New York After
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?
from helicopters bounce along the wall next door, leer below my blinds.
Circling helicopters looking for . . . . Escape from Alcatraz.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.