The time had come to make the phone call. He sat watching the pelicans swooping in for their food while he waited for the young Mexican family who ran a grass hut restaurant to prepare him his fish tacos. Tulum, a town boasting magnificent Mayan ruins on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, provided him a nice weekend retreat when he decided to come in on Saturdays to collect food and sundries for his week out at the project camp. He sat not more than a hundred feet away from the brilliant blue waters that entranced the other locals who also sat at wooden tables enjoying Sangria in the shade. The carefree family always recognized and graciously welcomed him when he arrived and seemed to enjoy making small talk with him and their other regular customers.
Yesterday, Gerald, who must have been feeling guilty about his decision to help him, had approached and said, “Jim, I don’t feel good about this situation anymore. You’ve been a tremendous help to me on this Millenium Project and I want to keep you when we go further inland, but I think your family should know where you are.”
It had been six months since he had made the single biggest decision of his life. Gerald had tried to understand Jim’s personal crisis and was desperate for an extra hand on his Mexican project to bring potable water and legal sewage options to the villages surrounding Cancun. These swelling towns were growing too quickly because of the ballooning tourism of the Yucatan Coast which lacked the infrastructure of Cancun, the region’s only real city. As a result, people were illegally dumping sewage and destroying the region’s mangrove swamp critical to the nourishment of the area’s very famous reefs. The panthers, aardvarks, howler monkeys and the many exotic birds relied on this swamp as well. People also needed to have proper facilities to live functionally in these dense jungles.
Jim had never felt happier and more like he was helping people in his entire life. He had never had fewer personal responsibilities and material assets before. He worked hard and slept soundly. He ate well because this spicy cultural food tasted better as a free man. The only thing that was not right was that no one knew where he was living or that he was still alive at all.
He recalled the soft fabric of his Armani dress suit as he fiddled with the soft velvet box of his wife’s ring in his pocket on the morning of September eleventh. He walked out on deck to see the New York skyline in front of him as they traversed the Hudson River. He sat lost in his thoughts that had propelled him here this morning rather than to his usual routine of the busy throughway and crowded parkade to get to his office in the South World Trade Tower. His corporate financial law practice had been keeping him up at night with the competitive trading and demands of his clients. He had finished the last of his sleeping prescription, which without it, left him tired and nervous and with it made him sluggish and depressed. His hand shook making his coffee spill.
His wife’s demands had escalated lately. She did not understand his late hours and the market that kept he and his partners hopping, but kept her comfortable in their big house that they shared in Jersey City. If he and his partners did not jump when they were needed, these multi-million dollar clients would go elsewhere. She was too dependent on him for every little thing and he wished she would find a hobby or passion that would keep her occupied.
They had fought last night because he arrived late for their tenth wedding anniversary. Despite her request that they go to dinner and enjoy an entire night out together, his partner Al had asked a favour of him. He owed Al for some of the work he had done for Jim lately like when he had covered at a meeting last week or placing him at the head of a couple of prestigious accounts. After all of these year, Wendy still did not appreciated these work related obligations and that they afforded her some of her lifestyle.
She had yelled, “I didn’t get married to be alone!” He surmised that she had forgotten some of the time they had spent together lately like the lawyer’s function that he had brought her to just a couple of months before or the walk that they had taken on her birthday a couple of weeks ago through the park by their home. She was ungrateful for the things that he did do for her and seemed oblivious to the fact that in order to have their huge mansion, time would need to be sacrificed to pay for it. When he told her that very sensible point about the house clearly and calmly, she flung a vase at him that missed him and smashed onto the marble tile of their front foyer. Her blond hair flung around her face as she hurled it. “You condescending bastard! You wanted this house, not me!” She had broken so many of their valuable heirlooms hurling them at him in anger over the past year, that he had lost count. “Get out!” she kept yelling hysterically in a screech like a wild cat that echoed through their large hallways.
So he had left and stayed at a hotel. No one should throw things at him, he rationalized. He had not done enough wrong to deserve that type of treatment. Her crazy behaviour was her own problem.
