Originally published at Year Zero Writers
[This is a long piece.]
The lights had just been dimmed, dinner trays cleared away, and coffee service was slowly making its way up the aisle. The dry, darkened and sleepy atmosphere fell like a lost handkerchief over the cabin; a sharp contrast against the chaos at the gate and the fluttering stewardesses attending to drinks and pretzels. Terry didn’t bother to ask for earphones for the movie—just knowing that the world had gone on as usual was enough comfort for him. But he had nothing else to look at so he stared at the seatback screen next to him. It was like a déjà vu as he imagined he heard the soundtrack, but then it was just the din of the many headsets tuned into the same movie.
His neighbor eventually interrupted Terry’s interloping with a trip to the restroom. After 45 minutes of watching the screen and clutching the SkyShop catalogue, it was time to do something more productive to pass the time. While he waited for the guy to return to his seat, Terry did some stretches while standing in the aisle. He looked across the cabin, and tried to avoid glances up toward his gaze. No one recognized him. He kept stretching because as long as he did things that were familiar to him, the shock wouldn’t feel so, well, shocking.
His sister’s ordeal had lasted just over two years and now he was returning home to Dayton, Ohio alone. He had vowed to her he would keep a journal for no other reason than if something awful were to happen to him like it did to her, at least there would be a trail; something she had wished she had done, she said.
Starting a journal with expressions of enormous guilt, regret, and sadness is probably not what I should be doing. I should be writing about how I’m returning to my family and how bad the plane food is. But now I’m writing words I never thought I would have to, under any circumstances. My sister, Karen, is now gone for good. A small town in Italy swallowed her. No, the town didn’t swallow her, the universe and all its evil sucked her under, and all her kindness, naiveté, and good intentions couldn’t save her.
It all began when she married that clown, John Jameson. I never liked him from the start, and that he was a reverend in a church I had never heard of didn’t make my feelings for him any warmer. I knew he was a creep from the moment we met, when he tried to sell me on his church. His church, he said, which bothered me so. An uncomfortable handshake is all I needed to know that this guy was bad news. I didn’t know what she saw in him, but that was beside the point. My mother was glad that Karen was married, end of story, with all the problems she had been through. Karen’s hearing was nearly gone, after the accident years ago, but she still clung to a hearing aid before giving up entirely on the sounds of the people and world around her.
Thirteen months into the marriage they took a trip. John’s church paid for the trip, so I assumed it was some missionary thing—and Karen was over the moon they were traveling to the south of France. She had never even been to New York so this trip was huge for her. The planning was only a couple of weeks; I was a little surprised a trip like this hadn’t been planned further in advance. Karen and I talk almost every day by email or IM. It was to be two or three weeks, which to me didn’t make any sense that she didn’t have a plane ticket booked for the return, but she said it was up to John’s meetings over there and how much ground they would be able to cover in meeting with the various parishes. Like I said, it didn’t make any sense, but I was careful not to insult Karen by questioning her husband. That is the biggest regret I will ever have.
Terry’s neighbor read over his shoulder as he wrote.
“Buddy, I hate to barge in on you like this and I know this seems like an intrusion, but we are in close quarters,” nodding at Terry.
“Yeah?” Terry said.
Terry didn’t respond immediately. He wasn’t prepared for questions about his sister, though he was told to expect calls from the schlock-media upon his return.
“Are you from the press?” Terry asked.
“No, I’m not. I’m a novelist. I edit and then publish people’s journals as novels.”
Terry looked at him awkwardly.
“Sorry, I do it with their consent. It’s a joint project, usually, but with the confidentiality and all, their name never appears. You know how that goes. My name is Garrett Jones.”
“I’ve never heard of you, Garrett Jones. Why would I let you see my journal?”
“First, you just did let me see your journal. And second, I don’t write under my name, of course. We create pen names, since the stories are other people’s lives, but I do the writing. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get these things in good order, sometimes not.”
They both looked down.
Garrett continued, “People don’t write journals to be secret. They write journals to let the world know what they’re thinking.”
Terry thought about the implications of turning his sister’s horrible tragedy into a novel. It was exploitive. But it was a story he felt compelled, strangely, to tell.
“Tell me about your story,” Garrett said, with a soothing, solemn tone.
“It’s my sister’s story, and she’s not here to tell it. I only have the evidence I collected from digging around, and from the inspectors in Italy. She’s lost now, for good.”
“That’s ok, that’s where a good fiction writer like me can take over. Fill in the blanks. Make the story real. Bridge some of the gaps that you just can’t do in real life.”
“Alright, Garrett, we’ve got 5 more hours on this plane. Here’s what happened, in a nutshell,” said Terry.
