Jan 7, 2005

My Own Private September 11

Miami, September 9, 2001

Most of us remember what we were doing on September 11, the moment the planes hit the World Trade Center. Well, if you were in LA, you were asleep. I was an actor in New York. I was also asleep. What's hard for me to remember is what I was doing the weekend before. Not because I can't, but because e details could have haunted me for the rest of my life.

The weekend before 9/11, I went to Miami with my boyfriend of a year. Neither Jack nor I had dated anyone that long, so we decided to celebrate: go somewhere new, lounge on the beach, watch Cuban men play dominoes. And we could stop arguing.

Jack attributed our arguments to us both being competitive. I attributed them to him being an ass. Jack was critical and controlling. But he was also thoughtful and sensitive. And really hot. And we thought a weekend away could get back to the people we were when we first met.

Jack got us a cheap airline and hotel package on Priceline.com. He took care of all the arrangements. He didn't want me to screw it up. So, when we got to our hotel in Miami, I was kinda happy it was dump. A 1980s concrete block built on top of a shopping center that had since closed down. You could stare over the hotel balcony to the abandoned mall. A cement disk sat where the mall carousel had been yanked out. Nothing left but concrete and echoes. And nothing going on at the hotel, except for bankruptcy conventions, suckers from Priceline.com.

Our room was decorated in pressboard furniture, Miami Vice pastels and smelled of Lysol and BO. Our window looked out at a sagging parking lot, the warehouses of little Haiti, and a bridge.

I sighed. Oh Jack, Our little love nest.

Later we drove to South Beach. We slogged through the humidity, past art deco hotels, models and Tourists taking pictures of the place Versace was shot. We sought the comfort of air conditioning in a restaurant. Jack hypervigilant about restaurants. He only sat in far corner booths, back to the wall, eyes to the door, like he was in the witness protection program.

I ordered an omelet. Tried to.
"Don’t get the omelet," he whispered, urgently. "Get a salad and we’ll share."
"Okay I'll have the salad with ranch dressing on the side."
Jack brooded. "I hate creamy salad dressings. I like things that are clear."
”No one is making you eat the ranch dressing, Jack.”
”I'm sorry. I'm having a hard time relaxing.”
”I get that.”
<”No you don't.”

I followed Jack's eyes. A group of gay men were leering at him. One hissed at Jack like a construction worker.

Jack shuddered. "I feel like a piece of meat."

"Well you're my piece of meat." I kissed him.

Jack stood up. Let's get out of here.

But there wasn't anywhere to go. Outside it was hot and muggy, and there was little to do indoors if you weren't into drugs or bars. So, we got cranky and fought: over the way I drove the car. Over who should reload the camera. Over whether it was OK for me to answer my cell phone.

"This is a vacation," Jack argued. "You're not supposed to talk to other people!"
"Sor-Reee!" I snapped. "I didn't read your RULE BOOK before we left.
"If you need to talk to your friends, maybe we shouldn't have come." he glared.
"Maybe I shouldn't have." Like I was daring him to agree.

That night Jack bought me Gerber daisies and treated me to a nice salmon dinner. Which we shared. It was really lovely. Until the waiter brought us the key lime pie.

"I should get more," Jack whined. Guys burn more calories than women. "
"Need Calories? Go drink an Ensure.
"I just get nervous when it looks like you're eating too much."
"You saying I'm fat?!"

And off we went, into a list of everything that was wrong the other person. He was controlling, I didn't make him a priority. He was hypercritical, I was sloppy. He didn't like my friends. My friends were freaks.

We argued all the way back to the hotel, through the lobby, past a low income prom, and into the elevator, where some drunk kids gave us the shaming look.

Jack apologized. I didn't.

We spent our last afternoon in a movie theater, dodging a monsoon. I sat, brittle and silent. I was the victim and I milked it. Jack reached over and took my hand.

I'm sorry. I don't know how to do this. But I want to try.

I leaned my head against his shoulder. It felt good. We tried to forget what we argued over, that we argued at all.

On the plane back we played Hangman and spelled out phrases like Roger Maris, and Sic transit Gloria, and the words for I love you in Norwegian. Jack laughed for the first time in days. There you are. I missed you

Monday September 10th, the monsoon followed us to New York. I had a meeting in SoHo, a block from Jack's office. I stopped outside his building in the rain, and called him.

I have another Hang Man question for you. It was basically, LOOK OUT YOUR WINDOW without the O's. Soon I saw his blonde head in a window high above, and heard his cackling laugh through the phone. The arguments were forgotten.

That night we took a walk in Jack's neighborhood. The storm had passed. The moon and stars were out. The breeze felt good and clean and forgiving.
"Do you want to come over a while?" I asked tentatively.
"No, I'm exhausted. I gotta go in early. We're holding a conference downtown."
"I could get up early with you, I offered.
"No. I have to be there at 8 AM sharp. I can't be late.
"You're only in SoHo."
"But the conference isn't at work. It's at the World Trade Center."

We kissed goodbye. I walked a few paces and turned back to wave. We always did that: walk a few paces, turn back and wave. Usually about three waves, then we turned away for good. But this time I kept turning and he was just standing there. Watching. Waving. I turned back until I could no longer make out his pale head and dark clothes in the pattern of night. I went home. pin drop silence

At 8:49 am on September 11, my cell phone rang.

Jack's conference was at Windows on the World, the 106th floor of the North Tower. It started at 8 AM. Jack, my hyper-vigilant Jack, got up early, had his coffee, got his corner seat on the subway. And fell asleep. He missed his stop. Finally he made it back to the WTC, got to the lobby, and into the express elevator that goes straight to the 80th floor. But the attendant wouldn't let the elevator leave the lobby until enough people got in. It was 8:46 am, and Jack was late.

Just as the elevator doors began to close, the plane hit. The doors snapped open, everyone scattered back out into the lobby, running for safety. Some of them were never seen again.

Jack ran through the lobby, dodging falling concrete. He made it out to the street. He heard screams and sirens; he saw luggage and metal and bodies falling from the sky. And hundreds of empty shoes. He made it as far as a block. Stopped to call me.

"Run Jack. Run like you've never run before!"

What if I had rode the train in with him, would I have pointed out his stop? What if the elevator attendant hadn't waited for more passengers? And what if our arguing in Miami hadn't exhausted him, so that he didn't fall asleep?

What if my last image of Jack was of him waiting in the shadows, turning back one last time to wave goodbye? For some that’s all they have, a memory that was meant to be commonplace. Maybe they missed the chance to say I'm sorry or I love you Maybe they said nothing. Maybe they argued over a piece of pie.

But Jack, my exhausted Jack, ran eight miles home. I met him at his doorstep: hot and sweaty in his one good suit, alive.