Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The first few days after the bombings were days of panic and fear, days of attenuated perceptions stretched past the breaking point.
The broadcast news networks began running their coverage around the clock and the television feeds changed their design. Small running text feeds stretched across the bottom of the screens, buffeted by pictures and computer graphics moving like video games around your field of vision. As hard as it was to grasp the realities of a geopolitical universe grown suddenly much harsher, the hyper-kinetic paranoid television presentation brought these changes home to our living rooms. Here was the altered world, splayed and dissected and splattered across the TV.
There’s a point where you realize that the world you live in is no longer the world you grew up in. There’s a moment of hideous recognition, a sensation of horror that passes across the membrane of your consciousness like a bubble in oil. Everything feels wrong, jaded, corrupted.
When I turned my eyes from the television the running text strip at the bottom of the screen was burnt into my eyes. I was seeing the news as it happened with my eyes closed.
I dreamt of burning bodies and the smell of gunpowder for weeks after the towers fell. There was nothing I could do to cleanse my mind, nothing I could possibly wish for but silence, blessed silence, but as soon as I turned on the television the noise in my head was replaced by the noise on the news, voices and mouths speaking in clipped tones of urgency, saying nothing in particular in a very forceful manner.
And so I began, in the hazy days following the destruction, to gain a unique and comprehensive understanding of the strange world in which we now lived. Everything was compromised. Every layer of perception in our world had been dominated, purchased and pasteurized, coated with liquid latex and made to look new and agreeable and exciting. We saw mass murder unfold before our eyes and reacted as if we had just seen a television commercial. Where was this new product? How much did it cost?
Everything in our lives has been replaced by cheaply manufactured simulacra. I wondered when they had got to my mother. But then I realized it didn’t matter: she had been only too happy to be appropriated. She was positioning me for my replacement, working diligently to achieve this goal.
The Saturday after September 11th saw me the guest of Connie’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gooding. Connie’s school schedule was such that she left for classes at the end of August, while my school year didn’t commence until September.
I enjoyed the company of the Goodings far more than I enjoyed the company of their daughter. They were honest and scrupulous, I felt, much more so than my own duplicitous mother. They were very comfortable with their lot in life, and both worked decent and respectable jobs. I felt at least partially safe in their home, removed from the constant struggle of the running captions that moved across the bottom of the television screens and which had sprouted across everyone’s forehead during the preceding week.
The Goodings’ house was impeccably and classically furnished. The furniture was strong and resilient, and when I returned home after dining with them I felt incredible shame at my mother’s gauche taste in modern furnishings. There wasn’t a piece in my mother’s house I didn’t feel that I could break apart at the slightest provocation, and I was deeply afraid of the impermanence represented by broken furniture.
I sat at the head of the Goodings’ cozy kitchen table, opposite of Mr. Gooding and flanked by Mrs. Gooding. They regarded me as their son-in-law in deed if not in word, making every accommodation to my eccentricities. Truth be told, they understood better than their daughter the difficult upbringing I had received, and felt almost grateful for the chance to help me.
In any event, theirs' was the first house I had entered in a week’s time that did not have the television playing. They were as impeccably presented as they had ever been, and they welcomed me with unfeigned warmth and generosity.
Mr. Gooding asked me how my week had been. I told him that I had been fortunate enough to be able to spend most of my week at home, reading and relaxing in preparation for returning to school. He inquired as to the date of my departure, I answered that I was planning on returning on the 20th.
They had been in close communication with Constance all week. Her classes had apparently been canceled on the day of the attacks and the school had remained closed for an additional day. Classes had resumed on Thursday but there was still campus-wide paranoia. It occurred to some that in the event of another proverbial shoe dropping a small liberal arts college in Oregon was hardly the most likely target, but logic and fear are rare bedfellows.
I asked Mr. Gooding what he had been doing at the time of the attacks. He had been doing paperwork in his office at the bank when he had received a call from his wife, who told him to turn on a television – any television. It was very early in the morning and few people had yet arrived at the bank, so he was alone as he marched into the small break room hidden at the rear of the bank and flipped on the small portable television that sat on the main table.
He was transfixed for a good ten minutes before he realized it was time to open the doors. By this time the morning shift were arriving and most of them had heard nothing yet. As they arrived he informed each of them that something terrible was happening in New York.
He opened the front doors anxiously and returned to the break room. By this time the first tower had fallen. He succumbed to temptation and carried the television into the lobby, installing the small receiver on a podium at the center of the room. He turned the volume loud and sat down in a chair near the loan office.
After a few early-birds, no customers came to the bank that morning. Everyone was hunched around the television together, unwilling to miss a moment of the history.
Mr. Gooding made the decision to close the bank when the first calls arrived for the parents. Schools had closed early and the children were being sent home, and most of the tellers needed to leave. It was really no decision at all – the take-out Chinese food restaurant situated across the way from the bank in the strip-mall had already closed, along with the insurance agency next door and the dry cleaners on the other side. The coffee shop across the highway was doing good business, though - there were dozens of trailer-trucks and cars packing the lot, having stopped in town after hearing the news on the radio.
