“Where is my bicycle?” It was the opening line, the hook, the first sentence that opened my essay like a flower in spring, letting you in, hoping you could get lost in its insides. Yes, it was the right hook, Thomas Arnold and I agreed on that, but he was still unhappy. It was my second revision, and it made me wonder if I would survive the third round with Thomas’ red and malevolent pen.
“Something is missing,” he’d said, sitting behind his desk. The classroom was empty by then. All the students had decided to call it a day. Jorge waited for me outside as I tried to understand my English Writing professor.
“Ok,” I said, “what exactly do you mean when you say something is missing?”
He fixed his glasses. The red on either side of his nose looked as vibrant as the ink in his pen.
“The assignment was to write a descriptive essay,” he said. “Something that happened to you.” He ended that last sentence with a tone of doubt, as though disbelieving the essay had something to do with my real life. “And I get that,” he continued, his hands up in the air, showing his understanding with pantomime as well as verbose, in case I didn’t get what he was saying. “It is my understanding you want to be a fiction writer.”
“Who told you that?” I feigned disinterest.
“One of your other professors,” he said. “We talk about you.”
That was good for my ego. “Do you?”
He nodded. “We do. And I know what you wrote in your essay could be the preface to a great story, but is it real?”
I frowned. “What do you mean, is it real? I am describing how I almost lost my life when I was sixteen, and you’re asking if it is real?”
It was his turn to frown. “So why does it sound so comical? Starting from the title?”
He was right. The title of my essay was How Laziness Saved My Life. It described an incident I had back in 2001. I was sixteen and worked for an ice cream store, where I was about to die next to a group of teens outside the store. I didn’t know how to respond at that moment, as Thomas Arnold waited for my answer, but the more I thought about the incident, the more I wanted to run out of there and hide. But I had to brazen it out. Running is for pussies, after all.
“Gabriel?” He said.
“Yes, I’m here. I just… don’t know what to say.”
He composed himself on his seat, crossed his legs, and asked, “Did the story in the essay actually happen to you?”
“It did,” I answer without hesitation.
He took a moment to speak, then said, “Is it safe to say that you use humor as a defense mechanism?”
I thought about it. It did make sense. I didn’t have what you call ‘an amazing life,’ and I still had years ahead of me where I would have to jump through hoops daily, trying to make a living, as well as working on my future writing career. Therefore, it stood to reason that I should try to find some humor in this misery; otherwise, the desire to kill myself could intensify. Then, my goals and aspirations would become turd and swirl down the toilet of oblivion.
Thomas Arnold said, “There is nothing wrong with using humor. However, you should try to make the essay more visceral. I want you to make the reader feel something; anger, disgust, enthusiasm, anything.”
There was a word I was trying to conjure up. It took me a second or two to remember. “So, you want more gore?”
His pupils opened up, and the smile of a proud professor drew itself on his face. “Yes! That’s what I mean by ‘visceral.’ Show me more emotion, make connections if you must. Did anything relevant happened around that time?”
My pupils peeled back at the memory that came up.
“9/11,” I said. “The planes crashed against the Twin Towers on a Tuesday. What I wrote in my essay happened on a Sunday, that same week.”
“There you go,” he said, his hands unfolding before me. “By adding something relevant to the essay and making a stronger connection, you are going to come up with something better.”
I felt a bit more optimistic after he said that. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, paused, and the brief interlude suggested he had something else to say. “I’d like to ask you a question.”
“How did you decide to become a writer in your second language?”
That wasn’t the first or last time someone asked me that question. I said, “I always wanted to live in The United States. Ever since I can remember, one of my uncles on my mother’s side would come down from Fresno and bring us presents for Christmas. I always thought of this country as a place of prosperity, you know. I even told my uncle I wanted to go and live with him, to which he replied, ‘you have to finish school first,’ and I said, ‘what? They don’t have schools up there?'”
Thomas Arnold smiled. I guess there was something in the way I told him the story that brought up an emotion; enthusiasm, in this case.
“What else?” He asked, eager to hear more.
I cleared my throat. Having these memories come back to the center of it all made me feel something, too. “Well,” I said, thinking of the sentence I was going to speak, making a speedy translation in my head from one language to the other. “My uncle would keep coming and going as usual. As the years went by, I grew up watching all the Hollywood movies I could watch. Horror, mostly. I don’t know why I like that kind of stuff so much.”
“Lots of people do.”
“True. But I also watched other things; cartoons, tv shows. I even liked watching that show where the police would chase cars on the freeway. It’s called Cops.”
