Barcelona Days


By Daniel Riley

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In this captivating novel, an erupting Icelandic volcano grounds all flights in and out of Europe, forcing four vacationing Americans to reckon with the problems they'd hoped to leave behind in Barcelona.
Whitney and Will are a perfect couple by all appearances, their relationship rock-solid, and their engagement soon to be announced. Before their impending nuptials, however, Whitney suggests a lighthearted experiment: why not give each other three romantic "free passes" before getting married? Three opportunities to imagine other lives before returning with new appreciation for each other. On what's meant to be the last night of a romantic Barcelona vacation, they agree to regale one another with details of these harmless trysts. They grin and bear it, and fall asleep feeling mostly satisfied, and relieved to be firmly together again.
But then a volcano erupts overnight, spewing a cloud of ash across Europe and grounding all flights indefinitely. Trapped in Barcelona, their paths intertwine with a star basketball player, his future dashed by a crippling injury, and a foreign exchange student with a double life, about to return home and face reality.
Whitney and Will flirt, provoke, dance, and drink. Over the next three days, they will use and be used by their new friends, once again testing the boundaries of their relationship — but this time, can it survive?


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"Eruptions and cataclysms and plagues and the colliding of planets were the only real, the only inevitable events, and the human activities that happened to lie in their path, and which are destroyed with such blind ease and ignorance, were of as little real importance as the doings of insects. How effortlessly they had all been burnt up! How pointless all our passions and complications and the intricate structure of our little society now seemed!…How microscopic, how minute, were the feuds, the passions, the pleasures and the vanities of the small anachronistic community of Saint-Jacques!"

The Violins of Saint-Jacques
by Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1953


"Barcelona is something else, isn't it? There you have the Mediterranean, the spirit, the adventure, the high dream of perfect love. There are palm trees, people from every country, surprising advertisements, Gothic towers and a rich urban tide.…What a pleasure it has been for me to meet that air and that passion!"

—letter to a friend, Federico García Lorca, 1926


Before Volcano


"To you and me," Will said, lifting his wine, a local something, butcher red. The label said it was from Penedès, just down the coast, and it featured a bull with roses where its horns should be.

"To 1-2-3," Whitney said, lifting her glass to match, and they clinked a heavy clink, and it rang out around the dining room like a good idea.

Heavy chatter blew about like smoke, ninety-nine percent of which neither of them could understand. They couldn't even tell whether it was Spanish or Catalan being spoken most of the time. Written signs they could distinguish: the extra Js and Xs and liquid double-Ls that had tempted their Scrabble brains for the last four days. But with the talk, they were hopeless—they weren't wired for translation.

They'd strolled in without a reservation, typically impossible, they were told. But given that the booking at the bar was already a mitja hora tard, the hostess sat them there at the edge of the dining room under the condition that they might be asked to get up at any moment. It was good enough for Will and it was good enough for Whitney. They were compatible like that, key-cut for one another.

There was no wine list except what was written on a chalkboard above the bar, and so they'd put their faith in the hostess not to rob them blind. Now they sipped from their glasses and took each other in. Will with his wide edges, his twice-broken nose, his shaggy mop lightened by a lifetime of sun and salt. Whitney with her silver eyes and brows thick like lipstick, her freckled cheeks crisped from a Memorial Day weekend pounding the sawed-off sidewalks of the metropolis on the Mediterranean. They knew each other's faces; they were seven years known. They knew the battery of inflections inside and out. But they'd never seen in the other's what they saw just then: the set jaws, the knotted throats. The frame-up of fuzzed uncertainty and cold nerves. What they knew the looks to mean was that it was finally time to confess.

"You or me first?" Will said.

Whitney exhaled and blinked deeply. Her hand found her hair, dark and wet as ink. She loosened the belt of her coat to let the air in. She had beads of sweat on the sides of her nose that caught the overhead lights. It had been a longer walk to the restaurant than they'd anticipated. But it would be worth it—it had been recommended by Gwyneth.

Whitney didn't have to say it, and still Will understood that it was his turn to go.

"Well, okay then," he said, and halved his glass. "I guess, uh, I guess the first one then.…The first one I met at a party. She came right up to me. We talked. We went—"

"Whose party?"

"A young-lawyers thing. The ones I never go to."

"But you went this time."

"Well, how else?"

Whitney sucked in her lips.

