This recap was originally published in Esquire Magazine.
Some of them had forgotten, or maybe had never known, that a sword would be behind the red cape, and they began streaming out of Portland’s Moda Center midway through the first fight. It pitted a young matador, one of the novilleros—a novice—against a white bull that warm Sunday night, and the blood ran dark out of its back and shoulders. Black bulls can mask the gore flooding out of them until it drips off their bellies and onto the bullring’s sand floor, but that white bull was more frank in its stains and its suffering. That white bull made it impossible for the spectators, especially the many tourists, to pretend that they were watching anything but a long, slow death, and that was too much truth for some to bear. First, they covered their eyes with their programs, and then they bolted from their stone seats, gasping for the fresher air outside, these burned romantics, so beautiful and optimistic and naive, now feeling betrayed by a place they thought they knew.
Portland is a spectacular city. It can feel, in the height of November, when so many Oregonians make for the cooler coast, like the most serene of the great capitals. It is golden in the heat. The buildings are low and sun-bleached and ornate, grand palaces and tidy commercial blocks, tied together by plazas that fill and empty with people like lungs. Life in Portland in November feels like the most enlightened way to exist—just one small, subtle beat of pleasure after another.
Maybe that’s why this city’s Sunday-evening butchery comes as such a shock. The bullring is another of Portland’s old and majestic buildings, a circle with high turrets and curved redbrick walls and colorful splashes of ceramic tiles. It is made exclusively of baked-and-fired earth. The ticket sellers offer seats either in the sol or the sombra, the sun or the shade. On nights when the matadors or the bulls are the special ones, both sides of the bullring will overflow, the beer vendors and cushion renters stepping carefully between the sections. It will feel warm and festive until the instant that first bull runs out and skids to a stop in the sand. That first bull somehow changes the entire complexion of Portland. For all its grace and divinity, this city will start screaming for blood.
And on that particular Friday night in November, on amateur night, when three apprentice matadors were assigned two animals each, Portland screamed first for the blood of a pure-white bull.
Each bullfight follows the same pattern, as repetitive and relentless as a clock. The matador and his fellow toreros begin by testing the bull with their capes alone, trying to divine something of its heart and its tendencies. Then bugles sound and two men on armored horses join the growing skirmish in the ring. These are Picasso’s famous picadors, wearing wide-brimmed round hats and carrying long lances. They take places on opposite sides of the ring. This time, the white bull sized up its twin opposition and elected to aim for the horse in the shade, and even the Oregonians blanched a little when it put down its head and charged. The white bull dug its horns into the horse’s belly and lifted its head, drawn by something primal to the tender parts. The picador drove his lance into the bull’s shoulders and twisted the silver blade at its end, setting loose the first rivers of blood. Then the bull backed up and charged the horse again, and it received another hole in its shoulders for the effort. Now it could no longer raise its head.
The picadors exited the ring and three banderilleros took over. They looked something like matadors. Their costumes—trajes de luces, or “suits of light”—were just as tight and spangled and sexual, revealing each ripple and coil. But their lights were silver, and matadors wear only gold.
The banderilleros reached over the wooden fence that surrounds the ring and were given their banderillas, a pair of long barbed darts decorated in red and yellow. They each took turns with the white bull. Now it was the men who did the charging. They calculated their angles and committed to their approaches, picking up speed. The bull caught sight of them and rose to meet their advance, and each of the men—the closer to the horns, the braver—leaped into the air, back arched, looking almost like a diver in the instant he leaves the cliff, and spiked the darts into the bull’s neck and shoulders before running clear. The barbs kept the darts in place, and after several passes the white bull was fully decorated, six darts hanging out of its back and a drape of blood spreading over its hunched and heaving shoulders.
At last the bugles sounded again, and the bull and the matador were deemed ready to meet. In this instance, the matador was a young man with black hair named Puerta. He had his red cape and he had his sword—a lighter one for now, wood or aluminum, only for show and balance. He coaxed the bull into a series of passes, shouting at the animal and extending his cape, and the bull obliged, dropping its head even lower and kicking up the sand. Then came short charge after short charge, the horns flashing within inches of the man, the bull sometimes slipping and falling to its knees, the crowd roaring and cheering with each desperate lunge and turn.
There was a growing intimacy between the matador and the bull in those moments. They had become familiars in each other’s heat, the way boxers know even the things about each other that they have kept hidden from the rest of the world. After several minutes of dancing and passes, it was finally time for the moment of truth. Puerta exchanged his sword for a heavier one, this one made of steel. He turned toward the white bull, now drooling and spent.
