Hand In Hand

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter, 2:3, Autumn 2001; and in The Tanka Prose Anthology, Jeffrey Woodward, editor, Baltimore: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008.       +

 

September 11 began with a phone call at 6:58 a.m., California time, shaking me from sleep. It was a friend of my wife’s. “Turn on the news,” she said, not even asking to speak to Hiromi. “Why? What happened?” I asked, motioning for the remote. “Turn on the news,” she repeated, and told me what was unfolding on televisions around the world. It was 9:58 in New York City, and seven minutes later, the south tower of the World Trade Center and all the thousands of people in it would disintegrate into a catastrophic heap of pulverized dust.

 

the remote control

warm in my hand—

if only

it could also

change disbelief

 

I went to work late that day after lingering in front of the television for three hours. At work, the amount of email was eerily light, and the day passed quickly with pressured routine. Still, I checked the CNN website now and then for updates, sometimes other news sites, and kept seeing the same horrifying pictures.

 

spreadsheet crash . . .

as if nothing had happened,

the receptionist tells me

there are Krispy Kremes

to eat in the kitchen

 

I was working pretty much by myself all day and didn’t talk about the attack. I had a one-o’clock meeting, and no one brought up the day’s events, the meeting coldly efficient in its focus on company PR and tradeshows. No one said if he or she knew anyone in New York or at the Pentagon. No one said if they felt sad, angry, helpless, or violated. I didn’t say that earlier in the summer I myself had flown from Boston to San Francisco on American Airlines.

 

at the end of the day,

I clamber down a flight of stairs—

what is it like, I wonder,

to do this in smoke and dripping water

one hundred times?

 

When I arrived home from work, my wife was lying on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, watching the news. Her office had been closed, and she had come home and spent the entire day watching television. “Not a single commercial today,” she said. I kissed her and asked if she wouldn’t mind driving to the beach to watch the sunset. I said I didn’t want to watch more news. I wanted to find some sort of relief. A few lines from a poem by Wendell Berry came to mind: “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” She was hungry for dinner, and neither of us had eaten, but we took our jackets and walked to the garage.

 

the car shuddering

as the engine starts . . .

we both reach

to turn off

the radio

 

Moss Beach was about thirty minutes away, over the hill to the west. By the time we got there, it was growing dark. There would be no sunset because of fog, its white blanket hugging the coast. We walked down a short path from the parking lot to a viewpoint overlooking the waves, where, at low tide, a large reef of tide pools is exposed to seagulls and children. We stepped down through a few large rocks and onto the sand, small bits of driftwood and flotsam making a line just beyond the reach of the longest tongues of water.
      We walked a quarter mile along the darkening sand. The tide seemed to be a little past high, and the receding water left the deserted beach nearly devoid of footprints. A vague glow from the west barely revealed the low layer of fog, and we could see out across the water only a few hundred yards. Waves sliced towards the beach, moody in their silvery, soothing repetition. They were not particularly large, the reef keeping them small, some waves revealing rock clusters in the troughs in front of them just before they curled over gracefully, smothering themselves, white in the lessening light, white to the ear.

 

my arms around her,

she holds her hands

against my chest . . .

wave after wave

beats upon the shore

 

As the muted daylight grew even darker, another couple appeared at the viewpoint behind us. Hand in hand, they stepped at the same time from a large rock, landing together on the hoary sand. Hiromi said that the waves looked like ghosts, dispelling onto the shore one by one by one. We didn’t stay long, as my wife felt a bit frightened by even gentle waves near dark, so we strode back to the path. We left behind a single car in the shadowy parking lot.

 

sweeping headlights—

out of sight

hidden by fog

the sun sets

on the day’s darkness

 

Back across the hill, we drove to a little burrito shop, and stood in line to order burritos. At the end of one wall, covered with a mural of a Mexican town square, a TV blared out the news in Spanish. As the line grew shorter, the news turned to the story of all the people who had jumped from the top of the World Trade Center to escape being burned. One after another after another, the TV showed clips of people jumping, arms flailing, bodies twisting and turning as they fell, so tiny against the never-ending wall of the massive building. But the wall did end, repeatedly, yet the cameras failed to capture the last moment of life in those swiftly falling bodies. One after another they fell, the terror described by the newscaster in Spanish. Without knowing what he was saying, I felt the cold rush of wind, imagined the dreadful panic of having to choose between death by fire and the exhilarating finality of leaping into the bottomless New York air. I remembered my one visit up the Sears Tower in Chicago and the amazing scale of its height above the street, above the city, above the world, and thought how deeply terrible it would be to fall from that pinnacle, the air squeezing tears from your eyes as you streaked to your death.

      “Qué usted desea?” I was asked, also being nudged by my wife. I turned from my transfixed stare at the television to look at the girl behind the counter. “Sorry,” I said, and she smiled. It was such a brief and slightly tired smile, a nearly imperceptible upturn of the corners of her mouth, but it was enough to say she understood. In that moment I felt like I understood her, too, her there behind the counter, watching today’s news all day while she took orders for burritos and tostadas.

 

pen in hand,

she waits for my order:

a vegetarian burrito, please,

with no sour cream—

a death toll in Spanish

 

Driving the rest of the way home, traffic still seemed lighter than usual, the cars moving slower than they usually did, reminding me of the day the Gulf War started. I thought of the horrors of war I had heard from my parents and grandparents, in books I had read, in movies I had seen, all of it not really real, but I felt thoroughly grateful for the ocean I could listen to in peace through the sacrifice of others. I thought of the wanton disregard for human life that had brought unspeakable tragedy to the country on this appalling day. Then I thought of the couple whose picture I had not seen, but whose story I had heard, who had jumped together from the World Trade Center, falling to one death by escaping another, leaping together, hand in hand.

 

my wife reminds me

to keep my distance

from the car in front

 

her hand stays

upon my thigh

 
 
 
 
The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve at Moss Beach, California. Photo taken 12 September 2009, eight years and a day after my visit described in this haibun (it was foggier than this on that day in 2001). The bluff on the left is about 30 to 40 feet high.
 
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