The sandwich was huge and it was the size of it that took him back all those years.
They’d been on a last-minute trip of a lifetime to see the sights of the Big Apple. For Jess, though, it was more than that, for she was starting her new life as well. The New York office job at Cantor Fitzgerald was an opportunity she could never pass up on, he knew that, but he worried he would lose her when she started there, across the wide Atlantic.
It had happened to him before. When Helen went to university a year before him, he realised that there would be strains, but he never thought she would end it with him. Girlfriends in far off places would always cause him some anxiety.
Their last meal at Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue was a treat they’d waited for. A New York icon for visitors and locals alike, the kitsch entrance lobby was full of pictures of the stars past and present who had eaten there and it only precluded the glass cases of huge desserts they both drooled over in anticipation.
“I’m going to have the strawberry gateau thing,” she said.
“Looks like tiramisu for me!” Was Michael’s choice, as he tore himself from the refrigerated display, when their host took them to their table. They pored over the menu for a while before the waitress came for their order.
“Hot Pastrami, for me.” He looked over to Jess, with her long blonde hair, French plaited at the back, just how he loved it.
“Whitefish Salad for me.” She settled her menu back on the table and the waitress scooped them up and was gone.
The place was alive with a variety of bustling diners and staff and although they were just from dear old England, in the innocence of their youth they both felt perfectly at home. All those years of American soaps had readied them for this moment.
Before it all began to come undone, that is.
Their dinners arrived and they both looked askance at each other as they saw the mountain of food in front of them. Michael counted eighteen slices of pastrami. Jess’s was less overwhelming, but a large eat for the tiny girl she really was, underneath her big character.
“Well,’ she said, “Let’s get to it!”
She smiled the smile Michael would never forget as she took the first bite. He simply couldn’t bite into his, so he sought refuge in a knife and fork, whatever the locals might think. Eating on this scale was not British at all!
He felt a little relieved that she was settling in for a while at least. Their college romance had stood the strain of the gap year she took with four girlfriends, across every continent. He was starting to see the future ahead of them, despite her being on this side of the Pond for a while.
That chilly Sunday evening, she cried him off on the red-eye from JFK and went back to her newly rented apartment. Time to get ready for her first day in the huge downtown tower block, the like of which they didn’t even have in the City of London, where she’d started her financial career.
Not back in 2001.
She had checked her route on the subway half a dozen times already and took an early night, before the unfamiliar journey Downtown and up to the 93rd floor to begin the next stage of her blistering career. She had settled well to the world of financial dealing and this was but another step on a ladder she had dreamed about all her life.
Andrea sat Jess in her corner office as she welcomed her that late Summer morning, with sun beaming down on her new world. As the day wore on, despite the busyness of the office, she made new friends quickly.
“How has it gone then?” Andrea called to her as she prepared for home? “You coming back tomorrow?” She laughed.
“Sure am!” Jess replied, in her newly acquired faux New York accent.
“See you then.”
Andrea called down the office after Jess. “Hey, do I have your cell number?”
She had a new cell, so she fumbled a little as she found it for her boss and then retraced her steps back to the tiny, neat apartment, over the bridge in Brooklyn.
The next morning, it was 8.25 as she was coming up out of the subway station and the cellphone rang in her bag. She fumbled again and missed the call. Fortunately for her, Andrea rang back straight away.
“I need you to come with me to a meeting on Wall Street with a couple of bankers. You up for that?”
“Are you sure?” Jess said back at the phone.
“Yea, it’ll be good experience for you and I need your help with them. It’s your area. I’ll get files from the office first and meet you there at 9.30,” Andrea said, as he gave the details.
Wall Street indeed, Jess thought. Amazing.
But Andrea never got there, as the buildings tumbled down.
Neither did Jess, as the world collapsed and her next few days were chaotic and deeply emotional. She managed to get word to Michael and her parents, but her trauma was exceptional.
Michael didn’t see her again for two lost years.
She stayed in the apartment for three days and then left New York for good. She only heard from two of the people she met on that first day.
Two of the few survivors from the office in the sky. Hundreds dead.
She flew out to Thailand and stayed. Learnt to teach English to kids on the beach and got her diving license. The sun and sea couldn’t undo the anguish scarring her mind. The dark blot that came to her in the night and sometimes in the day too.
Then she met the simple teacher who told her many things. Yet none were so profound as one thing alone.
“They are thoughts, that’s all. You – and only you – are making them up and you can change them, with time. And practice.”
For 6 months she sat with him and practiced clearing her mind and taking control back.
When she was ready, she called Michael again.
“I’m ready now.”
And he flew to her.
“It’s closed now.”
“I know – last December wasn’t it?”
“The last time you had pastrami?”
He nodded, caught in his emotions for a minute.
Two bright young girls giggle their way to his lap, chattering 13 to the dozen as he folds them both in his arms.
Jess looks the same to him, as all those years ago on 7th Avenue. Just the same, French plaits and all.
“Sometimes, everything coming undone is worth it,” she said, smiling at him and the girls.
“For all the coming together it brings.
“When you’re patient enough. And those around you are as well.”