A Heart the Size of Your Fist

Excerpt from Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie
Workplay Publishing, 2018
pp. 174-175

 

I knew that letters were going to come but wasn’t prepared for what happened when I found one lying in my campus mail box. I flashed hot, then cold, then nauseous, and I had to go somewhere to read it—somewhere that is not home. No one must look at me.

Across campus on the other side of the railroad tracks that run behind the theatre, there is a tree I sometimes climbed. It’s a scruffy old pine with branches that are naked near the trunk—a hiding place I discovered last spring before I met Tom, when the guy I’d been in love with all year started going out with somebody who wasn’t me.

I rode my bike to my tree with the letter in my pocket and climbed up to the seat where I mourned that other heartbreak.

Don’t cry. Whatever you do, don’t cry.

I didn’t want to go home with red eyes and snot on my shirt.

Don’t cry.

The problem wasn’t my housemates. It was Tom I was hiding from. Obviously, at our house you could cry if you wanted and you didn’t owe anybody an explanation. But Tom would expect one. One I didn’t have. When he said he loved me, I said it back. And I meant it. I did.

 

I didn’t cry.

I read the letter, and read the letter, and read the letter. I held it to my face. I pressed it to my arms, to my cheek, to my heart. All I could do was think about breathing. All he asked was for me to come back, but I couldn’t move from that tree.

 

Can you love two people? If you love two people, is one fake and one real? Which one? Or are they both lies?

Can you fracture into a thousand pieces on the inside, and outside no one will know? Can you die and still appear alive? Can you live without understanding anything?

What is happening to me? Why can I not let go? Why does it matter more than air? How will I live my life?

Can you ever be alright again, ever, after you are absolutely broken? How can so much pain fit into a heart the size of your fist?

 

It was like the day in Los Rios that I reached from the shower for my towel and was stung on my pinky finger by the scorpion hiding there. I stared in dumb disbelief at my hand, as a blinding pain surged through my tiny finger and exploded into the entire room. It charged the air around my body like electric and shook the walls of concrete. All the while, my smallest finger looked exactly the same.

Un Corazón del Tamaño del Puño

Extraco de Marry A Mennonite Boy and Make Pie
Workplay Publishing, 2018
pp. 174-175

 

Yo sabía que las cartas iban a llegar, pero no estaba preparada para lo que sucedió cuando encontré la primera en mi buzón en el campus universitario. Sentí calor, luego frío, luego náuseas, y tenía que ir a algún lugar para leerla, algún lugar que no fuera mi casa. Nadie debía mirarme.

Al otro lado de la universidad, al otro lado de las vías del ferrocarril que corren detrás del teatro, hay un árbol que yo a veces subía. Es un pino viejo desaliñado con ramas desnudas cerca del tronco, un escondite que descubrí la primavera pasada antes de conocer a Tom, cuando el muchacho del que yo estaba enamoradísima comenzó a salir con alguien que no era yo.

Me fui en la bicicleta hasta aquel árbol con la carta en el bolsillo, y subí al asiento donde lloré esa otra angustia.

No llorar, me dije. Pase lo que pase, no llorar.

Yo no quería ir a casa con los ojos rojos y mocos en la camisa.

No llorar.

El problema no eran mis compañeras de casa. Me estaba escondiendo de mi novio Tom. Obviamente en la casa donde vivía con las chicas, podrías llorar si querías sin deberle una explicación a nadie. Pero Tom me pediría una explicación. Uno que no tenía. Cuando Tom me decía que me amaba, se lo decía también yo. Y lo decía en serio. Era la verdad.

 

No lloré.

Leí la carta, y leí la carta, y leí la carta. Me la apreté a la cara. La presioné contra mis brazos, contra mi mejilla, contra mi corazón. Lo único que yo podía hacer era concentrarme en respirar. Lo único que pidió él que me había escrito la carta era de volver, pero no podía moverme del árbol.

