“Wow! I read BALCONY VIEW - A 9-11 DIARY in one sitting. It was an engrossing, powerful experience. I could not imagine (or resisted imagining) what it would be like for a couple, one of them already ill, to escape from one world and return to find it totally changed, yet finally not changed at all. An important document of an historical moment, of the lives of two American writers, Julia Frey and Ronald Sukenick, and of the repercussions of a national emergency on the life of a disabled man and his determined caregiver.” Mark Amerika, Whitney Biennial artist and author of remixthebook “A vivid and moving account of Julia Frey's life with writer, Ron Sukenick during his terminal illness as their neighborhood, adjoining the World Trade Center, was pitched into destruction and chaos on 9/11. It's a beautifully written, clear-eyed portrait of simple courage, remarkable humor, generosity and decency.” Douglas Penick, writer, performance artist, author of Warrior Songs “The view from this balcony is compelling and utterly unique. Julia Frey has a front row seat for the two tragedies which mark her existence -- the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and her husband’s progressively disabling malady. She peers down at the excavation of Ground Zero and brings us an account both riveting and thoughtful, despairing and buoyant, graceful and frank. As she navigates post 9-11 Manhattan, and a marriage that has been dealt the blow of untimely illness, we get to see, up-close, how ordinary people get through extraordinary times. With her deft touch and her sharp-warm humor, Frey is the perfect guide for such daunting territory.” Elizabeth Scarboro, author of Phoenix, upside down “Julia Frey’s beautiful, brave memoir of her journey - the attacks happened right outside her window while she was caring for her husband, then in late stages of degenerative disease - is far more than a 9/11 story. She writes honestly and intimately of life, struggle, change and acceptance. Truly quite a read.” Robin Arutt, founder: Reel Futures International: films for social change “This book describes the horror of the event, the complexity of human relationships and mostly how we can ‘suck it up’ when we are needed. This vulgar phrase describes, I think, how visceral and primal these things are. We literally have to reach down and pull out a part of ourselves that we never really believed existed. This is not always a pretty process. On the way there we encounter all our ‘imperfections’ -- all that scary shit that comes with having imperfect parents, imperfect partners and oh yeah....we have to admit our own ‘imperfect’ lives. Caregiving is a job you don't know how to do until you're doing it.” Martha McCain, RN, Hospice nurse
“While the ever-present background to the Diary is 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, it was the person telling the story who was central for me. I admire the complete honesty and openness with which she deals with her feelings and actions. For me, the Diary is, basically, a love story -- that of Julia and Ron.” Donald Keats, composer, Guggenheim Fellow “Wow! I was MEANT to be working this morning, but I started reading…” Celia Middleton, Founder of Careers4u.tv, Director, Full-VideoSolutions, ‘Stevie’ Award for Best Motivational Video 2008 “A deeply moving treatment of an existential experience. The way Julia Frey has meshed aspects of the larger world together with her own life and the lives of those around her is poignant, explicitly detailed, and provides much needed perspective on a national disaster. She has shown us how people survive and go on.” Scott Morgan, writer “I have served on my hospital Ethics Committee for 35 years and have seen all sorts of end of life problems. There is a large body of work on end of life decision making and caregiver support, but caregiving during a disaster is unique.” Richard Geist, M.D., FACS, retired surgeon, Kaiser Permanente “Just finished Balcony View, Julia Frey's incredibly poignant memoir recounting living next to the WTC after 9/11. Beautifully written.” Francia Nelson @kailuagirl17 (tweet) “I thought Balcony View - a 9/11 Diary was beautiful. I was out of the country when the attacks came, and reading this, for the first time, I began to feel and understand what New York must have been like in those days. The experience downtown could hardly be grasped even by those living a mile to the north. I loved its searing honesty - the way the authorʼs husband Ron slowly takes center stage against the horrific backdrop of death, as she scrambles to keep their lives together, and the way the couple emerges from the cinders at the end.” Anne Griffin, Professor of Political Science, The Cooper Union, NY “What courage it must have taken to relive this experience by writing about it. The details are overwhelming. It is important to memorialize this story.” Raymond Schaub, author of We Remember the World Trade Center http://werememberwtc.wordpress.com/
“Balcony View - a 9/11 Diary is dramatic - very much in a ‘you are there’ mode. The details are sensational - she ran out there and caught them in buckets. Julia Frey must have been writing and running every minute, which is the impression one gets. Breathless.” Marcelle Thiebaux, freelance reviewer: Publishers Weekly and The New York Times Book Review, author Princess Margit of Hungary “More than a diary, this is a beautiful, complex story of love and loss against the backdrop of the events of 9/11. No other book has conveyed better for me the sounds and smells and textures of life in those early hours and days at Ground Zero.” Lang-Hoan Pham, poet, member of Geneva Swtizerland Writers' Group “I was sucked right in. I read it online, and I hate reading on the computer but I saw this one through. Beautiful.” Samantha Brody (Facebook review) “Julia: Wow. Just finished Balcony View. It's overwhelming. A brilliant and subtle constant in the book is the way the wreck of Ron’s body and the wreck of the World Trade Center comment on each other. The Malcolm material is a really powerful second leitmotif. The poetic arrangement of the many parts, including the very effective use of passages from Ron’s novel, Last Fall, makes the book something more than mere fact. Faction? And the two peacock pieces in the CODA are very powerful. Ron's final story is worthy of the last poems of his great hero Wallace Stevens. This time, the peacock at the end of the mind.” Curtis White, Author of The Idea of Home and ten other books “Two sentences in I was hooked and could not stop reading. It speaks to me more than any other eyewitness account, any of the pictures or endless reruns of the planes flying into the towers. A story of courage and diligence. I am in awe of what written words can convey.”
Josine Baumans M.A, literary critic, Netherlands Balcony View is a beautiful book. Of value historically, of course, but beyond that . . .for its honesty, for Julia Frey’s grace under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and her exploration of the various ways we love other people. Few people would condemn either her or Ron for doing what she called “living our flawed existences the best we could.” I felt for her, respected and understood her actions and reactions, and appreciated an honest female voice navigating such a complex time. Cheryl Arutt, PhD (Psychology), Psychotherapist, Los Angeles
BALCONY VIEW A 9/11 DIARY
J ULIA F REY
BALCONY VIEW - A 9/11 DIARY. C OPYRIGHT © 2011 BY J ULIA F REY All rights reserved. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org published in the United States of America by Create Space, Charleston SC ISBN-10: 1461138248 ISBN-13: 978-1461138242
Books by Julia Frey Toulouse-Lautrec, A Life. Toulouse-Lautrec, uno sguardo dentro la vita Portions of this book have appeared in: Battery Park City Broadsheet Square One Last Fall, by Ronald Sukenick “77” by Ronald Sukenick was first published in Golden Handcuffs Review Vol. 1 No. 4, 2004-2005
Front cover photograph ©Cameron Bloch, 2001. Back cover photograph by Denise Gould, USAF. Cover design by Rosaire Appel, Cameron Bloch and Guust Nolet
Printed in the United States of America
To Alex Araman, Lorraine Doyle, Val Flenga, Kate (Katarzyna) Gronczewski, Toby Hindin, Joe Johnson, Anna Johnson-Chase, Gus Ouranitsis, Michelle Rauch, and all those who lived in Battery Park City or worked at Ground Zero after September 11, 2001.
IN MEMORIAM RONALD SUKENICK July 14, 1932 – July 22, 2004
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS Figure 1. World Trade Center Towers before 9/11. Detail of old postcard. Our building, Liberty Court (with jagged roofline) partially blocks left Tower. Figure 2. Floor plan, Liberty Court, apartment 26-B. Based on apartment floor plan courtesy of Lorraine Doyle. Figure 3. Smoke on Manhattan skyline after Towers fall. Our building in foreground to left of Statue of Liberty. Photo Daniel Hulshizer ©Associated Press, used with permission. Figure 4. Ron Sukenick’s notes, Sept. 2001. Image ©Julia Frey 2001. Figure 5. View from Ron’s window a week after the attacks. Photo ©Cameron Bloch, 2001, used with permission. Figure 6. Gloria Sukenick in front of her portrait in a SoHo gallery in the 1990’s. Photo courtesy Gloria Sukenick. Figure 7. Poster for missing person. Photo Rosaire Appel ©Rappel 2001, used with permission. Figure 8. Poster for missing person 2. Photo Rosaire Appel ©Rappel 2001, used with permission. Figure 9. View from Ron’s window, Oct. 2011 (hand-held camera). Photo Rosaire Appel ©Rappel, 2001, used with permission. Figure 10. World Trade Center Towers before 9/11, tops in clouds. 90 West Street,‘the wedding cake’, in center foreground. Photo ©Julia Frey 1998. Figure 11. Ruins from our windows October, 2001. Photo ©Estate of Rochelle Ratner. Used with permission. Figure 12. Wedding cake at night, before 9/11. Photo ©Julia Frey 1988.
Figure 13. Burned wedding cake draped in black wire netting. Photo ©Julia Frey 2001. Figure 14. “here is new york: a democracy of photographs.” Photo ©here is new york 2004 (detail). All rights reserved. Figure 15. ‘Gothic’ wall of Tower One, photo Rochelle Ratner ©Estate of Rochelle Ratner 2001. Used with permission. Figure 16. Ground Zero with, reflected in window, Cameron Bloch standing in doorway behind photographer (detail). Photo ©Jim Bengston, November 4, 2001, used with permission. Figure 17. ‘Dinner forks’ late November, 2001. Public domain, photographer unknown. Figure 18. Smoke at Ground Zero, photo Rochelle Ratner ©Estate of Rochelle Ratner 2001. Used with permission. Figure 19. Ron on exercise bike. Out study window, empty hole where Towers used to be. Ruins too low to be visible. Photo ©Kate (Katarzyna) Gronczewski 2002. Used with permission. Figure 20. My study, February 2002. Photo © Julia Frey 2002. Figure 21.View from Ron’s window, winter 2001. Photo ©Julia Frey 2001. Figure 22. Procession awaiting bodies, February 2002. Photo ©Julia Frey 2002. Figure 23. “Tribute in Light” Liberty Court is partially blocking blue ‘Towers’ on the left. Photo Denise Gould, USAF(public domain). Figure 24. Julia Frey and Guust Nolet at rest stop on Autoroute du Soleil, near Lyons, France 22 July, 2002. Photo ©Mildred Mortimer. Used with permission. Figure 25. Peacock on window ledge, New York, 5th Avenue, 2 August, 2011. Photo ©The New York Times, used with permission.
CONTENTS Acknowledgments SEPTEMBER OCTOBER NOVEMBER DECEMBER JANUARY FEBRUARY MARCH CODA 77 (by Ronald Sukenick) About the Author
i 9 84 147 176 210 228 240 249 258 265
Many people have contributed to the writing of this book, by talking to me about their own experiences on and after September 11, by allowing me to reproduce or quote from their personal documents, photographs, and diaries, and by reading and discussing the manuscript with me. I can never thank everyone adequately, but I would like to mention those who have had the largest effect on this book in one way or another: Mark Amerika, Rosaire Appel, Laura Stirton Aust, Dawn Baude, Jim Bengston, Cameron Bloch, Jean Pierre Courtiau, Lorraine Doyle, Val Flenga, Marie-Noëlle Gaudé, Toby Hinden, Dan Jacobs, Joe Johnson, Anna Johnson-Chase, Régina Langer, Judy Larkin, Cynthia Neil, Claire Rasé, the late Rochelle Ratner, Elizabeth Scarboro, Gloria Sukenick, Marcelle Thiébaux, Neila Wyman and Alison Weld. I have tried my best to identify and credit all the photographers whose work is reproduced here. If I missed you, please contact me: email@example.com.
I particularly would like to acknowledge my husband, Guust Nolet, who has supported my focus on the past with tolerant good humor, and has brought love, serenity and happiness to the present.
PREFACE This diary was written in the months following the Al Qaeda attacks on the New York World Trade Center, September 11, 2001. My original intent as I wrote it was to preserve a factual account of the results of the attacks on my life, and I remain faithful to that intent here. It has been edited for clarity, and I have used appointment calendars, emails, letters, my own recollections and other personal material to reconstruct events and conversations I did not record at the time. I also include texts, information and photographs provided by family and friends. Insofar as I know, nothing in this book is invented, although a few names have been changed for reasons that will become obvious in the text. The original hand-written diary is now in the archives of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. It is available for consultation by scholars.
Julia Frey July 14, 2011
BALCONY VIEW A 9/11 DIARY
Figure 1. World Trade Center Towers before 9/11. Our building, Liberty Court (with jagged roofline) partially blocks left Tower.(Detail of old postcard)
Figure 2. Floor plan, Liberty Court, apartment 26-B.
SEPTEMBER DAY 1 September 11, 2001 Oh my God, my God. Ron and I were standing in front of his picture window, stark raving naked. We had been getting up that morning when we heard an enormous explosion. Now we gaped up with craned necks at the top quarter of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, burning. The flames were roaring upward, bright orange, with huge clouds of black smoke churning out, opaque against the bright blue sky. “It’s boiling smoke,” he said. The windows of Tower One were bursting in the heat, a sparkling shower of glass cascading to the ground. The doubleglazed window in Ron’s study was shut. Everything going on outside was oddly quiet. The breaking windows across the eight-lane highway made a distant popping sound, like fireworks going off. Hugging each other, me crying. How many were trapped there? Devastated. Nauseated. The beginning of a work day – everyone was in their offices. Our window was like a vast TV screen showing a disaster movie, our own private viewing. We stood there, horrified, who knows how long. I was here the day the first attack came on the World Trade Center, in 1993, and watched all that day, counting 171 emergency vehicles. I knew back then there eventually would be another attack on the World Trade Center. At some point I said to myself, “They must be furious because they didn’t succeed in blowing the whole place up. When they get a chance, they’re going to try again.” The 9
Towers were a symbol and what they wanted was a symbolic act. An explosion in the parking garage, however devastating, wasn’t enough. But right after I had that thought, I forgot it. I knew it was going to happen, but it was unacceptable, so I didn’t accept it. I just forgot about it. In the far corner of Ron’s window, I noticed a large commercial airliner veering over towards the north Tower, on its north side, very low, in a place it shouldn’t have been. “What’s he doing there? Flying over to take a look?” It curved off to the southeast. Perhaps five minutes later we heard a gargantuan roar coming from the south, behind our building, out of sight. It sounded like the plane going full throttle. A colossal noise, then flames came volleying out our side of the south Tower – an immense fire, nearly the whole story wide, charring the floors above it as it began to blaze. Building pieces dangling and dropping within seconds. “Get the field glasses,” Ron would have gotten them himself, but he couldn't. I looked through the binoculars down to the street. The enormity of what was happening entered a human dimension. A hurtling chunk of something had destroyed the rear end of a car stopped at the intersection. Pieces of body, unrecognizable clods of flesh, were scattered across West Street in front of the Marriott Financial Center Hotel. Traffic was stopped. I saw a black man in black Marriott livery come out with a stack of brilliantly white, ironed, folded tablecloths. He went from place to place, spreading a tablecloth over each body part. A steel talon gripped my throat. Very quietly Ron said, “You know, I think the Towers are going to go. Maybe we’d better get out of here.” Between us and the World Trade Center, was only West Street. All at once it was obvious that if either of the Towers fell at a 10
certain angle, our building, Liberty Court, would be directly in the line of fall. Above the raging flames, the perpendicular steel I-beams were beginning to bulge out, softening in the heat. Again his unnaturally quiet voice, “I can’t stay here. If the Towers start falling on us, I’ll die of fright.” The fires were impossible to put out. There was no place to aim hoses from. No building nearby was even half as tall as the World Trade Center. Sooner or later the Towers would burn to weakness, and then they would fall. Malcolm is going to be wild with worry. Ron and I hadn’t showered or had breakfast. But we finished brushing his teeth. I helped him put on his clothes, then decided to wear black myself – washable pants and T-shirt, fairly respectable – maybe we’d never be back. Sturdy sandals because I might need to walk for miles. I loaded the backpack with items from our safe deposit box at the bank. I had brought them home on Monday because Ron’s illness was progressing. We needed to update our wills. On top I packed checkbooks, cash, water, some apples. I couldn't carry Ron's manuscripts. Or mine. And we couldn't take Pearl. I layered the bathroom floor with newspapers, put out huge bowls of water and dried cat food, and locked her in. She had grown senile and couldn't find her cat box any more. If we were gone very long, she’d pee all over the house. I put on the backpack, and gave Ron his cane. Just then my sister Katharine called from Denver. “I can’t talk now,” I said. “The Towers are going to fall… ” Our plan was to go up to get Ron’s three-wheeled electric scooter, which was stored on another floor. But when the elevator came, everybody was going down. We decided to skip the scooter. A woman with two dogs was saying, “My daughter’s in the elementary school on the other side of the World Trade Center. I don’t know what to do. Should I try to get to her?” 11
As we got out, we met a man coming in. There was a big tear in the knee of his pants. “I was outside when the first explosion hit. I fell down running to get away.” “Are you all right?” I asked. “I’m OK. But I’m very frightened.” We went out the back door to West Thames Street, Ron using his cane. Very slowly we made our way towards the Esplanade. The air was full of sirens. On South End Avenue we found numerous police and a lot of bystanders. But no cars. In the middle of the street, a couple was embracing, their faces turned upwards to the burning skyscrapers. We decided to walk to the Hudson River first, then back upstream to Liberty Terrace, where our friend Barbara Ambrose had an apartment. She lived in England and had left me her keys. I thought we might be safe there. A lot of people were crowded along the metal railing of the Esplanade. Everyone was looking up at the blazing Towers. “I don’t want to go into Barbara’s building,” Ron announced. “I’m afraid we’ll get trapped in there. I want to stay outside and watch.” My own instinct was to put something between me and what was about to happen, but I stayed with Ron at the railing on the waterfront. Just as we got to Rector Place, the first Tower fell. I saw only the beginning of the implosion, enough to realize it looked as if it were falling straight down. As it hit the ground, it created a huge eruption of blinding smoke, so you couldn’t tell if the whole building fell, or just the top half. A massive, turbulent discharge of smoke and dust several stories tall, came rolling out Rector Place horizontally, towards the Hudson, at amazing speed. We were showered with a fine gray-beige powder. It felt like ground glass.
Everyone else started running, but we can’t run, so we just stood there. For one second I thought: But I can run! I could just leave Ron here, and run as fast as I can, and maybe I’d have a chance of being safe. Maybe he’d be dead, and he wouldn’t have to be an invalid anymore. Then I knew I wasn’t going to do it. Ron and I clung to the railing and slowly, slowly, began to make our way south, through black smoke so dense we couldn’t see at all. The dust was in our eyes and hair and mouths. I noticed people had pulled their T-shirts up over their noses and were breathing through them. I stopped and opened Ron’s shirt, pulled the collar up over his nose and mouth, closing it over the bridge of his nose. I pulled the neck of my T-shirt over my face. Every now and then a gust of wind would thin out the smoke and we’d glimpse the rushing outlines of people fleeing for their lives. If they knocked Ron down, he'd be crushed. I spread my arms out purposefully, walking behind him to make sure nobody hit him, hoping it would signal people to go around us, to flow past us. A shadowy figure going by said, “Move south as quickly as you can. Move far away from the World Trade Center. The other Tower is going to go. Go to the tip of the Battery. Boats will pick you up there.” We made our way blindly along the Esplanade toward South Cove, clutching the railing. Visibility was less than a yard. As I picked my way, I saw at my feet a pair of brand-new men’s wing-tip shoes, and a silk necktie, lying in the dust. Was their owner running sock-foot in his three-piece suit? Several baby-strollers, presumably empty. Looming immediately ahead of me in the smoke was a peculiar sight, a cloth-draped figure with what looked like a long proboscis. It took me a couple of seconds to realize it was a man with his suit jacket over his head. He was holding one empty sleeve out in front of him. 13
“I’m having trouble breathing,” came his frightened voice. “I’m breathing through my sleeve. I need to sit down.” I couldn't help him. We were in a sort of slow eddy near the railing, but a few feet away, silhouettes of people were running by. Hundreds of them. I can't leave Ron – he’d be knocked down. “Does someone need help?” said a man emerging from the clouds of dust. He was wearing a pin-striped shirt. Pin-Stripe took the man’s arm and led him to a park bench a couple of yards away. The next time I saw Pin-Stripe, he was calmly walking alongside us, at about the same pace, directing traffic. Steering people around us. I realized he was the same man who had said, “Move south.” He was repeating it, along with, “Move carefully, as quickly as you can.” I asked him if he was an emergency worker. “No, I work in the Mercantile Exchange. But I’m used to directing people. Maybe I can keep down the panic.” Even in the crush of shadows running by, at least a dozen people stopped to ask if they could help us. “No, we’re OK – we just can’t move very fast.” One man offered to carry Ron on his back, but Ron refused. “What if he’d dropped me?” Ron commented after he’d left. A lot of people suddenly seemed to be wearing white filterpaper masks – nosepieces with an elastic headband. Someone gave me his. I put it on Ron. Someone else gave me another one. A third person showed me how to wet them to make them work better. A boy gave us a liter of ice water from his backpack. Later a man gave us another liter. People can be so kind. One man about forty, tall, thin, bald, slowed down and insisted on walking with Ron for a long time as we struggled down the Esplanade. He took Ron’s arm up the ramps and in the crowded spots, until we got to a railing near the Museum of the Jewish 14
Heritage. Boats had begun spontaneously pulling up all along the water’s edge – tugs and ferries, fishing boats and pleasure craft, taking people off the peninsula to safety across the Hudson. Looking behind me into the smoke, I saw dark shapes breaking down the wooden railing at South Cove, so they could board a tugboat. “I want to stop here,” Ron couldn't go further without a rest. We knew the second Tower was also going to fall, but we were no longer so close, no longer directly in line with it. The bald man made sure we were in a safe, protected area along the railing before he politely asked us if this was really where we wanted to stay, and if it would be all right if he continued on. When we said yes, he left, running. He was wearing a wedding ring. We were in the lee of the Jewish museum when the second Tower fell. We had gone less than four blocks. Another huge, churning cloud of dust came rolling toward us, incredibly fast. Again everyone was caught in the ash and black smoke. We looked as if someone had dumped flour on us. But now a strong wind had sprung up, coming off the Jersey shore. It began to blow the dust-filled air inland a few feet from the water’s edge, along the Esplanade, and in a swath about six feet wide by the water, we began to make things out again. Just next to us, towards Manhattan, like a huge wall, black smoke was still rising as high as I could see, blocking the sun. Through that violent surge, nothing was visible, but where we were, the air cleared occasionally so we could even take off our masks. Herds of people streamed south past us, as we stood quietly, recuperating, in dust that had settled about 1/2 inch deep along the water. Ron was too tired to move. But I had to go to the bathroom. The public toilet was two blocks away, at the south end of Wagner Park, near the old fireboat dock. “I’ll just run down there and come right back,” I said. “You can’t do that,” Ron was adamant. “It’s too risky. No matter what, we've got to stay together. Everything’s too 15
unpredictable. If something happens, what if we can’t find each other? That would be disastrous.” Disastrous. Step by step, we worked our way down to the restroom, crossing a long line of people waiting to use a public telephone. Many of them, optimistically, were still hitting redial on their cell phones. All the circuits were jammed. Inside the bathroom, the water was off and the electricity was down. We sat down on a low wall in front of the Wagner Park arch. All kinds of boats: Chris-Craft, commercial ferries, fireboats and Coast Guard boats, had begun taking people to New Jersey. A lot of men in police badges, some with yarmulkes, were urging everyone to evacuate Battery Park City. Survivors thronged the railings, pushing to get into the boats, to get away. No one had any idea what was going to happen next. “I’m not going to be able to climb a railing or walk on a gangplank.” Voices from the crowd told us that people were being injured during evacuation. “Where would they take us? To some high school gym in New Jersey?” A fierce wind was still blowing the smoke away from the water’s edge, keeping the air clear. Ironically, I was beginning to get sunburned. “We can’t leave,” Ron needed to make a decision. “Let’s go back to see if our building is still standing.” The dust was much deeper in Battery Place. All the people were gone. We were completely alone. It looked like a dead city after a nuclear explosion. We passed our Subaru, parked in its habitual noparking zone. It was so completely covered with ash that you couldn’t see the handicapped plate. Not that anyone was likely to be 16
out giving tickets. Ahead of us, where the World Trade Center had once been, was a heaving, roiling volcano of smoke. In our building, the lobby phone was ringing constantly. Residents were frantically calling the concierge to rescue the pets they had left locked in their apartments when they went to work that morning. Gus Ouranitsis, the building supervisor, standing behind the concierge’s desk, seemed remarkably calm. He announced that it was being recommended that Battery Park City be completely evacuated. He said the generator-driven emergency elevator would bring people down from their apartments. Ron and I sat in tapestry-covered armchairs in the lobby for some time, trying to decide what to do. It looked as if everyone was leaving. “Frankly,” Ron concluded, “I think for us personally, the safest thing is to go back up to the 26th floor. Why don’t we just stay in our apartment, and wait to see what happens?” I agreed. At home, Ron would be less at risk because he’d be in known territory. Also we could take care of Pearl. We kept watching people leave, wondering if we would be allowed to stay. At some point an elderly woman spoke to me. She was sitting in an electric scooter, waiting to be picked up. “Don’t cry,” she said. “What?” I went over to her and took the gnarled hand she held up to me. She grasped mine tightly. “You look like you’re going to cry. Don’t cry. It’ll be all right. I’m 84 years old.” “I guess you’ve already gotten through a lot of hard things.” “Yes, but never anything like this.” I stood there for several minutes, holding her hand, trying to brace myself for whatever would come next. Grateful that somebody 17
had reached out to me, yet strangely embarrassed that my anguish showed in my face. Keep a stiff upper lip. Keep up appearances. Gus, the super, came over to see how we were, and when Ron and I explained what we wanted to do, he agreed to let us stay in the building. He treated us as if we were reasonable human beings, making the best decision for our particular circumstances. Shortly afterwards, the building staff brought us back up to our apartment. When we liberated Pearl from her bathroom, she strolled out, totally nonchalant. It must have been about 3 P.M. We’d been out in the chaos since around 9:30 A.M. – more than five hours. We were both surprised it was so late. “Our sense of time is totally shot,” Ron picked up his watch, still lying on the bedside table. Inside the apartment, the large window framing the devastation was opaque with smoke. Blowing towards us through the blackness, around and up, coming into view as they got within a foot or two of the glass, whirled thousands of pieces of white office paper.
The electricity was off, but both our phone lines were still working. We found seventeen messages on our voice mail, including a number of calls from friends in England and France. No message from Malcolm. We received multiple offers to put us up – Bob and Rosaire, Lis and Marty, Cameron, Phil and Dorothy, Dave in a worst-case scenario, and even one from a woman I hardly know. “Don’t worry about calling,” Rosaire said. “If you need to, just come.”
Figure 3. Smoke on Manhattan skyline after Towers fall. Our building immediately behind Statue of Liberty, to left. Photo Daniel Hulshizer ©Associated Press (detail).
Then the phones cut off. Our only remaining contact with the outside world was Ron’s little portable radio. It had always been a crummy radio, bad reception, lots of static – we’d discussed throwing it away. 19
Ron was white and shaky. “I just want to sit at my desk and try to calm down,” He pushed a pencil between the stiff fingers of his right hand and its paralyzed thumb, then, moving his whole hand from the elbow, he wrote down a list of brief impressions, using the muscles that were still strong enough to form clumsy letters.
Figure 4. Ron Sukenick’s notes, Sept. 2001.
“Boom followed by bang,” Ron wrote on the single sheet of lined
thundering roar [illegible, scratched out] panic over fall potential glistening panes floating boiling black smoke red transparence gunned motor boom splash of flame racing black billows down streets fear can’t breathe tidal wave of smoke ten stories of wall [illegible: flat?] on ground fleeing crowds running looking down into smoking hell pit ten or fifteen gone jagged wall parts standing at lunatic angles meat under table cloths agonized I-beams powdery soot / beige snow, paper in air, on ground 2 inches powder under foot gargantuan building parts in street vision = shadowy outlines waiting for second Tower quick shake and crumble sudden chute 21
We still had running water, but it might go any time. I filled my bathtub, hoping the stopper wouldn’t leak. Then, in Ron’s bathroom, I stripped down, shaking my clothes off into the shower before putting them into the bag of dirty laundry. My black pants and T-shirt were thick with dust. We were both totally beige with it: shoes and sandals, arms, backpack, hair and eyebrows. Blessedly, there was still hot water in the pipes. Under the shower I washed the grit out of my hair and off my feet and arms. Then Ron got in with me and I washed his hair for him while he showered. Being clean somehow made the rest more bearable. By now the wind was blowing some of the heavy smoke eastwards, revealing for the first time an unimaginable scene below us: thirteen square city blocks were a raging apocalypse with one enormous jagged wall still rising out of the firestorm, its windows empty, surrounded by masses of gigantic collapsed beams, chaotic as fallen trees from a hurricane. Next to us, 90 West Street, my beloved ‘wedding cake’ building, was burning out of control. And over everything, the graceful blizzard of white paper, swirling in the sky, gliding across West Street to land in the dust. All the notes, letters and documents from all those offices, floating down like huge snowflakes. The back desk called on the intercom to warn us we might have to be evacuated if the ‘wedding cake’ collapsed and the Marriott Hotel caught fire. I packed a suitcase with a change of clothes for each of us, medications and prescriptions, the contents of the backpack, the masks, water, credit cards, cell phones, computer disks, spare eyeglasses. I put in a book I was reading, Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, and a flask with some brandy. Left it by the front door, in case. I sealed my jewelry, the sterling, stock certificates, deeds and other lock box items in plastic bags, stuck them under the bench in Ron’s shower, and closed the shower door. If the building caught fire or was otherwise damaged, the bathroom would be the last room to go. But I thought we’d be able to stay through the night.
Despite the uncontrolled holocaust below us, we personally didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. It was like having a balcony seat for a presentation of Dante’s Inferno. Down there hundreds of emergency workers had magically appeared from nowhere. They were struggling to control multiple blazes – not just the ruins of the Towers now entombing the crushed bodies of thousands of people we hoped had died instantly. A lot of other buildings had also caught fire: the post office, some government building, the Millenium Hotel, which always had made us laugh because it couldn’t spell its own name. We couldn’t see all the burning buildings because of the smoke and couldn’t guess how many there were. The enormity of the catastrophe and the implicit domino effect of one burning, collapsing building setting the next one afire was apparent to us, but my reaction to this was very odd. I knew it was so, I was looking at it, but I couldn’t believe it. “The reality of the mind is stronger than physical reality,” Ron said. “That’s why we can’t admit the physical reality. It’s inadmissible.” We managed to get a call out on the cell phone, giving my brother Cameron the phone number to reach Bob Ellison and Rosaire Appel in case they forced us to evacuate. Even through the closed windows, the incessant sound of sirens, of helicopters circling overhead made it hard to hear, hard to concentrate on anything. The water went off too, but the gas, somehow, was still on. I went through the refrigerator. Leftovers from the former reality. We had ingredients for a fairly elegant supper. It was dinnertime, so I made dinner: chicken with onions, salt pork, potatoes and vermouth in the pressure cooker. Yellow squash with tomatoes, garam masala and thyme as a side dish. I set a table with linen napkins and crystal in the living room, on the other side of the house. We ate looking out over the Hudson River, watching the sun set on an absolutely clear New Jersey horizon. As if the 23
catastrophe outside our study windows hadn’t happened. The 1996 Medoc, we agreed, suffered from unfortunate acidity. I lit oil lamps when it got dark. Gradually, we noticed a few candles flickering in windows in other buildings.
I can’t imagine what awaits us now. Ron said he slept like a stone, but I didn’t. I kept slipping back into his study, peering into the flames and smoke with the binoculars, watching the fire fighters trying to put out the blazing ‘wedding cake’. The Art Nouveau architectural landmark with its verdigris copper roof and tiers of ornate tiles was always illuminated at night – like a gorgeous sculpture, right across the street. The irony (one of so many now) was that for months the brilliant white building had been undergoing a fabulously expensive and highly skilled restoration. It was nearly done and had promised to be beautiful. Now it was black, lighted from within by its burning heart. All night I watched them fight to save it. First flames leapt out the gabled windows of the top floor, then from the roof. Then a floor in the middle of the building burned all the way across, horizontally. On the ground, the firemen just kept on. They pumped streams of water from hook and ladder trucks in the street and from the windows of the adjacent Marriott, but the phlogiston was impossible to control. Every time the smoke seemed to subside, new flames would break out somewhere else. At dawn, the smoke was still so thick over the fallen World Trade Center that I couldn’t tell if buildings were also burning on the other side of the ruins. The sun was striking the rising clouds of steam, tinting them the color of radiant flesh. I saw the first glimmer of day edge down the side of the Chrysler Building. The Chrysler 24
Building? It was never visible before. Then a cloud of pink smoke once again obscured it. I can’t get through to Malcolm on the cell phone. At the intersection where the white tablecloths had lain the day before, I trained the field glasses on a bare-headed girl in a sexylooking top with tiny spaghetti straps, wandering through the mess and confusion out in the street. She had a dishpan full of bottles of water. She was offering them to the crowds of workers and fire fighters in hard hats as they came off duty. They look so tired. The girl was just some person who wanted to try to help, who had grabbed what she could, and gone down to the disaster zone. She seemed terribly vulnerable. Nobody was taking the water. Someplace north of us, they must have set up a place for people to get food and water when they weren’t working. A new crew, carrying lots of plastic-wrapped packages, was lining up to come in. Dozens of firemen were still pumping water on the wedding cake. I wanted to watch. I didn't want to watch. It was time for breakfast. I helped Ron get up and made espresso with hot milk and stove-top toasted bagels – the smell of hot coffee and toasting bread competing with the pervasive, acrid smoke-odor. Good God – what was in that smoke? Bodies? Afterwards I went through the refrigerator again and made a list of what had to be eaten or thrown away in what order and planned meals to last us through the next few days. Weds. Eat first (or toss): - melted ice cream - milk x 2 - ripe tomatoes - grapes - hummus 25
- leftover rice - brussels sprouts - chicken - tomato sauce - leftover zucchini Thursday, (cook and eat or toss) - bacon - soymeat in freezer - chicken breasts, bones (for soup) - eggplants Thursday, uncooked (eat or toss) - mayonnaise - cottage cheese x 2 (open) - cream cheese/lox (open) - lettuce, cilantro, celery - fruit juices, soy milk - carrots Friday possible: - fruit juices? - butter - yoghurt (unopened) - last tomato - oranges, apples - bread - cheeses (hard) 26
- leftover coffee After Fri. - canned goods - nuts, crackers, - cookies, bread, jam - honey - olives, pickles - beer, wine - soda H20 - booze It was going to get pretty makeshift by Saturday (peanut butter, Rye-Krisp), but we wouldn’t starve – not for a long time. Then I called the front desk. “Are you guys hungry, Gus?” I was eager to share our bounty. “We have lots of food here – I can cook you something and bring it down.” “You still have gas?” He sounded surprised. Shortly after, it went off. I guess they were afraid of explosions. He told me the Red Cross was feeding them, and they were OK. Then Ron and I sat in the living room and made another list – the pros and cons of whether we should try to stay in the apartment for the foreseeable future. It was a pretty short list, because we didn’t know much:
STAY PRO - Ron safest - Take care of Pearl 27
- Being moved stressful - Stranded if we leave? - Supplies through Monday CON - No gas, water, phone or electricity - Might be stranded if elevator fails - Too isolated - Bad air - No fresh food, limited H2O - No baths, toilet flush - Building might not re-open soon
LEAVE PRO - Get away from devastation - Support from friends - Places to stay: Rosaire & Bob Phil & Dorothy Lis & Marty Cameron & Marcelle (steps into bldg.) Gloâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s bldg (empty apt.?) Michelle CON - Discomfort of being away from home 28
- Not convenient - Impose on others - Pearl left alone - Possibility of no quick return - Possibly homeless
I circled the word ‘Pearl.’ What to do? I wasn’t going to be able to carry her cat carrier, plus all her equipment, plus the stuff I had to take for me and Ron, plus Ron. But I couldn’t bear to think of leaving her here alone, slowly to die. Our Siamese cat was 17 years old, blind, and senile. She wasn’t going to live very long under the best of circumstances. I picked her up and held her on my lap, petting her smooth beige fur. I stroked her pointy mink-brown ears, “Ron, how are we going to take care of Pearl? What if we can’t ever come home again? Do you think the best thing would be to kill her so she won’t suffer?” Even if we decided we had to kill our cat, I couldn’t think how to go about it. Stab her? Strangle Her? Crush her head? All the choices were too horrible. I just wasn’t going to be able to do it. But we lived on the 26th floor. “The only way I can possibly imagine doing it would be to drop Pearl out the window. At least she’d die instantly.” “Cut it out, Julia,” Ron said. “We’re not dropping Pearl out the window, so forget it.” Thank God somebody was sane around there.
The sky was bright blue and serene over the Hudson River, the polar opposite to the theatrical scene outside Ron’s study, where the clouds of smoke rose like a black velvet curtain to block the sky. The crazy angles of fallen walls were like a stage set in front. And 29
within them, a cast of heroes, trying vainly to rescue anyone left alive. West Street, at the foot of our building, was in ruins. The whole area had just been restored: re-piped, re-wired, re-designed with planting and bike paths and pedestrian walks. It had looked so beautiful. After years as a construction site, West Street was nearly done. All gone. All gone. In the foreground, the wedding cake building had finally quit burning. A ruined, blackened hull. Below me, in the pretty park outside our front door, everything was thick with gray-beige ash. The trees and grass were white on black, like photo negatives. Ron pointed out a new burst of flames rising from the middle of the ruins. I felt ill with despair. The breeze blew some of the smoke away from the ground, where the fallen towers had collapsed into a fiery mass of girders and broken columns about 15 stories high. From our side, firemen were shooting water across eight lanes of highway at a wall of flames. Their profiles, backlit by the immense conflagration, were like old-fashioned silhouettes. Next to them, on the Battery Park City Side of the street, the buildings of the World Financial Center were charred and gray, all their windows broken. There was supposed to be a dance performance on the WTC Plaza last night. We were going to see it with Toby, Ron in his scooter. We eventually decided we’d try to stick it out, stay in the apartment until they got the utilities back on again. As the day went on, we kept hovering, glued to his window, unable to concentrate on anything but the horror outdoors. In the late afternoon we watched yet another building burning out of control on the other side of the ruins. “I guess that used to be World Trade Center Seven.” Ron was using the field glasses, holding them pinched between his thumbs and his immobilized fingers.
We kept trying to figure out what had been what, but the chaos outside made it next to impossible. I recognized the phone company, still standing. It had a black gash in its side about five stories tall. The intersection below our windows, where the girl had been at dawn, was now flooded with water from the fire pumps. Abandoned, burned-out emergency vehicles were up to their tire-tops in water. This terrible loss, all the intelligence and caring, the personal histories, the beloveds of so many families, all gone… Somebody had strung an American flag on the top of a crane they were using to lift the sections of fallen wall. A call came from the lobby. They said if we continued to refuse to leave, the police would come upstairs and physically carry Ron out.
