The Death of Artemio Cruz, written by Carlos Fuentes, was my first experience with Latin American writers; it was the perfect segue into a genre of literature that would essentially send me down my own writerly path. In the fourteen years since I first opened its cover, I’ve re-read this novel and countless passages throughout my life on an as-needed basis, which equates to mostly weekly, sometimes daily. Marginalia, a trait book lovers and authors the world over have employed throughout generations (and, subsequently, is also a pastime going down in flames with the printed work, at least according to the New York Times) overtook the pages of my worn copy of Fuentes’ work. In a book largely about the corruption of politics, journalism, relationships and self, I found myself over the years laying down my own regrets and moments of loss onto my dog-eared pages of the book. Largely therapeutic, I used it let go of my own anger, bitterness, regrets, admonitions of self, all alongside Fuentes’ infamous character Artemio.
I have enjoyed many novels since – in fact, I’ve been in like and crushed hard on countless novellas, short story collections, memoirs, anthologies – but none held a candle to this one. This story is like the original love you compare all your future options to, the gauge of standards that the others never quite measure up. It has existed under my pillow, tucked under my arm on every flight, pressed against my naked bosom, wept on, swatted bugs, fanned my face and thrown countless times.
I remember receiving the book, The Death of Artemio Cruz, as a gift from a friend of mine who is a writer, who told me at the time “you will like it” and “you need it more than me” and “you’ll see.” Admittedly, I was going through a hard time – having difficulty accepting the end of a relationship. At the time, I was at great odds with myself and with my parents. So, that ex, unsuccessful in helping me find what I needed and also deeply concerned, packed my things and sent me on my merry way, told me not to contact him. It was not an easy thing for him to do, and he did it out of love – I know that now.
It was 1997 and I felt terribly disconnected. I was careless, I stopped eating, stopped looking, hardly slept, turned inward and accepted that I was being defeated by life – I was bottoming out. I didn’t get the healing I wanted with my parents, and that only reinforced my guilt over my brother’s death which had become like the moon in the night sky: sometimes small and hard to spot, sometimes bright and blue, illuminating my every step. I began to feel deeply unworthy, and so I sank. I had been kicked out of school, kicked out of my relationship, kicked out of my family, I had no job, I was living off the rest of my student loans, sinking under the debt and headed straight to nowhere. I thought I could fake my way into happiness; if I could act it, then maybe it would feel real. I traveled alone to places I had no intention of staying longer than a few days at a time. It was exciting, it was terrifying; it was lonely and momentarily gratifying. It was an escape, an illusion of sorts. But you can’t hide from yourself.
The book was handed to me across the bed I was lying in at Enloe Medical Center, which is where I ended up after having my stomach pumped of the very large amount of muscle relaxers I had swallowed. I wish I could tell you it was just a headache. The book is about regrets – some small and forgettable, others monumental and life-altering. It’s brilliantly written, and I enjoy Artemio’s inner monologues the most, as they reveal the sort of character that is constantly evaluating his worth, his place, his love, hate, pride and nationalism. At its core, the novel is a testament to the human condition, and in his last moments, Artemio struggles to articulate to himself, to the reader, why he does not want to die, why he is afraid to die, after he spent the duration of the novel talking up his regrets and hate, his pride and bitterness – why does a man like that want to continue living? Because he wants another shot at it all, he is not finished.
I read the book and it just floored me. I was a conflict of feelings afterward – I thought, I don’t want to die like that, full of that regret; don’t want to be a person who spends their life lost to themselves. I also wanted to fucking reach in and rescue Artemio, to love away that character’s pain. I made a decision for myself in that moment, decided it was OK to forgive my bigger regrets in life: regret that I was in that fucking hospital to begin with because it was so stupid, regret for being a lazy teenager who would not help take care of the splitting wedge that ultimately caused my brother’s death, regret for floating through life. I want to say happiness came immediately, that I healed overnight. But it took the turning of a year.
But I still don’t have it all figured out. I know of some things that I want, but not every last thing; I know I don’t want to be that lost to myself, don’t want to be hopeless. I know I want to be with someone who is just as happy to be with me as I am with them. I want to build a life with someone, travel the world with that person, take care of that person. I want to be cherished and to cherish in return. Want to develop a language, a secret language that only partners have, the look from across a room that says I am yours and you are mine. I wanted that with you.
You are so hopeful and fearful, you are a ball of neverending insecurity, you simply fold in upon yourself. I can’t help but wonder if it’s me you love, or if you just want to love someone. I think what you desire the most is to simply be loved in return. But how are you willing to recognize someone’s love for you? How are you willing to accept it? What scares me most is that you do not know these answers. And if you can’t see already that I do love you, if you are unable to be open to it, well, I don’t like the place that leaves me.
You asked me once what I liked about you and I told you it was too soon for me to tell, but that was me hiding from you. I should have ticked off the myriad reasons I already knew. Instead, I listened to you tick off all the reasons why I should not, and so I second-guessed your intentions. Perhaps you were warning me to keep away from you, perhaps you were questioning my choice to be with you, throwing my own character into question. Because you think so less of yourself, you think less of me.
I loved the look on your face when I first arrived at your parent’s house for Thanksgiving. It was so joyful. You stared at me for much of my time there; this is how you connect. I loved going back in time with you at our elementary school, loved the way you smiled at me, the way you wanted to be close to me but were too nervous to. I knew I wanted to be close to you, to be yours.
What I will never forget is when I knew without a doubt that I was in love with you. We were in my bed making love and you sat up with me and looked me in the eye for the longest time. You have no idea what you did for me in that moment. I was yours and your were mine, and for days afterward I would close my eyes – sometimes at my desk at work, or at home or just about to fall asleep and I would just see you in that moment. I know I didn’t tell you, but I felt so much love for you, I felt so alive and forever connected to you. I felt it had always been this way.
But this is the hard part now: this is where this needs to end for me. This is where I let you go.
You have told me that you’re in love with me and you want me to believe in you, to trust you and stay the course with you, but you’re not really willing to do the same for me, your actions clearly tell the story. You say I’m so hard to read, but I’m not, you’re just unwilling to trust what I give you. This does nothing to move us forward or strengthen what we have, which is now faulty at best. And that’s exactly where you’re comfortable, right? In a constant state of removal, a constant state of regret, a life unfinished, shooting blindly at moving targets. Ultimately, these slights of pride that you dish out to those who care about you only hurt you in the end.
Please, do not contact me, I do not want to see you. And lastly, keep the book – you need it more than me. You’ll see.
You are in my head, in my heart for life,