I didn’t realize today was the eighteenth anniversary of my death until I caught a flash of the burning towers on CBC. As always, my heart skipped a beat when I thought about what would’ve happened if I’d gotten on my flight that day.
Like the final scene in Say Anything, maybe I’d have defeated my fear of crashing once the fasten seatbelt light went off. Maybe I’d have convinced myself that everything would be okay. But then the terrorists would have taken over. Could I have been brave like the passengers on United Flight 93? Could I have stood up, wrestled the terrorists to the ground, and reclaimed the plane? Someone on board might’ve known how to fly, and with my help, the flight could’ve landed safely, saving thousands of lives.
It was a lovely fairy tale, but I doubted it. If I’d been on the plane, I’d have spent my last moments picturing Jess’s face, thinking of how I’d apologize for our argument when they finally released us, and planning our new life together in Los Angeles. Not knowing that death hovered, my goal would have been to sit quietly and hope no one noticed me.
Starting in 2002, I celebrated September 11 as my birthday. Quietly, without fanfare. I’d go to a bar, find a dark corner, order a drink, and contemplate my existence for a few hours.
This year was destined to be different. My morning started in chaos and had gone straight downhill. After a broken coffeemaker, a housekeeping plague, allegedly haunted rooms, and a headache the size of Quebec, if I made it out of the hotel before midnight, my birthday drink would be a triple shot. But first, a zillion crises at work demanded my attention.
The cell phone permanently attached to my hip rang. Again.
Make that a zillion and one crises. I pulled the phone from its holster. “This is Christa McCall.”
“Christa, it’s me.” The head of my housekeeping staff. In her nervousness, the woman switched to her native French. “I don’t know what to do. Three of our maids called in sick, and we’ve got forty guests scheduled for early check-in for the conference starting tomorrow. I called everyone, but no one’s picking up.”
Ugh. So much for relaxing with a cup of coffee any time soon. This day would never end.
“Did you try Happy Housecleaners?” Sometimes, a local company sent people out last minute to help in a pinch.
“Oui, but they’re slammed, too. There’s some kind of bug going around, and two hundred delegates are landing in Montreal today, planning to drive up here. Every timeshare in town is about to be occupied, and everyone needs to turn over their own rooms as fast as possible.”
Of course they did.
“Well, I’ve cleaned toilets before. I can do it again.” I sighed. Happy “birthday” to me…
“I’ll be there as soon as I convince Mrs. Radimsky that Room 213 isn’t haunted. Meanwhile, call everyone else on the schedule to see who wants overtime. Give them an extra vacation day, too, if you have to. As soon as a guest checks out of a room, we need to be ready to flip it.”
I hung up and returned to the front desk, where one of our regular customers loudly objected to the room she’d been placed in. The first time ever the woman showed up without a reservation, and naturally, conferences ate up all but one available room.
It never rains, but it pours. What a day.
“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Radimsky, we’re just slammed today. There’s nothing–”
“Thirteen is bad luck. You will put me in another room! Any other room will do.”
“I wish I could, but unfortunately, we don’t have any other rooms right now. Everything is booked.”
The sixty-year-old woman drew herself up to her full height of four-feet, eleven inches, narrowed her eyes, and glared up at me. All of a sudden, I felt five years old, being scolded for climbing the neighbor’s tree to rescue the Frisbee my older brother Brad told me not to play with.
“You will find me another room, or I will find myself another hotel and casino to spend my money in. Are we clear?”
“Yes, ma’am, of course. Again, I’m sorry. Why don’t you go over to the café and have anything you like, on me, while we work this out.” I pulled the clerk aside. “Find any other guest who’s arriving today, preferably someone we don’t have a relationship with, and put them in room 213. Give Mrs. Radimsky their assigned room, and send up a fruit basket and a gift certificate to the spa. Make sure housekeeping knows to make the new room a priority.”
By the time four o’clock rolled around, I wanted nothing more than a long, hot bath and a stiff drink. I considered not even going back into the office to pick up my purse, because someone might come up with another fire to put out. But in the end, only six people delayed my exit. Practically a record.
On the way out, I held the door open automatically for an approaching guest, a woman with long, sun-kissed blonde hair tapping on her phone instead of looking at the objects in her path. She dragged a suitcase behind her with the other hand, and I signaled a bell boy silently to offer assistance.
The woman nearly walked into me before she looked up from her phone. She was beautiful, but her blue eyes, full lips, and snub nose weren’t the reason my heart stopped at the sight of her.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Excuse me.”
The woman’s eyes met mine with a startled expression, and her mouth formed a silent “O” shape. At the same time, I drew in a sharp breath. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes, puddling in her thick, dark lashes. Lashes I personally knew to be fake, having seen her attach them a thousand times while lounging on our bed.
I froze, both knowing and fearing what the woman would say next. Indecision seized me. I wanted to run, wanted to pause this moment forever until I escaped. Silently, I cursed myself for daring to wonder what the fates could do to make a bad day worse.
“Holy shit.” The color drained from Jess’s face. “Is that really you?”
Sweat poured down my forehead. I gripped the armrests and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to remember the mantra I’d been trying out. Oh, right. Serenity now. Serenity now. Serenity now. Just because it was from Seinfeld didn’t mean it couldn’t work. In my imagination, my seat rocked and tilted, any moment prepared to plummet out from under me to certain death thirty thousand feet below.
Repeating the words in my head didn’t help, so I said, “Serenity now,” to see if hearing the chant did anything to lessen my utter dread. It didn’t.
I cracked one eyelid. Beside me sat a woman, probably about ten years older than me. She sat so composed, so calm, she must do this all the time.
“Sorry, ma’am. I have a slight…ly paralyzing fear of flying.”
Her brow wrinkled, crackling the edges of her foundation and suggesting she’d actually lived a few more years than I originally guessed. “But we’re not even on the plane yet.”