DAY 3 They forced us to leave late yesterday afternoon. It must have been about 6 P.M. some 33 hours after the first explosion. We locked Pearl back into her bathroom, hoping we’d return within a few days. But once we were out, I realized that was very unlikely. Was Pearl going to die a slow, painful death of thirst and starvation? When Pearl went blind, the vet had told us she’d had a stroke. I found myself hoping the stress of being abandoned by us would mercifully kill her with another one. Downstairs we learned that out of the thousand-odd people who lived in the building, Gus had allowed twenty-three to stay overnight. We sat in the lobby armchairs once again, waiting. Ron looked over at me, frail and gray. “You know, Julia, up till now, we’ve been able to cope pretty well. But tonight, for the first time, I see myself as a victim. It was just an illusion that we have any control over what happens to us.” 31
Policemen, National Guards and firemen filed in and out of the lobby. A National Guardsman came over and told us we would have to walk down to Battery Park, about a half a mile south of our building. Ron pointed out that he couldn’t walk that far. Then the Guard said we’d be taken by bus. “What do we do when we get there?” Ron wanted to know. “That’s up to you,” the Guard said. It was irrelevant, anyway. Ron couldn’t possibly climb on a bus, not to mention walk anywhere from Battery Park. Ron hailed a fireman. “Excuse me, sir,” he was being very polite. “Is there any way to get us a ride to our friends?” He explained that we had a place to go, but no way of getting there, given his medical condition. The fireman got on a phone and a few minutes later announced that a police van was going to come to the back door and pick us up. We waited with another couple – elderly Argentinians and their truly elderly mother-in-law who couldn’t walk either. “It's here,” a fireman said eventually, pointing a gloved hand in the direction of West Thames Street. When Ron and I had made our way back towards our building on 9/11, the streets were thick with smoke, dust and flying paper, but we couldn’t actually see any damage. Now, on Wednesday evening, I felt as if I were walking through the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden – it was the only thing I could compare it to. Directly outside the door, a mass of distorted girders was piled 15 feet high. They had been dragged there Tuesday night so search crews could get into the ruins to look for survivors. The sidewalk was smashed and the asphalt deeply scarred from the force of yanking the hot steel I-beams through the streets. To get to the van, we had to turn left and walk down to the end of the building arcade. Even under the arches, Ron and I were wading through dust four or five inches deep. I led the way, breaking 32
trail, wearing the backpack, carrying bags and dragging our little suitcase. I could hear helicopters flying back and forth, patrolling the river. Glancing behind me, I saw that the suitcase wheels had left two deep snake-trails in the dust, with my footprints in the middle, the high edges of ash collapsing into their shadows. At the end was the children’s playground. My heart froze. It was stacked with flattened ambulances, fire trucks, hook and ladder trucks, police cars, all crumpled and burned, their chartreuse and red and white and black paint visible through the soot. All those emergency vehicles had gone rushing to rescue people. And were crushed themselves when the Towers fell. I counted up the windows of our building to measure. The pile of metal was three stories tall. Don’t think. I got Ron into the van, helped the others get in, loaded our bags, backpack and suitcase into the rear. The ashes made a peculiar gritty mud in the flooded streets. We were nearly the last to leave the neighborhood. As the van was pulling out, a healthy-looking man with a central European accent stopped the driver and asked if the van could take him out, too. “No, we can only take you if you’re disabled,” one of the policeman said. “You’ll have to walk down to the Battery.” “But I can’t walk – I have a heart condition, and I’m short of breath. I have to go to Brooklyn.” “I can’t take you to Brooklyn,” the policeman said. I’m not sure if he believed the health story. Anyway, we didn’t take him. We were all having trouble breathing. The smoke was thick as fog. Our eyes were watering. Or was that tears? The van stopped at the corner – I’m not sure why. Maybe the driver was confused which way to go. West Street to the north was blocked by the catastrophe. The cross-street was barricaded. Anyway it was one way the wrong way. But it seemed irrational to turn south 33
to go north. Two guys in street clothes with big trays of food came up. “Are you hungry?” one said. “We have burritos.” One of the policemen was going to take one when his buddy said, “Maybe it’s better not to eat anything like that. It might be in one end and out the other.” He had a point. The plumbing wasn’t working. Who knew if the food had been properly prepared, cooked and refrigerated? It was like that girl trying to take water in the night to the emergency workers. Like love, wasted. Finally the van turned south on West Street. I was trying to call Rosaire on the cell phone, which still wasn’t working. But the Argentinian passed me his, and it worked. I’m changing phone providers. I told Rosaire we were on our way. All the streets south of Houston had been barricaded, so the van made a big loop, turning east through the empty Battery Tunnel, north up a nearly empty Franklin D. Roosevelt drive, then back west across Houston Street to get to Bob and Rosaire’s house in Greenwich Village. When we arrived, the police carried our bags to the entrance and waited to see that we got in. They were calm, thoughtful, most careful with Ron. Evacuated against our will, at least we had made it that far. And Ron hadn't fallen. Upstairs at our friends’, everything was consolingly familiar, the place jammed with Rosaire’s art and Bob’s ceramics collection. They sat us down and fed us crackers, wine and cheese, as they had on many evenings before, exactly as if we were normal people in a normal world. We were so happy to be rescued, surrounded by warmth and love and comfort that I couldn’t really even consider the devastation we had left behind. Don’t think. Ron, Bob and I perched on barstools at the counter in their open loft kitchen, talking while Rosaire finished cooking dinner. “I’ve just decanted a 1996 Côtes Rôties,” said Bob. “And over here I have a Guigal Côtes du Rhône, same year. I want to know 34
what you think.” Wine-tasting was Bob’s hobby since he’d given up drinking beer. Everything seemed entirely unreal: a home, electric lights, music, that day’s New York Times on the table. It made me think of something David Rieff, the war correspondent had said once in Paris. By coincidence he and my nephew Anthony Richter turned up on my birthday. Ron and I were in the midst of re-modeling our Paris apartment, but we took a break and went down to the Café Select on the Boulevard de Montparnasse in the late afternoon to meet them. Anthony and David had just flown in from Afghanistan, where they had been caught in mortar-attacks, sleeping on abandoned mattresses in ruined buildings with no water or sanitation. They were both covered with bites from bed-bugs and fleas. Anthony, Ron and I were outside on the terrace, enjoying the slanting, deep-gold light and drinking our second glass of champagne when David arrived, late. For a while he sat there quietly, listening to the rest of us catching up on family news, not participating in the chit-chat, in fact not saying anything. Then wearily, he pushed a lock of dark hair out of his eyes. “Eight hours ago I was in a bombed-out village, huddling behind a mud wall with scab-covered children, trying to avoid being shot. You have to forgive me if I’m having a hard time believing I’m sitting on a Paris sidewalk drinking $20 glasses of champagne, discussing real estate.” That was how I felt at Bob and Rosaire’s. Ron and I were struggling with two conflicting realities, something the people around us were not experiencing. In the rest of Manhattan, there was water and electricity. Telephones were working. We called my brother Cameron and Ron's sister Gloria to tell them we were safe and how to reach us. Glo was frantic with worry. Not about us, about Pearl. Aghast that we had accepted an offer of refuge with someone who was allergic to cats, that we would abandon Pearl in the apartment, Glo had already researched animal shelters and people who would be willing to go in and carry Pearl out. She even had a 35
list of phone numbers I was supposed to call. I didn’t tell her there had never been a chance we could take Pearl with us. “Yes, they’re here. Who do you want to speak to?” Bob passed me the phone. It was Malcolm, calling from Australia. “How did you find us?” I asked. Ron was scowling. He could tell from my face that it was Malcolm. “How dare he call you here!” Ron snapped when I hung up. “Malcolm was terribly worried. He needed to know we were all right.” In Boulder, Colorado, nearly 20 years previously, long before he was sick, Ron had picked out Malcolm to be my lover. Ron said that always turned him on. He said he liked triangles. They were like tripods, unstable, unpredictable, hard to keep in equilibrium. How ironic that he now walked with a cane. Also Malcolm was safely married, even if he didn’t get along with his wife. It took a long time for Ron to actually set up the ménage à trois. The affair only started in 1994, two years after he was diagnosed. I guess it was a nice distraction from facing eternity. But it had worked too well. Malcolm and I had fallen in love. Although Ron and I had moved to New York in 2000, Malcolm was still very much in the picture. Bob and Rosaire didn’t have cable. Or watch TV at all. A matter of principle. But after dinner they dug an old black and white TV out of a closet. Since the broadcast tower had been on the top of World Trade Center One, now they could only pick up two stations. Both seemed to be filming through a major snowstorm. Through the snow, like a film loop, we saw the second plane colliding with the Tower, colliding with the Tower, colliding with the Tower. It was only then, watching the double images on the TV, that we began to get the big picture. In Battery Park City, in the middle of those acrid fumes, watching the black shadows of the firemen and emergency workers backlit by flames, we were witnessing 36
Armageddon, but it was completely unreal. Now, looking at it over and over on TV, reading the Times, trying to figure out the answers to all our multiple concerns, we were stunned and incoherent. Bob and Rosaire’s loft on LaGuardia Place was really roomy. It took up a whole floor. They even had a separate guest room and an extra bathroom. But until we started to get ready for bed, none of us had seriously considered the implications of Ron’s illness. Our own apartment had special equipment, but other people’s houses took a lot of adaptation. Ron could not climb even one step or get up by himself from a seat lower than a barstool. He couldn’t use their guest bathroom at all – up three steps. No railings. “There’s another bathroom through our bedroom,” improvised Rosaire, “You can use that one.” The bathroom off their bedroom was on the same level as the rest of the apartment, but it didn’t have a door. It opened directly into their sleeping quarters. “Don’t worry,” said Rosaire, “We’ll just pretend it’s summer camp. Remember when you were 12 and nothing bothered you?” As we were getting undressed, Ron said, “Julia, look at the bed, It’s on the floor. I’m not going to be able to get up out of it.” I looked down. In my shell-shocked state, the simplest things seemed to have slipped away from me. I hadn't registered the futon on its low platform, about five inches off the floor. “That’s OK,” I said, trying to sound confident, “I’ll get you up with the belt lift.” Going down the Amazon River, on the first trip we took after Ron was diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis, we had made friends with a doctor who had taught me the belt lift. When Ron couldn’t negotiate something himself, I hauled him up by his belt. It was mildly comical, but it did the trick. Nonetheless, and despite regular sessions with a personal trainer, I was not strong enough to lift Ron from the ground to a standing position. 37
When he woke me in the night, I had to shift his weight sideways from the bed to the night-table, then from the night table to a chair, and finally lift him from the chair to standing so he could shuffle to the bathroom. But in my panic to get him up, I pulled a muscle in my lower back – a searing pain that almost kept me from standing up straight, myself. This was a lesson to me. Ron couldn’t function alone. If I was incapacitated, then he also was out of commission. My mantra became that sentence you hear in airplanes: ‘First put on your own oxygen mask. Then help those around you.’ In the morning, as I gave Ron a ‘bird bath’ at the sink, I realized this couldn’t go on for long. I told Ron. “Also, it’s hard to be nicer than you are for any length of time,” I added. “What should we do?” said Ron. “Do you think we should move to Phil and Dorothy’s? Maybe we should just go around from friend to friend, staying a few days at each place. That way we won’t wear out our welcome.” “Or we’ll wear out our welcome with everybody,” I said. When we were still in our apartment opposite the Inferno, we didn’t realize it was going to be impossible to stay at home in Battery Park City. We somehow expected that after a few days, everything would begin to return to normal, that we could just wait it out. Then we thought we would crash with Bob and Rosaire until the power went back on at home, but now it was clear that it was going to be at least several weeks before we could consider going home. To clear the rubble from the terrible catastrophe, teams of workers were going to have to remove it across Battery Park City to barges on the Hudson River. Now that the authorities had succeeded in getting us die-hards to leave, it was going to be completely impractical to let the residents back in. Our neighborhood, a war zone, was going to need to stay empty until the clean-up was finished, until the dangers had passed. The rest of Lower Manhattan rather quickly would have 38
electricity, telephone and water. But the 10,000 or so people who used to live in Battery Park City were now ‘displaced persons.’ “Maybe we should go to your brother's,” Ron decided. “They can probably stand the inconvenience better,” I patted him dry. “We’re family and they have to love us.” I phoned Cameron and described the situation at Bob and Rosaire’s. “The bathroom arrangements are very intrusive for Bob and Rosaire, and I’m not really strong enough to lift Ron.” “Do you want to move up here?” “Yes, I think Ron would be much safer there. But I have to warn you, I have no idea when we’ll be able to move back to our apartment. It might be months.” “That’s OK.” There was no hesitation in Cameron’s voice, bless his heart. “We’ll do whatever we need to. Do you want to come tomorrow?” After breakfast, Rosaire and I headed out for some fresh air. The day was breezy, blue and sunny once again. Things looked pretty normal as we walked west on Third Street. Until we got to the fire station. A dozen burning candles were dripping gently onto the steps at the entrance. Bouquets of flowers in their plastic wrappings were leaning against the wall beside the open firehouse garage. Inside, all the fire engines were gone. People were standing in front of the doorway, staring into the empty space. One beat later I realized what this meant. The firemen had responded to the World Trade Center attack. Most of them had died, trapped as they tried to run up the steps of a collapsing Tower to save others. Their trucks had been crushed into wafers, like the ones stacked outside our building. For an instant I thought I was going to vomit. Don't pass out, Julia. Just keep walking. 39
“Let's go to the bike path,” Rosaire suggested. “We'll get a clear view there.” We stood next to the Hudson and gazed south to Lower Manhattan, about a mile away. Where the World Trade Center used to be, billowing clouds of black smoke were still churning to the heavens, blocking the sky. We couldn’t smell it, thank God. On the way back, I stopped at Bigelow’s, a wonderful oldfashioned pharmacy on 6th Avenue, where amidst huge apothecary jars of historic remedies, perfumed soaps and dried flowers, I found an adjustable portable potty with grab bars for Ron, so he would be able to get on and off by himself. The unwieldy thing was cobbled together out of aluminum tubing and a plastic toilet seat, with a lidded bucket suspended underneath. Victorious, I carried it back through the streets to Bob and Rosaire’s. By afternoon, the light had grown bleak and gray. The wind was beginning to shift and the awful smell from the World Trade Center ruins had penetrated into Greenwich Village. It came seeping through the streets like something horrible – burning plastic, vaporized electronics. Phil and Dorothy Green came over to take Ron for a careful stroll around the gardens of Washington Square Village, the New York University housing project across the street. They donned their masks against the smoke. I didn’t go. I wanted to work on writing up my diary, so I only talked to Phil and Dorothy for a few minutes at the end. “You both have the thousand-mile stare,” Phil said as they left, putting his hand on my shoulder. In some ways I was more in shock at Bob and Rosaire's than when we were still in Battery Park City. Before, in ‘emergency response mode’, we had felt calmly competent, dealing with anything that might happen. I was still in emergency response mode, except now it was inappropriate. Hyper-vigilant, hyper-alert. With nothing left to be alert about. Each time a helicopter flew overhead, I would
leap to attention. My nerves were raw, flayed. I felt like someone with a stab wound who’s afraid to move for fear of making it worse. “You kept referring to yourself in the third person,” Ron said to me later, when we were alone. “ ‘Julia,’ you said, ‘is having difficulty concentrating today’. As if it’s not you this is happening to, but someone else named Julia.” Not me. Ron wasn’t doing well, either. “I’m totally demoralized. It’s hard to sort out. I feel purposeless, as if I have nothing to do with myself. My emotions are working at two unrelated levels. There are the surface worries – when will we get back? What’s going to happen to Pearl? Will I be able to do my work? What about all my affairs in progress?” Writing was what had always kept Ron going, even though his body had been finking out on him for years. He had published seventeen books; he had taught creative writing and edited a book review magazine. He’d won awards and been on committees. He had helped start an avant-garde publishing cooperative. So long as he could write, so long as he could do his work, he had a place in the world, a reason to get to his desk every morning. But all his special equipment was in our abandoned apartment. Without his voicetranscription software, he could no longer use a computer. “What I really feel,” he continued, his voice breaking, “what I’m trying not to be overwhelmed by, is a deep, ghastly depression over the deaths. The only time I’ve been able really to feel the impact of it was just after the collapse of the Towers. We were watching the clouds of dust pouring out West Thames street towards the Hudson, and I thought: ‘thousands of people have just died.’ I almost started crying. Since that moment, I haven’t been able to take it in. Instead, I’m freaked out because anything could happen, anytime. Somebody could come walking into the city with an atom bomb in a briefcase.”
I woke up at 3:30 A.M. with a stomach ache and couldn’t get back to sleep. Every thunderclap made me jump awake – like an explosion. Finally I went into Bob’s study and sat in the window seat, with the lights out. It was storming, raining hard. Just barely enough light for me to see to write was coming from a low, glowing ceiling of clouds to the south. Huge floodlights had been set up down at Ground Zero to illuminate the area where, until yesterday, we used to live. The light was reflecting off the smoke and steam still rising eighty or more stories over the World Trade Center ruins. The constant buzzing of the helicopters was like wasps in my ears. From my perch I could also see some electric lights beyond the ruins, behind the smoke. Was that Staten Island? Our own neighborhood, the Financial Center, the phone company building – all of it was black except for the brilliant white halo from the klieg lights in the ruins. Were the workers out there all night in the icy rain? For the first time in two days, I heard a car move through the street outside. Had they opened the barricades? I wanted to turn on a lamp and read yesterday’s papers that I didn’t have the courage to read before, but I also wanted to sit there in the dark, writing in penumbra with a pad of paper on my knees. Ron was not sleeping in the bedroom, wishing for sleep. I wasn't sleeping out in the study, searching for serenity. I calmed myself by making a list of things to round up from our apartment if I could get down there: - Pearl to carrier to Gloria - luggage wheels - car? - R’s laptop under bookcase. - chargers and cables for phones, laptops 42
- box of documents? - for cold weather in green suitcase: Ron’s red jacket my red coat hats, scarves, gloves all dirty laundry a sweater for each of us one week’s worth of clothes total, each elec. toothbrush, beard trimmer, hairdryer, makeup, jewelry
The list couldn't keep my mind from wandering. I thought of Bob, last night at dinner, gradually expounding the first of his ‘Bob Ellison Dictums’, born, he said, out of long experience: 1. Positive resignation: accept what is, and make the best of it. 2. Suspend judgment: don’t try to make decisions or form opinions on incomplete information. 3. (I forget right now what # 3 is). Then I remembered # 3: “Don’t believe everything that comes into your head.” It reminded me of a similar insight, from the French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier, who called himself Alain: “Un fou, c'est un homme qui croit tout ce qui lui vient à l'esprit.” (A madman is a man who believes anything that comes into his head.) (Propos, p. 21).
There are a bunch more Bob Ellison Dictums which I sort of remember, like: 4. Things will always get worse. (Sometimes they get better, but then they get worse.) 5. The person who is the most inflexible always wins. In the afternoon I began packing to move to Cam’s, but – a sign of the uncertainty surrounding everything – we had no idea how to get uptown. Were cabs driving in Manhattan? I had been out in the streets, but I couldn't remember. Was there any traffic? I could see barricades from the window. Houston Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the city, looked like an empty lot. Nothing was moving on La Guardia Place. It felt sort of like those rare mornings in New York City after a blizzard when no cars can venture abroad until the streets are plowed. Except it was 70ºF. outside. “The most sure thing would be for me to drive you, but I’d have to get my car out of storage,” Bob explained. “We generally don’t use it in the city. The first thing will be to find out if the garage is even functioning.” He looked perturbed. “And then I have to be sure I’ll be able to get back into the garage later. I guess I’ll go scope it out.” While he investigated, I launched Plan B, looking for a limousine service that would come pick us up. Not a chance. Most of them didn’t even answer. At length, Bob came upstairs: “The car’s out front, parked illegally. No problem. The cops are busy elsewhere.” The four of us started making trips downstairs in the elevator, first Ron, leaning on his cane, then Bob and Rosaire helping me carry all our stuff. We loaded everything in the car. Except the potty. Its clumsy aluminum frame, all angles and elbows, just didn’t fit, no matter what we tried. We must have looked odd, driving through the streets of New York with a toilet tied to the roof.
Greenwich Village was eerily silent as Bob steered cautiously uptown. I stared out the back seat window. Everything seemed petrified. Police standing on many corners, presumably to check people’s papers, paid no attention to us. Virtually no traffic, and, I noticed, no cabs. But as darkness was thickening the air, New Yorkers came out on the sidewalks with candles. Everywhere, the tiny lights were flickering on sad, silent, faces. Somehow since the attacks, word had gone out all over the country asking people to carry candles outside at 7 P.M. in a vigil for those who were killed. “Oh. It’s the candlelight hour,” said Rosaire. We made it uptown to West 86th Street in record time. And we were going slow. The whole trip felt oddly tentative. We were like refugees crossing a town after curfew, or invalids, cautiously leaving the hospital after a long illness. What a rag-tag crew we were, moving into Cam and Marcelle’s, going back and forth to the car for bags and bundles. Cameron and the doorman physically lifted Ron, one on each arm – up one step into the building, two more steps to the landing, four more to the elevator. Rosaire carrying his cane. Me following behind with the ludicrous porta-potty. Thank God the apartment itself was on one level. Once Ron was settled, I headed out to the grocery for a few things we needed: aspirin, Kleenex. I was dazed to see all the shops open, people out walking and talking. In line at checkout, I heard the customers around me chatting about everyday things. Yes, they were shocked by the attack and very anxious, but it had no physical impact on their lives any more. Here, on the Upper West Side, far from the smoking ruins blotting out the sky, everything had simply slipped back to normal. They looked as pale and subdued as I did, but they were talking about brands of beer and vacations on Fire Island, complaining about limp celery.
(Here a sketch of World Trade Center Tower as American flag. Annotation: glass, bodies.)
DAY 6 Today was the first time anyone was allowed to go back into Battery Park City. Cam and I managed to get downtown on the 5 Train, after two changes. It slowed down a lot as it entered the area near the destruction. Some of the underground structures in the subway tunnels might be damaged, so they weren't taking any risks. Exiting at Bowling Green station, we were quickly shunted into a disorganized crowd waiting at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, in Battery Park. It was another beautiful Indian Summer day, but getting hot. Someone told us residents were going to be taken into the buildings only a few at a time. Afraid of looting. We were supposed to assemble with others from our building and go in with the National Guard. People were making handwritten signs with building names on them, yelling out addresses: “180 Rector Place, over here.” We finally located a cluster of people with a penciled sign that said ‘Liberty Court’ and waited with them in the sun. Our band was oddly silent. No one had any energy for small talk. We stood there slumped and quiet, like people waiting for a train to nowhere. I had brought a book to read, but I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t actually see any smoke from where we were, but the smell was a constant presence. I kept wondering what we were inhaling, if I might be putting my brother at risk, too. Cameron was busy taking discreet photographs of the crowd. Some people were bedraggled, 46
rumpled. Others seemed clean, cared for. But everyone looked anguished. Around lunchtime I was getting really exhausted and sunburned. Add to list: sunhat. Then out of nowhere, some women wearing Red Cross nametags turned up with boxes of sandwiches and soft drinks. Spanking clean, pressed, combed and ironed, they walked through the wan crowd, smiling – ladies bountiful. I took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. On the plastic baggie some child had printed with a felt marker “We love you.” And drawn the outline of a pink, lopsided heart. With a shock I realized that the whole US had gone into action, to come to our rescue, even the kids. We had been declared a national disaster. People pitied me? Tears came to my eyes. Finally, after waiting around for hours, Cameron, about a dozen neighbors and I were led into the building. As we walked towards the ruins, we could hear the noise of all the machinery they had pulled into the wreckage as they started the cleanup – diesel and gasoline-driven engines, scraping noises, unexplained things clanking and hammering, the crash of debris being dragged down. Even now they were still looking for the injured, hoping beyond hope. Crossing West Street on foot to get into the complex, we walked over thick, now-dry mud – created from the ash by the storm last Thursday. It was larded with crumpled sheets of office paper whose edges protruded like bent fins, like broken wings, like knife blades. The path to the building was dotted with dust-coated, rainstreaked cars and buses, some sitting in the middle of the road. All West Street was decorated with wreckage, crushed vehicles and pieces of building. A couple of blocks north of us, endless black smoke, five days later. In the lobby, Gus the super and a skeleton staff were taking people up and down in the generator-driven elevator. To get it to stop for you on the way down, you had to call on the building intercom, 47
which miraculously had continued working through the whole disaster. They said we could only have five minutes – and gave us big black plastic bags to carry any garbage downstairs. When we went into the apartment, I headed straight for the kitchen, avoiding the bathroom where I had locked up Pearl before we were evacuated. I was afraid I’d discover cat rigor mortis. Cam and I, holding our noses, began filling the garbage bags with rotting food from the refrigerator, indiscriminately sweeping out melted tomatoes, mildewed grapes, moldy hummus and cartons of ice cream soup. Then I heard a furious yowl. Pearl! Alive, and mad as hell. Her meaning was clear: “Where have you been? Why did you leave me locked up in here?” I opened the bathroom door and discovered to my astonishment that she had plenty of food, her water bowl was full and even clean. I picked her up and hugged her. She immediately began purring. It turned out that the eight men who were working in the super’s office the morning of the attacks had stayed on in the building, sleeping in the lobby. Starting at the top floor, they went into every one of the 550 apartments, feeding and consoling pets, emptying garbage and turning off the gas and water in each one so there would be no accidents when the utilities eventually came back on again. When I put Pearl down to get back to my tasks, she stayed constantly near, rubbing against my legs. She wasn’t letting me leave without her again. By then we were getting repeated calls on the intercom telling us we’d had our allotted time and we had to leave. I wasn’t sorry. The apartment didn’t feel like home anymore. Maybe it was the dust everywhere. It felt dead. I scurried around, packed Pearl into her
carrier, grabbed the cell phone chargers and Ron’s laptop. Then I locked the door.
Figure 5. View from Ron’s window a week after the attacks. Photo ©Cameron Bloch, 2001.
DAY 7 So much chaos in me I couldn’t even figure out how I felt. Although we were uneasy, uncomfortable, and, we suspected, slightly unwelcome, Ron was much safer at Cam and Marcelle’s. They even had a walk-in shower. I managed to set up a secure potty arrangement. The only major problem was that the sofa bed we slept on was also too low for Ron to get out of alone. With my sore back I was still belt-lifting him by stages – mattress to sofa arm, to chair, to standing. Getting him off the toilet was also difficult, but I felt too embarrassed to ask Cameron for help. Particularly at night, since Ron slept naked. Every intrusion, however necessary, felt like another attack on his embattled dignity. But there was a table in the guest room for Ron, and Cam lent me his own desk. Ron and I tried to get back to our normal routine, each of us going into our own corner, doing our work. Looking out Cam’s window in the former maid’s room, I wondered how he dealt with the depressing view – a dreary, dark airshaft with a fire escape opposite. Then I remembered the burning ruins outside my own study at Ground Zero. Malcolm finally managed to get through to my cell phone from Australia where he was on assignment for the Cultural Commission. As usual living apart from his wife. I got the call in my airshaft study. We talked about half an hour, early in the morning. Ron was still asleep. God I was glad to talk to him! Through the terrifying descant of the past days, a continuo in the bottom of my mind: I wish Malcolm were here to hold me. “You know, darling, I almost flew to New York the next day.” His voice was resonant, reassuring. “I tried, but there were no planes.” I told him all the airports were shut down. “Why’d you want to fly into an emergency zone anyway, Malcolm?” I asked. “You can’t imagine what it’s like down there. The pollution from the fires 50
is terrible. Even up here in Cam’s neighborhood, everybody is in shock. Marcelle keeps having panic attacks. She can’t sleep.” Malcolm said he wanted to come to make sure we were OK. “But I have to admit I wanted to be in New York because that’s where everything is happening. I’m half way around the world. Frankly, I envy you… having a front-row seat for the event of the century.” “So far,” I replied tersely. Then I realized he had no clue what we’d been through. How could he? He was umpiring a cricket match that day. He had no idea what it was like to be an evacuee. Evacuees? Evacuated? I couldn't seem to remember the right word. We were exiled, extracted, exhumed, exhausted, exasperated, exposed, expectorated, ejected, evicted, evidence, evanescent. My anxiety level remained high; I transferred it to Ron, Cameron, Marcelle. Oddly, I hadn't felt anxious while Cam and I were checking the apartment in Battery Park City, lowering blinds, emptying the refrigerator, rescuing Pearl (she hasn't stopped purring), packing dirty clothes because what we use every day was in the laundry hamper, hauling out spoiled food. I’d already learned emergency departure mode. Cameron took photos for the Associated Press out the windows so I felt he got some benefit out of the eight hours he had spent helping me on a Sunday, his day off. After we got uptown, he dropped me into a cab with four bags and a cat carrier, then went on to his office to download his photos. What did upset me was something that happened in the subway car as we rode back uptown with Pearl. The atmosphere on the subway was warm and friendly. I had never seen New Yorkers act anything like this. The terrorist attack had broken down all the barriers between strangers. Everyone was talking to everyone else. We were like a community, all riding together, each one telling what they had been through on that day. A young woman, completely bald, with a kerchief around her head, was 51
sitting next to me, reading Newsweek. I asked if she would let me read over her shoulder. Maybe it was the friendliness around me that made me drop the distance I had managed to get from the calamity. Looking over her shoulder at the magazine photos, my heart unexpectedly began pounding wildly, high in my ribcage, above my sternum. Seeing that series of stills: the first Tower flaming, the second Tower being hit, the plane, the fire ball, three or four stop-action photos of one Tower falling – disappearing into that cloud of dust; then the dust rolling out the streets into the river. It was not going through these events myself, but seeing them from a distance, in still photographs, that triggered uncontrollable high-chested shallow breathing – the tight feeling of fear three inches below my collarbone. I had no idea that I would have to protect myself from even seeing photographs of what happened.
DAY 8 I had been missing Rosaire, so I went down to the Village to meet her. We went out for espresso at the San Remo Cafe, an old bohemian hangout. I told her about the panic reactions that hit me several times a day. I described the symptoms. Rosaire admitted she’d been having weird reactions, too. “I’ve been feeling very irritable.” Her expression was pinched. “But I think focusing on irritation gives me some relief from the pain. You have to be careful – the pain hits like a ball of white fire, rolling through familiar channels where you don’t expect to feel pain.” “Have you ever heard how Houdini died?" I asked. “He was sitting in his dressing room, relaxing between shows, and a visitor who had heard that Houdini could withstand any blow to his stomach, unexpectedly punched him in the belly. But Houdini didn’t 52
know he was going to be hit, so he hadn’t tightened his abdominal muscles, and it ruptured his appendix. And that eventually killed him.” “That sounds right,” Rosaire said. “So one way I build a wall against the pain is to block it with anger or irritation. The irritation is a relief – it keeps the pain away.” I told her that I felt like Houdini dying from a hit in the stomach. On the train, with the cat safe in her carrier, and my bag of dirty laundry, my shield dropped. I relaxed, let myself be vulnerable. “I think it’s because the fear was so unexpected that it was so brutal.” “You’d think the original horror would be enough.” Her eyes widened. “But the pain doesn’t subside. It keeps burning, it burns deeper, it would burn all the way through if you let it. The experience of that day…” Her voice faltered. “The facts of it… The ramifications of it. And the threat of it happening again and again.” She’s as wounded as I am.
DAY 9 Everybody who lived in Battery Park City was struggling to get home. No one knew anything for sure. All ‘official’ decisions seemed totally improvised, which was not surprising. This was the only direct attack on the American mainland since the SpanishAmerican War in 1898. This had never happened before, so there were no rules. There was no timeframe for returning to our homes. Exiled residents were emailing rumors around, all trying to share what they knew and find out anything they could about conditions in their buildings. As I predicted, the city declared our street part of the ‘staging area’ for the clean-up operations. The seriously damaged buildings closer to the Towers were considered part of the ‘crime scene’ and were still behind yellow police tape. 53
In the evening, I got a call from Toby Hindin, my friend and downstairs neighbor at Liberty Court. She said she was staying at her son's upstate. “I’m just camping here. I miss my place.” I told her it was the same with us. “I guess everybody who can has crashed with a relative or a friend.” Toby said that another neighbor, Michelle Rauch, still hadn't left her building. I met Michelle for the first time the day after the attacks, when she made the building staff bring her up in the emergency elevator to see Ron and me. She had brought us a flashlight and three liters of water, and said she’d be back to check on us. Toby explained that she had prompted Michelle to bring us supplies. “I called to see if Michelle was OK, and she said the National Guard had decided to break into the supermarket so people could get the bottled water, so I told her you and Ron had stayed.” Apparently, when the neighborhood was evacuated, Michelle had flatly refused to move out. She had seen the Towers fall from her apartment window. The ashes in the street outside her building were 12 inches deep. “Her boyfriend thought she was crazy not to want to leave an abandoned neighborhood with no gas or electricity or any other services, but he stayed there with her. He wired up their cell phone charger to his car battery so they could have phone service. "Michelle was born in Romania, and went through three wars as a child. Her family finally moved to Canada when she was twelve or thirteen. ‘This is my home,’ she told me. ‘I’m not leaving my home ever again.’” According to Toby, when the electricity went off, Michelle’s freezer was full of baking she had done for the approaching Jewish holidays. “She took all of it downstairs to give to the National Guard,” Toby sounded impressed. “Then on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, 54
Michelle cooked a big dinner on her camp stove for all the building staff who had stayed there through the whole crisis. She took candles and all her finest linen downstairs and set up a long table in the lobby.” Toby said Gus and the team of doormen and handymen at work on the day of the events were all still camping in the building. Gus told her there were a couple of residents who had not been in touch, who remained unaccounted for. He had to use his passkey to open an apartment for a man whose son disappeared in the attacks. I asked her about the air quality since she seemed to know a lot about what was going on. “Ron and I heard on the radio that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared the air safe at Ground Zero, free and clear of all chemicals with only a tiny increase in asbestos levels.” “That is patently untrue,” her voice was angry. “They have no idea. Actually the official word is that except for brief, escorted visits to rescue pets – masks required – all apartments remain offlimits. Nobody is supposed to be breathing that air.” I usually forgot to take my mask, as I did the next time I went down to Battery City Park again with Cam so he could take more photographs of the ruins from Ron’s window. In practice, I now could get in and out of our building any time I needed to, as long as I had a driver's license with my address on it. Cam said the Associated Press had no other close access to the disaster area, but when we got to Ground Zero, we discovered one of the countless makeshift rules they had made was that now it was forbidden to take photographs. Cameron hid his cameras under his jacket. We still had to wait a long time to get in, but this time, everyone was talking to everyone else; we were all in the same boat, rudderless, bailing as we went. How long it would be before we could go home? 55
I got into a conversation with the woman in line in front of us. I asked her where she was staying. “In a hotel,” she said. “Isn’t that going to get very expensive?” “My household insurance is paying for it. It has a clause that says if I can’t live in my apartment, they’ll pay for alternate housing until I can.”
While Cam took dozens of shots through Ron’s window, changing lenses to get close ups, I stared at our former home as if it were a foreign country. I had closed the windows tightly before leaving on 9/11, but the pressure of the Towers falling had pushed dust into the apartment around all the window frames, leaving sandy beige swaths on the sills and floor, and a fine layer of dust everywhere else. The apartment seemed ghostly, stopped when the clocks stopped. 10:28 A.M. Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a week ago yesterday. Before we left, I hunted through the file cabinet until I found our Chubb household insurance policy and put it in my backpack. When I got back to Cam’s, I sat down and read the policy cover to cover. “Guess what, Ron!” Sure enough, it had a clause that paid for housing if we were unable to live at home. I called Chubb and they confirmed our benefits. They said they would pay for a hotel, and if we couldn’t go home for a long time, they would pay for a furnished apartment. Like everyone I had dealt with since the attacks, they were generous, kind, going out of their way. They acted as if they were truly eager to help us. They even had a list of NYC hotels that had offered to take in Chubb clients, presumably at a reduced rate. I explained that Ron needed a room with handicapped facilities, and asked if I could visit the rooms before choosing a 56
hotel, to make sure they would be adequate. They gave me the names of two hotels that had specially equipped rooms available. I called and made appointments to visit the next morning.
DAY 10 One of the hotels was near Grand Central, across the street from the Yale Club, where I usually went to work on my books, so I tried that first. The room was shabby and looked out on a gray wall. It would have been like living in a prison, or an asylum. OK, we had been totally spoiled before the disaster, with our view of the Hudson and the Statue of Liberty on one side, the New York skyline on the other. But in any case, I was afraid if we had to look out at a blank wall for months, an asylum was what we’d need. "Let me discuss it with my husband and call you back.” Discouraged, I headed downtown to visit the other hotel. The Hotel Giraffe was on the corner of 26th Street and Park Avenue, across the street from the U.S. National Guard Armory. I almost missed it. It was small and very narrow, fitted onto a tiny lot, tapering at the top (thus “Giraffe”). And it was brand new, built this year. The woman at the desk called someone to take me upstairs to inspect a spacious room, luxuriously furnished and upholstered in various shades of beige, warm brown and deep red. It had a large, sunny, south-facing window, a refrigerator, a queen-size bed, a small sitting area, and a roll-in shower. They even agreed to make a special exception to their no-pets rule for Pearl, since she was homeless, too. The only thing missing was a grab bar near the toilet. The clerk said they’d install one that afternoon. He apologized that the room didn’t have a balcony like the non-handicap rooms. He took me upstairs to visit the roof garden and down to the basement to inspect the gourmet pan-Asian restaurant. Yes! I couldn't believe our luck. Suddenly I was flying high. 57
I called Ron from the front desk: “The place is great! When do you want to move?” “This afternoon, if you can get me there.” “I’ll go down to Battery Park City and see if they’ll let me take the car out.” Then I called Cam at his office to tell him that we were leaving. I felt almost guilty. He had been so generous taking us in, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by making it seem as if we had only stayed with them until we could get a better deal. “I discovered our household insurance policy will pay for a hotel until we can go home again. They gave me the name of a hotel near Madison Park. I’m down here now and they’ve got a handicapped room where Ron will be able to function. I just checked it out and it seems pretty nice.” “Oh? That’s good. When are you moving?” It didn't sound as if I’d hurt his feelings. I got on a subway and went down to Battery Park City to rescue our red Subaru station wagon from its ashy grave. The last time I’d seen it on a side street south of Liberty Court, it was covered with dust so thick you couldn’t tell what color it was. Would it still be there? Had it been towed? Would I be allowed to drive it away? Someone had been told that cars within Battery Park City were considered evidence and could not be moved. But it was clear to me that none of the people trying to run things really knew what they were doing. Some people were very picky; others, not. Everybody, including the police, the National Guard, all the Battery Park City inhabitants, and me, was making it up as we went along. Maskless, again, I decided to act as if getting my car was perfectly normal and if anybody tried to stop me, I would say my husband was handicapped and I had official permission to move it. Frankly, I expected the worst. On my two earlier visits, the ‘border guards’, as I had begun calling them, were very rigid about what you 58
could or couldn’t do in the barricaded zone. But today there was hardly anybody waiting to be admitted, and a bored-looking National Guardsman in a camouflage uniform drove me into the complex in his matching camouflage-painted jeep. He didn't know anything, and didn't care. “Where ya from?” I asked him, chatting him up. “Manhattan, Kansas,” he said. He’d been sent from Manhattan to Manhattan? I didn't think he was kidding. I showed him how to get to the parked car, still deep in fine, pale ash, and he waited while I got the snow brush out of the back. In broad strokes I began sweeping. In a flash of color, the Subaru’s metallic red paint broke through its compact, placenta-like blanket of dust. It squalled to life on the first try. With the jeep in the lead, I drove triumphantly through the shrouded streets, past the police barricades, the only one moving in a completely lifeless Lower Manhattan. I felt as if I’d pulled a real fast one, stealing my own car. Then, at twilight, I drove Ron from Cameron’s down to the hotel, with Pearl’s cat-carrier strapped in the back seat. She always hated the car, redolent of visits to the veterinarian, and as was her habit, she made sure we hated it too, yowling all the way. Ron kept turning around, trying to console her. “It’s OK, Pearl. We’ll be there soon.” More yowls. Finally, “Oh shut up, Pearl.” At the Hotel Giraffe, several polite bellhops unflinchingly helped me unload what looked like the complete possessions of a family of itinerant farm workers: backpacks, suitcases, laundry bag, cat box, kitty litter, Ron with his cane, Pearl whining in her carrier, not to mention the aluminum potty, tied to the roof. From the car to the sidewalk, from the sidewalk to the lobby, into the elevator, finally to our room. Leaving Ron upstairs to tell them where to put things and distribute tips, I went back down to move the Subaru out of the loading zone. I moved it exactly one car-length further down the street and carefully re-parked under a sign loudly announcing 59
“Don’t even think of parking here.” Ah, the joys of a disabled parking permit. Ron used to say, “it’s almost worth being disabled to have one.” When I got back to the room, Ron was cosseted in one of the comfortable armchairs, talking to Pearl through the grid of her carrier. His fingers no longer worked well enough to release the catch, so I opened it. Pearl, regal with offended Siamese dignity, stalked out onto the plush wall-to wall carpeting, her slightly hooked, aristocratic black nose wrinkling delicately as she sniffed out yet another new location. Ron had always called her “our Jewish princess cat.” Pearl was a terrible snob. She was so nasty to Beauregard, our adopted pound cat, that I was surprised by how grief-stricken she seemed when he died. And, like all the worst snobs, Pearl’s own credentials weren’t quite in order. She had a Burmese mother and a father from a good neighborhood. When Pearl went blind in the summer of 2000, Ron and I were amazed that it didn’t seem to upset her, compared, say, to riding in the car. She just quietly began functioning with her other senses: touch, hearing and smell. Ron admired how she adapted to her physical limitations. “She’s my role model,” he said. For a while Pearl wandered around the Giraffe hotel room, bumping into things, getting the lay of the land. When she hit the bed, she stopped dead and began a sepulchral keening we recognized. “Put her on the bed,” Ron said. I plopped her down in the exact middle of the quilted silk bedspread. Pearl had expensive tastes. She had always especially liked luxury hotel rooms. She tucked her black paws delicately under her and settled in. The expression on her face was an easy read: “This is more like it!” As far as she was concerned, Cam and Marcelle’s came in a distant second. She did, however, have a little problem. Before we left our apartment she had already made a number of errors in locating her cat box by smell alone. Sometimes she would think the carpet 60
smelled better. All our oriental rugs had already been sent out for cleaning. I didn’t want to trash the pretty new hotel. I made a point of carrying her into the bathroom to re-introduce her to her cat box, which I had set up under the sink. I also discovered cute little bottles of single-malt in the room refrigerator. Good, I didn’t have to go look for a liquor store. Ron and I sat in the armchairs, sipping it neat from the toothbrush glasses. “This is beginning to feel more like a vacation than sick leave,” Ron smiled at me for the first time in days. But the feeling didn’t last. As the liquor relaxed us, our guard also weakened, and the despair seeped up. We’d been bravely keeping it together during emergencies and relocations for ten days. Now that we seemed to be in a stable place at last, we could fall apart. Anxiously we discussed unknowns. Practically everything was unknown. “How long will we have to stay here?” Ron knew it was a rhetorical question. “I suppose we could be trapped in the Hotel Giraffe for months – they don’t know what noxious things they may uncover in the ruins.” He hadn’t been down to Ground Zero since we’d left, but he’d heard me say what a burning wasteland the place still was. “Do you think it’s possible we’ll never be able to go home again?” “There’s nothing much left to destroy, so it’s not at risk of further damage. Sooner or later they’ll get it fixed.” “How can we begin to function in this space?” Ron changed the subject. “I need to be able to do my work.” By the time we finished our drinks, we were too tired to go down to the restaurant. We called room service. “Steak au poivre vert, fried potatoes, grilled vegetables. Can you suggest a good Australian Shiraz?” 61
When the food came, we crawled into bed to eat. Here in the marvelous Hotel Giraffe, Ron was nonetheless ill and limited. He had to be extremely careful at all times. I was still nursing my sore back, not to mention my shattered nerves. We began to memorize the room service menu.
