Literature / Memoir
The romantic and academic tribulations of a South American college student in New York City. Excerpted from Part 2 of CURIOSITIES. Language and Sex. A Memoir.
I fell in love for the first time in New York one October afternoon. She, the bookseller, Brigitte, was a woman in her thirties, and I, a boy of seventeen in his first year of college, a kid with one unhealthy attachment to poetry, impracticality, and perhaps a chip on his shoulders.
I asked her to recommend an English equivalent of the Spanish Dictionary by the Royal Language Academy, the dictionary of reference in Spanish. She pulled two thick tomes and placed them on the counter, The Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster.
Was there a difference?
Brigitte said the Oxford’s approach was historical and global while Merriam-Webster focused on American contemporary usage. I looked for the word utopia in both dictionaries. Brigitte smiled. “Interesting choice.”
Could she translate the definitions?
She did with admirable skill — as if reading a Spanish text. She spoke both Spanish and English with a slight and enchanting French accent. Why did I ask her to translate a word I knew? I wanted to have her a bit longer, and fortunately, no other costumers were at hand. The utopian plan to have her all for myself worked, demonstrating idealism is not such a bad word. (Idealism in the sense of the French idealisme, an aspiration for the perfect state.)
Brigitte, wiser, smiled again. “Are you sure you don’t want to buy a bilingual dictionary?” She pointed to an inexpensive one, rich in practical stuff like milk, job, bathroom and boundaries.
I felt humiliated. Humiliation, like human, derives from the Latin humus, clay, dust, earth, death. The original meaning of humiliation was to bring the nonconformist down to earth. The first human act of rebellion against dust was a determination to fly, but the distant ancestor realized that no matter how hard he jumped in preparation, he would never fly. Flying was an impossible dream. Resigned, he created poetry, a fantastical reality with a genealogy linking him to those eternal heavenly creatures made of light — a definition of divine. Through fantasy, humans flew. In their minds, humans could do as they wished. The Latin word for lying, mentire, is closely related to mente, Spanish for mind. But fantasy’s mortal enemy is reality. Reality would bring humans once and again down to earth. The bookseller reached out for the Spanish-English bilingual dictionary. “Maybe, this is what you need, and it’s more affordable.”
I had $15 in my pocket, a fortune for a foreign student in the 1970s. The Oxford Dictionary was out of my reach, but the Merriam-Webster cost $14.99. Buying it meant walking back one hundred blocks and go without eating for the rest of the day. Defiantly, I said I would take the Merriam-Webster and be back for the Oxford.
“OK. It’s fifteen sixty, including tax.”
Simple math devastated my arrogance and humiliated conceded I was 60 cents short. “I can lend you sixty cents,” she said, “but I have a better idea.” She took her lunch hour. “Come with me,” she guided me to a thrift shop around the corner. There, I bought both English dictionaries for three dollars, and for fifty cents a bilingual dictionary. She looked up the word redolence. “Nice word,” she said, passing on the dictionary to me. Redolence had two meanings, aroma and to evoke. Indeed, redolence evoked a time when Brigitte was new to the city, like me, and went discovering her own version of New York. In Psychology 101 we learned that falling in love is recognizing on the other something so yours and yet unattainable.
Empowered by the thick tomes under my arm, I asked: “Can I invite you to lunch?” She corrected me: “The English expression is, can I buy you lunch?” Already in love, deeply and inconsolably, I reformulated the invitation: “Can I buy you lunch?” One might ask, how can anybody fall in love so precipitously? The history of literature abounds in chance encounters, the perfect other walking opposite you or waiting behind a counter, and you know, as poet Pablo Neruda wrote, you and I, simply, my dear, must fall in love. I repeated: “Can I buy you lunch?” She laughed and kissed me on both cheeks. “Sorry, kid, but I am meeting my husband in five minutes.”
She left me with all the words in the English language under my arm and a solitude so painful that it blinded me to all the words in the world.
Lufu is old English for love, a romantic and sexual attraction, affection, friendship, the love of God, and the love of country.” Lufu comes from the Germanic lofo, and this from an Indo-European root leubh, ‘to care and desire.” Form the same Indo-European root comes the Latin libido, “desire”.
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