During my two years in New York City, I went only once to Windows on the World, the venue spanning the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. My invitation was to the bar rather than to the restaurant proper, and the occasion was a work party.
I had held many jobs prior to becoming a speech therapist in New York City— ice cream scooper, telex operator, waitress— but none of them had been professions, and none of them had been in the city. I had come of age in Vermont, where a party meant that I put on my less muddy pair of hiking boots and traded my flannel shirt for a sweatshirt with the neck cut out to achieve that off-the-shoulder Flashdance look. Compounding my professional inexperience with the office party was my social hesitancy; I was the kind of child that chose to curl up in a corner of the playground with my nose in a book rather than engage with any of my classmates, and I was, and still am, the sort of adult that experiences a peculiar mixture of apprehension and anticipation prior to social engagements. I hadn’t been at my job for long enough to make the sort of friend I could ask to meet me at the foot of the Tower so I could be spared a solo entrance, and I certainly hadn’t yet found the sort of friend that I could call and admit to my complete helplessness when faced with the question of what to wear to a party in the bar of Windows on the World.
So it was that on an unseasonably warm evening in the autumn, after navigating my way through the confoundingly large subway station and then through the surprisingly spacious mall below the Twin Towers, I found myself standing, horrified, in my black tee shirt and my best jeans, twenty feet from the two jolly doormen guarding the elevator that would take me to my destination, watching the flow of sharply-dressed men and women in and out of said elevator.
“Oh no,” I thought to myself. “You’ve dressed for a bar in Burlington, Vermont, not for a bar at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, you numbskull.” I considered my options: I was already nearly thirty minutes late, but I could scour the nearby shops for a more suitable outfit, thus further delaying my arrival and forcing me to face another uncomfortable facet of life, clothes shopping; I could turn on my heel and journey back home to Brooklyn, making excuses after the fact (“Sorry I missed it— I had a terrible headache/stomachache/heartache that evening”); or I could face the music and hope that the bouncers would admit me despite my clear failure to dress appropriately.
I opted, briefly, for the first option; I half-heartedly entered a handful of stores and ran my hand over clothing that could possibly improve my situation, but I knew, even as I went through the motions, that I was wasting my time. There were really only two ways out for someone who was even worse at shopping than at socialising. I girded myself for confrontation and headed back towards the two smiling men standing between me and Windows on the World.
“Hi,” I said to one of them, then continued by way of explanation, “I’m not going to the restaurant, just to the bar. My school is having a party there.”
The colour rose in my cheeks as the man I had addressed cast a split-second glance at my outfit. Then he nodded. “The bar is no problem,” he said. “Have fun, honey,” he added, ushering me towards the open elevator door, before resuming the jovial chat with his co-worker.
After exiting the elevator and being shown by another doorman into the bar at Windows on the World, I stood motionless for several seconds, frozen like a deer in headlights by the contrast between my sartorial inadequacy and the splendor of the view of New York City at dusk, before one of my colleagues spotted me and welcomed me to the party.
I endured the evening, but perhaps because of my abiding discomfort in my black tee shirt, I failed to properly take in the astounding panorama outside the windows. I recall spotting a few landmarks and recognising that I was ridiculously high up, but what I remember most vividly about that evening was my embarrassment.
To wear the wrong outfit to a party is unfortunate, but does no significant damage; other faux pas can occur at parties, however, that have more serious repercussions. A few years after the employee party at Windows on the World, I was asked to another party, this time a housewarming party for a friend I had made shortly after to moving to London. My husband Markus and I had since left London; I was pregnant with our second child and living in Cambridge when I received Christina’s invitation. I fretted at the idea of travelling so far from our toddler son, with my sizeable belly, to a party in an unfamiliar part of London at which I would have met only four of the guests, and called Christina to say as much.
“Don’t worry,” Christina assured me. “It’s a safe part of town, my friends are all nice people, and you won’t be the only pregnant one there.”
“Yes, another friend of mine is due in June.”
“I wouldn’t be able to stay too late though, as I’d have to get back to Cambridge.”
“I understand, but it would be great to see you,” Christina said.
Despite my frequent awkwardness, once I have formed a friendship, I do my best to uphold my part of the unwritten friendship contract. Christina had gone out of her way to first invite me and then address my objections, so on the appointed evening I made my way to her cosy new flat in central London.
