I learned of S’s death two days before Christmas while standing in the doorway of my mother’s new home. She lived ten minutes away from the airport in one of the suburbs south of Washington DC that had become popular with retired middle-class immigrants like her. We hadn’t seen each other in five years, and yet I had insisted that I would take a taxi from the airport. It was the last chance I had to indulge the fantasy that at any moment I was going to turn around and board the next flight back to Paris. I had remained convinced until the plane lifted off that something would happen to make it impossible for me to leave. The trip was supposed to have been both family vacation and reunion, a chance for my three-year-old son to set foot on American soil and meet his American grandmother. Instead, as the cab pulled up to the address my mother had given me, my wife and son were asleep nearly 4,000 miles away in the two-bedroom apartment we had moved into when our son was born.
My mother told me of S’s death as soon as I dropped my suitcase at the bottom of the half-spiral staircase that led up to the three bedrooms and two bathrooms she was so proud of. I had imagined carrying my son slowly up those steps. It would have been a deliberate attempt to demonstrate to him the grandeur of America, a two-story house many times larger than our apartment, larger than anything I had ever imagined for us as a child.
I had felt lightheaded walking up the driveway, and without my suitcase I struggled to stand straight. I might have collapsed right there had my mother not taken me in her arms and whispered, even though we were alone, ‘Yenegeta, something terrible has happened to S.’
S had been like a brother to my mother, and when I was a child, something of an uncle to me. Whatever had happened to him tore through my mother’s natural stoicism; she half-whispered, half-mumbled. ‘Something terrible’ were the only words I clearly understood, no doubt because my wife had said just that during our last argument about coming to America. We had debated whether it was safe for our son to sit in an air-pressurized cabin for so many hours, whether he would be able to bear the hour-long drive to the airport, and the hours more waiting to pass through customs and security. In the end she won by noting that because there was so much we didn’t understand about our son’s condition, the one certainty we had was that it was far too easy for something terrible to happen to him. ‘It could be something very small,’ she said, ‘and for him it would be terrible. We would be far away and wouldn’t know what to do.’
I didn’t point out that if something terrible happened, it was likely to be in Paris, and in particular, in our immigrant-heavy quarter. When it came to our son, her defensive instincts were well-developed and all the more necessary because it was hard from the outside to see why we were so protective. Up close our son looked like any other excessively beautiful child. Over the course of the past year my wife and I had developed a habit of staring at him. Our son would discreetly turn his head to meet our gaze; or if sitting up, he would eventually grow tired and begin to slowly tilt until his body was flat against the ground. An hour could slip past during which there was hardly any movement or sound in our apartment, and I imagine from the outside it would have looked as if we were living in some abnormal state. We had to force ourselves to remember that for the first ten months of his life, he seemed primed to run, early to stand and quick to crawl. It was impossible to know when exactly that had stopped, but before his first birthday it was obvious that he was moving less and less with each passing month, as if the energy required to stand, or lift his arms above his head, were no longer worth it. We had been told by doctors in three countries to prepare for his condition worsening. They had yet to name it, but it was obvious to them that something inside him was wasting away. His legs had been the first to slow, and then his arms and upper body. A month after his second birthday, his fourth pediatrician told us it wouldn’t be long before his organs followed. ‘It’s going to be a lung first. Or his heart, if he’s lucky.’
The day before that doctor’s visit, the police sealed off the metro station closest to our apartment. A device had been left somewhere in the station, but had failed to detonate. No lives were lost but just as much, if not more, terror was struck as a result. The possible death toll increased hourly, and every day that the station remained closed meant another block in our neighborhood was cordoned off. The attack was suggestive of a larger event still being scaled, and the only thing that could be done, it seemed, was to lash out in rage, or to hold our breath in fear.
Before my wife had fully committed to remaining behind, she called the airline at least a half-dozen times to ask, politely, if we could change our flight without any extra costs. On the morning of our scheduled departure, she told operators in France and in America that we would fly days, weeks, months in the future, during the darkest, coldest days of February, if only we didn’t have to leave that afternoon, two days before Christmas. When her requests for a free-of-charge alternate date failed, I suggested that she find a story tragic enough to spur the sympathy of the airline agent(s) in a way a simple request never could.