DAY 11 When I woke up the next morning, it took me a minute to realize that I was in an alien bed in a strange hotel room. I was in my usual place in the family sandwich, stuffed between my sick, rickety husband, and my geriatric cat. I lay there for a while. But even holding perfectly still, I could feel that weird, terrified fluttering against the inside of my ribcage, just below my collarbone. Like a butterfly trying to escape. It came back as soon as I woke up. Unless it was there the whole time I was asleep. In the milky gray light filtering through the translucent nylon privacy curtains, I stood chilled and naked, studying my two available outfits. Most of our clothes were behind police lines. It was well past sandal weather, but I had only sandals, the ones I was wearing when we fled. I ended up putting on the same wrinkled clothes I had been wearing most of the time since we were evacuated, to save the clean ones for something that required keeping up appearances. Going to the Red Cross for instance. Why would I dress up for that? I guess because I was raised in the South. I remembered Mother telling me about when, impoverished and married to her alcoholic first husband, she caught tuberculosis and went to the free clinic at the General Hospital, wearing mended white gloves to look respectable. They turned her away because she looked too respectable, not poor enough. Quietly leaving Ron and Pearl asleep in our starkly elegant postmodern bedroom, I headed down to the dim postmodern lobby, to 62
wait for ‘European breakfast’ to be served at 7 A.M. I lowered myself cautiously into a slippery Art Deco armchair and studied the Hotel Giraffe, our home for the foreseeable future. Wide beige couches, over-sized low glass tables, a pale, wood-paneled bar, recessed ceiling lighting, the whole dominated by a white lacquered 1930’sstyle grand piano complete with candelabrum, where from 5 to 7 P.M. daily, a pianist played medleys from musical comedies to accompany convivial, complimentary glasses of undrinkable wine. I looked out the plate-glass lobby window to the street. A yellow cab was waiting for the light to change. Running lengthwise atop its roof was a large sign with fluorescent red words rolling past like ticker-tape, news flashes interspersed with advertising, everything punctuated with exclamation points: “6:45 A.M! Lower Manhattan still sealed off! Call 1-800-OK-CABLE!” Across the intersection, to the south, a tortured column of black smoke was still churning high into a harsh turquoise sky. The damn butterfly was still trapped in my chest. Malcolm was so far away. He hadn't been able to call me because I was usually with Ron. We’d only spoken twice since all this happened. Malcolm, I need you. There was one other person in the lobby, a pretty woman, perhaps thirty years old, slumped disconsolately on her elbows at one of the glass-topped breakfast tables. I eyed her discreetly. Her unkempt hair and dirty white linen slacks clashed bizarrely with the refined setting. She looked completely drained. She was crying, silently, unselfconsciously, not bothering to mop the tears flowing down her face and dripping off her chin onto the glass. Behind us, I could hear the hotel staff clinking, setting up a gargantuan breakfast buffet: espresso, teas and fresh juices, croissants, pastries and bagels, all kinds of meats and cheeses and fruit. 63
Other guests began to drift in, grim-faced, dull-eyed, in clothes they’d been wearing for days, their skin ashen. Was this what Ron and I looked like? Some had bandages and slings, bruises and scabs from where they fell or had things fall on them as they ran. All the guests in the Hotel Giraffe, I realized, were refugees from Ground Zero, being put up by their insurance companies because they couldn’t go home. I went upstairs with a tray of juice and toasted bagels, café au lait and cream cheese. Putting it down next to the bed, I felt something squish under my sandal. Yuck. I found myself standing in a large, yellowish, wet spot on the beige wall-to-wall carpet. Pearl! I was afraid of this. In the night she’d gotten up, found the first likely smelling place, and flooded the area. Now the rug was going to smell better to her than her cat box, and every time she needed to pee, she’d think this was the right place. I got Ron started on his coffee. Improvising frantically, I used dirty bath towels to mop up the rug, scrubbed it down with shampoo, blotted it dry with more towels, fluffed it up again with the hair dryer and tried to figure out how to keep Pearl from destroying the brandnew hotel room. If they found out, they might evict Pearl. Or all of us. I called Rosaire for moral support, despite her cat allergy. She met me outside the pet store over on Lexington Avenue. On the sidewalk, we could smell the acrid smoke from Ground Zero, several miles away, ten days after ‘the event’. “WTC incense,” Rosaire called it. She looked at the tropical fish while I discussed cat control with the guy at the counter. Fifteen minutes later we left, hauling heavy plastic jugs of ‘Nature’s Miracle’ Eliminates even urine odors (...) Depending on air circulation, carpets and upholstery may take up to 2 weeks to dry completely. 64
I also bought a big spray bottle of ‘Pet-Be-Gone’ – the man said it had no scent and just ‘eats’ up the odors. “You're amazing, Julia,” Rosaire said, as we left the store. “So cheerful, smiley and bright, wearing make-up.” “I can’t help it,” I told her. “When you come from Louisville, Kentucky, the most important thing is keeping up appearances.” Rosaire looked puzzled. “You’re almost unrecognizable – like an image of yourself.”
DAY 12 Alt-X Party FUN Club 130 Madison under Manhattan Bridge between Pike and Market. 7-10 pm AltX.com, an online literary ‘zine and publisher, was started by Mark Amerika, an artist/writer who had been one of Ron’s protégés years before in Boulder. Alt-X was planning to publish Ron’s newest novel, Cows, in March 2002. Mark had scheduled the Alt-X party in New York long before 9/11, and he decided to go ahead and have it even though all Manhattan was still more or less closed down. Concerts, plays, and exhibitions had been cancelled. Airports mostly shut. Nothing was happening at all. Everyone was staying home – if they had one. Even in his current condition, Ron was eager to go to the party. “I’m looking forward to talking up my new book.” The FUN club wasn’t far away – just south of Chinatown. In Chinatown the stores and restaurants were mostly open, their redpainted Chinese lanterns bobbing in the breeze, but there were no 65
customers. Usually on Saturday nights it was teeming with tourists and locals thronging the shops and noodle houses, buying live fish and mysterious vegetables from the Chinese grocers. Tonight, the streets were virtually deserted. There were some pedestrians, mostly Asians. However, given how few cars there were, driving further turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. Caucasian Policemen were stopping every car at every barricade, creating strange traffic jams. At each checkpoint our Subaru got stopped; we’d wait in line; I’d show the police Ron’s handicapped parking permit and our ID with the Battery Park City address. I think the only reason they let us through was that we lived at Ground Zero. Eventually we located the FUN Club, on a severely potholed street, in a sort of abandoned warehouse covered with graffiti. I clutched Ron’s elbow, fearful he’d trip as we crept cautiously along a very uneven sidewalk. Then we stood up straight and entered the club, pretending to be young and hip – we'd even made an attempt at dressing up, which is hard when you only have two outfits. The place was empty. Mark and a couple of other writers were setting up for the party in a cavernous room, a bar on one side and some ratty velour cushions on low benches built along the walls. Cubes of wood for tables. Everything painted dark colors. Dim lights, candles, strings of colored Christmas bulbs. As 10 P.M. approached – when the invitation said the party was supposed to be ending – people began arriving, lining up at the bar, ordering martinis and beer, chatting each other up. The dress code was denim and black leather, chains, body piercing. The newcomers seemed to be mostly in their 30’s – the digital art crowd, with a sprinkling of Alt-X writers. Mark told us the scene was a cross between the newly emerging ‘online intelligentsia’ and a younger set who saw them as role models. He pointed out the media theorists and mainstream art curators who were now championing Alt-X work.
“Great job, Mark,” Ron said. “You have your finger on the pulse of what's happening, as usual.” As the senior writer of the Alt-X coterie, Ron got a lot of attention. He perched on a high barstool at the neon-lit bar. I sat across the room, feeling quiet. “Thanks for making sure Ron got here,” Mark said, wandering by. “Even after all you’ve been through, he’s being very gracious, the way he always is. But he seems to be in a daze,” he continued. “I think my coming to NYC right after 9/11 is good for Ron – he needs to see his friends.” The music was loud. As the club filled and we became totally deaf, we decided to go home. Home to the Hotel Giraffe and Pearl, the blind queen mother on the quilted satin bedspread.
DAY 13 Yet another trip to Battery Park City, my personal chunk of Ground Zero, this time to get an estimate for cleaning the ashes out of our apartment. Maxons, the “Emergency Restoration Specialists,” already had estimators on site 24/7. I was surprised to find my friend and neighbor, Toby, sitting at the Maxons table in the lobby, organizing the clean-up effort. “Hi Toby, what are you doing here?” “I got a job!” Toby said that when the Maxons' guy was inspecting her apartment, it suddenly occurred to her that there was a way for her to make herself useful. “Do you need help?” she asked. “Do we ever!” was the answer. Toby's apartment had been thickly layered with ash – when she left home early that fatal morning, her windows were all wide open on an interior courtyard. She said ‘the fall’ created a kind of 67
whirlwind in the space. A ‘medium dusting’, the inspector called it. He made her throw a lot of things away. "I tried to talk the inspector out of making me get rid of a rag doll which had been sitting on the window sill.” Toby looked up at me with bright blue eyes. “The doll was my mother’s, and it meant a lot to me, but he wouldn’t let me keep it. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ he insisted. ‘You can’t ever get all the dust out of it, and we don’t know how toxic it is.’ ” Toby said that working for Maxons made her feel part of the clean-up effort, aiding others, doing essential, necessary work. As a side benefit, she got paid. Toby was supremely competent. She even had a doctorate. She could do anything. Maxons was thrilled to have her. Sometimes she was sent out to damaged buildings to report on conditions, and she had to wear a whole get up – a face mask with a HEPA air filter, work boots and a leather jacket as protection. “I must look pretty tough,” she said, laughing, “because once, walking inside a restricted area, with my mask dangling around my neck, talking into my walkie-talkie, I suddenly saw a lot of flashes and looked up to see tourists on the other side of the police barrier taking my picture!” When my own turn came, a Maxons' inspector went up to the apartment with me to do the estimate, carrying a note pad, wearing gloves, running his finger on top of the refrigerator. Eventually he announced that it was going to cost $7,500-$8,000 to clean up our apartment! I was flabbergasted. I asked why it was so expensive, and he said that each of our thousands of books would have to be vacuumed separately. If our household insurance hadn’t been paying for it, I think I probably would have tried to do it myself. And I wouldn’t have had the sense to wear coveralls and a mask. When I got back to the hotel room, Ron and Pearl were on the bed. Mark Amerika and Ron's sister Gloria were sitting in the armchairs. True to form, Gloria was wearing pastel-colored overalls and false eyelashes. Even though she was a Yale-trained artist and a 68
former fashion model, Glo was resolutely bohemian. Since false eyelashes went out of style in the 1970’s, Gloria told me that for years she had to scout theatre supply stores to stock up on them. You never know what kind of family you’re going to marry into, but I lucked out. I called Gloria my ‘sister-in-love’. Her nickname, Glo, suited her. When I first met her, she was in her late 50’s and already wore her prematurely white hair in an enormous, fuzzy Afro, her trademark. Ron said she looked like a dandelion just before you blow on it. Even at age 76, she remained stunningly pretty.
. Figure 6. Gloria Sukenick in front of her portrait in a SoHo gallery in the 1990’s. 69
Glo was ecstatic to see Pearl, who was being her usual haughty self, despite having been repeatedly locked into bathrooms and discovering that here in the Giraffe, all the most appealing rugs now stank of ‘Pet-Be-Gone’. Ron and our guests were drinking single malt out of wine glasses. Coming in from the ‘war zone’, I ignored the mild shock I felt when I heard people laughing, talking about usual things. They seemed very merry, discussing the jokes in Ron's new book, Cows. Gloria had brought Ron a hilarious present, a large Holstein cow refrigerator magnet, which mooed when you pushed on it. At first, Pearl yowled every time Ron punched it. But she was adapting. We were all getting practice in adapting. Mark and Glo decided to raid nearby Indian groceries and restaurants for a picnic in the hotel room. After supper, I frugally stocked the leftovers in the little refrigerator. Still in emergency preparedness mode. What if? Later that night, the sound of sirens sent me hurtling to the window. But the only thing I could see was a ragged moon through plumes of smoke.
DAY 14 This morning Pearl yowled at 5:00 A.M and woke me up. I couldn’t get back to sleep. Lying in bed, I thought, this can’t go on for too long, or I’m going to get sick. What couldn’t go on too long? The trauma of the attacks? Being torn apart over Malcolm and Ron? Defining my life by a failing husband and an incontinent cat? It was the two-week anniversary of the Towers falling. Ron celebrated it by falling, twice in one day. Both times he tripped over the leg of the high potty frame that we now used in the Hotel Giraffe, room 204. He had a bump on his head and bruised ribs. The first time I was terrified. By the second, I was a basket case. Julia, you’re hysterical. Stop it. 70
We crawled back into bed and hugged each other, in shock from his falling, in shock from the Towers falling, and I finally cried, just a little. A few seconds. In a while Ron said, “Your leg feels good rubbing against me.” It was strange making love when the families of some of the thousands who had died were still waiting, hoping against hope, in the Lexington Avenue Armory, just across the street. Eventually we both slept a few minutes. Pearl, purring, was faring better than we were, except for her occasional ‘accidents’ on the hotel rug. I hated that. But since Pearl, amazingly, had survived the WTC disaster, I could hardly put her to sleep now, however inconvenient she was. That’s sort of how I felt about Ron, too. I had saved my chronically depressed, increasingly frail husband and my looney, blind cat – Superwoman in astonishing feat of derring-do, rescues trapped victims from endangered building. Now these two beloved, feeble beings and I were safe at last in a luxury hotel paid for by our household insurance. Although I loyally had salvaged them (well, I did consider dropping Pearl out the 26th floor window), things had gone back to their pre-September 11 stress level, with Pearl peeing on the rugs and the sickening thud that meant Ron had fallen again. And never having enough time to myself. It was hopeless to try to reach Malcolm. Who knew how long the phone lines would be gummed up? When he managed to get through, I would tell him that for an instant there was a choice. I could have run away, but I didn’t. I would tell him I acted instinctively. The decision wasn’t rational, but it had made things stupidly clear. If I had saved these two creatures, I must want them. Ron and Pearl are mine, for as long as they live. When it comes down to it, they are my life. You are not. Eating soggy vegetarian curry for lunch today, as I pondered our ménage à trois, I realized that the proof I wanted my life, with all 71
its constraints and travails, was that I didn't run away to be with Malcolm. I didn't even try to phone him. I just kept keeping on. The problem now was figuring out how to keep on keeping on. I decided to create an emergency list of things to store in a trout-fishing vest on a hook by the front door in case we ever had to leave home again in a hurry. If we ever got home again, that was. Cameron said he had a similar satchel in his hall closet.
Julia’s emergency list: - wear: walking shoes - carry on your person in a photographer’s or fisherman’s vest w/many pockets so you can’t drop or lose them; or if that’s too heavy, in a backpack, strapped to a rolling suitcase (see below): - hard copy of: bank addresses & account info, financial account #s, other essential phone #s (business, personal, insurance, medical contacts) - prescriptions, medical info, etc. - credit cards, travelers checks, checkbooks, cash - irreplaceable documents if likely you can’t return at all: wills, powers of attorney, do not resuscitate order, health care proxies - passport, driver’s license, ID - jewelry, if you won’t be back - keys to everything - backup disks for computers - cell phones and chargers - water, durable food 72
- simple first aid: antibiotic ointment, band aids, alcohol wipes, sunscreen, insect repellent, aspirin, other required medications, glasses, extra glasses, paper air filter face mask - pencil, pen, pad of paper - portable radio and batteries - flashlight - head protection: bandana or hat - paper towel, handkerchief, toilet paper, moist wipes, Kleenex
Pack less essential, heavier items in a small, rolling suitcase that you donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t have to carry. It should have extra straps to haul the backpack if possible: - a change of clothes - waterproof, warm jacket, gloves, scarf, knitted hat - basic overnight toiletries - something to read - pocket calculator
As I typed up the last of the list, the computer froze for a minute and revived. It was an obsolete laptop, used only for word processing. I had left it the cloakroom at the Yale Club, where I was working before the Towers fell â&#x20AC;&#x201C; I had planned to go back to the Yale Club the next day, so I had put the laptop into my backpack and checked it overnight. After 9/11, I wondered if the cloakroom attendants would get hyper-vigilant and toss all unclaimed items in case of bombs, but I successfully retrieved it. Since our home computers had died in the dust, it would have to do. It had backup copies of some old business files with phone numbers I needed, so I forced myself to go to work. 73
New renters were supposed to be arriving at our place in France – coming from Washington State. I had to get everything is order. I called the last tenant, Joanne, who was in our Paris apartment on September 11, to see how things were there. She said they’d had a difficult time getting a flight back to the US, and finally made it only several days later, but otherwise, Paris was functioning as usual. The couple from Washington were relieved to hear from me. They had been trying to reach me, but of course nothing was working – no email, the phone lines down. They had no idea where I was. They'd decided to cancel. They said it didn’t feel like a time to be away from home. A French-Canadian couple scheduled for two weeks at the end of September also cancelled. Between September and Christmas, five more renters either cancelled or re-scheduled. My only source of income since I'd stopped teaching ground to a halt. Should we consider moving to France? The apartment was empty, the air would be better. I'd go if I were alone. I’d been living in France several months a year since I was in my twenties. I wrote about French art. Now Ron’s illness had forced me to request early retirement from my job as a French professor. France was my world, except for Malcolm, who in any case was in Australia. But Ron might resist. He wanted to be in New York for friends, for writing reasons, and, practically speaking, for handicap access. Paris would be physically more difficult for him unless we worked out some systems quickly. A ramp for the front step, a wheelchair, an architect’s adjustable chair for the new desk. Not hopeless, just a question of getting it in place. Where was I going to find the courage and stamina to do that? If I couldn't figure out the big things, I could figure out the little things. Take a shower. Put on mascara. “Hey Julia!” Ron put his head into the bathroom where I was drying my hair. “Turn that thing off. I just remembered something – every two years the University of Colorado gives each faculty member a new computer. Do you think we’re still eligible?” 74
I called the French Department. Sure enough. The university arranged to have two new laptops over-nighted to us at the hotel. Amazing. I was going to be able to get back to work.
DAY 15 Last night Puddy Neil, a friend from private school in Kentucky, turned up at the Giraffe, dressed like a good Louisville girl, in a wide-brimmed straw hat with a matching grosgrain ribbon. Pretty incongruous amongst all us refugees in our frayed clothing. She was passing through New York at the end of a trip to the East Coast, planned long before 9/11. With Ron, we made our way slowly around the Armory across the street from the hotel. It had been set up as a gathering place for families who were still waiting for information about their relatives. The outside of the huge building had become a makeshift memorial. For a whole city block, the walls were papered with photocopied images of The Missing â&#x20AC;&#x201C; so many. Taped beside the photos, paper chains made by Sundayschool classes, announcements for prayer services and crisis counseling, free housing and phone calls, hot meals and grocery vouchers. On the sidewalk in front were lovingly placed flowers, candles, incense, a card with a Buddha on it. The sound of a plane flying over made me panic. Afterward I couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t calm down. There were tears caught in my throat. Was it sorrow or fear? Why can't I cry? When will I be able to cry?
Figure 7. Poster for missing person. Photo Rosaire Appel ÂŠRappel 2001. 76
Figure 8. Poster for missing person 2. Photo Rosaire Appel ÂŠRappel 2001. 77
Puddy and I went out to dinner later, just the two of us, eating on an outside terrace in the balmy darkness. “Julia,” she said looking at me intensely, “I’m shocked by Ron’s physical state. He’s dramatically worse.” I told Puddy that since the Towers fell, he’d been falling more and more. Autoimmune diseases like Multiple Sclerosis or Lupus get much worse when the patient is under stress. “They think Inclusion Body Myositis might be like that. It’s so rare nobody knows much about it.” “Well, it’s not surprising he’s stressed. Look what you all have been through, what we’ve all been through.” Puddy poked at her food. Despite her elegant Southern get-up, she wasn't herself. She had let her hair go totally white, she slumped in her chair, and her skin seemed thin, like crepe paper. I must look at least as bad, probably worse. Nobody seemed to feel right – not last night, not this morning. Pearl kept yowling for no reason. I went through the motions of breakfast, trying to organize our lives. In the afternoon I called Anna Johnson-Chase to ask if she could salvage my shoulder, which felt paralyzed again, stuck in a raised position, as if it were tied to my ear. It was like a defensive posture – unconsciously lifting my shoulder to ward off blows. Anna lived across the street in Battery Park City. But of course she, her husband, daughter and Husky puppy had been evacuated, too. Currently they were crashing in the SoHo loft of a friend. When Anna came into the hotel room, I was stunned. She, too, had aged ten years. Her face was gray, lined, haggard. Had 9/11 made us all old? I hoped this was only temporary. Anna stretched me out on the hotel bed and did a kind of bodywork treatment called Feldenkrais, named after an Israeli physicist who developed the exercises and manipulations to cure his own knee problems. She also worked on Ron. I was very grateful, moved that Anna would come to help us in the midst of her own 78
exile. She said it made her feel useful and focused to exercise her profession, to take care of us, to leave the place where they were all in crisis themselves. You can get on with it, too, Julia. Do what you’re good at. I couldn’t get an art work out of my mind, an art work I wanted to make from my vision of the disaster – a perpendicular American flag, hanging as a pennant, with sequin flames twinkling through the field of blue. To me the flaming Tower One had looked a little like an American flag. Its windows were like the stripes, extending to the ground below. One quarter of the top was the field of blue, blackened and burning, its broken glass soaring and sparkling like falling stars.
DAY 16 I had to face facts. OK, I’d saved Ron and Pearl. They were mine, they were there. I felt like a hyperactive Border Collie, trying to herd a blind cat and a crow with a broken wing. I could neither protect them nor give up being anxious about them. They were a huge source of stress. My life was ravaged by their needs and faiblesses. I decided to go downstairs and write in my diary again before Ron woke up. Early mornings were literally my only time alone, for Ron couldn't go out at all, or even function very long in the hotel room without help. I hated for him to be a prisoner there, but it was also hard to adapt to having someone around all the time. In our twenty-some years of living together, we each had always had three or four hours alone every day, to write, think, do our work. Not ever being alone made a body very grouchy. Sitting in one of the leather armchairs in the Giraffe lobby, I watched as day slipped in above Park Avenue South, crisp and blue. An army jet flew uptown. Fear stabbed my heart. I felt that desperate 79
fluttering again high in my chest, somewhere around the sternum – Like a butterfly trying to escape. I was getting seriously phobic. I re-read the pages I’d written since we’d gotten to the hotel. My diary was now less an eyewitness account of our days than a series of scattered free-associations. It looked disoriented – nutty, awash with chaotic thoughts. The truth is, I’m losing it. BWTC (Before the World Trade Center disaster) when I raved about loving Battery Park City, Ron used say, “Don’t be too elated. Something will go wrong.” In spades. What if we can never go home again? Are we at war? How are we going to live now? I began imagining this happened because God was punishing me for hubris. I made a list of all the things that caused my panic attacks, proceeding by free association: - talking to people about the disaster – I talked to everyone now, the phone salesman from Sears, the cashier in the shoe store, but it brought on panic attacks. - helicopters – the air was full of them, constantly patrolling the rivers, the ruins, the Empire State Building. Even the noise felt menacing. - other unexpected noises – sirens, bumps, backfires, doors slamming. - moving to Paris – it wouldn't be safer. It was much closer to the Middle East. There had been terrorist attacks in Paris, too. Our life in France was temporarily intact. We had a place to live. But do we have a place to hide? I fantasized about secret passages to the garage below, a secret apartment under the skylight in the courtyard. A place to hide when they came for the Jews. And I was only Jewish by association. - not moving to Paris – the air, the burning ruins outside the apartment windows, our devastated neighborhood at Ground Zero. 80
- not being able to go home – it was safe at the Giraffe, like a parenthesis in the terrifying reality, and I was grateful. But I was also afraid we’d never get home, that we’d have to begin again somehow, start a new life from nothing. - Pearl trashing the hotel room – what if it came to the choice between being having no place to stay and putting her to sleep? - Ron falling – the day he broke something and had to be in a cast would be the end of his walking, because he had to move to keep his remaining muscle cells working. He might even be bed-ridden for the rest of his life, pneumonia, bedsores… - Ron bullying me about Malcolm – Ron went into a deep funk for about ten minutes recently because my cell phone rang and I couldn’t answer it. He probably thought it was Malcolm. It wasn't. Malcolm hadn’t called, but he might. So Ron was not wrong – it just didn’t happen that time. - Ron dying.
Don’t think. The sun was yellow on the buildings; now people were having coffee behind me in the lobby. I had to go check on Ron.
Cam and Marcelle came down to the Giraffe after work to see where we were staying. They were suitably impressed – the place was really very classy. Ron and I dressed up in our new finery, bought with a clothing allowance from Chubb insurance. We decided to try out the gourmet restaurant in the basement. We found the atmosphere a little chilly and pared-down, but serenely Zen – all dim 81
lights and white phalaenopsis orchids. Water flowing down glass wall panels made a calm trickling noise. “Those waterfalls are a great improvement over most New York restaurants, with their loud music,” Ron remarked. The food, Pan-Asian and French, was exceptional. The whole evening began to seem like a happy occasion – as if we were sophisticated visitors to Manhattan instead of refugees from the local disaster.
DAY 18 I was on my way to the apartment to supervise the clean up when I walked through the arch in Wagner Park. My heart clenched, my throat contracted. Just in front of me, anchored in the otherwise empty harbor, was a Coast Guard destroyer. As if we were at war. I remembered the last time we were in Wagner Park, thick with dust, the crowds of people trying to get on tugboats pulled up to the railing. How we paused on the slanting stone wall – dazed, trying to decide what to do. Finally, slowly, making our way through the ashes and dust, back up Battery Place to see if our building was still standing. My heart was swollen with tears. The apartment would soon be clean, except for the outsides of the windows – rain-spotted and covered with dust. No reason to wash them until the cleanup was finished. Mayor Giuliani had said that might take as long as a year. When I got to the Esplanade, it was spotless and empty. I didn’t expect that. All the gardens were in perfect order, lawns mowed, sidewalks scrubbed and clean. Our building was being decontaminated, rugs shampooed in the hallways, brown paper neatly taped over the floor at the entrances to the elevators. Why is it I want to cry now? Yesterday when I saw my new psychotherapist, Neila Wyman, she had quoted Daruma, the founder of Zen Buddhism: “Tranquillity 82
of the heart, torment of the flesh: open wide the eye of the heart and nothing is invisible.” She said no matter how much pain I was in, to try to keep my heart open, to let emotions flow. So today when the tears welled up, walking on the Esplanade, I started crying. But I noticed that when someone came up behind me, my crumpled face, my tears, embarrassed me. I got a grip. Appearances. Seeing the battleship had left me stunned, shattered, almost dizzy. Exhausted. But there was no place to cry, feel, think – to be alone. All I wanted to do was sit and write. Or read. Or sleep. Nothing else. That wasn’t possible. I’m it. The physical essentials of our life were my responsibility because Ron was too sick to help. I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of picking up all the undone tasks and making life proceed again. The Giraffe was like respite care; all we did was rest and recover. I felt as if I had almost lost the habit of running a household, not to mention doing my own work. How was I ever going to get back on track? I felt my heart pounding a lot. Sometimes it beat double-time. It’s some congenital irregularity, they told me. Not dangerous. Maybe it was a symptom of stress.
OCTOBER DAY 22
“I feel trapped here in the Giraffe,” Ron said as I left. “I’ve been trying to write, but a lot of the time I just just stare into space. I need to get home, to be in a place where I can function. I’ve got urgent business to take care of.” Every day I dragged myself out of bed, got myself dressed and went down to Battery Park City to deal with cleaning up the apartment, filling out forms, buying supplies. I had to replace all the things Cameron and I tossed when we emptied the refrigerator. I’m it. I didn’t like to leave Ron for too long, so I enlisted friends to hang out with him. Even for me, it was quite a hike to get into or out of Ground Zero. All the closest subway stations had been wiped out when the Towers fell. The regular bus lines now ended at the Canal Street barricades, dozens of blocks away. In our complex all the supermarkets were still closed, but over towards the East River at the far end of Wall Street were a large Asian/natural foods market and a supermarket. The City had quickly set up system of shuttle buses – a blessing. Showing ID let you get to civilization. And by Internet I ordered something we’d never needed before: electric air purifiers 84
with filters to clear the smoky air. The Red Cross was contributing a special ‘small particle’ vacuum cleaner to each residence. The Maxons cleaning manager had told me his company had been obliged to hire teams of cleaners anywhere they could, and that often they had no personal experience with the new employees. “Try to come in and out frequently, and turn up unexpectedly,” he suggested. He didn’t have to worry. The dozen Spanish-speaking Latinos (Guatemalans? Mexicans?), men and women who were ridding our home of powder-fine ash, vacuumed every book, every nook. They were lovely, gentle people, and as bewildered as Ron and I were at the way the world had changed. Nothing was stolen, and only one thing broken. The first night after the disaster, functioning without electricity, I had left an Art Nouveau glass candlestick on the edge of the bathroom sink. Somebody knocked it off. A conversation with the young bilingual Colombiano supervising the team gave me a useful insight. “Colombians are constantly under threat of terrorist attacks,” I said. “How do you deal with it?” “We change nothing in our lives. We continue doing exactly what we would normally do. Because if we change anything, they’ve won. That’s what terrorists are supposed to do – terrorize you. They want to keep you paralyzed with fear, to spend your whole life thinking about them and being afraid.”
Musicians and actors were beginning to return to their NY bookings, their long-held Giraffe reservations. In the lobby, we now saw budding celebrities with ostrich-skin cowboy boots. Their leopard-print girlfriends had rhinestone-collared Afghans. Hounds I mean. Not like the war in Afghanistan. Not like those photos of the 85
American soldier-woman with her foot on the neck of a Muslim prisoner. Was he wearing a collar? It was time to leave. Moving home from the Hotel Giraffe felt a little like a re-wind – re-pack our suitcases, three trips down in the elevator, three trips from the elevator to the curb. Load up the car again; tie the potty on the roof again. At the last possible moment, force Pearl back into her carrier. Pearl cried piteously as we hauled her through the lobby. Gripping the bars with her tiny paws. “Help! I’m being kidnapped! Rescue me! I’ve never seen these people before!” Rock stars stared. I drove Ron and Pearl back downtown in the darkness, through the empty streets, past the police barricades: I showed my driver’s license, Ron’s handicap permit. The officers peered curiously into the back of the red Subaru to see what was making the horrific noise. Even so, there was a certain gaiety in our madcap gypsy caravan. We’d won, we’d conquered adversity, we were going home! I got Ron in the building with the suitcases. Pearl, finally submissive, sat in her cage on a dolly beside his armchair in the lobby. At the last minute, before I went to park the car, I carefully hid the potty in the storage room. Just in case... you never know. “The apartment looks great!” Tonight I had the heat on, blanquette de veau for dinner, yellow roses in the peacock blue Mexican glass pitcher. I had described to Ron the mournful dustiness that greeted me each time I went home. But my efforts had paid off. He thought the place looked as if nothing had happened... until he went to his study window: “The pit was like an open sore,” Ron wrote, Smoke from underground leaks or billows up usually ash gray sometimes jet-black The mounds of rubble were still there, smoking, the ruined sections of wall still standing, the tilting and sheared guts of 86
surrounding buildings sliced by fragments of Towers still protruding like knives left in wounds But instead of fire engines and ambulances huge backhoes kept scratching at it with steel fingers, as many as 10 or 11 at a time now Picking off scabs of metal, sometimes exposing flesh of the 3000 missing in there
Even at 11:30 P.M., brilliant floodlights were aimed down on the burning ruins and the men doing demolition. Acrid smoke smells came seeping around the closed windows, 24 hours a day. It was unimaginable. After Ron fell asleep, I set up a shrine in my study, in front of the window that looked out over the pit â&#x20AC;&#x201C; a simple pottery lamp that Glo once gave us. I lighted the wick for all those missing or lost. Even if I am agnostic. Looking past it at the window, I saw my face reflected in the glass, eerily lit from below by the flickering yellow flame. The shadows on my face were reversed: chin, lower lip, nostrils, cheekbones fully illuminated, nose, eyes, forehead black. Outside, a vision of hell.
Figure 9. View from Ronâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s window, Oct. 2011 (timed exposure with handheld camera). Photo Rosaire Appel ÂŠRappel, 2001.
DAY 24 Ron fell again this morning. By the time I got to him, Pearl was already standing by his head, licking his hair. His fall felt like a physical metaphor. Each change we made got us off balance again. I was doing my best to be pragmatic, efficient, trying not to let my growing irrationality creep in. But every new incident on the world stage shook me. Terrorism in Toulouse? Russian planes bound out of Tel Aviv? Even if the menace had nothing directly to do with our life in Battery Park City.
No matter how we tried to get back to normal, this was ‘the new normal.’ Ron began falling constantly. Although I meant to be ready for it, somehow he only fell when I wasn't expecting it. Terror struck when I heard the sickening thud of Ron’s body hitting the floor. My panic got worse each time. Sobbing, wobbly with fear, I would race in from the other room to see what might be broken or bleeding. At length we developed a routine. Most of the time Ron’s feet or legs were caught underneath him, painfully bent backwards. First I turned him on his side, stretched out his legs, put him on his back, evaluated his injuries. Then I treated him for shock: wrapped him in blankets, put a pillow under his head, made him comfortable. As soon as he could sit up enough to take a pill, I gave him an antiinflammatory so he wouldn’t stiffen up. When we both had calmed down a little and felt ready, we worked together to figure out how to get him off the floor. Usually I had to drag him six yards down the hall by his armpits to the foot of the bed. There I kept a Chinese footstool about a foot high, and I would use the belt-lift to pull him up until he was sitting on it. Then I would put a straight-backed chair next to the stool, and once I had belt-lifted him from the stool to the chair, I could haul him from the chair up onto our queen-sized hospital bed where he would lie down and try to recuperate. This time, after the struggle to get Ron settled in bed, my hands shook for about fifteen minutes. It was shocking to realize how much less physically strong I had become since 9/11 – nerves? Not working out for three weeks? And I re-injured my back lifting him, which meant the next time Ron fell, I might not be able to handle it. Frightening. Not many services available around here. Later, getting undressed, I discovered these weird lumps pooching out of my lower abdomen just above my pubic bone. They were strange – they didn’t hurt, and if I pushed on them, they went back in. I can’t go on like this. “That’s what you think,” Beckett would say. Nothing happens in a vacuum. We’d been in “crisis mode” for years. Our previous problems didn’t magically disappear 89
on September 11. They were just waiting for us to come back home. Living with the insistent, egomaniacal demands of Ron’s illness was like having an unwanted child move in with us, constantly requiring all our attention – a third party whom we could neither ignore nor appease. Who got bigger and more demanding every day. It wasn’t Ron’s fault. But if he just wanted to pick something up, he had to ask for help. The constant interruptions kept me from concentrating long enough to get any work done. Before 9/11, Barbara Ambrose had given me the keys to her apartment. It was a two-minute walk from ours. The Yale Club library, where I usually wrote, was a 40-minute trip. This was a nobrainer. At Barbara’s, I could be alone, but not too far from home, in case Ron got into trouble. Now all we had to do was hire someone to be with Ron so I could leave the house. A nurse I knew recommended a home health care agency in New Jersey, called ‘Albatros’. “What a funny name,” I said. I was thinking of Baudelaire, or the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, neither of which seemed to be an auspicious symbol for such a company. “They’re Polish,” she said, “and they hire only young women who want to come to the United States. Sometimes they’re already doctors or nurses in Poland. The agency is very thorough. Everyone I’ve recommended them to has always liked them.” This morning, after Ron fell again, I spoke to a woman with a strong Polish accent who agreed to send someone out tomorrow afternoon for an interview. “Can I ask you a question?” I wondered if she’d think it was ridiculous. “Why are you called Albatros?” “Big bird, fly over ocean. We thought nice.”
The interview was with someone whose name I spelled phonetically from what I heard on the phone: Kasha Cooltitska. “Kasha?” said Ron. “Cool-tits-ka? Is this a joke?” But when Kasia got here, she said, “Kasha name for food. You call me Kate.” We hadn’t really expected her to turn up, since the interview hadn’t been confirmed, but at 3 P.M. as scheduled, there she was. She told us about the adventure of getting in to see us: “I live in Queens,” she said kneeling down to pet Pearl. “It confusing to get here. Complicated way downtown. Many subway stations closed. When I come out of subway, first thing I notice is smell. I shouldn’t say this, because I don’t actually know what one smell like, but I think, ‘It smell like crematorium’. “I not allowed to cross West Street to get to your building. National Guard officers stop me, don’t speak good English. I don’t speak Spanish or Chinese, so I don’t understand them. They point me down to barricade at Battery Park. When I get there, only people waiting to get in past National Guard are cleaning people. I tell them I have to go to your building, I have job interview, and they let me in.’” Ron and I liked Kate immediately. She seemed highly intelligent and no nonsense. We were impressed at her openness and her resourcefulness in talking her way past the checkpoint without any documentation. She was extremely pretty, with shiny brown hair. Plus Pearl seemed to like her. She climbed into Kate’s lap during the interview. Kate knew her English was weak. She explained that she had only had one job so far, taking care of a woman who had a stroke and could barely speak. So they communicated by gestures. “She is very mean to me,” Kate said. “When my father dies in Poland, she won’t 91
let me use telephone to call my mother, even though I say I pay her back.” She told us she majored in Russian Literature in college. She even recognized the name Jerzy Kutnik, the literary critic in Lublin who wrote a book about Ron. He taught in her literature department. We told Kate we thought she’d be great for us. “I am nervous about taking job,” Kate looked at us, weighing the pros and cons. “Scared of the air. But apartment windows are clean and closed. You have air cleaners. Apartment is clean. As I go through building, everywhere is being cleaned.” “When I meet Ron,” she continued, “I think he don’t look sick. I am intimidated, two writers, college professors. But I like you. You’re not pompous.” Intimidated? Pompous? Who was interviewing whom here? I began explaining what Ron needed and showing her around the house. I took her into Ron’s study. Kate stopped before Ron’s huge window and turned to me, astonished. Then she burst into tears. She stood sobbing for several minutes, looking at the view from Ron’s desk – the burning earth, the smoke rising around the tall cranes, the blackened, dangling American flags. “Sorry,” Kate said in a little voice. “I never see before.” Since 9/11, nobody wanted to be anywhere near the ruins – on the contrary, everybody was leaving. People with children had no choice. All the schools were still closed, the air was terrible. Moving vans blocked the streets daily. Kate’s need for a job outweighed the shock of Ground Zero. Finally she agreed to start the following Monday. The catastrophe also helped our old friend, Alain AriasMisson, who dropped by that afternoon to tell us he had moved in down the street. He had managed to get a deal on an empty apartment in a building that was just being finished before the terrorists struck.
