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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 8}

JANUARY 2002 / FIERY NEW YEAR

Finally. The year was gone. The year of those harsh days and free-flowing emotions. Michael and I didn't feel like going out on New Year's, so we bought wine and champagne. He found one bottle of champagne, with four Italian chocolates in their own box attached to the top. We decided to pop this bottle open at midnight.

Christa said she wanted to stay up. Naomi went to a girlfriend's house to spend the night. We searched the TV dial until we hit upon a marathon of Sex and the City episodes on HBO. Christa sat up in her room watching Cartoon Network all night. The longer we watched our shows, the more wine I drank. In each episode's opening credits, Sarah Jessica Parker's name appeared over a time-lapse image of the World Trade Center. Seeing the play of light over the towers made me grind my teeth and groan.

By 11:30, we changed the channel to CNN, which for once wasn't all war, all the time. Reporters weighed in, primarily from Times Square, while a little clock in the corner of the screen showed the countdown. Christa came downstairs at a few minutes to midnight.

I was pretty well oiled by then and feeling giddy and forgetful of all events of my entire lifetime. I wanted to suspend those moments in time, isolated from all else, and simply live, just as I did at sunset in June of 1984 at the WTC rooftop deck. Aside from the Space Game, this yanking myself from reality was my only other defense against things that frightened me.

Christa had some old noisemakers she had hoarded from parties we had attended in previous years. The three of us yelled out the countdown from 10 seconds down to 2002.

"Happy New Year!" Christa yelled. She spun a metal noisemaker that made a racheting sound.

"Happy New Year!" I responded. I blew a paper horn. "Happy 2002!" Blwap! the horn said. "2002!" Bl-wap! "2002!" Bl-wap!

"Happy New Year, girls," Michael said. He embraced us both. We joined along with the revelers on TV in a couple rounds of "Auld Lang Syne." I taught the lyrics to Christa so she could join us.

Michael went to the kitchen and opened the bottle of champagne. We touched glasses.

"Cheers!" he said.

"Prosit!" I said. "Sante!"

We hugged and kissed for several minutes. The faint sound of gunshots and fireworks filled the air outside. There has been a tradition for many years in Detroit to take firearms and other loud things outside and shoot them off after the New Year arrives.

"Hey, Christa," I said to my daughter. "Get your boots and coat on."

"Where are we going?"

"Outside, to the driveway. I have a little idea."

She quickly went to put on her winter things. I went and got my own coat, hat and boots on. Michael decided to sit in the family room and watch more television and sip his glass of champagne.

Christa reported to the driveway outside, as directed. She found me standing there with a paper bag and a box of matches.

"What is it, Mommy?"

I grinned. "Fireworks, Christa. Some old fireworks your dad and I set off last July while you and Naomi were up visiting Grandma and Grandpa Bailey."

"Wow, cool!"

I set off several cherry bombs. We both giggled after I lit the flames and rushed frantically away as the fireworks started to hiss. Christa held her ears as I lit long strings of tiny firecrackers, which echoed with series of rapid reports.

"Boy, those things are loud, Mommy. How many of those do you have left?"

"Oh, about 25. Your dad bought the super gigantic economy pack."

She laughed again. "You're not going to set all of them off, are you?"

"Nah, but it might be kind of fun to do that."

I set another firecracker chain down and ignited the fuse. As the thing popped with bursts of orange, I screamed, "Happy New Year! Onward! And upward! And away and away and away! Wooooo!"

I danced around the driveway. "Happy, Happy New Year! Happy 2002! Happy, happy, happy! Goodbye and welcome to a new month in a new year! Second year of the third millennium!"

"Hey, what's all this racket out here?" Michael was standing in the garage by my car, wearing no coat. "What the heck are you girls doing?"

"Making some noise!" I said. "Happy New Year, man! Welcome to two thousand and two!" I tossed out another firecracker set and lit it, running toward Michael. Christa giggled and followed me into the garage.

Michael put his arm around me. "You're my crazy girl. C'mon, you'll freeze out here. Let's going inside where it's warm." He coyly raised his eyebrows.

"Oh, yeah," I said. I picked up the bag of leftover fireworks, and we all went back into the house, while the loud bangs continued to punctuate the air in the distance.

