That morning, Ruben left the apartment earlier than Naomi. She was still standing in the kitchen, hair wild from sleeping, threads from her fraying bathrobe resting on the floor. Between each sip of coffee, she tapped her ring against the chipped mug, delaying her exit. Her mouth was pursed, lips like mirroring triangles.
“We’re going to talk about this tonight, right? We’re running out of time.”
Ruben knew he had to answer with purpose. He had been avoiding this conversation, and Naomi had grown impatient. “We will. I promise.”
He bent to kiss her, but she turned her head, so his beard brushed the edge of her chin. Still staring at the wall and clasping her mug, she sighed, affirming her frustration.
“Good. We really do have to make a decision.”
As he opened the building door to the street, Ruben felt a distinct quality to the dark morning air. The sensation didn’t surprise him, since he knew that moments with significance always felt different on the body. Whether knowing caused the extraordinary sensations didn’t matter; what mattered is that, on those days, the world carried us differently.
It was September 11th, and while many years had passed since the falling of the towers, New York still marked the anniversary with some ceremony. His father, Scott, died that day in 2001, a fact that dwelled with Ruben as he sped through the motions of his morning commute. He remembered all that came after, but not the day itself, so he had reconstructed the events in his mind. From the fiery chaos, his father had pulled men, women and children to safety. Rugged, strong and silent, he was unafraid and as powerful as a jungle creature, charging forward through danger without hesitation.
The memorial service had been both grand and small, with important people forging stories from fact, crafting narratives to fill the void. The speakers had all praised all the first responders for their unwavering bravery, but it was the words of another lost man’s father that stayed with Ruben the most. “That day should teach us a lot about faith. A lot of people are wrong about faith. A lot of people think it means believing in an afterlife and then doing the right things to get to Heaven. But when you see other humans braving an unimaginable situation to save lives, you realize it’s something completely different. It’s about acting like a hero right now even if you have no goddamn idea if the other side even exists.”
It was with this backdrop of idealized heroism that Ruben evaluated his current situation. In a few days, based on New York law, his and Naomi’s marriage would automatically lapse, and if they wished to stay legally married, they would both have to sign a renewal agreement. He had known this for some time, but so often, he had to be faced with an end to be able to make a choice.
Ruben and Naomi had met just a few weeks before college graduation, at a weekly session for a campus group called Secular Assembly. They had gravitated towards the organization based on its mission statement: to provide meaning and purpose in a chaotic world without reliance on religion.
At the end of the meeting, Ruben had introduced himself to Naomi, who he had seen at multiple previous meetings and never approached. “I’m Ruben. I don’t usually approach women, but I figured it was worth a shot.”
When they started dating soon thereafter, the other group members encouraged them to take it slowly. The group leader, charismatic and dominant, was particularly cautionary. “The problem is that people forget that love can be like religion,” he said, after encountering them in the front hallway with their lips and foreheads pressed together. “It promises transcendence and tricks you into thinking it gives you all the answers.”
Ruben and Naomi couldn’t heed the warnings, though. They squeezed hands under the meeting room tables and lay awake on the campus lawn, searching for stars they could name after themselves.
Now, nearly a decade later, Ruben found himself in front of the 911 Memorial, his feet guiding him there instead of his office. With ripe orange in the sky and confusion in his heart, he stared out at the two waterfalls cascading together, feeling the void.
“Hey Rube, sorry for the loss of your dad and all.” His co-worker, Ruthie, was standing at the entrance to his workspace. Her face seemed unequivocally soft, and her lips floral against the smooth palette. As she stepped closer, Ruben noticed the curves of her figure, fluid but precisely rendered.
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“Sure,” she continued, her fingers wrapping around the curls of the hair. “Hey, a few of us are grabbing a drink after work if you want to come?”
“We’ll see. It’s been a long day already.”
As Ruthie walked away, he glanced up briefly at the sway of her walk, each step unfamiliar and inviting. His phone let out a singular tone, signaling a new message from Naomi.
I’m sorry to bother you at work, but I just wanted to say what I should have this morning. I know today is hard because it will always remind you of your dad, but I want you to know he’d be proud of you. I’m really late to work today. Shit. Ok, I love you, and I’ll see you tonight. Love you.
As he walked outside into the early evening light, he glanced toward the World Trade Center one more time. Like the moon, it was hard to see until it was completely dark, but he knew the two unwavering towers of light were there.
Ruben immediately walked to the bar the team at the office usually frequented. Ruthie was standing outside, vapor flowing from her mouth and escaping into the bright lights of the sign. “Rube! You made it.” She grabbed Ruben’s hand and dragged him through a doorway draped in glittery strings, pushing the strands aside with a liquid flick of her hip.
Some of Ruben’s co-workers were gathered at a communal table in the center of the bar, surrounded by empty glasses. They were talking at top volume, their conversation punctuated by alerts and notifications. Ruthie and Ruben found two empty seats and joined the group.
Ruben’s legs were wrapped under the rungs of the barstool, but Ruthie kept brushing against them, provoking his senses. After a while, she wrapped her left hand over his thigh and drew her face close to his. “So, I heard that your marriage is almost expired. Mine is going to be over soon, too, you know.” Her mouth was welcoming, and looking in, he could see her smooth, porcelain teeth.
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
“Really? You’re a terrible liar.” Ruthie said, her voice a violent purr. “But seriously, I don’t know. I just don’t know how anyone can renew or keep going once they realize everything that’s out there. I mean, if you’re not sure, I honestly just don’t see the point. There’s just too much else to feel and experience.”
As she spoke, Ruben found himself moved to action. He placed his hand on her silky hair and pulled her even closer so their mouths met. With each pulse of their kiss, warmth spread through his body.
When their lips pulled apart for a single moment, Ruben’s phone buzzed. New call from Wife flashed across the screen.
“Oh, Rube,” Ruthie said, her words suddenly biting. “You’re not going to buy into her bullshit, are you? She’s trying to manipulate you into sticking around.”
Ruben didn’t answer her as he grabbed his jacket and stumbled towards the door. As he ran down the street, frantically trying to put the event behind him, his lungs continued to twist, making it harder and harder for him to catch his breath.
When he arrived back in his neighborhood, heart in his throat, he saw that everything was largely unchanged. Even though it was open, the corner store’s signs were still low-lit, flickering with electric charge, and the old woman at the bakery was preparing one last batch of pastries. On the corner, the candlelight from the police station still burned bright, and the wind stayed still out of respect.
He walked up the stairs to the apartment slowly, preparing himself to admit what would be written all over his face: that he had not been lionhearted. When he opened the door, she was nowhere to be found but had left a handwritten note on the counter.
Out with some friends. I’m not 100% decided, but I’m pretty much there. I want to be with someone who will choose me, no matter the circumstances.
Ruben opened the fridge to grab a beer. As he twisted off the top and took his first long sip, the built-in light about his head buzzed with electric current. He listened to the sound, steady yet disruptive, as he examined what it felt like to be alone.
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