Three Words in My Life

Rey Armenteros

I don’t have an occasion for every special word, but there are words that are tied to something in my past, like vernissage. I was part of a vernissage once. Before that fateful event in my life, I had never even heard of the word. This rare word contributes something to a small part of the art world. A vernissage is a private viewing of art before it is officially opened in an exhibition. Some collectors and patrons are invited to one of these things to maybe get a heads up on upcoming talent or to have first dibs on buying something.

My vernissage was for my MFA art exhibition. San Francisco was a perfect site for such an event. There was still a rich art aristocracy that was learned as well as passionate about art. They had their fingers in the city’s art interests, and this included our school because of the history behind it. The San Francisco Art Institute was the mecca for the art traditions of Northern California. Many of the mile markers of the area came through that school as teachers or students.

It was fateful to me not because I found success through the important people that skip the line by attending a special show but because I was now going out into the world to do something with my art, for better or for worse, like a debut. Every time I hear vernissage, I think of debutante, and then I think about me during this one moment when everything was right in front of me.

My cousin was visiting me in San Francisco once, and as we were catching up on old times, he was telling me that he was atrophying. I knew exactly what he meant, and it had happened to me too. If you stop working out, your muscles get smaller. We were discussing the finer points of maybe getting some of those muscles back (even though he was far too young to be worrying about such things). And now, every time I encounter that word, I go back to that moment when we were ambling around people on the Chinatown streets and talking on about shrinking muscles. It comes back to me through his mumbled words, the unresponsive look on his face. What I find funny is that was the exact word I used for that phenomenon, and I would use that one all the time. Now, I wonder if he was using it because I used to use it. Regardless if we can say it was my word or if he in fact acquired authorship over it through some other source, every time I think of muscles losing their mass, I go back to that word my cousin used, and in my mind, it is now his word.

Because I don’t have words for every situation, I get stuck when I try to move forward. I start guessing. Somebody might ask me a question, and I can stand exactly where I now am and piece something together with words as they come to me as I try to search for an answer. I am looking for the big words, and what I really want is that one word that would be a perfect response. These are the words that are supposed to be important, the ones that drop right in front of you to single-handedly solve a problem, and I can’t think of any right now. I can’t even think of a question grand enough that requires an important word to be dropped on an executive officer’s desk to impress this person with its very gravity.

But I like it when a word means nothing but something indirect to just two people. A word as an inside joke can spin a little laughter between friends. I used to use the word interesting for certain things but then resorted to fascinating when interest was not enough. It was a play by play thing, because most things were just interesting if they were not boring, but they would be fascinating if they really grabbed my attention. Well, that word’s primary role in my hierarchy of emphasis has developed an affliction because of this one time in Thailand.

Every time I think of fascinating, it now takes me back to a simpler time, when I was traveling with a good friend I have always held in high regard. There was no agenda, and there was nothing profound to describe. We were drinking on a rooftop in Bangkok and hanging out with his roommate from Estonia, and my friend was pursing his lips like a pondering scientist and lisping the word, “fascinating!” for almost everything I said. At first, it was annoying, but then it became hilarious, and I was soon going along with his goofiness because it was the first burst of life I had had in a long time. I was saying fascinating with that lisping facial expression alongside him, and we continued using it when we left Bangkok and traveled into the countryside, finding everything fascinating. And I didn’t stop using it when I left that country but used it in other situations where the people around me had no reference to the history behind our word, when my friend was already long gone. That was the circumstance that disarmed that superlative expression and made it into a place marker for infectious laughter, and ever since that day, fascinating could no longer be greater than interesting, and I have never used it that way again.

Rey Armenteros is a Los Angeles-based painter and writer who writes the blog, Through Concentrated Breath. He has pieces forthcoming in Magnolia Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.