They met in a bar on Jaco Beach. She walked in, early evening, sat at the corner of the counter, off to the side, ordered a beer and quietly nursed her drink. It wasn’t that she looked lonely or uncomfortable, and yet… He was tending bar that night, took note of her. It was a slow night, so, after a while, he started talking to her.

She’d just finished her Master’s in education and had a teaching position at a private school lined up for the fall. She’d decided to have one last fling before settling down to the rest of her life, so had bought a ticket to Costa Rica and intended to visit for a month. She’d spent a week in the Arenal Volcano region, and decided to learn how to surf, something she’d always wanted to do, so rented a place in Jaco. And here she was, first day of surfing done.

She had an air of quiet vulnerability about her. Although he’d known her all of an hour, he felt oddly protective of her. Wanted to keep her near. So he offered her a beer on the house as she listened to his story.

Two years into medical school, he’d discovered, to his family’s horror, that he didn’t really want to be a doctor. He’d taken a leave of absence and boarded a plane to London. Three years and twenty countries later, the leave long expired, he’d landed in Jaco and started working at the bar for a much needed infusion of cash. He figured he would keep wandering until he figured out what to do with his life…

They were both surprised at how comfortable they felt with each other, how easy it was to be together. When the bar’s owner announced last call, they each felt that there was still so much more to share. So they agreed to meet the following afternoon and visit Manuel Antonio National Park.

He picked her up the next day, and they drove in companionable silence. The day was hot, humid. They walked deep into the park. Their shirts were soon drenched in sweat. A bird rustled in the suddenly still air. 

She spoke. 

“There is a folk tale about a princess who tests her suitor’s love by sending him out into the wilderness to find the one thing she does not have – bird’s milk.”

“There is no such thing,” he said.

“Exactly.”

“So he spends the rest of his life seeking the unattainable?”

She shrugged. They spoke of the impossibility of desire. Or was it the desire of the impossible? 

And then, inevitably, they made love, in the grass. And it was in that moment – in that hush among the trees – the melding of their bodies – that they were undone.  Unbeknownst to them, the shape of the years to come, those years that would hold both joy and sorrow, triumph and disappointment, love and despair – their shared destiny – was forged at five o’clock in the afternoon. Gods at play in the woods.

She took him back to her shack and extended her stay for three weeks. They spent her remaining time in the country together. She listened as he spoke to her of his confused desires, his blank future terrifying him. He dreamed as she described the city, her apartment, her life-to-come.

And then came the moment to say goodbye. On a whim, the morning of the day she was to return home, she slipped a piece of paper with her address into his shirt pocket. He drove her to the airport. As she was about to pass though security, she hesitated, waiting for him to say something that would hint at the promise of future contact. He hesitated, confused, not sure what he wanted. So he watched as she boarded her plane and vanished into the clouds.

She returned home, to what became the unrelenting monotony of days filled with teaching math to high school students and not much else. At night, settling into bed after a few glasses of wine, she would remember the moments spent in that shack by the ocean. He spent a few more months in South America, but suddenly became acutely aware of the loneliness in his wandering. He surprised himself: feeling that he’d had enough, he bought a plane ticket. And, one morning, she walked out of her apartment building to find him outside, waiting. 

It was the hubris that only the young have. They had each decided, in the blink of an eye, that the other was to be their savior. Did either experience a twinge of doubt? How ironic that it was the small acts in life, those most easily taken for granted, never properly thought through, that were the ones most fraught with danger. Innocent traps that ensnared a person’s destiny while the individual was not looking – the foundation of a house that Jack and Jill would build. 

It took him awhile to find himself. He never did have that flash of inspiration, so wound up working at an investment bank. She had three children. They moved to the suburbs, where she discovered, to her dismay, that she had developed “Achilles Heel” – a condition resulting from too much driving, inducing excess contact of the right heel of the foot with the floorboard of an over-sized SUV, creating numbness in the heel, cramping of the toes and flabbiness of the thighs. Recommended course of treatment: numerous diet fads, various gyms, sculpting treatments and trainers – the spending of an amount of money that probably could have bailed out a bankrupt small nation.

He was restless, irritable. Too secure, too comfortable. Irrationally, he began to remember those years of sad wandering with a certain fondness. As his mind receded into the past, he became distant. They became strangers occupying the same space.

One evening, she went to see a ballet performance. The choreographer, Danish, came out onstage to speak with the audience after the show. Asked to describe the source of his inspiration, he talked of the “vo-ka-bu-lary” of dance. That’s when she understood – it was all about where you put the accent on the “syl-la-ble” of life. Passion – obsession. Flip sides of the same coin. “Pain perdue” (lost bread) – is what the French call “French Toast”. Is it all a matter of perception? 

They’d gone through life learning the rudiments of a language whose cadences were familiar, reassuring. Now, suddenly, they were uncertain of a gesture’s arc. Cut adrift from the mooring of shared meaning, each word began to weigh heavily on the tongue.  Those years together – had they really accomplished nothing?

Somewhere along Route I-95, despite the good intentions of the parties involved, their marriage sputtered to an end. It took them three years to leave each other. It was difficult to discern the leaver from the leavee – so they both suffered. Once the surge of passion ebbed, all they had left was the taste of ashes in their mouths. The dust of unsettled dreams.

Infidelity committed but not admitted. Infidelity contemplated but not committed. It didn’t matter, really. They each endured the sensation of being suddenly-bereft of the body-next-to-yours. A life together full of color and meaning had become meaning-less. Once they were a couple.

She was no longer the Wife. He was no longer the Bright Young Thing. Half-baked decisions had thrown their lives into strange tangents. Were they has-beens? In their minds, they had just started out of the gate. Shifting sands of time made it so they were unable to stand firm on the ground.

So much for the steppes of life. It now became a question of identity. Des she keep his last name and remain someone she could no longer claim to be? Or shake the mothballs off her maiden name and return to someone she no longer was? She was suddenly a nameless free agent. The conundrum of last names.

It would take additional decades for them to understand that those once  loved were never left behond. You carry them within the recesses of your soul, conjuring them up in times of need or sorrow or joy. A never-ending rope that chains you to the ground. Only Icarus could fly high enough to be scorched by the sun. Mere mortals, the ones who live to be old and full of lost love, are left to puzzle through their could-have-beens.

They thought they had bequeathed the gift of their success to their children. That the specters perched on their shoulders would grace those of their progeny. It was, after all, the circle of life. Yet another illusion.

Her son, when he was fifteen, told her he knew what an ellipsis was. So did she. It was the loss of the illusions of youth that brought on the hard-edged lines of old age. And so it goes…

Those woods still stand to tell the tale of two young adults at play one afternoon – two naïve individuals who believed in fusion without combustion, endless possibilities and happy endings. Does life lose its dazzle once the bright future morphs into the painful past? Should we reach out to these two souls soon to be lost and tell them to hurry up and wait? But then, their sorrows, their lives, their particular legacies, would not exist. 

Within each of them still lives the child hoping, dreaming, of bird’s milk.

***

Challah French Toast

6 eggs

¾ cup milk

½ teaspoon kosher salt

6 slices of challah

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Maple syrup and ground cinnamon, for serving

In a shallow dish, whisk together the eggs, milk, and salt. Lay the challah slices in the egg mixture and let sit, turning once, until soaked through.

In a frying pan, melt butter over medium heat until foaming. Fry the bread slices, flipping once, until golden brown on each side. Serve immediately, drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon.

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