I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
1. Of the color of daylight in eternity
Inside a lightning arc struck in reverse, careening backwards to the sky, accelerating through a heavy mist that streaked by me in comet tracks of rust and vermilion, it was a complete roaring into some fierce oblivion, trying to look behind me against the wind, rain stinging my face in the tempest void, until I blinked, focused, and I thought I saw a landscape, far off below me, pin-wheeling and receding, eerie beige crescents, dull bronze squares, and shimmering capillaries of rivers and creeks running all through. Then just as suddenly, I was speeding above the wet, desert floor, and its grainy surface smelled like the carbon skin of an enormous machine. I reached out to touch it.
All of this, in the instant after I let go of the banister in a strange courtyard.
“This light is impossible,” I thought.
It is the hazy daytime of eternity, I heard someone say, a faint voice fading away in the wind. I thought I heard the slowed-down, distorted tremolos of the old pump organ that quavers at the beginning of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” faintly playing back, and breaking up into thick radio static, over and over again.
I awoke suddenly, squinting, making out uneven shapes of a flat, grey beach and slow blurs of dancing light on an empty, motionless bay. The sound of lapping water was far off, mixed with echoes of car horns and traffic.
“This is impossible light.”
I tried to move my mouth to speak those words but all that came out was a murmur, my lips bruised, my gums tender, one side of my jaw scraped angry purple and stinging in the salty Catalan air of Barcelona. I took in a deep breath and wondered if I had really survived my first day, shedding blood en la Madre Tierra, España.
Tana’s fine silhouette was drawn in a faint aura of amber twilight’s flame. Tana, or maybe it was Tamara, was a hippie nurse from a mixed Spanish and English family in Tasmania, traveling in Spain to find a great aunt who was meant to still be living in Madrid. It had been that morning at the pensión, when I was feeling so ill and sore I wanted to have a seizure and get it over with, her strong face was looking down at me, as still as the northern star. I’d only met her the day before in the lamplit hallway, where she had told me of her family quest. Then she heard me ailing that morning as I stumbled in from the night’s catastrophe, and came to help.
I wasn’t making a very good second impression.
Looking at her reclining on a beach chair, reading a newspaper through small brown sunglasses, she turned her head to me. Her gaze was a beacon that seemed to guide me gently back into my body.
“You were sleeping a long time, ya viene la noche.”
Tamara had reddish sandy hair, cut short like Joan of Arc, a gentle sun-weathered face with laugh lines, large, hazel eyes and a smooth, broad jaw. She had the lithe, powerful body of a veteran hiker, and the silky hair on her arms glistened in the dusk light.
I thought about being with her forever.
“I thought this was already eternity,” I said, my voice cracking.
“Or I dreamed it was.”
She stared at me incredulously. Tamara seemed to be the earthy, pragmatic sort. She had generously packed a lunch of olives, manchego cheese, chorizo, and bread, and helped me come to the beach, but I could tell she was not going to indulge my hangover metaphysics.
“Maybe this is eternity,” she said, impatiently.
“And anyway, how would you know? What’s the difference? Isn’t this all happening in eternity already?”
“Today feels like eternity to me,” I replied.
2. Cuento de un naufragio en la madre tierra
I hadn’t gone to Barcelona in search of eternity. I was on a long university break back in England, encouraged by my Uncle Lico in San Antonio, Texas to “go and have a look” and report back to him regarding the country my mother’s families, the Lopez and Velas, were said to come from. Though he had searched out the genealogies of these families for decades, he had never gone to Spain, and he had no idea where exactly in Spain our family might’ve originated. I had little fascination for Spain, but I was a devotee of the poet Federico García Lorca, so Granada would be my final destination.
If any family members presented themselves on the pilgrimage route, all the better, but I wasn’t expecting much.
