In January 2012, a few days before my 30th birthday, I embarked on the first leg of a journey that took me to Central America.
My stepfather, who had been married to my late mother for almost 20 years, was already in the small surfing town where he was about to wed a 28-year-old former waitress he met on a business-ish trip to Costa Rica. Before I left, he gave me specific instructions to find the shuttle from the hotel he booked once I touched down in Managua. Do not use any public transportation, he said. Do not get in a cab. Just get in the van.
I peered out the tinted windows of my ride as we sped down nighttime highways, following open-air buses seemingly converted from military vehicles, and past single-story homes and pulperías with corrugated steel roofs. I would be staying in the luxury hotel where Howard Hughes hid out in the early '70s, or so my stepfather noted when he called to make sure I had successfully made the transition from airport to accommodations. He said to mention his name to Alejandro, the hotel bartender, who would “take care of me.”
“Also, don’t go outside,” he added. I ordered one glass of wine from Alejandro and went to bed.
My relationship with my erstwhile stepfather has long been complicated, not least because I stood in as my mom’s guardian and proxy to finalize their divorce in 2009, due to her ongoing mental and physical health issues. About six months after her sudden passing in 2010, I met my stepfather’s Nicaraguan girlfriend while they made the same touristy Christmastime rounds in New York that my parents and I did when I was growing up.
Less than a year later, they were engaged. Though I was initially going to be studying abroad at Oxford when my stepfather planned to throw off his not-really-a-widower’s weeds on a balmy beach, he and his fiancée changed the date of their wedding to ensure I could (and therefore would) be there.
I awoke in Managua to discover that I would be road-tripping across the country not just with with the bride, her brother, her 12-year-old daughter, and her seven-year-old niece, whom she was raising. Soon I found myself planted in the middle of their sedan’s backseat. (The bride’s daughter, a sweet girl delineated in the couple’s prenuptial agreement as not my stepfather’s responsibility, sat in the front.)
The alleged two-hour drive stretched to four-and-a-half, in part because we stopped at a sulfuric and steaming active volcano. My AP Spanish flagging, my stepfather’s fiancée politely talked to me a little in English. She seemed to think that she would be eventually moving to New York, despite my stepfather’s dislike for my current city and his wholesale dedication to his business grooming wealthy clients’ lawns in suburban New Jersey.
One of those clients was the best man at this wedding. A regular user of SugarDaddy.com and a millionaire Tea Partier given to proclamations like, “History will prove that George W. Bush was our country’s best president,” the best man is probably the single worst person I’ve met in real life. Naturally, he was there to greet us when we rolled into San Juan del Sur. It was one of several times he acted as an auxiliary pseudo-dad over the long weekend. After giving me an unwanted hug, he told me that he “admired” me for being there. I said thanks without asking why and walked away.
Upon checking in, I learned that instead of the private room my stepfather promised, I would be sharing a room with his fiancée and her two wards, on the bride’s last night of freedom. (This later came in handy when I became a de facto babysitter for four girls aged twelve and under while their mothers went out for a last-minute bachelorette party.) I had the sneaking feeling that, as a single, childless woman, I was being grouped in with the rest of the wedding party’s “kids,” though as the “oldest,” I was the only one with an apartment lease and a Master’s degree. It had already been half-facetiously established that the bride’s girls were now my “sisters.”
There had been some prior discussion of a rehearsal dinner, but I didn’t know when or where it was, or if I was invited. Eventually I was redirected to one of the many Señor Frog-like bar/restaurants lining the beachfront main drag. My stepfather was “relieved” to see me.
“Where were you? We were so worried!” his fiancée said. What?
While drinks and Applebee’s-quality appetizers circulated, I tried to talk to my stepfather in a quiet moment about his fiancée’s expectations for when she moved to America. He waved off my concerns and asked if I wanted to do a “blowjob” shot -- all the rage with his fiancé and her friends. Wanting to numb my relationship with the world as quickly as possible, I said sure. My stepfather ordered one from the put-upon waiter.
“Not one for you, though, she’s my daughter!” he joked. The waiter looked confused. I silently wished that my mom would come back and haunt the shit out of everyone there, but she would have been too nice. (“Katie, it’s not polite to haunt people you don’t know. Also, I don’t like you using that language.”)
The next day before the ceremony, most of the wedding party and guests trooped out to the beachfront en masse. I later went alone, and waded through the waves while thinking about how easy it is to construct memory, or wash it away. My presence as my stepfather’s daughter at this wedding apparently had been deemed important, but I wasn’t sure if it was to legitimize his new marriage, or to finally put to rest, for him, the ghosts of the old one, which I would continue to live with for years. He only seemed to notice me when I wasn’t there, and never asked, unlike several other people, if I was OK.
In fairness, he might have been too busy ironing the white and red Men’s Wearhouse tuxedo he strode out in as the sunset nuptial hour came nigh. His fiancée had chosen a wedding décor that seemed to splice a middle school Valentine’s Day dance with a surfing-themed quinceañera. Female guests managed to wear three-inch heels on the beach, and as the ceremony progressed, sunglasses vendors and Australian tourists crowded around the marital trellis. My stepfather interrupted the translated proceedings to tell a young boy in a sandy bathing suit to “vámanos!”
Not long after vows were exchanged in English and Spanish -- including a line from my stepfather about how he “once had a great love, and found love again” -- I was sitting at the head table, glass in hand. The bride, groom, and friends informally toasted each other, including me, “my new daughter, ha ha!” my stepfather’s now-wife said. I slowly sipped my champagne and contemplated how gauche it would be to punch a bride on her wedding day. She was glowingly happy, and appeared to genuinely believe in the promise of the future. I felt profoundly sad for nearly everyone involved.
During the bouquet toss, I hung back; the bride rushed up and asked, “Aww, don’t you want to get married?!”
“Not really!” I said, articulating something I hadn’t realized until that moment.
The next day I was, thank God, going home. Prohibited from taking a bus once again, I was instead packed with four other guests into the best man’s overloaded SUV to drive back to Managua. Having six people in the car attracted police attention within about an hour. One of the Nicaraguan passengers negotiated with the authorities, who demanded $10 a head in U.S. currency for us to be let go. The middle-aged American men made banana republic jokes when we got back on the road, perhaps not remembering that the young women they slung their arms around were from the same place.
With some free time before flying back to the New York I never thought I would miss so much, I perused the airport shops for a souvenir. Soon I found the perfect visual consolation for my three-day-long experience: a canvas with a stylized young woman, draped in a painterly sheer dress, presenting her ass to the viewer. At $15, it was a bargain. I shoved it into my carry-on, proudly unveiling it after I gratefully walked through my front door.
“This makes me deeply uncomfortable,” both of my male roommates said.
It’s been hanging in our kitchen ever since. Viva Nicaragua!