By Keegan Roembke
Meddi was ashamed of his past, whatever it was. That was pretty easy to tell, because, well, he’d basically said it. He was a walking contradiction. An overweight father walking around Disney World wearing snowshoes in the midst of a Florida summer.
He was a frightening-looking man. His head was bald, face covered by a thick black beard, his mouth missing one of its front teeth, the one on the left, which I soon thought of as a window into his soul. Just because it was black didn’t mean anything. Only that it was hard to see in there. Dark, not black.
He came from Belgium. We met when I was sitting on a couch in a hostel in Barcelona that I showed up to at midnight asking for a room. The Indian family running the place said, “Okay, we have one top bunk. You can use the common room.” The common room was connected to the kitchen where their several young children sat scribbling in coloring books. When I met Meddi, I was sitting at the common room sofa watching the children coloring pictures outside the lines while their mother and grandmother tried to guide their hands.
I thought that this atmosphere was not what I was used to, but that I was still enjoying it. I sliced an apple with a knife from the kitchen. I would need to wash it and put it back or their watchguard gazes would follow me back to my place on the couch. So I washed it with soap and hot water and returned to the couch with my apple. That was when Meddi approached me.
He used to be a boxer. He told me that he could never go home because of what he had done there. Now, he was trying to find work in Barcelona. It was not going as well as he’d planned.
Meddi and I were standing up on the roof of the hostel. There was a terrace there with two chairs and no tables. Laundry was hanging out on the clothesline of creaking apartments. We smelled like sweat.
His native tongue was Arabic and his near-native tongue was Belgian German. His parents were Moroccan and he spoke English in a deep, booming voice that wrapped each word in a violent hug. So tight a hug that it cut off your airway. Everytime he spoke, I jumped – it was like being in the backseat of a car when the driver slams unexpectedly on the brakes.
He was broke. He thought he was getting a job with HP, though, the computer software company. He was running away from his hometown because no one there trusted him anymore, and that’s all he said and I didn’t really ask why. But he said he had changed drastically since then, which, for the most part, I believed, because I listen distantly and take most people at face value. I draw conclusions later when I have the time to run their words back through my brain, like reading through a paragraph one more time to pick up any scanned-over information.
But then came a test, an opportunity to verify his statement of change. As we sat up on that roof, talking and exhaling breaths up into the heavy, brisk, polluted air, he asked me one of the most uncomfortable questions there is to ask someone.
“Hey, bro… So I trust you, you seem like good guy. I ran out of money though and don’t get my first paycheck from the company until Thursday (the day was Tuesday). Could you pay for two more nights for me? It’s only thirty euros. I pay you back as soon as I get that check, bro.”
I told him, “Sure, whatever, I can help you out. You gotta pay me back, though.” I didn’t trust him a bit.
“Thanks man. Thanks so much. I promise I’ll get you the money when I get that check. I’ll even get us a Jack and Coke at the bar. The real American drink.” He slapped me hard on the back and leaned his head in, his facial expression punctuated by two wide-eye periods.
“Yeah. The real American drink. Okay, I’ll hold you to that now. Goodnight man.”
Meddi paid me back on Thursday. He slipped thirty euros under my pillow and I found it when I returned to the hostel at nine p.m. that night. I was happy and relieved, happy that I had faith in this abrasive behemoth of a man, and relieved that he had followed through on his promise. I had my much needed thirty euros back. Nearly 5% of my net worth had been regained.
Instead of Jack Daniels, Meddi offered to buy me a vermouth. It’s a bittersweet, delicious wine drink made from raisins, normally served during the day but still good and soul-warming in the cold air of the nighttime. We were going to Gracia, the hip part of Barcelona, where the cool illiberal communists lived and flew separatist Catalan flags. Catalonia wanted to separate itself from Spain. Catalonia, if you don’t know, is the Spanish state in which Barcelona is located. They speak Catalan there. It’s similar to Spanish, but different nonetheless.
“Vermouth down in Gracia, yes. That sounds nice. Let’s go then. I’ll get my bag.”
Verdammt Mann! Das ist echt eine große Tasche!
