Saturday, February 13, 2010

Juanita

Spanish Bread

Around two oclock Lethe and Donte came home from school and the Senora served lunch. Her sister, Juanita, lived on the floor above them. It was a mystery exactly where on the upper floor she lived; Lethe had never visited her apartment.

Juanita came for lunch nearly every day. Donte said that Lethe liked to hide in his room, but to Lethe it was simply the most comfortable place in the apartment. He smoked in his bedroom, he had his own ashtray, and he sat at a small writing desk with the balcony doors left open. It felt as though he were working on something.

The notebook he bought at the little store on the street outside the Senora's building, took up lots of his attention. He wrote a couple pages in this notebook, a description of the suburb where he grew up, and the story filled him great pride. Soon he was thinking of himself as a writer, and all sorts of connotations began to arise. Also, an idea was slowly forming in his mind, a sketchy outline about himself and who he intended to be.

Usually there was a book next to him on the desk, and today it was the book by Cervantes the Senora had recommended the night before. He turned through the pages, which were written in Spanish, and when Juanita arrived for lunch he was copying an illustration from the novel into his notebook.

The two sisters were nothing alike, and this contrast irritated Lethe. He wanted Juanita to be more like her sister, who Lethe was beginning to admire. It would have even been nice if she were more outgoing and more lovely than Maria Angeles. Some levity from a third person, or fourth, counting Donte, could have brightened up the apartment.

Juanita was about ten years older than her sister, maybe more, and she carried herself with a rigid formality. As far as her appearance, she had a small, elderly persons body and a large, egg-shaped head with puffy gray hair. Her right eye had some sort of problem; it no longer opened. For this reason, the old woman squinted a lot and was constantly twitching. At times, she seemed to leer at Lethe in the most obnoxious manner possible.

From the moment that Lethe met Juanita, he could tell that she didnt care much for him. At first he thought that maybe she was like this to everyone, that it was her natural self. But then he noticed how Juanita acted towards Donte. She was especially cordial with him, her rigid formality melted away and it was replaced by a sudden lively interest, as if she were speaking to a very worthy person.

Lethe tried to be friendly, many times he started conversations with Juanita, but she never seemed to take him seriously. After all, he couldn't speak Spanish all that well, and to an unsympathetic Spaniard he probably sounded like an excitedly barking dog.

Despite the fact that every sign Juanita gave Lethe insinuated to him that she didn't like him, she insisted on sitting next to him at the table. This proved to be confusing for Lethe in the first couple weeks of living in the Senora's apartment. But eventually he realized that Juanita wanted to sit next to him because of the bread basket.

She guarded the bread basket with all her life. Bread was an essential part of every meal in Spain, and it was always fresh, crusty, and delicious. The old woman, however, had lived through the dictatorship of Francisco Franco when bread was scarce, and her odd habit of watching the bread basket verged on the clinically obsessive. She constantly watched over it with her one, functional eye.

In secret, the Senora thought her sisters frugality was amusing, but during meals she was silent on the matter and allowed her sister to act out this incredibly ridiculous preoccupation. Juanita's behavior irritated Lethe so much that he wanted the Senora to tell her sister to leave him alone and let him have two pieces of bread, or three, God forbid, even one right after the other (he pictured himself stuffing the bread into his face in front of Juanita). But it was the Senora's second nature to restrain herself. She looked at everything with a detached self-possession, which also gave her an aura of hidden power.

And so, eating lunch with Juanita regularly felt to Lethe like the four of them were prisoners sharing a meal. Of course, he exaggerated everything in his mind, which was another one of the reasons that made him think he was a writer. His imagination frightened him at times, such as when he walked to the International Institute every morning and felt he was lost in an abyss. Right now, just thinking of the four of them as prisoners sharing a meal could make it seem real.

Nino, have some more food. The Senora said.

Lethe then glanced at Juanita, who sat extremely close to him at the table, like she was always right there, looking over his shoulder, seeing how much he had eaten and whether he could have another piece of bread.

No, really, Im fine. Im not that hungry today. Lethe shook his head with casual indifference.

Is that why you rummage through my refrigerator late at night? You dont think I can hear you. I hear your stomach growling too! The Senora said, half-jokingly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Juanita squinting and twitching.

I dont rummage through the refrigerator at night." Lethe protested.

The Senora bowed her head, as if the words were only meant to promote his good health. Moreover, she never argued with anyone, other than in a detached manner, with an air of humorous fun.

Donte wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin. He had been sitting there the entire meal but Lethe barely noticed. It was because Lethe had been thinking of so many things that the presence of Donte completely evaporated.

Ill have another helping of the rice. Muchas gracias, por favor. Donte said.

In all her years of housing students, the Senora never had a boarder who refused to eat her meals. It was practically a criminal offense in the Spanish culture for a guest not to eat the food offered to them. But Lethe seemed to contradict these rules, and many other rules as well. His entire way of being was a kind of insistence on him being different, and not needing to tuck away his bad behaviors.

So today he wasn't finishing his food. The issue completely dropped from the Senora's mind, her expression revealed that she was onto the next thing, the next topic of discussion. Donte considered Lethe's unusualness for a brief moment. And last was Juanita, the Senora's sister, who responded to the eccentric behaviors of a foreign exchange student with the utmost caution and wariness.

--Scenes from The Novel of Life

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4 comments:

Ithili said...

you definitely have the narrative knack, a comfort with the flow of words and a relaxed and entrancing movement. I like the self examination that is not too obvious but infuses the work. I know youll keep going.

Lethe said...

Thank you Stacey! I really enjoyed tweeting with you the other night. I think we have a lot in common.

Lethe

SOCOACH said...

I particularly like this insight: "His entire way of being was a kind of insistence on him being different, and not needing to tuck away his bad behaviors."

Your portrayal of Lethe as someone who perceives himself to be a writer is a wonderful illustration - the journal he purchased, how he sits at the table by an open window, his perspective of his imagination ... a young man searching for something, himself, perhaps, out of step with the other characters, sometimes happy for the distance and yet longing for more cohesion ... nice tension.

Lethe said...

Thanks Bob! Some great observations there, insight into the character.

Lethe

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