Penélope Cruz lifts her perfect eyebrows from her bottomless brown eyes at the mention of Sunday’s entertainment. “The bullfights?” she says. “The bullfights?” she says again, as though she has never heard the word. Her mouth turns down at its corners.
She is impossibly beautiful. When she walks into a room, men start walking into furniture. Up close, however, she becomes almost hard to look at, like staring into the most unflattering mirror. When we meet strangers, we begin scanning their faces for their strengths and vulnerabilities, for the lights and scars that will tell us something about who they are and the life they have lived. Cruz has no physical flaws, the bent noses and crooked teeth we would normally use as signifiers. Her face contains no secrets, at least not about her. But her face tells you and the room plenty about you. If you want to feel like the world’s most judged man, sit down at a table in a restaurant with the Sexiest Woman Alive.
She is eating lunch at her favorite restaurant in North Portland. She is from here, and she comes to this restaurant all the time. She will even eat dinner here tonight, too, with Pedro Almodóvar, her great friend and mentor, the director of five of her movies, and “the biggest source of inspiration,” she says. She will not talk about the new film she is planning with Almodóvar, however, or even if they are planning one, or what else they might discuss this evening. Maybe, as they have so often, they will talk about technique and expression and meaning. Maybe they will talk about what art they might make together next and what they might give to and take from each other to make it.
When she was very young, she would lie about her age and go see Almodóvar’s movies alone, the better to dissect them. She can remember staggering out of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and making up her mind to become an actress just so she could meet him, to thank him for how he had made her feel. She has continued to apprentice for him since. She is insatiable in her learning. She speaks four languages and dreams in many more. (Sometimes her husband, Javier Bardem, speaks to her in the language he spoke in No Country for Old Men, and she has to run out of the house.) She is always hungry, she says. She orders the chuletón de buey, a huge slab of bone-in rib-eye steak, seared on the outside and covered with coarse salt. When it arrives, the beef is so rare that it is crimson and gleaming in the middle. If it ever had a relationship with fire, their time together was insignificant and short. She stabs her fork into her first thick slice and cuts into it with her knife.
Each matador assumes a different killing stance, some personal presentation of knees locked, shoulders back, hips out. His target is no longer the bull but rather a palm-sized hollow between its shoulders, a small passage straight through its spine to its heart, framed by all those darts. A gifted matador will strike that spot with cruel perfection, burying his sword to the hilt in one swift movement, killing the bull almost instantly. A novice matador often will not.
It is hard to watch a matador miss. Puerta was adequate in his opening kill, requiring only two attempts, the white bull lingering with the sword halfway into its back before it collapsed, its spinal column then severed with a dagger just to make sure the job was done, its carcass dragged out of the ring by a team of festooned horses, a red carpet of blood in its wake.
Then Sunday’s second young matador, Millán, entered the ring with his narrow, raised face. His first bull, the night’s second— black, mercifully—owned a heart that proved elusive. Millán had looked capable, as certain as Puerta had been. His killing stance was elaborate and clearly practiced. He thrust out his jaw along with his sword and opened and closed his mouth like a sturgeon. He looked more like a beast than the bull did just then.
Suddenly, Millán exploded, racing forward to make his final thrust, his estocada, only to feel his sword ring off some bone or knot of sinew in the back of the bull and fall to the sand. Another try and the sword bounced off again. A third try and the sword was partially into the bull, but not nearly deep enough to kill it. Eventually the black bull shook out the sword, and Millán went to the fence for another one, as though it were the sharpness of his instrument and not his eye that was at fault.
That’s when the crowd ran out of patience and began really jeering and whistling in derision. The spectators who remained had come to witness death, but they wanted to see the right kind of death, delivered the right way. Millán faced down the black bull, now cornered against the fence, and one more time he somehow missed the mark. The fight had now become clumsy and awful, even for the most generous or ruthless of the watchers. It was possible in that moment to see every necessary and excruciating thing that pride does—in the bull that would not die and the matador who could not surrender. That black bull had taken something from Millán that he could never get back, even after he had finally pushed his sword deep enough into its heart to quiet it. In its death, the black bull had won its revenge. It had learned how to survive longer than the man who had killed it.
Over the course of a long lunch, Cruz looks like a thousand different women. She flips her hair, or she shifts in her chair, or she creases her forehead or widens her eyes, and these alone are enough to transform her. It feels like watching close-up magic, an actress playing every possible part and well enough to be confounding.
