Writing a novel pulls many things out of your heart and mind, even your soul. THE GAZE happens to be one of those novels and I took the opportunity to add things that touched my life. I remember exactly where I was on that Tuesday morning. I remember the fear and anger that dominated my thoughts that entire day. Perhaps as a writer, I wanted to remind a reader about those events in the spirit of never forgetting 9/11.
Here's that tribute, in the words of Samantha Reddick during a conversation with Tony Amaya...
“Tuesday, September 11th,” Tony said slowly, looking up from his notes.
“September 11th.” I echoed, vividly remembering entering the appointment into my planner. I even drew a smiley face next to the date. A lump formed in my throat.
“I’m sorry, Sam.”
His hand closed over mine and I was grateful for the contact. “Do you believe in destiny?”
He mulled over the question for a moment. “More than a few things in my life seem to confirm we all have a destiny. There may be a plan we are supposed to follow, though we may not always see why things happen the way they do until we reach that destiny, and everything becomes clear.”
An image of Gwen floated in my mind. “Okay, but do you think we can change that destiny?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, his brow furrowed in thought.
I moved the empty glass aside and leaned forward on the table. “There have been times that made me think perhaps I cheated my destiny and that’s why certain things happened to me.”
I said nothing, but the name Brooks Waldenberg came to mind.
“I don’t think so, Sam. I mean, I’d hate to think that my life has been somehow written as a list of instructions I simply follow until I reach the end. But I don’t think there are consequences for making a decision that alters a certain pattern. I don’t believe in the existence of fates. I don’t believe they’re up there ready to punish us when we cheat them out of the destiny they had in store for us.” His gaze bore into my eyes. “But I know if you didn’t make that appointment on that day, it was for a good reason. I’d take it as you’re supposed to do something else with your life and that wasn’t your time to go. I mean, I can’t think of anything else I would like at this very moment than to sit here with you.”
I squeezed his hand in return, warmed by his words. There was no secondary intent in anything he said, but I wanted to find one anyway. I couldn’t remember ever feeling the things he made me feel. “Thanks.”
“Would you like to tell me more? You don’t have to.”
I sighed. “I want to.”
On Monday, the 10th, I received a phone call from one of the deans of the Columbia University English Department. Dr. John Miller was my 18th Century Literature professor, a very bright individual who demanded the very best out of his students. I congratulated him on making Dean and accepted his request to speak at a career orientation presentation for underclassmen. The presentation was scheduled for the next day.
I called Dupree’s office and got his daughter Josette. I explained my predicament and she laughed it off, telling me it was no problem at all and that if anything, her father would be adamant about my speaking to the students. I thanked her and changed my appointment for that Friday.
The next morning I got up early, laced my running shoes and battered the cobblestones of the Esplanade, marveling at the sun dappled waters of the harbor during a three mile run. The sun was bright, the sky a clear endless blue and the air fresh with just a hint of autumn. I remember thinking what an incredible day it was.
Once I was back in my apartment, I called my boyfriend and asked him to meet me for lunch later in the day. I changed and quickly composed an outline for my presentation. I would have thirty minutes to speak and thirty minutes for questions and answers.
All I had to do was to describe my career as a junior editor for Tennenby and credit my education at Columbia. Easy as pie.
It was just past eight and I didn’t have to be at the university until nine-thirty. I figured about a twenty minute walk to Park Place to take the number 2 subway for a twenty minute ride up to Roosevelt Park, so I had time for a long bath and for doing some work reviewing a new manuscript before I had to leave. With only twenty minutes to go on the hour, I grabbed my bag, my folder, my keys, and I set out for Park Place.
I was walking east on Murray Street just past Saint John’s University when I heard something that sounded like thunder. Knowing there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky, I looked around like everyone else on the street that had suddenly stopped when the ominous blast hit. I saw a man standing on the corner of Greenwich Street, pointing at something high up in the distance. When I looked up I saw a column of dark smoke marring the sky. I wanted to run to the corner but I ran the risk of breaking a heel, so I shuffled along and joined a growing group of people with shocked faces, looking in the direction of the World Trade Center. The high rises on Greenwich Street prevented us from getting a clear picture of what was happening and our collective first impulse was to run down for a better look, but most of us stood frozen in horror.
