“How long did you say you’ve known this guy?” Dobber asked.
“About a week,” said Allison, blushing.
“Damn,” he said with a touch of quiet awe. “Damn! What do you think about that, Ben?”
I grunted. Linus Dobson—“Dobber”—had maintained a steady conversation with Allison for the whole trip. She was tall, with heavily lidded eyes and a curly slit of a mouth dividing her head like a crack in an overripe papaya. I couldn’t help but wonder what coincidence had brought her from the unturned pages of my high school yearbook to a seat in this Costa Rican bus.
As usual, Dobber and I had claimed adjacent aisle seats—maximum leg room for both of us. It took ten minutes before I realized that the deeply tanned girl next to me, gazing fixedly out the window, was an old classmate. Barely halfway to Limón, I had already tired of Dobber leaning across the aisle and into my lap, just to talk to her better. But he wouldn’t switch. Watching the rows of cacao trees streaming past the bus window would have been far more entertaining than their talk about boat drinks and show tunes.
“So... what’s his name?” asked Dobber in a low, conspiratorial tone.
Allison pulled her hair back with a tattered white scrunchy as she spoke. “It’s Daniel. No, Dan-ee-EL,” she amended, making a passable attempt at the accent. “He speaks really good English.” She leaned over and whispered, “He ordered all of my drinks for me.”
They shared a chuckle for a moment, then fell quiet. “It’s a small world, ain’t it?” Dobber remarked after a pause. “Meeting you all the way out here in the ass-end of nowhere.” He shook his head in bewilderment.
To our right, the sun had burned to a low ember. Across the bus, past Dobber’s head, I could see the long shadows of the cacao trees, like fingers grasping over the Caribbean. Ever since Cahuitas, the road had grown straighter, but bumpier, each successive layer of asphalt peeled away like a split fingernail.
“Do you have somewhere to stay down there?” I asked, inclining my head towards the front of the bus.
“No. Maybe I’ll stay with Daniel. I’m sure I’ll find somewhere.”
“Hey, yeah!” said Dobber. “The girls’ll put you up. Hey, Ben, don’t you think the girls’ll put her up?”
I tried to imagine Rachel or Pam sharing a bed in whatever motel, cabin, or cot they had happened to find. “Sure,” I said. “They’ll be glad to meet you.” Dobber shot me a grin, and I had no doubt where he would have her stay.
“Última parada, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.” The driver’s voice was smooth as it came from the front of the bus, but gravelly from the overhead speaker, holding his words for nearly half a second before parroting them back at us. The bus slowed and turned onto an even bumpier dirt road.
“We’re here,” I said, unnecessarily.
The station was really a storefront. Its broad porch bore large, amorphous stains where rainwater had pooled and slowly dried. An open-air bar squatted along the side, shaded fitfully by a homemade awning, all PVC pipe and torn tarpaulin. Most of the patrons did not look up, but two older men with tight, curly grey beards watched us climb down from the bus before returning to their chess board.
“Where the hell are they?” asked Dobber, slinging his backpack around in wide circles. “They said they’d meet us.”
“You mean the rest of your group?” asked Allison. “Daniel was supposed to be here too.”
So Daniel wasn’t one of the dreadlocked rastas in the bar. No surprise there. They didn’t look her type, and neither did the old-timers. “We’ll find them,” I said, addressing both my companions at once. “It’s not like this is such a big town or anything.”
The other passengers had dispersed, and the bus reversed back onto the main road. Dobber continued to swear loudly at the forgetfulness of our friends. Now everyone in the bar was looking at us, but whatever comments they made were drowned out by Bob Marley, jamming out of a battered black stereo.
“He said he’d meet me,” Allison said, dropping her bag to the road.
“Do you want me to ask around?” I asked. I hoped the answer was no. I didn’t like the bursts of laughter and sideways stares from the bar patrons.
“So where do we go?” asked Dobber. “Damn it, they said they’d be here!”
I shouldered my own overstuffed backpack. “They picked this town for the beach,” I said. “What do you bet that’s where they went, straight off the bus?”
