Dispatches

Soy Alérgico

Hàn Fúsēn

The first EpiPen my girlfriend Courtney used during our trip to South America was after consuming a potato appetizer at a restaurant in the Plaza de Armas—the main square and historic centre of Lima—mere hours after we touched down in Peru.

On the plane over, she had rehearsed her lines in Spanish—“Soy alérgico al maní; moriré si como maní,” always repeating the phrases a second time with cacahuete substituted for maní because there are two ways of saying peanuts in Spanish and it couldn’t hurt to say “I’ll die if I eat peanuts” twice—so many times that it took me a moment to realize she was being serious when she said that her throat was itchy after the first bite of the ocopa arequipeña appetizer of boiled potatoes covered in a velvety green sauce. But then red blotches began to bloom across her face and her collarbone began to rise and fall faster.

I waved for our waiter to come over. He grinned as he walked toward us. He looked smart in his black shirt and red waist-apron, his gelled dark hair making him appear like an Iberian soccer player.

Courtney had already uncapped her EpiPen by the time he got to the table. “Are there peanuts in this dish? Didn’t you say there’d be no peanuts?” I said to him.

“No, there’s no peanuts,” he said. But then he looked at Courtney and said, “I’ll go get my manager.”

The manager, a blue-eyed man with freckly skin, came out to the patio. “Ma’am, there’s no peanuts in the sauce,” he said in English. “We do use crushed crackers to make it creamier, however, and we don’t make the crackers in-house.” He showed a handful of what looked to be animal crackers.

“How’s your breathing?” I asked Courtney.

“I think I have to use the EpiPen,” she said.

“I’ll go talk to the kitchen staff,” the manager said.

Not too long after, a man wearing dark jeans and a blazer over a white T-shirt walked up to our table from the street. “Excuse me, are you the customer with the peanut allergy?” he asked.

“Yes,” Courtney said. “Are you a doctor?”

“I came from the other restaurant,” the man said. He held up his smartphone like a badge. “I’m on the phone with the owner. Was this your waiter?” He pointed at our waiter, who said nothing. With his hands in his waist-apron, he suddenly looked boyish.

We nodded.

The man in the blazer and T-shirt spoke Spanish into his phone in a low monotone way, barely letting air escape through his lips. Then, in English, he asked Courtney, “May I ask how you’re feeling, right now?”

“My throat is very itchy. It’s getting hard to breathe,” she said.

“Please use your medicine, now,” he said, pointing to the uncapped EpiPen on the table.

I held Courtney’s knee as she jabbed the EpiPen into her thigh.

The manager of the restaurant stole back out onto the patio with quick, discreet steps. He went on one knee to face Courtney. “Ma’am, I have just called you an ambulance,” he said. Then he got up and turned to the man in the blazer and T-shirt and they mumbled to each other in Spanish.

“Miss,” the man in the blazer and T-shirt said, “We will wait out on the main street.” He sent the manager and our waiter back inside the restaurant. At the tables around us conversations hushed. A few of the kitchen staff had come out and were leaning over the bar in the restaurant.

We waited at the edge of the street, across the square, overlooking arches, palm trees and the Moorish covered balconies that Lima is famous for. The sky was grey and it was hard to tell if it was night or day because of the bright lights along the grand building facades around the square. “This is the historic centre,” the man in the blazer and T-shirt said.

“That’s why we’re here,” I said.

The two-lane street was filled bumper to bumper with cars. “The ambulance will not be here for a while,” he said. “Do you have more medicine?”

“I left the other EpiPen at our Airbnb,” Courtney said.

“Can I see that?” he said.

He looked at the side of the EpiPen and typed something into his phone. “This is a brand for adrenaline. We have something similar, but not this,” he said. He whistled toward the restaurant and within seconds our waiter appeared. The man in the blazer and T-shirt mumbled in Spanish to our waiter, who then slipped out onto the road between the cars and down a side street.

The manager of the restaurant brought out a chair for Courtney to sit in on the sidewalk. Our waiter returned with a box of white pills. The man in the blazer and T-shirt directed Courtney to take one of the pills. When Courtney tried to decipher the ingredients listed on the box, he said, “I’m on the phone with the ambulance. They said take it.”

The ambulance arrived more than an hour later. A police officer blocked one traffic lane with his motorcycle. Courtney climbed into the ambulance and the officer snapped a photo of her with his phone as she disappeared behind the doors.

Ten minutes later, a short, pudgy man ran up to join the officer, the man in the blazer and T-shirt and me. He was wearing an oversized white button-up shirt and dress pants that sagged at the ankles. He pushed up on his wire-frame glasses as he spoke to the man in the blazer and T-shirt. Then he turned to me and handed me a box of the same pills our waiter had fetched for Courtney.

“This is the owner of the restaurant,” the man in the blazer and white T-shirt said. “He asks if your wife’s life is in danger.”

I took the box of pills from the restaurant owner. “Gracias,” I said. “I think she’ll be fine, but I don’t really know. I don’t even know how much peanuts she ate. It could’ve been cross-contamination, or it could’ve been the sauce. Are there usually peanuts in ocopa sauce?”

