When I was 12 years old, I ran away from home to the desert. I went four blocks east and climbed onto a hill that separated raw desert from rows of houses. My pre-teen self fiddled with pebbles, stripped tiny mesquite leaves from their stems, interrupted ant assembly lines—all the while cooling down, decompressing, thinking about what was for dinner. Resting on the fringes of my everyday world, the physical world with school and parents and volleyball, let me notice my slow breaths and re-enter my neighborhood feeling smaller. In my Tucson home, a dirt path lead me to something close to wilderness. It was five minutes away and always there.
In Madrid, I am small and packed into crowded places, but I don’t know where the city drops off. Where does this city end? When my friends and I finally become aware how much city stress has accumulated, we escape to La Pedriza, a mountain with hiking and natural pools that maintains its Spanish flare with tiny cafes tucked along the path where you can pause for a cerveza. We feel justified wearing our outdoorsy gear on public transportation and giggle about the level of cool our outfits would maintain in the States. It takes an hour, two trains, and one bus to get there. Once we arrive, we stray from the path and climb over boulders to reach our picnic spot. We perch on a smooth rock that rests at the bottom of a canyon and water flows around us.
On this island, we tell stories we already know and we stretch, extending our limbs into crisp, clean space and forgetting about the tightness of the city center.
We must stand on the hour-long bus ride back to Madrid as those who live where the city ends migrate to where the city begins. Upon arriving home, to Lavapiés and my third-story apartment where Helena makes curry, I can’t tell what I am missing more: a tranquil silence or a mound of dirt that looks over an empty desert.
We don’t reach the edge of the Madrid often. It isn’t until we leave that we notice the layers we have added and continue to carry throughout the city—the subtle and constant stress of avoiding dog shit, keeping your purse close, weaving through Spaniards and their unpredictable meandering habits. In this city, the concentration of people, smells, and objects wears on me, but I am sucked in. The fullness of Madrid is addictive, at once rich and toxic, like snacking on translucent, salty jamón while sharing a bottle of Crianza with friends on a Thursday night.
The physical closeness of things and beings connects us. The process of being forced in, insulated, and spit back out happens in most places: trains, bars, grocery stores, parks, even my kitchen. On a tight metro, when the doors open to a wall of people and no one steps out, you smash your way in and people embrace you, absorbed into the city—underground in a space where distinguishing one body from another seems impossible—so we make small talk, we chuckle, and we emerge as our separate selves with strands of a stranger’s hair stuck on our coats.
Moments of suffocation and separation happen daily, but what’s hardest is knowing when to escape.
Zoë Calhoun, a recent graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. After graduating with a major in Spanish and Digital Writing & Photography, she moved to Madrid to teach English.