Martha and I are extremely different. She is shy and soft spoken. I am not. She is blonde. I am a brunette. Martha is a Republican. I am not. She lives in Long Island. I live in Manhattan.
But we both lost our firefighter husbands on September 11th and have shared the secrets of our loss that forged a friendship as deep as it is unlikely.
For about ten years after our husbands died we vacationed with our kids together. Martha has three children. The oldest is the same age as my son, Aidan. Our travel styles are different too. Martha is adventurous. On a beach vacation she likes to scuba dive, snorkel, parasail, water ski and windsurf. I like to watch her from my beach chair.
Over the years we learned to take turns choosing destinations to accommodate our divergent needs. On the Spring break of 2004, it was Martha’s turn. She chose Bush Gardens in Virginia to satisfy her middle daughter Kelly’s desire for adventure and her youngest son Patrick’s obsession with animals. This would be combined with a trip to Colonial Williamsburg for her oldest son Sean who loved history. Aidan and I went along for the ride. Coincidentally, I had been to Colonial Williamsburg with my late husband Dave and his family who all shared a love of history. On that trip, I annoyed my in-laws by putting “Ye Olde” in front of every place we visited. We stayed at the Ye Olde Econolodge and ate at the Ye Olde Cracker Barrel.
On the morning of our trip, Martha arrived at my house in Staten Island early, her mini-van idling in the driveway as she sent her son Patrick, five years old to knock on my door. His face, a shrunken freckled version of his father’s, looked expectant as he hopped from one foot to the other. “I have to pee,” he said rushing past me and calling back “and my mother has a bladder infection.”
Aidan climbed into the van, thrilled to be watching a DVD in a car, something I never let him do. I cherished our “car talks” and refused to have them disrupted. For Martha though, having three energetic kids not only required DVD players, but an arsenal of juice boxes, Nintendos, Costco sized bags of potato chips, tissues, wipes and IPods. Watching Martha stick a tiny yellow straw into a juice box driving 80mph on the Jersey Turnpike was as masterful as any Cirque Du Soleil act I had seen.
When the kids were tuned out on headphones, Martha and I talked about the firefighters at our husband’s firehouse, how some had left, how others had gotten sick, how all of them had changed. There is something about a long car ride that opens one up in ways that don’t happen elsewhere. Martha cried when Yesterday from the Beatles played on her IPod. I cried when Yellow by ColdPlay played.
The combination of DC traffic and bladder pit stops made us arrive too late to visit Jamestown, the countries first English settlement, but not too late to visit the gift shop which stayed open a half hour longer. We let the kids loose in the narrow aisles filled with colonial hats, Jamestown keychains, quills and arrowheads. To avoid arguing, Martha insisted they all buy the same item. After a long debate, they decided to buy muskets.
As the tour buses departed, and the sun cast long shadows on the wide lawn in front, we let the kids run wild, shooting each other and collapsing dramatically to the ground.
Martha lay on her back, her thin dark blonde hair spreading out on the grass. “I dreamt about Tommy last night,” she said.
“I don’t like dreaming about Dave” I said, pulling at a thick blade of grass remembering dreams that were so vivid, I could practically smell the smoke on Dave’s denim shirt. When I awoke, I had to remind myself he was gone.
“It was so strange. He walked in the house like he had never left and I was panicked.” Martha began.
“What did Tommy say?”
“Nothing. He just stared at me. I screamed at him. Where have you been? What are you doing here?”
“Oh man,” I mumbled biting my lip.
“I felt bad for Joe,” she added. Joe was Martha’s boyfriend a detective who she met at a wedding. So many of the widows were dating, getting engaged and while I had a few relationships, I felt like I was pretending to be single. My heart had only lightly scabbed over while there’s seemed healed.
The kids were long shadows now, breathless in the fading light. Patrick ran toward us, his pale cheeks red.
“They keep shooting me!” Patrick whined.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do!” Martha said sitting up.