# # #
Karen was uncomfortable about the trip, but she never told her brother or anyone about it. When she raised questions to John about the last-minute nature of the trip, he naturally accused her of being ungrateful. This was, indeed, to be the trip of her lifetime. Karen’s passport arrived by FedEx the morning they were due to leave. It was her first passport.
On the plane, John was distracted and drinking heavily. Karen looked at brochures and the tour books she bought.
“Aren’t you at least interested in knowing a little about what there is to do? Are you going to be working the entire time we’re there?” she asked him.
He looked over at her and smiled. It wasn’t such a friendly nice smile. “I’m looking forward to seeing the markets,” she said as she adjusted her reading glasses and dog-eared a page.
Karen didn’t just have an ability to look past the darkness and see good in everyone and everything, it was a compulsion. She baked for the elderly in the neighborhood. She knitted for the babies. She gardened for the infirm. She drove for the handicapped. Karen’s existence was tirelessly perpetual for service to others.
When they landed in Nice, Karen was groggy from the overnight flight but John was anxious, sweating, and hung-over. She tried to tell the taxi driver the name of the hotel in St. Paul de Vince that she thought they were booked in but John pushed her back in the seat and handed the driver an address and gave him a wad of cash.
“Honey what are you doing? I don’t understand, where are we going—I think we should just go to our hotel and try to get a shower and a nap before we go and meet the pastor.”
“Keep your passport out, we’re going over the border,” John said.
It was a long drive, but beautiful so Karen sat back and stared out the window. The Corniche along the Mediterranean was mesmerizing, and the flowering bougainvillea along the road was like nothing she had ever seen. Certainly not in Ohio.
They arrived at the border crossing and Karen was jolted by the crowds and the fact that they were no longer in France. A large, broken sign, VENTIMIGLIA, lay against a crumbling building.
The driver navigated through the narrow streets with twists and turns, further enervating Karen and her already-upset stomach.
“Et voila, Mesdammes,” the driver mumbled.
Karen looked up at the building and it wasn’t the beautiful, sun-bleached villa that the internet site had displayed. It wasn’t the hotel that they booked. It wasn’t even in the same country.
“I have to be somewhere right now, so you can just get out and take your nap or whatever you need to do.”
“What? Where are you going already? I don’t understand, John, this is not where we were going and—“
“Just get out of the taxi, go into the hotel and give them your name and credit card, and go to sleep. I’ll be back later.”
“Well, gosh, John, really—“
He got out and slammed the car door, yelled at the driver to open the trunk, and took out her bags. He then opened her door, helped her out of the taxi and got back in.
“I’ll be back later.”
The hotel steps were littered and obviously hadn’t been cleaned up from whatever overnight partying had been done on the block. Liquor bottles, wrappers, and a used condom were strewn on the stoop. Karen took a deep breath, looked around, and hauled her bag into the hotel.
“Good morning, I am Karen Cooper—C-O-O-P-E-R—and my husband, John, has a reservation for us, I believe? It’s been a tough morning so far, as you can imagine.”
The woman behind the large desk in the dark lobby put her cigarette in the side of her mouth and handed Karen a large key with what looked like a fishing weight on it.
“You pay for today, and then for tonight. It’s two days, you understand?” she said.
“No, but it doesn’t matter, so just please tell me how to get to my room and I’ll worry about it later,” Karen asked.
Discomforted by the grime on the windows and the lipstick on the pillowcase, Karen nevertheless took a shower and lay down for a nap, hoping that when she woke up things would just be different.
Hours later, Karen awoke but John still hadn’t returned to the hotel. She knew her cell phone wouldn’t work, and so she picked up the room phone. She couldn’t get a dial tone except for a sustained, high-pitched beep. The room was stifling and smelly. Karen dressed and ventured to the lobby.
“Ma’am, do you have any message for me, or do you know if my husband stopped by?”
She paused, and hoped the clerk would offer more.
“Um, the telephone doesn’t seem to work, can I make an international call?
“No, the telephone does not work. You no call America, here, ok?”
Stumped, Karen tried again. “Would you kindly bring up some clean towels to the room? There were none in the bathroom and so I used the extra set of sheets in the closet.”
“Towels are extra 2 Euro.”
“ And do you have a street map?”
The clerk laughed and slapped an outstretched hand on the desk before turning her back and walking into the office.
Karen stood there for a few moments, thinking that the clerk would return with a street map. A few more moments passed.
“Hello?” she called.
Karen peered out the front doors. “Oh, heck,” she said as she walked outside.
She walked about 15 minutes before she hit an area that looked like there were some tourists, shops, and restaurants, though not by any stretch welcoming. She stepped into a restaurant with a menu outside that had an American flag, alongside some others, so at least she thought they may speak English.