“Damn bro! That is a huge bag!”
Meinst du? Muss irgendwo meine Tasche mitbringen.
“You think so? I’ve just got to bring my bag with me everywhere. There’s some important shit inside.”
Scheiße Mann. Gehen wir jetzt los?
“Shit bro. Should we go now?”
Ja, los geht’s.
“Yeah, let’s go then.”
Ich bin glücklich dass Sie endlich Geld haben.
“I’m happy that you finally have money.”
Selbstverständlich. Jetzt hab ich die ganze Welt vor mir, oder?
“Of course. Now I have the whole world before me, right?’
Also, jetzt musst du dieses Geld sparen. Wenn du aus diesem scheißen Jugendherberge willst, musst du klug sein, ja? Du willst in einer schönen Wohnung in Barcelona leben.”
“Well, now you’ve got to save this money. If you want to get out of this hostel you’re living at, you’ve got to be careful. You want to live in a nice Barcelona apartment.”
I grinned and slapped him awkwardly on the shoulder. I realized I didn’t know him that well.
Ja Mann. Immer klug sein.
‘Yeah man. Always be smart.’
Like what happens so often though, conversation made me better understand his perspective and his seemingly abrasive personality. He was optimistic and strategically-minded, already envisioning a dream life in Barcelona. But he also appeared nervous, shaky, which made me sense that something wasn’t quite right with him, that he was itching and needed hopelessly to scratch. He swung his massive shoulders walking down La Rambla as if preparing to deliver a knockout blow to each and every passerby on the glittering boulevard. He bit his nails as a high school senior taking his final exam does. He kept swerving in front of rich Spaniards as they walked by. I mumbled apologies as I tried to keep up. I wasn’t embarrassed but cautious walking alongside him. I watched closely and strayed away from his giant gait when he got too close or overly energetic, which came across as aggressive, from him.
He is loud and obnoxious. I’m not sure I like him either. It’s nothing personal, he’s just got a certain presence. That’s what I thought, but I laughed and thought second, He has a good heart. He wants to be good. He’s determined to be good. Isn’t that the trademark of a good person? That they’re trying and you can see it?
We walked quickly down the bright streets and I strained to keep up with him. The diversity in the faces on the streets was astounding. I don’t mean color, race, or ethnicity --I mean the countenance and strut that each carried. There were the drunks, the weary, the energized, the relaxed, the laughing, the loving, the young, and the old. And each were engrossed in their own lives and some saw us. And we were walking with our faces toward the ground, talking about things that I can’t quite remember. But I noticed all the people walking by and the way Meddi would point his face toward the ground, keeping his eyes simultaneously pointed at every person passing. He looked like he could easily kill someone. Maybe it was just the missing tooth.
We passed a betting parlor, dimly lit and nauseatingly sterile-looking, tucked between a tapas restaurant and a tavern on La Rambla.
‘Let’s go in here, bro.’
That was the last place I wanted to go into. I wanted a drink and that was it. I didn’t even know why he wanted to go in the sleazy-looking thing. None of that moment made sense to me then.
Nee, das sieht voll komisch aus, Mann.
“No, that looks way too weird, man.”
Nee, gehen wir rein. Sehr schnell.
“Nah, let’s go in. Very quickly.”
Wird sehr kurz. Ich will nur ein bisschen Geld gewinnen.
“It’ll be short. I only want to win a bit of money.”
Ok dann warte ich draußen.
“Then I’ll wait outside.”
Nee Mann, komm mal rein.
“No man, come in.’
Sieht echt komisch aus.
“It just looks really strange.”
He’d convinced me to at least go in. I’d feel quite awkward about the whole time and probably tense up with all the lights on the ceiling and eyes on the screen. But I could at least get a drink.
Echt? Ok, spiel mal und dann gehen wir. Ich kriege zwei Getränke. Sei klug.
“Really? Ok, play once and then we’ll leave. I’ll get two drinks. Be smart, though. Remember.” I think I gave him a nervous grin and raised my eyebrows, then went to get our free drinks.
