In the days that followed September 11th, I was terrified still. The stories which came from the towers were horrifying at their most benign. People had jumped. Family members had stood powerless while their loved ones literally crashed or burned, all while connected via cell phones. Then came the anthrax attacks, and suddenly it was dangerous to open the mail.
I started having panic attacks, usually in the middle of the night. I’d wake up feeling like there was a thousand pound weight on my chest. I couldn’t draw in a breath, but neither could I let one out. I would feel each heartbeat crash through my chest, and each one was equally painful. One night it was so bad I considered asking the fiance to take me to a hospital, but even as terrified as I was I had enough presence of mind to know what was happening to me. I got out of bed and started pacing, trying to breathe deeply enough to calm my body. It eventually worked.
But as anxious as I was, I still wasn’t mourning.
We’d compared notes at the bakery. Customers who used to come in regularly now weren’t, but that didn’t mean they were dead. Many people were in hibernation in those days. Montclair, a commuter town, had lost its share of citizens, but I still had no faces for the names which were starting to show up online.
One night about a week after the attacks, I went back to my hometown to meet two friends for coffee and dessert at our favorite diner. I got my usual (hot chocolate and streussel toast), and sat there with DM and MT. MT had returned from the West Coast several days before September 11th, en route to Europe for an extended vacation. He was grounded, though, as the airports still hadn’t opened back up, so he’d been tooling around our town since the attacks.
We chatted about everything that had gone on, and towards the end of the evening, I said, “I’m just so happy I didn’t know anyone who died.” DM nodded her head.
MT stared at me, he mouth hanging open for a second. “Yes, you did,” he said, and then he changed everything. “Bobby died. He worked there. He got out, but he went back in to try to help people. He was in when the tower collapsed.”
Bobby. I’ve been using nicknames in these posts, but Bobby gets his real name. He deserves his real name. And in that second, I could picture nothing but his face.
MT was my lone, real high school boyfriend, so I knew he and Bobby had been best friends when they were kids. MT’s heart had to be slightly broken.
I hadn’t met Bobby until Spanish class during my freshman year of high school. He was a sophomore, and was one of the cooler kids in the high school caste system. Even so, he was always nice to me. Red-hair, freckles and a really pretty smile...even back then, when I was afraid of my own shadow, I’d thought he was cool.
We were never good friends, but when we wound up at the same college years later he was as nice as ever. I remember seeing him for the first time in the gym when, again, I was a freshman and he a sophomore. His face lit up when he saw me and he came over and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Our paths crossed many times throughout my first couple years of college. We went to a lot of the same parties, knew a lot of the same people. And it was always the same. A hug and a kiss and an introduction to whoever he was with that night. So sweet, so welcoming, so lovely.
Bobby was a good guy, and of course he went back in to try to help other people. That was the kind of guy he was.
That night at the diner, I ferociously hugged MT and DM goodbye. Then I barely made it to my car before I started to cry. Bobby’s face was in my head, and he was gone.
I finally mourned.
And I mean, really mourned. I cried the whole 45-minute drive home. And not just a couple tears here and there. We’re talking sobbing, choking, probably-should-have-pulled-over-as-I-clearly-wasn’t-driving-safely crying. I just kept picturing Bobby’s smile. Even today, I can still see it, you know? Idealized, I’m sure, by the passage of time and the desire to memorialize him, with hazy corners like an old-timey photo, but still. It’s him. He’s there.
I made it home that night, my face all puffed-up redness, and I walked inside to find the fiance and the roommate drinking beer on the futon couch in our living room. I didn’t want them to see me that way, so I ran straight to my room.
The fiance followed. I was barely able to tell him why I was crying, but when I did, he patted my back, then left and let me cry it out alone. It was all he could do, I’m sure, and it took hours for me to calm down.
When I mourn, I really mourn. It’s a full body experience.
I’ve never felt like it’s my place to write about Bobby. I wasn’t close enough. He had a family, a girlfriend, and who was I but a random girl he hugged from time to time? But now, maybe, it makes sense. Because ten years have passed but I still remember his face and his voice and how kind he was to me. They meant a lot, those hugs and kisses, when I was far from home and negotiating the early days of college. That familiar smile. The freckles. Maybe the very fact that I can still think of him and smile, but still be a little sad, maybe that means I am allowed to write.
Whether or not I’m allowed, I just did. And I’ll think of him Sunday, and I’ll mourn. But just a little bit this time. Because time does heal some sadness.