The Two Days That Came Before

About 15 years ago, I gave myself the exercise to write down everything that happened “the two days that came before” – one of the reasons being that both days were unique and memorable, in their own small ways, nights to remember. These days took on more significance afterwards, in the aftermath, as the new world started and the old world ended, and I looked back across the gap. It was surreal. And it continues to be surreal to me, which is maybe why I needed to write it down. I took a picture of the World Trade Center on the evening of September 10th, out my bedroom window. I stared at it for a long time, since it was a new view to me. Like I said, surreal, especially in looking back. I won’t say that “I somehow knew what was coming” because of course I did not. But the two days that came before were very particularly New York kind of days, a New York – and a me – that doesn’t exist anymore. People sometimes get annoyed at detailed personal essays. They’re like “it’s not all about you.” Of course it’s not. But in an essay like this, it IS. It’s about what I remember. The point of it was to re-create what I remember of “the moment before”, in as much detail as I could muster. So here it is.

September 9

I rushed to meet my sister Siobhan for a drink. We were convening at Astor Bar, one of our favorite places in the city. It was in a central location, it was close to Siobhan’s job and it was also right around the corner from where 2 of my cousins lived, so it was a great “let’s meet there” spot. Astor Bar was the O’Malley-family jumping-off point.

I was dressed up, I remember. Long tight skirt, high heels – and I was hurrying, as quickly as I could, across 4th Street. I was late.

I only remember how warm it was because, in my hurrying, I started sweating, and my powder dissolved off my face, which bummed me out. I stopped in an empty doorway, popping out my compact, checking out the damage, and thinking: “Ah well. Tonight is too hot for powder then.”

Strange. The things the brain retains.

Astor Bar had an upstairs bar with a big window, looking out on Bleecker Street. There was also a downstairs bar, shadowy, rather decrepit with peeling ceilings, and cavernous red leather booths, extremely atmospheric and dark. The upstairs bar, though, was the good meeting-spot because you had a view of all the comings and goings up and down Bleecker – with 2 tables in the window, high bar stools – and then room for about 6 or 7 stools at the small curved bar. As I hurried past this window, I saw Siobhan, in a sun dress with a pleated skirt, sitting at one of the tables in the window.

Then, in the next moment, as I entered, 5,000 things happened at once. Each thing clear, distinct, set apart, and remembered perfectly, like a flickering newsreel, the images burned on celluloid. Clarity of memory is a blessing and a curse.

I pulled the door open.

In a flash second, I saw a guy sitting at the bar with a couple of other people. My eyes just quickly glanced over him, and I saw that it was a guy I met at a party the year before. At the party, there was an instantaneous and powerful chemistry, a recognition, a strange and unmistakable feeling of: “Wow … I already know you … ” We took a walk through Soho together at 3 in the morning, talking, laughing, the world was our playground, we could have kept talking forever.

Truth be told, our behavior that first night was not really the behavior of two mature adults meeting one another. It was more along the lines of babies reaching out to each other from separate shopping carts in the aisles at grocery stores … or the sudden intimacy between romping dogs at Washington Square Park … Recognition. Oh. You. You are like me. I know you. We are the same.

I had not seen him since that night a year earlier, and then suddenly – on September 9, 2001 – there he was. Perched on a bar stool at Astor Bar.

So what did I do? I ignored him.

Reminds me of this quote from Nancy Lemann, one of my favorite authors:

It is always remarkable when someone sees your soul to a better degree than you see it yourself. You could count the people who see your soul on one hand. Others might know you but they would forget; their knowledge of you was like a weak and undisciplined thing. But that wasn’t so with him. He didn’t forget. It stuck in his mind. He had seen a kindred soul. He had seen it long ago. She only saw it now. But she was stricken with it. Suddenly she had identified him. There was the man she loved. As a result, she proceeded dementedly to behave as if the opposite were true.

I was so thrilled to see this man again that I “proceeded dementedly to behave as if the opposite were true.”

