We were just three best friends doing what we always did. Three best friends having our monthly get-together on the second Tuesday of the month—lunch at Roscoe’s Chicken ’N Waffles.
We’d been doing this for twelve years, since we graduated from USC. But today, we’d changed it up a bit. Today, instead of driving over to Hollywood and meeting at the Roscoe’s on Gower, we decided to check out the new one closer to my home, the one on Manchester.
Maybe that was a sign. Maybe if we’d kept everything the same, the world wouldn’t have changed. Maybe if we’d been in Hollywood, Michellelee wouldn’t have gotten that call just as I was stuffing that first sugary bite of a waffle into my mouth.
We’d been talking and laughing—or rather Michellelee and Emily had been doing all the talking, and as usual, I was just laughing.
Then Michellelee’s BlackBerry vibrated on the table.
I glanced at Emily and we rolled our eyes together. There was hardly a time when our celebrity friend wasn’t called away from one of our lunches. That’s just how it was for one of the most recognizable faces in Los Angeles. As the evening anchor for KABC, Michellelee, who had combined her first name, Michelle, with her last name, Lee, and was now known by just one name, had one of the top ten news jobs in the country, even though we were just a little more than a decade out of school.
“You know she’s going to have to rush out of here,” Emily said to me.
I nodded, but then frowned when I looked back at Michellelee. Our friend wasn’t talking, she was just listening, which was the first sign that something was wrong. My heart was pounding already. Today was Tuesday, September 11, and for the last ten years, on this date, I was always on edge.
“Okay, I’m on my way,” she said. “I’ll call from the car.”
She clicked off the phone, and when she looked at me and Emily, I swear, there were tears in her eyes.
“There’s been a fire . . .”
Emily and I both sat up straight.
Michellelee said, “At that new charter school on Western.”
“That would be Chauncey’s firehouse,” I breathed.
“Jamal’s there today, too,” Emily said, as if she needed to remind me that her husband worked with mine.
I hardly recognized Emily’s voice, so different from the glee that was inside her a few minutes ago.
Emily asked Michellelee, “What else did they tell you?”
Michellelee shook her head. “No names. But more than twenty children were taken to the hospital.” Then her eyes moved between me and Emily. “And three firefighters were rushed to the hospital as well.”
“Oh, no,” I moaned, and Emily took my hand.
“Don’t go there,” Michellelee said, moving straight into her elder role. She was the oldest of the three of us, even if only by nineteen days. “This doesn’t mean that any are your husbands. Let’s not start worrying.”
“I’ve got to get over there.” Emily said what I was thinking.
Michellelee nodded. “We’ll take one car; I’ll drive.” She scooted her chair away from the table and marched toward the hostess stand to pay the bill.
It took me and Emily a couple of seconds to follow, as if our brains were just a little behind. Finally, we jumped up and grabbed our purses and sweaters, leaving our half-eaten dishes right there on the table.
Now, sitting in the backseat of Michellelee’s Mercedes, I could feel every bump on Manchester as we sped down the boulevard. My eyes were closed, but I didn’t need to see Michellelee. I could imagine her—her camera-ready, perfectly plucked and arched eyebrows were probably knitted together, causing deep lines in her forehead.
Then there was Emily. I couldn’t picture her expression, though I’m sure it was a lot like mine, a face frozen with fear. Every few seconds, I heard Emily sigh right before she said, “I can’t reach Jamal.” I stopped counting after she said that for the fifth time.
I wasn’t even going to try to call my husband. It would be futile, especially if they were in the midst of a fire. Cell phones never left the firehouse.
But even when Chauncey was at work I didn’t call. I never called because if I ever started, I’d never stop. I’d call every fifteen minutes for my own peace. So he called me. Like he’d just done a little over an hour ago, as I was pulling into Roscoe’s parking lot to have lunch with my girls. He’d called just to tell me that he loved me.
It sounded like command central in the front of the car, with Emily and Michellelee doing what they did best: taking control. So I did what I knew: I took my cares to God. I prayed like my life depended on it. Because it did. There was no way I’d survive if anything happened to Chauncey.
I didn’t pray for my husband alone; I prayed for Jamal, too, because if anything happened to him, my heart would still be broken. Jamal was Chauncey’s best friend, but he was dear to me also. I’d known him almost as long as I’d known Chauncey; I couldn’t imagine our lives—and definitely not Emily’s life—without him.
So I kept my eyes closed and my lips moving like I’d done so often over the years. My husband was living the firefighter’s life that he’d dreamed of as a child, but his dreams were my nightmares. The way he earned his living had me on my knees every time he walked out the door. The daily stress was so much that I’d once asked myself if I should’ve married him. I had started thinking that maybe it would’ve been better if I’d never fully loved him than to love him with everything I had . . . and lose him one day.