"I couldn't tell anyone, remember?" Will said. "I didn't tell Mark. I didn't tell Dave or Jay. No websites. No apps. Not even the one with the bees. So: one of those happy hours."

"And so she walks right up to you and does what?"

"She asks me what firm I'm at."

"And you tell her: I work for a media company." Whitney did the voice that sounds nothing like Will: Christian Bale's Batman as a contracts associate.

"She asks me where I went to law school, if I know so-and-so. Connections are made."

"And she just assumes you're available."

"There's a reason I hadn't been to one of those things in years. There's a reason people go."

"And so you drink your drinks, and how does it get to where it gets?"

"We drink our drinks. She seems to have come alone, like me. She—"

"Was she blonde?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"You're so weird with that."

"Was she?"

"She was…like that, I guess." Will pointed to a woman in the dining room. "Mostly blonde, dark at the roots."

"And supersmart too, I bet."

Will leaned back on his stool and sat up straight, bared his teeth like the grimace of the grimace emoji. "Look, I know this is weird, and if you don't want to do it this way…"

"No, I know.…What can I say? I knew I would be bad at it. I'm jealous of hair color. I'm jealous of the conversation as much as the fact that you went home and fucked her."

Will's eyes tracked to the bartender to see if he'd noticed. Nothing. The staff wouldn't be bothered even if they understood. "And I was funny that night," he said, looking back at Whitney.

"Oh yeah?"

"Funniest I've been in a while. It's interesting how everyone thinks I'm funnier than you do. I'm the 'funny guy' at the office."

"I think that says more about your office."

"Point is, she's having a good old time with me."

"You talk about defamation lawsuits. You talk about libel and IP."

"TV, movies, music."

"You don't even listen to music," she said.

"Not true."

"You listen to legal podcasts when you run…"

"I know new bands. I've gotten into some deejays at—"

"Some deejays? I was only out of town for a month."

"I know it's been seven years, but I remember what it's like to talk to girls, all right? I did okay before I met you."

"So you impress her with your CD binder from high school?"

"With tales of concerts in Hollywood. With the names of venues. The Roxy, the Troub—" He registered her nausea and cut himself off. "Whatever, it worked."

Whitney picked at a cuticle. She reached for her wine. "So you, what, close out and hop in a cab?…"

"We go to another bar."

"Oh! Another drink."

"Another couple drinks," he said.

"What a lush. So you wind up canoodling in a booth with sexy candlelight."

"We avoid the darts flying over our heads and laugh about an obnoxious Australian woman shooting pool."

"And she takes you to the bathroom right then and there because she can't resist."

"Do you want me to tell it, or do you want to?"

She opened her hands, an invitation to proceed freely.

"We finish our drinks, hit the street. I think that's basically it."

"So, what, you just start heading home? You think you've struck out?"

"We exchange phone numbers. I start walking toward the subway. I hear a voice and look up and she's in a cab and asks me if I need a ride to her neighborhood."


"I guess it was an unnecessary step. There was a straighter line."

"But she wasn't gonna risk you judging her by making her move at the bar."

"Anyway, I get in the cab."

"You get in the cab."

"And take her straight to our place," Will said.

"No you didn't…"

"Right to bed. Let her root around in your closet. Let her admire the photos of us on vacation."

"It was a good rule," Whitney said. "I'm glad we made it. I couldn't have dealt with someone at the apartment."

"You had it so much easier," Will said, finding her wandering eyes. "A month on the road. A month in a strange city. A month of being able to bring them back to your hotel.…All while I'm forced to take cabs to Brooklyn."

"Oh no," she said. "Where?"

"I don't know, not far."

"Bushwick," she said.

"South Williamsburg."

"By the bridge…" she said, smiling again now.

"Nice place by the bridge," he said, smiling back in confirmation.

"So she leans into you in the cab."

"She leans in. She grabs my wrist. She places my hand on her leg."

"Oh-kay, then.…Stockings? Skirt?"

"I don't know—skin, shaved."

"Bare legs," she said. "A warm night."

"Not that warm…" he said.

"So bare legs for Young Lawyers Night. Man, being a girl is hard."

"We eventually get there. We head upstairs."

"No pretense of dropping you off somewhere else."

"Pretense gone after the bare legs."

"And so she walks you past the first of three roommates…"

Will smiled again. He loved her. The precision cuts. The smothering judgment.

