In a field of prickly weeds by a sleepy Venezuelan highway, I weighed my options. Noon sun smacked my freckled arms pink while swollen, sandaled feet dragged my legs like waterlogged boats.
Do I break up with my Venezuelan surfer and move back to Alaska? I debated. Or bring him to the U.S. and marry him?
I looked around for a sign, but all I saw was a large billboard of a woman's rock-hard derriere next to a bottle of beer that read ¿Es la tuya tan buena? Is yours this good?
No, it wasn’t that good, and neither were my options.
I had come to Venezuela to obtain a fiancé visa for a man I wasn’t sure I should marry. Although we lived in Costa Rica, my boyfriend was Venezuelan, and even though a major surf company had vouched to sponsor him, he had been denied the tourist visa. Marriage was the only viable route now to bring him to the U.S.
Left behind with his mother, she directed her attention towards me. “What do you plan to do once in the United States?” she asked in Spanish, hands on hips, expectorating her words as if they tasted bitter. Raised by his grandma, he called her by her first name, Bella.
“I’m going to be a teacher!” I answered, assured that this would score some points with my future mother-in-law.
“Only if God wants it!” she said.
In his hometown named, of all things, Morón, we had bunked in her cement house, where iron bars adorned the windows and a small painting of Jesus beside a large photograph of my boyfriend as a little boy served as the only decor.
After two meals of chicken broth with star noodles, it was time to bid goodbye. Except my boyfriend didn’t actually say anything. No kisses or hugs were exchanged. He just walked away, hoofing it through the field as quickly as possible.
Left behind, I awkwardly embraced Bella. “Adiós, gracias por todo,” I said.
“¡Haz la cruz!” she commanded me to cross myself.
But I did not.
“¡Haz la cruz!” she repeated.
I did not cross myself, determined to show her that neither she nor God were in charge. That I was an independent woman who could make her own decisions. Even impossible ones.
With my boyfriend—fiancé— now at the far side of the neglected field, Bella asked me pointedly, “When is he going to stop calling me, asking for money?”
My stomach lodged in my throat, for I’d asked myself the same question many times.
Silently, I admitted, I can’t marry this man.
. . .
The first time I saw him, I had just moved to Costa Rica. He had just finished his surf heat, peeling off his neon green rash guard with one hand and toting a surfboard with the other. Muscles rippled under a sun that adored him, unlike my flaming red hair and porcelain skin that charred within minutes. When he laughed his dark almond eyes, arced like ravens taking flight.
My pulse quickened and my blood turned into soup. Then I did something completely out of character: I stared him down. As if I was the fourteen-year-old boy with squirreled-away smut in the bathroom.
He noticed and smiled, then returned his focus on the contest.
As luck would have it, his roommate invited me over to his home for dinner. In a black tank top and jeans, I ambled towards his small sage-green house, through coconut trees, palm fronds, and tropical plants with orange and red leaves as thick as fingernails. My tight black jeans wrestled hot and sticky on my legs. Double-overhead waves hammered into the Pacific Ocean a few hundred yards away.
“¡Upe!” I called outside the screen door.
“¡Pasa!” a low voice replied, textured like velour.
I opened the door, loosening an aroma of chocolate around me. The dark stranger from the surf contest stood at the other end of the small house, brewing something on the stove, attired in nothing more than board shorts.
“Sienta,” he instructed. Doing as told, I sat at the kitchen table. Dozens of freshly painted chocolate cookies had been laid out on the counter in neat rows. With artistic precision he dipped a brush into a simmering pot and painted chocolate on two cookies sealed with dulce de leche.
I moved in with the cookie artist, into his small, green house nestled into coconut and mango trees. Fire ants the size of pebbles devoured a tree in one day, and scorpion babies rained from the ceiling. In the morning he would shimmy up the nearest palm, drop a coconut at my feet, shimmy down, and slice the top off with a machete. Then he’d place a straw into the mouth of the coconut and offer it to me.
He taught me how to paint the cookies with chocolate and sell them to pay rent. Surfers from all over the world drifted through our little house in the jungle, sun-kissed and lithe from surfing. People called his little green house in the jungle La Embajada, the Embassy. They called my boyfriend El Ambajador, the Ambassador. The Ambassador greeted every guest as royalty, his smile brilliant as he sang out “¡Na guevona, marico!"—an expression that can only be described as love dressed up in an insult.
He pulled us all into his orbit. Perhaps it was the witch in him. His father had been a brujo, and his mother, and her mother before her. Was it brujería that convinced me to spend the remainder of my savings on a Toyota 4-Runner that he drove almost exclusively? Perhaps it was witchcraft that saved our lives as we passed cars on blind corners through mountain jungle to buy supplies for our food stand. Or maybe it was the wooden cross that he hung on our rearview mirror, that when he clutched I silently invoked the faith that he felt so deeply. Please, Jesús, please let us live.
By day, we basked in secluded white sand beaches under canopies of palm fronds. By night, we danced to house music by an abalone ocean. Living off fresh coconut water, seafood, and fruit, the sun would dissolve our bones, leaving us sprawled in hammocks as the shadows lengthened. This was a world in which time was marked by the night time chirping of the cicadas, the midday pescado al ajillo wafting in from nearby kitchens, and the late afternoon flash of crimson and cobalt from scarlet macaws flying overhead. Detached from the chatter of intellect and academia, I could completely tune into all my body’s senses. Life here moved slowly and deliberately, as if through water, each gesture and syllable savored like ceremony.
I shape-shifted into the proper Venezuelan girlfriend. Spanish rolled off my tongue like cuba libres. During the cooler mornings and thick of midday I bicycled over Costa Rican hills and ran on black sand beaches until my stomach hollowed and sand colored constellations spawned along my body.
But sometimes I’d walk into the kitchen and find strange men in gold chains speaking in hushed voices. The Ambassador would instruct me to “saca la plata”—take out the money. His explanation was always simply “business,” a term so universal he said it in English. Alarms would fire in my stomach, but I tempered them with cuba libres.
He would promise to pay me back, but almost never did. When I refused to take out more money, he’d grow angry, calling me “enferma por la plata”—sick for money. Back then I hadn’t heard of gaslighting.
“You’re selfish!” I accused him one night as he drove my 4-Runner.
“Sí,” he said, pulling the car over on the side of the jungle. “If you don’t like it, leave me here.”
What cruel person would leave their boyfriend on a deserted road by a jungle? Besides, I didn’t know the roads. I would later wonder if letting him stay in the car signified to him that I consented to mistreatment.
A few months later, left behind in a field of weeds by his mother’s house, I longed for his fearlessness to walk away. The freedom to drift unmoored to anything or anyone. I longed for the courage to show him that I wouldn’t let him treat me like just another wave. But when you are made of water and spend your whole life reflecting and filling leftover space, you start to wonder if there’s anything about you worth loving.
I gave him a visa and money, and he gave me belonging, protection, and offerings of love. Leaving him meant going back to my parents, to the cold, vast emptiness, and never knowing what could have been.
Backwards wasn’t an option. I needed to see what was around the next bend. Even if it meant passing cars on blind corners, down misty mountains through lush coffee farms blasting AC/DC, down dark dirt roads without working headlights on our way to surf contests. The wooden cross hanging from the rearview mirror assuring my faith, the nearness of danger reassuring me of life.
And so, I trudged on. Towards my future husband, towards the rock-hard derriere on the billboard, towards my destiny.