Your mutual love for White Castle goes back to when you were dating. Were you even dating yet? It was so long ago it’s hard to remember if there was an exact moment things became official. You’ve always just referred to it as “the beginning.”
The beginning was that awkward dance you did around each other, quickly becoming best friends but too terrified to say you were in love, not wanting to fuck everything up. You were too young and stupid to realize that being best friends is the point, the part that would still be there during the times when there is no passion or magic but just pain and fear and dirty dishes. The part that would keep you two together.
Every Friday night you would drive over to the White Castle on Fort Hamilton and 42nd, right next to that mess of an intersection where ambulances and car services and Yeshiva buses would battle to navigate through the darkness under the train that hovered above New Utrecht Avenue. You’d grab a Crave Case: 30 steamed, oniony cheeseburgers, widely considered as either the single greatest, or most terrible, creation in the history of food. You consider them to be firmly in the former category, calories and additives and occasional gastrointestinal upset be damned. Sometimes you’d grab two cases, if you were feeling up to the challenge. Surviving a night of White Castle is more than just ecstasy. It’s victory.
Back at your apartment, the rest of your crew would be setting up Cranium and unpacking two cases of Budweiser, waiting for you to arrive with the large cardboard box of burgers. You’d find your seat at the table and begin the ritual: drinking and smoking and making dirty jokes, pretending you weren’t thinking about him, checking the clock every minute until he'd come through the door after his restaurant shift, just in time to watch your friend drunkenly try to sculpt a duck-billed squirrel out of PlayDoh. White Castle and shit beer are not the best things to have in your stomach when you get butterflies, but you got used to it. Eventually you enjoyed it.
He’d head to the kitchen for his allotment of the Crave Cases, ice cold by that point but still worthy of excitement. Beers and burgers in hand, he’d squeeze himself onto a team halfway through a game you were winning. (You did every week.) He never sat next to you, which you hated, until he told you he did that so he could stare at you all night. He liked you because he thought you were beautiful. He loved you because you were smart, and funny, and the kind of girl who would not apologize for eating ten White Castles. You loved him for seeing you like that. He’d spend the night.
He was battle-tested like you were. You’d survived stage four cancer. He'd been a paramedic, assigned to the firehouse a few blocks from the World Trade Center. You both recovered from your injuries and became chefs. You thought he’d run when you told him the chemotherapy made you infertile. He didn’t. He thought you’d run when he showed you the screws that held his knees together, or when the whispers began that some of the guys who’d been first responders to 9/11 were starting to get sick. You didn’t.
When you got married the next fall you had White Castle cater the wedding. That same one on Fort Hamilton and 42nd. They laughed when you asked. They thought you were nuts, just like your parents and your friends did. He loved you for being the kind of broad who came up with that idea in the first place. The district manager made the delivery himself, and said you were the first couple in New York City to have a White Castle wedding. He took lots of pictures of you in your beautiful wedding dress to show the boys upstairs in corporate. Over the years you lost all the copies.
The children the doctors said you’d never bear came immediately. He didn’t drive, but occasionally he took three trains to White Castle to surprise you with a sack of ten. Sometimes you were so happy you’d cry. Sometimes you’d scream at him for not psychically knowing you were nauseous. You’re amazed that he never once—back then and in all the years that followed—stopped trying to make you happy.
It’s only days that pass, but it feels like you’re eons from who you two were when you’d drink cheap beer and see your friends every Friday well into Saturday. You don’t go to White Castle much anymore; you don’t want the kids to eat fast food, since they beg for it all the time. You need to set a good example.
The two of you fight a lot. You love him a lot, too, but goddamn those times you fight are tough and getting worse. You used to brag to other couples how you guys never fought. You were such fucking idiots.
He gets sick sometimes. His GI tract is a mess from all that air the government assured us was “perfectly safe.” The first years you’d coddle him. Then you’d deal with it. Now you’re tired of it. You knew very well what you had signed up for at the very beginning, but it’s wearing on you. There are times he doesn’t sleep for weeks, and he becomes perpetually short, often nasty. You find yourself tired of forgiving.
They give him pills that fix one thing but break another. You yell at him because he’s too scared to go to the doctor, scared they’ll tell him he’s dying. His lung scans come back clean, his blood comes back perfect; they say that aside from the chronic “annoyances,” he’s perfectly healthy. You remember those nights in bed talking about the future. Your infertility turned out to be a lie, so maybe he’ll be fine, too. You say that maybe him getting badly hurt on the day the towers collapsed was a blessing, because he couldn’t go back down into the pit. It makes him angry, because his best friend, along with seven of his “brothers,” are dead.
You knew this would be your life, and you love him so much you chose it. You hate yourself for being tired, for being angry, for some days hating him for the way his pain makes you feel. You know it’s not even that bad now, but eventually—maybe in ten years, maybe fifty—it will become intolerable. Until death do us part means you are promising your best friend that, one day, you will bury him.
