Esther Griffin
Professor & Writer

Pura Vida was long listed for the WCDR Short Story Contest with judge Sarah Selecky and published in the Renaissance Anthology, Piquant Press, 2014.

Written from Sarah Selecky's Daily Prompt – September 15, 2013: Write a scene that starts at exactly 8:33 a.m. Mark the time in 15 minute increments as you build the story.

Pura Vida

by Esther Griffin

When my phone vibrates with a text at 8:33 a.m., I know Stephen’s flight has landed on time. This romantic vacation is long overdue. He’s been working so much overtime, trying to trim years off our mortgage so we can retire early. Even last week, he was called away to work, so we had to travel separately today, him arriving in San Jose from Ottawa a few hours after my Toronto flight. I’ve been missing him and wanted to wait at the airport, but he’d insisted on me meeting him here at the Bed and Breakfast instead. Having just arrived, I look through the sprinkle of palm trees and see the wild roll of waves. I’m glad I listened to him. I raise my hand to shelter my eyes from the sun and read his message:

Hello darling. My flight just arrived in San Jose. I miss you so much already. Can’t stop thinking about last night. After I close this deal, I’ll be back in no time. xo

Last night? I blink the sweat out of my eyes and read the message again. Stephen. Stephen. I shake my phone and hold it up to my ear. It must be broken.

I sit down on the steps of the B&B, trying to take deep breaths. A teenage couple walks past me. Maybe they’re 15, it’s hard to tell. Ever since my son Trevor turned 20, young people have become ageless to me. The girl wears a bright green thong. Her tanned butt cheeks bounce from side to side as she drags her flip-flopped feet through the gravel. Her baggy t-shirt, with some faded script scrawled across her braless chest, hangs off her shoulders. The boy, bare-chested in dusty cargo shorts, pulls a joint to his lips. I raise my phone toward them. Some maternal gesture, a warning maybe, but they’re already lost in the blur of dust kicked up by their feet.

They could be Stephen and me, barely 23 and here on our Costa Rican honeymoon all those years ago. It was the tag line, Pura Vida – pure life – that had attracted us. A place to be authentic, to be pure. A fresh start. And we’d walked this same road, Stephen passing me a bottle of sunscreen on our way down to the beach, sweaty from hours of lovemaking and dying for the cool touch of ocean on our bodies.

At 8:48 a.m., I’m staring at my phone when it vibrates. It’s Stephen again:

Hey babe. Just got through customs. Should be there before noon. x

He’ll be rushing his way to the turismo van, arriving here in Dominical in less than three hours. Stroking the hair off my sticky forehead, I feel sharp stabs in my lungs with each salty inhale. Not much has changed here in 20 years. The beach market road that runs parallel between the main road and the ocean is where I sit among a stretch of palms, bars, and other B&Bs. The tourists and locals navigate the tables of jewelry, wooden boxes, and pot pipes across the road from me. Festive, patterned sarongs flap in the breeze over panting dogs asleep in the dust. SUVs try to squeeze through.

I’ve been here before – remember this nausea, this sinking. My grade 11 boyfriend couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. We cycled around for months, him denying, me hating myself for taking him back, until I finally saw it with my own eyes at a party. His body on top of some girl, his hand stuffed up her shirt, tongue all over her neck, and me, only able to mumble an “oh.” And then I got the hell out of there. For good.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the owner of the B&B, a woman I recognize from the website. She’s not much older than me, 50 maybe, but the sun hasn’t been kind to her. She’s white, with that crinkly ex-pat tan puckering the skin on her chest were her sarong is tied too tight. Her frizzy gray dread-locks are pulled back in a chunk on her head.

“Hola,” she says.

“Hola.” It’s 9:03. I’ve been sitting here for half an hour reading Stephen’s messages, watching every minute pulse by on my phone. My nose feels tight from the sun, which rises early and strong here.

“Gorgeous morning.” She sweeps her hand toward a passing jeep, but I know she is aiming for the beach. “Are you Michelle,” she asks, “from Canada?”

I nod.

“I’m Sandy.” She thrusts her hand toward me. I can’t let go of my phone – it has been fused to my hand, so I offer her a few limp left fingers. She raises an eyebrow. “You okay?”

“Oh. Sure. It’s hot.”

“Let’s get you settled into your room. Maybe grab some breakfast?” Sandy says, reaching for my suitcase.

“No –” I jump up and black spots fill my eyes. “I’m waiting for Stephen. My husband.”

“Okay.” She places her hand on my shoulder. “But come, let’s sit in the shade.”

The entire B&B is painted a bright blue. I let her lead me up a narrow staircase to the second floor balcony. The splintered wooden steps are bone smooth in the middle, the rub of so many feet having worn the paint down to its original pale wood. As Sandy hauls my suitcase with her muscular, brown arms, I sink into a chair. In the shade, I can feel the wet slap of ocean breeze.

