. . . Often times, we do not know a good thing when we have it. In freshman year of high school, during Spanish class, we were presented with some of the classics: Jorge Luis Borges, Frederica Garcia Lorca and, of course, Pablo Neruda. But meeting him was like meeting a little boy in kindergarten and all he does is pinch your arms, or kick your chair, or pull your hair.
He wrote about stupid things like artichokes as if they were warriors, about lemons and other unimportant things. It was a struggle to read through the Spanish, to get the right translation and at the end of the day, the poem was so butchered I didn’t know if he was talking about food or a best friend. It was like I was being chased by a crazy person, shouting unintelligible words at me, expecting me to answer. So I didn’t listen. He was just another homework assignment to me, and yet as hard as I tried to focus, that same little boy wouldn’t leave me alone. But as we continued, moving unit from unit, from odes to sonnets to free verse, the boy’s hand stayed just a moment longer on my skin. His kicks brushed his knee up against my calf. His fingertips felt warm on my scalp as he softly jerked my hair. The summer of 2010, I fell in love with a man named Nick Carraway, and he and I and F Scott. Fitzgerald took me on a tour of 1920s New York. This was strangely different from my wizarding days: here, the lights were brighter, the smell of coal sharper, and the people, these deeply horrible cowards, haunted me like no one else ever had. I held Nick’s hand during Gatsby’s funeral, when no one else did. Together, as he was lowered into the ground, we watched this fantastic promise of the future become slowly buried beneath reality. And I started to remember that little Neruda boy and his weird words, the rolling “r’s” and a word that I now vaguely understood: amor.
Years passed and I stumbled through a number of handshakes, of hasty introductions. My English teachers paraded us through the great hall of literature where we bumped into Steinbeck, Hurston, Huxley, O’Brien, Hemmingway, Heaney, Boland, Remarque, King, Shelley, Kafka, and others. We flipped through their pages as if it was meant to be easy, as if sucking the marrow out of life was something that could be done with a plastic straw, the shape and usefulness of which would be a graded indication of your future success in college, in life. They tried to tell me so many things, but I was yanked away. I still think Hemmingway is a little miffed he never finished telling me about Katherine when I was sixteen years old. Then, with our teeth straighter and our walk longer, we went into a different room, a red room where everything was warm and laughter sounded like the cooling of chocolate. The voices were richer here, the deep gullies of their souls were filled in with coffee, compassion and a connection to passion too great for me to understand. We waved hello to Don Marquez, had a brief chat with Doña Isabel Allende, and caught a brief rant by Lorca. Then, there at the end of the hall, stood Neruda. He was grown up now, smiling at me with a frustratingly annoying grin. You’re not so bad, I grumbled. He only shook his head and spoke again in the same language he had before. I could only pick up certain words, phrases, but this time the sound was more pleasant in the ear and if I asked him to go slowly, I caught things like, “Here I love you” and “you are like the word Melancholy” and “yellow legs like merging spikes of grain”. I blushed: none of the other authors, not even lust-drunk Hemmingway, had dared speak to me like this. But Neruda only grinned, watching as my skin bled warm and I looked away.
By social standards, I didn’t date much in high school. The tattered corners and white-lined spines of my favorite books (in my humble opinion) suggest otherwise.
That Christmas I asked my mother for a collection of Neruda poems, a trophy and testament to my journey through the hall of literature. On warm summer nights, he asked if he wanted me to speak his language, the language of rust and sticky, hot cobble streets. I turned him down and kept the book sitting on my shelf, sitting, waiting, until it came time to collect my old friends— Rowling, Fitzgerald, Ruiz, and Pablo— and become a college student.
They held my hands through the first couple of months of college. They made me seem formidable, of posessing a deeper knowledge of literature, of being older and mature by any standards because I could pontificate on metaphors and similies, on synedoches and allegories, on paradoxes and hyperboles— the bare-boned nuts and bolts of a writer. Then I started dating a man with more problems than myself and it became quite apparent that despite the “paper check” (do you look good together on paper?) we wouldn’t— couldn’t— work. And frustrated about life, about love, about why it seemed so painfully elusive, I rolled over and eye-to-eye, asked Pablo for a little bit of help.
I wrote a nonfiction piece about that night:
I read the poems I liked and ignored the ones I didn’t. I read deeper into some and found, despite my fairly limited romantic experiences, there was no denying the finite truth of these phrases. They brought about memories of war, of peace, of pearls and jazz in dance halls, of sweat on your back from your lover and yet, I have never experienced any of these things. But I did that night. I saw them through different eyes of different bodies. I was fifty-five and spoke a dialect from Catalan. I was sixteen and falling in love with the Chilean girl next door who smelled of bread and sugar. I had a love affair with an artichoke and nothing in the world seemed more natural. It was poetry in motion. It was— I was— life in motion.
People come and go constantly in our lives and a simple “hello” is sometimes all we can get out before they are drawn away from us by the rip-rolling tides of existence. When Pablo and I talk to one another, I walk away with my questions answered. Sometimes, we just share stories and he brings up that damned artichoke story and I laugh so hard, tears come rolling down my face. And he just sits there, smiling. His eyes are shadowed by what he’s seen, what his country has witnessed at the hands of true human brutality, and yet he finds the time to stop, and smile, and fall madly in love. In many ways, he is not only my writing mentor, but someone whom I look to for guidance, for a message coming from a place of infinite knowing, of the past, present and future. I ask him “what prophecy there is in me”, and sometimes, he tells me to write more, to write a million bad words before, like a cracked fruit, lush truth will come spilling out. He tells me to be interested, to be interesting, to write about love in all the ways I can because there is no wrong way to love and no wrong way to write about it. He wishes the search to be inspired was easier, to have such a sense about something fill you up and make you whole, and to know with absolute certainty that you have struck a vein of the human condition. “For you, it is only a matter of time”, he says. He waits with me, in the darkness, in the rain, in the bright sun that springs up a boundless sense of purpose and belonging within me. Sometimes, I ask him what prophecy there is in me and he knows. Sometimes, I ask him and all I find is a bewildered man.
I wrote this for a creative writing class assignment last year. The assignment was to write an essay about our writing mentors. This is part of a larger, longer essay. If people like it, I will post the rest.