The letter that had brought her to this very bench in Retiro Park lay folded neatly in her right hand. She didn’t like the way it felt in her left, where it would nudge the silver band on her finger. So there the letter rested in her hand, her hand on her thigh, her thigh on a bench that she hadn’t sat on in thirty-four years.

She opened the paper one more time, reading its smudged Spanish contents and sounding out their lyrical syllables quietly to herself. In the thirty-four years that she had hid away this piece of paper, she had memorized every word, even long after her Spanish had begun to slip from her memory. The letter’s overall message, however, was what concerned her most now, what was tying and untying complex knots in her belly as she sat. The letter told her to wait. She looked down at her watch. Four minutes past three. She could perhaps wait a little bit longer before her husband and daughter would awaken from their siesta, expecting her back from what she had told them to be merely a stroll around the city. She was to take them to the Prado museum that afternoon to show them the Goya painting she had written her thesis on when she had studied in Madrid for that year in college. But until she absolutely had to go, she would continue to wait, as she was instructed.

She watched as wrinkled women in long fur coats ambled by, walking small curly-haired white dogs, cursing loudly to each other. A group of kids with crisp spiked hair and ripped jeans—about the age that her own daughter had started to rebel, she supposed—congregated on a bench a few down from her, smoking. She had not experienced the smell of hash and tobacco since she had been the one congregating, inhaling. Time passed did not diminish the familiarity in the smoke; it was welcoming, comfortable, yet intoxicating. It reminded her of him.

Her watch now read nine past three. She was beginning to perspire, fearing that perhaps she had waited too long. Thirty-four years was long enough that the tangled handwriting on that sheet of paper could have easily expired; to wait on a bench every day for a lifetime would admittedly be a preposterous promise to keep. He could have tired of waiting for her, abandoning the bench where he used to play for her, finding something better to do between the hours of three and four every day. It was understandable; she, of course, had not waited either. Upon her return from Madrid, she had found that the attention of others was just enough to keep her thoughts of him at bay. It was the attention of one particular man, whose love and commitment eventually materialized in a silver ring, that seemed to erase what memory she had still salvaged from her time in Spain. Even still, she secretly clung to one concrete memory: a neatly folded letter tucked away at the back of her underwear drawer. Many times over the years she chastised herself for keeping it—what a silly and pointless thing, to linger on a memento of a love long past. But she still felt a persistent feeling of something unresolved, some quiet dissonant chord whose notes longed to slide back into key. So nostalgia got the better of her; the letter remained hidden amidst a wad of panties even after the other side of the drawer became stuffed with boxer briefs. And as she had packed for her family vacation to Spain, the sound of her husband’s Spanish learning tapes painstakingly repeating the useful question “¿DON-de es-TA el PAR-que?” in the background, she had lifted the folded paper and tucked it into the cup of a bra before hiding both items in her suitcase.

As she sat idle on the bench, she felt her cheeks begin flush. Who was she to believe that after all this time she could return on a whim and expect him to have kept an expired promise? Three eleven. Perhaps it was time to retire from Retiro. She closed the fingers of her right hand, crumpling the paper between them. She shoved the letter into her purse and inhaled deeply, as if her exhale might help to expel her from her seat. But before she could stand, a familiar tangled web of hair crossed her vision.

The color had changed—it was now streaked with darkened grey—but it seemed that the curls she had twisted her fingers around in her youth had maintained the same dynamism and zeal. She watched as he set his guitar case down in the dirt across the path from where she sat, removing the instrument and beginning to pluck tentatively to tune. He had not yet noticed her watching him. She felt the stickiness that had begun to accumulate on her brow and between her breasts begin to dissipate; the sight of his face eased her. It was the same boyish face on an older man, his forehead creased from a lifetime of smiling.

