Sunday Pages: "Blue Spark, Part II"
A memoir by Nelly Reifler
Back in 2012, my friend Jennifer Kabat and I founded The Weeklings, an online magazine about art, culture, and politics. One of the best things we ever ran on those pages was “Blue Spark,” a three-part creative nonfiction piece written by Nelly Reifler, and edited by Jen, that was about, among many other things, how Nelly coped with the loss of her friend, the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.
This series was a departure for Nelly, who was, and is, extremely reluctant to write about herself this way (as she explains below). Her fiction tends towards the experimental. She puts the creative in creative writing. Her novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge, is literally about a mouse running for office, and one of the main characters is a private detective who is also a Barbie doll; Émile Zola she is not. “Facts,” she writes in Part I. “They’re why I write fiction. I don’t trust memory to be solid any more than I trust smoke.” Even so, she tells her story beautifully, expertly, creatively, movingly.
With her kind permission, I am resurrecting “Blue Spark” today, because in Part II, Nelly tells her 9/11 story: a tragedy that took place at her wedding led her to booking a seat on United 93 to San Francisco on September 11, 2001. She is one of two people I know in real life who purchased a ticket for that fateful flight, only to change her plans at the last minute.
On Friday’s podcast, Noel Casler talked a lot about the importance of the arts in times of cataclysm—how musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Paul McCartney helped heal the city in the weeks after 9/11. Great literary artists, too—whether poets like Philip Larkin or fiction writers like Nelly Reifler—can help us make sense of a world that, especially on days like September 11, 2001, can feel hopeless, random, and devoid of meaning. As William Carlos Williams explains in “Asphodel,”
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Blue Spark, Part II
By Nelly Reifler
1. Noah and I got married on August 25, 2001. My stepmother’s immediate family was in a gruesome car crash on the way to my wedding. We found out seconds after we said our vows, and from there the wedding became a kind of nightmare that still brings with it, when I dare remember any details, a tidal wave of shame. Mahnaz, my stepmother’s wry, generous, beautiful sister, sank into a coma, then became brain dead in the week following the wedding. She was taken off life support, and there was a three-day-long funeral, in the tradition of their family’s religion. All the while, I focused on one simple, undeniable fact: if I had not chosen to marry, Mahnaz would be alive. People tried to spin this fact, convince me that it wasn’t true, but I still feel something close to insulted when anyone does this.
2. Aunt. During the sixteen years that Mahnaz was alive and her sister was married to my father, I called her my aunt. I loved her unconditionally, and I took her presence, generosity and support for granted, just as young people do with family. After she died, she was in my dreams. In my dreams she’d call me on the phone, bewildered, asking where she’d gone. But while writing these chapters, Dear Reader, I haven’t been able to call her my aunt: my stepmother’s grief has been so profound, so long-lived, that it seems bottomless. She still calls out Mahnaz’s name involuntarily. I can’t skip past my stepmother when naming my connection to Mahnaz.
3. Drunken skinny-dipping. The wedding site had a small lake, and my friends stayed up swimming in it until late at night. They were still at a party; the party had continued even after the news of the accident came through. Many guests were oblivious; it now seems perverse and impossible that Noah and I were ordered to continue celebrating, even with my father and stepmother absent, at the hospital. Now, out on the cracking lawn chairs, one played banjo and another a guitar. Alexander swam out to the dock, liquor bottle in his hand. We were in our thirties, and my friends were no longer lithe, but still dreamy enough to slide into the moon’s reflection, to break it with their bodies. I shivered on Noah’s lap. He hugged me, and I pushed my face into his shoulder. I knew things were bad. I knew they were going to be bad for a long time.
4. My father sent us on our honeymoon. This was the day after the wedding. I remember standing in my father’s driveway, and I remember how stunned everybody was. Like the wedding day before, it was a perfect day. Mahnaz was in what the doctors called a “coma-like state.” My father insisted that Noah and I head to Quebec. My father told Noah, you are her husband now and you have to take care of her, the way I’m taking care of my wife.
