Well, that’s it, Noppi, I’m up early again, I can’t sleep. My throat is killing me and I’m coughing. I think it’s the smoke because everyone else has it too.
The subways are quiet. People bump into each other and don’t apologize. A woman slips in through the closing doors and takes the seat beside me. Opens her newspaper, and stops. An advertisement for a community college, the same ad duplicated along the upper edge of the subway cars—the twin towers all dressed up in pinstripes, two spiffy columns rising above a man walking briskly down the street. The woman looks confused.
They’re gone, Noppi. Zapped, like in a sci-fi movie. Collapsed in a single instant as if thoroughly exhausted. I can see you shaking your head.
“Twin elegance,” you once said. “A radical idea.” And you unrolled study-blueprints your first year of architecture school and smoothed out the scrolls like they were some high-tech Torah. For you they were holy, and, “God,” I said, “do I have to listen to this again?”
The newspaper ad is grainy, the black and white dots in pixilate, and my eyes sting like they’ve been flung with sand. I press my fingertips to my lids and the towers vaporize, leaving blank spaces I quickly fill in with a mental crayon. I didn’t love them for their grace, Noppi, just like I didn’t hate them for their ugliness. What got me, what punched a hole in me, was that I now bracketed their existence. I was born before they were. I saw them go up, and saw them come down. And behind them only blue and empty sky.
The woman turns the page. The subway slows and she looks up mid-turn. We’re bypassing the station directly underneath, rolling quietly in reverence, or to not further shake an already shaky sub-structure. White dust coats the tilework. A few years ago it was renovated—mosaics of eyes went up, huge eyes everywhere. They watch silently now.
Outside, Chinatown is quiet, the dust settling on the ground like fresh snow. Ladies walk with tissues to their noses while men squat in clusters of threes. Few stores are open. A man offers me an apple, another a fish. Everyone is shell-shocked and weird with nerves. They flit like butterflies, powder on their wings. The tenements are unrecognizable in a veil of light-brown ash, the façades sepia photographs of themselves. A touch, and they’d fall away like flats on a stage set.
Sunlight glints off a policeman’s star. “She’s back again,” he tells his partner. A paper blows by. I catch it with my foot, then let it go. The air is sickly sweet, more than just burning concrete, and I need to get closer. I stop by the blue barricade and ask the policeman if this street is open. I clear my throat and try again. I’ve lost my voice. The ash has taken it away.
When we were ten years old they were completed. “Finally,” you said, as if you’d been waiting for ages. And you had, tracking their development in the Sunday paper, comparing it to the erector-set view from our Brooklyn window. You pointed to the newsprint diagrams. “That’s a retaining wall. Those are sub-basements.”
I stared over the rooftops. It looked like a mess to me. Now the retaining wall. Now the sub-basements. The foundation took the most time, the towers themselves going up quickly, almost as an afterthought. People in the neighborhood scoffed. “Atrocious,” they said. “Monstrosities. Blocking out the sky, those hideous things.”
You grinned and dragged me up to the roof and lifted your chin. “I’ll be the architect,” you announced. “You be the lowly ironworker.” And you made me move Mom’s flowerpots, dry and barren, and place them wherever you said.
When the observation deck finally opened you pestered Dad until he took us. “Save your tickets,” he said, and we did, tucking the lavender stubs into our pockets. The elevator took forever to reach the top, our ears popping as we watched the floors light up. The elevator man gave us sticks of gum. “Chew,” he said.
Outside, the wind whipped our windbreakers, and you ran right up to the railing to look for Brooklyn while Dad held me firmly in his arms. I spat out my gum and watched it tumble overboard. You turned to me, hair blowing, and said, “You probably just killed someone.” But the next day you dragged me back. You said if we lie at the base and look up we could get dizzy. We lay at the base, looked up, and got dizzy. Watched for falling gum. You said if we went to the top and put our toes right up against the glass, it would feel like we were falling.
It did. It felt like we were falling.
“Gravity,” you said, about the grace of razed buildings, and I knew your affiliation with disaster. Impressed to learn they could sway three feet from center, you did your architecture thesis on a building that could go up as easily as come down. Movable Permanence you called it, and graduated from Columbia with honors. Dad took us to dinner at Windows on the World, and boy did I hate you. This stupid view.
“Your mother would be proud,” he said.
And you hugged your diploma and looked at the glimmering cityscape, the lights twinkling, and whispered, “…Top of the world.”
“How boring,” I said, and glared at the table. I had gone to art school—no money in my future. I wished Mom were here. She’d stand up for me.