I nodded. “Yup. I’m so afraid, panic starts in the waiting area. S-sorry.”
With effort, I sat up and undid my death grip on the armrests. At this hour, the terminal was slowly coming to life. Kiosks were opening, lights coming on at more and more gates, travelers starting to wander in, some bleary-eyed while others clutched coffee cups like a lifeline. The hush permeating the air when I arrived shortly before seven a.m., as if no one wanted to dispel the early morning magic by speaking, was mostly evaporated by now. In a few hours, it would be nearly impossible to connect that Logan with the bustling hub it turned into.
About a dozen people scattered around our gate. A group of businessmen huddled around their laptops in one corner. A family with a toddler sat against the far wall. One of the children howled, ignoring her father’s attempts at comfort. Poor kid. She must not want to fly, either. A few single travelers waited throughout the seating area. Hardly any, really. I wondered if the entire flight would be this empty. Maybe I’d get a row to myself and quake with terror in peace.
A stewardess stood behind the podium, talking quietly into the phone. I gazed at the wall, my eyes tracing the letters in United’s logo over and over, trying to control my breathing. Every time my gaze strayed to the plane outside the gate, my whole body tensed.
“It’ll be okay,” the woman beside me said. “But we’re boarding soon. You may want to head to the bathroom before takeoff, take some deep breaths, splash cold water on your face.”
“G-good idea.” I struggled not to give voice to my fears. “Thanks.”
A howl rose from the family in the corner as I walked away, slow so my legs wouldn’t shake. Poor kids. In the bright florescent lights of the men’s room, I looked even worse than I felt. Sweat stains soaked both sides of my shirt from the armpits down. Way to make a great first impression at my job interview.
An interview I didn’t want to go to, but my wife’s parents arranged it. Jess loved the idea of trading Boston’s weather for the sun and fun of Los Angeles, but I hadn’t been sold on the idea yet. I hadn’t been sold on anything. It didn’t matter. My whole life, I did what people expected of me, whether I wanted to or not. Moving to the west coast was par for the course.
Pulling a bit of fabric from my pocket, I blotted my clammy hands before realizing what I clutched. The silk square my wife gave me the night before.
“I have a present for you,” she’d said with a grin, handing me a flat, squishy package with a bow on top. “A going away gift.”
“Jess, you didn’t have to get me anything,” I’d protested.
“I know,” she said. “I wanted to. I made it this afternoon.”
She’d made…. what? I eyed her suspiciously. “I thought you stayed home from work because you were sick.”
She’d stuck her tongue out at me. “After lying on the couch all morning drinking tea, I felt well enough to sit up and move a needle and thread. A bit of bad shrimp doesn’t make me totally incapable of doing anything.”
Curious, I’d peeled the tape from the wrapping, leaving the bow where it was, and pulled out a large white rectangle. It looked vaguely familiar. I peered closely at the fabric, at the white whorls throughout. Up close, I recognized it.
“Is this from your wedding dress?”
“It is,” she said. “I knew you’d be nervous about your flight and the interview, so I made you a pocket square for your suit. I thought you’d like something to remind you of the happiest day of our lives.”
Sometimes, I loved her so much, emotion overwhelmed me. Tears had formed in my eyes. “Oh, Jess, you shouldn’t have destroyed your dress for me. You loved that dress.”
She’d shrugged. “It’s no big deal. Someday, we’ll cut it down to make a christening gown for our kids anyway, right? Besides, I took it from the lining. No one would ever know.”
I’d pulled her close, breathing in the scent of her, as if I created a physical imprint of her to carry with me. She put her arms around me, breathing deeply.
“I love you,” I’d said into her hair. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome.” Her voice cracked slightly. “I love you, too.”
Now I held the square over my face and inhaled deeply. Lilac and jasmine from her perfume combined with the vague undertones of the unique scent of Jess to soothe me. Not enough to go back out there, but enough to take another breath and confront my reflection.
My face matched the colorless bathroom walls. I glowered at the bathroom mirror, hating the face reflected there. I wasn’t unattractive, or scarred, or pimply, or even the wrong weight for my frame. Nothing like that. The face simply didn’t reflect the way I saw myself. In the mirror, I saw the man who played football because it was expected, dated the prom queen because it was expected, and chose the career path of least resistance, going into computers because Dad said it was the way of the future and I didn’t know what else to do.
As soon as I hit puberty, I grew a beard to hide the too-heavy brow, the angles of my jaw. My face wasn’t what I should see in the mirror. It didn’t reflect me, who I needed to be. The beard looked horrendous, took me further from my true self, but it removed the need to stare at myself for twenty minutes every morning while shaving.
Jess hated the beard. I hated it too, but I couldn’t explain to her what it is—what she was, even. Camouflage. A way for me to hide.
I loved Jess with all my heart, but our marriage was a mistake when we said “I do” and a mistake now. Marrying me was, quite simply, the worst thing Jess possibly could have done. I shouldn’t have proposed, should’ve broken up with her instead, but everyone expected us to get married. I really did love Jess, so figured if I went with it, we’d eventually be happy.
I needed to man up and get on the plane, go to the interview. Since I couldn’t be honest with her, or even myself, at least I could be the husband my wife deserved.
The guy from the waiting area entered the bathroom, interrupting my loathing. To hide that I’d been examining my face, I washed my hands again, keeping my face averted. When I turned to find the hand dryer, our eyes met in the mirror, and I paused. His eyes were as red as mine. Something twisted in my gut.
“You okay, man?”
He shook his head. “It’s hard, saying good-bye to my kids. They’re only going to visit their grandma for a week, but we couldn’t afford the extra ticket. I knew the separation would suck for them, but I didn’t realize how hard it would hit for me.”
