The Smiths didn’t seem like the type of couple that harbored dark secrets behind their white picket fence.
Then “it” happened.
What started out as a “dream job” quickly became the greatest fissure in their relationship. At first, it was on account of Chris’s travel schedule, but his salary at least partially made up for it, giving them the comfortable suburban existence they always dreamed of. Chris hated the traveling component as much as she did – especially after their son, Jimmy, was born. But five years later, a nagging reality had morphed into a devastating one.
It had been less than a week that she decided she wasn’t going to leave him after all, just two months after his admitted indiscretion – on one of his goddam business trips, of course. Since then, she had been teetering back and forth, before reluctantly deciding to tough it out … at least for the time being. Less for her sake, but for the sake of their son.
He was certainly ready to move on, as suggested by his umpteenth apology – a thinly-veiled attempt to get off the very hook he hanged himself upon to begin with. She wanted to believe him that it was only one time. And for the most part, she did. But there was no way to be certain.
At first, his apologies did little to convince her to stay. Nor did pleas from her parents, who didn’t want to see their grandson become a victim of divorce, encouraging her to “ride out the storm.”
The turning point in Carolyn’s decision to stay put was her husband’s promise to find a job that wouldn’t require travel. A promise in the form of a mandate (even though he tried to spin it into a decision made on his own terms).
Despite limited job prospects and the likelihood of a pay cut, he was determined to make it happen. To make things right. In fact, he had just lined up a very promising interview for the following week. The job would require moving out of state, which would mean giving up the house they built themselves. But it would also mean a fresh start. It would mean not having to cast suspicion every time he got on a plane. It would mean no longer having to lie awake every moment of the night, wondering who her husband was fucking at that very moment. They were both willing to sacrifice a little income in exchange for domestic security. As long as Chris was willing to fulfill this promise, she wasn’t going to leave him – a promise she made more to herself, than to him. For the sake of their child.
Now, he was on the eve of his first trip since the devastating discovery. The first true test … of everything.
“I packed your black socks,” Carolyn said to Chris in another room. “Need anything else?”
“Have you seen my toiletry bag?” he asked.
“It’s not in your suitcase?” she said, annoyed by his unnecessary helplessness.
“No,” he said, with a layer of panic in his voice. “Oh, wait,” he said, pulling his toiletry bag out of his suitcase. “Found it.”
Jimmy entered, holding his favorite toy plane.
“Daddy?” Jimmy asked in his usual curious tone.
“Why do you always have to leave?”
“Because my work makes me. That’s why Daddy is looking for a new job.”
“But when will you get one?” Jimmy asked.
“Soon. Now go give Mommy a kiss so I can tuck you in.” Jimmy ran to give his mother a kiss.
“Goodnight, Sweetheart. Sweet dreams.”
“You, too!” Jimmy exclaimed, before running full-speed back to his dad. Chris picked him up and carried him over his shoulder, causing Jimmy to drop his plane.
“My plane, Daddy.”
“You’ll get it in the morning.”
Inside Jimmy’s Detroit Tigers-themed bedroom, Chris lowered his son down into his bed. Carolyn listened from the hallway and was reminded of what a great father he was (it was the quality of husband that was in question). Once again, she found the scales of their relationship tipping in its favor.
Chris kissed his son on the forehead.
“I’ll see you in two days. Take good care of Mommy.”
As Chris turned to leave, Carolyn vanished down the steps.
“Daddy?” Jimmy said. Carolyn could just barely make out the rest of the conversation.
“Yeah?” Chris said.
“I’ll miss you,” Jimmy said, before breaking down into tears.
Carolyn had to bite her lip to prevent tears of her own.
“I’ll miss you, too. But two days will go by so fast, you won’t even realize I’m gone. And you know what else?”
“What?” Jimmy asked.
“I’ll still be able to see you, even if you can’t see me.”
“Because I’ll be in the tallest building in New York. It’s so high, I’ll be able to see our house and right into your bedroom as you sleep.”
“Will you call me from there?”
“Cross your heart and hope to die?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“But even if you don’t call, I don’t want you to die.”
“Deal” Chris said, chuckling.
Chris headed back to the door.