We were thrilled to have him as a neighbor. At least this tragedy had brought somebody some good. “Remember that time last year when we treated him to lunch?” Ron said after Alain left. We had seen him by chance, going past the window of a restaurant where we were eating, and I’d run out to get him. Alain mentioned it was his birthday, but he didn’t want to join us. He said he didn’t have the money to buy lunch. Alain was a good writer and artist, very hard working and productive but for years he’d been going through a bad divorce and was chronically impoverished, a situation that confused him. Alain came from Belgian nobility and had gone to Harvard. He couldn’t get used to being nouveau pauvre. He tended to live on credit cards. For Alain’s house-warming party on Saturday, I got Ron spiffed up in his new sports coat, and we made our way two blocks south, parking Ron’s scooter in the lobby. Alain’s new place had a magnificent view out over New York Harbor, all the way from the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge to the Statue of Liberty. But the grim Coast Guard battleship was still anchored off the park. There were about a dozen people, mostly artists and writers – some very distinguished. All were from outside the complex, visitors from a different planet. When we came in, the guest of honor, Jean du Puy, a French artist in his 80’s, was cooking dinner. We stood around in the living room because there was no chair high enough for Ron to sit on. The Europeans, as usual, were discussing politics – international reactions to 9/11. Alain was saying he found the French ‘liberal-Marxists’ cowardly, trying to sound politically correct by approving Al Qaeda attacks when they didn’t have to live with the consequences. “I’m not going to be able to stand up much longer,” Ron whispered to me. We went into the bedroom, where he could perch on Alain’s desk. From there he sort of held court – people coming in small groups to visit with him, me bringing him a plate of pasta, a glass of wine. 93
“God, what’s the matter with my nose? It really hurts, and there’s blood when I blow it,” Ron complained. The ruins continued to burn, right outside our closed windows. The smoke penetrated everywhere, as insidious as the government’s lie that the air was safe. As soon as we moved back in, Ron and I had both begun coughing constantly, despite the air filters running 24/7. Now we developed other symptoms. Not only bloody noses and weird pimples in our nostrils, but for me the worst – I discovered in the shower – was that I couldn’t sing anymore. My voice just cracked and scraped. This seemed the most terrible of all. Singing had always kept me sane. The bad air more or less decided us – we wanted to move to France as soon as possible. After all, our apartment in Paris was empty. We began discussing how to get ready to leave. Ron thought it might take a month to finish up the disaster-related bureaucracy and prepare our Paris place for him to function now that he was weaker. In the meantime, a medical study had started, taking lung capacity measurements of Battery Park City residents. We agreed to participate. Our first tests were reassuring. We both had normal lung capacity for our ages. Maybe we don’t need to worry. Our neighbors were getting organized, making progress against the chaos that had reigned for nearly a month. They were setting up information hotlines, web sites, even art exhibitions and open houses, trying to get their lives back in order. A sense of solidarity grew among those who had stayed. I wanted to attend community meetings and help organize exhibitions, but I quickly realized that I didn’t have enough energy even to go to the social gatherings. I already spent all day every day checking off long lists of imperative tasks as I accomplished them. I felt too demoralized to do anything that wasn't essential. 94
List of Tasks: - draw neighborhood map for Kate - fill out applications: FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) SBA (Small Business Administration) - photocopy 3 year's worth of past taxes - copies of all our bills since 9/11 to Red Cross - make appointment Dr. Fuks re: Ron, breathing, shoulder - rent lockbox - get online banking: request deposit slips, update personal profile - museum exhibition and research grant proposals - get job - get facial
Get facial? The Korean salon down the street had re-opened, even though only a few residents had moved back in. Whenever I walked by, the shop was empty. I didn’t really want a facial – it seemed so incongruous. But my skin was gray and broken out from the grit in the air. I hated the way it felt. God knew what was in that grit. We breathed it in; it got into my mouth. I had developed an uncontrollable urge to brush my teeth numerous times a day. I mean, like six. The air was awful. And the smell. Ron and I agreed we’d never smelled anything like it before. Each time I let myself notice the stench – burning plastic, asbestos, circuit boards? – I thought of the people who had died, who were in the dust. In the empty salon, I found only the manager, Helen, a stocky Chinese woman who before 9/11 had kindly come to the house to cut Ron’s toenails since he couldn’t climb up into their special pedicure 95
chairs. This time my facial was quick and superficial. Helen seemed leaden, close to tears. I made an appointment for her to do Ron’s feet after she closed, but she didn’t turn up. When I went down the next day to find out why, she said it was too complicated. The shuttle buses quit running at 7:00 P.M. She wouldn't be able to get back home to Chinatown. Our life followed the rhythms of Ground Zero. Every time I went into Ron's study, I’d stop and survey the site. The excavation proceeded in a sort of two-step. As each area of wreckage was cleared, the debris was searched for evidence before it was removed. Tonight workers were manipulating caterpillars, bulldozers, acetylene torches. Cranes with cables lowered men into the ruins in metal cages, to clip and cut the fractured Gothic arches of the walls. Others hooked more cables onto the huge broken pieces, carefully pulling them horizontal and laying them onto waiting flat bed trucks. Large groups of searchers in hard hats waited in a cleared area to go in next. Their labeled jackets identified policemen (NYPD), Port Authority police (PAPD) and firemen (NYFD). When they finished, the trucks were loaded, then drove by an inspection platform before going through two fire hoses to be meticulously washed: no unnecessary dust or rubble was allowed to leave the site. Nobody knew how polluting it might be. Where did the trucks go? Into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel?
I finally got an email from Malcolm: “I’m trying to get my ‘free’ international phone number working again.” It may have only been one sentence, but it was very revealing. Ron jealously checked my phone bill every month to see if I’d been talking to Malcolm. This was the line Malcolm had set up because he wanted me to be able to call him without Ron knowing it. But the free number quit working when the towers fell. Now in the aftermath of 9/11, I found the cat-and-mouse game of Ron and Malcolm squabbling over phone calls burlesque, like comic relief. We were barely getting through the challenges posed by each new day. But, unbelievably, as soon as the immediate emergency 96
subsided, the love-triangle had raised its bristly head again â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the three of us were still embroiled. And nobody was giving up. As usual, I was caught in the middle, trying to keep them apart, even though Malcolm in Australia, his life unchanged, already seemed a million miles away. As for Ron, he had started the whole thing anyway. What made him think he could turn Malcolm and me on and off like televisions? Why did I ever go along with such harebrained schemes in the first place? Trying to fulfill the demands of two men at once had always been way beyond my abilities. Ron, at least, was getting his writing done. He was back at work, doing what he always did, turning his life into fiction. Before September 11 he had been about half way through writing a detective story about the New York art avant-garde, a kind of parody or social criticism of the gallery and museum scene. Its heroine was an art historian. Since the attacks Ron discovered that his novel was pivoting into an entirely different story. Now its narrator was her much older, ill, live-in boyfriend, who tells how he and she are affected by the fall of the World Trade Center, their struggle first to survive, then, from their apartment overlooking the ruins, to make some kind of aesthetic sense out of the uncontrollable events that have profoundly disrupted their world and destabilized them as individuals. The novel had a new title: Last Fall. He spent several hours every day, sitting at the high counter in his study, with Pearl lying beside his computer and the Ground Zero pit outside his window, dictating to his voice transcription software. His words appeared dutifully on his new computer screen as he spoke: Depending on how the machines dig at the surface As levels are stripped away the wreckage takes on new contours The World Trade Center was built to be an overwhelming presence and was now a spectacular absence. I turn away and the Towers are still there in my head 97
In the dark, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center looming luminously over the downtown streets, illuminating clouds from the inside. Up close its out of scale verticals, its grill façade, its four fourdimensional night reflections on one another, its silver gleam, its top buried in clouds, its scary view from top higher than helicopters and our own tiny skyscraper below. They seemed the summation of the spirit of urban life. When I looked out the window and saw the Twin Towers, the vertical striations, the silver shafts of the World Trade Center, I was overcome in that instant by an overwhelming sense of reality, and the formulation came to me that the spirit is the real while the reality is evanescent. What we’re dealing with here, I pointed out the window, is the power of the unreal over the real. Towers still exist in mind while disappeared in matter – which is more real? The memory or the present? Or both? Or both? She put her head on my shoulder.
Figure 10. World Trade Center Towers before 9/11, tops in clouds. In foreground left: Vista/Marriott Hotel, center: 90 West Street,‘the wedding cake’, right: Marriott Financial Center Hotel. Photo ©Julia Frey 1998.
The complexities of getting settled again were amazing. For example, every person in our building had to wash every bit of cloth in their homes to remove the pervasive dust. The one washing machine and dryer on each floor would have been completely insufficient, except that so many people had moved out since the attacks. Some never came back at all, even to get their possessions. Those who stayed set up new routines, defined by the police tape, the checkpoints, the almost nonexistent commerce, the skeletal services. But our old Gristedes supermarket had just reopened and was sparkling clean. For the first time in my life, I found fresh vegetables there. Before it usually was all aging lettuce and shriveled tomatoes. They were making a huge effort. Everybody was. On the other hand, we learned that Le Pet Store, where we bought Pearl’s food and flushable cat litter, wasn’t going to re-open for a long time. The owner’s apartment had been badly damaged, and he and his partner were still living in a hotel. I liked him. The first time I’d gone in the shop to buy Pearl a pot of fresh grass, I had mentioned to him that in French, le pet means ‘the fart’. He had been very funny. “That’s OK,” he said, “none of our customers speak French.” Toby, who was still working at Maxons, moved home from her son’s. We lent her some blankets and stuff while her bedding was being cleaned. She and I went out for a walk around the war zone. Cables now threaded the sides of each street, lying in the gutters. In a temporary solution to get electricity and phone lines working quickly, they had not been buried, but lay unprotected on the road surface. At some intersections wooden ramps rose over the thick bundles of wires so people could cross. The few neighbors we passed all looked grief-stricken. Toby was coughing; she said her nose had been bleeding. “We’re not the only ones,” she said. “Everybody down here has the ‘World Trade Center Cough’.” 100
She told me her friend Michelle had pneumonia – brave Michelle, who refused to leave, who made the staff bring her up in the emergency elevator the day after the attacks, who brought us water and a flashlight, who had stayed in her sealed apartment, cooking on a camp stove. When I got back, I carefully wiped my feet on the rugs in the lobby. You never know what you're tracking in. Alison Weld called as I came through the door. She wanted to explain that she and her husband Charles Russell had intentionally avoiding looking out our study windows when they came down last week. “We thought Jersey City was close enough.” “I didn’t realize that it was a conscious refusal to look,” I reflected. “I think we were urging you to be witnesses, to see what we saw, so you could understand what we were living through.” “Our reality,” Ron wrote, “was the mammoth charnel house and tomb out the windows.” We were getting a little strange We jumped at loud noises, became anxious at the sound of jet planes We worried about asbestos in the air, wondered about another terror attack At times we were exuberant about still being alive, then grief stricken and guilty Went through long depressions at the mass wipeout of lives, then became furious wanting to exterminate the brutes responsible Felt responsible ourselves to bear witness Wanted to leave, felt guilty about leaving Searched out our windows for other windows lit up at night found very few
After Alison’s call, I began noticing how many visitors refused to look out our windows. Afraid they’d be too upset. Some 101
remarked that it seemed unseemly, indiscreet, disrespectful to watch bulldozers pushing through this involuntary resting place. I wondered if she felt guilty for not looking. Some people don’t want to have to witness.
DAY 28 Looking at my calendar, I felt wistful – all the cancelled appointments. For months, anything that was previously scheduled became entirely moot. Most of our former life was in suspension. People hesitated to be far from home. The day after American operations started in Afghanistan, a woman who courageously had gone to Paris despite the shock of 9/11, moved out of our apartment and went home. She said she no longer felt secure outside the US. “Anything can happen,” she said. My professional life as a speaker and curator also had come to an abrupt halt. I cancelled my lecture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Travel in and out of New York was too complicated, and Ron was too shaky right now to be left alone overnight. I also postponed a three-day distinguished scholar stint at a university in Montana. It all seemed kind of irrelevant. And the Portland Oregon Art Museum, which had asked me to plan a Toulouse-Lautrec show, cancelled that project entirely. They said they didn’t know what kinds of things people wanted to see now. They were putting their exhibition program on hold until they figured it out. How were we going to make ends meet?
Since 9/11, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had become the disease of the week, maybe the month, or decade. It was plaguing New York for sure. My brother Cameron admitted he was 102
feeling vulnerable in his office at the Associated Press, where he was barraged with information. He said he had to stop watching the ‘tape loop’ of the plane flying into the Tower, because it traumatized him again each time he saw it. His wife Marcelle, too, had the jitters every time she heard an airplane. Rosaire said she still couldn't go out without calculating potential escape routes. Last night the dapper young Asian businessman in the apartment directly upstairs came to our door insisting he smelled smoke from our apartment. He wanted to check to make sure there wasn’t something burning. Pearl stood planted solidly in the doorway, barring him entrance. We didn’t actually know him, but we always heard his wife’s high heels clicking on the floor as she moved around above us. I picked up Pearl, apologized for her bad manners, and let him in. All of us, including Pearl, searched the apartment. There was no fire here. He left, calmer. I don’t know why we were surprised that, like us, he was haunted by uncontrollable fears. We were all losing it, attacked by moments of irrational panic. I had read that the 20- to 30-year-olds who lived down here, the high-pressure, high-risk Wall Street beginners, were the most affected. Later, the same Asian couple had a terrible fight. We could hear things crashing, her screaming. It sounded as if he was beating her. We were very worried, and discussed what we should do, but finally did nothing. We had no idea how to handle it. I looked PTSD up on the National Institutes of Health website. I wrote it down for future reference. PTSD: caused by a traumatic experience with the potential for death or serious injury which has provoked intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The reaction is intensified in those who have felt completely powerless to change their situations. Symptoms: re-experiencing (a sort of mental replay of the trauma); strong emotional reactions to thoughts or reminders of the experience; nightmares; avoiding activities, places, or people that are reminders of the 103
trauma; numbness – loss of emotions, particularly positive feelings; physical palpitations, rapid heartbeat and breathing, hyper-vigilance, heightened sense of being on guard; difficulty with sleep and concentration. Symptoms sometimes persist for years, can cause significant distress, affect the individual's ability to function socially, occupationally, or domestically.
Ron and I had all the symptoms. Shit. As if we didn’t have enough to deal with. My nose was bleeding again.
DAY 30 October 11 – The one-month mark. The Esplanade was empty except for police wearing jackets with big yellow letters: SECRET POLICE (not much of a secret), and lots of cleaning people out today eating their lunches, looking at the river, smoke from the ruins rising behind them. Yesterday, Ron and I went over to the Park Service offices by the Hudson, next door to Gristedes, to vote in the run-off election. We were the only ones there. How loony. “We’ve suffered for the freedoms we have,” Ron observed, looking at the empty booths. “You’d think everyone would be out voting.” Walking carefully back to the apartment, holding Ron’s arm, I struggled with the ugly, familiar fear. He was so much weaker now. Soon he wouldn’t be able to get out of bed alone. Ron was phobic about falling, too. For him it was the sign that he was sicker and more dependent. He was afraid that I would stop loving him, that I would leave him. Each of us was terrified of losing the other. But I didn’t abandon you, Ron. I could have, and I didn’t.
Kate came to be with Ron every weekday afternoon. This was my break. Each time Kate walked in the door, I walked out; I only came home when she was ready to leave. They got along very well. Kate didn’t let Ron bully her the way he did me. If he was rude, she just left the room. Sometimes I heard them laughing together. But my going out in the afternoons, even just a couple of blocks away, made Ron very anxious. He wanted me home. If I was in the house, it was me he always asked to wait on him, not Kate. It made me nuts. For me to get out of Ron’s control, I had to leave. One day he was outraged when I planned to spend an afternoon with Rosaire instead of with him. Was Ron jealous of Rosaire or of me? Ron’s friendship with Rosaire went back a long way. He was the first person to publish her novels. Whenever they got together, they were thick as thieves, talking nonstop about writing. Ron liked women – particularly smart, beautiful artist/ writers like Rosaire, who for years was Philip Pearlstein’s model, or Pati Hill, whom we often saw in Paris. Before she made her name in the arts, Pati had been famous as a Seventeen Magazine cover girl. With them he turned on the charm and created a kind of intimate complicity. He knew how to be very seductive, even now. Still, although Rosaire also came downtown to see Ron, mostly she and I went out and did things together. At least Rosaire wasn’t a man. She wasn’t Malcolm.
Walking with Rosaire to Alison Weld’s exhibition, getting off the subway at the Christopher Street Station, climbing the filthy, gum-spotted stairs, crossing busy Seventh Avenue, stopping to pick up lapsang souchong at McNulty’s Tea and Coffee Company – even the men flirting with each other in the gay costume boutiques – to me everything seemed as it always had been, but it was not my life now. Ground Zero and the West Village gallery scene were separate realities. I was in a different dimension. The pieces in Alison’s show had been done before the attacks, but I found them uncannily prescient of recent events. Her art was 105
mostly diptychs. One half was a flat surface stretched with cheap fabric – fake fur, polyester dress cloth, embossed plastic kitchen chair upholstery. A second rectangular panel, tightly wired to the first, was painted in thick, brutal, oil impasto. These were deeply worked, abstract surfaces in organic-looking colors: blood, feces, urine, bleached bones. They looked like terrible wounds. The more I studied them, the more they seemed to suggest that murderous passions could break through our conventional surfaces at any moment. I became anxious, even eager to go back to the cocoon of Battery Park City. Julia, you are definitely getting weird.
The only place I really felt comfortable was Barbara's apartment. The first time I walked down Rector Place to her building, I was exultant. Barbara’s was a haven – charmingly furnished, warm and cozy. The huge corner couch was covered in velvety brown suede, and had crocheted lap robes in case of chill. Baskets of potpourri in the corners emitted a distinctive spicy odor. It had a teapot, a wide-screen TV, a DVD player, music. And you can’t see the pit from her windows. There I was alone, I could do exactly as I pleased. What ecstasy it was that first day, to spend a whole afternoon reading and writing. I had told Ron I was writing the catalogue for a Lautrec project. Otherwise, why would I need to be alone? It felt like a vacation – like forbidden pleasure. But the next time I walked in the door, I began to cry. At last. And that became my routine. First I would cry. After I cried a while, I took a nap. I worked on my grant applications. I wrote poetry. I wrote down my dreams. I wrote in my diary – what I saw and thought, no censor. Usually I wrote at Barbara’s dining room table. Other times I wrote sitting up on her high double bed, gazing at intervals out her window with its completely unobstructed view up the Hudson. And I waited for Malcolm to call from Australia.
Now that we could speak privately, he called virtually every day, often more than once. “Hello darling.” For a few minutes at the beginning and end of each conversation, Malcolm reassured me that I was sexy, infinitely desirable, that he would give his first-born son to be in bed with me. Luckily he had only a daughter. “My dear long-legged sweetheart. I think of your breasts, the delicious sensation of tasting your skin.” I desired him violently, yet I was terrified to see him. It had been so much fun at first! It was only after several years, as he got sicker, that Ron had grown fearful. Love doesn’t remain static. If you’re sleeping with somebody, with time, you either like them less, or you like them more. When Ron realized Malcolm and I were in love, he went berserk. We tried to confront his jealousy and insist that the triangle remain open. When that became too excruciating, I began lying to Ron. Even from New York, Malcolm and I continued to meet secretly whenever we could. But I couldn’t tolerate divided loyalties any more – I couldn't stand the slightest friction with Ron. At the first whiff of conflict I would feel frighteningly upset, nauseated, faint, sweaty – my heart would start pounding. I’d have to sit down. My fear of weakening my marriage was as intense as my panic attacks when I heard loud noises, or the terrible thud when Ron took another fall. Lying, sneaking around to see Malcolm was totally unbearable. And not seeing him was also unbearable. Maybe by late November there would be a legitimate excuse for going somewhere to be in Malcolm's arms again. “Use the fact that you're alive, uninjured, to make yourself stronger,” he said. “Consider yourself lucky to have been there and seen it all. 9/11 is the most important thing that’s happened in the US in forty years, and you were on top of it. Both literally and figuratively.” The way Malcolm talked, it was almost prestigious to have been here at this historic moment. If that was so, my diary was an 107
historic document – an unembellished, eye-witness account of a selfcentered crippled writer and his despairing, ambivalent wife, in love with somebody else, living trapped overlooking Ground Zero. A diary that showed I was losing it, that I kept an oil lamp shrine burning in my window for the lost souls – outside and in.
DAY 31 Barbara had introduced me to a wonderful psychotherapist, her friend Neila Wyman. My life was a mess, why not? Now I saw her once a week. I discussed my need for my diary, to have a private place for myself, where I could be totally honest, and let my writing just flow out. “The diary has to be kept secret from Ron,” I told Neila, “because in it I admit that he is the cause of much of my distress.” “You’ve been mourning for years,” she said. “You are mourning the Ron you fell in love with, the Ron you’ve already lost.” I told her about my continuing attachment to, my dependence on, Malcolm. Sometimes I thought it wasn't really Malcolm, but what he symbolized to me – reason and reassurance, nurturing, passion, release, security where there was none. Hope for a life after Ron. Neila said it was OK for me to think of Malcolm that way – to console myself with the thought of him when I need it: when I couldn’t sleep, was hot with desire, cold with fear. I saw my drive to write and my sexual longing as parallel. Both were totally egocentric. Both could totally dominate me. Both made me feel morbidly guilty. “Doing my work and knowing Malcolm loves me,” I said to Neila, in tears. That was the bargain I wanted to strike with Ron. If only I could have those things for myself, I‘d be able to keep going, even be relatively happy. So long as I had those two things, I could be loving and non-confrontational with Ron, keep things smooth at home. As a slave, j’enrage. 108
After I leave Neila's, I feel as if I can face whatever it is I have to face. Or at least I can try.
What I saw of Ground Zero this afternoon: the organized busyness of dozens of men below me, minuscule and diligent, moving in concert, each carrying his grain of dirt. Teams of about 15 or 20 at a time, using long metal staffs, poked their way up the rubble slope of the North Tower, with hot steam rising all around them. They were searching for evidence, for body parts. One man stooped and picked up an object about a foot in length, and put it in a plastic bag. Meanwhile, in cooler places, men in a cage suspended by cables from a crane worked with acetylene torches on high, ghostly girders. The bent steelwork looked like gray bones, its empty spaces filled with a tangle of wires and cables like dry tendons and desiccated veins. Below, a steam shovel plunged repeatedly into the rubble, lifting huge clumps with monstrous jaws. At each bite it raised and shook its ‘preying’ mantis head, crushed its mouthful, then dribbled it slowly out again, gently strewing it around, breaking it up so the searchers could comb through it. Another shovel loaded exskyscraper into flatbed trucks to be inspected, then hosed down in the bright, floodlit streets before rolling out of the area. A truck stopped at the inspection point and an acetylene blowtorch shed orange sparks as someone cut up something before they allowed the truck to leave. I peered at it through field glasses – whatever it was, they spread a wire veil over the top of the truck before it drove off, the veil lumpy from mysterious objects underneath. ‘Witnessing’, my new career. From my vantage point in the apartment, I couldn’t see the trucks after they left, but now I knew they were taking the twisted steel to Fresh Kills, a re-opened landfill on Staten Island. There it 109
was inspected again, catalogued, stacked. Grim cemetery of the world we once knew.
Figure 11. Ruins from our windows October, 2001. Photo ÂŠEstate of Rochelle Ratner.
Ron had developed a fear of falling he’d never had before, “I have dreams of falling off cliffs... down elevator shafts... stumbling and going down in front of an oncoming bus... tripping at the top of a stairway... parachute not opening... paranoid fantasies being pushed through a window, from a ship, off the subway platform...” Neila suggested I contact Yiri Dollekamp, a Gestalt therapist specializing in PTSD. Yiri had volunteered to treat people who were traumatized by the attacks. He came down one Saturday morning, on his day off, to help Ron develop imagery to recover from his uncontrollable terrors. I sat in on the session, hoping to recover from mine. Yiri had Ron do a kind of yoga meditation, imagining a safe place to go to when frightened. The ‘safe place’ Ron chose was his shower: the place where I rinsed the ash and grit off him when we came back after the Towers fell. Since Ron was now too weak to bathe alone, I usually climbed into the shower with him, washed and groomed him there. It’s where we are naked together, close – where I nurture him and care for him – show him that I still love him. I decided the shower was a reassuring image for me, too. It was a place of warm running water, cleanliness, intimacy – it was restorative. We’re in it together. Yiri said he wanted to help us to ‘integrate’ the horror of the Towers falling, to find reservoirs of strength inside us to calm and release the anguish those events created when we thought of them – neither to deny them nor to re-play them over and over – just to live with them and counteract their negative force with positive images (a hot shower, a candle in a distant window, the warmth of curling around each other in bed). When I felt the heart-eating anxiety, I was supposed to imagine myself comfortable, anchored, a warm shower washing away my painful shoulder, calming my fluttering throat, 111
slowing the staccato syncopation of my doubled heartbeat. To console myself. Nurture myself. Late at night I looked out my study window onto the glaring lights below. Powerful blowtorches were cutting through what must ultimately have totaled thousands of contorted I-beams still lying in the rubble like monstrous serpents, each as wide as a car and five stories long. Huge steam shovels mounted on caterpillar treads were gripping the cut lengths in their iron teeth, swinging them onto flatbed trucks which headed down the crumbled cement slope to be hosed down before they drove into the tunnel. Night and day, we ceaselessly observed the contrast between smoking, fallen skyscrapers and the floodlit concerted machines of human ingenuity, cleaning it all up. They hadn't made much of a dent in the past month, but slowly, it was happening.
Today they took the brown paper up from the carpets in the building. They’ve changed all the air conditioner filters, vacuumed out all the ducts. Does it do any good? We got the results of our second breathing tests; our lung capacity had fallen below normal. Ron was frightened. “I feel poisoned. I can always smell the smoke, even in my sleep.” Was my health failing too? I definitely felt more vulnerable. Each day seemed harder. Today when I got up, I went into my study, looking west at the gray water. Then something happened to me. I suddenly recognized the tune running through my head: “Ain't no sunshine when you’re gone...” I accidentally let the fear in – the fear of life without Ron – and it flooded me, weakened me, so that when I turned my head away from the view of the river, I wasn’t ready, hadn’t steeled myself for the shock of the devastation out the other side: the steam rising in the 112
foggy morning, the streets flooded, sections of the smoking rubble black from being wet down by huge fire hoses. I had to sit down, shaking. My grief over Ron’s illness, the certainty of his death from it, which I had lived with every day for years, and the new trauma of our days overlooking the seething ruins, had in common that they were too horrible to keep in my mind. Sometimes, briefly, I forgot them. Then they came back and slapped me alongside the head. In the afternoon I had to force myself to meet my colleague Dan Jacobs, who had come east for the opening of ‘Dutch Interiors,’ an exhibition he’d worked on at the Newark Museum in New Jersey. It had been postponed because of 9/11. Last spring, Dan and I had decided to curate a large Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition together. I was excited – a show about Lautrec’s autobiographical art. Every poster Lautrec did, every painting, every drawing, was about his life. He only used people he knew and places he went. We needed to get grant funding, but right after the attacks, I was too disrupted, too distressed. I told Dan that I wanted to wait a year. He was pushing me to get the applications in anyway, even if it was kind of late, and I decided to do it. I was grateful to him for an excuse to think about something besides the trauma. Since Dan already was in New York for his opening, we agreed we’d schedule some work sessions. But I was embarrassed by a minor problem. My face was totally swollen – red and peeling all over. For at least a year I’d been putting off my dermatologist’s recommendation to treat pre-cancerous lesions on my fair, freckled skin, damaged from many years of sunburns. When the MD gave me the powerful anti-cancer cream, he warned me that once I started, it would take three weeks of daily treatments to remove all the dangerous cells, and that during this time I would not be very presentable. So? I mean, we were trapped in the war zone and unlikely to see anybody. I began slathering on the cream. Three days into the process, when at the last minute Dan and I decided to meet, I looked truly repugnant, and it was going to get worse. Dan didn’t 113
know me all that well. What if he thought I always looked like that? Ah vanity! The Staten Island Ferry, which was running again, seemed like the only reliable option for getting me from Ground Zero to Dan’s opening in New Jersey. It required elaborate organization. Dan had to rent a car at the airport and drive to Staten Island to pick me up at the ferry landing to take me to the museum in New Jersey. Gloria agreed to come downtown and stay with Ron until I got home from the banquet late that evening. Around 1:30 P.M. I set off on foot to the ferry terminal at the tip of Battery Park, about a 20-minute walk away. Crossing the empty park, dressed in evening clothes and tennis shoes, carrying my FMP’s (“Fuck Me Pumps,” i.e. stiletto heels) in a bag, I kept thinking, I’m not up for this. Not up for being charming and working the party. Not up for appearing with a scaly face in a territory I didn’t know, where the stakes might be high, possibly even my next job. Dan was waiting for me, like clockwork. At the opening, a man was introducing the exhibition of 500-year-old paintings of Dutch dining rooms, saying that it was appropriate to celebrate the arts of domesticity and comfort at a time like this. “What bizarre speechifying,” Dan whispered into my ear. “There’s a total disconnect between the shock we are still feeling and what he’s saying. Why doesn’t he just say ‘This is a very strange moment, but here we are, so let’s go on and celebrate the exhibition’?” Dan got more comfortable, he told me later, when the presenters talked about the art and the themes of the show instead of what had been happening in NY. I never got comfortable. At the reception on the terrace, over-dressed art collectors and museum curators were busy one-upping each other before the backdrop of the burning skyline. Even without my funny face, I felt too exhausted, too numb to chat up professional contacts.
The ferry back to Manhattan was virtually empty. Only two people were standing with me at the bow. We talked – that’s what you did in New York these days. One of the men lived in our building. “Staying,” he answered. “Are you?” We stared across the harbor as the ferry approached Lower Manhattan. Where the Towers used to be was only a huge empty space, with, far in the distance, the lighted pinnacle of the Empire State building. As we pulled up to the Battery Park ferry landing, swinging construction cranes and burgeoning white smoke came into view at the bottom of the gap. I studied the skyline. “It looks strange with no towers,” my neighbor suddenly announced, “as if Manhattan has lost its two front teeth.”
DAY 34 Dan came over today to work with me on the ToulouseLautrec project, but it was too complicated later for him to get back from Battery Park City to his friends’ in New Jersey. We had to find him a place to stay. The two closest hotels were damaged or destroyed when the Towers fell, and none of the other hotels within walking distance had re-opened. Finally I emailed Barbara to ask if he could stay one night at her place. I had faxed Dan a letter telling the guards to admit him at the checkpoints because he was coming to see me. I included a copy of my driver’s license, “I was surprised by the militarization of the neighborhood,” Dan told Ron and me as he settled into the armchair in our living room. “The army barricades are very ineffective. It's all chance, depending on who stops you and if they like your face. At the first checkpoint I got to, when I showed the letter, I was turned away. Then I walked a few blocks to another entry point and got right in. I 115
showed them the letter, and no one even looked at it. They just stared at me as if to say ‘What are you showing me this for?’ ” Ron and I exchanged glances. We never knew how visitors would be treated at the checkpoints. “It all seems incredibly random,” Dan went on. “To me, the army presence is a manifestation of national insecurity. They're supposed to give the impression they're protecting the neighborhood. But, I kept asking myself, why are they securing a hole in the ground? Do they actually think terrorists are going to strike exactly the same spot again?” There’s nothing left to destroy. For lunch we went to Foxhounds – the only open restaurant – then Ron went back to his writing while Dan and I got down to work in my study. As the winter twilight set in, I struggled to focus on the papers before us instead of the white floods out the window, glowing behind Dan’s profile. I kept thinking about how empty I felt, how useless, looking out over the pit, a brutal desecration of my lifelong focus on aesthetics. Where was there a place for my work when the world was dominated by a will to destroy? It took all my discipline to concentrate on our discussion of museum spaces and exhibition storyboards. “Ground Zero,” Ron wrote, “was a cipher.” Eventually it would be an empty hole to be defined by what was put in place. “Like me,” she remarked, with a bitter little laugh. “You underestimate yourself,” I told her. “You bring a whole invisible history to any situation. Don’t play the victim.” “9/11 vaporized any sense of my experience. Blasted it into meaninglessness. And it did that to a lot of people, maybe to everyone. So we are victims.” “You’re saying it destroyed our inner life?” “My inner life is on television, repeated and repeated.” I knew what she meant 116
Since we had gotten electric power back we’d been watching our 9/11 experience on the TV screen. It came down to a few images replayed again and again The plane smashing into the tower, the fires, people running, the buildings imploding in a cloud of black. It was simple, shocking and hypnotic There was something vulgar about it, something at the same time arrogant and impoverished The original shock, emotionally, had erased us back to the empty blackboard which was then overwritten by electronic images Experience stolen, you might say, and then sold back to us
DAY 35 I needed to finish three versions of my Toulouse-Lautrec grant by November 1, so I was at Barbara's apartment a lot. Just being back at work made me feel less anxious. When I was concentrating, I forgot for a while, felt nothing. But when I left her place and went out in the street, with the cables lying all over the place, my heart would begin thumping wildly. Surprised, I’d think “Oh I must be feeling fearful again.” Odd. I have a little twitch in my neck. The first weeks Ron had been too rattled to leave Ground Zero – too vulnerable. But now we were beginning to venture into the rest of Manhattan together. Our first expedition was to Glo’s for supper. Double-parking the Subaru in front of her building in Chelsea, I helped Ron get out, made sure he was safe. He waited on the sidewalk, leaning on his cane, while I parked the car. She buzzed us into the bleak green lobby. Glo lived in a middle-income housing project which, despite efforts to keep the outside planting attractive, felt very institutional. Upstairs in the 7 th floor hallway, the walls were cream on the top and dung brown from the waist down. All the 117
doors identical – dark beige. But when we rang 7F, Glo ushered us into her beautiful, private world, rich and baroque, layered with Persian rugs and her own photographs, embroideries and ceramic art. Dinner at Glo’s was always fun – partly because she was funny and a wonderful vegetarian cook, and partly because we drank large quantities of rosé. When Ron and I got home later, I reassured him that if he died before Glo did, I’d always make sure she was OK, that she wouldn't lack for anything. Why would I allow myself to live better that she did? Losing my ‘sister-in-love’ would be almost as terrible for me as losing Ron. But Glo was 20 years older than I was, so it was in the cards. During the night I had a dream, which I wrote down. Ron and I find a lost dog. She is very friendly – a large, white, poodle-looking mongrel. Ron has to go someplace, and it’s my job to find the dog’s owner, using the dog’s rabies' tag. I remember saying, “I know what’s going to happen – I’m going to love this dog and then she’s going to be taken away from me.” Now I realize the curly-haired dog is Gloria with her white Afro haircut.
Even though we've been talking about it, Ron and I have finally decided not to go to Paris in the immediate future. We might change our minds, but that's the way it feels right now. Too much going on here, and too much to do. We’ll go in late January, as we planned almost a year ago. Anyway, Pearl is going to hate moving to Paris. Might as well not rush. I’m not going to let the bastards make me change my life.
Rochelle Ratner and her husband, Ken Thorp offered to drive downtown from the Upper West Side and bring us supper. Ken and Rochelle were great at dealing with trauma. Rochelle had left home at fifteen to live on her own in Little Italy by writing poetry. Ken, a computer programmer, had been blind from birth, and managed to be totally independent. Even better than Pearl, who bumped into things and had a lousy disposition. Ken went everywhere in New York alone, crossing streets, taking subways. He’d never been hit by a car, but twice he fell off a subway platform – under a train. Each time he managed to roll to the center and not get hit. The second time, the trainman who pulled him back up on the platform said, “Do you need an ambulance?” “No,” said Ken. “What I need is a stiff drink.” They turned up with a station wagon full of booze and groceries from Fairway, the best supermarket I know: lettuce, singlemalt Scotch, Bailey’s Irish Cream, roast chicken, all kinds of breads to freeze, rugelach, coffee beans, a pie, I forget what-all – it tided us over for days. They also brought cleaning items and quarters for the laundry, my special request. All the banks within easy walking distance were still shut. Ron had just bought a digital camera, and they were trying to figure out how to use it. Later Rochelle snapped some photos looking down on the clean-up. “An angle rarely afforded,” she observed. Mostly the four of us sat around and feasted and talked. She and Ken were surprised that the ‘border-crossing’ had felt like entering a Demilitarized Zone, complete with machine guns. Guards everywhere, even five weeks later. That they needed IDs. That they needed a note from us saying they had permission to visit. 119
Rochelle was very moved, she said, by looking at the burnedout wedding cake building, formerly lively with offices, now carbonized, windows empty, shrouded in netting. Recently they had found two bodies in one of its elevators. After dinner, she studied the building through the telescope we'd set up on Ron’s windowsill – The one we used to use for bird watching. We looked at the wedding cake through it. “It was built by Cass Gilbert in 1910,” I volunteered, showing her how to focus. “You know, the guy who built the George Washington Bridge. Before the disaster, it was gorgeous, covered with baroque white tile decorations. Now look at it! It’s so unstable I think they’re going to have to tear it down. It breaks my heart.” “I remember it, all lit up at night,” she said. “I saw it when we came here for parties before the attacks.” “It was always my favorite building,” I continued. “It was like having our own private sculpture. The very first night Ron and I spent in Battery Park City, we discovered it outside our window, all the lacy tiers of it illuminated because it was an historic landmark. That’s when we named it the Wedding Cake.” Rochelle tried to describe to Ken the discrepancy between our two views – New Jersey and the Statue of Liberty across the Hudson on the living room side of the apartment, and the Manhattan skyline on the north side, from our study windows – how now if you looked out the window of Ron’s study, you were overlooking Ground Zero, and if you looked out my study window, you were overlooking the Hudson River, where barges were passing, day and night, filled with debris. But if you turned my desk chair at a right angle, there was Ground Zero right in front of you again. As they left, Rochelle said, “It really is like recovering from a war. Walking into your building from the car, I remarked to Ken that your dry cleaners on the corner had a huge sign saying they had reopened for business.”
“We couldn’t help wondering how many people wouldn’t be picking up their clothes,” continued Ken, giving me a huge bear hug.
Figure 12. Wedding cake before 9/11. Photo ©Julia Frey 1988. 121
Figure 13. Burned wedding cake draped in black wire netting. Photo ÂŠJulia Frey 2001. 122
I was awake at 4 A.M. Around 5:00, unable to get back to sleep, I got up. Actually, I would like to do this every day. Be up alone for several hours. I tried to meditate, sitting in the dark on my couch, distracted by the chipping and clinking in the ruins – the low roar of the WTC deconstruction going on 24/7 outside my study window. And by my persistent cough. I just noticed it’s 4:30 A.M., not 5:30! So I must have waked around three. What I thought about when I woke up, lying uncomfortable in bed, full of Ron’s sad, sharp bones sticking out of his poor wasted body, was how it’s not true that knowing Malcolm loves me is enough – that it’s only the principle of the thing. I long for him to hold me.
DAY 39 Mary Cadden Traub invited us to see her husband Charlie’s show, here is new york: a democracy of photographs. I had known them both since high school. In an empty storefront in SOHO, Charlie and other friends created a spontaneous gallery of photos bearing witness to what New York was like on and after 9/11. Anyone, professional or amateur, could submit a photograph they’d taken. All the submissions were scanned, and Charlie and his friends printed them all out on 8 1/2 x 11” paper and hung them with clips from clotheslines strung overhead across the gallery – 1,500 of them. All unsigned. If you wanted to buy one, they’d print it out while you waited. $25 to charity. Mary was managing the cash register. 123
Ron was eager to see the exhibition. Mary told me on the phone that it was on one level, thus accessible to Ron if he wanted to come, but very crowded. Irrationally intimidated, I talked Ron out of going. What if he fell?
Figure 14. “here is new york: a democracy of photographs.” Photo ©here is new york 2004 (detail). 124
The shopping never was very good in Battery Park City, but now it’s a wasteland. And so many people have moved out. The following shops have finally re-opened, but they’re struggling: - Italian Deli - Korean grocery - Chinese laundry - Toenail Parlor - Pharmacy - DVD rental - Liquor Store Although Gristedes was cleaned up, Sloan’s was still closed. The same conglomerate owned both our supermarkets, so there was no competition. They carried identical products, prices were high and the quality was usually bad. Sloan’s used to be called the Red Apple, but we always called it the ‘Dead Apple.’ More true now than ever. Foxhounds was the only restaurant functioning at this point – that’s Russian ingenuity for you. Our Russian-run neighborhood pub, which tried its best to look Irish, had been almost the first neighborhood business to unshutter. Nobody else could even get supplies. With its literal corner on the market, Foxhounds was flourishing. Bulls n Bears, the liquor store, also re-opened, thankfully, with the owner, Alex Araman at the till. When, in the beginning, we used the Battery Park City apartment only part-time as a pied à terre, we disliked Bulls n Bears because it had a monopoly on booze, but we were stuck with it, since Ron couldn't walk any farther. Then one day we accidentally wandered in on the store’s annual Christmas party. Alex, of Armenian descent, was Eastern Orthodox and the 125
buffet resembled an oriental banquet with numerous, copious dishes, accompanied by a huge wine-tasting. His wife and children were there too – it felt like being invited to a family affair. We discovered that Alex, like us, disdained the young Wall Street brokers with too much money and no knowledge – the ones who would pay $300 for a bottle of wine. We were in the $10 range, and it amused him to help us pick out a case of good wines at that price. Yesterday I went into the tiny, bottle-filled shop alone. Ron was too unsteady, even with his cane, to cross the worn carpet now. Alex emerged from the back room. There were so few customers, he was always back there. “Hi Alex, I need your advice to choose a case of wine,” I said. His nose was red and his eyes were glistening. Had he been crying or drinking or both? I realized that Alex was in shock, too. “How is Ron? I’ve been worrying about him,” he said. “Not so good. He’s a lot weaker since 9/11. That’s why he doesn’t come in any more. I’d hate to see him lose his balance and crash into a pyramid of champagne bottles.” Alex said things were very bad for him, too. He had to let his two employees go. His father, who lived with them, had just had a stroke. Alex said in a weary voice, “I think it was partly the stress.” “That’s terrible. I guess we’ve all been badly affected,” I felt clumsy. There was nothing to say. “Most of the neighborhood just moved out.” Alex sounded hopeless now. “My wife has taken our kids to Florida until the air clears. I’m glad you’re still here.” He leaned forward and put his hands on the counter, slipping back into professional mode. “What wines do you want?” “I’m afraid we can only spend about $6 a bottle. We’re drinking more, but enjoying it less,” I made a wry smile. “Give Ron my love,” he said as I left the store. We’re all family now. 126
The affect of the ruins had changed. They had re-arranged the Klieg lights. It had become more spectacular. Now the still-standing arches and pieces of wall were back-lit. Some of the glaring lights shone directly in our windows. When Cam came again, to take night photos of the clean-up, he remarked “It’s like being at a Richard Foreman play.” In his ‘ontological-hysterical theatre’, Richard Foreman sets up aggressive bright lights on the stage to shine blindingly into the audience’s eyes. The effect is to keep you from seeing what’s happening on stage. Even if you manage to squint your eyes and focus on something besides the lights, it is a very unpleasant experience. For the first time the workers had begun finding bodies. Not the bodies of those in the offices, who became dust when the towers fell, but people on the periphery: policemen, firemen and passers-by, crushed by falling debris as they tried to rescue others. Today we watched a fireman searching alongside a German Shepherd, especially trained, we supposed. We’d never seen one there before. “Through the telescope,” Ron wrote, I could see as individuals what without it appeared to be crowds of orange vested hard hatted ants swarming over the mounds of ruins I could see their faces and if I couldn’t see their expressions I could read their body language I knew when they stopped working and gathered in irregular groups, hands on hips, that they had discovered another body or body part I could see the orange body bags I could tell it was the body of a policeman or fireman when they covered the body bag with an American flag I could see the backhoes bite into the rubble releasing plumes of smoke with each bite 127
I could see the men in metal cages suspended from giant cranes and the cascades of sparks from their welder’s torches as they cut through steel And I felt myself drawn into the ever deepening vortex of ground zero as it changed shape every day
Down on the Esplanade, our neighborhood was being invaded by mobs of visitors, some even with a guide, getting as close to the ruins as they could, traipsing through the police tape, over the telephone cable in the gutters, staring at the broken windows and dead palm trees in the Winter Garden which, like us, was across the street from the real disaster. The sightseers began leaving piles of teddy bears on an improvised memorial at the North Cove Marina. Teddy bears? “I looked out the window at the reality of 9/11,” Ron wrote. I wondered why it had become a tourist destination Today there was so many excavators at work the Pit reminded me of an open sore crawling with maggots it was stuffy in the apartment and I opened the window a crack but the smell was so strong I had to close it An odor of boiled computers and death that was the essence of the disaster What could the tourists be looking for there?