“We only shoot him when he whines” Aidan explained.
“Sounds like a good plan. You only shoot if someone whines. I’m hungryyyyyy,” I demonstrated. On cue, Patrick and Aidan shot me.
We ate at a local diner and checked into the Ye Old Comfort Inn situated on a strip of hotels.
“I’m not tireddd” Patrick whined as his brother shot him one last time before we all went to bed.
Martha knocked on my door the following morning at 6 am. Traveling with Martha was like being with Chevy Chase in a vacation movie. She was alone in her unbridled enthusiasm to get the day started as the rest of us dragged ourselves into the van yawning. I was not looking forward to Bush Gardens. I hated rides. When I was four, my father bribed me with a bag of Doritos to climb into a potato sack and descend a long plastic blue slide. I was so frightened I peed in fear, leaving a long wet streak on the slide and an abrasion on my ass that lasted for weeks.
“Lets go!” Martha chirped.
“I’m not doing anything until we go to a Ye Olde Starbucks.” I mumbled.
One Venti latte and three hundred dollars later, our group was in Scotland waiting on line for The Loch Ness monster roller coaster. I volunteered to take Patrick and Aidan to see the Clydesdale horses. Patrick wasn’t tall enough and Aidan inherited my fear of rides.
As the sun rose higher, it became unseasonably hot as we circled around to Ireland and France. By the time we arrived in Italy four hours later, I was sunburned and chafed, two giant scabs forming on the inside of my thighs.
“I want to go on the Pompeii ride!” Patrick whined. Sean, Kelly and Aidan shot him with their muskets.
“C’mon. Come with us,” Martha pleaded lining up with Patrick. “You haven’t done anything all day” she added.
“I ate a funnel cake,” I tried reluctantly joining them only because I was hot and wanted to sit down.
An acne riddled teenager summoned us into a fake log pulling the metal bar over us, Patrick’s head barely reaching the top. He was only five months old when Tommy was killed along with Dave and ten other men from Squad One.
“I’m scared,” I said as the flume creaked up a steep conveyer belt.
“You’ll be okay.” Patrick assured me patting my hand.
“I have to pee again,” Martha sighed.
When we reached the top, two giant doors swung open revealing a burning, lava-ridden, Italian town. I slid closer to Martha when a plaster column pretended to fall on us.
“This is bizarre,” I whispered to Martha as I felt my cheeks redden from the heat.
“Almost three thousand people died in Pompeii. They’ll probably have a 9-11 Coaster some day”
“That would never happen,” Martha insisted.
“That’s what the people of Pompeii thought,” I said as the doors flung open and our flume was catapulted straight down into a giant wave of water. The cold water hit the raw skin on the inside of my thighs, making me scream. It was a sound that Martha mistook for joy.
“See, I knew you’d like it,” she said laughing. I walked in a straddle toward the parking lot.
“What’s wrong with you?” Martha asked as I waddled toward the van. I pulled up my skirt and revealed the two round circles of what resembled raw hamburger meet.
“Jesus! We need to get you something!” she grimaced.
“It hurts,” I said, startling at the four musket shots behind me.
After a stop at CVS; Cranberry pills for Martha, Gold’s Medicated Powder for me, we headed back to our rooms. I moaned with relief as I shook the powder that fell like snow on my thighs.
The following morning, Martha let us sleep a whole hour later before piling us back in the van to drive to the Visitors center at Colonial Williamsburg. After another long line and more overpriced tickets we were shuffled into a movie theater to watch an outdated colorized movie called The Story of a Patriot. On the screen, overly made up men in white tights and pilgrim shoes spoke stilted dialogue about whether to align themselves with the British or the Revolutionaries. After 45 minutes, I convinced Martha to let me take a fidgety, bored Patrick to the bathroom.
Automated faucets had just been introduced and Patrick and I played with them watching the water magically turn on and off. Then we watched our skin flap like flags in the new Dyson hand dryers.
