Chapter 1: News Junkie

Republished with permission of the Louisville Review

Wolf Blitzer screams at me. His urgent voice wails like a siren through our sparsely furnished living room. Bored and on baby duty in our corporate apartment, I watch CNN around the clock. If I stare at the screen long enough, I see every news program at least three times. Test me: I can repeat each broadcast word for word and lip-synch to every reporter. I dislike Wolf for a couple of reasons. The first is that there’s just something weird about him. Don’t you find it odd that he also actually resembles a wolf? Were his parents joking or just prescient when they named him? It’s not his fault, but he gets on my nerves. We spend too much time together. He is on TV so often that he must actually live at CNN. I bet he sleeps in a Wolf-sized custom-made dog bed under the news desk. Since he doesn’t have the kind of hair you have to brush (because it is wolf fur), he sleeps in his suit and pops straight up when his shift starts so he can immediately deliver all of the world’s bad news (just like he did yesterday, and just like he will again tomorrow).

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The second and the main reason that I dislike Wolf is that he reminds me too much of myself. He spends his whole day panicking about terrorists, anthrax, and snipers. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. As I lie wide-eyed, staring at the ceiling at three a.m., I imagine Wolf climbing into his little bed, closing his little wolf eyelids, and drifting off to sleep. I am jealous. I have not slept the night through since we moved to Washington, DC, a month earlier, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. Unfortunately, not all of my insomnia can be blamed on my six-month-old son waking up at two a.m. to scream at me, Wolf Blitzer-style. (Is it because he hears Wolf all day long that he has adopted an almost identical, piercing timbre?) No, it has more to do with the fact that Washington, DC, is a war zone. Outside of my bedroom window, missile launchers wait expectantly on the sidewalk. Soldiers patrol the streets with big, scary guns. And as if that weren’t enough to rattle me, Wolf reports that someone is driving around the city in a white box truck, shooting people at random.

“A sniper,” he bellows, “targeting innocent people!”

I live right in the middle of a giant bull’s-eye, a feeling I can’t seem to shake even when I am safely locked in my apartment (which is most of the time). My baby, Wilson, sleeps all day long, and I do not know enough about being a mother yet to realize that I can actually wake him up and take him out, so Wolf and I sit around and feed off of each other. He needs an audience, and I need noise. Even if nothing is happening in my apartment, somewhere in the world, life is interesting, and scary. I can’t change the channel, because I need the adrenaline rush that twenty-four- hour news provides.

On bad days, I am trapped in the apartment with CNN until around four p.m. because I haven’t gotten my act together quickly enough to get Wilson out of the apartment before he needs another nap. If he sleeps too long, I pace the apartment in loops, willing him to rouse himself. We don’t have much furniture, so I walk in a big circle, cruising from room to room. I stop to check my e-mail account. Sadly, I actually have time to read the long chains of joke e-mails that my (also bored) mother sends me. I crack open a can of soda. I gaze out the large, industrial windows, into the grey October skyline. It is not even winter yet, but outside, it is as dreary as a corpse. We will be in this city, in this antiseptic apartment, until March—a sentence that feels too long to bear.

On good days, I get out before ten in the morning and Wilson and I walk around town for a little while before I have to bring him back up to our seventh-floor apartment for his nap. My morning mission is to try to find an adult to talk to: someone, anyone. It could be a dry cleaner or the clerk at the drugstore; I don’t mind. I don’t have any real friends in DC because we are only here for a few months. It seems like a waste of time to put effort into finding people I actually relate to, only to leave them, so I rely on the kindness of strangers to get me by. The employees at Safeway are paid to be friendly, so sometimes I go grocery shopping for friends, lingering to chat with the produce stocker or the cashier.

“How you doing today, Emily?” the doorman asks as Wilson and I leave the apartment building on one of our little jaunts.

“Just fine, thank you!” He cheers me up because he is one of the few people in DC who knows my name. “How are you, Mega?” I cheer him up because I know his name, too. “What’s up with all the policemen parked outside?” I ask.

“We are now at Code Orange,” he cautions.

