I know you. You’re disappointed in yourself. You didn’t end up with the man or woman that you wanted to be with. You didn’t ask for enough when you took that last job. Or if you’re already retired, you know you could have done better, made more, lasted longer. You spend a good deal of your time feeling sorry for yourself. Wishing you had done this or that. But let me tell you, you don’t know how good you have it.
There are things in life that you can’t come back from. I don’t mean a crippling accident, disease, or the death of a loved one. No matter how awful they may seem at the time, you do bounce back from these things. Eventually you forget. You see, we all forget. We all move on. It may take a long while, but we do. But there are things, things too horrible for you to imagine, things that can not be forgotten.
I didn’t know this eight years ago, when my story begins. My wife, Alicia, and I were living in an old house in Montclair, New Jersey. She was the bread winner, working at a major publishing house in New York. I was a stay at home dad, taking care of our twin girls, Allison and Carolyn, who were just over a year old. They had been named after our mothers -- we thought it was a great way to appease the in-laws on both sides. I wasn’t just a Mr. Mom, though. I was also working on the great American novel.
It sounds like I had a great life, doesn’t it? I wasn’t giving forty hours of my week to some dreadful job. I was spending my time with my beautiful girls and doing what I loved. Things were great. The only problem is that I didn’t know it. You see, I had been working on this book for years. I was rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I don’t know if it was getting any better, but it was certainly getting longer. 4000 pages long. Because of this, or some deep restlessness that I’ve always had, I continually felt out of sorts. On the verge of desperate. Desperate for what, I’m not sure. But I can tell you that though my wife was a beauty, I found myself staring at, and becoming obsessed with, young women I saw on the street. I rented pornography regularly, even bought some. But it did nothing to resolve, or relieve, this feeling I had. Eventually, I tried drugs. It helped as much as something like that can help. Of course I kept all these things from my Alicia. Maybe I should have talked to her. But not being able to talk is part of this restlessness I have.
The drugs preoccupied me more and more. I hit what I thought was my bottom on an especially hot August afternoon. I was dying for a fix. My dealer insisted on meeting me at the Willowbrook Mall. It was a hike for me, but I needed it. So I packed the twins into the car and we headed for the mall.
Being a weekday afternoon, the parking lot was mostly empty. I ran into the mall, then waited for my dealer. Time passed. My skin began to crawl. I needed my hit so that I could go back home and start on my new chapter. Eventually, I began to walk the mall, looking for him. Hours must have passed. I don’t know. I was insane. Then I remembered the twins.
* * *
You may have read about the incident -- it made the national news. All over the country, people heard of the terrible details. My baby girls were literally cooked to death in their accident-proof baby seats. Everyone, of course, was appalled. It was a horrible thing. But no one really knew. You see, I was the first to see them.
When I opened the back door, something inside me clicked. I knew that this was not something that could be undone. I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t simply say that I was sorry. I couldn’t start fresh. This, I thought, was the bottom that I couldn’t get out from. I was wrong, though. I was nowhere near my bottom.
I went back into the mall, then walked around like a zombie. I couldn’t get the image of my dead girls out of my head. The smell was worse. I went into a restroom and splashed water up my nose, but it wouldn’t go away. It was burned in. Then, a miracle occurred. My dealer walked into the bathroom.
“I’m so sorry, man,” he said to me. “I got tied up with a client.”
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Let’s go to your car,” I said. “I’m paranoid here.”
He led me to his car, which was in another part of the parking lot. I sat in the passenger seat and he in the driver side. I could tell that he was suspicious. He was about to ask me what was going on when I rammed my left elbow into his nose. I heard a crack. Before he could react, I hit him again and again and again. The dealer was able to slither his way out of the car, but he was a bloody mess by then. I continued to beat on him until he was unconscious. Then I used the car door to crush his head.
I drove straight home in his car, cleaned up, then died my hair blond. I packed a bag, then drove to the bank and withdrew every penny Alicia and I had -- in cash, of course. By the time someone found my car and my girls, I was long gone. Since I knew the car I was driving would be traced to the dead dealer, and then to me, I left it with the keys in the ignition outside a seedy bar in Newark, New Jersey.
