When My Body Smashed Into the Sidewalk
Yuvi Zalkow’s work has been published in Rosebud, Ellipsis…, storyglossia.com, The Clackamas Literary Review, and other magazines. He is currently working on a novel (while also trying to trick someone into publishing his short story collection). You can reach him at www.yuvizalkow.com.
My last thought was this: I should have bought my mother a birthday present. Her birthday was the day before my jump and I didn’t even call her. I had seen the blackest blue necklace at the jewelry store storefront on the way to work but I didn’t have a chance to get it for her. I should have thought ahead.
My fall was 311 feet. 30 stories. 4.5 seconds. Terminal velocity is 120 miles per hour—the speed at which I was falling at the time of impact. When my body smashed into the ground, I was going so fast that a cloud of red smoke rose from my body—my blood turning into a gas, going through the blood vessel walls, through my smashed flesh, and hovering above my body as if a child had smacked two chalkboard erasers together. Poof.
A woman who had just escaped the burning building from which I jumped saw my crash from 25 feet away. It was a thunderous bang my carcass made, and she covered her head with her hands, thinking a piece of the building had just fallen. But she did not look away. She stared at that thing beside her, because in her gut she knew it was important to see.
I knew to jump the instant the fire got to my floor. The others went for the stairwell (and why not?), but I sensed something bad down there, I didn’t want to die in a smoky stairwell, I wanted to die speeding through the fresh air.
Not knowing about the phenomenon I just described, she thought the cloud of blood above my crushed carcass was a soul, or it was a demon, she thought demons were escaping the scene, the horror of it, and this woman did what any sane person would do in that situation. She collapsed right on the sidewalk.
Fortunately, the man beside her was kind enough to pick her up—he was two inches shorter and twenty pounds smaller, but he picked her up and dragged her two blocks away from the scene, to a distance that was safe even when the 33-story building collapsed. The man was gone before she was conscious enough to notice him, and so he became another person lost in her dreams, a man whispering to her: it’s going to be all right, my god, it’s horrible, but it’ll be all right.
When you have approximately two seconds to live and you know it, the wind against your ears is the most astonishing sensation.
She never spoke about the cloud above my crushed body to anyone, even during all her therapy, she refused to tell that part of the story, thinking to herself that she was cursed, and that was the only explanation for why she saw this ghost that no one else had seen. A therapist couldn’t save her from ghosts—not real ones.
The building wasn’t supposed to collapse, it was structurally sound. It wasn’t supposed to burn the way that it did. At first, they attributed it to terrorists (and who could blame them?). There was a lot of terror in the air, especially after what happened in New York. After all, “terrorism” has more punch to it than “faulty inductor in the wiring of an old Panasonic microwave oven.”
The woman who saw me crushed was named Noku. She was twenty-nine. She was no small woman, though she had the skinny fingers of her mother. Even though she was raised by her American father, it was her Japanese mother who named her before she disappeared six months after Noku was born. Noku has a memory of a woman, smelling of mint leaves, kissing her on the forehead and whispering to her, “Aishiteru.” She’d like to think that this was her mother saying to her, “I love you,” but a big part of her thinks it was just a dream.
Jumping out of a building isn’t as difficult as you’d guess. When I was a kid, I hated jumping off the high dive, the jump terrified me. It was the worst feeling in the world, all those seconds standing on that horrible, wobbly plank, feeling like that jump would kill me every time. All that shame while I stood there in front of everyone. Jumping out of a burning building was far easier—because it was not a bit harder.
Noku had an abortion six months before the building collapsed. Her boyfriend drove her to and from the procedure, though he did not enter the clinic. He helped her into bed afterwards, but he didn’t stay at her apartment. Noku wanted the abortion just as much as he did, they were not ready, it was only six weeks along, and when her boyfriend broke up with her the next week, Noku was not disappointed, there was nothing left between them anyhow.
