I was walking along the fuming streets of San Pedro and singing songs with my friends in a Newry bar when the headache started. They always said you couldn’t be in two places at once, but as I was belting out ‘Oró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile’ between slugs of Smithwicks and marching along the calle principal in sordid December heat, I reflected that a lot of what they said had turned out to be bullshit. They’d said, for instance, that your tongue was split into sections and that each of these quadrants was responsible for a different taste. They said you couldn’t get sunburned through glass.
And strangers. They said that you should never talk to strangers. But I had a total stranger to thank for the drunkenness I was feeling now as I walked past the buses on the busy street in the middle of the day, and for the sweating I was doing inside the dark pit of Guinness and smiles in my old home. Yes, I thought, a lot of what they said was wrong. Why does my head hurt?
I walked by a pack of schoolboys in short-sleeved shirts and ordered another round of drinks. I turned my body to one side to let the school kids pass, and bashed my hip on the side of a concrete wall. The boys laughed and the boys laughed. I turned around with my hands full of pints and started to limp my way back toward the laughter, to the table where my own old schoolmates waited and sang some more. Outside, under the stars, the frost was forming on car wind shields. I was sweating in the heat.
The calle principal is a long road by San José standards. The district of San Pedro was full of school kids from Escuela Roosevelt and students from the university campus. A crowd of kids in medical uniforms waited by the side of the road. I looked at them and started to sing the ‘Wild Rover’.
One of my friends put his arm around my shoulders as we sat on the musty chairs of the pub. It was Fiachra.
“Ha ha ha,” he said. “Jesus your eyes are bloodshot.”
I rubbed my eyes and continued walking. My hip was starting to hurt. I laughed and spat phlegm onto the hot pavement.
“I’m fucking knackered man,” I said, smiling.
“Ha ha ha,” he said, “keep her lit.”
I thought about going back to the casa. I lived nearby but I couldn’t give you an exact address. They don’t do street names in Costa Rica. If I wanted to direct you to my house, I’d have to say something like “300 metres west and 50 metres south of the Universidad Latina” or just pick the most colourful building nearby and tell you to meet me there. People here tended to round directions up to the nearest landmark. There’s a whole district of San José called ‘Coca-cola’ because there used to be a factory there. It was dismantled decades ago.
The fellas started roaring at each other, talking about the time that psychopath Conall McAlinden threw a ferret out of a twelve-story window in a Liverpool flat during our university years. I shook my head and walked past the Iglesia San Pedro, where songs of Spanish prayer fell out the doors before being immediately drowned out by the sounds of trucks and cars and cheap coaches headed to Guanacaste. My head was thumping. This wasn’t the first time I’d suffered the headaches. They had been coming and going for months.
I had met the stranger on an island beach in Bocas del Toro, during an impulsive trip across the border to Panama. For twenty US dollars the taxi boats of the Caribbean would take you out to a deserted beach and leave you artificially stranded on the blazing sand (along with any other wanderers they could wrangle) with nothing but an icebox of beer and water for the afternoon. Your boatman would come back three or four hours later, having done the same thing to other groups, all abandoned on their own islands according to a criss-crossing list of schedules. I don’t know how the taxistas kept it all straight in their heads. I was sure some people, by this point in the island chain’s history, had also been stranded completely legitimately. The tourist’s eternal search for authenticity had probably resulted in crowds of Canadian teenagers becoming marooned for real. I couldn’t tell if this worried me or made me happy.
I had walked my fill of the beach and was ready to lie down under a bush and drink my last three cans of Atlas when I saw one of the taxistas coming over the horizon in his motorboat. It wasn’t my guy – he wasn’t due back for another hour. The motorboat whined closer and closer, weaving around the reefs and shallows, until he got close to shore and cut off the engine. He jumped into the water and pulled the boat toward my part of the beach with a thin blue rope. Then he gestured to me and I walked into the surf and grabbed the rope. We heaved the boat onto the sand and after a few minutes he threw the rope lazily into the foam. The weight of the boat would keep it where it lay.
He turned around and looked out at the sea.
“I’m going soon,” he said to me in Spanish.
“You’re leaving?” I said.
He was wearing a yellow shirt, soaking from the collar down. The New York Yankees baseball cap on his head was tattered and bleached, as if he had found it floating in the sea circa 1979. He didn’t reply.
“I’m going,” he said.
He stood there, hands on his hips, catching his breath and looking out to sea. Then he looked at me with an expression that said: “Well?”
I looked confused. He must be here to pick up another person, I thought. He’s getting me confused with some other passenger.
