I Went On A One-Week First Date To Costa Rica

When I was 21, I flew to Central America to be with a man I’d only met once before. I wanted to live a very romantic story.

Illustration by Kelsey King for BuzzFeed

The 17-year locusts were hatching the night we met. They were everywhere; the North Carolina mountains echoed with their screams. They were mating in the trees, they were mating in the air. They were mating as they died, and in death. Their bodies crunched beneath our sandaled feet as we stood in his mother’s verdant yard and kissed. I was on a road trip and he was my friend’s cousin. He soon after had moved to Costa Rica. He’d been last-minute rejected from the Peace Corps elsewhere in Central America and had become too determined to get out of Charlotte. He spoke no Spanish. He’d never before owned a passport. He called and I told him sure, yes, I would meet him down in Costa Rica for a week.

My flight was more surreal than flights already are, me realizing I actually was en route to a foreign country to spend a week with a man I did not know. I said yes because I’d never been asked a question like this before, and I wanted to be the kind of person who said yes. I wanted to be the kind of person who took huge risks, in hope that taking huge risks would somehow result in some huge payoff, whatever that meant. I was 21 and I wanted to live a very romantic story.

Past customs, I stepped into the bright day that was San José. I looked for him.

A man stopped, asked if I needed a taxi. “No gracias,” I said. I had been more or less fluent in the language in high school, and the dormant sounds awoke awkward on my tongue.

I walked to the curb. I panicked, realizing I might not recognize him, bad memory that I have for people, especially people I’ve met only once. I flapped my hands at the taxi drivers and repeated, “No gracias, no gracias. No gracias.”

I walked until there was no more curb. I turned around and walked all the way back to the doors. Now the taxi drivers were positive that I was lost or had changed my mind and each made the decision to approach me again and ask again, and I — no gracias no gracias no gracias — I began to wonder about myself too.

He may have forgotten?

I knew so little about him.

He may have gotten lost on his way to the airport or written my flight down wrong?

The men stared.

At last he strode up, golden hair messy and panting, tan and handsome.

He apologized for being late.

It felt strange to kiss a stranger sober.

We were headed north, he told me, to Mal País. That means “bad country,” I told him. On the bus, we watched a deaf girl and her father read a book. We sucked on Blow Pops from a bag I’d brought him. When we’d spoken on the phone — he’d been in Costa Rica a few months now — he’d said that’s what he missed most about the States: Blow Pops. That and football. We sucked on more Blow Pops and also cigarettes on the stormy ferry and while waiting in a pack of locals for another bus, which got stuck in the mud. A man put us into a Jeep that lumbered over a muddy mountain, and it was past 2 a.m. when we arrived in a town; we wouldn’t get to the bad country tonight. We found a hotel with a single light still lit, insects going bananas, and got a room.

Inside a translucent gecko skittered. He flipped on the light and I looked around the room for cockroaches. There was a mosquito net draped over the bed. We fell over on top of one another and took off the clothes that needed taking off and his dick had freckles.

“I hate condoms,” he murmured to me, and, “The mosquito nets are hurting the cuts on my feet.”

It wasn’t long.

After, he went out and looked at he crude oil ocean and the moon. It had stopped raining. He threw a butt off the balcony. I turned on the bathroom light and looked for cockroaches. I washed my hands.

I looked in the mirror at my face.

His arms and back and side had tattoos with words and pictures — one said his surname, another the name of his now-dead pit bull in the style of a beer logo; his old roommate had accidentally killed her backing out of their driveway, he explained. I loved his droopy North Carolinian accent.

In the morning we went to the beach. I took his picture as he emerged from the waves and set his camera back in its athletic sock. He kneeled, and slowly dried his hands on his towel and opened the sock and studied the screen on the back of the camera to make sure I hadn’t damaged it.

“Of course I didn’t damage it,” I said.

He had grown up poor. Some guy gave him the camera, he explained, some older rich gay guy who’d traveled with him and had been there when he got the cuts on his feet.

“Not that I have a problem with gays,” he said, a thing I’d never actually heard someone say.

“Anyway, I’ve never owned one so nice,” he said. Maybe that was it, what I thought I liked about him, why I’d agreed to come here: that he didn’t resemble anyone else I knew.

Illustration by Kelsey King for BuzzFeed

We wanted to take the bus to Mal País but that bus didn’t exist, a Midwestern guy told us. He had a bandana and spoke about how much he loved this country, these people. “Just a great country, man, a great people,” the Midwestern guy said.

