What is that? María and I were two hours into our journey when it first hit my nostrils.

This was rancid. It reeked of rotten eggs, garnished with fresh curry and horse manure.

Within seconds, I was past nauseous, wishing I had one of those suicide pills given to soldiers to avoid being tortured prisoners of war.

I considered vomiting, thinking it might somehow absorb the odor inside María’s car.

We were en route to Spain’s southeastern coast, for what would be our first romantic getaway.

María and I had met my first week in Spain, and wasted no time initiating the courtship phase of our relationship.

We had done the movie thing, the tapas thing, the get-drunk-with-friends thing, the dinner-with-her-folks thing, the sex thing, the thing where we make fun of me for being American and her for being Spanish (but mostly me for being American), and finally, the thing where we break up with our significant others and become official “novios.”

The time had come for a new challenge: travelling together. We left Madrid around noon on a balmy, 105-degree July afternoon in a Volkswagen Polo with no air conditioning headed to a place called Cabo de Gata.

Cape Cat, my Spanish girlfriend informed me, would be something like Cape Cod with less tourists, better weather and nuder beaches.

This last fact had me giddy for weeks. During the ride I was still interrogating María as to the degree of nakedness we would encounter.

“So the beaches will be completely nude, right?”

“Yes,” she replied for the umpteenth time.

“And, like, how old will these nude people be?” I pressed on.

“Depends. All ages.”

“Are the lifeguards nude?”

“There are no lifeguards.”

“What if some naked person drowns?”

“It’s not that type of beach, Mike. It’s different.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s all nude.”

“And virgin.”

Um, what was that?

She continued, “It’s a beautiful, virgin beach.”

“It’s nude and virgin?”

“Yes, isn’t it wonderful everything?”

“Yes,” I smiled, rubbing my hands together like a mad scientist. “Yes, it is.”

Leaning back in my seat, I imagined prude-yet-blossoming 17-year-old Spanish beauties frolicking on the shore, playing beach tennis and building sand castles and eating pineapple cubes.

I’d make sure not to stare, remaining visually faithful to my girlfriend whose own naked body would be more-than-sufficient eye candy for the trip.

Leaning back in my seat, I imagined prude-yet-blossoming 17-year-old Spanish beauties frolicking on the shore, playing beach tennis and building sand castles and eating pineapple cubes.

Unfortunately, María then informed me that “virgin” has multiple uses in Spanish, in addition to the traditional meaning.

“Like with CD’s,” she stated.

“Virgin CD’s?” I asked. “Like the Megastore?”

“For making copies of CD’s,” María instructed. “Or, as with olive oil.”

I started to understand. “So virgin can mean, like, pure or untouched.”

Or me at seventeen.

“Also, for olive oil, you must buy virgin extra,” she added.

Or me at eighteen, nineteen, and twenty.

The beaches María was referring to would be unaltered, free of man-made constructions.

I tried, with difficulty, to picture it: No hotels, no beachside restaurants, no parasailing rentals, no restrooms, no screaming kids, no parking lots, and no lifeguards. Just sand and sun and water and tits and penises.

Is it possible? I peeked out my window, expecting to see families of cattle or donkey carcasses.

The rural landscape must have been behind the putrid stench making my tonsils tingle. And yet, there were only hills and grass and calm.

To my surprise, I found no barnyard animals, alive or dead. No roadkill entrails. No dirty hippies. No homeless fartfaces.

Nothing anyone would respond to a quick glance at by gagging and screaming for Jesus. Might she have…?

No, I shrugged off the thought. It was impossible. I doubted it was possible. Possible, maybe, but highly unlikely. Likely, even probable, but not definite.

She was driving for Chrissakes; a stick shift, no less. That takes concentration. At least, it seemed to. As a modern American, I could only drive automatic.

Please, I begged, don’t let it be her. Please don’t let it be María. Please don’t –.

“Mike,” she said, interrupting my neuroses. I turned to face my beautiful girlfriend. There was a strange look on her face: part fear, part embarrassment.

María and I had been walking on air for five months when we took the trip. We were in love, saying “te quiero” on a daily basis. “Te quiero” came out easier, smoother than “I love you” but I didn’t see this as a problem.

Perhaps I used Spanish as a buffer because it wasn’t me talking, but the Latin version of me.

Like an actor in a cheesy Mexican soap opera, I professed eternal devotion and then kissed my lover passionately behind a cheesy musical score.

It’s also possible that I viewed “te quiero” as less serious and binding, since it’s derived from the verb querer, meaning both “to love” and more commonly, “to want.”

I want you so much… to stop hogging the blanket.

I want you, more than ever… to get me a yogurt.

In any regard, “I love you” has never seemed right to me. “Te quiero” sounded perfectly appropriate for the stage of our relationship.

In addition to our dinners, movies, and drinks with friends, María and I were sharing a bed on weekends, recently doing so despite her parents’ acknowledgement.

