Twenty Years Ago
(from Why I Watch People Die)
I am asleep when the killing begins, and when news of it reaches the desert city where I live. The airports close, the offices empty and the city soon has the feel of a Sunday morning.
When she leaves her office, she comes home and finds me asleep. She shakes me awake and tells me what has happened. I don’t take it in at first—the World Trade Center reduced to rubble by the impact of two hijacked airplanes, another plane flown into the Pentagon, another down in Pennsylvania, thousands of people killed—it sounds like a Japanese sci-fi movie.
But she is serious, and when she has told me the news she leaves me alone to wake to its reality. She sits on the couch in the living room and stares at the TV. I lie in bed and try to imagine it not as a special effect on a movie screen, but as actually happening in New York City and Washington, DC—places I have walked around in, gotten drunk with friends in the bars and clubs, eaten in the restaurants, used bathrooms, slept, had sex.
She comes back into the bedroom. She doesn’t say anything at first, just lies down beside me and snuggles close, holding me tight. I know what she’s thinking—that I travel frequently, and I recently flew to DC and then went to New York.
“I’m glad you’re here with me,” she says.
I get up, eat something, sit with her and our two cats in the living room.
Our phone, which usually rings all day, sits in sullen silence. On the TV screen, two planes that no longer exist fly, again and again, into two towers that no longer exist. We hear accounts of people calling those they shared their lives with to say that they loved them. The people who made the calls no longer exist.
A day later, more than two hundred firefighters have joined the dead they were trying to save. For reasons I don’t understand, it is when I hear this news that I start to cry.
Throughout the day, and the day after that, I notice her looking at me. She doesn’t say anything about these looks; she just looks at me. But I understand, because I know that I am looking at her in the same way.
In the evening, I chop parsley and onions in the kitchen as a piece of an animal slowly roasts in the oven. The knife I am using was given to me by a close friend who lives in DC. She has e-mailed me to say that she is all right. Other friends have e-mailed with similar assurances. But there is one friend in New York who is unaccounted for, and as I chop herbs and vegetables and think about her, I am grateful for the Merlot in the glass on the counter beside me. I just hope there will be enough of it.
What we are seeing on the news is more than scenes from an atrocity, though it is certainly that. It is atrocious, but it is not distant or anomalous. It is a concentration of real life as we live it every day, even without violence against us. This is why it is so terrifying to us—we are seeing that people who got up and went to work as usual never came home. Their lives were complex and certain, like yours and mine. They had chores to get through, things to look forward to, people they loved and who loved them. They did not know that, for no reason, no reason at all, they would not see the sun go down.
This is what scares us—that our existence seems secure, the sun is shining, our hair is growing, our bodies digesting food, and then darkness swallows the sun. Darkness comes as an illness, an accident, or as some madman who sacrifices us on the altar of his own ignorance and hate.
People cease to exist, and those of us with some time left look at each other, move closer to each other.
My missing friend gets in touch six days later:
i'm ok. totally shaken. shocked. devastated. i cannot believe that happened. i cannot believe they took down the world trade center. billowing clouds of smoke/dust/ash/whatever still hovers over downtown. but what it looks like to me is thousands of souls in shock, not knowing where to go, and lingering over their death site. the 1st night the wind was trying to carry them out to sea, the second night the cloud was moving uptown. it seemed to me those souls did not know where to go. then it poured rain all night and into the day and that settled a lot of it, but it is still there. it was amazing how quickly manhattan got closed off. i got stuck in brooklyn for 3 days. the smell is strong. and the views are tragic. people in brooklyn are finding papers and stuff in their neighborhoods and on rooftops.
last night i was driving through midtown and there was a whole army of military vehicles driving along side of me. military aircrafts circle manhattan, and there are even warships on the hudson. very very strange.
thanks for your concern. good friends travel through the wtc everyday, and one works there. thankfully they are all ok. i am so grateful. i can't believe there is no twin towers. i really just can't believe they did that. i didn't have any email access from wed. until today. i have 65 email messages to get through. i hope to talk to you soon.
A week passes. We have tried to find something to do about it. Some people bravely searched through ruins, at first for survivors, then for the remains of the dead. Other people—me among them—nervously searched through other kinds of ruins for something useful to say about it. Both kinds of searchers found little that was alive.
But we have to say something, because the alternative is nothing, the same nothing that thousands of people were turned into, the same nothing that a man in Phoenix, a Sikh, was turned into a few days later by a bullet fired into his head by a madman who mistook him for a Muslim, the same nothing that unknown numbers of Afghan civilians were turned into by our nation’s militaristic scapegoating.
To say nothing is not an option, and to say too much is to show too little respect for the awfulness of what happened. So let it just be said that on a Tuesday morning thousands of people, and tens of thousands of lives, were destroyed for no reason. And so were any illusions we had about our own permanence.
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