Thursday, May 25, 2006

Just Another Tuesday

There's something I've avoided writing about since I started this blog. A big, gaping something.

One day several years ago, I awoke to the sound of my alarm, slightly groggy. I had an early class that morning and was in a bit of a bad mood. I neglected to watch my usual morning news with my cup of tea, instead preferring the silence. Other than that, it was a perfectly normal day. I was caught up with my schoolwork, and things were going very well and getting increasingly serious with my boyfriend. It was starting to look like we might get married.

It was warm and humid that day, and I selected a blue short-sleeved sweater set to wear with black pants. I figured it would keep me cool enough during my commute to school, but warm enough as I sat in an air-conditioned classroom. Near the sweater set in my closet hung a red dress that I had recently purchased at an Express store in lower Manhattan. I had yet to wear it.

I arrived at school and waited for the elevator. Near me, two other students were discussing something about a plane crash. Singer Aaliyah had just died in a plane crash not too long ago; I wondered if another private plane had gone down while carrying someone famous. I promptly forgot about it and headed to class.

I sat in my usual seat, taking notes in my usual manner. Not long into the class--twenty minutes? Thirty?--a woman that I recognized from the school staff knocked at the door. The professor stopped his lecture and went to the door and spoke with her quietly for a few moments. She shrugged, and gave sort of a nervous chuckle. Then she left. The professor calmly returned to his podium.

He made the following announcement.

"Two planes have crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon is on fire."

A friend that I knew from an extracurricular activity turned to me and said, "What is this, Independence Day?"

"I know, seriously," I replied. Nothing had yet sunk in.

A few moments later, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker, dismissing class. I can't remember much of what was said, other than the voice urging us to stay in the building and not return to our homes.

Like hell, I thought. Reality was finally starting to hit me.

My boyfriend had some kind of business meeting in lower Manhattan that day, I remembered. I didn't know where. Was he even still alive???

The students filed into the hallway, and I pulled out my cellphone. I couldn't get a signal. Another student asked me, "Arabella, is your cellphone working?"


"Then the phones are all down," she replied. I looked around; everyone was trying, fruitlessly, to get a signal so that they could call their loved ones.

I ran out of the building and started to run home. Sirens wailed everywhere. It was total pandemonium in the streets of Manhattan. I had no idea what to do. Businesses everywhere were still open, yet cops were all over the streets. I stopped and bought a newspaper, thinking, in my state of shock, that it would tell me what was going on.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that both towers had fallen.

When I got back to my South-facing apartment, a huge cloud of gray smoke was visible in the window. My answering machine was blinking with at least half a dozen messages. I called my mother and told her I was ok. I called C.S.; we were both crying. I couldn't reach my boyfriend.

I didn't know what to do. I ran to the grocery store; there was an ATM there. I tried to get a lot of cash. The ATM said something like, "Try again, but ask for less money." I did, and got some cash. I put some canned soups in my shopping cart and headed for the aisle with bottled water. Two women were standing at the end of that aisle.

"What do we buy?" one asked the other. Her face was blank.

"Pretzels," was her reply. Her face was blank, too.

So I bought pretzels.

I went back to my apartment. Soon after that, Ty showed up. He hadn't yet gone downtown.

"Thank you, God," I said, as I hugged him. He left soon after that; he had to see for himself what was going on. When he returned, his suit was covered with dust. He had seen the unspeakable.

C.S. came over. We ate sandwiches. The air started to smell like fire.

I spent that night on my couch, crying and clutching a blanket, with the news on in the background. No sleep. I pulled out my visitor's ID from the time I had gone for a job interview in Tower 2, and remembered how stringent security had been. I remembered how I had admired paintings in the office. That building was gone. Those paintings were dust. I looked at my red dress; the Express store had been in the World Trade Center complex. It was gone. I wondered who I had known who was now dead.

For months afterwards, I, and all the other New Yorkers that I knew, got nervous whenever we heard sirens. We could all be sitting at a nice brunch at a nice restaurant, drinking mimosas, but the minute a siren started to wail, a wave of knowing fear would wash over everyone's face. Conversations would momentarily stop.

I had flashbacks to the way the World Trade Center buildings and complex used to look, and the places I used to walk around. Occasionally, I still have them. I'll wake from a dream and picture a sign, or a corridor, or the Borders bookstore, or emerging from the subway station and crossing the street to Century 21.

I was lucky; no one that I loved had perished. I had only lost a few tangential acquaintances. A woman from my church. The brother of a guy I used to know. They could just as easily have been people that I really knew and really loved.

