By Aatif Rashid
Masood stood under the monument to Christopher Columbus in the sweltering heat of a Barcelona summer evening, staring down La Rambla and waiting for Lauren, the tall column rising above him into the darkening sky, the conqueror pointing out across the glittering water, when he remembered why he never liked visiting cities twice. There was something uniquely beautiful about seeing it the first time, about moving through unknown streets and happening upon the perfect view. Going back, the wonder was inevitably faded, and reality never as perfect as his memory.
The last time he’d been to Barcelona, Masood had been an undergrad and had quite enjoyed it—the architecture had been lovely and the atmosphere enchanting, and he’d met this girl at the local hostel who had herself been lovely and enchanting (they’d gotten drunk at the bar and then fucked in a storage closet). This time though, as expected, he felt uneasy being back. He was a grad student now (the unserious kind), studying English at Cambridge with a vague desire to be a writer in the back of his mind as a justification for all the money that he (his dad) was spending. On a whim, he’d decided to spend the summer months wandering Europe, a kind of twenty-first-century variation on the Grand Tour, when young British aristocrats would travel the continent to celebrate their coming-of-age and capstone their artistic and cultural educations (except that, of course, instead of a British aristocrat, young Masood was only an (upper) middle-class Pakistani-American). As recently as the previous night, he’d considered the tour a great success, as he’d found himself in bed in a hostel in Genoa, next to a girl he’d only just met. Then Lauren had sent him a Facebook message telling him she was coming to Barcelona for a business trip and that he should visit so they could “relive old times.” They’d only had sex once, and it had been a rushed, awkward encounter in the back of her car, both of them uncertainly rubbing their genitals against other, but still, Masood remembered it clearly and even a little fondly (after all, who can forget their first time). And so, before he knew it, he was on a Ryanair flight to BCN, plunging headlong into the past.
Masood hadn’t heard from Lauren in almost three years and hadn’t seen her in almost five, since high school. Facebook told him she was living in New York and working in consulting—and while he wasn’t exactly sure what consulting was, he assumed it was important and paid well, since Lauren had always been quite ambitious in high school, studying hard and getting into Columbia. While at the airport, he looked at her profile photo, a traditional portrait in business attire, on some New York bridge with a postcard-perfect view of Manhattan behind her. She actually looked even better than he’d remembered, her pencil skirt revealing quite a bit of her long legs, and he found himself growing excited at the prospect of Barcelona, so much so that he had to give himself a moment (two minutes, to be precise) in one of the bathroom stalls before rushing to board the plane.
When she finally arrived at the Columbus monument though, he barely recognized her (even though the photo was foremost in his mind). She had Lauren’s blond hair and Lauren’s blue eyes, but in person everything about her seemed more faded, like an old fresco, or a poorly chosen Instagram filter. He also thought her clothing made her seem so much older, loose jeans and a faded cardigan (given the heat, he’d been hoping she’d arrive in shorts or a small skirt). He knew she was only twenty-three like him, but he felt an ocean of distance between them.
She smiled widely and gave him a hug. Her skin was sweaty and sticky from the heat.
“Masood! You look exactly the same!”
They’d agreed beforehand via Facebook to have dinner, and Lauren told him she had a place in mind, so Masood followed her down La Rambla, through the evening crowds. He felt vaguely disappointed as he stared at her hips, which in these jeans had none of the shapeliness he’d been expecting after her photo. Maybe, he thought, if they ended up in her hotel room, he could ask her to put on that pencil skirt.
The restaurant Lauren had chosen was old-fashioned, though not in a charming way, with white tablecloths and perfectly folded napkins, mellow and uninspired jazz in the background, and the clientele all dressed in suits and un-ironic ties, the kind of generic fancy restaurant that Masood always associated with married people eating sad meals of overpriced steak and limp salads in silence. He couldn’t even tell they were still in Barcelona.
“We came here last night with a few clients,” Lauren said. “It’s great. Exactly like this Spanish restaurant I always go to when I’m in San Francisco.”
Once they were seated, Lauren ordered a bottle of red wine.
“This one’s delicious.”
Masood glanced at the price and wondered if he’d overlooked a decimal point. He thought with trepidation of the impending bill and whether it would be ungentlemanly to ask Lauren to split it.
When the wine arrived, though, and Masood had a sip (though he wouldn’t admit it, he couldn’t tell the difference between Spanish and Californian wines anyway), he decided to shelve his uncertainties. Lauren might have looked older, but Masood had slept with older women before. That girl in Genoa had been twenty-nine, possibly even thirty.
“So you’re in New York still?” Masood asked.
“Yeah. Working in consulting.”
He waited, hoping she’d explain what that meant, but she simply took a long sip of wine.
“Do you like it?” he finally asked.
