A single mother sheltering from an abusive marriage on an experimental Costa Rican farm
I hate when she does that—hugs me from behind and cups a breast in each hand. But what can I do? She allows me to live on the finca as part of the commune and acts like a grandmother to my two girls. I need her. And I do appreciate all she has done for me. I had to get away from Carlos. Take care of my girls. Marianne understood all that when she allowed me to move into the apartment over the old horse barn. Of course, I’m expected to do my share—lead yoga sessions, take my turn cooking and cleaning. Fair enough. I have to, and at this point, want to be part of this community.
My girls seem at peace out here. Why shouldn’t they be? There’s Maricella’s and Arianna’s kids and all the adults to hug them and hold them. It’s like they’re part of a big family with lots of love and none of the scolding and slapping. I don’t think my girls are getting spoiled. And if they are, it makes up for the shouting and hitting before we left home. This is supposed to be a model organic farm. Sometimes it feels more like a shelter for abused women. But I can’t complain. It works for me. For now.
I enjoy living with the full-time staff and the constant stream of volunteers from around the world who come for a few days or a few weeks to help with the gardening, planting and harvesting. What is it that draws them to Costa Rica from Austria and Argentina and Switzerland and Texas? Must be the call of a simpler life—today’s work for tomorrow’s salad. Dirt under the fingernails from the raised beds of lettuce and onions and peppers and squash. I get that.
But every time she gropes me, I’m back with Carlos. I know it’s not the same thing. Marianne is gentle, asking, inviting—not insisting, demanding. But it’s really the same—wanting something from me. My body. My love. What do they find so attractive about me? I’m just me, nothing special. The other day, an elderly volunteer tried to tell me in stumbling Spanish that he thought I was hermosa in body and spirit. What do I do with that? I’ve been told that I have the kind of beauty that isn’t exactly stunning, that it comes and goes when I smile or turn gracefully or just look a certain way. That’s nice to hear but it doesn’t help me. ‘Attractive’ only gets you into a bed whether you’re interested or not.
I’ve also been told I look serene and placid. If I give that impression, it’s wrong. I work very hard with yoga and meditation to find inner peace, to fight back anger and sadness, to enjoy the moment. But mostly, it’s simple exhaustion. Chasing a two-year old and five-year old while making meals and cleaning guest cabins and shoveling compost makes me just plain tired, looking for a place to drop. And so, I get hugged. There’s lots of hugging around here. That’s nice. And groped. Everything has a price.
Sometimes it feels like I’m in a convent. Nuns without men. Well, okay, there are men on staff —Luiz and Alonzo. At nineteen and twenty they feel like boys to me. Sweet boys. Sincere about saving the planet with homemade beehives and bamboo houses and fermented fertilizer. They’re a different breed from the men I’ve known. But, men all the same, strutting around cute volunteers and even chatting up Eugenia, our cook. Why do I feel like the older sister watching teenaged brothers? Still, I’m not beyond all that. Not yet.
Like when I watch Rodrigo and his crew building the new bodega. They’re not part of us. They work and eat at their own schedule. And they don’t seem to notice us. Me. But I notice them, him especially. He’s compact, hard, the way he stands with his arms out, just a little, ready. His hands are tough. You can tell. He never uses gloves even when he’s handling rough lumber or tin roofing. Makes you wonder what it would feel like to have calloused hands on soft parts. His scraggly mustache and missing bottom tooth make him look like a friendly pirate when he smiles. That and the pony tail sticking out of his hat. So what if it’s got some gray in it? He’s not a boy. When he stands and studies a wall, calculating, then starts giving orders, you know he’s in charge. The man. Both on the job and, I bet, at home.
It would be so easy, so tempting, to let a man like him take over. Raise the walls around your family. He’s so sure of himself and what he can do. You would know the roof wasn’t going to fall in on you.
I notice all this on my way back and forth to the cabins, the woodpile, the gardens. But I keep walking. You can’t engage, risk that much control, as much as you’d want, to another person, man or woman, Rodrigo or Marianne, in a home or a commune, finca, farm, whatever. I’m on my own, me and my girls. I’m the only one I can trust. All the rest is a crutch, something to lean on while I try to get my balance.
One morning, on my way to the medicinal herb garden, I see Rodrigo’s workers laying out lines for a guest cabin. There’s a new man. He wraps a loop of string around a stake and looks up at me. I catch my breath. Carlos. He smirks. He has found me. Us. He is inside the fort. I want to throw up. Instead I grab a mattock, hold my head high and walk to the raised lettuce beds to begin weeding. I punch the ground, rip and tear. Till I hear high pitched voices, “Papi! Papi!” Arianna has been watching the girls and they have spotted their father. Damn. I fall on my knees, pretend to be hand weeding. Now what? Now what?
It’s my turn to make lunch. I have to run the gauntlet past the builders to get to the kitchen. I don’t look at Carlos. But I can tell he’s looking at me. Rodrigo isn’t. Wouldn’t be. I’m sure. Just Carlos.
I lug a basket of vegetables into the open-air kitchen and dump them in the sink to rinse. Then I shove two chunks of wood into the brick stove. Next, I half-fill a blackened pot with water and place it on the grill. I pick out a sharp knife and attack carrots, potatoes, platanos and chayote. I’m skinning the yams when I sense Marianne standing next to me. If she hugs me, I swear, I’m going to scream. Instead she calmly strips leafs off the spinach and carefully slices them into thin strips. When the silence builds to a roar, she says, “Girls need to be told they’re precious, to know their father is part of their lives.” Yes, I want to say. But what about their mother? Don’t we need to feel safe? To be cared for, too?
Before I can answer she takes off, muttering something about getting oregano from the garden. I stumble toward the yoga salon and its porch hanging over the Orosi valley. A half hour, twenty minutes. That’s all I need—quiet, a chance to center myself. I drop into the lotus position, breathe deeply, slowly.
Movement off to one side snags my concentration. I fight the distraction of the rhythmic movement at the edge of my vision. It’s regular, controlled, soothing. Finally, I shift focus to see Rodrigo at a workbench studying a plank for use as a roof beam. He sights down the board for warp and torque, then runs his hand along the standing edge like a blind person reading the knots and burrs with his sensitive fingertips. He gently sets the board down, braces it and begins to run a plane over the ragged surface. No wasted motion. You could beat a drum to his flowing strokes. I’m sad when he caresses the board one last time and gracefully rounds it onto his shoulder. He is his work. His work is him. As he climbs the path, he must sense me watching because he looks up, holds my eye for a moment then says, “He will only help for one more day.”
I nod back, noticed, cared for. Good. And thank you for men like you.