Today is November 1st, which makes it a special day for several reasons. When I was in college in California, today was the day that the Chicano Latino Student Union dressed the courtyard outside the dining hall in paper marigolds and burning candles, sugar skulls and sugary bread for Día de los Muertos.
On a plastic table draped in dark tablecloth are framed photographs of people I don’t know. On another a sports-team sized thermos filled with hot chocolate and plastic cups to serve yourself at will. On another a box and strips of blank paper to write notes to someone you once loved.
If you let yourself linger and don’t leave too soon, you’ll notice a brass band unpacking their instruments on one of the white stone benches. To the left are the steps leading to the lawn, changing to purple from green with nightfall. You have to get back to your dorm room, you have a paper due tomorrow, and it’s your first year in college, you can’t make any mistakes. But when the band starts, you sit.
Forget the paper. You remember something else — how far you are from home. You notice the singer is a student because you’ve seen her before. It’s shocking to have stood in the same line for Cookie Crisp as someone so talented. You get up before the set’s over.
At this school, you meet many more people with many more talents. They can tell you who they are on command. That’s what makes them so powerful.
You are bewildered — when did this happen? Was it like when they told you that you had to choose a major? They said you could wait, so you did, but then the registrar was sending furious threats to your mailbox, and you realized that keeping a dish of individually wrapped mints at your desk is directly related to your capacity to be cruel. Years later, your worst boss had a jug full of them. On the most horrible days, you would come back from lunch to find those pinstriped clouds scattered all over your desk.
I needed a break from writing, so I put on a face mask. Now, I’m typing with my face the texture of cracked earth. Día de los Muertos has come around again, but now I’m so far from California. Here in New York, my desk is still an altar of sorts. It is strewn in Butterfinger wrappers and ashes, a paper cup filled with coffee gone cold.
When I was a senior in college, riddled with anxiety at the prospect of not knowing the adult I would become, I crossed through the courtyard one sunny afternoon to attend a small presentation on being an author. I hated every minute. I couldn’t understand why these people thought anyone should care about what they had to say–especially when it was all made-up. I felt more sure than ever of the path I was set on–becoming a teacher, saving the world. I wrapped my spirit in a blanket of self-righteousness, not realizing that this invisible body double would emerge in the least likely way–standing in front of several family members, on the deck facing our neighbor’s backyard, declaring this fact: I am writing a book.
Today is November 1st, which means it’s the first day of National Novel Writing Month and people around the country will be starting the monthlong journey to write 50,000 words of a novel. According to the email I received about NaNoWriMo, the first thing you must do is “announce your novel.” It’s nice to think that today we’re celebrating new ideas and new lives on the same day that many are honoring the past.
I’ve washed the face mask off. I’m not reborn–the zits are still in place. I don’t write because I want to be a writer, and I’ve never been quite sure about who I wanted to be. I still think that the registrar’s mints might’ve only been a sweet poison.
And still, I’m dreaming of California. Dreaming of that in between place, sitting with my knees up, watching this band play, this woman who has shed her skin as a student to become a mariachi singer for the night, her voice full and heaving and beautiful. If there’s one thing I’m afraid of, it must be loss. So in this version of the story, I sit there until the set is over, and I watch until the candles burn down to the wick, and I remember everything with such detail, it’s as if I’m still there, peering into the photos of so many people whose stories are tucked in the depths of somebody’s heart, passing me now in the courtyard.
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