It’s Hitting Me Harder This Year
I wrote this in March 2002. This, as EVERYONE is reminding us, is the tenth anniversary of That Day. In past years, I’ve grieved, I’ve raged, I’ve pretended nothing happened. All the stages of grief? Yeah, I went through all of them textbook style. It’s 6 AM here in Jersey and I’m trying to convince myself that it’s just another Sunday. It isn’t working very well. Anyway, here’s what was seared into my memory. It was the first time I was able to talk about it. I still remember the radio station waking me up, still remember what I was wearing, when I ran to get money out of the ATM, what I blindly bought at the bodega across Columbus Avenue, and the smell. Burning metal and concrete. I’ll never, ever forget that smell. Anyway, here’s my story.
Six months. Half of a year. Surely it can’t yet be half of a year. Half
a year ago today, at this time, I was standing in the Greek grocery
across Columbus Avenue from my apartment. It was about this time that I
got through to my best friend Stevil, and he told me to get bottled
water and non-perishable food. And to close my windows. And to get a
flashlight and candles.
He was crying. And loading his roommate’s gun.
didn’t have any money. I barely ever have cash, since debit cards work
everywhere except the bus. What if the ATMs were down? What if I
couldn’t get food, or water, because I didn’t have any money? How could
I possibly be expected to leave my apartment, anyway? I didn’t want to
think about the outside. The outside didn’t exist anymore. And if I was
going to be killed, I wanted it to be in my little studio, with my cat,
watching it all go down on CNN. I didn’t want to die on Columbus Avenue.
took another call from my mother for me to finally brave the Outside.
If the banks were going to go down, I had to at least try to get some
money. The bank was only three blocks uptown. Three blocks. I could
make it three blocks. I grabbed my Walkman and started looking for a
news station. But they were all news stations. Like the Top 40 crap
station that my clock radio had been set to that morning. The goofy
morning show that I woke up to only to turn off as soon as possible.
That morning I never heard a word the DJ said. The tone of his voice
was enough. I immediately turned on the TV. And I didn’t move. Until my
mom finally convinced me to get off my ass and get to the bank.
cell phone worked, sort of. How could it work? All the land lines were
down. All the frantic calls I had gotten before I woke up hadn’t gotten
through: My mom, E, an ex-boyfriend, New York Dan…I hadn’t heard the
phone ring once. I had slept until 10:00. I had slept through it. But I
could call out, and eventually, it started ringing. It was a New Jersey
line, a New Jersey number. I had a way of communicating because I had a
New Jersey phone. But I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t know what the
hell I would say, what I would ask. So I went to the bank.
Six months ago.
ATM worked. I got a hundred bucks out and walked to the grocery,
listening to what was going on downtown. But by the time I walked out
of my building, there was no downtown. Walking back down Columbus to
the store, I looked all the way down the avenue. It was a completely
cloudless, hot day. The sky was the kind of blue you have to take
notice of, the kind of day even the most sullen New Yorker will
appreciate. But as the avenue trailed downtown, the sky changed, from
solid blue to solid white. I was gritting my teeth, but I didn’t
realize it until my jaw began to ache. Two young Hispanic women crossed
the street, almost huddled together. They spoke quietly, smoking and
pushing their sunglasses up on their faces. They were the only other
people on the street. No cars, no buses. The Upper West Side was
silent. I pulled off my headphones and heard one of the girls ask the
other one something that I will never forget.
“What are we going to do tomorrow?”
It was barely noon on the day the world ended. What were we going to do
tomorrow? What would be left TO do? The mumbled question would repeat
ad nauseum in my head that day. What were we going to do? I remembered
Stevil’s shaking voice, and the click of the clip in the gun. I
remembered E telling me to keep my windows closed in case there were
chemical weapons. I remembered my mom’s low, even voice on the phone. I
went to the store.
The line curled all the way down the
narrow aisles, through the deli, and into the frozen food section. Not
really looking at what I was doing, I grabbed two big bottles of water,
some hummus and pita, apples, and cookies. I had no idea what I should
get. Food was the last thing I was thinking about, or would think
about, for days. My stomach was knotted so tightly I could barely
breathe. The news played quietly over the speakers. I didn’t know what
they could say next. Everything was already gone.
looked around me at the line of people. A woman with a baby stroller. A
tall, handsome man who looked like Michael Jordan. A smartly dressed
middle aged man with a deep tan. Me. Me, in paint-stained overalls, a
baseball cap and glasses that were two prescriptions out of date. No
one talked. The tanned man turned to take some lettuce off the shelf.
Absentmindedly, I followed suit, taking a bag of baby carrots, as if I
needed instruction on what to do. Carrots, you like carrots…and they
won’t go bad for a while…I needed someone to give me orders, to tell me what to do. But
there was no one. I was totally alone.
