La main, le souffle

The city was quiet, at least as quiet as it could be on a weekday, with the cabs fighting the cars fighting the buses fighting the bikes and the pedestrians and the dogs and the kids on their way across town on 6th avenue. As I sat in the coffee shop, slowly calming myself, my hands wrapped around a bowl of latte, I savored this return to normalcy. The vacation was finally over, I had left the twins at school and somehow managed to tear myself away from them in record time.

It was their first day of first grade. At six years old, they were still full of fears, and as I had attempted to leave them to the care of Mrs. Paul, had clung to me as if I were the last lifejacket on the Titanic. This was not new: when faced with a new experience, they revealed themselves as clinging, crying babies who didn’t seem to trust me when I repeatedly told them I would be back in seven hours. Even though, from the moment of their birth, I had never been late! To people who told me, while I was pregnant, that twins were good because they relied on each other for comfort, I could oppose this ever-repeated image of me having to physically pry myself away from two 35-pound girls whenever I wanted to go to the bathroom.

I had tried everything, read all the books I could find. When they were 4, after I realized I could teach a class on fear of abandonment but could not reassure my own children, I even consulted a child psychiatrist who, after meeting them, simply told me that the twins would outgrow their insecurities when they had “sufficient experience” of me returning when I had said I would. I asked, What is sufficient? He shrugged. I didn’t like the shrug. I resented it. I thought a doctor would have something to offer, tips, exercises. I was willing to accept any blame coming my way to explain my children’s behavior. Maybe I ate too much fish while pregnant. Or didn’t drink enough water. Or didn’t sing enough songs while they were infants. He shrugged again, simply suggesting that my children may have suffered a small trauma while in the womb. Or they were experiencing vicarious trauma, for something I had not properly dealt with in my own life. I could think of no such thing. Nothing “significant” enough to explain why two 4-year olds needed to be hand-held for every single activity, even when their play dates couldn’t run fast enough from their own parents.

I left the doctor’s office none the wiser and attempted to weather the storms.

I had now lived through 6 years of this dictatorial regime, condemned to pee with a child on my lap, to sleep knowing that the smallest noise, even a snore, could unleash the two-head monster that had bunk beds in the other room, 6 years during which I scarcely had a moment to myself because no babysitter would come twice. After going through an alarming number of undergrad students to look after my girls, I realized quickly that the babysitters had even started speaking among themselves and none would dare answer to my calls for help. So after all this time, I had come to the realization that nothing I could do to make my children feel safe and secure would be enough. I would, always, come short. Always, or until they had, how did the good doctor put it, “had sufficient experience” of my faithfulness to my word. I still stayed with the babysitter until the girls were starting to wander around the room. I still worried about what I would find when I returned, or the report I would get from whomever was in charge. But I had, somewhat, come to terms with my failings, and understood that it would take time. And that the best I could do was, aside from being a good mother, to make sure that no adult left with my girls suffered too much. So this morning, the fact that it took me only 20 minutes to settle the girls well enough for me not to feel guilty for leaving them with their teacher made me feel like celebrating. It was getting better. All summer I had seen small improvements, brief moments when the girls forgot to be scared and enjoyed themselves.

I entered a coffee shop and sat down with the students and the artists working at the other tables. I could not do this often; it implied having free time, which had become scarce since Chuck had left us. That lack of time, or relief, was the only downside to our separation. Ever since we had found out that I was expecting twins, Chuck had been an asshole, as if that extra baby that Mr. Planning could not foresee had pushed him back into his adolescence. He left after their first birthday party, simply telling me it — meaning the kids, the noise, the lack of downtime, the burden of responsibilities —would only get worse.

As I sat drinking my coffee and eating a pastry, I smiled at the private joke: it was finally getting better, and I alone would get to enjoy it! Chuck had decided to see the girls only in family gatherings, where he could dump the care of our daughters on his mother, sisters, sister-in-laws; even his brothers where better at this than him. I had his guilty conscience to thank for the fact that he paid, however, his child-support like clockwork, and very generously, I might add, and did not want to formalize our separation by a divorce until either one of us needed it. It was, therefore, the best of both worlds: I didn’t have to move or find cheaper babysitters, and he was free of the care of our children. Free moments, like now, were nevertheless few and far between. Soon, I would have to go back to work. But, I still had an hour.

It didn’t happen suddenly. A murmur started in the coffee shop, and it took a while for it to become strong enough to reach me. A young man stood up, and said in a shaking voice that the World Trade Center had been hit by what was believed to be a plane. I asked him what kind of plane. Where on the tower. Which tower. He didn’t know. He knew nothing, in fact, aside from the small fact that an object hit a tower on a day where you could see for miles. In the back of my mind, I figured either it was a joke, or it was not an accident. A joke, in this oh-so-politically-correct time, seemed unlikely. An accident would have made much more sense had it involved one of those tourist planes over the many midtown buildings concentrated on a small block. Or way downtown, close to Wall Street, in those old streets. But… but no, there was no way that a pilot could forget or lose track of the towers. Not those big monsters. I left $10 on the table, took my bag and left.

I made my way onto the street. There was a hush on the corner of 12th street and 6th avenue, even with the screeching of the fire and rescue trucks going downtown. I stood on 6th , looking at the smoke pouring from the tower. I could not see much, I mean aside from the smoke, and the faces of the other onlookers as we stood there. Around me, there were a few cries, and yet most of us where mostly curious. A plane, there. Why not crash in the river, instead, if a crash was inevitable? I started walking down 6th, planning to get closer, to get a better view. Somewhere around 4th street, the vibrations of a sound above me made me, instinctively, crouch. It happened fast, too fast for me to even register it, as if the sound and the vibrations had lingered in me longer to allow me to associate them with the sudden explosion of reds and blacks and white feathery papers that filled the sky.

