by Matt McGowan   The way people talk about it just makes it worse. Taboo but titillating. Cheap excitement at the expense of others. Voyeurism dressed up as outrage.The husbands decided to go golfing. Even mine, who I know for fact hates golf. He just wanted to hang out with his buddies all day, drink beer and smoke cigars. And that’s fine. But not me. The thought of riding around in one of those silly carts out here in the hot sun sounded like a little slice of hell.

So, fine. We spend enough time together anyway.I felt guilty for a while, because I was the one who thought of an alternative excursion. But really, except for one small problem, just a minor blemish on an otherwise perfect day, everything worked out just fine. Ask my girlfriends; I think they’ll agree.

I went online and found an inland area known for white-water rafting. The central highlands, equidistant from the coasts, a half-dozen rivers cascaded down the western slope of a fifty-mile-long range bookended by volcanoes, one still active. The only downside was distance. So we left the villa early, at 6:30, and drove eighty-five miles to Canas, a small town at the base of Volcan Rincon de la Vieja.

When we reached the outfitter at 8:45, they were loaded up and waiting for us. Twenty-five tourists and five guides packed into an old military transport vehicle. The guides stacked five white-water inflatables – the tough kind with thick rubber lining – on a trailer and piled a mountain of gear – paddles, life jackets and helmets – in the back of the vehicle. After two miles on the main highway, we turned onto an unpaved road, the beginning of a slow and rough trek up the side of the range. When the clouds separated and the trees thinned, we glimpsed wisps of smoke rising up out of Rincon.

Daniel, the lead guide, was young and outgoing and had a beautiful smile. Like the rest of the guides, he did not wear a shirt. With his lean frame, vivacious personality and competent English, Daniel was a one-man public-relations machine.

There is a picture of us at the launch. Daniel is buoyant, smiling from the Gulf to the Pacific, his arms spread out and resting on Jane and Maura’s shoulders. I am standing on the other side of Jane. Raye and Gretchen are leaning against Maura. We are tall and good-looking. Thirty feet to our right, down a steep, rocky grade, El Rio Corobici is roaring so loud that we have to yell at each other to be heard.

Soon after this photo was taken, Daniel announced that we were his “friends,” meaning we would go in his raft. We were happy about this, because Daniel was pretty and fun to be around.

But now I have mixed feelings about Daniel. From the moment we stepped into the raft, shooting through the rapids and ricocheting off boulders like a pinball, he provided an exhilarating experience without compromising our safety. And I’ll be honest, the way his muscles flexed when he worked that paddle was also a thrill. I can still hear him, “Okay, my friends, paddle on the right!”

But his hot-dogging and flirting prevented us from seeing wildlife. (This is just a small thing, nothing I would ever put on an evaluation.) We were too busy trying to keep our balance and not get thrown off the raft. Later, when I heard people talking about seeing a nest of baby howler monkeys, I was more than a bit frustrated.After lunch at the outfitter – grilled dorado, black beans and rice – we headed back to the coast. I felt good driving, physically tired but replenished, having moved my body and spent all morning outside. I wasn’t keen on being trapped a metal box for the next two-and-half hours, but I looked forward to the comfort of our villa, a hot shower and then drinks by the pool with friends.

At Liberia, where our plane landed four days ago, we turned left and continued west, toward the coastal range. My friends talked, going over the highlights of the trip, but soon they grew tired. I assured them I was okay to drive.

While they napped, I enjoyed the peace and quiet. At one point, after they’d been asleep for twenty minutes, I worried I’d gotten off-track, that perhaps I’d taken a wrong turn. But then I recognized two things – a bright orange building and an enormous Banyan tree with its wavy, fibrous roots above the ground – and I knew we were on the correct road.

I turned right at the big Chevron south of Belen. Now the mountains. The road narrowed and there many curves. Poor conditions for car-sleeping. One by one, my girlfriends started to wake up. I heard a yawn from the back seat. It was a drawn-out, dramatic affair with lots of stretching and a lion’s roar at the end. Then there was soft mumbling and laughter. These were sweet sounds, made by close friends, people who cared about each other.

