It happened just the way that it was supposed to be. It was as the movies would have had it, and exactly as it would have seemed. Except that we were not there.
We were not there, and instead we were here, and our hearts had to break from across the distance, slowly disintegrate and turn to a vague and horrible distraction, agitation, unsettling nervousness for so long that it settled into exhaustion, and yet still we could not sleep.
We were here. We were here together.
We huddled close in C’s bed the night before, infinite kisses and simple tousling of hair, first glances. Fingers on a cheekbone going down down down; a hand on my breast and heated pressure through waves of dark brown corduroy. We were the young lovers before despair. We were forming the bonds that this would challenge and tear and seek to lacerate, to make all of this more bitter in the back of our throats.
So it goes.
So it goes : the national disaster becomes a personal one, because ten thousand people is too much to comprehend, when one boy's sadness feels like the end of the world.
I am in the car when I hear. It is on the news, and it is so far away. I am picturing what this might do to our country, how this will affect my every day without thinking of the days that other people will no longer get to have. I am thinking about the shit that’s about to go down instead of the tower that just did fall down, that collapsed under its own weight when the heat began to break down the steel.
(I was thinking about this, when really they were choking and jumping and falling and falling and falling and falling with nothing underneath but more sky, and nothing above but the world coming down, and the sun, still smiling over the ruin in silhouette.
I would be thinking about the rest of it soon enough.)
At about 11, I am walking through the halls. They have cancelled classes. I see a professor and a woman huddled close, hushed talk, all death and we-don’t-know and oh-the-poor ... I walk past them without looking, trying not to make them aware of another spirit in their hallway. I pretend to be a ghost, and wish I were ashen. I watched the pictures of the people in the streets all covered in white and now I pretend to clothe myself in the same.
Turning the corner for the stairs, I am beginning on the landing and letting the heavy oak door swing back upon its hinges, but I am caught. Through the crack of remaining light, I see the largest, blackest spider slowly descending from its perch three feet above the ground, dangling silently from its own invisible web.
No one will bother it today, I think. And the door slams shut between us.
C. lost a friend when the world fell down. He chases me away so that he can bawl himself to sleep, the redness in his eyes already growing, as well as the building tears. I watch them from his side as they prepare to fall and I hold him tight before he tells me it's time to go.
'Do you want to talk about it, or do you just want me to hug you?' 'Just hug me.'
That was C. on his bed. That was C. with eyes completely red with blood and barely standing at the door as he let me kiss him, and then walked away.
Me? Me, I waited until I got to the car to cry.
Maybe that is why he never knew.
I go to work. It is the first place, and the first thought as the dust in my mind from the ruins is still beginning to clear. Z. and S. and W. are standing about, shuffling. They are stunned and quiet for the first time, and possibly the last. I have never seen it so silent as this. Nobody knows what to say. M., like the crazy-aunt-figure that she has always played is bustling and trying to be busy, saying all the right things to her not-quite-children. They are us. We are them. The radio is on with more news and no news. No news.
... Until the buildings have collapsed. Z. is asking me if I am alright, and trying to get in touch with his mother, looking after friends. 'Do not go down to the Islamic Center tonight, Mom. Just don't ... just don't go, Mom. It's not safe for us tonight.'
I go to work, for it is always the first place. It is amazing what you choose to have become your family when you have none. This is what I choose. This is it. I feel warmer, looking around at the faces I have known and still get to know. I am so happy for their presence I could cry.
(I am missing one presence, hoping that he will stop by. There is an empty chair at the family table, a light I will long for. But it is too cold to wonder about that.)
My roommate knows that I am more distracted than I seem, scared that this is too much but I see the pain on C.'s face on the backs of my eyes. I need to see him with the fronts of my eyes and touch his hair. I am pretending that this is all for him, but it is much for me as well. I am sadder than I know. Only my roommate has seen me crying quietly in my room each night, and I have tried to forget that that is how I get to be.
C. wants to be alone. That is where his pain lies, in the bottom of his heart, in the quiet. And that is where he meets it.
In my bed, alone, I dreamed of planes crashing into my home.
The night of the attack, I go with S. to a candle light ceremony in the newly constructed peace quad at our school. I am happy to see that they have put the symbol back together; I imagine myself praying for peace in the hollowed-out mess of a construction zone, with the jagged metal fence splitting the arms apart, tearing the landscape.
The wind is blowing the candles like it is trying to put them out. Them or us. Hot wax leaks onto my hands. I tilt the end and go on, unwilling to let it die, caught in some strange idea that that would be like letting the living down. I am still focused on the dead. I am burning. I hold S.'s arm and my tears fall on him like wax on my fingers.
I am ignoring so many kinds of pain as we walk home in silence, in the darkness, through waves of scent from the smoke of burnt out candles.
Kiss me, you are beautiful, I whisper this into softened sheets all alone. I am thinking about the dying and wondering about those of us still left.
When will the last days end?
I am working again.
I pull out C.'s face from a ground of blackened grey, and collage together bits of lavender and crimson. I pull in a bright blue ground. There are no features. There is only brightness, and his hair rising in and fading out, bounded by gold. I draw him without a mouth, which in the photograph had been smeared into his bold, overwhelming smile. There had been no face left without the gleaming of his smile. I leave him half-completed, light and airy. I remember the C. that will be and that was.
I feel him with paper if I can't feel him with me. I hold him in my arms without him there.
We are never, ever alone.