I spent that night in a motel room. If there was anyone who needed an escape, it was I. But instead of doing the drugs that I had taken from the dealer, I flushed them down the toilet. I suppose I blamed them as I had the dealer. I couldn’t turn the television on without seeing images of Alicia crying over her dead baby girls. I wanted to tell her that it was all a mistake, that I was sorry, but it wasn’t possible. I could never return to my life. I was now a non-person. I stared at the ceiling for most of the night. The smell of my burned-alive girls was still in my nostrils. Worse, the image of them was in my eyes, even when I closed them.
The next day, the police began to put the elements of the incident together. They knew I had killed the drug dealer. They knew I had withdrawn all our money and left. They had found traces of drugs and pornography in our house. Worse, it was all on television. I, or the man I used to be, was the most despicable human being on the planet. I was evil. Hated by everyone.
That afternoon, I got onto a Greyhound bus and headed West. All around me, I heard people talking about what I had done. I kept my head down. It wasn’t until we were in Minnesota that I thought about my manuscript. I hadn’t brought it with me. I realized that it no longer mattered to me. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t thinking about the future. I didn’t care. I felt barely alive.
I spent the next few months on buses. I rode all over the country, observing people as they traveled. Some were escaping or running away, some were going to places they had always dreamed about, some were just going home. I felt like a ghost. I was no longer part of life. I wasn’t leaving or going anywhere. I was just there.
Though time had passed, what I had done still seemed like yesterday to me. The smell was still in my nostrils and the image of my dead girls was still in my eyes. It was like when an image is burned into a television monitor. You can see whatever channel you’re watching, but that image is also there, superimposed like a apparition. No matter what I was looking at it, there were my girls. I wanted to tear my eyes out, but I knew it they would still be there.
* * *
I ended up in a small California town that was near the Mexico border -- I needed to be able to escape quickly if someone recognized me. To keep myself busy, I took a job at a car wash. The owner knew there was something strange about my wanting to work there and to be paid in cash, but he didn’t ask questions. I worked with Mexicans who were in the country illegally. In a strange way, I felt like I was one of them. We all just wanted to continue existing. They seemed to be afraid of me, though. It was if they recognized that I was a non-person -- a man sent to his own version of Siberia.
More months went by, but my past did not fade. My girls were still burned into my retinas and nostrils. Worse, I dreamt of them every night. It was like my mind replayed the moment when I saw them in the car over and over in a continuous loop. Eventually, I would wake up to find myself covered with sweat. And then I would be faced with another day of not being able to get it out of my head.
I hit the breaking point on a particularly hot summer day. I bought a gun, then brought it back to the flop house I was staying in. After loading the cylinder, I pressed its barrel against the bottom of my chin. I couldn’t go through with it, though. It wasn’t because of an innate desire to live or a fear of nothingness. No, I wanted to die. I wanted nothingness. I didn’t pull the trigger because I was afraid that death might be a continuation of this life. What if this went on after I died? What if, in death, I ended up staring at my dead girls for the rest of eternity?
* * *
Exactly three years after my girls died, I went into Mexico, then hired someone to take me to Cuba on their boat. Though I was born in Cuba, I don’t feel Cuban -- my parents took me out when I was a baby. Because of that, my Spanish is not very good (they say I speak it like an American), and going back was like entering a foreign world. Something about it felt right to me, though. As though the answer would be there.
Since there are hardly any vehicles that run in Cuba, I spent a few weeks wandering around the island on foot. I learned nothing about myself, nor did I find it any easier to escape my thoughts. Then I had a brilliant idea: I would give myself something else to think about. I would create something that would have to be in the forefront of my mind. I hitched a ride into Havana, then went to the center of the city and began to yell, “Abajo con Fidel!” I yelled it over and over again, until I was dragged away the police.
I spent the next five years in a dingy Cuban prison. I was wired for the entire time, constantly on alert, always guarding against being attacked. There were brutal fights. I was stabbed on a couple of occasions. I was even raped once. Then there were the guards, who took me to a torture room every once in a while, just for fun. I was dunked in water, my testicles were electrocuted, salt was poured into my open wounds, limbs were broken. Strange as it may sound, this was exactly what I wanted. When you’re in fear or in pain, you can’t think of anything else. For a while, it worked.
When I walked out of the jail a free man -- as much as anyone can be free in Cuba -- I was in terrible shape. I had a pronounced limp, my chest hurt when I inhaled, and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. My hope was that I would be so happy to be out, that everything else, including my past, would be unimportant. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There are things you can’t come back from. Things that once experienced remain burned in to your eyes, your nostrils, your pores, and your very soul. Things you can not escape from. Not even in death.