5. On our way to Canada, we spent a night at a B&B in Vermont, and I couldn’t sleep. The man in the room next to ours snored so thunderously, the walls vibrated. Noah sweated through the sheets. In the morning we had coffee, and Noah took his Prozac. When we got to the hotel in Quebec, we discovered that the staff had set out champagne and roses for us. We had a view of the St. Lawrence River. In the quaint old city we drank wine, and in the bleak new city went to an art museum where there was a huge show of work by Riopelle, the painter who had been Joan Mitchell’s mate for twenty years. Have I mentioned that Noah was a painter? (He still is.) One of the best I’ve ever known. He was dismissive of Riopelle’s large canvases; I imagine that it was grounding for him to articulate his critique of the famous painter—a familiar impulse in the swirl of misery. I kept dialing the rabbi who had married us, and when my bad cell phone finally got through to her in the frigid foyer of the museum, the conversation did not answer the theological questions I had at that moment.
6. Noah and I had argued with the rabbi. In our meetings leading up to the wedding, she insisted that the word “God” (or “G-d”) must be in the marriage ceremony. We didn’t want it there—which now seems inane to me, nit-picky. So we didn’t believe in God: so what? Months later, Noah would posit that what happened was our punishment for trying to keep God out of our wedding.
7. September 9, 2001: the day after Mahnaz’s funeral. Noah I returned to the 16th Street apartment. The phone rang, and I forced myself to stop crying and pick it up. It was a mundane call about a possible part-time gig. My mind collected, rallied, and I was able to sound professional and pert. When I hung up the phone, I said to Noah, “Things are starting to feel just a little bit normal.” The phone rang again. Dylan gave me the news: Billy Greene had been murdered the night before in the foyer of the Oakland building where they both had apartments. It was a cold-blooded, random murder: a single bullet to the head. If you’ve ever known anybody who was murdered, you know how unbelievable it is when you get the news. I began to sob again again and told Dylan that I would come West to mourn with him and our other friends, as well as Billy’s father, Tinker, and his mother, Robin, who would be traveling from Vermont.
8. I can’t hop around the Internet and find 43 stories speculating about Billy’s childhood or his state of mind at the time of his death. There aren’t fan websites or New York Times articles. It’s better that way. Because I can tell you, without the complications of journalists and fans—opportunistic or sincere—that Billy was a golden human being, a generous friend, a complex and often confounding mate to the women he loved. It’s simple for me to state that he was a great artist whose potential was just beginning to be realized when he was killed.
9. Surveillance video of Billy’s death exists, yet the murderer remains at large.
10. They were predicting a hurricane for the next day, September 10, so I needed a plane ticket for the following one. I had a long conversation with a kind but hands-tied clerk at American Airlines about bereavement rates, and how they’re for family only. I think I was confused, being doubly bereaved, and still and already overflowing with guilt; I didn’t understand how this person on the other end of the line wouldn’t just hand me a ticket. Weren’t things awful enough? There had to be a transaction? Then I came to my senses and realized that, yes, of course you spend $800 to be with the people who loved the person who died whom you loved, too. I made a reservation there, at American Airlines; I had twenty-four hours to cancel it. For good measure I called around to a few other airlines.
I reserved a second ticket on United Flight 93 to San Francisco; I had twenty-four hours to cancel this one, also. I couldn’t decide which plane to take. My seat on United Flight 93 was cheaper than the American ticket, though the tolls to Newark from Park Slope would almost cancel out the difference. The drive to Newark was longer. But then again, it was an easier trip, especially in the morning. There was never-ending construction on the BQE between Brooklyn and Queens. These are the kinds of considerations that are comforting to an emotionally tapped-out mind. Okay, I decided, I’ll go on the United flight. I canceled my American ticket. Then I called my best friend Astrid, who lived in San Francisco, and who’d be picking me up, to let her know. Astrid reminded me that there was an airport in Oakland, and I could tell that it would be better for her if I landed there. She’d already be keeping vigil in the East Bay with the other mourners. The last thing Astrid said to me, sick with grief, was, “At least it can’t get any worse.”
