el pretérito by Zach Sheneman

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You must learn Spanish to graduate college. You have explored other options—German, for instance, or Latin, or possibly seppuku—but the class times never line up with the vanishingly small windows of free time in your schedule and samurai swords are not Prime eligible. You toy around with an elaborate plot involving your bilingual brother, the Spanish placement exam, a Bluetooth earpiece, and a Hemsworth Thor wig, but you decide not to risk expulsion on the last two classes required to obtain your degree. You have run the marathon gauntlet of major and minor and interdisciplinary and transfer and theme credits, so to disqualify in the last one hundred meters might harsh your mellow.

You have come to this university on and off for a decade—as a music major first, and then a dropout, and then, after a stint at community college, a self-anointed writer. Because you attend part-time, you are finishing the tenth year of a four-year degree. In your classes, you are an elderly twenty-eight-year-old man making outdated references to Xanga and Smashmouth and Crossing Over with John Edwards. Back when you started this Herculean task, the biggest joke in politics was Dick Cheney’s take on “The Most Dangerous Game.” You once make an Ethan Hawke Alive cannibalism joke in class and spend the rest of the hour explaining to your classmates that he is not just an actor in The Purge.

Professors whose classes you took four years ago greet you skeptically in the halls, ask you bluntly why you are still there. You tell them you’re close, have told them you’re close since the last solar flare cycle, but now you’re actually close—just two semesters of intro Spanish to crush before you are finally free to drown in a monsoon of student loan debt whilst pursuing a profession clichéd by its destitution. You have been going to school longer than Van Wilder. You are the only student actively referencing Van Wilder.

Your increasing obsession with your scholastic obligation to learn the Spanish language draws the ire of your wife, a comparatively normal human creature. She is not enthralled by the fact that you talk more about infinitive verbs than your undying love for her. Learn Spanish, she warns, and then shut up about it forever, and you agree because you have come to enjoy living. Still, the inevitability of the thing hangs over you like a hole in the ozone. You must learn Spanish to graduate college or you will die in this place—filling out FAFSAs long after retirement, second-mortgaging your house to pay off your parking tickets, biting back on the shame you carry watching those who came after you leave before you.

* * *

It is always fated to be Spanish. In high school, you take Spanish because your guidance counselor tells you that it will look good on college applications. You rarely do the homework and spend most of your time looking up verbs in Spanish dictionaries that you will never get tested on. You get off on telling your classmates that you lick them at bus stations. Your bullshit effort earns you a magnanimous C, which irritates the hell out of your dad, who studied Spanish himself and speaks it casually at home. He finds your apathy toward learning his adopted second language disturbing. He does not understand why you would ever need to verbalize licking people at bus stations.

Your high school girlfriend plans to study Spanish herself. She breaks up with you the week before you follow her to college, the fallout of which poisons the following year of both of your lives. You are both miserable because you cannot escape each other. When the radiation decays, she transfers to a private college as far from you as she can get and you abandon higher education entirely. You displace your bitterness toward that failed relationship with a bitterness toward the Spanish language in general. You do not speak with her for years, and when you finally meet again you are shocked to find that she has ultimately mastered Portuguese. You then try to start hating Portuguese, but you have despised Spanish for so long that altering the target of your disdain feels strangely disloyal.

In subsequent years, when people ask you why you dropped out, you blame the girlfriend because it is a convenient half-truth. You blame the nights you spent performing habitual triage on that cadaver of a relationship because it is cleaner than describing the fundamental nature of your depression—how your pain radiated out in fractals from the red-hot center as infinite and cobwebbed fractures blooming across a punctured windshield. I followed a girl to college, you repeat ceaselessly, always omitting the existent torment that led you to do so, until you actually begin to believe that half-truth whole-heartedly.

* * *

You concoct a foolproof plan to teach yourself Spanish. As a teenager a decade before, you taught yourself to play the guitar to mediocre effect, so you are convinced that this is somehow the same exercise. You are ready to Rosetta Stone the shit out of Spanish when life happens. You get married. You have a child, two children, a house, a dog, a full-time job. You employ the Duolingo owl to assist you in getting out of the Spanish requirement, make promises to yourself that you’ll practice every day and save the four point two billion dollars it will cost to take the classes required to attain your language cognate. You do well at first. You remember colors and zoo animals and basic conjugations. You remember how to lick people at the bus station. Right when you think you have achieved mastery over all of español, the Duolingo owl throws you past tenses, reflexive verbs, the personal “a.” It terrifies you how little you, a writer, know even of your own native language. Nightmares involving you, the Duolingo owl, and past participles trouble your sleep. You know how to tell your wife you are licking her at the bus station, but you don’t know how to tell her you will lick her there promptly. You become displaced in time, floating through space caught between licks that have yet to occur and those that already have.

