Thursday, September 1, 2011

"MY 9/11" Hunter College Memoir Prize

My 9/11
I was leaving for work, and my neighbor, wearing her bathrobe, her stiff hair in shoots off her head, chased me down the stairs, calling me back inside the building.
 “Go upstairs and turn on your TV,” she commanded. “Someone just bombed the World Trade Center.”
 It was like she’d opened her mouth and a car horn sounded. I felt blank, then cold, and I went back up, tuned in, and sat open-mouthed on the floor, watching the towers coming down, the roiling fire.
   Then, as if I was afraid of something in my own apartment, I started to look around, slowly; saw my dog dozing, normal, saw the silent phone. Outside, Bedford-Stuyvesant, on a sunny day; people began to gather on the sidewalks. I saw doors opening and old people looking out, up and down the street and at the sky, and people standing on stoops, dressed for work but stopped from getting there because of streets blocked off and subways screeching to a halt between stations.
   My neighbors in the small brownstone were not friendly. I was surprised the one woman spoke to me at all. I went down to the stoop to eavesdrop on the street noise, so steady, so thick, the menacing, rising murmur of speculation.
   But nobody panicked. Whatever it was had stopped downtown, it seemed; the smoke was coming toward us, but no more planes.
   I took my bike out and rode up to Brooklyn Heights, where I worked as a dog-walker, for a better view, but there was no view. I didn’t know if I could, or should, walk the dogs, and decided I would wait. At that point I thought, probably a lot of people thought, that things would settle down.
  Fulton Street was non-negotiable. Waves of people were coming over the Brooklyn Bridge or hurrying out of the subway, walking ten and twenty abreast down the middle of the streets. Cops materialized everywhere, distractedly controlling traffic, looking over their shoulders toward the Bridge and beyond, unsure for maybe the first time in their careers.
   I walked the bike across Court Street and up Joralemon, and got back on to ride at Hicks Street, which was deserted. From there on, ashes filled the air as if a volcano had erupted in the river. Montague Street was thronged with people covering their mouths with handkerchiefs, going toward the Promenade and away, no one looking sure that they were moving in the right direction.
   I rode home, one hand on the handlebars, the other fanning smoke from my face. My hair and skin were gritty and slightly pale. I took a shower, and at about 11:30, sat down again in front of the TV, the landline phone in my lap; cell phones were blocked. I ran through a list in my head but could think of no one in obvious, direct danger. Only C lived downtown, but in the East Village, out of range.
   Far enough out of range?
   I tried to call him at home; a recording about the high volume of calls. I called him at work; busy signal. I felt silly, anyway. It was already over, wasn’t it? He was fine at work, I told myself; he might not even know.
   By noon I realized that couldn’t be true. The streets had emptied out because now people were inside watching TV; every channel carried “the attack” only, and endlessly. The news loops were hypnotic. The strangely fine-lined image of the black plane cutting the South Tower’s throat swam in front of me. I turned on the computer, and had the same email message from almost all my dog owners; phone lines jammed, don’t come today, be safe!
    There were also two slightly panicked messages from C;

9/11/01   10:30 a.m.
hey sweets;
hope you’re ok. tried calling you on your cell, no luck. if you’re home email me at my work address…

9/11/01   11:04 a.m.
write me as soon as you can…i hope you’re ok…

   My heart swelled; I felt yanked back from the sick, plummeting feeling of watching the towers fall over and over, to the new normalcy I had been enjoying for a few weeks. It was too soon to call him a boyfriend, but the messages assured me that I hadn’t just overshot. C was a little older than me, more ‘man’ than ‘guy,’ handsome if pockmarked, bright, accomplished, and I just felt lucky about it.   
   It was not me, killed horribly in two thousand degrees of fuel fire. My life was in tact, and so was C’s. We two were not going to die. I was optimistic. I didn’t feel like that was wrong.
   But C did.


