Slow 9/11By Dolan Morgan
May 30, 2020
“Can you describe a time when someone betrayed you?” This question is posed to me by Jan during a round of The Ungame, which I play over lunch with a group of colleagues in our architecture firm on the 92nd floor. The Ungame looks deceptively like Candy Land but is described, in its product materials, as a game without winners. Or losers. What is the narrative of this game? “To know one another,” apparently. “To create a story together of who we are, alone and apart.” I’m reminded of long adolescent evenings, with Stacey and Joe and Shane and Steph, slowly beginning to feel the idiosyncrasies of our tiny lives, how we gifted each detail to one another without knowing their value, and for the first time in years, I miss them. I think about the question. About who has betrayed me. But cannot think of anyone. Other than myself, of course. Ha. Am I lucky? I giggle and believe for a moment that I must be winning the game. The Ungame.
I open my mouth to share this revelation with my colleagues, but Jan interrupts, waving me aside and directing our attention out the floor-to-ceiling window, freshly cleaned and gleaming. “What is that,” she asks, pointing into the clear blue sky. We all turn to look, some swiveling in office chairs, others shifting to peer around shoulders. “I don’t see anything,” Eric squints, leaning forward. But it’s there. Unmistakably it is there.
An airplane. Large. Suspended, sort of hovering, or just barely moving, some distance off from our building, waiting in the air, paused far above the Hudson. “It’s not moving,” someone states or asks.
Utterances of disbelief and questions of whether or not this is possible—a jumbo jet floating motionless in the sky—give way to alternate explanations. “It’s not an airplane, it’s a helicopter. See the rotors on top?” But it is an airplane, undeniably. We can make out the wings, just barely see the turbines, the long row of windows. “It’s an illusion, an advertisement,” someone offers. But it’s there, in 3D—patient, and not selling us a thing. “A blimp, a hoax, a conceptual art prank,” someone offers, or pleads really. This is the angle that gets the most traction, if only briefly: a joke, a gag. But even that explanation falls away when the news reports start rolling in, confirming our suspicions: a large passenger plane—a real one, with an origin and destination and ferrying actual passengers—floats immobile in the sky above the river, impossibly still, somewhere between New Jersey and Manhattan.
It isn’t until well after someone suggests we return to The Ungame, picking up where we left off (an idea dismissed by all) that an obvious but overlooked fact is privately noted; and it is not until well after we return to work, to our functions and roles—reluctantly opening the blueprints and schematics, the construction status report—that someone finally remarks: “Isn’t that a little low for a plane to be flying?” It’s almost as if the astoundingly surreal fact of the plane’s immobility, something I am still unable to fully wrap my mind around, serves as a kind of flashy camouflage obscuring, through sheer absurdity, the much more mundane peculiarity of the plane’s low altitude. But the fact remains. It is flying a bit low for an airplane (although “flying” is not exactly correct in this case—floating?). And it isn’t until we again return to work that Eric directs our attention to the second plane.
The new aircraft appears somewhere beyond the first, perhaps just over Jersey City on the other side of the Hudson, and floats at roughly the same height—a height that we are only now beginning to accept is a bit, just a bit, closer to the ground than our own office, the implications of which are murky to us, but ominous in their irregularity.
After a few minutes of staring in confusion out the window, I return to my desk but find it difficult to concentrate on anything at all, let alone the “root cause analysis” protocol I’m tasked with planning for our department team meeting at three. Or rather, I do find it easy to concentrate, but only on one topic: the planes. Just sitting out there in the sky, completely still. Or are they? I look out the window again. The two objects are definitely getting closer. I think? I can’t understand it. From an architectural standpoint, they are obviously fascinating. No doubt others are struggling to focus now too. All around me, the air is devoid of the usual clicking and clacking; instead the steady din of quiet chatter, between two people and now four and now seven, slowly boils over into numerous conversations across the office, debates about what is possible and what isn’t, each of which fades away suddenly when Jan snaps the television on and the audio of a news broadcast overtakes the room. The anchor describes what we already know, colored now by a dissonant combination of melodrama and empty assurance, but the screen displays undeniable images of crowds gathered in wonder all across the city, the world.
