Rebecca didn't bring her famous bread to Thanksgiving this year. Each year, her mom would greet her at the door, each time asking “Did you bring the bread?” even though her mom knew she’d always bring bread. “Yes mom," she’d reply, holding up the loose paper bag, tented on top of a weathered and seasoned jelly roll pan. Her mom would squeak with joy, make awkward little fists with her thumbs sticking out, and punch them into the air...
Rebecca didn’t bring her famous bread to Thanksgiving this year. Each year, her mom would greet her at the door, each time asking “Did you bring the bread?” even though her mom knew she’d always bring bread. “Yes mom,” she’d reply, holding up the loose paper bag, tented on top of a weathered and seasoned jelly roll pan. Her mom would squeak with joy, make awkward little fists with her thumbs sticking out, and punch them into the air.
Rebecca began baking bread a little over fifteen years ago, and for each of the following years she’d bring a new bread to Thanksgiving as she honed her skills. For the past five years she brought the same bread, a large sour dough loaf that was both airy and crunchy, sprinkled with both poppy and sesame seeds on the crust. This is the one her mother referred to as her ‘famous’ bread.
Everyone would rave about her bread during the Thanksgiving meal. “How do you do it?’” Her mother-in-law would beam. “Unreal” her brother’s long-time girlfriend, Erin, would add, ripping a small piece from the inside of the loaf and popping it in her mouth with her short grey-painted nails. Rebecca couldn’t understand why anyone would use grey nail polish.
Rebecca took pride in her bread ever since she took the job as a bakers assistant while studying fiber arts in college. She eventually dropped her fiber arts studies to become a baker full-time. It was what she thought she’d become, what she would be for her life.
After her two-year bakers assistantship was up, the owner asked her if she wanted to open a new bakery, with him. She couldn’t tell if the proposition was purely business or had romantic inclinations. She declined and within a week she was working for a different bakery and formally dropped out of college. She poured all of her attention into baking breads, rolls and savory pastries. She was not a fan of sweet things.
Rebecca would labor over the ‘famous’ Thanksgiving bread for days with its specific weights and measures. A fifteen-year old jar of sour-dough starter still sits in her fridge. She created her starter from a scoop she saved from that first bakery where she had her assistantship. The owner claimed his jar of starter had been in constant feeding since the era of Napoleon, the first Napoleon, not the second.
Rebecca used to feed the starter daily. To any stranger it was a crusty jar sitting on her kitchen counter, to the left of her stove. It would often bubble over leaving a half-dried clay blob surrounding the jar. It had an odor of sweet vinegar mixed with ale. She still has the jar, but only feeds it occasionally. It sits way in the back bottom corner of her fridge.
She hasn’t thought of baking in a while. Not since her husband, Steve, passed away three years ago.
Steve died in the Trade Center. The World Trade Center. World. Trade. Center. Every time she’d say it, before Steve died, she’d slow it down, proudly. She knew all of the stories: how it was built on top of a massive bathtub, how the excavated dirt became Battery Park City, how they found ancient sailing ships just below the muddy surface of the foundation. It was a beacon in her life, a way to tell direction. At night, the different floors of the towers would light up. She’d turn to her friend Alissa as they sat on a bench in Washington Square Park, “See, when the whole floor lights up like that it means the cleaning crew is working.”
Now, she doesn’t ever mention it. Can’t bring the words to her lips. She can’t look at a picture of the towers, or the new Freedom Tower. She ducks her gaze whenever she’s walking south or drives out of town. She’ll sometimes see the words in print, or online, and she’ll gaze over them, recognizing them, and move slowly from them, eagerly seeking the next set of words. She finds relief when she lands on other words with other meanings. She repeats the other words, whatever they are. Words like “once,” or “standing,” or “construction.” She reads them each distinctly, removed from context. She sighs as she closes the magazine.
For the weeks after Steve died she kept hearing of the remarkable stories about the people who either slept late that day, or traded a shift, or called in sick. It was on the radio shows she listening to, in conversations with friends, on the late news. She wondered, magically, what quality these people who escaped that day each had that Steve didn’t. She couldn’t define it as luck as that would mean that Steve was unlucky. That was too much to bear. That would mean that she was unlucky. She wasn’t unlucky.
