Archive | December, 2013

The Christmas Story

24 Dec

In one of my previous posts, I wrote, “God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time).”

I am now going to tell that story.  It is a story about how Jesus gave me a bitch slap and a black eye for Christmas.

I left Richmond for my first semester at the University of Virginia last August with a carful of carefully-chosen room decor, my very own Swiffer, and a selection of cutout dresses that I would be too lazy to wear to parties.  I promised myself to do something that scared me every day.  I told myself I would join every club that vaguely interested me and find all the best hole-in-the-wall cafés.  When December rolled around, I was involved, all right, and stretched too thin.  The skin under my eyes had turned a permanent shade of purple.  I had a malingering illness that left me unable to eat much more than a few slices of bread and some fruit each day.  Although I faithfully responded to every email I received each night, by morning my inbox would be bursting with notifications from professors, announcements from the extracurriculars I’d joined, and minutes from the student government council meetings I attended.  I had lost weight.  My attitude was more depressing than Eeyore’s.

When I returned for Christmas break, I felt like a stranger in my own household.  Had I never noticed the stench of dog pee emanating from the living room carpet?  What was so bad about eating Chunky Monkey straight from the container at 2:00 A.M.?  When we dressed ourselves in our finest to go see The Nutcracker, a family tradition, I realized that my younger sister had been wearing my favorite pair of black pumps.  Her feet, a size bigger than mine, had stretched the faux leather beyond redemption.  I trailed behind them as we walked from the parking lot to the theater, hissing threats at her and hobbling down Grace Street like a drunken mountain goat trying to scale the Alps.

In addition to the usual prelude duties I had at the late night Christmas service, my choir director had asked me to accompany the children’s choir on flute for the pageant.  A less-than-perfectly-melodic bunch at the best of times, the choir kids were less than pleased to be asked to harmonize with any instrument other than the triangle and the bongos.  Rehearsals made me want to bang my head against a wall.  On Christmas Eve, I threw on a dirty dress and slunk into church five minutes before the service began.

“Where were you?” said the choir director.  “Our last rehearsal was half an hour ago!”

“I was…baking gingerbread,” I muttered.  “Lost track of time.”

We stood in the sacristy among the bustle of acolytes tugging on white robes, clergy going over the service notes, and toddlers running around with shepherd’s crooks or angel wings, haloes askew.  One of the acolytes, a glasses-wearing boy of about twelve, ordered the younger kids around, boasting about how heavy the crucifix was.  “You gotta be strong to carry it.  Someone with muscle,” he said.  “Like me.  Lookit.” I cleaned my flute and glared at him.

“All right,” said Lyndon, one of our head priests.  “Are we all ready to -”

Suddenly, a blinding pain exploded in my right temple, and I staggered sideways.  One of the little angels screamed.  I blinked and realized that my vision had gone fuzzy.

“Oh, shit,” said someone.  “Sorry, I mean oh my God…I mean, wait, hold on…”

It was the acolyte.  I saw him, as if from far away, holding the heavy, brass cross like it had come to life and begun to dance the two-step.

“Did you just…” I began.  Pain lanced into my cheekbone and behind my eye.

“I swear it was an accident!  I was just lifting it and -”

My mother, a soprano in the adult choir, appeared from nowhere and grabbed my wrist.  “Let’s go to the bathroom, okay?”

“Mom,” I said, a few minutes later, looking at my blurry reflection.  “I think I might be concussed.”

“No, you idiot,” she said, fondly patting my arm.  “He knocked you so hard both your contacts fell out.  I found them on the floor.”  And she offered the two withered discs to me.  I slid them onto my irises, wincing.  “Do you know how close he came to taking out your right eye?  Half a centimeter lower, and…”

An enormous bump had begun to form under my eyebrow.  “Don’t I have to go play now?” I asked.

“The choir director says you don’t have to.  You know, considering the circumstances.”

“No,” I said.  “I have to.  I have to.”

I adjusted my wrinkled dress, grabbed my flute, and proceeded to give the worst performance of my life as my black eye started to grow dark and fat.  And that was, somehow, cathartic.  I looked like shit and I played like shit on a night when all of Christiandom was supposed to offer up their talents for the Christ Child (or something like that, anyway).  Between services, I nibbled on bread and clamped a frozen steak from the church pantry to my face.