 

¿Puedes amar a dos personas? Si amas a dos personas, ¿uno es falso y el otro es verdadero? ¿Cuál es cuál? ¿O son ambas mentiras?

¿Puedes fracturarte en mil pedazos por dentro sin que nadie lo nota por fuera? ¿Puedes morir y seguir vivo? ¿Puedes vivir sin entender nada?

¿Qué me está pasando? ¿Por qué no puedo dejarlo ir? ¿Por qué importa más que el aire? ¿Cómo viviré mi vida?

¿Es posible volver estar entero después de que estés completamente roto? ¿Cómo puede caber tanto dolor dentro de un corazón del tamaño del puño?

 

Era como el día en Los Ríos cuando, después de bañarme, tomé mi toalla y  un escorpión allí escondido me picó en el dedo meñique. Me quedé estupefacta mirando la mano, mientras un dolor cegador surgió a través de mi dedo meñique y explotó en toda la habitación. El dolor era tan grande que cargó el aire alrededor de mi cuerpo con electricidad y sacudió las paredes de concreto. Pero todo el tiempo, mi dedo meñique se veía exactamente igual.

 

Sudden Handcuffs

A short story about a day at work in Washington.

 

Camila shows up without an appointment. The receptionist calls my desk in the social work office and informs me that she is waiting. Something personal is going on, I intuit. If she came for help with welfare forms or letters, she would not have waited in the lobby through my lunch. She is asking for someone she trusts.

I call her from the lobby into an empty office where we can talk in private. Baby Diego wiggles happily on her lap when I smile at him.

“Necesito que me ayude con mi hermano,” she says.

“Ok?” I ask. “En qué sentido?”

“Necesito que me ayude a escribir una carta.”

Now she drops her eyes and straightens baby Diego’s little hat. At her full adult height she is four feet tall like her mother and grandmother, and wears clothes she buys in the children’s section at Walmart. All of them, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and a growing band of cousins have come from a remote mountain village in Mexico. They live together as they did before they stole across the border, in a decrepit three bedroom trailer heated by a wood stove in the living room. I have been there. I sat with her every month on the sagging bed in the living room, in that intimate chaos, discussing baby Diego’s growth from the time he was nothing but a little lump.

“Está en la cárcel,” she tells me.

“Qué pasó?” I ask.

He’s a good man, she tells me, and the family is very sad. She wants to write a letter telling the judge that he should be allowed to come home. He is not a bad person. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t drink. Will I help her?

“Sí,” I tell her. But why is he in jail?

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque su esposa es muy joven. Ella tiene trece años. Y lo metieron en la cárcel.”

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque la esposa tiene trece años?”

“Sí.”

Ah, I say. Yes. In this country it is illegal for a man to have a thirteen year old wife.

“Ya sé,” she tells me, “Pero para nosotros, es normal.”

“Yo lo sé,” I say, and prop my head on my hand, looking at her.

I hate this.

“Como está la esposa?” I ask, trying to understand. If he is in la cárcel, something happened. Something.

“Ella está muy triste,” Camila says. “Ella quiere que lo dejen ir.”

“Ella lo ama?”

“Oh, sí. Mucho,” she earnestly nods.

“Él la trata bien?”

“Sí, la trata bien. Es un hombre muy bueno. No toma licor, nunca.”

“Cuántos años tiene él?”

“El tiene 21.”

Well, yes. Indeed.

“Tienen niños?” I ask. I realize I don’t need this much information to write the letter she wants, but I can’t help it. Throughout her pregnancy with baby Diego, we developed a sort of lopsided friendship, and I care about things for which I can offer no remedy.

“No, she says, “Pero está embarazada.”

Quietly, a sigh deflates me.

I can see it perfectly: the thirteen year old girl who speaks no English and very little Spanish goes to the doctor with her mother, or mother-in-law, where it is confirmed that she is pregnant. They do not show their delight or any other emotion in front of the large white strangers. Their round faces are stoic, expressionless, and the nurse sends them directly to speak with a social worker. They do not know what a social worker is, but they know to cooperate with large white strangers.