I still have the page from the 2000-2001 Manhattan phone book that lists Windows on the World. I still have the promotional literature from my job interview in Tower 2. I still have the red dress; I can't bring myself to wear it or part with it.

Nothing will ever be the same.


Blogger mama_tulip said...

I was riveted while I read this post.

That day was one of those days where I will remember forever exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news -- like the times when I learned of other, less earth-shattering news -- the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Freddy Mercury and when the Iron Curtain came down.

It changed a lot of people's lives.

Thank you for writing about it.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Mignon said...

I woke up early that morning, very pregnant and so tired. I was moving slowly and listening to the news while I dressed. Jim was still asleep and when I turned on the TV just in time to see a clip of the first plane crash, I sank into the couch and started to cry. Jim heard the TV and came down and we both sat there, speechless watching over and over the plane crashes. I went to work, expecting to be told to go home, but it was business as usual in the fast-paced high-tech industry. I and many others sat in the cafeteria most of the day watching the news. The bosses would come in and out, eyeing our lack of productivity, but I would just looked at them, stunned and teary and they would scurry back to their desks.

I've never actually thought about what it would've been like to live in the city at the time. A close friend worked near the towers and took several scary pictures as he and thousands others were fleeing on foot. They just looked like movie stills. Thank you for this piece. It makes me better able to empathize with a city that seems so huge and unwieldly, but is in fact full of humans.

12:35 PM  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

We had just been in Manhatten and the World Trade Center that summer on vacation. My husband is a Columbia U graduate so we have a deep connection and friends there. I will never forget that horrible day. My husband was sent home due to the fact he is in the oil and gas industry. Here in Houston at night for at least a week we could hear the fighter planes fly overhead as the flew our borders on the Gulf.

We all were changed that day. Some just by having real fear step into our lives. Others by losing a loved one or friend.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Tink said...

Oh Arabella... You gave me chills.

I remember watching in horror as they announced the second tower had been hit. It was like falling down a rabbit hole. You go from thinking something is a tragic accident to realizing it was intentional. Everything changed that day.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Mignon said...

Yes, Tink - I remember that suddenly-sickening feeling. That it was done on purpose. It was so scary.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous TB said...

As much as I hate to read these accounts, I read them with tears streaming down my face, I think it's important that we share them so that we keep the memory of that day and the people who lost their lives with us always.
I'm so sorry you were that close to it, it must have been terrifying.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Alli said...

Wow. You're right - nothing will ever be the same - for any of us. That day forever altered the lives many thought they would have. Very well written and thank you for sharing that.

3:44 PM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

I remember that day. Our bags were packed for a New York. Mr. Half's brother was getting married on Oyster Bay and we had already cleared it with the kids' schools. One brother was due to fly out with his family that afternoon.

Then Mr. Half came home and asked if I had been watching television...I hadn't. We turned it on and watched the world come undone.

The wedding was postponed. The BIL had been downtown for a meeting, but was not near the towers. He had to walk across the Brookly Bridge to get home. Another friend couldn't get back to her Tri-Be-Ca loft but was also urged to leave her law offices place to go.

I can't imagine actually being there and seeing it all.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

I was in the car driving south on I-95 heading to a family reunion in Hilton Head, SC. E-Grrrl, a preschooler, was scheduled to be in my niece's wedding on Sept. 15 and some of us were meeting up at the beach the week before for an extended visit.

I had gotten a cell phone because of this trip, and the very first call I got was from E-Man, telling me what had happened. I remember saying, "This isn't terrorism, this is war. They've attacked the Pentagon!"

And I was panicked because I didn't know whether to head home or continue on to SC. Little A was a kindergartener and because of our proximity to D.C., I was worried the highways would clog if people fled the city and E would not be able to get to him. My drive to SC was endless and exhausting. I tried to shield E-Grrrl from the enormity of the news. I longed desperately to find a church somewhere and gather with other people.

The wedding went on even though most of the guests couldn't make it. They were scheduled to fly out of Boston, the place where the fatal flights originated.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Arabella said...

Everyone's story is just incredible. No matter where we were or what our life circumstances were like, we all were feeling the same things at the same time.

Thank you all for sharing your stories, and for listening to mine; it is helpful to me.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I think that for our generation, remembering where you were on 9-11 is similar to my parents remembering where they were when JFK was assinated. It is a defining event for us all, whether we were there or lost someone we knew or not.

Thank you for sharing this story with us. I can't imagine what it must have been like to actually be there.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Spider63 said...

Intense story.

7:06 AM  
Blogger ptg said...

As for nothing ever being the same again: I should hope not. Thanks for the story.

9:21 AM  

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