It had been a four-day train journey from London to Barcelona, with an evening in Paris and another in the old Provençal village of Moissac. In the fields all around Moissac, the grapevines were bare and pruned, strung in tight helical bundles atop the sandy loam, awaiting the first buds of spring. An old farmer in rubber overalls and Wellington boots was watering a stand of auburn workhorses, all mares. Along the narrow streets, I could smell cabbage boiling with smoky bacon mixed in while the rich pearly smoke of the chimneys hovered above the rooftops across the village. It was an olden world, as if changeless over centuries, beyond the reach of the transforming incandescent light of cities, and far from anything I had known in south Texas.
Meeting up by chance in the Barcelona mercado with a rowdy colleague from University, my arrival day had detoured into an extended carouse, traversing the amontillado caves of the city during what turned out to be Barcelona’s annual Día de México fiesta. I was dressed in a shirt made of brightly striped serape fabric from Saltillo, Coahuila, making me as close to a Mexican as the Catalanos of the rough tavernas and cafes of the Ramblas were likely to find.
At first they regarded me curiously, another strange progeny of the Mundo Nuevo with a clumsy tongue en castillano. I told one waiter how San Antonio had been the headquarters of the Spanish governor during the early colonial era, and that his flat-roofed adobe mansion had been scrupulously preserved, long after the last governor had been forced to flee Tejano insurrectionists. Such was the sense of pride en España that lived on to this day in San Antonio. Eventually, each new tapa and copita de vino was submitted for my delectation and wonderment. Garbanzos in a tomato garlic sauce. Albóndigas con albahaca. Fideos con mariscos in a buttery wine salsa. For some hours I thought that perhaps this was my long lost home after all.
An already woozy barkeep in a dusky cave declared me the guest of honor. That’s when the intermittent copas of tequila and sherry began to flow like nectar until late in the evening, when I thought I saw my mate from Oxford, feeling inspired, throw an empty mug against a wall-size mirror, shattering it entire, sending the entire roomful of patrons whooping and screaming, running out into the night air of the Ramblas and scattering in all directions.
I lost my companions in the melee, wandering alone and exhausted, and well into my cups. I realized I probably couldn’t find my way through the maze of streets in that oldest, labyrinthine precinct of the city.
“Cuatro Palaú? Cuatro Palaú?”
I repeated the address of my pension to passersby, only to watch them hurry to walk past me. Just as I was beginning to think the smooth, cool white marble paving stones might make a suitable pillow for the night, several other revelers replied that they knew the address and would gladly take me there.
3. Wherein the Lopez and Velas appear, en medias res, of a long Iberian saga
Though some of my ancestors were Spanish Tejanos, early settlers in the rugged northern frontier of colonial Mexico, later Texas, none of us had ever felt particularly connected to Spain. It made no difference that the Lopez and Velas, my mother’s parents’ families, might have been in Spain already hundreds of years at the time of the first encounters with the New World.
Perhaps they were Christians, perhaps Muslim, or perhaps Jewish, as had been long rumored among the Velas, my grandmother’s kin.
There would have been some grandfather, or perhaps it was a grandmother, who decided to risk everything for a caravela ride to the New World, likely never to see Spain again. Once in the New World, our Iberian ancestors conjured a new sense of home for us in these Mexican lands, reciprocally forgetting the distant past even as we began to feel as if we had always been in the tierras of the Mundo Nuevo, as if our forgotten past, our genesis, was nonetheless surely of those same dear and familiar homelands of future Mexico and Texas.
My Spanish ancestors were not homebodies. They were outliers from the start of our story en las Americas, nomads setting out from whatever their Spanish past was, willing to leave all they knew behind once and for all in search of a new way of life in an unimagined place. Perhaps they were confident that the past would remain where it had always been, if only abandoned, lost, swallowed up, like the enchanted continents of myth like Mu or Atlantis that live on in memory long after any map survives detailing their coastlines and whereabouts. Because of that long estrangement across generations and hundreds of years, there were no living memories of Spain in the Lopez-Vela families.
Where had we come from?
Uncle Lico found echoes of our ancestors in Villa de Camargo, Guerrero Viejo, and Ciudad Mier, the historic farthest outposts of Nueva España founded in the 1730s, already very late in the story of that world.