Jan suggests that we leave the office and head downstairs. Eric declares this proposition an overreaction. “The plane is just sitting there,” he says. “But it’s getting closer,” Jan says. “To what?” Eric asks. “To us,” Jan says. “I’ve been pretty near to a few planes in my life,” Eric says, “In fact, I’ve even been inside a few of them, and those planes were moving a lot faster than the two out the window, which, as you may have noticed, are both very far away from us.” Neither makes a great argument really, but Jan glows with an unearned sense of victory when our office manager, Kevin, announces that “out of an abundance of caution, the occupants of the 27th floor in tower 1 have been dismissed for the day and will work from home.” The 27th is followed by the 15th a few minutes later, then the 21st, 32nd, and 17th in quick succession. When Kevin editorializes by adding, “I’m not sure why such low floors are taking precautions, honestly,” it only serves to confirm aloud a privately held suspicion: that our 92nd floor, given its relative alignment to the height of the floating planes, has more reason to be on guard than those floors already evacuating below.
But there is much to do, our Executive Director reminds us, emerging now from his office for the first time today, and our calendars are full; whether planes stand still in the sky or not, he says, our humble office remains a key source of structure, both physical and figurative, through which vital capital pumps into the economic heart of global commerce; time might be paused on those aircraft, he says, but here every second counts, and we are already behind, hours behind; and I find myself agreeing, and I understand, frankly, that someone needs to construct buildings and build hotels, and that root cause analysis protocols and “fishbone activity guides” can’t organize themselves. No, I alone must organize them, we alone must build them. Now more than ever. My work is important, in its way, I suppose, as all work can be if you squint at it just right, the way our Executive Director is squinting now, as if seeing it all for the first time, eyes truly scrunched up and furiously concentrating, his voice declaring, “Okay, but I’ll admit the first plane is clearly on a trajectory that will intersect with the other tower over there. Definitely. It’ll slide right into tower 1 for sure.”
On the news, numerous experts—engineers, mathematicians, flight technicians—affirm the executive director’s hypothesis through a series of charts and graphs all pointing to the same inevitable but inconceivable conclusion: an eventual meeting point between the jets and the buildings. Or, rather, two meeting points, one for each plane and building, ours included. The timing is uncertain but also unavoidable, they say. It’s coming and we should prepare. Other talking heads are paraded out as well, offering their dissent: “the equations are speculative at best, and the conclusions are misguided. It is extremely rare for planes to collide with buildings, and we’re confident that won’t be the outcome. Likewise, if they are headed toward the towers—which, again, they are not—we’ll simply divert them beforehand.” The arguments on each side predictably align along partisan faultlines, but both ends of the spectrum agree on this: “Go ahead and work, or shop, and just have fun. We have plenty of time, and there’s no need to change your behavior. ”
And they’re right. By 4:30, after somehow becoming totally engrossed in our fishbone protocol, which went over well with my team, I emerge from the department meeting to learn that the planes have barely moved. The day is over and nothing has changed. I head home.
In my apartment, which I share with a small cat (or, rather, which a cat reluctantly shares with me), I mull over The Ungame question again. Have I ever been betrayed? I know I’ve both wronged and been wronged, many times over, both intentionally and unintentionally, but calling out any one of these moments as betrayal seems like a stretch. I weigh vague thoughts about “true” betrayal requiring previous expectations and a failure to meet them; it occurs to me that I might not know the definition of the word, despite its familiarity, and this fact soon begins to feel like its own kind of betrayal. Besides, having grown up relatively poor, I expect so little of the world and what it owes me that it would be difficult for life to fall short of what I think I deserve, which is basically nothing. Frankly, I feel lucky to be where I am, as if I have snuck into a life that isn’t mine, and that I could at any moment be dragged back to my dirtbag roots, where I belong. On the news, anchors discuss why contact with the planes remains impossible to establish. Helicopters that veer too close experience a loss of altitude, which city technicians attribute to a slowing of the machines’ rotor blades, implying “that the stillness phenomenon expands outward in a larger zone beyond the aircraft, surrounding them.”
