Remember Barbara (Section 3 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova

Chapter Two

On the night of December 4, 2010, Barbara and Jim went out with the Czech friends for dinner and drinks. Jim was tired. He’d surfed all day with the Czechs and while they could sleep in if they wanted, he would have to get up and open the shop in the morning. When the party decided to move from the restaurant to a bar down the street, he told Barbara he was going home.

Barbara wanted to stay. They were telling funny stories and it was only 9:00 o’clock. So Jim said goodnight and rode his bike home while Barbara stayed behind with the group. At 1:00 o’clock, they left the bar, but the Czechs weren’t letting Barbara ride her bike home alone at that hour. They put the bike in their rented van and dropped her off at her front door. They watched her open it and go inside. She waved and smiled and said good night. See you tomorrow.

The house was quiet. Everyone was asleep. No one heard anything unusual during the night.


The next morning, Jim was up first as always but he wasn’t his good-naturedly grumpy self. He was agitated. He sneered. As his housemates woke up and wandered to the kitchen for coffee, he cursed and paced.

“Barbara left me,” he said. “Crazy bitch,” and a bitter laugh. “Last night. She just fuckin’ left, that bitch. She said some damn shit about goin’ to the Caribbean side. I don’t know. She has some ex-boyfriend. She put some shit in a backpack and left. Got on the bus to San Jose.”

They stared in disbelief. Barbara? Left Jim? Left them all? At three in the morning? Without saying goodbye? What? What ex-boyfriend? Are you kidding?

None of it made any sense.

“Crazy bitch,” Jim spat.

“Jim started acting really weird,” Rebecca told me, “and we thought he was in shock. We were all in shock. That was so not like her. We didn’t want to ask him a lot of questions because we felt so terrible for him.”

Who wouldn’t? What an awful thing to do. The break-up we all half expected hadn’t looked anything like that in our imaginations. It more likely involved Jim riding off into the sunset on his longboard while Barbara cried him an ocean of tears.


On December 6, the day after Barbara left, Jim went to the surf shop and asked for a board bag telling the cashier on duty that one of the Czechs needed it, just to add it to their bill. No one asked any questions until three weeks later when the Czechs were settling their accounts and discovered the charge for a board bag big enough to hold three 9 ½ foot surf boards. None of them had asked for it. None of them had seen it. No surfer in his right mind would travel from Europe to the Americas with longboards; the longboarders rented from the shop. But Jim was long gone by that time. And he had not taken his longboard.

That same evening Jim called Randy, a fellow Texan who worked next door to the surf shop, asking to borrow his car. Randy said he was sorry but its tags had expired and he didn’t want it on the road illegally. Jim became agitated, he said, insisting – demanding, even – but refusing to say why he needed it or where he would go. Randy finally gave in, frightened by Jim’s desperation and the rage boiling in his voice. The next morning the car was back just like Jim had promised and Randy forgot about it until Jim disappeared and questions started circulating.


Everyone was frantically worried about Barbara; only Jim laughed it off with a bitter chuckle saying he didn’t care where she was. On one hand his anger wasn’t surprising. On the other hand, after five years together, his disregard compared with everyone else’s worry about her complete silence was eerie.

Jim cursed and spat, saying she was crazy and messed up. That was all.

Finally Marco and Jake couldn’t stand it anymore and they reported Barbara missing at the town’s little rural police office where, if you want something written down, it’s a good idea to bring a pen.

He started locking his room all the time which wasn’t like him. No one else locked their doors while they were home and neither had he and Barbara. Now he locked it behind him every time he came into the common area which was suddenly almost never. He spent hours enclosed in there. When the cleaning lady came, he said it was clean and left with the key. He was sullen, skittish and mean. He didn’t go surfing.

One afternoon, Jake was scouring the house for surf wax. Having no luck anywhere else, he tried Jim’s closed door and to his surprise, it opened. He found the bed stripped of sheets and on it several rolls of saran wrap and some duct tape. No surf wax lying around anywhere, though, so he left the room empty handed.

He brought a few bars of wax home from the surf shop that night and tossed one to Jim, saying, “Dude, you’re out of wax. I brought you some.”

“What do you mean?”

“I looked everywhere.”

