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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 13}

JANUARY 2002 / ROCKY ROAD

Ronald "Rocky" Lehman had returned home.

My first cousin came with his wife, Nina, and their children, Blake and Francesca, to stay with Aunt Ellen. Nina was a Long Island native of Italian extraction whom Rocky met while visiting attending a friend and coworker's party there. Rocky had converted to Catholicism to wed her. They had been married ten years at the time of the World Trade Center catastrophe and resided in the picturesque village of Rockville Centre on the Island. As a result, we dubbed him "Rocky of Rockville Centre."

Aunt Ellen wanted my parents and my family to visit them in the one long weekend they came to Troy. Rocky arrived in pressure garments on his head, torso and left arm. He had suffered mostly third-degree burns from intense heat fed by aviation fuel released when United Airlines Flight 175 hit 2 World Trade Center. The burns covered just over 50 percent of his body.

Rocky had been undergoing therapy for four months after the attack at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, where most of the WTC burn victims were taken. My aunt had gone to Rockville Centre after the 9/11 flight restrictions were lifted in September. She stayed with Nina and the kids and kept a vigil by Rocky's bedside as he continued recovery.

When we gathered at the Lehman homestead, Rocky spoke of his days in surgery for skin grafts, regimens of painful physical therapy, watching as his skin turned to scar tissue, the uncomfortable pressure garments, and the long, ongoing process of healing. Aunt Ellen and Nina both said that Rocky's doctors were impressed with his high spirits and determination. His response: "I'm a Marine, and I go on." My cousin had been in the Corps for six years before ending up in New York in 1988. He, like Jill, is intense, boisterous, optimistic, and loves the big city.

I was relieved that the focus of that third Saturday in January was on Rocky. Everything was Rocky, but there was the undeniable undercurrent that I should be next. I could see it in Ellen's eyes when she looked at my slightly crooked nose. I felt naked.

I wanted to tell her that the remains of my wounds were nothing compared to the mottled, reddish skin glimpsed under Rocky's pressure garments, and to seeing the distortion to the left side of his once handsome face. Who cared about an arm scar, when your kin sits opposite you with scarred skin over so much of his upper body?

Nina Manelli Lehman was a pert, thin woman of 35 with black hair and deep blue eyes. She had the heavy "Lawn-Guy-land" dialect my mother could do so well when inspired. She was a dental hygienist. She wore a Mets cap a lot of the time; Rocky said she was a fan of great fidelity who almost always wore some type of team apparel. Nina spoke and laughed like an East Coast Minnie Mouse and had a razor-like sense of humor. Rocky and she seemed comfortable about his recovery and eventual return to Dexter Lindensmith. His firm had found a new office in New Jersey.

I dreaded the short drive from Sterling Heights to Troy with Michael and the girls. The ghosts I had battled to suppress for over four months emerged. I watched the news as little as possible while on the road. That week I had flown in from Charleston, South Carolina and had to adjust to the shock of Michigan's frigid days.

There was much small talk that day. The predominant mood was positive and cheerful. Rocky and his family were in town for just three days before they and Ellen were to return to Long Island. The day's main event, however, was when we gathered in the family room to hear my cousin tell his story.

Dexter Lindensmith, his investment and securities firm, had moved from the north to the south tower of the World Trade Center in mid-2000. They took two suites on the 87th floor of 2 World Trade that looked east toward Brooklyn. In Rocky's suite, there were about 40 people.

Rocky had been on the phone with a client when the tower shook at about 8:45 a.m. September 11. It swayed noticeably, a result of a shockwave from the north tower after American Airlines Flight 11 struck it. My cousin felt the vibrations move from the floor up through his wingtips.

People ran over and reported that they saw a flash of light, and then smoke and an orange glow from WTC 1, as well as masses of papers tumbling. "We've got to get the hell out," a coworker said to Rocky and the others assembled. "I agree. Let's go," Rocky said.

Witnesses said they weren't sure if the object that struck 1 World Trade was. One worker's cellular phone provided the answer - a text news bulletin stated it was a jet.

Employees did not leave right away, however. A senior trader had a TV in his window office, and the image of the blazing tower on CNN fascinated them the way highway accidents draw people in. They watched for a few minutes as a morning show reporter confirmed what the cell phone headline said - a jet had caused this devastation.

"Let's go," Rocky said to the dozen or so people assembled around the TV. "If it's terrorism, they could hit or bomb us, too."

A woman put her hands to her face. A man shook his head and looked dazed. He fumbled for the cell phone on the waistband of his pants and mumbled something about having to call his wife. A second woman kicked over a wastebasket and cursed. This was Tanya Milliken, the bond trader whom I met in 1996 and had given me the excellent advice on managing my acrophobia.