Michael and I made love. We fell asleep in each other's arms, and I don't remember any of my dreams from that night. I did feel suspended from the rest of time, and all that I had lived through in nearly two score years.

1984-85 / LETTERS

Jill and I continued our tradition of letter writing after she moved to New York in January of 1984. Jill's letters came about every other week. There were tales of parties, dance spots, and a few gallery openings. They were full of details about her commute to New York and labors as a temporary office worker. She mentioned views out skyscraper windows and the quirky executives and other workers she met. She told me about the stockbroker who walked around his wood-paneled, gigantic office in his bare feet.

She described, through just amazing luck, a party one night at Andy Warhol's Factory, to which some rapid-tongued female bond trader got her invited. She wrote of her breath coming out in plumes from the observation deck at the Empire State in wintertime. She beat this dead horse of heights numerous times in her letters. She wrote in late spring 1984 of how she could see the Empire State looking like a "square Popsicle speck" out a window of the 95th floor of 1 World Trade Center, where she had her temp job as a secretary.
letters
jill and i continued our tradition of letter writing after she moved to new york...

I was both envious and frightened when I read about this. I was jealous because she made it to New York. Reading her prose made me gag on my 1982 WTC memory. I received this letter before we made it to the roof, watched the sunset, and sang the Journey ballad about lights going down on the city.

Dear Jill,

I remember you wore a napkin and President Reagan on your face at the Trade Center, and everyone laughed at you. Well, I've had my turn up here lots of times, and by golly, I love it! It's even taller than Sir Empire State!

I keep going up. Great photo opportunities. Whenever I go to the top I see Connecticut and maybe even Massachusetts when it's really clear; I'm sure I do. I wish you could see this too; too bad and so chicken about getting high (ha, ha). This J Twin says: I am a lioness on the prowl up in the skies!!

Love,
The Lioness of the Azure Skies

I wrote back:

Dearest Lioness of the Azure Skies,

I would not return to that place for all the tea in China. That visit was the catalyst to switch to journalism. What the heck is this big deal about heights? Quit rubbing it in with me. Your own mother can't even look out the window of a skyscraper, let alone go up inside one without a blindfold.

Power can also be found on the ground. You go visit those aeries, but remember that I have a strict vow to never ever return to the World Trade Center. I will do anything in my power to preserve it. I might consider Sir Empire, but no way those steel and concrete Godzillas.

Sincerely,
The Lioness of Terra Firma

Yes, she could really on about how blasted lofty some of the buildings were. About a week after that letter, a large yellow envelope arrived. There was a black and white glossy photo of Jill inside, along with more correspondence.

Oh, Dearest Joanie Joanetta,

Enclosed to add to your collection. This is from my most recent visit up high ... here's lookin' at you, kid, from top of World Trade Center ... April, 23, '85, in honor of your 23rd birthday, Joanie! Happy "High-Rise" Birthday!

I took this one myself! Don't be a fraidy cat now. Look at the picture! I wish you weren't so skittish about tall buildings.

All my love,

Jilly the Lioness

I replied:

Dear Lioness,

I wasn't afraid and did look at the picture, and I think you are out of your gourd. But, continuing with these clichés, different strokes for different folks, and whatever floats your boat.

You look as if you have potential as a photographer. Can you get me some pictures of something a little more earthbound, like the Brooklyn Bridge? Maybe the Village or SoHo? You're in the largest city in America. There have to be millions of possibilities for photos.

Yours forever on the ground,

Joanie

Another one arrived in early June, just before I was to fly out and to visit her:

Hey, Joanie,

You ever look out the Statue of Liberty's head? Well, I did. Here's another great, "high-up" pic of NYC for you. See Manhattan? See the spires of commerce? I wish I could have stood in the little balcony around Liberty's torch, but that's been closed off to the public for years. Here's photo #2, straight down to Miss Liberty's base. Isn't Bedloe's Island just pretty?

Ever yours in liberty and equality,

Jill

My response:

Dearest Jill,

The Big Apple certainly has a lot of attractions that could keep you busy for weeks. However, many of them are on the ground. Please keep that in mind when I arrive for my visit.

