Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering September 11th, First Hand

Below is an essay I wrote in the winter of 2002, when I was still numb from all the 911 horror. You can tell by the prose alone just how numb I was. I was so numb I didn't realize I was numb, know what I mean? Another thing I didn't realize at the time of this essay was that, deep down, I had decided to leave my husband. There's an apathy in this essay that is VERY clear to me now, as I reread it. But back then, than January, it was hard to have clarity about anything.

"The events of September 11th" had that effect on a lot of people. A lot of couples I know--those that were on the fence about their relationship--either got married right away, or split up for good. Suddenly there were no longer any gray areas in relationships. You either wanted to be with this person for the rest of your life, or you didn't. In my case, I realized that I had been waiting for many many years for "things to get better" with my husband.

I spent the weeks after the towers fell watching them fall, again and again and again, on the television set (and in my dreams). I spent those weeks alone, because my husband, a television news producer, made the decision to spend his time at his job rather than with me. And that is fine. People make choices; people have priorities. But I felt surrounded by metaphors.

I tried to get this essay published in the usual places (New York Times, Salon, some travel magazines) but everyone passed. Perhaps rightly. But the beauty of blogs is you can now self-publish even your worst shit. And there's no guaranteeing anyone will read it. But at least this essay will no longer belong to me, once I press that "publish post" button. SO here goes. ANd bon voyage. And blessings, love, and light to all those who were affected by the events of September 11th. Which is so say, every last one of us.


All Rise

In the first few months following the attacks of September 11th, I was unwilling and unable to leave New York City. Like a child who has lost one parent, I found myself clinging needily to the surviving one, and in this metaphoric case, that other parent was Rudolph Giuliani. I wept with him at countless televised funeral services, I marveled at his composure and elocution at every press briefing he held. Thanksgiving passed (along with an opportunity to visit my husband's relatives in New Mexico) and then Christmas (along with an opportunity to visit my sister's country house in New Hampshire) and still I could barely get off the sofa because I didn't want to miss anything this man did or said. He had become my symbol of hope and strength, my higher power, and I probably would have licked the sidewalks in the fish market section of Chinatown if he had asked me. So when he started urging us New Yorkers to get on with life and spend money; when he started appearing on those tear-jerking, I Love New York, airline and tourism industry commercials encouraging us to fly, I felt I no longer had a valid excuse to sit glued to NY1 and the Times' "A Nation Challenged" section. I had to obey Giuliani, so at the end of December my husband I booked a last-minute flight to Acapulco, where some friends of ours had rented a bungalow for the week.

Normally when I travel, I make it a point not to pack t-shirts, or Nike Air Max running shoes, or anything that will peg me as a tasteless, fashionless, logo-obsessed American tourist, but this trip was different. The entire world had changed, and I was a refugee from a proud, fallen city, so into my suitcase went a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt, an NYPD T-shirt, a baby blue, baby tee emblazoned with our famous area code: "212." As I packed I was reminded, of my summers during college, when I waitressed on Cape Cod and how my fellow waitresses recoiled every time we saw a car with the Empire State license plate pulling into our restaurant's parking lot. "Oh no!" we would say, truly aghast. "New Yorkers." That meant rudeness, obstinacy, and a huge sense of entitlement was heading straight for my table! And then I remembered how I used to recoil at the sight—or the mere mention—of Giuliani. How I loathed that man. And now, as I zipped up my suitcase, I found myself getting teary-eyed.

"What's wrong?" my husband said when he came into the room.

"We're going to miss Giuliani at the ball-drop," I said with a quivering frown. "We're going to miss the ringing of the bells at six."

"In all the years we've lived here you've never once wanted to go to Times Square on New Years Eve."

"I know," I said, holding back more tears. "But it’s his last public appearance as the mayor and I'm not going to get to see it."

"It's twenty-five degrees out there."

"I know."

"We're going to have a great time on this trip. We're going to have sunshine and water--"

"I know, but—"

"We're going to have a great time. And we haven't left the city since August. It will be good for us to get away."

"You're right," I said. "We've been needing a vacation for a long time." I pulled an

I © NY ski cap tightly over my head.

And soon, we found ourselves having been transported to Acapulco; indeed, to another world: one of aquamarine water and sand the texture of talcum powder, one of freshly caught fish and creamy piña coladas and non-traumatized friends. As the four of us sat, fresh off the airplane, at a beach-front café, enjoying our drinks and the naked, foreign feeling of tank tops and shorts, I realized that here was a place I could actually not think about the WTC. I felt hopeful.

Winter, in our part of the world at least, makes you close in on yourself, seek refuge inside small apartments and sterile office buildings, and encase yourself constantly in a giant tortoise shell of North Face down. Here in Mexico, though, we opened up again like blossoming flowers. Sunlight warmed our skin, a breeze tossed the palm fronds of the thatched roof above and rum, glorious rum, ebbed and flowed through our veins like the tide a few yards away from us, rum that loosed our muscles and unclenched our city jaws.

