What I remember doesn’t matter, but it’s been 20 years and my memories are still photo clear, and maybe if I type it up I’ll finally be able to forget it, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter.
- The People in the Bushes
This picture was taken at Ellis Island—my mom and I are taking a rubbing of my great-grandmother’s name on their memorial. My great-grandmother immigrated here by herself over a hundred years ago, when the air was cleaner and the skyline smaller, and she was only in New York long enough to be processed and then peaced out on the first boat to Philadelphia. But she still made the “Immigrant Wall of Honor,” which is pretty cool.
Around the anniversary, most years, my mom mentions offhand that we visited the towers on that trip to New York. We had lunch at the restaurant on the 106th floor, and walked around the observation deck at the top.
“Do you remember that?” she always says.
I have a good memory. And I’m scared of heights. I should remember it. But I don’t, at all. I remember falling on the escalator at Ellis Island perfectly, but nothing about the towers (. . . I did hit my head).
It still bothers me, after all this time, that I don’t remember being in the towers. Like the whole thing would somehow make sense, finally, if I could just see in my mind’s eye the layout of the floors or the height of the ceilings. If I could remember what people looked like as they went about a normal day, the sounds of office chatter and whooshing elevators, the way the light broke against the windows.
I was 6 years old in this picture. The same age as my friend Sabaa’s little sister, who had just started first grade at the Islamic Academy in the fall of 2001. She had been so excited to start school—showing off her Dora the Explorer backpack, scrutinizing her colored pencil options. She was the youngest of four girls, all exceptional students, of course she wanted nothing more in the world than to wear a backpack and do homework at the kitchen table. Remember that feeling?
And then, this happened, and almost immediately, strangers came to the Islamic Academy, throwing bottles at the windows, screaming at the kids—little kids, who had no idea what was going on—and the police had to come and evacuate everyone, and they canceled school for a full week.
Sabaa’s sister wouldn’t talk about it. All she would say was that she didn’t want to go back to school, ever again, “because of the people in the bushes.”
And that still breaks my heart, as much as anything else. That this little girl was so excited to learn and make friends and wear her new backpack, and then grown adults, who felt so entitled by rage and fear that they took it out on little kids who had nothing to do with anything, took that away from her. And that’s what she will remember forever.
I was 16 in 2001. After the principal told us, there was blunted silence, then a shrill bell, and I had to go to English class. It was our first test of the school year— write an essay comparing and contrasting Emerson and Thoreau. I did pretty well considering that for the entire class period I was sitting on the floor, in a hallway, using a chair as a flat surface to write about two dead white men’s thoughts and feelings about transcendentalism, while the hallway flowed with students crying, teachers loudly describing body parts falling from the planes and people jumping from the buildings, and then some teacher told our teacher that another plane was in the Pentagon, and all of us looked up at each other and mouthed “What the fuck?” and then went back to writing.
I turned in my test and went to French class. The bells were still ringing. Where else would I go? Our teacher, Madame, was on the phone, reassuring her mother back in France that she was okay. Madame had only moved to the US a few months before, and her mother was anxious about it even before the terrorist attack. Madame had met an American man at a discothèque (a word I’ve only ever heard French teachers use) and two weeks later he proposed over email (because it was 2001) and Madame said “Oui” and she and her seven-year-old daughter moved to a place they’d never been, and she married this guy she’d met once, then got a job teaching French even though she’d never taught before, and then this happens and suddenly Madame and her daughter were French people trapped in the US for the entirety of the “freedom fries” era. But Madame never lost her enthusiasm for teaching us about verb tenses and François Truffaut.
Madame held her phone against her shoulder and stage whispered, “Go watch TV.”
The first thing I saw, on a white projection screen in the library that covered half the wall, was the skyline completely engulfed in smoke and dust and ash. The more I saw, the more unreal it felt. Like it was a movie, as people always say, only there was no one coming to save everyone. And that sense of futility, of hopelessness, of wanting to do something but being too numb to move, was a punch to the stomach that never pulled back.
