I learned this ritual from my mother, and I’m sure she learned from hers. It’s just something inexplicable that women here do. Despite my sex, I do it too. Because light is hope, and hope is light, and that’s why we leave one light on for men whom we want to come home. The soft glow of a living room chandelier, a candle on the windowsill. In my family’s case, the porch bulb (a relic from before the Civil War), as incandescent and beautiful as the day my grandfather blew its glass. He was unaware that he had fashioned his own beacon home, but the day he installed its flickering light, he kissed my grandmother’s top lip in celebration of his own aptitude. The light in my grandmother though, he blew out with even greater mastery, more than she would have ever admitted. My grandfather, he was a husband of flipped-off switches. And my grandmother, a wife so foolish in her quickness to flick on the light within herself again every night. Just to wait. As my mother did. As I do too.
My man’s name is Rodolfo. He plays fútbol. A striker with impenetrable shins, as fast to score as he was with me. At two-meters, he’s the tallest Costa Rican I’ve ever met. He could play goalie if he wanted; no ball with the force of a bullet would ever whiz past him. His hands are like bunches of green bananas. Perhaps the only feminine thing about him is that his nails curve, like his great-grandmother’s did, he said proudly at three a.m. once, as he and I shared a cigarette. My head laying on his hairy, muscular chest. His warm milk still dripping from me onto the sheets. I like it when it’s wet like that, he said, and moved his fingers to me again, swirling two around my hole as one does his temples when frustrated. Other parts of you are curved, I said, and we began again until dawn.
Rodolfo moved into my mother’s house a few months ago. We had an extra room since my aunt Clarita died of emphysema (she smoked as much as her husband, four packs a day for thirty years, starting at thirteen when they married). Rodolfo moved in under the pretense of a roommate situation. Finding cheap rooms here in San José is becoming harder and harder, so at the time my mother thought it a legitimate proposal. She welcomed the additional income, because I wasn’t bringing any in. But recently, a slowly dying part of her knows he sneaks into my room after she retires, groggy from watching gruesome, breaking news stories. I’m sure she’s heard my moaning—like a woman’s Rodolfo says. Moaning like that of a madwoman who forgets which direction she came from or in which she’ll go. It’s why he likes me. But at breakfast, my mother is silent. She drinks her weak coffee and focuses on Channel 7’s dribble. The gaudy fashion segments, the cooking shows that reveal nothing new or interesting about our national gastronomy. Just regurgitations of American casseroles that nauseate me even after I’ve finished watching them.
In the afternoons, when my mother is at her nursing job, Rodolfo and I lie on the couch together. I’m always on top, his arms securely around my waist like a seatbelt. We catch fútbol game after fútbol game. He cheers like a lunatic for Saprissa, and every time they score he thrusts his hips up and down against my ass. I always hope they score. I pretend to cheer for Alajuela, who has only won half their games this season, so that there might be some sort of competition between us. But I’m so bored that I home in on the black and red of their uniforms, more dramatic than Saprissa’s tacky purple—a shade they invented, or so the legend goes. But all the colors on the field together remind me of the slender face of a beaten lover. The face of a girl who leaves the light on, because she has never known anything else.
Rodolfo brings girls back to his room every once in a while, to keep up the charade. Either to fool my mother, or the rest of the world whom he feels will corner him in an alley and beat him to death. They haven’t beaten me to death, I say. Not yet, he says. But you keep sashaying like that and they’ll take a machete to your back.
Rodolfo brings these girls home and offers them lite beer. Rotten olives from a jar. The girls laugh coquettishly, which I hate most of all. They’re the type of basics who pose for pictures with one hand on their hip that they flare out on purpose, their head tilted at a forty-five-degree angle, lips plumped up like a duck’s bill. Contrapposto bimbos. I hate them even more when I hear their moans at three in the morning. It sounds nothing like mine, I told Rodolfo. He had just sent one out who sneered when she walked through my door. I don’t whine, I shouted. You do, he chuckled. Then he pulled down his zipper.
I watch Walter Mercado videos on YouTube and reruns of María la del barrio to fall asleep when Rodolfo and I are apart. Mysticism, violence. . . both of them so over the top and dramatic in our culture, it makes my heart warm. Walter recites my horoscope while Soraya Montenegro points a gun at the camera. It’s as if she’s pointing it at me, laughing, carrying on like a crazy person. I can quote these shows with flawless intonations. I don’t in front of anyone though, so that they don’t think I’m insane.