“Hello, I’m just famished, and can I just eat alone, here?” Karen kept a smile on as much and as often as she could, especially in uncomfortable or tenuous situations.
The waiter was a friendly enough persona and made her feel comfortable, for the first time in hours. In days.
She ordered the special, mussels, and a small glass of red wine. Devouring it all with a large basket of bread and soaking up the sauce, Karen was pleased with her independence and was anxious to show John that she could get out on her own and take care of herself.
The waiter brought the check and she paid with her credit card—realizing at this point she didn’t even change money and had no currency.
“Is there a bank that I can change some money at? I’m dead broke and should probably take a taxi back to the hotel.”
“Certainly, lady, but you should not be alone in Ventimiglia, you know!” the waiter laughed.
“My husband is probably waiting for me there,” Karen said defensively.
The currency exchange was closed when she got there, so she walked back to the hotel exactly the way she came. Or so she thought. Without a street map, and now that darkness had now shrouded the already seedy town, she was unsure of the route. She walked in what seemed like an endlessly futile route, with nothing familiar. She clutched the card from the hotel in her hand hoping to catch the street name somewhere.
The queasiness she began to feel wasn’t just from being lost, broke, alone, and in a foreign country with her husband out of the picture. Something was wrong. She sweated and felt the chills. She tried to hurry in the direction of the hotel but just couldn’t get her legs moving underneath her. She spotted a bar at the end of the block and blearily headed there as if it was the heavenly light. By this time her legs were giving out and her vision was blurry.
“Can you help me, please, I’m sick—I need to find my husband, I am very sick and I need to get to my hotel, here’s the address, could you help me I’m so lost and—“ she leaned on a table and felt the eyes staring at her, “Please, someone, help me, I’m very sorry about this, I’m very lost.”
“I help you—we go, we go now,” said someone behind her who took her by the waist and walked her out of the smoky bar. He was wearing an oversized suit jacket with unmatched pants and black boots. He wore a thick mustache and had thick hands. “You feeling ok? You very beautiful woman, you know.”
In a fog, Karen was eerily grateful she was being carried.
She recognized the smell of the lobby, and as ugly and uncomfortable as the place was, she started laughing she was so happy.
“My husband? John Cooper?” she slurred as the man held her under the shoulders as her feet dragged across the soiled carpet.
The man and the clerk nodded at one another.
When he opened the room and John wasn’t there, Karen began to cry. The man grabbed her neck and shoved his tongue in her mouth, and his grasp around her body tightened.
Karen flinched involuntarily while a tremendous pain wretched her forward, vomiting in the man’s face.
He slapped her and threw her down on the bed and cursed loudly. Covered in vomit, he ran out the door, “Putana, putana!”
Her vomiting was violent and painful. Her headache was splitting and her muscles were aching. Her joints were swelling up and her fever spiked. Her vision was blurred.
She knew this was food poisoning, but she thought she would die. She hoped she would die. That she escaped a possibly violent assault paled in comparison to the fever and gut-wrenching diarrhea she experienced. Hours later, when all she could puke up was bile, she was already curled up with her face pressed against the filthy tile floor. In the course of hanging over the toilet, her hearing aid dropped in and was irretrievable.
There were no cups in the room to use to drink the tap water from the sink. By the following evening, Karen still hadn’t moved from the bathroom, now splattered with her fluids and she had only the extra bed sheet to serve the dual purpose of sopping it all up and cushioning her head on the floor. She didn’t have the strength to stand up at the sink to drink from the tap, and so she only lapped a few sips of brown water from the bath faucet. Dehydration set in fast and exacerbated her weakness, dragging out her fever.
On day three, loud knocking on the door gave way to a large man and the lobby clerk bursting into her room. In those few moments Karen stood up at the sink and tried to rinse her face, and run some water through her hair, which was knotted and matted from sweat and puke.
“You no pay, you filthy whore, junkie, you leave now! Get out or we call the police! I don’t care you American, you get out now!”
“Excuse me, you don’t understand, I’ve been sick—“ Karen immediately began sobbing uncontrollably, “Food poisoning, it was mussels I think—my husband is gone, I have to get to the police and a doctor, please help me, you have to help me.”
“We help you by kicking you out. You think I don’t know you doing the drugs in here? First you owe 280 euro, and then get out!”
Karen collapsed on the floor and sobbed. She crawled around the room looking for her purse. It was gone.
“You have to help me, I’ve been sick, you don’t understand, they’ve taken my purse and my passport. This is totally unbelievable. I don’t know what to do! Please—“
The man took her by the arm and lifted her off the floor and dragged her out the door. She stumbled enough to get her footing so she could walk down the stairs, all the while crying and screaming for her husband.
