The Olympics were winding down, but the festivities continued in Barcelona. Since I had no job, I kept playing unofficial tour guide when I got the chance, and I spent my nights going from one club to another. I loved to dance. I would go to Studio 54 and from there to Jamboree. When all the clubs closed, I would go to the after-hours clubs, which stayed open until eight in the morning. There was a popular place called Oveja Negra (“Black Sheep”), a traditional Catalunyan bar that had several pool tables and made the best sangria in Barcelona. It always attracted tourists. I spent many evenings there waiting for the clubs to open.
One day as I was strolling through Las Ramblas, I had a chance encounter with an attractive girl about my age. Karen came from Ireland and worked in Costa Brava. She had decided to visit Barcelona on her day off. We spent the entire day together. She told me how frustrated she was with the Spanish family she was living with, and that if she had the choice, she would leave them. Misery loves company, I thought to myself. I told her that whenever she decided to leave the family, she would always have a place at my apartment. We exchanged numbers and she went back to Costa Brava.
A week later, I was having dinner with Michael and my roommates when I received a phone call. It was Karen; she had left the family that she had been living with and was now taking me up on my offer. She was waiting for me at the station. I immediately left the others and went to fetch her. I introduced her as my girlfriend, and she did not object. Everyone welcomed her, and Debra was the most excited because they were both Irish, and from the same region. I showed Karen to my room, and she made herself comfortable. She immediately joined the others drinking. Since I had only met her once, I had no idea she was a heavy drinker. During the course of the evening, she got completely drunk. I didn’t like what I saw, but it was too late by then. That night, unfortunately, she and I were intimate and that kind of validated the relationship.
For the next few weeks, since Karen neither had a job nor money, I became responsible for her. She looked for work, but was unable to find anything. She was very outgoing, like me, and in the evenings we would hit the bars and clubs. Sometimes Debra and Michael would go with us. By this time, Michael had developed a soft spot for Debra, and I welcomed it. I reasoned that if they started dating, he would spend a lot more time at our apartment and wouldn’t be a third wheel every time we went out.
I enjoyed my relationship with Karen, but I started to get weary of her drinking habit; for one, it was expensive. In my opinion, she was an alcoholic, and was literally drinking me dry. I had no job and my savings were drying up fast. Because of her drinking, we were always fighting. A few weeks after the Olympics, Karen had rendered me broke and my relationship with her had become strained. Every day I hoped and prayed that God would make her go away. I started pounding the streets in search of a job. This was an embarrassing period in my life. I was so destitute that I had no shame.
Coming from Nigeria, a completely different culture, there were certain European tradition that baffled me. One of them was throwing coins into fountains. One day, at the height of my desperation, I noticed a fountain that was a tourist attraction. It had always been there, but I suddenly saw it with new eyes. As I looked into the fountain, I noticed that the bottom was littered with coins, mostly of high denominations. I immediately jumped in to help myself. To my greatest surprise, there were many more coins in the water. I couldn’t understand how this miracle happened, but who was I to question God for providing for me through a fountain? It was much later that I came to understand that people threw money in the fountains to make wishes. Nonetheless, there was no harm done. The people may or may not have gotten their wish, but I sure did benefit from them.
After a few days of job hunting, I found a Ghanaian-owned barbershop. It was a decent shop, and since I used to cut my own hair and my friend’s hair in Africa, I felt that qualified me as a barber. I went in and told the owner of the shop that I was a barber and I needed a job. It would have been easier for me to tell him that I was from Nigeria, but I continued with the lie that I was from the Bahamas. He told me that he would give me a trial period of two days to show my skills, and I gladly accepted.
On the first day we didn’t have many customers, and the ones who showed up were old clients who were already used to having the owner cut their hair. The next day my opportunity came: there were a few new customers and the shop owner asked me to take care of one of them. By the time I finished with his hair, everyone’s faces were frozen in horror. I had completely brutalized his hair to the extent that even when the shop owner came to the rescue, it was too late to make the man’s hair look any better. It wasn’t surprising that when I showed up the next day, the shop owner told me that he couldn’t keep me. He said his former employee had come back to the job and he couldn’t afford to have both of us. Of course, I knew he was lying. He was too polite to tell me that I had performed horribly the day before. He was nice enough to refer me to another barbershop where the owner, John, was looking for a helper. He said that John was from the United States and would be more than pleased to have me since I was from the Bahamas. I went home depressed that day instead of going immediately to John. It was three days before I regained the confidence to claim that I was a barber.
When I got to the barbershop, there was a tall black guy, about six feet two inches, who spoke American English, and another guy who looked like an Arab. I told them I was looking for John, and the tall black guy identified himself as such. I told him I was from the Bahamas and was looking for a job. He said he knew of me; apparently, the Ghanaian shop owner had told him I was a good person and that I was looking for work. John was very welcoming and immediately offered a job. Because of his kindness, I felt I owed it to him to be truthful. I confessed that I wasn’t a professional barber, but that I knew how to cut African hair. He told me not to worry, and asked me to take a few days and watch him cut hair. He explained that eventually he would start me off with little kids, and as I got better, I would move to adults. He also explained that he didn’t pay salaries; I would get fifty percent of whatever I made and he would take the other fifty. That was fine with me.
