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Variables

8:46 a.m. It is taking Annie longer to settle the twins in front of TV than she planned. Hannah wants her breakfast toast in triangles, while Esther doesn’t want hers toasted at all, but the bread is frozen, so Annie has laid Esther’s slices atop the warm toaster and bends towards the heat counting seconds, one one thousand, two one thousand… She’s learned that precisely four seconds on each side will produce bread that is thawed but still cool, almost like fresh from the store. Annie will not be going to the store today, nor taking the girls to pre-school although they’ve asked why not— what holiday is it?—will there be matzah balls? Usually holidays have craft projects at school—pink Mother’s Day cards just last week, surely Father’s Day cards in June although the teachers try to be sensitive.

“Bake now,” the girls insist, remembering helping make Hamentaschen for Purim back in March, while Annie brandishes a butter knife urging cream cheese, jelly, just choose. They stand in their underwear—that’s as far as they’ve gotten—hands on hips, staring at Annie through slivered-almond eyes. They made unusual Queen Esthers at the temple Purim party—honey-skinned Korean girls in a sea of frizzy hair and freckles. At the store, obnoxious people still stop to ask Are they yours?

Neither girl has brushed her teeth, and Annie is still in what passes lately for pajamas, sweats and one of Bryan’s old Penn tees, wrapped in a ridiculous lacy robe she bought for the hospital one of the times they tried for a baby. The tee is paint-speckled, which would have pissed Bryan off. She sleeps in work clothes now, the line between asleep and awake comfortably blurred.

Annie is a quilter, but not like the quilts her great-grandma used to sew on the pedal machine in her basement tailor shop in East New York. Annie once quilted yards of silk she’d painted with golden rooftops of Jerusalem. Another time she made a patchwork entirely of airplane tickets and baggage-claim tags. Lately, she’s working on a series she calls list quilts, using fabric markers to sort her life into orderly lists, then covering all with intricate geometric patterns of stitching—order from chaos.

9:03 a.m. Annie finally makes her way to the living room, although living room seems a misnomer nowadays. Work—once confined to what was the spare bedroom before the twins—has taken over, quilts in various stages of completion, furniture pushed aside to make room for a cutting table and quilting frames, even a small printing press purchased with some of the money.

From her stool, Annie eyes the girls on the couch in what used to be the dining room, dismantled dining table in the basement now, holidays back at her mother’s. They have Sesame Street on TV—she taped the 7:00a.m. show in anticipation. Their plates—toast and non-toast—spill crumbs onto the carpet. No breakfast for Annie today, just a glass of orange juice while she works; it was Bryan who touted to her the healing qualities of vitamin C.

By the time she’s retrieved the portable TV from the kitchen, located an outlet to plug it in, and clicked it on, she’s missed the beginning of the broadcast, doesn’t know who’s talking. She thought the hearing was scheduled to start at 9:00 but could have gotten that wrong. The man’s voice is steady and even, like the tiny stitches she begins adding to the layered muslin stretched before her, but his words pummel her body like falling bricks.

He’s talking about the South Tower, as if the delivery of the report has been synchronized to the actual events. And there is the video, which Annie has seen so often it is seared inside her eyelids, materializing when she closes her eyes in bed, trying for sleep. Like the photo of Bryan she’s scanned and digitized onto the fabric in front of her—faded shades of brown, like a daguerreotype of one of her stern Russian ancestors. Bryan, yet not Bryan, his bits somehow reassembled through the miracle of cyberspace. Cyberspace is one of the things Annie used to have faith in, unlike her mother, who’ll send an e-mail then phone to see if she’s received it.
“Airplane,” Hannah calls out.
“Fuck,” Esther responds.

