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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 Now, downtown seemed to have been replaced by a still, impenetrable wall of smoke.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.