ONE IS NEVER IMMUNE

I never thought I would fall, believe me; in spite of the fact that I live in a country where it is so prevalent that contagion is practically inevitable. And yet, I was positive: the bug would never bite me, it was not in my nature, it was against my better judgment and certainly had nothing to do with the personality I had so carefully constructed.  No.  Not I.

But there you have it. I sit here, Sunday noon and feverishly await nightfall, or rather a certain hour when night would definitely fall if it were not summer.  And I have to write this now, because if I don’t, I may not find the stamina or will to do it later. I might either be dancing insanely up and down the main drag wrapped in nothing but a red and yellow piece of flimsy material and screaming at the top of my lungs, or…

I don’t even want to contemplate the other possibility.  I could very well become part of a mass suicide or of a national depression so deep that no amount of financial crisis will distract it. No. I won’t think about it.

Anyway, to make a short story as long as I possibly can, it all began a week ago yesterday, which was Saturday 3rd of July of the year 2010 to be specific. I went to have lunch that day to my usual terrace in the park with my trusty companion, Salome (pronounced sâ-lo-máy). It didn’t take me long to notice that there was a special effervescence in the air. Balconies were draped with the Spanish flag; youths were wrapped in it; several young men had barbaric wigs painted yellow and red in stripes pulled tight over their heads; girls donned red shorts with red tee-shirts bearing the emblem of the Spanish soccer team. Almost everything was coming out … red and yellow. I queried the waiter and was informed that Spain was playing against Paraguay and might make it to the semi-finals for the first time in history. I nodded. “Oh, football; I understand” and went back to my lunch. But I couldn’t concentrate. The festive atmosphere enveloped everything, touching not only one’s eyes, but also the ears (hoots and whistles and shrieks from different mouth positions and tooters) and even the nose as gentlemen or not so much, broke out cigars and lit them in anticipated celebration of a longed for victory, and the aroma of beer gulped down or sipped wafted on the breeze.

After lunch, I wandered home and set myself to some work I had pending. Soon I forgot my lunchtime impressions and was even considering going to the late movies when a multitudinous shout sliced the air and brought me up short. “The Bernabeu” I thought to myself as I reached to open the window and check if the perceived sound had indeed come from the football stadium some three long blocks away. Then I remembered the game. There was another shout and then a sort of groan. By then I had figured the stadium was full of fans watching, on the two gigantic screens that had been set up for that purpose, the game in South Africa. Curiosity got the better of me and I switched on the television. The game was tied at “0” and approaching half-time. I decided to take a stroll in the park with Salome and savor the party atmosphere that was obviously brewing.

I hadn’t been mistaken. The bars and cafés were overflowing and one establishment had even wired up a television on the terrace which was full to the hilt with fans eyes glued to the screen. Business was booming. At indeterminate intervals, voices were raised with an expectant “Go, go, go” and then fell again with a mass lament of disappointment as the missed shot went out of bounds, or someone called foul, or Paraguay took over the ball. I stopped for a few moments in my favorite café and ordered a sparkling water. As I sipped it, my eyes would turn then and again to the television set on the far wall. And then I stopped trying to not look. Paraguay had committed a foul and Spain was to have a penalty shot at goal. Suddenly I was in the game; I wanted them to make a goal, I wanted them to win. The player ran, kicked the ball and ¡Zap, slam, bang! it zoomed between the goal posts and socked into the net behind. A triumphant cry started up and then… stopped suddenly as the referee called off-sides and cancelled the goal. The second shot missed, and the game went back to the usual running from end to end chasing the ball. I paid for my soda and left.

And then it happened: as I was leaving there was a shout that seemed to come out of the very walls of buildings and galumph itself down the avenues and up and out and never ending: ¡¡¡GOAL!!!!!!!!!!! People started jumping up and down, hugging each other, shouting, laughing, crying; young men punched each other in the arms, lovers embraced, older men slapped their neighbors on the shoulder and even the dogs started barking.  Everyone started waving flags from the balconies and the cars. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped and a breath-holding hush fell over the park, the streets, the buildings as if nothing dared move again until the referee blew the end-game whistle.

