JUNE 18, 2020
WHEN I LANDED in the US as a child of nine, I felt I had not only traveled in space but also in time. Though it was 1962, behind me lay a 19th-century world of oil lamps, muddy rutted roads, and horse-drawn carts, while before me flickered a vision so sleek and modern there were no shadows and bright-green lawns sprouted cones of mist.
Time traveler became my invisible identity. Secretly, I searched for mentors in movies like The Time Machine (1960), envying Rod Taylor his ability to go back and forth, to witness and control the passage of time. Propelled and buoyed by a utopian vision of the future, he set off, watching the rising hemline on a mannequin in a shop window, then the shop itself disintegrating to dust in an instant, the surrounding buildings crumbling and disappearing, replaced by insect-like cranes scampering on skyscrapers. His present had succumbed to shattered shards. But by moving a crystal-topped lever sharpened to a point like a pen, he could also reverse direction and return to his intact and cloistered world of waistcoats.
I yearned for that, a trip back — not to Bountiful but to a prelapsarian time, before the rupture in my family caused by the Cuban revolution. I longed for the torn pieces to fly back together like the presents in Christmas home movies my foster family in Illinois played backward, the shreds of bright paper magically materializing in mid-air and, as if magnetized, adhering to the boxes, the mystery made whole again. The full-blossom look of delight reverting to a bud of anticipation.
When Rod Taylor, disillusioned by the violent and apocalyptic future he has seen, returns to his library in Victorian times, he selects three books to take back into the future. His best friend and his housekeeper are left to wonder what books he had removed from the empty places on the shelves. “Which three books would you have taken?” asks a pre–Mister Ed Alan Young, with red hair and absurd brogue. One year later, Young would appear on black-and-white TV as a Los Angeles architect with a talking horse. Could he have foreseen that?
Around that time, two years after my own arrival via Operation Peter Pan, my parents arrived in Illinois and our bus-station reunion was captured in the local newspaper. They worked multiple menial jobs and tried to learn a new language and navigate a strange culture by watching television, while pining for a lost land in color. My father, who had never driven a car, missed his horse. To ease his entry to the new world, I interpreted Mister Ed’s wisecracks, making my father laugh and forget. That’s how I became a translator, evolving into conduit and buffer, speaking on their behalf with landlords, bank tellers, employers, and strangers who shouted into my parents’ faces as if they were deaf.
Though I had much-older siblings, they turned down the job of interpreter and guide, and went their own ways. In a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture way, on the dead-end road to the city dump where we lived I taught my parents to ride my bluegreen Schwinn bicycle, the one I’d bought with the $39 I’d earned doing chores in the foster home and selling handmade potholders door to door. On my bicycle I aimed to transport them to a carefree childhood they’d never had; they squealed as I ran along beside them, holding on to the seat, my mother wearing rollers under a bandana, my father feverishly biting the tip of his tongue.
Simultaneously, as a way to decipher my own biography, I read the biographies of inventors on the shelf in the children’s section of the library, beginning alphabetically because I didn’t know where to start: Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison. From them I got the idea to experiment, a logical application of my voracious curiosity. I began by gathering bits of food from the kitchen, placing them in jars in a corner of the damp basement I called my laboratory, where some turned green while others inexplicably bloomed pink. I read comic books and ordered cheap items from the back pages, such as a small, tinny printing press. I learned you had to pick up the rubber letters with tweezers and place them backward if you wanted them to read forward on the page. That’s also how I learned the origins of the phrase “minding your Ps and Qs,” because in lowercase they were easily confused. Slowly and painstakingly, letter by letter, I constructed the present.