Ascending the wide carpeted stairway, I felt a wave of panic as I spotted crime tape encircling the movie theater, a half-dozen security guards and police officers looking grim. I quickened my pace toward the entrance squeezing Patrick’s hand.
“Ma’am. You can’t go in there.” A security guard said blocking us,
“My son is in there.” I stammered.
“I’m sorry ma’am. We have an emergency….” As I fumbled in my bag for my cell phone, Martha exited the theater doors laughing hysterically, her delicate hand cupped over her mouth.
“What’s going on?” She tried to answer but was laughing too hard.
“Your seat…” Martha began…”was covered with your powder and you left this trail…” She gasped for breath. “They think its Anthrax.”
Now my hand was cupped over my mouth. “You should tell them,” Martha added.
“NO! I said. “I can’t…” I stuttered pulling Patrick toward the shuttle busses waiting outside. “C’mon kids! Lets go!”
A short ride later, we arrived at Colonial Williamsburg, a 301acre living history recreation of an 18th century town. It was early spring and cherry blossoms bloomed fragile and pink down the main Street while yellow forsythia reached their yellowed arms out of every pocketed place. Memories of being here with Dave flooded in. As if reading my mind Martha said,
“Tom would have loved this.”
“I’m hungryyyyy,” Patrick whined followed by a spray of musket fire.
The restaurants were packed and so we bought boxed lunches and parked ourselves in the middle of a wide, green field in the center of town. The kids ran through the grass shooting each other. We watched laughing as dozens of other kids joined the battle, lining up on either side of us. Even a young fife and drum musician joined the fight.
“I told you we shouldn’t picnic on a battlefield,” I joked as Martha and I quickly moved to a safer spot as an endless stream of kids joined in with same overpriced muskets and coon caps.
After lunch, Martha agreed to take the kids to the arsenal, while I went to tour the George Wythe house alone. George was one of the most import men of the Revolution and the first law professor in the United States. A handsome African American was our tour guide and, a re-enactor who spoke as if a slave. “My master freed me and taught me how to read and write. Very rare for them days.”
When the tour was over, I walked down the stairs, the leaded windows thick, distorting the sunlight, as I heard the re-enactor say,
“I hope you enjoyed my story Missus,”. I turned back to see the actor was handsome with round brown eyes and strong muscles that strained the seams of his burlap slave shirt.
“That was great,” I answered smiling “I was curious though….” I continued as we exited the building toward a picket fence, “Do the re-enactors get paid well here?”. The slave stopped and smiled, his teeth white and his cheeks forming into dimples.
“Oh I don’t knows ‘bout dat. I jus’ pick’n un cotton over yonda” he said sounding like a character from To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I get it. You can’t break character or you’ll get in trouble right?” I asked, the crowd finally thinning.
“Yes’m missus” he said gesturing to me to follow him a little way down the path. When he saw the coast was clear, he leaned in and whispered. “We get $15.50 an hour plus benefits, paid vacation and a 401K.” He spoke like a well-trained Shakespearean actor.
“Wow. That’s great.” I whispered back.
“Are you an actress?” he asked.
“I was in my other life,” I said vaguely.
“Well, there’s a personnel office about five blocks that way or maybe I can tell you more about it over a drink later,” he said and I stared back at him, slowly realizing he was asking me out.
“I wish I could. I’m with a bunch of kids…on vacation” I said exhaling, wishing I could say yes.
“Another time then,” he said tipping his hat the way they do in old movies and then he walked away, falling back into character as some tourists approached for the next tour. “Alright Missus. I thank ya kindly for a comin’,” he said winking at me.
I walked quickly down the cobblestone street when realized I was late to meet Martha. A wave of excitement filled me. Something I hadn’t felt in years as I approached Martha breathless and smiling.
“How was it?” she asked as I bit my lip. “What?”
“I just got hit on by a slave,” I whispered and she laughed squeezing my hand as we gathered the kids for the shuttle bus home.