Language Acquisition

Diana Spechler recalls fleeing her life in New York City for a new one with a painter in his village in central Mexico.

Diana Spechler | Longreads | October 2017 | 16 minutes (3,875 words)

It begins at an outdoor café while you’re working for a month in central Mexico. From one table away, you zero in on his brown forearm, the two black cuffs tattooed around it. You want to touch those cuffs, encircle his arm with your hands. Soon you’ll learn the word esposas, which means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but today you know only polite Spanish, please-and-thank-you Spanish. You smile at him until he approaches. When he asks if you have a boyfriend, you start to cry and can’t stop. You want to explain something to him — that you loved someone the way a dog loves her owner — but the only available language is snot. He holds a cocktail napkin to your nose. “Blow,” he says. For a second, you think he’s serious. Then you laugh so hard you feel something shift, the way the sky shifts from blue to pink.

***

His socks never match. His clothes and his dog are splattered with paint. His mother embroiders designs on his guayaberas and does his laundry. At night, he crashes wherever he is — on a porch, on a couch, by the lake in his pueblo. He takes you hiking to see the bursting white moon. He takes you to meet the shaman who can erase your pain with feathers. He takes you to see pyramids and an eagle carved into a mountain. He knows how to build a fire. He knows how to prepare a sweat lodge. He knows how to get people to buy him drinks. He knows how to wrap your hair around one hand and undress you with the other. During sex, he says all kinds of things you wish you understood. By the lake, you get so stoned together he stares at your face and asks if you’re Buddha.

“If I were Buddha, I couldn’t tell you,” you say.

“You have the face of Buddha.” He takes a drag, exhales a cloud, leans back on one elbow. “But don’t tell me. You are right. It is better not to tell me.”

He gets stoned every hour or so, joint in one hand, paint brush in the other. You haven’t gotten stoned in a while. Is it a bad idea to smoke pot in this country? You know drugs are to blame for Mexico’s problems. Or America is to blame for Mexico’s problems. Or Mexico is to blame for America’s problems? Maybe you are a real asshole, an American getting high in Mexico.

***

He plays Me Gustas Tú on the jukebox in the dive bar and spins you around the dusty floor. You don’t understand the lyrics yet, but one day you will: Me gustas means “I like you,” but translates more closely to, “You please me.” He says he and his ex “had different rhythms,” that she always went to bed at 9 and that’s why their relationship faltered. You like to go to bed at 9, too, but you are so jacked on adrenaline and novelty, you believe in the moment that you’ve left that sleepy person in the past. He introduces you to a friend of his ex, who looks at you, at your hand in his, and asks you, “Eres una santa o que?”

“What did she say?” you ask him later.

“She wanted to know if you’re a saint,” he says. “Are you a saint?”

“I’m the farthest thing from a saint,” you say, though you’ve never identified that way before.

There are always mutts in that bar, baring their teeth. Teenagers whose eyes dart. Crystal meth in the bathroom. A very pregnant bartender. Another bartender he speaks with in rapid Spanish. You don’t understand a word, though you understand that they’ve slept together. There are universal languages. One of them is, ¡We fucked!

***

He never has money. Not even eight pesos to ride the one bus down the one carretera. Instead he hitchhikes, throwing the dog into the bed of whichever truck pulls over. Though whenever a child in the plaza opens a dirty palm, he fishes a few pesos from his pocket and buys the chayote or the pistachios or the hand-woven bracelet. If the child is selling nothing, he gives him pesos anyway.

He knows how to build a fire. He knows how to prepare a sweat lodge. He knows how to get people to buy him drinks. He knows how to wrap your hair around one hand and undress you with the other.

In the truck bed, there is wind on your face. Mountains beyond the lake. “What if I get in love with you?” he asks because you can’t stop smiling and he likes your smile. You used to think that falling in love was sharing all of your stories. You used to think that falling in love was dazzling each other with word play, being the only two people in the room who were in on the joke. You’ve always fallen in love with men who could juggle the English language — adding that third ball, then the fourth, then a couple of flaming bowling pins. It turns out that words are irrelevant. Falling in love is his arms around you, his dog leaning against your chest, wind whooshing the thoughts from your brain, mountains unfurling across the blue.

You like his smile, too. The Spanish word for smile is sonrisa. You remember because it sounds like “sunrise” and his smile looks like a sunrise.

***

Because you can take your work anywhere, you stay. You would never ask him to move to New York for you. Really, you wouldn’t ask him for much. He doesn’t ask you for much. He didn’t ask you to stay in Mexico, for example. You rent a house. He’ll be content — won’t he? — if he has a bed to come home to, a woman to come home to, a place to paint.

Te quiero mucho,” he tells you, and your heart fills, but a Google search reveals that that’s friendship love. Familial love. What you want to hear is “Te amo.” “Mi amor,” he calls you in bed, but in Mexico, that’s just a nice thing to say while having sex.