The man in the blazer and T-shirt translated for the owner. Then he said, “The owner would like to invite you to come back for a complimentary dinner at his other restaurant.”

“Thanks, but I think Courtney will be too tired,” I said.

When Courtney came out of the ambulance she was still flushed, but she was calm. The restaurant owner slumped into the chair by the road and wiped his forehead with his sleeves.

“The doctor said I consumed peanuts,” Courtney said to me.

The policeman took another photo of her with his phone.

“He knows based on your reaction?” I said.

“He said peanuts are a key ingredient in ocopa sauce,” she said.

When we went to collect our belongings inside the restaurant, our waiter was hunched over a table, folding napkins and wrapping them around sets of cutlery. He looked up and wiped his face when he saw us. Furrows on his face flattened and the rills of tears that had run down his cheeks dried up.

“I’m happy to see you, ma’am,” he said. “You’re okay then?”

“Yes,” Courtney said. “Sorry you had to go through that too.”

“But now you’ll probably never allow this to happen again,” I joked.

“No,” he said. “I will not be working here anymore.”

The man in the blazer and T-shirt said, “Really, it is not a mistake that can be forgiven.”

“But I’m fine now,” Courtney said. “The doctor said tourists don’t even have to pay a penny. We won’t sue—not even a bad review.”

“Which is why I insist,” the man in the blazer and T-shirt said, “on the complimentary dinner. Please come back tomorrow if it suits your itinerary.”

The second EpiPen my girlfriend Courtney used during our trip to South America was after consuming a bowl of granola in Sucre—a town in the Andes in Bolivia, known for its mild climate and whitewashed colonial buildings—two days before we were to return to Vancouver.

Not long after we left the hostel, Courtney vomited the granola into a toilet bowl in the washroom of the Casa de la Libertad museum, where the Bolivian declaration of independence was signed in 1825. We hailed a taxi to get us to a nearby hospital.

The taxi driver charged us an exorbitant fee for travelling what my downloaded map indicated to be less than one kilometre, so naturally, I haggled for a lower price by showing him the boliviano coins I was prepared to pay. “No bueno,” he said, as he shifted the car into a lower gear.

I added two bolivianos to my palm. Just then Courtney shrieked from the backseat and jabbed herself in the thigh with the EpiPen.

In the hospital, a guard dressed in army fatigues separated me from Courtney as the triage nurse ushered her into a room. I filled out some forms at the front desk. “Exigez sa travel insurance información—assurance médico?” I asked the lady behind the plastic window.

The guard took me aside. “Luego,” he said. I went out and sat by the hospital entrance with a party of elderly cholitas. They were dressed in layers of colourful skirts, shawls, cardigans and faded bowler hats with wide brims.

A half hour later, a nurse led me to Courtney. She was hooked up to an IV and lying in a hospital bed in the middle of the ward, sharing a space cordoned off by thin curtains with another female patient, who I later found out from Courtney was visiting from Potosí, a town high up in the Andes, when she got appendicitis. “Here is your boyfriend,” the woman from Potosí said in perfect English, grinning at Courtney. “Your girlfriend was worried for you—all alone out there.”

I was about to hug Courtney when an old nun with a square face came through the curtains. She blessed Courtney and then kissed her on the forehead.

With a thick thumb gesturing at me, the nun said, “Marido? Novio?”

The woman from Potosí sat up. “Novio,” she said.

Courtney nodded. The nun smiled, then she frowned and asked the woman from Potosí something in Spanish. Before the woman could translate, the nun said to me, “También de Canadá? Chino, you.”

“Muchos chinos in Canada. Like Peru,” I said.

The nun laughed. “She does not believe you,” the woman from Potosí said.

Later, the doctor came to check up on Courtney. “You’re stable. Now we observe you for an hour,” he said to her. Then he handed me a bill—every medicine administered to Courtney and every medical apparatus used on her was listed.

“Do I pay at the front desk?” I said.

He shook his head. “You go to a pharmacy down the street, buy these things, bring back,” he said.

Outside, old men in fedoras and button-up vests were smoking at the hospital entrance. The sky was clear, blue. I walked down a cobbled road lined with whitewashed buildings and terracotta roofs. Pharmacy signs jutted out on both sides. I went into one of the pharmacies and passed the list to a young woman in a white lab coat. “Sorry,” I said. “El médico said I can buy these here.”

The woman in the white coat nodded. She filled a large plastic bag with pills, vials, syringes, electrode pads, bandages, gauze pads, IV tubes and a saline bag. She took out a calculator and punched in the prices, underlining each item with her pen as she went down the list. I paid the equivalent of thirty-five Canadian dollars and then went back out onto the street, where I noticed a chifa restaurant, serving Andean-Chinese fare—a fusion cuisine as absurd as American-Chinese and just as popular in these parts. Courtney still had some time before she could be discharged from the hospital, so I ducked in to order some fried rice and noodles to bring back with me along with the medical supplies. “Uno chaufa vegetal y uno tallarines saltados—no carne,” I said, then added, “No maní—cacahuete.”

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Hàn Fúsēn

Hàn Fúsēn works in municipal public engagement. He studied political science and human geography at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver. Read his piece "Little Trouble In Chinatown."

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