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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from TEN YEARS AFTER in PART 12}

This ludicrousness was to continue. Down in the elevator, out of the lobby, into the Tobin Plaza and into the north tower. Rocky said he knew routes that could keep us inside, but wanted to present a scenic one to us. We went down to the lobby's first level, where Rocky took us to one of the security desks. He called the man Gus, who warmly recognized him. He explained that we were family. We were allowed through and to the elevators after Rocky swiped his identification badge.

This was the first time I had ever gone into the office part of a WTC tower. I did not know what to expect, as it was a few years before my consultant phase. The Sentinel was a two-story slab of a building. I had been in very few skyscrapers in my life, I realized, so I was about to see something new. Or at least endure something new.

As the elevator rose, Rocky explained the WTC's local and express elevator system. I read a little about this on the Web, but couldn't decipher how it worked. The lift stopped at the 44th floor, where there was the first "sky lobby" where we would transfer to another car. The lobby had tall windows at each end, and banks of elevators overseen by a security person at a desk. The walls were of marble like the lobby, and round, silver planters had been added as an attempt to warm the place up.

Rocky told us we would have to transfer again at the 78th floor while we ascended again. The elevator system was like the subway. There was the "express" lift that went to the top, which in this tower went to the Windows on the World restaurant. The other elevators were "locals," which stopped at the sky lobbies and were installed in shared shafts. My cousin said there were 103 elevators in each building, six of them for freight.

"You remind me of Jill the way you can throw out that trivia. You could give tours around here," I said.

"I'm giving one right now," he said good-naturedly. The elevator stopped, and we entered the second sky lobby. "Finally, up to my floor."

After a third and final ear-popping trip, we entered the 104th floor. The carpeting was dark gray, and the walls around the elevators were white marble with thin lines of black. The hallways were plain white with white drop ceilings overhead. It didn't look very glamorous, for being inside one of the most famous structures on earth.

He took us to the offices of Dexter Lindensmith, recently hailed in Business Week magazine as an "upstart" trading and investment firm poised for great growth through the rest of the decade.

Rocky's office was deserted, as it was now early evening. He was very excited to show his mother the view, which looked south down the island. I was feeling very weary and was no longer interested in spectacular New York City vistas. I told him so. He pointed to a cubicle by the window that was bare because no employee currently occupied it. He suggested I could rest there if I wanted while he showed Ellen around.

I sat down at the desk in the cubicle, whose bareness depressed me again. I turned the chair cautiously and peered out tall, narrow windows with broad frames. I saw the topmost part of the south tower. I imagined tourists looking back at me and flinched. I turned back and folded my arms on the desk, resting my head upon them. I imagined I was crouching and hiding. I stared aimlessly at the many deserted cubicles in the center of the suite. I could hear Rocky's voice becoming more faint as he went deeper into the office, explaining his job's intricacies to his mother.

"I hate being up so high. I wish I was at home," I said aloud.

"Welcome to Club Acrophobia," a voice said behind me.

"Huh?" I said. I was startled. I turned to look behind me, in the voice's direction. There was the head of a woman about my age looking down over the cubicle wall. She had a narrow face, topped by wavy chestnut hair down to her shoulders, and set with warm brown eyes.

The woman laughed. "Welcome to Club Acrophobia," she repeated. She came around the wall and into my cubicle. She wore a camel-colored wool blend suit. "I'm your host, Tanya Milliken. I saw you come in with Rocky and his mother."

"Hi. Joanie Bailey," I said. I extended my hand, and we shook. "It's been a looong day."

"I can tell."

"You must be Rocky's cousin from Detroit. He said you and his aunt were going to come visit."

"Yeah, that's me." I realized Rocky had hoped we would come to his office even before asking us. "I'm actually from Sterling Heights - that's a suburb of Detroit."

"I'm from Passaic, across the river in Jersey."

"Right."

"I'm from Ohio, originally. Small town outside Dayton."

"Well, a fellow Midwesterner."

