I knew I was on thin ice with my boss. I’d lost several accounts in the months after the death of my child to SIDS, and though I had begun to emerge from the cloying fog of my grief I was well aware that I had fences to mend. So it was that I found myself at my desk early today, catching up in the calm that precedes the hectic cacophony of our office before the phones begin to sound like the thundering hooves of race horses when the 9:30 bell rings.
Deep in my work I nonetheless could not resist allowing my eyes to occasionally wander to the breathtaking view of the Hudson River that spilled before me from my window on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center. I never tired of it, in gray skies or fair, winter or summer the scenes played out before me were an eternal source of fascination and sometimes yes, I cursed them for their distraction, but not often.
Then everything changed. A few short minutes ago I was violently propelled from my chair and tossed across my small office and came to rest against the window after an impact that I immediately associated, crazily enough with a gas explosion, as in natural gas. I was disoriented in that way that one sometimes feels in the moments of first awakening from a sound sleep, but it was a short lived reprieve, within minutes my office filled with a thick black smoke and I began to hear screaming and crying from all directions. I felt as I were not present, that this was happening to someone else and for a moment I was literally paralyzed but this didn’t last long. I snapped out of it and picked myself up, realized I was bleeding from somewhere and wiped off my face. Alarms were sounding but I could see very little. I cried out and got answers back. I groped through the darkness for my tote bag and found the Reeboks I usually wore for my trek from the train to the office and put them on. I was thinking. I was thinking that this is something I COULD do. I also grabbed my water bottle, took a big gulp and held it under my arm and crept out the doorway, calling out to co-workers and miraculously getting answers.
Down, we had to get down. In my panic I realized I’d left my cell phone back in my office and went back to get it, the smoke thicker now, Rick , one of my fellow analysts grabbed me by the arm and said not to try and get it, we had to get out. I knew he was right and let him lead me towards the stairway we had been trained to evacuate via. But it was blocked. The smoke was getting thicker, and we were on our knees now, more co-workers plus the boss I had been trying to impress by not only not being late but being early into work was there, he looked at me and put an arm around my shoulder and said, “I wish today you had been late.” “So do I,” I coughed. It was a plane we soon found out, and not as soon but nearly so it became apparent that we were trapped, no way out up or down. Surely, I thought, they can hoist us up with helicopters, surely this would be possible, but apparently not. Oddly our little group found ourselves by my office, I had completed something of a circle, and on my knees, now grasping the futility of walking out of this Hades crawled back in, and rummaging through my bag this time, I was able to find my cell.
Miraculously I had managed to hold onto my water bottle and used it to dampen a towel I had once used to sop up my baby girl’s drool, her sweet little baby spittle. Now it covered my mouth in a vain attempt to filter out the thickening smoke. It wasn’t just the smoke, the heat was getting extreme, so I doused my head with more water and hovered close to the floor as I hit the speed dial on my phone, desperately trying to reach my husband, my estranged husband. I dialed the number over and over, all I got were busy signals, of course they’re busy, everyone is on the phone. This is a big deal. The air was noxious and hot and I couldn’t stand it any more. I grabbed a chair and began hitting the window as hard as I could. It took everything I had but finally the glass gave way and for a few brief moments as I filled my lungs with clean fresh air, I was filled with renewed hope, maybe I would get out of this, maybe.
My fear of heights was pushed aside by my greater desire for oxygen as I sought to get myself as far as I could safely out the window. I found that by straddling over the sill and sitting on the double folded Burberry I kept in the office for surprise rainy days I was able to calm myself, breathe deeply and for the first time look around above, below and to my sides. I was surrounded by others experiencing the same thing as I, faced with smoke and flames we had all been forced to do the only thing possible to us, we were all hanging half in and half out of our windows. Some were waving pieces of their shirts, desperately trying to attract the attention of the helicopters. Hot and desperate I took off my blouse and began waving it too. And then, and then I realized there were people, people falling from above me, some headfirst, others as if they were trying to fly in a final fantasy. Then I knew, I knew before long it would be a choice for me too.
Peter, Peter, now the tears were running hot down my face and as I gulped the air and looked above toward the surreal cobalt blue sky, the beautiful blue sky I wished only to hear his voice one more time and to tell him that he had done nothing wrong, that my grief for our child had simply overwhelmed me and that we would have found our way back together, if only I could tell him that, and then, and then a miracle happened. A hand, a human hand, reached over from the left and gripped my own.
The heat from my office was quickly becoming more than anyone could bear and I leaned outward, further than I had dared before, both to escape the heat and smoke and to see whose hand this was, this man’s hand that transmitted all the love and desperation of that moment and through it’s slippery iron grip, I too sent my own love back. And we held on to each other, like a drowning man grips a life ring, and our eyes met and it was my boss and in his eyes I saw that he knew, he understood and I knew and I understood. In a brief instant we were forged together, no longer co-workers, we were man and woman, faced with the ultimate truth, and without any words we both knew that we would not face the inexorable climax of our destiny here alone, no, we would not. Long moments passed, and our hands fused as if welded together. The heat was burning my back and when the wind shifted the smoke quickly enveloped us in a thick and noxious cloud so that even hanging out the window we were choking, suffocating. Still, he held my hand and when the wind shifted once more, a respite from the smoke and one last clear view of that beautiful sky and we knew. Our choice had come. It was our choice.
A long wordless look between us and a nod from me, our fingers entwined I swung my other leg over the sill and as the flames and smoke licked at us, we stepped into the void.