We arrived at the Michoacana about an hour before it closed every night for almost a week with nothing but our American dollars and peso change from the night before. By day four, we still couldn’t add the two values, exchange rate changing twice a day as we dropped gold coins on the counter until they spun like tops, chattering to rest and the Señorita smiled and gathered then all in a pile like they must be enough. Carlos, our host pastor for the week, told us the parlor was right around the corner from where we were staying—a two story with a garden and a balcony—on a pot-holed street next to the bullfighting arena in Playas, the beachfront boardwalk of Tijuana.
“Tienes hombre?” I heard Francisco, one of the Mexican pastors, say to Brian as our group headed out for ice cream. That wasn’t right, but Brian didn’t know. He was only three or so phrases into Francisco’s language, and his verbs still came out choppy and distant from the subjects they described. He didn’t stand a chance against the roll of the Mexican “r” and these Tijuana vowels that hung to the ends of their questions. Francisco had been pulling fast ones on many of my similarly three-phrased friends like this all week, with tricky Spanish words and idioms, foreign to the American ear.
My pobres amigos could hardly survive the open air markets. They’d wander around, asking “Cuánto cuesta?” to the eager vendors and almost immediately buying purses for three hundred pesos until I’d come shuffling over in my peasant skirt and sandals crying “No! No queremos. Es muy caro!” And, only slightly out of breath, bartering down some woman’s fine looking Mexican son to eight or nine American dólares for a hand-woven purse.
Purses might have become an entirely other issue here on the way to the Michoacana when mi amigo, Brian, is about to tell Francisco that he’s had a lot of men. Brian, in fact, was quite sure that he was asserting his hunger and increasing craving for the ice cream at the shop whose steps we were now ascending. I figured I had to help the guy out. “Sí ten-go…mucho hom-bre.” He choppily spit out, rubbing his stomach, aware of the somewhat universal nature of hand signals across these verbal chasms but only perpetuating his unwarranted communication of loving men, literally, having them, and quite numerously – he said – because he was in fact, very hungry.
“Hambre!” I shouted. “Not men, Bry! Hungry!” Francisco laughed his shrill cackling laugh, the one he used with the niños and niñas when he dressed up like a clown for the carnivals. His plan was foiled. But the confusion of men and hunger spilled over like melting helado over the soggy edge of un cono de gofre into frozen palabras of flavors.
We, collectively, don’t speak Spanish. The employees of the Michoacana know this and somehow, before they close up shop, find themselves scooping cones of flavors named mostly “this” and “that” and counting money that’s not their own for a mess of skins that would fry under their caliente playas sol, arena between your toes.
Every noche. Sun goes down, we come up the steps. Into the Michoacana – they’re everywhere, bright signs, colors of fresh fruits and sweet crumbling cones, banana splits for two, frozen fruit bars con cacahuetes – all inside our corner store that could barely hold us all.
It had been three or four nights when mi amiga Nicole decided it was time for a change. We’d tried most of the flavors, the ones we hadn’t, even our best translating powers combined couldn’t seem to figure out what might be hiding inside. We’d raced to scarf down banana splits twice the size of a pair of fists. Tried popsicles and something resembling a Lemon Chill. Check. Compruebe.
There was one item we saw on the price list in our search for arctic adventure that we couldn’t decipher. I tried to find a picture, scanning the walls and even the signs outside for a cup or a bowl or a cone we hadn’t tried. Nada. The word on the price list meant snow. Nieve: thirty pesos, the same as a little bowl or a cone of ice cream. Maybe a snow cone, or something like a slurpee. México became a time of taking risks. Nicole ordered snow and I walked across the street to the beach overlook without looking both ways.
Standing back on the steps, the ringing of crashing waves in my ears, Francisco asked me in his tongue if we, in America, call snow ice cream. I thought of how I eat snow in handfuls sometimes when I shovel, now in undisputed adulthood, wise enough to run far into the yard yet untouched to gather the freshly fallen flakes. It has no taste, sin sabor, just the thin flaky crystals that melt to coat my wet warm tongue like a thin saliva. Do we call that ice cream? I tightened the muscles in my face to eek out a slow response, begging explanation, “No-oo…”
Francisco wasn’t phased. Not surprised by the American way, just assured me that here, the two are the same. “Nieve y helado,” he says, “Son mismos.” The interchangeable words are a problem for us, and for Nicole, you see, because everyone in the Michoacana was eating helado, and had been for days. And while we eat helado, Nicole orders nieve. But really, she orders helado which is ice cream that apparently is snow is nieve. I call her name, to save her from her snow scream, but she turns around as I call, holding helado fresa, a trail of the violet red dripping from the side of her cup, a plump frozen strawberry on her spoon, just like three nights in a row. What a risk taker.