The Department of English
Student Essay of the Month
The photo of your father hanging up on the wall is the first image I’m seeing of him; it’s the first I’m seeing of you in this form, in his form. Washed in a wave of a hundred strangers on that wall, he slowly comes into focus. Your heavy brown eyes sink further beneath his brows. The gap between his front two teeth is too familiar. He’s smiling at me warmly. His beard is fuller, graying at the ends, and his ears poke out like yours. His guard is completely down. You are more serious in photos. You manipulate your eyebrows different ways. You know their power. He doesn’t use this power. He smiles with his whole face, camera slung over one shoulder, loud yellow shirt, and cargo shorts.
I try to meld your two faces together and imagine you “old,” wondering if I will find you attractive when you’re 40. I realize I’m staring at your father’s image trying to imagine myself attracted to him and how weird that is. So I picture my mother’s face, drooping at the edges, small features like mine in the middle. I will look like that one day, I think.
I push past gawking tourists, mouths agape and looking upward, crying Americans dribbling into tissues, and confused children. I’m not here to cry, I tell myself while heartlessly speeding through. The cave is long and arduous, filled with endless amounts of stuff: a women’s stiletto still covered in dust, a fireman’s jacket, an entire fire truck, a wrinkled wedding photo, a scribbled note, gloves, a radio… it’s a doomsday hall of fame. _________________
Escaping the trance, I read the small biography section lit on the touch screen monitor. “Bill loved sailing and trees. He spent so much time watering the trees he’d planted near the Hudson River that the transvestites who frequented the area were convinced he worked for Greenpeace. During the attack, his wife called him on his cell phone to tell him it was terrorism, not an accident. ‘I’m O.K.,’ he said. ‘I’m with the firemen.’ Alexander Mast. July 20,1947-September 11, 2001. Occupation: Photographer. Location on 9/11: WTC.” New facts about him I didn’t know. I imagine your mom speaking to a memorial organizer, struggling to summarize the life of her husband neatly. I wonder how I would summarize my own life, my own experience of 9/11. Of my side of the story there isn’t much to tell. I was in the fourth grade and my father picked me up early from school. That was the level of personal disruption I remember.
My dad arrived shortly after being called by the school. “What happened, Papa? What’s going on?” I asked him as we walked briskly to the car. At least he did while I dragged behind, holding on to his hand like the last link to a leaving train. He answered without looking at me. He was in a daze, imagining the future, and planning. “The terrorists are here. Everything is going to be very different from now on,” he said in his matter-of-fact Russian accent. He told me everything soberly, holding nothing back, like he was readying us for combat. I wondered if I would have to go to school anymore. The drive home was one long monologue. He seemed to be describing our impending doom.
When we got home our TV was firmly stationed on CNN with the volume blaring. It would remain that way for days. What seemed like the same news was reported repeatedly in endless loop. It was a sick obsession that everyone seemed to be hooked on. At the time I didn’t know this was what you would call “terror.” My parents watched, fixated, while cursing in their respective languages. They were angry, their pride hurt. But the weight of the event did not bear on me. I did not understand the difference between this and the countless acts of violence showcased on the news every night. My parents’ patriotic reaction seemed unnatural and unusual. They’re not even American, I thought. My mom was born in Argentina, my dad in Russia, and both of them had only moved to the US in their twenties, each of their families following. My parents didn’t watch American television in our house or listen to American music in our car. America was a land they had come to take advantage of. My father, penniless and fleeing the Soviet Union, came to Miami and found work as a taxi driver. His Russian degree in film was worthless in this country so he drove. He drove, he saved up, and he built a taxi business that depended on the tourism in Miami. For months after 9/11 people feared traveling in the U.S and it took a while for business in Miami to recover. But it recovered and we moved on and the event lay quietly in my past like so many others.
13 years later there are 23,000 images, 10,000 objects, 2,000 oral histories, and 500 hours of video memorializing 9/11, a loud refusal to stay buried in the past. An entry ticket is 24 dollars. I’m 22 and you’re 27 and the exhibit is 30 feet under. I know you want to know if they did a good job displaying your father’s images, the images he died taking. I descend the glass stairs taking in the huge space. The exhibit itself is a dark, snaking cave, its bowels the unfolding events of that day laid out in chronological order… hour 1, plane 1… act 2, plane 2. Curtains up. Take your seats, the ushers seem to say, handing me a program. I speed through the aisle instead, avoiding the facts and contents of the images. My eyes nervously scan the plaques beside the photos, looking for Alexander Mast’s photo credit. You’ve never been to the museum. I would not be here, having my emotions orchestrated, fed a gluttony of violent imagery. But I want to find him. I want to see the evidence he burdened to leave behind.
