The problem with married people is that they’re so sanctimonious and so fucking annoying – at least for the first year of their marriage – that basically as soon as you get home from the wedding you want to murder them. Suddenly your friend, independent and free thinking to a fault, answers all personal questions with the pronoun “we”.
Friend: Did you enjoy that movie?
Bride: We loved it.
Ugh. Just awful.
And the whole “we’re so in love” vibe that follows them around is just cloying. Like, can’t you people tear yourselves away from each other and spend five minutes acting like the people I originally liked before you turned into this bizarre Uniperson?
And there’s the weird distancing thing that happens. You notice its been six months since you last heard from your friend, call her on the carpet and she says something horrible like, “We just find that we don’t have many single friends anymore. It’s just… awkward.”
Well, I promise I won’t be like that when I’m married.
I solemnly swear that I will not answer in the plural when someone asks me a question. I promise I will never cut out my single friends (seriously, what is that about?!). I vow that after I’m married, I will continue to be wild, unstoppable, and fundamentally untamable.
I went through a phase about five years ago when I felt that panic – that weird oh my God, what if I never get married? low grade anxiety that I carried with me everywhere. Looking back, I can see that I didn’t really want to be married – I just wanted more out of life, and being married seemed like a nice way to get there. (Also, it was a selfish thing: I wanted to know I was loved enough that someone would want to commit to me that way.) In the last five years, my life has changed tremendously. I found Paul when I was already happy. I’d figured out what I wanted and a way to get it. When he arrived, I was happy and felt none of that “maybe he’s marriage material” fission that always hovered on the margins of every date. Somewhere along the way, I realized that the experiences I wanted to have in my life would be enhanced with him. They’d be funnier and more beautiful, more intense, sweeter.
So when we were talking about the future, and the subject of marriage came up, I considered it seriously. What would my life be without him? And what would it be with him? I didn’t want to be “a wife”. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, a writer, a scaler of mountains, a swimmer of seas, a one-person bohemian circus of experiences. But when it came to him, I thought … I could be his wife and be all those things. And the answer was as easy as Mother Goose. Of course I’d marry him.
He is extremely slow to decide things. Rock-steady, calm, composed, utterly in control at all times. I think that gives me the freedom to have my experiences, and if I fail, he is there, steady as Plymouth Rock. He’s grounded me quite a bit (in a good way) and I believe I’ve brought him out of his shell a bit (also in a good way.) He never cared for travel, for instance, and now we have plans to visit Paris and Florence. I’m still working on getting him to go shark diving with me in South Africa.
I used to think it mattered if he wouldn’t shark dive with me in South Africa. Now I really don’t care if he stays at the hotel and reads while I go shark diving. I respect the fact he might not want to do that, and he respects the fact that I do. This is partly why I doubt I’ll ever be one of those “we think” people. We are as close as two people can be, and yet we still respect these individual spikes that make us unique.
I’m thrilled to be getting married to him. I love him endlessly and we make each other happy. I can’t wait to say I do. Not “We do.”
I made the pilgrimage to Shanksville, PA one cold Spring morning. It was a desolate, isolated place. Beautiful. What I remember most is looking at the memorial of notes and firemen’s jackets. A young man stood beside me, looking at the items as reverently as I. “Did you lose somebody?” he asked.
I blinked, uncertain what he meant. Without thinking, I said, “Yes. I lost them all.”
You can see the rest of these Shanksville pictures here, on my Flickr page.
[I post this every year on September 11. I guess you could call it a tradition.]
Sean does not like it when I call him a 9/11 Victim. He tells me he’s not a victim. His coworkers who died were victims. His wife of ten years was a victim. He was just there when it happened.
When we are together, I ask him questions about her. He is patient with me, explaining their relationship, not diminishing it just because she is no longer here, which I appreciate. I listen, trying to understand how it must feel to be in his skin and to live through that day and the thousand days that have passed. A few weeks ago, while in New York, I sat on the counter of his modern kitchen while he poured glasses of red wine. On the fridge was a snapshot of his wife and their son taken in Central Park that September. She’s tiny, with a brown ponytail, bright brown eyes, and a natural, genuinely happy grin. Had things been different, she is the kind of woman who might be one of my best friends.
Instead, I’m dating her husband.
I knew I had fallen in love with him and his life – his beautiful son, his beautiful apartment with the astonishing views, his thoughts and mind and heart, all of it, everything – when I woke up one Saturday morning to a knock on the door. I grabbed a sweater to throw over my pajamas and went to the door, and there he was, like the continuation of a very nice dream. Unexpectedly, he had flown down on the breakfast flight from New York. I threw my arms around him, and told him I was exhausted and to come nap with me. After that, we’ve known that this was not a trivial thing.
I realize that I am getting into something that is both wonderful and daunting. Every time 9/11 is mentioned, I see the crinkles around his eyes tighten up, just for a second. It’s personal to him, and by extension, it’s personal to me. The other night he called me at three in the morning. I stay up late, so I didn’t mind, but I knew he had to be at work early the next morning. As soon as I saw his name on my caller ID I answered, “Hey, is everything okay?”