“Here’s your juice man. I’ll drink the beer. You’ve gotta keep that mind clear.”
“You’re too nervous, bro.”
“I think you’d call it paranoid, but more averse to losing what little money I have.”
“Wait, how much did you bet already?”
“Just 500 euros bro.”
I smiled in disbelief and took that in slowly. This guy was a lunatic but I was as intrigued as I could be. I just stared at his screen and asked,
“Are you serious?”
Sei ruhig, Mann! Ich habe gerade gewonnen!
“Stay calm, man! I just won!”
He got up and thrust his arms into the air like he’d won the World Cup.
“No goddamn way.”
Echt! Sechshundert euro!
“I’m fucking rich bro!”
“Let’s go buy some shit! Or something. I’ll buy us dinner! You can get two more vermouths. We are going to have a great night bro.’
“Alright, as long as you hold onto some of it, man. Let’s get crazy.”
I was laughing and patting him on the back. He was counting his fifties. There were twelve of them and they’d just spit out of the machine, some onto the dirty ground. He was trying to wipe the black floor grease off of them. They were bright orange. It looked like he was playing monopoly. I didn’t even understand the game he was playing. There were digital cards, symbols, and dice that rolled across the green table on the screen. He beat it.
“You’re one lucky bastard. Let’s go have some vermouth and whiskey, eh?”
Los geht’s, bro.
“Let’s go, bro.”
Meddi had bet five-hundred euros and won eleven-hundred for a smooth six-hundred in profit. Good for him, I thought. But the anxiety I’d felt from simply walking alongside him had been heightened ten-fold. If he had energy before, you could bet he had energy now. He was swaggering violently and counted his money at least six times on the walk to the bar. He won it all on the betting machines. You always see the same lifeless souls, never smiling, staring blankly at those machines off a busy street, an otherwise beautiful and vibrant street. Taking up useless space. Meddi was not lifeless nor was he taking up useless space. He had used that space plenty.
Then again, they are adrenaline machines. Inside a sterile blue and white or red and black-walled room, they suck up adrenaline, every last drop. And if you’re addicted to those, I thought, and had no money, then once you had money, you’d be raring to go. Then your first time back, you win? Game over. Or game on.
We were going to drink vermouth now. Finally. It was late for vermouth, even by my standards. I wasn’t really in the mood for it now. Maybe a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser. They call that a boilermaker in Indiana, in case you were wondering.
We drank some whiskey and a beer and then we stepped off into some dark club with graffiti all over the walls and lots of dread-head Spaniards, and after, the joy of Meddi’s big win started abruptly wearing off. His face looked like a question mark. His eyes were glossy and seemed to ask, what’s next?
He scratched his neck and then his face and then rubbed his eyes. I wanted to sleep and get away from him for the night. We walked back the same way, along La Rambla toward the Poble Sec district, where the hostel was. He had drained my energy like a betting parlor.
Meddi didn’t say anything to me the whole way back, until we passed the betting parlor again. His eyes looked sad, wandering, the entire way. Glistening with gloomy unshed tears. He stopped and stared at the doors with longing.
“Don’t be dumb, man. Keep your money. It’s almost closed, anyway. Let’s get back and catch some sleep. I’ve got to go to Madrid in the morning.”
“Nah, man. I only need to play five or six times and I can make a lot more. It could get me an apartment before I get this job.”
“Well, I’m going back to the place. I need some sleep. I’m beat. I just don’t want you to lose money. You’ll be making a salary soon but you’ll need that money to get started. You caught a break. I say take it”
‘Whatever, man. Are you sure you’re going back?’
“I’m sure. I can’t make you come with me.”
Meddi walked back into the betting parlor doors, La Rambla’s greasiest always open, his caramel-colored head illuminated by the hideous red and white lights.
I finished my walk back and went straight to sleep, too tired to wonder if Meddi had won any money or lost any money. I had to catch a bus at nine a.m. the next morning. I walked back up to the roof of the hostel one more time. The air smelled metallic for some reason, which I couldn’t trace. Then there was an overwhelming scent of laundry detergent, and I saw clothes hanging from a line, billowing. It was very windy. I stood there for five minutes then tiptoed into my bed with the thirteen other lost souls in the room.
