A Year of Epiphanies
(The September 11th Effect)
by Jennifer Prado
Some of the best decisions I have made have been the irrational ones. The ones where the driving force was pure emotion. Every time I have fallen in love it has been like a zap of lightning. There was no way to see it coming; there was a loud crash and the sky suddenly filled with light. I had been thinking about leaving New York, but I was reluctant. I knew it was the only place in the world where I was allowed to practice my own brand of schizophrenia, and be all the conflicting people I wanted to be at once. Where else but here could I be surrounded by exotic and interesting people from every continent? Where else could I reinvent myself on a weekly basis and, in a lazy-ass moment, get someone to deliver a cappuccino to my door? I liked to spend entire Sundays walking in the streets, and even more so when it was raining. Everyone always talks about the energy of the streets of New York, but it is a truth worth repeating. Every corner and every intersection was charged with possibilities. If you worked hard enough and were lucky, you could reshape the course of your destiny in this city.
For me, everything that was important to me reshuffled after September 11th. For all of us who watched it from our office windows and from the streets it was a collective near-death experience. My grief can never equal that of the people who lost loved ones and friends, but I know that I also felt that I had been targeted. It had come too close, and I knew at least fifty people who narrowly escaped, and two acquaintances who perished. They were young and hardworking men and their families were devastated by the unfairness of it.
I walked home that morning and passed employees from the NYSE who still wore their floor jackets and were covered in gray powder. I noticed the bars were already filled with men throwing back pints of beer and the Godiva shops were crowded with women who wanted chocolate. As I walked south, I looked at the hole in the sky, and like most people, couldnít fathom what I was seeing. I didnít leave my apartment for three days until there was nothing left to eat. I developed a fear of the subway, train stations, tap water, tunnels, crowds, elevators, and city landmarks. I slept with the lights on and stopped opening my mailbox. I sat in front of the television and cried for all of the people looking for their relatives and for all the missing firemen.
The phone line in my apartment stopped working, and my cell phone had no signal, so my only source of communication with my family was E-mail. My parents had been frantic, until they heard from me, because it was even more frightening for people watching from the outside who had a fuzzier concept of distance and space within the city. Long-silent friends, from all over the world, sent frightened messages to find out if I was well, and hoped for a quick response.
I was startled by my own feelings. I had been a life-long pacifist, but now I wanted revenge. I wished for superheroes to come and help us; I wanted Superman to fly over the city and protect us. When I was brave enough to go outside, I lit candles at Union Square and read the signs at the Armory, and sobbed for everyoneís loss, for the pain of so many interrupted lives. The building where I lived lost four young, single men and the Superintendent had to go in and rescue their dogs when their owners never came home. I became obsessed with numbers. I thought to myself that if each missing person had one hundred people, who loved and cared about him or her, then the emotional loss had affected nearly a half billion lives. But as I ran numbers through my head, and tried to distract myself with calculations, I knew that the real loss was immeasurable.
I fell in love with New Yorkers, like I never had before. I admired the immediate and valiant response of the rescue workers, the deli owners who posted signs about donating blood, and was touched when strangers on the street made eye contact, glanced at my tears, and asked if I needed some help. I was suffering from an overwhelming feeling of empathy that threatened to choke my breath, but I thanked them and said I was fine. Our impersonal city had become a small town overnight. Suddenly, all of my international friends were disappearing. Mothers across the globe collectively called out to their wandering children and told them it was time to come home. Even our humor had changed. I was invited to an End of the World party and we brought our gas masks, popped Cipro, and downed it with vodka. We felt guilty for trying to have fun at a time like this. After a week, I dragged myself back to work, but I couldnít take it seriously any more. If life could end so suddenly did I really want to be sitting here with my co-workers and chasing after someone elseís objectives?
When I was a university student, I studied the short stories of James Joyce and the professor would ask us to pinpoint the moment of the epiphany, when the character dramatically reassesses his entire life and comes to the conclusion that he is doing everything wrong. At that exact instant, he decides to pursue a new direction. Even after the course ended, I carried my copy of Dubliners everywhere to reread these portraits of spectacular transformation. Once a young man, who had been trying to get my attention all semester, approached me in the student cafť and said I was reading his favorite book. He stood in front of me and recited the first page of the story I was reading. I didnít think twice. I felt a zap and kissed him. The lights in the cafť seemed to flicker for a moment.
My own personal epiphany, related to September 11th, occurred when I was reading the tributes in The New York Times for the people who had been lost. One paragraph told the story of a young broker who had planned to propose to his long-awaiting girlfriend the following weekend. It was going to be a wonderful surprise. He was going to take her out in a canoe and paddle with her around a bend in the river. His little nephews and nieces were going to be waiting on the shore and holding signs that said, "Will You Marry Me?" I cried for the young broker for not being able to give his girlfriend that happiness and not being able to see her face when she read the signs. I cried for his girlfriend who had waited for so long and now would never be his wife. I decided at that moment that I had to take all the things I had learned in New York City, and pursue the dream that had gotten lost in the shuffle. I had to leave in order to find a quiet place to write. So I quit everything.
Where I am now could not be more different, but I think that changes have to be dramatic and extreme. Imagine moving from Manhattan to a rural part of Oklahoma. Here I donít need to make any effort to be strange. The locals have given me a nickname from watching me go running along the country highway. In a valley filled with hills, fields, grazing cattle, and sky, they call a woman in gym clothes: Mirage. The farmersí wives look at me oddly and whisper about me, because I donít know how to cook and I donít have any children. I am learning things that New York could never teach me. I am embarrassed to say that I thought that corn was a perennial, and that it would grow back each year on its own, like the flowers in my motherís garden. I am learning how to look at the sky and know if it will rain or if the clouds are heavy with bluff. My watch broke the first week I was here, so now when the wild, green parrots fly overhead and the sky echoes with their squawking, I know I have a half an hour until the sun sets. I watched my neighbor buy a horse. He didnít just check her teeth and look at her hooves. He ran his hand over her belly to see if she flinched with any pains. He led her by her harness to see if she was stubborn or if she followed willingly. He talked to her and watched her ears to see if she listened to him.
In my own way, I am trying to honor the legacy of the victims of September 11th. I am attempting to pursue the objectives that I have always believed in, but before I lacked courage, I was too afraid of what I was giving up, and was distracted by the frantic pace that life in New York City demands. I decided that I didnít want to be a person who makes plans, sustains dreams, and never had a chance to live them.
The Brazilian poet, Vinicius de Moraes, has a line that says: que seja infinita enquanto dure. He was talking about love, but I like to apply these words towards this new life that I am trying. Let it be infinite for as long as it lasts.
Jennifer Prado, a long-time New York City resident, left NYC post 9/11 to spend time in a rural community in Brazil. She has recently completed her first novel, Love and Sex, and is searching for a publisher. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org