Annie opens her eyes. Have they caught sight of her TV? Sesame Street was intended to hold their attention. No, it’s just the Count counting vehicles—cars, trains. airplanes—even Sesame Street is synchronized this morning. Esther has trouble with initial consonant blends, cannot say truck. Fuck, Annie silently agrees. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Smoke rises on TV, and flames, and indescribable things falling from great heights, as if any moment now the parachutes will open. And the droning voice:

They agreed to wait for the FDNY to arrive before determining whether to evacuate the South Tower. According to one fire chief it was unimaginable, “beyond our consciousness,” that another plane might hit…

 Who is this man with a face as blank as the TV screen if she crawled under her work table to yank the plug from the wall? Where are Katie and Matt when Annie needs them, perky and reliable, Katie flashing her shiny-lipstick smile across the screen every morning? How does she keep smiling like that, after all she’s been through?

Annie tries to ignore the telephone. The machine will pick up after seven rings. They used to have it set on four. Before the girls, she and Bryan could always reach the phone by four rings, unless they were making love. What if it’s important? Annie’d say. What if it’s your mother? Bryan would reply, lifting his tongue from her nipple or pausing mid-thrust.

Annie’s mother works at home, too, at her kitchen table, writing travel stories (gleaned from the Internet, not from actual travel) and comic essays that run next to real estate ads in the local weekly. She says she gave Annie her creative genes, yet spends an inordinate amount of time watching daytime television, calling Annie with tips from morning talk shows.

“Are you watching?” Annie’s mother says now.
“I’m trying, Mom. Until you called.”
“Don’t watch. You shouldn’t even be home. You should be
taking the girls to school, like an ordinary day.”
“Then why did you call?”

“Because I knew you’d be watching.” Her mother has become a font of mixed messages, questioning why Annie never went to temple Friday nights to say kaddish while simultaneously advocating mind over matter, positive Thinking.

Annie hangs up, grasps her glass. There is vodka in her orange juice, just this once, and an ache beginning to form at the base of her stomach like she’s getting her period, her relentless period.

On an early list quilt, Annie commemorated the trip to Korea she and Bryan had planned to pick up the twins.
Supplies:
toilet paper
pop-top tuna
Pampers
formula
ten-dollar bills

Travel:
27 hours
2 plane changes
9 bottles water
2 mini-bottles red wine
2 sleeping pills
11 bathrooms
3 weeks in Korea (unfamiliar as the moon)

Except all this was imaginary, patched together from:
newspapers
TV
Internet chats
magazine articles in supermarket checkout lines

In real life, Annie and Bryan played it safe, paid an exorbitant amount—highway robbery her mother said—to have the twins delivered to JFK by adoption courier, a small neat
woman with graying hair and an aura of calm, the epitome of a grandma. Here’s what Annie brought to the airport:
2 car seats with pink gingham covers
Pampers, sizes 1 and 2
2 stuffed pandas (a gift from her mother who seemed to think the girls were coming from China)
2 pairs of arms to hold her babies

And what she forgot:
Pampers newborns (naturally, she guessed wrong)
change of clothes for babies
change of clothes for parents
extra pair of arms (her mother’s, perhaps?)

“They’ll get used to us,” Bryan said that day, speeding home up I-95, Annie in the back wedged between squalling wraiths in plastic seats. Hannah barfed, and Annie held out her hand to catch, nearly barfed herself Then Esther pooped a yellow-green slime out her too-large diaper and down her legs, soaking the sleeper she’d arrived in and her pretty gingham seat cover.
“What were we thinking?” Annie cried.
“We’ll go one-on-one,” Bryan soothed. “Man-to-man defense.”

Then he swung into the Darien rest stop, carried Esther under her armpits to the men’s room, came back with her washed and swaddled in his T-shirt, her feet through the armholes, the big blue PENN upside down, PE up one leg, NN down the other. He stuck to the speed limit the rest of the way home, driving bare-chested, brown hairs curling across his pale shoulders.

