When flying from de Gaulle to Barcelona, you head south over France and then cross the Pyrenees and then come down the eastern coast of Spain and as you near the city, you are already at a low altitude and can make out the details of various small towns and low mountain ranges out of the windows on the right side of the plane. The streets carved between buildings in the towns and the highways connecting them; on the hills, radio towers and rectangular sections where the trees have been mown like very high, stiff grass to make way for telephone poles. And when approaching Barcelona itself, you fly close by but out over the hazy blue Med. Barcelona’s airport is south of the city so you pass by the entire town from just off the coast; it’s a spectacular view, as if it was arranged just so, for touristic reasons, like a glass-bottom boat ride. The weather is almost always nice so you can make out landmarks of the city and there will probably be a few passengers who live in Barcelona pointing, the ends of their fingers bent against the plastic oval windows, as they locate their neighborhoods, their streets, their apartment buildings. One or two will joke that they see someone they know down there, a coworker, a friend, a loved one.
I have taken this flight many times and can make out various notable features of the city, like the two skyscrapers down by the beach, away from the center and off on their own like scolded children, with only each other to talk to; the church of Sagrada Familia, still under construction, its eight spires sticking up around a vacant lot in the middle and looking, from this distance, like the legs of some upturned dead animal; and when passing by the Ramblas—the long avenue, or series of connected avenues, running at an angle down to the sea—I always crane my neck and peer back up it’s entire tree-lined length. But there are only two people I know in the entire city of over a million. My ex-wife, and my four-year-old daughter.
I am one of these people whose life took a sudden and unplanned turn to the international. My wife was raised in the United States but her father was Catalan, and she learned to speak English, Spanish and Catalan as a child. When we split up, a year after our daughter was born, she decided it was time to finally wade back into the stream of her family history in Spain. Instead of roaming the ruins of our failed family in a place she never cared about—my home—East Texas. She has relatives in Barcelona and through them, opportunity. It was all logical and made sense and I don’t blame her and never argued against it.
The only hitch, of course, was Elizabeth. I would not get to see her very much. I still wonder who I will be to her when she grows up. The appearing, disappearing man with the sad but optimistic expression as he came out of the baggage claim area at the airport all those times. As he vanished back into the airport all those times. It’s because, as much as you know it doesn’t make sense, you think it will all work out someway. Somehow, we will all be together again. Not living together —I know better than that—but nearby each other. Some stroke of fate will provide the logic and means for Nuria, my ex-wife, to move back to the States. A new husband with business there, for instance. Nuria will find some special graduate program in Indiana. Who knows. Something will come along to make it all work, and take away the uncertainty and strangeness of our circumstance, just as some things came along and made it logical that Nuria and Elizabeth moved away. You just can’t get it into your head that it’s not going to happen, this is reality, this is what we have. For better or worse. The machinery of the world isn’t looking for a better outcome, it’s not looking for any outcome at all. This is it. It’s not all going to work out, this is working out.
You ask yourself, or your ex-wife—you look at your four-year-old daughter and imagine asking her, too—how did it get this way? And then you just recount all the steps 1-2-3 and there you are. Right where you are. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. No mystery.
It feels mysterious. But where is the mystery—is there some mystery here, hidden behind it all, in some place I haven’t looked, where I don’t expect it to be? Some unobvious place, from where it sends its signals to me, here, on the surface?
Of course I considered leaving the States, too, though I have my elderly parents to care for, and though it would also have been essentially impossible to take up my career, at anything near a similar level, and at my age, in a country in which I cannot speak the language and in which I am not even legally allowed to work. I thought, maybe I could do a Europe-wide job search, and land somewhere nearby. It was a pipe dream, and besides, everyone said, If you’re going to live in England, say, and board a plane to see them, what’s the difference? Why not board that plane at home? And I realized I could take advantage of my already frequent trips to visit one of my company’s affiliates, another engineering firm located in a small town in the southwest corner of Germany, by tacking on visits to Barcelona. And I could make these visits still more frequent. As a result I am now regularly away from the office, and my business trips are always longer than those of anyone else at the company. I am the guy whose ex-wife and little daughter live in Spain, however, so everybody understands.
