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Original artwork by Caspian Samuel

Greetings from Costa Rica


Brittany Ackerman
Nonfiction

In 2015, I receive a comment on my blog from an old schoolmate named Lars Zeren.  

I’m not sure how he found my blog unless he had been Googling, but nonetheless, he’s found it.  Lars and I never had any classes together in high school. 

Lars leaves his email address in the comments, and I’m sad and lonely enough to write to him using my personal email.  I’m twenty-six and I live in Boca Raton.  I write to Lars even though I’m living with my graduate school boyfriend at the time.  I write to him even though I sit on the balcony of the apartment I share with my current boyfriend to do so.  I write while he is at work or while he’s asleep. 

I thank Lars for reaching out and tell him it’s good to hear from an old pal even though we weren’t really pals.  Lars writes back and tells me he is living in Costa Rica.  He explains that he owns a hotel and he’s doing extremely well for himself.  He sends along some of his own creative writing and asks for my feedback.  He trusts a real writer, he says.  I Google him and it surprisingly checks out that he does, in fact, own a hotel in Costa Rica.  There are even photos of him on the property: tan and with his hair grown long, worn in a ponytail.  He’s smiling in all the pictures, happy as can be.

There’s zero attraction to Lars, but something about the atmosphere of the email has me curious.  How can someone just move away and start over and be so happyI tried to do that with my first move to Los Angeles and it didn’t work.  How come it worked for Lars?  Really, the question is why him and not me?

*

My brother has never truly left home.  He didn’t go away for college, only traveled an hour south from Boca Raton to Miami to live in a dorm.  I remember that he came home almost every weekend for our mom to do his laundry, to tend to the anime figures he assembled and painted in his room, to be left alone in the farthest corner of the house.

I decided to go away for college to the Midwest.  Upon graduating, I immediately moved to Los Angeles for a job in PR.  I knew no one except for an on-again-off-again love, Carter.  Carter lived in Venice and I traversed between our two apartments for almost a year until I lost my job and moved back to Florida.  But California has felt more like home to me than any other place.  I see home as somewhere that I can fully and truly be myself, where I can plant my roots and have the freedom to grow.

This year, my brother and I make a pact.  I no longer want to hear about his drug use—past, present, or future, and he requests that I not mention any part of his criminal record.  That leaves our emotional troubles on the table, wide open.

*

The Lernean Hydra was said to have nine heads, but the numbers vary story to story.  In ancient paintings and sculpture, the hydra is hideous, horrifying.  A long body slithers with heads shooting forth in every direction, the eyes on each head gleaming.  Sometimes there are ravenous tongues, sometimes fangs, sometimes horns.  The Hydra is depicted green in graphic design art, or cast in black and white as it moves between shadows, most often though, in the dried blood color of rusted clay.  

Carter liked when I told him stories from Greek myth.  But he liked when I simplified them, used my own language to tell each tale.  It helped him fall asleep, it helped to calm and comfort him.  We both suffered from great anxiety, but I felt that his anxiety eclipsed mine, that I had to feign being okay so I could be with him.

I brushed my fingers through his hair and recounted Theseus and the Minotaur, Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche, Pandora’s Box.  I told him stories of fate and love and fear and power and overcoming great obstacles.  His favorite were any stories about etymology, how something came to be.  He loved when a character was cast into the stars to remain forever celestial.  Ironic, since our own story did not become one that would stand the test of time.

*

In 2012, I drive home from Carter’s place in Venice and take the I-10 East to Robertson.  I listen to St. Vincent’s song about not wanting to be a cheerleader and it’s too early to play my music as loud as I do, but I need its volume to distract my mind.  I’ve heard of June gloom, but it’s only April and the clouds above are so tightly stuck together, no sunlight gets through.  I pull over at a bagel place I’ve never seen before and there are only women inside.  A young girl tends to the coffee machines and I order one, black.  I’m twenty-three and feel like my whole life is behind me somehow, like every time I drive from East to West and back I’m shortening my thread of life confusing the fates as they try to pull each end taut.  The girl can tell something is wrong and she gives me the coffee for free.  I think maybe it’s her mother at the register, or an older sister.  They all look the same; long, black hair, petite frames, thin fingers.  Each woman has a scarf wrapped around her neck and I admire how put together they all look.  I make a mental note to wear more scarves.