Instead of sleeping until eight and racing to my bus, I was awakened at six a.m. to the smell of sweat and New Amsterdam vodka. I knew the type of vodka because that was the only thing I could see, next to Meddi’s face when my eyes opened, bottle cap off and standing next to his bed, which was just four feet from mine. He was shaking my shoulder. His wide eyes and vodka breath shocked mine open.
Bro. Bro. Steh auf.
“Bro. Bro! Wake up.”
I groaned and looked up at him, surprised and taken aback by the strong smell.
Was.. was brauchst du? Ich bin müde.
“What.. What do you need? I’m tired.”
It felt odd to be speaking German so early. He was likely so drunk that he couldn’t speak English. I was just awake enough to say that I was tired.
“Can I have twenty euros? Just twenty euros.”
I groaned. “No, Meddi. What happened to the money you won last night?”
I was genuinely curious. My grogginess didn’t process why he didn’t have it.
“It’s not good, bro. Not good. Not a good night. Can I please have twenty euros?”
“You lost all of that money? All 1,100 euros?”
‘Look, bro. I just need a place to sleep and some money for food. I can give you these three packs of Lucky Strikes. Will you buy them? This is my last night booked at the hostel.’
‘My God, man. Okay. Here’s twenty euros. But yeah, give me those cigarettes.’
I handed him a twenty from my wallet.
He took it from my hand, shoved it in his pocket, picked up his bags, and left with his bottle of vodka tucked under his left arm.
He turned around as he stumbled into the door. Everyone in the room was awake now, moaning and groaning passive aggressively.
“Thank you bro. I’ll never be able to repay you,” Meddi slurred.
He was caught in some sort of life-threatening bad dream, always managing to continue surviving.
When you have a choice between asking for money and sleeping outside, you always choose asking first.
And if you get denied and must sleep outside, then you continue to ask for money until you get it. From strangers, from anyone.
Humans that aren’t able to sustain themselves naturally become beggars. If you have anyone to ask for money from, then you will ask them. Hopefully your requests are met with acquiescence. But that can only last so long, and if you continue to need, then sometime soon you will not be able to get your needs met by another. At some point, you’ve got to fulfill those most basic personal needs yourself. And consistently! The most important part. Fail to consistently fulfill your most basic needs as a human being, and your energy will be drained slowly and without notice, so that eventually there’s none (energy) left for anything else – for people, for work, for play. For art, for life.
Meddi hadn’t found himself at the point of consistent failure quite yet. He hung on by a thread – a tight, fraying thread that could tear at any moment. As he stumbled drunkenly down the dank, musty, creaking hostel steps, smelling his own vodka breath, nearly choking on the stickiness of his throat, he didn’t wonder what two more nights in a warm bunk would do for him. He only wondered whether the front desk worker would allow him two more nights – whether he’d be able to sleep anywhere at all.
He wasn’t exactly everyone in the hostel’s favorite roommate. He’d received at least three complaints for being too loud in the wee hours of the morning, and now figured he’d receive a fourth (from Harris, whom he’d just woken at 6:00 a.m. to ask for another 20 euros). Although Harris couldn’t have cared less about making a complaint, Meddi figured he’d take the 20 euros straight to the desk and ask for two more nights before that twenty disappeared. At this hour, Meddi was so liquor-delusional and scatter-brained from his big loss (he’d won 1100 euros at the betting parlor then lost it all several hours later) that it felt like the bright blue twenty would fly out of his hand and out the swinging front doors, into the charmingly unkempt Barcelona streets, where real beggars resided on every corner.
–H-hello. Good morning.
The good morning came out of Meddi’s mouth as a shout, vomited from his chest. He leaned over the front desk. The man working the desk turned around from typing on his laptop in the backroom, digital blue light illuminating his shape, and walked quickly back to his post, startled.
–I would just like two more nights in the same bed.
Meddi slapped the twenty down on the desk much too hard. He was sweating and wet beads dripped down his forehead. The worker watched them fall onto the desk, disgusted.
