Life in the Afternoon – Novel Excerpt, Confluence at Café Zurich

After I left a disastrous couples counseling session, I had no desire to go home even though I knew Valeria wouldn’t be there. I had the urge to be out in the world. I wanted to be outside in a big space, not crammed in our little apartment of bad memories. I decided I wouldn’t return home tonight. Maybe I’d stay at a cheap hotel. Wherever. I just needed to be somewhere else.

The therapist’s office was across from Plaza de Toros. People were lining up outside the doors readying for the afternoon slaughter of the bulls. Death in the Afternoon indeed. The atmosphere was lively and energetic, the perverse buzz of imminent violence, echoing back to the crowds in Rome at the Colosseum before Christians were fed to the lions. Now we just sacrifice innocent animals.

I’d been to one bullfight with Valeria’s brother, Carlos, and vowed never to go again. Carlos had convinced me to attend to appreciate this part of Spanish culture and not be such a “Judgmental ugly American. Bullfighting is a form of art, a ballet of human and beast, that our culture celebrates.”

Carlos insisted as an artist I should experience new cultures openly, not selectively. “Tio, being uncomfortable is good for an artist, no?” I eventually relented, if only to avoid a fight with Valeria about how I don’t spend enough time with her family. Carlos was right though. I did judge it as primitive and cruel. The thought of it was revolting. The actuality was worse. I saw no artistry, no ballet, just torture and murder of the innocent. I loathed all the pomp and circumstance, all the spectacle of man’s rigged mastery over beast. There was one moment where a bull gored a bullfighter in the thigh. Embarrassingly the toreador had to be carried off amidst jeers and derision from the audience. I started to stand to applaud the bull, but Carlos grabbed my arm and yanked me down. “Do you want to get killed?”

The bull’s triumphant moment didn’t last long as a replacement fighter took over and eventually finished the job though his final stabbing didn’t immediately kill the animal. The bull writhed in agony on his side until a puntillero delivered the coup de grâce by severing his spinal cord with a dagger.

Contrarily, the last fight was quick. The bull suffered a fast death. As is custom, he was then securely tied to mules so that he could be shamelessly dragged around the ring for the remaining spectators to give their final applause. There was very little cheering and most of the remaining spectators had already made their way out of the stadium, summarily dismissing this bull. When a bull is paraded around the stadium by the mules, the cheering is a barometer of the level of fight given to the matador. I watched its lifeless head bouncing up and down off the pale yellow, sunbaked earth. The bull’s eyes were closed while rivulets of blood streamed web-like along his face. The gash between his shoulders widened as the handle of the knife still lodged in his spine would catch the ground from time to time, pulling and jerking in different directions. Jagged white protuberances of vertebrae and shoulder blades broke through the red flesh, blood pouring out of the gash with the speed of a mountainside river. Finally, mercilessly, the mules pulled the bull out of sight and into his version of eternity.


After the murder, we met Valeria and Carlos’ wife, Esperanza, for drinks and dinner. Though I didn’t ask for it, Carlos lectured me again on the finer points of the event. The estoca was the first thrusting of a sword by a matador and if successful, the bull dies quickly and cleanly. If the matador fails to cleanly impale the bull with the estoca, then he must use a second sword, the verdugo. This is supposed to kill the bull instantly by slicing the spinal cord, but sometimes this still doesn’t finish the job. If that fails, they had to summon a puntillero to perform a coup de grâce like they had done with bull who had gored the toreador.

“Carlos, it’s not a fair fight,” I said post-lecture.

I’d always naively thought that the matador and the bull were pitted against each other on equal terms. Or, at least, relatively equal terms in that the matador had knives, swords, and spears at his disposal. But the bull had preternatural strength and horns so that’s fair enough. I had assumed that the matador put himself at great risk in the ring trying to subdue the bull, but the truth was entirely different. Before the matador faces the bull, picadores stab the beast with colorful spears, strategically targeting his muscular flanks severing the neck muscles to prevent the bull from raising his head, thereby limiting his ability to use his horns. Everything was set up for the matador to reach over the horns and deliver the kill after all the taunting and teasing with the red cape.

Carlos disdainfully waved away the criticism. “Arsen, you just don’t get it. You’re too American.”

“No, I don’t get it. You’re exactly right.”

“Well, at least we keep our violence inside a ring and towards an animal rather than all your gun loving American matadors shooting innocent masses of people.”

“I hate that, too. It’s horrible.”

“You’ll never understand our culture,” Carlos said.

“I don’t understand our culture when it comes to killing bulls,” Esperanza said. “It should stop like it did in Catalan.”

“Ugh, Barcelona,” Carlos sighed.

“Arsen and Esperanza are right. It’s cruel,” Valeria said. It was a rare moment of solidarity, but it was only a moment. At home that night we fought. I don’t remember what we fought about. It didn’t matter.