*

Following the initial comment and email exchange in 2015, Lars sends me an article he wrote about the benefits of cacao.  In the article, he questions whether cacao is, in fact, a super-food, or perhaps a slow-creeping and addictive poison.  He sends me a self-reflection titled “Thank You,” which is essentially a thank you letter to himself.  He sends a poem called “To the Great Dark Brotherhood,” and I can’t figure out what it’s about.  There’s a line, it has to be this way or else, and it frightens me.  I write back and thank him for the exchange, for a chance to read his work.  I compliment his breadth of knowledge on holistic healing and his introspection of “dark forces” that loom in his mind, his spirit.  It’s the day after Christmas and I feel simultaneously magnetized and repelled from Florida. 

I feel the earth sinking below my feet and a pull from the heavens telling me to get out, go.

I wish Lars a happy, healthy New Year.  

*

Hera raised the Hydra to kill Hercules.  Eurystheus, King of Tiryns, sent Hercules on a mission to slay the beast as part of his ten labors.  I teach the Twelve Labors of Hercules in my Archetypal Psychology class, and it’s common for my students to be surprised that there were only supposed to be ten labors.  Eurystheus discounted the feat where Hercules did, in fact, slay the Hydra, as well as the cleaning of the Augean stables, adding two more labors to his undertaking.

In modern English, calling someone hydra-headed or being in a situation that is hydra-like can mean that a multifarious evil is at hand, not to be overcome by a single effort. 

*

In the summer of 2016, I move back to Los Angeles and get a job at a sports bar in Hollywood.  I often work the night shift on weekends: 8:00pm-3:00am.  One night, I get out early and call my dealer who lives in Hollywood.  I drive to his place and we smoke a giant blunt together outside his apartment.  One of his neighbors is moving and carries desks and chairs and paintings out of the complex.  It’s freaking my dealer out a bit, and me too, to be honest.  We head inside and he asks if I want to lay in bed with him and I do because I’m tired and high.  I want to sleep, but I don’t want to wake up in Hollywood.

I lay in my dealer’s bed and he starts to put the moves on me and I sit up, put my shoes on, and leave.  I can barely see while I drive, the cloudy haze of being high and the lack of light on the freeway makes everything feel like a dark hole I’m climbing into.  I want something bad to happen to me, to veer off the road and end it quick like how it happens to people on the news.  I want to die.  I don’t want to stick it out anymore, and I tell myself if I make it home, I’d take a fistful of painkillers.  Mixing those with what I’d had to drink during my shift, plus weed, I’m hoping it will do what I want it to.

I pull into my parking spot in the garage and creep silently into the house.  My roommate is fast asleep with his door shut and I go to the bathroom and take the fistful of pills.  I get into bed in all my clothes and shut off my phone.  I close my eyes and cry myself to sleep.

To my surprise, I wake up the next day around noon.  I stay in bed for a whole hour just trying to figure out what the fuck happened.  I hear my roommate cooking and then showering.  I hear him leave our apartment.  I stay quiet and make myself small in bed, trying to hold onto the feeling of not existing a bit longer.  I charge my phone and see I only have one missed text and call from my mom.  

Hours later, I stand outside of Walmart and call Carter.  We’ve been talking some lately.  He was mad that I didn’t tell him I was going to France for a writing workshop earlier this summer, before I came back to LA, and that he had to find out about my trip through Instagram.  He’s living in South Carolina with his stepmom and hasn’t really been seeing anyone.  He knows that I have, but I call him anyway.

Carter answers on the first ring and I walk around the side of the building to smoke a cigarette.  He can tell I’m smoking and he says he’s going to have one too, so it’s like we’re having one together.  I tell him what happened and he says I’m a fucking idiot.  

“You can end up brain dead when you do shit like that,” he tells me.  

“I don’t care,” I say back.  

“Yes, you do.  What kind of life is that?” 

“What kind of life is this?”