She’d read through the stories of these remarkable people, scratch down notes, go online and research them, find out all she could about them. She’d sit with her notes and look for the patterns. There was little evidence, she had to uncover the truth. She began to stalk the “survivors,” with trepidation at the start, then with serious fervor as the days sped up. She’d wait outside office buildings, retail shops, apartment buildings looking for their faces. It became her day job. She had a clip-bound notebook with print-outs of their bios and low-quality photos she printed herself on her old color printer. She’d spend nearly all hours of the day stalking one person at a time. Sometimes falling asleep on a stoop or at the booth of a bar.
When she’d be on a stake-out, and identify one, placing a penciled check next to their name on her master list of names, she’d follow them as they went about their day. She draft her neatly kept notes in a lined spiral-bound notebook and later entered them into a spreadsheet with times of day and mundane activities: coffee, groceries, child-care. She noted their clothing: down jacket, blue jeans, dress shoes, cardigan sweater.
What could be the unifying factor that related them? What was the pattern? One behavior they all seemed to share was a morning cup of coffee. For a while she truly believed that coffee could be the unifying factor that saved their lives…they each stopped for a cup of coffee, either at a cafe or to take out, and it was that short delay that changed the course of their lives, that saved them. When she was convinced the answer was coffee she then had the intoxicating urge to visit each location where she saw one of the survivors obtain their coffee, and she would obtain the same coffee. Some preferred their coffee with cream, others with steamed milk, some decaf, some black. She’d sip it slowly, savor it as a potion of salvation. It gave her some relief.
After three months of her walking the streets, following these survivors through their daily routines, the truth and depth of her sorrow suddenly enveloped her and weighed her down. She was walking towards the subway entrance on Lexington at 63rd street and collapsed, leaning sideways against a recently re-painted navy blue mailbox. A group of college students rushed over to help her. She softly patted their arms and said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” Unbalanced and dizzy she made her way down the stairs and onto the train.
It was an undefinable exhaustion and pressure and she gave into it. Lifting her head from the pillow, lifting her legs to walk, raising her arms to dress, all became impossible. She was being pulled down, at all times. She remained in bed, pulled down into the mattress, her head pulled into her pillow.
After what she thought must have been a week in bed she finally called her brother, Giles, late in the afternoon on a Sunday. He answered the phone quickly, she didn’t recall it ringing.
“Giles, it’s me, Rebecca,” she whispered.
“I know,” he said slowly.
“I’m not sure I can move Giles.”
“Erin and I will be right there,” he said with greater speed.
“Don’t bring Erin please.” Rebecca gasped.
“She loves you too Rebecca, and she can probably help where I can’t.”
“Fine.” She hung up the phone, still lying sideways in her bed. She turned to face the window and watched a squirrel kick the snow off a branch. She realized she hadn’t bathed in over a week. Or opened the fridge, or took out the garbage. She didn’t care. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
It was a year later that she began to feel like she might be ok. Steve’s former employer, a commodities trading firm, had continued to pay Steve’s salary, deposit funds into their joint 401k, and pay for their health insurance for the year after the event. She received a simple printed note in the mail that the salary would be suspended as of the end of the year. She crumpled up the note, placed it in a small ceramic soup bowl, and using a kitchen match burned the note, then took the ashes between her palms, pressed them tightly and washed her hands in the kitchen sink. It was a sunny day, summer-warm even though it was October.
She had barely spent any of the money in their bank account, now it was her bank account as she had to remove Steve’s name from the account within a month of his passing. She went to the bank, matter of factly, with his death certificate, unfolded in her hand. She passed it to the teller, who looked up sheepishly and passed her back a receipt of the transaction.
During that first year she’d log into her bank account and notice as the number rose each week. She had enough money to live on for another few years if she wanted to. She looked at her reflection in the kitchen window. “I look mostly the same,” she thought to herself. She bit her nails as she dropped the shade which fell with the sound of a metallic zip.
She had given away all of Steve’s clothes in a manic fit to the exasperated regret of his parents who wanted to keep them, keep everything that Steve might have touched or owned or looked at. She gave Steve’s parents the dozen or so boxes of his things which included notebooks, watches, family photographs, and his collection of obsolete subway tokens.
His parents came to the apartment to collect the boxes late one Saturday afternoon. Rebecca stacked them in the outside hall the night before. Steve’s parents knocked on the door, calling her name, but she pretended to be out. She had turned all of the lights off so from the street her apartment would look dark. She could hear Steve’s mother sob into her husband’s down-jacketed shoulder. She listening as they took trips from the hallway to the elevator. Sliding some of the boxes across the floor. There’d be ten minute pauses of silence as they took the boxes down to the lobby. She’d hear the muted “ding” of the elevator, their conversant voices, and then more sliding boxes.