My mother and I didn’t get along the way I got along with my father. I worried about the possibility of my mother outliving my father and when it happened that way, I was disgusted with myself for thinking such thoughts. It’s not that I didn’t love her as much, it’s just that we always messed up the way we expressed ourselves. When she bought me a watch, I told her she should pay attention to the fact that I never wore watches. When I called her to say I missed her, she asked why I didn’t visit more often. We regretted but we didn’t mend.
It wasn’t until she saw the ghost above my body that Noku felt regret for what she did at that clinic. As she was carried two blocks by the man she never met, she dreamed that she had a daughter, that the daughter was trapped inside the building, that it was her daughter who was supposed to survive, not Noku. What terrified her, was that in her dream, her daughter had a name.
My mother’s name is Tziona. It’s an Israeli name. When I was a child, she wasn’t happy living in this country. This was my father’s country, not hers. She was the seventh generation born in the Middle East and however foreign you might find the Middle East, my mother found Atlanta, Georgia at least that foreign—a camel isn’t nearly as bizarre as a highway with nine lanes in each direction. But she made due. She even grew to like this country. When my mother searched my apartment after I was crushed against the sidewalk, she found two pictures that I had framed without telling her. One was from 1972, with her carrying me in her arms, her big black hair and that beautiful smile. The other was in 1967, before I was born, of my mother carrying an Uzi and (once again) smiling for the camera, with the Negev desert behind her.
Noku’s mother had nightmares every night since what she saw in 1945. In her dreams, all the people she knew were dark green shadows, and she was never able to touch them. She was terrified that Noku would also turn into a shadow. And so Noku’s mother disappeared, turning herself into a shadow.
My mother believes in God. She believes that the soul lives on forever. She even believes that the Bible is the real word of God. To my mother’s disappointment, I didn’t believe in God or the Bible. I didn’t believe in devils or demons or ghosts or saints. I didn’t believe that there was anything magical or mystical about that cloud of blood above my crushed body. I died, it was that simple, and the cloud was a scientifically-explainable phenomenon. There is life and there is death. But when Noku opened her journal two days later, she wrote, “I dreamed that I had a daughter named Tziona.”
I might not believe in God, but I do believe in the power of words on a page. I even believe that a story can bring the dead to life. I have to believe that. I believe it just as much as I believe in the power of the wind against your ears at 120 miles per hour.
Noku began writing more and more in her journal. After two years, the journal entries became more like stories than journal entries. After all, a journal is meant to be about real-world personal events, and most of her writing was about her non-existent daughter, who now had my mother’s name. On some days, she even wrote about me.
She wrote many stories. It became an obsession. Her writing was not what they call therapeutic—it sent her further into her already-too-far-inside-herself self. She rarely let another person see anything that she wrote. This obsession disturbed the few friends she had left. (How many hours could she possibly spend on that park bench with that worn out journal?) She squeezed the pencil so tightly that the ridges would disappear where her skinny index finger and skinny thumb touched the pencil.
At the instant I smashed into the sidewalk, I smelled like mint, like I had crumbled a leaf with my fingers and pressed it against my nose. This sensation was impossible to share and impossible to process—without an intact olfactory or nervous system.
The color that flashed in my head was the blackest blue. For a split second, I could see the world through the lens of that gem I should have gotten for my mother.
If my lips would’ve been able to utter a word, it would have been the word, “Tziona,” with that first syllable coming out like the chirp of a small bird. My mother made up the spelling of her name when she came to this country. “Your language doesn’t have the proper letters,” she told my father in 1971, with me still in her belly.
Noku wrote obsessively until the time of her death. Her death came early but not painfully—it was just a dream that lasted too long. The day before she died, she mailed one of her stories to my old address—which came to her in a dream—and the letter ultimately landed in my mother’s lap, 181 days later. My mother didn’t open the letter for a long time, knowing that it would be more beautiful than any necklace. And when she did open it, she too believed that words could bring back the dead.