Stopping by this space for a rare Saturday post because I, like many others, have been spending the day remembering and reflecting on 9/11 and the twenty years that have passed since that searing day. My kids are still too little to ask about where Daddy and Mommy were on the day – by the 25th anniversary I’m sure we will have shared our memories with them. My experience has always felt so insignificant to me in comparison to the tragedy that unfolded far from where I sat glued to the TV in horror, so I’ve never bothered to write it down before. But neither will I forget it.
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday – we all know that – and I was a junior at Cornell. Only back on campus a few weeks; I had extra blonde in my hair from the summer sun, and I was dating a new guy. We had kissed ten days before, on September 1, 2001, for the first time – late at night, on the bridge over the gorge separating the main Cornell campus from Collegetown. I didn’t know where the relationship was going; I wasn’t even thinking of it as a relationship, just something new and exciting.
I didn’t have any classes until the afternoon on Tuesdays, so I was taking advantage and sleeping in – something I almost never did; I was a morning person even in college. The first memory I have of that day is the sun streaming into my room in the sorority house and my roommate – my little sis, Betsy – rushing in and shaking me half awake.
“You have to wake up!” she cried. “There was a bomb – six thousand people were killed -“
She rushed out of the room and in my half-awake, sleep-addled state, I tried to process what she had said. “That’s clearly impossible,” said my mostly-unconscious brain, “I’m obviously dreaming, what an awful dream.” And I rolled over and fell asleep again, for another twenty minutes or so.
When I woke up, the house was silent – but not unnervingly so; I assumed everyone was at class. I sat down at my computer and started looking at AOL Instant Messenger auto-messages. My friend Maria had an auto-message up; she was a junior at GW that I knew from my summer internship. I looked at her auto-message first and I still remember every word. “Okay, this is more than scary. I can see smoke from here. Brie,” (her roommate) “call me when you get back.”
I scrolled through more auto-messages and everyone seemed to be in a state of shock and panic about – something. My stomach sank as I remembered Betsy rushing into our room and it occurred to me for the first time that I actually might not have been dreaming.
I walked downstairs in a daze – all the way down, underground to the basement-level TV room. When I opened the door, half of my sorority was there, crammed onto couches, sprawled on the floor, sitting in each other’s laps. Girls from New York City were taking it in turns to climb the stairs and try to call their parents from the house phone (almost none of us had a cell phone), but no one was getting through. The rest of us sat in silence, clutching coffee from the machine in the kitchen, watching the coverage on a loop.
By mid-morning, the boy I was dating had arrived and made a space for himself in the TV room. We sat side-by-side and he put his arm around me as we both watched in disbelief. I was wondering about my uncle, who was an NYPD detective trained in emergency response. I figured he was probably there. (He was, and he broke his arm climbing through rubble, but came away otherwise unharmed – physically, anyway. When I went upstairs at lunchtime, I had a message from his son, my cousin: “All my dad’s friends are dead. cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry” They weren’t all – but some.)
Memories get sketchier by the afternoon. Classes were cancelled, but when I ventured out a few days later to a labor history class, students were standing huddled in groups, crying on the quad. One of my friends told me not to read anything into the fact that my new guy had come over to watch the news with me. I knew she was hurting because her boyfriend had not come over, had spent the day watching news coverage with another girl. So I simply said, “I won’t.” (It honestly hadn’t occurred to me to read anything into that at all; it was such a new thing and I hadn’t even named it. A month later, he would refer to himself as my boyfriend. “Oh,” I thought, “That’s what we are.” His name was Steve.)
Campus changed, like everything else. People hung giant American flags in their rooms; professors made space for reflecting and grieving in class. My sisters from New York looked visibly relieved when they made contact with their parents. It got colder; eventually, Thanksgiving came.
So – that’s where I was.