Nate accidently let the door slam behind him on his way out of the apartment. It sounded like a faint rumble in the distance and the silence that followed pulled Andy into deep sleep. For a fleeting instant, he believed he was experiencing the darkness he had been longing for the last few nights.
Consciousness returned in the form of a hammering migraine. His eyelids felt like they weighed a ton and when he finally managed to open them, he could not tell where he was. It took a long minute before the fog cleared and the uncertainty that surrounded him planted the seeds of hope he was going to find himself in the dire slums of the ghetto. His other senses, subconsciously or not, searched for the smells, sounds, and all the possible signs that were imprinted so vigorously in his mind. When he finally recognized the flat-pale surface he was staring at as the ceiling in his own bedroom, a bitter disappointment joined the very real nausea that had already materialized in his abdomen, and everything around him began to spin. He held his head in his two hands, and when that didn’t make the spinning stop, he tried to close his eyes again, but that made things even worse.
He knew he had to take control over it before it was too late. It took tremendous effort just to get out of bed, and once he was standing, his entire bedroom was revolving around him on all three axis. The task of walking the few feet that separated his bed from the bathroom seemed harder and harder with every step, and he felt that the odds were against him. The grueling voyage lasted a short minute, but it seemed like three long hours. He made it without passing out or spewing his guts out in the hallway, for which he was very proud of himself, but as soon as he walked through the bathroom door, the biomechanical processes in his stomach took over. He didn’t even have a chance to position himself properly before the purging started. After the first round, which was not captured entirely in the designated destination, he got down on his knees facing the bowl and locked onto that position for nearly half an hour of continuous vomiting.
The dizziness gradually faded away, and after the last dry convulsion that left him certain there was nothing left, he got up on his feet and took a deep breath, inhaling the vile fumes of his sickness. He twisted his mouth in disgust to the sight of the dirty floor, knowing he would have to clean it. “Later,” he whispered. His priority was to make the horrible nausea go away. He stared at the pale zombie face in the mirror and splashed cold water on it. “Next time,” he said, “you think twice before you go for a triple, no matter how bad things get, you can’t let yourself…” he paused when the memory of what led him to hard alcohol in the first place resurfaced. With sobriety slowly phasing in along with the rational faculties in his head, the sorrow that his accidental research brought forth began to reemerge. He tried to block the sad thoughts, but the wave of remorse and guilt was unstoppable. Now, he realized how bad he felt before he was compelled to lose himself in a bottle of scotch and almost justified the outcomes of his drinking escapade. He glanced at the mirror and no longer cared much for his dreadful condition. He still felt nauseated, but his sickness was overshadowed by the greater pains of heartache.
He found his way to the couch in the dark living room. A clear memory of Nate carrying him into the apartment resurfaced, but his concept of time was all blurry, and for a moment, he suspected that his friend was still there. “Nate,” he cried out only to hear his voice echoing in the empty room. When there was no answer, he tried to piece together the order of events from the time they left the bar with bits of recollections from the few moments he was awake. One thing he remembered clearly was the velvet tone of the twilight sky when they entered his apartment building, and now it was completely dark. He turned to his wristwatch. It was a little after nine. Three hours just popped out of existence. Andy shook his head, horrified by the notion that something like that could happen to him. He pulled his feet up on the couch and let his head drop back on the cushion. All he wanted was to make the throbbing thoughts and aches disappear, but the moment he closed his eyes, the thought of Ruben and Perla being led to the death truck returned to haunt him. He opened his eyes.
The dream is over, and there’s nothing you can do about it!He tried to force some sense into himself, but his guilt was stronger than reason. The feeling he was somehow responsible for the Birrenboims’ fate hovered over his head like a hawk, urging him to find out what happened to Sarah and her sister. Part of him called for restraint, fearing the knowledge the two had shared a similar misfortune would devastate him. But not knowing anything at all was just as bad, if not worse. He pulled his feet down and sat up. The blood rush from his head down made him dizzy as he rose and walked to his office.
He didn’t bother switching the light on when he entered. He just slid into his chair and waited in the dark for the computer monitor to wake up from sleep mode after hitting the spacebar. As he logged into the database server, his heartbeat surged, picking up speed and intensity with every second beat. The search tab popped open, and he stared at it for a long minute, feeling the sweat gathering on his forehead and temples.
