[“The Burial of the Count Orgaz“, El Greco, c. 1588]
When Isabella awoke, it felt like an eternity had passed. But judging from the lack of light peering through the window, she had only been knocked out for hours, or maybe just minutes. It was still night, as she could barely see anything. Her head throbbed and she felt hungover. There was something in her mouth; that was strange. It felt rough against her tongue, and she realized it was a muslin cloth, or some type of similar rag. She was so focused on the pain, that for a moment, she’d forgotten where she was. Suddenly, she remembered and started to scream but the cloth silenced her.
Her hands were tied behind her back with some rope, but her legs were free. She tried to get up, but accidentally kicked something soft and furry, and… breathing? She realized it was a cat, as it yowled and swiped at her with its claws. She felt the bare flesh on her ankle rip open.
The angry exclamation must have alarmed her keeper, because suddenly, an electric light switched on. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness, Isabella could make out that he was no longer covered in gold paint, but was definitely the same man who had dragged her there.
Despite the circumstances, his presence almost put her at ease. Something in his demeanor was not scary or frightening. In fact, he seemed almost scared of her. Maybe she was just imagining it though. After all, he was the one walking around freely and she was the one tied up and gagged.
“I am sorry…To do this’, he said in broken English. “But I feel there is a message that you must have. I am… A person who receives message. From elsewhere. From up there.” He gestured toward the heavens. Isabella nearly rolled her eyes. She believed in people channeling heavenly messages as much as she believed in the tooth fairy.
“The message is… That you must stay. Do not leave here. Spain. You must stay.”
He stared at her seriously, clearly expecting a response. Even if she had been prompted to speak, it would have been slightly difficult with a gag in her mouth.
Realizing this, he approached her and removed it. “Do you have any questions… For me?”
“Yes”, said Isabella. “Are you going to let me go the fuck home now or are you going to kill me?”
“ARE Y’ALL READY FOR THE BUS TRIP TO TOE-LEE-DOW? UH HAVE TO DO MUH MAKEUP AND THEN IMMA HEAD OVER TO THE MEETIN’ SPOT!!!!!”
In response to Durga, Meredith managed a hearty nod and pageant-ready smile, even though she felt ready to fall face-first into her jamón y queso tostada. The fact that she was even eating carbs sober signaled that something was seriously off.
After drinking wine and hanging out with Ellory, Meredith had settled back into the hotel room by a respectable 11:30PM curfew, so that she would be well rested for the trip to Toledo the next day. In the middle of her peaceful dream, where she was singing along at a Luke Bryan concert and petting a large sheep, Isabella had stormed into the room, crying hysterically and screaming about some man in gold paint tying her up and reading her Tarot cards or something.
Their SSA representative had immediately called the Madrid police and they had seemed skeptical too, probing Meredith about Isabella’s typical habits and if she had been acting “diferente” lately.
Meredith was beginning to secretly hope that Isabella had made it all up and would be sent home so she could be roommates with Ellory. But then this morning she heard from their SSA rep that the police had found numerous pieces of evidence at the scene of the crime which corroborated Isabella’s story.
Overnight, stoic Isabella had become a folk heroine for SSA. As her roommate, and the only person physically at breakfast who was associated with the incident, Meredith was also a subject of interest. However, she herself was very disinterested in the whole matter. She hoped Isabella would come back from the police station soon to speak for herself.
Before Durga or one of the other girls at the breakfast table could ask her something else about Isabella, she left her tostada on the table and headed back to her room. She prayed that something big would happen in Toledo, to distract everyone from Isabella’s scandal, since she did not want to spend the next 6 months as the involuntary witness to a truly weird event.
“So many fine ass bitches. I can’t believe we are living with some of these girls in Sevilla. Shit!”
Ellory turned around in disgust to see the super tall guy in the Bob Marley shirt, the one whose Indian friend who had gotten them all kicked out of the Prado. The Indian boy had fallen asleep on the bus seat next to him, but apparently Bob Marley Shirt Guy was still talking to him anyway.
“Heyyyyy, sorry didn’t mean to offend or anything”, he drawled after seeing Ellory’s irritation. She rolled her eyes. “Really, I mean it. I’m Matt Silverstein, but my friends call me Silver. It’s nice to meet you.” He extended his hand and she reluctantly shook it. “How can I make it up to you? I don’t want to start things off on the wrong foot with anyone. Really, I’ll do anything. Buy you a beer, send you this sick Phish cover that my friend recorded, give you a looooong back massage…”
Ellory had just been thinking about how she wished she had a male friend to interview about studying abroad for her blog. Now, without any effort on her part, she had a willing subject. Albeit a sexist one, but one who would provide an interesting perspective for her article.
“This is weird, but could I spend some time hanging out with you and interviewing you for my blog today? I am writing an article about the beginning of study abroad and want to get a male perspective. I won’t use your name or anything, don’t worry.”
