by Brendan Byrne
I don’t remember meeting Fareen Ali. She’s there in memories like camera-phone captures: bleary and dragged through light, at the end of some under-sea lit hallway, holding Osiris or Qu’Shawn’s hand, her face smiling and averted, subMadonna. We were from the same university, supported on the same TA-system, and so ‘Ms. Fareen’ was a phrase I heard every day, unquestioned, until it became simple and obvious who she was. I don’t remember the initial handshake or the brief parlay of where who what. I don’t remember walking to the Q train with her for the first time. I kept a neon orange seat between us, and she said my name the way the children said it, but drawing it out and licking up the side of its face. We were going under the Hudson, and outside of us was the tunnel like the skeleton of a man made out of fluorescence and night, and it shook us like re-entry, the fingernail screams of the machinery barely background. “Sit next to me, Fareen said. “I won’t hurt you.” I noticed as she lifted her arm that she did not shave. It was early October 2001, but summer had not ended, and she smelled raw and root-vegetable, like she would never die.
A long long left strip of stringer’s hell: brown and rust with sharp shocks of green and tattered, leaking streamers of yellow coupled with the omnipresent open mouth of a mourner, his beard becoming full, losing its black. Lead: ‘Karachi.’ ‘Attack.’ ‘Civilians.’ Eyes flit down the page: ‘late of New Jersey,’ and there in the Helvetica, so bizarrely formal, so ancient, is her name.
Reload: the screen’s a cataract, the single, simple color of waiting. The beetle-segmented loading icon gyres, and my wrist and finger are already opening the next tab when the page front-loads. The article is unchanged. Post, Guardian, BBC, Dawn News, all report the same. Only the Times and Dawn News have her name; Dawn has, as you would imagine, an obituary.
Without even noticing, I’ve pulled up her wall. Her profile picture is thin and twisted, arms folding in on themselves, weirdly stiff, dressed in a green-black swirling one piece. Her short ragged haircut and the slightest touch of dark makeup accentuate her closed eyes. I scroll down, activity is pretty sparse. A few links to her work on Dawn News. Occasional op-ed pieces from the New Left or The Nation. Cryptic in-jokes from a guy named Asim, sentimental b-sides of poetry from her sister. I scroll back up to look at the picture. She smiles warmly, close-mouthed, looking like someone I never knew.
I close the computer, the screen touching the keyboard. The light briefly blinks out. I straighten up my spine, push the white shell away from my ankles. Out my wall-size window: the side curve of the onion dome, a pigeon briefly in free-fall. There’s no clouds in the sky, no blue, just a graying construct, like we all have the same app that reduces everything to the same no-color.
WTC ‘93 needs detail, so I come to the last stop on N-R before Manhattan. Not quite raining, something else. Spring wind on my neck. It’s all basement apartments out here; it’s all over-pass. Dark, and you can’t see the city. I stand in a slick, slim alley where a young Bangladeshi man is attempting to park a cube of a U-Haul truck again and again, sickeningly overproduced music leaking from the cab. He does not seem anxious; he taps finger and wrist-bones on the black dash out of time. In front of me: beat van, bright bile yellow; droplets collect on its side, cling there, refuse to slide down its hulk. Panel van: Ford E-350. On February 26th, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Ismoil drove one just like it into the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center. Five years later, Timothy McVeigh parked the same kind, carrying roughly the same weight (1,500 pounds, plus human and candy bars or whatever), underneath the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building’s child-care center.
I can’t see it.
Strip off soaked clothes. Scotch and soda. The room is tenement sloped, like the interior of a trepanned skull. Light a cigarette, move among the data, the physical stuff in clumps of the raw rust-carpet, sagging the bookshelves, covering my ‘desk,’ the breakfast nook, and the kitchen counter, bone-dry for months now. Books (Lance and Davis and Reeve and Coll), government reports (Port Authority Police, FBI, NYPD), architectural schematics (Yamasaki, the WTC’s architect, as well as glimpse of the “bathtub” retaining wall), transcripts of conversations with the blind sheik, with Yousef, two dozen links of eye-witness testimony available on the internet.
“...a physical expression of the universal effort of men to seek and achieve world peace.”
I take the a/G out; it looks like a spider, if all spiders were dull-white and designed by institutionalized schizophrenics. The idea is, roughly, this: I imagine the experience, and the a/G sucks it in, stores it. It’s uploaded to the server, where the Motherfucker sells it, for a hefty price. It’s a luxury item, but then we’re a luxury-item culture. Most everybody works in broad fantasy, not surprisingly the most popular genre, but I’ve cornered a sick, strange little market comprised of people who are interested, primarily, in experiencing the trauma generated by terrorist attacks.