They answer the interpreter’s questions in broken Spanish.

How old are you?

Are you in school?

Where is the father of your baby?

How old is he?

Where does he live?

The large white strangers note his name, his age, that his address is the same. They do not ask her if she is married, if her baby’s father is her husband, betrothed to her when he was fifteen and she was a child of seven. They read flickers of fear on the face of the older woman and they misunderstand.

“El es muy bueno, y queremos que lo dejen ir,” Camila says. The sadness in her is bottomless.

 

I write the letter to the judge, stating that Eduardo is a good man, that his family misses him very much and that they need him. That the pregnant child is his wife and that she needs him. That he is a hard worker who doesn’t drink liquor or consume drugs. That the judge may please consider that he is not a criminal and let him go.
I realize, of course, that by my country’s law, he is.

Camila hugs me gratefully and leaves carrying the letter in one hand, clutching delighted baby Diego to her small hip with the other.

I go back into the little room where we can talk in private and sit there by myself, immobilized by a sorrow that seems to expand in all directions. I say a prayer for rain in the high plains of Mexico, that corn may germinate and grow, that the goats may have milk enough for everyone’s babies, that people may find hope in their homelands far away from large strangers with our clipboards, prying questionnaires and sudden handcuffs.

The Story of Maria Pablo in Ten Scenes

This is  a revised story originally posted in May 2013 with the title
“White Buckets”

 I

María Pablo is sitting round on her bed with Carlitos when I enter.  Carlitos is eating a tortilla and cheese with both grubby hands, and María is petting his hair.  It’s another boy, due in May.  I don’t take my coat off because the room is that cold.

“No puedo dormir,” she tells me.  Her back hurts, the baby moves.  Carlitos wants to sleep with her, and Vicente and even Adolfo who is almost 11, when it is cold.  There is another bed in the room piled with clothes and broken toys.

 

 II

 “Cuántos años tienes?”

“No sé.  Como veinticuatro.”

“En qué año naciste?”

“En ochenta y cuatro.”

“En cuál mes?”

“Diciembre.”

“Diciembre?  Entonces tienes veintisiete – casi veintiocho.”

“Veintiocho!  Sí, sí!  Veintiocho!”  She laughs.

 

 III

She brings me the letter typed in little black letters with the green logo of the county courthouse.  She is dusty and her back hurts from bending between the rows of the onion fields.

“Qué dice?” she asks me.

They want the name of baby Alejandro’s daddy if she’s to continue receiving government cash to pay the rent.  I know the answer to the question.  She has told me before.

Now she drops her eyes and isn’t looking at me when she repeats it: “Es que no sé.”

This time I have to press her.  The blanks on the paper are staring at us.  “No sabes su nombre o no sabes cuál es?”  I ask in the politest way I can think of.

“Yo sé quien es,” she says looking up, “Pero no sé donde está.”

“Y no sabes su nombre.”

“No,” she agrees.

 

 IV

She comes to me with another green and black letter.  Baby Alejandro nurses hungrily.  Carlitos stands guard, beside.

“Qué dice?” she asks me, and I tell her.   She has to go to the courthouse on Thursday at 2:00 to answer some questions about baby Alejandro’s daddy.

“Es que no sé,” she insists.

I know, I tell her, but you’re going to have to tell them that in person.

“Es que tengo verguenza,” she pleads.

“María,” I ask her slowly, “Te violaron?  O fue una cosa entre los dos?”

“No,” she says, looking at the floor.  “Fue una cosa entre los dos.”

Did you love him?, I want to ask her.  Cuénteme.  But I don’t.

 

 V

I meet them at the courthouse:  María, baby Alejandro, Carlitos and this time Vicente, too.  School is out for the summer.  The courthouse clerk speaks Spanish so she doesn’t need an interpreter, but I’m already there.  I make myself useful holding baby Alejandro.

“Dónde está el papá de su bebé?” the clerk asks her.

“No sé,” María tells her.

“Cómo se llama?” asks the clerk.

