About the Feature
One Bad Night in San José, Costa Rica
Winner of the 2021 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction
Selected by T. Geronimo Johnson
Photo by Marco Verch
Audio: Danny Theimann reads his work.
In our neighborhood, minor drug dealers pay campanas to run through the streets and sing warning songs of the police. Campanas are usually kids. The oldest is seventeen. They earn good money. They flit down the alleys and warn people to hide. Campanas, with their complex whistles and shrill voices, sound like songbirds. Songbirds have a set of two vocal cords called the syrinx that can harmonize different sounds. A lover is like a syrinx made of intimacy and distance. A lover takes disparate things—like loneliness and wonder—and blends them together to give voice to belonging. Songbird and lover are words I never actually say out loud. I’m thirty-five and a widow. I go outside for walks while I wait for the funeral. When I am walking, it is as though I am watching my feet trying to find the beginning of my body. I am too old to be running around with campanas. But here I am, lining up next to my son in a qualifying race to join them, looking for an escape from my thoughts, and bumping my head to the music playing from a car stereo.
The fastest runner becomes the next campana. We take our places on the starting line. Before the starting gun fires and the race begins, I turn to my son. I do not want him to live at my house anymore. I say, in Spanish, “I have something difficult to tell you.” I say, “I need you to move out.” He is my first child. When he was born, the nurses held a mirror between my legs to help me push him out. Light pulled an illusion of depth from that mirror’s surface. I thought that my son would reach into my life and also pull something just as fathomless from it. He hasn’t ever done something like that, and he likely never will. I cannot cry with my son, because he turns away in embarrassment or frustration when I mention his father. I am alone in my grief. This solitude feels like heartbreak, but the heart is still whole. There is just no one there to be broken for.
The starting gun fires and we take off running. I race past my house. The government will not recognize the title to my house because technically I was a squatter when I built it. No official will recognize my connection to the soil until, one day, I am buried in it.
The racecourse moves through the labyrinth of eight Hatillo neighborhoods in Costa Rica’s capital city of San José. It’s dusk. Hatillo is one of the places in Costa Rica that tourists never visit. The houses all have aluminum roofs. The click-clack that I hear above me at twilight may be from the first raindrops of a storm or from the neighborhood cats starting their evening prowls across the corrugated rooftops. Engines misfiring on dirt bikes blend with the sound of gunfire. Ambulances’ red, orange, and blue lights bring the sky’s evening colors down to earth.
I run through my neighborhood and hear younger women fighting just like I used to do. It makes me laugh. Kids in the neighborhood used to nickname me The Nightstand. I earned the nickname by tearing other women’s wigs off their heads in street fights and keeping the wigs by my bed. Hearing these fights makes me feel good. I begin catching up to the slowest runners. I have no mercy. I trip them. I bump them into the sewer ditches. “What has gotten into you?” they ask. “What is wrong with you?” people say. I say nothing. I think about how a ship holds the surface of the sea when it is whole, and how my husband was supposed to hold me longer, the way a ship holds the bottom of the sea when it is in pieces.
Before long, I am catching up quickly to the leaders of the race. Barbed wire at twilight glimmers along the edges of the buildings around me. The barbed wire casts an unreal accent of light on the edges of ordinary objects. I run alongside the wire as it curls around the hardware store, the internet café, and people’s homes. Even abandoned fields have fences with razor wire around them, as though the concept of absence is protected here. For someone like me, who has just lost a lifetime companion, the fences around empty spaces feel like a blessing for me to protect my own losses. The best way I know how to do this is to be alone, without my son, even if for just a little while. He doesn’t speak English or Spanish perfectly. Between his accent glimmering at the edge of his words and the barbed wire glinting on the buildings, the boundaries of this world feel unreal and unstable. The surface of objects and language shimmer here in a way that their interiors never do.
There is religious language scrawled across all eight of the Hatillo neighborhoods in San José. There are graffiti-sprayed proverbs on corrugated metal sheets that people use for the walls of their houses. There are prayers to saints written on highway overpasses. One wall has a line from the Talmud written on it that defines death as “when two worlds meet with a kiss, this world going out, the future world coming in.” I thought that line was catchy until I saw death happen. My husband died with my lips on his mouth while I tried to resuscitate him. He had vomited before that. His body’s fluids were on the floor. I imagine whoever wrote that line did not kiss someone while the person was dying. Every true kiss feels unrehearsed, as does a person’s last goodbye.
