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First Sentence: Héctor Abad

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The third instalment in a new series where we ask authors to revisit the opening sentences of their stories.

Here, Héctor Abad explains how the same chemical boost behind his first sentence was responsible for his falling in love with his wife.

The first thing I felt when I returned from the jungle was a paralysis of willpower.

Five or so years ago I unwittingly underwent an experiment in cerebral chemistry. Due to certain symptoms of existential despondency, my urologist prescribed a testosterone gel. I proceeded to rub it into my thighs on a daily basis and a week later my thoughts, my behaviour and even my feelings changed. The first thing I noticed is that I started driving my car as irresponsibly as I had in my long-ago adolescence: I thought all the other drivers were racing me, and that I had to beat them even at the risk of causing an accident. If anyone honked at me, I took that sound as a personal affront. I received two speeding tickets in the post after being caught by cameras. In political discussions I’d get so worked up I’d lose my voice, choking with rage. But it wasn’t all bad, luckily enough: suddenly all kinds of women began to seem incredibly beautiful to me, to the point where two months later I’d fallen in love with an ardour and a feeling of do or die that reminded me of love’s histrionics at age twenty. I suddenly started writing romantic poetry again and after years of refusing to listen to them, I started to enjoy boleros again.

Ever since this happened to me, I haven’t really believed in free will. I think the ideas that occur to me (the sentences, poems, themes for articles or stories) obey a strange or at least unknown chemical equilibrium of my neurons. What I mean is, I believe that all my ideas are dictated by my body. Regarding the first sentence I wrote about my trip to Colombian Amazonia, I should simply say that my thought translated into words what I was feeling: that I was unable to move, work, write, take a shower or make myself a cup of coffee. I was unable to do anything. Something inside me was telling me to keep still, stay in bed, with my eyes closed. I too have had the illusion that the will can overcome inertia and laziness. The thing is when I came back from the jungle my will was paralysed; there was no way to overrule a very deep order that was telling me: keep still, don’t get up, don’t move.

Then came the fever, the shivers, the terrible discomfort, the X-rays and finally the diagnosis: I was ill. And the sentence that had occurred to me was simply the obscure way my mind registered the beginning of the illness: I can’t move, I’m unable to move even though my arms and legs are responsive.

When I began to use the testosterone gel I fell in love with the woman who is now my wife. I believe that without this chemical boost I would never have fallen in love (not because she’s not an extraordinary person, but because I wouldn’t have looked at her long enough to see her well, to appreciate her, to be able to discover her virtues). In fairy tales, even in the myth of Tristan and Isolde, lovers fall in love because they take a magic philtre. These magic potions exist; they’re not fantasies and they are irresistible. It’s just that we don’t know about them, or we’re only just beginning to discover them. A hormone or a virus, a bacteria or a neurotransmitter: these are the things (we used to call them muses or duendes) that dictate our sentences and thoughts.

Translated by Anne McLean

Image by robotson

For more first sentences: David Searcy on how writing the first sentence is like going to the dentist, and Miroslav Penkov on his formula for the best first sentence looking at how Eudora Welty, Chekhov and Hemingway start their stories.

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