I remember my first day in Playa Jaco. I met my uncle at the airport. He had changed so much since I had last seen him. He had up and left his wife for the tropical paradise of Costa Rica. For years he had been regaling in tales about the beaches here in Costa Rica. They had come here for a tropical retreat in one of their final grasps of trying to save their marriage. Her family, from Boston, controlled their lives. Every holiday they slogged across the soggy middle third of America through ice and Ohio to get to that eastern city so he could be lonely and honestly quite a bit bothered by his in laws constant ranting and raving about how Montreal must be so cold that they should really move to Florida and enjoy the sun with them. He hated it.
Now, I know that you are probably thinking that this is just the case of middle aged man whose midlife crisis got thoroughly out of hand and caused him to bust out of the filthy snow covered north and jet to the sunny rays of Playa Jaco. I assure you, this is not the case. He was simply through with it all. He ran a print shop. It was not a particularly nice print shop and he had never worked anywhere else, after years of toiling away as the manager of the shop he was finally able to purchase it from its old owner.
He stood there with his new hat, which had the words Costa Rica embroidered across the top. For trying to blend in as a local, he was doing a piss poor job. I don’t know why he didn’t just wear an old hat. He usually bought a new hat on every vacation him and his wife had gone on usually in an effort to save their marriage. He looked at me from out beneath the folded brim with his eyes hidden behind a very dark pair of sunglasses. The amount of sunscreen he used was evident. His neck was thick with it.
My uncle was a pale man. His balding scalp always seemed to get torched in the harsh rays of the Canadian sun, no amount of sunscreen could save this poor man’s head, so naturally the hat helped. Within minutes he had looked me up and down and decided that I had suffered no great harm aboard my flight from ice town to his newfound paradise. We had not seen him in a couple months; at first we did not even know where he had gone. The family even sent out a missing persons report and since he was a grown man there was almost nothing that could be done. Finally, the post cards started coming, they were short at first and scarce on detail, but I could see that he was alive.
The day I decided to flee my wonderful home country of Canada was one that will be exceptionally hard on me for the rest of my life. It was January. I had just left one of my more egregiously bad interviews and needed to leave the city for a while. This may all sound not too bad, I was particularly beat down at a time when I should have had been things going for me. A fresh college graduate who could not find a job to avoid defaulting on his college loans, my girlfriend of four years had just left me for a new city and new people, and without fail, my dog had another long and terrible battle with diarrhea. But my family thought it would do me some good to go down and visit my uncle. No one ever acted like he had run away from home, which I believe was exactly what he had done.
He picked me up from the airport into his rundown truck he said he bought from a drug dealer. I am not sure if he was joking or not. He drove me down to the coast and we passed resort after resort in a strange solemn silence.
“Do your parents know that you’re down here?”
“Do they know you’re staying for longer than a week?”
I said nothing to him; my gaze averted to the passing plantations, filled with their sugar canes, a glistening menace to all human stomachs worldwide.
“If you run through a sugar cane field the stalks will cut you to little tiny pieces. You would be more cut up than a groundhog going through a lawnmower.” He quietly returned to the road ahead.
My uncle, Earl, had started his own surf shop on a beach he knew to be filled with a rabble of continuous rich stock of tourists. He did not know how to surf. I would not have called his operation a shop, but it was more of a couple surfboards and large awning covering a makeshift bar. It was my job to feed the vacationers their supply of booze to sustain them throughout the class. So there I was; every day standing behind the few planks of wood he had cobbled together dishing out drinks from my cardboard box. I chiseled the ice off of a giant block that Chavo brought down every morning from the grocery shop. I would thank him and he would bless me with a piece of quiet knowledge that only his father could have told him that morning because he was too young to know it himself.
