Emily boards the plane at the beginning of Spring Break knowing she is failing her master’s degree. She hasn’t attended classes since Christmas, has dumped her research notes on global food security in a storage box. Thousands of dollars into her education, she has not told her parents what’s going on. Liam’s advice is to take their holiday as planned, worry about school later. “You’re so close, babe,” he says, as if all she needs is a little pep talk and she’ll snap back into form. He thinks she can explain what’s going on to her profs, get a note from her GP, redo a course or two if she has to. He has never asked what her research is really about.
Liam sits next to her now, his voice loud enough to be heard by everyone around. “Are we fucking driving to San José?” he asks, while Emily elbows him in the arm and frowns in a way she hopes will quiet him. The plane rounds another corner and settles into place at the head of the runway. When the overhead bins rattle and shake, Emily takes Liam’s hand and squeezes. If the plane crashes on takeoff or hasn’t been de-iced properly, she wants to pretend she’s in a loving relationship when she meets her maker. But looking down at her white knuckles clutched around Liam’s beige ones, she’s not sure the gesture will fool any god. It’s not fooling her.
The plane ascends and Liam relaxes into the upholstery, patting her arm with his free hand. He doesn’t seem bothered by her softly muttered prayer. She told him early on that this is how she copes when she’s anxious. She explained that she’s not religious and doesn’t go to church, but that the memorized words bubble up from years of Sunday school. She gives him credit for not calling her a hypocrite or pointing out that an otherwise unworshipped god is unlikely to protect her in a crunch. She’s discovered that he doesn’t think about things too deeply, doesn’t mentally explore what is rational or irrational. Liam is a guy who lives by sensations and enjoys the moment. He’s more likely to comment on the weather than the political temperature, is entertained by a restaurant review more often than a bestseller. In bed, though, he’s transcendent; he can bring her off in seconds. She thinks about pulling his hand into her lap, but he pulls away from her and starts to poke at the video screen in the seatback in front of him. “You brought some, didn’t you?” he asks, dangling earbuds by their cords. When she stares at him he says, “I can buy you a pair, if you forgot.” She’s about to ask him if she can have the window seat since he’s going to watch a movie, but he’s already got the earbuds in and pressed the start button on the menu. She pulls out a dog-eared guidebook to Costa Rica, her first foreign destination. She flips through the colourful pages, feeling like she’s on this trip alone.
“Water?” A flight attendant drifts by holding a jug and plastic glasses. Liam’s movie is full of crashing cars, explosions and guns. His fingers twitch as if he’s the one shooting. Emily’s stomach growls and gurgles its discontent. It’s been aching for the last half hour and is now making her breath ragged.
“Liam?” She shakes his arm to get his attention. He removes an earbud, eyes still on the screen.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
He turns, too fast to wipe the look of distaste off his face before he shifts to concern. “Sick?” He rifles for a bag in the seat pocket while she lurches up, bounces off the knees of the woman on the aisle and lunges towards the back of the cabin. “Excuse me,” she manages before the flight attendant—proficient in her job—flings open the bathroom door. Inside, she hurls.
When she emerges, there is paperwork to fill out, assurances that she has not visited anywhere reporting an epidemic. She is offered Gravol, takes it gratefully, and dozes in the window seat while Liam chats with the woman on the aisle.
In the rental car Emily sits groggily while Liam gets help programming the GPS from one of the agents. Before they maneuver out of the parking lot, she asks him to pull over. “I’ve still got a headache,” she says. “I don’t think I can handle Darth Vader.”
Liam reprograms the system, selects the default English voice instead. “I was just trying for a little fun,” he says, his voice defensive.
“I know. And there’ll be fun. By the time we get to the coast, I’ll feel fine.” She can tell from Liam’s face that he is doubtful. This is not the holiday he imagined. “I’ll just crawl into the back seat and sleep it off,” she says. “Then I’ll be good to go when we get there.” She tries a flirty smile to hint at long entangled siestas and sweaty nights, despite how dizzy and uninterested she feels.
He nods, even fetches their discarded winter coats from the trunk to cover her. She buries her head under the dark melton cloth with its musty wet-dog smell. The sun is too bright, her stomach once again roiling. She chews on another Gravol and begs that all her trespasses be forgiven. In her mind, begging is not the same as prayer.
Liam is outside the car laughing. Inside, her skin is sweat-soaked and her mouth feels like dry toast.
“Hey, babe, you’re awake.” He sounds so happy. She tries to locate him out the window, sees instead a black and red bikini top. A face swims into focus, tanned a caramel colour Emily hasn’t seen on a white person since last summer. “Hola!” the woman says. “Ready to rock the surf?”
