The timing was all rather unfortunate.
Ben had only landed in Costa Rica six days before. Fresh off a plane from Sydney, Australia, he arrived a proud tourist with only a backpack to his name, a breakup and a dead-end construction job behind him and a yearlong journey around the world ahead of him. The only thing on his mind that day—a day so carefree it already felt like the distant past—was finding a free place to sleep. And the solution to this problem seemed to naturally present itself when, amongst the throng of tourists wandering the town center, he spotted a woman with long dark hair and a sarong wrapped across her slender body aimlessly scuffle in her flip-flops toward the Pura Vida Hostel. Intrigued by her understated beauty, he followed suit, making his way to the front desk and asking in subpar Spanish if he could crash in a room in exchange for tending bar. And, sure enough, the native Costa Rican and fellow Australian managing the place took him in.
And things were ambling along well enough until guests, first sporadically but then steadily, began reporting items missing. The items included, but were not limited to, watches, a diamond bracelet, a button-up oxford, and a sarong. And, like the sudden change of a sharp wind, the Pura Vida Hostel staff who had initially been so welcoming toward Ben suddenly turned on him, declaring him the prime suspect and subsequently raiding the linen closet that was his makeshift bedroom during the wee hours every morning.
It became a sort of routine. As soon as Ben let his guard down and actually fell asleep they barged in, always in a pair and always fucked up: Federico, the head manager, with bourbon on his breath, and Ron, the shifty-eyed Australian, wiping what was surely cocaine residue off his nose. Predictably, they consistently turned Ben’s measly accumulation of possessions upside down and inside out, but they never found what they were looking for. And because of their staffing shortage, they didn’t kick Ben out, but didn’t apologize for their routine intrusions either. Instead, they laughed as they slammed his door, post-raid, in those drowsy hours before the sun came up.
It was in the immediate aftermath of those slammed doors, when Ben lay awake in a startled exhaustion, that he decided each day would be his last at the Pura Vida Hostel. But the resolutions that seemed so firm in the stark hours of the morning faded as the sun rose higher and the sharp edges of the day began to soften. In fact, it wasn’t until the previous night’s raid, which occurred at the surreal hour of 5:00 a.m., that he experienced exhaustion so acute it seemed like the absolute last straw. But as he stood up to pack he remembered that these hooligans had his passport number and all of his relevant identification information, and that maybe no amount of distance was too much for a couple of jerkoffs looking for someone to blame. That, and he still had yet to speak to the woman he’d followed on the day he arrived, the same woman who he had seen drinking coffee on her balcony that very morning, and if he left now he wouldn’t have the opportunity to try to woo her into leaving with him.
So the day, once again, carried on, and he made his way to his shift, eyelids already drooping by 8:00 p.m. He told himself he needed to figure something out, and soon, before he left this tropical town for good.
“I have to say, I’m finding Arenal a bit disappointing.”
At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Ben looked up, deserting his reverie. The speaker at hand, clearly American, had red hair, Coke-bottle glasses, and the self-important air of a grad student. Ben had seen him around the Pura Vida Hostel many times, and as far as he could tell, the guy never actually left, spending his days scribbling notes in his dog-eared paperback edition of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and switching from hammock to hammock, as if hoping that the energy of each space would lend him a different vantage point. The man took another sip of his piña colada and cleared his throat. “This place just feels a bit overrun with tourists and all that. It’s hard to feel at peace when you’ve got all of these Americans running around. It’s like you’ve never left.”
Ben smiled weakly. He wasn’t sure who the guy was talking to, as the only person in the vicinity besides the two of them was another man at the end of the counter drinking a Jack and Coke, a man who, out of what seemed like nowhere, began to laugh. He had been downing Jack and Cokes for at least the last couple hours, and the laugh started out more as a chortle before evolving into a louder, drunken guffaw.
“What’s so funny?” the redhead said, turning to face the man.
“I was just thinking about what you said, about Arenal being filled with tourists. It’s funny.”
“Why is it funny?”
