"I never would have given this guy a second chance before September 11," my friend Nina is telling me. "There wouldn't have been enough drama. Now I just want someone who's going to be good to me."
Nina (names have been changed) is a well-known actress in her early thirties. We're sitting in a booth at the Odeon, just a few blocks north of ground zero. Although the place is packed, it doesn't feel like a regular Saturday night. For one thing, every time the door opens we catch a whiff of the acrid, burning air outside.
Nina, though, is oblivious, and obliviously happy: She's talking about her new boyfriend, David, 40, whom she started dating a few weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. "That is the backdrop of our love story," she says. "It was his birthday the other night, and his favorite present was this ugly little pillbox that I found. It's ceramic and shaped like a military tank and painted in camouflage. It has a little heart on it -- you push the heart and it opens up. It sums up our entire relationship."
"Did you give him a card that said it was for Cipro?" I ask sarcastically.
"That's what I told him!" she squeals. "I told him it was for Cipro!" She's not kidding. Or she is, in the way that everyone is both kidding and not kidding when they talk about such things.
"My nickname is Anthrax," she goes on. "He calls me Anthrax. I was starting to call him Little P, for smallpox, but he didn't like that, so now I'm calling him Big P, which he likes much better."
"I wonder why," I say.
Before Nina met David, her love life was a parade of screw-ups, a parade I have marched in many a time. It's a wearying jaunt. "Every possible way that a relationship could be bad, I've been through," she says. "One guy had been arrested twelve times -- I used to come here with him. If a beautiful woman was sitting near us, he'd ignore me and talk to her." She glances nervously around the room.
"I've gone out with everyone from alcoholics to depressives to men with horrible jealousy and control issues to just your plain, garden-variety narcissist," she continues. "A lot of these people were actors."
"Actors," I say. "No kidding."
Nina says she was drawn to these guys because they all had positive qualities that blinded her -- they were charismatic, affectionate, and funny. "I had a great talent for picking really wonderful, horrible people," she says ruefully.
One boyfriend, an actor-writer, showed early warning signs. "We were riding the subway together when he told me he had woken up every day for twenty years wanting to kill himself," she remembers. "This was on our second date."
"Jesus!" I shout. "He couldn't have maybe waited until the fourth or fifth to admit the suicidal feelings?"
She shakes her head. "I thought he had never been happy because he had never known me before." Instead of dumping him, she let him move in: They stayed together for two years.
Her next boyfriend was a television comedian. She describes that affair as "not so much a relationship as a kidnapping." When they went to parties, he insisted on holding her hand the entire time but would nevertheless accuse her of flirting with every man at the party. "I would walk around going, 'What did I do now?' " she remembers. "And I wasn't allowed to have an opinion that was different from his."
"So why did you stay?"
"I was scared that I was going to wind up alone. But that relationship cured me of that fear."
Nina was out of the country when the planes hit and remembers feeling that it was a terrible time to be single. Soon after she got back home, a friend set her up with David. She knew he was different from the other guys before she even met him -- he worked in marketing, which, in entertainment-industry lingo, made him a "civilian."
She wasn't feeling well the night of the date, so she went thinking she would stay for maybe five minutes. They wound up closing the restaurant. But as hard as they clicked, she felt herself resisting his appeal: "He didn't have enough of the insane qualities the other men had, so I didn't recognize that he could be a boyfriend."
After a few more dates, she sent him an e-mail saying she didn't want to continue seeing him. He called her up and talked her out of it. "It wasn't in a manipulative way," she says. "It was calm and peaceful. He said, 'You know, we have such a nice time together, and with everything that's going on in the world, why would you not continue to have a really nice time? We can go slowly, or go nowhere, but don't push me out of your life.' It was lovely and respectful of me. No one's ever treated me that way."
"It didn't sound like groveling?" I ask, wondering whether terrorism had become the latest relationship bargaining chip.
"Not in the slightest. He was saying, 'Chill out. Don't be ridiculous.' So I said, 'Okay. What are you doing tomorrow?' " They've been together ever since.
All they've done physically so far is kiss. When I ask whether that might mean that she's not attracted to him, she says, "I really like kissing him. And I'm excited to sleep with him."
Because they met so soon after the attacks, they spend a lot of time talking about their fears. When he recently had to go to Los Angeles on business, he told her that if there were hijackers on his plane, she would be the person he called on his cell phone.
"He's just a nice guy," she says, moony-eyed, "a nice and normal guy who has never been jailed. He's funny, smart, and crazy about me. And I like it."
Despite all these qualities, Nina is convinced she would not have given him a chance if they had met before the attacks: "After September 11, I got more serious about the fact that this is my life. It's really scary in New York now. You don't know what's going to happen. This is it. I don't want to waste any more time on bullshit. The bullshit looks like bullshit now."
"Do you ever worry the relationship might end if someday the world starts to settle down?" I ask.
"No," she says, with a laugh. "Now, that would be really neurotic."