The Day After
Jeremy remembered what she said. Or did he? Her pigeon English had half a wing and the excitement of her beauty had failed to resurrect his Spanish from the drunken stupor of the night. Did she say she studied literature? Or was it engineering? The professor had disappeared. He was certain about that and according to his recollections he had managed to stumble to the taxi stand to share a cab with other nocturnal creatures. At night countries and continents cease to be so different: most people want to drown their inhibitions and experience a moment of release. That was his conclusion after his first moment of drunken madness. Though there was more antagonism in the air. He could not put his finger on it but it seemed that in particular moments during the night it could have all kicked off. Was it more dangerous? Probably. Juan had warned him of the perils of Chilean nightlife. He talked about ruffians, pickpockets, sadists, kidnappers and communists. He had only met the latter and they seemed perfectly harmless to him. Why were they so doleful?
Many interrogatives roamed his fuzzy mind that morning. What was clear was that he was in bed with his clothes on and his wallet was empty but intact. He could smell the Escudo in his breath and momentarily wished the beer had not been so cheap. What had she said exactly? She studied at the Universidad de La Serena but that he already knew. Nothing about a boyfriend that he could recollect. Her name? Oh yes her name he knew. Lula was definitely her name. He remembered her name perfectly as it reminded him of the song “Lullaby” by the Cure. He had told her this and she had responded that she did not know The Cure only to find out moments later that she actually did know them but had never heard the correct pronunciation of the band.
“De Ku:r/e/”! She had screamed, “Boys don’t cry!”
“Thi/Kiur/” Jeremy had responded in ecstasy at the realisation that the exotic beauty of the fascinating creature shared cultural references he could exploit and relate to.
Jeremy had gone on to list other bands including Radiohead and Blur, bands which Lula knew but was not enthusiastic about. She mentioned Nirvana and The Doors and Jeremy concluded Grunge was close enough to his idea of musical acceptance to continue his path towards romantic infatuation.
He then remembered the Spanish girl he had gone on a date with in Leeds only to find out her favourite artists were Mariah Carey and Rick Astley. His libido had descended promptly into a well of black lubricating oil and the affair had nosedived into disaster. Jeremy was still at that age when music is a filter for romance and friendship. That time when musical taste becomes an objective indicator of lifestyle and philosophy and guides young sensitive lovers to possible bonds of affection and understanding. Luckily Lula had not said she adored PULP otherwise Jeremy thought he might have jumped on her declared his eternal love and proposed marriage there and then. She did however display a correct aesthetical tendency towards depth and coolness in music. He was chuffed!
What else did she say? Where did she go? The moment she excused herself and joined a group of girls in the music room was stamped on Jeremy’s mind clearly. It was a moment of deflation. A slump in the momentum of the night accentuated by the lawnmower of drunkenness which blurred his thoughts and his vision. In England it would have been interpreted as the ultimate rejection: not to end up naked in bed fiddling with each other’s body parts after an exchange of words in drunken fervour but Jeremy had the impression things worked differently in Chile and the sexual liberation of alcoholism in English universities would be difficult to replicate there. Did he even want to? It was not a lustful feeling that inundated his system but a desire to know more: to spend more time around the fascinating and dark creature, to hear her pronounce The Cure in her intoxicating accent, to ask her about her dress and her skin, to inquire on the nature of her beauty and of her mind.
-Happy night, eh? –babbled Sr.Juan in the kitchen.
-Cheap Escudo –replied Jeremy as he struggled to make his way to the coffee-pot.
-Did you meet any comunistas? –he asked mockingly.
Jeremy was too hangover to indulge Juan or to question him. He only wanted to be alone. Hangovers are meant to be solitary affairs, one must lie under the sheets and sleep them off. His father was not a model parent but he had always known how to respect his post nocturnal collapses. It was a rule of the house that not a word was to be spoken until 3 in the afternoon. Jeremy found anything else unacceptable. But he was not in his house in England and he had to tolerate Juan babbling on about the fall of Russia and the inevitability of the decline of Cuba. Jeremy could not be arsed. He had been called a Marxist before but only because he had said that the working classes would always be at war with the posh cunts. He only said that in a class to impress a girl who was wearing a Rage Against The Machine T-shirt. The lecturer had not been impressed and asked him to back his arguments with historical evidence and philosophical reasoning. Jeremy got dates mixed up and misquoted Lenin and Marx. The whole thing had been a disaster and the girl had mocked his ignorance.
-What happened with Victor Jara? –asked Jeremy after he had caught his breath.
Juan pondered in silence for a second or two.
-A misunderstanding. The general loves music. He listens to Wagner all the time. And that is real music. I mean the Jara guy did not sing well but no one wanted to cut his hands.
-Why did it happen?
-We don’t know. It could all be communist propaganda, you know? It’s everywhere. Iron Lady knew it well. The journalists are all chuch su madre hypocrites. I saw them all sat at the General’s dinner parties. They ate like elephants and smiled at him all the time. Then they turn around and wrote whatever their cojones told them.
-Was Augusto the president?
