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Rebecca Clifford

Summer of Color and Songs:
A Reflection of 2001

I remember that summer before 9/11 through colors and songs. First it was R.E.M.'s "Imitation of Life" and its super-8 like video that looked like it took place at a party in Los Angeles around 1982, everything bleached out by age. The song was there on TV as my boyfriend and I had breakfast in the morning, and as we drove back from our visits to the hospital in the northern section of Florence. I remember the white sky, the white hospital room, the white magnolia blossoms with their tangy, lemony perfume, and my white dog I screamed at when he was barking too loud and I thought I was going to collapse. The stench of death in all the whiteness -- the smell of cream cheese and medicine that hit my nose every time I entered that hospital room and saw my boyfriend's frail father with his white hair. White nurses who wore white, the white walls and sheets that would be stained with the last gasp of his father's death. The sun pouring through the venetian blinds. The white mozzarella on the thick comforting pizza that we would dive into wordlessly after all those visits to the hospital.

There was red for a while too, although this was faint and mixed in with the white. Most notably it came from the pool of blood on the street in Genova where Carlo Giuliani had been shot. The red of the flags and bandannas amidst white smoke, white cars, and buildings. The repeated images of blood on the street next to the motionless body. I remember being in the chapel at the hospital waiting for the funeral, my face red and hot with tears and from the heat of the early July day.

But then things turned yellow. When I went to New York in September to organize my apartment (white, ecru and mauve), my boyfriend was busy painting the walls of our apartment back in Italy. Walls that were a traditional white that was in every house, every apartment in Italy. Color somehow being verboten except in modern, artistic homes. Colored walls were deemed a little too "gay". White was solid and reliable. But in my apartment in New York, full of the grimness left over from my previous tenant, who, after only one month there broke down in one fell swoop and almost took the place with her, depressed me. Old rice from Chinese takeout under the bed, a random fork. my own dog's ancient, white hairs, some of them puppy hairs, left over from years previous when I was still on my own, still innocent. Before Italy, and before the walls of my small world fell away to falling in love, moving far away, the motorcycle accident where I broke my leg and almost died of an embolism, and being next to my boyfriend's father as he took his last breath -- all in the space of a year.

The days were warm and the sky was crystal clear, but my mood was a mess. I didn't know where I was. I actually didn't know what was going on. The brilliant sunlight on those days made everything gorgeous and golden in the late summer city. But I was crying myself to sleep some nights, hugging my stuffed animals I'd had for the past 32 years. The first night I arrived back in New York, to the apartment that I had slowly been moving out of for the past year, when the place felt less colorful and more off-white than ever, I went to bed with my stuffed animals. I was crying and missing my boyfriend. I called him when it was five a.m. in Florence. "I miss you so much," I said, tears leaking down the side of my face. He comforted me, and I finally fell asleep.

Every morning when I woke up I called him. Before he could even reach for the phone, there I was, waiting for the long beeps that indicated European phone ringing. Usually I wanted to savor those early mornings alone. To sip my enormous cup of coffee with a cinanmon danish covered in melted butter. Before this time, whenever he called during this time it was met with a mixture of hope and exasperation. Desire and repulsion. I wanted to be on my own, but have him right beside me. Now, in that golden, breezy week, I just wanted him there. Always. It was with a neediness I had never known before that I called him, dialed the numerous digits, international connection, country code, city code, exchange and number. All those five's, one's and three's. Everything ending on a comforting, even four.

During the day, the sun on my back, a late summer breeze rustling through the trees, blowing hair, silk and cotton, I was frantic. I called my therapist for an emergency appointment after bawling my eyes out through Moulin Rouge. I hardly paid any attention to the movie, in fact I found it obnoxious in all its blood red and garish gold. But I sobbed uncontrollably for my boyfriend. And then there I'd be in my therapist's office, yellow room, bright yellow walls, not knowing what to say. Usually during emergency sessions I could pinpoint the problem immediately. This time -- no, it wasn't the apartment, for I had been saying good-bye to it for over a year. I missed my boyfriend terribly. So? I was only in New York for one week. I'd been away from him for longer periods and, although I always missed him, was happy to be temporarily on my own, back in New York. What the hell was going on, then? The same bewilderment in every non-plussed session. "I just don't know what it is," repeated over and over again.

