New York is a city where rain can wash away just about any stain. And to be certain, New York City is full of the stains of life, like sin, and shit, and guilt, and fear as much as it’s full of hope, and possibility, and luxury, and money. Rain in New York echoes down the avenues and soothes away the white noise of taxi horns blaring, cop sirens trilling, garbage trucks booming, delivery trucks slamming and the murmur of millions of people talking at every hour of every day. From high up atop the canyons of steel and granite and bomb-proof glass, rain clouds shield the whole festering city from view, revealing only glimpses of dotted grids of light and the tips of the iconic buildings lit in garish commercialized colors.
It wasn’t raining on 9/11. I’ve heard someone say that they now have a uncontrollable urge to flinch low to the ground on days as clear and blue as that day in September 2001. I want to tell them to take a healthy dose of California and call me in a week. Every day here feels like living within an elementary science experiment, where you shine a powerful beam of light through a crystal and watch the rainbow scatter across the table in a darkened room. I awake early these days, usually to the cheerful babbling of a five month old who finds ways to stick his tiny fingers up my nose at ungodly hours of the morning. I can look to the West and see biblical upthrusts of clouds rising over the Santa Cruz mountains and settling over the South Bay most mornings as we come to the end of the baking summer. Within minutes of the rising of the sun, the clouds disappear over the Eastern ranges and the sky and sun resume their escalating intensity through the day. Though there is no water, no moisture, no humidity in this long season, the heat is surprisingly mild. It’s a dichotomy that brings a measure of awe from those of us who have spent the majority of our lives sweltering in the misery of long, sultry, melting Mid-Atlantic summers. I gladly pay the devils fee here to teach my son to wear his hat every time we’re in the sun, and slather sunscreen on each recess at school, in exchange for the ability to tolerate being outside all day, any day, all year long. The sky is blue, the sun is high and there’s no possible way to look at it as anything but beautiful.
When it rains, which it has only done twice since we moved here in May, California does not accept the moisture with grace. Santa Clara takes on a near rancid perfume, as the accumulation reactivates the stenches of rotting fruit, patches of urine and the general smell of desiccation. Rain merely shows us how parched our world really is, and prevents us from continuing to live in ignorant, unsustainable bliss. It’s a desert here.
My world view upon arrival those first few weeks felt as though reality was two clicks out of focus. The greens were just as lush as Virginia, but instead of oak and dogwood and maple, there’s palm and hibiscus and olive, diligently and artificially irrigated every day. Roses grow just as pink, but they’re manicured into strange bulbous decorative shapes alongside walkways and driveways. Roofs are as red as the thick Virginia clay, but the soil is pale and dusty, covered in seed pods of prehistoric size. Houses feel smaller and lower, as though some giant has taken his thumb and smushed every structure a few feet into the ground. A facet of having no basements or storage attics in construction out here, for earthquake and fire safety. Dry as a bone. Kindling dressed in stucco.
We’ve worked hard over these past few months to move past the culture shock of West Coast living. The chronic sleep deprivation and the ever-present reminder that time waits for no tired parent regardless of the number of screaming children in your life has forced us to simply get on with it all, to enjoy it as it comes. Kindergarten has commenced for a very excited five year old who has leapt into the fray armed with pleases, thank yous, laughter, curiosity and the desperate need to assert his identity in a new world of order, rules and structure. He’s in heaven.
The schedule on the classroom board this week said “Patriot Day – 9/11.” I stayed after pickup today to have a brief chat with the teacher. And what did this event entail, I asked? Tempered by her brief mental placement of me as the parent who frequently forgets to wipe smears of yesterday’s peanut butter off the five year old’s face, or put clothes on the five month old, she informed me in the dulcet tones that only a Kindergarten teacher can muster that she would be wearing red, white and blue and that the class would be talking about what it means to be a hero. No discussion of New York, I insisted? Well, no, not really with the little kids, she replied. And as though the mental pathway had opened into her adult communication skills, she proceeded to inform me about exactly where she had been when the planes had hit. And I, with a squirming, teething, urping bundle of wiggling need in my arms, and a sugar-crashing, catatonic bundle of whining, barely standing on two feet…I didn’t know what to say.
“I was there. In New York,” I finally said. The parents around me got very quiet, and the teacher repeated what I had told her, word for word, slowly. And then I realized they were waiting. For me to continue. And I couldn’t. “And I’m not ready to have that conversation with my five year old, if you understand,” I stated, with the finality of ending a line of discussion that made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure she did truly understand, but she nodded and we all went on our way.
