On Chile And Not Going Home Again Twice

By July Westhale

“You can never step into the same not going home again twice.” — Bob Hicok

In my half-consciousness, I hear a rooster crow. This is how my sleep-blurred brain knows I’m not in Oakland. The crowing happens again, and again, and a horn bleeps it out, as if the cawing were an expletive the city didn’t want sleeping citizens to be subjected to. I’m so sleep-drunk I don’t know immediately where I am, and my adult habit of wearing an eye mask confuses and disorients me even more. The painful unveiling — bright summers through a thin white shade, as if I’m looking at the sun through vellum.

The room I’m in has disembodied plaster arms and hands in it. A leering fish-eyed camera on a lanky tripod. An unfinished wooden table, long and skinny against the wall, holding what appears to be an opaque fishbowl (which I later discover contains a lightbulb, the room’s only source of artificial light), with a painting underneath. The painting is nearly done — but what do I know of art, and whether things are done or not? — and is of a woman, done in burnt oranges and sinewy, veiny blues. She is realistic-looking, but for the the ropey matter coming off of her. When I see the living room later, I realize that this is characteristic of the artist whose room I’m sleeping in: a fully perfect human, her insides out.

It’s 7 am in California, nearly noon here. As with most broke people, my cheap flight had unnecessarily long layovers, and stopped in cities that didn’t make sense. Getting from San Francisco to Santiago, Chile, had taken 27 hours, instead of a monied 12. Still on the precipice of an age where I can occasionally stomach brutal travel (and, more precisely, still a masochist for travel in all of its forms), the 27 hours are nothing compared to the eight years it took me to come back here. Still, the passing through of time zones, the occupying of airport no-mans-lands in foreign cities, the inability of my cellphone to keep up with the current hour, had left my body in a state of seasick stupor. Always a sucker for exactness, I allow myself the 13 minutes before noon to adjust to the light, the sounds, the contrasting warmth of the room with the cold shock of having returned.

There are feet drumming down the hallway outside my room, and the anticipation of the feet and their bearer pulls me, finally, out of bed. The mirror on the wall is a kind one, the long sort that rests against the wall instead of flush against it, giving the viewer the appearance of leggy-ness and stature. I am in a black tank top with the word NOPE across the front, my red hair oily and cow-licked and crimped from attempting to sleep against plane windows. I change quickly, donning the pajamas I should have gone to sleep in: teal shorts, and a teal, loose shirt that says “Long night. Black coffee.” I feel this is more in line with how I want to appear to my friend, whose foot sounds are beginning to disappear down a hallway I don’t quite know yet.

The last time I saw Felipe was at dawn, in the rainy, cold-ass city in England he’d been living in. I’d had a backpacker’s backpack that was so coated with plane grease that the material was stiff and unmoving, and my hair had been cut in a Lesbian’s First Day of School manner: longish in the front, and wispy, short in the back — a kind of first step into a real short haircut. He’d been wearing drawstring sleep pants with a little penguin on the pocket, and I had mistaken his exhaustion for dismissiveness. I’d cried walking to the train station, and the thought that I was crying while walking in the rain in England at 5 o’clock in the morning on a May day after having spent two weeks with a complicated ex-boyfriend seemed so sad that I cried even more, for the tragedy of it.

Now, the bright apartment in Santiago, nearly a decade later and both of us since out of the closet, the memory of the doorway in Birmingham seemed like a great way to say hello. I opened the door tentatively. Felipe’s back, which had been moving away from me down the hall, froze — he turned around to face me slowly, incredulously, as if sudden movement might disturb the universe. He was in his underwear, a red and white scarf knotted around his head, eyelashes straight and pointing down as if he’d flat-ironed them that way.

Before I could make any talk of train stations, he pulled me into such a fierce and warm hug that I forgot the rules of hugging. How long were you supposed to hug someone, and how do those rules change if you once dated? Certainly, the average hello hug can be about one to three Mississippi seconds, longer if the hug contains comfort, or joy, or congratulations. If you haven’t seen someone for eight years, how long of a hug is appropriate? I’d begun to count out one second for each of the years, and then another eight, but had so thoroughly confused myself that I just held until he stopped. And then I was in Santiago.

I’d first come to Santiago in the mid-2000s, to study Comparative Literature at the local Catholic University. I’d done it for many reasons: I wanted to get far away from someone I was in love with in California, I wanted to be closer to Peru (where I’d lived for some time but failed to find a study abroad program), I wanted to study South American literature, and I wanted to find my father. So I say. As a much older person who has been through a good deal of therapy, I think that I came to Santiago because I both wanted to be alone, and I wanted to want to be alone.

I didn’t. End up alone, I mean — though I did end up alone together with a lot of people.