DAY 41 Yesterday, October 21 was the first day since September 11 that I didn’t feel overwhelmed with grief or hit by heart palpitations. How many days? 40 exactly. Like Noah emerging from the trial by water, was I emerging from the trial by fire? My reaction to this was odd. I felt diminished, as if without the grief I had grown unfeeling, less responsive to my environment. 128
When I went out and walked through the streets near the ruins, though I did not cry, my eyes burned and my throat grew tight. With time I had grown glad to be there, watching the worker ants below me, industriously pushing the ashes away. Our grief had proved we also were victims. We didn’t have to feel guilty. But I did feel guilty. We had not been badly injured. We hadn’t lost anyone. So why was I falling apart? Unlike the rest of the world, I, at least, knew the results of this devastation. I lived with the progress of the work, the smell of the wind – the cough, the burning eyes, the dust accumulating on the car, in the window corners. I saw the exhausted workers leaving and new ones walking in from the now-distant subway – I saw the bonegray ruins in the bone-white light, decorated by the day-glo jumpers of the workers, the orange and yellow praying mantis shapes of the grapplers, spreading the rubble so delicately for the body-searchers to rake and sift. I saw the white ambulances arrive, the red flashing lights of the golf carts that carried the body parts, the blue watertruck spraying down the latest foyer of fire. This was my world, the view from my window. I watched it with Pearl on my lap, and a cold hand clutching at my heart. Day after day, I trudged to Barbara’s but did nothing. I just sat, or wandered around her apartment, idly picking up objects and putting them down again. The blue teapot painted with birds. A dried rosebud in the potpourri. I stood by the window. From Barbara’s, everything looks normal. The time disappeared. Each morning my day was full of plans. On Friday, I had a long list of things to do, but somehow, I never got any of them done. The page bore the notation: ‘do all on Saturday’. What did I do instead? Sleep? I was totally lethargic. On Saturday, my tasks didn’t get done either. I went home from Barbara’s at 5:30, still carrying my list. One of the Toulouse-Lautrec project collaborators, Dennis Cate, was coming to our apartment for a meeting. He also lived near Ground Zero, on the other side of Lower Manhattan, about a 15129
minute walk away. When I let him in, he seemed cheerful, not traumatized. But maybe he hid it well. He’s a guy after all. “We were lucky,” he said, staring out my study window at the smoke streaming up from the ruins. “Lynn and I didn’t have our gas, electricity and water cut off, so we didn’t have to leave home.” And you don’t have to look out at it. I sat there as twilight turned to night, brain-storming the Lautrec curatorial project with Dennis, pretending to think like one of the boys, getting on with the job, trying to feel (or even look) purposeful in the face of overwhelming events. “After all, there are very few experts on Toulouse-Lautrec.” Dennis was being very encouraging. “We’ve written catalogues and curated major exhibitions. Your Lautrec biography won a literary prize. You deserve this grant.” Do I? I found the trivia of my grant application nearly as anxietyprovoking as the reality out the window. It was shockingly easy to sink into the banal anxieties of budgets and marketing. I felt petty and superficial – struggling with ego conflicts and competitiveness that were totally unimportant to me, skimming the surface to at least complete the task at hand even though I really didn’t give a shit about it. I kept glancing at my oil lamp shrine. I had left it unlit while Dennis was there, out of pudeur, out of shyness. I felt somehow that showing him its flickering light would be betraying my vulnerability, my grief. Later, Ron and I crawled into bed together, emerging around 8:30 P.M. for cold supper, accompanied by a lot of wine. Watching dumb TV, sitting up in bed with Pearl camped between us. These were the best moments for us, when, briefly, we found each other again, felt intimate, almost like the passionate lovers we had been for so many years.
DAY 42 My life was more and more divided. In Barbara's apartment, I was despairing, distractible, forgetful. But at home, I was moderately successful at the things I was obliged to do for Ron. I devoted my skillful, Yale-trained attention to boring household duties. Today I had to stay home because the phone company was coming at last, three weeks after they first said they would. Their own building was mostly destroyed in the crash. What a nightmare they were trying to face – re-establishing phone lines for all of lower Manhattan. Service was iffy at best. Our phones had worked briefly for a day or so then stopped again. Our voicemail hadn’t worked since the Towers fell. Luckily we had cell phones. Email and Internet were working, sort of. In the afternoon I took Ron to his dermatologist to have a skin cancer removed, the second one he’d had. Even with Kate to help us, it was a struggle to get him safely in and out of doctors’ offices. But Ron and I knew that however unnecessary it seemed, it gave him comfort as he approached the end of his life to maintain all the small stuff – having his teeth cleaned, removing small skin cancers, working out on his exercise bike – as he put it, keeping his few remaining muscle cells in good shape. I’ll give him vitamins. I’ll take some myself. Every day I also made sure Ron looked as good as possible. I had taken to heart a phone call I had gotten from Susan Frey, whose husband, Ron’s cousin Henry, died of cancer of the esophagus. It was back in Boulder, when Ron was first diagnosed. She had seen us at a party. “Julia,” her voice came out of the phone with no preamble, “Ron looked terrible last night in that old wrinkled shirt. You’ve let his hair get too long. He looks as if you don’t care about him. No 131
matter how sick Henry was, I made sure he was bathed and groomed. He needed to maintain his dignity and self-respect even when he was dying. Every single morning,” she continued, “I used to put out a freshly ironed shirt, clean underwear and good socks. I got him dressed as if he weren’t sick, to keep up his morale.” How could I explain that Ron dressed that way on purpose? It was his bohemian persona: long hair, flannel shirts. But I hadn’t realized how that looked to other people now that he was ill. As if I didn’t take good care of him! So from then on, every day, I put out ‘fashion choices’, and Ron selected an outfit that made him feel good – and elegant by his bohemian standards.
Each time I crossed the police lines, I felt as if I’d escaped from a ghetto. As if I were not quite a legitimate member of the outside world. Tonight, on my way to take a ferry to get to the Upper West side, I had to wait 20 minutes on the sidewalk near the Police Memorial while family members of the missing, in yellow hard hats, their arms full of teddy bears and bouquets of flowers, went to the ruins for a memorial service, then on to the impromptu shrine at the marina, to lay their burdens down among the wilted flowers and rainsoaked stuffed animals. There were so many now; they were piled yards high. Then I struggled uptown to an art opening at Columbia University. The painter, Marouchka Morgenstern, was a friend of Serge and Marie-Noëlle Gaudé, Parisians I’d known for nearly 40 years. I had to go to the opening early, alone. They probably wouldn’t get there before I had to leave to make Ron’s dinner. Crossing the campus I was hot, although I was wearing a sun dress. It was still 80º F. in late October, incongruous with the 5 P.M. twilight.
Had the unseasonably hot weather and the 24-hour lights at Ground Zero made me forget that days shorten as winter approaches? There were few people in the large, brightly lit gallery. Around the walls hung Marouchka’s small drawings and prints in somber colors with splashes of bright red. Many were textured abstracts, but a number referred directly or indirectly to the Holocaust, to her Jewish family, only some of whom survived. A student standing behind a table offered me a plastic tumbler of cheap red wine. I sipped it while I walked slowly through the gallery, studying the art meticulously, as I always do. Certain works were very successful. It’s hard for an artist to get it right every time. I was pleased. I wanted to be able to say I liked the show. Marouchka was coming to dinner the next day, down at the ruins. The wine hit my empty stomach hard. Then a sudden, warm, relaxed feeling spread over me. I had a second glass, with sort of devil-may-care abandonment. The gallery filled with guests – a few faces were familiar from my almost-former life as a French professor. I felt like Mr. Hyde undergoing a character adjustment – re-entering the human race as Dr. Jekyll. I began to have an interesting conversation. But, to mix a metaphor, I was also Cinderella. Kate left at seven. Tipsy on the subway home, I worried. Anything can happen.
DAY 44 I wished I didn’t have to take early retirement. I was only 58. When Ron first got too sick to work, the university had allowed me to take ‘family’ leave, but that was all used up. And it was out of the question for me to go back to work, even in New York. Ron was a full-time job. The days all begin the same.
Ron wakes me up because he has to go to the bathroom. I’m sleeping like the drugged. I request a few minutes to get alert enough to be competent, stagger into my bathroom, splash my face with cold water, wondering if there will be a new crisis before I ever actually get it washed. Then I brush my teeth, and since we sleep nude yearround, put on a nightgown so I won’t be cold. I go back to help Ron get out of bed. There’s no way he can sit up alone, even though we’ve bought a big, fancy hospital bed with a special anti-bedsore ‘Postur-Pedic’ mattress. “I hate this bed.” He uses the remote control to raise the motorized bed to maximum height, and the back of the bed until he’s sitting up. “Its foam is supposed to mold to your body, but I sink into it so far I can’t move. It’s a man-eating bed.” He has to wake me up at night each time he wants to turn over. I put my arm around him to lift and turn him so he’s sideways with his legs over the edge. “I can still stand up by myself,” Ron insists. But he can’t. I stand facing him and lift his arms over my shoulders, folding them around my neck. He leans on me, and with my arms under his armpits, I shift him on the mattress until his feet hit the floor. Then I rock him forward and up to a standing position. Once he’s on balance, I hand him his cane and take his arm while we shuffle to the foot of the bed. We work our way out of the sleeping alcove, across the living room and down the long hallway, through his study to the bathroom. I close the door so he has some privacy while he’s on the john, which always takes him a long time. I stand at his study window, inspecting the ruins. I can’t go too far away, I have to stay within earshot. I check the progress of the demolition, the go-carts piled with orange body-bags, the grapplers moving chunks of wreckage. When he calls, I put toothpaste on his electric toothbrush and help him brush his teeth. He dabs at his face with a washcloth, then we get into his large roll-in shower together. 134
When I start spraying the water on the top of his head, I always say the same thing, “Doesn’t it feel delicious, the way your skin contracts when the water first hits it? They call that negative ions.” “Will it keep me from getting negative me-ons?” Ron always answers. He still struggles to wash himself. While he’s sitting on the shower bench soaping, I wash my hair, standing in the spray. I rinse him off with the moveable showerhead and run hot H2O on his back for a while to relax it. He runs hot water on his sore knee while I dry off. I turn off the shower, help him get out, wrap him in a warm bath sheet. Then we come to the high point of my day. We stand side by side in his bathroom, leaning with our hands against the towel bar, and ‘ohm’ together. First a big breath in. I let him start the sound, Ohhhhmmmmm, then I join him, on the same note. Ron has a beautiful tenor voice. I used to be a mezzo, and I can at least ohm. We make the note last as long as we possibly can, and our voices blend and vibrate together, creating a splendid, oscillating harmonic, swelling and filling the room with one gorgeous, magical sound, first louder, then gradually trailing away. That’s when I feel closest to Ron now. I love it. I love him. I help Ron put on his bathrobe, walk with him to the kitchen counter, where he just barely pushes himself up onto the high barstool, bracing his feet on the rung. I give him the newspaper. He can read the first page of each section without help. But when it’s time to turn a page, I need to be there. Once he’s settled, I go to my own bathroom and comb my still dripping hair. Back to the kitchen, I squeeze orange juice, give Ron his meds, make breakfast. Back to my bathroom to dry my hair while the tea steeps. We eat together, read the paper together. I go back down the hall with Ron and he gets up on the architect’s chair in front of his high writing desk. He turns on his famous $4 radio to hear a weather forecast. I retire with Pearl to ‘our’ bathroom. 135
Emerging from my bathroom, I round up his dirty clothes and cell phone from the living room, get out various clean outfits for him to choose from. 52º F. going up to 58º. He decides on a lavender Tshirt, the olive-green flannel button-down shirt from last night’s dinner. Khaki pants, black suspenders with red mustaches on them, handkerchief, slippers. His mother must always have dressed him funny, I figure. Ron perches on his adjustable chair while I put clothes on him. Then I straighten up his study, pick up the bath mat, bring him an article from the paper, imagine the day, clear the table, go into my study. Now it’s 12:37. I’ve just had 30 minutes of my own time. I used it to write this down.
Increasingly, the ruins are less a demolition site, and more a graveyard. Yesterday an Honor Guard lined up in double rows, uniforms and hard hats, to accompany orange stretchers with bags of body parts to an ambulance and thence to the morgue. I lit the oil lamp in the window. As darkness fell, they uncovered another foyer of flames. The smoke, floodlit, rose 40 stories in the night air. The backhoes, derricks and cranes were doing their job – they had made huge progress since we got home. They’d leveled nearly all the north Tower to ground level, except for some standing walls. Now I could see gaping holes, many stories down into the sub-basements, dug by the wreckage as it fell. Indian summer had turned to fall. “By the time the anthrax scare started,” Ron wrote, “most of the security checkpoints impeding access to the apartment had been lifted.” Visitors began to drift in to inquire about her state of mind and incidentally the state of Ground Zero
Her state of mind was shaky, she told them, and Ground Zero, as they could see, was being taken apart piece by careful piece because of its status as a mass grave She said, “The way I feel now, I could be walking along the street and a building could fall on me. I don’t have any sense of security, or even of predictability. I feel anything can happen.” “Anything can happen,” I told her. “That’s always the case. Think of it as liberating, as opening possibilities.” “No, no,” she said. “Anything can happen now, and it won’t be good.”
I struggled to get enough regular physical exercise. Not only did it help my injured shoulder, it was good for my morale. Before, I had taken classes at our own gym up on the roof of our building, but it didn’t re-open after 9/11. I hired a trainer, Jeff Grinkovitch, who dutifully met me twice a week, Sundays and Tuesdays. He thought it was totally stupid for him to stand there counting while I did my exercises, but I was feeling too disoriented and chaotic to do it on my own. No matter how impoverished we were, Ron and I agreed this was a necessary expense. I still can’t lift him by myself. Despite the bad air, if the weather was nice, Jeff had me work out on the benches of the Esplanade. When it rained, we met at the gym in Barbara’s building. The air was just as bad there. A couple of local restaurants had re-opened, which made life seem more normal. Pauline and Stanley Cohen came down to have dinner out. Like us, they lived back and forth between Paris and New York, with their young son, Paul. Ron was his ‘honorary grandfather’. Stanley was surprised by the change in Ron, how weak he was. “What should I do?” I said he might take Ron’s arm as we walked along the Esplanade to dinner, in case he stumbled. Ron later said “I was very 137
touched that Stanley took my arm.” I didn’t tell Ron I had suggested it. Pauline and I strolled ahead chatting, and the husbands came slowly behind us. She told me the story of their French au pair girl, a former professional body guard they’d hired through an agency, who was supposed to fly to the US exactly on September 11, 2001. On September 10, they were in their house on Long Island. Pauline was planning to meet the au pair in New York the next day, the first day of pre-school for their son Paul. “She had worked for us for about three or four months in the spring, but we knew when we hired her that she had a previous contract for the summer holidays as a garde du corps with a Saudi family, so she wouldn’t be able to work for us in the summer. We’d all agreed that she’d come back at the beginning of the school year in September.” Pauline glanced behind her at Stanley. “On the day before the terrorists struck, we got a phone call from Europe. It was the au pair. She announced that she couldn’t come to New York the next day. She was quitting.” “Shouldn’t you tell somebody?” I asked. “Stanley doesn’t want me to talk about it.” Pauline said.
DAY 46 I drove Ron to Chelsea to Nik and Geni’s housewarming. Nik’s father, the novelist Steve Katz, named him after the Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. Geni, Nik’s wife was Filipina. I was strangely flattered that people in their 20’s would invite us to a party. We had first met them visiting Steve in Nova Scotia, where he owned a wild, steep hillside with an airy little house and a precipitous footpath down to a jagged peninsula. My strongest memory of Nik and Geni was seeing them way below me, running naked in the surf along Steve’s small, perfect, crescent beach – their slim brown bodies. Now 138
Nik was having remarkable success in New York as an interior designer. At their party I leaned against the kitchen sink, sipping wine, Ron on a barstool at the kitchen counter. We really can only talk about one thing. “She told how we could not hear the incredible roar of the second tower collapsing,” Ron wrote. He overheard her say the World Trade Center seemed like one of his disappearables She quoted him: “the World Trade Center was built to be an overwhelming presence and is now a spectacular absence” A generation of contemporary art has prepared us, she said, for this This is the negative of its trivial positives What we have here, she continued, is a deconstruction, a deinstallation, unearth art, photosurrealism, deconceptualization That’s why it’s so hard to grasp, our intellectual framework has been destroyed Maybe it was too flimsy
DAY 50 My friend Jean Pierre Courtiau was in town. He worked for the Ministère de l’Urbanisme in Paris, and six months before he had organized a study project to the US with a group of young city planners. Jean Pierre and I had originally expected to have supper together in midtown the night before, but his plane was late. “Our only other free time is early tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’m going to tour Lower Manhattan with some of the group and try to see les ruines. Would it be possible for me to come to your apartment?” 139
“Actually, that’s a much better plan for us, because you can see Ron, too.” He showed up with three young women – architects who wanted to see Ground Zero. It was everybody’s first trip to New York. They had gotten in after dark, so coming down to see me was their first look at la ville. “ The weather here is absolutely splendide. It’s one of those mornings that feel as if the world has just been washed.” he said. “The light seems to reverberate in the air. Europeans always hear about Indian Summer, how blue the sky is. But we also hear that New York is a noisy, dirty city. This morning the street cleaners had already passed at 8 A.M. The asphalt seemed perfectly clean; everything looked as shiny as a new penny. Standing outside our Times Square hotel, we were surprised by that, and the calm – it was practically silent.” They made it to the tip of Manhattan in just a few minutes they said, and as the taxi drove them downtown, the streets were completely empty, no automobile traffic, few pedestrians. New York seemed virtually uninhabited. The whole way down they were almost the only car in the streets. “It felt as if we owned the city.” JeanPierre said. When they discovered their taxi driver was Pakistani, they asked him what life was like in New York since the ‘great cataclysm.’ “We are trying to make the best of it,” he apparently said, “but things will never be the same again.” He let them off at the barricade near Battery Park, and they walked through the checkpoint into our compound. Since it was still too early to call, they went over to the river walk, which also seemed peculiarly empty. There was a large gray battleship anchored in the river, but otherwise there was no water traffic either. Just two or three ferries crossing to New Jersey.
“The Statue of Liberty, shining in the sun on the other side, seemed very close to us, as if it were magnified. We were struck again that even where you live, so close to Ground Zero, there was no dust or garbage anywhere. We knew there was a lot of wreckage when the Towers fell, that the whole area had been covered with ash and enveloped in smoke. But everything has been washed off. All the grass and gardens look manicured.” Jean-Pierre said he was impressed by its luxuriousness of our building in the midst of the damage and devastation on the sidewalks and streets outside – by the shiny marble lobby, the braid and brass buttons of the uniformed doormen. I went downstairs to meet them, then suggested that I take them all up in the elevator to the roof terrace. They were hesitant to accept. I think they didn’t want me to feel they were using my personal tragedy for morbid tourism. But I pointed out that this was the only way they would be able to see into the ruins. A high wooden fence was being built around the site, to keep out prying eyes. On the top floor, we stood at the edge of the railing, looking down into the pit smoking in the morning sun. A crisp breeze was blowing. They were completely silent as they stared at the huge cranes, swiveling in the wreckage, so far below them that they looked like children’s toys. “How tall is your building?” someone finally asked. “Forty-five stories,” I said, “nearly half as tall as the fallen Towers.” I remembered how the Twin Towers had loomed overhead, enormous monoliths blocking the sky. How we had craned our necks to look up at the 85th floor, burning. “It doesn’t feel so tall.” Jean Pierre said. “It’s énorme compared to the average seven-floor building in Paris. But it only seems about 15 stories high.” It was small for NY, I admitted, comparatively much smaller than many of the Wall Street skyscrapers nearby. 141
“When I actually look at the damage,” Jean Pierre went on, gazing down at the ruins, “I'm surprised that I don’t find it shocking. It's practically a let-down from what I'd imagined.” His reaction made me think of an article I once read in a magazine – an interview with the Spanish moviemaker, Louis Buñuel. He was asked about a very disturbing scene in his famous movie Belle de Jour. An Asian the size of a Sumo wrestler has arrived at a brothel, and approaches several prostitutes with a tiny box, which he apparently intends to bring into the bedroom with them. When he opens it, it makes an unpleasant buzzing noise, but the movie audience is never shown its contents. Each prostitute turns her head away in disgust. Finally the fourth prostitute agrees to go with him. When we see her later, she has a drop of blood on her lip. “What,” the interviewer wanted to know, “was in the box?” “Anything you want,” said Buñuel. “Whatever you imagine is bound to be more terrifying than anything I could have put inside.”
What really shocked my visitors was the smell. They said when they got out of the taxi they immediately smelled the smoke from the ruins. “How would you describe it?” I asked. “Acrid? Sharp? Stinging?” Jean Pierre said to him it smelled like a combination of burning chemicals and the way insulation around wiring smells when there’s a short-circuit. “Although it’s not an odor I ever smelled before, I know if I ever smell it again, I’ll recognize it immediately.” We left the roof and Jean Pierre came downstairs with me to see Ron. The girls made a plan to meet him later. “What a contrast between your home and the sterile orderliness outside.” Jean Pierre observed when we walked into the apartment. “Here it is very cozy, even cluttered – full of mementos, your personal histories. It feels like our own apartment in Paris: the 142
walls lined with books, all the sculptures, art, and objets accumulated from your travels.” He sat down to talk to Ron, and I began bustling around, as usual being the perfect Southern hostess. I put cookies and cups of coffee on the low ceramic tables. Jean Pierre was sitting in my grandmother’s antique armchair, and Ron was on what we call the Pacha seat, our mechanized hospital bed, with the head raised so he could sit up. When we weren't sleeping in it, I draped it with rugs so it looked sort of like a couch. I also had hung Indian saris on each side of our sleeping alcove to make it feel more private. Ron openly admitted to Jean Pierre that he was still in shock, that he was having panic attacks. We went to Ron’s study. Jean Pierre kept turning back to the huge picture window framing the landscape Ron looked at as he tried to write – the art of terrorism. “It’s much lighter in my study now that the Towers don’t block the sun,” Ron joked. “And the view is better. Now we can see both the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.” Ron and I had developed a little black comedy routine: grim one-liners making fun of our life since 9/11. “There’s much less wait for an elevator now that so many people have moved out of the building,” Ron would say. Another one was, “We eat much better now that all the groceries are closed, because our friends bring us sacks of goodies.” Sometimes, the gallows humor could get pretty dreadful: “We’re lucky we have a telescope so we can get a close-up of the guys looking for bodies.” When I walked Jean Pierre back out of the building later, he hugged me and kissed me on each cheek. “Ma pauvre Julia. I am stunned at the physical change in Ron,” he said. “I realized immediately that this is the last time I’ll ever see him. He is so much weaker, so wasted. His eyes were staring – how traumatized he is! It is much more evident in him than it is in you. He wasn’t even trying to keep up appearances. But as we talked, 143
I caught glimpses of the old Ron – he still has his irony and cynicism.” Jean Pierre’s voice grew soft. “It was important to me to see you, to see how you live now. You seem so sad. I feel full of grief and tenderness for you and Ron, especially knowing I have just told him adieu.” I was always surprised when people found Ron so changed. I worried constantly about his worsening condition, but living with him every day, I also got used to it. And for him to die, although imminent, was inconceivable.
My oldest friends in France, Serge and Marie-Noëlle Gaudé, came to dinner that night with the artist Marouchka Morgenstern. What a strange coincidence it was to have our two visits from close European friends on the same day! At dinner Marie-Noëlle told us what it felt like to be in New York again. “Months ago when we bought our tickets, Marouchka’s exhibition at Columbia sounded like a great excuse for a trip to New York. After the attacks, we thought of canceling, but since Marouchka’s show was going on anyway, we decided to come. What’s a little terrorisme? We’re used to it. We once had a bomb go off in our neighborhood, tu sais, in the rue de Rennes. They were most nervous about the bureaucracy, she mentioned. They had heard about searches and long delays at passport control., and were expecting it to be terriblement compliqué. “In fact it was exactly the opposite. It was extremely easy getting into the country. There was almost no one on the plane. Our luggage arrived at the carrousel immediately. Customs took five minutes. The woman who checked our passports was unusually friendly. She kept smiling at us! She all but said, ‘Welcome to New York!’” Their hotel had almost no guests. They said the chauffeur de taxi had been very resistant to bringing them down to Ground Zero. They thought probably his 144
papers weren’t in order. There were so many police checkpoints to go through he was sure to be asked for them. “He made us get out at the first barricade. I don’t know where that was, exactly – some place a very long way from your building,” Serge said. They continued on foot. At each checkpoint, they had to show the police our address, and explain why they were going there. Just trying to get down to us, Marie-Noëlle added, they had walked almost all the way around the ruins. “By then night had fallen, and the streets were dark and empty. The only people we saw were police, who were everywhere, and unexpectedly friendly. All the buildings were dark most of the way down, so we thought the electricity probably was still out.” After they’d been walking nearly an hour, they started to get worried. ”But actually by then we were very near,” Marie-Noëlle was looking out the living room window, down at the street full of telephone cables and police tape. “We called you on the cell phone, and you came to meet us. You were easy to recognize, wearing your long velvet cloak. We could see you from a couple of blocks away, waving at us. There was literally nobody else in the street.” When Ron commented that Jean Pierre had said he found us very sad, Serge and Marie-Noëlle looked surprised. I guess we didn’t seem sad to them. More like grimly jovial? “Before the catastrophe, friends from Europe rarely came to visit, but now we’re a tourist destination,” I joked as we sat down to eat. “Why are you still here?” Serge asked. Everyone asks that. “Because Ground Zero is our home,” Ron answered. “Serge, will you pour the wine? I can’t lift a wine bottle any more.” Over the boeuf carottes, they asked what we as Americans thought the effect of all this would be on world politics. I floundered. I wanted not to demonize Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, to be balanced, to show my awareness of the many failures of US foreign policy over 145
the years. But it felt almost dishonest to me to try to correlate a rational political viewpoint with the intensity of my emotions. My words came out superficial and predictable, provoking an uncomfortable silence. Pearl, lying at my feet, looked up at me and suddenly yowled, breaking the heavy atmosphere. Everybody laughed. By the time I finished cleaning the kitchen, it was 1:43 A.M. I thought of the Parisians looking down aghast at the smoking holes, at the fire hoses and backhoes going day and night, their fluorescent paint glowing in the floodlit air. Each social event in the midst of the ruins seemed strange. We felt it, and so did our guests, but in our wasteland, our war zone, it did us good to have visitors. “Don’t stay here,” they urged us as they left. “You have another home. Come to Paris now.” When the north wind fills the air with acid smoke, I think they're right. At least in Paris the air is OK.
Figure 15. ‘Gothic’ wall of Tower One, photo Rochelle Ratner ©Estate of Rochelle Ratner 2001. 147
NOVEMBER DAY 51
Oh Jesus. The bulldozers broke through to another foyer of fire. Monumental black clouds of smoke were billowing out of the ruins of Tower Two, rising 50 stories in the still, acrid air. It was humid, windless and chilly today. The fire exploded sparks and raged at ground level, like a beast roused from slumber. Rain sprinkled down on the pulverized concrete, still six stories thick, filling the former parking garage. Through smoke, live coals, and sheets of rain, the men and machines kept whittling away at the ruins, loading the flatbed trucks â&#x20AC;&#x201C; day and night, a persistent low roar of engines under the brutal lights. The constant work, the sense that something can be done, is reassuring. When they took a day off Sunday to hold a memorial service for the families of all the lost who lie as dust in the ruins, Ron and I reacted to the unaccustomed silence by feeling desolate and purposeless. I was acutely conscious of how focused we were on the activity outside our windows, but I didn't realize how strange our behavior might seem to others until Marie-NoĂŤlle called. She was her usual straightforward self. She didn't pretend to be sympathetic. 148
“At the dinner table,” she began, “you couldn’t talk about anything but the disaster. Any time Serge and I brought up another possible topic of conversation, you went back to the attacks. It’s still your whole existence seven weeks later. Why are you so dominated by what happened? We didn’t understand – why aren’t you able to get back to normal, get on with your lives, allows other things to enter?" Marie-Noelle, a psychoanalyst, basically said that they perceived us not just as distressed or mourning, but as self-absorbed and obsessive. We had not asked what might be going on with them. We had made no attempt to get to know Marouchka, despite my interest in her art. We had expressed almost no concern about anything outside our immediate environment. “You both seemed almost crazed – wild-eyed and dazed-looking. I thought the shrine you keep lit in your window overlooking the ruins was very odd. I know you’re not religious.” I was surprised that Marie-Noelle had reacted so negatively, that she didn’t understand why I ritualized my grief for the suffering of others, but I didn’t say anything. She was one of my oldest friends, and one of the things I loved about her was her honesty. It was true that we had a hard time talking to anyone about what their own life was like these days. Maybe it was envy. Later, standing at Ron’s window alone, I felt defensive. We haven’t been able to ‘get back to normal’ Marie-Noëlle because nineteen fanatics armed with box cutters and a few flying lessons were able to create havoc and devastation – to destroy some 3000 beings in a matter of seconds – and as a side effect, to re-define our daily life. But Marie-Noëlle had hit a nerve. Paris had survived several terrorist attacks. The parents of our French friends had lived through the starvation, devastation and humiliation of World War II. Some friends had parents who had died in the camps. Average Brits had braved the nightly wildcat bombings for more than two years. Since the beginning of history the rest of the world had been subjected to 149
inhuman traumas and privations. A lot of people thought, perfectly reasonably, that it was our turn to learn how that felt. Why were we still paralyzed because nearly two months ago a couple of buildings fell down across the street? I watched as an acetylene torch cut loose a huge slab of the standing wall of Tower One – that strange, rusting structure which everyone agreed looked like the ruins of some High Gothic cathedral. The part they cut was at least one and a half stories tall. It crashed to the ground in a spectacular fall, burying itself deep in dust. Like the bombing of the Cologne Cathedral. I took pictures out Ron’s window every few days, when the light was good. Today was too dark.
DAY 52 I was tired, stressed, sad, but fine – writing. Cooked dinner tonight for Ron and Gloria, whose cat was dying. Pearl, bless her aged heart, was still with us, sitting on my desk as I wrote. Tomorrow I hoped to have a few hours alone in the late afternoon – Malcolm would be trying to reach me, since I didn't go to Barbara's apartment today. Instead I went to see Rosaire. We were walking down Bleeker Street in the Village, at midday, on a weekday, ordinary life all around, when Rosaire observed, “But it’s not the same ‘ordinary’ as before. It’s in a different key, and the melody has changed. Or is it only the way I see things that's changed? Perhaps the street is neutral.” I stared blankly at a shop window full of expensive running shoes and hand-made leather sandals and wondered how to answer her question. I didn't think there was an answer.
“I'm worried about tomorrow's New York Marathon,” she went on, shifting her backpack nervously to her other shoulder. Many New Yorkers were worrying along with her. The terrorists score again, I thought. “ ‘They’ will or will not destroy the bridge with runners on it,” I said finally. “But mostly, here, gunfire and explosions will turn out to be merely trucks backfiring. Sirens will come from macho cops driving fast. The country's at war, but the war isn’t here – it’s half way around the globe.” “I know,” Rosaire’s eyes were troubled. “Nothing might happen to us again immediately. But it will. A civilization rises up and the people get comfortable and the barbarians come and wipe it all out.” “What really bothers me,” I said, glancing in the window of an Italian bakery crammed with pastries and thickly-iced birthday cakes, “is that we’re becoming the bad guys again. I’ve seen the photos on the front page of The New York Times. Big ugly America out in the third world, stamping on brave, beautiful, impoverished Afghanis.” “A barbarian is someone with no tolerance.” Rosaire stopped and turned to me on the sidewalk, following her own thought. “They have no appreciation for difference, no compassion.” “We’ve lost all the good will we accumulated,” I went on, trying to make sense of the generic lunacy of human behavior. “Just after September 11, we had massive sympathy from people around the world. Everybody watched those videos of Bin Laden, gloating, cackling like a hysterical nut case at the unexpected success of his makeshift plan. Convinced he was acting in the name of God. If there is a God, what makes people think she’s partisan to any particular group?” “Our leaders are barbarians, too,” said Rosaire. “If the US goes on like this, it’s easy to see why the rest of the world is going to think we deserve what we get.” 151
I looked ahead of me at the sunny, tree-lined street, cozy even in November with its lunchtime shoppers, babies in strollers. “It feels as if all human relations are being forced back into tribal warfare,” I observed. “I’m not worried for my individual life. It’s the whole fabric that I’ve grown up with, the tolerant, many-layered culture I’ve known and contributed to – that’s what I don’t want destroyed. Not by anybody, including our side.” My brother Cam, his wife Marcelle, and Cam’s best friend, Jim Bengston, came to dinner tonight. Jim who is also a photographer, lives in Norway, but he visits them several times a year. This was the first time he had been to our place. Like Cam, he couldn’t stop staring out Ron’s window, taking many photographs, focusing and re-focusing his camera, changing lenses, driven to witness the ruins. Some people can’t bear to look. Others can’t stop looking.
Figure 16. Ground Zero with, reflected in window, Cameron Bloch standing in doorway behind photographer. Photo ÂŠJim Bengston, November 4, 2001 (detail). 153
Ron and I got a very interesting letter from Serge Gaudé. In it he was struggling to formulate a philosophy of social interaction based on the world’s recent experience of human behavior. As a psychoanalyst, he said his conclusions after the 9/11 attacks and the US response to them might be stated as: “Evil exists in man, but not Good.” “Evil with a capital E,” he clarified, the liking, the longing to kill, to destroy, to annihilate the other, to have him at our mercy – is what lies at the base of all human desire, ours as well as ‘theirs,’ and cannot be eradicated. So Evil is practiced in the name of doing Good (also capitalized). We call it self-defense, taking revenge, getting justice, regaining one’s rights. And suddenly we are practicing exactly the same Evil we condemn in the Other. A shocking consequence is that religious fanatics can become the official representatives of the Damned of the Earth. Calling the American retaliation ‘Doing Good’ is just a mask. It’s easy to see that the leaders of the ‘Evil Empire’ are again going to make tragic errors. Look at what they did with the tiny country of Vietnam. This time, where the situation is a lot more complicated, it will be worse. And it would be the case with any country in the same situation, including France. Within our own borders, we are obliged to authorize our leaders to be the bad cops, to do the dirty work, the assassination, the counter-terrorism, etc. But we should do so without pretending they are angels – that’s to say, without calling it ‘Good’. Happily, however small good deeds do get done, without capital letters, narcissisme or high ideals. It’s still 154
possible to set up peaceful social relationships based on principles which make subconscious drives submit to the forces of reason: guaranteed education, separation of church and state, individual liberté. Such principle-based relationships already exist. They create exactly the social ties we experienced once again this afternoon surrounded by the simplicity and cordiality of New Yorkers.
DAY 58 1 P.M. pick up Glo for lawyer appointment 2 P.M. Eldercare lawyer Pick up new pot of cat grass for Pearl. 2-6 housekeeper comes (leave check) 3 – 7 P.M. Kate 6:30 gym E-mail Barbara about how things are going at her apartment
My organized, efficient calendar and my chirpy business-like emails to Barbara contrasted bizarrely with the depression and disorganization of my diary. I’m a wreck. I’m stressed. I feel like crying. My eyes burn. I can’t let Ron know how close I am to falling apart. Yesterday I woke up from a terrible nightmare that Bin Laden dropped an A bomb on Washington. Ron and I were watching out the window and saw all the grasses of a yellow prairie get blown flat in the wind from the explosion.
Much smoke from the ruins today. Standing in the pit, wearing protective masks against the smoke blowing around them, I saw what looked like an Honor Guard. I looked at them in close-up through the telescope. Their fierce, sad posture. More bodies. “She only had to glimpse a body bag,” Ron wrote, “to be thrown into a depression that lasted all day.” Then it got worse She apparently internalized these pictures and simply thinking about them and visualizing them would upset her Her depressions would break down eventually but only into moods of anxiety, fear and anger As the syndrome developed in its phobia, I began to suspect that it was fueled by her constant fear, often remarked on by her while acknowledging its craziness, thinking that the world trade towers were still falling and were going to fall on her.
We spent the afternoon at the office of Gloria’s lawyer, an ‘eldercare’ expert. Ron was Glo’s only immediate family. “After I die,” Ron explained, “Julia and I both want to make sure you have money if you need it.” I had thought it was straightforward. But unexpectedly, things got messy. In the midst of our worst fighting over Malcolm, Ron had taken Glo into his confidence. He had told her how worried he was that I was going to stop loving him and go off with Malcolm. Now Gloria was convinced that if Ron died before I did, I’d marry Malcolm and abandon her, too. Ron, on the other hand, realized he might be leaving me in need if he just gave a bunch of money to Gloria outright. We wanted to set up a trust fund for her, for the rest of her life – an automatic monthly payment, with increases as needed. But our lawyers thought it would be too expensive to manage. Discussing the details was tense and stressful. Gloria got very angry. Her curly mop of white hair seemed to bristle with rage. Finally we decided the simplest solution was to open a savings account in Ron’s name with Glo as the beneficiary at his 156
death. The catch was that she didn’t want my name on the account. Afraid I’d take the money and run! I felt resentful that Gloria couldn’t trust me, that Ron had to feel torn apart when he was trying so hard to take care of both of us. The whole thing ended with bad feelings, inevitably I guess. Leaving, Ron and I were very shaky. We can’t stand any conflict. On the way back from the lawyers' office, just after we'd parked the Subaru in Battery Park City and started toward the building, Ron took a serious fall. His foot caught in a deep gash on West Thames Street, in a brutal scar made when they stacked hot girders 15 feet high after the attack. Ron's ankle twisted, and he went down, very slowly. So slowly I at first thought if I held onto his arm, he would be able to get his balance. But he couldn’t and I wasn’t strong enough to keep him from ending up on the pavement, his knees bent behind him, bearing all his weight. I was astonished to realize I was screaming. You’re really losing it, Julia. A passerby and James, our doorman, came running, and the three of us got him up and walked him back to the building. Now his knees are really swollen. I didn’t want to go to the gym at 6:30. I was still overwrought by Ron’s fall – I just wanted to curl up and read a novel and comfort myself. I just wanted to be alone so I could cry a little. I watched the sun set behind a thick haze of smog to the west. The sky, river and buildings were all different tones of gray, from pinkish to anthracite, getting darker as my gaze shifted north to the ruins, where the white lights were just beginning to illuminate the gothic walls and rising steam – lighting the night workers, searching.
