The movie theatre was crowded, and yet, it was strangely quiet. No shuffling of feet, no whispers, no munching of popcorn. Just the sounds of breathing. In the dim light, I could see faces, most curiously blank, almost as if the members of the audience were wearing masks to protect themselves. This was not a suspenseful movie: we all knew the ending before it even began. And yet, all around me, people were leaning forward, staring intently, their bodies tense.
Nothing exciting had happened on the screen yet, no action to advance the plot, just lovely scenes of the city on a sunny fall day. Ordinary people heading to work on an ordinary September day. And yet, at the sight of the familiar skyline, a scene hauntingly familiar even though it no longer exists, the way that your childhood home will always be accessible to your brain long after your parents have packed up and moved away, the air in the theater stirred softly as women and men began fumbling for tissues, raising their hands to wipe their faces.
I cannot tell you what I thought about the movie or the choices that the director made. I cannot even analyze the dialogue or offer a feminist critique in the way that usually annoys everyone around me. I cannot separate the movie from the memories.
The woman on the screen paced as she waited for a phone call about her husband, a cop trapped in the rubble. My mother called to say that Urban Sophisticate Sister was alive, still uptown because she hadn't gone to work yet -- but that her husband, a stock trader, was missing. A family gathered around a kitchen table, bracing themselves for bad news. An email chimed in to let me know that a friend's daughter, a dark-haired, hot-tempered young woman pregnant with her first child, had been last seen on the 92nd floor -- and was missing.
The energy that filled the room came from the audience and not the screen. For 129 minutes, people around me were breathing through their remembrances of that day: the waiting to hear, the not knowing, the frustration of jammed phone lines, the realizations that came gradually when names stayed on the Missing list. The most dramatic image in the room, the scene of the towers coming down, the one that played over and over all that long day while we here in Snowstorm region waited desperately to hear from family members and friends who may have been inside that building -- that scene never actually appeared on the screen.
My palms tingled.
I thought of Manhattan Man, the student who left my office in September of 2001 to drive to the city, to report for long hours of searching through rubble. Because he is a skinny guy, the rescue team kept sending him to crawl through tight places, desperately hoping to find some survivors. In one crevice, he and a firefighter spent long minutes retrieving what turned out to be a stuffed animal. His team went crazy trying to find the child that might have been with the toy, wiggling their way into every possible crack. A bigger guy held him by the ankles so he could descend into dark openings. But they never heard a voice or found the child. He wrote later in the journal he kept for me that this single realization changed the search profoundly for him: "There were kids in this building."
The movie ended, and groups of people began rising in the darkness to leave, slowly and quietly, as the credits rolled on the screen. There was none of the usual chatter and laughter, no talk of the movie or arguments about where to go to eat. People walked out into the hall, blinking at the bright light, and towards the exit signs without talking, the way people walk away from a gravesite.