Today I woke up exhausted trying to motivate myself to get out of bed on time so that I could get here, to campus, and try not kill my students as they openly antagonize me by whining about having to write every class in a course that actually has writing as part of the title.
I was already gritting my teeth when I went to my computer and saw the messages on Plurk and Facebook about remembering.
And then I looked at the date.
According to what I've read in medical books, every 7 years each cell in your body is new. Or in other words, you aren't in a very real physical way, the person you were 7 years ago. What's astounding is not how much we change in 7 years, but how much we stay the same. In this case, while our cellular being completely changes, our memories stay with us, or at least stay with me.
I've written in the past that I was descended of German Jews who escaped the Holocaust. We know how to survive, but we also know how to remember. We know that part of living isn't about trying to shed those memories, but to keep them with us for so many reasons. And there are good reasons we are not supposed to forget.
The following is actually a new configuring of two old posts that were both written about my experience of 9/11 because I will never forget what happened that day-not just because of what I lost but because of all the people I came to know in the aftermath who lost husbands, wives, and friends. It is for them that I continue to remember what happened that day.It was supposed to be my second day teaching a "serious course" at NYU. That's why I woke up early. Eric didn't have class until much later in the day, but he was a good boyfriend at the time and got up early with me to take the train downtown. He knew I was nervous.No, scared.So scared about being a failure at teaching that I decided to go into my office two hours early. I had already written up my lesson plan, but I need to use the printer in my office, mine was broken. I also wanted to go into the room early and make sure the chairs were arranged properly around the table. And rehearse my class plan a little. Get use to talking at the front of the room.I didn't have a television at the time, and we didn't listen to the radio. We woke and busied ourselves about getting ready. Did we shower together that morning? We often did, but I can't remember if we did that day. I hope we did. It would have been the last time. We had breakfast-toasted cinnamon waffles-a personal favorite-with no syrup. And tea, of course, two cups for me.We walked half awake to the train station. As early as I was going to be, I wanted to rush. Thought two hours wasn't nearly enough time for me to prepare for my class ,and I wanted everything to be perfect. I had to be sure of everything so I could be confident when I went into class.The trains ran normally and so it wasn't until we got out of the 6 at Astor Place that we knew anything was wrong. Eric noticed the billows of smoke. "What the hell is that?" he asked me as he pointed out the smoke."Something is probably on fire," I retorted. I didn't have time for this. I wanted to go to my office and get ready, not ponder the causes of smoke in a city. "Are you going back to your place?"
"No, I'll come with you. I want to see what this is about." So we started to walk towards my office. It wasn't until we were on Waverly that we both saw it.What I couldn't understand was how both towers could be on fire. Surely the fire couldn't leap from one building to the next. How could they both be burning?We stood there. I noticed people on their cellphones. Who were they calling? Still, as horrible as it was, I pushed on. NYU wouldn't cancel class for a fire, even if it was in both of the towers.We were walking towards 4th street hand in hand and when we saw the first tower fall. I don't remember there being any sound, although there must have been. I remember there being a surge in the people around us, all of us running instinctively forward. As if a few more steps and we could hold it up.In that moment when the tower fell, I was surprised that tower in its collapse looked like nothing more than flaking paper. It fluttered slowly. In that moment, all I could think of was my seventh grade latin teacher, Mrs. Hightower.Mrs. Hightower often gave us historic documents to translate. One document she gave us was on the destruction of Pompeii, a town buried slowly in ash when Mt Vesuvius exploded. That day what struck me wasn't anything in the reading, but her lecture about the destruction of Pompeii.She told us people drowned by tidal waves caused by the explosion ( they were trying to get out of the city by boat). She talked of people trying to flee before the sun was obscured by the clouds of ash. But what stayed with me was what she said, "But some people stayed thinking it would be alright."That was it. Some people stayed waiting for the danger to vanish as quickly as it appeared. Some people waited. Some people were slowly covered in ash waiting to see the sun again thinking "Man I am going to be pissed tomorrow when I have to clean this up." Wondering what kinds of games the Emperor would hold to celebrate the survival of the city. Wondering when it was going to stop because it was going to stop.And for those who waited they saw light again. They saw light in the darkness, but it wasn't the sun. It was flames rising from the city. It was Pompeii burning.What shocked me was not that people tried to escape danger, that I understood, but that people stayed-chose to stay-that surprised me, but then, I thought, it's always so hard to know the right thing to do. Will running down the stairs save my life or should I take the elevator or should I just stay where I am? Should I wait for people to come find me? And while I make this decision, time is running out.Eric stood beside me. "I'm sure everyone got out ok" he said. I thought to myself "Some of them stayed." I knew even then, but I didn't say anything.On West Fourth, some guy had put a radio on top of his car and was blaring the news. People were gathered around it. I saw Rabid standing there stone faced. I waved as Eric pulled me towards my office. He wanted to use my phone to call his mother, to tell her we were OK."Will you come with me to Cananda?" he asked. Not joking. He was afraid of a war, knew he couldn't be a solider