“She’s being annoying again,” you said as I got up from the table and pressed my hands against the plate glass and looked at the view. Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty. This was our town, and we knew it intimately. The sidewalks, the ugly of it, the absolute gorgeousness. Unlike those bland Midwesterners taking over our neighborhood, we didn’t choose this city, didn’t migrate in. We emerged from inside, two Athenas from a Zeus’s head, able to gauge the city’s mood just by how people jostled each other on the sidewalk.
“You okay?” the bartender said with a flat Midwestern accent, and I thought, Where did all the Brooklyn go? Where’s home? I was pissed when you landed that job at Yang & Fermoile. It bothered me, Noppi, how lately everywhere I looked I saw every new office space filling up with people who chose New York for its restaurants, its stores, its career opportunities, for what they could get out of it, a means to an end. All usury. Like seeing an elegant woman and wanting to fuck her, not love her.
I can hear you say it: “She’s being annoying.” But I can’t help it. I’m defensive.
In a little park in Brooklyn flagpoles clang like halyards in the seasick silence. The flags flutter at half-mast, and I look across the river at the skyline. Familiarity revoked. I lean over the railing. Waves lap the docks and Look, I tell the water, look at that absence. Reflect that.
You always said my head was in the clouds. “Buildings go up,” you said. “That’s what they do. Form over space.” And suddenly I want to ask you a million architecture questions. What you think of this strange transformation, the towers plummeting as if through a trapdoor. If hell is the absence of reality, then they had indeed gone there, not changing the entire scenery, just pulling two very important curtains. I’m afraid to look behind the others, afraid I’ll peel back this sham skyline and find the silent blue of a Magritte painting, wind whistling.
I take out something I’ve been carrying around with me. A tarnished copper oval. That day we visited, Dad had brought us downstairs to the indoor observation deck and was waiting on line for t-shirts while I looked at a spinner-rack of postcards: our brand-new supermodern skyline in garish 70s technicolor. There were people everywhere, and when I turned around I had lost you.
I found you in a corner staring out the plate glass and flashed you the postcard. You pushed me away. “Shh,” you said. “I’m thinking.” You would do this, a quiet retreat to someplace I couldn’t follow. I sat, stared at the postcard. Turned it over.
“Okay,” you said, smiling. “Done.” It was always something small that brought you out of it. This time a one-armed-bandit standing by the water fountain that could squish a penny into a souvenir. You begged Dad for a shiny one. The shiniest, you insisted, while he searched his pockets. You dropped the penny into the machine, cranked the handle, and out popped a copper oval embossed with the twin towers, Top of the World cresting the single spike sending out tiny electric zaps. You stared at it, then quietly slipped the oval into your pocket.
I was furious. We were supposed to share. I stepped away from you and lined up the different horizons out the window. The smokestacks in Queens. The Verrazano Bridge. Kids crowded the plate glass, standing in the dugout around the perimeter, two steps of increased vertigo with a strangely rubberized floor. Some held back. Others ran right up to the void. You stood apart with a very Noppi look on your face, and the whole subway ride back I refused to speak to you. You didn’t care. When we got home you went right up to the roof. I stomped up after you and watched you stare at the single blinking antenna like it was giving you secret signals.
After that, you studied the towers daily, those two pillars hovering over the rooftops and watertowers in the pink glow of dawn or the red blood of sunset, sometimes shrouded in fog, sometimes etched with a fine steel nib in the brilliant sun. Cast in an endless palette. Reflecting clouds. Or a plane.
From that day on you went up there every day on your way home from school. You said the elevator man always had gum. I’d cover for you, making Dad dinner, and you’d rush in at six o’clock breathless, ladle the soup, and whisper to me about the top of the world.
“You’re such a Nopscicle,” I said. “You’re nuts. Right Dad? Isn’t she nuts?”
He slurped a hot spoonful. “Takes after your mother.”
There’s something I really have to tell you, so I go downtown and wander among the people drifting shell-shocked through the lunar landscape. The dust is an inch thick, like what you’d pull out of a clogged vacuum cleaner: heavy powder threaded with long fibers. The adaptation of bone. I rub the grit between my fingers and touch my finger to my tongue. Slow convoys roll down the dry slush of Broadway like a funeral procession. City buses move National Guardsmen. You wouldn’t believe it, Noppi. Broadway is…where those crystalline structures used to be is now a distortion of flashing lights and sulfur, a cavern of fire and brimstone. I inch closer and the pit gets larger, the laws of perspective temporarily suspended. It’s not something you can catch in one glimpse, from a single view.
