Fear 3

Irish talks about fear. She fell, crushed half her face and lost her right eye. Of course she’s afraid of going back on the boat. No job and savings wiped out by divorce, she fears medical bills, as do many in much better shape. She fears for our relationship.

After losing her job, the day before she fell, she asked me if I “could still love an unemployed miscreant.”  Her question was not out of the blue. This isn’t the first time Irish and I had gotten together.

We had connected on a dating site years ago, and met for dinner. We talked and laughed for three hours and closed the restaurant, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere: she’s conservative and I’m liberal, she lived with two adult sons and three dogs in a rented house 150 miles away from where I lived, I was on my way out of the country for weeks or months … and I intended to buy a sailboat and head for adventure.

After our date, I hugged her goodnight. She seemed so tiny and frail in my arms. That was that, because I wanted to be a gentleman.

A month or two later, after I returned from my trip, we had plans for a second date. While I was gone, the country went on daylight savings but I had not reset the clock in my truck. She called.

“Where are you?”

“On my way, but still early.”

“Um, no, you’re late.”

“It’s only 2:30, we’re meeting at 3 …

“It’s 3:30.”

“Oh no!” I said, when I realized what happened. “Please wait for me. We’ll get everything on the appetizer menu, and anything you want for dinner, I’m not that far away … please?”

She found that endearing, she waited, and we had another wonderful, four-hour conversation. That’s when she told me about her Parkinson’s Disease, and her fibromyalgia, and migraines and spinal fusion after she fell and cracked vertebrae in her neck …

It was full disclosure.

But the person you tell these things needs to know what you’re talking about, and I didn’t really have a clue.

We didn’t kiss after that date, either. While I could see a wonderful friendship, I still didn’t think it would evolve into romance, and I was trying to be a gentleman.

We had a third date. We kissed, and discovered we had what she called “kiss compatibility.” I still remember the first time I felt her fingertips on my skin.

Then I bailed out.

As she was planning our fourth date, and talking about when I could meet her best friend, and her sons. I was reading about Parkinson’s Disease and fibromyalgia and brooding on “two adult sons at home, three dogs, part-time job, a disabling disease that at some point will require constant care and then kill her…”

Just how does all this fit onto a sailboat headed to Fiji? The sailboat dream had been my refuge for decades, had prevented me from making horrible life compromises that I was otherwise willing to make for all the wrong reasons, had “kept me afloat” in more ways than one.

I knew I was falling for her, but we did not have the same future lined up, and I thought it was better not to get too much farther down the road of romance or the damage would be awful.

Three dates and out, I thought was being a gentleman.

But I could not stop musing on the way she said simply, “Hey” when she texted or called me or answered the phone when I called. That was really weird. Just the simple, drama free, glad to hear from you, “Hey.” It took a while, but I checked back in, just saying “hey.”

Predictably and justifiably, Irish responded, “What the hell do you want?” or something like that. “You made me feel I was unlovable because of my Parkinson’s.”

“It was because I could fall in love with you that Parkinson’s scared me away,” I told her.

“We don’t know what and how the Parkinson’s will progress,” she told me. “Many things could happen.”

After a while, she agreed to fourth date. We’ve been together since. So, she’s not being unreasonable to fear for our relationship. I’ve had a few fears of my own.

After she fell, I spent the first night in the hospital pacing and waiting for her to come out of surgery. I spent the next night on the couch in her recovery room listening to hospital sounds and nurses who came in every two hours to administer pain meds and antibiotics, check her pulse, oxygen, etc.

I was far beyond tired by the next day after two nights without sleep and drinking far too many cups of coffee and cans of ginger ale. The caffeine and sugar were no longer keeping me alert, but had morphed into agitation.

“Can you love an unemployed miscreant, with only one eye?” Irish mumbled the question from her damaged mouth. She remembers being desperately afraid of my answer while knowing that then and there I could not answer “No.” I gave her a kiss, a squeeze. I don’t remember what I said.

“You told me something I needed to hear, that I hoped was true,” she said later.

But when I left the hospital to shower, and buy a sweatshirt and T-shirt to replace ones they cut off her in the emergency room, her fear burrowed into me and became mine: ugly, self-absorbed, anguish-ladened fear that seemed match, drop for drop, the cold, soaking, wind-driven rain that pounded the streets of Victoria.

I was once afraid of flying, so I bought an old plane and became a (mediocre) pilot. I love to travel to far-away places where English is rarely spoken with absolutely no clue what I’m going to do after the first night. I drive a race car at 160 mph through blind corners inches away from other cars.

At an age when many are looking forward to a lounge chair and afternoon of televised football (that I never cared much about before the Seahawks), I bought a sailboat. I’d never really sailed before, but the plan was to take it to Alaska for a shakedown this summer and then on to south, maybe even New Zealand.

I’m an adrenalin junkie. That’s not unusual for someone of my background. I’m also “a runner.” The closer I become to someone, the more I love them, the greater the danger I will fear my own vulnerability and run, sometimes for a pretext so flimsy it’s obvious I’m running from fear. It’s my inheritance.

Two days after Irish fell I set foot again on the boat and looked to see where she fell.The wood rail where she struck had no sign of the impact, but it was so much harder than her delicate cheek, nose, skull, and eye. There were spots of blood on the deck and I wondered which held fragments of her burst and missing cornea.

Sleepless, feeling helpless, I growled through clenched teeth at the boat.

“Why!? Why?!? You jealous bitch, why did you do this to her!?”

Cold and indifferent, the boat declined to answer.

I knew I was being foolish, that the boat had done nothing, the boat was an inanimate object, that the fall was an accident, a misstep, a bad decision in footwear, a breaking of Boating Rule #1 to always keep a hand for yourself, hold on to something when moving about.

But I was irrational, anger was setting in, even as I know better than most that all anger has its roots in fear. All the fears that chased me away from Irish the first time returned, with a vengeance for their exile. Almost as quickly as I had boarded the boat, I showered off the sleepless hospital night and headed out into rain pelting downtown Victoria and I walked, looking for something to look for so I did not have to go back to the hospital quite yet.

I blamed Parkinson’s for the fall, not the stupid heavy socks. I howled at myself for ignoring my earlier “knowledge” of the inevitability of Irish’s immobilization, I cried that that she would be helpless unless I helped her, that the sailboat was now gone, adventure a thing of memory, that I was about to become … be … immobilized, encased in my own fat and bound by chains of duty.

And then, St. Francis showed up in the form of a prayer I remembered vaguely from countless meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It wasn’t like I didn’t bring my own host of disabilities to this relationship, after all.

“… Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!

That where there is hatred, I may bring love.

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.

That where there is error, I may bring truth.

That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.

That where there is despair, I may bring hope.

That where there are shadows, I may bring light.

That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.

To understand, than to be understood.

To love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.”

Why this prayer? Unlike Irish, I’m no Catholic and some would say I’m not even a Christian. That’s okay, I’ve long thought of myself as a Taoist and I’ve been known to debate the definition of God, wherever She may dwell.

But the prayer brought quick, deep relief. It seemed I saw through the words and into the meaning of how, and why, St. Francis sought to comfort than be comforted. Then I heard Irish speak.

“I don’t want anything from you that is not given with a glad heart,” she said to me. She had told me once that she taught her boys this lesson, and I heard it as plainly as if she were standing beside me, as if the narcotics that bound her to bed in the hospital had given her the gift of teleportation.

I didn’t know the future. I didn’t need to know. Two miles away lay a woman I loved in a hospital bed, terribly injured. I had not only the duty but a deep desire to be there with her, make sure that she had a ginger ale if she wanted a sip, pain medication if she was hurting, to comfort her if she was frightened, as she was sure to be.

The memory of the sound of her face hitting the coaming on the boat makes me shudder, and always will, but I wanted to be there. I still am.

We’re planning to take the boat to Alaska in June. It’s been about eight weeks since Irish fell on Foxy, our boat.  We are on the ferry now, on our way back to Victoria. In two hours we’ll be back on board, for the first time for Irish, after many misgivings for me.

But it’s time.

Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Irish: Pain, and Fear

by Jane Miller

My world exploded on Thursday, but the fuse was ignited on Monday when I was fired from my job. I had more than half expected it, work was a toxic environment at best, but the finality of it was daunting.

Erik was determined to keep my spirits up though, and we set off on a walkabout. Being in Victoria with him, being on the boat with him, just being with him made me irrepressibly happy. I was afraid, though, what this change in employment and finances would bring to our relationship. My voice shook as I nervously asked him if he could still date an unemployed miscreant who couldn’t hold down a job. I had learned long ago that there were perils to asking a question to which one did not know the answer.

Four days later, I fell while stepping from one side of the boat to the other.

Erik remembers the sound, and for that I am sorry. His expression changes when he remembers.