The next day, Carter texts me that I can’t call him anymore.  He’s started seeing someone and he doesn’t want his phone going off when they sleep together in the same bed.  He doesn’t want my name to light up and have to explain things.  He’s done with all that.  He’s really giving this new girl a chance so he doesn’t blow it.  I don’t respond to his message.  I delete and block and erase him from memory as best as I can.

*

Lars emails me again in March of 2016, springtime.  He writes in list format reasons why he’s never pursued his writing seriously, how it’s intended to be an intimate experience for a select group of people in his life.   He calls himself a “curious jaguar.” He says, “Give me an idea of how your writing flows.”  He tells me he will be back in South Florida in May; wonders if we can get together.  He imagines our time together, that we might, “Have a night on the town, eat dinner and catch up, venture into nature and see what kind of ideas are invoked for some new writings! Honestly I feel like no matter what we do, we would love it. In life it isn’t always about what we are doing that invokes the greatest joy.”  His email continues, “Sometimes it can be as simple as who we are with.”  He apologizes for the lapse in time since he last wrote.  His resort is at 93% occupancy for the past few months.  He’s exhausted.  “I think about you though,” he writes.

He signs the email “Pura Vida, Lars.”

*

My brother meets me for a drink at the restaurant where I’m working.  It’s the summer of 2012 and I’ve just moved back to Florida from California.  There’s an extra room in our parents’ condo that has cycled between housing each of us at different times.  He moved out just a few months ago to live with his long-time girlfriend in Miami.  He drives up and meets me after my shift is over, but I still wear my black button-down shirt and black slacks with my non-slip shoes.  I throw my apron on the back of a chair and sit at the bar next to him.  He smokes a cigarette and I order a Bud Light.  “Do you want a beer?” I ask and he declines, orders a Red Bull instead.  I wonder if it’s because he’s not drinking.  Or maybe he doesn’t want me, his little sister, to pay for him.  Or he just doesn’t want to drink with me, the two of us doing it together.  We can’t both be struggling.  We can’t both be depressed.  But we are.

My brother doesn’t speak to me or anyone that night and I feel it’s something personal.  I’ve slept with two of the waiters at this restaurant and they both hate each other except for that one sells the other one weed.  The bartender pours me a shot without asking and motions to see if my brother would like one, but he doesn’t.  I wave it away and take mine quickly.  It’s a lemon drop and I like the sweetness of it.  My brother tells me that in a few weeks there’s going to be a super moon visible at night, around 11:00 PM.  I think ahead in the calendar of my mind and tell him I usually work Saturday nights and he tells me to go outside if I can, the parking lot would be best, somewhere there are no streetlights or headlights.  A calm, dark place.  

My brother leaves and I stay and the after-hours work drinking moves to a bar in Mizner Park and I end up going home with the waiter who buys weed from the one who sells and after we fuck he says he’s going back out to meet his friends.  I can’t sleep, and I watch TV alone in his bed.  I sit naked in the cold sheets and shuffle through the channels, the numbers ascending without rhyme or reason: 3, 5, 15, 27, 39, 42, 58, and on, and on.  

*

I sometimes dream I am screaming.  I scream so loud my throat becomes something else.  The sound erupting is voracious, spurting out in all directions.  The sound engulfs my body and I become the scream. 

In the dream, it feels like I have melted away from myself.  I dream I am a giant scream, the loudest noise, the only noise on Earth.

*

I write back to Lars a few days later.  I tell him it’s great that the hotel has been so busy.  I tell him I appreciate his emails, everything he’s said.  I tell him I should be around in May, that my grad school boyfriend and I broke up, but I don’t tell him it wasn’t mutual, that I am so completely heartbroken, still, months later.  I say something about scuba diving and how lonely I am, how it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean, sinking lower and lower every day.  “I need a good experience, you know?” I say.  “I want adventure.”  I tell him I’m meeting with a professor from my graduate program, the program I graduated from almost a year ago, that I want to focus on myself and figure out what to do when my teaching job ends in June.  “I’m at a crossroads with my career,” I write.  “The past few months have been hard, but I think it’ll work out how it’s supposed to.  I have trouble believing sometimes.”