Close-up footage of one plane’s cabin depicts passengers frozen in mid-action; people tossing handfuls of pretzels into mouths, others about to speak or just dozing off, attendants handing out or reaching for complimentary beverages, children beginning to stand or sit. I can’t understand it and am amazed by the way each framed moment presumes the onset of the next. Looking at the totality of a single point in time can make anyone feel like a psychic: the future is obvious. I flip through the channels and consider why I might have so quickly come to the conclusion that I alone have betrayed myself. No concrete moments come to mind, no instances of me freeze-framed like the passengers on the plane, no spots to which I can confidently point and say, “That’s when I stuck the knife in;” instead my mind conjures something more all-encompassing, a sort of constant state of my life, a steady hum primarily defined by the ways in which I fail in my desires and ambitions, daily, hourly, and then minute by minute. I lose time. Night falls. On the television screen, images of the motionless planes hovering above the river, lit now from every angle by spotlights and helicopter beams in the growing darkness, are inescapable and indecipherable. What do they mean, people ask on TV. I look at the gap between the aircraft and the buildings, consider the premonition of their eventual intersections, and think about my own choices, what I aim to do, and how I often fall short, with mathematical regularity. In this, I envy the planes and the towers, for their certainty, their presumed inevitability—they, at least, are able to achieve their goals, or so the experts tell me—but like all things, I doubt that they can truly come together as intended. At night, I dream that I am capable of lucid dreaming, that I have agency in my thoughts, but then I wake up and the new day takes hold of me.
Over breakfast, I debate whether or not it would be wise to return to the office, but our next big construction project, a luxury hotel, breaks ground in mere months and we’re already behind. The fishbone protocol was clear: Luis screwed up the supply chain, construction on the hotel will likely be delayed, and I’ve got some major recovery in front of me. Besides, the planes are still barely moving. Can I really put my life on hold for them? No, of course not. Not unless I want to lose this job. Which, incidentally, is exactly what my boss warns me over email. After a quick but quiet subway commute, I arrive again in the Financial District. It bustles with a grey, brittle energy as always. Before entering my building, I join a small crowd staring into the morning sky. We exchange meaningless speculations about the planes and their purpose. There is a strange new camaraderie that pervades each interaction. Sad smiles. The newspaper this morning includes profiles of the passengers. Nurse, pianist, actor, caterer, soldier. They sound like nice people, but who knows. Have they been betrayed somehow? On the elevator, a custodian, Geoff, informs me that two additional planes were spotted. “Stalled and hovering, the same as the first,” out over Pennsylvania and New Jersey—headed south, destinations unknown. “How many are there,” he whispers, pointing to a photograph in the Times. The fact that we don’t know, can’t know, is just as disconcerting as any definitive answer.
Before the other tower explodes that afternoon, bursting into flames between the 72nd and 89th floors, a plane having finally intersected with it, I enjoy a relatively routine morning.
My desk is right where I left it, and everyone seems committed to re-establishing a sense of normalcy. It’s sort of easy. For example, with the television off and the news silenced, the only tangible difference in our day, really, is the distant sight of two unmoving planes (although, it does appear that one of them has shifted position more dramatically than the other?), but they barely register unless you are looking directly at them. There was a time when the sight of any plane in the sky, anywhere in the world, moving or not, would have been ridiculous, even frightening, and certainly newsworthy. But you can get used to anything. Like flying machines, I guess. Like this job, somehow. How did this happen, I laugh. I think of Shane and Joe and Stacy and Steph, and all the things we expected of one another, what we imagined we might someday be and do. Why don’t we talk anymore? I’m embarrassed by what I once hoped. Eventually, the day arrives when you don’t know people.
Running through our list of clients and vendors, I wonder how on earth Luis screwed this up so badly, and how I can possibly explain it away. At this rate, the hotel will never be built. What can I tell our clients? I think of Shane’s ridiculous driving advice back in high school. He always loved a loophole and insisted that if you ever get into a car accident, one that is certainly your own fault, you should say to the cops that you sneezed—because, he claimed, a sneeze could be construed as an “act of God,” relieving you of any responsibility. I always admired his scrappy approach to wrangling the universe into working for him. He was poor and fatherless like me back then—with lean arms and a long, lanky body, about which my mom would often comment, “Where do you fit your organs in there?”—and Shane always started from the proposition that the world, left to its own devices, was engineered to set people like us aside. I think his great dream in life was just to get away with living it. Regardless, I don’t think his sneezing advice will fly with my clients. Letting my guard down now, I look out the window. The planes remain mostly still. Or have they gotten farther apart? Did someone out there sneeze? I try to keep working.
