I arrived after dark in Mexico City with one word of Spanish. That night I slept to the drone of a language tape, but the next morning I knew not one word more. En route to breakfast I looked up thank you and good morning. “Buenos dias,” I said to the short round woman made of heart and muscle.
“Buenos dias, senior,” she replied, showing me to my seat.
Then she said something else. I heard café, so I said, “Por favor.”
Five minutes later she returned with coffee and a plate of eggs with refried beans. “Gracias!” I played my final card.
“De nada,” she smiled.
After breakfast I retreated to my room to write a few lines about how big the world is, how everyday people cross unimaginable distances, how once it was all within walking distance.
Even now some distance lingers between strangers. It shrinks to a sense of relief when a shared language emerges. But where none exists it takes a sharp breath into vacuous space, all anxieties of being misunderstood expand to fill it completely.
Around midday I decided to make an adventure of finding a cafe-bookstore I’d read about. To get there I’d have to cross the plaza Rio de Janeiro, and the enormous replica of David in its centre. Off I went.
Hundreds of years of traffic had softened the cobblestones that led to the statue. Even the soil that lined them, sparsely planted with trees and shrubs, claimed not a patch so old. In the distance I saw David. He stood in a fountain. Between us a man was sitting on the floor. His legs outstretched, his shoes beside him. Behind him his hands, arms straight, a posture reserved for short spells of relaxation. I considered he might be homeless. His clothes were dusty but I wasn't sure. For all I knew he simply preferred old stones to damp grass. And given my uncertainty - and honestly, either way - I tried to make no impression. When he spoke I pretended not to hear. I didn’t want to embarrass him with pesos if really all he wanted were directions.
I found the bookstore. Once inside I made my way bashfully down foreign spines to the English section, then to the cafe section, where the host greeted me with a question about whether I’d be sitting alone. Or so I assumed and said, “Si."
He made a gesture that I understood to mean a choice between inside and out. In response I attempted some physical comedy by sticking out my hand as if to feel the air temperature - but before I could retrieve it for laughs my obliging host understood me to have pointed to my choice.
“Perfecto,” he said, encouragingly.
Somewhat embarrassed I followed his lead and reached for the corner seat. But all at once a woman stood very close. She held a pot of tea and her smile said she had the same idea. She was gorgeous. Her long black hair was curly. Constellated freckles spread to a fade from the bridge of her nose to the swell of her cheeks. A storm raged green and blue in her eyes and each hairline fibre of iris muscle was a bolt of lightening.
Her lips moved very fast. Probably in good humoured apology - at least four sentences worth. I smiled. My hands made clear the seat was hers. She protested - or perhaps she suggested, given our shared taste in position, we might sit and get to know each other - but valiantly I declined and hurried to another table.
Two coffees and a chapter later I rose to use the bathroom. She was still there when I returned, but further away.
Days later, with my Spanish somewhat improved, I traveled to Puebla. There I met former Mr. Puebla and joined his gym. A shoeshiner lit my boots on fire. I made some friends, and I found a tailor to repair an old blazer I purchased at a church market.
More on that one day.