Okay, so maybe I'm a little LJ-gay. I participate in the groping and the smooching that's prevalent in this corner of LJ. I've given hugs and pets and endearments to those that needed them. This has everything to do with comfort and community and has little relevance to whatever my orientation (or expression of it) is in real life.
Real life me has a lot of boundaries set up like a DMZ. I don't spontaneously hug people. I don't spontaneously touch people. I don't tell people I love them on a regular basis. The only exception is my kids. I shower them with all of the above. Everyone else in my life, I just don't.
So I have two friends that I would call true friends. You know, the ones that you can always count on no matter how desperate times are. One of them moved to New York over ten years ago and we've managed to keep a bicoastal friendship going all this time. She flew out to San Jose when I married, flew out when each of my daughters was born. Our average phone conversation is about an hour in length. We've both made an effort to keep the relationship fresh and alive. She's the kind of friend that I would do anything for. It's a cliche, I know, but three years ago I had the chance to prove it.
You see, this week will be her third wedding anniversary. Her wedding date: September 15, 2001. The place: New York.
Three years ago I had a two-year old, an eight-month old and a husband in a wheelchair. I had spent the month of July making travel arrangements and looking for a matron of honor dress that I didn't have to yank over my head in order to breastfeed. I was terrified of flying with the kids and my husband in his ill-health. Anxious. We had money at the time and so I bought an airline ticket for my other true friend so that she could come with us and help out.
Well, I think that everyone knows the story of that Tuesday. Everyone has their own memory attached to it. Mine is of a cup of coffee, a baby crawling down the hallway while I stood in front of the big screen and watched the unthinkable replay over and over.
The phone rang. I could hear static, people talking, a rush of noise. It was my friend in New York, making the exodus up Broadway, away from downtown.
And the first words out of her mouth were: The wedding's still on.
And the first words out of my mouth were: Okay, I'll be there.
And the first words out of my husband's mouth were: You have *got* to be kidding.
His was the voice of reason. Really, how was I going to get to New York by the 15th? If she had called me even an hour later, my answer might have been different. But I was still in that immediate state of shock where all things are impossible and all things are possible, that feeling of freefall where the ground is inevitable but distant.
My other friend called me and said that she couldn't go to New York. Not after this. She told me to stay home.
And I told her that I had to try. That if I didn't, I would never forgive myself.
So over the succeeding days, I was constantly on the phone with the ticketing company looking for an update, looking for a flight. I told my husband that it would be best if he and my older girl stayed home. I was going to take the baby since I was still breastfeeding.
But then he thought about it and said: There is no way that you're taking my baby on an airplane.
And I said: No, I'm not.
Because I thought about it too. This was my choice. How could I make that choice for her? In good conscience?
This washed over him for a minute and he realized that I really intended to go. Alone. So he said: You've never accomplished anything in your life. Why do you have to start now?
He was afraid. Afraid that I'd go and wouldn't come back. Afraid of how he was going to take care of a toddler and a baby while he was disabled. Afraid that he wouldn't be able to.
Of course, at that point, the agent at the other end of the line said: I've got you a flight.
Well apparently the rest of America had a flight on that Friday morning too. Because the line to the ticket counter zigzagged through the airport and out the door. At 4:30 a.m. The airport wasn't supposed to open its doors until 5:00 a.m. but the thousands of people waiting outside made it too dangerous for security.
I barely made the 7:30 a.m. flight to Dallas. Dallas? Yes, Dallas. Because I could get to Dallas. Those flights weren't cancelled.
The flight which should have been notable, wasn't. The only difference between that flight and the dozens that I'd taken before was the sharp smell of sweat. Either from fresh fear or stale clothes, I have no idea.
By the time we landed in Dallas, I was milk-hard, swollen to the point of porno tits. And leaking. Because that scene from "Beloved"? Ain't no exaggeration. I ran to the bathroom and pumped bottles worth of milk out. By the sinks. I didn't care who saw.
Some woman asked: Where's the baby?
I answered: California.
I met a lot of women in the space of twenty minutes. Everyone, it seemed, had a story, wanted to talk. All while I was massaging my breasts under my shirt, smoothing the milk nodes into let-down.
Outside all the flight boards were blinking "delayed" or "cancelled". There were no flights to New York. There in Dallas, Border Patrol had been called in to back up airport security. They walked angry, purposeful, hands hovering over their holsters. German Shepherds, nose to the ground, strained against their leashes. Only a few bars were open because most of the restaurant staff hadn't been given security clearance to come back to work. Most of the snack bars, restaurants, were closed off by grills, dark. In the gift shop, the cashier was selling red, white and blue ribbons that she had made herself from cheap plastic gift wrap ribbons and a stapler. She was hastily putting together a batch as I tried to buy a bag of peanuts. She'd already sold out twice.
There were still no flights to New York. I was going to be stuck in Dallas, the wedding only a day away. I cried in front of the American Airlines gate agent. And because that was a day when people wanted to *do* something, a day when "No, I can't" was too painful to say, he scheduled me for a residents only flight and handed me a boarding pass.
He said: You have twenty minutes to make your flight.
I dashed to the gate only to wait. The flight was inevitably delayed. The longer I sat, the more paranoid I became that they weren't going to let me on the plane. I read my book. My breasts began to harden again. I hadn't eaten anything but two bags of peanuts all day.
I heard an odd noise and looked away from my book. Crawling on the floor, was a TV cameraman. Camera mounted on his shoulder, on his knees, his camera pointing straight up into my face. A svelte reporter whispered near my ear: May I interview you?
I should have said no, but I stammered out a yes. And she said: What will it be like to see New York again?
She said this breathily in a Spanish accent. She was from Telemundo or Galavision. I wasn't sure, I couldn't see the logo on the camera because the light was blaring in my face. The only thing I could see was her.