“Silver loooves helping out fine bitties. And I ain’t worried ‘bout nothin’.”
Ellory gave him a look that used to make Marbles, her childhood kitten, hide in the corner after it unraveled the yarn on her sweaters.
“Sorry, sorry. Not trying to be offensive or whateverrrr. What I meant was okay.”
“Why do you talk in third person? It’s weird”, she asked.
“It’s one of my Silver-isms. I just like to do it sometimes. Don’t you have any weird things that you just like to do?”
If you only knew, Ellory thought.
To her surprise, Ellory actually liked hanging out with Silver. Even when he made stupid jokes about the Count of Orgaz (“I’mma make them girls count their orgasz-ms tonight…SORRY ELLORY”) and stared at her boobs for a little too long.
In spite of those flaws, he was funny and smarter than she’d originally thought, as she learned from their nonstop chatting on the way to Toledo. By the time the bus lurched to a stop in the main square, she was embarrassingly smitten.
Being around him was like that moment when you are still half asleep and don’t remember who you are or what your problems are, just that you feel warm and cozy and happy.
She wasn’t sure what exactly he would contribute to her article though, since she probably couldn’t convey that specific feeling to her readers via his sexist quips.
Silver liked her too, or at least he seemed not to mind her company. Despite his relaxed, THC-induced state, she could tell that he definitely was a little bit scared of her. This she found amusing, as he was nearly a foot and a half taller than her.
Clearly he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend though. And if he did want one, he would want Meredith (“great ass on that one”, she heard him whisper to Yogesh) or Isabella (“that mysterious CSI chick…What a sexy bitch”) or possibly one of the elegant Spanish girls effortlessly walking the cobblestone streets of Toledo in vertiginous heels.
Not Ellory, and her thighs which perpetually touched, and stomach which was rounded, and ass which contained the forbidden CELLULITE!!!! that every women’s magazine strived to find an obscure cure for (“Eat precisely 13 raw almonds, then regurgitate them immediately, mix the resulting compound with Manuka honey, 2 tsp of chlorella, and 2/7 of a Bartlett pear and use the end matter to exfoliate your thighs for a cellulite-free beach body”- Cosmopolitan Magazine, April-May issue).
Usually she was confident with herself, knowing that her body was the result of trying her best to ignore society’s fucked-upness and cultivate her own positive body image free of fad diets. She knew that there were lots of guys who liked, and even loved her figure, as judged from the comments she got on social media. But for a guy who acted like Silver, she would probably always be the fat friend, not the hot bitch. That sucked.
After stopping for a bathroom break and quick churros snack, they reached their destination, La Iglesia de Santo Tomé. Ellory’s initial reaction was to be unimpressed.
The church itself was brown and non-descript. There was one Islamic-style tower which only the tour guide seemed excited over. Everyone else was pretty bored, standing around outside, checking Instagram, and waiting for Juan to bring the entry tickets so they could go inside.
What they were there for was the Renaissance jewel within the bland brown building, El Greco’s , “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”. Ellory had written a long essay about it for one of her Art History classes at home. But all she vaguely remembered now was that it depicted a local nobleman on his way to heaven, accompanied by some saints who came down from heaven to oversee the burial.
As their guide showed them around, he repeatedly insisted that this was a 100% factual event witnessed by the whole village who saw the saints. Ellory could almost force herself to believe him. The countryside of Spain seemed to play by different rules than those which governed the rest of the world.
For a moment, she let herself dip into abstracted thinking, wondering if perhaps all of her time today with Silver had given her a contact high.
If I were a part of the church, she thought, I wouldn’t be the art. She was a little too skeptical for that.
The El Greco canvas would probably be embodied by the already infamous Isabella Name. Like the protagonist of the painting, Isabella seemed to hang somewhere between the natural and supernatural. Certainly, she was here on the physical plane (albeit not in Toledo with the rest of them, as she was at the policia station filing paperwork), but her demeanor suggested that her mind was somewhere else. Somewhere metaphysical, somewhere far deeper than Ellory and her stupid crush and her makeup blog.
If Isabella were the famous painting, Meredith would be the decorative tilework adorning the altar. A beautiful work not particularly unique or rare to the region, but nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing obra, appreciated by all who were given the pleasure to see it.
In contrast, Ellory would be the enormous central vault of church. Large in scale, but so that she could accommodate all which she contained. Strong in a way which was both commanding and subtle. Someday someone would love that about her; that was all she truly wanted.
She broke off from the group and drifted into a side chapel, feeling her deepest thoughts and desires drape heavily on her in this deeply spiritual place.
Continuing to brush reality aside, she dropped a euro in the Plexiglass box beaneath a baroque, weeping Jesus statue, lit a candle, and let herself illuminate with hope.