The first rays of daylight lightened the sky outside, but the large window on the other side of the stairwell was caked with decades of dust. The narrow landing Johnny stood on was a shade brighter than his room. He pushed the glowing button to start the timed light so that he could see the keyhole to lock his door, as well as his feet, as he gingerly headed down four flights of stairs.
He lived in the Poble Sec District of Barcelona which had begun life as a shantytown outside the medieval city walls. Once those came down, the area transformed into a dense, unregulated neighborhood of tiny streets, small squares and plain buildings, at the base of Montjuïc Mountain. Johnny’s flat had to be at least a few hundred years old and the stone steps were slick and uneven from centuries of wear.
He slipped. He clutched the wooden banister to stop from falling. His backpack came off his shoulder. He caught the strap in his hand and stumbled onto the second floor landing, where old widow Teresa cut out newspaper articles, as she sat on a stool in front of an open door.
The timed light cut, leaving them in the dim glow from the bulb in her entryway ceiling. “Hello, sweetheart,” Teresa said in creaky Spanish, as she put down a pair of scissors and stood to greet her neighbor. “Are you going to work?”
“Bon dia, Teresa.” After five years in Barcelona, Johnny spoke conversational Spanish, with some Catalan thrown in. “Yes, and running late as usual,” he added, glancing at the illuminated wall. Corruption at the municipal and regional offices, along with proposed cuts in social services, were the day’s highlighted headlines.
“You look a little sad.” Teresa’s thick glasses magnified the concern in her eyes as bony fingers wrapped around Johnny’s hand.
He forced a smile at her cold touch. “I’m fine.”
“Do you know what today is?” An old widow nodded her head in encouragement.
Johnny’s brain lacked the fluids to run the necessary thought processes to determine the date and he mumbled, “Um, er, no.”
An image of Elena flashed in his mind at the news. “That’s right!” Johnny projected fake enthusiasm, after hearing it was Catalunya’s version of St. Valentine’s Day. “Forgot all about it. Bon Sant Jordi, Teresa.”
The ticking light switched on to the sound of barreling footsteps. Johnny pulled his hand from Teresa’s icy grip and watched as Paco (the stereotypical 35 year-old Catalan and Spanish man who still lived with his mother) sprinted down the treacherous stairs, without any fear of slipping and breaking his neck.
“Adéu,” he blurted, with a dismissive wave.
Teresa’s stare followed the pudgy neighbor down the next flight of steps. “He’s a strange and rude boy,” she stated, looking up at Johnny for confirmation.
“Probably just in a rush.” He pressed the timed light again to make sure it didn’t cut before he reached the safety of the ground floor. “Alright, Teresa,” Johnny told her. “Gotta go.”
“Wait,” she ordered, going into her moldy apartment to get a book from a shelf in the entryway. “As is the tradition today.”
Teresa handed Johnny a used paperback written in Catalan about the city’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. “Moltes gràcies,” Johnny said, bending down to kiss an old woman on each cheek. “Owe you a rose now.”