"Two roommates," he said. "But both supposedly at work. Another lawyer. A hospital resident."

"No wonder the bare legs, then. A rare night with the place to herself."

"They're way up in a big building. They have a narrow balcony and a nice view. She dumps some ice in a couple glasses and makes two vodka sodas."

"Of course," she said, chewing on some bread now, feeling lighter. "Perfect."

"You love this," he said. "Every detail is everything you'd hoped."

"Don't stop now. You're on the balcony…"

"We look at the view of the bridge, and then I guess it just happened from there."

"Nope," Whitney said. "The whole thing."

"We don't need to do the whole thing."


"Well, when it's your turn, you don't need to go step-by-step."

"So you're on the balcony, you're making her laugh—the funny guy—and she looks up at you with her wet bovine eyes and begs you to kiss her."

He tapped the tip of his nose and swirled his wine.

"The poorly colored hair dried out from a brutal winter," she continued. "Bounced up with some heat tools. A little too much makeup concealing lines she swears weren't there yesterday. Maybe from overdosing on Netflix and Ben & Jerry's in bed…"

"Nah," Will said, "way too young for wrinkles."

Whitney shifted on her stool. She knew his buttons and he knew hers. Younger, smoother. It halted her momentum, even though what he'd said wasn't true and he could tell that she could tell. Whitney lifted her glass and then dug in deeper.

"She can't figure out what about her isn't fully lovable," she said. "Why dragging home a strange man from a cheesy networking event and giving it up after three hours and four drinks might not be girlfriend material."

"I think she'd been in a long relationship. Something left over from college."

"And what about you—what had you been in?"

"I'd been in a long relationship myself. But out of it recently. Looking for a young lawyer to hang out with, 'cause I figured that's what she'd want to hear."

"So you kiss her on the balcony, under the stars. She's short or tall."

"She's short. She's pretty little."

Another button. It drove the color to Whitney's cheeks and the blood to her temples.

"Wow. A little petite blonde buzzing bee. Lucky you, right out of the gate."

"There were plenty of strikeouts. I went to bars around the apartment. I'd sit there, order a beer, bring a magazine. Wonder if there was any possible way to talk to a stranger and not be creepy. I saw a girl waiting for a date who'd clearly no-showed. Thought about saying something, swooping in to save the night—but decided against compounding her and my embarrassment. Picked up a slice of pizza and went home instead. It's a challenge, for me at least, when you take all the tools off the table.…All the ways people actually meet, and I'm stuck at happy hours with junior associates."

"But I didn't use the apps, either," she said. "And it wasn't so hard for me."

"Terrific. Let's go, then. Your turn."

"No way, José. You're making out on the balcony with your petite blonde legal beagle."

"And it goes like it goes."

"This is the first woman you've slept with besides me since college. It couldn't have been that boring."

"We move inside. It's cold. We move to her room."

"Even though the roommates are gone."

"You remember what it's like—fear of the walk-in. It's there even if it's not rational. I could tell she didn't do this very often."

"And so you head to her room. It smells like Zara. Dresses from Anthropologie hung up on a rolling rack in the corner of the converted third bedroom. Scarves over the lights and This Is Water on her bedside table."

Will grinned with a swelling in his cheeks. An unbidden love for this woman.

"Two pairs of neon Nike Flyknits kicked in the corner," Whitney went on. "The Lulu leggings with the cutouts that show off some thigh and make her feel sexy."

"Actually, that's what she was really wearing all night."

"Bare legs, I thought."

"Who knows?" he said, grinning again, the heat really humming in his cheeks now.

"Well, bring us back to reality, then.…You're in her room. You're drinking vodka sodas on a twin bed squeezed in next to the steam pipe."

"She puts on The Weeknd and blushes and whispers in my ear that it's what she masturbates to."

"Come on."

"With headphones, though," he said. "The roommates."

"And so a silencer for the vibrator?"

"I didn't ask. Maybe she's old-fashioned."

"So things are getting less subtle," she said. "Good for you two."

"And then things go from there."

"More, please. Clothes come off. She's got a tight little bod and big tits and an ass that floats like it's filled with helium. She laments the fact that Equinox hasn't opened a location near the bridge, and so she has to work out by the office on her lunch break."

"We were a fair match," he said. "Nobody had a right to be too disappointed by the other."