Today those towns nestle the south bank of the Rio Grande, across the border between Zapata Roma, Texas. We never traveled there when I was growing up, visiting the Norteño state of Coahuila instead, where my father’s family had come from in Mexico.
Later, dwindling over time, the family had resettled in Laredo, then ended up in Cotulla. By then, all that was left of the Velas was my grandmother Leandra, who had six children, and her albino sister Fermina, who would die childless. Finally, the bedraggled survivors of the old family lines made their way up the last stretch of dusty highway to San Antonio, where my generation was born.
I don’t remember Grandmother ever mentioning anything to me about our grand family origins, Spanish or otherwise. She spoke Spanish fluently, and always with her maid, Maria Moya, but never a word to us in the old tongue. By the time she settled into one of her duplex properties, Grandmother retreated into her stoic, though somewhat disapproving vigil over the late 20th-century. The house was a cakebox-shutterboard shambles of a house on West Russell Street in San Antonio, a onetime noble neighborhood that now had a decrepit, long-settled and doleful look upon it.
But even as we were all becoming suburban Americanos, molecule by molecule, Uncle Lico was determined to reassert our Spanish dignity, our history of onetime entitlement in the storied age of the colonial frontera. His quest accelerated and grew more feverish as he neared his unanticipated death. No one knew who that first ancestor might have been, except for Uncle Lico, that is, our family’s self-appointed genealogist, who was certain we were descendants of a certain King of Spain, whose name, inexplicably, had been long ago forgotten. As far as Uncle Lico was concerned, so exalted were our origins that among the Lopez and Velas, even a King’s name could be abandoned after a little spell of time.
We might just as easily have descended from the King of Lemuria, all those bodies falling like snowflakes in the Kelvin chill air of all time.
4. In which I return to the forgotten house of nada
Tamara held my hand as if we had known each other for years, cradling my palm with both of her hands, caressing the swollen veins along my bruised knuckles, gradually making the soreness and stinging there subside. Like me, she had come to Spain without knowing what to expect, feeling little connection to the land of her ancestors. Her aunt in Madrid had spent most of her life as a nun in a cloistered convent until leaving in the mid-1970s. She whispered a rumor to me that her grandfather had been an officer in Franco’s phalangist army.
She had always felt more drawn to Antarctica, and had considered going there, but trekking through Spain was easier. I tried to visualize where Tasmania was, a great island floating wraith in the waters of Oceana. Españoles were there too, probably Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Portuguese, and Turks too, not to mention plenty of English—all of the world’s wandering tribes. Tamara’s Spanish mother had married an Englishman, and Tamara was born in Kent. The family had emigrated to Australia, then Tasmania in the ’60s. She said she came to Spain mainly to escape from Tasmania, but now that she was in Barcelona, she had been surprised how much a sense of home she felt.
“I’ve never thought of any place as home before,” she had said, meaning Spain.
We were both on a similar search in an unfamiliar land of unknown ancestors, stirring old imaginings of being with someone who shared my curiosity about the hidden knowledge about ourselves secreted away in the catacombs of our families’ past. The girlfriends I had had until then hadn’t been much drawn to those questions. Maybe Tamara was the one.
Seeing me staring at her as we sat on the beach, she quickly changed the subject,
“How many were there?”
“The ones you ran into last night. How many?”
“Four to start, I think, then others came along as we walked. Six or seven eventually. We went through the callejones of the Ramblas, and I repeated the address I was looking for.”
“Were they Spanish?”
“They had a strange accent. One told me they were Palestinians. I told them I came from occupied territories too—of the American Southwest—and we all had a laugh. I thought we were compañeros.”
“This a city of refugees, Barcelona.”
“When we got to the doorway of the pension, I got this creepy feeling. And I could tell they were nervous, too. Then as we stepped through into the solár, and I started up the stairway, I realized it wasn’t the right place. One of them reached for the breast pocket in my jacket, and my Amontillado haze was burned off in one flash.”
“Which one hit you?”