“Oh! Is that because of the sniper, the impending dirty bomb, or the anthrax alert?” I laugh nervously. Wilson looks up at me and smiles innocently. If he understood what we were talking about, he would be crying his head off. I consider going back upstairs for a second but decide to take my chances against the sniper. After all, he could aim and miss, but if I don’t get out of the building, cabin fever will definitely kill me. I head for the drugstore. Maybe Rita the cashier will be there today. She’s always up for a conversation. I am on a mission to buy duct tape because the Department of Homeland Security has warned me I will need to tape up our apartment windows in the event of a dirty-bomb explosion. I envision my darling baby son gagging on nuclear fallout and decide to take his advice.

“Hi there,” Rita exclaims as I walk into the drugstore.

“How are you, Rita?” I ask with a little too much enthusiasm. She’s practically my best friend. She’s looking frail and seems a little smaller than usual. Perhaps the weight of my social desperation is crushing her.

“I’ve got the gout!” she confides.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I console. I am not exactly sure what the gout is, but it sounds medieval and like it may involve pus, so I don’t question her further. “I’m here for some duct tape,” I say to change the subject.

“Oh God! That Tom Ridge,” she complains. “We’re completely sold out.”

“Sold out!” My heart hammers in my chest. I have left it too late, and now Wilson will die a horrific and painful death, developing radioactive thyroid tumors and slowly wasting away in my arms.

“How about packing tape?” I ask Rita, praying she’ll say that it will definitely prevent radioactive particles from seeping into our apartment.

“Well, I guess that might work,” she says. “It’s thick!”

I clear the shelf, buying ten rolls and leaving none for my negligent but mentally stable neighbors who are clearly not worried about death by fallout. “The others will have to use Scotch tape!” I announce recklessly, only half-joking.

“People sure are crazy!” Rita proclaims.

I am not sure if that remark is pointed at me, at the terrorists, or at Tom Ridge. Are we all becoming equally crazy? I take my tape up to the counter, stick my tail between my legs, and race Wilson home. Scanning the street for white box trucks, I breathe a sigh of relief as I enter my building. We will live to see another day.

“I can’t wait to get the hell out of here!” I announce to Mega on the way inside.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answers. They have trained the doormen to be agreeable, and this is his standard response to everything. If I said, “I hope you kissed your wife this morning, because this building could be blown up today,” he would reply, “Yes, ma’am.”

When my husband, Lance, walks in the door that night, I am ecstatic that the sniper did not kill him on the way home. “You’re alive!” I scream, pouncing on him.

“Well, you are easy to please!” he chuckles.

He does not seem to realize that he has cheated death, for now. But if the sniper doesn’t slay him, the corporate world eventually might. He looks so tired— the long commutes, the business travel, and the interminable evenings at the office are wearing him down. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” he says quietly. “Everything will be better in California.”

In a few months, we are moving to a little ski town called Truckee in the mountains of Northern California. I know that life will be safer and simpler there for us and, most importantly, for Wilson. I want him to grow up knowing his neighbors, not fearing that someone is going to shoot him while he is walking to school or going to bomb his home one random afternoon. I can’t wait to live in a small town that Osama bin Laden has never heard of. Who would set off a dirty bomb in a town with a population of 14,000? In Truckee, there are no high-rises for planes to crash into, and the only public transportation to target is a little van that shuttles residents to the ski slopes. We will be safe there. I just know it.

I put the TV on mute. Wolf Blitzer mouths something and looks invigorated. It’s as if the constant stream of adrenaline the terrorist threats supply makes him a little high, and he likes it. I suspect that I too am addicted to the drama of it all: the buzz of fear I feel when I see a new video released by Al Qaeda. The bearded men in their turbans talking about how happy they will be when they kill us all, about how we should watch our backs because they are planning something even bigger and more horrible than 9/11. They want to scare me. And it works.

To the terrorists, I am a target. To CNN, I am a target of a different sort: a viewer. The anchors and the terrorists have a symbiotic relationship. If the terrorists did not have a twenty-four-hour simulcast megaphone, their ability to frighten would be drastically reduced. If the anchors didn’t have frightening news to report, their audience would be greatly reduced.

I vow to keep the TV turned off tomorrow. I am going to tune out the noise: the anchor chatter, the terrorist chatter, all of it. No matter how bored, how desperate I become, I am going to quit CNN and fear, cold turkey. Maybe I will run over to Rite-Aid and check on Rita’s gout. Now that’s scary.