“Just get it over with,” he said and started typing Gittel. Sister goes first, he felt like he was pressed to choose his sacrifice. After hitting the Enter key, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and kept them shut until the buzz of information flowing through the DSL line had seized. When he opened his eyes, he found that there were only four records for him to sort through, and it did not take long for him to identify the one he was after, the only Gittel Birrenboim born in the twentieth century. He swallowed the words, skimming through the short paragraph. Everything checked out, the village, the time, her father’s occupations. He read it three times, clearing any doubt it was Gittel. But something was missing. What is it? He wondered and scrolled back to the top. He stared at the header. It was the same format for all the records, the subject’s name next to the date of birth in bold prints. “September 19, 1918,” he read out loud. “What am I missing?” he kept staring. It took him a minute to realize there was no conclusion, no death date. “Gittel is still alive!” he cried and noticed his hand was shaking. He read through the paragraph one more time to see if he could capture any clue as to where Gittel ended up after the war, but the record did not reveal much beyond the fact that she had survived the horrors of the holocaust.
The revelation planted new seeds of optimism in Andy’s heart, but he knew he should not let himself get too excited, at least not yet, not until he finds out about Sarah. He looked at the blank search tab, but his hands froze. He felt like he had just exceeded his good news quota for the day and did not wish to push his luck. It’s not like I’m gambling my way in a game of chance here. He tried to fight his hesitation with reason and come to terms with the notion that Sarah’s fate was sealed a long time ago, and that there was nothing he could do to change it. He stretched his arms and took a very deep breath before typing Sarah. This time, his search produced a much longer list, but being familiar with the process, he was able to quickly narrow it down to ten records and started sorting through them. He could feel his anxiety intensifying as he scrolled down the list, swallowing the sentences as he looked for key words relating to Sarah’s life. When he found no identifiable traces, he moved on to the body of the next record, skipping the headers. He raced through the list in that manner until his eyes crashed in a head-on collision with the words “phenomenal young violinist” in the beginning of the eighth record.
He looked away from the screen, his face smeared with cold sweat, and the hair on the skin of his arms was charged with suspense. There was no doubt it was his Sarah, and that her fate was about to be revealed to him momentarily. When he turned his eyes back to the screen, he slowed down his reading pace, examining each word from every angle, weighing them in his mind to squeeze out every possible meaning, until he reached the line “no more information available” that sealed the record.
“What?” he cried out and immediately turned back to the sentence that preceded the abrupt ending. But there were no ciphered messages in the text or any details that eluded his first read. It was plain and simple but very inconclusive. “Transferred from the ghetto along with her entire family to an experimental labor camp in eastern Poland,” he read out loud. “That much I could have figured out myself,” he said, “but what happened next?”
He turned to the bottom of the paragraph in a desperate search for some hidden conclusion or at least a clue of sorts, but there was only the blank space that separated it from the next record. His eyes rested on the dates that marked the life span of the next Sarah Birrenboim, reminding him he never looked at the one piece of information he was most concerned about. He immediately turned to the header at the top of the page only to find a lonely question mark in bold print at the place where he expected to see the date that marked her demise.
Andy kept staring at the screen, more confused than he was before he started the inquiry. His heart was still throbbing hard in his chest, so hard, he had to grab his left breast with his right hand to keep it from popping out of his rib cage. What’s that? He felt an unfamiliar object in his shirt pocket and shoved two fingers in to pull it out. It was a card with a local area code mobile phone number and the word “Sarah” scribbled in blue ink.
“What the…” Andy threw the card on his desk, his eyes smothered with anxiety and his heart beating even harder and faster than before. “Must be some kind of prank,” he let out a crazed smirk. But who would do such a thing?
“Nate?” He cried out and ran up to turn on the lights in the room. “That’s not funny, you jerk!” The notion of a prank came more as a surprise than it was upsetting. Pulling something so ill-humored was too low, even by Nate’s standards. But when he came to think about it, there was no recollection of ever mentioning anything about Sarah, not to Nate, or anyone else. Who could it be? He stared at the number. The mystery struck him with dread, and yet, he was ever so tempted to make the call. He took a deep breath, picked up the receiver from the corner of the desk and dialed the number. He let the air out slowly. Time seemed to have stretched between rings, and after the second one, he felt like he had been waiting for hours. He took a close look at the number to see if he could extract additional information like the exact locality of the area code. The handwriting looked familiar. Andy let out a sigh then flipped the card over.
