In the late afternoon of January 29th, 2011, Xavi found himself being dragged behind a running, slobbering black Paso Fino stallion, one foot caught in the stirrup. Gravel, thorny weeds and shards of dried clay were quickly ripping off his shirt. His hat had fallen off. He raised his head to look at his stuck foot, half-slipped out of his boot; it was twisted and seemed unlikely to become dislodged, so he thought this would be a nice time for reflection.
As it turns out, for Xavi there is nothing like being dragged suddenly, without explanation, at high-speed along the dirt and rocks to coax a list of useful statistics and spontaneous mental pie graphs and existential clarity. These epiphanies are never convenient.
Since September 23, 2010, a few minor things have happened. In the midst of his travels and self-made abyss of second language acquisition, Xavi has made a few gaffes, including, “Basque is cute; it’s like a made-up children’s language,” and “...so San Sebastián is the patron saint of gay, then?” There are many more, but they aren’t coming to mind at the moment and the novelty of this silliness is wearing off, if he is honest. But he knows he has had 6 distinct bouts of sore throat, 36 headaches, 7 mysterious occurrences of general nausea, 14 days of tear-producing nasal congestion, 9 twists of the sciatic nerve. He has spilled toothpaste on 2 very black shirts, wine on another, has had 24 nights of anxiety-ridden insomnia, welcomed the arrival of 15.5 new grey hairs, fallen out of bed once, broken a front tooth with a beer bottle, and had 12 days of intermittent, but worrying tachycardia. Back in town, he’s gotten lost 3 times and gone without hot water a total of 13 mornings.
The saddle’s leather made the cracking sound that only leather can make when twisted, and the metal bridle was falling out of his horse’s frothy mouth. Xavi tried to reach for the swinging reigns, but immediately gave up.
On the other hand, he’s also fallen in love 5,487 times (or once, depending on semantics), discovered 32 refreshing and new musical acts, met 7 amazing artists, had an enjoyable time while drinking tea at least twice, walked through the doors of 11 unique bars that are older than the Louisiana Purchase, and has made 4 hilarious (if not basic and sophomoric) jokes in a foreign language. In the role of teacher, he has been able to make a meaningful connection with 39 wonderful school children who are eager to learn his native language (most of the time). He’s eaten 7 different types of sausage, 11 kinds of shellfish, the best cured ham in the world, and sampled cheese that makes blue cheese taste like tofu (yes, that’s a good thing). He has thought positively about being a father 22 times. He has drunk 6 different types of Ribera, 3 Riojas, 5 blancos, and 4 new brutal liqueurs. In fact he’s had a glass of wine with approximately 87% of his meals since the late afternoon of September 25th. And he has eaten 95% of those meals with the easy, pleasant company. Yes, Xavi likes his food and drink. He still neither has, nor wants, a TV. His social interactions have ranged from uncomfortable to euphoric. He’s met 41 friends who are the antithesis of southern California superficiality.
Yes, all that sounds about right; he is, on the whole, content and feels alive.
The horse tripped slightly, neighed, and continued to run. Xavi’s head was thrown against a rock. And he remembered another thing.
With a few debatable exceptions, all these stats do not, however, represent things that define a man. Some of them are funny, some are anecdotal, some enrich or diminish one’s life. Some are annoying, some are satisfying. There is, rather, a nagging thing that pokes at the heart, something that unexpectedly turns the insides of a man when he is at the height of confidence and contentment, sets him adrift, unexpectedly, and leaves him to his own resources to find a piece of flotsam to float him back to the safe, dry shore. It is something that comes from a mixture of excitement, fear and inspiration. It is a thing that depresses and damages, and at the same time spawns inexplicable elation. It punches one in the face and cracks the teeth and bruises the cheek bone. It is, simply, what makes a man worth a damn. What is this, well, thing? It is in fact not thing at all.
But to clarify this is not, as anyone who is being dragged to his death by a raging equine knows, a moment for sentimentality.
