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“That’s a very bad hotel,” the taxi driver told me. “I know a better one. The Hotel Inca Real.”
I told him in my strained Spanish that I wanted to go to the one I had already picked out.
“It burned down,” he tried.
“Really?” I was too tired for this, having just arrived on a red-eye.
“Or maybe it’s out of business. It isn’t there. I have a very good one.”
I told him I just wanted to go to the address of the bad, burned-down, out-of-business hotel. I told him I had a reservation, which was a lie.
“Listen,” he told me. “The hotel I’m taking you is only 25 dollars American. A very good price,” he said. “Es nada para ti.” It’s nothing to you.
I tried one more time to tell him I wanted to go to the hotel in my book, so he finally admitted if he took me to his hotel, he’d get a cut. And he needed it for his children.
Tourists filled the lobby, smoking cigarette after cigarette, drinking Cuba Libres. A near-empty fish tank bubbled in the corner. The hotel proprietor tried to improve the smell with rose air freshener, making a sickening smell of fake flowers, rotting fish, and cigarette smoke. The manager showed me to a room with no windows. I was too tired to complain, paid him the 25 dollars.
I dropped my bags and left to meet him in a bar, La Casa de Cerdo, The House of Pig, which was crowded with soccer fans who were shouting in an uproar because Argentina was beating Costa Rica. I ordered rice and beans with, of course, cerdo. And coffee so strong my gums hurt.
He wasn’t exactly a stranger, but he might as well have been. He was a friend’s husband’s brother, and he had moved to San Jose five years earlier. He offered to meet me, show me around before I left the next day for Quepos.
“Museums or parks?” he asked.
“You don’t want to go to the gold museum?”
“No, not really.
“Parks, huh? Even in the rain?”
“I’d rather be outside. It will keep me awake. I haven’t slept for more than 24 hours. And I have an umbrella.”
Some of the hotel lobbies serve as brothels; you just have to know which ones to go to. And my expat knew.
We left the bar and wandered through the rain-soaked streets, and he told me about the pickpockets who slice the bottom of tourists’ backpacks and steal whatever drops out. We wandered past the colonial buildings of the Barrio Amón, walked past the national library and through the Parque Nacional, the Parque España, the Parque Central, and the Plaza de la Cultura.
“These,” he said, “are the kissing parks.”
“The kissing parks. All the young people live with their parents, so at night, they come here to make out. Once it’s dark, every bench is filled with lovers.”
The rain had turned to mist, the trees dripped with rainwater, and the air filled with birdsong. “Listen,” I said. “That’s amazing.”
“Do you want to go to the brothels?” he asked. I was in the moment in the way you are only when you travel. When you’re exhausted, but running on the fumes of the novel. I didn’t stop to think that this was strange — only that I wanted to see whatever there was to see. And whatever there was to do, I would do it. This is why traveling is so alluring: It untethers us from our lives.
“Sure. Why not? Kissing parks and brothels, this is some city tour.”
“We can always go to the gold museum.”
“I’m not complaining.”
The Costa Rican brothels are not like the ones I had seen in Nevada, trailers hidden in the desert with women walking around in lingerie. Some of the hotel lobbies serve as brothels; you just have to know which ones to go to. And my expat knew. We walked into the Hotel Rey, which was full of middle-aged American men and young, beautiful Costa Rican women. A giant man wearing wranglers and a cowboy hat was flanked by two beautiful women, girls really. Dark rings of sweat circled the underarms of his shirt, and his face shined red like a beet. I instantly hated him.
“Let’s go,” I said, “I need a nap.” We walked back to my hotel in the rain.
In the rose-scented lobby, the hotel manager was talking to two American surfers. The manager had his hands cupped over his chest, saying “Grande, muy grande.”
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
“He’s arranging a sale.”
I nodded. If we hadn’t just toured the prostitution hotels, I wouldn’t have understood, but I got it, and it made me feel the same anger I had for the beet-faced man. I wanted these women to have better choices, the ability to make money without selling themselves to disgusting men. I was angry that the world works the way that it does.
We made plans to meet later for drinks.
After a nap, I walked to the Dunn Hotel, and the curtain of dusk had already fallen. Men filled the street corners, stood in the shadows of the buildings’ eaves. They whistled at me as I passed, calling out to me: “Guapita, Bonita.” I hurried by, looked at my shoes. Felt the anger rise once again. I knew I shouldn’t be walking through the streets of San Jose alone at dark but wished I didn’t have to shrink at the catcalls of men.
