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Matador by Zero
He doesn’t know how many hours he’s been in the ICU.
His hair is greasy and matted and feels like it weights thrice than it normally does so he guesses it’s been days at the very least.
Thirst. A numbness. His head feels like it’s up in the air, like it’s hollowed up inside, like it’s been severed and disconnected from his senses. His sight, smell and hearing wander far away from him. His leg is heavy with bandages and painkillers and stitches.
Rumor had it the animal had been forgiven once in a previous fight. It went against customs (and common sense) to use a fighting bull twice (a dangerous, suicidal thing to do so). He liked the whispers in the air of an experienced beast to test himself against to. Thrilled him to go through the gates and come face to face with it.
His heart had been pounding as he stepped into the sand and the sun, as thousand voices chanted his name. He had worn the blue, red and gold of his suit of lights proudly, seen all eyes on him. In the same ring where history had been written thousand times over. His shimmering mane tied back in a tight bun at his nape.
It’s his most distinguishing feature, how he pays homage to the masters and the traditions and the legends before him.
The wondrous dark beast appearing in front of his eyes.
His memory is a blur of sand, red and black.
They (the doctors, his companions, his friends, his masters, his everythings) had insisted that he didn’t watch the recordings. So, his nature triggers him to look for them.
‘It’s a career-ending injury’.
Animal rights activist on social media, they say it’s a shame the bull didn’t kill him.
They are right.
He doesn’t know if it’s the fourth or the fifth day when they finally let him go home.
‘You did admirably in the bullfighting ring, son’.
He thanks the comments. There was nothing admirable about his performance. His pride keeps him tied to saying it aloud. It keeps a lot of words of his mouth.
Anton drives him home.
His... he hesitates how to refer to him. Even after all this time. He decides on using his name only.
"Who told you?" he asks him as he takes a break in the staircase. His apartment is in the third floor.
"It was everywhere".
So, it had gone that viral.
Anton shifts a bag from his left shoulder onto his right as he waits for him to pick the pace again "I texted Juan as soon as I saw it. He told me he and the others were taking care of you and your family".
He nods "Juan is a great guy. I’ll have to text him later to thank him too".
Because he’s the foreigner, the immigrant who can count on a single hand the people he can actually rely on and Anton remains there, the syllables of his name inhabit the first of his fingers, even after everything.
"I’m staying with you for a couple days" Anton announces to him after they’ve stepped into the apartment "I’ll look for the spare keys myself. I think I still remember where they are".
"So, you’re still in love with me" he teases him.
An answer doesn’t come.
"You know, I can hire a nurse, you don’t have to stay...".
"No, you can’t" Anton cuts him sternly.
His bank account agrees with that statement.
"Anyway. I’ll figure out how to manage on my own with this whole situation in a couple days..." he glances his way "But thanks for being here".
The eye contact is not reciprocated, as drawers open and close at the other end of the room.
He gazes inside the mirror in the living room.
"I need a shower" he touches the dirty stray locks that fall down his face and tucks them behind his ear "I’m going to take a shower".
"Hold on. I’ll get the bath ready".
"Anton, you don’t have to..." he goes unheard.
Anton is a charging bull whenever he sets his mind on something.
He’s the same and maybe that’s why it was inevitable that they would get caught so quickly in each other’s horns.
The water is lukewarm, it caresses his skin gently, bits of dried blood and glue from the adhesives from the transfusions and the IV on his wrist slide down the drain. He sees the dark patches that refuse to come out, that tangle his arm hair together.
There’s a shaven area on his thigh from the surgery full of grainy stubble growing back out in buds in his skin. It looks naked compared to his opposite leg covered in dark, wire-like hairs.
The sight is not new. This is not the first time he’s got injured by a bull’s horns. He has scars that have long faded and drawn maps on his skin. Testaments of the fights and the life he has carved for years, that have carved him in flesh.
Two liters of blood. You lost almost two liters of blood. You almost died on the way to the hospital.
