But I can’t live in that moment for the rest of my life. Every one of us walking these streets needs to see New York as it is now or as it could be soon, not as it was then. We need to look towards the future. We’re never going to live that single day again. The trouble with time is that it don’t go back, and every terror and mistake and missed opportunity will live forever. That’s how it went.
You said “I’ll see you soon” rather than “I love you.” I know. It’s all right. Maybe your last words didn’t have to be perfect. Maybe all the actions you took before spoke so much louder.
There is room in your heart for every experience. You contain multitudes. There are many mansions in your father’s home. Your TARDIS is bigger on the inside. There is no back wall on your emotional cupboard before you reach Narnia. Every one of us is so much bigger and more capable of great deeds and words and thoughts than we appear on the surface. We let them out into the world, and we keep the experiences that formed them deep within us.
And so I’ll remember everything. These memories will not inform my every move, but they’ll become a part of me. I can’t make decisions based upon the horror of that day and the time afterwards; in my weakest moments, I think of the way the city burned right outside my window and I become paralyzed. No matter how sad, how horrific, how inconceivably terrifying a day like that was, none of us can be defined by a single moment in time. We can’t live when we’re bound to a second. I’ll leave room in my heart for it. It will be there next to the way my grandfather used to laugh until he cried, alongside the smell of your perfume and all our little inside jokes, with the moment I got the call that told me I’d be leaving New York City for California. These will mix and mingle until the end of my days. And I will try to make every day better on the foundation of these memories.
This is where I tell you that you should take every moment to tell the people you care most about that you love them. Say “I love you” as much as you possibly can. One day you won’t be able to. And when you think of those people who can’t hear it anymore, remember that they probably knew. Your actions told them distinctly how much you cared. Do not allow regret to take over you. Go forward and build a life which would make them proud.
There are many thoughts on that day that appear to be similar. Everyone I talked to seemed to think it was a smaller plane at first, those two-seaters that would commonly lose themselves over Long Island. There was a common disbelief over the scope, brought into sharp focus the moment WPIX stopped broadcasting and we couldn’t hear 1010 WINS anymore and all the phones went dead.
We share these moments of panic.
How we got there, what transpired on the way to school and work, and what happened in the fallout, is what sets us all apart. Because that day started like it wasn’t going to matter too much, at least as far as the history books were concerned: Dad went off to vote (it was primary day in New York, after all) while Mom and I set off on our usual morning routine that would take us uptown to those two boxy structures that housed our daily grinds. I remember leaving that morning with one last glance out my window, over the local park and across the avenue all the way down to One and Two World Trade. It was a sight more spectacular than usual, the mid-September sun hitting the glass at such an angle as to make the whole structure look otherworldly.
This vision had to be a sign. There was a reason everything looked that good at such an awful hour of the morning. Today was going to be an excellent day to get back on the horse, to start a new first act. No longer would I be that perpetual heartbroken lad I’d been since January, when the girl I honestly figured I’d spend the rest of my life with went ahead and broke my heart. I was tired of being the depressed, lovelorn teen, and I was going to go ahead and do something about it. In my usual boneheaded, backwards manner, that didn’t mean a renewed effort to raise my grades to college-acceptable levels, or even a Sisyphean attempt to write the great American novel. Of course it meant going after another girl, one I was only recently admitting I was sweet on and who seemed, at least to a guy like me, to have all the answers.
It iss incredible how quickly the path of a day can change. That same girl held the back of my neck as I began a fit of panicked breathing in the hallway outside of our last morning class. It was ten-thirty, and news had come that the Towers were down. Not just partially destroyed. Completely fallen. That was all we knew. My thoughts drifted to friends and family in Lower Manhattan and, for just a few moments, lost total control of myself. The heaving, irrational noise that sprang from my lungs will never be repeated, the once-in-a-lifetime cough of the flight-or-flight response that came from a place I could never conjure again.
I composed myself by thinking of those who were much closer. My brother on Waverly, my folks near Herald Square, all the cousins and friends who spent their days in the Financial District: there was a mental checklist, and I wouldn’t be at ease until everyone was accounted for. What about Stuyvesant? That venerated school, long-standing social and academic rivals of ours, was right next to the World Trade Center site. What happened to all of them? There was hearsay, rumor, what we could gather from ever-weakening radio signals. The only thing we had that was even close to an eyewitness was a member of student government, a tall, jovial Senior whose every move was punctuated by some new gesture and a wave of his mop of blonde hair. He had been out on the street before everyone was huddled inside and the school was put on lockdown, looking down Park Avenue for any news at all. He returned to us white as a sheet, almost unmoving. Still, quite, deliberate, he uttered three words:
“Don’t go outside.”
