I lie on the couch in the empty family room, the clicking of the clock above pounding in my head. My eyes are salty and dry, puffed red. The clock ticks and echoes. I remember the many times from childhood when I would sit and listen to this noise, the second hand moving full circle. It used to calm me, the reliable click breaking the silence. Now the clock reminds me of passing time, the end of things.
It’s November, the trees full of vivid hue: red, yellow, orange. Each autumn, I note the beauty of nature’s death.
I orient myself in time with ‘before’ and ‘after’, using September 11 as a placemarker. It has been twenty-three years since my parents were married, twenty-two years since I was born, eight years since September 11, six years since my father retired and unleashed his anger on us, and one day since he moved out.
As it rings our house phone tells us who’s calling in a distant, electronic voice. My brother Marrick, away at college, is on the other line, removed from our familial disintegration, 376 miles separating him from the family. I get off the couch slowly and pull the phone from its cradle to stop the chanting digits.
‘Mom home?’ Marrick asks.
‘No, she’s out.’
‘Dad home?’ he asks.
‘He moved out. Try his cell. He’s living at the lake.’
‘Are you OK?’ he asks. ‘You sound upset.’ We’ve all known this was going to happen for a while now. Still, my father’s leaving strikes me with a wave of emptiness.
‘Yeah, I have to go. I have a lot of work to do and Dad moved out today.’ I hang up the phone.
The house is once again still with only the ticking clock organizing my thoughts. My other siblings are still at school. The second-hand moves around and around as I sit and stare, paralyzed with emotion.
I turn on my iPod and play music from me and my father’s favourite Broadway musical, The Phantom of the Opera. I think of Christine Daaé from the play, alone in the cemetery, searching for her father.
When we were younger, my mother would send all of us upstairs to wake our father after his midnight shift. My younger siblings and I would creep into my parent’s bedroom slowly and quietly, assuming our positions around him. We would begin to pick the lint out of his belly button, giggling, throwing the fuzz to the floor. If that didn’t work, my little sister would tickle my father’s feet, and one of his eyes would open a sliver. He’d then shoot up smiling, grabbing us all.
‘How did you sneak in here?’ he asked.
You were once my one companion, you were all that mattered. You were once a friend, a father, then my world was shattered.
Each song has a parallel meaning now, a memory attached between us. Every time I hear the soundtrack, I think of him.
As I lie alone on the family room couch, the clock keeps ticking.
I was the only one he didn’t say goodbye to when he collected his clothes, packed up his truck, and drove off.
My phone vibrates at my feet on the couch. It’s a text message from my father. I debate whether to read it or not.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye to u. I miss n luv u’, he says.
‘I miss and love you too. I hope you come home soon.’ I text him back.
‘It’s not up to me’, he says.
‘Well I hope you figure it out’, I say.
‘Wat do I hav to figure out?’
I delete my text messages and decide not to answer.
I scroll down to the Phantom soundtrack on my iPod and play ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’. I mouth the words alone as the music plays through my headphones.
I wonder what my father’s doing alone at the lake. Whether he’s unpacking or maybe lying on his couch like me.
I saw him before he rushed to get there, just briefly – my last look at him, the man who was my father before he left to join the rescue effort.
Tuesday. My second day of my first year of high school after a beautiful summer, a Labour Day with family. I sat in a crisp, new postman-blue uniform, in a building full of strangers. I could count the people I knew on one hand. St Joseph Hill overlooked the city and during homeroom, I found myself looking out the windows, drifting. It was beautiful that morning; the clearest day God gives September.
In my all-female Catholic high school, there were many rules printed in a large bound handbook we were required to keep with us at all times. We had to sign the rule pact as soon as we crossed the St Joseph Hill Academy threshold, carry it with us everywhere, even to the restroom.
Our pleated skirts were to touch the floor when we knelt down and our saddle shoes were to bear no scuffs, on penalty of being locked in a classroom to watch the clock for an hour after school. Often girls painted their saddle shoes with whiteout, over and over again, to hide the mud, the cracking leather.
We were the only Catholic girls’ school on Staten Island that hadn’t updated its uniform since the 1950s, and the first to require that each student buy a personal laptop to use in class. Our blazers had embarrassingly large shoulder pads and any student spotted commuting to school without it was issued detention.
Under no circumstances was any girl allowed to deviate from the norm: no dyed hair or blatant highlights, no make-up, no nail polish, no accessories, no coloured backpacks. We had uniform socks, uniform raincoats, uniform trench coats and uniform gym clothes. Conformity, or as they described it, ‘a level playing field on which to learn’, was the goal.
