Did you miss my reading at Jax by Jax? This adapted excerpt of my memoir-in-progress is the moment I thought back to when I first started questioning my sexual identity. Standing out is always a risk. Here’s the best and worst of what can happen when we go all-in.
When we landed at Juan Santamaría International Airport, I imagined living in a hut, nestled in the wild tropical landscape of Costa Rica. Mike envisioned something more grand, with maid’s quarters and a manicured yard. Thanks to a U.S. salary in Latin America, the scope of possibility was wide. Soon, Mike would start his new job at an online gambling company, an ethically questionable but legal endeavor, as far as we could tell.
The next day, we ventured from our temporary accommodations to La Sabana Park. I was feeling invincible in my turquoise mini skirt, intent on a picnic to celebrate my twenty-sixth birthday. Mike trailed as I pranced through foliage, snapping pictures of orchids and clumps of bamboo. We hadn’t come to be tourists though. So once we’d had our fill, we decided it was time. Assimilation step one: ride the public bus.
“You ready for this?” I said to Mike. Police on horseback passed behind us as I plopped on a metal bench by the side of the road.
Mike stood to my left, feet planted wide as if he belonged, as if café con leche wasn’t the lone Spanish phrase in his vocabulary. “We have to do it eventually,” he said. “It’s not like we can take taxis the whole time we’re here.”
An afternoon breeze blew wisps of bright blonde hair into my face. I brushed them aside, along with the fact I had made it through just enough Rosetta Stone Spanish to ask a driver to drop us off at the park.
“Can you believe we’re finally here?” I said, as much to myself as to Mike.
By finally, I meant two and a half weeks. That’s all we needed to lease our house in the states, sell the Jetta and the majority of our wedding presents, and arrive in Central America. Conventional adulthood successfully postponed.
A broad smile spread across Mike’s face. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
I drew in a breath of warm, wet air. We were high on life—Pura Vida, as the locals would say. Sunrays pierced a clear blue sky as a dusty red car slowed and pulled to the curb.
“Are we really that obvious?” I mumbled. I figured we looked like tourists in need of a ride.
Mike waved the car forward in a heavy American accent. “No grassy-ass.”
Two men exited the car, muttering words in Spanish we couldn’t understand. One man strode toward Mike. The other stopped in front of me. Still working his words out in my brain, I dropped my head to my chest. A dull black barrel nudged the strap of my purse. My limbs went rigid, and my hands seemed to float, as I lifted my eyes to meet his hard, leathery face. All at once, I understood: We were being robbed.
Howling like a siren, I ripped my purse over my head and gave the man what he wanted.
“Get outta here!” Mike’s voice rose over an onslaught of cars. He paid no mind to the gun at his chest and swatted his attacker like a pestering fly.
“Vamonos!” grunted my assailant, as he backed away and motioned for his friend to retreat.
Mike shouted, “Hand that over!” and chased the duo through the street for my purse. The men ran with their guns aimed at Mike.
I scanned the park, frantic. A handful of spectators assembled on the lawn. The building marked Policía showed no signs of activity.
“Mike, stop! It’s not worth it.” Clinging to the pole of a sign I couldn’t read, I sobbed.
The men brandished their pistols, reached their car, then fled. Mike came back unscathed, still in possession of his own bag. He stood on the curb in linen shorts, hair gel glistening in the sun, and hailed a taxi back to our temporary accommodations.
In the backseat of the cab, I wept. “Why did no one help us? Pura Vida, my ass.”
Mike handed the driver a scrap of paper with directions to our destination, then eyed me from his side of the car. “We can’t tell anybody about this.”
“I know,” I said. “My mom would freak.”
He plunged a hand into his briefcase and rummaged through the center pocket. “I don’t get it. The book said Costa Rica is the safest place in Central America.”
I didn’t need the book to double check. I could picture the quote’s exact layout on the page, hear us regurgitating the words to concerned family. Staring out the window at the hilly expanse of horizon, I stated the obvious catch. “Safest doesn’t necessarily mean safe.”
Mike sat back empty-handed and sighed. In the front seat, the driver stirred.
“Que paso? You okay?” His eyes searched the rearview mirror, duct-taped and hovering above the dash.
I returned his gaze. “Habla Inglés?”
“Poquito. A little,” he said.
Index and thumb in the shape of a gun, I gestured toward Mike. “We got robbed. Mi esposo chased them away.”
The man’s eyes grew wide. “No.”
Mike stretched tall in his seat. “Si.”
“You are lucky,” the man said. “Last week a man—an ex-Marine—was shot. He did not want to give up his computer.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “In Parque La Sabana?”
“Si,” said the man.
Mike threw me a look. “You wanna reconsider that gated community?”
I folded my hands in my lap and conceded. A gated community might be a good idea.
After the painstaking process of reporting our incident to the authorities, otherwise known as the OIJ, we revised our long-term rental criteria. By midweek, we settled on a gated string of houses in Escazu—the gringo capital of Costa Rica.
To hold our desired unit, the landlord wanted the security deposit and first-month’s rent in cash. U.S. checks were of no interest to him, and as foreigners, we weren’t permitted to open a local bank account. So the job of retrieving $800 from the corner ATM fell on me.
“I’d go myself, but I can’t miss this call.” Mike stood at the foot of the stairs and held the door open to the parking lot.
Camouflaged in beige capris, fake Birkenstocks, and a neutral-colored shirt, I cast a sideways glance at him. “Here goes nothin’. No bag this time.”
He let the screen door slam behind me. “Where are you gonna put the money?”
I shrugged. “I’ll figure it out.”
He flashed me a thumbs-up. “You got this.”