The twenty stayed stuck to his hand and fell to the ground. He bent down to pick it up and teetered like a drunk, pushing himself back up with his hands against the tile floor, noticing that he felt nauseous, dizzy. Stars buttered his vision. His flayed, sliced-up mind made him feel even dizzier. He stood back up slowly and put the twenty on the desk again, softer this time, and watched the hostel worker, Arpan on his name tag, reappear before his eyes.
– I cannot complete your request, sir. I was told that last night would be your final night here at the hostel.
Arpan spoke with foreboding in his voice, hushed, in a heavy Indian accent.
He was trying to politely imply, of course, that Meddi was not welcome another night. Two nights ago when he’d gotten Harris to pay for his room the first time (which Meddi had paid back, to his credit) was not his first time asking fellow hostel patrons for a day or two’s rent. He’d been doing it on and off for weeks while looking for a job. That he had a job now had not yet changed a thing about his predicament. Things could’ve changed, surely – last night’s winnings would have been a decent start. But, like so many others, Meddi had been done in by greed, and was now back at square zero.
Money had always gone quick. Any money that he’d ever made working or boxing was flippantly, carelessly disposed of. Later, he’d regret how he lost it, then resort to some illegal or scrupulous activity to get it back.
He always felt the desire to attain more. Or the need. Having more. Feeling more. Someone in a position like Meddi’s can’t afford to think that way. Drug binges and benders are a surefire way to lose all your money without realizing it until it’s over. Boom Bam. Suddenly you’re at the bottom of the well, desperately hoping someone or something will pull you up.
Meddi, a man who had gambled with every aspect of his life for as long as he could remember.
Near death situations, murders; drug deals worth thousands of euros; underground fights with brass knuckles; those fights, thousands of euros placed on him to win, and thousands of euros placed on his opponent; those bottom-dwellers out to get him, and Meddi knowing all too well that he had it coming just as much as anyone who could’ve had a reason to off him.
So, with just a few hundred euros he’d managed to save throughout his drug-slinging and boxing career, five-notes and two-coins he’d thrown in a jar every now and then, he fled to Spain. He didn’t know a lick of Spanish, but he was clever, and had even learned computer programming in a short stint at a technical school after graduating from his Gymnasium.
And now: standing at the front desk of the cheapest hostel in the Barcelona city limits with Harris’ twenty, denied a bed at the inn, rightly dejected through none’s fault but his own, and stuck in front of poor Arpan, who looked away awkwardly while Meddi put his head in his hands and began to cry.
God peered in, right then, to watch the situation unfold. To him it was an instant – the first loan of thirty euros, the payback, the gambling win, and the subsequent 1100 euro loss, which did not happen quickly, but had been drawn out over a multiple-hour series of extremely bad virtual blackjack luck. This time he was more than just a fly on the wall. God decided to take the form of Arpan’s daughter, Shivani, who was coloring in the back room where Arpan had just been typing away. Now, Shivani, or God (at this moment in time – what a funny saying), watched big, bad, scary Meddi begin to sob at the thought of his first paycheck being gone, at the thought of being forced to sleep on the streets the next two weeks. And God thought, while occupying that hostel daughter’s body, that Meddi’s sadness wouldn’t linger – that it would surely turn into something else entirely. For the first time in nearly two years, Meddi allowed himself to be overcome by rage – volatile, ugly, violent rage – which first showed itself in his face, transforming from a partially-hidden sob to a distorted, stretched, eerily unpleasant grin crowned by wild, frantic eyes.
Meddi finally mouthed a response, his voice cracking and grinding.
– I’ve had a horrible night, man. Give me a bed for two more nights...You better just give me a bed for two more nights!
He was trembling. His arms were shaking in sync with his voice.
– No, sir. I was told not to let you stay. I’m sorry.
– Fuck, man!
Meddi stormed back up the stairs to his room. It sounded like a stampede of Spanish bulls.
