The girl’s lips glisten as she wraps them around the mini-sausage. Katrina hisses in my ear that some girls are so dumb that they think they can get their asses injected into their lips without it looking like ass-fat. I don’t bother to explain collagen and restalyne, which the doctors are currently pushing at our practice. I know she’ll only pretend to be interested, and today belongs to Katrina, who has finally talked me into coming to one of the work-related functions she claims to hate but always attends. She keeps finding excuses to introduce me so that she can say with careful emphasis each time, “This is my girlfriend, Sylvie.” Cue my smile and nod.
The barbecue flows over the lawn in waves of cheap, colorful plastic, of folding tables and chairs. Smoke billows off the grills while academics and their hangers-on gesture to each other with tall cups of watery frozen margarita or beer. Disposable paper streamers have been tossed around in the trees and on the tables; apparently the English faculty is able to explain whimsicality but not demonstrate it. Katrina leaves me by the chips and dip to attach herself to the group of co-workers encircling her boss, who, she told me once, has all the grace and intellect of a young Hemingway. She was irritated that I didn’t know whether this was a compliment.
People wander by, pausing for more salsa and forcing me to listen to random lines of conversation about changing admissions policies, students with no direction, and the new study abroad locations. I glance at the sky, hoping I look aloof rather than abandoned, and the sun blurs my vision. When I blink to clear the white spots, I see monkeys and mangos, rainforests and beaches, sunbathers and decomposing bodies. According to the news websites, today marks one week since the two girls on semester in Costa Rica disappeared. On TV this morning, the anchors looked polite and sad when they said there is no longer much hope, now that one half-empty backpack has been found. Still, with nothing as conclusive as blood or tissue, I’m sure the families are waiting, praying. And, a small comfort, but it is possible things happened naturally. The girls could have tried surfing without knowing about currents and riptides. In their pictures, they look sinewy and athletic, the type to take the ocean on, but you know what they say about appearances deceiving.
Besides, I’m sure it started out innocently, like I’ll tell my parents when I want their support. I’m sure the girls just wanted to look for a new spot, for something distant and uncharted, not in the standard guidebooks. Maybe they got tired of explaining themselves to the others on their trip, in their hotel, on the buses, in their lives. One of them probably insisted on the adventure while the other was more cautious because that’s often how it is; one person lags behind. Then the strange becomes familiar, and you catch up, you think it’s going to be okay. After all, Costa Rica is supposed to be a safe country. That’s why there’s no way to see it coming. That’s why it’s so shocking when you find out it’s not.
“This is my girlfriend, Sylvie,” I hear Katrina say at my elbow. One of her co-workers is standing by, a sleek and chubby older woman with a streak of ketchup on the side of her mouth, eyes feverish and eager to examine me, the exotic creature, up close.
“I’m her girlfriend, Sylvie.” I hold out my hand to this stranger, but I look at Katrina, who keeps her aggressive public smile tilted away from me. I feel like I’m at the edge of the ocean. I feel like I’m about to dive in.