The Call of Hemingway

Tonight I almost burned the house down.

Or at least one would have thought I almost burned the house down judging from the reaction. I had just received a phone call que me ha puesto de mal humor. It put me in a bad mood. The guy with whom I was supposed to room with next semester so that I could wash my own underwear and not have crazy people yelling at me at 11:30 like I am four-years-old called me to say the girl with whom I had spoken was mistaken. There arrangement was because they had been friends before moving in together. I, on the other hand, was not a friend. It seems I will have to find other arrangements undoubtedly.

Well, after this unsettling phone call, I put on a pot of tea, because frankly, there was no wine to calm my frazzled nerves, and unlike normal, when I am rushing back and forth to the kitchen with a paperback in my hand, watching over my boiling water like a mother hen, I came back to my room to work on my paper, wishing I could meditate but knowing I couldn’t relax here in this space. I forgot all about the boiling water.

I forgot because I had just finished my paperback, For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Hemingway, a hefty book with heavy, rambling thoughts, and a teary ending. I had wanted to read the book because he wrote it about Spain after he left here. And he wrote with Spanish speakers in English, and I wanted to know better how it was done. And it ended up I could not quit the book, even though it is close to 500 pages.

And I had cried, but the elated tears of one who has just finished a wonderful work of literature, the tears of someone in awe of another’s ability to wrench emotion from black ink on a recycled page. And I felt amazing.

And then the phone call.

And then the pot of tea, which would have burned the whole house down had it not been for the Clark Kent of a Spanish mother I live with. I am being cruel, but I say it in jest. Really.

Nevertheless, this afternoon, I came home for lunch and sat down for lunch, and my Spanish mother asked me, “Do you want tea?” and I looked at her questioningly, and then she cut off the stove, laughed and said, “Oh, I forgot.  I turned that on earlier.” This very afternoon, she herself forgot to turn the pot of tea off and could have burned up the world.

There are two passages that stuck in my head in Hemingway’s book so much that I dog-eared the pages to go back to them. I knew I would want to write about them and this poses as good an opportunity as any.

One I cannot find. I have flipped through the pages in my half-sleep state, looking for a dog ear that is not there, for a piece of highlighting which I am sure I did at one point early one when I was serious about the work. And it said something profound about not romanticizing the Spanish because they have their problems like everyone else, their good  ones and their bad ones just like the bloody Americans. But in the end I have only found one, the piece folded over this afternoon, when I had come home and climbed onto the bed, content to not have to do anything for once.

And it says:
And what wonderful people. There is no finer and no worse people in the world. No kinder people and no crueler. And who understands them? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all. To understand is to forgive.

And I felt this looking at the woman who came knocking on my door, yelling from the kitchen, “Esto es muy peligrosa, Moni. Tienes que …” blah, blah, algo or another, basically saying, it’s very dangerous to leave the stove on, Monique. You’ve got to be careful. Kinda like you did this afternoon, eh? Kinda like when you forget to lock the door and I come home at three in the morning to find it still open. Kinda like when you keep food that has expired three months prior and expect me to eat it.

Kinda like the old bus driver who refuses to speak to me and often pretends he doesn’t see me standing at the back door waiting to get off. Kinda like the women at the grocery store who always ask to see inside my bag even though I am better dressed than most walking in the forsaken store. Kinda like the man in the bookstore last week who actually pretended that I was not there standing in front of him. I called him a coño under my breath, a very bad word I would not call someone lightly, when I walked out the store. My anger was that strong. But none of it matters. I do not look like them or sound like them or act like them. I could go on, but I tire of the illustration. And there are good things, but of course there are good things.

There are many things I love about the Spanish. Many things that enthrall me about this country, with this culture, with this language. And most times I am estatic and comfortable so that when someone from home calls me at midnight in the middle of a deep sleep, I forget I am in Spain, halfway across the world, and I tell her to call me tomorrow. I am sleeping. Because most times, I feel so very much at home.

But other times, like tonight, I am deeply aware of my otherness, deeply conscious of my steps, deeply aware that my belonging is in the language as much as in the color. There will always be people who do not like me because of my color. Here as in the United States, but the difference here is that until I can speak the language, I cannot get anyone to understand that I do not care very much for their ignorance. And that it is the same mistake to leave the stove on a half hour more than necessary in Spanish as it is in English, whether I am a black “girl” from the AZ or an old Spanish lady who still returns to her pueblo every month. And that if you have an ugly heart, it doesn’t matter if you understand my conjugated verbs or if my subjunctive is correct when I tell you where you can stick it.

Ah, I am tired. The day has been long. I have not slept well, and I wish I had written a novel during November as fine as For Whom the Bell Tolls. I like my novel, however, very much, and hope that one day you will read it. But I wonder if Hemingway was here, if he would like me, or for that matter if I would care. If we would be able to sit in a café over a cup of tea and understand each other. How he would feel about stoves and bus stops. But I shall never know. I do, however, know a little of how he feels about Spaniards and I’m glad that I am not alone in my thinking of this beautifully strange, proud but sometimes ugly country.

And remember, ladies and gents, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” As much in Spain as in anywhere else in the world.


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