Maura, slumped in the passenger seat next to me, held out. Her snoring made us laugh. It started out as labored breathing, rising up to something like mild choking before returning to the regular stuttered breathing. But it intensified again, and she gulped for air, peaking finally in a flurry of staccato snorts. We tried not let our giggling wake her. She took care of that herself after yet another slow build-up and violent burst.

“Oh gawd,” she said, wiping drool from the corner of her mouth.

The women roared.

When they calmed down, Gretchen announced that she needed coffee.

How spoiled we are. Starbucks on every corner. We settled for a place called Wendy’s SuperO, a grocery store on the main road, one block off the square in Filadelphia. We were now forty-five miles from the coast.

There wasn’t a market like this in Potrero, the town nearest our villa. My friends were excited about purchasing a few items.

Before we reached the store, there’d been a flurry of texts with the husbands. They had finished golfing and were planning dinner. They said they’d grill if we picked up steaks.  Inside Wendy’s, I saw a short, stocky man standing at the end of a cashier station. He grinned as we walked past the lines and made our way deeper into the store. It was a strange smile, the mouth held open, almost gaping, as if he couldn’t breathe through his nose and was struggling to get enough oxygen. He had no teeth and his faded, half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt barely covered a prodigious gut, big as a rubber exercise ball. Cutoffs and filthy flip-flops completed his ensemble.

Not your typical Walmart greeter, but that’s exactly what I thought he was. Why not? I was in a foreign country with different customs and a much smaller economy. Why wouldn’t a proprietor pay this poor soul minimum wage to say hola and buenos dias all day?

But he didn’t.

I did. I was trying to be friendly, so I made eye contact and said hello in Spanish. I looked right at him and said it. But he didn’t say anything. He just kept smiling.

I noticed something else. His eyes. They were glassy, like frog eggs.

Though poorly lit and less tidy than American supermarkets, Wendy’s SuperO (every time someone mentioned the name – and it would be mentioned many times that evening – I couldn’t help thinking of Wendy O, the Plasmatics singer who wore Band-Aids over her nipples) catered to Yankee tourists going back and forth between the Pacific Coast and central highlands. Something about being marketed to as an affluent, never-hungry gringa in a poor, third-world country depressed me. I had to get out of there, and did, after giving Maura a twenty and making up an excuse.

While my friends were buying steaks, limes, mangoes, gin, rum, containers of sunscreen and refrigerated bottles of coffee, I waited in the car. I hadn’t talked to my kids for two days, so I checked my phone to see if they had called. They hadn’t. But I knew they were okay; I just missed them.

I complain about the rudeness of others – my children and students, staring at their phones when they should be participating real human behavior, like saying hello or cleaning up after dinner. Yet that’s what I was doing, mired in brain-candy crumbs that did nothing to improve my life, when my friends returned to the car. Worse, just like my kids, I couldn’t let go of the stupid device, even after my friends entered the car. This I remember: When I heard them coming, I thought I had plenty of time, at least three more minutes to read e-mails while they loaded groceries and got situated in the Land Cruiser.

They were talking about scheduling and the difficulties of managing kids’ extra-curricular activities. This mundane conversation helped me rationalize the obsessive behavior, and I continued staring at the phone until long after they had latched their seatbelts.

They were patient. While waiting, they continued talking and didn’t ask why we hadn’t left the parking lot. Perhaps they had done this too and now accepted it as the new cultural norm.

But if I had been paying close attention, I would have noticed that their conversation ended. Abruptly, as if a tornado siren started blaring. There were none of the usual trimmings – a laugh or a kind word of affirmation.

Then Maura said my name. The way she uttered it, carefully enunciating each syllable and almost whispering, got my attention. But my brain didn’t function properly. I was slow and tone deaf. Had I not been, I would have looked at her, which was exactly what she was trying to get me to do.

“Are we ready?” I said.

I turned the ignition key. The engine fired up and I switched on the air-conditioning. 

Behind Maura, on the passenger side, Gretchen cleared her throat. “Can we go now?” She started rolling up her window. I could hear the whine of its electric motor.

She and the other two women in the back fidgeted. I heard grumbling as I fiddled with dashboard knobs. Then Maura said my name again. This time, her tone jarred me out of the fog.