DAY 59 I got up at 7 A.M., the first time in probably two months that I’d been up early enough to write before I was too wide awake, too 157
involved in the demands of the day. It was cold and very windy. Rays of dawn sun came through the empty window holes of the last dusty, rusting wall of World Trade Center One – its northeast corner, standing alone. Below, it must have been the changing of the guard. The work site was nearly empty – one hoe going. Two acetylene torches. A few trucks, a few men. In the past two months, they had managed to open huge pits in the rubble and cart a lot of it away. Seven days a week, men and grapplers going into the pits, slowly pulling apart the layers of debris that now filled the underground parking garage, bringing the pieces up, taking them to barges at Pier 25 – hauling them, I supposed, upstream. The barges don’t come by here on the Hudson River any more. I checked my email once again. Malcolm was totally out of touch. A week before, he had been calling nearly every day – long, relaxed conversations. “I realize more than ever before,” he said, “that you are more than just my lover. We are best friends, allies.” Now, abruptly, I was getting no phone calls and virtually no emails. I was certain he was making love to another woman. I hesitated to ask him for more than a week – I even deleted those paragraphs of emails. What sent him over the edge? Was it because I emailed him the first three days of my Ground Zero diary? The week before, on November 4, I had sent those pages to all the people who had been trying to get in touch with us since 9/11. Many wrote back to say how loving it was to Ron, how loyal, how touching. Maybe that hurt Malcolm’s feelings. I’m sorry if it hurt him, but the diary is true. Now I kept wanting to send him a one-line email: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.” I couldn’t blame him – we hadn't made love in more than four months and anybody's limit seemed about three, max. The other night at dinner, Cam’s friend Jim kept touching my hand, putting his arm around me, and I knew he thought I was attractive. I had always liked 158
him (never met his wife), and I couldn’t help thinking that he and I had much more in common than Malcolm and I did. Malcolm and I were not an instinctive match. Ron picked Malcolm out for me. Ron knew I needed a savior. And Malcolm was trying his best to rescue me. But if I ended up marrying Malcolm, the marriage would always be tainted. It would be proof Ron could control me from beyond the grave – that he had successfully elected his successor. I finally admitted to myself that the life I imagined with Malcolm was much like the life Ron and I used to have. A life I loved. I remembered one night when a friend came to our Boulder house, saying that she had just glimpsed Ron and me through the kitchen window from the sidewalk, and that we were laughing about something – that we looked so happy together. We were that happy for years. I want the life Ron and I had before he got sick. One evening, Caroline Herron and I met for Chinese food near The New York Times offices. I was talking about the immense courage and kindness of our Liberty Court building staff who stayed on and took care of everything after the attacks, and she said something like, “The workers, God bless them. There’s nothing like them in an emergency. But you wouldn’t want to live with them every day.” Of course they wouldn’t want to live with me, either. It reminded me of an acquaintance, a Yale Drama School graduate and distinguished stage lighting designer, who fell hopelessly in love with a fireman she met while volunteering at Ground Zero after 9/11. He was married, proudly working class, high school education, strong, handsome, brave. He refused to have an affair with her. She was devastated. She couldn’t seem to give it up. She spent weeks mooning around, pining for him, trying to run into him on the street. I asked her if she would really want to live the rest of her life with someone who didn’t read books.
11.11.01. Two months exactly. Another sunny fall day, perhaps a little grayer, certainly a lot colder, though the sky was still blue. Somebody told me the big Coast Guard battleship moored in the middle of the Hudson guarding the harbor was also being used as a kitchen. Gourmet chefs took turns cooking meals in the galley for the rescue workers. On the roof of the building across the street, in the sparkling wind, I had been watching three guys trying to set up some kind of brand-new, very high-tech-looking compressor. At 8:47 A.M. on a windy, cold Sunday morning? One of them was German or Europeanlooking, very well-dressed, pulling parts out of a bright red duffle and assembling them. With him was a younger, thinner man in a black leather jacket with a black hooded parka over it – he seemed to be the one who expected to use the machine. A third guy, dark, in jeans and hooded sweatshirt, looked like a building employee, bringing a garden hose, a gas-can. The machine had a long chromed wand attached to it – it didn’t seem to be working. After a while, they all went inside. What were they up to? Should I call the cops? I looked out at the other buildings around – someone was washing her windows on the inside. Very carefully. Across Rector Park, I could see the bare parquet floors of all the empty rental apartments. And in the ruins today, red plastic body bags. I looked at them through Ron’s telescope while he was in the shower, soaking the scabs on his knees.
DAY 61 Malcolm finally called Barbara's yesterday at 5 P.M., which both reassured and saddened me. He said he still loved me, but that 160
even if he came back to the US in December, realistically we probably couldn't see each other until (as he put it) Ron wasn’t able, or around, to stop us. In the meantime, when I glanced at Ron’s computer screen, I saw he was always writing about this couple named Pyhl (pronounced ‘pill’) and Austyn, who were excluding the narrator from their sex games. True. And true that he set it up. In fact, although I was careful not to let him know it, as he got weaker, sex with Ron had become very difficult for me. It wasn’t his fault. But it created yet more distance between us, kept us from being equals. Made me feel like a caregiver. What will we do when (soon) he can’t be at all independent, when he can’t get out of bed? When he can’t move and I can’t lift him? Move to that retirement community cum nursing home up at the other end of Battery Park City? Rent out our own apartment? Who would want to live here now? I can't sell the place for what it cost us. I was as terrified of running out of money as I was of not being up to my task. If Ron weren’t sick, I would have felt more in control – able to cut back, be Spartan, be mobile, get a job – any job. But he came first, and I couldn’t do a thing to save myself unless he was cared for.
DAY 62 Early in the morning, the wind was whistling around the corners of the building. In my boat-prow study, I turned on my computer. Then, sitting on the couch with its green pin-striped cotton slipcover, I tried to write by hand in my diary. I was distracted by the computer’s electrical whir, the radiator clicking and burbling, my pen scratching, my congested breathing, the wind. In the distance I heard the muffled beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse, probably one of the huge dump trucks pulling into position in the pit. Bright sun, bright Klieg lights still on, all the veils like iron gauze on all the injured 161
buildings, some red, some black, waving, flattening, then billowing in the wind. I had the heat on. My belly felt anxious. My heart was cramping gently in the familiar grip of its metal claw. My left hand, spread flat on the table, holding down the paper with splayed fingers, was swollen. My rings made indentations on my fingers. No, Malcolm, I’ve never taken off your ring - never. The ring the three of us once celebrated together with champagne when he gave it to me so long ago in Boulder. The ring for the one-year anniversary of Malcolm becoming my lover. Or the watch Malcolm gave me for the second anniversary. ‘Watch me,’ that’s what it says when you give somebody a watch. Ron never asked why I still wore them.
Oh my God. There was another attack. Two hours ago, exactly, a plane exploded leaving JFK and crashed into the Rockaways at Belle Harbor, where Ron’s mother used to live. The city went to Stage One, the highest level of alert. Manhattan closed down again, the river was empty again. My heart was bleeding tears again. All work stopped in the ruins. I noticed a pile of red body bags was still there, waiting to be picked up. After the site had been quiet for some time, four guys in jeans and firemen’s hats walked into the pit and were wandering around, looking totally unofficial, picking up pieces of rubble, putting them down again. They walked over and looked at the body bags, but didn’t touch them. At first I thought they were there to remove the dead. Now I think they were just sightseers – or thieves. They say there are millions of dollars in silver and gold still buried in a bank vault under the debris. “One day he noticed unusual activity,” Ron wrote, and training the telescope they had posted on the sill, found that the workers were busy with large black garbage bags sweeping bales of bank notes out of the dusty dirt into the receptacles, under the eyes of the police to be sure, but who 162
can say? As to the fabled deposits of silver, they were taken away by a column of armored cars, who knows where?
I lit my oil lamp in front of the window. I lit it for the people in today’s plane crash. And now it was also for the body bags. I felt sick, torn in my heart and throat.
DAY 63 “I was obsessed,” Ron wrote, “with the scene out the window.” The backhoes scratched the wound compulsively, digging and deepening the agonized remnants of the complex Smoke plumed up as underground fires flared Firemen on alert for the dead, ready to stop work and break out the orange body bags It bothered me when the work stopped I was convinced at some level that they were digging to find something essential not merely emptying out a space Such a vast excavation had to reveal something more than a vacuum
Today we felt consoled when the work started again. There even seemed to be less steam rising than usual. I scanned the pit with Ron’s telescope, back and forth, inch by inch, studying the changes, refocusing when something attracted my attention. The body bags were still there, along with a blue shirt one of the touring firemen left yesterday. A couple of the shovels were working, picking up twisted wreckage in their huge jaws, dropping it gently into the trucks. 163
I loved walking into Barbara's apartment. It smelled wonderful, a blessed respite from the acrid odor of the smoking ruins, creeping into our own apartment through every crevice. And when I closed her door, I was alone. I could decompress, cool down, rebuild my strength to go back into the fray a few hours later. But each time I tried to get ready to leave the house – giving Kate last-minute instructions, reassuring Ron, getting my list of tasks together – I would grow desperate, even frantic. It was strange. Why did I feel so irrational, so overwhelmed? Life was much harder for Ron. He was trapped in our apartment with the bad air, his humiliating dependency, his impending death. Ron’s misery I could understand. But why was I at the breaking point? Irreconcilable demands. I hated my life, and I couldn’t leave it. I kept hearing a phrase in my head: “It would be easier to die.” I imagined dropping into the Hudson at rip tide, in my heavy boots and winter coat, stones in my pockets. When I talked to my therapist Neila about this refrain, she warned me that suicidal ideation is pernicious – one day when you’re a little bit vulnerable, you just go ahead and do it. I can’t keep on, and I can’t quit. My response was almost primitive. All I wanted was to read, write my diary, daydream with Malcolm on the phone, take a nap, and once I was asleep, not wake up. No reality. No ruins, no Ron, no demands, no duties, no thinking of anyone but myself.
DAY 65 At 6:30 P.M. it was raining, unseasonably warm – in the 60’s. Our scooter ride to Vesey Street to check on the ruins had been 164
rained out. When we came in dripping, Ron seemed more angry and depressed than usual. “Quit fussing over me,” he snarled. I was drying his wet hair with a towel. “Leave me alone.” I knew he was angry partly because I was there – who else can he yell at? But he was also blaming me because I had insisted we take the scooter, not walk. Particularly now that he admitted that he, too, was afraid to keep on walking, that he didn’t want to wait until a serious injury made the decision for him. I put Pearl on his lap, and forced a glass of scotch into his paralyzed, flipper-like hand. As the booze began to relax us, I said I wished he would lure me out every day for a ‘fast walk’, to keep me fit. My goal was for him to see that we were still a team, he could still take care of me – that walking or not, he was a full person and I still needed him. “For years, I’ve been taking you for a walk every day,” I reasoned. “Now it’s your turn. You can run the scooter at a speed that will keep me loping beside you at a good clip. It’ll be good for me.” We crawled into bed together. Ron couldn’t make love.
Lots of noise today. A whole section of the North Tower’s last standing wall was cut down and fell into the pit. We missed the actual crash, but heard it, eating lunch on the other side of the apartment. We looked out Ron’s study window later, to see a landscape of fire hoses shooting water on the smoking ruins. Putting out more fires? Wetting down the dust? When I was leaving the house, Ron, in a kind of power play, announced he was going out for a walk with Kate. I didn’t say anything, and headed over to Barbara’s. It was 71º F., sunny and 165
windy, very abnormal for mid-November. Masses of people in suits were parading down Rector Place. I saw a policeman stopping every car on South End Avenue. There was always some performance in the ruins these days. As soon as I got in Barbara’s door, I could feel myself relax, relieved that I was where no one would disturb me. But it didn't last. Barbara and Dennis get in Saturday. I have to move my junk off her dining room table. Territoriality is strange. I felt robbed, having to give the owner back her apartment! Obviously I would go back to the Yale Club to work, but I couldn’t talk to Malcolm or be alone there – a strain. I should email Malcolm, since we'll be out of touch until Barbara leaves again in December. But at least I can still write my diary. I was in the middle of writing when my cell phone rang. Ron said, “I fell.” The claw grabbed my heart. “Where are you?” “On the Esplanade at West Thames Street.” His voice was angry, to hide his fear. “They want to call an ambulance.” “Stop them.” The last thing we needed right now was for Ron to end up in an unknown Emergency Room. He was much safer at home. “I’ll be right there.” Thank God I could get to him in two minutes. I found Ron on the ground, with a terrified Kate hovering and a moderate crowd of Park Rangers, police and passers-by. “Are you hurt, Ron?” By then I was fully panic-stricken. “Not really. I’ve been worse. Someone in the crowd bumped me and I went down.” With the help of Kate and a tall bystander, I got Ron on his feet. He seemed pretty steady, considering that he had a big cut on the back of his head. The Park Rangers had used an emergency first aid kit to stop the bleeding. Head wounds usually gush blood, but Ron didn’t even have any blood spots on his clothes. Kate and I 166
walked him home, accompanied by a Park Patrol, a young guy. They were all very concerned and filed a report. But they cancelled the ambulance. I have to fix Ron’s glasses.
Ron took another fall in the house this A.M. in his study, and now he had a bruised elbow and a swollen knee. The third fall this week. I got very anxious about our plan to go to the theatre later with Bob and Rosaire to see a Sam Shepherd play – unfamiliar territory, crowds, what with Ron already injured, not to mention depressed. Even before Ron fell, I was full of anxiety. I had waked about four, and not having the courage to get up, lay in bed until six, fretting, imagining the nauseating thud when Ron fell – knowing the time was very close. When Ron woke up, I sobbed and told him I was terrified he was going to have a serious injury, and I didn’t know what to do. That I could see the time had come when he shouldn’t be walking at all. I hated the subtext of what I was saying – that for me to be less anxious, he had to be in a wheelchair. To lose his last fragments of liberty. “It would be easier if I just took cyanide and got it over with.” That was pretty specific. Ron had been reading a book by the Hemlock Society called Let me Die before I Wake. But I knew Ron couldn't get any cyanide. More bodies in the ruins today. Lots of firemen standing bravely at attention. When the huge sections of the last standing wall were removed, big pits had opened up beneath them. They found the bodies when they began cleaning out the underground levels. That madman. 167
I kept wondering about what to do when we got Osama Bin Laden. It seemed to me that an Op-Ed article in The New York Times had the right answer: try him in a world court. Only an international judgment would have credibility and legitimacy. In the meantime, Bin Laden, insane or not, obviously had a lot of people on his side. If we couldn’t track him down, it was because he was well-hidden, protected by many supporters who hated the United States. Particularly now that we had attacked Afghanistan. I wondered how the shuttered, veiled women under Taliban rule felt about Bin Laden. I imagined he would love to set off a nuclear device somewhere if he could. Some beautiful place like Jerusalem or Paris or New York Harbor.
DAY 68 We had dinner at Barry and Lorna Wallenstein’s apartment on Riverside Drive. We were pleased to be invited out, and we got dressed up. Dinner was delicious. Then the fork slipped from Ron’s hand and spilled pasta with marinara sauce all over him. “I look good in everything I eat,” he joked. Later that night, Ron asked me, “If I decide to die, would you die with me?” I looked down at Pearl, sitting in my lap, so soft. I stroked her thoughtfully. “I don’t know. It would depend on how I was feeling that day.”
Robin Arutt, Ron’s 30-year-old cousin and my close friend, came over with Colleen O’Toole, who escaped from the 25th floor of 168
Tower Two. Colleen told us her own story – hearing the announcement of the emergency evacuation, then hearing it rescinded. Not being able to see anything from her office, deciding to leave anyway, going down dozens of flights of stairs, seeing Tower One in flames, running across the Plaza – the danger from falling glass, falling airplane parts and people leaping out – racing down the subway stairs outside Century 21 department store after the second plane hit, being led through the underground passages to safety by a man who wasn’t panicked... until she told him about the second plane. Talk about PTSD. Colleen was devastated, on leave from her job. She had just come back to NY after two months away. Robin looked pale and tired. They’d arrived from Connecticut in mid-afternoon and had been wandering around Ground Zero until they came over. Robin and I both drank a lot of wine.
I had nightmares again last night and slept badly. One problem was that Ron and I had always slept like spoons, one guy hugging the other, but now he had trouble turning over by himself, and anyway he said he could only sleep on his left side, hugging me, so I was pinned into place all night, weighed down by his immobile arm over my right shoulder. Sometimes I woke up too stiff to move. Unwillingly I hauled myself up to make breakfast. In the kitchen, I was again overwhelmed with anxiety about Ron getting injured. It was uncontrollable. I simply couldn't bear it – every time I thought he was going to begin moving around in the house without me right beside him to catch him if he fell, I’d be swamped with fear. Ron fell four times last week. Now I was afraid to leave him alone. I wanted him to quit walking – to be safe. I want him in a wheelchair. 169
While Ron was washing his face, I stood at his window, looking down at lots of men in FDNY and NYPD jackets, all wearing smoke masks and blue hardhats, standing around the ruins waiting for bodies. They didn’t have much to do, but they had protested so much at being taken off the job that Mayor Giuliani had let them go back in. A symbolic respect for all the 300 or 400 still-missing firemen and policemen. I watched them standing there, waiting for the grapplers to release their buddies from their dense, ashy tombs.
DAY 72 It was Thanksgiving. We were invited to Glo’s for dinner at five. The ‘nabe’, as we called our neighborhood, was empty. Nobody on the Esplanade. The Hudson was calm with cat’s paws, flat, bluegray. Serene in the wintry sun, 50 or so degrees. In the smoking ruins, work crews were reduced for the holiday – just a few firemen and men in hardhats, standing around. Then later, more new body bags – I saw five or six. Each time it felt as if somebody re-opened a wound in me. No wonder it wasn’t forming a scab. “As whole contingents of corpses continued to turn up,” Ron
sometimes ushered out on flag draped stretchers and occasionally accompanied by reedy bagpipes that were hard to ignore, his mood made mortal and melancholic drifted as if he now faced life in a lifeboat bereft of oars and compass, and in this he was not alone, he knew many like himself who had survived the tragedy.
Yesterday a team of men in welders’ helmets started cutting up what I call the ‘dinner forks’ – parts of a fallen Gothic wall which look like big forks, tines up, their handles incongruously stuck into the rubble stew. 170
Figure 17. â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;Dinner forksâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; late November, 2001. Photographer unknown.
Stop it, Julia. Pay attention to the present – to the sunshine, the taste of an apple, the way the tour boats list toward shore going by the ruins, when everybody rushes to that side to gawk. Chaos reigned. I couldn't think, prioritize. I felt pulled in all directions, made a list of possible activities: - do accounts - SBA application - refund deposits for cancelled Paris rentals - catch up on filing - take Ron out in his scooter - go to grocery - buy booze - open a joint savings account for Ron and Gloria - go to ‘Bird Bath and Beyond’ with Toby for a saucepan, AC filters, I forget? - write a poem - draw a picture - read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year - try to write my diary - meditate, cogitate, masturbate? Instead I stared listlessly at the smoke bellying from the ruins, sulphur-yellow again. I bet it stank even worse than usual. The plumes from hell – oozing as well from the hot rubbish clutched in the molars of a big bi-jawed steam-shovel dragging red-hot steel from the burning area and dumping it to one side to cool. The line of men behind the barricades, waiting for bodies. Part of the black 172
metal veil shrouding the wedding cake has blown off. Now visible on the wall of its rooftop penthouse, huge letters, painted in red: ‘Parts’. With an arrow.
DAY 74 This afternoon Toby invited us to the housewarming for her new apartment, Liberty View #10 K, just down the block, in a building designed by a friend from Yale, Dave Acheson. Ron sat on a high barstool, enjoying the view from her windows, looking down the Hudson to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where her relatives and his once landed from Eastern Europe. “If you were going to move, how come you decided to stay in Battery Park City?” someone asked her. “My kids thought I was nuts only to move across the street,” Toby began. “A lot of people just ran away. They left and never came back. All the apartments in the building across my courtyard were empty. I hated looking out at their bare windows. But this is my neighborhood and I wanted to stay, to keep on going and doing and living.” “Yeah, sometimes we saw moving vans come in the middle of the night,” said Ron, “but we decided not to leave either. This is our home.” “The rents dropped by fifty percent,” Toby went on. “The building manager found me a new apartment over here, with a view of the water. I want to begin to have fun again, have parties; I want to invite friends and neighbors in.” She looked at Ron, balancing on his barstool, his cane in the corner. “Julia and Ron will still be able to come over. We all feel the same. We’re not going anywhere.” She sounded a lot more sure than I did.
My schedule was too full. I kept it that way. We were surrounded by people. Ron’s friends came down. We had guests for dinner. I went to the Yale Club, to psychotherapy, out to lunch. One day a reporter from the Denver Post came to interview us for an article about the thirty hours right after the attacks. Someone from Newsday came over to take our photo, sitting on the Pacha seat, looking frightened.
DAY 79 Malcolm announced that he was leaving Canberra and going back to Boulder to live with his wife. In an email, he told me that he longed for me, that I was still his ‘sex slave’. What happened with the girlfriend in Oz?
DAY 80 Another terrifying nightmare: Ron and I have traveled to a college campus where he will give a lecture. It is twilight, the sky is dark gray, lights are beginning to go on, and the campus is very green and quiet. The taxi lets us off at the wrong building. Ron’s talk has been moved to the ‘observatory’, at the top of a hill some distance away. We don't know exactly where it is. We are nearly late. Now everything has accumulated to put Ron at risk: a new place, bad light, unfamiliar sloping territory, not knowing where we're going, trying to rush. Not to mention the added fatigue 174
and stress of travel. He has his cane and I am holding his arm. Somehow, when we get to the top of the path, we are not in the right place. We are standing perilously on a white stone ledge â&#x20AC;&#x201C; a precipitous drop. I am panicstricken â&#x20AC;&#x201C; how have we gotten into this dangerous situation, with Ron on a steep slope? Itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s at least thirty feet to the ground below. Afraid of falling, I sit down on the ledge, still holding Ron's hand. He's standing, and I know the slightest tug will send him crashing to the stones below, but I have to get him to sit down before he falls. I pull on his hand, just a little bit, and his knees collapse. He immediately falls over the edge and lands belly-down on the top of a wide, low stone column. Like a sacrifice on an altar. He's not moving. I'm almost sure he's dead. First a weird thought flashes through my head. Can I still deposit his last disability check, received before he died? Then I start screaming, out of control. Help, help, somebody help us. No one is stopping. People seem curious but not very concerned. I'm frantic and terrified, overcome with grief. Is he really dead? Can somebody save him? How could I have done this? How awful will my life be without him? In my dream I'm screaming so long that I lose my breath.
I woke up horrified, gasping for air. Ron asleep, warm at my side.
DECEMBER DAY 82
The disquieting stillness at ground level. It felt as if everything were waiting. The sun glued on the sky, red and inflamed, an unripe boil. Parked cars draped in a thick, translucent icing of frozen rain, long grown gray. Pink dawn glimmering off the heavy electric cables lying in the empty street. The double-glazed windows of the redbrick buildings revealing abruptly emptied apartments. The black and yellow police tape, flapping. Down in the pit, the endless scrape and grating of the bulldozers. In my study, the relentless smell of burning electronics, creeping in through the ticking heater. A flame-shaped fog of steam on the window from the mug of cafĂŠ au lait which, barefoot in my bathrobe, I had forgotten on the sill next to the oil lamp. Seven A.M. brought to light what at night we might forget. Slipping out from under Ronâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s slumbering arm, I had crept into my study, despite its grim view of the ruins, for a half-hour of freedom. Now in my bathroom, I was re-brushing my teeth, gritty again from 176
the particulate in the air. And rushing to shower before I heard Ron moo. The mooing plastic cow began as a joke. Gloria gave it to Ron to celebrate his new novel, Cows. But for Ron and me, the cow had transmogrified into a signal. The signal for Ron’s helplessness, and for my fear. Large for a refrigerator magnet, the black and white Holstein mooed loudly when you pushed its belly. A childish cow with an endearing pink smile – even a small child could work it. Ron had taken to keeping it with him. Since his voice had grown weaker, he could speak only in whispers. But his stiff fingers still could prod the cow into a huge, friendly moo. He kept it in his ‘holster,’ a home for the Holstein, attached to his belt. At night, the cow slept on his bedside table. The cow’s once-laughable moo sounded more menacing each time I heard it. Even panic inducing. It produced a Pavlovian reflex. Ron mooed, I came running. I wasn’t over-reacting, unfortunately. His holstered Holstein’s unvarying moo couldn’t distinguish between “Make me some breakfast,” and “I’ve fallen again.” As I dried off, I heard Ron mooing. Naked, I dashed to the alcove, where he was struggling to sit up in bed. I shifted him upright, turning him sideways, my left arm under his right armpit. My right hand skillfully swung his bony knees over the edge of the bed. His legs dangled. “Let me get on some clothes. I’ll be right back.” Our life was a series of constant adjustments, corrected trajectories. Since the night when Steve and Nik Katz, at my request, had raised our motorized bed onto 6-inch lifts, Ron could again stand up alone. I held his arm for balance; Ron slid down off the bed, till his feet touched the floor, and Eureka! stood up. Using his arty, transparent, Plexiglas cane, he shuffled, knees locked, from the bed down the hall to his bathroom. With me right behind him, arms outstretched. A dancer had taught us the ‘balancing act’. You don’t have to physically support someone who is off-balance. You just put out a hand as they begin to lose it and gently tip them back into 177
equilibrium. It’s a question of timing, of being attentive. I was expert at being attentive. Hyper-vigilance had become my modus operandi. Stay on top of all procedures, treatments. Know all the people involved with R’s care. Relate to them. Stimulation helps. Music. Conversation. Physical contact helps. Hold his hand. But don’t pat him on the back because he might collapse, like an old, feeble dog. Rub cream on his feet and legs, groom him, caress him. Try to let others wait on him, not me. Spend ‘quality time’. Don’t be impatient. Don’t fight back. Hang out, talk. Let him be angry. Don’t overreact. Understandably depressed, Ron nonetheless refused medication. It might hurt his writing. At first he joked about his wasting muscles. “It’s lucky I’m not a jock. Writers don’t need muscles.” When it got worse, he really got worried. What if he got too weak to ‘take himself out’? “I want to decide when I can’t stand it any more. I don’t think I want to go on living if I can’t even wipe my own ass.” Well that time had come, but here he was, still fighting. Tenaciously whispering his stories onto the page. “How do ya like your voice-recognition software?” other writers would ask. “Let me put it this way: it types better than I do.” No matter how often I reassured him, no matter how attentive I was, he was still convinced I would leave him, run off. A lot of people would have. Somebody suggested he occasionally thank me. “You’re an angel,” Ron would say. It felt so unnatural. He sounded like his mother, world’s champion hypocrite. Even though he meant it. Ron couldn’t imagine why I still loved him, but I seemed to. He scrutinized me for tiny signs of hatred. I always was hovering, being too helpful. When he had to wake me at night, to turn him over, he’d anticipate the venom in my voice. He’d lie there, trying not to need to move, trying to sleep in a painful position, but sometimes he just couldn’t. Around the third time he’d wake me I’d 178
lose it. First I was mean, then I was sorry. And late at night, after a few glasses of wine, I’d been known to pick fights. In vino veritas. Sometimes Ron asked me if I wished he’d die. “I’d miss you,” I’d say. “I love you. I just hate your illness. Let’s cheer up by inviting people over.”
My niece Claire Rasé, visiting New York, came to see us this afternoon. “Ron seems somber,” she said as she left. “His office view is definitely not conducive to writing. I can't imagine trying to concentrate with the big-screen movie of that devastation going on out the window, and all the smoke still rising three months later.”
DAY 84 Marty Washburn spent the afternoon with Ron, as he did nearly every Sunday. They had been friends since Cornell. For hours they’d talk about writing and art. Sometimes they just sat and drank scotch. Since Barbara was still in her apartment, I went to the Yale Club to get a breather from the persistent odor of burning wiring. Later, Barbara and Dennis came over to dinner with our mutual friends, Elizabeth Rindskopf and her husband Bob Parker. I wasn’t up to cooking, so we ordered in. A great system. Everybody orders what they personally want from Foxhounds, and we have it all delivered. At dinner Ron announced that he had decided (“Julia's convinced me”) not to walk any more, but to use his scooter instead.
When the evening drew to a close, I walked them downstairs. Bob stayed behind as the others headed home on foot. He talked to me very insistently for about 20 minutes in the lobby. “You have to stop exhausting yourself to take care of Ron,” he said. “I can tell you’re desperate, at your wits’ end. If you deprive yourself of everything you personally need in order to take care of him, you’ll burn out and not be able to cope at all. Both of you have to be cared for. You have to make a plan that allows you to keep yourself whole. You have to meet your own intellectual and emotional needs. You need to hire more people to come in and replace you when you’ve had enough. It’s not selfish – it’s for his good, too. Neither of you will get through this if you’re a wreck.” The problem, as I explained, was that I didn’t know how to call a halt, to say I couldn’t ‘do’ any more. I admitted to him that I had been far beyond my capacities for a very long time. Since 9/11, even though we’d hired Kate, I wasn’t doing any better, and Ron was doing much worse. Yes, I was pushing him to use the scooter. I couldn’t stand the anxiety, watching him stagger around, waiting for the dreadful thud when he fell. Ron fell five times, just this week, I said. He already had a couple of injuries from previous falls which made it difficult for him to balance well, and he was still insisting on walking around the house alone, taking risks. His lunatic intractability! “It soon becomes obvious,” Ron wrote, “his affliction involves fear of falling.” fear of anything falling buildings airplanes people himself not everyone relates that way to the Scar why him he feels he’s the fall guy since last fall
Going back upstairs after talking to Bob, I was abruptly furious, totally unsympathetic to Ron. Maybe having somebody be sorry for me for a change allowed me to feel my smothered anger. It felt as if Ron was daring me to let him fall down. He knows he's an accident waiting to happen. I convinced myself Ron’s insisting on walking was a power play. He was being a ‘bad boy,’ hoping it would get my attention, that I'd spend all my energy worrying about him, cajoling him, begging him to be careful. But I was too tired, too stressed, too depressed and suicidal. When I walked in and offered to help him get ready for bed, he snarled, “Quit bugging me. Leave me alone.” Bad timing for rudeness, Ron. You told me not to help you, so I won't. He was insulting and enraged and taking unnecessary risks because he was pissed at me for having to give up walking. It wouldn't do him any harm to sleep in his clothes. If he needed to go to the john safely, he could take the damn scooter – he just didn't want to. As I stalked out, I warned him if he fell he'd have to call 911, because I wasn't going to pick him up from an unnecessary fall. It was idiotic. Then I barricaded myself in my study, leaving Pearl to keep Ron company. Trying to fall asleep on the hide-a-bed, I didn’t feel strong enough to get up in the morning and start all over again – the phone calls, the medical referrals, the money worries, the exhaustion, the power struggles with Ron over what he could still do safely. If we couldn’t be allies, if he was going to be abusive and manipulative, I couldn’t go on. I was too tired. I didn’t have enough resilience. He doesn’t realize how close to my limit I am. He sensed, of course, what I wouldn’t admit – that what I really wanted was just to leave – to be alone – to go anywhere – somewhere where I didn't have to be overworked, overwrought, overwhelmed. What would he think if I told him outright that tonight all I wanted was for it to be over – to flee, to be with Malcolm? To be by myself, to be able to live without living in fear all the time? That I dreamed I had murdered him? Sometimes I thought of the icy 181
Hudson as a peaceful bed, of floating downstream in it, slipping gently under the surface. It occurred to me that I really could leave. I could ask Barbara to rent her apartment – Ron could damn well hire a nurse if he wouldn’t be polite to me. Or I could move to France and he could go live in a nursing home. The hell with him. I don’t have to die. I looked out at the ruins, where the smoke swept over the bone dry ash, and felt as if I were looking into my own heart. Dying is also abandoning Ron.
My day began at noon? What interrupted me last night was Ron opening my study door to say, “Let’s make up.” “You mean you need your shirt unbuttoned?” I whipped back. But in a few minutes I got up and joined him as he was working his way (on foot of course) down the hallway. I unbuttoned his shirt. He thought I was mad at something he’d said. He didn’t even recognize that he had been prodding, goading me by insisting on walking when it wasn’t necessary. “But I don’t need to give up walking completely,” he insisted. “My knee is better now.” I felt that claw grip my heart again. It took me a long time to get to sleep then, sandwiched in bed between Ron and Pearl, heart pounding, head aching, right shoulder taut. Ron was having trouble, too. Finally I got him the tail end of the scotch, and had the brilliant idea of eating a square of chocolate myself, letting it melt slowly in my mouth, lying in bed. When I finally went under, I slept like the dead. Which made it hard to deal with being awakened two or three times, as I inevitably am. First Ron woke me to tell me I was snoring. “Take an antihistamine.” Then I had to get up two more times to calm down Pearl. She had begun 182
emitting loud, sepulchral yowls when she thought the house was too quiet. My personal theory was that since she was blind, if she was asleep on the floor and couldn't hear us when she woke up, she thought we’d abandoned her again, the way we did after 9/11. The only thing that would calm her was to be on the bed with us. But she was too old and weak to climb up on the bed by herself, so I had to get up, locate her and put her there. In the morning, it was just more of the same. “I have to go to the bathroom.” Ron sounded angry. “How do you want me to get there?” “You know I think it’s safest if you take your scooter down to the end of the hall and I walk with you from there.” I get Ron to a standing position and we shuffle sideways to the foot of the bed where we’ve parked the scooter. He sits on it. I go down the hall to his study, while he follows on the scooter. I have to go first because the scooter is virtually the same width as the passage. When we remodeled, we specifically built the bookcases so it would fit. Once at his study door, we elevate the scooter’s motorized seat so he can “stand down” from it, as he does from the bed. Usual routine. I leave his cow on the bathroom sink, close the door for him, scan the ruins with his telescope. New body bags. Ron moos. We always shower together now. The restorative shower, our symbol of comfort. It’s also easier, and safer for him. When he’s dressed, and wearing the cow holster, I get him to the dining room table in his scooter. Breakfast. I leave him there reading the paper to go to the bathroom. Ron, knowing I’m unavailable, rolls back down the hall and initiates a walk from his scooter to his desk. This time he safely crosses the rug he tripped over Friday night. I ignore his having walked again, go into my own study and lie down on the sofa bed, still unmade from last night’s fight. I try to
meditate. I fold up the bed, turn on my computer, try to remember my dream. Daily tasks take over. Call again about an unpaid bill. Try to get our health insurance to pay for Ron’s medications, doctor’s visits and other medical necessities. Our mail is constantly full of form letters refusing coverage, dunning letters from medical providers who haven’t been paid by the insurance company. I have to respond and protest, filing more documents, asking MDs for supplementary information, etc. For them as well as for me, health care is a bureaucratic nightmare. I am swamped with depressing phone calls telling me that Cigna Insurance won’t cover what Ron needs – in this case home health aides. It was going to get much worse for us economically after December 31, when I officially retired. I was years from receiving Social Security. Our living costs weren’t exorbitant, but we spent as much as that again on Ron’s uninsured health care.
What I wanted to tell Malcolm when I had a chance, was how, talking with my therapist Neila last Wednesday, I realized that in our current situation (as she puts it) I’ve internalized him. I can hear Malcolm’s voice in me. He gives me courage, helps me to calm down, get perspective – to nurture myself with his strength, love and hope. I wished I felt that way about Ron – I knew Ron wanted me to. It would make everything so much easier, to love Ron the way I once did. I didn’t love Ron less now, just differently. He couldn’t be my source of hope and calm because he was the source of my desolation and anxiety – he was marked by risk and death. I felt as if my whole world was ruins, not just the ones outside our window. 184
It was unfair to burden Ron with how much I resented giving up everything for his illness. It was relentless, inexorable. It always came first. All our decisions had to be made in the context of this wasting disease – this waste of both our lives. And the disease was growing stronger, bigger. It took all the time available – that’s why I had to leave the house, to claim time from his illness. Ron at least had time to write. At Barbara's apartment when I got to my own writing, my work, I felt better, I forgot a little. Hope crept back in. When Malcolm called from Sydney airport, he said, “I didn’t realize how much you love Ron.” “Of course I love him,” I answered, with a sort of pang. Malcolm must have thought I’d stop loving Ron when I fell in love with him.
One day I was struck by a strange, ironic prophesy. When I met him, Ron was still married to Lynn Luria, who died of breast cancer about ten years after they were divorced. Her last book, published in 1997, was a posthumous collection of short stories about loneliness and the failure of love. It was titled Danger, Wall May Fall. “We focused the telescope on Ground Zero,” Ron wrote. The excavators with their long necks were bobbing up and down like birds in a mating dance in an arena lit like a stadium for a night game A cascade of orange sparks fell from the ruins of a building from some metalworker’s blowtorch Just then a severed section of wall fell with a loud boom and we all jumped 185
When the dust cleared we could see the hard hats lining up for the passage of another body. After a while he came away from the telescope his eyes streaming. “What’s the matter?” she asked “I could see the workers crossing themselves as the body passed,” he said
Malcolm called Barbara's apartment from Boulder within seconds of my picking up his message – the usual ESP. But I was so stressed and he was so jet-lagged it wasn’t a very nice talk. Then he said, “Carolyn is around,” and we hung up quickly. I had always thought the reason Malcolm didn’t leave his wife was that the resentment and anger she radiated were outweighed by the comfort and convenience of going to his own room, reading a book, having the laundry and cooking done for him. All he had to do was try to ignore her and find passion on the side. And I had been a great choice because I wasn't available, so I wouldn’t demand that he change. But now I wasn’t such a great choice. So far away. Malcolm had begged me to promise to live with him after Ron died. In the five months since we’d last seen each other, I had, to my surprise, accepted that notion. We had even even discussed living together in New York if Ron had to be institutionalized – though that would be hard to manage without hurting Ron.
Something great just happened! Ron might get better. The editor of Discovery Magazine phoned to say she’s found a clinical study using stem cells on Ron’s malady. He might be able to participate. Ron was flying, totally exuberant. Hope! If they cured him, that would change everything. I couldn’t even imagine. I felt a 186
pinprick of fear. If the death were washed from his cells, could I rejuvenate my passion for him, love him as a lover, the way I did before? Right now, I was just too exhausted. Our neighborhood attorneys, Michael and Julie, came over at twilight, to execute our wills, which we had been too busy to deal with since the attacks. Michael was dumbstruck by our view of Ground Zero. They can’t see the ruins from their building. The pit was deep and black. Out of it, a huge crane was pulling up a section of what looked like a subway track with all three rails and a switching station. Dangling perpendicular from cables, it was six or seven stories tall – absolutely enormous, another manifestation of the scale of this whole operation. The wills were signed – another huge operation. Now I can die. It occurred to me that if I died before I retire, three weeks from today, Ron would get another $50K, plus the Paris mortgage would be fully paid. That was a hunk of value – worth considering. Particularly if they could cure him. Ron could have a new wife and a nice life. My eyes were burning. I had a headache. I was too tired to be a good wife. I imagine putting on my winter coat, putting stones in the pockets, walking down the Esplanade in the dark, back behind the rose bushes, going over the railing at rip tide.
DAY 90 The burned-out buildings and tottering walls that formed the backdrop of the WTC ruins were growing transparent and lacy as the workers thinned layers away, cut the empty window-frames off the top of the last standing wall of the North Tower. Now, through the empty spaces you could see water trucks, fire hoses, flashing lights, 187
day-glo red-striped barricades, all at street-level, fifteen stories above the pit. I fiddled with the telescope. “Ron, is that Vesey Street, over there where you can see a revolving blue light on top of a parked police car?” “I guess so. It’s hard to tell, with the smoke.” He rotated his architect’s chair away from his desk towards the window, and sat slumped, looking out. “Do you think my depression could be a symptom of pollution poisoning? It doesn’t feel like it’s coming from my spirit. It feels more like a physical drain on me.” I looked at the computer screen where his voice had been transcribed as he was dictating. The ruins changed shape every day as the site of demolition was demolished The one constant was the plumes of smoke from the subterranean fires Firemen on alert for the dead, ready to stop work and break out the orange body bags People would come to visit to check out the progress of the vast cleanup operation, less from a morbid thrill-seeking impulse, I supposed, than it was a desire to find out what had happened to us and what was going to happen to us The main reaction of people looking at the site was that if this could happen anything can happen That everything was impermanence, that there was no telling what would happen next Our visitor declared himself in good spirits – single malt Scotch, he quipped But when he looked out the window at Ground Zero tears dribbled down his face He turned away and apologized “For what?” she asked him. “That’s what we all feel.” “We’ve just been looking at some of the shrines,” he said. “The ones with photos of the missing. Decorated with colored 188
paper, flowers, flags and votive candles. And down here the one with hundreds of teddy bears.” “But why teddy bears?” asked his friend. “That was one I couldn’t figure out.” “It’s obvious,” he snapped. “Teddy bears are for hugging and making you feel good. So it’s a way of passing on good feeling to those passed away. It’s like a loving goodbye.”
DAY 91 Step, step, step-step. Step, step, step-step. That was Ron’s walk. It was like a little dance. Step. (Carefully.) Step. (Balance, teeter.) Step-step. Ron was walking again, but not alone, and not without his cane. “Julia, I’m going to have to go to the john, soon.” He woke me gently now, because he knew when I was sound asleep it freaked me out. Waking in the morning, he was at the most risk, when we were both groggy, when he was stiff, when there was some urgency. My first wave of anxiety gradually subsided. Our routine was a little more together. Get myself up, brush my teeth, splash H2O on my face, drink water, try to feel coherent, be ready. Then help Ron. We had abandoned using his scooter in the apartment. Ron had convinced me it was so clumsy that it created a new set of dangers. Slowly, me behind him, arms outspread, we worked our way past the bed, down the hall. Step. Step. Step-step. Step. Step. Stepstep. I always locked Pearl in my bathroom first, so Ron couldn’t fall over her. Between her inability to see and his inability to steer, it was a real possibility. When would the wheelchair situation get resolved? I waited nervously for the next ‘sickening thud’.
