Remember Barbara (section 5 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

Chapter Three, continued

*****

Where are your teeth, Barbara?
Where are your bones?
In the brackish muck of an estuary, delivered by the tide?
On the bottom of the deep?
In the belly of a shark, a crocodile, a worm?
Are you resting near the coast you loved, enshrouded in the makeshift stolen coffin?

 I know you are in the ocean you loved, in the country of your dreams.
The warm touch of the sun is your fingers, the brush of the wind is your breath.
In the thunder, I hear your crying and feel your tears.

*****

None of it makes any sense.

Her family didn’t go to look for her.  No one.  Surely the sister speaks English and could have pressed Jim, if she had gotten there in time.  They could have pressured the police.  They could have raised holy hell, like the parents of the young man who disappeared two years before.  All of us know his name and recognize his face, even if we’ve never seen him alive or dead.

Ivan took everything, even her clothes, and left.  I don’t understand.

Why did they prevent the police from checking her phone, her computer and the rest of her things?  Could they not have realized this would be the result?

Who is Ivan?  Did they really call him?

Why would Jim have left her things untouched in the first place?  Shouldn’t they have disappeared with her if we were supposed to believe she was traveling?  The board bag was big enough.

After the OIJ made contact with Barbara’s family, a terrible silence fell over it all.  The family asked the OIJ not to talk with her distraught housemates, who were facilitating the investigation, and the OIJ asked the housemates not to talk with anyone else.

Barbara’s uncle in Prague sent private investigators to Costa Rica.  They trudged around frowning, sweating, asking questions and taking notes; then they were gone.  Why didn’t he come with them?  Why did a massive search for her body not ensue?

 

I see there is more I don’t know about Barbara than what I do know.  More I don’t know about Jim, too.  It didn’t matter until now.   We were all expats from somewhere—all of us—with families left behind, the stories we told and the ones we didn’t.  It didn’t matter, then.  We were friends and that’s all—eating together, laughing and playing volleyball on the beach on hot Sunday mornings.  Nothing mattered but us, here and now.  Until, suddenly, everything mattered, and it was too late.

What stories did you not tell us, Barbara?  Could they have saved your life?

 

*****

I talk to my husband about it.  He calms me, saying it was surely an accident.  A strong man like Jim, with a precisely or poorly aimed blow to the temple, could kill a person, large or small.

“And the blood?” I ask.

He says she could have fallen unconscious to the floor, causing her head to bleed.  We all know head wounds bleed a lot.

But that much?  Enough to fill a closet and leave a trail to the door, then into the trunk of a car?

“And the saran wrap?  And the duct tape?” I ask him.  I can’t help it.

“Drugs,” he says, as if it were obvious.

I should have known he would say that.  Strange behavior, in his mind, is always the result of dealing in drugs.  He says that if you need to pack up drugs, presumably marijuana and cocaine, you wrap them in layer after layer of saran wrap with things like coffee grounds and oregano leaves in between.  If you’re good, you can even fool the dogs.

“So Jim had drugs to pack before he left?”

“Sure,” my husband says, shrugging.

I don’t know.  I don’t see it.  I don’t see it at all.  Of course, I wouldn’t.  No one saw any of this.

“Why do you think her family didn’t come?” my husband continues.  “And why else would Ivan take all of her things and made them disappear?”

He thinks there is some dirty family business going on.  I know he does.  Jim’s dim past, Barbara’s obscure job, and the family with money who gave every appearance of squelching the investigation…  He’s Italian, and can find the shadow of the mob behind every bush in the garden, if he looks long enough.

I’d like to argue with him.  I like think I’m being fair.  I’d like to have something to say in their defense, but when I open my mouth, I have nothing.

Of course there are dangerous sexual practices that can result in death.  Nothing about Barbara leads me believe that she was voluntarily asphyxiated, accidently past the point of no return, but how would I know?  Each possible scenario is more preposterous than the last.

And I insist like the refrain in a song sung by devils: what about all the blood?  Or whatever it was that left a trail from the closet to the car.  Something happened in that room that has not been told.  If Jim is innocent, then why did he run away?

