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Sunday Journal: Lost and found in the waning hours of a Spanish night

My father-in-law is missing in this country where he knows only English, and most Spaniards know only Spanish. A safe country, Spain, where people rarely kill, where guns are outlawed except for a few hunters, where people old and young like to stay out until after midnight.

It's 11 p.m. now, and he said he would return to take us to dinner at 9, when most Spaniards start thinking about eating dinner. This may not present a problem for many, but my father-in-law has foot neuropathy, kidneys that are barely functioning, a brain that doesn't always process in order. None of this is helped by the fact that he has drunk a lot of alcohol over the course of his life. We're talking a case of beer in a weekend sometimes, according to my husband.

We decide to search for him in the bars. Up our narrow medieval street we go, myself, my husband and my friend Terri, who lives upstairs and who works with us at the international program of our university every summer for six weeks. The street has one lane with sidewalks and buildings three stories high. Some have wrought-iron balconies from three centuries ago. The black sky looks furry in texture, and the streetlights that used to be lamplights are a yolk soft yellow. Strange what you notice despite trouble.

We pass a church that looks gray and ruined, the Arabic kebab place and a trendy new cafe where people from as close as France and Italy and as far away as Sri Lanka and the United States go to practice other languages and to have a cerveza and free tapas, as advertised on a sign outside. My father-in-law, though a university linguist, is not practicing another language tonight. He's somewhere, but we don't know where.

My husband and I came home tonight tired after teaching intensively for six hours. Our agreement in the very tiny apartment is this: He cooks one night, my husband and I cook the next, and father-in-law takes us out the next. It's father-in-law's night, so we are hungry and tired.

We head through the Plaza of the Virgin, where tourists sit and watch skateboarders flying down Basilica steps, grandparents lounge with little ones having helado (ice cream), and the fountain splashes vigorously. No father-in-law.

We head into the Calle de Caballeros, a bigger brick street that leads into the Carmen district, the Roman part of the city. Double doors three times the size of our doors led to glorious palatial homes back in the Restoration period. Now, small cafes and bars have carved their way into the place, and we peer into each, searching.

In my imagination, I expect a very drunk father-in-law stooped over his half-drunk, forgotten beer. My husband expects a father who got involved in chatting with someone who speaks English and forgot time. Terri guesses he met a British woman who wants a man to take care of. These ideas say more about us, perhaps, than about the man for whom we are searching.

I am secretly simmering, trying not to boil over. As a daughter of an alcoholic where the whole family is upturned by the dramas of one, I feel back in that place I escaped from years ago, never to return. I thought. I am worried for my husband who seems on the surface not to be concerned, but who buries a lot. The night breeze is beautiful in this third-largest city in Spain, Valencia. Life swells on these streets.

Yet I'm worried, too. I love this man who is now my family. A student today had 1,500 euros stolen from her purse. A gift from her grandmother. Maybe his credit cards are gone. Has he fallen? Has he collapsed in a seizure, something that has happened twice in the past decade. For some reason, I worry about kidnapping. I worry about his kidneys.

We head back, passing strollers, diners, partiers. The breeze from the Mediterranean is cool and dry. The smell of garlic-and-olive-oiled bread drifts out of restaurants. A wonderful feeling, even if I'm hungry.

We approach our apartment, and I tell Terri my father-in-law has survived these 68 years; he probably can take care of himself. She agrees. Then she points at the balcony window of our apartment, three floors up. My father-in-law is waving.

He has had a few beers and a meal, talked to a British couple, is fine. He did take care of himself. Now we're relieved. We're also annoyed, hungry and tired.

I scramble fresh eggs, spread artistico bread with olive oil and butter and toast it, sprinkle blue cheese into the eggs as they cook. Comfort food. My husband is lecturing his father; his father is apologizing over and over.

"I wanted to give you two some time alone," he says. I'm remembering the complaints his ex-wives made about his standing them up for dates, having forgotten them while he was drinking.

"You can't just go off like that," my husband says, like a father. "We will worry, especially when you said you'd be back."

"I'm sorry . . ." he goes on with another explanation.

I tuck away in the tiny bedroom where my husband and I sleep, too full of everyone's shirts, suitcases, books, too full of every emotion I've felt tonight. But too tired to do anything but feel the relief of a soft bed, the safety of everyone here that I love, drifting into the escape of sleep, blessed sleep.

Mary Jane Ryals is author of a book of poetry, "The Moving Waters," and a novel, "A Messy Job I Never Did See a Girl Do." She won Tampa's Yellow Jacket Press Chapbook award in 2006.


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We welcome freelance submissions for Sunday Journal, a forum for narrative storytelling. A lot happens in a Sunday Journal piece; someone might describe a driving tour of colleges with her reluctant 18-year-old daughter, or an encounter on a scary street at night. We want stories that take us someplace and make us laugh, cry or raise our eyebrows. Stories must be true, not previously published and 700 to 900 words. Send submissions to Sunday Journal editor Mimi Andelman, St. Petersburg Times, Newsfeatures, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or by e-mail to [email protected] Include "Sunday Journal" in the subject line.

Sunday Journal: Lost and found in the waning hours of a Spanish night 11/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:12am]
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