It’s…remember when Dad took us to Yankee Stadium and we came out the wrong chute into the expensive seats and the field opened up almost under our feet? It’s dizzying, acres large, with smoldering ruins around it and half-toppled buildings around those. The façade of one tower stands like lace, a cheese grater, a filigree Colosseum. The wind whistles through it. When the sun goes down the floodlights filter through it, casting moonbeams.
Men emerge in heavy gear, beaten, cleansed by ash and fire. They wade like intergalactic stormtroopers through granulated glass and steel as their replacements jump off trucks and disappear into the lights. With the streets gone, winding roads form naturally, like dirt tracks on a farm. Ground Zero is a town within a city. People stand watching. Family members, I guess. I stand apart, distance myself. I know they’ll never find you.
I spit the ash from my mouth and move on.
They fell correctly, the newspapers said. They could have toppled, setting off a domino effect. Or they could have spread their skirts and smothered all of Lower Manhattan. Somewhere it said the architect should be praised.
One Halloween you said, “That’s you. And that’s me.”
I compared them. “You have the antenna.”
My first kiss on the rooftop with Arthur Levine, the lights of the towers twinkled like solid blocks of stars, and Arthur had to nudge me to pay attention.
They were twins, Noppi. If one fell, the other had to. Like us.
And here come the candlelight vigils. All across the city people hold hands and weep because they can, because they aren’t numb. The sun comes up and all along the West Side Highway people buy lighters and cheer like they’re at a rock concert. A woman eats an ice-cream cone, a white swirl with black sprinkles, as tourists pose in souvenir T-shirts, a shattered twin towers with the words I Can’t Believe I Got Out! “Did you get the smoke?” they say. “Get the smoke.” And the flags. They’re playing patriot, just like they played crisis, looking for a thrill, for the biggest thing New York can give them. Just more usury.
A mob cheers each changing shift of rescue workers. “Thank you!” they shout, but with attitude, like they’re thanking the guys on behalf of everyone else too lazy to drag their asses out there.
A fireman stops, his face like a mask. Reporters rush him. He takes off his helmet, runs his hands through his hair. “It’s not a parade.”
Before all this aftermath, when the event was still fresh and swirling, when three thousand people had vanished off the face of the earth, I loved you, Noppi. I walked at a brisk clip, got three hours of sleep a night, living on adrenaline and air. Three thousand. A miracle, of sorts. You should feel blessed.
Now, I can’t get out of bed. I stare at the wall, at the tiny pattern the paint made as it came off the roller. I click off the news. Click it on. Dad makes his own soup and sits quietly staring at nothing while I watch you go from a reality to “an event”. The crowds pull off their white dust-masks. “It’s safe,” they say. That’s when I stopped coming. When I couldn’t breathe you in anymore.
I close my eyes and see you at age ten, looking out of the plexiglas toward Brooklyn. You point. You swear you can see our rooftop. “Where?” I say, and you hook your arm around me in a half-nelson and jam your knuckles up my nose. “—There.” I inhale your summertime skin and make strangulation sounds until Dad orders you to liberate me. I close my eyes tighter. Your face is an oval I confuse with my own. We were twins, Noppi. You died exactly the way I would have.
I go back downstairs. Dad’s soup has gotten cold. I reheat it and watch the steam curl around his face. And on the TV the sun comes out, sharp as the day it happened, glinting off the twisted wreckage as the TV pans to a scattering of street vendors selling buttons and ribbons. Tourists stick flags in their hats and eat sandwiches. They come from all over the world to make this pilgrimage to Mecca.
Dad pushes away his soup and goes into the living room. I stare at the TV. You’ve become a spectator sport. Or is it a spectacle? It’s happening all over the country. In Europe, too. Which surprises me. I thought the towers were ours. I never felt that close to the Parthenon, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben. I asked you once why someone in Spain should care so much about our towers. “What’s wrong with them? Don’t they have their own monuments?” You said that’s how some structures were, they become part of a landscape. You didn’t need to be from Egypt to appreciate the Pyramids. And you didn’t need to be from Moscow to love those onion minarets. “Okay,” I said. But it’s still our New York, Noppi. You should have seen the firemen, with their big hats and handlebar mustaches. They came for you. They were coming.
I crawl into bed. Dad stands in the doorway. Friends come over and touch his shoulder. “Shell-shocked,” they whisper. “It’s only natural.”
They lower their voices. “She took it like a hit to the kneecaps.”
At the window, sunlight hits my eyes as if glinting off a thousand panes of glass.
“Shell-shocked,” they say. But you’d understand, Noppi. How crisis-mode makes more sense than regular life. Veterans know this, men who would rather squat than sit in a chair. The void is real.
Once, Arthur Levine pricked you with a pin and asked me if I could feel it.