Last Sunday, when I got to the apartment, I didn’t stay long. I needed a few things. Some groceries. Some contact lens solution. A set each of sheets and towels to make the laundry situation a little more tenable. I parked my suitcase, turned on the air conditioning, got a glass of water, emptied my computer bag of everything but my wallet and phone, grabbed the keys and headed back out.
The thing about a gridded city like New York is that it’s very easy to wander. It’s not really necessary to know exactly where you’re going because it’s never hard to figure out how to get back to where you began. You don’t even need a map. I’ve always approached New York this way. When I was younger, I’d wander until it was time to head back, check the Twin Towers for my orientation, then follow the grid back. Now my compass is gone, but the grid is still there.
I headed out to do some exploring, with the idea of eventually ending up at a store my host had mentioned was a good place to find linens. I was enjoying watching people until all of a sudden I looked up and realized I was standing in front of the Chelsea Hotel. I don’t think I’d actually stood in front of it before. It looked exactly like I wanted it to.
It may be my tendency to wander that renders New York magical for me, a place where unexpected things like famous hotels appear to rise out of nowhere.
* * * * *
This morning we watched AJ make a long run for a touchdown for his team and later he and Mr. Spy went to watch another football game. When they got home, AJ wanted to play a game with me. He chose Apples to Apples. Apples to Apples is a categorization game. Each player gets 5 red cards, each of which has the name of an object or an action on it. You might get a hand with cards reading “carrots,” “alligators,” “ghosts,” “the last day of school,” and “garbage cans.” Then someone turns over a category card and you’re supposed to put down the card that best fits the category. The player who is the judge decides which player’s card is closest and that player gets to keep the card. Whoever has the most cards at the end of the game wins.
With two people, we can’t afford to have a judge, so AJ and I have worked it out so we discuss it. If we can’t come to an agreement as to who is the winner, then we play rock, paper, scissors for it. Tonight, after we played one round, AJ got the idea to play it backwards, where you put down the card that least matches the category. This turned out to be a brilliant suggestion — I don’t know why we haven’t tried it before — and many hilarious discussions were held (Some examples: Which is least friendly: alligators or Canada? I was sure I had this one with alligators, but AJ supported his case with, “Hello?! Justin Bieber!” and I had to give it to him. Also, which is least delicious: A forest fire or a desert? AJ argued that smoke was delicious, so desert should get the distinction. I argued that desert was only one letter away from dessert, which was about as delicious as it gets. In the end, we had to play rock paper scissors, and AJ won, because he has become a formidable rock paper scissors opponent (perhaps he’s been boning up here).
We both agreed that this version of the game was more fun than the original. AJ and I are both inclined to break rules by creating new ones. It’s the way we do things. We share a tendency to be both contrary and orderly.
* * * * *
“Mom, are there videos of September 11?”
AJ asked me this while we were playing the game last night.
“Yes, there were a lot of them.”
“Can I see them?”
I paused before I answered. The fact is, I don’t want him to see those videos. It’s been ten years and I still can’t get them out of my head.
“Well,” I said carefully, “I can’t really stop you. They’ll probably be on TV all weekend. But I really don’t want you to see them.”
“Why not?” I can tell he is thinking that I don’t want him to see them like I don’t want him to play with toy guns or on the Xbox for more than 30 minutes, the way I don’t want him to say “Oh, my GOD!” in front of his grandmother or interrupt when someone else is talking. I need to explain.
“I’m going to let you make your own decision,” I said, “but I also want you to listen to why I don’t want you to watch.”
* * * * *
It was around 8:00 in the morning and I was sitting cross-legged on my bed in our loft a few blocks from the tallest building in the country, nursing my 6-month-old while watching the Today Show. Suddenly, they broke in with news that a plane had hit the Twin Towers. I was horrified, but I thought it was an accident. So did the newscasters reporting from the scene. As I watched one of them describe the damage, I saw another plane invading the corner of the screen. It slammed into the other tower. My blood ran cold. That was the moment everything changed, when the second plane hit. That was when everything we had always assumed was turned upside down. The first plane could have been explained away. But there was no excuse for the second.
It was horrifying. There was no other word for it. That afternoon, we walked to a bench in Grant Park. Most of downtown Chicago had been evacuated. There was no traffic, no cars, no pedestrians. We sat alone in the park on a bench. As we looked up at the cloudless sky, holding our baby, we saw a single plane slice across the blue and we felt like there was nothing we could do to protect him.
* * * * *
AJ is quiet. I’m not sure why I’m telling him this, what I hope to accomplish. I know that he wants to know what happened and he wants to know why grownups don’t like to talk about it. I’m not sure if I’m articulating what I want to say or if he gets what I mean: that it’s not that I don’t want him to see the video, but that I want him to never know that such things can happen in the world, that I want to undo it all, to rewind it all, so that on that perfect September day we were just a perfect new family sitting in a perfect park enjoying the perfect sunshine.
It’s not just because of the tenth anniversary that I’m thinking about these things, but because we are moving to New York, where every day I see the new towers rising where the old ones used to be. We left a city because of that day. And now we are moving back, not just to a city, but to that city. And I wonder if I’m dooming AJ to a lifetime of watching that man fall headlong, one leg bent, over and over again.
* * * * *
It’s my literal compass that’s gone, I think, whenever I lose my bearings in lower Manhattan. I don’t know where to look anymore. But it’s a more serious compass that was damaged that day, the certainty that if you can proceed toward true north everything will be golden. Maybe that certainty was misguided in the first place. Maybe my compass was faulty to begin with. Maybe I just know the tools I’m dealing with now. But it’s nice to have the option of illusion. And it’s this option, I think, that I am trying to offer AJ now. Because once you’ve seen it, once you know, there’s no turning back.
* * * * *
Nearly daily, I find unexpected things on my travels about New York that personalize the city for me – like the day when I looked up while standing in front of a Spy shop and noticed a faded painted sign on the side of the building across the street that had once said in enormous letters, “HARRIET.” These things appear from nowhere and often can’t be found again, because you can’t quite remember how you came to get there in the first place. Because of my tendency to find things unexpectedly, I find that I keep looking for the towers. Somehow I always expect to see them there. I’m getting used to their absence on the drive in from LaGuardia now. But I still feel them looming over me when I’m walking through SoHo. Part of me expects to see them one day. If they returned, I don’t think I’d be very surprised. Maybe it’s magical thinking, but I am not ready to relinquish the right to think magically. I can’t believe there’s anything to be gained from letting it go. Ten years on, it’s still the promise of magic that keeps us moving. And really, it’s no less mysterious than the mechanism of a compass or the way a baby turns into a ten-year-old when you aren’t looking.
* * * * *
This morning, there was a section in the paper devoted to the 9/11 anniversary. There were stories, a time line of photos we’ve all come to know all too well, a page of images of the things people have saved to remember that day. A pair of cheap shoes. A Yankees ticket. A jam jar full of dust. I offered the paper to AJ. “You can see them if you want to. There are pictures,” I said. He was silent for a moment, then he slowly shook his head. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “No, thanks.”