July 20, 1996, 3 Days After Flight 800 Exploded
Upper West Side, New York City
Raúl hadn’t been able to move from his couch. It seemed to hold him against his will. He was coiled, knees up to his chest and arms over his head as if trying to hide.
The TV was still on – a specter in the dark whispering to him what he didn’t want to hear. But he couldn’t pry himself lose from the unreal words twisting through.
Pilots from other planes circling to land report they saw flashes of light streaking from the ground toward the Boeing 747. Two unnamed FBI sources suggest that what looked like two missiles hit TWA Flight 800.
He was unable to bring himself to his lab at Columbia Presbyterian, either. He didn’t even reach for his window to look out at the Hudson River, the intimate horizon that was his respite in another life. Now dull remembrances. His place in the order of things was vague and incompatible. There was nothing he could diagnose, nothing he could quantify and make understandable, nothing. As far as Raúl could tell it was now a life of nothing. He was learning to embrace the value of nothing, something deep in his soul, a ruthless weight.
He whispered a prayer: “Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing. Give us this day our daily Nothing. And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.” And laughed uncontrollably, until the harsh irony lifted and, on the couch, a forearm over his forehead, he stared at the insensible ceiling, taken up by its blankness, seeing it for the very first time – its creases, cobwebs in the corners, its dullness.
He dozed off from time to time, sitting up only to sip the bourbon beside him on the coffee table.
It took him just two days to go through the first bottle of his father’s favorite drink, Wild Turkey 101, after he ran out and picked up another.
He locked his apartment door, closed himself off and sat at the edge of sorrow.
For three unforgiving days and nights he laid there in a knot and sipped until the Wild Turkey pushed him into uneasy dreams of airline seats floating aimlessly in open ocean, bobbing out of place, incompatible to the world. He was buckled into an airplane’s seat, the stars and the darkness all around him and he was falling, spinning and falling, alone, and not a word came from his mouth. Not a scream. He just fell like a stone into the embrace of an immense darkness, empty seats all around, hundreds of them, dipping and rolling in the immeasurable sea. Ghostly sirens of absurdity. No hint of life. Not even a whisper, a smile – not even an I love you. No sense of a history, of having lived. No evidence. No body. Nothing. Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. He fell and fell and spun and spun, round and round. He kept falling until he couldn’t stand it any longer, the enveloping irrelevance of life, the pregnant silences endured until life ends. The power and the glory of Nothing. Amen.
He envisioned himself in a dark hole, a coffin, closed in, unable to move – an anonymous being with life no more yet aware of his end, that there would be no one touching him, kissing him; no more sound – except for his empty breathing going nowhere. A sarcophagus of eternal loneliness. That’s what death is, he thought as he tried to see himself like his father in the blackness of space forever gone. An impenetrable irony, that’s what life is, he told himself. A god-awful paradox, inconsistencies everywhere.
“What’s the point,” he said to no one. “What’s the point?”
That was Darwin’s epiphany after all, Raúl concluded, from a tiny cell to unbeing. That’s life. A profound tragedy, a joke. No reconciliation whatsoever. That’s it, regardless of what those little tiny squiggly lines screamed from the stage of a noble microscope that is already perversely designed to look like a question mark.
He sat up and sipped some more – until the Lawrenceburg elixir pushed him down again. He heard things through the fog.
Flashes of light. Streaks from somewhere below hit the plane. Radar reports that a small boat raced away at 30 knots in a direct line away from the crash site. Other boats rushed to the crash site. Explosive residue.
Nothing in Raúl’s dreams foreshadowed this future – and he wondered whether his father’s dreams told him anything before his end. Who would know? Where was the record? There were no witnesses. There was nothing in Raúl’s past that hinted at the suffering and sorrow of this moment, the Wild Turkey just about gone. Disaster came unexpectedly, as it always does, and what mattered most in that precise moment was another trip to the liquor store. All death is unnatural – that’s how we experience it anyway. Unnatural and unforgiving.
Which is when his apartment’s front door buzzer rang – and he suddenly became aware that it must have been the third, maybe the fourth buzz because, this time, the person buzzing hung on and pushed the buzz through the foyer where his lab coat lay and into the kitchen to the living room where he was – and it kept going. The annoying electric infuriation traveled to his bedroom, bounced back, exasperating him even more. Or was it the booze and the buzzing, both, that irritated him to a point where he wanted to do violence?
“What? What the fuck? Fuck you,” he yelled at the incessant buzzing.
But there it was again the trying pain, the coarse frustration. Fuck.
“What …” he yelled and staggered to the speaker on the wall next to the apartment’s front door.
