I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue. Once you’ve fallen from classical virtue. Won’t have a soul to wake up and hold you. — Rufus Wainwright
Paul’s sister was a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman. On the morning of September 11, 2001, she was on her way to work and her brother was already at his desk. She spoke to him briefly after she’d heard some news. An airplane had just hit the building adjacent to him, the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He was OK, he assured her. And they were saying on the loudspeaker inside the building to stay put. Do not go outside. He couldn’t quite see or tell her what was going on. Maybe, she said, he should go anyway.
A lot of things happened after that conversation. His sister had four children. The first one is named after his uncle who was lost that day. She and her husband moved from the city to Scarsdale. Paul’s older brother lives in the town we grew up in with his two children. His younger brother, with four kids, lives on the East Coast. Paul’s parents have places on both coasts and chase after their grandchildren with gusto.
So it’s a full life for the family. Full as full could be, I imagine. There is always something to do, someone to see, somewhere to go. A birthday. An anniversary. A missed call or an unanswered text. All the little benchmarks, personally, professionally — everything in the world to be thankful for: good health, laughter, beers and wine and food and the occasional night up too late talking just to talk, and watching children grow.
But fifteen years on, I’m not sure what of the above is an accurate depiction of life any more than I’m sure of how I feel about the day that precipitated it all. All of this summary is just that. The easy way of sharing something with someone who may or may not relate — instead of explaining the way it really was or is or whether this is all really something at all.
Think about it in these terms: on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, you will overhear someone saying where he or she was when the planes hit. Which is fine. We all have a memory and we all need to share. But that story doesn’t matter at all. What matters is who is here and who is not.
Paul is not here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul this week but not in a 9/11 kind of way. I’ve been remembering him, for reasons I can’t 100-percent explain, in the context of the events of May 21, 1993 — the day the movie Sliver came out.
Sliver was Sharon Stone’s would-be blockbuster follow-up to Basic Instinct, which we were too young to see in the theaters the year prior. I don’t know where we heard it, but Sliver, the story of a kind of hot, kind of lonely single lady getting stalked by a lesser-known-Baldwin landlord, was rumored to feature a particular revealing bath scene that was going, um, a step further than the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct.
Paul and me were for in for sure on skipping class for an opening-day Friday matinee. Our usual third, Chris, stayed behind to either attend school, or, more likely, passed because he didn’t want to pay $3.75 for the bargain show on account of the fact that could sneak in and see it when we’d invariably end up back at the movie theater later that weekend.
So, it was just Paul and I in the main screening room at Rowland Plaza, just off the 101 as you travel north from San Francisco toward the Sonoma County border. We were the only two in the theater and even though we shared the same row, we spread out a little. From the lights dimming on, it was glorious. To this day I feel like any time you have a private screening AND you’re skipping class, you’ve found the ultimate luxury.
The bath scene: We were treated to some ‘90s-style quick cuts in which we saw a kneecap, maybe a thigh and a naval and a woman’s hand disappearing under some well-placed bubbles while Sharon Stone’s face sweated and moaned Centerfold-style. Lame. Paul looked at me with disgust when it was over and made the international sign for Let’s Go Get Taco Bell by getting up and walking toward the exit.
There we were, back in the too-bright daylight, a pair of school-ditching teenage vampires shielding our faces from the harsh late-spring sun. We did go to Taco Bell, the decision made noteworthy only because we drove to the one downtown (an original adobe Taco Bell that featured an actual bell hanging from the apse) instead of walking thirty steps to the new one in the same plaza off the freeway. Those who spent any time in Novato, California in the ‘80s or ‘90s know why — that OG Taco Bell was like an actual taqueria which happened to mostly stick to a Taco Bell menu.
We ate our feast, went and killed some time looking at CDs at the Wherehouse (I held up the Sliver soundtrack and pointed to it mocking, Paul gave me a thumbs down) and we rolled back to his house at around 4ish to make it look like we’d just gotten out of school.
I have no idea what we talked about that afternoon. I have no idea what we did that night. I have no idea what we reported back to Chris about the movie except for that it sucked. Things just kind of kept moving along and time, even though we felt like we had so much of it waiting for the next phase of our lives to start, just disappeared.
I remember that episode in the lead up to the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 only because the story, while admittedly a little inappropriate, reminds me of how sort of innocent and silly and funny we were.