An argument broke out among the traders and brokers about whether to stay or flee. Rocky and Tanya led the group that wanted to evacuate. By 8:55 a.m., they had taken a group of eleven people to the elevators and made it as far as the 78th floor sky lobby.

Another television was blaring the CNN broadcast of the wounded WTC 1 in this lobby. There were perhaps a couple hundred people milling around. There was even nervous laughter from a couple of individuals. The situation was confusing. Some waited for elevators, while others debated whether to turn to their offices or continue downstairs. A message had been broadcast over the public address system a couple minutes earlier that their tower was secure and they could go back to their desks.

"To hell with that. Let's keep going down," Tanya said. "I still remember '93."

"Back then, we evacuated both towers," Rocky said. "The best option is to get out, and fast as possible."

"No way I'm going to be trapped in an elevator for four hours like '93," Tanya said. "We should take the stairs."

There was a murmur of agreement. They reached a consensus - take Stairwell A, which they knew was a straight shot down to the lobby's mezzanine level.

At 9:03 a.m., the decision for anyone to stay or go became bloodily moot.

United Airlines Flight 175 hit WTC 2 at that moment, slashing through floors 78 to 84. The Boeing 767's left wingtip ripped through the sky lobby. Rocky felt a rush of hot air on his face and saw a blinding light. There were screams, rumbles, and an explosion as he was thrown to the floor. Through the floor he could feel the tower wrench violently to one side, and back to center. His skin from the waist up stung intensely, and then there was nothing at all.

When Rocky regained consciousness, he thought it was strange he could not feel the left side of his face, or his arm and chest on that side. His left eyelid would not open completely. What he saw was carnage and devastation. The sky lobby was covered with shattered plaster, marble and glass, interspersed with fires. Its walls were gouged. The worst was the stretch of bodies across the floor. A few moved, and groans and cries could be heard. Most of them were motionless; some mangled and bloody. An elevator opened, and flames issued out. A man crawled out of the fiery car and began laboriously moving across the floor.

An employee named Vera Morrison, who had been a homemaker for 10 years before becoming a broker trainee only six months earlier, burst into tears when Rocky looked at her. Vera had sustained only cuts from glass to her arms and chest.

"Alive. You're alive," she said, weeping. "The rest are gone."

"Gone? Are you sure?"

"Yes, I checked."

Vera helped Rocky as he strained to get to his feet. "Let's check again." Vera shook her head; tears streamed down her face. He took her wrists in his hands. He felt nothing and cared nothing for himself at that point.

"Vera, I need you. Show me where they are."

She wordlessly pointed out the bodies, which had been scattered among the others. "Memorize their names when I say them, Vera. We have to tell others when we get out."

There were eleven - Choudhury, Francis, Kovach, Cheng, Christensen, Aiello, Prescott, Seligman, Maas, Wynand, and Milliken.

Tanya Milliken had fallen next to Rocky. She had also been burned. A large chunk of marble had struck her in the chest. The slab of it still sickly lay across her torso and thighs. Her eyes stared at the smashed ceiling, and drying blood was on her lips and chin. Rocky closed her eyes, as he did to any others he found.

"Let's go," Rocky said. "Let's see if the stairs are okay."

"Do you need help?"

"I'm fine. Just stay with me and keep moving."

"But you--"

"Forget about me! Let's clear out first and worry later!"

A man appeared in the lobby, emerging from Stairwell A. He wore a red bandana around his mouth and nose. He asked about where he could find a fire extinguisher. He told the few survivors that those who could walk should go to the stairwell. He added that those who were able to help others also should do so.

Vera's watch indicated it was 9:07 a.m. They had 51 minutes to flee the skyscraper. They were among only a dozen who survived the sky lobby calamity.

Stairwell A had survived the blast, in part because it had been routed from the building's center core to the northwest corner to make room for the elevator shafts and machine room.

The sky lobby survivors made a clear path on the first few flights by pushing aside rubble on the steps. Rocky said he saw the man with the bandana carrying a woman on his back. After helping her to safety, the man began to go back up. My cousin never saw him again.

Rocky led, holding Vera's hand. She wept quietly as they joined the stream of other evacuees. The stairwell down which they descended seemingly for eons had cracked walls, broken lights, leaking pipes, and the pervasive odor of jet fuel.

Rocky said he did think about injury to himself or about stopping. He said repeatedly to himself, "God, it's too soon for me to join Jill and Dad. Nina, the kids, and Mom need me here. Please help me get out."

