(I wrote this back in late ’01 and early ’02.)
Her name was Michelle and he loved her.
She had gotten to work early that morning. It was her second day on the job. The first day had been long and filled with paperwork. Her second day was going to be better. She would be meeting her new co-workers, setting up her cubicle, and maybe even going out afterwards for a drink with the others. She would have been nervous and shy, but that was always part of her appeal. Unassuming, blithely unaware of her own attractiveness. Putting people at ease in their genuine desire to put her at ease.
He had spent the entire day in panic as he had held a photo of her grasped tightly in his cold hand, his vision obscured by a haze of dust and flame. He felt, suddenly, alone and lost.
He felt empty.
A well-kept woman in her mid to late fifties was being interviewed on TV. Her mother. She wore no makeup, but the darkness under her eyes did not speak of self-pity. It whispered of loss, and grief. The resemblance to the photo was not striking. The similarity was only apparent in the bearing and the good-natured lines along the forehead and about the eyes. She was speaking of her daughter’s excitement at being in the big city. Of starting a new job. Of starting a new life. For herself and for her young son.
She had been a single mom for several years. That didn’t mean her ex-husband was a bum. They had just gotten married quickly when they were young. They thought it was the next step to becoming real grown ups. They were a bit surprised to realize that they were still who they were before they got married.
He studied her face in the photos gently. Trying to find some kind of key, etching her into his brain. Her shoulder length auburn hair. Hazel eyes. The way her neck curved into her shoulders. The gentle slope of her body. The way her lips opened slightly in a smile.
She wasn’t from the city originally. That was obvious in the way her face opened up to those around her, even as a child. She wasn’t completely gullible, but she probably was a little too trusting. She was from the mid-west. Colorado.
The sirens pushed sluggishly through his sleep. His body tensed as he fought to stay asleep, to ignore the world outside. He tried to hold onto her image, laughing with him, smiling up into his eyes, but his grip wasn’t strong enough and soon she was gone. And the sirens were now cutting through the veil that separated him from the waking world. He lay there in his bed with his eyes still closed, trying to remember if he had kissed her in his dream.
An icy fall breeze snuck in through the window and caressed his forehead. The early morning chill bit at him and he pulled his covers up closer, opening his eyes reluctantly. The sirens still screamed. He could count at least four different sources, all with the same voice. They were screaming his name. Yelling at him. He closed his eyes tight, until the blackness rained red.
She wasn’t the prom queen in high school. But that was okay, no one was really sure who the prom queen was anymore, anyway. She was well remembered, though. They remembered her in science class in the second row. And in the library sixth hour. They remembered her as the cute girl that all the guys wanted to ask out, but never did.
She married just before she turned nineteen. They had met at a freshman social their first year at the University, were engaged by Christmas and married in time for Easter break. He was a non-practicing Episcopalian, and she was a non-practicing Mormon. They were married on the lawn of the school, next to the old theater by a Unitarian minister. Their son was born early the next year. They named him Peter, but her husband always called him Manny. Peter was given a name and blessed in the Mormon Church, and baptized into the Episcopalian one. It was a compromise of extended families.
He stared at the washed out colors of the laptop screen, his fingers caressing the keys, uncertain of commitment. In his mind he remembered the first time they had met – bumping into her accidentally in a line at a restaurant and striking up a conversation with her. He saw himself being charming without trying and saw her smiling or laughing at one of the old jokes that he never tired of telling, though everyone else had tired of hearing.
And they had grown closer.
She thought her hands were too small and felt self-conscious about them. When she would get excited and start talking about something for which she was passionate, she would use her hands like marionettes in front of her. Helping to fill in the gaps of language that happened when she spoke faster than she could put together the words. And then she would remember that she thought her hands were too small, and she would quickly put them behind her back or out of sight, until they would sneak out again and rejoin the conversation, small, poised and quick witted.
A blaring siren called him home and he tried to locate it by sound. It came from several blocks away, on the other side of the park. He stared out his window from where he sat, his head pressed up against the glass. It was a cool day and the street running below his apartment was not crowded. People milled around and walked hurriedly and casually, some in pairs, some in groups, some alone. Like himself. He craned his neck as the siren faded and thought for a second he saw her walking away in the distance.
Moments like these were more and more frequent now. He would find himself searching for her in the faces of strangers from his window seat, looking out at the passing world. Would she wear that scarf? Would she like those shoes? Would she buy that cereal?
She had a little scar on the tip of her chin. Almost imperceptible. It was there when she frowned and gone when she smiled. She got it when she was five. It happened on her brother’s eighth birthday after his baptism in the Mormon Church. There was a small reception for family and friends. She was tired of her brother getting all of the attention all day, so she threw her cup of punch at him, staining his white church shirt red. He chased her through the building into the chapel where they climbed over the pews, laughing and screaming, until she fell and caught her chin on the wooden lip of the seat. It wasn’t bad, but there was a lot of blood, and a lot of tears. As she apologized to her brother over and over again, he held her to him tightly calling for his mother, the dried punch stains mixing with the newer bloodstains.
“What are you looking for?”
He looked up from his work, blinked his eyes a couple of times and tried on a tired smile. Today was a better day. There was no fire licking at the periphery of his vision. No reds and oranges. No gray. He was staying relatively focused and active. He had spent several hours speaking with her mother and brother on the phone. He had even spoken with her son. He was almost a teen, almost a young man. Today was definitely a better day. The emptiness wasn’t nearly as noticeable, not nearly as empty.
“What are you looking for?” The television flickered at him. The picture moved unsteadily as it followed a small boy from behind as he went from room to room. “Peter, baby…… Slow down, don’t fall. What are you looking for?” Her voice had the taste of a smile in it. It was a small apartment, and sparsely furnished. Large boxes were stacked around, some full and overflowing with papers and books, some empty and pushed to a corner. A glimpse of snow could be seen through the windows.
