2001 two to one
I rarely travel without my husband. Nonetheless, I am in Tampa, away on business. I have won two glass Guru Award trophies and am called to the stage at the Photoshop World Conference. It is September of 2001.
My gram lives just north of town so I have preplanned to extend my stay. This past summer, at eighty-nine, she buried her third husband. I didn’t come then, but now I stay with her for two and one half days.
I hug my gram. Bags fully loaded, I slide into my Hertz rental car. It smells new. I depart with a wave. It is early Tuesday morning.
Though I don’t listen to the radio or music in my car or at home, as I slow for a toll, fumbling for change, I oddly also reach for the dial. Not only do I dislike the constant buzz of a radio, when compounded by street noise, it grates me. But still, I inexplicably turn it on. Looking up, I meet the stare of the woman in the tollbooth, just as a newscaster reports a second plane is striking the other tower. I pay my toll a I continue on to the airport to catch my Houston flight.
In media-weary disbelief, I mull over my options. I probably should hold on to my rental, my gut says, I need it. At the airport, I park in the short-term lot. I expect the terminal to be in lock down, so the lack of security is startling. I walk right in bypassing the usual scrutiny. Perhaps security is diverted for Bush’s presence at Emma E. Booker Elementary School here in Florida. I don’t bother to question, let alone check-in. I glance at the TV sets, all fixed to the same station with their volumes turned up, and then descend to baggage claim. As I locate the Hertz service desk, I hear the emotional announcement of the first tower giving way and plummeting to the ground, then temporary silence.
The gathering crowd around the rental counter is not thick. I wait my turn, not long. In an instant decision, I explain that I will be using the car to get to Houston. “Yes, but…” They explain that all low mileage vehicles will be kept in state. An offer is made to exchange mine with an older model. I hand over the keys and wait. Already the second tower has been reported to have followed the first. It is not yet eleven.
The baggage area is hushed, with only low murmurs. The sound of the terminal’s TVs still drifts down the escalators. The Hertz guy hollers for quiet. I hear my blood pulse in my left ear. He announces that they would like people headed to the same destinations to share cars. There are nods of agreement. He mills through the crowd to collect information.
Finally, not long at all, my name is called. I negotiate my way back to the counter. As the rep guides me through the paperwork, he explains he has given me an in-town rate of eighty-seven dollars with no charge for mileage. He knows I am going to Houston. At the same time, another rep has been calling out for Houston bound travelers to pair with me. None. I am a little ashamed leaving without companions.
I have kept off my cellphone at the newscaster’s request, but now I make two calls—one to my husband, the other to my gram. I tell them my travel plans.
Behind wheel of the car, I click on the radio while reviewing the map stretched out in the passenger seat. I just need to set a route out of Tampa and north to I-10.
Two and one half hours of driving and I take the ramp to merge westbound on the interstate. I pass no cars or trucks; I am not passed. No vehicles in the opposite direction, either. I am alone. The highway sounds different. The acoustical reverberations travel up through the floor of the car as the wheels traverse varying concrete textures. I notice the engine’s hum and the way the car cuts through the air. It is different than my Jeep Wrangler. The force of passing semis does not buffet my rental or whistle at my windows. The solitary silence is breached only by my car’s passage and the ongoing confusion being broadcast on the radio. There are no white contrails or glimmering white dots in the sky. All flights have been grounded. I notice. Fortunately the gas stations that line the highway, marking each town and city, are open. Between stations, the radio signal grows fuzzy, I set the radio to seek a new station and turn the volume even lower. Off, doesn’t seem an option. I still don’t know what prompted me to initially turn it on. If I ascribe the impulse to God, then how do I account for the towers? So, I avoid unfolding the God topic. I don’t pause to pray. Instead, I contemplate my life, job, where I have been and am headed. I am thirty-nine.
Even turned down low, the reports of jumpers catch my attention. I missed much of the early detail while at the airport, so only now do I hear the descriptions. Imagining them plummeting in ones and twos, it finally reaches me. I cry silently as though in a darkened theater. I turn the radio down even more as I recoil back into my own thinking.
I fantasize my future, calculating my exit plan. This is something I haven’t done before. I draft and redraft my as yet unwritten resignation. Three months notice. I file the letter away in my mind and shift to the dilemma of my remaining two-year contractual obligations. I construct my arguments for extrication and imagine what it will be like in graduate school. I don’t pick up my phone for conversations with my husband. The newscasters have continually requested no unnecessary calls so the cell circuits remain open for emergency services and loved ones connected to the twin towers. Though, I normally follow Jim’s lead and rarely make decisions of my own, I resolve this new direction by myself. Alone.
I turn off the radio on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. It is eleven as I check into a Ramada. In the room, the televised images flicker projections across the dark walls, I am road weary, spent. When I finally sleep, it is still Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Four a.m., I am back on the highway with four hours and four minutes remaining to Houston. I do not turn on the radio.
