A Football Game: apparently an acceptable place for a grown-ass man to drink eight pints, begin screaming obscenities and colorful metaphors at his neighbors, vomit all over bystanders, then spike a bottle of Jägermeister into the toilet.
…And that, in a nutshell, is how everyone around me behaved at the Jets game last night.
Those were the first words that he said to me as I walked into the room. He had his back to me, speaking when he heard the door squeak. I knew he didn’t want me to see his face, but I wasn’t expecting him to be this guarded. The only telltale sign that it was him came from the quaking digits on his left hand. I would recognize the motion, a mix of too much caffeine and a childhood injury that manifested in constant involuntary spasms. Two years it had been going on, and he apparently never sought medical attention for it. He was stubborn to a fault.
He continued as I sat down behind him, drawing pen and paper from my bag. “I’m making all these grand declarations, but what does it come down to when things get tough? I turn tail and run. I leave the country.”
London. The boy had decided to run off to London, “run off” being the exact words he used. An outside observer would have seen too much distance between events, too much purpose in the destination, to call it running away. “There’s much to be done over there.”
“There’s much to be done here.” He turned towards me just a bit, his posture changing with the flare of his temper. He hadn’t shaved for a few days, and I could see the scar across his left cheek where anything refused to grow. It had disappeared for me long ago, but for him it was a brand. It was a mark of youth, the teen years that saw him making poor decisions and right ones that he couldn’t yet rationalize. “You’re staying, Rabbitte. You’re the sentinel for this broken town. What am I doing? I’m dodging.”
College isn’t dodging. That he’s traveling half a world away, and then doing it again in a few months, won’t be held against him by anyone. But he’s like me. We’ve always been hard-headed. “So who’s not? Who will be left in New York after August? You’re all turning eighteen, heading off into the world—”
“That’s not the point! Damn it, this was supposed to be different. London first, and then California. It’s…not right. I shouldn’t be going this far.”
It was hard to come up with a response; I had that reaction when I did it too. It’s easy to make decisions out of fear and then regret them later. That’s true even when the actions you take turn out to be the absolutely right ones. “All right, kid. You tell me. What would you be able to do if you stayed in Manhattan? Right now you’re too frightened to travel below 14th Street.”
“The hell do you know about it?” His lips pursed, he barely managed to spit out the words. I hit the raw nerve; we still hate being called Kid or Sport or Slugger or any sort of diminutive. The young one thinks that he’s earned something in seventeen years.
“I know as well as you do everywhere you go. You keep thinking about the Armory. It spooked you too much to explore. I don’t blame you, kid. It’s still there for me on the bad days.”
He leaped up from the chair, spinning to face me. We both knew, but I think there was a moment of surprise when we looked into each other’s eyes and saw our own selves. The accusatory finger he pointed at me lowered, like he was trying to figure out something to say. I took the moment to stare flabbergasted at how I changed in a decade. Here I was, standing taller, only a touch over a hundred pounds. That scar on my cheek had finally grown over sometime after college, the one on my forehead fading until it could be seen with a cocked eyebrow, the eight or nine cuts and indentations on my hands visible only when I pointed them out to friends and lovers. What had disappeared on me stood fresh on his body. New wounds. Fresh sadness. I wanted to tell him that these would never be replaced or topped, but I was never a very good liar.
“You’re fatter than I thought you would be.”
“You’re meaner than I remember.”
He sat back down. We took a moment together. It’s not often you get to talk with someone who’s been through the same ordeals. “They were…they were all looking at me, Rabbitte. Like I was going to turn into someone else. Every single person there was waiting to hear if they had really lost someone or if a miracle was going to occur, and in that moment—“
“You were all of them. The only person walking down that street, and you thought that you were going to die under the weight of their gaze.” I had jumped off the subway at the wrong stop, unaccustomed to riding it after the whole system was ordered closed. My path home took me by a makeshift morgue. Hundreds of people identifying the remains of loved ones. It was just one of a thousand terrible moments of that time in New York, but it stuck with me, with us, more than most. “It never goes away. Even a decade later. I’m sorry.”
“Like the girl on the curb?”
