There’s no single word in the English language that means “nightmarish fantasy.” The best of the bunch, “fantasy,” has a misleadingly positive connotation. But the verb form is worse. Consider the following sentence and ask yourself which word or combination of words could replace “fantasized”:
He fantasized that when he turned the corner to his street, he would see his house ablaze.
“Imagined” is probably best, but it fails to convey dread. One is forced to use a construction such as “had the horrible thought” – itself a horrible thought to those who like their language concise.
Anyway, this morning I had the horrible thought that a nuclear bomb had destroyed New York. I’m in Boston now, which explains how I was able to imagine such a thing and still imagine myself alive. In my imagining (I dare not call it a fantasy), everyone in New York had been killed. This included Rachel and many beloved friends, as well as Mayor Gulianni, the woman who owns the Chinese take-out on Marcy, and millions more. All dead. Moreover my computer would be destroyed, and with it, all my files.
Since the television networks are in New York, I figured that the entire system would go down. The internet, too, would be devastated; although I believe the destroyed hubs could be circumvented. Not that it would matter: recent events proved that the web can’t handle the crush of traffic generated by a national crisis. Telephone service, too, would be knocked out or jammed up, further sentencing us to a terrifying silence (though less terrifying, certainly, than the truth).
So how would we learn the truth? The first and best witnesses would be the pilots of commercial jets flying near New York. They would initiate a chain of communication that would lead very quickly to the military and the president, who would… well, I have no idea what that fucker would do; something more horrific still.
I’m staying with a friend, Anne, who’s Canadian. So I figured we’d go to Canada, to Nova Scotia, where her aunt lives. But then I realized that all hell would have broken loose, making a drive to Canada impossible. (Could we buy gas? Could we use ATMs? Would our money still be worth anything? Could we cross the border? Would we be attacked? Would Anne be raped?)
You see my point. “Fantasy” doesn’t cut it.
There’s a vertical crease that begins at the inside edge of my left eyebrow and extends north about three-quarters of an inch. It’s the kind of crease that forms when one furrows one’s brow. Except this crease is permanent, etched into my face by decades of furrowing. Oddly the parallel crease on the right is half as deep; evidently I furrow lopsidedly.
I didn’t notice the crease until this morning, although it must have been plain for many years.
Similarly, sometime in my early twenties, I discovered that my ears are different; that the left, lacking a fold possessed by the right, sticks out funny. It was a strange, almost shocking moment. How could I have missed such a thing for so long? How could I have failed to something that, once you see it, cannot be unseen?
I spent a long time that morning studying my face in the mirror. Then I pulled out a box of baby pictures. My ears, naturally enough, had always been this way; I just never noticed it.
What else I am failing to see?
Earlier today Rachel and I took her nieces, ages two and a half and nearly five, to the Children’s Museum in Manhattan. The girls have been staying with their parents and infant brother in a midtown hotel while waiting to return to their Battery Park apartment, which was evacuated on the day of the attack and remains off-limits. The whole family has been stressed – shuttling from one place to another, scrambling to buy replacement clothes, dealing with the emotional fall-out – so Rachel and I offered to entertain the girls for a few hours and give their parents a breather.
The museum was fun. We sat in a room packed with kids and listened to a hyper-enthusiastic three-person group perform upbeat songs about spaghetti and dinosaurs. Then we indulged in a succession of arts & crafts projects, all of which involved glue and brightly-colored bits of paper and fabric and plastic. I can’t complain, really, and the girls were precious.
Well, I can complain, because one of the projects involved the production of a “badge of courage” for a local police officer or firefighter.
A thirtyish father sat at the same table as us, making the nicest badge you can imagine, with evenly drawn red and white stripes and lots of silver stars. It even had the words THANK YOU written across the top with what I took to be his own personal blue marker. Many similar badges were prominently displayed in the middle of room, hanging on a string strung in front of a sign that said THANK YOU in big letters.
