Becoming

Chris Sawyer-Lauçanno

Chapter 46: I Become Fixated on Concha; Concha Becomes Fixated on her Guilt

During the following week I made love with Concha twice, once during siesta break, once after school. Neither of the experiences was as satisfying as the night and morning I’d spent with her, mainly due to time constraints and our anxiety about Juan suddenly returning home (although he wasn’t expected for hours). But even more excruciating than keeping an ear cocked for her husband’s unexpected arrival, was the hour I was forced to spend each day in her company in the library. Most of the time another student or two was present. This was actually weirdly preferable to being alone together, since at least there was an ostensible reason for decorum and restraint.

On the rare occasion, however, when it was just the two of us, the sexual tension in the air was almost more than either of us could bear. Once we were nearly surprised in an embrace by my literature teacher; on another occasion, Daimler appeared out of nowhere, and though we were murmuring sex talk in low tones, at least I was not on Concha’s lap with my hand down her blouse. Fortunately, her dark skin largely hid the obvious blush on her cheeks, but I, as her lover, noticed it. Daimler, on the other hand, steadfast in his mission to return a folder, didn’t seem to take note of either of us.

My schoolwork, understandably, slid rather precipitously. I was behind in nearly all my classes, had failed both a Latin and algebra test, and had barely passed an exam in history, a subject in which I had previously excelled. When I told Concha about my fallen standing, she suggested that we not see each other for a bit. “Besides,” she said, “Juan’s around the house all the time now, so it’s not safe.”

I needed a reprieve, but was too proud to admit it. I argued with her.

“I don’t want to be the cause of you flunking out,” she said, in her most librarian-like authority voice.

“I won’t,” I said.

“You don’t understand the system. Final exams are everything in Mexico. If you fail those, you’re out. Not just out of school, but out. Period.”

“I’m not going to fail my final exams. they’re not until late June anyway.  I’ve got a month.”

“No,” she said resolutely. “No more sex, no more hanky-panky, no more of your eyes fixated on my tits when you’re supposedly studying. I mean it.  It’s not that I don’t want you, but you’re worth waiting for. I’m Señora Mendoza for the next six weeks. Got it?”

Her eyes were blazing, and she looked at that moment incredibly sexy. I tried to kiss her.

“Damnit,” she nearly screamed. “No. I said no. I mean no. Do your fucking English.”

I was taken aback, shocked, hurt, rejected, saddened. I must have looked rather downcast, because she then said softly, “I’m sorry, but this is what you must do. It’s bad enough I’ve corrupted you, and I take responsibility for that, but I’m not going to be responsible for ruining your academic career. Understand. for me. Please.  Please. Pass those fucking exams

“OK,” I said. “I’m going to pass them, but if I don’t it’s not your fault anyway.”

“I mean it. I couldn’t stand it. I already feel guilty as hell about what we’re doing.”

“Because of Juan?”

“Because of you! You’re so young. I’ve taken something precious from you.”

“Stop,” I said. She was on the verge of tears now. “You haven’t taken anything from me. You’ve given me something precious. I love you.”

Recovering herself slightly she admonished me: “Do your English and stop gushing.”

The next six weeks were fraught. Concha and I managed to keep our hands off each other, mainly because of her resoluteness, a restraint that was becoming increasingly propelled by an acute sense of guilt. At home, Ray’s foot was not healing properly and another operation was likely needed; we all got amoebas and had to take little doses of arsenic daily; the old kiln at the mine broke down, stopping even the smallest amount of production for several weeks. This resulted in our already precarious financial situation becoming more serious. I did get a reprieve, however, from my weekend trips to the mine.

Though distracted by love and illness and concern about the state of our economic affairs, I studied like a demon, somehow passing all my final exams, many of them with 90s. As a result, my grades for the year were more than fairly respectable.

My ardent attention to the books, and concern about family matters occupied most of my attention, but once finals were completed, I was struck again by lovesickness. Since classes were over for the year, the only way I had of contacting Concha was to go to her house. This sent tremors of anxiety rippling through my body. Suppose Juan answered the door? (It never occurred to me that she might have a telephone.) After a day or so of mooning around, I screwed up my courage and walked to her house. When I reached her door, however, I couldn’t bring myself to ring the bell. Instead, I retreated and spent the morning alternately wandering up and down her street, sitting on the steps of an insurance agency across from her house, hoping she would emerge but she never did. I finally went to a stationery store, bought some paper and an envelope and wrote her a note. Actually, I wrote several. The first was a passionate love letter, but I suddenly became fearful that Juan might open it; the second was a cryptic message, but this too seemed too risky; finally, I penned a brief missive telling her that I was sorry to bother her at home but I had noticed that I still had a library book from school and could she therefore meet me at the Colegio two days hence at 10:00 a.m. Satisfied with my ruse, I posted this one.

