The Book

It all started with one line: “People who knew me think I’m dead.” I wrote a short story based on that one line. I set it aside for a long while, but that one damn line kept bugging me. I knew I was supposed to make this into a book.

In simple terms, this book is about a woman who runs away from everything. She plays hooky from work on 9/11 and, realizing her loved ones assume she’s dead, she flees to California to start a brand new life. Fourteen years later, with a daughter in tow, she’s forced to deal with her past, the choices she made, and the people she left behind.

Here is how the story begins.

People who knew me think i'm dead

The words rolled around the back of my throat, like clothes in a slow spin cycle. I’d just hailed a taxi, settled into my seat, its seams split to reveal yellow foam beneath. The cab smelled like pine. I expected to see one of those air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror, but there wasn’t one.

The cabbie’s name was Angel Rivera. According to the identification badge on the dashboard, that is. He was forty-something, with a gold chain around his neck and a faded sticker of the Puerto Rican flag on his glove compartment. He looked straight ahead, didn’t dare make eye contact with me via the mirror. A week before, planes flew into buildings and people died. The ones left behind—me, Angel Rivera, all of us— responded by either embracing everyone or trusting no one.

I trusted no one.

“Newark Airport, please,” I said. He didn’t respond, just nodded and navigated his way to the Henry Hudson Parkway, my road out of everything.

I had my purse under one arm, an overnight bag under the other. To Angel Rivera, I must have looked like a woman committed to her career, flying off to a business meeting in Philadelphia or D.C. or Boston or some other place requiring just an overnight bag. Maybe he resented the tight bun on top of my head, the height of my heels, the obvious expense of my blouse and perfectly fitting skirt—the same blouse and skirt I’d worn the day before those buildings fell. He didn’t want to be there, driving around someone like me. He wanted to be home with the family I pictured him to have—a few kids and a wife who cleaned apartments or waited tables or worked as a nanny for women like me, overnight-bag-carrying women who left their loved ones for big-city meetings. He wanted to hold that family close because we’d all learned a week before that anything could happen.

There was none of the usual traffic leading to the Holland Tunnel. We drove right in. I closed my eyes, like I used to as a kid, making wishes in the darkness. As I said good-bye to New York, my only wish was for everyone I left behind to forget me.

Forgiveness was too much to ask for.

Light filled the cab as we exited the tunnel. I opened my purse and counted the cash discreetly. I’d cut up all my credit cards and my ATM card, flushed the bits down the toilet. I kept my driver’s license. I’d need it as identification to get on the plane. There was no way around that. Renting a car would have required ID, too. I’d briefly considered stealing a car, but was sure I’d screw that up. I’d end up in jail, begging the cops to keep me there forever instead of calling my confused husband to bail me out. They’d write me up as a mental case, which I probably was. So I decided to fly, to be one of the brave few to board a plane so soon after what had happened. The uniformed guys at the security gate would be on higher alert than ever before, but my ID wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. Nobody would be checking for an Emily Morris catching a flight from New Jersey to California. Emily Morris was dead.

I stared out the window as we took the Pulsaki Skyway over the Passaic and Hackensack rivers. I grew up there—in Jersey. My mom still lived in Irvington. I’d never see those rivers, or her, again. Even though we weren’t close, my mom and I, the finality of it all should have brought me to tears. But I just sat tight-lipped and unblinking. I was already becoming a different person, a colder person.

I’d cried over so many smaller things before. I’d cried at the sight of dead dogs on the side of the road, their fur fluttering in wind generated by passing cars. I’d cried when that gymnast busted her knee in the 1996 summer Olympics. I’d cried when I sold my first car, a run-down 1985 Honda Civic. The tears weren’t for the vehicle itself, but for the memories associated with it—driving out to Coney Island during the summer before college, stuffing all my belongings in the hatchback for the move to the dorms at NYU, kissing the guy who would become my husband in the front seat after seeing City Slickers in a second-run theater with sticky floors from spilled sodas. He didn’t have a car. That’s why he drove mine.

But I couldn’t cry in Angel Rivera’s cab. I’d cried all my tears in the days leading up to the decision to leave. Tears for love lost when the buildings fell, tears for necessary choices, and tears for me—because, after all, I had died.

PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME. Copyright 2016 by Kimberly Hooper. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. St. Martin’s Press.