Relay: The Unbearable Heaviness

I was dazed and out of focus

I lived in Montauk as a child, and spent several summers there as a young adult, but it wasn’t until years later that I finally visited the Montauket.

It was approaching sunset on Sept. 15, 2001, and I was dazed and out of focus, detached as if observing myself from a thousand yards, lost in a strange new world. 

I’d arrived in Springs, from Brooklyn, on the evening of the 13th, collapsing under the unbearable heaviness of the attack, good friends graciously taking me in for three nights. 

There was no plan but to be far away from New York City, and I was happy to do anything, to go anywhere, to turn off the damn television and pretend all was well, and going out to Montauk for drinks at sunset sounded pretty good, under the circumstances. 

Standing on the lawn with a hundred or more others, we clutched our drinks as the late-summer sun cast its warmth across everything and all of us, gathered under the blue sky on Fort Pond Bay. 

I’m not much for jingoism, but damn, the seemingly spontaneous swell of a disparate choir, friends and strangers alike singing in unison and with complete abandon, brought the first, microscopic sense of comfort, even strength. “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home.” 

I always think of that moment on the few occasions I’ve been back at the Montauket. Maybe I’ll get out there next week, for a cold beer and quiet reflection.

A most gorgeous streak of perfect late-summer days had blessed the Eastern Seaboard that week, the furnace of New York’s wretched summer finally yielding to cool nights, low humidity, skies a clear and beautiful blue. The morning of Sept. 11, like those before and after it, heralded another perfect day. 

I was getting ready for the commute from Brooklyn to my office at Ninth and Broadway when the crackling voice on WCBS NewsRadio 880 said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. In the first minutes, eyewitnesses said that it looked like a twin-engine aircraft. This was going to be a long day, I thought. 

Then, incredibly, another plane crashed into the other tower. America is under attack, said the voice on WCBS. 

We were all staggered that day, slow to process the surreal scenes on the television and before our eyes. For a long time that morning, I still intended to go to the office. Only later did it occur to me that the subway may not be running, and later still did I grasp the enormity of what was happening.

On the television, the south tower collapsed, but surely everyone had gotten out, I thought, and how strange the skyline looked now, and the sight of just one tower would take getting used to. 

I walked out of my apartment, still bound for the office. But as the door closed, another opened, this one at the top of the staircase leading to the roof. A neighbor across the hall, a beautiful young woman from Ukraine, stood at the top of the stairs. 

The building was a few blocks from the East River, and across it was Manhattan. The roof offered a close, clear view, and it was there that my neighbor, her roommate, the superintendent, and I watched the north tower burn for several long minutes, until it too collapsed, disappearing into an eruption of smoke and dust and flames. 

We all stared, silent, for a long time. Someone had a portable radio, and we listened to reports of a plane crashing into the Pentagon, and another in a field in Pennsylvania, and in the fog the truth was obscured: Now there were eight planes unaccounted for, now there was a fire on the Mall in Washington. Or not. 

Guy, an Englishman who lived three floors below me, was a friend. We had been in a band together a few years earlier. He did web design for Deutsche Bank, at 4 World Trade Center. 

I went downstairs and knocked. He answered, very shaken. He had been a little late for work, he said, and had just emerged from the subway when the second plane hit, the explosion and fireball directly overhead, people jumping from the highest floors to their death. 

He’s dead now, too. Eighteen months after Sept. 11, he got some very rare cancer. There were tumors growing all over his organs, on his spine, eventually on his brain. He went back to England, and he died. I was too broke and callous to fly over for the funeral. 

Smoke poured into the sky for many days, and the enormous empty space where the World Trade Center had stood seemed illusory, the notion that the towers could simply be gone ludicrous, impossible. 

In the twilights to follow, what remained of Manhattan’s skyline was majestic, that unique profile that everyone knows from pictures, from movies, from standing on a roof in Brooklyn. That night and the next, I went back and stared long into nightfall. But for the huge, billowing black smoke emanating from the site, it had never been so beautiful. What an unlikely juxtaposition, I thought, remembering the thousands dead and, looming over the horizon, the wars and death to come. 

I walked past “missing” posters affixed to every inch of every wall, each a plea for information painstakingly handwritten around an image of happy people at some spirited celebration — a birth, an anniversary, a graduation, or just a perfect summer day. Every last one of them was dead, buried beneath thousands of tons of steel and glass. 

I walked past firehouses where a dozen men were lost, and the evening news told of 25-year-old widows and fatherless infants and those who would soon be born into this terrible new world. 

And that was the worst thing, that unbearable heaviness, and it filled me with a sadness for everyone, but mostly for the children who might never know the innocence of awakening to the world, a welcoming, endless summer awaiting.

Christopher Walsh is a senior writer for The East Hampton Star.