God’s glistening brown eyes took on an empathetic gaze that no soul wears better than a five-year old girl’s. The thing about God taking the shape of a human is this: even the creator of the universe can’t resist feeling a bit of human emotion. So when God takes the form of the five-year old daughter of an immigrant hostel owner, he starts to feel some of what she would be feeling in that situation. That makes God liable to show active empathy. So in this case, God decided to stop Meddi from doing what he was about to do (with a broken bottle of New Amsterdam Vodka) to her father, innocent old Arpan.
Before I could make it out of bed, not ten minutes after I’d given Meddi the twenty euros, he cascaded back into the room. Not a single person was awake, willingly. Most had been woken up by his last barge-in. This was before I could make it to Madrid and give away all of Meddi’s Lucky Strikes.
I’m laying in bed, trying to wake up, rummaging through my bag for my FlixBus ticket. I’m wondering how someone could lose that much money, and mad at myself for so begrudgingly giving Meddi another twenty euros. But also at so willingly giving him the twenty euros, and taking the cigarettes, which he could probably use more than I. Especially now.
The door slammed open, and a chorus of bunk bed groans met Meddi. He didn’t process them. He was pissed. Absolutely pissed. In both the British and American sense. His blinders were on. He could care less whether he pissed anyone else off, and probably preferred that everyone be just as pissed off as he was.
He grabbed the empty bottle of New Amsterdam Vodka from the floor beside his bed and walked back out the door. I got up, quickly slipped on my sandals, and followed him, turning the lights back off to appease the peanut gallery of tired travelers. I thought I felt something pulling me, like I had to quickly follow him.
It was the deranged look in Meddi’s eyes, as he picked up his empty vodka bottle, that scared the living shit out of me.
Meddi bounded back down the stairs. The veins on his arm pulsated. He clenched the bottle so hard that it looked like it could shatter. He turned back into the lobby and pointed the bottle at Arpan, who was already staring down the staircase as he heard Meddi’s heavy footsteps.
– I been through more shit in my life than you would ever know, man. You get on your computer right now and put me in a bed. I don’t sleep outside. I only slept outside one time and I was camping in the Ardennen and I hated it. I only have twenty euros. You let me sleep in a bed. I’m not asking you! I’m telling you. I been through more shit in the last night than you ever been through. If you knew, you’d put me in a bed.
The bottle, pointed at Arpan’s face, trembled from Meddi’s anger. Arpan held his hands out by his chest.
– Look, I don’t know what you have been through, sir, but I am sorry. I have been through a lot too. I came here with my family, and had to learn Spanish, and had to help open this hostel in a bad neighborhood. All to leave India! All for something better! I was told not to let you stay because you are causing complaints, and when that happens, we get bad reviews. Put the bottle down! You are insulting me. You will never know what I have been through, and you will not cause more problems, especially in front of my daughter!
Harris was a few minutes behind Meddi. Now he stood behind them, watching.
– Look, well, both of you have been through a lot, I’m sure. Meddi, why don’t you just stay someplace else?
– I can’t afford another place, man!
– There’s a nice park with many benches very close.
– Shut the fuck up, you curry-eater!
– Oh, you got me, sir. Is your point that curry is delicious?
That broke the string. Meddi turned around, and it looked like he was going to run out the door for a split second. But he didn’t leave – he took the bottle and slammed it against the door handle, shattering it in half like the explosion of a glass bomb.
Arpan’s daughter watched with her eyes wide, unblinking, her face expressionless. Harris was shocked and motionless, trying to say anything that would make sense to Meddi in the moment. Arpan tried to get his phone out of his pocket to call for help, but that was just instinct – Meddi was going to follow through with his plans, and would be done in a few seconds – Meddi, a 6’3” block of muscle with a shattered vodka bottle, lurching toward Arpan, the innocent, small-statured desk worker.
Meddi was just a few steps away now. As he neared Arpan, the intangible heat in the room could be felt. It was a situation on fire. Then, Meddi took the bottle back and prepared to take his first swing. His arm lurched forward –
The bottle fell to the ground and shattered.
Standing in front of a cowering Arpan, Meddi looked down – at Shivani, who clutched tightly to her father’s leg.