By the time this happened I was home. I was home, but not unscathed. The moment I walked through the door I turned the television on, located the football game and began watching. Then, as if suddenly understanding the gravity of what I was doing (me, the intellectual, the non-sports woman, the I’m-above-all-that person), I began pretending that I wasn’t watching. I would get up, go to the bathroom, begin to get undressed, hear something in the street and rush back into the bedroom to see what was going on. I remember vaguely getting terribly upset at the referee for not calling what the Spanish announcers said was a definite foul. I already was convinced that he had sold out to the Paraguayans or to high betters on the Paraguayan side. Then once more I’d decide I wasn’t really interested in football and go into the kitchen to make tea… and back again in a rush when the sound from the Bernabeu shot through the open windows. Finally, I realized that the game was drawing to an end and the score continued 1-0 in Spain’s favor. There were only three minutes left when I finally sat down and glued my eyes to the screen, watching above all the tiny clock in the corner that was marking the 3 minutes overtime the referee had conceded (no doubt, I thought, because he wanted Paraguay to make a goal). Time became endless, the seconds ticked by at a much slower rate than ever before, the Spanish team seemed to be always on the verge of letting the others get their longed for goal, and then, suddenly, it was over. Spain had won and the announcers were shouting at the top of their lungs that for the first time in history, Spain had made the semi-finals.

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t: it was only the beginning. The following day, already the talk about Spain facing the German team and the distant possibility of victory against such a foe filled the cafés and the television and the sidewalks. The game was set for Wednesday and I made no special plan to watch it. I was not a fan, I wasn’t at all interested in football; what had happened on Friday was just a quirk caused by the overwrought atmosphere of party. But on Wednesday it began happening again. The atmosphere in the streets, cafés and bars, even in the better restaurants, was electric. More balconies sprouted flags and it seemed that at least 75% of Madrid’s populace sported red and yellow colors in their clothes, on their skin with paint or on the banners that flew from their shoulders or out of car windows. The atmosphere was feverish. It was hoping against all odds that Spain would make the Finals. The German team had played the best of any in the World Cup so far, while Spain had barely scraped by each time with only one goal after losing the first game to Switzerland (unbelievably, I had gotten so far as to pick up the details in scraps of overheard conversation or announcers commentaries on the multiple televisions in every public establishment). To me it seemed like hoping against hope. I began to feel nervous, excited, an almost futile desire to see the Spanish team win, to watch Madrid fly into euphoria and party all night with a barely expected victory. I began to feel feverish myself. As the game took off at 8:30, I was as usual sitting on the terrace of the café I frequent, sipping a sparkling water with ice. I found myself gazing through the café window trying to catch glimpses of the game on the screen at the back of the room. It seemed that all of Madrid, with the exception of the waiters that were obliged to shuttle back and forth with drinks and food, was glued to television sets. It was announced that 40,000 spectators filled the Bernabeu stadium and the feeling was that all of Spain was holding its breath. Finally, I admitted I was caught. I paid for my water, raced home and turned on the set.  At half-time, I went to the kitchen and made a batch of popcorn which hopefully would keep me from gnawing on my fingernails, served myself an ice tea and returned to the screen. As Madrid sobbed and shouted and sighed and roared and swore, so did I with each shot at the goal that missed, with each good defense, with each stoppage of the enemy kick that might have marked a goal for them. My arms hurt with tension, I sat on the edge of the chair, I fretted and fussed over each inch gained, complained and threw up my arms with each meter lost, applauded elaborate weavings of the players to move down the field, fretted as the German team took over the ball again and again… and then it happened. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Spain had a corner kick, it floated over the German’s heads and came down as two Spanish players situated themselves to receive it. Suddenly one of them jumped up, and with a violent swerve of his head, hit the ball with the side of his skull, with a force so great it seemed impossible that a head had done it. The ball shot towards the goal posts, past the surprised goalie and straight into the loving hind net. The player was Puyol, a Catalan of non-descript height, with shoulder length hair and a head that must be made of steel judging from the velocity at which the ball responded to it.

My own shout of joy got lost in the roar that surged from outside and practically shook the walls of the house. Salome hid under the chair, shaking.  I couldn’t stop saying “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god… they did it, a goal, they did it.”  And then: “Please, God, let the game be over quickly; please don’t let the referee allow over time; please, God, let it end now.”  There were only a few minutes left but they seemed eternal. Germany suddenly appeared to dominate the ball and, once, made a shot at goal that would have tied the game if it had not been for the Spanish goalie, Casillas. See, now I even know their names. Before they were just stupid guys, running around a stupid field, chasing a stupid ball. Now they are MY team. Now I know that one is called Villa, and another Torres, and another Pedrito; that there is a Pique, and a Capdevilla, and many more.

