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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from EXODUS & RELIEF in PART 25}

A young nurse in scrubs and stethoscope, holding a clipboard and pen, asked my name, birth date, and other facts. There was my life - my life, my wonderful life - summarized on a thin sheet of paper.

"Address?"

"33985 Robin Lane, Sterling Heights, Michigan, 48310. That's near Detroit."

Her eyebrows raised slightly. "Detroit, huh? You here on business?"

"Yes. I'm a quality assurance consultant. I was meeting with clients in the south tower."

"Quite a day to be in New York. Now, I'm going to ask you some questions and give you an examination."

"The worst is my arm here," I said. I gave her my left arm. "It got sliced up pretty badly by a hunk of glass in the lobby," I said. "My nose hurts bad, too."

"Let me take a look at it." She lifted up an edge of the stained T-shirt and peered inside. I inhaled sharply and emitted a soft cry. "The wound's all the way through. This'll definitely need attention here."

She examined my nose, having me turn my head a bit during the process. She touched it gently, and I said, "Ooh, it hurts."

"Your nose is broken."

"That explains the pain. The plane hit, the south tower lurched, and I hit the stairwell wall."

She nodded. The nurse next gingerly felt my abdominal area. I had not thought of the pain there; my arm dominated everything. When her hands came to the central sides of my torso, I said, "It hurts."

"You've got some cracked ribs. You also have minor bruising on your face and torso."

She finished the exam. "We're done now. You'll be treated soon."

"Thank you," I said.

While waiting for a doctor, I started to wipe my face off with the towel given to me. An idea entered my mind. I unzipped my pack and pulled a plastic sandwich bag out. I held it next to my garments and began to brush the gray dust into it. As my hand brushed across my left jacket pocket, it hit something plastic. I looked askance at the thing.

It was the WTC guest photo ID, still clipped to the pocket. I brushed the dust off. My pale blue eyes were wide and cheery, a match to my slightly toothy grin. I paused and stared at it, and for a brief moment wanted to throw up. I struggled to regain control of myself and continue cleaning myself.

I tried to use my cell phone, but like most others, it was useless.

I talked to a couple people on neighboring stretchers and learned that a diverse flotilla had hauled them there - commercial commuters, tourist boats, tugs, fireboats, and Coast Guard vessels. The medical staff would treat about 1,500 "walking wounded" that day, I read later.

Finally, a thin, dark doctor with black hair, oval-lensed glasses, a mustache and "soul patch" beneath his chin took the chart from the nurse. His lab coat indicated his name was Michael Gupta, M.D. Michael. I must call my Michael somehow.

"Joanetta Bailey," he said, "from Sterling Heights, Michigan. Says here that's near Detroit. You're the second person from Michigan I've treated today." He smiled slightly, I guess to put me at ease.

"Interesting coincidence," I said. "People at the WTC are supposed to be from all over the world."

"Right - calling it the World Trade Center was smart."

"Except now they're not going to call it anything anymore, because it's all gone."

He paused. "Uh--yes. Terrible thing. Now," he said, looking at my chart, "you have a deep incision in your left arm. That's definitely going to require stitches. You also have a broken nose and ribs. We'll bandage those as well."

"Now, let's take a look at your arm."

I gave him the limb. He took out a pair of bandage scissors and began to cut away the old shirt. I gritted my teeth, and breathed in slow bursts as a way to keep from crying out.

The physician saw half of the heart and part of the N. " 'I Love New York.' Hmm. Smart move, putting on this temporary dressing. Did you do it?"

I nodded. "I actually got the shirt from the observation deck in the south tower. I'd never had one of these shirts before, and I saw it at the souvenir stand. I bought it on September 10, just one night before..." I couldn't continue. I looked down at my feet.

Dr. Gupta now nodded. He briefly placed a hand on the shoulder and then returned to cutting away the shirt. I looked down at the gash and wanted to puke again. "Looks horrid."

He gently held my forearm and studied the wound. "The glass cut through all layers of your skin, just above the muscle tissue. You're lucky it didn't cut into the muscle. If it had, you'd probably have to have surgery. At this point, all you need is stitches."

"I'm glad I don't have to go to the hospital. I saw people way more seriously injured than me all over. Huge burns, broken limbs - awful."