There’s a stool in the shower for him to sit down, for his leg that can’t hold him yet. Muscles. Veins. The horn torn apart everything. He gets flashes of the blood on his hand, of the primal instinct that commanded him to press a fist into the searing, gaping wound on his thigh.
He’s surprised that something that hurt so terribly can feel this numb now.
‘Matador injured in Plaza de Toros de las Ventas unable to continue bullfighting’.
Anton helps him wash his hair.
His fingers massage and dive into his scalp, they dance in circles around his temples. They travel down his nape, they follow the arches around his ears, come behind his jawbone. He holds his pulse and his heartbeat under his fingertips. Still does.
"Well, at least you didn’t get your scalp ripped off your head" Anton scrubs his hairline gently.
It happened to another matador a couple years ago. He had half of his head shaved and a trail of stiches from his ear to his crown.
"Yeah, I guess so" he acknowledges.
He has not forgotten his touch, his skin, his entire body holds the memories of the nights and the days, and the still healing exit wounds in both their hearts.
Anton runs a wide-toothed comb through his damp hair. He almost never wears it loose and sometimes forgets that the ends come down to his shoulder blades in waves. He feels the loving, nimble fingers that gather his locks, lift them and tie them back for him.
His neck is exposed again. A gentle end-of-spring breeze meets his skin. He glances into the mirror. His dark chestnut hair is pulled back, his heart-shaped hairline is clearly visible, a dark shadow of his rather sparse beard, his eyes look like they can’t hold anything inside them, not even the light. He had no idea he looked this defeated.
"Have you’ve given any thought to what Sergio said? About applying to an online MBA or something while you recover? I think it’s a good idea".
Anton tugs gently at the ponytail, holding it in his hand a second and letting it go a second after.
"No. I haven’t looked into it yet".
On the other hand, Anton looks wonderful.
He’s gained some weight since the last time he saw him but it fills his face in a way that makes his features look fuller. That has him wondering about the ways the rest of his body looks like wider and with the additional mass to it. His dark blond hair is clipped on the back and sides, tapered, longer and combed back on top. He sports a full beard carefully chiseled and trimmed.
Anton’s gaze falls down on the table, to the screen of his phone that lights up "Your mom".
He puts her up in speaker "Alejandro, my love".
"Hey, mom, dad. I’m okay... I know, I know... Calm down. I’m home. Yeah. I have everything I need" he does his best to soothe her rushed, quivering voice "Anton is here with me".
He hears her sigh in relief "I’m so glad you’ve found such a faithful friend there, please send all my love to him!".
"Friend? Alejandro, listen to me, what you need is to get a girlfriend to look after you while you recover! You can get one in the blink of an eye with your good looks and your great hair, it’s a chick-magnet!" his dad tells him.
He catches the grimace on Anton’s face and pretends he didn’t see it.
"I’m proud of you, my son, you took that beast like only a real man does and I’m sure you’ll be back in the bullfighting right in no time!"
"Take care, Alejandro!" his mom silencer his father.
"Sure, will do... Bye, mom. Bye, dad".
He hangs up with a headache.
"It’s late, you should go to sleep. So should I".
Alejandro smiles playfully "You miss sleeping with me that much?".
"I’m sleeping in the living room" Anton doesn’t listen to him.
"Hey, no" he restrains himself from getting to his feet, but just barely "I want you to be comfortable. Come on. It’s the least I can do for you".
"I will not sleep with you, Alejandro" he hears him answer in a flat tone "And you don’t have to do anything for me".
"Neither do you" he reminds him at point blank.
Anton counters him "I’m not here because I have to. I’m here because I want to know you’re doing alright. Not for any other reason".
No hopes for anything else. No ulterior motives. He’s not hiding anything from him. Never has. Never will.
"Hey, I’m sorry. That came out wrong" Alejandro tries to reach for his arm, he notices the ribbon with the pride flag he’s familiar with around his arm "I’m glad you’re here, regardless".