Chris turned around.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
As Chris headed back to the master bedroom to finish packing, Carolyn sat on the couch in front of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle of their favorite place on earth: Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. She attempted to fit a few pieces of her puzzle together, but couldn’t concentrate. She used to dread his business trips even before the incident. Now, there was an added suffocating layer of jealousy.
Chris came down the stairs and sat next to her. By instinct, she separated herself from him. He attempted to close the gap. There was noting he could say right now to quell her fears and make her feel better. Not until he was back in his own bed. Or better yet, landed a new job.
“When I get home, we’re finishing that puzzle,” Chris finally said.
“That’s what you said last time.”
“This time, no excuses.”
“Right,” she said, having her doubts.
“You could always finish it yourself,” Chris said.
“I want to finish it with you.”
“I know and we will. You know I always finish what I started.”
“They couldn’t let you stay home for our anniversary?“ Carolyn asked, her eyes swelling with tears.
Chris held her against him.
“I tried. Trust me, if I could have gotten out of this, I would have. But I promise we’ll celebrate Wednesday night. In fact, I already made reservations. And remember, if things go as planned, we’ll never spend another anniversary apart.”
Although she didn’t show it, this made her feel at least a little better.
“And we still have tonight,” Chris added, with a seductive glint in his eye, triggering a nauseating feeling in the pit of Carolyn’s stomach – a feeling she connected with sex ever since her husband’s indiscretion.
She reluctantly headed upstairs with her husband and made robotic love. He attempted to be more attentive than ever before, but it disgusted her. Up until everything fell apart, climaxing was never an issue for her. In fact, they usually climaxed together, in perfect two-part harmony. Now, she could barely muster any sensation at all. All she could do was picture him being insider the “other”. Or was it “others”? There was no way she could ever really know.
She used to sleep most soundly after sex. But resentment kept her wide awake. Resentment for cheating on her and to a lesser degree, resentment for missing their anniversary. She wasn’t convinced that he did everything in his power to stay home for it.
Though she thought she had already made up her mind that she would stay with him for the sake of little Jimmy. Yet, there was still a part of her…
She prayed that this trip would help her reach a decision one way or another.
The night slowly passed as sleep continued to elude her. An unexpected dread grew deep within her soul. Almost like a premonition.
When the alarm went off at 4:15, she was still wide-awake.
Chris shut off the alarm, then kissed Carolyn softly on the cheek, whispering “Happy Anniversary” into her ear. It felt fake to her. Phony.
As he climbed out of bed, she wondered: Does he have any idea I didn’t sleep? Too exhausted to get out of bed, she waited as Chris showered, but still couldn’t fall asleep. There was nothing she wanted more.
Chris returned from the shower, unaware that Carolyn was watching him dress, looking at his moderately-toned body that she used to admire. Back when it was all hers. Once again, she couldn’t help but imagine his other all over him, even though she had no idea what she even looked like. Nor, did she have any desire to. Seeing “the other” in concrete form would only make it seem all too real.
When Chris finished getting dressed, she dragged herself downstairs to join him for breakfast. But she had no appetite. She stared into her soggy cereal bowl.
“It’ll go by quickly,” Chris tried to reassure her.
“For you,” Carolyn said. She could tell Chris was searching for additional words of encouragement, but Hallmark sentiments were rarely effective on her. Especially now. There was nothing he could say that could make things any better.
She couldn’t fault him for trying. If anything, he tried too hard.
As Chris finished off his second cup of coffee and headed upstairs to gather his things, Carolyn suddenly wanted nothing more but to see him leave the house. This feeling caught her completely off guard. In fact, it frightened her. When Chris came back down, he attempted to hug her, but she pulled back. He respected her wishes and backed off.
“Well, I better hit the road…or the friendly skies.”
She sensed he expected a smile out of her. But she refused to give in.
Carolyn stood up and saw him to the door.
“Please be careful,” Carolyn said.
“You don’t have to worry. About anything.”
She knew what he meant and as much as she wanted to believe him, she couldn’t.
Carolyn noticed his wallet sitting on the end table.
“Forgetting something?” she asked, retrieving the wallet.
“What would I do without you?” Chris responded.
“I love you,” he said.
She fought off her instinctual desire to respond and stood mute. She could tell it bothered him, but once again, he didn’t let on. And though she knew it bothered him deep inside, he deserved it. And would get over it.
“Don’t be late,” she urged him toward the door.