“It’s dark out now, dumbass. They won’t be on the beach in the dark.”
“Unless they found a place to stay near the beach, right?”
“They all suck anyway. If we don’t find them, Allison can stay with us. Ain’t that right?”
Dobber turned, but found only Allison’s bag, lying abandoned. A bit of unexpected panic welled up as I scanned the bar and the tangle of trees beyond. Finally I spotted her in a dense patch of shadow, walking slowly down the dirt road.
“Hey, we’re about to try to find our friends,” I called out.
“Yeah, I heard,” she answered without turning around. She pointed into the darkness. “Is that the ocean?”
I tried to listen over the music from the bar. “It sounds like it,” I said, even though I couldn’t really hear a thing.
She nodded and kept walking. Dobber bounded after her. With a sigh, I slung her bag around my free shoulder and followed.
Did Dobber even remember her from high school? He certainly never noticed her back then. She was a loner, and sought the company of other loners. They formed their own mysterious anti-clique and sat in clumps, glaring mute disdain at the rest of us with black shadowed eyes.
Black dyed hair, black clothes, and lipstick like deep red wine—that was the mask she hid behind. Only twice before had I seen her without that façade. For nearly a week my sophomore year, the girl’s gym was closed for renovation, so their classes were combined with ours. School-issued gym shorts and shirts imposed an artificial regularity that stripped away some of her strangeness. In that moment, she was more approachable than I had ever seen her. During all the boy-versus-girl volleyball matches that week, I tried to aim my lobs away from her, since I could see she really didn’t care to play.
The other time was at graduation, just as we were handing in our caps and gowns. We had to return them that night, right after the ceremony, which ruined Dobber’s plan to go naked underneath. Nearly everyone, myself included, opted for casual clothes beneath the regalia, but Allison wore a deep purple dress with a lavender sash—nothing flashy, but striking all the same. I felt a little shabby in comparison. Had any parents or relatives been standing with her? I couldn’t remember. I don’t think I ever got around to wishing her good luck.
Now she was walking along a dirt road a few paces ahead of me, dark brown hair escaping from the scrunchy, wearing a sorority T-shirt and black sweat pants. Did she have on makeup? I hadn’t noticed, but if so, it only served to soften her features. I knew so much more about her than I had before. She had a little brother. She wanted to live in New York City. She was in Costa Rica on Daddy’s money.
What might have happened if Allison had been dressed as she was on graduation night the first day I saw her? Maybe I would be there with her instead of Dobber. But then, who would have carried the bag?
The lights from the bar faded as we walked. Vegetation now reached up far over our heads and deadened the music to a dull bass thumping. A chilly breeze ruffled the leaves and cut through the humid air—cooling, but out of place, like a sprig of mint in a taco. Soon, the road widened out, revealing a long slope down to the shore. The trees became a few tattered bushes. The dirt took on a grittier texture.
More pounding music came to our ears, not reggae but salsa rhythms. We turned a corner and found activity on the beach below, far livelier than the bar near the bus stop. Everything was centered on a stout pavilion, open to the evening air—“Jhonny’s Place,” the sign read. It was a thickly built, wooden affair, scarcely more than a tiled roof set on weathered beams, with a kitchen tacked on for effect. It sat directly on the beach, spilled over onto it. Dozens of tables and chairs were strewn in small clumps all the way to the water’s edge, illuminated by candles the size of dinner plates set into the sand. A driftwood bonfire crackled near a tidal pool, only feet from the tree line.
As we approached, I spotted our friends relaxing at a broad wooden table in the covered part of the bar. Todd, as usual, was telling an army story at top volume to anyone who would listen—in this case, Rachel, eyes wide and flirty, and Oliver, who never let one of Todd’s words fall to the ground without catching it, dusting it off, and pocketing it for later adoration. Pam, on the other hand, was chatting with a well-dressed man with short black hair, whose eyes kept sliding down to the neckline of her tank top.
“What’s up, losers?” said Dobber, tossing his bag to the sandy plank floor. He surveyed the bar. “Nice place. No wonder you ditched us.”