"But, c'mon, your hands are back on her thighs. It's what she's wanted since she spotted you at the event. It's what she had in mind in the cab."

"Right, we screw around."

"What's her underwear like?"

"What do you mean?"

"The women in my classes are older than me—I know what rich 38-year-olds around Union Square wear. I know what my friends wear. What about the youths?"

"She's, like, four years younger than us."

"So Victoria's Secret. Hot pink. Straps and hearts. G-string."

"Light blue something. Not much material."

"You're saying you wish I wore that."

"It was all that was going through my head."

"You wish I dressed like a stripper beneath the Céline."

"I've been searching for the right way to say it for years."

"So you get her out of the straps and hearts and strings. She thinks she's in a Fifty Shades movie. She's practically gonna come from the soundtrack alone. Meanwhile you've got your tongue in her pussy and a finger in her ass."

"Jesus." Will looked to the bartender again, searched the dining room for their waitress. Of course nobody was paying attention to them. Of course nobody cared. They were as inconsequential to their surroundings as they'd been their whole trip.

"And she's totally shaved, I'd assume?"

"Whit, I dunno."

"Oh, you don't remember that either? You didn't notice?"

"If I had to characterize the experience, I would say that she had gotten ready for the night with the intention of being naked with someone."

"Completely waxed, then."

"It reminded me of college," Will said, smiling now. "Before I met you."

"And so what about Will, then?" she said, plowing ahead. "What does he get out of it?"

"What he'd expected?" he said. "She kept asking if it was okay, and if she was doing it all right, and if there was anything she could do differently."


"After a little while I went back to doing what I was doing and things started driving toward maybe-sex."

"She can't believe how lucky she's got. Someone who knows how to handle himself. Meanwhile, you're certainly ready for maybe-sex. A stranger for the first time in seven years."

"And honestly?" he said. "It was around then that I started thinking about work. It was getting late and all I could think about was what needed to get done before noon, and how much I hated every last element of that work, and how terrible I was bound to feel in the morning."

She breathed deeply through her nose. "If nothing else about this story is true, I know that detail is."

"And so as I'm sort of drifting to tomorrow's to-do list, just kinda going about whatever business, she says to me, 'You have great hands,' and—"

Whitney burst. She laughed like she hadn't all trip, a little squeaky wheel of delight. Her eyes asked for more. More more more.

"And the music keeps breaking," he said, picking it up again. "Cutting in with ads for stores around where she went to college. Must've been tied to the zip code where she signed up for her non-premium service. Ads for grocery stores in upstate New York."

"Colgate. Hamilton. Skidmore," she said.

"Sure," he said.

"You didn't get a good look at the sweatshirts crumpled up in the closet?"

"Do you want me to pick one?"

She rolled her eyes. "So the music eventually cuts back in. It keeps her in the mood. She's still gearing up."

"And, yeah, at some point she just kinda says it sweetly, she gets up in my ear again and whispers, 'Do you want to have sex?'"

"Very polite lawyer bee."

"And so we have sex."


"The normal way."

"She's on the bottom."

"She's on the bottom, she's on top."

"The normal ways," Whitney said. "She has the night of her life. She's making a real show of it since no one's on the other side of the temporary walls for the first time in months. You make her come seven, eight times."

"Here's the part I've been waiting for, though."

"Uh oh."

"Here's the whole point of everything up to now," he said, shifting on his seat. "It's happening, there's all the normal stuff, she seems to be enjoying herself. The album's running through again for the second time and another ad's playing for three-for-one something or other. Then she sort of scoots up the bed and gives the impression that she might turn over and face the other way."

"She wants you to fuck her from behind."

"Hold on. We're just sort of going through the motions, nothing crazy, she's still on her back, but we go to shift things up. It's all happening slowly. But then, without warning, the whole right side of my face just cracks—like it's been hit by a two-by-four or something. Somehow this knee's come gunning for me. This limb, connected in no way to the hips beneath me, has come whooshing like a propeller blade, smack in my face, and hard. Kneecap, leg bones. All at once, my face is hot and damp. Eye and cheek throbbing, nose gushing."

"Oh my god!" Whitney, alight. Whitney, in love. Those gleaming teeth. Those wide wet elastic lips.

