DANA NEACȘU este doctor în filosofie, lector de drept la COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL, din New York, profesor adjunct la BARNARD COLLEGE – Columbia University, dar și dâmbovițeană de pe malurile Ialomiței…
Something Went Really Wrong
By Jordan Muncz
Instead of Forward
If you’re afraid of what you might learn, stop reading now – this isn’t for you. Furthermore, I have no proof. It was quick and mostly quiet and by 5AM all that was left was the sound of helicopters leaving the city. Anyone that might have heard anything, gunshots, screams, sirens, wouldn’t have gotten very far into it – internet searches yielded error messages, and there was nothing on TV but the usual: gang shootouts, potheads causing traffic jams on the GWB and Columbia University sprucing up their campus for graduation.
I’m here to tell you, the military dumped sick people into the Hudson River. Call the Pentagon and they’ll reassure you, they’ve heard the rumors, but isn’t it ridiculous? And they’re not in the business of spreading crazy rumors. The newspapers will do the same, exactly the same…
After you read what I’ve written, you…, well you might think I’m crazy, or jealous, trying to take down academia because I’m not Ivy League. I have my opinions, but that’s not what this is about. It’s just where it happened.
What this is about: people disappeared that night. I did what research I could. I called the NYPD but when I told them I had a blog, and it wasn’t the New York Times, they could neither confirm nor deny “the rumors”.
Like I told you, I can’t prove anything, but there are facts. Ollie Kun-He is missing. His father is owner of The Founding Father’s Burger Joint, where the explosion at the center of the mayhem took place. I tried contacting his parents but Ms. Kun-He’s answering machine says she’s travelling in Korea indefinitely.
So, a day that won’t live in history. The few media outlets that heard about what might have been happening didn’t run the story. Then there’s the floating head. „American Beauty” on Instagram and the story is that ISIS is claiming it. Right. They infiltrated NYC to put a hit on one guy, if you want to believe those opportunists…
Of course my book has a hero. He’s a security guard. I know his family, well, I used to know them. After what happened, when I asked for news about „Tony,” his job, his new girlfriend, my friend, his uncle, replied „Tony who.”
Finally, don’t try to find me because I’m in hiding. Anyway, it will be hard to find me because you don’t know my gender, age, not much of anything. At least I hope, because there are people looking for me who know how to look.
In my book you’ll meet an assassin. I’ve called him John Rambo, nice name, no? Doesn’t matter, what does matter is that he’s real and at large. General Pistone has a clear interest in him, as does Congresswoman Calder. This should be enough for you to understand what’s at stake for me or my future family, if I live long enough to have one.
So, how does that sound to you? A crazy person with no evidence telling you the world you live in is worse than you thought. Still, I’m writing so I have to imagine there are readers curious enough. But if that’s you, please consider this a coming of age book. Your own coming of age.
A door hidden behind the pedestal of Columbia’s Alma Mater slightly opened; its security lock had been disengaged. The lack of noise indicated its hinge had been recently oiled. A wiry unstable figure came out and waited for something unclear to guide his steps.
His shoes squished as if full of water. Neither that discomfort, nor the bad visibility deterred his slow descent towards the quad below. The air was dark and in places looked condensed into a mournful gloom. Brooding would have been a one-word description of the pervasive feeling on campus.
Like a drunk using that muscle memory all drunks use to reach home, undeterred, the creature made it down the stairs to the lawn. There, he collapsed exhausted and anonymous in the sea of fog. His foot came out of his shoe, a size too large.
The smooth skin perfectly covering his facial bone structure made it impossible to tell his age. Only his hands, limp by his side, said it had been long enough. Their elongated fingers and dirty uncut nails were covered in tidbits of old goo, which could have been anything, perhaps even human or animal flesh dried out.
Not long afterwards a young woman, a fancy blond, in a golden leather dress, stumbled out of the same door. But she fought the fog and lost. She mumbled something, perhaps that she could not see where to go, when her high heels failed and pulled her down the stairs faster than expected. She rested quietly, and there was a good chance that she would not be disturbed for a while.
The wiry unstable figure covered in long hair and haute hippie clothes eventually managed to stand up. Perhaps he wobbled in circles for a while until musical harmony organized his moves in the midst of the sirens’ cacophony. Guided by his acute hearing he followed the harmony and thus aimed for the co-ed dormitory.
