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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{THE TWAIN SHALL MEET (continued) from PART 7}

"Joanie!" Jill was behind me, as I continued to walk and gasp. I kept my back turned to the window, moved toward an empty wall and leaned against it. I closed my eyes and tried to stop hyperventilating. I wondered when I was going to faint again, because I felt dizzy. I heard a shutter click. Jill and her stupid camera. Her photograph was taken from the side and shows me, back to the camera, with my torso and head propped against a plain wall. Some windows and tourists also are visible.

"Joanie?" Jill's voice echoed in my ringing ears. "Are you going to be okay?" She put her hand on my shoulder again. Remembering something, she unzipped my shoulder bag and pulled out the plastic bag from it.

"Here. You're hyperventilating. Breathe into this." I put the bag to my mouth and inhaled and exhaled into it.

"How are you coming there?"

"I don't know," I gasped out. "Go home."

"You want to go home?"

My breathing returned to normal. I took the bag away from my face. "Yes."

"Jeez, your acrophobia. I didn't know it was that intense."

"Well, it is," I said through clenched teeth.

"I'm so sorry to see you suffering like this."

"You think I'm on a pleasure cruise here? You know what I feel every time I go someplace high? Do you know?" My eyes were open now and directly fixed upon hers.

"Well, kind of, but--"

"Terror. Nausea. Fear. Faintness. I get nightmare visions - the building's going to collapse, or that somehow the window's going to break and I'm going to fall to my death."

"Oh, my--"

"Any tall building, anywhere, I get those fears. I've watched too many disaster and horror movies with collapsing buildings. I conveniently forget those were all little model buildings. I get all worked up, thinking I'm going to get caught in one. Irrational, sure, but I still react this way."

"I'm sorry, Joanie."

"I freaked last year, when Michael took me to the restaurant on the top of the hotel at the Renaissance Center. We'll never go back because of me. I just kept shaking and had to run to the bathroom to vomit. Just like '82."

"I-I shouldn't have pressed you just because I like heights-"

"For years! Until the summer of 1970 I was fine."

"Was it that news story about the WTC you said you saw back then?"

"No, that just happened the same year. It just added to it." Without thinking, I turned and began to walk. Jill followed. "That's what acrophobia is all about. Fear and uncertainty. No solid ground beneath your feet. The earth's so far below, and security's so distant you just want to scream, and often you do. Damn it, Jill, you should be intimately familiar with all this."

Familiarity crinkled her face. "Mom."

"Yes, your mom. You know that, Jill. You lived with it."

"I like to forget. I don't want to think about it."

"Hers is even worse than mine. I can actually look out at the heights a little bit before I flip out. But your mom - I remember my mom telling me about how Aunt Ellen had to lay down in the backseat of your station wagon every time Uncle Tim drove up in the mountains during your vacations. She couldn't look outside."

"I remember that. I had to sit in the front seat with Dad, and Rocky would sit in the back. Mom would be stretched out on the middle seat, lying on her stomach, her head covered with a blanket. It used to freak me out so much that I don't think about it at all."

We continued to walk and passed a deck exhibit. My hands were deep in the front pockets of my jeans, and my shoulders were hunched. I looked down, so I would not see the windows. "Clearly this acrophobia comes from the Morris side of the family. I understand Grandpa Morris used to pass out if he got up too high, too. He lost a job in Toronto doing construction because he just couldn't go up high."

"Grandma told me that story. I had these weird nightmares afterward that Grandpa, Bugs Bunny, and I were high up on this metal frame of a skyscraper. Bugs kept messing around with us, and we nearly fell off. Boy, I haven't thought of that one in years."

"It's the one Achilles heel that keeps haunting me. I can't stand heights. My body seems to shut down, and I become like a baby."

"I don't like seeing you so helpless. I just can't imagine what would happen if we were on the roof."

"The roof of what?"

"This place. Didn't you know there was another observation deck on the roof?"

"Look, I had such a horrid time in '82 that I didn't take the time to bone up on World Trade Center lore! I don't know where all the stupid decks are!"

"Like I said, it's on the roof. You go up the escalators--"

In a momentary glimpse up, something caught my eye through the windows facing north. Forgetting everything, I dashed to a window to peer out. I did not look down, but straight out. I did not sit down; better to not see that drop.

