Chapter 1
 
     April night in Milan.  White curtains blow inward, bringing in the smell of rain.   Cars splash through puddles on the cobblestone street outside, while we sit around a coffee table in the living room.  Cigarette smoke curls up to the chandelier.  I look at the empty wine bottles on the table, then reach for a bottle of grappa.
     Our hostess is talking with David, the friend I’m visiting.  I love David.  In a hug-with-a-pat-on-the-back-without-hips-touching-because-we’re-straight sort of way.  During college, we would spend endless hours in his dorm room, Calder and Miro prints on the walls, listening to his worn collection of Coltrane albums, drinking the latest wine he’d found, while his neighbors blasted Nirvana and had keg parties.
     After college, most of my friends ended up working for tech companies but David, being David, took it up a notch.  He found a startup in Italy, moved here, enrolled in language lessons, and when he isn’t busy working or counting his stock options, he drinks grappa with beautiful women.  I like the way he does things.
     I refill my glass, take a sip, lean back in the chair.  Eyes close, head spins.  Our hostess, whose smile I was so struck by that I promptly forgot her name seconds after meeting her, is talking about her Spanish history class, about walking west, something about a pilgrimage.  She is speaking in English for my benefit.  Listening to her, I remember calling a friend in New York, asking for a ride to the airport, saying that I was leaving to take my father’s ashes to the Ganges.  “A pilgrimage of sorts,” he’d said.  At the time, the comment had annoyed me.  “More of a duty,” I’d replied.  But after having been in Milan for two weeks and feeling the need to move again, an idea starts to grow.
     I open my eyes and look at hers.  They are a soft green, slanted like a cat.  All night I’ve been trying not to lose myself in them.  I’m failing miserably.
     She stubs her cigarette into the ashtray, taps another out from a pack.  As she puts it to her lips, I grab David’s lighter off the table, almost knocking the bottles over, flick it, and hold the flame under the cigarette.  She takes a drag and smoothes her skirt.  Her calves are tanned and muscular under the lights. 
     “My grandmother made that,” she says, exhaling slowly.  “The grappa, it is her specialty.”
     “And God bless her,” I say.
     I smile.  She smiles back.  We sit, her smoking, me trying to maintain my smile, feeling like I should say something to move the conversation forward. 
     “I think I’ll go check out Spain.”
     David reaches over, uncaps the bottle, pours himself a glass.  He takes a sip and winces.  “Spain?” he says.     “What’s in Spain?”
     “Bullfights, flamenco.  That pilgrimage you two were talking about.” 
     “Bravo,” our hostess says.  “I have always wanted to make the pilgrimage.  I wish I can come.”
     “You can,” I say, my voice cracking.  I clear my throat, try again.  “You can come.  I wouldn’t mind.”
     “I must finish my classes.  But you will go, yes?”
     David slides the bottle over.  “And since when did you become religious?”
     He’s been generous, letting me stay with him in his tiny apartment, picking up my tab.  But after these months of movement, it’s hard to be still.  I need open spaces.
     “Good news,” I say, “you might get your apartment back.”  I turn to our hostess.  “How long does it take anyway, this pilgrimage thing?”
     She thinks for a moment.  “Seven days.  Yes, seven, I am sure of it.”
     “Perfect.”  I raise my empty glass to David.  “I’ll be back before you even miss me.”
     He grins.  He’s known me too long to let me off easy.  “And you speak Spanish?”
     “I took a semester in college when—”
     “I was there,” he says.  “Freshman year, remember?  You barely ever showed up.”
     I ignore him and smile at our hostess.
     “I think it is a beautiful idea,” she says.  “When you return, you will come for dinner and I will cook rabbit.”
     “Does it have a name,” I ask.  “The pilgrimage, I mean.”
     “The road to Santiago,” she says.  “El Camino de Santiago.”
     She gathers the bottles and goes to the kitchen.  Watching her, I have a strong feeling that Columbus must have been trying to impress a woman when he came up with the idea for his little sailing trip.  Either that or he was drunk.  Maybe both.