The electric hand dryer clicked off, and Alanis Morrisette’s voice filled the restroom, pumped in on tinny speakers. Of course. Just the song I needed. Halfway through the first verse, the shakes returned. Sweat poured down my face. Perfect. I couldn’t do this. Before Alanis got to the end of her question, I started to bolt.
A voice stopped me. “What about you? You a’ight?”
“No. I am one hundred percent terrified of flying. The last thing I want in the world is to get on that flight.”
He gestured at the speakers. “Isn’t it ironic? I’d give my left nut to board.”
Something in the back of my mind clicked. I didn’t want to fly. I didn’t want to go to Los Angeles, didn’t want to interview, didn’t want any of this. And this guy did. Before I stopped to think about it, I wiped my wet hands on my ass and pulled my boarding pass out of my back pocket.
I shook the pass at him. “Take it. Get on the plane. Go be with your kids.”
“No way, man. I can’t.”
“Sure you can. Consider it a… random act of kindness. Today’s your lucky day.”
He stared at me for a long moment. I didn’t flinch. “You’re like a fucking fairy godmother, aren’t you? I can’t believe it. Thank you!” A moment later, this stranger wrapped his arms around me in a hug so tight it brought tears to my eyes.
“Give me your address. I’ll pay you back when I can.”
I shook my head. “Someday, when you’re in a better place, help someone who needs it. And be good to those kids.”
He made it halfway out of the restroom before turning back and offering a fifty-dollar bill and a business card identifying him as Dan. “You ever need anything, dude, look me up.”
If I didn’t take it, Dan would never get on the plane and I risked changing my mind.
“Sure thing. Have a safe flight.”
Flashing me a thumbs-up, he vanished. I waited by the sink, wondering how pissed Jess would be when she found out what I’d done. But I couldn’t get on the plane.
When I got back to the terminal, the people in the waiting area were boarding at the gate to my right. I slowed from a sprint to a walk. Behind me, a stewardess spoke into the intercom. “Last call for Flight 175 to Los Angeles. Passenger Cooper, please proceed to the boarding area immediately. Paging Brett Cooper. Your flight is about to take off.”
The thought of boarding a plane made me hyperventilate again. A chill went down my spine that wasn’t just from the air conditioning hitting the sweat on my brow. I couldn’t do it.
Dan trotted up to the gate and handed her my boarding pass. “I’m Cooper.”
No turning back now. What I’d just done was probably illegal. Time to go home and face the music. Thinking about the chilly reception awaiting me, I shivered.
Sorry, Jess. If you need to leave Massachusetts, we can move somewhere within driving distance.
I couldn’t get on the plane, but I also couldn’t head home and tell my wife what I’d done. Not without a plan. Instead, I turned off my cell phone and left the airport. The MBTA would take me downtown, where I could walk around until I figured out what to do.
Later, I’d catch a train home to face my wife. Try to figure out how to tell her that this wasn’t the life I wanted, that I couldn’t take the job in Los Angeles. That I was sorry she’d gotten herself chained to me, that she should walk away and be free.
Without a second glance, I allowed my feet to carry me toward the airport shuttle. At the last minute, I decided to take a more scenic route. When the shuttle stopped at the waterfront, I found a water taxi to drive me across the Charles River into downtown Boston.
“Hey, man,” the driver said. “You need a lift?”
Wordlessly, I pulled a twenty from my wallet. It grew damp in my still-wet palm. He stepped back, pulling my suitcase into the tiny watercraft. I settled into a seat, my eyes skipping over the water. In the morning stillness, the quiet waves soothed me.
“I hate to disturb ya, buddy, but where we goin’?” the driver asked.
“Anywhere,” I said. “I just can’t go home yet.”
“Downtown it is.” Once we pulled away from the dock, the driver left me alone with my thoughts.
When my flight took off without me at 8:14 a.m., I sat on the boat, letting the waves relax me. My body finally unclenched, the shaking stopped. A plane flew over the water, a streak against the morning sky, and I waved, pretending Dan and his family could see me.
The water taxi dropped me off downtown, near a sea of office buildings. Living in a suburb, I didn’t spend enough time in Boston proper to have a destination in mind. All I knew was that I didn’t want to get on the T and go back to Jess. How do you say, Honey, I don’t want to come home, to the person you love most in the world?
This life was all wrong. I was all wrong. But the last thing I wanted was to hurt Jess. I simply didn’t know what to do. My feet carried me up and down the streets until I spotted a coffee shop next to a hotel, with waitresses pouring coffee at a long bar and televisions playing nothing more earth-shattering than the latest Red Sox recap.
After I settled onto a stool, a waitress brought me a menu. Although not hungry, I ordered scrambled eggs and coffee. My plane wasn’t expected to land for about six hours, so that left time to get my thoughts in order before Jess would start to wonder why I hadn’t called yet.
At 8:46 a.m., phones started beeping and whispers spread through the room. Someone changed the television on the wall from ESPN to CNN. On the screen, plumes of smoke billowed out of the World Trade Center. Was it a trick? Something like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds? For a long minute, the only sounds in the room were forks clattering against plates, glasses thudding onto tabletops, and the reporters on the television, saying horrible words, filling me with terror yet failing to penetrate my brain at the same time. No one spoke.
Everyone in the room sat in collective horror, eyes glued to the TV. We watched, transfixed, a dozen people watching as one entity. What was going on? The word “live” in the bottom told me this wasn’t some horrifying dream.
At 9:03 a.m., another airplane flew into the second tower. An older lady in the corner shrieked and fainted. A waitress ran to help her. A child started crying, then another. Water streaked my cheeks, but I didn’t know when the tears started.
Some people pulled out their cell phones and started making calls. Scattered mentions of friends, family in New York flew about the room, interspersed with the questions, the fear.
“The signal is jammed,” the woman next to me said. “I can’t get through. Of course.”