Christina’s friends were indeed pleasant, but they all seemed far hipper than me, particularly in my sober pregnant state. I kept my eye out for the other woman who, like me, was awaiting a baby, but she was not immediately obvious. After nearly an hour of small talk with strangers about things other than babies and pregnancy, I sensed that I had finally met the other mum-to-be, as indicated by her substantial belly.
“So,” I began, “When are you expecting?”
“I’m sorry, what?” my new conversational partner asked.
I had my chance to reconsider, and I missed it. “When are you expecting?” I asked again. The woman’s look of dismay clued me in before she had responded; I had made a terrible blunder.
“I’m not expecting,” the woman said drily. “I’m just fat.”
I wished, fervently, that I had never opened my mouth, that I had never come to this party, that I had never left the safety of my home in Cambridge.
“I am so sorry,” I said, trying, but failing, to look the woman in her eyes and settling for her chin. “I’m pregnant, and I think I just keep looking for other women who are pregnant too.”
“Well, you didn’t find one this time,” the woman said.
My eyes stung as I fought the reflex to cry. “I’m really sorry,” I offered again.
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said, with a somewhat softer tone. “I am fat.”
“But I love you that way,” her partner said.
I smiled wanly at him and excused myself to the toilet. I would have stayed in the toilet for the remainder of the evening, but that would have added insult to injury by preventing the other, far more civilised, guests from using the facilities. Instead, I pulled myself together enough to exit my safe haven, then I made my way to the far sofa where Christina was animatedly discussing movies with a couple other than the couple I had just spoken to.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I said, conscious of the quaver in my voice, “But I should be going now. It’s a long way home.”
Christina looked up, surprised. “Already? Are you sure you can’t stay a little longer?”
“No… This is actually the longest I’ve been away from Christopher yet,” I said, which was true, but which of course wasn’t the reason for my hasty retreat. “Thanks so much for inviting me though. Your new flat is lovely.”
“Thanks for making the trip,” Christina said. “Will you find your way back to King’s Cross?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “It was very easy.”
“OK then. Let me know how it goes,” Christina said, casting a pointed eye at my belly.
“I will,” I promised.
As soon as the door to Christina’s building closed behind me, I burst into tears. How could I have been such a fool? I had, no doubt, just lost a good friend due to my social ineptitude. How would I ever learn to act like a normal person? What was the matter with me?
By the time I reached King’s Cross, my eyes were rimmed with red and my face was streaked with tears. People looked at me twice, and one middle-aged woman approached me with the sort of non-threatening body language used by horse whisperers with their skittish charges.
“Excuse me, dear,” she said gently, “But do you need any help?”
I bit my lip. “You’re so kind, but no, I’m all right,” I answered.
I wasn’t all right really. I was so full of remorse that I had no idea how I would feel comfortable in my own skin again. But life, while you’re in it, is generous— I beat myself up for weeks, even months, about my stupid comment, but I remained firmly within my own skin, whether I liked it or not. I had confessed and apologised to Christina the morning after the party; she had heard about my comment to her guest, but brushed it off when I spoke to her by professing that the woman I had insulted hadn’t been a close friend anyway. My friendship with Christina did cool, but was not extinguished; after some time, we began to meet again, and last year Christina invited my family to another party— a very special celebration— and we were honoured to attend.
I have been gifted with many other second chances. My parents divorced when I was very small, and throughout my childhood I saw my dad at best once a month as he lived three hours away, but I was able to get to know him properly when I spent my first year of graduate school living with him and my stepmum in Boston. I have had the chance to be a sober mum, although I was less-than-sober before motherhood and my family tree is full of other less-than-sober branches. I have even managed to achieve the degree of stability necessary to own a piano, and have not only rekindled my own passion for that instrument, but have passed some of that love on to Christopher, whose piano playing stuns me with its beauty.
But often we are not allowed revisitations. If only I could turn back time, I would wear my best dress to Windows on the World. If only I could turn back time, the thousands and thousands of people who were killed or injured in the 9/11 attacks would still be here, would still be healthy, and would have all of their earthly second chances still ahead of them.
Take your second chances today.