We experimented in the bedroom as well as in the kitchen, combining things like red meat and cinnamon.

When it came to doing the dishes, I washed and she dried, or she washed and I dried, or she washed and I passed out by the TV.

We had completed all the required steps that real couples must complete. All of them, except one: We’d never farted in front of each other.

Or rather, we’d never farted out loud, on purpose, while sober, in each other’s presence. I had, of course, cut ‘em loose all over the Iberian Peninsula, including dozens in María’s presence and in her living room.

The common denominator was always background noise or smells strong enough to clog the senses and deflect culpability.

Passing cars and busses provided safe cover, as did the right combination of the nightly news and couch cushions.

Talk all you want about a first kiss, first hop in the sack, or wedding vows. Embarrassing incidents are the true barometers of a relationship.

A bit of passed gas here, some vomit there, and you’ll know if you’re partner is one who’ll wipe your ass fifty years down the road when you’re no longer capable, or merely someone who’ll leave you in the care of underpaid immigrants.

It’s not that we’d never heard each other in the bathroom. My apartment building was over a century old, and the walls could best be described as bulimic: paint and asbestos were routinely chipped off and spit out.

And sure, some sounds were unavoidable in spite of the mutual courtesy we’d take by turning on the faucet to cover any distasteful reverberations.

And María and I had traveled together once before, sharing a motel room and the tiny motel bathroom that went along with it.

So, I didn’t naively believe that María was a faultless creature who somehow avoided life’s unpleasantries. But I couldn’t rule it out.

Neither María nor I had ever let one slip in the other’s presence. As such, we had never recognized each other’s mortality.

I suspected María’s ass had biological functions outside of making my mouth water, but I had no tangible proof. Like a jury, I needed evidence to convict.

We didn’t even know how to say “fart” in each other’s language. The same Spanish word “pedo” means both “fart” and an alcohol-induced “buzz” or “high.”

While the two aren’t exactly opposites, they don’t always go hand in hand. When distinguishing between uses, context plays a big role, though ultimately it’s left up to the verb preceding the “pedo.”

If you “throw” or “pull” it, you’ve probably upset those in your immediate vicinity. Should you “catch,” “stumble upon,” or simply have the “pedo” in your possession, then it’s unsafe to get behind the wheel.

Farting and driving, while not recommended, is still legal in most municipalities. Drinking and driving is not.
María got off at the closest exit.

Coming off an unseasonable cold, she blew her nose multiple times. Her face was wrought with guilt.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Here it comes. Brace yourself.

“Oh? For what?” I played innocent.

She blew her nose again. “I am so constipated. I use all the Kleenex tissues and leave none for you!”

“Right… you’re constipated, so you’re using the tissues…”

She wasn’t making sense. Clearly, either the stench or the guilt was getting to her. I could only imagine what she was thinking. Might she crash into a tree, hoping to kill us both?

At the very least, the excruciating pain of death and disfigurement would act as a decoy; we’d stop focusing on the odor, concentrating instead on our broken bones and blood.

Then again, maybe María just wanted to get rid of me. I was the only witness, the only passenger in the car. It could be a homicide or she could simply leave me in the middle of Spain’s version of rural Texas, with nothing in sight but farm equipment and fat people.

It was the type of place a chainsaw massacre was liable to break out at any moment. Even if I did find my way back to Madrid, I’d have learned not to open my mouth, to anyone, about what my nose had detected.

“Mike,” she said, stopping the car.

I felt sorry to be part of such an embarrassing moment. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I should have held on longer before rolling down my window and sticking my head out like a golden retriever.

“I have to tell you something.”

I wanted to interrupt her. Don’t, I’d tell her. You don’t have to say a word, honey. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’d explain how farting is something we all do, albeit not so pungently.

Why don’t we take a walk around this beautiful countryside while the car airs out? What do you say? I’ll even buy you an ice cream.

I could also make light of the situation. Playfully, we’d laugh it off together. Whoever smelt it dealt it, I’d say, quoting my father’s favorite phrase.

María would smile and breathe a sigh of relief. Whoever denied it supplied it she’d retort, amidst laughter.

I then recalled that María’s English studies had stopped just short of the chapter covering fart expressions, effectively ending my fantasy.

“Don’t be angry, but…” her voice trembled, a guilty look on her face.

Here it comes, get ready…

“We are lost.”

At the nearest gas station, María got out of the car to ask for directions and I got out to avoid suffocation. We’re lost? That’s it? How about the spoiled-milk perfume sprayed throughout the car?

I reflected on the last fifteen minutes and realized that María’s behavior made sense, but not for the reason I’d originally thought.

The guilty expression, the nervous tapping of fingers on the steering wheel, the failure to notice my self-induced gagging; it all added up.

