I’m off to a hypnotist soon, determined to try to make sense of dreams that perplexed and plagued me for 15 years.

You see, one morning aged 12, I dreamt I woke in my Lower Templestowe bedroom, threw open the curtains and beheld the World Trade Centre’s twin towers, bold and glistening over nearby Heidelberg. I won’t forget the peaceful stillness, the sense of yearning or the near sadness when I actually woke, threw open the curtains and found them gone.

Boy, did they come back! Behind the MCG southern stand; through a dense jungle canopy; in a desert oasis and, mostly, in New York itself – at least what I imagined it to be. The only common thread to hundreds of twin towers dreams was my inability to reach them. Nights became surreal, frustrating ordeals in which I tried picking my way past cars, people, even creatures that blocked my path. I never could. I could talk in tongues in dreams, I could fly, the Tiges could even win premierships, but be buggered if I could reach Downtown Manhattan.

At least not awake.

In 1995 I flew from Prague to New York, determined to touch in reality what eluded me in slumber. I remember glimpsing them through the Czech Airlines window as it neared JFK, and my heart racing, but I knew better than to count my chickens, lest a mechanical fault, sudden heart attack, hijacking or alien abduction thwart my plans. (That’s how twin towers messed up I was). I never imagined flying into the WTC, though: that was way too fanciful…

An hour or so later, New Yorkers I’d befriended in Prague, who knew of my obsession: Scott, David and Laurie, steered me blindfolded to a Park Slope rooftop, where a Nathan’s Hot Dog was stuck in one hand and a beer in the other. Then came the big reveal: “Stevie, buddy,” Scott announced, untying me. “I give you The Twin Towers.”

There they were, as bold and majestic as they’d appeared 15 years before, only in their right spot. I was thrilled, but not fully satisfied. I had to go there, to best my subconscious and quash once and for all the eerie portent that I would die before reaching them. As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge that night, they loomed closer than ever. By Broadway, I couldn’t crane enough to see their peaks through the car window. Before we’d even parked, I was out the door and sprinting to the North Tower, no-one blocking my path, no lizard men, no six storey trucks, no invisible arms, no dense fog … 150 metres, 100, 50, 20, 5, 2 then, with a thwack, I planted myself against the concrete and sobbed.

I was still crying, this time at the South Tower, when my buddies caught up. “We’re really happy for you, Stevie,” said Laurie, who felt privileged – if maybe a bit freaked – to be sharing the moment, and she hugged me. “Right,” I said, patting the building like a long lost friend. “I’ll catch you tomorrow.”

From that night on the dreams ended.

Eighteen years on I’m still trying to figure out why they started. Surely there were better nocturnal obsessions than two excessive peons to commercialism. They had none of the Chrysler Building’s grace or the Woolworth’s grandeur. The only things they shared with the majestic Empire State Building was King Kong. They were tall, yes, but not quite like I’d imagined. Would not the Pyramids have been more mysterious, Mt Everest more lofty, the Eifel Tower more romantic? I spent days in, atop, beneath and around the WTC, snapping feverishly and pondering what it was that germinated in a 12 year old’s subconscious and still obsessed a 26 year old man?

A picture is all it took to bewitch tightrope artist Philip Petit, who practically danced between the towers in 1973; a simple magazine sketch of the buildings in a dentist’s waiting room – and before they were even built. Perhaps stills of his feat had lain dormant in my mind? They were on the big screen (King Kong straddled them in 1977, clutching Jessica Lange) and featured regularly on the small. I just don’t remember them registering much.

One day on that 1995 visit, lying on my back taking my umpteenth photo of the towers, I snapped a jet plane flying high above and between them. Five years and two visits later, I happened across that photo while preparing for my debut exhibition and shuddered. I’d never paid much attention to it, frustrated by an inexplicable hairline through the negative that intersected the South Tower (a scratch not present in other photos). Now, it chilled me. The clouds, with a little imagination, resembled white flames, the plane’s dark outline was smack bang in the middle. That’s when it dawned on me; perhaps the World Trade Centre dominated my dreams not because of what I’d seen somewhere, but what I once would?

Helena and I were home watching West Wing the night Jim Whaley flashed on the screen before a blazing North Tower. There were “unconfirmed reports” of a passenger jet striking the upper floors, enough, I would have thought, to abandon normal programming. But Nine returned to West Wing, a decision it would later rue, with rivals Seven and Ten capturing the ‘second plane’ live. By then I’d left messages with David and Scott in NYC and called dad in Melbourne.

“Are you watching this dad?”

“This is your JFK moment, son,” he replied. “You’re never going to forget this!”

