Walking in Santiago After Midnight by Aruni Wijesinghe

A tribute to a love outside of time.

For Alex

We go walking in Santiago in the crepuscular light;
this far south of the equator the sun sets impossibly late.
The evening balmy,
the last of the weeknight crowds dispersing in twos and threes, hailing cabs,
taillights receding up unfamiliar streets.

Me, attempting intrepid solo travel,
my first trip back to South America since high school.
You, unaccustomed to company,
offer to show me the city,
a city you hardly know yourself.
Us, the awkward first in-person meeting,
nowhere to hide without the comfort of computer screens.
Modern-day pen-pals, we attempt the transition to IRL.

You tease me for endlessly stirring my soup,
tongue-tied when faced with the physical, rather than the virtual, you.
Coaxing conversation from me with a steady stream of pisco sours,
refusing to speak English, my Spanish gaining confidence with each cocktail.

We linger over dinner, an ungainly first date of sorts,
shut down the restaurant, my meal untouched and me in a pisco haze.
We go walking in Santiago, the sun somehow still setting at 10:30 at night.
We walk until well past midnight, getting used to each other.

I meet you too late.

Me, married to my college sweetheart, ten years in.
You, so young, so ambitious.
Chasing your career,
living away from your family, building your professional life.
Solitary engineer, no time but for a relentless treadmill of overtime work.
Yet you steal a couple days off to keep me company
in this city where we are both strangers.

We go walking in Santiago until midnight gives way to a hazy pre-dawn,
and with each passing street we are less strangers.
Un camino por Santiago.

Our unrequited love story
attenuated over eleven fleeting years of sporadic Skype video chats,
emails and text messages
followed by long periods of radio silence.
You, a nomad, following the travails of the mining industry,
from Antofagasta to the jungles of Venezuela to the far reaches of Perth
and finally back again to your native Peru.

I’m left with sketches of you.

The way your smile lingers in your eyes,
your mouth reluctant to betray your amusement.
The way you roll your shirtsleeves,
the thinness of your wrists,
your wristwatch comically large.

Your fine, broad forehead,
features I see replicated in the faces of your nieces and nephews.
Your father’s features, ultimately.
Now I see you as a member of a tribe and not the austere monk I know.

Your embraces, awkward and abrupt and surprisingly feral,
your pathological discomfort with tears,
chastening me with,
Ay mujer, no llores.
Nadie está muerto.

And then coaxing, imploring,
Por favor, no llores, mi niña.
Ya, ya, deja de llorar.

And your need to flee from my tearful goodbyes.
Yet you insist on being the one who takes me to the airport
so you are the last person I see before I board my plane.
No way for me to know this goodbye is our last.

Me, alone in my grief.
We were friends outside of life.
I have no community of mourners to accompany me in loss.
I cannot eulogize you, join in the communal dirge.
I am not your sister, not a former lover, not family.

So I attempt to elegize you.

My instinct is to hoard my memories of you.
But instead I share small details with your family.
My effort to connect to you, to them, through them,
authenticate my memory of you with the people who loved you most,
love you as I did, as I do.

I tell your sister about how we met all those years ago.
She asks if I am the friend who helped you learn English.
Your brother doesn’t know of your penchant for alt-rock from the ‘90s,
your inexplicable affinity for The Verve.
It’s a bittersweet symphony, this life.

And so, at long last, I am folded into your family.
They try to comfort me in my grief,
a consolation prize I fight hard not to reject.
Their resignation at your departure frustrates me.
My outrage at your sudden, brutal exit puzzles them.
Yet we become companions in loss,
a fraternity of the bereaved.

Peregrination is a journey of devotion.
The Camino de Santiago is for pilgrims, an act of faith.
My camino is toward a different compass bearing.
Not Santiago de Compostela, the act of faith,
but Santiago de Chile, a leap of faith.
No es Camino de Santiago, sino un camino hacia Santiago.

Streets teeming with pilgrims are for the devoted.
Leave me deserted streets at midnight where we cease to be strangers.

Te fuiste tan pronto, corazón,
Me haces mucha falta.

***

Alex and Aruni in Chile
This prose poem was written following the death of Alex Duenez, a 39-year-old Peruvian mining engineer and business owner, who was murdered in July 2017 in Lima. Aruni plans to visit Alex’s family for his 40th birthday, meeting them for the first time. She and Alex had kept a pact that he would visit her in California, finally, to celebrate his birthday together. “I have to hold up my end and spend his birthday with him. Not the way we planned, but a promise is binding.”

***

Aruni Wijesinghe works for Affinis Labs, a social innovation firm. She earned a BA in English Literature from UCLA, an AA in Dance from Cypress College and a certification to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from UC Irvine Extension. She lives a quiet life in Orange County with her husband, Jeff, and two cats and spends her spare time musing about life. Occasionally she jots down her impressions. She read “Walking in Santiago After Midnight” for the first time at David Rocklin’s Roar Shack in October.

Featured photo of the author taken by Alex Duenez the day they met in Santiago.