Mark typed his reply, and signed it with ‘kiss’. He always wrote the word ‘kiss’ instead of an ‘x’. That was one of those things; she could call it silly, but it was something to cling to nonetheless. She knew it was his. They had been married eight years, and still he wanted her to know, he meant, a kiss, not just signing it with an ‘x’.
Lauren was a paramedic with the Emergency Medical Service, under FDNY, she had come straight from work. It was her first date with Mark, and she’d changed in the bathrooms at the hospital, and done her makeup in the hospital mirrors. She apologised for being late when she got to the bar, and Mark had made some gentle joke about letting a woman in uniform get away with anything. It didn’t make Lauren awkward; she just smiled and ordered her drink. A mutual friend had insisted they meet each other, and it wasn’t far into the evening to before they toasted him, only half joking, before continuing to drink and talk and grace each other’s skin unspokenly in the ‘accidental’ vagueness that new lust must first attempt. Mark worked at the Natural History Museum, and later admitted he’d half run from 79th to get there on time, then been glad she wasn’t there yet so she couldn’t see him catch his breath.
“What exactly is an anthropologist?” she had braved, feeling certain he would either laugh at her or lose interest.
“Nobody is really sure yet,” he said gently, “that’s what I do, I try to come up with something substantial to feed our sponsors.” He looked her straight in eye. He was joking again. She rolled her eyes and hit him gently on the thigh on her way to take another sip of her drink, smiling back at him.
“Okay,” he conceded, “I basically look at what makes us human”
“And what’s that?” Lauren offered, with genuine interest.
“Well, I’m a biological anthropologist, I specialise in evolution. So… your chin.”
“What?” she squinted. Without realising, she put her thumb on her chin as she waited for something.
“In our evolution, having a chin is what marks Homo sapiens from other species in our various groups. If it doesn’t have a chin, it isn’t human.”
“Well I have never been to the natural history museum in New York” she offered. It felt like a snub, so she added, “when I was little we went to my aunts wedding in Brighton, England, and we spent a few days in London. Me and my brothers each got to pick one thing to do and my oldest brother wanted to see the dinosaurs. So I have been to a natural history museum. But all I remember is the moving T-Rex. Oh, and buying a glittery pencil. That too.” He lent forward to kiss her, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Is there any point describing the utter tragedy of destruction those hours wreaked on that city? That those days wreaked on the country? That all time which followed, wreaked on the watching world? September can be said. And said again with an eleven. Without being there, in the pit of hell, it is impossible to understand.
Lauren was one of those off rota that Monday night shift. She was at home, waiting for Mark with a special dinner. She had news for him. But he was late, and she was hungry; she would just cook for him tomorrow and give him the news then. She fell asleep on the sofa, and he found her curled up. Instead of waking her, or carrying her through their apartment to bed, he lay beside her. It was narrow, so he held her. And he fell asleep too.
Woken by a phone call he would have liked her to ignore, he thought Lauren sounded normal as she spoke to her supervisor. She got up off the sofa, she went into their bedroom. And she packed herself into her uniform with her daily precision. Mark lay there, eyes half shut, and then realising she wasn’t coming back, he reluctantly went to the bedroom. “Work?” he asked her, still sleepy, as he clambered into their bed. “Can’t someone else go? It’s our day off together.”
“Everyone has to go in.” She said bluntly, matter-of-fact.
“Where’s the fire?” He grumbled. She stared at him, in the half-light that crept through the drawn curtains. His words hit the silence, he realised as she did, that this was bigger than anything yet to happen to them.
A week later, at the surgery by her parents’ house, the two of them gone to Long Island; Lauren was a ghost. She knew exactly how many people she had pulled out or saved. Thirty-six, before the supervisor relocated her duties. That’s thirty-six people she saved. And god knows how many she didn’t. She knew she shouldn’t have waited a week. You never wait a week to see a doctor if you’re pregnant. She was scared to even tell Mark, days after everything, that she’d found out. It might not be true anymore, she feared. What if that’s one more life I failed to save?
The doctor was a woman in her thirties, like Lauren. It didn’t seem possible to think she might have answers. Lauren just saw herself, and she was beyond lost. Mark squeezed her hand as the Doctor told her the baby was fine. Lauren didn’t looked relieved. She knew the way that medics spoke. She knew every utterance, and what it bore. The baby is fine. You’re not. That’s what it meant. We need to run a couple of tests on you, to check out some other things, and then we can be sure that you are physically fine. Did you have a check up after the event, asked the doctor. The event. That’s what we have to call it for now, she thought. Why would I go to a doctor? Isn’t that what everyone’s trying to do? Of course there’s no room for me. I’m on the other side. I’m the one giving it out, not asking for it.
“No,” she told the doctor. “I haven’t been checked out yet. It’s busy there, you know.” It was so mild, how she put it, so busy.
“You need to be concerned about yourself too, Lauren, especially now with the baby. Don’t be a martyr, we want to take care of you too.”
Another day, who knows how much later, sat in the same doctors office, Mark looked at Lauren. Patient, quiet, he held her limp hand. And when her test results came back, after what felt like years, Mark looked away.
“What about the baby?” Lauren asked. “Tell me about the baby”.
“You were already pregnant when you contracted the virus, but because you are passing blood and food to the baby, there is a chance the baby will receive it also,”
“God,” gasped Mark. “Our baby isn’t even born yet. We don’t even know if it’s a girl or a boy, and your saying it might have HIV?”
Lauren sat silently rocking. She glared up at him from her place at his side. “What about ME?!” she screamed. “I’ve got fucking HIV”.
Everyone in the room, Mark, the doctor, Lauren all sat stunned at this. The doctor spoke first.
Years later, Mark and Lauren live in city outskirts; Mark rides the subway to the museum each morning, and Lauren walks to the high school at the end of the road to take to her small nurse’s room, with the long window. The two of them remain in other ways, unchanged. Mark still takes Lauren’s hand in the dark of the cinema, Lauren still makes his lunch for him if she wakes up early, and scratches a heart with her fingernail onto the foil wrapping of his sandwiches. Mark still signs his texts with “kiss” not an “x”, and he kisses her softly on the chin, every time she takes her medicine.
Jacob is nearly nine now, staying with his grandparents on Long Island for the weekend; the house is quieter again. On Sundays they take it in turns to wake up earliest; and walk down to get the papers from the end of the street. When it is Lauren’s turn to go, sometimes Mark wakes up as she gets out of bed, and he sneaks off to make breakfast so it’s ready when she gets back. She comes home, shrugs off his long coat that masks her pyjamas, and kicks off her sandals, climbs into the softness of their bed, and gives him the coolness of her skin.