He said yes. I guess I already know him well enough to not press him. I said okay and asked what he was doing. He deflected the question, and asked what I was doing. I told him I was writing and watching television and doing yoga and thinking about baking some butterscotch cookies for him when I go up to New York on Saturday. He was very quiet. I said, “Are you okay?”
And then he said, “I had a nightmare.”
I shut off the television with the remote.
He started to tell me that he had a nightmare that she had jumped. She was standing in the window, in her little pantsuit and pumps, looking down. It was flames or freefall. Then he was there, beside her, and he was asking her to try and get out, then she fell suddenly, into the vast blue nothingness. When he woke up he was sick. He hadn’t had a nightmare in a long time, nearly a year. I told him it was okay. He said that he was afraid that she was in pain when she died. That she was burned or crushed or …. jumped. I told him that she wasn’t in pain. It was fast, it was very fast, I say – because what else can I say? I start to cry. I don’t know that his wife didn’t die a horrible painful death – and neither does he. He doesn’t know how she died because they did not find enough of her to determine that. We talk for a long time. He tells me he feels guilty and that he should have gone inside and gotten her out of there. I remind him, gently, that he was lucky to get out of his own building alive. He didn’t know that the building would topple. He didn’t know that she wasn’t on her way out. There was nothing he could have done. He is quiet, so I keep saying it. “There is nothing you could have done. It’s not your fault.”
After half an hour, he is calm. He tells me that he loves me. I say, “I know you do. I love you too.” Sean is quiet. I can imagine him perfectly. He’s in bed, the crimson coverlet kicked to the foot of the bed while the cream colored comforter is up to his waist. He’s kept the lights off, the phone is against his ear. The sheers are down over the windows, though the curtains are pulled back. Through the gauze, the lights of the city filter in. He is thinking about his wife, and me, and this new life. Finally I can hear him shift in bed, rolling over to his left side, probably. He says, “Thank you for listening to me.”
I wipe a few tears out of my eyes. “It’s my pleasure. I love listening to you.”
“It’s us now,” he says in a rush, like he has to get this overwith quickly. “Isn’t it?”
The breath is knocked out of me. I say “Yes.”
We say goodnight and hang up. I pace around my house, thinking about the conversation. I feel suddenly very angry and very sad. It’s overwhelming, like I can’t get on top of it. I am sad for Sean, but also for all of us. The West: UK, the USA… just all of us who have to live with the damage, and who have to find a way to stop this so it doesn’t happen again.
The fight against terrorism isn’t just happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world. It’s still happening here at home, in places like Virginia and New York City. It’s being waged in the 3,000 families who aren’t finished grieving over their loved ones and who will never be finished grieving. It’s being waged every time a wife wakes up to the crying baby who will never know his father, and every time a man wakes up in a cold sweat dreaming that his wife jumped to avoid being burned alive. That is why I can’t believe that the war on terror is some make believe idea, an inconvenience that has no relevance to our daily lives. I say this as someone who has experienced firsthand the sorrow and ache and the misery of war, but who nevertheless believes, with beaten resolve, that it is simply the only proper way to address the current state of the world.
[I post this every year on September 11.]
That was it.
Everything was gone.
He knew this on some instinctive level, though the had no time to really understand what that meant. He rolled from underneath an SUV, jelly-legs, and looked around. The building would not stop collapsing. It came down, then the giant clouds of dust, coffee cups, motherboards, phones, people, a burning Pompeii in the sky. Now the air was full of dust lighter than air, floating on the currents. When he rubbed his eyes, they stung. He tasted gritty metal in his mouth, and he spat on the ground.
The ground was covered in ash, like a nuclear winter. He lifted his face, astonished to feel sunlight suffused through the dust, warm on his cheekbones. His red, irritated eyes would not register the empty blue space where a 105-story building had stood until just sixty seconds ago.
It was over. Gone. Work, marriage, Manhattan: gone.
Sean stumbled forward, knowing he must move. He had lived in Manhattan for most of his life, yet he was disoriented. He did not know which streets led where, or even where he was going. He looked down and realized he was still holding his cell phone. With the clarity of shock he knew that she would not be on the other end anymore. He slid the device into his pocket and continued to walk, picking up random documents from the debris, as if he could save something, anything.
The second building came down. He felt the rumble vibration in his body, he saw the cloud, grey-white, huge, abstract. He stood shivering with strangers in a small bodega, face pressed against the glass, watching the building pass him by.
It took hours to find his apartment. His parents burst into tears when they saw him. He recoiled, he did not want to be hugged or touched.
He went into the bathroom and turned on the shower and stepped in the stream. Under the water, he pulled off his jacket, his shirt, pants, underwear, socks, shoes. The floor outside the shower was muddy. Dirt and dust and people.
He stood under the shower.
It was all gone. His wife. His job. He tried to wash off the dust. The dust was in his nose, in the seashell curves of his ear, between his teeth, under his fingernails, in his hair. He lifted his face to the stream.