“Do you have friends in New York?” I asked, more out of reflexive politeness than a desire to swap stories.
“No, but my sister flew out of Logan this morning.” She barely looked at me as she kept hitting redial. “Nothing. Dammit.”
“I’m sure your sister’s fine,” I said. “Those planes probably came from JFK.”
“Sure, but I won’t be able to relax until–” Her phone beeped in her hand, cutting her off. “Oh, thank God! It’s her. Still at the airport. Her flight was delayed due to a mechanical issue.”
Before I responded, the woman bolted from her stool, gathering her belongings and rushing toward the door, presumably headed for the airport to hug her sister. The scene must be madness. I hoped she made it safely.
I turned back to the TV, but my mind went back to the people on the plane. Where did the planes come from? Who were the passengers on board? No one could’ve survived a plane hitting a building at hundreds of miles per hour. Had I seen any of those people at Logan before I left? The man in line ahead of me at Starbucks, the woman buying a book where I picked up gum from the newsstand? What about the other passengers on my flight? Were Dan and his family still in the air, blissfully unaware of what was happening and planning their first trip to Disneyland?
The room buzzed with whispers, but no one moved. When the news reported a third plane crashing into the Pentagon and a fourth crashing in a field in Pennsylvania, some sick, tiny part of my mind envied the people who’d managed to escape their miserable lives to find something better in the world beyond.
What kind of asshole was I, thinking about myself in the middle of a national tragedy?
I wasn’t hungry anymore, but since I didn’t know what else to do, I stayed in the coffee shop, soaking in other people’s reactions. Waitresses moved like zombies, no one knowing what was happening or why. Rumors flew around the room. It must be terrorists. Such a thing couldn’t be an accident. Were we in danger? What if someone attacked Boston? More planes were missing, someone said, and they were headed for the state capitals.
The place slowly filled with people, everyone in a similar state of shock. People who were afraid to get on the T in case terrorists struck again. Meanwhile, horror continued to unfold on the screen. We were powerless to tear our gazes away from it. I should go home and hug my wife, tell her what I did, apologize. She’d be so happy I wasn’t in the air, nothing else would matter. Until I told her why I’d run away.
Nearly three hours later, indecision still glued me to my seat when the newscasters released information about the four hijacked planes: American Airlines, Flight 11. American Airlines, Flight 77. United Airlines, Flight 93. United Airlines, Flight 175.
Shock waves racked my body, causing me to double over. Tears streamed down my face, beneath the collar of my shirt. I couldn’t breathe. I choked, clawing at the top button until it popped open.
The woman in the seat beside me at the airport, dead. The flight attendant chatting with the gate attendant before going to prepare the plane, dead. The cute kids in the corner, dead. Everyone on the plane plunged into the south tower, their lives extinguished in an instant. Everyone except me.
Dan. Holy fuck, I killed Dan. He never would’ve been on the plane if it weren’t for me. His death was my fault. Despair overwhelmed me.
I should be dead. Brett Cooper was supposed to be on Flight 175, sitting in seat 23A. Brett Cooper is dead. I’m dead.
With a gasp, I shoved myself away from the counter, dropping a twenty into the soggy mess that used to be my eggs. In a daze, I wheeled my suitcase to the attached hotel, plunked cash on the counter, then asked for a room. Mechanically, I followed the clerk’s instructions to the elevator, stepped off at the third floor, and staggered down the hall. Finally, I dropped onto the bed and allowed CNN to fill my brain with information.
A couple of hours later, I turned it off, unable to watch anymore. My entire body shook. My thoughts whirled.
Jess wrote down my flight information. I should’ve been on the flight. The only person in the world who knew I didn’t board that plane was dead. Tears welled in my eyes at the thought of how easily I could’ve been among them.
The media would release passenger lists from all of those flights. My name would be on one of those lists. I’d checked in for the flight, shown my driver’s license. Dan only showed my boarding pass–no one checked ID at the gate. My parents and brother would see my name, think I was dead. They’d never learn the truth about me.
As soon as she verified the flight number, Jess would think I died on that plane. She’d call my parents, and she would grieve. My parents and Brad would comfort each other; they’d be fine. One day, Jess would move on. She’d find someone more open, less conflicted. Calling her now, telling her I was okay, felt like the most selfish thing I could possibly do. She was so much better off without me. They all were.
Our marriage could never last, but if I went home, we’d try. I’d pretend nothing was wrong, we’d even have kids to see if that helped fill the void inside me. What was worse: the pain of losing me now, in a heartbeat, or the pain of losing me slowly over the next twenty-five years? She deserved to be free, to find someone who was free to love her.
Jess’s future children deserved a better father. I couldn’t love a family when I didn’t know how to love myself.
For weeks before the interview, I was tense. I’d thought being married would make me feel like I fit in, like I was the man my brother Brad always told me to be. I wanted to be what Jess needed, but my unease with myself–with my body–kept growing. Faking contentment it didn’t help. Starting over somewhere new might be the answer, but deep inside, I doubted it.
As we’d driven up I-93 to Logan airport, Jess had remained quiet, lost in her thoughts. Part of me wondered what she was thinking, if she realized our marriage was wrong, if she ever noticed I was wrong. But mostly I’d wondered what would happen if I got on the plane, got off in Los Angeles, headed for Mexico, and never turned back. She’d be better off without me.
Jess wasn’t happy. She pretended things were good, and I knew she wanted to make it work, but her posture told me she sensed my weirdness. She didn’t understand it, but she reflected it back at me, anyway. Things kept getting more awkward.
She deserved better.
She’d snuck a glance at me, which I saw reflected in the passenger’s side window. I waited. If she had something to say, we had another five miles for her to get around to telling me.
“I got a letter from UCLA’s School of Medicine yesterday,” she said finally.
“Oh, yeah?” My heart sank, although I tried to sound excited for her.
