[Costa Rica – Same time and date]
Veronica lay napping on a padded hammock at the Sand Dollar Pub, a small beachside bar and grill where American and European expatriates frequent and drink alongside generations of natives who may as well call the spot home. Nearby, a young American traveler is taking part in a ritual—a brutal interrogation by some of the locals. Old and young, men and women alike, gather around any unfamiliar face and free-pour from bottles of dark rum while badgering, degrading and humiliating, deeply prying into the life of the stranger. If they don’t drive the stranger away, he will have earned not only an evening of complimentary rum but also a lifetime spot in the family. A family of crazies and drunkards, mostly, but they are loyal, and most are well-connected. It’s what they tend to be connected to that can be worrisome, but with enough drinking and camaraderie, you learn not to let that bother you.
Veronica glances over at the young American man named Abe, and softly catches his eyes. She winks and offers a small smile—he seems to be passing. She knows this not only because she’s seen this ritual acted out many times before but because it’s been three hours now, and he’s still there, and seems to be laughing along with the crowd. This earns you bonus points. Technically, the only requirement is to stay through the ordeal, a show of respect for the culture. However, presenting with an enduring air of confident self-deprecation catapults you to levels of very high esteem.
“And what of your Jenny? You say she left you. Why she left you, a dashing young man?” asked Greta, grasping the Abe’s sturdy thigh. Greta, a middle-aged expatriate was a German socialite escaping a rather dodgy past filled with multiple fiancés left wondering what became of her and an inflated bank account without any real explanation of how it tripled in assets within the span of two months. On the other hand, there’s no one around to ask her too many questions about that anymore, so perhaps the mystery will remain just that.
Abe paused at the question, offering no response. He may ultimately fail the test, Veronica, Greta and about a dozen other on-lookers thought, worried for a moment. Abe, however, did not leave. Instead, he slid his empty glass aside, and with a serpent’s grace, he stretched his slender but muscular body across the table, and wrapped his long fingers around the neck with a seductive, choking rhythm, pulled the bottle to his lips and emptied the slightly sweet and eminently powerful liquid into himself.
Abe retracted back into his seat, returning to his meek pose and responded, “I am in love. Carnally in love, spiritually raptured and emotionally damned—the feel of her, the sight, her fiery aura that lights up a room that becomes alive just because she’s in it. Her scent, the way she tastes and sounds hypnotizes me senseless. Her words and thoughts and emotions captivate me and hold me enslaved. But I cannot tell you why I am in love. It’s a spell. She’s horrible. The way she treats people—me. She’s at the core an angry, bitter jealous, crazy woman who bursts into rages and screaming insults when the wind changes direction. Disapproving of all people and ideas, she is an earthquake or a voyage on cracking ice—welcoming at first, but just waiting to through open the trap door on your ass as soon as you hit her mark. Her words at times sound so sweet and kind and so funny as if she’s a delightful gift and could never be anything but, worshipping the very ground on which you walk and so grateful to have you there in this warm place of love and reverence. All the while she has a dagger churning in circles, dug deep into your back, preparing to remove your organs and gleefully play with your spleen like a spongy little ball. These are a few of her favorite things. And I am in love. I too often imagine her unbroken with all of the damaged pieces whole and the crazy removed. But it’s the crazy that’s the glue holding her together, you know? If I could take out the crazy, all that would be left of her is a million little pieces and no glue. So she’s there, and I’m here, in love with her in a place that’s safer. Is there more rum?”
Veronica pops up and pours coffee for Abe saying, “All drunks are poets. You may be a better poet than most, so we’ll need to keep the alcohol poisoning at bay so that you may see another day. So, instead of more rum, let’s have you try another Costa Rican original—a full-bodied roast. Cream or sugar?”
Abe smiles, “Ah, you’re right, of course. I’ve had too much. Black is fine. Thanks.”
Greta wraps her arms around Abe, with Abe suddenly realizing how attractive Greta is, though having lived almost twice his 28 years of life. Greta says, “Abe, I think you shall not make the journey back to your hotel tonight. Too far. You stay here.”
“Here at the bar?” asks Abe.
“No. Here at our house,” says Greta.