At St. Thomas, the 10:00 service is always meditative, filled with candles and the delicate melodies of quieter Christmas hymns.  My friend Darren and I had rehearsed Dave Matthew’s “The Christmas Song” as the prelude.  It was a tradition from the place we’d met, an Episcopalian summer camp where I attended and he worked during the summer.  The wood cabins clung to the foot of a mountain on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.  On the kind of July nights where the air was saturated with cricket songs, one of the musically-talented counselors would pull out his guitar and treat us to a rendition of “The Christmas Song.”  That’s where a song like that is most appropriate: the quiet places, the ones with clasped heads and pensive thoughts.

As Darren’s fingers danced over the guitar fret, I sang the first verse and glanced around the shadowy nave.  Maybe, I thought, this was what I’d needed all along: an actual blow to the head to make me sit down and recognize the beauty of everyday things.  And maybe it was Jesus and maybe it wasn’t, but whatever his or her name was probably didn’t form the most important part of the picture.

By the time we’d finished the song, my temple had begun to pound less.  Darren and I returned to the pews and joined the congregation in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  It was cold in the church, and all the churchgoers had chosen seats close to the warmth of the chancel.  Perfect strangers smiled at me as we progressed through the hymn.  If this was how the Ghost of Christmas Whatever wanted to get my attention, I mused, I was perfectly fine with that.

It’s exactly a year later now, and although I’m hoping this Christmas Eve won’t be quite as physically painful, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to sing something so true in the quiet of a church in the nighttime.  Christmas is a hectic time – especially for those of us who, like me, are just arriving home from studying or working abroad – and it can do a lot more good than you’d think to take a moment to sit down.  Listen to some music.  Drink a cup of tea.

Because my personal opinion is that it is better to realize this yourself, before some metaphysical being bludgeons you with fifteen pounds of metal.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all those who stumble upon this essay!

The Big Bad Travel Story

16 Dec
The face of an entire trip.  photocred: Katherine Black

The face that launched a thousand misfortunes. photocred: Katherine Black

Let’s be frank with each other: we all have a Bad Travel Story.  You know what I’m talking about – the I-was-stuck-in-the-airport-for-48-hours, got-malaria-and-was-in-critical-care, had-my-everything-stolen-by-gypsy-children kind of story.  The one one you take turns telling on Thanksgiving, or the one you have on reserve to impress people at parties.  I have never been particularly patient with Bad Travel Stories, since it seems like most people exaggerate them (“and then we were attacked by a hoard of ravenous dingos!”) or are being a teeny bit whiny (“and then we realized that our hotel room didn’t have a private espresso machine!”).  However, after one of my more recent travel experiences, I not only have a Bad Travel Story of my own, but came away from it with some surprising conclusions.

My friend Katherine and I had been looking for a weekend getaway: something smaller and more picturesque than Valencia, maybe colder and more autumnal.  We chose Cuenca, a town an hour outside of Valencia by high-speed train.  Nestled on a steep hill, with its famous casas colgadas (hanging houses) clinging to its edges, Cuenca is one of Spain’s national heritage sites.  But el día de todos los santos, a Spanish holiday on November 1st when most Spaniards go back to whatever pueblo they’re from to visit their families, meant that all the hotels were booked.  Our only option?  Rent an apartment for the weekend.  And why not, we figured?  The apartment company had okay ratings on bookings.com.  What could go wrong?

There was, of course, a good deal that went wrong.

Perhaps thinking that we were lesbians because we attempted to book an apartment with one bed, the company ‘upgraded’ us to another apartment.  Except they conveniently forgot to tell us where it was.  Also that the front door didn’t open without kicking it.  Also that there was no heat or hot water.  (And may I add that it was about 30 degrees in Cuenca that night?)  But, to our great good fortune, we happened to ask a particularly helpful local for directions.

“Eh?  Rincón de Malu?” he said, scratching his thick, white beard.  “Don’t know where that is.”  And before we could stop him, he had banged on all the doors in the vicinity.  “Hey!  Anyone know where Rincón de Malu is?”