I remember the pain. I lost myself as it enveloped me. I screamed and the pain was excruciating. “ERIK!” I begged him to make the pain go away, even as I knew he couldn’t. I begged God to make it stop. But it didn’t. I lost words and could only say “Oh” as I rocked back and forth, trying to comfort myself.

Erik described the logistics and the sequence of events. How the paramedics found the boat because of the flashing Christmas lights. What he did not know, though, was that when the paramedics went to work on me, asking questions, completing their triage, I heard one of them catch his breath and say, “Is that her cheekbone?”

One of them gently palpitated the back of my neck, and when I said that it hurt (such varying degrees and kinds of pain I was experiencing) I remembered my neck surgery – a discectomy and fusion at C4-5 and C5-6. The paramedics insisted on putting me in a cervical collar. It was made for someone larger than me, and threatened to choke me, but I was too close to unconsciousness to care.

I don’t remember how I left the boat. As I piece together the events, I realize I must have walked off with the help of the paramedics. There I was, with what ended up being a crushed nose, shattered cheek, my right orbit broken in pieces too numerous to count, a ruptured eye, and a depressive skull fracture … walking off the boat.

As I was put on the gurney, my only thought, though, was knowing where Erik was. As long as he was with me, as long as I could hear his voice, I knew I would live. Being essentially blind, I needed to hear his strength through the sound of his voice and the touch of his warm fingers. If I lost that, I was afraid that I would crawl inside myself and never be able to come out.

The pain had the power to drive me to ground, and Erik was the only anchor in a too-dark world.

I was triaged at one hospital, then transferred with lights and sirens to the Royal Jubilee hospital, which had an ophthalmological surgery unit. A new voice entered my world as Dr. Taylor explained the extent of damage and the low probability of either saving my eye or my sight. I finally had enough pain meds in my system so I could breathe, and I knew Erik was with me, but I clung to his voice as they wheeled me to the OR.

Call my family,” I asked Erik. “But after surgery.”

Surgery on my eye lasted three-and-a-half hours. It had basically exploded and was torn more than half way around. I’d lost the iris, and there was so much blood an ultrasound couldn’t locate any retina left. I spent the next three days in recovery. The surgeons didn’t try to repair my crushed face, leaving that for later.

Erik made appointments for me with the best doctors back in Oregon as soon as I could travel. He organized air travel so there would be wheelchairs waiting every step of the way. He rarely left my side, sleeping on the couch in my hospital room, waking with me every two hours when nurses came in to apply medication. On Sunday, the day before we left, he made me walk around the hospital ward.

Still, I was terrified by the question I had asked about whether he could love me when I had lost my job. Now, how could he love an unemployed miscreant with one blind eye? How would we do this? How could I sail? Erik was the first to point out that I became seasick in rough seas, that I was afraid when the boat heeled over too far. How would I be now? We had started to work on the deficits that came with Parkinson’s, but this …

This was a deficit I didn’t know we could overcome. Erik had had this dream for twenty years – sailing, Fiji, trans-Pacific crossings – but his dream had not included a partner with such failings. But I didn’t ask. I couldn’t ask.

We arrived in Oregon four days after my fall and saw a doctor at the Casey Eye Institute the next day. We set up appointments to have another ultrasound, made plans to repair the bones in my face, and began ultimate plans to try to save my eye. Little did we know it would all be for naught.

Two weeks after the fall we were sitting in the retinologist’s office, going over the ultrasound that had just been taken, being told of the poor prognosis of seeing even light and dark, the medical hazards involved in keeping a blind eye, and the recommendation of surgery to remove the eye completely. It was difficult to breathe.

We needed a break, we needed to eat, talk, hold hands. Decide what to do.

I was now an unemployed miscreant with one prosthetic eye. Good grief. How was this going to fit in with Fiji? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

This time, though, we didn’t mention the boat. We didn’t mention sailing. We just talked about what would be best for my health and for us. I told him I loved him, which I do all the time. He told me he loved me, too.

Water

Water dripped from the valve behind the engine at the bottom of the boat. It wasn’t that hard to get to because “Foxy” has more room to move around in than most boats, but the valve was behind other hoses, and contortions were required to even get down into the hold.

It was raining like stink outside. Tarps I bought to cover the leaky hatches should stop water from dripping onto rugs in the main salon, tiny splashes that woke us up the night before. The dinghy that lay partially deflated over the forward hatch, air leak still not found, should keep rain water off the sheets in the stateroom.

Some said I had no business buying this boat. By any rational standard, they’re right for many reasons. I don’t know anything about boats like this, even less about sailing. But I love the water, and figure I have one grand adventure in me. I had a chance to acquire Foxy and I took it, depending on my general mechanical knowledge (mediocre), ability to acquire new information (pretty good) and my desire for adventure (excessive, nearly pathological) to keep me safe.

Being in the bowels of a gently rocking boat was the result of ten years dreaming about it. Hopefully it would not become a nightmare.

It didn’t matter if the valve was on or off, water dripped and added to the inch or two washing about as Foxy swayed gently at her dock lines. I reached down and flipped up the float on what I thought was the bilge pump. Nothing. If the water continued to drip for the week I expected to be gone, I could come back to find a flooded engine room, or worse.

I’d promised Irish weeks ago I would attend the gathering that evening at the school where she was getting her MBA. It’s a four hour drive to Portland — and that assumed no delays going through Seattle, not usually a good assumption.  I should have been on the road a half hour ago.

Irish would understand completely if I called and told her the boat was leaking and I couldn’t make it. She’s really good like that. She would also be disappointed, and in the short while we’d been together, absurdly short considering the bond we felt for each other, seeing her smile had become a major priority for me.

Besides, I have a nearly Obsessive/Compulsive need to do what I’ve said I’ll do, and I’d said I’d be there.

Turning the valve off seemed to make the leak a little worse, adding an extra drip in between the steady “drip, drip, drip” I’d noticed when I pointed the flashlight into the engine room before closing the hatch one last time. Now it went “drip drop, drip drop, drip drop.” I turned the valve back on, the cadence  didn’t change. I flipped the float again  on what I thought was the bilge pump, again the pump didn’t come on.

With a bit of reluctance I turned traitor to my life-time habit of stubborn self-sufficiency and called the boat yard. No answer. It was Saturday, and everyone was working the boat show down in Seattle. I finally called the owner of the yard on his cell phone, feeling more than a little foolish in again putting the massive mountain of my ignorance on display.

“I’ll have Curtis go check it out. I’ll call as soon as I know something,” Jim said. There’s something reassuring about people who will “just take care of it,” whatever “it” is. Jim is one of those. I’m looking forward to following him up to Alaska a year from now as part of a small flotilla. By then, all the little leaks, cracked hoses, dead electrical connections should be taken care of.

But she’s a boat. Which means “there’s always something,” as I’ve heard and read, even about this boat, “my” boat,” in a story written long before I knew her. My friend Jaime says there’s something to the theory you should always leave something undone, because as soon as you think everything is all taken care of, a boat will break something else, usually at the worst possible moment.

Like now. Drip drop, drip drop.

I had to go, and hit the road south toward Portland. This was not good, not good.

Curtis from the yard called an hour later. He got the leak to stop by turning the valve off. Maybe I hadn’t turned it quite far enough, not wanting to break it off. He said the bilge pump worked just fine, maybe I was trying to trip the alarm float switch, which he’ll look at on Monday.

Jim calls later to say the same thing. “Happy to do it,” he replies to my thanks. Worry begins to lift.

When I show up to change from dirty, bilge-tainted boat clothes into a suit and tie for the celebration with Irish, she greets me with a hug, and a smile that makes everything seem like it’s going to be okay.

Full sail

Thailand?

“More coffee?” I’m trying to prolong the conversation.

“No, really, I have to go,” you say.

“Me too,” I say. “How about we go together? Thailand?”  You give me a very strange look.

“Thailand? Thailand is half-way around the world.”

“Not quite. Halfway would be off the tip of South Africa. In the water. Not much of a vacation, but I’d probably go there with you.”

“That’s insane,” you say.

“Haven’t we covered that? I prefer crazy.”

“You prefer being crazy over being rational, maybe,” you say, almost like that’s a bad thing.

“You get it! I knew we had something in common!”

“We don’t,” you respond quickly, reaching for some clarity.

“We should,” I respond. “Look at all the fun we could have.” I have no intention of letting clarity anywhere near this conversation.

“You can’t ‘should have’ something in common. You do or you don’t,” you say with slight exasperation. That’s just one of the things I like about you, the way you show frustration with me so easily. Some try to hide it.

“It can’t be both?” I’ve got you now, but you don’t see it coming.

“Having something in common and not having something in common? No, that’s inconsistent.” You pride yourself on a consistency I’m about to turn into a hobgoblin.

“We have coffee in common,” I say.

“That has nothing to do with this,” the rising tone of your voice tells me you sense the trap.

“We don’t have lipstick in common,” I continue, as if you had not said a thing.

“Stop it.” You see it clearly, now.