The taxista looked at me and said: “Well Malachy, are you coming or staying or doing nothing at all?”
I looked around. The other faux castaways were still at the other side of the island, encamped beside ice boxes and determined to boil themselves alive until they heard the sound of an engine coming for them over the waves. I felt a surge of confusion. Maybe my Spanish wasn’t good enough – I’d misheard him. Or maybe I had made some deal with this guy and completely forgotten what he looked like. Maybe this man was sent by the taxista who’d brought me here, and had simply got the time wrong. That would explain how he knew my name. One of my feet moved forward and probed a thin layer of sea water as it oozed in over the beach. The other foot dug its heel into the sand and curled its toes.
“You’re going right now?” I asked, and looked around.
“Yes,” he said. “Are you coming?”
I felt something, like uncertainty or embarrassment. It was both those things. A tonic of cultural confusion and social awkwardness. Did I just not get something here? An urge swelled up in me – the same instinct I’d get any time I became confused or lost at the customs of Central America. The urge to be gone. To go home, back to Ireland, to forget this whole sorry experiment that I’d once called my otra vida – another life. And a simultaneous anti-urge. The thought that kept me here, that going home would be a form of surrender. That I’d be missing out on all the dumb quirks of the place I now lived.
I had felt this mix of emotions before. One day, I walked into a supermercado in San José, where a shop assistant stopped me in the bread aisle and told me that I had to “check my bag in”. He pointed to the bag of shopping I held in my hands from another store. I was brought to a desk at the store’s entrance, where a man with a grave face and a thick neck gave me a ticket, like it was the cloakroom of a nightclub. I examined the ticket (47) and handed over my plastic bag of juice and eggs. I bought what I needed quickly and retrieved my groceries from the egg bouncer, then I frowned the whole way home to my hollow casa, thinking desperately that I might walk in and see my brothers and sisters there, smoking and laughing and telling each other to shut up. When I got home (quiet, empty) I just laughed. A fucking egg bouncer, I thought.
And I had felt the same when the backpackers of Bocas del Toro and Puerto Viejo and Montezuma would open their mouths and vomit Californian or Essex accents at me, praising the waves and explaining their tattoos, saying how they would start their business on the beach, man, make some spending cash off those jade necklaces that you can make from stones in the sand, yeah? Start small and live easy, yeah? I had looked at the stones on the beach many times. They were green but they were not jade. Some of them were weathered glass.
That same harsh cocktail of feelings came over me in Panama when I stood beside the taxista. The urge to split, to get home as fast as humanly possible, and eat a fried breakfast with my family. And the competing urge to hold fast and laugh at all the oddities of the otra vida.
The stranger in the dead Yankees cap looked out to sea and breathed deeply. The sun was still high.
“Are you coming?”
My foot moved forward and my heel dug in, then I said yes and shook my head.
I waded out to climb onto the boat and I stayed on the beach, I felt wet and dry.
The boat engine started up, I saw the taxista wave over his shoulder at me as he left, and then I felt him slap me on the back as the wind of the sea air went passing by. I was going home, and I was staying here.
That was six months ago. Now it was December and everyone was home for Christmas.
I squinted at the elderly women and long-trousered men filing out of the iglesia and flicked a beer mat at Fiachra. I smiled, took a slug and staggered down the calle principal. It was a 40-minute walk to the Paseo Colon, and although I knew this was my destination I had long forgotten why. I walked past the hot, empty car park of an Office Depot and listened in the bar to Fiachra telling the story about McAlinden the psychopath between taking sips of cold, black liquid.
My head throbbed. I heard my own voice, muttering to myself.
“They said I couldn’t be in two places at once.”
The big roundabout by the San Pedro Mall lay ahead. A huge junction that all the fatalistic drivers of San José despised because nobody in Costa Rica can agree on what indicator lights mean and nobody is prepared to call a meeting about it. I stepped out onto the road and grabbed Fiachra by the sleeve, shouting: no mate, no, it didn’t happen like that, ha ha, listen, the ferret was yer man’s pet. I took another slug of Smithwicks and got hit by a blue Jeep.
I winced. Fiachra looked at me and my bloodshot eyes. There was a bad taste in my mouth, a bad taste spanning all those quadrants on my tongue. It was either sour or salty, I couldn’t tell.
“What’s wrong with you mate?”
“I’ve a splitting headache,” I said.
I lay in a bloody pile on the side of the road and laughed at my own joke.
“Ha ha ha,” I wheezed. “A splitting headache.”