Monday, February 23, 2009
Posted by Hh
the same person who comes back."Wednesday
- Sharon Olds
Riley and I sat across from each other on worn leather couches in the upstairs lounge section of our neighborhood Borders Bookstore. We were discussing our lives in the months since the end of the club season, and characteristic of our conversations lately, it was an open and frank discussion. We each took turns opening small doors of ourselves for the other to appraise objectively and comment on. In a lull our conversation turned toward friends and our worries about them. As if on cue, my phone rang and the screen lit up with Muffin's name. I took the call. It was 9:30 in the evening.
"Yo Muff, what's up?" The usual intro. He'd planned his evening apart from us that night, both Riley and I were actually surprised to be hearing from him.
"Hector, my sister's missing."
"What are you talking about? What do you mean, missing?"
"Like, missing missing." He began to race through a series of details. His younger sister Jessica, a freshman at UW–Milwaukee, had not come home the night before, and no one had seen or heard from her since 1:00pm Tuesday, as she said goodbye to her roommate and left her suite on the way to class. Wednesday at 5:00pm, after receiving a call to the suite from her bank reporting suspicious activity in her account, her roommate called the police and sounded the alarm. A friend who she was supposed to meet on Tuesday night reported that she never showed up or contacted her. No one knew where Jessica was, and no one had a clue.
Muffin's mom had received the call shortly after the missing person report was filed, and for the next 3 hours tried desperately to reach Muffin and tell him the news. Muffin's surgically repaired foot is weeks from supporting any weight, however, and this makes little things like finding your phone and answering it epic tasks that require planning and motivation. When he finally got the news, hours of motherly hysteria had already ticked away. Now here he was, on the phone with me, unable to process the situation or its implications and asking me what to do. I took it as no small coincidence that Riley and I were together when he called, so I told Muffin to meet us at my house in Middleton where we could relax and better grasp what exactly was happening. I hung up, and Riley and I quickly gathered our things and got in my car, driving with a focused speed back to my house.
It had been almost 24 hours since I'd hung up the phone with Feldman on Tuesday night. A B-teamer had not paid his way on the chartered bus the Hodags and Belladonna had rented to drive them down to Mardi Gras, and the 55th and final spot on the bus was now open. The captains offered me a free ride and room in the hotel so that I might help them out during the weekend. Although it came on short notice and would still cost me, once there, more than I cared to spend, the offer had its appeal. Muffin's spot was already reserved, and I liked the idea of being able to revel with him on Bourbon Street one night and help the Hodags positively from the sideline all weekend. It's still very early in the season, and I wanted to be able to observe the players in a full weekend of play so that I could offer them better feedback about their strengths and weaknesses. I accepted the offer, and we made plans to touch base Wednesday to solidify the details.
But the next time we spoke it was to tell me the truant B-Teamer was claiming he paid, and so the spot on the bus they'd offered to me didn't exist. After a night of wrestling with my decision and finally making my peace with going, even allowing myself to get excited for the trip, I was pissed that now I had to redefine mentally what my weekend would be. I let Feldman know my displeasure at how this whole thing was going down.
"Let me work on it. Most likely someone's gonna oversleep and miss the bus Friday, so you should still pack your bags and I promise someone will get left behind." I knew he was likely right. Still, I wasn't in the mood to wake up at 5:00am in the hopes someone might oversleep, and told him so. He again repeated he'd look into what he could do, and hung up. Twenty minutes later Muffin called me at Borders, and now nothing about Mardi Gras mattered.
At my house, I peeled the foil off the cap of a bottle of 12 year old Chivas Regal and poured us each three fingers into distinguished tumblers of frosted glass. Saying we were unnerved would be an understatement; the moorings of our normalcy had been cut, and our minds were cast adrift.
Except for the moment when he called us to drop the news, Muffin had been on the phone with the UW–Milwaukee police, offering advice on leads to follow, people to talk to, questions to ask, and grilling the detectives about every last bit of information they had at that point. However, since the report wasn't filed until 5:00pm, the end of the business day, their ability to do anything substantive was limited. In the morning they would follow Muffin's recommendations, and look at her cell phone records and try to see if they could track down any ATM transactions that might have occurred. They would talk to classmates and look at professors' attendance sheets. Until then, we had only ourselves to deal with, and outsized worries our only company. I reached for a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo and uncorked some calm. Muffin and Riley played a game of chess, and despite dominating early, Riley's queen was captured after a careless move and Muffin picked him to pieces. In chess and life a moment of carelessness can pass without notice if one is lucky, or it can precipitate the endgame without mercy.
Muffin, for moments in those few hours, thought of something other than his missing sister. I could not. The first thing I'd done after he'd broken the news was call my own sister, a sophomore at the same university, and warn her to lock her door and not travel alone until we could find out what happened. I didn't have to stretch my imagination much to empathize fully with what Muffin was going through. Still, it was late. The futon awaited Riley; my bed called to me. Muffin left my house at 1am and drove the 40 minutes to his home so he could be there when his mother woke up, and immediately begin the search again. As I finally found sleep that night, I couldn't help trying to calculate a mathematics that didn't add up: one missing sister, zero contact, and now, with me warm and safe under my blankets, two nights where Jessica's own bed laid empty. 2am found me in a fitful sleep.
