The Taste of Dust

It is 1969—a dry summer, as are most Spanish summers. The group of American teenagers takes day trips to Segovia, Toledo, and El Escorial, the bus dragging a cloud of dust behind it. Sometimes they stop at a roadside café for lunch or refreshments. The fine grit mingles with the sangria in the pitcher, coats the sandwiches of ham and fried eggs inside crusty bread. The dust isn’t a bad thing. It softens the edges of the austere whitewashed buildings and burnishes the distant barren hills. It is acceptable, inevitable.

When the group first gathers in the lounge at the Heath School to prepare for their trip, Susan is awe-struck by the others. Most are older and seem worldly, cool. Students of East Coast prep schools, they are already smooth with strangers. Susan worries about whether to shake hands or not and smiles her Midwestern smile too eagerly; they ease into conversation with each other, finding common friends, trading jaded complaints.

Patience is assigned to be Susan’s roommate in the apartment of the Madrid family that will host them. Patience parts her lanky dark hair down the middle of her skull, leaving an uncompromising white slash. Her wide face has a squashed look, giving her a permanent scowl.

You’re tall, she complains to Susan when they stand up after the introductory session. I thought you were short like me.

Susan doesn’t know what to say. She’s not that tall—several of the older girls are taller—and she hasn’t been trying to disguise her height. She feels unjustly accused but also vaguely guilty. In confusion, she apologizes.

You’re just a little short-waisted, Susie, says Dolly, one of the two girls from a Virginia boarding school. Y’all looked petite sitting there, but you’re not, really.

Dolly makes it sound like a minor flaw. Dolly herself is flawless but Susan doesn’t take her remark as criticism. It was stated as an observation, not an accusation.

Patience narrows her eyes.

In the late 60s, American girls have a certain reputation in Spain. Susan is 15. She’s had boyfriends before but only as a sort of home science experiment. They’ve made-out and to her discomfort one once tried to touch her breasts. Her knowledge of passion comes from novels. So it is a new experience for Susan to step off the plane in Madrid and become a sex object.

The attention is occasionally annoying but not particularly frightening. On a crowded Madrid subway, she feels a warty hand sliding under her skirt. Dolly and the other girls have already told her how they grind their heels into the instep of these old lechers. Susan hears a muffled gasp and the hand is withdrawn.

When the American girls go to a discotheque, Spanish guys crowd around them, begging to buy them a drink. On the street, the omnipresent Guardia Civil officers flirt with them. Guapa, guapa, they say as the girls walk by. It’s the equivalent of a corny American come-on: Hey, Beautiful. The soldiers offer to walk with the girls and protect them. The girls look at each other and laugh.

Do they need protection? Some of them will undoubtedly lose their virginity on this trip (some already left it behind). But it will be willingly lost. In one or two cases it will be lost to those same Guardia Civil officers so eager to provide protection.

Susan herself is awash in a slop of hormones suddenly activated. She and Patience land in the apartment of a Spanish family with two teenage sons—a curious choice on the part of the trip organizers. Patience immediately falls in love with one of the sons, Mario, who is short and squat. Every night Susan endures a boring discussion of Mario’s merits and the miniscule indications he has made that prove he is swooning equally over Patience, which in fact he is not.

Meanwhile, Susan lies on her narrow cot, suffused with a paralyzing secret desire for the other son, Carlos. Carlos, the artist. Only 17, he already has his own skylit studio on the top floor of a nearby building. He has taken Susan there and shown her the paintings leaning against the walls, the brushes stashed in clouded glass jars, the stretched blank canvas set upon the easel. The studio is appropriately cluttered; a layer of dust covers the less-used implements. To Susan’s untutored eyes, Carlos’s work looks likes Picasso’s. Carlos himself looks like a young Pablo, with the same bumpy features, the same intense bulging eyes.