A woman in curlers stuck her head out the window.  “Nearby.”

Another woman, this one clutching an icon of the Virgin Mary, said, “The next street over.  I’ll help you with the door.”

Katherine and I spent the evening cuddling and watching the first Harry Potter movie in Spanish.  We slept in the same bed anyway, piling all the blankets from both beds together to keep warm.  (Take that, homophobic rental company.)

The next morning, I was awoken by the rental company calling.  “Your debit card number didn’t work,” said the woman on the other end.  “Give it to us again.”

I blinked, groggy.  “Um.  Only if you cancel our other two nights here.”

“Give it to me or I’m calling the police.”

I shot out of bed.  “Woah.  Okay.  That is not necessary.”

Despite everything, Cuenca was...actually really pretty.  photocred: Katherine Black

Despite everything, Cuenca was…actually really pretty. photocred: Katherine Black

From her rapid Spanish, I gleaned that she’d give us our money back if we left by 9:00.  It was 8:50.  We threw our clothes in our suitcases and dragged them up the narrow, cobbled streets of Cuenca to the bar where we’d been promised free breakfast.  There was, of course, no record of this when we arrived.

“That’s okay, though!  You’re wearing a Valencia soccer club scarf.  Have some toast!” said the restaurant’s owner.  And he plunked two plates of bread in front of us, chattering as we pulled out my laptop and bought new return tickets to Valencia for that night.

“You all want to leave your luggage here?” he asked.  We nodded, grateful, and he whisked it away to a back room filled with entire legs of jamón.  From there, we left to take advantage of our one day of sightseeing.  We went to the Cuenca cathedral, filled with gorgeous panes of modern stained glass.  We walked down trails lined with fallen autumn leaves.  We visited the modern art museum and pondered what a clump of steel wool glued to a canvas meant.  (Our favorite work of art: a square canvas, covered entirely in gray paint, entitled “Gray Square.”  Changed our way of looking at the world.)  Then we picked up our bags from our cheery friend the restaurant owner and headed back to the train station.

However, because this was November 1st, there was no one there to print our tickets.  We climbed onto the train anyway, exhausted.  When the ticket-checker came by, we explained our situation.

“Just give me your names and I’ll call the operations center,” he said.

“Elizabeth.”

“Eli – what?”

“It’s not a Spanish name,”  I said.  “E.  Liz.  A.  Beth.”

He looked at me balefully.  “Why couldn’t you have been named María?”

“I…don’t know?”

“You know what?”he said, shaking his head.  “Just stay.”  And we slumped back in our seats, relieved.

But, to put the proverbial cherry on top of our sundae of misfortunes, the train pulled up short an hour outside of Valencia.  There was, we learned, a train strike.  We were shunted onto the metro system instead.  Katherine and I wandered, lost, until two men (they introduced themselves as Juan the Valencian and Gonzalo the Colombian) kindly took us to the right stop.  The next metro didn’t come for an hour, so we sat on top of our suitcases, trading jokes in Spanglish.  Gonzalo gave us cookies.  When the metro came, they both kissed us on the cheek and wished us safe travels.

Katherine and I still haven’t gotten our money back.  We probably never will.  But what we do have is a swell Bad Travel Story, even more unique because we chanced to meet so many generous people.  And we also learned that a) life tends to turn out okay (as long as you take the advice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and DON’T PANIC), b) we love the smell of police threats in the morning, and c) wearing a Valencian soccer club scarf will make you friends everywhere you go.

“Did you at least have a good time?” my host mother asked when I got home at 1:00 A.M. that night.

“Did I ever,” I said, and fell asleep in my chair.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.  photocred: Katherine Black

What’s the Difference between a Spanish Latte and an American One? More than You’d Think