The Empire State Building rose above all other Midtown structures. It was faint but certain, a beacon to point weary travelers north. Jill's photo of me here shows my back again. My hand is up on a window, my body stiffly leaning as I look outside.

Jill had dashed to catch up with me. "You see the Empire State, don't you?"

"Uh huh. Sir Empire's out there, seeking his love, the Lady Chrysler. At least they're there, and I can see them. I'm so glad I can see them." I pressed my face against the glass to look harder.

"Joanie."

I lifted my head and turned toward her. "What?"

"You like this view?"

"Yeah." I noticed that my hand was on the window.

"That's great."

I paused as an idea, the craziest idea of the day, entered my mind. "How'd you say you get to the roof? Escalators?"

"Yes. Are you actually talking about going up there?"

"Yes. I must see Midtown without any obstructions. These windows break the whole view up--"

"What? I don't get it! You were all shaky and freaking just a few minutes ago."

"I can't explain it. Maybe it's the Empire State, but I've got this urge that I have to get to the top. Now, where are the escalators?"

She took me to one of the exits, and we went up to the roof. I don't know what happened. My dread at looking down at the street and the buildings next to the WTC had evaporated. I stepped confidently out onto the roof and took a few steps forward. That was ever so brief. I stopped, and my hands started to shake. Now I couldn't see any ground at all, just sky and clouds. I'd feel these momentary rushes of boldness but then have a relapse.

"Joanie, are you having trouble again?" Jill took my hand.

"Why on earth did I come up here? Am I ten kinds of stupid here?"

"You're not stupid, Joanie. Stop beating on yourself. You said you wanted to see the Empire State with no obstructions."

"I can't see anything."

"You need to go out by the railing." She pointed to the white painted enclosure, at which telescopes had been placed at intervals.

"How far from the edge of the roof is that railing?"

"Actually, pretty far. It's not only set back quite a bit, but the deck is built a bit above the roof."

"How far up are we?"

"About a quarter mile, I think."

"A quarter mile? Good grief!"

"Where's north?"

"Here, I'll take you there."

She took me by the hand, like mother and child, and led me slowly to the north side. I could see what I thought was communications equipment in the center of that tower's roof, beyond the back railing of the observation promenade. I stood near the back railing, fearfully eyeing the front.
WTC rooftop deck
i stepped confidently out onto the roof. ... i stopped, and my hands started to shake

"You want to take a look?"

"Maybe. Let me see if I can walk."

"Come on. I'm amazed at you right now. You're actually up on the roof. Keep up the good work."

"I'm trying."

"You know what an advance you've made here? Keep it up, Joanie - be a lioness."

"I'll try."

I walked very slowly, Jill supporting me. The top of the north tower and its massive antenna emerged. Beyond that I could look up the island. I searched for the Empire State and sighed when I finally spotted it. Away and away - moonwalks and trips to Skylab. I seemed to leave my body, a figurative astral projection.

"Away," I whispered. "Away ... and away ... and away..."

"What did you say, Joanie?"

"Away," I said softly. I closed my eyes walked toward the railing, my arms out in front of me slightly. "Away and away and away and away."

I came up to the railing so that its bars touched my legs. "Away and away and away. And away and away and away--" Space shuttle flying. Satellites spinning above the atmosphere.

"The Space Game," Jill said. "You're doing your old Space Game. I remember that!"

"Away and away and away again. Away ... and away ... and away." My hands took hold of the railing. Old Glory fluttering on the moon. The Lunar Rover, abandoned by a crater.

"That's right! You always used the Space Game to stop being afraid."

"And away," I opened my eyes slowly. "And away!"

I looked again at Midtown. The edge of the north tower at northwest was in the corner of my eye. My breathing was regular, and my insides were neutral. I homed in on the Empire State and simply stared at it. I put some coins into a telescope and focused its lenses on that great Indiana limestone and granite spire. We stood in silence for a few minutes as I examined the cityscape. Pulling away from the telescope, I stared at sets of buildings until they blurred, and created geometric patterns and patchwork quilts.

"This is nice," I said.

Jill looked at me with an astounded face. She switched to a Cheshire grin, and I nodded to her. I reached down and took out my camera and my drawing pad. She quickly followed suit, taking pictures of me taking pictures, as well as the view. I made some quick sketches, using the fading light as best as I could. We spoke little while I walked around the deck taking pictures and making drawings. My favorite vistas remain Midtown beyond the north tower and east to the East River, with the diminutive Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges binding those two boroughs together. A close third is the tiny Statue of Liberty upon her island.