“What?  How’d you get in there?!” Jim flashed in fury. “Oh, so now you go in my room when I’m not home?!” He slammed down the beer he was drinking and stormed into his room in a sudden rage, banging the door behind him.


Before Jim himself vanished, he took a trip for a few days. Out of nowhere, he announced that he needed to go look for Barbara—as though for some reason he suddenly cared and had an idea where to look. He packed a backpack and took a sleeping bag as if he supposed that Barbara might have decided to go someplace where he would not be able to find a bed.

He told Marco he was going to look for her in Jacó. He told Jake he was going to Limón. To Barbara’s best friend at the little hotel down the street, he said he was going to look for her in Puerto Viejo only to email a few days later stating that he was in surfing in Dominical and that Barbara had gone to Panama.

Where ever he went, he did not return with Barbara or any news of her.  He appeared at home again on December 21st and in spite of his failed mission, seemed to somehow feel better, as if some troublesome load had lifted from his shoulders.  He walked into the house and smiled a little when he said hello.  Carrying the backpack, the sleeping bag and plastic grocery bag of cleaning supplies.


The next day Jim told Rebecca he had an interview for a chef job at a restaurant down the road.  He patted the dog on the head and walked out of the house with a little bag slung over his shoulder. Marco, biking home from a surf lesson just then, saw Jim sitting outside a hotel and asked what was up. Jim shook his head and said he was stuck there waiting for some damn guy to wake his lazy ass up and pay him for a surf trip. And he hoped he wouldn’t have to wait all day.

Shortly after, in front of that hotel, a passenger looking remarkably like Jim but who called himself “Steve York” boarded the 3 PM shuttle bus to the capital city. Two days later on Christmas Eve, Jim arrived in The United States of America using a passport that belonged to his brother.

“We think he did something to her,” Rebecca repeated and disbelief would not let it into my head.

“Did what?”

“We think she’s dead.”


Every day I waited for an email from Barbara telling me that something awful had happened between her and Jim which caused her to run away. I donated money to a search fund.

But no one had seen her. She wasn’t in the Caribbean. No bus company had sold her a ticket. Immigration verified that she hadn’t left the country.

Her bank account was empty and the evidence it showed wasn’t of traveling. Two thousand dollars was transferred in mid-December from Barbara’s bank account into the surf shop account that Jim had access to. And then withdrawn. The receipts lay right there screaming in his drawer.

He couldn’t have killed her for $2,000.



Then Ivan came and took all of her things; Ivan, a Czech friend from Barbara’s childhood who visited often and joined us at some of our group dinners. He held no interest for me at all and I paid so little attention to him that I would have forgotten him altogether if he hadn’t stepped right into the middle of the story.

He came to the house scowling and scolding Barbara’s four stupefied friends for publicizing her absence. He demanded that they be quiet. Barbara’s disappearance now peppered the Czech newspapers and this, for reasons that I have not come to understand, was against the family’s wishes. The devastated the family, Ivan insisted, called him explaining that they were too distraught by her disappearance to make the trip from Europe. He said they asked him to collect her things for them—everything. So he did. While her helpless housemates looked on he collected each and every single one of Barbara’s possessions, presumably at her family’s request, and left with them for Czech Republic.

The police got nothing.


The OIJ, the Costa Rican equivalent of the FBI, came to the house to do a different type investigation after Jim vanished and there was still no sign of Barbara. They came to the house at night this time with a special spray. The spray, they said, glows in the dark if or where there is even a trace of blood. No matter what happens, the police told them, they must absolutely not tell anyone. No whispers, no rumors. Jim may not be far away and Barbara may still be alive somewhere. We can’t assume anything. Secrecy is important for the investigation.

“So do not tell anyone,” were my instructions.

And I promised.

But I am not keeping secrets anymore.

 Next Monday: “Remember Barbara”, Chapter 2 continued



Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons. This is her story according to me, as close to the truth as I am able to tell it.
I call it fiction in a fading hope that it is.
Make no mistake: I will never stop hoping that everything I have supposed is wrong.
Everyone in this story is a friend I have lost.

