‘So, word is — this isn’t your first life,” he grinned from behind his upraised bottle of Brooklyn Lager.
She shook her head and laughed, only mildly embarrassed. She’d been through this before.
“That’s me, Mac: Queen of the Undead.”
They smiled at each other and the nine years they’d been apart simply dissolved. The warm breeze ruffled her sun-bleached ponytail and the light freckles on her nose triggered summer memories. Why didn’t he hop the Hudson to Jersey more often? Couldn’t think of one reason, right now.
The Mexican restaurant was micro-sized, but the patio rocked. Mac stretched his arms and looked toward the traffic on Nassau Street and the Princeton campus just beyond. Normally, this close to his alma mater, he’d be counting minutes until he could head over and look for something edgier than beer. But, no, he could sit here watching New Ted all day.
What a trip, seeing her after so many years, looking hot as hell and acting as sweet as she’d been before her phobias drove her to that California boarding school. Or institution, if you believed the rumors. But, damn, he thought, twitchy chick or not, she was always his biggest fan. Loyal, too. He wished he could say the same about himself.
“I watched the documentary, you know,” he said suddenly, “It was … cool.”
She laughed. “Cool? Did you see the Youtube parodies?”
“Yeah.” He shouldn’t have brought it up.
“My favorite was ‘Dead Ted, Zombie Waitress,’ but the graphics in ‘Theodora Titanic’ were funkier.”
Her eyes twinkled. She was okay.
“Your old-fashioned name finally paid off. Props to your parents!”
“They say they’re just glad I’m … better.” She peeled at her soggy beer label. He saw it was empty and sought another from the cooler. “It took years of research and interviews, but now I know. I died, I drowned a long, long time ago and it was really … awful, but it’s all history. Literally, I guess, ” she grinned self-consciously.
“It explains a lot…”
“Right? I know. The sleep problems…”
“Your profound fear of water, man, I don’t think you ever even walked near a pool.”
“And the panic attacks.”
He leaned his elbows on the table, laced his fingers, avoided her eyes. “I’m really sorry I didn’t help you that time.”
“You were a sophomore, you couldn’t risk it.”
“I am sorry,” he looked over at her and suddenly meant it.
She raised her hand. “’Nuff said. We’re cool.”
He was relieved to see no lingering hurt in her eyes.
The documentary had been epic: The hypnosis sessions where she’d described drowning in painful detail, and then the investigation of her obscure details about the doomed ocean liner. He’d watched it twice, and like the rest of the country, found himself buying the almost unbelievable.
“…and finding out about the roses? Why I dream about them? Well, that was a life saver.” Staring at her bottle she began peeling the new label.
The meeting took place between Ted and a Titanic survivor’s daughter, an elderly woman, who had heard about Ted’s “visions.” On camera, Teddy wore a black turtleneck and looked studious and sexy. Attentive and respectful, she listened as the woman revealed the story behind the white roses Teddy had had nightmares about since birth:
“The roses belonged to my Aunt Alice. You see, her gentleman, my father’s closest friend, had proposed the day before the … the sinking of the ship. The three of them worked in the A la Carte, a ship restaurant privately owned by Mr. Gatti, an Italian fellow. Thomas, my aunt’s fiance, was head waiter and, well a proposal mid-journey was an event, so my father and others, they gathered 100 white roses and placed them in her compartment. Very romantic, this Thomas,” she tipped her head toward Teddy with a slight quaver.
Teddy had nodded, her tea forgotten.
“The next night, after the collision, the ladies boarded a lifeboat. Mr. Gatti saw to it that his lady workers got seats secured; you know, many White Star crew members were locked below deck, so as not to rush the lifeboats…” she shook her head and pressed wrinkles out of the tablecloth.
“Well, the young men raced to Alice’s cabin — this is why they lived, they were near the women’s quarters, not the men’s bunks, where they, might have been trapped, and I would never…” she shook her head and refocused.
“They gathered all the flowers they could, raced to the ship’s rail, and presented them to Alice, just after she’d boarded. The lifeboat captain simply refused to allow it and threw several bouquets back over the rail,” the woman smiled wryly and shook her head. “So, Thomas, he gathered more flowers, all he could find, and dropped them down upon the small boat as it was lowered. My father always said it looked like a wedding barge, and the angry crewman was covered in petals. Father told us: “He would have pulled that boat back to the rail if he could! He’d ‘ave thrown out the lot of them, the flowers and your aunt, as well!’”
They’d laughed and the camera closed in on the woman’s faded blue eyes.
“Well,” she cleared her throat. The background music grew ominous. “My father was watching with Thomas as the ropes grew tangled and the boat overturned. Alice never resurfaced,” her voice was hoarse now and she took a few long sips from her cup.
“The unsinkable ship then sank, you know. My father and his friend were thrown into the sauce, so to speak, but father was saved by a lifeboat. Thomas’ remains, his body,” she bravely emphasized the word, “was recovered five days later by the Mackay-Bennet, a ship from Halifax.
“But they, well, they didn’t recover Alice, ever. Of 69 workers at A la Carte, my father was one of three who survived.”