“Not really. Lots of twelve-hour days, and always more work to do when I get home. It just makes me feel like time’s passing really quickly.” She frowned. “But let’s talk about something else. I want to hear about your life! Tell me about your Grand Tour!”
She seemed genuinely interested, so Masood gave her a detailed account of his travels (though he left out the girl in Genoa, and the girl in Venice, and the two girls in Milan). When he finished, she was staring at him with a melancholy look.
“Your life sounds pretty amazing,” she said.
Masood shrugged. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
Eventually, after they’d eaten, they found themselves sitting in silence, while the conversations of older couples circled them in a tepid buzz.
“It’s not at all like our first date,” Lauren finally said. “Do you remember?”
Masood thought back to that night, almost six years ago now, in San Ramon, their little suburb outside San Francisco. They’d gone to a cheap falafel place in the strip mall next to the Safeway and eaten their hummus wraps on the hood of Lauren’s car. They hadn’t said much, but it hadn’t been awkward, and they’d enjoyed the silence, watching the shimmering lights of the traffic as it zoomed by down the busy street.
“That was a nice night,” Lauren said, smiling wistfully.
When the bill came, Lauren refused to let Masood even look at it.
“No come on,” he said, feeling only a little emasculated and mostly just relieved.
Because Lauren paid, Masood told her he’d buy her a drink, at a tapas bar he remembered liking the last time he was here, and so they left the restaurant and walked into the Barri Gòtic, the cloistered network of Medieval streets in the heart of the old city.
As they walked, Masood tried to understand Lauren’s motives for this reunion. If she was interested in sex she was doing a good job of following the traditional male protocols, starting with paying for his expensive dinner—whatever that meal cost, he supposed it was at least worth some cunnilingus on his part. But he also knew Lauren and knew that probably wasn’t what she really wanted, and whenever they passed by a streetlamp, he could see it in her face, the way she looked at him when she thought he couldn’t see her, not with lust but with heartfelt fondness. He felt at first surprised and then flattered.
They arrived at the bar and entered through a wooden door, past a group of young people smoking and into an animated bustle of lively conversation. The room was mostly dark, but the faux-old-fashioned light bulbs lining the walls were just bright enough to give the space an ethereal gloom.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere to sit,” Lauren said.
They pressed their way to the bar, and Lauren waited behind Masood while he ordered. There was a girl next to him, someone he guessed was around his age (actually, she was about two years younger), holding a menu in her hand. Masood leaned over her shoulder to look.
“You should get this one,” the girl said, pointing. “It tastes like an English ale, if you fancy that sort of thing.”
Her accent brought Masood immediately back to Cambridge.
“Are you from England?” he asked.
“What does it sound like?” she said, laughing.
Her breath smelled like ale, a fruity, golden aroma, and Masood felt his head spin. What was it about English girls that always made him feel this way, and especially ones like her, with pale skin and blond hair? They had this naturalness, this freshness, this undiluted authenticity—the Old World in its pure form. It was, of course, just a fetish for whiteness, but still, poor Masood couldn’t help but romanticize it.
“I’m Anna,” the girl said.
They shook hands. Behind him, Lauren was frowning, and so Masood introduced her too.
“Hi,” she said, doing her best to appear cordial.
What followed was a lengthy and awkward pause. After a moment, Anna took her beer from the bar.
“I should find my friends. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
She smiled as she turned away, and Masood watched her golden hair until it disappeared into the crowd.
Lauren looked at him coldly.
“What? We were just talking.”
She shook her head. Around them, the crowd buzzed with excited laughter.
“Can we go?” Lauren said. “I don’t like it here.”
They walked in silence back through the Barri Gòtic before emerging again onto La Rambla. The street was now lit by the pale glow of lamplight. Two Spanish teenagers were making out outside the metro station, and underneath one of the lamps stood an old couple in floppy travel hats, hunched and squinting over a Lonely Planet guidebook.
“She was your type, I guess,” Lauren said, after a long silence.
They stopped at an intersection. Lauren stared out past the traffic and to the ocean beyond. Masood thought she was crying, but when she turned back to him, her eyes were clear and determined.
“Do you want to come see my hotel room?”
They climbed into a taxi, Masood’s heart beating furiously, while Lauren gave the driver an address in rapid-fire Spanish. Midway through the ride, Masood lost track of where they were, and when they stepped out into the warm air, he found himself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with giant glass and steel buildings and long rows of trees and too many cars zooming up and down along the broad street. He barely had time to take in the hotel’s enormity before he and Lauren were in the elevator, riding up to the top. His stomach churned at the sudden change in elevation.
Lauren’s room had the crisp white bed sheets of an expensive hotel and a balcony overlooking the busy street below. Above the bed hung a fake postmodern painting, vague red shapes and black and white smudges, to give the space that vague “modernist” look.
Before Masood could speak, Lauren put her arms around him and pressed her body against his.
“Kiss me,” she said.