“Americans always complain about places being overrun with tourists. We travel to a foreign place and act put out when we see other people just like us doing the exact same thing.” The clean-shaven guy downed his drink, tapping his fingers against the countertop. His glow-in-the-dark iPhone 6 beeped with an incoming text, and for a fleeting moment Ben thought how easy it could be to come up with any old distraction and pocket the thing when the guy wasn’t looking.
“I mean, what makes you so goddamn unique?” the clean-shaven guy pressed on. “Wait. Let me guess. You’re a grad student traveling on the cheap, filled with ideas about the world as you scribble notes in your paperback, and, and let me guess . . . this gives you the misguided impression that you’re some kind of pioneer?”
The redhead’s face burned as bright as his hair. He took another gulp of his piña colada and exhaled a loud, shaky breath. “For Christ’s sake!” he said. “You’ve got some problem with grad students?”
“I don’t have problems with anyone,” the clean-shaven guy said, a mock smile splayed across his drunken face.
“Sure, I believe that,” the redhead said. He stood up. “I’ve had enough of this crap. First the break-ins. Then your antagonistic remarks. I came to this place to relax, to work on my thesis in peace.”
“No one cares about your thesis, bro,” the Jack and Coke drinker said, and Ben, in some unspoken alliance with the redhead against this obnoxiously drunk man, asked the first thing that came to his mind.
“What’s your thesis about?” he said.
The redhead looked at him quizzically. “You want to know?”
Ben shrugged. “Sure I do,” he said, averting his eyes from the other man’s hostile glare. Before he had broken up with Amelia, she was always talking about whatever book she was reading, and even though he tuned it out most of the time, he liked to think he could carry on a decent conversation about literature. He held out his hand. “I’m Ben, by the way.”
“Arthur,” the redhead said. “Pleased to meet you. My thesis—it’s pretty broad, I guess. It examines how Joyce, Hemingway, and Bukowski portrayed masculine identity through their twentieth-century works.”
“Pretty broad? That sounds like the vaguest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard,” the clean-shaven guy said. “Masculine identity? According to a bunch of dead white men? Great,” he said. “Really onto something special there.”
“Oh, and you’re not a white man?” Arthur said. “What’s your name, anyway?”
Jack and Coke looked down. “My name?” he said.
“Yes, your name. You have one, right?”
“Oh, fuck off,” he said, downing his drink before adding, “It’s Michael.”
In the ensuing moment there was a kind of lull, the clink of ice cubes and the collective sighs of three men against the larger contemplative quiet of the tropical darkness, until the sound of wooden clogs descending a staircase collectively captured their attention. When Ben looked up he saw her: it was the same beautiful woman he had seen drinking coffee across the balcony that very morning, the one he followed into this dump in the first place. He had been entranced with her then as he was now, but especially now, a celestial vision with her wavy dark hair and long white dress walking across the dewy grass. From a distance it seemed that she was smiling, but as soon as she got closer it became clear that her face was in fact scrunched up in a grimace. She approached the tiki bar and sat on the barstool to Michael’s right.
“Were you just planning on avoiding me the whole night?” she said.
At the sudden realization that these two were together, Ben’s stomach dropped. When he had seen her on the balcony that morning he had convinced himself that she was single. She couldn’t have been much older than him, but as she sipped her coffee there seemed in her pensive face wisdom beyond her years. He imagined her alone but not lonely, a beautiful island unto herself, without any of the messy, needy emotional baggage that sometimes comes with reclusive types. But upon realizing that she was in fact associated with Michael, who would forever be imprinted in his mind as the prick with an iPhone 6, all of the fantasies he entertained deflated into a collective impossibility.
“I’m not avoiding anything,” Michael said. He faced straight ahead, as if anything challenging his immediate tunnel vision was a direct threat. “Just having a drink with my new friends, Arthur and—” he looked at Ben. “What’s your name, mate?”