“I thought of True Grit and Enter the Dragon, Rooster Cogburn, and Bruce Lee.”
“That movie. You know that scene where a real old John Wayne takes the reins in his mouth, faces off across a field with a whole pack of bastardos? It was like that, only with fists of fury, Tex-Mex kung-fu style.”
“I never saw that movie. How’d you get hit?”
“I had one hand on the marble banister, and I swung my leg around, catching one in the jaw with my foot, and I swear he flew across the lobby like a goose dropping all his feathers, like a cartoon. I bruised my knees falling on the marble, and got hit on the side of the face and one went past me through the door. But I grabbed a little flowerpot and planted it on another guy’s forehead. I was shrieking Hindu kung-fu curses and wrenching my face into a tiger-fang grimace with my eyes bugging out. That was Toshiro Mifune. The two or three left standing just stood back terrified and let me pass like I was a ghost, so I walked out the door into the streets, crisscrossing the Ramblas until I found Palaú street again. The door to the pension was locked. I didn’t get in until morning, and well, you saw me then.”
“You looked a mess, mate.”
I left off telling Tamara how, having finally found the great oak door locked in the dimly lit street, I searched the cars at curbside until I found one at the end of the block with an unlocked back door. It was an old dented Peugeot, smelling of stale tobacco smoke and a bit cramped with piles of scrap paper, but as I pushed the debris away and tucked in my knees, reclined onto the backseat, I fell deliciously into a stony sleep.
And that’s where eternity rushed in.
I found myself in a courtyard of some unfamiliar Mediterranean villa, a plazita of elaborately carved and polished malachite, decorated with crowded flowerboxes hanging from the colonnades surrounding a patio and its gurgling fountain. The smell of oranges and mint was strong in the morning air. As I focused on the painted tiles decorating the fountain’s stone basin, I noticed that the railing I was holding onto alongside a scalloped stairway began to gently vibrate, becoming more pronounced with every breath I took.
If I concentrated on my grip long enough, I could eventually still the vibration. But after another breath, it would resume, more violently than before. The curlicued wrought iron became gelatinous, oscillating and shivering as if it were exploding outward from its hidden atomic particles into the apparent air.
My arm became so weary with the vibration that I could no longer hold on.
As I let go, all at once I felt myself whipcracked backward with enormous speed, accelerating into spinning spirals, as if I were flying upward, in reverse. My body seemed immaterial, transparent, but able to sense the droplets of condensing cloud vapor on my face. The first distress gradually gave way into a smooth glide, and I looked down onto a landscape of dry, tended fields and gentle hillocks. From this unfathomable height there were sprawling ancient mosaics of ochre and golden fields, long plots of burnt sienna and grey, until the craggy topography of mountains rose up green in the distance.
The storied ruins of Madre España, ancient cities and necropolises, aqueducts and roads were illuminated in the hazy daylight of eternity.
5. At the rumblings of the beginning of another quest
What could ever be said of these distant ancestors? Can you salvage a chronicle of a long-forgotten world? Over how many centuries had we all come to be so serious and sad? Why had we abandoned so many homes along the way of ceaseless unrecoverable journeying? What would ever make us feel settled?
Why return to the past now to seek answers?
I propose that you seek in yourself the remembrance of the before. That’s what the note read I found in my old desk, scribbled in my hand but of unknown authorship, presumably copied, but from I know not where.
Probably from the satsanga of one Guru or another, Yogananda, Nityananda, Muktananda, I thought.
Then speak what you find and believe what you say.
Later, I had written “Who?” in one corner. Then, turning the blue notecard over, I saw more writing in faded brown ink, in the familiar longhand script of an old girlfriend:
Then, late one night while channel surfing I hit an interview on a grainy home camera public access talk show. Said a mad ethnobotanist, talking about the revelations he had received while ingesting ayahuasca in the jungles of South America: History is a message from the ineffable. Maybe so, I thought, but if so, it was a hidden message in an extinct language, broadcast over some exotic radio frequency.