The digital clock indicates it is almost seven. I pick up my phone, press *2. My husband, Jim answers. I will arrive at Intercontinental, terminal C, outside of baggage claim about eight. Can you pick me up? Yes.
Having returned the car, I descend to baggage claim and slip out the sliding doors for pick up. I am prepared to wait. Jim is consistently late and I no longer take it personally. Sometimes he refers to himself as “the late Jim Kelley.” He thinks this is funny, I have learned to smile. I unhurriedly stand, stretching my legs and back, extend both arms over my head, down to my toes. I touch my bags housing my sock wrapped glass trophies. A car pulls up, not Jim. A man gets out. The cop advances and sends him away. A car pulls up. A woman gets out. I hear the click of her door locks. I wait for the cop to intervene. He watches. She is young, pretty. He nods at her. She registers his attention and continues to enter the terminal. One minute. Two. I step behind a big concrete pillar to separate myself from the shrapnel pattern as I imagine her car a rolling bomb. I think the cop is an idiot since girls can be crazy bitches. I don’t think with a penis, so I know boobs do not render her safe. As she returns I am still positioned to protect myself from the fantasy blast.
Jim arrives in my Jeep. I toss my bags in back and climb in. We head to the Town and Country Einstein’s for breakfast bagels. It is Wednesday morning after eight, no school today. Jim’s cinnamon raisin bagel is slathered thick with cream cheese. My double toasted sesame, I skim with three pats of butter. We sit outdoors, our normal Saturday ritual. Trying not to sound overly definitive, I blurt out my work and school decisions. He, sort of, listens. There is a lack of eye contact as he watches other people. I explain why quitting my job and getting an MFA makes sense, is purposeful, not frivolous or selfish. I can see on his face questions. I expected this. I re-frame my intent as ministry, wrapping Jesus around my words. It’s a little too tight for my liking. Of course this is just bullshit, I am simply trying to speak Jim’s language. Not that I don’t also believe, but I find the world smoke gray. Jim sees it all in blacks and whites. Shellacking Jesus on what I want makes me rather uncomfortable. But still I suggest God has led me. There is a slight tug at my conscious, that hopes God doesn’t engage the smite button. Jim probably wants me to go home and pray. It is his habit, his pattern, just as it was in ’86 when he popped the marital question, but rejected that day’s joyful answer. He squelched it. I was given the directive to go home and pray, as though I hadn’t. Trust in me was absent from the very beginning. But despite his undermining resistance, I have learned to trust myself. So with this decision, I will not be put off. I hold firm. This is my first to make without him or his dictates. I don’t give way. God can handle it.
Unknown to me in this moment is that over two slathered bagels I have struck the first overt and fatal blow to our marriage. It is Wednesday morning, September 12th, 2001. Within nine years time the marriage will fail, imploding inward on itself, all twenty-three years of stories.
Husband one was met when she was sixteen on a Saturday morning. She and her girlfriends had gone to visit the crop duster to get their first plane ride. It must have been the early 1920s. My gram was four feet eleven inches tall, so a ride in the open cockpit was frightening. So a young man who drove race cars and greyhound buses offered her his lap to keep her secure. This was repeated numerous Saturdays, until my grandmother finally told, Al Stirling, the racer, that if he wanted her to continue to ride on his lap as she had, he would have to marry her. He did. He died a year after my dad was born when he fell asleep in his idling bus after a long trip and the service garage was sealed up tight for a Pennsylvania night winter.
My dad was shuttled off to live with her parents and my gram resumed her life and when off to graduate school for her masters from Slippery Rock University.
1930s plus some
Her second marriage came eight years after the first and she married Al’s best friend, Chuck Forrester. They lived in Penn Hills, she taught first grade in the inner city of Pittsburgh. She and Chuck lived next door to her brother and my Great Aunt. Unlike her first, the second did not die from gas affixation. Instead it involved a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head behind the locked door of their bedroom. She found him when returning from school, when she had to navigate the locks usually unclasped, from the garage, up the stairs, and to the bedroom. Three locked doors when there were normally none, cued her that it wasn’t good. Then she found him. I have since asked for no further detail. How does one ask for more of that kind of story? No matter that I wanted to ask, I certainly didn’t.
Husband three, Emil Zabka, always inferred to be a weasel by my parental units, was a county food and meat inspector. Prior to that while in the military, he had managed the surplus inventory, there were family rumors of bribery and the black market. And, there was also this other woman and kid, not a secret, but we never were told the relationship. We didn’t know if she was kin, friend or something ill begotten. Nonetheless I asked my grandmother for details of her love life—who was smitten first and how they became entangled. I have always been curios about peoples entanglements and love stories.