But I remember, too, how Shane said he would kill himself if he didn’t get into the school he wanted. And how he ended up going to some other university without a word. And how he hated it and threw rocks through the windows of a church. And how he crashed his car into a telephone pole that autumn, an accident involving nobody but himself and the open road in broad daylight. And how he claimed, of all things, that he’d sneezed. I think about the fact that we never talked about it, not really, having already begun to grow apart, and then I make numerous calls to our vendors, managing just barely to regain some footing. Soon I have the makings of a barebones plan for getting this hotel back on track. I celebrate my feeble victory by grabbing an apple in the break room. The Ungame sits untouched on the table, the question of betrayal still waiting for me. Was Shane betrayed somehow? By his friends? The world? By his own cleverness and ingenuity? Or had he intended for us to understand his intentions all along? I wonder if I was there for him enough. I wonder what being there means. I’m here, I think, how can I not be, and between bites, I scan through the remaining Ungame prompt cards.
Do you ever feel lonely? What does freedom mean to you? Talk about birthdays. Make a statement about beauty. What do you dislike most about yourself? Tell about a time you hurt someone. What manner of death frightens you the most?
This last question stumps me. Jan enters the break room as I’m running through the long list of ways to die. She says that one of the planes is picking up speed. “How much speed?” I ask. “Not much,” she says. “A few miles per hour, here and there.” She fills a glass with water. We turn on the news. Our efforts at normalcy and routine have been valiant, but now it is time for TV. It’s 2 PM, the mayor is giving a press conference. He talks about the planes. But also about “speed spikes.” He points to a graph with a blue curve that tilts more severely upward over time—quite unlike the straight lines of yesterday’s models—and says that “these are the latest projections,” sliding his finger along its arc until it crosses an initial threshold marked in red, representing the point of impact with the other tower, and then slides his finger upwards still to a second threshold, marked by another line for our own tower. “We’re talking days, not weeks,” he says. I put my apple in the trash can. “A plan to understand the forces at play here and ultimately to divert the two aircraft and deliver them safely to the ground is well under way,” he says. At this point, we can keep working, but the mayor warns that “some tough decisions may lay ahead for many businesses.”
Since yesterday, informal lines of communication have been established between the towers, and we get reports from across the way that, given the mayor’s remarks, most businesses intend to continue operating through close of business today, but then, starting tomorrow, will remain shuttered for the remainder of the week. This being the financial district, home to all manner of risky bets, a few exceptions intend to push their offices right up to the edge of the projections, wringing out a bit more capital before halting the flow. On the opposite end of the spectrum, numerous buttoned-up enterprises opt to evacuate their personnel in a flurry, preferring to bet hard on safety and preservation. The speedy exit is marked by the haphazard filling of small boxes, overcrowded elevators not least among them.
In the breakroom, where Eric and a few others have now joined Jan and myself, there is some debate over which companies are being overzealous, either in their timidity or cavalierness, but all arguments are halted and rendered pointless when Luis pushes through the door furiously and announces that “the South Tower exploded.” Luis is an idiot and we don’t really understand what he means, but we file back into the open office area anyway and stare out the window. Given the scene unfolding between floors 72 and 89, just across the street, Luis has been right about at least one thing this week. Flames burst from all sides of the building, but there’s something not quite right about it. “Where’s the plane,” Jan says. I mean, there’s nothing “right” about it, of course, not at all, but the scene also emanates a sort of “uncanny valley” energy. “Where’s the plane,” Jan says again, more insistent now. At first I write off my confusion as an innate element of anything so surreal and frightening, but then I see it: the stillness. The immobility. The flames are there, yes, stretching outward in undulations of black and red, but they are barely moving. It’s like a photograph of an explosion, or a film in slow motion. “Does anyone see the plane?” Jan says, almost to herself, “I only see one plane now.” Eric touches my shoulder and points. “Is that… Do you see that?” I follow an imaginary line extending outward from the tip of Eric’s finger, across the expanse and toward the burning building. Amid the various pieces of debris —frozen now in the sky—there is a person, a man. He hovers in the air, midjump. His body, ablaze and pointed toward the ground, reaches outward as if to grab hold of empty space, the very last resource available to him or anyone—nothing. “A plane cannot just disappear,” Jan says.
