C’mon, let’s just go do it,” I say. “This hotel room is tiny and I can’t stay cooped up in here all fucking night.” I scan Jack’s tiny Soho Grand “suite” for reactions and get nothing right away. Louise is absent, but then: a long, dramatic groan of protest in the bathroom, through the wall.
I’m beginning to regret picking these two half-dressed half-actresses up from the bar downstairs. It was far to early to settle, and the bigger one—Louise—and I got off on the wrong foot right away. But Jack wanted dates, and Jack gets what Jack wants, so here we all are.
“Isn’t it a little late?” Lisa asks, her nasal voice pitched high and thin. She’s supposed to be for me, but I’m not interested. Maybe Jack—more famous here than anywhere else—feels he needs to get some game while he’s in town, having burned through the LA reserves while his insipid cable cop show was on the air, but I live here and can find better grade at the Irish pub down the block from my Bay Ridge apartment. On a Monday—afternoon.
Plus, cup size aside the girls look way too much alike. It’s creepy, if you ask me. The flat-chested one, Lisa—she’s still draped in shadows at the far end of the bed, but I can sense through the gloom of the cramped space a red flare of curiosity pinwheel her eyes. This chick is far from tired. “Why you wanna go up there, anyway?” she moans. “It’s such a ‘Big Apple Tours’ kinda thing to do.”
“If this town is just an apple,” I tell her, stroking my chin, “then let me take a bite.”
She blinks at me vacantly before tilting her face Jackward. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” he says gamely, as I knew he would. Blow agrees with Jack—it curbs his anxiety and spikes his sense of adventure. “Let’s go see the sights!”
I clap my hands once. “OK, we gotta hurry. It’s not late yet, but it will be soon.”
As Jack leans over to tie his Reeboks and Lisa, all tube top and flyaway hair, sausage-rolls herself off the bed, I station myself at the desk and start transporting the pale powder back into Jack’s amber vial, turning a folded page of the Sigur Rós CD liner notes into my personal Icelandic snow chute.
“Are you for real with this idea?” Louise demands as she bursts from the bathroom, lipstick reapplied and meaty legs re-perched on Single White Female stilettos. Instantly I know she’s up for our little field trip, too, wedged firmly in the sweet spot between sped up and sped out. She side-eyes me. “You’re quite the cruise director all of a sudden now, aren’t you?” But it’s not really a question and she doesn’t wait for an answer, instead tossing her head and lifting the hair up off her neck, eyes closed in prissy nonchalance. “The Trade Center observatory deck stays open until midnight on weekends. There’s a bar up there, I think.” Then she lets the hair go, scratching at her scalp with a manicured talon.
I glance at the clock. It’s 10:35. Twisting the cap tight, I move to slip the vial into the tiny pocket-within-a-pocket of my Levis but suddenly Louise is looming above me, bearing down and hotly drenched in white desk-lamp light. I blink, confused, and then she’s wriggling her French tips at my face, palm up. Her vibrating eyeballs fix on mine. In them I see: disquiet, wild ambition. Mischief.
She reaches her other hand back around my head and—click—extinguishes our spotlight. Cupping the back of my head she leans forward, her lips brushing my earlobe. I go rigid at the unexpected contact, an icy current riveting my spine as she whispers, sweetly and peremptorily: “I’m holding the coke.”
We’re gliding down West Broadway in a cab and Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” blares from the radio, making me wistful but then I remember Jack saying once that nostalgia’s just a mild form of depression so I will myself in another emotional direction. Gazing outside, I’m struck by how desolate Soho looks on a Friday night. Isn’t this neighborhood supposed to be, like, ground zero for hip? Seems dead to me, the storefronts all shuttered and black.
Jackson sings, We… so tired of all the darkness in our lives.
I press my forehead against the window’s cool glass and squint further into the grainy blur of passing concrete and glass, metal poles and abandoned cars. Occasionally a flock of unmoving, listless nightbirds careens sideways across my field of vision, and it occurs to me that each nondescript entrance they’re grouped before likely heralds some chicly exclusive lounge or club within.
The song goes, We…are young but getting old before our time.
Up in the front seat, Jack has his window cranked half open. I peel my face from my closed one and turn left, toward the two actresses squeezed into the back seat next to me like heavily makeupped cattle. Lisa’s sitting bitch; tendrils of her long, sugar-scented hair slap my face like a girlish reprimand. I keep my lips pressed shut, but strands stick to my mouth, search for my eyes. I sputter, quelling the rising urge to bite and thrash my snout from side to side.
