This is the story of how I learned the Spanish word for scabies.
I was twenty-one years old and I had just graduated from college with a degree in biology. This is useful if you want to go to medical school or work in a research lab; it is not so useful if your plan is to spend a year and a half volunteering in a house of hospitality for migrants and refugees on the Texas-Mexico border. Most of the other volunteers were in the same boat as me. We were doing things we didn’t know how to do in a language we barely spoke, and our only qualification was that we were willing to work for free.
Nevertheless I loved it. It wasn’t long before I settled into the work with all my heart, finding a giddy joy in the mundane tasks of answering doors, mopping floors, sorting beans into the great big beat-up pot that bubbled day and night on the ancient gas stove.
I had been there for only a month or two when one of our guests rushed into the office where a few of the other volunteers and I were working, shouting in Spanish. “Come quick! Maria’s in labor!”
Naturally, our first question was: Which Maria?
This was a women’s shelter in Mexico. Half our guests were named Maria Something-or-Other, Maria de la Cruz or Maria de Jesus or Maria Teresa. And several of the Marias were pregnant. But we weren’t expecting the woman in question to be Maria Victoria, because Maria Victoria was only some five months along. I did not know a lot about pregnancy, except how to avoid it, but I was pretty sure that going into labor at five months was bad news bears.
We rushed out to the patio. Sure enough, Maria Victoria (we called her Vicky) was standing there with her hands on her belly, rocking back and forth, a wordless moan issuing from her parted lips, which were turned to the sky. The front of her dress was soaked and there was a puddle at her feet. “Oh God,” we volunteers hissed to each other in English, keeping what we hoped were calm expressions. “Her water broke.” “NOT GOOD.” “What should we do?” “Don’t ask me. I’m twenty-one and I have a degree in biology.” And so on.
We brought her into the volunteer sala and had her lie down on the couch. Someone brought her apple juice, slabs of toast with margarine, a wash cloth for her forehead. Meanwhile I went to the office to call the hospital. We dialed emergency numbers a lot at the shelter; our guests tended to have issues. The people on the other end of the line knew us well. “Oh hey,” I said, “it’s me, at the shelter. Yes, again. No police this time.”
The paramedics showed up fifteen or twenty minutes later. We brought them right into the sala. They clustered around Vicky, four or five big burly guys and one woman, and examined her and talked to her quietly in Spanish, too much for me to follow. Then they looked back at me and the other volunteers, crowded in the doorway.
“Well?” we said. “Is she okay? Is the baby okay? Are you taking her in?” They looked at us strangely. “She’s fine,” one of the medics said. “She’s not in labor.”
We rushed to protest. “She is most definitely in labor! Her water broke! We saw the puddle!”
The medic sighed and motioned us out to the hallway. “She is not in labor. Her water is not broken. That puddle, that came from somewhere else, you understand?” He tapped the side of his head. And I realized what he was trying to say, which was that 1. Vicky had peed on herself, and 2. she might be just a wee bit off her rocker.
This we knew.
“Oh, and one more thing,” said the medic. “Did you notice those red bumps she has on her wrists?” Oh yes, we said instantly. She’d told us she had eczema. We assured him that were giving her all sorts of moisturizing creams and lotions for it. The medic laughed without much humor and shook his head. “That is not eczema.” He took out a little pad of paper and a pen and wrote down a word I didn’t know, that none of us knew. “This is what she has.” He wrote down something else. “And this is what you need to get. For all of you, probably.”
Twenty minutes later, standing in an aisle of the corner pharmacy, scanning the bilingual instructions on a box of pyrethrin, I learned the Spanish word for scabies.
I began to feel very itchy.
And I felt angry, too, furious in fact–angry with Maria Victoria for bringing scabies into our house and telling us it was eczema, angry when I thought of all the affectionate hugs she’d bestowed upon the volunteers, which had probably served to transfer tiny little skin-digging bugs onto our own bodies. And I was annoyed that she’d faked her own labor, caused us to worry and scurry and look foolish in front of the paramedics, who already thought, quite rightly I suppose, that we volunteers were in over our heads.
But then, standing there surrounded by the boxes of creams and pills and Band-Aids, I saw things for a moment from outside myself. I thought of Vicky–a homeless, penniless, pregnant woman with no prospects, staying in a shelter with no privacy and very little control over her very existence. I thought: maybe she just wanted to call the shots for once, to have the world revolve around her for a little while.
And you know what?
I get that.
I bought up the store’s entire supply of pyrethrin and headed home, feeling oddly comforted by the knowledge that even though we came from very different backgrounds, all of us who lived at the shelter–volunteers and guests alike–shared some fundamental things in common. Like: we all needed to be taken care of once in a while.
Also, we all had scabies.