I jammed my giant suitcase under the tiny, ruffled bed to deal with later. What is it about luggage that makes you want to set it on fire as soon as you exit the airport? I passed back through the living room shrine and down another long hallway that ran adjacent to my bedroom. I noticed (luckily, before I attempted to change clothing) the window in the middle of the hallway looked directly into my bedroom. It was an indoor window. I’m certainly not accustomed to such architectural randomness, but I bet those things come in pretty handy if you have teenagers living in the house. Ain’t nobody getting away with underage drinking, sexting, drug abuse, hidden bulimia or voodoo on my watch. Keep that indoor window open and everybody lives to see 18. In my case, I figured it would work well as an escape route should the hacienda go under siege. If I couldn’t get to the kitchen knives fast enough, I could always throw the rice maker in the intruder’s face.
When I stepped into the kitchen, Carmen was bent over the stove with a spatula in her hand. The table was set with a single, white plate, cutlery, a cup and a pitcher of what looked to be bright, pink juice. It was a simple but cozy layout with an L-shaped countertop, stove, sink and shelving to the left and a refrigerator to the right. A door on the far end led into a modest but lush yard with a patio, complete with a washer and clothesline. I scanned the perimeter before taking my seat at the table; trying to list out what I was viewing to prove I knew things. Spanish things. I’m sure she appreciated a one-sided commentary on all the stuff in her kitchen.
Once seated, I was met with a heaping plate of white rice and a scoop of canned tuna fish. The tuna was drained and dumped directly onto the plate. The rice was the first serving in a long and exhausting culinary love affair with arroz that ended in fatal attraction. I had a French grandmother who could find a protein and a carb in an empty cupboard, so I remembered not to put up a fuss on tuna day. And I’ve never been accused of being a picky eater, so, I saddled up to that dish and the idea that I’d be ten pounds thinner upon return to Boston.
“Have you been working out?!” they’d all ask. “Philanthrorexia!,” I’d reply.
Carmen sat down next to me at the table. I wasn’t sure if I should react enthusiastically or if even she knew the dish was a bit of a stretch. At least Gam tried to doctor her tuna up with some boxed macaroni and cheese. Believe me, I’m not one of those tourists who expects the rest of the world to cater to their rigid customs. I don’t gripe when people can’t speak English or accept tips or give me a reasonable amount of personal space. The second I arrive on foreign soil, everything about me becomes a moot point. That’s kind of my favorite part; the necessity to adapt and the realization that nobody really gives a shit about what I’m used to. But I went to Costa Rica to swim in a sea of fruits, vegetables and coffee, so a plate of old rice and canned atún was, needless to say, a bit of a bummer. Surely it would’ve been easier to just pick a banana from the backyard.
She rested her head on her palm and offered her condolences. I was happy to hear it wasn’t the customary lunch menu. I arrived on a Saturday and shopping day was Sunday, so it was slim pickins for the next twenty four hours.
“No te preocupes,” I assured her. “Me gusta mucho atún y arroz.”
Look at me telling lies already. The thing was, I could see an underlying sense of distress in Carmen. She seemed to be fretting around a lot, asking if I needed anything else. More juice? A different knife? An open window? A fifth napkin? She was unable to stifle an urge to improve, even when it wasn’t necessary. You could see it in the way she kept her kitchen, the way she prepared her food, the way she went into your room when you weren’t looking and lined up your toiletry bottles by height. These are all qualities I’d later learn in more detail, but I knew on day one, when they said I was staying with a “host mom,” they weren’t kidding. Being a mother is hard work under the best of circumstances. I can’t imagine being one to a 32-year-old gringa who crawled up like Ursula from 109 inches of Boston snow.
Her anxiousness seemed to release when I started eating, as if my nourishment was proof she was doing her job. This was a symbiotic relationship I could easily get used to. I tend to prioritize eating over talking, so I make a great dinner date if you’re dying to unburden yourself. Unless I need to get a point across, then I find special ways to corral all the food to one side of my mouth and vocalize my beliefs through the other. In this case, it was way too difficult to eat tuna, pretend to enjoy tuna, think of sentences in English, translate them into Spanish, chew and talk, so, I let Carmen take the floor.
Carmen was a host mom for 13 years (ever since her husband took off with his secretary). Maximo Nivel sent a steady stream of volunteers and students through her door, often on short notice, and tracked their comings and goings on those tri-colored sheets of paper you see on prescription pads and work order forms. If you didn’t hand her the pink slip that proved your existence in her household, she didn’t get paid. It was as simple as that. Knowing this made it easier to understand why she’d been chasing me around for “el papel” for the last half hour. Are you trying to tell me I can’t Venmo this homestay? And her payment wasn’t just money in her pocket. It was food, beverage, hot water, electricity and all the other things that quickly add up when you have a revolving door of people living under your roof.