But at night with my friends, things were marvelous. I listened to their stories, not wanting to talk about my dreadful summer. No, tell me what's going on with you! The dinners I had, listening to trials and tribulations, so happy to be out of my head. And there was one lovely Saturday night, a night I would look back on as one of the two magnificent points in my otherwise horrifying, dreary, and sad year.

I took the train out to Rego Park in Queens to a friend's barbecue. His wife, three kids, his brother, and some other friends. The potato salad, the steak that had been marinating all day long, the cheesecake with chocolate chips. I brought a bottle of red. They drank it out of large plastic glasses that were either green, pink, blue, or yellow. They laughed, and I felt light and happy, imagining my boyfriend right next to me. How he would have loved this! He and his symbiotic connection to New York. The wife with her thick Long Island accent. The home that felt cramped, but cozy. We watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory after dinner, and the kids fell asleep as Gene Wilder sang, "There is no place I know that is filled with pure imagination." My friends talked about their showbiz childhoods, when they were in commercials for boardgames or else on tour with Oliver! I felt happy and safe.

My friend drove me back to Manhattan in his mini-van with two of the kids seat-buckled in the back. The sun had set, leaving a yellow golden glow on the horizon, layered with pink. The lights of the city that had enchanted me since I was a child, and still enchanted these two kids now, glittered from over the bridge. The lights seemed thrown together, all lively, talkative, full, rich and clear. They were jewels, diamonds, and crystals. I had been thinking of buying an apartment in the city. My friend, a real estate appraiser, told me to wait until the market crashed. That's what my astrologer also said a few days earlier, my astrologer who seemed so unusually frail and thin that she looked like she had cancer.

On Sunday, I hired a car to take me out to JFK, fantasizing about teaching my Italian friends how to speak Long Island-ese. Cwoffey Twalk. I spent an uneventful plane ride to Paris, and then on to Florence, watching the landscape below -- the Appenines, the Pianura, the valleys. As I caught sight of the Duomo with its red brick and white marble, an unease hit me. I knew I had to be there, but a piece of me wanted to be back in New York. A pit was in the pit of my stomach. I was looking at Florence as hard lessons, struggling, and waiting for that other shoe to drop.

My boyfriend looked gorgeous, dark blonde hair blowing in the wind, glistening in that ever present golden sunlight. Even here the weather was the same as New York. They just switched buildings. I was still in Manhattan. Only this time it was really Italian.

I was thrilled to see my boyfriend again. I felt that rush of love pour through me every time I saw him in the airport. They got my luggage, only to find that one of the pieces was lost. It had my three stuffed animals in it. But I was assured that it was on another flight to Florence, the baggage system being backed-up yet again, on the Milan-Florence route.

Before we opened the door of the apartment, my boyfriend said, "Close your eyes." And I did. When he told me to open them, after he led me up the stairs and into the apartment, everything was a brilliant, sunny yellow. Happy, warm, and very yellow. In fact, every room was yellow. "Is it too much?" he asked in a worried voice.

Yes, it is, I thought. But I didn't want to go back to that awful old white. This was a major improvement. I answered, "Maybe, but I love it. It's beautiful." And it was, but I knew that my boyfriend, once again, had gotten overly enthusiastic.

That night, with my lost luggage safely back, I had a panic attack. One thought after another punched my head. How aggressive he was in painting the whole place yellow, without asking me, like he was trying to control my life! But a part of my brain told me to breathe, to take it easy and know that I was overtired and that this was another of many attacks I had experienced that year -- attacks that hit me when I was exhausted, in bed and ready to sleep. I told myself to go to sleep, this never working before. But that night it did.