I hear Rodolfo tonight with two girls he picked up at a bar. I know because I followed him there. One of those new ones in Barrio Escalante, San José’s restaurant district—at the place they just opened that sells Venezuelan arepas and tasty liquor that’ll fuck you up after two glasses. When I got bored of the hipster music and dry arepa dough, I left. I decided to keep the porch light on for him. Again. He followed it back, but not alone as I had hoped.
Since its installation, the porch light glisters enough to cause an epileptic attack; the bulb gets so hot you’d think it was one meant for an oven. Every morning we find a decimation of insects on the ground—moths, mosquitoes, June bugs, avejones de mayo, stinkbugs, bluebottles, greenbottles. Wings charred, antennae crumbling with any sort of dry breeze. We decided it’s the wiring, because my grandfather was a terrible electrician. You could blame either his workmanship or the quality of the wires he used. Then again, to his defense, it was 1946. But still. Despite that, even after he died, my grandmother would comment on how wonderful a glassblower he was. He owned a business blowing bulbs, vases, flowers, butterflies, lamps. My grandmother kept the books. That’s why he would crawl to her after they closed shop to beg for money. He gambled most of it away at Hotel Del Rey or on the prostitutes there, but still she would dole out his allowance, and leave the light on for him. Flickering like one of those motel signs. Vacancy. No Vacancy.
Back then, if my grandfather hadn’t yet come home, my grandmother would switch off the still-burning bulb, then lurch through the house to wash clothes. Slapping the wet towels against the stone sink to mask her sobbing. We hardly had dirty clothes when I was growing up. On the rare occasion my grandfather would follow that glow home unaccompanied, he’d bring a baguette from the Colombian bakery down the street that opens at 5 a.m. We were thankful for the gesture, but somehow that bread tasted different. Sour, dry. But again, this was rare.
The week before Rodolfo leaves me, my best friend Maribel takes me to Jacó. She’s the only person in the entire world who can tell when I’ve had enough. When I’m done, and I want to check out and tell Rodolfo, my mother, and the rest of creation to fuck itself. To leave me alone, to never come back. I’ve got a master’s degree in eating shit, Maribel says. You’re still working on your undergrad, Mauricio.
Maribel shows up right after sunrise in her turquoise jeep, when the mountains on San José’s horizon are still purple. She rolls down the passenger window and yells, Hey, loca! Bring the sunscreen! You know I burn!
On the way, we listen to Selena and Chavela Vargas, Calle 13 and Sonámbulo. Maribel is an excessively cautious driver, especially on the winding highways that snake up lush mountains and down them, on which even semitrailers like to jump cars to get ahead. It’s a game of chicken she won’t ever play, so it always takes us twice as long to get anywhere. As she’s concentrating on a shaky, indecisive school bus (that may or may not be packed with grade-schoolers), Maribel gets so quiet, and I can’t help but study how oddly stunning she is. She could have been either a model for Picasso or for Versace. Her eyes drift wide apart, enough that you notice it’s not normal. I’m never sure if her nose should really be where it is. But then her lips are perfectly shaped, with that dip movie stars have. Her entire body is freckled, and becomes even more so from being in the sun. If she doesn’t burn, her cheeks and shoulders get covered in constellations that I trace with lipstick from her purse.
Maribel is half Spanish, her father from Asturias. He was a coal miner before he moved to Costa Rica, and was perhaps the only person here to have ever died of the black lung. I attended the funeral, never leaving Maribel’s side. She didn’t cry much, because he used to beat her until bouts of coughing caught him off guard. He died laughing at his own unfunny, unintelligible punchline, and choked on his own throat. Maribel said she couldn’t stand the irony: it was too cheery a death for such a son of a bitch.
When the school bus driver finally decides to jump a vintage truck carrying hogs for slaughter, Maribel puts on the Smiths, so I know she’s trying to forget him. Morrissey for her is a portal out of herself, away from the beatings and the ashamed gladness that he’s gone.
Hey, I say, stealing one of her cigarettes while she’s distracted by my voice.
¿Do you miss your father?
¿Do you miss yours?
No. Well, yeah. But I spent half my life missing him.