I swept by him, blithely pretending that I didn’t see him. I was a terrible actress, although I thought I would win an Oscar for how much I DIDN’T KNOW HE WAS THERE. I went straight for Siobhan, pretending to be oblivious – and yet inside I was thinking, It’s him, it’s him

Siobhan and I greeted each other, big hug, and I hissed at her, like an outlaw, “So and so is here. But don’t. Look. Now.” I didn’t know how to be casual and just say to him like a normal person, “Hi! How are you?”

This was all made even more awkward because I felt him see me. His entire posture changed. He sat up poker-straight, his head turned my way. It was like a moment on the Discovery Channel. Animals in the wild, alert, ears turned up and out.

I knew he saw me, and yet I made this elaborate pretense that I was oblivious to his presence. I was acting like an ASS and I could not stop myself.

It continues to be strange to me that this entire dance of awareness and avoidance would be so technicolor-vivid to me even now. I remember the body language, the pauses, how he tilted his head. And not only the first moment, but the whole rest of the night at Astor Bar … I remember our exchanges word for word. The entire night is preserved perfectly in my memory, a fly drowned in amber.

A lost world.

It would be the last time (for a long long time) that I would be in a group of people and be able to talk about everyday things, movies, theatre, life, poetry. Two days later and all interest in anything other than THAT would vanish for a long long time.

And so the conversation on September 9th stands out for me, a museum exhibit of a world long vanished.

All is preserved. Especially that moment when I first walked in, saw him, ignored him, he saw me, and I walked by, pretending to not see him. How he sat up straight and watched me pass, how I leant in to my sister and hissed at her “That’s him, that’s him…”, how I could feel him watching me like a hawk, waiting for an “in”.

Finally, he could no longer stand the wait, and he yelled – yes, YELLED – across the bar at me – causing a dead silence to descend:


I still laugh when I remember that.

Why do I laugh? Because in that loud unafraid moment, he called me on my bullshit. He didn’t let me get away with the charade of “Oh my God, I didn’t see you when I first came in! You’re here?? Wow, what a coincidence!!” He KNEW I was ignoring him, and he YELLED that at me across the bar.

That’s why I fell for the guy a year before. He understood me without knowing me. And believe me, that never happens.

So I continued to be an asshole, looked over at him and feigned surprise.

“Hi there! Wow! You’re here??”

He stared at me with excitement, adrenaline and deep scorn. He stated, “You walked right by me.”

“Oh … sorry … I didn’t see you …”

I knew he busted me, and I knew that he knew I knew … and it all was hilarious and beautiful. I loved that he busted me. It made me feel safe. He knew I was acting like a jackass, and that the reason why I didn’t say Hi to him right away was because I was having a “riot of feeling” – but judging from his posture change, and his behavior the rest of the night, he also experienced a “riot of feeling” at the sight of my face … and so he saw that I was protecting myself for a second … and he busted me on it, with humor.

It seemed like everything was going to be okay.

This is how it was. I walked away from Astor Bar later, coming home at about 2 o’clock in the morning, thinking to myself, “Wow. Everything’s going to be okay, I think.”

That’s what I thought as September 9th turned into September 10th.

Our two groups merged – Siobhan and I going over to sit at the bar with him and his small group of friends. We sat and talked, all of us, in that beautiful way that happens sometimes, rarely: vigorous, up, down, people interjecting, fights breaking out, random bursts of laughter, blurting inappropriate statements, one person rising to the forefront with everyone else listening, someone else chiming in fluidly with their interpretation, either adding or detracting … It went on and on and on and on and on.

The conversation would have stood out in my memory even if the world didn’t explode two days later.

At one point, Siobhan and I were being entertained by one member of the group, a guy we still laugh about to this day. All he needed to do was light his cigarette, and we would burst out laughing. And with my lunatic peripheral vision (on overdrive that night), I saw that my crush was sitting down the bar, watching us. Not speaking, not joining in, just watching the two of us talk to his friend. And suddenly he exclaimed to the person sitting next to him, “Are those two women the most gorgeous women you’ve ever seen in your life?”

