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Out of the Rubble Comes a Need to Connect

Like a big-screen romance, finding a long-term relationship has taken on a new urgency since Sept. 11.

November 25, 2001|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A young man learns he has an incurable illness and will soon die. How will he spend the time he has left? More than one television series has milked such a premise, featuring a hero who gorges on experience while the Grim Reaper pursues him as relentlessly as Lt. Gerard dogged the Fugitive.

Since Sept. 11, millions of ordinary people have become stars of their own dramas. Everybody knows that no one here gets out alive, but until recently, many people ignored that truism. Life was a less suspenseful show, one that offered immeasurable promise.

"Until two months ago, I always felt I'd have time to fix it--time to invest, time to create, time to save, time to get in shape, time to fall in love. I thought I'd be around forever, so I took the ability to have and to do for granted," says Ken Kaufman, a 35-year-old New York fashion designer who's between jobs and relationships. "Now I'm respecting every day, because you never know when you'll be running to a business meeting at 9:50 on a Tuesday morning and everything will be taken away from you."

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, "It was like a movie," was repeated so often that the simile soon became trite. The familiar imagery of disaster films provided the easiest way to describe real horrors. And then, echoes of another Hollywood genre emerged from the rubble--the love story.

The most poignant cinematic romances have always been tales of love lost. Yet many people who didn't know anyone killed in the attacks were touched. They have absorbed tragedy's residue like a nonsmoker taking in secondary smoke. They weren't close enough to inhale the most pungent fumes, but they've still been transformed. For them, Sept. 11 and its aftershocks prompted soul-searching and reordering of priorities. It's as if New Year's Eve, the senior prom and a milestone birthday had all been rolled into one mega-event fraught with self-examination.

Personal reassessment could be a temporary response, this cloudy autumn's behavioral fad. Nevertheless, with visions of violence still fresh, men and women of diverse ages throughout the country are talking candidly about making major life decisions within earshot of a cosmic clock that's ticking louder. "If this wasn't a wake-up call to tell us we have one shot at life, so we'd better make it a good one, I don't know what could be," Kaufman says. "I'm not going to make a lifetime commitment to the first man I meet, but I don't want my dog to be the one who'd miss me most if I died."

Have cinematic lovers ever been as eloquent as the doomed World Trade Center occupants and airline passengers who used answering machines and cell phones to bid goodbye? When Lisa Beamer, whose husband was one of the heroes of United Flight 93, appeared on NBC's "Dateline," she spoke more of gratitude than sorrow. Calm and radiant, the pregnant widow described her 32-year-old husband as the great love of her life, and said memories of him will sustain her as she raises their three children. Tom Hanks, waxing poetic about his dead wife in "Sleepless in Seattle," didn't convey the magnitude of his devotion more movingly.

Paul Wagman, the father of two teenagers and a 53-year-old advertising executive in St. Louis, was divorced four years ago from his wife of 11 years. "St. Louis is far enough removed from the locus of the catastrophe that the impact here has been muted," he says. No one he knows has been taking Cipro or buying gas masks. Yet those emotional cell-phone oaths haunt him.

"I thought about what would have happened if I'd been on one of the planes that went down. Who would I have called? I guess I'd have left a voicemail for my kids. That thought upsets me and makes me feel sad about my present situation. It reinforced my sense of loneliness."

"Who you gonna call?" used to mean something else. Two months into the scary world that terrorism has wrought, the question isn't just the goofy refrain of the "Ghostbusters" anthem. It's the measure of isolation. Who would care if your plane crashed? Who would tell Katie Couric, with conviction, that you'd enriched their lives?

In a crisis, Anastasia Soare, who owns a Beverly Hills eyebrow grooming salon and cosmetics business, would call Ron Cobert, whom she began dating a year and a half ago. Despite the fact that they were instantly and mutually smitten, her first marriage ended after 15 years, and she firmly believed she'd never want to marry again. So she told him her relationship rules: Don't call her at work, because she's too busy shaping the eyebrows of her celebrity clientele to chat. Don't talk about marriage. Don't even think about more children.

Cobert, a 40-year-old photographer and commercial director who had never been married, obeyed. Then the world changed, and, independently, both changed their minds too. One night at dinner, he slyly dropped a diamond ring into Soare's glass of champagne and proposed. She accepted, and the two will marry next summer.

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