My girlfriend Jeanie is eighteen. I know, I know.
My girlfriend before Jeanie was nineteen. That was cutting it close, but she was a December baby. It was all right.
A lot of people think I’m disgusting. My mother thinks I’m disgusting. So do my seven brothers and sisters.
“You’re too old for those girls!” they say at Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter. They call my lovers “girls.” As if there’s no such thing as puberty. As if there’s no difference between age eight and age eighteen.
“You’re a grown man!” they shout, all at once sometimes. There are a lot of them. It gets loud.
“You’re thirty-nine years old! What is wrong with you? Seriously. Are you sick inside? Your brain must be rotting.”
That sort of thing.
I explain myself. They never get it. They won’t accept my reasoning, no matter how patiently I offer it, that the only women I can have feelings for are the ones who weren’t born yet when 9/11 happened.
What a terrible day that was. It was horrible!
But it was such a pretty morning.
It was September. Everybody loves September.
The air was crisp and birds sang. No one had a clue what was coming.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky in Amarillo, where I was living at the time. I worked at a gas station. Customers came and went, some smiling, some frowning, everyone wrapped up in their undisturbed lives.
A man pulled up in his truck to pump number seven. Tires screeched. He filled his truck and three cans with gasoline and rushed inside to pay. When I asked what was up he threw bills at me and said, “It’s all over. Do you not know? Turn on the news! And keep the change, man.”
I’d been watching a car race on ESPN.
It was an exciting race. One car was in first place. Another car pulled in front of it. Then the car that had been in first place zoomed ahead so it was in first place again. Probably not the best thing to watch at work, but damn.
I switched to the news. As soon as I saw what was there I knew my life as I’d known it was over.
Two iconic buildings, one in flames. Smoke pouring into the sky.
I was freaked out. I wanted to leave!
I couldn’t go home without losing my job, though. And having a job is the most important thing in the world to me. I’ve always had a work ethic, which is why I’m successful now. But I’m not ashamed to admit it: behind the register at BP, that morning and afternoon, I wept for my country.
I was so scared. Everyone was scared. Half my customers were crying. I don’t know where they were going in their cars, maybe to a crying place.
How could those men do that? I wondered as I watched CNN. How does your heart get so cold that you do such things?
I couldn’t answer that question.
For years after that, I tried to go about my life as I had before. I kept working, because I always work hard. I climbed the ranks at the Amarillo BP and then got better jobs that weren’t at gas stations.
I dated women my age. I spent a year with one who was three months older than I was. But I knew in the back of my chest, like in front of my back, not far from my heart, but closer to one of my lungs, if that makes sense, that every love affair I began was doomed to be only that: an affair. Not a relationship, but ships passing in the night.
It would be years before I could articulate why I couldn’t settle down, couldn’t commit. I got to the root of the issue at last using online therapy and Reddit.
The problem was that all those women I’d wanted to love but couldn’t had seen the impossible take place. Like me, they had lived to see a terrible day when out of the clear blue sky two airplanes destroyed the American dream and our sense of ourselves as a nation. They traumatized us all, casting us out of paradise, never to return, and two other planes did pretty much the same thing, adding insult to injury on what should have been a wonderful Tuesday.
Maybe I would have made this self-discovery sooner, if I’d talked about 9/11 with the girlfriends I’d had in the years that followed that unprecedented day. But by 9/11/02 no one talked about 9/11/01. Like all the worst problems, we didn’t address it directly. We mailed it to some remote part of ourselves where we hoped we’d never see it again. We didn’t want to confront what had been done to us.
After so many years of ugly breakups and bitter fare-thee-wells, after so many spilled tears and hurt feelings, I met Amanda.
She looked at least twenty. I assumed she was twenty. That would have made her two years old on 9/11—too young to recall the tragedy consciously, but still within its blast radius. She would still—I thought—have felt the effects of that day. The horror, the trauma.
I woke in her bed with its pink sheets. Her room smelled like hot chocolate, I don’t know why.
She said I had to get out. Fast!
Her mother would come in any second to say, “Get your ass to school, Mandy!”
“Your mom talks like that?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, and in my groggy fog the things she’d said caught up with me.
She lived with her mother?
And she went to school?
That must mean high school!
“How old are you?” I said.
“Seventeen,” she said.
I breathed a sigh of relief. If you can believe this, the age of consent in the state where I live is sixteen.
I said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.”
I thought if I put my clothes back on and introduced myself to her mother, who it turned out was my age, I could explain myself and everything would be all right.
But it wasn’t fine. Her mother screamed. She hit Amanda on the face and she was probably late for school.
