Swallows in Midair

By Meg Worden

Memoir

Watching the towers, like two roman candles all lit up and waiting to take flight, we tense for the whistle, the earsplitting boom. The air is a sweltering buzz of fiberglass and dissonance, it’s full of walls that no longer protect anyone from anything and it clings to my skin. I breathe it in and it singes my lungs. Someone says the words asbestos and attack.

The absurdity of our direction is becoming painfully apparent.

Standing at the top of the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we are bookended by two very different sorts of skies. One is so black and the other so very, very blue. It’s a glass marble sky. A circular world sky. We are walking forward with the intention of going into Manhattan to check the office, but the way we are pressed into this crowd it’s just too hard to move. This direction is absurd.

Old stone and new people span the bridge from arch to arch, suspension wire to suspension wire, an exodus of phantoms no longer angry at co-workers, spouses, not thinking about the raise, the stockholder’s meeting, the diet, the myriad of ways they fail themselves. They are now The Great Witnesses Of Gravity, a sea-of-faces, marching on solemn feet this way. Not that way.

The sound is an unearthly roaring – internal, tidal, absolute – and the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise. The-sea-of-faces, masked in white dust and marked with fear, swivel back toward the city in unison like swallows in midair. Swoosh. The collective intake of breath.

Everyone knows someone who is still there. And the marble spins, the sky upends.

A cloud of dust precedes the collapse of the first tower. It crumbles in a sort of slow motion effect. A special effect. A summer blockbuster, alien and unbelievable. It slips and spreads, down and down and down, until it is swallowed by its own insides. Ashes to ashes, and it’s gone. The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding. When the faces reappear they have open, screaming mouths. They are all eyes, throats, tongues, tears.

I have a thick handful of Drew’s jacket as we are backed up to the railing and carried into the current off the bridge, where we spill onto the grass, a little under-the-bridge park scattered with sitting and waiting and seeing. Witnesses telling witnesses where they were when the planes hit, how they got out, where they lived, not here in Brooklyn, but in Long Island, New Jersey, Queens, somewhere where they couldn’t reach their family, get their car out of the  garage because there was no more garage, or car.

Drew and me we make nervous jokes about the grassy knoll, under this strange sky with asphalt-gray clouds punctuated by paperwork liberated from files, desks, inboxes. Pavement clouds. World-turned-upside-down clouds. I still have a handful of jacket, his hand rests on my shoe. But we don’t notice these things. We also don’t say the things we usually say. This chaos is sufficiently trumping our own. And maybe we’re just sick of ourselves and our redundant, self-perpetuating problems. Or we’re scared. Yes, we’re definitely scared. I don’t know whether or not we notice these things. Too stunned to cry, too tight to collapse, we laugh about grassy knolls and their cliched connection to American tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” the interested parties would inquire.

“On the grassy knoll,” we would reply, stifling inappropriate hysterics.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha and we aren’t really as funny as we were hoping. We notice this and become quieter than quiet. Dense quiet. Asphalt cloud quiet. We would have to completely rethink our plan, change direction. Swoosh. Just like that. Swallows in midair.

There is nothing that wouldn’t require a new perspective. The fabric of our reality has been irrevocably unravelled.

“I finally get clean and the world falls apart.” I say, mostly to myself, but loud enough for him to hear. Last night in Brooklyn, in the basement of Grace Church, they were different than before. They asked if my life was unmanageable, which was an entirely different question than, “Are you an addict?” They sat in a circle, drinking the coffee that Hazel I’m an alcoholic made. They were kind of funny. Mostly, they didn’t make me feel like crap and they didn’t annoy the crap out of me.

Swoosh. Just like that.

Hazel with the coffee pot said I should make no major moves, no big changes for the first year. Just don’t use and come back. She said quitting wasn’t the end of the world.

I woke up the next morning to a city on fire.

Drew pretended to ignore my getting clean comment and, instead, was starting a conversation with a man who’s eyebrows hung low over his narrow eyes, who had stopped in front of Drew and I on the grass, set down an armload of books and asked if they were letting anyone into Manhattan. “I have to get in, to school. A test. Important.”

Confusion was pandemic and all directions seemed absurd. Because no one really knows how to go swoosh, just like that. Because we aren’t actually hollow-boned swallows, covered in feathers, light as air. We have bodies, heavy, fleshy, burdened. It takes an act of Congress, God, Terrorists.

We ordered Reubens with extra Russian dressing at a diner a few blocks up on Atlantic Avenue, iced tea to drink. I can see us growing old together, drinking iced tea. Problem solved.

The pastrami sours in my throat when the waitress announces the second collapse. I notice her tired legs in compression stockings, the way her shoulders strain under an invisible burden. I don’t notice her take Drew’s order for a vodka tonic. Worlds ride high on apron strings.

Two days later dust covers unclaimed bicycles and the witnesses wander the streets, chanting the names of the missing and the dead. Two days later, we shield our faces from the smell, sweet and acrid, identified by the Vietnam Vet on the subway as “Burnt flesh, man. I know that smell, I smelled it before and I swear to you it’s burnt flesh.”

Two days later over styrofoam cups of Hazel’s coffee,  someone asks what would you do if you stood between fire and a seventy fifth floor window? Who can imagine a choice like that? To fall or to burn. Opinions split among us, as they were split among the ones that actually had to make that choice. We knew this for certain: too many burned and too many jumped.

