God Must Be An Octopus



West Village, 10011

Neighborhood: Manhattan

We were on our way to school, my two sons and I. It was their first day back since the World Trade Center attacks last Tuesday. The weather was eerily beautiful, as it has been all these days. We were smiling and I felt brave. Their conversation was light and chatty. We are going to school, I thought. Getting back to our routines, our lives. Alex, who is 8, and Ferran who is 5, were holding my hands on and off, or holding my purse, or touching my elbow, practicing being close, then letting go.

At the corner of Hudson and West 11th Street, Alex’s leg froze in mid–air. “This is exactly where my foot was,” he said, “when we heard the plane. I was stepping down, like this.”

He was referring to the first plane of last Tuesday’s attacks. I had not been with them, but the sitter, Dona, had told me afterward, how the plane had flown very low over their heads. A few seconds later, they heard the crash and saw the smoke. “I’m never going to fly again,” Alex announced. Dona and I had both shared a moment of appreciation of Alex’s typical sensitivity. At the time, they–we all–had assumed the crash was just an isolated event, an accident.

I had repeated this anecdote, along with Alex’s alarmed pronouncement umpteen times. But repeating, it turned out, was just a way to keep the horror from sinking in to a place where I really felt it.

On the other side of West 11th Street, Alex said, “This is where we heard the crash.”

Outside the Bleecker Street Park, where they play in nice weather, they’d seen the first signs of smoke. “Where?” I said, squinting backward, trying to locate the exact view.

We can’t show you,” said Ferran, impatiently. “The World Trade Center isn’t there. The plane touched a cloud. Then it turned into smoke.”

“There are more American flags than before,” Alex observed. He glanced up at me, taking my hand. I leaned over and squeezed him.

On 8th Avenue the spire of the Empire State Building began poking out, buoyant as always.

Ferran said, “Is the Empire State Building the new tallest building?”

Children are always reminding us of how little we know. Was the Empire State Building third, after the two towers? I was slow to answer. “It may be the tallest building in Manhattan,” I said. “But there are other taller buildings in the world.”

“Mommy,” said Alex. “Who is our enemy?”

“It’s hard to say, exactly. I guess the terrorists.”

“If I killed Bin Laden,” said Ferran. “Would I be a hero?”

“I think you’d go to jail,” said Alex.

Last Wednesday, the day after the attacks, the wind shifted. The air around our house and in the Bleecker Street park looked hazy and yellow and tasted of a frightening mix of soap and metal. I called my husband Vance at his office.

“My tongue is tingling,” I said. “The fumes are coming through the air conditioner. People outside are wearing masks.”

Vance got out the car and we headed to my parents’ house in Greenwich, Connecticut. When I told my parents we were coming to stay with them, they sounded surprised. “Oh, okay,” my father said, guardedly. “I think we have enough steak.” He may have been surprised we were all coming together, since Vance and I had separated–amicably–just a few days before.

Driving North on the West Side Highway, we felt like royalty in a police state. National guards stood along the side of the road, waving us on. There were almost no cars. In the on-coming lane, for as far as we could see, was a line of dump trucks and bulldozers.

Greenwich still felt the way all of America had until a few days ago: an island unto itself. Waspy-looking ladies with meticulous hairdos still vied for parking spaces at the local supermarket. The sky was still blue, the lawns undisturbed.

Sipping one of his favorite bottles of wine by the pool that evening, my father, became concerned about his next day’s business lunch. “What if the military ships prevent fishing boats from entering New York Harbor?” he said. “The fish at the Four Seasons might not be fresh.”

“That’s true, Billy,” said my mother. “Well, we better find out. We have a reservation there next Monday.”

My father rolled his eyes. “Mom’s trying to get out of it,” he said to me. “She thinks the city’s dangerous.”

That night after dinner the phone rang. Vance’s mother had died of cancer. She’d been ill for a long time. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was another loss. The following morning Vance drove upstate to New Britain to help his family with funeral arrangements, while the boys and I stayed on with my parents.

My father, an investment advisor, commuted to work as usual. That evening on the porch amid chattering cicadas, my father described his lunch. “I asked about the fish,” he said. “And Julian–the maitre d’–assured me, ‘Mr. Spears,’ he said, ‘the fish at the Four Seasons is always fresh.’” My father and his client ordered the dover sole. Then Julian came back, “Mr. Spears, the dover sole is fresh, but there is a slight problem. A bomb’s been reported in the building. We’re going to have to ask you to evacuate.’

“Twenty years ago,” my father continued, “everyone would have stayed and eaten their fish. I would have stayed and eaten my fish, today, if the waiters hadn’t all vanished. And of course the cooks. Actually, it worked out well,” he added. “My dentist had an opening an hour earlier.”

What my father didn’t tell me then was that most of his trading was done through firms in the Twin Towers. That, oblivious to the destruction, he had assumed the traders–if they were alive–could still be reached at their desks. That he had actually asked his secretary to call the traders up at their old numbers. “In many ways,” he said, during a reflective moment, “It’s astonishing the number of survivors.”