I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, didn’t want to live in the land of perfect beach bodies, glowing tans, and tofu. I also didn’t have the slightest idea how to tell my wife that I had been hoping not to get the very job I’d been about to fly out to interview for. But if she got into medical school, everything changed. It would be much more difficult to stall and avoid the move without pissing her off. I might have to make a decision I’d been terrified to make.
“Yeah. I’m in!”
“That’s amazing, Jess! I knew you’d do it!” Although a pit was growing in my stomach, I grasped on a tiny strand of hope. “What about the financial aid package?”
Jess furrowed her brow, attention suddenly very intent upon the road. “They offered me a small scholarship.”
“The cost of living is lower in Los Angeles—”
“—than in New York City and Boston and San Francisco and virtually nowhere else in the United States. We’ve been over this. How much, Jess?”
Jess cleared her throat. “Five thousand a year.”
“We may qualify for low-cost student housing, but otherwise, yeah. That’s it.”
What a shitty financial aid package. Okay, we wouldn’t have to move. A wave of relief hit me before I realized it made me a total ass for being glad we couldn’t live out my wife’s dream. Maybe I should encourage her to go without me. She’d be happier in the long run.
“That’s less than Boston University offered. And if we stay in Boston, I have a job and we have a place to live and we have friends and—”
“We’re buried in snow every winter and we forget what the sun looks like and, God, I’m sick of having this same conversation. I want to move to L.A., Brett. Whether you get the job or not. I want to go to UCLA and get an M.D. and get a change of scenery at the same time. We’ll figure everything else out once we get there.”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I focused on the city skyline drawing near, my gaze planted on the window as we curved down the ramp connecting I-93 to the Mass Pike. What if I told her how I felt? Would it make anything better?
“Please say something,” Jess had said.
No, it wouldn’t.
The car entered the Ted Williams Tunnel. We’d be at the airport in less than ten minutes. I didn’t want to leave for three days after telling her how scared I was that our fledgling marriage might be over already. Or telling her how messed up I was.
When I got back, I’d make an appointment with a therapist and find a way to work everything out. It was the only solution. Otherwise, this awkwardness between us would continue to grow until one of us snapped.
“I’m sorry, Jess. Just nervous about making the flight. We left the house late, and I’ve never flown before.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she said for the four hundredth time. “I’ve been having trouble getting out of bed in the mornings.”
“It’s not you. It’s fine. It’s hard for me to make life-changing decisions when I’m afraid I won’t even make it onto the plane. I don’t know what I want. But I don’t think racking up a ton of debt is the best way to start married life, do you?”
“Do you think being poor and miserable is the best way to start married life? Working at a crap nine-to-five job knowing I’ll never make anything of myself?”
The car pulled off the highway, so I didn’t answer while she maneuvered through the cloverleaf making up the airport, other than to point at the exit for my terminal.
Jess took a deep breath. She sounded much less pissed when she spoke again. “One thing at a time, okay? I’ll look into grants and scholarships while you’re gone. This job is a huge jump for you. If you get it, that’ll make our decision much easier. Let’s see what happens.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said dully. “Let’s wait and see.”
My flight took off in less than an hour. Getting to my gate in time wasn’t guaranteed if the security lane got backed up.
“Do you want me to park and walk you to the gate?”
The last thing I needed was to argue about our future while waiting to board. “No, I’m fine. I’ll see you when I get home. Pull in over here and I’ll jump out.”
Before she shifted into park at the curb, my door flew open. I jumped out of the car, hoping it looked like I was worried about being late and not trying to escape our conversation. I grabbed my suitcase from the trunk, then leaned through the front driver’s window to kiss her cheek, almost as an afterthought.
I started to walk away, well aware that she held her head rigid, didn’t turn to let me kiss her lips. She must be really angry. Poor Jess. She deserved better.
“Brett!” she called. I stopped and turned around. “I love you!”
“I love you, too, Jess!”
I blew her a kiss, turned, and disappeared into the crowd. If I’d known I would never see her again, I’d have stood watching until she drove out of sight.
As terrible a tragedy as the crash was for the rest of the world, for me, a golden opportunity presented itself. This was my chance to start a new life, without hurting Jess any more than absolutely necessary. My wallet held cash for the trip, not a ton, but some. I could walk away. Jess could be free. I could be free.
A couple of hours later, I made myself get up and leave the hotel. Nearby, I found a consignment shop where a forty-year-old woman with blood-red nails and a black bob stood behind the counter. She offered me a hundred bucks cash for all three suits in my suitcase.
“That’s it?” I asked.
She rifled through them a second time. “If you wanted to leave them here until they sold, you could probably get more, but you said you need the cash now.”
My eyes met hers in a silent plea. Mascara caked her lashes, muddying, rather than enhancing, her hazel eyes. She probably wouldn’t appreciate the make-up tip, though.
“Okay, fine,” she relented. “I’ll give ya fifty cash and a hundred in trade if you throw in the suit you’re wearing. Plus another fifty for the suitcase.”
The carry-on sized roller bag I’d packed to take on the plane served no purpose in my new life. Jess’s parents bought us this gorgeous leather set for a wedding present. Intact, the whole set must’ve cost them a couple grand. At the time, it was a much better gift than the life insurance policy my parents gave us. But I didn’t need the reminder of my old life, and I no longer owned enough clothes to fill it.
The woman coughed, derailing my train of thought. “It’s the best I can do. Take it or leave it.”
I rolled the bag around the counter, handle pointed toward her. “I’ll take it. Thanks.”
An hour later, I wove through a sea of pedestrians on the sidewalk, carrying a slightly-worn red backpack full of jeans and t-shirts and wearing a brand-new fake Boston Red Sox cap bought for ten bucks from a street vendor, pulled low over my now beardless face. The extra cash in my wallet added a spring to my step.
