Outside his window, the office lights of downtown Manhattan seem fastened to the darkness. In the black of night, the building’s structures are barely visible, and so squares of all shapes and sizes, alternately filled with light, create a mosaic of awkward patterns. These are the city’s stars.
At midnight, one building’s lights randomly and mysteriously shuffle. It mesmerizes us into truth telling. Not looking at each other, we are braver.
“I’ll sleep in my own bed.”
“Meet you in the morning, nine-ish?”
I want my momentary silence to signify no, but instead I nod and think he can feel it on his chest because he kisses my forehead. I unfold myself from him, slip out of his apartment and down the beige carpet in my socks to wait for the elevator. The ding is optimistic, but the fluorescent lights make everything feel transitory, like wandering around an airport gate. The elevator numbers click on, dinging nine times to twenty-one, like a countdown to loneliness. I’m starting to feel like a person of his creation.
It’s early. The sun is already beginning to lift itself up over the horizon. In my apartment, there are reminders of who I was before I knew about all-consuming love: my un-slept-in bed and the favorite stuffed elephant of my childhood. My body warms the cold sheets that in turn warm me back. I will myself to ignore what I’m beginning to know about us and jump straight into a dream. It works. Somewhere, people are praying while I sleep, and in a blink I’m up again, not sure if it is the clock that wakes me.
Tuesday, through my half-open eyes, is like two thin slivers of morning — the dream and the real. I don’t want to face either.
Inside the dream, I’m running on the edge of a cliff. Outside, I feel something — a faint, but intense noise, the building reverberating, like a train passing through. It wakes me. I register the clock’s numbers: eight, four, six, and slip back, falling. In a falling dream, it’s the moment at the end of the fall, when I would die, that everything goes black, and I catch myself, only to awake in reality. I wake up breathless. I focus on what is actually there: my own blanket-covered feet, the elephant, my computer light blinking, and the window in front of my desk, where through its thin veil of curtains, something is fluttering.
The blur undoes itself and the fluttering crystallizes into hundreds of white pages flying by my window, their corners beating in the wind like wings. It gets me out of bed. I press my forehead against the cool glass. The pages say something, but I can’t tell what. I watch them slow, surfing the dying wind to the street.
I want to love this boy who lives on the thirtieth floor. It started the spring prior as an accidental affront to his then girlfriend, and lasted a long distance summer where I had to be his, but he didn’t have to be mine. I’d drive the three hours between our houses, heat emanating from the car’s interior upholstery, knowing it was crazy to put so much into something so fragile. Maybe he needed to prove that he wouldn’t marry the first girl he ever loved. Now, without the distance, we are merged, trying to make it work by losing ourselves in each other.
The morning the pages appear, I am meeting him to walk to class. I look to where they are coming from, pressing my face against the far window, and I can see the thin edge of a building bearing orange flames. It looks small and there are sirens, which makes me think everything will be okay. The pages and the flames must be related. I search my mind for stories in which they could appear together.
This time, the ding and I are both optimistic — I made it through the truthful night and am back to pretending again. It’s as if one night on my own has given me myself back, but somewhere I know that we’ll just fall into our old routine again.
The modern lobby looks icy as always, the large glass windows reflect the early morning sun, making square patches that hover over the gray slate floor.
“Did you hear that noise?”
“I think so.” I tell him about the pages.
He begins to tell me something I don’t understand, and then asks me what we should do. I don’t know what we should do.
Outside, there are crowds. Everyone moves in unison as if propelled by the same strange and convincing force. The air is thick with a catastrophic scent, ashy and dense, but we can’t really see anything until we get a bit closer.
When we do, out of nowhere, there’s a flying saucer, a volcanic black cloud, steel spitting at the ground, specks dropping from amazing heights. I grab his hand.
The specks take shape — they are figures with their arms outstretched, silhouette crosses falling from the sky. I close my eyes, and through my eyelids I can see the flames abstracted, orange shapes that flicker and deepen in color. The air is hot. The figures stay with me. They have the faces of people who’ve made impossible decisions.
The crowd slows. Our brains malfunction for an invisible instant. Finally, someone, maybe someone closer to it, someone who has an instinct, and animal decision of her subconscious, runs. Then they are all running towards us. They think the buildings will crush us and I remind myself that I know they will not. I remember something the boy’s roommate once told me, something his father learned from working there — they were designed to fall in their own footprint. I think about footprints, about a story or prayer I once read. A man walks with God or is carried by God; there are two sets of prints, and then one.
The crowd carries us backward, like they’re rewinding the film of our lives until we agree to follow along. We run, too, even though we know better, but turn back to check it’s still there, that it’s still really happening. Back in the lobby there is a pulse, the sound of televisions reporting the news outside our door. We take the elevator up to the thirtieth floor, to the boy’s apartment with the dancing office lights view.
The boy’s roommate is standing their in the bedroom, watching the flames bloom out toward him. He must be thinking about his father, who should be at work by now. We all watch it in a moment of stillness before we realize we should get some things. I go back down to my apartment, make my bed, and sit there with the elephant. He is a trooper and can get through anything, even bad relationships that won’t end, even this.
I think about what to take — something special or a toothbrush — but how does one pack for something like this? In the end, I leave it all. I let the door slam behind me for the second time today, wishing it were the first, hoping this was the dream.
The walk north feels long and slow. The crowds are suffocating. I look to the sky: it’s the only surface not covered in pain. It is like this all day, trying to find the small moments within the horror where nothing is happening. It’s the space in front of my feet where there is just asphalt. I follow that spot, moving forward as we weave our way through lines of people at pay phones. There is no use trying to call loved ones on our cell phones — the networks are busy — and yet we all do, knowing they are panicking for us.