Stephen probably has the passenger window of the turismo van closed tight. He always cranks the air conditioning, no matter how freezing it gets or how much I complain. He is probably passing that carnival I saw just outside of San Jose. Transport truck cargo containers of folded up rides, clown faces painted on the sides. Workers running back and forth setting up, shirts tied onto their sweaty heads. I wonder if Stephen can taste the cotton candy on his tongue, remember the feel of Trevor’s small hand in his own. Stephen tucking Trevor tightly in the middle as we ascend in the Ferris wheel, arms wrapped around each other. His body on top of some girl.

I don’t realize Sandy has left until she returns and places a mojito in front of me. It’s 9:18 a.m. Stephen’s going to arrive in just over two hours. I touch the sweaty glass, tracing my left index finger down to the bottom where the crushed lime is jammed. I feel a surge of something hot inside me, an instinct to throw, to scream, to hit, but it bubbles away.

The view of the ocean is beautiful from up here. The beach is rocky though, with lots of debris, mostly broken coconut shells, but the waves beyond are a surfer’s dream. And as you walk north up the beach, the rocks disappear and smooth, volcanic ash sand stretches out endlessly. It’s so private you can make love in the open air, only a jagged line of jungle trees watching from the distance. I can still remember the scratch of sand on my back.

Stephen’s been on a health kick lately, trying to rediscover his old beach body for our trip. He’s been spending longer at the gym, even drinking those protein shakes with the stupid names – muscle milk, better body, I can’t remember, so he can “make gains.” A few of my friends’ husbands are going through the same thing, turning 45 and mid-life reflections. I figure it’s better than cocaine and sports cars, so I support him by buying large tubs of powdered protein at Costco.

A locust cartwheels past us, a vibrate flash of green. At 9:33 a.m., Sandy asks, “What’s the first thing you are going to do when your husband arrives?” The mojito is gone, and my throat feels dry, but it doesn’t crack when I respond.

“We were going to get right into our bathing suits and race each other to the ocean.” I laugh so suddenly that tears jump into my eyes. Sandy smiles, probably thinking I am finally warming up to her. “It seems so silly now. I mean, what’s the point?” The tears keep coming and Sandy eyes the phone in my hand.

“Would you like another drink?”

I shake my head. His hand stuffed up her shirt. Ridiculous, stupid me.

“I came here back in ’89,” Sandy says. “Mostly to piss off my dad. I know that now. Me and my cousin were going to open a hut on the beach. Teach scuba diving lessons. Serve up rice and beans for two bucks a pop and try to live off a dollar a day. A dollar a day – we actually managed that for a while.” She chuckles.

Stephen is just outside Herradura by now, probably nodding off. Always, about half way into a car ride, his eyelids start to gleam silver and droop. He starts to respond in syllables, so I stop talking. He’s always been a quiet sleeper, never a snore. I shake my head. I need the cadence of Sandy’s voice. A reminder that I’m among the living so this pain won’t thrust me out of my body.

Sandy is silent. I worry I groaned out loud. “Please continue,” I say.

“So we both had our hearts broken enough times to get our asses off the beach and into something more substantial. I stayed here, but my cousin runs a hostel in Jaco, just north up the coast. Pretty little place.”

I nod. “I remember passing it – huge cove.” A young woman walks past. There are faded tattoos all over her arms and legs. She wears cut off jean shorts that hangs off her full, brown hips, revealing two large dimples in the small of her back. I stare into these dimples and they seem bottomless, menacing. I wonder how old she is?  

In the distance, toward the jungle, there is the persistent cry of a bird. The sound enters my skull, is flapping around. I thought that I chose wisely in love. That this stone in my belly would never be mine. The trip had been Stephen’s idea. “I owe it to you, babe,” he’d said. “Work takes so much of my time away from you.” His time, like a precious metal. A thing to be bestowed. His tongue all over her neck.

I try to focus in on Sandy’s voice. Listen to the lilt of her vowels. Maybe I should ask her where she’s from? The weight in my stomach grows, starts to pulse like a heartbeat. Women I know who have been through this say that if you look back, there are always clues. Moldy breadcrumbs that lead you to a truth that was there all along. But I don’t want to cycle around. It only leads right back here – to this moment. Why search for something that is already staring me in the face? I read Stephen’s messages again, and mumble an “Oh.”

At 9:48 a.m., I set my phone down on the table and shake my pruned fingers. “Tell me more about your cousin,” I say. As Sandy talks, I look at the plants below us, leaves like muscled arms splayed to the sky. Red flowers like wax creations, too beautiful to be real. How can any of this be real? My body releases into reality with violent sobs. By 10:03 a.m., it’s all out, and Sandy’s holding me in her arms. Her patchouli scent lingers on my skin as I sit back and rub at my eyes. She gestures toward a van parked at the bar next door and I nod.

When I power off my phone, it’s 10:18 a.m. The banana plants whir by, the road smooth and free of gravel. With the window open wide, I lean my head back and let the wind whip my hair into wild knots. At some point, his white turismo van will pass mine. Stephen, tidy in his green golf shirt and tan shorts, freezing as he hurdles down the highway into my waiting arms. Passing each other like this, the heat rising off the cement, only a median line apart, could almost be romantic.

I imagine the dark sands of the beach at Jaco, let the sweaty leather seat hold the weight of my heart, and close my eyes to the wind’s caress. Pura vida.