Nathan Robert Freeman
And that’s how it starts—sitting in a Puriscal soda, laddered wooden stools, tiled counter top, smells of empanadas and cigarettes. “Café, por favor.” He scoops the grounds into the filter. “Con leche?” “Negro,” I say. The boiling waters seeps through the filter, turns to dirt-colored coffee, falls into the mug. “Quieres mas?” “No, no mas.” A Tico boy—fresh-faced, young, maybe fifteen, grease-spiked hair, a smirk—mumbles at the man behind the counter. It’s nine in the morning in Costa Rica. I’m taking a break from teaching English at the high school in town. I burn my tongue on the coffee. The owner speaks to the fidgeting boy, speaking to him in a foreign Spanish. As the boy hops away the man looks back at me, stone-faced, sweeping the counter. “Niño,” he says, “Niño quiere papel”—he puts his fingers to his mouth in a V-shape and sucks in, fast—“para las drogas.” He keeps on sweeping. “No futuro,” he whispers. “No futuro.” I nod, eyes turned down toward the steaming coffee. It’s like the end of those books I hate, the ones with their morals tacked on to the last page. I look around. This story has written itself.
Back to class.
Teach my students how to use the verb To Be.
Go back to the house.
She is gone.
So is he.
And that’s how it starts.
Without much say on his part James leaves school and jet sets to Puriscal, a small town in Costa Rica, to volunteer himself for ten weeks. He likes to think that to the outside world, he is the paradigm of altruistic piety because of his dedication to the job of teaching English. Just look at him at the front of the class—sleeves rolled up, voice wavering, chalk screeching across the chalkboard. He is spreading the greatest of all American doctrines—the English Language, the Lingua Franca of these high-flying times. He lives in a house near the top of the hill, a stone’s throw from the New Church. It was built to replace the Old Church—its frame decaying, its windows cracked by stone-hurling delinquents, its facade crumbled from age and acid rain. The Old Church towers like a deathly specter over the quiet town; the New Church is fresh, welcoming—it lures bearers of the faith, music and incense wafting from its doors. James—bored, listening—hears the bells four times a day, sees girls in dresses on their way to mass, smiling.
In Costa Rica, to say hello to someone you say “Pura Vida!”
And with him are a mixed bag: two old Canadian women, a head-scratchingly anal 28-year-old infant named Callie, a chubby and jolly lesbian who sports an ever-present purple visor—and five kids his age. Two have been there earlier; they went to boarding school together, and graduated in December. Odd (He finds out later that these two boys—one a David Cassidy blonde, the other a book-reading laxer—came from a therapeutic boarding school for addicts and fuck-ups; they were snatched from their beds by escorts in the middle of the night, Elian-style, and taken to a middle-of-nowhere campus where they were on lock-down (no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes) for two years. Their parents had arranged it—one (John) had a developing ecstasy habit when they sent him away; the other (Michael) tried to kill himself by jumping out of a car on the highway). The other boy in his room, his name is Allen, from Texas, played football in high school, is overweight, got arrested for possession a week before he left for the trip, wants to be president someday. James thinks him a bit unsavory, but no matter.
There are two girls his age: one a true-blood Irish, C.S. Lewis-reading Catholic from Vermont named Catherine; the other, Rosalind, is a real trip. She’s British and has an English accent that has somehow survived a stint in L.A. and a pack-a-day smoking habit—Reds and Lucky Strikes, mostly. She has two tattoos; she has her dead father’s ashes sprinkled at the end of the Road to Hana in Maui—his passing caused her to leave her California home for her old home, Daddy’s London, where her hot-spotted friends bum around her flat, borrow her clothes and coke and connections and keep her occupied. She wears amber-and-brown Wayfarers (sunglasses which James later borrows for an immortal Facebook profile picture) and at all times around her neck a Che Guevara necklace hung carelessly enough to suggest that she doesn’t know that irony exists. James runs out of cigarettes on his second day; it’s a Sunday and the corner stores are closed and the churches are open. He sees the English girl outside smoking, and he bums graciously. They talk many times a day outside—she tells him about London, its clubs, its characters, its fakes, its nights. James is addicted after just one puff.