“I’ll stay at your house?” asks Abe.
“No. You’ll stay with our Veronica. She is lovely, no? And she will see that you are comfortable for tonight. Your hotel is too far, and you are too drunk to travel that far, yes? Yes,” Greta decides for Abe. Veronica is busy cleaning up the bar getting ready to close. She has prepared a ham sandwich for Abe with thick fresh bread, and she places it along with a very tall glass of coconut water in front of him without a word. Greta says, “Yes. Good. You eat all of this. Drink all of your water. Hector will hand you Asprin. You will finish all of this, and your hangover will be much more, uh, tame in the morning.” Greta pokes Abe hard in his side causing him to wince saying, “You finish all, here? Yes.”
Abe dares not sway from these orders. He still has about a dozen eyes on him, though some had wandered off. Veronica flickers the lights on and off, signaling the close for the night. Last call took place about an hour ago, which went unnoticed do to the lively entertainment provided by the newcomer. As Veronica cleans up the last of Abe’s dishes, his eyes fix on her. She is heartily plump with more than 60 pounds of extra padding evenly distributed around her body and very short—not much more than 5 feet, he thinks, and still she looks rather athletic. She has medium-length blonde hair and a kind yet edgy presence about her, though they have not yet spoken to each other.
Soon, Abe feels remarkably sober, sober enough to realize that while he has every intention of staying the night with Veronica, she has never uttered a word about it. He gently wraps his long fingers around her forearm and asks, “Is it okay with you? May I stay the night at your house? Greta seemed so insistent, I’m sorry it didn’t occur to me to ask you until now.
Veronica explains, “That trial they just put you through for four hours? You passed.” She places her hand on top of his, which is still resting on her arm saying, “You are now family here.” She smiles at Abe continuing, “You are welcome to stay,” and she pats his hand and places it back in his lap. She continues talking to him, while Abe’s brain feels like it’s doing the backstroke, swimming around in his skull. “I’ve seen them perform that ritual, that brutal interrogation you just endured, more times than I can count. Only five people have passed so far. You are the fifth,” she said nodding at him.
“How do you know I passed?” asked Abe.
Veronica leans into him saying, “You stayed.”
“I stayed? That’s it?” asked Abe.
“Yep. That’s it,” replied Veronica. “It’s a flawless test of character, really. If you can tolerate their shenanigans and insults while revealing the most personal things about yourself in answer to their rude questions, it shows that you are forthcoming, that you respect them enough to answer, truthful or not, you have hide thick enough to take their shit and that you stick around through difficulty to a resolution. Damnit!” she pauses, “I think you might be damn near a perfect person!” Veronica laughs. “Come on. Let’s get you to bed.”
Abe hops out of Veronica’s 1992 yellow Jeep Wrangler that was decked out with the biggest tires he’d ever seen outside of a monster truck derby. She turns off the ignition, and with it stops the blaring music, Schumann’s “Erlkonig.”
They approach a quaint house, glowing with warm yellow electric lights in lanterns hanging from the eves. As he enters the house behind Veronica, he notices the smell of fresh Caribbean beach air as though the house had no walls, and the beachside breeze painted the interior with a magical peaceful brush. The floors were all terracotta clay tiles, and the walls were painted in warm buttery yellows and cool blue-gray tones with stark white accents. The furniture was an eclectic mix of comfortable modern décor combined with antiques and local craftsmen’s creations and vibrant art and sculptures.
Veronica leads Abe to a large bamboo door off of the foyer, which reveals a comfortable guestroom, complete with a large white bed with crisp pale blue linens though a little threadbare, having been through more than 10 years of washes on a washboard. Yes, a washboard—the device Veronica has used to wash everything she owns since she moved to Costa Rica 10 years ago.
Abe dove head-first into the bed, kicking off his flip-flops, and landing with his head snuggled deep into the fluffy pillows. An avid marathon insomniac, his shut his eyes, praying that sleep would hit him soon, although he feared the dawn that would most assuredly serve him a mighty hangover. He was hoping he’d be able to sleep through most of it. Veronica flipped off the light and shut the door behind her, and Abe’s prayer was answered as he quickly fell deep into slumber.