although his father had spent most of his life in the military."Yes," I said. And I meant it. I would have gotten on the train then and never looked back. Given up my first teaching position because he was a coward.Upstairs Doris was trying to deal with the phones. "You don't have to stay," she said, "but we'd like you to. In case students show up." I went to my office. Of course, we couldn't use the phone, but I sent my mother an email. Eric decided to go back to his dorm to try and call his mother.He left me in my office.Now I can admit that I was scared and angry. I was worried about looting and riots and he was leaving me to fend for myself to call his mother. I should have said something like no or take me with you.But I stayed in case students showed up. I emailed my mother to tell her I was alright. I was worried about getting to my apartment on the upper east side. I knew I couldn't walk that far. I was worried about the hysteria, the riots, the tramplings that could occur.And then the second tower fell and I knew no students were going to come today. Another professor, a friend of mine from graduate school, Tymaine came in. He was worried about getting word to his wife that he was OK. He had to get home as soon as possible. Even if it meant walking all the way there. Another friend, one of the computer lab monitors, Nick, suggested we get something to eat. We went to the McDonald's across the street and ate talking about video games and movies and tried not to think about what was going on outside.
Afterwards, Nick decided to find his girlfriend while Tymaine and I walked up to the Union Square subway station. The subways were closed, but the police assured us that the lines would open again soon. We went to Eric's place and buzzed, but no one was there. Later I would find out that he was trying to donate blood. After a long wait, he had been turned away. They didn't need him.Tymaine and I walked around the park a few times. We began to see people in the street covered in fine layers of ash. Some of them, it was just on their shoes. They had dusted themselves off as they walked uptown. Finally we got onto the N train. The train kept stopping for long periods between stations, and I was terrified. We all were.At 59th street, I said good-bye to Tymaine. Wished him luck and decided to risk taking the bus the rest of the way home. The subway made me too nervous. The bus was packed. A black woman was crying out how we should all be thankful we were alive, we should thank God and Jesus we were alive.I was glad when she got off the bus.At 85th, I got off and began to walk to my apartment. People were having lunch at Panorama like it was a normal day. I went home and turned on the radio. I got online. My mother had sent me a return email. "If you need me to come get you, just tell me" as if the army would respect her trying to save her only child.Again.I stayed on Metafilter and kept the radio on to find out what was going on. My phone rang later that night, it was Eric's mother. I told her that we were both OK although seperated. I can't remember what else I said. I still couldn't dial out. Later I would find out that Duke Nukem called my mother twice to find out if I was OK even though I hadn't spoken to him in almost two years. She assured him I was fine. I posted my name and Eric's on several survivor lists going around. I got an email from Eric telling me not to be scared, that I wasn't alone as long as he loved me, he was with me. dont you
know that no
matter what you
do, where i am,
where you are,
you are never
because i love
you and im
always there in
spirit. i just
talked to my
mom and cant
get through to
you ...again. ill
try later, ill be
worry if we cant
talk for a while,
all the nice
things ive said
i love you so
EricI could handle being alone, after all I had made it uptown by myself.I don't know how I fell asleep that night, but I know that I did. The next day Eric phoned, but still he didn't come uptown. I sat on the front stoop and blew bubbles. A couple came out and sniffed the air, "Why does it smell funny?" the guys asked the girl. She shook her head. How could they not know. "It's the ash from the towers. The debris. It's still in the air." They looked at me. I stayed there in the sun until my Israeli neighbor told me it wasn't safe. I should be inside. As if anything could be safe. How could we believe in the illusion of safety again? Not knowing then that it would soon be a national obsession. That we would eventually declare war on an abstract noun.And the day after that Eric also stayed downtown. I tried to do the right thing, give him his space. My friends told me not to take it personally. He was in shock. He needed to work through things. What about my needs? Well, I was the stronger one. I was going through this alone and he apparently needed to be with his college age friends-to sit in dorm rooms and drink beer. And so I swallowed my rage at being abandoned, at being left on my own, and tried not to admit how terrified I was of going back to work. How relieved I was when NYU announced that classes would not resume until the following week.Finally when we could leave the city, he came with me to Upstate. He seemed like his old self with me then. But I kept thinking about how you never know the last time you'll make love to someone. I told myself it was because of all those people who lost wives and husbands, fiancees, even adulterous lovers. But it was that somewhere I already knew.When I came back to the city, the subways stops were papered with homemade signs and posters-the names and pictures of so many.I met some of those people, the ones left behind, in bars. One of them lost what he said was the love of his life. He started smoking and drinking so that he could die, so that he could be with her. The other day I saw him on the sidewalk with his new fiancee-happily holding her hand. "Can't you be happy for them?" a friend of mine asked, but all I could think of was how did he recover and I didn't? Before Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius, several years before there had been a devastating earthquake. Most had fled, thinking the city would never recover, and yet it did. In fact, it did so quickly that when the eruption occurred the walls of the city were being expanded to make room for more people.