Yeah, I guess you got some practice in. Who knows where yours went, but I know my father’s dancing in Hell’s flames.
He was a good dancer, I say, and Maribel can’t help but smile.
As the highway ascends and descends, the weather changes completely. One moment the humidity is stifling, and another we must wear our hoodies. We pass a mudslide that has exposed half a mountain, rickety sheds selling wooden spoons or cutting boards, rest stations named after all the saints in the Bible. Closer to Jacó, we stop at the bridge over the Tárcoles River. Americans hurry single file to the middle rails, over the bank on which giant crocodiles pose for Facebook pictures. They snap panorama photos and upside-down selfies with their latest iPhones. Maribel and I look down at our flip phones and grimace. We should push one in, Maribel mutters.
Not before we get to the beach, I say. I want to be tan if I’m going to jail. Lord knows we wouldn’t catch the sun for a hundred years.
Hmm, you’re probably right. You brought the sunscreen, ¿right?
No, I admit. I forgot it.
Carepicha, she sings, over the melody of “La Llorona” on the sound system.
We get to Jacó and walk so far down the beach we can’t see the resorts anymore. The towering Best Western and Océano Boutique that charge those stupid gringos an arm and a leg just to watch a muddy sunset on a beach so polluted my cousin grew an extra finger after one dip. They won’t let us pass through the grounds as a shortcut, identifying us immediately as nationals. What gave us away, I ask the fat attendant who asks us for our cédula. He sucks his teeth, looking around at the blonde gringos who lower their sunglasses and mojitos. Superficially outraged at our treatment, yet deeply thankful for it too.
After traversing a vacant lot where syringes grow like weeds, Maribel and I walk close to the surf so we can rinse our soles, and mainly so that we don’t leave footprints. We’re heading to our secret spot, a rock formation that reminds us of a dragon’s back at the base of a cliff. Beneath the Puntarenas sun, even the water can’t chill the sand along the way, so half our trek is hopping. Maribel loses a Havaiana to the ocean. After a shrug from me, she dives in to try and grab it. She succeeds, holding it like a religious object to her chest, then decides to float on her back in gratitude. She looks like one of those YouTube otters before a wave overtakes her. Sirenita, I giggle as she clomps out of the water. Her hair a dingy, blonde mop over her face. Drugstore makeup running just a little.
Fuck you, she growls.
The evening before my beach trip with Maribel, Rodolfo admits that he loves me. We’re on my porch; I’m reading a novel while he clips his fingernails, dirty from soccer practice. The bulb above us is still flickering, and every page, I have to swat a burnt carcass so that it won’t become a bookmark.
I don’t believe you.
I don’t care if you do, Mau. He calls me Mau when he’s being tender. When he calls me Mau, my heart convinces me to trust him.
Rodolfo lifts himself up and tosses his shorn nails into the flowering aloe plant. I study the plant’s plastic-thick spikes rather than watching him get closer, but he grabs my head with both hands and kisses me. Then he cradles my head to his bulge. I feel it stiffening, fat like the barrel of a gun.
I don’t care if anyone sees, he says preemptively. Sometimes he can read my thoughts.
Me too, I answer under my breath. I don’t know if he hears me. I say it even though my brain and stomach whisper that it isn’t true.
When we’re finally as far as we can go, where the cliff throws a thinning shadow onto the rock formation, Maribel and I sit on an uncomfortable boulder that’s infinitely hotter than the sand. We observe green crabs with blue eyes dart from tide pools that could boil them alive at any moment.
I’m going to look like a cooked one of those because you didn’t bring the fucking sunscreen, Maribel says. She cackles and lights a cigarette.
You know they say this is where the highest frequency in the world is, I say listlessly. My attempt at sounding mystical, but Maribel doesn’t understand.
Where the land meets the water, I clarify. The highest frequency of energy in the world is right here.
¿Where the Hell did you hear that, Mauricio?
Jesus, you’re such a faggot.
Maribel says it like that because she’s a lesbian. She says we’re the perfect dynamic duo because it’s impossible that we would ever want to fuck each other. That’s how friendships and even platonic relationships end, she explained after a whole bottle of mezcal. Two people fuck and then it gets awkward, or there’s some sort of expectation to keep doing it. There’s no chance that’ll ever happen to us. We’ll be friends forever.