Links to past sections of this story:
Chapter 1 (section 2 of 5)
Chapter 1 (section 1 of 5)
December is for Barbara (Introduction)


Remember Barbara (Section 2 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova

Chapter One, continued

Jim wrestled through the unfamiliar territory of Spanish grammar for another month before he gave up. He sat across the table from me in my office on the day of his last Spanish lesson and told me the story of how surfing saved his life; surfing and meeting Barbara.

She was newly arrived in America, living in a small apartment with her cousin when the manager of his barbecue restaurants hired her as a waitress. She was pretty, energetic and spoke perfect English with an accent that fascinated in the land of the southern drawl. With her old-world charm and with her attention to detail, both personal and in her work, she was easily promoted to hostess. Jim’s dreadful third marriage had entirely derailed when, on a routine visit to the site, she caught his eye. But before he could even ask her out, he said, he almost died.

On Christmas Eve 2005, Jim drove himself from work to the hospital because he knew he was having a heart attack. He was 200 pounds overweight he said, smoked a pack of cigarettes before lunchtime and was in the middle of a bloody divorce from an unstable wife who wanted the kids. Her wild charges of child abuse weren’t sticking, but they were taking an emotional toll. He made it across the parking lot and collapsed inside the door of the emergency room. They managed to revive him and made it clear that if he stayed on the same road he would never see his first grandchild born in the summer.

“Surfing saved my life,” he said, shaking his head. “I started getting up and going out every day before work. Every day. I started smoking less because I wasn’t so damn stressed out all the time. I got my shit together, got custody of my kids… If it wasn’t for surfing, I would be dead.”

I could see the water behind his clear gray eyes full of emotion.

“I convinced Barbara to go out with me. You know her, she don’t put up with no shit and she kept me in line,” he said and snorted a little laugh.

They had been together for three years when they took the trip to Costa Rica that changed their lives. He surfed in the tropical water and Barbara fell in love with the sunshine of the endless coast. They went home, sold what was left of the barbecue business after the divorce and left.


Each year since Jim and Barbara moved to Costa Rica, a raucous company of Barbara’s friends and their entourage made the trek across the Atlantic to surf the tropical coast as Czech Republic’s winter began. They were a noisy friendly bunch with time to kill and money to spend. Some of them invariably stayed until spring. With them came the yearly windfall to the surf shop; a friend of Barbara’s was a friend of theirs and they patronized the shop where Jim worked for everything. He made commissions on the merchandise he sold them, every tour he booked, every surf trip he guided them on. More often than not they bought dinner for him and Barbara at the end of a hard day of paddling.

Three months before she disappeared, Barbara went to Czech Republic for her sister’s wedding. She stayed there through September and October enjoying the crisp European autumn, avoiding the miserable torrent of mosquito-breeding rains that falls on the tropics during those months. She came back with her boisterous company of countrymen at the beginning of November after the rains had stopped, our house was sold and we had our one-way tickets north, departing in two weeks.

I made a coffee cake and invited her over on a Saturday morning. We sat, she and my husband and I, around my kitchen table eating cake and drinking coffee, talking about traveling. She said she was happy to be home in the perpetual summer, but for the first time she wondered if a future in Costa Rica was the right thing for her. Maybe she might like Europe again, or somewhere else in the big world. She felt envious of our move out of the tropics and back to the States; envious and torn because she loved Jim. But Jim, she knew, wasn’t going anywhere. He was staying put with his surfboard and his dog by the beach. She was free to stay or go. Either one. Any time.

My husband and I weren’t the only ones packing our possessions that November. Jake and Paige’s landlord wanted to raise the rent beyond what they could afford. Marco and Rebecca had lost their patience with leaky plumbing and perpetual puddles. Jim, Barbara and their dog had outgrown their studio apartment and they’d all decided to do what any sensible group of friends would do: pool their resources and rent a fantastic four-bedroom Spanish-style beach house with an open kitchen/living area laid out around a pool. None of them could have afforded it individually, but together it was an easy choice. There would have been room for us too and in many ways I would rather have stayed although we needed to go. Our last dinner party for eight was there by the pool; southern oven fried chicken and mashed potatoes prepared in abundance by Jim.

He was a good guy. He seemed like a good guy.