This led me to chronicle my own family, writing what I knew about how we’d landed where we were, pasting down our passport photos, anchoring us in the moment because I couldn’t fathom the future. I described the scratchy grey couch, donated by the Presbyterian congregation, upon which I was writing. I had learned English only two years earlier, so there are the telltale misspellings of a neophyte. Compelled by my own mystery, I started reading mysteries. In the fifth grade I wrote “The Case of the Strange Painting,” in which a painting has electronic eyes that spy where a priceless emerald is hidden. I then discovered books about secret codes and started keeping a journal, rendering my abuse in an inscrutable alphabet, lest the culprits find the book. Thus, books taught me what to convey and what to keep hidden, which doors to open and which to keep closed in order to stay safe.
I avidly watched The Time Tunnel TV show as a teenager desperate to escape, itching to cast off the premature reins of adult responsibility and my nightly terrors. By then I was wishing to be catapulted not into the past but into a distant future — fast! — as fast as my childhood had vanished and my perfumed world had evaporated, first growing tiny below my airplane window, then erased completely by clouds. Like Rod Taylor in his time machine, little did I imagine what lay ahead.
Though books became my guides into and through the new world and its peculiarly irregular language, the question for me was not what books I would carry into the future but what books I would create. My books would contain a map of where I had traveled and what had conveyed me, keeping me afloat — poems like small rafts. My mind was replete with impressions, so many it was a dizzying kaleidoscope — fragments of color turning and turning, forming a picture, then breaking apart.
In Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious,” a young peasant, Ireneo Funes, is thrown from a horse, suffers a head injury, and is paralyzed. From that moment on, he can’t forget anything, even the minute and seemingly insignificant. His constantly absorbing and cataloging mind could recall not only every tree in his small Uruguayan village but every leaf on every tree — as well as every limb in all kinds of weather and every shape of cloud. Every gesture, every word, every object — everything he had seen and heard — was archived and played forever in the cinema-cavern of his head.
I too had been thrown from a horse as a child while visiting an uncle’s farm. My cousins and I had ridden three to a saddle-less horse far out into a field on a cloudless day, when a sudden storm blew in. I sat at the back, precariously straddling the widest part with my short legs. The horse, spooked by the furious rain and cracks of thunder, bucked me to the ground. I hurt only my left hip, which ever after made a loud crick when I raised my leg in ballet class in the new world. But the images and sensations of that fall have remained, like a bone that aches during inclement weather.
When I was abruptly uprooted from all I knew without my consent or foreknowledge, I unwittingly vowed my allegiance to the past by remembering every detail of the world forever locked away from me. In the foster home, my dreams nightly walked me to my grandmother’s house, following the impressions her sandals made on the silty soil left by the new construction of concrete-block houses. Under the single sky, everything became a time machine, especially the natural world; though people disappointed and betrayed, nature never did. I memorized the exact red wrinkles inside the chalice-like blooms of banana trees from which I drank water. Any scented flower swept me back, like the conveyor belt at the tomato cannery behind my father’s pink butcher shop, a dim redolent place I had wandered into when no one was watching. The magic spell of fat raindrops falling jewel-like while the sun shone brightly became a kind of faith. Nothing was lost to me but the return — like Ireneo Funes, who was barred by his paralysis from reentering the world he had committed to memory in all its myriad variations.
Critics who have reviewed my work often mention loss and nostalgia and an obsession with recreating the past. But given my journey, how can it be otherwise? There’s a good reason my collection of essays is called “Desire Lines” — a spot-on term I found in a dictionary of landscape architecture, meaning the dirt trails people make when veering off the paths planned by the designer. I’ve pursued my own impulses and desires, straying from anything predetermined because at one time I’d had no choice.
The Chilean novelist José Donoso once said that writers living in exile tend to reconstruct in faithful detail the land they’ve been expelled from, like a miniaturist building a diorama. That hadn’t occurred to me, but I recognized the impulse to manifest a time machine on the page that would ferry me back to a lost land of beloved images, scents, and flavors: the transporting taste of anise syrup poured over ice shaved from an enormous block by the street vendor on an oppressively hot day. The steamy outline of my body on the cool marbled-green floor tiles. The chameleon fixing me in time with its wrinkle-hooded eye while changing colors at will like nebulous moods.