-Boy. He was the leader. The capo. The Iron Wall.
Catalina walked in the kitchen with her pink silk morning gown and interrupted the conversation before Jeremy decided to express his view about military dictatorships. Another time, he thought. Hangovers are not suitable for political debates. In fact, Jeremy had never enjoyed political debates. He found himself unwilling to engage in verbal antagonism. He thought it was a waste of time. Instead he narrated his encounter with the professor omitting the drunkenness and the madness of the conversation.
-Good. I am happy-stated Catalina-now you can get serious with your studies.
-Sure. Sure –replied Jeremy.
-Studies? –He thought to himself. He could not imagine a course of intellectual challenges with the professor. How would he feel the next day? He had disappeared so unexpectedly that Jeremy had not managed to ask him about the course or any of the details of his exchange program. Not that it would have been suitable in the levels of intoxication they found themselves wrapped in. He did not even think Fuentes looked like a professor at all. But how else would he have know about his arrival. Maybe dress codes were different in La Serena. -You should go to the university –said Catalina –it’s late.
Jeremy went straight to the library where Ulises was busy re-arranging old books in one of the longest shelves Jeremy had ever seen.
-You look tired –he said.
-Yes. Yes. Guess what?
-You saw Fuentes –said Ulises unsurprised.
-How did you know? –asked Jeremy confused and blurry from the hangover.
-He always there. I want to tell you but hard to speak this language.
-Oh gosh Ulises! What a night!
-His drinking is famous. More famous than Mr.Tambourine man. Hey, have you listened Silvio Rodriguez?
-Much better than Cobain I promise.
-No. Never. Is he in the office today?
-Probably too early –replied Ulises –too early for the professor.
Jeremy hang around the University patio trying to look out for Lula for more than an hour. After that he decided to try the Professors office again. To his surprise Fuentes was there. Jeremy found him bent over the table. He looked terrible.
-English what do you want?! –He bellowed as soon as he walked into the office.
Jeremy did not get too close. He felt intimidated by the professor’s energy. It felt aggressive and hoarse.
-Morning Professor –he whispered -I was wondering if I could know my time-table.
-Pass me the bottle of water there hombre –mumbled Fuentes- all the bloody things we have discovered and still no cure for hangover. Chucha! The indios had yucca juice. It revives you but I hate the taste of yucca. It tastes of dirty potatoes.
-What is yucca? –inquired Jeremy.
-Concha tu madre –responded Fuentes. Jeremy had learnt to interpret the phrase as a sort of smoothened form of motherfucker! A sort of exclamation of frustration or surprise which depending on the tone could be heard as a strong form of rejection too.
-I crawled home, you know? You only know it’s a good night if you crawl home or you end up in a strange bed. You had no luck with Lula, eh?
Jeremy was surprised that the Professor knew her name. Her name sounded dirty on his lips. Jeremy was not amused. Like if naming Lula destroyed the unique and secret bond he shared with her. He did not wish the professor’s debaucherous spirit to pollute their tale.
-Don’t tell me. What happens in the beer stays with the beer. Your clasess, eh?? Don’t come to mine. We can talk. Talking we will find some way around this mess. Take some literature lessons and some political science one and you will be fine but not with me. Got enough on my table maestro. And ask questions. All we need is questions and more questions. Now go! Go! My head is going to explode, chucha su madre!
-Bye professor. Have a good day!
The professor shooed him away with his fingers. Jeremy left the office feeling confused. Fuentes was a different man in the morning. His eyes lacked the shine and splendour of the previous night. He did not inhabit life with strength and passion. In fact he seemed to have the life force of an old slipper. Everything about him was disconcerting. It was as if he had suffered a metamorphosis in the core of his spirit. What remained that morning was the battered shell of his persona. A spirited persona contaminated and demeaned by sunlight.
The brief interaction with Fuentes made Jeremy question himself too. Hours before he personified Jacques Cousteau in his fearless adventuring of the night but a nap and two coffees later and he was a small disinflated dingui trying to navigate unwelcoming waters. He wondered where to go or who to see to help him recalibrate himself. In his mind he carried the vision of Lula’s face and it did not let him think straight. He had never seen such dark eyes. Eyes like black marbles. Eyes like the end of the world. A kind of eyes which are bound to get you shipwrecked. Eyes which disarm alarm clocks and abolish mid-term examinations. Eyes which absorb you so intensely, so completely, so profoundly that it is easy to forget you are not related to them, neither by blood nor by marriage. Eyes which rattle your certainties and create the illusion that, perhaps for the first time, you are not alone, not irrevocably. Jeremy had always felt alone. The flattening weight of loneliness had burdened his shoulders since the advent of his consciousness. Severed from his people and their surroundings either by character or circumstance. Stuck in his brain. Torn from his friend’s devotion to football clubs. Removed from the bonds of family by ambiguous parental neglect, intrinsically against patriotism and religion, Jeremy’s only sense of belonging was towards specific English indie pop bands though they were no antidote to the sense of isolation and dread. Were Lula’s eyes the answer? His thoughts led him back to the only place he had felt at home since his arrival: the music tavern Afroson..
