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The International Writers Magazine:Cadiz

Spanish Elephants
Colleen Kelley

Nine hours on a plane, six hours on a hard airport bench, two days of group road trips interspersed with unexpected, inexplicable vomiting, eight hours on and off a bus through the scorched heartland of Castilla-La Mancha, and we were finally---finally---at our destination: the Puerto de Cádiz. The road to my first home-stay experience had been long and somewhat unpleasant. Only the fact that I was on foreign soil and suddenly responsible for a homesick, petulant younger sister could’ve distracted me from all of the other storm clouds trying to water-log my buoyant, summer hopes.

There is no time for moping on the side of the metaphorical highway, however, especially if it’s international, entirely unfamiliar, and you have somewhere to be at 7pm. Someone should have informed Julianne of this fact, but she seemed determined to make herself miserable, and it phased her not a bit if her discontent affected me. Misery loves company, after all, and in her slightly biased mind, I was to blame for her presence on the bus seat next to me. Quite the homebody, my sister had never in her life been more than 4 days without one of her parents, and we were dangerously close to that benchmark. Homesickness was a given, and, lest she fall short of everyone’s expectations, Juli had decided to kick mere melancholy up a couple notches to acidic hostility. I was at fault, and I was going to pay. Not even Spain could escape the cutting ice of her resentment.

When she wasn’t hurling English expletives at the mystifying hotel shower faucet, the heat, the seeming lack of cleanliness, and the uncompassionate back of my head, my sister hid behind denial. As we rolled through gently undulating rows of olive trees, wind-whittled rock formations, and the occasional picturesque mountain, she had glared straight ahead at the seat in front of her, trying to block Europe out with her iPod. Nevertheless, agitation had been visibly penetrating every vulnerable crack in her emotional barricades, taking up residence between her brows. Ever since our over-heated group had re-boarded the low-riding bus at Córdoba, this same anxiety had descended upon everyone like an invisible, poisonous gas. Worry and exhaustion had paralyzed our otherwise boisterous group for the remaining leg of the trip through Andalucía. After three days of social bonding and tourist activities, concern for our impending separation had brought us all to the same conclusion: vacation was over.  “Real life”—complicated by language and cultural barriers---loomed before us like the legendary molinas, those quixotic windmill-monsters that had raged at us from hilltops only hours before.

Reminding us that we were far from that bucolic, molina territory, seagulls cawed and twirled among the palm trees lining the port. Lip between my teeth, I mentally cursed seven years of Spanish teachers as our names were called from the list and I could summon up nothing more than a feeble “Hola” by way of greeting.

We cumbersomely maneuvered our way through the labyrinth of luggage and fatigued bodies to our overly-energetic host-mother and her stoic, white-haired husband. Exchanging the traditional kisses of greeting, I listened, wide-eyed, as Carmen launched into an impromptu, one-sided conversation. I say one-sided (and that may or may not be an exaggeration, but let’s not split hairs) because she barely paused to draw breath, although I’m sure I don’t know what I would have said if she had. All of my remaining energy was monopolized with keeping me vertical to the ground---that is to say, propped against my suitcase at a socially acceptable angle. Endurance calling it a day, I wanted nothing more than to collapse anywhere, to not think in Spanish---or English---for a solid 10 hours of blissful unconsciousness.

We managed to maintain two more hours of polite nodding, glazed façades of interest incoherently watching as Carmen puttered around the flat, making us a dinner that was far more than my entire family could have eaten. Julianne, unsurprisingly, was refusing to talk. I scraped the walls of my depleted cerebral cavities for a sentence indicating that we might be about to die, and Carmen finally relinquished us to the safe-haven of our room. But not before giving us a very detailed tour of the 3-by-3 foot bathroom (don’t even talk to me about meters), and providing us with some slightly musty towels out of the gargantuan armoire that dominated the space between our beds. Seniority gave me the bathroom first. On principle, I do not subscribe to this hierarchical method of decision-making, but taking into account that my sister had contributed absolutely nothing positive to the horrendous day, I could easily ignore any qualms of guilt that dared to show themselves.

The water was warm. That’s all I remember about the actual shower part, that’s all that mattered. As I slid the curtain aside, I peered around the steamy bathroom. It had that used, slightly-dirty look about it that all old houses have no matter how well or frequently they’re cleaned. I didn’t want to know what was living in the corners. Craving some kind of barrier between my slightly questionable surroundings and my naked, vulnerable skin, I whipped my towel off the shelf and gave it an experimental shake. From its folds leapt a creature the likes of which I had never seen except in documentaries, its brownish-red oval body taking up far too much room in a tub that was suddenly far too small. Its antlers (antennae, you say? I beg to differ) waved menacingly at me, and I could just feel those thick, hairy legs scurrying up my naked calf. I still swear to this day, I heard him squeal as he flew from his cozy towel home, and I challenge anyone to defy me on that point.

