Kiefer was still holding my hand, squeezing a little too hard, but it was dark and he seemed to know where he was going, so I didn’t complain. “Almost there,” he whispered. “Portuguese wine and cheese biscuits, coming right up.” He turned left abruptly, and I stumbled into one of the crumbling stone walls lining the alley. Something wet and furry brushed against my ankle and I squealed. “It’s just a rat,” he shrugged. “No worries, here’s the door.”
I pulled up short in front of a dark, wooden archway. The door itself was hidden in shadow, and dark shutters covered the windows. I’d only been on the Camino for a few days, so I was hardly an expert, but this didn’t look like any hostel I’d seen so far.
“Are they open?” I didn’t see any light inside, and I was starting to remember that I’d just met Kiefer 8 hours and 6 beers ago. What was his last name? I fuzzily searched my brain. Sutherland! His name is Sutherland, I thought, relieved to have recovered this small bit of information. Kiefer Sutherland. No, wait a minute, that’s the actor –
The door gaped open quickly, although I didn’t see him knock, and we were pulled inside, swept up in a burst of loud, banging music and drunken laughter. I could smell some kind of lovely meat cooking, and the fruity scent of port, and after 10 hours walking, I didn’t care if we were in a whorehouse, as long as I could sit down and eat. I sank into a leather banquette in the bar, groaning with the relief of being off my feet. Kiefer disappeared into the crowd, reappearing shortly with cold ham, cheese, grapes, biscuits and – thank God – a bottle of white port. Honestly, I could have just kissed his pink little face.
“They’ve got roast meat and potatoes,” he said as he poured the wine. “It’s coming.” He touched my cheek, brushing his thumb across my lower lip.
He was a bit younger than me, and a much heavier drinker (which is quite an accomplishment, actually) and a little snobby about being a “real” pilgrim. As opposed to us fake pilgrims, who carried light daypacks during the walk, and paid for luggage transfer service. His slightly superior attitude wasn’t the problem.
No, the real problem with getting to yes – the only problem – was that he was on a true spiritual quest. He was seeking God, while I was seeking locally brewed ale. He was German-Irish, with pale, bluish eyes and a large, expensive rucksack containing his sleeping bag, his water bottle, extra socks and 2 bottles of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.
He poured me another glass of wine. The techno-beat, glass and chrome interior stood in stark contrast to the scarred wooden plank floors and medieval stone fireplace.
I smiled and leaned away from his touch.
“Ah,” he said. “Maybe you don’t sleep with white men.” He found Americans amusing in general, and black Americans particularly hard to please. (He’d met exactly six of us in his lifetime – black ones, I mean – so he considered himself an expert.)
“I don’t sleep with priests,” I corrected him. He was Episcopalian, though, not Catholic, so he was allowed to get married. Was he also allowed to have random sex on the Camino? Was the Episcopalian Church so amenable? I made a mental note to Google this later.
Despite my hesitation, I had enjoyed his company all day. He told me silly stories about Ireland and Scotland, and stopped me from taking a wrong turn more than once. His hiking boots were covered with Bible verses written in red ink for some reason which escaped me, and he’d chased off a flock of chickens that seemed a bit too keen on pecking my boots.
And I did love his name –Kiefer – because it made me think of the television show 24 with Kiefer Sutherland, which always reminded me of that boyfriend I had who loved that show. What was his name?
Anyway – Kiefer kissed me.
Just leaned over and pressed his mouth against mine. His skin was warm from our day in the sun, and he smelled like the forest and the vineyards and the wine we’d been drinking. Maybe, I was thinking. Maybe …
Moments later, the roast meat arrived on a piping hot plate. The reason I know it was hot is that the waitress burned herself.
On her breast.
Which was naked.
Like the rest of her.
“Oh!” She clasped her hand to the little burn, but was undeterred. “I am Virginal Mary. I am serving you,” she said to Kiefer, and then smiled at me. “Both of you. I have walked the Camino myself. It is a walk for God, yes?” She leaned back against the empty chair, lifted one leg, and gave us a truly impressive view of her … um … spirituality.
Kiefer silently appraised her holiness, and turned back to me with glittering eyes. “What do you think, little one?” He sipped his port calmly.
The music suddenly lurched from techno to Beyonce.