Louise looks back at me, laughing, her teeth a chemical gleam, and Jackson sings You… in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile and the moment feels staggeringly cinematic.
But in the tidal phosphorescent streetlamp glare, giant waves of light washing over the car and receding twice each block, the faint, sad lines around her mouth and eyes groove deeper. I look down at my orangey hands and they’re no longer those of a young person, either; they’re rough and gnarled, nails chewed to the quick, both sides of both thumbs gnashed a flaring rosy pink.
Lisa gives me another sideways smile and asks, like a child: “Are we there yet?”
I press my forehead back to the glass and look up, past the line of mute, arcing steetlamp sentries darting dizzily by. The bloated towers, just a few blocks south now, loom far above and beyond like two bulging, diseased lungs. Two mammoth lobes pocked and glinting with starry, stalagmitic viral cells.
The radio answers, We’ll be there in just awhile, if you follow me….
The fleshy, fanny-packed tourists who I expect to materialize on the street, in the plaza, in the elevator, never really do. I wonder why they keep the observatory deck open so late if no one shows up. The Empire State Building’s implicit romanticism—An Affair to Remember and that crap Meg Ryan movie; the faded tint of a grainy, sepia-toned city, early urban industrialism and the World’s Fair and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—it’s all absent here. The World Trade Center’s vibe, rather, is decidedly postmodern: vast swaths of function and commerce over minutiae and texture. Not the heart or the head—the lungs.
We locate some barely evident side entrance of Tower Two. As the others rush in through the swooshy revolving door I hesitate, craning my neck and soaking in the surreality of the glass-and-metal sheet planing a mile overhead. I’m standing at the base of a forked steel beam, its tines shot straight up to infinity from 20 feet above my face; it strikes me as fundamentally unnatural and reckless to follow their trajectory but of course I will. I start by ducking past the spikes and through the whirling door.
The ground floor atrium (“lobby” seems too pedestrian) is cold and cavernous and huge, slathered in ungrained ochre marble and extraordinarily empty. Louise and Lisa chatter like hens ahead of Jack and me, their clacking echoey and indiscernible. Inane, actressy coke talk—it may as well be Chinese. They get swallowed into a ladies’ room and after what seems like 20 minutes finally emerge. I give her a look and Louise hands off with an eye-roll. There’s no men’s room, no men, no women in sight, so I pull Jack into the ladies’ despite his weak protests while the L twins follow us back in. Huddled in an oversize handicap stall we inhale tiny mounds, stray grains rolling from the cleft between my trembling thumb and forefinger and plummeting with microscopic silence to the slab of marble below. He kisses her, awkwardly, right hand to left tit—over the synthetic material covering the synthetic material, thank God. I picture the Us Weekly and EW headlines with relish: hollywood hotshot in high-rise bathroom bust, but it’s not enough so I order everyone out and pocket the vial.
Still costumed in their party-garb, the girls are utterly incongruent here. They should be in trackpants and worded sweatshirts, clutching cheap cameras and maps. At least Jack and I, dressed down as always in sneakers and Levi’s, could pass for sightseers. As we glide upward via a series of barren escalators, I’m amused by the reflections Louise and Lisa cast on the smoky mirrored walls: painted faces, fuck-me dresses, stiff, lacquered hair. (Both girls rock a modified, low-rent version of “The Rachel,” ubiquitous these days and flattering to neither.)
The escalators deliver us to the top of the atrium, five flights up. Jack’s hand on my lower back propels me forward, into a separate high-ceilinged antechamber. Here, the décor digresses. It’s as if the room were dipped in a liquid red-and-gold swirl, and indeed an odd standing placard at its entrance proclaims this “The Gold Room.” My head tilts back on impulse: The walls, draped in crimson brocade, soar to a staggered ceiling hung through with giant teardrop chandeliers spotlighting a large-scale geometric carpet pattern. Everything here contrasts sharply with the sleek, minimalistic modernism we’ve seen so far. It’s undeniably garish, yet, unlike our inelegant evening escorts, gorgeously discordant.