I turned. We made eye contact. She raised her brow, holding it there, eyes opened wide. Then she jerked her head toward the window.He was a short man, barely five-and-a-half-feet tall. His hair was greasy and starting to thin. Maverick wisps stood upright here and there and took off willy-nilly, like Kramer on Seinfeld. His splotchy skin hated the sunlight. Patches of it looked hot and angry with infection. He was looking at us, but his eyes were faraway. Glassy and crossed. His mouth was open, as it had been inside the store, but this time I detected a faint sneer, the slightest lift of his upper lip on the right side. The sunlight made his shirt looked even more faded.

He was six feet from the car.

For a second, I thought he was going to say something, maybe ask a question. But he didn’t. Nor did he move.

I don’t know why I waited. What kept me from leaving the parking lot? The spectacle, I guess.

He swayed forward and his head twitched. His chin and cheeks displayed random islands of gray mixed in with black stubble.

Did he need help? I almost asked, but before I could, he stepped forward, closer to the car. His chest seemed to hurl forward when he did this, like the arm of catapult. His legs dragged behind. I heard gravel crunching under his feet.

The man took another step toward the car. Now I could not see below his waist. He stopped there, only four feet from Maura’s door. Swayed like he was drunk.

Until then, his arms had been at his side, resting on the flanks of his belly. Now he drew them in, closer to the center of his body. I saw his shoulders and arms moving, but I could not see his hands.
Gretchen could. “Oh shit…”

Behind me, Jane unlatched her seatbelt and leaned across Raye and Gretchen to look out the window. She started laughing. It was strangely loud, the hacking and fiendish bark of a teenager.

“What?” I said.

“Go!” commanded Maura.

“What is it?” I said. “What’s he doing?”

Maura stiffened. She turned away from the window. She dug her heels into the floorboard and pinned her shoulders against the seat.

“He’s… he’s pulling it OUT, is what. Let’s go!”

I slid my foot off the brake and the Land Cruiser rolled backwards. I hadn’t looked behind us or used the mirrors. We were still rolling when I heard a car honk.

I stomped the brake. The Land Cruiser slammed to a stop. As it rocked back and forth, the women gasped and tried to catch their breath, and the man stood there holding his penis. Seeing this, Jane lost control, laughing and kicking the back of my seat. The others were quiet as a cairn.   

I felt guilty. The excursion was my idea, and the juvenile addiction to my smartphone had put my friends in a vulnerable position. How could I be so careless? I apologized, and they assured me that everything was okay. 

Eventually I forgave myself. When I did, I discovered a deeper sentiment: sadness. That guy was mentally disabled, and I doubt there were any social services to help him. Then I thought, what would that be like, for your brain to work that way, the wrong way, but to still want sex, like everyone else. Sometimes biology is cruel.

But I didn’t experience this feeling, this sadness, until much later, days, in fact, after that night’s drunken review of day. We were at the villa, gathered around a long, rectangular coffee table. We were playing a homemade version of Charades. It was late, and we’d been drinking for hours. The game held our attention, but the major event of the day just kept resurfacing.

Maybe Jane was right. On one level, it was kind of funny.

During a break in the game, she stood up to go to the kitchen, as her husband made a waggish comment about the man’s romantic strategy and chances for success. Hearing this, Jane stopped. She turned and faced the group. I don’t remember what she did to get our attention, but whatever it was, it worked.

“Yeah, you gotta wonder how that’s workin’ for him,” she said. “I mean, what would he’ve done if I’d gotten out of the car and…” She wobbled, shifting her weight from hip to hip and then pointing her finger at the ceiling and twirling it. “…‘All right, buddy,’” she said. “’you know what, let’s just do this!’”

When we finished laughing, my husband asked, “Was anyone else outside?”

“No,” said Gretchen.

Maura was shaking her head. “Nope. Nobody.”

“Well, you were pretty lucky,” said Hank, Gretchen’s husband.

Everyone nodded in agreement. I knew what Hank meant, that it could have been worse, and that was true. But I didn’t feel lucky. At that moment, I didn’t feel anything. Not angry, not scared, certainly not violated. Mainly I just felt drunk.

I wondered about my girlfriends. Did they feel lucky? I checked. I looked at all of them, but they weren’t looking back at me. They were staring at the table or gulping gin.   About the Author:MattMatt McGowan grew up in southwest Missouri and attended the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Deep South MagazineConcho River ReviewHawaii Pacific ReviewArkansas Review and others. He lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.