Three weeks later we were enjoying the first snow we’d seen in fifteen years and anticipating Christmas when it popped up on Facebook: Jim and Barbara broke up. Their status went to “single” and Jim posted something mean about how you never really know a girl until she leaves you. I sent Barbara a private message expressing my sympathy and waited for a reply.

Weeks passed in silence.

I got an email from Rebecca on Christmas Day asking if I’d heard from Barbara. I said no. That’s when she told me that Barbara was gone. She’d been gone for days, ever since she and Jim broke up, and no one else had heard from her either.

Jim was pissed, Rebecca said. He called her a bitch. He said she dumped him and left; came home late from the bar with the Czechs and said she was leaving. She wanted to travel the Caribbean and he mumbled something about her mention of an old boyfriend. She’d walked out the door in the dark without saying goodbye to anyone, got on the 3:30 AM bus to the capital and that was all.

Shock paralyzed everyone, including me. Barbara was the most predictable person we knew. She loved Jim. She loved their dog. She was adventurous but not impulsive. None of us had ever heard one word of an old boyfriend anywhere. No one had heard her mention the Caribbean.  She and Jim grumbled at each other sometimes, but they never fought. If she got mad at Jim and wanted to leave, why wouldn’t she go across town to stay with her best friend? Why wouldn’t she at least call someone in the morning?

She didn’t call anyone.  Ever. Her mother’s birthday came and went the next week and she made no contact. Barbara, in 31 years, had absolutely never missed her mother’s birthday. Christmas came and went. Barbara called no one, sent no emails. Her silence was more deafening than a scream.

Rebecca was scared. Now, I was scared. The Caribbean is famous for being full of all kinds of creeps. But I still wasn’t getting it. Until she spelled it out for me in little black letters across the screen: “We think Jim did something to her.”

Don’t be ridiculous. Jim? You people watch too much TV.


Wherever she went, she took nothing and told no one. She hadn’t taken her computer or her cell phone. Her closet was full of clothes and her passport lay in the drawer. Jim shook his head and said crazy bitch.

She wasn’t, that’s the problem. I’ve knows some crazy bitches and Barbara was not one of them. The internet exploded with people looking for Barbara, talking about Barbara. And then Jim disappeared; left without saying goodbye, unfriended everyone.

Rebecca sent me an email hinting that things were getting a little crazy. I called her just after Christmas and she swore me to secrecy before she let the story spill. The police didn’t want any of this to get out and foil their investigation.

Maybe they still thought there was some chance that Jim would come back.

Next Monday: “Remember Barbara”, Chapter 2

Barbara at the beach. July 2010

Barbara at the beach.  July 2010.

Link to inactive 2011 “Help Find” website.

Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons. This is her story according to me, as close to the truth as I am able to tell it.
I call it fiction in a fading hope that it is.
Make no mistake: I will never stop hoping that everything I have supposed is wrong.
Everyone in this story is a friend I have lost.

Link to the next section of this story:
Chapter 2 (section 3 of 5)

Links to past sections of this story:
Chapter 1 (section 1 of 5)
December is for Barbara (Introduction)

Remember Barbara (Section 1 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova

All of the names have been changed to protect the identity of the innocent-until-proven-guilty and others close by.
All of the names except Barbara’s.

Chapter One

I said goodbye to Barbara. I said goodbye to everyone because we were leaving forever. In my mind’s eye I see her standing there with Jim outside our gate in the hot morning shade. They came to say goodbye to us, to wish us well on our adventures and in our new life. Our house had sold, our bags were packed, the long chapter of our lives as expatriates in Costa Rica was closing and a new one was about to begin far to the north. She had only two weeks left to live and none of us knew. Maybe Jim knew in his dark heart, but I doubt it.

Should I have known? Was there a clue? I stare at them now, trying to see their faces through the deepening water of time but it ripples and shifts, blurring the details. I watch from outside my body as the four of us stand there outside the gate, search for some sign of what is coming. I see nothing. You can think a couple might not be a match made in heaven and never imagine that one of them will disappear.

If only somehow I had been able to know. I would have warned her. I would have begged her. I would have clutched her hands and hugged her until she couldn’t breathe. I would not have waved as they turned to go and returned to washing the dishes.

Where are you, Barbara?