At 9:30 on the appointed morning, I loitered outside the locked school gates. checking my watch every 30 seconds. By 10:00, I was staring intently in the direction from which I assumed she’d arrive. By 10:10, seated on the top step, since I felt unable to stand, I was having a minor anxiety attack. By 10:15 I was on the verge of tears. It was in this state that Sr. Daimler found me when he unlocked the gate from the inside and emerged from the building. Startled by his presence, I quickly mustered the strength to stand. To my surprise he greeted me rather warmly. Then, in his authoritative voice, he inquired as to why I was sitting on the school steps. I cooly lied that I had come to bring back a library book I had inadvertently failed to return before classes got out. He asked me to give it to him and said he’d put in the library. Then, quite magnanimously, he informed me that I wouldn’t even have to pay a fine.

I suddenly realized that I didn’t even have a book. But being quick at deception, I stated matter-of-factly that I didn’t actually have the book with me, but just wanted to find out when I might be able to return it. I then asked, as offhandedly as possible, whether by chance Sra. Mendoza might be in. I was not prepared for Daimler’s response, also delivered as offhandedly as possible, his eyes fixed on the trees across the street. “Se fue a los Estados Unidos.”

“¿Para todo el verano?” I couldn’t believe she would have gone to the States for the whole summer without informing me.

And then, still distracted, he replied: “Para siempre, creo.”

Forever! I was stunned. How could she just leave like that, give up her job (or was she fired?), forever, never to return? It was impossible. Daimler must be having a little joke at my expense, but since I’d never known him to possess even the slightest modicum of humor, I knew he wasn’t. And I knew he didn’t care. To him, it was perhaps only an inconvenience he could soon repair by hiring a new librarian. And I knew that he didn’t care if I cared, but he probably had no sense how his words had traveled directly into my heart. I wanted to tear him apart, make him bleed, make him feel the pain I was feeling, experience some emotion. Instead, I simply said, “Gracias,” not sure why I was thanking him, followed by a mumbled “Adiós.”

Adiós, Cristóbal,’ he responded almost gaily.

As I walked down the street, he yelled something at me about the book, but I couldn’t make out his words, or didn’t try, but just kept walking. Hot tears involuntarily began to flow. I found it difficult to breathe. How? What happened? Where was she? What? Why? I clenched my knuckles into fists. A luckless beetle came crawling across the sidewalk and I leaped on it, grinding it into the pavement with a fury. The waving palms, the bright sunlight, the gentle river, the cloudless blue sky, the happy voices of children all seemed to be mocking me.

After a few blocks, I retreated to the shade of a sprawling Spanish oak and sat down on the grass. By now I had stopped outwardly crying, though inwardly I was still flooded with tears. I looked for something on which to focus my attention and discovered a parade of ants carrying the remains of a dead insect up the gnarled black trunk and into a tiny hole in the bark. For long minutes I watched them, feeling pity for the bug, identifying with it. I too felt dismembered. No kindly ants, however, came to cart me away.

I never saw nor heard from Concha again. I did see Juan get killed a year or so later, though. Not in the flesh, but on screen in a bit part opposite John Wayne and Dean Martin in The Sons of Katie Elder. It was a thrilling moment.

Durango Vaqueros heading out for the day.

Chapter 47: I Become a Pretend Cowboy

Although they did not know they were rescuing me, Luis and Jaime did. It came in the form of two weeks in the remote Sierra Madre on their family’s cattle ranch. It was accessible only by jeep over a pitted trail (which is how we got there) or on horseback, or freight train. It was again, for me, a return to an earlier century: no electricity, a ramshackle bunk house, a large old one-story house with an inner courtyard. Chickens roamed at will, horses and mules in the corral snorted and neighed, cattle mooed in the distance. Six or seven vaqueros, often in chaps, pistols in holsters, large sombreros, wore the dust from their work on their clothes.

The ranch spread over thousands of hectares of rugged terrain. I spent most of the time we were there on the back of a horse, riding with Luis and Jaime and one of the ranch hands for miles and miles each day, up hills, across meadows and gurgling brooks, down into ravines, through quiet pine glades.