And there are rules in the House: No volunteer is to imbibe alcohol in the town of Puriscal. No volunteer is to have in his or her possession illicit substances of any kind. No volunteer is to develop any degree of a romantic relationship with another volunteer. This includes hand-holding, embracing while walking, kissing, and overtly flirtatious behavior. Any violation of these rules will result in immediate expulsion from The House.
It is the Rules that define the Lives. The Rules that define how they are disobeyed. The Rules, like all rules, were made to be broken—created to be destroyed.
The first week passes like a Caribbean breeze that stretches across the tiny county’s feeble frame, tickling its west coast, licking the Atlantic, blowing sand into the eyes and beers of red-skinned bodies on black-sand beaches—and on that first weekend James joins in with the six-person gang in a trip to Puerto Viejo, a beach on the Caribbean Sea. A teacher at the school tells him about the town: “Many drugs. Many—eh, eh—negros. Many hate Americans. Like blond American girls.” James nods and realizes that this probably applies to blond British girls as well.
The bus to Puerto Viejo takes four hours and James and his five friends sit in the aisle and the driver speeds through poverty-stricken wastelands and runs over a dog splat and three or four women emit screams and James is three beers in by the time they get to the beach and it’s dark outside and the other now-here travelers lug backpacks around confused and the bellhop at the beach-side hotel offers Allen an ounce of weed as he carries in the bags. Dinner is wild and drunken but the Brit is sedate, way high, turning James a bit off and so him and John the blonde ex-addict order drink after drink. Michael, the ex-suicidist, is much more rational than James and John, and keeps watch on an unraveling scene. After dinner Allen is very pleased with himself so he peruses the bowls being sold in a hut next store like an expert and buys one, a small one, and is even more pleased with himself. The next bar has a reggae band and a drink called a “Fourth of July” and James orders it because he thinks that ordering a drink with bourbon in it, regardless of how girly the cocktail is, will make him American and somehow superior. Michael points out the irony, James quotes “Independence Day” and lights a cigarette as Rosalind bums one, looking into his eyes with a stare like she doesn’t know what eyes are as she pulls one out of the pack. Hooked. Then she orders a vodka-tonic and pops a Xanax that she got from Callie, the insane girl who lives in The House, and is totally zonked out of her mind. A dreaded Rastafarian on a bicycle offers Rosalind and Fat Allen a hit and tells them that “Joohnneee’s plahace, mohn” is happening. It’s all happening—the streets smell like weed and jerk chicken, homeless drunks wander into James, but he’s drunk too and laughs like it’s a joke or something.
Rosalind’s stopped by a stenching hippie and she decides to get dreadlocks.
At Johnny’s Place the gang orders shots of Jack Daniels and Rosalind smokes another blunt on the beach. James talks to John, wanders drunk, stubs his toe on a palm tree and wades his ankles in the rippling tide with the moon and asks a black guy with no shirt if he can bum a cigarette and the guy naoh-prablam-mohns him and hands him a joint and James takes a hit and lights the Costa Rican cigarette and smokes it on the rocks that poke out of the surf and finds Rosalind and bums another cigarette off her and tells her that she’s one of the most amazing girls he’s ever met and she makes a face as if she’s on Mars and mumbles something about how James is one of the smartest people she’s ever met. James cringes. That’s probably that last thing James wants to be at that moment, smart. The rest of them come back and he leaves wordlessly for a beer at the bar and comes back to find Rosalind being groped or something by some big Costa Rican guy and shoves him off her and gets popped in the nose. He tells her it doesn’t hurt, but of course it fucking hurts! James’s convinced it’s broken; Michael, who’s more or less sober, assures him it’s not, and James clenches his jaw and goes off to find the guy. Rosalind stops him, tells him his cousin is here, tells him he will probably die or something. James splits for another beer and passes grease-haired kids, the speakers rumbling with the noise of a rapper howling over bass-snare Reggaeton. James is spinning, staring at the fog, the light-flecked disco ball, the dancing Ticos, and blacks out. He comes to covered in sand, sprawled on the beach and finds a bent cigarette behind his ear and runs in to John and Catherine and puts it out half done. Catherine has a coconut, but John doesn’t. The cops stop James a few minutes later when they discover that under his shirt is a store-front sign, which he stole minutes earlier: “You will be go to the jail. Your friends and you go to jail.” Catherine pouts and hands over the coconut, but the cops just stare. James mumbles a gracias pero no gracias and the three of them duck under the fence and run through sandy yards into the hotel.