Liam makes introductions. “This is Ingrid,” he says. “She’s one of the owners.” This should not be surprising. The Playa Negra resort is an independent, German-owned retreat for serious travelers, surfers and romantics, the website said. But Emily imagined the owners being older. She imagined people whose interests ranged internationally—solid, grounded people with whom she could have real conversations about subjects that could be probed and unpacked, argued and agreed on. People whose experience went beyond rocking the surf.
She uncurls from the car, shakes Ingrid’s warm hand and drifts along behind the others as they make their way to an open-air restaurant near the beach to check in. It has a conical roof made of dry, densely packed palm leaves topped with a clay pot that looks like a turned-on nipple. Inside, the platform floor is ocean-blue, inset with tiles the colours of bananas and kiwifruit. Ten or twelve wooden tables fill the space. Only one is occupied.
Liam goes to the open bar that is also the resort’s office. Emily pulls out a chair and sits. The man at the table next to her nods, closing both eyelids and lowering his chin. He is middle-aged, over-tanned, but well groomed in the way of rich men. He wears a gauze shirt with a mandarin collar that would look ridiculous at home but is perfect in a southern climate. A St. Christopher medal hangs around his neck on a thin gold chain.
Ingrid’s voice carries to where the two sit. “Your cabina is ready. Your surf instructor will be here in a couple hours. Do you want a late lunch? A drink?” This is what Liam had planned, activities from the moment they arrived. Surf lessons every day, dancing in the sand at night.
Liam calls from the bar, “Em? Do you want a beer?” He looks like he’s vibrating, he’s so eager to start.
But she wants to lie down. “Just water for me,” she says. “You go ahead, though. Can we see our cabina?”
Bending over her paperwork, Ingrid says, “Give me half a sec,” while the man at the next table pours a glass of water from the bottle in front of him and hands it to Emily. The water is cool but has the unpleasant flavor of iodine or metal. She leaves the glass on the table when Ingrid leads them off the platform, away from the beach, past a sparkly turquoise pool that’s surrounded by sleeping sunbathers. The flowers in the garden separating the pool area from the cabinas are so large they seem Seuss-like. Unprotected from the mid-afternoon sun, and without sunglasses, Emily has to narrow her eyes to keep from fainting under the barrage of light. She’s left the luggage for Liam to carry. She can hear him trailing behind her, bags banging against his thighs.
“Here we are.” Ingrid could be Malibu Barbie posed at the door. Like the resort office, the cabina is round, the cement walls painted robin’s-egg blue. Ingrid hands Liam the key. She smells like coconut sunscreen and it makes Emily gag. “Where’s the bathroom?” she calls, surging into the room, to the only other door, to the porcelain bowl. When Liam knocks a few minutes later, she tells him to go have fun, have a beer, enjoy his surf lesson. She says she’ll have another nap. She’ll see him at dinner.
She wakes up shivering. It’s dark. She’s alone on a narrow daybed under a shuttered window. She can hear Liam snoring on the queen-sized mattress in the middle of the room, can smell beer fumes and garlic shrimp and some other flowery scent that could be shaving cream or air freshener. Under it all is a hint of vomit.
She groans. This is not food poisoning, not bad egg or undercooked bacon. It is not pregnancy, thank god. Her whole body aches—heavy limbed, heavy-headed, heavy hearted. In the dark she sees outlines of things she can’t identify. She wants to curl up, to pull her knees to her stomach and fold inward the way she did when she was a scared kid, woken by ogres under her bed. She thinks one of these ogres is inside her skull—pounding, pounding—until she realizes it’s the surf outside, the high tide slapping against the land and flooding the sandy beach. She hasn’t a fucking clue what to do when this trip is over. She could move in with Liam; he’s asked her to. He has a job and seems content with the direction of his life. But the notion of following him down the beaten path leaves her as dark as the room. She chastises herself. He’s such a nice guy, one of the decent ones, really. But a realization enters her mind, clear among the shadows. Even if she were feeling well, she has no desire to get back into bed with him. She smells his night breath, hears him tug on the sheets. She’s not sure she even likes him anymore.
“It’s so disappointing that you’re missing our holiday,” Liam says when, on the fourth day, she tries to get up, sways and turns pale. He takes her arm, holds her steady on the way to the bathroom and waits outside until she’s done. “We should have called a doctor as soon as we got here.”
“Nothing would have changed,” she tells him as she inches her way back to the daybed. “Go do your thing. One of us should enjoy this.” She crawls under the sheet, drapes it loosely over her torso while Liam stands by. She can tell he’s unsettled by her tone, but doesn’t want to get into it. “You’ve been great, Liam, really. Bringing me water and tea and granola.” Now he looks guilty. She wonders if Ingrid has dropped off the supplies. But Liam says, “I only wish I could do more, babe.” He makes a sad-clown face. “I wanted to see you in your new bathing suit. I wanted to surf with you. I want to make out.” He leans in for a kiss but she turns her head so that he kisses her cheek. “I haven’t brushed my teeth,” she says, and he seems to buy the excuse.
