for Barbara Struncova
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.
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.
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.