September 26, 2023 | Rome, Italy

15. Spain: O Rey

By |2023-07-06T18:04:27+02:00July 6th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
The good lizard scents are much better left on than scrubbed off...

hen two young women behold you standing stark naked and upright in a bathtub, and after their ritual sudsing of the whole of your shy body, pause to pronounce the exalting words O Rey, Oh king, one suspects even a legitimate king might find the flattery pleasing, and perhaps even call for underlings to wheel in a full-length mirror so as to better allow him to bask in the compliment. If a polite monarch, he might utter the likes of “Why yes, I am,” or God forbid, “Thank you,” this before springing from the tub to be re-wrapped in robes and his crown restored to its rightful position.

I, however, did none of these things, instead all the time very much wishing my ritual cleaning would end as soon as possible, the fair maidens pleased to leave me alone. To me, of paramount importance was not high praise from female admirers but to get back to the vital mini-male task at hand, namely completing the model tank I’d been working on for days (a German army Tiger), and above all, solving the problem of the turret, which stubbornly refused to swivel.

Then again, not only did I fall well short of actual royalty, but I was also, at eight, well under age for any sort of throne. So please, I implored my cleaners, could they make it end?

Not yet, O Rey, not yet.

My mother had gotten wind of my lizard hunting and, horrified, had instructed our two live-in maids to thoroughly de-lizard me.

It seems my mother had gotten wind of my lizard hunting and, horrified, had instructed our two live-in maids, Vini and Gabina, both age twenty, to thoroughly de-lizard me so I could be admitted to play in the house without contaminating it with reptilian germs.

Caveat emptor. This upscaling had been unknown to my family before and I recall it now as a two-year aberration induced by an American consultant, my father, who in a country desperate to improve its image, accorded its Washington guest the privileges of an ambassador, which is how the Franco regime imagined him, a White House-pseudo-Bourbon who would give the lagging Spanish tourism industry the keys to a Cadillac in the making. True, we paid Vini and Gabina’s monthly wages but they hardly amounted to what I’d spend weekly on candy in Washington. Both were from dust bowl Andalusia in the beyond-poor south and were entirely illiterate. In fact, my mother had made it a mission to teach them to read and write, furious that a would-be “modern” country could allow such backwardness, with women left out the most. In this respect the “O Rey” worship of a boy was as much a reflection of their gratefulness to his mother, as if rubbing fragrance into my boyishly bewildered pores was the least they could do to thank her.

O Rey was also a kind of bribe, since it was spoken each time they got around to scrubbing my genitals, which for whatever reason I believed were my own very true private property and should not be subject to so much soap and sponges. Sexuality hadn’t in the least made an appearance in my brain, puberty years away, but something told me these smiling semi-women should cease and desist. I inevitably lost my battle with their devoted hands and slavish sponges, but I did squirm around and howl in a way not befitting a king, unless a mad one.

Thankfully, my genitals completed their twenty-minute de-lizard-ing act, and I was soon free to again roam about the cabin. And if I wanted, I was free to play with our Siamese cat Segreto and our Irish Setter Panchito, something I did often when the tank model parts didn’t fit or I used too much glue and the entire chassis started to melt. What a strange universe, I thought to myself, in which tanks melt.

Segreto and Panchito were best of pals, playing in the living room. On occasion, Segreto played tricks on Panchito by using her small size and feminine wiles to walk on the very edge of the terrace, well beyond the barrier and eight floors up, as if daring Panchito to show similar male boldness. He didn’t. He’d come up to the barrier, look down, back away, and howl. Girls were mad, he thought, or so I thought, and Segreto placidly continued her Audrey Hepburn walk on the fringe between high style and calamity. Yet calamity cats are few. Most remain, like Segreto, a millimeter from perdition while laughing in terrified dog faces.

From time to time, usually on Sundays, Vini and Gabina would take me on walks to the park, walks that in fact were excuses to meet with their boyfriends at benches both sides had agreed on. Both men were soldiers and I admired their khaki, though I wasn’t really allowed too close to them, as if I belonged to one world and the girls and their fiancés to another, and the two could not be allowed to formally meet without formal permission from God, and no one involved knew him well except for me, but no one listened to me. I told them all that God was really very much at ease with everything, having created what he created, but then stepped into retirement.

Calamity cats are few — most remain, like Segreto, a millimeter from perdition while laughing in terrified dog faces.

This they did not believe, so when they kissed on park benches I was instructed to go walk around the artificial lake, the estanque, in the beautiful park called the Retiro, to which even at that age I wished to retire, preferably alone.

I busied myself looking for lizards (very few) and in their absence spoke at length to the multitude of frogs assembled on the lake’s banks. Beyond them, in rowboats, Sunday lovers spent less time rowing than they did kissing, something that seemed to me like an utter waste of time when you had a boat and oars at your disposal. What would O Rey do if he had these boats? Assemble a fleet, of course, and send them out to lay siege to the dream city of Telefonica, a huge city of funiculars and a huge port where the “Titanic,” unsunk in my mind, still sat proudly at anchor. This matter of kissing was as wasteful as wasteful could get, and that led me to ask my mother about lips and how it was that some used them not to drink or speak but to attach themselves to others.

This, she replied in French, is not to be spoken of, and everything ended there. My understanding of kisses would have to wait nearly a decade.

But this did not stop the faux-king from building up his realm of the mind, from real dreams and daydreams, sculpting his port city, the great Telefonica, like his very own Las Vegas waiting to be built. I spoke to no one of the many goings-on in Telefonica, not even my father, since something had to belong to me alone, and that city did.

And what a wondrous city to behold, as soon you’ll learn.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.