Karen broke out into a full sprint; that was the only way she’d ever hope of catching up to the new mare that everyone said would end up killing her. The locals used meters, but from what Karen could tell, she was closing the gap between herself and the horse by a yard per second. She was good at these things—numbers, tallies, equations and such—and could focus clearly on them even if her heart was ready to leap out of her chest and run alongside her. It would take her thirty-seven seconds to reach the haunches, another two the ribs. And a full, endless second later, she could reach the stirrups that jangled at its sides like miniature, vestigial wings. Dan, her husband, hadn’t followed, didn’t even budge from the doorway of their bungalow. Karen was sure if it had been a stallion, he’d be closing in at two yards per second.
Karen had started the morning with more rice and beans, to which Dan always responded positively, but she was repulsed by its monotony. The maid, whom Karen was sure Dan was fucking, used too much cilantro, and knew to do it, because the locals said anyone with eyes as blue as Karen’s couldn’t stand the leaves’ taste. It was true, cilantro to Karen was like Irish Spring lather. Over a text on Karen’s disposable phone, her mother told her to stop with the dramatics. But her mother’s eyes were brown, so she’d never understand. The coffee here, however, Karen liked very much. She found that Costa Rican coffee protected her skin from the sun—whereas back in DC she’d burn from an hour outdoors, here, high in the chartreuse mountains, her skin had tanned. Her bronze face like a frame, her eyes like a painting of eyes. The artist’s blue oils his own creation, unlike anyone else’s.
“Daniel,” Karen said.
“Ask her to leave.”
“Why don’t you ask her, Kare Bear?”
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
“She speaks English.”
“No, she doesn’t. She’d have cracked open our safe a month ago and skipped town for Panamá.” Karen enjoyed her husband’s expressions of perplexity. “I wrote the combination numbers out in English, left it right on the table.”
“You set a trap for a maid?”
“It’s only a trap if one takes the bait.”
From the look on his face, “one” was not lost on him. From the look on his face, he was wracking his brain for all the traps she’d laid out for him.
“¿Geraldine?” He said with a voice Karen hadn’t heard in years. “Tomá el resto del día libre.”
“Pero no he lavado los platos.”
“No te preocupás. Te pagaré para el día.”
“¿Quién le va dar comida a los caballos??”
“I will,” Karen said. She was almost sure platos meant plates and that pagaré was some sort of payment. But caballos she understood without translation. “I’ll feed the horses,” she said and shot up like an athlete ready for a plunge. A volley, a dash, a hurl. Whatever she could use to consider herself the winner in this situation. It was pathetic, she thought, swiping the beads to exit the doorway, stomping down the steep path in the grass down to the stables. Pathetic how she was competing with another woman as if a man were a medal in the Olympics. And the tragedy that an American would lose first to some Third World tramp. Silver never looked good on Karen; a woman with eyes as blue as hers demanded gold.
The few cows and mavericks looked to the white woman who stomped with enough force to shake the ground beneath them—Karen and Dan refused to brand any of the cattle, as the practice was reserved for these barbaric Costa Ricans. These people who, to train foals for servitude, sliced a wound across their muzzles that would nestle a rope the men used to direct and heel. The pain, she imagined, was unimaginable. Of the five rescues in their care, four had these grinning scars between their nostrils. The only without it was the new, nameless mare that had arrived one night like a specter in the dark, chewing so loudly on the other horses’ carrots it woke Karen from a lovely dream. She wasn’t superstitious—she’d been a scientist at NASA, had worked with numbers and calculations. Things with explanations. So that mare’s sudden materialization meant nothing. However, the locals who dropped off feed and groceries from the beach town down the mountain kept their distance. Seizing the opportunity, Karen had begun keeping her valuables by the stable, tucked away in the hay inside a blue plastic bag.
Dan explained that the scandal came not from the creature’s advent, but from its coloring. To Karen, its hair was gray. But to everyone else, its coat changed color with the light—midday turned its coat a bone white, but night erased it completely in the shadows.