*

I spend hours at the West Side Pavilion.  I go without food for as long as possible.  I get lost in H&M, Forever XXI, a store called ANGL that I’m not sure is supposed to imply the word “angel” or “angle,” like angles of poses.  Angel like the angel and devil.

It’s the spring of 2012 and I wait to see if Carter will call me.  If he does, I’ll drop everything and go straight home, shower, shave my whole body, do my hair and makeup, pack a bag and drive to his place.  I stop in a hair salon on the third floor of the mall because they have a sign outside, Hair feathers $5 each.  I go in and they have someone who can do them right away.  I choose four for $20, all pink and white, and let the hairdresser decide where to place each one.  When I leave the salon, I have a missed call and a text.  Just come over when you can it reads and it’s a whirlwind getting back to my car in the underground parking lot.  It’s a blur racing down Westwood Boulevard, driving up the windy road and pulling into my own underground lot.  I get ready, do all the things.

I get another text message right before I head out the door: Sorry, I made other plans, maybe tomorrow.

*

It does something to me—to see my brother’s mug shot.

*

I dream of three men coming into my kitchen to try and kill me.  They are part-man, part- octopus.  Their arms are tentacles.  I grab a knife and begin slicing them off but they only grow back larger and double in each place I cut.  I don’t remember the end of the dream, only that at a certain point, I had stopped trying so hard to survive.

*

Lars writes again a few days later.  He says he sees me, feels me, would like to “honor me deeply.”  Lars invites me to Costa Rica to stay at his hotel.   He says I deserve to feel good, that I am a beautiful person in so many ways and that he feels a “sincere and deep attraction” to my soul.

I’m not sure what to believe anymore.  I exist in a state of waiting to see if my graduate school boyfriend will want to get back together with me, will ask me to move back into his apartment where I had been living for the past six months.  Before that, I had frequented his bed nightly for the last two and a half years.  His space had become mine; a shared lodging.  I knew how to get his mail and how to unlock the tricky gate at the pool and how to jimmy open the dryer when it got stuck, which it did often.

I’m not sure what to believe, because at this point I have no sense of self.  At a therapy appointment to be put on antidepressants, my psychiatrist asked me what my hobbies were and I couldn’t give him even one.  

I wonder if Lars remembers that I won every single academic award in sixth grade.   Did he know that I was so embarrassed being called on stage each time, collecting the certificates, holding them in my hands and then slipping them underneath my seat to hide them?  Does he remember when I got my belly button pierced in eighth grade and showed it off to anyone who would look?  What about the baby blue eyeliner that I used to wear?  Does he remember that version of me?  Can he really know me now?  Can he know me when I don’t even know myself?

Lars says that I’ve helped him rekindle his love for writing, that I’ve been an inspiration to him as he’s continued to read my blog.  He admits that while he doesn’t quite understand what I’m going through, he wishes to be a listening ear and an open heart.   

He suggests Skype or a phone call.  He makes a list of activities I’d enjoy if I am to take him up on his offer.  He tells me he, too, can use the vacation.  The list is a series of promises:

1) Best rates in all of Costa Rica

2) Opportunity to go on any tour for free with me considering I am a hotel owner

3) Facilitated travel (I would be more then happy to have myself or my private chauffeur pick you up at the airport)

4) The best food ever

5) Piña Coladas from my garden

6) Yoga and Spiritual Healing in the most virgin of natures

7) Emotional healing and purging to really bring in a new beginning for YOU. (Self love class hehe)

8) Me wanting to spoil you and treat you like a Goddess/Queen in a liberating, not smothering way

He leaves his Skype username and a local phone number where I can reach him.  He says he’s looking forward to it.

*

The waiter who sells weed finds out about the other and won’t speak to me.  I park outside his house but he won’t come out.  He used to bring me Monster energy drinks to work.  He used to pick up my slack when I was falling behind at my tables.  I call him on repeat until he texts me back.  He writes, I wish you hadn’t lied so we could at least still be friends.

*

My mom doesn’t understand how I got through the things I did.  She’s talking about Carter.  She’s talking about 2011-2012 when I lived in Los Angeles, first Westwood, then Beverly Grove, before moving back to Florida. 