Carlos calls Susan, Susanna, the “s” soft, the “a” broad and gentle. Her Spanish quickly improves from the rudimentary form with which she arrived in Madrid. They wander around the city: she sits and watches for hours in the Prado as he copies a Goya; they walk for miles in the Retiro. Talking, always talking, his hands moving, shaping the space in front of him but never, it seems, interested in touching Susan. His warm smiles are disappointingly platonic, though she would faint from desire were he to place his hands on her shoulders and plant a kiss on her mouth.

Ah, but Susan is fickle. She also entertains a less-weighty crush on Peter, one of the prep school boys. For those American boys, Spain is a training session in early alcoholism. Beer, wine, hard liquor—it’s all available. They go out drinking every night. Sometimes the girls can get them to dance at a discotheque but most of the time they are too shitfaced to stand and move their feet. Peter is no different but he has panache as a drunk. His blond curly hair is tousled, his white button-down shirt rakishly untucked, his eyelids heavy. He dances, too, when the other guys can’t. Unlike Susan, Peter really is tall. When Susan stands next to him, she can imagine pressing her palms against the wrinkled rough Oxford cloth of his shirt and sliding them up to his collarbone, her eyes not meeting his. She finds the combination of his solidity, dissolution, and grace almost irresistible.


Sydney sits in her room. The music is loud, a moaning rumbling sound which disturbs the earth-tone calm of the rest of the house. On her walls are posters, most in black and white but some tinged with shades of mossy green or slashes of scarlet. The people in the posters wear leather clothing with needles sticking into it. The females have touches of black lace and fishnet, and kohl-rimmed eyes. One man sports a huge dragon tattoo on his arms and back. A woman has wrapped a boa constrictor around her neck as if it were made of feathers. Pelvises jut. No one smiles.

Sydney is texting with her friends. Pa-link, pa-link: the lilting tones sound the alert that new messages are arriving. Sydney chews on a piece of her hair as she reads the messages and writes back. Her hair tastes like a mixture of apricot shampoo and henna, an earthy taste almost like some sort of fresh dug vegetable. Sydney types rapidly. From outside her door, a constant clicking runs under the music’s thrum, punctuated by the light-hearted and arrhythmic pa-link, pa-link of new messages coming and going.

Sydney’s messages are full of odd little abbreviations and signs, some only known to her friends and their cohorts. In this secret language they carry on prosaic conversations, complaining about their teachers, parents, or other kids, or raving about new CDs they have discovered. But sometimes they share secrets. Sometimes the typing slows down a little and Sydney looks out the window for a moment.

Last summer Sydney went to Italy with her cousin and great aunt. Italy was dusty, too, but the light was less harsh—more golden than it is in Spain. There was wine to drink but Sidney didn’t have any. Her great aunt didn’t think Sydney’s parents would approve. Sydney didn’t really think she’d be allowed to have wine at age 15; it was the waiter in the trattoria who suggested it.

At each hotel, the first thing Sydney does is to figure out how to plug in her iPad so she can get on WiFi and contact her friends. Gd, ths s sooooo boooring L, she taps out to her friends. They sympathize.

It isn’t all that boring, not all the time. In Rome, Great Aunt Julia takes Sydney and Alexi to a disco. Julia sits at a table and nurses a drink while the two cousins pretend that she isn’t there. They dance for two hours straight. Sydney thinks the euro-techno music kind of sucks but it’s fun just the same. There are several interesting guys. One has a cool British accent; she is flattered when he singles her out for attention. They compare their jeans—same brand. And they both are wearing black tee shirts with the name of a band on the front. That’s what starts their conversation. You like Dogleash? he asks Sydney. When she nods, he says, me too.

Sydney has to get close to his chest to read the tiny writing on his shirt. He smells faintly of cigarettes and sweat. Fracas? she asks. Who’re they?

They pronounce it “frah-cah,” he explains without making her feel stupid. Brilliant band. Quite new. They’ll be big in a year or two. If you like Dogleash, you’ll adore them. It’s Luke, by the way.