That’s how Costa Rica went for months; standing in a rundown little shack feeding out mai tai’s to people with the tie die shirts and sunscreen caking their pale bodies like lead paint falling off of an old house in an old neighborhood of the worst city in the rust belt. I would watch my uncle teach them surfing by jumping up and down on a surfboard he had laid down on the sand. He would shout to them, “Jump!” and they would spring up on the boards. They never touched the water. At night in the small house we shared in the village he would drink and tell me his darkest fears about how one day one of his students would demand to go into the ocean to get their money’s worth and he did not know if he could do it. It seems like he forgot every time someone asked.
When one of them did ask to go out into the ocean my uncle would give them quite the show. They would start receiving free drinks and all of his jokes would start flowing. Once I saw him attempt a large scale reenactment of the movie They Live. He grabbed his classes off of his head and pretended to be seeing aliens everywhere. By the time our proud customers were that drunk and halfway into another rendition of a comedy bit they all but forgot about taking their surf knowledge to the waves. So had he.
I lay there, with my beloved Montreal Expos hat covering my face, and thought about whether New Coke was really that bad. I mean, I was not alive to drink it, but it remains one of life’s greatest mysterious. Or, at least, one of my great mysteries. It was my day off. I tried to manage one day off a weak so I could bumble around the various nearby resorts, stealing food from the free buffets; if there was one thing I missed about home it was eating food that we bought from a super market or prepared in our poorly lit house. I would always be the one to cook because my uncle always wandered off to some rickety bar with sand ground deep into the wood floors where only the locals dared to go after he had attempted to wax the surfboards. Something he still could not master.
This day was no different from what seemed like seven hundred Tuesday before it. My day off was always Tuesdays. My uncle was very firm that he was the one who would get the weekends off because he thought himself a religious man and claimed to be going out to the churches; gathering among the other loyal followers shuffling in and out of the pews like cattle. I knew his lie; he was not a religious man. But either way, Tuesday was my day.
I lay on the beach after I had pilfered my fill from the laxly secured hotel buffets. The sand on the beach was warm and fine. Not course and full of rocks like some vacation places that trick you into believing their beaches are nice. I’m looking at you Hawaii. So I lay there and smelled the sweat and old sunscreen from my dirty baseball cap as the sun peaked in through the holes at the top as it rested over my face. A foot gently nudged my shoulder.
I slowly slid my hat up on my face as to see who it was. She stood there blocking out the sun and her shadow cast over me. I could barely make out her dark brown eyes, black hair and careful features. Her face was pinched as she looked at my face. But most important, she was pretty and she was young.
“Are you dead?” Her English was good.
“No”, I was confused. I didn’t think there were a lot of bodies washing up on shore.
“You should not lie here.”
My confusion continued and I sat up to look around me. There was nothing but sand all the way up to the water. The concerned look on her face did not waver as she squinted at me.
“This place is not safe.” She said as her accent cracked and broke over the words that came out of her mouth.
I’ll always remember the first thoughts I had of her there. I always thought she was beautiful. Her tan skin glowed in the light of the setting sun. I never really saw her as someone I wanted to love; only someone I wanted to have.
“What’s not safe about it?” I asked.
“That is something you do not want to know.” She reached down for my hand and helped me to my feet. “You must come with me.”
I followed her. Something about her was tantalizing.
See showed me around parts of that country I did not expect to see. House after house stacked up the sides of large hills. The slums were crisscrossed with electric cables and checkered with red roofs. The kids there would chase after the wild dogs and throw things at all the birds hiding throughout the garbage collections; each one pecking away at some bag that had been split open. It was not gross, but it was not the Costa Rica anyone wanted to see. She told me her name was Elena and she worked at one of the nearby resorts.
“Why did you move me from that beach?” I asked her as we strolled through another gulley that was a little bit cleaner than the last.
“That beach is a place where bad people go to do bad things.” She raised her hand to cover the brilliant sun that washed over the slum.
“What if I was one of those bad people? I could have been laying a trap for my next victim.”
