A Universal Language

A Universal Language

Stickiness glues every inch of my clothes to me. Blaring sun blinds me from all directions. Wine fumes leave no room for fresh air on this street. A bead of sweat slides down my face to land on my upper lip. It tastes slightly of stale wine. I turn a corner and can finally see the supermarket. It’s closed.

Tears pool in the cracks of my mouth. I hate this place.

I fling myself down on the step in the supermarket’s doorway. This is the only slice of shade I can see. I pull my phone out and video call my partner. He answers and I switch it to voice only and put him on loudspeaker. I want to talk to him, but I don’t want him to see me like this.

I wasn’t quick enough.

“Aww, little one, what happened?”

“The stupid shop is shut!” I know I’m whinging and I know it’s not the end of the world. But I can’t stop. “I’m starving and melting and it’s so hot here!”

“You’ll be okay,” he says, his reassurance falling flat. “How was the wine fight? Did you actually have fun?”

Haro’s Batalla de Vino, a regional Spanish wine fight, took place this morning. Even though I don’t drink, I had fun. But right at this moment, I hate it for closing this supermarket. The big ‘Cerrado para Batalla de Vino’ sign is like a personal insult.

“Why’d I think I could travel alone, huh? Why didn’t you stop me?” I don’t even know if he can understand me through all the crying, but I really need him to.

“You’re gunna be okay. It’ll get better. Do you have any snacks?”

I pull out the crumpled packet of potato chips from my bags. It’s a quarter full. “Some chips,” I grumble at him.

“Okay, good. So just sit there in some shade and eat those and then we can come up with a plan.”

He talks to me as I eat the grand total of nine chips, tears dribbling down my face the whole time. I keep my head down, ignoring everyone who passes by. This street isn’t too busy, since everything’s closed, but people are walking down it to get to some of the festivities that have moved to the centre of town.

Most are wearing clean clothes, but every now and then clusters of purple-wearing people scamper past. At least I changed out of my wine fight clothes. They must smell so bad.

Some of them glance at me, but I refuse to make eye contact. I refuse to be embarrassed.

Then someone says, “Okay?” and I look up. A couple of guys my age have paused in front of me. I look down and nod.

Si, gracias.

After a moment they leave.

“What was that?” my partner demands.

“Guys asking if I’m okay.”

“Are you safe there, on your own?”

“Yeah, it’s daytime. I’m not in an alleyway or anything. I’m okay.” I swallow a lump in my throat. More tears.

Before he can reply a large group of guys thunder into view. There’s 10—12?—of them, all around my age, all wearing purple-stained clothing, all holding a can of something. I cross my legs so I’m not taking up any space on the footpath, staying small, unnoticeable. They’re passing me, but so slowly. Until they’re not.

“Okay?” They’ve stopped walking. They’re all standing in front of me.

Si. Yes.” My words get caught in my throat and a couple of the guys move closer. “I’m fine, thanks, I’m good.” But the sight of them makes me sob.

“Juz, what’s going on?” my partner’s voice is shrill.

“Nothing, there’s—yes! I’m fine.”

They crowd around me. Half of them crouch down, bouncing on their heels, their faces level with mine. The rest stand behind me, blocking me from the street. I scoot backwards until my back hits the supermarket’s door. I’m cornered.

“Okay?”

“Okay?”

Si! Yes!”

Each time they ask, I sob. I’m not okay. I need them to leave. I need to leave. I want to go home.

Every Spanish word I know disappears aside from ‘si’. It’s like someone has tipped me upside down and poured my vocab out. I don’t know how to ask them to leave me alone.

One of the crouching guys leans forward, breathing stale wine into my face. He puts his hand on my right knee. “Okay?” he asks.

I want to scream. Yes, I’m okay. No, I’m not okay. Leave. Please leave.

“Yes.”

He rubs his hand over my knee. Another reaches over, his sticky hand on my upper left thigh. A third pats my right thigh. Fingers are creeping towards the edge of my shorts.

I try to uncross my legs, trying to bring them into my chest, needing to fold into myself. They’re putting too much pressure on my legs though.

“Okay?” they repeat. A never-ending chorus of ‘okay’.

“Yes,” I answer, using my phone-less hand to try to brush away the hands on my legs. “No.”

They’re drunk and they’re not listening. ‘No’ means ‘no’ in Spanish, too. I remember that now. Why aren’t they listening?

“Okay?”

“Ye-ess!” I’m snivelling. They don’t seem malicious. There’s no aggression in their bodies. I don’t think they want to harm me. But why aren’t they listening?

“Justine!”

“I’m here!” I sob at my phone. “I think these guys—trying to see if I’m okay—not listening—” I can’t catch my breath.

More hands.

“Okay?”

I’m trapped.

I look up at them, trying to see a way out. A human form moves behind them and through a crack between their bodies I see an older woman glance at me. She’s wearing clean clothes, a straw hat on her head. She does a double-take, her eyes widening at me. She says something but I can’t hear, can’t translate. None of the guys seem to hear her.

She frowns and then reaches through the gap. She pushes between two of the guys and clasps her hand around my wrist. She tugs. I can hear the guys murmuring as she pulls me to my feet, their hands sliding off my skin. She drags me out of their semicircle.

I can feel their eyes on me as she wraps her arm around my waist and I curl my phone-less arm around her. I look behind me as she sweeps me away from them. They stare at us, frowns twisting their features.

I turn to my saviour and she says something in Spanish.

“I’m sorry, my Spanish sucks,” I reply. “But thank you. Thank you so much.”

I don’t think she understands me, but she tightens her grip around my waist. I do the same.

“I’m okay,” I manage to say to my partner on the phone. He heaves a sigh. “A woman rescued me.”

Thank God for this woman. Thank God for the universal way women have each other’s backs.

I manage to reassure her that I’m okay now and hug her before we part ways. She watches me walk down the street towards my campsite. She stands watch, keeping herself between me and the direction of the supermarket and the guys. She stays there until I’m out of sight.

Cover by Verne Ho 

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