They were gone by the time the sun went down and it was too hard for Rebecca to see without lights. Still, Rebecca sat at her kitchen table, in the dark, until it was 9:00pm, a few hours after Steve’s parents had left.
Then she turned on the kitchen and living room lights. She shuffled her slippered feet to the bathroom, turned on the vanity light and pulled her hair tight into a bun. She washed her hands over her face, pulling the skin down towards her chin, revealing her straight lower teeth. Without any expression she turned back down the narrow hallway to her bedroom and got back into bed.
By the end of the first year after Steve’s death, when Rebecca was beginning to feel ok, there was very little left of him in their rent-controlled apartment. They inherited the apartment from her aunt Jane and this was a point of contention between her and Steve for a little while, as Rebecca would often claim greater ownership of the apartment, especially if they were fighting. “It’s more my apartment than yours!” She’d scream at Steven when he complained about something which she didn’t think was worth complaining about. Steve wasn’t much of a fighter. He’d stand down rather than raise his voice or increase his anger. This also bothered Rebecca, but the sting of their fights would fade and she’d slide next to him that night in bed and whisper, “I’m sorry” into his warm sleeping ear.
One day, while looking out of the kitchen window Rebecca noticed the leaves had changed colors, they were orange and tan, some were yellow, or putty. She began to hum Steve’s favorite Miles Davis tracks from “Kind of Blue.” At this time of year they used to rent a car and drive north through New England to review the leaves, stop at apple farms to find the best cider donuts and eat a dinner of fried clams on an open patio near an inlet as the fishing boats rocked in the water. She’d wipe the tartar sauce from the side of his mouth with a rough paper napkin. He’d smile and feed her a french fry. She preferred her fries with mustard, he preferred ketchup. The wind tousled his hair in such as way that she found him irresistible. Later, the sun would set as they’d sit together on a beach overlooking the Long Island Sound, the air growing colder. Her hands in his lap, their fingers wound together. She’d rest her head on his strong shoulder.
Under her bed she kept a shoe-box sized teak-wood box that contained her wedding band, engagement ring, his silver wheat-chain necklace and a small set of photos of them together. The box was a wedding gift from Steve’s friend, a weekend woodworking hobbyist.
During the first year after Steve’s death she’d touch the box, but rarely open it. During the autumn of 2002 she would open the box each morning, chose one photo of them together, and speak to Steve in a hushed tone. Telling him about her days, what she’s seen, the people on the subway, the people in the market. Her new pair of shoes, a new bracelet. After the ten to fifteen minute conversation she’d say, “ok, good bye Steve,” and put the photo back into the box and slide the box under her bed. By the time the winter had rolled around again, at the start of the second year after Steve died, she was no longer opening the box. In fact she rarely opened it ever again.
She rarely did any of the things they used to do together. She hadn’t realized this, it just sort of happened. Which was odd for Rebecca, who was so confidently sure about so many things before. Who she would marry, when. How many children she’d have, what they’d look like, their names, where they’d go to school. What their favorite foods would be.
It was difficult to see her friends right after Steve died. All they wanted to talk about was ‘Nine Eleven,’ or about Steve being dead. At first she allowed them to though she never fully engaged back, she’d just nod and make simple sounds of agreement. As time went on she learned to close her ears, and then she just couldn’t hear them any longer, and they stopped talking to her.
She had become so miserable, so unapproachable, and the story so horrible that they didn’t know what else to say to her.
“Rebecca isn’t one for friends,” her mom would respond when she was asked how Rebecca has been coping with the death of her husband. “She’s self-sufficient, sometimes she talks to her old friends,” her mom would say abruptly before changing the subject, pushing her shopping cart away from the produce and into the frozen food section.
For the first six months after Steve had died Rebecca had reoccurring nightmares about his death based on the first-person accounts she read in the papers, heard on TV, saw online. She couldn’t escape the thoughts of Steve dying. She envisioned him at his desk, high up in the first tower, suddenly engulfed in flames. She envisioned him walking down the hall, towards his office, suddenly engulfed in flames. She envisioned him, coffee mug in hand, gazing out of the window of his office, watching as the plane slowly curved to the right, pointing its shiny nose in his direction, realizing he might die. She envisioned him weeping. She envisioned him smiling, she envisioned him laughing.
