SHE STANDS AT the window, dropped into a jet-lagged dream. The street below is covered in snow. She knows what subtropical heat feels like. She knows the frisson of an electrical storm, the thundering sound of violent rain on a tin roof, the clean, earthy smell and golden light that settles over Brisbane when it's over. She does not know what snow feels like. Exhausted and alert, she looks down at the barren trees searching for references. Traffic is universal, and the engines of Broadway comfort her. She feels held by the body of the apartment, as if it were keeping her defined in space, safe from the moil of humanity beyond. The room she stands in is like a small face; it has two large eyes that stare across into other people's windows. It has bland, even features, and a long, throaty hallway that leads to the bedroom, dark and warm and cramped. It has only two bud-like limbs: a tiny bathroom and a kitchen just large enough for a stove, sink, bar fridge and cutting board. She is on the Upper West Side, alone in a city of
8 million. She feels like the only one awake.
She spends the week making tentative tracks around New York, seeing the obvious sights. She visits the galleries and takes the lift to the top of the Empire State Building, where she sees Manhattan laid out in a simplifying grid that hides teeming labyrinths. She makes her pilgrimage from celebrated site to celebrated site with determination. Like many before her, she enjoys the self-satisfaction of having arrived. Coming here, being here, has marked her. She is not content to live obscurely at the foot of the orb. She will be at its centre, its throbbing and calamitous heart. Having packed a sole inadequate coat, she shops for scarves, hats and gloves. She buys a long quilted parka fit for the Antarctic. It's well below zero and nearing the deep end of winter. At night, white lights wrapped around the trees blink through falling snow. She checks in at Columbia. She is here on a PhD scholarship, but despite having convinced them with her application, she has no idea what she will write. The point was to be here, the rest is strategy. By week three she asks herself if she misses home. Australia seems distant and obsolete. She misses people, she decides, misses being known and knowing. She makes a memorial in a corner – framed photographs of family and friends.
Things she misses from home:
The irreverence of Australian humour
She meets a man, a photojournalist, at a poetry reading listed in The New Yorker. He picks up on the accent, thinks she's English, finds it enchanting. He comes and goes, he says, works everywhere at a moment's notice. He lives in Brooklyn, he says, but it's only for sleeping and storage; there's just a bed, no fridge. He has an incredible voice, the inflection part Boston, part Brooklyn, a tough, beautiful mix. He offers to show her around. Under his tutelage the city opens up, slowly, like a seductive smile breaking on a formal face. He takes her through SoHo and Little Italy, telling stories, pointing out Umberto's Clam House, where a famous mobster was gunned down after a meal of linguini. They walk past an Italian with shifty eyes and a thin moustache standing in a doorway smoking a cigarette, a big wool coat over his shiny suit. The man who will be her lover is dark, too – tall, lean, a large forehead, a sly, crooked grin. His skin is smooth and pale. They sit in a café and order coffee and cheesecake. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever plays and the only pictures on the shiny cream walls are posters from The Godfather, Part II and Goodfellas. They stay there for hours. She listens to him talk. He likes her eyes, he says, moving her hair away from them with one elegant finger. Her skin tingles. She looks down. He kisses her at the door of the cab. Back at the apartment she can't sleep. She keeps hearing his voice. It's like a drug.
