Goodnight, New York
It is impossible to arrive in New York and feel pessimistic. It is the only city in the world that demands and inspires you live up to your potential – and scorns you when you fail. But no matter what, one always, one begins one’s relationship with New York on a positive note. I certainly did.
Sean had come to Washington DC to look at some real estate. We decided to fly up to New York together for the weekend, then back to DC on Sunday so he could put in an offer on a house. The flight had been utterly unremarkable until the last few minutes. As we were on final descent into LaGuardia, and the buildings became distinct and glassy in the late afternoon sunlight, my heart caught in my throat. Not only is New York a beautiful, astonishing city, it is a place where you know, deep in your bones, that you can achieve things, great things, things that last. Monuments. You must remember that even those permanent-looking skyscrapers, after all, started off as a dream.
The last time I was here it was mid-summer. Everything was dull heavy green. I would drift to the windows of Sean’s apartment and peer down at the tourist’s carriage horses on the edge of Central Park shifting in the heat and humidity. But now, as we taxi up, it is cold and the leaves are bare. Everything is a little brighter, harder, more intense. On Central Park West in the mid-70s we get out, he hands the driver some money and we lug our bags up to his apartment.
It is like walking into my own life. I think what I mean by that is there has been a life here waiting for me – home, I guess is the word I am struggling to find.
We spend an hour trying to decide what to do and in the end, he calls his parents and asks them if they can watch his son while we go have some dinner. I’m putting on lipgloss in the bedroom when the doorbell rings. I am always nervous about seeing his parents, though they have never been anything but wonderful to me. I always feel self-conscious. I sense that over my shoulder hovers the ghost of Sean’s deceased wife. I sense her sometimes, here in this immense apartment. The breath of her body, the thin scent of her skin mingling with the silk of her dresses and her Aveda shampoo: this was the impression she left in the house, visceral and real even after five years.
His parents are true to tradition: wonderful. They embrace me. They ask how I am doing. After ten minutes of catch up, Sean and I sneak out. We walk to Arte Café, an unpretentious Italian place on West 73rd Street. We drink (wine for him, bellinis for me), which is good because what I’m about to request from him requires a little external motivation. We eat, and order more drinks. We talk about the house he wants to buy in Washington D.C, and an art show in Soho, and all kinds of filler that are just biding time until I can say what I want to say. We talk and order yet more drinks, and then almost spontaneously, as I did not realize I was asking until I was already asking, I said: “Will you take me to Ground Zero?”
Hot pink spots appear in my cheeks; I can feel them burning just as I can feel my sense of decency burning a hole in me. I have been to Ground Zero several times – but never with Sean. Never even thought about it. He’s not a tourist; he doesn’t have the luxury of viewing the artifacts of 9/11 with a disinterested or journalistic point of view. Plus, his wife’s remains are buried in the footprints of the buildings; I’m essentially asking him to take me to see his wife’s grave.
I force myself to look up into his face. To my eternal surprise he doesn’t look mortified. He takes a sip of the wine and nods his head, then places the wine carefully on the white linen tablecloth. “Okay,” he says.
We finish our dinner, and taxi downtown. I love the way he hails taxis. He’s known how to do it since high school, maybe earlier. Sometimes when I’m in a playful mood I beg him to turn on his New York accent. “Please, Seany, please say ‘Gimme my f’n’ coffee!” And he’ll grumble, “Gimme my fckn kwafee.” Then I squeal and giggle hysterically. The New York accent, like the hailing of the taxi, is something that thrills me because while it’s uniquely his own, it’s also part of New York. Once in a while, he’ll turn on the New York accent and I’ll do the Texas accent and we sound like a culturally impossible couple.
On the observation wall on Church Street, we find her name. Around us, the city is bright and alive, though it is well past midnight. A block away, cars drive by as they always have. People walk past what looks like a construction site, their hands in their pockets, talking to their friends. Sean says, “My building was there,” and then he points. “Hers was here.” And now we are standing at the wall, and her name is on a list of 3,000 other names. He is talking like he’s said this many times, and I get the image in my head of a map that is falling apart because it’s been folded the same way over and over and over again. “And then I came over here,” and he points, “and there was an SUV. I crawled under the SUV and hid there until the ash had cleared somewhat….”
He tells me the story again, how he came home and got in the shower in his suit. How the water would not get hot enough. How he could not cry then, not for his wife or his country or himself. The tears wouldn’t come. It was much later, when he reached over and touched the cold empty spot in the bed beside him, when he realized what her absence meant, that the tears came, hot and wet and neverending.
We are shivering. It is very cold. He’s telling me again how tall the buildings were. In his mind’s eye he can still mark the height. The buildings, which I never had the pleasure of seeing, remain real and alive to him. To this day he can recall the color of the carpet and the sound of the computers humming. He can remember how negligent he was of the view from the windows, how after a few weeks of working way up there in the sky, he almost forgot he was nearly a quarter mile up. I look up, up, up, but all I see is the symmetrical black sky. I can’t see them, but I know he is seeing them. Maybe he is seeing his wife. In fact I know he is. She’s still here for him the way the buildings are. One thing I’ve learned from Sean is that the shape of time is larger than anything it can hold.
I pull my coat tighter around my shoulders. He puts his arm around me, and then looks at me. “Are you ok?”
I nod. In silent accord we begin to walk away. We find a coffee shop. We go inside. We order something hot. We sit close together. I am not sure how to proceed. To my surprise, Sean tells me that after 9/11 he wanted to buy a gun and go to Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden himself. Again, I am stunned at just how intimate his hatred for Osama is, how very very close they are. They’re forever intertwined – as closely intertwined as murder victim to perpetrator. Imagine for a moment the bravery and force of will that it takes every single day to carry that dark knowledge with you.
We drink our coffee and talk about 9/11 and politics and war. He is so even-keeled. I wonder about the process of how our personalities assume loss and get stronger, how things like hatred and agony can fortify us just as much as love. He places his hand on top of mine and the warmth is the most real, tangible thing I’ve felt in a long time. I don’t want to talk about war anymore, or death or destruction or loss. We finish our drinks and taxi back to the Upper West Side. His parents tell us the boy has been asleep for hours, and all is well.
He goes into his bedroom to get ready for bed. Alone in the dark living room, I drift, again, to the large windows, and I look down at the street so far below. The cars move like shiny black beetles up the avenue. I can hear the vibration of the city, the muffled traffic, and the tension of twelve million people living on the little island. I press my forehead against the cold panes of the window. Oh, this complicated city. Nothing is ever easy here. I try to imagine jumping from this height, to know what those others knew at that fatal moment. I think, irrationally, of San Francisco and how every person who ever jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge has done it on the east side, looking back at the skyline, taking that one image of sky and city with them into the drink. Even in those perpetually darkening seconds, there was part of the human spirit that reached out to take some comfort in beauty, and the complicated mess of a city skyline. New York is not like other cities though. It is the physical product of Man’s ability to achieve. It is the heart and breath of ambition, not just for Americans but for all human beings who have the urge within them to do something great. It’s a secret that almost everybody has forgotten: the sky really is the limit.
“Goodnight, New York,” I whisper, and turn to go to bed.