I feel my hair flowing in the wind. My muscles feel stronger than they have been for the past couple days. My lungs grab at the torn edge of the wind until the air feels material enough to grab and give me lift. Improbably, unexpectedly, I am passing my son and then the runners in front of him. I have a shot at winning this race and becoming the next campana. The neighbors say that campanas sound so strange because they blend the voices of different people they know. Others say that they sound so strange because they are spirits, speaking from different times or places. However it works, I find myself singing like they do and I am nearly shrieking with excitement when I grab the lead runner and shove him aside. I cross the finish line first. I win the race and the prize money and I don’t care if people are disgusted with how I won or that I tried to win the race at all. I need this money. I want to take a vacation. The ocean is not very far. I want to see it. The lowest point of the sea, its floor, shapes how waves break. And the lowest point in my life, my husband’s death, is supposed to make me break in the direction of love. But I find myself breaking, instead, toward bewilderment. There is no better place to hold all of these emotions than a Kentucky Fried Chicken. I take my prize money and go there to start spending it.
“Hola, consolador!” I say to my son, which in English means “Hi, dildo!” Predictably, he misinterprets what I say. He lets out a little wave back at me with his hand. My son has the personality of a napkin dispenser.
Mom saw me at KFC and called me “consolador,” which I thought meant consoler, someone who alleviates grief or lessens disappointment. I thought she was giving me a compliment.
Ever since Dad died, Mom stopped speaking in English to me. My parents had raised me at times in English and at times in Spanish. I never became fluent in either one. Partly for this reason, I couldn’t understand why she was kicking me out of the house. My ex-girlfriend, Sonia, worked at KFC cleaning tables. Sonia was cleaning one of the tables near Mom. I walked over to Sonia and begged her to interpret for me and my mom so I could understand why she was kicking me out of the house. Both of our moms were friends. Sonia and I had dated our first year in high school, when we both listened to Radio Disney and talked about our different families in the us.
“I need you to interpret for me and my mom,” I said to Sonia. I offered her some money to interpret.
“That’s not enough,” she said, looking at the money.
“Well, here’s more,” I offered.
“Okay,” she said.
“A thank you would be nice,” I said.
“Thank you is what garbage cans in fast-food restaurants have printed on them,” she said. Some people described her as distant, but she didn’t think distance in her personality was a bad thing. Ariana Grande, or maybe it was Bieber, once sang that distance can reveal something about love that intimacy cannot. Harry Styles sang that instruments require distance in the design of their bodies to make themselves heard. And wasn’t this kind of distance that relationships needed in order to work? Or maybe it was Bad Bunny who said that. I couldn’t keep up with who Sonia was listening to and quoting each week.
“Who said the quote you tattooed on your arm? A lover is a second language. To love, we must speak in another’s tongue. Did you get that tattoo on your arm because of me?”
She replied, “The girl who dumped you is not someone to ask how well you use your tongue.” Sonia’s humor was generous. She made jokes in a way that let me love the time that was necessary for our relationship to come to an end, even if I couldn’t love the ending.
“Do you miss being together?” I asked. “Like, physically?”
“No,” she said.
“Your dick is souvenir-sized. It’s more like a commemorative limb.”
“Just like his dad,” my mom said to Sonia. They high-fived at that one. My dad had been a customs agent in the us. I thought I was nothing like him. Sonia just laughed at me.
“Defend yourself,” Mom said. “Don’t let her insult you like that.” I understood this much of Mom’s Spanish. She had once told me that fixing a relationship, or winning an argument, was like pushing a swing. What mattered was knowing when to push back and when to let the other person go.
“Okay, I’ll interpret for you,” Sonia said. Through Sonia’s interpretation, Mom said to me, “Let me just start by saying that I miss your dad.”
“Okay,” I said. It was hard for me to say I missed him too.
“I loved him,” she said. “He always told me, Your body is a language that you are the last speaker of. To love someone is to learn that language before it is lost.”