Where have you gone?

You are in the sky now.
You are in the sun and the salt of the sea.
You are the warm wind.

But where are your teeth, Barbara?
Where are your bones?


I’d gone down to the surf shop to ask if I could hang a poster in the window advertising my services as a Spanish tutor. I needed students to fill open spots in my schedule, so I biked around town bumming free advertising wherever possible. The guy cleaning old wax off the boards in front of the shop told me the owner was out so I didn’t get an answer about the poster. But I still got what I was looking for. The guy said his name was Jim, shook my hand and called me “ma’am.” He told me his girlfriend Barbara was looking for a Spanish tutor and that, truthfully, he could use one too. He had the most beautifully unusual greenish eyes in his weather-beaten face and a way of looking at you when he talked with you that made him seem kind. He gave me her phone number and said I should set up lessons for both of them.

By the time Jim and Barbara’s Spanish lesson ended at five my husband was always working on dinner, so eventually we invited them to stay. Over a big bottle of wine and homemade lasagna, what should have been a life-long friendship was born.

A few weeks later they returned the dinner invitation. In his past life in Texas, Jim told us, he owned a small chain of barbecue restaurants and he could cook up some mean ribs in his own secret sauce. They invited two other couples to join us, Jim’s friends from the surf shop and the eight of us clicked like pieces in a puzzle. From then on until they rented the beach house, a Saturday night dinner party rotated between our kitchens. We talked surfing, laughed, ate, drank, watched movies, played games. The eight of us represented five countries, spoke four languages and never ran out of dinner ideas. My Italian husband prepared pizza and fresh pasta. Marco made us Peruvian potatoes while his girlfriend Rebecca concocted Greek delicacies that we couldn’t pronounce and introduced me to Ouzo. Jake and Paige from Canada made chili to die for and chocolate cake. Jim barbecued and baked homemade mac and cheese. Barbara giggled and covered her face, swearing that she couldn’t fry an egg. We started meeting on the beach on Sunday mornings, too, to play volleyball with whoever wanted to join.

We were all at the wedding when Marco and Rebecca got married. I have a picture of the eight of us at the party, happy together, captured in a jumbled line of embracing arms. There is also a picture of just Jim and Barbara. She is smiling widely at the camera with her sun-browned skin, gypsy hair and gray eyes like the ocean on a cloudy morning. Jim is glancing into the distance stroking his small goatee.

Jim was twelve years older than Barbara and his oldest daughters could easily have passed for her sisters. She was thirty one and wanted babies. Not right now; someday. After they’d settled down and gotten married. Jim said no more getting married for him and no more babies. She laughed at him like she didn’t believe him but I could see that his words stung her. Barbara loved him.

Barbara came from Czech Republic and Spanish being her fourth language, she absorbed it like a sponge. She sailed through the lessons far ahead of Jim who struggled with the basics of renaming everything. After a month we all agreed that separate classes would be better so I took him each on separately several hours a week.

The more time Barbara and I spent together, the better friends we became. Sometimes we became so sidetracked in conversation that we forgot the about lessons entirely. We would start with irregular verbs and end up collapsed in giggles about how we and our sisters used to dress cats in doll clothes. Half a world and a decade apart, we discovered a delightful synchronicity.

She loved language study and approached it with mathematical precision. She was always on time for her lessons and never missed a class unless she had to watch the surf shop for Jim who was out surfing. Her homework was always done, she always paid without complaining and she never asked the same question twice. Her vocabulary notebook was meticulous.

She held an accounting degree from Czech Republic, she said, and had clients in Europe. She explained that she worked on line and loved it for the freedom it gave her. Midday in Europe is early morning in the Americas and she was up each day with the early sun, fond of the solitude and cooler hours. It was a perfect time for her to meet online with her clients and as Jim was usually out surfing, she had their quiet apartment to herself.

Her family had old money, she said, but none of it was hers—maybe someday if Europe’s economy holds together. She’d been supporting herself since she was 23; since she graduated and left Europe for America where she met Jim and fell in love.

Next Monday: “Remember Barbara” Chapter One, section 2

Barbora Struncova

Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons. This is her story according to me, as close to the truth as I am able to tell it.
I call it fiction in a fading hope that it is.
Make no mistake: I will never stop hoping that everything I have supposed is wrong.
Everyone in this story is a friend I have lost.