“Professor Sicard’s son. Raúl Sicard. His son. The professor’s only son. Is it you? Don’t cut me off. Don’t. Wait. Wait. I need to see you. Wait. Don’t. The professor’s son. Please. Talk to me. Please. We need to talk. You are him, yes?”
Raúl leaned against the wall and shut his eyes. And hit the buzzer to open the street door to the building and cracked open his apartment door and staggered back to his couch for another bourbon.
It was early evening. The setting sun was leaving behind a thick haze. The dog walkers and the Haitian women pushing their Cadillac strollers had long retreated from the murk. Riverside Drive was quiet, except for an occasional honking of a car horn. Impatience in people is persistent, no matter what.
Maddy Sachs hesitantly eased into Raúl’s solemn apartment and standing just inside, mouth agape and wide eyed, she scoped the dark kitchen, the rumpled lab coat left on a chair by the entrance and looking like someone in a hurry threw it there with some indifference. Keys in a bowl. Mail.
Raúl was outstretched on the couch, an arm over his eyes. He didn’t budge. His other hand held a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 as if it was a life preserver on the coffee table beside him.
“Hi,” she said softly, cautiously approaching the couch. “Hello … Hi … Sorry …,”
Raúl managed to raise himself to his elbows and said, “Who the hell are you? I don’t know you. Who are you?”
“I’m … I’m sorry for your loss …”
“My fucking loss? Who are you? What about his? He lost. His loss. He lost big time. The whole game. He lost. Fuck me. Sorry for him. No one can say that to him now. No one. What do you want to do, pray for him now? Is that why you’re here? Shit. Who the hell are you?”
Raúl labored to sit up and put his head in his hands and said, “Memory is suffering. It is. No one tells you that. Memory is suffering.” And he looked up at Maddy.
“Yes. I know. I know. Yes. I’m sorry. Still.”
Raúl eased back down and shut his eyes and said, “Wanna drink? It helps.”
Maddy thought about the first time Javier said that to her, just like that. “Wanna drink?” They were in an Adams hamburger only joint and he was alive and vibrant, jocular, his forest green eyes bright and smiling. It was all about tomorrow, no darkness visible anywhere. And the waitress came over. And Javier said, “I’m having a bourbon. You?” And she ordered what he was having wanting to be like him, wanting to be as close as she could be to his way of seeing things, his way of experiencing this journey. “I’m under age,” she said when the waitress walked away. “Bullshit,” he said. “You’re mature beyond your years. Anyway, you’re with me. There won’t be any questions. We’ll make believe we’re in Europe – or Latin America. Anywhere but here.” When the waitress returned with the drinks, he grinned. “Well?” he asked, raising his glass and sipping. “Tell me what you think. Slowly,” he said and he placed his large hand on hers as Maddy drew the short glass to her lips. Javier stared at her and smiled. “Wet your lips first,” he said, keeping his hand on hers – something she was used to by now – until the glass touched her lips. “Lick them after. Get a feel for the taste. And then take a sip – a tiny one so that you can really experience the heat go down, inch-by-inch. Go ahead.” She did as instructed. “That’s it. Good. Nice.” And she felt the heat of the golden rod ooze, tickling her, igniting her. She grinned and said, “Thank you,” not quite sure why.
“I’m Maddy. Maddy Sachs. And I’m a student. At Adams. I go there. I loved your father. Still, I love him still,” she blurted out not knowing why or where her words came from, but she was sure the sentiment came from somewhere deep in her soul. “I loved your father,” she said again. “I was his student. He was my mentor. That’s what he was. He was everything to me. Better then a father. More than that.”
She went to the kitchen and searched for a short glass and Raúl, on his elbows now, studied her. As she poured herself a drink and sipped, Maddy told Raúl about the first time she had a bourbon with his father. She told him that they met to talk about her writing because she was doing an independent study that Spring, following his Fall seminar, Life and Death in an Unconscious Civilization: A Survivor’s Guide. “It was unreal,” she said. “The class was totally unreal. No one talks like that, like him. At least I never heard anyone. Say things like he did. As they are. The truth, you know? Like that. No one’s around like that,” she told Raúl who didn’t move. “We are asleep to change, he told us right off the bat. You’re here, in this class, now, to discover that you’re all sheep being lead to slaughter. He boomed it out. Like we were his shinning knights and he our Arthur. We sat at his round table. All so eager to please him. We’d do anything for him. Like anything. We felt safe with him. He made it that way. He spread himself over us – like a warm blanket or something. He challenged us – but he made us feel good, like we meant something.”
