Why Didn’t You Call Me September 11th?

Allison Whittenberg


Jean’s body was drawn up in the cold.  Her eyes traveled the room. Frugal, Tim kept the thermostat at 54.  His nose was often red, right at the tip.  It made him look like a drunk.  She looked down the corners as she wondered for a moment where she was.  She had one of those soprano headaches -- huge and pulsing.  

Her brown body was on one side of the bed.  His white one on the other. Not touching. Not on her belly.  Not on her thigh.

They were quarreling and while they did Jean looked at the four walls.  They were blank.   The one picture he did display was downstairs.  It was of a bike trip he took when he was in college.  She never asked him why that wasspecial enough to put up but she guessed it commemorated back when he thought of the city as an adventure instead of a cesspool.

“Jean, my brother said you should have called me.”

“You weren’t even in New York,” she said.

“I was in an airplane.”

“You were in North Carolina.”

“I was over North Carolina.”

Tim Flanagan was taller than her.  Nearly 40, he wasn’t handsome anymore.  Fallen-faced.  He played golf for recreation, and his body wasn’t thin or thick. It was simply prematurely middle aged.

Jean was average height.  She kept her hair well straightened with Dixie Peach and always looked somewhat older than she was.  It was the gray hair that she did a lousy job at concealing.  She had a block in the front that was solid white.  Very much like Tim, with his salt and brown hair and his stiff gestures, his droopy, damp eyes, she wasn’t trying to appear youthful or vigorous.

They had other things in common. Neither liked to do much.  It was always dinner and a movie.  Never both.  Tim always paid but never bought her flowers, stuffed animals, or candy.  He thought that was wasteful and meaningless.  

Tim worked as an engineer, and Jean was a psych aide in a ward for abused children.

They both went to bed early in order to get their eight hours of sleep each night.

Intercourse once every other week was all right.  Clothed intercourse with the lights off lasting only minutes in the standard position.  Both were partial to quick kisses.  Neither liked the tongue.  

Jean shivered. “Well, why didn’t you call me?   Why didn’t you check on me?  All those kids I work with.  I had to keep them sane.”

“You know I don’t have your work number.”

“You never asked for it, Tim.”

“I never needed it.  You have your mom if something really happened.”

“And your brother lives right down the street.”

“And he called me.”

“To ask if I called you?”

“No, Jean, he called to see if I was all right like you were supposed to do.”

Tim came from a good-sized Irish Catholic family.   His mother, also, just two miles away in the house he grew up in. Two married sisters in Delaware.

“If I was living with you, I would have called you,” she said.

“Why would you move in here with me?  This is an hour from your work."

"We could live together some place."

"I’m not selling my house. Not in this market.  And what about your mother?  You can’t leave her alone after all these years… So where are we going, huh?” He sounded irritated. The icy range in his voice.  “Jean, what if I said I will marry you tomorrow?”

A white chill bit through her. She folded her lips.
“You wouldn’t ask me that.”

“What if I did?  What if I said, ‘Jean, let’s get married’. What would you do then?”

He turned to her. “Look, maybe I’ll get that new position. I’ll be able to telecommute.  I’ll also make about $10,000 more.”

"Then we'd see more of each other?"

He lapsed into thoughtful silence.

They lay silent as if watching a dying fire.  No chasing after each other crying.  The arguments they had were never operatic.  They were always like this, carefully modulated.  

She pulled the covers more tightly over her nightgowned body.  He seemed fine in his flannel pjs. Some people are like that, climatized.

The next morning, Jean drove home, looking without watching, without seeing.  

She thought of all those glossy vacation brochures she’d been collecting, fantasizing about their imaginary honeymoon where they would both finally splurge and live it up.  She’d also been scoping at children with olive complexion and straight hair.  That’s how her pretend child looked.  Straight-haired.  No turn at all.  She wasn’t a racist; she just liked that look.   She believed it was prettier.

Jean never thought she was particularly pretty. Herthick eyebrows dipped into a V. All throughout high school, her mother wouldn’t have let her pluck her eyebrows.  If her mother would’ve let her pluck her eyebrows, would she have been more popular back then? Those were the crucial years for forming relations. All of the expectant widows of 9/11 seemed so well connected.  Well into family formation when it happened.  Several were into their ninth month of pregnancy.

