that day

It is 11 PM on Wednesday, September 10th, 2008.

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon 1958

Seven years ago right now I was getting ready to go to bed. The next day was my first day working at the cooking school where I had recently graduated. I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey. I took a 20-minute bus ride into NYC, then a short subway ride to 6th avenue and 23rd street.

I came out of the subway and the first thing I was saw was a woman in a sleek business suit vomiting into a trash can.

Then I saw the buildings, the buildings were still there then—a big hole was ripped into one of them. It was a toy building, it was impossible. I thought a small plane must have gone off course accidentally, maybe a helicopter. Someone on the street was yelling that they saw it, that it was a big plane.

I went into my building in a daze, feeling woozy and sick. My boss said I had to bring a toolbox of knives to a kitchen downtown for an off-site class, that we were going to keep on working.

The vomiting woman.

The holes in the buildings.

The toolbox of knives.

Everyone says this, because it is so notable: the air was so cool and fresh that morning. The sky was a perfect blue.

I still remember what I was wearing. I still have the shirt, rolled up into a ball in the back of my closet. Triple washed and never worn again. I liked the shirt. Sometimes I figure I’ll put it on again, but I never do.

The subway on the way downtown was weird and slow, so I got off and walked.

The second plane.

It happened while I was in the subway.

I stopped on a corner and saw the image that comes to me, unbidden, at the worst moments: bodies—but not yet bodies, still people, soon to be bodies—floating out of a gaping hole. In my memory they are drifting to the ground with infinite slowness.

People were crying and gasping and taking pictures all around me. I was far enough away that no bodies were in danger of falling on me, as they did on some people.

But I wasn’t far enough away that when the first building came tumbling down everyone around me didn’t think it was going to fall right on us—how could we have thought that? But we did, and we stopped crying and gasping and taking pictures and started running and running and running.

The first building.

Everyone ran and ran. The knives made a horrible sound as they jumped in their metal case. I ran into a construction site circled with a chain link fence, and I couldn’t find my way out.

(A few months ago I found myself in the lobby of the building that now stands in that spot. I took a moment to breathe in the air of a new building standing where I once watched people die. My footsteps were permanently erased. The chain link fence—which I so clearly remember as a portent of death and entrapment—was gone. It felt good.)

I ran past exactly two people running in the opposite direction.

One was wearing a skirt and carrying heels. She was screaming “my husband” in a scream that has never left my ears. The other was making noises that were not words, a horrible cry of the worst anguish imaginable, the cry of watching a building with people you love in it crash to the ground.

I ran past a woman comforting a child who was tearfully asking her if she thought everyone was dead. She was crying in the way that mothers do—no sound, barely noticeable. She said, in a composed mother’s voice, Let’s hope not, darling. Let’s hope not.

All that came after—the long, long journey home, the soot in my hair, the disgusting smell of my clothes. And all that came even later—the terrified nights, the jumpiness, the crying fits, the blind groping horror of finding myself Too Far Downtown that would come over me for years.

Those first few days in the city afterward, everyone wearing masks.

The missing person signs on every surface, layers deep.

The crying. Everyone seeming to be crying on the street all the time.

Will I ever be truly free of it? I am far from “never forget.” I would pay almost anything, do almost anything, to forget.

But it’s gotten so much better with time. In 2002 or 2003 or even 2004, I would be walking down the street, going to B&H or my friend Nelson’s office and suddenly realize—I have to get out of here. It’s only one block away. Tourists are talking about it all around me. I can see the church right next to it.

It’s gotten better, yes, but: seven years later, I can’t quite bring myself to turn my head when my car stops at a certain red light on the Henry Hudson Parkway. The car is right next to it—the high fence, and beyond that, the void. My hands tighten on the steering wheel and I am more thankful than ever for fast NYC stoplights. If I lived in the city repeated exposure would have helped to make my peace with that particular geography, maybe.

It is not stretching it to say that I had a nervous breakdown (my one and only) after September 11th, 2001.

Didn’t we all? I was just out of college, barely out of cooking school, ready and armed to take on the world. I was enjoying the city I spent six days a week in, I was enjoying not being in school. Then came the nighttime terrors.

September to November 2001 were the hardest months of my life. I was terrified every single day. Weren’t we all?

I swear I didn’t close my eyes for two months. Every time I did I felt sick, with sick movies playing on my eyelids.

I listened to too much news and I believed every conspiracy story, every rumor, every sketchy forwarded email. U-Hauls being stolen and plots against all the bridges and tunnels, I believed it all.

In November 2001 I went on tour with my sweetheart for two months in Europe.