The four original rescues stood in a neat line, like ticket holders at a butcher shop early in the morning. The smiling gelding they’d named Cheshire, his teeth long enough to honor the name. Machiavelli stomped his hooves. Karen enjoyed riding him best, as he was a daily challenge, conquest. He was the only horse whose worn saddle they never removed, as he was prone to escapes, the fence just another hurdle to his freedom. Lily was the sweet name for the sweet mare who had birthed no fewer than twelve foals. Her stomach drooped like an old sack of wine, her legs a trembling sight. Of the four original rescues, she would be the first to die. Their final original was War Winds, christened after Elizabeth Taylor’s horse in Giant. He had the mien of a noble alcoholic. A swaying dignity. He had been abused, perhaps beaten in the face, on his head. But his posture suggested pride, as if wanting to be taken seriously. This new mare, though, which they’d decided to keep (lest they abandon their philosophy of rescuing strays), had no name, with no foreseeable name. The horses began grazing.
They preferred the feed and apple slices tossed on the grass to peck at, like chickens. It was more like a salad, Dan said—the greens, the pellets, the fruit—one at a fancy restaurant they couldn’t afford. And that was an astute observation, because they couldn’t afford this place for much longer. The money Dan had accrued without Karen’s knowing was drying up as quickly as the morning dries dew. All that time she’d gone without asking where the funds had all come from (as no wife on Capitol Hill truly checked her husband’s accounts; they just charged, swiped black cards that weighed down cashiers’ hands). Anything to keep up with the Joneses, because Karen’s neighbors had, indeed, been Joneses.
They’d bought this miniature ranch from another American woman, an expat who’d afforded it with her software engineering job in Silicon Valley. She wore Steve Jobs glasses, but it was too hot here for a turtleneck. Her wife-beaters often showed too much breast and it annoyed Karen how wide Dan’s eyes got the few times they had visited to add extra clauses to the contract. There was a cabin adjacent to their bungalow, so the woman suggested they use it as a hostel for wayward travelers who wanted to escape the beach for a bit, look upon its sands instead from the billowing, emerald mountains. There was a high season and a low season, of course, the woman had admitted—logical, Karen and Dan agreed. That’s the way tourism worked, especially down—well, up—here. Americans were cyclical and punctual in that way; they showed up when expected and showed up on time. So, after the woman had driven away in her Subaru, and the bungalow had taken on their smell, Karen and Dan bought a small DVD player and a beautiful TV from the Walmart in San José. They scattered childhood board games throughout the adjacent cabin, adding to the delight of a rainy night indoors. After three high seasons turned into six low seasons (another calculation Karen made immediately), they found out the Silicon Valley woman had cooked the books. The expensive feed, the organic apples for the horses were punching thick holes in their already-thin pocketbook. That was why Karen was so protective of their valuables. A stolen diamond earring or twenty-four karat gold bangle could push them over the edge into financial ruin. The four horses, though, kept her spirit afloat. Whatever peace money, or its lack thereof, could steal from a person, the unconditional love of an animal could return it right back. However, this new mare that everyone whispered loudly about could prove to drive the final nail into her coffin.
Karen got back to the bungalow. The delicate beads hanging in the doorway gave the living room an air of a fortune teller’s foyer, sans cards, sans good fortunes. Dan was waiting in the kitchen with a glass of warm beer in his hand. Ice cubes floated on the foam like battleships.
“Go get changed.”
“You smell like horse shit.”
Karen smiled. Insults were about the only intimacy they had left. “Where are we going?”
“Jolly Rogers. Hurry up, or we’ll miss the lunch special. I’m in the mood for snapper.”
Karen showered quickly. Her muscles tightened around her bones like pythons from the freezing, natural spring water. She decided against shampooing, only added a dollop of conditioner into her fading highlights. Her darkening skin surprised her. Another month in the sun, and she’d look like a Kardashian. A cartoonish bronze, unlike the natural brown of the women she fake-smiled to. Whose friend she wished to be if she could just get out of her own mind and escape echoes of her father’s racist voice. Savage came to mind, and she shut off the shower. She’d forgotten to grab a towel, and Dan was outside smoking a cigar like a mob boss, so she left foot-printed lakes all the way to their room, where the bed was disheveled, despite her having made it this morning.