“Can you give me a bottle of water, please, I—“
The lobby clerk opened the suitcase to find something of value in it; Karen was too weak to carry it with her anyway. Somehow she thought she might come back to retrieve it when the dust settled; it wasn’t important right now.
“My husband, JOHN! JOHN WHERE ARE YOU?” Karen yelled in the street amid her tears.
Her clothing was soiled and the stench from the diarrhea and vomit was sickening. She continued to walk, holding on to buildings, fences and parked cars to keep her balance. Her hearing was at 10% at best now, so she didn’t hear the curses that were yelled at her from passersby.
A police car stopped at the corner ahead of her. She started running toward the car once she looked up and recognized they could help her. Instead, the two officers jumped out of the car with their guns drawn. She could tell they were shouting something but she insisted on yelling her husband’s name. She stumbled forward and fell on her hands and knees, and started dry-heaving once again. She choked on her tears again. The officers grabbed her arms and shouted something, but she realized even if she could hear them, she wouldn’t understand. While she was at least somewhat prepared for a trip to France, having spent a summer in Montreal in college, she knew no Italian.
Ventimiglia is a tough little ville, known for crime and grey-market goods. It is filled with transients and is a stopover for drug runners across Europe from North Africa. Its decrepit buildings and ramshackle markets belie the beauty of the Riviera and greater Italian cities. And Karen Cooper, the housewife from Dayton, Ohio, was now tethered to a chain on a bench in an Italian holding cell, sitting in a puddle of her own pee. She had no identification. There was a call from the hotel to pick her up for vandalism, prostitution, drug use, and skipping out on the bill. And her husband, the pastor, hadn’t been seen in days.
“I am an AMERICAN, you can’t hold me here, I have rights!” she called repeatedly. “You have to call the consulate, I know that! I am a citizen of the United States of America! You can’t do this to me!”
The magistrate didn’t know what to do with her. Usually Americans without papers are in town for drugs, and have foregone their passports for money and they are generally quite easy to trace and track. They have relatives looking for them, or more often, schools who are responsible. For the first few days she was incoherent. Babbling on about being lost, the deputy finally asked the nurse on premises to look at her. After having been burned twice on the arm with lit cigarettes by angry cellmates shouting at her to quiet down, the deputy took her from the cage. The nurse promptly diagnosed her with suffering from acute narcotic withdrawal symptoms: fever, dehydration, chills, sores, hallucinations, general weakness, insomnia and slurred speech.
The magistrate put a call in to the U. S. Consulate, nearest in Genoa, about an hour and a half from Ventimiglia. Two weeks was the earliest possible time that a member of the consulate from the U.S. State Department could arrive, since she was unable to communicate over the phone. She couldn’t hear him on the other end of the phone.
In between her shrieking, Karen cried. Unmanageable sobbing kept her and her cellmates awake.
“I don’t have any other words, PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME! SOMEONE FIND MY HUSBAND! Can you call my brother for me? He’s in Ohio, America. Terry Adams! A-D-A-M-S. This is CRAZY! You can’t keep me here!”
Weeks went by. The infections in her arms were painful and debilitating. Her weight loss was drastic and disturbing, with her skin sagging and her posture bent.
“You, take this, it’s helping you. You feel better. I promise,” a woman in the cell implored with a furtive glance at her hand in a jacket pocket.
“Please don’t speak to me, I’m sick, I need a doctor, I need to go HOME.”
“I promise you, lady, please, you can sleep. When you wake up, things are better, you know that. Please, lady.”
“What do you have there to make me feel better?” she choked, in between tears and rage.
Karen’s pain threshold, while high over the past few weeks, wasn’t keeping up with the reality of her surroundings. Desperation soon turned to hopelessness. Within minutes, the helpless Karen’s life was changed forever and there was no going back.
The magistrate released her from the cell and handed her a paper with a date to return to meet a judge and decide her fate. She tossed the paper immediately after stepping out of the jail, her only record of her claimed identity. She now needed to fulfill her need for more juice: the powder that kept her spirits alive, she thought, over the past couple of weeks.
Ventimiglia’s dark corners offered plenty of opportunities for earning money in any variety of ways. It just wasn’t lucrative or honest. At the train station, Karen made eye contact with a man in a bar.
“Hi there, do you have any money I can borrow? I need to get something and I don’t have my wallet. I have to make a call, too. Can you help me?” she said meagerly.
“What makes you think I speak English?” he said with a smile.
“Everyone who needs to understand me does. I don’t understand you, but if you can help me, I will help you. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, I know what you mean.”