The sky overhead was painfully blue as only the Madrid sky can be; not even a wisp of cloud blemished its blueness. The sun beat down on the pavement, blinding visitors and natives alike as they wandered about La Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s central square. But the air was still spring-cool so that the combination of coats and sun glasses gave the impression of a season gone crazy. My friend, Adriana, had suggested we meet by the bear and the madroño, Madrid’s logo, madroño being the tree that originally gave the city its name. I was early as usual and had already spent half an hour sitting in a café on the adjoining Montera Street watching the local fauna go by, everything from policemen to prostitutes, from bums to bankers, from local teenagers to aging tourists. Immigrants from Latin-America donned with yellow vests announcing their respective employers accosted passers-by with generous offers to buy any gold they were willing to part with; Internet stores offered the latest in computer hard and software, boutiques exhibited every kind of accessory from earrings to ankle bracelets, clothes stores had already filled their windows with multicolored summer-wear, Cafés offered a cup of coffee for 1.50€ and then charged 2€ if you wanted to sit at the tables set up in the walkway , which of course everyone did. I wondered how many of the “ladies” offering their goods or whatever actually spoke Spanish. Most of them looked Polish or Rumanian. A man, probably in his forties, shabbily dressed in baggy jeans and a faded green jacket approached a tall, high-heeled, mini-skirted platinum blond. I watched; they negotiated; the man walked away. They had not agreed on the price. I wondered how much she charged.
By the time Adriana arrived at the bear and the madroño I was beginning to understand what the feet of the “ladies” on Montera Street must feel like; she had been held up at the office. At any rate, there was no hurry. The plan was to take up the afternoon going to a movie and then from there go to the theater to see a play which had been much recommended. Living outside of Madrid, Adriana had thought it difficult driving to her house and then coming back in for the theater.
So we crossed La Puerta del Sol, passing the living statues, the spontaneous musicians, the fountain decorated with bright pink spring azaleas, the milling tourists and groups of youths plugged into their I-phones and mp-3’s, and walked up Carretas Street to the Plaza Jacinto Benavente (Spanish playwright, and producer, director and scriptwriter of movies from the last half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries). The two most emblematic features of the Plaza are the Teatro Calderón, one of the oldest and most famous of Madrid, now somewhat strangely renamed “The Häagen-Daz” Theater as it has been bought by the owner of the famous ice-cream, and the marvelous bronze statue of an anonymous street sweeper. The movie house we were headed for is located to the right of the theater and slightly further back. It is one of the largest within Madrid itself, with nine screens playing movies only in their original version (with subtitles, but not dubbed). To make a long story short, The Artist –which was the movie we originally wanted to see- was playing too late for us to be able to reach the theater in time, so we chose a less prestigious George Clooney film, bought a large container of popcorn and settled in to my favorite sport. The movie was mediocre at best, but I managed to get teary a bit at one point (my ex-husband used to tell everyone that I even cried in Jerry Lewis films) and when it ended we had more than enough time to get to the theater. The Plaza was full of people arriving or leaving the movie house and the crowd on the corner made it difficult to cross the street, but we managed just in time to hail down a passing taxi.
The ride to the theater was short and as we drew close to our destination, I went for my purse to pay the taxi. Instinctively I delved into it looking for the wallet. When my hand didn’t find it, I opened it wide and peered inside, I scrounged around with my hand, I pulled out the packet of Kleenex, the makeup kit, three ball-point pens and the case with my dark glasses, but there was no wallet. I felt the blood draining from my face and there was this horrible sinking feeling in my stomach.
“Adriana, my wallet isn’t in my purse,” I stammered.
“Are you sure?”
I scrounged around once more, hopelessly: “It’s not here.”
Adriana turned to the taxi driver and told him my wallet had been stolen and to please take us to the nearest police station. The driver mumbled something about that area of town being the worst for that type of thing. In the meantime, I was sinking into a dark hole of incredulity and wanting this not to be happening. There was a feeling of horror and the childish desire to turn to the clock back or simply to die. A vision of the crowd on the street corner flashed into my mind: it must have been there.
“When you asked me to hold your purse so as to go into the bathroom I noticed it was open. I was going to say something, but then I forgot” Adriana said raising her eyebrows. It was impossible for me in that moment to feel more of an idiot or more repentant or more desiring of a way to turn time around. I was fighting to keep my mind from following my stomach into the dark black well so that I might remember exactly what was in my wallet: credit cards… How many? All of them. My Spanish I.D., oh god! My passport. For some strange, unknown reason I had popped my passport into my wallet at the last minute, thinking ‘just in case’ although I had no idea ‘in case’ of what; my driver’s license, my health insurance card, even my movie pass and the supermarket card. I suddenly had the feeling my whole life had disappeared inside of that brown, leather wallet. I couldn’t even think straight.
