VALERIE CIHYLIK

 

New York After

9/11

Playing ball in Central Park, it's too nice to go home so Gracie runs, leash-free, a scofflaw. Someone's cellphone rings fucking cellphone. Byron's mommy. A call from Louisiana she reports. Two planes have hit the World Trade Center towers. Terrorists. Sick friend, I say. But she is pale and listening and it is not a joke.

Like the end of the movie Failsafe, Peggy says, children playing in Central Park, the sun shining, color freezes to black and white and then nothing.

We go home, still disbelieving. I turn on two radios. One station watches the first tower collapse; the other reports it still standing. The War of the Worlds. After the panic we will all feel so silly. But the bad news drones on.

The phone starts ringing. Tears. I didn't remember where you worked. I'm okay. Why do we talk politics? Conspiracy, I say; Armageddon, Helena says. We hang up to stay friends. Still disagreeing at the end of the world.

By afternoon a new New York. No traffic. People walking, eyes vacant, pupils large. Side by side or alone, walking one foot then another, a steady pace. When our eyes meet, recognition, familiarity, life, we hug -- acquaintances on the street, neighbors. Is your family okay? Friends? Please take care of yourself. Even strangers. Here are the living.

This is my home. My home. After 20 years, I realize. These are my neighbors. The doormen, the dog-hill people, the shopkeepers, the nodding familiar faces saying good morning. This is where I belong. How will I know these people who populate my street, my home, are safe?

I frantically make phone calls. Who did I lose? No one should have been down there. Alive, alive, busy, busy, busy. Is it the phone? Are they okay? Calling and calling. Stories of miracles and comic book monsters, pursuit and escape. Checking off my list, no one is safe until I touch them.

Gerald sits on the stoop in the dark. He cannot sit still. His eyes hum. He's a cop, works for the Police Chief. I was there, he says, smiling. A strange smile. I was there. Are you all right? Yeah, yeah. He shakes his head, still smiling. I saw things. I do not want to hear. I saw things. He needs to talk. Things no one should ever see. And he tells me. I do not want to hear. He scares me. He is so human, so frail. I touch his shoulder to keep him solid. His eyes say more when his lips are silent. I leave him on the stoop while another neighbor talks about God.

1 a.m. The park is closed. Gracie and I in the dark and uneasy quiet. Breaking the law again. It has never been quiet in the city. The city never sleeps. It does not sleep now judging from the blue lit windows. A vibration starts in the distance. A plane. There are no planes. Not since this morning. Louder. I can feel its engine through my skin, through the ground. F16 fighter planes. The dog bolts. There's no danger, no traffic. She waits for me on the now empty stoop.

9/12

Reprisals! My brother phones. Does he ask how I am? Reprisals. I can't hear this. You don't understand, I plead, we are living in hell, we are the living dead. He calls back later. I don't know why I said that. I wanted to tell you all the people who called to find out if my sister was safe. Shelly and Bob and Ribby . . . a list of strangers wishing me well.

The wind changes. At first just a whiff of smoke, which grows sharper, more acrid. I know what a fire smells like, we had one in this building. This smoke is different. It is invisible. Still it burns the throat. Stings the eyes. My head throbs, fists pounding on my skull. I inhale the revenants of innocents and terrorists alike, and the smoldering carcass of a former monolith.

Later that night after midnight in the park, I hear the screams of a small animal, over there by the tree. Is it a bird? It's being attacked by another small animal. I can't see. A mouse, a rat. Attack, retreat, attack, retreat. The tiny screams. I can't breathe. I can't help. We run home, close the door and listen to the buzz of the refrigerator.

9/13 night

My bed vibrates. I feel them before I hear them. The walls, the floor, rumbling. A plane flying too low. Closer and closer. Then recedes. I wait. I strain my ears. I wait. My body now vibrates in the residual silence. I wait. Do I hear a distant explosion? I turn on the radio, please God, but there is nothing new to report. I look out my window. One blue window in the building next door, the rest dark. I am a shadow listening. What did I hear? A military transport plane. A phantom?

9/14 night

Searchlights from helicopters bounce along the wall next door, leer below my blinds. Circling helicopters looking for . . . . Escape from Alcatraz.

9/15

On the bus to work. The green binder, that's gone, says a young woman as she sits next to me. She's talking to a friend. I don't know what we're gonna do . . . all the billing stuff . . . I'm getting a gun . . . what if an Arab got on the bus right now . . . carrying a box. I don't want to hear this. . . did you hear about Fatimah, her brother, he got beat up, they're Arabs you know, he's in the hospital . . . that's not right . . . Mary didn't make it . . . She had to make one last phone call. You were there? I ask. 87th floor. I wasn't sticking around. You could feel the heat. They kept telling us to turn back. You could feel the heat. 87 floors down. I called my mom before I left. Told her I was all right. She's not well. But then the other plane. We kept going 87 floors. One after another. The phones don't work. I'm thinking, she's gonna die, my mom is gonna die because she thinks I'm still in there. We ran. The smoke. Glass falling. We ran until 14th street. Crying. My mom's dead and it's my fault. A guy in a store lets me call. Mom, mom, I'm okay. I'm gonna get her counseling.

