This is my seventh trip to Costa Rica, but this time I am out of synch. I am wrestling the long-established sense that this is a place of needs-abatement, desires fulfilled. This time I'm not sure what my needs are, let alone how to satisfy my desires. I decide I do need to get in the middle of things, however. Let that play. See where it takes me.
I have taken the ground floor garden suite at the Hotel Grano de Oro, a lovely, converted turn-of-the-century mansion in San Josi. The room is furnished with a nod to the property's past: beautiful handcrafted hardwood furniture, a four-post wrought-iron bed, antique furnishings, prints and other accents.
My bathroom is a huge, painted-tile affair with a soothing jacuzzi. A French door, in a small sitting room off the bedroom, opens onto a tropical garden, where I can relax with a cigarette and a cool drink. Breezes billow the gauzy curtains that pirouette inside slatted windows opening onto more fragrant gardens. It is intoxicating. I am transported to a Latin America of another time, or into the pages of a Garcma Marquez novel, a poem by Neruda. What a place to get laid.
I need to reacquaint myself with the heart of the city, an easy walk from the hotel. It is a journey of run-on sentences, a stream of scenes in a Whitman poem. Sidewalk vendors are selling lottery tickets, boots, belts, baseball caps, knock-off watches, fruits and vegetables, Latin magazines, used books; the air is heavy with the smell of fried fish, of bad fish; ugly, blanched slabs of meat are piled high in a butcher shop; crusty tubers in odd shapes overflow boxes in a grocery store; there is the glorious smell of ground coffee; store after store displays cheap shirts, cheap shoes; the occasional store displays expensive-looking jewelry. Old couples hobble along, hand in hand; young girls hold schoolbooks to their breasts; little boys tote knapsacks, horse around; on a ledge outside an office building, a man with no legs is begging coins; children in school uniforms stand in line at a Pizza Hut; everywhere there are clots of animated conversation.
Within a few blocks of each other are a half-dozen pickup bars in an area nicknamed "Gringo Gulch." The most famous of these places is Key Largo on Calle 7, just south of Avenida 3, across from Parque Morazan. Like Grano de Oro, Key Largo is also a converted in-town mansion, but there the comparison ends. Here prostitutes, part- and full-time, enact an unscripted floor show. As a display of the human mating dance, Key Largo never disappoints.
I pass Key Largo. In the bright sunlight of late morning there is no visible activity. Shutters in the window facing the avenue are open and I can hear the faint sounds of workmen banging away inside.
At the Blue Marlin Bar in the Hotel Del Rey sit three fat Americans. Their guts sag over their belts, presenting patches of sweaty black hair pasted against white skin, peeking beneath buttons stretched to the limit. All have goatees. All suck on bottles of weak and watery American beer, forgoing the smooth, lovely taste of the local brew: Imperial. It's five until 11 in the morning. The two men on the ends are hanging on the words of the loud one in the middle and supporting his every inane comment. I have an urge to punch the loud one in the mouth. What is it with me and being left out of conversations?
Hookers are already working the bar and the adjacent tables. They are a hard-looking lot, heavily made up, overdressed in evening wear, inappropriate to the late-morning sun. They seem a good match for the patrons at the bar, however, who nonetheless are riveted by a meaningless mid-season basketball game.
I wander back outside and take a seat on a stone bench in the Parque Morazan opposite Key Largo. There is a sexual energy here, even in the disruptive light of a bright sun. Brunettes crisscross before me -- one with a slightly overripe ass, shaped to her jeans; the other in black stretch pants measuring a perfect lower half. Both have jet-black eyes. My interest is rejuvenated. The women around here ...
After a late-afternoon siesta, I wander out of my suite to join the intimate gathering in the dining room at Grano de Oro. I whet my appetite with a martini, then feast on filet mignon with a filling of gorgonzola cheese, which oozes out with each cut of the knife. I go easy on the wine and decide against an after-dinner drink. I have plans. In the pleasant coolness of the evening, I opt, again, to walk downtown.
Music and conversation spill out to the stone path beneath the trees and shrubs behind the wrought-iron gate at the entrance to Key Largo. The three bars, on three sides of the dance floor, are abuzz with activity. This evening, a three-piece combo is playing loud, strident interpretations of "classic" British and American rock, including some of the worst covers of the Beatles I've ever heard. People are not here for the music.
Two couples are doing interpretive dances to "She Loves You," among them a skinny, bald-headed man with a hook nose and watery eyes, paired with one of the more blatant whores, in skin-tight, white pants, performing a ludicrous shimmy; he is trying to stay with her. It looks like the death dance of an aging stork who simply will not accept the limitations of once-responsive limbs. I am entranced by his orange jacket and his fumbling footwork. What is he thinking? Then I feel a pang of guilt, because I've been known to drink and dance and it ain't much prettier. I decide that, instead of guzzling beers, I'll sip a rum and Coke. The bar mistress slides the drink across to me and I take a seat.