You kiss the dog’s head. “Te amo,” you whisper into his ear. He licks your cheek. You feed him chicken. The dog learns to love you first. He sprints circles in the grass while you pin up the wash. He cries whenever you leave.

***

There was a feeling that used to come over you on the G train late at night, a feeling that felt like nothing, or maybe like despair. I am moving, arbitrarily, from one place to another. I am reading the subway poetry. A man inserts his earbuds. A woman rests against the pole. We are faint reflections on dirty glass. All this under fluorescent lights, the safety announcements booming. That sound, that lighting, the rats dashing over the tracks, the shit and piss on the streets, the useless, old pay phones dangling from silver cords like hanged men — you became those things in New York. There were all those pills you were swallowing. The weight you were losing. Your palms full of hair that your head didn’t want. So in Mexico your goals change: You will divorce the past and exchange its language for words that have never hurt you.

***

You surrender to months of cluelessness: You order an omelet with “no fucking,” though you meant to say “no onions.” You speak and are met with confusion. You listen but don’t understand. Some words are lovelier in Spanish: Waterfall is cascada. Storm is tormenta. Your ribs are costillas — little coastlines along the sea. I’m sorry is lo siento, which translates to “I feel it.” Even the prepositions have passion: You dream “with” someone, instead of about him. You think “in” him, rather than “of” him. For a while, you know only present tense. This is frustrating. You’re a writer. But what a gift to never speak of the future. To acknowledge no past. To avoid the complicated subjunctive, which expresses wishes and hopes. In Spanish, you are here and now, the way the spiritual people claim to be. You’ve never believed the spiritual people. You dated spiritual men in New York, but they were just men with wooden beads around their necks who talked about their path. Here’s one thing you learned in America: you can’t extract love from an American man who says he’s on a path.

***

In the beginning, his benders never exceeded four days. Eight months in, one lasts nine days. You tell him you worry about his safety, but that’s only part of the truth. You worry he’ll sleep with that bartender. You worry another extranjera will travel through town, and she’ll be 26 instead of 36, and she’ll happily stay out all night buying him tequila. It’s a valid concern. He checks out all asses, as though he’s some kind of safety inspector and each woman’s ass might contain a grenade.

“This is not my fault,” he likes to tell you. “You don’t understand my culture.”

“Your culture didn’t check out her ass,” you say.

He tells you he’ll quit drinking. He tells you not to tell him what to do. He tells you you knew who he was so why are you trying to change him? He tells you he’ll quit drinking. He tells you you’re caging him. He tells you he’s an alcoholic. He tells you he’s not an alcoholic. He tells you he’ll quit drinking. The periods of abstinence last about as long as his benders last.

He plays Me Gustas Tú on the jukebox in the dive bar and spins you around. You don’t understand the lyrics yet, but one day you will: Me gustas tú means ‘I like you,’ but translates more closely to, ‘You please me.’

You worry he’ll wake you up when he gets home; sleep is already such a struggle. You worry he won’t come home. You worry he’ll never be an earner. (“He’s a brilliant artist, but he’s not an earner,” a retired expat woman told you soon after you met him.) You worry you’ll run out of money and then you’ll be just like him. He keeps telling you you’re not fun anymore. You worry you’re not fun anymore. You worry you can only love addicts. When he’s drunk, he can’t see you, can’t listen to you, can’t speak to you coherently, and that feels too much like being alone. You worry he’ll die. You worry if he dies, you’ll have no reason to stay in Mexico. You worry so feverishly, so frequently, that you can’t work, can’t think, can’t sleep, can’t tell anyone what’s happening. You are blind-folded by worry; you are bumping into walls. Your mouth dries up, your stomach coils thick as rope. The only way to get through to him, you learn, is to abandon him. The silent treatment works. Letting him return to an empty house works. Is this love? Finding your partner’s weak spots? Exploiting them so you’ll win? You worry you stayed in Mexico for something that wasn’t love, was more like those fake wrestling shows your grandfather watched from his La-Z-Boy.

***

One night after a fight, after hours of not talking, he opens the door you slammed in his face and finds you in bed, spooning the dog. He starts to laugh. You try not to laugh, but you can’t help yourself. He doubles over in the doorway. You laugh so hard, your stomach aches. The dog wags his tail against your leg. Then the three of you lie in bed together, holding on.

***

One night at the bar, you tell him ten times that you want to go home. He has a beer in one hand, another beer in the other. You could leave without him, of course, but you know how that would feel, to be suddenly alone in the house, imagining him in the bar. Finally you storm out, feeling not like a woman, but like a caricature of a woman, running away from a man so he’ll follow. More and more in this country, you find yourself playing the role of Woman — bonding with his aunts in the kitchen, nodding when men explain to you the power of feminine energy. You want to hear desperation. You want him to trail you, repeating your name, inflating you with each repetition.

