Confessing that you attended a bullfight these days is like admitting that you own a mink coat. Unfathomable. So imagine what happens when you not only admit you attended a bullfight, but that you were utterly fascinated by it. Loved it even. You might as well admit that you accesorize with ivory.
For me, going to a bullfight during my first trip to Spain this spring was as important as seeing Goya's paintings in the Prado, as important as having my photo taken in the famous Plaza Mayor, as important as eating churros and chocolate for breakfast.
Certainly, animals shouldn't suffer needlessly for human entertainment, and I anticipate that many animal-rights supporters may consider me brutal merely for paying money to watch a bullfight. But I was curious anyway. I wanted to decide for myself whether bullfights still have a place in a 21st-century culture. I wanted to study the ritual. I wanted to see if bullfighting was supported only by tourists or whether locals still attend. I wanted to observe how I would feel about the death; after all, I've never witnessed the killing of an animal.
Finally, I decided to go. But I planned not to like it. Initially, I didn't.
I arrived at Madrid's Plaza Monumental de Las Ventas, the stately Moorish brick bullring a few miles northeast of the heart of the Spanish capital. I decided to take a bus tour of the city, which included admission to the plaza de toros, as bullrings are more generically known.
It was a chilly, rainy day, and Emilio the tour guide instructed us to keep our tickets. If it started to rain before the first bull entered the ring, the event would be canceled and we would get a refund, he explained. If it started to rain after the first matador came out, the fight would go on.
Usually sold out, the bullring was less than half full when I placed my rented leather cushion on the stone bench and sat down. I was wedged between other American tourists and wanted desperately to move from my assigned seat, which requires the same stealth that it does at a Baltimore Orioles game.
Luckily, I didn't need to muster it. It started to drizzle, forcing the spectators to move from the open-air seats to the covered upper section. I half-hoped the bullfight would be canceled; at least then I could say I went, without having to actually witness it.
But the fight went on. I quietly separated from the Americans, relocating to a spot between a trio of old Spanish men to my left and younger Spaniards to my right. I was pleased to be away from other tourists, hoping to eavesdrop on what the Madrilenos had to say about the fight.
I knew little about bullfights beyond the facts most Americans know. Red cape. A snorting black bull scratching its front paw in the dirt. Shouts of "Ole!" I resisted reading Ernest Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon" for fear I would adopt his view as my own, and only perused the brief, straightforward explanation of bullfighting in my guidebook.
Like everything in Spain, the fight started promptly. After a parade that seemed to last a lot longer than it actually did, the first bull was released--a 3 1/2-year-old black bull named Vencejo (the bulls' names are printed in the program).
During the first part of the fight, the matador and his assistants ran the bull around the ring to wear him down while a picador on a horse stabbed at him with a long spear. In the second segment, the matador's assistants, called banderilleros, acrobatically charged the bull with vibrantly colored spears called banderillas that they tried to plunge into the bull's neck. This was to enliven the weakened and tired beast for the endgame. During the third part, the matador danced around the bull with his famous red cape and eventually drove his sword between the bull's shoulder blades, piercing the bull's aorta and killing him.
It seemed to be an easy kill. When the bull fell, the matador and his assistants walked off and the spectators stood. Several men wrapped straps around the prone beast and hooked him up to three horses with flowers and ribbons around their manes. I watched intently through the zoom lens of my camera, trying to get a closer look. I felt guilty but curious--like I do when I strain to get a better look at a car accident on the highway.
When the bull was secured, the horses dragged him from the spot along the wall where he died to the gate where he first entered the ring. I gasped. The bull was bleeding so profusely that the animal left a thick crimson trail in the velvety dirt. Several men raked over the bloody trail and mounded dirt on the blood and chunks of flesh at the spot where the bull died, but I could still see it.
With my left arm wrapped around my waist and my right hand cupped over my mouth, I felt sick. Suddenly I lost interest in the bag of pistachios I had bought from a vendor outside the bullring.
Yet the crowd hardly seemed to notice this bloody death. Once the bull was gone, the bullring buzzed with conversation, like during a play's intermission. Didn't anyone just see what happened? How cold and heartless can these people be? I wanted to leave.
Why I didn't, I don't know. I thought I had not given it a fair chance, that perhaps if I stayed for at least the next bull, I could understand why Spaniards loved bullfights so much. Perhaps I would see something not yet apparent. I decided to force myself to grow immune to the death, but I didn't think I would ever like bullfighting.
And then I met Regino Ortes.
Ortes, a native of Madrid, sat to my right with his girlfriend, Monica Medina, his uncle and his 16-year-old cousin. During the intermission, I asked Monica a few questions in Spanish: What will happen now? How much time passes until the next bull? I tried to be as unintrusive as possible, but Monica said she wasn't bothered at all by my questions. I asked her if she liked the bullfight, and she answered by gesturing toward her boyfriend.
