I move to New York on August 26, 2001. In a family most of whose members live within twenty minutes of each other, I am the first to move away, one of the first to go to college. The day I leave my hometown, I have not spoken to my father in almost exactly three months, so it is my mother, sister, and a bevy of aunts and uncles who load a minivan and drive me to what seems like another world. We stay in a hotel, crammed like sardines into rooms that I am sure cost more than one of the cars we brought with us.
The morning I move into my dorm on E 10th Street, we eat brunch in an overpriced restaurant on Park Avenue that calls itself a French bistro, where the only recognizable breakfast food is French toast. In hushed tones, my uncles joke about two men sitting at a small table across the room. “Men wearing scarves,” one of them says. “Pompous assholes.” But with our accent it sounds like “scahves” and “ahhseholes.” I am Toto, and this is not Kansas.
We don’t waste much time with goodbyes. “This is New York,” someone warns me. “There are bad neighborhoods everywhere. Don’t go more than two blocks away unless it’s for class. And definitely don’t go further East than Broadway.” I nod, not knowing how far away class is or what direction East is anyway. An aunt hands me a book called The Gift of Fear as a parting present. My mother and sister hug me and cry, and then they all pile into the van and go back to Massachusetts.
I am 18. I have never had a drink, other than a few sips of a Kahlua sombrero offered to me by my aunts at my high school graduation party. I am beyond virgin: I have never made out, I don’t know what the bases are, I am not sure I even like boys. And now I am in New York, and I think I am free.
I start classes, which are equal parts terrifying and exactly what I dreamed studying theater in New York City might be like. I attend Mass at the campus Catholic center. I make my first friends. I find the bodega around the corner – it’s the closest convenience store that doesn’t require crossing Broadway, which I have promised not to do. I use a debit card, attached to my own bank account, for the first time ever. I have no idea what I am doing.
On September 9, 2001, my roommates and I visit the World Trade Center. It is my first subway ride since moving to the city, other than an RA-supervised trip to Brooklyn to visit Junior’s. We wander around a bit, but to me these towers are just more visual noise in a city that feels like a magic eye painting. I have no sense of them up close. I am overwhelmed with the feeling that I have betrayed some promise to my family by going this far afield. Getting back to my dorm is a relief.
On September 11, 2001, I am in an 8:00am intro to narrative essay class. I sit in the back with a boy named Ryland who I am already a little infatuated with. I think his name is exotic, and I have never met anyone from Iowa before. We throw around the word bisexual a lot and are disdainful of our grad student instructor. That morning is noisy. “Must be a fire downtown,” Ethan the instructor says, and he closes the window to the street.
After class, we walk North with our backs to the South. As we approach 10th Street, I realize there are crowds gathering on every corner.
“Must be a tour,” I say. Ryland turns left to go West. I turn right to go East. I never turn around to see the sky falling behind me.
In the lobby of the dorm, a girl I think I might have a crush on is crying with the security guard while they listen to the radio. I start to get the feeling that I have missed something important, that something has shifted, that something has changed.
“Your mom called,” my roommate says as soon as I open the door.
The TV is on. Through it I can see that the world is on fire. “What is happening?” I say.
“They attacked the World Trade Center,” one of my roommates says.
I stare at the screen. “Who is ‘they’?”
No one answers, so I call my mother. I assure her I am all right. I assure her I am far away from what is going on, although I honestly have no idea. I assure her I will not leave my dorm.
In our room, we speculate as we watch the endless litany of news coverage.
“Maybe it was an accident.”
“If there were two planes, it can’t be an accident, can it? How does that happen?”
The TV starts to flicker and the phone stops working. I decide to break a few promises at once.
I leave my room.
I cross Broadway to Grace Church, because I’m not sure the Catholic center at school will be open, and it feels too urgent to wait the eight blocks or so it would take me to get there. I feel like I need to do something, and the only thing I can think to do is get in a pew and pray. Also, walking those eight blocks to the Catholic center would require me to go South, to look South, to face what is coming. I cross Broadway, and I do not look up from the ground in front of me. I see only the white lines of the crosswalk, the gum on the concrete, the stairs up to a wrought-iron threshold.
The church doors are locked.
On the steps in front of Grace Church, it dawns on me that there is no sanctuary today, no safety. I realize I have not heard from an RA or from the University. I don’t know if we will have classes, or if the dining halls will be open.
I do not know if whatever is happening is over, if this is the worst of it. I do not know if whoever “they” is, is done.
And I am still not ready to look South, to face it.