"She's mortified. She hops up. Throws on a robe. I ask for directions to the bathroom and end up in a closet. I must be bleeding out like a pig all over the place. I find the bathroom, close the door, get a good look at myself, naked and pasty and pathetically out of shape. Just the sight everyone wants to see after imagining themselves doing all the right things in bed. It looks like I've murdered an animal in the sink, there's so much blood. I get some toilet paper up my nostril. Clean up as best I can. Watch my dick shrivel in the mirror."

"Your clothes are in the bedroom."

"It's not the most comfortable three minutes, getting dressed again."

"God, I legitimately feel terrible for her."

"I say goodbye."

"You kiss her good night. You mitigate the humiliation, I hope."

"No kiss. It's late. There's been a lot of drinking and mouthing around. There's some thick breath. I don't know how okay I make her feel about the whole situation. I sort of hold her hand and shake it and tell her there's nothing to be sorry about."

"You shake her hand goodbye?" Whitney said, pressing her palms to her cheeks like the Munch. "Oh, Will…"

"I know. I was rusty. I was out of practice. But, hold on, there's more. When I get to the front door, I can't manage the right combination of the deadbolt with the other two locks while standing there in the dark. Then I hear this creature scratching with keys on the other side of the door, and we screw each other up again and again until ultimately I'm standing there in front of this mousy brunette wearing a backpack stuffed with bricks, and a Nalgene bottle clipped to the strap with a carabiner. One of the roommates, I presume. The hospital resident. She can't take her eyes off me. And it sorta gives me butterflies, if I'm honest. This impression I seem to be making on women all over the city all night. What I've forgotten, of course, is that I basically have a bloody tampon sticking out of a hole in my face. Naturally I offer her my hand, too, and we shake. She looks reasonably mortified. For her friend mostly, I'm sure. I could be a home invader, for all she knows. I wish her a good night. I ride the elevator down and watch my face warp in and out in the dented reflection of the doors. I looked like one of the Picassos we saw yesterday.…I step out in the cold night. I hail a cab. Return home from the strange land across the river, my head pulsating, my face all bloody…"

"And your balls gone blue."

"Nice," he said. Will snorted and finished what was left in his glass. "Foreshadowing, for what it's worth?…I didn't come with anyone."

"Wow," Whitney said, shocked and saddened in equal proportions. "That's terrible. Foreshadowing, for what it's worth?…The same can't be said for me."

What timing! The waitress was at their shoulders. She apologized for the delay. She pointed to the chalkboard above the bar with its inscrutable Catalan. Through her broken English and their pathetic Spanish the three were able to agree on the simplest order: whatever the chef suggested. It was the sort of friction-less decision that might cost them a fortune. But the risk was less than picking out the names of dishes they couldn't decipher. They understood the waitress to be asking about food restrictions, and they both shook their heads no, and it was a thing, like so many things, that was radically compatible between them. It was precisely the reason why they'd gotten engaged.

  • "From beginning to end, the reader walks with Whitney and Will along the precipice marking an edge they may or may not have crossed. With dry humor and involving dialogue, Riley steps boldly into territory other authors have only tentatively approached."
    Enobong Tommelleo
  • "A funny, strange, propulsive novel, pleasurable from start to finish."
    Joshua Henkin
  • "It's got this great concept."
    Kevin Nguyen, author of New Waves
  • "Come for the couple drama, stay for the descriptions that will make you feel like you're in Spain."
    Emily Laurence, Well + Good

    "Riley conjures a Technicolor vision of seventies California and casts Suzy's ambition as a feminist quest for self-determination. Her exploits build to a climax that suggests the book's title is not so much an invitation as a challenge."
    ---The New Yorker
    "Riley has a stylish grasp of setting as the axis of place and time, writing about the era with captivating authority, palpable texture, and a sure-footed knack for rebuilding a moment out of its pop detritus."
    ---The New York Times Book Review
    "Daniel Riley... knocked my shoes off. I wasn't expecting any of it."
    ---Michael Silverblatt, National Public Radio
    "A vibrant, pitch-perfect rendering of decadent beachside youth culture, with its surfing, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and all-day parties... It's a well-plotted, tension-filled novel... Riley keenly portrays the confusion and frustration of youth."
    ---The Los Angeles Review of Books

On Sale
Jan 1, 2022
Page Count
384 pages
Back Bay Books

Daniel Riley

About the Author

Daniel Riley is the author of Fly Me and the Features Editor at GQ Magazine. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, and lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author