The morning Ernesto died and a glittering cloud of debris and ash swallowed the neighborhood, Beth Gopin was on her way to see him. Beth had called Ernesto and asked him to meet her at Taj Tribeca. Although Beth and Ernesto enjoyed the atmosphere and well-stocked buffet, Taj Tribeca held greater significance—they could link major moments in their life together to its golden linens and paper dining mats.
Beth will one day tell me how she first met Ernesto at Taj Tribeca. She was on a blind date with someone else, a Junior Vice President at a fiduciary management company. When the conversation had begun to include words like portfolio management, estates, big account, and
mutual funds, she excused herself from the table and said she needed to use the bathroom. As she snuck towards an exit to abandon her suitor, Ernesto approached her. Beth remembers accepting his card. He asked her to call him if things didn’t work out with the guy she had come with. He thanked her and then quickly sped out of the restaurant.
Beth will tell me she waited weeks before she called him. She’ll say she called because of curiosity, not attraction.
“Admit it,” Ernesto had said on their first date. “It was pretty cool the way I asked you out, right? Totally smooth and in control.”
And Beth had laughed. Correcting him she said, “You’re joking? You strolled up to me like a shy little boy. The whole time you tapped your foot like a nervous freak.”
While Ernesto’s arrogance often annoyed Beth, she will later admit to me that she found his fake confidence equally endearing. Beth Gopin assures me she never once regretted having kept Ernesto’s business card.
Four years after they first met, Ernesto leaned over a plate of chicken chettinad at Taj Tribeca and proposed to her. Beth didn’t have to think long before saying yes. Beth will tell me that with Ernesto she could imagine braving the commitments that terrified her: buying a house, having kids, and all the permanence suggested by matrimony.
The day Ernesto died, Beth was on her way to tell him that, after a year of trying, they were finally going to be being parents—news Beth felt deserved a celebratory minty Cornish hen hariyali.
Having propelled from their apartment with the promise of the little pink positive sign, Beth sped to the restaurant and arrived too early for lunch. She decided to wait down the block at the New Amsterdam Library. Beth Gopin has spent a thousand hours shelf-reading its stacks, working part-time as a page while going to school. Between answering questions, hunting down books for patrons, and sleeping off hangovers curled beneath study carrels, she developed an affinity for libraries. She discovered gratification whenever she’d find an item that had been mishelved, or when someone complimented her book displays. When she graduated from college, confronted with the prospects of teaching or using her BA in English to write for a living, she chose to return to school for a Master’s degree in Library Science, because if she didn’t have the talent to scribe a great American novel or the patience to show someone else how, at least she could help provide authors and educators with the resources needed to do their jobs better.
Beth pushed through the large, heavy, glass doors. She waved at the front-desk, although no one still worked there who knew her. Beth climbed the steps to the second floor with care. She walked over to the fiction section and chose a row randomly. Sauntering down the aisle, she extended her arms like a bird about to take flight. She let the tips of her fingers drag along the spines of books, smiling at the thought of never having the time to read them all after the baby arrived. At the end of the shelves she pulled down a title. Beth will tell me she can’t remember the name or its cover, but she recalls for me retreating with the book to a vacant ottoman by a window and thumbing through it casually as she envisioned the new life inside her. Beth first conjured the image of a little girl as gregarious as Ernesto and then a little boy as reserved as herself. Beth would have to have a talk with Ernesto about parenting strategies, education and faith. Beth did not practice, but Ernesto greatly valued religion and Beth knew he would want his child to believe in something.
There was a boomcrunchpop louder than thunder.
A rumble like doom.
The city paused as Beth looked up from her page.
She’d grown accustomed to the sound of collisions in the city, but this was different, unfamiliar.
Beth tried to dismiss it initially and returned to the book laid open on her lap. She hadn’t read a single word. She tried to focus but soon her thoughts led back to her belly. Staring blankly at the page, she chuckled nervously at the idea of having to rest her books on top of a rounded paunch.
Somewhere in the building phones began to ring. Murmurs grew louder and Beth could feel the floor tremble as people moved hastily around her, marching up to nearby windows. Her heart skipped, it sank lower in her chest and rested on her stomach. She stood to go downstairs.
Beth joined a wave of others rushing to the main floor and out onto the street.
She’d tell me the day was bright, clear except for a single thick cloud ripping through the sky. Everyone gazed upward at the dark cumulus, a column of smoke creeping towards City Hall. Beth could hear screams coming from windows above her. The air tasted like gasoline.
Crowds gathered on the street, talking fast and pointing. Buildings hemorrhaged people; they poured from offices and apartments. Beth watched large groups move west past Taj Tribeca. She followed.