“You wouldn’t want me to miss my flight now, would you?” Chris said with a wink.
“God forbid,” Carolyn said in return.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said, almost as a half-baked afterthought, before finally turning to leave.
As Chris headed toward his car, Carolyn stepped out onto the porch, under a cloudless sky that was perfect shade of blue as though painted by hand. It felt more like late May, rather than early-September. Birds chirped gleefully. An American flag hung from the porch, gently blowing the wind.
A perfect day to fly.
Chris blew her a kiss. As she blew him one back, an unexpected chill ran through her. As he pulled out of the driveway, the flag drooped at a perfect, poetic standstill.
She waited until Chris was out of sight, before she slowly closed the door behind her. The chill was gone. She sat down on the couch, anticipating the usual rush of sadness she experienced whenever Chris left. She now felt something completely unexpected: relief.
“Good morning, Mommy!” Jimmy’s high-pitched voice rang out behind her. She turned around, startled.
“You scared me!”
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Jimmy said. She stooped down to hug him.
“What are you doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep.“
She struggled to remember the last time when Jimmy was up this early.
“Let’s get you some breakfast.”
Jimmy followed her into the kitchen. As Carolyn prepared his breakfast, she turned on Good Morning America half-listening to an update on a senator’s missing intern.
After breakfast, Carolyn put on a faded VHS copy of The Lion King. There was still an hour before she had to take Jimmy to school. She used this time to gather laundry. It was this exact domestic chore that yielded her first piece of evidence: a small corner of a condom wrapper. She couldn’t help but wonder what she might find this time.
En route to school, Carolyn passed a school bus filled with laughing children.
“Mommy, why don’t I ever get to take the bus?”
“Because some kids don’t have a mommy or daddy who can take them to school. Many mommies work. But since daddy makes good money, she could spend more time with you.”
“But the bus looks fun.”
“We have fun, right? And if you took the bus, who would take you out for donuts after school sometimes? Or take you to the bookstore?”
“Well, you still could still take me when I got home.”
“You got me there!” she laughed, as they pulled into the school.
“Maybe one day, we could work it out so you can take the bus. Sound good?”
“Sounds good. I still prefer you driving me.”
She gave him a hug.
“Have a good day! I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He got out of the way. Halfway to the entrance, he turned around and blew his mother a kiss.
Like father, like son.
Carolyn blew him one back. Some day, he would outgrow this gesture. This made her sad. He turned around and headed into school. She began to tear up, then regained her composure.
Carolyn headed home, hoping to get catch a nap before she had to pick Jimmy up around noon. Once inside, she realized she no longer felt tired and began to fold some laundry. Good Morning America played in the background. But suddenly, something caught her eye: a huge, flaming hole in one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
…Chris had a meeting scheduled in that very building. She looked at the time: 8:48. His plane would have landed an hour ago, but would he have already made it across town? Unlikely.
She picked up the landline and quickly dialed Chris. It went straight to voicemail.
“Chris, please call me. I just saw the news on TV. God, I’m so worried.”
She hung up the phone and paced back and forth, before she dialed him again. Voicemail.
“Why isn’t your phone on?” she said with a fusion of annoyance, panic, and suspicion.
Is he even in New York?
“Call me. Please.”
She hung up. Seconds later, the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number. Normally, she would ignore unknown calls, but this time, she wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
“Hi, this is Cindy calling from Phone U.S.A. I wanted to let you—“
She hung up. There is never a convenient time to deal with telemarketers. This was a whole other level.
She dialed Chris again. No luck. She hung up and gave Chris’s office a try.
“Freedom Marketing, please hold,” said the receptionist. Ingratiating hold music played.
“You got to be fucking kidding me,” Carolyn said as she waited.
Finally, the receptionist picked back up.
“Thank you for holding. How can I—“
“Susan, it’s Carolyn Smith. Did you see the news?”
“Yes, we just heard. Have you—“
“…heard from Chris? No. I was hoping that maybe you have.”
“We’ve been trying to contact him,” the receptionist said.
“Do you know what time his meeting was?” Carolyn asked.
“Do you know which tower he’s in?”
“The South,” the receptionist said.
“Which tower was hit?”
“Thank God,” Carolyn said overcome with potential fool’s gold relief, before adding: “But you haven’t heard from him?”