Jan is right. As we hastily prepare to leave the office, uncertain of when exactly we might be back, our Executive Director turns the volume up on the news so that all can hear. A federally appointed Task Force has assembled in the White House press briefing room to recommend what they are calling “Chronal Distancing.” It takes officials a moment to unpack the context and meaning of this voluntary regulation. Apparently, the first plane gained speed exponentially until it reached not only its original velocity but also accumulated additional “bonus” speed beyond that. The increase was incremental, yes, but by doubling even small numbers, things easily get out of hand. By the time a few plucky technicians plotted the frightening growth pattern, let alone when they finally convinced authorities to take these numbers seriously, the speed of the plane was already well past the point at which anything could be done about it. It doubled, then doubled again, and within a matter of minutes, 0.02 MPH became 600 MPH, and now look at us.
“But you will no doubt wonder,” a pasty mathematician says from the lectern, “why the current state of the building is again one of immobility and stillness. The reason, from what we have been able to gather, is both disconcerting and cause for hope.” He considers his notes, takes a sip of water. “What I’m about to say might confuse or frighten you at first, but rest assured that our conclusions are based on empirical data and all available evidence. Our brightest are already working hard to remedy the situation. Here’s what we learned today: there appears to be a direct correlation between 1) the speed of afflicted objects such as the hovering airplanes, and 2) the speed and motion of unafflicted objects. Which is to say: if nearby items move quickly and/or often while in proximity to the planes, especially when grouped together, this will directly increase the velocity of the planes. In the case of the first plane, the nearby presence of numerous helicopters, deployed this afternoon by private contractors to study the aircraft, unknowingly caused the plane to gain speed exponentially—all because of the tremendous collective rotations of the helicopters’ rotors. The good news? You’ll be happy to hear that when these helicopters were recalled from service, which the President did instantly, the plane immediately slowed down again. The plane’s current location is of course stretched across numerous floors of the tower and its surrounding airspace, which is why the stillness has infected that entire area too. But again: we know the cause and so we know the remedy. More good news for you, America: the generally much slower movement of people and objects in nearby buildings, such as yourself and your loved ones—and even cars and other machinery—has had a much smaller impact on the speed of the remaining second plane in NYC, and the others across the nation. So, to summarize: if we all do our part, and follow the President’s simple Chronal Distancing guidelines by moving as slowly as possible and as little as possible, effectively creating more space between one moment and the next, we should be able to flatten the curve of the remaining planes’ steadily growing velocities.”
A question from the audience: “How long will we need to do this?”
From the lectern: “I suppose that depends on how slow we go.”
At home that evening, after a long walk over the bridge back to Brooklyn, I try to internalize fully the logic that our own movement “speeds it up” and so we have to stay where we are.
“Our own movement speeds it up, so we have to stay where we are,” I say to myself as I painstakingly cook dinner, sweep the floor, and change my clothes over the course of a few hours. I don’t feel safe until I’m settled onto the couch, entirely still, watching television, where many experts—all of whom might normally gesticulate furiously—try to argue their points without commotion.
“It’s slowing down!” an older man repeats. “But the plane keeps getting bigger, closer, faster,” says another. “Sure,” a third insists, “But soon it will stop entirely and probably reverse, going back where it came from, no problem.” I feel the hope of that idea even as the plane clearly inches closer. I picture a jet landing backwards, its occupants disembarking in reverse, all of them moving now through the gate and the terminal, rewinding through the streets to their homes, to their families.
