When I grew up, I distinctively remember a situation at home, probably in a conversation with my parents and siblings. I learned a new idiom that day: “He’s been the eternal student”.
During my late teenage years, I had what you could call flings, short relationships, usually with girls I met while travelling, and naturally, these things didn’t last long. In Roman terms, I was good at conquering but not at keeping territory.
My friends sometimes reminded me I was acting older than I was. What they didn’t know was that I felt older than I acted. And what no one knew was how much of a romantic I was inside. I was longing for a real girlfriend, not a girl I held hands with for a couple of times until I’d see her making out with another boy.
Time passed, I went to art school, I went from David Bowie to Depeche Mode and Pink Floyd all at once within a year or two. I had coloured jeans with acid holes in them, my mom refused to wash them and called them painter’s pants. I sprayed a dark pink colour onto my synthesiser I had bought with the money from two summer jobs. I was not paying much attention to school, because I had A grades in painting, drawing, illustration, typography, printing and art history. And close to D in everything else. I didn’t take anything seriously anymore, especially not myself.
I was very alone.
When school ended we took the train to Barcelona, the class of five we were. I bought a leather jacket that was way too big, too heavy, looked like I owned a bike and I spent almost my whole trip money on it. Then it got stolen and I walked through Barcelona in a blue and white striped T-shirt wearing black Ray Bans that were not just too big, but also too much ‘James Dean’.
Shortly after I had my first job and a little later my first girlfriend. The first I could call a real girlfriend because it ended up lasting three or four years if you count the time after we had split up and united once again. I have never done that since then.
She was older than me. I was 22, she was 27. Those five years, she explained to me over and over, were the reason why she couldn’t be with me. She would meet and marry a guy in his thirties, she said. She didn’t think we had a chance. But she was wrong, and I didn’t rest until we went together. At the time when we met, I was the new guy hired in the design department of an industrial company, which was very old-school and my managers were clueless that I spent more time reading magazines than working. She was a Personal Assistant for one of the top managers. A secretary, she sometimes joked, adding that her feminist thinking was permitting her to use that word.
She didn’t notice me until that day I wore my Ray Bans. Later she said she found me cocky and cheeky when we had our first encounters in the coffee room. I think I hit on her not really knowing what I was doing. I was behind the wheel the first time and already racing the car. But it worked. She fell for me, and, new to me, I fell for her.
Our relationship had its ups and downs. For me, it was the first experience that meant more than just a fling. I learned a whole lot more than I was ready to admit. I was just at the point where I was stumbling around in the corporate world, but the sky was the limit. My values were naive at best, but in many ways, I was quite reckless. There wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t question, especially not if it broke with conventions.
In that time we went to Spain. It was a two-week vacation and the first long time we could spend together. Our relationship made it impossible to work at the same company, so I had taken a job in Zurich and she was already looking to move to Zurich as well.
The place was near Malaga, a tiny tourist trap called Fuengirola in Southern Spain. We were staying in a vacation apartment complex a friend of hers had booked, but they couldn’t go. The buildings looked more or less the same, multi-story blocks with flat roofs, one after another. Endless rows had been built fast along the line of the coast, often just a few feet away from the beach, interrupted only by small shags of beach bars, overpriced restaurants with a lot of little national flags on their menu, and nightclubs, which had nylon carpet on the walls and disco balls with dried champaign splashes dangling from the ceilings.
It was a two-room that looked much like a regular apartment more than a hotel, with a kitchen corner, a TV set, kitsch candles that looked like leftovers from Christmas and a carpet with a rug on top in the living room.
We didn’t care. We loved being there, doing touristy stuff like drinking sangria, having romantic walks along the beach, mimicking other couples from the far and eating lots of seafood cooked in oil that had survived last season.
We also fought a lot. It was usually about things she thought I should be doing when I was not interested in doing them. She wanted to spend the afternoon on the beach, lying there and getting a tan. I wanted to draw, read English newspapers, books, walk through backyards as if I lived there, where people had put their laundry up and didn’t come out because it was way too hot.
To be honest, I was also a bit of an asshole. I mean, I could have been nicer to everyone. At 23 a man is still a boy who wants to be a man. A smart boy is not exempt from it, he only becomes a smart-ass.
Mind you, I was a low-level employee, barely above an internship. It was all too easy for me, so I did not take work seriously enough. It got me in trouble sometimes on my job as a second junior assistant art director at a big agency. I was basically the kid who glues the print ad mockups to the blackboards for presentations. My boss, a seasoned art director, who would spend a whole morning sitting at his desk, staring out of the window with his fountain pen hovering over his black letter-sized notebook, thought I was creative. After a while they let me be part of teams with the younger employees they let do really creative work, like campaigns for a refugee aid NGO, which the agency did pro bono.
But no one thought of giving me real responsibility.
You go to bed late in Spain. The beach was still alive with guitars strumming, boys yelling and girls shrieking. DJ’s were trying to compete with bright-coloured pimped-up cars passing by with a stereo designed to hit you in your belly, when we were upstairs, already in bed, falling soundly asleep.
It was dark when I opened up my eyes again. Darker than it should have been. I tried to open them wider, trying to see anything. Only then I smelled the thick smoke that filled the room. Now I was fully awake.
I turned to my girlfriend and woke her up. “Listen”, I looked her in the eyes, speaking in a calm but firm voice. “Don’t scream, don’t talk, don’t think. There is a fire.” She just stared back at me, eyes wide open. “Go get your passport, your money, car keys and wait outside. Just put your pants on, walk out and wait there. Don’t stop, don’t wait for me.”
And she just did it. There was no argument, no questioning, nothing. I made sure the fire was not in our apartment, grabbed my stuff, put on my clothes and walked outside. People were waiting in the hallway, not knowing what to do. Some were talking, some doors just opened. I began knocking at the doors. “Get out”, I said “Es un fuego. Vámonos.”
Outside I saw her standing next to a firefighter. She had her mouth open staring up, halfway smiling when she said something to him. “It’s from the nightclub”, she said to me, “at the head of the building.” We both looked at the building’s other side pointing towards the beach where more firefighters were disappearing in a big black cloud. She laughed at me, but I didn’t smile. My hands shook a little. No one noticed it.
The place was smelling for the next two days, then we had to leave Spain again. We didn’t speak about that night, other than about how lucky we had been that the fire had not spread through the entire building and we had not died in our sleep from smoke poisoning.
Something had changed though. Sometimes she was looking at me, tilting her head, putting it back slightly and just smiling. That was new.
“Anything else?” the moderators asked after all were done. “We’d really like to hear some spontaneous ideas, or even if you found a problem you think that should be solved, come on stage and let us know!”. The crowd clapped in a driving pace and as if someone else had slipped into me, I rose from my seat.