Her daughter and four-year-old grandson lived in the apartment on the right and her sister and her immediate family resided to the left. You could see the pride in her eyes as she explained how she watched her grandson while her daughter worked as a nurse all day. I’d caught a glimpse of him when I passed through the hallway earlier. He was laying across her bed on his stomach, legs kicking rhythmically in the air, singing along softly to a children’s program on TV. In our future interactions, I’d always find him to be bashful but well-behaved. I think he knew none of us would stay long, so there was no point in investing any time in us. Still, it was obvious he was happy, well-fed and very loved. He ran his tiny trucks around the living room floor and cried “Abuela!” when he needed a little extra attention. Carmen always came running to him immediately, asking what he wanted to eat or if he was thirsty. Grandmothers really are cut from a universal tapestry. A beautiful one, at that.
Carmen went on to say she loved the way the house felt when it bubbled up with energy and laughter, so it never bothered her to have upwards of nine people staying in it at once. Nine? Please, God, no. I almost ripped a rosary off the wall for comfort. Then I started doing the math. Carmen hosted hundreds of English-speakers over the last decade, yet she claimed no knowledge of the spoken word. I’ve watched enough telenovelas to know you can absorb a language just by tuning into it, so something didn’t add up. She was bluffing. She was keeping that language barrier up for a reason and I’m sure it was a good one. Given the choice between faking ignorance or dealing with other people’s bullshit in any language, I’d choose blissful unawareness every single time. Still, she never judged my erratic attempts at Spanish and lord knows I needed the practice, so I was happy to let her have her charade.
After lunch I meandered back to my bedroom to deal with the suitcase. Unpacking has never been my strong suit. If you told me society finally decided it was acceptable to live out of giant Tupperware tubs, I’d be the happiest woman this side of Walmart. Unfortunately, Ikea makes damn sure being organized will never go out of style. Regardless, I shuddered to think what the situation would be if I went asking for an iron the next day. Knowing what little I did about Carmen, I figured she’d spend half the morning looking for a way to perm press my pashminas with her rice cooker.
I’d no sooner set down my calming face scrub when I heard an unmistakable giggling from down the hall. “Here we go,” I thought. I felt like Simba bracing for the wildebeest. It was only a matter of time before the herd came home.
And just like that, two giddy, young females came stampeding into my bedroom. One flopped down on the bed across the way and the other flew practically airborne as she bounded onto my creaky coils. The only shred of personal space I had left.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! You’re here! Carmen said we’d have a new housemate today!,” chirped a young, (unbleached) platinum blonde girl in maroon hammer pants with elephants plastered on them. She had to be all of eighteen. “I’m Ivy.”
“Nice to meet you! I’m Anna,” beamed the cerulean-eyed brunette making herself at home next to my bathing suit bottoms. She appeared to be in her twenties with some sort of French accent I couldn’t really make out.
“Hey! I’m LeeMarie. Here I am,” I said, trying to brush some of my belongings aside. “Nice to meet you guys. Are you staying in here too?”
“Oh no no, I saw there was nobody in this room when I arrived and then I met Ivy so I decided to stay with her,” said Anna. “I wonder if you’ll have roommates?”
Wasn’t that the question of the day.
“Come to our room and we’ll show you what we bought!,” sang Ivy. She turned directly on her heels and whisked her way out the door. I think I saw her skip. Anna followed excitedly, turning around one last time to flash her grin and egg me onward.
Their room was directly to the right of mine and of equal size, with a set of bunk beds and a twin. An old, wooden vanity was swarmed with hair products, perfumes, sunscreens and bug spray. I thumbed over some of the items absentmindedly while they giddily recanted their spoils. Ivy had been eyeing her elephant pants for weeks, apparently, and today was the day she gave them a loving home. It was endearing to watch someone light up over gaucho pants. I have a lot of respect for people who find such magic in everyday pursuits.
Anna had purchased a small, embroidered satchel with a vista woven on the front. It was colorful enough that it was striking, but intricate enough that it was subtle. I liked her style.
“Do you like it?,” said Anna. “I don’t know, I just thought… we were at the street market and I really wanted something fun for the trip, you know?”
“I think it’s divine,” I said. I meant it. Accessories are a weakness.
“You can borrow it, seriously, any time if you want,” Anna reassured. Her eyes were giant and extremely honest. Almost unnerving.
“Thank you, that’s adorable,” I replied. “I might take you up on that.”
Ivy stood up to admire her hammer pants in the mirror.
“These are so badass,” she groaned.
You could tell she never needed anyone’s approval.
And, just like that, I had a feeling things were going to be okay. Abnormal? Absolutely. Uncomfortable? More than likely. Exhausting? Undoubtedly. But I was sick of being normal, comfortable and asleep, anyway.