548 miles out of New York City, Mark stopped for a break at a small shopping plaza in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The drive was long, strenuous, and the confinement to his seat made him feel like Sisyphus, cursed to an eternity of pushing a boulder up hill, at least it felt like an eternity, and he still had another 392 miles to go, before reaching his parents' home in Jacksonville, Florida. It didn't help any that the only thing on the radio was the news broadcasts, a continuous repetition of the same facts from the catastrophe that occurred only a few days earlier, a repetitive playback of the on scene accounts as the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
It seemed that there was no where he could go to escape it, but he felt he had to try, try to run, to get away from the ruins he once called home. 940 miles across country, he thought to himself, what am I doing? Memories flashed of his past life in the country, the friends and family he left behind. The thoughts continued of who might still be there, how many would he be trying to avoid?
He had worked there, in the World Trade Center, as an engineer for a major company for the past 7 years, and now, now it was all gone, and him, he should be too. He had a hard time placing how he should be feeling, the victim to a backhanded blessing.
He should have been working in the office that day, but he snuck out. He told his supervisor he was off to visit one of their clients in Yorktown Heights, a full hour and a half away. They had no reason to question him, to check in on him, and he knew this. It wouldn't be the first time that he had played hooky from work, and if it wasn't for the events of 9/11, it would likely have not been the last.
"Is she crying?" he asked over the phone. His brother, James, was on the other end, one of the family members still back home in Florida. "Yea, I know it's a lot, but tell her everything is fine, I'm okay and should be there before dinner. I love you guys."
Mark stood before his car, getting out his last few stretches and taking a deep breathe. Let's go! He thought to himself before jumping back into his BMW.
Almost immediately, the station surfing began again. Mark jumped through the stations, savoring every few minutes of music before having to move again, to another station, like dodging fireballs of emotional pain, avoiding any reports on the tragedy he was leaving behind. He didn't get by unscathed however, as with each time another report hit him, the thoughts of those he lost, hit him: Jarrod, Chris, Nicki; the names kept coming; Pedro, Andrea, Ralph; more and more memories and the knowing that those would be the last memories he would have with them.
The further south he traveled, the easier it became to find more music and less talking on the radio, the easier it became to try and forget everything, at least for now, at least until he got home. That's when the questions would begin: What did you see happen? What was it like? How did you survive?
He wasn't sure which was worse, the pain those questions would bring up within him over those lost to him, or the inability to answer the questions because, technically, he was no closer to ground zero than his family was. He was across town, out of visual and audible range, only hearing about it hours after the accident when he returned his 34 missed calls from his wife.
"Mark?! Where are you?! Are you okay?!" she asked, crying hysterically.
"What do you mean? I'm at work. What's wrong baby?!" Mark responded.
"What do you mean where? I'm the office. Let me call you back in a second when I am somewhere I can talk."
Liar. That last word on the call, before he hung-up the phone, knocked the wind right out of him. He knew then, something was wrong and it was that word that still sticks with him now.
940 miles just doesn't seem far enough. Mark thought, pulling into his parents' neighborhood. Getting closer to their home, he started to notice the several cars parked in the yard and along the street. Did they have to invite the whole neighborhood?
Mark pulled into the driveway. James was sitting up against the back of his 1999, red Chevy Camaro, with a beer in his hand and a cooler on the trunk. On the rear bumper was a sticker: Honk if you Hate Noise Pollution! Mark thought it identified with James's personality, which was why he bought it for him.
"Hey there, Hollywood!" James said just as soon as Mark was out of his car. Mark had never actually been to Hollywood or pursued any form of acting career; instead, this was a reference to the fact that the family didn't hear from Mark much since he moved to New York.
"You out here by yourself, waiting for me?"
"Kyle just ran inside a second ago. Had to change Sarah. Beer?" James asked, tossing a beer from the cooler before even awaiting a response.
Mark caught the beer and began to pop the top off with his keys, a trick his father taught him years ago. "Thanks, I'm in desperate need of one of these. So he had to go change mom?" Mark tried to hold back the smile, but hardly could hold it in with James's laughter.
"Little Sarah. We'll let dad take care of changing mom."
"I could of used a warning." Mark's head nodded slightly toward the house.
Before James could even respond, their mother came running out of the house, shouting with a forced Yiddish accent, "Boichika! Come give your mother a kiss." Her hands grabbed Mark's face and pulled it down to her so she could kiss his cheek. Releasing him, she immediately began swatting him, "Are you trying to kill me?! I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I get the call that you may be dead, you don't answer your phone, then you finally call your brother a day later and I have to hear it from him? I'm just so verklempt, but you're here now." She signaled to Mark to follow her inside as she headed back into the house. "Come, come! I'm making Kishke, Matzo Ball soup, and I've been asking your father to make brisket, but will he help me, no!" She glared at her husband, Richard, who was sitting in the dining room reading the paper.