I had always thought of my family’s histories as containing some lost and secret intent, an inadvertent prophecy, some indistinct message of primeval origin I alone was drawn to rediscover, divine and tell, from the time I started writing poems during high school in San Antonio. This was my story before I had any way of telling it. Staring into a mirror in my bedroom back then, I watched as my face transmutated, becoming a thousand mestizo faces, castizo, morisco, cambujo coyote, torna atrás; brown men and women, café con leche, puro blanco, thick eyebrows turning thin, then thick again, fat nose to aquiline, hollow cheeks to great jowls, my turtle chin squaring off, becoming bearded, eyes changing their color and gaze from moment to moment.
“All of these are traveling with you,” I thought I heard a voice say.
“All of their stories are traveling with you.”
Stories only began in genealogy, in the descent of bodies through family lines in the deep well of time. To reach farther back in time was to know myself. Surely by this way I could reach where I came from and discern to whence the whole story was headed.
Then speak what you find and believe what you say.
This started some time around my freshman year in high school, a year I retreated from my circle of childhood friends and spent more time alone. One afternoon, while reading David Copperfield at the Westfall branch of the San Antonio public library when I heard the same voice, so implicit that it was barely perceptible.
No World. No time. No body. No mind.
I slowly realized I had been hearing this voice already for some time, usually speaking short philosophical aphorisms that had the lilt of lofty, incoherent greeting card ruminations.
As mind is to body, time is to world.
Only memory, ever. Memory, in search of rememberers.
Redemption is secretly underway, outside the view of the world.
I taped a cardboard poster to the wall next to my bed and began writing these “sayings” down as they were spoken to me, written on the tongue, during the night—alongside exhortations of the supremacy of Husqvarna off-road motorcycles and quotations from John Lennon.
The face is plural.
Thoughts get tangled up in evaporating threads of clouds.
Eventually, I stopped hearing the voice and threw away that first chronicle of these strange dichos.
6. Una despedida al siglo veinte
For years, I would recall my first trip to Spain as if it were the abandonment of a long-postponed quest that was part of the birthright of our Tejano lineages from South Texas and colonial Mexico. Tamara, or Tana, my Tasmanian nurse and protector, had said she would remain in touch. When we parted in Barcelona she promised to come visit me in England. But I never saw her or heard from her again.
That was my interrupted mission, in an improvised pilgrimage, a search left behind for decades, seeking the storied legacy of ancestors who had left the world of their ancient origins behind. Our past was an antediluvian city, buried under millennial drifts of earth, stone, and sand. In shadings of grey and beige, satellite photography revealed the lingering evidence of walls, avenues, and dwellings, clearly etched into the desert’s slate floor. If the old city was to be revealed again, this was where the digging would have to begin. Barcelona. Madrid. Sevilla and Salamanca. The Lopez de Jaen, The Velas de Asturias.
This was the compromiso of writing, namely to find and tell the abandoned stories of our New World families that had traveled across continents and centuries to finally make their home in San Antonio, Texas amid the roiling last decades of the 20th century.
Gradually, like a planet falling into an unchanging orbit, the families’ place and past became the subject of virtually every poem I wrote. Short stories were about Sabinas, Muzquiz, Nueva Rosita and Palaú—the towns and villages of Coahuila I had come to know in trips across the border at Piedras Negras. Other stories were about the old Texas I was born into, street characters of downtown San Antonio, like my father’s distant cousin who had become a prostitute downtown, on Broadway, or the old Mexicano who spent his days gathering cans and laying columns of them neatly in the street for passing buses to crush into aluminum pancakes which he could neatly stack into a canvas bag he wore on a frame hanging off his hip.
Through untallied migrations, my family lines had led us to these places and these people in a time when the world seemed poised for wondrous, if fearful, events. A classroom movie showed a boiling mushroom cloud over Nevada, the blasts decimating an old barn in a single, god-like breath. We watched a slain President as he was buried on black and white television, a riderless horse walking down an empty boulevard in the nation’s capital.
