[In case you missed Chapters One and Two, catch up here]
Isabella woke up, confused and alone in a dark room, with a pounding headache. Where the fuck am I?, she wondered, still drowsy but conscious enough to know that she was fully dressed in an unfamiliar bed, the waistband of her jeans uncomfortably digging into her hipbone. She raised herself up slightly and looked around. In the corner, she spotted Meredith’s dizzying array of pastel luggage, which helped to jog her memory. She was in her hotel in Madrid, thousands of miles away from everyone and everything she had ever known.
Brushing that thought aside, Isabella took a long, languorous shower, scrubbing herself from head to toe with her favorite sandalwood and vanilla exfoliator. She stepped out of the bathroom clad in a plush white towel, ready to start the day.
Unfortunately, it was already starting to get dark. Forgetting about the time difference, she had slept far longer than planned, nestled in her cave of darkness and tranquility. It was the best sleep she’d had in months, and she didn’t intend to waste it.
Her roommate, Meredith, was missing and Isabella felt a twinge of relief following that realization. Meredith seemed nice enough, but she talked incessantly. Being around her was like being thrown in a fishbowl with Dory from “Finding Nemo.”
Isabella wasn’t in the mood to dress up, but she also didn’t want to stand out conspicuously as a jeans-and-tee-shirt-wearing American. She threw on a saffron-colored flannel J.Crew button down that Lydia, her father’s wife, had given her for Christmas, along with the discarded J.Brands which were laying on the floor. A pair of black Urban Outfitters ballet flats and her favorite crimson Diesel motorcycle jacket completed the look. Probably still scruffy by Spanish standards, but I will never be a Tory Burch and hair bows type of girl anyway, she thought, giving herself one last passing glance in the bathroom mirror.
Isabella wasn’t hugely into cell phones, like most of her peers. They just seemed like another way to trap you, to track you, to make you perpetually available to anyone and everyone. She would have preferred not to have one, or to just carry around some prepaid old Nokia, the kind of phone that would probably survive an atomic bomb, yet didn’t allow one to access the Internet readily. However, her father had insisted she take the latest iPhone. “What if Lydia or I need you in an emergency? Or what if you need us? This is important, Isabella,” he insisted, using his steeliest tone.
She reluctantly accepted the gift, but vowed never to be one of those iPhone clones, waiting pathetically outside of the Apple store for the latest model, or sending thousands of tweets to chronicle each fleeting thought. But as she wandered the unfamiliar streets of Madrid, she reluctantly appreciated the useful gift. With the flick of her finger, she could find a restaurant, bar, royal palace, or museum. As much as she liked the idea of being off the grid, she wasn’t particularly gifted with directions, and it felt comforting to have countless maps of Madrid quite literally fit in the palm of her hand.
She felt completely at ease, wandering in a near fugue state along the dark streets. That is, until her phone died midway through her moonlight walk. She was still getting the hang of remembering to charge the thing.
The street she was climbing was littered with prostitutes, of every age, race and body shape. She felt sad, disgusted, and slightly intrigued. She knew she shouldn’t stare but it was hard not to. She felt happy to be covered up, even though she still felt a few phantom male stares lingering on her too.
Her heart was racing, and she wasn’t even sure why. She was 5’ 9”, taller than most of the men loitering on the street. She had lived in Manhattan alone, and without any scary incidents, for the past few years. She wasn’t trained in martial arts or anything like that, but she was naturally stronger than her lithe limbs suggested and had great reflexes. She tried to walk confidently, but not sexually, taking pains to distance herself from a strutting older woman in a gold lame thong to her right.
This neighborhood epitomizes sketchy, Isabella thought. But why is the architecture so beautiful? Usually in New York, hookers were not found next to huge barrel vaults and baroque facades.
She spotted a frozen yogurt place at the end of the street. Isabella usually preferred ice cream over synthetic fro-yo, but she was suddenly starving, even ravenous. She was walking purposefully toward the store’s fluorescent lights when she felt a tug on her cross-body bag, followed by the sound of a snip. An off-duty living statue, dusted in gold paint from head to toe had swiftly brandished a pair of scissors, grabbed her purse and run off into the night.
