The morning is not quiet. There is no extra rest. The construction on my street begins, like it has every other workday morning this spring, at seven a.m., but even that is preceded by an hour of the workers drinking their coffee and talking so loudly that they may as well be in here with me four floors up. Today they seem to be discussing one of their coworkers.
Carlos almost got in big trouble last night, they're saying.
Carlos nearly got into a fight with some soldiers at that bar.
Did you hear about Carlos?
I pull a robe over my shoulders, and, in the apartment above me, I can hear Patrick moving around. The construction noises have him awake too. I listen to him up there, doing this, doing that. Footsteps. There's the sound of him turning on his shower, the rush of the pipes and the gurgle of the drain rumbling through the mysterious space between my ceiling and his floor. I go to my own bathroom, start my own shower, and get in. With the water running, I can't hear the jackhammer on the street.
Patrick comes down, as he has almost every day before work for the past two and a half weeks. He enters without knocking, while I'm making toast, with a pair of bowl-sized mugs filled with brownish foam. Since I knew he'd be coming, I'm toasting two slices of bread.
"I think I got it, Jess," he says, handing me one of the giant mugs. "Finally. I really think I got the milk-frothing thing. Got it down. Try. Try it."
I take a sip, and it isn't so bad. "This is . . . a cappuccino?"
He seems a little disappointed that I'm not sure what it is. Patrick had a restaurant-grade espresso-making device installed in his kitchen a week ago today. "I was going for latte."
"It's a little strong, like, the coffee is strong," I say. "It's strong flavor." Patrick frowns. "But it's good!" I add, to make him happy, and he sits down at my kitchen table and pokes at the foam in his mug with an index finger.
"Maybe it's the grinder," he says.
"You want toast?"
"What? Oh, sure. Please." There's a foam stalactite on his finger now.
"How much did you pay for that thing, Pat? The espresso maker machine."
"Does it really matter?" He's not angry. He's been doing well at work, and the purchase of new kitchen stuff lets him show it.
"Well, how many lattes could you buy at Tommie's before you equaled what you paid for it?"
"You're missing the point," he says. He holds the mug out toward me and almost smiles. "It's not about money, right? It's about the pleasure of making something. It's about quality control."
I raise my eyebrows and peer into the coffee. "This is quality?"
"You suck. Did you hear about Carlos?"
"Sounds like Carlos nearly got into some trouble."
"Sounds like Carlos nearly got his ass kicked."
"Which one is Carlos, anyway?"
I place a piece of toast on one of my old blue plates on the table in front of him. He smells like soap and morning, and I can't help putting my hands on his shoulders to knead the muscles there.
"Wait, wait, wait," he says.
"This violates the rule, for sure." He shoos my hands away.
"A neck rub?"
"Seriously?" I slap my hands down at my sides. "Damn it, Pat, you're impossible."
"You made it, Jess. I'm just adhering. I know what neck rubs can lead to."
Rules get made, I suppose. Maybe they are made too hastily. Out of necessity, though, they are made.
My rule has been in effect now for almost three weeks, and, by all standards of measurement, it appears to be having its intended effect. Patrick has not spent the night in my apartment in all of that time, and it's been even longer since I've gone upstairs to sleep at his.
The rule is working. Shouldn't I be happy with this?
Though nothing has been formally written out, we've silently agreed that normal visitations during standard daytime and early evening hours are permissible. Dining together is allowed, as is morning coffee. We watch the news, and sometimes cooking shows, together on my TV, and we go out to movies and bars and restaurants. Sometimes, when we stumble home, we hold hands. But sleeping together, or any other activity that might lead to sleeping together or to any of the multitude of activities that can occur in bed, is strictly forbidden. This is the heart of the rule. And as the creator of the rule, I guess I should stick to it.
Now toast is finished, coffee is finished, and Patrick takes his two big mugs and goes upstairs to get his computer bag. I wait for him on the landing in front of my door, and then we go down the steps and out of our building together. There on the sidewalk in front we lean in close like we're almost going to kiss, like we're almost something, but we don't, and we aren't. There's a rule, after all.