Their banana-yellow jeep caked with mud from the recent rainy season waited at the bottom of the hill like a ripe peel. It looked authentic, in a way, Dan said. Only gringos wash their cars. We’re locals now. That’s what he and his buddies thought—that somehow owning something here made them locals. Citizenship only mattered in the US. Here, you could be Costa Rican with a deed to a property, a car note. You could plant a coconut palm in your yard, and it’d be as good as being raised by the beach. They weren’t illegal here. They were expats. Theoretically.
It was her best friend Linda who’d stumbled upon this paradox of expats. “Pat, as in Patria,” she’d said. “Ex, as in when we’re ready, we can go back.
Well, not for Karen and Dan, even if they eventually wanted to.
In their minds, there was uncertainty in their going back. At this moment, from their vantage point, all realms of possibility were impossible, as it had been long before their arrival here. Impossible they’d end up in this whole situation—financial, geographical, existential. And even less likely they’d get out of it.
What had been possible was the flight. The pass to board. The seething airplane cabin because the air conditioning was busted. What had been possible were the brat’s kicks to her seat’s back all the way to Costa Rica, where they were greeted with jungle murals and an ad to end child sex tourism. It had been an increased heart rate through customs, through immigration. Immigrants? Is that what they were? Karen had checked her back: sweat. Wet, technically.
That possibility that they clung to, that kept them up till sunrise and added extra coffee to their mugs, was just denial, pure and simple. They could never go back, not even if they tried their hardest to. They were neither illegals nor truly expats, but fugitives.
Driving through the beach town in their banana-yellow jeep, Karen reassured herself that she should have urged them to live here in Dominical, where all the other expats had opened their own hostels, cafés, coffee roasting facilities. Its bay shone like an aquamarine on display. She and Dan had decided on the coast of Puntarenas the second the plane’s door slid open, by recommendation of a pot-bellied gringo sitting between them on the flight. A ruby encrusted his Yale ring, so that was enough to make his opinion valid.
That day three years ago, they had rented a 2015 Hyundai, bought new Kolbi phone chips, turned on Waze, and headed here to Dominical. The winding highway through mountain and forest nauseated Karen; she threw up once in her mouth, twice into a bag stored in the glove compartment. When the land flattened, they passed a hundred miles of African palms, standing like a manicured graveyard on either side of the highway. The air smelled of oil and burnt asphalt. The Bob Marley CD stuffed into the player lasted much longer than it should have. Because nothing changed for two hours—not the songs, nor the position of the sun—Karen assumed they’d stumbled into Hell. Going nowhere, with the ever-present anxiety that the car’s metal would twist and melt on top of them.
That day, they had arrived to Dominical, panting from the heat, and bought overpriced water at the supermarket, splayed out on the beach and decided their future. Karen saw a horse trotting alone, waves up to its knees, and blonde, dreaded surfers patted its scarred nose. She had always wanted horses of her own, ever since she was a girl. She suggested a ranch. Dan, oddly affectionate from a lack of sleep, obliged. They found the Silicon Valley woman that day at Jolly Rogers. For a week they negotiated, grew excited at the prospect of galloping animals in the pasture, college kids staying in their bungalow on the way to the beach. They’d promised themselves to build a simple, joyful life. But it hadn’t worked out that way.
And now, speeding by this close to the familiar surf made Karen realize they’d made a long series of mistakes. For a moment, the nameless mare flashed across her mind.
The salt breeze and perfume of ripe lime trees made one crave a margarita. Ice cold, on the rocks. Besides growing regret, that’s all Karen could think about as they veered off the highway after a half-hour, uphill on an inclined dirt road leading to the gringo bar called Jolly Rogers. The building, once a dirty hostel, was carved high enough into a cliff that one could see the expansive Pacific Ocean, on sunny days, indistinguishable from the sky.
There were few patrons at the bar, despite it being noon. Bulbous, gray clouds sat low, bringing to life the lush green of the surrounding canopies. Down the concrete flight of steps, no one was in or even close to the pool. They all knew better than to risk a dip with such a darkened sky.
