Hold Your Own Hand

by

04/08/2002

50 Morningside Drive, NY, 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

After the World Trade Center is destroyed, I get drunk and seek comfort in the arms of an Orthodox Jewish friend. He is gentle. “I don’t have sex,” he says, and that is fine with me, although the distinction between intercourse and what we are doing seems non-existent. He is warm, and soft, and tentative, and I feel good about being in a bed with someone else. It is all very clear in its real purpose, there is no more pretending. We want to connect with someone else, we are seeking comfort and tenderness, and that is all there is. But then he feels guilty. He offers me cold little reassurances, but I feel like the whore of Babylon. He leaves the room to watch the news at five in the morning. I fall asleep afraid, listening. He calls me later and seems calmer and sweet again, but the comfort of the night before is gone.

I have been drinking too much and eating too little. I eat some grapes, cheese and Pringles at a party. I drink wine, cosmos, and vodka cranberries. I dance at a gay bar for the men’s amusement. At the third bar I run into an acquaintance from high school. I am far too drunk and emotional to have the re-acquaintance talk with anyone. How do I ask her what she’s been doing for the last ten years? I am suddenly claustrophobic. The bar is packed. People are sweating, talking, yelling, laughing. Their smiles are too big, their make-up too perfect. There are three TV sets in the bar, all programmed to the news, and everyone keeps one eye trained on them, waiting for more horror between beers.

I run outside. I lie down and put my cheek to the curb, which feels cool and good against my skin. I throw up, moaning “Look away” at all my friends. Then there is a boy I have met only once before, standing over me with Kelly, my roommate. I try to have a normal conversation with him, because it seems important. “We met before,” I say.

“Right, under better circumstances.”

I think he is referring to the vomiting, but it could be otherwise. My friends get a cab. During the drive down Broadway I start to cry, and all I am saying is, “Oh God.” Once we get into the apartment building I cannot walk, and my friends support me like a toddler. I fall asleep naked with a trash can next to the bed.

I am talking to my poet friend, and we are wide eyed and stricken and shocked and we say many things; big things about loss and grief and mourning and guilt. We have known each other for only a few weeks, since I moved to New York for grad school, and I feel so close to her. I hardly know these people I now depend on completely. We’re all walking around without skin, our emotional innards bared, our vulnerability laid before everyone, naked and open. I am walking home, watching people on the street. They look new, like babies, like confused children

Now we are being asked to offer up light, love, compassion and strength. I feel strong suddenly. I want to kiss these strangers, and hug them, and hold them, and tell them how precious they are, how good, how strong. I go to church and I pray and look at the rose window and when I close my eyes I see nothing but pure white light. It is religious ecstasy. I believe in it, and I hope, and I love. I leave alive and aware, like some enlightened Buddhist.

The friend I meet reminds me that I have not eaten all day. He thinks this might account for the elation. He tells me that his mother is scared because they are Egyptian, and wants the family to leave the country. I squeeze his arm and tell him I love him. We go to a Chinese restaurant where the food makes me sick and replaces the love with acid.

I am going to church regularly for the first time in years. St. John the Divine is so huge that on my first visit I cannot see any of the priests, only hear them. One is a woman, with a dreamy Australian voice that makes the psalms sound like melodies. Then there is a man with a low, steady and measured voice, infinitely comforting, a voice you would like to read you to sleep. He reads a letter by Mark, a letter that prays to God in a time of immeasurable sadness. I love the honesty of it—unfathomable, black despair with no qualifiers or happy ending.

The next priest asks us to look up at the rose window. He says, “Light came into the world, and darkness shall not destroy it.” I repeat it to myself like a mantra, and look at the window as the reds and blues melt together in the sunlight. It is glorious and makes me feel enclosed, safe, childlike.

And then I am crying. For the first time in days my tears come not in reaction to the images that flicker on my TV screen, but because I am thinking. I am bringing death and destruction and evil into my consciousness without Peter Jennings. I feel all of it at once: I am sobbing uncontrollably at the light and the darkness together, the inconceivability of evil of this magnitude, the level of hatred, the loss, the grief, the inconsolable thousands. I let the need to rationalize float away, and I am light for an instant, floating with humanity.

On the street war is in the air. It is pervasive and palpable now, as the shock progresses into retaliation / justice / war. An aging hippie lady, with frenzied eyes and a skinny dog, sings “Give Peace A Chance.” An irate man yells on his cell phone about how much “They hate us.” Everyone seems shaky and uncertain, and the city feels out of sync— it is clear, crisp and too bright. Kelly and I come out of a flower shop with a bouquet for the fireman’s memorial and run into ten marines. They are wearing the perfectly pressed full dress uniform: the marine brass on their collar, the white hat. They look beautiful, young and scared. They remind me of my father when I was growing up. He wore that uniform when he went to the Marine Corps ball or a funeral.

