I almost forgot today was today. I kept remembering, and then forgetting again. New tragedies are happening now. But then I saw the big blue ghostly lights towering in the sky like tractor beams for some alien ship and I remembered.
Four years ago it seemed as if the world had changed forever and would never go back. Now everything would be meaningful, or meaningless, or we had moved beyond history, and in an ahistorical world meaning would now be fluid, or gaseous. After 9/11, I read an essay by Jean Baudrillard in Harper’s , about events transcending their meaning and the meaning of no meaning and for the first time, I understood a piece of critical theory. I began to wonder if philosophy only made sense in the wake of tragedy, and that was why it seemed too absurd all the rest of the time time, and if perhaps it wouldn’t seem so absurd if we came to see human existence as a continual tragedy. I read those prose-poem obituaries in the “A Nation Challenged” section of the Times and cried behind my sunglasses on the train, embarrassed that I was crying for people I didn’t know just because the last sentence of their obituaries said things like, “He loved to dance the tango.”
My twenty-second birthday was eleven days after 9/11. My friend Ellen heroically came to New York to celebrate with me. We sat at a sidewalk cafe sipping wine, enjoying the beautiful day, talking about how off-kilter the whole world still seemed. “But it feels really good to be in New York,” said Ellen. “Really safe.”
Just then a car swerved down the street and and screeched to a halt at the stoplight. A cop car pulled up behind it and four officers jumped out, guns drawn. “Put-your-hands-up-and-don’t-move-don’t-move-hands-where-I-can-see-’em!” shouted the cops, walking sideways and holding their guns with two hands just like on television. They surrounded the car with impressive choreography and grace, like a gang in musical. “Put your hands UP!”
The car was full of teenagers. The cops dragged them out, one by one, and made them lie facedown on the pavement with their hands behind their heads, fingers clasped and elbows winged, until the police officers straddled the teenagers, wearily, matter-of-factly. With their belts thunking heavily and their billy clubs bouncing against their flanks, the cops gathered the teenagers’ wrists and handcuffed them together. The teenagers jerked to their feet like puppets and hung there for a moment by the wrists before they were shuffled into the cop car. The cops pushed the teenagers’ heads into the car with that touch of the palm to the cranium that is almost paternal.
The waiter arrived with our Middle Eastern Combo Platters.
After that, life picked up speed. Things were strange and poignant. The missing persons posters faded and crinkled in the weather and were not taken down for a very long time. It was still new to have your bag searched everywhere and for the airport to be as tense as it was, for it to smack loudly instead of vaguely of death, or the possibility of death, and then like everything else, it was just the way it was. It was still new for a hole in the ground to be a tourist destination, and then it wasn’t. I was amazed by how shameless and ugly a government could be in exploiting a tragedy their greed and militarism had in part caused, and then I came to expect their shamelessness to reach new depths. The rate at which things became more absurd was itself accelerating, and it became necessary to use calculus to describe the absurdity. Later, I found out that people were very offended when Adam Gopnik compared the smell that wafted north from downtown to smoked mozzarella. I could see why.
The momentary illusion of a collective experience gave way to the centrifugal gravity of narcissism. I concerned myself with My Early Twenties in the Early Twenty-First Century. I came to regard 9/11 as the moment I crossed over to some kind of adulthood, though it was an arbitrary designation. We want to say everything changed on a certain day but everything changes every day until one day everything has changed.
After 9/11, I interned. I dutifully wrote articles about the injustices suffered by women without health insurance while I myself was without health insurance. I wrote guides for how to get emergency contraception at your college health center. I got drunk and emailed my friends about the things that had happened while I was drunk, when I was supposed to be writing these articles and guides. I wasn’t a very good intern. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t get hangovers. I was younger then.
After 9/11 but before now, four years started to go by, but I was not aware of this until after it happened. I found out about the crazy band and went to see them play in a warehouse. They burned an effigy in the street and for the first time since I graduated college, I felt something resembling hope. I lived in a series of deeply flawed sublets. For a long time I wore my tank tops too tight and too low, but I was oblivious to this and therefore not embarrassed. I tried all the drugs I hadn’t tried in high school or college and thoroughly enjoyed them all. The world was ending and my childhood was over and I would do what I pleased. We protested the war but it happened anyway. I haunted a bar many nights until dawn for the better part of a year. We protested the war again but it kept happening.
I wrote down clever thoughts in my notebooks. After 9/11 but before now, I filled sixteen notebooks. I saw shows, I saw movies, I saw an entire subway car sing “Lean on Me” in unison. I slept on couches and I slept in my clothes. I slept with a John and a Mark. There had already been a Luke, but there was never a Matthew and so I did not sleep with all four gospels. I slept with a Frenchman and a Spaniard, but there were no Italians nor any Portuguese, and so I did not sleep with all four Romance languages. I failed completely in my goal to sleep with a complete set of anything. I had one of those relationships that is like a car crash of everyone’s neuroses and no one has any fun. I caught one of those infectious diseases that everyone gets. My parents bought me intraveneous Vitamin C and my infectious disease went away with astonishing speed. The IVs left bruises on my inner arms that I enjoyed looking at and pressing on with my fingertips as they went from blue to purple to yellow to green and became my normal skin again.
I went to Chicago. I went to Washington. I went to Providence. I went to North Carolina. I went to Oregon. I went to California. I went to Colorado. I got high in beautiful places. I got depressed at music festivals. I ate sushi in towns all over America you might not expect to have sushi restaurants. I went to Peru. I stayed up all night. I went to a wedding. I stayed up all night. I went to New England. I went to Central America. I climbed and ate things I probably shouldn’t have. I took 2216 digital photographs. We protested the Republican National Convention but it happened anyway.
The Red Sox won the World Series and I was more euphoric than I expected to be. John Kerry lost the election and I was more despondent than I expected to be. I got into heated, drunken political debates. My grandmother died. My cat died. My best friend moved away.
After 9/11, I feared they would wage terrible wars and kill many times over the number that died that day, and they have. I feared they would use guns and bombs and very young people to bring upon other parts of the world the kind of destruction that should only come from natural diasters, and they have.
I still haven’t gotten used to the Nazi-Germany sized American flags everywhere, though I’ve noticed they’ve found more permanent and ingenious ways of affixing them to things, like the multi-storied walls of the lobbies of international banks. Just the other day I was in the lobby of an international bank. The ceilings of the lobby were at least three stories high. I got lost in the mezzanine and accientally walked through the wrong security checkpoint. It beeped. The guard waved me through the right one. Two overlapping glass blades whooshed open to let me in. Behind the front desk of the multinational bank, on a wall at least three stories high, was an American flag the size of a tennis court. The wall itself was made of ribbed plastic, and the flag was stuck into this plastic with enormous thumbtacks wedged in between the ribs. The flag was so large I couldn’t see it all at once without tilting my neck so far back my jaw dropped open. One more thing that happened after 9/11 was that a lot of banks had to get flags as big as their multi-storied lobbies.