Even though he's away more than he is there she feels more able, protected. She has a guide, an ally in this city of too many. He leaves her with instructions of what she should do while he is gone (compulsory clichés he calls them), and like a dutiful student she does them all. She takes the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walks the length of Columbus Avenue and detours to gawk at the Dakota, of Rosemary's Babyfame, and the place of John Lennon's murder. She stares at the cobblestones where he fell and thinks of Yoko. She goes to an exhibition of Andy Warhol photos, then buys a Polaroid camera. Following a conversation about the changing face of Harlem, her supervisor invites her to a gospel church service. They sit up top and watch the congregation below, a bouncing sea of colourful hats. Women fan themselves and fleshy arms wave in the air. Voices holler praise, hands clap, feet stamp and ecstatic cries and singing fill the room. Afterwards they eat soul food (cornbread and grits) and visit an exhibition of young African-American artists' work. She wonders why this kindness has been extended to her. She figures she must
HE'S BACK AND they spend days in bed watching leaves sprout on the branches outside her open bedroom window, their skins stroked by a lulling breeze. She is frightened of never wanting to give this up. He smokes furiously, his wiry arms gesture as he talks, and his hair falls down his face in unplanned perfect symmetry. She watches him smoke and marvels that it does not repel her. He will not let her leave. She cancels appointments, neglects her books, ignores email. Finally, when the food is finished, they go out. They walk through Central Park, stopping to feed squirrels. The bold ones scamper forward and fill their cheeks with nuts. Most of them are bold. On the Upper East Side they browse the boutiques and watch manicured women and their pram-pushing nannies walking Fifth Avenue. They glimpse old-world bohemia off the tourist tracks of Greenwich Village, and are fused together by the bustle and trinket stalls of Chinatown. Each neighbourhood imprints on her memory a kaleidoscopic essay of first impressions. She is falling under the spell of this metropolis (compulsory cliché). She is (compulsory cliché) in love.
He has flown off again to some Asian region she's never heard of. The days are long and lonely. He says his life, when he's away, is impossible. He cannot be contacted by phone or email, at least not reliably, and so she determines not to try. They agree it is the best way. Make the cut clean, if temporary. She makes a start on the thesis but it's hard to concentrate. She tries to read but her eyes go over the same line repeatedly before she realises she is thinking of his hands. She makes no other friends. She tries to talk to people but they are cocky or preoccupied. The worker bees are tired. She sees the middle-aged women on the buses and subways, their faces drained of joy. New York, for the un-rich and unblessed, is a dull and demanding master. It no longer flirts, no longer intoxicates with its charm. She wonders if it's easier for the tired middle-aged back home. The potential is more muted there; more tempered with doubt, and the opportunities neither so many nor so grand. Their disappointment is, perhaps, a little less sharp. The inhabitants of Gotham are taunted by a perpetual sense that anything and everything is possible. Before she felt the pulse of that heady hope it seemed hackneyed at best, a contrivance of brutal capitalism at worst. But being here she feels the promise is real (if not always realised) and dizzily addictive; the Magi's star for generations of hopefuls, its gravitational promise draws them and holds them all captive.
Spring has passed. The days have been taken up with waiting and with trying to read and write, a frustrating and isolating existence. To break the monotony she goes out and eats new and alien foods: knish and pickled cucumbers. She awaits his return and the proverbial heat of high summer.
He takes her to a fourth of July barbecue party on a rooftop in Alphabet City. She saw the neighbourhood once in a film about child addicts and shooting galleries. He tells her it's come up, or at least parts of it have, but there is a hardness to the place unknown uptown, a sense of menace in the air, or a sense that menace lurks around the corner. The building is an old tenement peopled by the ghosts of poor Irish immigrants. The apartment itself is a rabbit warren of rooms with floorboards like waves in motion. It is glorious up on the roof, where the Chrysler Building glimmers in the sunset through a hazy mist of light rain. When it darkens, fireworks erupt from a barge on the East River. She stands in his arms, overwhelmed with a sense of, what is it? Not pride, for she is not American and cannot make a claim to its "independence". It is a surprising respect for the history and struggle being honoured, a small insight into the character of this country she has observed from so far away. By the time they leave it's pouring. The rain is familiar but the alien Alphabet streets are not. She examines people as they pass, suddenly vigilant and anxious. A sense of foreboding roils in her belly. In her mind they are threatening; she feels they hate her, that they would harm her. She rushes him towards the West Village, searching for a cab. Her feet scream in new shoes as the cabs sail past. The flip side of New York has presented itself like the comeuppance moral at the end of a fable. Finally, they resign themselves to the subway and stand with sweaty backs and arms pressed against them as it speeds north. They never go to his place. He seems to prefer hers. It's become habit.