 She stopped for gasoline and a Snowball.  Jean liked to write down everything she spent through the day right down to the sixty-six cent cupcake purchase. In her whole life, she’d never bought a bottle of wine or dry-cleaned an outfit. She had cassettes.  No CDs.  That would mean buying a CD player.  Her clothes were from Clover’s.  Sensible shoes, not too much heel.  She really hadn’t changed her simple style of dress from 20 years ago.

The sugar and carbohydrates plateau took away her headache. Up until that day, Jean had thought that he was the one.  They had so much in common.  Both were conservative people.  Though it was mid November and they’d been going out over a year, Tim wasn’t her boyfriend.  They didn’t share.  She never left anything over his house or felt like she could – should.

When Jean reached Calhoun, the small, nondescript borough on the outskirts of Philadelphia, her mother was about to leave for Presbyterian Church. Her blue haired, gossipy friends were about to come by for her.  The house was roasting.  Her mother liked to keep things at 77, fussing at her anytime she touched the thermostat. Jean immediately took off layers of clothing till she was just in an undershirt.

Jean stirred some Tang into a glass of water and put the Eggos in the toaster.

“Why don’t you have some oatmeal today, Jean?”

“I don’t want oatmeal.”

“You have waffles every morning.  Have pancakes.  It's almost the same.”

“I want waffles, Mom.”

Jean’s mom had shiny black walnut skin and a Jeri curl wig that she started to wear after a bad relaxer.    “What movie did you see?  Did you see Collateral Damage?  Is it worth it or is it a rental?” she asked her daughter.    

“It was all right, Ma,” Jean answered.

“I thought they were holding that back because of all this.”

“They did.  It was originally supposed to be released back in September.”

“Well, I guess enough time has passed.  Here it is November already.  Does he get the terrorist that killed his family?”

“Of course, Ma.  That’s Hollywood.”

"I wish you would have waited to see it with me, Jean. I like Schwartzenagger."

"We can see the next thing he’s in, Mom."

Jean was an only child; the product of her father’s second marriage. She had half brothers and sisters that were in their fifties and a whole cadre of half nieces and nephews who lived from 200 to 1000 miles away.  It was hard to keep in touch.  Her happiest days were behind her when she was really young watching her father adjusting the Windsor knot of his tie.  Wrapped in a quilt of her father memories, missing his large, big knuckled hands – his laughter.  He liked coconut covered marshmallow filled cupcakes.  It was adult onset diabetes he died of.  He kept his sickness from her.  He was that kind of father.

Jean reassured herself that Tim wouldn’t break up with her with the holidays coming.  He was sensible enough save the trouble of looking for someone new.  So, another whole generic year went by almost and Jean and Tim were on the same tepid schedule.  Once a week dinner or movie/ sex barely touching.  But it didn’t feel like the relationship was winding down.  It was just settling down like a stone at the bottom of a river. Eggos and Tang. Day after day, Jean went to work, came home and spoke to her mother and went to bed.

International news varied in the next few months. It was either about anti terrorist military squads or the INS or whatever.  Yet it never seemed like the culprits would be precisely identified.

Months later, the bad guys weren’t captured.  They hid in caves. Jean didn’t read the New York Times.  She watched TV and Peter Jennings told her and her mom about Afghanistan and other countries she’d never heard of.  What was Al Quada?  What’s a Jihad?  This vocabulary.  This geography.

Ten months passed, everyone was still asking deep questions about kismet.  What’s kismet?

Jean wanted to find a new job, but was unable to locate the resolve to do so.  She didn’t even want to be in the educational field anymore.  She never did.  Obedient and logical, she had done beautifully in high school, but less so in college where her brand of spewing back exactly what was dictated to her wasn’t so well rewarded.  Her paper would always come back with the same advice ‘Put more you into this.”

She should have gone to forestry school.  That’s what she really wanted to do, but there were so few women in the field and even fewer blacks. As a consolation, she volunteered at an animal shelter Saturday mornings and afternoons.  She liked feeding cats and dogs.  She liked helping the approved applicants in selecting just the right dog for adoption.  She had her eye on a Labrador retriever mix.  Just two months.  Dogs stay in your life for a decade or so.  It’d be like a marriage.  She ran the idea past her mom.

