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Tim Campbell

Oblivion and Bliss

Twilight in Spain by Ernest Lawson


I sit alone at a coffee table on the Rambla in Barcelona, my notepad and pen pulled close as a flimsy disguise, hoping no one will detect the emptiness inside. I glance around.

Anybody looking? Maybe people will think my jotting and pen-at-the-lips pose mark me as a writer. An alien in Spain, here to write, a novel maybe, or something heavy about loneliness and romance.

I scan the crowd again. Still, nobody turns my way. It’s as if I were in a bubble, worse still, invisible. 

Perhaps an essay on the search for bliss—not even perfect happiness, just a little joy. Why else, might they think, would a sixty-something be alone on the crowded Rambla with only paper and pen?

I pat myself on the back for having won a grant to write my book. But what happiness has it brought? Busy-ness, yes, but nothing close to bliss. Maybe if the family back home were a little more settled, less frazzled, more normal. Three kids, two gifted, two with special needs. It’s all too much for my wife, Linda, and me.

I feel the heavy chain of memory trailing back decades, linked to the moment when Kathryn was hit by the virus when she was just a week old. Mere days before that moment, I had bliss sitting in the palm of my hand pushing Alana, Kathryn’s older sister, on a swing in the park. Kathryn survived three heart failures. Then her brother was born with hearing loss. Now, many decades later, I’m on a sabbatical from fatherhood aiming to write a book on cities. But all around on the Rambla in front of me, gay faces, squealy giggles, and strolling lovers walking hand-in-hand remind me that bliss is easy to find, yet a funk hangs around me like damp cobwebs.

A parade of hundreds shuffles forward as though already in bliss. Necks crane at every angle as if searching for that novel gift to buy, a surprising treat to taste, or a delightful image to enjoy. Bodies, some as thin as sticks others as jiggly as Jell-O, move down the Rambla, many with sunburned cheeks and sunglasses. Teenagers pass by with cheap souvenirs in clear plastic bags twirling lightly on two fingers. Guttural sounds, soft murmurs, and light, breezy gibberish in a half-dozen languages, float out into the air like bubbles blown by school kids.

I secretly wish one of those bubbles would land on me and carry me away into a land of fatherhood free from the knots and tumbles of trying to make things right, to find normalcy, to explain to neighbors and friends about the kids, to reverse my daughter’s brain damage and my son’s hearing loss.

Local showmen—musicians, mimes, and magicians—line the Rambla. They do a good job of distracting me from the emptiness inside. Gaggles of small crowds form around the mimes like eddies in a stream. At the center of one such swirl, a figure posing as the Statue of Liberty is motionless on a low pedestal, one hand raised above the head. The body is draped in flowing silver satin. Face, hands, and feet are covered in matching hues. The crown aims down at the admiring group. Faces there, and mine from further away, wait patiently for the slightest sign from Ms. Liberty—a sudden movement, a wink, a spoken word, anything to advance our quest for bliss. Ms. Liberty giving bliss? I have too much liberty—away and on my own, distant from the torture of family life, doing what I want, yet miserable. It’s impossible to find a balance between caretaker and free spirit.

If my table were closer to the traffic, I could be a mime, too, sitting there motionless, blank paper flat on the table, a pen in my hand. I would gesture to tourists, seekers like me, inviting them to scribble me a script—about a great escape, a profound resolution, a miracle cure. I recall a Halloween party decades ago before the kids. I had planned to dress as an open book with large pages of butcher paper hanging around my neck, a Sharpie dangling from a string. The title “Write My Story” would invite partygoers to offer a line, an identity, a future. Nobody could have written the tragedy that followed only a few years later when Kathryn was hit by that viral infection of the heart leaving her with brain damage, a heart condition, and epilepsy.

A group of five middle-aged ladies interrupts my self-pity as they land at a large table next to mine. They are dressed in bright, primary colors. Deep red lipstick, eye shadow, and gaudy bracelets match the flare of the street scene. I guess a lot has been put into their day’s outing. They laugh gayly and gesticulate grandly, their faces radiate bliss. They seem oblivious that their squawking spills out across a half dozen tables, even out onto the Rambla.

“Rome,” trumpets one in the group, wearing off-white slacks and Grecian sandals. Her toenails are fire engine red. “Nothing like it.” She speaks in a proud, knowing tone.

“And imagine,” says her tablemate, “we have another couple of days here to do Spain.” She takes a heavy draw on her cigarette and exhales over the table. “I can’t wait to tell my sisters about this tour.” Her strong southern accent and flamboyant gestures make me think of magnolias and mint juleps.

“Yes, my dear,” said another. “We’ll have covered a lot when this week is over.”

“Oh waiter…,” interrupts, the smoker. “Two more of those European coffees with lots of sugar… and a Coca-Cola… no ice.” She flicks her cigarette into the ashtray where three small ice balls melt into an ashy soup.