9/16

St. Patrick Cathedral from my office window. Thousands stand in the street. Prayers and dignitaries. A woman collapses. A fire truck arrives. Firemen in sooty boots run to her. An ambulance and another. They carry her away. I cannot hear the words broadcast to the street. I am wet with tears for a fire truck and sooty men in boots.

At my desk a fly. A big black fly. Where did it come from? Pissing me off. And I raise my hand and I freeze. One more death, even a fat black fly, is too much.

9/17

6 a.m. in New York City, I take a voucher car home. An American flag waves on the antenna. A display of patriotism. American flags for sale on every corner. The driver dark, accented, Indian or Pakistani. We stop at a light on Central Park West, a police car pulls up next to us. The policeman in the passenger seat scrutinizes the driver, edging up for a better look. The police car follows us slowly, 20 blocks. At 86th Street we stop, the police car again next to us and the policeman gestures for the driver to lower his window. He gestures to me as well. The driver lowers his window. The policeman asks, "Where'd you get that flag?" The driver doesn't understand. "Yes, I have a flag," he says. The policeman repeats himself and the driver replies, "I bought the flag." The policeman shakes his finger at the driver, "You don't need that flag, that's my flag." Then he looks at me, hating me as well. The driver stares straight ahead, silent. The policeman shakes his finger again, a dark hard look, "that's my flag," and roars away. At home, I apologize to the driver, caution him "Please, be very careful." This isn't my New York.

9/18

Lilly has no school. Will I spend an afternoon? Lilly walks with her dad from the subway at 81st Street. She sees me and smiles. Lovely Lilly. She is twelve and she talks and talks, telling me stories about her cat. We had to evacuate Sugar. Carrying her with her litter pan to her dad's in Chelsea. Worried because Sugar eats her father's paints. Talking and walking in Central Park. We go to the Rustic playground. A long marble slide, even faster with a piece of cardboard to sit on. Here the only world is the Park, squealing, sliding children and parents hovering, watching. Then the carousel. I want to ride too, but Lilly tells me where to stand. She needs me to be the adult. She needs me to watch. I would rather ride and slide and forget. We meet her mom. Lilly runs to the playground, watching us watch her. Her mother laughs and says we are refugees. Lilly shouts no. I am not a refugee. Stop. I don't want to talk about it.

9/21

Karen in a mask, wiping up asbestos. Lilly and I run errands. To the dry cleaner, for dinner. Do you want to see the wreckage? Wreckage. The sun is setting. Lilly points down the street. The setting sun turns these sideways-tilting buildings pink. Beyond that smoke. The empty sky looms, fading pink to dark blue, an alien landscape.

***

I feel as if I can't leave New York. I am its protector. If I leave, something will happen. A trip to BJ's in Jersey for bulk shopping. Life like it used to be. In a panic I realize, O my God, what have I done. New Jersey. Marjorie tricked me. When we recross the George Washington Bridge, New York still stands despite my betrayal.

Memorials have sprung up around the city. In bus stops. Suddenly the entire wall of a building, an apartment building, covered in posters. Have you seen . . . Missing . . . Smiling photos with babies and dogs. Silly poses. 5'2" 140 pounds brown hair. In front of our fire station, candles and flowers and letters from school children. Poems. Prayers. Please, we don't need anything. No food, no clothes. Yes, we are lucky. Our chief (I remember the chief, a silver fox who knocked on my door when our building stopped burning), our chief was buried for five hours. He's okay, minor injuries. On 43rd Street a firehouse stands empty.

At the diner a woman speaks of volunteering. We hover. We are desperate to be needed. They have rejected my blood, rejected my time. To help just for an hour. She tells her story about feeding the rescue workers. I could feed them if they let me. Another day in the diner a Japanese woman speaks about the smell of the dead. I remember from the war, she says, the smell of the dead, sweet and sticky, a smell like no other.

I get an e-mail about survival. How much water, canned food. How to test a gas mask. A gas mask. I drown my dog in tears. How do I live in a world where my dog needs a gas mask?

On the street a woman throws her arms around me. You're okay. She holds me at arms' length examining me. We haven't seen you, we didn't know. I'm okay. We smile sheepishly. We are alive.

On my answering machine I leave a new message: "We're here still here, New York, New York..." Not Sinatra, but it makes people laugh.