But more than this, it reminds me of what I want to say when someone starts talking about where they were that day.
I could never have imagined then that we’d go away to college, or get actual jobs, or that Paul would move all the way to New York, you know, the place where Sliver was shot. I still have a difficult time connecting the guy I knew from that day at the movies to the stories I now hear or tell of Paul. The distance of years leave me not completely convinced about my place in his life or whether I had one. I am certain the two guys from that day are both long removed from this Earth…and by that I mean the downtown Novato Taco Bell no longer exists for me to prove we were there.
Was I simply the king of all time wasters in Paul’s life? He could have been doing something productive that Sliver afternoon, like studying or working out or yard work, which was his natural setting. There he was instead, humoring me, helping me put the juvenile in delinquent. I can’t help but ask myself why was he there? What it did do for him? Did my parents give him lunch and movie money to babysit me? Or was he simply just being there for me so I wouldn’t be the only guy sitting through Sliver by myself, kicking off a life of ever-lonlier transactions.
The only answer I’ve come up with is, I don’t know.
Turns out, I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know how a mother or a father gets over the loss of a child. I don’t know how a sibling gets over the loss of a brother. But I do know a tiny bit about grieving. I know what it’s like to lose a friend to a terrorist attack, a friend to a roadside bomb, a parent to cancer. All of this has happened during my last decade and a half. And I know the answer is, there isn’t one.
Family helps. Children help a lot too. Children get you, literally, out of bed to start your day. They do it not knowing that sometimes it doesn’t really make sense to keep going.
But there are other things too, right? Work for example. I’ve been working steady since that day, since I knew my friend got up one morning and was late for a meeting and was a little hungover from the night before because he stayed up and watched the West Coast side of the NFL Monday Night Football week-one double header to see how his fantasy running back Marshall Faulk performed. I know this because he wrote it down about 40 minutes before he perished — about the same time he talked to his sister. That was his last communication with me, an email about fantasy football.
I’ve been working this whole time, on some things dear to me, and most things just because I don’t want to cut the cable just yet. I’ve been working yes, but never once since that day have I walked into a meeting and thought, “Well, this is fucking important.” Unless, of course, they’re bringing in lunch.
There Paul was, on the 89th floor of a giant building looking out over the harbor. My guess is he didn’t see the second plane coming and he didn’t feel it hit. He was within a few floors of impact. As troubling and harrowing and unfathomable a death as it was, Paul simply vanished. Or maybe that’s my hope. From his desk to eternity in less than a heartbeat.
Everything he’d worked for — and he worked hard — every laugh, every story, every late night, every date gone good or bad or indifferent, every game of Tecmo Bowl, every last word he ever wrote with his uniquely precise penmanship, every half-drunk voicemail, every time he stalled his hand-me-down Peugeot in the high school parking lot trying to peel out, every shrimp eat-off with his fellow linemen at Sizzler, every time we walked to the field behind my house and hit home runs out of a bag full of old balls over the softball fence, every stupid movie followed by an effortless downtown Taco Bell late lunch, is gone…yet somehow remain a lonely, quiet, constant part of me.
The time at his high school graduation party he did the biggest cannon ball I’ve ever seen and got our friend’s mom so soaking wet she had to go home to change. The last night we hung out in San Francisco and him karaoking out Private Dancer with every last breath. Finding in his apartment that On the Road was upside down and half-read on his nightstand and a Paul Simon CD was still spinning in the player, scratched and stuck. His workout shorts and running shoes were in a smelly, awful pile at the foot of his bed, still warm and damp with sweat. His sweat.
For fifteen years, I have been trying to reconcile the instant erasure of a person, and I cannot.
My friend who went to war knew what he was getting himself into, trained for it, welcomed it and, ultimately, paid the price he was willing to pay for it. I was there my father along with my mother and sister and witnessed him draw his final beautiful breath as we had — all of us — been laughing about something just moments earlier. Every big goodbye is a permanent transaction and I understand a little about how it all goes. None is more or less important than the one before. We fill our lives up here and we take none of it with us. All of us are fated to become a spectral shotgun rider next to someone we love, looking out for them while they’re driving. That’s what we get. And sometimes, that seems like a lot.
Fifteen years on and I cannot outrun Paul’s death and I will certainly never catch up to his memory. I am always out of breath and on the verge whenever his name is mentioned.
He is always around.