Cállate!

I’m not sure if I believe in magic, but after being shouted at by a homeless lady I came away believing in curses. I don’t completely understand what happened, but what I do know is that in the week that followed, nothing went right. I was constantly late for classes, I got on buses going the wrong way, and my perception of time became notably warped. I’d waste whole days with nothing to show for it. On other occasions, I’d sit in a class and be convinced that an hour had passed, only to find that I’d been there for ten minutes.
I don’t believe I had done anything to warrant the sudden and dramatic shift in my fortune. I hadn’t even wanted to be in the cafe in the first place, but when student protests caused a local university to shut down, my student, a lecturer, suggested that we have our class at the Starbucks across the road. The mornings were still cold, and we took a table close to the window in the hope that some early morning sunlight would grace us with its warmth.
I find this particular student quite interesting. He is young, athletic, and intelligent. He lectures philosophy in the Law Department, and he is deeply interested in social issues. He is vastly knowledgeable about the plight of the poor in Chile, and has written theses on causes and results of this condition. He is an advocate for positive change; he aims to uplift and improve the quality of life for all.

As it so happened, we were discussing the very subject of poverty when an example of the issue slouched in through the glass doors. I knew this woman. She was homeless and filthy, and an infamous feature of Santiago’s inner city. Her stench preceded her wherever she went, and persisted long after she was gone. There was an obnoxious arrogance to her pitiful state, as if her life were a savage protest against the world that had brought her this low. She knew full well of the discomfort she brought upon bystanders, and she reveled in it. She would stand close to people, and linger, a smug grin on her dark brown face. I’d seen her being chased out of posh restaurants, undress in public, and snatch cups of beer off outdoor pub tables, cackling as she did so.

When she walked into the Starbucks that morning, I did all I could to make myself as invisible as possible. This was difficult, as I was conducting an English class, and the sound of English in Chile tends to stand out like a ringing cellphone at a ballet performance.
I don’t presume to know what the woman’s vices are, but I do know that her mind has been pummeled until has become completely un-tethered from reality. This makes her entirely unpredictable and terrifying. She scurried past my student and me, and went straight to the back of the coffee shop, asking for money at the various tables in a pattern that made no sense at all. At one point she went and sat down in a booth directly next to another customer and completely ignored him. She was obviously playing a joke on him, using her repulsive presence to unsettle the man. Moments later, he and his date got up and left. This behaviour went on for a while longer, the hag hassling people who wanted nothing to do with her. I suspect she was doing it more for sport than for money.
Eventually a barista appeared – the unlucky candidate selected to deal with the nuisance- and held the door open and demanded that the homeless woman leave. She left when told, but she traipsed out of the door at an unhurried pace.

Ghostbusters
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of the homeless woman being sent out of Starbucks.

Whenever I try to recall the type of clothing that the homeless woman wears, I can only conjure up images of brown rags hanging off of a hunched and rounded frame. But I have noted that on the occasions when I’ve seen her, she has always been wearing a different shirt. So somewhere she has a wardrobe of sorts, and she must have the presence of mind to change clothes once in a while. I suppose that when I see her I don’t see a person. I see terror and trouble and an aspect of humanity that I don’t want to believe could exist.

Pigeon Lady Home Alone
Or maybe I’m thinking of the Pigeon Lady from Home Alone.

When she left the Starbucks I tried to relax, but I was still a little bit wound up. My student and I passed a few good-natured comments about the unfortunate state of homeless people in Santiago, and then got back to the lesson. I couldn’t really focus, though, because I was haunted by the thought that the homeless woman was still in the area, and my chest tightened when I noticed her stumbling back into the coffee shop a few minutes later. This time, she was doing the rounds closer to our table, and inevitably she stopped beside us with her hand held out, cupped and waiting. My student politely told her that we didn’t have money for her, and we tried to go on with our discussion. The homeless woman remained immobile.
It is something I appreciate about beggars in Santiago – that they don’t pester. Once you say no, they wish you a good day and move on. In fact, the homeless lady had been doing that with the other patrons, but this time she would not move away. I suspect she was mesmerized by the sound of a foreign language being spoken, so after a few awkward sentences I turned back to her and said, peacefully, “No tenemos dinero.”
For someone as undernourished and addled as she was, she moved with lightning speed. She shot her face closer to mine, her bottom lip pulled back in such a snarl that I could see the tobacco-black bottom row of her teeth, and without even hauling breath she screamed long and loud into my face:

CÁLLATE!”

I was stunned. Without truly hearing what she had said, I had done exactly as she’d asked. I had shut up, as had everyone else in the cafe who had instantly turned to see the spectacle. The homeless woman straightened up and turned away, her frazzled hair looking like a slow motion fireworks display. She sauntered down along the tables and screamed again.

CÁLLATE!”

