Life blood, p.6
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       Life Blood, p.6

          

  Chapter Six

  After I dropped off Lou at his space in Soho, where he was housesitting for an estate now in the courts, I decided to head on home. Themore I thought about Alex Goddard, the more I felt frustrated and evena little angry that I'd completely failed to find out any of the thingsI'd wanted to learn about him. I replayed our interview in my mind, gotnowhere, and then decided to push away thoughts of Quetzal Manor for awhile and dwell on something else: Sarah, my film, anything.

  It was Saturday, and unfortunately I had no plans for the evening.Translation: no Steve. Back to where I started. How many millionstories in the naked city, and I was just so many million plus one.It's not a jungle out there, it's a desert.

  The truth was, after Steve took off, I hadn't really been trying allthat hard to pick myself up off the canvas and look around. Besides, Ididn't want some other guy, I wanted him. Added to that, I somehow feltthat when you're on the short countdown for forty, you shouldn't haveto be going out on blind dates, wondering whether that buttoned-downMBA sitting across from you in some trendy Italian restaurant thinksyou're a blimp (even though you skipped lunch), telling yourself he'spresentable, doesn't seem like a serial killer, has a job, onlymentioned his mother once, and could qualify as an acceptable life'smate. There's no spark, but he's probably quite nice. You wanlyremember that old Barney's ad jingle, "Select, don't settle," but atthis stage of life you're ready to admit you've flunked out in Love 101and should just go with Like.

  Which was one of the reasons I missed Steve so deeply. He was a lover,but he was also a best friend. And I was running low on those.

  Every woman needs a best pal. After my former best, Betsy, married JoelAimes, Off-Broadway's latest contribution to Dreamworks, and moved tothe Coast with him, I was noticing a lot of empty evenings. In the olddays, we could talk for hours. It was funny, since we were actuallyvery different. Betsy, who had forgotten more about clothes and makeupthan most women would ever know, hung around the garment-centershowrooms and always came away with samples of next season's couture,usually for a song. I envied her that, since I usually just pretendednot to care and pulled on another pair of jeans every morning. But sheshared my love of Asian music.

  Anyway, now she was gone and I could tell we weren't working hardenough at staying in touch. She and Joel had just moved to a newapartment and I didn't even have her latest phone number. . . .

  Which brought me back to Steve. I'd often wondered why we were soalike, and I'd finally decided it was because we both started from thesame place spiritually. In his case, that place was a crummy childhoodin New Haven--which he didn't want to talk about much because, Igathered, it was as lonely and deprived as my own, or at least asdepressing. His father had owned a small candy store and had wanted allhis four children to become "professionals." The oldest had become alawyer, the next a teacher. When Steve's turn came, he was told heshould become a doctor, or at the very least, a dentist.

  Didn't happen. He'd managed four years of premed at

  Yale, but then he rebelled, cashed in his med-school scholarship, andwent to Paris to study photography. The result was he'd done what hewanted, been reasonably successful at it, and his father had neverforgiven him. I think he was still striving for the old man's approval,even after all the years, but I doubted he'd ever get it. Steve was aguy still coming to grips with things that couldn't be changed, but inthe meantime he lived in worlds that were as different from his ownpast as he could find. He deliberately avoided middle-class comforts,and was never happier than when he was in some miserable speck on themap where you couldn't drink the water. Whatever else it was, it wasn'tNew Haven. . . .

  Thinking about him at that moment, I had an almost irresistible desireto reach for my cell phone and call him. God, I missed him. Did he missme the same way? I wanted so much to hear him say it.

  I had a contact number for him in Belize City, an old, Brit-like hotelcalled the Bellevue, where they still served high tea, but I alwaysseemed to call when he was out somewhere in the rain forest, shooting.

  Do it. Don't be a wuss.

  But then I got cold feet. Did I want him to think I was chasing afterhim? I didn't want to sound needy . . . though that was exactly what Ifelt like at the moment.

  Finally I decided to just invent a phone conversation, recreating onefrom times past, one where we both felt secure enough to be flip. Itwas something I did more than I'd like to admit. Usually there'd beeight rings at his Park Slope loft and then a harried voice. Yes.Steve, talk to me. . . .

  "Yo. This is not a recording. I am just in a transcendent plane. And ifthat's you, Murray, I'll have the contact sheets there by six. Patienceis a virtue."

  "Honey, it's me. Get out of the darkroom. Get a life."

  "Oh, hi, baby." Finally tuning in. "I'm working. In a quest forunrelenting pictorial truth. But mainly I'm thinking of you."

  "You're printing, right? Darling, it's lunch hour. Don't you feelguilty, working all the time?"

  The truth was, it was one of the reasons I respected him so much. Heeven did his own contacts. His fervor matched my drive. It's what madeus perfect mates.

  "I've got tons of guilt. But I'm trying to get past it. Become a fullhuman person. Go back to the dawn of man. Paint my face and dance in athunderstorm." He'd pause, as though starting to get oriented. "Hey,look at the time. Christ. I've got a print shoot on Thirty-eighthStreet at three."