He nodded. “It’s still on, I think.”
“And I even watched Sex and the City.”
He gave me a quizzical look. “Really?”
“I know,” I said. “I mean, what was I thinking, right?”
He tried to appear supportive. “There is nothing wrong with that.”
“So,” I continued, “I guess I grew up with this idea of what The United States was, and therefore, I always wanted to be here.”
“What kind of music did you listen to?”
“Rock, mostly. Bon Jovi is one of my favorites,” I said. “I also went through a rebellious phase when I was eighteen and started to listen to Eminem.”
“So, you never listened to anything in Spanish?”
“I did,” I said. “I also wrote poetry as a teenager in Spanish. I guess you could say I have been focused on the two cultures at once. But this culture, from this country, always had a stronger hold on me.”
“And when you came here,” he said. “What happened?”
“A year after my rebellious streak, I said to myself, ‘well, I guess it’s time for me to go to that country I always wanted to go to. And here I am. And since I never intended to go back, I thought I should really try to learn the language and become a writer,” I stopped and then said, “but…”
That ‘but’ had a depressing and passive tone, the kind that comes when you feel like giving up. There comes an overwhelming feeling that everything you are trying to accomplish is nothing but castles in the air, fading hopes, and dreams that will never materialize.
“But what?” Thomas Arnold asked.
“Well, seeing that I cannot write a short, descriptive essay, I guess writing isn’t for me.”
“Do you know who Franz Kafka was?” He asked. I thought this was an unrelated question, but he soon started to drive his point towards a particular destination.
I shook my head.
“You remind me of him.”
“First, he was a writer who had a regular job throughout his entire life. He was only forty years old at the time of his death. He was born in Prague to a Jewish family and wrote in his second language.”
“What was his second language?”
“German,” he said. “And when you translate German to English, you have to use long sentences and multiple commas.”
I saw what he was getting at. “Kind of the way I write.”
His face grew animated. “Exactly.”
“I thought that was what you didn’t like about my essay.”
“I’m ok with that,” he said. “Hemingway wouldn’t be, though.”
I had heard that name before. “Was he another writer?”
Thomas Arnold nodded. “He was well-known for writing short sentences, whereas Kafka -and yourself- add some flow to the sentences, making them more colorful.” A thought came to his mind, and he said, “You mentioned you wrote poems, right?”
“I still do.”
The look on his face was pleasant. “That’s why you write the way you write.”
“That’s not the only similarity I have with Kafka, is it?”
He shook his head. “There is the fact that he persevered, writing at night while holding a regular job during the day, the way you are doing it now.”
Somehow, that gave me hope. “What else?”
“What else you have in common with Kafka?”
“He also had a dark sense of humor, just like you, but he would always add that visceral tone to his work,” he paused, his words sinking into my head. “You should read him up.”
“What I am trying to get at,” he said, and the proximity to the point of comparison was imminent. “Is that Kafka could write while holding a regular job, just like you do, and in his second language. If he could, so can you.”
“I know,” he said. “German is a hard language to learn.”
“You know German?”
“I lived in Germany for twenty years,” he said, but it was his last sentence that propelled me to continue writing. “And I even wrote a book in German.”
My conversation with Thomas Arnold had the effect you get after listening to one of those motivational speeches. I was pumped up, ready to take over the world, aiming for that future creative fecundity I was trying to have. I had started writing fiction by this time, never finished it, mostly because my English wasn’t as good yet, but the intention to succeed never faltered. I wrote the last draft of How Laziness Saved My Life, adding the necessary emotion needed, and the way I shook as I read and reread it made me arrive at one conclusion: this will make Thomas feel something.
But then I thought I should just put it aside and give it another read later. I guess I was beginning to learn how to question myself a little more, be less cocky, and try to do better.
I was off from Staples one day earlier than usual since they cut hours again and went to McDonald’s to have some food and read Koontz. I slid into one of the booths by the main door, and sitting right across from me, there was an octogenarian lady who had a brief but very significant role in my life. Her name was Margaret. She was white, her skin paler than snow. She came every day at twelve, carrying a copy of The Independent, and whatever novel she was reading at the time.
James Patterson was her favorite author, I remember.
She was friendly, only not to the point of exuberance. She knew who I was since we had seen each other before, but there was never a reason why we should talk; until that moment, as I was about to bury my teeth into a Quarter Pounder. She looked over the book she was reading, her reading glasses shielding a pair of green eyes filled with youth despite her years.