When he tripped over the tent and the fornicating couple inside, it happened fast and unexpectedly for everybody involved. The intruder’s eyes looked impenetrable; his smell and attire that of the homeless. In that moment most likely, the couple thought about the perfectly manicured lawn for the upcoming graduation spectacle which had attracted them to the outdoors. How vacuous of them. Maybe they tried to blame the mild wilderness of the quadrangle. Or maybe the misty air incited the future Wall Street analysts to set their tent outside. Unburdened yet by financial success, they loved simple excitement under the moon, especially when the air was cool and the shadows plenty. The lack of stars worked as a bond holding their young hopes together. It had the effect of making the imminent MBA graduates tolerant of each other’s yarns, emptied as they were of any convictions.
Then, the unthinkable occurred. What had been meant as a memorable end of innocence became the end of it all.
The sudden apparition did not mumble any excuse. It entered the tent right when the couple had finally finished embracing, and intrigued by the daring intruder, momentarily stopped to take in the view. The worldly one must have attempted to engage the stranger hospitably. Wine glasses would soon be found broken as well as some white powder terribly wasted around.
Perhaps the unsophisticated younger fellow got tired of being the last to matter and stood up brashly. He might have touched the stranger unpleasantly. While he did manage to flee, he did not scream for help. His elegant escape proved thoughtless. Moreover, a splinter or just bad luck got into his naked smooth foot. Inadvisably, but graciously, he stopped and squatted to take it out.
Focused on the task at hand, his eyes looked down. He would not record the tall figure catching up with him and finally bringing his transitory life into eternity. The fog added a je ne sais quoi of mystery.
Not even a foot outside his booth, Tony was taken by the show of lights and noise, and ignored the nippy air. Finally, he basked in the world outside his head and had a glimpse of everything he had missed.
“What the hell’s going on,” Tony exclaimed. Energized, he waked away toward the epicenter of those unexpected nocturnal activities, abandoning his spot.
FDNY trucks were leaving the area, and NYPD cars were arriving. Police officers were taking over. In the absence of traffic, students carrying a pillow or two were carelessly crossing Broadway. They were being herded to the campus co-ed dormitory where they were going to spend the night.
Starting to grasp the reality, Tony stopped in the middle of the street. A honking horn woke him up forcing him to retreat to the sidewalk. Ollie was making a U-turn in his bright red Fiat 500. Tony’s head turned around. The Fiat was going uptown.
“Hey, Spike, Spike Lee, have you seen the security guard anyway around?” The high heels clacking accompanied the unwelcome words.
That appellation of “Spike Lee” brought back memories he would have liked long gone. That and other similar names had been used to point out his insecurities: small, geeky, and nearsighted. Instead of beating up Ms. Gallant’s son, “Tonino Fartino,” and pushing him into a locker, or scaring him with drowning in the girls’ bathroom toilet bowls as the other kids his side of short had to endure, the big scary young men who pointlessly repeated grades in junior high school teased him. His mother, Giovanna Gallant was the Math teacher who might have been weird like her sun, an African American of Italian descent, as she liked to introduce herself, but she passed all the kids. Failing was a state of mind she did not have.
“Hey, Spike, are you trying to kill yourself,” the woman physically grabbed him and pulled him from the middle of the street where he was going to run away from her. Ollie’s Fiat seemed to be on a perpetual quest for direction and Tony was baffled. He liked Ollie. Sometimes he helped the wait staff when they were busy, and once served Tony quite pleasantly.
The woman was still blabbering something while Tony let her pull him back to the sidewalk. Mindlessly he was following her when a group of workers got his attention. They were affixing a huge poster on the campus entry right across the street from Tony’s booth. Tony took off his glasses and cleaned them with his shirt sleeve. Indeed it was the image larger than life of History Professor Thomas Knowlton, class of 1982, as the poster said. He was wearing Oculus Rift glasses. Below his name Tony read:
“Columbia University Presents ‘TECHNOLOGY BRINGS HISTORY TO LIFE.” Join us for the International Conference uniting personalities from 100 countries. Congresswoman, Celeste Calder, CGS ’82, will deliver the key note speech.”
Suddenly obfuscated by what he read, he felt chilly and disconnected. He went inside to recollect. Busying himself he threw on his jacket and hurriedly buttoned it up.
“Oh, it’s you. Oops.” The woman exclaimed having followed him back.
“How may I help you?” Tony asked staring above her at the poster.
“I thought you were a student.” She continued embarrassed. “I need your help. I have this feeling that something went wrong.”
“Something went really wrong,” Tony repeated agreeably lowering his gaze to see her. Before he knew it, his stomach butterflies told him who she was.
“Could you please help me get in touch with Professor Knowlton?
Tony suddenly found his muteness. It came to him when he felt out of place and intimidated. The way she pronounced “Knowlton” gave away her feelings for him. Lena, the girlfriend, cared for that man. He appraised her ridiculously looking shirt-dress, which was neither a shirt nor a dress like a brunch was neither breakfast nor lunch. What the hell was he saying? He needed to get in touch with his boss and explain himself. But first he needed to learn what happened.