-Mas cerveza, weon? Asked the barman smirking mischievously.
-No. No. Comer. Comer.
Jeremy sat on a table in the main room and sighed. Legions of elephants and lawnmowers were stamping around his cerebrum. The mighty creatures were having a feast in his brain. He thought about running into the toilet when he saw the book. Little did he know he was about to discover two fundamental aspects of his future self: Chilean poetry and sweetcorn pie.
The book was just there on his table. He thought someone might have left it by mistake but realised books had been carefully placed on every table in the tavern. Jeremy had heard that Chile was a land of poets and song but had not expected poetry books to be scattered around the public furniture. On the cover he read Pablo Neruda, Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada. He opened it with great expectation feeling a blurry sense of momentousness which he attributed to the hangover and his transatlantic venture. He was eager to read but he could not have expected the effect the book had on his consciousness. He remembered staring into the Pacific Ocean on his car trip with Juan to La Serena and feeling a similar vibration at the back of his neck. Not even his mediocre Spanish could prevent him from absorbing the images and rhythms which would alter his sense of self forever. It was like listening to music while seeing visions of a mushroom trip pop up and stir the imagination. Feelings of longing, lust, anger, devotion, power, weakness, terror and joy were all summoned together in the poems. In a moment he understood life could be more than beers and hangovers for some men. There were also a hundred questions, many words he did not understand, but in a way he likes that: it seemed to summon more mystery and excitement at the time. It was nearly as good as listening to Jarvis Cocker for the first time. He was absorbed gobbling the language and the music of the poems, so completely intoxicated with it all that he forgot he had ordered lunch before sitting down. He stuck his fork into the dish blindly when it arrived whilst reading poem number 14 which expressed a will to fuse the natural world with Neruda’s lover. Then he stopped reading momentarily to stare at the round ceramic brown bowl which contained the delicatessen. He had pointed to the first line on the menu without noticing it was the weekly special national Chilean dish: sweetcorn pie.
The effect on his palate was transformative. A divine combination of Criollo and European cuisine which fused baking with the most sublime forms of sauce making, sweetcorn pie tasted fucking good. It was formed by a mashed corn topping over a minced meat based “refrito” coulis which incorporated culinary surprises Jeremy had never imagined might coexist together: things as simple as boiled eggs, raisins, sweet chilly, coriander, green peas which blended into each other and heightened, fiddled and elevated his sense of taste. He had never thought of food as anything else of an antidote to hunger. It was a new experience, the joy of gustatory plenitude. Jeremy was so consumed by his gusto that he confused the pleasures of the food with the intellectual and sensory experience of reading the Chilean poems. Both the words and the pie coalesced in his stomach and in his mind to form a sort of ecstatic hyper-sensory experience only topped by his first adventures with pills of MDMA . Images of mortal flames, consuming light, absent voices, immense nights, starred up constellations, embraced sunsets merged with the perfect mix of cumin infused bay leaf jucyness and sweet thick warm textured corn paste. At one moment he wondered whether he was munching poetry or reading sweetcorn pie. He called the barman turned waiter up.
-What is this?
-No. Es delicioso.
-Pastel de choclo gringo. The best in the country.
Jeremy thought of Lula immediately. What did she think of Pablo Neruda? He wanted to run to her house and recite the poems of intoxicated romance and yearning for connection. He wanted to go back to school and embrace the poor sods he had bullied for falling in love with impossible lasses from their year. He wanted to tell his parents that he understood their divorce that if one does not feel the way those poems contested to feel for a lover there was no point in the relationship at all. He wanted to scream to Lula in Spanish, in you the rivers sing and I will go with its waters wherever you want me to. But he knew his Spanish was shit and he barely knew what she looked like, much less where she lived. Why could he not experience the ecstasy of the poems by himself? Why did he need to run to otherness, share the madness and the sweetcorn pie? Who would have though food could get any better than an English breakfast? Who knew that there are certain herbs which stimulate your taste buds to culinary nirvana? Why did he have to travel thousands of miles to discover he actually adored food and lunch was not just an antidote to the alcoholic discombobulation? How would he known that language and books were more than sources of information to pass exams and impress teachers at school? How would he have anticipated that poems could taste so good? Make their way in your system like miners or underwater divers who explore your mind and your veins and install new lights and new shades. The Afroson looked different in daylight. None of its charming dim-lighted mystery remained and yet alone there, eating sweetcorn pie at usually late lunch hours, Jeremy felt Chile open up like a desert flower and with it a part of himself which would not be easy to close again. Lula and Neruda became inexorably attached in his psyche and it took years to disentangle them. Meanwhile he wondered where he would find her as he read more poems of romance, loss and longing. Poems which fused the natural world of Chile with the adolescent fervour of a young specimen of humanity exploring his inner self in relation to the desire for another. Paul Weller came to his mind and David Byrne. He wanted to eat more sweetcorn pie but he started with the beers instead. Soon enough the Afroson was full again and a skinny old man with a moustache was about to jump on the stage. Lights out. Start again.