Ben said his name, silently cringing at the word “mate” and hopelessly wishing despite himself that he could come up with some clever aside to capture the woman’s attention. But he knew that he wasn’t the best at thinking on his feet, and she seemed completely distracted anyway.
“I’d like a drink, please,” she finally said, turning toward him. “An Imperial.”
Ben nodded and filled up a glass with the foamy beer. She turned to Michael. “Are you seriously not even going to look at me?”
At that, Michael turned to look at her, his eyes wide like a dummy and his hands held up in mock surrender. “Here I am, looking at you right now. “
“Wonderful, terrific,” she said. “First my sarong gets stolen and then you decide to act like an asshole,” she said. She grabbed the Imperial from Ben and waved it in the air. “Best vacation ever!”
Ben bowed his head, flushed by her misfortune but also by the image of her wrapped in a sarong.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Michael said. “Who agreed to go waterfall rappelling and zip-lining, even though he doesn’t like heights? Who did every single thing you wanted to do today, even though none of it appealed to him?”
“None of it appealed to him. Christ, we’re in Costa Rica. This is what tourists do in Costa Rica. I don’t know what you expect.”
“I don’t know what you expect. I just came out here to have a drink and clear my head—”
“Clear your head? You’ve been out here for hours. Am I really that intolerable?”
She laughed, the self-deprecating laugh that only someone beautiful could have, someone who positively knew that she wasn’t intolerable. But after she was done she bit her lip and looked down, as if fighting back tears.
“Don’t be a drama queen, okay? I’ll meet you back up in the room after I finish this last round.” He held up his hand, beckoning Ben to fill him up again.
The woman laughed. “Well, that’s a bunch of bullshit. At this rate you’ll black out before you’ll talk to me.” She took a sip of her Imperial, leaned forward, and said in a rather indiscreet whisper, “You need to acknowledge that you’ve been ignoring me ever since I found out the news.”
Out of a need to busy himself, Ben had taken to wiping down the countertops, but upon hearing these words his stomach dropped even further. Was she pregnant?
Michael slammed his palm down. “Goddammit, Sarah, don’t say shit that’s not true. Can’t you just leave me alone for a few more minutes? I just need to think a little more.”
Sarah stood up. “This isn’t thinking! This is alcoholism! I get into business school and your response is to drink yourself into a stupor. It’s bullshit!”
Upon hearing that she wasn’t pregnant, Ben’s stomach uncoiled with a magnificent sort of relief. Arthur leaned forward.
“Congrats,” he said. “What school?”
“Oh Christ,” Michael said. “Don’t talk to this prick. Please. Anyone but him.”
Sarah draped her body across Michael’s in order to respond. “The University of Chicago,” she said.
“No way,” Arthur said. His face, even under the dim lighting of the tiki bar, was beginning to redden. “I’m in a graduate program at Northwestern. Getting my Ph.D. in English.”
Sarah’s eyes widened. “No way,” she said. “Such a small world.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said. “What a crazy coincidence. Both in Chicago.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Michael said, and for the first time that evening, Ben could sympathize with the drunken bastard’s pain. And Sarah, seeming to gain energy from Michael’s distress, walked over to Arthur’s side of the table.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said.
“Sure,” Arthur said, the dampness on his forehead beginning to glisten.
“Do you consider graduate school a good thing, an enriching thing? Something that your significant other should support?”
Arthur shrugged. “Well yeah, sure. I mean, absolutely. Graduate school is a big milestone.”
“That’s what I think, too,” Sarah said. “That your significant other should think beyond his or her immediate desires and be happy about the fact that you’re working hard to do something you want with your life. Show some support. But is that what I get?” Sarah chugged her beer in a way that was so profoundly unladylike that it left Ben feeling jarred. “No! I get punished! My sarong gets stolen and then my boyfriend ignores me.”
“You act like the two are connected.” Michael said. “There have been thefts going on in this dump all week. I had nothing to do with your damn sarong. I said we should have checked out days ago.”
“You complained,” Sarah said. “You complained about the place and said we should check out. But did we actually check out? No! We didn’t do a damn thing.”