"Risk what?!" he responded.
"Brisket! I said Brisket! Go make the Brisket and fix your damn hearing aid!" she yelled. Her attention returned to Mark. "Oy vey! He used to be a mentsh, always so helpful, but now, bubkes! Here, let me get you snack, you must be starved from your trip." She headed to gather some food but, became distracted when she found Richard eating a Rugeluch. With a towel she started swatting at him, "Those are for after dinner…"
"What the hell was that back there?!" Mark whispered to James, escaping into the living room.
James started laughing, "I forget how long it's been. Remember how mom always had that fascination with Jewish people?"
"Yea, but this is ridiculous-"
"Well, there's more to it." James began, looking back to ensure his mother wasn't within hearing distance. "About 8 months ago, I told her I traced our heritage and found out she has a Jewish heritage. She got so into it, I never had the heart to tell her it was a joke. I mean, she's even been talking to a rabbi and hanging out with a group of Jewish women. I think that is where she is picking up the terms."
"Too funny. She always had been quite naive."
The conversation continued for a while, the two reminiscing over past jokes and pranks, most of which, their mother tended to be the butt of, due to her gullibility. The conversation did wonders, remembering simpler time, living with his parents, hanging out with his brother, allowing him to, for once, to forget about the last few weeks. That peace, however, ended when the conversation ended and James walked off to take a phone call.
Now alone in the living room, Mark sat there, feeling as if everyone's eyes were upon him, talking to each other, about him. Their whispers:
I heard he was trapped in the rubble for hours.
I heard he was stuck in there for a whole day.
I thought he was home sick that day.
His mind altered to:
I heard he was stealing company time, who knows what else he was doing, probably a drug addict or something.
That's awful, all those people that died and someone like him survived?
There that word was again; his guilt was getting the best of him. He couldn't take the whispers, the stares. He headed toward the backyard. There were several kids running around the yard, his nieces, nephews, 2nd cousins, and children of old friends, each of which he hardly recognized as it had been so long since he had been back. The adults that were out there, each waved or nodded in greeting towards him, and Mark, politely, nodded back, while in his head, tried to place who everyone was. Some he knew right off, while others, he had to think about. It was almost as if there was never any tragedy at all. There wasn't any crying, no mourning, just everyone going on, normally. It seemed a great place to finally try to relax. He sat out there for the next couple of hours, talking to various friends and family that came over to him, James returned with their cousin Kyle and more importantly, a cooler full of beers. Talking with them, drinking beers, made things easier.
The family gathered around a long dining room table, the children nearby at their separate, Kids' Table. A variety of different foods were spread across the table, several of the items, Jewish foods.
Mark leaned over to James, who was sitting next to him and whispered, "She taking this Jewish thing a little far, don't you think?"
"Think of how I feel, the Jewish food has been non-stop since I told her she was Jewish. Most of it not good either." James whispered back. He watched his mother for a second and as soon as she turned away, he pulled out a dish he was hiding under the table and placed it directly in the center, a small plate of sliced ham. He sat back, trying to act casual, as if nothing happened. "Shhh."
Sarah turned back to the table and began a speech. She thanked everyone for coming and then turned the attention toward Mark, stating how grateful she was for his safe return to her, how thankful she is to God for delivering him from the ruins. Getting all emotional, she turned to Richard, asking him if he'd like to say anything.
Richard raised his glass. "Welcome home son." He motioned the glass toward the center of the table in toast, then continued, "Let's eat!"
The family acted like a pack of hungry wolves, all grabbing at the dishes before someone else could grab them. They all were serving themselves, all except Sarah, who glared at her husband. "I make this big speech and all you have to say is welcome home?! It's as if we're driving and you say, you know what, we're going to a fantastic resort but why don't I pull the car over and take a shit right here! That is what you are doing; you are taking a shit on my food, my work, and on the miracle of our son returning to us!" Her attention moved away from Richard as she began to serve herself, giving him one last comment, "You're a putz!"
Sarah's scowl turned to a smile as she turned to the rest of the family, as if changing her emotions were as simple as removing a mask. "Oh, here you go sweetie, you must/ try the…"
Mark stared at the table and then at all those sitting around it, partially in a daze, starting to feel overwhelmed again. The emotions were eating at him, he knew it was coming eventually, and the anxiety was making it unbearable. He knew, he would eventually be asked about everything in New York; in fact, he was surprised it hadn't happened yet.