Fueled by adrenaline and her prior catatonic sleep, she bolted after him, back down the street toward the swarm of prostitutes. Weaving through a maze of corsets and cameltoes, she started to catch up with the perpetrator. He was smaller than her, and darted around and about, but she was faster. She reached her hand out and yanked his arm. That may be a bad idea, she thought as her turned to face her, indignant. What if he has a gun or a knife?
He didn’t have those particular weapons, but he did have his scissors that he’d used to cut her bag off. He pushed the sharp edge of the scissor blade against the softest part of her wrist, putting gentle yet significant pressure. It was a physical warning, followed by a verbal one.
“Do… not… move. Or… scream,” he whispered, struggling to find the words in English. “P-p-porque no? Lo siento, puedes tener mi bolso y todo de mi dinero. Por favor no me cortas. Por favor,” Isabella begged, suddenly vulnerable and terrified. He could have all of her money and her stupid bag, but she didn’t want to spend her first night in Spain in the hospital, or worse.
Why did I follow him instead of going to the police like a normal person? She fought to hold back hot tears, scared that her crying might provoke him into more violent behavior.
“Follow me. Now”, he said, looking less threatening but still pressing the scissors against the pulse of her wrist. The prostitutes nearest to her were watching, but did nothing. She had a feeling they would protect her assailant over her. They almost seemed to know him. “What do you want? More money? I will give it to you, I promise, just please let me go.” She was too upset to translate her thoughts into Spanish, words tumbling out of her mouth before she could control them. “I need… to… give you… a message,” said her gold-colored jailer, steering her to a doorway, which seemed to appear from nowhere in the darkness. It would have been comical almost, if it wasn’t so terrifying. This could be the last time I see the light.
She screamed as loud as she could, trying to twist away from the scissors pushing into her pulsing artery. She hoped she could get away, before he had time to react.
This time, he was faster. He dropped the scissors to push her facedown into the building and slammed the door shut. As she pushed herself up from the floor, she felt her leg throb. Then, she passed out.
To Ellory’s eye, they appeared to be brother and sister. Both had dusky bronzed skin tones and were very thin, almost emaciated looking. The girl was not even 5 feet, while the boy was all long leg bones and angular arms. At the moment he was propelling his arms in the air, trying to push off the significantly larger security guard who held him in a less-than-friendly embrace.
“What thuu fuck is goin’ onnnn,” intoned a voice from behind Ellory. A sleepy-eyed, racially ambiguous guy wearing a Bob Marley shirt was hovering at least a foot above her 5’1” frame, also taking in the strange action.
“Yo, Yogesh…What’d you do now?”, he asked the thrashing Indian boy. Apparently they were already friends, judging from his unsurprised tone.
“I just wanted to touch it, man. Touch the ‘Las Meninas’ or whatever. Touch a part of history, yo.” As he said that, Ellory paused to look up and around. They were gathered under one of the few paintings she remembered from her Art History 10 survey course.
“Las Meninas”, or “The Handmaidens” referred to the handmaidens of one of the beautiful Baroque princesses of Spain. However, the painting wasn’t even really about them, Dr. Gallardo had said. The painting was about power and perspective, reality versus illusion. In the background of “Las Meninas” were the king and queen, watching over the scene with majestic restraint.
But far more central to the work was Velazquez himself, brandishing his brush in the foreground and announcing his role in boldly creating the reality of the painting. According to Dr. Gallardo, this made him far more powerful than the king or queen, in the context of art history.
Remembering all of this, she felt slightly annoyed that Yogesh had deemed himself important enough to touch “Las Meninas”. Maybe the security guard would sentence him to a scary prison, like the ones on “Locked Up Abroad.” Not for long, maybe just for a night or two. Could security guards do that? Maybe the laws in Spain were different.
Before things could escalate further, their SSA guide rushed over. Ellory didn’t speak Spanish, but she still understood the way that the guide yelled, cajoled, pleaded, and ultimately negotiated Yogesh’s release. Unfortunately, the terms of the release included the immediate dismissal of all SSA members from the Prado.