“You want to know why I’m avoiding you?” Michael said, in a loud, futile whisper. “Because of shit like this. You’re always making a scene. In public. So now I’ll make a scene. We have a life together. In New York. Excuse me if I need some time to process everything.”
“But see,” Sarah said. “That’s just making it about you. Your life is in New York. Your sales job that you refuse to leave is in New York! Maybe I don’t want to live in New York anymore. Did you ever think about that?”
The words reverberated against the sound of cicadas, and Ben thought back to the night he broke up with Amelia at a pub just a few weeks before, the tears and the insults, her subsequent defriending of him on Facebook, her claim that he would never find enlightenment in his yearlong trek around the world because he was an insufferable, commitment-phobic idiot. It was funny, he thought, that since their separation he had barely thought of her at all, but now, all at once, her absence came rushing back with an overwhelming intensity, a wave crashing against the acidity in his stomach. He wondered if this sensation was what people were talking about when they tried to explain what it felt like to lose something that mattered.
“So, are you going to do it?” Ben said, finding the words escaping his lips before he had the chance to second-guess them. He felt an overwhelming desire to know if Sarah was actually going to follow through, as he had with this trip, traveling all around the world as he always said he would.
“Is it any of your fucking business?” Michael said, and then Sarah, putting her arm in front of Michael’s body to shield him from acting out, in a gesture that seemed an automatic and familiar form of tenderness, looked down and said, “Probably. I don’t know.”
“Fuck this. I feel like I’m on Maury,” Michael said, in what was likely another American reference that Ben didn’t get, before downing his drink and smashing it on the ground, whiskey and shards of glass exploding into so many different tiny pieces.
Following that, everything moved quickly. Ron Ferguson burst open the main screen door and marched across the lawn toward the tiki bar.
“Is everything all right over here?” he said. “I heard some glass break.” He looked over at Sarah, who was crying, and gently touched her arm. “Besides your missing sarong, miss, of which we are well aware. We are looking into every possible avenue.”
Sarah wiped a tear with the back of her hand and took a deep breath. In her moment of vulnerability, she looked even more beautiful, and Ben couldn’t help but notice that Arthur seemed as transfixed by her as he was.
“Everything’s fine,” she said. “Just fine. I was just about to grab my things and check out.” She looked over at Michael. “Why don’t we both make our own way back to New York and figure the rest out when we get there,” she said, and then she left, walking back up the same staircase she magically descended before. In her sudden departure, Michael laughed and asked for another Jack and Coke.
“Sir, I’m going to have to decline on behalf of Ben,” Ron said. “You appear to be in an agitated state.”
“Yeah, well, fuck you, man! What are a bunch of Aussies doing running a hostel in Costa Rica anyway?” He shook his head. “Whatever. This place is twisted. I’m going for a walk,” he said, storming out of the front gate and slamming it behind him.
Upon Michael’s exit Ron faced Ben, his placid smile quickly morphing into a sneer. “Are you going to clean up that glass?” he said.
“You bet,” Ben said. “I’ll go grab a dustpan.”
On his way over to the supply room, Ron gently put his arm over Ben’s shoulder, like they were old buddies. “Hey, man, just so you know. Federico told me to tell you to get out of here tomorrow morning. Said he found someone else to tend the bar.”
Absorbing the information, Ben could only stand there for a moment, silent. “Oh,” he said.
“Yeah, man, sorry,” Ron said. “He said that things have gone to hell around here since you arrived. So when you get back to the linen closet, pack your shit and get ready to move on. Bright and early. Tomorrow’s a new day.” He smiled, patted Ben on the back, and whistled as he made his way toward the front desk.
Preoccupied with the sudden change of events, Ben almost forgot that Arthur was still at the bar, book facedown, probably lost in a love-struck spell. Shaking his head, he wiped the sweat off his brow and continued sweeping up the shards of glass, one by one.
