Today’s Miles: 20.5
Total Miles: 5,317.8
Near San Amaro, Spain – April 9, 2017
Padron’s streets fill with market stalls. Clothing stands in stacks on tables. Shoes spill out of boxes. Churros fry in vats of oil. The crowd moves past like the current of a slow river. We swirl through it, peering at the fresh-fried dough, deciding between the churro stalls, between chocolate dipped or sugar, solid dough or filled with cream. Daya buys a handful of chocolate covered churros and smiles like a child with their hand in a cookie jar.
“Happy birthday!” she says.
I try to match her smile, but mine isn’t really there. It’s just muscles stretching skin with no life behind either. I don’t remember when I stopped caring about my birthday, when it slid away from a day of childhood joy to a day that usually leaves me more sad than happy.
I thought I understood it in years that I felt lost, years that seemed to disappear with nothing to show for them, but this year should be different. I spent almost every day in the midst of a grand adventure. I felt alive. I felt full of joy. Yet I still woke with the same difficult-to-pin sadness on my birthday. It’s not fair. This year was one of the good ones.
I push through the crowd past a cotton candy stand. Thin strings of sugar spin out of the machine, collecting on sticks into puffy pink clouds. I think of my godfather Rudy and a story he liked to tell.
Rudy never knew his parents. He grew up an orphan, bouncing around homes until he ended up living with a priest in Rhode Island until he turned 18. He never had much money, but once he saved just enough for the bus ticket to and from the fair in the next town over. He couldn’t buy a single thing there, but at least he could walk around staring at the flashing lights, rides, and touts shouting out at the crowd. That was enough for him, just seeing it all, until he saw the cotton candy.
He’d never seen cotton candy before. He didn’t know what it was or anything about it. Those strings of sugar spun into those puffy clouds of blue and pink looked magical. He fingered the coins in his pocket, the ones meant for the bus home. The sun beat down overhead. He stared at the cotton candy, stared at the kids eating it all around him. Then he pulled out his coins and slid them across the counter figuring he could find another way home.
The man handed him this giant, puffy-pink ball of cotton candy. Little orphan Rudy, who never had much of anything growing up, forgot about the bus and held that cotton candy in his hands like it was a made of magic. It was all his. He stared at it in awe then took his first bite.
I don’t know what he expected, but I know cotton candy was not it. The strings stuck to his face. The heat began melting the wisps of sugar into a sticky pulp. It was all a lie and he had spent his last dimes on it. He tried to give it back to the cotton candy man, he tried to beg the bus driver to let him on the bus without a fare, he tried getting a ride along the road, but nothing worked. He ended up walking all the away home for miles and miles and hours and hours, the whole time thinking of that cotton candy.
Rudy moved in with me and my parents when he retired. His room was across from mine and he used to keep his door open so I could see him reading at night. He had a thousand books, all stacked up in his room, piles and piles of them, crowding every bit of space. It’s how he traveled the world, how he adventured from place to place even though he almost never left home. He’d pick up a book and transport himself to the wild west streets of Lonesome Dove or European cities he would never see. Every night he’d sit there and read, a stack of pillows under his head, his light glowing.
I used to stare out at him from the darkness of my room, watching him turn pages until I drifted off to sleep. He was my nightlight and I knew he’d keep me safe from any monsters that might come for me in the dark.
The puffy-pink bags of cotton candy hanging off the stall are the only clouds in the sky. The sun glows hot overhead. I finger the coins in my pocket. I think of Rudy, my best friend, my constant ally, a man who would do anything in the world for me except spend a single penny on cotton candy. No way, youngsta, he’d say. Never going to happen. No chance at all.
I smile at the bags of cotton candy, at the thought of Rudy and the fair. I look around to make sure no kid is about to spend their last dime on a bag of pink colored air and miss their bus home. I would have handed them everything I had in that moment. Then I laugh and think of his light glowing in the night. The day turns bright. Rudy died when I was twelve, but he still fights monsters for me to this day.