The last word speaks about himself more than of the other man.
"I’m also glad you’re here" Anton catches his forearm in his hand and holds it firmly.
He does not wake up next to Anton nor to his movement in the sheets or the linger of his cologne.
His phone keeps showing him pictures of himself in the bullfighting ring, keeps shoving into his face what he can no longer be.
His own reflection reminds him of it.
‘Don’t listen to that negativity, don’t get discouraged, you’re man, after all!’.
They’re lying blatantly to him. Because they believe they he can’t take. He has seen what happened a thousand times over and it’s not a thing of whether he can take it or not.
He faces bulls not knowing if he can take them or not.
He faced that one animal thinking he could and was proven wrong.
Now he has to make peace with the uncertainty of what will come after, what will become of him.
He decides he will make this transition as the tradition dictates.
"Hey, I’m going to get some bread for breakfast. Is there anything you need me to get for you?" Anton gets ready to leave.
"Actually, there is".
Alejandro hands him over all the bills he had tucked inside his wallet, he doesn’t even know how much money it adds up to. Could be at least a hundred.
"What is this for?"
"Go get a pair of hair clippers... I need to ask you a favor".
He puts the suit of lights away in a box while he waits for him to return.
An hour passes by until he’s sitting down on a stool in the middle of his living room with a pair of scissors and unboxed clippers over the coffee table.
"You should call Juan. I think he should do this. Or Felipe, I mean..." Anton hesitates for him, for both of them as he reaches for the scissors.
"I can’t. They’ll try talk me out of it" he sets down the round mirror, shuts it against the surface of the table "Anton, I need you to do this for me, please".
Anton’s unsure hands touch his ponytail. The blades of the scissors come close to the back of his neck, open wide like steel jaws.
Alejandro holds his breath and clenches his hands in fists on his lap. He feels a tug on his nape. There’s a dry repetition of the sound of the blades slicing through the ponytail, uneven, growing louder and quieter, but incessant.
The silent, familiar pressure on his scalp from the strands tied back dissipates.
He lets the tears escape. Once.
The blunt ends of his mane brush against his jaw as it comes loose.
Anton’s fingers bury inside his nape, they climb up his occipital bone, almost up to his crown. He feels the length goes between his fingers in a heartbeat and a half.
"All of it? Are you sure?" there’s a hushed pain like an intimate sympathy to that question that doesn’t escape his notice.
He sees the scissors return to the table out of the corner of his eye, and Anton’s hand levitating over the hair clippers, unsure, stretching almost to the reach for the attachments to cover the steel teeth.
He watches him lift it firmly, with knuckles paling.
A dry click. A roaring hum that tears the air apart. Anton’s hand over his cheek, his thumb curled underneath his jaw. A cold whirring pair of blades against the side of his head. A deafening noise through his temples, a weak stream of hair falling down his shoulder that turns into a heavy cascade.
He remembers to breathe after the machine takes off from his head, and sees the locks falling from his shoulder into the faded wooden floor. He takes in the sight, the traces the strands of his hair leave in the air, over his naked shoulders.
Anton maneuvers his head and the clippers at first gingerly, like he’s afraid the steel of the teeth will dig into his skull if he isn’t careful.
And Alejandro himself feels the rigidity and the resistance of his own neck and back muscles to obey the compass the movement of the clippers are setting during the first passes.
He lets the shiver travel down his spine, he lets go of the tension inside his chest at the idea of his career (his life as he has known it) coming to an end like this, lets his pride eat through his flesh and bone as it always has and then sets it free like an animal he can’t, should have never held captive.
He cries a second time, as quiet as he can.
"Alejandro, if you start crying, I’m going to stop cutting your hair and start crying with you" Anton’s voice pulls him in closer.
"Please don’t do that" he wipes his eyelids through a laugh.
"Besides you’re the tough one, aren’t you?" the other presses on with a light slap to his shoulder as he removes the locks piled on them.