“No,” the receptionist said. “If you do get a hold of him will you please call us?”
“Please do the same,” Carolyn begged.
“Well, if anybody will find a way out of this, it’s Chris,” the receptionist said. “Please let us know if you hear from him. And we’ll do the same.”
They hung up.
If there’s anybody that would wait until everyone else got out first, it’s Chris.
Carolyn stared at the phone, as though willing it to ring. After a few moments, she redialed Chris’s number. Voicemail again. She ran her hands through her hair, watching the nightmare unfold on T.V., struggling to fathom the fact that this was reality and not a disaster movie.
The phone rang. She answered it without even looking at who was calling.
“Anything good on T.V.?”
“You’re alive!” she blurted out, irritated by his cavalier nature.
Carolyn was too stunned to speak.
“Carolyn?” Chris said after a beat.
“I thought you were dead.”
“I’m okay, baby. I’m okay.”
“Why wasn’t your phone on?”
“It was. The phone lines must be jammed. But I’m fine. And today’s still our anniversary.”
Why is he so calm?
“Where are you?”
Again, she couldn’t help but feel suspicious about his whereabouts. Was he even in New York? She now took everything with a grain of salt.
“At the office. I can see the flames across from my window. And the smell—“
“Why aren’t you leaving?” Carolyn asked, more as a demand than a question. She realized she believed him. He had had proven to be sneaky, but there was no way in hell he would go to this length.
“They asked us to stay put.”
“I won’t feel safe until I know you’re out of there.”
“Everything’s under control,” Chris assured her.
“How do you know? Do you even know what’s going on?”
“No one’s panicking.”
“Everyone’s probably too much in shock. Please, leave.”
“I told you, we got orders—“
“Well, I’m your wife and I’m ordering you to leave.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll leave,” Chris finally said, irritated.
“I’m grabbing my briefcase as I speak. I’ll call you when I get back to the hotel.”
“You call me as soon as you step outside.”
But he hung up before she could finish. She realized that was the first time she said it in months. In fact, she couldn’t remember exactly when. She thought about calling him back, but didn’t want to delay him getting the hell out of there
All she could now was wait. She took a speck of comfort in the fact that she at least heard from him. Until she heard back, she had to rely on the news. But just as she turned around to look, the second plane hit the South Tower.
This wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
She screamed – shrieked – in absolute, pure terror, dropping the phone onto the hardwood floor. She couldn’t remove her eyes from the TV, suspended in the horror of the moment until she was able to stoop down to pick up her phone to dial Chris. It was useless to even try. She slumped onto the couch and stared at the TV, rocking back and forth in stunned disbelief, repeating over and over again:
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…”
The phone rang. Dear God, please be Chris. But it wasn’t. It was her mother, calling from Florida. Carolyn picked it up, but found herself unable to speak.
“Hello?” her mother said on the other end.
“Mom, Chris, I, I can’t—” Carolyn struggled to articulate her thoughts.
“Carolyn? Are you okay? Do you have the news on? All those people—“
“When I hung up, the second plane! – oh my God! – the second plane!”
“It’s just awful,” her mother said in response.
Carolyn finally managed to form a full sentence.
“Chris is in the Trade Center.”
After a slight pause, her mother responded:
“What do I do? What do I do?” Carolyn kept repeating, on the border of hysteria.
“Have you heard from him?” she asked.
“Yes, and he was fine, but then I hung up and the second plane, oh God, the second plane!”
“What floor was he on?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’ll call you back.”
Carolyn hung up before her mother could even reply and dialed Chris’s phone once again. It actually rang this time. And then voicemail. She went ahead and left him a message, as though in doing so, it would somehow force fate to keep him alive in order for him to receive it. But deep down, she knew better.
“Hi, Chris. It’s me,” she said, trying to hold back tears to no avail. “I really hope you get this. I…“ She was disconnected before she could finish her sentenced.”…love you.”
She hung up and called Chris’s office.
“Freedom Marketing –“
“This is Carolyn Smith again. What floor was Chris working on?”
“The 80th,” the receptionist said, with panic in her voice; the sound of chaos all around her.
“Above or below the crash site?”
“We’re still looking into it,” the receptionist said. “You still haven’t heard from him?”
Carolyn hung up and raced to her computer, regretting that they never updated their modem – one of many things put on hold in recent months.
