By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ted Soqui
We were running low on milk. We reached for it the next morning, and then it was gone. The litter box needed to be changed. The kitchen faucet was still dripping. “We need more milk,” we both said, one after the other, not hearing the one who said it first. We were muttering so many things to ourselves that we’d stopped listening to each other. Our words in those days immediately after the attacks drifted from our mouths like feathers, with about as much weight, a molting of the thoughts that had become trivial, unnecessary, inconsequential.
We had been planning to leave on vacation, so when we returned home that Tuesday about noon, after a long walk across the Queensboro bridge, dazed, with a feeling like we’d misplaced something very important, we returned to a living room of packed suitcases, to a life that was already anticipating the next morning.
Everything looked clear, almost painfully so, and this effect was perpetuated by the day itself, a cloudless sky, early-autumn blue, the sort of light that gives everything the cleanest demarcation. This was before the words started, before we turned on the television and before the next day’s newspapers, before the telephone calls and our assurances and our relaying of our stories, of where we’d been and what we’d seen, as repetitious finally as the footage of that United flight slamming into tower two, before we sank ourselves desperately into the torrents of improper grammar, half-finished sentences, aborted thoughts, the chatter of news anchors, mixed metaphors, speculations on the structural integrity of steel when it is subjected to thousand-plus-degree temperatures, the fuel loads of airplanes, the exclamatory curses of unseen spectators on unedited videotapes, talk of “cells” and of flight schools in Florida, the first mention of the word “war.” We felt we needed some sort of washing, a splash of cold water on the face, but once we grew accustomed to the buoyancy of total immersion, we let ourselves be carried on the great swelling tide of other people’s voices.
We woke up the next morning hungry for news, like a smoker wakes up wanting a cigarette, stepped over our suitcases, turned on the television. But we didn’t wake up together. Ralph woke up early, mumbling that he couldn’t sleep, and I spread out in the bed after I opened my eyes and gave him a narrow, irritated look, for waking me up, for leaving, for breaking the unspoken pact we had to stay together indefinitely, now that we couldn’t be certain we’d see each other again if we separated. The disaster had married us in a way. He went to get the paper, but he forgot to get milk or apples or bananas. We had hardly anything to eat in the house, so we reached blindly for whatever food was there, and left the dishes in the sink to be washed at some other, unimaginable time. He would hug me unexpectedly, and then he would pace, flop down on the couch, open the paper.
“I hate the way she does that,” he said.
“That, there. That anchor. The way she keeps puckering her lips and shaking her head.”
The next day he asked, “Why does she get to help?” We were watching Kathleen Turner making an appeal for work boots, underwear and socks. She had no makeup on and looked admirably tired.
“She probably lives around there,” I said.
“Should we go down?”
“They keep saying there’s too many people,” I said. “We’d probably be in the way.”
We found out on the first day that the Red Cross discourages gay men from donating blood. We stopped by a Catholic church in our neighborhood, but there were only two women in the back praying. We were on our way home the next morning, after picking up some doughnuts, passing the cheap sidewalk clutter of brooms, mops, electric fans, and brass-and-enamel decorative items of our local bargain store, when Ralph said, “I want to go in here and get a flag.”
“Oh . . . ” I said. I looked at him and made a face.
We argued for a minute, not saying what we meant. He wanted to do something. I imagined a flag hanging off our fire escape, and thought how every time I saw it I’d think it was a clumsy expression, somehow inadequate, that we didn’t have a flag before, so why should we now? I didn’t want to be any different than we had been. Ten minutes after I got home, he came in.
“What a cynical country we live in,” he said, “when you go to three stores and can’t find a single American flag.”
We watched people on television sitting cross-legged in Union Square at a makeshift memorial, writing things on paper laid out on the ground. Some people were crying, but most milled about, looking down with appraising expressions like visitors to a flea market.
“I feel trapped here,” Ralph said. I looked on our itinerary and found a number for the airline. “Your call will be answered in . . . 48 minutes,” said a woman’s automated voice, cheerful but laced with authority. I thought of footage I’d seen of a hotel lobby, its windows blown in, debris everywhere and everything covered in a thick layer of gray ash. In the background, an elevator alarm was pinging insistently. There was a whole automated subtext to our lives, designed to support the complexity of life in modern America, which was now rendered ironic. I hung up the phone.