     I stand up and walk to the window.  The breeze whips the curtains around.  Outside, the street is wet and shiny.  A scooter passes by, the light from its headlamp bouncing off the walls, and then, except for the occasional sound of thunder, it is quiet.  Another day over, a new one waiting in the folds.  The thought alone is enough to sober me up.
     I close my eyes and feel the cool, damp air brush my eyelids, my face.  Two weeks ago, I was in India.  Two months before that, New York, and now I’m in Italy, thinking of going to Spain. 
     The night before I left New Delhi, my aunt sat me down on the bed beside her, stroked my hair and said, “You should move on with your life, Amit.  Get a good job, marry a nice girl.”  Of course I wanted to move on.  But she wasn’t the one who, when he shut his eyes, could still remember waking up in the middle of the night, a little boy, seeing the shadow of his father’s arm on the wall, the shadow of his mother falling, pleading for her husband to stop, the sound of a slap to the face, his voice hoarse and shouting, and all that time, the little boy pulling the sheets close, wanting to scream and protect his mother but staying quiet, knowing that if he didn’t, his father’s attention would turn to him.  Then the lights would go off, things would grow quiet, and his mother would crawl into bed, sobbing, hold him tight, and rock him to sleep.
     I open my eyes.  I’m tired of this aimless wandering.  Traveling though India, I was just as confused when I finished as when I started.  But walking with a fixed starting and ending point in a country with no family ties, no friends, or claims on my history, I like the sound of that. 
     “Here buddy.”  David steps to my side, hands me a glass of wine, then sticks his head out the window.  His stomach spreads slightly out on the sill, the effects of rich living.  He says something but I can’t make it out. 
     “What?”
     “She’s got a boyfriend,” he says, louder.  “He’s a model, nicest guy, too.”
     I shrug.   It was just harmless fun.  “Makes no difference since I’m taken, sort of.”
     A faint scent of espresso drifts from the kitchen.  David pulls his head in.
     “Speaking of,” he says, “how’s the girlfriend?”
     “You know I’m not good at the boyfriend girlfriend thing.”
     “Just the living together thing?”
     David’s hair started receding in college and is now in full retreat.  He met Sue last time he was in New York, and when she complimented his Euro-chic hairstyle, he wanted me to marry her on the spot.
     “It was just a month,” I say, “when I got laid off.  You know, save money.”
     He laughs, more of a giggle.  “Right, you and commitment.”
     The problem with close friends, they know which buttons to push.
     “She’s got ten weddings to go to this summer, David.  Ten!  And her sister just had another baby.  She’s got that when-is-it-my-turn look.  I’m wasting her time.”
     “She’s sweet,” he says, “she’s been good for you.” 
      “Right now, she’s an ocean away.”
     “Easy to fix.”
     Each night, in bed, I can’t help but think about her.  Often, in an aching way.  I miss how she slept next to me, her hands pulled close to her face, breathing softly.  Sometimes I’d wake up to find her watching me.  She would smile and say, “you sleep so quiet, like a baby,” and then she would softly kiss my forehead, my cheekbones, my eyes, my lips.  Finished, she would snuggle in and put her head on my chest.  I’d hold her tight and we’d fall asleep.
     But the life waiting for me back home doesn’t exactly excite me.  Almost broke, no job prospects besides an offer from a pharma company, crunching clinical trial data on drugs that could cure one problem but give you several new ones in return, working nine to five in cubicle land.  Two hour commute each day, hour in the gym, go home, grab dinner, watch TV, go to bed.  Wake up, lather, repeat.
     When I got laid off from my job as a pharmaceutical rep, my boss called me into his office, had me sit across from him, and turned the monitor on his desk sideways so I could see it clearly.  He tapped on the keyboard and pulled up a powerpoint deck.  For over five minutes, I watched a presentation on corporate restructuring and budget cutbacks until we reached the slide with names of employees being let go as part of the process.  My name was on that list. 