“So, obviously, we have something, coffee, in common and don’t have something, lipstick, in common. Happens all the time. In fact, having and not having something in common is something we all have in common.”

“I’m leaving,” you say.

“We can be in Thailand this time next month if you’ll say ‘yes.’ ”

“Why Thailand?” you ask, closing the door again.

“Beautiful beaches, beautiful sunsets, good food, good times, laughter. Yadda yadda. All that, but more important, adventure!

“What happened to Bocas Del Toro?”

“You didn’t respond to Bocas. I’m upping the offer.”

“The food is better than in Bocas?”

“You ever go out for Bocas, or do you go out for Thai?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“There’s one in there somewhere. I might look for a boat there.”

“Where?”

“Thailand. Isn’t that what we’re talking about?

“I don’t know what we’re talking about any more.”

“Then let’s just sit here and enjoy each other’s silence. I like that, too. More coffee?”

You shake your head, but you’re still sitting here. I take that as a hopeful sign.

“Why a boat?” you ask a minute later, a little bit curious.

“Have to get home somehow.”

“You would take a boat back from Thailand?” you ask, with some incredulity.

“Not without stopping in New Zealand. Want to go?”

“Who are you again?” Now you’re trying to avoid the question.

“The guy you met for coffee. What do you think?”

“I think you’re very different than I expected.”

“In a bad way?”

“Not bad, just… different.”

Bocas

“Would you like to go to Bocas del Toro in March? Let’s stay a month. Get out of winter.  I know a great little place on the water.”

“But I don’t even know you!” you said.

“You would after a month in Bocas.” I say this with a smile, but it’s pretty much true.

“But you don’t even know me!”

“I would after a month in Bocas.” I was being flippant, I admit it.

“That’s just insane.”

“I prefer crazy.”

“You can use either word,” you say. “They’re synonyms.”

“No, I meant, I prefer crazy. Prefer it over the ordinary, or the conventional, or the really truly rational. I’d rather not spend the last of my days being too rational.”

“Why do you say ‘last of your days?’ Are you sick?”

“No. Just crazy. And that’s not a synonym for sick.”

“So why are these the last of your days?”

“Each today is the last of your days. By definition.” I say this with a smile.

“That isn’t how that’s supposed to be used.” You’re getting frustrated.

“But that’s how I prefer to live.”

“What if you don’t like me?” you ask. I don’t blame you for being a little nervous.

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t suggest we go to Bocas together.”

“What if I don’t like you?” you asked.

“I guess you go home. Or go to Belize. No, that’s not a good idea, I may go to Belize after Bocas, and if you don’t like me, there might not be room for both of us. It’a a small country. So how about it?”

“How about what?”

“Bocas del Toro. Or Belize. Thailand? Bali? Fiji? I’ll pay for airfare and the hotels. We’ll split meals unless we fall in love.”

“What happens then?”

“That would be a really great way to spend the last of our todays, no matter how many we have left.”

“May I think about it?”

“Of course, but don’t take too long.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I don’t want to spend the last of my days waiting. That would be insane, and I’m not crazy.”

Butterflies

He turned sideways in the aisle to move past passengers still struggling to jam slightly too-large carry-ons into the overhead compartment. I groaned inwardly, because I knew exactly where he was going to sit.

It had been a long couple of nights in San Jose. My room was right next to the bar, and synthesized music pounded incessantly on the wall above my head. It was cold and the blanket inadequate. Each night I huddled with my hands between my thighs to keep them warm.

I drifted off not long after I sat down on the plane, and dreamt I was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was me. I’d been looking forward to leaning up against the window and sleeping my way through the entire flight, maybe use the footwell of the empty seat next to me to stretch out.

That wasn’t going to happen. I knew it as soon as I saw him.

He was wearing greenish cargo shorts of some sort, with too many pockets full of too much stuff so they bulged in too many places; flip flops, and a shirt that might have been white once, a long while ago, but was so wrinkled it looked like it had been wadded up and tied with tight rubber bands. He was three days away from his last shave, and his hair, though clean, looked like he combed it with his fingers.

“Hi,” he said as he sat down. He dropped the small day pack he carried to the floor, shoved it under the seat in front of him with his feet.

“Hi. I wondered if I wouldn’t run into you on this flight. I was hoping for a nap.”

“Yeah, well…” his voice trailed off into a smile. “It’s good to see you again. I didn’t know if you noticed me hanging back there.”

“Not at first,” I said. “Have you been behind me the whole trip, or just since Quepos?”

“For longer than you know. Let’s leave it at that for now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why have I been behind you, or why are we leaving it at that?” he responded.

“Yes,” I said. His clothes had the slightest odor, I can’t say that it was unpleasant, but I could not identify it. It might have been food, or perhaps just the dense muskiness of being stored without air in his backpack.

“It seemed like you were doing some sort of research that might be of interest, we decided to find out.”

“Of interest to whom? Are you with the government? U.S. or Costa Rican?”

“Not really,” he said. “I work for more of a development agency, of sorts. Let’s leave it at that for a moment. Want a Coke?”

“They’re not serving. We’re barely off the ground.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“So, is your development agency a non governmental organization? Private company?” I asked.

“Stubborn, aren’t you? No wonder all those people spilled their lives out to you.”

“You know about that?”

“I thought that’s what we were talking about.”

“Is there an echo in here?”

“No,” he said. “I think it’s just the drop in cabin pressure.”

“So, somebody you work for or are involved with thinks that what I’ve been doing is of some interest from a development point of view?” I asked.

“Something like that.”

“Thats why you’ve been following me around?”

“No, I was following you, though that’s not the right term for it, to see if you were being honest or just out to exploit others.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

“Ouch.”

“You did okay,” he said, trying to soften the impact.

“Ouch.”

He got a tired expression on his face, and I swear he rolled his eyes, but caught himself and looked at me as directly as he could, given we were seated side-by-side in cramped airplane seats.

“Alright. You were as honest as you could be, and while you did stray a little close to the line at times, exploitation is hard to define when it comes to art. Do painters exploit their models?”

“Nice analogy,” I said.

“I’ve picked up a few pointers. The main thing is that you didn’t exploit for cheap or easy reasons. And you were honest. Those are high marks where I come from. Accept it and let it go.”

“Why sit next to me now, when you’ve tried so hard to stay out of sight?” I asked.

“Because we’re about done. You’re going home, and I needed to ask you some questions.”

“I’ll want to ask you some in turn,” I said.

“Fair enough, but do you mind if I go first?” he said.

“I suppose not. Go.”

“Do you have a favorite?”

I laughed out loud, because his question hit right in the middle of the bullseye. That was the very question I’d been asking myself. I looked out the window while I assembled my thoughts. He was able to stop the attendant and he even reached over and dropped my tray table. It took me until the two Cokes had arrived to give him an answer.

“I thought I would. I figured it would be Rebecca, of course, then thought it would be Olivia, how her potential was tempered by vulnerability. Alycia for her faith and serenity. Valerie’s blend of intelligence, wisdom and passion was stunning, and Avi’s innocence, honesty, and strength made him  “amazing,” to use his favorite word. Ed made me sad and of course, so did Pantalones, but that was no reason to reject them. So I don’t know. I didn’t get quite deep enough into the others, I suppose, or deep enough into myself where they would resonate.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“I learned I can live small and still feel fulfilled, as long as I have art. Rebecca, Valerie and Olivia made me realize how selfish I can be.”

“Why?” he asked, actually looked confused.

“By how much they give, are willing to give, the extent of their sacrifice. It may be a female thing,” and then I immediately regretted saying that. But by the way he smiled, I think he saw the regret and let it drop.

“What else did you learn?”

“How thin are the differences.”

“What do you mean?”

“We focus on the differences between us, between people or between people and animals, even between people and the ocean. But at so many levels, we are really all the same, at least have the same rhythms, and it is the rhythms that unify. I don’t have better words for it than that.”

It was his turn to look away and think for a while.

“What was your favorite place?” he asked.

“Bocas del Toro.”

“Because of Olivia and Alycia, Avi and Valerie? You know they won’t still be there if you ever go back,” this he said with a real look of compassion in his eyes. “Would you want to live there?”

“Probably not,” I said. “I think it was the water. I like Bocas, I will go back and maybe for a longer period of time, but I don’t want to die there. The Pacific Northwest is my home.”

“Okay. Last question. Why did you go? What were you looking for?”

“That’s two questions,” I said.

“And there will be followups. But humor me.”

“Adventure. Connection. Love, maybe.” I don’t think I’d admitted that even to myself before he asked.

“Did you find it?”

“No.”

“Really? What about the story of Olivia and Alycia? What about Avi and Valerie?”

“Well, yes, I saw their love, how they loved and how they were loved. I meant something else.”

“Something more personal?

“Something more my own,” I admitted.

“Let me ask you this. Do you believe you can perceive an emotion you don’t experience?” He was looking at me intently as he asked this, so I was a bit wary, careful with my answer.