I’m called Luke. That’s my name.

Oh. Sydney.

They hang out together for the rest of the time at the disco. Sydney tries to give Luke her Gmail address but he evidently doesn’t remember to write it down. He never contacts her.

Instead, in Italy she is plagued by a constant stream of emails from her parents, sometimes more than one a day. Are you having a great time? they want to know. Are you getting along well with GA Julia and Alexi? Aunt Julia can be really fun if she lets her hair down. Isn’t the food amazing? What did you think of the Sistine Chapel? The Uffizi? Siena? Positano?

Sydney doesn’t know what her parents want from her. Of course, she’s having a good enough time. The food’s ok. It’s better than sitting at home but not earth-shattering. Nothing much happens. Great Aunt Julia plans each day to the minute and worries about whether a taxi will come to their hotel or if she should have tipped an insolent waiter. Alexi wants only to shop every minute and makes fun of Great Aunt Julia behind her back.

Sydney takes four rolls of film in Italy, some of odd subjects, like a tangle of tree trunks near Florence. Though she’s proud of how some of the more experimental shots turn out, she dreads having to describe everything to her parents. They want to know it all.

Sydney stops in the midst of a flurry of emails and closes the computer. She looks in the mirror over her bureau. In the glow of her lamp’s red light bulb she looks grayish, she thinks. Mom, she calls out, but her voice doesn’t carry over the music.

Mom! Sydney leans over the banister in the upstairs hall. Mom, there’s a party on Saturday at Elizabeth’s. I want to go.

Sydney’s mom stops writing checks for a moment in the kitchen and thinks. She has heard that Elizabeth smokes a lot of marijuana. I’m in the middle of doing the bills, Sydney, she says. Let’s talk about it at dinner.


After spending eight weeks in Madrid, the American group heads to the Costa del Sol for the final two weeks of the program. Here there are no Spanish classes and the field trips are few and far between. The chaperones stay in one apartment in a high rise along the beach, the boys occupy two others, and the girls stay in another two. To Susan’s relief, Patience has chosen to stay in the other girls’ apartment. The apartments are all on different floors. Susan’s apartment has a bidet in the tiled bathroom, which the girls use to rinse their sandy feet.

Susan writes a last postcard to her parents: it takes so long for mail to arrive from Spain that she’ll be home before any postcards she writes after this. We did this, we saw that, she says. My Spanish is improving. Everything is fine. It was hard to say goodbye to the Guttierez family—they were so nice to Patience and me. She imagines her mother reading it aloud to her father at dinner. She doesn’t miss them.

Susan does miss Carlos. In her bags are several paintings, carefully rolled up. She tries calling him from Fuengirola the day after they arrive but Carlos seems startled to hear from her, and she finds that her Spanish isn’t nearly as fluent over the phone as it was face-to-face.

The last time they are in his studio, the day before Susan leaves, Carlos kisses her. Susanna, he says, and presses her against the wall. It isn’t a weak kiss, or unenthusiastic. In the hours that remain, Susan tries to find a way to ask Carlos, without actually asking him, what he meant by that kiss. Either he doesn’t catch the innuendo or he decides not to answer. Susan takes the train to the south coast in a haze of infatuation, her breasts tingling, her underwear damp. Carlos quiere  Susanna,  Susanna  quiere  Carlos, she writes over and over in her journal.

After a few days in Fuengirola, Susan’s erotic longings for Carlos subside. Peter invites her and Dolly to sleep on the beach with him. They stay up all night talking, lying on hotel sheets that they spread on the coarse sand. There are shooting stars. Susan thinks that she catches Peter giving her meaningful, soulful glances, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. When the gray early morning light filters in, the fishermen push painted dories into the water. Later, when the sun is hot, the three of them buy fresh grilled sardines from the kiosk set up on the beach where the fishermen bring in their catch. Susan drops one of her fish in the sand. A fisherman washes it off for her in a bucket of seawater and puts it back on the grill.