"Talk tonight?" he says.
"Dinner? I can cook."
"Yes. Should I pick anything up?"
He shrugs. "I'll call you today. We can figure it out." Then we lean in again and he smiles, and he turns away and heads up the hill to get his train and I go off the other way down to my bus stop.
The ride to my office is lurching and sleepy, and at one of the stops a kid with a messenger bag takes the seat next to mine and immediately starts exchanging—with a completely bored look on his face—sexually explicit text messages with someone on his phone. He has no idea I'm reading them, and I try to remember some of the more choice ones to e-mail to my sister.
I make it to my office about ten minutes after nine. Mike, my boss, is there, as is Laurie, the new intern who hasn't yet figured out that Mike doesn't care too much about worker punctuality. I spend some time responding to e-mails, printing documents, moving paper. Doing nothing. I start to compose a message to my sister to tell her about my texting bus mate, but I'm interrupted by my e-mail program chiming to let me know there's a new message from one McAvoy, Patrick. The subject reads: "CLARIFICATION?"
He wants to know if neck rubs should, in fact, be exempt from the rule. I laugh at this, but then I stop: there's a thump, a boom, far away but still the kind of sound you feel inside your chest. A moment later my boss runs past my desk shouting, "What the hell was that?" Laurie, follows him, and peeks into my cubicle with a startled look on her face.
"What was that?" she asks. "Did you hear that sound?"
Of course I heard it. Already, in the sound, I know that the day is going to be not quite right. We all know what it was.
After my bag drops and my shoes are kicked off, and my coat is thrown to the floor and the blinds that I didn't pull up this morning are opened and then closed again, the first thing I see when I'm back home is the blinking number on the answering machine.
Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven.
I've come to expect, after things like this, that a sizable percentage of everyone I've ever known will call and leave a message, hope I'm okay, and ask me to call when I get a chance. My mother will call. My absent father will too. College professors, former coworkers, and ex-boyfriends not seen since forgotten dormitory romps will leave messages letting me know they're thinking of me and wondering if I'm okay.
Am I okay?
They just want in on the action, I think.
The first couple messages are from early, before things turned not normal. The machine announces the time. Eight fifty-one, and my friend Amy is planning a birthday party for Alexei. Nine-ten, don't forget your dental appointment tomorrow. Nine forty-nine, Amy remembers to tell me that I should bring a bottle of wine tomorrow night. I delete the messages, stabbing at the button with my index finger, until the machine announces message six, left at ten twenty-two, which, as I've gleaned from conversations with everyone else walking home after being stranded by all transit shutting down, is seven minutes after it happened.
As expected, it's my mom.
"Jessica, honey, I heard something's going on out there, please call me when you can. I love you, call me soon, okay?"
My mother "hears" about things going on in roughly the same way a buzzard "hears" an antelope or something might be keeling over soon on the savanna: she circles the news channels, constantly, looking for some misery to feast on. She's a glutton for fear, my mom. And if I'm involved, even just by proximity, it becomes so much better than the garden variety tidal wave or child stuck in a mine shaft; now she can say to her friends: "Well, my daughter says . . . my daughter says . . . my daughter Jessica who was right there said . . ."
And just like that, she's part of the action.
She does sound a little afraid, though. And on messages seven, eight, ten, fourteen, fifteen, seventeen, and twenty through twenty-four, she sounds increasingly frantic.
"Jessica, honey, Jessie, please, please call me, your cell goes right to voice mail. . . ."
Cell phones are a joke when these things happen. On the walk back from my office, in the shuffling crowd that had spilled off the sidewalk and onto the street, I had an interesting conversation with a very large man who claimed to be a telephone engineer. He was bald and black, and, by the way he was breathing, seemed unused to walking any significant distance. He told me that during events like this the cellular network gets shut down, "for security reasons, man." He said that "they" close it down to keep "them" from coordinating anything further.
I don't buy it, though. If a city of a hundred thousand is sent walking home, that means—and I know this is a rough estimate—at least a hundred thousand moms calling, jamming every circuit and rendering all wireless communication systems useless.