Riley and I woke up shortly after 6:30, tired but alert. Concern has a way of cutting through fatigue to energize you. Over coffee and breakfast I called Muffin, hoping the sunrise had illuminated Jessica's whereabouts and we could all brush this off as a case of misplaced panic. Resolution would not come so easily. Muffin had taken the morning off to work the phones and get the latest information, but nothing new had yet come to light. I asked him to call me if he found out anything, and Riley hopped into the car with me on the way to his work. It was a still morning with a warming sun inside my 4Runner; outside it, cold winds dropped the temperature and burned your cheeks. I left Riley at his office and went about my own day, with Jessica trailing my every thought closely.
When I finally heard from Muffin it was close to noon. "Hector, when I got to work today the elevators were broken. I had to hop up all eight flights of stairs. The world is trying as hard as it can to break me. I won't let it yet."
He then broke down the latest, a piebald collection of clues that got us no closer to Jessica. Her bank accounts were intact; apart from a deposit cleared on Tuesday her account had been largely dormant. A cell phone had been found in her room, its SIM card missing. Her boyfriend had called her Tuesday at 3:30, and the call had been picked up, but all he could make out were ambient background noises; no one spoke. He hung up and called again; no one picked up. Another attempt a half hour later was sent straight to voicemail. She had missed her classes.
The outside world was also mobilizing. A Facebook group was started to get the word out, quickly snowballing past a hundred members. The university sent an email to all students with Jessica's description and last known whereabouts, and her friends printed out flyers and wallpapered the dorms and streets with them. On the home page of the police's website, a picture of her accompanied the phone number of a tip hotline.
Muffin sounded rightfully stressed at the end of our conversation. Jessica spoke to their mother almost daily, he said, and skipping town without telling anyone would be extremely out of character. Think of Occam's razor, I told him; the answer that made the most sense was that she was with friends somewhere and we'd hear from her soon. I did not, of course, mention the elephant in our conversation, the unmentionable thoughts that had gripped my mind and held it in a vice since I'd first heard about this whole thing; that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong on a cold Tuesday in Milwaukee and Jessica was hurt, kidnapped, or dead somewhere, and it was only a matter of time before we received the call that would confirm all our morbid fears. Instead, I told him to keep his head up, hold out hope, and assume the best.
When I hung up the phone I stayed for a moment parked outside my credit union, and exhaled. For many reasons, these last 3 months have been some of my most atheist. Still, I closed my eyes, bowed my head, and said a prayer. "God, if there is any way this can turn out well, please make it happen." I drove to work distracted.
Dinner came and went that Thursday night without an update. Muffin's sister was as lost as she had been before work. Pre-disappearance, Muff, Anne, and I had made plans to kick back in the evening at the frisbee house. I didn't know how relaxed I was going to get that evening with Jessica still unaccounted for, but Muff looked ready to take his mind off his search — for a little while, at least. We drove to the liquor store, where Anne and I each selected a six-pack of beer, and Muffin purchased a bottle of SoCo. The bottle was for the drive down to Mardi Gras on the bus, Muffin informed me, and as it was 9:00pm, I informed Muffin that the bus left in nine hours and his sister was still unaccounted for. He wouldn't hear it.
I wonder, now, what Muffin was thinking at the time. When we returned to the frisbee house and cracked open the first round of beers, I asked him if he was still seriously considering going.
"What can I possibly accomplish by staying? If I leave and they find her, then it's good. If I stay and they find her, same thing." He talked now as if strengthened by some internal certainty. I left my own questions unasked, though they played loud enough inside my own ears.
What if they find her and she's not fine? What if you're down in Mardi Gras and your mother is left alone to identify your sister in some Milwaukee morgue? I couldn't get these questions out of my head, and strangely they seemed to hold no purchase inside Muffin's. Was he thinking this, too, somewhere deep inside, and was eager to escape what would undoubtedly be his breaking point in his wrestling match with the world? Or, more likely, had he stoned himself against that reality, and had willed into his mind only one outcome, a miraculous return by his sister in the 11th hour to make this whole mess right?
You see, Muffin, more than anyone I know, has the ability to let the primitive id control his action and thought. This drive is what makes him frustratingly stubborn at times, overconfident of his reasoning. It's also the force that propels him to excel and meet every demand that he places on himself, so that any goal he sets is met without fail. In his head he had decided that his sister was safe, that all would end well, and since he believed so, it would soon be true.
These are all things that I came up with afterward, unpacking the stress and strain of these days. In that moment my mouth and eyes conveyed a shocked disbelief. On the couch there, I looked into Muffin and drank my beer.
My concentration broke. In a measure of silence, Jake entered the living room and in his traditional deadpan delivery addressed us, "It says on Facebook that they found Muffin's sister."
What? Stunned, I refused to believe it at first. I wanted it confirmed. Jake went back to the room and came back moments later. "Yeah, it says on the police website they found her."
Muffin, meanwhile, hadn't moved. He hadn't flinched when Jake spoke and he hadn't hesitated as he brought the bottle of beer to his lips and took a casual gulp. He continued on the couch as if nothing had happened except what he already knew would happen, lacking any surprise that his belief had been confirmed. The world would have to wait to break him some other time.
Six hours later, in the darkness before sunrise, Muffin threw his hung-over ass into a bus with 54 other people, and it departed for Baton Rouge. I stayed sleeping, warm and soundly this time. Mardi Gras, ultimate, the humdrum of our daily lives, all of it was relevant again.
Even now, I'm not exactly sure where Jessica was those long hours. I only know she's back, and she's ok. I am left to imagine what happened, and how loved she might feel, right now, knowing that in 36 hours hundreds of people broke from their routine to do everything they could to make sure she was safe.