To tell you the truth, I was the one feeling a bit dumb. I wasn’t sure what to say except what I always said.
“I wanted to meet new people, have new experiences.”
He watched me closely, his eyes burning with an intensity that wasn’t there a few moments before. It’s like he was searching for the truth, like he knew I was lying. It made my skin prickle, electric and alive.
Still, he didn’t say anything. He just studied me. Even though he hadn’t moved, he felt closer.
I took in a short breath and looked away. “I know it’s not important, but I’m an astronomy student. I study the stars. I study light that died billions of years ago, planets and stars in other galaxies, millions of miles away. All that time and space. And I hadn’t even fucking been to Europe. I was beginning to feel like a chump.”
There was slough of silence between us. I eyed him gingerly.
His lips twitched into a smile and with that I felt like I could breathe again.
“A chump?” he said. “This is a bad thing?”
“Yes,” I said, my heart beat slowing down. “It’s a bad thing. I felt like I had no business studying the universe if I couldn’t even go overseas and study people there. And yes, I do actually want to meet new people and have new experiences, too, as cliché as that sounds.”
“So you want to study me?” he asked. His tone was innocent but the sparkle in his eye said otherwise. Thank goodness he kept putting out this jokey vibe—most of the time, anyway—or things would get…inappropriate.
“Yes,” I said. “I want to study all the Spaniards and find out their deepest, darkest secrets. Starting with you.” I wagged my eyebrows at him in an exaggerated motion to let him know I wasn’t serious.
“But you never answered what you hoped to gain from all of this.”
I wasn’t done yet? I sighed. “A better understanding of the universe?”
He tapped my arm briefly and I swallowed hard at his warm fingertips on my skin. He smiled. “You know what Vera, I believe you. But I believe that after spending a month with a bunch of Spaniards in the country, you’re going to understand the universe even less.”
I had a feeling he was right.
The bus ride flew right by as Mateo and I got to know each other.
He learned, as unimportant as it was, about my interest in astronomy and where I lived and whether I preferred white wine or red wine (I told him I wasn’t much of a wine drinker but he only laughed in response, as if I had just said the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard).
He turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had originally suspected. He had a five-year daughter named Chloe Ann. You could tell he adored her from the way his eyes sparkled when he mentioned her name. He showed me her picture from his wallet—she was a pretty little thing with light brown hair and cupid bow lips—but made no mention of his wife. I found that odd and started entertaining the idea that maybe he was separated before I stopped myself. I couldn’t go down that path either.
As for his line of work, it was kind of impressive. He co-owned several restaurants in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville and was hoping to expand to the UK or the US at some point, hence why his business partner thought he should brush up on his skills with the program. He mentioned that he was sent because he was the one who was always dealing with the media because of “you know.” Of course, I didn’t know but by the time I had the chance to ask, the people sitting in front of us turned around in their seats and invited us to chat with them.
I really didn’t want to—I felt like Mateo and I were having our own private thing. Plus, the English speaker of the two was a girl who usually hated girls like me. I could just tell, call it gut instinct. She was rather small, brunette, hair swept back into a ponytail, wearing glitter-framed glasses and a t-shirt that said Espańa on it that was a size too large for her. She had this expression in her eyes that was both judgmental and calculating, like she was already plotting my demise, which, on her make-up free and child-like face, made her look like a female version of Damien from The Omen.