my 9-11

Everyone has their own September 11. Here’s mine:

I’d taken Isaac to kindergarten. He’d turned five exactly one week earlier. That Saturday before that Tuesday, we’d had his fifth birth party at Montrose Park on R Street in Georgetown. In his classroom that morning, I actively thought how happy I felt. I liked his teachers. I liked his classmates, many of whom we knew from the previous year’s pre-K class. Everything felt good and right. Outside, there was that extraordinary light and cloud-free sky. My father used to call days like this “one of the 10 most beautiful days of the year.” A friend offered me a ride home. I accepted. At the light at Connecticut Avenue, I said, "I want to walk. It’s so beautiful." I got out of the car and crossed the Duke Ellington Bridge that connects Woodley Park with Adams Morgan. Again, I was actively thinking how good things felt. Then, when I passed Gary Condit’s condominium, I noticed the CNN crew packing up. The media had been lying in wait for the congressman all summer; Chandra Levy had gone missing that spring. I figured with Congress back in session, CNN thought there were bigger fish to fry. It was probably 9:30 by now.

I walked into the lobby of my apartment building about five minutes later. That was it. That was crossing the divide from the Big Before into the Big After. “Damn,” the woman who works at the front desk said to me. “I saw that second plane crash right into the building.” What? I looked at the television at the desk and saw the smoke coming out of the Towers, both Towers. My heart started pounding. I knew right away it was an attack. As I rode the elevator up to my apartment, I kept saying to myself over and over and over, “This is what they predicted, this is what they predicted, this is what they predicted.” Not this precise scenario, but terrorism involving aviation. By some fluke, I’d written about airport security the year before.

The first thing I did when I got into my apartment was turn on the television. The second thing I did was call my parents. My father was out, having breakfast with some buddies. My mother answered the phone. They live in Connecticut and know a lot of people who commute into the city. Can you believe it? Do you know anyone who works in the part of town? Are you hearing anything on the local news? Then I heard someone on the television in my apartment say there were reports of an explosion at the Pentagon. “Oh, Mom, I think there’s been an attack here, too.” I was also checking the news on the Internet. When the Towers disintegrated, first one, then the other, I understood something else altogether. I thought the tops of the buildings had crumbled, the top 10 or 20 floors or so. I did not understand how the buildings could disintegrate all the way to the ground. I thought the headline on America Online about the buildings crumbling was wrong. Who could anyone write such an inaccurate headline on such a day?

I decided not to rush over to school and get Isaac. Looking back, that seems a strange impulse, an innocent impulse. (Now my plan is to get to school A.S.A.P., before it goes into lockdown. I actively worry about getting to the other side of the park if the bridge was blocked off.) The Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all planes grounded. There was a sense there might be more attacks coming. We would not know until all the planes were down. Somehow, I felt that leaving Isaac in school was better than picking him up in a panic. I knew the second I brought him home the TV would go off and my only source of news would be the computer. I wanted to see how things unfolded in the coming hours. I called my friend who’d given me a ride part way home that morning. I told her what happened and suggested she might want to pick up her children. She had two in two different schools. All she said was, “My sister works in the Towers. I’ll call you later.” Emails started pouring in from friends, from Paris, from Detroit, from New York, from Mexico City. The gist of each: ARE YOU OKAY? Please tell me that you’re okay. I wish I’d saved those emails. There was something historic and poignant and desperate about those emails.

To cultivate a sense of normalcy, I did two loads of wash. This impulse makes sense five years later. What better way to defy chaos than to do something as basic as two loads of laundry, one light, one dark. News of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Word that most planes had landed. Word that all planes had landed. My friend Jill was coming to town for a conference and was going to stay with me. She was driving from New York. So she was in between the two attack targets. We made contact, she called me from the road. Unfuckingbelievable was all we could say. She could not reach her partner. She was afraid for their dog. Their place is at Houston between Avenues B and C. She was afraid for her partner’s students. Many had parents who lived down there.