He walked mindlessly down the flights of steps, gripping Vera's hand. He dispensed words of comfort to her and others. He blocked out comments and ignored stares at his scalded skin on the left side of his face, and showing through his torn clothing. He knew vaguely that his coat and dress shirt were in shreds. Vera had removed his necktie. He told himself over and over, "God, please get me out. A Marine never gives up." Sometimes he said just names like a potent mantra: "Nina, Mom, Franny, Blake, Silvio, and Janey." Those last two were his in-laws.

By 9:48 a.m. they reached the lobby. Police and security guards directed them down stalled escalators and through the concourse level, down into the mall, and out 5 World Trade, a Plaza building. Rocky felt a burst of adrenalin and ran, dragging Vera through the concourse, and finally to fresh air. After releasing her hand, he was about to walk right off the WTC property. A cop stopped him outside, yelling at him to bring him back to reality. He was badly injured, the officer said, and needed an ambulance.

"You're burned, sir!" the officer said in a Queens growl. "You got to get help!"

"Okay, help me, then," Rocky said. He collapsed at the officer's feet, unconscious.

Paramedics loaded Rocky up and headed to Weill Cornell in Manhattan. Two minutes after the ambulance sped into traffic, 2 World Trade Center tumbled. Rocky did not awaken for two days.

Aunt Ellen was in New York by the end of the week in which the attacks occurred. She planned to remain in the area with Rocky and his family indefinitely. The family remained a tight unit, days divided between Rocky's hospital room and the house in Rockville Centre. Rocky's in-laws and Nina's brother and his wife became part of this support unit. Nina's brother was a firefighter who commuted to Ground Zero as often as possible and came back stone-faced and thoughtful. The more of this I heard in the fall, the more it seemed a surreal film.

After the story, the room was silent. I hated it. I went to Aunt Ellen's kitchen to throw icy water on my flushed face and wet eyes.

"You all right?" a voice said. It was Nina, who had come to me as I stood up from the kitchen sink.

"Fine," I said. I looked at her face, topped by her Mets cap, which further reminded me of Jill in her prime.

"It is terrible, but we're getting through it. Rocky and I have our love, and God's watching out for all of us."

"That's good."

"Thank you. Nice pin you got on there."

"Thanks."

My own journey since 9/11 had been in increments. In mid-December, when the consultant aide gave me the gold pin with the WTC and U.S. flag in rhinestones, I fell apart, and the next day thought about whacking it with a baseball bat. Recall that instead I hid it away. On that day we went to Aunt Ellen's, I put on a black pantsuit, much like the one I often wore in my Trade Center dreams. I looked through my jewelry boxes for something to wear and came across the WTC pin. It no longer repulsed me and appeared instead as a curio. I got a compulsion to put it on my lapel that day.

"I know you're going through a hard time, too--"

"Not really. I'm fine."

"You were there too, Joanie."

"I know that, but it was nothing."

"Nothing? Getting out of there wasn't 'nothing.' You might not have been hurt like Rocky, but you still had to run for your life. Ellen said she talked to you inside the north tower lobby just before the other collapsed--"

"Yes, that's true. I screwed up and took a wrong turn, but who cares? It's Rocky who faces a long road. Please stop."

"Sorry, just trying to help. By the way, Rocky wants to speak to you."

"What?"

"Rocky wants to talk to you. He's back in the den."

"Alone?"

"Yeah, Joanie. He said he wants to talk to you in private. He also said to bring your sketchpad."

I shrugged and quickly put ice cubes and water into a glass from Ellen's cupboard. Rocky knew me well enough that my art pad and pencils went nearly everywhere with me. I stopped in the kitchen by my purse and tote bag to fetch it. I went through the family room and into the back of the house, where the den was. I opened the door and entered.

My cousin sat in one of two easy chairs by the window. Wintry sunlight streamed in behind him, making him resemble an injured saint.

"Hello, Joanetta," he said. I was surprised at the use of my given name. "Sit down."

I took a seat on the couch perpendicular to the chairs and put my glass on a coaster on the coffee table. "Rocky--" I said.

"It's all right. Take out your sketch pad and draw me."

"But-"

"I know you wanted to, but you were afraid it would be bad taste. It's okay if you draw me. You must do it."

"But why?"

"I've watched as you grew up. You always liked to document what happens around you with your pencils. Your art is also good therapy."

"That's true."

"Go ahead and sketch me, then, while I talk, and listen carefully."

I opened the pad and took out a pencil with hard lead. "Okay." I started to draw as he spoke again.

"Joanie, I know what you're going to say. My story was shocking, dramatic, and unforgettable. Of course you'd expect that in a life-or-death situation. But I want to talk about you."

My pencil paused. "Please, no."

"Joanie, don't argue with me about this."

"No, I said!" I threw down the pencil. "Who gives a damn? This whole gathering was about you, and it should only be about you."

