I Was A Matador Groupie
This title, sadly, evokes an impression that isn’t quite true, so I apologize for bringing you here dishonestly. I’ve never slept with a bullfighter. A long, long time ago though, I probably would have if I’d had even the slightest chance. In my twenties, when it came to the heart throbs of the bullring, I found myself the kind of shrilling, shrieking fangirl not found in any part of North America. Ole!
When I was in college, my dad moved to the border town of Laredo, Texas with his job in the oil field. Before the drug cartels ruined the mercados on the other side of the US-Mexico border, we would cross over and spend the day in what felt to me like another world. I bartered for trinkets from open air vendors who didn’t speak English, trying my own hand at the high school Spanish I rarely got to actually use. It was exhilarating when the storekeepers smiled and nodded at me in understanding. I purchased cheap t-shirts and funny-smelling blankets as souvenirs for my friends and my dad and I drank real margaritas out of enormous plastic cups. By ‘real’ I mean alcoholic margaritas because, let’s be honest, there was no drinking age in a town starving for American dollars. I silently worried about the ice in my beverage because visitors to Mexico knew we weren’t supposed to drink the water.
On Sundays there was the bullfight. Sol or sombre… the good, shady seats or the seats in the direct sunlight? Well, it depended on your social class. Much like the above-the-dugout seats at an American baseball game, sombre was always better. Ringside was special. On the way in, fans like me bought posters of the day’s lineups and after attending my fair share of bullfights, I knew who the celebrities were just as sure as today’s teenyboppers can name the members of One Direction.
Bullfighting is not a pop concert, though. It’s bloodsport. It’s less a competition as it is art in human form. It is beautiful to behold. Mesmerizing. But it took some getting used to. Mexican bullfights start with a bit of teasing, with small, inexperienced bulls (with small horns) making easy play with pre-teen boys just learning the sport. As the day progressed, the intermediate torreros came out, the bulls got bigger and faster and real swords were drawn. It wasn’t for sissies. Still, the bulls died. The bull never wins this game.
The lead-up to the grand finale was always a parade of the greatest fighters facing off against the strongest, fastest bulls, raised to a thousand pounds or more specifically for the day, and the moment, when they took their pass at that seething red flag. Sometimes the bull got in a cheap shot and perhaps an amateur bullfighter fell down. But sometimes, as in Portuguese bullfights, there were the forcados who rushed in to save him. They would race out and tumble and jump around, distracting the bull from his murderous agenda. Other times and in other places like Spain and France, where the traditions of bullfighting changed and shifted with the generations, the players in the game were less playful, more morose. I’ve seen this fight in almost every style in both hemispheres. Too often, it was just the man and the bull in the arena and no one else, and on occasion the man stumbled in humiliation, waiting to be trampled or gored.
Once the fighter was on his feet again, he made quick work of inflicting injury, bloodying the bull in grander display just to show us all who was boss. Don’t worry, the bull always dies. But before that happens, you watch the Exhibition. The Dance. The intimacy of man versus beast was never more obvious than in a bullring. The horses and their picadors alone are a sight to behold, bullying and taunting the confused animal in advance of the grande bullfighter’s imminent prance into the ring. It isn’t a fair fight, anyone can see that. So why do we watch?
We want to see the Matador.
He oozed sex as he finally sashayed into the ring, his embroidered magenta cape draped over one shoulder of the skintight pastel uniform he always wore. No one ever made hot pink knee socks and black ballet slippers look so seductive. His cropped bolero jacket was adorned with a patchwork of laced golden thread and his ruffled collars and distinct headwear gave us all the impression he was of a royal court. His eyes were dark and brooding, his hair jet black and he wore a dark, somber, focused gaze. He held a smoldering countenance as he focused his attention on the animal who desperately wanted to kill him. His walk was ritualized, like a rooster strutting about in a mating display. Confident, proud, and entirely masculine as he paraded in, the grande bullfighter was skilled at hiding any fear he felt as he approached the center of the ring. It was just him… and the beast. And the beast felt his stare. They faced off.
By the time the matador gets his turn, the bull is already injured by the lances of the picadors who came before, whose stabs have almost severed the animal’s neck muscles. The bull is prickled with spears. Blood is flowing. He’s in pain and he snorts with a fearful rage. A careless bullfighter will feel the deadly wrath of a monster so scorned, so the fighter takes his job seriously, feeling his own ‘life or death’ with each pass the bull makes. The beast’s injuries even the playing field…for the most part.
A bull’s eyes see only the color red so it’s the flag he wants to kill, not the man. With each pass, the bull reveals his weakness to the man studying him: which side he favors, where he is weakest, what hurts him the most. The Matador studies the animal’s vulnerabilities and plots his finale. The last pass comes with great anticipation. The crowd hushes. The Matador, in his greatest moment of glory, raises the handle of his sword to his cheek and its blade stares the bull straight in the eye. He shows his red target and the bull charges one last, glorious time. The matador simply braces for the approach, and then as the beast gracefully passes, our bullfighter pierces him right behind his head, and right down through his heart. Then the bull dies.
In each of the moments I witnessed this along with the other fans in the arena, when death finally came we all rose to our feet. When the animal dropped suddenly, its heart mortally pierced, the crowd erupted into applause and I threw roses at the Bullfighter waving at me below. He bowed and turned in every direction as the flowers fell like rain all around him. The Matador, even covered in blood, won the hearts of everyone watching. He was our hero. He slayed the beast.
Many times I met them. I had my posters signed and they gave me their roses. I fell in love with them, with all of them, a hundred times. Every time.
It wouldn’t last. My lustful adoration of the modern day gladiator ended in Madrid, Spain in the year I turned twenty-three. In the oldest bullring in the whole world, I watched the most majestic bull I’d ever laid eyes on refuse to accept his own death. I watched him dance with his Matador until I could watch it no more, until I had to turn my eyes away in guilt. Still, those images remain with me.
I haven’t forgotten anything. Mostly, I remember that the bull always dies.