Free Chapter: San Anselmo
By Jill Green
Nestled between the coastal mountains of Costa Rica and the Pacific Ocean stands a small old farmhouse. Weathered boards and tin roof overlook a ridge where the rain clouds gather each afternoon before spilling over into the valley. Every summer life returns. Shutters open to air the house, bright sheets and towels flap in the breeze, and the trimmed garden all give the farm an air of comfortable occupancy.
Will and I have been vacationing in San Anselmo for several years. I sit alone on the front porch at the end of what might be my last summer here. I take a deep breath and release it, forcing myself to recall the events that have led to this point.
My husband and I had been looking for a natural retreat away from the tensions of traffic, jobs and deadlines for the summer months. We had bought the farm and taken on the difficult task of carving out a place for ourselves in the lush tropical mountains, trying not to upset the balance of nature and the local culture. We both loved the calm and beauty of this place and had been hoping that it would soothe our chaotic relationship.
This summer we had started working on a new house overlooking the ocean. I remember climbing the hill to the construction site that first day to meet the local crew, carrying hot coffee and arepas, sweet pancakes, for the traditional afternoon snack and siesta. The sweat drips from my brow and dampens my shirt. The crew appreciates that I continue their customs in the hot tropical climate.
“Café,” I call out unpacking the steaming bottles of coffee and unknotting the crisp white cloth from the arepas. I watch the men descend the scaffolding: strong, short, muscular and as graceful as wild cats. We’d been lucky to hire all local men from our pueblo, San Anselmo that is within walking distance of the house site. We are the only people on the mountain to own a car. The workers are in splendid shape from leading healthy simple lives on the edge of the rain forest. Their hardworking ways and willingness to learn makes up for their lack of technical experience.
Will introduces me to Juan, the crew chief. He smiles and says, “un minuto,” as he finishes pounding a nail at a precarious angle. I watch his small muscular body climb effortlessly down the ladder, his face lighting with friendliness. His dark, piercing eyes look admiringly at me, the tall, blond, blue-eyed gringa. “Como esta?”
“Bien, bien.” I smile.
“Salud a los otros. Marvin, Jaime, Luis, y Ronald.”
“Hola, hombres. Como estan?”
“Todo bien.” They answer in unison.
Juan knows more English than the others and replies, “nice to meet you.”
My daughter, Guiselle, has returned to college. I’ve taken over as interpreter for the construction and liaison between Will, who doesn’t speak Spanish, and all the local people, whether workers, suppliers or neighbors. It isn’t easy. There’s much more to translating a language than knowing vocabulary.
“Quisiera trabajar contigos.” I offer my skills.
Juan points to his hammer and asks, “Sabe usted como usar un martillo?”
I nod, “I’ve pounded many a nail.”
He laughs, “Que valiente!”
I turn to Will to translate and notice that strange frozen smile on his fair, sunburned face as he glances from Juan and back to me. ‘Oh shit, it’s the jealousy thing again,’ goes through my mind as my smile freezes a bit too. I choose to ignore the look, deal with it later, and explain to Will that the men think it strange that a woman would be working with them.
I pitch right in. They’re surprised but eager to help me. “Vamos a ensenarle el trabajo.” Juan offers to show me their methods. I glance at Will, but he has turned his big stiff back to them as he pointedly goes back to work. Every now and then I can feel Will’s eyes on me, watching as I climb easily over the framing, brushing damp hair out of my face. Then he peers at the men to see if they’re noticing me too. Especially Juan. Of course they are. He sees the men looking at me, a total contrast from their women who still adhere to the practice of division of labor for the sexes in this undeveloped part of the countryside. The men appreciate my skills, but don’t know how to handle me. Should they treat me as a woman or an equal? Can they do both? It will take awhile for them to get used to a woman working along with them and even telling them what to do. Women on the campo don’t work with men. Their sisters, daughters and wives have plenty to do at home, having babies, taking care of the homestead, keeping the floors polished to an eye-squinting sheen. They rarely leave the valley or even their own doorsteps. The men have all the freedom allowed by a huge double standard, typical in Latin America. It’s okay to philander a bit as long as they love and honor their families and wives.
When work is done for the day, Will leaves quickly. I linger on to help tidy up, put away the tools and visit with the crew to get to know them and their culture better. Tired and apprehensive, I drag my feet down the hill toward the farmhouse knowing we’ll be having one of two conversations: The Dr. Jekyll or the Mr. Hyde. Will greets me with a big smile, “Well, what did you think of the crew? Great guys, huh?”
Thank God for Dr Jekyll. “Yup. They’re friendly and really hard workers.”
“What about Juan? Think he’ll make a good crew chief?
“Don’t know yet, but the others seem to respect his knowledge. He’s willing to learn our ways, but wants us to learn and accept his too.” I start to relax.
“He’s handsome don’t you think?” forcing brightness. “I saw all those guys giving you the eye. They’re not used to having a woman on board, especially a good-looking blond gringa.”
Will’s personality is changing in direct proportion to our foundering marriage. He goes from being proud of my independence to jealous and possessive. It’s getting worse now that we’re living apart for long periods of time. I have taken the summer off from teaching to supervise the house construction, because Will can’t. He returns for a week now and then to ‘check on things’. This project is supposed to be an antidote for our waning relationship. Instead it’s taking a crazy turn. The longer we’re apart the more erratic he becomes, the less I want to be around him.