And then she took a swing. With all her might, her right palm arced upwards and collided with her face at full force. It wasn’t us who had to shut up, it was the voices in her own head. The woman continued to stomp past the tables, repeating the command like some sort of chant: “Cállate! Cállate! Cállate!” Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
And with each outburst she would smack herself in the face as hard as she could. The ritual continued until she had made her way towards the door, but she only left when the barista reappeared and ushered her out. I watched her stalk off, continuing the ritual of berating and slugging herself. The glass walls weren’t fully soundproof, and the sound of her cries continued even after she had left my line of sight.

Black Pearl
From that moment, I was as cursed as the Black Pearl.

I reached for my coffee, and had to use both hands to steady the cup. “Are you okay?” I asked my student. He didn’t answer me right away. Instead he tilted his head down and to the side, the perfectly round lenses of his glasses catching a ray of mid-morning sun, turning his eyes into a pair of white discs.
“You know,” he said presently, “in a way, she is our fault. She is the product of a society that couldn’t help her.”
I tried to commiserate, but my head was still buzzing from the assault. I felt violated and humiliated, and I didn’t know how to get things back on track. Fortunately, after five minutes of staggered discussion, my student mumbled that he actually had to leave the class early in order to show his solidarity in the protests that were happening nearby.

It was no doubt an awful start to a bad week. As things continued to go wrong, I couldn’t help but to attribute all the unfortunate events to the woman who had shouted at me. Surely she had cursed me. Everything I believed about good luck and bad luck had become inverted, and I couldn’t turn things around. I felt as if her scent had gotten onto me and wouldn’t wash off. It was in my clothes and hair and skin. In a final act of defiance, I told myself that at least the whole thing had given me grounds for a good blog post. But she hadn’t given me that either. There was no narrative arc. There was no resolution to the curse. Things started going badly, and then they slowly stopped going badly, but without any perceivable switch. Nothing concrete had broken the spell, it just dissipated. However, I will say this: If anything, writing this article has given me some catharsis. So there’s that.

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Buses and Abuses

Earlier this week, the cold resurfaced in one final last-ditch effort to make my life a misery, like a horror movie serial killer hamming up the final jump scare. This makes waiting for a bus decidedly distasteful, and if you know anything about me, you’ll know that waiting for buses is just about all I do. It was particularly unpleasant last Monday, when the city had virtually shut down over the threat of potential political protests. This meant that regular rides were few and far between, and I had to wait much longer than usual for my lift home.

By the time a bus eventually pulled up, huffing and scrapping like a colossal dying nematode, I was already in a bad mood. It was late at night, and I was cold. I also needed to go to the bathroom, but that was always a given. The cold weather has a way of making my bladder contract whenever I step outside.
The bus arrived in the usual fashion: break pads wailing, hydraulics wheezing, and the sound of something metal dragging along underneath. A lot of the buses in the city are the accordion type, with a spongy middle section that allows the twenty-meter-long behemoth to negotiate corners. Upon hearing its arrival, one always expects that it is on the verge of snapping in half, or breaking down entirely.

Bus
This is the typical Santiago bus, looking just like one of those sandworms from Dune.

After an extended chorus of hissing and screeching, the saloon-like doors jerked open, and I stepped off a deserted street that should have been humming with traffic,and into the madhouse that was a TranSantiago bus. I swiped my Bip! card over the scanner and mumbled a cursory “Hola” to the driver. He was middle-aged and male, with a large paunch and a clean-shaven face, passive and bespectacled, with deep-set wrinkles.
At least, I believe that’s what he looked like. In truth I hardly give a second glance to the person sitting in the glass booth, and this time was no different. His puffy black coat only served to make him fade further into the background. I was already annoyed that I’d had to wait so long, and I was transferring my frustration onto the fellow who was just doing his job.
Being on the bus didn’t do much to improve my mood. It was fractionally warmer, but a window was open somewhere, and no one moved to close it. People sat in silence, staring into their phones or huddling together for warmth. Everyone was dressed in black. Black jackets, black coats, black scarves, black beanies. Black mood. Sometimes people on the night bus are rowdy, or drunk. But mostly they just sit or stand, and hush and huddle.

By and large, the bus is never a pleasant place. It’s breezy when the weather’s cold, and sweltering when the weather’s warm. It’s loud in all the worst ways: things scrape and squeak, babies scream, teenagers cajole, lovers quarrel, people blast music. There’s graffiti everywhere. It’s dirty and often more crowded than you could ever think possible. Young people stomp onto the bus without paying, and the driver takes no action. The vehicle itself lurches along violently and unpredictably, leaving you in a constant state of imbalance. At times the bell doesn’t work, or the driver doesn’t hear it, and he’ll sail right past your intended stop, forcing you to walk a few extra blocks.

Get off my train
This guy told me to get off his train, even though it was a bus.

