Eighteen years is a long time.
It’s enough time to mature from infant to adult, for edges to lose their sharpness and dull to the touch. Photographs fade and colors mute, losing their urgency, something belonging not to the moment, but to the past, tinted with nostalgia. Things shift, break apart, decompose–reduced to skeleton pieces; flesh long gone, jigsaw bone pieces of what once was.
Eighteen Septembers ago two planes cleaved New York into before and after. There’s an entire generation of new adults who’ve grown up in a post-9/11 world, who don’t know what it’s like to travel without being herded like cattle or taking your shoes off like a naughty child. An entire generation whose innocence has been carefully curated by their parents, because those parents know that in one day, one moment, everything can change. A plane can fall from the sky and tear the fabric of what you thought you knew.
I don’t often think about September 11–other than when it comes up in conversation, or when, like today, an anniversary tolls. Yet the day lives in me like a long-dead loved one, scraps residing in a secret pocket of memory. I carry them, pieces of myself. After a time they have knit and woven themselves into my DNA, becoming part of my whole.
But eighteen years? Eighteen years is a lifetime.
The particular piquancy of blue fades from azure to something flat. I question my own memories: When did we realize something was terribly wrong–was it after the second plane hit? The third? Did we really fall to the ground whenever the roar of a plane scraped across the cloud line–or was that something we only saw later, on television? Did we sleep? How could we have? But we must have, curled into some boogeyman clutch, tossing in dreams. Or perhaps that was where we forgot.
The edges of 9/11 are softer now, not as serrated. I don’t bleed when I get too close. Did we really stop at a bar to watch the events unfolding twenty-five city blocks away? Or did I make that up?
After eighteen years I’m left with jigsaw pieces of something that at one time was vibrant and cutting and painfully whole, stinging my nostrils like the ash that rained down for days.
You forget, and yet you never forget.
Not too long ago I went back. For the first time since we left, I was on my own–a gift, a pilgrimage. I walked streets that were familiar and yet unfamiliar. Sometimes I let my memory guide my way, instinct leading me to the right set of subway steps. Other times I got turned around, befuddled, confused, unsure. After all these years W. 12th Street still doesn’t make sense to me.
Today’s NYC is not the one I remember. She’s not mine anymore. But when I am there I wear her anyway, like a rotted wedding dress, shoving myself into the fabric of criss-crossing streets and avenues, prancing around in half-zipped silk. With each outing the dress tears, a tattered hem dragging behind while I play Havisham and track down my ghosts.
NYC is no longer mine, though eighteen years ago we were as inseparable as entwined lovers.
You forget, you mis-remember. How many days before we went back to work, a mournful funeral parade past a sea of missing faces? Like memories themselves, strange things stand out. A parking ticket while we were working with the Red Cross, lines to donate blood. George W. Bush reading to a room of kindergartners. And the falling man.
That free fall body has haunted me for eighteen damn years.
You forget, you mis-remember. You cling to the certainties. It was a Tuesday. The sky was blue. We were late for work. We scrambled to make sense of something that made no sense. Who did I call first? In my mind it was my mother, but in fact it was probably my husband. Then my mother-in-law, an ocean away. Quick phone calls before the lines jammed and communication stopped and we were stranded, no way in or out–unsure if we were safely secured, or penned for slaughter.
The long trudge home. Over a bridge. People grayed out with soot, like charcoal sketches. I think. But again, maybe I’m mis-remembering. The new reports, confused and panicked, full of wrong information. Ash and soot like a thin layer of grime. Shock, of course. And confusion. And fear, radiating outward from Manhattan into Brooklyn, into Queens, down the seaboard, into the heartland, across the world.
But it’s been a long time.
I wonder: Can I still claim a day belonging to a country and a city which I can’t–in any meaningful way–call my own? Not in the way I did on that day, when the city rang in my blood like a heart song. Back then I had no idea that a few years later I’d be gone, that eighteen years on I’d be living in a different city across the world. And yet no matter how long I live here, this city will never sing in my blood the way New York does.
It will never call me home like a siren call.
Today’s city song is mournful. A low, keening wail calling me back to the urban womb that nurtured me, wound itself up in my nerves and tendons, pumped in me like my own blood.
Eighteen years. I’ve never really given up on her. And the city of my heart? She looks on like a tolerant lover while I squeeze into my tattered attire and call out to my ghosts, looking for a way back home.