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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 5

DECEMBER 2001 / BLUE CHRISTMAS

I marvel today at how well I passed through that holiday season. I visited my parents and Michael's parents, handed out presents, sang carols, and attended the Christmas Eve service performed by Christa and the rest of the Sunday school. I celebrated New Year's and launched into the requisite chorus of "Old Lang Syne" and drank champagne with Michael.

Michael was preoccupied with the news. We both wondered what George W. Bush would do next. Operation Enduring Freedom, the country's counterstrike, had entered its third month. The Taliban fell in Afghanistan. That nation was a mess, pockmarked with bomb blast holes and full of hungry, bedraggled people. Michael jumped back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, which had adopted these star-spangled graphics with their news stories.

There was no talk of September 11. I struggled to kill all thoughts of it. My appetite waned. During the last three months of 2001 I lost 22 pounds without really trying. Michael gently tried to prod me to eat. My clothes did not fit right, hanging more like drapes than suits.

There were moments when the last days of the year took me to the edge. Those final three months of 2001 were suffused with high emotion across the entire country. People warbling about "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," and kids queuing up to see a fat guy in red did not mesh well with bad dreams. Even though I avoided 9/11 as much as possible, I still had those dreams.

They came about every three nights. In one I was sitting at a desk by a window, talking on the phone and working on a personal computer. An explosion thundered below me, the window exploded outward, and the tower shook. The force of the blast pushed me out the window and hurtling headlong toward the plaza.

That was one of only a few damaged WTC dreams that I can recall. More often than not, I found myself trapped inside an intact Trade Center, completely helpless and unable to seek directions to the lobby. I wandered through more corridors, down the stairwells, and into people's offices and boardrooms. No one seemed to notice me. When I did get to the lobby, I sat down on the floor and could not walk anymore. In a couple I reached the Tobin Plaza, where I meandered about or sat down on a bench, stared at the artwork or assorted plants and trees there, and cried.

In one dream I seemed to sit for hours at a table in Windows on the World, the restaurant that had been near the top of 1 World Trade Center, staring at a faint Staten Island and drinking glass after glass of merlot. I realized when I woke up that Jill had done the same thing 15 years earlier.
Windows on the World
in one dream i seemed to sit for hours at a table in windows on the world, the restaurant that had been near the top of 1 world trade center

This WTC was a pristine place. It also was a chameleon, its appearance shifting at will to different times from its 30-year history. Sometimes the observation deck looked as it did on my first visit; other times it appeared as it did just before the attacks. The paving blocks of the Tobin Plaza appeared as either the pale tan ones of the early years, or the pink and gray granite ones installed in the late 1990s. I saw this complex enough in my dreamscapes to give it a name - Timeless WTC.

With all these dreams going, I could not rest for more than five hours straight. I spent many nights in the den trying to knock myself out with mindless Internet surfing.

The 2001 holiday season's decorations resembled a violent collision of Christmastime and the Fourth of July. Red, white, and blue bunting was slapped up on porches. American flags were duct-taped to the hands of illuminated plastic snowmen and St. Nicks. Old Glories - either traditional cloth or ones made of lights sold just after the attacks - were suspended among other light strings or ones resembling icicles. Tri-colored ribbons were attached to evergreen roping or hung from wreaths.

I was very happy that JTS never put another person into my office. I kept the door closed and continued my mindless work on a training manual for medical devices and quality management. However, I had moments that made my skin crawl. There was a real hawk in our office who kept talking about how we had to just keep bombing Afghanistan until it was powder. He always wore a flag lapel pin and put a September 11 ribbon up by his office door. He tried to get me to agree with him once, noting that as a survivor I should want revenge, too. I told him to go to hell.

I got more presents from people that year than normal; I call it a sympathy reflex. Many were very difficult to stomach. Inevitably, they would say the gift was "to help you heal," or something like that. I got a CD of Enya's "Only Time," one of those songs that got designated as a September 11 ditty. I secretly drop kicked that one across the room. The second CD gift was pretty awful, too. A New York police officer had cut a record with a sobbing version of "God Bless America," with an introductory speech by Rudy Giuliani. The other song was "We Will Go On," a cloying ballad of rising from the wreckage and ascending to recovery. I tossed that one across my office like a Frisbee.