“It doesn’t matter what will happen ‘soon,’” someone else inserts, “because—currently, right now as we speak—in the exploding tower there are still people, many of them alive, slowly being engulfed by fire.” This fact settles into the brightly lit newsroom. I recall The Ungame question from earlier today, the one that stumped me: What manner of death frightens you the most? “I think that is different,” the old man says. “Different from what,” another asks. “From our own situation. That’s not what’s going to happen to me,” he says, but it feels more like a question. The worst way to die might be steamroller. Starting at the toes, it rolls over the feet, and begins its long path toward the legs and across the hips, the trajectory of which is obvious to the victim from the very first instant, but which is also entirely unstoppable, as the machine simultaneously pins you in place and rolls slowly ahead, grinding everything beneath. It’s the particular combination of pain and the foreknowledge of only more pain ahead that seems so unbearable. Maybe I do understand what would push someone to drive their car into a pole in the middle of the day. Make a statement about beauty. What do you dislike most about yourself? Tell about a time you hurt someone.
As the news drones on, I try my best to remember Shane’s phone number but can’t. I am uncertain what I want to say to him anyway. The number is nowhere to be found. I try not to move, but my thoughts race ahead. I have plenty of time, I think, and we can start slow. Maybe I could apologize. For what? For anything I guess. Time. Do you remember when we were in high school and I’d just gotten that cheap car? We drove to Yale, remember? Just a few towns over, in the hopes of convincing some “theoretical physicists” to run experiments on the weird science ideas we were reading on the internet? Teleportation, quantum states, yada yada. We felt like idiots when the grad student explained to us that “theoretical” means exactly that: just theory, no experiment. And you remember how we wandered the halls of that science building, sort of aimless and dejected? It was a beautiful autumn evening, and the breeze came through the old cracked windows. I think we felt enthralled by our own freedom, by the fact that two shitheels like ourselves could walk unaccosted through that elite space. We opened doors. Eventually we found ourselves in a closet, full of equipment. And we took a small device, not because we needed it, and not because it was in any way useful. I don’t know why we took it. Stole it. But after we drove home, almost in silence, the object resting between us in the car, I pulled up at your condo to let you out, and we turned to each other. Do you remember? We turned to each other and both looked at the object. I still don’t know what it’s for or what the instrument measures. We both reached for it and grabbed onto it in the same moment. We’d never physically fought before, but in the car, we grappled violently, trying to get I don’t know what from the object or from each other. At one point, our struggle took my foot off the brake and the car began rolling slowly but steadily forward, down the slope of the hill, toward the hard line of trees that marked the start of the forest. An impact was inevitable if we went on like this. The car was gaining speed and our movement within the car only increased it. Faster and faster. Honestly, I don’t know how you felt about what happened next, but it embarasses me to this day. I stopped struggling, letting you hold the object. I put my foot on the break and said, emotionally, that I couldn’t believe you would risk my car over this dumb thing. The argument didn’t make any sense, but I’d been the first to appeal to pathos rather than strength, and the gambit worked; you handed over the instrument, we went home, and we never spoke about it again. I still have the thing, buried in a closet somewhere in my apartment, measuring nothing. Falling asleep, I try to picture a line emanating from its frame, stretching out into the future, but I don’t see any intersections, I can’t envision the impact.
By late October, I haven’t left my apartment except to buy groceries, and the dark joke making its way around the internet is that tower one—which is obviously collapsing now, and has been for weeks—looks almost like it is dressed up for Halloween. I don’t think the sentiment is funny, but I sort of see how the building, going down slowly and wrapped in an off-white waterfall of debris, does resemble a ghost, or at least a person draped in a long sheet. Others see a devil in the smoke. Angel in the sun beams. Mary in the dirt. Folks have plenty of time to conjure all sorts of ideas as we approach a second month of semi-stillness.
