We were studying abroad in Madrid and cowered when the sound came, in a classroom, much like some of us had been years before. We asked, what’s that? And the professor, an older gentleman, said, what do you mean? They are planes. And we said, yes, yes, but the sound of planes so close to a city, to us, it means something else.
We were freshmen when it happened.
We went from the television, to the skyline, to the television, and back. What was real? We could not call it home yet; if you asked us to recite our addresses, our phone numbers, we would probably still name streets in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, in Illinois. We still depended upon maps.
Before, we had drunk cans of Coors Light in someone’s square of a dorm room, then kissed drunkenly in the bed with the lights out while our friends slept in a pile on the floor. Some of us could not stand the sound of the kissing and left, in the middle of the night, stopping only to sign out with the security guard at the front desk. That is how young we were: we had identification, we signed clipboards when we arrived and went. We couldn’t go anywhere without one. Sometimes, coming home from the Lower East Side at four am, we would flash our MetroCard thinking it was our ID, or dump our purses upon the linoleum, searching for the purple card. The security guards had seen it all before.
We ate in the dining hall. We carried trays. We were wearing the clothes we had worn in high school, hoping that here it would mean something new. We liked Modest Mouse, and the new Bjork album, and everyone was reading The Hours. We wore headphones wherever we went. The night before, we ate hot pizza from our trays, we talked about poetry slams and how much we wanted to go to the MoMA; we kissed goodbye on 14th Street, nervously, and turning to walk home, there they were. When we saw them, we knew—in our newness, our drunkenness, our youth—when we were walking south.
Some of us remember hearing the sound and some of us do not. Some of us had the intuition to call our grandmothers—she would be home, we didn’t have to try to find our parents at work, or a cell phone number buried deep in an address book, who had cell phones yet? And we heard they did not work, that nothing was beginning to work—we called our grandmothers and said, we are okay. We are calling to say that we are okay.
Our roommates had a television. We sat crowded on the lower bunk and watched. Some of us wondered aloud how it could still be standing, and then there were screams from the open window. And moments later, the screams came from the television. There was a thirty-second delay.
We had known each other twelve days.
We went to give blood. The RA took us. The streets were already deserted. We walked in the blinding sunlight to Beth Israel, where there was a line around the block, all New Yorkers, all looking to give blood. A nurse went down the line shouting rules: no new tattoos, no new piercings. Some of us two days earlier had gotten our tongues pierced; our eyebrows, our noses. We had made a list of things we wanted to do, in this heyday before responsibilities, this thing they called orientation. Our list said: Central Park, find bicycles, eat falafel, get pierced. Now we left the line and walked back. Soon, there would not be a line, because it would become apparent that there was no need for that much blood. There was no need. On Broadway, a car sped past, a lone car on Broadway. In the backseat, we saw something like a body, feet sticking out of an open window. But maybe it wasn’t a body. But maybe we didn’t see it.
We instant messaged with a friend in Israel, a friend in Israel who listened in sympathy as we talked about what it was like to wake up to terror, and then she typed, “I know exactly how you feel. It happens here all the time.”
No one slept. Sirens went on, which we thought we were getting used to, but not like this. Some of us had sent e-mails. Some of us cried, and photographs were taken. Some of us talked about getting beer. We picked up our trays in the dining hall. We were still wearing our clothes from high school. The older classmen had been evacuated from their dorms below Canal Street. They came to stay with us.
One boy was taking his young cousin to Pennsylvania. His cousin’s apartment was blocks from where it had happened. He poked his head into my room the morning after and asked if I wanted to come. I said No. And then I ran after him, down the hall, and said, wait, yes, yes. We got his cousin from a hotel and were on one of the last trains out of Penn Station before a bomb threat closed it down. His cousin was eight. We carried duffel bags packed with the things we had just packed to come here. We had to sit in the aisles. We colored pictures. We were taking his cousin to Pennsylvania so she could enroll in school and live there temporarily, because we did not know what was happening. We did not know if there would be an end.
We were encouraged to seek counseling. We were told, repeatedly, about post traumatic stress disorder, and the address of the mental health clinic. We were rumored to be treated so delicately that this was not really college, that they were with us not being rigorous, and it would never be the same. We went to protests, and memorials, and vigils, and marches, and rallies. We went to class. We went to bars. We carried fake IDs and fell in love, wrote constantly and learned to like the bitter taste of espresso. Some of us never would. Some of us learned to walk by the photos taped to lampposts, and some of us had to look at every one. Once, drunk, we were trying to go to a bar on Rector Street, and when we walked up from the subway, it was November, the lights were glaring white, and we stopped, grabbing on to each others’ wrists, and arms, and hearts. We were in front of it, the gaping hole.
We ran home.
We were going to call New York home.
We did not talk about it; we talked about it with abandon. Some of us stood in school yards with the children we tutored the morning of the first anniversary, a hand over our hearts; some of us began a slow pull towards classes in policy and activism, international law. Some of us joined anti-war committees. Some of us talked to our parents every night. Some of us joked. Some of us still thought about the bodies, all of the bodies. Some of us transferred. Some of us forgot.
We graduated. We separated. We stayed, or we went, or we kept in touch on Facebook. The names sounded familiar, but ultimately we did not know. Those who stayed, we learned to live with it. Everyone had a story, everyone, but if people talked about where they were, and it was not New York, and it was not DC, and it was not a field in Pennsylvania, we secretly thought in our hearts, sometimes, you do not know. You do not know.
Ten years went by and we were baffled, or we were thankful. We had apartments in other boroughs, and salaries, student loans, friends from graduate school, pets. We were not yet thirty, still. We were not going to talk about it; we couldn’t stop talking about it. We saw students populating Union Square, and we looked at them—small, carefully dressed, zip codes they had not yet forgotten—and we thought, God, we were that young? They are that young. We did not ever want to appear sentimental, or ungrateful, or affected in the least. Some of us lived in Germany. Some of us sent money to the Red Cross. Some of us wanted to have children. Some of us thought about it every time we had to put our toothpaste and 3 ounce shampoos in a Ziploc bag. Some of us wished we had gone upstate for the weekend. Some of us believed in God now. Some of us worked at a nursery school not far from where it happened, and knew that when it had, they hid in a classroom with no windows until a voice on the radio told them it was safe to leave. The lights cut through the muggy sky and even if we lived in Crown Heights, or a loft condo in Williamsburg, or Spanish Harlem, or Long Island City with our husband and one dog, we could see them. It was eerie. Sometimes we thought we could hear it, even if we had not heard it before.