My mother’s perspective on the attacks was even more detached, albeit for good reason. Now in the advanced stages of ovarian cancer, she’s taking a drug that’s only been tested on 40 humans. On Friday, only two days after Vance’s mother died of the same kind of cancer, a nurse phoned to tell my mother that, for the second time this month, her cancer cell count had doubled, leading us all to believe that the new drug wasn’t working.

“This must be hard for you,” I said to her.

“What?” she said. “Oh, oh, yes, that. Well, yes, it is. But I feel fine. I mean, really. I feel great.”

Greenwich was Greenwich. Meanwhile I couldn’t sleep. . The thunderstorm that night I mistook for Armageddon. I called Vance. We talked for an hour, maybe longer. Alex came stomping into my room. “Do you realize what time it is? he demanded. “It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. What are you doing?”

I felt like a chastened teenager. “Talking to Daddy.”

“Well could you make it sound a little softer? You’re keeping me awake.”

In the morning we laughed about it. I said, “You sounded like a little old man. You sounded like my father.”

Eating pancakes later, I told my father.

“Is that what you think?” he said. “That I’m a little old man?”

I was taking a shower, when Ferran suddenly screamed. I rushed out to find his hand stuck in the fold-out couch. I had a moment of single mother panic. Then I remembered: The last third of the couch had been up, now it was down. When I started to push it up, Ferran screamed even harder. I thought I was cutting off his fingers. I jammed my own fingers in as hard as I could, to absorb the pressure or make room for his smaller ones, or, at the very least, to see which way opened and which way closed. Luckily I was right. A surgeon friend told me later that the three surgeries he’d done on children’s hands had all been re-attaching fingers lost in fold-out couches.

Even in all its toxicity, I longed to be home in Manhattan. But this wasn’t an option–I had a funeral to go to. So I consoled myself with CNN.

“What are you doing?” my mother called down the stairs to me.

“Watching the news.”

“Oh, really?” she said, cheerfully. “What’s on?”

A teenager from Stuyvesant Highschool was being interviewed on Channel 4 News. “I thought, I’m going to die today,” said the teenager, referring to last Tuesday.

I had thought that, too.

The temperature had dropped considerably. I went to the Gap to buy the boys jackets. They wanted camouflage fleeces, but I said no.

“If you don’t buy me the army sweater,” said Ferran. “I’m going to join the army when I’m bigger.”

“By the time you’re bigger,” I answered, gamely, “you’ll probably change your mind.”

“If you don’t buy me the army sweater,” he persisted, “I’m going to go into the World Trade Center.”

I was in the front seat of the car. He and Alex were strapped in back. “Are you trying to torture me?” I said. Ferran grinned sadistically.

“Why won’t you buy them?” asked Alex.

“Because,” I said. “I don’t like thinking about little boys in the army.”

“Daddy might buy them for us,” said Ferran.

“He might.”

During lunch, my father played Simon and Garfunkel. “Music helps,” he said, quietly. I wondered at his change in tone. He said he’d also been playing Mozart’s Requiem. It was the first time he’d admitted anything was out of the ordinary. Later that afternoon, the boys rode a skateboard down the hill over rocks, catching air, while my father and I sat by the pool in strained silence.

My father got up to go work out. Then he came back. He pulled his chair very close to me. “How does Mom look to you?” he asked.

I said, “She looks okay. “Why?”

He said, “Well, her stomach’s distended.” He was shaking his head. “You know, Dorothy?” he continued, “For the first time in my life, I feel really overwhelmed. I’m worried about Mom. I have business concerns. This attack, it feels like an attack on my profession. It’s just too much.”

My father was always so strong. His vulnerability, while welcome, scared me.

“I know the feeling,” I said.

“I know you do.” He patted my hand.

I thought Vance’s and my separation probably had something to do with my father’s business concerns. He and Vance were business partners. They had just moved to a huge new office space, sunk millions of dollars into renovations, when we decided to separate. The decision was mutual. That didn’t make it easy. We’d been together twenty years. Maybe our lives, I mused, narcissistically, are a metaphor for history.

The boys were giggling in the grass, playing with little wooden gliders.

“What are you doing?” I asked, hoping for a little diversion.

“We’re playing World Trade Center,” said Ferran

“What do you mean? What’s that?”

“We throw airplanes at each other. And when they hit us we fall down.”

Vance wanted me to read at his mother’s funeral. It felt awkward to me, but I obliged him. I was raised Catholic, but I’m no longer religious.

Vance’s mother had been the long time editor and publisher of New Britain’s local newspaper. At the funeral on Monday I read to a packed church of fellow mourners. From the Book of Revelations, I read “…he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more.” (At this I started crying.) “Mourning and crying and pain” (I could no longer see the words) will be no more.” It seemed to be all about the second coming. Death and crying and mourning were no more, because we were no more. In any case, I didn’t–I couldn’t make myself–believe it.

The cemetery was on a fragrant hillside that had been lopped off on one side to make room for a six-lane highway. The burial was like something out of a Victorian-period horror movie.

