I am on the dark street in the rain with Horst Hamann, a cinematographer, who is making a short movie of a column I did about a young woman I always saw in the early morning and suddenly in September I did not see her.
Horst has me remember and re-enact the whole story, the part that was in the paper and the part that was not until today.
I don't remember the first time I saw her, although it was a long time before September. It was always between 5:45 and 6 a.m. I already have finished swimming at the health club and she comes walking along on her way to the gym. The street is West 68th between Columbus and Broadway and I am walking down from Columbus and she is walking up from Broadway. In the darkness of the end of winter nights, she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead and her face showed resolve and a little apprehension upon seeing somebody walking toward her.
She was young and had short, black hair, and a face filled with energy. She had a fast stride. Quick, quick, quick. But she seemed uneasy with me. I never more than glanced at her because I wanted to put her completely at ease. I got off her side and walked across the street and went home.
"Look at this. She is afraid of a busted old valise," I said to myself.
One morning, I was late or she was early and I was still on Columbus Avenue, almost at the corner of 68th Street when she came around the corner. People who barely recognize each other and suddenly meet at a strange place exhibit warmth. She smiled a little and her lips said hello, but I did not hear her voice. I nodded.
From then on, when we would see each other on the familiar 68th Street, she would smile and I'd nod or smile back. But I still went to the other side of the street.
I never got her name or where she was coming from at such an hour and what job she was going to for the rest of the day. It had to be a good job. She was up early and at an expensive health club. She smiled. I nodded. Month after month.
On the September morning, she passed me and I passed her and I went home and was in the bedroom when the first plane hit the first tower and I looked out the bedroom window and saw the black smoke and the necklace of flames around the top floors.
I went downstairs and got on maybe the last No. 2 train going downtown. It is an express and it got me there in time to be on Liberty Street, with both towers now in flames. I was a half block from the south tower when it exploded. Thousands of young working people gone in the sky.
"Run," somebody shouted. "Run," everybody shouted.
The days then became one long series of pleading questions from people holding pictures of the lost. There were 3,000 missing. Nobody found anybody. They were spirits in the sky. People I knew. Lucy Fishman, Josh Rosenthal. They were all young and they walked fast.
After a while, I started back in my morning routine. I noticed that the young woman wasn't there one morning and she wasn't there the next and for a week she wasn't there and the next week started and she still wasn't there.
I hoped. Maybe she was married to some nice guy and he got a job that they moved for. Or she got the big job and the husband moved with her. Or maybe it was something simple. She and her husband moved. All I knew was that here was a person whose name I did not know, whose voice I had not heard, who had been here for a year-and-a-half and suddenly she was gone. She became part of the anxiety of the September and October mornings of my life in my city.
One morning, as I was looking up Broadway, the butcher came out of the supermarket. He said, "What are you looking for?" I said, "Somebody." He said, "They'll come." I said, "I hope so."
After months, I still turned onto Broadway at the same hour, five before 6, only now I didn't look for her or think of her. So many missing.
Deep in the darkness, moving along quickly. An arm swinging. I stand there and I watch as she comes closer. It is the left arm swinging. Here she is, walking quickly. Quick, quick.
Here coming out of the shadows is the face, smiling as she sees me. She comes right up to me.
"Where have you been?" I say to her.
For an instant she doesn't understand.
"I thought you were gone," I said.
Now she knows. Her face changes. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"What am I supposed to think? You disappeared like the others."
"I'm so sorry. I just stopped coming. I didn't feel like it. I had two friends who were missing and we went looking for them. We had pictures and everything. I just didn't want to come here."
She started to leave with a smile.
"I'm glad you're alive."
She turned and walked off, quickly.
When I went upstairs, my wife looked at me and said, "What's the matter?"
"I just saw a ghost," I said.