Here’s the list below Bryan’s face on the quilt in front of
Annie today:
6 months (how old the twins were when they came)
1 month (how long they had Bryan for a Daddy)
2 years, 8 months, 11 days (without Bryan)

This is her attempt at facts, basic essentials, the truth. Except the minute she recorded the last—in indelible ink—it was already wrong, because it changes every day. What was that called back in high school algebra? A variable, the number that always eluded her.

Around 9:15 a.m. A different man on TV now:
As we were about to exit the Building through the turnstile, the security guard looks at me and says, “Where are you going? ” I said, “Well, I am going home.” “Why?” “I saw fireballs
coming down.” “No, your building is safe and secure. Go back to your office.”

Safe and secure. These are the words he says. He’s looking straight into the camera, his face real, not an illusion of cyberspace. He must have gone home, must not have believed.
Annie picks up a marker, pens 
safe next to Bryan’s face, secure, a list of important s words…
semblance
story
sham

In the un-dining room, Hannah sleeps on the couch, wet thumb slipped out onto her chin. Esther has gone to pee; Annie listens for the flush.
“I thought you were going out,” her mother says, second call of the morning.

“Then why do you keep calling?” Annie takes a slug of OJ, bitter and sweet. How long has Esther been in the bathroom? “Estie?” she hollers. “You all right in there?” Hannah rolls over on the couch. Big Bird’s squeaky voice worries about something on the kids’ TV Esther has diarrhea sometimes, doesn’t allow help wiping.

“Something wrong with Esther?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m hanging up now.”

“If you don’t want to talk, why do you keep picking up?” Then, as if remembering who she’s talking to, “Do you want me to come over? I could come.” She’s switched to her careful voice that makes babies sleep and repairmen come on time.
“Don’t come.”

 Annie was alone that day, too, except for the girls. Alone is never quite the same after children. She’d finally settled them into their swings in front of a Baby Einstein video, was just stepping into the shower when she heard the phone and ignored it, let the machine pick up. I’m OK she heard Bryan say into the tape. Funny how any conversation that begins with I’m OK must really mean I’m not OK. By the time she reached the phone, there was only a dial tone and a trail of wet footprints across the carpet.

Then her mother called, just like today, with the same conflicting advice. “Is your TV on? Don’t turn it on. Oh my God, did you see that? Don’t watch.” And finally, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” even though on any other day the drive would take fifteen.

“What are you doing right this minute?” her mother says now.
“Trying to work, but I’m a little distracted.”
“By the TV right?”

“No, by you. Mom. Why aren’t you working?” Annie listens for the telltale tapping of her mother’s fingers on her kitchen-table laptop. “You’re not writing this down, are you?” she says, “for one of your stories?”
“Who’d believe such a story?”

The TV timeline, at first orderly, minute-by-minute, is now as chaotic and disorienting as when it really happened. The vodka in Annie’s orange juice dulls the jagged words, yet disguises them so they pierce her skin when she least expects it.

By 9:30 a.m.., a number of civilians who had failed to reach the roof and could not descend because of intensifying smoke became trapped on the 105th floor.

But then:
At approximately 9:07 a.m., two chiefs commenced operations in the South Tower lobby.

Then:
At 9:50 a.m., a ladder company had made its way up to the 70th floor…

And then, somehow:
At 9:06 a.m., the NYPD Chief of Department instructed that no units were to land on the roof…

And then:
At 9:37 A.M., a civilian on the 106lh floor of the South Tower reported to a 9-1-1 operator that a lower floor—”90-something floor “—was collapsing.

Outside, a lawnmower roars past. To the gardener, today is just another Tuesday. Annie raises the TV volume. If she can hear better, perhaps the words will make sense. Next to Bryan’s face she begins marking her list of reasons he shouldn’t have been there:
He overslept after being up with the girls’ croup
His train broke down outside Grand Central
He stayed in Connecticut that day for a job interview

Bryan had promised to switch jobs closer to home, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. 