Someone shoved a microphone under my nose. “Sir, what do you think about today’s shocking terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center?”
Behind a fake-tanned, overly-made up woman with perfect hair stood a man holding a camera displaying a solid red light. My heartbeat pounded in my ears. Oh no. I couldn’t afford to get caught on video while fleeing from my old life.
I pulled the cap lower over my face and planted my gaze firmly on the sidewalk. “No comment,” I mumbled before I took off into the crowd.
Block after block passed in a blur before I stopped to catch my breath. I had no way of knowing how much time passed. What if they used the footage? What if Jess saw it? Would she recognize me?
Something in the backpack dug into my hip as I walked. I welcomed the pain, the chance to feel something for the first time in days.
It was time to come up with a long-term plan. Staying here forever wasn’t an option. Too expensive, too close to home, too much chance I’d run into someone who knew me or Jess.
I slowed to a walk, moving up and down the sidewalks, trying to figure out where I’d wound up. Street signs provided little help since Boston streets liked to tell a person the name of cross streets only, not the name of the street you’re actually walking on. There weren’t any gas stations in this residential area, so I kept going. Boston was a walking city. Even if most people were inside, mourning or glued to their TVs, I’d eventually find another person to give me directions back downtown.
The sun rose high in the sky before I turned down a random street and spotted a small park at the end of the row of brownstones. The pinprick in my hip grew more obnoxious. The name of the park told me nothing; I wasn’t familiar with this part of the city. Finally, I dropped to a bench to figure out what the heck was poking me and what to do next.
The backpack contained a ton of pockets. In the largest one, I found only the “new” clothes I’d bought, none of them with tags, sharp angles, or anything in the pockets. I turned my attention to the other zippers. The front pouch was empty. Behind it, I found another zippered compartment. Squeezing the bag, I felt something hard and square near the bottom. No, rectangular. This had to be whatever I kept feeling when the bag jostled.
The zipper stuck at first, but I eventually coaxed it open enough to stick my fingers inside. They closed against something smooth and hard. Slowly, I pulled the item out until I held a Canadian passport in my hand.
The book looked brand-new, although it was issued in 1998. The only stamp marring the perfect pages showed the day this person–Christina McCall–entered the U.S., more than a year ago. I wondered what happened to her. If she ditched the bag and the passport on purpose.
On the main page, Christina stared out at me with dark, serious eyes and lips thinly pressed together. She hadn’t smiled for this photograph. Her hair was about the same color as mine, her skin a few shades lighter. There must not be much sun in her part of Canada. The book said she’d been born in Saskatchewan. I didn’t have a clue where that was.
Trees rustled in the breeze, pulling my attention away from the book in my hands. White clouds drifted across the sky. Birds twittered in the trees. It was a perfect day to lose yourself. Maybe that’s what this Christina did. Lost herself in the city, changed her name, ditched her passport to become someone new. Having never met this woman, I identified strongly with her fictitious desire to start over.
Across the park, a guy about my age sat on a blanket, reading. I approached, hoping he’d be able to direct me back toward downtown. Nearly all of my belongings rested on my back, but I wanted to retrieve a picture of Jess left next to the nightstand in the hotel and catch another night of sleep. Figuring out where to go would be a bonus, but whatever.
One thing at a time.
When he told me where we were, I just blinked at him. I’d come further than I thought in my daze. Maybe the long walk back would clear my thoughts. Then I spotted something resting against a nearby tree. Something to help me get out of town much faster.
“Thanks for the directions,” I said. “I’ll give you fifty bucks for your bike.”
He clapped my back with one hand. “My friend, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Up, down. Up, down. The next morning, the road disappeared beneath the wheels of the bike. The wind rushed past my face, a sensation I hadn’t experienced in years. Another equally-foreign emotion made me want to laugh out loud and sing with the birds. I’d peddled for miles before I recognized it for what it was: relief.
With no particular destination in mind, I followed my instincts, turning north and west, always moving away from Boston. As my legs worked the pedals, my mind was free to explore the possibilities. Brett Cooper died, I was reborn. Who was I? I could be anyone I wanted.
While I rode, I thought about the first time I met Jess. It was the week before my freshman year at Lancaster High. Buses in town were slow, unreliable. Not as unreliable as my older brother, Brad, though. After I stupidly wheedled him into giving me a ride, Brad got distracted talking to a couple of pretty girls at the gas station. Next thing I knew, I was late for my first day of football practice. Of course.
Not the best way to make a good impression on my new teammates. Being a freshman was hard enough without earning a nickname like “Belated Brett” from some asshole. Luckily, most of the fourteen-year-old football players didn’t have a word like “belated” in their vocabulary yet.
The second the rusty old Pontiac Bonneville slowed to a halt, I threw the door open and dashed across the lot, not even bothering to close the door behind me. Brad yelled from the driver’s seat, but I didn’t catch what he was saying.
I was too busy getting the breath knocked out of me by a blond tornado. A cute blond tornado. She slammed into me so hard, she fell backward and landed on her ass.
“Oh, shit!” I said. “I’m so sorry!”
It wasn’t my fault, but when a cute girl falls at your feet, it’s okay to take the blame to get her to talk to you. Brad would’ve been proud of me taking control of the situation.
For reasons I never quite fathomed, she smiled up at me from the ground. “S’okay. I should’ve been paying attention to where I was going instead of to my friends over there.”
I reached one hand down to pull her up. “You a cheerleader?”
“Yeah. I’m Jess.”
When she stepped on her left foot, she winced.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine,” she lied. Jess took another step, but her ankle buckled.
I caught her around the waist and pulled her toward me. Her blue eyes matched the sky. I swallowed, trying to ignore the feeling of her body against mine and instead focus on the situation. Last thing I needed was to show up at football practice with a boner–and late. Was “Boner Brett” a better nickname than “Belated Brett?”