Too terrified to scream myself, I bounded with the grace of a deer onto the slippery floor, pulled new pajamas onto wet, trembling limbs, and fled down the hall to find my host mother, fueled by the adrenaline of my terror.

Ironically, one of the only Spanish insect-words I knew was “cucaracha,” but despite my lexical acumen, Carmen stared, uncomprehending. After several rounds of disbelieving “¡No!,” followed by terrified “¡Sí!” she finally hobbled to the bathroom and saw with her own eyes the mythically-proportioned creature of my sputterings. Needless to say, her exclamation, “¡Es un elefante!” did nothing to help my already-fragile mental state. I vaguely remember hearing her slay the monster with the only weapon at her immediate disposal: the tiny kitten-heel off her own foot.  Mentally cringing, I wondered how it was physically possible to kill such a large creature with such a small piece of footwear, trying not to envision the epic battle of woman vs. nature.

I did not even want to look at Julianne. Despite my state of horror, a part of me loathed the cockroach’s presence more because of the affect it would have on her.  She now had a fairly legitimate reason to complain, and I could hardly tell her to chill out through my own chattering teeth and trembling lips.  I was shocked, therefore, to see her silently, impatiently pick up her towel and storm past me, out the door, into the bathroom. I marveled. She had to be fully aware that she would be bathing in the scene of the slaughter, among traces of cucaracha entrails. Her composure, however, whether a reaction to seeing me break down or a result of her complete exhaustion, remained unshaken. Despite my irritation with her (still far from dissipated), I grudgingly granted her performance a little bit of credit.

As I listened to the water run, I eyed our room suspiciously, assessing the thousands of possible cockroach abodes, my gaze always returning with severe distrust to the monolithic armoire. After a record-short shower, Juli rejoined me and a thorough sweep of the danger zone ensued.  When a second elefante---easily 3 inches long---crawled as if in challenge up the wall from behind my pillow, I knew beyond all doubt that my 10 hours of blissful unconsciousness were out of the question. Carmen’s mortified (and quite unsatisfactory) explanation was that because the temperature had risen lately, los elefantes must have flown in through the windows looking for coolness.
Oh, well if that’s all…

The instant our madre was out of our room, Julianne slammed the window shut and dialed our parents in a panic. Their words of comfort? “Don’t worry, cockroaches only come out in the dark, so just turn off the lights and get some sleep, girls. First day of school tomorrow!”
I gaped at such abounding wisdom, making a mental note to never turn the lights off again.
“Ok, look, it’s not the end of the world,” my dad said.
“No, but even if it were, they’d still be here!” I moaned, my delirious mind calling up images of nuclear blasts, trillions of cockroaches scuttling out of the mushroom cloud perfectly unscathed. We reluctantly settled down into our beds (after pulling them six inches away from the walls and inspecting every thread of the sheets), and I wondered despairingly if I would actually get any sleep. I wasn’t betting on it.

Two weeks later, strolling alongside the Playa Victoria, Cadiz’s main beach, we soaked in the festive notes of a happily-rocking accordion player, and squinted with practiced ease against the sun’s final, farewell caresses. The atmosphere seemed more intense at this time of day; the world was contentedly yawning while simultaneously sharpening focus. In a way, the dramatic-yet-somniferous lighting was forcing us to see our surroundings more clearly, just as our European dislocation had forced us to adjust the lens on ourselves. As an older sister, I had watched my younger one with a critical eye, enjoying both the torture and the privilege of witnessing a part of her growth. The fear of the unknown, of the inability to communicate was no longer immobilizing for her, merely a challenge.  As for myself, the cockroaches that I saw every day, while not pleasant, had somewhat altered my priorities.  Never in my pet-free life would I have predicted that I’d become accustomed to cohabitating with vermin (not to mention three cats and a sheep dog).  Somehow I managed to sleep well every night, to focus in class, to make plans without cell phones, to take full advantage of a beach I had once eyed skeptically from behind pale, landlubber eyelids.

Juli and I turned without a word off the main road, away from the light, onto a tiny lane. We had never been on this particular calle before, but our internal compasses were confident with two weeks of experience, the prospect of getting lost more exciting than worrisome.

The sunset’s indigo fingers tickled our backs and stretched our shadows towards our destinations faster than we could ever go. Concentrating on my own elongated shape and the beach-bag strap pulling its way through my collarbone, I barely noticed that the accordion tones of “La bamba” had changed. We stopped. Our incredulous gazes locked, and then giggles erupted from our lips, bouncing off the walls of the empty alley. Shaking my head, I linked arms with my sister and turned us back towards our impatiently waiting shadows. As we futilely endeavored to catch up with them, bubbles of laughter floated in our wake, bobbing among the familiar notes of “La Cucaracha.”


© Colleen Kelley May 2008
CEK1234 at aol.com


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