Though I talked about following my wife and daughter when they left, there was a strange response. No one really expected it to happen. Not my ex-wife, not me, really, and not even Elizabeth, I think. Neither did Nuria’s friends or mine. This was just our new situation. You get married, maybe you break up—so you deal with that. Maybe your wife moves to Kentucky—you deal with it. She moves to Barcelona—same thing. Keep going. Keep working. I was lucky, everyone felt, I could take these trips to Europe for business.
I try to be thankful for what I’ve got. Some people have less. There are harsher arrangements.
In a way I am lucky with the distance I have to deal with. Because distances will always be stretched by people. It’s normal. It’s what we do. In medieval times, no one went more than five miles from the shack they were born in their whole lives. Now we have families separated by oceans. I try not to complain, though, because someday, when we have colonies on other planets, there will be fathers boarding space ships and going into cryogenic sleep for four or five years to visit their baby daughters for a week or two.
Therefore my regular rounds of Stuttgart-de Gaulle-Barcelona. Places that, as a kid growing up near Houston, I scarcely imagined I would visit. I scarcely would have cared. But somehow, they came to me.
I have many frequent flyer miles. Most of the business travelers I run into have their gripes about flying. I do not. I am going to see my daughter. That is what I think about. And I am too preoccupied with worrying over whether she’ll recognize me this time, since a few months have passed since my last visit, or whether this time she’ll be indifferent to me instead of running to me, or whether she’ll be mystified as to why I don’t understand her when she speaks Spanish or Catalan. I wait for these things to happen. Even though one does very little more than sit while flying, I feel I have earned my frequent flyer miles.
And when the trip is over, and I am back at home, there is this odd space, where on the one hand I have just returned from seeing my ex-wife and daughter, and am full of fresh memories which can make me smile to myself, and on the other hand, no new trip back to see them has yet been planned. The panic at having no plans to see them outweighs the relief and joy of the fact that I just saw them—that is in the past. Not knowing when the next time will be that I see them puts me in limbo—even if I know it is inevitable and will probably occur within two or so months, when the mysterious functioning of circumstances in my work and in my private life and in the work and private life of my ex combine just right to make it possible, when circumstances bring the opportunity about, like stars lining up to create a constellation—it seems incredible that it ever happens, so much effort, so many millions of years and foot-pounds of work go into it, such vast blind organization, and yet it happens nightly. Still, when I return from one of my trips, I have a buzz from it, but quickly enter into a period of purgatory. And this is normal life.
Though I am anxious, I always enjoy the approach to Barcelona from the air. I always arrange to be seated in one of the “F” seats—a window seat on the right side of the plane. But on my last visit, when I managed to schedule a business trip for my daughter’s birthday, I had to fly to Barcelona at night, the first time I had taken this route in the dark. I was disappointed with the idea at first but figured the lights of Barcelona might be a nice sight—the entire glowing path of the Ramblas standing out, perhaps, as if suggesting that that is where we should land.
I slept while covering France but awoke suddenly just as we started crossing the Pyrenees. Straightening up in my seat, I glanced around for a view of some of the towns below which I had seen so many times in plan view in daylight. It was pretty dark and sleepy down there. I kept looking but there was not much to distract me. After about fifteen minutes we started descending sharply. I looked over the shopping bag I had placed on its side below the seat in front of me, it contained Elizabeth’s birthday presents. I leaned over and tucked the boxes down in to the bag further to secure them, wondering if had bought too many presents for her, if I wasn’t trying to buy her love, since I was an absent father. Then I wondered if I had bought too little. I couldn’t tell. Then I worried, again, that some of the dolls and such that I had bought had to do with cartoon characters from the States which she had never seen and couldn’t care about. When I looked up again we were out over the water.
My gaze was glued to the window. Off in the distance I could already see a dense conglomeration of lights, the northern suburbs of Barcelona. I smiled, though it didn’t really look beautiful, it only looked like a lot of lights. As we got closer I recognized the area where there was a large power station—but then something caught my eye. It was an explosion. A little further on from the power station, I thought I had seen a sudden flash of very bright light, and then glimmering fragments, and then quick cooling and the return of darkness. Then, I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw something like it again, only smaller, but right around where the center of town would be. I glanced around at the other passengers to see if anyone else had noticed anything. Everyone one was calm. I turned again to look out the window and wait for us to draw nearer to the heart of the city.