Did he jump? Did he wait for the floors to collapse? Why didn’t he call? So many people called their loved ones to say goodbye. Why didn’t Steve? She told herself he must have died instantly, there were no peers of his to ask, they all died. She couldn’t stop thinking about the flames, the heat, the collapse.
She imagined him falling through the air, tumbling against the winds, his blazer pushed up awkwardly under his arms, one shoe missing from a bare foot, gravity pulling him down faster and faster.
The fall would have been longer than their wedding day kiss. Would have been longer than him saying, “I love you Becs.” Would have been longer than the squeeze he gave her hand nearly each day as he left the apartment, early as always, to catch the subway to be one of the first people in the office. “First one there, first one to leave,” he’d remark knowing that it wasn’t true. Everyone at his office stayed late.
She’d wake from her dream, frightened for him, frightened herself, sweating with her heart racing. As she broke from her dreaminess and push the dream away, she’d immediately burst out howling, crying, shaking. In her bed, alone.
These dreams crept into her days as all-engrossing day-dreams. She’d be standing on a corner with people walking past her and she’d be in a dream, she’d be up in the tower with him, touching his face, tears streaming down his checks, then he’d disappear into flames, or smoke, or dust, or he’d fall away straight down. She’d awake, standing at the crosswalk with her arms raised to touch a face that wasn’t there.
As she entered her parent’s house on the Thanksgiving of that third year since Steve’s death, her mom couldn’t help herself, “You didn’t want to make the bread?”
‘Want,’ Rebecca repeated in her head. “No. I’m not going to make that bread ever again,” is what she said aloud.
“Don’t you think thats a little much?” Rebecca’s mom tried to add a tone of levity to her statement but realized it was too late. Rebecca pushed past her mother and entered the foyer of their new home near the Hudson River. She removed her coat and gloves, and dropped them on the bannister to the hallway stairs. She then went into the kitchen to try to find her dad, or Giles or even Erin. Dreadful Erin.
At Thanksgiving that year, her mom had invited the usual crew and some special guests and even extended an invite to Steve’s parents, but they promptly replied with a “we’d love to, but we’re traveling.” Steve’s parents only joined the Thanksgiving meal at her parent’s house once during the years they were married. That was one of the benefits Steve gained from her side during their marriage, a somewhat static set of parents. Steve rarely saw his parents, even when he was younger, they were always traveling.
The special guests included some of Rebecca’s friends from her bakery days and some friends from her marriage with Steve.
“I have to do something,” Rebecca’s mom confided in a friend the week before as they at next to each other at the nail salon, “she’s still so gloomy. I hope seeing her friends helps.”
Each friend made a dramatically obvious effort to hug Rebecca, to look into her face and smile warmly. They sat to her left and right at the awkwardly long table her mom created by adding two smaller tables to each end of their oval dining room table. The table looked like the wimpy barbells her mother’s friends exercised with. Rebecca and her friends sat on one side with their backs to the kitchen, Rebecca’s family and their friends sat on the opposite side, with their backs to a wall of windows that look out over short shrubs, a few pine trees, and into their neighbors living room.
As the dinner progressed no one made a mention of Steve and everyone seemed to be careful not to engage Rebecca directly in a conversation. They asked hypothetical questions for everyone to chime in on. This made her brother’s girlfriend, now fiancee, Erin irritable. She wasn’t one for small talk. She was an intensely serious person who loved to talk about world politics and the UN.
After about fifteen minutes of the vapid conversation about nothing in particular Rebecca could see the irritableness emerge ever more strongly on Erin’s face. As the cranberry sauce, or green beans, or potatoes au gratin were passed up and down the table, Rebecca kept her eyes on Erin. Erin’s distaste for the current conversation, yet her eagerness to still answer the questions, gave Rebecca a bitter joy. As she savored Erin’s situation, she became clearly aware that no one had spoken to her at all, not since her mother asked her about the bread. She began to feel that she was falling even further away from everyone, that maybe no one could see her, that she might not even be there at the table, that she could be dreaming.
“Steve was having an affair.” Rebecca said quietly at first. Erin was the only one who seemed to hear what she said.
“Steve was having an affair.” Rebecca raised her voice this time and the conversation stopped. Her friend Alissa, sitting to her left, grabbed her arm in shock. Her mother dropped her hands, still holding the silverware, on the sides of her plate. Her father wiped his mouth with the flower embroidered tan and green napkin and looked at her, with his chin slightly upturned, awaiting what she’d say next.