She laughed and continued up the street to what she told me was her favorite place to eat. We both got plates covered with rice, beans and a million other types of vegetables I don’t think I could name to this day. It was delicious. The beans mushed their way down my throat and the exotic vegetables repulsed my initial assessment but passed their further exam. We sat there for the rest of the afternoon and she told me about her country. I had never really talked to anyone that was from here. It was mostly just my uncle and I. I don’t think Chavo’s daily advice really counted either.
“Are you from America?” She asked. She was lead me out of her part of the city back towards my uncle’s beach hut.
“No, I’m from Canada.” I responded.
“Is that not in America?” She asked me. Her forehead was furrowed and she pushed some of her shiny black hair out of her face.
I laughed and told her no. I asked her again why she approached me on the beach.
“They’ve been talking about you at the resort. They say that there are two men working a scam down the beach. It is unusual that it is Americans.” She laughed a little. “I wanted to know for myself.”
She told me how she worked in one of the resorts whose name far escapes me by now and has probably since closed. Most of the people in her town worked at the resorts. It was not the best work but they could not afford to do anything else. One day she wanted to move to America and find the American dream. I could only smile and nod my head as we walked. I hoped, for her sake, that one day she did just that.
Four months into my stay in Costa Rica my parents started sending me letters. I had no phone there and felt no need to go and get one. There were few people I needed to speak to; so they sent letters. I had, in my formerly optimistic ways, told them the address in which we could be reached. I regretted that decision the entire time. They always started out by telling me what they were doing or how my sister had just accomplished this in her new career or how my cousin’s son Jacob was excelling in whatever preschool program they had enrolled him in this year. I was not interested. They always closed their by asking me if I wanted to come home or how they could send money for me to buy my plane ticket when I felt the time was right. But they always closed their letters by commanding me to bring my uncle back with them. They thought his midlife crisis had dragged me into the terrible pits of an existential ocean.
Two months after the first letter arrived one from my aunt came. She was growing increasingly furious with the behavior of her husband, my uncle, Earl. He had not changed much during his time there. I would often ask him what he wanted out of being there. He would always say, “Bitches” and laugh as he sipped another cocktail and returned to his surf class. I knew I was running away from my problems. Did I want to go back to Canada? Of course. Did I want to enjoy the sunny delights of Costa Rica? I thought so. Everyone always dreams about how living in paradise would be fulfilling. There is a reason we only vacation there. That place will drag you down and spit you out with no motivation left to show for it.
I wanted something more than the suburban lifestyle of career, wife and family. There was just nothing left for me in Montreal. I did not want to roll around a place and run into everyone I knew from university all the way back to high school. I wanted new places new things.
After he finished his lessons for the day my uncle laid out all the money he collected from the classes. A line of twenties paraded across the plank of wood we used as a bar.
“Another good day, my boy.” The excitement on Uncle Earl’s face was easy to see.
I reached into my soggy cardboard box and placed the cash from our drink sales onto the pile. I leaned onto the plank and watched the tourists pack up their things and trod away toward the resorts. The sun was sinking below the horizon behind them.
“I’m not sure what that means.” I said.
“It means we made money and spent another day with the suns above our heads and the sand beneath our feet.” He took off his beloved baseball hat and began to count the money.
“Is that what you want down here?” I asked him. My eyes were still glued to the retreating sacks of white flesh that took our classes.
“I’m retired. I need something to do.”
“I’m not.” I said.
We were quiet for a few minutes and he put the money into a lockbox.
“What about that girl I see you with when you’re not here?” He had sensed my displeasure with the status quo.
“She’s… good.” I said. I began to put all of the alcohol back into the box and dumped the ice out onto the sand. I watched the water congeal into brown mud.
“Come on. It’s great down here. You get live like people vacation.”
“Aren’t you just running away from the real world?” I asked. Something was beginning to bother me. All of this time off had worked its way into my stomach and dragged me down with it.
Uncle Earl laughed at me and put his arm around my shoulder. We started our short walk to the house. He whispered some advice about how growing old was never easy. He said it had taken him thirty years to find out that he hated what he did. To him I was the lucky one. I had skipped the decades working at a failing industry and gotten right to the good stuff. My apathy was not dissuaded by any of these comments.