 

We lost two friends.  Barbara is somewhere turning into sand, her bones in the deep or in the bellies of estuary crocodiles.  Jim turned up in Texas again, but I haven’t exactly wanted to stop by.

I hope it’s all a scam—an elaborate, indecipherable scam to delude everyone who knew them—that Barbara and Ivan are living somewhere on their own paradisiacal island, bought for her by her family with dirty money that was somehow laundered in her supposed murder by her lover Jim.  I hope it was all a setup.  I hope to God that Jim is innocent, and that we have all been cunningly outwitted.

I would love to apologize to him on my knees.

I don’t expect to.

*****

 

They are still together among my photographs, embraced, smiling.

 

*****

I remember you, Barbara.  I insist.
Everything is not alright.
May your lover be brought to justice for betraying your life.
Where can he hide from what he has done?

 In my dreams, one day, perhaps very far, Interpol will knock on his door and they will drag him away with metal around his wrists and make him tell what a wicked thing he has done.
I want to see his face in the newspaper, hear he has been captured.
I want terrible men to make him say what he did to you.
I want him to say it, whatever it was.
I want to wring this secret from him with my bare hands.

Haunt him, Barbara
Haunt the ocean.
Look up at him from beds of kelp that wave like your hair.

Haunt him, beautiful friend.
Find him in the country where he is safe because no crime has been committed.
No one wept at your funeral.
No one can prove that you are dead.

 *****

Everyone moved away.   In January, two somber couples moved out of the beautiful beach house that three entered.  None of them could bear, even in brightest daylight, the ominous quiet of the empty room.  At night they jumped at every shift and rustle of the breeze, glimpsing, from the corners of their eyes, the glow of blood.  They took Jim’s belongings and threw them away—all of them.  No one wanted any of it.  Randy adopted the dog.

No one is left at all.  Nothing remains to bear witness:  no monument, no marker, no voice speaking a name in the silence.

*****

 I remember you, Barbara.
I do not forget.

I feel your smile in the sun.
I hear your laugh in the rustling leaves of trees.
I know you are somewhere in the rain, evaporated from the sea.
You are in the mangrove tree, growing from the fertile mud of the estuary, where lies the crocodile who snapped your finger bones.

 I don’t know where you are.
You are everywhere.

*****

Read the “Afterward”
(additional information that I have learned during the writing of this story)

IMG_3412

Us (except “Jake,”) at Marco and Rebecca’s wedding, July 2010: Barbara, “Paige”, “Marco”, my husband, “Rebecca”, me and “Jim”

 

Barbara Struncova disappeared on December 5, 2010 and is still one of Costa Rica’s cold case missing persons.
All of the names of people and most of the names of places have been changed.
All of them except Barbara’s.

Remember Barbara (Section 4 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

…I promised.
But I am not keeping secrets anymore.

Chapter Two, continued

There were traces of blood all over their bedroom.  The police sprayed their mysterious spray across the floor, and there, beside the bed, a bright puddle began to glow, its center radiating like a dark, terrible sun.  Small fluorescent smudges appeared.  On the wall by the bed, an unmistakable hand print shone clear ghostly fingers.

“Whose hand…?” I asked, not wanting to know.

“We don’t know.”  But there was more.  “And in the closet—   It looked clean in the daylight, but when the cops sprayed that stuff, it glowed.  Bright.  The whole closet.”

 

What the hell?

 

Maybe a worker hurt himself during construction. Terribly. Then he touched the wall. Maybe other renters once had a dog that lay there bleeding to death after a vicious fight. In the closet. A dog would like that.

“No, no,” the cops say. “Human blood.”

Is there a way they can be sure of that? What in God’s name happened in there? Is this fluorescent cop blood-spray even real?

I Google it. It’s real. Bleach activates it too, I read, and for a moment I feel better. Maybe it was just bleach. The cleaning lady spilled it.

Then I feel sick again. Who spills that much bleach in a closet? A floor mopped with bleach would have a uniform glow.

“The police think he kept her there for a day or more. They found one of Jim’s flip flops with blood on it and they took it to see if they can get a match from her family.”

 

 

Was it in a crime of passion? A fury out of control? Did he plan it?! Impossible.