There’s blood on the sheets in the morning. Allen snores in spastic violent grunts and wakes up and they head to breakfast, James wearing wayfarers to hide his swollen nose and darkening black eyes. At the table Rosalind giggles every now and then and forks her salad. Her dreads are tied up in a handkerchief and there’s dirt under her fingernails. Mumbles something about getting bloody marys. Michael regales James of the conversation they had at the bar about Transcendentalism and Michael laughs reminding James of how he was so insistent that the word “deliberately” in Thoreau’s “I went to the woods to live deliberately” is the best use of a word in English outside of The Bible and Shakespeare and James gives him a blank look. James is convinced this never happened. It doesn’t make sense (James hates adverbs). Two bloody marys and a pina colada at a bar. James glances at Rosalind, who’s chain smoking and having another vodka tonic and talking to Allen, who leans his smiling fat face into her and James is being ignored and leaves. It’s 1000 Colones for a pack of Reds and a Corona at the beachview corner store (ed. note: It’s 500 Colones to the dollar. And dropping fast) and that’s how much James pays for them before walking to the sand.
The sun peeks in and out of clouds and the clouds cast foreboding shadows on the negro beach. Waves curl, touch the beach, touch its walkers, its bathers, its seekers.
James and Rosalind lie alone together on the sand.
(Black & White; in French with subtitles)
For last night
I shouldnta shoved that guy
Didnt do nothing
Can I bum a cigarette
I think its broken
Blood came out when I blow my nose
Its probably broken
You didnt have to do that
I can take care of myself
I coulda taken him
Are they getting me a pina coloda
Did you ask them to get you a pina colada
I see Allen walking with them and he doesnt have it
That fat fucking fag boy he doesnt have the pina colada
Can I have that cigarette
And a light
(James closes his eyes beneath his Wayfarer sunglasses)
In a shack: James gets high with Allen and walks up the stairs and is convinced he’s walking on sunshine and starts dancing and looking at himself dance in the murky reflection of the hotel room window and tells Catherine that life is just an extended episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and starts talking about Reaganomics and passes out.
At dinner James smiles as he sips his Tico Sour and doesn’t care that the same group of Americans from the night before is sitting at the table beside the six of them. Rosalind’s smoking so James lights a cigarette too and three rail-skinny dark-skinned Ticos sit down behind them. One plays a warped, dirtied banjo. One plays bongos. One plays a gutbucket bass—”Que rico es Puerto Limon, Que rico es Puerto Limon, Que rico es Puerto Limon….” The song is about the city of Limon. James knows that Limon is the city on the Caribbean coast where Columbus first landed in Costa Rica. He knows that in Spanish his name is Cristobal Colon. He knows that in Costa Rica the currency is Colones, named for the person who first named the country. He knows that there is a statue of Christopher Columbus in Wilmington, Delaware, a few blocks away from the Hotel du Pont. He knows all this and stays silent. No one talks of Christopher Columbus in Costa Rica, the country where his influence—the gift of the world’s conception, the wonder and science of European diffusion to the New World—is like the silent “h” in “hola”: ever-present but never articulated.
James and John pick up a case of Imperial brand beer—the national beer of Costa Rica—and then the six of them listen to Zeppelin in the hotel room and James reminds everyone that the solo in Communication Breakdown is the greatest solo of all time and bounces on the bed while saying this. Johnny’s Place is more crowded than the night before and the six of them take tequila shots for James’s birthday (he turns twenty in three days, on Tuesday). Catherine’s mashed after an hour, more than she should be. Allen and Rosalind away toward the dark water with weed and get stopped by the cops but Allen keeps the weed in his pocket when they search him. Rosalind doesn’t bat an eyelash; this is who she is and she rolls blunts with her mother when she’s in LA (James hates LA; he told that to Rosalind and she shrugged and dragged on her cigarette and said something about getting the four Led Zeppelin symbols tattooed on her ankle).