The sky opened up and shat rain. Some frowning girls sold us peanuts.

A taxi driver agreed to take us all the way to Mal País. He drove like he was paddling through white-water rapids, little car rising and falling, mud splattering, night falling, and all the while he hit the small television aside his steering wheel as its telenovela flickered.

The power was out in town. I sat on our two bags under an awning while he went to find us a hotel. Cats slept. The awning dripped. An hour passed. Then he came sprinting back, shouting he had found a room run by a German guy with a dog who looked like his now-dead pit bull and a bar with football on too.

It was called the Howling Monkey, the bar. The owner, Richard, had opened it after he’d followed “a gal” there, and then when it was open she’d left him. Richard lived in Costa Rica full-time now and complained about the country and its people a lot.

“I’ll tell you somethin’ about them Ticos and construction,” Richard said, using the colloquial term for Costa Rican. “They’re putting in my toilets right here. I say, where’s your vent on your toilet? Oh, we don’t do vents in Costa Rica, they go. So I go over to the bar and I show ‘em.”

Richard grabbed a glass of water and a straw and caught some water in the straw with his finger and held it there in the air, saying, “I said, here’s my toilet without a vent,” and letting his finger go said, “and here it is with a vent. Now go make me a real goddamn vent.” His big laugh echoed through the high tin roof. He was as large as a mountain of mud. He sold us Israeli beers for 50 cents — he’d bought the whole case from an Israeli and couldn’t sell “a single goddamned oneofum” at full price. He sold us boxes of cheap cigarettes called Derby Lights for a buck a pop. He served us food off a menu his friend back in Vegas had designed.

“Goddamn Ticos can’t cook either,” he snorted, laughing again. He lit up a cigar. He couldn’t wait for his upcoming trip to Honduras for visa renewal, when he’d be staying at a resort with all-you-can-eat lobster. He’d been losing weight in this bad country.

My date and I had sex once a day; no less, no more. It was hot; it was obligatory-feeling. And he sat at a little white table outside our door for an hour each morning, smoking Derby Lights and drinking coffee, and writing in his diary in a slow, loopy hand. His diary was a spiral-bound notebook like a middle schooler would use.

“Do you write about yourself?” I pried.

“Just people, places I went, things I saw,” he said, setting it on the highest shelf, out of my reach. Though I was desperate to read how our date was going, I promised myself I wouldn’t snoop.

That night at the Howling Monkey I met a guy who went to law school on the East Coast. He asked where I went to college, what I studied. He pulled his stool close to mine. He was traveling alone and his pits were wet. I didn’t like him.

My date got mad.

As we flip-flopped through the mud back to our room, he accused me of ignoring him. He accused me of talking about things he knew nothing about. He said, “If you’re so much smarter than me—” and I said, “I’m not,” which was a lie, and true. After all, what kind of character flies to Costa Rica for a weeklong first date with a man she knows nothing about.

Most mornings it rained while he wrote in his diary at the little white table, and in the afternoon it’d clear and we’d choose a perfect beach to go sit on. We’d look at the white mansions on the hill and Tico kids and dogs would run about and iguanas stood sideways on trees.

On the way to the beach one day we passed a dog lying dead on the sand, flies above its belly and tongue fallen from its mouth.

I walked up to a restaurant and bought a juice and offered him some and he said he didn’t want any. I asked why he didn’t want to go back to Charlotte and he said all his friends there just did coke and he didn’t want to go back and just do coke. I said that sounded fair. I think that’s what we did have in common: a desire to get out of whatever we were in, though little clue what else we wanted instead.

A wave was coming fast, spreading out across the whole beach, thin but powerful. I yelled and we grabbed up our towels and bags, laughing and screaming and feeling the churning froth around our feet. I went wandering through the foliage for the one lost sandal. Some kids giggled.

He inspected his camera for damage.

On our way back to the room, we passed the kids burying the dead dog in the wet sand.

“That dog wasn’t dead before,” my date said.

“Yes it was,” I said, and wondered if I’d done the wrong thing, contradicting him, though I knew I was right.

Illustration by Kelsey King for BuzzFeed

That night at the Howling Monkey there was a Texan blonde.

“I’ll have a Miller Lite,” she told Richard with a wink, and, “I’m in real estate, but I make most of my money as a Miller Lite Girl,” which meant she went to bars and administered the Miller Lite taste test. “Nine times out of ten they prefer Miller Lite,” she said with a delicate, earnest nod.

My date nodded back.

