Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

The Orange Sea Shell

by Alison Turner

My toes press against the railing almost as high as my head, and I admire the white triangles left on my feet by wearing the same flipflops every day in the Colombian sun. The balcony connects to the hotel’s common TV room, where two people absentmindedly switch channels. I look across the street into balconies of other hotels, and a crowded, touristy upstairs bar to the left. The buildings are yellow, turquoise green and brown. I moved to the hotel this morning and can’t
remember what color it is on the outside.

I had been staying at an International hostel chain across town, where policy was to cram twelve people to each room, bunk beds surrounding the walls. My room housed a large percentage of twenty-something men from the States, or Australia, who tended to stumble in early in the morning, turning on the lights to find their bed, knocking over someone’s suitcase, sorry mate! and snoring loudly. There was also a couple from Belgium who cuddled under the covers of a bottom bunk all day, quickly emerging when I came in to grab a book or water bottle. Are you here alone? they had asked, straightening their t-shirts.

I decided that I need to be even more alone, so this morning I bumped my suitcase over cobble-stoned streets, past stacks of sliced mangoes in cups, art museums and jewelry stalls, to a dirtier quarter, where beggars slump against walls while their children play in the dirt, and pushcarts sell large bowls of soup with a huge, unidentifiable bone stranded in the middle, where hotels have smaller rooms, and even some real, live, traveling Colombians amongst the guests. My new room has only one other occupant, a forty-something blond woman. We already bonded in the kitchen, with phrases like I have extra tomato, would you like some? and you are in room 4? that makes
us roommates, I am sorry my English is not so good, and the obligatory, your English is perfect! She is German and knows that all Colombian men play their TVs too loudly.

Now my new roommate and I fill the balcony’s two wooden chairs, each with our own meal prepared moments ago in the kitchen, and watch the opposite buildings. A band from the bar on the left just finished a not very good cover of a Manu Chao song.

“I am very happy that you are my roommate,” she says, perhaps too soon after a bite of noodles and vegetables. “So many times I am in rooms with bad Latin American men.”

“Bad? What do you mean?”

The sun has burned her face and arms to a red that clashes with her baggy orange dress, and as she thinks about my question her lips clench and her eyes narrow, forming ripples of deep wrinkles. Her hair looks tough and very pale, like longer versions of the flakes of skin that peel off her nose.

“Some men, I know they do not like women. This happened today, I needed to take taxi but I see the driver and say no, I am not comfortable.” As she spoke her eyes swelled into round bulges, which she fixes on me so that I will respond. I wonder if the cab driver had noticed these bulges,
and what he though of her weather-damaged skin and sinewy hair, whether or not he laughed about it with co-workers later, if they rolled their brown eyes about sunburned skin, if they had a slang word in Spanish for weird German woman. I look down at the street where people seem less abused by the heat and the people around them, but can feel that her eyes have not left my face.

“I guess you have to trust your instincts,” I say, watching the scene below. The two men who squatted on the porch steps across the street from the hotel when I arrived this morning are squatting still, so that I see them just below my raised feet. The younger in white shorts and an orange t-shirt, legs spread, the older in marine blue. They call out Spanish words for drugs to every man who walks by, and cat calls to every woman. Before my new roommate joined me on the balcony, I had watched them until they saw me, and then pretended that I couldn’t hear them.

“Yes, it is your instincts. And many men I know here are bad.” Salad dressing globs on the side of her mouth, supported by a structure of thin blond mustache hairs, slighter than the hair on her legs and the thick strands sprouting from her toes. Dinner debris spews from her angry words, and the way that it lands on the arm of her chair, and the flakes on her nose and the hair on her toes, make me want to take a break from eating my own dinner, and I wonder what it would be like to be bunked in room five with the consistently loud TV, or room twelve with the tall, silent man who always has a beer, or to pay the few dollars more for a single.

“Men can be bad in Germany, too,” I say as if I really know, and place my plastic bowl of noodles and vegetables on a small side table.

“Yes, this is true.”

And then she tells me about her brother who cheats on his wife, a man she started to travel with but who turned out bad, and her father who never showed tenderness, a typical example of today’s deteriorated German family, she says. German culture, she says, has a problem.

She uses a wooden spoon to scrape out her shallow bowl, lathering the tracings on to her tongue. She is tired and must wake up early, but is so glad that I am her only roommate, maybe now she will get sleep. Could I please get my things ready so that when I went to bed I wouldn’t make noise.

I say that I will, when I’ve finished eating.

She leaves the balcony and I stay to watch the street below, where the sitting men call out to a tall white guy who walks with two girls. The girls move on and lean against a nearby doorway, and the white guy approaches and talks guardedly, to the squatting men. I could never do that, I
think, and I slowly shake my head, left to right to left. If I approached like that would they keep whistling, if I stopped in front of them and stared would they reach out to grab me, would they suggest that we go to a back alley, would they commend my bravery and offer me a beer, would they tell me I’m beautiful? If I said I wanted drugs would they laugh and say goodbye pretty lady, would they rape me?

The tall white guy and the Colombians exchange small, indistinguishable parcels, hand to hand, and the white guy moves on to his girls. He kisses one of them and both girls giggle. The younger Colombian man, still sitting on the steps below, shouts something at a passing black man, who drinks a beer.

My new roommate is back and tells me that now she is going to sleep, and gives me an orange, spiral shell. She found it on the beach after leaving her boating partner, who had turned out to be a bad man. Merry Christmas, she says, because we are both travelling alone for the holidays in
Colombia. Thank you, I say and put my feet down from the rail of the balcony to accept the gift. I accidentally catch the eye of the men below, and when they yell something I want to throw the shell at them, for it to hit them both on the head, and for it to be full of salad dressing, burnt skin and feminine mustache hairs.

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One comment

Bits of this reminded me of Greene’s Travels with my Aunt.
The ending was so surprising!

by Mira on December 22, 2011 at 7:23 am. Link