She took another long sip, as Javier taught her, and said, cautiously, “I … I’m not sure how to say this … I …”
“Just say it,” said Raúl, now sitting up, forearms resting on his thighs so that he could really get a good look at Maddy for the first time, her blue eyes, her uncombed, long blond hair. She stood over him like an angel ready to announce something or other. Make a declaration about the world he was to inhabit. Or give him a warning. Maybe she was going to describe a picture that would tell Raúl how things would be from now on.
“Just say what you need to say. My father and me, we’re alike that way. It’s best to just say things and let the cards fall where they may.”
“I’m … I’m not sure what happened. I mean. I’m not sure. Not sure why things have come to this. I was there last year. At Adams. That’s what I’m saying. I was there with him. All sorts of shit went down. But I’m not sure what I saw. Can anyone bare witness? Who can tell? Who’s there to verify, like things, you know? What you see, right? I don’t want to be petrified after I confess what I saw. It’s all so strange and confusing. I can’t put my finger on it. I feel this thing. I don’t know. In the pit of my stomach. An ache, like nausea, something. Like I want to throw up all the time.”
“Ah…That. I don’t know either – and I’m suppose to know these things. How lives adapt – or not. I’m not sure of anything anymore. My world is upside down and I’m having a hard time seeing. Maybe I should take up praying – but he’d find that absurd. I can’t focus. On anything.”
“Me too. Like I can’t either. I don’t know… I’m not sure of anything anymore, either. I’m not sure what to do. The dead. They never really go, do they? Death seems to be just another form. I see him everywhere. They don’t depart, like we say, do they? They do something but they don’t leave. Like he’s pushing me now. I can feel it; it’s coming from him. What does it mean, to die?”
“All I seem to understand is that we don’t ever really know why lives end. I can give you all sorts of scientific reasons – lack of mutation, no adaptation, deterioration, environmental causes, diseases and where they come from. All that shit. I can give you all that. All the reasons in the world. With a capital R. But – fuck – it doesn’t seem to help. At one time. Before this. Before this thing, I thought that science was enough. All I needed to believe. Now I’m not so sure. Now I’m totally out of it. I see science. I get it. But all it’s telling me is that we’re not even sure what it is we’re suppose to do with the life we have. The purpose of a person’s life is lost on us. It happens all too fast. And time, we’re left with time. Time is mourning. Time mourns. We spend our lives conjecturing about the meaning of someone else’s life instead because we can’t stand the fact that time reminds us of loss, always. So we’d rather study lives. We spend so much time quantifying every single little aspect of every single moment of our time on earth, the minutia, that we forget to live. Then it’s gone. Over. Just like that. Gone. Time wins. It constricts. It gets narrower. We forget what living is – or should be. Maybe that’s what we mourn – ourselves. That we lose ourselves in time.”
“He had a purpose. He wasn’t like that. He knew how to live. That’s what was so attractive about him. Why we were so drawn to him. So nothing makes sense to me. That’s all I know. I’m not sure of anything anymore. Nothing. It’s as if his reason for being was denied – taken away. It seems like an irony of the most tragic proportions.”
“And what was that, Maddy? His purpose.”
“To be who he was, how he was – even for a short time. He used to tell me that I was an old soul – but I think he was. He was the oldest soul I’ve ever known. So wise. He made me, you know. I believe that. He did. Like he helped make me. He gave me purpose. Shaped me somehow. I know it. I knew it every time we were together. I felt different afterwards. Even after class. Always. Like after every talk, I could see how the world changed for me. It was as if every time we spoke, he…he like lifted another veil, peeled back the onion a bit. Then another layer. And another. And it all suddenly stopped. Just like that. The suddenness worries me. The unpredictability.”
“He probably made you, too. Right? Something about you. I don’t know. Something beyond just having people be frank and honest.”
“So we’re his adaptations.”
“I don’t know what you call it. But I do know that he’s still with me … and … and … I don’t know. Like I’m running this past year through my head. Over and over, you know. I’ve been doing this all along since … And I can’t get this past year out of my head and … like I can only conclude that something happened … Something happened and it lead to this – to me here; you – and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Something happened. I know it. It’s all twisted together. Connected like to this point. Because things aren’t suppose to end like this. Not his life anyway.”
“You’re young Maddy. Thinks like this happen all the time – just not to us. That’s what we think. It’s why we feel this way. It’s the stuff we read about – see in movies. But it’s never about us. Never. That’s the fallacy.”
“I just can’t see the signs yet. But something happened. I swear. I’m looking hard because something is not right with the universe. He’d say that. He used to say that. But now I can feel it. I know what he meant. He would feel it, I think. He’d think the same way. I’m sure of it. He’d think that.”