¿Qué pasó?” He catches up to you and grabs your arm.

Conversations about fluency always include dreaming. When you dream in Spanish, they tell you, you will know you have made it. You do dream about Spanish. But what you dream about is trying to speak Spanish and making a lot of mistakes. You have a different bar for fluency: being able to explode in anger without reverting to English.


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“Fuck you.” You yank your arm away. You know the equivalent insult in Spanish, but it translates to “fuck your whore mother” and you don’t feel right saying that. His mother has rheumatoid arthritis. His mother recently taught you how to make camarones a la diabla. His mother once said, “If you were my daughter, I wouldn’t let him near you.”

You’ve always fallen in love with men who could juggle the English language — adding that third ball, then the fourth, then a couple of flaming bowling pins. It turns out that words are irrelevant.

An hour later, you both lie wide awake in bed.

You ask him: “Do you love me?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

“You don’t know.”

“I cannot love someone who keeps me in a cage.”

You consider the word esposas, how both definitions shame you. Maybe you are caging him. Cuffing him like a wife. Aren’t your displays of anger bids for his attention, attempts to wrangle? Isn’t relative sobriety your way to feel superior? Don’t you believe he owes you something because you stayed in Mexico for him? Why are you doing his laundry? It’s no selfless act of love. Why are you renting this decorated home, resting on a stranger’s furniture? The art on these walls is terrible. Everything about this house is another woman’s aesthetic. You wonder if you’re going to cry. But the tears just quiver inside your skull. It is terror you feel, not grief.

***

You take to wearing stretched-out tank tops, giant sweatpants. Mostly what you are now is so tired, you can’t move. You eat quesillo on the couch. It’s some kind of Mexican string cheese. You gain ten pounds. Maybe fifteen. The dog curls up to sleep on your legs. But he still knows who his owner is. If his owner enters the room, the dog is on his feet in seconds.

Every Sunday morning, your friend picks you up in her crappy Jeep. Rescues you from the hellish weekend. You drive around the lake together. You drink margaritas in the sunshine. He sends you a thousand text messages and you don’t reply. You get high on not replying. He is hungover and indebted. Soon he’ll be making promises: I take a break from drinking now. This week I start my life.

Your friend is 23, has never been in love. You can see this makes no sense to her — why you leave him and then go home to him, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. But she tries to figure it out. She watches your face to learn something about what it’s like to be old. Here is what it’s like: Almost everyone reminds you of someone. Almost everything reminds you of something. Each pain is a wooden nesting doll, and you react to all the dolls inside, not just to the one you see.

***

Sunday nights are nice. He cooks something he knows you’ll like. Makes salsa from scratch with three different chiles. Squeezes limes into a pitcher of water. You eat in the backyard, throwing bits of tortilla to the dog. You insist on using Spanish. You remind him if he keeps speaking English, you’ll never become fluent. He agrees to let you practice Spanish on a Sunday after a bender. In Spanish, he discusses the future. He has so many plans for the future. There are two future-tense constructions: I’m going to and I will. He is going to start a revolution. He is going to save the children. He has the whole thing mapped out in a notebook. He lost the notebook, he thinks, probably, but he might know where it is. He is going to get his notebook back. And then it will begin.

***

Before the final act, there are dress rehearsals. One dress rehearsal is, he comes home in the middle of the night covered in blood and shakes you awake. “Do you know whose blood this is?” he asks.

“What the hell?” you say, already crying, as if the tears began in a dream. “I don’t know,” you say. “How would I know? I was sleeping.”

The next day, he remembers nothing.

Almost everyone reminds you of someone. Almost everything reminds you of something. Each pain is a wooden nesting doll, and you react to all the dolls inside, not just to the one you see.

During another dress rehearsal, you yank your suitcase from the top shelf of the closet and pack up your life — your clothes that no longer fit, the comic book he made you, the 2,000-year-old fertility goddess you bought outside of Oaxaca. While you fake-pack, he collapses to the floor and begs you in Spanish. You understand every word. That pleases you immensely.

His contrition usually lasts a day. Love will brighten his eyes. You will ask him, “Don’t you want to be happy?” and he will tell you, “Yes!” He will ask you, “Are you an angel?” and you will say, “I think so!” When you walk, he’ll cup your elbow gently or touch the small of your back. Once, he’ll kneel before you and tell you to paint his face. You’ll paint him a pair of black glasses. He’ll wear them around town and everyone will laugh. You won’t want him to wash them away. You’ll love how he looks at you through those glasses.

