Like Then: A Memory With M

I was walking through the campus on a sunny September morning, which was calm, fresh, with a deep blue sky, like then. Then, just as now, the dew that fell during the night on the grass sparkled coldly and delicately. The sun was strong and gentle. Through the pure air passed, almost imperceptibly, some tremor, as after the slow battering of an invisible wing – autumn's wing. It was a morning like then – I remember it with that sharp precision with which some sensations imprint themselves in your mind, and together with them, the most harmless circumstances, the most banal gestures, the most common words, when they coincide in time with one of those unexpected events that make you divide time in your memory into "before" and "after."I was alone with M in Bloomington and we were hurrying to leave home to reach the university library on time, the place where he worked for three hours a day to arrange the books on the shelves. When I think about that period, I see him again, attentive, absent-minded, in the artificial neon light on the 9th floor, in the big library without windows, among the carts loaded with volumes, some of them big and heavy, that he had to put back on their shelves; a slow, cumbersome, painstaking, lonely activity. That morning I was about to leave, at a quarter to nine – I was heading for the radio to turn it off, I was wildly listening to the youthful voice of the speaker of the university radio station, a student, of course, who was nevertheless announcing a strange piece of news, they had just received: a plane crashed into one of the two twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. There was a kind of hesitation, a vague surprise in the radio voice – a hesitation and a surprise that I could hear in a distinct way only later on, in my memory. Suddenly amidst the rush of the departure, I made a little hypothesis, quickly absorbed in the mental flux of immediate thoughts and concerns: they were probably talking about a plane crash, about a small private plane that lost direction, a tragic ordinary issue, nothing more. In the car, M was silent, in his usual way, introvert, with his permanently focused air, serious, with a somewhat blurry stare. When we reached the library, a quarter of an hour later, in the elevator, a student exclaimed: "The WorldTradeCenter is under attack!" Making the connection with the piece of information from the radio, I suddenly realized that something serious had happened. But M was undisturbed, he did not hear what the student had said. I left him at the 9th floor, which was almost deserted at that hour, and I was to pick him up again at noon. When I arrived downstairs again, in the lobby of the library, I ran into Anne B., with a bewildered look, with a messy expression on her face under her helmet of blond, almost silvery hair. I saluted her and I asked her: "What's going on?" "WorldTradeCenter was bombed, it's a terrorist attack; it's all live on television," she answered. And she continued: "I asked for more TV-sets to be brought here in the lobby, so that everybody can see." Anne was the director of the library research center.Seized by some sort of panic – an abstract panic, as when learning about a huge catastrophe with immense consequences – I immediately went home and spent my whole morning in front of the TV, changing channels very often. The spectacle was apocalyptic. Big passenger planes had been used as missiles, the Pentagon had been bombed as well, a flight that was heading for the White House had crashed in Pennsylvania. The atmosphere was like at the beginning of a world war. They kept repeating the image of the first plane hijacked by the suicidal terrorists, glittering under the surreal blue sky, exploding in a small cloud of smoke as it touched the high, black-glassy wall of one of the twin towers. Then, the chaos on the streets, people running like crazy, thick smoke, firefighters' sirens, cut off by somber comments. Then, the image of the second plane. Then fragmented news. The President was in a school in Florida and was reading from a children's book, in a classroom. For ten minutes, he refused to be disturbed. Etc. Etc. When, at noon, I went to pick up M, in the vast lobby of the library there were more TVs and more students around them, watching silently the broadcast (the station they chose was ABC News with Peter Jennings). I found M alone on the entire floor, among the carts with books, as if he did not want to part with them (with his rigid attention and his lack of the notion of time, he was always bothered by any interruption). He looked at me disapprovingly, telling me to wait, to wait, just as he usually did in such circumstances. When we finally reached the downstairs lobby, he was amazed. "What happened?" he joined a group and started watching the show. Was he shocked? His face was grave, he was frowning, but I don't know if he realized what it was all about. Terrorists? Attacks? Hundreds, maybe thousands of dead? Ruins? Fires? Big clouds of smoke? But why, why? I tried to explain him, on the way home, and after that. He listened to me, absent-minded and still attentive, and, from time to time, he cut me off with the question But why? He then spent hours on end in front of the TV, obviously troubled, then tired, then irritated by that particular tiredness produced by the TV. In the evening, at dinner, he asked me for a millionth time (but obviously my explanations were not what he expected, if he was really expecting anything): "But why?" He seemed to ask not for me to answer, but to answer to himself, be it just through repeating the question. People had died, and that impressed him, worried him, disturbed him. He was talking to himself, but he needed my presence all the same. He secretly knew that he couldn't understand and that's why I think he was trying to envelop the tragedy to which he assisted into an ever bigger "Why?" which was becoming more and more its own and only possible answer, and which rejected any other explanations, in a scared, insistent, naïve "Why?," repeated until the loss of its meaning, as if the lack of meaning could have, in the end, a reassuring effect. Before he fell asleep that night, lying on the bed, with eyes half closed, in a whispering voice, he kept asking and answering interrogatively, with ever longer pauses, in an enigmatic dialogue, like a ritual from an unknown world, until he fell asleep.I remembered his question – involuntarily metaphysical – in this sunny, calm morning, with a deep blue sky, like then. I also remembered what he told me in the imaginary dialogue that I had with him two days after his death: "Any death is a great tragedy," a sentence that summed up perfectly his way of thinking. There is no difference between his death and anybody else's death (was he trying to comfort me?); we are all different and precisely because of this we are all the same. This kind of maxims proved to me that there is a kind of wisdom typical for autism. I was crossing the campus in the clear, cool air of the beginning of autumn. Reaching the library, I went over to the 9th floor (almost deserted) and I distinctly saw him in my memory's imagination, tall, well-built, with his big glasses with thick, black rims, with his abstracted face, lingering among the carts loaded with books, waiting, with an impatient patience, for me to go so that he could start working, like then. I descended to the 8th floor, where my study is and, instead of reading, I wrote these lines, with many corrections, with many things added on, with many breaks for thinking over and dreaming. I looked for him through writing and I found his absence, the same and still, a different one, after the two and a half years that have passed since his death. An absence that I, sometimes, desperately need. An absence that is dear to me as only living absences can be. An absence that resounds, like a far away echo of his voice: But why? A painful absence that time made serene and luminous, like this day of September, like then. Dilema veche, 4-10 August 2006

by Matei Călinescu (1934-2009)