The route is familiar and yet full of moments that are not. A shopkeeper tried to give us ice cream, already dripping, from his freezer. Ice cream is for birthdays and summer days, but he’s trying to salvage something. We all are. We pass a favorite restaurant, shops, and school buildings: should we go to class? No, we realize, there is no class.
In Washington Square Park, my cell phone works for the instant that my mom calls. As she tells me the buildings will fall, I lose her. I close my phone and look down Thompson Street; it’s like a telescope pointing and the scene. From here, in the center of the park near the dried-up fountain, we have a perfect view of it — burning, ashes billowing with fury. Until they crumble and are gone. The clouds of dust move toward us slowly, enveloping New York, folding us in. We are merged with the city. For a moment it seems it’s all over, but actually it’s just begun.
That night, the boy and I stay at a hotel. We can’t sleep. Early in the morning he gives in to whatever it is we’ve been doing since the summer.
“Officially,” he says. Even in the moment I know that this is how we create something good out of all the bad we’re immersed in. It’s a relief to put a name to this, to know where we stand with each other. Whatever was stopping us before is insignificant now.
Wednesday morning downtown is a ghost town. It smells of evil. That smell would come to haunt me, trapped behind the whoosh of a train car leaving the platform or in the air of an eerily quiet autumn day. It is like the hours after a parade, when people have shed the parts of themselves that don’t really matter — water bottles, newspapers, change — and have disappeared, leaving behind the detritus and taking with them only the memories. The wind picks up an empty soda can or a coupon circular and takes it for a while before depositing it further along the street. The abandoned stuctures, covered in ash, are like the bones of New York. This city, without its people, feels robbed. And yet, what is left all seems disposable. We are the homeless wanderers, carrying only our I.D.s or a piece of mail to prove at the barricades that we are allowed here, where we once lived, in the remnants.
We can’t go home, so for the next few months we live at a midtown Sheraton and share a wall with firemen whose radios go off at night and seep through the drywall, muffled updates and emergencies and death tolls. The garbled, buzzy messages pepper my dreams of dying, which all contain water. Someone tells me when you dream of water you are experiencing your subconscious. My subconscious is submerged, holding its breath, drowning me.
When we finally get to go home, after FEMA has had its way with our apartments, the thing I notice is the darkness in the daylight. There is a think layer of ash covering the outside of the windows. I try to release the thought that the dust may have once belonged to someone living. It dissipates slowly over weeks, until eventually the windows are clear and the light is let in.
My bed is made, with the elephant facedown in the pillow. I turn him over and press a finger into his plush cheek; it dimples even after I release. The last night I spent here comes back to me vaguely. These are the clues. I don’t remember the mug on my desk, the coffee remains dried in a circle at the bottom. It’s as if a different version of myself was just here. It’s as if time has not passed.
Later, when we are back into the routines of our lives, but still carrying the weight of what we’d seen, the roomate reaches behind his bed and pulls out a green, battered tin can. He shakes it, and inside there is something like sand.
“Ashes,” he says proudly.
He tells me about going down the day after, how there was no one around but emergency personnel. I picture him running, trying to find what was left of the buildings, determined, unsure, grasping for something that seemed real. Maybe he wanted to have something that symbolized that day, maybe he was looking for the part of himself that he’d never find again, the person he was before all this.
He slides his hand into the can and between two fingers he pulls out a piece of paper, the words partially burned away. I copy them down, remembering how the pages escaped the buildings and flew south by my window.
“…For purposes of certain other requirements, such as prohibition against ‘front-running’ (e.g., trading options…described at TAB 8), the exchanges may consider a block to…less than 10,000 shares, depending on, for example, the…amount of such securities outstanding or the liquidity of the…market for the security…”
I let those words roll around in my mind, outstanding security. As I write, I notice the letters’ roundness and the smooth transition from one letter into another. A word so necessary and yet stolen from us, looping so easily out of my hand with a final, falsely triumphant letter y.
The boy and I could have avoided the one-year anniversary vigil, but I re-route us through Washington Square Park. Since that day he hasn’t wanted to talk about it, and so I haven’t talked as much as I needed to.
These are peaceful flames, the candlelight of hundreds. The crowd is silent in the darkness, allowing the light to be their words, all that they might say and all that they can’t. The lights are speaking to me too, and this time, I’m trying to listen and remember how one year ago focusing on the lights made us braver. I take the boy’s hand and lead him to the center of the park, to the place we stood as those buildings crumbled. With my free hand I find my pulse in the silence of the mourners, and wait for its rhythm to beat through the layers of my skin. The fact that I am alive is at once normal and miraculous.
Seven years later I will go back to the wreckage. I’ll have seen it before, in passing, trying not to look. This time, I will see. I will think about the sound of impact that day, how it must have passed through every steel beam, rattling their round-ended bolts, traveled down the glass panes into the street’s asphalt, up through the soles of shoes still walking around downtown, into the blood-filled veins of the people wearing those shoes, out through those people’s fingertips and into their loved ones, back into the street, over to concrete building foundations.
I imagine the sound went up twenty-one floors, down the beige-carpeted hallway, into my apartment with its parquet floors and into my sleeping body, where it entered my dream and woke me up.
I will read a plaque that will tell me many facts about my life on that day. I will learn that when the boy and I stood in the center of Washington Square Park, looking down Thompson Street with its perfect view, one building took nine seconds to crumble. Like a heavy beat in my chest I will feel those seconds from the inside out. I will realize that when the boy grabbed my hand he would hold on for twenty-nine minutes and then let go as the other building took eleven seconds to fall.