"Isn't this heavenly?" I said to our friends. They are a fun-loving, easy going couple who live in California and travel like pros. They agreed, and we leaned back in our chairs, and gazed at the bluer-than-blue sky, and into our vision came to rainbow colors of a parachute, attached to a parasailer, gliding noiselessly above the bay. The sight horrified me. He looked--this parasailer--like a person falling from the sky. He had--this man suspended in the air--the same rag-doll, caught-in-a-moment look as the jumpers caught in photographs those first few days after the attacks. Immediately, without thinking, I pointed out the similarities between the parasailer and the WTC jumpers, and immediately I realized I had made a socially awkward mistake. My friends blinked and were left momentarily speechless--and what do you say to a comment like that? It's an association that 9 out of 10 people wouldn't make unless one is exceptionally morbid. Or downright sick. Or a New Yorker.

In the ensuing silence I turned my gaze away from the parasailer. I looked instead at the hundreds of brown heads bobbing in the water. At the rows of high rise hotels lining the Acapulco Bay. Each high-rise was painted a beautiful bold color—like chili pepper red or guacamole green, and each had mirrored windows that reflected the sky. Balconies lined each side of each building, and I saw that there were people on many of these balconies, leaning against their railings, admiring the view. And then I saw that photograph from the Times of all those people hanging from the windows above the burning floors and then I got teary eyed again, and I hastily put on a pair of sunglasses so that no one could tell.

I was not in or near the World Trade Center Towers on September 11. In fact, I am so afraid of heights I have not been inside either tower since 1987—the one and only time I could be coaxed onto the observation deck. So what is it that holds me there now? What holds me inside top floors of the North Tower, with the 700 doomed Cantor Fitzgerald employees, at the windows, in that moment of indecision between burning alive or jumping to the most frightening of deaths? I don't know. And I guess I will never know because anyone who does know what it was like has disappeared.

That evening—the eve of New Year's—the four of us dined at Las Brisas, a five-star restaurant on the edge of Acapulco Bay. We had to drive through seven gates manned by armed guards to get there and thus were giddy with expectation and irony by the time we reached the restaurant, and a team of valets swarmed around us to tend to our car. We were led to a beautifully laid table that was positioned between a sea wall and a tidal pool. The pink uniforms of the waitstaff matched the pink tablecloths and the giant bouquets of fragrant pink flowers. They brought us pink lemonade margaritas that matched the pink, sun-setting sky. A few margaritas later, we were greeted by a moon so huge and white moon it looked like something from a children's book. "It must be because we're so close to the Equator," my husband explained. But I preferred to think we were in the presence of something magical, a sort of NeverNever land untouched by the rest of the world.

The hours passed pleasantly, as we were brought course after course of delicious food and the waiters would never let our wine glasses get below half-full. All that wine, and the food, and the soft air and the huge benevolent moon, seemed to lift us a finger's breath above the table, so that we were suspended in that place of gastronomical happiness—a realm in which there was no World Trade Center, no trace of disharmony with my husband, and no ill in the world at all.

We remained there all evening until the countdown at midnight, when there was a cacophony of fireworks and noisemakers and the band played Auld Lang Syne. We all got out of our seats to hug and kiss and dance, and at the stroke of midnight, they released an enormous batch of silver balloons. They were just balloons, yes, but in that hour, in that place, they seemed otherworldly. They seemed to move in tandem and the way their metallic surfaces caught the moonlight as they rose and turned reminded me of a giant school of fish. Suddenly I was teary eyed again. "What's the matter?" my husband whispered. He had his arms around me and I had my back to him and we both watched the balloons in the sky.

"Those balloons must be for the World Trade Center," I said. "Don't you think?"

"I don't think so, honey," my husband said. "They're just balloons. I think they do this every year."

"But there are thousands of them," I said. "There must be three thousand one hundred and sixteen. For all the missing. Don’t you think?"

My husband must have sensed my desperation, because he kissed the top of my head and said, "I think you're right. I think there are three thousand balloons."

And so, stubbornly and drunkenly, while the rest of the crowd danced, we watched the balloons rising, and prayed three thousand times for the three thousand souls. I wondered, as one always does, where balloons end up. Do they pop? Do they disintegrate? Or would some child in New Zealand find them, washed up like anemones on the shore? We watched them soar past that impossible moon.

Six days later, when we returned to New York, I found a slightly different city. Giuliani was gone, the daily "Portraits of Grief" had been discontinued, and the sports section of the Times was no longer upside down. They had opened up a viewing platform right at Ground Zero and I decided to go there with a balloon. I thought it would be uplifting to see it soar above that charred spot. The wait took hours and my Mylar balloon (which said, I'm ashamed to say, said Happy Birthday on it,) lost quite a bit of its zest in the process. By the time I released it at the platform's railing, it barely took flight. It merely hung in the air in front of me for a few moments and then sunk rather dramatically to the ground. People around me were crestfallen—we all needed this little symbolic lift. "Was it someone's birthday?" a woman finally asked. Everyone was listening. I shook my head and said “not really.” I didn’t know how to explain. But in those days, people no longer needed explanations, because suddenly the whole world made no sense. We were all just looking at that balloon on the ground, bereft. Maybe death wasn’t like soaring at all, I told myself. Maybe death was just--death.

Then one of the rescue workers came over and picked the balloon up. You could tell he’d seen three weeks of horror but behind it all, there in his eyes, was pure kindness. “Whose birthday is it?” he said to all of us, in a fatherly way. A little girl said, “Mine” so he gave her the balloon. The applause was thundering. It soared.