I turn 60 and think, Shit, if I want learn Spanish someday, I better get crackin’. So I move to Oaxaca and enroll in language school, but after a few weeks it’s clear that if I want to become fluent, I need more immersion. In addition to a nightly salsa class where I’ve learned adelante and atrás and other useful words, I request an Intercambio Idioma, language exchange, on a Oaxacan Facebook group and Ricardo responds quickly. We agree to meet Saturday in front of Santo Domingo, a famous church in El Centro.
We’ll go to Xochimilco, he messages.
Great, I respond.
I don’t know what or where Xochimilco is, but it doesn’t seem important at the time.
Saturday arrives and while I’m waiting for Ricardo, a wedding parade goes by, complete with marching band and dressed up dolls on giant stilts miraculously dancing on the cobblestone streets while the bride and groom weave in and among them and Wow, I think, this is the best wedding tradition ever.
“Hola, Corinne?” a man interrupts, and it’s Ricardo. He tells me his car is double parked and we have to go, so I think he means, Go move the car, like find a parking spot, but when we get there, he says, “Get in.”
I instantly revert to my 10-year-old self. I cannot hurt this complete stranger’s feelings.
“OK,” I hear myself say…and get in.
Ricardo has a kind face, perhaps like Ted Bundy’s, and doesn’t seem like a serial killer, but I also know that if I was my own daughter and she did this, I’d be all over her.
In Spanish, he says we’re going to look at street murals and I’m happy I understand now that Xochimilco is a neighborhood, but I’m also wondering if my increased ability to converse will outweigh being in a garbage bag in this guy’s trunk by day’s end.
We walk the winding streets and admire the happy, dancing skeletons and laughing skulls and other references to death. We stop for lunch at an antique restaurant/hotel, and even tour some of the rooms. The low-ceilinged architecture is intriguing and after he insists on paying, he asks if I want to see the hotel he’s building.
“Claro,” I respond. ‘Cause I’m here to learn Spanish, but also see Oaxaca, so Sure, seemed logical—at the time.
We drive a short distance and park in front of a cement shell of a four-story building surrounded by corrugated tin fencing and razor wire with a large chained-shut plywood door at the entrance. He opens the heavy metal lock and gestures for me to enter, but watch my step as there’s little electricity. I say “Que bueno,” as we venture into what will be hotel rooms, and I’m learning the Spanish words for building permits and hotel manager as he follows me up the cement, banister-less stairs in the near-dark, and I think, OK, he’ll pour concrete over my body as he puts the finishing touches on the basement, which I’m not sure exists, but is always the perfect place to hide a body.
When we arrive on each landing where slivers of sunlight allow me to see his eyes, I smile again and again, hoping each one will go further in convincing him to change his mind about killing me. I will never forgive myself if I get murdered. My boys’ father passed away four years ago and now I’m wandering through a partially constructed building, in the dark, with a man I just met. I’ll only have myself to blame. When we make it to the terrazza to admire the view, I make sure to maintain a distance from el borde so it will be harder for him to push me over.
On the ride home, I imagine trying to call Nuevo, Uno, Uno and realize I only know his first name, I don’t know where I am, nor do I know my own address, and even if I did, I could not communicate it in Spanish.
I make a mental note to self--Learn the things you taught your sons when they were four-years-old. One primary lesson was, Never go anywhere with a stranger no matter how many puppies they promise you. Are street murals in the same category as puppies?
Monday morning, my teacher Juan asks about our weekend so we’re forced to talk in past tense which still eludes me. My only classmate, Maia, is 32, works for the International Red Cross, and speaks 8 languages. Despite our differences, we bonded quickly. I begin attempting to use preterito and copreterito to talk about my Intercambio.
“The word is No,” Maia keeps interjecting in Spanish. “No is the same word in many languages. What don’t you understand about saying No?”
When I say he also insisted on paying for lunch, Maia rolls her tea saucer eyes and says, “I know why he paid.”
“I think I might, too,” Juan says, who has mostly been laughing at Maia’s tongue-lashing.
“Maia,” I say. “I’m on the older side of middle aged, he didn’t pay for the reasons you’re thinking.”
Juan agrees quickly, and I’m a little hurt, even though I know he’s just being honest, but then he says, “Mexico is a macho culture. The man pays because he is the man.”
Maia is not convinced.
“You’re not going for anything but coffee with him again,” she says. “And meet in a neutral location!”
She makes me repeat after her.
“Ok,” I add. “Tú tienes razon.” You’re right.
I think learning Spanish will be easier than learning to say “No.” But it’s on my list. Right next to memorize past tense conjugations.
Ricardo sends me a message the next day and tells me he’ll pick me up Friday. We’re going to other nearby towns. To see their market. To see the artisans making the famous black pottery. To see the statue of El Dazante.
“What time?” I text back.
Corinne O'Shaughnessy is a retired New York City public school literacy teacher. Her essays have been published in dorothyparkersashes.com, reideasjournal.com, deadmule.com, and HerStry.com. Her short fiction has been published at SurvivorLit.org and BookofMatchesLit.com. She also participated in Read650.org's Haunted live reading. She divides her time between New York City and Oaxaca, Mexico.