Jill took a couple pictures of me standing on the deck. Another friendly visitor used Jill's camera and mine to shoot the two of us standing together, arms around each other. The J Twins were prowling again. These photos show us pressed together and grining widely.

After sightseeing, we sat down on a slab bench by the back railing - there were several of these on each side. We silently weighed what had happened. Jill looked pensive there in the waning light, her Yankees cap visor partially shadowing her tanned face. She turned and looked at me, then gently pushed back a stray tress of my own hair that had fallen across my face.

"Victory," she said.

"What?"

"You've had a victory today, Joanie Joanetta. You realize that?"

"A victory."

"That's right."

"You mean the height."

"That's exactly what I mean."

"Seems that way." I didn't want to think about lofty places again. I simply wanted the sensation of existence, of suspension out of time.

"The sun's going down."

"Uh huh."

"You know how beautiful this city looks at night? You can't believe it."

"I can. A lot of colors and lights. Detroit's pretty awesome after dark, too."

"I agree, but when I work late here, I look out the window and see all the lights. Then I say a thank you prayer to God and feel so good that I moved to New York. Sometimes I just want to cry tears of joy."

"This is your dream."

"It was yours too, once."

"Sort of, but it was always more yours. Life with Michael's my dream now."

"I'm so happy for you, but if only it had happened another way..."

"It didn't. We went through that."

"I know, but I really miss you, Joanie Joanetta. I'm glad you came out to visit me."

"I am, too."

"I've had such fun the past few days. I'm really going to hate to see you leave tomorrow."

"Well, I've got to get back. I have some wedding details I still have to resolve. Half the bridesmaids haven't been fitted for their dresses - including you."

"Don't worry. I'll fly out in a month and get to the shop. You can depend on me." She sat there, her hands folded in her lap, as if in prayer, and began to hum "New York, New York."

The sky turned a lovely deep blue. It reminded me of phrase I'd seen in a book once - l'heure bleu, or the "blue hour," just after the sun goes down, and before total night descends. The rich sky was not even obscured by the lights around the perimeter of the enclosed communications area behind us. The stars were just beginning to emerge, fiery white pinpoints. I was awed by this overhead vista, and I praised God for such loveliness.

"It's up to you, New York, New York," Jill said softly.

People walked about or paused at the railing. They did the typical tourist things - strolling and staring, peering through a telescope after dropping a quarter into the slot, shooting photos of the views or themselves backed by the panoramas.

Jill and I sat close together. She took my hand. "Now begin the secret words of the J Twins," she whispered.

"Sister."

"Sister," I answered quietly.

"Spirit twin."

"Spirit twin."

"Who are we?"

"We're lionesses."

"And what do lionesses do?"

"We hunt and we go on journeys."

"And what do we capture on our journeys?"

"Imagination and adventure."

"And we lionesses are?"

"Partners."

"What kind of partners?"

"Partners of imagination in adventure."

"For how long?"

"Always and forever."

"Can't hear you."

"Always and forever." I did not raise my voice this time.

"Roar."

"Roar."

"We're on the prowl."

"Roar," we whispered together.

"Lioness of Terra Firma, reporting," I said.

"Lioness of the Azure Skies, reporting," Jill said.

"And the twain shall meet," I added.

I leaned back against the railing behind me, stretching my legs out. I stared up at the darkened sky. Joanie reached over and squeezed my hand. I patted her on the shoulder.

I began to sing quietly: "When the lights go down on the city..."

Joanie joined me: "...and the sun shines on the bay..."

We sang together: "...oooh, I wanna be there, in my city ... whoooa-oh..."

"That song's really about San Francisco, you know," Jill said.

"Who cares? Doesn't New York have a bay?"

"Not really, but it is by water. Guess that's close enough."

We laughed quietly, turned and silently smiled at each other.

"Thank you, Jill, for your help," I said.

"You're welcome, Joanie Joanetta. You've been such a lioness tonight."

We listened as a German couple went on and on, most likely about the wondrous views. I believe this is so, because I heard the words "sehr schön."

{To PART 9 of Persistence of Memory}