Europe was better.

It was cold and new and unwounded. No blue skies, no missing persons posters.

I wasn’t a fan of the band he was working with, but I sold t-shirts, and I loved selling t-shirts. Such a simple job. Every day I had to learn a new currency and listen to a new accent or language. The Euro was going to be introduced soon, and I enjoyed seeing all the old coins for the last time.

At night on the tour bus with the skinny bunks, we would sleep the way I had wanted us to sleep at home: a tight, compact unit. No space to breathe, think, or—best of all—dream. The bunks were so tight that we would wake up with terrible backaches, but we were one person at night. I could pretend I inhabited Jacob’s sane body, complete with eyes that were not afraid to close. The bus rocked me to sleep. I slept twelve, sometimes thirteen, sometimes fourteen hours a night, making up for two months of wakefulness. There wasn’t much to do once the t-shirts were folded and the money counted, and I wasn’t up for much sightseeing. I was small and lost and desperately wanted to feel happy again.

I learned to knit. I read Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and most of all, Virginia Woolf’s Two Guineas, over and over. I debated the idiots on tour and commiserated with the non-idiots. It was impossible not to talk about politics. I developed a love for The Guardian newspaper—their post 9/11 coverage was excellent.

The world seemed unendingly, achingly sad.

It often still does.

When I could pull myself from the warm small bed, I would wander. I wandered down side streets and browsed in bookstores. I walked and walked, and realized one of the reasons I had loved New York City (I didn’t love it anymore, not then anyway) was the sense of possibility you always feel in a walkable city. I didn’t know how to drive then, and not having the option was so freeing.

September 11 was all about running, and it felt good to use my legs again for something other than escape.

One day I went to the Tate Modern. I stared at a Rothko painting for two hours, and then I cried for the first time in Europe.

I sat there and eventually felt the guard staring at me because I had literally been staring at the same painting for two hours, and when I started very discreetly crying, he put his hand on my shoulder. He asked if I was a New Yorker, and though it was cheesy and weird and I technically lived in New Jersey, I said yes. He patted my shoulder, and art did was it was supposed to do: break down some inner wall, allow you to fully feel something. I felt so much better after the Tate Modern.

In late December we came home, and I didn’t go into the city for another week or so. I slowly crept back on the bus, back to work. I don’t take the subway anymore though. Like so many city people, the subway created horrible visions of being crushed or suffocated or worse. These days I don’t take the subway because I don’t remember the lines, and I don’t care to relearn them.

The 20-minute bus ride into the city never felt OK again. Aside from the fact that the bus was horrible and stuffy and crammed with mean Orthodox Jews (not to stereotype, but all Orthodox Jews are mean towards non-Orthodox Jews, and I always feel they have some laser vision where they can tell I’m the most hated object of all in the Orthodox world: the secular, atheist!, non-Zionist Jew), the Lincoln Tunnel was a constant source of mild panic attacks. If traffic was slow in the tunnel, as it always was during rush hour, everyone became visibly nervous until about 2003. People shuffled and clenched their fists.

I had two more panicky episodes while in the city, and one out of the city, and since then I’ve been OK.

Weirdly, two involve my aforementioned friend Katy. She came to visit in 2002 (I think), maybe even 2003, along with my mom. While taking a self-guided tour of downtown landmarks, we came too close to the spot. Much to my embarrassment, I totally melted down when I realized where we were walking.

I think it’s something about the fact that there are souvenirs being sold right there. (Who buys these souvenirs? Where do they put them? Do they give them as gifts?) As soon as I catch a glimpse of the souvenirs I’m pretty much done. Katy and my mom comforted me, and we walked on in the other direction.

I feel so damaged about the whole thing, even writing about it now.

I pride myself on not being a damaged person, but watching 3,000 people die in front of your eyes will do that kind of thing to you.

Then later that year I was standing in front of the Empire State Building, waiting for the light to change. Seemingly hundreds of ambulances and police cars suddenly filled the streets, as they often do and did even more often then, when there were so many false alarms. I started feeling very panicky, and asked the stranger standing next to me what was happening. He looked at me and gently said “It’s OK. Really.” in the most understanding, calming, kind voice. He had my number, alright.

I loved the city that day in the most tragic, bittersweet way—we had our little code, and we were all going to get over it, even if it meant doing super non-New York City things like reassuring people randomly on the street.

When the war started, I was in North Carolina visiting Katy.

We were at her old job at a cute neighborhood café, ordering lunch. The “shock and awe” came on the TV, and I just dissolved. I just made it to the parking lot in time to vomit.