Dr. Gupta nodded again as I spoke. He began sterilizing the wound area. "This is going to sting, but this is an antibiotic solution to help prevent infection."

The antibiotic had a burning sensation that radiated up and down my arm. "Oooh, that hurts," I said through gritted teeth. "Good grief."

"You're doing very well. Next, I'm going numb the wound with anesthetic before I stitch it up. After I do this, we'll wait for the solution to take effect. I want you to tell me when you no longer have any sensation in the area. Ready?"

"Yes." He took a syringe and squirted a clear solution into the wound and around the edges. The anesthetic dribbled down and blended with the injury. The throbbing gradually began to subside, and my forearm became numb. It felt as if I no longer had part of an arm. That almost caused me to scream out, but I continued to control myself.

After a number of minutes, I told the doctor that my arm was numb. He began to sew up the wound. I watched with fascination and felt relieved as each stitch was made and closed up this gaping hole in my body.

"You do that with a lot of precision, kind of like a tailor," I said.

"You get good with practice, especially in the E.R.," he said. "I've been doing this for a number of years."

"Well, I have confidence in you. I want to thank you for treating me."

"No problem. That's why we're here."

I let him finish the job in silence. After he finished stitching and tied off the last thread, I said,

"How many stitches?"

"Thirty-three. I'm going to put some dressings on it now." He applied some small bandages over the stitches. "You'll keep these stitches in for five days. Since you're from out of town, you'll need to go to your local emergency room to have them removed. I'll give you a paper showing that you were treated here, along with the date."

"September 11."

"Right. September 11. A day we'll always remember." Dr. Gupta concluded his treatment of me by taping my nose and ribcage. He wrote notes on a paper, which had instructions for caring for my stitched wound and seeking follow-up treatment. I shook his hand and thanked him for helping me.

"No problem," he said.

A volunteer guided me inside the railroad terminal. The people here made arrangements for people to take public transit or receive rides back to their homes. A portly, elderly lady with hair dyed blonde was assigned to me. She looked at my clipboard. "Joanetta Bailey, Sterling Heights, Michigan. Hello, Mrs. Bailey, I'm Pat. Where were you staying in New York?"

"It doesn't exist anymore. The WTC Marriott."

"I'm sorry. That is true. I've heard the entire Trade Center collapsed. Do you have anywhere you can go, Mrs. Bailey? Do you know anyone in this area?"

"No one, except my cousin, who lives on Long Island, but I don't know his family at all. He was working in the south tower, and none of my family knows where he is, or even if he's still alive. I don't want to bother his family at all. Have you come across a Ronald Timothy Lehman at all?"

"Sorry, no. Nobody by that name, but I could check with some of the others."

"That would be great. What can you do to help me?"

"We can help you make other arrangements, get you another hotel room."

"I am temporarily homeless. All my clothes and personal things were back at the hotel. What I've got here is all I have left."

"We'll help you. We have phones so you can call loved ones. And like I said, we can find you another hotel. I'm afraid you won't be able to go back to Detroit today, because the government grounded all flights."

"That doesn't surprise me, though I wish I could just run right out of here and back home."

Her face looked sympathetic. "I understand. Everyone just wants to get home. All of you have just been through a terrible nightmare."

I shook my head. "I hate all of this."

The woman touched my shoulder. I got a lot of this during those first few days. She called over another woman who looked barely out of her teens. She held a clipboard with one hand and was finishing a call on a cell phone with the other. "Sonya will be able to help you now. She'll help you find a place to say."

I spoke to Marriott myself on Sonya's cell phone. They found me a room at a Courtyard Hotel there in Jersey City. I thanked them effusively.

"There. Now you've got a play to sleep tonight," Sonya said after I talked to the hotel company.

"Right. I understand kind of why I'm staying in Jersey. They've got the whole metro area locked down now, don't they? I could hear the fighter jets flying overhead while we were going across the Hudson."

"Yeah, everything's shut down. Did you know a plane crashed near Pittsburgh?"

"Really? Another one? That makes four jets hijacked!"

"Yeah, it happened just after 10. It went down in a rural area. They said on the news it might have been headed for the White House."

"Crazy nuts."

"Yeah, they're crazy. Now we're all in a war zone. We'll got quite a task here, but we'll get everyone home."