No. No way.
“Here. Let me help you across the field,” I said. “I’m Brett.”
When we got closer to the field, Coach turned and hollered at us. “Cooper! Stop hitting on the pretty—What’s this?”
He trotted over, muttering under his breath. The cheerleading coach spotted us at the same instant and broke into a run. She fussed over Jess for a moment before picking her up and carrying her toward the bleachers, calling for someone to get her ice. I didn’t see who she was yelling at, but I watched them go, wishing I had the strength—and the guts—to sweep her up like that. That really would’ve made Brad proud.
Once they were gone, Coach smacked my shoulder. “If you’re done savings damsels in distress, Cooper, are you ready to play some football? Five laps for tardiness. But first, drop and give me twenty.”
In between push-ups, I glanced at Jess, now with an ice pack on her ankle. She winked and waved, as if she wasn’t hurt at all. I congratulated myself. If you have to accidentally mow someone down on your first day, might as well pick the prettiest girl in school. At least she’d remember my name.
She certainly did remember my name. Would never forget it now. And if she knew where I was, what I was doing, she’d curse that name until the day I died for real. I deserved her fury, but Jess didn’t.
I rode and rode, stopping only when my legs threatened to give out, sleeping at rest stops or the occasional motel that accepted cash and didn’t require ID. After about a week, I crossed the state line into Vermont. Despite having lived in New England my whole life, I’d never set foot in Vermont. I didn’t know a soul there, which made it perfect.
Days on the road took their toll on my body. Before my “rebirth”, I hadn’t been in the best shape. The loathing directed toward my body had nothing to do with size or shape. Attaching large biceps or chiseled abs to a frame I hated, making my body manlier, made little sense to me. As a result, my clothes now hung from my frame. I needed a place to stop, rest for a few days, and come up with a plan. Riding a bike until I ran out of money or winter came and I froze to death wasn’t a plan. Not a good one, anyway.
Another ten miles up the road, I found what I needed. A crooked sign hanging on the battered wooden fence welcomed me to the “Tranquility Cooperative Bed and Breakfast.”
A long, partially overgrown gravel driveway led up the hill to a ramshackle old house. Pits in the gravel would be hell on a car. For safety, I wheeled my bike up the drive while I further examined the place. Several worn spots on the roof where shingles should have been. A crumbling chimney on one side. Several of the windows on the upper floor were missing screens. When I climbed onto the porch, stepping over a missing slat in the steps, something brushed my face. At first I thought it was a fly strip, but then I realized it was a curl of paint dangling from the ceiling. Part of me worried the whole thing would give away beneath me.
I didn’t have the slightest idea what made a B&B cooperative. This place looked more like a hostel than a fancy bed and breakfast. But I needed a place to stay, the cash in my wallet was dwindling, and a place this rundown couldn’t cost much.
Before I’d convinced myself to go in, the front door opened. A short, smiling black woman with chin-length grey curls and breasts hanging down to her knees enveloped me in a hug. Not knowing what else to do, I patted her back awkwardly. “Hello?”
She pulled back. “Hello, hello! Welcome to the Tranquility Cooperative B&B! Come in, come in. I’m Henny, and my partner Val’s around here somewhere. What’s your name, dear?”
I paused, unsure. Brett was dead, after all. My whole reason for being here was to start a new life. But I’d yet to stop and think of a name. I thought of the passport hidden in my backpack, of the person who’d left it behind. Had she once stood in a place like this, given a similar fake name? Maybe I couldn’t be this Christina, but I could borrow her name for a few days.
“Chris,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
Henny offered to take my backpack, but I waved her away. She bustled me through the front door into the building. The lobby gleamed in stark contrast to the exterior of the house. Polished wood floors glowed in the sunlight, not a speck of dust hovered anywhere, and none of the furniture appeared about to rot out from under the unsuspecting sitter. For the first time in days, the knot in my stomach started to loosen.
“Now, this is a cooperative bed and breakfast,” Henny said. “That means you work for your keep. As long as you help out with chores, you can stay as long as you like, no charge. There’s always something that needs to be done.”
Some quick mental calculations told me that, if I stayed until the outside became as welcoming as the inside, I’d be here long after Henny died of old age. But I had nothing to do and nowhere else to go. “I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.”
“Excellent! Then just sign your name in this book here, and I’ll take you upstairs to your room.” She chatted as we headed up a staircase as well-maintained as the rest of the interior. “Val does most of the cooking, so you don’t have to worry about that. But there are weeds to be pulled, gardening to do, fences to be mended. We even have a maple grove out back. In the spring, someone’s got to collect the sap, empty the buckets, and make syrup. We always have plenty of work to go around.”
At the top of the stairs, Henny ducked under a beam, then headed down a long hallway. Only a square of light through an open doorway on the right provided illumination. She never paused to take a breath. “This place was built in the late 1600s, so some of the ceilings are a bit low. Watch your head. Now, the door at the end, that’s me and Val. This open door here is the bathroom, we all share, and we all take turns cleaning it—even if you’re doing other work.”
“Understood,” I said. Having gone from my mother’s house to the dorms to my place with Jess, I’d never cleaned a bathroom in my life, but I’d figure it out. How hard could it be?
“Excellent! We’ve got a few other guests at the moment. A lot of people stay one night, do some dishes, gather eggs, and move on. There’s a girl who checked in earlier, she’ll probably be one of those. Two others have been here for a bit. One of them is a few years older than you, quiet, keeps to herself mostly. Val and I think she’s hiding from a bad husband. She may take some time to warm up, but don’t worry. It’s not you. The other is about your age. She’s…. pretty much the opposite of her in every way. You’ll see.” Henny paused at a door on the left, just past the bathroom. She opened it with a flourish. “And here’s your room!”