“No sé,” María answers.

Then she does something that I cannot believe.  María Pablo opens her purse.  She pulls out the remains of a mysteriously masculine-looking wallet stuffed with pieces of paper.  And from the wallet, she produces a Washington State ID card with a man’s name and picture.  She hands it to the courthouse clerk.

“Es él?” the clerk asks.

“Sí,” replies María.

I all but drop baby Alejandro on the floor.  I am stupefied.  She doesn’t know his name but she has his ID?  I know she can’t read.  But?  She could have shown me the ID.  María is not laying all her cards on the table.

I am somehow delighted.  I knew she wasn’t stupid.

Did he leave without his ID?  Hardly.  His wallet?  And never come back?  María, did you steal it?!

The clerk writes the name of baby Alejandro’s daddy and gives the ID back to María.  María says she thinks he’s in Oregon.

We walk out the door, baby Alejandro safe in his mother’s arms, Carlitos and Vicente in tow.  Something stops me from pointing out that she hasn’t been exactly straight with me.  For some reason, I have to leave her that little bit of dignity when way say goodbye.

I laugh out loud all the way back to my office–shocked, amazed, imagining a hundred possible scenarios.  I am laughing at myself.

 

 VI

Sandra walks over to my desk and says, “I have bad news for you.

“What?”

“Carmen was here filling out housing applications.  She said that María Pablo got beat up last night by her husband.”

The f-word flies out of my mouth like a startled bird, and then, “María Pablo doesn’t have a husband.”

“I know,” Sandra says. “But Carmen, who lives with her, was just here, and she said she does.  She said last night he was beating her up.  Carmen’s husband got involved and María’s husband threatened him, so now they have to move out.”

“Fucking María Pablo,” I say, while I turn off the computer and get the keys.  I have to go see her.

I drive to her house in dread.  But María doesn’t have a husband.  I know she doesn’t.  A lover maybe, that, out of politeness Carmen called an esposo?

Now I am going to get to the bottom of this.  Seriously.

 

 VII

María is sitting on her bed nursing baby Alejandro.  Carlitos is in a corner playing with empty cereal boxes.  She smiles widely when she sees me.

Where are the bruises?  The eyes swollen from crying?  She has nothing.  Her round brown face and white shining eyes glow humid in the July heat.  Her sleeveless top exposes two plump brown arms, unmarked.  Alejandro feeds from a perfect left breast.

“Siéntate,” she says, and I sit on the bed beside her.

This time I register every object in the room.  Women’s shoes, and shoes for little boys.  Baby clothes.  A few broken toys.  Her purse.  Adolfo’s school books, abandoned.  Winter blankets, piled.  If María has an esposo, in this world he owns nothing but the clothes on his back.  No hat, no shirt, no belt or pair of jeans, no razor, no cologne, no pair of shoes.  Or she hides him so completely I cannot find him, even unannounced.

“Cómo está?” I ask her.  “Todo está bien?” searching questions without saying Carmen came and told us what happened.

“Muy bien,” she says.  “Cansada, porque todo el tiempo este bebé quiere comer.”

“Se siente bien? Necesita algo?”

“No,” María says sweetly.  “Aquí estamos bien.”

I walk out the door more confused than I walked in.  Relieved not to see bruises, perplexed by her peace.  Somebody is selling me bullshit and I am buying it all.

 

 VIII

She comes to see me in the fall, but I am out.  Beside my desk, she leaves two white buckets overflowing with onions.

It isn’t fair.  I don’t deserve a gift.  She is my job, and everything I do for her is paid by the hour.  I would like to give a gift to her, but I may not.  When I took her the clothes that I bought for baby Alejandro that at Goodwill, I told her
they were something someone dropped off at the clinic.

 

 IX

“Nos vamos con mi hermano a California,” she tells me, as the leaves begin to curl yellow.  “Aquí es muy frío y no hay trabajo.”

