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The discussion resumed a week later, aided in no small part by Mike's photograph. One night I went for steaks with Mike and E.J. and their friends Rob and Lori Borrazzo. The two couples spent much of the meal reminiscing about vacations they had taken together. There was a trip to the Dominican Republic, where Mike got sick from the water and danced by himself, and the winter ski house upstate that Rob trashed--and Mike cleaned up--back in their bachelor days. As the evening wore on, the bartender, recognizing Mike from his picture, sent over round after round of beers. Then the talk turned, as all New York conversations eventually do, to Sept. 11. At one end of the table, Mike was finally speaking to Rob about that day. His main problem was that most of the time, he thought he felt pretty good. "I feel guilty, like I should be having nightmares, or I should be feeling more. I mean, how come I'm happy about surviving?"
E.J. broke in: "You know, you haven't said a thing to me about that day."
"Yes, I have, I told you about the blown-out windows, how we entered the lobby through the blown-out windows."
"No, you never told me about the windows or about anything. You didn't say a thing to me about Sept. 11 until the other night."
Those are the last words the two have shared on the topic. E.J. says she has stopped trying to prod. As long as he's talking to someone--his friends, a counselor, a reporter--she feels he's getting the outlet he needs. "Maybe he's just trying to spare me," she says of his silence. "But I do ask myself if one day all of a sudden it's going to hit him, if it's finally going to become real."
Three months after the attacks, there are only brief flashes of reality. Mike returns to work at the firehouse, but the reminders of Sept. 11 are everywhere. The chalkboard still bears the names and assignments of those on duty that morning. Guys show off their new 9/11 tattoos memorializing their housemates; one depicts a helmet, another the Ladder 11 company patch. A masseuse stands by to give free massages; there are free tickets to the Broadway show The Music Man and a lottery for trips to Hawaii and Barbados. To unwind one evening after inspecting a gas leak, the firemen watch outtakes from The Bravest, a TV show chronicling the lives of fire fighters with real footage from New York companies; they pause the tape every few minutes to honor the men they instinctively refer to as "missing."
Mike still wears his hero's mantle awkwardly, like a blazer that's several sizes too big. On a stormy morning in December, he and E.J. and his older brother Robert pile into his blue Ford Expedition and drive to Dingman-Delaware Elementary School in the Pocono mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. A third-grade class has pooled their piggy banks to raise $150 for the guys in Mike's firehouse, and a local resort has donated a free night's stay. The school's students, told to wear red, white and blue for the occasion, welcome him with a medley of patriotic standards. Two TV stations and the local newspaper are in tow to cover the event.
A teacher stops him in the hallway. "My cousin was in Rescue 5 in Staten Island," she says, grabbing his hands and crying. "He..." Mike, who had done a rotation in that house, knows the name. "He was a good guy," he tells her.