Must be one hell of a fire, I thought, as the morning exploded with sirens, seemingly coming from everywhere at once. There were people running down the street towards the Twin Towers and others running in the opposite direction. A man behind me shouted questions and one woman stopped, looked around uncertainly, eyes wide with fear. “A plane crashed into the towers!”
Ice cold fear coursed through me at the terror in her voice. Police cruisers sped by along with officers on motorcycles. One officer parked near us, dismounted and began ordering us to leave the area. The radio clipped at the shoulder strap on his jacket chattered nonstop. The stone face cop commanded us to clear the street only meeting a wall of shouted questions. The officer requested back up, yelling into his radio, his voice taut with anger.
I heeded his command and navigated through the growing crowd of onlookers. People flooded out of buildings and ran down Greenwich towards Park Place for a better view. I didn’t know where to go since my apartment lay to the South where all the police barricades were going up.
What kind of idiot pilot lost control of a plane and crashed into the towers? The question was on other minds when I started hearing words like “hijacking” and “terrorists”.
The smoke grew thicker and more sirens echoed in the air. I couldn’t think of a time when I had seen so many firemen and police officers in one place. Just then, I heard screams and then another massive explosion. I whipped my head up, but all I could see was smoke billowing over the tall buildings to the south.
A second plane hit the towers.
Panic took hold of the city after that. There were less gawkers and more runners. I sidled along the buildings, fearing getting trampled if I stayed on the street or sidewalks. Fear curdled my blood as everywhere I looked I saw another tall building that could be hit by another plane. I was caught between wanting to put as much distance as possible and wanting to stay. As the shock slowly wore off, I suddenly remembered where I would’ve been if Columbia hadn’t called.
I could hear Josette’s cheerful voice over the phone when I had last spoken to her to change my appointment. I could see Rupert Dupree sitting on his comfortable leather chair with his thick glasses perched on the edge of his nose as he intently read a manuscript. I could hear his voice in my head, boisterous and animated. It just couldn’t be.
A daze fell upon my senses but I forced myself to take two steps before standing and looking back at the cloud of smoke darkening the horizon. All around me people that normally would never give one another a second look stopped to speculate and offer another piece to the puzzle. There was an impassable gridlock to the north as police turned traffic around and prevented it from entering Lower Manhattan.
I could see open windows where more shocked faces stared at the ominous dark cloud growing over the city. Time seemed to slow to a crawl and sound came to me as though I was at the end of a long tunnel. More police and firemen arrived and some stayed behind to push the crowd further north. It seemed no one wanted to move.
I saw a woman run barefoot to an officer and almost knock him over as she called out a name, James. Her screams were pointed by a heart wrenching pain that reduced me to bitter tears of my own.
“What’s going to happen to those people trapped up there?” A woman asked a tall man standing next to her. “Those buildings are on fire.”
The man said nothing and I didn’t want to imagine such inferno.
“I talked to my girlfriend on the phone. She said people are jumping out of the windows,” said a shocked male voice from somewhere behind me.
“Oh, dear Lord…” an older woman moaned.
I tried desperately to tune out the ongoing comments. I held onto the hope that firemen were going into the buildings to help those people, and I prayed for the safety of Rupert Dupree and his daughter Josette.
I managed to look around me and saw a group of people kneeling on the sidewalk. They held hands and bowed their heads in prayer. I stepped up to the group and went down on one knee, but I couldn’t pray, I could only cry. The only reason I joined them was to feel some sort of comfort. It felt like time stood still.
Time hadn’t stopped, however, only my perception of it. In fact, more than an hour had gone by. The fear of more airplanes hitting buildings dissipated as word got around that air traffic had been halted. Our thoughts were on the people trapped in the towers. It seemed everyone became a news outlet, shouting out details and filling in the blanks adding to the collective shock. Before anyone could speculate on how to save those people, the North Tower collapsed, raining fire, death, and fear into the very heart of the nation.
Much has changed over the past 11 years, and that Tuesday morning was a turning point that may have left us scarred, but it also gave us perspective as to what is truly important in our lives. Don't take anyone for granted, particularly those people who dedicate their lives to the service of others, our police force, firemen, emergency medics, and our armed forces. Live for today the best way you can, and love our nation, flaws and all. America is still the best place to live.
PS. These chapters in the novel were inspired by true events in the life of a very dear friend, who still mourns her losses from that day.
Javier A. Robayo