Leaving the Atocha Station is a 2011 book by Ben Lerner about his year in Madrid. I was living in Asturias when it came out, but I had earlier lived in Madrid, even in the Atocha neighborhood. If my writing had gotten off the ground sooner, why, such a title might have graced my own book, not his.

I would have made a change, however. Not the Atocha station, but simply Atocha station. Or just Atocha. In speaking of the train station at Atocha, no one uses the article, nor the word estación, which means station. “¿Quedamos en Atocha?” is what you’d say, meaning, “Shall we meet at Atocha?” Then you could specify exactly where: at the fountain or the front entrance or in the vestibule by the departures screen. The station was rundown when I first saw it, but renovations in the late ’80s and early ’90s enlarged it and spiffed it up. Now a tropical garden inside the station calms the nerves of hurried and harried passengers. A monument in tribute to the 191 victims of the 2004 terrorist attack on the Madrid commuter trains stands in the courtyard. Either one would do as a place to meet. But so would the side entrance to the Retiro Park, just across the street, or the Fuente de Neptuno on the Paseo del Prado, or, on the other side of the busy intersection, the open courtyard in front of the Reina Sofia Museum.

The names still thrill me. My life in Spain started there, in Atocha, and though I left, I am still living the life that sprouted shoots from that early adult adventure, when I visited my brother in Madrid and stayed with him at his apartment in the Calle de Atocha, just up the street from the station. Lerner’s title seems to dress up the common parlance in extra words as you’d dress up a doll in smocks and pinafores that were not usually worn by real little girls. None of that prettiness in my book about my first true, sustained adventure in the big world, so none in my title either. Leaving Atocha would have been mine. Whether anything else would be different I can’t say, as I’ve never read Lerner’s book.

I did, however, read Lerner’s short story called “Café Loup,” and I would have been glad to write such a story. I would have changed nothing. I was immediately engaged by the tale. This is nice, I thought, nice being a word of approbation to show that something suits you, personally, rather than, as with the word good, that some quality is present that is generally agreed to be desirable. A good argument is a sound one, free of fallacies or contradictions. A nice argument is one that makes you smile. For me, it’s nice if it’s simple but includes a surprising metaphor or analogy or just an arresting image. Nice is a matter of taste. Why do you like it, one might ask me, and my answer is unabashed. Why is it good, on the other hand, is a question that makes me nervous. Is it good, I wonder? I love it, but who am I?

So why do I like this story? First-person narrator, lots of seemingly irrelevant information fed into the narration without hurry, smooth transitions, a questioning voice given to mulling over different scenarios, some conjecture, inadequacy a given. A narrator I would like to stand beside and discreetly peep at. And when I was caught doing that, a narrator who would not make me feel foolish.

And why do I admire the story? Because it asks a question in a natural manner that I often ask myself: How far does parental responsibility go? Would or should you give up your life to save your child’s? Such a dilemma is unbearable and unthinkable. Yes—unthinkable to have to choose, but unbearable to choose wrong. So you do what the narrator has told himself he would do if anything were to happen to his daughter—run to the river and throw himself in before the pain catches up. Because it can’t be borne. Not in your world. How do I know? I know. Not much of an argument, true. But still it is so. Not on my watch, say the proud leaders about some looming failure. Not in my world, says the parent. Yes, she might still exist after such an unspeakable loss, but her world wouldn’t.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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