I stroke the spider, and it responds by crawling up my chest, curving around my neck (nice and cold.) They couldn’t make it sexy, so they made it deeply disturbing. The idea is that humans can get used to anything. The mating-action with my spinal chord is brief and almost painless. A maggot whisper-walks across the interior of my skull; they say the brain is numb.
Things don’t slip so much as congeal.
Yellowboy in the corner of the shop. Two whiteboys twisting cigarettes straight, eyeing you almost tenderly with their young orbs, blue and white and red. American Caramel in hands: Senators and Indians. Stay there. Spine aligned with the corner, feel it synch with the building which is nothing but a building, and if you stand with your back to it, then they will simply stare at you, and tell some joke you can barely hear, the last line of it spat loud into now-roiling laughter. Eyes on you now. Look away. Hold the card. Look at that card. They won’t see you.
My eyes are open and I’m sitting on my couch. I don’t know if I started here; I don’t appear to be bleeding, so I probably haven’t moved. The a/G (it doesn’t have a name, nobody names these things) is nowhere to be seen. It likes to hide under the fridge down by the click-on, click-off. Sometimes I catch it trembling. I find my hands are shaking; I use them to light a cigarette.
I need a start. I don’t even have a fucking start.
My head is pounding.
I can’t see it.
It takes several days to assemble the narrative of Fareen’s death: down by the water, condo, wealthy zone, drone strike. ‘Surgical.’ I wonder what that even means. Four dead, at least thirty wounded. They took out a floor of the building. The violence erased from memory by the following day’s suicide-belt in a market in Islamabad, the blood-sluicing horror that is Peshawar, the following week’s skirmish on the Afghan border. Then: Iraq, Yemen, Iran, our own troubles. The original NYT article was disposable enough anyway. Nothing on offer to illuminate the war that has not ever been a war, a war which has not begun yet and is not over.
We wrote to each other several years ago for the duration of a couple months when neither of us were seeing anyone, and she was thinking of coming back to the States. I look at her words now: “...the idea of a/G is still physically repulsive to me. I do not want something in my spinal fluids. I do not want my imagination fueling some dwarf-fantasy, and then I don’t want some stranger living that dwarf-fantasy through my spinal fluids. I don’t know how you do it, Si. I have no fucking clue. Anti-genius. The name is so apt.” She described the forever-larval documentary on trauma victims: “I had not guessed there were so many farmers in this world, and that so many people wanted to hurt them.” “It is incomplete. Until I can make the viewer feel the insanity of the moment when the victim’s world is broken, anything and everything I do will be incomplete. I cannot understand it myself, and it is not until I understand it, that I will be able to make anyone else understand it, and I will never understand it until I experience it, and I will never experience it because I am a coward, we are all cowards, because who would ever set out to experience such a thing?” We stopped writing to each other, as people who do not see each others’ real faces, who cannot touch each other on the shoulder, will do. I do not know if she discovered how I took her words. How much goddamn money I made out of them.
The Motherfucker is on me. I have no idea what he looks like, what her voice sounds like, but it has the appointment book and cuts the checks, and they are not pleased with me. Thirteen individual appointments for WTC ‘93, all broken, all rescheduled, all broken. The command: See it, or get back to providing back-ground narrative for The Tattoo of the Ice-Drum.
South Wall. North Tower. Level B-2.
Yousef with the four vials of nitro on his lap; Ismoil parking. Last minute checks, priming to the four boxes, cardboard, urea nitrate and fuel oil, bound with scrap-paper. Lining that: tanks of compressed hydrogen. Four twenty-foot long fuses. A single 1,000-pound charge.
12:17:37 p.m. February 26, 1993
Four levels of concrete up, seven stories-deep. Shearing though: electrical wires, concrete, glass, asbestos, stone, soil, foliage, flesh, plastic, wood, skin.
“It felt like an airplane hit the building.”
A pillar of white smoke going up 93 stories of stairway like an offering diverted.
Brokers and lawyers and maintenance workers bash windows, covered in soot, them and the windows both, they gasp and gasp and gasp and put their hands to their throats and look down 34 29 94 24 floors, they look down at the ground in a way they have never looked down at the ground they look down at the ground in way they have never looked down at the ground before
Those in Emergency Stairwell ‘A,’ know they are trapped. Behind them, the doors have locked automatically; the smoke is holding fast, blackening them at their eyes and mouths. Emergency lighting casts no shadow, and the PA system is not working. Climbing twenty floors down. Climbing another fifty floors down. There are 25,000 people in the building. You can feel them around you, you can feel their human flesh, their
fingers in your hair
and her hand goes
sliding down my face
I can’t see it. I can only see one thing. I write the Motherfucker, sit at the terminal and wait. The Motherfucker writes back in sixteen minutes: Do it, and I will sell the living shit out of it.
