVERYONE ELSE NOW!! BYE!!!”
Unfortunately for Durga, the Prado was indeed an art museum, rather than a shoe museum. Fortunately for Meredith, it was one of the most beautiful spaces she had ever been to. It reminded her of one of her favorite books, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In the beloved classic of her childhood, the protagonist and her brother ran away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sleeping in 16th century beds and stashing their belongings in sarcophagi. When she finally visited the Met on a class trip to New York in high school, she had liked it a lot, but it had been way more crowded than she had imagined. If she could run away and live in a museum now, she would choose the airy, stately Prado instead.
Though it wasn’t extremely crowded, the Prado had a somewhat confusing layout, and Meredith found herself walking up, down, and around the same corridor for nearly a half hour.
“Excuse me,” she said to a burly security guard, praying that he spoke English. “Could you tell me where the Naked Maja is?”
He produced a pen from his pocket with a flourish, etching a series of lines on her map. Even though she felt slightly unsettled, essentially lost in a seemingly labyrinthine museum, she also felt uncannily anchored.
This is where I’m supposed to be.
The thought rose up inside of her without provocation. As someone who tended to prefer running half-marathons over crouching in rabbit pose, it was weirdly Zen and out of place.
She looked up. In front of her was Goya’s infamous “Naked Maja”, a portrait of a beautiful nude woman posing provocatively in her bedchamber.
To the left of the painting was his “Clothed Maja”, a rendering of the same woman in the same position, unchanged except for the swathes of sumptuous clothing covering her body.
“Which do you prefer? ‘La Maja Vestida’ or ‘La Maja Desnuda’?”, asked a raven-haired girl with a perfectly proportioned heart-shaped face and brilliant blue eyes. She was very fat, maybe even obese, but dressed in black “boudoir-wear”, as Meredith’s mom would call it. Everything was black: the corset-style top, unbuttoned cardigan sweater, short leather skirt, fishnet tights, and spindly heels. The shoes had chubby little pink bows on the toe which identically matched the shade of her Longchamp tote. Her mammoth chest jutted out in an obscene way, and Meredith struggled not to look. This girl managed to make the “Naked Maja” look almost modest.
“I think I like the clothed one better. She leaves something to the imagination,” said Meredith, hoping that her statement wouldn’t be taken as a critique of her overexposed new friend.
“I mean, obviously I don’t usually go for subtle,” said the overweight girl. “But I like ‘La Maja Vestida’, the clothed one, better too. She looks more powerful, like she’s daring you to undress her in your mind.”
Meredith nodded her head, she was right.
“I’m Ellory, by the way. Ellory McCracken. Are you in SSA Sevilla too?”
“Yes, I am. I’m Meredith Darwin. It’s so nice to meet you.”
As she extended her hand, she couldn’t help but wonder again what her mother would think of Ellory. Meredith was pretty sure her tuition payments would be immediately halted if she ever dared dress that way. Not that she had much to fill out a corset anyway.
“OH MAH GAWDDDDDD!!! HELPPPPP US!!!!”, someone bellowed, followed by a series of grunts. Meredith was almost certain it was Durga.
Ellory’s cherubic face broke out into an expression of worry.
“What direction did that come from? Who was that?”, she asked.
“I don’t know”, Ellory said. “But I bet it’s an SSA member. Let’s split up to try and find them. You go this way, I’ll try over here.”