At the moment, I am fifteen minutes into my ascent of the single flight of stairs toward the building’s roof, trying not to think about hotels that need to be built or bosses that demand attention or money that needs to flow. Every day I make deliberate choices about what to do and when, knowing full well that each agenda item will absorb huge portions of my schedule. I plan to observe the city at dusk, watching the recital of our collective dance. I have an unfounded sense that perhaps things will soon be getting better. My right leg lifts to take another step. Life in the city, and everywhere, has become a kind of ballet. We try to understand what it means to be slow. How to live our lives at a fraction of the pace. Daytime television stars look like they are performing morning tai chi as they demonstrate how to prepare a light breakfast or cup of tea. A trip to the corner bodega now commands a whole afternoon. A pervasive sense of inevitability suffuses all elements of life. A hand reaching for a glass, a leg poised above a step, a body pushing into a shirt. My palm shifts along the railing in the stairwell, inching upward. Each moment broadcasts the next. Now I am at the top of the stairs, and now I am reaching for the door. I recall an opera I saw once in another life—a piece about an Egyptian king who invents a new spirituality. I turn the knob and begin to pull. I remember how those singers moved across the set at an almost impossibly slow pace. Hinges squeal as the metal door twists along its frame. I remember that, whenever a character began walking from one side of the stage to the other, I knew instantly the course of events that would unfold over the next few minutes; it was simultaneously unbearable and transfixing. I take my first step over the threshold and onto the roof. Here in the city, too, the future is contained in the architecture of the present, as it always has been, but now we finally have time to see it, to catch hold of it before the present slips from our grasp. Only thoughts continue to move at their usual pace, like water flowing through stone. I love the amber glow of streetlights against city trees at dusk, especially in autumn. At what point do we enter the moment from which there is no turning back on our route to some future occurrence? Can we feel it when the track clicks into place? I think of Steph and Stacy and Shane and Joe. I try to imagine the moment when the distance between friends stretches past the vanishing point, when some quiet loss becomes inevitable.
From the roof, where I am usually quite alone with my thoughts, I am surprised to see that my neighbors have assembled here, and others too have gathered atop their own buildings—I try to wave, slowly, but they are all looking in the same direction, away from me, away even from the spectacle of sunset.
Following their gaze, it takes me a moment to register what we are seeing now, a new kind of dance.
But undoubtedly: I look out and the horizon is full of them, plane after plane. Hundreds, thousands. All headed our way, toward the city, like some great wave.
It isn’t going to stop.
Soon, the headlines come at a faster and faster rate, and the steady arrival of new developments makes up for the city’s lost speed. Things are not getting better. Everybody knows someone who is on one of those planes. A neighbor, a friend’s mother, some cousins, an ex. We can’t say how they arrived on the aircraft, only that they have become unwitting passengers. We go slow and brace ourselves for the news of one more and one more and one more.
Only our own absurd projections about the world outpace the news. Baseless theories pour like water from a newly busted dam, every insane idea suddenly given the same weight as reason and logic. I speak to my sister, for example, who “knows someone at the office of emergency management,” whatever that means, and she has “intel” about all of the new planes bearing down on the city. Who or what, I ask, is piloting them? “Chance” it seems, randomness and probability, uncertainty itself; our own choices, the good and the bad, the ignorant and the joyous, one by one learning to fly, but not to land. “Okay, I don’t understand that either,” she says, “but I think we all can grasp the fact that, either way, my connection at OEM had to place an order this week for 12,000 body bags.” In fact, like most things these days, I find that hard to process as well. My sister tells me that she is learning to crochet. That she is simultaneously terrified and falling into some strange rhythm, “the feather of her life floating gently onto the pillow of each day, impossibly docile.” I ask if she is drinking again but she says that she doesn’t know what that means. My Executive Director emails me to see if we are still on track to commence construction of the hotel next month, even though building projects everywhere were halted weeks ago. He suggests that “the new planes probably are not aimed at buildings that don’t yet exist” and thinks we should be safe and suggests we “lobby our representatives, protest in the streets, barge into the halls of justice.” I don’t answer. Without the hotel project, I am sure that I’ll be furloughed. I feel those dirtbag roots reaching up from the past to grab me. He also sends me a photo of his yacht and asks me to “be a part of his virtual animal care community on Neopets” about 47 times. I get an email from Eric, who says there are “planes coming from within us too.” Somewhere a doctor peers into a patient’s body, he writes, “from which emanates the faint roar of engines, audible with a stethoscope or scanning machine, and far in the distance, deep within the lungs or the blood, the faint headlights can be seen, growing ever larger, edging ever closer. The airplane is coming, steadily. And there is no way to stop it. The planes eventually will burst from the body, tearing into the sky, rending apart any building or structure in their way. They will crash into the surrounding streets or countryside, or else soar upward to join the endless fleet above.” I cannot tell if he means this literally, like a conspiracy theory, or as some kind of metaphor. “But some studies show,” he says, “that maybe a blast of bright UV light can confuse the planes and send them off course.” His email concludes with a long digression about where he sees his life heading; he says that, in the past, he prayed for moments like this, but now he can’t remember what his hopes were or what they meant. “I don’t know what is true and what is not, only that it’s getting worse,” he writes. “They’ve ordered 12,000 body bags,” he says. “Get out of New York.”
