Zoe riding her bike in Madrid

Collision and Community

Zoë Calhoun

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Living in Lavapiés: A Series Set in Spain

I like riding fast—making cars look stuck and slow. In Madrid, cycling takes huevos; even ask my dad who recently rode here with me and my friend Mario. The carefree riding of a designated bike path isn’t a possibility and that makes it fun. We take the lane and it’s safer that way. We glide through red lights and leave cars angry and waiting. It’s aggressive, efficient, and sometimes illegal. My commute to work includes two four-lane roundabouts. I sprint on these two wheels and show up sweaty.

I was coming home from a private class when I broke the back window of a small white hatchback on a narrow one-way road. I shattered his rear window with my chin, handlebars, and right elbow. It was my first time riding on that street. The sun had set and I was hungry.

An ambulance, blood, and my bike

I stay standing over my bike, but shocked. Surprisingly, the words that come out of my mouth are in Spanish “estoy bien”—I am fine. A young Spanish women responds in English with, “I think you need to sit down,” and wide, urgent eyes. She holds paper towels to my chin. She sits me down, gives me my phone, and tells me to call someone. Blood drips onto my grey canvas shoes and collects in the cracks of the cobblestones. I sit outside of a bar surrounded by Spaniards equipped with absorbent materials and advice.

The chatter of two old Spanish women snacking on patatas bravas and sipping on beer buzzes in the background. Spaniards in the circle surrounding me take turns retrieving paper towels, tissues, and gauze, deciding the best hospital for me and my busted face. Their faces remain blurry in my memory but I can’t shake the image of hands clenching bloody paper towels and napkins. From the ambulance, I call my dearest friend and roommate, Tiffany. She arrives in five minutes. That’s how close I was to home and to dinner. She brings my insurance card and her boyfriend to retrieve my bent and blood-splattered bike—the red one named Lole that still brings me so much joy.

Zoe, her friend, and two ambulance men

The medics seem to lack professionalism but make me laugh. They call me rubia, guapa, princesa and won’t accept just any surgeon to work on my wounded face. They offer me Vespa rides to work, they offer me beer, they offer me general dating advice.

They hit on me and I am sad when they leave me at the hospital with gauze straddling my jaw and stuck sloppily to my arm. I sit, then, in a wooden wheelchair, alone. I expect to wait for hours, but they call my name first. The surgeon seems too young to have graduated from medical school. Her hair is clean and tied back in a shiny pony tail. I match her motions—balancing, bending joints, following her finger with my eyes. My brain and body work fine. Even my white saguaro button-down remains unaffected. My Spanish struggles as I try to collect basic information: her name, job title, plan for my cut-up face. I successfully express my concern for scarring and she replies casually with “Esperamos que no”–We hope not–and her honesty brings my nervous giggles.

I lay on the vinyl operating table, a bright light in my face. I take a selfie. “Tell me everything that you’re doing, okay?” I ask her. A sheet of blue paper covers my face. The circle cut-out fits perfectly around the four gashes in my chin. Needles jab anesthesia into my face and I can feel the serum drip down my chin. She warns me about stitch number one. I tear up, but feel nothing. After a few stitches, I ask her if she can fetch my friend Mario. “Mario! Está Mario?” I can hear her yelling just outside the door. Four pairs of feet come in. “Mucho trabajo, eh?” he asks. A lot of work, eh? I tear up again, relieved to know someone in this hospital and more relieved that he’s local. Ten stitches later, she asks another person in a white coat if she should add number 11. She does. Mario speaks to me in English and to the doctor in Spanish and everything’s alright. We leave Hospital Universitario de La Princessa at 1:30 a.m. There is no bill for me to pay.

Zoe with eleven stitches in her chin

I got lucky—11 free stitches, zero brain damage, a bloodless white shirt—and I ride differently now. I leave space for mistakes. I look ahead. My new nicknames—rompecristales, glass breaker, and cara dura, literally “hard face” or the ability to take criticism well—make me worry about my scars less. At the bike shop, they take pictures of the blood droplets on my handlebars and hubs. We all have a story. We’re brave, banged up, and brought together. I have been given marks that I cannot hide—marks that mean I ride fast and fearlessly, marks that mean I made memories in Madrid.

A week later I return to the bar to check out the blood stains and express my gratitude. The bar owner recognizes me immediately. He tells me I look great and recounts the night in one sentence: “The crash was so loud! I thought a moto hit the car, not a rubia riding her bicycle.” We share cañas at the same table where I sat only seven days ago. I still have gauze on my face.

I am cared for in Madrid. Mario watched my face get sewn up, bought me dinner, and drove me home. Tiffany checked on me the next morning. A week later, my parents lugged a modern bike to me from Tucson. Ruben and Nacho built it for me at VivaBicicletas. My friend Jorge delivered me expensive, German scar cream. My landlord, José, says I will always be guapa.

Out of my crash came community—connections that make Madrid feel closer than ever and more like home. My parents and I sobbed the night we said goodbye. In the morning, I rode Lole past their empty hotel room on the wild way to work.



Zoe CalhounZoë Calhoun, a 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.
Header photo by Mario Cranks.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.