What Is the Word For


well-travelled photo of a boy in the zocalo

When that president talks about Mexico and Mexicans and The Wall I pretend that instead of saying Mexico he is saying Xwatthewetymz—a far-off galaxy where I have never been or met anyone from.  And after that I remember my mom telling me how she got her ears pierced.  She was living with a family in Saltillo, Mexico, and one morning a sister from the family pierced her ears with a needle and an ice cube.  The school bus showed up, and the little brother had to run out and tell the bus driver to wait, that the American girl only had one ear pierced.  I imagined her wincing, bleeding, and I simultaneously imagined the kids sitting yawning on the school bus, board and numb.  Isn’t that always the way?  One person’s pain is someone else’s impatience.  Thank you very much mister president.  I studied Spanish in school, but my mom said total immersion was really the way to learn.  It got me all the way to Never Never Land, she said, referring to her job at Disneyland as a tour-guide for Spanish-speaking dignitaries.  She basically got paid to go on rides all day with tourists in a good mood.  Many people thought the park had given her a fun fake name for the job.  But Nelly Bly was the name her parents had given her.  One time she and some other workers jumped out of their boats on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and hid on a fake island in the dark, ducking fake gunfire under fake stars.       

When I was in high school my mom arranged for me to live for the summer with a family in Oaxaca, Mexico.  I was different than my mom, though.  I was scared of people.  By age 16 I had crawled further and further into myself, into homework and books and my room.  Even when I went to school—watching my feet as I walked, adopting the posture of an 80-year-old with osteoporosis—my interaction with people was limited to a few words and ducked eye contact.  The girls I had known since Kindergarten travelled the hallways in loud, bold packs, laughing about their weekends.  When I saw them coming I stooped to the side from a long way off.

In Mexico City I had a long delay and realized, just by sitting in various terminals, that I understood no Spanish.  What is the Spanish word for Zero again, I scribbled in my notebook, Because that is what I know.  I scribbled notes the whole journey in attempt to curtail my panic, but my pen shook on the page, making my printing appear like a polygraph test.  Some people in the airport held my eyes and smiled kindly, like they had no idea I was a loser.  A few times I believed them and smiled back.  When I arrived in Oaxaca, which I had practiced pronouncing for weeks, the father and mother of the house were away on a trip.  Their daughter was at university, and their son was working at the coffee office.  The maid seemed amused at the arrival of a teenager who couldn’t speak.  When she showed me to my room I remembered the words siesta, and por favor, and gracias, and I pulled the sheets over my head and fell fast asleep.  The body probably can’t discern panic from hard labour. When I woke up I could not place where I was. The power had gone out, so it felt as though my eyes were still closed.   Giant reflections of a candle flame in the hall soared and flapped, like the dream of a monster with wings.  I could make out voices, but whether they were talking or singing I didn’t know.  Then I remembered it was Spanish.  I heard the chime of silverware in action, and I realized I was really hungry.

This is the moment I think about, when I apprehend that a president is proposing a wall between the USA and Mexico.  I remember how scared I was to pull the covers back, and stand up, and walk out to meet the voices.   Out there on the table is a box of sugar cereal, which the son—no longer a kid—will still eat for dinner when his parents are away.  There sits Renato, who will call me Carrie On! Carrie Out! Carrie Over! with a happy bounce.  And ask me five times a day, How do you say….?, placing himself in the role of foreigner, giving me a chance to instruct.   And each night we will laugh together to The Benny Hill Show, because outrageously-blatant comedy is something we can follow at the same fast pace.  Out there, on my morning walk to the bus stop, a bunch of boys will be playing soccer in a plot of dirt, moving like dancers with the white clouds racing above them.  Out beyond that, two bus rides away, is the zocalo, where bouquets of balloons blot out the sky and so many stories-in-the-form-of-people drift past, a spy’s paradise.  Out there is the boy with the scratchy voice and a smile like a lit match, who teach me how to pick up a pigeon with my foot.  Out from that is the Universidad Benito Juarez, where I will conjugate verbs hesitantly and meet a friend who goes by a fake name, so I will never find her again.  But oh!  She will teach me to stand straight enough to carry my books on my head, like she learned in The Peace Corps in Africa.  She will teach me to hitch rides to the ruins in the back of pick-up trucks.  She will take me to a coastal village with the happiest cemetery in the world, and we will shower under the drips from the clothes we wash in the sink.  And we will be adored by two separate fisherman whose extended families will eye us warily, knowing we will leave.  And we will leave, and leave each other.  But we will never completely leave.  For instance, when that president talks about building a wall, I am right back there in the dark, in a strange bed in Oaxaca.  I hope I can fake the confidence to be as kind as they are, whoever they are, is what I think.  And I swing my legs over and stand up.


4 thoughts on “What Is the Word For

  1. Thankyou Carrie,strange pleasure to read your words & be a part of the story,as I sit listening to the frogs, the sea waves& night crickets. I’m reminded of your .. Fears & joys. & oh yeah, the theme… Why would anybody ever want to be unkind to a neighbour who is going to be your neighbour forever. Content to read your thoughts,& the waves roll out..


    • Thanks Rory. So good to hear from you, and to picture you that little spot of peace you’ve found (and shared) in Mexico. Yes, someone inside me still “hides in the crypt” at times, especially when that President speaks. How lucky I am to be in Canada. So hey, wave hello to the bay for me. Soon I will write about it, in attempt to swim (by hand) right back there.


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