A Man With Broken Wings
by Himi Minagawa
I was pouring myself a second cup of coffee on a typical Monday morning when I got a facebook message from Juan Carlos.
At the moment I saw his name on the screen, my heart leaped up. I almost choked on my favorite Colombian supremo.
“ Dear Brian, como estas? I bet you remember me, crazy Juan in Oaxaca….”
I was in my office, sitting on a swivel chair in front of a huge pile of papers that I had to look through. Behind the pile, I could see the picture of my wife and son smiling, framed nicely and put on my desk. Outside of the glass wall, there was a view of Manhattan, Empire State building on the left and Hudson river on the right. It could be a perfect opening scene of a movie. But in a second, the scene shifted and my mind was drawn into Mexico, I didn’t even have to close my eyes, with a blink, I saw myself being young and standing in the middle of the bustling in Oaxaca city.
It was almost 25 years ago, I had been drifting around the world mostly in Southeast Asia and South America since I graduated from the college. My blue backpack was my only company for all those years. Together we saw Angkorwat and Halong Bay, slept at a cottage in woods in Langkawi Island and in a cheap hotel in Hong Kong. We listened to Gamelan in Bali, and he was there when I kissed a local young girl in Kuta. Then we flew to Colombia because someone told me that I could find a job at coffee plantations, so I worked there for a while, then traveled around South America, came all the way down to the South to Argentina at the end. I fell in love with Buenos Aires, but heard about Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in the world that excited my curiosity, so I kind of followed the way that Che Guevara took, but not by motorcycle, by bus to Guatemala and joined a hippie community there. When I got to Mexico, I was about to reach 30 years old.
I took a bus from Antigua, crossed the border into Mexico, stayed in a small town called Tapachula one night, then jumped into a pickup truck with other travelers and came to Oaxaca, a colonial city in south of Mexico that every traveler I met was talking about. A young American girl said that the city was magical. A German couple said that it was a chaos. And an old man who lived in Tapachula said that it was a magnet. It was a place where attracts all kinds of people, people from all over Mexico, native indians, tourists from foreign countries and especially “lunatic” people. I thought it was odd that he picked that word even in Spanish although later I knew that he was right. He said,
“In Oaxaca, you can meet someone special.”
Then I met Juan.
He owned a small hostel for backpackers near Zocalo, so called a city square. I was staying there during my Oaxaca days sharing a room with travelers from different countries and teaching English to the local people at a small private school.
People called Juan “Loco”. He talked so loud as if he tried to talk to someone who lived on the moon, screamed like an opera singer sometimes and argued like an old tape recorder with his hands up and down. He was jumping around most of time. He actually jumped.
But for me, he was just extremely passionate. Although he couldn’t control himself sometimes, it didn’t bother me at all. He was one of my kind, the person who had real sensitivity and was inevitably extremely fragile. He cried when the moon was so beautiful. He also shed tears when someone brought him a gift. He stopped eating for days when he stepped on a yellow flower on the sidewalk by accident.
We became friends instantly and soon found out that we were born in the same year. Every night we went out with other travelers to eat tacos from street venders and drank mezcal at bars. And by the time the moon turned to white and the sun came up, I found only me and Juan hanging out at the bar counter in the hostel.
We did all kinds of crazy things.
One night we sneaked into a small local movie theater after it was closed, managed to turn on the film projector somehow and showed a movie just for two of us.
Once we decided to go to see one of the native Indian villages around the city, so we took a bus and happened to join a wedding party there. We danced until the break of dawn with a bunch of old people who wore folk costumes and spoke their own language. To be back to the city, we took a wrong bus that left us in the middle of nowhere, so we walked and walked in the red heat until we found a sign of the city.
One other night, we painted all over the ground of Zocalo colorfully with homeless Indian kids who lived and slept there. They usually came to us to beg money, but that night, we all were like friends, laughed and excited for our mischief.
Juan and I even took guitar lessons together from an old musician who often came to the hostel to chat.
Many people stopped by to see Juan. Even if they called him crazy, I believed that they loved him. You can’t help loving a person like him.
His grandma, Lulu often invited us for afternoon tea (she actually never served tea, but she called in that way), so we visited her at a small orange colored house once or twice a week, and gobbled up her great homemade tamales with cups of hot chocolate.
Her husband passed away a few years back then, so she lived there alone. She kept most of his stuffs and placed them on top of a fireplace, so she could see them all the time. One of them were an old camera. Lulu told me that he liked to take pictures. She wanted to show her old albums to me every time I went there. Most of pictures were black and white, and some of them were even losing its images. There were flowers, the sky and many different doors of houses. But more than half of them were pictures of a beautiful girl with colorful outfit, that was Lulu.
“Grandma Lulu, he will get tired if you show those old photos over and over again.”
Juan said to her, playing with his Grandpa’s old camera on his hands. But she didn’t care. And I never got tired neither. She looked so happy when she was turning over the pages, touching the frame of faded pictures gently with her crumpled hand. I liked to see her like that. It gave me some comfort, comfort that I needed without realizing that I needed it.
“Quando joven, de ilusiones; cuando viejo, de recuerdos.”
She often sang the song to herself. Juan explained me what it meant.
“While young, it’s all dreams; when old, all memories.”
She loved Mexican proverbs. She also loved painting. She told me that she wanted to be a painter when she was young, but stopped it since she got married. Once she drew a yellow circle on the paper with a color pencil, and gave it to me. It looked like a sun, but I was not sure what it was. She didn’t say anything about her drawing.