My mom wonders if she should have been more involved, if she could have helped, been there for me more so than she was.  “But you helped pay my rent,” I say.  “But you visited and cleaned my apartment,” I say.  “But you answered all my phone calls and listened to me cry.”

I remember a day I was particularly out of it.  I was wandering down Robertson and had just charged $500+ to my credit card at Kitson.  Carter called and asked if I had a recipe for apple pie because he was having a party but I wasn’t invited and I called my mom angry and confused and she just told me to stop because she had just moved into a new apartment with my dad and she wanted to go for a walk on the beach and enjoy herself.  I remember stopping in my tracks on the sidewalk and looking at a white wall when she said it.  I remembered that pure white is the absence of color, how sometimes people mix it up with black and think that black is the absence, the void.  Or that white lacks color while black is the amalgamation of all colors combined.  But my brother once told me that black is the absence of light.  When nearly all light is reflected, you’ll see white.  When no light is reflected, you’ll see black.  Black is not a color at all, but a black object will absorb all colors on the visible spectrum and reflect none of them back to the eyes.  

Pure black can exist in nature without any light at all.

*

The thing about the Hydra was that each time Hercules shot his arrows to decapitate one of its nine heads, two grew back in its place.   Hercules had his nephew, Iolaus, with him to help cauterize each neck as he sliced away.  This is what made the labor a failed one—outside help.  Because Hercules had assistance, he was assigned another in its place.  Like the Hydra’s form, Hercules’s fate was parallel.  Each time he conquered one feat, it seemed as if another task was given.  Shit just would not let up.  Hercules felt like he couldn’t get a break, but he had to keep going anyway.  He had no choice.

Hercules had to complete the labors, in short,  because of Hera’s jealousy and anger.  Zeus had been unfaithful to Hera, as he had been many times before.  Hercules was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene.  

Hera spent a long time trying to kill Hercules.  When he ultimately made it into adulthood, she cast a spell upon him to make him temporarily go mad, which caused him to murder his family.  When he came to, guilty and heartbroken, Hercules tracked down Apollo, the god of truth and healing, and begged to be punished for his sins.

He begged.

*

I respond to Lars and clarify that I’m not ready to get into another relationship.  I thank him for his compassion and understanding.  I explain that I need to be single for a while, work on myself, not get involved with anyone romantically anytime soon.  I say that I really need friends and good people in my life right now.  I want to be honest with him and not have this move forward any more than it already has.  I can only offer Lars my friendship, if even that.

Lars responds a few hours later that he went through a bad breakup before he left the US for Costa Rica.  Suddenly, he now understands my pain.  He writes, “I wish not to tamper with your growth for a selfish romantic desire.  I do wish more then anything to be a warrior of a friend to you in a time that you may need it most.”  He doesn’t deny his attraction to me, but defends it as being more than romantic.  It’s a “controlled attraction” to my “beautiful mind and soul.”  He wishes to usher me into a paradise that will tattoo my heart with joy.

“The best thing I did for myself when I liberated myself from my old relationship, was to claim my roots again in self love. Somebody else was my everything…and so when she left, I was left with what seemed to be nothing,” Lars writes.

Lars concludes that this breakup was the biggest blessing of his life; it’s what led him to finally flee the US for Costa Rica and become liberated.  “That’s the dangerous thing about societal love….its painful and it also distorts and fogs our consciousness instead of liberating it. Vicious cycles of subconscious behavior start eating away at one-another.”

He concludes by telling me to trust my heart, silence my mind, and breathe in deep.  “Don’t think, fly.  Pura Vida and sunshine.”

*

My anxiety has gotten so bad that when I have a “fit,” I don’t make sense to anyone, not even myself.  Sometimes doctors call it brain fog, or panic mode.  Episodes.  I feel myself repeating things to my therapist every week, how difficult the anxiety is, how challenging it is to stop and recognize the negative thoughts, how it doesn’t feel like it’s a choice.

