The Unhinged

by

09/23/2001

Boston, MA

Neighborhood: All Over, Letter From Abroad

My neighbors don’t have window shades. They are a man and woman in middle age, childless, quiet, and coping. At night, they shudder in the light of the TV which is always on in their bedroom, reruns of Kojak or The Lucy Show or Dick Van Dyke. Often, he’s sprawled in bed, surfing the channels, while she’s staring at some kind of cards, shuffling through them as if they’re postcards from a past she wishes were now, or flashcards teaching her some kind of new language, or maybe they’re bits of scripture she’s copied to read and reread, trying to understand whatever it is that keeps sending her back to them. Sometimes he’s leaning into his computer, doing bills or playing games or maybe chasing around the internet, jumping from here to there like a frog across the lily pads. And she’s downstairs, maneuvering through a room chocked with scattered clothes, piled high, filling the room to the brim. She’s rummaging, pulling a skirt from here or a shirt from there, inspecting it, fanning it out like a flag and smoothing it flat, laying it atop this or that pile and picking out another. Maybe her cards are simply dress patterns she’s considering and I imagine she dreams in stitches, following her needle along a prescribed route, knowing how to begin, where to go and when to rip the thread with her teeth. She shuffles through her cards every night, again and again, often standing, sometimes sitting on the edge of their bed, facing the wall, hemming herself in.

Tuesday morning, there’s a commercial airliner heading straight for the World Trade Center, and as we see this on our TVs or out our windows, maybe we cock our heads or furrow our brows. “What?” we think, perhaps feeling almost giddy, excited for even the splittest of seconds, imagining the unimaginable. “Is that plane going to crash into that building?” we wonder, the very asking of the question loosening our minds, redirecting our usual trains of thought, derailing what we, just moments before, believed we knew as true. “Planes don’t fly into buildings,” we remember, “I mean, not here, not in America, not in the middle of New York City in the middle of the morning…”

And now we’re perhaps becoming queasy, nearly seasick, as we try to regain our footing, telling ourselves that we’re watching from a skewed angle, that what it seems as though we’re about to witness is merely an illusion, as strange and thrilling as a woman being sawed in two.

But what happens is far stranger. The plane flies straight into the World Trade Center, entering the outer wall as easily as a knife slicing into cake. In TV slow motion, we witness something completely outside our repertoire of thoughts, stretching our minds far beyond their familiar bounds, sending our collectively construed world of what’s possible to its knees. We strain to comprehend the fire and debris pluming from the upper floors. We squint at what appear to be no more than little X’s from a can of alphabet soup leaping and falling from the top of the building. We’re mumbling Oh gods, crossing ourselves or kissing stars around our necks, taking deep breaths, telling ourselves that we must be mistaken, that we must be dreaming. Because if we’re not, if this did just happen, then anything could happen, which of course it does, as the south tower gives way, crumbling into a heap of soot and metal and flesh and bone. We pinch ourselves and ask each other “Did you just see that?” desperate for a reassembling of our logical world now savagely shattered in this pile of rubble. And it only gets worse, as the north tower falls, and another plane crashes, and then another. Our minds are crackling and static with thoughts racing and catching like brush fires, skirting to the outer ends of our skulls, to the tips of our tingling fingers which have been thrust into fans, against burning stoves, deep into electrical outlets. We’re flush with adrenaline and groping for explanations, searching to neutralize the insanity, as if chaos and barbarism were things for which there must be an antidote. But to add insult to incalculable injury, we soon discover that the orchestration of the catastrophe was far from high tech. There seem to have been no machine guns or digital bombs or souped-up secret decoder rings. Our perpetrators were wielding nothing more than a utility knife, a savvy plan, and a covenant with their god, fortifying themselves with our wings and their prayers. This was an old-fashioned sneak attack, as shocking and gruesome as the ripping of an eyeball from its socket.

Out of the clear blue, our rug has been yanked, but it’s not just our freedom that’s being threatened. What’s at risk is more far-reaching than our way of life, more all-encompassing than our frame of mind, more basic than our sense of self ˜ it’s our sense of “sense” which has come undone, the very way in which we think, perceive and dream.

Our hearts and minds have been invaded by way of the sky, the place we used to turn in times of despair, searching for the stars or the sun or Superman or God. Will we ever again hear a plane overhead and look up in wonder instead of fear? How can we escape the image of that plane flying over and over again through our minds, through our hearts, and into that building? How do we tell our children that Yes, sometimes the sky does actually fall?

Late Tuesday night, through my neighbors’ window, the umpteenth replay of the crashing plane is flickering across their bedroom as F-15’s roar above all our houses, pacing the dark shores of our coast like a pack of furious dogs. The man is raising his fists towards the TV and I can’t help but wonder what he’s demanding. Revenge? An ousting and barring of “foreigners?” A more all-purpose god? Slumped on the edge of her side of the bed is the woman, facing the wall, shuffling through her cards, again and again and again, and I feel myself there with her, head bent down, fingering the cards, circling our wagons even tighter than before.

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