¿Who cares about frequency? I care about what you want to tell me.
¿How do you know I want to tell you something?
I know you better than your mother does. I know you better than that prick Rodolfo does. I dare you to find anyone in this whole universe, in any space-time that could eclipse my understanding of you.
You’re right, I concede. She’s right about that.
You’re goddamn right I’m right.
I stand to take off my wet shorts—my speedo is tropical themed, my legs as white as yucca. The fabric has lime-green palm fronds, pink hibiscus blooms. I sit back down and hold my legs open. I want the inside of my thighs to tan too.
I’ve got it, I say finally. My eyes are closed because I can’t bring myself to look directly at the sun, or at Maribel.
¿What, Mauricio? ¿What have you got? She’s worried, and understandably so. I know this will destroy her more than it did me the first time I heard it.
VIH, I say.
Wait, ¿You’re dying?
Not yet, I say.
¿How could you?
It hurts that she says it this way, but I put myself in her shoes. How could I have put myself in a position in which we couldn’t be friends for as long as possible? Condoms have never made it into the bedroom with Rodolfo and me. He explodes in me every time, and that’s what I love most about our lovemaking. I feel his seed enter me and his dick pulsing. In that moment, he owns me. In that moment, I am his. I still am.
¿What now? Maribel sobs after the fourth link in a chain of Lucky Strikes. ¿What will happen to you?
Instead I tell her what happened when I heard the news. The color of the clinic room, what photographs of which smiling family members the doctor had on his desk. How he explained everything without any expression on his face. How many white blood cells still called my veins home. How many had been devoured like characters in a movie space station.
Now I start on medications.
Five pills, all at different times of the day.
¿And the side effects?
I repeat the doctor. My liver will be fucked. Diarrhea, maybe. Headaches, drowsiness. I probably can’t drive anymore. I’ll lose weight, because all the fat will be zapped out of me. Psychotic dreams, sleepwalking, hallucinations.
I can’t believe you could’ve been so stupid, Maribel sniffles, then crawls over to embrace me. Her heart is hammering out of her chest. The crabs leave their burrows in the crags like villagers after a disaster. Mist from a wave sprays us with salt, but cools us off too. Maribel kisses me on the lips, then wipes her eyes.
¿What will you tell Rodolfo?
I don’t know yet.
What I most love about sleeping next to Rodolfo is that he dreams so loudly. He moans in his sleep like I do when awake, but I would never tell him that. He bumbles like a toddler who has just discovered his voice. I can’t always make out every syllable, but I know whether it’s a good or bad dream. Whether the mouth of his mother’s ghost is glued to her bottle or his father’s mouth to a woman who is not his mother.
I fall asleep so easily that night after getting back from the beach, because Rodolfo is counting backwards in his sleep. He whispers, Blast off and I drift into my own dream, quietly, like a morning candle.
In the smoke of my dream, Walter Mercado reveals his forearms beneath Liberace’s robes, covered in track marks. Pin-sized, black-purple craters like mines exploded from his skin. Walter licks his injected lips, furrows his immovable brow, flashes his hands as he does on the television. On the colorful wheel behind him is my fortune; he spins it until black ooze dribbles out of every hole on his arms. With all ten fingers, he removes one-hundred needles from his costume, jamming them all back into where they belong. His face is one of nostalgia, as if he’s eating his mother’s spaghetti or fellating his second cousin. Then my own arms sprout a mine field, each cavity leaking its own black-purple. Walter holds out an extra needle (the hundred-and-first), but I decline it.
You’ll get used to them is the only thing he breathes to me before I wake up.
Anxiety imbrues that week between the beach trip and the night Rodolfo leaves me. I become more sensitive to his dream-yammering, so I sleep maybe three hours a night. The start of the pills starts their side effects: I can’t control my diarrhea, I start to see little mice scurrying across the tiles. When I bring it to my mother’s attention, she slaps my palm as if I implied her cooking is unhygienic or her cleaning is lazy. I fight invasive thoughts to jump from a ramshackle bridge as I traverse back from the clinic. Virology, the place is called. Such a horrible name for something so horrible isn’t that surprising. But I tell my mother I’m going to the book store. I finished my novel stained with charred insects and need a new one. If only I actually went to buy a book, I could escape my nerves if only for a while.