I woke up at eleven-thirty a.m. to warm yellow. The walls comforted me in their hints of gold. The sun poured through the blinds, forming stripes on the wall and bed. I put on a pair of black cotton pants, an ancient blue and white striped L.L. Beane shirt that one of my sisters had when they were in boarding school in the seventies. Then I had coffee with my white dog next to me.

Soon after it was lunch at the cafe down the street. We couldn't stop caressing each other. We had cokes and sandwiches while reading La Repubblica and Corriere dello Sport. I could barely make out what the articles talked about and instead focused on the weather, astrology, and entertainment, ignoring Berlusconi, Bush, and Blair. We left the cafe entwined in each other's arms and headed back home.

Back home the yellow greeted my with a warm, cheery, "Hi!" (and I wondered if it was too much, but didn't want white again). I said good-bye to my boyfriend who had to go down to the office while I decided to take the dog out for a walk. I got my cell phone, a plastic baggie, and the dog's green collar from the table in the front hallway.

That's when I heard the front door slam with a ferocity I'd never heard before, and heard my boyfriend's feet stomp up the stairs in a way that sounded rushed and desperate, yet heavy. It was just past three.

He opened the door, his eyes wide, his hair wild, and he said he'd just heard that a plane flew into the World Trade Center. I knew his terror of flying, knew even better the trauma he suffered as a child, watching a jet fighter crash 500 meters away from him. I imagined a commuter plane, a little Cessna from LaGuardia or Teeterboro, losing control and shattering into the north tower, making a little hole and the cover of the New York Post and The Daily News the next day.

We went into the living room and turned on the TV. CNN. I sat down on the white couch and watched the image of the glorious blue sky, the black thick smoke rising from the north tower, elongating it in some macabre way, watching the plane, another plane, careen into the south tower, exploding in black, yellow and orange, but mostly brilliant yellow against the bright morning blue. CNN said only one plane had flown into one building, and that it was a commuter. But even I knew a commuter couldn't make that much destruction. And I knew, too, that the second plane seemed too directed, too eager, as it flew into the south tower, as if in slow motion, to be just another plane losing control. This all happened within seconds: turn on the TV, CNN, blue sky, black smoke, second plane billowing yellow, orange and black. But maybe something went wrong, I tried to explain away to my boyfriend. " These things can happen. It's not surprising." I had watched many planes fly close to the towers the years I lived in my apartment. I had a direct southern view that led right to two grey rectangles sticking up above all the other buildings, the flight path right next to them. But now we sat side by side on that couch, transfixed, knowing it was not so. The planes were too big. And the directness of that second hit. The eagerness. The shots were replayed while I heard someone, who I thought was Paula Zahn at CNN, scream, "OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!" The report came in minutes later of the Pentagon being hit and then the plane downed in the field in Pennsylvania.

One of the planes was a United Airlines flight from Boston to San Francisco. My parents were going to China, and they were leaving that day. From Boston to San Francisco or San Francisco to China? I knew they had a stopover in San Francisco, and that they were flying United Airlines all the way. My heart lept into my already contracted throat and I zoomed into my study with its new yellow walls. I felt the walls saying "Hey! Is everything okay?" as I grabbed the itinerary my father sent me. September 10th. They flew out yesterday. Yes. Everything is okay...I think.

I rushed back to the living room and watched as more billows of grey dust formed a backdrop against the north tower and listened to reports of the collapse of the south tower. I figured maybe they were just confusing all the smoke for the building falling down. It had to be still standing. There were an estimated number of deaths. The confirmation that it was an attack. Where was the President? The Vice President? We sat and watched as the sun became lower and moved to the west in Italy and the sun grew higher and brighter over New York.

