by Keira Morgan
New retiree, Alice faces her first crisis in a new country without speaking the language
|The insect on the window ledge looks like a miniature lobster, Alice thought. What was it doing in her shower? As a Nova Scotian, she knew you could pick up lobsters safely if you grabbed them over what she thought of as their rib cage. Naked and soaking wet under the shower spray, hair dripping into her eyes, she tried to nab it that way. That is when she realised two things. First, on such a tiny creature her fingers were too large for the job. Second, it wasn’t anything like a lobster.
A pinch like a needle pierced her skin. Immediately she felt a tingle followed by a burning sensation that kept growing. She dropped the insect instantly and now backed clumsily out of the shower and slammed the glass shower doors shut without even turning off the water. As she leaned against the wall of the bathroom holding her stinging hand, she asked herself what had ever made her think retiring to Mexico was a splendid idea. Since this wasn’t helpful, she changed to asking herself what she should do.
While she considered the question, she put her hand in the sink and splashed icy water on it hoping that would ease the fire that spread up her arm. It was hard to think clearly. She lived alone and still didn’t know anyone. Her Spanish was minimal to be generous. It was still early. She didn’t know what had bitten her, though she would bet it was an alacran — a scorpion. But she wasn't about to re-enter the shower to check, though she would have to shut off the water at some point. She didn’t like her thoughts so far.
Back home in Halifax, she had decided to retire early the rainy spring day her husband came home and announced he was leaving her for another woman — her ‘best friend’ she discovered later that day. It took her no time to resolve to disappear from everyone and every place she knew. Her rage and stubbornness had taken her through the details of the divorce and dissolution of their joint life together. She had landed in the tiny Pacific coastal state of Colima chosen because no one had ever heard about it. She had no intention of telling anyone about it either. To vanish from her old life and leave everyone behind had been her plan. And she had done it. Too bad she had not bothered to learn more about her destination. Or so she realized at this moment, standing naked and in pain in a rented bathroom.
Right. Can’t do anything without clothes. Get dressed. Simple as this sounded when given as an order to self, it was much harder with a throbbing hand. Her good arm rebelled at opening drawers or closet doors solo, and her willpower dissolved under trivial decisions about what to wear. Simple, she told herself. Underwear. Next, something one-piece. That dress. Sandals. Done. BRUSH YOUR HAIR. Done.
She sagged against the bedroom wall. Now what? Turn off the shower. This was scarier. Her attacker had gained monster proportions since ‘the incident.’ As she dragged reluctant footsteps toward the bathroom and forced herself to fling the door open, she saw that water had seeped onto the floor. She could not just leave it. She did not know the rules about damages, but she had paid two months damage deposit in advance. Gingerly she opened the shower door just enough to reach the taps left-handed. Awkwardly she shut off the water, splashing her dress as she did so. Too bad. She wasn’t changing, she told herself, biting her lip. She’d gone through the whole divorce and departure without crying. This stupid, insignificant problem was nothing.
Her arm had upped the ante. It was burning and throbbing. The ‘ignore it and it will go away’ approach was not an option. And she was too antsy to check the internet — which was chancy at best — to find out what cure it recommended. She needed to get to an emergency department or a clinic. Not that she knew where one was. Or what it cost. Or what to say. Or how to get there. Still, one problem at a time, as she told her students — and her ex — when they whined at her.
Hoisting her purse over her left arm, she straggled out her door, remembering to lock it behind her. To unlock the gate in the tall fence that surrounded her property using her left hand was a struggle. She fumbled and dropped the keys as she sortied onto the sidewalk of the Mexican-quiet, street of the charming pueblo where she now lived. Though she did not need a picturesque, tree-lined residential neighbourhood right now. Because, when she thought about it, taxis rarely came down her pretty street. As she had noticed, they came to bring kids to and return them from school. She didn’t need to check her watch to know this was not one of those times.
Leaning against the fence, cradling her injured arm, she had an urge to sink to the ground and let herself go to pieces. It was such a strange feeling that she wondered, horrified, if she had become someone else. She might have pinched herself to check, except her poor right arm was suffering enough.
