Tomorrow marks the twentieth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade towers. I've written almost nothing about it, ever. For two reasons. One, because I generally choose to laugh at the world because otherwise I would cry, and I can't find jokes. Two, and related to one, I was traumatized.
Now with that hilarious opening.... why write about it now? Well, I guess because it's become so distant in the past that I worry about cynicism. Anniversaries get politicized. Bad actors use terrorism to do more terrorism. There are multitudes of ongoing tragedies that should get more attention. I get your cynicism, folks. Especially younger folks, who were maybe only four months old at the time, or not born, and in now time, have to wake up every day to news of rain in Greenland, bullets in schools, government in women's bodies.
Then my kid came home from school yesterday and said her teacher showed them 9/11 footage and she cried. I'm not ready to cede this day to the cynics. And I suppose I have something I want to say. Neither four years of Trump nor two years of global pandemic has managed to displace 9/11 as the most formative traumatic event in my life. So let's talk about trauma.
Trauma has so many tiny, invisible triggers. It's an overused word; it means prompt. Something which provokes something bad. You smell something familiar. A stranger wears a certain kind of mustache. You're looking up at a crisp, cloudless, shimmering blue autumn sky, and some amorphous feeling of grief trickles out of your limbic system and reminds you that beauty and tragedy are perfectly synchronous in this life. So many people died that day; but so many lived. We all remember that sky.
I believe those experts who say that trauma experienced communally is easier to confront than trauma endured alone. Your grief is normalized. When trauma clutches a whole group, its grip necessarily loosens. And we pulled together back then! We very briefly became the best versions of our empathetic selves for one another. For most other Americans, at least. It's getting hard to imagine our citizenry that unified ever again. It was also beauty in tragedy.
Over the course of about an hour, the city transformed from a hub of civilization to a war zone. After watching the second plane torpedo into the south tower and explode, my boyfriend and I left our apartment to wander the streets of Brooklyn, for answers. We passed thousands of weeping and gasping people, as reams of intact office papers rained down on our heads, and ambulant zombies covered in ash and asbestos streamed across the bridge, not because they necessarily lived in Brooklyn, but simply to get away from the dangerous conflagration. In the coming days, I tried calling my firefighter friend, probably hundreds of times, to no avail, hoping that telecommunications would be restored and he'd pick up the messages. And call me back. One evening, I walked through Fort Greene, and bought a bamboo tree at a bodega, because I had to believe in something lucky. My city government job soon dispatched me to the Javits Center, where FEMA had set up headquarters. In a way, I wish everyone could witness firsthand the awesome process by which the federal government descends on a disaster site, and stays until there's no one left to save, and no imminent danger to guard. It was so terrible, but so extraordinary. Those people came to New York from all over the country and saved us in a million different ways.
Then my bamboo tree died, and the recovery teams found part of my friend's shoulder bone.
His name was Robert Edward Evans. He was my friend and former boyfriend. I mourned with his sister, and our friends, and his engine company. We had memorial events. We visited the firehouse, and spent time with the men who survived, many of whom openly wished they hadn't. They had the day off. That was their only mistake.
I understood them. A few months earlier, Bob had helped me move from one apartment to another. I was moving in with my new boyfriend, but the new guy had to be at the office that day. So Bob drove in from Franklin Square to Brooklyn, and after we moved all my boxes and books, I took him for drinks at a nearby bar. Then we had more drinks. And then some inappropriate affection. Nothing hot and heavy, just regular bar stuff. This seemed almost normal, rather than scandalous. For the entire span of our hot mess of a relationship, we'd been that cliché couple who couldn't be together and couldn't be apart. So it also felt normal when afterwards, I told him that it would probably be best if we didn't talk for a while. I had to give this new thing a chance. He needed to date other people too, but I was thinking of myself.
That was April, 2001, and I never saw him again.
Did I have survivor's guilt? I didn't know. I still don't know. For a long time, I just kept thinking, I'm such an awful person. I trifled with Bob's emotions on what turned out to be one of his last days on Earth. I took advantage of his generous nature, instead of letting him sleep. Then, because I am reckless and selfish and can't get my shit together, I alienated him. We didn't talk that whole summer. And --big surprise-- guess what? I moved out of that new guy's place shortly after 9/11. Back then, couples either had a baby or broke up, which is a slight exaggeration, but traumatic events often serve as a stinging wake up call. If Bob saw the red flags, he didn't say anything. He's a helper, a saver. And he loved me. Even if I was a hot mess with a bad new boyfriend.
I know that everyone is imperfect and everyone makes mistakes. I know that Bob had free will and chose to answer my phone call that one last time. But when you make a mistake that you can't repair or retract, because the person you wronged ended up dying, because he ran into a collapsing high-rise in a futile attempt to save other people? Well, you have to live with that.
Around the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, I called Bob's sister. We talk periodically, it wasn't totally weird. I want to tell you something, I said. "What," she said, "did you secretly have Bob's baby?" Since this question made sense in no timeline or actual reality, I heard it as a spontaneous expression of her own trauma, her deep and abiding wish there was something more of Bob on this earth left to find. No, I said, I just wanted to say that it was my fault I didn't see him again before he died. She didn't know anything about it. And I realized in that moment that I probably wanted her to absolve my weird guilt. We both wanted each other to fix something in ourselves that couldn't be fixed. Something like communal trauma, but not really. Trauma has so many tiny, invisible triggers.