Sep 11, 2014

Never Forget

That's what they want me to do.  That's what's trending today on all the social networks.


But how can I ever forget?  How can I ever forget losing you?  My life has never been the same.  Thirteen years later, and that's what this day is always about for me.  Losing you.

I could have been there that day.  I was inside those twin towers four days a week, back and forth from Brooklyn to Jersey City.  Once a week, I went to midtown instead, to our crappy Sales office.  Always reluctantly.  That's where I was supposed to be that day - midtown - instead of inside the mouth of madness.

You were in my bed when my father called.  We were both asleep.  My machine picked up.  "Big Ron, just checking to see where you are.  Just heard about a blimp hitting the World Trade Center.  Call us back."  Dad wasn't drunk, that was the original news report.  A blimp, or maybe a helicopter.  A plane?  At 8:45am on September 11th, 2001, the idea of that was still unfathomable.

And the phone call that roused us from our slumber?  That was my Dad.  That's still my Dad.  Retired NYPD.  23 years on the job.  Always checking in.  Always cynical about the city he grew up in and would live in for fifty years.  Maybe it's an Italian thing.  Maybe it's a Scalzo thing.  But Dad's always on alert.  Every time I fly, my father tracks my flight on his computer.  He almost always calls me immediately after I land to ensure that I'm alive, wherever I am and whoever I'm with.

Dad's call woke us up and I turned on the TV and you and I watched the whole thing from my living room.  Not believing what we were watching.  It didn't seem real - the second plane, both towers on fire just 11 miles away.  I had just bought an exercise bike in Borough Park and you were sitting on it while I sat on the couch.  You were crying on top of my new exercise bike as the North Tower went down.  "Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod."  How can I ever forget?

Me, I was numb.  I was numb in the days and weeks to follow.  I couldn't get to work, to my friends and my co-workers.  My subway route was now rubble.  I would drive daily to the N train, take it to Cortlandt Street and walk clear through the World Trade Center to grab the PATH to Z100 in Jersey City.  I would do my Christmas shopping in that building, would grab breakfast there every once in awhile.  Our station's holiday party was all the way at the top - at Windows On The World, a hundred and seven stories up, less than two years earlier.  A different time, a different world.

I lost you that day.  You were still here but I lost you.  Because I lost myself.  I didn't help anyone in those days that followed, I didn't feel close to anyone or anything.  I made an attempt to drive to work a few days later and it was an absolute nightmare.  Highways were closed, everyone was being stopped and red-flagged on the roads.  Every truck driver was a terrorist and every truck held a bomb.  Anthrax was in the headlines - not the band, the lethal disease.  I remember screaming bloody murder in my car in unfathomable traffic, wanting to be with my co-workers, most of who witnessed the towers go down from directly across the Hudson River and more who put on helmets and backpacks and grabbed shovels and did whatever they could to help the first responders.

Me, I was a prisoner in a Toyota Camry, a three hour attempt to drive 15 miles thwarted by terrorism.  I made it as far as Bayonne, then turned back, defeated.  Apathetic.  I took it out on you.  Your job sent you to Baltimore and you left reluctantly and uneasily.  I was already pushing you away.  I remember returning to work soon afterwards.  I was reading the newspaper in the studio, a big article in the Lifestyle section about how couples who had just started dating were rushing to the altar because hey, the world had changed.  Hey, the world was ending.

Me, I didn't feel like rushing anywhere.  We were together 6 years, and they were solid.  We rarely fought, we understood each other.  Everything was good.  You made me feel like the only man in the world and I was in love with you.  The sex was good, the rapport was good, we liked each others families and friends.  People envied us.  It wasn't perfect, but it was solid - something to be grateful for.

I read that article and I heard myself saying "Not me."  I'm not ready.  Because I wasn't ready and I should have been.  I should have sealed the deal, I should have felt what those people in the article were feeling.  Now is the time.  I should have asked you to marry me, and it would have seemed far from crazy.  It would have been cause for celebration.  But I was lost. 

I lost myself that day, watching those towers go down and wondering how different my life would have been if this was Monday or Wednesday instead of Tuesday, if I would have even been alive at all.  Maybe I would have been covered in soot, maybe I would have been covered in worse.  That's what happened to Father Mychal Judge.  He was down on the ground giving Last Rites to the dying and he was crushed by debris when the South tower collapsed.  Witness accounts state that moments before his death, he was screaming aloud, "Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!"  I'll never forget Father Mychal Judge, a man I never met.

I never wanted to go to that Sales office in midtown.  I fought requests by my bosses to go there, passive aggressively.  Sometimes I just wouldn't go.  I didn't have my own office in midtown, didn't have my own computer or even my own desk.  The place was a Park Avenue shit hole near Grand Central Station, right in the middle of the Rat Race.  In August, I ultimately relented, agreeing to go there once a week.  On Tuesdays.  Whenever I went, I would show up extra late in protest.  That's why Dad's call woke me up at 8:45, why I wasn't already on a train or a bus like most of my friends and co-workers that Tuesday.

I broke up with you two weeks later.  Over the phone, like a coward.  You were at my apartment and things weren't going well and you left to go back to your place, frustrated.  Then I called you and I broke up with you.  "You're breaking up with me, aren't you?," you said uneasily.  I can still hear your voice.