She frantically searched for information relaying the impact zone of the South Tower. There was a lot of contradictory info, but it seemed most likely that the point of impact was around the 78th floor
This information left her swirling in hope, panic, and confusion. On one hand, she knew he wasn’t directly hit. But by the same token, he could be trapped.
The phone rang again. It was her mother.
“Have you heard from him?” her mother asked.
“No. But he was above the crash site.”
“Then he must be on his way down.”
“What if he’s trapped? Why isn’t he calling me?”
“I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he gets out.”
“Why can’t I reach him?”
“Maybe the signal’s jammed.”
“Why is this happening?”
“I don’t know, Sweetheart. I’m not even sure God knows. Is there somebody that can come over? You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“No. All of my friends are at work. And I don’t know if I’d want anybody here even if they could be.”
“You know I would hop on the first plane I could, but who knows when anybody will be able to fly again.”
“I know you would, Mom.”
“Are you going to be okay with Jimmy?”
“Of course. I’m his mother.”
“I know, I know. But nobody would blame you if you asked for some help –”
“I’ll call you later, Mom. This isn’t helping.”
“You know I’m here for you.”
Carolyn hung up and turned her attention back to the TV, greeted by an image of the smoldering Pentagon.
The phone rang. It was Chris.
“Oh my God, I thought I lost you. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. And I’m out.”
She had never felt a greater sense of relief in her life. They still had one another and from here on out, that was all that was gong to matter.
They would get a clean start.
“Thank God! Where are you now?”
“I just walked out the lobby. There’s debris and bodies everywhere – oh my God, a body just landed 10 feet from me! This is unbelievable. This is insane. But I’m okay, baby. I’m okay. I love—”
Suddenly, a deafening roar drowned out Chris’s voice.
Drowned out everything.
“Chris?” Carolyn panicked. She turned around to look at the TV, just as one of the towers of the World Trade Center come crumbling down. As she watched it in seemingly slow motion, she never felt more helpless in her life. She knew at that very moment that Chris was gone. It was more than simply being a witness to the destruction that made her think this. She felt a cord – the lifeline connecting her heart to his – snap and break into two. It’s something that one doesn’t even notice is there at all until it’s gone. And once it is gone, there is no getting it back.
She could come to one conclusion.
Chris was gone.
Carolyn slowly sat down onto the couch where she and Chris had spent such a significant portion of their lives together (yet, never thought about it that way until this moment) and became numb to the world, as she stared blankly at the TV where horror continued to unfold. She obsessively dialed Chris’s phone over and over again, hoping his voice would magically appear on the other end. But it wouldn’t even ring. There was just … silence, which only magnified the inevitable truth that she was desperately trying in vain to eradicate.
She remembered how much she wanted him to leave earlier this morning, which drowned her in a layer of guilt deeper than she had ever felt in her life. Of course, until this time, there was nothing she wanted more than for him to stay home. And yet, the one time she wanted him to go…
Her phone rang. Startled, she dropped it on the floor and scrambled to pick it up. It was her mother. She answered it, her mouth open, but no words followed.
“Chris …,” Carolyn managed to mutter.
“Talk to me, Sweetheart.”
Carolyn somehow mustered up the courage to find her words. “I was on the phone with him, then it collapsed. Oh, my God! It collapsed and – oh, God!”
“Listen to me. Don’t jump to any conclusions,” her mother said.
“He’s gone, Mom. He’s gone.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
“I know, Mom. I know.”
Neither Carolyn, nor her mother said another word, despite staying on the line. Words no longer served a purpose. After a few minutes, Carolyn finally broke the silence.
“Mom, I think I want to sleep.”
“Okay, Dear. Call me back when you’re ready.”
Carolyn hung up, then looked up at the TV just in time to catch breaking news about a fourth plane crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. My God, is this ever going to end? Is this the end of the world? As far as she was concerned, the world had already ended – her world.
She continued staring at the TV, unable to look away, as much as she wanted to. By the time the other tower collapsed, she shut the TV off. And somehow, sleep finally came – the human body’s capacity to meet its needs, even as the mind shuts down.