The last time I see them, somber-eyed Adolfo is bouncing baby Alejandro on his knees, making him cough up bursts of hilarious baby giggles.  María, somewhere, has found the money to color her hair a curious shade of red.  And that’s it.  She’s gone.  Adolfo, Vicente, Carlitos and baby Alejandro.  Just gone.

I look for her everywhere.  Maybe someday she will come back.  Maybe in the summer when California gets too hot.  I hope she finds a clinic, there, that will give her a shot in three months.  If she doesn’t, there will be more babies for Adolfo to play with.

 

 X

María Pablo, with her Nahuatl dialect, her broken Spanish, her sunshine smile and her fearless heart.  We’re even.  We told some truth, told some lies, everything scripted by the state.  Everything but the generous white buckets of onions.

I stand in my kitchen slicing, and giggle at my silly onion tears.  She’s somewhere in the world this morning making quesadillas for her boys, working in the fields, telling nosey social workers with bleeding hearts just enough of the truth to get what she needs: help making a phone call, free second-hand baby clothes, a feeling of friendship.

Reading #3 from “When The Roll is Called a Pyonder: Tales from a Mennonite Childhood”

Birthday month rolls on, and here’s another short reading to celebrate!  In this segment, learn about the danger that geese pose to little girls, discover my brief drumming career and find out how I resolve the dilemma of which is worse:  risking going to hell for having stolen something, or getting spanked for confessing it.

 

The Laundry Experiment

From The Summer of the Riotous Walls, a work in progress

Before we even ran out of clean underwear or decided something had to be done about the bedding, the kitchen towels presented a problem. At least to me they did. How do you clean up a mess with something that’s dirty? Believe me, I tried. But no matter how careful you are, you only make the mess bigger. We started the summer with three towels, but there were only two left since Sheila accidentally set on one fire. They had to double as hot pads for removing boiling pots from the flames of our gas stove—an excellent way to set their little fringes ablaze, burn yourself, nearly set the house on fire, and destroy a perfectly good kitchen towel.

A coffee spill or two, cooking oil that missed the pan and has to be mopped from the stovetop, milk that landed outside the bowl, then a quick rinse in the sink, and soon the dish towels were crusty, molded, greasy rags, unrecognizable as anything intended for use near food. The classic trip through the washer and dryer wasn’t an option. We didn’t have a washer, nor had we received the revelation that we were living practically beside a laundromat. And yet something had to be done.

Finally a thought pecking at the back of my brain hatched itself into daylight and I knew what to do. The obvious is everywhere you look. Laugh all you want. Nothing I could do was going to make it worse.

In Los Rios, where I woke up on sunny mornings a few weeks ago, my mamá Hilda didn’t have a washer. She had soap, water and a cement wash sink against which she scrubbed our clothes to a fierce cleanliness never produced by an agitating tub of suds. I clicked off the list in my head: I didn’t have laundry soap, but I had various other kinds of soaps. I had water. No cement wash sinks anywhere, but there’s a cement slab at the base of our wobbly steps. Why wouldn’t that work? I filled a bucket with water, and grabbed a small plastic bowl to use as a scoop. I never did this in Los Rios. My mamá did it for me. But I watched, and how hard can it be?

“What are you doing, loca?” Beth asked when she saw me heading toward the door with my bucket of water and supplies.

“An experiment.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“A laundry experiment.”

“I hope it works!”

“Me too. These towels are terrible.”

“Can I watch?” Sheila asked.

“Sure. Don’t laugh. I’ve never tried this before.”

“Did you learn it in Costa Rica?”

“Sort of.”

I had to fetch the broom and sweep the dirt from the cement slab before anything had hope of getting clean on it. I dumped a scoop of water on it to wet it, then spread the immoral dish towels out and poured water over them, too. I squirted them with a generous amount of dish soap. Then, I commenced scrubbing them back and forth against the rough cement, which—of course—produced more mud, even though a minute ago, it had appeared clean. I rubbed and scrubbed, slopped and scraped, dumped more water, squirted more soap.

“Cool!” Sheila admired.