“Are you sure that’s what she said?” I asked Sonia. There was a mismatch between what Sonia and my mother said. I was conversant enough to notice a difference, but I was not fluent enough to fully understand it. Something sounded off in her translation. I had the same limited fluency in relationships. I noticed when Sonia started to fall out of love with me, but I couldn’t fully capture the nuance of why. Even though there was a mismatch in the translation of what my mom had said to me, what Sonia said rang true. While my mother was pregnant with me, I first heard language through her body. For a short while, her body and the sound of language were one and the same. There was no separating the two. They were like promises—both the body and language suggested that something else lay just beyond them.
“Some people’s absences are like doors,” Mom said through Sonia’s interpretation. “The person’s absence opens to an emotional complexity that is not possible in the person’s presence. It’s like that with you. I like you better when you’re not around.”
“Are you quoting someone?” I asked Sonia. “J. Lo?”
“I don’t know her,” she said, quoting Mariah Carey. It felt like she was intentionally misinterpreting what Mom said so that Mom would stay angry with me and kick me out of her home.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” I said.
“You’re going to the funeral,” Mom said. “But we’re not having an open casket anymore.” We’d been in the pandemic so long I’d wondered if they were going to put a mask on the body’s face to make it look more natural.
“Okay,” I told her.
“Pick up your dad’s ashes from the funeral home and drop them off at home,” she said through Sonia’s interpretation. “And don’t mess this up.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“I doubt it,” Mom said. “You couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel.” Mom and Sonia laughed together. Sonia definitely got the translation right there. I’d heard Mom say it before. She got the saying from Dad.
“You should say sorry for letting Dad disown me,” I said to Mom.
“He had every reason to disown you,” she said. “You were a brat.” For two people arguing, intimacy was like the glittering of machines, a beauty that escaped those creating it. For two people romantically involved, intimacy was power. It could change the relationship for better or worse. But forgiveness created a third kind of intimacy that felt less familiar but longer lasting.
“He killed a boy and never apologized for it,” I said. I couldn’t help but bring up this old argument again about something that happened at Dad’s work. He had been working in the us as a customs agent before he retired and went back to Costa Rica to live there with my mom.
“He was doing his job,” she said. “All the courts ruled that the boy’s family couldn’t sue since the boy wasn’t on us soil when Dad fired the shot,” Mom said. She crossed her arms and looked at me because she knew I’d lost this argument before.
“Do you want me to interpret your response?” Sonia asked.
“I don’t have one,” I said. I’d lost my relationship with my dad trying to come up with an answer. I turned away from my mother and Sonia and left KFC for the funeral home.
For almost everything, celebrities had given me the advice that I needed. Loss can be reinterpreted as a gift from the one who left, Justin Bieber once said. Loss can create a sense of “presence” that our happy moments, later in life, must borrow in order to feel witnessed. His words used to feel true. Or maybe someone else said it. The celebrities I could usually depend on didn’t have anything to say to help me now. I initially had taken a wandering route to the funeral home because some other celebrity had said that “joy is aimless and you are most likely to find it by taking random turns.” I switched songs. I put on some lo-fi hip-hop and took the most direct route to the funeral home. Mountain forests surrounded San José on almost all sides. Nothing to offer, except my attention, was how I entered those forests. I should have walked into my relationships the same way.
Every house in Hatillo had metal bars for security. Moonbeams through the bars created a zebra pattern of light and shadow on the faces of people walking in the alleys between the houses. I knew that this pattern, on prey, makes it difficult for predators to tell where the prey’s body ends and another begins. The neighborhood seemed to have the same effect on emotions. Romance seamlessly blended into anger, and then into apathy. Boredom blended into fantasy.
I got to the funeral home and the undertakers were very handsome. It was late but the funeral home was open twenty-four hours. The man I met gave me a little bag with Dad’s ashes in them. And that was it. There was nothing else left of my dad but this. I didn’t have enough money for an urn, so I awkwardly just held the bag in my hands as I left. My father’s ashes were opaque, a grayish-white color, and I stared at them, as though through a lens, to see something far away. But ashes were for scattering, for glimpsing briefly, and, finally, for letting go. Ashes were the opposite of a lens. A body’s ashes magnify all that cannot be seen.
When I got to the house, Mom didn’t let me in. “I’ll get your things and then you have to go,” she said. She spoke with more kindness, poetry, and eloquence when she spoke to strangers about Dad’s death than when she spoke about it with me. With me, she rendered her pain more ordinary and explained how hard her day was through prose instead of the almost-poetry that she used with others. With strangers, she would say the death was “like” something or she would say, “I am lost,” and she would use other similes or metaphors. Not so with me. These differences in speech made me want to become a stranger in her eyes, to hear her search across the differences between us with something more than prose.
