That Distant Afternoon

From the moment I learned to read, books have been my refuge. As the daughter of an Army soldier, I travelled in and out of Puerto Rico with my family to different places in the United States and overseas.  Because my education was constantly interrupted, libraries became the center of my life. School libraries, lending libraries on Army bases, small-town public libraries in the United States, and personal libraries in the homes of friends were my favorite places. Books became the one constant thing in my life. They provided comfort in each new place my family traveled to, and helped ease the transitions and challenges inherent in being the new kid on the block.

The certainty that I wanted to study literature came to me one day during my freshman year as a Liberal Arts student at the University of Puerto Rico. I had settled down to read in my favorite spot, the hallway floor in one of the campus buildings where I liked to read in-between classes. No one bothered me. I had the campus library nearby. It was the perfect setting. That day I had borrowed Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). I was eighteen years old, excited to be a college student and eager to expand my intellectual horizons. Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked like never before by the power of words on a page.

One thing that I always teach my students about writing is the importance of catching your reader’s attention with the opening sentence in any piece of writing. It doesn’t matter what you are writing I tell them – the lead, the hook, the introduction, whatever you want to call it – is what will snag the reader’s attention and keep them interested in reading on. What follows has to live up to the hype, but that first sentence is vital. And so there I was, innocently cracking open Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece when I was hit, gobsmacked, completely floored, my attention captured by this opening sentence.

“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.”

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

In the essay “My Life’s Sentences,” Jhumpa Lahiri, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies, writes:

“For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

After first reading Garcia Marquez’s artfully arranged sentence, time did stop for me. I was affected and profoundly altered by the images conjured in that opening sentence. Before that day, I wasn’t sure where I was heading with my studies. I knew I wanted an education in Humanities, but had not decided on a major; reading was something I did because I loved it. But after reading and rereading that magical sentence and the ones that followed, I decided to study literature.

I have reread One Hundred Years of Solitude many times since then, along with hundreds if not thousands of other books. I have read numerous other sentences that have left me breathless and caused me to stop and ponder their beauty, but I will never forget the one I encountered that distant afternoon in a quiet hallway when I was eighteen years old. And this, dear reader, is why I became a teacher of English. What better way to indulge my passion than by sharing it with others.


About zortizfuentes

I'm a writer, yoga instructor, and former NYC public school English teacher. Also, I am one of the 2016 NYC Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellows. My favorite books are Jane Eyre and One Hundred Years of Solitude.
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One Response to That Distant Afternoon

  1. Steph says:

    I loved your post!
    Thanks to you, I’ll be going to NYPL to
    pick up Hundred Years.
    It’s definitely time for a re-read.

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