* * *
“The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” — Oscar Wilde
As Xavi slid along the ground behind his horse, he bounced violently over the subtle changes in the terrain, and he noticed the striations of muscle on his horse’s side and he could hear the grunting of its lungs and the deep thumping of the hooves on the ground. And despite the intensity of the situation, he thought he might have heard the chirp of a sparrow in a passing tree, and he found himself in a ridiculous, clarified state of mind, as if he was in some period of noetic purging.
He then noticed the thinness of the horse’s ankles and how its legs looked almost like match sticks. How could such a heavy, forceful animal be supported by such frail limbs? He had never thought about it. He laughed a bit, or as much as one can laugh when his breath is being knocked out of him.
He tried to blink but the sand and dirt scratched his eyes and he saw, ahead in the distance, a blurry scene of blue sky, mesquite trees, and a cliff leading to the canyon below. But there was no fear, no sharp pain of panic.
Showing no signs of slowing, the stallion galloped with suicidal fervor toward the expanse of desert air. Xavi thought of how he was, just minutes before, asleep in an uneasy dream, slumped over in his saddle, his happy horse grazing in the hot desert sun.
He figured he had at least a few more seconds to reflect.
Xavi had heard before, in one version or another, that the human psyche cannot always tell the difference between the extremes of good and bad, euphoric and traumatic, all we can feel is the tremor of the earth. And for Xavi, this must be why he usually ends up acting grateful for a little bit of trauma every now and then. But, he had come to consider life in this foreign land to be simply more passionate than what he was accustomed to, and he had come face to face with the likely prospect of being thrown over a cliff if he didn’t figure out what was going on.
One can analyze symptoms of sickness, calculate the percentage of time spent smiling in a given week, count the events of the day, adjust the parts of cocktail, or measure the distance between the living room and the toilet. But Xavi could not quantify what had been happening to him; he could only recognize it as real.
The frantic horse then tried to jump over a log, but tripped and landed on one leg. As the it lost balance, Xavi’s ribs pounded against the dead tree and the horse flipped over like a car rolling down a hill. As the large body hit the ground, he heard the crack of bones and the slobbery breaths of his desperate animal. He fell on top of the old horse and yelled in pain. There was another loud squeal and the horse and man lie together as a cloud of dust slowly swirled around the scene, only feet before the edge of the cliff. Xavi looked at the sky.
It is terminal to love someone who considers you ordinary, even wonderfully and refreshingly ordinary, but one loves anyway. And to have the capacity and opportunity to love is perfectly acceptable and necessary, and may even give meaning to one’s existence. Xavi has always been reluctant, fearful or cynical to recognize this warm burning in the heart as anything but a quickly dying joke. This is a mistake. Sometimes it is deflected, or met with confusion, or unnoticed, but sometimes it is readily absorbed like a sponge, and lasts through the natural cycles of fickle human nature. But one knows when it is there, and Xavi suddenly knew that he should always allow it.
The contorted stallion lie next to him, sprawled out on a growth of cactus, heaving in pain and exhaustion and Xavi looked over and saw the whiteness of the exposed bone. Its nose was bloodied and its big black and white eyes bulged in fear and confusion. Xavi closed his eyes and reached to his side and felt for his holster. He suddenly remembered a moment, years in past, of feeding a carrot to his juvenile companion through a rusty electric fence. He pulled his foot from underneath and he stood up and looked at the panicked animal, it ears pointed straight back.
* * *
After, he turned around and began limping away. With dirty leather, a ripped shirt and a missing bullet in his pistol, he walked away from the precipice and the horse that drug him there. There were questions, but no one to answer them. His boot was missing, exposing a bloody sock, and he allowed himself a trickle of the sorrow that can only happen in the isolation of a desert terrain. But there was a something else inside him, and it was new.
Xavi was now walking on his own again. He was heading in a direction of the next town, and maybe for a different mode of transportation. He was walking forward in the midst of the prickly spines of green cactus and dead weeds. The sun was going down. Two black vultures swooped down from a rocky ledge under the thin high clouds. It was bearable as long as he kept moving. And he tried to think of a joke.