Girl Escaping

Girl Escaping

Girl Escaping 1080 1080 Aisling Walsh

CW: emotional & physical abuse, absent fathers, cancer, grief, codependency

There is a photo of me sitting on a low wall in front of the solid black brushstrokes and grey smudges of Joan Miró’s Oiseaux à la naissance du jour. It was taken at Fundació Joan Miró in early January 2019. My head is turned to the side as I pretend not to notice you approaching with your phone out. You rarely take photos of me and I wonder why you have chosen this moment, my puffy eyes still smarting from the previous night’s altercation, to capture me on camera? I do not want to give you the satisfaction of a smile but you stand waiting, hand outstretched, wearing your goofiest grin and I concede. You snap a second time and catch a look that says you’re a pest, but playfully.

I cannot remember what caused this particular explosion: a misjudged word at the cosy, candle-lit tapas bar, a misstep on the litter-strewn, but otherwise empty streets of El Raval as we ambled home, or a misunderstanding while I set threadbare blankets on our AirBnB bed? It hardly matters. I spent a tearful and shivering night alone, replaying your hissed reproaches on a loop between snatches of sleep. You sulked on our host’s couch, having ignored my whispered apologies and entreaties to come to bed.

I woke the next morning with a knot in my belly. For once, you seemed inclined to forget the whole affair in an apparent effort not to ruin the last day of our first, and only, holiday on my side of the Atlantic. I sidestepped the lack of an apology but had little more to offer for our diversion other than a suggested itinerary of art museums. Ever the outlier, you chose Miró over Dalí, Picasso and Gaudí. It would be my third visit to the Foundation, but I said nothing, opting for appeasement rather than further confrontation. I had already seen all ‘the greats’ Barcelona had to offer anyway.

I found reasons to avoid your eyes while we sat in the next-door café sipping morning espressos and filling the strained silences with mundane observations on the weather. I walked slightly ahead, scouting our route, and avoided your hands by keeping my own stuffed deep in my pockets as we weaved our way up the hills towards Montjuïc. Once inside the Foundation I lost you among Miró’s colossal canvases and tapestries. Your artist’s eye needed more time with each work and I, never one for lingering, bristled under any proximity to you.

Galleries had long since been ruined for me by spending too many weekend visitations watching my father hang pictures on blank walls or hobnobbing with the art set at another opening. On such occasions, my brothers and I were left to stuff our faces on stale pretzels and soggy triangular sandwiches, or fight over whose turn it was to play whatever pre-installed game came with his office computer. Miró’s gallery, in particular, was laden with memories I had decided not to share with you.

After you caught me on camera I let you gush enthusiastically about the exhibit, hoping my rapt attention would assuage any suspicions I might still be upset. Once you were distracted by another tapestry, I drifted alone towards the blissfully empty roof.

The terrace appeared little changed in the thirty years since my parents first brought me there on our only foreign holiday as a family. I found myself back in front of Miró’s red-legged, beady-eyed sculpture, Jeune fille s’évadant, where my father had snapped a photo of me. I’m shaded from the glare of the July sun by an oversized red baseball cap and giant red plastic sunglasses. Arms folded across my chest, I look as bored and petulant as you might expect a four-year-old to look, being dragged around a gallery in the sweltering Barcelona summer. The scowl on my face says I’m not impressed by the bizarre heap of junk next to me. A year after the photo was taken my youngest brother came along, and the year after that my father left my mother to chase after a succession of ever younger, ever more childless, women. The photo is as grainy and faded as my recollections of that holiday. The original is lost in a friend’s attic, where our family’s modest archive of childhood memories was stored before we sold my dead mother’s house.

You were eleven when your father walked out, leaving nothing but fresh bruises on your thin, little-boy arms and the specter of his rage reverberating through the walls of your house. Rumors reached you he had set himself up on the northern side of the Río Grande. The spoils of his migration were not remitted to his wife and two children until after his ignominious death, by which time you were both grown. My father had hung around, contesting every last cent of the court-ordered child support he was supposed to hand over to my mother. He withheld checks and pleaded poverty, bias and discrimination before countless magistrates right up to, and even after, her death. My youngest brother, barely 19, barely out of school, was left to fight this last battle on her behalf.

The second time I visited Fundació Miró I was 22.  I went with friends, during a week of partying sandwiched between the month we had spent teaching together at a summer camp and my mother coming to meet me for a long weekend. I remember the smooth pebbles of the terrace roof pressing through my sandals and a sense of deja vú on coming face to face once more with Jeune fille s’évadant, her perfectly round yellow head glaring in the sunshine. Any other impressions I might have had of the gallery, one of many visited that week, were subsequently eclipsed by memories of the encounter with my mother. It was our first weekend away together as adults; neither of us guessed it would be our last.

We were testing the waters after more than a decade of battles raged from either side of the fissure my father had opened when he walked out on us. A truce had been declared as we realized that, rather than turning against each other, we should face the common enemy together. The holiday symbolized the reestablishment of normal diplomatic relations, writing a new chapter in our story where we could meet each other, not just as mother and daughter, but friends. We spent our three days avoiding galleries altogether. Instead, we explored the Montjuïc gardens and the alleyways and trinket stores of the Gothic quarter, with frequent stops to sample the best of Barcelona’s pinchos, and to rest.

The signs of illness had already begun to show: her shortness of breath as she climbed the spiral staircases of Gaudí’s Casa Batló, the afternoon naps at the hotel and the heat-induced dizzy spells. Even so, neither of us dared to imagine how ill she might really be. We had only been home a few weeks when she got the diagnosis: cervical cancer. A year later she was dead. I had not been back to Barcelona since then. The city was too haunted by the ghosts of all my life’s ruptures and absences. Crossing the Atlantic was expensive and we had found a rare deal on flights out of Barcelona. And I had thought I was healed enough to brave a return with you at my side.

Back on the terrace, contemplating the young girl who wanted to run away on legs that would have been useless for escaping anywhere – with heeled, Barbie-doll feet and sculpted calves crossed just like a lady – I too considered fleeing. But, the abyss that loomed promised only more grief. January’s icy breeze carried sharp reminders of the separations and deaths that defined both of our young lives. The shared legacy of our fathers’ violence endured despite their absence and, instead of escaping, I hurried back through the exhibition to find your hand. The warm softness of your palm quelled any residual upset from the previous night’s ferocity. We exited the gallery together, as the two half-orphans, united in our losses and loneliness once more.


Header photograph © Bif Naked.

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  • Beautifully written ❤️
    I have always found it interesting how cities can become such powerful forces in our lives.

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