“I see you like to read,” she said, her words enunciated with a starchy manner, very eloquent and sophisticated, unlike the kind of people you usually find eating dollar burgers at a fast-food restaurant. I didn’t dislike her, had no reason to, but a part of me felt an impulse to question why she was suddenly chumming up to me.
“I do,” I answered, right after the chunk of food made its way down my pipe.
“Why don’t you join me?” She asked in a way that suggested she wasn’t really asking.
“sure,” I said, grabbed my tray, slid out of the booth, and sat right across from her.
She looked at me, her book then resting on the surface, right next to her tray, a half-eaten chicken sandwich, and a cup of coffee. She broke into a sudden smile that took me off guard, a bit theatrical, yet pleasant. “I’m Margaret,” she said, her hand outstretched in front of me.
“I’m Gabriel,” I said, shaking her hand in the process.
“What a beautiful name,” she said.
“I know. It sounds like something someone made up, doesn’t it?”
“Well, all names are made up, if you think about it.”
“Yes,” I concurred, “but when people are making up names, they usually put some thought into it, don’t you think? My name sounds like it was conceived while either having sex or taking a shit at a public toilet.”
I didn’t know how she would react to that, didn’t think she would find it funny, but to my surprise, Margaret laughed so hard I thought she would have a heart attack. People looked around, it was a quiet day, and everyone wondered just how I made Margaret laugh. Marlen was womanning the floor that day, looking in my direction for a moment as she handed out a bag of food.
“You are quite a comedian, aren’t you?”
She took a sip of her coffee, her hand shaking a bit. Putting it down, she said, “I hear you are going to school to learn English.”
I didn’t bother asking how she knew that. I never considered my life a clandestine and obscure secret.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “I want to learn as much as I can about the language, as well as the country.”
As I spoke, the dilation in her green eyes became more pronounced.
“That’s interesting. And why are you so interested in learning?”
I told her about my writing aspirations.
“Well, that’s great,” she said, paused, and a second sentence made its way down her thoughts. “I supposed you have been to Borders?”
“I have,” I said. “It’s my favorite place. Well, also the movie theater.”
She leaned closer, saying, “why don’t we go book shopping?”
That was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I walked her to Borders, located in the same shopping center where McD’s and Staples were. We sauntered, which I didn’t mind. This interaction made me feel more human, something I didn’t regularly experience due to my penchant for sarcasm and inappropriate jokes. It was good to see some humanity left in me, Gabriel Lucatero, one of many illegal immigrants lined up in the massive queue that pointed toward the elusive American Dream.
She asked all the relevant questions as we walked, where I came from, how long has it been, and whether or not I was planning to go back. My answers were the same answers I had given before, which made me feel a bit proud of my consistency. Sharing a bit about herself, Margaret mentioned she also came to Santa Barbara from another place I can’t remember anymore. Was it Saint Louis, Missouri? I think.
We walked into the library, and a soft melody that came from the speakers made its way through my ears. I smiled at that.
“You like classical music, too?” she asked, noticing my delight.
“I do,” I confessed. “It’s the only music I can listen to when I read. If I listen to something that has lyrics, I would never be able to focus.”
“Good point,” she said.
We made our way toward the Non-fiction section, but as we brushed past the Classics, a title sparked its light at me: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. I made a mental note to come and get that book later. I wanted to ask Margaret if she needed any help but thought better of it since I didn’t want my intention to help to be misinterpreted for flagrant disrespect. It looked like she knew where she was going. And I wasn’t wrong about that.
She picked a hard-cover, white, with blue words and an American flag in the middle. It read These United States, original essays by leading American writers on their state within the union.
She picked it up and handed it to me. “Read this. That way, you will learn more about the country.”
I took the book. It felt good to have these moments when someone, a perfect stranger, shows up and gives you something you treasure.
“Thank you,” I said, unable to know what else to say.
Margaret paid for that book, and as she did, I went ahead and grabbed The Metamorphosis.
Waiting in the line, she looked at the book and said. “That’s a good book, too.”
“I have two books to read.”
“Three, counting the one you are reading now.”
I shrugged. “That one is getting kinda boring.”
She smiled. “Yes, some books can get that way.”
We came back to McD’s and sat at the same booth. We talked more about books and writing. By then, there were more customers at the restaurant. Two well-dressed individuals (a man and a woman) talked to Marlen behind the counter. I noticed the employees were a bit too friendly at that moment, as though they were trying to prove something. I had a feeling I knew who these two well-dressed individuals were.
I learned more about them later on.