Past Benalup Casas Viejas – May 26, 2017
The cashier catches my eye and shakes her head as I enter the store. I am suddenly aware again of my beard and sweat-stained shirt. She tells me that I can’t come in with my backpack. I unbuckle my straps and ask where I can store it. Her face softens when she hears my broken Spanish. In a few words I shift in her mind from homeless to foreigner, from an unkempt beard and worn clothes to a traveler. She offers to keep my pack next to her at the register. I shrug it off at her feet, grab a basket, and head toward the produce section.
Grocery stores are harder since Daya left. I’d almost forgotten what it was like before her pretty face and bright smile lent me a shield of credibility. We hiked for almost three months and only got asked to take our packs off once or twice. I’ve taken my pack off at five stores in the past few days without her.
“Just walk in like it’s no big deal,” she used to tell me. “You have a right to be here.”
That was easier when I wasn’t alone, easier to joke about too. We made fun of the stares, the looks, the little unintended offenses. We laughed about the people who passed me in distant silence on the Camino and then asked her for directions.
“I don’t have a good map,” she answered. “The guy ahead with the beard could have helped you.”
The moments have grown as my beard has grown, a bit more with every inch, every passing month. Daya only softened them, like a painkiller dulling the senses. Underneath it all, an infection isn’t healed because you don’t feel it for a few hours.
Now the moments seep into my head harder than before. I notice them everywhere. I probably see them even where they don’t exist at all. Did that person cross the street to avoid me? Why did they stop talking when I passed? Are they staring at me or at everyone? The real bleeds into the imagined, coloring it all like a red sweater tossed into the wash with the whites. Everything comes out stained.
I fill my basket with a few things and head to the register. A bunch of people are arguing with the cashier over a receipt. The voices grow loud and heated. The store is running a promotion and there is some problem with how it rang up. I watch patiently and wait to check out. I don’t want to bother anyone. I don’t want to interfere. I almost wish I couldn’t be seen at all.
It’s hard to shake away all the looks, the little moments as I walk through towns. I don’t go into some grocery stores I pass because I don’t want to feel the eyes, see the stares, to deal with wondering if I’ll be asked to leave my pack behind. I avoid restaurants. All the little moments added together feel heavy, like an invisible weight hanging off every interaction. Each moment is so small, so nothing, but a pound of feathers is still a pound.
The argument clears and I check out. The cashier is kind to me now. I pay with a credit card and pack my food into my bag. I toss excess packaging into the garbage and head back out on the street.
The sun is close to setting. The cool air wakes the town up. Kids play on the streets. Groups fill benches. I walk down a busy sidewalk and feel looks the whole way. I focus on the road, on my map, until I reach the edge of town and turn onto an old sheep path. Another mile and I reduce the city to lights on a hill fading in the distance as the sun sets. I am alone and the air feels light again.
I shake off the looks as I walk away, leaving them behind like an ill-fitting coat. I remember it’s not quite real for me. I am lucky. It’s not my skin, not my gender, not a religious cloth that I have to wear to be right with my beliefs. A simple razor and all this goes away.