 I even attempted, to the amusement of the vaqueros, to break a wily mule. After being tossed on the ground several times, I gave up. Jaime persisted, and eventually he was able to gallop around the corral for one full turn before being thrown. We herded cows from the open range to the large holding pens at the railroad siding, roasted a steer, shot pistols and shotguns at tin cans, drank tequila from the bottle, got caught in an amazing thunderstorm, during which, spooked by lightning and thunder, Luis’s horse reared and threw him into a gully, injuring his shoulder so severely that he had to ride with Jaime. On a tether, the ranch foreman led Luis’s horse, still occasionally stomping and bucking, back to the house. By the next day, though sore, Luis had recovered and was once again mounted on Diablo.

A couple of days before we were to depart back to Durango, Luis decided we should go hunting for wild turkeys. We readied ourselves for the hunt that evening, making sure the shotguns were in order and that we had plenty of ammunition and flashlights. The plan was to set out into the forest well before dawn so that we could reach a glade to which the turkeys were known to favor just as the sun was rising.

By four the next morning the three of us, along with Felipe, an old ranch hand, were on our way. Felipe advised us not to ride horses beyond the edge of the woods as the beasts would spook the prey, and so after dismounting, we walked stealthily into the darkness of what seemed a very black forest. Light emerged slowly, taking its time to penetrate through the pines. We carried our un-cocked rifles in one hand at our sides, flashlights in the other. And then suddenly we came upon the clearing. The trees thinned out and the sun sent its rays our way.

For some reason I ended up in the front of our single-file advance. Suddenly, I burst into the small clearing. Felipe had guided us correctly: at least a dozen large wild turkeys with a few little ones in tow, were wandering through the brush and tall grass, pecking now and then, clucking, as if talking to one another, turning their heads perched on their long skinny necks, from side to side, then diving downward. Their mottled gray and brown feathers caught the sun light. They were magnificent. I cocked the shotgun and raised it to my shoulder and sighted. But as I peered through the scope, fixing on one of the larger birds, I knew instantly what I had to do. I pointed the gun toward the sun and fired two shots. My companions came running; the turkeys quickly took shelter in the forest.

“¿Qué has hecho?” Luis was practically screaming at me.

“No pude hacerlo. No puedo matar a una criatura así.” I replied.

Luis looked at me with a scowl, then Jaime and Felipe arrived. Luis suddenly smiled. “It’s OK,” he said in English.

I explained that I realized I could never kill anything except maybe a roach or a fly or mosquito. “I’ll never pretend to hunt again,” I said quietly.

Jaime gave me a hug. “You know yourself,” he told me. “Wow. Most never figure that out.”

Felipe shrugged, then set off into the forest.

Had I not already known what good friends I had, I would have been surprised by their intuitive understanding. I knew they would have bagged a couple of turkeys for the cook to prepare for lunch or dinner but they both respected my decision. They did tease me good-naturedly on the way back to retrieve the horses. I, for some reason, felt relieved. Proud. Jaime was right. I did know a little bit about who I was.

Chapter 48: I Become a Scholar and an Imitative Sonneteer

When school started in October, I was still hoping that Daimler had somehow been wrong, and that Concha would magically reappear. But, naturally, she did not. I moped around that morning, sleepwalking through my early classes. At noon, I met up with Mr. Wright, with whom again I had a tutorial. He greeted me with enthusiasm, and after some chit-chat about our vacations, I brought up Sra. Mendoza.

“I suppose,” I said, “that most days I’ll be studying English again in the library with Sra. Mendoza keeping an eye on me.”

Mr. Wright looked at me rather quizzically before informing me that Sra. Mendoza had abruptly left her husband a few days after school got out and had gone back to the states. To California, he thought, but maybe Arizona, maybe even Oregon. “You probably didn’t know it,” he said, “but her marriage was an unhappy one from the start. Her husband was a first-class scoundrel. She, of course, was no saint either, but she certainly deserved better than that creature.”

“Did you like her?” I asked.

“She was somewhat flighty, not really suited for the job here. I always suspected she’d leave. A bit of a slut, too, I think.”

I felt the blood slowly rising to my face.

“I liked her,” I said.

“Oh, she was nice enough,” he replied, rather condescendingly.

“She always had good book recommendations,” I said, thinking this might change his attitude.

“I think you’ll find Mrs. Hill far more knowledgeable. Not that there’s much to choose from in our library, but I have a number of books to lend you.”

I had already cultivated a dislike for the new librarian, whom I learned was an older, largely monolingual woman, who with her husband had recently retired in Durango.

“Well, I had no complaints about Concha.” Her first name had slipped out of my mouth before I could smother it.

“Concha, eh?”

“Sra. Mendoza,” I said.

