This is how a childhood ends.….
“Hi Mai, it’s Leila.”
I was pleasantly surprised. Ten years from high school and someone had tracked me down.
“Hi, how are you? Are you in New York?”
“Well, yes I am, but I’m actually calling about something else. The plane, the flight that crashed off Long Island…..” The Carpenter and his wife were on it, on their way to visit their daughter in Paris. I had watched the coverage on TV, feeling small on the planet surface as that much destruction took place over the city.
I checked the clock. Enough time to alert David. Then I squirmed into my sneakers and scrubs, slung the stethoscope and fanny pack over my shoulder and ran to the subway station. Only ten days into my second year of residency and I felt old. I explained to my intern why someone else would be taking back-up call for me the week of memorial services.
The first gathering was at the last school he taught at. His high school students sat on one side of the library, and we faced them on the other. I met his daughters and his niece. There was a second service three days later with 600 people at the Quaker meeting house. A writer of short stories read a poem that his kids had chosen. I had met her at their house the year before when David and I came to help Carpenter fix the futon frame he had made for us as a wedding present.
One by one people rose to tell how they were each drawn to his warm and hopelessly cluttered home. A high school classmate gripped my left shoulder. They played a recording of Jessie Norman. A man in a three-piece suit read a stiff letter from the Governor. A pilot sent there by the airline said something sincere while his wife sat thinking, It could have been him. Back on hospital call in Manhattan the next night, I was told the memorial had gotten local TV news coverage in New York City because the gathering seemed surprisingly large for a middle-aged public schoolteacher.
Newsweek 7/20/96 : Victims Were Unaware of Crash, Coroner Says…instantly killed or rendered unconscious when the 747 broke apart with a force as sudden as a car smashing into a brick wall at 400 miles an hour…
I saw you last night, heard you
sniffling while David and I sat
on a narrow wooden bed in some strange hotel,
and drew back the velvet red curtain to catch you
as you made your way across the floor to
the door behind me.
So sorry I woke you, you said, I’m cold.
Your hair was dark and damp, and if I’d known
I would have reached to smooth it down.
Can I help? I asked, but, No, it’s okay, so
softly it was easy to believe.
And then you left me, walked by in the strange half-light
while a giant headless serpent, scaled
in wide round discs of silver
slowly glided past our window,
downward, through the black water outside.
His father had died years before after a stroke and heart attack. Given that family history, Carpenter decided to change a lot of things when he turned forty. This fear of a debilitating illness and death was the most opaque, unmoving fear I have known in anyone. He set out to stop smoking, but was still having relapses when he took his family to England for a year. One day, sneaking a drag from his last cigarette on the balcony of their London flat, he was spied by his son, who righteously put out the stub with masterful aim of a water gun. Carpenter was furious. He screeched and chased the kid yelling. I could barely breathe, laughing. It was adorable how he couldn’t admit that he would live forever. He ate low-fat, ordering a “hot dog with everything please, hold the hot dog!” twice a week from his favorite street vendor. He ran long distances and kayaked. It got worse after his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and had to be placed in a long-term care facility.
Come to Manhattan, I wanted to have said, we’ll make dinner for you both, in my house. See me at work. See me at play. See how happy I am? Do you need anything, anything at all? I saw him twice the year before he died, the first time at my wedding. I didn’t invite them to the Vietnamese ceremony at home, just the Western one at an old museum downtown. On our wedding video, he and his wife are sitting near the front of the hall for a clear view, pointing out the carved wood moldings on the ceiling to one another.
Conversations with him were awkward the last year. Don’t all relationships have those moments of veering back and forth about a baseline? Eventually, as sure as sine, I would have found a way to break through his banter, say it didn’t feel right, ask if he had given up on me, and make us fit again. I could almost sketch it. But I felt my footing slip. I was not falling out of orbit but away from it, freed from axis and gravity, flying from center in an unwilling jettison as my math left me.
He was exactly thirty years older. Three times my life at fifteen, but only twice when I am thirty. Poor, hopeful Rabbit. I pouted in frustration one day, whined that I would never catch up with him, never have as many stories, misadventures or friends, never be able to surprise him the way he did me. He smiled patiently.