Beth had walked that block more times than she could remember, never giving much thought to what the street might mean to her. That day, the street was covered in landmarks: the bar where she and Ernesto toasted her accepting a job offer for a Reference Librarian position, the lamp post where they had hailed their first taxi together back to his place, the spot under the awning where they once tried to wait out the rain and Beth realized she loved him.
She remembers that night vividly.
Beth remembers Ernesto saying, “You know Beth can mean ‘house’ in Hebrew.”
“Ernesto, you’re calling me fat?”
He stuttered trying to clarify himself before seguing into an explanation of how much he cared for her. He explained how she made him feel always at home. And even though she had heard other couples say similar words, the sentiment felt new and exciting to her.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Me too.”
Beth continued following the mass of pedestrians to an intersection, and when she looked up she saw smoke bellowing from a skyscraper. Tiny figures, thrashing like bodies, rained from the building. Beth closed her eyes and counted to five, like Ernesto often did whenever he became anxious or angry.
Achat. Shtayim. Shalosh. Arba. Chamesh.
Ernesto liked to list the many words for faith—aman, mahseh, mibtah—whenever things went wrong. Beth had always admired his conviction, for holding onto his beliefs, not only in easy times.
A hundred taxis began honking their horns all at once.
Beth opened her eyes to see an airliner diving towards Ernesto’s office.
In that moment, all she can think to do is pray.
I’m sitting at my desk in third period, a social science class called Problems of the Twentieth Century. The lights are off and our teacher, Mr. Schwartz, is about to show a documentary about the bankruptcy of a city in Michigan following the collapse of its chief industry. Mr. Schwartz stands beside the television and VCR at the front of the room, ranting about wage gaps and huge disparities in wealth, and how everything is connected.
I’m not paying too much attention to his tirade. I am writing a note to pass to Beth Habash in the hall between classes. This semester our schedules have us heading in opposite directions. We’ve stayed in contact through our letters. They never really say anything, but it is nice having someone to write to. This particular note has swelled to two pages, back and front, explaining in detail all the tortures I’d rather endure than listen to Mr. Schwartz pontificate about the correlation between floundering economies and deteriorating race relations.
I don’t really think much about stuff like that, unlike Beth. She cares about everything. She says being half Palestinian makes her more sensitive to the suffering of others. She once told me, “Churches are people, gospels in motion, walking cathedrals.”
Beth’s deep. She only smiles when she’s with me.
I’m trying a lot harder this year, trying to make up for nearly getting held back two years ago, hoping that maybe Beth and I can go to college together next fall.
Mr. Schwartz turns around to push the tape into the VCR and my seventh period history teacher, Mr. Torrez, charges into the classroom from across the hall. He tells Mr. Schwartz that someone has flown an airplane into a building.
The class stirs nervously as Mr. Schwartz slaps the TV menu button and two shiny metal towers fade into focus, thick smoke rolling out past the gleam of broken windowpanes. I lean closer in my desk, squinting at the flicker of flames behind the dark fog. I’m close enough to hear Mr. Schwartz say, “Bob, I don’t think this is an accident.”
In the halls after class ends, everyone speaks without commas or periods. The endless streams of speech review what we’ve all seen—a second commercial airliner slammed into another tower. Several thousand pounds of steal vanished into a wall of glass. I try to avoid joining the murmurs. I follow my usual route because that’s what I think Beth would do. She’s reliable. She will go the same way she always does. She will know that panicking, congesting the halls like the kids bouncing from one locker to the next, will not help anyone.
Rumors float past my ears that can’t be true.
“There are more planes,” someone says.
“The nation is under attack,” says someone else.
I try to think of other things, my college applications, personal statements, reference letters, but this leads to thoughts of Beth.
I should have seen Beth in the hall by now.
Perhaps she decided to go straight to her AP English Class.
Maybe this isn’t the quickest route.
Maybe she has tried to evade the crowds on the first floor, going up and over and taking the E-Hall stairway down.
I turn around and speed to her classroom.
I’ll be late, but I need to talk to her.
The bell rings when I reach Beth’s class. I peer inside though a narrow window in the door. The teacher and students are all fixated on the classroom television.
Some are crying. I can’t see the screen. I scan the room. I don’t find Beth.
I wait outside of the door, but she never shows up.
When I finally arrive to the boy’s locker room for gym class, I’m surprised that no one has changed into their workout clothes. All the boys have huddled into Coach Reynolds’ office to glare at the 13-inch TV sitting on his desk. I have to push through to see.
On the screen there’s a fuming crater in the side of another building. Beneath the heads of the muted newscasters, closed captions confirm a third plane crash.