I noticed the Arab man glaring at me. He wasn’t friendly at all, and I couldn’t understand why. I would find out what his grievances were much later. For the next couple of days, all I did was observe how John worked. He was a very skillful barber, the best I had ever seen. I later found out that he had studied cosmetology at the University of North Carolina. Each day there were more customers than we could fit in; the schedule was always fully booked in advance. Everyone who came into the shop wanted no one but John to do their hair. The Arab guy didn’t seem to do much but answer phones, make appointments, wash the ladies’ hair, and put them under the drier. I couldn’t understand how he could be doing so little while John did all the work. I was also struck by how self-absorbed he seemed, looking in the mirror every minute.
I really liked John’s shop. It was a beehive of activity every day. At any given time, we would have more than five clients, and there was always a lot of gossip. By the end of first week, my skills had improved tremendously, and by the second week I was on the road. I soon became so popular that word got to the Ghanaian man’s shop and he started looking for me. He begged me to come back to work for him, but I had to turn him down. I liked John and couldn’t leave his shop. I was dedicated to my job, and I wanted to save money so I could go to the United States and study.
In the matter of Karen, God finally answered my prayer. By this time practically no one in my apartment liked Karen anymore; she had made enemies. She got drunk one day and slept with Gomez, who was then in a relationship with Debra. The next morning, Debra confronted Karen, and she attempted to defend her actions, which made things worse. That same day, I told her that she had betrayed everyone in the house and my trust in her was completely gone. I said that she had to move, and she did. But as fate would have it, she didn’t move far. One of our flatmates left, and she moved into that room. By this time she had gotten a job and could afford to pay for her own room. I had long suspected that Karen had been sleeping around, and that was one more reason to end our relationship. I suspected that she was cheating on me because of the way she would always flirt with guys, and a couple of times I caught her kissing guys at the club. Alcohol had taken over her life completely, and I didn’t want to be any part of that. I had no choice but to break up with her. The good thing was that, with no one else to take care of, I could afford to pay for my room and save a little money from what I was making.
I knew that it would be virtually impossible for me to get into the United States without a passport. So I thought that since I was still claiming to be Bahamian and my asylum card validated the claim, maybe I should try to obtain a Bahamian passport to get into the U.S. I still needed a passport to go from Spain to the Bahamas, but coincidently, one of my clients, Kofi, specialized in faking documents. He told me that he had all kinds—British, American, and so on—but he recommended that I use a diplomatic passport to go to the Bahamas. Kofi had a box full of Liberian diplomatic passports. Apparently, during the war in Liberia, boxes of official and diplomatic passports were stolen after the offices of immigration and naturalization were destroyed. Therefore, there were thousands of both Liberian official and diplomatic passports circulating around the world. I told him I was interested and would let him know when I was ready to travel. In the meantime, I continued working at John’s shop.
After one month, John really came to trust me and started opening up to me. I had always wondered why he had no girlfriend. He was always polite with the girls, and clients flirted with him often, but he never responded the way I would have expected of a man. John was gay, but I never could have guessed by looking at him. He probably thought I was gay and may have hired me for that reason. John told me that his Arab employee was also gay, and was jealous of me—that’s why he was always mean to me. He was very possessive of John, even though they weren’t in a relationship, and feared that John would fall in love with me and not pay attention to him anymore. He was threatened by my presence, and his envy and hatred grew worse when I become a skillful hairstylist and clients began asking for me by name. After he realized how popular I had become at the shop, he told John that he, too, would like to start cutting hair. When John told me all of this, I begged him to let the Arab know that I was heterosexual and he had nothing to worry about from me. John didn’t seem to understand, and I think he still believed I was gay.
Everyone had a tale. Before I met John, I was very homophobic. Still traumatized by my encounter with the gay pedophile who violated me in secondary school, I disliked and wished ill toward homosexuals. But with John, it was entirely different. He didn’t flaunt his homosexuality. I found out that John had a successful business in North Carolina, where he had fallen in love with a bisexual man, Lester, who was married. He must have thought Lester was also in love with him. John went into a joint venture with Lester. Lester then moved to Barcelona with his family, and convinced John to also move there and open a barbershop with him. John, foolishly in love, followed Lester to Barcelona. They opened the shop and were very successful, but John was the only one running the shop and working for all the money, while Lester focused on his other businesses and his family. He paid little or no attention to John, except when he went to collect his share of the profit. The situation was eating John up inside and he had been miserable for the three years he had been in Spain. I felt sorry for him, but couldn’t help him. I had my own problems to worry about. I continued working at the shop and saving for my trip to the Bahamas, and on weekends I was able to sq££ze in some partying time.