He had not slept much and woke early in the unfamiliar and overly firm king sized bed. He began his trek to Lower Manhattan, but at the last minute took another route that took him to the ferries because he needed to be on the water. The water was always good for him and needed to take his time getting to work today. No one was expecting him until noon. His stomach was churning and in knots from the nervous strain of the previous evening. Although Wendy was over reacting, he knew his work was also demanding more of him than he had to give these days. He saw it in his own face when he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. His puffy red eyes with dark shadows underneath and pale complexion glared back at him. His back was sore from sitting all of the time in front of his computer. There were periods in his day where he would look up from his computer with blurry eyes to see someone talking to him and not be able to focus on or remember the conversation. His partners humorously joked about his conscious black outs, but accepted this symptom of gross overwork as a symptom of a true commitment to the company.
He went on deck because he needed to feel the crisp morning wind on his face so that it numbed his body and mind from the pain he felt. He had grabbed another coffee and the warmth of the Styrofoam on his lips contrasted with the cold on his face. Someone yelled, “Look! A plane is going to hit the tower!” and he looked up to see a plane heading for and then crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. People around him began to scream, “What was that? Oh my God!” A flash of fire ripped out of the prominent city icon. The frenzied speculation of the dozen or so people surrounding him kept his eyes carefully focussed on the twin towers as one began to burn and the other—his tower–remained unmarred by the disaster. The ferry stopped dead in the water as the captain and everyone speculated on the disaster unfolding in front of them. He instinctually called his broker. When he got through he yelled at Simon, “Sell it all now!” he ordered. Simon who was not familiar with this tone from Jim, did not question him. Instead he took Jim’s rapid orders for his financial transactions. When Simon started explaining to Jim about the news of the World Trade Center Tower being hit, Jim shouted, “I know, I’m here! That’s why I’m calling you!” He hung up.
Shortly after, another plane appeared in the morning sky and floated silently to its target of the South Tower. “Christ, there’s another one!” someone yelled. The experience unfolding in front of him was a surreal visual accompanied by horrified screams and gasps from the early morning travellers. A flash of fire tore out of the second twin tower. The city was under attack and his stomach convulsed in fear at this realization. In the midst of it he felt the smooth ring box in his pocket and realized he had not given Wendy her anniversary ring of ten diamonds placed evenly over a dainty platinum band last night. Thoughts of her angered him and he was drawn out of the thoughts of his burning marriage to the reality of the inferno of his office tower. The plane had struck close to where his team would be working this morning.
He leaned on the railing and let his face rest in his fingers as he peeked through at the billowing smoke that started out snow white at the base of the flames and became coal black as it entered the sky. What should he do? Should he call the office? He envisioned the screams of those still trapped in the wounded pinnacle and realized he was helpless to do anything for them. Everyone in the world would think he was also in the tower with them. He crowded around a young man who had become instantly popular with his ghetto blaster as he turned from rap to the news station whose broadcaster announced the news in an agitated voice. The earlier suggestions of the first plane being an accident were replaced with speculation that the second plane hitting the second tower was an act of terrorism. Total strangers turned to one another and cried. Women clung to each other in horror. Jim listened incredulously as the news rattled on details about the first hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, and then the second exploding United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston. Both buildings burned in front of him while the announcer narrated the disaster and gave minute-by-minute updates of what they had learned about the hijackings.
And then even more horrifying, his building dropped to the ground. It seemed like a calculated and grotesque plan of a city demolition crew the way that it quickly and efficiently disappeared out of sight. The sight of dust and ash mushrooming into the air like a nuclear bomb was accompanied by the phenomenal bellow of thunder. This nightmare was a reality. Everyone he knew and cared for eleven hours a day would now be crushed into dust. Survival appeared impossible. His work as he knew it was obliterated. However, something from deep inside of him surfaced that was even more uncomfortable than this panic and horror lying in front of him. It was the morbid and very unexpected relief that now he would not have to go there anymore.
His idea came in the middle of this disaster. He stopped hearing the panicked screams of the people around him. One woman began wailing like a fire alarm and he tuned her out as his mind clamped down on his new opportunity to vanish into thin air with the building. This chance to just disappear from his life jumped out at him like a winning million-dollar lottery ticket. The second building then tumbled down and joined its sister tower. The inferno of building dominoes falling had begun. It was at this point that their ferry turned around and headed back to Jersey. He made the decision and pulled out his sim card from his phone, cracked it in half and then threw it and his phone into the river.
