FREDERICK DOUGLASS ABROAD

Frederick Douglass has been quiet since I got off the plane. We haven't exactly talked in a year, so maybe this is normal, I don't know. We find ourselves alone, in an Irish woman's breakfast room around nine in the morning.

While Frederick Douglass chews everything is silent.

"Why do you like Engineering, Frederick?"

"Because I feel like I can make anything. If a boss asks me to do something, I can do it."

I look down, fascinated. "Could you make this table? And this spoon! And this sausage!"

"No, I couldn't make the sausage."

"Ah-ha!"

"The people are really the ones who kept me in Engineering," he says.

We finish our tea and listen to Dispatch from Frederick's iPhone on our twin beds while Mom blow-dries her hair. Dad is sleeping. Our room is so pink we're scared.

"I've never been a little girl before." Frederick stands in the doorway, looking at the beds. "This will be a new experience."

*

Inside the rental car, Frederick's hands are glued to his iPhone while Dad's knuckles turn pale and Mom holds her hands over her knees—her back is straight.

"Why are you so quiet?" I whisper to Frederick.

"I am trying to make sure Mom and Dad don't kill us."

Eventually we find ourselves in the Natural Museum of Ireland, looking up at skeletons of giant Irish deer. Children crowd the shelves of skeletons and drawers of insects and stuffed lions and rabbits and jarred squid.

"This is the last place you want to be with a hangover," Dad says.

Kids scream.

Frederick says something looking up at them like, "Giant Irish deer, well this is awesome."

*

It is too cold for this color blue on the girls. Gloved locals ask Frederick for change. He doesn't give it to them.

I become attached to a boy on the BBC news report who makes bricks out of mud for a living. We listen to Kings of Leon, The White Stripes and Jack Johnson then spend half an hour looking for a place to eat, arguing outside the bathroom because they should have expected this.

Frederick shakes his head throughout the rest of the trip saying, "Babies."

At night, he reads his book in our hotel room with his legs straight and crossed, like a spear.

"Fuck my life. You should have seen them before you got here. They're children. Dad can't be happy unless everything's perfect. That's why I almost killed him. Playing golf. I had the golf club in my hand."

"What!"

"He apologized in time and I put it down."

A large vent covers the view of the city out the window. The sun is disappearing and the walls are becoming dark red. The sheets are that crisp, folded white. I start to laugh.

"Would you say most of your life—most of your day—was taken up by," I can't finish my sentence because I am laughing so hard.

"I'm going to beat you with my book."

"This is a good question! Reading or talking?"

"Watching TV. I'm trying to change that." He looks at me as if we are on the same playing field, playing the same game, and no one on either team was going to win.

"How many times have you thought of the boys with the bricks?" I ask.

"None."

"Did you know there are more slaves today than during the, uh, transatlantic—wait, I think I’m mis-quoting this."

"Did I just make this up? I'm gonna beat you with this book."

*

Ireland is cold the whole week, but it still hasn't rained and instead of freaking out Mom and Dad figure out our coordinates like civil residents of the rented car.

"Look at how well we've trained them." Frederick raises his eyebrows behind his iPhone.

"What wonderful people I created," Mom says.

She tells me I should wear her special socks when I'm pregnant, "Not that you need to think about this yet," and gets mad at us for going off on our own.

"I can't be in the sun!" she screams.

"Well why are you wearing a tank top!" we yell.

Frederick leans his head against the wall. I fill up my cheeks with air and make Frederick hit it out.

"You're so dumb," he says.

I laugh and cry at the same time.

*

Dinner in Cork—another bust. There is either a zoo or a blond boy in a leather jacket I remember. Frederick and I go for a walk around the river. We pass a Burger King next to a McDonald's next to a burger place we have never heard of. We can't find a bathroom. There is a little sign in McDonald's that says "Bathrooms" leading to stairs. Frederick puts his head against the wall and says, "Fuck my life." We buy chocolate shakes from McDonald's and walk outside to drink them next to the river to look at the reflection of the sky.

*

On the plane ride from Dublin to Madrid I read Eating Animals and become a vegetarian. Frederick reads Jailbird. His response is this: "At first it was kinda sad, but then it got really funny!"

