There are a few memories in my life I try not to look back on. In fact, there are entire years I’d rather not remember. Specifically, those six months in Madrid –when I was wearing those red bodycon dresses from ASOS and my chin acne was flaring up. There was a moment, however, in those six months that changed me. A moment I want to forget but can’t because the memory is too ugly, too strong, too vivid, and because I can’t forget it, I must live with it.
It was a Saturday and I woke up with a text from Cristina. Where are you? It starts in 15 minutes. It was a wine tasting course offered by the university for study abroad students. One of those mandatory activities the program put together. I was hungover when I got there because I’d been out with my thirty-seven-year-old Spanish ‘boyfriend’ the night before.
Even though I was only twenty-one, I had the wherewithal to know that him whistling at girls while I stood next to him with a whiskey ginger in hand wasn’t a good sign. But at twenty-one you don’t have the self-confidence yet to excuse yourself from situations. Instead, you let them play out until you end up on your ass.
I thought Alberto was my boyfriend because he took me to meet his family. He drove me in his Range Rover to the suburbs of Madrid where I used my broken Spanish to talk politics with his dad. I guess I also thought he was my boyfriend because he cooked for me once in his shiny bachelor pad of black marble in a basement apartment with the red leather couch.
Cristina was waiting for me impatiently as I ran up the long corridor to the group that was congregated in the hall while an older gentleman with silver hair spoke. I don’t remember what he was saying because I was trying to figure out why a camera crew was there. The reporter with thick, shoulder-length brown hair pushed back in a red headband complimented by a red power suit was making me uncomfortable. What’s the story here? I thought. I told myself to keep away from the camera. Don’t get drunk and do something stupid. Nothing good can come from her.
The silver-haired man stood in the front of the classroom writing words like ‘pineapple’ and ‘cherry’ in Spanish on the board. The bottles of wine and silver spit buckets felt out of place on the desks.
I never used the spit bucket. I don’t remember much except the woman with the red suit eyeing me from across the room. Then the camera in my face. Then myself, Cristina and Gabe at the park outside the university with four wine bottles Cristina got from the silver- haired man. Me throwing one at a tree.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I woke up at 3 am like I always do when I’ve had too much wine. What did I say to that reporter? I remember talking a lot. But what was I saying? It’s fine. No one watches the local news anymore. It’s fine. I didn’t give them my name. No one can find it on YouTube. It’s fine, no one saw it.
The next two weeks went by in a blur. Alberto wasn’t texting me and when my mom and sister came to visit for a week I took them to the restaurant he took me on our first date. Ironically, he was there on another first date with some other blonde twenty-something. I ordered two whiskey sodas and told my mom I would take my sister out. I got her drunk and let men hit on her while I threw back tequila shots.
The day they left I was so upset, so distraught, I went against my conviction to never speak to Alberto again and drunk texted him. I need him to face me. He came over around 2 am. He ignored how sullen I was acting, and instead tried to make a pass at me. When I refused, he didn’t ask what was wrong and he didn’t succumb to my desire to hash it out. Instead he grabbed his coat, walked towards the door and delivered the gut wrenching line of, “By the way, my mom saw you on TV the other day.”
I never saw the clip, so I’ll never know what that reporter’s story was. But I know what the story was for me: TIME TO GROW UP. And even though I hate that time of my life and don’t think I can go back to Madrid without a wave of memories choking me, I’m happy the moment happened then and not later. In that moment, at twenty-one in La Latina section of Madrid, I grew up.
And millions of other embarrassing things will happen and have happened, but never that one again. And I’m grateful for it. Because at twenty-one I learned never again to date a thirty-six-year-old who picks you up at a street café and tells you you look like Hannah Montana. I’ve learned not to do wine tasting courses on an empty stomach. I’ve learned never to be near cameras while drinking. I’ve learned the lessons of our life don’t come in fun, cute packages like the movies. They come in memories that flood in at 3 am and make you want to hurl yourself out the window. But I’m trying to let myself unearth them. To tell them without shame. Get them out of me. Because when you tell the stories, they become less like bad memories and more like the quirky unique anecdotes that make up our lives.
I also hope this story brings you comfort in the fact that you are not alone. You have not done the most embarrassing thing. You have not been the only person to be young and naive and foolish. I hope this story encourages you to tell your story. To suck the most awkward, painful, embarrassing stories out of your memory and release them. Because once they’re out of you, they don’t hurt you as much. Once they’re out of you, they’re just more stories in the universe.