On our first date, Felipe had emailed me saying, “Let’s meet at this ice cream shop. If you get lost, call me, and I’ll find you, or get lost with you.” It was my first week in Chile. Later that night, we’d sat on my balcony and tried to look at the stars, which were obscured by city lights and pollution, and I tried to remember a single poem I could recite from memory.

Now, in deep summer, the bougainvilleas bleeding off of the apartment balcony (they are reduced to scabs all other months), Felipe and I sit with another friend, Francis, and talk at length about everything that has changed about the city, while saying nothing of ourselves. At a lull, Felipe motioned to his plants — he’d taken up gardening and therapy — and asked, concern pleating his face, if he was caring for them correctly. He was. His roses were blooming beautifully, and he’d hand-castrated all of his male weed plants, hoping they’d become female.

Credit: Mark Yang

“I don’t know what I’m returning to,” I confessed to them both, and they nodded in unison, old lovers themselves, and I felt the strings connecting us tighten and sway, pulling us closer around our mugs of coffee. I’ve stopped, at least, thinking of Chile as a land of my father — as my father as just a land I’ve never known — and instead begun thinking about how inextricably bound I am to those I love here, to the city itself, to my body as a bridge between two places, to the fragmented and complicated identity of a person trying to occupy multiple places at once. This is the common feeling of the interculturally displaced: that, when presented with the responsibility of loving, you have no choice but to fail.

Geoffrey Wolff famously said, “The truth ambushes you.”

“It begins as a lump in the throat, a love sickness, a homesickness. It finds the thought, and the thought finds the word,” wrote Robert Frost, on the composition of a poem.

“Surreal?” Gabriel Garcia Marquez reportedly quipped, “That’s how life is in South America.”

Maxine Hong Kingston explains intercultural identity as having to contend with a bevy of ghosts: those inherited from parents and lineage, and those learned from living in one country and not the other. When describing the American side of the Chinese-American experience, she writes, “The danger in America are the children. They inherit the ghosts’ sins, and are bloated and hungry.”


I’d come back to Santiago for a friend’s wedding, but that was only one of the reasons. It had taken me eight years to return for a reason — I’d associated the city with a kind of full-emptiness, the kind of loneliness that can often happen to those in their early twenties who have so much want for the world that they can barely stand it, and who have not yet figured out how to navigate that want, how to deal with it accordingly.

In my absence, the Chilean government has funded the building of a new museum: The Museum of Memory and Human Rights — a museum about the 1973 Pinochet coup, and the subsequent dictatorship. Two floors of the four-floor museum are dedicated to fixed archives, which include, among others: photographs of the disappeared, audio recordings of Salvador Allende’s last speech as La Moneda (the Chilean version of the White House) was being taken over, videos of students at the University of Chile protesting (and one video of a student being shot by a traffic cop), videos of women being forcefully prevented from marching to find their lost husbands, sons, brothers. There are death certificates of activists and political figures whose deaths were covered up. Recordings of interview with those who were tortured, and an interactive system where you can search for the disappeared. The timelines follow the history from the time of the coup to the uprisings and demands for democracy, to Pinochet getting voted out (see the movie “No” with Gael Garcia Bernal if you’re interested in a somewhat theatrical representation of this incredible moment), to the return of art to the country after a time of intense censorship.

Credit: Wikimedia

I spend hours at this museum. Hours and hours. All of the national museums in Santiago are free, and this is a short metro ride from my apartment, and I cannot stop going. It feels amazing to me that this museum exists, as brutal as it is, as much affected as I am by going there and watching the videos over and over again. I walk out shellshocked every time — but oddly grateful. That in my eight-year absence, something has opened up in the country that is allowing people to begin talking. And as long as we are talking and there is memory, there are archives, and there is visibility.

“This city is much like New York,” My friend Mary, the one whose wedding I’d come to attend, said over coffee on one of my last days in the city. “You come to it empty, you come to it full, and it mirrors you.”

This struck me as exactly right. And I wondered — still wonder — is this true of all cities, or just true of New York (where I’d only spent time heartbroken, and never happy) and Santiago (where I’d been fortunate enough to visit in both times of abundance and times of scarcity)?

I don’t have the answers. I didn’t expect to come back to Chile and find the answers. It’d be naive to think that one could just solve the complexity of intercultural identity, of a body wanting to occupy all of the places at once, in one fell swoop. But what I did find, one of the many things I’m finding (and working on in a larger piece, a collection of essays that follows this thread), is that it is possible to straddle the border and find homes in many places. To pick up the thread of identity again, and again. And to find the sweet spot of a(n international) community of people who are capacious enough to hold all of the selves of you — and you, the selves of them.


Lead image: flickr/Cesar I. Martins

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