Jim was as strong as an ox. He could have strangled any medium-sized adult with his bare hands, woman or man. He could have suffocated her with a pillow. Suffocation is quiet and, whatever happened, no one heard a sound.

But why the glow of so much blood? Or is it bleach? Does it make a difference? Even though Jim left with only a backpack, the pillows and bedding were gone from the room, and, in the bathroom, not one towel remained.

He made no secret of owning a gun but nothing suggested that shots had been fired. Did he stab her? Why, if he could so easily have suffocated her? Did her head crash against the cement wall or tile floor? Was she instantly unconscious? Why didn’t she scream?

Did he gag her first? Hold his hand over her mouth? No. He couldn’t have. He loved her.

And the saran wrap? The duct tape? Possibilities occur to me that are unmentionable. Maybe I watch too much TV.

What in God’s name happened to Barbara? Why?

 

 

The cops sprayed the blood spray through the common area and stood in stupefied silence as a glowing trail appeared, wide and solid, as if something heavy had been dragged out of their room, across the floor, around the pool, up the stair at the entrance, through the door and onto the front porch.  Then it disappeared.  The cops took their hats off, crossed themselves, and mumbled what sounded like, “Santa Maria.”

Just before the fading cover of that night gave way to dawn, the OIJ knocked on Randy’s door, demanding to examine his vehicle.  Startled and stammering, he rummaged for the keys.  They filled the old Trooper with spray, and there it was behind the last seat:  the same eerie, nauseating glow.

Nobody’s dog died in Jim and Barbara’s closet.  Whatever was in that closet slid out the front door of the house and disappeared forever from the trunk of that car.

And then, after that, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Jim was gone and there was no sign of Barbara anywhere. Ivan took away her things. No sign, ever, of the long board bag charged to the Czechs.

The police, having a crime with no criminal and no victim, turned their attention back to chasing thieves.

 

*****

Remember Barbara
Part Three

I tell myself the story a thousand ways, asking her silent ghost which version is true, begging her just to nod or twitch a finger when I get it right. I have tried everything. She is motionless.

Surely it must have begun with a fight. Truly.

Give me that much, Barbara.
He left the bar early—tired, bored, and annoyed that even though you all speak English, you kept slipping into Czech as if he wasn’t even there.  Laughing hilariously, and him sitting there like stump.

You came home at 1:00 o’clock, early by Europe’s definition of a night out, late by Jim’s.  But the Czechs came every year, and every year it was the same.  Jim never seemed the least bit jealous.

I guess this time he waited up for you.

 

And what? Was he angry? Did he accuse you of cheating? Say you didn’t love him? Was he drunk? Were you? Did he ask you for money? Did you refuse? Say you’d had it with him? That you were sick of it? Did you tell him you couldn’t go one more day like this? But why would he kill you for that? Is there any way you are alive?

Did you know something about him and threaten to tell? Did you accuse him of something true and unspeakable? How did he become so terribly angry? Or was it anger at all?

Was he waiting for you in bed feigning sleep? Did you tiptoe in trying not to disturb, brush your teeth in the bathroom with the door closed and slip quietly into bed beside him, sliding a warm arm around his chest and kiss his ear? Did you think he would make love to you when he grabbed you by the throat?

Did he mean to kill you when you opened the door? Did you feel it in the air? Did you know something wasn’t right?

Did you know you were dying, Barbara?

 

What did he do to her, that beast? Press on her throat until she stopped thrashing? Hold a pillow on her face? Strike a deadly blow to her temple? Split her skull against the wall? Did he cut her with a knife, the animal? Why? What did she do to him but love him? What did he fear she would do?

Did he think we would believe him?  And we might have believed him longer, if his lies had been less absurd, if he hadn’t told them just before her mother’s birthday, just before Christmas.  When both came and went—and really, one was enough—everyone knew she was dead.

If he could have conjured up a sliver of concern, it would have helped. We might have thought for at least a minute that she really ran away, taking nothing, intending to return and perhaps somewhere in her adventures met with misfortune. We might have tried to believe he was innocent. He could have paced, called her sister, talked to the police, twisted his goatee, shed a tear. But nothing. Sneers, sardonic smirks and crazy bitch.