“Well, then—” Liam picks up his beach towel from the floor, leaving a sandy pile of leather sandals and damp swim trunks. “Would you mind if I went to another beach to surf today? I might not be back until late.”
She wants him to clean up the mess he has made of the cabina but tamps down the inner voice that is ready to tell him. “No, go,” she says. “Have fun.” She reaches for the guidebook Liam has placed on the window ledge. She tries to feel what she felt two months ago when Costa Rica was like the full moon on the horizon and it all seemed to be coming together—the end of school, life as something other than a student, more time with Liam. When did things change? What happened? She can’t remember what she’s been doing in the weeks since she stopped going to classes. She sat in coffee shops on campus with her unread books open in front of her. She rode streetcars to the end of the line and then took the subway back. Somewhere she has a notebook listing businesses she passed with Help Wanted signs: drycleaner, greengrocer, tattoo parlour.
A movement makes her aware that Liam is still in the room. She looks up from the guidebook, a collage of exotic birds and amphibians she is now desperate to see. His face looks oddly asymmetrical, as if his pleasant, even features—the ones that always made him seem so good-natured—have been pulled out of shape.
“Okay, I guess I’ll go then. Love you,” he says.
“Later,” she answers.
She feigns sleep the next morning although she’s craving coffee, so must be better. Outside the cabina, Liam is prepping for another day at the beach. She hears the slippery sound of his rash guard being pulled from the porch rail, the flap of his towel as he shakes out the sand.
“Yo, Liam!” Three or four voices join the greetings. “How’s your girlfriend today?”
“Asleep. Good waves this morning?”
“Perfect. Ready to go?”
“I dunno. What if Emily wakes up while I’m gone?”
She crosses her hands over her chest—coffin pose—and thinks silently: Go! The truth of the message shakes her. It’s not fever-induced. It’s over. She sits up in bed, wondering what to do. Outside, it’s quiet. Liam and the others have gone.
She gets up, showers and dresses. Shorts, a t-shirt, flip-flops bought for this trip. She slathers on sunscreen, dons hat and glasses, ventures out to the garden. The grass is dry and tickles her feet where it curls over her open shoes. She rubs her hand down the trunk of a palm tree, touches some other plant’s protective barbs.
“See that?” It’s the man from the restaurant. He is shorter than he’d seemed and has an accent she can’t place.
“See what?” she asks.
“The butterfly. A Blue Morpho.”
She searches for something blue among the foliage. The garden is lush and well cared for, not overly landscaped. Bougainvillea bushes grow like weeds in Crayola colors. Her eyes are drawn to the red hibiscus, the pine cone-shaped pink ginger.
“There.” He points near the ground, to mud-colored wings folded tightly together.
“Oh.” The butterfly is large but not blue. She is surprised by her disappointment. She is looking for a sign to her future. “It’s not what I expected,” she says.
“You’re very lucky to see it. They are rare at the beach.” The man offers his hand. “I am Pedro. You have been unwell?”
She looks around. There are only about ten cabinas. The resort is smaller than she expected. She supposes everyone knows everyone by the end of the week. “Yes, I’m Emily.”
He shakes her hand, then waves vaguely in the direction of the beach. “My house is on the next property. I am out for a short walk. Would you like to join me, Miss Emily?”
His formality makes her feel he’s trustworthy. She looks out towards the water. The waves are huge. What made her think she wanted to surf those waves? They hurtle towards the shore, collapse with thunderous crashes. But the garden is lovely.
“Your young man is well occupied. We have time before they come in to eat. We’ll stop for coffee first?” He offers her an arm but she doesn’t take it, thinking that he’s just teasing her, that the offer is a joke.
The coffee is thick, muddy and bitter. She loves it. He signals for a second cup, some yoghurt, then eggs, beans and rice.
“You look very pink and well now,” Pedro says. “You are coming into your own. Is that the correct expression?”
Is she coming into her own? She isn’t sure she understands the meaning of the expression in the first place. She senses that she has drifted away from her true self, become more like Liam in the two years they’ve been dating, thinking only at the surface of things. The idea scares her. Pedro pays for her breakfast, despite her protests, then leads her down the lane away from the resort.
“You and the surfer—Liam—you are committed to one another?” Pedro asks. He walks slowly, with his hands linked behind him at the end of his spine. He looks relaxed and confident in a way that is rare in men closer to her age.
“No, not really,” she says, more truthfully than she intended.
He slows, lets some small birds scatter without scaring them. “Why not? He seems very pleasant.”
“That’s a pretty personal thing for a stranger to ask.”
“But you travel with him. Surely you have given this important question some thought?”
Why hasn’t she? Some infirmity of purpose? Ahead, a rural road meanders along the shoreline, feeds the driveways into small resorts and private homes. They turn left, saunter silently until they come to a roadside store, a rough shack with a couple fridges, a wall of cigarettes, a combination lock hanging on a hook by the door.