Flash—I was right. As we started passing the town, there was a sudden shower of bright red light, leaping out of a single small point. It grew to tremendous size, and formed a perfect round shape, and was followed quickly by another light shower, this time dazzling green. Beneath the green, and as it faded, came streaks of pure white shooting upwards. I was taken aback, and then enchanted, when I realized I was seeing fireworks from the air.
By now other passengers had noticed, and called out to each other to see. I pictured the view of the plane from the outside, each of the little oval windows filled entirely with a face, like octopi glaring out of the undersea crevices in which they live. I don’t speak Spanish, but I could pick out what some of the other passengers were calling fireworks: fuegos artificiales. A literal translation yields artificial fires. And somewhat comically, I suppose, I thought, No, it’s not fake. It’s real fire, even though it’s just for fun. The pilot then explained that the fireworks were part of the city’s annual festival, La Mercè, which happens every year at the end of September.
In fact what we were seeing was the second day of an international fireworks competition. This was the Swiss team. Amazing, I thought, a fireworks team. Traveling the world, shooting rockets at parties.
As we cruised by, our glass bottom boat ride now gave us the opportunity to view these neon-colored fish: a giant orange burst falling into thousands of innocently sparkling yellow sprinkles; a soaring white bomb popping into a huge sphere filled with gleaming white pinpoints; a white point detonating low and early into a green ring with nothing in the middle but blackness and which continued rising and expanding until it suddenly faded away; then the same thing in red, then a green ring with a red circle inside, then a red ring with a green ring placed inside but perpendicular to the red ring, both also rising and expanding until suddenly fading away to nothingness—this ring within a ring, expanding quickly north-south on one plane and east-west on another, seemed eerily symbolic, like some kind of all-encompassing statement. It was followed by a fizzy yellow expansion filled with bright flares which hesitated in space a moment, and then, all at the same time, whirled away, scattering wildly in all directions. And then there was a smiley face. A smiley face: a green ring with two red dots in it for eyes and a red curve for a smile. It rose and expanded, like an inflating head, the smile got bigger, and then suddenly it was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I watched like a little kid, enthralled. These were far more elaborate and intricate than any fireworks I had ever seen. I had never before seen a smiley face, for crying out loud.
Some of the fireworks were launched very high, others blew up at a lower level. Sometimes there were bursts at both levels. Behind them, in alternating flashes and darkness, the city stood still.
What a show—flying at night certainly paid off after all, I thought. It made me giddy, as my grandmother used to say. Seen from a plane, a fireworks show is smaller, quieter than on the ground. It was like looking down on another culture, on another planet. Here’s how they celebrate. How strange. It’s beautiful, exotic. Quaint.
I looked at it and smiled and thought, I like these creatures. A creature that would do this. Make giant puffs of shining red, gold, green, all for fun. And for a moment, before I remembered reality, I was happy to be one of those creatures again. I laughed to myself and thought, They are for me, these fireworks. For my arrival. Then I thought, No, they are for Elizabeth’s birthday. They are for Elizabeth. Then I thought, They are for me arriving on Elizabeth’s birthday.
I suppose I was seized with optimism. I thought about how engineers say, when a structure they have built falls down, that it “failed.” A house which slumps or crumbles fails, a bridge which collapses fails, an airplane which crashes fails. Failure is the opposite of what is intended. The opposite of what is planned. Failures come in grades, too—a minor failure, where a part of a structure fails, but the whole remains intact and functioning, and a catastrophic failure, where—well, you know. It all goes.
Those fireworks were explosives, actually. Explosives are dangerous. Their work, explosions, are usually considered accidents. So there they were, below me, all of these brilliant explosions, but squeezed into a certain area, to create certain effects. These were controlled failures. That is the nature of failures, also—they can be harnessed.
So they’re not really failures, then—or are they? Perhaps we can make something of our failures, something beautiful, even. Like those fireworks, with all the people dancing and celebrating around them.
The fireworks kept coming, and when we were right in front of them, they started coming faster, one right on top of the other. We were in the middle of the show just as it peaked—in fireworks shows the peak is always right where it should be, at the end. But soon we were passing the fireworks by, and I had to lean forward and crane my neck to look back at them as they popped off like crazy. And suddenly it crossed my mind that it was just chance, luck that I had seen them. Had I come at any other time, I would not have seen them. I had wanted to fly during the day. I was upset when I found out I couldn’t. So the fireworks really didn’t have anything to do with me, or with my life.
