the ballad of arlene: a spanish romance (part mbili)

This is the second half of a guest post by none other than my brother, Brian Harrison.  Brian was recently voted by our mission team “Most Likely to Arrive at One of Our Doorsteps with No Prior Notice, Wearing a Toga, and Having Arrived by Way of Hitchhiking from Switzerland or Japan.”  You can read the first half of his Latin love story here.  And you can find my brother occasionally blogging (currently about his encounters as a census worker in Alabama) here.



The Golden Arches of the foreign lands shine like beckoning lights for our marvelous, gluttonous empire. The fanny-packing Americans gorging on fries assembled among themselves. I sat with Arlene. We had a third party to our table; it was Fabian, a Nicaraguan friend of Arlene’s. He knew some considerable amount of English. The conversation was the slowest process. It consisted of basic small talk in slow motion. I would say, “What are you studying?” Then Fabian would repeat the question in Spanish, and she’d say something very long and with what seemed a whole lot of content. And then he’d turn to me and spill out a short phrase, “Hotel Management.” Next she’d say something which took three entire paragraphs to say, and Fabian would again revolve his head back to me and say, “What are your hobbies?” On and on it went. We barely made any headway at all. She sat exactly across from me. In the course of what seemed to be systematic intimacy between screens, our eyes would meet and perhaps a little more than words were communicated and the hints of some deeper truth were spoken, but a truth altogether very vague. Perhaps she could’ve been the most interesting person I had ever met. But you’d be surprised at how personalities are muffled by difficulties in communication. Languages are a thick fog that block whole nations from understanding other nations.

I sat there, unable to penetrate that wall of differences. There are some things in all admirations that are left unsaid, unworded, and untold. Entire impressions lay at the tail end of the tongue as it whips out its small talk, but this impression hides from the words that are being spoken. Every now and then it gleams in the eye; but in a split second, it’s flushed out again. Nowhere was this more apparent than with Arlene. So much trouble… all because the mayor of Babel decided to build a tower… the idiot!

All the events of the date led up to an uncertain mist of confusion. I took this girl out, we chatted (or something like it), and there was a definite attraction on both sides. But now what? I couldn’t even speak to her. So we resumed the circus-like tasks of the Vacation Bible School for the remainder of the week… Arlene returned to her duties as Bible teacher, I returned to my prestigious role as the Good Samaritan’s Donkey. I never thought that acting the ass could get the attention of a lady; as experience has taught me, acting the ass is one of the surest, if not the most fun, of ways.

But I was nervous. Why or for what reason, I can’t say. With me, the pursuit of the female is tinged with shyness. My life is led doing the most asinine feats in the face of the public; but let one single face out of that crowd be pure, lovely, and eye-binding, and I cower in insecurity. So when I saw Arlene during the latter part of the week, my eyes would lower. My head would turn the other direction; my feet would stray from the slightest possibility of crossing her path. I felt wholly ridiculous about everything. And I am sure I was confusing the heck out of her.

The end of the week was approaching. I had just settled myself with the contentment of not saying anything more to Arlene. What could I say? Whatever it was, I had to have an interpreter at hand. The awkwardness was overwhelming. On crowded days, our eyes might meet, but there was always that mystery or frustration of what the other was thinking. And for a short while, the female shadow that haunted me from the past was gone. But all in all, nothing practical could be instigated with this barrier of languages. I’m sure it mattered little to Arlene if I never said anything more. Besides, I’m just this stupid gringo with the impulsiveness and the hare-brained idea to draw her face, write her a letter, and take her to McDonald’s… and with disconnected grunts and noises try to communicate our values and lives. Shame is what I felt. And shame is what I always sense while in the intimidating presence of beautiful women. The only antidote is more and more distance. I was to fly out the next morning. The night before my departure was emotionally driven. Hugs, adioses, and photograph-posing were all abounding. And then, from the corner of this cement-church came Fabian looking for me, telling me that Arlene had a departure gift that she wanted to give me.

Arlene, myself, and our trusty interpreter were alone… well, sort of, kind of. We stood in the vacant room adjoined to the chapel and the muddy courtyard area where all the kids roamed freely after the evening services, with their coloring sheets and glass Coca-Cola bottles. There were no doors in this room. Doors, in Nicaragua, are a commodity. They use quilts instead. But there was no quilt, either.

Arlene smiles and rambles something off in Espanol. Fabian intercepts the words and tosses them to me. I catch them, without fumbling.  They are, “I am really going to miss you and I have some gifts for you to remember me by.”

I look at Fabian and then into her fiery-brown eyes. “Tell her the same, that I’m going to miss her too, and I wish we could’ve gotten to know each other better.” This is passed through Senor language filter.

She hands me a mug shot of herself and little plastic letter that spells out her name, and unleashes that familiar, yet incomprehensible language again. Fabian does his job in his usual strained English:  “She says she wants to give you these so you remember her.”