On this particular night, the bus stopped at the place I intended to get off, but before I could reach the exit, squeezing myself through the throng of somber ghosts, the driver had pulled the doors closed again with all the clanking and hissing he could muster, and so over the din I called “Señor! La puerta, por favor!”
I was certain that he must have heard me, and there were a few seconds of silence as everyone on board waited for the doors to reopen.
It’s embarrassing enough to have to start shouting in such a public place, and that embarrassment was compounded when the driver, ignoring my call, began to accelerate.
Now everyone on the bus knew that I had missed my stop. I felt like a fool, and there was nothing for it but to simply wait until the bus stopped again. The driver certainly didn’t care, and by now he had become my number one enemy.
A minute later, I got off the bus several blocks away from my stop, and I was in a fine fury. On top of being cold and requiring a bathroom, I had also been humiliated on the bus and had been taken far out of my way. I was angry at the driver for all of that. I wanted to demonstrate my displeasure at him, but kicking the back of a departing bus doesn’t help. All I could do was pull my jacket tighter around me, and stomp off home, cursing the man who had put me in this position. As I pounded the pavement I pondered the driver who was at that moment hurtling into the night, with many more miles to go. He was still stuck on that cold, clamorous hunk of metal, and would be until his shift ended, possibly hours from now. That thought gave me some satisfaction. I thought about how I would be able to relieve myself in only a few more minutes, while the driver didn’t have such liberty. I thought about how embarrassed I’d been to call to the bus driver, and I wondered how many people shouted at him on a daily basis. I imagined that some of the people who shouted at him probably didn’t use the word “Señor.”
I thought about his work environment. I had been on that bus for about fifteen minutes, and that was enough to lower my mood. Having to spend hours in that atmosphere must be awful. In my job, I talk to friendly people in calm, comfortable surroundings. Everyone the bus driver serves either treats him with aggression or doesn’t see him at all, just like I had. Most buses are riddled with vandalism. I could imagine that a driver wouldn’t dare take the risk of admonishing anyone who caused trouble. To do so would be to invite the threat of harm. Out of a sense of safety, bus drivers have no choice but to allow people to invade the bus without paying, and remain silent when they begin to tear it apart from the inside. Being a bus driver must be lonely, terrifying, and miserable.

By the time I reached my apartment, my anger had turned to sympathy and sadness. I suppose we all get mad at public transport from time to time. And maybe some bus drivers do revel in being unpleasant. But for the most part I cannot stay mad at them. It’s an awful job, and if anything I am grateful to them for doing it at all.

Bip! Card
This is a Bip! card, but that is not my hand.

Just Looking

I spend a decent amount of time walking around the city, and at times I feel that I have laid eyes on perhaps every one of the city’s five million inhabitants. For the most part, the figures tend to merge into a white noise of stout shapes ambling along at speeds invariably slower than my own, and generally I pay them no mind. However, every once in a while, someone will step out of the background and engage my attention for a moment or two, and the moment will stay for me for a long time afterwards. This happened a few weeks ago while I was en route to the grocery story. It was in the latter part of the day, when the sun had just about gone down but the cold hadn’t quite sunk its teeth in yet. On one grassy corner, underneath several trees rendered naked and brittle by the season, I spied a young woman walking her dog.

It was the dog that caught my attention first. It was a medium sized golden retriever who had happened upon a large grey branch and had proudly claimed it as his own. The branch was as thick as a man’s wrist, roughly twice the length of the dog itself, and spiked with many smaller sticks and twigs that were growing out of it. This rendered the branch as a whole unruly and difficult for the dog to carry. With every few steps, an offshoot would strike the ground and send the retrieved off kilter. Nevertheless, he refused to let it go.

Re-enactment
Re-enactment with a different dog

Any dog owner will be familiar with the tenacity that a dog can show when it finds an object that it wants to take home, and anyone who has loved another creature dearly will know exactly the look that this dog’s owner gave me when her eyes locked with mine. There was the apologetic smile, the slight shake of the head, and the rolling of the eyes. The message of that look, framed within the small window of a face that was outlined by a scarf and a beanie, was a complex one. She was not apologising for her dog’s behaviour. Instead, she was sharing a joke with me. She was tacitly including me in her conspiracy to treat her dog’s discovery with exactly the same gravitas as the dog was treating it. I loved that look.

I like to watch the way people watch other people, or the way people watch their animals. Especially when there’s love involved. By far my favourite moment in recent memory happened when I went on a hike into the heart of one of Santiago’s national parks.

When I think of that hike I do not think of the cold that has terrorised me throughout this winter, or how my breath was turned visible by the crisp air. Instead I think of how I stripped off my jacket in a warm glade near the summit of a low hill. I think about ducking under thorny branches, and the low chatter of my companions and my measured breathing as I solidly placed one foot in front of the other along the mulchy path of the dead countryside. I think about occasionally stepping aside to be passed by runners and other hikers with their jackets tied snugly around their waists.

