The BBC aired this documentary recently – about an audacious act, at once whimsical and surreal – carried out at New York’s World Trade Center in 1974.
Man on Wire is the story of Philippe Petit‘s incredible high-wire walk between the two towers – back then, the tallest buildings in the world. He did it with the aid of accomplices and in defiance of the law.
It didn’t matter that the act was illegal. It was – perhaps like Felix Baumgartner’s dramatic plunge to earth – an attempt at gaining perspective, while creating an exhilarating spectacle for all of us. In reaching out and touching death, these men created profound, life-affirming experiences that we have the privilege of sharing vicariously.
When I look at this picture of Philippe Petit on that thin wire, a mis-step away from certain death, I think of how tiny and fragile he looks. And I think of Ben and me, engaged in our own high-wire act, struggling to overcome Ben’s alcoholism. We are moving gingerly, deep in concentration, from one end to another of this taut and trembling path. One wrong step and we plunge, taking Rosie with us.
Rosie and I met Ben on Saturday. He was waiting for us when we arrived at the tube station. The first thing I saw was his red face and what I thought was an unsteady gait. A familiar sharp feeling winced through me, threatening to unstitch my stomach. But the redness on his face turned out to be a rash. He was sober, if withdrawn, and eager to watch Rosie at her gymnastics class.
Later, we invited him to the flat. We had an early dinner, made two bouncy balls and played hide and seek between various chores (me: cooking/laundry; he: checking his emails/packing more stuff).
At one point, he popped a propranolol, which he isn’t supposed to be taking (the rehab centre want him off all but the most essential meds), and I became nervous. He said it was for the journey home, that maybe it was just a placebo, but he wanted to be sure he got back to the rehab centre (over an hour away) safely. I guess he was anxious.
Still, I can’t help wondering. Is it a crutch? Could he start abusing it? Is this just another indication that he is still not ready for recovery?
Despite this, we’ve had a rapprochement. With the booze out of the way, I can suddenly see Ben again – and he is almost recognisable. Still, I don’t want him to come back to the flat yet. He’s not due out until mid-November, and then he is meant to go into sheltered accommodation. He says he wants to do it – so he can access his aftercare easily. This is no bad thing.
I am trying very hard to resist the urge to just let him come back. In fact, the urge isn’t that strong. Although I worry about the standard of housing he will end up in, I am hoping and doing the closest thing to praying to ensure he ends up somewhere decent, so I don’t have to consider letting him back here so soon.
This is our high-wire act.
We slide and step with arms outstretched, slipping towards one another like whispers in the dark. Below us, stand our other selves, mouths gaping, willing us to go on, until we reach each other, and then, the other side.
– Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus