Oh, and the images in the text are from Cuernavaca's zocalo (main square), where the scene takes place.
Title: RESTORING EXPERIENCE
Blurb: It's the summer of 1995 in Mexico, and 22-year-old Alexia is discovering possibility--at a steep price. She takes a step away from the conservative values and expectations that define her life, reveling in the exhilaration of freedom—of choices she never imagined she had. But choice implies decisions, and decisions entail regret: every untrodden path, even as she takes that first step away from it, is already an embryo of regret.
Sometimes, we're just not ready to learn the lessons life throws our way. And sometimes there are no second chances.
~ * ~
Michael’s enthusiasm fizzled in indirect proportion to the frown wrinkling his forehead as he realized I was serious.
"What do you mean, you’ve heard the name?" he asked.
"We must have studied him in school, but honestly, I can’t remember it having an impact."
"How can T.S. Eliot not have an impact?"
I shrugged. "Maybe I had a bad literature teacher that year."
We sat at one of the cafes on the zocalo, Cuernavaca’s main square, on a terrace separated from the midday throngs walking past by a flimsy plastic chain strung between posts. Here, under the shade of the zocalo’s hundred-year-old trees, we’d decided to break our sightseeing rampage for lunch.
Michael leaned back in his chair, ran a hand through his loose hair. "Lex, if I believed in sin, this would be a deadly one. It’s T.S. Eliot.”
“I’m sorry to be such a disappointment," I said, a little miffed.
“He’s the emblem of modern poetry, of—of twentieth-century literature. He won a freaking Nobel Prize. For literature.”
“Like I said," I hunched over my glass of lemonade, sipped at the straw, "I remember the name, but—”
"No, you’re right." Michael leaned forward, too. "You must have had a shitty teacher. He—or she—cheated you out of a life-altering experience. And," he shot me that famous grin of his, "I am going to change that. I just know it, Lex—you’ll love him. He’s exactly your kind of poet."
I channelled my giggle into the straw. This was probably a bad time to mention I didn’t like poetry.
“Let’s go to a bookstore. I’ll buy you a book of his.”
“Nonono.” I shook my head. “You’re not buying anything.”
Gifts create obligations, and this relationship was complicated enough without them.
"I’m not very good with gifts," I said.
He raised an eyebrow, but he must have decided the article was more important than the acquisition process, because he said, “Whatever you want. But you need an Eliot book—a good one.”
Cuernavaca’s biggest bookstore was across the square. The attendant, an older man only remarkable for his surliness, disappeared without comment after I asked if they had any Eliot collections, and came back cradling six serious-looking volumes in his arms.
“These are all in Spanish.” Michael leafed through them. “Ingles?” he asked the attendant.
The man shook his gray head with a barely polite smile. He might just as well have said, we don’t sell books in dead languages.
“Muchas gracias.” Michael nodded him, and headed back out to the sunlit sidewalk. I had no choice but to follow.
"Can’t I just get one of those?" I dreaded the prospect of being dragged all over the city looking for an Eliot book in English. We wouldn’t find it, anyway.
“A translation?" Michael snorted. "You’d lose so much, Lex. Any other bookstores nearby?”
“None that sell English books.”
Michael stamped his foot, a little boy throwing a tantrum. I disguised my laughter with a cough.
“Okay,” he sighed, “I give up."
But then he brightened. "Here’s what we’ll do. As soon as I’m back home I’ll find a copy and send it to you. How’s that?”
All this fuss for some author— poet, no less—that I was sure I’d hate.
"Michael, why is this so important?"
His chuckle rose like foam from his throat. "You mean, besides the fact that you, a fan of literature, have completely skipped a big—and relevant—chunk of literary achievement?"
I looked away, rolled my eyes.
"Lex, it’s important because—damn, T.S. Eliot is going to change your life."
I studied him; he wasn’t joking. “I find that hard to believe."
He reached out and took my hand. “His work is so rich, Lex. When you read him—really read him—you’ll feel like you’ve found a part of yourself in the lines. Like—this guy knows what’s inside you, and puts it into words like you never could."
"You mean like—lovey-dovey stuff?" I thought of the intensity in Lord Byron, one of the few poets I could quote. "It’s really not my thing."
He threw back his head and his laughter was so deep I felt it resonate in my chest.
"Eliot is about as far from lovey-dovey as it gets, Lex. His stuff is—magic, but not like that. Listen to this."
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Pedestrians stumbled at the unexpected obstruction, swerved to avoid us.
“Michael, maybe it’s better if we move —“
“Yeah, okay. Let’s find somewhere quiet.”
We walked past the main square and into a little pedestrians-only alley. The bougainvillea overflowing from walls on both sides provided convenient shade. The busiest streets of Cuernavaca were a block away, but even the cars honking sounded distant here; only birds and an occasional voice interrupted the sunlit peace.
Michael pulled me to a stop under a canopy of purple bougainvillea. "Ready? Your life is about to change."
I rolled my eyes and he laughed.
"I mean it," he said. “Listen.” He closed his eyes, tilted his head back.
I looked around, embarrassed. There was no one around to witness the unhinged gringo’s performance. I hoped it’d be brief.
“Yes.” Will he get on with it?
“This is from The Hollow Men, one of my favorites. I don’t know all of it. This is just the end.”
I suppressed a sigh, prepared to dismiss this Eliot and his poetry, humor my gringo, and move on. Please.
But Michael’s voice was compelling. The cadence of the words drew me in, almost against my will.
“Between the idea / And the Reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow / For Thine is the Kingdom."
Even though his eyes were closed, I fidgeted self-consciously. Listen, Alexia.
"Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow / Life is very long."
It almost sounded like a different person when he said the last line. Michael’s eyes were still shut, but his fingers grasped mine tighter, a pulse to match the rhythm.
"Between the desire / And the spasm / Between the potency / And the existence / Between the essence / And the descent / Falls the Shadow."
My pragmatic brain dredged up an old Mexican saying: del plato a la boca se cae la sopa. From bowl to mouth soup can spill. Intentions are no guarantee. Was this Shadow that space between soup bowl and hungry mouth, the moment where so many things can happen, go wrong?
"For Thine is the Kingdom / For Thine is / Life is / For Thine is the."
Something welled in me—not fear, not quite. Something akin to desperation—hopelessness, perhaps—as Michael’s voice murmured these stunted phrases in a monotone.
And then his eyes opened, found mine and held them. "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
The last line hit me hard, and I didn’t know why. My head swam, brimming with emotions I had no name for, and for a moment I was afraid I’d cry. Again.
But Michael’s eyes darted between my own two, and whatever he saw there made him smile, pleased. “You need to hear it again.”
This time his eyes were open. Their depths shimmered, and his hand moved in vague gestures, as if he could pinpoint that place—where the Shadow falls.
I wasn’t sure I understood—the words enfolded meaning like a sheet draped over furniture. I saw the shape but its essence eluded me, taunting, making me hunger—no, not hunger. Yearn.
Michael’s hand sketched in empty space, his eyes locked on mine as if to draw out my soul. My breathing deepened, perhaps in an effort to absorb the thrust of these words—if my brain couldn’t, maybe my alveoli would have better luck.
When he reached the three repetitions—this is the way the world ends—he said each one slightly different. The cadence changed, and it contained the total bleakness of a world ending.
“Not with a bang, but—a whimper.”
I was mute. What I wanted had nothing to do with words—even with sound. I wished, for a moment, that he’d never recited this to me, that I’d never heard those horrible words—not with a bang, but a whimper.
We stood there, looking at each other, the magic—he’d been right; it was magic, but not the happy party-magician kind—weaving around us, holding us still.
~ * ~
Thanks again for reading and for your feedback--it's much appreciated. Look forward to reading the other wonderful snippets on the Sweet Saturday Sample list--make sure you take a stroll that way, too.