She hadn’t even taken any good photos for her blog yet. She’d tried to snap a few on her new DSLR camera that she’d saved up for months for, but none of them came out as well as she would’ve liked. She was even wearing new and slightly uncomfortable mink eyelashes, in case she did upload a few museum selfies to the blog. Fucking Yogesh.
Ellory’s blog had started during her freshman year of college, when she had no friends. She went to a large public university in Florida, her home state, since they gave her a giant scholarship and she was responsible for paying for all of her college tuition. Everyone there was blonde, tan, and tiny. They shopped at PacSun, got their highlights done every 6 weeks by their high school best friend turned local beautician, and dated surfers named Tim. They did not weigh 210 pounds, buy most of their glam-rock outfits on eBay or spend their Saturday nights watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, because no one invited them to the one local bar which didn’t card.
As a result of her isolation, Ellory was amazing at makeup after a few months, and even considered dropping out of college to become a professional makeup artist. However, she truly enjoyed attending most of her classes, especially “Philosophy and Literature” and “Introduction to Art History”.
As a compromise to bridge her two lives, she started bEllory, a makeup blog which also featured fashion tips and personal photos, and occasional interesting tidbits she picked up from her classes. Even though she was never aggressively sexual in person, online she wasn’t remotely shy about showing off her voluptuous figure in cool corsets she found on Etsy or sky-high glittery Steve Maddens, while posting vlogs and blogs on everything from Origins cosmetics to feminist interpretations of original sin.
Within a few months, she had 10,000 followers. A year later, she had quadrupled that number. Her phone perpetuately flickered like a firefly in the abyss of her Betsey Johnson tote, alerting her to the tens or hundreds of tweets and Instagram likes that she received each hour.
She hoped none of the social media chatter was from fellow SSA students. Being Internet-famous (or infamous?) among a subset of the population was cool, but she didn’t want people to like her just for it. Or even worse, not like her or make fun of her for it. Having a blog, or even any kind of social media account, was like having a significant chunk of her soul out there in the universe, accessible to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection.
bEllory was her thing and her identity. Belle, for the makeup/beauty content, and Ellory, her first name. But, the blog title was also a reminder to “be Ellory”, the Ellory that she’d always wanted to be instead of the fat Ellory ignored among an indistinguishable sea of blonde Brittany’s and Brandi’s.
A Brittany/Brandi blonde seemed to be approaching her now, as all of the SSA students filed out of the Prado. “Hi!”, she chirped. “My name is Meredith. What’s yours?”
Ellory introduced herself, feeling an instant kinship toward her, even though Meredith reminded her of the kind of girls that usually made her nervous.
They walked out of the museum together, chatting like old friends, rather than strangers. Something melancholy hung in the air, despite a sense of something wonderful happening. It was as though Ellory was already feeling sad about what was to come, because something almost magical was beginning, and she knew that things as she had understood them before had already ended. It was an odd sort of feeling, one which she would never fully be able to articulate, though she would later think back upon it.
Instead of following the rest of SSA back to their hotel, she and Meredith sat on the grassy hill outside of the Prado, in near-silent contemplation. The sky slowly painted in with darkness instead of light, and everything seemed still yet in motion. Around the two girls madrileño children frolicked around, chasing each other and spinning with arms outstretched on the grass.
Ellory and Meredith had a few sips of wine from a monogrammed flask which Meredith had been carrying with her.
Meredith felt content and happy to have made a friend, someone so unlike cold Isabella. She was distanced away from her hunger, despite having hardly eaten all day. She felt a heady rush of electricity flow through her, as a flush illuminated her normally pale expression. It reminded her of a cheesy country song that an older sorority sister used to like to sing while intoxicated, something about how drinking wine was like drinking stardust.
She wasn’t drunk off of the Rioja though, the small flask was nearly full. Months later, as she thought back to the beginning, she would realize she had been intoxicated by possibility, by the teasing promise of becoming the person she really wanted to be.