This new airline, JetBlue, went to Oakland. JetBlue was cheap. I called JetBlue. JetBlue had no available seats. At this point I had about eighteen hours to cancel my United reservation, so I focused my crazed brain on landing a JetBlue ticket. This was in the days before high-speed wireless internet was common in people’s homes, and one didn’t tend to buy tickets online, so I called the Jet Blue toll-free number over and over. Finally, at about 7:00 P.M., a family of three let go of their seats on an early morning flight to Oakland: Jet Blue flight 93. I noted the curious coincidence: why would two airlines have the exact same flight number for the same route and time? I snagged one of their seats. I called United, let go of my ticket, and got ready to head to California.
11. Noah drove me to the 7:00 AM flight the next day, and he told me later that he had noticed he could see the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the drive home through Queens and Brooklyn. I took some Pakistani Halcyon, hoping it would keep me in a mild stupor for the flight, and closed my eyes. When I opened them, it was because I had felt a kind of ripple run through the cabin. I don’t think I’m very good at writing about this highly intense stuff—it feels emotionally hollow, as if I’m narrating, not feeling: but believe me, I’m feeling, and I was feeling then, too. On the miniscule monitor lodged in the seat back of the person in front of me, I watched the World Trade Center—the bright towers of which, at bedtime, I used to gaze at through my childhood windows—collapse. I watched Dick Cheney’s thin mouth explain that planes that remained in the air would be shot down. I watched the camera pan over the rubble of the other flight 93, United 93, that I’d had a reservation on. As a late Cold War child, I had waited all my life for the awful moment of mass death that would sweep me away. I had fantasized a lot about how I would behave in that moment; I did now what I always did in my fantasies: turned to hug the person nearest to me, but she—a woman about my age who’d been chatting with me as we took off, before the Halcyon kicked in—refused and shrank away from me. The man next to me ignored me. At some point, the pilot’s voice came on the PA system and explained that he had not been told exactly what was going on, that we knew more than he did. He had been ordered to land the plane as soon as possible, and we would be touching ground in Kansas City.
12. Let’s Roll. From UnitedHeroes.com, an online memorial “devoted specifically to the heroes of United Flight 93 who courageously took control of their destiny and stopped the terrorists from using their plane as another weapon”:
Todd Beamer, who resided in Cranbury, New Jersey, was an account manager for the Oracle Corporation. He died at age 32 in the September 11, 2001 attacks on board United Airlines Flight 93. He is survived by his wife, Lisa Beamer, two sons, David and Drew, and a daughter, Morgan Kay, who was born on January 9, 2002, nearly four months after her father’s death.
Todd and other passengers had been in communication with people via in-plane and cell phones and learned that the World Trade Center had been attacked using hijacked airplanes. Beamer tried to place a credit card call through a phone located on the back of a plane seat but was routed to a customer-service representative instead, who passed him on to supervisor Lisa Jefferson. Beamer reported that one passenger was killed and, later, that a flight attendant had told him the pilot and co-pilot had been forced from the cockpit and may have been wounded. He was also on the phone when the plane made its turn in a southeasterly direction, a move that had him briefly panicking. Later, he told the operator that some of the plane’s passengers were planning to “jump on” the hijackers. According to Jefferson, Beamer’s last audible words were, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” This term would later become the war cry for those fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
13. In Kansas City, I got my luggage and organized hotel rooms for everybody on my flight. How did I do this? And why? I also remember dialing numbers over and over on my candy bar cell phone, unable to get through, and I remember the meal I ate that night in my hotel room: French fries and chicken. I remember that none of it was very real to most people in Kansas City, and I remember the collection of Indian miniatures at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and I remember weeping on the phone to JetBlue clerks, who were soothing like mothers. I remember an old man from Long Island—also stranded from the flight—telling me that he didn’t like Rudy Giuliani because the mayor had treated the Gotti family so poorly, and I remember a Jewish woman getting drunk next to me at the hotel bar and saying, “Of course they’re blaming it on the Jews.”
