Updated: Jun 5, 2020
“No,” she say. So, “No,” I repeat.
With the static on the line it makes four of us.
The doctor, the patient, the static and me.
“Tell him I said no,” she says in Spanish, so, again, I tell the doctor, “She wants me to tell you that that isn’t the problem.”
Then, “The problem,” she says, taking a sharp shallow breath of air, “Is that I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe.”
I can’t breathe.
She can’t breathe?
Three echoes, then static.
So, “Ok,” the doctor says on the other line, and I don’t bother translating. “Ok,” she repeats, “Ok,” again. Ok, Okay, Oh-quei.” But, it isn’t. I can tell from the doctor’s tone, I know the patient can tell too, because this part has never needed translation. So, “Ok, I will,” I tell the doctor when she says, “Ask her if there anyone else in the house?”
Ok. Okay. Oh-quei.
Static and the sound of labored breathing on the other end. The volunteer doctor sounds tired and the questions rehearsed. Is there a cough? What sort of cough then? Is there a fever? How high? Tell me again, how hard is it to breathe? Stethoscope translations over three cellphone lines on a clinic conference call. “How hard is it to breath?”
“Ok,” the doctor tells me, “Mild simptoms,” Simptomas leves. “I’m not too worried,” no esoty muy preocupada. “Can you tell her to stay indoors, and to stay clear of her son?”
Ok, okay, oh-quei.
“Can you stay indoors? Can you stay clear of your son?”
Then, “I,” she says, so “I,” I repeat.
“Can do that,” “Can do that.”
“I can,” “I can,” slipping into translation automation, into litany and recitation, “Try to be invisible, a conduit,” I remember my training, and begin to feel myself fade.
“It is possible,” It is possible, “The thing is,” The thing is. La cosa es que.
But then it stops.
Nothing automatic. No metal spring, not stainless steel.
Instead, “Oh,” I hear myself say, “Oh, I see.” A thing made of cartilage and yarn saying words she’s not supposed to say, “Only translate what they say, nothing more, nothing less.” A conduit. But in that moment I don’t hear my training, not supervisors and administrators, only, my own voice, “Thing is, doctor. She says there is no food in the house.” Oh, oh,“oh.”
Deep breath, shallow breath, static and silence. Ok, okay, oh-quei.
At the end of this call I will hear the static and then the voice of a volunteer doctor on the other end saying, “Well, I guess that’s our first case, then.”
My fire escape is small if barely fits the two old pillows I lay down for me and my partner, but there is a breeze and an empty field and it’s only the middle of the day but it doesn’t feel like it. So, “Ok,” I say, Jazz blaring from a red sedan at the end of the street. “Ok,” I say, while two of my neighbors dance in the alley. Two weeks later I will sit on the same fire escape and watch the video a police officer kneeling a man’s neck. “I can’t breath,” he will say, “I can’t breathe,” and my first instinct will be to translate. He says he can’t breathe, officer. Officer? Officer? Because this is what I’ve always believed, “If they could understand, if we just say the right words in the right order.” If, if, “If.” And it’s only the middle of the day, but it really doesn’t seem like it. But then, “Ok,” I say, as my phone begins to ring, as people begin to gather in the street, as I hold the phone number of local pantries still running through the chaos, as a volunteer doctor—after a full shift in the midst of a pandemic—says, “Here we go again Lina, ready?” Ready. “Can you ask her, ‘How are you today?’”