When Carolyn woke up with a jolt minutes later, there was a split moment where she was convinced everything had been a dream before reality had a chance to catch up with her. She turned the TV back on and the nightmare was still unfolding in real time. She checked her phone to make sure she didn’t somehow miss a call from Chris. She didn’t. She dialed his number once again, but again, nothing.
Carolyn stared blankly at the TV at an aerial shot of the smoldering wreckage that was once the World Trade Center. She fixated on the strong likelihood that Chris was probably somewhere beneath that very rubble.
God, please may he be alive. And may he be found. If he is dying, please don’t make him suffer long.
She turned the TV off again and stared at her ghostly reflection in the screen, before diverting her eyes onto the unfinished puzzle, realizing that Chris’s promise would remain unfulfilled.
With still an hour to go before she had to pick Jimmy up from school, she considered heading upstairs to her bed, but couldn’t bring herself to lie in the bed she shared with Chris. Instead, she sat on the couch in silence, waiting for her phone to ring.
And then it did.
Could it be?
She looked down at the caller ID. It was her friend, Claire. Claire must have remembered Chris was going to be in New York. Carolyn considered answering, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. For one thing, she knew there was nothing anyone could say to make her feel better. Talking to Claire would remove her from her false reality She needed to live in denial.
The answering machine picked up: “Hi, it’s me. Is everything ok? Please call me.” Carolyn considered calling back, but decided to focus her energy on trying to get into the right frame of mind to pick Jimmy up from school. She needed to act as normal as possible.
But could she?
For Jimmy’s sake, she had to, even if it meant prolonging the inevitable. As long as she could maintain the illusion of normalcy, the longer she could convince herself that everything was normal.
Pick up time arrived and she head out into the still picture perfect September day.
As she drove up to the school, she wondered what her son already knew. She figured it was unlikely the school would have informed kindergarteners. At least, she hoped that was the case. Surely, the school would have done everything in their power to shelter the kids from the truth and leave it up to the parents to decide just how much or how little information to dispense?
En route, the following thoughts went through her mind: If the information somehow made it to Jimmy, would he have made the connection to the fact that his father was not only in New York, but in the very building that now no longer existed? Suppose that were the case and Jimmy were to ask about it; will I be able to shelter him from the truth or tell him what I know? Would I be able to hide it? And how would he handle it if he did know about it?
She pulled up in front of the school. To distract herself, she turned the news on the radio station, hoping against all rationality that everything had been a hoax: that terrorists didn’t actually take over four planes and crash them. Killing Chris. But of course, the nightmare continued to unfold – driving her more deeply into guilt than ever before, as though it were a corkscrew. As she listened through the gauze of her wounded soul, there appeared to be no new major developments since she had left home, nor was there any mention of survivors, or number of causalities.
As she looked at the other parents parked along the curb, she found herself growing envious that they weren’t experiencing this whole tragedy on the same, deeply personal level as she was. Envy had only recently entered her life and she was still surprised by how often it reared its ugly, green head. Now, in this very moment, her envy seemed to be morphing into the realm of resentment, escalating into a feeling she didn’t recognize at first:
Not specifically aimed at her fellow parents. But at what had happened; at the nameless perpetrators…
Carolyn closed her eyes, hoping to momentarily remove herself from the world, but a knock at her window snapped her out of it with a yelp. It was her friend, Patty – whose daughter was in Jimmy’s class. They bonded over the fact that their children were not only classmates, but that they had previously taken a rec & ed art class together a couple of years ago.
Carolyn rolled down her window.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Patty.
“Oh, it’s fine.”
“I guess we’re all on edge right now.”
Carolyn nodded, unable to respond. Would she just shut the fuck up?
“Can you believe what happened?” Susan said.
“No,” Carolyn managed to mutter.
“Your husband isn’t in New York, is he?”
This is what happens when you talk too much. Everyone always knows everything. There is no hiding from your own reality – or, in this case, you are forced back into one you were trying to escape from.
To her own surprise, Carolyn shook her head no, as though lying about it would somehow make it unhappen. She knew that lying meant having to clear things up later, but lying also meant not having to admit to a reality she wasn’t willing to accept.
“Well, that’s a relief,” Patty said.
Anyway, still want to get together next weekend for a girl’s night out? Or is Chris going to be out of town again?”
“That should work,” Carolyn said.
“After today, I have a feeling we’ll need it.”
Carolyn fought to hold back tears.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Just a little shaken up, that’s all.”