He checked on his son. His son was napping. His son slept through it, somehow.
There was no hope. But even not having hope was torture because in the darkness was the promise of light. He second-hand hoped, grudgingly, against his better judgement. He hoped because it was all he knew how to do.
His home phone would not stop ringing. His mother answered the calls. One of the calls was from his company’s CEO. He told the CEO that he was alive. He agreed to meet him in the morning.
He did not sleep. They watched television all night and talked on the phone. He went to bed around four but could not sleep. At six-thirty, his alarm rang. He got up and showered and dressed. It was all gone but he could not step outside the template of his life. He could not stop acting like it still existed.
His mother could not sleep either. In the morning, his mother made eggs. Sean drank orange juice to please her, but could not eat the eggs. The eggs were scrambled and had onion and diced green bell peppers in them, and a little bit of cheese. They were his favorite eggs. He could not eat the eggs. He drank the juice and he washed his cup and left in the sink. He knew his mother would clean the cup. He left there as an act of mercy, to give her something to do – an apology for not eating her eggs.
His parents did not want him to go. He had to go because it was all he knew how to do. Everything was gone, except the outline of a life. He would trace the outline. He would lie in bed even if he could not sleep. He would eat. Maybe not today, but eventually. He would look for his life in the outlines. The existence of the outlines, the actions taken in rote memory, would lead him up and out.
He kissed his son. He took his father’s cell phone, which had periodic coverage, and he left.
There was nothing left.
The company was gone.
There was no building, no desk, no computer, no paperclips, no printers, no chairs, no coffee cups, no phone system. There was no way to know who was alive and who was dead. He met with the CEO and a few others who had survived. The first thing to do was make a system for accounting for those who were alive.
They used pens and paper. They tried to hunt down survivors. Sean would not think of his hope. Sean would focus on the next minute. When that was too much, the next second. He had an outline. When he felt like screaming he knew that he wouldn’t because he had an outline that would keep him contained.
Rumors would appear – Joe was alive! – but then hours later the rumor would die. They visited hospitals. They called widows.
When they were not trying to account for the people who might have survived, they worked. There was a back up facility in New Jersey, and another office in London.
Everything was gone, but there were backups. As long as he could manage the problem of getting data back online, he did not have to know that most of his coworkers were dead. He worked hard.
They set up an office at a hotel. It was a clearing house for information, where widows could come and try to find out about insurance settlements, and a place where the skeleton crew would try to work. He bought computers with his own money for those who came in, shellshocked like himself, and wanted to work. He bought pens and pads and food.
When the markets opened, he took orders for trades over the phone. He had not been a trader in a very long time, but he took the orders, writing them down on a pad of paper, then calling the order in to the backup facility, and the back up facility would complete the order. When he was not taking orders, he was trying to get a new system built, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was trying to find out who was alive.
The small hope was extinguished after ten days. After ten days, he said, “she is gone.” He shut his eyes to hope. He could not concentrate on the pain of that knowledge, so he worked hard. He took orders on the phone, like it was 1981.
One day he heard piano music. He looked up and saw Carol King playing the piano, singing “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Joe is alive! Joe was not alive.
The funerals began. There was a funeral every day for eighteen months, sometimes two or more a day. When the funerals became too much, friends would step in and go in his stead. He would go in their stead. The survivors tried to be everywhere, every funeral, every widow’s midnight companion, every babysitter helper nursemaid. They tried but they were exhausted.
He was a widower but he made himself available to the widows who called in the middle of the night, crying, wanting to know, “what was the last thing he said to you?” or “tell me what he was like at work.”
The widows had children. The widows did not know how to balance their checkbooks or who their mortgage company was. Sean drove to Westchester County one Saturday morning and helped the wife of a friend get her financial affairs in order. He wrote out the checks himself while she nursed her newborn baby. When he was done, he saw that she had fallen asleep with the baby on the sofa. The widows were exhausted too.
The funerals were a full-time job. He dutifully attended the funerals. He tended to the widows. He bought computers and food.
They had a meeting about new office space. Sean said, “Any suggestions?”
Someone said, “Not a tall building.”
They all laughed.
They got a new office space. Sean took a an office on the top floor. A plane would not fly into the building, but once he looked down at the street and he knew that anyone who wanted to could drive up with a car bomb, park on the curb, and accomplish almost the same thing.
They had new office space. He had an office on the top floor.
Work – the company – had come back from the dead. Nothing else would repeat the miracle. His wife was gone. His old life was gone, a giant swirl and enormous vacancy.
Everything else had fallen apart, disintegrated, collapsed, pancaked. There was nothing but dirt. He had released himself from hope and all thoughts of a future of peace.
Without being consciously aware of it, he had made a vow that he would survive. The vow was the broken remains, the trace of eternity, which a person can live on for the rest of his life. Even if it cursed him, he loved it. He dragged it with him, lugging it into the sunlight, into darkness, exposing it to the elements. It could not be broken.
Filthy air filled his lungs.
Unfathomable evolving. Do you know what you are, what you have been, what you may or must become?