One Saturday, as usual, I started the evening at Plaza Real, had a few drinks at a bar, and later moved on to Oveja Negra, where I drank sangria and shot pool until midnight. Then I headed to the most famous club at this time, San Francisco. All my club friends were already there, and as soon as I stepped in, everybody hailed and welcomed me. At that moment, there was a dance-off going on in the center of the dance floor. Everyone knew I never passed on a dance competition, and I immediately swung into action. From the applause coming my way at the end, it was obvious that I had won.
Everyone took to the floor again, and because of my excellent display during the dance-off, most of the girls came to dance with me. As usual, I picked a beautiful girl, danced with her, and moved on to the next one. Suddenly, as I was dancing, I felt a hand groping my butt0ckz. I tried to see who it was, but the club was too crowded. I continued dancing, and the hand grabbed my butt0ckz again, squeezing tightly. I whirled around and there she was: a girl about five feet four inches tall, with a white round face, deep brown eyes, and short brown hair. She looked like she was in her late twenties. She stood there looking longingly at me. Before I could say a word, she untangled my hands from the girl I was dancing with, dragged me close to her, and whispered in my ears, begging me to dance with her. So I left my current partner and started dancing with this girl. She wouldn’t let go of me the whole night. We talked while we danced, then continued the conversation outside, where it was quiet. I told her my name and gave her my usual story, changing the narrative a little bit this time. I told her I was from the Bahamas, but was living in my mother’s country, Liberia. When the war started there, I had to escape, and had ended up in Spain. I also told her that I was currently working as a hairstylist.
Her name was Maria Joana, and she was from Manacor, Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands. She lived in Barcelona and worked at a bank. She had seen me a few times in the club and liked me very much, though I never seemed to pay attention to her. On a few occasions she had wanted to come over and speak to me, but she had been too shy.
As we were speaking, a friend of hers appeared whom she introduced as Blanca; they lived in the same apartment. I noticed that they were chain smokers. Maria Joana had smoked more than ten cigarettes since we started our conversation. Normally, that would be a turnoff for me, but I was intrigued by Maria Joana’s boldness. By 4 a.m. the club was still rocking and both Maria Joana and Blanca were more than tipsy. I was getting a little tired because my conversation with Maria Joana had broken my club routine, which was to dance all night with as many girls as possible. I thanked Maria Joana and Blanca, and said it was a pleasure hanging out with them, but it was time for me to head home. They also said they were tired and were about to leave anyway. I went back into the club and said farewell to my friends, and then I walked back into the street with Maria Joana and Blanca. I headed off to catch a bus and the girls headed for their car.
A few minutes later, as I was walking toward the bus stop, a car pulled up behind me: it was Maria Joana. She insisted on giving me a ride home. I noticed Blanca wasn’t with her and asked where she was. She said that Blanca had decided to stay at the club. Without much argument I got into the car and told her where to drop me. She sped off, and minutes later I realized that she had completely bypassed my route. I asked her where she was going, and she said she wanted to show me her place before dropping me off. I let it go because I was too tired to argue. We got to her apartment complex, which was on Pasaje Escudellers, a street right behind my favorite plaza, Plaza Real. She lived on the fourth floor, second apartment. She invited me in and brought out some wine. We had a few glasses, and by the time we were done, I was too exhausted to go back to my apartment. She asked me to sleep over, and we ended up having s*x. The next morning, by the time I got up, she had already made breakfast for me. She pampered me and treated me like a king. I spent the entire Sunday at her place.
Later in the day, Blanca returned to the apartment. She wasn’t too pleased to see me there, for reasons I didn’t find out until months later: Blanca was a l£sb!an and was in a relationship with Maria Joana. By the end of that evening, I was completely taken with Maria Joana’s kindness and her complete devotion to me. Before I left, she made me promise to visit her as often as possible.
Back in my apartment, things were not as they used to be. The friendly atmosphere that had existed before Karen moved in had completely vanished. Karen had a way of sowing hate and discontent. She pretty much wanted to sleep with every guy she met and kept bringing strange men into the apartment. After her fight with Debra over Gomez, the two had remained estranged. She tried to turn our forty-year-old flatmate against me, but it didn’t work; the lady always told me everything Karen said about me. Eventually, Giles moved out of the apartment, and it became increasingly intolerable for me. Though I didn’t spend a lot of time there, I preferred to have a friendly environment like we used to have. From time to time Michael visited the apartment. He and Debra still got along well, and since Debra had dumped Gomez after the affair with Karen, she was now available. I was happy for both of them. I believed that they were suitable for each another. They were both mild and kindhearted people, and they seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes, when Michael visited, he would cook for Debra.
As the days went by, I realized that if I had to move to the Bahamas, I couldn’t keep living in the apartment. I could barely afford to pay for my room, much less buy a plane ticket or the fake passport that I needed. I became worried and increasingly doubtful that I would be able to make the trip. It was almost the end of August 1992 and I was determined to travel before October. I thought hard about what to do, but couldn’t come up with a viable solution.
A few days later, Kofi came to the salon and said he had a fake diplomatic passport for me. He showed it to me, and it looked very professionally done. I was satisfied and paid him three thousand pesetas, which at the time was equivalent to two hundred US dollars.