9:59 a.m. The South Tower has fallen, windows peeling down like runs on a stocking. There’s a smell of something burnt in the air—last night’s macaroni and cheese? In the
background, Elmo’s voice signals Sesame Street is ending.
hannah appears in the doorway. Annie mutes the sound, can’t tear her eyes from the un-muted picture.
“Where’s Esther?” Hannah inquires.
“In the bathroom.” If Annie looks at her, she’ll have to turn
the TV off.
“No she’s not.”
“Yes she is.”
“I just peed. She’s not.”
“The upstairs bathroom?”
“No. C’n I have some juice?” reaching for Annie’s glass.
“Later.” Annie gulps down what’s left of her drink.
“Front door’s open.”
If no one is in the house to sec, does the picture flickering
across the TV screen still exist?

Annie is out the door, calling for Esther, before the needle she’s left swinging from its thread comes to rest. The lawnmower passes through the front yard, a thundering tractor trailing razor-edged blades spinning so fast you can’t see them, but you know they’re there. Tom the gardener rides atop his perch, industrial earmuffs cradling his ears. “Esther!” Annie shrieks, “Estieeeee!” Tom doesn’t flinch, rides on past as if she doesn’t exist.

A tug on her robe and Annie scoops up Hannah. Before kids, could she have imagined the nearly weightless sensation of a sole three-year-old in her arms? Hannah mouths words Annie can’t hear, then touches a sticky hand to Annie’s cheek, gently angling her head, pointing.

There is Esther, two doors down, in Rita Rubin’s yard. Annie didn’t know all the neighbors by name before that day. Rita Rubin has thinning hair, never the same after chemo, and a Chihuahua named Max.

Esther squats in Rita Rubin’s grass, a small brown boulder in white panties and undershirt. Intent on what she’s doing. she doesn’t see Annie and Hannah until they are upon her She’s picking Rita Rubin’s fresh-planted pansies, plucking at the roots, counting…four, five, a hundred…”For you. Mommy,” she smiles, holding up a bouquet of velvety purple, yellow of the sun.

Bryan called twice that morning. Once to leave his I’m OK message. A second time, which Annie grabbed on the first ring, to say he’d gotten out, down all those stairs, but was going back up. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They said we’re safe here.” It seemed true at the time. 

Annie made her first list quilt two weeks later, on Yom Kippur, a list of sins her fellow congregants in temple recited aloud while symbolically beating their chests, asking God’s
forgiveness:
For the sins we have committed against You with the
utterance of our lips
For the sins we have committed against You by
foolish speech
By deception and falsehood
By insincerity
By talebearing…

Nearly three pages of sins, and more than a dozen involving words of the mouth. So many different ways to not tell the truth. Annie had sat in the pew next to her mother, Esther and Hannah squirming on her lap, unable to say the words. Then she went home and took out her fabric markers, began making a list.

10:29 a.m. Annie carries Esther and Hannah home. “Hold on,” she says. They are heavy but balanced, arms wrapped around her neck. The sun glistens off the flat planes of their cheeks, the shiny black caps of their hair Her mother says Asian people are related to the Jews, the lost tribe. But then she also says Native Americans are the lost tribe. And she calls them Chinese and Indians because she’s just quoting her own grandmother, paying homage, not really believing. There’s truth, and then there’s story.

“Look, Mommy,” Esther says, letting go with one hand to point, as Tom the gardener rides his tractor up a ramp into the back of his truck. “Fuck…one fuck,” she counts happily.

At just that moment Peggy the mail lady pulls up to deliver bills and catalogs into Annie’s box by the street; she left a sinful chocolate cake in there one day back when everyone else was bringing casseroles.

Esther lets go with the other hand. Now she points with both hands, V for victory—one towards Tom the gardener’s rig and the other, still clutching those pansies, at the postal truck. “Two fucks!” she cries, jiggling up-and-down. She knows Annie won’t drop her.

Elizabeth Edelglass is the Library Director at the Department of Jewish education of Greater New Haven. “Variables” is part of a story cycle she is writing about various members of a Jewish American family spanning the past century.