“Yes, he died. He’s dead. My father … My poor old man … Mi viejo is dead. That’s what happened. That’s not right. Yes. That’s not right. An unfortunate sudden death, along with many others. An epic tragedy. And we’re asked to move on. Leave them behind. That’s what we’re asked. Life goes on. That’s what makes things feel so – I don’t know – out of place. Strange life goes on and a tragedy grows and simmers. And the days continue. Morning to night. Birds sing, the sun rises and sets, the grass grows. Again and again. Time elapses. Criminals rob, stocks go up and down, dogs shit on the streets. Life – the movement of it, you know – goes on.”
“A terrible beauty is born,” Maddy blurted out.
“Yes. Indeed. Nicely put. That says it. A terrible beauty.”
“That’s not me. It’s Yeats. It just came out of me – like it was the only thing I could say and I couldn’t stop it.”
“And the distance becomes greater – it widens. A terrible beauty is born and we learn to live with it when we gain some distance. We write poems about it. A sort of coming to terms with how perverse it is. An unexplainable understanding that words can’t describe. How this thing we can’t name eased in, slowly. We can’t explain a thing. So we go on because we can’t face the fact that we have no record of his life. There’s no body. No sign of him. No evidence. Nothing. No last words. No good-byes. No memorials. No comforting words from Jesus saying something about preparing a place for us when he comes knocking. Nothing of the usual we see in movies. No answers. Just dull recollections. And we’re all twisted up in knots. Take another sip of your bourbon, Maddy. It’ll help.”
She did and said, “We have his books.”
“When people die we want to see them. We want to touch them. Say something. See them off. When they die prematurely and we don’t have evidence, things are much worse. Much worse. We go into a tail spin.”
“I’m worried,” said Maddy, taking another sip of her bourbon, shutting her eyes so as to better feel the slow burn, and pursing her lips.
“I’m worried. That’s all. I’m not sure how to explain it,” said Maddy and she walked over to the window Raúl always used as his respite and stared out, as he once did, at the Hudson River and the graying Palisades. “You have an incredible view,” she said. The sun was easing into the horizon, releasing the earth from the indolence it brought forth.
Raúl lifted himself off the couch as if he was bearing a great weight and for the first time in three days went to his window and stood next to Maddy. And he recognized things.
“It’s all new. It seems new. All of it. But I recognize it. Like I’ve been here before some other time. Another life, maybe. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know what will happen next.”
“I have an uneasy feeling,” said Maddy. “I’m scared. I don’t know why but I’m scared. I have a pit in my stomach.”
“It’s just that this thing is fresh. It’s opened up new feelings we don’t understand. Maybe never will.”
“No. I don’t think so. I understand what you’re saying. I realize I’m feeling love for him – and I can’t express that to him. It’s too late for that. I didn’t tell him when he was alive – but like I think he knew. I have this feeling of tremendous loss. I wasted that. I can only blame myself. I should have done something about it, let him know – something. I should have and I hate myself for that. I wasted it. But no. It’s not that.”
Raúl turned to Maddy. He saw what his father saw – the muscular shoulders, the strong jaw and her full lips. Her surety. And he felt as if he had known her for a long time, as if her appearance came with an unannounced expectation of long ago. He recognized something in her but he couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. They knew each other. Maybe it was his father that he was seeing in her. He recognized him, there, in her. His imprint.
“Are you done with school?”
“No. I have a year. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I have so much on my mind. I … I just don’t know.”
“Tell me,” he said.
Maddy turned to Raúl and looked up to his blue eyes like the sky. “You look like him,” she said. “You know. You do. Like I can see it. You’re like him, too. I can see that too. He’d push aside anything that would be an obstacle to us. You just did that – and at such a difficult time for you. I appreciate it. I do. Thank you for listening. For reaching out. He was like that. He was like that from the start. With everyone. Even when I first met him. He didn’t have to talk to me. But he did.” Maddy paused and looked down at her glass. Sipped. “Maybe he’s right here right now,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be something.”
“Something,” said Raúl. “Something.”
They stood like that, looking into each other’s eyes and didn’t say a word. Raúl reached for Maddy and put his arms around her and drew her in and held her. He could feel her body give. She cried, as if pulling her to him gave her permission to feel the deep sorrow she carried beneath her stoicism. He held her tighter and stroked her head and kissed the top of it, inhaling her every time. She buried her head even deeper into his chest. He encircled her neck with his right arm, his left arm across her back, and drew her even closer, wishing that she could pass through him at that moment – he through her. And somehow, together, his father, Javier Sicard, would become something else like this, another form with them. A life without end in the darkest of places where the heart aches and bends.