The Time Junot Diaz Talked At Me

junot diaz 2.jpgTwo years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning Junot Diaz stood in front of a packed auditorium and read to us a passage from his book, This is How You Lose Her. It’s the story where Yunior cheats on his girlfriend, Alma, who has a “long tender horse neck” and grew up in Hoboken, “part of the Latino community that got its heart burned out in the eighties”.

Diaz read slowly. Enunciated. And we were captivated.

Except I didn’t know who he was. Someone in the news room just said he was famous. I didn’t put two and two together to realize that this Junot Diaz was the Junot Diaz, author of Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So the significance of seeing–being read to by–Junot Diaz in the flesh did not occur to me as I pointed my massive camera towards him. Click. He said something to me about him not doing anything particularly cool. So why was I pointing the camera all up in his face? (Hey, I’m just here with the newspaper) Looking back, though, he talked at me. 

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Diaz talked about collective student insecurity. And fragmented activism, and what to do about it. He talked about a whole slew of things that I jotted down in Notes even though I wasn’t even the one writing an article about him.

I googled him later and then it hit me–he’d written the Cheater’s Guide to Love, the one I read in the New Yorker summer of 2013. The first time I read the story I awoke drenched in sweat and read it again and again. Some of the metaphors I repeated over and over, tucked into my mind, then toyed with for years afterwards.

I write this as I finish reading This is How You Lose Her for the sixth (or seventh) time.

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Solar Eclipse

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Shadows, passing moon, a darkening sky. Even though it’s ten degrees cooler my dress is sticky with sweat. I’m holding up a bright yellow Cheerios box that reflects the sky since I didn’t order solar eclipse glasses in time (you can’t see it with the naked eye–you’ll go blind). When I look inside the box, I see a little orb of whitish blinding sun glaring at me from the back of box; I see a black dot, the Moon! inching across the orb.

The Solar Eclipse: when the homewrecking Moon passes between Sun and Earth.

Some parts of the country saw the solar eclipse in its totality. Others, only partially. If you google solar eclipse, you’ll find a ringlet-of-fire-looking thing–the sun’s corona–staring back at you the way it did in my textbooks. That’s what the people in its path today saw. Alas, I didn’t, not in its entirety. Taken from the small cut-out opening, this picture shows the blurry partial eclipse seen from my location. The sun looks, ironically, like a little moon where the moon passes over.

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Like seeing science in the flesh. I remember the first time I peered into the telescope to see a massive spotty Jupiter staring right back. I experienced less an epiphany than I did surprise: I knew the planets were there, but they’d always been more…conceptual to me. Science had always been removed by textbooks, grades, illustrations to recreate. Earth was a plastic globe spinning on my pre-k teacher’s desk–according to her, it rotated constantly, and I imagined it spun on its own at night. In physics, in astro, I memorized definitions, calculated coordinates, listened to songs about stars in the sky, but I didn’t always get it, just regurgitated for the grade.

But for a moment, today, I got it. The sheer coolness of solar eclipse wasn’t so much about it being the first in several years (there’ll be another in 2024), or the well-publicized hype. It was more of a small a-ha moment, when things clicked in my head, when textbook definition met astro illustration met real life demonstration. Like in the fourth grade when I watched vinegar and baking soda bubble volcano-ey; like in sophomore Chemistry when my teacher said, “there’s no such thing as cold, only the absence of heat”. Like the moment I understood that basics and acids, when combined, neutralize to create salt and water. Quirky instances of science that, at some point, sunk in beyond the understanding-for-a-grade level.

And today it sunk in–the light-spitting corona; a massive crater-riddled Moon. Us, wee little people, pointing paper glasses towards the sky, oohing and aahing on a (carbon) coughing-sputtering earth.

Austin, Texas

Austin’s beautiful, weird, a city juxtaposed. Words that come to mind:

Urban. Street art. Hills. Vines. Curving roads. Steep inclines. Mountains. Ponds. Chipped concrete. Gravel parking lots. Loose rocks. Sprawling lakes. Kayaks and paddle-boards. Arched bridges. Pointy-winged bats. Sunsets in high places. Wealth stacked atop mountains. Income disparity. Food trucks. Bars. Loud music. Crowded cafes. Shitty parking. Rocky terrain. Small bulbs of lights, broken windows on geometrical homes. Palm trees and record shops sprinkled around the streets. Oddly California-esque for a Texan city.

On the trip, I jotted down a list of places we went, things we did, food we ate. In lieu of writing a massive post, I wrote down the highlights, which I’ve linked to in the list.

Saturday

  • And we roadtrip: playlist and stops along the way
  • Lunch and noms: chicken fried steak, a burger, peach moonshine
  • Headed out to Graffiti Park, realized we’d forgotten the spray, went back to get it, then climbed to the top to make our mark
  • Drove up to the lake for views, pink drinks and fancy glasses
  • Grabbed burgers at P. Terry’s

Sunday

  • Went hunting for cafes–all crowded. Visited a coffeeshop by a record store, dipped in. Went to yet another cafe, until we finally settled on Starbucks
  • Drove to Rainey Street, which was dotted with food trucks, bars, and restaurant. Ate at a Rowdy outdoor restaurant called Bangers, where musicians played right in our faces
  • Zilker Park. First saw the big ol’ field, then some kayaks on Lady Bird Lake.
  • Went kayaking! Decided to kayak wildly and arbitrarily to the far off bridge. One hour turned into an hour and a half
  • Afterwards, sopping wet, hiked up Mount Bonnel
  • Ate at Gordough’s, only the most delicious donut place to graze the planet. Heaps of strawberry and cream cheese on ours.

Monday

  • Gordough’s for lunch (again)
  • Third cafe’s the charm–we found one right by the Capitol
  • Went to the Capitol and walked around all the floor
  • Drove past South Congress to get Gordoughs (for the third time)
  • Took scenic route, where we drove through hill country. Passed by small towns, stopped at a restaurant. Found a hungry cat, which we fed beef jerky.
  • Sunset, winding roads, dim lighting. After a few hours, we finally reached the main highway. DJ’ed and we pseudo-clubbed on the way back.

Kayaking Adventures

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Distant mountains, swaying trees, basking turtles and a view of the city up ahead. It was, by all means, beautiful. But we weren’t here to enjoy the sight. We were here to aggressively kayak to some arbitrarily-determined location three bridges away.

“Let’s get down to business! To defeat the huns!” I paddled emphatically. Water splashed in our kayak.

When it started to get hot, I declared, “toes in the water!”

An hour later, we’d arrived at our (again, arbitrarily-determined destination): the triple arched bridge. Arms sore, clothes drenched and tired, we looked back to realize we couldn’t see where we’d begun. We’d also reached our one hour limit. So for the next forty five minutes, we alternated between drifting/wailing and aggressive paddling. We almost ran into a turtle and definitely ran into another kayaker before finally reaching the dock soaked in lake water. 

Oasis

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Around us, people mingled and posed and photographed the sunset. Like a citrus smoothie, the white-yellow sun dipped into the sky, the reddish orange pinks melted into water–then a tap on the shoulder and a “hi, can you take a picture of us?”

I don’t blame her. Or the countless others with cameras aimed towards the sky (I was one. With three cameras) The view was breath-taking. And we were high up, too: on the drive, we’d looped up and around the rocky hills. It reminded me of California, with its steep roads and inclines.

So I’ll cut to the chase–let’s just say we found ourselves at the crowded sweltering restaurant on a hill. To our right were fancy homes (and lucky homeowners). To our left, tourists and restaurant-goers and sight-seers. The place was packed, a hive of sweaty well-dressed vibes. We slipped into the bar for a fruity pink smoothie, then wandered around the three stories. Once it was dark, we speed-walked back to the parking garage hungry and exhilarated.

Night Out

The streets were bright and packed, a hive of buzzed affluent energy. Sidewalks were filled with girls tottering around in heels and guys in button-downs. Like college, essentially, except older and larger and less fratty (but maybe not).

Went out last weekend for the first time in a while. Despite the wait and warmth and fuzzy bar-hopping, the vibes were good. We laughed and danced and sang at the top of our lungs, drinks in hand (when they weren’t up in the air). The DJ played Humble by Kendrick Lamar; Mr. Brightside by The Killers, a party favorite; obscure rap songs with beats I tried to find while swaying in the sea of dancing bodies.

Comin’ out of my cage, and I’ve been doin’ just fine

Gotta gotta be down because I want it all

– Mr. Brightside, The Killers

The party ended somewhat abruptly around 2. Birthday girl best friend had partied her way ad nauseam–literally. By then, we’d all found our groove and realized, perhaps simultaneously, that hey, this is fun, we should do this again and with each other. As Mars wrote in her caption:

Things got wild. Things got cute. Let’s do it again.

Summer Rain and Cigarettes

Cigarette smoke makes me think of China. I remember the way it’d fill up the room in my Uncle’s absence, then stay still, holding its breath for several hours. In the streets, in the markets, in the restaurants, there they’d be, the cigarettes clutched-clasped-dangling between people’s fingers.

Last summer we got caught by Mei Yu. The plum rain. The constant downpour of gloom that cooped us up at home. Monsoon season? I asked. No, responded Wiki: the East Asian Rainy Season.

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So I cut my hair. I painted. After the rain, I ventured outside in some grey oversized sweater (so poorly underdressed in a city where women tottered around in heels over broken concrete and construction) to photograph people, strays and the occasional chicken.