But my bone-deep love for Chauncey trumped my fears, and really, I’m glad about it. Because truly, it would’ve been impossible to walk away from that man and it would’ve been a travesty to miss out on all these years of love.
For a moment, I let those years flash like cards through my mind. From the time I first saw Chauncey when he was a counselor in my Upward Bound program, to the birth of each of our three sons, to when he kissed me good-bye this morning and every second in between.
The memories made me tremble. The memories made me pray.
But then, in an instant, something washed over me. A calm that was so complete. It was almost as if Chauncey was there, wrapping his arms around me. I reveled in that space, knowing for sure that my prayers had been answered. After some seconds ticked by, I breathed. It was clear: Chauncey was fine.
But my heart still pounded, now for Jamal. I didn’t have that same peace about my best friend’s husband, and that made me sick.
I shook my head. Why was I allowing all of this into my mind? There were fifteen firefighters on duty at any one time. Plus, for a fire like this, other stations would be called in. The firefighters who were hurt didn’t even have to be from Fire Station 32.
So I turned my focus back to God. I went back into prayer, crying out in my soul. I started praying for Jamal especially, but also for everyone who’d been at that school.
It felt like I’d only been praying for a minute when the car slowed down and I opened my eyes.
“Okay.” Michellelee eased to a stop in front of Centinela Hospital. “I’m gonna park, but you two get in there.”
I wasn’t sure Emily had heard a word that Michellelee said, because she was out and just about through the front door of the hospital before the car was in park. I jumped out and rushed behind Emily, though it was impossible for me to keep up with my friend’s long strides. I’d expected her longer-than-shoulder-length hair to be flying behind her, Sarah-Jessica-Parker-Sex-and-the-City style. But she’d twisted her curly hair into a bun and I hadn’t even noticed when she’d done that.
“We’re here about the fire at the school,” Emily said to the woman at the information desk. “Has the room been set up?”
Emily spoke as someone who’d been through this kind of tragedy. Of course, she had. As a child-life psychologist, she was always in schools, and hospitals, and community centers helping children navigate through adversity.
Even with her slight Southern drawl, her words and her tone were professional, but I could hear the tremor in her voice. The woman didn’t notice it; she wouldn’t, it was so slight. But I heard the shaking, sure that I would sound worse if I’d been able to speak.
“Are you one of the family members?” the woman asked.
Emily said, “I’m a child psychologist,” as if those words alone were enough to give her a pass.
She was right. The woman nodded and pointed toward the elevators. “On the second floor.” She peered at us with sad eyes. “Room two-eleven.”
As we marched toward the elevator banks, Emily explained, “Whenever something like this happens, the hospitals set up a room.” She pressed the elevator button over and over as if that would make it come faster. “It gives the hospital administrators a central place.” When the doors opened, we rushed inside and Emily continued, “Now, when we get up there, we’ll probably see some of the parents of the children and maybe even family members of the firemen.”
I nodded and breathed, relieved. It sounded as if Emily didn’t think Jamal or Chauncey was one of the injured. Maybe God had told her what He’d told me. Maybe both of our husbands were fine. And if that was the case, then I didn’t need to be here; I wanted to go home.
But I didn’t say that to Emily as we rode in the elevator, and then, once again, I was running behind her, taking four steps to her two as we strode down the hall. By the time we found the room, I was huffing and puffing.
She pushed the door open and I heard the collective intake of air. Every man, every woman, held their breath as the door opened wider. All eyes were on Emily as if they expected her to say something.
It was the way she looked; on the one hand, with her long blonde hair and sea-blue eyes, Emily was the walking definition of what America called beautiful. But her manner and authority were beyond that. She stood, back straight, shoulders squared, eyes wide open and direct. She carried herself as if she knew everything.
Emily held up her hand in a little wave, letting everyone know that she was just one of them.
I wasn’t sure if anyone in the room noticed me, but that was the way it always was when I was with Emily and Michellelee. At five two, I was at least seven inches shorter than both of them. By nature, I just didn’t stand out.
Not that I wanted to stand out today, especially not in this small room, with about two dozen blue chairs pressed against the stark, hospital-white walls. There were two more rows of chairs in the center.
My eyes searched for a familiar face; I expected to see at least one of the many firemen’s wives that I’d met over the years. But through the sea of black and white and Hispanic faces, I saw no one that I knew.
“Has anyone been in here to talk to you?” Emily whispered to an African American couple who sat by the door, holding hands.
The man glanced up and nodded. “Just to tell us they were getting the identities of the children who’d been hurt and then the ones who . . .” He stopped right there, and shook his head. “None of us know anything.”
I got that feeling again; I wanted to go home. I wanted to wait for Chauncey there. Tonight, he’d fill me in. It would be late when he got home, but I would wait up and then he’d tell me all that had happened. We’d grieve together. At home. Together. Away from all of this. Together.
“Emily, I’m going to go—” But before she could even turn to face me, the door swung open, and now we were just like everyone else. We inhaled and focused on the three men who entered, all wearing hospital scrubs.