When the referee blew the final whistle, and the score remained 1-0 in Spain’s favor, Madrid went bananas. Spain had beaten Germany. For the first time in the history of the World Soccer Cup, Spain was going to play in the finals with a chance of bringing the Cup home. I was dancing around my apartment alone, singing, crying, joyful, euphoric. I decided to join the party on the street. Poor Salome…

I took her with me. She was terrified. People were walking, dancing, running, crying, shouting, blowing horns, lighting firecrackers, honking in cars, flying flags out the windows of buildings and moving vehicles, revving up motorbikes, splashing in the city’s fountains, drinking beer as if there were no tomorrow, embracing total strangers on the street… It was madness, it was joy gone wild, it was euphoria at its height, and I joined in.  I had promised myself that if Spain won I would treat me to an ice cream, so I went to the restaurant-bar across the street and ordered vanilla-chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce. There I could talk to the waiters and the other guests as if we were all one, we all were talking about the game, there was nothing else of any interest going on in the Universe. The feeling of being one with everyone else was even more exhilarating than the triumph of Spain over Germany.

When I got home, I called my daughter in Mexico and gloated (she wanted Germany to win), then I called my son and we shared our joy. Then I just sat there for a few minutes and grinned. Outside the party went on and I didn’t know if I would be able to fall asleep. I got into bed anyway, pulled up the sheet, rested my head on the pillow, turned out the light and closed my eyes. At some moment I must have fallen off with that silly smile still plastered on my face. I couldn’t get rid of it, that silly smile.

Today, this evening, July 11th, 2010, is the final. Spain against Holland. Madrid holds its breath. Again, everyone is dressed in red and yellow. Even I put on red pants today. As hours pass and the kick off time nears (8:30pm), noise outside my window quiets to almost nothing. Occasionally, a car honks a meaningful tut-tut-tut to another one passing by and is answered in kind. People begin filling bars and cafés, or return home with bags of cold beer, a pizza, cheese, ham… anything to pick on while they watch. I will make my popcorn in a while, as soon as the game starts. Tonight there will be no faking it: I am going to watch the game. I admit finally that I am hooked: I want Spain to win, and I am afraid, afraid of the disappointment if we don’t. I have bated breath. I wish it would start, wish it would end, wish… wish…I think of the octopus, the one they keep showing on television. He is in an aquarium and they have placed two transparent plastic boxes in the water. One box holds the Spanish flag and, up till now, the other whatever team Spain is playing against. Each box has a mussel placed upon it. Then the octopus is set free. Up to now he has always eaten the mussel of the winning team, and for the last four games he has chosen the mussel on Spain’s box. Yesterday, they put the mussels out again. The octopus ate the one on Spain’s box, therefore predicting a win for Spain according to the people who have organized this affair. I hope he is right. If he is, if the Spanish team wins, the party that this whole country is going to throw, will end all parties. God bless football; if only we could all learn the lesson of togetherness it can teach us.

EPILOGUE

It is the morning after the night before and the whole world knows the outcome. Spain went wild. I, myself, watched until around 2 am when finally the street outside seemed to begin to quiet a bit. I cried when Spain made the only goal halfway through the second part of overtime. I watched and listened through the open window as Madrid burst into celebration. I called my kids on Skype and we partied across the ocean, sharing our excitement and our joy. Television picked up the Bacchanalia from all corners of the country; the Spanish people, rich and poor, important and unknown, young and old proclaiming “¡Qué grandes somos!” (How great we are) as if they had all, each one of them, played the game, kicked the winning goal, stood each exhausted moment of the overtime until the whistle blew and borne with their own hands the golden cup on high. And then it was over. Spain would continue celebrating but I was going to bed. I was worn out from the tension and the excitement, and I was grateful, very grateful that Spain had won. Feeling a very special tenderness and joy for this country that was my Father’s and today is mine, I dropped quickly into a deep, peaceful sleep.

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