James is sitting at a table with the other three and Catherine tells us that Rosalind was popping the Xanax before they left for Johnny’s Place and asked Catherine if she wanted one. What’s it do, Catherine asked in a voice as naive as a schoolchild asking what a spanking is. Makes you feel cool, Rosalind had said. Michael flips at Catherine for taking the pill and walks off. Allen and Rosalind come back high. Allen is sweating profusely. Rosalind smiles like a cartoon.
Michael’s speakers are notched to full blast in the hotel room at four in the morning and Rosalind’s burning through a pack of shitty Costa Rican cigarettes and she tells James to put on TV On The Radio, put on Playhouses. James does and a wall of ambient noise guitar fills the room. Rosalind’s dreads have frayed and she dances wildly to the jagged sound, plugging rhythm into the cacophony, singing. James’s hearing echoes of Reggaeton from the clubs. Echoes of the beach.
James is getting hammered before the bus ride back to San Jose on Sunday. Skies overcast. James goes to the corner store and gets the same things as the day before—beer, Reds—and as he sits on the log with his eyes cast toward the waters and the red big sun is draped in reflection across the ocean and he can see out to the world’s bend at the horizon and James is convinced he’s entered a Corona commercial. Or that the Corona commercial has entered him.
At the bus station a filthy beggar staggers in front of James—“BOO!” James stares at him, stares at the bearded dirty man, the mind-gone hobo who yells at tourists, yells at them like a demon. James smiles and places his Wayfarers on his head, looking at the man’s filthy hair, peering into his life of tropical squalor. “Pura Vida!” James screams.
The bus leaves at four and James has the spins and caresses the iPod to turn up the volume on the blasting LCD Soundsystem. The song is All My Friends, and it’s about hedonistic youth-loving New York. He looks out and sees two palm trees (there’s really only one; he’s seeing double), sees blues becoming whites in the sky, sees the bending miles of ancient Caribbean ocean, the priceless sand dollars littering the surf, and asks himself why he’s even thinking about New York at a time like this. It’s dumb. Dumb because as far as James knows, New York doesn’t even exist.
There’s a passport checkpoint a half-hour away from Puerto Viejo. It’s getting a bit dark but James two-fingers the Wayfarers across his face, to cover the still-swollen nose and two black eyes. For some reason the immigration officers can’t find the stamp on James’s passport; they claim the kid (James’s wearing an orange Polo shirt, jeans, a sunburn, a dumb-ass American flashy grin) never went through customs. Everyone who goes through customs gets stamped, he’s barked at in Spanish. They pull him out of the line. A bulky woman pounds numbers into a phone. A man with an assault rifle is sent for, and he stands next to James on the platform by the office. The tip comes a few inches from James’s head. James’s face drops as he watches the bus load up again, all its passengers getting back on save for the other five of them, who are in shock. James puts his hand to the rim of his sunglasses, then puts it down again.
Tired third-world highway. Present day
Enter man with assault rifle, James
(Thick Spanish accent)
(Voice a bit quavering)
You come to Costa Rica when Nete
Why no stamp
This is problem
We no let you go without stamp
My bus is leaving I have to go
You no go
You stay here and friends go
We came together
Friends have passport
They want to stay
You go with us
You go to Limon manana por la immigracion
And where do I go
Elongated pause. Man with the assault rifle takes steps toward James.
You no understand I am your friends I want help you but you no understand
…at which point allen and michael get back on the bus as it hums away from the deadland…rosalind catherine john staying with James…chainsmoking on gravel streets…shaking…then the bulging woman at the desk cries like an evangelical who done sawd the christ lawd jesus…”la luz! la luz! la luz! la luz! la luz!”…she points to the faint stamp as she holds the passport up to the light…la luz! la luz! la luz! la luz! la luz!”…watermarked as if from miles away…she tells James he’s free to go….a bus takes the four back to puerto viejo where they go back to the hotel with a bottle of bacardi and beers and rosalind smokes herself into catatonia James passes out john and catherine go dancing and the sand-swept tiny town with its the thatch roofs, its thick-wrapped cigars, its night-black muscled men, its rats, its hobos, its stray fur-matted dogs—these fuzz-addled near-truths haunt the minds of back-thinking men like James. The dreams overcome the realities. The realities morph into remembered dreams. The world melts as if it’s a glacier seeping somehow into the Caribbean. And when he thinks back days later, months later, years later, on the dreams that create a life, he recalls the miracle of what saved him from Costa Rican jail-time purgatory: la luz!