“We’re looking for the parents of Claudia Baldwin, Kim Thomas . . .”
Each time a name was called, someone leaped from their seat and the air thickened with grief.
The family members were escorted out, but before the doctor who had been calling names could turn away, the man sitting by the door jumped up. “What about our daughter? LaTrisha Miller?”
“We’ll be back in a few minutes,” the doctor said in a voice that I was sure was meant to be compassionate, but sounded curt, sounded tired. “We’ll let everyone know as soon as we can.”
That was not enough for Emily. She marched behind the doctor into the hallway, and I was right with her. Stopping him, she said, “Excuse me; I’m Doctor Harrington-Taylor and I’m here to check on my husband. He’s a firefighter and I don’t know if he’s here for sure, but I think he was at the school.”
“Oh,” the doctor said, looking from Emily to me. “Were you called?”
And then there was a wail. A screech, really, that was so sharp, it sliced my heart.
All three of us turned our eyes toward the sound that came from behind a closed door marked “Quiet Room.”
It took a few seconds for Emily to compose herself and get back to her business. “No, we weren’t called,” she said. “We heard . . . about the fire.” She paused and turned to me before adding, “Our husbands were probably at the school. My husband is Jamal Taylor and hers is Chauncey Williams.”
The doctor repeated their names and nodded. “I’ll see what I can find out, Doctor Harrington,” and then he rushed away.
That’s exactly what I wanted to do, rush away and go home. My eyes were on the door of the Quiet Room as I said, “Listen, Emily. I’m going to—”
We both turned as Michellelee hurried toward us. “I went to the school, but Cynthia was already set up,” she said, referring to another reporter from her station. “So I told them that I would see what was happening over here.” She looked at Emily and then at me. “Have you heard anything?”
Only Emily responded. “Nothing yet. What did you find out?”
It was the way that Michellelee lowered her eyes and shook her head that made me want to cover my ears.
“All I know is that there were a lot of casualties.”
I did everything I could to keep my eyes away from Emily. I didn’t want her to see what I was thinking; I was so afraid for her husband.
“Okay,” Emily said, her drawl more pronounced, showing me just how scared she really was. “That’s horrible, but it doesn’t mean that it’s Jamal or Chauncey.” She nodded as if that motion was helping her to stay composed.
I knew that I needed to stay right here, at the hospital with Emily. But more than needing to be here, I needed to go home. I had to get myself together so that I could be strong for Emily if it came to her needing me. I wouldn’t be able to be strong if I stayed here in front of this Quiet Room.
“Listen.” The word squeaked out of me. “I’m going to—”
The three of us swung around, at first standing there in shock. Jamal ran toward us, but we were still frozen; at least, Michellelee and I were.
Emily shrieked and then made a mad dash for Jamal, although that’s not really how it felt to me. This was playing out like one of those Hallmark commercials where the lovers race toward each other in slow motion.
I watched my best friend wrap her arms around her husband before Jamal swept her from the floor and into his arms.
“Oh, my God,” Emily said. “Thank God.”
Finally, I found my legs and rushed over to Jamal. “I’m so glad you’re all right,” I said.
It must’ve been the sound of my voice that made him open his eyes. Slowly. Emily slid down his body and Jamal faced me. The tears in his eyes made me frown.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Were you hurt?”
“Are one of you Mrs. Williams?” someone asked over my shoulder. “The wife of Chauncey Williams.”
But before I had a chance to turn around, Jamal whispered my name. “Miriam.”
It was the way he said it that stopped me cold. “What?”
“Miriam,” he said again, this time shaking his head, this time releasing a single tear from the corner of his eye.
My heart started pounding before my brain connected to what was happening.
This time, I turned to face the voice. “Yes,” I whispered.
“I’m Doctor Adams. Would you mind coming with me, please?”
“Where?” It was hard for me to speak through lips that were suddenly too dry.
“Over here.” The doctor pointed across the hall. To the Quiet Room.
I shook my head. “I’m not going in there.” Turning back to Jamal, I said, “Please. Please. Where’s Chauncey?”
His eyes drooped with sadness as he shook his head again.
“Is Chauncey back at the fire station?” I cried.
The doctor called my name at the same time Jamal said, “Miriam. I am so, so sorry.”
I felt Michellelee’s arm go around me. I heard Emily’s sob as she took my hand.
But it wasn’t until the doctor began, “Mrs. Williams, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but . . .” that I understood.
“No!” I heard a scream so sharp that I knew it couldn’t have come from me, even though it rang in my ears. “No.” I released my pain again.
Jamal stepped to me. “Miriam, I’m so sorry. But Chauncey . . . he died.”
That was when my world ended. Because just like I said, if Chauncey was gone, then I’d have to go, too. So right there, I let it go. My whole world stopped. I just let it all fade to black.