“No, my guess is that perceiving the emotion is experiencing it.”

“Hah!” this exploded out of him, was so loud it startled me and caused the man on the aisle seat to look over, even though he was wearing headphones and watching a movie. “Good boy! So if perceiving emotions and experiencing them are the same, can we agree that by perceiving love, you experienced it?”

“That was a trap. Yes, I’ll agree I experienced a form of love and connection, but not the way I want to be loved and connected.”

“Well, let’s get to that. My guess is that if you have this capacity for love, you have been loved. Correct?”

“Okay.”

“What happened?”

“Different things at different times.”

“You fucked it up.” He managed to say that with compassion but I don’t know how.

“Mostly. Yes.”

“Why?”

“Different reasons in different relationships.”

“Really?” he asked, now in the same tone of voice people use when they say “seriously?” indicating a level of stupidity hard to believe.

“My exwife said I let go of what I want to reach for what I can’t have.”

“Sounds like a wise woman.”

“Yes, and your point would be…?”

“Oh, don’t get that way. I’m on your side,” he said.

“That remains to be seen,” I replied.

“Fair enough. So why did you fuck up your relationships?”

“Short version?”

“Please. For now.”

“I’m going to have to see you again?”

“Let’s stick to our topic for now, Evasive Boy.”

“The short version is that I didn’t find a partner to play in my playground.”

“Really? No one wanted to commit?” He said that “really” with the same tone of disbelief.

“There were some important differences.”

“I’m sure there were. Who focused on them?”

“I think I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my core values.”

“Values?”

“Okay. Desires. Wants. Aspirations.”

“So you sacrificed companionship instead? So you could live the life you wanted?”

“That seems a little harsh,” I said.

“The truth can be,” he threw back quickly. “But we’re not done. You may appreciate the outcome. What have people said about your little stories?”

“I would say for the most part readers have been very receptive.”

“Good Lord. ‘Very receptive?’ What in Hell are you hiding from?”

It was my turn to sigh. I don’t like talking about myself, and compliments make me uncomfortable. Especially when I am forced to recount them.

“Feedback has been very positive,” I said at last.

“Why?”

“Oh, Christ, I don’t know.”

“Bullshit.” He spat that word out like he had a mouthful.

“Because I shared something that I was seeing.”

“That you were seeing?” Now the sarcasm was thick as sour cream. “You were acting out your lifelong ambition of being a video camera? A seismograph? No editing involved, just recording?”

“Of course not. What I saw, what I felt, how it impacted me.”

“And readers liked this? Why?

“Because I engaged with them.”

“Engaged with readers, or with your subjects, with your butterflies?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Why did these people talk to you?”

“Why am I talking to you?” I shot back.

“Exactly. But let’s answer my question first.”

“Because I asked them questions?”

“Would they have opened their hearts to just anyone the way they opened them to you?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“You suppose not? Let me repeat: What in Hell are you hiding from?”

“They opened their hearts to me because… I cared about them. But they couldn’t know that so…”

He waved his hand in preemptive dismissal of my argument.

“Didn’t you once say that much of our personal communication is not verbal?”

“Yes.”

“So, let’s assume they knew that, in your own way, you loved them.”

“That’s a little strong.”

“Granted. But I’m not prepared to say that love is just one thing, and nothing else qualifies.”

“Me either,” I said, mildly offended at the implication.

“Then stop doing it.”

“You are a pain in the ass. What is it you do again?”

“I’m in the development business. So if the people you talked to knew, in some way, that you loved them, and you shared that experience with readers, you shared love, right?”

“You have stretched this far past the breaking point,” I said.

“I don’t think so. And I’m willing to bet that if you were able to summon the courage, that’s exactly what your readers would say if you asked them.”

“I thought they loved the writing.”

“There’s lots of wordsmith’s out there. I’m going to repeat the question: What were you looking for?”

“Answer’s the same. Adventure. Connection. Love.”

“Did you find it?

“In a way, I suppose. I perceived it, and by your definition, experienced it.”

“More than that. You showed love, received love, shared love.”

“But I didn’t hold love in my arms.”

“To say you have nothing because you don’t have everything seems a little selfish and small, especially coming from you: you who can love the father of a girl he abandoned for a principle; who can love an armored up tough girl trying to find fairness in a world where it’s in short supply; who can find love for a drug and alcohol addled cripple who can’t keep his pants above his knees, an old surfer chasing the future as if the past did not exist. I’m leaving out your daughters and all the others because they are too obvious. All that love, and you want to hold it in your arms?”

“I want to be held.”

“You are a writer. You need to hold yourself. That’s what we do.”

“We?” I asked.

“Just a second. Let me track down the attendant. I need a Coke.”

Of course, he never came back. The plane was full. I walked the aisle back to the bathrooms, saw people come and go out of each. I looked into first class until the attendant chased me out. I asked if a man had come up and asked her for Cokes, and she said no one had, besides me.

I know he didn’t get off the plane before I did. I thought once I caught a glimpse of him, but I was mistaken. But my guess is that I will bump into him again, somewhere out on the road, probably chasing butterflies.

End

Lovers

The boys aggressively pushing forward to help carry backpacks at the terminal in Almirante put me a little on edge. They don’t ask if you’d like help; they ask where you are going as they reach into the back of the shuttle to take your bag.

Often it works, and when someone answers “Bocas del Toro,” the boys shoulder the bags and carry them to the water taxi.

Of course, they expect to be rewarded, which often leads to fumbling with bags and wallets or stammering from people who did not understand the boys were not part of the shuttle or terminal operation.

No, gracias,” I said, when asked.

Is this your bag?” the boy persisted, reaching toward my backpack.

I reached past him and grabbed the handle, so now I had my daypack on my shoulders and my backpack in my hand.

I’ve got this,” I said to him in a tone that made it clear I intended to carry my own bag. This earned me a glare that lasted a couple of seconds before he picked on the next person in line.

Maybe it was the boys at the terminal, or maybe it was the grittiness of Bocas del Toro that made me check in to the first hotel I came to, even though the room rate was almost three times what I had been paying. Or maybe it was just the rain. It had rained since we crossed over the mountains of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Whatever it was, I did not feel like wandering the streets with backpack and daypack looking for a place to stay. A tall man in a peach colored polo was walking in the same direction. I asked him if he knew of a good hotel.

The Hotel Limbo,” he said, pointing about ten feet behind me. I went in and secured a room just to have one, at $90.

It could have been the blood sugar blues, too. I had eaten nothing but a muffin when I got on the bus four or five hours before in Boquete. The prices were too high at the restaurant that was part of my hotel, I wandered a couple of doors down and bought the $5 special of chicken, beans and rice.

There was a young woman reading a book in French. She was staying in a hostel for about $20. An engineer, she worked as a management consultant, but learned about empowerment, and the desire of people to do a good job and be recognized, from her stint as an electrical engineer for G.E.

The consulting business attracts the kind of people who are motivated by advancement, money, status, and subvert their immediate gratification for these goals. Consequently they don’t do a great job of motivating middle management or lower level employees.

We are great at systems. We suck at implementation,” she said.

Teaching the CEO is “delicate.” They are almost always very strong personalities. “If we are selling other services to their company, such as systems redesign, we have to be careful telling a CEO, who is frequently the source of the problems or the corporate ‘culture,’ that his leadership or motivational skills need to improve.”

It was fun sharing philosophies with Madeleine, but she was headed out of Bocas and I was headed in. We said goodbye and I wandered the loop that wrapped the peninsula. I came upon a brightly colored building with a long hallway of polished wood and a breeze blowing through. I walked down to the front desk where a young man sat before a ledger.

No, I have no space today or tomorrow, but yes, the next day. But if you can come in tomorrow, I may have someone cancel. Please, come in now and have a coffee. No charge,” he said, in a thick accent I thought I recognized.

This felt so much better than the somewhat surly service I had at my hotel, where I got short changed $1 after paying $2 plus tax for a coke. I came in, sat down and had coffee and looked out over the water at sailboats swaying in the water. My day was getting better.

I had Madras chicken and listened to music at a restaurant on the main street over the water. Two girls, one just like one of my daughters, even dressed the same and with a similar haircut, were holding hands. The duo playing music was great, even though competing in volume with a drunk American and his drunk wife who were hustling another American considering building a home in Bocas.

The husband and wife alternated putting the pressure on.

I am on the job every day!” said the wife. “24 / 7! I do all of the accounting, and the books are always current!  I do all the books of all the projects, each and every day!”

Once those guys feel that they have earned the amount of money you’ve paid them, they stop work until you give them more. It doesn’t matter what’s written in a contract,” said her husband. “We know what’s what.”

The husband  kept getting up and talking to the two musicians, even while they were playing, putting his hand on their shoulders, asserting some sort of camaraderie, musicianhood, maybe, maybe he played once in a while when he wasn’t building houses or drinking red wine.