     My boss leaned back in his chair, put his fingertips together, and said something that surprised me: “This could be good for you.”  He had four grown children and gave advice every chance he got.  But this one had me stumped.  I’d practically cleaned out my bank account the week before to pay off my largest student loan.
     “How?” I’d asked, “you’re going to give me an embarrassingly large severance?”
     “Watch,” he said, pulling up an empty white slide.  A circle slowly grew on the left half of the screen.  Inside, in bold, the letter “A.”  Another circle appeared, this one to the right.  Inside, in bold, the letter “B.”  He stopped the presentation.  “Circle A is what happens.  Case in point, you just lost a job, but Circle B is what you make of it.  That’s the important one.”  He leaned forward.  “You’ve never loved pushing pills, really, you should be thanking me.”
     I jabbed circle A on the monitor.  “How big is my severance here?”
     “Two weeks.”  He saw the look on my face.  “Pay attention to this: things happen, but it’s B that makes your life.  What you do with what happens.” 
     I went home, sulked for a few days, but eventually decided that if I hadn’t been laid off, I would have stayed with that predictable, safe job and been miserable.  I had to look at this as an opportunity and use it. 
     I was spending enough time at Sue’s place, so we decided I should move in until I could figure out what to do.  While job hunting, I started volunteering at a hospital and as a production assistant on a friend’s independent film, two possible career paths that appealed to me.  Medicine was the old interest, film the new one.  Then my father died and next thing I know, I’m in Italy trying to convince David—and myself—that I want to go to Spain.
     “I have the time,” I say to David.  “I’m far away from home, from reality.  I need to sort things out.  I’m not going back until I do.”
     “Or ‘til you run out of money.”
      I nod. “There’s that.”
     “You, a pilgrimage,” he says, grinning.  “That I’d like to see.”
     “Want to come?”
     “My creditors would miss me.”
     “Your girlfriends, you mean.”
     “Same difference.”
     David, my other friends, many with careers they enjoy, some with mortgages, a few with kids.  They’ve figured out what they want and are moving toward it while I’m still floundering.   
      “There’s no emergency pulling me back,” I say, listening to raindrops tap against the window.  The sound grows faster.  “Spain doesn’t sound so bad.”
     He swirls the wine in his glass, watches it.  “Look, I’m sorry about your dad, I really am.  God knows—”
     “It’s okay,” I say quickly.  “I didn’t like him much, you know that.”
     I turn and stare into the night.  Dull streetlights, an empty road washed clean, and far away, the sound of a siren grows louder.  There is a flash outside, thunder, then rain comes in through the window.  David shifts closer and I watch water spots appear on his shirt.  He rotates the glass between his palms, not noticing.
     “It’s one thing to travel,” he says, voice soft, “to explore.  But this…this drifting and now sitting around my place all day.  You’re moping.  Sooner or later…hey, New York is nice in the spring.”
     I shake my head slowly.  “It’s freezing, David.” 
     For all I know, Global warming is in full swing, but he gets my drift.  He is quiet.   
     “I’m just looking out for you,” he says finally.
     “I know.  I appreciate it.”  I mean that.
     “But you’re not going to listen.”
     “Would you?” 
     That makes him laugh hard.  “Outside the cities, they only speak Spanish.”
     I can just imagine my aunt’s reaction.  “A pilgrimage?” she’d say, throwing her hands in the air.  “You should have stayed in India.  We have more pilgrimages than people.”
     I grin.  “I’ve done stupider things.” 
     “You and me both.”  The way David says it, I get the sense he wishes he could still do them and realize that if I tried, pushed his buttons, he would come along.  I start to say something, but decide against it.  I want to be alone. 
     “Only a week,” I say, suddenly excited.  The thought of a new place, a fixed itinerary, no aimless wandering.  “I’ll bring you a bottle of nice Spanish red.”
     We drink to that.
 
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