“You are responsible for the people that fall in love with you.” He said it in Spanish first and then in English to ensure I understood it. “Do you know where that’s from?” Then he said the title in French, ‘Le Petit Prince.’ “Remember that.” He paused to firmly demand my attention, and he purposefully alternated glancing at me and then at Dante, who clearly couldn’t decide if he should pretend to be involved in his cooking or look as trapped as I was. I closely observed Dante concentrate on swirling each serving of spaghetti on plates. “LOVE.” Leone loudly stated to the whole room.
Strapped by my waist to a catapult, stepping backwards builds tension on the bungee cord and relieves my weight from the balls of my feet. Everyone readily prepares you for the adrenaline and fast release, but hardly talks about the pure silence, the slow white space that is only for you. That to me is what it’s like to feel love. To lift your feet and surrender to timeless oblivion.
People often ask me why I decided to go there, how of all places I ended up on that vineyard in rural Colchagua Valley. Honestly, I have no idea. I thought I wanted to see where Malbec, my favorite wine, is grown and processed and to simply live elsewhere for a while. Both are true, but really, the metaphorical vessel suspended me tightly during the blur of safety instructions that we all refuse to admit we’re too nervous to hear. This whole idea came to me just days prior to departure, without any explanation and very little thought. I hate to call it fate.
When I arrived in early October, the trees began to bloom, while where I come from the leaves had just finished falling. Each crisp morning a handful of the dogs greeted and followed me enthusiastically like paparazzi. Renaldo, the mop, hopped hip level on me while Saru and two others sniffed up my right leg. Benjamin, the big lab who can’t see well, gave me a couple of bumps.
In the dining area I’d find the guys cutting bread and smashing avocado. While the puppy, Mary Jane, dug her thumbtack teeth into my ankle and untied my shoes, I scooped apple and orange salad to each of our place settings. With the bread on the griddle, Dante from the kitchen sang increments of Doris Day. “When I was just a lit-tle girl, I asked my mother, ‘what will I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich!’…”
For work, I pruned grape trees determining branch life lines like a psychic palm reader. Then, I gathered the clippings into beaver dam piles and tied with technique the budding vines to the lines. On a clear day, the vineyard overlooks the Andes to the occasional symphony of barking dogs and the mating meows of peacocks. I liked the simple, tangible work meditating on the repetition of fixing each plant.
The first dinner party was with people my age from Pichilemu, the nearby coastal city with vibrant surf culture. All together they embodied the effortlessly untouchable cool crowd. Their sweaters just hung differently on them. As the gathering tapered off, I went to sit with Dante to chat, and it felt like we were old friends. I can’t remember if it was my idea to go join him, or if he waved me over. We were deep in wine, and at one point I excused myself to boot the gourmet three course meal he had prepared for us.
A wide ring of light casted from the full moon, and the two of us sat out by the brick oven. Everyone had gone to bed, but we had one more beer twice. We talked about how we both used to be swimmers.
To my surprise, the next morning I woke up on the couch in the library warmly nestled in blankets and with him alongside me. I typically recoil to affection like an exposed earthworm, yet I was so comfortable. How can I be so relaxed in a circumstance that typically repels me? I was almost startled when he kissed me because I didn’t know what that meant. I’d been there for three and a half days, and I could not gauge the casual/professional spectrum that clearly hadn’t been established. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so different, why the whole situation was different. At the time, part of me wondered if I was in love or letting myself feel that way because I believed it would be temporary.
I remember when I’d returned from the bathroom and find a dog in my seat, I’d take their head in my hands and whisper to them cheerfully. Looking up, I caught Dante across the table looking at me in a way I’d never known before. Not long after, his position at the table was always next to mine. Every time he found my hand under the table and held it in his lap, my stomach did this pleasurable quick jolt. Despite the excitement, I continued to nod attentively at a conversation where I was a mere spectator. By the time I translated in my head, the appropriate time for me to contribute had passed. There were no subtitles, and I never knew how much wine I’d had because my glass was never allowed to be empty. Every day was a celebration of life.