And there was this girl, named Julieta. Oh, I still cannot believe how much I was in love with her, I mean I was amazed to discover how deep I could fall in love with someone.
Before I met her, I didn’t believe the words “fall in love”. I thought it was a temporary phenomenon that foolish people mistake for true love. Since I met her, I stopped teasing any poets who were too tragical or too melancholy.
It was late afternoon. I was practicing guitar at the lobby of the hostel. Nobody was there.
I heard the voice from behind. I looked up and turned my face, then got frozen. There was a girl. She had black long hair, the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen, and dark brown eyes with a big mole under her left eye. She smiled and said again with strong Spanish accent.
Then we laughed. We laughed together so hard. That moment we fell in love.
I didn’t believe in god, but only that day I thought that the universe must have sent her to me. I was even afraid of having sex with her although I had spent nights with countless girls all over the world in those years. We finally made love in a flower field during a mountain hike. Every time I touched her, the softness of her skin made me dazzle and my body got burnt. Her smile made me happier than 100 postcards from all of my friends. I loved the way she called my name with her accent. I thought about staying in Oaxaca permanently and asking her to get married to me.
Then one rainy day, she disappeared. She just did. Nobody knew where she’d gone and why.
I waited for her for a couple of months.
One night, I drank mezcal with Juan and talked to him desperately.
“Why am I wandering around? If you don’t settle down, you won’t get anything. Mira, I have nothing now. I think I’m ready to have something. I’m ready to move on.”
Then Juan said to me,
“I’ve seen many people coming and leaving here. Sometimes we never realize what we need until we lose it. It’s a kind of common sense, you know? I’m not going to ask you what your “something” means.”
And he laughed.
In a few days later, I was on the plane going back to my hometown, New York.
I started to work for a bank, bought a shiny car, got married to Kate who was smart and beautiful, bought a two-storied house in Queens and had a boy named Samuel.
I thought about Juan all day, but couldn’t write him back after all. How should I write about my life? I thought I was doing well until this morning, but Juan’s message took off a lid of the jar that I confined my feeling in.
Am I happy now? If so, I should be able to write him back easily, right?
My hair is starting to turn gray now. What did I get for exchanging my freedom that I used to have? Money, stressful work, responsibilities for my family who hardly see each other? When was the last time that I had dinner or breakfast with Kate and Sam? Do I know what my teenage son likes to do the most? Why doesn’t Kate talk about the vacation anymore? It is pathetic or even cruel that I feel more lonely when I’m lying next to Kate than when I’m sleeping alone on the business trip, isn’t it?
I still think about Julieta sometimes. If we all have soul mates in our lives, it might not mean that they are our husbands or wives. Can it be a person who you spent with only a short time? Memories are beautiful because they are pure. The beginning of relationship is usually fun and filled with love. If I had got married to Julieta, it could have ended up with the same story that I have now? Who knows?
Those days I was traveling, I sometimes had dreams of New York where I grew up, and since I came back here and settled down, I’ve still been wandering in Bangkok, Bali, Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro in my dreams. And I dream of Oaxaca the most. Is it some kind of jet lag? Maybe the jet lag of unconsciousness? Or can be a sign telling me to go back there?
I came home late as usual. The house was quiet and everyone must have been sleeping.
It was after midnight. I couldn’t fall in sleep. I thought about my old backpack that I used to carry for many years. It might still have been in the basement, so I went to look for it and found it. It was worn out and dusty, but I picked it up and brushed off the dust with my hands. On the way to go to my bedroom, I heard a noise in the kitchen, so turned on the light. It was Sam, pouring milk into a glass. He looked at me narrowing his eyes.
“Hey dear, are you still awake?” I said.
“Hi, Dad. You know, I was studying. What are you doing?”
He asked gazing at my backpack on my shoulder.
“Oh, I was, I was…..cleaning, cleaning at the basement.”
Now he looked at me with a frown.
“After midnight? What is it? Is that a ….backpack?”
“Oh, this? I’ve just found it at the basement. My old backpack. So dirty, right? But….Well, this is a backpack I used to use when I was traveling all over the world.”
The moment I said that, I felt like I was released, released by something I was afraid of.
“Are you o.k., Dad? Have you been sleepwalking? Are you…..alright?”
He looked worried seriously, but I couldn’t help smiling.
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“You’re kidding, Dad. You? You used to travel around the world with that backpack? Not with a suitcase?”
“I…I actually did.”
I started to tell him about where I traveled. I told him about the things I saw. I told him about the people who I met. He was eager to listen. He wanted to hear more stories, but I had to stop because I saw a white moon outside of the window. That was the first time that he paid attention to my words after many years. In fact, that was the first time that we spent together more than 30 minutes since his ten years old birthday. During the conversation with him, I almost forgot why I grabbed the backpack from the basement.
He asked me if he would be able to travel to the west in next summer and I said,
“You can have this now. It will be your turn to use it.”
He picked up my backpack, examined it carefully and said,
“I will take care of it well. Show me the pictures from your trip this weekend, alright?”
then walked up stairs into his room.
I was going to turn off the light, then found a piece of paper on the floor, so pick it up. It must have fallen off from the side pocket of my backpack. The paper was folded into the size of a match box and almost yellow. I opened it. It was the drawing of a yellow circle that Lulu made.
Then I noticed tiny written words on the edge of the paper that I didn’t recognized before. They were faded, but I tired to read.
“renacido cada dia. We are reborn every day.”
I said in a low voice to myself, then smiled. I think I can write back to Juan tomorrow.
I went back to my bed, put my hand on Kate’s left hand, and finally fell in sleep. >