On the morning of James’s birthday Callie tries to kill herself. They find her unconscious in her bed. They find a near-empty bottle of Xanax that had been full the day before. They find a suicide note detailing her journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. She goes to the hospital and they never hear of her again. The staff tries to cover it up but everybody knows what happened. There’s no reason to whisper—all words fly fast in the quiet of The House.
Two of James’s students bring him birthday cards. One says that God will make all of his wildest dreams come true and James smiles. Another student brings him a cupcake. They sing: “Cumpleanos feliz, cumpleanos feliz, cumpleanos feliz…”
Rosalind and James have a cigarette after work. She mentions that the piece Allen and her used to smoke weed out of the night before is gone. She left it on her nightstand and it is gone. Allen says he doesn’t have it. She fidgets and puts out the cigarette after just one puff and goes inside.
The director of the volunteer program had found Allen’s piece when she was snooping around Callie’s stuff after the pill overdose and she kicks Rosalind out of the program, out of The House, for bringing drugs into the house. James plays a Radiohead song on the guitar, and sings along:
“So don’t get any,
Rosalind comes and sits down next to him. He knows he can’t hold her hand but still he graces it, softly, and at its touch she grabs it, squeezes it. Someone enters the room and she pulls away, storms out. James follows her to the empty bottom of the stairwell, her face contracting, her eyes welling up. James hugs her and she bawls into his shoulder.
Allen decides he won’t confess that it was his weed, his bowl, and will make Rosalind take the fall instead.
Puriscal sidewalk. Present day
Enter James Michael, John, Allen
John: If you have any honor whatsoever, there’s only one option.
Allen: I’ve made my decision.
Michael: To refuse to take responsibility for your actions?
Allen: If I get thrown out, my father will disown me. He’ll refuse to pay for my college.
John: You wanna go into politics, right?
Allen: I want to be a lawyer, then a judge, then go into politics.
John: Well this is a perfect example of why politicians are all liars. You are lying if you don’t own up to your mistakes.
Michael: It’s true.
John: Back at boarding school, we’d see bad drug addicts who’d avoid facing the facts. But that never works. You have to come to terms with what you did—in this case, smoked weed at The House and then put the blame on someone else.
(Allen looking down, face distorted, folded in anger)
Allen: I’m doing the right thing because I’m doing the right thing for me. And because of that, I’m not going to feel guilty.
Michael looking at John
John: Don’t kid yourself. You’re gonna feel guilty. You feel guilty already. And believe me, it only gets worse. That guilt is going to eat you alive.
James averting his eyes, Allen jabbing him in his chest hard, cackling, laughing the kind of laugh that comes when no other sound makes sense
Allen: And what about you, James? You gonna confess too? You smoked too, remember? Should I rat you out too? Should I? Huh? Should I?
Allen laughing loud, demonically
Allen: No, no; I wouldn’t do that (looking at John and Michael). I’ll let you feel the worst guilt of all—the guilt you have to keep with you no matter what.
James with his head buried toward the sidewalk, silent
Wrought-iron fence around The House. Green trees, flowers fuchsia, salamander blue. Kids boxing in the middle of the street. Man drinking Coke out of a plastic bag. Stray dog. Futbol game. Church bells.
In Costa Rica, to say goodbye to someone you say “Pura Vida!”
Later in the Day: Allen confesses not because of a change of heart but because Rosalind blackmails him. They both get kicked out. They’re to leave in the morning. Allen sits in his bed and doesn’t speak to anyone. Rosalind is on the phone, with her mother.
James scrubs his plate after dinner. Happy birthday, Rosalind says.
There’s one last cigarette for them that night.
Puriscal Night. Lit only by stars and a streetlight.
Enter James and Rosalind
We’ll meet in New York City
There is no New York City
They watch the first half of Almost Famous. They stop around the part where Penny Lane and William Miller are talking, him telling her that band members traded her for two cases of beer, and then William says: “WHEN AND WHERE DOES THIS REAL WORLD OCCUR?”
James goes to her room. Walks downstairs. Walks outside. The House is empty.
She is gone.
So is he.
And that’s how it starts.