Sometimes the celebration ended our work day at siesta. People would come like high tide: photographers, winemakers, a young couple, an interior designer, disc jockeys, a shamanic drum-maker, the doctor of the president, friends from all walks of life. I watched the uneven white candlesticks burn over the fireplace. Leone would interrupt in English with a self declaration: “I’m a little drunk.” His native Italian accent always made his English sound a bit slurred. To lock in his statement, he would place an unopened bottle of Pisco on the table that served as a vague map of where we were all headed. Hours later someone would shout, “Vamos a la biblioteca!”
The library was the late night haven, the acoustic session of the night that settled us like sugar in water. When Leone’s partner Carlos was there, and they’d sit together on the couch next to us, I secretly hoped the longevity of their love would sprinkle over us. They were each 65 years old. Isn’t it strange how young lovers admire old lovers and old lovers admire young lovers like limited edition relics?
One of the pups, a frail little thing, needed to see a vet in Pichilemu. I went along on the road trip with Dante, and he’d take my hand between shifting gears. I started a game.
“What’s your favorite animal?” I asked.
“A dolphin. They are beautiful, intelligent, and swim.”
“Second favorite animal.”
“Eagle. They fly.”
Your favorite animal is who you look for as a partner, your second is you. I’m a jaguar looking for an octopus, intelligent and unique. When octopuses touch you the suctions on their tentacles can taste not only the surface of your skin but blood and bone beneath. They know you like no one else can. I smiled to myself about the eagle I love and octopus he is to me. We continued to drive along the dirt road and he said, “So I am looking for my…”, he looked at me, “dolphin.”
Dante drove us over to Punta de Lobos after the vet. As the big waves crashed against the cliff and the small ones crashed against themselves, he wrapped his arms around me from behind. He kissed the top of my head until I turned to meet him.
In my last days there, I watched the men mix wine from the barrels in the bodega. I wondered what it would be like to return home. I’d been living in a bubble for weeks, one that ironically expanded my worldview and perception of self.
The hostess of my last party in Chile welcomed me as “the girl Dante is in love with” while her husband asked me if I, too had ever been in love. “Yes and right now” he answered his own question for me. Another older lady announced she was adopting me, leaned close and whispered, “what a sight it is, the two of you. You know it’s either you take him with you, or you must come back.” I liked our attention because we hadn’t discussed what would happen once I left. Neither of us had ever been in a situation like this before. Every time I’d bring it up he’d say “not now, we are living in this moment.” It would make me sad and angry but most of all thankful. I loved all of those people, and I loved the way I felt nestled comfortably like the morning I woke up in the library. I loved the tight embraces from Leone followed by his version of Bob Marley’s “I wanna love ya!” Absorbing every moment was what made it all so special.
Political issues raged in Santiago. Leone and Dante luckily had to go into the city the day before my flight. The banks had been closed all week, so it took Leone two hours there. Dante walked me around the city arm in arm, and I felt such pride walking a foreign city with a partner. I’d done it alone dozens of times, but Santiago saw me differently. The atmosphere was eerie, although people in work clothes bustled to lunch to assume routine. We went into a cafe for empanadas, and I watched a tank and several police cars skulk by. Chants would start and stop like traffic lights building an overall, unavoidable tension.
Back on the street, pedestrians coughed and rubbed their eyes. “Do you feel that?!” Dante asked me in horror. Delayed, my eyes and throat stung just enough to be irritated. “Police gas!” He brought me into an alleyway to recover from the poisonous mist. I could see a mild fear sweep over him as he reassured me we’d be safe. My nervousness felt like stage fright compared to how his looked. They brought me to their friend’s house just outside of city center and decided to join me in spending the night. We watched on TV as a shopping mall burned to the ground. A metro stop went up in flames, and the street I walked earlier had people throwing gas bombs and spray painting police vans. The chaos continued to stir in my head as I laid next to Dante one last time. He whispered, “one more night with you is a present.”
Leone and Dante left right before dawn. Leone always managed to thank me before I could thank him. Dante walked me back down the dark hallway towards the bedroom, and we spoke quickly like taking turns reciting items on a grocery list. I lost count how many times we kissed. The truck started outside.
Alone in the bedroom two hours before my taxi, I realized he never sang the chorus but always right up to it, “…Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.”
To be continued…