 

*****

I think if he’d meant to do it, he wouldn’t have done it there. He would have taken her on a trip somewhere to a rented room. He would have taken her alone on a boat into the sea. He would have had the car and the board bag ready if he knew he was going to need them. He isn’t that stupid.

I make up a story to believe because I need one. In it, they become angry and say terrible things to each other. Wine makes her bold. And in a blind rage, he doesn’t care. For one second too long, he doesn’t care.

Then he smacks her face and waits for her to come to. And smacks her harder but nothing happens.

Bitch, wake up.

Now what has she done?

He shakes her and her body lolls.  He presses his head to her chest where he can hear that her heart has stopped, and the flood of sorrow boils into pure rage at her pathetic weakness.

Now look what you have done to me. Got the last laugh. Died, you stupid bitch. Crazy bitch. Goddamn women, man.

cut 4

Barbara Struncova

Read the last section of the story 

 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.

Remember Barbara (Section 3 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

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.  Some guy named Martin or somethin’.  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, “but we figured 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 Jim said Barbara left him, he went to the surf shop and asked for a board bag.  He told the cashier on duty that one of the Czechs needed it, just to add it to their bill.  No one asked any questions until 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 nowhere to be found, by that time.  And he had not taken his longboard.

That same afternoon, 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 for her complete silence, compared with everyone else’s worry, 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 keeping his room locked, which wasn’t like him.  None of the others locked their door 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 several rolls of saran wrap and some duct tape lying on the bare mattress, stripped of sheets.  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 that 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 a plastic grocery bag of cleaning supplies.

The next day, Jim told Rebecca that 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 stopped to ask 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 identified himself as “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.”
Impossible.

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 her passport 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.
Please.

Then Ivan, a Czech friend of Barbara’s who lives elsewhere in Costa Rica, came and took all of her things.  He was a friend from Barbara’s childhood, who visited often and joined us at some of our group dinners.  Ivan 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.  At least that’s what Ivan said.  The devastated the family, he insisted, called him, explaining that they were too distraught by Barbara’s 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.

Barbara-Struncova_newsfull_h

Read the next section of the story

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.

Remember Barbara (Section 2 of 5)

Link to Section 1

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

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 a Slovakian friend, 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 second 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 told me, he 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.  The emotion looked so entirely real.

“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.

This is what he told me.  I believed each and every word.

*****

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 overstayed their tickets if the waves were good.  With them came the yearly windfall to the surf shop:  a friend of Barbara’s was a friend of theirs, and for everything they wanted, they patronized the shop where Jim worked.  He made commissions on the merchandise he sold to them, the tours he booked for them, and 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 had sold, and we’d purchased 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, to be honest, 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 ran out of patience with leaky plumbing and perpetual puddles under their sink.  Jim, Barbara and the 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, with 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, my husband and I 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.

Days passed in silence.

I got an email from Rebecca on Christmas Day, asking if I’d heard from Barbara.  I said hadn’t.  That’s when she told me that Barbara was gone.  She’d been gone for two weeks, 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.

Then Jim disappeared—left without saying goodbye and unfriended everyone.

Rebecca wrote me to say 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.

Barbara at the beach. July 2010

Barbara at the beach.  July 2010.

Read the next section of the story

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.

Remember Barbara (Section 1 of 5)

for Barbara Struncova
1979-2010

This story was first published in December 2014, before Barbara’s disappearance was being spoken of publicly, before Bill Ulmer had been arrested for or charged with identity/passport fraud, and before Costa Rica and the USA disclosed their belief that Barbara was assassinated in her bedroom.
All of the names of places and people were changed.
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 adventure and in our new life.  Our house was sold and our bags were packed.  The long chapter of our lives as expatriates in Costa Rica folded closed around us, with a new one 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.  I 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 that 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 grayish 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 one evening, 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—Jim’s friends from the surf shop—to join us, 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, told jokes, ate, drank, watched movies, and 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, being as it was her fourth language, she absorbed Spanish 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 individual classes would be better, so I took them each on separately for 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 could start with irregular verbs and end up collapsed in giggles about how we and our sisters used to dress our 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 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.  She kept a meticulous vocabulary notebook, of her own volition.

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.

 

Barbora Struncova

Read the next section of this story 

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.