And more—they didn’t have anything to do with anyone. We were almost completely past them when I looked at them, for the first time, from the outside, as it were. I still enjoyed them, but I saw that what was happening was just something happening, on its own, which we, by chance, interpreted as special. These fireworks had no idea they were fireworks. That they would go up very high, explode, become green, and sparkle. Or that they would be red and separate into smaller pieces which would abruptly dash off sideways, frantically. It’s simple combustion. These fireworks were tricks of gunpowder, loaded a certain way into charges, to utilize the natural characteristics of each ingredient in the charge, and each ingredient would unwittingly act and react according to its nature, according to chemical and physical laws.
Gunpowder doesn’t know it’s gunpowder, that it is called that, that it has ever had anything to do with guns. It doesn’t know that it is used to kill. It just does what it does. We have harnessed the effect. Though sometimes it gets away from us. But in those cases, it’s our fault—it is just doing what it does, and what we know it will do.
So when these fireworks blew into a circle, they didn’t know it. They blew into a great dense cloud of yellow light, they didn’t know it. The crowd below cheered them, they didn’t know it. An airplane passed by beside them, they didn’t know it. Bright didn’t know it was bright, green didn’t know it was green, red didn’t know it was red. And they wouldn’t have cared. Who could explain to them why it would be important, why it would be aesthetically pleasing to someone? It would hardly be impressive to them. Or fun. It was all just mother nature, out for a walk in the forest as always, ducking tree limbs where she had to duck, jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream, holding back a thorny branch so she could pass by.
The smiley face was not a smiley face, but a conglomeration of temporary circumstances. Not an accident, though. It all happened for a reason. It was organized by a Swiss team of technicians, after all. But surely our interpretation of what happened was an accident. There’s a lot of space between something happening as it should, as it has to happen, and our minds. It all has to be translated. That’s how we end up with fake fire.
When we had almost passed by the whole town, I was sitting nearly on the edge of my seat, twisted around, and it looked like the show was over. Barcelona sat there, unmoved. And an enormous smoke remnant floated over the area, a great blob of smoke at the top with long, tangled lines of smoke dangling down, like a giant jellyfish, or crab, or spider, drifting slowly and sadly away in the dark. I sat back in my seat.
We landed, I collected the bag with Elizabeth’s birthday presents and headed off the plane and down to the baggage claim area. I passed with my bags on a cart through some sliding doors out into the waiting area, to a large crowd of people facing me. I stopped and looked around in the crowd, and after a minute I spotted my ex. She was off to the right, with Elizabeth on her left side, and they were looking through the crowd and had not seen me. It wasn’t that Elizabeth didn’t recognize me, it was just that she had not yet seen me. She was up on her tip-toes, her eyes wide. My ex wasn’t so excited but she couldn’t help but smile at Elizabeth’s anticipation, how her face was beaming. I started heading towards them, thinking that after a hug I was going to tell Elizabeth I had seen the fireworks show they had held in honor of her birthday from the plane, and it was, naturally, spectacular. Then I wondered why I would do that, encourage a child to believe the fireworks were special, when they were only doing what they do—fireworks are just things working themselves out.
Then Elizabeth saw me. I saw the whole thing, her looking off in the wrong direction, searching the faces in the crowd, her head tilted upwards and waving from side to side, then slowly scanning to the right, closer, closer, and then bang!—her eyes locked onto my face. She called out excitedly, I couldn’t hear it, but I knew what she said and I smiled. It felt like good luck.
I got to Elizabeth, picked her up in a big hug, and leaned over to kiss my ex on the cheek. Elizabeth had her hands around my neck and I leaned back and found myself looking at her glowing face and telling her that by pure chance I was there at the moment when the fireworks were going off over Barcelona, the fireworks in honor of her birthday, I saw them from the air, like seeing them from behind the scenes, and it was spectacular and I loved them.
Well. Give me a break. Maybe they were for me, for us, after all, almost despite themselves. I mean, who says intent is necessary for a thing to be beautiful? And without it, without the world on your side, there is only sadness?
Patrick Cole lives in Barcelona. One of his recent stories appeared in Parcel and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and others are forthcoming in Conclave and Timber. His work has been published in other journals, including High Plains Literary Review (also a Pushcart Prize nominee), Nimrod International, AGNI Online, 34th Parallel, and turnrow. A one-act play of his was a finalist in the Knock International Play Competition and was produced in Seattle. (updated 7/2012)