All day, I've flickered back and forth, feeling an obligation to remember what was happening five years ago and feeling the danger that the very act of remembering might turn solipsistic. It doesn't matter, I thought as I prepared to leave for my morning class, that five years ago I was sitting in an office with many secretaries, our heads all bowed as we listened to a radio tell us that one of the towers was falling, or that I spent most of the morning watching a huge television (once I remembered where the television was) with lots of students, no one knowing what was going on, or that I still swear that my eyes made the second plane come out the other side of the building, like the bullet coming out the other side of the apple in Egerton's photograph, when I first saw that impossible footage. The second time they played it on whatever news channel we were watching, I was shocked that it buried itself in the building, and shocked that my mind had done what it did.
I remember absurd things from the morning: I was wearing a black skirt and white blouse, very simple, because I had wanted to wear my red patent leather shoes. It was the third day of classes, and I was teaching Frankenstein in an 8:40 a.m. seminar. We started right on time and spent the 75 minutes mapping on the chalkboard all manner of ideas about Victor Frankenstein and his creature. My left bra strap kept slipping down inside my blouse; every time I had to fish for it, in what I hoped was a clandestine way, I thought of the high school teacher everyone called Looney, and how they laughed at the fact that she would reach inside her shirt to pull up her bra strap. The classroom was breezy and lovely, and though I was having a hard time finding our discussion passages on each page of Shelley's novel (because I had overannotated my copy, in my concern to know the text flawlessly), I felt as though I were about to hit my stride for the semester. I let everyone out at 9:55, sending them away with a writing assignment due on Thursday.
The next class of students filtered into the classroom a few at a time. "Have you heard what's happening?" one of them said.
Over the next few weeks, I built myself a small archive of print media coverage of the event: The New York Times from a few key days; Time and Life; The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker with Spiegelman's perfect cover ("I knew he'd come through for us," my beloved Brooklynite e-mailed to say, when her copy came in the mail). This gathering, I told anyone who listened, was an act of hope: I wanted to believe that we weren't going to be annihilated (by others or ourselves), that there would be people, or just my future person, who would look at my pile of early reportage. I finally had to hide all of these magazines and newspapers in my closet, because I couldn't stop looking at them, couldn't stop feeling terrible about feeling terrible even though I'd lost no one in the towers or in the Pentagon.
And in fairly short order, I found that there was nothing for me to say, no voice to add to what the voices were recalling and proclaiming, and yet I, like so many people, just kept talking about it: where I'd been, what I'd heard, how I found out, how I felt. Five years later, I still wonder whether someone somewhere still needs me to say my part of the day aloud. And I'm nearly sure that the answer is no, but I say my part, or at least a part of that part, anyhow.
Daniel Tobin's "As Angels in Some Brighter Dreams" (Hudson Review, summer 2006) catches something about the aftermath, describing the city as
a landscape of storefronts and row houses,Gina Franco's "That Cried to the Whole City 'Sleep No More'" (Georgia Review, winter 2002) also calls back for me something just right about that morning and what it wrought.
Apartment prospects with their towers
Of skyscrapers across the teeming river,
And that absence soaring above the harbor
Like a monument to anyone's lost world.