This is an older blog piece, but it’s my most vivid memory of September 11. It’s now been 12 years since that day. I almost forgot what year it had happened. As for the man I was dating: you forget the negatives. You just remember a living human being who was doing the very best he could with his life.
Most of us remember what we were doing on September 11, 2001, the moment the planes hit the World Trade Center. If you were in LA, so you were still asleep. I was an actor in New York, so I was just getting out of bed. What’s hard for me to remember is what I was doing the weekend before. Not because I can’t remember, but because the details are so vivid they could have haunted me for the rest of my life.
The weekend before 9/11, I went on vacation to Miami with Jack, my boyfriend of one year. Neither Jack nor I had dated anyone that long, so we decided to celebrate: we’d go somewhere unfamiliar, lounge on the beach, watch Cuban men play dominoes. And we would stop arguing.
Jack blamed our arguments on us both being competitive; I blamed them on him being an ass. Jack was critical and controlling. But he was also thoughtful, sensitive, and really really hot. And I thought a weekend away could help us relax and help him get back to the thoughtful, sensitive hot guy he was when we first met.
Jack got us cheap, nonrefundable tickets and a hotel package on Priceline.com. He insisted on doing everything, because as he was fond to say, “I don’t wan tyou to screw it up!”
Naturally I was delighted when Jack’s hotel choice turned out to be a dump. It was a 1980s concrete block, built on top of a decrepit shopping center that had shut down some time after Miami Vice got cancelled. You could stare over the hotel balcony down into the abandoned mall. A cement disk sat where a carousel had been yanked out. A busted store sign read “Miami Moment’s.” With an apostrophe. There was nothing left but concrete and echoes. And there was nothing going on at the hotel except bankruptcy seminars and suckers from Priceline.com.
Our room was decorated in pressboard and pastel and smelled of Lysol and BO. Let’s check out the view! Jack drew the drapes optimistically. It was a panorama of parking lot roof, warehouses and the bridge to Miami Beach.
Freeway close, Jack. You thought of everything.
We’d been here two hours and already we were keeping score.
We took the bridge to South Beach, and slogged through the humidity, passing art deco hotels and tourists taking pictures of the place where Versace got shot. We sought relief in an air-conditioned restaurant. Jack was hyper-vigilant 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. And he was Norwegian. When the menu came, Jack’s back got stiff.
JACK: Don’t get an omelet! Get a salad and we’ll share.
SUSAN: How about the Turkey Cobb Ranch?
JACK: I hate creamy things. I like things that are clear.
SUSAN: Then drink water!
JACK: Look I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time relaxing.
SUSAN: Yeah, I get that!
JACK: No you don’t!
I followed Jack’s eyes. A group of gay men were staring him down. One even hissed at Jack like a construction worker.
JACK: I feel like a piece of meat.
SUSAN: Well, you’re my piece of meat. I kissed him.
JACK: Let’s get out of here.
So we did. But there wasn’t anywhere to go. Outside it was hot and muggy, and inside there was little to do if you weren’t into drugs or gays 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.
JACK: This is a vacation. You’re not supposed to talk to other people!
SUSAN: Is that a Priceline rule, or YOURS??
JACK: If you need to talk to your friends, maybe you don’t need me. Maybe we shouldn’t have come.
SUSAN: Maybe we shouldn’t have.
I stomped off. I did that a lot when we fought. I’d walk off, out of subways, stores, out of his apartment, waiting for him to pursue me with apologies. But this time he didn’t. We rode back to the hotel in silence. I laid down on the Miami Vice bedspread and fell asleep, dreaming of my crappy apartment New York.
I woke up to a dozen Gerber daisies on the pressboard nightstand. Jack was sitting on the bed. He brushed the hair from my face.
JACK: I just want to feel important in your life.
SUSAN: You are. I love you, Jack. I’ve never spent a single Friday night with a girl friend since we met.
JACK: You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.
That night Jack took me out to the waterfront and treated me to a salmon dinner – which we shared. It was a lovely evening until the waiter brought us the key lime pie.
JACK: I should get more. I burn more calories than you.
SUSAN: Then go drink an Ensure.