“I love discovery,” adds the first. “New and different cultures. You never know what you’ll encounter,” she says with inspiration. “You have to keep your eyes open.” Rummaging through her oversized faux-leather bag, she says, “I’m doing my postcards, right now.”

The colorful parade on the Rambla continues to flow just feet from our tables. As the ladies’ liquid babble spills out, a small flurry of commotion down the Rambla catches my attention.

A dark South Asian man strolls up the Rambla, cool and naked as a needle. Flecks of henna streak his shoulder-length hair. His muscles are barely visible beneath smooth, even skin. He moves in a slow, nonchalant saunter, his gentlemanly equipment swaying in the warm air. Children are shuttled aside by their mothers, men groan and roll their eyes, and women on the street turn their heads away, occasionally sneaking one more glance.

He wears a placid smile as if having reached a high level of consciousness, turning his head slowly from side to side as he strides, seemingly taking in the imagined adoration of the throngs. Perhaps, after shedding his clothing as superfluous adornment, he feels in harmony with nature, deeply content with his life. His eyes sweep across the faces staring at him, but they meet no one. On the other hand, maybe he’s just like me, closed up, lonely, and trying to make a connection. I’m still on defense, hiding behind my pen and paper camouflage; he’s hiding behind nothing.

As he approaches the tables where we sit, the ladies are completely oblivious to the oncoming stroller.

“And I loved that Colosseum,” says one.

“No, no,” gasps the one in sandals. “Those shoes. The shops… Oh my God. Paradise.”

Amid their chatter, the naked man comes within steps of our tables, but the ladies are consumed in the excitement of cultural discovery, and at their table, not one head is turned. He saunters past us and up the Rambla. A moving scrum of tourists draws along in his wake, gawking and shuffling, snapping photos, like paparazzi following a celebrity. The five ladies sitting next to me on the Rambla miss a spectacle they might have wanted to write home about.

The ladies and the naked man seem to be living out bliss in their bubbles of oblivion. The ladies blab proudly with their props of jewelry and shoes. The naked man, not a shopper, with no need for paper and pen, not even clothing, requires no prop whatsoever to reach his bliss.

He mocks my self-pity, my writerly defensiveness. His naked march hits me like a clarion challenge: “What’s the matter with you, Tim? Get out from behind your mask, your defensive wall of pretend writer.” Provoked, I get up from my table with a furrowed brow of self-deprecation. I resolve to find harmony with others rather than find fault in them. I march across town to another Rambla, a more tranquil one. (But no, no I won’t be taking off my clothes).


Fifteen minutes later, I sit at a different Rambla, one that is quieter, with no kiosks or mimes. It has the dignity of quiet family life. Here, instead of the cacophonic parade of tourists, is a steady flow of friends and young lovers; parents with small children; office workers, seemingly on brief breaks; and the slower, hunched movement of retirees. Perhaps I can find bliss. Is there joy here, somewhere? Heck, I’d take a warm smile from anyone and call it a win. I sit back on a street bench, my arm along the back, the challenge of the naked Asian is still in the back of my mind. 

OK, Barcelona. I’m here, I’m open to you. Let me see you with new eyes.

Now come women walking in flirty skirts, which fly and dance with the Mediterranean breeze, air circulating unhindered up their drapery. Their motion creates harmonic magic with their gentle swaying. High heels, boots, and platforms, all prop up statuesque bodies even higher on the stage of life as if to say: Look at this young man.

Scenes from high school erupt in my mind, and I feel the thrill of being at a beach as a sophomore beginning to perspire in the heat of sexual attraction. A friend and flirty classmate strolls by, her flimsy wrap blows in the ocean breeze revealing a white bikini hiding underneath. My body tingles even now as it did then, hearing the lightly snapping fabric in the warm breeze. She plops on the sand a few feet away and pulls out a cigarette.

“Hi, Tim. Got a light?” she asks with a smile.

I fumble around my towel hoping for some way to ignite something, anything. She waits, posed with the cigarette at her ruby-red lips.

“I don’t smoke but…” She raises an eyebrow with an expectant, coquettish expression. “…I can show you how to do a flip-turn in a breaking wave.”

She beams and flicks the cigarette. I take her hand, and we sprint into the frothy water, laughing gayly.

More laughter, this coming from the Rambla, breaks my reverie. A couple strolls by, faces radiant, eyes glistening. The young woman drapes her arm over her companion’s shoulder, occasionally sliding her hand down his backside to give him a gentle pat. She corrals him. He responds, and another peal of laughter nudges them closer to each other. His arm slips around her waist and they walk in lockstep together.

I recall that lock-step march of blossoming love back when I was a graduate student in Cambridge. Pushing bikes along the Charles River side-by-side with Linda, my wife-to-be, we strode through the garden of a promising future, rosebuds with dew all around.