It sounds so simplistic and trite and please forgive my stupid simplemindedness, but here’s the thing: I kept imagining a parallel version of myself in Iraq. Is that weird? An Iraqi Lagusta, a forceful yet tenderhearted person, trying to do good without it making her crazy, excited about life’s possibilities. I imagined all the horrors she was about to witness.

In all the months and years since, that’s what upsets me most of all. That Lagusta is still there. If she’s not dead. I witnessed one day of horrible death. That parallel me in Iraq has suffered untold anguish because of that day—though she had nothing to do with September 11th, of course. In all likelihood she can’t tell her student loans to go to hell and go on a two-month European therapy session. I have had seven years to recover. Will that parallel Lagusta ever recover?

September 11th 2001 was one tiny tiny blip on the radar screen of horrors that humans have done to other humans. In October 2001 there was a letter published in The Village Voice:

I wish I had more time to mourn the victims of the September 11 attacks, but I’m still working on these: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, Chile and Central America, North American Amerindians, and so on. Get back to me in a millennium or two.

Remo Marinelli, Nagano, Japan

I don’t have personal memories of these tragedies, but I have heart memories of them. I want to find better ways of addressing the root of these problems in my everyday life. I tell myself that by doing my small part to run my business according to my values and by helping to make my town into an example of what a town could be I am accomplishing a lot. But we are still torturing and bombing and murdering. I am making money and sending it to a government no one elected.

I would so much like to believe in Barack Obama.

I want to believe in change, in hope, all that. Even though I can’t fully believe in his positions, I want to at least believe he could become our next president. I want so badly to be proud of my country, not just endlessly sorrowful, and I would be proud to elect Barack Obama—because of his skin color and his name, nothing else. But I don’t believe he will be a great president. The system is so fundamentally flawed that no one elected by a major party can be. And I don’t believe he will be elected, because I do believe that clean elections are a thing of the past.

It is seven years later, and where is the Left? There are so many of us, but we are too smart for our own good. We fully see—and even worse, feel—just how low our country has sunk. The Right live in a fantasy world and have no hearts, so things are so much easier for them. The Left votes with our old souls, and this world is no longer set up for people with hearts and souls.

Remember that kid who killed himself at the WTC site to protest the war? No one ever talks about him. I’d like to know more about him.

I’m not going to kill myself, don’t worry. I won’t listen to the news tomorrow, and I’ll be fine. I’ll be making chocolates, retreating into beauty and pretending it is truth.

The truth still terrifies me, but what can you do? I have come to have a very old fashioned Jewish view of it all. Bleak, and unsparing, but still hanging onto wit and humor—because what else is there?—doing my part because you can’t not do your part. The world is so old and crumpled and beaten down. But it’s our world, and there are such amazing pockets of beauty.

Do you remember Angels in America? When Prior, dying of AIDS and tired of watching his friends die, his partner leave him, the world as he knows it crumble, is given the chance to be free of it all, he tells the angels who have offered him a quick death (it sounds cheesey, but even the most resolute atheist can’t resist it, I promise):

I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but…You see them living anyway. When they’re more spirit than body, more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction of being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough, so inadequate but…Bless me anyway. I want more life.

I feel weird discussing my private rituals online, but I read at least part of Angels in America every September 11 and have for the past six years. Tony Kushner’s masterpiece helps me through the day with its story of another terrifying time in New York City.

I don’t feel better afterward.

But I feel alive.

3 Responses to “that day”

  1. Lena

    I can’t tell you how much I relate to this. What always surprises me (I didn’t really get it until recently) is how different the experience was for many people who were not in NYC then. I’ve talked to so many people about it, and have finally understood–in some ways, for most of these people, it was repetitive, unfathomable images on the TV, played over and over again, forced discussions at school or work, something distant and slightly unreal.
    People always talk about the link between smell and memory, and sometimes I think it was in part that smell–that awful, most terrible of smells, because we all knew what it was–that in part so sharpened and deepened those moments and days. That, and the signs everywhere, plastered overlapping on every possible surface, desperately searching and hoping for loved ones, describing their sweet distinguishing moles and scars. It always astounds me that people who weren’t in NYC haven’t even heard about the smell and the signs.
    Thank you for writing this. It has made me feel a little less lonely and weird beyond repair.

    Reply
  2. Lena

    I just realized to my great worry the 3-year plus blogosphere time gap between your posting and my reading may make my comment unwelcome and/or triggering for you. I’m so sorry if this is the case.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Aww, that was so sweet of you to think about. Nope, it was a nice comment. Sad but good. Thanks for reading, so happy my post meant something to you.

      Reply

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