JACK: I just get nervous when it looks like you’re eating too much.
SUSAN: Oh! So you think I’m fat?!
JACK: No! … Well kinda
And off we went, rattling of our list of everything that was wrong the other person. He was controlling, I didn’t make him a priority. He was nit-picky, I was sloppy. He hated my friends, my friends were freaks. We argued all the way back to the hotel, through the lobby, past a low-income prom, to our room. Jack apologized. I didn’t.
That night I dreamed of sneaking off and grabbing the Red Eye back to New York. But we had flown Priceline. I was stuck. We spent our last afternoon in a movie theater, dodging a monsoon. I sat silent and brittle. Jack was the perp, I was the victim. I guess I found some satisfaction in it. Jack reached over and took my hand. I don’t know how to do this relationship stuff. But I want to keep trying.
I leaned my head against his shoulder. It felt good. Then he got mad because I put my feet up on the seat in front of me. And there were only four people in the entire theater.
On the plane ride back, we played Hangman and spelled out phrases like “Roger Maris,” and “Sic Transit Gloria,” and the words for “I love you” in Norwegian. We laughed for the first time since we left New York. We tried to forget what we argued about. We tried to forget we argued at all.
On Monday, September 10th, the monsoon followed us to Manhattan. Jack lived only a few blocks from me, but I didn’t call or stop by. Finally that night my phone rang.
JACK: Hey, Jack whispered. I got another hangman question for you.
SUSAN: Let me guess, Miami Moment apostrophe S?
JACK: No. ‘LOOK O—T YO—R W—NDOW.’
I whipped the curtains back. There on the street below, I saw Jack’s rain soaked-head and heard his cackling laugh through the phone. The arguments were forgotten. We went for a walk in the neighborhood. The storm passed, the stars came out, the breeze felt good and clean and forgiving.
SUSAN: Do you want to come inside for a while? I asked.
JACK: No. I’m exhausted, and I gotta go into work early.
SUSAN: Do you want to meet at the train platform tomorrow?
JACK: No. I have to be at work at 8 AM sharp. And I can’t be late.
SUSAN: I’ve never made you late. Besides, you’re only going to Midtown.
JACK: No, downtown. We’ve got a conference at the World Trade Center.
We kissed goodbye. He walked a few paces and turned back to wave. He always did that: walk a few paces, turn and wave. After three waves, he’d turn away for good. But this time he kept turning back, until his pale head disappeared into the pattern of night.
On September 11 at 8:49 AM, my cell phone rang. I saw it was Jack. I almost didn’t answer.
Jack’s conference was at Windows on the World, the 106th floor of the North Tower. It started at 8:00 am. And Jack – my hyper-vigilant Jack – got up early, had his coffee, got his corner seat on the subway, and fell asleep. By the time he backtracked to the World Trade Center, and got to the express elevator, it was 8:46 am. But the elevator attendant held the door open until more people got in.
That’s when the plane hit. Everyone in the elevator scattered into the lobby. Some ran out to the street, some down to the subway, some into eternity. But Jack – my Witness Protection Jack – dodged the death falling from the sky, made it as far as a block, and then stopped. To call me.
What if I had rode the train with him, would I have pointed out his stop? What if the elevator attendant hadn’t waited for more passengers? And what if we hadn’t argued ourselves to exhaustion in Miami? Maybe he wouldn’t have fallen asleep on the train. What if my last image of Jack was of him turning back one last time to wave goodbye? For some that’s all they have: some random memory of a moment that’s supposed to be commonplace.
Jack ran eight miles home. I met him at his doorstep: hot and sweaty in his one good suit, alive. We had two more years of arguments and make-ups, till one argument stuck and it was over. A couple years later we became good friends again. And then he disappeared. Next thing I heard, he had eloped and moved to Europe.
You know how you can look back at a relationship and think, “Did I even go out with that guy?” But I know Jack and I happened because 9/11 happened, and there’s a hole in New York to prove it. There is also a hole in my heart to prove it. I’m grateful we loved each other once. I’m also grateful it ended. Mostly I’m grateful that my last memory of him wasn’t some argument over who ate more of the key lime pie.