Link to the next section of this story:
Chapter 1 (section 2 of 5)

Links to past sections of this story:
December is for Barbara (Introduction)

December is for Barbara

My friend Barbara disappeared in early December four years ago and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons. I know that December is for religious holidays and our dark solstice. But December is also for Barbara.

Remember Barbara is her story according to me, as close to the truth as I know it to be. I call it fiction in a fading hope that it is–and because although I have no doubt that Barbara is dead, there is no proof. I don’t know what happened, only what might have happened. I know she vanished without a trace and was never heard from again.

There are five Mondays in December and I have divided the story into five segments, and I will post one of them each Monday.

All of the names of people and most of the names of places have been changed to protect the identity of the innocent-until-proven-guilty and others close by. Make no mistake: I will never stop hoping that everything I have supposed is wrong. Everyone in this story is a friend I have lost.

Barbara and me on November 7, 2010, three weeks before she disappeared.

Barbara and me on November 7, 2010, three weeks before she disappeared.


Ice Age

if I were a planet, this
would be my ice age
my interminable winter of
a thousand years
who would believe the
flowers that bloomed here?
who would believe the bees?
the dinosaurs are all dead and
glaciers creep downward toward
my belly
everything has starved for lack of
fruit except the
woolly mammoths hunkered in ice
caves huffing hot breath

May 1980: The last of the little red diary

 From the red diary of the little girl who tells the tales in
When The Roll Is Called A Pyonder:  Tales From a Mennonite Childhood.

The little red diary ends there and the rest of the diaries begin.
I invite you to continue exploring old diaries with me in my new Diary Experiment which is still incubating and is due to hatch the first week of January 2015.
Hold on to your hat.


May 20

Yesterday I was doing a big picture and I needed to color some of it light black and Neil came up to me. He said it was good, and helped me just a little bit. Today our class went to Indian Eco cave. It was really neet! There was lots of flow stone and colores and a pool about 3 to 4 feed deep and a nother pool was 10 feet deep and there was a five foot wishing well. At the suveneer shop I got a small caraseen lamp and a big lolly pop. At last reses I had to stay inside to do my progect. And I was painting and I spilled the blue paint all over me and my new colot dress. My teacher was mad. But mommy wasn’t.

May 27

Today in school we had music class and we had a very crabby music teacher. (She was a substitute.) We had a contest at 4-H last night our teem won we got cowboy hats mine was more of a cowgirl hat, it was pink. I got new sandels today and they’re size 4. A couple of strawberries are ripe but not all of them.


img004One of our third grade class projects was to make a book.  The last page was our “about the author” page.  Each of us were photographed in the library with a book and we could write whatever we felt was important for readers to know about us.  At some point I must have ditched the book, but I’m glad I salvaged this!

May 7, 1980: Ponysitting

Straight from the red diary of the little girl who tells the tales in
When The Roll Is Called A Pyonder:  Tales From a Mennonite Childhood.

May 7, 1980

Yesterday I got a pony his name is Sparckey, but he’s not mine, he’s Julie Hoffer’s. Her mom and dad are going on a trip and Julie and her brother Gary are going to her friends house, so I get to take care of him until they get back. Last night I went to ride Sparckey and he almost threw me off. But he seems to like when I brush and comb him. And when I comb his mane. I took Sparkey for a walk in the medow (he had just been in the crall).

May 9, 1980
Early this morning Matthew’s Grandpa died and when Matthew came to school he looked as if he would cry and when we were about ready to start singing he burst out crying. Today I had my first peano lesson it was fun. I had to do a hard finger exersize and play two songs that were stupid and one neat one.

img023This photo is from a few years later when I am in sixth grade and have my first horse.  Pictured with me are Missy Miller and Karen (Longenecker) Carter.  Dandy met an unhappy fate after he bit me on the leg and sent me into the house crying.

The next post from my Red Diary will be the last one.  The Red Diary ends there and others continue.

I am working on a new diary project to be announced next month and launched at the beginning of 2015.  If you liked this ride, hold onto your hat because the next one is even more fun.