She Looked Like She Was Dancing

by

09/11/2011

Neighborhood: Uncategorized, World Trade Center

She was my cousin, in that by-the-way, six times removed way that a lot of cousins seem to be in the Jamaican-American Seventh-day Adventist community. You find one another when you’re 12 or 14 because everyone migrates to the same part of New York, belongs to the same cluster of churches, drive upstate every spring for camp meeting; you run into each other at the campground and your Daddy says to you, “Oh, this is your cousin! Me brother’s wife’s sister’s uncle’s boy’s daughter…” That sort of thing, convoluted and distant.

We went to the same SDA high school in Queens for two years, and sang in the same church choir for about the same amount of time. We were the same age, or close enough — she, two months younger. She was a second alto, and I was a first. We stood next to one another, back row, with the tall girls, and wore the same size robe.

We disliked each other, I think. It wasn’t outright hatred; it wasn’t even serious enough to be called hostility, but there was a mild combativeness between us, always. Did she see me as a usurper, a late-comer to the group she’d been in since she was a preteen? Or did she just see me as I was, gawky, bookish, irredeemably uncool? Never great with witty verbal comebacks, I was even worse then, a liability in that particular high-school world where a fast tongue and a clever insult were armor, sword, and status. (African-American kids called it “the dozens,” and it was supposed to be fun, I found out later, as I got farther out into the world.) I’d simply explain in my same-old same-old, matter-of-fact classroom voice, the one I used on the teachers and adults whose approval was the measuring stick of my self-esteem, the one I used for everything.

“Why are you wearing that skirt?” she would say as if I were slightly backward, in need of shepherding.

“It’s my skirt. I like it.”

“If you can’t see, why don’t you just put your glasses on instead of showing off?”

“I can see, actually. I just got contacts. I’m not used to them yet.”

“Gooor —” (never “God,” for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain) — “Why don’t you ever do something with your hair?” She’d turn to someone else: “You look at her and on the top she’s got this pretty Indian hair, and then the back of it is just a bush.”

In retrospect, I suppose it was almost complimentary.

Mostly, we were peripheral to each other. We were the same age, but in school I was a year ahead, and eventually left for college. To say “I lost track of her” implies more than is accurate. There was not a lot there to begin with, to taper and wane. When I left, there was simply absence.

*

I remember a particular day, in my senior year, before I left — I took the train home with her only that once: a Friday afternoon, dismissed early for Sabbath preparation. It’s vague for me now — but I know it wasn’t stilted or awkward, not “enemy” speech. She was telling me about some boy she was dumping, and I was silently taking it with a grain of salt, thinking, uncharitably, that she was overestimating herself, when a woman came up to us: short and round, voluptuous in too-tight clothing, bum mashed indecently up against the pole where she leaned, hair bound up in a particolored scarf, chunky rings on her fingers. With flagrant disregard she broke the ironclad eye-contact taboo between New York strangers, looking us up and down with her invasive, wheedling smile.

“Are you interested in Tarot cards?” Her nails were long and red, and her accent was island-thick, our parents’ accent. Why she picked us out, recognized us, I don’t know.

“No,” we said, immediately, emphatically, near-synchronized, shaking our heads—half-terrified the woman would cast some eerie occult obeah on us, and half-smug, secure in the knowledge that we were good girls, church girls, in our knee-length skirts and school jackets, knowing that she was in league with the Devil and we had Jesus and could safely look at her and her cards and her too-tight, hot-pink pants with scorn.

There was an understanding between us—for all the abrasiveness, the petty competition, we knew who we were. We were on the same team. Church girls — tall, skinny black girls, still narrow-hipped, sorting out the world from behind our huge ’80’s-style plastic glasses. A legacy of Adventist parents and grandparents and a long-ago island heritage. Singing alto, straightened hair—distant reflections of one another.

It’s egocentric, perhaps, to think of her in terms of myself. But I didn’t really know her in other terms. In the end, that’s where the vertigo hits me, when it hits me, deep in the center of my body.

She was like me, and I’m here, and she’s not, and that’s wrong.

*

I didn’t cry until September 14th.

The macabre joke was that you could rank your real friends by the order in which they contacted you (my latest straggled in at the two-week mark). E-mail from overseas, my former ESL students. My mother’s sister and all her kids calling Mom’s house nonstop for a day and a half, trying to get through the blocked-up switchboard, trying to find out where I was.

It got to the point I was cutting and pasting my answer: It’s horrible, but I’m okay. So far everyone I know is okay. The worst is over, honestly. I have a feeling.

I stayed at my mother’s until the 14th, Friday, when I and a lot of others who lived in the outer boroughs came back into the city for the first time. A vigil, one of many, was being held in Union Square.

It was real on the 14th in a way it hadn’t been on Tuesday, when everything was about getting out of the city, crowds of people all quietly trudging in unison one way: north, when the only evidence we had, up in midtown, was the cloud of smoke far, far downtown between the buildings on Sixth Avenue, soft and white and looking almost natural against the ridiculously perfect blue sky.

It was real when I came up out of Union Square station on Friday evening and saw with my own eyes all the posters that had been put up, on walls, lampposts, and every available tree: plaintive, silent, futile bits of paper, seeking loved ones. They’d been the backdrop on the TV news; here, they were center stage. No lights, only silence: pictures of the missing, posing, smiling, and casual.