Freshman year I lived in Wigglesworth, a thin row of Georgian dorms on the south side of Harvard Yard. After a few weeks, I started writing long letters. I wrote to recreate the sensory overload that is Cambridge. I wrote of the vibration of the subway under Mass. Ave., of squinting against the snow at night to turn people on the sidewalks into so many noisy stars, of Luke breaking out the Beatles and Neil Young on his lonely guitar in the Square. He showed parts of the letters to his wife. What does she think of me? She thinks you’re a good person. So what’s the problem? I wanted to ask.
My spiral downward accelerated in late autumn. One November weekend, a roommate talked me into going to see Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” I was too upset coming home from the movie to want company. I worried about waking him up at midnight, but only briefly. Hi, are you asleep? It’s ok, what’s the matter? I tried to explain––you never saw a Vietnamese face the whole time––but it was futile since I myself didn’t really understand. He let me sob for fifteen minutes. I’m trying to understand what it is, Mai, but it’s hard. Is it just the movie?…He gently put me to bed. The next week he said, I don’t know, Mai. If you had been my daughter, if I weren’t married, I would have been on that next train to Boston, and then I don’t know what.
I fell in love with a grad student who unfortunately was engaged to someone else. It’s amazing, I told the Carpenter. I mean, he’s only three years older than me but he’s already an adult, he knows what he wants to do. He’s beautiful and brilliant and he says I am too and he understands everything I say… How come when I say that stuff, you don’t believe me but you’ll believe him? Because I don’t have to compete with you, I explained weakly. I understand, he said, but we were on the telephone, and I couldn’t see his face.
But when I met David, Carpenter did not equivocate.
“He’s really nice, but kind of young,” I told Carpenter, not as mature as the grad student, “He’s the first Mt.Airy person I’ve met here.”
“I can’t believe it, Mai. This guy is going to be for a long time, and I can’t believe you’re so young and this is already happening….”
It had simply never occurred to me to have sex, but David bought condoms the day I said I would think about it.
“I don’t know, what’s the rush?” I asked the Carpenter.
“Oh, I love sex! It’s one of my favorite things about a relationship. I highly recommend it.”
The next morning I waited impatiently until eight o’clock to call.
“Hi. I surprised myself.”
“Oh yeah? That’s great!” I could hear his face crinkling, feel him bouncing from foot to foot, as excited for me as a six year old.
He refused to call me at my parents’ house, so I learned to fit him into one of the many compartments in my life. After graduation, he would ask if it was ok if his wife came along when we met…sure…but I never understood why. Did he need a witness? He couldn’t possibly be afraid of me. And what could she get out of watching us not say things? I don’t think the idea was hers. It made me slightly paranoid.
I remember grass, in front of my high school, by the teachers’ parking lot, in the Wissahickon, behind Penn’s library, in the fields behind his farmhouse, at CarmichaelPark caddy-corner to my parents’ house where we sat in his parked Subaru station wagon till conversation’s end.
At the services, his relatives made a lovely effort to tell me how much he had talked about me, that he was so happy when I married. But I didn’t ask about my letters, my sketches, that photo of me at eighteen by the pool. Where was this other half of my memory?
I sat in an Irish pub across the street with his best friend after the first memorial.
“He loved you, you know. In some sense, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with you.”
I thought I knew that already. “There was a lot that got said, and a lot not,” I began, “I figured out he had a lot more to lose than I did. I didn’t want to do anything that might scare him away.”
“He couldn’t say them, Mai. You weren’t ready, you were just a baby.”
“Why not when I was twenty-six and not eighteen?”
“You don’t tell people you have fantasies about that you have fantasies about them.”
“Sure you do. People do it all the time.”
“If five years from now, if you weren’t both married, and he asked you to come away with him for the weekend…”
“I would have said yes, what do you think I would have said? I would have said yes”…I would have been on that next train, I thought, and then I don’t know what....
“I don’t think he knew that, Mai.”
I resented his holding back something more I wanted, felt I deserved, without appreciating the toll that restraint took on him or the care he took for my sake. I thought it would be a relief for him if I would depend on him less. I had matured and was being smart about it. After graduation, I wrote letters to David instead.
They say some on the plane died with screams frozen on their faces. They had sat one row behind where investigators believe the explosion began, and are among the bodies never recovered. For this, I am grateful. Because he could not bring himself to believe in another life, try as he might, I wish him no matter. I wish it was flash and deafening noise and done — the shattered, shimmering vapor to hover for just a moment, for me to ache. Then sky so thin it hurts to breathe. An instant transformation – he would like that – into whatever it is that surges between neurons, into memory.