I don’t say this to be vain. I just say this because it happened. It is one of the many things that I remember.

When he and I said goodbye to each other, there was a repeat of our good-bye on the night we first met, only it was deeper and more tormented. He hugged me like he never wanted to let me go, and he kept saying my name into my neck. It was a spectacle. I pried him off me. I knew he was dating someone else. His response to me brought with it an ache, as well as a confirmation of what I felt on that first night. But still, such encounters make one feel one’s loneliness in an acute way. He and I would have one more major encounter, the following year, where all of this came out into the open. That night in 2002 was the entrance of the Really Bad Time, exacerbated by the grief and rage of what happened to my city, my country … I could not process anything else and after our final encounter, I descended into a Bad Time that lasted for years. In many ways, I will never be the same again. You don’t bounce back from everything. But for now, we are left with the fizzy hilarity of the group experience at the Astor Bar, where the loneliness I felt was a bittersweet twinge as opposed to a Gavel Rap from a Judge after handing down a Life Sentence.

Afterwards, Siobhan and I walked through the warm night to our respective subways, still laughing and laughing about certain moments over the course of the night. We cried off our eye makeup.

September 10

I emailed him first thing that morning, writing, “Just wanted you to know how great it was to see you last night!”

I thought, and I meant it: “It’s not about getting a response. People should say this stuff to each other when they have the chance.”

My friend David has often observed to me that my life operates “like a literary conceit.” Writing out these events makes me understand why he says that. My crush did not respond, but a week later, smoke still rising from downtown, he reached out, just checking in to make sure I – and the people I loved – were okay. Siobhan worked in the building next to the towers, and ran from the collapsing buildings, and was then missing for 6 hours until she arrived at my cousin’s apartment way uptown later that afternoon. Those were crazy days with almost no cell phone service. I heard from people I hadn’t heard from since I was a child. I told him we all were okay, although Siobhan being out of touch for so long – when we all knew where she worked – was so awful I still couldn’t think about it. I asked him if he was okay. He said yes, at least physically. He told me the guy who had been making Siobhan and me laugh so hard at Astor Bar was a trader at the NYSE, and he, like Siobhan, made it out in the nick of time. The two of them may very well have been running away from the collapse on the same street. New York is a huge city but it is also a very small town.

September 10 was a Monday. I got no sleep because of the romping the night before. But I felt wide awake, alert, my mind swirling with images, and occasional bursts of laughter from the shenanigans of the night before. My journal entry for that day is barely controlled hysteria and joy. “I’m happy, God, I’m so happy right now!”

I’m just reporting the truth. That’s what I wrote in my journal on September 10. It’s not my fault it’s also a literary conceit.

Just 5 days before, my roommate Jen and I moved into a new apartment. Our landline was not hooked up yet, our TV was not hooked up yet. In normal times this would have been no big deal, a minor annoyance. But in September 2001 it turned into a huge deal. It would take us a month and a half to finally get a phone hooked up, because of the chaos in the city. On that Monday, September 10, when I returned home from work, our entire kitchen was still in boxes. We had barely unpacked.

All windows opens. Cross-breeze.

My heart was still singing from my hours-long evening in the presence of a man who seemed to get me, seemed to enjoy me. Those were dark years for me. I subsisted on crumbs. I can see that now.

Jen was there, arranging her room, getting accustomed to her new space. Our bedrooms both faced east. The gleaming World Trade Center towers were visible above the Hoboken skyline. I could see them from my bedroom, and they looked different from minute to minute, since they reflected the ever-changing sky. I took a photo of the gleaming towers on September 10th.


Jen and I lay down on her bed, our feet dangling off the sides, looking out at the Manhattan skyline. I told her the entire story of the night before. “You’re never gonna guess who I ran into last night …”

She asked me 598 questions, and we talked about it to our hearts content. She had me re-enact certain moments so she could get the full picture. Great fun.