There was maybe a man by the Miller Lite Girl’s side, but no one noticed during the hours we sat, watching football, tipping back beers, and listening to waves crash on the other side of the dark jungle. Nobody knew my date and I didn’t know each other. We didn’t bring up the fact that we were on our first date and didn’t correct peoples’ assumptions. We were both waiting, I think, to see what would come of this, because if this did become something, what a story.

Back at the little white table my date told me stories about the time he’d spent so far in Costa Rica. He said he and the older rich gay guy and some of his friends were drunk in Alajuela and he lost his shoes down some rocks and everybody was positive there was a lake down there, but it was actually just sewage, and he cut up his feet. He said they were running down the beach to get back across the border and this customs official asked for a bribe and he gave the bribe. He said they were at a club with a diving pool in the center and one girl had her purse stolen by a guy and so he punched the guy in the face.

In the morning I got up and went outside to sit across from him as he wrote. I let my eyes glance across the table and read or at least thought I read an upside-down phrase: “going well with her.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Don’t know if it’ll stop all day,” he said, looking out at the rainy garden. He walked inside, carefully placed the notebook on the highest shelf, and remarked that he’d need to get up early tomorrow to catch up with his diary writing. He was so many days behind, he said. I wondered which of us was living just to write it down.

Our last night Richard hugged us good-bye and told us to come back. “Come back and run this joint with me,” he said. We laughed and said that we’d be back, we’d be back and we’d stay — hell, what place was better than here? We could live here. We’d buy one of those white mansions on the cliffs. We’d teach our gringo children perfect Spanish. “Come back and run this joint with me,” Richard repeated as we laughed and nodded and flip-flopped hand-in-hand down the muddy road.

Back at the little white table we sat and drank and drank and he asked me point-blank, “Why are you here with me?”

I listened to the ocean stumble around in the dark across the street. We drank and drank and he asked me, as if I were a Miss America contestant, if there were three things I liked about him, what were they and why, and I watched the bugs dash in and out of the light fixture in the garden below. We drank and drank and he asked me if he were to move in with me when he came back to the States, did Providence have a store where he could buy skater shoes.

“I think so,” I said, and how exciting it was, the idea of him moving to be with me, and how terrible.

On our bus out of Mal Pais, a white man with long dreadlocks got on. His son was tan like he was, and their dog got on the bus too.

“Get out of here, Sammy, go home, baby,” the man said to the dog, his English like a Californian’s who’d been out of the States too long. Just as the bus lurched away, the dog scampered down and off.

Some schoolgirls watched.

The dog smiled.

“Get out of here, Sammy, go home, baby,” the boy said. He spoke like a Californian who’d never been to the States. He spoke like the children my date and I would never have.

On the ferry crossing, though, the sea sparkled. I leaned my head on his shoulder and we shared earbuds and listened to a song that said, “You’re all I need.”

In our last hotel, near the airport, he took his camera from its sock to check its screen. We made all the coffee in the bathroom and turned on the AC. We had sex one last time and right after he walked away. We sat on the porch and looked at the view of a cement wall and smoked and sucked on the last two Blow Pops. We watched the sunset on a beach in the rain.

As I walked through the ropes at the airport, I turned back to him like people do in movies, and saw him standing, tan and handsome, and I decided to cry. It was a good date. About a week after I got back to America, I would call him and tell him that I didn’t think he should move to Providence and he would call me terrible things. We never spoke again and I assume he hates me still. That is probably fair.

The couple next to me on the plane explained they’d had a guide on their honeymoon. They’d done a zip line. They were going home to Pennsylvania. Not only did they just get married, but they had also just bought their first house. The woman made that remark about how it’s strange to call someone your husband when you’ve never used that word before. All love is an act of imagination. We all play pretend, for some time, to some degree.

The woman asked me why I had been in Costa Rica.

All three of us sat and listened to the plane.

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How I Learned To Be OK With Feeling Sad

It wasn’t easy, or cheap.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

The first time I didn’t feel sad about feeling sad was on Sept. 17, 2013. I was in my therapist’s office. More specifically, I was lying on a table, faceup, in my therapist’s office. Maybe it sounds simple, but it was a trick I’d spent years practicing and trying to learn.

