July 19, 2011 | by Vanessa Blakeslee
Four years ago, I embarked on a relationship with a man twenty years my senior, whose Florida home, a few streets over from my condo, boasted wall-to-wall carpeting with a space-galaxy motif, a vintage circus-sideshow banner in the master bedroom, and a six-foot-tall statue of a gecko dressed as a jester, which overlooked the backyard. My family was reluctantly supportive, in that “you’re our daughter and we love you, even if your choices worry us” manner. I had survived, just barely, one brutal heartbreak after another in my midtwenties. It was refreshing to find someone who embraced the eclectic, rallied friends to swing by for dinner, and appeared with surprise snacks when I was scribbling fiction poolside. But mostly, I felt relieved at finding someone who was nice, a champion of my own long-stifled quirkiness.
He had spent eighteen months in federal prison twenty years before, on a fraud felony. Ah, but wasn’t the past just the past? It wasn’t fair to hold a human being to a mistake made so long ago. Didn’t I have my own shameful moments, perhaps not felonies or arrests, but black marks when I had been less than my best self? Don’t we all?
In the spirit of loving kindness, as I watched my fiction burst to life under my new love’s backyard Buddhist prayer flags, I dismissed any signs of cautionary red. A mentor of mine calls fiction writers “literary cannibals.” I was having fun, and my writing responded to the offbeat environment of vinyl Jesus figurines embedded with Magic 8 Balls, wind chimes, and the Grateful Dead. Halfway through a grueling semester in a low-residency M.F.A., I had been questioning my ability to master fiction. Now my adviser proclaimed I had achieved a breakthrough—“a talent for inventing loopy comic situations.”
Things only seemed to get better. My man and I came up with affectionate names for each other—I was Babette and he was Babu. Real monikers fallen away, the relationship carved its own offbeat identity.
A few months after our courtship began, Babu announced that a friend of his who ran a global asset management firm in Costa Rica had offered him a job in marketing. He began dividing his time between Orlando and San José, and long-distance difficulties arose. Sometime around the Thanksgiving dinner, I cooked for his teenage son in Babu’s absence—he insisted I invite both ex-wives, in the spirit of family—and he broached the next step in our future. “Why don’t you quit teaching and live down here with me?” I was an adjunct at the local university; it was a no-brainer. So, ripe for adventure, I joined him in Costa Rica.
Mornings, he went to work at daybreak while I slept until eight in the two-bedroom house we rented in Piedades de Santa Ana, the hills overlooking the Central Valley of San José. Tropical birds chattered in the trees, the palms rustled in the breeze, and for six hours a day I composed my fiction thesis. In the afternoons a mongrel akin to a miniature Doberman showed up on the porch so often that I adopted her. I called her Marqueza in honor of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Evenings and weekends we spent at the homes of fellow expats, mostly Americans, Brits, and Canadians who were also employees of Red Sea Management. The talk often involved stocks and trades, a specialized discourse which was lost on my multiple-English-degreed self. My fiction teemed with surfers, magical realism, and colorful expats in dangerous situations.
By late August we had been in Costa Rica eight months, but the honeymoon was over. The “green season” brought dark skies and monsoon rains. With limited Spanish and no car, I was feeling housebound. The dinner parties, expats spewing conspiracy theories about America, and toucans were all getting old; my brain felt like it was turning into the mangoes we bought at the Sunday market. Even the weekend jaunts we took to the tourist sites weren’t stimulating enough. One of the few arguments of our relationship occurred when I had an upcoming trip to Boston to visit my sister, and I didn’t want to book the return. As a compromise, Babu offered to property hunt in New Orleans with my dad. We both had dreamed of one day living there.
I was outside a Legal Sea Foods when I received the call. “I hope you’re sitting down,” my father said. He and Babu had just met up that morning in the French Quarter. My older man had been arrested in the hotel lobby by the FBI, in the company of my father, on charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud. Babu’s boss, whom I had always sought out for lively conversations at company parties, was arrested the same day at JFK airport with four passports in his possession.
Next to illness or death, few tragedies can compare to your loved one spending his nights in the federal pod of the Orleans Parish Prison (one of the nation’s worst jails, by the way). You feel anger and deception for the life you were living, which now turns out to be a lie, grief for what is forever tarnished. But unlike death or sickness, what makes the loss worse is the lack of empathy from friends and family. My own railed at me for not immediately breaking up with him, but worst was the shame in what is left unspoken—knowing, as you try to come to terms with it yourself, that people are also blaming you. My boyfriend was caught in an international FBI sting, bribing brokers during the day in a tax-evading, stock-scamming firm—with a prior record. Shouldn’t I have known?
My answer to all of the above is no. I had no reason to believe his employment in Costa Rica was a lie. I did not know I had attended his boss’s seder and kids’ soccer matches with international criminals, some of whom are probably still wanted by the FBI. And no, I was in far too much pain to break up with him, although the seed of our relationship’s decline was planted the day of his arrest.
He was out on bail the following week and picked me up at the airport. We had to arrange for our Costa Rican landlady to pack up our belongings in the rental house and ship them to Florida, since he no longer had a passport and I refused to go myself—my expat connections were now criminals lying low. I could not picture the dog, Marqueza, without tears—was anyone feeding her, or was she back on the street? I never got to tell her good-bye.
Months wore on and life struggled toward a strange new normal. I had been relying on Babu for support, but I was flung back to Florida with no job, the fall semester already underway. I set up a small writing-workshop business and focused on my stories, which were stronger than ever; I was sending them out and receiving my first acceptances. Babu was summoned to the southern district of New York to meet with the FBI, the case moving toward trial. And still I had not broken up with him. But our futures were naturally diverging, mine toward a literary career, his a giant question mark. As I planned to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference that summer, I thought, I don’t want to be sitting in the courtroom, a mafia wife. Black sunglasses aren’t that glamorous on me.
Nine months passed between the arrest and the breakup, the relationship a wild ride from the beginning. My family and I breathed a sigh of relief. I began my novel set in Latin America that September; I published three of the stories written in Costa Rica recently. Neither the story collection nor the novel would exist without the time spent there. But what is the price we pay for the adventures that may turn into great literature, and at what point does the price become too great? For I must have known, if only subconsciously, that dating someone with a past might very well lead to a dramatic and unfortunate future. But I took the risk anyway. I believe the stories generated were worth it—but I couldn't undertake a similar adventure again. Literary cannibalism is at best a fetish; eventually, life must come before art, and there’s a point where the writer must tell herself, No, I don’t need to jet somewhere, gamble with my bank account, or fraternize with questionable individuals in order to gain great material.
Writing can redeem naïveté. But beyond the page, I won’t be looking back much at the months I spent in the company of strays, scarlet macaws, and white-collar criminals.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction recently appeared in The Southern Review. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the Ragdale Foundation.