An astronaut, elegantly fitted in a silver spacesuit, opened the hatch of his Gemini capsule and stepped into the vacuum of space, dangling on his umbilical tether. UFOs crisscrossed the skies over San Antonio, recounted to me in feverish tales of cousins and classmates. Newspapers reported the story of a woman in India who had been pregnant for 18 months and the baby could be heard reciting verses from the Koran inside her belly.
My brothers and I were indoctrinated to expect the strange events that were undoubtedly augured as we watched Project Terror every Friday night, a weekly sci-fi television movie feature that began with a pulsing radioactivity alert siren over which the trademark slogan was intoned: “Project Terror! Where the Scientific, and the Terrifying, Emerge!” It wasn’t clear what we were expecting, but these were surely momentous times.
Like any young writer, I was drawn to writers for the beauty of their words, but it was their forensic delving into the age-old human mystery of who we were and where we came from that guided me in searching out this path of seeking the family past.
What hidden or occluded knowledge had we at last gathered to ourselves and written down after so many centuries in the onetime alien place we had come to embrace as our true home?
How would that story come to be told?
7. A storm, a collision, a greeting
It was the quincentenary of las Americas, a year to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World—the onetime Turtle Island—a whole world the mariners discovered dwelling apparently under what must have seemed an altogether separate sky.
It had been a decade since my first visit to Spain, and I thought little of ever returning. I had gotten married and was living in Astoria, across the East River, driving my car into Manhattan every day over the Queensboro bridge to make a nightly live television news show. In the midst of this routine, some mornings the towers of the city hung in the fog or shimmered in the early sunlight like sentinels of a forbidden city I suspected I could never really enter. I had never imagined staying for so long.
My stories, and the bones of my ancestors, were in another place. But as the years passed, the sense of belonging elsewhere—Texas, Mexico, somewhere in the greater Southwest—grew fainter and the stories I told as a journalist became my only stories. One evening, after a late meal after a long day I had spent in a video editing marathon I passed out in a Caribbean restaurant in the East Village, only to awaken refreshed, with the feeling that my spirit had somehow been greatly lightened, once and for all. “The poet spirit has left my body,” I thought, marveling at the crisp night air that revived me, a brilliant moon basting the city in pearly light.
The ancestors were undoubtedly with us; the family had not wandered very far from their remains. But their presence was insensate and diminishing, day-by-day, perhaps even hour-by-hour. All the indwelling, wayward journeying, and settlement that had brought us this far into the annals of the New World must’ve made a difference, setting us apart from others of other histories, other accords with time. We had simply lost track of all the movements, all the changes.
When the journey had appeared to be a straight path, from Laredo to Cotulla, from Cotulla to San Antonio, it was really part of a larger orbit, of lives circulating around villages, towns, and cities, through the centuries when humans did that sort of thing. And when it seemed as if whole generations might be contained in one orbit forevermore, the bloodline would find a way to stake a claim outward, spiraling farther into the still unknown world, neither in a hurry to know it all too quickly, nor so aloof that the destiny of the family could imaginably transpire without eventually encompassing it entirely, or so I thought.
My brothers, identical twins, took their own separate paths. George David became a psychiatrist in Houston, offering his patients tethers in the midst of their beaconless maelstroms. Charles Daniel became a dancer in an Austin company that created new works in which he would scuttle across the stage like an elegant mantis in search of other bodies to exalt and spin. As I had already left the poet’s life behind, or perhaps had been abandoned by poetry, my secret troth was to be a journalist of the anagogic annals, to connect the disparate details and report an unseen story taking place only behind the face of the apparent world.
What difference did it make that the people of the New World had lived unto themselves for so long? And vice versa for the people of the classical world with its tripartite great dominions—Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Some years before I had imagined writing a book that would gather all of the secret true histories of the discovery and conquest of las Americas. It was to be entitled Immaterial Empires. It was meant to comprise a compendium of all the arcane tales issuing from that cataclysmic meeting of old and new worlds, a way of starting to account for how the families that I came from in Texas had come to find themselves written into this strange historical epic.