“I understand. More reason to keep the mind busy, right?” This moment was where I’d force a chuckle. He couldn’t. We both rubbed that scar on our forehead; it’s a sign of frustration that never went away for me. “He’s going to die, isn’t he?”
There was only one person he could be referencing. “Yes. Yes, he will. What day is it for you?”
“It’s almost Thanksgiving.”
“Tell him you love him. Tell him we love him. Please.” He’d be dead the next week. Nothing I could do to stop that. But if I was allowed to change one thing in my life, I would say “I love you” to the people who deserve it whenever I could.
“I will. I swear.” I knew right then that he would say the same thing I said: “I’ll see you later.” Those were the final words I spoke to a man who did more to make me who I am today than any other. It was a complete denial of the inevitable, and a moment where I refused to tell somebody what they had every right to know. If this seventeen-year-old jerk wanted to call himself a coward, then he had every right to do so over that. I thought about losing my temper, berating him, telling him off for not doing what I told him to do. It would be counter-productive. Like screaming at the mirror.
“Hey. Is it worth it? London? California? All of this?”
I smiled. He hasn’t met the scores of people who walked into my life in the past ten years. I wanted to tell him about his sister-in-law and his still-expanding family; his future career and the realizations of childhood dreams; the romances with exceptional, wonderful, incredible women. I worried that he’d make the wrong decisions if I didn’t. Then I wondered if he’d make the wrong decisions if I did. “It’s worth it. London’s incredible. Los Angeles is great.” I had to warn him about one thing. “Move out of the dorms. Start boiling the water. You’re allergic to the tap out there.”
“You bet. Why do you think I’m back in town?” I scribbled down the advice and passed it over to him. The paper contained one other sage piece of advice: you’re allowed to love them, but never bet on The Mets. “You’re coming back to New York, Young Rabbitte. It will still be here when you return. There’s no need for a sentinel. You know that I’m not one. I’m just trying to get through the days here. Just trying not to hurt.”
We stared at each other for the first time since we really understood who the other one was. I guess he was trying to find a scrap of himself in my eyes. He was still there, perhaps even more than I let on from day to day. I tried to not let him understand who I was now, what hurt and what was more beautiful and exciting than he could ever imagine. “Oh. What was she like?”
Damn. There are some things that you can never hide from yourself.
“She was amazing. Kid, she’ll take your breath away. And I want nothing but the best for her, wherever she’s going.” He didn’t need to know the when or where or which. It’s more exciting like that.
“But wait, what about—”
“Spoilers.” I got up and extended my hand. I let him see that it didn’t quake one bit, that the scar we hated running down from the pinky finger had faded. “Shake on it, Kemo Sabe? Guarantee that you’ll go out there with confidence?”
He grabbed mine and shook. Did we always have a grasp like a vice? “Deal. I won’t worry about the city. I know you’ll have it well in hand.”
His sudden confidence in me sent a cold chill down my spine. I couldn’t live up to that. There was a massive health scare in his future. He would screw up relationships that meant the world to him. He’d squander hours and days when he could be doing something to cement his future. He would say the wrong thing too many times, never learn, and end up as me. In that moment, I felt like a consolation prize for someone who wanted the world. I’d just talked him into leaving the country, and I didn’t want to tell him that, as of now, the story didn’t have a particularly sweet ending.
It would be a long decade for him. No reason to devalue the great by warning him of the terrible. He would find out on his own.
I made a move for the door as quickly as I could; both of us had a lot to do. “Look, I can’t tell you much, but there’s a movie called The Royal Tennenbaums that will be showing on the plane over to London. Watch it, because it’s phenomenal. You’ll have that copy of The Boondock Saints for a long time and never watch it; save the ten bucks. Oh, and if you ever decide to start your Tumblr over, save all the really good entries so you can use them again.”
“What the hell is a Tumblr?”
“…You’ll find out.”
He looked at me quizzically. “Jesus, did you just quote Back to the Future?”
“Course I did. Doc Brown’s waiting outside with the Delorean. How else do you think I got here?” I walked out the door, but came back in quickly. That wasn’t a decent send-off line. He wouldn’t be seeing me for another ten years, after all. “Oh! And give my love to the princesses.”
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.