The Realm of Magic

At ten in the morning, when I walk to Spanish class, Madrid is just waking up (it’ll continue this leisurely process until about 9 p.m.). Porteros y porteras pensively mop the sidewalks in front of their buildings, even if it’s cloudy and the skies might crack open in a few hours. At ten, the cafes are divided between those who drink coffee and those who drink beer. The high school students jostle on the street in packs, smoking cigarettes, a sight that never fails to appall me. Elegant young women, dressed to the nines, agilely wend their way through the traffic on their Vespas. There are lines, to remind that these aren’t normal times: in front of the health office, the unemployment office, the covid-test laboratory, the bakery that currently only lets in people one at a time.

This morning, as I walked, I decided Spanish class might be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also that I don’t want to do it anymore.

That I can consider learning a language that difficult shows what an exceptionally easy life I’ve had. (Or maybe how bad at languages I am.) But the thing is, most things that are very very hard, like going through childbirth or watching someone you love die, either take place fairly quickly or you somehow manage to extract yourself from, mentally, out of self-preservation. But learning a language just goes on and on and on, unless you’re a baby. A 50+ year-old brain is not as malleable as a college student’s, and by 50, being wrong all the time stings more. Besides, when you’re the only student in a class, the situation in which I currently find myself, it’s impossible to detach. The whole point is not to — to be present.

In order to get the sort of discount that allows a person to be able to take language classes for over a year, I pay for my classes in “packages.” And now, as the year draws to a close and covid cases ramp up, just one more class and I’ll have used up my current package. It would be so easy — to just pull the plug on on the whole endeavour.

This was an enjoyable fantasy to indulge in. No more telling someone “I needed the exorcism” when what I really meant was I needed the exercise. No more attempting to debate bullfighting or write a rhyming poem. No more being the recipient of rolled eyes, whether from the beggar who called me perra (bitch) or the man who asked me where the Chino was (Chino is colloquial racist slang for the equivalent of the Dollar Store) only for me to answer that I hadn’t seen anyone from China while I was standing there, but many Chinese students took classes in the building behind me.

An eon ago, when I was first being introduced to the subjunctive mood, a teacher attempted to explain it thusly: you use it to talk about things that aren’t factual, to discuss things that, rather, exist in some realm of not-sureness, of unknowingness, of magic.

This left three-fourths of the class even more bewildered than before.

But — desires are in the realm of magic, likewise emotions, negative opinions and giving advice. Agreement is fact, disagreement — the realm of magic.

If you believe something, it’s fact; if you don’t, you just pop it into that vague, unknowable realm of magic. As I walked to class, I imagined a future without Spanish class. I’d just speak in very simple sentences, since connectors confound me. I’d never use the imperative. I’ll avoid that realm of magic like the plague, constructing my sentences only with positive opinions. I’ll never ever make suggestions!

I was feeling good about this plan when I walked into the classroom.

My current teacher, R, who’s really a philosophy professor except there’s more work for Spanish teachers than philosophers these days, asked about my weekend and waited patiently through my strangely-worded response. He played a radio interview and I attempted to guess what the hell people were talking about. He played me a song by a famous Spanish musician and explained its metaphors; I wrote a new stanza for it. I tried to make jokes; he smiled — I think, I hope — underneath his mask.

One class down, one more to go, I thought after I said good-bye.

But R had done what good teachers do, pushing open the door to understanding just a tiny bit more, just wide enough that I could catch a glimpse of the realm of magic that lies beyond the threshold, and I realized that (after a break) —I’d probably be back.

Never say die.

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