How Do We Write About Our Most Important Experiences?


The first time I tried to write about my experience living in Madrid was on a train bound for Milan from Venice in early December. Decembers in Vermont are fresh powder white, pocked by a few upshoots of everlasting green. Here, in the countryside of Italy, the ground was brown; a land stitched together with thick, black telephone lines.

It was a six-hour journey. I’d bought a pen and a notebook from a convenience store near the train station and had planned to spend the entirety of the trip journaling, as if that would make up for all the months I let go inkless. And not to say that I didn’t write — there are spiral notebooks full of doodles and haikus (the only sort of creative writing I could do in Spanish), notes from grammar class, a couple of starts to an essay I needed to write for my Film course. But it was messy, sporadic. No beginnings, no Alpha or Omega.

A lot of pictures of eyeballs. There is a particular look to the Spanish eye, a kind of heaviness. Not all Madrileños have these eyes, of course, but enough to spark my interest. In the margins of all the pages of these notebooks are sketches of heavy-lidded eyes; pupils so intensely filled that the ink would sink into the next page.

And so, for the sake of parents and friends who would surely scold me for not keeping better track of my life in Madrid, I set pen to paper and tried to construct a narrative:

The airport shuttle driver with red hair who only listened to Ke$ha. Wrong address, ended up in the center of city, not hostel. Found an internet café. Found Emma. Found hostel. Drunken weekend with German tourists. Shots of vodka, woke up next to a bottle of wine. School started on a Monday: intimidating, trays of muffins. Got a cell phone. Apartment searching with small, skinny university students from the city. A pair of twins, one into girls the other sometimes convinced to be into girls. All the American students decided to get lunch, trying to make conversation in Spanish, barely getting passed small talk. Later that same night, drinks at a street café: English, life stories. Found an apartment. Owner seems crazy, flatmates seem sweet. Classes start. Do they know we’re not really here for school? Planning the first trip to Barcelona. Barcelona. Clubbing is expensive. Unfulfilled, I’ve had enough of walking the streets of my neighborhood. Visiting best friends in the great cities: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Marrakech. Leaving people I love for a city I don’t. Tears in the bathrooms of airplanes, sometimes nausea from the late nights before. October is so different here: warm, women in fur coats. People dress for the season, not the weather. I could do with some kissing now, miss lips on lips. Can you forget how to kiss? If you can, I probably have. Things improving, Christmas lights. Cancelling a trip to Italy to explore Madrid with new friends. Surprises, small victories. Potlucks with American versions of tapas. It’s hard living in a place and knowing only twenty or so people.

Four months of life in a city and all I could conjure up was a dinky paragraph that didn’t even take up half the page. A life of bullet points, easy to rattle off to anybody who might ask me about what living in Europe is like. Even now, memories come like bullets from a gun with a faulty safety — sometimes they are clean and concise, sometimes they fire without me wanting them to and sometimes they stick to shaft with cold anticipation when I try to remember the color of Hope’s eyes or how Filipe took his coffee.

Why is it that when all I want to remember is what line I took to get to choir practice in the north of the city, all I can focus on is the day I watched a man drop a red hoodie onto the tracks and how it plumed into the air as soon as the train rushed by, how its blossom seemed to freeze against the dingy white tiled background and how a small girl with braids thick and black pointed at as if she couldn’t tell if it were a balloon or a butterfly, something worthy of her reaching hands.

And certainly less then, less when I was on a train in another foreign country trying to make sense of an experience I was knee-deep in: waters thick, swirling. What’s worse than losing words? What’s worse than the burn and twitch of memories and images pressing against your fingertips, waiting to be unraveled? Who will write this story I’m living?

Future me? The me that I could envision a year, two years down the road with enough distance between himself and Madrid to objectively write about what it felt like to live there. Could I leave all of this for him; would he have the shoulders for it, the hindsight? And what would happen if I closed this journal and slept for the next six hours? Would I be doing him a disservice, allowing for the forgetting, or would the memories sink in like the hard-pressed ink of an eyeball sketch?

One’s history is a difficult thing to carry. There are all the obligations: to accuracy, to color, to aesthetics. And maybe that’s what all this searching is about, searching for an inspiring history, something worthy of corkboards and other people’s dinner conversations. But what if you never find the words to write about the things that weigh heaviest on you? What if all of the intense and brilliant things you’ve experienced and felt stick to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter? How do you begin the process of prying history from the back of your teeth? How do you construct empty apartments or sunsets blotted by secondhand smoke or the memory of marveling at a solitary star in the sweeping blackness of a city night? What words do justice to the shaking of a hand for the last time? Maybe Madrid can only exist as a satchel full of mostly-empty journals, pocked by the sketches of a boy trying to understand himself — black ink eye and poetry chained to syllable and elementary Spanish.

Me gustaría
conocerme, como el
aire, tus manos. 

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