Dan left the jeep before Karen could finish unbuckling her seatbelt. From the cracked windshield, she watched the speed of his gait (at least five miles an hour, with a distance of six yards from the bumper to the bar) and wished she had the keys to run him over. She calculated how hard she’d have to slam the accelerator, how surprised she’d have to act after his body was mangled in the axels. Though these intrusive thoughts had become more frequent lately, she didn’t mind them. They provided her with some relief, after all—better that she imagined these things than to act them out. She had no idea about how Costa Ricans ran their jails.
The bar’s speakers were blasting Beyoncé on Radio Dos, and as Karen entered, she caught sight of Linda standing to mimic the memory of the choreography from “Who Runs the World,” and Karen joined in. The two women neared each other with excited grins and stiff knees. Off beat, but happy.
“Look what the cat dragged in!”
“Look what the cat threw up!”
The two women embraced each other, two old friends who had known each other back in DC. They had restarted their lives here around the same time. Linda three Januarys ago, Karen in March of that same year.
Karen thought often about that two-month delay. She didn’t know if that was how long the FBI had taken to mount a case against Dan. He’d fucked with the wrong people, that she was sure of. But all she could get out of Dan that night was that both Linda’s husband, Ron, and Dan shortly after, had been tipped off by the same guy, a compatriot in their years-long scheme. Ron and Dan had been caught, but too late. By the time the feds raided Karen’s home, she and Dan were on that economy flight to San José. They left their entire lives behind—Dan his season tickets to Nat’s Stadium, his billiards league, and cocaine addiction; Karen, her book club, her Folger Theater membership, and midnight bottles of wine. They assumed their belongings had been repossessed by the government. Better that than federal prison. Karen knew how Americans ran their prisons. She wanted no part of it.
Both Dan and Ron had been concierges at different five-star hotels in DC. Daily they attended to celebrities and Congressmen, their escorts and drug connects. Discretion, above all, made a good concierge, which is why it was so easy for Dan to slip fifteen year’s worth of funds into his personal account. An extra room charge here, an extra service there while clients turned to gawk at the architecture, marble columns, or the chair on which Abraham Lincoln rested his weary legs. From what Karen had forced out of Dan as they frantically packed clothes, he’d embezzled 168,000 dollars. She let that flute of rosé in her hand crash onto the vicuña carpet, and her agahpe mouth dripped wine onto its fur, too. To rid herself of the shock and of the need to open Dan’s throat with a glass shard, she did the math: Dan had ruined their lives for thirty dollars a day.
“Hello. Earth to Karen. You want a margarita?” Linda said.
“You know me best.”
“Like La Lomita—you remember that place?”
“How could I forget. But those were real margaritas.”
The bartender, a young redneck whose neck was indeed red, scowled for a moment while pouring the José Cuervo mix into the blender. Karen had gotten piss-drunk with him a dozen times, so she winked and blew a kiss. She didn’t mind offending him. He’d already spit into her mouth, so she wouldn’t mind him spitting into her drink.
“It’s going to rain something crazy,” Linda said.
“Yeah, the sky’s going to open up.”
“The sky’s going to fall.”
“On top of us.”
“You’re a party pooper.”
“You poop at parties.”
They laughed, Karen sincerely this time, and at the same time admiring Linda’s outfit. Linda dressed as she would have back in DC. She made sure to keep her socialite’s uniform—pearl earrings, culottes, inverted Claddagh ring—as some pretense of normalcy. To her, she wasn’t exiled here in Costa Rica; she was merely on an extended vacation. In her mind, she could go back at any time she wanted. Expat just didn’t have the same weight on Linda’s back it did on Karen’s. But Karen had gotten the confession out of Linda last Christmas: Ron had stolen twice what Dan had. Their lives had at least been ruined for sixty dollars a day.
They talked for an hour or so, long enough for Dan to finish the deep-fried red snapper, its perilous spines later used to pick his teeth of patacón bits. He stuffed the simple salad into a Ziploc bag for the horses. Karen watched this small affection for the animals with a small affection of her own. His eyes were too close together, but his jaw line could slice a stick of cold butter—he’d been much handsomer when they met, twenty-three-and-a-half years ago. Twenty-three-and-a-half years, one-hundred-and-one days, six hours, seventeen minutes, six seconds. Seven seconds. Eight.