12 Dec

latte

For the most part, American stores and restaurants aren’t common in Valencia.  You’re more likely to see a hole-in-the-wall cafe, its display cases filled with Spanish tortilla and jamon-covered bocadillos and its espresso machine hissing behind the bar, than a Panera.  If you’re looking for clothes, you’ll stumble upon 15 Zaras, Mangos, and Sferas before you find the Lacoste boutique.  However, lining the fashionable streets of Gran Vía del Marqués de Turia and Calle Colón are a few businesses that both Spaniards and Americans love to hate and love to eat at: Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Starbucks has three locations in Valencia, both with the name emblazoned on its storefronts in familiar, green lettering.  At first glance, Starbucks seems to be much like its American counterpart.  Jazzy Christmas music fills the air, warm-toned prints cover the walls, and deceptively plush-looking couches surround a collection of tables where Valencians meet for interviews or a casual cup of coffee.  However, apply a keener eye to the store and you’ll notice the differences.  The Wi-Fi, for example, is password-protected, and only available for 45-minute intervals.  Spanish Starbucks guard their internet connection like Smaug squatting on his hoard, as if afraid that someone might steal the whole Internet when the employees have their backs turned. The bathroom is similarly protected.  A number pad, its code only available if you’ve bought a drink, keeps the facilities perpetually locked.  Behind the cash register is a sign that reads, “Beware of your personal items.  Professional pickpockets operate in this zone.”  In my mind, this converts Starbucks into a shifty back alley: every gaggle of teenage Spaniards, laughing and sipping their chai lattes, is waiting to steal the iPod out of my pocket and the scarf off my neck.  I wonder if the pickpockets are waiting to jump out from under the armchairs or tackle me from behind glossy displays of Kenyan dark roast.  (Maybe they all got locked in the bathroom?*)

*MAJOR NOTE OF SADNESS AND CAUTION: As some of you may have already heard, my iPod was stolen off a table at Starbucks a few days ago when I turned around for all of three seconds to grab my drink.  Irony is a cruel, cruel bitch.  Bottom line: like Luke discovering that the Force was inside him all along, I discovered that the pickpockets were, in fact, with me.  All.  Along.

Also, unless you specifically ask for your drink to go, the baristas will give it to you in a white mug, froth almost spilling over the sides.  This, in my opinion, is an excellent idea – it cuts down on waste and makes you feel a touch classier.  Though the menu is smaller, the drinks are generally better-made.  Teas are steaming, flavorful, and made with milk, even for cups of non-chai.  Cappuccinos come with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.  Instead of bagels, cake pops, and pretzels, the food options include croissants, toast with tomatoes and olive oil, and camembert-and-turkey sandwiches on ciabatta.

Despite what it may sound like, I do not go to Starbucks that often.  In fact, I go mostly because it’s a reliable source of central heating (something which my apartment in Barrio Ruzafa lacks).  This, I admit, is still sad: imagine me curled catlike in a chair, greedily using every single second of my 45-minute Internet allotment, sucking in the heat as fast as I’m sucking in my caramel macchiato.  Living in Valencia has turned me into a sunflower.  I look for patches of heat and light (and coffee).

A Valencian McDonald’s.

The McDonald’s on Calle Ruzafa takes up two stories and most of the street outside.  Although most Spaniards I’ve met seem to think that McDonald’s is the font of all American obesity (more of them than you’d imagine have seen Supersize Me), they still, in the way of Regina George hating on Gretchen Weiner’s hoop earrings so she can wear her own, consider their own McDonald’s a trendy place to sit down for dinner.  In a supreme rejection of the phrase ‘fast food,’ they treat their Happy Meals like gourmet burgers, taking up to an hour to leisurely slurp down their Cokes and polish off their McChickens.  Weird but true: as ketchup is, to them, a symbol of American excess, they tend to eat their fries naked.

Yeah, I had a hard time believing that McDonald’s could produce something this appetizing, too.

European McDonald’s often have an even classier aspect to them: the McCafe.  Imagine finding a dress without any cheap sequins or fraying pleather in the dizzying loads of clothes at Forever 21.  This is the McCafe.  It’s filled with assorted flavors of macarons (my favorites so far have been pistachio, raspberry, and cappuccino), cream-stuffed pastries, and surprisingly delicious cups of cafe con leche.  If it weren’t for the ‘Mc’ appended to the name of every menu item, you could almost forget you were at a McDonald’s at all.

