Letter to Rogelio, from 33,000 feet up

Since this blog went up, a number of people have asked me about my relationship with Rogelio and what we talk about when we visit, and what we write to each other about. I thought it might be a good idea to share with you this letter I wrote to Rogelio, on my iPhone, as I flew across the country to Sacramento. They’re not all this philosophical, but I think it gives you an idea of what our relationship is about:

Estimado amigo,

I am writing this on my iPhone, on the flight to Houston, on my way to Sacramento. I have been thinking of you, as I do every day, and I am thinking how much a part of my life you have become in these last nine years, how much I have taken you for granted, assuming you will always be there, you and Isabelle. Well, now I am faced with the reality that while Isabelle will be there for a long time, you may only be there for me for a few more weeks. It is a horrible realization.

I have always known, of course, that the time would come when your death would become immanent. I am much more of a pessimist than you are. Always have been; it’s part of being a Mexican in America and having grown up in the 50s and 60s. But I always saw that as something in the distant future. And it was,  nine years ago, but now that distant future has become the near future and here we are facing the possibility, the very real possibility that all this, this relationship we have built and struggled so hard to maintain all these years, will suddenly end.

Yes, I know, your presence will always — always — be a part of my life, but that is not the same as having you there. I will communicate with you, the same way I communicate with my mother and others long gone, but it won’t be the same. I don’t think I have told you how much having you there has affected my life, how I judge each experience by whether it merits writing to you about. It’s like when I had a column. I looked at every event, every encounter, every everything, and thought: Is this something I want to write about in by column, and if so, what to I want to say about it and how do I want to say it?  It’s the same with you. Each trip I take. Each new thing I see. Each person I see, I ask myself, is this something I want to write Rogelio about, and if so what do I want to tell him abut this, and how am I going to tell him about it?

I assume that you sometimes wondered whether writing to you was a chore for me. The answer is that it as, but only when I have nothing to tell you. I loved it, when I went on trips, when I sat at the coffee shop or in Dupont Circle and observed people, because I knew I had something to talk to you about. I looked forward to writing those letters. Unfortunately, I live and have lived a very boring life and many times I simply had had no experiences that were worth mentioning, so I dreaded the time when I knew I had to write to you and all I had was my mundane life. 

I am on the flight from Houston to Sacramento now and I just witnessed the most magical sunset I have ever seen. It was as if the sun was setting behind the mountain range, but there were other mountains and clouds behind it. I have never seen anything like that. I am sure there us some logical scientific explanations for that optical illusion, but it doesn’t matter. To me it was pure magic, made even more so by the fact that I was listening to one of my all-time favorite songs, Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin. Absolutely beautiful.

I thought about you, of course, as I always do when I experience something like that, and I wondered when was the last time you saw a spectacular sunset as a free man, and whether you understood then how special that moment was. Surely there must have been that moment sometime. I know you said your younger years were all messed up, but I have to believe that even though you have changed considerably since you’ve been behind bars, you have always been Rogelio. You have always had the capacity to absorb and appreciate life’s special moments.

And I wonder: did you know then, back when you were running around being a holy terror, that you were different? That you had that curiosity, that hunger to satisfy your mind’s cravings? Did you, as a kid, go out at night and look at the millions upon millions of stars above you and wonder about the meaning of life and your place in the universe, as you do now? Did you see yourself doing great things in this world?  Did you dream of a better world and believe you could be a part if it?

So many questions. So many questions. And I wonder why I have not asked them before. Was it because I never really believed they would actually take your life away? Or because I didn’t want to believe?

I am now listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, one of the most beautiful pieces of classical music ever written. I first learned to love it when I was stationed in Barbados and I would take the late afternoon flight from Miami, which meant that I would fly over the Caribbean as the sun was setting. Spectacular views. I had a Walkman then, on which I listened to cassette tapes. I don’t know if I bought that tape or if it was given to me, but that one and The New World Symphony by Dvorak were the ones I always played as I looked out the window at the wondrous sunsets.

And I am repeating that experience tonight, except that I’m heading west, not east. The sun has already set, but there is still a golden glow on the horizon. Beneath it are dark grayish blue clouds, and where there are no clouds, there is an occasional light or group of twinkling lights from a ranch, cabin or small town.

You have never seen this, one of a thousand of things that have been denied you, and that saddens me. You have such a curious, searching mind. Much more than mine, and here you are, locked up in a cell and only able to read about all these things. And here are all these other people who have no curiosity at all, like the woman sitting on my row who is watching a damn movie on her iPod. A fucking movie, when she could be reading of writing or thinking. What a waste. What a fucking shame.

Damn it, I am about to run out of battery power. More later.



3 Responses to “Letter to Rogelio, from 33,000 feet up”

  1. Christiane Bitz Says:

    Dear Juan,
    I have no words to express what I’m feeling right now reading this wonderful letter you wrote to Rogelio…. My first penpal was executed in March 2007 and your letter reminds me my feelings before this awful date !!!
    I admire so much the courage of Rogelio. Here in Switzerland, he is in the prayers of a lot of people, we all keep HOPE for his life !
    Christiane Bitz

  2. Isabelle Says:

    I share Christiane’s words, your letter to Rogelio is simply beautiful, Juan. All the things he would enjoy… sitting and chatting at a café’s table with a friend, observing people, commenting or talking seriously about the latest book he just read. He would love flying over the country, seeing the lights of Houston skyline. The millions of stars he saw sometimes as he walked on a beach, a heavy hearted kid, followed by a black stray dog which he loved. Companions of good and sad days.
    Rogelio, I am so grateful for your trust, for all you shared with me along the years. Take care, Buddy. Love you.

  3. Françoise Says:

    Hello, Juan

    This is what I wrote to Rogelio, adding my comment to his “Day 11”:
    “I just read the letter Juan wrote to you of October 4th. Such a beautiful mail! I wish I had wrote every single word, every single sentence, every paragraph of it ! These must be the words you need to hear, to read. We are a lot to feel the same but unfortunately can’t express it the same way.”

    I have nothing to add to Christiane and Isabelle’s words. Just that Rogelio, when reading it, will be able to feel so many sensations. Writing this, you have been his eyes, his ears and nose. His heart will break out of deep joy: the impression to have been out for a while with his dear friend.
    Thanks, Juan. I am moved. too

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