I called the house later, to follow up, but her mother answered and said I could never see her little girl again. She was crying, which was too bad, because if anything I brought Amanda quite a lot of joy in the brief time we spent together.
She said I should be ashamed of myself.
I said I wasn’t ashamed of myself. I said I felt really good, actually, and that she should, too, because she’d brought up such a bright and beautiful girl who was so open and curious about the world and the people in it.
Anyway. I thought about Amanda a lot after that, because I was in love and my heart was broken.
It took an embarrassingly long time for me to put two and two and nine and eleven together and realize that the reason she’d seemed so fair and free from worry was that she was born after 9/11. Not before. That meant her experience of life wasn’t tainted by the reprehensible actions of Ziad Jarrah Ahmed al Ghamdi, Hamza al Ghamdi, Saeed al Ghamdi, Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al Hazmi, Salem al Hazmi, Ahmad al Haznawi, Ahmed al Nami, Khalid al Mihdhar, Majed Moqed, Abdul Aziz al Omari, Mohand al Shehri, Wail al Shehri, Waleed al Shehri, Satam al Suqami, and—last but not least—Mohamed Atta of Egypt.
In my online dating profile I go out of my way to explain in detail why I prefer women age eighteen or nineteen.
People write to me and say they can’t believe 9/11 affected me so badly that it interferes with matters of the heart. I didn’t lose friends or family in the towers. What’s the big deal?
I explain myself. If it’s a young woman who’s asking, I mention that I’m rich, which is not a lie. I add that if 9/11 taught me anything it’s that life is short. Out of nowhere it can be changed irreversibly by hijacked airplanes. Enjoy it while you can and share your wealth.
Women like me. They like that I know how to enjoy life.
The young ones like that in particular. They let me take them places like Reno, Nevada and my mom’s house. We go there to celebrate holidays, I don’t know why.
My siblings have worked out a system: one of them distracts my date with conversation, while in another room the others barrage me with accusations. They say I’m a sick man who uses a national tragedy as an excuse to have sex with young girls.
“Your girlfriend is as young as my daughter!” shouted my big sister Hannah last Easter. A time of renewal.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “No one in this family gets it. You’ve never properly reckoned with the damage those dark-hearted men caused on September 11, 2001.”
“You think I don’t understand? I lost my first husband on 9/11. Did you forget that?”
“Hannah,” I said. “That doesn’t count.”
Tears streamed down her face.
But it’s true. He was driving a truck in Tulsa. It crashed and he died instantly. It was on 9/11/01, but it was hours before American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower.
My mother said, “I want you to settle down, Louis. Find someone your own age. Someone you can raise a family with. Have a full life.”
“I will!” I said. “Not with someone my age, that’s out of the question. But in, I don’t know, five years, maybe there will be mature women who weren’t born yet when 9/11 happened. If the recessions stop coming and our culture allows them to break out of their perpetual adolescence, maybe one of them will want to start a family.”
At least the arguments are like that, now. At least we’re not still fighting over who’s truly responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center.
For years all we did was relitigate who was and was not behind the attacks. I felt for so long like I was crazy when I went home, because no one could stand it when I walked them through the evidence that none other than President George W. Bush was behind the whole thing.
Now, at least, we can find some common ground.
Sometimes, when we’re done fighting about how young my girlfriend is, we complain together about how young people these days seem to only like stuff that’s for kids.
“When I was their age,” my sister Janice said, “I was reading Henry Miller. Naked Lunch. Now, though? My son’s twenty-three and he reads books for twelve-year-olds.”
But the fighting is hard on me. It’s hard on my relationships with the women I bring home, who have more in common with my nieces and nephews than they do with me. I think that freaks them out. They usually break up with me after they meet them.
Maybe I’ll stop going home. Maybe this Thanksgiving I’ll stay at my house with Jeanie.
I’ll roast the turkey. She can invite her friends from college, if they’re not going home to their families.
They probably are.
I think I’m in love with Jeanie, though. She might be The One.
She mentioned once that she read about 9/11 in her history class. I freaked out. But when I asked what she thought of it she shrugged and changed the subject.
Being with Jeanie is like taking a nice bath. She makes me feel clean inside and out. When we’re together I feel like I’m once again the man I was meant to be before Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the other guys who definitely did 9/11 took everything from me and ruined me for life.
Robert Long Foreman has won a Pushcart prize and published work in Kenyon Review Online, AGNI , Willow Springs, and other magazines. His collection of short fiction, I Am Here to Make Friends, is out now, and his first novel, Weird Pig, is available for pre-order from SEMO Press . Follow him on Twitter at @robertlong4man.