Although it isn’t a matter of preference, comparing the habits of one country to another when their citizens are occupying the same business space can tell a lot about that country’s underlying culture.  James Watson’s book “Golden Arches East” explored consumer behavior in Asian McDonald’s from an anthropological standpoint and found some significant differences between the way citizens of Beijing eat a hamburger and the way Americans do.  The same idea can be applied to Spanish McDonald’s and Starbucks.  In general, the things I’ve noticed reflect pretty significant differences between the way Spaniards and Americans treat the act of eating.

I have to admit – when I come back to the States next week, I’ll miss my creamy McFlurries and hazelnut hot chocolate.  But at this point – call me a consumer whore – I’d give up a hundred bocadillos for one pumpkin spice latte.

Babel

2 Dec

iss

This past summer, I wrote a few pieces of short fiction for the Library of Virginia´s Dark Side contest (one of which ended up nabbing second place and winning me, among other library knickknacks, a snazzy Walt Whitman-scented candle – whatever that means). I´d forgotten about the rest of the entries I wrote until my literature professor here in Valencia asked us to write a piece of science fiction with a female narrator.  As this fit the bill perfectly, I thought I´d try my hand at some translation.  Below is the story in both English and Spanish.

English

It’s shifts like this one where I’d trade every last cigarette from my ration pack for a scoop of ice cream that isn’t freeze-dried, or a green skirt instead of my uniform jumpsuits, or a window that doesn’t look out on stars and nebulas pinwheeling past. Shifts that go for eleven hours, from the moment I roll out of my bunk in the American quarters until I head back for a protein bar and a few minutes of quiet. Shifts where my fingers burn from manipulating keys and wires like it’s some kind of game.

“Talia.” I don’t look. There’s a crick in my neck from staring at one of the maintenance boards for the main solar panel array. “Hey. Talia. You hear me? Look alive.” It’s Ramirez’s voice, the young Texan with big ears who got here two weeks ago. He still has that sturdy glow of someone who’s come from Earth not long ago.

“What do you need, Ramirez?”

“Pass me your set of pliers, would you?”

“Yeah, sure.” I give him the worn set we share among our crew of six.

He touches me on the shoulder. “Only half an hour left until we’ve finished our daytime.”

“Yeah, maybe. We need this repaired if we want to keep the toilets flushing.” I wonder when the stale air and sterile walls of the ISS will grind down his smile, the light in his eyes.

It only takes forty-five minutes past the end of our day cycle for us to completely rework the wiring. “Not so bad,” says Xiao, listlessly flipping her black ponytail over her shoulder as we pack our toolkits. “We’ll be able to shower for another week, at least. Come on, let’s check out the news.” Our wrists ache as the six of us – Ramirez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, and me – walk single-file through the narrow halls. We pass a woman with the Japanese flag on her uniform, two whispering Brazilians, a gaggle of Spaniards. We only nod to the Japanese woman. President Adamson is in diplomatic talks with the Japanese prime minister right now, so we can afford to be friendly.

The rec room is filled with the tang of sweat and the babble of five different vidscreens. There are people eating packets of rehydrated kung pao chicken and playing cards, but most are watching the screens. I see images of tanks and soldiers and men in suits flash by in the dizzying tango of a news report.

“It’s the Israeli-Egyptian border this time,” Swenson, one of our astrophysicists, tells me as I slide onto a chair. “The Egyptians have surrounded it. Their president says he needs proof that they don’t have neutron bombs.”

“Are we involved yet?”

“Adamson hasn’t commented.”

“Just doesn’t want to hurt his chances in the 2052 election,” mutters Xiao.

“The Egyptians are using this as an excuse,” says Arsenault in his guttural English, puffing on a smokeless cigar. We’ve been on good terms with the French lately, so Arsenault and the rest of his crew are sitting near the American table. I look around and notice that the Egyptians aren’t here. The Israelis are huddled in a corner, fingers clenched, brows together. I remember what my superior told me when I made it into the ISS Bridging Borders program a year ago: You’ll be representing the United States, okay, Gardner? So you’ll act like every single person up there is your brother or sister, even if their higher-ups are trying to beat the crap out of ours planetside. Easy in theory. Not so much in practice.

“Hey,” says Xiao, whipping a deck of cards out of her uniform pocket. “Anyone up for a game of blackjack before night cycle?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“What’ll we bet?” asks Ramirez.