“Two Cokes,” says Pedro, and points to a package of cigarettes. The boy behind the counter pops the tops off the bottles before he hands them over, then rifles in a shoebox for change. The bottle is shockingly cold against Emily’s skin. She has become accustomed to the Costa Rican heat.
Pedro offers her a cigarette outside the shop. She shakes her head. He straightens to attention, sniffs the air, looks offended by what he smells. His hand goes to his chest and fingers the medal of St. Christopher, an unconscious habit, she thinks.
“About two months ago,” she says, her eyes on the shiny medal, “I stopped living.”
He mishears her. “Stopped loving?” he asks.
She nods. “Stopped loving. Liam. School. My life.” Now she smells what he smells, a bitter, pungent odour. “What is that?” she asks.
A mangy black dog walks by them, veers to the opposite side of the road and noses the ground. Three mango trees have dropped their fruit, fat golden globes gone squishy and brown in the roadside ditches.
Despite the stench, she moves in closer. The fumes make her eyes water, the fruit’s sweetness buried beneath furry molds, oxidation and fermentation. “What a waste—all this good food just spoiling here.” The dog nudges a mango that seems ripe and whole. She lunges to grab it but falls to her knees and lands on her hands, mashing more fruit into the ground. She finds herself crying, tears streaming down her cheeks, mucus dripping from her nose.
Pedro offers a clean hankie from his pocket, heavy linen. She can’t remember the last time she saw a man’s hankie. She wipes her hands clean, leaves the tears and snot on her face. “You must think I’m crazy,” she says, and he lifts his shoulders in a way that suggests he is not put off by her outburst. “I associate mangoes with exotic places,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to travel, so when Liam suggested we go away together, I was excited. But we booked this trip months ago and since then—” Pedro’s expression is patient, encouraging. “I feel different. Overwhelmed,” she says. “I’m supposed to be finishing school, finding work. I know I must sound like a spoiled brat. I should have outgrown this stage, but the truth is, I don’t want to go where I’m headed. I just don’t know what I want instead.”
Pedro puts a hand on her shoulder, turns her back to the fruit. “You don’t want the beautiful mangoes to rot.” Two butterflies flit by, open their wings to reveal a striking, iridescent blue. She has never seen creatures in nature this colour. “But look,” Pedro says. “See how the rot is so delicious to the Morphos.”
She stares at the butterflies. They rise and settle, flash dull brown then neon blue as their wings open and close. “Let’s keep walking,” Pedro says, steering her away. “Sniff your inner arm. It will clean your nose, cleanse your palate.” She is doubtful. He says, “Trust me.” She sniffs, wiping her cheeks on the sleeve of her t-shirt. He’s right. Her inner arm smells of sun-dried cotton sheets. The smell of spoilage is gone.
Liam leaps onto the restaurant platform where Emily and Pedro sit together eating early dinner. “You’ve met Pedro!” he says.
She ducks away from his embrace. “You’re cold and wet!”
He tosses a towel around his shoulders. “You look great. Have I seen that dress before?”
Emily glances towards Pedro. He has ordered a whole fish and is now filleting it with precision, removing the spine and all the smaller bones with a single confident movement. He places the skeleton on the side of the platter, serves her a perfect, unbroken piece of flesh. It sits white and glistening on her plate.
Liam flips around a chair, sits on it backwards. “You can see Pedro’s amazing house next door from the beach,” he says.
“Yes, I’ve heard.” It’s the strangest sensation, to look at the man she has been sleeping with for such a long time and feel nothing.
“It’s so good to see you up and about,” he says. “Too bad we need to drive back to San José tomorrow.” Liam turns to Pedro. “Early-morning flights. A seven-day vacation ends up being five.”
A few stray fish scales on the table flash opalescent, like the wings of the Morpho. The ocean creeps up the beach; she can hear its tidal conversation with the moon. Under her hands, the dress is gauzy like Pedro’s shirt. He stood by while she bought it, saying nothing about her choice, venturing no opinion. But he found the timing of her illness interesting. “This purging,” he said, as they’d strolled back onto the property and into the restaurant. “When did you say you began to feel better?”
Liam leans forward, pinches off a piece of the fish from her plate. “So what have you two found to talk about?” he asks.
Emily forks the fish, claiming it as her own. She says, “We’ve been talking about how I could extend my research here.” Liam looks at her, at Pedro—expectantly, patiently—as if waiting for the punch line to some joke she is telling. His expression is open, even affectionate, but still he doesn’t ask for details. She holds off telling him that she will not be driving back to San José with him the next day. She keeps secret the luscious sexiness of mangos. Instead, she lifts her arm and sniffs the warm skin of her inner elbow—the smell of something wiped clean, or perhaps about to start.