I reply, “Muchas gracias. I don’t need these to remember her by, but I am very happy to receive them.” We exchange our contact information. She was to be my far-off pen pal. Up to this point, everything reminded me of what the first White settlers may have experience when trading beads with the Indians… that is, until she again spoke.

Without any change in his interpreting tone, Fabian casually shot off her speech: “She says she wants you to kiss her now.”

My eyes widen, stuttering, “Wha- What? Here?! Right Now?!” I look around me; I think I recall a few kids passing by my elbow right when her wish was translated to me. The children pass out of the room; solitude encapsulates the scene. Arlene stands demurely like a goddess of love awaiting her sacrament. Fabian darts his head both ways and pronounces the answer to my whelping questions:  “Yes, you better do it now.” Then he looks away, as though not to ruin the moment for us.

A pause – that’s all that was needed to collect my thoughts and evoke my truest self to the forefront of this promiscuous and licentious situation. My willpower had to grasp the full emblem of what this deed would signify, and what I had to do.  I was on a mission trip, for crying out loud! I mean, what false self and bald-faced lie would be representing if I didn’t acquiesce the requests of a fellow sister and make known the bonds of affection with the seal of a holy kiss? I was tempted very mightily to refrain, but this temptation didn’t last long. I mustered up the discerning powers of my conscience, puckered up and went in; my dutiful pilgrimage to this uncharted, unknown land with its soft crags and its hot, blushing shore.

I’ve never kissed a warmer kiss… a lava kiss. And how can I be to blame if my pilgrimage turned more into a crusade? When I was the violated Arab? The only thing to do is just bear her violent mouth-lashings with dignity, and maybe return a tooth for a tooth, or tongue for a tongue, or however that saying goes. I never knew the barrier of the English and Spanish languages could be hurdled over by the language of the French. For in that kiss, all things left unstated were stated.

I broke away, thinking that was appropriate and, of course, for air. But she stood there, looking at me with those gorgeous eyes stabbing into my light-headed gaze, and yet I couldn’t leave her looking at me in such a way. I looked around, saw nobody except for Fabian, and then I looked into those dark almonds as they called me again. I followed and made a passionate revisit.

When I looked up a second time, there was one of the American chaperones standing in the furthermost doorway with a grin on his face, giving me the thumbs up. I grinned back and said my final goodbyes.

Three weeks later, in the States, I start receiving mail from Nicaragua. This proved to be a whole other difficulty. Luckily, I found a Spanish-speaking lady at church to translate all Arlene’s letters for me. And the words that I received (I bet) made the lady very curious. As the letter revealed, Arlene was a very amorous person. She told me things that you usually only tell people that you are married to. No, no… it was not perverse. It was just dearly romantic and gushing with sentimentality (but I refuse to make her private letters public).

I would try writing her letters, more toned down from her passionate talk. You know, I would write more about other things than about her. As common sense should reveal, there was little chance of us being together. Miles are not such a problem, but language is. I thought to befriend her, and she was the best friend I had who couldn’t speak English. And I was getting to be certain that my point was coming across.

A year goes by and I found myself in Nicaragua again, so I look her up – this time resolute on not kissing her under any circumstances, but just to be her friend. We hang out, still trying desperately to communicate. All the Americans opt on going to McDonald’s again. So we tag along. After the meal, she’s to go back to her Tierra Prometida (“Promised Land”), and this is to be the last that I see her.  A taxi is waiting on her. She leans over and kisses me on the cheek and then walks across the McDonald’s parking lot into the taxi, and it drives back to the Promised Land from whence she came. I take the final note she gave me; it was coated in perfume and I immediately find someone to translate it. All I remember was the overall theme of the letter. It said, “I will always love you.” I fell back on my hotel bed in an agitated swoon. “Why??? Is it only because I’m American.” I was pretty cynical about her special liking for me.

How can I be blamed for this? I didn’t plan for this. My luck, as usual, is that we really could’ve had a good thing going, but it was never realized because of the language barrier. There is always some barrier. And do not think that I do not, every now then, have the crazy idea to rush down there to marry her. To live the blessed, simple life in a tin-roof hovel and count how many different ways we can make love in a hammock. We would have tons and tons of dark-brown-eyed children with bright, blonde hair, and they would all be barefooted, but so happy and sublime… playing, laughing, and skipping in the dirty roads of the Promised Land.

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20 Comments

Filed under guest posts, writing

20 responses to “the ballad of arlene: a spanish romance (part mbili)

  1. there is something to be said for the simple life.

  2. JMF

    Brett, I disagree.

    Brian, I say go find and marry your muse. We Americans are the ones that have perpetuated the idea that you only get married to someone that is a profile match to you on E-harmony. I find that there’d be absolutely nothing wrong with you marrying Arlene knowing nothing more than that she loves God, loves others, and has a massive primal attraction to you.

    That is romance. The other is just fat America.