  He was chasing a bit of fashion work to supplement his on-again,off-again magazine assignments.

  "Love," I said in my reverie, "can you come over tonight? I promise tomake it worth your while. It involves a bubble bath, champagne, roseseverywhere, sensuous ragas on the CD. And maybe some crispy oysters orsomething, sent in later on, just to keep us going."

  Then I'd listen to the tone of his voice, knowing he'd say yes butputting more stock in how he said it. Still, he always gave his lines agood read.

  "Then why don't we aim for about nine?" I'd go on, blissful. "Thatought to give me a chance to get organized. And don't bring anythingexcept your luscious self." The fantasy was coming together in my mind.Thinking back, I realized how much I missed him, all over again. . . .

  That was when the phone on the armrest beside me rang for real. For amoment I was so startled I almost hit the brakes. Then I clicked it on,my mind still buzzing about Steve, and also, in spite of my resolve,about the curious runaround I'd just gotten from Alex Goddard.

  "Listen, there was a message on my machine when I came

  in. I've got to go up to the hospital. Right now." Lou's voice wasbrimming with hope and exuberance. "They said Sarah was stirring. She'sopened her eyes and started talking. They said she's not making muchsense, but . . . oh, God."

  "That's wonderful." I felt my heart expanding with life. For somereason, I had a flash of memory of her climbing up into the ricketylittle tree house--well, more like a platform--I'd helped her build inmy thirteenth summer, no boys invited to assist. A year later that parthad seemed terminally dumb. "I'll meet you there."

  I was almost home, but I screeched the car around and headed east.Racing over, though, I tried not to wish for too much. I keptremembering all the stages to a complete recovery and telling myselfthat whatever had happened, it was only the first step on a very long,very scary journey. . . .

  I hadn't realized how scary till I walked into the room. Lou, who hadgotten there just minutes before I did, was sitting by her side,holding her hand, his gaze transfixed on her. She was propped upslightly in her bed, two pillows fluffed behind her head, staringdreamily at the ceiling. Three attentive middle-aged nurses werestanding around the sides of her bed, their eyes wide, as though Sarahwere a ghost. I very quickly realized why. She was spinning out afantasy that could only come from a deranged mind. Had she regainedconsciousness only to talk madness?

  "Lou, does she recognize you?" I asked.

  He just shook his head sadly, never taking his eyes off her face. Shewas weaving in and out of reality, pausing, stuttering, uncertain ofher incoherent brain. Once, when she'd fallen off a swing and gotknocked out for a brief moment, she came to talking nonsense. Now sheseemed exactly the same way.

  "Lights ... so bright," she mumbled, starting up again to recount whatseemed to be a faraway fantasy, ". . . like now.

  Why . . . why are there lights here?" Her lips were moving but her eyeswere still fixed in a stare. Then, with that last, odd question, hergaze began to dart about the room, looking for someone who wasn'tpresent. She settled on me for a moment, and I felt a chill from herplaintive vulnerability. When I tried to look back as benignly andlovingly as possible, I couldn't help noticing how drawn her cheekswere, doubtless from the constant IV feeding, and again my heart wentout. "I'm scared," she went on, "but--"

  "I'm here, honey," Lou declared, bending over her, his eyes pained. "Doyou know who I am?"

  "The jade face . . . a mask," she babbled on, still ignoring him. "Allthe colors. It's so . . . so beautiful."

  Her hallucination didn't relate to anything I could understand. Sheclearly was off in another world, like when she was a kid, weaving thelights of the room now into some kind of dream. I touched Lou'sshoulder and asked permission to turn off the overhead fluorescents,but he just shrugged me off, his attention focused entirely on her.

  His eyes had grown puzzled, as though he wanted to believe she wasreturning to rationality but his common sense was telling him it wasn'ttrue.

  I was having a different reaction. What she was saying was randombabblings, all right, but I was beginning to think she was relivingsomething she had actually seen.

  However, she wasn't through.

  "I want to pray, but . . . the white tunnel . . . is coming." Sheshuddered, then almost tried to smile. "Take me . . ."

  She was gone, her eyelids fluttering uncontrollably.

  "Honey, talk to me," Lou pleaded. He was crying, something I'd neverseen him do, something I was not even aware he was capable of. What hereally was trying to say was, "Come back."

  It wasn't happening. She stared blankly at the ceiling for a moment,then slowly closed her eyes, a shutter descending over her soul.

  "She'll be okay," I whispered to him, almost believing it. Her brainhad undergone a physical trauma, enough to cause a coma, but some kindof mental trauma must have preceded it. Was she now trying to exorcisethat as part of her path to recovery?

  The nurses in the room stirred, perhaps not sure what to do. Theoverhead lights were still dazzlingly bright, and I moved to shut themoff, leaving only a night-light behind the bed. Perhaps the lights hadbrought her awake, but I was convinced what she'd just gone through hadtired her to the point that she would not revive again that day.

  Then one of the Caribbean nurses came over and placed her hand on Lou'sshoulder. She had an experienced face, full of self-confidence.Something about her inspired trust.