I was in a strange state of mind looking over at the Plaza del Toros. A combustible and seismic invasion surged in my blood and pricked at my skin. Mental institutions, a relationship turned funereal, a looming escape with no plan, the whole Madrid dream turned nightmare all now conspired in mind and body. I felt tightness in the heart side of my chest and shoulder. Everything seemed to be pressing inward, like a big hand had grabbed all the muscles in that area and clenched hard. I was sure it wasn’t a heart attack. It had to be all the anxiety and stress manifesting itself corporally. The body could only take so much from the mind. While the awful unraveling of the present was certainly a trigger, I wasn’t blind to the reality that the present never operates alone. The great and powerful past conducted the drama like a maestro seeking symphonies that vacillate between the tragic and the comic. You can run, but the conductor will find you…

And there was Plaza de Toros before my eyes. A macabre vision of death. I was drawn to attending something I despised. Something to feed all the frustration. Something to redirect it from its truth.

In minutes I had my ticket and entered the ring with the vicious ballet underway. The toreador was in the midst of taunting the bull—bright red spears dangling off his shoulders, blood streaming down his deep brown skin over rippling, but severed muscles struggling in futility to lift his neck and get those horns high enough to pierce the enemy. The bull had been charging from a distance, but fatigue set in quickly, accelerated by the pre-fight wounds. He was just a few feet from the toreador, lunging awkwardly at the red cape that the gold-and-gem-bedazzled toreador twirled and flapped with ballroom flair, mocking the once great beast. Soon the bull began stumbling, its front legs collapsing in exhaustion, but he willed himself up for more vain attempts at the man about to kill him. This man unsheathed the estoca, readying for his first attempt to kill the bull, but not before more pomp and circumstance displays of domination.

I couldn’t take it anymore. It was igniting all that was wrong in me, all that was wrong in the world, and I didn’t want to be a spectator to another spectacle. I didn’t want to sit and listen to a therapist poke at what might be wrong. I didn’t want to pour all my own existential agonies and discontent, all the traumas within and all around into creation, misdirecting it all into art. This was a Dada moment for the forces of creativity. What was wrong was right before my eyes and I craved confronting it with direct action, not a paint brush.

I walked determinedly down the steps towards the front row as the bull stumbled more and more while the toreador twirled his blade.

When I reached the edge of the front row, the toreador raised the blade.

I howled bilingually, “Stop! Para!”

The toreador’s arm froze at its peak and he turned to me. The audience went momentarily silent. I had center stage.

The sudden chasm in my character widened even more. Someone braver and more impetuous had taken me over. I leapt into the ring and charged at the bullfighter, who at first looked stunned, but then dropped his cape and wielded his knife, readying it for me, not the bull, who had fallen helplessly. I charged on, full speed ahead as if I were the bull. About twenty feet from my likely death, I was hit full-force on both sides and went down in a heap. Two picadors had tackled me and then the police swarmed in, handcuffing me, and leading me away.

Most of the crowd jeered at me, throwing beer and food and whatever, but there were some cheers and applause. It was only a few people, but they were louder and more passionate than the detractors.

And now I knew where I would spend the night.


I was booked with disturbance of the peace and attempted assault. I was brought into a room and sat alone for a long time, cuffed, until a cop entered.

“Habla espanol?” he asked.

“Non hablo muy bien.”

“Fine, I speak English.”

He was a tall, good looking young man. I imagined the Spanish ladies swooned at him in uniform.

He read me the charges that I already knew.

“It’s ironic,” I said. “I was trying to prevent assault, murder, actually.”

“That’s cute,” he said, disinterestedly, while marking up some forms. After a few moments, he looked up at me. “Look, Arsen, you’re not the first to do this. It happens. We get protesters and activists crossing the line like you did from time to time. You’re not original.”

“What happens now?” I asked, nervously.

“Simple. We don’t need to prosecute and deal with a trial. It will only galvanize the protestors, make you a local hero.”

I laughed at that notion. He smiled and nodded. “Ridiculous, I know. So, you spend the night with us, plead guilty tomorrow morning, pay a fine, and sign that you never enter Plaza del Toro in the province of Madrid for the rest of your life. If so, you will be sentenced to five years. Lo entiendes?”

“Yes,” I said with great relief. Now that my moment of deviation was over, I was terrified at the thought of losing my freedom.

And so my plans for the evening were confirmed. I was in a cell with two petty thieves. We shared our crime stories in my limited Spanish and then I lay on a cot that was about a foot shorter than me with a skinny mattress that seemed to be stuffed with rocks. Despite being incredibly uncomfortable, I fell into one of the best nights of sleep I’d ever had in Spain.


Ken Janjigian is the author of a collection of novellas and two novels, most recently A Cerebral Offer (Livingston Press, University of West Alabama, 2020), which was awarded a bronze medal in urban fiction by the Independent Publisher Book Awards (2021). He received grants in support of his forthcoming novel Confluence at Café Zurich from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD) and the Maryland State Arts Council. He has also written a biopic screenplay (Kerouac) about the legendary Beat author.

One Reply to “Life in the Afternoon – Novel Excerpt, Confluence at Café Zurich”

  1. This tranche of your vivid story makes me bloody hungry for more!

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