That night, in the subtropical humidity of the linen closet, Ben’s insomnia reared its ugly head with a particular ferocity. The hours ticked by as he twisted and turned, coming up with different extrapolations of “what ifs,” as if his life were a line from a Dr. Seuss book about going in any one of ten directions, and he had, without intending to, picked the wrong one.
By the time morning made its densely humid arrival, he was already packed and ready to go, covered in sweat and filled with adrenaline. He knew he wanted to make his way to Monteverde, but that was a jeep, a boat, and another jeep ride away, and as soon as he stepped outside, the massive expanse of the morning sky lulled him into a brief moment of gratitude. He decided that after checking out he’d take a final stroll through this town before bidding it good-bye forever.
Upon approaching the front desk, his stomach tightened when he saw Federico, expecting a final stink-eye as he dropped off his key to the linen closet. But Federico barely seemed to notice, his forehead furrowed as he vacillated between answering ringing phones and checking in a bright-eyed young couple with thick German accents.
Sighing, Ben opened the screen door, savoring a breath of morning air not tainted by suspicion and persecution, and as he made his way onto the street he decided to walk to the local swimming hole approximately fifteen minutes away. Under a canopy of densely forested trees, he wiped the sweat off his forehead and let his mind wander. He wondered what would happen between Michael and Sarah, if they would really make their separate ways home or if they had already reconciled in an insomniac fit of loneliness. He thought about Arthur, sitting in his hot room working on his thesis, and wondered if he and Sarah would meet up in Chicago, if she even went, though he supposed he already knew the answer to that. And then he thought about the hostel itself, the ridiculous cheesiness of the tiki bar, his misery in the linen closet, and, above all, how easy everything had been to leave.
His reflections, however, were interrupted by three men speaking Spanish in loud, agitated whispers on the side of the road, outside of what appeared to be some kind of pawnshop. Two of them were likely locals who he didn’t recognize, but the third, with his golden hair and crooked grin, was none other than Ron Ferguson. He could see Ron shiftily reach into the depths of his jean pockets and pull out what was most certainly a watch, and could hear him, from the minute amount of Spanish Ben understood, negotiating over prices. At a realization that first came as a shock but then seemed to make perfect sense, Ben emitted a gasp. Ron, looking past the locals, saw Ben looking at him, and, briefly excusing himself, walked toward the main road and grabbed Ben by the collar.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re doing here, but you didn’t see anything, you got it? No one would believe you if you blamed me, anyway.” After loosening his grip for a brief respite, Ron grabbed his collar again, even tighter. “But if I hear that you did, I will find you, and I will fuck you up. Understood?”
“Understood,” Ben said, trying to avoid looking directly into Ron’s twitchy, coked-out eyes, before adding, “I was just leaving town.” Ron released him and headed back toward the locals, only flipping him off in return. Ron said something in Spanish and the locals turned and glared. Ben, crossing the street, made his way back into town as quickly as he could, stopping in at the first hostel he could find that advertised transportation to Monteverde. After paying the blandly kind concierge staff member the transportation fee, he waited outside with the rest of the happy-go-lucky tourists for the van, called “Costa Rica Adventures,” which pulled up to the side of the curb. One by one, people climbed in and were greeted by the tour guide, and upon Ben’s turn the guide held out his hand for a high five. “Pura vida,” he said.
“Pura vida,” Ben said, though it came out in a jumbled garble, and he couldn’t for the life of him understand why everyone here always said it, like it was acid reflux, like they couldn’t help it. Legs shaking, it wasn’t until the van began to move that he was able to take a deep breath and fully relax, sinking into his seat in an exhausted relief.
Years later, when he was married with kids and living a life of comfortable predictability, he’d look back on this time, his brush with the law and the monumental importance he placed on his yearlong sojourn, and he’d shake his head and laugh. But in that moment, with his adrenaline spiked, he could focus on nothing but movement, the trees rushing past and the all-consuming hope that he’d have better luck somewhere new.
Jacqueline Berkman is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder, The East Bay Review, and Ginosko Literary Journal. Follow her on Twitter @JackieBerkman.