It was December 21, 1988 and I lived in New York City. Astoria, Queens to be exact. I was young enough that it was my first apartment habituating without roommates, but only my second one out of my parent's house upstate. I got the call when I returned home from the evening. This would have been somewhere in the vicinity of 5:00 am, so, know technically, Thursday December 22nd. It was my father's booming baritone on the answering machine, yes, an answering machine, a square box that plugged into the wall resembling the one the Angels spoke into when they wanted to contact Charlie, except this one had flashing lights, each flash indicating the number of messages. That morning I only had one.
"Christopher, Call home immediately. Call, as soon as you get this"
As if my father's ringing me at all wasn't strange enough. We never spoke on the phone. He loved me but he left all that to my mother, which is why I immediately dialed. You would have thought I would have put it together that someone was dead, the indicators were already there, but I didn't have much experience with people expiring, an Uncle in 7th Grade from Leukemia, a family friend to cancer, nothing surprising or shocking when it happened.
And terrorism... let's say, it wasn't as fashionable as it is this millennium, certainly not as common as it's been this shining year. Back then my husband (I wouldn't have even been allowed legally to have a husband) definitely wouldn't have expressed concern that we were seeing the first show of Star Wars at the sold out Cinerama Dome, admitting "I hate that this makes me a little nervous." In fact, I don't even know if I knew terrorism was a word in 1988, and if I did, I definitely didn't associate it with America.
"Theo Cohen is dead. You need to prepare yourself. It's all over the television set"
Theo Cohen was the girl that saved me in high school. A lot of gay guys have one like her, and we all think ours is unique. She was gorgeous and fiery and ruled the Drama Department. We met the night of the First Presbyterian Church's Haunted House event. She was dressed as a Zombie Elvira even though it was the week before Halloween and she had nothing to do with the event. I knew who she was, everyone did, she was overly dramatic and loud, arriving in High School like a laser, cutting through the bullshit and demanding to be seen.
"You're going to hold my hand walking through here."
That's what she said and it really was as simple as that. Both of us knew intuitively it wasn't going anywhere. She whispered things like, "I love that you have big shoulders," signifying immediately it was really all just a show. She was brave and her laugh was infectious. Her brazenness literally wiped all of my self consciousness away. There was no hiding standing next to her, and after that night, I stood by her at some point everyday. She knew I was gay even though I never told her. I know this even though she never told me. We were fast friends and comfortable in that way that told me it was for life, not knowing that life had an expiration date of 5 years.
This is what I thought watching the news. I got a lot of information fast when I saw her parents. They were literally everywhere on every network. Theo was returning from studying drama in London. I knew this. We talked regularly when she was a student at Syracuse University and she had gone abroad to study this semester. She died on Pam Am Flight 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, murdering all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board. Large sections of the aircraft crashed onto residential areas of Lockerbie, killing 11 more on the ground.
It was then that I remembered it was Christmas week. There was actually garland hanging in the background on the news. The airport was packed behind her mother sobbing on camera, people looking concerned, but hey, they were safe, and they had somewhere to be.
I shut it off and sat there a while. This is where I should tell you I drank then. I wasn't coming home at 5:00 AM from my bridge club. An alcoholic still years from getting sober, so I looked for a bottle of something, but like all good drunks I had drank it. There was, of course, no alcohol to be found in my place.
I put on my coat, scarf, hat and clothes and rushed out of there, the bells jingling on the wreath loudly like they had when I'd stumbled in, a reminder to the family I rented from upstairs I was trouble, the Izod shirt and penny loafers I wore at our first interview, now, an obvious ruse.
The bodega on the corner was open. I too, liked a good beer buzz in the morning, long before anyone sang about such things, and I needed to think what to do.
I could battle Christmas traffic and go to the airport. Hail a cab. JFK was quite close after all. My instinct was correct that her parents wouldn't be leaving, that they'd wait, and wait, adamant in their refusal to accept her flight wasn't coming.
As snow starting falling I realized this prospect was terrifying. I opted for my own mom instead. I took the R train to 34th Street, crossing the street right by Macy's, the decorations and lights now obscene. It was then I realized the only bag I brought with me was the brown paper one my Coors Light was in. I hoped the bar was open in Hoboken for another.
I drank all the way up on the Metro North Line, staring out the window at the gloom. Did she feel it? Did she know? Post 9/11 we didn't wonder about such things on the runway. Already the image of the nose of the plane they kept showing on the news was seared into my memory like a cattle brand, just like the producer's of that program would so be proud that it was.
I arrived to mine and Theo's little upstate town just in time to stand outside her house on Elizabeth Street watching through the picture window as the locals dismantled the family Christmas tree. The consensus was they wouldn't want to see it when they came home. It seemed like an aggressive act of sympathy. I wondered if people had broken into to do it, the tree, now repugnant, like a Frankenstein the villagers were determined to bring down.
In 2001 a Libyan intelligence officer, with a name I've never been able to pronounce, was jailed for life after being found guilty of 270 counts of murder in connection with the bombing. 8 years later he was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in 2012 and remains still the only person ever convicted of the attack.
This is my Christmas themed story. No reindeer. No elves. I think you'll remember it though. You'll say "Safe Travels" and you'll mean it. You'll hold your loved ones hand before take off. Because what represents the holiday more then love and family. Precious cargo. And to all a goodnight.