He put his papers down carefully on the floor beside his chair and reached for the VCR remote control. He paused the video and slowly walked into the bathroom. His face was unshaven, his beard coming in unevenly about his jaw and chin. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, though he got plenty of sleep. The buzzing from the fluorescent lights overhead faintly echoed the sounds of the sirens that followed him everywhere now. The muted brightness they gave off gave his image a bluish hue in the mirror.
He turned on the faucet and cupped his hands under it, watching the water fill them up like a little pool and then run over the sides of his fingers in a steady stream. The water was cold and carried the faint scent of chlorine. He buried his face in it and felt the tingle of warm blood rushing to his cheeks. The roughness of the old towel caught on his whiskers as he carefully dried off.
He sat gently back in his chair in front of the television, the remote control in his hand. He closed his eyes and tried to listen to the hallway outside of his home. He pictured her walking slowly down the hall, returning home from a long day at the office, her son following along behind her, dragging his school bag.
He unpaused the video and the frozen image jumped back to life. “Peter?” The boy had stopped running from room to room. “Peter? What’s wrong sweetie?” Today had been a better day. “Manny?”
Peter turned to face the camera, his face scrunched up, a hitch in his breathing. The camera was quickly put on the floor, the metal pipes of the heater filling the TV screen. “Where is my Daddy’s room, Mommy?”
Her father died when she was sixteen. It did not happen quickly. It was long and drawn out, and by the time the cancer finally won the battle it was a relief to the entire family. When he was first diagnosed she did not leave her room or speak on the phone for a month. The Friday after he finally succumbed and passed on, ten months later, she went to the school prom accompanied by two other girls without dates.
She stopped going to church then. Not because she blamed God and not because she felt let down by her faith, but because she missed her Dad. And missed him most on Sundays, sitting in the main meeting, listening to the scheduled speakers and not having him there to tease her and keep her from falling asleep. Missed him sitting next to her, holding her hand, and trying valiantly to keep from dozing off himself.
He awoke with a start, the soft hiss of the TV filling the quiet as it searched for a signal. His neck was sore from the uncomfortable sleep sitting in his chair, and his cheek was damp from his own spittle. He massaged lightly at the base of his head and took a moment to gather his thoughts. The smell of the city was beginning to seep back into his life.
For so long she only had her son. He kept her moving forward. She wasn’t sure what there was after he was grown and moved on with his own life, but while she could make his life easier and help make his childhood happy, she would do what she had to do. Like her parents had done for her.
He sat in his chair. Unmoving. Staring at the patch of blue that he could barely see through the window on the other side of the room. She stared back at him. Intently. Uncertainty in her eyes. A slight quiver in her lips. He reached up and brushed a loose strand of her hair back around her ear and smiled. Her eyes begged him to understand.
“It’s ok.” He could hear himself say it. Barely. His voice was soft, almost a murmur.
Slowly, painfully, he rose to his feet. He didn’t remember when he had slipped from the seat to his knees. And as he rose, she turned to go. He thought to call her back, but didn’t.
For the first time in months he stepped out into the open air and the combined odor of moisture, mold, ovens, oil, urine and a million cramped souls overpowered him. It was finally becoming a smell that he was familiar with. Often he wondered how he could be in the middle of the most populated square footage in the country and still be so alone.
She had gotten to work early that morning. It was her second day on the job. The first day had been long and filled with paperwork. Her second day was going to be better.
The sun fought down through the buildings and warmed his face. The autumn breeze knocked lazily through the maze of concrete, glass and steel and brushed his hair back. In the distance he could hear sirens. The dust and flame tinting their voices muted. Quieting, finally.
She was baptized when she was eight years old and her father’s voice broke under the press of emotion as he blessed her, his hands shaking as they rested tenderly on her head. On her still wet hair.
He shrugged off the growing tightness in his chest. As he waved down a cab, the sound of a jet flying high off in the distance tugged at the corners of his eyes. The contrail was barely visible in the clear blue sky. So far away.
He had planned to be in her building that day. With her. He was walking there that morning when he had heard the sound of the jet engine and, like those around him, turned to look for the source of the sound.
She would have been meeting her new co-workers, setting up her cubicle, and maybe even planning on going afterwards for a drink with the others. She would have been nervous and shy, but that was Michelle.
He remembered that first there was the plane, and then there was the fire, expanding in jagged circles of red and orange. And then there was the dust and the falling gray of steel and concrete, and the stunned silence on the streets.
He looked down into the gentle blue eyes of a very old woman as she struggled to step from the cab. The soft pink skin of her face, wrinkled gently by a long, careful life. Her white hair in a perm, with a rainbow colored kerchief holding it in place. She smiled at him with her hand stretched out, unable to get out of the cab with any sense of balance. “Let me help you,” he said as he took her by the hand.
She smiled back at him with a ‘thank you’ and taking her bag, started down the street. He smiled to himself and briefly in his mind saw the sun shine a little through the roiling gray, red and orange that had filled his thoughts for so long. And then he pictured himself as an old man, helping her step from the cab onto the sidewalk, only her eyes were no longer blue, they were hazel and she gripped his hand firmly and surely.
He breathed a deep breath and tried to push the gray and the red and the heat back down inside. In the cab, his back to the empty space in the skyline of his city, his shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes and wept.
Her name was Michelle and he loved her.
Rebecca carefully made her way down the walk from the cab. She clutched her bag close to her chest. Her feet ached and her hands itched deep inside. She looked up at the empty spot in the heart of her city and her own heart dragged a little. Her grandson had worked there. He was a workaholic. They hadn’t spoken since his parents died three years earlier when he was in college.
His name was Nathan and she loved him.