“Kids?” she responds to my question. “If I’m lucky.” She holds up her free hand showing her fingers crossed. We slow our pace, and I pull her into a kiss. That moment marked a new beginning. The heartbeat of a thrill comes back and vibrates inside. The images of my future play forward from that moment to moving in together with Linda and starting a new life as a couple. Every cell in my body is back in touch with that beginning, that promise, that joy.

I feel lifted by sensations emanating from within me in syncopation with what I see on the Rambla—the caress of someone’s forelock, the prolonged, reciprocal stare of two lovers, a warm embrace. These are connecting with sensations emanating from within me. The scenes on the Rambla are triggering more than memory. My emotions are seeping to the surface. I feel a thirst for touch, a yearning for love. It is as if I am them in a certain way, as if the neurons in my own brain experience what they experience, that my mirror neurons are firing because of them, sending waves of contentment lapping against my insides as I witness the caring of human connection all around me.

A young mother, her hair up, slim in Levi’s, running ahead of the pram being pushed by her partner, turning around to catch the hungry gaze of her young one being pushed, his baby face, eager and vibrant with anticipation. Dad moves the pram steadily toward her, and the flaring light of recognition connects the eyes of the child and mother. She shuffles backward in miniature dance steps, her face aglow, her mouth puckered, her eyes locked onto her babe, moving ever backward, drawing out the oncoming reunion, sustaining the suspense of their encounter.

Again, a reverie is triggered. I am a father strolling with Linda. She is very pregnant with Kathryn. Linda and I are pushing toddler Alana in a pram, just like the one I’m watching on the Rambla. We reach Alana’s favorite playground. I place her in the swing.

“Higher, Daddy, higher!” she squeals.

“We are going to the moon!”

Alana calls out to her mother resting in the shade.

“Mommy, come in the swing with me. We are going to the moon.”

That was bliss. No worldly concern clouded that scene. My life had reached a moment of bubbling, expanding happiness, my fulfillment, complete.

Two weeks later, Kathryn, by then a newborn, was struck by the virus.

On the Rambla, I sit in a stew of remembered bliss and tragedy. My inner funk jostles with blissful swirls triggered by my mirror neurons. They sparkle like fragments on a disco ball. They crackle through my defensive structures and pull away the damp cobwebs that seemed to cloak my senses earlier in the day. Maybe this is what the naked Asian was feeling.

Mirror neurons are firing not just with visual cues, but also with the melodic murmur on the Rambla, which arouses in me fragments of conversation with old friends in years long past. Pieces of conversations come into my mind. “Breathe…. Breathe, Tim.” Those words hang there, suspended like flamingos gliding to a graceful landing.

“You have to breathe,” Mozart had said.  He was a friend from Brazil, a young father like me, but his dark eyes peered into me with the depth of a fatherly healer. His words fell like a soothing balm.

That was thirty years ago. We had met for dinner, months after Kathryn’s illness. With her battle to beat the virus still fresh in my mind, I had recounted the blow-by-blow of Kathryn’s fight to survive. After my narrative, Mozart’s wife, Teresa, had taken my hand, and with Mozart’s hands over ours, she had said “It’s over, Tim.” Their warm sympathy had tamped down the anxiety vibrating inside.

“ She survived,” Teresa added, softly.

That was when the healing had begun. A spark of hope flickers somewhere deep inside as I sit on the Rambla. I feel it build to a glowing ember, an image of the four of us—Mozart and Teresa,  Linda and me—shimmers like a mirage coming into reality.

I pace amid the strolling traffic on the Rambla with a restless energy to recover the healing. A sudden urge wells up to call my Brazilian friends as if perhaps they are calling me. Could it be that my mirrors are firing in response to them thinking of me? Their signals are reaching out in long-distance propagation, like gravity waves or Higgs bosons, flooding outward, searching, like a cosmic finger pressing a doorbell chime.

Within a few yards, I come upon a street musician, an older gentleman sitting on a bench with a guitar, strumming a tune from Jobim, the Brazilian composer. That settles it; I stop at the bench opposite his. I sit and punch in their number. As my call is going through, I am dying to ask Mozart and Teresa, if, at this moment, their mirror neurons are firing, too.


About the writer:
Tim Campbell was selected as finalist in the nonfiction competition of the San Francisco Writers Conference. His essay will appear in the SFWC Contest Anthology (December 2023). Essays have also been published in Catamaran, Smart Set, Kaleidoscope, and other literary journals and magazines. After a forty-year career on poverty in cities around the world and three professional books on cities, Campbell aims to establish a new voice in creative nonfiction.

Image: Twilight in Spain by Ernest Lawson (1873-1939). Oil on canvas mounted on panel. 18 x 22 inches. By 1921. Public domain.

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