We left our hair unwashed, slept in our uniforms, and worried about the SAT instead of boys. We started with 120 girls and by graduation, there were just eighty-six, a small group of ‘Hilltoppers’.
We were stripped of our beauty and our liberty for the sake of our education and school felt a little like prison those first years. We grew to tolerate the rules, and then to prefer them.
But there was no guidebook for what happened in my first week at Hill.
First Period. Religion. Learning the mission statement: ‘St Joseph Hill Academy, in keeping with Christian values and the traditions of the Daughters of Divine Charity, seeks to educate and empower young women to be confident, independent thinkers with strong character and leadership qualities, who stand ready to meet society’s challenges.’
Second period. English with Ms Levi, the announcement came over the loudspeaker.
‘Students,’ it called out. There’s been an accident.’ We all stopped writing and listened. ‘At the World Trade Centres. We will keep everyone updated when we know more.’
I didn’t panic even though I knew my father’s ESU team responded to the first bombing at the towers in 1993. I hadn’t known the buildings could collapse, or that the planes were aimed carefully to destroy as many lives as possible. A fluttering and pang clashed within me; childish jitters.
Ms Levi continued. I found it hard to sit still, to continue reviewing the lessons for the upcoming year, the time breakdown of grammar versus literature.
Third Period. Spanish. Introducing oneself to the rest of the class. Hola. Me llamo Samantha Smith. Soy de la cuidad de Nueva York.
Fourth Period. Computer processing. Laptops open, typing. Fingers fanned on keys, letters.
‘Students,’ the loudspeaker recited. ‘The Twin Towers have been hit by airplanes. The extent of the damage is unknown at this point. Please take a moment of silence. Let us pray.’
The school is silent. All I can hear is the chirping of birds from outside the window. Then just moments later, endless sirens blaring, passing our school heading towards Manhattan.
I watch people react around me as if in slow motion.
I leave the class slowly. Girls are lying in the hall against lockers, sobbing. So many parents work at the Towers. The girls who have cellular phones cannot get in touch with their families, the call volume surging phone companies. Lines are dead. Sunlight illuminates the hallway, sparkling, as it hits dust particles suspended in air.
Bodies crumble around me. Cries and screams. We’re told to leave the classrooms, turn off the televisions. On our hill, we have a perfect view to watch the city. They do not want us to see the smoke clouding Manhattan.
Instructed to go downstairs to a basement classroom, we find it cold, new, sterile. Sister Denise walks in, slowly. Her habit shields her head, a halo of humility. She tells us to hold hands with the girls next to us until we form a circle. We say the rosary, softly.
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Deliver us from evil. Amen. World without end. Amen.
I know this is a day I will come back to again and again.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.
Crying stops. It is quiet and calm. It is all we have.
I can see it in their eyes. The girls called out of our circle to be picked up don’t want to leave, to cross the threshold of our classroom and go home. We’re safe here, together, praying. Each word brings resolve.
Somehow we accept the unknown. We know why faith makes sense. Why at the possible end of our lives, the suspected end of the world, prayer releases us.
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
We pass around printouts of hymns. We sing softly. The low hum numbs our fear. Something aligns within me, my body acquiring knowledge it lacked just minutes before. Faith is all we have. Life makes no sense without it.
I’m worried about my grandfather who frequents the Towers for work meetings. I know my father works midnight hours and I hope that he is already home sleeping when the planes hit.
A friend’s parent drives to school and picks up five of us, the only girls I know, the girls I attended grammar school with and drops us home around 10:30 a.m. On the way down from our campus, we see the plume of thick, dark smoke covering the city. When I walk in my house, I’m surprised to still see my father standing there. I assumed he’d be in Manhattan by now. I later learn that my mother begged him to stay with us, and he did for a short time, only to regret it years later.
My siblings are watching the news, footage of the towers crumbling over and over again, endlessly looping.
I turn off the television. Aidan is three years old. He’ll remember my parents hugging, crying together in the kitchen, listening to the radio. We are all born into the before and the after. Our lives can shift around events, derail from our previous course.
Now, when I think of that day, I think of the basement. I think of thirty teenaged strangers clasping hands in prayer. It was all we knew.
My father created me in his likeness, infused me with his desires, his passions. Whenever I turn on the radio, pick up a basketball, or go out drinking I am reminded of him and his abandonment. His disinterest feels like a denial of who I am, the person I molded myself into – for him.
His eyes now refuse to see me. Sometimes it seems that if he willed it, I’d cease to exist.
Photograph by Marcela