“Like everyone, I guess. I can’t imagine what those victims’ families are going through.”
Carolyn simply nodded. The rage she felt just moments before started filling up her soul like air being pumped into a balloon.
The bell rang, sparing her from either further lies, or having to reveal the truth she was so desperate to keep hidden.
“We’ll talk before Saturday,” Susan said. “I have a feeling I’m going to have to buy extra wine. Take care.”
Carolyn simply waved, unable to say another word, for fear of bursting forth in tears of pain and rage. As Susan headed back to her car, Carolyn realized she was going to have to a do a much better job of faking it.
Kids poured out of the school, eager to greet their happy little parents and head to their happy little homes filled with secrets. As usual, Jimmy lagged behind the rest of his classmates, looking glum.
Oh my God, he knows…
She reminded herself that this was his usual demeanor – a cause for a different, on-going concern. Although he had only been in school for a week, Chris and Carolyn had already received notification from Jimmy’s teacher indicating that she was “a little bit concerned about Jimmy’s social skills.” Also, constantly approaching classmates and asking “Will you be my friend?” wasn’t exactly helping his cause, either.
Everyone was in agreement that it was still too early to do anything drastic, other than continue to monitor his behavior. If nothing changed after the first month or so, then they would consider having him evaluated.
As soon as Jimmy spotted his mother’s car, his whole mood shifted as though a switch was magically turned on. His downtrodden look quickly morphed into a bright smile as he ran toward his mother at full-speed. Carolyn quickly shut the radio off.
“Hi, Mommy!” Jimmy said as he eagerly got into the car.
“Hi, Sweetheart,” Carolyn said, hugging him tightly against her, not wanting to ever let go. She remembered the promise to keep things as status quo as possible and released him.
“How was your day?” Carolyn feigned a smile. There was no way she could keep this charade up for long.
“Look what I made!” Jimmy chirped, blissfully unaware of it all. She wished she could keep it that way forever, but knew it would be impossible. Not only was he losing a father. He was about to lose the innocence they tried so hard to protect.
Jimmy pulled a drawing out of his backpack, which featured a surprisingly nuanced drawing of three people at a beach.
“It’s me, you, and Daddy up north.”
Carolyn was quietly taken aback by the image, suddenly losing her grasp of the whole situation.
“Don’t you like it, Mommy?” Jimmy asked.
“Of course I do!” Carolyn said, holding back tears with every ounce of strength. “It’s beautiful. It’s going up on the fridge the second we get home.”
The dam holding up her tears was about to burst. As she drove off, she sensed Jimmy looking at her. She wanted to talk to him, but she knew the moment she opened her mouth, she would completely break down.
“Mommy, are you okay?” Jimmy asked. “Are you mad at me?”
She faked another smile.
“Of course not, Sweetheart.”
After a few seconds, Carolyn decided she just had to know for sure:
“Jimmy, did your teacher make any kind of special announcement today?”
Jimmy thought about it for a moment.
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“You look sad, Mommy,” Jimmy said.
“I’m not sad,” Carolyn said. She wasn’t fooling anyone.
“It’s okay to be sad. You probably just miss Daddy. I miss him, too. But he’ll be home tomorrow.”
Carolyn smiled at her son, trough the tears brimming through her eyes.
They arrived home. Carolyn hung Jimmy’s picture on the fridge, just as she promised, then got to work on Jimmy’s lunch.
“No TV today,” Carolyn proclaimed.
“Mommy’s got a bad headache.”
“Is that why you’re so sad?” Jimmy asked.
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Can I watch TV later if you feel better?”
“We’ll see,” she said, as she placied a sandwich down in front of him, along with a glass of milk.
“Mommy, aren’t you going to eat?” Jimmy asked. She always ate with him.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Probably because of my headache.”
“It will probably help your headache.”
“You know what? You’re right.”
Carolyn grabbed a yogurt from the fridge. It was the only thing she could stomach – and barely even that.
Mother and son ate together in silence. Suddenly, she felt nauseous and headed off to the bathroom, where she dry-heaved a couple of times. Feeling slightly better, she headed back out into the living room, where she attempted to call Chris again, only to be greeted by the empty, permanent void of voicemail.
When she came out of the bathroom, Jimmy was plopped in front of the TV, watching footage of the plane crashing into the second tower, followed by its subsequent collapse.