   Battery Park City is haunted.
   The North Cove Yacht Harbor, nestled in behind the World Financial center, facing New Jersey’s Colgate Clock across the river, and on our side the glass atrium of the Winter Garden, is a mausoleum to me. I had a boyfriend in the 90’s who was a first mate on a dinner cruiser out of North Cove, and he slaughtered himself with heroin in a cabin supply closet on the boat on July 17th, 1996, the same day that TWA’s Flight 800 from New York City to Rome went down in the water, not far from the Long Island town where I grew up.
   I had broken up with him, for good, three days before. He called me non-stop on my cell. I believed that he only wanted money. He would leave me weeping messages, rage-filled messages, threats. In his final message, he said he couldn’t take much more.
   In the morning the cell phone was buzzing again and I waited till the call went to voice mail; the secretary from North Cove. They found him in the supply closet, blood and tiny empty plastic bags everywhere. I was his emergency contact. 
   I can’t explain loving that kind of person. Anyone who has loved an addicted person will understand and anyone who has not will judge me hard no matter what I say.
   But this much is true; I know about loss, and about shock despite the obvious. I know very well the shipwreck that is the seemingly sudden death of a young, broken person. Even the corpse is incomprehensible.
   I’m not a moron.


I responded:
   9/11/01   1:14 p.m.
   Hi guy!
   Thank heavens you sent me this email! I was so worried about you. Called you at home & wk but couldn’t get through. I’m disconnecting my dial up from the landline so try me as soon as you can.
   So glad you’re ok…. Huge hugs!

   I sweated that email hard before I sent it, and instantly, something was wrong. Looking at the messages even now, mine doesn’t seem different from his; the tones match, I think. It was just a trans-boro vibe, a sudden, amorphous nausea that anyone who has dated in this city knows too well; the relationship started to unravel.
He responded:

9/11/01   1:32 p.m.
   I’m ok… tried your number, but you must be online or calling others…
It may be a good idea to get out of the city for a while. I’m thinking of going to my sis’s house in peekskill if I can get out… we’ll get through this…
   In one exchange, he’d gone from closing his messages “xoxoxo” and “hugzkisses” to a detached dash. That was a thing. Also odd, I thought, the public service announcement about going to his sister’s house, without an offer to come along? Without a ‘what about you?’
   I wasn’t confident at all that we’d get through “this.”
   I didn’t even know what it was.


   C was not actually new to me, and I was not taking the relationship lightly because I thought we were embarking on our destiny. I’d met him three plus years earlier, while still with my boyfriend. I was working in a coffee bar in the East Village, around the corner from C’s policy-wonk office; he came in the first time right after the place opened, then every day; coffee and a muffin, two muffins if he was biking after work. He dressed like an FBI agent out of the 50’s complete with a pork pie hat; it was a little affected but I loved the way he owned his nerdiness, and put style to it. I was a dork in rock-n-roll clothing myself, and we had an extravagant flirtation, (“forgot my wallet!” “forgot your change!” “forgot a peck on the cheek!”) and a hilarity at the sight of each other that lit the place up. We liked each other a lot. We liked ourselves liking each other, too.
   One morning there I half-hoped C wouldn’t come by; I looked and felt awful. My boyfriend had come home in the middle of the night after three days, and I pretended not to hear him rifle my purse for cash. But then he went to my bureau and started hunting around for the last of my jewelry, and I said, “Leave it.”
   My boyfriend came to me in the bed. He smelled like mossed-over teeth, garbage, beer, and piss. He had been in the subway tunnels shooting up. I could feel the grit on his hand as he stroked my forehead.
   “Don’t talk to me like that,” he said thickly. “You are a much bigger asshole than I am.”
   He took the jewelry and left.
   I sat up smoking, disgusted with myself, until it was time to go to work. I had a mercifully un-busy morning there. At a break in the slow stream of customers, I crouched to clean under the counter. I heard C’s boyish voice calling out giddily, “Where is my coffee wench? Coffee wench! Serve me, woman!”
   “Keep yer britches hitched, ye randy goat!” I called back, half heartedly, not wanting to stand up and have him see my swollen, exhausted face. As I decided that I would say I’d had food poisoning in the night, I did stand, and there was C, at the counter, and my boyfriend standing right next to him, in black jeans and a torn t-shirt, his hair standing on end, his face streaked bizarrely with black grease, wearing a strange jacket, his hand ominously poised in the pocket.
   “I’m going to the bank,” he said evenly. “Clean out the register for the boss, now.”
   C was frozen, staring at my boyfriend. The air around us was like glass. I did as I was told. My boyfriend took all the money and put it in his pockets and walked out backward, slowly. “Don’t do anything, babe,” he said. The door closed, he turned and looked up and down the street, and walked east.
   “Babe?” said C. “You, do you know him?”
   “That’s my boyfriend,” I said blankly.
   C left and didn’t come back.   