There was an emotional silence, and the cameras clung to her profile until she looked back at her guest. “So, Theodora: If you feel you drowned amidst the words ‘White Star Line,’ twisted ropes and dozens of white roses, well, I, I think you did; I think you were there, dear.”
It had been intense. He stared at Ted now and thanked God the old lady’s dad had survived to tell the tale. If not, Mac was pretty sure the lovely woman before him would be in a straight jacket.
“I really am better,” she told him, reading his mind. “I swim.”
“No,” he slapped at her hand. “You lie. If we were to drive to the Delaware for a tube float and a hot dog, you would dip a toe in?”
“I would sir, and I will. Pick a day, big shot.”
It was a challenge. He swallowed. “Next weekend?”
Her cheeks reddened and she nodded. He laughed. God, it was ridiculous how jazzed he was. When had he last felt like this? When had he been around a woman so real, so damned familiar? His mother said he needed too much “outlaw” in his girlfriends, lately. She’d be happy, now. In fact, she had set this lunch up. Tonight, Mom, he thought, you’ll be getting one helluva non-Shoprite bouquet.
“Helloo?” Teddy leaned forward and punched his arm. He grabbed her hand and held it.
“Hey,” he said, “tell me something about this whole Titanic thing you’ve never told anyone else.”
Watching his eyes, she sipped her beer, nodded. “Let me think. Just between us, right?”
He raised an eyebrow and waited.
She shrugged. “Ok, when I ‘drowned,’ I didn’t really feel cold. I felt kind of, I don’t know, warm, and so sad to lose this love I’d once had. Homesick, almost,” her eyes were wet. “I’ve always felt it, this pain. I mean — I may be over that water thing, the fear — but this emptiness, here,” she touched her chest, “it’s like a hole in my soul.”
“Drag,” he said finally, his voice husky.
She looked away, shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Well, that was TMI. My bad.”
He squeezed her fingers hard. She stared at their hands, knotted together and the emotions he’d been feeling were suddenly reflected in her expression. With her brow creased in surprise, she clutched his hand tighter and looked up at him for a long moment.
“You’ve changed,” she whispered. “Where’s the Big Mac who would have been scopin’ all the hot Betty’s walkin’ by on a day like today?”
The waiter brought the check and noisily cleared away their bottles.
“You know,” Mac said as he tucked cash under the check, “we could skip the tubing and you could let me take you out in the city. They have hotdogs there, and I have changed a lot, since we hung out. Not sure if you’ve heard but I’m kind of a..”
“…a big swingin’ d–, um, success on Wall Street? Dad doesn’t shut up about it.” She gathered her satchel and sunglasses. “I’d like that, and I’ll be in the city next Friday. I’ve got this thing.”
“Oh, you’ve got a thing.”
“Yeah, it’s a Titanic thing, a costume party on Roosevelt Island? This new book is coming out, they’re making the last meal served onboard, it starts at five o’clock, yadda, yadda … I’m a total geek.” She lowered her head and gave him a sideways glance and a smile… “wanna come?”
Mac decided she was irresistible. He leaned in and kissed her. Delicious.
He grabbed a cab to the Roosevelt Tram, swiped his Metrocard, and ducked inside the waiting car just before the creaky door slammed, and it swung upward. At an empty spot against the rail, he dropped his messenger bag and watched the car lights twinkling on the East Side Highway. He might make the last half of the party.
Looking around the crowded tram, he saw it was full of uniformed cops, most drinking coffee or reading cell phones.
“You fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” one of the officers was saying through a mouthful of hotdog. “That one copter took out three o’ them boats? And then exploded? Jesus, I gotta get my talkie fixed,” he slurped at a bottle of soda.
Mac threw his gaze toward the island and saw the flashing lights and soon heard the faint chorus of mourning sirens.
“Yeah, people thought we was bein’ attacked again, copter hittin’ the East River that hard, that fast,” a young cop shook his head and looked down at his scuffed black shoes.
Staring wild-eyed at the twirling lights, Mac slid down to a crouch and willed his hammering heart to slow. It did. It seemed to stop. He tried to breathe and focused hard on the inside of a cop’s hat across from him. It had a nude photo tucked inside the lining. Trying to quell the wave of panic that rose in his chest, he studied the picture: A blonde with air-brushed curves and pink, parted lips.
“I was on the ferry and I saw them old black boats. They picked up these actors or somesuch, from the Seaport; they were dressed in old-fashioned clothes, wearin’ big hats and carrying flowers and stuff. Oh, the boats said ‘White Star Line’ on ‘em. What’s that? I mean, I heard it was a Titanic thing.”
Someone answered him: “Movie company, maybe? Who knows?”
An older officer in plainclothes shook his head and picked at his gray mustache. He spoke quietly: “My buddy Tommy? From water rescue? He said they thought they had a survivor, but it was no go.”
“Yeah, copter that size sinks everything around it,” the hot-dog eating cop shook his head. “You know, Billy was there. He said it was creepy, really. On top of the water, over everything? Hundreds of flowers. Freakin’ white flowers floatin’ everywhere.”
Slattery is a Pennington resident and former magazine edito