At that moment, the gate across the street creaked open and the elderly neighbour lady stepped onto the sidewalk, robed in a housedress and slippers. Wrapped in her own misery, Alice paid no attention to her.
The señora said something.
Alice did not respond.
Her neighbour waved and spoke louder. Listlessly, without uncurling her injured arm, Alice gave a slight wave with her left hand.
The woman spoke again, pointing at Alice’s arm.
Alice shrugged her shoulders and spoke two words of her limited vocabulary, “No comprendo.” To make sure her neighbour understood, she added, loudly, in English, “I don’t understand.”
Without looking either way, her neighbour crossed the street to come to Alice. Putting one arm on Alice’s uninjured shoulder, she almost touched Alice’s throbbing arm with her other hand.
“DOLOR?” she said, loudly and slowly.
Alice had been an English teacher. Dolor sounded like dolorous. Dolorous meant conveying or causing pain or sorrow. Well, that damned scorpion, or whatever, had both conveyed and caused pain. Alice nodded vigorously. “Dolor,” she agreed. “Mucho dolor,” she added for good measure. Mucho was another of her words, sounding as it did so much like much.
“Ven,” the woman said, taking Alice by the uninjured arm. When Alice resisted, she added. “Doctora.”
Alice resisted no longer. Although the neighbour hadn’t pronounced it quite like doctor, it was close enough. If her neighbour promised her a doctor, Alice was hers. Maybe this large, friendly seeming old lady was a front for a narco- drug-running, foreigner-kidnapping outfit, but under the circumstances, Alice was willing to take the risk. Though entering the house across the street didn’t seem like an enormous risk.
As they went in, Alice noticed that her neighbour’s gate was unlocked as was the front door. The front room they entered seethed with bodies. Every chair or sofa that circled the walls had someone in it. A TV blared. As she entered, a large friendly mutt jumped up from the floor and barked a welcome.
Her neighbour began a stream of speech almost before they were through the door. The men disappeared, and the women converged on Alice. Except for one who disappeared into the depths of the house. Since everyone seemed friendly, she just nodded as they surrounded her. One tugged gently at her arm and examined it, asking questions.
Alice shook her head and shrugged. “No comprendo.”
Out of the babble, one pointed to herself and said, “Ana. Usted?” and pointed to Alice.
Since figuring out the question wasn’t rocket science, Alice pulled out her Duolingo Spanish and said, “Me llama Alice.”
Smiles all round and clapping of hands. “Alicia. Bien, bien.”
Alice thought of correcting them. Then she decided that Alicia was just fine with her if they could get her to a doctor. So she added, “Doctor?”
“Si. Momento,” the one named Ana said, holding up a finger and peering into Alice’s face to make sure she understood. “Momento, O.K.?”
From the depths of the house, two women appeared. A slim, black-haired, pony-tailed teenager carried a dish of ice cubes, a glass of water and a package of pills. Another woman with black hair pulled back into a bun, who looked like the younger girl’s mother, held a tea towel.
“Hola. You are ‘urt? What ‘appen?” she said in heavily-accented English.
Alice slumped with relief. Someone she could speak to. Gracias a Dios, as they said here. “In the shower. An insect stung me. A scorpion maybe?”
“Si, an alacran. I give you ice to put on. Some paracetamol. I take you to doctora.” Turning to her daughter, a torrent of words poured from her mouth.
Unable to stop the avalanche of care, Alice held an ice pack on the sting, accepted and swallowed a pill and drained the glass of water. After removing the glass from Alice's hand, the stranger took her good arm gently and chivvied her to the door.
“I take you doctora now,” she said as Alice, she and her daughter arrived at the sidewalk.
“You don’t have to,” Alice said. “Please, just call a taxi and ask the driver to take me to emergency.” After all, she was an independent woman. They were being so helpful, but she didn’t want to impose. “I’ll be all right. You have been so kind. Really, I’ll be all right. If you could...”
