If you own a computer or television and live in the United States, you probably spent much of this past weekend being reminded to remember that scary day ten years ago when some confused, angry people flew airplanes into large buildings and killed a bunch of people. I watched the footage again, which I hadn’t seen since it happened live in 2001, and much like the first time, it was difficult to have an emotional connection to what I was seeing. It’s probably because I don’t know anybody who died during the attacks. I don’t even know somebody who knows somebody who died. I do know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who died, but that doesn’t make what I saw (and then saw again last Sunday) seem any more real. The only way I can truly wrap my head around the horror and sadness and loss of 9/11 is by listening to Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.”
When I was fourteen, a girl died at my school. Well, she wasn’t at school when it happened. She was at home, sleeping in her bedroom, in the middle of the night. There was some electrical problem — an overloaded light socket or something, I don’t know — and the house went up like a bonfire. Nothing was left but a mountain of burning embers, and not a single person got out in time, including Cindy.
My parents and the other adults in the neighborhood talked about how tragic it was. For all of the victims, of course, but specifically Cindy. “She was only fourteen,” they’d remind each other in hushed whispers. “Such a tragedy. Nobody should die that young.” I didn’t understand their logic. To my mind, her age wasn’t the tragic part. It was the skin-burning part that had the biggest impact on me. When the temperature in your bedroom hits a balmy 500 degrees and your flesh starts melting like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, isn’t age irrelevant? I just couldn’t imagine anybody sitting in the middle of a raging inferno and thinking, “Wow, this really, really, really hurts. But at least I’m thirty.”
They let the entire school skip classes to attend Cindy’s funeral, even those of us who didn’t know her. It never occurred to me that letting the actual friends and family mourn in privacy might have been in better taste. But I had no intention of missing the social event of the season. Prior to the big event, I met with a small gaggle of friends — many of whom, like me, were for all intents and purposes funeral crashers — at a local pizzeria to discuss/ debate what we were about to witness. Funerals were all very new and exhilarating for us, particularly the funeral of a peer who had died in such a ghoulish manner. We wondered aloud: Would there be an open casket? Was that even possible, given the circumstances? And what, we whispered excitedly, would she look like? A wax mannequin from Madame Tussauds left next to a space heater? Maybe just a pile of green goo, like the monster from The Blob?
“Y’know,” a guy named Todd casually announced. “She gave me a blowjob once.”
My jaw dropped. I was shocked; not that anybody would spread such heinous gossip about a dead girl, but that I was only learning about it now. A few others shared their stories, and it soon became apparent that Todd wasn’t the only one acquainted with Cindy’s legendary oral skills. Everybody at the table had had at least one intimate exchange with her … except for me.
In the awkward silence that followed, the only sound, aside from the clattering of silverware and muffled shouting from the kitchen, was Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” piped in over the restaurant’s speakers. It may seem like an irrelevant detail, but at the time it felt loaded with significance. At almost the exact moment I was grappling with the newfound knowledge that I was the only one of my male friends not to have a sexual history with Cindy, the song reached the part where Idol screams “Sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat!” I couldn’t have asked for a better soundtrack for a perfectly weird and unsettling day of revelations. Was Idol’s pseudo-punk caterwauling referring to the unpleasantly hot temperatures necessary for a human body to melt? Or the libidinal sweat of a teenager being orally pleasured under the football stadium bleachers? I couldn’t begin to speculate, having no experience with either, but the world definitely got a lot bigger and scarier that day.
I know it’s silly to compare the staggering loss of the 9/11 victims with the frustration of a 14-year-old guy who just learned that the only girl with a corroborated reputation for oral sex has been burned alive in a house fire. But at least for me, understanding the tragedy of one is not possible without the other. When I saw those planes crash into tall buildings in 2001, I felt sad and angry and freaked out, but it was a detached sad and angry and freaked out. But whenever “Dancing With Myself” comes on the radio (and if you listen to the ’80s channel on SiriusXM, you’ll hear it a lot), I can still feel the emotional vertigo of Cindy’s funeral like it was yesterday. It all comes crashing back; the stomach-clenching disbelief, the adrenalin rush of panicky confusion, the death that seemed unreal and impossible to fathom, and the foreboding that comes with realizing everything you thought you knew about the world has changed in an instant. In other words, everything I think I was supposed to feel about 9/11 but kinda never actually did.
This isn’t something I tend to admit out loud. That can be a dangerous road. It’d be like admitting you weren’t all that impressed with the special effects and lack of believable plot in a Transformers sequel when everybody else considers it a benchmark in their lives, an experience against which all others are judged. Whenever the subject of 9/11 is broached, I just use a little Lee Strasberg “emotional recall.” I’m the actor who thinks about a dead pet to make himself cry during a scene. But my dead pet is Cindy. I’ve been involved in countless conversations about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but I try never to say anything specific. Instead, I just nod grimly and look forlorn, and they assume I’m thinking about the same things they are. But in my head, I’m actually humming the lyrics to a Billy Idol song.
“Sweat! Sweat! Sweat, sweat, sweat!”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTV Hive