Christmas in New York City. The stuff of Romcoms and holiday pop songs. I think at that point we both knew we were looking for a way to knit together the remains of our relationship that had been fraying since the fall. It was a gesture, an offering to ourselves and the city that had, just three months prior, been brought to its knees with the most catastrophic unnatural disaster to unfold on American shores. A long weekend, we decided. We’d see the city, see for ourselves what we had been watching in the video and still images flooding every surface of our media. We’d see what we could do, we told each other, our minds not just fixed on New York.
We drove to a bordering town in Connecticut where the hotels were cheap and you could easily take the train into Manhattan. It was unseasonably warm for December. The skaters in Rockefeller Center gliding over the ice in nothing more than vests and heavy sweaters. A monochrome gray sky anchored the day in flat sheets of metal hanging from the heavens. It was Saturday and the morning train was full of people a lot like ourselves—couples and families and groups of friends headed into the city to shop, to sight-see, to spend what, in more ordinary times, would have been a fun weekend to take in the magic and spectacle of New York City during the most enchanting time of the year. Restless kids antagonized each other as parents sipped cups of Starbucks, chatting with one another as they lazily disciplined their children. A handful of teenage girls crowded together, giggling and joshing with each other; another couple traded opinions about a recent episode of TV show, discussing plot points and character arcs. The normalcy felt both forced and disorienting as if we were all following the same script and no one wanted to break character. To be fair, we all had worked hard to get to just this point where we gave ourselves permission to laugh a little, where we forgot our guilt for a few moments when we found ourselves happy with everyday joys—a promotion, a great first date, a parent-teacher conference that didn’t end in a blood pressure spike.
Grand Central Station is a majestic hub with its regal, marble pillars, ceiling washed in shades of Tiffany blue—the color of eternal optimism—and its arched windows where the light cascades into the station like waterfalls flowing straight from Olympus. We exited the train and spilled into the main terminal, gawking at the grandeur of the station. For a few moments everything made sense and felt familiar. We laced our hands together like any other couple, the feeling of his warm, worn palm against my own so ordinary.
We moved along toward one of the long corridors directing people to the street. The sallow light gave the walls a yellowish tint. Plastered up and down the length of the hallway were hundreds of flyers bearing the images of faces of men and women, young and old, foreign and domestic.
Jeff O’Sullivan worked in Tower One. If you see him, please call
MISSING! Sandra Jackson, mother of two, please call
HAVE YOU SEEN ME? Manuel Santiago, World Trade Worker, please call
Some stopped to look and study. Most of us kept walking, quickening our pace so that the breeze from the steady flow of foot traffic made the flyers lift and fall like laundry on a clothesline. With each flutter the flyers seemed to sigh their prayer: please call, please, call, please….
We could have been coy about it and gradually wound our way down the island to Ground Zero, stopping along the way to take in a museum and have a leisurely lunch. Because it seemed as if the city had cleaved itself in two: one New York steamed ahead into the holiday season with garlands and lights and mega sales and Rockettes high-stepping for Santa while the other remained literally and emotionally decimated, curled in on itself like a wounded animal. We were fooling ourselves to think that loitering in one would make the other somehow less painful, less devastating, less real.
If you had come to Earth from a distant galaxy and set your spaceship down in lower Manhattan in December of 2001, you might say to your fellow alien buddies, “What’s getting built here?” The irony of what had transpired—the massive, violent, truly evil destruction—had, by that December, given the area the look of just another enormous construction site. Cranes held their arms aloft above the rubble like mechanic puppeteers. Bulldozers, diggers, and Bobcat vehicles scuttled around from the deep pits of where the towers stood, the perimeters obscured by fences and temporary walls. The tell-tale signs that this was not Manhattan development were actually all around: Red Cross tents, flyers of the missing, boarded up businesses lining the surrounded blocks, and swatches of fencing turned into make-shift memorials piled with candles, cards, stuffed animals, and American flags.
I trailed after my boyfriend as we wandered around the area, lost in our own thoughts. I stopped at an opening in the site where four people in hardhats were working on a raised platform. The American flag pinned to the netting draped over the remains of a building in the background caught my eye. I pulled my cheap, digital camera out of my bag and took one quick photo suddenly feeling incredibly ashamed and self-conscious. This was not the building of the Colosseum or the Golden Gate Bridge, not a celebration of man’s ingenuity and engineering prowess. It was a burial ground, consecrated land, a still searing laceration in our collective underbelly. I wanted to leave. I wanted to escape to the other city just a short subway ride up town where couples sat in cramped cafes in Greenwich Village drinking over-priced cappuccinos, looking out at the white lights strung along the lampposts. I wanted us to be one of those couples again. I wanted the world to shed this long, long shadow that I knew was only going to grow and lengthen until it covered all of us.
There was nothing we could do. The truth of it reflected in the photograph I had just taken that caught one of the workers steadying himself against a wooden cross erected at the site, his head bowed, a hand covering his face. Sometimes you have to surrender to what is bigger than you to let mercy do its job.
I caught up to where my boyfriend stood waiting for me across the street. The air had turned damp, and a slight mist began to fall. I jammed my hands into my coat pockets to keep them warm. We turned the corner and started the long walk back to where we had begun.