Santiago Smog
In the distance: the brown fog of Santiago’s pollution

About an hour into the hike we reached a waterfall, and beyond that, a river. By that river we shed our packs and took lunch. I had not brought much, and as I did not know any of the other people very well I pulled myself up onto a high ledge that towered over the others, and simply watched.

A few meters further down the river, three figures had made their picnic atop a large boulder that squeezed the flow of the stream into a furious hourglass. I recognised in an instant that they were related; they all had the same blond hair, narrow frame, and their noses and cheeks were all relatively identical. It was a mother, perched awkwardly at the very apex of the rock, with a backpack gingerly placed between her feet, and all the ingredients of a sandwich precariously balanced on her knees and in her lap. On either side of her was a teenage son, perhaps a year or two apart in age, but each equally thin and lankly. Their grasshopper-like legs were bent at the knees, pulling their jeans, already too short, up at the ankle revealing both the colour of their socks as well as the speed of their growth.

Family 1
The family on the rock

While the teens regarded nature in silence, their awkward limbs trying to bend themselves into a comfortable position, the mother was engaged in an intricate ballet of sandwich construction. There were many complexities involved in this. Using a pocket knife she had to slice the bread, cut up the cheese and salami, and fold it all into a sandwich while ensuring that nothing tumbled off her lap and into the river. It was a master balancing act, and she carried it out with patience and aplomb.
She passed the first sandwich off to her youngest. Their movements were slow and precise because any reckless gesture would cause something to fall into the river. The mother carefully constructed a second sandwich while the oldest son gazed off into the middle distance, and as she held it out to him he said something to her, and began unzipping his fleece jacket.
Evidently he wanted to remove a layer before eating, so the mother held onto the sandwich while the son carefully pulled himself out of the fleece, his flailing arms making him look like an anemone in a strong current. While he did this, his mother simply watched him, and the look on her face was one of my favourite things that I saw that day. It was love layered on wonder layered on amusement. She was marveling at the fact that she had produced a fully formed human who could carry out the complicated task of jacket removal. It was amusement the the person she had created could act with absolute seriousness without full knowledge of how serious life could be. And on top of that was a deep, unfathomable love. Even if the jacket removal had taken the son hours, the mother would have patiently waited, sandwich in one hand, pocket knife in the other, awkwardly trying to keep her balance. She could have waited like that forever because her son’s comfort was far more important to her than her own.
Nothing quite beats the way a mother looks at her child. Sometimes mothers are tired, or they shout, or they’re focusing on other things. But during those precious moments when a child is just existing, and the mother is just watching… Those are the moments I’d gladly hike into the wilderness to see.

Hiking Group

Dog Daze

I used to talk to dogs in the street all the time, but lately I’ve been feeling increasingly more guilty about it, and here’s why:

A dog will do everything in its power to please a human, and this means being able to listen to a human’s worries with a sympathetic ear. The problem is, I don’t know how much English the dogs in Chile understand. This became evident to me the other day while I was telling a street dog about the mystery novel I’m writing. He’d followed me for a couple of blocks, and I’d really gotten into my story. In fact, I was hardly aware that he was there at all, but I was grateful to have someone listening. I’d come to a halt, and he sat obediently at my feet, fully attentive to my words. After about five minutes, I noticed a look of concern pass quickly over my companion’s face. It was ever so brief, a mere moment of distraction, a twitch of the eyes. The more I spoke, the more distracted the fellow became.

“But what the detective doesn’t know, see, is that the old man is really a robot who faked his own death…” I was saying. I was really getting into the swing of my tale, but it was at that moment that a nearby pigeon took flight. My companion glanced at the flutter, and then back at me. There was guilt on his face. “I’m sorry,” he seemed to say. “Please continue.”

I was unperturbed. “But, then,” I continued, “the old man’s ship crash lands on another planet, and he’s got to disguise himself because he’s famous, right? And he’s supposed to be dead!”

I waited for my companion to marvel at this plot twist. Instead, he just shifted his weight. He didn’t want to be there. He was clearly the wrong dog for the job. He really wanted to be able to share in the conversation, but he didn’t know what “planet” meant. Or “robot” or “crash land.” Besides, I was talking quickly and I think most of it was going over his furry head.

Dog
This guy made sure I crossed the street safely.