We never know in the end what it is that will destroy us. It's not always the worst thing, it's just the last thing.
I was at a party with one of my friends from college two weeks afterward. There were fresh peach Bellinis, and all of us drank too much while wearing our little red, white, and blue ribbons. The next day when Eric came, finally, I was still sleeping it off. I saw him and greeted him and then went back to sleep. When I woke up he had a box of stuff. "I'm leaving" he said."When are you coming back?" I asked.Silence.I sat up. He handed me a letter.One page.It began, "I no longer deserve the love you so freely give me."I don't remember what else it said, but I do know that it didn't say I love you in it. He couldn't even give me that. I was the first great love of his life. How many has he had now?He told me that everything would OK. As he always did. As it always has been for him. As I'm sure he would like to believe it is for others.He needed his freedom. He wanted to date other girls. He wanted to be young.
Surviving what I have, the last thing I am is young. I have more in common with broken down war heroes than I do with graduate students. If he wanted youth, he had to leave.
I had predicted this two years earlier, I just didn't think he would do it now. In the wake of the one of the greatest American tragedies. Wasn't it uspposed to bring us closer together? To make us realize how special we were to each other? But he decided that much like this country, I wasn't worth fighting for either.And I, who had been an agnostic, stopped believing in God. When school resumed, one of my students wanted to write an argumentative paper that was God was still benevolent in the wake of 9-11. It was all I could do not to shake her and say "If there is a God, I want no part of him."And I who had been so scared of dying, was now scared of something else: living.It's been years now. I don't remember how many years passed before I was able to go back to Union Square and not remember the posters of the missing, not to miss the gap in skyline. Now I go to the farmers market there and only occasionally remember when I walked there that day with Tymaine. From time to time, a move will come on TV and I'll be jarred by the site of a manhattan skyline complete with the Towers. And I feel horrified for a moment that I've forgotten as much as I have. And when these moments come, I take the time to remember-to revisit those memories. Eric and Metafilter and the ashes and listening to George Stephanopoulos on the radio.
There are those who two years after the fact wanted us to "Get over it" and "Move on."
According to science, there is not a single cell in my body that was there with me that day. I am, for all intensive purposes, a completely different girl than I was that day. But there are those of us who know that even those of us who survived live in a different city, we are different people. There is no shame in that. As a descendant of German Jews, I know that we are meant to live, but that does not mean that we are meant to forget those who are no longer with us. In fact, it is by remembering them that we give our lives meaning. It is by remembering that we continue to share our lives with them.
There never was another Pompeii. No town was ever built on top of the ashes of that lost city.About 2000 years after its destruction by Mt Vesuvius the excavated city exist for the tourists and scholars, who may now wander through a city where time stopped in 79 AD, but no one lives there. On September 11th, I had a vision of NYC transformed into a modern Pompeii.
It didn't happen, but now we knew that it could.Two years before 9-11 I attended a party sponsored by Bombay Sapphire gin. They had given out several of those little airplane/hotel mini bar bottles. I had three in my apartment. I stayed up allnight reading and posting on metafilter, listening to the radio, and drinking gin.There never was another Pompeii. No town was ever built on top of the ashes of those lost.About 2000 years after its destruction by Mt Vesuvius only 2/3 of the city is uncovered. There are still excavations at Pompeii, still discoveries made. The excavations exist for the tourists and scholars, who may now wander through a city where time stopped in 79 AD, but no one lives there.
Labels: 9-11, memory
Bad Bunni posted at 9/11/2008 12:59:00 PM