“Here are your things,” she said. On flat ground, I was taller than my mom. But when I stood on the bottom steps leading up to her porch, we were the same height. My dad’s death had put me eye-level with the woman my mother was becoming. She looked younger at that moment, wild-eyed and suddenly alone. Some people maintain eye contact to feel at home in another person’s gaze. Other people maintain eye contact to feel homesick in another’s eyes. My mother spoke about my father with odd phrasings. She would say, “He placed me in his eyes,” instead of saying, “He saw me.” I could never be sure if this strange way of speaking was because of her imperfect English, or because something was lost in translation, or because she’d perfectly said what she intended.
“Where are you going to put the ashes?” I asked.
“You didn’t have enough money to buy him an urn?” she asked. I didn’t flinch at this unkindness. The older I got, the less kindness I needed to survive on. My body’s response to a lack of kindness was like my eyes’ response to the darkness—I expanded until I needed less light to see my way forward.
I picked up her KFC ten-piece bucket and started placing the bag of ashes in it.
“Stop!” she yelled. She pulled the bag away from me. Of course, it ripped. Mom grabbed the packages of honey sauce from KFC to gel the ashes that she managed to grab with her hands to stop them from getting away in the wind.
“What are you doing?” I yelled.
“Help me,” she said, and she handed me more packets of honey sauce. She started chasing the rest of the ashes blowing away off the stoop and into the street. I grabbed some honey sauce packets to help her. All the sweetness was on our hands and none of it was where it was supposed to be—on our lips.
I needed to steal a pregnancy test. It was too embarrassing to buy it at the pharmacy. I was fifteen. Everyone would look at me wrong. How would I act at the counter? If I acted too confident, then people would think I’d done this too many times. If I acted too nervous, then I’d draw too much attention. I spoke to the loss-prevention officer to distract her. I slipped the pregnancy test down my shirt. I walked out of the store and found a tree to pee behind. I lit a cigarette, unzipped my jeans, squatted, and then peed onto the pregnancy test. My waste was my tea leaves—I read my future in the swirls of my body’s leftovers.
The pregnancy test came back positive. “How soon can I end this?” I asked. “And what then?” But pregnancy tests never have answers for those kinds of questions. I didn’t want a child with my ex-boyfriend. I turned around to go back to the pharmacy. I needed to steal a second test to make sure the result was accurate. I saw the same loss-prevention officer and started chatting her up.
“Buy something or—” the officer started to say.
“Or get out,” I said, completing her sentence for her.
“Yeah,” she said.
“I’ll get out,” I said. I stole another pregnancy test and ran. I had no real home to go to anymore. Mom had a nice apartment, but she stopped cleaning it. Even the moths had lost interest in Mom’s porch light and what it illuminated about the home she had been trying to make for us. I let myself inside, changed my clothes, and headed back out to go to the KFC, where I worked. I fixed my eyelashes because I’d bought the cheap ones again. I clocked into work and put in a full shift. My ex-boyfriend showed up during work, bothering me with his own problems and never asking me about how I was doing. It was dark when I took a break from work and I walked outside alone. The floodlights were on. I tried to force some privacy out of the parking lot’s edges and the tree line where the shadows were. I squatted and forced myself to pee again onto the pregnancy test. The bathroom was too small and smelly to do this inside.
I put my hands into the dirt around the edges of the pavement. I found fossils scattered in the rocks and pebbles. The earth kept its memory in the fossil record. The traces of a life, embedded in the stone, outweighed the thing that had been alive. The rainy season was starting, and a storm developed. The black swirling clouds and white streaks of lightning had the same kind of low-resolution look as the sonogram photographs Mom had on her refrigerator when she was pregnant with my little brother. Mom and I looked so similar. My face was my mother’s face set to an earlier hour on a clock that our bodies shared. We were alike in so many ways. Tattoos had appeared on both of our bodies as frequently as water damage had appeared on our ceiling.
I looked up and saw Mom watching me from the drive-thru lane at KFC while I squatted at the edge of the parking lot. Mom’s lips had calcified her sincerity to preserve the shape of a smile, but none of its warmth.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Picking up,” she said.