The one exception was a CD of works by the American composer Samuel Barber. The one in particular that spurred me to the first real tears in weeks was "Adagio for Strings, Opus 11." The sad, soaring music reminded me of our evacuation from Lower Manhattan. I recalled being frozen in place as I saw the north tower start to sink, as it hovered above the World Financial Center's Winter Garden. I also flashed back to the ferry ride across the Hudson and looking back at Ground Zero, while that broad, noxious cloud rose into the sky. This CD came from one of the other consultant aides, who knew that I liked classical music.

Naomi found me sitting in my recliner in the family room one evening. I had a large pile of Big Apple postcards at my side.

"What are you doing, Mommy?" she said. I threw one of them into the air, and it glided across the room.

"Making airplanes out of postcards," I said. I bent another into an aircraft and launched it.

"Where'd you get all these New York postcards - eBay?"

"Nah - a gift from a coworker. I've got way too many." I sailed one for the Christmas tree, and it lodged among the glass balls.

"Why don't you just save them and use them?"

"When on earth have you ever seen me use a postcard, Naomi? I hate when people give me useless gifts. It's that simple."

"Are you doing this because you hate New York?"

"No! I don't hate New York. I told you, it's a stupid present. So I'm using them another way. Make some planes."

"Why planes?"

"Because I don't know any origami, that's why. I've just always tended toward making planes, since I was a kid. It has nothing to do with jets and 9/11."

"Oh. Whatever." My teenager shrugged her shoulders and walked out of the room. I flung another postcard plane, which sailed and plopped down before the fireplace screen.

A couple days later, someone gave me a book called The World Trade Center: The Giants that Defied the Sky. I hid it in my basement. The next day, a consultant aide who helped book my travel and schedule my appointments gave me a gold colored pin. The Twin Towers had a U.S. flag across them, and all was composed of Austrian crystals. She really begged me to wear it after I opened the present. My lunch almost came up, and my arms shook when I put those rhinestone towers on my lapel. I didn't look down at my chest for the rest of the afternoon.

When I came home, I had forgotten the thing was on me until Michael remarked about it. When he said the words "World Trade Center" I began to totter. I nearly fainted in his arms. He helped me to the master bedroom and to lie down. After spending some time with me, he left. I passed out and not awake until the alarm beeped the next morning. I was still in my wrinkled work clothes. When I was fully conscious, I found that pin still on my suit jacket. I yanked it off and threw it onto the nightstand. I seriously entertained later tossing it into the air and smacking it baseball style with an old aluminum bat I owned. However, I realized my coworker might ask me to wear it again, and if I couldn't produce it, there would be unwanted conflict. So I hid it in a jewelry box atop my dresser.

On the Friday before Christmas, Julia's turn arrived for gift giving. She came to my office and handed me two packages wrapped in metallic silver paper decorated with white leaping reindeer. One was small and round, and the other was flat and square, and felt like paper. The little cylindrical one was a candle in a glass holder that smelled like blueberries.

As I pulled off the paper off the second, I saw that it was a calendar. One look at the cover, and it slipped out of my hands and landed on the desk. I could only stare.

WORLD TRADE CENTER: 2002 MEMORIAL CALENDAR. The cover photo appeared to be from spring. The view was from New York Harbor, with the Statue of Liberty framed between the Twin Towers and just to the right of one of the World Financial Center buildings.

My lips pulled down sharply at the corners. Gingerly I turned it over and saw the publisher name: BrownTrout, of San Francisco, of all places.

"Is something wrong?" Julia said. "I saw this at the bookstore and thought..."

She trailed off as I just stared at the orange-tinged cover image, and the Hudson River. Miss Liberty was three-quarters turned away from me, right foot placed to the back, as her hand held the torch aloft. The twins, abstract cartons of rust squares on either side, dwarfed New York's "New Colossus."

"I thought it might bring you comfort, help you deal with it," Julia said. "I know you're going through a rough time. It had such beautiful pictures in it."

I silently flipped the calendar over, where I saw the "beautiful pictures." The weirdest had the Twin Towers vanishing into low clouds. Humankind just did not know when to stop building upward. Latter-day Babels to confound people's minds.

I looked back at Julia. She was standing there, moving lightly from foot to foot. I could see my glowering disturbed her. "Thanks," I said. "It's a nice calendar."

"I really didn't mean to offend you," she said. "You really seem upset. I can take it back, if you want."

"Don't bother; I'll use it. I'm scrounging for as many calendars for 2002 as possible. Did I ever tell you my husband is a calendar freak?"