Malcolm told me things weren’t going any better with his wife Carolyn. He had the crazy idea that I should try to come to Denver from New York to spend one afternoon in bed together in a motel somewhere. He’d sneak away so Carolyn wouldn’t know. Although I could hardly believe Malcolm and I could be on the same hemisphere and not meet somehow to make love, I was also afraid. I was so emotionally fragile now. I didn’t want to hurt Ron, and I certainly didn’t want to fight with him. A motel room in Boulder was stressful. Having only four hours with Malcolm, not sleeping in each other’s arms, no sexy dinners, all dressed up, then going back to bed, no long, endless lovemaking followed by more endless lovemaking. Stressful to have to grab passion guiltily, then part again. I said it would be difficult for me under any circumstances to leave Ron with a home health aide. Still, I broached the idea to Ron. My sister Kathy lived in Denver. I had been missing her, I said. There were some documents I needed to check at the Denver Art Museum, I said. “Leave me with a babysitter?” Ron spat. “She’d be the baby.” Malcolm finally got it that I couldn’t go to meet him. I admitted the truth. I was in no shape for a junket to Colorado. He needed to leave me alone, quit pushing me. Let me deal just with Ron. I couldn’t take the stress, the divided loyalties, what Malcolm called the ‘bed-hopping.’ Ron had to be my top priority, even if I longed to be with Malcolm. God I miss him. No matter. First things first. Try again. Try harder. Malcolm left Carolyn and went back to Australia. I couldn’t cry in the Yale Club library, but I could be alone with myself a little. I wandered around, looking at the bookshelves, searching them for random wisdom. I took down a book by Daniel Goleman called Emotional Intelligence. It said that love and grief are the ways humans respond to things and people that are beyond our 190
control but on which we depend. You can’t control anything but yourself. He suggested that to deal with intense feelings like grief, write them out for 20 minutes a day. Learn to be an optimist. Somewhere else I read that you become more positive if you make a list of 50 things you can appreciate in the day. Every day make a new list for that day. Good things today: - cuddling at dawn in bed with Ron and Pearl - drying Ron off from his shower - getting the anti-depressant prescription from the MD - eating an apple for lunch - the sunshine - getting a task done at the post office - liking my clothes - standing up tall - Malcolm loving me - R not falling (yet) - the Yale Club library - Barbara’s apartment - the river - clouds - boats - the workers in the ruins (18 things). But no matter how many things I found, the litany of my depression whispered in the background: “It would be easier to die.” If this were my last day, would I spend it at the Yale Club, writing and reading? Would I go home and hold Ron so he knows that I love him? 191
Figure 18. Smoke at Ground Zero, photo Rochelle Ratner ÂŠEstate of Rochelle Ratner 2001. 192
I accidentally left the air conditioner vent open all night. I wondered what pollutants had leaked into the house. I woke up too early, headachy. When I went back later to wake Ron, Pearl was curled up on my side of the bed, with Ron’s poor, rigid hand weighing her down. She was purring. He has been so exhausted lately I just let him sleep. The wind wailed past the curved window of my study, but the Ground Zero ruins were oddly quiet. From the slapping crane cables flew multiple banners: US, Texas, may be West Virginia. A trade union? Blowing stiffly horizontal in the wind. A cluster of policemen stood in the cold at the intersection of Albany and West Street. No trucks were moving, very few men in the ruins, just the bodysearchers – and only one or two grapplers grappling. It was too empty. I had no idea what caused the change, though there was smoke anew yesterday. Then came sirens, wafting over the ruins. That sound always terrified me. I wasn’t the only one. After the attacks, an order came out from the Mayor’s office – “No sirens unless absolutely necessary. People’s nerves are too on edge.” Three fire engines pulled up at the Mercantile Exchange. No smoke. No explosions. I hoped it was a false alarm. Dust blew up from the ruins. Still no activity. Too cold? I watched. At last the fire engines left. We never really can know what’s going on outside our field of vision. We’re reduced to fantasy, conjecture and hearsay. “Are you in back in touch with Malcolm?” Ron asked during breakfast. I buttered my English muffin. “We’ve never been out of touch – he emails me occasionally.” Ron got his hard, pinched look. “Didn’t you know that?” I took a bite, trying to look calm. 193
“I hadn’t been thinking about it.” Malcolm, Ron and I each felt injured and used. A ménage à trois is unstable, like a tripod. Ours had been shaky for a long time. Ron completely fell apart any time he thought I was in touch with Malcolm, which I was, secretly, usually several times a day. Malcolm had gone back to live with Carolyn again, and failed. Although he didn't yet admit it to me, I was certain that he now had begun a new love affair. Someone had been waiting for him back in Australia, someone who didn't live amid ruins.
At noontime in the cold December sun, it felt like winter again after the unseasonable thaw. Ron and I went out, Ron steering his scooter, to get some air. Now his mitten-clad flippers had to be forced over the handlebars. I taped spoons on the controls to extend them, then tied his thumbs into the bowls of the spoons so he couldn’t lose his grip. He could manage pretty well, but for how long? “I feel as if we need more joy, more pleasure in the day.” I said as we got to the Esplanade railing. The Statue of Liberty was shining in the thin, silvery rays. “What can I do to try to make this time happier?” Ron didn’t answer. We went along the Hudson, watching the curious tidal flux reverse the current, the flotsam moving back upstream in the murky water. We passed the empty North Cove marina, where yachts with private helicopters used to anchor. There was one orange police dinghy tied to a dock. Ron rolled over to the altar of soggy teddy bears at the end, the rotting flowers, all forming a small, sordid mountain since the ice storm. Somebody should clean this up. People were depressed enough down here. 194
“What can I do to make you happier?” he asked eventually. And instantly in my head I heard the answer: “Die.” I can’t believe I thought that. I was shocked and angry with myself. I was waiting for Ron to die, but I didn’t want him to die. Maybe I spent so much time imagining life without him as a protection against how terribly I’d miss him. How terribly I already missed the Ron he used to be. These days our only distraction from the ruins was his illness. Or vice-versa. At South End Avenue, where Liberty Street comes in, I noticed a hand-lettered sign, freshly taped to a lamp post: “December 16, 2001.” A photo of a young woman with black hair. “Still missing, Sharon Christina Millan. Call 917-332-4212 with any information. Sharon, we love you.”
DAY 100 - no phone - no bank - no post office - no transportation - no clothing shop - no chain store - no shoe store - no bakery - no health food store - no farmer’s market - no hardware store - no dry goods store - no hotel 195
- no movie theatre - no pet store No fun. What Ron and I had was a life organized around a hole. The hole that had left a hole in our life. As they emptied the pit, our life felt more and more empty. It was getting to zero. As Gertrude Stein would say, ‘there’s no there there’ any more. Kate turned up this afternoon in tears: desolate, breaking up with her 45-year-old boyfriend. She sat in the armchair, sobbing. I was surprised to find myself feeling so upset for her. Even Pearl climbed up and stood on her lap, staring worriedly, with huge, empty pupils, into her face. I realized that Kate had become the fourth member of our household, and now she was traumatized, too. We were all in ruins, looking out at the ruins. Although some visitors avoided our view, and others, the ones who expected us to act ‘normal’, didn’t get it at all, we began to see that many people actively sought out the ruins. Guided tours were becoming a veritable business. “Crude observation platforms were being built,” Ron wrote, and the improvised shrines of victims’ photos, American flags and teddy bears now wilting from the weather were being displaced by a vision of the whole site as a sort of Pearl Harbor. Besides, the clearing of the site was itself fascinating, with swarms of orange hardhats attacking the piles of rubble, aided by enormous machines that crisscrossed the ruins like mechanical animals. There was something upbeat about it all despite the tragic circumstances, there was an energ y, an undaunted competence, efficiency, an implied optimism that you felt as the characteristic best of the body politic in all its parts. It was this spirit in the long run that he was banking on, this sheer drive, such that you had to wonder whether it was not an end itself, even though you knew it could not be.
The profusion and variety of machinery, of motorized vehicles, of uniformed workers and officials, the enormity of the dig, the colossal dimensions involved, challenged the imagination. And for this challenge the resources of the spirit stretched thin against the shock of it all, an attenuation felt most when the orange body bags came into play, when clumps of men gathered around them in patterns of grief, when you most needed those emotional resources to rise above the awesome devastation working its worst. And more so when you were aware, but for a slightly different geometry, you might have been included among the victims.
DAY 103 Ron and I were trying to save our love-making. He took Viagra, then had a drink. I had two. He was so weak now that my pleasure was almost totally self-induced. This left a point of unmet need burning between my legs. Though we did like each other better, feel more affectionate after sex, it no longer carried over to lift the next morning’s depression for him (or for me) the way it used to.
DAY 104 So much, so many, so frantic, so few: my precious minutes. I sat down at Barbara's and began re-writing my diary as a memoir of this strange time. It had a name, at least for now: FALLING. Would today’s pages be part of it? Briefly interrupted by the daily call from Malcolm. He’s worried about my saying it would be easier to die. “How could you think of killing yourself?” he wanted to know. I can’t leave and I can’t bear to go on. 197
DAY 105 Today, December 23, is the anniversary of Daddy’s death. What would it be like now if Ron and I had had children? They’d still be living at home. They might have been trying to escape with us that day. They would be watching their father slowly dying. The eldest would be 16, too young to lose a father. We had tried for a few years, though Ron wasn’t much interested. “You’ll stop paying attention to me, and spend all your energy on them,” he’d said. Ron’s mother had repeatedly told him and Gloria that she was sorry she’d had children. How ironic. At last he was getting mothered. But he was never going to grow stronger and more independent. Today they knocked down the last of World Trade Center Seven. Yesterday the last broken walls of the Customs House finally collapsed, creating thunderheads of dust, ten stories tall. Outside Ron’s window, I watched fire hoses shooting blasts of water across the ruins, damping the ashes. Across the debris I could see, for the first time, a completely cleared area on the far side of Vesey St. Over the past three months the progress had been astounding. The original, mountainous Armageddon had been gradually extinguished enough to clear a deep central pit. As the army of machines working day and night all over the site began to dig into the debris at its edges, other pits were revealed. I gradually realized that each of the seven destroyed buildings of the World Trade Center had created its own pit as it collapsed into underground cellars, basements and parking lots. Outside the periphery of the vast sixteen-acre site itself, were subsidiary pits from other lost buildings nearby. These holes were not clean-edged and round like craters on a moonscape, but unstable and jagged, full of protruding beams and partially standing walls. They had announced that the main fire in the pit was out. They lied. There was a lot of new smoke, both last night and today, 198
welling up from hidden fires, surrounded by huge clouds of steam as fire hoses hit the hot coals. The firemen standing in the middle of that polluted air. At dawn, as the first light hit the filthy, ragged flags drooping from the tallest crane, I watched a hoe on the perilous edge of a new pit, lifting smoking rubble, the black cloud rising in front of a white floodlight. There were at least three other places steaming. Hot pockets. Lots of black smoke rising from a building just north of the ruins triggered another moment of panic until I realized it was one of those horrible ‘legal emissions’ from building boilers that New York City allows every day. It drifted away. Two nights ago at least 100 men lined up at attention, some with their search dogs, forming a corridor on each side of a flagwrapped stretcher as it was carried diagonally all the way across the ruins to a waiting NYPD ambulance. The blue ambulance light turning slowly, the long lines of men, standing on a now-level surface in the pit, their proud, sad salutes. Even the machines paused, their limp heads respectful. I don’t want to live with this any more. I longed for my friends. And one answered. We got a call from Jennifer Dunbarton Dorn, a much-loved fellow-writer from Boulder whose husband had died shortly before we moved to New York. She was in town, spending the holidays with her children. I begged her to come down for dinner. Ron too was eager to see her. I added more mushrooms to my boeuf bourguignon and hid in my study long enough to re-read Ed Dorn's last book of poetry, Chemo Sábe. “The dim, futile unreality,” he had written in 1999, two years before 9/11. I was struck by Ed's prophetic awareness of Third World anger at the US – justified, of course – and frightened by realizing that although Ed lived two and a half years instead of the predicted three months, he was horribly sick and in pain most of that time. His legacy at the end of his life was these agonizing, scathingly honest poems – no beauty, no joy, no tenderness, no forgiveness. Just rage 199
and suffering and sickness. No redeeming grace through poetry, just a bleak account of the difficulties of dying. In 1992, they told Ron he’d live four years. It’s going on ten. At supper with us, Jenny was sad, drained. Seeing her ongoing grief filled me with sorrow. I curled on the Pasha seat with Ron, nursing my last glass of red wine. I don’t know if she noticed how depressed I seemed. After I put her in a taxi, I pilfered a few minutes for myself for a fast walk along the water. Wearing my fur headband, my acrylic fur coat and gloves, I wasn’t cold even though it was bitter and clear with a full moon and crisp stars. I strode west along South Cove to the Esplanade, then north to the marina, and back down South End Avenue. The broken greenhouse of the Winter Garden, with its dead palm trees, was completely dark. The bright plywood panels over its empty windows gleamed in the moonlight. Inside the damaged building of World Financial Center One, someone had set up an incongruous Christmas tree. There were a few brave decorations inside the lobby of WFC2, though it too was still closed. The Catholic chapel was closed to the public, but inside, it was lit up, with people in there at midnight, a place for the rescue workers to find comfort. Gateway Plaza Building Six was still dark, except for the neon signs of the news stand and nail salon. Most other Gateway shops – the bank, Sloan’s grocery, the Garden Café and Picasso’s Pizza – were still closed. As I went by, I saw the bar at Foxhounds was open late, dimly lit, a few people inside.
Christmas. Ron’s gift to me: he went back to sleep for an hour or two so I could have time to get up, shower, think, record my dreams, be better ready to face the day I would give to him. I hoped to slip off to 200
Barbara’s for a few hours, then come back to make love, get dressed, pick up Glo and go to Cam and Marcelle’s for a family gathering. One pressing task first thing: our friend and neighbor, Alain Arias-Misson, had discovered something called a ‘Fred’ – the wheelchair version of the gyroscope-stabilized Segway, currently in development. They were very expensive – the price of a small house. I wanted to get on the web to see if I could find a second-hand one for Ron. It would be a lifesaver. It could raise Ron to standing height when needed, take him up and down stairs, etc. If he had a ‘Fred’ we could go to France; he could go anywhere. He wouldn’t fall down. Maybe I could have a real job again. Maybe we can get through this.
DAY 108 Ron looked at me this morning as I was dressing him and said, “I guess sometimes you wish I was already dead.” “Jesus,” I said. Then, “I want you here, but I hate your malady. Every day, I will it to be magically gone. I hate what it’s done to our life, how it’s made everything so difficult.” I paused, pondering what could soften my words. “But in some ways we’re lucky. You’re still you. Some people get things that change them so they’re not themselves any more. At least I still have you.” I hugged him, carefully. Then I pulled his bright red T-shirt gently over his head, put his left arm into the sleeve of his red and beige flannel shirt, followed by the right arm, buttoned each cuff, straightened his collar, began buttoning up the front. “What would you do if I did wish you were dead?” I said, wiping the lenses of his glasses and fitting them on his nose. I kissed him on the lips.
“Nothing, I guess. Well, maybe if there were an easy way to commit suicide, I’d kill myself.” He’s still reading that Hemlock Society book. “How about if from now on we try to have more fun? There are lots of things we can still do that are fun.” What a difficult conversation, I thought. He knew, but I couldn’t accept that he knew. I kept trying to hide the truth from him. After all, he was the one who was dying. What I really wanted, I couldn’t have – for things to be the way they were before he got sick. Now I felt overwhelmed by all the things that had to be done for him every day. I was desperate to find a way out, to turn my chores over to somebody else. He’d given me the opening, so I carefully let out one of the many worries that haunted me. “One thing I’m afraid of is that as you get sicker it’ll ruin our marriage. Practically speaking, before that happens, I think we have to deal with some of the changes that are coming. When one person is forced into dependency and the other becomes the caregiver, people start to hate each other. That mustn’t happen to us.” It’s already happened, I thought. “I’m also worried because it looks as if our plan of having someone on call twenty-four hours a day isn’t going to be possible. I’m wondering if we should consider moving together to an apartment over at the Brookdale, that retirement home up at the other end of Battery Park City. Then we wouldn’t have to have anyone actually live with us because they have doctors and nurses, and health care aides. Someone would be there when we needed them, twenty-four hours a day.” “But we’d have to go through another displacement,” Ron looked at all the books on his study walls.
“That’s true, moving is hell. We’d have to figure it out.” I slipped his feet into his shoes and pulled their Velcro straps shut. Confronting Ron with unpleasant realities always made me feel panicky. Later, at Barbara’s, I was still upset. To calm myself, I made a list of the decisions we needed to make and the knowledge they required: 1) How much and what kind of home health care can Ron get? (Long term care insurance policies need review. Where is Fortis policy? Get Cigna care coverage in writing. Review our money situation: income both short and long term, plus possible income from rentals: Paris, N.Y.) 2) Is Brookdale retirement community a good alternative? (Call expert at Hunter College? Will long-term care insurance cover it? What part?) 3) How much of above care situations is tax deductible? 4) Can we go to Paris? (Insurance coverage outside US? Compare insurance versus Medicare to pay for European wheelchair)
Last night, the Empire State Building, visible across the ruins on the skyline, was lit red and green for Christmas. Below us, through the telescope, Ron and I watched a cage, swinging on a long cable from a huge crane, very high above the klieg lights, almost in darkness. In it, some men, back at work after their day off, wielded acetylene torches, cutting down one of the last standing walls. Orange sparks went shooting across the night, showering into the white light below. Then a huge piece of the wall went crashing
unexpectedly into the deep, shadowy pit, creating a violent cloud of ashes. The ruins have their own grim beauty.
DAY 110 Late this afternoon, from Barbara’s apartment, it was spectacular out – windy and very cold, blue with gray clouds, and now as sunset approached, pinky-yellow light from the west on Toby’s new building across the street. Why am I so low? Get on with it, Julia. You can live through this. The walk along the water will do you good. I was on my way to meet Milena in Greenwich Village. Milena, my beloved, difficult friend from Antioch. She dropped out of college when she was 20, because her grandmother died and left her $10,000. She moved to Majorca and bought a farm. Back then, I thought she was one of the most charming, exciting, inventive people I knew. She was adventurous and fearless. Then we met up again accidentally in 1982, when I passed her on the sidewalk in New York, and recognized her. She told me she had been diagnosed as manic-depressive. Her architect husband, a Spaniard, had been building a hospital in Syria, and they were living in Beirut, just across the Lebanese border. She used to talk about being unafraid, excited even, by the battles, about being the one brave enough to run into the street to drag the wounded into a doorway. But eventually Lebanon was too dangerous. They had to move back to Spain, fleeing the war. When they got to Barcelona, she crashed. Her manic courage turned to crushing depression. Her marriage fell apart. She moved back to New York for treatment, living with her parents. We started spending a lot of time together back then. She spent weeks at the library with me, helping me do research for a book I was writing. She said it gave her structure. I was so grateful. 204
Besides she was my friend, and I’m unutterably loyal. But what was exciting in a 20-year-old was exhausting when you were nearly 40. By then, the beautiful, impulsive Milena had become disconcerting – with dyed black hair, gypsy hoop earrings and ‘man tan’ on her face, soporific from her medications when she took them, or suffering from unpredictable mood swings when she did not. Now, at the tail-end of 2001, it had been some 15 years since I’d last seen her. She was in New York to take care of her widowed mother. I turned up at the Cedar Tavern late, exasperated by lastminute demands at home. By the time I got there, she was drunk. Like a lot of manic-depressives, Milena self-medicated on alcohol. She told me that treating bi-polar disorder remained very difficult. She couldn’t seem to find the right balance of medications, and besides, she explained, it’s terrible giving up the soaring grandiosity of the manic highs – the feeling that you can do anything. She told me she still couldn’t keep a job, her wild impetuosity made her too unreliable. She lived on a minimal trust fund her parents had set up for her, going back and forth between Barcelona and her mother’s apartment in the West Village. It would be hard to say which of us was in worse shape this afternoon. I was gray, frazzled, haggard with long-term fatigue and stress. She seemed to me crazier than before, her hair blacker, her skin browner, her earrings bigger. We discussed our parallel situations as caregivers. How just because you had to be a caregiver didn’t mean you were good at it. If I’d had any gift for nursing, I would have become a nurse. I was too distraught and she too unstable for us even to be sensitive to each other. The entire afternoon was tinged with hysteria and despair. Walking to the subway later, in the twilight, I told her how I was afraid I couldn’t keep on at home, that I felt frantic and exhausted all the time. Milena, eager, almost desperate to do something to make me feel better, offered me a pill she said would calm me. But unnerved, I dropped it trying to take it from her 205
fingers, then trying to catch it, tripped and fell flat on my face in the street. Getting back to my feet with a skinned knee and bruised chin, straightening out my own bent glasses frames felt like shades of Ron falling. I realized that despite Milena’s well-meaning kindness, the additional pressure of her own illness made seeing her more than I could cope with. I walked back home alone in the dark, shaky and tearful.
DAY 112 The world keeps falling down around me. When I came into the house yesterday evening, nobody said hello. Where were Kate and Ron? I knocked on his study door, and Kate opened it a crack. I could see she was holding onto Ron's hand. “Is Kate helping you with your balancing exercises?” I asked Ron. Yes. Monosyllabic. The door closed again. There was something odd going on. I sat down at my desk, relieved not to be immediately deluged with duties, questions, emergencies. A minute later, Kate appeared in my doorway. “Julia, can you come to the kitchen? I want you to finish the cooking.” I followed her down the hall. In the kitchen, where Ron couldn’t hear, she hissed in a stage whisper: “He fall. He tell me not to tell you. Don’t tell him I tell you.” “Is he hurt?” “Not much. I don’t think so.” Her face confused, white. “But he really scare me.” “How did you pick him up?” 206
“With my arms, like this.” She showed me. Luckily she’s strong. But very upset. Now Kate, too, fears the sickening thud – the panic when you realize he’s down. Later I figured out Ron probably fell trying to get on or off the exercise bike. Then he lay on the floor and called to Kate, but she didn’t hear him. Somehow he dragged himself across the rug to the door and opened it to call her, and she finally came. Ron still hasn’t told me. And I haven't admitted I know. But today I went out and bought a baby monitor. It has three walkietalkies, one for the sleeping alcove, another for Ron’s study and a third for my own study. That way he can call and someone can answer from any room in the house. I put the cow back on the refrigerator. Malcolm suggested that I finally get myself over to the retirement home and find out the costs, the rules, and what’s available. It would make my life less frightening, but it also feels like a defeat – like losing the battle for Ron’s autonomy and privacy. Since 9/11, our local pharmacist explained to me, PTSD had put half of Battery Park City on anti-depressants. Better living through chemistry. Today for a few minutes, alone in the shower at noon (my first time to myself), I thought perhaps I could accept life without Malcolm.
Figure 19. Ron on exercise bike. Out study window, empty hole where Towers used to be. Ruins too low to be visible. Photo ÂŠKate (Katarzyna) Gronczewski 2002. 208
DAY 113 New Yearâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Eve. Cold. I drove up to Houston St. to have the car filled with gas since tomorrow the service stations will be closed. The round trip, slowed by rubberneckers on Broadway near the ruins, took almost exactly one hour. In front of Saint Paulâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Chapel, hundreds of people waited in line to look at all the notes and drawings posted on the wrought iron railings of the Revolutionary War cemetery. It had become another spontaneous memorial for the people who died on 9/11. All kinds of things had been tied there: a little American flag, a plaid cashmere muffler. At one point, several huge memorial quilts hung from the tall black pickets, each separate square sewn in as a tribute from a different quilter, but these had been taken down and carefully stored. A museum was planned. I looked at the crowds. Now Ground Zero was what they most wanted to visit in New York. I knew how they felt: all over America people were haunted by the lost. Caught in traffic next to the church, I watched a man leave the railing, dabbing at his cheeks with a red bandana. Standing on the sidewalk beside my car, a waiting woman put her arms around him.
JANUARY DAY 114
New Year's Day 2002. In the pit, someone has put up a temporary wooden platform. Now people in dress clothes and hard hats are standing on it, their heads bowed. I thought of how our lives had changed since this time last year. A year ago Ron thought he could still take an airplane. I remembered the trip to Paris with Kathy last January to buy an apartment, the special desk we found there for Ron. Now Ron would never see his Paris property. I thought of the canceled ToulouseLautrec projects, a lost job offer in France. All my grandiosity â&#x20AC;&#x201C; dashed one sunny September day. Hubris. I wanted to find good in what had happened. Things had been so bad before 9/11. A year ago I was already overwhelmed by Ronâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s illness, the move to New York, the remodel. A year ago I was still sneaking off to meet Malcolm whenever I could, fighting with Ron so much I was afraid the neighbors across the hall would hear us yelling. 210
It seemed the Apocalypse had made me stronger, taught me that I was good in emergencies, didn’t quit, could trust my judgment. If I was dealing with Ground Zero now, on top of all the craziness from before, it had to be proof of character. I wondered what this year would bring. Outside, the site was slowly being cleaned, healed, but I knew that unless the clinical trial worked out, Ron's decline would continue to accelerate. I thought of Kate, who had broken up with her boyfriend. Maybe she could live in the upstairs apartment and work for us full-time. If I got my grants (unlikely), someone would have to cover Ron so I could do the exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec's autobiographical art. It would take a lot of travel. I fantasized about whether to organize it around the places Lautrec hung out or the people he knew. It gave me a rush of optimism. Optimism leads to survival. Good things in my life today: - Ron’s mind is ok. He’s not failing intellectually. - He’s still writing. - He doesn’t suffer. - We can still make love, sleep in the same bed, talk, enjoy each other’s company. - There are movies to see, books to read, friends to invite. - For the first time I gave him two Christmas presents he actually wanted. - He loves me. - He’s a reasonable human being who’s doing his best. He tries to let me be independent. - Maybe he’ll be accepted for the clinical trial. - Maybe it will work. 211
What if they cured Ron? Astounding to imagine Ron recuperating, getting strong again, reversing to health, independence. Could this be possible? My Saint Jude’s prayer granted? I remembered spending seven days in Rome, repeating the novena to the saint of hopeless causes – “May the Sacred Heart of Jesus be Adored, Glorified, Loved & Preserved throughout the world, now & forever. Sacred Heart of Jesus, please pray for me. Saint Jude, Worker of Miracles, please pray for me. Saint Jude, Helper of the Hopeless, please pray for me. Amen.” Promise to publish. When all else fails, what have you got to lose? Maybe I gave up too early. Fat chance. Now I opted for something simpler. Release my fears, fill my needs. No need to die early.
DAY 118 Finally I was alone at last at Barbara’s apartment, and all I wanted to do was recuperate, not work. All I wanted to do was read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe’s account of the London Plague was fictionalized, but I thought it might be a good model for my non-fiction memoir of what we’d gone through – how average people with their own problems, failings and feelings, dealt with an emergency that abruptly re-defined the parameters of their lives. Malcolm called twice.
DAY 119 The Red Cross was meeting residents in the Liberty Club to answer questions. I needed to drop by to see if they would reimburse psychologists, air filters, dust-filled electronic equipment. Despite forcing me to confront the enormous hassle of documenting 212
everything, the Red Cross had been incredibly generous. At the beginning they set up tables on the Esplanade, just handing out cleaning supplies, water, and food vouchers to anyone who asked. Later they went from building to building in the ‘crime scene’ and set up meetings with each resident, reimbursing living expenses, cleaning, health care, damaged clothing and furniture. Waiting in line with all my bourgeois neighbors, I had felt mixed feelings about taking the money. Yes, we had expenses and we needed help, but I didn’t have an impoverished self-image. Usually it was me who gave money to people in need. “Take it,” one of the volunteers said. “The rest of America wants to help you. They’ve donated this money to show they care about what happened to you.” She had come to New York from Minnesota. To show she cared. Yesterday, alone at Barbara’s, I spent several hours writing down all the things Ron and I needed to consider in making our next decisions. Although I could hardly believe it, the weight came down strong against moving to France. Much as I personally would have liked to be there, trying to live in Paris with Ron would be very hard work, and limit both our freedom. The other thing that was getting clearer (although I could barely imagine it, either) was that Ron and I probably should move into the retirement home as soon as he could accept the decision. They had many apartments available, and prices had dropped since 9/11. But a move like that was for the rest of Ron’s life – how depressing. Basically if we moved there, it was for me – to rescue me from being Ron’s full-time nurse.
DAY 120 When I got back from the Red Cross, it was snowing hard. As usual, I went first to check on Ron, still writing in his study. Then I peered at the ruins through the snow with his telescope. Rescue workers – about twenty-five of them – firemen, Port Authority of New York, police, construction workers in hard hats – were digging 213
through the debris in a cluster, fast, some on their hands and knees in the wet, freezing ashes. They’ve found more bodies. Then they stopped. They all stood with bowed heads. Then back to the task. An excited police dog ran back and forth. In the foreshortened lens of the telescope, there were two grapplers moving between me and the men, continuing to lift huge chunks of rubble. A caterpillar was moving earth. The intersection at Albany, where I saw the first body parts so many months ago, was full of workers, changing shifts. I glanced up from writing my diary. It was 10 A.M. Ron was taking his shower. He thought I was washing his glasses, cooking his breakfast, but there I was, guiltily sneaking quiet time for myself, writing secret pages he’d never see.
DAY 123 Barry and Lorna came for dinner, their first visit down to Battery Park City since September 11. They looked out Ron’s window. Barry, a poet whose day job was teaching creative writing, commented he’d transferred my World Trade Center diary from email to a file for his class to read. It had required re-formatting line by line – a maddening task, he said, which had resulted in his reading the diary about ten times. “I love it,” he said. “It’s totally unpretentious. It’s really beautiful.” I told him I was thinking of making a book out of the whole thing. Maybe it would help someone else. He thought it was a good idea.
The eleventh again – four months since the attacks. While we were eating an early supper, looking out at the Hudson, a barge went by loaded with disaster rubble, an orange 214
crane, and a complete subway car lying on its side. Where could it be going? Usually we never saw boats hauling wreckage. It left a wide wake as it slid downstream in the setting sun. In the bottom of the pit, where the debris had been removed, a huge green pond had appeared. It looked as if it were filled with antifreeze – noxious and iridescent – almost fluorescent. Had they breached the retaining wall? Could that be the Hudson seeping in?
DAY 125 Our neighbors Joe Johnson and Val Flenga brought their beautiful two-year-old Circe along to supper last night, quite late, and put her to bed on the couch in my study. I didn’t get the kitchen cleaned up until after 2 A.M., but I didn’t mind. I intentionally was having lots of people over. It made us feel lively. Joe and Val lived in Gateway Plaza, and like us, they had been forced out of their home by the Towers falling. They had to move to an apartment in New Jersey until their building was cleaned up enough for them to come home again. They didn’t feel like talking about it. Joe told us about growing up with half-siblings in various places – an alcoholic half-sister in North Carolina who died at 50, long years after she gave away two of her children because she hated their father. Joe told of looking fruitlessly for the son, his nephew, and finally giving up. His own son, Jeremiah, rushing to their apartment after the first Tower was hit, had to stop on his way to drag the injured off the Esplanade in front of North Cove. There had been bodies there, too, but no one ever admitted that. “Oops,” Joe said. “We weren’t going to talk about it.” Why would that be a secret? 215
Val told us her father and mother were socialists in Greece (he ran an auto parts business), and he was imprisoned by the military coup in 1967. After that he had his papers taken away for six years and couldn’t leave the country. Val hung out with the young Greek anarchists as a teenager, then moved to France for college when she was 18. She’s a real tough cookie compared to me. Concrete. Unsentimental. Her pragmatism inspires me. When I asked her if she was depressed since 9/11, she looked me straight in the eye. “We’ve got too much going on with full-time jobs, commuting to New Jersey and a two-year old to do anything but get on with everyday life.” On top of everything, she was also getting ready for her tenure decision. Maybe it helped that she didn't have a front-row seat on the ruins. Or maybe she was putting up a brave front. I just interrupted my diary writing to help Ron to the bathroom. Now I have a couple of minutes while he ’does his business’. Yesterday at Barbara's apartment, I glanced at The Artist’s Way. The author is big on “synchronicity.” She argues that positive things begin to happen when you make a place for them in your life. Frankly, I’m not convinced. As soon as I made a place in my life for things to happen, Al Qaeda terrorists flew airliners into the World Trade Towers. Making space in your life may let things in, but they may not be the things you want.
DAY 126 Soft gray day. Drizzling on the ruins, though the sky was luminous. The clouds were dissipating very gently to the west, making the transition from pale gray to pale blue almost imperceptible. Firemen were poking through the bone-colored debris with long poles, wearing fluorescent day-glo raincoats: orange, chartreuse, yellow. The persistent smell of burning wiring. 216
The rubble was covered with office paper again. Every now and then they turned over a cache of unburned pages and the wind caught them. We had heard that when the Towers fell, the floors had pancaked, one story on top of another, into a densely compressed mass, like an indigestible layer-cake of girders and concrete. Now as they uncovered each layer with its filling of pulverized office furniture, technology and bodies, billions of sheets of trapped business letters, contracts and documents blew free. I lay in bed a long time this morning, snug between Ron and Pearl, who had her head on my hand. She was getting cuddlier as she got older and older. A nice improvement. I hoped she wouldn’t die soon – she was a great comfort. And I was finding Ron a comfort, too. He was being very nice to me these days, trying not to make things harder. And I was trying to be more loving with him. Every day, in my junk email, I received ‘Buddhist wisdom’. The point was always the same:
Everything is illusory and evanescent. Conflicts are a figment of your mind and you just have to let go. There is no reason for stress because nothing can be relied upon So just let it go. Be attentive to others, kind, generous. Give help whenever asked, no matter how little you have. Try to find joy in every sensation. Live in the present; it’s all there is. Past and future exist only in your imagination. Be attentive to every detail of now. Be meticulous about now and live it fully, lovingly, carefully. 217
The air filter hummed, reminding me that I had to ask Kate to mail back the box of wrong-size filters I mistakenly, carelessly ordered. The filters needed to be changed regularly, every time the warning light came on in the machine, telling us the dust and ash had completely blocked the air again. We never tried to open the windows, not even a crack. We had all sorts of ongoing symptoms: coughing, bloody noses, pimples, rheumy eyes. Ron was washing his face by now. I needed to stop writing and go help him take off his Tshirt. Then we’d shower together.
Last night Bob and Rosaire came over for dinner, and brought the 90-year-old writer Marianne Hauser with them. I think we’re all getting crazier than ever. Rosaire, out of the blue, was being very down on herself – for not being a good student, of all ridiculous things. I mean she’s nearly 60 years old, a successful artist, and has published at least two novels. She was saying she was a slow reader, a high-school failure. Then Marianne started berating herself for not being educated, being boring, etc. And Marianne is still publishing! Then it turned out that all of us at the table, Ron and Bob too, were considered hopelessly stupid at one time or another. Bob failed first grade, and Marianne’s math teacher thought she was retarded, and Ron got rejected by the Midwood High School ‘intellectuals’, and Rosaire could barely read and kept flunking things in H.S. So I told the story of not learning to read in the first grade, because I thought the duck said “Oscar, Oscar.” How I had reasoned with my teacher, saying, “I know ducks usually say “Quack, quack,” but this one is saying “Oscar, Oscar.” Rosaire had hysterical giggles, which sent the rest of us into gales of laughter. I think laughing so much made everybody feel better. I pointed out it was reassuring that all of us had been seen as retarded, given who we turned out to be. 218
“It must be hard for you living with a cripple,” said Ron. We were sitting on barstools at the kitchen counter, eating lunch. “Everybody adapts their life as circumstances change.” I looked into his sea-green eyes and turned so I could pet his shoulder. “How did it feel this morning, when Norman measured you for the electric wheelchair?” “Well, it seems like giving in to pessimism,” Ron looked deflated, like a sad, wrinkled balloon. I had a hard time thinking of any way the wheelchair would improve Ron’s life, but I was trying to stay upbeat. I didn’t want to talk about my sense of a darkening tunnel. “I don’t blame you for hating it, Ron,” I gently rubbed his shoulder. “But for at least a month you’ve been falling all the time, even in the house. It scares me. That’s why I insisted.” “You know I wouldn’t be getting the chair if it weren’t for you,” he retorted, suddenly angry. “I’d just keep walking and falling and the hell with it.” But that would mean he could never be left alone, I said. I knew it also was invasive to have someone under foot – a different kind of limit on his independence. “At least in a wheelchair, you can be by yourself, have some privacy.” I said I couldn’t stand it wondering when he was going to fall. It made me too anxious. I was afraid he was going to get seriously hurt. “I don’t give a damn.” Ron shrugged my hand away. His eyes narrowed. “Walking is my last claim to dignity. Once I’m trapped in a wheelchair, I won’t feel like a human being any more.” Ron needed to believe he could still dress himself, dry off from the shower, take off and put on his shoes, heat up his coffee, cut his meat. His illness had forced him to give up doing virtually 219
everything, but we pretended that I just helped him because it was a little faster. Having the wheel chair didn't mean he’d actually use it, I thought. But when he needs it, at least it will be here.
DAY 129 Around 7 P.M., I looked out my study window and noticed that the ruins were unnaturally empty. A sharp finger jabbed me in the breastbone. All the machines were completely immobile. The few men on site were walking up the big sloping roadway to leave. Something had stopped the job. Frightened, I went to tell Ron. In his study we both watched while all the big ‘cats’ – our nickname for the caterpillars – started lining up from someplace that was out of our line of vision. We saw them begin rumbling up the access road after the men. It looked as if everyone were leaving, not fast, but very deliberately. I looked at the dripping wall, six stories deep, the poisonous green pool at the bottom. Beyond the view out our windows, everything that happened was hypothesis or rumor. Had the slurry wall given out? The Hudson broken through? They’d been talking about that possibility in the papers for weeks. The original foundations of the World Trade Center complex were protected by a poured concrete wall designed to keep the waters of the Hudson River from infiltrating into the building basements. This was called the slurry wall. The foundations had been blasted out of bedrock deep below the water table, below the level of the closeby river. It was only as the ruins were being dismantled that it would be known if the slurry wall had been damaged when the Towers fell. The risk, now that the bulky debris which temporarily held it in place had been removed, was that this protective wall might develop cracks and collapse. If that happened, the entire site would be irremediably returned to the Hudson River, and along with it, possibly much of Manhattan. 220
Anxiety surged beneath my sternum, as it still did, no matter what meds they gave me. Were all the Manhattan subway tunnels being flooded as I watched? I was literally shaking. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that another great catastrophe could happen to us personally, on the heels of this one. I can’t face it. I won’t be able to deal with another emergency. Ron fiddled with the telescope. “Look, Julia, they’re not leaving. They’re heading for the Customs House.” To our relief, the parade of tractors pulled off the access road and rolled their caterpillar treads off to one side of the ruins, into the wreckage of the Customs House. A new crew of men appeared. “Think of the shower.” Ron petted me clumsily. “We could take a shower together, just to feel better.” My hand has gone numb holding the pen as I write about this.
DAY 130 The world seemed hyperactive. Sun reflecting off a dusty window of the still-closed Marriott Hotel bounced flecks of soft gold on the couch where I was sitting. The river was churning with boats: tugs, ferries. Flowing fast upstream in the tidal surge I watched a black dot – not a cormorant. Outside, the air was hazy from pollution, even though the sky wasn't particularly cloudy. Helicopters buzzed past. In the ruins, the grapplers and huge hoes were now busily concentrated in one area – pulling tangled wires and cables out of the basement of the Customs House, which had been crushed in the debacle. It was reassuring to see them gathered there, digging away, lifting huge clumps of building innards – pipes, cables, wires, beams – and shaking their hoe-heads, tossing them softly to the ground to break them up, then lifting again. The operators had become so 221
skilled that they could maneuver their machines as delicately as lace makers. There were five hoes, all working in close proximity, with the body searchers standing around, some digging with picks through the newly dropped rubble. Dirty, dangerous, depressing work. And poisonous air. It bothered me when I noticed, looking through the telescope, that one of them wasn’t wearing his mask. But it’s required. What is in that air? Smoke was rising again today, They’d uncovered another buried fire. You'd think the fires would be out now that the pit was mostly cleaned, but on the edges of the site some were still burning, deep in the ground. The upper floors of Tower One had landed on top of the burning Customs house, not smothering the fires, but banking them. As the site was cleared, every now and then air would get to a smoldering spot, and it would flare up. At breakfast this morning – ‘scunns’ I brought home from Zabar’s to please Ron – he was very quiet. We sat side by side on our barstools at the kitchen counter, trading sections of The New York Times back and forth. As usual I was folding the pages open for him, buttering his scone, putting his pills into his mouth and his glass of juice into his poor paralyzed hand. At some point, after a long silence, Ron said: “I think I should tell you, I’m about one-half step away from a complete breakdown.” Ron rarely admitted such things. The butterfly began beating under my breasts. Don’t fall apart, Julia. “Yes, I think you should tell me,” I said carefully, putting my arms around him and my head on his shoulder. “What’s on your mind?” “Please take your head off my shoulder.” I sat up straight again, and dropped my arms. I’d never seen him look so low. “I was trying to be comforting.”
“I know.” He was trying to rub his forehead. He’d been having terrible headaches. “This has been a rough week for you,” I said, letting banalities rush out to mask my anguish. “I know it’s frustrating that you can’t get your voice-transcription software working. It’s essential to your writing.” Ron was silent. I kept talking, too fast. “I’m feeling better since they put me on pills. We’ve got to keep one of us functioning at all times, you know, to help the other guy. So let me try to help you. What can I do? Do you want to go see my meds M.D.?” “You know that’s not how I do things. I have to deal with this my own way.” “What should we do? What will make you feel better?” The claw had grabbed my belly. Long silence. Then, finally, Ron said nothing would. We just needed to get on with it.