“I don’t want some dog,” her mom said.

“It’s a small dog, Mom.”

“Who’s going to clean up after it?  You?  Look how you keep your room.”

Jean listened to her mom as she’d always done.  Her mom was now in her 70s.  A little stooped, she took tablets for her osteoporosis. It was her house.  Jean just lived there with her.  Her mother set the thermostat high, saying old people have old bones.    

The first September 11th was on a Tuesday.  This time it fell on a Wednesday.  Jean called Tim.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” he said.

“I just wanted to call you.”

“What?  Why?”

“Because I didn’t last year.”

“Oh, that. You’re still thinking about that.  That’s ancient history.  I’m glad you called… I have to go away this weekend.  So we can’t get together.”

She thought of how it would be like laying in bed with him.  Not touching, not looking at each other in their frozen divorced compartments.     

“Isn’t it funny?  Your bother got married to that girl who he’d known for six months less than you’d known me.”

“That’s funny?”

Jean was burning up in this hot house. “I didn’t get to the punchline-- they still haven’t found Bin Laden.”

“You’re acting strange.”

“Aren’t you going to ask how work was today?”

“You never asked me.  Look, where is all this going, Jean?  You call me in the middle of this week, and you’re all over the place.”

“Have a good trip, Tim.  I’ll see you the weekend you get back.”

“Now you sound like yourself, Jean.  Good night.”

Then he hung up.  Then she hung up.

It was only eight in the evening. She looked around the room to see horse posters on the wall.  They’d been there since 6th grade.  Jean walked downstairs.

Her mom was on the couch.  Sunday paper still out.  Metro section strewn.  A 9/11 retrospective of local residents lost. Coupons clipped.

Her mother had coffee on a saucer.  No longer hot, lukewarm.  Cold.  Jean wondered how she could stand sipping at it.  Cold liquid that was supposed to be hot.

Her mom had her hands on the remote scanning the channels.  Press the bottom on the control, and the image faded.

On this anniversary, Jean didn’t want to be alone. She went to the kitchen to have Ritz crackers with peanut butter then she went to the living room to be with her mother.  A sofa and two armchairs formed a U around the TV.

“I guess nothing regular’s going to come on tonight,” her mother muttered.

A young, hot Latin singer did his hit single.  Something about being a hero.  It was clear that his vocal ability was lacking. He made it on his appearance.  Tall, olive, romantic looking.      

“What kind of variety show is this?” her mother asked.

Jean sighed, leaned in the doorway, and turned her eyes toward the set.  In that chunk of time after her father passed away and she had started going out with Tim, she questioned life. Obviously, those who die young never grow old, but how about those who grow old who never had the chance to be young?  Jean was young when her father passed.

Jean wanted a new life.  She wanted death to the one that she had.  With any death, there would be rejection of the truth, depression from the truth, acceptance, then the reconstruction part.  She needed to change towns and jobs.  She needed to buy a place to live on her own.  But she didn’t want to live alone.  She couldn’t.

When her father died, the world didn’t stop.  TV shows weren’t preempted. Balding, overweight, always had a smile, joked a lot.  He used to bring home Chinese food and Chinese tea and say “Take tea, and see.”  Upon his death, her legs buckled under, face frozen in disbelief.  His laugh, big, throaty and full.  He was the life of the house. He lived 72 years six months and twenty two days.  

Jean’s heavily lidded eyes watched the TV. She thought that she could try to find someone else on the internet.  Log on under her America On Line handle.  Her middle name followed by the number 2.  Perhaps she could meet someone who actually wanted to share. To get married and have a child and a dog. To start something that would be there.  Always.

It was the pop opera singer’s turn.  The way this woman sang was so emotive and clear.  She reached her arms and delivered a song from the musical Carousel. “You’ll…never… walk… alone...”

The camera panned the audience of blacks, whites, youngs, olds, gentiles, Jews.

The audience nodded in affirmation.  They turned to their sons and daughters and sisters and brothers like this was just what they needed to hear.  

Jean’s right ear touched the flat cushion. Her shoulders sagged. She felt life pass her, and then she felt nothing.



Allison Whittenberg is a poet and novelist (Life Is Fine, Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine - all from Random House). She lives in Philadelphia.