I’m not an alcoholic,” he said at one point, loudly to make sure it was understood. He said he drank every day, but only one or two in the morning so he could deal with the pain of his hip or back, but that was it, until evening. His wife said “I’m an alcoholic. I love my wine,” but then laughed and talked about her self control and said, again, that she did all the books of all the projects, each and every day.

The Friday night street was a scene below my window. It went to well after midnight. Crowds walking talking, having fun. Bocas on the Caribbean was very different than Boquete in the mountains. The next morning, Bocas was slow to wake up, the street quiet until well after 7:30.

I checked out of my hotel and wandered over to Hotel Rega, where the manager I’d met the day before told me that he still didn’t have a room. I asked if I could leave my bag behind the reception desk while waiting to see if he’d have a cancellation.

Of course,” he said. “And have coffee. No charge! You are already a guest!”

I sat at a table and drank coffee, got into a conversation with the manager, Avi, and his girlfriend, Valerie. Valerie looked and sounded like she was raised in a suburb of Seattle, but she was Costa Rican by birth, from a successful family with farms in Costa Rica and Panama. She had gotten her undergrad degree in the U.S., her degree in environmental science in Costa Rica, which was wonderful for the diversity of students.

Valerie had written a proposal to do a study on elephants in Africa that had been accepted, and she had gone. The experience changed her, others had told her she needed to write a book. She told me she couldn’t imagine the immensity of writing a book. I showed her how to break it down into manageable parts.

We discussed the concept: “What if a young woman goes to Africa to learn about animals, discovers the animal within her self then learns to let go?”

Valerie, that’s an incredibly strong concept,” I said. “What happened while you were there?”

There was a monkey living in my bathroom! I discovered I only had 9 weeks to do the project instead of many months. I fell in love, my old boyfriend showed up in Nairobi and it was ugly.”

Valerie, you have a book.”

But I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be about the wonderful women I met, about Africa!”

Get over that. By writing about you, you’ll give people a reason to read about the other. It’s all about story,” I tell her. We diagrammed her book based just on what we had discussed. She seemed surprised and grateful it could be doable.

Avi talked about an inability to concentrate, until he decided to do research. He learned at a workshop how to focus on the triangle of his upper lip, and said that when he wore glasses, even those without lenses, his ability to concentrate improved, though was often limited to 45 minutes. He talked of numbers from the Jewish tradition, three, five, seven, eight.

There was something very magical about the number eight, he said, and told a story of riding a bicycle very slowly in a figure eight pattern, returning to center, turning left and right, returning to center. I wondered if there might be a left-brain, right brain connection.

Valerie said something about my going with them to dinner. I said I needed to find a hotel. Avi paused, said something to Valerie, she said something to him, and Avi turned to me.

You are staying here tonight,” Avi said. “I am going to stay with Valerie, you will stay in my room.”

You have the best room in the hotel!” Valerie said.

I don’t know what to say.”

Just say yes,” said Avi.

Will you two be my guests for dinner, then?” I asked. They agreed.

Avi, baby, I have to go to work,” said Valerie, getting up from the table.

Why, what do you have to do?” said Avi, in his thick Israeli accent.

I have to open the booth, I want to talk to …” someone whose name I could not understand.

Let’s go for a swim first,” said Avi, holding on to every moment he could spend with her. He was sitting in a chair, she stood beside him, her arm was across his shoulder, his arm completely encircled her tiny waist. Neither wanted to let go.

I will put my feet in the water,” she said, and they walked to the end of the restaurant which ended at a dock on the bay, not wanting to be apart, not wanting to not be touching.

After Valerie went to work, Avi said they had only been “together,’ for a short time. He loved her, he said, but he wasn’t going to be in Bocas much longer. He didn’t know if he needed to be with someone who spoke Hebrew as their native language, he wanted to travel, he just didn’t know.

The fish at dinner was excellent, a full filet breaded and served with plantains prepared and served like French fries, with the unique hot sauce that’s on every table here called Bocas Hot Sauce, a pale yellow I was at first reluctant to use but quite hot and rich and good. The family that owns the restaurant is Colombian, the one waitress harried as she attempted to get everyone served before closing.

There was supposed to be music but it was more of a disco and empty, soafter Avi went back to do the books at the hotel, Valerie and I went looking for a band or something. We sat in a bar where older Expats were the musicians, god they’re playing the Doors, I said, and badly.

She told me that she and Avi fought about the future, had broken up about it and then gotten back together several times. Biology kept pushing them together, pragmatics kept driving them apart.

I finally decided just to accept this for what it is, for as long as it is,” she said. “I love him. I know he loves me. But he can’t commit, and he’s leaving. I may go down to southern Costa Rica and work on environmental concerns for a Canadian mining company that could just ruin a pristine environment.”

But there were tradeoffs, even to doing good.

The people will sell their land, spend all the money in five years and will never be able to purchase it back again. I just don’t know if I can be part of that,” she said.

Currently she is in Bocas to help create a program that will protect turtles nesting along the Caribbean shore. Valerie is trying to keep poachers from taking turtle eggs, killing turtles for meat, or guiding illegal tours at night to the beaches where turtles lay their eggs and shining giant spotlights on the process, driving the turtles back to the ocean, those eggs forever lost.

The job here with the turtles is over in a few months, but I could stay on.”

Valerie is smart, honest, real, very aware of her passion but not controlled by it. “For the longest time, he wouldn’t kiss me,” she said. Looking at her, I wondered how he could avoid it. We considered for a moment how much of his ambivalence was caused by being raised on a kibbutz.

Avi told her once that he may settle down someday “when some woman makes me.”

That’s so much the wrong reason,” she says. “He needs to want to settle down, or it won’t work.”

Men especially are not very good at deciding between less bad options,” I say, “but that’s what life often presents.”  I said something about studies showing we value what we might lose at twice the value of what we gain, even if it’s the same thing.

I give her an example of a woman who has to choose between a career and raising children. Whichever option she does not choose doubles in emotional value as she contemplates its loss, so she vacillates, stuck in a vibration between the choices as each loss doubles or halves in value in turn.

Avi may be pinned between losing you or losing what he has envisioned.”

I don’t know that I can stay in Bocas after Avi leaves,” she says. “He doesn’t know what he wants or what he’s going to do. That was the source of most of our fights. I finally just decided to enjoy him while he was here,” Valerie said.

There are so few people she can talk to, here, so many of the people are expats from the U.S. like those in this bar who sing 60s and 70s and 80s Rock & Roll into microphones at the bar, bellies distended from booze or bodies shriveled skinny and brown, like untreated leather left too long in the sun.

It’s surprising how many rivers flow out of the mountains of Panama. Unlike Costa Rica, where the water was as green as the vegetation that came right to river’s edge, maybe the result of chemicals used to grow African Palms for oil that goes into everything on the shelves of Costco, on this side of Panama the cascades and meanders are remarkably clear.

Air, when it moves at all, is a caress rather than a cooling. Somehow the water and humidity and sun of the Caribbean promote a languid approach. Knowing that railings can be painted tomorrow but will continue to rust, termites poisoned tomorrow will again find soft wood at the side of the stairs, garbage might be collected but the mayor took the money to buy a castle in Spain, causes a sense of futility.

The fever of a small cold picked up a couple of days before made it hard to tell if I was woozy from sun reflecting off the water and getting under the brim of my hat, or if humidity was causing the extra sweat as I paddled the kayak against the slight wind and current. I didn’t find the boat I was told was supposed to sink in a couple of days.

Or I found two of them, I wasn’t sure. Each listed to port, each was built of steel, judging from rust-red streaks down their neglected hulls. Several ports (windows) were lacking glass in one boat, a window in the transom to the aft cabin glistened with cracks radiating out from an impact point in the thick glass. I heard it had been stolen, raided at least twice by thieves, and everyone knew it was about to go under but no one was in charge of it here in Bocas.

I paddled to the marina to see the perfect boat with a “For sale cheap only to Erik” sign hanging over the expansive, shaded cockpit. It must have been out for the day. The heat was even more intense; any breeze that wafted over open water was trapped here, still, among the mangroves. From the bar, I heard the high, loud laughter of a woman who had Bloody Mary’s for breakfast, marked by that note of hysteria from recognition of self-induced chaos. Maybe I should blame the fever for what I heard, rather than what she thinks she meant.

Valerie tells Avi to invite me on a final test run for two new guides she is training to do tours of the turtle nesting beach. I shouldn’t go, the fever makes it hard to walk ten minutes and we will be gone four hours, but it’s an opportunity I can’t turn down. We don’t see turtles, we see a nest, we get back at midnight and I stagger up to Avi’s room and flop back into the guest bed in the corner where I’d spent a good portion of the day.

The next day, in the stairwell of the hotel Avi told me he has been ready to be a father for years. Valerie wants to settle down with him, sees him as clearly as only a woman can see a man. Even what he sees as his own weaknesses, she perceives as his childlike beauty and charm, his warmth.