I push past gawking tourists, mouths agape and looking upward, crying Americans dribbling into tissues, and confused children. I’m not here to cry, I tell myself while heartlessly speeding through. The cave is long and arduous, filled with endless amounts of stuff: a women’s stiletto still covered in dust, a fireman’s jacket, an entire fire truck, a wrinkled wedding photo, a scribbled note, gloves, a radio… it’s a doomsday hall of fame. A large format photo draws me nearer, almost wall length. It’s an extreme close-up of the North Tower, taken from the ground, of a woman falling. The series, which made this photographer famous, is called The Falling Man. Beside the photo a quote more compelling reads “I saw her standing on the ledge of the 92nd floor. She adjusted her clothing, pulling the hem of her skirt straight against her knees, and in this position, she stepped forward. All I could think was, how human, how modest, to hold down her skirt before she jumped.”
How human, how modest. Suddenly everything feels very real and very relevant.
There is a small crowd huddled in a mini-theater in the corner of the room. I am lured in and sit down in time for the “3…2…1.” A digital mock-up of a plane flashes on the screen: Flight 93. The name of a woman appears and an audio recording of her voice begins to play. It is a voicemail, left on her husband’s phone that morning. “Sweetie,” she begins calmly, “I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked.”
I’m confused by her tone. I begin to admire her strength, her composure, like she’s telling him she’s going to be late for dinner. “I just called to let you know that I love you,” she continues, “and to please tell my babies—“ she cracks, sobbing through the rest of her message, “tell my babies that I love them! I love you so much, honey!” Tears are streaming down my face at this point. I am defeated, I am the victim. I am this human, and in this moment I love her and pity her and feel anger. The screen flicks off and I return to reality.
Your father’s photos finally reveal themselves, on a wall I must have overlooked 2 or 3 times. The Marriott Hotel, a hole down the middle as if a bull dozer’s just gone through it is the subject of one photo. I take a moment and try to admire it, wanting it to be the best photo ever taken. I’m not sure it is or why I want it to be. What difference would it make? I take a photo of it and its surroundings so I can show you later. I imagine you standing next to me looking at his photo and I wonder if you’re satisfied. I want to turn to someone and tell them. I want to tell anyone… I’m not sure what… that your father gave his life for this black and white piece of paper? Hey, mister! My boyfriend’s father died taking this photo! This picture here! Do you see?! Look at it and tell your stupid wife and children about it over dinner in the restaurant of your nice hotel. I look around and imagine people are staring at me. A fat woman’s face framed in frizzy hair looks oddly at me. Surely she can feel the rage steaming from my pores, the hate I feel for her and everything in this room. Any minute someone will tap my shoulder and ask me what is wrong and I will readily respond, what the hell are we doing here?
I stood with you in your apartment, hunched over a light table, analyzing negatives and marking the ones that might matter to someone if you ever publish that book in his memory. What difference would it make? What purpose did his presence serve that day? Was it worth his absence today? But you don’t ask these questions or resent his decisions. He was an artist, you say. You are an artist. You took me to a museum on our first date. On our second date, we took turns drawing one another after dinner. This was a big part of my attraction to you. I grew up in love with art and the idea of being an artist. But death for art was not what I imagined in my childhood dreams. I’m not as forgiving of your father’s sacrifice. I’m furious. How could he leave you? He didn’t have to be there drums on my skull repeatedly like drops from a broken tap. I can’t release the thought but I can’t speak it to you, except in this letter which I’ll never let you read because I know your answer to all my questions. His work was his life and he lives on in his work. That is why you obsess, asking, did those museum people hang his pictures up nicely?
I sow the knowledge of his leave into my every judgment of your character, every interpretation of your actions. When you leave the country on a whim to join an arts cooperative for two months, it’s him I know you emulate. When you return chain-smoking cigarettes I hate because of my own father’s habit, the same ones you love because of your late father’s habit. When you tell me you love me but you just need to leave New York for a while. I should resent him now. You’re moving to California to study architecture for reasons even you admit vacillant. I can’t help but see the irony: You want to help build what tore your family apart. But I know what you see: You see art in living form, in leaving your mark, marks tall enough to see from heaven. You see your father’s warm smile with the gap between the front two teeth, beaming with pride for you. And even though you’re leaving, I’m proud of you. Loving you means loving him. I’ve learned to love you both in absence.
On my way to the exit, stands the memorial’s ridiculous gift shop. Honey, let’s send a postcard from this grave, I imagine a tourist saying. I mount the escalator, slowly reemerging from the depths, relieved as I reach street level. It feels as though I am touching land for the first time in the last 2 hours. Sunlight revives me. Before me is the South Reflection Pool, a deep, square fountain in the exact footprint of where the South Tower once stood. Engraved on its gray, metal face is your father’s name among many. “He’s got a good spot,” I think, and I take a photo, as if you asked for a postcard from his grave.
(This essay was originally submitted for a class on Advanced Essay Writing)