Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Whatever Happened to Guadalupe Santos?

A story that describes the interior life of a runner on his way to a marathon would be, I thought, a running story. The Running Journal disagreeded, however, and rejected this piece. They want more running. No importa. I understand their reasons, and I substituted another. But I love words and stories for reasons beyond running. And I still love this story. From the Herald-Citizen, Jan. 23, 2005.

* * * * * * * * * *

At the age of 13 she was raped and then sent to prison for killing the creep who did it, a crime she did not commit—if, indeed, you could call it a crime; but then the event happened in Latin American. In prison, Guadalupe Santos discovered she was pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter whom she had to surrender to the care of her older sister, a woman who later betrayed her.

After serving fifteen years and with credit for good behavior, her release date was drawing near. But calamity struck again. To save her life and the life of her best friend, she was forced to escape from prison. On the run, she worked her way north and crossed the border into the United States.

Rebuilding her life here, she met a man and fell in love. He didn’t know her awful secret. Whether they had a future together seemed doubtful. She remained a prisoner of her past.

How things eventually worked out for Guadalupe will be forever lost from me. With remarkable bad timing the last three episodes of Prisionera air while I, myself, head toward Latin America.

This December Thursday of 2004 I am riding an early morning flight from Nashville to Memphis, the first leg of a trip to Negril, Jamaica, where I plan to run the Reggae Marathon. I sit idly reflecting on the coincidence of my trip and the program’s conclusion.

In an attempt to augment my Spanish lessons, I’d started watching Prisionera, a telenovela on Telemundo, only ten days earlier—I certainly needed the help. I’d never watched a soap opera before, and I thought they went on forever. I happened to pick one, however, that not only aimed to end two weeks after I started watching it but would manage to do so precisely while I make an unlikely December trip. Once again the ready occurrence of the highly improbable gives me cause for wonder.

With several shows to choose from, why did I pick Prisionera? Simple—Guadalupe Santos. She grabbed my attention like a magnet grabs a compass. While maybe not the great beauty that some of the show’s other women are, she is nevertheless bonita enough. But her attraction comes from something beyond mere physical perfection.

I decided to read about the character—another Spanish lesson. Telemundo’s online literature described her as noble, strong and dreamy. I was surprised at how well those descriptions fit my impressions. The actor, Gabriela Spanic, who plays her, is able to convey those qualities without doing much of anything at all.

She can just stand there. When she cries, tears streak down her cheek and drip off her chin. Even her smile is tinged with sadness, and she seems to gaze into the distance. Her eyes are big, maybe too big, but all the more poignantly expressive. Her lips pout and her profile suggests comic petulance.

Her beauty is flawed, and therefore the more exquisite.

This December morning I ride along, gazing out the Airbus window, my thoughts rambling in daydreams about beauty, about what it is—and why do I care? In an expansive mood, it seems I find it all around.

I pick up a book about Alaska I’ve brought to read during the warm days in the Caribbean. The book is titled Coming into the Country, by John McPhee. It’s a book full of rugged and beautiful images. McPhee’s language has rare power. I read the book slowly, trying to make it last, scanning the words like a prospector looking for gold. I find a glittering nugget on every page.

He is describing a canoe trip on the Salmon River—one of thirteen Alaskan rivers so named—in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. I want to be there with him. His party flew to the put-in with a helicopter pilot from the flat country of Louisiana who got them all lost. While they flew up and down river after river, the pilot handed the map to McPhee, a passenger and non-pilot, asking for his help in finding their position. Of the map, McPhee says, “…the mountains looked like calves’ brains over bone china...” He describes the immensity of the wilderness: “…if anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be the place to hide it.”

McPhee is skilled at evoking vivid images. He tells about a barber who was a lousy shot going on a bear hunting trip. He emptied his rifle and only hit the grizzly once, in the foot. “The damage the bear did to the barber was enough to kill him several times.”

A woman runs a small boarding house made of cottonwood logs at Talkeetna where mountain climbers stay. She works hard, enforces strict rules of behavior and prepares meals for which people make long drives. “She is dour, silent, stolid as a ceramic cat.” Ceramic cat! No one can use that simile again. McPhee uses it up right here in this book.

Alaska is beautiful, but dangerous—beauty with a price, a price only a few are willing to pay. The flaw of danger is what protects Alaska’s beauty. But is it enough?

I look up from the book and gaze out the window, savoring McPhee’s thoughts. Thirty thousand feet below I see not Alaska, but west Tennessee. It is cold this morning, even on the ground—thick fog hindered my predawn drive to Nashville. The sun is up now, spilling a warm glow over the sleeping landscape.

I notice a scene unlike any I’ve spotted before. A river valley meanders endlessly through a velvet woodland. The valley is filled to the brim with fog, but not a droplet over. None spreads out over the surrounding countryside; it perfectly outlines the valley’s imprint. From this height the fog looks solid. The slanting sun reveals its surface texture by shadowy shades of gray, like a glacier of dirty snow.

For some reason I suddenly remember John Dodson, conductor then of the Bryan Symphony Orchestra, telling me why he likes the music of Gustav Mahler. It was like explaining Newtonian physics to Porch Patrol, the tan Shar-pei. I understood it poorly, and I can relate it only crudely.

He said Mahler’s music unfolds with beautiful promise but then somehow falls short—by design, I took it. It seems headed toward the perfect moment like when you hit the ball thock! on the sweet spot and you know you’ve nailed it. Mahler instead pulls back, turns, preferring to introduce a deliberate shortfall, the perfect imperfection, a feature that makes his music intensely interesting. Some might consider that to be a flaw. If so, to John it was an exquisite one.

Then he said something surprising. “Amy is like that.”

He was talking about Amy Dodson, my running colleague, who was then his wife. I hope he - and she! - doesn’t mind my mention of his comparison; I thought it was endearing. When he said it, we were standing on Laycock Bridge in Smith County, while a movie crew of some fifty people filmed Amy running, beautiful and brave, across the shaky old bridge for a television commercial.

As she ran along the wooden floor, Amy’s exquisite flaw was apparent to all—a graphite device that replaces her lower left leg. Perhaps John sensed that it is that very flaw that helps drive Amy to accomplish the feats she has, both as a runner and as a person. She had already become the first woman leg-amputate to compete in the Boston Marathon, a prestigious race with a 100-year plus history. She has since gone on to set the woman’s marathon world record for a one-leg amputee. She will go on to finish Ironman races, 100-mile ultramarathons, and to win a triathlon world championship. Remembering her searing courage helps drive me through hard marathons such as Reggae, where the Caribbean heat raises the challenge.

This morning’s flight to Memphis is brief. The pilot must have gotten clearance for a straight-in approach. We’ve dropped steadily and I doubt any turns at this altitude. The morning sun is behind us. The angle is just right for me to watch our shadow sweeping the ground. It slides over the pastures, wafts through the bare woods, flicks across the freeway and swipes the roofs of warehouses, all the while growing larger and larger until finally—over grass now—it comes up and thump bumps into us.

We’re down. First leg finished. I look around. The passengers are anxious to get off the plane. I don’t know anybody. Next stop, Montego Bay.

1 comment:

  1. RJ passed up a beautiful gem. Thanks for sharing, Dallas.