“Carmen?” I asked. My ex-boyfriend’s mom was in the passenger seat.
“Say hello,” Mom said.
“Hi,” I said. This was awkward because I had just been talking to Carmen and her son, my ex-boyfriend, inside the restaurant. “Congrats again on the race.”
“Gracias,” Carmen said back to me.
“Are you—” Mom began to ask me.
“Pregnant?” I said, finishing her question for her. I pulled up my jeans and zipped them. Mom’s first bit of white hair shot from her head like a receipt for whatever life she had been spending without me.
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
“Are you going to keep it, the, um—” Mom said.
“The fetus?” I said.
“Yes, the child,” she said.
“Absolutely not,” I said. I didn’t expect my mother to say much in response. The thing I was rooted in, my mother, was as silent as soil on questions about why we grew apart. Mom once lost a child, not in an abortion, but in a miscarriage. When Mom miscarried, they carried away the fetus’s body, and, whether it was normal for this to happen or not, she saw part of it. She looked at its body the way she looked at the night sky, wondering about the life that should be there. Mom’s lost child became her shadow, a thing she cast and couldn’t hold.
“Be safe, honey,” she said. “You’ll be okay, right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said. Mom didn’t look well. She waved her hand to say goodbye and I waved back. Our two hands were broken halves of an hourglass. In between us was all this time we could no longer hold.
Monarch butterflies, like people in my family, spend their lives traveling between Central and North America. They have wings that tick like hands on a clock. Every year, the monarchs swerve along an invisible path that curves above Lake Michigan’s surface. They turn left and right above open stretches of water as though their flights were written in cursive. The best guess that we have for their swerve above the lake is that they are remembering the contours of an ancient glacier. For thousands of years, they’ve followed the same path. If they can trace a cold, hard beauty that disappeared from this world for so long, then what are our movements capable of? I went to the abortion clinic next to the pharmacy to find out.
By the time I got there, the clinic was closed. The glass windows were black and I stared into them as I would stare into a mirror. The window was translucent in the daytime but became opaque and reflective at night. The darkness behind the glass was necessary for my reflection to appear on the glass surface and stare back at me. The darkness in my mind seemed just as necessary for me to internally perceive myself. So many of my foul moods were because of the distance between me and my family. They didn’t like my boyfriends or that I’d dropped out of high school. I wanted forgiveness to close that gap, but that’s not how it worked. When my mom or I tried to say, “I’m sorry,” we turned toward each other and looked into the distance between us instead of looking across it. I would soon be the mother of a child who wasn’t there. I was like a ring of Saturn the way I circled something I defined but never touched. Each day, millions of tons of water rain out of the rings of Saturn and fall toward the planet’s tilted center. The rings are disappearing. In a few hundred thousand years, they’ll be gone.
I walked into the parking lot between the pharmacy and the clinic. I saw the loss prevention officer sitting in her car. She was alone, smoking a joint. Her speakers were busted. She listened to her music through her earbuds. I tapped her windows. I asked if I could take a hit. She unlocked her doors. I walked around to the passenger side of the car and got in. She passed me the joint and we smoked it down until we held almost nothing but fire between us. We sat there watching the sky turn shades of brightness before the dawn. In Mom’s car, I used to turn the radio dial between stations, so that two stations would blur and I’d create a third station that mixed both. The same thing was happening with my sanity. My body had dialed into a place between sanity and insanity, where I could hear both at once. My relationships were all dissolving like mirages, leaving no physical debris, no trace of themselves except in the madness of the people still looking for them.
“Have you told the dad yet about your test results?” she asked me. We had cashed all her weed and took in the first of the morning twilight.
“No. I don’t want him to know and then start telling me what to do.”
“You need a place to crash?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said to her. She was at the end of her night shift and must have been exhausted.
Listen to Danny Thiemann’s interview about this story here.
About the Author
Danny Thiemann is the recipient of the 2020 Tobias Wolff Prize for Fiction from the Bellingham Review, an Award for New Writers from New York City’s Table4 Foundation, and a Madalyn Lamont Award for Fiction from the American University in Cairo. His writing has appeared in the New Delta Review, the Bosque Review, Your Impossible Voice, the Beloit Fiction Journal, and Guernica. He works at Earthjustice and previously worked for the Programa de Campesinos/Farmworker Program at Oregon Law Center.