    But I feel for you, bro. I know the battle that rages–the one that causes you to think you should stay close to home with fam, work 9-5, become a Deacon, watch American Idol, get a minivan, and start tying a sweater around your neck. Because that is what you SHOULD do. You’ve been told that your whole life, and all of you friends tell you that every day. It will be more fun if you are all in the same prison.

    The other side would be to create your own path. Marry your goddess; be poor and happy. Suffer a little. But, at the least, you won’t be handcuffed into middle-classdom.

    Gotta love God for making life interesting!

    Really enjoyed your story, bro. You are obviously a great writer, but your skill is that I could feel what you felt. That is hard to pull off.

    Best wishes for wherever you go from here!

    • Brian Harrison

      Thanks.
      Though, I seriously doubt I’m going to be sucked into buying a minivan anytime soon. Unless, it has a bed in the back and I can wander the highway in it.
      However, I have been known to tie a sweater around my neck. To sort of give a diverse fresh flavor to an already Hippie impression.

  3. fife, i’ve got no qualms at all with intercultural marriages, or being poor and happy — and certainly none with giving up starbucks and the minivan. it’s just an issue of simplicity. communication’s difficult, even when speaking the same language; i fear that which makes it harder.

    so, brian, learn spanish before you go and take your bride.

    • Brian Harrison

      This was 11 years ago. I am sure that she has married already, and probably has 7 little ninos running about the place. Oh well…

      ….But when I come to visit you in Tanzania, who knows what locals I shall meet……Nah, entirely kidding.

      • Brittney Harrison

        Brian, don’t say you are entirely kidding about finding a woman in Tanzania. I don’t think you can go outside the U.S. without wooing a lass. I’m pretty sure the last American citizen girlfriend you had was Buffy in the 6th grade.

      • just don’t expect me to translate as you kiss one of them. and just so you know, anyone close to your age is already going to be married and have 7 little watoto running about the place.

        • Brian Harrison

          I wanna kiss one of those African women with the huge lip thingys….
          Just as much as I want to get one of those ultra tall, giraffe neck African women in a headlock.

          • i’ve never seen any of those women here. though you know you missed your chance with the long-neck women that one time we were in north thailand together…

            we’ve already started working on baylor’s big bottom lip thing. right now we’re using empty dip cans. we mix a little dip at a time into her cereal and mashed veggies — you know, just to build up tolerance.

  4. Brian Harrison

    Yeah, when I have kids, if I ever do, I’m going to attach large blocks on their heads, to slope their foreheads like the Choctaw Indians, or maybe it was the Chickasaw Indians, do. It’s sad that such things pass out of fashion.

    Buffy, is straight out of the extensive romantic chronicles of Camp Wiregrass, that every wiregrass kid has. She was a vibrant red head. And she was my banquet date in 5th grade. We held hands and it made me nervous. Her full name was Buffy Barber, I think. And I remember you calling her Scruffy Barker. (Not to her face; when I got back from Camp, though you had never seen her.) She was cute. And actually, I never really kept in touch with her. Nor ever really cared to. Such things were beyond me at that age; they probably still are.

    • no comment on the apache warrior children. as for buffy, the story’s starting to sound familiar. scruffy barker… that was a good one.

      maybe she reads the blog and you can find one another again. no, wait — you, me, brittney, and that weird guy who’s stalking me — yeah, everyone who reads the blog is accounted for.

      • Brian Harrison

        What are you talking about? Isn’t this like one of the most popular blogs in the Church of Christ web world?

        Shoot, there might even be a chance that Arlene has read this (if she’s learned to read English by now).

        I kind of wonder if she’ll ever google her name. I mean, this long romance story is what she’ll find. (I wish someone would write a long romance saga about me that whenever I type in my name that story would appear.)

        • i did make the top 25 church of Christ blogs list. though i don’t know that the church of Christ are known for their technology savvy. i mean most haven’t even figured out how to use pianos — and you expect them to be on the interwebs?

          actually, that would be interesting if she googled her name and got here. and this story was published in another place, too. i google my own name every 5 or 6 months to see what comes up. surely spanish speakers do the same.

          • Brian Harrison

            I just googled my name along with Nicaragua and alot of other words…and after extensive search, believe it nor not, I found Arlene’s take on this same story. I had to translate it into English. It reads like a journal entry:

            “The Week I Made Out with An Albino”
            by Arlene Hernandez
            This week a large group of fat, silly Americans arrived in Managua. They’re always in a rush. One of them, an albino asked me to go to McDonald’s with him. Can’t turn down a free meal, even if it is McDonald’s. He ate his chicken nuggets like his American Empire, indulging his face with little regard to those around him. Later, that week, as we were leaving, my friend who spoke English told him the custom of kissing Spanish girls on the cheek, and this white idiot kissed me on the mouth. I suspect it was an intentional translation error, a prank, of my friend. But then, considering the weirdness of this American, he probably was told correctly. And kissed me on the lips anyway. Stupid gringo.”

            Not quite as romantic as my take on it.

          • i’m amazed at your skills in spanish.

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