I walked over to school to pick up Isaac at about two. When I crossed the Duke Ellington Bridge, I saw a plume of smoke rising on the other side of the trees. The smoke from the Pentagon. It looked so innocent, like dark smoke from an oversize cigarette. A man of indeterminate national origin walked toward me on the bridge. Shit, I remember saying. We’re all going to become suspicious of each other, aren’t we, especially of people of indeterminate national origin. Arab? African? When I got to school, staff wanted to know what was going on. They hadn’t turned on the TVs to shield the children from the news. I gave them an update. “They think it’s over,” I said. Four planes. I asked how many children were left at school. They said most students had been picked up.

Isaac came down. “Mom, you wouldn’t believe how many students got picked up early from school for doctor’s appointments.” We started walking home. I could have driven. I’d bought a new car two months earlier. But I wanted to walk. I wanted not to be afraid. As we walked together along Calvert Street, I decided to wait a few minutes before I attempted to explain to Isaac what had happened that day. I can practically place to the crack in the sidewalk the spot where I told Isaac what had happened. I chose my words carefully. I told him today was an unusual day. I told him men who didn’t like the things our leaders said – I deliberately avoided the word “terrorist” – had crashed planes into buildings. One right here outside D.C. Two in New York. Two skyscrapers. (The last time we saw the Towers, two weeks and change before the attacks, I looked over at them and told Isaac the word in Spanish. Rascacielos.) One in Pennsylvania.

Isaac’s first question was how did the bad guys get their guns past those machines we walk through at the airport. I told him we didn’t even know if they had guns. I told him there was so much we did not know. Then we went home. About an hour later, he called out for me from another room, as though he wanted to know I was close. That was the only other sign of fear that day. A little later, my friend called to tell me that her sister was okay. Her office had moved uptown several weeks earlier and she hadn’t bothered to tell her. That evening, my friend Jill arrived. She couldn’t get through to her partner. The lines were down. Then she could. The air was terrible. I’d bought dark rum. We needed a drink. Before I went to bed, I checked the news on the computer one more time. That was when I understand that the Towers had crumbled to the ground.

The next day, there was no school. Jill got off to her conference. Isaac asked me to tell him the story again. The bad guys, the planes, the buildings. Why, he wanted to know, did the bad guys crash the planes if they knew they were going to die. I tried to explain. Remember, he was only five. A little later, I looked at the pile of clean clothes, the two loads I'd washed the day before, one light, one dark. I walked over to them and started folding.

Later I would learn that two friends, one who woke up to the news in a hotel room in Seattle, another who was catching a connecting flight in Amsterdam, looked at the burning Towers on the TV and wondered the same thing, “Why are they showing this stupid movie on CNN?”

Later I would realize that it had been, oh, I don’t know, three or four or five days since the attacks, and I had not once wished that I was still together with Isaac’s father.

Later I would drive instead of fly to my best friend’s wedding in Maine. I drove with her sister and her family and a friend. It was 10 days after the attacks and I was having trouble sleeping. I was so relieved to get out of Washington that I fell asleep in the back of the van and slept through Maryland and Delaware. I woke up hours later in New Jersey to see the wretched cityscape with the gaping hole.

Later I would be talking with my father, at one of the beaches, and he would tell me that he wished he’d gone down to the water and taken a picture of the smoke rising from Manhattan that day.

Later I would hear that the boy I lost my virginity to was in the lobby of one of the Towers waiting for an elevator when a plane hit. It took him hours to get home.

Later I would hear stories of friends and friends of friends and relatives of friends who’d lost loved ones.

Later I would remember that once I had gone up to Windows of the World with the great-grandson of Jules Verne. He said this wasn’t architecture, being in a building this high, it was more like flying, it was like seeing Manhattan from a plane.

Later I would walk into Isaac’s room and see a large toy plane, a passenger plane, and shudder. I had sworn off weapon toys from the start. This toy plane had become a weapon toy.

Later, but not much later, I would go to Ground Zero and see and smell the smoke that carried so many lives away with it, over the river, over the sea.