When you resign yourself to the fact that you will need to actually attend those two final classes, it adds a full year to your decade of on-again, off-again schooling during which you will take Spanish exclusively. Your 100-level class is full of vaguely teenaged students who all know each other from rave parties or campus Bible studies or post-Bible study rave parties. You sit in the back of the classroom with your myopic eyes and greying hair until someone asks you a question about the curriculum. You tell them you are not the professor. The professor walks in. He is two years your junior.

There is a joy to these nineteen-year-old college students that bewilders you. Your nineteen is a year-long psychological waterboarding. You imagine being a freshman again and almost succumb to a stroke. During introductions, the professor asks the class about their interests. Your earnest classmates wax poetic about Spanish club and intramural sports and study abroad. You try to tell your professor in Spanish that you are a writer. Instead, you tell him that you are a desk. You go home feeling like a desk, someone else’s name still etched into your laminate with a penknife. 

* * *

You follow a girl to college and are sucked immediately into your own black hole. Its gravity emancipates your tattered mind from your body, and you watch the dissolution of your sanity from some chilly distance as if it is the slow death of someone else entirely. In this detached state, you force yourself from bed moments before your roommate returns from his classes to avoid unwanted scrutiny, attending your own sessions on occasion so you can pass them with the lowest possible grade. You cannot muster the energy to shave or socialize or eat. Your melancholy ties you to your bed and your anxiety holds you awake at gunpoint. Your decline is so evident that on one colorless autumn day, your advisor calls you into her office and asks you outright if you are taking drugs. You want to say, I wish I was, but you cannot set up the gag. I’m fine, you promise instead. You both recognize the lie, yet neither of you can trace the shape of the truth. You will spend the rest of your life joking about what you later come to identify as your depression to combat your depression informing you that the rest of your life is a joke.

Later, you sit on your ex’s bed and watch Spongebob in her dorm room. She studies Spanish, and you do her history homework. You tell her you’re thinking of transferring to any other city in the world entire that does not have eternal Michigan winters or colleges with fucking foreign language requirements. You desperately need her to tell you that she would miss you if you did. Instead, she tells you that you should do what makes you happy. You watch Spongebob torture Squidward ad nauseam while she checks your fill-in-the-blank responses on her work. When the grey light of day recedes, she pulls you to the bed, closes her eyes, kisses you for a time. She cries. You lie in limbo next to her atop her comforter, the silence perforated only by her sniffles and sighs and nearby peals of square-pantsed hyena laughter until she asks you to leave.

You are composing a song in a computer lab when you break down in totality. You have spent hours arpeggiating digital piano chords in every available time signature and mode and key known to god or man in a last-ditch effort to pass a music theory class you are close to failing. You play the song back untold times, know that it works musically, can solve the structure of it like a high school geometry proof—and yet, you cannot hear the music anymore. You cannot feel it grab your navel and guide you from one cadence to the next, cannot feel the tension in your gut at either dissonance or resolution. The only thing you feel is your left eyelid spasming without end as you stare at the poorly backlit computer screen. Your mouth tastes strongly of iron. You cannot move your hands.

You think in excess about dying. You never commit to it because you are too exhausted to follow through. You spend most of your days on your back in your lofted bed, twitching eyes tracing the primer-coated cinderblocks that line what will almost certainly become your tomb. Your dormitory is your sarcophagus. You are past praying for some merciful reprieve. You wait only for some priest to pull your brain out through your nose.

* * *

As you obsessively count down the days until your graduation, you are surprised to find that, in some ways, Spanish describes your thought processes better than English does. One of your first lessons focuses on the difference between the two words for to be. Ser means to be something more permanently—to be a certain temperament, to be in a particular profession, to be originally from some perfectly forgettable small town. Estar describes your temporary state in space and mind. In Spanish, it is common to say estoy enamoradoI am in love—the implication being that while you are currently infatuated, you will almost assuredly not be at some point in the future.

Some time later, you are taught the grammatical differences between the two indicative forms of the past tense: the preterite and the imperfect. Fuiste lamido is in the preterite, a completed action—you were licked, but the licking has since ceased. The imperfect is used for continued action. For instance, when you talk about dropping out of college, you say tenia diecinueve años and mean I was nineteen. What you literally say is I had nineteen years, because you have never ceased to be nineteen, just accumulated additional mileage. Your heart accepts this concept before your brain does. You are nineteen are twenty are nearly twenty-nine, every revolution around the Sun tracing a new layer of carbon around your heart like the rings of some primeval bristlecone pine. Per the dictum of the Spanish grammar gods, you have not stopped being nineteen, will never stop, still rot between those cinderblock walls. 

