Remembering the guilty, adrenaline-fueled gropings of late 2001.
In September 2001, I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. But only for the first ten days of that strange month. I was a week out of my first "serious" adult relationship, and still reeling from the breakup. Only a few months earlier, I would have told you with absolute certainty that Ted was The One. Then, at some point between late July and early August, the whole thing calmly and quietly unraveled. Neither Ted nor I could've told you exactly why things fizzled, or how it happened so quickly when it did. In hindsight, it would become clear that we were too young; not ready; destined for other people and adventures, blah, blah, blah. At the time, however, it felt like a very cruel mystery plot in which neither of us was the culprit.
Throughout the previous year, it was as if Ted and I had been living under some sort of magical spell. We were that couple you want to slap because they are so disgustingly happy. (Looking back on how we behaved in public, I want to slap myself, then throw up in my own lap.) Then, all of a sudden, an invisible hypnotist snapped his fingers, and the spell was lifted as instantly as it had begun. The whole thing was as unexplainable as it was sad. At first, I might've even called it devastating.
That is, until the eleventh day of September, when the word "devastating" took on a whole new meaning. Using it in the context of a "let's-stay-friends" breakup seemed crass, at best, and at worst, profoundly disrespectful. Six months earlier or later, it would've been easy to indulge the Morrissey-grade melancholy and the luxurious wallowing in self-pity that usually comes with the end of a long-term relationship. But not right then.
My personal loss, which had seemed so significant only days before, suddenly seemed very small by comparison. I knew a Belgian girl whose Japanese fiancé worked on the 101st floor of Tower 1. In the days after 9/11, she was running around the city posting those "missing" flyers that we all knew were never going to be answered. She had reason to be depressed, I thought. Not me.
Still. Even when they coincide with much larger and vastly more important historical events, our personal dramas don't lose their hold over our imaginations. Like so many New Yorkers in the weeks after 9/11, I found myself playing a losing game of whack-a-mole with thoughts and emotions that seemed entirely inappropriate. How can we continue to think of our own troubles At A Time Like This? Walking through the streets, listening to the stories of victims on the news, reading the increasingly alarming reports in the paper, wiping off that black dust that was everywhere and made you think of who or what it had been in its original form. Through all this, my stupid breakup was the only thing I could think about.
Well, maybe not the only thing. The English language doesn't have a word for "the guilt one feels for thinking about sex at an entirely inappropriate time," but I bet there's a long, hard-to-pronounce word for it in German. It's the mixed feeling of noticing the hot girl in the little black dress at your grandmother's funeral, or blushing when talking to the hunky hospital doctor discussing your father's viral pneumonia.
In late 2001, there was a briefly-popular term that came close to capturing this emotion. Not long after the attacks, New Yorkers started talking about "terror sex." This, of course, referred to the random hookups and one-night stands that took place amid the confusion and fear that followed 9/11. Danger is sexy, even though admitting it may be tacky and inappropriate. If you lived in the city at that time, and if you're willing to admit it, you may remember the pervasive undercurrent of sexual energy that seemed to hang in the air along with all that fine, black dust. It wasn't the fun, happy kind of sexual energy (again, the limitations of language!). It was more about need than desire — a distinction that, up to that point, I had never understood.
I don't mean that we all had a latent terrorism fetish. It's just that, in the midst of so much death, you realize that we're all living in fragile, mortal bodies. When confronted with death, we're affected consciously, unconsciously, and even physically. Fear speeds up the reproductive cycles of many animals — in other words, it makes them randy. For instance, when chickens are terrified, they tend to lay more eggs. To leverage this fear response, some industrial henhouses supposedly flash bright lights and pump in loud heavy-metal music (Anthrax, maybe?) so that the agitated birds will release more eggs.
I could relate to those abused chickens in the weeks after 9/11, at the height of the terror-sex phenomenon. It was October, in a bar after midnight, and I couldn't stand the idea of idea of going home alone to my tiny, empty apartment. In a misguided attempt at flirtation, I was telling a handsome male friend about the industrial henhouses and how I thought it helped explain terror sex. He paused, and looked at me sideways.
"So, you're saying… we're like chickens?"
"Something like that."
I could practically hear him debating whether or not to point out the flaws in my chicken-based argument for free love. Instead, he shrugged. "Want to go back to my place?"
Some people thought of terror sex as a biological reaction to heightened stimuli. For others, it had ideological overtones. "If I don't finish my fifth Sea Breeze and hook up with that acrobat from Cirque de Soleil," they vowed, "then the terrorists have already won!" Regardless of what you chalked it up to, there was something consoling about having the term. It made us feel like normal people having a very understandable reaction to horrific and unprecedented circumstances, instead of heartless perverts.
September 11 was a watershed moment in history, but it was also a defining moment in many relationships. That fall, the papers were full of stories about people who went rushing back to their ex-partners after the towers fell. Some folks were declaring secret, long-harbored loves; others were asking for divorces. Heightened circumstances can lead to what a recovering addict might call "a moment of clarity." Even though it had been a few weeks, it didn't hit me until 9/11 that my relationship with Ted was definitively over. I knew when neither Ted nor I had the urge to call and make sure the other was okay. (We both worked in Midtown, far from The Events.) More to the point, we didn't feel a desperate need to hear one another's voices, or go rushing back into each other's arms.
If my life had been a movie, it would've ended with me running across the Upper West Side in the rain to make a declaration of love. Instead, the moment revealed that there was nothing left to declare. Even in European arthouse films, a character sitting alone in a tiny studio apartment is an unsatisfying third-act finale. And in life, it's not much better.
Realizing this, I went to see my friend David, a performance artist (don't ask) who lived in a ramshackle penthouse (ditto) on the Upper West Side. We'd met the year before at one of his infamous parties, which were typically populated by Eurotrash with no identifiable occupations and other strange pilgrims from the global "arts scene" (the quotes being key).
September 11 was David's birthday, and the place was full of booze and snacks, bought the day before for the now-cancelled party. We sat in his living room, silently watching the newscasters narrate the progress of the cloud of black smoke that was slowly making its way uptown. Around dusk, we went out onto the wrap-around terrace, which I knew well from his parties. The view faced south. Less than twelve hours before, you could've seen the outline of the World Trade Center buildings in the distance. Now, downtown seemed to have been replaced by a still, impenetrable wall of smoke.
Out on the terrace, David and I found ourselves having sex. I say "found ourselves" because it wasn't premeditated. There were no words exchanged. The whole thing didn't make much sense, but it wasn't exactly a good day for Team Sense, so we both let it slide. Neither of us came, because that would've just been tacky. Besides, it wasn't about pleasure. It was as if we both wanted to just make sure we weren't ghosts; that we weren't actually dead and just hadn't gotten the message.
David and I remained friends for many years thereafter, but that was the last time we ever had sex.
Nearly every breakup song (cue Gloria Gaynor…) talks about "surviving." And in the last three and a half months of 2001, we were all survivors in a literal sense. We were in a terrifying terra incognita, but the body has its own compass, and so-called terror sex helped gave some of us the hope we needed to navigate our way out of the darkness.
"As long as I know how to love," to quote Gloria, "I know I'll be alive." Sometimes, when you're between loves, a good fuck can be a fine proxy for the hope you're not yet ready to believe in. It made a difficult time more bearable. It was a tacit assurance that, in the end, we could do more than just survive.