Sometimes these days, lines of text come drifting back to me and I wonder about their author — then often discover it’s me, though I hadn’t known I’d memorized them, as if I’d gone back and plucked my own book off the shelf for the future. Recently, this one from the poem “Cool Acres” in Garden of Exile (1999): “what piece of the future / has become dislodged and is floating backward / to meet her ahead of schedule.” The “what,” of course, is death, which I thought would happen to me by age 20. I don’t know what made me choose that particular age, but I was convinced. The end-date was my escape hatch, a promise and consolation I offered my teen self, as if to say, Don’t worry, this violence and abuse won’t be forever. I couldn’t imagine a door opening to a world free of horrors because the wall before me was smooth and solid with no hint of hinges or doorknob. So I assumed my freedom would be gained via death. When I reached 20, I was astonished I hadn’t expired. Every day after that I was buoyant and lightheaded, as if I’d abandoned my heavy body and only my spirit floated forward — like a runner who trains with ankle-weights and removes them on the day of the race.
The idea of invisible doors may be why I was fascinated by the cartoon segment on Rocky and Bullwinkle called “Clyde Crashcup,” which I’d watched at the foster home, belly down on the oval hooked rug. The eponymous character was an artist who wore a smock and beret and clutched a palette. He had an assistant named Leonardo, who never spoke but whispered secrets in Clyde’s ear. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned that Leonardo was the name of a dead artist and inventor. And Clyde, though dressed like an artist, was a kind of arrogant buffoon. It seemed Leonardo, though silent, was the true artist. When Clyde, with the help of Leonardo, drew something, such as a door, it became real and could be walked through. I was riveted by the idea of creating a doorway out of nothing, with a few strokes — and that has never left me. A few strokes of a pen created my own doorway in the air, and I’ve walked through.
Now 67, I have ambivalently arrived at the present-future, though I’m still more comfortable in a bygone era. I’ve ridden in on the rickety conveyor belt of the past. For 35 years I’ve been the steward of an old house full of Los Angeles history, surrounded by vintage art and furnishings, with a library of old books, many of them signed by their now-dead authors. Maybe that’s why I relate to period movies. But physical things don’t last forever, despite our best efforts; everything succumbs to the ravages of time — that’s why it’s called ravages and not restoration.
What Rod Taylor finds in the far future is a race of lazy surface dwellers, indifferent Eloi youth who never work, have no curiosity, and feel no empathy. Yearning to understand them, he asks to see their books, but the shelves of ignored volumes disintegrate in his hands, unreadable. He is outraged: “What have you done? Thousands of years of building and rebuilding, creating and recreating so you can let it crumble to dust. A million years of sensitive men dying for their dreams … for what? So you can swim and dance and play.”
In my current future, I am surrounded by a similar race of superficial Naked Emperors who claim to have mastered things they have not begun to understand. They strut around in false finery, compelled only by a need for attention, not a desire to know. Like the Eloi, they walk an easy path they’ve had no hand in cultivating. Recently, in a so-called thesis online, one of them said, “Old writers should move out of the way and make room for us.” Is space limited? Is there a quota? Are talent and skill rationed? What about the lessons of history, the inspiration of mentors? No one springs fully formed from Zeus’s head; everyone has been shown the way by someone. That’s how culture is created.
So I’m not drawn to yesteryear because I want to be a clueless youth again — been there, done that, and residence is overrated. Nor because I aim to avoid or thwart death by living in the past, but rather because — when I go — I prefer to take the long scenic route back home.
Aleida Rodríguez is a poet (Garden of Exile), essayist, editor, and seminal publisher of Los Angeles–based literary magazine rara avis and Books of a Feather. She is the recipient most recently of a COLA (City of LA) Literature Fellowship for 2018–19. “Time Machine” is forthcoming in What Falls Away Is Always: Writers over 60 on Death (What Books Press), as well as in her essay collection, “Desire Lines,” currently seeking a publisher.