Now a message from my old college roommate Carrie plays (are a hundred thousand former roommates calling too?), and through squeals of "ohmigod, Jess, are you okay, ohmigod!" I hear helicopters fly over our building. Then I hear someone running up the stairs.
"Hey, Jess?" It's my downstairs neighbor Danny yelling through the door. "Your mom called me, she was trying to find you."
"Thanks, Danny." Then, by force of habit, survivor's etiquette, I guess, I ask: "Are you alright?"
"I didn't even know it happened until your mom told me. I was asleep."
"It's no problem." Then he pounds back off down the stairs and I hear his door slam below me. Danny grew up in Israel, and I suspect that the tone of the call he got from his mom was somewhat different. She's had enough action.
Then I think: my mom has Danny's number? I ponder this as the phone rings, and the caller ID renders a greeting unnecessary.
"Oh, Jessie," she sobs. "Jessie, you're okay, oh honey, you're okay."
"I'm fine, Mom. It wasn't . . . It didn't happen anywhere near where I was."
"I kept trying to call—"
"I know, Mom. They shut the city down. I had to walk home." She just cries for a little bit. I feel bad for her, and a little embarrassed. She's really upset. "It took a while to get back here," I go on, "but I'm staying put."
"I don't know where anything is there, one of them could have been close, they showed all four places but I don't really know where your office—"
"Four places? What?"
"The four places. The buses, there were four that blew up. Big . . . the buildings . . . the bombs were big and the fronts were all smashed in on the buildings."
"Simultaneous. Coordinated. On CNN they said they were detonated within seconds of each other." Mom calms down as she gets into the details.
Four buses? I start to feel a little sick. We only heard the one faint boom at my office, and all morning I—and everyone else I walked home with—was under the impression it was only one bus, with a little bomb, that got hit on Van Ness. One exploding bus I can deal with, sort of. Four blowing up at the same time seems stranger, scarier, like falling in a dream or tripping on a step in the dark. It's an insult to my security.
"Four?" I say again.
"And Fox is saying at least a hundred people—"
"Mom, stop." My forehead and cheeks feel cool and my own breath feels rushed through my nose.
"That number may not be right. It could be less."
"Mom," I say, then nothing else, because I can feel puke rising up with my words, my breath coming too easily through my throat. "I gotta go," I manage.
"Check in tonight? Call me?"
"I gotta go."
I don't bother to put the cordless back on its base before crawling, literally, through my kitchen to the bathroom at the back of the apartment. The toilet seat is closed, and I kneel, resting my head there on crossed arms.
Exhale. Inhale. With my eyes closed, each time I take a breath I'm willing it to pass. I take my left hand and pull the hair back from my face, and as I do I peek and see my freckled arm and the spot of condensation that has spread beneath it on the cream-colored lid. Better. The phone rings and I listen to the machine pick up.
"Hi, Jessica. It's Adam. Hey, we're thinking of you back here. Hang in there. Bye."
I don't even know who Adam is.
The bra I'm wearing is the itchiest, lamest piece of crap I own, but I'm too cheap to throw it out, and right now I feel too weak to remove it entirely. I reach back and fumble to unhook it for immediate relief, then pull a bath towel out of the basket under the sink and roll it up to use as a pillow. For some indeterminate amount of time, kneeling here with my head on the toilet and palms flat on the floor, I feel blank. Something like rest, something like sleep.
When finally I lift my head from the toilet and pull away a hair that's gotten stuck to the corner of my mouth, I feel as though I've slept a couple hours, but the toothpaste-splattered alarm clock to the side of my sink tells me it's only been about twenty minutes. Aside from a stiff neck, I feel much better. My pajamas are where I left them this morning, draped over the hamper at the end of my beloved claw-footed, cast-iron, pre-earthquake tub, and since I know I won't be going anywhere else today I change back into them. The phone rings as I'm pulling on my sweats and again I don't bother to answer, but when I hear the message begin I scramble out to the kitchen and pounce on the phone; this is the one call I do want to take.
Excerpted from Jessica Z. by Shawn Klomparens. Copyright © 2008 by Shawn Klomparens. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.