"Yes, it was about me. We wanted to talk to the entire family. But when Mom, Nina, and I talked about it, you came up in the conversation. We agreed we needed to reach out to you, too." He looked at my glowering. "Please, start drawing again."

I begrudgingly picked up my pencil and resumed sketching. "Why do all of you keep doing this to me? Even Nina brought it up. Everyone keeps running for the bandwagon. Bug Joanie about September 11!"

Rocky leaned forward and glared at me. His droopy, wrinkled left eyelid twitched. "Four months have passed." He said, his voice low and even. "You still remain mostly silent about your own escape. You don't eat, you sleep's troubled, you've withdrawn from everyone. I can't even fathom how much hurt and pain you're carrying inside."

"Hurt and pain?" I said. I threw the pencil down again. I yanked my left jacket sleeve down to reveal the scar on my forearm. "How the hell does this thing, as well as my emotions, even compare to what you've been through and still have to go through? It's nothing! I got out of the WTC and got bashed up a little. So what! But you! Everything's different! You're scarred--I mean--"

I stopped and looked down at my lap and at the start of my study on Rocky. Tears came to my eyes as I picked up my pencil and began sketching again. Some of them dropped onto the paper.

"You're absolutely right," he said. His features relaxed. "I'm scarred. I'll have to get plastic surgery. The doctors say I have hypertrophic scarring. It's very common among burn victims. My left hand is only semi-functional. I have damage to the nerves that control my eyelids. When I smile, I look a little evil, even though I think I'm far from it. People stare at me when we go out in public, but I don't care. It happened, and now I deal with it."

"And I think my nephew is handling it very bravely." It was my mother. She came into the room and closed the door. She walked over and sat down next to me on the couch. "Joanie?"

"Mom, are you going to get on the bandwagon, too?"

She shook her said and smiled sadly at me. "Rocky called me last night. We talked quite a while. The family is so happy that the two of you got out of the Trade Center. We don't know what we would've done if we'd lost either of you. We've all been watching how the two of you have coped since."

"You all think that, but I don't agree. My story is nothing. I got out, and I'm here. It's Rocky we have to worry about."

"Joanie, it is definitely something. Don't you remember what you said in the stairwell?"

"I don't know. I said a lot of things."

"You said, 'Sorry your birthday isn't turning out better, Mom, but I'm going to make sure I get out of here and come home to give you a big hug and kiss for it.' "

I looked at each of them, my head moving back and forth a couple times. I dropped my pencil again and started to cry. Mom stood up, came over, and put her arm around me.

"I was doing consulting work on a floor that was at the top of the impact area of the second plane," I said. "I could have been up there when it hit. I got lost and accidentally went into the north tower lobby. I thought about going back into the mall to find the way out, but Aunt Ellen called. I stayed there, and the south tower collapsed. It's possible that if I had been in the mall when that happened, I could've been crushed--" I stopped and started sobbing hard.

"It's all right, Joanie, it's all right," Mom said. She put her arms around me as I cried. "You made it out. When the time comes, the story will come. You'll feel a lot better after you remember all of it."

"I'll try, Mom," I said in a choked voice. "I'll try."

I lifted the sketchpad off my lap and handed it to her. "You and Rocky can look at these for now."

The two of them looked entranced as they examined my illustrations. There was one of the burning north tower standing above the World Financial Center. There also was the empty, smoking skyline, the triage units at Liberty State Park, exhausted firefighters, weeping and battered survivors, and people's injuries being treated.

"I haven't been able to look at those pictures for weeks," I said. "I made those on September 11. When I came home, I drew some pictures from photographs I found in magazines and newspapers."

"I never knew you made these," Mom said. "They're amazing."

"I was right," Rocky said. "You document what you see, and this is a very eloquent document. Along with your story, you'll have a powerful record of your own about September 11."

"Soon, very soon," I said. "I'll try to talk about it soon. I promise."

My eyes were moist. I struggled again with whether to release the ghosts or exorcise them again. I remembered, for a fraction of a second, cursing myself for getting lost and ending up in the north tower. I remember I turned my back on the Tobin Plaza while in the south tower because I swore I saw the smashed body of a man in dark pants and no shirt among the rubble not far from the fountain.

No! Stop it! My mind had been cast wide open for all details everywhere on September 11, 2001. I threw up a mental dam to stop them. If I didn't, they would flow relentlessly until none were left.

I had seen the scores of firefighters in the north tower and debated - go back into the mall or toward the firemen? My cell phone went off with the joyous strains Mozart- Stop! I screamed inside myself again.

Enough! I quit, closed my eyes and tried to envision the space shuttle Endeavour high above the earth. Away and away and away. My mother and cousin had to struggle to get me back to earth and to return my sketchpad.

{To PART 15 of Persistence of Memory}