I follow Louise and Lisa’s softened stilettos across the vast space toward an elevator bank. Here, someone finally materializes: a wizened and razor-thin security guard with a wall-matching maroon blazer and reflective gold nametag declaring, simply, del. With a grunt the old man rises from his podium and wordlessly ushers us into one of the six open elevators, his half-mast eyes locked firmly on Lisa’s bouncing ass.
I had imagined that Del or one of his colleagues would accompany us on the ride up as they do at the Empire State Building, but when the doors hum closed it’s only us, a mismatched band of tweaking late-night skyscraper-scalers. The elevator—obviously designed to haul max-cap loads of fat tourists up, up, up—seems especially capacious with just Jack, Louise, Lisa, and me inside, and the vibe is thickly, palpably eerie. The girls have finally muted up. From above our heads streams wordless, derivative canned muzak: formerly Al Jolson, if I’m not mistaken. None of us utters a word, or even breathes audibly. Maybe we’re all lost in the moment’s inarguable strangeness. Drunk, speeding, hurtling skyward, alone. Louise and Lisa still riding their proximity-to-Jack contact high and me still dazed by the fact of my mercurial old college buddy—now a movie star with the money and drugs to prove it—swooping back through town and into my life without warning.
I burrow into a corner as we’re missiled up, my eyes fixed to the LED screen above the floor buttons, its red-glowing x changelessly documenting our ascent. The distinct impression washes over me that we’re entering foreign, unsupervised territory. Cool perspiration kisses my forehead and temples and my breath returns in anxious, quiet spasms. Looking down I imagine the elevator floor turns pellucid, revealing dangling cables and a dark, airless column lengthening below my Vans like Darth Vader’s lightsaber.
Maybe this was a bad idea after all.
I lift my head but then shut my eyes against that dead-serious x as the flash associations strobelight the backs of my eyelids: evening-news footage of a basement parking garage the day of the bombing in 1993; a panic-attacked William Hurt at Windows on the World in a deleted scene from my Accidental Tourist DVD; a little girl plucked from Jennifer Jones’ arms as she falls from a pulleyed lift in A Towering Inferno; Willy Wonka assuring an incredulous, upwardly mobile Oliver Twist stand-in that he’s inherited the entire factory—It’s all yours, Charlie!
My eyes stay closed and crinkled as our own great glass elevator finally grinds to a halt. Against all laws of nature and physics, we’ve reached the 107th floor of what might as well be the tallest building on the planet—four fools teetering at the end of a swaying pole, miles from reality.
“Here we go,” Mr. Hollywood says, and both the elevator doors and my distended eyes crack open to blinding white light.
Looking out from inside New York’s black ribcage I lean over the railing and ponder a 1,400-foot freefall from the wind-blown, desolate apex of Tower Two. I stretch further out, face to the wind. It’s called the Top of the World, but that’s an undersell—this place feels almost space-station galactic. Another deviation from the Empire State Building: there’s no suicide fence, no view obstruction whatsoever and nothing to stop me from right going up and over. My left foot leaves the rubbery floor, my lips thinning against chattering teeth. An amber moon hangs dull and corpulent, a handful of days from full. The brilliant fizzing circuitry of white, yellow, and mostly orange lights glimmer and undulate below, around, and even above me. Red pinpoints suggesting unmanned helicopters float breezily away, some far closer to the pavement than I am. The white beams of queued jets coming in to land stretch away somewhere over Queens, each one brighter than the one above it, dilating with focused intensity until shimmering out of view on the horizon.
With a heavy arm across my shoulders Jack pulls me in for a landing too, down from my Top of the World reverie, fingers seriously gripping the material of my unbuttoned button-down, whose flapping shirttails deliver me a ceaseless backside reprimand. His breath is in my ear, hot as the rush of blood that instantly bolts my dick. “Can you believe that moon?” he whispers. When I make no reply, he says, “Hey space cadet—let’s move away from the railing now, OK?”
With a straight face and steady voice I say, “When you get caught between the moon and New York City—”
Jack tightens his hold.
“—I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.” I let him pull me back a few inches. “What do you think, I’m gonna jump?” I ask this like he’s the unstable one, as if his implication has no validity when we both know it does. To be honest, I don’t feel safe up here at all. I don’t really trust Jack but I trust myself far, far less.
The fucking World Trade Center.