How could I, with Flight 175’s impact, from every angle, repeated and repeated; the South Tower collapsing, followed by it’s twin; Downtown shrouded in a cloud of pulverised concrete, steel and bone; a giant hole punched into the pentagon and “another plane” unaccounted for; the world’s final loss of innocence.

I went to bed around 3am, but not to sleep. My towers were gone, no more real now than the ones I’d once dreamt of. I rode to work the next morning bleary eyed, transfixed on Collins Street skyscrapers I half expected a Qantas jet to strike. Every television, every radio, every mouth was filled with the night’s events – except one.

Humphrey B. Bear, who I was sent to photograph at a Surrey Hills podiatry clinic, refused to comment when, alone in the foyer, I asked: “Hey, Humph, can you believe last night? Mate … mate … are you in there? Can you hear me? Did you watch it?”

Humphrey nodded and wiped a pretend tear from his eye. 

“We’re alone, mate, there are no kids here. You can talk,” I continued. The bear shook his head before burying it in his hands. For one brief moment, I took solace from the thought that in a crazy world, at least some things remain constant.

It’s 3pm, June 5, 2013 and I’m at 30,000 ft, two hours into the second leg of a three-flight trip to NYC. I’ve been invited to join a group exhibition in August and thought it best to select, print and frame the pics myself, rather than leave it to Scott, who hasn’t ruled out getting me a solo show. It’s my sixth New York trip, my third without the towers.

In 2002, I visited the gaping hole where they once stood and felt guiltily awkward, capturing the still funereal atmosphere like a gawking tourist. Rain damaged, sepia photos of 9-11 still adorned the gates of a nearby church, each with their own “have you seen?” pleas. I didn’t hang around.

In July 2011, as The Freedom Tower inched upwards, I never went west of Wall Street. I’d moved on, or at least I thought so, for when I got home a friend gave me the breathtaking Man on Wire, a documentary on Philip Petit’s miraculous, dreamlike traipse between the towers. I got to thinking about them again, which led to exploring pictorial libraries, which led to 9-11 documentaries, which led to “9-11 truth investigations”, which led to lots of tense dinner parties as I began swallowing various conspiracy theories. For a while there, days on end were spent studying seemingly credible scientists, architects and engineers aghast at the towers’ collapse (not to mention WTC 7, the “smoking gun”).

It started messing with me. I had to stop.

The actual ‘truth’ of 9-11 is so muddled by claims and counter claims that the world will never know it. For every valid question (why the abnormally high ‘put options’ placed on United Airlines and American Airlines on September 10? Why did the buildings collapse at near free fall speed?  Why did Building 7 collapse at all?) – cockamamie things like ‘no plane’ theories muddy the waters.

Hmm, but then, what did strike the Pentagon?

Where do I stand? Let’s just say I don’t believe a bunch of zealots with box cutters could pull off the crime of the century without considerable ‘intelligence’ backing; more than a fugitive in a cave. Exactly who, I don’t know. I never will. But it’s fishy.

The standard conspiracy line contends that with the Iron Curtain drawn, the Iraq War over and US Military spending at record lows, America needed a ‘Pearl Harbour’ event to justify an incursion into the Middle East and kick start a flagging arms industry. Simply striking the tallest symbols of capitalism wasn’t enough; they had to be brought down. The standard “official” line basically contends that 9-11 was a cock-up, not a conspiracy and that ‘truthers’ are unpatriotic nut jobs.

Each ‘side’ has an arsenal of “experts” to back their claims. Each studied closely make a lot of sense. Again, it’s too muddied for absolute truth to ever come out.

Twenty two hours later: I’m on the Newark Tarmac, staring at the Freedom Tower through a portal not dissimilar to the one which first framed the Twin Towers 18 years ago. My, does it rise proudly over Downtown, catching and refracting glints of the setting sun. Impressive. But I won’t run to touch it. It’s deathly quiet, like my first dream, but that’s because both ears have taken a pressurised hammering from three consecutive flights from Melbourne. I left home 20 hours ago. Now I feel home.

I look at the strip of Manhattan and picture Flight 11 in my mind’s eye, following 9th Avenue to its target. I see Flight 175 from the other direction and the resultant explosion. And I realise that right now, only 10 or so kilometres away, life has ostensibly returned to normal in the financial district. Soon I’ll be making my way to BrooklynImage in a shuttle bus, then a cab. I’m not sure what the next week will hold. I don’t want to think of a solo show, lest I jinx it. But then, some dreams are hard to shake. I know that only too well, and if hypnotists really can help relive your dreams, I look forward to seeing my beautiful twin towers again, however illusive.

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