‘Sorry about the heartache. It’s terrible! But clearly you’re strong. That’s what matters,’ Junot Diaz wrote.
‘It is all material for later,’ I wrote to him.
In the wee hours, after I had counted the stars, I was indulging myself with memories. The trigger: This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz’s collection of nine short stories about wreckage, exile and love; in particular, the story titled ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’.
I had just entered Year 2. I had done most of the things that the Cheater, Yunior, did, except cheat in Year 0, which is why Yunior’s woman walks out on him, leaving him to cope with a heartache.
Though I have not cheated, I wrote to him, I feel like the Cheater. In any case, this was Year 2, and I felt I must write to you Mr Diaz. For the sake of loss. ‘Like the Cheater, I went back to smoking, and drinking, and told my friends I was back,’ I wrote.
In Year 1, you wrote in the book, ‘I am back, you say to your boys. Elvis laughs. It’s almost like you never left.’
There were other lines, too.
‘It feels like you’re being slowly pincered apart, atom by atom.’ All of those atom by atom things happened to me as I tried to go on and not look back on the graveyard of relationships.
You, Mr Diaz, know the failings of the human heart, and the temptations, and seductions, and you know a thing or two about loving and losing. When you write about Alma wailing after she finds Yunior’s journal, you say Yunior smiles a smile his dissembling face will remember until the day he dies.
“Baby, this is part of my novel,” Yunior says when Alma confronts him. Stupid Yunior, who picked up the journal listing his sins as ‘one might hold a baby’s beshatted diaper, as one might pinch a recently benutted condom’.
‘This is how you lose her’, and this is how you end this story.
I am laughing. Yunior is so stupid. But then, there’s something to the author viewing himself as a character in his novel. Diaz ends up making a jackass like the straying Yunior endearing.
I see as I read. Like a movie, it plays out. I can fashion Yunior after a man I met in Philadelphia, dapper, a regular at clubs, and for Alma, Nilda, etcetera, I could use any of the women I saw at the bars in Philly. Gold lame tights, an ass that seemed as if it were shaped at a designer’s studio, attitude, smiling eyes and fiery red lips. There’s sexy right there for you.
For Yunior, I feel a strange tug in my heart. Because Dominican Republic’s Junot Diaz makes him vulnerable to the vagaries of love, the slip of a tongue and the anatomy of a woman.
Yunior, the sucio, the philanderer—you’d want to kick him for cheating and continuing with it, and then dealing with a heartache after love goes out of the door, out of his life. His fault. He had thought the genes had missed him. But he was his father’s son, and his brother’s brother.
Yunior is a disaster, always talking about ass and skin, and hair, and everything sex, but Diaz manages to redeem him in this narrative when he says, ‘You don’t even want to hear how it went down with Magda. Like a five-train collision.’
And I hear and see trains entangled, the smoke and the tar. Beautiful and apt, and the screeching sound of that five-train collision stays with me all night. Such is the power of writing. It takes you into that space, that moment. It makes you listen to your own five-train collision.
Whoever has had heartaches can relate to this sound. Deafening, where you can see the destruction of the self, and of the years invested. Of other things, like trust and self-worth. With that sound, Diaz manages to break the silence, make a case for Yunior, and goes on to convince us that Yunior, sucia or not, is one among us. Not chaste, definitely not a saint, but endearing in the way he narrates his own debacles.
Diaz, a creative writing professor at MIT, has before written Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. In the latter, he manages to get into the mind of Oscar, a nerd who reads science fiction and plays video games that are about the end of the universe.
In this book, who can redeem Yunior, the alter ego of the author himself, who rants about Boston, and misses New York as I do, as most people of colour do? It’s the reader, the one who is no stranger to heartache.
I’d hate to think I am the Cheater. But I am. And so I write to Diaz.
‘Only now, I have stepped into Year 2, and like the Cheater, I have put away his pictures, and his emails in a folder that says ‘Don’t Touch’ and I ordered a whole bunch of clothes, got me a haircut, and I feel I am ready to be reborn.’
Besides the losses Yunior has dealt with, there’s also the loss of home. Yunior came to the US as a child with his mother and brother Rafa, and his first experiences with the cold and snow and the country are familiar to anyone who has left home for the American dream—only that the dream is cold and brutal. His father leaves his mother for another woman, and Rafa becomes the player, often taking his girls to the basement of their house, and Yunior has to deal with the sight and sounds of them making love in the room while he pretends to sleep.
Then, there is Miss Lora, who lives next door, and is an older woman who seduces Yunior, who can’t resist ringing her doorbell at nights. The woman understands ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’, the ‘Coming Doomsday’, etcetera. But later, when the life of this love is over, he types her name in the computer but she never turns up.
A novel or a short story, this book could have gone either ways. And I would love to know what happened to Nilda after he didn’t ‘know where the fuck she went’, or maybe, I’d rather wonder.
Because wonderment, the inducing of it, is the way to create a little space where the reader would not be able to get it off his mind, where s/he will always be curious about the ending the character was fated for. What you hold back also matters. So Nilda is gone, and so is Alma, and so is Miss Lora. I can see them go, one wailing, the other disappearing into an alley, and I have a sinking feeling that the story has ended. Because I would have liked to know more.
‘In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace—and because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.’
This is how it ends. Your novel of nine stories of wreckage, of love gone sour. But there’s grace. And hope. This is how it begins for us. With hope. Though I didn’t cheat, it seems that I am the Cheater and it rings true.