November 16th, 2012 - Patrick Madden
In which the essayist returns to Montevideo, and to his decade-old essay, to update and to reconsider, perhaps to say goodbye
When last we met, exactly ten years ago, I was holding forth on technological innovations to improve the public transportation system of Montevideo. You were patiently reading along, perhaps half-distracted, wondering about the point of my musings, humoring me, maybe out of obligation, maybe out of boredom. I have good news to report. In the decade since my essay was published, the very thing I was wishing for has come to pass. At least partially. You can now download the STM (Sistema de Transporte Metropolitano) Montevideo app and use it to locate bus stops and routes, to track when the next bus will arrive, and to map out the most efficient way to your destination. The app will not tell you, however, how likely you are to find a seat, or whether you’ll have to stand. I remain hopeful (seeing how Google maps offers such user-provided data both live and historical), but for the time being, I’ll be happy with what I get.
I have bad news, too. As luck would have it, I’m once again (and unexpectedly) in Montevideo, which I love, but for a reason I don’t. My mother-in-law has been sick, is now confined to bed, and likely will not recover. We don’t know. I try to remain hopeful, but there’s a nagging part of me that understands my hope to be unfounded and foolish. She was sent home from the hospital two days before Karina and I arrived, and while nobody has quite pronounced the word “hospice,” the general sense seems to be that her care is purely palliative. The doctors who visit are gentle and kind, but their bearing seems to convey their belief that there’s no return from where’s she’s at.
In revisiting my old essay here, I had intended to write not about bus-tracking technology, nor about my mother-in-law’s decline, but about the fact that ten years ago, before I left Uruguay to return to Utah but after I wrote my Dispatch from Montevideo, I finally (and unexpectedly) met with Tathi and Rafa, the two lovers whose spat led the latter to spray paint his sloppy apologies on the whitewashed walls along the 174 bus route down Bulevar Aparicio Saravia
Tathi, I love you
leading me to wonder about the characters involved and their backstory, to seek them out, to discover certain small details and third-person reports; but, by the time of writing, I had failed to make contact. I think I had intended, after I’d finally talked with them, to post a follow up, rife with details about what they told me when we spoke, eagerly suggesting the hopeful belief that maybe we can connect with one another, if we take the time to sit and listen, and forgive.
All that’s gone now. My memory’s a near blank, and I find only the sparsest of notes in my files:
18 recién, 3 años juntos, 5 años después
orange house, taller de motos
I’ve retained almost nothing else of our conversation. I recall that we met at a plaza in Peñarol; we sat on a low brick wall, or they did, and I sat facing them, or stood, or… I call it a “brick” wall for the sake of the sentence, but perhaps it was made of cinder block with a concrete top. Or maybe stone. Of the two young people I recall only generalities: they were soft-spoken, gentle, a bit confused by my interest, unsure of my purposes, yet willing to share their story, perhaps a bit guardedly. I may have let them believe that I was the kind of writer they were imagining, the kind who has lots of readers, motivated by more than personal obligations or boredom. I surely never suggested, nor thought, that I would leave the interview unrecorded and unremarked for a decade.
(Perhaps, I let myself believe now, spurred by the word that came to me unbidden just above, I recorded the audio on my phone. This is the kind of thing I would have done. I’d also have left the file untranscribed, forgotten about it, and thrown it away with my device when it became outdated.)
I could imagine for you here a believable recreation of our discussion, and you’d be none the wiser, you might even find the exchange inspiring if I did it right, but I’m more interested in the kind of honesty that admits (as in “allows”) my nearly utter loss, my general lean into oblivion. I can recall almost nothing of my interlocutors’ habits and features, their tone of voice, their examples and explanations. If we stood waiting at the same bus stop today, I would not recognize them. They had been dating, yes. Rafa had done something boneheaded but not life-threatening. Late one night (I feel confident that it was night), perhaps penitent and drunken (less confident), he schemed to humble himself publicly, set out with a can of black spray paint, expressed his remorse along the walls of the neighborhood. And did it work? I asked. A little, Tathi said. She was inclined to forgive the poor idiot, but not yet ready to get back together with him. Or maybe they were back together. Maybe they’d been back together briefly but not anymore. Whatever the current situation, Rafa now expressed an additional regret, for having defaced his neighbors’ property, especially because he did so in a way so easy to trace back to him. Before we parted, I fulfilled a promise I’d made to his neighbor Hilda and asked Rafa to get a bucket of paint to restore her wall to its undefiled state. He said he would.
And maybe he did. I can’t remember if it happened soon or a long time after, but I’ve returned to Montevideo for family visits and for research many times since that nearly forgotten conversation, and I can confirm that the graffiti has been covered up. I’ve ridden the route just today, in fact, to find that I can no longer recognize the several places that once spoke this young man’s wish for things to be different.
So I return to the home where my mother-in-law lies pained and unmoving in a room down the hall as I write my essay, hoping to share of myself, my experiences and my musings, to connect, to move you in some small way beyond your boredom. Every now and then she cries out. Sometimes she wants water; sometimes relief. Sometimes her intentions are not clear. She tells her children to turn off the lights that are already off, or to kick down the door to let in more light, or air, or something she cannot articulate. Once, in apparent clarity, she called out for her husband of five decades, who died six months ago, and said she wanted to go with him but didn’t know how to get there. On good days, she speaks to us, asking for what she needs. I try to help, but I often feel like I’m in the way. Sometimes, when there’s no pressing need to feed her or move her, when no one else is in the room, I appear with a smile on my face, trying to offer words of encouragement or ask her what she needs, speaking loudly because she no longer wears her hearing aids. “Teresa,” I say, “Mamá. ¿En qué te puedo ayudar?” Mostly her answer is silence. Although we’ve had so many laughs and heartfelt conversations over the decades, as well as some disagreements, now, in this strange, uncomfortable place where she’s arrived, it seems like the best thing to do is hold her hand, sit quietly, and remember.
Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections: Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010). He is coeditor of the journal Fourth Genre and the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press, as well as vice president of the NonfictioNOW conference. He teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.