   No, I can’t explain about loving that kind of person; a heroin person. They are a species of addict as are cokeheads, speed freaks, crackheads, potheads, all to themselves. They have their particulars, like the dip and roll of the nod that everybody knows, the sexlessness, the stealing, the slack mouth and hollow cheeks. But I didn’t love a kind of person.
   He was so tall, and so lean, with such broad shoulders and long, elegant biceps and forearms, and enormous hands that could lift you up by your hips. His which-way hair was the color of summer mornings and sparkled when it was clean. He had bulging hazel eyes that could stop you cold, a formidable nose that hooked faintly and regally, these teeth he bared when smiling like he would gleefully kill anybody, and he was in so much pain, had been beaten by so many alcoholic fathers, was such a good poet, able to work with his hands on anything, loved engines and barbeques, black humor, was a long, beautiful swimmer, was born to smoke.  
   You don’t love that; bullshit.


    In the fall, I tried to forget about C. I went back to school part time and was trying to write poetry. All my money from my hodgepodge jobs went to rent and heroin. Some days I hoped my boyfriend would die, some I hoped he wouldn’t. There were needles tucked into every crevice of my apartment. It was like being slowly poisoned. 
   After a while, I got a night job at a Village copy shop. It was a big place with a wide, dirty, self service area in the front, a long iron counter, and two big freezing cold rooms full of industrial copy machines, shelves upon shelves of paper and containers of ink, and hundreds of empty cardboard boxes heaped up in pyramids. I liked the self service area because of the writers and strange people that came in, all slightly hysterical, to copy their poems or phone bills or freaked out letters to and from lawyers, porn on the color machines, or complicated productions of 11x17 collages for their ‘zines. I liked working behind the counter; it felt like a home.
  I became friends with Tommy, who ran production, grinding out thousands of dollars worth of litigation jobs for law firms. He would look over my shoulder sometimes as I ran little color jobs, helping me adjust the hues or line things up the right way. If he ran out for a sandwich he brought me back hot chocolate or a candy bar. He never smiled. He never said hello or goodbye. He had black hair and blue eyes, was about thirty-five, built for bar room brawls of which he’d had many, and the way he strutted, was often mistaken for a cop. I adored him.
   I’d run into C on Astor Place or in the general area; it was always awkward and quick. I would ask him about work and he would make a phew! noise or shake his head; so busy! A few times I planted myself with a cup of coffee and a book on the benches outside his office building and didn’t look up from the pages. Maybe he saw me and went the other way.
   My boyfriend’s habit was out of control. I got a day job answering phones at an office, was at the copy shop nights, but we never had enough money. The rare times we saw each other, I screamed my brains out at him. Tommy and I started hanging out after work, drinking, and he would indulge my bitching about it.
   Around Halloween, my boyfriend tried to “really” quit dope. After 10 days of paranoid chills, vomiting, and tears, he took a boiling hot shower and scrubbed himself raw with a loofa. He got a 9$ haircut at the nearest barber. He called on his charm and WASP childhood sailing experiences to get a job he’d heard about from a cook he shot dope with, at North Cove, on a party boat.
   The job transformed him, somewhat. The work was hard and built him back up; he ate constantly. He learned about marine engines and got to drive around the Cove in a little cart, using a walkie-talkie, hauling ropes and equipment and just living this beautiful macho dream; he was kinder to me, though he spent most of his pay snorting coke with the chef and girls they met at events on the boat.
   I was happy for him, and started to feel that I could leave him without guilt. I passed the winter talking about it with Tommy at the Cedar Tavern nearly every night after work. He’d say to me, You’ll leave when you’re ready; I’ll help you.
  After tax season, the phone job ended. I worked extra hours at the copy shop to save up money Tommy held onto for me. I published a few of my poems, and that made me feel strong. My boyfriend stayed relatively steady, going to work, only doing coke at night, and through May, I worked up my nerve. In June, a friend of my mother’s offered me her idle studio on Wooster Street, to live in rent free until she began renovations.
   One night when my boyfriend was out, I packed my clothes and a few books. Tommy picked me up. In the studio there was a mattress on the floor, one chair, and an old copy machine, which Tommy and I took as a sign.
   My boyfriend didn’t come home till the next evening, and he called me at the copy shop, enraged. He hung up mid sentence and then came there, calm at first, but when I refused to come outside and talk to him, he lunged at me across the counter and grabbed my arm, and Tommy dove on him and Rick from the back and Donna the cashier all rushed him and pulled him off. Rick was good; he talked him down and walked out with him, kept him on the sidewalk smoking.
   “Clean this up, now, or we’ll both lose our jobs,” Tommy said to me, opening his wallet and giving me the $45 he had in there, his hands shaking. “Go out there and clean it up. I am in here with the big staple gun, I’m right behind you.”
   I walked out to my boyfriend and gave him Tommy’s money and all that I had in my purse.
   “This isn’t anything, Jessica,” he said, looking at the money in his hand. “I have money. I love you.”
   I crossed my arms over my chest and looked at the sidewalk. My boyfriend kept the money and left.
   Three days later I got the call from North Cove.