I remember calling Noah from my hotel bed and telling him to join me in Kansas City. I would never leave, I said, as if I were suffering some strange strain of geographical Stockholm Syndrome. He told me I had to come home. I pictured him doodling on the back of an envelope; I pictured our cats circling his ankles, darting, fighting with each other while he nudged them with the toes of his sneakers. I had no idea how to picture our city. He said that the iron gate in front of the building where we lived was covered with dust and ash from the collapsed buildings, and that bits of paper had floated down and settled into the cement rectangle next to the stoop. He said there was a smell. He suggested we could spend a couple of weeks at his father’s place, a farm on the Gunpowder River in Maryland. We’d hunkered down there before; at the turn of the Millennium, when his father was ready with generators and bottled water, prepped for chaos. I wanted Noah to tell me he missed me and that he was desperate to see me. And, you know, Dear Reader, he probably did, but without the phrasing or inflection I wanted to hear. Noah thought in landscapes, not language, and by the time words left his lips they could sound nervous and non-committal.
14. After three days of limbo, I boarded an Amtrak train back to the East Coast. The first leg was an end-of-the-world party train full of wasted, traumatized people and heroic firemen on their way to Ground Zero. There were rumors that three terrorists had been taken off the train in Colorado. People passed around bottles of whiskey and vodka. Some of the doors on the side of the train were open, and smokers hung out between cars, leaning dangerously into the wind. Seductions were fast and public and lewd. The second train, from Chicago onward, was filled almost entirely by Amish passengers speaking in low tones in their strange language. They smelled like sweat and hay. They were kind, and had baskets and bags of homemade food. A little Amish boy slept at my feet. When he grew up, would he remember traveling from Chicago to Altoona by rail days after the planes took the buildings down? Would he remember, I wondered, the woman with the strange, closed smile—and how she didn’t reach down to touch his head of smooth blonde hair, although she was dying to do so? But again: I know it was not about me. I knew it was not about me.
15. I’ve been told this is an aspect of trauma: to insist repeatedly that the tragic thing is not about you, that others have it worse. But in my case, I really don’t know that it’s the trauma speaking (you see, I insist I didn’t suffer from trauma worth speaking of, even as I’m writing to you about it). Maybe it is the part of me that lands me here, at 45 years old, a writer, having written nearly nothing about myself my whole life. I’m a fiction writer to an extreme degree. If I set out to write a story about something normal like a Pilates teacher’s problems in love, it will turn into a story about an omniscient rabbit. If I want to write about the dangers of Fundamentalist religion, I wind up with a plural narrator who has just one body. I am not comfortable here, recounting these events as if it is important that I, in particular, recount them. I’m not comfortable saying that my particular story is important in the large scope of things.
16. It wasn’t the worst that could have happened. Many worse things could happen. Many worse things did happen. Worse things happen every day.
17. Noah met me at the Amtrak station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For five days, all I had wanted was to fall into his arms and get carried around like a tranquilized cat. But he dashed over to me and told me that we had to get going—he wasn’t sure if his car was parked legally, and he didn’t want to get a ticket.
18. The marriage didn’t last in the end, but it did last for a while.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nelly Reifler is the author of a story collection, See Through, and a novel, Elect H. Mouse State Judge. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney's, BOMB, jubilat, nerve.com and Lucky Peach, among others, and anthologized in books such as Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Found Magazine's Requiem for a Paper Bag. She’s a recommendations editor at Post Road, and she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Photo credit: David Wilson. The eastbound Pennsylvanian at Harrisburg station in May 2018.