Alice Gompert and Harran Schlamm had once dated. In high school. When they both shared the crystalline innocence of a pair of snowflakes falling toward the windshield of a slow-moving Class A Vista Winnebago heading north on I-290.
He turned to her now, at age twenty-four, with his still-undiminished snowflake eyes, sitting in ‘their’ booth, the one they once sat in back in the old days at Marvin’s Merry Melodies, an ice cream and candy shop in Evanston, IL. The shop, formerly a record and tape store owned by Fred Gompert, Alice’s father, who presciently, on the cusp of the digital music revolution sold off all of the stock, gutted the place, and with advice from Bob Bigelow, his brother-in-law, a self-made, wealthy entrepreneur, who said that the future of retail was in ice cream, and who set Fred up using his controlling interest in Kelley Country Creamery, the foremost ice cream maker in the state of Wisconsin, where “they know their ice cream,” and he signed a ten-year exclusive Evanston sole-distributor contract with KCC, and installed vintage booths, counters, freezers, and lighting, and never found the need to change the name on the store marque.
Harran, with tentative, downcast eyes and his damp hand gently resting on Alice’s elbow, said, “Can I ask you a question?”
She glanced at the hand on her elbow. “Yeah, sure,” she said, “like what?”
They had dated for all of four, non-consecutive, weeks. They’d been sweethearts. Or, I should say, Harran considered them as such, while from Alice’s point of view, they were just friends, thoroughly devoid of any possible deeper feelings and any attendant benefits. He’d taken her to three Alice in Chains concerts, one per year, when the band played up in Kenosha. It was not the actual Alice in Chains they saw. The band was called Alice’s Chains, an AIC cover band which Harran said were way better than AIC anyway. But that didn’t matter, because it was only the name of the band that was the way cool thing since it included Alice’s name.
Alice’s parents, Fred and Lillian, had driven them, waited in the parking lot, and brought them back for ice cream at the store, opened especially just for them. Three evenings. Each of which Harran counted as a full week of dating. Then there was the senior prom to which Harran invited her the day after the night of the junior prom to which Alice had gone with George Blechta, a twitchy dweeb who danced like Elaine Benes doing a version of the Stroll. And she, of course, said yes, but ended up not going because she had a tonsillectomy the day before the prom and then spent the next six days recovering from surgery. He brought her the corsage he had purchased and counted that as week four.
He looked at her there, once again sitting together in their booth, and said, “Alice, would you…”
“Don’t ask me what I think you’re going to ask me.”
“What do you think I…”
“Harran. I’m sorry. This is just not such a good time for me, okay?”
“Okay… Would you…,” he said then, “… would you ever think of going back to New York?”
She sighed, “I don’t know,” and shifted in her seat so that his hand dropped away from the warm bend of her elbow.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I went there because I couldn’t live here anymore. This store. Opening at ten and closing at six every day, every day, and dinners at home with parsley, a starch, and a protein on every plate. This little place with its little routines and its niceties that feel like crustless white bread triangles with low fat cream cheese spread and seedless cucumber slices.”
Harran looked at her as though he was listening to her.
“I went to New York to get away and I loved it. Loved every minute of it. People from all over the world in one place. Working and reading actual books. Staying up after nine o’clock and going to Czechoslovakian movies. Eating dinner at ten. People on the subways. I once sat across from Sarah Jessica Parker on the F train and it was like “oh, okay,” and bumped into John Turturro in Bruno’s deli in Park Slope. And when I heard Sinatra singing ‘If you can make it here you can make it anywhere’ on New Year’s and I cried each year because it’s true. True, true, true!”
“So, you’re going back, then?”
“And then it all came down. It all came down around me. The buildings. The thundering, shaking noise that has never stopped in my ears. And the horrible, horrible clouds of oily, burning, grey-black smoke, choking your lungs and burning your eyes, and filling your body with such enormous fear like someone was holding onto you and who won’t let you go, and you panic and plead, and they still won’t let you go.
“I couldn’t stay there. I tried. I tried to be normal. To feel normal. I tried. And walking in Penn Station each day with soldiers in camo, desert camo in Penn station, with machine guns pointed to the floor, their fingers so, so near the triggers. Everywhere. Street corners. And you want to cry out to make it all stop and to go back to the way it was before. But it never will. People just stopping on the street. Just stopping and putting their heads down and covering their eyes and crying. Crying so softly, hiding their faces from you. And you, you just walk by and then you start crying yourself. You knew. You knew that all those faces, the flyers taped to the walls and the fences and lightposts. They were never coming back. They were dead. You knew it because it was a nightmare in a clear blue sky. And it was the realest thing you will ever see, and never forget.
“I am covered with it all. The incinerated flesh and plastic and metal. The incinerated lives. And that morning, that same Tuesday morning. On the C train. At seven fifty-five. People I was sitting with, looking at their phones, holding onto the railings. At the station under the buildings, got off and took the elevators up to work in those buildings.”
“Harran, I am not who I was before. I don’t know who I am now. It’s not just that the buildings fell. It’s how and why it happened. The senselessness of it. How people planned this murder. And others knew about it and said, ‘yes, go do it.’ And governments knew, had to have known, and were complicit. For what? To make us feel attacked and attackable. Vulnerable. Ultimately, personally, vulnerable. Not theoretically. Not philosophically. But materially, demonstrably, vulnerable.”
“I know you are. And I know you cannot know what I‘m feeling. The feeling that you matter less than nothing. And that nothing matters. Realizing that everything matters. That everything matters so little and yet that everything matters so much. That breathing and trees matter. The sky, the person sitting next to you, the woman in the library or working the fryolator in McDonald’s. They all matter. That everything matters and nothing matters.
“And then what? Instead of sadness, healing, and introspection, Hillary Fucking Clinton and Chuck Fucking Schumer voted, voted in the Senate, to knowingly, calculatingly, bomb and burn and incinerate thousands more people? To plan it. Execute it. Calling it ‘shock and awe’ like a Call of Duty video game. I knew better. They knew better. And still they voted to say go ahead to George Fucking W Bush and his fucking father who was once the director of the CI fucking A. He knew about the Saudis. They all knew about it. They could have stopped it all and they just went ahead did it with smiles on their faces.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“Oh my God, Harran. Me saying ‘fucking’? That’s what bothers you? I shouldn’t say fucking in my father’s fucking candy store, in Evanston fucking Illinois? Because it may disturb some people? They should be fucking disturbed. Take a look around, Harran, has anyone one died because they heard me say ‘’fucking?’”
“Don’t tell me Alice. I’m not Alice. I don’t know who this person is anymore. I’m going.”
“Don’t go. Where are you going?”
“I don’t fucking know, Harran. You know that feeling of waking up in the middle of the night because you feel like you’re falling? That’s the feeling I have every night. But I wake up in the morning and they don’t. Can you imagine the feeling of falling, to be falling, to have the room falling with you, the ceiling crushing down on you, as the last feeling you will ever have in life? I pray you don’t ever know what that feels like. I have to go.”
“Why did you even come back?”
“Why did you come back?”
“Don’t ask me that. I don’t know. I think I was hoping things would be different here. But they’re not.”
“Could you let me out?” he said.
“Let me out. Please, I have to go.”