"That's right, straight from the heartland. There's something else you and I have in common."

"What's that?"

"A fear of heights."

"You have acrophobia? You don't act like it."

"Not so much anymore. I control it. But yours is still evident."

"Is it that obvious? I mean I just got back from the observation deck in one piece."

"I can see it your eyes. It's a look I used to see in my own eyes. I can tell you've improved in handling heights, but you're still struggling. I can also tell by your body language. Your shoulders were tense, and your steps were short. Your lips were drawn out. An acrophobe knows what another looks like."

"Still, how can you work way up here? You look so relaxed."

"It's all in the technique," she said. She went over to her cubicle and dragged her chair up next to the desk where I sat. "You learn to manage it through different little games, distractions, and confidence builders. It's like being a diabetic and regularly giving yourself insulin shots."

"I have only one." I told her about the Space Game.

"That's pretty creative. If you want, I'll share some more with you."

"Sure. That would be helpful, if you don't mind."

"Not at all. One thing you have to do is learn to relax. You focus on your breathing and become conscious of your lungs. You don't want to panic and start hyperventilating. Close your eyes and start trying to slow your breathing down if you find it's getting away from you."

"That is one thing I've done before when I've gotten up too high."

"Not surprising. Another thing is to concentrate closely on your muscles. Fear makes you tense, and tenseness will immobilize you, and later you'll ache all over. If you can find a place to sit down, do so, and close your eyes. Then concentrate on every muscle from your neck on down to your toes. Tense each one and then relax it. Do this twice to each one. It'll help your whole body just totally loosen up."

"I remember something like that in a psychology class in college. I practically fell asleep when we did it."

"It's very effective. A big thing is to directly face down the fear itself. Make yourself go to high places. Visit observation decks like the one here. The fact you did go today is an important step. Go right up to the windows or railings and look down. Tell yourself you're going to be all right, and the building's not going to fall down, and you're not going to fall off it. Convince yourself that going up high is fun and challenging, and it's not going to defeat you."

"You've had those fears of falling off buildings, or them collapsing?" "Yes, I have. It goes with the territory. Irrational fears of certain things happening are part of phobias. The big key is trying to approach them rationally - you know, be a logical Vulcan, just like Star Trek. Don't let your feelings get you into a panic."

"That sounds like something I could work on for years."

"Quite true. Another suggestion is you must go to high places with someone you trust, like a family member or friend. Don't think you can do it alone when you're still frozen by your fear. Obviously, make sure they're not afraid of heights, and are supportive and will help you if you should falter. Eventually, after you practice, you'll be able to go up alone, and you'll be shocked at the result. You'll be amazed that you can be hundreds of feet above the ground and not feel the terror anymore. In fact, you'll feel elated, sort of like a runner's high. You might even feel a bit powerful."

"I've only felt happy once in my life in a high place, and ironically enough it was here 12 years ago."

"Well, see? I really think you can conquer your fear. Now, for the last suggestion. You ever watch a magic show? Well, the magician distracts the audience sometimes with one hand while the other does something to make the trick work. You have to do the same thing with your mind. You have to distract your brain away from the fear."

"How do you do that?"

"Lots of ways. You can count to 100 or 1,000 or however high you want. You can recite poetry, anything from Shakespearean sonnets to nursery rhymes. You can sing your favorite pop songs. Say psalms or Bible verses, if you're the religious type. Anything you want to keep your mind busy. You take a personal stereo or CD player along with you and listen to a favorite album." She pointed back at her cubicle. "I have a small stereo in there. When I get nervous or stressed out about working with my clients, I play a favorite song." She stood up and went to her space. "You seem like you could use some music."

"Yeah, that'd be nice."

I heard her inside the cubicle, putting a CD into her stereo and pressing the "play" button.