But it makes me uneasy to think of now.

It was about 10 pm, and Jen said she was afraid she was going to have trouble getting to sleep that night because it was a new place and all. And would I mind reading out loud to her? Maybe that would help her go to sleep.

She never asked such a thing before. It was a strangely intimate request. I love reading out loud but wasn’t sure what I should read. She said, “Just pick out a book you like – I don’t care …”

I was so excited. I went into my room where, of course, the first thing I organized was all my books. I thought: “Hmmm. What do I want to read to her … what do I want to read to her…”

Out of nowhere, I picked out Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, one of my favorite books ever written. I first read it in 8th grade but its charm and humor has never palled. It was one of those life-saving books I read at an all-important time, when everything seems dark and grim (re: junior high) and that book, about 2 outsider kids who befriend a weird little old man who collects china pigs, made me realize I wasn’t alone. There were other “freaks” like me out there, life could be beautiful, you could have a possibility of joy in life.

That is what The Pigman is about.

Maybe I pulled that book off the shelf on the night of September 10th because there was a clear dovetail between the book and my feelings for my crush, and what the crush unleashed in me. There is definitely a connection. It all feels like the same experience, in my memory.

Jen and I curled up on her bed, the summery night wind blowing through the dark window, and I read a couple of chapters out loud to her.

We never did this again. It was the only time.

The Pigman ended up not being the best choice because it is laugh-out-loud funny, and I could barely get through it. Jen kept guffawing like a mad woman, instead of falling asleep. I kept being unable to go on, and so my laughter would make her start to laugh, and the whole thing disintegrated into a guffaw-fest.

As I read it, with tears of laughter in my own eyes, I kept interrupting myself and saying to Jen, “God, I haven’t read this in years … this is so fun …” I read it in Ireland when I was 14 and laughed so loudly my mother had to come down and tell me to be quiet.

I got through about three chapters.

Jen finally murmured, “Okay. I think I can fall asleep now.”

I tiptoed out of her room, turned the light off, and went into my new room.

There was something heightened and very tight in my heart. Sometimes I get too excited. My experience of things is so intense I can’t bear it. I can’t sleep. I lie in bed, going over and over and over things that excite me.

And that’s what I did that night, after writing in my journal about the Astor Bar meeting with love-at-first-sight guy, the crush I could not have but loved anyway.

I lay in bed, for hours, the darkness in front of my eyeballs, re-living that moment when I first walked into Astor Bar … and he sat up straight in his chair … and he followed me with his eyes … and his voice boomed across the bar, “WHY ARE YOU IGNORING ME…” … I didn’t know why it pleased me so much, but there was an intense and satisfying aesthetic to it.

The other replay in my mind as I lay in bed on the night of September 10th was how much I enjoyed sharing The Pigman with Jen in our new windy apartment staring out at the Manhattan skyline. Staring out at the towers.

I thought to myself over and over in the darkness, as I slipped off into sleep: I really must read that book again someday …

This entry was posted in Personal and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Two Days That Came Before

  1. Tess Link says:

    Thank you for this essay, it is perfect in its acknowledgement of the Day of Small Things, all of which are the actual, big things. The incomprehensible obliteration of the next day made the familiar and commonplace unbearably beautiful. I think we are all still in shock, and I love that your memories are wrapped around such lovely, generous events as loving someone without expectation and offering your friend such perfect succor. I have not read the Pigman, but I really must…

    • sheila says:

      Tess – The small things are so big – yes! I don’t think I even had the presence of mind to even think about the days that came before until years later – I had no distance from it, of course. But then when I looked back on it, I saw all this beauty – AND that there had been a couple of things that happened that were unique – running into that guy and then reading out loud to my friend. These were not everyday events. So it was very weird and intense. and just made more so considering what happened next.

      The Pigman is wonderful!

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  2. Carolyn Clarke says:

    Damn. Another September 11. 15 years and it’s still not a normal day. Will it ever be? We, the collective we, are like Pavlov’s dog, reacting to the trigger of every image, the sound of bagpipes or sirens or (weirdly) silence because of how quiet it was the day after. Grief, fear and anger endure.

