The American Book of the Dead: September 11

Wednesday, July 14

September 11

I was lying when I said I wasn’t going to give any backstory. 2001. September 11. In a way, it started the rest of my life, all our lives. I was sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee in my right hand, watching the early morning news. I had spent the morning walking the dog around the neighborhood--I bought myself an egg sandwich and an orange juice, someone eagerly handed me an election flyer: I felt like I belonged to the timeless city. I was waiting on the couch to pick up my then-girlfriend (now-wife) who was arriving on the 9:00 train from Florida. I had forced her to leave because I thought I needed the space to write a novel. I wrote a hundred or so pages, all the while hard-up and lonely. Meanwhile she was living with an ex-boyfriend who had turned a cult member, a follower of the Falun Gong movement. I write these details because they don’t seem real exactly, rarely does my life seem interesting enough for fiction. Perhaps on that day, everybody had an equal story to tell.

On the couch: watching the "Today Show." Out of the corner of my eye a low-flying wavering plane, as if struggling.

Now--and this is important--this was a daydream I’d had before. Often sitting in my 3rd floor apartment with its rare view of the NY sky I would fantasize that a plane was flying too low. God, it’s going to crash, I would think, maybe even with a slightly drunken sense of hope--at least, then, my delusions would have some proof. Once I even heard an explosion, surprised to hear the next day that nothing happened. I knew every trajectory of planes in the sky. I hated planes. So when a plane was flying south as low as the buildings, I knew this was wrong. Something was about to be realized.

I didn’t run to the window. I didn’t want to see it crash. A Boom. I ran to the window. Oh no, I said out loud, rare for me, something people did in the movies. The World Trade Center was out our window to the left, twin overseers of our neighborhood. Imposing, thoughtful, indifferent, romantic: New York City buildings. They always seemed like a fiction, a white smoky haze about them, as if superimposed against the blue screen of the sky. They were just too tall.

A black smoking hole in building, jagged and fragmented. Many people must be dying in there. I went out on the fire escape to watch. Felt guilty, came back inside. Got my camera, took one picture which I still haven’t developed. Checked the news. Still interviewing somebody about a book. Another boom, a cloud of fire, and an excited shout of "Woe" from the Chinatown onlookers. They were shocked but entertained--not despicably, I suppose. Life is boring, uniform, and this was something different. It was even magical, in the sense of seeming both fake and uncommonly alive.

I had to leave to get to the train station. I hailed a cab--probably the last empty cab in New York for the next few days--and rode Uptown with a smiling Pakistani man who spoke with an embarrassed, maybe grateful, smile that this was probably an act of terrorism.

I tell this, as if it needs justifying, because it informed the rest of my life. Mainly, it influenced my life with my girlfriend, who became my wife. We almost immediately had a child, a September 11th baby, now called the Doomers. We then married, on Halloween--which in times of marital crisis is too ironic to consider. I also started thinking about more esoteric ideas--trying to find proof of God, rather than just a description. It might have to do with being a part of all that death. To be living a relatively mild life and then to be thrust into war was a profound experience. It made me feel empathetic with history--that is, part of the human race. Also I was part of something that was the beginning of the end of the world. Instinctively, I must have known it was coming.

The worst part of Sept. 11 for me--short of the tragedy--was seeing a nightmare actually come to life. The writer’s job is to believe in made-up stories as if they were true. If it wasn’t so, there would be no energy to write them. But this was something I’d imagined actually come to life--and if I believed in something I was writing, I was still protected by the feeling that I am God of my world and I can change it as I please, nothing is permanent. The God who writes the fiction of our lives was doing as he pleased that day. From that day forth I had the disturbing sense that some illusions may be real.

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