Strangers struck up conversations in Union Square — amicable, but not casual. There was a feverishness to it. Where were you, when… where were you? Christians put on hijab to show that they could sort the good from a few bad apples; hippies and ballet majors danced silently beneath the trees; and college students held up ribbons and candles and flowers and origami cranes and signs begging “Peace,” all fiercely determined to just get along. Just wanting quiet. Time to deal, time to wake up

I lost it, embarrassingly, during the national anthem. A small blond woman who was standing on a bench hugged me, let me cry on her. We sang and held our candles and tried to have our citywide catharsis. The worst is over. So far, everyone I know is okay.

*

On the 23rd, twelve days after, a friend of mine e-mailed me at work, where we were getting back into the swing of things.

“Did you see this?” she wrote, “It’s so sad. I wonder where I can send condolences?”

In the e-mail was link to a website for a church publication with the headline: “NINE ADVENTISTS DIE IN ATTACKS.”

I learned that my cousin had worked on the 103rd floor of the first tower.

I learned that in the ten years since I’d last heard anything from or about her, that she was still in New York, that she’d remained active in her church, and that she made pies.

Twelve days prior, less than three miles from where I sat at my desk, she died at hers.

I never knew about the pies. What kind of pie? Had that always been a thing she did? Did it come later?

I wondered terrible things, about her, about all of them. Pictures in my head that I didn’t want, the lurch and screech of stone and metal twisting, the slow heat rising through the floor, blistering skin, burning lungs, and flames, and molten steel. Of falling, faster and faster, wind punching into ears, sucking the moisture from eyes and the air from body, collapsing inward, pressure like the deep sea crushing you before you ever hit the ground. I would nod off on a train or bus and these things would come to me, and I’d wake up out of breath.

I hope it was fast and she knew nothing.

I think about her the way she was, standing beside me in her royal-blue robe and singing in harmony, and I hope, viscerally, that she put her head on her desk and drifted off painlessly, from smoke, or carbon monoxide.

*

I never sent a card. We contacted her church, but never managed to get an address, and after a while I confess I stopped trying so hard. And the more time went by, the more awkward and inappropriate it seemed. Would anyone even want to receive a card so far after the fact? And what could I say to them that would be true, or important?

*

After a while, most of the flags came down. The lights on the Empire State Building changed from patriotic tricolor to green-and-red by Christmas. We changed into our winter coats, and left the pins and ribbons in the closets, still attached to our fall jackets and sweaters.

I have one still, a tiny ribbon tied to the zipper of a purse I no longer use. It went dingy by 2003, stripes faded, limp instead of crisp. I couldn’t take it off, though I suspect someday it will have to fall apart. It was never an abstract for me. It was never about anything but her.

For a long time afterward — and even today, though rarely — every so often I might see a woman in the street or on the train who looks like her. Tall and angular; straightened black hair to the shoulders. Slim; height close to mine. Glasses. Square, high cheekbones, dark caramel skin, wide mouth, small teeth. I know it’s not her. There’s no cartoonish double-take.

But I stare, sometimes.

I was never “angry at God,” wondering why he did not miraculously save her. That is not something that our religion taught me: God as vending machine, responding to the correct number of tokens, behaving as though you are more special than a billion others in a world that is itself transient.

But I do get angry. At what — the boxcutter men, karma, the march of history? Far too much has happened since for feelings to be plain and untangled. I think: She should have gotten old. We should have been 40, and 50, and combative, and judgmental — she should have been at my wedding, some future time, going, “What was she thinking, doing the bunting in teal?” She should have had kids, and her kids and mine should have gone to the same high school and sung in the choir, and rolled their eyes and scrutinized each others’ clothes and antagonized each other.

I’m different, now, of course. Not Daddy’s girl anymore — he died a little more than two years after I left for college. The ’80s clothes are gone: big, layered shirts, multicolored socks over stockings. The surety is gone as well, utterly — knowing where and with whom I belong.

I’m still not great with the snappy comebacks (though I still get those perfect flashes of inspiration, days too late), but then, the arena is different, nowadays. “Yo’ momma’s” weight and intelligence are so rarely questioned, now that we’re grown.

I can’t hit the high notes anymore. And I haven’t been properly religious for nearly two decades. For instance: My ears are pierced (five times), and so is my navel (once). I’ve worn my share of miniskirts. And there are people — a very few — who I’m not married to, who’ve seen a bit of what’s under my bathing suit. I don’t scoff so much at evolution; I say “agnostic” when I’m asked. I’ve gotten rid of most of the smug. I think.

I own a tarot deck. For the artwork!

I drink and cuss a bit. I mainline caffeine and eat shrimp (but still not pork). And in August 2001, at the family wedding I was a bridesmaid in, although I left my earrings at home and spent an exhausting amount of energy trying to remember not to exclaim “Oh my God!” or anything worse to anyone, I subsequently ruined all my effort by ordering a coffee at the reception. (“You drink coffee??”)

I’m different now. I wonder if she was — and how, and how much. I wonder what she grew up to be. I’m sorry I missed it.

I saw her picture listed among the memorials in The New York Times. She was so pretty, in the paper — rounder, softer than I remembered her. Older, in a good way; at ease with herself.

She was smiling, in her college graduation robe — her diploma in her hand, fists raised in triumph. Happier, or maybe just more open, than I’d ever seen her in our childhood. She looked like she was dancing.

C.R. Lofters is a writer, a copy editor, and soon to be a postgraduate student in London, a city she loves almost as much as New York. She lives in Queens.

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