He began to play with a delicacy that she had never before heard from him; perhaps the years had begun to tame the restlessness with which he lived and played. His music was more precise now, yet did not lack passion. She found that Spanish guitar continued to move her as much as it always had, though she wasn’t sure if her chest ached because of the music itself or because he was playing it. She closed her eyes and let herself sink into the smell of hash and the sound of gut-strings, the blackness behind her eyelids a canvas for memories conjured. When she reopened them, she felt as if she had awoken from a long and dreamless sleep. The music was no longer playing. A pair of tourists were standing in front of him, dropping change into his case as he shook their hands: “Gracias, muchas gracias…

She reached into her purse to once again extract the letter. She attempted to smooth the wrinkles she had inflicted upon it when she had crumpled it, folding it back into a square. She stood, crossing the path and waiting patiently behind the tourists as they struggled to converse with the man who never desired to learn a single word of any language other than his own. As the tourists began to amble away, she reached towards the open guitar case and dropped the letter, watching it flutter into the company of a few meager coins. Seeing paper that wasn’t a Euro note, he reached into the case to retrieve the letter. She seated herself at his side as he examined the words he himself had written so many years ago. He stroked his own signature with his thumb and looked up at her, his wry smile turning his wrinkles to canyons.

She cleared her throat to make way for her clumsy Spanish. “I read your letter.”

He looked down at the paper, its creases well defined from opening and closing it. “It looks like you read it many times.”

“You play even better than I remember.”

“I’ve had many years to practice. Your Spanish has gotten worse.”

“I’ve had many years to forget it.”

He set his guitar in the case, on top of his hard-earned loose change. “It’s wonderful to see such an old friend.”

There they sat on the bench where they had met and parted. Where he had written her a letter two weeks after she left, where he had come every afternoon for thirty-four years to serenade the fur-covered ancient ladies and their dogs, the smoking youth, the enamored tourists, Madrid. They did not discuss their divergent lives without each other, but chose instead to reminisce over the time that they had spent together. Thus she did not tell him that upon returning to the States and completing her art history degree, her love for painting had dissipated quickly and without much reason, and that she had taken up work selling flowers to couples who were as in love as they had been. She did not tell him about her marriage, a lovely and intimate wedding ceremony in the wine country, merely five years after they had parted. She did not tell him about the daughter she raised and fought with, whose own rebellious tendencies followed so closely in her own footsteps that it frightened her to see so much of herself in the young woman she helped create. She did not tell him that it was her idea to return to Spain for their family vacation to celebrate her husband’s retirement, wanting to revisit the place she so loved in her youth, yet all the while curious if he might still be there waiting for her, as he said he would.

As they talked, she could still hear the chime of mischief in his voice. She laughed to herself as she sat, picturing this greying and wrinkled version of the young man she knew still seductively licking the seal on the papers of his hash-filled porros, or seated slumped on stone stoops surrounded by crushed cans of Mahou, or dodging glass bottles and indignant screams thrown late at night from sleepless balconies (“¡Callaos, joder!”), or turning to kiss her as she rode on the back spokes of the bicycle he had most recently stolen. Sitting there listening to him, she became convinced that these antics were still a part of his daily life. She hoped they were, at least. It comforted her that it appeared that he had remained almost exactly the same in all that time. Even the instrument at his feet was the same guitar, barely aged, its case scuffed from sitting day after day in the dirt of the path, hungrily awaiting a spare Euro. She couldn’t help but wonder if other things had remained the same as well—if that guitar case still anticipated its reward with the same amount of desperation, if it was not nostalgia but necessity that kept him coming to this bench for so many years, continuing to have to play for loose change in Retiro Park. She did not ask.

They didn’t run out of things to talk about, necessarily, but after a while rather decided to merely enjoy each others’ company in silence. He placed his hand in hers. Though the tips of his fingers were hardened with callouses, the rest of his hands were softer now. Withered. Hers were too. If he noticed the ring on her left hand, he didn’t comment. There was no reason to, for the ring was to stay there; her watch now reminded her it was long past time to return to the hotel, and return she would.

They exchanged merely a few quiet words upon their departure. She wrapped his left hand in both of hers, curling his fingers around the letter that, this time, she intended for him to keep. He kissed her softly on the cheek. She stood and walked down the path away from their bench. Behind her, she could hear him beginning to pluck the sweet melody of “Capricho Árabe”, her favorite. She felt no need to look behind her again. They both, in their own way, had waited, as the letter had instructed. The dissonant chord of uncertainty that had resonated in her for so many years had resolved to its major key, and was now inaudible in her conscience. Her vision became slightly clouded by a thin watery film, which she wiped away with a smile. She kept walking until she could no longer hear the gut-strings.