Signed,
The Fraidy Cat

Let me tell you, in those days I was happier to go into labor and deliver my two daughters at William Beaumont Hospital, than go to the top of overgrown buildings. Going to the Empire State in 1984 was the rare exception.

In July of 1985, I gave birth to Naomi Joanetta Bailey. By that year, Jill had made some connections and got a dream job at Simon & Schuster. This whole thing was worth about three letters, as she wanted to be an author herself someday, and was now working for "a real live publisher!!!" as she put it.

I fired off a letter after Naomi was born, along with a couple color prints of Michael and me cradling her:

Dear Jill,

You know what beats moving to New York City, going up on top of humongous buildings or going to hot dance clubs or art galleries? And getting jobs at big-time publishers? You know what can warm your heart and make you just want to celebrate?

BECOMING A MOTHER!!! Just look at this little gal! Look at your first cousin, once removed! Isn't Naomi just a cutie? I love this little kid. Just try to beat this with all your "New Yorky" stuff. I have reproduced and left my mark on the world!!

Love,

The MOTHER Joanie

Jill wrote back:

Dearest MOM Joanie,

I never thought living in New York area beats motherhood. In fact, I'm so happy for you. Naomi really is a lovely baby.

You're realizing your dreams. I know deep down you wanted to get married and have kids, along with a career. I saw that look in your eyes when you talked about all your roommates in college getting engaged. Remember what I said at Grandma's house at Christmas '83: New York was my idea, and your heart was never fully in it.

But, I have great news myself. I've met a guy from the art department at S&S named Jonas McCutcheon. He is such a fox. We've gone out on three dates now, and I've had the greatest time. He took me to dinner at the Russian Tea Room. What an interesting, fancy place that is! It's so Old World, and well - Russian! Samovars and all that! You'd think the czar would show up here. So, it looks as if I might be getting a boyfriend myself.

I still remember last summer. Those four days together were fantastic. I still miss you here, though.

Love, Jill

I quit my weekly newspaper job after having Naomi and decided to be a homemaker for a while. I found myself getting into diaper changes and 3 a.m. breast-feedings and forgetting my cousin in New York more often However, certain branches of your family tree have a way of bending back into your life, no matter you much you pull back.

In late spring 1985, Uncle Tim had been feeling weak and dizzy and developed a weird red mole on his back. A visit to the family doctor revealed cancer of the pancreas in advanced stages. The oncologist's news was grim - Uncle Tim had just months to live. Jill's great news about getting a permanent job as an "assistant manuscript reader" or something like that at "S&S" (as she called it) was eclipsed by her father's ordeal. Uncle Tim was in very poor shape by fall 1985. The local hospice program had been working closely with Aunt Ellen and him, along with Grandma Morris and my mother.

Uncle Tim died quietly at home that November. Jill flew in from the Big Apple, her eyes haggard and her lips thin. Her boyfriend, Jonas, who was a book cover designer for Simon & Schuster, accompanied her. I thought he looked too slick. He had this Don Johnson in Miami Vice look, with fashionable stubble and a black Versace suit over a collarless, powder blue shirt open at the neck. His black hair was longish and rumpled, hanging over his forehead. The vibes I got off him were chilly.

I felt that Jonas was the major reason that Jill's letters really tapered off. Guys do have a habit of taking up great blocks of your time. When I saw her then, that was when my own envy about her New York life began to completely die in me.

I know Jill took her dad's death extremely hard. Uncle Tim was a muscular guy, a weightlifter and jogger before that was fashionable. He'd lost a lot of weight before he died.

Jill didn't cry at the funeral. We hid our tears way too much in our family, I thought. The graveside service was held in a persistent light sleet at the vast White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in Troy, where my aunt and uncle lived. Jill was ashen, and her eyes looked sunken. Her hair looked dull, and her clothes hung too loosely on her body.

I saw her and Jonas off at Detroit Metro Airport after the funeral, along with Aunt Ellen and Rocky, who was on bereavement leave from the Marine Corps. Instead of hugging me before she boarded her flight back to NYC as she usually did, Jill shook my hand and plodded with Jonas to the departure gate. I just stood there with the rest of her family, at a loss for words.