Dolly leaves to take a shower and change her clothes.

I have an idea, Peter says, turning his clear blue eyes on Susan. Want to do something really wild?

Like what?

Like take a fucking ferry to Tangiers.

Really? Susan is thrilled that Peter has asked her but scared at the thought of doing it. How far is Tangiers?

Not too far. I have some friends who went last year. They said it was totally cool. You like hash, don’t you?

I’ve never tried it. I like pot, though.

Oh, hash is like pot but 100 times better.

Wow. Susan nods.

Anyway, my friend said that you can buy it all over the place in Tangiers. We could go there, spend a night, score some hash, and get back by the next afternoon, and no one would ever know.

Wouldn’t they notice we were missing, though?

Not if we plan it so that they think we’re here. Nobody noticed that we slept on the beach last night, did they? Really, they’re so fucking stupid, they’ll never find out.

How much would it cost? I’m almost out of money.

No problem. I’ve still got tons.

Would we bring it back? The Spanish are really paranoid about drugs…

We’d have to figure something out. Either use it all there or find a secure hiding place for it. What do you think? Would you dare to do it?

Of course I would. Of course. Why not?

As Peter and Susan walk off the ferry, they are surrounded by a horde of beautiful small dark-haired boys in caftans, some as young as 6 or 7, crying out, You want some sheet, man? I got really good sheet for you. Follow me, I get you really good sheet.

Susan is enthralled and terrified. She stays close to Peter. First things first, he says, guiding her toward a shop with caftans hanging around its doorway. They each find one that they like, discover that the price is unbelievably cheap, and buy several more.

Next, a place to rest our weary little heads, he says, squeezing Susan’s arm. He seems to know of a hotel. Susan follows him, holding onto a piece of his caftan as they weave through the crowds clogging the alleys. The hotel is also incredibly cheap—the equivalent of a few dollars. They go up to check out their room and find that it has a door out onto the rooftop. There is a sink in the room, but no toilet. That’s down the dimly lit hall. Susan hopes she won’t have to use it in the night.

Now, to score some hash, says Peter. Off one of the alleys in the maze of the casbah, they enter a dark room. Old men sit nodding around a bubbling hookah. Susan is momentarily startled when Peter disappears but in a few seconds he returns, a great smile creasing his face. We’re fucking golden, he says.


Sydney picks at the pork chop on her plate. She knows her mother thinks she doesn’t eat enough. Her mother doesn’t know that Sydney keeps a stash of candy in her room. The cleaning lady has noticed all the wrappers in Sydney’s trash but doesn’t mention it to Sydney’s mother.

Sydney jabs the pork chop again. A pink fluid comes out. Blood. Gross, she says. I can’t eat this. She retires her fork.

Sydney, tell us about this party you mentioned earlier, says her mother.

It’s at Elizabeth’s. I don’t know much else.

Well, who’s going? Will her parents be there?

Yes, Sydney sighs. They’ll be there. Everyone’s going. You know.

Do you think it’s a good thing? Will people behave, do you think?

Jesus, Mother.

Sydney, watch your language, her father says. He shakes the ice in his glass.

Well, honey, I don’t want you to get in situations that are dangerous for you. Sometimes those parties can be pretty wild. She turns to Sydney’s father. What do you think about it?

Between bites of pork chop, Sydney’s father says, It’s probably fine. Elizabeth’s parents are good people.


When the sun sets, the tempo in Tangiers picks up. Plaintive music swirls through the air. Susan and Peter sit on the roof and look at the rooftops around them. Below, a family prepares its evening meal on a brazier. Oil lamps twinkle in the dusky air. Thrusting minarets gleam in the last of the sun. Charcoal and smoke ride the breeze. The air is soft on Susan’s skin through the loosely woven caftan.