The details of how and where he would escape fell into place in the ensuing days as he drove like he was in a trance further and further from New York across the United States. He drove instinctually like a migrating bird to the border of Mexico and rehearsed his plea to Gerald to support his escape. Gerald owed him and although he knew he would help him, he knew it would be a difficult request. He accessed his private international bank account and prepared to start a new life, but with his same name, Jim Jones. How many Jim Jones’ inhabited the universe? He was anonymous without the building that had given him prominence and power.
The windshield time gave him a chance to rationalize his mid-life crisis decision. The fantasies about his new life, new women, and new experiences were his compelling companion on this long drive through the Appalachian Mountains and then the swamps of the Deep South. These thoughts squelched any hesitations that he had to escape his overly stressed and unsatisfying life in New York. He stopped in Houston to pawn the ring he had intended for Wendy, but changed his mind. He was not quite ready to give it up.
When he reached Brownsville, Texas to cross the border, he felt no urge to turn around, call Wendy or his family, or do anything other than drive to his new life he imagined by the sea where he would be free of everything that had started to hang around his neck like an albatross. Shedding skin and starting again without any connection to the past was an opportunity that few people had. The Mexican authorities would not care who he was. He would be absorbed into the Mexican population under Gerald’s project work visa. How illegal was it to not tell anyone you were still alive after a disaster like this in New York? The focus would be the thousands lost and not the one who got away. He would claim shock. He was in shock, wasn’t he? Maybe this was what a nervous breakdown did to people.
The hardest part had been as he had predicted, convincing Gerald of his idea. He wanted to start a new life and help Gerald with his water and sewage project for this impoverished community that lived beside some of the wealthiest resorts in the world. Jim had always been sickened by the contrast between rich and poor in this country whenever he had visited there on holidays. Poor people lived in slums with virtually no modern day amenities while tourists lounged in opulence.
He had always envied Gerald’s work and his powerfully optimistic outlook on life. Gerald had agreed to help him on the condition that Jim would eventually tell Wendy. ‘Get your headspace together. Your life sounds like a bitch, but you can’t hide out here forever.” Neither of them had mentioned the fact that Gerald owed Jim. Years ago Jim had covered for him in an investment deal that had gone sour when he had represented his investment company. Gerald had come to him in the middle of the night begging for help, and Jim had been there.
“I’m not hiding. I’m starting a new life. I was already dead back there.”
“Why don’t you just tell Wendy?” Gerald, Wendy and Jim had gone to school together.
“It would be too complicated because divorces are emotionally and financially messy. This way she won’t think that I just left her for no reason.” He had wanted to admit that this way he would actually cause her more pain and guilt, but left that darker side of himself hidden behind his words. “My family won’t question my actions. My company won’t harass me. Everyone will grieve and move on. It’s better this way.” He didn’t mention that this way, there would be no legal disclosures, and he could keep some of his overseas accounts without her knowing about it. It was the ultimate pay back to Wendy who had restricted him for so many years. He finally had his control back and maybe she would regret her demanding actions now that she thought he was dead.
Gerald had reluctantly agreed but said, “I think you owe her an explanation.”
“What do I owe her?” Jim was surprised by Gerald’s sudden empathy for Wendy. “She will have everything she’ll ever need. The insurance policies will kick in.” He did not say, ‘She’ll inherit everything except what she does not know about.’
“You’ll probably want to go home after a while anyway,” Gerald grumbled under his breath as he tried to move past the tension between them and onto another topic.
But Jim did not want to go home even after he had been there six months. In fact, he had started to design other projects with Gerald and managed many of them himself. He liked the climate, the people and his new lifestyle. Gerald had commented on his work commitment. The community had accepted him because of his dedication. He had made himself invaluable with the hopes that Gerald would forget the deal that they had made for Jim to eventually contact home. He was no longer exhausted day after day as had been in his other job. Instead, he was invigorated. He had his own time at the end of the day to collect his thoughts and do things that felt good for him, like going for a run, or fishing. He felt more himself than he had in years and he started to recognize himself in his tiny bathroom mirror again.
Gerald’s conscience must have been bothering him because Gerald reminded him before he left yesterday, “You don’t have to let the authorities know, but you’ve got to tell Wendy the truth tomorrow. It’s just not right to let your family think you’re dead. I just can’t keep you here under these conditions.” His face demonstrated his strong conviction over this matter, but when Jim raised his eyebrow, Gerald looked away, embarrassed by the fact that he knew that he owed Jim.