As the summer passes I learn to wield a wicked machete and can pound a nail with the best of them. Juan tries to make things easier for me when tempers flare or mistakes are made from language misunderstandings. He’s not afraid to say no comprendo instead of nodding ‘yes’ like the other men, whether they understand or not. Our friendship grows as our conversations expand from construction talk to events and people outside the close quarters of our small valley. I catch myself watching him as he works. He’s so different from Will; small, light on his feet, dark eyes flashing.
Will and I were the first foreigners to settle into the community. The local people welcomed us. During the summer dry season fiestas are held once a month in each of the surrounding pueblos. The women and children only attend the ones in their own community, while the men and boys make the rounds to the outlying areas by horseback. This makes for a scarcity of females at the tournos. I attend as many as I can. It’s my chance to socialize, meet some of the people around the valley, and counteract my loneliness from living alone most of the time.
This month’s tourno is farther away, on the next mountain. Juan and his brothers drop by to catch a ride in the car making the trip much shorter. I ask if Nita, Juan’s wife, and the other women want to come along.
“No quieren ir.” They don’t want to. All Ticos (the diminutive for Costa Ricans) love to dance as much as I do, especially to those Latin rhythms: salsa, meringue, cumbia. The men are thrilled to find a new attractive foreigner who knows their dances and take turns asking me. But I usually end up with Juan. He’s proud to have the gringa on his arm and I’m happy too. I love dancing with him as he holds me close, swinging me through the tight intricate moves.
“Are you liking this?” he smiles, looking straight into my eyes.
“Que divertido! What fun!” I flash.
“Que romantico!” he counters.
I feel alive. I love it. Will flashes into my mind. He’s never liked to dance except when sloppy drunk. This is sick. I hate him. I hate myself for being too afraid to break away, for justifying my little private fantasy to get me through.
On his last visit before the end of the summer the growing friendship between Juan and me makes Will very edgy. “I was watching you work on the site today. Did you know that little cotton top you were wearing shows the outline of your nipples?”
“I don’t think so, but…”
“And when you bend over you can see them even better. Are you doing this for me or for Juan?”
“I’m not doing it for anybody. It’s hot here; I wear the coolest thing I can find. What are you getting at?”
“I’ve seen how you look at Juan, even though I don’t know what the hell you all are laughing and talking about.”
“Are you jealous? This whole scene used to be your fantasy. You loved to show me off to other men,” I scoff.
“I still do. Come here.” He yanks me to him, holding me tight, putting his face into the curve of my neck, lips to my ear. “Tell me how he makes you feel. How wet you get just thinking about him.”
I freeze. Can’t do this. But if I don’t he’ll get angry. Maybe violent. I’m scared. I close my eyes until I see rainbows and dream of making love to Juan.
Will leaves early to see the lawyer and file the land title in the capital. Breathing a sigh of relief I stay on to close up the house, set up the caretakers and say my good-byes. I’ve never been happier to see him leave.
After making all the arrangements, there’s still time to descend one last time to my favorite paradise on the river. The grotto with its natural pools still stuns me with its beauty. Sunning nude on the rocks after a cool swim, a flash of color surprises me. No one usually disturbs me here. Juan appears through the trees. He knew where I’d be. Our eyes meet in silence asking no questions. “I’ve come to say good-bye.” He breathes. Before I can react or speak his hug takes my breath away, our lips barely touch. I hesitate, “Will you swim with me?”
“Por supuesto.” We slowly separate as I help him remove his clothes, savoring every new touch as my fantasy becomes real. The blue pool surrounded by gentle rainforest lures us. An ibis silently appears at the end of the tunnel the river makes through the jungle, disappearing around the curve. Through the constant rush of water over the falls we hear the myriad voices of birds unseen in the canopy. Butterflies drift above our heads, touching down before darting away again.
Juan and I slip into the cool water, a delicious contrast to the heat of the sun. Then we emerge like frolicking otters shaking rainbows from our glistening bodies. We hold hands laughing and slipping on wet rocks, until we reach a dry smooth plateau in the shade of the giant ceibo tree. Our sliding hands and whispering tongues meet no resistance on wet skin. His fingers drift under my arms feeling for the slight lift of my breasts, slowly moving over the roundness, seeking the peak of my nipples. My head falls back with a quick intake of breath as our necks intertwine, his lips on the taut skin of my throat. His hands shiver across my body, dip into my waist, circle the dark shadow of my navel, following the line of hair below into the small triangle curling around his fingertips into a breaking wave.
But the crash of a rock tumbling into the river breaks the spell. I turn to see someone retreating through the jungle. My hot blood turns to ice. Will. How long has he been there? “My God, Juan! It’s Will.” I’m shaking. “What’s he doing here? Something must have happened to the car. A landslide?”
“Tranquila! Tranquila!” He tries to calm me down. “Que estamos haciendo? What are we going to do?”
Before he can stop me I grab my clothes, race up the hill and round the curve to the house. Will’s not waiting in the yard. No matter what happens I must confront it. I fling open the door. Silence. “Will? Will?” Nothing. I remember the gun in his room, in the drawer by his bed. He keeps it around for killing poisonous snakes. Gone. But who’s the viper here? Me? Juan? Will? I go out on the porch to sit, staring at the sun as it pierces the rolling front of clouds, and wait.