Three days before Rodolfo leaves me, my mother sits me down at the kitchen table while she hovers over the sink, steeping lettuce in bleach-water. With every capful, she inhales slowly, or huffs quickly, tilting her head back for a few moments. After one of the subsequent exhales, she commands that I throw him to the curb like the dog he is. She’s pressing down on the maroon leaves like a careful photographer in her darkroom. Willing a cheery picture to appear, even though most likely it never will.
I know exactly what’s been going on, she blurts out, facing down at her wrinkling fingertips.
I want to ask her for how long, but I’m afraid of insulting her intelligence, or perhaps her innocence, or the strength of will to repress things she doesn’t like.
¿What? I ask her curiously, like a dummy.
I can hear you, she opens her mouth as wide as a pot.
¿What? I mask my dread with an arrogant look.
You sound just like me. It’s disgusting.
My mother is speaking to me as if I’m her daughter. Her tone changes completely: it’s one of competition, not of reverence anymore. I’m no longer her only son. Now I’m just another woman who can steal any man away from her.
He needs to get out, she lowers her voice. She, the careful photographer, lifts a leaf from the bath, inspecting it for sudden faces she could hang proudly on a gallery wall. The plaque below might read, Study of child and mother in her kitchen, or Rat Lungworm Disease. Noticing something more sinister, she picks a skinny, tar-black slug from a vein and squishes it between two fingers. Its guts snake around her nails, painted this morning in a rush. She waits for my response.
¿Where will he go?
I don’t care.
¿Who will he live with?
With one of his whores, Mauricio. You hear them too, ¿right?
I ignore her obvious attempt to turn me against him.
He’s playing you, she brags.
No, I whisper.
You’re in so much denial. He’s playing you like your father played us. You sound just like me. It’s disgusting.
I want to finally ask her everything. Why would she leave the light on if she knew my father was playing her? Why stay half-awake every night waiting for him to massage her temples or kiss the cavity between her breasts?
But I don’t. I can’t, because she’s crying now. Out of shame, or remorse, or maybe another emotion more uncontrollable than either.
I don’t agree to kick him out, but I don’t disagree. She throws the head into the garbage and cups her hands over her mouth before stepping out onto the balcony. The sunset glistens on her flat forehead and wide nose. I’ve never seen her more beautiful.
The night Rodolfo leaves me, it begins with me watching him play fútbol against players who are more gang than team. The field’s grass is patchy, like green and yellow countries fighting for supremacy. Rodolfo sweats more than usual, because tonight is hotter than usual. Humidity hangs around the field to up the ante. Even I and the other girlfriends are sweating. I look around to see which ones have followed Rodolfo into his room before. Which ones I’ve tasted after they left.
But Rodolfo looks at me the whole time, and points to me when he scores his goals, and now my brain and stomach are almost convinced that what he said was true. My heart boasts like an MVP, but the rest of me warns it not to sing victory just yet.
After the game that he wins single-handedly, Rodolfo and I sneak beneath the shadows of two Guanacaste trees and make out. He grabs my ass how I like, and I clutch every finger onto the muscles over his shoulder blades. His sweat wets my shirt, and when we finally let go of each other, it looks as if we both belly-flopped onto a puddle.
I ask if he wants to go to Barrio Escalante, and he agrees.
¿Which is your favorite bar? I ask.
He’s careful not to say the new Venezuelan place. I suspect he had seen me lurking.
Let’s go to Un Lugar, he smiles.
¿Which place? I ask, but then I get the joke.
Barrio Escalante is a neighborhood more progressive than the rest of San José—trust-fund hipsters have moved in, and corrupt yuppies not far behind. All American wannabees, but thankfully they got that part of gringo culture right. There are so many competing restaurants in this part of town, I’m not sure how they all stay open. I worked here once, at a Mediterranean spot, but I didn’t last long. I’m not too good at jobs. Before walking to the bar, we stroll three laps around Parque Francia, sniffing the good weed the teenage skaters puff like experts. Their boards on their laps like babies in need of changing. Rodolfo and I hold hands and no one gives us a second glance or a dirty look. Instead they do yoga in the moonlight and theatrical improvisations in the soft, cool grass.
At Un Lugar, we order trendy, artisan beers. Double the price of Imperial, but the brews are infused with lemongrass or blackberry, and they’re so delicious we empty our pockets until we get drunk. I want to tell Rodolfo here and now, but he cuts off my thought with his own.