“Now,” he said. “Let’s go get drunk and knives at trees.”
Sometimes I wouldn’t see her for weeks at a time, but when she came around I could hardly get rid of her. I would ask about her: her name, where she worked, what it was like watching all my favorite movies in a foreign language. Some things she would whisper quietly to me in the dark of night; others she would not. I still want to know what the tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park sounded like in Spanish. I remember the way her hair looked when she crossed the setting sun to greet me after I had a long day of yelling at inappropriate vacationers and their kids, young teens trying to get me to pour them a rum and coke from my cardboard box of goods, which was now very wet and floppy. I never changed it though. I still miss that box.
“I want to go to America”, she said to me one night. Her face illuminated from the flickering tendrils of the fire we had built on the beach.
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t from America. Maybe she thought I was.
“My life will be better there.”
I rolled over from my prone position near the fire and looked up at her. Her eyes began to water and shine in the fire. She turned away.
“What makes you say that?” I had only been here for about six months and I still had yet to find what I was really looking for; if I could ever know what it was.
“I am pregnant.”
I stopped looking at her and focused on the fire. I didn’t move or say anything. I was caught in a place I was not ready to go. I couldn’t be a father. My only interaction with kids in the past year had been telling them not to play on surfboards or not to stick their grimy hands into my fresh ice. I put my hands behind my head and rolled back over to look at the stars. She sat quietly for a moment and left.
It must have been a week or more before I saw her again. This time she did not greet me with her casual stride up to the wooden bar or that smile in her face that drew the same reaction from my own. I saw her across the beach; behind my uncles surf class staring at me. I don’t think she was mad. The look on her face was that of regret. She stood there for a while as I served drinks and tried to be merry with the customers. I could only think about that damned look on her face. When she finally left my heart sank four floors into the bottom of my stomach.
I never saw her again. Not around the resorts or the tiny villages we would often frequent on my irreverent day off, Tuesday. She had not come back to the beach and I finally started inquiring about town. Everyone could only tell me that she had left for good. “America!” They would say. I would think about being with her, driving up through Central America to get to that border crossing. I wondered if she had to sneak in or if some lucky vacationer had swept her away to Minnesota or Vermont.
From then on the sunlight was bitter sweet. It was summer and the days grew hot and the ice melted faster and faster. Business was slowing down. My uncle had dragged an old raggedy lawn chair, one he had most assuredly brought from back home, out onto the beach and sat with a wet towel on his head. He would tell me that the busy season was right around the corner. He began to say things like “Don’t worry; we are about to double down on these customers. I’m ordering new boards.” Or sometimes “If I learned to surf for real they would all have to come!” I was certain he knew nothing about this place. The next four months seemed to pass in a heated blur of steam and sweat.
Chavo lay the huge block of ice down across my bar. The sweat coated his face like a large dog had spent the last four hours drooling on him; it was the middle of the hottest part of the summer. He inspected my face sternly like a craftsmen studying his latest creation unsure of what to make of its quality.
“You have been down in the dumps for too long amigo.”
“It’s just been hot.” I began to shave the ice off into a glass; on these my uncle and I had very much taken to the fruity, refreshing beverages.
“The boy is just tired, Chavo.” My uncle awoke from his slumber; face hidden from beneath his trusty towel.
“Why did you come here?” Chavo asked.
“To escape.” I told him; not really sure myself.
“No but really, deep down inside why did you?”
“Well they sent me here to bring my uncle back.” I told him; growing exasperated from the interrogation.
He didn’t say another word. He made a noise like a low growl; deep in his throat.
I didn’t stay there much longer. My aunt had finally grown fed up with his “mental break” as she and the rest of her family had begun to refer to it as and flew down from Canada to savor in the rubble of their marriage or make an attempt to save it; I really don’t know. They argued for four days and five nights about how asinine his behavior was becoming and how she would not stay in our rat infested insect hotel. So, on the fifth day, I left.