And it was two days after the bridge and the grassy knoll and the reuben sandwiches, all of us still trapped under mortar and glass and grief, that I got pregnant. Swoosh. Just like that.

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Meg Worden is a mother, master of complications and manifestor of abundance. She has been a columnist for the Lovely County Citizen in Eureka Springs AR and placed first for Ascent Magazine’s text writing contest in 2008. Meg believes a sense of humor is far more important than a sense of direction and knows for a fact she can laugh wildly amidst severest woe. Currently Meg is living in Portland, OR where she stays up late at night working on her memoir project about the two years she spent in Federal Prison. Find her at megworden.com

21 responses to “Swallows in Midair”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    I love how we see the tragedy through the perspective of yours and other people’s eyes. How absurd–and how entirely appropriate–that this guy is worried about his test. But I remember ordering a product by phone from a company in Manhattan a few days after, and asking if there would be any delays in receiving it. As though that were all the attendant had to worry about that day.

    Thanks for this, Meg.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thanks for reading, Art.

      Funny about the package. It is so absurd and appropriate. It’s just too hard to wrap a brain around anything so catastrophic so quickly and the news really can’t ever properly relate the scope of things…the way it brought everyone so deeply to their knees. This is the first time I’ve written about it publicly.

      And still…it’s just one story, plucked out of so many. Just one.

  2. Pema Teeter says:

    Swoosh, the faces turning, swoosh, life turning on a dime, swoosh, humans in flight and drowning in it. One slight phenomenon in nature to describe an unexpected take-off to a whole new reality. It’s as absurd as that, as beautiful. Thanks for those immeasurably gorgeous words. Hollow-boned and light in relation to your personal gravity that day and beyond it.

    Love,
    Pema

  3. reese says:

    Dear Meg,
    your pacing & poignancy here is lovely. It’s one of the most interesting & thoughtful snapshots of this day I’ve read.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Beautifully rendered, Meg.

  5. […] to the 9/11 attacks in New York. A friend I met recently arrived the day before in a moving truck. Meg got sober the day before, conceived her child two days after. I arrived three weeks before: Grad […]

  6. Meg this stopped me in my tracks today. Stunning. Gorgeous. Wow.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Big hearted thanks, Marianne. So glad you’re here!

      It’s so strange to write something from a singular perspective when it is such a deeply shared experience. So many angles. And mine, was so self-absorbed at this time. I was in the midst of so much self created chaos. It was the defining wake up for so many of us to the rest of the world, our connection to it, and maybe a call to think more critically. Grief and loss have a way of evaporating illusions.
      And babies…that’s another story.

  7. Gloria says:

    This is absolutely stunning and gorgeous, Meg. Your phrasing and images… …the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise… Divine.

    What a strange, sobering time to get sober. Amazing story. Beautifully written.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thanks for the generous comments, Gloria. Yes, it was a sobering time to get sober. In some ways it was really hard. It seemed like drinking would be a really logical reaction. But the electric air and all of the strange maybe made the banal seem interesting, infused. Maybe in ways it was easier.
      Who knows.
      Then I was pregnant so I stayed off the sauce. And then just never started up again.

      It was a really weird time. The way we were all so stunned. There was no waking up, no snapping out of it. In a lot of ways, I think there still hasn’t been a real awakening from all of that.
      We eat terror for breakfast. Or it eats us.
      I saw an article on Huff Post today about how New Yorkers are still unwilling to move on after going through that. And how that was so unusual for NY’ers who carry on regardless. Something threaded in, tied us all together in grief and won’t let go.

  8. Quenby Moone says:

    Beautiful, poignant and so sad. Life doles out mystery around every corner, doesn’t it?

    Lovely.

  9. […] as we near this 10th anniversary of 9/11, Meg Worden shares her experience of 9/11, a day that was book-ended by her getting sober the day before, and […]

  10. Dana says:

    I read this when it went up the other day but TNB wasn’t cooperating at the time. This reads like pure poetry to me Meg. Stunning imagery.

    TNB continues to impress with the breadth and width of its talent pool.

  11. Meg Worden says:

    Thank you, Dana. So much.

    I agree wholeheartedly about TNB, its consistently spilling over with amazing. Love being a part of it.

  12. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I thought I’d read such a fair share of stories surrounding this day that the emotional impact had begun to fade for me, but then I come across your amazing, beautiful piece here and I’m astounded all over again.

    There are many, but this line is one that I’ll remember: “The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding.”

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Meg Worden says:

      Thank you, Nathaniel. I have to say I have felt the same way. As if watching those hits on loop on the news the weeks and weeks after, all of the articles, books, that there was a saturation. I never wrote it for that reason. That and perhaps honoring the stories that may have even been closer to the planes…or inside the buildings, the stories I thought should be heard above the noise.
      But it has occurred to me recently that this is a story of beginnings and I just wanted to try and talk about this from a bit of that perspective if I could. And that maybe many people telling different facets of the same experience isn’t the worst thing…maybe it’s how we continue to close the gap.

  13. Meg Worden says:

    […] honor of the ten-year anniversary, I have published my own September 11 story on The Nervous Breakdown.  I can’t believe it’s been ten years already. It was a day that changed everything. So much […]

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