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 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 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.