The sound of a bouncy acoustic guitar issued from the cubicle. I recognized it immediately. It was a 1989 song called "No Myth" by Michael Penn, the musician brother of actors Sean and Chris Penn. The words speak of a woman breaking up with a man before their relationship ever deepened, and his mixed feelings about her leaving. At one point, he speaks about her not trying to look for him again. In another, he muses that perhaps she was looking for either a great lover or just "someone to dance with."

"I love this song!" I said. "I have this CD at home. I almost wore it out when I first got back in my late 20s."

"This guy's pretty talented in his own right. He didn't get this recording contract just because his brothers are Hollywood actors."

I felt relieved to hear the music and began beating my hands in time to the music on the desktop. I began sing along with Penn, and Tanya joined me. We laughed as we sang the chorus. As the first verse began, I got up and spun around, arms outstretched, as we sang with Mr. Penn.

"Oh, that's wild. Sing it, sister!" Tanya paused to say. She laughed.

I stepped out of the cubicle and into the aisle. I stopped singing. As the second chorus began, I started doing a little dance. Tanya laughed again and said, "Cool steps. Where'd you learn those moves?"

"My 10-year-old's taken dance for six years. She taught me this," I said. I launched into a full-out dance routine as Penn sang the third verse. I had recently begun wearing Doc Martens oxfords, black shoes with soles nearly an inch thick. I began jumping and stomping my feet in the steps so they in time to the drums in the song. Penn sang about being caught between the poles and the Equator, and not to bother to send a private investigator to find him, unless he spoke Chinese and could "dance like Astaire overseas."

Tanya laughed and said, "You are a regular Astaire! Go, girl! Drive that fear out of your body."

I felt, briefly, that sense of being suspended from time. I needed a shot of joy after the memorial on the rooftop and those months of Oliver Brandt's harassment. I am not a dancer, but there have been times where, in the privacy of a dorm or an apartment, I broke into a routine to a favorite pop song in college when stress threatened to overwhelm me.

The need to move had hit me again. I was nowhere and everywhere, no particular geographic location on earth, just a long floor in a dimension of my own. There were no towers, no desks or chairs or PCs or cubicles or any encumbrances of late 20th century office laborers.

I also felt that day was a turning point, the beginning of the end of my acrophobia. Tanya had urged me to release my fright, and it did seem to begin to vanish. I felt a confidence I had not possessed since the Sentinel began to sour around 1994. I felt - like a lioness again. Courage seemed to return and course through my blood vessels. I would face the future and I would change it again. I would do it for me, my family, and in memory of dearest Jill.

I stopped when I heard voices - Rocky, Aunt Ellen and an older man. A lanky balding guy in a black suit and wire-rimmed glasses came toward us with my aunt and cousin. Tanya dashed into her cubicle to turn off the CD.

"Oh, oops. Uh, hi, Ellen and Rocky," I said. My face flushed red. "Hi there," I said, waving shyly to the strange man.

"Sorry, Jack," Tanya said to the man. "Just playing a little music for our guest here. She looked lonely and like she needed a little cheering up over here."

"It's all right, Tanya. Nobody's here except us anyway." He looked at me. "You dance pretty well. You want to put on a recital for us tomorrow?"

I smiled shyly and shook my head. "Nah. I was just getting into the music. I'm journalist, not a dancer, and I know this is Dexter Lindensmith and not Arthur Murray. I just got a little carried away."

"You're pretty good. The name's Jack Yablonsky. I'm a manager here."

"Hello, Joanie Bailey, Rocky's cousin." I shook his hand.

"Nice to meet you, Joanie. Little strange to see dancing in here, but it's after hours. I forgive you." Jack and the rest of them laughed.

"Joanie, I didn't know you could dance, either," Rocky said. "Maybe Radio City needs another Rockette."

I smiled slightly and said, "No, maybe I should audition for a Broadway chorus. Good grief, now I'm embarrassed."

"There's nothing to be embarrassed about," Aunt Ellen said. "You're a lady of many talents, Joanie."

"And any family of Rocky is welcome here," Jack said. "He's one of our top traders. Mom here has plenty to be proud of." He pointed at Aunt Ellen, who beamed.