It was only after she had passed through the park’s gate, as she reached into her purse to extract her metro pass, that she realized her wallet was missing. She ran back to the gate, pressing herself against its bars, yelling his name towards the bench. But the bench appeared to be empty. He had disappeared. A great heat swelled within her. How dare he? After the lovely afternoon they had shared, the reunion of two very old friends, the reply to a long unanswered letter. She sighed. Though hurt, she was not surprised. Because for some, things stay the same; the mischievous stay mischievous, the poor stay poor, and the poor continue to have to play for loose change in Retiro Park.

He sat on the metro with his scuffed guitar case wedged between his legs. The train bumped and squealed as it sped through the underbelly of the city, jostling the coins in the zippered pocket of the wallet he was rifling through. There were only perhaps seven Euros in change there, though luckily for him, she was still a tourist and had stuffed her wallet with cash. One hundred and forty-six Euros. That was plenty; he need not even bother with the credit cards. Too easy to be caught, anyway. He shrugged off the tingling of guilt that had begun to rise in his throat. After all, the afternoon spent with her had taken away almost all of his playing time; he had barely made any money.

He dug through the thick stacks of gift cards, business cards, and receipts that had been stored and long forgotten in the tight leather pockets. All of them, save a few of the receipts, were in English; he didn’t understand their text, couldn’t use them to gain insight into what her life without him was like. He had of course noticed the ring on her finger as he had held her hand. He was surprised that it hadn’t entirely pained him to see it. He may not have acquired a ring of his own over the years, but he did think it reasonable that she find someone to accompany her lonely and restless soul.

Out of one of the wallet’s tight leather pockets he pulled a photo. Its edges were torn and weathered, like it had spent many years being tugged at and retrieved to be admired. The photo contained a face, petite and plump. The little girl’s luminous hair shone with sunlight against a backdrop of deep forest green. She smiled widely, exaggeratedly, and he could almost see all of her teeth—except, of course, for the few that were missing in gummy gaps. She looked remarkably like her mother, even in her splendid youth. Her nose sloped up slightly at the tip into a sharp point, the same point that, on her mother, would jab his cheek when he would attempt to sneak in for a kiss. The shape of her face was the same oblique oval, slightly off-center, that he would tease her mother about when her wire-rim glasses would tilt to one side from the lack of symmetry. The girl’s hair was a similar texture too, whispy and unruly, though the color was slightly off: much lighter, a muddled blonde, like a thundercloud at the golden hour. And her eyes belonged to someone else. They were a brilliant blue hue, bright and translucent, like the water he had once seen in the bay at San Sebastián. These were the eyes of a man, a blanquito, perhaps tall and pale and Nordic, with strong arms to wrap protectively around his family. Recalling the silver ring that he had nudged up against when he held her hand, a modest diamond nestled in its center, he surmised that this man was perhaps a lawyer, or maybe a doctor of some sort. He pictured those ocean eyes matching a set of blue scrubs, stained with the life of a newborn whom he just saved or the blood of a brain he just made cancer-free. And those arms, muscles bulging out of their scrubs, one wrapped around his wife and one around his daughter, who was presumably now at least fifteen to twenty years older than the gap-toothed little girl in the photo, if he estimated correctly. Had she grown into the same subtle beauty as her mother, shy and pristine? Or had she grown upwards, lean and strong and handsome, as he pictured her father? He found himself laughing quietly as he conjured this family portrait in his head. It was cartoonish, silly. He perhaps felt a tinge of resentment towards this husband, yes, but jealousy, no. He imagined this man as everything he was not, and that’s how he preferred it. He had no desire for the prestigious job, a spacious home, a daughter that looked like him. As much as he had loved this woman, he had never wanted a dollhouse family cliché like he had seen in so many American movies dubbed into Spanish. No. He had only wanted her. And yet she had left.