I mean, really: Can the laws of nature governing sanity and self-preservation possibly hold for any of us so far from solid ground? It’s like with flying: I’ve always been leery of planes—those streaming down over there into LaGuardia, the ones my mom and dad forced me into as a small boy in Orlando, jetlining off to see Gran and Pop in Connecticut every Christmas through the ’80s, until the divorce and a final, one-way Delta flight north. Flimsy, rattling tennis-ball cannisters shooting through the sky—who the hell decided this was a good idea? As a five-year-old I knew it was bonkers, surrounded by oblivious adults ordering tomato juices from chirpy, Atlanta-accented stewardesses, all of us on the brink of mass suicide yet only me expressing any concern. Would you like to see the cockpit, young man? No thank you, ma’am, please just get me the fuck off this deathtrap.
And the idea of a skyscraper is no less profane. In some ways it’s worse, since no one can claim these overtall structures serve even an arguably necessary function. And they just keep getting thinner and longer, like weapons. Ira Levin had the right imagery going with Sliver: Something thusly suggestive can’t possibly end well, for Sharon Stone or anyone else.
The Twin Towers have to be among the worst. By design, by purpose, in the cloud of urban mythology permanently snagged to Tower One’s pinpoint spire—they are modern avatars of unbridled ego. I, for one, certainly have no business here, at the tip of a quivering beam shot straight up, rooted in the dirt but actually, literally swaying when the wind blows hard enough. So far up that my head spins, my throat cinches, my stomach blooms a barbed bouquet of bursting orbs that puddle into my flaccid bowels, which ache for release. What was I thinking, coming up here? How high am I?
What do you think, I’m gonna jump?
“I can never be sure with you,” Jack answers. “And I’m getting tired, anyhow. Let’s de-actress and just hang the two of us.”
“Just the two of us…” I mutter back. We can make it if we try… to get somewhere safe, still. At sea level. I’d like to be back in Bay Ridge in my own bed, which features an unwavering center of gravity—no swaying, and these days free from swoon too. “OK,” I say, not moving, envisioning the observation deck’s long-hallway exit, the Willy Wonka elevator, the series of descending escalators, the revolving door, the sidewalk and cab and bed and life.
TV-star Jack’s against my back, encircling me. He slips his upturned hands under my own, his arms paralleling mine, separating me from the railing, pulling me back from the precipice. Manipulating his puppet. I’m turned away from the fall, from the wind and the popping, electric night. I submit, letting him walk me into the still-deserted observatory enclosure. We pass a gated, vacant candy store, no more than a register stand and a dozen or so clear acrylic bins stacked in a row, filled with Warheads and jawbreakers and Bazooka bubble gum. A hot-pink, cursive neon sign drowns the space, fittingly, in candy-colored light. defy gravity, it commands.
Silently Jack and I follow the noise to where the actresses stand waiting, still clacking senselessly to one another. I avoid eye contact with all three of them as the person I want—have always wanted, shit-stupid police procedural notwithstanding—presses hard against the front of Louise, mashing his perfect face into hers. And then we continue our trek down the empty hallway tunnel to the elevator bank.
We pass a gift shop on the right, gated shut like the candy store. Beyond the metal webbing I spy piles of tacky crap no one considers for long: snow globes, mini license plates bearing common American names (surely they have a jack, but my name is probably misspelled), cheaply made T-shirts that will change shape when exposed to water. On the back wall, illuminating the otherwise dark room, blares another pink neon sign, identical to the first one: defy gravity.
At the bank we wait in silence for nearly a full minute until a car finally arrives. The doors ping open, and then slide shut behind us with a gasp. The floor drops out and my stomach goes with it, the bright LED x glowing menacingly as before. I shut my eyes but there it remains, imprinted to the backs of my eyelids. A soft frisson courses through me when Jack rests a hand on my shoulder, but instead of jerking my body away in petulant frustration I let it remain, warmly torturous.
As the actresses and the actor and me freefall down through Tower Two, my mind reels away on a fantasy I didn’t expect: I’m back on the observation deck, where we just were, on Top of the World, but now I’m sprinting madly across it, my shirt fanning out around me and then I lift off, the wind catching my cloth wings in a heady rush, sending me up and over the railing. I’m swan diving headlong into the black and red and orange night, the blinking signal lights of planes and helicopters shooting up past me like launching fireworks.
Just before it slams into the street my cantaloupe head flashes back to the World Trade Center’s neon-pink imperative and I think, What a load of bullshit.