Building a Code of Intimacy: Loving in English and Spanish

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Spanish has always been my love language. It was my first language. The language I associate with home, with family, and with a specific word, almost untranslatable into English: Cariño.

Merriam Webster translates this word into “affection” or “love.” But it’s more than that. It’s the easy way in which my Cuban family has always reached out for each other. Constantly. A steady, warm, playful, comforting physical contact that says: I’m here.

As the daughter of two Cuban immigrants, I felt a whole lot of cariño as a kid. Growing up with my extended family — I lived with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents in the same house — cariño was ever-present. It was there in my grandmother’s late-night chats as we snuggled in her bed, an antiquated mosquitero drifting above us. It was present when I baked bread with my grandfather, our hands co-mingling with each other’s as we kneaded the soft dough, stories passing through us like current. It was in the open mouthed kisses my mom gave my sister and I as children.

When I began to date, I found, almost immediately, that it was easier for me, more comfortable, to date in Spanish, even though English had taken the reigns as my strongest language by then. English had become the language I wrote in, my work’s home, the language I had mastered. But Spanish, with its residue of family, was still the language I loved in.

This was all well and good, at first. Romantic even. I fell in love with a man who held my hand on our first date, and didn’t let go for ten years — whose easy contact reminded me of my upbringing. He hailed from Montevideo, Uruguay; his English was terrible. I moved into his apartment almost immediately — we lived together, got married and eventually divorced.

It wasn’t until I started to date again, post-divorce, that I realized Spanish had not only brought us together, but actually had something to do with our break up.

Back in the game, in my thirties, I tackled the dating scene with curiosity, delight, and frustration, all at the same time. What resulted from this adventure was a lens through which to view my marriage and analyze the mistakes I was making in love and language.

Dating in English and dating in Spanish were as vastly different from one another as I had expected. In English, I would go on a date — with a smart American guy, let’s say — and the conversation would be smooth and swift, and the banter would be great. But then, when I would hold his arm to emphasize a point in conversation, he would freeze-up. This forced me to watch my movements, which made everything awkward. I wasn’t proposing, for god’s sake, I was just, well, being myself. Where was the cariño? This seemed to initially reinforce the idea that I was meant to date in Spanish.

The other thing that would happen when I went on dates in English was that the men just didn’t like me as much as the Spanish-speaking men did. Like a good reader and writer, I started trying to unpack this. To say it was “cultural” would be oversimplifying. What was it about me, specifically, that made the Latin guys ask me out again, and the English-speaking dates fall flat?

As a result, I started listening to my English-speaking self and my Spanish-speaking self more carefully, analyzing my two voices. It turned out that my Spanish-speaking self was more seemingly diffident. In Spanish, I did not have the ability to pluck the perfect word out of the great web of semantics, and, therefore, I seemed less assertive when I spoke.

In English, on the other hand, I was a feminist, a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and knew how to communicate that with precision. It was depressing that men who knew this side of me didn’t seem to like it. This was getting complex.

Latin men found me “cute,” and “caring.” I was, to them, an adorable ingénue. While out with them, I spoke Spanish easily, without an accent. And so it seemed that I was in full control of my diction. When really, I was often relying on easy words. And so I sounded less intelligent. Quieter.

I still longed for Spanish-speaking cariño, but often found myself trapped in the machismo that followed when I fell for the beau with the initial lingo I was comfortable with. When I tried to explain this to one of the Spanish-speaking men I was dating, it was like I was speaking Chinese.

I started to think back to my marriage. My ex-husband, during one couple’s therapy session, told our shrink he’d rather have a wife that worked as a secretary, 9-to-5, and came home without any more work to do, than me — me and my PhD, and my successful writing career. He held those things up like stinking socks. The shrink opened her eyes wide and told us we might not make it.

My ex-husband, it seemed, did not respect who I really was at my core. The lack of control over my Spanish had led him to believe I was a certain kind of woman, one he could control, and when he saw that what I wanted was a union, not a marriage in which the man led, and the woman followed, it all fell apart.

As for the Spanish-speaking men I was dating after my marriage, who liked me, who I longed for, because their physical warmth was familiar — they didn’t understand me either. We were suffering from a lack of true communication. We were speaking different languages, even within the same language.

Enter Ignacio, whose name literally, and appropriately, shares a common root with ignition. Because Ignacio did, in fact, live up to his name — he lit a flame in me that is still growing. Part of this kindling, I think, has to do with these love languages I’m going on about, but most of it, has to do with the paradoxical erasure of them — or, perhaps, the erasure of my attempt to delineate them.

Ignacio is also from Montevideo, Uruguay. What can I say? I must have a thing for Uruguayos. It might also just be one of those funny coincidences that love has a way of bringing about.

We met on Hinge, which is like the popular dating app Tinder, except that it operates only within your network. Meaning, there’s not the same “stranger danger” as there is on Tinder. Hinge’s operating system only connects you with people you know, or people who know people that you know. Think: six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Our “connector” turned out to be a musician neither of us knew very well, but which Ignacio keeps joking he’s going to send a bottle of some very good wine to. Watch out for that gift, Casanova. (That’s really his last name by the way! … Casanova. You can’t make this stuff up.)

In any case, back to language. Even though Ignacio was born in South America, he lived through a number of places, growing up and went to high school in Connecticut — his dad worked for the UN — and so his English is pretty perfect, as is his Spanish. Still, at first, even before we met in person, when we were feeling each other out — our texts were in Spanish, which made sense, given my long trajectory with the language and my habit of using it with men. Perhaps you might even call it my hang-up instead of my habit. But, soon, it was Ignacio that started to switch the language on me. He turned to English, almost immediately. He says it was because English was a common ground between his “Uruguayan Spanish” and my “Cuban Spanish.” I think it was more than that though — I think he sensed that I was more comfortable and smarter in English and he, unlike the men I’d dated before, likes my intellect, likes to engage with it — something he does with ease and without pretense, which I, in turn, love.

And so when my weak Spanish words got in the way, he went to the place where I could meet him: the English language, cushioned as it was with our Spanish language backgrounds, and the ability to meander into Spanish whenever we felt like it.

It is Ignacio and his particular love language that has led me to the realization that though love can be a tongue twister, it is “ignited,” truly, not by semantics, but by something else — a deep consideration and esteem for the other. It is not Spanish or English that, in the end, makes me love Ignacio, it is his language of respect. His ability to see that I could be more myself in English, that I could communicate with him at a higher level there, and that I could still extend the cariño I had learned at home, no matter what literal lingo we were speaking. He saw me, and in doing so, he opened our hearts to the language of intimacy, a code that’s built, little by little, day by day, between two people who really see each other.

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