“Officer Gallant,” she managed to add reading his badge as Tony turned his back to her and searched the Internet for Channel NY1. He turned the volume louder to signal her he was busy. She made him uncomfortable and he did not have the desire to analyze his feelings. A student was being interviewed in NY1.
“I’m a junior at Barnard. Our dormitory is right next door. My room is…was on the third floor. The first explosion woke me up at a little past midnight… uhh… Maybe 12:12 AM. I remember the time because it was so crazy. I looked at my watch. I do wear a watch. Crazy again. It was 12:12. The second one came later. I did not check the time. Perhaps five minutes later. I had time to go downstairs and reach the street. I was staring in disbelief. The whole storefront was falling off. Black smoke came out…”
Tony remembered the security cameras were not transmitting live feeds. Their recording was developing a delayed retransmission. He needed to call his boss.
On his screen the NY1 anchor interviewed another student. This young woman seemed more belligerent.
“Something went really wrong. How was this possible at a restaurant below a Columbia dormitory? The ConEdison guy was here yesterday. How do I know that? I am the building president and let him in. And tonight we almost all went out in smoke.”
“So, how may I help you Ms.…” Tony finally addressed his companion.
“Gallant,” Tony said so fast he surprised himself, and then added, “Tony.”
“Italian?” her voice sparkled.
“Half Italian. Half Irish.” And after a moment’s hesitation he added “and the rest African.” Why was he suddenly so chatty? “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand how I can be of any help, Ms. uh…”.
“Vodă, V O D A pronounced vohduh, as in uh, duh,” but perhaps realizing how pedantic she sounded she apologized. “Lena is easier. I’m Lena.”
Lena extended her hand in an open handshake attempt. Such an affected gesture thought Tony and instead chose to clean his jacket of imaginary dandruff.
“That’s a nice name. Lena Vodă.”
“Romanian,” she said without sounding offended by his indifference to her friendly handshake offer.
“The Impaler,” she ended his sentence.
“What were you saying?”
Lena rolled her eyes and turned around to leave. “Never mind.”
“Ms. Vodă,” Tony replied when the wind changed direction and her perfume reached his nostrils. Rich girls did smell so much better than he had imagined. “How can I help you?”
“Like a modern day Dante, I assume you watch those who enter the underworld on your monitors.” Lena painfully explained her situation. “The truth is I was supposed to meet Professor Knowlton, and Samantha, Bowles, the TA, actually another TA of his…”
Tony sighed unsure whether she was lying to him or indeed she did not know about her womanizing boyfriend Knowlton.
“We were supposed to check out the professor’s new 3D invention projecting holographs through Oculus glasses… uhhh… Tomorrow is the big unveiling …at the conference. A Congresswoman friend with Tom will be here and we will go for a short walk in the tunnel to recreate history. Tom, I mean Professor Knowlton, believes that the tunnels know history from well before the time Columbia University was built. He thinks they were first war trenches, during the War of Independence.”
Tony did not need this history lesson in the middle of the night. He felt suddenly very tired.
“Tom’s book will be on display tomorrow. It’s his first book in two decades. It’s going to be sensational. A total surprise. His knowledge of American history and especially the War of Independence is unequaled. Through this book he will make history palatable to all. For instance, did you know that Columbia’s underground tunnels were created when the Asylum for the Dangerously Insane was built?”
“No,” Tony replied politely.
“You should talk to Tom. Especially because you watch the tunnels. I bet someone like you watched the tunnels when dangerously sick patients were admitted in and out.”
“Not like me if the patients were white,” Tony felt like adding. Instead he looked down at his shoes. She talked so much. When he finally looked at her he got distracted by her fresh-looking watery mouth. “Marilyn was a better name for her,” he thought for a brief moment forgetting that it was very likely she would not remember his face tomorrow. He felt a deep panic thinking that.
“Maybe you should come. It is open to the public.”
“I think I’m going to pass.”
“Of course, you need to go home to sleep.”
“Uhuh,” Tony added with a beginning of a smile he used to shorten a conversation instead of lying that he couldn’t stick around because he had a job to do. “Uhuh,” he added retreating when Ollie bumped into him. Ollie’s small oval face looked bloodless. Framed by long dark hair it appeared stuck between Ollie’s inflexible shoulders giving him the air of a Dickensian office clerk, of someone who could never achieve anything consequential. His aquiline nose pointed ahead sniffing at possible resolutions and contradicting that first impression.