In some heavy-handed, cosmic attempt at poeticism, your final Spanish class is held in a building directly facing your old dormitory. Even though you avoid looking at it, you can feel it looming just out of your periphery. It exudes all the sexy energy of a mausoleum, which, to some degree, it is. Some essential part of you is still there atomizing in its radiation.

* * *

Upon your escape from that circle of hell, you swear a blood oath to yourself that you will not, under any circumstance, ever return. It is a safe promise to make, as you are terrified of going back. In one sense, your distance affords you clarity. You recognize that your depression stalked you years before you ever went to college, that some unholy amalgam of unaddressed childhood trauma and biochemical bullshittery doomed you to lifelong misery well before your poor life choices ever had a chance to. Still, it’s the school you can’t face. You pin the weight of the entire humiliating endeavor entirely on the school because scapegoating a bogeyman makes it easier to cope with the senselessness of your disease. You pack an entire year of your short life into the most forsaken corner of your addled mind because even a fragment of that memory is enough to send you spiraling into a panic. You end up living a mere half-hour drive from the place that you so desperately avoid, but you push college so far out of your mind that, on the best days, you nearly convince yourself that you never attended. 

You are twenty-three when you meet the woman who will become your wife at a tiki bar on a man-made beach. You are wildly drunk when she beckons you from the table you are dancing on and asks for your name, when she puts her number in your phone and kisses you goodnight. The next woeful morning, you are astounded to find that you did not hallucinate that most gorgeous woman, did not misidentify her transparent appeal for your attention even after she witnessed you dancing. She is feisty and self-assured and razor-sharp and fiercely intimidating. You fall for her in the span of a week.

Her love is not some mystical panacea. It does not—cannot— cure your depression. Your disease nests inside you in some quintessential way. It is ingrained in the very fiber of everything you are. Her love does, however, contradict the assertions of your sickness at every turn. She is your proof of purpose against an otherwise convincing darkness.

In her care, you grow strong enough to envision a future in which you are actually happy. It is surprising to find that, in every iteration of this fantasy, you are always writing. You start to entertain the notion of finishing your degree, trading in your penniless musical aspirations for that of a penniless writer. Given the logistical and temporal restrictions involved in maintaining a full-time job and a fledgling family, it does not take long to realize the inevitable—that your best chance at putting your higher education nightmare to bed is by returning to the place where it all began.

When you share this dismal revelation with the woman who will become your wife, she tells you it is perfectly acceptable to not go back. She has spent enough nights tracing your scar tissue to understand the toll it took. It’s just a piece of paper, she says, but you know it is not. It is your act of defiance against your own unconquerable pain. For as long as the act remains incomplete, you will carry the burden of nineteen until you collapse under its supermassive weight. To complete the action—to bury nineteen forever—you must turn preterite the imperfect. You must graduate college for absolution.

* * *

This, then, is your personal purgatory: eons after Dennis Rodman goads North Korea into nuking D.C.; after the ice caps melt and flood the seven continents a hundred miles inland; after Ragnarok and Rapture and erasure by red giant, you will still be learning Spanish to graduate college. Your disembodied consciousness will occupy the silent voids of the stilling universe, formulating the perfect future tense and absorbing verbs like deprimir and doler and entregar even as language breaks down into blips of failing quasars and slowing neutron stars. As the cosmic fire of existence extinguishes, you will traverse the frosty darkness at light speed as pure energy. You will spend the last precious moments of eternity failing to roll your r’s. You will still fall victim to passive-aggressive email shaming by Duolingo.

Your wife, in the Now, accepts that you are insane. She tolerates your escalating madness only because she knows you swiftly approach your journey’s terminus. Finish this, she says, and let it be over. Underneath her patient voice, the machinations of a decade’s worth of labor and suffering whistle and grind; the weight of your greatest failure shifts upon your aging shoulders. You are endlessly displaced in time, caught between pain that has yet to occur and pain that already has.

Ensnared in that black hole gravity, you have long denied yourself the privilege of imagining an end. Even so, as winter thaws and the remaining pages in your Spanish text dwindle to the single digits, it becomes difficult to contain your brimming anxiety. You are emboldened just enough by your success to contemplate a reprieve. You dream in excess about living. You submit to sleep some nights envisaging how it feels to rest.

Meet the Contributor
Zach Sheneman resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife, two sons, and two dogs. His essays have appeared in The Pinch Journal and Glass Mountain. In April 2019, he graduated with his BA in writing from Grand Valley State University.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Megan Morris

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