I didn’t want to know what he had seen, so I stayed exactly where I was, gathered with my 4th period Plays in Performance class as we tried to make sense of it all. As if there was any way to make sense of any of it. Everything fell away; old high-school allegiances, political viewpoints, plans and hopes and dreams fell by the wayside on that September morning. They were replaced by only two thoughts: “Is everyone okay?” and “How am I going to get out of here?” When the subways shut down there was talk of running; it was too far, I said, and we’re all scattered as it is. Still, a few tried it, and one intrepid, or rather foolhardy, classmate of mine strode from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to his home on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I was spared a similar excursion by my father, who had managed to drive uptown and corral the editor of the school newspaper into finding me. My father the Captain had always been a commanding and authoritative figure, but I’m not sure I realized how much until he beat through millions of panicked and confused New Yorkers, across marshaled and often shuttered thoroughfares, to grab me and make sure my mother knew that I was safe. In my whole life, it was the only time I could see clearly what he must have looked like when he was an officer. Desperate times bring the soldiers out of hiding.
On the way home, riding in the only automobile on Park Avenue, we discussed the recent history of international terrorism. He was furious and I was horrified to the point of total numbness, but we spoke of the relationship to the USS Cole, to the methods used to incarcerate the Lockerbie bomber, to the States’ perceived response to this act of war. I remember the vague impressions, my father’s fury and the feeling that my home, while I was sitting in AP Euro with very little idea of the outside world, had turned into a permanent ghost town. We kept speaking. It helped us keep our heads.
My gaze drifted over the Met Life Building as we passed 60th Street. Not too much longer. Ten minutes on a good day to the garage and home, and we’d have to beat that. But that was when I saw it. The falling towers had created a mushroom cloud of dust, tall enough to bloom over the skyscrapers, probably visible to the whole world by now. There it was, big as life, the symbol of absolute destructive terror I inherited from my Cold War-era parents. I kept it in my line of sight for as long as I could, trying desperately to burn it into my memory. A totem, a milestone, a wound upon my mind, whatever you wish to call it. An image that would tell me only one thing: I survived. It is distorted and twisted now in my memory, as if my mind refused to believe the size or shape or horror of that image.
It took something far closer to home to make that day burn and fester in my mind. Feats of nature and acts of technology can be easily dismissed, but the human element will never vanish. I realized this fact as our car was diverted around the Police Academy, another obstacle on our attempt to make it back east. The new recruits, some so young they looked like kids playing dress-up, had been sent into the street to control the chaos, check every vehicle, point everyone away from at-risk areas, and stop anyone who could be planning a follow-up attack. (At that point we just didn’t know; remember the truck, packed full with explosives, which nearly made it onto the George Washington Bridge?) In this bedlam we stopped outside of Posto Pizza, a brick oven joint mere blocks from home. As the NYPD checked every car in front of us, I gained a chance to look around at the first people I’d seen since 94th Street. Second Avenue was filled with them, people rushing about confused and afraid. They were heading towards Friends Seminary to get their children out of school, to Beth Israel to volunteer, to home or something like it.
All save one. There was a girl sitting on the curb. In her twenties, fresh-faced, shorts, handbag, sunglasses, looking like so many before her on a late-summer day. She made no moves towards anywhere in particular. She placed herself on the curb outside the pizzeria, hands on her knees, her expression calm. Her eyes stared out into infinity. Amid the chaos, here was…nothing. She was the image of what my psyche would be for months after: glacial, stone, unable to process. What happened that day was too immense and too horrific for anyone to grasp immediately.
I came home to find that my window now looked out on that same cloud that had been the World Trade Center. I shut my blinds and tried not to think about it. When I could, I reached out to find who was alive and who was still unaccounted for, then tried to find something I could do to help. But the truth was that I was helpless. To this day I don’t know if the correct word was powerless or paralyzed for what I was, but I look at myself and wonder at the lack of heroic gestures. Something should have been done. It appeared, though, that all I could do as my homework, just in case school happened the next day. (It didn’t.) I listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland, thinking it would raise my spirits. (It didn’t.) And as I closed my eyes I realized that all I could see was that girl on the curb. I have probably turned her into something she isn’t after all these years; in a lineup, I would no doubt identify her incorrectly. But in my weakest moments, in those of pain and doubt and horror which strip away all the rest, there she is. I entered that day thinking about one woman, and I’ve spent the rest of my life thinking about another. When my eyes close, hers are open. If she was looking towards, looking through, looking past, in the end it makes little difference. Her eyes betrayed a calm I had never seen before. It was an acceptance of what lay beneath that day once every other thought was stripped from us. All we had were those shared panicked moments. They manifest themselves into one single image, into a totem that will follow us wherever we go. I know exactly what mine is.
It’s the girl on the curb.
I hope I never see her again.