Tony was taken aback to recognize him and to notice his chosen route. Ollie entered the campus in the direction of Earl Hall. That was the entrance Knowlton and Sam used every Wednesday around midnight to access the tunnel. Tony realized he missed his chance to check on Knowlton. He felt slightly strange. What if they needed his help and he ignored them while typing? His heart started beating faster. What could his excuse be? “Vlad made me do it,” he wished he could say when Lena’s voice softly pounding on his neck directed his attention to the computer screen.
“Could you turn the volume a bit up? That’s me and Tom, I mean Professor Knowlton, outside the Founding Father. To think it was standing an hour ago.”
And she sat down on his stool all invested in the delayed security tape rolling on in front of her eyes. From the monitor a slightly inebriated Lena was leaning away from Knowlton. She seemed to whisper“Oh, tempora! Oh, mores!” They were outside the restaurant. Tony notices the time lag in the recording and anxiously wondered what went so wrong. His worries are interrupted by Lena’s earlier voice recording.She sounded like a poor imitation of the young woman so poised and so in control, occupying his entire space:
“Tom, I had enough.”
“Lenny,” Knowlton added as a group of students having finished their meals exited the restaurant hurriedly to return to their exam studying or join a party in the making.
“Professor,” they acknowledged Knowlton and Knowlton nodded in their direction with his eyes fixated on Lena.
“Tom, let me go please. I cannot afford making a scene in front of Jones. Tomorrow I have to rub shoulders with him in the library.”
Tony looked at her inquiringly, “Do you visit the library?”
“I work there.”
Tony gave her a stare above the glasses.
“My TA stipend barely covers my rent, and Jones needed an instructional librarian.” Lena blushed and looked away. Tony lifted his chin and his gaze lowered behind his glasses.
“An assistant instructional librarian,” her moist, plum-like mouth corrected herself. Her teeth were slightly crooked. She had not been brought up here, Tony thought disbelieving he could articulate that observation.
“It was a favor to Knowlton. Happy?” She sounded hurried more than irritated. The air wave her head turning away from him hit him. With it came a citrusy floral smell. A mixture of bottled femininity unknown to him until then. He suddenly craved her presence.
The recording continued and Lena turned her crushing smile toward him and put her right index finger on his mouth, still staring at the monitor. Perhaps realizing the intimacy of her gesture she recoiled and mumbled an apology.
“Lenny,” Knowlton continued defensively from the monitor, and his well-defined jaw appeared ravenous instead of meek.
“Tom, I really don’t need to see your sexting to Sam!” came like an unexpected bark.
“Lenny, you could at least let me explain.”
“I’ve listened to too many explanations from you, Professor Knowlton. It’s public knowledge that Sam’s head fits your crotch like a cherry fits the top of a cake.”
“Lenny, stop now. You said enough.” Knowlton winced, almost as if struck by thunder.
Lena must have noticed the effect her words had on him because she gathered herself and took a more proper position. She wanted to project self-assurance but she was shifting her weight from one foot to another, looking as if her stilettoes were too much to endure at that late hour.
“Lenny, you know I am a pushover when it comes to bitchy blonds.”
His stomach rebelled and for once Tony agreed with it. He would go outside to seek some food rather than continue watching people more foreign to him than his Italian grandparents. He opened the door ready to leave when he heard:
“Lenny, why don’t you marry me?”
Again, unable to contain his feelings, Tony turned and looked at Lena. She stiffened in his chair pretending she was all interested in her earlier reply, or maybe she was curious to hear it, as if she did not remember it.
“I’m tired, Tom. I am tipsy, and jealous, and my therapist won’t text me back.” And as she finished her sentence her phone rang. Distracted Lena looked into her bag and grabbed her phone.
“Hello, Jenna?” then towards Knowlton, “It’s my therapist. I’ll be fine.” Knowlton had fallen on one knee begging her forgiveness. Lena smiled and ruffled his very short cut hair. She continued her phone conversation. “Thank you for calling, Jenna. …Jenna, I am turning twenty-five tomorrow and I guess I’m going through a quarter-of-a-century life crisis.”
Lena pressed the stop key and stood up.
“Can you help me?”
Tony felt cornered.
“Can you let me in the tunnel?”
Tony was staring at her. His neck was hurting. She was so much taller. It made him uncomfortable. As she stood in the doorway she saw her tiny frame through the dress. She looked thin she could be called Twig. He restrained his indulgent smile and felt a strong impulse to protect her. And then she talked and her words confused him.
“You must agree that the explosion could have dislodged something, or created a glitch in the security system. What if they’re stuck somewhere? Let’s go, please.” She took his hand and pulled him slightly out behind her.
For the second time that night, Tony was shocked to notice her strong grip despite her willowy figure. Her hand was warm and dry and he imagined how her entire body would feel against his palm and a shiver like never before electrocuted his body.