He stared for a moment longer at the face of the girl, looking so like her mother and yet so foreign, before tucking the wallet into the pocket of his weathered green jacket. The train slowed to approach another stop, lurching him to one side as it rolled into the station. Two more stops until his own. He removed a packet of tobacco from his pocket and placed an opaque paper in the palm of his hand. He sprinkled the tobacco with delicacy into the paper, and set it in his lap. He reached into the tobacco pouch to extract a dense nugget of hash. With the wax between his thumb and index finger, he lit a flame under it, softening its hard exterior. The two people seated on either side of him caught a whiff of the burning and shot him skeptical sideways gazes, but quickly returned to minding their own business; they had certainly seen much stranger and more illicit things happen on the Madrid metro than an old man lighting hash in a train car. He peeled six small chunks from the mass and dropped them into the paper, tossing them with the tobacco. These days, his porros contained much more tobacco than hash; he hadn’t decided if it was because he was a more responsible man now or if he had merely grown too old for the numbing haze to be satisfying anymore. He wrapped the paper around on itself, rolling it into a pristine slender cylinder. He brought the porro to his lips and wet his tongue, slowly licking the paper’s seal. He stopped mid-lick, his tongue still exposed, frozen like a dog who had been caught licking between his legs. He stayed there, struck by the memory of how she used to watch him as he rolled his porros, letting his tongue trace the paper’s seal with a seductive glint in his eyes. His memory was disrupted as the train lurched to a stop once more, this time announcing his stop. He lifted the guitar case from between his legs, and pinching the porro tightly between his lips, he ascended back into the late afternoon sun.

He found himself surprised that she wasn’t standing, fuming, at the top of the stairs at the metro station. She wasn’t helpless; he recalled how she would snap in Spanish at the men who would grab at her in the street, her slight American accent softening the harshness of the vile words she would spit at them. If she was wronged, he knew her to do something about it. But perhaps that had changed over the years as well. More likely, however, was that she hadn’t figured that he still lived in the same barrio as when they knew each other, now living within just a few blocks of the flat that he had resided in at age twenty-five, yet had only seldom taken her to. He hadn’t been proud of his barrio at the time, its streets ripe with the stench of fresh urine and rotting fruit, so many of its residents curled up on street corners instead of in the identical industrial apartment buildings themselves. Yet he had never felt the urge to move; it was his home, of course, but it was the comfort and familiarity of a place that you never leave that truly had kept him there. He liked to think that he could close his eyes and still be able to navigate to any part of the neighborhood he wished with ease, but he had never tried.

He lit his porro and inhaled deeply, lungs filling with warmth. His eyes shut as he exhaled, and he decided not to open them again. He began to walk, hesitantly at first. As soon as he tripped over the first curb and stumbled into the cobblestone street, he became sure of where he was, each subsequent step more confident than the last. The tips of his calloused fingers traced walls and windows as he passed, feeling for corners, keeping his feet pointed forward. It took him only four minutes longer than usual to feel the rusted bars of the front door of his building on the palms of his hands. His eyes did not open until after his feet bumped into his mattress on the floor. He set his guitar down next to the bed, emptying his pockets. His tobacco. His lighter. Her wallet. He extracted the cash and tucked it between the mattress and the floor. Safekeeping.

He approached the single small window in the room. It faced south, towards the center of the city. It looked towards her, sitting in her hotel room, head in her hands, explaining to her husband how she had been sitting on a bench in the park, her purse at her side, and how a man who had sat down briefly beside her must have reached in and taken her wallet. “We have to alert the police!” “No, dear, there’d be no way to find him by now. I don’t even remember what he looked like.” It looked towards Madrid, the city she had adopted and left behind, and where she would leave again soon, across an ocean to a neighborhood that he bet she couldn’t find her way around with her eyes closed. His gaze extended over the crumpled rooftops of the barrio and to the hills in the distance topped by religious domes and royal palaces, enduring relics of old Madrid built long before he had written a letter that told the woman he loved to wait. It looked towards the bench, their bench, where he would go again tomorrow to play for loose change in Retiro Park.