Everyone talks about the weather that day. It was remarkable before the strike, clear blue and forgiving of any mood. Hard not to be in love with something, someone, anyone, really, in the wake of its romance, 8 a.m. and gorgeous already. But then a tower was on fire and people clotted the intersections. Suits and heels and cell phones, faces looking up. Is it a bird? A plane?
I once heard that if a hologram image shatters, each of the shards will hold the entire image it held before, not just pieces of the whole. Probably on the Titanic, sinking passengers noticed the qualities of the cold night. They saw their breaths freeze in the air and felt the dark sky press against their skin. White on velvety blue on gray. A spectacle of a night made more remarkable by its event. Ever notice how that works? In trauma, textures almost talk. Colors slide and sing. Voices stick and ring round and round in your memory, like a badge on the day. A time capsule, each thing discrete, definite.
On the Titanic, there were 1500 stories of 1500 passengers who never surfaced, and 700 more of those who did. And inside them, stories upon more stories that drowned or bubbled up to pop into the air, adding to the weight of the world. On 9/11 there were too many stories to hear. Too many to catch, capture, capsize. 3,000 died but millions watched. Like a hanging in the square, for all the world to see. Legacies stopped that day. Legacies began. Stories multiplied. How could you ever hear them all?
It’s hard to tell when my story began. Was it the moments before the strike? When all I felt was the morning on my skin and the excitement of the first day of class? Or was it four years later, another time another town, hearing the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Did it start before that? In the moments I couldn’t for the life of me find my reliably sunny disposition, and craved only to throttle the jerk I worked with? Was it the panic attack and raw nerves triggered by construction noise outside my office? Or, did my story start freefalls of years before that, when a coroner showed up to my house at midnight with a hole in her stocking and some very bad news?
So many stories, I thought I knew which were mine. But late on the night of 9/11, uptown and downstairs from the apartment where I was staying, I picked up a street level pay phone to call home while monstrosities of machinery trundled down the avenue, pulled on trailers, chevrons of black vehicles, with sirens and red lights escorting them. Across the street a young man and a young woman staple a piece of paper to a telephone pole. Receiver to my ear, plastic baggie of coins in my hand, I hear the operator say, “Calls are free in an emergency zone. Please place your call.”
Emergency zone. My stupor clears. Fear finally seizes me. I don’t remember who I call, if anyone after all. Fear settles over my shoulders like a cloak I’ve been shrugging off and I don’t know if I could cogently converse if I tried. I’ve been eluding disaster all day, and it takes the recording of a payphone operator to make me realize it. Cool, calm, no the fuck way. The night is blacker, clearer. The receiver is heavy, sturdy, cold. I hang it up. I cross the street. I look at the lone piece of paper the couple has stapled to the pole. Missing: Andrew Smith, Age 22, Brown Hair. Green eyes. Works at Cantor Fitzgerald. Please call…
By the end of the next day, flyers clog every open space at eye level. Fences. Windows. The bases of statues in parks, bus shelters, telephone booths.
People call it shock. But in the moment, it feels soft, quiet, fuzzy but strangely clear at the same time. Time gets suspended. Not real time. Mind time. Call it time travel. When it’s over, you open your eyes and days have passed, or moments. And all you did was open your eyes. Coma sleepers are the same way, I’d imagine. Go to sleep very deeply one day, make your revolutions around your inner world, and then emerge with bedsores and achy bones you can’t account for. No memories beyond the ones you took to sleep with you long ago.
Maybe I went to sleep, long ago. I certainly didn’t feel like it, living actively into my dream of moving to New York City, studying playwriting, becoming a bonafide writer with skills. I felt wide awake on 9/11, sunlight streaming through leaves as we stood in line to give blood. But I was dancing on the surface of something. It was all unreal. It wasn’t sinking in.
I don’t think it was possible to sink in. To meet the devastation we were witnessing with a full throttle awareness of what we were actually witnessing–losing–jumping from one landmass of consciousness to another–as the world as we knew it–broke away from itself–into a new reality…to be fully aware of that in the moment the dust was rising and the crushed souls were flying away, would be to die inside immediately.
(You can read all of the Memory to Light stories in order on the side bar -–>)
. . . . . . . . .
Today’s story is one of the many pieces I’ve written over the years, trying to wrap words around experience. It is itself an amalgamation of stories and thoughts pulled into one post.
Thanks for reading Day 3 of “Memory to Light: 31 Days of Stories, August 11 – September 11, 2011.” It is an exercise in writing about loss, for the purpose of letting grief wake, live, and pass through the system. Grief is transformation. Story is transformation. Our world could use a little wakeful transformation right now. Take a peek at the introductory post for the full story of what we’re up to. You are invited to join.