I remember the first time I kissed a Peruvian girl. I leaned in but she deflected me.
“Why you want kiss me?” she said in heavily accented English.
I had taken Spanish in high school but that was almost ten years earlier. I didn’t remember much, but I decided to show off my pitiful level of Spanish. I conjugated the verb querer (to want) and told her, “Te quiero.” Her jaw dropped.
“Do you know what you just said?” she asked.
“Yes, I want you.”
“No, that means I love you.”
“I think you mean to say te deseo.”
It was a mistake I only had to make once.
When I got oreja de coliflor (cauliflower ear) in Peru, I had to go to the pharmacy every week to buy a dozen jeringas (syringes) to drain my ears. I would ask one of my teammates to sacar (withdraw) the blood from the swollen flesh.
When I got lesionado (injured) I would go to the pharmacy and ask for anti-inflammatory pastillas (pills). In the first few weeks, I twisted my tobillo (ankle) and tweaked my cuello (neck). I had to explain it to all of my coaches and teammates over and over again.
When I fought, my coach Ivan was always in my esquina (corner). I’ve never heard him say a single word of English. While I was sitting on the stool between rounds, sweaty and exhausted, I needed to know what he was saying to me. I had to learn.
I learned a lot of random words from MMA. Jaula is cage. Guantes are gloves. Vendas are wraps. Patada is kick. Golpear or pegar mean to hit. Recto is straight. Gancho is hook. Tumbada is takedown.
Later, I cut my finger on vidrio roto (broken glass). Did I need puntos (stitches)? I couldn’t doblar (to bend) it. I went to the doctor multiple times without anyone to translate. I went alone to a Peruvian hospital get a resonancia (MRI).
I went to a Halloween party with my friend Enrique dressed as Captain America. I wore a mascara (mask) and an escudo (shield). Enrique dressed as a obrero (road worker). He held a small stop sign in his hand. When his girlfriend spent too much time talking to another guy, Enrique smashed the stop sign over the guy’s head. “I don’t know, I’m loco,” he said after he was escorted out by security.
When he was arguing with his girlfriend he would play the song Llueve Sobre Mojado (It Rains on the Wet) by Fito Paez. It was a kind of sad song about being so accustomed to bad things that they don’t affect you anymore. That was how I felt at times. When I fought with my girlfriend weeks later, I listened to it too.
Off the top of my head, I know the opening line: Hay una lagrima en el fondo del rio de los desesperados (There is a tear at the end of the river of the desperate). When I hear it now, it still takes me back to Peru.
When I arrived in Peru almost two years ago, I didn’t know ANY of the Spanish words I’ve written above. I learned all of them in the midst of the misfortunes that changed my life in one way or another. Now, as I’m writing this, I didn’t even use a dictionary once. I’m positive some of them are spelled wrong and they’re missing accents, but I don’t care.
My girlfriend at the time studied Spanish in college and spoke much better than I did. I was talking to her once and she said, “How do you say ‘a closed fist’ in Spanish?” It was a random word and she wasn’t asking me so much as she was thinking out loud.
“Puño,” I replied quickly.
“Wow, how did you know that?” she said after looking it up.
“I get punched in the head for a living. It kind of makes you learn these things.”
I learned so many things during that year, and even though I probably sacrificed many brain cells in the process, I have a feeling that I will never forget them.