The girls sat glueing things to other things. The oldest, Sydney, announced that her badge was for her mother, whereupon her sister, Hannah, announced that hers was for her father. Then each requested another piece of paper so they could make one for the other parent. When the badges were done, Rachel and I punched holes in each and tied blue or red string through the holes. The girls had us attach them to their wrists so they could wear them as bracelets. As we were leaving, one of the museum people noticed the bracelets and asked Sydney if she wanted her badges hung up with the others. She declined, saying that this one was for her mother and that one for her father. Hannah followed suit.
In the cab back to the hotel Sydney correctly identified various New York landmarks on a map affixed to the back of the driver’s seat – the Statue of Liberty, LaGuardia Airport, the Empire State Building. Then she put her finger on the World Trade Center and said, “These are the buildings that crashed.”
Sydney was at kindergarden when the planes hit, just two blocks from the towers. When she pointed at them on the map, I thought of something she told Rachel about that day: “That was my worst day of kindergarden ever” (it was her fourth). I wanted to ask what happened to make it so bad, only I wasn’t sure this was something you talk about with other people’s kids. Probably it wasn’t, I decided, so I didn’t.
Rachel woke me at 3:00 AM last night to tell me her throat hurt. We decided she should go to the kitchen to see if there were any cough drops in the utility drawer. When she returned she reported that the cough drops were stale. I asked what a stale cough drop tastes like, and she said it’s soft and chewy, which makes it difficult to suck on. Then she mentioned all the dead people, saying how sad she felt about them.
We spent the next hour imagining the last moments of the people in the stairwells. How long, we wondered, did it take for the buildings to collapse? Ten seconds? This means that if you were in a stairwell near the bottom of the building, say the fifth floor, you had ten seconds, at most, to contemplate your fate – assuming you realized what your fate was.
What exactly did you know? And what exactly was happening around you?
I said there must have been a tremendous rumble, and screaming, as the walls and floor began to buckle. Actually the rumble and screaming probably came first, followed by the buckling.
Then we realized that the screams probably didn’t intensify over time but diminished as less and less people were alive to scream. However, the rumble, we agreed, grew louder. How loud? What does a 110-story building sound like, from the inside, as it collapses on top of you? Really fucking loud. So loud you can’t hear the screams, not even your own.
We realized too that the walls and floors must have distorted the way one’s body distorts in a Funhouse mirror, if only for a fraction of a second. However it’s possible that no one saw this happen since the lights probably went out the moment the rumbling started. Or did the rumbling start first, followed by the lights going out? To answer this, one would probably need to be an electrician and know exactly how the towers were wired – and even then I’m not so sure one could know.
But then, really, what difference does it make? Either the lights went out immediately or they didn’t. Either the walls and floors distorted or they didn’t. Either you could hear the screams or you couldn’t. Whichever way it happened, people were killed in a few short, unimaginably horrific seconds, crushed to death in a collapsing mass of concrete and steel and other people.
At around 4:00 AM it seemed that we had considered all the possibilities and impossibilities and that we could now give it a rest. We considered returning to sleep then, only we soon recognized that this was impossible. How can you sleep after imagining such things? You can’t. So then we started in on the people on the planes.
When the south tower fell, Rachel was on the phone with her sister, who lives in Battery Park City, less than five blocks from the World Trade Center. At that moment there was an incredibly loud noise on the line and her sister cried something like, “My god, the tower’s falling!” Then the phone went dead. Rachel was certain her sister had been crushed beneath the fallen tower. I asked if she wanted me to come to her, and she said she needed to keep trying to reach her sister. I said, “We should be together.” She said, “I have to call my sister.”
I put on my sneakers and left the apartment. I reasoned – correctly, as it turned out – that the subway would not be running, so I headed for Rachel’s on foot, a three-mile walk.
I walked south along the service road that follows the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Above me, a long line of cars were parked on the shoulder of the road, their drivers perched at intervals along the guard rail, looking out toward Manhattan.
Traffic everywhere was at a near standstill, yet no one seemed to notice. Instead they sat in their cars with blank expressions, listening to their radios. I caught a few words here and there, but understood nothing exactly, save for the tone. The tone was scary.