I amassed boxes of yellowing newspaper clippings, photocopies of obscure historical texts, notebooks, and stacks of three-by-five blue note cards, and I had begun to make drafts of some of the imagined chapters. How the Spaniards thought they had found the lands that contained the true Garden of Eden. How the Mexicans believed their God had returned. Debates ensued over whether Indios had souls, and whether they were even truly human at all. How everything that was of the New World, fauna and flora, was thought to be physically stunted and morally inferior. Untouched by the revelation of the Gospel, these were implicitly lands that were of the dominion of el Demonio, and all of our histories had emerged from that unshakeable insight.
My father’s family, the Santos and the Garcias, had connected us to Mexico, while mother’s family, the Lopezes and the Velas, offered a bridge, albeit broken and lost, back to Spain. When so much had been forgotten, everything seemed to pertain, as if the schism of the Conquest remained alive in every one of us. Surely there was a story in our history, but no one knew where it had begun or how far along in the telling we had come. It was a swirling vortex of a tale, impossible to contain or render in any vernacular, century upon century of geographic dreaming that had become our legacy in these once unimagined lands.
I put Immaterial Empires aside, and attended to the business of my everyday life in New York City, which I had thought I only felt happy with.
There is a story for every time, and a time for every story.
It was in those days, the clicking years nearing the end of a dark century, that a great churning storm swept up the eastern coast of the United States, battering beaches and uprooting trees, its violent whorl shaking telephone poles out of the ground, and sending their wires sparking in every direction as it approached. Richmond, Annapolis, and Trenton were all chastised before New York City. Cities along the heavy storm’s path were shuttered down and flooded in the runoff of swollen estuaries, rivers, and creeks.
When this tormenta finally hit the city, the rain fell in chorros of dense interlocking patterns whipped by the great gusts that were undiminished after the long journey up the coast. The streets of the city were empty, strewn with tree branches, trash can lids, savaged exoskeletons of cheap umbrellas. Calling it a “nor’easter” betrayed the dark majesty of that weather.
That weekend, my brother George and sister-in-law Cindy were visiting and we had planned to have dinner in a Queens restaurant on the banks of the East River. The gargantuan storm had subsided by mid-evening, though the rain-slick streets of Long Island City remained deserted as we set out. We were merrily making our way to the night’s feast, set against a sprawling vista of the Manhattan cityscape.
The car’s wheels hissed on the dimly lit cobbled wet blocks of the warehouse district near the river when, in the middle of a sentence, I drove through an intersection and collided furiously with a taxi cab coming from the wrong way on a one way street. From full throttle, we entered a spinning well of crunching metal and screeching tires—then came to a violent halt.
Suddenly the whole world grew quiet, and time stopped.
I saw steam rising from the car’s mangled engine, the amber roof light of the cab’s off-duty sign illuminating the wreckage. I pulled myself back from a slump over the steering wheel and turned to see everyone in my car seemed to be sleeping: my brother leaning tranquilly forward against the dashboard, our wives, Stephanie and Cindy, leaning on one another in the backseat.
“Everything is fine,” I thought, “We should just go on to dinner.”
I leaned back into the driver’s seat and felt my head where a large knot had formed after striking the windshield frame. I realized I hadn’t taken a breath in a long while and when I did, the air rushed in as if it were coursing through a vast canyon.
I gripped the steering wheel as I heard a long lost voice slowly pronounce the following words in a calm, but decisive tone:
“Time is short.”
John Phillip Santos is a writer, journalist, filmmaker, and Emmy Award-winning producer of television documentaries. A program officer at the Ford Foundation between 1997 and 2002, Santos was the first Mexican American Rhodes Scholar and in 2002 was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, where he worked on The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire (Viking/Penguin, 2008) and the development of Teletopia Labs, a production workshop for documentary media performances. The memoir Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation (Viking/Penguin, 1999) was a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction. Wings Press will publish a collection of his poems, Songs Older Than Any Known Singer, in 2007.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee