The Humming




Neighborhood: Manhattan

The other day I realized that the further away September 11th gets, the rawer I seem to get, and the less I want to talk about, be reminded of, or think about it. When people ask even the simplest questions about that day, I’m tempted to hand out copies of “Witnessing,” and then, like Forrest Gump, stare grimly ahead and state, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

But it’s not true. I have so much to say about it. While I have been trying not to think about it, and trying to avoid it, I think about it all the time, especially the people who died. I wonder about their lives, their families. And yet I won’t read “Portraits of Grief” in the New York Times. I subscribed to The Nation after September 11th, but won’t read it, or any other newspaper for that matter. I rarely watch the news. And it makes me angry with myself.

It was rumored last fall that we might be moving back into our offices in the World Financial Center, across the street from Ground Zero, as early as December. I requested that my employer place me at their other location in the city, but not at any outside the city, lest some further atrocity occur and I be cut off from my friends, support, home and even New York itself.

Now we have gotten confirmation: we’re returning May 20th.

I don’t want to go. Having once ventured down to the site (on the advice that it just might be good for me), I refused to go back, not even to prepare myself for the eventuality of working there again.

It all makes me very angry with myself.

* * * *

The day I did go back, less than two weeks after the attacks, a friend and I gazed at the spot where the second tower once stood. The southern-most end of the tower was still standing, and as I looked at it, I realized it was the frame of the first floor lobby; the lobby through which I had walked, so matter-of-factly, so many times.

I looked at the shapes of the frames of the now-shattered and empty windows, with wisps and waves of smoke snaking around them. The way those frames eventually tapered to a peak at the top appeared cathedral-like to me, and I was struck by how oddly beautiful the remains looked. I focused on that image, the cathedral, to blot out the heaps of twisted wreckage beyond the window frames. Then I closed my eyes. I shook my head to clear it.

When I opened my eyes again, I saw these tiny, puny, insignificant little figures moving painstakingly about, some wearing orange safety vests and white hardhats. These were full-grown men, picking their way around the foot of the enormous shell of what had once been merely the first floor lobby. The fact that there had been one-hundred-plus floors on top of that lobby made the magnitude of the loss and slaughter hit me hard in the stomach. My head reeled and I began to cry.

The scene brought me back to what I had felt on September 11th, the very second I looked out of that conference room window and saw a burning hole in the North Tower.

That day I had wanted to scream, “For God’s sake, somebody do something!” Yet I knew there was nothing anyone could do. I stood by, wretchedly powerless. The second plane hit. The towers fell, first one and then the other.

I wanted to keen and wail, with my voice lifting high enough and loud enough for the dead and dying to hear me. I did not want to leave them. I wanted to stay. I wanted to move toward the death and chaos, the smoke, the fire, the bodies and debris. I wanted to help somehow, to move, to act, and for Christ’s sake, to do something.

Instead, I tamely let myself be led away, ever-obedient daughter and impotent worker bee, staring over my shoulder, sometimes walking backwards, drifting west to the river and then north, to fearfully and cowardly dodge the pissy fighter jets that came all too late, brave and flashing, panting, roaring, posturing, and on-the-scene-now-boy-oh-boy-Johnny-on-the-spot and too-goddamn-mother-fucking-LATE.

* * * *

A cavernous and whining drone comes from the skies above me and my bones, my guts, begin to hum with anxious recognition and anticipation. They hum sympathetically, like one stringed instrument’s vibrating response to another’s compelling and violent song.

The more thunderous the din, the greater the fusion and allegiance from within. I quickly turn my head, and with it my resonating body, to scan the sky above and around me. I duck my head slightly, and instinctively my shoulders rise. I strain hard to see. Sometimes I put my hands over my ears, trying to still the hum, but my head spins, and I relent. I lower my gaze, surrender my ears, my body, and breathe carefully. I feign calmness. I smile. I know my eyes are shining.

But there is a humming in me.

The ugly insanity of the plane’s shimmering intention is in me now. The deafening roar that I thought had seared me has, in reality, dissolved into my bones, my guts, and found a holding pattern there. I cannot let it out, or rather, I dare not let it out: I open my mouth, but no sound comes. Instead, barely breathing and with trepidation, I cradle it inside of me, lest I stir and irritate it. I embrace it, tenderly even, rather than let it leak out and spread its hideous poison. I can do this to help. I imprison it inside and will it to lie there: deadly, incandescent and venomous. It’s still humming, deep and penetrating.

“Shhhhh,” I whisper with closed eyes. I do this to help. “Shhhhh.” I whisper a lullaby rather than cry out. I can help in this way.

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