“Daniel?” said Allison. Pam’s conversation partner looked up and smiled.
“Allison, amorcita, how you doin’ baby, you lookin’ good!” He rose to his feet and looked her over appraisingly. “I didden think you would come, you know?” Daniel moved behind Allison and put a hand on each shoulder.
“We just got in,” she said, standing stiff, arms unnaturally still at her sides.
“Yeah, you know, I had to work. I tell Jhonny you coming in but he say, ‘No, you go to San José before, now you come back and work.’ But we get together tonight, baby, when I get off.”
At first, I thought Dobber wasn’t watching any of this. He was at the bar with Todd, no doubt to make up for lost drinking time. But then his eyes flicked over to Allison when she turned around to Daniel and said, “Okay, I’ll see you.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “That’s great, baby, that’s great, I see you then.” He turned to the rest of the group. “You guys wanna drink, okay, you come to me, all right? I get something for you.” He headed back to the bar, dismissing Dobber with a practiced smile along the way. Dobber, in turn, managed to walk right by without acknowledging he was there.
“So that’s your mystery date, huh?” said Dobber. He handed me a beer; his own was already half-finished. “Pretty snazzy.”
“Hey guys, this is Allison,” I said. “She’s from Gulfport too. Dobber and I picked her up on the bus.” The girls gave her a singsongy “hi” in greeting.
“D’you surf?” asked Todd. “Cause this is the place to be. Out there… the Salsa Brava.” He made little wavy motions with his hands. Oliver chuckled.
“My brother tried to teach me,” Allison said, slipping into the chair Daniel had just abandoned. “There aren’t many good waves on the gulf coast, though.”
“Yeah, I was stationed in Puerto Rico one summer. Man, their waves were wicked!”
I suddenly realized that I was juggling my bag and Allison’s, along with a beer. “So where’d you guys find to stay?”
“Right here, my friend, right here.” Todd took a swig of his drink.
My heart sank. “So we haven’t found a place yet?”
“Your Spanish is better,” Rachel giggled. “You always get us a better deal.”
Screw a better deal, I thought. Couldn’t they think ahead? How were they going to find a place to sleep after another few hours of drinking? “All right, we’ll leave our stuff here until we find out where we’re going. Who wants to come with me?”
Pam, Allison, and Rachel were already deep in conversation. Their low tones were occasionally punctuated with exclamations, drawn-out and high-pitched. Dobber was hovering behind them, seeking an opening in the conversation. “Hey, I’ll go,” said Oliver.
“Naw, I will,” said Todd, and heaved himself to his feet. “I’m better at negotiating.”
I would rather have had Oliver. Todd was always rough and tactless, but while drinking, he was less able to hide it than usual. I handed off my untouched beer to Dobber. “C’mon, then,” I said, and set off down the beach.
The sun was well below the horizon now, the ocean a dark mass beyond the island of candlelight, swirling and out of focus. I would have preferred silence, but that was never an option with Todd. “So where’d you find that chick?”
“Allison? On the bus.”
“Damn, she is fine.” Todd turned his head to look back, but we were already too far from Jhonny’s Place to see anyone. “You and Dobber knew her before?”
“Yeah, she went to our high school.” I said. “Didn’t know her well, though.”
Todd grinned. “That don’t stop Dobber. That boy’s movin’ on in.”
“He’ll have to wait in line. She came down here to see Daniel.”
He grunted. “Latin dudes get all the American girls down here. It’s cause they’re….” He flailed his hand, looking for the right word. “I dunno, exotic or whatever. Dobber should find him a Costa Rican girl. They like American guys.”
“How does that place look?” I asked, pointing to a clump of cabins a few hundred yards off the beach.
“Yeah, that type likes a good pad. When I was stationed in Bermuda, I had this wicked little shack, you know?”
I ignored him.
The cabins looked well built, and there was a little stucco building in front
proclaiming the name—Cabinas Rossi—and the Spanish word for ‘office’. It would do fine. At least, it would have to do, because I
wasn’t willing to look any further. Six
months we had spent working as interns in San
José. I was
through with waiting.