    • sheila says:

      Last night there was a huge fireworks display rehearsal – for what I don’t know – it went on forever, half an hour – more. I was actually super pissed off about it. Are you kidding me? Definitely Pavlovian, and already jumpy.

      I don’t need to be told to “never forget” – I wonder if that’s mostly said by people who weren’t here that day. Who knows.

  3. Sheila

    I don’t have many words for this. So, so beautiful. This Story.
    And filled will hilarious moments like, ‘It was like a moment on the Discovery Channel’ So funny! And you can just see this evening, this guy, (looking like that!) you and all, so clear!
    By coincidence, yesterday I was with a group of people and talking about getting stockings, pantyhose, what kind to get or something and for some reason The Pigman flashed right in my brain. There was some passage when the kid makes fun of the Librarian, (I think) saying he can hear her stockings mesh together when she walks by. I was trying to remember, I haven’t read it in decades, I think I read it in High School and haven’t reread it like I do Salinger so I just remember the feeling I got not all the particulars. I read it at a good time too. It was like someone dropped it on me and said, “Hey kid, things are going to be okay.” I asked if anyone ever read that book and no one even heard of it. So I come here and read this! Now I have to reread it.
    Thank you for your 911 tribute, it’s down for the ages….

    • sheila says:

      Regina – oh my gosh, the pantyhose in The Pigman – you are amazing for remembering that. yes! The librarian’s legs – when she walks – make a little sound, because the pantyhose legs are scraping up against each other – and the kids call her “Cricket,” if I recall correctly. So funny. So mean!

      That book definitely said to me, age 13, whatever, “Yup. It sucks. It will be okay. BUT. You are not off the hook: Be a good person. Be kind. You are not too young to CHOOSE to be kind.”

  4. Fiddlin Bill says:

    This whole incredible book you keep giving us slivers of, particularly when 9/11 rolls around again, will I pray and hope one day be a book we can buy, in toto. Last year’s chapter, concerning events of 9/12, is burned into my memory. This “chapter” is equally striking. Thank you again, as usual. This is still “the best blog I’ve found.”

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much, Bill! There are so many fragments. It’s mainly how I remember it now.

      • Fiddlin Bill says:

        What can 9/11 be but shards and fragments, or the metaphor of the elephant and the blind men. The kind of story you are telling is the deepest and most true. I was far far away. The most vivid memory I have that doesn’t involve a variety of experiences of media accounts is of the blue skies and striking silence of the rest of that week, after air traffic was halted.

  5. tracey says:

    I love this post and I love that you repost it every year.

    “He stared at me with excitement, adrenaline and deep scorn.”

    Maybe I’m not supposed to say this, but it’s one of my favorite sentences in the whole post.

    • sheila says:

      Thank you Tracey!

      If I had to boil down his expression it would be something along the lines of: “WHO do you think you are FOOLING with this charade of pretending you didn’t see me??”

      • tracey says:

        Hahaha, I know. I just love the progression to ….. “deep scorn.”

        • sheila says:


          and it was the deep scorn that made me feel safe.

          Now someone tell me how this makes sense.

          It was like, “Sheila. I just SAW you SEE me. Like, we literally practically made eye contact. What the hell are you doing.”

          and I thought: “Oh my God, he is so busting me on my asshattery and yet he somehow finds it amusing. I was right about him!”

  6. Paula says:

    Your story gives me goosebumps, Sheila. It’s beautiful in all your observations and details. As I read this, I thought this should be a movie. I would love to watch that story of 9/11, where it is all the embarrassment and aching and real life without knowing what’s coming.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much, Paula! There was so much strangeness floating around in those days – outside of the event itself, what does it feel like when you live in a city where everyone is grieving and everyone has PTSD? Very strange things happen – connections, and intensities, and … almost black-outs … where I don’t remember jack SQUAT.

      anyway, thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.