Facing Ground Zero

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Joey, my partner of 17 years, was standing at the window of our 48th floor apartment eating a bowl of cereal as he did each morning.We had taken the apartment because of the sweeping view of downtown that enabled us to see both the East and Hudson Rivers. The Twin Towers, which stood as the centerpiece of our view, was barely five blocks away.

Out of the corner of his eye, Joey saw an airplane traveling in the direction of the towers. Before he could even grasp what was happening, the plane flew into the tower. Flames spread across his view. He dropped his breakfast on the table, ran into the bedroom where I was asleep, and pulled open the shades.

“A plane crashed into the Trade Center,” he cried.  I instantly jumped out of bed and stood with him at the bedroom window. We watched helplessly as the second plane hit, tears running down our cheeks as we witnessed dozens of victims choose death by jumping from their office windows.

"Lt. Pete Campanelli FDNY" by Bill HaywardWhen the towers fell and debris struck our building, we were evacuated down the darkened stairway, 48 flights, by firemen. We had heard from the firemen that the pentagon had also been attacked and that we were at war. We were taken to the basement of the building as military troops shepherded enormous tanks down our street. We could hear the continuous thunder of explosion, which we assumed were bombs, but later learned were the sound of cars exploding on the street, sparked by the flames and heat that followed the towers’ demise.

By the late afternoon when the explosions had stopped, we were left to wander the streets. Dazed and bereft, we walked uptown with hundreds of other refugees, choking on the smoke and smell, stopping to compare stories and find out news of the events. Fortunately, by evening most hotels that had maintained electrical power opened their doors to those of us who were left temporarily homeless. We were graciously welcomed at the Thompson Hotel where we stayed for several days, until the bridges and tunnels were reopened and we could travel to our home on Long Island.

Several weeks later we were allowed to return to our apartment, which was still coated in a thick layer of ash. With the aid of the EPA, who maintained that the air was safe, the apartment was restored to normal; outside the window where the towers had stood, a huge, gaping hole remained. A bright searchlight lit the space twenty-four hours a day as rescuers uncovered remains of the victims.

After the initial shock faded, Joey and I found ourselves experiencing opposite emotional reactions. Already in my early fifties, I became intensely aware that life is short and that I better make the most of it. I deeply cherished all that I had in life and felt especially close to Joey and others whom I loved, working to draw them even nearer. Though our relationship had grown open and spacious over the years, I now clung to Joey, wanting to spend precious time with him. Joey, ten years younger, felt differently. He too recognized that life was short and therefore wanted to live fully in the moment.

In the six months that followed 9/11, each of us expressed our grief differently. I repeated the story many times to friends, connecting to my emotions by reliving each moment as I remembered it. Joey was more private about his feelings, choosing to keep them to himself. Our attitudes toward life had clearly changed in ways that widened the distance between us. The empty hole outside our window stood as a daily reminder of what was lost between us.

Over the years preceding September 11th, like many couples, we had gradually fallen out of romantic love, most noticeably reflected in our waning sexual interest.  In its place we established a loving familial relationship–a home and strong circle of friends–yet neither of us was willing to settle for the remaining part of our lives without sex. After many conversations and negotiations, we opened our relationship to sex with others, first adding a third, then separate sexual encounters, and later even ongoing affairs.

We navigated these relationships, including the envy, rivalry or jealously that some aroused, with genuine love and respect. We never hid the fact that we were partners from other lovers. We leaned to separate sex from love and treat our liaisons as recreational. All of our activities were openly discussed. If either of us felt uncomfortable with a situation, we placed our relationship first.

As Joey and I approached our 10th anniversary, the unexpected happened. I allowed myself to cross a spoken boundary that we had erected to protect our lives together. I fell in love with Peter.

At first Joey behaved patiently, but as he sensed my growing distance from him, he became alarmed. And while I did my best to keep no secret of my feelings or activities, I didn’t always succeed. As the months went on, both men pressed me to make a decision between them.

During this time I recognized that my feelings for Joey were profound. He was my family, someone whom I could count on no matter what. His current pain was testimony to that– his insistence on working things out, his declaration of love, affection, attachment, and a willingness to stay and to see things through openly. I recognized the depth of our bond and the stability of our lives and what we had created together.

I made a decision. From the start, I had told  Peter that I loved Joey and that we were deeply attached.  But now I told him that I wasn’t prepared to leave Joey and that it was best for all of us to give up our romantic relationship.

Peter immediately cut me out of his life entirely.

In the years that followed, Joey and I continued our life together, supporting and celebrating each other’s achievements and comforting each other in times of stress and disappointment. We continued to sleep together at night, often tethered by an arm or leg.  Our circle of friends ebbed and flowed as did our continuing sexual adventures, which we resumed shortly after my transgression— until, September 11. Since then, Joey had been spending more time away from home. The closer I moved towards him, the further he seemed to move away. We were traveling fast in different directions.

On New Year’s Eve 2002, Joey and I attended a party in East Hampton near where we had been building a country home. It was a place where we imagined spending the later years of our life. It had two master suites, a common living space, and a wing of rooms for friends — artists and writers who could spend unlimited time doing their work in near solitude. Its architecture reflected the structure of our lives.  It was a well-attended party of friends, acquaintances and, others who we had never met.

Towards the end of New Year’s Eve party we were introduced to Tom, a tall handsome Italian a few years older than myself. At this moment I registered a nearly imperceptible gleam in Joey’s eyes. Months later, when Joey told me he had been seeing Tom regularly, I understood the meaning of that gleam.  This time it was my turn to be patient.

In May, Joey came to me with obvious trepidation and told me he that felt deeply in love with Tom. We were sitting at our dining table facing what was now called “ground zero,” just feet away from where Joey had stood the morning of the attack. Though terrified, I remained calm and suggested that Joey see how things felt in a few months when we could address the issue again.

When that time came, it was clear that Joey was emotionally gone. After a long and tortuous conversation, we made the decision that Joey should follow his heart–after all “life is short.” A few days later he packed his bags and moved in with Tom.

Thirteen years have gone by and Joey and I have forged a friendship based on the love, respect and tenderness we have always felt for each other. I still consider him my family, and Tom and Joey have remained together.

The years immediately following the break were difficult. We sold the house in East Hampton and unraveled our finances and friendships. I was alone for the first time in seventeen years, sad and anxious, feelings that had not occurred during the time I was coupled to Joey but were familiar to me from my earliest years. My mother feared the world and though my father had rescued her from an impoverished childhood when she was 17, he could not protect her from the feeling that she would someday be returned to it. She suffered years of anxiety and agoraphobia during which she imparted the message to her children that the world is a dangerous place.

In some ways I had followed her example. I sought safety and refuge in home and family. Like my mother, my relationships protected me from the fear that I could not survive in the world on my own. But 9/11 and it’s immediate aftermath blew the lid off these feelings. There was no refuge. I was forced to face my childhood fears under the harshest circumstances.

The years since have provided countless opportunities, emotional and otherwise, to confront my fear. Many of the challenges have brought with them some of the most meaningful and satisfying moments of my life. Over time, I gained my footing, built a home of my own, and grew independent of a steady relationship.

Everyone’s reaction to trauma is different. Our resiliency depends on the personal history that came before it. Ironically, were it not for an act of terrorism, I may not have had the courage to confront my deepest fear and discover the hidden emotional resources that have allowed me to navigate the world alone. I’ve learned the value of true freedom and come to appreciate the joy of solitude. I feel great compassion for those who suffered tragic personal loss through the events of September 11th and, though I sometimes worry about future acts of terrorism and their consequences, I cherish the comfort and safety I now feel in the world.

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