DAY 136 The workers washed the trucks coming out, they washed them going in. I handed Ron washrags, pills, books, newspapers. Men with shovels dug hopelessly at the impacted, compacted buildings, couldn't break the layers apart. Ten stories now equaled 72 inches. All bodies pancaked. Ron woke up sweaty, he had pimples in strange places, his nose bled. Pearl whined to get up on the bed with her gritty feet. My skin was so dry and irritated I had a rash between my breasts and on my croup. I was homesick for France. I was lonely for Malcolm. Today Malcolm’s ring broke. I caught the band on something and it cracked where it was sized.
I heard an Army helicopter and ran to the window, once again uncontrollably alarmed. It was invisible in the striated sky – gray to pink to blue to yellow – gentle, dim colors, cottony-soft swaths of clouds, like blankets. I wished I understood what purpose there might be to our struggles. “The smoking chaos of ground zero,” Ron wrote, with new fires breaking out every time a backhoe scratched the surface a little too deeply.” A s i f t h e re w e re a p e r m a n e n t s u b t e r r a n e a n f i re inextinguishable to constant hosing And yet, it was in this pit of death, this mass grave, this open wound that change could happen had already happened, from the moment the first tower shook and fell redefining the world The smoking mounds of rubble were still there, the ruined sections of wall still standing, the tilting and sheared guts of surrounding buildings sliced by fragments of towers still protruding like knives left in wounds But instead of fire engines and ambulances giant jawed backhoes tearing apart wreckage, a delicate forest of towering cranes uprooting girders or suspending cabled observation cages, long flatbed trucks hauling away enormous I-beams, here and there American flags flapping The sparks of acetylene torches punctuated the site, streams of water hosed down the fires Neighboring streets had been cleared, trailers and prefab shacks had been put in place Figures in hard hats and orange vests swarmed the wreckage like ants Semis and go-carts were in constant motion 9/11 work went on 24/7, at night lit up like a sports stadium What had been a field of devastation had become a construction project, demolition phase The energy of it was tonic 224
Every day the contours of the wreckage were altered and shrunk Time seemed less important than, or just different from, the day-to-day change
DAY 144 It had been a long time since I’d gone to Barbara’s to do any writing or drawing. I had lost the longing to create, the need to do my own work, even to talk to Malcolm. Neila said I was depriving my soul, letting some forbidding voice inside me tell me I didn’t deserve to have my own life, that I had to do everything else first. She said each human has a moral obligation to live fully – through their work, their body, their mind, their heart. This is the only life you have. Shopping list: - dry skin cream - decongestant medication - groceries - bagels, lox - a pot of cat grass for Pearl - chocolate - scones - fruit
My cell phone rang. Malcolm. “Julia? Where have you been, darling? I’ve been calling Barbara’s for days. Right now I called on a hunch, but I can’t actually talk. And I don’t know if I’ll be able to call back later. Don’t you know I’ve been trying to reach you?” 225
I guess I do know. Neila suggested I was angry at him for leaving me for months. “But what’s the use of being angry, Neila?” I had twisted the Kleenex in my hands into a thick, white worm. Now it was shredding on Neila’s rug. “There’s nothing I can do about it. If I can’t be with Malcolm, it’s unfair to want him to change his life. But I’m afraid this may just be too long apart – as he points out, I can’t expect him to wait forever.” I realized that my anger is like the fires in the ruins – banked, covered with ashes, dust, cinders, and debris. Waiting to break out as soon as a little air enters. One odd thing – suddenly, having less contact with Malcolm, feeling less torn, I was looking pretty again – color in my cheeks. Women said things about it, and women don’t make this stuff up to flatter you. Laura, the new leader of my women’s group, commented “You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.” I was astonished. Then yesterday on the subway, I was looking at this very handsome black woman, and later when she got off at 14th Street, she said, “Good-bye beautiful eyes.” Made my day. In the afternoon I went to the Yale Club gym for the first time with my trainer Jeff in tow. Barbara’s gym had closed, like all the others. Not enough members in Battery Park City any more. There were lots of men in the Yale Club gym, all curious about a new woman. I guessed if Malcolm was going to lose interest, it was a good thing if somebody was interested – just to keep my blood circulating. I got a postcard from Manu, visiting Rajasthan. I wrote him a long letter back, asking him what it was like to go traveling like a normal person. I’m back in contact with a lot of French friends now. I guess my life really is mostly in France, and I’ll probably live there when Ron is dead. 226
FEBRUARY DAY 145
I had lunch with Lis Harris, who wanted to know where I stood with Malcolm, but I couldn’t tell her I talked to him every day – she was married to Marty Washburn, and Marty was one of Ron’s best friends. “I just gave up,” I lied. “I couldn’t stand the fighting. Now Ron and I don’t fight any more; we’re back to normal.” As long as Malcolm’s name is never mentioned. But most of what I said was true. I told Lis that I considered our marriage to be something like an organism with a life of its own. Ron and I were its organs. For the organism to survive, its organs had to be working as well as possible. If one organ broke down, the other would try to take over for it. I said I defined my priorities in terms of our ‘organism’. These days, I said, I did whatever the organism required and that included things to keep me sane, like going to the Museum of Modern Art with Lis and then to Takashimoto for a wonderful lunch. I smiled at her. She said she and Marty thought I was heroic, dealing with Ron’s disastrous illness – my own Ground Zero – with good will and even grace, and that she admired the way I was handling it. That made me feel good, since so often I wanted not to put Ron first at all, but just to be alone, to nurture myself, to write, draw, read, think about making love with Malcolm. 228
When Malcolm called me at Barbara’s late this afternoon, the call was long and argumentative. “Basically we’ve already said it all,” he announced. “So we’re just prolonging things by continuing to talk.” A far cry from our former, wandering, delightful conversations about everything and nothing. Those were the conversations of allies – people who fit comfortably and just wanted to be together. Today we were lovers saying, “This is too hard, too hopeless.”
DAY 147 A fair amount of Ground Zero was now cleared down to bedrock, seventy feet deep. Yesterday they took out a long asphalt ramp constructed just after 9/11 to haul gnarled wreckage out of the inferno. Then they began digging up the rubble under it, clearing the detritus that the ramp had been built on. At twilight the white floodlights were competing with the pink-gray sky. I happened to be looking out at three peregrines and a seagull playing high up in the cold wind. Then I looked down. Deep in the mottled gray pit, at least 50 men, most of them wearing black oilcloths with the chartreuse day-glo horizontal stripes of FDNY, were standing, almost all motionless, as if praying. Waiting for the found bodies to be bagged, flagged and put on the fluorescent orange stretchers, to be carried ritually by an Honor Guard of mourners. One man had his arm around another man, a small one, whose posture looked upset. There must have been at least three bodies, maybe more. How odd just to walk back into the kitchen and continue making pot-au-feu for the next day’s dinner. Raymond Federman, one of Ron’s oldest friends, was flying in from Paris to do a reading at New York University. The three of us planned to hang out together at our place that night, and then on Tuesday, since there were too many steps for Ron, I would go alone to hear Ray’s reading at NYU. Kate would stay with Ron and cook his supper, because after the reading there was a dinner planned with Ray, Francine Goldenhar, Tom 229
Bishop, Peter Wortsman and Claudie Bernard – all people I profoundly liked, but also a kind of networking. An inevitable reality: I’m going to need a job.
Figure 20. My study, February 2002. Photo © Julia Frey 2002. 230
My study was a disaster area, it looked like the view outside in miniature. Papers everyplace. Where on earth was I going to find the courage to dig into that mess and clear up all the boring, trivial paperwork? For weeks I’d been unable to face it. The ‘move to Tahiti’ fantasy obsessed me. I’ll just bag it and leave – let Kate set up dinner for Ron and Ray. Find someone else to deal with the bureaucracy, hire a nurse to take care of Ron. Actually I knew some people who would just bag it and leave. Period. I wasn’t going to hop a plane and fly to some white-sand beach and sip cocktails out of a coconut. Still I found it reassuring to think that maybe, sometime... if I really couldn’t bear it any more. Malcolm had taken a plane to Australia instead of Tahiti, although he was still hauling the baggage of his marriage, and our failed ménage à trois. Poor Malcolm. He knew it was supposed to be a short-term romantic triangle, but when he fell in love with me, he wanted to make it into something permanent. Malcolm didn’t want to believe that it was a game, that I had seduced him, submitted to him, lied to him, all on Ron’s orders. Or that it wasn’t the first time. Which is why when he figured that out, we had to deal with the added problem of his wounded ego. In part he wanted to ‘win’ me to get even with Ron. Which, given his wife, was unrealistic in any case. I should have known to stop it then. Before I fell in love with Malcolm myself. So many betrayals. They could never be put right. Now all this seemed obvious to me – like a lot of things since the Towers fell. Out the window the work went on, focused, diligent. In the house I felt lost, useless, until I summoned the energy for my own cleanup. I put away the papers in my study, one by one. 231
I talked to Ann Scarboro today. There are a lot of parallels between my situation and hers when her husband Jim was blinded in a bike accident. I found myself telling her that I like myself better since 9/11. I’ve discovered that I’m more courageous, more loyal and more tenacious than I believed. I somehow rescued Ron and Pearl. Then I wrote it all down and discovered my diary was important to people. Most of all I’ve learned that no matter how despairing I get sometimes, in the end I always pick myself up and keep soldiering on. Ann said that was exactly how she felt – circumstances tested her and she became firmer and stronger, and came to believe her strength was real. Why are women raised to be afraid to have confidence in themselves? One good thing has come out of all the things Ron and I are going through. I’ve learned I am strong and it’s OK to be strong. I’m brave. I’m calm in emergencies, even if I fall apart after. I have the intelligence and physical resources to deal with difficult things. I don’t give up. Remember that, Julia.
DAY 150 Today I drew a sketch of myself in Barbara’s bedroom mirror. If I make a drawing every day, eventually I’ll have a whole set of drawings. I would begin to improve, and by definition I’d be back to work. The diary served the same purpose. I was getting back to writing. Every day. Writing out the tightness between my legs, the longing for Malcolm when he called me, the soreness of my back 232
from lying so still in the man-eating bed with Ron’s arms around me, the stiffness in my neck where I held myself rigid – bracing for what might come next.
DAY 152 Dump, divest, deny, dismantle the disaster. Since early morning, they had been filling big black plastic bags with something at the site. Twenty rescue workers, three dogs, fifty or more bags – not the fluorescent pink ones, just plain black ones. Did they find a huge cache of bodies there in the ruins of Tower One? But they had always said that except for firemen, nearly all the bodies were out. So what was this? Palpable grief in the body language of the poor workers, day after day, searching for their buddies – and my own grief as I watched them, feeling their terrible strain, loss, sadness, my own stress, depression, mourning, anxiousness. I was using my writing to chip away at the trauma – turn it into something else – evidence, testimony.
Last night I lay awake a long time, because Ron was acting very low, and denying he felt that way, pushing me away. I knew he was depressed because I had gone to a community dinner at Moran’s instead of having a sex date with him and because I told him I might go to California to see if the Getty can be influenced to give me a grant. But I also wondered – did he get into my computer and read my email? I was running late and I forgot to lock it before I left the house; I just left the email on the surface, where if he cared, he could read the last one from Malcolm in Australia, asking where I was. He’d been trying to call – when could I get to California? How much 233
planning did I need? That would depress Ron horribly. Although I thought it would depress him more if I talked about it openly. I hated to upset Ron or make him angry. That was why I had decided to lie. Compassion outweighed honesty. I knew that I was going to go see Malcolm. I had tried to break off with him when Ron insisted we quit being lovers, but all Malcolm and I had managed was to go underground. I hadn’t betrayed Ron by getting in bed with Malcolm. He wanted me to – but when he wanted me to stop loving Malcolm, it didn’t work. You don’t just ‘stop loving’ people by an act of the will. I loved them both. There was no solving it.
The electric wheelchair was delivered, but Ron wouldn’t use it. High anxiety. My desolation felt huge. Ron’s was, too. We were both blank with depression. Flaccid-faced, the 1000-mile stare: nothing was worth doing. I couldn’t think, had no energy. I spent my work time reading, waiting for the phone to ring, wishing for some magic to enlighten me. Some I Ching or Astrology to advise me, some outside power to help me out. I wished I believed in God. Then I remembered Al Qaeda took their orders from God.
DAY 157 I picked up seven rolls of film, mostly of the WTC disaster. I had been taking pictures out the window for months using a little point and shoot camera that wouldn’t do close-ups, just recording the progress. I looked at them fascinated. Ron’s writing echoed how I felt. He could have been writing captions for the sequence:
The freestanding walls of the destroyed towers, 10 stories tall, created the effect of a proscenium stage lit by the livid glare of the floodlights The smoke smudged up, the weldersâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; torches glowed, and streams of water from the hoses arched and glistened All this had to imply a stupendous drama unfolding Each layer in the debris removed by the hard hats revealed another layer of debris more splintered and tangled than the last The site looked like it had been smashed by a comet Today they must have hit a hot spot because the smoke bubbled up like an inverted waterfall holes within pits opened up in the rubble that were like vortexes to nowhere The colors of the ruins soot gray to tarnished silver to rust brown highlighted bright orange or yellow of the heavy machinery The scale of the wreckage was beyond conception
I thought of making a flip-book like those cartoons that move as you flip the pages, to show the progress of the cleaning â&#x20AC;&#x201C; how the tangled chaos of the beginning slowly revealed Gothic cathedrals which in turn were reduced to huge dinner-forks, then fell to dust, which melted into a poisonous pool, finally drying to a flat desert, where eventually something new would exist.
Figure 21. View from Ron’s window, winter 2001. Photo ©Julia Frey. 236
Figure 22. Procession awaiting bodies, February 2002. Photo ÂŠJulia Frey. 237
Faked orgasms. My decision, out of compassion for Ron, to carry that burden. Better than the burden of his grief. Neila said it wasn’t necessary, at some level Ron already knew. And he hadn’t rejected sex. Ron and I ‘went out for a roll’ tonight before dinner, out onto the curved pier of the Mary Miss installation at South Cove, with its beautiful blue lights hanging from the wooden pergolas overhead. Ron showed me the spot where he sits in his scooter on the Esplanade, back to the wind. Did he instinctively know that was the exact spot where I so often had thought of going over the railing in a heavy coat some cold winter’s night? Why would I do that? “Do you remember,” Ron said as we looked out over the night river, “the pattern of lighted windows in the World Trade Center Towers?” I held his flipper-like hand as he continued, softly, “How we used to joke they were messages in a code we could not comprehend?” I was crying, but it was too dark for Ron to see me. “And also,” he put his other, mitten-clad flipper on top of my hand, “how the wind that ripped through the steel and concrete canyons sometimes made the buildings into musical instruments? How they howled mournful and ferocious songs with meanings we could grasp at but never verbalize? …I still think this proves that we live in a meaningful world packed with significance, even though we don’t know what it is.”
Desperately rainy late at night. Fog. Cold, damp, humid. Men in their yellow slickers working in intense illumination. So many bodies. Eleven yesterday. More today. And more tonight. The rescue workers lining the bridge to salute their ‘fallen comrades’ as the orange stretchers passed, draped in American flags. Put into an ambulance. Blue lights revolving in the darkness moved down the new bridge ramp, curved onto Albany Street, drove away. The rescue workers with their hoes and shovels, rakes and poles, grief-stricken picking through the rubble, finding body parts, falling apart when they found their friends. How will they heal from this? How wounded are they already? Ron and I were living in a holding pattern, surrounded by ruins, his body slowly wasting away. But we kept on with it. We had to. “We decided to hold out,” Ron wrote. Finally we had no place else to go The thing that scared me was the elevator might stop working It was a form of claustrophobia in reverse, fear of being buried up in the air Otherwise it was a good venue to pursue our happiness In full view of the well of unhappiness out the window reminding us of the liquidity of solidity Of the uncertainty principle that dictates unforeseeable change Of the fragility of life except in memory Of the endurance of the temporary It’s there that we really connected again.
MARCH DAY 177
Newark International Airport, renamed ‘Liberty’, Gate 14, waiting for my flight to Los Angeles – my first time on a plane since 9/11. It was cold outside, in the 30’s. LA was going be around 70ºF. Jarring CNN on the terminal TV. I was hyper-vigilant. Too much noise. Distracting static around me. They checked my shoes for plastic explosives. Belly churning. Burning with longing. After months apart, Malcolm and I were going to be lovers again. Why am I afraid? Because he would see how changed I was by 9/11? Because I was succumbing to my passions, to my desire, instead of staying away from Malcolm until Ron died? Ron looked sad as I was leaving the apartment: shaky, off balance, but dressed in pink T-shirt, red suspenders and green cords, groomed, breakfasted. Pearl, lunatique, howling like a ghost, 240
speeding in circles, lost, couldn’t get comfortable. I held her on my lap and stroked her caffe latte-colored fur while I told them both I loved them. Then I kissed Ron good-bye and asked Kate to take good care of my family.
I was looking in the water-marked mirror of our bathroom in the Santa Monica motel, sleepily using Malcolm’s hairbrush. The afternoon sun, pushing past the lace curtain, glinted on my chestnut brown hair. The mirror caught his reflection through the doorway behind me, recumbent, drowsing. The soft drip of the faucet, the slow stain sliding down the side of the sink, like a long, rusty ringlet, into the drain. Otherwise it was quiet, but for his deep, sated breathing, and the mew of gulls, the curled lisp of the sea. I pondered his tousled, now-white head, a small Arctic creature asleep on the pillow. The curtain caught the freshening wind, then caught my arm, as if to call my attention outside, to the drifting wig of the wandering sand. As I put his brush down on the sill, the late sunlight revealed a knot of gypsy-black hairs, caught in its bristles. I carefully removed a few strands of the evidence and held them up in front of the window. They were not fine like lace, but like the lank tresses of shrunken heads, or the threads used to sew their tiny mouths shut, or in the etched stillness, the tangled skeins of dry kelp marring the dunes.
“No promises, no commitments,” Malcolm paused. We were walking on the beach, the sky an unnaturally cheerful blue overhead, 241
the gray waves sneering. The curled lip of the sea. “I’ve accepted your decision to stay with Ron. I can recover from tragedy.” I thought he was being over-dramatic. I’d seen it coming for months. But he had to fly in from Australia and I had to meet him one last time in Los Angeles for us to believe it. “I’ll always be your friend,” he said. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
This morning it was chilly and the sun glinted from the last PATH car they had lifted off its tracks at the bottom of the pit and wrapped in netting to haul to the surface with giant cranes. The Path station had been the lowest level of the World Trade Center basements, under everything else. The car was fluorescent orange, with yellow police line do-not-cross ribbons tied around it like a birthday present. Something stopped me, and made me adjust the fine focus until the pit came into delicate 3-D view – men in police vests were climbing down a cable into some steep rubble far on the left, rather near the damaged pedestrian bridge. One man had found cloth in the dusty clutter. I watched him pulling large pieces of it, intact, out of the mess: blue, lighter blue, white. Biggish pieces. He began to pile them up. At the time I thought it must be bodies. But later, I thought it might have been blue bedding or tablecloths. Dirty laundry from the crushed Vista/Marriott Hotel. Maybe it’s ok. Maybe there aren’t any bodies this time. Oddly, in nearly six months, I myself hadn’t personally seen a body, except the pieces in the street the first day. I’d watched the men at Ground Zero scrabbling with their shovels, raking for something to identify, but I’d never seen one pick up a skull or a bone or a cadaver. Never. I didn’t see any bodies fall from the 242
windows with the shattered glass when the planes hit the Towers, no crushed pedestrians poking out of the smoking rubble. I knew bodies had been found in all those places. They weren’t making it up. But we were up too high to see the flesh and bone, or maybe some psychological block made me blind each time a body appeared. I was grateful. I said thanks to any potential God for keeping Ron and Pearl safe and letting us be together still. Being together was all any of us had, ants in a moment of eternity, struggling to drag a crumb across a counter, back to the ant colony, crushed in an instant by some deity’s huge thumb. If we couldn’t do anything about the big stuff, I had to do the best I could with what I had. Time is short. Don’t wait. Don’t waste. Taste. Tâter. Trouver. Toucher. Trier. Triste. Tryst. Trite. Taut. Taught. Totter. All fall down. All. Not just them. Not just him. Me. Me too. Me tops? Me topple. Me great? Me grating. Migrating. My great fulfillment, my glory? Gory. Dead in a day, like a morning glory, those gorgeous blue flowers, the ones on the wall in the Wagner Park ‘blue’ garden. Each flower blooms one day only, glorious and fragile as it opens to the light. A wall of royal blue trumpets with luminous centers changing from white to pink to purple to deep, peacock blue as their trumpets spread. Trumpet their life, then die.
I woke up the morning, laughing over a funny dream, but then a passing helicopter set me off and my heart has been pounding relentlessly, high in my chest, ever since. The sounds of planes and sirens and things that go bump in the night. Ron was threatening to go out walking again. Fear at the base of my throat, under the carnelian beads Ron gave me. At my solar plexus, above my sternum 243
– high and taut, fear in my belly. I took deep breaths to get it under control. Last night it was in the 20’s and the wind was howling hard enough to blow tears streaming into your hair, and out there were men in the dead white floodlights and flapping plastic, raking for badges and bone fragments and cloth – any proof that someone had been found. Heartsick, stretched taut with the ongoing struggle. Not able to leave, to forget, to try to heal. It will soon be six months now. There were many bodies these days, rows of ambulances with flashing lights waiting at the ruins for the Honor Guards to bring out the flag-draped stretchers. I saw a band of firemen late at night, walking angrily, making ‘fed up’ gestures with their arms and bodies – stalking off the site, and I mourned for them because they had been in the rubble too long, scraping and raking to find their lost ones, so weary, so sad, so distressed. Safe behind our windows, Ron and I clung to the progress in the pit – moving the telescope back and forth, feeling the pulse and rhythm of the recovery effort, the workers changing shifts, the NYFD, NYPD, PAPD officers coming by in battalions when it was time again to honor their dead – five, fifteen times in the past few days. In time their mourning will be less. Tragedy can be overcome. I want it to be over now. So we all can begin to heal. “She suggested an itinerary,” Ron wrote, “that avoided the melancholy of Ground Zero,” and instead kept to the edge of the river and the long esplanade that extended north and south of the wreckage and partially wrecked buildings around the disaster site, her occasional commentary on the geographical features of the area and its goings-on, from marine activity to the extensive landscaping maintained by those responsible for management of the vicinity. So she felt compelled to enumerate the multiple ferryboats taking the place of the ruined subway facilities under the river, of the early narcissus and jonquils pushing up in the gardens, and the felicities of 244
the view that took in the New Jersey skyline, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the Narrows bridge with the graceful dip of its suspension cables, all in one grand visual sweep.
The six-month mark. Tonight as darkness fell, right outside our windows they illuminated the first sculpture memorial to the fallen Towers, the “Tribute in Light” – two magnificent azure columns made by the light of massed blue searchlights shining up into the heavens from Ground Zero. The two blue Towers, tall as the clouds, glowing from below, immobile, serene. Ron and I, standing at his window side by side, naked, our arms around each other, marveled silently at the unexpected beauty of it. I wish they’d stay there always.
Figure 23. “Tribute in Light.” Liberty Court is partially blocking blue ‘Towers’ on the left. Photo Denise Gould, USAF. 247
CODA Pearl died of old age, in her sleep, on September 22, 2002. Ron was not eligible for the clinical trial. Julia and Ron lived in Battery Park City for the rest of Ron’s life. Ron continued to write until the morning of July 16, 2004, two days after his 72nd birthday. He died quietly on July 22, 2004, as he had wished – at home with Julia beside him, without suffering. Ronald Sukenick was the author of 16 books and co-authored two others. A number of passages in this memoir quote from his posthumous novel, Last Fall (published by FC2, 2005). Julia never saw Malcolm again. Her hair has gone white. Her lung capacity remains below normal. She cannot sing. In 2006, she remarried and moved to France, whence she continues to send in the World Trade Center Health Registry Survey every year. The ruins are completely clean now. High new Towers and a 9/11 Memorial Museum are being built on the site. Julia’s handwritten diary is in the museum.
The following texts, one by Julia and one by Ron, were written after the official time-period of this diary, but are a fitting conclusion to the book.
THE PEACOCK (a factual account) by Julia Frey On July 27, 2004, five days after Ron died, I went out to Princeton to see Guust. He picked me up at the train and we got to his house around 7:30 P.M. We were sitting in the kitchen/family room by the doors leading out to his deck, having a glass of wine when he said: The oddest thing happened to me this morning. Oh yeah, what was that? I was making tea around 7:30 and out of the corner of my eye I saw something move out on the deck. I looked up and there was a peacock looking in the sliding door. A peacock! Are you sure it was a peacock? Do they have peacocks in Princeton? Not that I know of. My uncle used to have peacocks on his estate in Holland. What did you do?
Well, first I crept over to the door and looked out through the glass to make sure it really was a peacock. It was just standing there, waiting for something. I was very surprised. What was it doing there? I thought maybe it was hungry. Then I asked myself, “What do peacocks eat?” What DO they eat? I don’t know. I decided it might eat cookies. So I got a cookie from the cupboard and slowly slid open the door to the deck and held the cookie out to it. What did it do? Well, when I opened the door it kind of backed up a little, but it didn’t go away. It seemed very tame. It really wanted that cookie, but it wasn’t quite brave enough to take it out of my hand. So I broke it into pieces and threw it out on the deck. Then I went back in the kitchen to finish making my breakfast. When I was done, I took my tea and the newspaper and went back out on the deck. The peacock was still there. It had eaten all the cookie and was kind of walking around on the deck, looking in the sliding doors to the living room, then into the open door to the kitchen. Sort of checking things out. I sat down in one of the deck chairs on the other side, away from the peacock, and started drinking my tea and reading the paper. Was it male or female? How do you tell the difference? The males have iridescent blue breasts, long droopy tails and little crowns of feathers on top of their heads. The females have short tails with no long feathers and they’re not so brightly colored. Definitely male. It had long tail feathers that dragged around on the ground, with luminous blue eyes on the ends. Now it was down on the stone terrace poking around. After a while it came over to me again. I think it wanted more cookies. How long was this going on? 251
Oh, it lasted at least ten minutes. Did you give it more cookies? No. By then I was busy reading the paper. I didn’t feel like getting it another cookie. Then what happened? Well, I hadn’t really been paying much attention. It was walking around somewhere out of my field of vision, when suddenly I heard this big flapping of wings and looked around and saw it fly up to the roof of the garage. Did you know peacocks could fly? Well I assumed they could. I think when people keep them in their gardens, they pull out their wing feathers. What did it do then? It walked back and forth along the crest of the garage roof, looking at me. Then it walked down the other side and disappeared. Did you run around the house to see where it went? No. I was busy reading the paper. Where do you think it came from? Is there a zoo in Princeton? No. Are there any signs posted on the telephone poles: “Lost peacock, call this number”? No. Any big walled estates? Not particularly. Certainly not around here.
I knew that was true. What I loved best about Guust’s house was the way its large green lawn flowed into all the other lawns to 252
make an endless perspective of open park in several directions. I was in ornithologist mode, asking all sorts of bird-watching questions, when suddenly I remembered Ron’s story, “77,” which he wrote a few months before he died, when he was too weak to swallow his food and was slowly starving. “77” is a very short piece. In it a dying man learns that a peacock has flown into his property, and can’t get out again. He doesn’t don’t know what peacocks eat, and anyway, he’s too ill to go into the garden. It’s slowly starving to death. The man tries to imagine what will happen to the peacock when it dies, and he imagines that seven other peacocks will fly down from the clouds, and it will come to life again and they’ll all rise into the sun-filled sky together. I knew that in Christian symbolism, peacocks represent immortality and resurrection. But this was a really weird story for a culturally Jewish, bohemian atheist to write, and it surprised me that he would go ahead and publish it. To me it was evidence of his courage as a writer that, given its mystico-religious character, he didn’t censor it but simply wrote it down as it came to him. Guust had never read anything Ron had written, and I don’t think I had ever mentioned this story to him. So I told him about it, and eventually emailed him the story. Later he said: I thought it was very beautiful, very poetic. But I have to tell you, this peacock wasn’t dying. It was vibrant and full of life. So what do you make of the coincidence? I don’t know. Naturally I had immediately invented a theory that Ron’s spirit had continued to exist, and had appeared to Guust in the form of a peacock, because he wanted to check out this guy who was my lover, whom he had never heard about or even suspected. And he wanted Guust to notice him (I mean he could have turned up as a sparrow), and presumably to tell me about it. And he chose a peacock because he knew that sooner or later I’d think of his story, and know it was he, letting me know first of all that he was still around even if 253
he’d died, and second, that after he died he found out about Guust, and he’d checked him out and thought he was OK. (Peacocks are famous for being mean birds and attacking people. This peacock seemed perfectly content to hang out with Guust for a while.) Also, if Ron had a peacock come to me directly and land on my windowsill in Battery Park City, I would have thought I was hallucinating. But scientists don’t hallucinate. At least not Guust. Anyway, I found my theory consoling. Not only was Ron still around, looking out for my best interests, and more or less being exactly who he always was, but also, now I felt convinced there was something that goes on after we die, so I didn’t have to be afraid of dying myself. It felt like he gave me a little gift. So what do you make of my theory? I asked Guust. I don’t know. That’s the difference between scientists and writers. A writer who doesn’t know the answer makes up a story. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer, he says, “I don’t know.”
SEQUEL (JULY 2005) On the one-year anniversary of Ron's death, Guust and I drove across France. Although I thought it was odd to spend that day traveling and thinking about trivia, with no chance to be peaceful and commemorate Ron's life, there were reasons we had to go that day and not the next. Anyway we left in amazingly hot weather to drive Guust's 500 Euro beaten up little red car (no air conditioning) to stop for the night in a medieval city called Pérouges on the way to Annecy in the French Alps. We planned to go on to Annecy the next morning. I’m happy now. Do I have the right to be happy? Two improbable things happened that day. In mid-afternoon, I was driving when I suddenly got exhausted and decided to turn off the highway at one of those anonymous rest stops for some coffee. Guust and I were leaving the restaurant, literally stepping off the curb to go to the parking lot when I heard somebody yelling “Julia!” 254
There, pulling into the parking lot, was a colleague from the University of Colorado, Mimi Mortimer. Her husband Rob was at the wheel. I hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t seen her since Ron died, and I found myself telling her it was the anniversary of his death. It was as if something had happened to make me pay attention to it, whether I wanted to or not. Before we all got back into our cars, Mimi took a photograph of me and Guust, to prove it really had happened.
Figure 24. Julia Frey and Guust Nolet at rest stop on Autoroute du Soleil, near Lyons, France 22 July, 2002. Photo ÂŠMildred Mortimer.
When we got to PĂŠrouges about 5 P.M., a second strange thing happened. Our hotel room looked out over the garden, with fields beyond. Guust and I took showers and crawled into bed, a 255
chance to make love before supper. But there was a very loud, annoying, constant calling outside the window. Constant, but somehow changing. The same two syllables shifted in tone, first sounding mournful, then desperate, then angry, then heckling, then low and depressed. Finally, our lovemaking successfully disrupted, we lay there wondering what it on earth it was. Guust said it was saying “Léon, Lé-ON,” To me it sounded more like "croiss-ANT, crois-SANT." At first I thought it might be teenagers playing, but it went on so long I finally decided it was an animal call, maybe a bird. The next morning when we checked out, I asked the woman at the desk what it could be. “It was a peacock calling.” She explained. “This is a perfectly preserved village. They make a lot of films here. Two peacocks escaped from a movie set. They’ve been living wild in the fields outside the hotel.” “That’s pretty weird,” I said, looking at Guust. “That’s pretty weird,” Guust said.
Nothing at all happened on July 22, 2006, the second anniversary of Ron’s death. I know, because I was waiting for the peacock to turn up again. But on Sunday night, September 17, 2006, Ron’s sister Gloria, Guust and I spread Ron’s ashes into the Hudson River. This was probably illegal. We were afraid somebody would notice and stop us, so we waited until after nightfall. I had taken the bag of ashes out of the plastic box they had been delivered in and had put it in a canvas carryall. The three of us strolled out onto the pier at Mary Miss’s installation in Battery Park City, looking as casual as possible. When we got to the railing, I pulled the twistum off the bag, and just dumped all the ashes at once right off the pier into the Hudson. We stood there looking down at the pale ashes dispersing into the dark water. Suddenly Guust said, “It looks like a big bird.”
“Yeah,” said Gloria, “like a huge white swan with a long neck, spreading its wings.” I didn’t say anything. I was crying and couldn’t make out the shape.
One last thing. In 2011, as I was correcting this story to go to press, a peacock landed on a windowsill in Manhattan. It had escaped from the Central Park Zoo. Julia Frey
Figure 25. August 2, 2011. Peacock on 5th Avenue window ledge. ©NY Times.
77 (a story) by Ronald Sukenick He heard about the peacock on the first day of spring. It was said to be meandering among gardens at the end of the property. Hungry. What do you feed a peacock? Well, it made him think of Vienna. Art Nouveau. Sachertorte and schlag. He didn't have any. But his heart went out. It was an ugly beast after all. Ornate to excess, lumbering through the air, it seemed self-defeating from the start. But it had been strong. And harmless. He took pity on it. He did what he could. Which wasn't much. It was visibly withering away. Its neck was drooping. You could see death in its dark and soulful eyes. Long lashes, almost demure. It was kind of cute actually. If sad. But as if it had a talent for it. Like Keats, half in love with death. All roads come back. You think you're going someplace and suddenly here you are again. Hanging on. Just. Just a few words. With objectivity, without despair. The vultures of. Jerking at the longish neck, eyes still blinking. Think of the property. It was his but he'd never get to see it. Never had. He knew it was beautiful and geometric. It made him feel good to think about it, in a dreamy, noncommittal way. Curiously, there was no sound. It was like the missing dimension. Nothing ever changed. The jay that flew from the branch never reached the ground. That cheered him.
Something was about to happen that he didn't want to happen. Meanwhile, time marked. Pregnant with itself. Like a fountain, always different always the same. It all depended on how you looked at it. The property. It was a comfort. Like an ally. Something one could hang onto. It was filled with fountains. Fountains and rectangles. They were reassuring. Reassuring as rectangles can be. He woke up thinking 77. In neon. It made him happy. They were his lucky numbers. 7 and 7. The landscape looked almost flat. He thought of Japanese paintings. Sparsity. A few lines and voila, a landscape. A few more and a peacock. Why not? Reflecting in the pool. It made him feel pensive. Lost in detail. Two tea cups on a wooden table, white, half empty. The tobacco pipe, ashes spilling. The parade of black ants. The paper napkins crumpled together. The abandoned croquet court. The full August flowers, the leafy trees. The absurd peacock. Everything planted in pairs of sevens, seven fuchsias seven begonias, seven roses seven hyacinths, seven oaks, seven willows. One peacock. Suddenly sound of lumbering flight and a second peacock bends a bough, and then another and a fourth. Peacocks in the trees. Well known for their obscene cries. Yet even these capable of a mournful sympathy. The dance apparently is just beginning. First one rattles its tail and then the other six join in making a racket in sympathy with the afflicted one in the court of the moldering hotel at the center of the property. The moldering hotel. Called 77. Image of magnificent desuetude. Moss dripping from the eaves. Foundations tilting. No sign of life except for the disconsolate looking waiters in the patio, ragged towels over their forearms ready to serve nonexistent guests. Despite the waiters, the inside of the building was completely empty. The air was gray. Through the windows birds fly in from the wilderness. And quickly flit out, as if there were not enough air to breathe in any of the seven rooms. 259
And the color. It was gradually draining away. From vivid reds and greens to the current pale pastel. Like the sound, progressively muted. The very air itself leaking slowly out. No breeze blew, not a current of air, yet the bushes invading the windows gave the impression of weeping. It was all a little like Dekooning with Alzheimer's, painting happily away to produce an industrious absence. Or like walking into a vacuum, the last vestige of air slowly leaking away. The colors draining now to sub white, the sad walls graying out. It was calm. That was the saving factor. He needed calm above all at this point. This sacred moment of. More than passion, more even than joy, a sort of positive denial focusing on what isn't there. In a way it was his most important moment, and in another way totally meaningless. In a way he was trying to deny meaninglessness, as a cause for lament. In its way it was a fun exercise. In a way. By now he was approaching the center of the building. The room without windows, the room with many doors, all leading nowhere by many hallways. There space was liquid, and was at the mercy of random currents. He had the impression of moving many ways at once, as if he were dispersing. It was terrifying yet pleasurable, like a ride on the roller coaster. He wanted to get into it but couldn't. The passageways were twisting and turning, making him dizzy, but it was encroaching darkness that frightened him, no matter how wide he opened his eyes. Now he could hear a draining sound, almost imperceptible. Like long, gurgling exhalations. By now his calm rested as it were on egg shells He didn't dare move. He had a sense of a page turning, revealing a blank. Then another and another. Also the pages kept getting smaller, finally disappearing. Then suddenly the sun came out, sending shafts of light through previously invisible windows. With light the whole thing changed. He could see the peacock again and it was luminous, lit from inside. Lambs gamboled under fleecy clouds. A cardinal whistled at irregular intervals. The smell of roses. The taste of garlic. 260
These vulgarities assailed his senses. It was like drinking water on a dry day. Concentric circles of light pulsed from mysterious centers. The formerly arid atmosphere turned moist and lush. Butterflies flocked, waves of yellow and black. The heavy moist air smelled so sweet it was almost rotten. Suffocating but somehow soothing. Anyway, there was a sense of closing options. Like a closing faucet. There was no choice but to acquiesce, and in any case he was already clotted with pleasure. Indecipherable success seemed to beckon, with all its hazy goods. It was like the relaxation of a muscle with a spurt of warmth. Hard to say what it was like. It was all he ever wanted, whatever that was. It was watermelon, avocado, chocolate ice cream. It was slaked taste. He passed to a state of pleasant boredom. It was all he would have hoped for. Floaty. Detached. Slowly the lights began to dim. Voices pierced the growing gloom. It was odd because they weren't saying anything. they were just familiar voices, comforting as pillows. In the background he could hear the rhythm of the surf, a sort of crash/hiss. It lulled him. He dozed off. When he woke up everything was different. He was in a room filled with people and he was suspended midway between floor and ceiling. There was a feeling of goodbye in the air which issued in a confused murmur. He knew he was having a seizure of positive denial. But what was there to lose? A bad mood? No, he'd rather be in this pre-elegiacal state. He multiplied it by seven and then by seven again. It multiplied his frame of mind. Encapsulating peacocks. The air was filled with flopping peacocks. The mood was gray. It was relaxing. The effort to keep it that way was like jumping from log to log in a swift river. The river of despair, of anguish. Keeping his mind on keeping his mind off was what made him happiest. It was not cleverness it was pure survival. Yet, he also required the guidance of the lofted peacocks. Paddling heavily through the tall air. If he were to have a pre postmortem he would thank the clumsy peacocks most profusely. Not to ignore the hens. As inspiration if not direct agency. In fact, why not throw in the whole forest, as ecosystem. Lynx, rafts of birds, deer whispering through the wilderness. 261
The property seemed to be breaking up into bright colorful patches. Or was it his imagination? It was the spaces in between that concerned him. The medium out of which everything emerged. And to which everything returned. He had trouble making things incohere. He did not want it to make sense, any of it. He had always loved the capricious and unpredictable. Now more than ever. Rather than trails of slime secreted by the telltale of hard fact. It might make sense later, he would have no objection. On the contrary. As long as he didn't know about it up front. In fact, that way lies liberation. Sometimes years later. The property was starting to seem remote now, less confined. It was as if he were adrift, floating, almost soaring, especially compared to the laboring peacocks. A sound began to pierce his calm, a sort of whistle, increasing in intensity until it burst in a pink bubble. There was a loud report. Everything that could move now did so. In flurries. Flowers and peacocks, and greenery, already faint, now disappeared. The air was filled with a pulsing rusty glow. He was in a state of instant amnesia. The last thing had nothing to do with the next thing. He felt disengaged and wanted to. The property had become properties of the miscellaneous sort perceived through the gathering fog. It was like taillights flickering and disappearing. A dog barked once and went silent. Everything was lonely and at the same time benign. It wasn't exactly delirium. Disengagement would be better put. Gradually, everything emptied. Darkness was closing in, he felt sure of it though it was below his radar. He couldn't see it but he knew it was there. Limpness was seeping as from a balloon. Nothingness was palpable. It had been quite a ride, glittering in sunlight, modulating to sepia. Now all was holes and darkness. But relaxing if he could hold onto it. And ride it down. To the end. Ronald Sukenick (April 2004)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Bloch Frey was born in Louisville, KY in 1943. She attended Antioch College, the University of Texas at Austin and Yale University, where she earned a PhD in French literature. She was also trained in Paris as an artist and printmaker. During a 25-year academic career, she taught at Yale, Brown, Sarah Lawrence and the University of Colorado, where she is Professor Emerita. Her biography, Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, won the 1995 Pen Center USA West Literary Award in Nonfiction, was chosen a notable book of 1995 by The New York Times Book Review and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. In the UK it was chosen one of the best books of 1994 by the London Spectator and the outstanding art biography of 1994 by Apollo Magazine. It was a Finalist for the W.H. Smith Literary Award. She now lives in France. For more information see http://juliafrey.blogspot.com/