   Tommy and I got married in the fall, and had a cocktail reception at The Cedar Tavern. By the following August, we were separated.
   I stayed with a friend because I had no job and didn’t want to believe that Tommy and I couldn’t work things out. Her boyfriend, a paranoid sexual masochist, was in Martha’s Vineyard with his wealthy parents and my friend was not invited along. We went to St. Mark’s books one day to get inspired; she was an actress. I rounded an aisle and there was C, wearing an elaborate cycling outfit, even the little hat and a fanny pack. I almost laughed. I ran to the back where my friend was looking at plays and hid behind her until she could tell me that C went out the door.
   The next day was Saturday. I stood outside his office building for an hour. The security guard asked me what I was doing. I asked if C was in; he tended to be a workaholic, so it was a legitimate question. The guard said that usually, C was in on Saturdays, but not today. I left a note.

   “It’s me, Jessica. Hope all is well. Call, or email if you want. My #s are…”

The next day, I got this:

8/23/97   9:07 a.m.
Why now?
It would be nice to see you.
When can you have a drink?

I didn’t respond. I moved back in with Tommy.


‘98, ‘99, ‘2000… Tommy drank, and we fought about it. I left and came back three more times. My parents sold their little house and moved to an apartment in Queens so my father could get a sales job in the city, though he should have been retiring. He was exhausted, but took care of my mother, who’d had a series of strokes and became unable to walk. Our cousin Lillian, an old lady who we loved, got cancer, and began to die. Lillian’s daughter Paula was having trouble with her teenage son. My best friend’s horrible boyfriend beat her and locked her out of the apartment and Tommy refused to let her stay with us.
   Everything was terrible.
   I went to the Village a lot just to get out of the house. One spring afternoon on 14th Street, I slammed into C in the aisle of an office supply store while buying a new notebook for my poetry. He lied and said that I looked good; I did not. Sitting at home, sometimes drinking just to do anything with Tommy, eating bags of cookies and smoking while I tried to write, I’d put on a lot of weight. I had a terrible middle class haircut. Often Tommy would drink until 5 in the morning and black out in bed, and I would just get up, put clothes on, and go to the bakery, then stay awake bleary eyed, lurching around lost in my husband’s house. In ways it was worse than life with my boyfriend.
  C was not at his best, either. He is a little guy, prone to overwork and a raw skinniness. He has pretty blue eyes, but no chin. A hockey break across the bridge of his nose that had healed as flat as a penny casts a one-sided shadow on his face when he’s exhausted, which he was that afternoon. He had been promoted and was buying things for his new office; he said I should stop by and see it some time.
   I didn’t. I knew that I looked too terrible. I couldn’t even imagine what had prompted him to invite me.
   I avoided the Village for several months.