"Fine, I'll wait. I'll call my family up. I've also got a thick paperback I can read."

"All right. We'll let you use a phone. Most cells aren't working."

I tried mine, but to no avail. I stood in line for a pay phone. When my turn arrived, I called Michael at work.

"Joanie! Oh, Joanie, my love!"

"I'm calling you on a pay phone in Liberty State Park in New Jersey. I'm fine."

"Oh, honey, I'm so glad to hear your voice. I missed you, and I couldn't call you. First your line was busy, and then it was dead."

"People were borrowing my phone, and then it stopped working after the south tower collapsed."

"I was scared. I prayed, but I was still afraid something happened to you."

"I'm mostly fine. I cracked some ribs and my nose, and cut my arm, but they've stitched and bandaged me up. I'm stuck here overnight, though."

"I know, honey. They grounded all the flights. When do you think you'll come home?"

"I don't know. I've been given a room at a Courtyard here in Jersey City. I'll check and see if the Greyhounds are still running. Have you heard anything about buses or trains?"

"Nothing. It seems like they've just shut down the airports."

"Well then, I'll see if I can get a bus back to Detroit. You could pick me up downtown."

"Sounds like a good plan. By the way, you aunt still hasn't heard anything about Rocky. Have you?"

"Nothing. I didn't see him here. So far the staff hasn't come across him, either." Tears came to my eye, and I sniffled. "Good grief, I hope he isn't dead. Stupid terrorists! Stupid attacks!"

"We ought to hunt them all down and kill 'em."

"We're probably going to starting doing that, Michael. George W. is that kind of guy. I'm very worried about Aunt Ellen. Rocky and his family are all she has left. I just hope the tower didn't take him. I hope he's in a hospital somewhere, or walking around Manhattan, or something. Just that he's alive."

"I do too."

"Call Mom and Aunt Ellen and tell them I'm fine. I can't call them, because many other people need this phone. Tell the girls I love them very much too, and that I'll be coming home soon. Bye, bye." I made a kissing sound over the phone. He made one back, and we parted.
Ground Zero burns
i stared across the hudson at the thick, dark column rising from the gap in the southern skyline. The world financial center towers still stood, but I wondered how sound they still were

When I was done with the telephone, I was taken to another area to wait. I spent about a half hour sketching the activity in the stern, noisy terminal. I took down pictures of waiting refugees, their clothes dirtied like mine; of doctors treating patients; of people crying and receiving comfort. I asked if I could go outside for a while for fresh air - it was clear on that side of the river, and the terminal felt depressing. A volunteer told me he thought I could, but to stay by the building and not be outside too long.

I walked outside. From where I stood, I could see the tented triage center where I had been admitted, and a second one in the distance. I stared across the Hudson at the thick, dark column rising from the gap in the southern skyline. The World Financial Center towers still stood, but I wondered how sound they still were. Even the Winter Garden was still there.

I remembered seeing a similar view 19 years ago from the Newark airport and sneering at the Twin Towers. Now I wept for them and those who had been within them. I sat down on some grass and drew the skyline again, as I did on the ferry. I could not stop my quiet crying, and the picture I made still has spots where my tears fell on it. People walked past me. Some stopped to watch me draw and complimented me on the picture and uttered words of sympathy when they heard my crying. I nodded and looked away.

I walked back inside and sat down with other displaced persons. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I leaned back in my chair and fell asleep.

"Ms. Bailey?" a man's voice said. I opened my eyes and saw a sandy-haired man about my age, with a bald spot on the crown of his head. "It's time to go now. We can take you to your hotel."

"I'm glad. I can get cleaned up and get some more rest."

"Also, some of the others said you wanted to know if we'd gotten a record of a Ronald Timothy Lehman, age 37, of Rockville Centre. I'm sorry to say we didn't."

"Damn! Where is he? I hope he didn't die!"

"I hope he didn't either, Ms. Bailey. Don't give up hope yourself. He still could've been taken to another hospital here or over in Manhattan."

"Yes, I should think about it that way, that he got out and he's either trying to get home or is hospitalized. Thanks."