Back in the halls between periods, horseshoes form around rich kids lending out their cellular phones for people to call family. Wealthy bullies, usually starved for catastrophe, have found the best in themselves dispatching messages and reporting on the disaster.
I overhear Margret Bowen, one of Beth’s middle school tormentors. Margaret says there’s been fourth plane crash in a field. Yesterday, Margaret was a liar inventing the kind of gossip that put other girls’ names on bathroom stalls. Today she is as reputable and up-to-date as the news ticker scrolling across the bottom of classroom TV screens.
Tomorrow is hard to imagine.
But the class bells keep things moving forward, remind me there still might be time and order. The chimes are faithful constants, and each ring promises a next, a day when this is past.
I shuffle into my next period. There are kids everywhere, lining the walls, gathered at the front, sitting cross-legged around Ms. Thackston’s desk. Some teachers have abandoned their classes, forcing neighboring teachers to house stray students. Standing at the back near my desk is a girl who has third period with Beth. Her name is Alicia. I move to my seat as Ms. Thackston asks everyone to be considerate of others. I offer my desk to Alicia. Her eyelids are puffy and red from crying. She shakes her head solemnly, declining. Ms. Thackston moves to the corner of the room, stepping over the kids sprawled on the floor and sits on the edge of her desk. She grabs a remote from a stack of student essays and raises the volume of the TV.
I whisper to Alicia under the blaring headline news. I ask her if she’s seen Beth.
She says, yes, this morning before school, but Beth never came to class.
I nod and then turn to stare past the students leaned against the window.
I’m on the third floor, so now I can see the military helicopters, news choppers and fighter jets tearing across the sky.
Beth says everything is temporary.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the note I had written earlier. It’s fold like a paper football. The triangle shape makes it easier to slide into Beth’s palm as we pass. I poke the tips of my fingers with its pointed edges.
There is a collective gasp, and then the horrorstruck pops of hands over gapping mouths. I look to the wall-mounted television at the corner of room. Massive buildings collapse into plumes of tar-colored smoke, cameras switch angles and then I see my fear mirrored in the eyes of a woman greyed by the dust of the wreckage.
It is the other Beth, Beth Gopin, but I don’t know that yet, not until I see the same painful green eyes over ten years later in a book of grieving faces accompanying a memorial DVD. I won't know for sure until I am standing in Beth Gopin’s office at the college library where she works. I will thank her for agreeing to an interview with me for my newspaper article commemorating the anniversary of the atrocities that ended Ernesto’s life. She will purse her lips into an anxious smirk, sigh deeply, and then tell me about the day her husband died.
We’ll schedule a date for me to take a picture of her with her son. Beth will suggest the day of her son’s bar mitzvah. On the steps outside of the temple, after I’ve taken the photo, she'll ask me where I was when her son’s father perished. And although she has heard hundreds of accounts from people attempting to share in her loss, Beth Gopin will listen kindly as I explain how my greatest concern that morning was for a girl who shares her first name, who was safe in bed, sent home from school early with an inner-ear infection. A girl whose love, although transformative, was not strong enough to endure an out-of-state internship or graduate schools across the country, or a research scholarship in Indonesia, or a long distance relationship with no visible conclusion.
When Beth Gopin asks me about today, I will jump back into myself now, sitting in this classroom desk, watching a policeman drag her away from the rubble.
Beth claws at the officer’s forearm. Her screams silenced beneath the broadcaster's commentary. The officer begins to cough violently, choking on the heavy ash. He drops to his knees and as his hands shoot up around his throat, Beth Gopin runs back towards the fallen structures.
Tears streak her clay face.
Her lips and teeth form a word that looks like Ernesto.
The camera doesn’t follow her.
Beth is lost in the fallout enveloping the city.
I don’t realize I have left my desk until Ms. Thackston calls after me. I’m racing through the halls, my feet squeaking against linoleum. I’m zigzagging from door to door, peeking into every classroom for Beth. I almost fall to the ground sliding onto B-Hall but I regain my balance and jog faster. We’ve started running, full speed, the other Beth and I, separately, but together. We have to find them. He needs to know he’s going to be a father. She needs to read this note. We’ve made plans with someone, and we shout their name through the halls and streets.
Donald Edem Quist is a writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich and the nonfiction collection Harbors (Awst Press). His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cleaver, Knee-Jerk, The Adroit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Publishers Weekly and other print and online publications. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize and a winner of the E.L. Doctorow and Peter Matthiessen Authors Competition from the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. He is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast and serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He received a fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction and earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at donaldquist.com.