Wright stared at me, a bemused look on his face. Then, as if none of this conversation had taken place, he pulled out a book from his briefcase. “We’re going to read more systematically this year, beginning with Shakespeare.”

“But we read Shakespeare last year.”

“Not all of him, and not one of the sonnets.” He handed me a paperback edition of Shakespeare: Sonnets and Songs. “You will, in the next week, read all of this book and be prepared to discuss it. You’ll write for the week after that an explication of one of the sonnets, and, if you like, you may even attempt a sonnet of your own.” His tone was definitive; he had made up his mind that I was going to do a great deal more work than I had the previous semester.

“OK,” I said.

“Good,” he said. Then, thumping the book with his index finger, he stated, using his acquired Boston accent, rather than his New Jersey nasal one, “These are among the greatest treasures of the English language, unsurpassed perhaps in their beauty, mastery over form, sheer power.” Then reverting to his New Jersey intonation, he added, “I’m sure you’ll like them. They’re mighty love poems–of love gained, of love lost. That should appeal to you.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded. Did Wright know about Concha and me? His references to her, to love “gained and lost,” his description of her as a “slut” (a characterization I very much wanted to probe, but couldn’t figure out how to feign disinterested curiosity) seemed too close to the bone for my liking. But so what? She wasn’t here anymore so couldn’t get fired, and I certainly wasn’t going to be expelled for what couldn’t be proven. Besides, Wright, for all his attitudes and snobbishness, wasn’t a bad guy. I actually liked him, and respected his Harvard education, though I did get a bit annoyed at his frequent mentions of his alma mater and his prolix accounts of his undergraduate days.

Without the distraction of love, I immersed myself in school. I didn’t, however, study all things equally. Geometry, for instance, didn’t interest me in the least. Latin was still rather a bore, but relatively easy. Mexican history should have been interesting, but the teacher, whose name I’ve forgotten, was pedantic and managed to turn the glorious story of his country’s past into a series of dates and numbers and names. Chemistry I enjoyed, even though it was taught by Sra. Daimler, a woman even bonier and less possessed of humor that her husband, but I found it difficult. Intermediate French, taught by a spirited French-Algerian woman, Mme. Favre, was a total delight. Spanish literature was even better than it had been the year before, mainly I suppose, because my command of written Spanish had improved, but also I liked the reading better: Quevedo and Calderon and Lope de Vega.

English, though, under Mr. Wright’s inspired tutelage, was the best. I took to Shakespeare and then to Donne, Marvell, Crashaw and Herbert. With each poet Wright would first assign me the task of explicating a poem, then writing an imitation of it in the same style. Not surprisingly, I found the imitations far more demanding, but also far more interesting, than the exegeses that I tossed off in a couple of hours. Since most of the poems I was reading and memorizing (for recitation) and discussing were love lyrics of one sort or the other, in my own verse I wrote almost exclusively about my unrequited love for Concha. To some extent this was posturing; I hadn’t really gotten over her, but I was not exactly pining away either, as my sonnets would have one believe.

On my imitations I labored, learning, in the process, about meter and rhyme and word choices, about how it wasn’t a question, as it supposedly is in architecture, of whether form follows function; in poetry, I quickly came to see, the two were intertwined. It was only when I got to university and witnessed my fellow students struggling with scansion, that I realized how extraordinary an education in English verse forms I had received.

Wright responded with enthusiasm to my fledgling poems, hacking hackneyed phrasing, putting little red question marks over questionable word choices or skewed syntax, counting feet, measuring rhythms, suggesting alternative rhymes. He never questioned the content but focused only on the form. I assume he felt that since I was clearly imitating the masters, I was also inventing the topics and conceits in an attempt to conform more exactly with the grand English tradition. Perhaps he simply thought that a 14-year-old was incapable of having had the feelings, longings, or experiences I wrote about, except perhaps in the abstract. Whatever his thinking, I was quite pleased that I never had to explain why a poem came to be written, only how.

Just one of my efforts has survived:

To His Departed Lover (after John Donne)

by Cristóbal Sawyer

Return to me so that I may live

And we shall lie down but not to rest,

And in our scented bower I shall give

What once upon a dream you gladly blest.

Do not keep from me your sweet embrace

Do not let my ardent longings strain,

Grant me a glimpse of your tender face

So that my heart may once more beat again.

If just for a moment you I could hold

Frame your beautiful visage in my sight,

Then like the lark whose song unfolds

I would sing to you in sheer delight.

But you are gone, ne’er to return,

Consumed by passion, I shall burn.

* * *