The idea is in my head before I can stop it. “Our comm minutes. If you go bust, you give them up.”

“But…” Swenson blanches. “We only get fifteen this week-”

“So don’t play,” I say, grabbing the deck from Xiao and shuffling. A perk of being one of the best mechanical engineers in the world is the ability to riffle a deck better than a Vegas card shark. Swenson’s eyes go hooded, like a snake’s, and she sits back down. I deal out two cards to her, Xiao, Ramirez, Koerner, Arsenault, and myself. “Remember. Over twenty-one and you’re as good as spaced. Xiao? Hit or stay?”

“Hit me,” she says, her fingers restlessly twining in her hair, her gaze glued to the vidscreen. I send a card shooting across the table.

“Koerner?”

“Hit, captain.”

“Swenson?”

“Stay.”

Their voices weave themselves into the hum of the news report. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. I think of those extra minutes blinking on my comm, of my mother’s tinny voice, piped in from Virginia. Of Cassie’s low, animal-like cooing. Sometimes I think I am forgetting the way it feels to tug a brush through my daughter’s hair. I don’t know how tall she is anymore. We need you, my superior said when I asked for leave. It’s a mess down here, but up there? You guys might be doing something good.

“Bust,” says Xiao three rounds later, leaving only Arsenault and me still in the game. He has three cards face-down and one, a jack, face-up. I stare at him. His lips are pursed like an old woman’s.

“Stay,” he says, not shifting.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

I have a six face-up, a three, four, and seven face-down. Twenty. With four cards and one a face card, he has to be at twenty-one. Or twenty, and dealer loses a tie.

“Hit,” I say, and deal myself another card, fingers twitching for an ace. Arsenault watches, stone-faced, as I turn it over. It’s a seven.

“Well?” he says.

This just in, blare the screens. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

“Your game,” I say, and get up to leave.

Spanish

Estos son el tipo de turno cuando intercambiaría mi último cigarrillo de mi paquete de raciones por una bola de helado que no se deshidrate, o una falda verde en el lugar de mi uniforme de mono, o una ventana que no mire a las estrellas y nébulas como molinillos. Turnos que duran once horas, desde el momento en que me despierto en dormitorio americano hasta que yo vuelvo para una tableta de proteína y unos minutos de silencio. Turnos en que me duelen los dedos a causa de manipular las cuerdas y los cables como si fuera un tipo de juego.

-Talia.- No miro al hablador. Tengo tortícolis a de quedarme mirando al tablón de mantenimiento que controla los paneles solares. -Ey. Talia. ¿Puedes oírme? ¿Estás viva?- Es la voz de Ramírez, el joven tejano con orejas grandes que llegó aquí hace dos semanas. Todavía tiene el buen color de alguien que no hace mucho tiempo que ha llegado de la Tierra.

-¿Qué necesitas, Ramírez?-

-Pásame unos alicates, por favor?-

-Sí, claro.- Le doy los alicates que compartimos entre nuestro equipo de seis personas.

Me toca el hombro. -Solo media hora hasta que hayamos terminado con nuestro ciclo de día.-

-Quizás. Tenemos que reparar esto si queremos tirar de la cadena.- Me pregunto cuándo el aire viciado y paredes estériles de la estación ISS hará añicos de él.

Cuesta cuarenta y cinco minutos después del fin oficial de nuestro ciclo de día para revisar completamente la instalación eléctrica. -Bien,- dice Xiao, lanzando su colita negra sobre el hombro mientras arreglamos nuestras cajas de herramientas. -Podemos ducharnos por otra semana, por lo menos. Vamos, vemos las noticias.- Nos duelen las muñecas mientras nosotros – Ramírez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, y yo – caminamos uno tras otro a través de los pasillos estrechos. Nos cruzamos con una mujer con la bandera japonesa en su uniforme, dos brasileños cuchicheando, y una bandada de españoles. Solamente saludamos con la cabeza a la mujer japonesa. El presidente Adamson está en conversaciones con el primer ministro japonés, así que podemos ser amables.

La sala de recreo está llena del olor penetrante del sudor y el parloteo de cinco pantallas. Hay gente comiendo paquetes de pollo kung-pao rehidratado y jugando a los naipes, pero la mayoría están mirando las pantallas. Veo imágenes de tanques y soldados y hombres vestidos en trajes pasando a toda velocidad en el tango mareado de las noticias.

-Es la frontera entre Israel y Egipto esta vez,- me dice Swenson, una de nuestros astrofísicos, mientras me sento. -Los egipcios la tienen rodeada. Su presidente dice que necesita una prueba que de no haya bombas de neutrinos.-

-¿Estamos entrañados ya?

-Adamson está sin comentarios.-

-Él no quiere hacer daño a su casualidad en las elecciones de 2052,- murmura Xiao.

-Los egipcios están usando eso como excusa,- dice Arsenault en su inglés gutural, dando pitadas a un cigarrillo eléctrico. Nos hemos llevado bien con los franceses recientemente, así que Arsenault y el resto de su equipo se sientan cerca de la mesa americana. Miro alrededor y me doy cuenta deque los egipcios no están. Los israelíes se acurrucan en un rincón, los dedos apretados, las cejas de punto. Recuerdo lo que mi superior me dijo hace un año, cuando ganó la entrada al programa de ‘ISS Bridging Borders.’ Representarás a los Estados Unidos, vale, Gardner? Entonces vas a actuar como si cada persona fuera tu hermano, aunque sus superiores estén tratando de dar una paliza a nosotros en la Tierra. Fácil, teóricamente. En la práctica, no lo es.

-Oye,- dice Xiao, cogiendo una baraja de cartas del bolsillo de su uniforme. -¿Alguien quiere jugar la veintiuna antes del ciclo de noche?-

Me encojo de hombros. -¿Por qué no?-

-¿Qué tipo de apuesta?- dice Ramírez.

La idea está en mi mente antes de que pueda detenerla. -Nuestros minutos de móvil. Si alguien quiebra, renunciará a los minutos.-

-Pero…- Swenson se pone pálida. -Recibimos solo quince minutos esta semana…-

-Entonces no juegues,- digo, cogiendo las cartas de Xiao y barajándolas. Una ventaja extra de ser una de los mejores ingenieros mecánicos del mundo es la habilidad de hojear una baraja mejor que un tahúr de Las Vegas. Los ojos de Swenson están encapuchados ahora, como los de una serpiente, y se sienta. –Recordad. Más de veintiuno y estáis muertos. ¿Xiao? ¿Doblas o no?-

-Doblo,- dice, los dedos entrelazándose nerviosamente, su mirada fijada a las pantallas. Le tiro una carta a ella sobre la mesa.

-¿Koerner?-

-Doblo, capitana.-

-¿Swenson?-

-No voy a doblar.-

Sus voces se mezclan con el zumbido de las noticias. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. Pienso en los minutos extras parpadeando en mi móvil, en la voz metálica de mi madre, que está en Virginia. En el arrullo bajo de Cassie. A veces creo que me olvido como me sentía cuando cepillaba el pelo de mi hija. Ahora, no sé su altura, exactamente. Te necesitamos, me dijo mi superior cuando pedí permiso para estar con mi familia. Aquí todo es un lío, pero ¿allá arriba? Es posible que hagáis algo bueno.

-He perdido,- dice Xiao después de tres rondas. Nos quedamos yo y Arsenault en el juego. Él tiene tres cartas boca abajo y una, la sota, boca arriba. Miro fijamente a él. Frunce los labios como los de una anciana.

-No voy a doblar,- dice.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

Tengo un seis boca arriba y un tres, un cuatro, y un siete boca abajo. Veinte. Con cuatro cartas y una boca abajo, tiene que tener veintiuno. O veinte, y el repartidor pierde un empate.

-Doblo,- digo, y me doy otra carta, los dedos esperando un as. Arsenault me mira, con la cara como piedra, mientras la pongo boca arriba. Es un siete.

-¿Y qué?- dice.

This just in, retumban las pantallas. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

-Has ganado,- digo, y me pongo de pie para irme.

Obviously, I´m pretty new at this translation business, so if you have any suggestions or ideas for me, don´t hesitate to let me know.  I´d love to hear from any Spanish-speakers about how this piece sounds!  In addition, thanks to Jesús, my superguay professor, for helping me translate.