“I knew it,” he cried out when he saw it was Nate’s business card. He was about to hang up, but just then, someone picked up.
“Hello?” It was a female’s voice, and it sounded familiar.
“Ah…” Andy mumbled. “Sarah?”
“Yes. Who is this… Andy?”
“Ugh, Yeah,” Andy’s voice trembled.
“What’s shaking, professor? I tried calling you…”
“Yes. You didn’t pick up. I figured you were busy, and I’m not good at leaving messages.”
There was a distinct Bostonian accent in her voice. It made no sense. “But how did you get my number?” Andy whispered.
“What do you mean? Well, you know, I got it from Nate. He mentioned you were interested in taking up yoga.”
“Nate?” Andy muttered. He didn’t quite capture the rest of her sentence. Suddenly it all came back to him with a clouded memory of Nate slipping a card in his pocket. It was less than five hours ago, but the burden of being semi-conscious at the time made it feel like years.
“Andy?” She broke the awkward silence.
“Yeah – yeah,” he replied quickly trying to make the transition in his line of thought appear seamless.
“Are you ok?”
“Oh yes, yes. I was just a…” Andy noticed the time on his wristwatch. It was 9:45. Relatively late, he thought. “…I mean, I didn’t mean to intrude… I just realized how late it is,” he spat out the words, exhaling in the process, and slowly and quietly inhaled back the air he had lost.
“Oh, don’t be silly. I wasn’t planning on going to bed for at least another two hours.”
“Great. For a moment there, I really thought I was stepping out of line.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s really not a problem. So, are you interested?”
“Yes, of course,” Andy was quick to confirm, even though he wasn’t quite sure what it was for. But Sarah was shrewd enough to pick up his initial hesitance.
“No, really. That’s actually what I meant to call you about. It’s just that I had so much stuff going on, I didn’t notice how late it was.”
“Wonderful. How about joining me for my 7pm class on Thursday. Just to try it out?”
“Thursday sounds great.” Andy lied again. He knew it was going to be impossible for him to fit anything into his busy schedule on a two-day notice, but he just had to stick with his story.
“Good, good,” Sarah said. “My school is in Cambridge, not too far from where you are, right off Massachusetts Avenue. And the first class is free. Double whammy for you,” she chuckled.
“Perfect,” Andy said and wrote down Sarah’s directions on the back of Nate’s card right under her phone number. “Oh, I think I know where it is,” he said when he realized what he had signed up for.
“Wonderful,” she replied. “You can meet me there at ten to… oh, and make sure you bring sweats or anything you’d feel comfortable in.”
“Okay… I’ll have to remind myself to pack some.”
Andy slowly put the receiver back on the hook. “What did I get myself into?” He muttered. He had plenty of legitimate excuses to put off the engagement, but even the best excuse in the world would make him look very bad. And the truth was he really liked his friend’s future sister-in-law; He admired her extraordinary talent, acknowledged the wide range of common interests they shared, and did not wish to spoil a chance to deepen their friendship. And to top it all off, he never had a chance to thank her for the cordial companionship at her grandmother’s house two weeks earlier. He logged on to his webmail account that automatically updated his personal work calendar. Doesn’t look good, he said to himself looking up Thursday’s schedule. He had a full busy day followed by a faculty meeting at 5:30. Walking out early would taint his reputation, and he did not like that.
As he was about to close the browser, the database page that contained the records of his inquiry flashed in front of him as if it was a reminder that the mystery was still present. He kept staring at the screen. His diminished anxiety began to rise again. He was overwhelmed by all the information that passed through his head and the waves of emotions that came with it in the hour that passed since he regained consciousness, but then he sadly realized that despite all the heartache the inquiry has bestowed upon him, the fate of the person he cared for the most was still up in the air, and there was not much he could do about it.
The cold bitterness gradually turned into a rush of bright optimism with the acknowledgment that Sarah’s fate was not sealed. The fresh perspective fueled him with a new hope that she still had a future in the past that he may have had a part in. He shut down his computer for the first time in weeks and walked away from the desk. His eyelids felt heavy again, but he had to wash himself, not only from the dirty remnants of his sickness, but also from the aching residue of his nausea and anxiety that still kept his heartbeat throbbing.