I like to think of Frederick saying this to me.

*

The stoop of the hostel I booked in Puerta del Sol is occupied by a drunk by the time we roll our suitcases through the mass of protesters and their tents. Mom is easily frightened. I go ahead in the blinking, half-put-together elevator to ask if our rooms are still available.

They're nothing like the pictures on the Internet.

We begin to refer to the protesters as The Tent People. Covering the plaza are No Mas Violencia Contra los Animales signs and lottery tickets and a mariachi band, which to Dad seems the most out of place.

"We'll just tell The Tent People it'll only cost them three euros to use our shower!" he says. "We'll pay for our room!"

And I become annoyed because he keeps saying, "Hey Rachel, get a picture of that."

"I don't want a picture of it."

"I think it's worth a picture."

"I don't want to look at that church all day."

"It's pretty impressive."

I have to show them how the light comes into the camera so the pictures they take of me aren't too bright.

*

Dad is amazed the kids are out so late. A bunch of young American girls sit at the table behind us. "It's no wonder everyone's still out this late!" Dad says. More kids run past us. "There's no structure! Catholicism failed!"

I find Frederick against the railing saying, "Fuck my life. You guys think you have problems? Do you have to walk around with your parents all day to try to find something to eat?"

I sit on the bed.

"All around the world it's the same problem."

"How many days do we have left?"

*

While in line to see inside the Royal Palace of Madrid I stare at the accordion player. Mom is using her umbrella for shade and Frederick is looking past us at the Palace.

"Look at those clouds," I whisper. "They're beautiful."

"The fucking clouds are prettier."

We both look over at the accordion player, whose face has become considerably more pained.

"He's so hot. No one's paying him."

"It can only be you, Rachel."

Sometimes I hate Frederick Douglass and just want to walk in silence past the metal collectors and rows of jean jackets and parrots on the side of the road.

*

Inside the Palace Dad exclaims, "This was worth the whole trip!"

As I put the camera away a large group of Asians comes down the stairs.

"Time to play Guess That Asian!" Frederick says. "Japanese, Chinese, or some kind of Pacific Islander?"

"Chinese."

"Correct!"

"How do you know?"

"They were speaking Chinese."

*

At the park we throw bread at each other and pass around the wine and sunscreen and then I drag everyone to an exhibit of Russian architecture.

"Why is this exhibit about this?" Mom asks. "You don't have to be sarcastic with me, Rachel."

"Why not?"

"It all looks pretty bleak," Dad says.

*

We take the bus back to our hostel. It's packed. A woman drops her water bottle and an older Spanish man jumps down to pick it up.

Dad nods at Frederick. "That's what I'm talking about, Frederick," he says.

Outside the window someone painted: I remember and I miss you. Frederick's head is in his phone and he does not see this. The bus drops us off and we all follow him.

"Hey!" I yell. "Where are we going?"

"Frederick knows where we're going," Dad says. "He just won't tell anyone."

"He has no idea where we're going."

We start making fun of Frederick, who hears us, and walks even farther into the distance.

*

On our last night in a hotel room together Frederick refuses to tell me about the girl he is dating and escapes into the bathroom to take a shower. I realize this airport hotel room is the largest room I have been alone inside in a long time. I stretch out on the floor and do some yoga patterns.

All along the road outside it is quiet and my eyes start to lose focus. With Frederick Douglass in the shower there is only the pattern of my pajamas against the hotel curtains, another accordion player mouthing "hola," how much money we're losing on the dollar and Mom down the hall after I remember she has the bag with the face wash.

When I get to her room the TV is on low and she can't stop talking about the Alhambra.

"I'm so impressed with the Moors and so unimpressed with the Catholics," she says, undressing. "Whenever my patients tell me they're going to Europe I'm going to say, Great! Take a tour!" And me just in disbelief at how beautiful she is—putting lotion on her legs and hands, in her peach nightgown. Her face so soft and warm. I wasn't even surprised when she discovered the lump a month after we got home, or afterwards, when the doctor took it out and told me that it didn't look malignant at all.