The woman at the
counter smiled evenly and thanked me. I looked at her, the first eye
contact I had all day, and said a very deliberate “thank you very
much.” I wanted to hug everyone in the store.
the street back to my apartment. My favorite doorman was working that
day. I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t
want it to be real. I ran upstairs, locked all three locks, and hugged
the cat. I had left the television on, and I came back in time to see
everything repeated again and again. The blank faces, the relatively
few people crying. The stunned, sick silence.
instinct to get online. I didn’t even consider that my dial-up wouldn’t
be able to get through, but somehow it did. I answered the frantic
emails from my girls in Boston, I answered emails from people I worked
with years ago. I started posting on the old “Hissyfit” forums. I
started talking the only way I could. And the tv stayed on.
called once every couple of hours. He hadn’t gone into work that day.
His office is in a huge LA high rise, and he wasn’t taking any chances.
I was thankful for that. This was no day to be goddamn stoic. Most
times he called neither of us had anything to say. My flight would be
cancelled. Yes. He didn’t have a tv. I told him he didn’t want it.
Listen to NPR. You don’t want to see this. I couldn’t stop seeing it.
And now I could smell it. Thick and dry in a spot on the back of my
throat. The apartment was hot and stuffy. I had to open the windows.
Hell, we were all going to die anyway, right? I thought about how
stupid I had been to think I could move and get away from all the
things about New York that grated on my nerves. That I could leave my
shit job and pathetic love life and start again. How could I have been
so naive? So selfish? Yeah, cause my life really sucked. And now there
were thousands of people that were in pieces. I started drinking.
know a lot of people in New York, and there were two courses of action
as that day went on. There was the mindset of gathering as many people
around you as possible, and there were those of us who isolated
ourselves. I could not imagine being with anyone else. I knew I
couldn’t get to New Jersey to be with my parents, and frankly, I didn’t
want to take a single step out the door anyway. I was completely
paralyzed, scared to turn away from the tv for a single second. I
didn’t want to go anywhere. My apartment was safe and comfortable and
familiar. I didn’t want to go anywhere and be separated from my cat. I
sat in my underwear with two stuffed animals and a bottle of scotch,
and I watched CNN.
I wish I could say that I snapped
out of it. That I ran to give blood or volunteer. But I didn’t. I
didn’t leave my apartment for four days. For four days, I cried, drank,
forced myself to eat (one piece of pizza, once a day. I couldn’t get
anything else down.) and the tv never was off. I stayed up at night
until I passed out from exhaustion and emotion. I didn’t want to
voluntarily go to sleep. I didn’t want to think of what I would see
when I closed my eyes. I began disintegrating. I was sick, I was drunk,
I was so paranoid that I couldn’t make myself take the time to shower,
in case I missed something on tv. What if something happened and I
missed it? Four days passed. E called all the time, asking when I
thought I would be able to book another flight. I didn’t know. JFK was
closed. I didn’t know when it would be open, or if I would be able to
get on a plane. I didn’t know if I could move anymore.
morning of the fifth day, my mom called early. I don’t remember what
she said, or how I answered, but whatever it was, she then declared,
“You sound terrible. You don’t sound okay anymore. We’re coming to get
you. Pack your things.”
She had asked every day if I
wanted to go home. I had always said no, I was fine, I had things to
do, packing of boxes to ship to LA. But the truth was that I didn’t
think I could go anywhere. My apartment seemed like the only safe place
in the world. So when she told me instead of asking me, I immediately
relented. For the first time since that first morning, someone was
there to help me make a decision. Someone finally told me what to do.
didn’t look at it when we drove down the West Side Highway. I didn’t
cry in the car. I didn’t realize how badly I had fallen apart. I still
couldn’t eat. I still spent most of my time posting on boards, only
able to talk about it to strangers. But something did change that day.
I didn’t want to look at the television anymore. In fact, the first
thing I said when we arrived at my parents’ house was “Turn it off.” I
couldn’t look at it anymore. I had had enough.
passed, and the gravity of what those four days had done to me finally
started becoming clear. I slowly started eating again. I went out to a
bar to meet Stevil and a bunch of people we went to high school with,
including one who we thought was gone. He was there. He had come out of
the dust and gotten home. We were all displaced, staying with our
parents, all quiet, reserved, beside ourselves with joy that we were
able to look at each other again. We were alive. I was alive. I had
forgotten that I was alive.
Eight days after it
happened, I was on a plane to LA. And now, half a year later, I’m going
back. I’m going to be alive. I don’t ever want to forget that I am
alive again. I want to go to the city, sit at an outdoor restaurant,
have some pasta and wine, and talk about things that I talked about
before. Before, when we never questioned if we were alive. Before half
a year ago.