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Authors: Kim Hooper

People Who Knew Me

BOOK: People Who Knew Me
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I read somewhere that one of the most common fantasies is running away and starting a brand-new life.

This book is for all those people—cowardly and courageous—who dare to imagine leaving it all behind.



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 Pulaski 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.



It was fourteen years ago when I got into Angel Rivera's cab.
Fourteen years
. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like a dream.

I wasn't alone in that cab. My daughter was growing inside me. I'd thought long and hard about ending the pregnancy. My plan to move across the country and begin a completely new life made no sense with a baby. I would be lost. I would be utterly alone. Maybe that's why I wanted to keep her, so I wouldn't be.

“Current temperature of seventy-three degrees. Can't beat the weather,” the overly peppy flight attendant said when we landed in Los Angeles. I'd always wanted to go to California. And it had the added bonus of being the farthest away from New York that I could get without crossing an ocean or leaving the country. In California, people meditated and grew avocados in their backyards and kept bathing suits in their top dresser drawers. In New York, blood pressure ran high, produce arrived in trucks tired from cross-country journeys, and bathing suits, if owned at all, were tucked away with old Halloween costumes. I thought of California as being full of transplants like me, people starting over, anew, again. I could get lost in crowds of people also trying to get lost. People think it's easy to be anonymous in New York. It's not. The subway system creates an intimacy that even the coldest New Yorker can't avoid. California has highways full of people hiding in cars behind tinted windshields and knockoff sunglasses.

That first day when I arrived, I checked into a Motel 6 in downtown Los Angeles, next door to what might have been a crack house. I got a hamburger from McDonald's and flipped through the classifieds, looking for rooms to rent. I was convinced there were bugs in the sheets, so I stripped the bed and lay flat on the mattress. The room smelled like cigarette smoke. I apologized to my pregnant belly.

I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned. What kind of future would I be able to offer my child? I had enough cash to secure an apartment and hold me over for a few weeks, but then what? I had no prospects. I couldn't return to the career I'd started as Emily Morris. The promising life she had was dead. In the midst of my panic, I started singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and, somehow, I became calm, eerily calm. Life would be simpler, I thought. I'd strip it down to its bare essentials, change my definition of happiness to include just food and shelter for my baby and me. On the plane ride, I sat behind two backpackers embarking on a trek through Yosemite. They were talking about the simplicity of leaving everything behind, only having to worry about the weight on their backs. My focus could be similarly, pleasantly narrowed. I said, out loud, to my future child, “It will be okay. Just you and me now.”

Connie Prynne. That's the name I chose. My reasons were juvenile, really. I picked the first name of my favorite book character, Connie Chatterley in
Lady Chatterley's Lover
, and the last name of my second-favorite, Hester Prynne in
The Scarlet Letter
. I'd been a literature major in college—or, rather, Emily Morris had. Connie is from Florida. She graduated from Miami Central High School but never went to college. She moved to California when she was eighteen, following a boyfriend who had a pipe dream of becoming an actor. They broke up, he went back to Florida, she stayed. Her parents died in a freak boating accident when she was twenty-two. She has no siblings. Connie Prynne is a person without strings. In other words, free.

I assumed I'd find someone in a back alley to make me a fake ID. I'd use that to open accounts, start my life. Just like in the movies. It'd be as simple as switching from signing checks and forms as Emily Morris to signing them as Connie Prynne. But I realized I'd run into trouble when I got a job, when my name and paperwork would travel to the government for tax purposes and some old lady at a desk cluttered with Styrofoam coffee cups and pictures of grandchildren would scratch her head, unable to find evidence of my actual existence. I'd be locked up for some kind of fraud. I'd have taken the risk if it was just me, but I had Claire. That's what I named my little girl—Claire.

So I did it the legal way. It's always bothered me that there's evidence somewhere of who I used to be. For those first couple of years, I was convinced someone would find me out and come knocking on the door. My nightly lullaby was the reminder that nobody from my past would put out an inquiry for a woman they believed had died. I only had to worry about people in my present, which was why I vowed not to allow any people in my present.

Just Claire and me.

I didn't want friends. I didn't want lovers. I wasn't willing or able to take on anyone else. I was still mourning the people left behind in New York, the people who knew me. I was full-up with them. There wasn't room for someone new. That's what relationships are, after all—making room for other human beings, with all their requisite feelings and needs and demands and expectations. And it's always a risk. People can disappear at any moment.

The problem is, no man is an island. Ironically, I'd written a college paper about the John Donne poem containing that very line. Turns out that overly used, trite phrase bears an annoying truth. You can't go it alone, no matter how hard you try. Over the past fourteen years I've acquired a couple of people in my life, in spite of myself. One is JT. One is Al.

Those first eight months in California, I rented a crappy apartment in a not-so-great part of Canoga Park, in the Valley. Claire was born on May 9. The week after I brought her home, there was a gang-related homicide on our block. With those new-mother hormones coursing through my body, I considered going back to New York, I really did. But then I came across an ad in the classifieds for a cottage in Topanga Canyon. It seemed too cheap and good to be true, but I called anyway. The next day, I went to see the place and meet the owner, JT. It was one of Claire's first excursions into the world. I had her strapped to my chest. I called her my “roo,” my little kangaroo.

BOOK: People Who Knew Me
12.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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