Regino, she said, is a matador. He is up and coming and fairly well-known in Madrid since he started bullfighting three years ago. His young cousin wanted to be a matador, too.
With that knowledge and the companionship of these friendly Spaniards, the bullfight soon started to change. If I couldn't like the bullfight through my own eyes, I told myself, then I certainly could watch it through Regino's.
I started studying technique as Regino and Monica explained what was happening: The matadors do their seductive dances because it is a beautiful ritual, Monica said. Spectators wave white handkerchiefs to indicate well-fought battles. I learned about the necessity for graceful but slow movements and how the matador tries to draw the bull as dangerously close to him as possible.
And I observed Regino watching the fight. He reminded me of a professional basketball player watching a college basketball game. Just as an NBA player might mutter "Yes!" under his breath after a polished move that not everyone else would notice, Regino let out a quiet "Ole!" after a particularly good move by a matador. He then would explain to his young cousin things that he saw that most others probably missed--the position of the matador's feet or the arch of his back or the deliberate, controlled movement of the cape.
As I learned more about the bullfighters, I came to regard the bulls differently, too. Like a matador, I started to see the difference in personalities among the bulls. One was slow and dimwitted. Another liked to play mind games. I particularly liked the bull who wouldn't die easily: Just when the matador thought it was dead and started to walk away, the beast would jump to its feet and charge. Twice he did that.
Two bulls bucked the matadors with their heads, though the matadors were not injured enough to stop the fight. Anger boiled inside the injured matadors, and they killed their bulls with a swift fierceness. Regino watched this carefully.
I wouldn't say that I necessarily rooted for the bulls, but I did enjoy when they gave the bullfighters a run for their money. And I grew to accept their fate--not to like it, but simply to accept the inevitable. The locals do this, too. In the eyes of the world, bullfight fans may have a reputation for being barbaric, but they learn to accept the bull's role in this Spanish drama as much as they accept the bullfighter's.
Aside from politely answering my questions and allowing me to eavesdrop on his conversation with his cousin, Regino didn't speak much to me. But he did offer one unsolicited comment: No bullfight could have been more perfect for a first-timer, because it had a little of everything. One matador was so terrible that the crowd booed him out of the ring, and another matador had to come in and kill the bull. Another fight was so strong that the matador earned a victory lap. Bulls died easily, and bulls died hard. No fight was so good that the president of the bullring allowed the matador to cut the bull's ear off as a trophy, but I was okay with that.
I felt satisfied, and by the end I was immune to the death and surprised to have enjoyed the bullfight so much. Within three hours, I went from being more horrified than at any other time in my life to becoming almost desensitized.
For weeks after the bullfight, I had the same conversation with people:
"How was Spain?"
"It was fantastic."
"What did you do?"
"I went to a bullfight."
"How was it?"
I paused for a moment. "I hate to admit it," I always prefaced, "but I loved it."
More times than not, I am greeted with wrinkled brows and grimaces. Yet, after explaining the bullfight--how I initially dreaded it, then became horrified and then saw the bullfight through the eyes of a matador--people understand better how I can say I loved it. Still, in my head, I always return to one image: that of the first bull, lying prone, two of its legs twitching uncontrollably in the air. It's the image I saw in my sleep and the one I still can't shake from my mind.
Does that mean I am a monster? Can I still say that I loved the bullfight even though the image stuck in my mind couldn't be more awful?
Weeks passed before I could explain to myself how I could like something so horrible: When was the last time I saw a movie or read a book that I thought about nearly every day for four weeks? When was the last time I was so stirred to think about fate--both of another living creature and of my own?
It may be overdramatic to contemplate, but perhaps if I could learn to accept the fate of the bulls, I could learn over a lifetime to accept my own. If I could study ritual and drama in the movements of the matadors, maybe I can find the same in ordinary people doing ordinary things. If I could learn to overcome my reaction to the killing and appreciate an event that many Spaniards do, perhaps I will have similar "blending" experiences traveling in other countries.
Or was the reason I liked this bullfight more basic: Did I simply like liking something that most people outside Spain abhor?
Good or bad, nothing in life has been as thought-provoking as that April bullfight in Madrid. Good or bad, the bullfight transformed me from an ordinary American to something closer to an appreciative Spaniard, even if just for three short hours. Maybe that's what I loved.
Elissa Leibowitz, who works in the Sports department of The Post, is planning to return to Spain this fall.
CAPTION: Matador Regino Ortes, above, schooled the author on the art of bullfighting while both watched from the stands in Madrid.