But Avi is ambivalent. “I don’t know that I don’t need to be with someone who speaks my language (Hebrew)).

As someone often incapacitated by double negatives, I wonder if this is a form of dementia that strikes when grappling with life decisions.

Tough

Abby has pretty much had it with Boquete. If I were in her shoes, I’d have had it, too.

Abby boarded the bus that runs from San Jose to David (Da-veed), Panama. I’d gotten on at Quepos, on my way to Boquete. Abby got on at one of the rest stops an hour later. A woman was changing a baby in the seat where Abby was going to sit, she asked if she could sit for a moment in the one next to me. Sure. We found out we had Seattle in common.

She was on her way back to Boquete to pick up some things she and her daughter left behind, pay off a few debts. She was starting over in Costa Rica.

Abby has been back and forth across the border between Panama and Costa Rica. She knows the ropes. She guided me through hassles at immigration, even hung with me when I had to go stand in line in the sun to buy a $25 return bus ticket from David to San Jose just to prove to the border agent I wasn’t going to cash in the airplane ticket I showed her so I could live on a beach in Panama. I suppose it’s happened.

Rather than spending an hour jammed into a school bus, we took a 25 minute cab ride from David to Boquete, my way of saying thank you.

Boquete was hard, even for a woman as tough as Abby. From the time she arrived, well over a year ago, until her trip back to Seattle last Fall, she struggled. Right from the beginning, when the guys who hired her down from Costa Rica, to provide massage therapy at their addict recovery operation, didn’t follow through.

There she was, having moved herself and her daughter to a new town in a new country, and the job blew up less than a month after she arrived. But you can see determination in her brown eyes when she looks directly at you, assessing. It’s not just the tattoo, “S.H.A.R.P.,” an arc across her back nearly shoulder to shoulder.

“What’s your tattoo stand for?” I ask on the way up to Boquete.

“Which one?” she responds.

“Um, the one I can see? On your back?”

“Skin Heads Against Racism and Prejudice.”

“Did you date a skin head?”

“I was a skin head,” she says and I get a quick, abbreviated lesson in Skin Head ethos, especially my mistaken association of Skin Heads with the Aryan Brotherhood. The power of Skin Head music. The power of community. Did she date a skin head? What a stupid question.

When the new job blew up, she adapted. She opened her licensed massage therapy business, highlighting her knowledge of Tao healing principles and abdominal massage. She worked at it. She networked. She got to know people. And a lot of people were enthusiastic.

That enthusiasm was obvious when we got to town. Boquete was happy to see her when she and I showed up on Saint Patrick’s Day. She had convinced me that Willie’s Bar & Grill would have the best roast beef I’d ever had, ever, if there was any left when we got there.

From the time the cab from David (Da-veed) dropped us off at the hostel where I’d hoped to stay, until I finally left Willie’s that night to secure a room, any room anywhere, she was getting hugs from those who knew her.

“Abby!! I did not think I would ever see you again!” said one young man. Willie’s wife gave her a hug. The tall guy who came in from outside just to say hi. The older woman who had a hard time getting to her feet. Willie’s clientele is diverse on Saint Patrick’s Day, but everyone was glad Abby was back in town.

Abby got the last serving of roast beef, but Willie’s roast chicken was mighty fine. While Ashley was getting hugs, I was talking to Mike, and Marni, and Diane in the corner, about art and design and the science of laminar flow.

Hey, iced tea in Central America is a beverage to be reckoned with, m’kay?

Over the next several days, we ran into each other at the hostel where I was staying and where Abby had stored some of her things. I paid for a massage to relieve sciatica in my left hip from all the bus sitting. I bought some of her Costa Rican currency because I would need it maybe before she would, and she wanted to pay dollars to some people she’d borrowed money from when things were really, really tight last year.

Abby pays her debts, you see. She wanted to pay them all and frankly, she’d be able to if people who say they want a massage would follow through when they find out it isn’t free. She’d also like it if they didn’t ask her to cut her rates in half — they aren’t that high to begin with.

She’d like it if they would just show up, when and where they say they are going to show up, do what they say they are going to do, when they say they are going to do it, especially when she has made the effort. Like those guys who hired her down from Costa Rica.

I’ll provide an endorsement: After my massage, my sciatica was relieved. Two knots behind my shoulder blades she found with her thumbs (which lifted me completely off the table) are gone. I can actually look over my right shoulder now, for the first time since I fell asleep on the airplane between Houston and Costa Rica with my head lolling from side to side more than two weeks ago.

But people in even an upscale hippie town change their minds about a massage when they find out it’s going to cost real money for her to fix their aches and pains, even when she can get into tissues that hurt, fix problems using skills and an education she paid good money to acquire. It’s frustrating. You know?

Abby going to set up in a couple of communities in Costa Rica where people know you have to pay for something of value.  Not in Jaco. Jaco is a shit hole, a hustle, everybody in Jaco wants a cut of anything you do, she said. Further north, more upscale.

But though she’s got friends there, her daughter isn’t coming back down. Abby had a deal with her daughter, her daughter wasn’t going to go back to Seattle just to hang out, there had to be a plan, college, etc.

“University of Washington.” Those were the first words her daughter said when Abby got off the plane. Or maybe when her daughter got off the plane. I lost the thread, but those were her daughter’s very first words when someone got off the plane. Which was kind of a good-bye, said before even “hello.” That hurt a bit, though it’s hard to tell, because Abby is tough, and can be hard to read.

So Abby’s 16 year-old daughter is living with family friends: a teacher where her daughter goes to school and his wife, who makes killer Swedish meat balls in a huge heavy pan, and meat loaf, and those are her daughter’s absolute favorite meals. So her daughter is fine, and Abby brushes me off when I ask about loss.

Abby’s ex has custody of her youngest daughter, something Abby says she doesn’t want to talk about. She’s pretty strict about those boundaries, too. I didn’t get details. Except she tells me, when friends ask if she knows a good divorce lawyer she recommends the one that represented her ex husband.

Abby is working through how to get her daughter’s books, guitar and amp, clothes, etc. from Boquete to Costa Rica or to her daughter in Seattle. At the hostel where they’ve been stored, I try to hold boxes closed so she can tape them, but the tape breaks off and it’s hard to find the end and she tells me it would really be easier if she just did this herself, she’s been taking care of herself for the last 16 years.

The next day, she tries to explain that an extra pair of hands just gets in the way, I say it’s okay, I had work to do. Then Abby pulls a lamp her daughter made for her for Father’s Day — Abby was both mom and dad — out of her bag. She really shouldn’t pay to ship stuff she really doesn’t need. Take it with or leave it behind?

That’s hard. Really hard. Abby doesn’t let on how hard it is, but she lets me talk about “sweet melancholy,” and she approves of those two words about losing connection.

Day after day, Abby grows more discouraged with Boquete. A guy who wanted a lesson on abdominal massage took a client for the same time he was supposed to get that lesson from Abby. Someone else, maybe two, flaked the day before that. The idea of earning money on this trip to pay off debts and get a stake for the new endeavor in Costa Rica isn’t working out.

“I’m starting to see Boquete through my daughter’s eyes,” Abby said as I left town. Her daughter didn’t want to be here, and now her daughter is not. Maybe that stains Abby view of Boquete, but Abby is tough and we’ll never know. I give her the bus ticket for the trip from David to San Jose, the one I’d been forced to buy at the border. Maybe she’ll be able to use it, maybe not.

It was misting when the bus crossed over the central spine of Panama. Most Norte Americanos think Panama runs north and south but it doesn’t, it runs west to east. I crossed from the Pacific side on the south to the Caribbean side on the north.

As soon as the bus got over the top, farms became jungle, lushly dense and dark; houses turned to shanties on stilts; smells went from floral to fecal; music grew louder and more rhythmic. Mist at the mountain top turned to a hard rain.

Along side the road, a young boy picked up a banana leaf, at least as long as he was tall, and held it over his head to keep dry. When the weather here changes, find a shelter if there is one, and if not, find a leaf.

Or maybe just get wet, while waiting for the rain to stop, waiting for the sun to come out once again.

Stupid Monkey

It was nearly dark when Rebecca got to the hostel. She’d flown from New York to San Jose that morning, gotten bilked taking a cab from the airport to the chaotic bus station, just caught the four-hour bus ride to Quepos.

Standing in line to check in, there was a lightness about her. The others had huge, heavy packs jammed tight with anything and everything that might be needed. She had a small, blue, worn daypack, and a tubular cloth bag over one shoulder that did not even seem full. I wondered how it could possibly carry all she’d need to Quepos.

I was working from a bench near the office, the only place with wireless access to the internet. When they arrived from the bus, I asked the group where they were from. The others were from Germany. Rebecca said, “New York, originally from Oregon.”

“Really,” I said, “where in Oregon?”

“Portland.”