We instinctively back up against the wall, as if they are a passing parade. Kelly asks if she should salute. I tell her no but feel the need to hug them, as I always did my father when he was in uniform. I smile instead. Kelly and I cross the street and when we look back our view is obscured by a passing ambulance and a storage truck.

Kelly worries about what is in the storage truck.

I am riding the subway and watching a father with a baby on his back, a little girl whose hand he kisses and holds with his large beautiful fingers. I think, I need a baby, I want to give birth to a little soul I can protect. This is, like so many of my reactions, transparent in its meaning and “totally normal,” as everyone says.

We go to a party on the East Side. It is Saturday night and the streets are deserted. The air is acrid, the smell we’ve all been warned about is in my nose for the first time. It is dry and ashy.

Everyone at the party is stoned. I talk to one girl who worked for Deutsche Bank in the World Trade Center, and she is in shock. We sit across from each other, total strangers, both shaking, wringing our hands, our eyes wide open and searching for something in the other person. She was running late for work that day, and she is already back, searching for office space. She keeps saying it is “fucked up” and just when she seems about to cry her friend approaches and brings up something unrelated, which will pull her out into normalcy, for a moment. She seems almost happy, talking about an idiot cab driver or beer. She needs her friend to divert her, not me to pick her scabs. I leave her to the comfort of her friend and the bong.

There are guys wearing puka shell necklaces and eating pot brownies. Their smiles are not beautiful; they seem grotesque and twisted and false, like they are ignoring the huge ugly monster sitting in the middle of the room. I cannot talk to them and I cannot drink and I cannot smoke. I watch and then we leave.

I am taking a bath that smells and feels like buttermilk. I have spent $20 on this solution, made for babies to keep them soft and happy. I would rather have this than food right now. It is instantly soothing, and along with church it has become my calming ritual. I put my head under water and hear my pipes squeal and rumble. I am scared now that the sound is that of a bomb hitting the building. We are being bombed and I am staring at the ceiling in a bathtub filled with buttermilk solution. I sit up and look at the old fashioned drain to calm myself. The drain looks to me like the rose window, with its tear shaped drops petalling around the circle in the center.

My father calls to remind me of our crossing the street together when I was a little girl. He would say, “Hold my hand, Jessie,” and I would always answer, “Hold my own hand.” I clasped my hands and walked across the street, a little person with resolve and strength. He tells me that I have to remember that little girl and hold my own hand now.

My best friend’s sister was across the street from the Twin Towers, and ran from the falling buildings. She walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, passing people dying of hyperventilation. She is safe, but far from all right. Her mother, who is a therapist, has a client who tells her that “America has gotten what it deserves.” Firemen tell stories of trying to sleep, only to be confronted with images of body parts, rubble and people waiting to be saved. Tranquilizers are omnipresent. How are they to heal? How are we to heal? When will it end, when will we wake up and feel totally normal?

Fran Liebowitz speaks of how dated everything feels. The movies made and shelved, the magazines with celebrity couples smiling out at us are remnants of a different age. What will replace it? How to create? I always wanted to live in exciting times. I have been waiting, watching, wanting something to happen on a huge scale, to wake people up, to unite us. But I never wanted this, not this. I feel guilty for not appreciating my before more.

I am scared for my ex-boyfriend, Karim. He is Muslim, and Pakistani. I haven’t been able to reach him. I imagine horrible things happening in California, where he lives. I picture race riots and hate crimes and Karim running from lynch mobs. He is an outspoken leftist, and I am afraid he will say something to the wrong person, who will hurt him. I am calling all of our friends, and none of them are home. I imagine him terrified and beaten.

After a night of violent dreams, I hear from Karim. He has been staying with friends of ours, and they are all looking after him. My friend Cassie tells me that he is obligated to check in with her once a day. He is getting involved with community groups, trying to teach what Islam is supposed to be about. But he is scared, and does not feel wanted. He had a breakdown and considered going to Pakistan, where he “could help people without being looked at as the enemy.” But he was born here, is not religious, and feels a connection to Pakistan only because he is reminded of it daily, thanks to the shade of his skin.

Mobs are throwing pig’s blood on mosque doors in Sacramento. They are beating, shooting, and threatening people with brown skin. In New York, my friend Mark is scared when we ride the subway; he holds onto my hand. He says he cannot go back to Egypt because he is gay and American, he cannot stay here because he is brown and suspect.

There is the anger in me that I do not want to show. I am trying desperately to turn it into love, as if it were fat I could transform into soap. The hate in me craves an answer. I am trying to resist the hate, but it is there, and it is gnawing. It is ugly and unfamiliar, just like so much of this.

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