Let’s go to Area, he says.
But that’s in La Cali.
We can walk, it’s not that far.
I pout, so he orders us an Uber. The driver does give us a dirty look, but we’re too wasted to care.
Area is a pressure cooker of a club. It’s as hot as a sauna, the floors sticky with cheap beer. You can’t dance without bumping into eight other people, but no one really cares. Elbows are softer here, smiles bright in the one or two working florescent lights. On the television screens, 80s music videos play. The only requests in Area are rock & roll tracks: Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, Alternative, British Invasion, Garage. If it weren’t for our accents, you would think we were all gringos singing Karaoke. The next two national beers we drink give me meek courage, and I want to tell Rodolfo here and now, but he clutches his arm around my waist and lifts me up. I’m as weightless as a child to him, which is something else I love. We make out again; none of the rockers care. “This Charming Man” blares and I think of Maribel. I run to a corner away from the crowd to call her, but she doesn’t answer. I lift my Motorola to a speaker to leave a snippet of the song on her voicemail. I love you, Mari, I end, and shut my phone.
Outside Area, I vomit between two cars (one apparently belonging to Keylor Navas, the only Costa Rican to ever play for Real Madrid). When my stomach can’t muster any more, Rodolfo passes me a cigarette and puts his lips to my forehead. He introduces me to some friends whose names I won’t remember when I wake up. I forget that I have to tell him. Instead I wade in this moment, memorizing it like the answer to a test. As if my future depended on it. I absorb the neon lights from the bars, the smoke from bad, Caribbean weed and Marlboro Reds, the lingering film of artisan-beer-vomit, heat from Rodolfo’s armpit on my shoulder. He’s holding me close, at last claiming me in public as he claims me in bed.
At home, he brushes my teeth for me and wets my hair. He can’t stop giggling at how bad I am at holding liquor. Like a girl, he says, and pats my head. My mind begins to divide into two, warring halves—one hemisphere demands I tell him; the other fights against that proposal. Duty versus happiness; what is right versus what is selfish. I can’t help but be selfish. Rodolfo is my ideal, and somehow, out of some capricious act of the universe, I am his. I am his right now on the bed, and even above my drunken thoughts, I can hear my mother place her ear to the wall.
¿What have you got to tell me?
¿Am I really that easy to read?
Like a sign at a bus stop.
I call him an idiot, and he caresses my scalp with his nails.
Promise me something before I tell you.
I don’t promise anything, you know that.
But if you love me, that’s a promise.
No, it’s not, he says, lurching himself from the bed.
My room is dark, and I can swear there’s a ceiling fan, even though there isn’t. He looks down at me. I have to say it.
I tell him everything. In whatever slurred dialect I use, I lay it all out on the table: his options are as clear as mine had been two weeks ago. His prognosis decided the exact moment mine was. Where it came from doesn’t matter. What we do together now is all that does.
Confessions are as sobering as cold water. I know that now. My vision quickly corrects itself with every painful syllable, but I truly wish it wouldn’t. The clearer Rodolfo’s face becomes, the clearer his fright and revulsion are. He glares at me as if I’m a snake on a path, or the doorknob a leper has just clutched. I’ve never seen so much hatred in one expression, and I’m not sure if I mean his, or my own reflected in his eyes.
I have to go, he mumbles. His body trembling like a bomb might go off if he isn’t careful. Neither of us realize it already had.
I have to get out of here. Out of this room.
But we’re together, I say. We’re finally together. He will not look at me, even when I beg as my mother begged my father. I do sound just like her. It is disgusting.
¿Where will you go?
He doesn’t know.
¿How long will you be gone?
It doesn’t matter.
But you have to get this under control. I can help you, I gulp. Bile crawls to the opening of my throat like magma, curling behind my teeth.
He hollers that it I’m lying. It’s just me, and it didn’t come from him.
We both know it’s not true, which is why he quickens his packing—shoving what few t-shirts he owns into a knapsack he uses for hiking, underwear, a gold watch that belonged to his grandfather. His fútbol jersey, still wet and grass-stained.
I can no longer fight his leaving. No one can fight a man’s leaving.
If I leave the porch light on, ¿will you come back?
I don’t hear his answer over the slammed door.