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The little girl was crying inconsolably and I went into the family’s room and sat next to her and thought several times if ‘Qué te pasa’ was correct. Eventually I said it and she went on to give me a long, tearful, snotty shpeel about what happened. I didn’t understand a word. At the end of it she looked up at me, waiting, and I shrugged. I think she carried on crying and I sat there patiently, waiting until she finished. Her name was pronounced Sendya, I wouldn’t know how to spell it. She was probably about six and had a beautiful little Mexican face and long, dark hair that was always loose about her shoulders. Her little sister was called Omé and they would come into my room and bounce on the beds and fight over a ball, and one of the first things I ever understood in Spanish was when Omé grabbed the ball and shouted: ‘La tengo, la tengo!’ And I thought with a smile, she’s got the ball.
Since my fit of panic upon arrival, when I ate the box of Belgian chocolates I had bought for them after I realised I didn’t have two words of Spanish to communicate with and this was a disaster, I had settled into family life with Román, Yvonne and the two girls. I would help with the cooking, wash up after dinner. Román was appalled at the amount of water I used and taught me to turn off the tap while rubbing the dishes with the sponge. When I see my dad with the tap free-flowing while he is away somewhere else in the kitchen, I can’t help but run over and turn it off.
I learned Spanish with them, in their big house that belonged to one of their aunts, Aunt Mary, who lived separately in a room downstairs and whom they didn’t talk to. They said ‘entonces’ all the time, and I marveled at this lovely word with three syllables. One day when someone was around who I could ask, they told me it meant, ‘so’. How lovely that such a big word could be ‘so’, I thought. I still love it now.
Yvonne took me on a bus to Plaza Del Sol, the nearest shopping centre, on my first day so that I could get money out. At 18 and just arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico, let’s say I wasn’t prepared. I had no cash, and a small pocket dictionary. I used it to tell her: daughter; beautiful. For the three months I lived there I often went to Plaza Del Sol. I would meet friends who lived in another lady’s house nearby for frozen yogurt and shopping. We also met boys there who we went with to Puerto Vallarta. We nearly crashed on the way and I remember one of them jumped up and down on the bed and got knocked out by the fan.
When I got sick after eating crushed-prawn burgers and fainting in a football stadium when Chivas and León were playing, Román and Yvonne looked after me for a week while I was in bed. They worried about me, and when a girl rang demanding to speak to me about her boyfriend, Yvonne didn’t hand over the phone.
Some days, Yvonne would lie in bed in their dark room, or on the sofa, and I realise now that she may have suffered from some depression. I remember it was a very happy day when she got a job. And Román was constant, like my own father, and his presence was always bright and reassuring and kind. He soldered coloured glass and I would watch him, with his ponytail down his waist, work away.
A group of us went travelling for five weeks down through Mexico and to Guatemala. I remember seeing scorpions in a wooden hut where I was going to sleep in Tikal and thinking that it was OK because the scorpion was so small. We stayed in the jungle so late the security guard had to come and find us and escort us out with a torch because there were snakes and monkeys. I lived on cinnamon buns (among tacos and quesadillas) and when I got back ‘home’ Sendya saw me through the window and came running out to hug me and tell me I was ‘gordita’. I knew enough by then to know I had returned chubby.
After a few more weeks it was time to go. I kept their names and address and telephone number and Román took me to the airport. He brought a book to read and told me he would wait until my flight left. I was nervous because I had lots of burned CDs and I wondered if I’d get into trouble. He told me to ring when I got home and I said I would.
I got swept up in everything as soon as I got back. I didn’t ring as soon as I got in. I didn’t ring the next day. Then I started to get nervous about ringing, and speaking to them in Spanish over the phone and from so far away. How would I communicate? Wouldn’t it be awkward? The days trickled by and soon I was leaving for university. Soon the year was over. Soon I had lost the piece of paper with their details on it. I don’t know how many years went by before I went through all my papers looking for their names, number, address. I couldn’t find any of it and gave up.
Then one day my dad told me there was a very strange voicemail message in Spanish of a woman chatting away. Yvonne. When I got home I listened to it, waiting for a number, but there wasn’t one. I searched again, contacted the agency through which I had travelled, and contacted the girls who’d been in another house, in the same house; no-one had anything.
About eleven years later, I returned to Mexico with my boyfriend. We were to travel five months from Mexico to Argentina. We had a friend in Guadalajara and stayed with her for five days, and when we went to Plaza Del Sol, it was like another place. The mechanics on the corner wasn’t there, the roads had multiplied and the small shopping centre was now surrounded by newer, taller, bigger buildings. I quickly worked out where the mechanics would have been and the road to take to the house. We walked until we came to the petrol station on the corner, and we arrived at the house, my heart beating fast and my chest full. There was a big banner across it: To Rent. When we got back to my friend’s, we rang the number and my friend explained the situation and the man explained that he believed the family had moved to another state, Michoagan. I think I remember going there with Román’s sister. He said the house belonged to Román’s uncle, and we asked that he pass on the message that I had called, if or when he should speak to the uncle, and if or when the uncle should speak to Román.
Now I wish I had called like I promised, I wish I had kept their information safe, I wish I had called the number on the banner instead of my friend, and explained who I was and that I would very much like for the man to ring the house owner and give me the number. Fear stopped me from doing it all. After a decade of thinking about them and wondering where they were and if they worried about me arriving at all, I should have tried harder when I was there and everything was just a phone call away.
Back home in Madrid, fluent in Spanish, Mexico is so far away all over again and I wonder what I would say to them, now that I could say anything? I would give them all a hug and tell them I ate the box of Belgian chocolates that was meant for them. And I would tell them that I got home, safe and sound.