I cross Broadway again and turn right, North, to my bodega. I haul an armful of non-perishables and a can opener to the counter. The Middle Eastern men working there are weeping openly with eyes wide as they watch the news through a veil of static.
We don’t speak, but I hand them my shiny new debit card. One of them runs it through the machine, but it doesn’t work. He tries again, and they exchange a few words in a language I don’t recognize. The other man picks up the phone and shakes his head.
“No phone, no card,” he tells me.
No card, no money. No money, no food.
I leave the bodega. And I finally turn South, to face an apocalyptic cloud on the horizon, blossoming upward and outward, obscuring the sky.
On my way South to the bank, I am a fish swimming upstream in a sea of ghosts. Caked in a white and yellow dust, they shamble North up a deserted Broadway. Some of them carry briefcases. One woman bleeds from her nose. Many of them have tracks of tears revealing their skin beneath the bizarre whiteface.
I don’t realize until I see the ATM error message that no phones means no cash, too. I stand in the fishbowl of the HSBC lobby for a minute, trying to imagine what my next step might be.
A ghost slumps against the outside of the glass and slides to the ground with his head in his hands.
There is no next step. I go back to my dorm.
Later the phones start working again. My mother calls to tell me that my father, who haven’t seen since my high school graduation, has parked his car somewhere on a bridge and is walking into Manhattan. She has called to ask if she can give my address, my phone number.
I meet him on the sidewalk hours later, an awkward hello without a hug. He meets my roommates. We agree to get together in the morning. I promise to stay in my room.
I go to a vigil in Union Square, where public art has already sprung up, calling for peace, celebrating the city. A stranger offers me weed out of an Altoid tin.
The next day, my dad and I take an empty train up to an empty Times Square. He asks if I’ve been eating, because I fainted in a voice lesson the week before. A coworker of his fainted recently, hit his head, and died. I’m eating, I tell him, which isn’t strictly true.
We wander around, but there is nothing to see. He asks me to ride home with him, but I’m worried about missing class. We still don’t know when the school will re-open, and my performance program has a strict zero tolerance policy about absences.
The subway stops at 14th street instead of 8th, and we see when we get above ground that a barricade has been set up, dividing everything below Union Square from the rest of the city. We are asked for ID to get inside, but I don’t have a driver’s license, let alone a passport. This is the first time I have ever been asked for official identification in my life. The police let me in with my NYU ID but warn me not to leave again or I might not get back in.
Dad asks me again to come home, but I kiss him goodbye and wish him luck finding his car.
On Thursday, the wind shifts. We have our windows open, and someone mentions that the BBQ place two blocks away must be back to work.
It isn’t BBQ. It is ash. Burnt buildings, and paper. People.
We close the windows and stuff newspaper in the drafty spots, but the whole room gets coated with a fine yellow mist. Don’t go outside without a mask, they tell us.
I tie a bandana my dad left me around my face and go out. I visit one of the volunteer centers that have cropped up in the village to try to donate blood, but I am too anemic, and my blood is rejected. I try to leave a note at a memorial in Washington Square, but the faces of the missing that have been tacked up by desperate friends and family render me wordless.
We get a notice that classes will be canceled until at least Monday. I book a train to Boston knowing I might not be allowed to board it without government ID, and that because of the barricade I might not be allowed back to my dorm if I’m turned away at Amtrak. Between the dust of the dead and the blue blockade at 14th street, I am suffocating, and the risk is worth it.
I am home for about half an hour before I realize this was a mistake. Whatever happened in the last three days has made me belong more in New York than I am ever going to belong anywhere else.
Everyone is so relieved, so grateful that I am all right. Patriotism runs rampant, but I don’t feel it. I’m not a part of how the rest of the country is processing this atrocity, because I am a part of the atrocity itself. I was there, I saw the things, I heard the things. I smelled the things, and they were not just things but also people and I breathed them in, the dust and the death are part of me now. I can’t just sing an extra round of the anthem at a football game as though it’s some kind of rallying cry and feel like it is good or right or enough.
I become aware very quickly that there are competing levels of ownership over this tragedy. I have a visceral reaction to people at home who try to talk to me about an experience I know they cannot begin to fully understand. But I was thirty blocks away, with my back stubbornly turned South. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who saw the towers collapse. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who was five blocks away. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who saw the men and women jumping. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who died, on a plane, in a staircase, in a pile of rubble over the subway station I visited less than a week before.
Everyone knows someone, and no one really knows anything, and I decide to keep my mouth shut about the whole thing. I keep my mouth shut about the whole thing for most of fifteen years.