And suddenly, he was elsewhere, in San Ramon five years earlier. They’d finished their falafels and were gazing out at the passing cars, when she turned to him and looked at him with those same determined eyes.
“Kiss me,” she’d said.
And he did, there on the hood of her car, he kissed her, the first time he’d ever kissed anyone—and he was so overwhelmed with the seeming impossibility of it, him, a brown kid, a Pakistani kid, kissing Lauren, who wasn’t just a white girl, but the white girl, straight A student, varsity lacrosse player, first chair flute in the marching band, mom in the PTA, dad in finance, older brother at Harvard, a big, old, old house with tall sycamores out front, and an extended family that was an amalgam of the DNA of all the counties of the Old World, melted together over the centuries into a pure American identity. In that moment, Masood felt like a conqueror, like Columbus crossing an ocean, kissing this white girl under the lights of the passing cars that were making their way westward, towards the Pacific.
But now, the white of the bed sheets seemed too artificial, and Barcelona, despite its Spanish name, didn’t feel anything at all like San Ramon, and Masood realized he no longer felt for Lauren what he’d felt then, that in the last five years that obsession, once concentrated, had become diffused across a whole spectrum of white women—and so he pulled himself away from her embrace.
“I’m sorry. It’s just not the same.”
Slowly, Lauren sat down on the bed. There was a wounded look in her eyes, and Masood felt an ache in his chest. The sound of the traffic floated in from beyond the balcony, like angry waves in a vast ocean.
“Why did you ask me to come here?” he said.
Lauren was surprised.
“What do you mean, why did I ask you? I wanted to see you, Masood. I missed you.”
She looked angry as well as wounded now, and there were tears running down her cheeks.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
Masood didn’t know what to say, so he just stared dumbly at the fake postmodern painting. It didn’t even look like the work of any particular artist and was likely just generated by an algorithm and produced in a factory, alongside a hundred other copies that were then shipped to every Hilton from Spain to California.
Lauren wiped her face with the sleeve of her cardigan and stared down at the carpet. “You cried when I left for Columbia,” she said. “Do you remember? You wanted to keep this going, and I didn’t, and you cried.”
Masood thought of that kid, that stupid kid, crying in his dorm room and staring at old photos of his high school girlfriend.
“I’ve changed a lot since then,” he finally said. “You might not think so, but I’ve grown up.”
They stared at each other for a long, sad, silent moment. Eventually, Masood turned away and left the room.
It was almost seven years before he saw her again. He was back in San Ramon, visiting his parents for the holidays, when he ran into her at Whole Foods.
She stared at him, and it was a second before her eyes flashed with recognition.
“Masood! Oh wow—you look exactly the same!”
He gave her a hug. She looked good, still dressed in jeans and a cardigan, but now with a casual, confident grace. He saw a ring on her finger and remembered from Facebook that she’d gotten married a year ago.
Masood learned that she was living here again, having left her consulting job in New York to take one less stressful in the city. Her husband worked as a banker or a broker or something like that, and it seemed to him that she was happy.
“Where are you living these days?” she asked. “Still wandering Europe?”
“New York, actually. Trying to make it as a writer.”
“Not yet. But I’m still young.”
Lauren smiled, and they said goodbye. He watched her for a moment, though, as she wheeled her cart up to a man (a white man) in the cereal aisle, holding a baby. He was dressed in a sweater and a button-down shirt and had the cropped hair and pudgy face of the kind of guy who’d probably always looked like he was in his mid-thirties.
A year or two before, Masood might have made fun of someone like that and written some snarky short story about a sad loser with a boring job. But he himself was on the threshold of turning thirty now, standing in a supermarket in the suburb where he’d grown up—and as he stared at Lauren and her perfect American family, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness. He thought of Columbus, standing on his flagship as it drifted out to sea yet again, watching the land recede before his eyes. In those moments, Masood wondered, when he set sail, whether from the Old World or the New, did he feel a similar pang for the continent he was departing? Did he ever wonder if this time he might never return?
Ahsan Butt talks to Aatif Rashid about “Grand Tour.”
Buy Aatif Rashid's debut novel “Portrait of Sebastian Khan” here.
Aatif Rashid is a writer living in Los Angeles. He is the author of the novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan, published March 18, 2019 from 7.13 Books. His short stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Metaphorosis, and Arcturus Magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and online on Medium. He currently writes regularly for The Kenyon Review blog about fiction writing and literature, and tweets regularly @aatif_rashid.
Senna Ahmad is a DC based graphic designer, photographer and digital illustrator. Much of her work revolves around her multi-faceted identity as a Pakistani American woman. Her work is inspired by the Urdu script, South Asian poetry, and the incredible strength of women in the subcontinent. Her work has been featured in Dawn.com, Scroll.in, Kajal Magazine, and other news publications. You can see more at sennaahmad.com, and find her on Instagram @sennaahmad.