My gram was an avid bowler until she got booted out of the league simply because she was eighty seven. But way before those latter years she met Emil in a local bowling alley. She was there after school with some of her fellow teachers. As they played, she asked them what beers they wanted for the get together at her house the next day.
Apparently Emil had been hovering near enough to hear the conversations of the young to middle aged teachers. So he interjected and told her the beer he preferred. She explained this was a girls’ party and he wasn’t invited, but if he wanted to come over before hand, his beer would be ready. He left before the party began.
His father owned the alley, so he was a regular fixture in the place. After close he would visit my grandmother each evening and they would have coffee.
One particular night she suggested to him that he wouldn’t have to drive across town so late if he married her. When she arrived home from school the next day his car was in the driveway. He had come with a ring to ask her to marry him. She did. They were married for as long as I can remember. And, though I called him Emil, I understood him as my grandfather.
Emil died within weeks of a diagnose of cancer. Since my parents were never felt emotionally attached to him and my grandmother was stoic, it never even entered my head that I should fly over for his funeral. Plus, Jim wasn’t big on allowing me to spend money on something that appeared unnecessary.
When I scheduled my business trip to the Photoshop World Conference in Tampa for September, in which my employer would foot the bill, I added a two and one half extra days to visit my gram. This was efficient. It was a good visit. I always enjoyed her stories. Her memory was shockingly clear. She could even tell me about the first letters she learned to form with her pencil in first grade.
Having slowly driven across I-10 to where California met the water, and then upward and inward through the national parks, a month later we crossed the border to Oregon, I received a phone call from my dad. Could Jim and I drive to Tampa to help my ninety-seven year old gram to pack up and move to Bryan, Texas? We rerouted eastward through Glacier Park and then southward.
We stopped in Houston to unload and swapped out our camping gear for urban attire.
We spent a week with my gram dismembering her household. She did not need our advice on what to toss or what to keep. Her judgment and memory were fully operational. We were just there for physical labor. And though we exerted our muscles, most of our time was spent seated as we listened as she unpacked each story associated with each object. And there were stacks of yellowed newspapers we couldn’t resist reading—Japan Hit By Bomb—Mightiest Weapon in History!; The Japanese Emperor Surrenders: World War II Ends; Men Walk On Moon. Astronauts Land on Plain; Collect Rocks; Plant Flag; Nixon Resigns-He Urges a Time of Healing; Ford Will Take Office Today; US Attacked-Hijacked Planes Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon in Day of Terror; US and Allies Open Air War On Iraq-Bomb Baghdad and Kuwaiti Targets; ‘No Choice’ But Force, Bush Declares. There were more. I carefully packed up the papers. Then we sifted through my dad’s report cards and letters from my mom that narrated their honeymoon, which entailed driving from New London to San Francisco and the impact of food poisoning. We flipped through photo albums and yearbooks. An album that depicted a trip to Yosemite with the family loaded up in two black model Ts.
My gram had us tote to Goodwill her antique discards while she kept for the packers the 1970s furnishing. It was hard not to push and press her to keep what I would later inherent. I wasn’t trying to hurry her into the grave. She was simply ninety-seven. She had already surpassed the age at which her folks passed in their early nineties. This was not the fate of her eleven other siblings who died much younger.
My gram wasn’t excited about boarding a plane with the stresses of navigating the Tampa and Houston international terminals. She wanted to ride to Texas with Jim and myself squeezed into my Toyota Tacoma. With her four foot eleven frame, we could have easily squeezed her in the back to ride, but that just seemed wrong on so many levels. So though I usually drive, Jim, six foot four, took the wheel and squeezed my five nine frame into the back for the fourteen-hour drive.
My gram stayed with my parents in College Station until the moving van unloaded her things into her new apartment at the retirement center. I was surprised that they really were just apartments with the only real difference provisions for community services. They had maid service to vacuum, scrub the bathroom and change the bed linens. They had a restaurant opened for each lunch and dinner. My gram quickly met her significantly younger able-bodied peers who were still in their eighties.
When I next visited, I asked if there were any new viable husband-like candidates. She laughed and definitively told me, not a chance since she is likely to kills them. I think she was kidding—sort of.
Within a month of her ninety-ninth birthday, after parking her walker against the wall at the retirement center’s restaurant, she turned to walk to her table. She pivoted and leaned forward to walk to her table, her feet tangled. She descended to the concrete slab protected only by thin institutional carpet and broke her left hip.
After the hospital interviewed her to confirm if she was a viable surgical candidate and explained that once put under anesthesia she might not regain consciousness, a risk for someone her age, she consented. Then they guided her through the rest of the forms orally. They asked, if she should stop breathing or her heart stop pounding, she they intubate or resuscitate her. She laughed and said she was ninety-nine so of course not!
Minutes from receiving an epidural, her body stopped so they intubated and restored her heart function. Four days later, with her repaired hip, following a shot of morphing, her eyes closed in final release.