“This will freak her out!” Jim argued, realizing that the consequences for his actions would be grave at this point. Insurance polices would have kicked in. Funeral costs would have come out of the settlement. He had often contemplated the memorial service that would have been held in his honour without a body. Would Wendy have been sad? There had not been a lot of love or passion between them in the last three years. In fact, he had not spent much time grieving his past life at all except for a very few fleeting happy memories from his childhood before his parents had passed away and his initial courtship with Wendy which had also been laden with red flags and conflict. His remaining family consisted of one engineering brother Larry who lived in Yellowknife who rarely called him. Would Larry have attended the funeral? Would he have wished that he had spent more time with Jim? They kept in touch at Christmas and that was it. It served him right to lose a brother he never contacted. No, it was better this way if Jim just let it be, and yet he had made this ridiculous promise to Gerald and without Gerald’s support and work visa, working in Mexico would get complicated. He had not grappled yet with a plan to be independent of Gerald.
He drove back to the project camp where he had set himself up nicely in a mobile home overlooking a dense jungle valley outside of Coba. The sunset announced that he should make the call soon, but he let another hour pass dreading the angry, hurt conversation to come. He heard the squabbling of the jungle birds and the monkeys that announced that nightfall was arriving, and still he could not make the call. It would be 11:30 p.m. her time and still he stalled.
He finally dialled and waited. A familiar voice answered “Who is this?”, obviously being woken from his sleep. It was his partner Al: the Al who had paid him lots of favours at work, but favours that had a personal price tag keeping Jim very busy; the Al that had admired Wendy openly at their last dinner party; the Al that had been on a business trip the night before September 11 requiring Jim to work late at his office and making it necessary to delay his anniversary night. He hung up flushed with a vile anger that needed releasing. Violence flew out of him as he knocked his pot off the stove and threw his dishes off the counter. How dare Al move in on Wendy this quickly. His body was not even cold in the grave. He continued to fling things around the room.
He eventually stopped his tirade in exhaustion and he sat down on one of the chairs left standing. He was not dead. He had run away and had essentially given Wendy permission to do whatever she wanted with her life, and as a result he would never know what happened before or after his “death” and why she had made the choices that she had made. He would never know whether she and Al had been having an affair. He left his life and he would simply never know anything without revealing his secret. But the cost of revealing his secret was too great. He liked the feeling of having no past and this pull to keep his anonymity was too powerful.
What he did know by this one phone call was that the people in his life had moved on in their lives without him. The image of the grieving widow that had given him so much satisfaction, was shattered and he felt small and insignificant as a result of this discovery. He had wanted to hurt Wendy, but it had backfired. He was not being grieved and revered by his wife. Instead, he was now just one of the millions of Jim Jones’ whose only worth was what they felt about themselves while they lived each day to its end. He sat on the floor and thought as he watched a beetle walk slowly across the kitchen floor.
He suddenly got up and scoured through the cupboard tossing nails and paper all over the floor. He came across the ring box and opened it to see the beautiful ring he had intended for Wendy who had tried in many ways to connect with him over the years. Ironically, this incident produced a new perspective of the marriage now that it was officially over. The marriage had been a challenging one for her. The diamonds shone out at him and reminded him of his wealthy past. Ironically he now knew that Wendy would have preferred spending the few hours of time that he had to work to pay for the ring instead of the ring itself. He now let himself see her determination to communicate and spend time with him as a positive effort rather than the nagging behaviour that he focussed on for the last few months.
He had found so many excuses for his workaholic behaviour and his greed. He shook his head. It had been easier to remember her as the villain. He held the ring and pondered his next move. This beautiful ring was a symbol of his past and for some reason he had held on to it looking at it periodically like a science specimen in a glass container that he was trying to keep alive. Memories splashed through his mind filling the next few hours with a piercing realization of his responsibility for the death of his marriage and then the death of his past life.
Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, he leafed through his filing cabinet and found an envelope, addressed it and made a plan to send the package to her anonymously. This anniversary ring belonged to Wendy. It was a final connection with his past that he decided now to break. She did deserve better. Sending it to her anonymously—cleverly and untraceably by a string of couriers, would be his last silent good-bye. He now had a second chance to design his future free of the baggage that had kept him running from himself and the people around him in his first life. From this point forward he would be a new man and he would forge a new path ahead with or without Gerald.