"No. But really, if the calendar bothers you, I'll return it--"

"You don't have to, Julia. Thanks. And have a good weekend and Christmas, okay?"

"Sure. You have a good holiday weekend, too." She left, unconsciously shrugging her shoulders a couple times, and closed the door behind her.

I turned and looked at the calendar again, at the microscopic images on the back, every one of them with those towers. I stood up from the desk, stepped to the side of it, and picked up the calendar. I released it from my hand and executed a drop kick, which sent it across the room and caroming off a file cabinet. It landed cock-eyed on the floor, propped against the leg of the empty desk in my office. Miss Liberty stood diagonally on her head, and the WTC slabs pointed toward the carpeting.

I could not stand to see that upside down Manhattan. I quickly stuffed the calendar into a bottom desk drawer, buried under a book by our company's owner and guides to health insurance.

Michael and I alternated Christmases with my parents and my in-laws. That year we were due to stay a couple days with the latter. I was glad for the escape, because I got along fine with my in-laws, unlike all those silly movies. Michael's parents, Phyllis and Lawrence Bailey, lived in a ranch in the fertile rural area outside Saginaw. Michael's two younger sisters, who had five children between them, were there as expected.

We distributed presents to the children, as was our ritual; the adults did not exchange gifts. We ate ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, several kinds of vegetables, cookies, candies, and other treats, all washed down with Phyllis' special punch. After all of the shredded wrapping paper had been cleared away, the family members lounged about the family room, watching movies and videos. The younger children went off to one of the bedrooms to play.

My mother-in-law invited me into the kitchen. She was a tiny woman with dark hair and thin features. Phyllis had worked on a farm for many years of her life, and her dark, leathery skin reflected those endless hours. She and Larry had retired, sold the farm, and moved to their current ranch home.

"Sit down, Joanie," she said to me. She pointed to a chair around the round oak table. I sat down. "Would you like something to drink?"

"No thank you."

She sat down. "All right. Joanie, I have to ask - how are you?"

"Okay. How are you?"

"Fine, Joanie, but it's you I'm worried about. How are you holding up?"

"Fairly well."

"Michael tells me you still haven't talked. He's very worried about you and your health."

"I'm fine."

"Are you really? He said more than once you've screamed out in your sleep and toss around in the bed. You wake up crying about nightmares."

"I only had a couple bad dreams, Phyllis. Nothing too horrid."

"Michael says you had one where you fell out of the building. That sounds pretty horrid."

"Why did he have to tell you that?"

"Because he's worried sick about you, Joanie, and so am I. You've bottled everything up inside and walk around like the dead. You hardly touched a thing at dinner."

"I just haven't had the appetite lately."

"And it's all because you've shut yourself up like this. I'm worried about you too. You're an emotional wreck. I'm guessing what you went through was as horrid as they say on the news, and now it's taking its toll on you. Michael said your own cousin also worked at the Trade Center and was burned over half his body. You can't go on like this."

"Yes, my cousin Rocky was burned. My aunt's staying with him on Long Island while he recovers. As for me, when the time comes, I'll talk about it. But not now. I just can't deal with it."

"Look, maybe this will help you." Phyllis got up and went into the home office off the kitchen. She brought in a rectangular present wrapped in paper with beaming Santa faces. She set the gift before me. My stomach tightened - yet another gift "for the healing"?

I picked it up and hefted it in my hands. The thing was quite heavy. I slowly tore the paper off, revealing a white box. I opened this and found a newspaper bundle, which when unwrapped revealed an elaborate snow globe. I set it on the table and stared mindlessly at it, just as I had at Julia's WTC calendar.

The ceramic base had one piece inside the other and showed a road dotted with taxicabs and other cars, and a skyline. The glass globe itself contained a number of famed Big Apple structures - the Empire State, the Chrysler, the Flatiron, Grand Central Station, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Public Library, and, of course, the World Trade Center. There was a windup key for a music box on the bottom.

"It plays 'New York, New York,' " Phyllis said. She picked the globe up and wound it. A part of the city's signature song played repetitiously, while base's inner portion began to rotate, giving the illusion that the cars were moving along. They were framed in what looked like brick windows.

"I found that at a flea market in Saginaw," my mother-in-law said. "It's amazing what you can find at those places."

"Yes, they are real treasure troves."

"I know we adults normally don't exchange gifts, but I really felt I needed to get you something this year to help you feel better."