She has been in New York City for six months. There are times she can understand the fierce loyalty people have to it. As the bus crawls up Madison Avenue she notices film crew trailers. She cranes her neck around to see scuttling crew. Further up, the pavement is iridescent with floodlights and motion. And then she sees them; a luminous Samantha from Sex and the City standing on the corner in hot pink playing a scene with a frustrated Miranda. There it is, a New York moment, out of the blue. There are times she loathes the burdened island, its malodorous streets, impossible traffic, pushy operators who jump cabs and plough ahead in queues. There are times when its beggars and subterranean despair depress her, when the buildings and the bodies – their difference and sheer numbers – oppress her, when the currents overwhelm her. But there are also moments, fleeting but more and more frequent, when she adores it. Who wouldn't love a town where Marvin Gaye pipes out of supermarket sound systems?
SHE IS SUDDENLY bothered by the inaccessibility of his life. She has been granted no entry into his world. She pushes to go to his apartment but he resists, becoming aloof and making excuses to leave. It strikes her that for all their lovemaking and racing around town she barely knows him. Has she even seen past his veneer of weary sophistication, of agitated creativity? She has been foolish, has been wooed and won, both by him and his city, yet on both counts there is no trust, little real knowledge. But here she is, conquered, unable now to free herself.
He goes, returns, and goes again. While he's gone she manages to write a chapter of aimless reflection that struggles to find an angle. Every time she tries to think, the feeling of being immersed in something, of being – there's no other way she can put it – hooked, distracts her. This time his absence is a stabbing pain, a nagging doubt, an inexplicably deepening suspicion, but of what? He has grown evasive. He comes less often and when he does he seems remote and restless. The easy amor has been replaced by an edgy avoidance. She watches him sleep. His glittering persona shut down, she can now see his shadow. How is it she didn't notice it before?
He says he will be gone a week. Nine days slide by and still there is no sign of him. It's September already, hard to believe. The humidity has been sucked out of the air leaving the days a crisp azure blue. On the 10th he leaves a message on her machine, says he's delayed in LA, will be back in another week.
She is on a bus heading downtown. Great plumes of thick black smoke rise into the sky. The passengers look around at each other. A woman gets on and announces that a plane has hit the World Trade Centre. Passengers turn to one another. Someone says it happened once before; a small plane hit the Empire State Building. Even though it's close to 9am she hopes, irrationally, that the building is empty. Everyone stares at the ominous columns of smoke rising in the pristine sky. A man gets on and says the other tower has been hit. There is a scurry of people shifting in their seats, of hands raised to mouths. A woman begins to cry. She notices several others have tears in their eyes.
She hears the word "terrorists". Everyone quivers with a startling vulnerability. Her limbs begin to tremble as the bus continues down Amsterdam Avenue but her mind is blank, or at least she can't catch the thoughts. Fire engines rush past. The shrill wail of sirens floats like sonic ribbons on the wind. One engine pulls up beside the bus, the driver impatiently waiting for a clearing. As she looks out the window, a clear-faced young fireman sitting up front turns her way. For a moment their eyes lock. She feels like a child, wanting to be told it will be all right. What do his eyes say? Do they say it will be all right? Do they say he does not want to die? Do they speak of fear or of calm? She cannot tell what his eyes say.
She alights at midtown and walks to her appointment but the street is not normal. Everyone talks on mobile phones. She must be the only person on Manhattan who does not have one to her ear but then again she has no one to call. When she arrives at the reception desk the girl looks up from her computer, ashen-faced, and says simply, "The Pentagon has been bombed." She turns and leaves the building. She waits at the bus stop and watches a doorman wring his fat hands, his old Mediterranean face creased into a frown. A young man stands nearby talking on a mobile. He hangs up and says, "The South Tower has collapsed." She looks toward Wall Street and sees that the plumes have blossomed into a dark mushroom. The doorman looks left and right, still wringing his hands. She wonders if his wife works in the tower, pictures her, a short, heavy-set tea lady doing her rounds when the plane tears through the windows, or a cleaner perhaps with cloth in hand. She looks at the young man. His face is fixed in defiance. She envies him. She feels only twisting, sickening fear. She hears a girl say to her friend, "There are more planes up there." The girls look up. She looks up too, up at the Empire State Building in whose shadow they stand.