Velvet-covered chairs stood in prim rows by the grave. Against a backdrop of perfect blue sky, a minister read from the Bible. I kept seeing everything from below: the blowing robes of the minister, people tossing flowers and dirt on top of me.

“I hope I don’t get put in the ground like that when I die,” said Ferran, as he clambered back into the hearse.

Alex agreed. “I think I’d rather burn in the World Trade Center.”

Finally, after the reception, we went home. Vance returned to his apartment.

Yesterday, school was closed for Rosh Hashanah. Today, as my sons and I climbed the school steps, I was struck by the change since the last time I’d been there. It was a week ago Monday, the first day of school. Everyone had been exchanging hugs, greetings, bits of news about their summers. Today no one looked sad. Parents and teachers were just passing through the doors, nodding and rushing as usual.

In the school lobby there was a miniature model of a city, our city. On one end stood a cluster of foil-covered blocks, among them two that rose taller than all the rest. “Look Mom,” said Ferran. “The World Trade Center is still here.”

Ferran marched straight into his classroom, through a group of chatting parents. One of them touched my shoulder and said, “Dorothy, where have you been?”

“We’ve had a death in the family—-”

“–Oh, I’m so sorry–”

“It was nothing–related,” I said, clumsily. “Their grandmother. She had cancer.”

Ferran was talking animatedly to his teacher. “We saw fifty soldiers,” he was saying.

“I know,” said the teacher, widening her eyes at me, as if for guidance. “The city has changed hasn’t it?”

I started to tell the teacher how yesterday Ferran and Alex had stood by the West Side Highway waving American flags and thank you signs and shaking the hands of firemen. One child had asked about a certain fireman, and when his mother said, “God took him to Heaven,” the child’s brother sighed, “God must be an octopus.”

I left Ferran at the play-dough table and went upstairs to drop off Alex.

On the way up to Alex’s class, we ran into Alex’s best friend’s mother. “I’m so sorry,” she said to me. “I heard.” Then she glanced toward Alex. “I’m so sorry about your grandma.”

“Thank you,” answered Alex, graciously.

Alex’s chair was on his desk. “Well, finally,” said his classmate, Xavier. “Where were you?”

“Connecticut.” Two days ago Alex had wanted to take a picture of his grandmother’s coffin to show his classmates. Now he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Bye, Mom,” he said.

“Bye, darling,” I kissed him. I took two steps away. Then I stopped.

“Bye, Mom,” he repeated, without looking at me.

“Bye.” I was standing near the door.

“Bye, Mom,” he said.

“Bye,” I said. “I love you.”

On the way downstairs I was all-out crying. “Hi,” I said to one mother whose kids were friends with my kids. When I passed another mother, a lingerie designer who I hardly knew, I couldn’t think what to say, so I turned my face to the wall, and kept walking.

Ferran was still at the play-dough table when I returned. “Here’s a piece of pizza,” he said, handing me something worm-like. Then he looked up at me, suspicious. “Why’s your face red?” I tried to smile. “Why does your face always look like that?” He sounded fed up. Another mother glanced over, then averted her eyes. “Are you sad?” asked Ferran, a little more kindly. “Because of the World Trade Center?” I can’t remember what I said to him. I ran to the bathroom.

Of all the hours of TV I’d watched over the last week, the thing that upset me up most–that still upsets me–was the thought of children in school first receiving news of the attacks. Children with parents who worked in the World Trade Center herded to guidance offices or in other ways singled out. Children evacuated from the schools further downtown, finding their way through smoke and rubble. How I wished when I saw the first tower dissolve into ash that my own children were beside me. How much safer I felt when I heard Vance’s key turning in the door, the boys’ familiar footfall signaling that we were finally together again, in our home.

Part of me thinks kids are much better at handling trauma than grown-ups. They just accept whatever this world–whatever we as adults–give them.

In any case, my crying among the kindergarteners, wasn’t doing anyone any good. I had to get out of the classroom. Abandoning my temporary hideout, I pulled up a chair next to Ferran’s. He was still making pizza. “Bye, sweetie,” I said. “I love you. I’ll see you later.”

I roughed up his hair. It was matted.

“Will you pick us up sometime?”

I said yes, but not today, I had work.

“Okay.” he said, agreeably. “Maybe someday. Like when the babysitter is sick.” There was a pause. “Daddy picks us up sometimes.”

My stomach tightened. He was talking about last Tuesday.

“The only time Daddy picked us up,” he continued, “was when the World Trade Center fell down. Will he pick us up again when the Empire State building falls down?”

“Something bad doesn’t have to happen,” I said, “for Daddy to come pick you up. It could be something good, too.”

“Oh,” said Ferran, “Like when Daddy comes back to live with us?”

Out on the street, I saw the lingerie designer at a distance pulling a tissue from her pocket. Maybe she had a cold. I don’t think so. Around the corner another mother from the school was crying. When she saw me, she did a double-take. It was as if, like me, she was relieved to find another mother’s face as red her own.

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