He’s wanted out of Brooklyn forever, to leave the constant reminder in the skyline, but you refused. You know your stubbornness has put as much strain on this marriage as his illnesses do, so you realize that it’s finally time to go. While searching for your new home, it strikes you both to figure out the location of the closest White Castle. It's an hour drive from the place you’ve chosen, and you joke you need to rethink your decision. You sit close together, open Google Maps, and work on finding the fastest route.
You start to pack, and he gets sick, again. You're tired of listening to the complaining so you dismissively tell him to go to the hospital. He calls a few hours later to say he’s being admitted to the cardiac ICU. Something about his heart.
The doctors tell you the membrane around his heart is inflamed and filling with fluid, and they don’t know why. There's not much they can do except give him Motrin, send him home, make him rest. He is in pain and cries a lot, and you want to make it stop, but you have children and a business and a million people who need you. You leave him on his own because you know if he sees you breaking it will make him worse. He gets worse anyway.
You see a new doctor, who listens to his heart and calls an ambulance. You go to a different hospital, where doctors run test after test. The infection has worsened and spread. They move him to a room upstairs and strap and IV of antibiotics to his arm. The doctors assure you he is in no danger of dying—he is just going suffer.
You tell the kids over the phone that everything is okay. They know you're lying and want their dad home. You joke we all know Daddy has been stressed out lately, so everyone should think of Maimonides as a spa with bad food. It doesn’t work on them.
You leave close to midnight so he can rest. He says you're a distraction, because you are so goddamn sexy that he’ll never be able to sleep. He can barely speak, but still says it. You roll your eyes and smile, kiss his forehead, and head home. You remember the butterflies.
It’s Friday night, and four blocks away from the hospital is White Castle. Your White Castle. More than ever you need that place in the same way you used to need cigarettes.
You buy a sack of ten, but tell yourself you’ll only eat four. You come to that scary intersection, the one with the buses the crazy drivers and the darkness, and turn left onto New Utrecht instead of going straight to head home. You drive into the darkness underneath the D tracks, searching for moments from your South Brooklyn childhood, when things like cancer and terrorism weren’t part of reality. Past the old Imperial Terrace, now a pharmacy, where your aunt got married in an explosion of guido finery, big hair and rhinestones and all. Past the tuxedo shop where you took Brian before prom and he gave the owner a blow job, then showed up at the Waldorf in a gratis Armani. Past the subway stop your husband got off every day during that winter your grandmother was dying from a lung infection just like the one he has now, to keep her company. Past the old Rispoli’s where Grandma would buy you cremolata ices during the summer.
You pull into the driveway in the pitch black and gather your things. You realize while you were driving, you ate all ten cheeseburgers. You collapse over the steering wheel, your body heaving in uncontrollable sobs. Your lungs hurt. His lungs hurt. You cry more.
The next day brings more tests. He asks if you went to that White Castle the night before, you say no. He calls you on your bullshit. You said you didn’t want to make him jealous. He says he is. The doctor comes in: They’re going to insert a tube to drain the fluid around his lungs, but the heart isn’t so easy. They'll keep on with the IV antibiotics and you will cross your fingers. You go to back to White Castle that night.
You get phone calls from the school that your oldest son is acting up. Your mom says she catches him looking as if he’s going to cry but then chokes it back. You know where he picked that one up. You tell him that daddy’s lung is fixed and his heart is starting to look better. The doctors even say he could be out the day after tomorrow. You make the spa joke again. It still doesn’t work.
He comes home with a sack of pills, and your children hug him for what feels like days. You stay cool, as if it's an ordinary, average Tuesday. You know that this specifically might not happen again, but that something will. Something always does. You need all three of them to know to never be scared, that you will keep them safe. It used to take every iota of strength you could pull together to pretend that you were fine, but as time marched on it’s become organic and involuntary. Everything is okay.
Four weeks later you’re out running errands, just the two of you, and find yourself at a traffic light a few blocks away from your White Castle. You’ve heard it’s closing soon. They're tearing it down for condos, just like everything else in this fucked up city.
“Want to go?”
“Are you crazy?”
“It’s ten in the morning."
“They serve burgers all day.”
“You’re not supposed to be eating that. You want to end up in the hospital again?”
“We’ll only have one and keep the rest in the fridge. We’ll have a romantic dinner tonight. You, me, White Castles, the cats, HBO, talking dirty, me passing out on the couch before I can follow through...”
I roll my eyes and smile, as always. He says I don’t find him cute anymore. He has no idea.
We pull up to the drive thru and order a sack of ten. We decide to make the left and drive down New Utrecht Avenue. We eat all the burgers in the car.