A song went through my head. Actually, it was a song that had been going through my head all weekend. I listened to it over and over again, in the airport and on the plane. Another R.E.M. song, "Losing My Religion," and those first chords that sounded like everything was falling down, and then there was Michael Stipe's voice edged in a croak, singing

Oh life it's bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no I've said too much
I set it up

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it

And there it was again, the same falling chords repeating themselves as I heard the grinding steel in a desperate, industrial scream, and watched the silver frame of the tower now covered in grey and dark grey, buckle and collapse. The tower fell like a waterfall of dust, the way I had imagined so many times when I gazed at the towers from my apartment. The waterfall against the clear sky and nothing else. I burst into tears along with the steel's wailing. I ran into the bedroom, pulled out my childhood teddy bear, and hugged him while rolling on the bed bawling.

My boyfriend ran in and yelled, "What are you doing? Come back into the living room! You can't be crying!" His eyes were wide open and scared, his towering body not knowing what to do. "You can't!" he seemed to be pleading. "You cannot do this to me! Please! I need you!" We screamed at each other. I couldn't believe this was happening. I needed his comfort and he was yelling at me. Hell, sheer hell and horror, made real.

We drove to his mother's house, finally able to pull ourselves away from the TV: The sun was setting, the horizon yellow and lavender. A phone call from a friend sending his condolences. My boyfriend and I could barely touch each other. We stared ahead, numb and silent. At least, this is how I remember it.

His mother greeted us at the front door of the red house on the hill, surrounded by flowers and pets and a grand terrace with a sweeping view of the valley. Silent, sweet and calm. But his mother just cried and hugged me.

I tried to eat the food his mother made for me. Homemade meatballs with tomato sauce and spinach. She knew I had to eat. I ate through my tears, and my boyfriend couldn't stand still. He turned on the TV, but I couldn't deal with any more and told him so, and we fought again. His mother told him to turn off the TV, but he wouldn't. "We have to see these things!" he cried. He later apologized, but it came through in another argument.

We didn't sleep. By now I was used to these sleepless nights, and watching the sun as it crept through the shades. I called my sisters, cried into the phone, and sent emails. Read that everyone was okay, but always wondered if I'd forgotten someone. I felt thick and heavy. The image of a turbaned man weighed on my chest. Everything was stretched out and numb. Every muscle in my body atrophied.

My boyfriend and I fought and fought and fought. Fights that ended in tears for both of us, and then soul-crushing hugs. I didn't sleep and got paranoid. I wanted to see my family, make sure my city was okay. He wanted me by his side, not to take a plane. Our nerves were taut and frayed. I took Lexotan one night, but I didn't fall asleep. In October I finally took a trip to New York, and found that under the chilly grey autumnal sky and the stench of ruins, it was filled with friendly, anxious people. I tried Xanax to calm the gag reflex that had been plaguing me since that week before in New York in September to help me sleep. But I felt too foggy and unrealistically happy, in a drugged out way. A cloud of Xanax helped greet the coolness of autumn, and I hated it.

The recovery takes forever. It is slow. I dream about it, with repeating images in my head. When I see it replayed on TV I get numb, while my boyfriend gets angry and says he doesn't believe in God, we're just a bunch of worms.

Everything about that summer -- the white from the hospital, the red of the blood and flags in Genova, and the yellow and blue of New York haunt me. It is so scary that I have to keep thinking back on it, occasionally looking though Here is New York, listening to R.E.M. songs to tell myself that I, my boyfriend, and my city went through this and they survived. And are still surviving.

The blue in my mind is now a pale baby blue -- light and unobtrusive. Like the color of my boyfriend's new guitar. Our new refrigerator. The yellow hugs me every time I come into the apartment. We talk of changing colors and yes, that'd be nice in some rooms, but the study and the bedroom must be yellow. No more white that stands by mutely. The yellow of a summer sun.

©2004 by Rebecca Clifford

Rebecca Clifford lives in Italy with her husband, three cats and dog. She recently finished her first novel, "The Fifth Season".

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