On New Years Eve, Times Square is empty, but I watch a ball slowly drop on television. It’s a rerun. 1996, I believe. I try to imagine the country collectively willing the bright orb to slow, to halt its progress toward a final destination, which is always the next moment and then the next. Yesterday, the first plane—the one we noticed on that clear day back at the end of summer—finally edged its nose into the 85th floor of the North Tower, just a few stories below my office. A milestone of sorts. The jet hovers there still, projecting from the window line. Everything is its own monument. We have slowed the process but not stopped it, and experts still debate whether an explosion will occur, slowly or suddenly. That night, as if touched by a higher power, I miraculously remember Shane’s phone number and dial. To wish him a happy new year, I suppose. I feel good entering the pattern on the keypad. I have plenty of time, I think, and we can start slow. But a voice I don’t recognize answers on the other end. A woman. She doesn’t know any Shanes. Not a single one. No doubt his number changed long ago. I take a bite of cake.
I’m not sure if it’s the holiday, the champagne, or the camaraderie baked into our new reality, but I feel bold enough to ask the woman on the other end of the line, “Hey, so, have you ever been betrayed?” She doesn’t have a clear answer other than, “Yes, of course,” but doesn’t hang up immediately either. Isobel stays on the line much longer than necessary. It’s pleasant. Coincidentally, she is an architect. Her regular work has dried up now mostly, but she’s still rendering plans, still drawing up blueprints. I ask her about the details of her recent projects. Isobel describes a new freedom she has found, now that construction is largely stopped across the city and the nation. “What I design no longer needs to conform to what is possible,” she says. “I envision preposterous buildings, infinite regressions of rooms, unworkable ducts and archways, and infrastructure that twists and knots in ways that can never be manifested, and never needs to be.” It sounds like a waste of time, I tell her with a laugh, but I like it, I say, throwing back another sip of wine. “That’s where you’re wrong,” she says. “Business has never been better. I can sell these unreasonable structures faster than any real building, and at scale. The barriers to closing a deal have all fallen away.” I don’t quite believe her, but by the end of the call, I’ve purchased the schematics for a building she describes as a “version of the famed math parable about the infinite hotel, the one where a guest arrives to find all of the endless rooms already full; but the late guest is still able to settle in for the night when the desk attendant makes space—by asking every occupant merely to move down one room.” The unique innovation in her particular rendering and mock-ups of the building, she says, is not the configuration of how she managed to fit an endless number of guests into the rooms, but instead how she has constructed “an evacuation plan, for an emergency, when it is time for everyone to exit at once.” I ask her how she’s done it. “It’s easy,” she says. “I stopped trying to figure out how to get the people out of the building. Instead, I have the whole building leave the people. So now, instead of an endless to-do list for each guest, it’s just one simple maneuver: goodbye hotel. The structure disappears, and everyone is left safely behind, floating in empty space. We’re all together that way, too,” she says. It sounds comforting, I agree. “It isn’t the people who leave, but the structure that stands between them.”
The next morning, I email Isobel’s immaculate hotel plans to my boss and tell him that, yes, “everything is on schedule.” I mean it.
While I wait for his reply, I dig through my closet until I find what I need: that peculiar scientific instrument, the one from the car, buried now behind a trove of boxes and books. I lift it from the dark and remember its familiar weight, recall the smoothness of its polished wood, enjoy the complexity of its various knobs, meters, and dials. I plug it in, place it gently on my kitchen table, careful not to scratch the surface, and then flick it on, watching a small needle spin faster and faster, as I begin the process of trying to understand exactly what it measures, to know exactly what it can tell me.
artwork by Dolan Morgan
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