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Very American MAG
When I was in seventh grade, I traveled to Costa Rica with my best friend, a handful of classmates, and my unusually young biology teacher. Her excessive youth must have warped her logic, enough to fly eight sweaty, hormonal pre-teens to a lonely village about the size of a Walmart with an unfortunate lack of air conditioning, Wi-Fi, or parental control. This endeavor did not reflect well on her sanity. Still, nothing sounded better than an overpriced trip away from the ho-hum of suburban adolescence.
Somehow, through a medley of “PLEASE” and “I LOVE YOU” and other mild forms of coercion, including a hunger strike, I'd managed to convince my parents. They let me go, with three conditions: I was to stay with the group, beware of tourist traps, and remember to wear my hat, as I am apparently starting to resemble my great-aunt Fei, who turned the color of an eggplant after a lifetime of tragic hatlessness.
And so I found myself – the girl who hadn't dared venture out of her backyard for a solid eight months – parentless and sweaty in the remote jungles of Gandoca, Costa Rica.
The tiny town may have lacked pizza, but there was one thing that could be found in startling abundance: mosquitos. They hung in the air like ash, miniature vampires that insisted on driving you to your wit's end. They also managed to photobomb the only picture I have from that entire trip. The rest of the film was lost to a crocodile-infested pond I'd rather not mention.
The photograph is dense with mosquitos, which huddled in dark clouds that vibrated above my head. My face is blurred, partly because I'd reeled around to slap away a mass of bloodsuckers, and partly because an irritating strand of sweat-slicked hair insisted on hanging across my face like a streak of grease. The photo is convoluted and rippling with warped greens and blues, and nothing else is decipherable. Apparently, a good pond-water soak does nothing to improve the quality of a film strip. But I don't mind the lack of pictures.
There are a lot of things I can still see – snapshot memories that have been fully developed in my mind. The green of the stagnant palm fronds, sprouting like wings from a wrinkled, dung-scented truck gouged with insect nests and bird-plucked hollows. And I can see my best friend, Melissa, her hair frizzing in the soggy air, as she sat cross-legged beside me on a bench. My teacher was stern-faced, pouting beneath a canopy of woven bark and grasses, a tapestry of reddish-browns and greens so vivid that I couldn't stare at it long before my eyes began to ache. A throng of classmates had departed on some adventure to follow leaf-cutter ants back to their nest.
The air stuck like glue to my cotton T-shirt. It tasted like bitter leaves, vaguely medicinal, and like the half-rotting mangoes piled along the single dirt road. The faint odor of gasoline and dung lingered beneath the cabana's awning.
Melissa and I were sitting on the patio's benches – an array of sap-studded tree trunks that poked our butts with resin-coated knots, like rows of warts on the tree's humped backbone. We were all starting to glaze over beneath the woven palm leaves and the sun's mild gaze. The day's light was muted, waxy. The sun was searing overhead, but it hadn't quite reached us. The light at ground level was grayish, sickly. Everything else was in full, pixelated color: the blue-black beetles, the bright white of hand-woven hammocks just beyond the fringed green yard. It was the humidity that kept us stationary. My biology teacher fanned herself with a frond that was probably infested with palm-sized ants. I swear that the bugs there were inflated like animal balloons.
Dark-haired figures moved to and from the multileveled cabana, but it was too much of an effort to follow them with my eyes. They plowed through the woolen, charcoal-blue rug that hung in the doorway as a makeshift gate. The cabana was constructed of crisscrossing beams, rusting nails, and a white mosquito net that pretended to be a roof. When we'd rumbled here by bus, I'd thought that the net was a layer of snow, not a lacy froth of pinholed fabric that was supposed to keep us all from perishing of some native disease that the locals are immune to. The entire structure looked as if it could wilt away with the weight of the air, the refrigerator-sized spiders, and our frivolous suitcases packed with nostalgic doodads that probably cost more than the house that held them.
I felt guilty for flaunting my abundance of denim and cellular technology, before I realized how stupid that was. We may have been wearing $15 sunscreen, but these people were tragically more happy. And more forgiving.
It began with that afternoon. The birds should have been chirping, the palm trees rocking, but everything was still. And gray.
“Hey, is it time for lunch?” The rest of my traveling companions had reemerged from the jungle's border, tripping through the tangle of swaying foliage. We all piled around the deck's central table. For the past three days, we'd waited silently for the cook to push through the blanketed door, and then we'd all fall upon the rice and beans with the gusto of vultures. One of the nearby farmers, his face shelved with deep, rain-weathered scars, proclaimed that we were all “very American.” Not a compliment, I assumed, but we were always brimming with customary thank-yous.
But I was the one to disrupt this careful lunch ritual. We were always on a sort of swaying balance with the locals, a wary see-saw game of “who's gonna make a fool of themselves first?” And, of course, it had to be me.
The cook was a boisterous woman, her sunburnt skin glaring with sweat from the kitchen fire, hips swinging and lips stretched into a toothy grin that could be mistaken as hostile.
She could carry a dozen platters of rice and beans all in one trip, a feat that never failed to entertain us. Wiry and gaunt-faced, she was as supple and lean as a tree root, but she always managed to plump us up. Her apron was splattered with rusty stains, and we'd all joke that it was human blood. One of my classmates, a red-faced boy named Colin, liked to say that she was really a murderous ghoul who would sneak into our mosquito-netted bunks some night, armed with a cheese grater. Of course she never did such a thing, and she would always scrub at our empty, greased-up dishes with a full-tooth, nose-wrinkled smile that made me feel like I was wading in cider.
That afternoon, I had dropped my backpack in the middle of the deck, too paralyzed by the bone-soaking humidity to carry it an inch further. I trudged to the table and sat with my legs hanging out, my cheeks rolling with sweat. And I watched in fast-forward horror as the cook swung out of the kitchen as usual, hips swaying, apron stained, hair slicked back into a cap made of mosquito netting. Her foot caught the strap of my backpack, and before anyone could blink or scream or point a finger, the plates with our lunch were shattered on the ground. Shards of baked black beans and flecks of brown rice sat in apologetic mounds on the deck. Our lunch had detonated into a sizzling heap of wasted effort.
“See what you've done, you selfish, stupid girl! Eat off of the floor,” she cried, waving a fork accusingly.
But no, she didn't say that. For those awful, suspended moments when we could hear the echo of porcelain shattering, she stared ahead with glassy eyes, not even bothering to glance down at my offending backpack. She spun about in her bare feet, and moments later, she was back out from underneath that shadowed doorway, arms cradling another set of carefully arranged platters. She stepped over the gruesome remains of steaming rice, over the dung-like scattering of beans, and set down our meal with a resounding clatter. My mouth was still idiotically unhinged, eyes sappy with tears.
She hadn't even stopped smiling.