Light filtered in through dirt caked on the window, but the flick of a switch beside the door turned on a bare bulb swinging in the middle of the room. The tiny rectangular room resembled a college dorm, with its twin bed perched atop wooden drawers. Not fancy, but after sleeping on the ground for the past few nights, the thin mattress looked like heaven.
A narrow closet occupied the wall next to the window, so shallow, I marveled at how small early Americans must have been. Luckily, none of my new clothes required hanging. Henny hovered in the doorway, her fleshy face nearly swallowing her brown eyes.
“This looks great, Henny. Thanks.”
“Wonderful!” She clapped her hands together twice. “It’s just past three-thirty now. Dinner’s served promptly at six. I’d stay out of the kitchen until then if I were you—Val rules with an iron fist, and she won’t let you anywhere near her domain until she gets to know you.”
I nodded. After days on the road, what I wanted more than anything was to take a shower and then sleep until morning. But this was a cooperative bed and breakfast, and I might as well start earning my keep now so I could go to bed early. “What can I help with?”
“Almost anything.” She laughed. “There’s so much to do around here. The front lawn needs to be mowed. We’ve only got a push mower, but do as much as you can. Val says we need to make this place more welcoming.”
“I can do that. Want me to pull the weeds, too? Cut back around the path a little?”
She chuckled. “Sweetheart, I’m joking. You look like you’re about to keel over from exhaustion. Why don’t you take a nap, sleep for a couple of hours, then clean up and join us for dinner? I’ll wheel your bike around the back into the barn in case it rains.”
It was official: I loved her.
What the hell was I doing? It wasn’t too late to turn around, call Jess, and tell her everything. She’d be pissed, sure, especially when I told her that I couldn’t stay married to her anymore. But she’d also be relieved I was alive. Maybe one day she’d understand that I couldn’t be myself and be her husband at the same time.
These thoughts circled in my head all night: Call Jess, forget Jess, be myself, be Brett Cooper, run away, start a new life. Finally, when the sun peeked over the horizon, I gave up and went to have a smoke. These things would kill me, but a plane already took care of that.
Early mornings in Vermont carried a bite in the air, especially in mid-September. I dug in my backpack until I found a hooded sweatshirt before grabbing the crumpled pack and padding downstairs.
“Oh, good! Another early bird! Hold the door!”
A tall, curvy brunette hurried toward me, cradling a basket of eggs under one arm and carrying a pail of milk in the other. She wore a pink t-shirt with “Tranquility” on the front in white script and gray sweatpants that had seen better days. A lot of better days.
I groaned. The last thing I wanted was to swap stories with another traveler. I’d missed meeting everyone the night before by oversleeping dinner, then chopping wood until well after the sun went down. Henny had served me reheated casserole when I finally stumbled back into the house, exhausted and bleary-eyed. I never even saw her partner.
The longer I could avoid other people, the better.
“You must be Chris,” she said when she reached me. “I’m Val.”
The cook and co-owner. I dredged up a smile for the person who was partially responsible for giving me a place to stay. “Chris, yeah. Nice to meet you. I was—”
She thrust the basket into my arms and headed toward the kitchen, giving me no choice but to follow. “Give me a hand putting this stuff away. I’m sure glad to see someone else up to help me out in the mornings. You’re built like an old farm boy, Chris. Do you know how to milk a cow? Of course you do. Anyone can milk a cow. It’s just like squeezing a tit, and Lord knows, we’re all born knowing how to do that. I bet you’re a natural. Gee, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?”
My head spun at the direction the conversation had taken, but we had finally reached the kitchen. I set the eggs where she pointed. “Sorry. Not much of a morning person. I talk better after coffee.”
Under Val’s direction, I sliced bread, cracked eggs, and set water to boil for coffee. She kept up a steady stream of orders between chatter, hopping from one topic to the next so fast I didn’t try to keep up.
A bleary-eyed girl with long blond curls stumbled in, making a beeline for the coffee pot on the stove. Val slapped her hand. “Not so fast. You can’t drink it until it’s finished brewing or the whole pot’s ruined.”
“Bat those big blue eyes somewhere else, sister. You can have the coffee when it’s ready. Meanwhile, make yourself useful. Go set the table.”
She grumbled before turning toward me. She did have big blue eyes, a couple of shades darker than Jess’s. Her stringy blonde hair hadn’t seen soap in at least a week. She wore a long gray t-shirt that didn’t quite cover the dark blue lace of her panties, which peeked out from underneath the hem.
“Why, hello, there. I’m Julie.” She tossed her hair over one shoulder, sending a wave of patchouli toward me. “About time we got some testosterone in this henhouse.”
My spine straightened at her words. For a heartbeat, I wanted to give her a woman’s name, just to see her reaction. Before I could respond, she continued, “You’re Chris, right?”
She misinterpreted my confusion. “Henny told me to come into the kitchen and find Chris. You’re the only person here besides Val.”
“Yeah,” I said. No need to say more.
When she put out one hand to shake, I thrust a stack of plates into it. Behind me, Val chuckled. Not fazed in the slightest, Julie grabbed a handful of silverware and spun toward the dining room. “When I get back, there better be coffee,” she called over one shoulder.
By the time the table was set, the coffee bubbled on the stove. Val poured the steaming liquid into assorted heavy, ceramic mugs. No two matched each other or the plates.
When we got married, Jess spent three weeks picking out the perfect china, making sure it matched the silverware, the glasses, the informal everyday dishes, and even the tablecloth. It took for-freaking-ever. She would’ve raised an eyebrow at the mishmash, but seeing handmade pottery decorate the roughly hewn wooden table somehow gave the place a homey feel.
I needed to stop thinking about Jess. Even without anywhere else to go, I couldn’t turn around and go home. That ship sailed when I didn’t call her the moment the second plane hit the Twin Towers.
Until I figured things out, Tranquility was my new home.