The Light We Lost (Page 1)
We’ve known each other for almost half our lives.
I’ve seen you smiling, confident, blissfully happy.
I’ve seen you broken, wounded, lost.
But I’ve never seen you like this.
You taught me to look for beauty. In darkness, in destruction, you always found light.
I don’t know what beauty I’ll find here, what light. But I’ll try. I’ll do it for you. Because I know you would do it for me.
There was so much beauty in our life together.
Maybe that’s where I should start.
Sometimes objects seem like they’ve witnessed history. I used to imagine that the wooden table we sat around during Kramer’s Shakespeare seminar our senior year was as old as Columbia—that it had been in that room since 1754, edges worn smooth by centuries of students like us, which of course couldn’t be true. But that’s how I pictured it. Students sitting there through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf.
It’s funny, if you asked me who else was with us that day, I don’t think I could tell you. I used to be able to see all their faces so clearly, but thirteen years later I remember only you and Professor Kramer. I can’t even recall the name of the TA who came running, late, into the classroom. Later, even, than you.
Kramer had just finished calling roll when you pushed open the door. You smiled at me, your dimple making a brief appearance as you slipped off your Diamondbacks cap and stuck it into your back pocket. Your eyes landed quickly on the empty seat next to mine, and then you did too.
“And you are?” Kramer asked, as you reached into your backpack for a notebook and a pen.
“Gabe,” you said. “Gabriel Samson.”
Kramer checked the paper in front of him. “Let’s aim for ‘on time’ for the rest of the semester, Mr. Samson,” he said. “Class starts at nine. In fact, let’s aim for ‘early.’”
You nodded, and Kramer started talking about themes in Julius Caesar.
“‘We at the height are ready to decline,’” he read. “‘There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries. / On such a full sea are we now afloat, / And we must take the current when it serves, / Or lose our ventures.’ I trust you all did the reading. Who can tell me what Brutus is saying about fate and free will here?”
I’ll always remember that passage because I’ve wondered so many times since that day whether you and I were fated to meet in Kramer’s Shakespeare seminar. Whether it’s destiny or decision that has kept us connected all these years. Or a combination of both, taking the current when it serves.
After Kramer spoke, a few people flipped through the text in front of them. You ran your fingers through your curls, and they sprang back into place.
“Well,” you said, and the rest of the class joined me in looking at you.
But you didn’t get to finish.
The TA whose name I can’t remember came racing into the room. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “A plane hit one of the twin towers. It came on TV just as I was leaving for class.”
No one knew the significance of her words; not even she did.
“Was the pilot drunk?” Kramer asked.
“I don’t know,” the TA said, taking a seat at the table. “I waited, but the newscasters had no idea what was going on. They said it was some kind of prop plane.”
If it had happened now, all of our phones would’ve been blowing up with news. Pings from Twitter and Facebook and push notifications from the New York Times. But communication then wasn’t yet instant and Shakespeare wouldn’t be interrupted. We all shrugged it off and Kramer kept talking about Caesar. As I took notes, I watched the fingers of your right hand unconsciously rub against the wood grain of the table. I doodled an image of your thumb with its ragged nail and torn cuticle. I still have the notebook somewhere—in a box filled with Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilizations. I’m sure it’s there.
I’ll never forget what we said when we left Philosophy Hall; even though the words were nothing special, the conversation is burned into my memory as part of that day. We’d started down the steps together. Not exactly together, but next to each other. The air was clear, the sky was blue—and everything had changed. We just didn’t know it yet.
People all around us were talking over one another:
“The twin towers collapsed!”
“I want to donate blood. Do you know where I can donate blood?”
I turned to you. “What’s going on?”
“I live in East Campus,” you said, pointing toward the dorm. “Let’s go find out. You’re Lucy, right? Where do you live?”
“Hogan,” I said. “And yeah, Lucy.”
“Nice to meet you, Lucy, I’m Gabriel.” You held out your hand. Amid everything, I shook it, and looked up at you as I did. Your dimple came back. Your eyes shone blue. I thought then, for the first time: He’s beautiful.
We went to your suite and watched TV with your roommates, with Adam and Scott and Justin. On the screen bodies dove out of buildings, blackened mounds of rubble sent smoke signals into the sky, and the towers fell in a loop. The devastation numbed us. We stared at the images, unable to reconcile the stories with our reality. The fact that this was happening in our city, seven miles from where we sat, that those were people—actual human beings—hadn’t set in yet. At least not for me. It felt so far away.
Our cell phones didn’t work. You used your dorm phone to call your mom in Arizona to tell her you were fine. I called my parents in Connecticut, who wanted me to come home. They knew someone whose daughter worked at the World Trade Center and no one had heard from her yet. Someone else whose cousin had a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World.
“It’s safer outside Manhattan,” my father said. “What if there’s anthrax? Or some other biological warfare. Nerve gas.”
I told my dad the subways weren’t running. Probably not the trains either.
“I’ll come get you,” he said. “I’ll jump in the car now.”
“I’ll be okay,” I told him. “I’m with some friends. We’re fine. I’ll call you again later.” It still didn’t feel real.
“You know,” Scott said, after I hung up. “If I were a terrorist organization, I’d drop a bomb on us.”
“What the f**k?” Adam said. He was waiting to hear from his uncle, who was part of the NYPD.
“I mean, if you think about it academically . . .” Scott said, but he didn’t get any further.
“Shut up,” Justin said. “Seriously, Scott. Not the time.”
“Maybe I should leave,” I said to you then. I didn’t really know you. I had just met your friends. “My roommates are probably wondering where I am.”
“Call them,” you said, handing the phone back to me. “And tell them you’re going to the roof of the Wien dorm. Tell them they can meet you there if you want.”
“I’m going where?”
“With me,” you said, and you ran your fingers absently along my braid. It was an intimate gesture, the kind of thing that happens after all barriers of personal space have been breached. Like eating off someone else’s plate without asking. And all of a sudden, I felt connected to you, like your hand on my hair meant something more than idle, nervous fingers.
I thought of that moment, years later, when I decided to donate my hair and the stylist handed me my braid, wrapped in plastic, looking even darker brown than usual. Even though you were a world away then, I felt like I was betraying you, like I was cutting our tie.
But then, that day, right after you touched my hair you realized what you’d done and let your hand drop into your lap. You smiled at me again, but it didn’t go to your eyes this time.
I shrugged. “Okay,” I said.
The world felt like it was cracking in pieces, like we’d gone through a shattered mirror into the fractured place inside, where nothing made sense, where our shields were down, our walls broken. In that place, there wasn’t any reason to say no.
We took the elevator up to Wien 11, and then you pulled open a window at the end of the hallway. “Someone showed me this sophomore year,” you said. “It’s the most incredible view of New York City you’ll ever see.”
We climbed out the window, onto the roof, and I gasped. Smoke billowed up from the southern tip of Manhattan. The whole sky was turning gray, the city shrouded in ash.
“Oh my God,” I said. Tears filled my eyes. I pictured what used to be there. Saw the negative space where the towers had stood. It finally hit me. “There were people in those buildings.”
Your hand found mine and held it.
We stood there, staring at the aftermath of destruction, tears dripping down both our cheeks, for how long I don’t know. There must have been other people up there with us, but I can’t recall them. Just you. And the image of that smoke. It’s seared into my brain.
“What happens now?” I finally whispered. Seeing it made me understand the magnitude of the attack. “What’s next?”