Karen stood up from her stool. As she floated over to him, a crack broke the miraculous silence, a violent boom like a musician rupturing the batter head of his gigantic drum. The sky did in fact open up. Everyone at Jolly Roger’s both ducked and jumped, as if dodging a sudden shockwave overhead and an earthquake below their feet. When the reverberations dissipated, they all stayed in place, staring at one another—the bartender at Linda, Linda at Dan, Karen at the young Costa Rican hauling bottles to the garbage. Then, to the horrified, gaping gazes of the bar-goers, one by one, black objects fell in pirouettes from the sky to the ground like maple seedlings. To Karen, they looked like crumbs of ash—but could lightning burn the air? As dozens of these unidentified objects twirled to the bright, green bushes, the concrete edges of the pool, and to the soft, stagnant surface of its water, they all saw that what was raining after the lightning was a flock of birds, knocked dead by the boom. The sky did in fact fall, as Linda had said.
It was two o’clock by the time Karen and Dan were back on the rain-soaked road, Karen driving this time, as Dan had out-drunk her by three margaritas. She wanted to talk about the crashing flock of birds, but she rolled down her window instead. Dan’s head teetered with every serpentine curve of the road, but only slightly; his neck muscles relaxed by the tequila, and apparently, his tongue had been loosened by it too.
“I love you.”
“Say you love me back.”
“I’ll tell you when your veins aren’t running with José Cuervo.”
“Or no deal.”
“I never liked Linda.”
“I don’t think she ever liked you.”
“Better that way.”
“Why don’t you like her?”
“She thinks she’s better than you.”
“You’re just drunk.”
“No, I mean it—watch that truck.”
“I am watching it.”
“She’s always sneered at you.”
“All of them. She was always buzzing around like a fucking mosquito, feeding off everyone but you—like you weren’t good enough to kiss up to.”
“Friends don’t kiss up to each other.”
“The hell they don’t. She knew Tina long before she knew us, and Linda always had her beak nose up Tina’s ass. It’s because Tina’s husband was a lobbyist.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“It is true.”
“I liked Tina’s husband. He always brought me a drink precisely when I finished mine.”
“He’s a crook.”
“So are you.”
The hit below the belt worked. A jab like that was the quickest way to protect one’s denial. As long as she could shut Dan up, none of her deepest insecurities could be verified. As long as she could bring his own insecurities to the forefront of their mutual consciousness, hers could stay safe and nestled away. Karen and Dan stayed silent for a while. She counted the crystalline water droplets hurled from the windshield by the wipers; she imagined they were Swarovski crystals, that she and Dan were so well off she needn’t open the window to catch them. Dan’s aphasia was melancholic. There was always a line between anger and gloom when one drank tequila. No wonder those Mexicans had had so many revolutions, she thought as she listened to Dan’s breathing. His were sad breaths. Deep, fluttering slowly, like a butterfly at the end of a tendril in the rain.
She thought again of the bartender, who’d hid behind his bar after the thunder as if it could save him. Karen realized she had a thing for cowards. Guys who puffed out their chests, spotted with tufts of fine hair, against whatever the world threw at them. But inside, their organs were made of jelly—their sinew, and muscle and cartilage all made of jelly. She thought to the first time she’d gotten wasted with the bartender. She didn’t know his birth name, but his nickname was Hunter. It was because he hunted things back in Virginia. He’d poured her another shot after the last call, shooed away the Costa Rican cook who’d wanted one of his own, and said, “I bet those government types flocked to you like beaners to a can of beans.”
Karen stared at him, impressed—not at the racism, but the laziness of it. She’d never really sat down to think about it—beaners, beans. She decided it was too obvious, too conspicuous for her liking.
“Even Obama hit on me at a party,” she lied, trying to get a rise out of him.
“That’s the one.”
“Well now I don’t know if I want to kiss you.”
Karen hadn’t had the heart to tell him Obama had deported more migrants than any president before him. Droves of those “beaners,” flung back into the Third World. She wondered what this kid would do if he found out the man he hated most had carried out his values. She considered watching him short circuit, but decided against it.
