Critical Thought: Languages

One of my favorite things about traveling alone is the opportunity for unusual interactions with strangers. If you’re walking down the street alone, or sitting quietly on a bench somewhere, you instantly become more approachable to strangers. Before I ever traveled alone, it seemed like such an isolating and overwhelming thing to do. It still can be, but it can also spur interesting experiences. I like the idea of being anonymous one minute and being known the next. I’m no longer someone just walking by. I like the idea of the outside world merging with my own little world unintentionally. There are a lot of different ways we can interact with people we don’t know, versus the same old way we behave with people we do know, but just as much chance for understanding or misunderstanding each other. My intent was to show that with this story. Hope it worked. In the end, sometimes you’re just left wondering how you even got somewhere, who you’re even talking to, or what they’re even saying.

Marisela Navarro is a hospital pharmacist and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. She has published short fiction in Shelf Life Magazine.

I Only Speak Two Languages

Chinese ladies. I didn’t know they were talking to me because they were talking to me in Chinese. But I saw their bobbed heads in front of me eyeing me with necessity, so I said, “Huh? Me?” with my hand to my chest.
Nods. They said more in Chinese, one of them offering me a shoe.
“What?” I said.
“They want you to try the shoe on,” a saleslady said.
“What?” I said. I do not understand English translations of Chinese either. I should have replied, “How much?” in Chinese. I know this phrase because I taped a fortune from a fortune cookie to my computer monitor at work. Thrifty décor. It had a Learn Chinese Phrase on the back. Duo-shao qian? The ladies were buying gifts for their Ming back home and my foot looked about the same size as hers. Probably. I slipped out of my flip-flops into the black clog. I walked the perimeter of the store for them because I could at least understand their Chinese finger twirling when the slip-on was not enough. They didn’t buy the shoe.

Jingle bells on the boutique door. I crossed the street and cut through the sward towards the Lincoln Memorial. I strolled along the reflection pool, my jeans rolled up, beating my flip-flops against my heels. Five minutes in, a gray-haired man stopped me. He was on his cell phone and asked me if I had a pen. I handed him my least favorite, the blue one with the cap instead of the clicker at the bottom of my purse. I turned my head, trying to give him privacy, but it was hard not to watch him as he fumbled, trying to hold the phone with his shoulder, write, and keep the paper from blowing away. He handed me the phone and said, “Here, talk to my daughter while I write.”
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi, who is this?”
“I’m just somebody walking by.”
I dictated and he transcribed. At the roundabout, take the fourth exit. You’ll pass the Mocha Hut on your left. It’s a pink building, kind of yellowish actually. She told me I was a sweet human. I liked talking to his daughter, underneath a blue sky, holding the phone away slightly so I wouldn’t sweat on the earpiece. Everyone was walking through sprinklers that day. Everyone did it, not one person tried to dodge the water.

I kept walking. For a while, I was walking synchronized with a young guy. Bounteous wavy hair. Composed and purposely indifferent. Ex-boyfriend material. It weirded me out because he was alone too, walking with me, right on my left and close for a good seven minutes. I felt like I should say something like “Hey, how’s it goin’?” or something family vacationish like “Did you pack the sandwiches?” I didn’t say anything. When we reached the marbled shadow of a cherry tree, I lagged and he veered to the left.

I reached Lincoln. He was huge. Stony and white. I stood at the foot of his chair, an awed runt. There was a moment when we were alone, unaccompanied by tourists in jean shorts – he, in the rectangular frame of my camera, me, watching on the other end. I photographed him then. It was quiet for that split second, then the blabber settled in again. I stayed as long as I could stand it, for hours until sunset on the steps, before heading to my hotel room.

My hotel room. It was dark and clad in drapery the color of a forgotten mole. The light on my nightstand wouldn’t turn on. I took the elevator to the lobby to see the hotel concierge. I half asked my question twice, each time interrupted by the phone ringing, each time the concierge answering their questions before mine. I stared at him, straight in his barbed eyes, waiting to ask again. I wasn’t in a hurry, but thought he was rude. Me first. When he hung up the phone the second time, he laughed as if my silent stare had a piece of spinach stuck in it, then slapped the back of my hand.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“Do you have light bulbs? One went out in my room.”
“What wattage do you need?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Here. Take the 60.”
I took the 60, screwed it in, and changed into a black blouse and a striped skirt. I snapped a barrette into my hair and left for the metro.

My stop. The banquet was held in Hall A of a large convention center with a maximum capacity of 9,705. I handed the doorwoman my ticket. It read the words “Banquet Dinner” dated and timed and she said, “Where’s your bracelet?”
“I took it off.” I had worn it that morning, during the coffee break, kept it on during the speeches, forgot about it in the sunshine. I had decided when I changed into my blouse and skirt for the evening that a gold glitter tag bracelet might make me look like I was wearing a gold glitter tag bracelet. It was sparkling in my hotel trash can.
The doorwoman didn’t know what to do with me so she said to the doorman, “This girl doesn’t have her bracelet.”
“Where’s your bracelet?” he said.
“I don’t have it anymore.”
“Can you get it?”
“No. I threw it away. But here is my ticket,” I said, waving the ticket for emphasis.
“Didn’t they tell you to never ever take it off?”
I cracked a smile. I thought he was joking. “No.”
He scowled with some kind of side-glance exaggerated head twist, then waved me through. “Just c’mon.”

As I passed him, he collected my meaningless ticket and said, “Don’t ever do that again."
They sat me next to a lazy-eyed woman. I paused after her questions. Was she talking to me or the person next to me? The round table seated ten. It could have been any one of us.

by Marisela Navarro