“I grew up in Portland. Now I’m from Sisters.”

“I just LOVE Sisters! I was actually raised for a few years in Bend!”

She joined me after checking in. We were soon talking about anything and everything, but my butt was sore from perching on the wood bench and I asked if we could move to the plastic chairs by the pool.

“Let me put my things away, then come back out. Do you mind?” she said.

Um, no, I didn’t mind at all, but wasn’t she too tired after all that travel? Not at all, she said.

We sat by the pool and talked. Every pause was filled by her asking another question: what I did, where I’d been, and how. Each of my questions drew at least two from her. She didn’t avoid answering, just seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything going on around her.

Rebecca works for a Non Governmental Organization in New York, one focused on the environment. After graduating from Berkeley, she earned two Masters degrees, one in Anthropology and the other in Environmental Science. She was debating a PhD., her thesis proposal about how evolution changes itself, that the successful alter the environment that created the success, altering the next evolutionary phase.

The world was her lab.  From what I could piece together, she may have spent more years on the road than at any place she called “home,” since she turned 18. Central America. Colombia. India.

We talked about Oregon, about African Palms spanning hundreds of roadside kilometers along the highway from Jaco to Quepos. They are raised for palm oil, she told me, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer, destroying local ecosystems and often the local way of life. She said returning indigenous people to their native habitat often was a better way of protecting that habitat than walling it off in preserves.

We talked about writing, travel, disagreed about the role of poverty in raising children ready to learn.

“It’s a culture problem,” I said, not knowing the word “culture” has become a “dog whistle” flagging racism.

“What do you mean a ‘culture’ problem?”

“I mean teachers are expected to solve problems that result from changes to culture, often driven by technology. It’s not just a matter of poverty. By focusing on poverty I think we often do the wrong things for all the right reasons.”

That seemed to mollify her. She had friends in New York struggling to do meaningful work, pay the mortgage, and have a family, who give their kids a latte when they pick them up from daycare so they can spend a waking hour with them in the evening.

“That’s what I mean by it being a culture problem. We want to have children, but don’t make the sacrifices, or can’t make the sacrifices, that raising children requires. Day care may not be sufficient. It isn’t just an issue of lacking resources.”

Rebecca is the youngest of six children, of which she said,  “Much, much easier than being the oldest.” That was typical, I’d learn; she looked at most events and situations in her life as a gift.

It wasn’t just that she traveled light. She seemed unburdened, without desire to pour out her story, or in need of affirmation. She absorbs, she asks. Perhaps her soul is like that round shoulder bag, with an extra dimension where the heaviness goes.

After two days in San Jose, where she would learn the priorities of groups she worked with, she was off to the Amazon to meet teams on the ground, and learn even more. She laughed out loud at herself when she said a cab driver asked if she had gotten Friday off work to come to Costa Rica, and she realized that she had completely failed to tell anyone at work she was leaving early so she could spend a couple of days exploring Costa Rica.

I asked if she would be gone for one week, two weeks, maybe a month, with everything carried in a small blue backpack and light round bag that must have an extra dimensions rather than pockets for all the things it must hold. She wasn’t sure.

She planned to go to the famous beachside Manuel Antonio Park the next day. We agreed to meet after breakfast and go together.

I almost didn’t recognize her in the lunch room, she had transformed into someone quite plain. She wore a long sundress, a shapeless ball cap, carried the blue pack. Her work in other countries, many requiring modesty, had taught her how to avoid drawing attention or giving offense.

We saw iguana, and incredible spiders. Crowds stopped to take pictures of sloths, birds, or monkeys. The sky was clear except for tall, bright white cumulus clouds offshore that highlighted the blues of sky and ocean, greens of the jungle that came to the edge of yellow sand where people played in the waves.

Some of her previous work was emotionally grinding: Interviewing Indian women from areas along the Bay of Bengal who had lost husbands, babies, or entire families to the tsunami that rolled in after the earthquake in Indonesia. Many were alone.

“Why do they choose to go on living?” I asked. She didn’t know the strictures in any one religion against suicide.

“There were a lot of tears,” she said. After doing interviews all day, she would go back to her hotel and write up reports intended to put faces on numbers that could possibly describe the magnitude, but never the depth, of suffering. It was hard, hard work in many dimensions.

At the famous Manuel Antonio beach, raccoons came up as soon as we put our packs down and pilfered a banana from hers that had been wrapped in a blue cloth napkin. The couple next to us said the raccoons actually unzipped their pack to get the goodies inside. I crossed the single cord “line” to retrieve her napkin, she laughingly called me her hero.

The spider monkey was nearly as bold, but at least he didn’t bare his teeth when we chased him away. He ran off in a gallop on all fours. I  hung our packs on small branches in the tree to at least slow him down.

On a short exploration, we saw a tree dedicated to a biologist. It reminded Rebecca of a book she had read about a biologist who had studied the hallucinogens of South America, how various indigenous people regarded some of these plants as gods, and protected them from the white man.

“I missed out on the hallucinogens,” she said. “My sister was a social worker and had stories of people she worked with, and would say sometimes that drugs were the reason or part of the reason they were so screwed up. That pretty much settled that.”

I confessed to my somewhat extensive background with hallucinogens, noting that I had not had any drugs, not even a drink, in nearly 30 years.

“Congratulations,” she said, but I said that congratulations are not really in order for an act performed with a gun to my head. I asked her about children, why that wasn’t a priority for her.

“Kids would be nice, if that happens. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have children for my life to have value or meaning.”

We agreed on that, but my question was about how she avoided that self-definition, when so many women did not, for what I thought were biological reasons.

“I don’t know,” she said at first, but I pressed. Eventually she said, “When I look at the choices I’d have to make, they just aren’t that appealing.”

Later on she said, “it wasn’t really a choice. It just seemed like that was what happened. One thing kind of led to another.”

I asked if she had no desire to settle down, be with someone, if someone hadn’t asked her to do so.

“Most of the men I’ve dated were good with this, and they were doing their own thing. As to being with someone who wanted to be together all the time, I just don’t think that’s necessary or a good thing. No.” she shook her head and seemed to recoil from the idea.

“No. Just no?” I questioned.

She shook her head at the idea, again as if it gave her a shiver.

I wanted to know why she exposed herself to all that suffering, the futility of protecting an environment against money that would usually, if not always, win. “What are you going to do?” she asked back, as if the answer was simply obvious; the fight  necessary even if victory beyond grasp.

I write about vibrant dreams and crushed hope to gather about me significance, I confessed. By working on behalf of women who’ve lost children, for others thrown off their land or had their culture destroyed by greed and corruption, she feels value, connection, to something important.

“Doesn’t that make us both voyeurs, in a way?” I ask, but realize quickly the question needs far more context, especially with this woman living so far out on the edge, and change my own subject.

Rebecca told me about a good friend who was writing a book, who had served in another NGO as a human shield: The job was to stick closely to a person who was a likely target of murder in a foreign land.

“Either the person already had body guards, or didn’t want them.  It’s a big deal to kill someone from the U.S. She was basically protecting them with the color of her skin, and her passport.”

This same friend said one time to Rebecca, “I’m terribly intolerant of a life without meaning.”

That was the best answer.

We found another beach quite close to the first. There were places in the shade under a large tree that had dropped tiny green apples to the sand.

“Are these apples?” I asked. “They look like apples.”

The leaves of the tree, though not the tree’s shape, even looked a little like those of an apple tree.

I picked one up and carefully bit into the fruit, expecting something incredibly bitter or sour, but was surprised that the initial taste was of tropical fruit, maybe like guava, not unpleasant.

“Why are those stupid monkeys stealing Cheetos, when they have all this good fruit lying around?” I said, trying to be funny. I usually prefer Cheetos to apples, too, given a choice.

About 10 minutes later, my mouth started to burn. We had found a place mostly in the shade, Rebecca had put out her beach cloth, I was on my towel. I had the best cell reception I’d had since the airport in Houston, I read, even made an internet phone call back home.

Rebecca was reading, but before long the Kindle fell to her stomach, her hands to her side on the sand. Her mouth moved, she was talking to someone in a dream.

As the minutes went on, the burning in my mouth became intense, worse than any chili pepper I’d ever eaten. Even though I had eaten none of the flesh, I could tell some of the juice had gone down my throat. My body was generating a phenomenal amount of thick saliva to wash away the heat. I tried to read as I shooed away iguanas that were wandering surprisingly close.

I was relieved when one picked up an “apple.” If the wildlife ate them, I was on safer ground, ignoring that an iguana might have a digestive tract slightly different than mine.

The iguana spit it out.

I stood, I walked, I spit into the sand. I realized the great cellphone reception I had would probably let me look up this little fruit, and at least put my mind at ease.