“You do want to kiss me,” she’d said. And he did. And they did.
“Kare Bear,” Dan was stirring like a beetle in his seat. Squirming.
“Where are we?”
“In the driveway. We’re home.”
Evening descended like an elegant burial sheet, laden with gentle stars in an ochre sky. Dan had woken from their nap together and was brewing coffee. Karen had been in a half-sleep, inhaling the lime fumes from his breath and wanting to vomit. But she didn’t want to be alone. She’d gnawed on his arm hair until he flipped over, put on his pants and walked into the kitchen to grind beans.
Karen thought of the mare; she would check on the mare, examine its coloring—what color would sunset make its coat? She threw her sun dress into the hamper, put on some Aeropostale jeans that had been gifted to her by a cheap girlfriend. Then thick socks, then hiking boots with soles for traction. The dirt and grass would be muddy, disgusting. The manure would saturate the air, then her clothes, then her scalp, then her nose hairs.
Karen caked on mascara, put on a bit of eye shadow. Then she walked past Dan without acknowledging him, without asking if he’d made enough coffee for them both, but she did so slowly; she wanted him to ask her why she was so dolled up.
The sun had set, but there was still about half an hour of light left in the sky, burning on the tops of trees. The closer Karen got to the mare, the more superstitious she got—its shiny fur was changing color, from that orange-gray tint to black. Its aura was what began to frighten her. The animal ignored her, but its energy somehow pulled her in, then repulsed her when she arrived at the rotted-wood fence. The other horses gravitated to her, pushed their muzzles out for petting. But Karen wanted the attention of the mare. After weeks of feeding it, calling it different names that didn’t stick, she wanted to be noticed by it. She wanted to look in its eyes and ask why it changed colors.
Feeling a cold surge throughout, Karen swung open the gate and stomped through the mud and shit to its side, being careful not to get too close to its hind legs (she’d seen girls’ ribs collapse from a horse’s kick at camp). Then Karen yelled. She shrieked so loud that Dan ran out of the bungalow with the stupefied face that men make when women scream. The mare took off—not out of fright, but out of pure defiance. It was as if the horse knew Karen would follow it, try to control its nature. And Karen did just that. Like a track runner, she dug the balls of her feet into the soft earth with every quick step, racing towards the darkness and the mare that blended into it. Dan didn’t follow.
Even in her frustration and lack of breath, Karen made calculations. How to catch up to the horse, how to conserve her energy, how many hits to the face it would take to tame it. She wanted to rip out the mare’s mane, punch its teeth, drive rusty nails into its hooves. She wanted to see what color subjugation was. If it was as crystalline as water droplets or her eyes, or green as the herbs that disgusted her. Karen wanted to skin it, wear its pelt, change colors herself. She wanted to appear out of thin air and disappear with the ease of a gallop. She wished to be unreachable, unconquerable. That was the only way she’d ever regain herself.
She was just a yard from the stirrups when both she and the mare noticed a figure in the road before them. They both slowed in tandem. Through their caution, they were finally in sync. The shape that emerged from a thicket grew mangy fur, swiped its hooves on the dirt road like a bull. Karen had seen a coyote before, been frightened by its howls in between dreams, but never this close, or that big. In its growling Karen heard the jangling of chains.
“Sonora,” Karen mumbled. It was a word she’d heard from the maid once as she washed dishes. Its three syllables like a song. “Sonora,” Karen said much louder, and the mare turned to her with kind eyes.
Karen began calling out to it now. “Sonora!” She yelled. Silently, she begged the mare to cross the yard between them, to allow her to climb onto it and ride all the way back. But the mare just stared. Though she had discovered its name, this knowledge hadn’t changed the mare’s attitude. Instead, it turned around and ran north, into the underbrush of forest, leaving Karen alone on the mud-dirt road with the beast that was closing in from ten yards away, at a half a yard per second. Karen would have to run at full speed to even spare herself another minute. Just a minute. Rather than fight it, she stood motionless, counting those twenty seconds. A hushed, resigned “Mississippi” between each number of the countdown, as to be accurate in her calculation.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.