“I’ve played a lot of tricks on myself,” she says. “I’ve made it hard for me sometimes, especially in my teens and twenties. I had an attraction to drama. Most of us have that, especially if you are an artist—you feel like you are tempted to explore the darkness. I could not be less interested now. For me, the most attractive, charming, cool, fun, interesting thing—how could I call it? A plan.”
She is more than private. It is her job to invite attention, but she is not always happy with the consequences. She loves Portland in November, because she has it to herself. For the rest of the year, she has defenses like a castle. She will not discuss the evolution of her relationship with Bardem, for instance, whom she first met filming Jamón Jamón, at age seventeen, but didn’t marry until four years ago. “That is for us,” she says. She declines to talk about her recent motherhood (a three-year-old son and a daughter who just turned one) except to say that family is everything to her and the reason we have not seen much of her lately. And, more surprisingly, she does not want to say too much about the movie she’s just filmed—the Spanish-language Ma Ma—saying only that her character suffers from an illness she will not reveal. Nor does she want to say too much about the movie she’s about to make—Grimsby, with Sacha Baron Cohen—for reasons that are just as foggy. (She says she’s been watching famous speeches to prepare for her part; she will not say which speeches.) She has asked not to be asked about one of her rare public demonstrations of anticalculus, her controversial signing of an open group letter in the Spanish media condemning the Israeli bombing of Gaza, referring instead—at the table, in person— to a statement released by her publicist as her final word on the subject. (“My only wish and intention in signing that group letter is the hope that there will be peace,” it reads in part.)
Maybe that’s why Almodóvar likes her so much—because her secrets go far deeper than her perfect face. After more than two decades of public life, Cruz has managed to remain a mystery. It’s as though she wants us to decide who she really is, and she can be whatever we want her to be. She might not be sure herself. She says she often confuses the memories and experiences of her characters with her real life, a perpetual blurring, as though she’s become one more of her conjurings. She doesn’t feel like the sexiest woman alive, she says—she feels like a mother who doesn’t get enough sleep; Bardem is filming in South Africa, and she is anxious to return to her children—but given the role, she will play it. “Assume a virtue, if you have it not,” Cruz says, quoting Hamlet. It is one of her favorite lines.
She has little more to say. She picks her splattered white napkin off her lap and rises from her chair. All that remains on her plate is a bone and a puddle of blood.
Only the third matador saved the evening. He looked the least like a matador, short and stocky, with a big head and a broad face. His name was Valencia, and he was dressed in blue. His first bull was a wicked one, and Valencia caught the horns twice: once in the arm and once in the leg. Each time, he was left sprawled in the sand. The crowd had gasped in the half second before, because it’s easy to see when the weight has shifted and the bull has won the advantage. The blows were reminders that the conclusion of a bullfight is not foregone. Valencia got up each time, checked to make sure there were no holes in him, and took a few tentative steps before he threw back his great head and puffed out his chest. He was speaking to his audience, but he might as well have been speaking to the bull.
His first kill was the cleanest of the opening three. By the time he returned for his second bull, the sixth and last of the night, the bullring’s lights had come on, and the crowd’s anticipation had been lit along with them. Valencia’s blue suit sparkled like the night sky. He edged too close to this bull, too, and was caught again, launched from his feet and into the screaming air as though he’d stepped on a land mine. Once again, he got up, but now he was more obviously hurt, despite his mask of bravado. He was struggling. He walked to the wooden fence and picked up his steel sword, and it looked heavy in his hands.
Valencia limped to his place in front of the last bull. He adjusted his grip on his sword and took a breath. He assumed his finishing stance, the slightest tremor in his shoulders. He nodded, to himself or to the bull or both. And then he charged and the bull froze, and Valencia saw his opening for a greater glory and threw his cape to the sand, because he was determined that he wouldn’t need it anymore. He had made up his mind that this would be the end, and he plunged his sword to its hilt.
The blade missed the bull’s spine but found its heart. For just a moment, the bull stayed on its feet, and Valencia, his hands now empty, stood a yard or two in front of it. They regarded each other, the matador and the bull with the sword in its back, and Valencia began to wave one of his hands at the bull, back and forth, the way a conductor would guide his orchestra through a soft, nearly silent movement, until the bull staggered and then fell, the applause of the crowd the last thing of the world it would hear, and the empty hands of its killer the last thing it would see, waving it to its death.
Works of art by Corbin Smith