Not terribly. Two of my knuckles were bleeding. My mamá’s knuckles never bled, whether because they were so toughened by the constant necessity of repeating this task, or because she had learned to do it without scraping them on the cement, I can’t say. I had to keep washing the blood away so that I wouldn’t make the towels worse, instead of better.

Getting the soap out was the hardest part. I had to send Sheila up to the kitchen for another bucket of water and I was making an enormous mess. I somehow managed to soak my shirt, and a puddle of mud had formed around my bare feet. I wrung and rinsed, twirled and twisted, beating the suffering towels up and down against the cement with one hand while attempting to pour water over them with the other. Mamá made it look a lot easier than this. If I had to wash bath towels and work jeans this way like she did, I think I would cry.

The dish towels looked a heck of a lot better, believe it or not. They weren’t exactly white, but they were a lot less brown. Sheila had to get me another bucket of water to wash my feet, and then I walked up the steps and draped the dripping towels over the banister in the sun.

“There,” I said, when I walked back inside.

Beth looked up at me over top of the book she was reading.

I shrugged my shoulders and went to look in the medicine cabinet to see if, by chance, we had any band-aids.

The Social Worker In The Blue Dress

(A flash of short fact/fiction)

The social worker in the blue dress is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. She came to see you because her boss asked her to, to make sure that you haven’t killed yourself yet, that your baby is getting fat, and that your two-year-old is wearing clothes.

The social worker in the blue dress thinks the evil-spirited pack of chihuahuas is yours. She thinks you have done a particularly terrible job of training them but she doesn’t blame you, having two babies to take care of and a complicated husband. She scurries from the gate into your one-room apartment behind the main house, receiving only one slight sharp-toothed nip to the heel.

You convince her that you’re doing alright. You apologize for the mess in the kitchen. She didn’t exactly call to tell you she was coming, or ask if it was a good time. It’s not a good time. But you don’t exactly have a phone, because your husband takes it to work with him. She’s nice enough and she ignores the mess, points out to you that your baby is really good at following things with his eyes.

As she’s leaving, she asks you to call off the dogs and you tell her that they aren’t your dogs. They are the landlady’s dogs. And the landlady isn’t home.

The social worker in the blue dress walks to the door and the menacing pack of furious chihuahuas is nowhere to be seen, so she steps out into the sunshine of the yard. She is halfway to the gate when they see the intruder, and come snarling at her, needle teeth bared. They take turns lunging at her while she shouts and tries to frighten them.

They aren’t frightened. Each lunge comes closer to her ankles and their camaraderie emboldens them. You scream at them uselessly from the safety of your doorway.

The social worker in the blue dress doesn’t have much time to think, but there is one thing that she is sure of–that she is not about to be bitten by small dogs today. With complete disregard for her dignity, she breaks into a dead run, headed toward the rickrty wooden fence. She won’t have time for the gate. She isn’t even running toward the gate. She hits the top of the wooden fence with both hands and vaults. There is the flash of pink polka dotted panties in the sun.

You stare at the social worker in the blue dress who is suddenly standing on the other side of the fence, panting, safe, looking surprised and a little sheepish. The stunned chihuahuas fall silent for a moment.

“Alright,” she says breathlessly, patting her hair and straightening her blue dress.

The chihuahuas find their voices and leap at the fence.

You don’t quite know what to say to the social worker in the blue dress who just jumped over your fence. She doesn’t seem to know quite what to say to you.

“Sorry about the dogs,” you offer.

“No problem,” she answers, and then giggles a little, accidentally. “Sorry to run away.”

“Oh,” you say, because you can’t think of anything.

“I didn’t want to get bitten,” she says.

“Yeah,” you reply.

She gets into her car and drives away. The dogs look at you disappointedly and begin sniffing her footprints in the yard.

You turn around and go back into the dark, dirty apartment where your two year old is pouring milk on the floor beside a cup. But instead of yelling at her, you sit down on a chair and laugh for the first time since you can remember.

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 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.