***

You fly to the States for a week to renew your tourist visa. In English, you can listen to and comprehend two conversations at once. In English, you catch subtle references to TV shows from the ‘80s. English is set to different music: “Here you go,” for example, crescendos, as if giving is a performance, whereas in Spanish — “Aquí tienes” — the tune is matter-of-fact. Laughter is more restrained in English. In Mexico, there’s an “I’m impressed” facial expression that in America means “Oh, shit.” You’d forgotten the horrific beauty of CVS, all those choices set to muzak. At Kohl’s, you buy a rubber fitness-tracker bracelet that puffs you full of the American dream — it is going to be so easy and quick to fix your stupid life.

***

Back in Mexico, you drink 64 ounces of water each day and walk 10,000 steps. You use the bike path on the carretera, swinging your elbows behind pairs of retired expat women. The expats complain about the noise: Churches set off firecrackers. Music blares — three or four songs at once. Dogs live on rooftops and bark all night. I can’t hear myself think, the expats say. But then why did they run from their countries? What do they want with thinking? When you reach your step goal, your bracelet vibrates and your chest inflates with hope. It’s disturbing how potent rewards are, how much they feel like love.

He’s angry because he’s not drinking. He blames you as if you’re hiding his tequila. He’s angry with you when you go out walking. He’s angry with you for wearing shorts because men call to you from their trucks. He hates your fitness-tracker bracelet, which resembles his tattoos. He keeps offering you his joint and you keep saying no. Finally you take a few hits and then you’re so high, you agree with him: Why are you wearing this vulgar piece of rubber? What if the government is monitoring you? What if it’s giving you cancer?

***

You accept a month-long teaching job in another part of Mexico. It’s close enough to ride the bus there, but not so close he could afford to ride the bus there. He doesn’t want you to go. He wants you to go. He doesn’t want you to go. You don’t know what you want anymore. Wanting has gotten so muddy.

For your last weekend, you vacation together in Sayulita. You pay for the bus tickets. You pay for the tiny hotel room. You pay a man to crack a coconut with a machete and give you the water inside. You pay for everything, but he’s pissed the whole time because he wants to drink beer on the beach.

“So drink,” you say.

“You are making me a trap,” he says.

He’s angry because he’s not drinking. He blames you as if you’re hiding his tequila. He’s angry with you when you go out walking. He’s angry with you for wearing shorts because men call to you from their trucks.

He’s right, in a sense. In another sense, you want him to drink. He would love you more with a Corona in his hand. He leaves you on your towel, goes for a swim. You feel fat in your bikini. You are alone and beached on a beach towel, watching the sea embrace him. A surfing instructor sits beside you for a minute and tries to sell you a lesson.

“What did that guy want?” he asks when he returns.

“Just to tell me I’m beautiful,” you say.

***

Three hundred fifty kilometers away from him, you take to hugging your pillow at night, pretending it’s his body. Your pillow never squirms or snores or reeks of marijuana. But had you expected him to be a pillow — an inanimate object that existed for your comfort? You decide that when you go back, you can work together to fix things.

“Let’s start over,” you tell your pillow. Empecemos de nuevo.

But the next day, your 23-year-old friend calls. He came on to her at a party, she says, has done it a couple of times before, too — once on the ground after a sweat lodge, once by offering her a massage. And he also came on to a woman you’ve heard him call a “healer.”

The slang for “coming on to” is “echando los perros,” or “throwing the dogs.”

Which strikes you as insulting to dogs.

***

Maybe all reckonings transpire on bathroom floors. Maybe to cry out, you must collapse and kneel down in this unholy place. Or maybe you’ve always been headed here, these tiles calling for the bones of your knees, from the moment you took this job, from the moment you saw the tattoos on his arm, from the moment in your infancy when you first reached for something you wanted.

***

You quit sugar and coffee. No more deceptive sweetness. No more highs and crashes. There’s a week-long headache you didn’t expect, but you’re determined to find the other side. Brain fog clears. Rainy season passes. You stay in this town with the pastel stucco, the cobblestone streets, the sunsets you try and fail to capture with your iPhone camera. You ignore most of his calls. You stop thinking of yourself as “away,” and believe that you are “here.” You make friends who don’t speak English. You realize you can sort of read Portuguese. You can listen to Mexican radio. Your accent becomes less gringo. When you remember the dog’s face, so ecstatic just to go outside, so willing to sleep in your arms, so grateful for the warmth of your leg, you fantasize about kidnapping him. You can’t stop longing to hug him. You keep cringing about a mistake you made — the time you took him to a groomer. He’s not that kind of dog, but you were sick of all the shedding. Afterward, without his hair, he looked so small. He looked too thin. He barked at you for a solid minute. You understood him perfectly.

* * *

Diana Spechler

Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, and The New York Times column “Going Off.” Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including GQ, Esquire, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House Open Bar, The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, Glimmer Train, and Harper’s.


Editor: Sari Botton