 

My friend must have felt miserable. He was failing to understand me, and as a result he was letting me down. It wasn’t his fault, but of course he wouldn’t understand that. Any dog that cannot make a human happy counts itself as a failure. Poor guy. I hadn’t thought about that. Instead, I was thinking about how I was going to get the detective to discover that the old man was really the victim of a bigger plot. It was a twist I’d been stuck on for some time, but talking to my companion was helping me to process my thoughts. I felt like I was close to a breakthrough, but then I noticed that my buddy was looking forlornly at the ground, his floppy ears almost covering his eyes. He’d admitted defeat and he was ashamed. Little did he know that just by being there he was helping me a great deal, but I felt bad for the guy. How could I make him understand that it was okay to not understand? In deference to the dog, I changed the subject, and spent a few minutes telling him how handsome he was. This much I’m sure he understood, and when we eventually parted ways I believe he was happy.

Running Dog
A dog will be your strongest supporter, even if it means running for miles.

Still, though, I lie awake sometimes and think about how uncomfortable I’d made the poor fellow. Few things make me sadder than the confusion a dog feels when it just doesn’t understand.

“Why are you leaving the house without me? I don’t understand.”

“Why is this person putting a needle in me? I don’t understand.”

“Why are there explosions in the sky? I don’t understand.”

As much as dogs want to please humans, I feel that humans should work just as hard not to take advantage of their inherent kindness. It’s cruel to abuse their genetic coding.

Dog 2
This is my favourite dog in the whole city. He was hit by a car a few years ago and now he is blind. He spends his days sitting on this street corner, trying to understand the noises.

 

The second reason I feel guilty about talking to dogs in the street is because I feel like it’s tantamount to cat-calling. And while cat-calling is always awful, in some ways it’s worse to cat-call a dog, because a dog is a dog, not a cat.

Dogs 3
These guys live a few blocks from me. They’re waiting for their human to buy snacks.

Fortunately, I’ve found an outlet. A few weeks ago I was given a chili plant, and now I can talk to that. Plants, I believe, don’t feel the need to understand what you’re saying, they’re just happy to be talked at. My chili plant serves a duel purpose now: It gives me an outlet, thereby saving street dogs everywhere from the anxiety of listening to me, and it probably puts my neighbours at ease knowing that I’m not talking to myself. You’re not crazy if you talk to someone, even if that someone is a plant.

Chili Plant
I hope my plant doesn’t find me boring.

Mind: The Gap (Part 2 – Seeing Angels)

If the city were an animal, then Downtown Santiago would certainly be the meatiest part – the buttocks, perhaps. This is the part of the city where the interesting people are, where protests take place, where change begins. It’s the place where the different strata of society pulse together in a steady rhythm, like a heart.

So, to reiterate, if the city were an animal, then Downtown Santiago would be the heart-buttocks part of the animal. I’m not sure which animal (I’m not a farmer), but it’s certainly a noisy one.

For example, let’s go to the intersection of two streets – Huerfanos and Ahumada. Here are some of the noises you’ll find:

The cacophony of shoes on pavement: “…Clopclopclopclopclopclop…!”

The melodies of street musicians: “…WORDS OF THE PROPHETS ARE WRI-…!”

The street vendors selling chocolate bars: “TRE’ POR LUKA! TRE’ POR LUKA!”

The repetitive call of the man selling copies of a newspaper called El Segunda: “Ssssssssss’gndahhh!… Ssssssssss’gndahhh!”

Segunda
A lot of sound comes out of that tiny man.

Sometimes, on very special days, there is another sound bursting above the general rabble. Near the corner of Huerfanos and Ahumada there occasionally stands a man with a Bible open across the palm of one frail hand. He uses his free hand to gesture to the passing public, or up towards Heaven. And he preaches.

He is a broomstick with flesh wrapped around it, adorned with a really old suit. He grooms himself as well as he can, but his outfit shows signs of wear. His cuffs are frayed, his shoes are tarnished, and his jacket is sullied. Despite these signs of attrition, he is a proud man on a mission – to deliver the word of God to the people, angrily.

Dancers
In the pursuit of happiness, some people dance

 

The Preacher has the ability to elevate his voice above the rabble, and to sustain that volume for what I’m sure must be hours every day. There’s a kind of vehemence in his voice, an outrage that the world is in the state that it’s in. He slaps his palm onto the open face of the Bible occasionally before reading a passage or two and then interpreting it for the hundreds of people who aren’t listening. Now, to be fair, I’ve only ever watched him for a few minutes at a time, but I’ve never seen anyone stop and pay him any serious attention. This makes me wonder just how much satisfaction he gets from his task.

Musician
Some people challenge puppets to musical competitions…
Puppet
…and lose.

I picture the Preacher waking up in the mornings. This man in his fifties or sixties, pulling on his worn-out trousers, buttoning his shirt up to the collar, pushing his slender arms into the sleeves of his worn out jacket. What does he think about, as he stares into his reflection while brushing his teeth? Does he think, “Today, I am going to make a difference”?

Does he have a wife who kisses him on the cheek as she hands him his Bible, proud of her man going to do God’s work? Or perhaps he lives with a sibling, and the sibling’s family. Does he have nieces and nephews who talk about their “odd uncle” who goes and shouts in the middle of Downtown Santiago for a few hours every day?