   A dog-walker I knew from around was taking his band on tour; would I walk his dogs? I lost 8 lbs in a week and had not felt so free in 5 years. I started my own dog-walking business in Brooklyn Heights, not far from where Tommy and I lived, and made much more money than I expected. When a chic new restaurant opened on our block, I took Tommy there for lunch.
   We sat opposite each other, eating delicious hamburgers. Half way through, I said to him, “Is there any chance at all that we could have a baby?”
   “No,” he said, biting the hamburger. “You just want one because all your friends have them and that’s a stupid reason. So no.”
   “Then I think it’s time that we end this.”
   “Agreed,” he said, and tossed his hamburger onto the plate, then walked out.


   By the end of the summer I had enough money to get my own place. I moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Tommy and I divorced, and I got a dog. I wrote articles about Bed-Stuy that were published and won an award.  
   In 2001, I began to see myself as a person who could not do everything, could not have a relationship and also work; I was happier working, so that was okay. I went to the beach with my parents that summer and my father and I would pull my mother out of her wheelchair, lower her onto a blanket, and drag her along the sand to the water’s edge; she was a very good sport.
   Toward the end of summer, I went to a poetry reading. The work was so powerful, the writer’s performance of it so affecting, that I cried, and someone tapped me on the shoulder, and it was C, sitting behind me in the audience, offering me a tissue. 
    Our time had come, it seemed.
   For three weeks, we went to dinner, and to hear live music, and see movies, often sleeping at his place. I liked him. I wanted to like him even more than I actually liked him.
   I thought, maybe I had to go through this fire in my life to clean out my unhappiness, and make room for someone good. My life was good, his life was good. It seemed like we had been waiting for this time together, like it was important just because of that. I didn’t want to be disappointed again. He’d had several soured relationships, too. We wanted it to work.


He emailed me the Friday after the 11th:
   9/14/01   9:14 p.m.
I’m coming back very early to beat traffic. Will you be around?

I responded:
9/14/01   9:21 p.m.
Of course! Why don’t you come straight here first? I’ll make breakfast. I want to see you.

He wrote back:
9/14/01   9:29 p.m.
I think I’ll be pretty tired. I’ll need to unpack. I have some important phone calls to make. Would you come over if I call you when I’m home?

I responded:
9/14/01   9:59 p.m.
of course. Just call me. Travel safe. Can’t wait to see you.

He didn’t respond.


   What was the howling outside my window? When I first moved into Bed-Stuy I’d heard it almost every night, after 11, stopping at midnight. Then it was gone for weeks, and now at 11:15 p.m., on Friday, September 14th, 2001, it was back.
   It was the howling of large dogs, from the cavernous chests of Rottweilers or pit bulls, the sound of pain, of throats being cut.
   Was somebody murdering dogs on my block?
   I spoke to the police about it once; they gave me a dirty look. Did they think I was making it up?
   Why would I do that?
   One of my clients lost her husband in the attack. She was a nervous, girlish, tiny woman, weighing maybe 100 pounds. Her daughter was two years old at the time. The woman had called me earlier in the day. Her dog, an elderly Rotty with advanced arthritis, had died in his sleep.
   “We’re done,” she said to me, with a rasping hostility that I assumed was really intended for somebody else.
   “I’m sorry,” I said.
   She hung up.
   And the howling.
   And the messages.


