Weren't We All So Young Then?

Nightfall is as dramatic as the city itself in the days surrounding the winter solstice. The gray comes down fast, pearl to iron to charcoal in a matter of minutes, muting the hard edges of the buildings until in the end they seem to disappear, to be replaced by floating rectangles of lantern yellow and silvered white. In the space of an hour the city turns from edge to glow, steel to light.

Because of this effect it is possible, at least when the moon is on the wane, to stand on Greenwich north of Canal and imagine that in the darkness to the south stand the Twin Towers of the Trade Center. It is just that someone has forgotten to put the lights on, leaving the two giants to brood invisible in the night.

In the daylight the illusion vanishes. At the familiar corner of Park Place and Greenwich it was the utter blankness, the blue sky and scudding clouds above acres of jagged, flattened debris, that stunned me as I stood for the first time amid the cops, the construction workers and the tourists. "It sounds so stupid," I said to a police officer with his collar up against a stiff wind that carried grit and the smell of stale smoke. "But I just can't believe it's gone."

"It doesn't sound stupid," he said. "I say the same thing every time I'm here."

Twenty-five years ago my almost-husband and I lived in our first real apartment a mile away from those buildings, which were newly launched themselves. They were an unmistakable landmark for two neophyte runners: to aim for, to circle, to start north from again. They did not please the eye, but they boggled the mind, the arrogance of them, the confidence of their vertical reach, the symbol of a city that was sometimes graceless and always brash but never apologetic or unsure of itself.

That was what we wanted for ourselves. We were young then. "Weren't we young then?" one middle-aged acquaintance of mine asked a friend, but he was talking just the other day about that time so long ago, in August. On New Year's Eve in 1999, we all held our breath at the end-of-the-millennium parties throughout the city, waiting for the Y2K bug to bite. The phones stayed on, the planes still flew, the bank machines spit money, the towers remained alight. Relief. Reprieve. Revival. The deadline for the end of the world had passed without incident.

The date we all had written down for Armageddon, it would turn out, was the wrong date.

The Twin Towers were as much creatures of the baby boom as we, conceived in hubris in the halcyon days after World War II, developed during the optimistic '60s, launched in the '70s, bigger, better, more. The children whose progress mirrored the towers' own were forever young, a generation who had neither the tests of mettle of their predecessors, who knew about war shortages and bread lines, nor even the shadowed existence of their own children. The last generation of kids to ride bikes without helmets or pagers, we had childhoods before crime and sex before AIDS. We believed drugs could be recreational and drinking social and the great formative trauma for those who evaded Vietnam was waiting in long lines for gas. What a charmed, deluded life we led!

Gone. As gone as those monumental buildings. Tourists stand before the acres of nothing and take photographs. For someone who had a life intertwined with the towers, riding the train into its station, taking out-of-town guests for a drink to its roof, going to meetings in its offices, the gesture is bizarre. It is not that it is ghoulish, but that it is futile: there is nothing to photograph. There are signed T shirts, used-up candles, bunches of flowers, crude crosses, Christmas wreaths laid at all the barricades. There is a small vainglorious handwritten sign for Whitehall Hardware among the maze of pedestrian detours, and an advertisement for condo lofts in a deserted building seared at its edges. There is a red crane, a black barrier, a handmade series of arrow signs at the entrance to what one policeman called "the main viewing area" that show Kabul in one direction and Staten Island in another. But mainly there is sky, so much sky, too much sky.

Gone: that is what death is. Disappeared. Erased. In its usual places the beloved object cannot be found. Rector Street. West Street. Park Place. The skyscrapers all around make the vast hole seem larger and more unnatural. Without the behemoths at their center they seem strangely denuded and vulnerable, or perhaps that is only projection on my part. The spire of Trinity Church seems taller now without the Trade Center as its foil. The rounded headstones in the old churchyard behind its iron fence, worn and blurred by the passage of time, are instructive. Here lies a baby son, there a young wife. A daughter. A husband. Thomas. Sarah. Elizabeth. John. Once someone wept; once someone grieved. But it all happened so long ago that on some stones the dates of birth and death, the names and inscriptions, are almost indecipherable. A short walk from the mass burial ground where the Twin Towers fell, these long-ago losses have been muffled by the passage of centuries. But still they stare you in the face, bearing a message that is not eroded by the weather or the years: forget me not.

People are changed forever by grief, and changed people change the way the world is, the kind of place it becomes. Getting on with life is not the same as getting over loss. The reports that Osama bin Laden might be buried beneath the rubble of a mountain cave had a certain symmetry. So many of his victims are beneath a mountain, too; if skyscrapers are the man-made topography of the modern world, this rubble was once our Everest. But if I found myself weeping as the clouds passed overhead untrammeled where they once gave way to infinite shafts of steel and glass, it was not only for the dead buried beneath their ruins. It was for a time and a feeling as cocksure as the notion that two towers could rise high enough to nestle their heads in the clouds. It was for all of us who were so young once, in August, and will never feel that young again.