We hugged hello and then each had a glass of wine, and it was obvious the bottle had been open for days if not weeks. More vinegar than wine. He told me about his life in San Jose, if he would ever return to the States. “My parents are worried I won’t,” he said. “And to tell you the truth, I can’t see it.”
We then went to a tapas bar, split a bottle of Rioja, and shared two plates of tapas.
“How about some Cuban dancing in El Pueblo?” he asked.
“I’m in for whatever.”
In the bathroom of the salsa club, I stared into the mirror. My face was sweaty and flushed from dancing. I said this: Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, as if anyone ever talked herself out of something in a bathroom mirror. I went back onto the dance floor and after one spin, my resolution was broken. I knew what I was about to do, and once again, the lover and the place would become inextricable, so there would be no way to separate one from the other. But my emotions over the young prostitutes crowded my thinking. I wanted to make sure it was my choice, that I wasn’t just going along with something because I had been taught that above all else, a woman’s worth is dependent on whether or not she’s desired by a man.
“What are our options?” I probably cocked my head in a way I thought would look alluring in the dark car.
The truth is I had gone to Costa Rica because I was trying to escape a humiliating living situation, where I was living with my ex-husband, which was an even worse idea than it sounds. But I also knew that piling another affair on top of the ones I’d already had would make things worse, not better. Messier and more complicated.
When we got to his car, he said, “What do you want to do?”
It was 1:30am. I was jetlagged and tired and a little bit drunk. I looked at my hotel key, which I already held in my hand, but still I asked, “What are our options?” I probably cocked my head in a way I thought would look alluring in the dark car. I probably made sure there was a lilt to my voice, that I emphasized the word options. It makes my stomach hurt just thinking about it. Not because I think there is anything wrong with what I was about to do, but because I was 33, old enough that I should have seen this coy act for what it was: silly and more than a little bit sad. As girls, and then women, we are taught these small gestures, so that we can lure in a man. Make them want us. Nobody tells us to make sure that’s what we really want. To make sure the man is worthy of our wantings. To decide on our own terms, and then once we have made the decision, to go forward with none of the usual shame. Without later inventing our own inquisition and mounting it against ourselves.
To fuck him and leave him and call it all good. The way any man would.
“Well,” he said. “We can go to another bar, go to your hotel lobby and talk, or go to my place for another drink.”
“I’m too tired for another bar,” I said.
“And your hotel lobby smells like fake perfume.”
“It’s gross,” I admitted.
“Then to my place for a nightcap?”
“Okay,” I agreed, though I already knew it would come to this, despite the chit-chat.
When we arrived to his apartment, it was confirmed that it wasn’t a drink we were after. We had both switched to water hours before and the only thing he had to drink was cheap whiskey.
“I can’t drink that straight,” I said.
“Well, we can mix it with milk or pink lemonade. Your choice.”
“Yum. Milk and whiskey.”
He poured himself a shot of whiskey and mixed mine with pink lemonade. I can’t report what that mixture tasted like because before I took a sip, we were tangled up on the couch. I do remember being embarrassed because my sandals had cut indented stripes across the tops of my swollen feet. But after the shoes came off, the clothes quickly followed, making me forget about my puffy feet. By the time we made it to the bedroom, a trail of clothes following us, I said, “I wasn’t expecting this.”
This, of course, was a lie.
In bed, he told me he had been a pastor, a virgin until 29. Then he said, “I can’t stop touching you.” Then he switched to Spanish, and I had no idea what he was saying. And I loved the not knowing.
I loved the lie more than the truth.
We would stay up all night, tangled in his sweaty bed sheets, the streetlamps, the barred windows casting shadows like teeth.
Then the blare of the taxi through dawn rain. “There’s still time,” he said, reaching for me as I rose from the mattress on the floor.
“No,” I said. “The taxi’s already here.” I gathered my things, dressed in the dark. The rain was a yellow spray in the taxi’s headlights. The streets were beginning to fill with the madrugadas, early morning workers.
There is no word in English for madrugada — that time between midnight and dawn, the gray nearly. He followed me barefoot into the street, kissed my cheek, handed me my bag, and I said, “hasta,” meaning soon. Hasta meaning I won’t see you again.