Maybe he lives alone. I can picture a man, stripped down to vest and boxers, spending part of his nights sitting on the edge of an ancient single bed, stooped, head bent, hands dangling between his knees, considering whether he had done enough today. Or perhaps he lies down on those old, squealing springs, tucks his hands behind his head, and smiles because he is satisfied that he has pushed more of God’s goodness into the world.

Here is a man who sees a world in peril and in his desperation to save it he spends his time shouting into the void. Here is a man with a contract with God and no one else. A man who sees demons everywhere, and who is trying to let the angels in. At the heart of it, I wonder this: In the pursuit of happiness, an elderly man foregoes a job to go out and get angry. So where does he gain his happiness from? Is it from the knowledge that he is being a good man even though no one else is? Or is it from the thought that maybe his words will fall on at least one set of open ears, and that maybe he has actually set the course of the world on a infinitesimally better tack? I truly hope that this is the case. I hope so from the bottom of my heart (my heart-buttocks). And if that is the thought that gives his mind happiness, then who am I to object?

Protester
For others, happiness is speaking up against injustice.

 

Mind: The Gap (Part 1 – Seeing Demons)

It is cold now, and I have become a beast. Damp towels remain damp, and my bathroom mirror takes an age to defog after a hot shower. As a result, I cannot check my appearance before leaving the apartment. I suppose I could use the flat side of my wrist to wipe away a clear space on the mirror to better see my appearance, but that would leave streaks. Instead, I leave the mirror untouched and choose to simply guess that the set of my hair is acceptable, and that I have left no smudges of cream on my face. What’s more, in the pursuit of insulation against the cold, fashion is sacrificed. I pile on layers without regard to public perception. My internal comfort is all that matters.

The first real look I get of myself in the mornings is when I step into the elevator of my building. I encounter my reflection and I am often not pleased with what I see: Hair that has neither a side path nor a middle path, but something in between. Shaving cream adorns one ear while face cream outlines my nostrils. The cream can be wiped away, but the outfit cannot be saved. Clashing colours and unseemly sweaters are my cross to bear. I am no one’s dream date. All this to save my mirror from smudging.

Winter
Sure, it’s nice on the eyes, but rough on any exposed skin.

It is in this fog of misery that I think of the summer, and in my mind’s eye everything is wonderful. I remember that the sky is blue. Actually blue. Memory reminds me, quite wrongly, that the weather was always fine. The walks about town were always refreshing. The people were beautiful. I always knew the right way to comb my hair and I knew exactly what to wear. It’s a thin, false veil cast over a sometimes ugly reality. Things aren’t always idyllic, and in an attempt to rend the veil I caste my mind back to the moment when a perfect summer’s day was broken into shards by an act of sudden violence.

I was uptown, in a better part of the city, putting miles under my shoes and setting my mind adrift. My central focus was on keeping to the shade, and when I heard the first scream it took me a moment to descend back to earth. Up ahead, about a block away, I spied what I at first thought was some sort of scuffle.

She was stout, swaddled in a grubby corduroy jacket over a floral dress that hung down to her knees. She had on long woolen socks that were far too warm for the weather. Distance and weather-worn skin rendered her age too difficult to gauge, but I could at least surmise that she was someplace north of middle age. She was a woman who was out of place. The clothes, I’m sure, where inherited or found. She lashed out with the vigour of a champion boxer, swinging a bulging blue plastic bag with full force. The bag whipped through empty space, a ballistically unsound move which nearly pulled her off her feet. Her attacker did not exist. She was swinging at ghosts.

Her fury brought me to a halt. I dared not intercept her space. Important-looking people were taking sidelong glances at her and crossing the street. I watched her for a few minutes more. She’d amble along for a several meters, a big bulging plastic bag hanging from each tightened fist, making her look like a tormented set of scales. Then she’d look at the empty space next to her and bellow at it with unbridled rage. Her anger was far bigger than she could contain, a strangled garble of unintelligible Spanish scrapping up through her vocal chords and flung viciously at nothing. Then she swung again, hefting a bag that contained approximately half of her worldly possessions, and brought it round with heart-stopping force at whatever monster seemed to be plaguing her. This was no pantomime. She wanted to do damage. She wanted to slay the demon.

I always used to think the incoherent ramblings of homeless people in movies was just a conceit used to evoke the dark, morally bereft dystopia that is often associated with cities. Santiago is the first city I’ve lived in that has made the stereotype manifest. I used to think that the crazy cat lady was merely a clown for us to laugh at. The old man in deep conversation with himself was simply a dramatic device. Growing up, I felt that it was okay to be entertained by these people capering about on the television screen, and even to laugh at them.