He tilts his head back, stretches his muscles and exhales "This is so embarrassing".
"Like I’ve never seen you cry before" Anton points out.
Anton secures his forehead in position with the palm of his hand and adjusts his grasp on the clippers as he directs them to the center of his head. His throat is fully exposed and he trembles at the flashes of the other man sinking his lips and teeth over it, at the anticipation his body still holds at his proximity.
He shuts his eyes in a reflex as he sees the whirring blades approach his hairline, feels the steel kiss his forehead first, then caress his skin in a gentle movement through the density of his mane. They make a harsh noise as they meet his bangs and push them into the floor.
"Are you okay?".
"I’m f***ed, Anton" he answers frankly "I’m in f***ing crutches".
"I know, but aside from that" Anton guides his shoulders and neck from the back to have him sit straight back up again.
Alejandro considers it for a while "I will be".
"You will be".
Anton slides the clippers up his sideburns on the opposite side and folds his ear down. They reverberate through his skull, pleasantly now as he feels the weight of the last locks depart from his head onto the floor.
He closes his eyes once more. He can smell the notes of Anton’s cologne trapped in his hand as the clippers go over his temples again. His opposite hand secures his head at his nape, graze the stubble at the back of his head.
"Shaved?" Anton asks him as he presses the clippers against his hairline back and forth.
Alejandro looks at the foil shaver next to the scissors and gives him a nod.
Anton turns off the clippers, the black case and the metallic teeth have remains of his hair clinging to them. Alejandro can feel the itch of the millimetric hairs on his skin and face. They’ve also poured down Anton’s hand and he sees them like raindrops over his hand.
It’s oddly comforting for him that it’s Anton’s hand and not someone else’s the one that’s covered by stubs of his mane.
He feels certain ambivalence toward the amount of hair littering the floor, regardless. To the sight of his ponytail discarded on it.
He ventures to touch the back of his head while the other picks up the foil shaver. It’s rough sandpaper all over. It’s going to take ages to get used to. It’s okay. He has a lot of things he has to get used to.
Anton turns on the foil shaver and pushes his head down, securing his crown with his free hand. There’s no longer the fear of hurting him. There’s no longer resistance in his muscles as he feels the foil shaver travel up his occipital bone.
The sound lulls him.
He doesn’t think of his destroyed leg or career or rehabilitation, he just thinks about the world that’s still holding the two of them in the same space, regardless.
He is grateful for it.
It’s nighttime and he’s watching down the balcony. It’s a cool summer night. The city sky is starless but the moon is full and there aren’t any clouds.
"What are you going to tell your parents?" Anton studies his shaved head from afar.
He’s always had long hair since he met him and it must be jarring for him to see him like this as it is for him.
"That I’ve enlightened by Buddhist teachings" he slides his hand across his denuded scalp, his fingertips still unfamiliar with the feel of his own skin.
"Call me when you’re through with that, sounds like it’s going to make you unbearable".
Then, hesitating, he speaks again "So, Pride is next month, isn’t it, right?"
There’s a pause before he makes a second question to him "Are you going?"
"You know Luis and Santiago always drag me there. I’m not that into it, but it’s fun, I guess" Anton shrugs.
"I know..." Alejandro nods "Hey. Do you mind if I join you?".
He watches Anton smile at him.
Alejandro might not be proud of a lot of things but at least he is proud of the man next to him. Maybe one day he will also be proud of himself. Tonight, he wants to believe so.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: About this idea: I’ve read / heard that bullfights cut off their ponytail when they retire and I’ve wanted to try to build something around that. I was intrigued by the image.
Okay. So nowadays it’s not an actual ponytail but a thing they clip to the back of the head, but it’s still a thing that happens.
However, I know some Spanish readers are on the site and they are more than welcome to hand me my ass on a plate if I butchered anything on bullfighting.
Other than that, this was brought to you by The Killers and MIKA on loop.
Comments are always welcome! And thanks for reading!