   On Saturday the 15th, I walked my dog very early, and had coffee in the basketball court a few blocks away with the old man who loved my dog. I had the feeling that I would miss him.
   At nine I went back to the apartment. I took a long shower, shaved my legs, painted my nails, waited for the phone to ring. C called at 11. He was terse. Could I please come over.
   I’m not a moron.


   He buzzed me up and I went in to his apartment with cappuccinos and a bag of biscotti from a place I knew he liked. He kissed me on the cheek and took the breakfast and put it on the table. He looked like he’d been traveling for days. Traffic coming into the city was bad, but not horrible, he said, and he’d returned his rental car. His time at his sister’s was not restful; she and her husband watched the news obsessively and wanted him to talk about the attack the whole time. Also he’d had a hard time getting someone on the phone.
   Here it comes, I thought. “Who?”
   He coughed. “This woman, who I really care about. She works downtown. I was very worried about her.”
   “Is she all right?” I asked, I think steadily.
   “Well, yes, she is, now,” he said. “She wasn’t actually at her office Tuesday, she had a meeting in Midtown, but she was very shaken up. She lost several of her colleagues.”
   “That’s terrible,” I said. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”
   He didn’t answer me. We were sitting at his little kitchen table. I took the covers off the cappuccinos and set one in front of him. “Here,” I said. “You probably haven’t had any breakfast. Can I put the biscotti on a plate?”
   He looked at me like I was poisoning him. “How can you eat?” he said.
   “How can I eat?”  
   “Let me ask you something,” he said to me, pushing the cappuccino away as if it was disgusting. “That guy. That boyfriend that you had years ago, who held up the coffee shop. Can you explain that to me?”
   There was a bad beat.
 “How would I explain it to you?” I asked softly. My face burned.
   “I mean,” he said imperiously, “if you can be with someone like that. Why would you want to be with someone like me? I mean, what kind of person are you?”
   I started to cry.
   “Are you dating that woman who works downtown?” I hissed in disbelief. “Is that why you’re asking me these questions?” I put my face in my hands and fully sobbed, overwhelmed with disappointment.  
   “I just want to understand,” he said, softening a little. “I mean, if we’re going to have a relationship, what do you want out of it?”
   “Love!” I screamed at him.
   I knocked over the cappuccinos as I got up to run out the door, down the stairwell, and into the street.
   When I got home, I had an email from him.

9/15/01   1:37 p.m.
I’m sorry that I upset you. The city has had a tragedy. We are all part of the tragedy. I just don’t understand how you can be thinking about cookies and love.

I responded:
9/15/01   2:24 p.m.
I’m not.


Toward the end of the month, Lillian died from her cancer. In my eulogy for her, I wrote:

   “Going to visit Lillian on a holiday, or some random, lucky afternoon, was always a time to put on a nice outfit, and new shoes. When I was a little girl, we would drive to Manhattan from out east, on the LIE, up over the rise at Exit 23, and the whole breadth of the New York skyline would open before us, presenting the Emerald City; this was Lillian’s domain.
   Now, there’s a hollowness here, and New York stands as quietly stunned without its towers as I do without my cousin.
   We are all changed by loss.”

   A month later, my mother died of a heart attack.
   My dog and I walked up and down the streets of Bed-Stuy that comprised our micro-hood and said goodbye to people. The old man who lived by the basketball court cried and tried to give me money. I gave my dog clients to other walkers and moved in with my father and we sorted things out, a little at a time.
   I still think of my boyfriend who died, every day, even though I have an entirely other life now. And Tommy and I are over it, and talk on the phone from time to time. I miss my mother, and Lillian, a lot, though I see Paula often; we’re what’s left of the family and we make the most of that.
    As for C; it was only something between two young people who tried to get together; 9/11 didn’t really make it anything more. Maybe he’d never been that close to death before and thought he was next. Maybe he felt guilty for living, and I didn’t understand. I’ve felt guilty for a lot, but never for living.

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