Last summer, I had a depression that lasted three months, with bouts of anxiety so bad, I found myself in a place again of not wanting to exist.  After yet another evaluation with yet another psychiatrist, the doctor told me she didn’t think I needed to be on medication.  She thought I could get by with intensive cognitive behavioral therapy.  I nodded my head and felt both relief and sadness at once, that there was no quick fix for this, no easy answer, no take this pill and swallow and be happy.

How many labors until I can untangle these invisible threads of pain I cling to?  I wish I wasn’t tied to them. 

I wish I could rid myself of this ordeal, find the road back, seize an elixir, be cast among the stars, no longer a burden but a shimmering glow above. 

*

Hello Brittany!

I hope this email finds you well today. 

How is your emotional and spiritual healing coming along? Remember you are never alone in this world. You are blessed and highly favored. Don’t ever forget that. For when we forget how blessed we are, our reality and perception thereof begins to follow right after. You are a beautiful being with so much to offer this world! Don’t hermit for too long! You are so loved <3

Pura Vida,

Lars

I reply that I’m busy with work, that I just started writing for a local paper and have been “writing up a storm.”  I tell him I have to go to an appointment and wish him my best.  He doesn’t write back.

*

My first summer in Los Angeles, 2012, Carter doesn’t want to spend July 4th with me, so I call a girl, Kat, I had met only a week prior.  She’s fun and kind and I know she’s going to spend the holiday with her sister in Newport Beach.  She answers and says I can come.  I drive to Newport early in the morning and get to her sister’s apartment before anyone else is up.  Kat helps me get ready for the day and lets me borrow clothes and makeup.  She shows me how to double knot hair tinsel so it’ll stay in for weeks.  Both of our heads of hair will glisten in the sun and people will wonder what kind of magic we are.

We take bomb-pop shots that are red, white, and blue and we bar hop all afternoon into the evening.  Kat says I need to take lots of pictures to make Carter jealous.  She helps me pose and lets me borrow her sunglasses and we go the whole day without eating, only drinking shots and cocktails and beers.  We end up at an Italian restaurant with her sister and her friends at the end of the night and I try calling Carter in the bathroom.  He doesn’t answer, and Kat says I have to really have fun without him and then he’ll want me.  

Instead of staying the night like I’d planned, I leave Kat’s sister’s house around midnight and drive back home to Westwood.  It only takes forty-five minutes because the roads are completely empty.  Stray fireworks go off in the sky and the next part of my life comes into view.  I will stay here until I can’t and then I’ll leave.  I’ll get over Carter, no matter what it takes.  I’ll do something worthwhile.  Then, I’ll come back and make this place my own.  It’s so clear, like all I have to do is live it out.

*

A golden sword was used by Hercules to slice off the Hydra’s final, immortal head.   Hercules dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s poisonous blood and was able to utilize this power later on in his adventures and misadventures.  

The poisonous blood helped to kill other such foes as the Stymphalian Birds, the giant Geryon, and the centaur Nessus, whom ultimately caused Hercules’s demise.  The centaur had convinced Hercules’s new wife, Deianira, to take some of his blood in case she ever needed to woo her husband.  She thought the blood to be a love potion, not a poison.

Deianara smeared Hercules’s infamous lion skin shirt with centaur blood and when Hercules donned the toxic shirt, the poison burned him to the point where he threw himself upon his own funeral pyre.  Deianara, too, committed suicide upon realizing the consequence of her actions.  Some stories say she died by sword, others say she hung herself with rope.

Although the mortal being of Hercules perished, Zeus took Hercules’s god-half back to Olympus, his original home.  There, he made amends to Hera and lived on as a god and a legend.  

He was not able to reconcile his life on Earth.  

The Hydra remains the largest of the 88 modern constellations. 

*

I daydream of a movie version of my life.  An alternate reality; fiction.  My brother and I are in a car driving across the country.  There’s no destination, but it feels important and urgent, like a mission from one of his video games.  We chain smoke and eat at diners and I always order pancakes.  My brother takes a bite.  “Too sugary” he says.

We say the things we need to say, the road making it easier for us to do so.  Something about the freedom of cutting through each state, an imaginary ribbon sliced in two each time we cross.