I do not mean that I take sadness lightly. Four and a half years ago, after a work-related immersion in sexual violence, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Subsequently, I was diagnosed with comorbid major depressive disorder. Comorbid to all that, I was diagnosed as alcoholic and suicidal. More than $20,000 worth of treatment later, I am no longer those things, but, as an evaluating psychiatrist put it in a report last year, I have “chronic,” “recurring,” “residual psychiatric symptoms” serious enough that she ruled me permanently disabled. I’ve been an emotional gal since always — “She has a lot of feelings,” my best grad-school friend would chuckle by way of explanation when I got worked up about some topic or other in front of strangers — and my emotions now are enormous. Frustration over a failed attempt to buy a sold-out rug online ends in so much yelling and foot-stomping that my neighbors complain. The intensity of a pop song lands like a blunt punch to my chest and explodes any grief nestling there; the very day I’m writing this, Nicki Minaj made me cry in my car.

Sincerely: I do not take sadness lightly. But after a lot of retraining, I do take it wholly, life-alteringly differently than I was raised to, and than almost anyone else I know. Now, sometimes when I’m not sad and I think about sadness, that thought is accompanied by this startling one: I miss it.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

Pre-therapy, this is the only thing I was ever taught, implicitly and explicitly, about sadness: It is bad.

You do not want it. If you’ve got it, you should definitely try to get rid of it, fast as possible. Whatever you do, don’t subject other people to it, because they do not like that.

Sadness can be legitimately problematic, absolutely. If your sadness comes from seemingly no place or even an obvious place but keeps you from participating in life or enjoying anything and refuses to abate no matter how long you go on letting it express itself, you of course can’t keep living like that. But culturally, we aren’t allowed to be sad even for a little while. Even when it’s perfectly sensible. Even when, sometimes, we need it.

This is reflected in our entertainment. Watching Bridesmaids, I shake my head over how Melissa McCarthy slaps Kristen Wiig around and tells her to stop being sad, though she has recently lost her job, her savings, her home, and her best friend. (Miraculously, this solves Kristen Wiig’s attitude problem.) In the third episode of MasterChef Junior‘s second season, judge Joe Bastianich tells a contestant who has ruined her shepherd’s pie and possibly her dream of winning, the biggest dream she’s had up to this point in her life, “When things are as bad as they can be, you gotta pull it together. Wipe your tears.”

The contestant has been crying for mere seconds. She is 8 years old.

What does it say about our relationship to sadness that Joan Didion — who we can all agree is a pretty smart, educated, and worldly cookie — had to write an entire book about trying to learn how to grieve? This ethos was fine for me when mostly nothing bad happened and if it did, the accompanying sadness didn’t linger for too long. But post-trauma, it turned out to be a massive impediment to my recovery.

I had a lot of symptoms. They all alarmed me, but equally so the most straightforward one: sadness. Sometimes I cried from uncontrollable, overwhelming, life-swallowing sadness. And all the time, the sadness and crying itself freaked me the fuck out. I would start crying, and then immediately hate myself. Why was I crying? Why couldn’t I get this sadness to go away? What was wrong with me?

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

I got into therapy. I’d gone before, casually and occasionally, for support with some huge changes — a new city and new job and fresh divorce years earlier. Now, it was a therapy emergency. I considered myself decently good at self-care in general, but sure, I let it slip when I got too busy, when work was too demanding, when there were things I had to do that I knew I was getting too burned out to but did anyway. But taking care of myself was not optional anymore. As a matter of survival, I had to make as much room for it as it needed.

And so, I started intensive treatment — during which my therapist had to spend incalculable amounts of time trying to convince me that it was OK to be sad. The alarm I experienced over my sadness was another terrible feeling on top of my already terrible symptoms. The energy I spent panicking that I was sad could have been better spent on coping with the sadness. It was true that I — like many people, people with clinically depressed, never-ending, or life-threatening sadness — needed a lot more assistance than just a big philosophical hug, but if I could accept sadness, my therapist kept suggesting, I would be able to experience it (long and hard as that may go on) and then it could pass. The alternative — being sad, plus condemning yourself for being sad — only heightens the suffering. And, likely, the time it lasts.

“Sadness is a legitimate emotion,” my therapist would say. “There is an acceptance you can get to with it where it’s just a sensation, and without judgment, that sensation can be exquisite.”

“LIES,” I responded to this sometimes. Sometimes I called her a hippie. Nobody accepts sadness. Everybody knows that crying girls are silly and weak. Hysterical, and overdramatic.

But as much as I didn’t — I couldn’t! — really believe her, I still really wanted to learn how to do that.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

I can’t explain, in a tight little essay, how I finally did it. It would take an entire book for me to describe how I got even most of the way there. I can sum up that it took three years to the DAY after the events that started my symptoms, and that it cost a lot of money, and time, and time off, which cost more money, and was so painful that the very memory of how painful it was sometimes makes me need to go lie down in my bed. I can point out that most people are not given the opportunity to go through this process, even if they desperately want to. Unfortunately, healing is a luxury in our society, not a right; so many who could benefit from treatment simply can’t.

