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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 fuck?” 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?”
You looked at me, and our eyes, still wet with tears, locked with the kind of magnetism that ignores the world around it. Your hand slid to my waist, and I rose up onto my toes to meet your lips halfway. We pressed our bodies together, as if that would protect us from whatever came after. As if the only way to stay safe was to keep my lips on yours. The moment your body enveloped mine, that’s how I felt—safe, enfolded in the strength and warmth of your arms. Your muscles fluttered against my hands and I buried my fingers in your hair. You wrapped my braid around your palm, tugging it and tipping my head back. And I forgot the world. In that moment, there was only you.
For years I felt guilty about it. Guilty that we kissed for the first time while the city burned, guilty that I was able to lose myself in you in that moment. But later I learned that we weren’t alone. People told me in whispers that they’d had sex that day. That they’d conceived a child. They’d gotten engaged. Said I love you for the first time. There’s something about death that makes people want to live. We wanted to live that day, and I don’t blame us for it. Not anymore.
When we broke for breath, I leaned my head against your chest. I listened to your heart and was comforted by its steady beating.
Did my heartbeat comfort you? Does it still?
We went back to your dorm room because you promised me lunch. You wanted to go onto the roof with your camera after we ate, you told me, and take some pictures.
“For the Spectator?” I asked.
“The paper?” you said. “Nah. For me.”
In the kitchen I got distracted by a stack of your photos—black-and-white prints taken all over campus. They were beautiful, bizarre, bathed in light. Images zoomed so far in that an everyday object looked like modern art.
“Where’s this one?” I asked. After looking for a while, I realized it was a close-up of a bird’s nest, lined with what looked like newspapers and magazines and someone’s essay for a French literature class.
“Oh, that was incredible,” you told me. “Jessica Cho—Do you know her? She sings a cappella? David Blum’s girlfriend?—she told me about this nest that she could see out her window that someone’s homework got worked into. So I went to check it out. I had to hang out the window to get this shot. Jess made Dave hold my ankles because she was afraid I would fall. But I got it.”
After that story I saw you differently. You were daring, brave, committed to capturing art. Looking back, I’m guessing that’s what you wanted me to think. You were trying to impress me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I just thought: Wow. I thought: He’s wonderful. But what was true then, and has been true as long as I’ve known you, is that you find beauty everywhere. You notice things other people don’t. It’s something I’ve always admired about you.
“Is this what you want to do?” I asked then indicating the pictures.
You shook your head. “It’s just for fun,” you said. “My mom’s an artist. You should see what she can do, these gorgeous enormous abstracts, but she makes a living by painting small canvases of Arizona sunsets for tourists. I don’t want that kind of life, creating what sells.”
I leaned against the counter and looked at the rest of the photographs. Rust leaching into a stone bench, cracked veins of marble, corrosion on a metal railing. Beauty where I’d never imagined it could be. “Is your dad an artist, too?” I asked.
Your face closed. I could see it, like a door shutting behind your eyes. “No,” you said. “He’s not.”
I had stumbled into a fault line I didn’t know was there. I filed that away—I was discovering the landscape of you. Already I was hoping it was terrain I’d learn well, one that would become second nature to navigate.
You were quiet. I was quiet. The TV was still blaring in the background, and I heard the newscasters talking about the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The horror of the situation rushed over me again. I put your photographs down. It seemed perverse to focus on beauty then. But looking back, maybe that was exactly the right thing to do.
“Didn’t you say we were going to eat lunch?” I asked, even though I wasn’t hungry, even though the images flashing across the television screen made my stomach churn.
The door opened behind your eyes. “That I did,” you said, with a nod.
All you had the ingredients for were nachos. So, mechanically, I sliced tomatoes and opened a can of beans with a rusty can opener while you arranged tortilla chips in one of those throwaway foil trays and grated cheese into a chipped cereal bowl.
“What about you?” you asked, as if our conversation hadn’t gotten derailed.
“Hm?” I pressed the top of the can into the beans so I could lever it off.
“Are you an artist?”
I put the metal disc down on the counter. “Nope,” I said. “The most creative thing I do is write stories for my roommates.”
“About what?” you asked, your head cocked to one side.
I looked down so you wouldn’t see me blush. “This is embarrassing,” I said, “but they’re about a teacup pig named Hamilton who accidentally got accepted into a college meant for rabbits.”
You let out a surprised laugh. “Hamilton. A pig,” you said. “I get it. That’s funny.”
Excerpted from "The Light We Lost"
Copyright © 2018 Jill Santopolo.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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