august 30, 2016. my best friend is abroad in belfast, asking me to hang out with her when she gets home. we coordinate dates and the first date open is the second sunday in september. september 11th? is what i text, the white words gleaming against my little blue bubble. she responds immediately: no, we don’t have to, i’m sorry, another day?
no, it’s fine. it’s going to be 15 years this september. i need to move on.
september 2, 2016. to celebrate my boyfriend turning 22, i’ve bought really good seats to a mets game. we get there early enough that we’re able to settle in and watch footage of the players doing charity work. the captain of the team visits a firehouse to pay respects to people who died on 9/11 and that’s when it hits me that it’s september and it’s been fifteen years. emotions come rushing back. by the time the pre-recorded footage of team highlights starts playing, i am fighting myself to stay composed. when the timeline hits september 21, 2001 and mike piazza hits his home run in the first baseball game played in NYC after that terrible day, i begin to weep.
september 8, 2016. my boyfriend and i have just left his brooklyn apartment on our walk to the train. it’s late at night and i’m ready to make my way back home to queens. “oh! they put the lights up early this year,” he says. september has just started and i’m already in autumn mode, so i excitedly look around for string lights and pumpkins. instead, i fixate on two bright blue beams of light. a strangled noise escapes my mouth and all i hear is a hollow whistling in my ears as my boyfriend rushes over to me. “i’m sorry,” he says, “i didn’t realize…” i want to say that it’s okay, i should have known, i don’t know what i was expecting but i can’t form the words. all i can think is that it has been almost fifteen years and still, it feels like yesterday.
april 23, 2016. there’s a new girl at my office and i volunteer to show her around nyc. somehow, we wind up downtown and i take her through battery park. i love it here, i tell her, this is my home. without meaning to, we arrive at the reflection pools. she keeps the pace, striding forward to read the names. i falter. i hang back. i fidget. i pace. eventually, i walk over to the edge of the south pool and gently rest my hand on the cool black stone. i can feel myself being overwhelmed by the sheer size and the amount of names. for the first time, in a long time, i begin to pray.
july 25, 2015. i have planned a board game day at brookfield place, a shopping center a block away from the wtc. my boyfriend and i are walking over from the subway when i see people posing for pictures outside the reflection pools with selfie sticks, when i see people selling hats with the towers on them. i am horrified. i begin to yell, screaming at them to stop. don’t you understand? people died here. people DIED here. before i can attract too much attention, my boyfriend hustles me away. when i try to explain, the words come out between heavy sobs. they don’t understand, i keep repeating, they just don’t understand.
september 11, 2011. it has been ten years. i am a freshman in college. i hate everything and everyone. this is the day that all my anger comes to a boil and for lack of anything better to do, i storm off to a bar. i find no solace at the bottom of a glass but at least, at least, i don’t feel anything this time. i stumble home, drunk and dying embers in my soul. it’s been a decade but when i close my eyes to sleep, all i see is the mushroom cloud surrounding the towers as they crumble inward. it plays on a slow, repeating loop until i somehow fall asleep.
january 15, 2009. it’s an uneventful thursday afternoon until someone starts screaming in the hallway. the shrill noise is startling enough until we all look out the window and see a hurtling mass coming towards the hudson. dear god, is that a…? my friend finishes the thought for me and in a hushed voice, she says” it’s a plane.” we are immobilized because we are all too aware of what happened a few blocks over a few years ago. i am paralyzed by fear and barely manage to make my way out of our high school. for some reason, all i can think about is that there will definitely be no ultimate frisbee practice after school today. years later, when people ask me where i was during the miracle on the hudson, i will never be able to answer.
september 11, 2007. i have just started high school. my school is located on chambers street, in tribeca. it is a few blocks away from the wtc. i walk to school with a heavy heart, fully aware of the somberness around me. i am late to school because i wander over to the site and sit outside, crying. earlier that morning, my mother had pleaded with me not to go to school. when i insisted, she turned on me with a slew of insults, telling me that i wanted her to die early from being stressed about my safety. i do not know it then, but every year on this day that i work or go to school in the city will always be the same with her. by 2015, i will have a routine down for dealing with her. when the school calls home later, to inform my mother that i was late, i will say nothing. there is nothing left to say.
october 15, 2003. it is exactly 13 days after my tenth birthday when i turn on the news to be greeted by the staten island ferry crash. my mind can’t make sense of all the tragedy happening in such a small period of time, so i blame it on myself. i convince myself that because i’m excited for my birthday, i’m causing karma to go out of wack and that’s why people get hurt. i resolve to stop making a big deal out of my birthday and for years after, i come to resent my birthday. in 2010, when the exact same boat will crash again, i barely cry.
september 11, 2001. i remember the sky the most. it was bright, blue and beautiful. i was excited for my birthday. it was less than a month away. i’m sure the day started out like any other tuesday. i’d gotten ready for school at home, prayed with my cousins before leaving and had settled in to listen to my teacher read when the ground shook. i remember thinking it must have been an earthquake. what else could shake the building so hard?