‘Give them a dead mother, or dying father,’ I said.
I might have even offered her a crippled husband, or depressed sister without ever once mentioning our son. It had become standard practice that we no longer told strangers anything about him. He was ours, and had always been, but we grew fiercer in our territorial defense of him with each passing month. My wife once slapped a woman who had leaned over our son’s stroller. I wasn’t there to see it, but she insisted it was what any mother would have done if a stranger tried to touch her child. That I failed to see that served as later proof that I was the one who suggested our son play a starring role in our tragic airline story. According to my wife, like most Americans I instinctively ‘sought the easiest solution to any problem’ and in this case, an injured child was the most immediate path to sympathy.
‘C’est plus facile,’ she had said, ‘like one of your big American hugs.’
Whatever I might have suggested, the story of a two-year-old child with a broken arm was her invention entirely. She decided on a slightly tense, borderline hostile tone to sell the story, because, according to her, ‘They need to be scared, not sad.’ As far as I knew, she had never acted in anything, but she believed in having convictions, and so for the duration of that conversation, she became, even to me, the mother of a two-year-old son who had fallen and fractured his arm. She described to the operator how the trauma kept him howling through the night. She avoided the disingenuous sigh most liars would have called upon, and described instead how difficult the cast made him. ‘Not just difficult,’ she said, ‘but at times impossible,’ or ‘C’est just pas p-o-s-s-ible’ – an expression I heard daily to describe the ordinary hardships we were all subject to. My wife concluded by claiming that she was thinking above all of the other passengers – tourists, expatriates like ourselves, already tired and burdened with the long journey back to America carrying Christmas gifts that couldn’t be wrapped.
‘What if there’s something in his cast that makes the metal detector go off ?’ she asked. ‘Can you imagine how difficult that would be?’
It was as close to pleading as I had ever heard her come, and when she sensed that wasn’t enough, she went on to describe how a two-year-old in a cast wasn’t that different from a monkey with a club – both were dangerous, although you might not think so. ‘He can’t help it,’ she said. ‘He hurts people. He swings his arm and someone gets hurt.’
Her sorrow over her imaginary, injured monkey-child became real at that moment, and I’m sure had I not been in the room, a trickle of all that dammed-up grief would have found some measure of relief.
There was a brief silence, during which we both imagined that she might have won her argument for an alternate flight. Had the silence lasted five, maybe ten seconds longer, I might have seen something approaching a smile on her face, something I hadn’t seen in so long that later that evening, I would imagine calling the airline back and requesting the same operator so I could tell him or her what a terrible, awful person they were for not having shut the fuck up just a little longer. What would it have cost you to say nothing? I wanted to ask.
She dropped her phone into her purse. The way she let it slip from her fingers made it seem contaminated.
‘He said the airline doesn’t allow animals in the main cabin.’
I knew the dangers that came with dwelling on any defeat. We had only recently come to the table of adult-sized problems laid out specifically for us. In doing so, we had learned to stop asking ourselves if we were living the lives we had imagined, if we were happy with who we had become, who we had married. Our jobs grew dull, our rent went up, but it was only after our son was born that we understood the possible range lying in wait. Six weeks earlier he had lifted himself off the ground and walked across our living room. The next morning I said I wanted us to go to America for Christmas.
Before leaving for the airport, I strapped my son to my chest so we could enjoy the oddity of having spring weather in December. His body still felt substantial suspended around my neck, but that wasn’t enough now. His first steps – approximately twenty-three of them – had been made, it seemed, for no reason. Seven weeks had passed since then, and neither my wife nor I had seen him attempt to even stand.
We turned right, toward the boulevard. We reached the end of our narrow street. I wanted to show my son the soldiers who had remained a constant presence in our neighborhood since the bomb threat. I turned the back of his head slightly in their direction, and whispered into his ear, ‘That’s why we need you to run.’
I said goodbye to my wife and son on that same corner two hours later. I kissed my wife on the forehead and pretended to take a bite out of the band of fat roped around my son’s wrist. At roughly the same time S, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in six years, and who I’d always thought of as happier than anyone else I’d known, hauled a heavy chair and a cord of rope from his living room into the basement while his family slept upstairs.
Photograph © Anne-Emmanuelle Robicquet
Photograph © Sergey Ivanov