“I have a service to cancel my credit cards, but I can’t even remember the name of it,” I babbled, as we arrived at the police station. Fortunately, Adriana took over. She told me to sit down while she explained to the policeman what had happened and received the instructions of how I should make out the report; then she located the name and number of the card service and gave it to me to phone. It felt assuring to be finally doing something specific instead of splashing around in the vortex of my mind trying to find memories of what was in the wallet and asking myself over and over how I could have let this happen. I called the company and arranged to have all my cards cancelled and reordered immediately. The sinking feeling got worse when I realized that I was no longer living at the address the card protection company had and that to go about changing my address (to another country, no less) at that moment was beyond my reach. I just did the best I could. I would arrange with the doorman at my old address to forward the cards to me. The next step was to report the theft. That was done by telephone from a booth that was in the waiting room of the police station. The report was then produced –it seems- in some central office and forwarded to the station where we were for me to sign. I was to wait.
Strangely enough, once everything was done, I automatically began to calm down. The sinking feeling of horror diminished and the panic disappeared altogether. I began to breathe normally as acceptance of the inevitable settled in. And then it happened. It was more of an image flashing through my mind than a complex memory: the image was my hand rummaging around in my bag in the dark movie theater, looking for a Kleenex. And suddenly, I imagined the brown leather wallet lying under the movie seat where it had fallen when I had finally managed to extract the packet of Kleenex.
“Adriana, supposing the wallet fell out in the movie house and is under the seat? I suddenly had the strangest feeling that this is a very real possibility.”
I couldn’t, at that moment, get up and walk out of the police station because I had to sign the report, so Adriana left and went back to the theater. Fifteen minutes later she was messaging me that they would not let her go into the hall where we had been until the movie was over, and that she would wait for me there. After signing my claim, I climbed into a taxi and gave the driver instructions to take me to the movie theater. On the way there I was completely calm having accepted that whatever fate the wallet decided to have –thief’s hand or movie-theater floor- was all right with me; I was once more in the flow, willing to go along with whatever life dealt me. In my pocket I had a 10€ bill that Adriana had loaned me so that I would have something to pay the taxi. I had no identification whatsoever and no money outside of those 10 euros. Was this what I was invited to experience: this no-havingness? There was a frisson of curiosity and something nearing excitement as I contemplated the tasks that lay ahead. The feeling of a challenge and the security that I would rise to it was very pleasant so that I actually reached the point where I did not care if the wallet was or not under the seat in the theater.
Adriana was waiting for me in the lobby. Together we sat on the steps that led down to the lower screens and waited. When the time came, I mounted the stairs to the upper level and entered the room where we had watched the movie. The lights had not yet come on but the young female attendant who had stopped us from going in previously was already there. In the glow of the credits that were appearing on the screen I could make out the row where we had sat. There was no one sitting in it and the bottle of water I had left in the holder was still there. I bent down and felt under the seat where I had placed my purse. My hand touched the cold cement floor and then a lump of something that felt definitely like leather. The wallet was there, huddled in the dark just waiting to be found.
It was only later, as we rode home in silence, that I realized what had happened, not to the wallet –that was obvious- but to me. I had believed the thought “my wallet has been stolen”, I had not questioned it. Adriana had said it, the taxi driver had indirectly confirmed the possibility and my mind had latched on to it as the absolute truth, blocking out any other option and all memory. As the mind told its horror story, the body reacted and for some time all was confusion inside. So it wasn’t until I calmed down that the memory of the search for the Kleenex could surface and the original thought could be put in doubt: perhaps the wallet had not been stolen, perhaps it had fallen out in the dark during the movie. And then, in the taxi on the way home, another memory surfaced: I clearly remembered zipping up my purse as we crossed the lobby to exit the movie theater, so my wallet couldn’t have been extracted at any moment between then and when we took the taxi. I must have opened it again to look for the wallet, but the panic of not finding it had obliterated all memories and I had been carried helplessly forth on the tidal wave of one believed thought. How often do we do this, believe a thought without questioning it and thus step into a nightmare from which we may never awake, or from which we may awake too late. This time it had cost me no more than the missing of a performance and the bother of waiting for new credit cards.
I smiled at Adriana: “You know,” I said, “it only would have taken three words to avoid this entire goings on: When I thought ‘The wallet is stolen’ I forgot to ask: ‘Is it true?’ Therefore I didn’t leave room for any other possibility. Do you realize how crazy that is? And to think, this is the way we usually live.”