After so many years, I think I forgot what September 11th really means. Not the event itself, of course, but what we can glean from our memory of it. For the first few anniversaries, anger and gloom were in charge of me. For a few after that, grief. A lot of grief. Then some delayed patriotism and New York City pride. Then, a reflection of the deeply personal part of September 11th where I lost the version of myself I once knew and met the version of myself that was so swallowed by fear and hopelessness, everything stopped mattering.
On more recent anniversaries, I simply started to carry a little something extra in my heart; something that bumps up against everyone I pass here in Los Angeles, where I've lived for the last 8 years; something that says "yeah, I'm a New Yorker. Yeah, we got through that together. Yeah, it still hurts." Because I was 15 and had before come nowhere near an experience that would crumple everything I thought I could ever rely on, slowly, and with a great deal of surrealism.
On September 9th, 2001, I saw the Twin Towers for the last time, from across the river in New Jersey, with the setting sun bouncing off the windows so boldly, the buildings glowed.
The next day, I began my sophomore year of high school on Staten Island. And the day after that, I sat in Italian class feeling sorry for my teacher who the class relentlessly made fun of when a classmate of mine sprung up from his chair and shouted "a plane flew into the World Trade Center." He was listening to the radio on his Walkman when the news broke. We didn't have smartphones to verify his claim or get more information. We just sat in that, wondering what it could mean.
I remembered when a plane flew into the Empire State Building once. It was a reparable situation - could this one be similar? I found myself staring out the window at a passing plane wondering what kind of damage it could do to the largest buildings I'd ever known. Then chaos started to break out in the hallways.
More and more news was coming in and students were leaving one by one, some with parent escorts, some on their own, most frantic with fear that their parents or some other relative who worked downtown were in danger, or worse.
After a few more periods of class - first Italian, then English, then Creative Writing, my mom came to get me. My body still remembers the moment when I followed after her, walking hastily and panicked to the car, begging her, shouting at her to tell me what had happened. "They're gone!" she said, manically. "Who's gone?" I asked, with a squeak in my voice. "The Twin Towers. They're gone."
I froze in the street. Clearly she misspoke. How could they be gone? How does that happen? How many people must be dead?
My dad and aunt worked near the towers and, with cell service out around the city, we sat in worry for hours. Radio stations told us not to drink water from the tap out of fear the terrorists would try to hit us with chemical warfare. Neighbors became instantly patriotic as the sky turned yellow for months. I spent so much of that week and the weeks to follow submitting a family friend's picture to local news stations as a missing person in the impractical hope someone would find him. No one did. Lots of grief, anger, shock, fear wrapped up in a day that felt like it never ended but also never could have actually happened in the first place.
September 11th brought me a lot of confusion about patriotism, political righteousness, the ethos of war, and what kind of stuff the Universe is made of. It forced me to see a side of myself I didn't know existed, one that boiled with rage and dreamt of the destruction of our destroyers. It forced upon me a surreal vulnerability.