Marching toward the sidewalk, I scanned my surroundings. If not for the swaths of mountains painted on the distant sky and the storefronts labeled in Spanish, I could have believed I was running errands on foot in a U.S. suburb. To my right, intermittent rows of manicured hedges stood atop long, skinny patches of sod. Cars grumbled, exhaling whiffs of exhaust to my left.
Three blocks. That’s as far as I had to go to reach the red machine marked ATH, the Costa Rican abbreviation for ATM, on the side of Scotiabank. One intersection away from my destination, I thought in earnest through my plan. Should I split the cash between two pockets? Too obvious, and much too risky. My sock? Nope. I wasn’t wearing any. I dashed across the street through a break in traffic. A few more steps, and I arrived.
The screen was familiar enough. Español ôr Inglés? I selected my native language and followed the prompts.
Max withdrawal $400. I flinched at the machine’s buzz. Repeating the drill, I revised my request. With a whir and a clack, it spat a stack of twenties into my palm. I shoved them in my pocket and hurried toward the bank door.
“Hola.” A lady in a skirt suit holding a clipboard welcomed me inside.
I nodded. Smiled. Hoped they took Bank of America at a Canadian financial institution in Costa Rica. An armed guard paced the waiting area, his presence oddly comforting as I stood in line for the additional four-hundred I needed. Inside, I felt safe. I could think again. And then, the idea came to me.
“Cuatrocientos por favor,” I said to the teller when I reached the front of the line.
The teller ran her fingers over her keyboard and unlocked a drawer below the counter. “Una bolsa, señorita?” She offered me a paper sack.
“No. No gracias.” I accepted the cash, twenty more twenties, and prepared for my final maneuver.
Halfway to the door, when no one was watching, I combined my two piles of twenties. There were forty bills in total, enough to roll into a healthy sized cylinder. Stretching open the top of my V-neck shirt, I stashed them in the safest, most inconspicuous place I could imagine: my bra.
Head down, heart pounding, I exited the bank. I was drunk on the brilliance of my own plan. Everything in reverse was all I had left to do. Standing on the corner, waiting for a break in traffic, I almost felt sexy with a secret wad of cash pressed against my left boob. When I saw my chance, I made a run for it.
A few strides in, I realized something wasn’t right. I stopped dead in the middle of the street, but not soon enough. Before I understood what was happening, paper bills went fluttering in all directions out the bottom of my shirt. Reality registered, and I braced for impending doom.
Glass doors from both sides of the road flung open. People flooded the street, grabbing at swirls of twenties. With a firm grip on what little I could gather, I scanned the crowd, expecting a pistol to emerge at any second. Which man would it be this time? Or would it be a woman when I least expect it?
The people seemed to be closing in, moving toward me. My breath caught jagged in my throat. Then one by one, they handed over the twenties, motioning for me to accept.
“Señorita, aqui. Rapido.” A woman in a long dress, dark hair pulled loosely behind her head, waved me to her side of the road. Genuine concern was etched on her soft, brown face.
I couldn’t speak, but I knew to walk. Stuffing my recovered fistful of twenties into my pockets, I followed the woman’s instructions. We linked arms, and without a word, she ushered me into her shop. My mind was too jacked on adrenaline to take in my surroundings. In one version I remember rows of hanging clothes. Other times I see stacks of giant carpet rolls covered in clear plastic. By the time she offered me a brown paper bag, I was oriented enough to accept.
Within minutes, I was on the street again. The woman called a cab and, taking my arm once more, saw me safely into the backseat.
“Gracias, señora,” I said. Bagged cash in hand, I waved as the taxi pulled away with me inside, too stunned and scared to count how much I’d lost.
Back at the condo, I tossed the paper bag onto the glossy wood table where Mike sat working on something important and nursing a cup of café con leche.
“You owe me,” I said.
He surveyed my crossed arms and furrowed brow. “What’s with the bag?”
“It’s a miracle I didn’t get robbed again. All the money fell out in the middle of the intersection. No way in hell am I going back.”
He cocked his head. “How’d that happen?”
Staring at the ceiling, I kicked off my sandals. “I carried it in my bra and, well…you know I don’t do underwires.”
He slapped the table and burst into laughter. “You’re kidding me.”
I propped a hand on my waist. “It’s not funny.”
“Well, let’s see how much you lost.” He emptied the bag onto the table and pointed. “You count.”
“Fine,” I said. “But first, coffee.” Forcing an exhale, I headed to the kitchen for the glass pot. The coffee was still hot, stronger than back home. It warmed my chest as I sipped my way back to the table.
One by one, I grabbed each crumpled twenty from the heap and stacked them in neat piles of five. Mike busied himself on his laptop while I counted. One, two, three, four, five.
“Seven hundred so far,” I said to Mike. “That’s pretty good.”
Reaching for the last of the dough, I guessed at how close I’d come to one more pile of five. I counted in silence. One. Two. Three. Four.
“Mike.” I set down my mug and held up the last twenty. Number five. “It’s all here.” He hovered his fingers over the keyboard. “All eight hundred?”
“Forty twenties. Eight hundred,” I said.
Mike resumed clacking at his computer as I sat dumbfounded over forty twenty-dollar bills. If most Costa Ricans—Ticos and Ticas as they referred to themselves—had hearts like the ones outside the bank, I felt lucky to be there.
Mike and I didn’t last long. After six months abroad, the U.S. outlawed online gambling, and we abandoned our tropical paradise for San Francisco. Seven years, four moves, and two kids later, we parted ways. Before that though, I often retold the story of me standing in the middle of a Costa Rican street, money fluttering out of my bra. Thanks to that incident, I knew when my life started falling apart, a community would be there to help me pick up the pieces. In the end, I came out whole.
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