“Mommy, can I please watch this movie if I keep the volume low?”
“Shut it off!” Carolyn screamed in horror. Her stomach plummeted as her son laid witness to his father’s murder. She charged toward the TV and grabbed the remote out of her stunned son’s hand and turning the TV off.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Jimmy said through tears. “I only put it on while you were in the bathroom. I didn’t mean to“
“It’s okay,” she said, giving him a reassuring hug.
“Let’s go back in the kitchen and finish eating.”
Carolyn forced herself to finish her yogurt. Jimmy stared at his plate.
“Finish your sandwich.”
“You need to eat. You know what Daddy would say.”
“Okay, okay,” Jimmy said, surrendering. Normally, it bothered her that Chris seemed to have a bigger influence on their son than she did. But now she was searching for anything that would make his presence felt.
“Okay. Nap time,” Carolyn said, following Jimmy to his bedroom where she read him a book as he played with his favorite toy plane in his bed.
A goddam plane.
She considered taking it from him, but it would have completely obliterated the illusion of normalcy she was trying so hard to maintain.
“When I wake up, can we call Daddy?”
“We’ll see,” Carolyn said. “He’s really busy today. But we can always try.”
She kissed him gently on the forehead then stepped out of the room.
She sat on the couch, confronted with her new reality, as she waded through the lingering toxic, domestic sludge that their lives had been waiting for. She now seeped with guilt and regret, and aborted redemption.
She thought back to the moment when Chris literally got down on his hands and knees, crying and begging for another chance, pleading with her not to break up the family. She should have swallowed her pride and looked toward the future, skipping past the bump in the road that they recently encountered. But there was just too much uncertainty – the same uncertainty that prompted her to have a forgettable one-night stand with an old acquaintance.
Why? Why? Why?
Because she had hoped that in doing so, it would somehow make things right. It only made things worse.
She regretted her affair the moment after it happened. Sure, he screwed up first. But she didn’t have to screw up, too. At the time, she thought it would somehow even the score and allow them to move on. But in the end, it only caused greater resentment.
Instead of being disappointed with Chris, she was now even more disappointed with herself.
Whether or not Chris regretted his misstep right away as she had with hers was something he was taking to the grave. She assumed that his plea for forgiveness was less on the account of his actions, and more for being caught on the account of his actions.
Now, none of these things mattered. Now, at this exact moment, there was nothing she wanted more than to hold him and never let go. She never felt more forgiving of him and less forgiving of herself. Now, she hated herself for wanting to leave him in the first place. She couldn’t but feel that she had somehow brought this tragedy on herself. That she somehow deserved it.
Now, she would gladly trade Chris sleeping with 20 women if it meant having him back.
And then it struck her. Like a knife to the heart.
I love you.
She couldn’t remember the Chris last said those words. But he did this morning. And she didn’t say it back. Would it have hurt her to say it? Was her pride that fucking big?
She would never get another chance.
She loved him. But now he was gone.
He was gone, he was gone, he was gone.
There was no other reality.
And it was time to move on once again … this time, in another form all together – one that not only put everything else into perspective, but that reduced everything else to a single grain of sand in comparison to the enormous, boulder that crushed everything in its path.
In her new, dark reality, a thin layer of denial started to evaporate and Carolyn began the process of calling every hospital in New York City with the hope that Chris had somehow been found and now under their care – her last vestige of hope before she would fully surrender to the reality she was already certain of. Even if he were severely injured, it would be a welcome reality over what she had no choice but to assume. At first, she had a difficult time reaching anybody. When she did, she was put on hold for a very long period of time – a reminder that she certainly wasn’t alone in this, accompanied by the deafening silence of no hold music.
Slowly, but surely, over the course of two days, she reached every single hospital in the city. Each time she asked:
“Has a Chris Smith been admitted?”
Each time, the answer was no. And with each no, came a deeper numbness. Until finally:
Carolyn couldn’t believe her ears.
“I’m sorry, it’s Christine Smith. Are you looking for a Christine Smith?”
Defeated, Carolyn hung up. There was one last number to call. But this time, not a hospital. After her call was finally picked up, she managed to answer with a surprising calm, despite eyes lined with tears: “Yes. I would like to report a missing person …”