my memory falls into chaos from there. my teacher picking up the phone, her face turning white, a scream escaping her lips before falling to the floor. nervously getting up and going to the hallway to find a teacher to help mine. being told to pack up all of my things and wait for a fifth grader to come get me with a permission slip signed by my family to pick me up. amid all this chaos, the one thing that i remember more clearly than anything was wading out into a courtyard packed with panicking parents and looking up to see a thick plume of black smoke crawled across the sky. i knew, deep in my heart, that something in the world had just fundamentally changed.
while my cousins were excited to get out of school early, i was somber. i was shuffled between different aunts and their houses until my mother made her way over to me. our drive back to our apartment was a tense one. i tried to ask where my father was, to no avail. this was the beginning of my bad bouts of anxiety.
i watch the towers smolder from our tiny apartment in jamaica, queens. i am jumping rope to pass the time when the first tower falls. i see it, real-time from my window and turn to see it crumbling close up on our screen. i am sitting on the floor, eyes glued to the window when the second one falls. my mother begins to weep. my little brother toddles in to try and comfort her.
it’s gonna be okay mama, he said. it’s gonna be okay.
i tuck her in on the couch. i sing my brother to sleep. i sit myself down in the tiny hallway in front of our door with the light on, waiting for my dad to come in. waiting isn’t the right word though. i was mostly willing my father to come in. i told myself that if he came home, everything was going to be okay. and that he always came home. he always would come home.
i felt like it had been years but really, it had only been excruciatingly long hours when my father walked in. i threw myself at his legs, clutched him and started sobbing. he held me tightly and sobbed too. for months afterwards, i would wake up screaming for him.
the next day, my father went out and bought every copy of every newspaper in new york city. to this day, they are kept in pristine condition in our basement. one day, he told me, one day you will need these to tell the story of what happened here.
later, he would tell me about how close he had been. about how he had felt the heat and watched the towers burn. about how he regretted never taking me, my mother or my brother to see the towers when they stood tall.
i could not have known the ways in which this day would change everything i had ever come to known. i remember the days of being able to go to the top of the statue of liberty, i remember the days when flying did not require a full body check. there were days when there weren’t counter-terrorist departments and army + SWAT personnel stalking out the train stations of NYC. i remember being frightened, when my mother and i left the house to go grocery shopping, and someone swore at us to go back to our country.
this is my country, i wanted to say. i was born here, on this land, in this borough. i am american. but i didn’t. i was only seven. i clutched my mother’s hand and we left our groceries at the store, hurrying back to the safety of our home. i was confused, hurt and scared.
i couldn’t have known it then, but a lot of my life as i knew it ended that day.
september 11, 2016. i wake up in the bed of the boy that i love. it’s before noon, which is early for me on a weekend. he opens his arms and pulls me to his chest. he kisses my forehead before tilting my face upwards to meet his eyes. it’s a good morning and i don’t remember what day it is until i open my phone. and i feel like i’ve been hit by a train. i realize that by this time 15 years ago, so many people had died. it is a hard pill to swallow. i begin to feel guilty for missing the ceremony and for being alive. but i get up. i go to brunch with my best friend, her boyfriend and mine. slowly, i feel myself becoming more alive. i find some sprinklers in a park and have the time of my life running through them while my boyfriend watches me with a goofy smile on his face. we get italian ices and lay on his bed, talking about life and everything in between. we get up and go into the city to go to the gym– for the first time all summer, i start swimming. i am out of shape, out of breath and achey. it doesn’t take long for my calves to tighten up and my body to begin resisting, but i power through a solid half an hour and feel like a better person for it. we go get some chipotle and some tea. while i’m waiting for my boyfriend outside with my tea, i’m greeted by the sight of red, white and blue lighting up the empire state. i take a picture and it is then that i realize this is the first time i have ever come into manhattan willingly on september 11th. i am proud of myself until we turn the corner to catch a downtown train and i see the towers of light, bright and blue and beautiful.
and in the middle of the sidewalk, i press my face into my hands and begin to cry. my boyfriend pulls me in for a hug and holds me until i have stopped sniffling.
i wonder, will it ever not hurt?
there are children for whom this day is nothing but history. they learn about it from textbooks and wars, from museums and people like me– people who were alive that day. but this day is more than just a national landmark for me. this day has permanently tinted my entire life.
there is no resolution here. there is no quick fix. i know, with each year that passes, that i could have had a name on that black stone surrounding the reflecting pools. with each year that passes, i am more thankful that i do not.
but how is it that fifteen years ago feels like an eon while also feeling like yesterday? i can bring back so much in haunting clarity from that day and i wonder if this is what it feels like for other people. people who have survived wars and revolutions, people for whom an important historical event is more than just a blip on a timeline or a highlighted section in a history book.
the mantra repeated on this day is never forget. i find this so ridiculously redundant. i couldn’t forget if i tried, and believe me, i’ve tried. memory is a terrible beast, isn’t it? it does not stand still.