Do you have a pistol for the pain?

Special to The Times

My husband says he's multilingual. Or at least that's what he believes.

On his résumé, John claims he speaks Swedish, Korean, Indonesian, French and Spanish. But in my book, the only language he speaks with any fluency is English.

I made this discovery by trial and error (more error than trial) on our voyages to Latin America.

I was a Spanish major. I went to school in Spain and lived in South America for two years. I spent years memorizing the gender of nouns and conjugating verbs in past, present and future tenses.

My husband had only one year of Spanish in college, but he has the fearlessness of a matador who never backs down. He blithely plows through conversations, knowing he is mangling the language.

He'll say "zapata," the last name of the 20th century Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, instead of "zapato," which means "shoe."

I discovered his malapropian tendencies on our first trip to Guatemala in 1995. We were strolling through the village of Flores, watching locals chatting on the sidewalks while their children played nearby. There was a laid-back air prompted by the end of the workweek.

As children flitted through the streets, my husband spied a 6-year-old boy tossing a red ball up and down on his front porch. When my husband saw him, he urged the youngster to throw the ball to him.

Before I could stop him, he yelled, "Mátame. Mátame," instead of "Mándamela. Mándamela."

Little did he know that instead of saying, "Send it to me. Send it to me," he had said, "Kill me. Kill me."

The boy was stunned. He stopped, crinkled up his nose and stared at my husband in disbelief before asking in an incredulous tone, "¿Qué?" (What?)

I was incredulous too. What was John thinking?

"Are you nuts?" I yelled at him. "Let's get out of here before they kill you." Soon, we were zipping down the street, avoiding people's curious gazes.

Over the years, my husband's Spanish has been like a roller-coaster ride: It improves with a few weeks of intense study and then steeply plummets to a semi-coherent mishmash of wrong words sprinkled in with correct ones.

I was reminded of this recently when we stopped overnight in the bustling Mexican port city of Ensenada on our way to go whale watching in Baja California.

We stayed on the edge of town at a white stucco motel where the rooms had a distinct Motel 6 flavor. But the place had a quaint coffee shop overlooking the interior patio.

The next morning, we slipped in there for breakfast, and my husband mustered his best Spanish to order an omelet "de campeones."

Before my husband could finish ordering, the waiter was dancing around, jabbing the air with punches as he imitated a prizefighter.

My husband didn't get the connection, so I explained: He had ordered an omelet of champions. In Spanish, mushrooms are "champiñones" not "campeones."

This time, we laughed instead of fleeing.

Definitely not funny But I wasn't laughing on our honeymoon in 1996 to the Galápagos Islands. We were traveling in a 12-cabin boat around the islands on a five-day trip.

On our third evening, right before dinner, a rogue wave hit the side of the boat, sending me careening across the lounge, through an unlatched door and onto the deck, where I fell backward against a metal railing.

Nearly knocked unconscious, I rubbed the back of my head and found I could fit a finger into the profusely bleeding gash. Fortunately, we were on our way to the most populous of the Galápagos Islands, Santa Cruz, which had a hospital. Two hours later in the emergency room, the doctor took a look at my head and went to work.

As I lay on my stomach, the back of my head being sewn with nine stitches, my husband tried to be a caring, concerned spouse.

"¿No tienes una pistola para matar el dolor?" he asked, thinking he was asking the doctor for a pill to kill the pain. But instead, it came out: "Do you have a pistol to kill the pain?"

The doctor turned to him with a perplexed look, thinking that maybe John was making a bad joke. But I knew better. My husband had confused pastilla (pill) with pistola (pistol).

Before we left 45 minutes later, I assured the doctor that my husband was not planning to kill me in my sleep.

John struck again during a trip to the bottom of Copper Canyon in northern Mexico. We had spent a few days hiking the trails along the canyon bottom and stayed in the small, dusty town of Batopilas, which has one bus a day. It departs at 5:30 a.m. So we set our digital watch alarm for 4:45 a.m.

When it rang, my husband sprang into action, packing and taking a shower. Then he slipped out to check on the bus. He returned to report there was no bus in sight, nor any waiting passengers nor signs of life outside.

So I poked my head out the hotel's enormous wooden front door, seeing nothing except a lone burro meandering along the street. I walked down the street to check on the situation and discovered a small police station with a sleepy officer seated at a desk.

I inquired about the 5:30 a.m. bus. There was, indeed, a bus at that time, he assured me.

"Well," I said in Spanish. "It's 5:30 a.m. Where's the bus?"

"Excuse me," he replied. "It's 1 a.m."

It turned out John had pushed the wrong button when setting the alarm.

Then the police officer added: "You know, there was an American man here a few minutes ago asking about something. But I couldn't understand his Spanish."

"Oh," I said, "that must have been my husband."

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