Peter has just shown her a large brown cube that he says is the hashish. He’s trying to decide whether they should smoke it or simply eat it. He pulls his bong and his jackknife out, cuts off a small piece of hash, and sets it alight in the bong. Susan takes the pipe and gingerly inhales. Instantly, she chokes on the acrid smoke. Tears stream down her cheeks.

Not a smoker, eh? Peter cuts another small piece from the block and hands it to Susan. Just eat it, he says, laughing.

It tastes like dirt, Susan says. But she eats it anyway.


It’s past 11:00. Sydney’s parents have gone to bed after watching PBS all evening, effectively barring Sydney from watching television. She worked on her homework in an uninspired fashion. Now she’s lying on her bed, listening to a depressing song. Sydney doesn’t enjoy the music so much as feel mesmerized by it.

She worries that she’s not contributing much to the world. She wants to, but she doesn’t know how. Her parents are so smart, so good at everything. When they talk, they have strong opinions. There never is room for her thoughts, not that they’re probably worthy of being stated. Someone is always ready to correct or adjust them no matter how gently or politely. Her thoughts are uninformed, stupid. What’s the point of it all? she wonders. What’s the point of my life?

Now it’s past midnight. Sydney is thinking about Elizabeth’s party. Maybe there will be some weed there. Should she? Probably not. She’s never managed to get high on it, anyway. Her parents would be so disappointed if they found out she smoked. And they would. They always find out everything. Sydney feels like she lives in a glass box. Every minute is accounted for. Everything that goes into her mouth is examined as closely as when she was two. Every action she takes is leading up to her freaking “future,” whatever that is.

It sucks, she thinks. Thank God I don’t have a boyfriend. They’d be all over me—afraid I’d get pregnant or HIV. Not that they’d need to worry. All the boys I like don’t even notice me. What’s the point?

Sydney’s stomach rumbles. She reaches for a piece of candy from her stash, then stops. Candy isn’t good for me, she thinks. Maybe if I didn’t eat candy, I wouldn’t be so fat. I could wear size 3 instead of 5. Maybe people, like that English guy Luke, would take me more seriously. She gets up and looks in her mirror again, sucking in her cheeks. Yes, she thinks, I do look more serious. She lies on her bed and makes a mental list of all the things she’s no longer going to eat. She feels strong. Maybe life will have a purpose after all.


Eventually Peter and Susan stumble back into the hotel room from the roof, barely remembering to lock the door. They fall into a deep, drugged sleep. At some point in the night a hand jiggles the doorknob from outside. They stir, Peter shouts something, and the jiggling stops.

When they awake in the morning, it is late, almost noon. They have to rush to make the ferry. Peter asks Susan to hide the remaining hashish in her new Moroccan leather bag, between the lining and the leather. When they pass through Spanish customs, Susan is trembling in her caftan, but the stocky uniformed lady only throws her a dirty look.


Sydney hasn’t eaten much all week, just a few pieces of candy, and now she’s thrown the rest of that away. She likes the emptiness, the gnawing feeling in her stomach. She can stick her hand between her jeans and her waist. Already she thinks she can see elegant hollows developing in her cheeks. She decides not to smoke any weed at Elizabeth’s because it might make her want to eat something. At the end of each day, she makes a list of all the foods she could have eaten but didn’t.

On Saturday evening, Sydney’s mother drives her to Elizabeth’s house. You sure you don’t want to eat anything before you go? she asks Sydney for the third time. Sydney doesn’t answer. Her mouth feels dry and tastes of dust.

Sydney wears a black bandanna. Everything she has on is black, including the thick-soled laced boots that clump up the walk. What? Jesus, are you coming in, Mom? she asks as her mother follows her.

The door opens. Elizabeth’s mom is standing there in a light blue sweater. Welcome, she says, welcome. How nice to see you, Sydney. And Susan, you look lovely. How’s Peter?

Very well, thank you, says Susan. She watches as the tall thin black form of her daughter evaporates into the crowd of kids.


[© Barbara Burt; Word count: 3925. Not yet published]