The phrase in Spanish translated as, “little apples of death.” That didn’t quite put my “mind at ease.” The manchineel is one of the most poisonous trees in the world. Standing under the tree when it’s raining can result in skin blistering.  Eating the little apples with the lovely scent “… may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. Patients with a history of ingestion and either oropharyngeal burns or gastrointestinal symptoms should be evaluated for admission in hospital…”

When Rebecca wakes up, she says, “naps are good.”

“You want the good news, or the bad news?” I ask her.

“The bad news.”

I read what I found about the “little apples of death.”

“What’s the good news?”

“I don’t know there is any.”

She shows immediate concern, but I try to put her mind at ease.

“If this is my last day on Earth, thank you for making it so enjoyable.”

She laughs, then does me one better.

“Those stupid monkeys…” she says.

“Yeah, what could they be thinking? Why raid backpacks when they have all this wonderful natural food available?” I add.

I go out into the ocean to gargle salt water. When I get back, I say, “You were sound asleep, dreaming.”

“I can fall asleep anywhere. One time I was on an airplane coming back from Colombia and sitting next to this nice man. We talked, I gave him my business card. Everyone around us could tell we were strangers. I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was completely wrapped around him, drooling on his shoulder. He called me for a year.”

“Are you a spy?” I ask, but she laughs and says she’d make a terrible spy, falling asleep on strangers.

“Or a very, very good one,” I say, but she convinces me she’s not.

She wanted to take another walk through the park, but what I read of the “little apple of death” made me want to be closer to medical help if needed, get some milk into my stomach and hit my drug supply back at the room. Nexium was one suggested treatment. I had something similar.

“You carry medicine for this?” asked Rebecca.

“You never know when you’re going to want a poison apple,” I said.

Another way of absorbing the poison was charcoal.

“What kind of charcoal?” she asked, wondering how that would work.

“I generally prefer Round Oak, but without the lighter fluid.”

“I admire your attitude,” she said at one point. “I think I would be in more of a panic.”

“Tell them I went out laughing. May I buy you dinner as compensation for missing the afternoon walk?”

“It’s a deal.”

At the hostel I took omeprazole, ate a yogurt, showered and changed, only to find that Rebecca had showered, changed, gone to the bus station to buy her ticket to San Jose, inquired at the front desk what restaurants were recommended, and was ready to go.

She wore a shoulderless long dress, a bit of lipstick, her hair free of the cap. I was stunned how she went from plain girl to such an alluring woman. Chameleon.

I sat at an adjacent side of the small square table so we could each look out at the street, so I could hear her over the din just beyond the step of the restaurant that had no barrier between tables and traffic.

At one point I asked if her heart had ever been broken, that I was sure she had broken many. She didn’t think either was true, her relationships mostly ended by a mutual consent.

“I’ve never been in a wrenching, unbalanced relationship, or ending. We’d talk about it, come to the conclusion it wasn’t working out.” She’d ended a relationship just a couple of months before, after five years. There were plans to get a place in Maine, but it just wasn’t working. He had suggested living together again in New York, but that was just a way of putting off the inevitable.

I confessed to wrenching breakups, suffering more than once from a broken heart. She asked if there was any way my marriage might have worked out, given the successful child rearing partnership, respect and affection I expressed for my ex-wife. I said no, despite the positives, we were just two too-different people.

I asked what she thought was required for a successful relationship. She turned the question around on me, which she was so good at doing. I said, shared vision and values, empathy, respect, and chemistry (letting myself think of how she looked asleep on the sand that afternoon, the balance of strength and and curve).

“You know, don’t you, that when I write my book, the stupid monkeys are going to be in it,” she said.

“You don’t think I’ll write about it?” I said. “I think ‘The Stupid Monkey’ has to be the title.”

We lingered after dinner until I saw her fidget with her purse; I paid and we went back to the hostel, where she asked if I would mind reading from her Kindle a book on the impact of modernity to religion in India, while she read another piece of my writing, from my phone. Flattered, I said yes.

After she finished reading what I wrote, we traded back and she read her book and I gazed at the day, looking forward and backward in time while trying to avoid the present. She was going north to San Jose, I was headed south, to Panama.

I was sitting next to a woman for whom I would sacrifice nearly anything, maybe everything, at another place and time; gone anywhere to have her as a partner in life, if she would have, at any time, considered having me.

But I knew, even if she were tempted, at another place and time, I would want days that would come from her life’s quest, a sacrifice she could not make.

Her presence was so fluid and free, to reach for her would be to grasp with hands at air, or water, or light. What I could fall in love with would not survive my falling in love.

Even that wouldn’t have mattered. At a different time and place, I would have risked it.

But I could do nothing about the fact that I arrived about 25 years too early, for our first and only date.

When they’re ready*

Decades ago a dear friend, Bill, drove up my driveway with a very young boy. His brand new wife, a very unstable woman, had just committed suicide. The boy was her son.

Bill left the child with my wife and me for the day. We had a good time, if I remember. He played on the deck in a huge stainless bowl full of water. Late in the day, Bill came back and picked up the boy.

I don’t know when I realized Bill was trying to place his lost son with a family who could care for him. My wife and I weren’t ready. It was some time later we adopted our daughters from India, and they taught me some much needed lessons about unconditional love.

Years later I was meeting with my lawyer, Max, who was also a friend of Bill. We were laughing and doing legal business when Max told me Bill had visited him the same week he’d visited me. Max and his wife, Teresa, did not hesitate. They accepted the boy into their hearts and their family. The next couple of decades were not easy. But their commitment never waned.

Some years passed. I was again in need of Max’ legal fangs, and went to his office. On the floor, on a huge pillow, was the skinniest dog I’d ever seen. She barely struggled to her feet when I came in the room. Max mentioned that she was a bit of work, getting her out to go to the bathroom, lifting her in and out of the car. She didn’t have many days or weeks left, he said.

“Why don’t you put her down?” I asked.

“She isn’t ready,” quickly came Max’s reply.

You have to realize how much this startled me, coming from one of the toughest people I knew, an Irishman from Chicago who could make his blue coffee cup turn red with his every-day language.

“Huh?”

“She isn’t ready.”

From there we argued about the Catholic Church, abortion, the I.R.A., the death penalty, homosexual priests,  etc. He was a damn good lawyer and had no problem defending what seemed to me contradictory superstitions. But he walked his talk, and taught me something by his actions, if not his words.

Not that I wasn’t receptive. I have been laughed at by more than one person for putting spiders outside, even houseflies. For using live traps for my kitchen mice, and driving them a half mile away so they wouldn’t beat me back to the house. That was all part of a deal I made with my higher power when a couple of pets suffered during a time I thought it was okay to kill porcupines. Long story.

Last week, I was helping a friend, Stacy, wrap up local business before she left the country to join her fiance and start a new life. One of the items on the agenda was finding a vet who would euthanize her two old dogs. Molly, who is quite old, has cancer and not long to live; the smaller one has cataracts. The clock was ticking.

I took over that difficult process. With the help of friends on Facebook, I found a kind local vet who would come and transition the animals. Everything was set to happen on Saturday. I was ready to foot the bill.

Before you judge Stacy, you need to know she is one of the most compassionate human beings you could ever hope meet. She assists people in grinding poverty, and in the last days of their lives. But Stacy had to go, and there was no one, even her ex who shared the dogs’ history, who could take them. And the dogs lived for her voice. This was mercy, not callousness.

On Tuesday I joined another of her friends who had a van to move Stacy’s furniture. I met the two dogs. Rubbed ears. Got sniffed. When I got home, I paced my living room for more than an hour. One thought kept pushing me around.

“They aren’t ready.”

All night and the next day I chewed on the fact that I was facilitating death, and they weren’t ready. But I could not take two dogs, especially a small yapper, and had no place for either while I escorted Stacy to her new love and life in Costa Rica.

Yes, I will mention the rainbow I saw to the north when I came to my decision. And pretend it’s irrelevant.

Right after which, Stacy left me a text: the small dog had a home! Some friends had come through, but could just take the little dog. I waited. I was willing to wait a day or two, too, while things resolved without my effort, but I was smiling a rainbow of my own.

Stacy called an hour and a half after texting.

“My heart is a little less heavy,” she said, as she asked for the telephone number to tell the vet there would just be one animal to euthanize.

“I’m going to lighten it the rest of the way,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Molly can stay here with me. I talked to the house-sitter earlier about taking on an old dog while I’m gone, and he said ‘sure.’ When I get back, Molly will be here with me until she’s ready to die. If it doesn’t work out for you in Costa Rica, you come back for her. If it does, I’ll have a life-long friend, even if that life isn’t too long.”

All I could hear were sobs on the other end of the line, because I was crying myself. I don’t really know why, except I knew it was my job to be the boatman to take Molly from this shore to the next.

Sometimes things work out just how how they’re supposed to, and that feeling is overwhelming. My tears were in gratitude for being where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there, that I would be there when Molly was ready, and not send her on her way before she was.

I’m also looking forward to taking her to the beach, which I’m told is one of her favorite places. Mine too.

*Names have been changed.