Little Now

CELIA DARLINGTON is a doctor’s wife who combines working for her husband with freelance writing. This is her second appearance in the ATLANTIC.

There are a number of Spanish word endings to indicate size, but I listened in vain during my two years south of the border to hear a resident enlarge anything. Like Alice in Wonderland, the Mexican seems to have eaten of a plant which reduces not himself but everything around him.

I discovered this on my first evening at the boardinghouse in Mexico City. The menu included frijolitos, “little beans,”accompanied by tortillitas, “small tortillas,” It was served by a maid named Esperancita, “Little Hope.” Everything in question, however, was of normal size.

I took this to be simply a mannerism until I heard Manuelito, one of the other boarders, asking for “a drink of water, por favorcito.” The deprecatory wave of the hand which accompanied the words “little please” made me aware that there is a philosophy inherent in Mexicanstyle Spanish: a view of life through the small end of the opera glasses.

This, to one fresh from a country where perspectives are large (the biggest cities, the fastest subways, the tallest redwood trees), was a shock.

I resolved to look into the sociological difference with an open mind.

Reduction, I found, is applied equally to measurable objects and immeasurable ideas. Daily, in my wanderings around Mexico City (a city of millions, certainly more than ordinary size), I encountered the diminutive. On the main street of town, for example, looms an enormous horse, a monument that is a landmark for blocks around. This is invariably known as the Caballito, “Little Horse.”

One day I waited in a doctor’s office. A Mexican woman came in, her hulking seventeen-year-old son in tow. The young man was writhing with pain. His mother gave the familiar wave of the hand, the slight shrug.

“Is the doctor busy?” she asked the nurse. “My small son has a slight pain in his little stomach.”

But the most useful belittling word in the language of Mexico is an intangible one: ahorita, “little now.” Ahora means “now.” However, I have never heard a Mexican use the word ahora. Shall we go home now?

Ahorita. Is dinner ready to be served? Ahorita. It’s the first mental obstacle which a North American must jump if he wishes to live happily in Mexico.

At first there seems something treacherous and dishonest about such a word as “little now.” Is it now, or isn’t it? you ask impatiently. It isn’t now, of course, but it could be sometime soon. After a few weeks in Mexico (unless you have already retreated to the tallest skyscrapers in the world, the widest cornfields, or the state with the largest number of mountains over 14,000 feet high) you find yourself saying ahorita frequently. With this word you feel a definite sense of relaxation and peace. You have taken the present and future into your confidence. Besides, whoever was bothering you about getting things done has stopped bothering you. Ahorita is an unanswerable word.

I confess to a feeling of surprise when I found that variations are possible on this theme. “Little now” in its turn may become smaller — ahoritita, “little little now.” This word was used by a dressmaker to whom I had gone to get a positively promised skirt. On advice from experienced natives I waited two weeks before haunting her again.

Ahorititita, “little little little now,” I encountered at a hotel in Acapulco, a city where such a word is as suitable as languorous palm trees and rum laced with coconut milk.

It was one of those small tragedies which occur in a rapidly modernized country. The water faucet disintegrated in my hand, leaving the plumbing system, as the Mexicans put it, “entirely discomposed.” Fleeing from a rapidly mounting torrent, I yelled for the desk clerk. He turned the water off with a wrench. The faucet, he told me, would be fixed ahorititita.

That is to say, today is a holiday, no one works . . . tomorrow is Saturday, people who belong to the plumbing syndicate are off-call . . . Sunday, well, that’s Sunday. On Wednesday, although the repair job would still be done in the almost instant future. I moved to a hotel where water was running as needed.

Why was the clerk so optimistic? I wondered. Ahorititita sounds like the nearest now there is. But it turns out to be never. That was when I started to suspect that the more diminutive endings there are on this simple word the more remote it becomes.

The implications of my discovery bowled me over. When will now be now and how can it be never? I would find myself muttering; or Is never ever now, and when will it be then?

At this point my visa ran out — not ahorita, but now — so I crossed the border to the United States. The jolt of the plane as we landed was matched by a mental jolt as I returned from my fourth dimension jaunt to my native country, where everything is at least life-size and where now is strictly now and never isn’t lurking around the corner. I found that I was no longer acclimated to the efficiency of railway timetables and cafeteria hostesses. I quailed at the speedy service in hotels, where my clothes were pressed immediately, without delay or badinage. After I’d been home awhile, I settled down of course. I’ve gotten used again to the point of view where nothing is worthy of much pride unless, like a ripe olive, it’s mammoth or colossal. The importance of time now looms properly large, again, especially when applied to schedules or deadlines. But I think my subconscious has been permanently affected, because every once in a while I still find myself muttering. Why must now be now and when can it be never?