"It's very nice. Thank you, Phyllis," I said. I meant it, too. For once it was something produced before the attacks, and not blatant September 11 kitsch with "United We Stand" printed across it in 10-foot letters. "You're welcome, Joanie. I hope you enjoy it."

I pulled the gift closer to me and looked into the glass. "This is a Macy's snow globe."

"What?"

"This is a Macy's snow globe. Look," I said, pointing to the inside. "You can see a little Macy's department store. This was a limited edition. Every year at Christmas, I understand, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Saks Fifth Avenue come out with these special globes."

"It sure traveled a long way to here."

"Yeah, that's true."

"It must also be a collector's item."

"Possibly."

The music had slowed down considerably, with the vehicles painted on the revolving base crawling as well. We silently stared at the globe as it slowed. I couldn't drop kick this thing across the room, but then I again I did not want to. It truly was a nice memento of the Big Apple. I thought I'd put it on the mantel in the family room.

The song stopped completely, and the cars halted. Manhattan gridlock, I thought. Merry Christmas, guys.

Michael and I made love quietly that night in our guest room. I slept for nine hours, the most rest I had gotten since 9/11. And I didn't have a nightmare that night.

1983-84 / A SHIFT OF GEARS

In the summer of 1983, Joanie went off to New York again to spend the entire season working at the Brooklyn homeless shelter. She had become good friends with the staff member who gave her lodgings in March 1982 and again at spring break '83. Jill had tried to get me to come to the Big Apple and do the same; her shelter friend was willing to house me, too. I turned her down. I settled for summer school, which I viewed as the only way to still graduate in May 1984, after I had changed my major to journalism. I had agreed to Jill's New York plan by August of 1982, but I wanted to focus exclusively on college until I got my degree.

Jill's letters came to me regularly, along with color prints of New York scenes and the shelter activities. I wrote letters back but did not sent any pictures; I could see nothing interesting in me taking lecture notes and studying in my apartment in Mount Pleasant. My stint at Central Michigan Life, the campus paper, or my weekends at parties might have been camera fodder. But I still had only my crappy old Kodak Instamatic that had accompanied me to the Twin Towers in 1982.

i wanted to focus exclusively on college until i got my degree

In June, another reporter with whom I had hit it off suggested we go to a party at the Chi Tau Delta house. I normally avoided fraternity and sorority parties, as I viewed most Greeks as arrogant and mean-spirited. However, the Chi Taus were sort of outcasts at Central and had an unfounded reputation for inducting men the other fraternities didn't want. They were known as rebels with some of the best-attended parties off campus.

They were also known for buying case upon case of cheap beer for themselves with brand names that still make me laugh - Buckhorn, Falstaff, and Old Milwaukee. This last one was nicknamed "Old Mil," or, more often than not, "Old Swill." They generally had Budweiser or Miller at their public parties.

I quietly walked about the party with a tall paper cup of beer - often at these "keggars," as we called them, they would give you a cup like this after you paid the admission. I was happy because I was 21 now and could imbibe legally. My birthday was an anticlimax, really, because it seemed more daring to drink when I was underage. However, I still liked the way the campus loosened up in the summertime. I have fond memories of those warm nights at houses in what was called the "student ghetto," a number of streets, just off campus, that were virtually solid with college-kid rentals.

In a back living room I met a young man with dark hair, carefully trimmed mustache, and aviator style eyeglasses. He said his name was Michael Bailey. He was not a member of the Chi Taus. They informally considered him a brother, because he frequently hung out with them. Michael was fairly handsome, I thought. He was masculine enough, but he spoke intellectually and softly.

Sometimes, in the parties I attended with him for the rest of the summer, I saw him burst suddenly with rowdiness, but most of the time it was low key.

We saw movies, ate together in fast food joints and other cheap restaurants near campus. We got shakes from the malt shop called The Malt Shop, and played videogames in their arcade. We went to Island Park near downtown together and had picnics. We also became intimate, spending the night at each other's apartments. I loved being in love.

When the semester started, I was firmly in a relationship, and Jill was back at Michigan State. I was afraid to tell her about Michael. The idea first lingered at the fringes of my mind, but became more intense as Halloween drew closer. It was the idea that I was in my final relationship, the one that would take me through the rest of my life.

I knew I had to do something. Jill was set to move to New York by January of 1984. I was too chicken to phone Jill, so I sent her a letter:

Dear Lioness of the Azure Skies,

I am glad school's going well for you; my midterms turned out pretty well. I hope your tests go well, too. It's just a countdown for you after that, and then it's out into the world.