  "I wouldn't let this upset you too much," she said, a lovely lilt inher voice. "What just happened may or may not mean anything. Whenpatients first come out of a coma, they can sometimes talk just fine,and yet not make any sense. They ramble on about things they dreamed oflike they were real." Then she smiled. "But it's a good first step. Shecould wake up perfectly fine tomorrow. Just don't pay any attention towhat she says for a while. She's dreaming now."

  Lou grunted as though he believed her. I nodded in sympathy, though noone seemed to notice.

  I also thought that although what Sarah had said was bizarre, itsounded like something more than a dream. Or had she gone back to herchild-state where imaginary worlds were real for her?

  Then in the dim glare of her bed light, Lou took a wrinkled bluebooklet out of his inner pocket and stared at it. I had to stare at ita moment before I realized it was a passport.

  "What--?"

  "The American consulate in Merida, Mexico, sent it up to 26 FederalPlaza yesterday, because my name and office address are penciled on theinside cover as an emergency contact. The police down there saidsomebody, some gringo tourist fly-fishing way down on the UsumacintaRiver, near where the Rio Tigre comes in from Guatemala, snagged thisfloating in a plastic bag. He turned it in to the Mexican authoritiesthere, and it ended up with our people." He opened the passport andstared at it. "The photo and ID page is ripped out, but it's definitelySarah's." He handed it over. "Guy I know downtown dropped it off lastnight. I'm not sure if it has anything to tell us, but now, I washoping it might help jog her memory."

  I took it, the cover so waterlogged its color was almost gone. However,it must have been kept dry in the plastic bag for at least some of itstrip from wherever, since much of the damage seemed recent.

  Lou shook his head staring wistfully at me. "I still don't know how shegot down there. She was in California. Remember that postcard? If she'dcome back East, she'd have got in touch. Wouldn't she?" His eyespleaded for my agreement.

  I didn't know what to say, so I just shrugged. I wanted to besympathetic, but I refused to lie outright. He took my ambivalence asassent as he pulled out the locket containing her picture, histalisman. He fingered it for a moment, staring into space, and then helooked down and opened it, as if seeing her high school picture, from atime when she was well, would somehow ease his mind.

  "This whole thing doesn't sound like her," he went on. "Know what Ithink? She was being held down there against her will."

  My heart went out to him, and I reached over and took the locket for amoment, feeling the strong "SRC" engraved on its heart-shaped face."Lou, she's going to come out of it. And when she does, she'll probablyexplain everything. She's going to be okay any day now, I've got ahunch. A gut feeling."

  I had a gut feeling, all right, but not that she was going to be fine.My real fear was she was going to wake up a fantasy-bound child again.

  Then I handed the locket back. He'd seemed to turn anxious without it.He took the silver heart and just stared down at it. In the silencethat settled over us, I decided to take a closer look at the passport.I supposed Lou had already gone through it, but maybe he'd missedsomething.

  As I flipped through the waterlogged pages, I came across a smudgyimprint, caked with a thin layer of dried river clay, that was almosttoo dim to be noticed.

  "Lou, did you see this?" I held it under the light and beckoned himover. "Can you read it?"

  "Probably not without my specs." He took it and squinted helplessly."My eyes aren't getting any better."

  I took it back and rubbed at the page, cleaning it. It was hard to makeout, but it looked like "Delegacion de Migracion, AeropuertoInternacional, Guatemala, C.A."

  "I think this is a Guatemalan tourist entry visa." I raised thepassport up to backlight the page. "And see that faint bit there in thecenter? That's probably her entry date. Written in by hand."

  He took it and squinted again. "I can't read the damned thing, butyou're right. There's some numbers, or something, scribbled in."

  I took it and rubbed the page till I could read it clearly. "It's Marcheleventh. And it was last year."

  "Hot damn, let me see that." He seized it back and squinted for a longmoment, lifting the page even closer to the light. "You're right." Heheld it for a second more, then turned to me. "This is finally thething I needed. Now I'm damned well going to find out what she wasdoing down there."

  "How do you think you can do that?" I just looked at him, my mind notquite taking in what he'd just said.

  "The airlines." He almost grinned. "If they can keep track ofeverybody's damned frequent-flyer miles for years and years, theyundoubtedly got flight manifests stored away somewhere too. So my firststep is to find out where she flew from."

  "But we don't know which--"

  "Doesn't matter." He squinted again at the passport. "Now we know forsure she showed up at the airport in Guatemala City on that date there.I know somebody downtown, smooth black guy named John Williams, theFBI's best computer nerd, who could bend a rule for me and do a littleB&E in cyberspace. He owes me a couple. So, if she was on a manifestfor a scheduled flight into Guatemala City that day, he'll find it.Then we'll know where she left from, who else was on the plane." Hetapped the passport confidently with his forefinger. "Maybe she wastraveling with some scumbag I ought to look up and get to know better."

  "Well, good luck."

  In a way I was wondering if we weren't both now grasping for a miracle:me half-hoping for a baby through some New Age process of "centering,"Lou trying to reclaim Sarah from her mental abyss with his gruff love.But then again, miracles have been known to happen.

 
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