The man said it was no problem. I was placed in a volunteer's van with a few other bedraggled out-of-towners. The man next to me, with loosened tie and bloodshot eyes, was from Chicago and also was to be lodged at the Courtyard Hotel.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 / SHELTER FROM THE STORM

I was in a state between sleep and consciousness, where dreams could still form, but also where sounds of real life could be detected. I shivered and pulled the blanket to my chin. I sought nothingness and darkness. I was cut loose from the planet, its inhabitants, and its timetables.

I was in my hotel room. The curtains were drawn, so the room was dim. This was my cocoon, my guard against the hideous world that produced people like those who tumbled buildings and killed total strangers.

My body was clean now, after taking a shower and putting on clothes hurriedly purchased from a little shop in the hotel lobby, and a nearby store. The water had gone from clear to a silty gray that slipped sluggishly down the drain. I ran the water for a half hour before I truly felt cleansed from the dust of the fallen twins.

The check-in and walk to the room were a blur. I remember a number of sympathetic comments and attempts at comfort. My appearance telegraphed my newest identity - the 9/11 survivor.

I went to my room alone, carrying my dusty backpack and camera bag. I locked the door behind me and took the bags off. I stepped in front of a mirror.

I was a raggedy ghost. My faced was bandaged and bruised. I had a black eye on the left side. My skirt bottom was jagged. I still had WTC guest identification badge on my pocket. I pulled it off, looked once again at my wide grin, winced, and shoved it into my pack. My hair was limp and looked as if it had turned prematurely gray. I left the room and went down to the lobby.

The hotel shop's cashier stared at me as I searched through several racks of gimmicky Big Apple clothing. I knew it was my filthy gray clothes and hair and bright new bandages. When I came to the counter, she looked at me with sad eyes. "You were there, weren't you?"

"I was."

"I'm so sorry for you. It was so horrible."

Again I nodded at the condolences. I didn't feel like conversation. My purchase was one navy Yankees T-shirt and a new "I Heart NY" shirt.

My next stop was a discount store, where I found two pairs of pants, one khaki and one navy blue, and cheap sandals on clearance.
CNN screenshot
they would give me flaming buildings, death, lamentations, and suffering. i did not want that

The reaction on the street and in the second shop was the same as the cashier. Pedestrians were sparse, but they mostly looked at me with a start or with eyes of pity. I felt like a leper. I could not wait to peel off the tainted apparel and return to normal - at least as normal as a terrorist attack survivor could get.

After I was clean and dressed, I didn't want to think of anything. I stared at the TV and briefly thought of turning it on, but a fear shivered through me. I was frightened of what I might see on CNN, MSNBC, or the networks. They would give me flaming buildings, death, lamentations, and suffering. I did not want that. I wanted nothing but my home and the arms of my husband. I wanted my daughters' voices and to embrace them and say I loved them. I felt drained and despairing, so I turned back the blankets on the bed and lay down.

It was there in my room at the Courtyard by Marriott in Jersey City that I began building the walls around my September 11 memories, the fortress that I would not reopen for over four months. I retreated from my flight from the towers, the boat ride, the first aid, the trip to this lodging. I finally dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep and did not wake up until early evening.

When I finally woke up, I timidly picked up the remote and put the TV on, searching until I found CNN. The first image I saw was a crude amateur video of United Flight 175 swooping into 2 World Trade Center. "Holy shit!" a man's voice said. "Holy shit!" I was startled to hear profanity on a news channel.

CNN was hard to take. As the channel was wont to do in big events, it endlessly aired the imagery of destruction. The towers must have fallen 15 times in the couple hours I could bear to watch. The Pentagon smoked repeatedly, and the shell-shocked refugees streamed out of Manhattan. I remember dusty people boarding buses or wandering down the Brooklyn Bridge. The footage was surreal and felt like a supplement to my own memories.

While the TV mumbled in the background, I called Greyhound. The Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square was closed indefinitely, but I could board a Detroit-bound bus in Newark on Wednesday. The vehicle would stop there about 8 a.m. Wednesday and arrive at the downtown Motor City terminal over 13 hours later.

I turned off the TV, called room service, and ordered a Caesar salad and bottled water. I opened my copy of The Fountainhead and began to read, but had trouble forgetting - the book is set in New York and addresses its architecture. I threw the book on the bedside table. I took out my laptop computer and digital camera, attaching the two together.