She imagines it will be next, that it, too, will crumble, interring them all. She wonders if this ironic disaster-movie-come-true will be her last day and if she will ever see home again. She wants to tell the doorman and the angry young man, "I shouldn't be here. There's somewhere else I belong." But what do they care while their city burns? She wants to be Dorothy, back in Australia with one click of her magical heels. There's no place like home. There's no place like home. Swarms of people stream uptown as she climbs onto a bursting bus. Back in her apartment she watches CNN while fighter jets circle the eerily shutdown city. She thinks of him waking to the news in LA. Why hasn't he called? She cannot sleep and she cannot eat and she cannot escape the stricken island.
IN THE DAYS and weeks after, there are bomb scares, anthrax letters and terrorist alerts. The tally of dead rises and falls. She can think of nothing but going home. Australia feels as far away as the moon. On a clear night the moon can be seen, enormous and blond, but her country is an invisible moon. She hardly knows how to reach it. Finally she sleeps, a long, turbulent sleep. She dreams panic and she dreams of him. She wakes up crying, not a lone, sweet tear but guttural sobbing, heaving grief. He will not return, not to her, and there are many to mourn. The gravitational promise has released them. Details emerge and circulate, haunting awake and asleep: the child on the plane on her way to Disneyland, the mobile phone calls to say goodbye, the nauseating thud of bodies hitting concrete. Sometimes dread gives way to fury and then she walks far and fast. "Here I am," she wants to say, "to you a heathen and a whore. You can't kill us all. You can't kill us all."
American flags fly. The entrances of fire stations are plastered with portraits of the fallen, with children's crayon drawings and cards; the ground beneath is littered with flowers. She stops and looks for the eyes whose words she did not understand. There is a photo of a smiling young man in uniform at a station on 85thStreet. It might be her fireman. As she turns to leave, a red pick-up truck passes by, spiny with dozens of miniature flags. The flags make her feel lonely. She calls her mother. She thinks of her once-lover. She runs in Central Park. And then the strangest thing happens. She's on the subway to Park Slope, daydreaming like the rest, when she looks down the length of the carriage and sees him sitting there. It is peak hour and the carriage is full and she is able to observe him from behind a giant, chunky-armed girl. He does not see her even though she stares brazenly at him, and this is what is odd: she has no desire to be seen or to go to him. She feels utterly disconnected and wants only to look, and as she looks she realises she is looking for something, for some reason to think herself connected to him, to consider him other than a stranger. Yet none comes. He gets off before her and she is palpably relieved. The only thing she is sure of is that somehow a spell has been broken.
SHE GOES DOWNTOWN to where the towers stood and looks at the ruins – mangled steel and pulverised bodies. A heavy grey ash covers everything. Clothes hang shrouded in store display windows. And the smell, the post-apocalyptic smell, is blown across the compass by shifting winds. Every few blocks there is a makeshift shrine, a wall of missing-person flyers, a line of candles and flowers. People stand around in vigil; the shrines are agonising, accidental art. She spends hours reading the posters, meditating on the photos, absorbing the faces of the dead, reading the words of their loved ones, the painstaking descriptions, the desperate, hopeful pleas. A dog, a black pug dog, is missing, having bolted off its lead and into the car park of the towers when the first plane hit. The pug, she knows, is buried in the rubble. The thought of this victim running toward its death, caught up in a human hatred it could never comprehend, is too much and she weeps. It is suddenly dark.
She is part of the bruised tenderness of the city. People look gently at one another as they pass and their eyes say what their voices do not speak: you, too, survived. She is one of them, a New Yorker now. They look gently at one another as they pass. It's a solemn night and the sky is empty. Home is an invisible moon. She sees it in her mind's eye.