I posted on Facebook earlier today that I was going media dark for the next 48 hours or so. 9/11 has become a chance for everyone to remember how their lives were changed on that day. Reliving the shock, horror, numbness, and pain. Telling others exactly where they were when they heard the news. My grandfather once told me that this was the Pearl Harbor of our generation. That we have lived wartime lives, up close and personal. I understand the need for catharsis, the need to share with one another. But I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to really put into words the depth of impact, the way that it changed the entire course of my life. That’s not something that can be codified, because it changes every day, every year of my life.
Trying to navigate through new relationships is hard enough without having to describe our experiences in New York, though the topic inevitably arises. We have developed phrases and statements to share some of the story, and adjust them depending on the seriousness of the conversation, how long we’ve know people, what they’ve been willing to share with us. It was only within the past year or so that I was able to share with my father that I will never forget the arching trajectory of bodies willfully diving into the sky from 100 stories above Manhattan. That look on his face that night during our conversation was one that I never want to have with my children – the idea that as a parent there are horrible things in the world that we simply will not be able to spare our children from. That will brand them, shape them and scar them.
I have a picture of my Grandmother, who I never met, that I secreted away long ago during one of those compulsory family history projects from school. It’s a black and white photo, diligently colored in tans and oranges and musty browns to highlight the blonde in her hair and the drab coloration of her nurse’s uniform. She’s standing in the open embrace of a dark haired man with an officer’s overcoat wrapped around them both. The illumination from her lighter touching his cigarette shows her face turned up toward him, her hair perfectly coiled, his chin tilted. Intimate. And not my Grandfather. My memory fails me, but I retained the sadness of knowing that my Grandmother was engaged once, or perhaps twice, during WWII, and that her fiancé was killed before she met my Grandfather. Of course, as my Mother tells it, the small photograph of the Parisian can-can girl that fell out of my Grandfather’s wartime journal still had the power to make him blush. The power of memory, so far removed.
My husband and I used to joke that we were a wartime marriage. We bought our engagement rings only a month after 9/11, and we would have marched down to City Hall right after graduation if my Father hadn’t made it abundantly clear that good Southern girls let their Daddy’s walk them down the aisle. We soldiered on, through our last year of school, through our first years of marriage in New York City, poor as door mice and ready to conquer anything the world wanted to throw at us. Jobs on Wall Street, graduate school, teaching at our alma mater, a fabulous pad in Battery Park, clubs and raves, booze and haute cuisine, international travel, life lived at the fastest pace we could take it. We left when the fear became too much. It wasn’t that we couldn’t sustain that life indefinitely, as seductive as life on the top of the world can be. It was that every day, every bomb threat, every CBRE drill, every random mugging report on our block, every time we were trapped on the subway because of a suicide on the tracks, made us question whether we would actually survive NYC.
I cannot imagine how difficult it is for my Grandfather to deal with his memories. And I feel as though comparing my memories of 9/11 to the years of his bloody, traumatizing, heroic service cheapen and degrade him and everyone of his generation. I marched in the great protests post-9/11 in New York as a proud and adamant pacifist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t honor his service. Or the service of my friend who lost his life to a IED in Iraq 10 days after my first son was born in 2007. Scott joined the Army after 9/11, in a time where he and I had drifted apart from each other. He was a writer, a slam poet, a warrior who fought demons and words and wrested them into a beautiful life, marrying a wonderful woman, starting his life anew with meaning and promise. Before he died.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to have a conversation with my son about being in New York on that day. I worry that he will see only the lessons of what horrible things people are capable of doing, rather than the beautiful way that we all came together in that incredible city in the months after the towers fell. The tangible experience that he will have will be through pictures of common elements of his life, sky scrapers and planes and New York City, forced together in a way utterly inconceivable to nearly the entire population of the world. That singular act, repeated, where plane meets tower changed the way that we look at our world in a fundamentally fearful way. I don’t want my child to see fear. I don’t want to introduce that threshold within his developing moral sense of the world around him, to see the point at which he crosses into understanding of the evil within people. Bad guys are only vague antitheses to super heros in this too precious world of childhood innocence right now. Please let it stay that way just a little longer.
The freeway was on fire several weeks ago on the hottest day of the summer. Smoke blanketed the roadway, and flames licked up against the metal of the guard rail and consumed the scrub brush and tumbleweeds along the concrete overpass as we drove by. And just like that, with my boys chatting about the inner workings of siphon pumps, and how to construct the internal organs of dinosaurs out of Legos, while the baby took one of his rare naps – just like that, I tasted the burn at the back of my throat of asbestos, steel, concrete and flesh. And then it was gone, and we emerged into the clarity of the California sun. And we moved on.