By late October, I realized I had made a mistake.  I reached out, and we reconciled, just for a little while - for my birthday, the holidays.  But I wanted you back selfishly.  I needed a security blanket because hey the world had changed, hey the world was ending.  But my heart wasn't 'all in'.  I drove us up to Connecticut for a long weekend alone and away from the madness, trying to reignite the flame.  I insisted on watching the Yankees play in the World Series while we were up there and you didn't argue - you never did.  You knew it was important to me and maybe it was important to you too.  Somehow, they lost.  In a year they were meant to win, they lost, and I always saw that as a sign of our ultimate demise.  Stupid, I know - but that's what I felt.

The next week, I spent most of my birthday evening fighting over the phone with one of my band mates.  I was leaving the band and it had all come to a head and we were having our little rock star spat.  You and I had dinner with my sister and her boyfriend, and when we got back to my place, I left the three of you watching a movie in the living room while I argued over the phone in my bedroom, effectively breaking up with four other guys.  My sister scolded me afterwards.  I should have been trying harder to keep you.  I should have been working on my relationship and I was taking it for granted instead.

I didn't deserve you.  I didn't do enough.  I didn't care enough, maybe I didn't know how to.  I didn't care much about anything anymore besides my own selfish needs.  After the holidays, you were the one who ended it - and you were much more committed to that than I ever was.  We lived a mile away from each other and I only saw you one more time after that - on the Belt Parkway bike path six months later.  I ran away from a girl I was hanging out with to chase after you, to talk to a woman who I no longer recognized.

I wrote you letters, I wrote you songs.  I begged and I plead and I prayed and you never took me back.  You were cold and callous and you had every right to be.  You told me the butterflies were gone.  At the time, I couldn't understand why - but I understand now.  A few months later, I sat at my office computer and watched you make out with 3 different dudes on a Blind Date ripoff reality show called Shipmates.  You married someone else.  You moved away and you had twins and you got what you deserved and so did I.

Never forget?  No problem.  Losing you was the hardest thing I had to deal with in the years to follow.  I left Brooklyn, I tried to forget you but how can I ever?  I never forget the best thing that ever happened to me, I never forget the love that was ultimately never meant to be.  I got rid of all the photos, but I never forget your smile.  I never forget my cowardice, I never forget the bad karma, and I never forget my fear of commitment.  I never forget that I blew it.  I never forget that I can always try harder, I can always do better. 

The past 13 years spent at what is now known as 'Ground Zero' have often angered me - the bureaucracy that held up the construction of the Freedom Tower, the tourists taking pictures of a hole as if it belonged in someone's scrapbook.  They still haven't figured it out - the new PATH station, the traffic, the building's interior.  I got stuck down there twice this past winter due to falling ice, and suffice it to say I wasn't thinking about ice while being trapped inside like a cow in a cattle drive.  It's still a mess down there, it still feels like we haven't fully recovered from the carnage, and maybe we haven't.

I remember listening to Elvis on Z100 in the days that followed the attacks, the guy who would ultimately become my boss and in some ways, my savior.  He was just talking to people.  He was being a friend.  No music, no sound effects, no pomp and circumstance.  Elvis would later confess that those days that followed were the biggest reason he recognized that what he did really meant something to people and that he truly loved what he did.  I'm still waiting to feel what Elvis feels, that validation.  I'm still searching for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow while I shake off the dust of an imperfect past.

One thing Elvis is always quick to mention these days is that it's September 12th - the day we all came together and started to heal - that really deserves a commemoration.  Ironic that on this day, I am writing this once again surrounded by boxes.  I'll be moving into a new place and starting the next chapter of my life.  Maybe today, after surviving a divorce, a superstorm, and some heartbreaking infidelity, I'm finally starting to heal.

I feel like I've spent half my life trying to run away from New York City, but I'm still here - sure, I've bounced around.  I've lived in 6 different places since Sandy took my house and nearly everything in it.  But I've never left.  I recognize that it could be a lot worse - I feel like we all know people whose friends died, who almost died themselves.  I was fortunate.  13 years ago, the world changed for everyone around me, and for some in much much worse ways.  I do know what it's like to lose someone in an instant - it is truly the worst feeling I have ever experienced.  There's nothing I can say about the brave men and women who responded to the attacks that hasn't been said already, nor that can be said any better.  They are true heroes.   Me, I'm still trying.  Bravery was never my strong suit as a kid, and only now as an adult, having experienced unexpected hardships of my own, have I learned to stare my fears in the face.

New York is a resilient city, and I am a New Yorker, an American.  I'm not much into politics nor religion, but like most in this country, I have no tolerance for oppression of my freedom.  In spite of all its flaws - past, present and future - I'm a grateful citizen of these United States.  I see those lights out my window and I wish they could illuminate the sky every night instead of just tonight.  I know I would help pay the electric bill to feel what I feel when I see those lights.  I feel lucky to be a New Yorker, I feel lucky to be alive, to still have a chance to make a difference in other people's lives.

I feel gratitude.

But what I really think of most when I see those lights - those twin beams that seem to extend all the way up to heaven....what I always think about - is losing you.  I look up at those symbols of freedom and I never forget that you were, and will always be, The One That Got Away.

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