“Steve was having an affair. I didn’t know about it until he died. I found the receipts and notes, and some photos in a drawer. I only found her first name, Stacey, but no other trace of her name.”
“Are you sure?” Asked her mother, skeptically. Her father nodded. Alissa let go of her arm and began to bite the nails of her right hand. Erin, who Rebecca thought would burst into a smile, began to cry.
“That’s awful,” Erin sobbed, “how awful for you to have to find that out, in that way.” Rebecca was surprised by this reaction, so much so that she decided to continued her lie.
“Yes, I’m sure mother. The notes were hidden under a stack of old phone bills in a drawer where Steve said he kept his work things.”
“Maybe they were work things…” her mother continued.
“Why are you defending him mother?” Rebecca scowled.
“Your mom is just trying to understand this news, Rebecca,” her father comforted her mother.
Rebecca’s friend Samantha from the bakery, who was sitting two seats to her right chimed in, “I knew it. I never liked Steve.”
Alissa jumped to Steve’s defense, “What are you talking about Sam, you never knew Steve.”
“Yes I did, plus I was at the wedding. I could tell he was no good.”
The table began to discuss whether there was any hint at the wedding, or at any other formal or informal gathering where they could tell that Steve was a lousy cheat. A dishonest man, not worthy of Rebecca’s love. They discussed birthday parties and beach trips. Sam said she thought Steve made a pass at her once. Another one of Rebecca’s college friends, Elizabeth, began to recall a story about her and Steve being alone one night, and Steve acting ‘weird.’
Rebecca let it go on. Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve. All she could hear in the conversation was his name over and over again. She kept gazing across the table at Erin who went from sobbing to confusion to mistrust. It was as if she knew Rebecca was lying. She had gotten over the shock and now she was running through the facts and they didn’t add up.
“Are you sure?” Erin asked, quietly.
“I’m sure,” Rebecca replied, now smiling slightly. “It feels so good to get this out, to say it, it’s cathartic really.” The table nodded their heads, murmuring until all grew silent again. That ended the conversation about Steve. First, her mom’s friend Karen asked, “Well, how are you otherwise my dear?” And then everyone was now asking how Rebecca has been, what she’s been up to, how she’s been feeling. It was as if a curse had been lifted and the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in years. Rebecca felt elated. She beamed. Erin’s face was screwed up. She kept whispering into Gile’s ear. Giles keep his eyes on Rebecca, but didn’t say anything.
Later, after the table had been cleared and the dishes put into the dishwasher, and leftover portions of the meal were packaged up and wrapped in small paper bags for everyone to take home, most of the guests sat in the living room. Rebecca sat outside on the back porch with Alissa. They sat side by side in a small hammock hung from two pegs, one on the wall behind them and one from the post holding up the floor above them. The pegs creaked as they swung back and forth.
“Remember when we’d sit out here and smoke cigarettes?” Alissa faced Rebecca.
“Barely. That was so long ago.” Rebecca replied, still looking across the yard at the ancient Oak tree and the picket fence just beyond it.
“It wasn’t that long ago.” Alissa concluded. Then after a moment of silence, except for the creaking of the hammock, Alissa turned towards Rebecca again, needing a reconfirmation, “Did Steve really have an affair Rebecca?” Alissa prodded.
“No, no he didn’t.”
“Because no one has been able to talk to me. No one’s been able to talk about Steve and it was all I could do to say his name again. I miss him so miserably. I loved him so much.”
“I just want people to talk about him, I want to talk about him, I just want to be able to talk about him again, normal things, not tragic things, just normal things like his eyes or his shoes.” Rebecca began to cry into her hands then she lost control. She wailed to where she could barely breathe. Alissa held her shoulders as they heaved with her crying. Rebecca’s tears fell onto her lap and made dark spots on her khaki pants. Alissa hugged her tightly and rocked her.
Alissa whispered, “shhhh, shhh” to comfort her. Rebecca’s mom looked out at them through the kitchen door. She grabbed her husband’s hand and squeezed it.
They sat there, Alissa and Rebecca, together on the hammock for another ten minutes before Rebecca’s mom called from the dining room, beckoning them to come back inside as it was cold, too cold to be outside. Plus, she had just put the apple cake on the table, and it was just the perfect temperature to serve with ice cream.