I begin the days quietly, preferring to see no one, speak to no one, to get to my desk early, before the "real world" intrudes, seeking to preserve for as long as possible that fertile creative zone which exists somewhere between sleep and waking.
The events of September 11 ripped me from that zone, putting me on full alert. The ever-unfolding implications loom so large that for the time my imagination remains—stilled.
It starts with a call from a friend, telling me there has been an accident, "Go to the window," she says.
I stand looking south, witness to Tower One in flames. And then I see the second plane; the instant it is in view it's clear this is not an accident.
The plane is moving towards the second tower counter-intuitively: rather than avoiding the tower, it is determinedly bearing down, picking up speed. I see the plane and I see the plane crash into the building. I see the buildings burn and I see the buildings fall down.
I see imagery that until now did not exist in reality, only in the fiction of film. Seeing it with your own eye, in real time, not on a screen, not protected by the frame of the television set, not set up and narrated by an anchor man, not in the communal darkness of a movie theater, seeing it like this is irreconcilable, like a hallucination, a psychotic break.
In the seconds after the second plane hit Tower Two, I did two things, filled the bath tub with water and pulled out my camera. When I don't know what else to do I document. I have always taken pictures as though storing what I am seeing, saving it for later when I am myself again. I take dozens of pictures, clicking faster, more frantically, as I feel myself pushing away. When I go to re-wind the film, the camera is empty, the pictures are only in my head.
I spend the afternoon moving back and forth from the window to the television. By late in the day I have the sense that my own imagery, my memory, is all too quickly being replaced by the fresh footage, the other angle, the unrelenting loop.
I become fearful of my mind's liquidity, my ability to retain my own images and feelings rather than surrendering to what is almost instantly becoming the collective narrative. There is no place to put this experience, no folder in the mental hard drive that says, catastrophe. It is not something you want to remember, not something you want to forget.
In an act of the imagination, I begin thinking about the buildings, about the people inside, the passengers on the planes. I am trying on each of the possibilities, what it might be like to be huddled in the back of a plane, to be in an office and catch a half-millisecond glimpse of the plane coming towards you, in a stairwell in one of those towers struggling to get down, to be on the ground showered with debris, to be home waiting for someone to return.
There is the sound of a plane overhead. No longer innocent, everything is suspect. The plane has become a weapon, a manned missile, a human bomb. I duck. It is a United States war plane, circling.
The phone rings, people call from around the world. Attendance is being taken and some of us are absent, missing. I am on the phone when the first building collapses. A quarter mile high, the elevators take you up one-hundred-ten stories in fifty-eight seconds. It crumbles in less than a minute as though made of sugar cubes. The tower drops from the skyline, a sudden amputation. My eye struggles to replace the building, to paint it in, to fill in the blank.
When the second building goes, when there is just a cloud of smoke, I can no longer stand the strange isolation of being near and so incredibly far—I go outside.
The city is stilled, mute. There are no cars moving, no horns blowing, and for the most part not even any sirens. Everyone is talking—this is something to be shared, to be gone over, a story to be repeated, endlessly, until we are empty.
Coming up the West Side Highway is a post-apocalyptic exodus, men and women wandering north, walking up the center of the road, following the white lines, one foot in front of the other, mechanized. They come north gray with dust, with a coating of pulverized cement. They come in suits, clutching briefcases, walking singly or in small groups. People stand on the sidelines, offering them water, cell phones, applauding them like marathon runners. They are few and far between.
Wind carries smoke uptown as if to keep the disaster fresh in peoples minds, somehow begging you to breathe deeper, to be a part of it.
Those twin towers were my landscape, my navigational points, my night lights. I write staring out the window, depending on the fixedness of the landscape to give me the security to allow my thoughts to wander, my imagination to unfold. Now, I am afraid to look out the window, afraid of what I might see. I've been sent somewhere else in time, to a different New York, a different America. Today we are all war correspondents.
— A.M. Homes '85
A.M. Homes '85 is the author of the novels Jack, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, The Safety of Objects and most recently, Music for Torching.