Hell’s Kitchen at the Prado

At the end of June, I fly to Madrid to be with JRA and Lady H; Grandma and Papa. We are celebrating and mourning; vacationing and working. Both Grandma and Papa have worked in and across Spain for many years; JRA is fluent in the language; only Lady H and I have some catching up to do. We eat late-night dinners and drink late-night wine, and generally, things are Okay, even as we approach the Anniversary of the Last Day of the World.

The Last Day of the World happened last July. Pete had messaged me that June, asking if Paul and I wanted to go out to dinner for JRA’s birthday – the date was set for an early-July Saturday night between his birthday and hers. We had met – two couples – at a wheelchair-friendly restaurant, and had taken a long, leisurely summer dinner. Paul and I had gone on holiday for the two weeks after – first to California; then to Newport. It was nice – it was the last, pleasant dinner out I could remember having with Paul – no fighting; no drama. But within two weeks, Pete’s younger brother Tommy had died suddenly. Within six months, Paul and I were separated, and Pete himself died shortly thereafter.

Nothing was ever the same again after that one, specific night.

We spend our time in Madrid visiting friends; wandering the city; exploring the Prado. We stand in front of the Bosch paintings; Velasquez’s works and JRA leans over and begins to say something about the little people in one of the Velasquezs but thinks better of it. It was a joke for many years – how much I hated all those exploitative little people shows on TV; how angry I’d get about them – until I found out that I had a bad, probably Spanish, gene. Then all bets were off; then, maybe my revulsion was just some kind of genetic fear.

Later that day, we are changing clothes before dinner, and Lady H asks me about RHJ. How IS RHJ? she asks, like a chatty girlfriend.

(She is six years old.)

He’s fine, I deadpan.

You know what I think? she says, I think “third time’s the charm.”

She says the words thoughtfully, like she is considering this as a viable possibility as the words tumble from her adorable mouth. Two nights before, the second of her two front teeth had come out over dinner. She had spent the day wiggling the hell out of it, and I, in my role as Tia Fearless, I had gripped it a few times and twisted; yanked; done the dirty-work of a much older sister or maiden aunt. I’d rubbed my icy fingers on her gums and passed the precious few ice cubes from my drink across the table to her – over Grandma’s furrowed brow, and JRA’s disgust at the whole affair. It was then that Papa had told us, as I sipped my umpteenth Abarino of the night, that there was no Spanish tooth fairy. Instead Ratoncito Perez visited you in the night and swapped a gift for your tooth.

Forgetting my Spanish, and my manners, I immediately exclaimed, We’re letting a rat come into the house in the night? What does he bring you – jamon iberico?!

Papa, in his calm, pedantic manner, replied, Technically it’s a mouse.

Lady H said, I think he brings manchego.

Grandma, for her part, quickly realising that obtaining a hunk of manchego at that hour would be nearly impossible, chimed in, I think he brings you an IOU for whatever you want. JRA began laughing so hard she was unable to contribute to the conversation.

Moments later, Lady H spat the tooth into her hand and then handed it to me.

So I listen to Lady H tell me Third Time’s The Charm through her adorable gap, like she is both a woman and a child, and it makes me laugh, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces; into dust – because she is older than she should be but she is exactly who she needs to be; because I may never stare into the face of my own gap-toothed elf, mise-en-abyme, because of genes or circumstance; because this is exactly how things happened and it wasn’t what I expected when I married Andrew, or I married Paul, or when we all went out to dinner for JRA’s birthday on that fateful double date.

If you had asked me a year ago, on the last night everything was normal, if I thought we would be sitting in Madrid, taking stock of the damage one year later, I would have thought you were nuts. But looking back now, through gapped teeth, and the streaky rearview of grief, it is actually that last, perfect night in Hell’s Kitchen that seems much more far-fetched.

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