Information is limited, of course, on the ordinance used. History might reveal these things, or it might cover them like a death-shroud. It doesn’t matter. No one knows what breed of horse stood calmly in front of Buda’s cart adjacent to the Corner,Wall Street ‘20, but we can still scream with the downed beast, admire the gray fog rising. MQ-9, Hellfire, Predator, GBU-38 JDAM; we know their names, so they must be antiques. The authorities have not even released the name of the intended target, though they maintain he was ‘very highly placed in Al-Qaeda,’ but that to reveal his identity would compromise further efforts directed against him. But give us this much, Fareen, there was a target.
Merriam-Webster: “The male of a bee (as the honeybee) that has no sting and gathers no honey.”
Pashtuns call them machays which means “wasps.”
There is only one picture in which she looks like herself.
In it, she sits with her back to the wall of a small hut. She is swathed in white, surrounded by other women, ages varying, similarly garbed. The stock isn’t good, but you can make out intricate patterns in some cloth. The women look at the camera; one smiles, cheeks swelling like a girl I knew in the third girl who was unself-conscious and charmless. Fareen looks to the left, unaware, eyes wide and white and black-dolloped in the middle. There is a cut of a smile in her face that is not a smile; it is something I saw on her face once when I came into teacher’s lounge when she had just hung up the phone. I did not know what she had been talking about, and I did not know what she was thinking about. There was no way for me to know. The other pictures in her album, no matter how they reproduce recognizable Fareen reliefs (camera operator, ‘junkie,’ drunken smiler, cut-rate student model), show someone twiggy, feminine, assured, affected. Not her.
The Motherfucker writes: No one cares about WTC ‘93 anymore. All they want is Karachi ‘11.
“It seems that they really want to kill everyone...”
Florida. Out the window: mobile homes, swamp land, endless loops of concrete, mini-malls, the heat of the day smearing the glass. Clouds truck from the sea, ride across the land like a fantasy app. The road is smooth, and you have your music on. You are eating your breakfast sandwich. There is more coffee in the tall building. You punch up your terminal. There are hellos to say, as everyone settles to their work. In Pakistan, it is now 6:32 PM. Pay attention. Narrow your vision. The screen shows you live: blue, long and narrow, and focused. Camera-eye: you hang suspended, silent (they say they can hear you buzzing when the wind is right, they are lying.) Indulge momentarily in the only poet you give a damn about (Irish, and we have culture/history/literature): “A lonely impulse of delight,” does not, after all, have to be so lonely. You are not the predator. You sit there and you wait when it becomes the time to press the button, you press the button.
The heat comes off the sky, comes off the sea, comes off the glass. You shrug into an American wife-beater, the counter-pane twisted around your left foot, all this way into the kitchen. Light a cigarette and stare at the coffee dripping. Jerk open the sliding door. Look down at the vacant beach: used for military exercises and not much else these days. The sky’s empty. You step back into your lair. Remember: needles and knock-out and the smell of yourself, when you still smelled like you instead of this shampooed thing. Lift your wrists to your nostril: smell and smile. An animal knows itself. You flip your screen up, slap some Flaming Lips on, you turn to the coffee, stretching your left arm out to the side, hearing the bones crackle. You think about what you have to do today, and nothing comes to mind. You think you hear something like the stirring of insectoid wings. You turn and you look to the empty sky but you don’t see the empty sky all you see is your face in the glass and you have a smile that is not a smile and then the smile
is gone with the glass and
you cannot stand where you stood
so you stand
Pigeon-footed and naked, neck twisted, her profile made incomplete by the slope of her right shoulder allowing me just the dull gleam of a single eye. Despite the dormroom halogen, her skin was burnt; everything about her was burnt. Her spine, broad and mountain-range, was accentuated by her aching posture. I could barely breathe, back on the bed, heart triple-tempo, skin raw. The room smelled of rain and sweat. I waited for her to turn around. When she’d come, there was a little shout, like a dog kicked in the side of the head, which had been followed by the glancing blow of elbow to collarbone. She’d relaxed slowly against me, then drew my hand out of her quickly and inched forward so we were not touching. My mouth tasted of her unwashed teeth and her cigarettes and her cunt. I couldn’t understand it; I couldn’t understand anything. Now her skull was framed by a boxy window looking on three sides of the tan, twenty-five floor dorm, above a blue empty parallelogram, down the glass roof of the cafeteria I could never see without also seeing a hunk of flame-spewing metal slamming into it, reaving, everything shattered and immolated, suddenly, irrevocably, and with endless screaming.
About the Author
Brendan Byrne, a native of the District of Columbia, currently resides in New York City. His criticism appears in The Brooklyn Rail. He's also the editor of The Orphan, a webzine of otherwise unpublishable prose and art.
Re. the action in "Wasps/Spiders," here's a cheat-sheet from the author: "The guy writes semi-VR programs for a device called a/G, and he writes a program about the death of a woman he knew, and at one point, he attempts to write it from the point of view of the drone pilot who killed her."
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