I really felt I had to tell you now, though, so that you can get used it. You must know this, because our plans must be changed.

I can't go to New York anymore.

I have a boyfriend now, and it's very, very serious. Michael and I have been dating since June, and I don't think it's going to end. I won't be surprised if eventually we do take the plunge. Michael's family lives near Saginaw, and they all still live in Michigan. He wants to stay here in the state. He said he hates New York and that it's just a crime-ridden city. He won't move there.

I have decided that if we do get married, I'm staying home. There are newspapers here in the Great Lakes State, and I'll find a job with one of them.

I very, very sorry things turned out this way, but you know about the best-laid plans of mice and men, Jill. If my relationship with Michael fails, then I'll pack my bags and come immediately to the Big Apple. Otherwise, no way.

Again, sorry, sorry, SORRY!!!

Sincerely,

Joanie, the Lioness of Terra Firma

About a week after this letter, I heard a violent knocking on my flat door, which was in an old Victorian about five blocks off campus. When I opened the door, Jill was standing there, her eyes red and furious.

"Jill, I--" I said.

She looked at me and sniffled. She was clutching a paper in her hands - my letter. She growled at me. Without any words, she spun and ran toward her car, a battered Chevy parked in the street.

"Jill, wait! Come back!" I ran after her, but she jumped into her car and sped away. I watched as the vehicle shrank away. I found my letter lying in the street, a tire tread print over the paper, pale blue and decorated with doves.

I felt horrible. I struggled through the end of the semester, my only comfort being Michael.

At Christmas, Grandma Morris decided to have a family gathering, as she had when I had been quite little. Part of her motivation was to give Jill a sendoff to her life in New York. All the elements were in place. Jill had found an apartment not in the city, but across the Hudson in Newark. Her friend from the homeless shelter put her in touch with another friend at a temporary agency, who was going to get Jill jobs starting in January.

Michael came down and attended the party with me. When Jill saw us together across the room, I saw her face droop. I had a tight stomach and was terrified of talking to her. At one point, when the word "married" was mentioned, I saw her cringe.

As sunset began to arrive, Jill found me sitting alone in Grandma's basement. Michael was upstairs, talking to my parents. I was on the same couch where 11 years earlier she had plied me with her vacation photographs. I was sipping a glass of rosť, staring into space and thinking wistfully about the future. I was a senior and had no idea where my first news job would be.

Jill quietly walked across the room and sat down next to me. We sat together for a few minutes, not speaking. She was first to speak.

"Hello, Joanie."

"Hi, Jill."

"How are you doing?"

"Fine. And you?"

"Very, very excited. Next month, it begins."

"Right."

"Joanie?"

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry."

"You don't have to be sorry."

"No, really. I was selfish. All I could think about was me. I should have realized that one of us might fall in love. After all, I'd like to marry and settle down someday, too. I'm really happy for you and Michael."

"Thank you."

"You make a great couple. After I threw that tantrum on your porch in October and went home, I got to thinking. I realized that New York was really my plan and my dream, and you were always reluctant about it. You might have liked it, sure, but it wasn't the thing you wanted to do the most; it was my thing. That's what I had to realize."

"Look, I was willing to go to New York, and had been getting psyched for it since the summer of '82. I never expected to meet Michael. Now, life without him seems hard to imagine anymore."

"I understand that. I want you to know that now. I'm going to the Big Apple, and I'll go it alone. But I want you to come out and visit me sometime, you hear? I want to show you a good time."

"All right. Maybe after I graduate next spring."

"Great. You'll love the city that's so great they had to name it twice."

"Sure. There's something I need to ask you, too, Jill."

"What's that?"

"Well, if Michael and I get married, I want you to be my maid of honor. No question about it, you were always the person I had in mind for that job. Will you do that, if I do go down the aisle?"

Jill broke into a grin. "Yes, Joanie, I will. I'll be glad to fly back and be your maid of honor. Why the hell not? I love you, cousin!" She embraced me and patted me on the back.

"I love you, too," Jill. We finished the hug. "And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and good luck in the Big Apple. Bon voyage!"

"Thank you, Joanie, thank you! Oh, Joanie." She began crying, and I did, too. We hugged each other again and did not let go for several minutes.

{TO PART 7 of Persistence of Memory}