This letter came from Jill in December 1985, just before the holidays.

Dear Jill,

Let me introduce myself. My name is Jill Lehman, a.k.a. Bad News 'R' Us. Shit just keeps on happening to me.

Jonas really threw me for a loop.

He took me to Windows on the World, this fancy restaurant on top of the north tower of the WTC. I thought he was trying to make it up to me after making up excuses for not going out with me since Dad's funeral. He was very well aware of how I liked working in the WTC before I came to S&S, and so I was really thrilled about a nice meal way up in the sky with my man.

Instead, it was the fanciest breakup I ever had in my life. He simply said we were through, was very sorry, and let me order a very expensive cut of filet mignon. Seems like I'm no rival to this model he met at a party we attended in November in SoHo. He said Kyra was more his type, and that I was too morbid.

Too morbid! For God's sake, my dad just died. What the hell did he expect when Dad died? Dance and sing "Happy Days Are Here Again"?

I started to get drunk there on the top of the WTC. I made toasts to Staten Island and to glorious singlehood and life without bastard men. Jonas left me there with a very costly bottle of French rosé. Did you know that Windows on the World has one of the greatest wine cellars in New York?

On top of everything else, they brought me the whole bill! Lucky I had my plastic with me. Thanks a lot, Jonas.

I took a cab over to Midtown and continued to get drunk at this favorite place I hang out at. Then I staggered over to Central Park and paid this buggy driver to give me two full rides around the park. I took my coat off and sang "Yesterday" by The Beatles pretty loudly. I think it was about 15 degrees outside. I don't know what to think of what the driver thought of me, but after I finished singing, he actually completely reined the horse to a stop and applauded!

Then, I took the train home. I passed out, and when I woke up, I was lying on the living room floor. When I lifted my head, Joanie, I knew what you'd been through at the WTC in '82. I woke up with my face on a copy The New Yorker, and its cover was stuck to my forehead, and I really felt as if the whole world were laughing at me.

Jill

I wrote:

Dear Jill,

My sympathies really go out to you in this time. My condolences about Uncle Tim continue, and I wish you comfort due to your breakup with Jonas. I really don't know how to advise you.

However, think about this - don't forget to cry. You'll feel a lot better, and your body will thank you later. You didn't cry in November, and I'm worried that you may not have fully grieved yet. I really wish I could come out to New York to comfort you, but I continue to be very busy with Naomi.

Please write again! I miss hearing from you. I think it also will be very good therapy for you to write as you grieve.

May God be with you and bless you in this time of trial.

Joanie

I did not get a response. In fact, I never would.

JANUARY 2002 / WINTER

I had run out of coffee again shortly after the New Year. I had to go to the main office to fetch some of theirs. After I got a cup, I overheard a conversation between my supervisors - Julia Mitzelfeld, the general manager, and Edmond Myles, the paunchy chief consultant with a Basset hound face.

"Mike Gates just called me up and told me he quit," Edmond said. "That's the third consultant in three weeks."

"This is getting ridiculous," Julia said. "We're starting to have a serious shortage. We've got more client requests than trained consultants to send out to them. I'm starting to get really worried."

"What about Joanie Bailey? When is she going to start going out on jobs again?"

"I really don't know. Joanie still hasn't told me she wants to be taken off writing projects."

"Look, we could really use her here. She was one of the best when we had her."

"You know what she went through, Edmond."

"It's been almost four months since September 11, so you think she'd be over it enough to get back to work."

"You can't just turn something like that off. Did you know that she was in the north tower when the south tower collapsed? She took a wrong turn and ended up there. She told me that a couple days ago. That means she was right there, at Ground Zero, when it happened. Do you see now why she still seems so traumatized?"

"I guess. I'll concede she's still having problems. I read that some of the survivors are walking around guilty and all that, but many are trying to just get on with life. We really could use Joanie doing that."

"Joanie has been getting on with life since last September, by still working here."

"I mean get back to the consulting. We have a crisis brewing here."

"I know. A little bit at a time. She might start up any day now."

