Fred, the Expat Costa Rican Landlord — By Jennifer Shipp
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Fred, the Expat Costa Rican Landlord — By Jennifer Shipp

The front yard was okay with the gate and everything, but Fred, the landlord would break into our apartment regularly to do whatever he wanted.

Fred is our landlord here in Atenas, Costa Rica. I won’t give out his real name because I’m not interested in hurting him, but I have to describe this man, not because he is unique but because he is  a character I keep running into in my life.

Fred is an expatriate from the United States. He flew airplanes for an airline that went out of business in the 1980’s. He told us his life story as he was driving us around town on the first day that we met him. Between sentences he would say, “Um-kay” like the guidance counselor on the television show South Park and he never took a breath long enough to afford any of us to even note interest (or disinterest) in what he was saying. After the airline went out of business, Fred decided to become a marine biologist. He already apparently had a degree in marine biology so this was fairly simple for him. He moved to Costa Rica and set up a whole new life.

There are problems with Fred’s story. Why Costa Rica? Why not the United States? Why didn’t he pursue marine biology to begin with rather than flying airplanes if this was what he wanted to do? A man who can fly airplanes can probably work with sea creatures too if properly motivated. Right? I believe there is more to Fred’s story, lies perhaps that he isn’t willing to share with us. Big lies, small lies. It’s hard to tell, but Fred is a little neurotic; like a man who’s been keeping a secret or two for a long, long time.

For example, if John leaves the security lights on out front past 9:00 AM, Fred will come over, sneak into our yard, and unscrew the light bulbs. I think that he thinks that we don’t know that he’s doing this. There is a little sign inside our door that talks about shutting off the lights in the house in rooms we’re not using. I understand and empathize with the desire to keep electrical costs low, but Fred is completely fixated on the security lights being  (which are fluorescent, by the way), while John is fixated on having them on (for security reasons). John screwed them back in on Saturday morning after Fred woke us up around 8:00 AM by opening the back door and yelling, “Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?” until I finally woke up enough to realize what was going on.

“We’re in bed Fred. Decided to sleep in this morning…whatcha need?”

“Oh…uh…just noticed your back door was open. Thought maybe you guys went out of town and I wanted to make sure everything was secure.”

Secure. Yes. That’s what the security lights are for. Security. People steal things and break into houses a lot in Costa Rica so having security lights is helpful. Fred claimed to be breaking into our rental through the back door for the sake of security, but before he came in through the back door, he had unscrewed our security lights out front. His behavior and his words do not match.

This would seem “crazy” to anyone else, but to me, it’s very “normal” in the sense that I grew up with it. My dad and Fred have a lot in common. Fred is a passive aggressive type of guy. He won’t tell you to your face that he’s pissed off. He’ll make a joke about it and when you laugh just to be nice, he’ll think he’s off the hook. Then, he’ll sneak into your bedroom later and cut up your favorite item of clothing into tiny pieces to “get you back” for whatever he thinks you did wrong.

And Fred is completely fixated on money. I imagine that Fred probably has plenty of money. He might not be rich, but if he truly is like my dad, he’s got what he needs. But he’s learned to use money as a tool to gain affection (or to hurt other people). I don’t think Fred really cares about the security lights or the electricity, but he gets something out of having control over other people/us. Rather than bringing over a casserole or simply stopping by sometimes to say hi, Fred gets control in this negative sort of way that makes people want to run away from him. Then, I imagine, he feels bad. Like nobody loves him.

I have this softness toward people who behave in this way just because I love my dad, flaws and all. Our whole kitchen here in Atenas is filled with appliances that are broken or that are only half-there. We have a crock pot without the crock, a broken toaster, a fryer without the electrical unit. The coffee maker is so moldy it would probably kill us if we drank coffee from it. But if Fred is thinking at all the way that my dad and my mom think, this junk in our kitchen will be somehow useful to us. It’s the kind of stuff you might let kids play with in a fake kitchen outside in a sandbox. But the problem is, we’re not kids. And we’re not toys either. I think that Fred thinks that we aren’t human, or at least aren’t like him, and that somehow we’ll be excited about the pot without the crock and the fryer we can’t plug in because we won’t investigate our surroundings enough to find out whether these things are really “all there” or not. The logic of what’s going on around Fred is completely gone. Again, probably because he tells lies and disconnects from reality a lot. I can forgive him for this. I’ve even laughed about it. But Fred is not my dad either. Living with a dad who has this kind of character is a completely different ball of wax.

My parents once gave us air mattresses to sleep on when we were too poor to afford to buy a real mattress. They were nice air mattresses that self-inflated. We were really excited to get to sleep on something comfortable after a year sleeping on a cheap camping mattress the deflated nightly onto the floor. We opened up the new air mattresses out of their little carrying cases (they were just part of my parent’s “travel” kit) to discover that they were both broken. They wouldn’t hold any air. My dad had probably broken the air release mechanism the last time he’d used them and thought that if he handed them off to us, it would look like we’d broken them. I took this incident really personally when it happened. It really hurt me because John and I were so poor. We’d recently had a miscarriage and we were sad too. And we had gotten excited about the air mattresses. After we realized the air mattresses were junk I realized that it had seemed uncharacteristic of my parents to offer us something that wasn’t a hand-me-down-piece-of-crap but I thought perhaps they had been motivated to do a good deed for us due to the state of destitution we were in at that time. Anyway, I had been wrong.

I believe that it really doesn’t matter where I go, I keep meeting the same characters in my life. They are not the same people though who play these characters. It happens because of the character I play in my own life and the fact that my script must require these characters in order for my character to be developed. (It’s a flimsy theory, but I like to play with it nonetheless.)  It’s like how there are two different men who play Dumbledore in Harry Potter. Without Dumbledore, Harry Potter wouldn’t be the same film with the same powerful messages. The first guy that played Dumbledore maybe got another gig doing another film and the second, new guy had to fill in because the Dumbledore character was totally necessary for the plot. I keep running into my dad-character everywhere I go, even though it’s been several years since I’ve seen the actor who played my dad for the first 18 years of my life.

Fred’s craziness actually makes me miss my own dad, and it makes me also grateful to not have him in my life at the same time. It’s not hard to cope with the crazy landlord who unscrews your security lights every night, but it is hard to cope with a crazy dad who does the same sort of thing. Though my landlord should at least care about the security of his property, a dad should care about the security of his daughter and her family and it’s easy to forget how much it hurt me when he didn’t care about me or his property as much as he cared about his ability to control me. It’s also easier to understand what causes a person to resort to this sort of nutty behavior when I see it in other people, besides my dad, because my emotional investment in the relationship is so much lower. Fred is crazy because he lies. He tells tall tales just like my dad and if I stayed in his house long enough, I’d want to run away from him too. I can see this from an intellectual perspective because Fred is just some guy that I know who plays a character in my life. All I have to do to fix my relationship with him is get on a plane and go back to the United States.

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