The grammar lesson outed me. In Spanish class, we were practicing time expressions. “How long ago did you run?” the teacher asked.
“Hace una semana,” a classmate answered. One week ago.
“How long ago did you swim?”
“Hace un año,” another said. One year ago.
I nervously studied the list of verbs in the workbook. Besar. To kiss. For a few months, I’d been taking these after-work classes, and I’d started to flirt with Marc—chats during the break and at a party, pressing my leg against his while we sat together on a couch. But in the not-too-distant past, I’d also kissed another classmate, whose chief attraction had been his apparent similarity to a college boyfriend, preppy and self-effacing.
Besar. My heart thudded as I waited my turn. I couldn’t look at Marc or the one-time guy, who both sat across the table from me. If the teacher asked me when I’d last kissed, I could lie. Besides, it seemed unlikely she’d pick that verb out of the many. The odds were in my favor. But she asked, and I told the truth. Un mes. One month.
“Who?” Marc blurted. The other man stared stonily ahead.
“¡Maleducado!” our teacher scolded. Rude. The rebuke ended his questions.
At the height of the first dot-com boom, at the turn of the second millennium, I’d landed a tech reporting job in San Francisco. Though I’d grown up in the Bay Area, I was starting over as an adult. A child of the suburbs, I had only a limited, bridge-and-tunnel knowledge of the city. I’d always been a good girl, a dutiful daughter, and an aspiring writer. I feared that I observed but did not engage in the world. So now I was having my share of romantic misadventure. The tech bubble put complimentary drinks and jumbo shrimp and gift bags in our hands at launch parties. We knew the free-flowing cash could not continue, so we had to grab onto the windfall while it lasted.
Whenever I regretted the night before—too many drinks, too much canoodling—I told myself at least I’d have a story for later. But I was beginning to feel lost, to feel as if I had no words in which to explain the deepest part of myself. Until I met Marc.
I’d enrolled to equip myself for interviews with hispanohablante sources. Marc, born in Italy to expat parents, loved to travel and had recently returned from Chile, a trip that inspired him to brush up on his Spanish. We spent more time with our classmates than with friends and family, crowded around a small wooden table as if we were chatting in a kitchen nook. We acted out silly skits, played games, and explained the peculiarity of American culture to our Spanish-born teacher.
When you’re learning a new language, it’s difficult to speak with nuance. You express yourself on a raw level, unable to hide behind euphemisms. In a language not your own, you’re honest, because the weight of the words falls differently than when making a confession in your mother tongue. You speak with the bluntness of children.
From class, Marc learned I was down-to-earth and playful. When he gamely acted out the role of a television reporter live on the scene of a terremoto, an earthquake, I gathered the same about him. We faced off in competitions, and when my team won, Marc’s called us tramposos, cheaters. We all sang along to Mecano’s otherworldly synth-pop song about Laika, the Russian space dog who became a star.
During a school reception—before Marc learned I’d been kissing someone else—we had our first long conversation that flowed so easily I wondered if I should suggest hanging out again or if he should. I wanted his hand at the small of my back. Not wanting to break off conversation with me, he waited until after I left to visit the restroom. A fortuitous strategy, it turned out. When he flushed the toilet, the handle came loose. He opened the lid, and water spurted into his face, so high that drops hit the ceiling. He mopped himself up, fixed the toilet, and snuck out—no Don Juan.
If it had been today instead of 2001, I could have searched for him on Instagram or Facebook, and we could have flirted over Snapchat. In what now seems a quaint move, I invited our class to my birthday party. Marc showed up; the other guy didn’t. As he was leaving, he gave me a casual, one-armed hug and asked if I wanted to catch a movie sometime.
The moment the front door closed, I hopped around in excitement. On the date itself, we were both stiff, without the structure and setting of the class. Without Spanish. At the end of our date, he pulled into the driveway of my apartment in the Mission District, where parking spots were at a premium. He didn’t get out of the car to walk me to my door, and it would have been awkward to lunge across the sedan for a hug, let alone a kiss.
A week later, after our second date, I began formulating an excuse to invite him up. He was flying out early the next morning for work, and I offered him a copy of People en Español to read on the plane. We chatted for a few minutes, I gave him the magazines, and at the door we kissed. Tentative then strong, a kiss that I wanted to go on and on.
We didn’t hold hands or smooch in the hallways or announce our relationship to the class, but they must have known. Ours was not the first romance, I suspect, in a school teaching a Romance language.
Marc courted me by taking me flying, piloting a Cessna over San Francisco Bay. He was steady and handsome, kind and funny. When he guided our raft down the American River, wearing a life vest studded with carabiners and a coil of rope, no one could have been sexier. Falling in love with him was like listening to a radio station in a language I didn’t know, words on the tip of my tongue, guessing at meaning, until all at once I understood.
Half a year later, we were preparing for our first trip abroad, to Puerto Vallarta. On a Sunday morning, cuddling in bed, he asked, “Do you remember that time in class, when you said you’d kissed someone? Who was it?”
I said nothing until he started naming every male friend and co-worker. By then, the other man had stopped taking classes. Seeing Marc’s shock when I told him—That guy? That guy I used to sit next to?—I tried to change the subject.
“Are we in love?” I asked. A testing-the-waters way of saying I love you.
Yes, he said. He’d been planning to tell me in Mexico.
After I landed a reporting fellowship that took me to Washington, D.C., and Panama, he attended Spanish classes by himself a few weeks longer, and then his evenings became tied up, talking with me over the clunky webcam that hosted our date nights.
We left the classroom behind and practiced our Spanish in Panama, where he met me at the end of my reporting trip, and later on when we backpacked across Peru, Argentina, and Mexico. Chatting with locals about their lives thrilled us both. I cherished the Spanish we learned on the road, vocabulary inseparable from time and place. Hiking the Inca Trail, we stood on ruins and gazed into the mist-shrouded valley below. “Neblina,” the guide said. Fog. A beautiful word that sounded like the name of a fairy.
Certainly we bickered over where to go, fighting about missed planes and trains, but our relationship deepened as we navigated in Spanish together. Picking out words from the dictionary or circumlocuting until the listener understood. The ah-ha moment, as exciting, as satisfying as hitting a bull’s-eye.
The following year in Cambodia, we rode a bicycle rickshaw to Angkor Wat, to catch the sunrise. The pitted path to the temple was so dark we had to follow the glow of cellphone screens. The sky began to lighten, streaks of orange and pink over the delicate, ancient spires reflected in the lily pond.
When he got down on his knee and pulled out the velvet box, I was exhausted and itching from mosquito bites. He’d tucked the ring into the nylon pouch strapped around his waist, hoping airport security wouldn’t expose his secret.
“¿Quieres casar conmigo? Te amo.”
I nodded, overwhelmed, speechless in any language.