Cat Lady
Although she’s known as the Crazy Cat Lady, this woman is Dr. Eleanor Abernathy. She has doctorates from Harvard and Yale.

So it came as a sobering surprise to realise that coming unhinged is a real, visible affliction. These downtrodden souls whose own minds have turned against them are haunted by ghosts that are very real to them. They live in anguish. The terror in their screams is not theatrics. I’ve seen a man rage in the middle of a deserted plaza, and for a brief moment I thought I was the one confused; perhaps the monsters are real and I am blind. Without any evidence to back this up, my suspicion is that this untethering of the mind might be assisted in no small way by the introduction of foreign substances. It makes sense to me that drug abuse will cleave away at the architecture that supports an already fragile mind. But whatever the cause, the people still suffer.

There’s no conclusion here, really, merely an observation. For some people, reality is always foggy. For me, that only happens in the winter, and at least I get a shower out of it. In a world plagued by nightmare visions, I’m quite blessed to only suffer from bad hair days.

Running my Mouth

The hardest part of training for a marathon is, by far, trying not to tell people that you’re training for a marathon. At the beginning, I failed at this daily. It would be the first word upon my lips when I awoke in the mornings. When meeting new people I’d introduce myself as, “Yes, a marathon… Oh sorry, I thought you asked me what I’m training for.” I began designing English lessons around the topic of marathons – “I’m training for a marathon. Discuss.”

Phone calls with friends started to become awkward.

Me: Hello? Yes?

Friend: Yeah hi…

[PAUSE]

Me: Yeah, what’s up? Can’t really talk. I was just about to go train… for the marathon…? which I’m running…?

Friend: Michael, you called me!

Taken
I’d spend whole afternoons just calling people up.

But let me speak in my defense. “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks,” as they say. And let me tell you, Dear Reader, that during those months leading up to the marathon both my heart and my mind were full of nothing but thoughts of running (as well as the cholesterol from the perverse amounts of carbohydrates I had been putting into my body). When my friends discussed what we should do on a weekend, I had no input because all I knew was that I had to make sure that part of that weekend was spent running. It was difficult to focus during classes because I was too busy worrying about whether I’d run enough kilometers that week. It was nigh-on impossible to entertain discussions of topical events when all I could think about were how badly the arches of my feet were paining me. So it’s really no surprise that running was all I talked about.

However, when my own arrogance became overwhelming I knew it was time to learn to keep my mouth shut, and so I resolved to stop talking about the marathon at all costs. But alas, the universe was against me.

A few weeks before running my first marathon, I attended an annual South African community braai, which was hosted by the Embassy of South Africa in Santiago. It’s a lovely event where many South Africans from in and around Santiago gather to meet, catch up, and share in much-missed South African food. I’d been to the one the year before, and so when I arrived at the braai I quickly spotted some familiar faces. I went over and greeted a couple that I’d sat next to the at the previous year’s function. I could recall almost nothing about them, except that she was a photographer and he liked to surf. I suppose they remembered a little bit more about me, because the very first thing they asked me was, “So how’s the running going?”

It’s difficult to recall conversations from a year ago, but clearly this was a detail about me that they had remembered – that I was a bit of a runner. I thought of my resolution to avoid talk of marathons, and I tried to stay strong.

“It’s going well… Really well…”

Actually, it wasn’t going well at all. I’d hardly done any research about how to train, and at that point I was only running about 4km per day. I was not exposing my body to long distances like I should have been. I didn’t even have the right shoes and that was a constant, nagging concern.

We drifted into silence. They nodded appreciably, and then waited for me to ask about her photography, or his surfing. Instead, what I said was, “I’m actually training for the Santiago marathon in a couple of weeks.”

I mean, c’mon! They’d asked me directly.

New Shoes
One of the new shoes I acquired shortly before the race. This photo is not to scale because in reality there were twice as many shoes as pictured here.

 

As my training continued, my resolve became stronger. Quite soon, I could endure whole conversations without bringing it up once. The marathon was becoming mine. I didn’t need to share it with anyone else. My body may not have been up to scratch, but I took a couple of semi-long runs, and during that process I taught myself to visualize the entire course. I studied the map. I tried to think about what running a full 42 kilometers would feel like. I even managed to acquire a new pair of excellent running shoes, which provided much mental reinforcement. Even if my body failed, I knew my mind was capable, and to me that was an important milestone. As the day approached, the reality of the race grew in my mind. Part of me started to realise that deciding to do a marathon is not the same as completing one. Perhaps I should wait until the run was over before talking about it.

