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.

Everything is turquoise blue. I’m not sure how that made it into the design specifications for hospital waiting rooms but it did. The cold glare of fluorescent lighting mixes with the blue plastic covered chairs and gives a sense of anything but peace. If that was their intent they failed, whoever they are. I’ve spent an hour sitting in this hospital lobby trying to figure out exactly how I got here. Eighteen hours ago I was absolutely fine.

I arrived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas the same way I have arrived in so many other small towns over the last decade. There’s a rhythm to it. I pull in. I check into my hotel. I lower my expectations. I tell jokes. It’s really a short checklist. As I walked into the club for this weekend’s shows however, a new bullet point forced itself into the mix.

Don’t get rabies.

I entered to find the staff fully engrossed in the hunt. A cat, a gorgeous white cat, had crashed through the outer perimeter. The way they made it sound, you would have thought a terrorist operative was loose in the building. A pale flash shot from under a table, followed by a blur of mullet and overalls.

“Sumbitch!” said the Mullet. “He’s fast.”

The rest of the team moved into place. The girl behind the bar tried scare it into the backroom while a 300 pound man with disturbingly saggy pants put on his “plumbing gloves” and grabbed a tablecloth. I stood at the far end of the bar laughing. Suddenly the Big Man lunged at something invisible. From under the bar a hissing, snowy explosion shot upward, landing on a rack of glasses and destroying half of them. The cat’s screech melded with the sound of the shattering glass as the Mullet leapt over the bar. Apparently cornered, the feline sat crouched on top of a Jagermeister machine, inches away from the liquor shelf. With its hair bristling in defiance, it dared either one of the men to try to grab it.

The Big Man already had a plan. “I think… I can… get it,” he started to say. The cat hadn’t had nearly as much to drink as the man had however. They moved at the same time, the lumbering man knocking over the Jager machine and the cat knocking over every bottle of alcohol on the top two shelves. In a beautiful cascade of falling glass and colored alcohol, it sprinted for freedom.

In all honesty, I was really pulling for the cat. I was. Then it dug in and abruptly took a turn in my direction. It rocketed off the shelf, planted its back paws on the Mullet’s head, and shot through the air towards me. It hit the ground in a full run, slid across the bar floor, bounced off the wall, and fired itself directly at me.

If you’ve never had an animal throw itself at your face, it’s hard to say exactly how you would react. If you had asked me prior to this event I would have told you that I would have reacted just like a ninja should. I would simply snatch the cat out of the air with one hand, grabbing it firmly by the back of the neck, safely and harmlessly. If you asked me today though, I would not say such a silly thing.

As the cat hurtled towards me with its claws out I threw my hands in front of my face. It hit with its talons drawn and latched onto my forearm. When I tried to remove it, it struck. Like a cobra. Two gleaming incisors sank into my hand and wrist, driving down to the bone. As painful as it was, the irony of being bitten by the only thing in the entire state with a full set of teeth was not lost on me. Why couldn’t the cat be on meth like everyone else? I could have been bitten by the Mayor of that city and at the worst would only have been gummed to death. This cat though, it had a perfect set of fangs.

I flung the cat off of my arm and watched the blood shoot out of my hand. “Well sheee-it,” said the Mullet. “We thought you was gone be the one to git ‘em.”

“Sorry?” I managed to say. The cat was now hiding somewhere in a storage closet trapped behind a closed door. The girl working the door called animal control, as someone should have done to begin with instead of sanctioning this Feline Redneck Rodeo. Left to wait for the extraction team, I turned my attention to my wounds. The bartender slid a feeble attempt at medical supplies across the bar to me: a Band-Aid and a shot of Jack Daniels. I poured half of the shot on the holes in my hand and then drank the other half. I had just finished covering the injury when the bartender handed me the phone.

“Buffy wants to talk to you,” she told me, and she looked scared.

Buffy was the owner of the bar. I don’t have a lot of experience with people named Buffy, but the name conjured up negative emotions for some reason. As a matter of fact, my only real recollection of that name being used at all, in a non-vampire-slaying way, was when my great aunt used to call her dog. Her dog’s name was Buffy, but Aunt Jewel was somewhere around 114 years old, and she pronounced it “Buff-eh”. She didn’t give it the long E sound it was supposed to have, and she would snap it at the poor dog in a gravelly voice that she had earned by smoking three packs of Marlboro Reds a day for 98 years in a row.

“C’mere Buffeh!” she would growl, and then this poor beat up little black dog would come slinking into the room like some sort of villainous sidekick. So when the bartender handed me the phone and told me it was Buffy, I immediately didn’t like her.

I took the phone. “Um, hello?”

“Tell ‘em you dint git bit.”

My mind tried to process the words, to no avail. “Huh?’

“The Animal Control folks. Tell ‘em you dint git bit or they gon’ lop its head off and send it to Little Rock fer testin’.”

“Look Buffy,” I said, “It’s a little hard to hide when I have blood running down my arm and-”

“Nooooo! They gon’ chop it head off forever! That cat dint do nuthin’. You’re gon’ be fine. Folks get bit all the time ‘round here and don’t nobody die of no rabies. They gon’ put its head in a box and send it off, I’m tellin’ you!” It was like Alice in Wonderland, without the Alice and without the Wonderland… just me and cats with teeth and crazy ladies yelling about chopping off heads.

I’ll be honest; I don’t know the first thing about how you handle a feral cat once it’s been contained. I’m sure that if there is a legitimate concern that the animal has rabies or is infectious, they would be forced to put it down. What I don’t think, is that the State of Arkansas runs around arbitrarily beheading cats. Euthanasia doesn’t include hacking something’s head off with a sword, or scissors, or whatever else Buffy thought they did to something they captured.

More so, if that really is what they do to every animal they catch, then that would mean that there is a Department of Head Receiving somewhere in the great city of Little Rock.  There must be someone whose job consists of unwrapping boxes like the detective in Seven and then classifying their little beasty noggins, and that’s just weird, even for Arkansas.

And I’m pro animal under most circumstances, I really am. If I thought that the cat was going to be shoved into some homemade Southern guillotine I would be the first to step up and say something. I’m not, however, going to stand idly by and let them not run a test on a cat that just chewed on my forearm like a dog bone.

In the next ten minutes the cat was hauled out of the back room hissing and screaming and flashing its claws at anything that came close, the door girl was fired by Buffy for calling animal control, and they started the comedy show. From the back of the room I watched as everyone acted like nothing had happened. A person had lost their job over this. Big Man and the Mullet had long since left. It was just me in the darkness; me, and my fear that I might turn into some sort of zombie-werecat.

So now here I am, sitting in this turquoise room. It is 3:30 in the afternoon on an overcast day in a not-so-affluent suburb, sixty-four degrees and cloudy just like a Pearl Jam video. Somewhere Jeremy is at home drawing pictures, and I am waiting to get shots that will hopefully prevent me from transforming into a rabid Arkansan.

A fat nurse walks out as I contemplate my existence. I may or may or may not have contracted rabies. I won’t know for an hour or so. What I do know is that somewhere in Arkansas there is a horrible woman named Buffy who believes all cats die of decapitation. I know that, and that I never come home with a boring story.