And I can tell you about the moment, that September. It was sunny and in the 60s. I was in my therapist’s office in San Francisco, which had fairly bare walls, industrial carpet, and windows that let the light in. I was lying on a massage therapist’s table, because that was normal in my somatic therapy; the treatment addressed the physicality of one’s symptoms, the places and ways trauma lived in one’s body (last year, a hero of my therapist’s, the very brilliant Bessel van der Kolk, released a book about this called The Body Keeps the Score), which was often explored with eyes closed, lying down. The first umpteen number of times I got on the table and was prompted to breathe, to feel into where my tensions and disconnections were, I resisted the falling apart this awareness and reconnecting could lead to. I feared starting to cry and never stopping. I feared never being able to put myself back together, ever, sometimes metaphorically but sometimes literally writhing and kicking and screaming with my resistance to just relaxing. Feeling. To be clear: Sadness was far from my only issue. But by Sept. 17, 2013 (around which point my insurance tallied it had so far given my therapist $18,000), I was taking feeling it in much better stride.

“How do you feel?” my therapist asked.

“Sad,” I said. I was extra sad that day because I was in the middle of a no-fault eviction, and it was turning out not to be practical or affordable to stay in the Bay Area, where I’d lived for a long time. “I feel sad because we have to move.” I cried as I talked about this. I loved California. “I have to grieve a state.”

I cried harder. “It’s a bummer.”

My therapist was very calm. “That is a bummer,” she agreed in soothing tones. She told me to open my eyes and when I did, asked me what sensation I noticed. Instantly, I pictured a kid lying in a yard.

That’s me right now, I thought. A kid lying in a yard, feeling sad — but not feeling sad about feeling sad. It was what it was. It was fine. It was a peace. Me, or a kid, being just what she was: alive.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

“I’m not bummed out about feeling bummed out,” I said.

The significance of this moment was clear to us both. My therapist was speechless for a second. Then she smiled — we were often smiling, because we joked through even the hardest and ugliest moments together — and said, “People pay a lot of money for that, Mac.”

“They should!”

They shouldn’t have to. I hadn’t panicked over being sad every time it had happened in my life, say over a breakup, but I had never had that level of acceptance of it, peace-spreading, unrushed, cell-deep, certainly not as an adult. And as a person with PTSD, I had completely lost any trust in my own emotions, fearing them constantly, sadness included — or perhaps especially, as it was the most persistent. Now, I was finally embracing it.

Which is how I could come to be in a position to miss it. The interestingness of it. The difference of it from other emotions. I remembered the sensations of it: the weight. The way it slowed things down and took the space of everything else up. It was exquisite, objectively but also as evidence that I could feel, that I was open and not shut down, capable of having a whole gamut of emotions rush in, and maybe overwhelm, but move through and move me. Not everyone can. Or does. I am occasionally jealous of people whose emotions come more softly, or quietly, or less often. I assume they have more time and energy, with those not being taken up by sensitivity that makes even the widely considered “good” emotions like joy feel like they’re making their heart explode. But for the most part, I’m not. Some people are born, and then they live, and then they die, one of my doctors told me once, in an effort to comfort. You, you die and are reborn sometimes 10 times in one day. Lucky.

The next time I felt sadness after I missed it, I was reminded why it was so hard to feel it all the time. Oh yeah, I remembered. It hurt. It was difficult to work. To cook, to eat, to play. To take care of others. Exquisite it may have been, but painful, and not invigorating, and quite tiring. Still I trusted that I needed it at that time, that it was expressing something necessary. I didn’t hate or judge it. I did not feel silly or weak. They say it takes a big man to cry, and I think — unfortunately, given our collective feelings about sadness — that’s true. But it takes a bigger woman still, to feel the strength of a sob, without apology or shame. With pride. I’m the biggest I’ve ever been, the way I let my emotions run, sadness included: the way it cleanses me, tears washing my face, resolving me to continue to feel with abandon.

***

Mac McClelland is the author of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story (out this Tuesday, February 24th) and For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. She has written for Reuters, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications, and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, the Online News Association, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Association for Women in Communications. Her work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and has been anthologized in the Best American Magazine Writing 2011, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, and Best Business Writing 2013.

To learn more about Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story, click here.

Flatiron Books

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