“No, no. Faster walk. Doctora, good. ‘ospital far. Slow. Taxi far. Faster walk. Doctora good. I show. Come.” Gently and inexorably, the woman led Alice along the street. Her daughter walked on Alice’s other side.
Alice felt an itch under her eyelids. These people had solved all her worries. Taking a deep breath, she plunged into her limited vocabulary. “Me llama Alice. Usted?”
“Ah, Alicia,” then a babble that turned to English, “Good to meet you. I am Beti.”
“Betty?” Alice wondered if she had misunderstood. An English name? “Betty?” she repeated. She could hear the question in her voice.
“Si, Beti. My daughter, she Jeni.”
“Jenny?” Alice could hardly believe their American names, but didn’t have the words or the energy to ask about it. Yet her mind reeled.
“Si! Beti and Jeni! Where you from?” Their questions occupied Alice as they progressed along the narrow sidewalk avoiding lamp posts, sudden trees and sets of stairs that made the short walk an obstacle course.
When they arrived at a pharmacy, Beti stopped. When she saw that Alice looked puzzled, she took Alice’s arm and walked through to a back room. At the entrance to the large room, a slim dark-haired girl sat behind a scratched desk that contained a phone, a small pad of paper and a cell phone. Behind her stood an ancient scale. She and Beti engaged in an agitated conversation. While the conversation continued, Alice looked around. The large, open space contained plastic chairs filled with people along three walls, except for the doorways. Everyone was staring at her and murmuring. She felt like some kind of performing monkey on display.
“Tell ‘er your name,” Betty translated. The standard interrogation continued. Age, Address, Nationality. The girl weighed her. Then she disappeared. An instant later, a door opened, and she found herself in an old-fashioned treatment room, with a sheet-covered cot squeezed against the long wall. Betty and Jenny followed her in. Alice was too shocked to argue.
Soon a woman dressed in a white doctor’s coat with a stethoscope hanging around her neck strode through an interior door. Betty and Jenny rose. Alice eyed them uncertainly and stood too, a trifle out of sync. The doctora shook hands all around, asked a question, and spoke to Alice in Spanish as they all returned to their seats. Her gesture made it clear she expected Alice to straighten her arm and hand it over. By now, thanks to the numbing effect of the ice and that mystery pill, the pain had lessened. Reluctantly, Alice did as she thought she was bid.
“Alacran?” the doctor asked.
“Si. I think so.”
The doctor pointed to a picture.
Alice recognized the insect at once. “Si.” That was the damn insect. She was excited.
The doctor nodded. “Inyección.” She patted her behind. “En sus nalgas.”
In the crowded room, the two strangers nodded amiably while Alice sat glued to her seat. Not on your life, she thought. With an audience, never! But how to say it? Gracias a Dios she didn’t need to. The doctora shooed the two women out. In less than a minute the treatment was complete. Then, the doctora wrote out a prescription, charged Alice a measly $150 pesos, opened the door, crooked a finger at Betty and gave her instructions. Soon, medicine in hand, the three women trudged their way home.
At the gate to her house, Alice, whose arm now felt almost normal, stopped to say thank you and goodbye.
Betty would have none of it. “I come in,” she announced. “I put you in bed. Make tea. Doctora say. Must rest. Go back tomorrow. I come for you.” She wouldn’t take no for an answer and Alice gave up. But she still had her principles, so she showed Betty to the kitchen before she went to lie down.
When Betty came in she was leaning against the headboard with a sheet over her legs. “Too hot for blankets,” she explained.
Betty put the tea beside her bed and tutted, “Should to lie down. I come back tonight. Make sure you O.K.” She saw that Alice intended to demur and wagged her finger back and forth. “I ask. You say you no family here. Very bad, that. Very bad. So, we your family now. Adios.”
After Betty left, Alice sat sipping her tea. She kept blinking her eyes and sniffing. A tear trickled down her cheek. Perhaps it’s the medicine or a reaction to the alacran sting, she thought.
After finishing the tea, she allowed herself to slip down to lie prone. The entire experience had been exhausting. As she dozed off, a feeling of peace drifted over her. How very lucky she had been to get here from there.