“Ah, I don’t think –” I managed to choke out, thinking furiously and wolfing down my entrée. Naked servers. As I glanced around the dimly lit room, I saw that our bare booty bunny wasn’t the only one. And that many other … diners … were availing themselves of the a la carte services.
I thought about my poor swollen ankles, and the likelihood of getting them to walk out of this place in search of an actual hostel.
I thought about my luggage, and where it might possibly be, considering that this place was surely not on my itinerary.
I thought about my dead phone battery and my last clean shirt, both stuffed somewhere in my backpack on the floor.
I thought about those old American Express card commercials from the 1970’s. Things like this never happened to Karl Malden.
Kiefer watched the expressions rush across my face until I finally settled on a variation of transcendental acceptance. “Let us find a quiet place to ourselves,” he said, scooping up our backpacks. I trailed along behind him, my legs now stiff and screaming, but fortified with excellent port. I wasn’t afraid, although perhaps I should have been. I knew where I was, generally speaking; I was near the city of Valenca, not far from the River Minho. I knew it wasn’t safe to be out and lost in the middle of the night.
I thought I could probably kill a man if I had to. I knew my brother, the lawyer, would be on the next plane if I did.
Outside, I could hear thunder as the clouds finally unleashed a downpour, and the decision to stay was made. I believe the Universe always knows what it’s doing, don’t I? A little late now to be doubting the Quantum Dude.
The door to Room 16 was painted a deep, mossy green and even in my state of anxiety I found that amusing. “Behind the green door, indeed,” I said under my breath, and he pushed me inside, not unkindly. One of the bare booty bunnies – not our Virginal Mary – came up behind us but he said something to her quietly in Portuguese and she backed out into the hall.
“Tranque a porta para a noite, por favor,” he said, and I heard the key turn in the lock from the outside. I snatched up my pack and ran for the loo, deciding very logically that I at least deserved a hot bath. Besides, there had to be a dozen Ambiens somewhere in my cosmetic kit. Easy to pulverize.
There were two beds in the room but Kiefer climbed into mine, wearing his undershorts but nothing else. He had a half-empty bottle of Jameson’s, two plastic cups and a lukewarm Coke.
“Let’s have another drink,” I whispered.
“One more,” he agreed, reaching for the bottle.
“Oh let me,” I said. “You just relax.”
He groaned in gratitude, knocked back the whiskey and Coke I gave him in one gulp, and rolled over.
“Tastes funny,” he mumbled into the pillow.
“I know,” I said brightly. “I couldn’t decide if 4 Ambiens would be enough, or if I should give you all of them. Twelve might kill you. Know what I mean?”
“Wha?” He tried to lift his head. “Walerfph?”
“Then you have factor in the alcohol,” I waved my hand at the details. “You’ve had a lot to drink, but you’re a pretty big guy. You’ve clearly got above average tolerance. I’m no chemist, but I think 4 was a good compromise.”
“Blarghhh,” he rattled. “Bleurffff!”
“I know, right?” I nodded. “There’s a lot of variables!” And let’s face it — I’m not the most detail-oriented person. A detail-oriented person would be snuggling down in her hostel bunk right now, hoping her just-washed socks would be dry by morning. A detail-oriented person would have an extra battery for her phone and a sling shot for those chickens and …
He squirmed around for a few more minutes, but I stroked his hair and talked nonsense to him as if he were a child. Finally he settled into sleep. Breathing, but not moving.
I checked the green door first, but as I thought, it was locked from the outside. I searched my pack in vain for my phone charger, but it was nowhere to be found. I must have left it at the last hostel.
I got completely dressed, laced up my boots and waited for the first sliver of light to come through the shutters.
Luckily, I didn’t have to break the window; the casement gave way with barely a grunt. It was a short drop to the street; I knew we were on the first floor of an old building. I could hear traffic in the distance, and I turned toward it, walking briskly. I was sure I could find a cafe on a big enough street, and after coffee, my brain would kick in. Surely someone could direct me back to the yellow arrows of the Camino.
I was facing a long walk today to Porrino, Spain. I’d seen that International Bridge – stared at it in horror – and I was positive I’d need the help of St. James and all my Xanax to make it across. Luckily I had the pills in my lightweight, not-a-serious-pilgrim, glow-in-the-dark daypack. Plus a brand new, unopened bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.