Sure enough, his mother took the first stab, "So, where's that girl," her attention turned away, back and forth at others in the family, "What's her name again?"
"Alexa?" Mark responded, displeased by the fact that she didn't care enough to remember the name of his, now ex-, wife. "We're in a bit of an argument right now."
"You know, I never did like her. I told your father that." Her attention turned to Richard, "Didn't I-" Before he could answer, her focus on him was over and back onto Mark, "I said, my boy is too good for that woman, he is. He could do better…"
Mark wished he felt that way too, but he didn't. In his mind, she was the best he had ever known. She was going to be his wife, and now, now they were nothing to each other.
"…Daniella, yes that was it, now she was a great girl. A nice, Jewish girl. She would make you happy."
Barely single two weeks and already she's trying to set me up with someone. Mark thought to himself.
"I tried to set James up with her, didn't go over so well."
"She just wasn't my type." James responded.
Sarah leaned over the table toward James, "James, Boichika," Mark felt more at ease now, knowing the questioning was off of him. "Are you a faygeleh?"
The table silenced and the spotlight for the whole table was now on James. "I don't know, you're in college right now. Have you had an experience?"
James, realizing what she was actually asking, felt uneasy and defensive. "No! I'm not gay, I'm just picky!"
The questioning would have likely gone on longer, but Sarah's attention was sidetracked when she noticed her brother grabbing the plate of ham from the center of the table. "What is that?! Is that ham? Where did you get that?! There will be no pig on my table…"
The doorbell rang and James jumped up at the chance to escape the chaos that was beginning at the table: the homosexual accusations, the argument between brother and sister over proper foods to be eating, and of course, Richard, finally finding a cause to fight for, defending Sarah's brother while taking some ham for himself. The commotion spread amongst everyone, and all at once, fell silent at the entrance of the surprise guest no one expected, that James led into the dining room.
Mark sat frozen, paralyzed, thinking: What is she doing here? Did I not travel far enough? What do I have to do, leave the country?
Sarah made small talk with her, telling her how happy she was to see her, offering a seat at the table across from Mark, asking her how she was doing…. They were suddenly best friends, catching up with each other.
Mark finally shook off the paralysis, his face now filled with rage, "Why are you here?"
"Why are you such a coward?"
The family was now the audience, watching a dramatic tennis match of backhanded comments and insinuations that became less and less subtle.
"Issues is running 900-some miles, back to mommy and daddy."
"At least mine aren't crazy!"
"Your mother thinks she's Jewish!"
"Are you calling my wife crazy?!" Richard yelled. "No one calls her crazy, but me!"
"Look, I didn't come to fight with you! I came here for this." Alexa exclaimed, throwing a stack of papers on the table in front of Mark.
"Divorce papers? You drove 16 hours to deliver of divorce papers?" Mark responded.
"No, I flew, and I hadn't fully decided what I was doing until I got here, but after talking to you, my decision is much easier. You are a liar and a cheat, and I can do better!"
Sarah's attention shifted toward Mark, "What is she talking about?"
"Oh, has he not told you where he was on the 11th. He was with some tramp, having an affair. He snuck out of work to visit some bimbo while I was home crying hysterically, thinking he was dead. Well you know what," Alexa stood up and leaned over the table, "I wish you would have been there and died that day!"
Mark just sat there, silent, divided in four parts: partially in shock by her wishing him dead, partially enraged for her outing his indiscretions in front of his family, partially saddened over her wanting the divorce, and partially guilt ridden over what he has done to her. Those four parts pushed him to snatch up the papers and begin signing.
Completing the pages, he pushed past Alexa, shoving the papers into her hands and bolted out the back door. He continued through the yard, to the lake at the end of the yard and fell to his knees. He felt the need to release the flood gates the held back his tears, but they only leaked out slowly. In the distance, he could hear a car pulling out of the driveway and through all his pain, he felt a slight bit of relief that the worst of it was over.
Hearing grass crunching behind him, he turned to see his father standing there.
"You know, I have some medication for my glaucoma I'd be willing to share." Richard said, smiling.
Mark laughed a little through his tears, "You don't have glaucoma."
"Sure I do, I call it Sarah."
The two of them laughed and Richard sat down beside him. "You could have told us."
"I was afraid of what everyone would think, that-"
"We'd disown you or something? Our family may be a little out there, but we are family and it will always be that way, and when things get tough, you'll have us."
The two continued talking on like this and eventually, Richard was able to convince Mark to return inside, to the rest of the family.