Getting the goods

Eight months after Sept. 11, I thought I'd buried all of my husband. Finding more of him has meant granting Eddie one last wish.

By A.R. Torres
Published April 26, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

On April 22, 1999, Eddie Torres and I got married. Although we were desperately in love, it was a marriage of pure necessity, a quick fix for his illegal immigration status, the means to getting a green card. Just a month before our wedding, our relationship had taken a sharp turn toward domesticity. We were no longer lovers hooking up on the sly for street-corner kisses, odd outings and covert dashes to my bed; we were a live-in couple, happily engaged to be married. Now we brushed our teeth together, smiling through the foam at the novelty of this newfound nightly activity.

The date of our wedding, the only important element of our prenuptial planning, coincided with the moon waxing, not waning; the former is good luck, the latter, bad. Mother and mother-in-law-to-be fussed about me in preparation. I was the conduit between them since neither spoke the other's language. I translated their English and Spanish anxiety to each other. The absurdity of the day needed no explanation; it was clear to everyone.

After our City Hall ceremony, we traversed the downtown streets that led to the World Trade Center. Everyone smiled at us, the newlyweds, on this spring day. A perfect bride, I wore the white glossy dress that Eddie bought me from a Queens black market. He plucked it off the rack, sized me just right from his hands-on knowledge of my shape.

Up we went to Windows on the World to toast our newly contracted state and to celebrate the end to Eddie's precarious illegal status. I remember the purple drink made of champagne, vodka and Chambord, but I've forgotten its name. Eddie would have remembered it.

We strove to fulfill the government's definition of marriage. We exchanged rings. I compounded my name with his, and became someone new: A.R.-T. We shared our various bank accounts. We took sweet pictures of our coupledom on all the days of supposed significance.

Marriage did not corrupt our wildness. Instead it legitimized it. Despite the myriad domestic trappings, the familiar bred its own excitement. And I was always startled to find how sweet the words "my husband" tasted in my mouth.

On Nov. 15, 2000, a year and a half after our marriage, we had our green card interview. The fat and unhappy immigration officer, Mr. D., investigated the authenticity of our union. Mostly he focused on me, presuming, it seemed, that I was a crafty woman who sold her U.S. status to this hapless human. Mr. D. demonstrated his knowledge of sham marriages by inappropriately describing his own: how he lived with a manipulative woman for many years solely for pretense in front of their children. With his children grown, he now considered divorce.

We left his office with too much knowledge about Mr. D. and without the official stamp in Eddie's documents that would enable him to visit Colombia, his home. Even though Mr. D. had pronounced us man and wife, he had also found that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had lost Eddie's file. Without a file, he had nothing to stamp. And without that stamp, Eddie could not travel. He was stuck in limbo, allowed as my husband to stay and work, but denied the privilege to leave.

He never did go back home.

On Sept. 11., when Eddie died, the favor I did for him became the favor he did for me. As Eddie's lawful wife, I became the recipient of his earthly possessions, as well as the debts and benefits that would surface in the wake of his death.

Among other things, I was responsible for all of Eddie's personal effects -- his clothes and all the other little things that were his. These items, more than anything, are still a mountain of memories that I am sorting through and dividing into piles: items to keep, items to put aside for the children and items to give away to the appropriate family member, friend or charity.

Even after seven months, it is still a pile of Himalayan proportions. I have kept too many of his clothes because they fit me. Eddie and I were approximately the same size. On certain days I indulge in dressing in drag as the dead man. I wear his khaki pants and office shirts, his T-shirts and shorts, his underwear.

In January, I learned that there were more of Eddie's things to be had. Unnamed items from ground zero. It took three weeks to find out what the items were and almost three months to receive them. As I waited, I suddenly wanted them to be his scapular, a Colombian religious necklace, his junky new scuba diver watch and his soft leather wallet. These items in my hand would be the open casket that never was, the proof that he had really been there. After almost a month, city officials told me they had three of Eddie's cards: the one that got him downtown (his MetroCard), the one that took him up onto the 105th floor of the North Tower (his Cantor Fitzgerald I.D.) and the one that fed him his last meal (a Cantor Fitzgerald "Debitek" cafeteria card).

When I finally received these three plastic pieces, they smelled evil. I did not even have to open the clear plastic bag marked "Biohazard" to discover the odor. Included were crumbs of ground zero dirt -- a little smudge of it appeared on the I.D. card, on Eddie's cheek.

I had already buried Eddie's body in late September, after agonizing decisions about how to do so, and where. I thought that he should go back to Colombia. His family thought it best to have him buried here. I chose a quiet old cemetery in the Bronx.

I thought I had all of Eddie. But a week ago, I found out that I had buried about 95 percent of him. Another widow had called to say that some families were learning that additional parts of their loved ones had been identified. I called Sean, the funeral director, who told me that the Eddie I buried was incomplete by 5 percent. I asked the next obvious question:

"What was missing?"

He said, "A foot or two."

When I got off the phone I suddenly became confused about what kind of foot Sean was talking about: Was it the one with the toes, or the measurement? It could have been funny, if it hadn't been so sad.

Sean clarified my confusion about a half-hour later when he called unexpectedly. The medical examiner had coincidentally just contacted him. They had identified a piece of Eddie's muscle mass.

I had been thinking about muscle mass the previous night -- except it belonged to someone else, someone living. That day I smiled at a man as we spoke and noted the bulk of his arms. I thought about how nice it would be to have him wrap them around me.

But now I was held once more by Eddie's body and dazed by it too. And I remembered his feet with precision, especially how I licked them and how they tasted like ocean salt on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001.

Here was the Eddie that, like the rest of his body, I would meet again unviewable and boxed. But this time the box would be much smaller. And I suddenly felt a twisted jealousy toward Sean and the medical examiner who were the last ones intimate with Eddie's body.

As Sean explained, I now have three options concerning any additional body parts:

I can be spared the information of any additional findings and give permission to have any additional parts buried in a mass grave with other unidentified parts; or I can be informed of each part as it is identified; or I can learn of all parts at the conclusion of the investigation and then decide what to do with them.

Sean reminded me of a document I had signed before the funeral. I had forgotten it completely. Originally, I chose not to be informed in the event that there were more body parts.

But now I've changed my mind. I want his parts at the end of the investigation. By then, I think, I will somehow be able to tell his family about them. Again I have agonizing decisions to make about what to do with him.

But I know what I will do with him. Like most immigrants, Eddie was a man split between here and homeland. Although he chose to stay here for me, for his children and for all the opportunities available, he also always dreamed of going home. In death, he can be in both places.

By the power of marriage, I will send at least a piece of my husband back to Colombia. Lightly, he will tread back to the soil from which he came.

A.R. Torres


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