I looked over my shoulder and said flatly: Alright.
She rolled her eyes just slightly and, wanting to elicit some emotion from me, said: Will your home ever be the same?
I admitted that I didn't live in New York. My home was elsewhere. That I was just going to a wedding.
At this her eyes lit up, and she said quite dramatically: Ah, life must go on, yes?
I admitted: Yes.
She abandoned me for a livelier interview. She spent quite a bit of time with a redhead in camo, both of them gesticulated before the lights for some time. I would end up edited out and was relieved.
The plane finally boarded. The back third of the plane was full of American Airlines employees in full uniform. They'd been trying to get a flight into Boston but Logan had been shut down. They were flying into New York and driving up to Boston to attend the memorial services. They told this story in hushed tones. No one spoke in a clear voice. Throughout the plane were sniffles, noses blowing. Someone in First Class was openly sobbing. The whole tin can stank of grief. Before we took off, the woman in front of me threw up. Twice.
And while people were hastily stowing their carry-ons into the overhead storage bins, a voice behind me said something quite clearly in Arabic. The only word I understood was Hameed.
Hameed was standing two rows in front of me with his hands disappearing into the overhead compartment. All the sniffling, hushed voices stopped. We all looked up at Hameed who was frozen in the aisle, hands still inside his bag in the overhead. A silent surge of outrage, anger and fear thrummed the passenger seats. This only lasted for about twenty seconds. But in that twenty seconds, Hameed was the focus of it. It hovered, poised to strike in retaliation. It rose and sank down again into logic, reason, waiting. Hameed, eyes dilated in terror, breathed, took his book out of the overhead, sat down behind me and said in a Brooklyn accent: God, you're an asshole, Jamal. I fucking hate you.
Hameed, you see, just wanted to go home.
The flight took off. Hameed and Jamal were asleep when I passed them to go back to the lavatory. The flight attendants gave us a small meal. They said: We're not supposed to. Flights are beverage service only now.
As they passed down the aisle, they thanked us and we thanked them.
We descended for landing. And as we descended, the pilot announced that, on the left-hand side, we were flying by the World Trade Center. Where it used to be. All the passengers surged towards the left, completely abandoning the right, and looked. I clutched the armrest, afraid that the plane was going to lurch and crash from the sudden weight shift.
And I didn't want to look. I wanted to give the dead their dignity. But I ended up peering out of the window like the rest. And what I saw was amazing, awesome, frightful. I saw light, smoke curled upward past our window. Down below was a blaze of light. And fire. Three days later and it was still on fire.
Out of billions of people on this planet, I think I was only one of the many thousands who saw the blaze, the rubble, the chaos, from the sky. I still don't have words to describe it. Even though I still see it, as I'm a body floating downwards, in dreams.
After the hush, the fasten seatbelts light came on. People sat down. The sobbing started again. We landed and the passengers burst into applause. We deboarded with mutual thanks.
LaGuardia was empty, silent, the lights dim. Twenty of New York's Finest, fully armed, greeted us at the gate. They were our escort to the baggage area. One man whipped out his cell phone and called someone. A policeman told him he had to keep moving with the rest of us. The man on the phone said: Hey! I'm talking on the phone here!
The policeman smiled wistfully, welcoming this particular New York brand of abuse, and said: I know. But you can walk and talk, can't you?
We arrived at the baggage carousel and watched as the machine spat out two suitcases. And nothing else. It appeared that our luggage went through a tighter security check than we did. 250 cell phones, including mine, whipped out of purses, briefcases, backpacks. They were a wonder then, those little ringing nuisances, those things that always seemed to go off at the wrong time. But then they were loved, adored, a chance to call home, to get that last message in. But that night the message was: We're here. We've landed. We're safe.
I called my friend and told her that I was in New York, that I would be able to stand at the altar with her after all. She cried.
Of course, there was the rental car, the hotel. The wedding itself. A gloriously beautiful, clear day like the Tuesday before it. That's how all the reports, memories, start off, isn't it? It was a beautiful day...
I didn't have my matron of honor dress. It was still in Dallas. But nobody cared. It just added to the story. We ate. Danced. Most of the guests were dressed in black. I spent part of the evening talking to a woman who was in Tower Two. I heard her talk about her long descent. She spoke about it as if it had happened a long time ago. To somebody else. I got her a drink and danced with her. I didn't know what else to do.
The flight back, I flew out of ISLIP and Logan. I got patted down at ISLIP. The security guard apologized as she put her hand between my spread legs. I told her that I understood.
At Logan, the Green Berets with assault rifles nodded me through security. I was one of the few that they didn't pat down. I didn't know if it was random or my red hair. But they hissed: Go on! when I started to stand in the security line. Behind me a woman in a chador submitted to a full search. Her sleeping two-year old in the stroller was woken up and patted down, the stroller taken apart. The toddler screamed: Mama! Mama! Mama!
The mother wasn't allowed near him until the search was completed.
And the rest of us? We just watched and said nothing.
I made it home. Exhausted, breasts swollen and infected. The children were asleep, my husband watching TV with a friend.
And that was it. The events dwindle as time distances them. The story becomes more mundane with each telling.
The only reason I bring it up now is that it all came crashing back to me when I was typing in a comment to somebody's post, somebody who needed reassurance. I typed: It's okay. I love you. *hugs*
It came crashing back because in the thirteen years that I've known my friend, the one that I flew out to New York for, I've never told her that I loved her. I just don't say things like that. But somehow I can type them.
So after I posted, I picked up the phone and called her. I told her that I had something to say. There was a brief pause as I stammered the words out. I meant them, but they were so difficult to say.
Because that other thing? That was easy. All I did was get on a plane.