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The Dead Wives Club, or Char in Love

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Gregory’s mother, though, imagines she might eventually pick up the phone and call Catherine. “One day,” she said. Meantime, she talks to photos of Gregory she’s posted around the house. “I don’t really believe I’m hallucinating,” she said. But he does respond. She hears his voice. Once, she asked Gregory’s photo about Catherine. “Help me,” she said to her son. “Help me with this.” “Mom,” Gregory told her, “Don’t worry about it.”

Char is a nut for self-help books. Not long after Mike disappeared, she purchased one about being a widow. Next, she bought every grief book she could find. One day, she drifted toward the relationship shelf and thumbed through a book on dating. So complicated, she thought, and put it away.

Char couldn’t sort it all out. There was Mike. She was sure she still loved him. She’d been marking the time until the kids grew up, waiting to have him to herself again. But how long should a dead husband’s photo patrol the bedroom wall? Tina, now 30, knew she wanted to be in love again. “I miss being someone’s wife. I miss taking something out of the freezer at eight o’clock in the morning and hoping it defrosts in time for dinner.”

Char didn’t need a husband. Certainly not, as everyone knew, for the financial stuff. “I just want to go to dinner,” she explained to a friend one day at lunch. At which point, a good-looking guy named Bobby Nola walked in.

Char looked up at him. “Are you married?” she asked.

“Divorced,” he said.

“Well, then I’ll go to dinner with you,” she said.

At that point—March 2003—she didn’t know that Bobby was a Staten Island fireman.

“It’s ironic that we all wind up with firemen,” Lisa said. Lisa, who recently adopted a son to go with her two girls, had a theory: They fell for similar personalities. “I went to fifteen memorials,” she said. “When you listened to people talk about the firemen, it was like you were sitting at the same memorial time and time again.”

Lisa met her fireman at a bowling alley. Char, a bowler, had urged Lisa to drop by. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Char said to Kevin Tellefsen.

Madeline is still with Gerry Koenig—they live together at Madeline’s. They might have been drawn together by grief, Char figured, but romance eventually followed. Even Gerry’s firehouse buddies had accepted the relationship as something good to come out of this tragedy.

When Bobby first told Char that he was a fireman, she crossed her fingers like he was a vampire. She said, “I won’t marry you as long as you’re a fireman.” Char later relented, but on the day of the ferry crash, when she couldn’t reach him, the old feelings rushed back. (The guys had to call now: Lisa’s, who now lives at her place, once phoned from inside a burning building to say he was okay.) Shortly after Bobby moved into Char’s house, Bobby decided to retire, and she was thrilled. One Sunday evening, Char and the kids were having dinner at Mike’s parents’ house. In the kitchen, Char took her mother-in-law aside. “I have something to tell you,” she said.

“Good news or bad news?” asked Mike’s mother cautiously.

“It depends on how you look at it,” Char said.

“It’s about Bobby, isn’t it?”

In Char’s telling, her mother-in-law sounded downhearted. She knew Char was dating. She’d met Bobby.

“Yeah, it is,” said Char.

“He wants to marry you, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

For an instant, Char wasn’t sure which way her mother-in-law would go. To Mike’s mother, her son was irreplaceable. Plus, in-laws worried, as one put it, “If another man’s family comes in, do we get pushed further down?” Finally, Char’s mother-in-law spoke. “I think Mike sent Bobby to you.” Which, unexpectedly, made Char sad.

Char wondered if being with someone else, if just feeling happy, would always be difficult. It wasn’t like a divorce, where you legally cut a person out of your life. “Char struggled for a long time with how could she be so in love with Mike and still be with Bobby and have a good time and laugh?” Lisa said. Sometimes it seemed that Char lived with two men, juggling loyalties. She kept Mike’s photo above the fireplace—he was with the kids—not far from a photo of Char leaning over a smiling Bobby. And of course she had the tattoo of Mike’s badge. “You want to see it?” she’d say, and sometimes show a visitor.

Last September 11, Char and Bobby had been sitting by the pool when the local paper called to ask what she missed most about Mike. She dissolved in tears. “You know I love my husband,” she told Bobby, and then, as if husband were an indefinite term, she added, “I love Mike.”


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