I had software on my laptop that enabled me to download and view photos I took on my travels. I examined my own depiction of 9/11. In just one and a half hours, they went from a silly photo of me beaming in front of the fountain to the smoking, burning north tower and the distressed souls wandering around the North Cove Marina. The worst images were the four of the north tower falling into nothingness behind the World Financial Center. The antenna was at a sick angle in the first, and a blank, murky space was all that could be seen in the fourth.

I really could not decide if I wanted to search through my 9/11 memories or bury them. I flicked through the photos on the laptop screen, juxtaposing myself at the fountain with myself in the south tower lobby, approximately 12 minutes from its collapse. I put the burning tower next to the soaring towers. I stared at these photos until they blurred, and began to cry. I quickly shut down the computer and camera and put everything away.

Indecision left me antsy and indecisive. I flipped through my sketchbook. There were drawings of the decimated skyline, of weary public safety and civilian refugees. There was a fast sketch I made of the north tower on fire while standing by the marina. The sad-eyed firefighters crouched together at Liberty State Park, talking. The people numbly forming lines by the ferries, or walking listlessly in the area. The injured on stretchers and tables receiving first aid at Liberty State Park. The people waiting for telephones or for assistance to go home. While on the Yogi Berra, I had written on most pages, Terrorism, Dark Day, NYC, September 11, 2001. Most pictures had quick captions of where they had been drawn. I put the pad away and lay back on my bed.

I turned on the television again and tried to find VH-1 or TV Land to watch fluff, but instead found channel after channel of solemn commentary and urban warfare. I called Michael and told him I had a bus ticket and would be home in Detroit about 10 p.m. September 12. We started to cry together. Michael had been relieved I was evacuating, but then saw the second jet crash live. The thought of me just floors below the impact left him paralyzed as he stared at the explosion, flames, and smoke issuing from the tower.

Naomi came on the line and told me she was watching the news in her social studies class. She also saw Flight 175 hit 2 World Trade in real time. She screamed. She remembered my casual comment on Sunday that I was going to be in that building. Her first thought is that I might have been killed.

Christa told me that the principal announced over the intercom that terrible things had happened in New York and Washington.

"I told my best friend that my mommy was in New York," she said to me. "She asked me where you were. I said you were in the Twin Towers. Then I started crying, because the principal said that was the building they attacked."

Room service arrived with my dinner, which I slowly consumed while staring at the reports on MSNBC this time. The JTS office called me and explained my Tennessee trip was postponed and would be rescheduled. Jon Seifferlein himself called and told me to take the rest of the week off, and they'd pay for my hotel and bus ticket. I thanked him and told him I was fine and would return to work on the 17th.

Just as I put my head down around 8 p.m., I heard the digital version of Mozart. My cell phone was working again. It was Nina Lehman, Rocky's wife, who had gotten the number from Aunt Ellen. Rocky was alive, but unconscious. He had third-degree burns over half of his body, including part of his face. He was in Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. Aunt Ellen was to fly out to the area as soon as the airports reopened and stay with the family as long as was needed.

Alive. The idea of survival reigned strongly in my mind. I cried softly for Rocky and was thankful he somehow got out. That was just my cousin - a tough cookie who yelled out "Semper Fi" and pursued things with the fury of combat and the levity of a comedy club. Who knows, I thought. Perhaps he'd entertained his way down the stairs, motivating and inspiring, even while his body was ravaged and his strength sapped.

Alive. I thought of Beth Carlisle, Tanya Milliken, and even the staff of North East Investments. The news trumpeted that thousands of people might have died in the towers. I remembered my analogy of the 45,000 vines on the twin trellises. I wondered how many of them had withered in the fires and the collapses.

After telling the front desk to give me a wakeup call at 6 a.m., I lay down again, curtains drawn as tightly as possible to shut out the Greater New York area and the rest of the world. I had the tugboat dream again. The captain, my adult self, and my 8-year-old self stood on deck and looked toward Battery Park City. There was a great cloud suspended behind the squat, squarish Financial Center towers, as I had seen in real life.

"Are we going away?" my little self said to me.

"Looks like we are," I said. "Finally!"

The captain turned to me and said, "You're right, ma'am. We're going. We can't ever go back, and I don't know if we'll ever try to again."

{To PART 27 of Persistence of Memory}