"Look, the sooner the better. Can't you just suggest she do it again, Julia? Maybe local things within driving distance? It could be she won't go anywhere because she's afraid to fly, but maybe by car--"

"It's a possibility, but I'll have to do it delicately. Joanie still walks around here like a woman hiding from ghosts."

"At least try, Julia, before five more of our guys call up and say they're quitting, too."

"We should also appeal to Jon to raise the base salary - $30,000 is not exactly attracting them in droves. And, let's place another ad in the Sunday paper and get in as many people to interview as possible. I don't want to lose any more clients."

"The classified ad will be easy, Julia, but to get Jon to raise the base pay? Fat chance. You know how much he likes to hang on to the money."

"I know, but let's get a report together about this consultant problem. It might work. I know Jon. He might see raising the base pay as a short-term investment for long-term profits."

"Maybe. I'll help you with that. Meantime, go talk to Joanie. We need her. I'm getting desperate."

"Okay. I'll do my best."

At home, the dreams kept coming, strange things in which I continued to wander aimlessly through Timeless WTC.

In one I remember standing in the dining room of Windows on the World and staring at people as they consumed their fancy meals. It looked as it did in real life, with white walls and rust-colored chairs around circular tables draped in white linen.

"Are you the manager?" a man from a yuppie couple asked me. "If so, could you tell the chef my steak tartare is overcooked?" I don't even know if that gross dish was on their menu.

I strolled back to the kitchen. After a couple minutes, the executive chef noticed me. He was a stocky man, with dark curly hair and olive skin that reflected his Italian heritage. He said, "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"

I couldn't speak; every time I opened my mouth, my vocal cords froze. I remember reading that this chef, a man named Michael Lomanaco, survived only because his eyeglasses were broken, and he decided to go to the Lenscrafters in the WTC complex to have them repaired. Everyone else in the Windows on the World died on September 11. They had been there for a business breakfast. One of the victims was an acquaintance of mine.

On a particularly frigid Wednesday, I was in the main office cleaning out my little coffee pot. There were two salesmen standing there, talking about the war in Afghanistan, and how the Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorists were still going to make trouble for our troops. The conversation shifted to videotapes of the WTC attack that they had seen in the past.

"I still remember it. I think I saw it last fall, but I'm not sure," said the first salesman. He was in his late 20s and had dark hair even shorter than a crew cut.

"This guy's filming these firemen checking out sewers, and all of a sudden you hear this jet engine. He swings the camera up and gets the first jet hitting. BOOSH! Fire and smoke come flying out."

"That was on TV before," said the second sales rep, who had a beer belly, a cheap shirt and tie and a sandy goatee. "I remember that - BANG! It had to be even louder if you were there."

The younger one noticed me there at the sink and said sotto voce to the other: "See her? She survived the attack."

"That's her? I thought she quit."

"I didn't quit the company," I said to him. The bearded sales rep jumped in surprise that I heard their conversation. "I only stopped consulting."

"Well--uh--that's what I heard. You quit because you went through that and couldn't take it anymore."

"You're right that I couldn't take it. It was 8:46 that morning, and I was standing at the window on a coffee break. One of my clients came up to me, and we were looking out at the north tower and just making small talk. Then I heard this roaring sound. I saw part of this silver blurry thing going toward the tower. Just fractions of a second, and it hits the building."

"The first jet," the younger salesman said.

"That's right. I'll never forget. After the jet hit, there was this gigantic explosion, and the room shook. After I steadied myself, I looked out and saw all this paper raining down like a ticker tape parade, and big fire and smoke coming out of these big holes in the walls of the building."

"Damn, just like on TV," the older salesman said.

"Right, except I got a front-row view, in person. That's part of the memory I've carried around for four months. That just might make some people quit, don't you think?"

"Yeah, sure. Right."

"Did you see anybody jump?" the younger one said.

"What kind of sick question is that? Jeez, I'm not continuing." I filled my coffeepot up and quickly exited the break room.

I felt light-headed and angry. The kid's morbid question rankled me - I had seen a couple jumpers, and glimpses of bodies. It was something I wanted firmly blocked from my mind.

The story had started to pour out without thinking first. The question remained: when could I discuss the whole thing without freezing up or wanting to just yank myself out of true space and time?

{To PART 10 of Persistence of Memory}