Rocky said to me, "I see you hit it off with Tanya. She's a workaholic, Joanie. She'll be here till midnight if we didn't chase her out."

"Come on!" Tanya said. "I might stay till 11 or 11:30, but--" She laughed.

I said, "Tanya's also very generous. She was just telling me ways of dealing with my fear of heights. One thing led to another, and I was dancing." When I said that, I felt strange, because it did not seem at that very moment that I had acrophobia.

"That's good, Joanie, because I have a surprise for you and Mom," Rocky said. "I made dinner reservations for upstairs. We're going up to Windows on the World."

"The breakup restaurant," I muttered.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing." I recognized the restaurant as being the one where Jonas McCutcheon had dumped Jill ten years earlier.

"Windows has excellent food and these amazing views of New York. Anywhere you sit - it doesn't have to be right by the window - you can look out and see the city, because the floor's inclined. You have to see it to believe it."

"He's right," Tanya said. "My boyfriend took me up there for my birthday last year, and it was just awesome."

"Hmmm. Okay," I said.

"You like wine, Joanie? I know Mom does. The wine cellar here is tops. C'mon, you guys'll love it."

Before we left, I whispered in Tanya's ear, "Nice meeting you, and thank you. You were so helpful on the heights."

She surprised me by embracing me. "No problem," she said after releasing me. "It was nice meeting you, too. I sensed this about you: you don't admit to it, but down deep you're very strong. I think you'll handle any tough situations that'll be thrown in your path. That's why I encouraged you." "Thanks again. I'll try my hardest to remember and be a lioness. That's what Rocky's big sister and I used to pretend to be as kids. We always felt braver when we did it."

"Then do it. Have the heart of a lioness. Work hard to not be afraid. You've got that inner strength to do it."

"All right, I will. And nice meeting you again, and good luck with your career."

We said our final farewells and headed for the top.

The dinner that night was the most expensive I've ever had, and at the highest altitude I've ever been. The food was top flight, and the service was attentive and courteous. I soon forgot about poor Jill getting intoxicated up there and simply enjoyed looking outside and seeing the urban expanse under the dimming skies. Lights glowed like thousands of fireflies. I searched out and found Sir Empire, Lady Chrysler and King Rockefeller. I located Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. I reviewed my old Manhattan fairy tale. I imagined the Fairy Godmother Liberty waving her torch to heal all wounds and to instill bravery in those who felt shaken. Rocky pointed out the various bridges, islands, and other structures for us. I took out my pad and drew the restaurant, as well as my aunt and cousin at the table and some of the vistas.

My troubles were erased after two glasses of wine and a full belly. My anger and fear had been discarded. The dragons Nelson and David were not threatening anymore.

My eyes seemed to play tricks on me. When I looked across the dining room, I thought I saw Jill standing there, wearing a black pantsuit, with a gold tone rose pin on the jacket lapel. Her arms were folded, and she was leaning jauntily against the frame of a tall window. She smiled and waved at me. When I blinked, the illusion was gone. I blamed it on too much sauvignon blanc.

According to what Aunt Ellen told me in 1986, Jill wore a black suit to the Penn Station where she killed herself. A cop found a damaged rose pin lying near my cousin's body. My aunt identified as a gift from her to Jill. Rocky escorted us back to the Hilton. After they hugged and kissed and he left, Aunt Ellen shook her head. She told me that the restaurant bill was over $170. I really did not need to know that.

Four months after that trip, I took the job with JTS, Inc., as a technical writer. Jon Seifferlein, the bombastic and cheery millionaire who hired me, was a welcome relief after Oliver. I decided my life as a newspaperwoman was over.

I also decided that I would no longer be an acrophobe, either. I stood by the hotel window late in the night, after Aunt Ellen had fallen asleep. I softly sang "No Myth" to myself again, staring out into the Trade Center plaza, which was slightly illuminated from both its own lights and those in the towers' lobbies.

{To PART 14 of Persistence of Memory}