A dark-skinned woman with a torrent of black hair -- wet, just-out-of-the-shower look -- positioned near the dance floor makes eye contact. She purses her lips briefly. It is more a quiver: unexpectedly subtle and, in its ephemeral line, very provocative. I float a brief smile in her direction, but I feel mine wears foolishly. She smiles more broadly. I am not sure if she is mocking me.
Across the floor an American, too old for his long, curly blond hair, is buying beers for two mulattos, encouraging a friendly competition, perhaps a price war, perhaps a threesome. Near me, three women are in animated conversation, alternately sizing up the customer base. One, whose incongruously light blond hair contradicts her dark skin coloring, seems the central figure. Her abnormally round, silicone breasts seem about to burst free above the line of a silky, black dress, which dips to the borders of dark-brown areolae. When she sees me glance over, she purses her lips; there is no subtlety here.
I glance back in the direction of the woman on the stool in the threshold. She does the lip thing again. Despite my nursing the rum, the smile is having its effect. She is a lascivious Mona Lisa. I feel the need to get in the game, or at least play for a while. I flick my eyes in the direction of the bathrooms to the right of the dance floor, rise from my stool and walk toward them. I note her rise from her stool.
The blond whore with the silicone breasts raises her right leg to impede my progress. She flashes the broad smile again, seriously gap-toothed. I stroke the synthetic surface of her hose, then push gently against her leg until it falls away and I slide by. Too late, she raises her leg again. It is a playful gesture, performed to extend the moment of contact.
My follower joins me in the large anteroom outside the bathrooms. We retreat into a shadowy corner to negotiate.
"Hoondred dollar," she says, bypassing any need to do the exchange-rate math. She runs a velvet hand across the back of my neck, embraces me in the crook of her arm. Sales promotion.
I run my hand down her back. I gaze into her smoky face, note the thin line of a scar, just off the center of her forehead: the mark of some ritual, the strike of an angry boyfriend, a childhood accident. Her dark eyes burn into mine.
"Hoondred dollar," she says again, still awaiting my reply.
"No tengo," I say, placing my foot on a wrecked barstool shunted away to the dark corner of this tawdry room. As soon as the words have passed my lips, I am uncomfortable with my lie, in a situation where lies are anticipated, expected. I do have the money.
"No es mucho," she counters, frowning.
"No," I recover, "is not too much."
She smiles, the wrinkle in her lips just slightly more pronounced.
"Fee-teen minutes," I say, to buy some time.
Her smile crumbles into a frown. She doesn't appreciate the wait. She shakes her head and sidles off, back toward her seat between the dance floor and the bar.
A man with dense, curly black hair and a thick beard emerges from the men's room, struggling with the final inch of his zipper. I watch as he recedes into one of the raucous trio of bars. I trail behind him, resume my place at the bar, my elbows on the wood surface, my body square to the barmaid, my back to the dance floor. I am resisting.
I feel the coal-black eyes on me. Or is it my ego taking command, basking now in the anticipation of a major conquest? Scoring with a whore? And that issue isn't even settled yet. She will no doubt tire of me, my hesitation.
I glance at her again. Now she feigns disinterest. The dance continues.
I fold into the dynamic around the bar. It is a less-interesting distraction. The barmaid has taken it upon herself to pour me another Cuba libre, replacing the watered-down glass on the coaster before me, taking thousands of colones from the money I have left on the bar. This time, I swallow half of it in one gulp. It is mostly libre, or whatever they call rum in Cuba.
The bits and pieces of conversation are inane. When I first visited here years ago, eavesdropping was good sport. "That's miles up the Sarapiqum, into the dense jungle." "The boat will be there at midnight?" "Get the two passports and consider it done."
I sense movement. She has sashayed over, attached herself to me, pressing her sex to my hip. The hard sell. Her body assumes the contours of mine, in a vertical rendition of nocturnal spooning. Her hair smells of ripe cantaloupe.
"Drink?" I ask. She nods, says something to the bar mistress, who takes a handful of colones from my stack, then returns with a glass filled with a cloudy white liquid. My ... attachment smiles and takes a sip. I focus for a moment on the glass.
The aging, curly-headed American has made his selection, but the also-ran is engaging him in an animated conversation. Her victorious colleague rests her cheek on his shoulder, her look distant, until the two-for-one bargain discussion diminishes the first girl's take for the night and she snaps her head erect. She blurts a curt "no!" at her conniving co-worker. The man, once again, is reduced to indecision. This threebie thing has him going. Clearly, this will take a while longer to sort out.
My head is floating in a cloud of bar rum. My creative instincts are taking hold, my inhibitions fading with the alcohol. Suddenly, a chill runs through me. She is the most beautiful woman here. Possibly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. And, now ... she's gone?
I turn completely around in my chair and gasp in relief. She is there, once again on her seat in the archway, staring over her shoulder in my direction. Her head is cocked forward and turned obliquely toward me. She presents just a bit more curl in her lip. I smile. This time I feel I have gotten it right. She nods. She rises from her stool and heads for the exit. I take a deep breath and drain my glass.