“I want to write a book like Zadie Smith — something that talks about how hard and weird it is to be alive even if you’re middle class and your parents are pretty loving. It might also be about bulimia and anorexia.”—Nina, Bored to Death
Memory is a kind
a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new
inhabited by hordes
of new kinds—
since their movements
are toward new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned)
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since
the world it opens is always a place
“I have often been reproached with the aridity of my genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime; and the Pyrrhonism of my opinions has at all times rendered me notorious.”—"MS. Found in a Bottle," Edgar Allan Poe
The following is a response I wrote in college to Tom Junod’s fantastic piece, "The Falling Man."
It was a welcome relief. I was in over my head in my second-period Spanish class on my third day of high school, and hearing the principal speak a language I understood allowed me to take a deep breath and relax for a second. “¿Inglés?” my teacher scoffed jokingly at the beginning of the announcement. Her smirk didn’t last long, however, not once the words terrorist and attack usurped everyone’s attention.
High school hadn’t started as well as I had expected. I wasn’t used to lockers, to not knowing everyone else, to hearing Spanish for the entirety of my Spanish class. In fact, the first day of classes the preceding Friday had been so overwhelming, that on my tedious walk to the bus stop Monday morning, I uttered to myself that this may be the longest week of my life.
Tuesday, September 11 proved my innocuous prophecy true. After the principal’s announcement, confusion reigned in the hallways as students tried frantically to contact family members who worked in Manhattan. There was a particularly long and unnerving fire drill during my lunch period when we all stood outside looking at a blue sky that we couldn’t reconcile with what was happening nearby. Finally, we had to endure the Freshman Run—the annual 1.3 mile race to determine which rookies should try out for our legendary cross-country team. It was not a good day.
I’ve lived my entire life in Middletown, N.J., a town that lost 37 people on September 11. Fathers of my friends worked in the World Trade Center; one died. My own dad worked in the cleanup by driving barges to and from Ground Zero. And yet, I’ve always maintained a certain distance to the entire event. I never thought about what it would be like to lose my father. I couldn’t even imagine what it was like to be in New York at the time, as the billowing smoke and ash I saw on television was contrasted by the pristine blue sky outside my window. And I certainly didn’t consider what it would have been like inside one of the Twin Towers, with flames tickling my skin and mortality etched before my eyes.
It was a single clause in Tom Junod’s “The Falling Man” that brought me back to September 11 and made me contemplate such a harrowing hypothetical: “they jumped just to breathe once more before they died.” I always assumed that jumping from a building—even that day, even under those conditions—was beneath me, a form of suicide that didn’t mesh with my religious or moral beliefs. I wouldn’t quit like that, and, either way, I wouldn’t have the courage—is courage even the right word?—to lift my heels and tilt down toward oblivion. But Junod’s story and in particular that independent clause made me rethink that. Maybe leaping wasn’t so cowardly; maybe it was honorable. Most of all, maybe it wasn’t an act of death, but rather one last act of life—one last autonomous gasp before a death that was as inevitable as it was horrific. In that sense, leaping can be transformed from an act of cowardice to one of courage, from an expression of fear to one of freedom. It starts to illustrate that Icarian desire to fly inherent in us all, combined with the “What the hell” American practice of risking it all rather than ceding control to some other power—higher or not. And as Junod concludes, when we look at it that way, he wasn’t just a falling man; he was a falling you or a falling me.
People shunned Richard Drew’s photograph of the falling man precisely because it implicates us and asks: who are we to say we would have acted any differently? It is not a photograph meant to be enjoyed, but then again so little of history is. Rather, it is to be experienced, to be contemplated, and ultimately, to never be forgotten.