Now I knew. I knew it could not have been an accident. And I was not alone in the understanding: all around me, the chattering that had united dozens of bystanders stopped and was replaced by a cry, a gasp, and a few curse words. My mind was blank, still inhabited by the vibrations and sounds and papers, still filled with the sudden knowledge that something had shifted, some quiet balance that had kept the world at bay and protected us from the bombs of the others. It had not been peace. Nor had it been, after all, our might. It had, only, been a truce.

I started backing up, unwilling to look anywhere else, yet aware, deep in my mind, that getting away from the buildings could possibly be something along the lines of sanity. I kept bumping on people who merely mumbled instead of the rude words I would have normally received, had I attempted this delicate maneuver on any other day. People were sobbing now, frantically dialing on their cell phones, pointing at the towers. The voices were coming back, hitting higher notes, as the people related to newcomers what had happened. I could not see their faces, as I walked backwards, yet I envied the new guys: they didn’t know. They could still live in that time before the end of the truce, they could still delay the realization. We couldn’t. We, the people who saw, could not tear our collective gaze from the smoking guns ahead of us. I suspected that the images had been seared onto our retinas.

Suddenly, as I was expecting something else to happen, I thought of the girls. I had forgotten them, for a few minutes, and it appeared like an unforgiveable act. If my going to the bathroom scared them, what would this do to them? I turned away from the towers and started running, my bag hitting the crush of people still gathering on the street corners, my mind suddenly filled with one thought: getting to my kids before… I didn’t know before what. I couldn’t finish the thought. Something else, something even worse could happen, would happen, was happening, right now, and I had been stupid enough to attempt to get closer to the buildings, forgetting I had responsibilities, two lovely, so lovely girls.

I saw the streets run by me, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and finally found myself in front of the school. I was not alone there. Parents where arriving from every direction, talking nervously to one another. Most had been on the subway when it happened, or making their way towards their desks. A few, like me, had seen it from a street corner. Others had just arrived at the school with their excited children, expecting a normal day, protected, by some magical enchantment, from the knowledge that united all the others. I didn’t know these people. My kids were only starting first grade, so I had not made many friends among the parents. Yet, as we stood waiting by the doors for our sons and daughters, knowledge created a bond, however fraught by the differences in understanding and witnessing of something that lacked, at least for now, a distinct meaning. We didn’t know, aside from the little that we knew and could fit in one sentence (two planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center), what it all meant. Was it over? What was happening, high in the towers?

I had left the girls at school less than an hour ago. During that hour, I had seen planes and papers doing things that made no sense. All I wanted was to hold my kids, and promise that I would never leave them to deal alone with all that. I expected them to be scared, troubled, even traumatized by the sounds of the explosions and the sudden change in their routine caused by my arrival at school around 9:30. I expected them to punish me, in a way, for that. I expected them to cling even closer to me now, and it made sense, after all. I suddenly welcomed it. I may have been 36, but if my mother were alive, I would hide on her lap, with her hand stroking my hair, the other one on the small of my back, her voice soothingly telling me that everything would be ok, that we were safe. I wished my mom was still there, because she would have taken us in, my daughters and me, and hugged us until the images of the plane being swallowed by the tower receded from my burnt eyes.

But I was the mother now. So I walked into the school, and stood in front of Mrs. Pauls’ first grade class, expecting to witness some unrest in the classroom. Surely, they had heard. Or at least felt the turmoil that was taking the city. Yet, all 25 kids were sitting in a circle, listening to Mrs. Pauls read a story. Julianne and Katherine were not even side-by-side. Katherine was giggling in the ear of some blond little girl, while Julianne, sitting between a redheaded boy and a sturdy girl, had a serious frown on her face. Mrs. Pauls stood up when she saw me in the doorway. She walked towards me, and though my girls saw me, they didn’t move an inch, simply looking at each other. She asked if I was sure I wanted to “disrupt” the children. As if my coming there to rescue my kids and bring them to safety was more disruptive than what was going on downtown! I was gearing myself for an argument when we heard some yelling. Mrs. Pauls, ever so stoic, walked slowly in the hallway, towards the sound. The principal was standing in front of a TV screen, his hands on his mouth. He turned to face us, and simply said “It’s gone”. What could be gone? “The tower, the other tower. It disappeared.”

As if what I had seen so far made sense, this new level of impossibility struck me to my knees. Where could it have gone? I looked at the images, attempting to decipher the dust and the cloud of debris. Surely, something would be left, at least half of the tower, the one half that wasn’t touched by fire. Mrs Pauls had put her hand on my shoulder. Quietly. If that tower can go, she murmured, then the other one will too. You can’t leave. The children can’t leave.

And so we waited. I sat in the girls’ classroom, watching them listening to Mrs. Pauls’ stories, Katherine and Julianne, giggling girls who now looked nothing like the crying babies I had left 2 hours before. They didn’t even come to sit with me; they stayed in their place, Katherine beside the blond girl, Julianne with the redheaded boy. Until the parents of the other children came, we stayed. And then, around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when it became somewhat clear that the worst was over, we left. The twins asked for ice cream: it smelled too bad to eat outside, so we bought it and walked home. There, they ran to their room, unfazed by the sounds and smells, and left me alone in the living room. I offered to read them a story, to play with them. I asked if they needed to talk about their day. They shrugged.

They didn’t even realize it when I stepped outside, on the landing, to discuss the day with the neighbors.