While walking I sang a song I’d heard for the first time the previous day – the Junior Wells classic, Messin’ with the Kid. I didn’t sing the whole song but just a single verse and chorus, repeating these over and over:
You know the kid’s no child
And I don’t play
I say what I mean and I mean what I say
Oh look at what you did
You can call it what you want
But I call it messin’ with the kid
The identity of the “kid” kept changing as I sang. First it was me, then the president, then the leader of the highjackers. All of us were pissed and wanted the world to know it.
Oh, and I didn’t walk so much as stride, as befitting one who doesn’t appreciate being messed with.
It was weird.
Every now and then, I would reach a corner with a view of downtown Manhattan and would sneak a peak at the mountain of smoke and ash. I didn’t sing then.
I imagine the first tower as seen from the cockpit of the first plane a split-second before impact. From here, at this moment, it would be all one could see. Does the pilot, knowing that victory is assured, raise his hands in exhalation? Does he mutter a few holy words as the nose hits home, splitting concrete and steel and glass?
Earlier I imagined a group of terrorists standing guard at the cockpit door as the plane approached its target. Their shared fear, the only fear that remained, was that one of the passengers would break into the cockpit and divert the plane.
Yet another cockpit scene: The moment the pilot of the second plane, the one headed for the south tower, first sees, in the distance, the mountain of smoke above the north tower.
I confess to feeling admiration for the terrorists. In my innocence, I had always imagined an atomic bomb at Disneyland, the usual 50’s-style nightmare. But this was far more clever and daring.
One of my many tasteless remarks from yesterday, spoken sotto voce: “Too bad we can’t hire these people to run the revolution.”
Of course the towers were hideous – twin abominations. Each time I stood beneath one, I thought this. Even more I thought it from the Staten Island ferry, which launched a mile south and yielded a spectacular view of the downtown skyline. If you never experienced this, you really missed something: two featureless slabs rising an absurd, inhuman distance into the sky. From here I often wished them gone. But however much I hated them (and I really did hate them), I couldn’t actually imagine them gone.
I still can’t. Endlessly repeated video clips notwithstanding, I won’t really believe it until I’m down there and there’s nothing.
That will be some day.
And then, over time, I’ll adjust – one always adjusts – until I finally forget the fucking things, as impossible as that now seems.
Having decided to change Oblivio so it would work for daily, shorter things, I showed a few early designs to several designer friends. One said, aside from design commentary, that I couldn’t or shouldn’t put “such things” on the same site as my business stuff, what would potential clients think? The “things” in question were quasi-pornographic content.
As I saw it, I had two choices. I could do it anyway, despite the quasi-pornographic content, or I could create a totally separate business site.
A separate site meant three bad things:
- Finding an available domain to serve as the name of my business
- Designing, building, and maintaining a separate business website
- Paying separate hosting and registration fees
There was actually a third choice – to tone it down – but this I rejected immediately for I felt that if I had to evaluate each thing on the basis of whether it might offend someone, I was fucked.
After weeks of waffling, I decided to do it anyway, damn the consequences, and wrote a long, impassioned email to my designer friend, explaining my decision. What it boiled down to was that I want clients who won’t be offended by quasi-pornographic content, clients who might even appreciate quasi-pornographic content, clients who in any case can distinguish between what people call pornography and comments about what people call pornography. I told myself that I would gain as many clients as I would lose, and that the quasi-pornographic content would be inadvertently beneficial in that it would scare away the “bad” clients and attract the “good” ones. Also, the quasi-pornographic content would give me something no sanitized separate business site ever could: a sense of wholeness. No more hiding what I write from the people I work with. No more splitting myself into separate personas for work and non-work. No more fear of people getting “the wrong idea” about me. Let them get “the wrong idea” about me, I decided, for I will no longer act like someone about whom no one can get “the wrong idea.”
Such is what I told myself. And then the next day I realized I couldn’t go through with it.
The following two months were spent doing the three bad things I didn’t want to do, and now those things are done and I have a separate business site which I’ve spent at least a hundred hours working on because I’m an obsessive motherfucker. I also have new business cards and of course new hosting fees to pay, and here I am writing this new piece for the new Oblivio, which I must admit feels lovely, in part because I can now write the word motherfucker as many times I want without fear of seeming like the kind of person who just goes around writing the word motherfucker all the time and for no apparent reason.
Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.