By Rolando André López Torres
They say that the stars
do not fall on the mountains of the Caribbean
to stain memories
in winter warm over tree.
— Efe Rosario
Memory keepers look up a lot. To gather and order the furniture in the mansion: words, voices, sonorous speech and instances of touch, all arranged in a dark room that shakes from below with the turbulent flow of an underground river.
We look at each other silently, through the silver screen: I imagine that I have an opportunity to know you this time around, but every time I return to the Mansion, everything changes except the two moments that Time allotted for us, and not even that is as true as I wish it were. I look up and I look at you again in the blink of an eye, to know that I can remember you even in the moment I lose you. Tall cheekbones, dark eyes, sad smile of mothernight. Hair, long; solid, gleaming, undulant black, skin brown with a gentle red luster. An introverted gaze. And then you burst open and sing, This is the dawning of the age…
Right by the ’90s TV set, there is a piano in the Mansion’s living room, a window above it looks out to Claiborne Avenue. Another window on the other side of the room looks out to the open blue sky; a Canyon’s warm breeze enters the room. Stevie Wonder tunes emanate in ribbons from a neverland record player on which a translucent vinyl disc revolves, crackling with the electric music. The room is humid, a couch by the piano old and clumpy and partied upon. Rats scurry along the walls. I wonder what my memory of you would be if we had spoken more, had I known you. Often I feel my body’s story is others fleeting through me.
I look up and toward the Bayamón Mountains from the pier at the San Juan Bay. I remember that Tagore line, the ocean of the world / where the children play. Over the water a haze of lights, illuminating the darkness: not the stars, not yet: the lights come from houses scattered in the mountains, miles and miles of electric shrieks in the dark. A waveline in the sky divides the stellarspace from the mountainspace, a common sight for any Caribbean driving in the dark or looking at the land from the sea, from a bay. To the west is Guaynabo, and beyond is Río Piedras, where a few lives ago I met the friend who led me to you.
I met Uriel in eighth grade, back when I was the least popular student in our allboy middle school in Río Piedras. Like me, he was hairy and chubby, but his hair was curly and droopy, and a mole under his right eye made him a target for bullying so early in life; it’s the reason why he was the wisest wit in our school. No matter what you told him about it, if you dared, he’d come back at you with something much worse about that part of your face that you most hated about yourself. It was better not to try.
We sat together in the back of class. He was a skeptic. What he had that I didn’t was a quick wit to match his intellect, a cleverness that made me think he would one day write for Saturday Night Live, my favorite cultural institution at the time. He also had history. He came from a family of exiles and próceres: his great-grandfather had published César Vallejo in a now-defunct literary journal; the same great-grandfather in his younger years had had a passionate correspondence with Unamuno during his Parisian exile; and, supposedly, one generation later, his grandmother rejected Pablo Neruda’s advances at a book conference in Argentina.
My family came from cross-continental campesino lineages that got mixed up in la Cordillera Central. The Spaniards came from Galicia, the Africans from Nigeria. From my mother, I got the Native American blood. On both sides of the family, the European blood is patrilineal, and the color comes from the matrilineal side, so I come from a line of ibéricos who fell in love with mulatas, negras, and indias, though it wasn’t love when they were plantation owners and my great-grandmothers worked for them; now we’re all in the family, and a dangerous history that love saved runs in my veins. I didn’t know then this was called mestizaje. I just believed what my grandmothers had taught me about Jesús and La Virgen María.
But when the Former Nun who taught us Spanish took a week of class solely to watch Cinema Paradiso, Uriel and I both identified with Toto, the boy who snuck into the movie theater when the priest watched the movies, so he could see the stars kiss before the priest censored them, before the dogma-bell rang and Don Alfredo cut them out of the film, to preserve them all in a case, his secret love letter to life. But we weren’t nearly as cherubically cute as Toto, so we compensated with knowledge. Tried to outsmart each other all the time on who knew the most Morricone scores.
Most of our conversations took place over Messenger, the early 2000s desktop precursor to Whatsapp and Groupchats. Many lonely weekday nights became hangout times because of that program. Through Messenger, we’d share movie and book recommendations and links to famous SNL sketches. The next day, we’d try out our impressions of our favorite comics on each other. The curly-haired man whose specialty was streaking, the songwriter with the mean jokes about disabled people, the Trickster’s “White Like Me” sketch, all models for hallway performances among boys in that classic red polo, black pants and black-leather shoes uniform that distinguished us, the reason they called us tropical fascists in other schools. The reason so few of us as seniors had the courage to go to the fast food joint by the public school during school hour outings. We all had a golden tiger adorning the uniform’s front, but Uriel always wore his shirt out, gladly got in trouble for not tucking it in.
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Photo credit: Image by Peter H from Pixabay