We were lost, and María thought I was looking for a street sign. It seemed María was not the culprit. The smell wasn’t her smell.

It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t hers, and Mother Nature wasn’t taking credit either. A mystery stench. Even more amazing, María seemed not to have noticed it.

Somehow, in her worry over getting lost and prolonging our journey indefinitely, the odor had slipped by her.

In the same way that an adrenaline shot to the heart can countermand a heroin overdose, anxiety had rendered the smell imperceptible to her brain.

She had inhaled and exhaled that filth without ever stopping to take a whiff. Needless to say, I was jealous. But now it was getting late, and María grew concerned for our well-being.

Just as “constipado” meant having a stuffy nose, rather than extreme gas, there were numerous “false friends” in both the English and Spanish languages.

“The sun will be no more soon. Can I see your swatch?” she asked.

“My swatch? I don’t have a swatch.”

“Stop making jokes, show me it.”

“I’m serious,” I blurted out, laughing. “I’m not a ten-year-old girl.”

“Mike, you’re not funny, just tell me what time it says.”

“On my swatch?”


“Or my watch?”

In our five months together, I’d counted María’s English miscues among her cuter qualities. Truth be told, calling a watch a swatch was just the tip of the iceberg.

She once ate dinner with a variety of ambassadors and consuls in Belgium, during which an American diplomat and his wife mentioned having an autistic son, to which María replied, “That’s great! I study art history!”
I told María it was nearing eight p.m., and she hustled into the gas station mini-mart to ask for directions. Meanwhile, I tiptoed behind the gas station to relieve myself.

The restroom was nothing more than a field-turned-wasteland by the local youth. Beer cans, cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and what I imagined as some combination of blood, piss, and semen had turned what was once grass into weeds.

And yet, for miles and miles I could see no homes, neighborhoods, or businesses. Just more weeds and fields and hills. No buildings. No chainsaws. “Where do you come from?” I asked a used condom.

Though I received no answer, I had succeeded. For a brief moment, my mind had forgotten about the aroma awaiting us back at the car.

María was pissed off when she greeted me back by the trunk. Apparently, her visit with the gas station employee had not gone well.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The stupid. He won’t tell the right way to go.”

“He doesn’t know?”

“He’s a stupid. He’s a *******…” and she proceeded to run off a list of words in Spanish I had not yet learned, but wanted to.

She added, “All he did was molest me because I am from Madrid.”

Excuse me? “He did WHAT?”

“It happens sometimes. In some areas they don’t like the people from Madrid, and they molest you.”

“Are you sure? What the ****! Shouldn’t we at least call the police???”

“No, let’s just go.”


“Please, Mike. Don’t be so sensible.”

María found the highway, though in less than an hour we’d be lost again. In the car, she’d explain that nobody had abused her; the cashier had merely bothered her.

“Molestar,” in Spanish, meant “to annoy,” just as “sensible” didn’t mean “sensible,” but rather “sensitive.”

Just as “constipado” meant having a stuffy nose, rather than extreme gas, there were numerous “false friends” in both the English and Spanish languages.

It was easy to get into trouble, and I didn’t want to ponder the flow of nonsense that surely spewed from my mouth whenever María and I conversed in Spanish, which was quickly becoming a majority of the time.

By midnight, we reached our cheap motel, situated in a village of less than one hundred inhabitants named Los Albaricoques (The Apricots).

It didn’t seem like much, but María assured me she’d found “the unique and ultimate hotel of the Apricots.”

At this point, I was wise to her verbal intentions, and understood this to mean “the only and last hotel” in town.

We flopped onto our twin beds in a room with a hospital-like, fluorescent, white light and laughed about everything we had been through. Well, not everything.

There was one element of our trip that remained hitherto unaddressed.

“Mike?” María turned on her side, now facing my bed.

“Yaarw…?” I yawned back.

“Look at me.”

I recognized the tone of her voice, which was more serious than I could handle at this hour. Still, I opened my eyes and turned to face her.

María, in turn, nudged the night table that separated our two beds so it was flush up against the wall.

“I have a question,” she said in English, an embarrassed grin plastered on her face.

“What is it, honey?”

“Today in the car…”




“Did you…?” she asked.

“Did I…?” I answered.

“How do you say…?”

“How do you say what?”

“You know…”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told her. It was true. I had no idea.

“Did you…?”

“Did I…”

“Did you bottomcough?”

“Excuse me?”

“Did you bottomcough? Or, how do you say it. Did your bottom cough?”

I don’t know when I stopped laughing, whether it was the following morning, or week, or month, or year, but bottomcough would remain close to my heart as long as María remained in my life.

Oh, and for the record… no, I didn’t.

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  1. This piece was a hoot! I was laughing through it. I know the false friends of the language. My boyfriend is Spanish and sometimes it takes me awhile to understand and it sure injects laughter into a cross cultural relationship!

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