Mr. Gooding saw each of the employees out the door and locked the building as he left. It was a surreal feeling, to close the bank before even the lunch hour had struck on a sunny Autumn Tuesday. He imagined millions of people across the country in similar positions, finding themselves impacted by distant events they could not easily comprehend. Aside from the out-of-town traffic at the coffee shop, the town had grown preternaturally quiet.
Mrs. Gooding was a doctor – an orthopod at a sports clinic downtown. She canceled all her appointments soon after seeing the first images on television. She called down the list and most admitted that they had had no intention of coming. Mrs. Gooding changed out of her white coat and was the last person to leave her office, the secretaries and other physicians having left earlier.
The Goodings’ voices were soft and assured, well suited to calm descriptions of tragedy. I remember feeling somehow reassured listening to them speak, assured in a way that I hadn’t felt listening to the same stories passing from my friends or my family’s lips. They were all the same, all the stories, anyway, it was simply in the act of telling that they were able to gain any semblance of significance.
Everyone’s story was essentially the same, and this was both boring and horrific. I longed to find someone with a different recollection of the day’s events, someone who hadn’t seen the towers fall, and still sees them standing today. That would be a story worth telling.
In any event I woke up the morning after the frat party with a pounding headache. I was back in my room although I didn’t remember in perfect detail how I had returned. I had never had a hangover like this before, and I was suddenly very glad I no longer had roommates to contend with.
I stayed in bed for most of the day, drinking water and coffee and trying to read but mostly just laying in bed with a pillow over my head. I remembered with a sudden viciousness why I disliked drinking.
I made myself get out of bed as the evening wore on and proceeded to find some
food. It was only then that I saw the note, scribbled hastily and left on my computer screen the night before –
Had a great time? Hope so, lover . . .
My brow furrowed and I felt a searing pain through my head. Whatever I had drank the previous night had done a complete number on me, and the more I strained the less I remembered.
There was a Chinese take-out place down the street from my building. I pulled on my coat and left the apartment carefully, trying to walk as gently as I could. The sun was beginning to set but I wore my sunglasses anyway.
I had given up on studying the year before. Thankfully – or not, depending on your outlook - I had been gifted with the kind of memory that enabled me to make it through my courses on nothing more than willpower. I read all the assigned books but never gave the classes a second thought until I had to take the tests. Sure enough, I had been rewarded with A’s and B’s, an admirable scorecard by any definition. My time was left free for other pursuits.
Sometimes I wished that I could work harder, that I could enable myself to fail at something, anything. But it was all so damned easy, and I felt frustrated for caring.
As I walked down the street my friend’s words of the previous night came softly back into my aching head. I had felt aimless, adrift – unable to focus my life and my energies on any goal or suitable vocation. But his words had opened dark reservoirs of secret purpose at which I had only ever previously realized vague hints. Perhaps all of this was merely just a test, or a passing phase, and I would eventually perceive my current life as if it were a platform of phantoms and ghosts. Something was up there, waiting for me, watching.
If someone was watching my I had to be very careful. I cast a glance over my shoulder but the street was remarkably quiet. It was the weekend and there should have been some activity, I reasoned – but there was none. Simple preternatural silence was the only thing I heard.
The streets were composed with a mixture of ramshackle and modern architectures, a surreal jumble of old and new piled high one on top of the other. There was ivy everywhere, ivy and broad leafy trees bunched across the streets. There was something cozy and dark about the city, something that seemed to simultaneously repulse and welcome the stranger.
But now I became convinced that every corner, every cranny and nook in the crumbling civic masonry held a set of anxious eyes eager to find and dispatch me. There was nothing I could do but go about my business because I knew that to give so much as the slightest foreknowledge that I was aware of their presence would lead to my inevitable doom.
The feeling of being watched is one of the most unpleasant and helpless sensations in life. There is no earthly reason why you should be able to feel as if you’re being watched, and yet you know, with a certainty that belies proof, from the evidence of the downy hair on the back of your neck. You can almost hear the whispering voices as you turn the corner, the spies in their long duster coats and their faded porkpie hats, recording data and transmitting it back to their secret headquarters. It’s just like you’ve seen in all the movies, only worse and filled with loathing.
I sometimes wonder if the people watching me at night are even human anymore. There’s a part of me that hopes not.
I carried my Chinese food back to the apartment and locked the door behind me. My head was still pounding and my eyes felt shriveled. I still couldn’t remember a damn thing about what had happened last night after we started doing those shots behind the bar.
Connie was a good girl, better than I deserved. I hoped she wasn’t compromised by any of this.
Her parents had related their stories to me quietly, with the plain and humble authority with which they communicated everything in their lives. Here was a couple who had succeeded, who had found everything they wanted in life. Their daughter was a tribute to their conceptions of morality and decency, a good girl who reflected well on them both.
Except that she wasn’t really their daughter. Her mother was dead, her father was somewhere else. She had been abandoned by life and it was only her extreme good luck that she had found the Goodings – a childless couple who were willing to adopt an older daughter. I found out later – much later, and accidentally – that Mrs. Gooding had had a tragic miscarriage early in their marriage, and this misfortune had taken from her the ability to bear any children.
They had wanted a child, they had wanted children, the perfect keystone to the perfect suburban American life. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan. In any event, I’ve known Constance for longer than her parents have. I remember seeing her biological parents, when they were still alive and together.
That was a long time ago.