About a week before the run, the marathon had made its way into my dreams. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I’d overslept and the race had started already. I started fearing that I hadn’t trained enough. I’d begun loading up on carbohydrates and started worrying that I was putting on weight that would slow me down. In the final week I put myself through a process called “Tapering.” This basically meant that I stopped running in order to let my body rest in preparation for the big day. That final week almost drove me over the edge. Remaining inactive was agony. I felt like I was sabotaging myself. Had I trained enough? Maybe I’d started tapering too early, or too late. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. And eating pasta three meals a day also felt somehow wrong. I felt like I was teaching my body to be lazy when what I really needed was to be fitter than I’d ever been in my entire life. Fortunately, I had some friends who were invested in my run, and I could talk to them about it. It helped me stick to my resolution of not telling people that I was running a marathon. But temptation soon struck again.

Shortly before the race, I had a class with a student of mine who happens to live quite close to me. She was late, and we met in the lobby of her building. As we stepped into the elevator, she said to me, “I saw you the other day.”

“Oh?” It was always awkward being spotted outside of work hours. Who knows what she’d seen me doing.

“You were running,” she said. Despite my mind’s constant dwelling on the marathon, I was momentarily caught off guard. A student talking about seeing you outside of normal class hours always makes you reassess your recent actions. Where had she seen me running? Was I chasing down an ice cream truck? Was I exiting a bank at haste with police in pursuit?

“It was late,” she continued. “Like ten o’ clock at night.”

Things fell into place, and I recalled that I’d been out for a long run a few nights previously. It was my last real run before I’d started tapering. But I would not speak of the marathon. “Ah,” I said. “Yes. I was just… out for a run.”

The elevator doors closed. Then reopened. Some more people got on, and it ascended glacially.

“I can’t believe you were running so late at night. I don’t know where you get the energy.”

I shrugged as we stepped onto her floor. “Ah well… you know…,” said I, with much eloquence.

There was so much I wanted to say. I was thinking about the way my knees had hurt after that run, and how the fear of that pain returning during the marathon had almost driven me to tears. I was so focused on not talking about the marathon that my brain could find no other words to say. I was just waiting for her to drop the subject.

“I mean,” she continued when we’d reached her floor, “when I get home I’m exhausted. I’d never be able to go running so late at night.”

She was fumbling for her keys and it was taking an eternity.

I was thinking about how difficult it had been to pull on my running shoes that evening. I thought about how tired I was from work, and from almost daily runs. I was thinking that lifting myself off the couch had been a task bordering on the Herculean.

“Oh well, yeah… I like it…,” said I, an English teacher.

The fact of the matter was that I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I’d thrown myself into a machine and now I couldn’t stop it until it spat me out on the other side. I’d run my mouth too much, and now people were looking to see how I’d fare. I felt mentally ready, but the run itself was in a dark, unfathomable future. There was so much I was desperate to know. Would I finish? Would I drop out? Would I cause myself permanent damage? How long would I need to recover?

As I walked with my student along the corridor to her apartment, I thought about what the future had in store for me. I didn’t know, then, about the street dogs that would keep pace with the runners for kilometers at a time. Or about the hydro stations chanting “Agua! Gatorade!” in a beautiful rhythmic chorus. I couldn’t have known, then, just how insufficient my training had been. I didn’t foresee how I’d hit the midway mark and suddenly become unsure about whether I could face the rest. I hadn’t known how unprepared I would be for the way my body wanted to give out once I’d hit the 35km mark, with my knees begging for mercy. It was only during the race that I would see another runner physically punching his legs to keep them alive, and understand exactly why he was doing that. I hadn’t known about the worrying streak of pain that would shoot up my right leg at kilometer 37, with every neuron in my body crying for me to stop. I couldn’t have known about the will which would push me to continue, because if I had stopped, or slowed to a walk, I would have counted the marathon as a failure. And more than anything, what I couldn’t have known then, was the sudden onrush of emotion that overpowered me at the finish line, causing my face to crumple and my eyes to run over with tears. Days after having that class with my student, exhaustion would drive my emotions haywire and cause me to fight to control my crying. And even once I’d gotten myself under control, I would be handed a medal from a little boy with Down Syndrome, and I would start crying all over again.

All of that lay in my future, unknown, as my student finally slotted her key into her apartment door.

“I mean,” she was saying, “when I get home from work all I want to do is relax. I could never go out for a run…”

I’m afraid I broke just then, Dear Reader. I could hold back the dam no longer. The training had been hard and insufficient. I was slowly losing my mind and in that moment I needed her to know that the running she had seen me doing was a symptom of a punishing project I had taken upon myself, one which was pushing me to insanity.

“Thing is,” I said, “I’m planning on running the Santiago marathon next week. So I was just training for that. Otherwise I’d never normally be out running so late.” The door to her apartment was finally open, and the class could begin. But it was too late. The damage was done.

So, I had failed the challenge I had set myself of not talking about the marathon. But the marathon itself had been a success. I didn’t have what it takes to remain silent about training for a marathon, but at least I was able to complete the slightly more manageable task of actually completing one.

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