July 4, 2008. It was one of those shared artist lofts you normally see in movies about distressed bohemians — cavernous, paint-speckled, smelling damply of pot — except this was real life, and I was standing in it, in Brooklyn, looking at an oil painting (maybe 48 by 24 inches) nailed to the hallway between the “living room” and one of the artist’s bedrooms. The canvas was a Pollacky hail of brushstrokes that flirted with a familiar kind of geometry. The painting was unsettling, and almost as noisy as my lover’s friend’s brother’s friend’s indie-rock band testing its sound levels in the living room.
A 60-something woman in a fuschia muumuu swished to my side. We leaned on each other as we looked at the painting. I had drank enough red wine to launch into a frank analysis of the piece, as if I knew something about abstract art.
It reminds me of 9/11, I said. It feels like the towers going down. That vertical plummet of architecture. I can hear it.
That’s it, said the woman, who introduced herself as Mary. It was her painting, one of a series that reacted to the terrorist attacks viewable from her window. We talked about the depth of the psychic wound of 9/11, how a smattering of color properly arranged could suggest the day, how a reminder is always roaring across the sky or showing up on a digital clock.
Later, after dusk, we watched the Manhattan skyline explode from the roof of the loft. Fireworks shot up from barges in the Hudson River. Boom. Boom.
Sept. 14, 2001. Dressed head to toe in black leather, the woman teetered in stilettos along the steps between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, her ebony face shiny with tears. Wracked by sobs, she twirled a small American flag. It was a pathetic display.
The rest of the crowd stared toward the Washington Monument, seguing to “God Bless America” after stumbling over the third verse of “Amazing Grace.” The singing did not console the woman, who was breaking apart in a sea of orderly people whose hands covered their hearts.
My instinct was to go to her, to hug her. I resisted it. I don’t know why. I guess I didn’t feel worthy enough to console her. She was feeling a torment that I wasn’t. I was a bewildered freshman in college, inexplicably whisked to a monument to mourn a tragedy I didn’t fully grasp.
Instead, after an excruciating several minutes, a soccer mom in a flag shirt broke from the ranks and enveloped the crying woman in pale, trembly arms. “Okay okay okay,” said the soccer mom, as the woman wept herself hoarse. “Okay okay okay.”
April 28, 2006. People were actually bringing tubs of popcorn into the theater. Popcorn for “United 93.”
“I don’t want to sit that close,” whined a woman as her girlfriend pulled her toward the front of the multiplex theater in Waldorf, Md.
Other solo moviegoers sat nearby me. The theater was starting to feel like a church, a place where individuals had come alone to bear witness to sacrifice. The film began and my legs didn’t stop shaking until the credits, which revealed that many of the air-traffic controllers played themselves, reliving for a camera their confusion and trauma. The audience applauded the film. Watching it would be the closest any of us will ever get to comprehending what happened on board.
Conspicuous patriotism makes me ill. I don't throw the word "hero" around. What happened on United 93, though, should rank among the great acts of courage and self-sacrifice in the American story. Passengers received information, put two and two together, and acted. They were the only defense system that worked properly that day.
March 3, 2004. Unable to sleep, I flipped through TV channels in my R.A. room on campus. I stopped at a documentary on the World Trade Center. I had somehow avoided the sight of the smoking towers over the past several years. Now here they were, burning again. It made me recall trading instant messages online with high-school friends who were unfortunate enough to be watching up close (from NYU) or in widescreen (from Fordham).
“What is happening?” I remember one of them typing from the Bronx that morning, as if I knew more than he did. “I don’t understand.”
Then an image I hadn’t seen before: A closeup shot of the smoking gash in the side of one of the towers. Office workers waved bits of clothing as they hung out of the frightening vertical geometry of those windows. Then, the camera began to follow them as they fell.
Until that point I didn’t know that hundreds had jumped. It should’ve occurred to me, but didn’t.
Sept. 17, 2009. It took me eight years of living in the District to visit the Pentagon; up until the opening of the memorial, there was really no reason to. I certainly didn’t rush down there the morning it happened. All I did was watch the black tendril of smoke from a window on the top floor of my dormitory at American University.
I don’t remember having any emotions on the day itself — not fear, not anger — so I had begun to immerse myself in 9/11 texts, images and videos around the anniversaries of the attacks. I’d rewatch the dreadful money shot from New York: Second plane in, south tower down, north tower down. Second plane in, south tower down, north tower down. From every available angle. It was a kind of self-flagellation for being so close to yet so removed from the event. I read books to understand (“The Looming Tower,” the 9/11 Commission report), rewatched “United 93” several times (it’s an incredible film), and combed through emergency workers’ testimony (“I looked behind me, and it was a gigantic blob of ash and molt and fire and everything just behind you, andI ran”). I tried to imagine being on the 86th floor, in the center stairwells, in seat 6A, in the “E” Ring, dialing my cell phone, storming the cockpit, hanging out the windows, then falling, falling, falling or running, running, running.
It wasn’t an obsession so much as a warped kind of duty to bear a fraction of the pain. To stomach the quick, random reversals of life.
At the Pentagon memorial, the benches bearing names of the victims are organized by year of birth. There is a considerable gap between the three who were born in 1979 and the cluster of children born in the 1990s. No one born in the ’80s was on board Flight 77 or killed in the Pentagon.
Sept. 11, 2001. Just past midnight, my new dorm neighbors at American University gathered outside my door and sang “Happy Birthday.” Second week of college, 18 years old. It was a cheery welcome into adulthood by strangers who would soon become friends. I went to sleep late and woke up late. 9:55 a.m. My first class was just starting. As I rushed to get dressed, my roommate stormed into the room and turned on the TV. He was hysterical. His father worked in downtown Manhattan.
I went upstairs to see the smoke. I went to class, where my journalism professor said, “This is the biggest story of your lives.”
I have no memories of the rest of the morning or the afternoon. I didn’t see the second plane hit live. I didn’t see the towers go down.
At night I joined my aunt and mother, in town for my birthday, at my aunt’s downtown condo. We had an upscale meal at the only open restaurant, the Caucus Room, as CNN continued its garish coverage in the corner. On a dismal day it was a lovely dinner — I had the filet — a step away from the empty streets of the capital, across the river from the burning Pentagon. I felt safe and dazed and guilty. I did not pretend to understand.
That night I woke around 2 a.m. and walked onto the balcony of my aunt’s condo, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. Movement on the Navy Memorial below caught my eye. A man in military fatigues held his lighter to the sky, his head turned upward. I watched him, let my eyes unfocus and saw what was beneath him: Etched across the granite memorial is a map of the world. The man was standing on New York, lighter aloft. After a moment, he moved slowly to Pennsylvania, then to Washington, then across the Atlantic and Mediterranean and stopped on the Middle East, lifting his lighter again. Then he walked westward and sat down in the south of Spain.
Sept. 11, 2010. A swim in the Potomac, a visit to the Yves Klein exhibit at the Hirshhorn, dinner at Floriana, an early bedtime before a triathlon tomorrow. I just got back from a gorgeous weekend in mountainous southwest Colorado. A dear friend just moved to the District. A dozen other friends are visiting next weekend. I have a good job and am in good health. Life is a hail of color, an exhilarating freefall.