My friend Casey was a stoic kid, always quick to diffuse any serious moment with a joke, so we got along well. Emotional displays have always made me uncomfortable. But when she found me in the library, she looked ashen, like she was about to cry. I had never seen her cry. I was 16 and still terrified of crying at school. I asked if she was okay, and she said, “My dad got on a plane this morning, and I don’t know where he is, and my mom can’t get ahold of him.”
I said something lame like “I’m sure he’s fine,” but it didn’t matter, because nothing was fine and no one was sure of anything. Even our normally chill librarian was getting jumpy. She kept flipping the channels, trying to find some information that made sense, but every news channel was breathless speculation and the same clips, looped over and over. We watched real people die horrific deaths again and again and again, as one anchor reported that eleven planes were still unaccounted for, another that bombs had been found at other landmarks, and another pontificated on the significance of the date being the same as our phone number for emergency services. Was this on purpose? An eerie coincidence? Who could say?
Casey watched silently with the rest of us, but she was folded in on herself, like her stomach hurt. So I did one of the few smart things I did at 16 and said, “Let’s go to lunch.” I swept her out of the library and we got our lunchboxes and sat outside, by the tennis courts, and ate the sandwiches our moms had packed for us and talked about math tests and college applications and every few minutes one of us couldn’t help mentioning that it was really, really quiet.
After about an hour—the bells went off, no one cared—we went back inside, to our lockers, not the library. Casey had a fluorescent pink Post-It on her locker, the kind that our school’s receptionist used for communiqués regarding dentist appointments and forgotten gym bags. The Post-It said, “Casey, your mom called. Your dad’s plane landed safe in Canada. He’ll be home in a few days.”
Casey kept that Post-It in her locker for the entire school year. We never discussed it, or that day, ever, but every morning I met her at her locker and every morning I’d re-read that Post-It over her shoulder, a fluorescent talisman of something we didn’t know how to express. I like to think she still has it. I hope she does. We haven’t talked in a long time.
- The Crater
I drove home on an empty road with no clouds or contrails in the sky, my little sister silent in the backseat. When we got home, she ran to my mom and burst into tears. I asked if it was true that another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. My mom looked like she couldn’t believe her own words as she told us: a plane had crashed in Somerset County, where everyone in her entire family has lived and died since the 1750s, where my grandma still lived, in a nursing home that used to be my mom’s high school, a place where nothing ever, ever happens.
Every summer of my life, we’d visit my grandma and there’d be nothing to do but old jigsaw puzzles and drive past empty storefronts to the crumbling Dairy Queen. This dot on the map barely makes the local news, and now the entire world was coming, with news trucks and microphones.
My mom was freaking out. “It’ll be like ‘Ernest Saw a Plane Crash,'” she said, which was a very ’90s reference and actually pretty funny, but my sister was still crying and I put on my headphones and just sat feeling numb for a long time.
My grandma was completely unfazed by the terrorist attack in her backyard. It did not throw her off her bingo game at all. She knew a guy—she knew everyone —whose garage door was blown off by the impact. She actually laughed and said, “He thought the world was ending!” Like this guy had overreacted. To this.
Afterwards, when we’d visit my grandma, she’d say, “Want to see the crater?” like “Want to go to Dairy Queen?”
We’d say, “No thanks,” and try to find something else to do at the nursing home. We figured out how to trick the vending machines into giving us extra gum one time, that was a good trip.
Five years after, I was in college, and my mom and I went to visit my grandma. Since my sister wasn’t with us—she wanted nothing to do with the crater—we figured we should go, before the temporary memorial closed for construction of the permanent one. We drove through overgrown fields and dodged holes that had opened up in the ground. This was all coal country, once. Then it wasn’t, and time kind of stopped.
I wanted to leave as soon we got there. The air felt charged with broken molecules. Everything seemed wrong, uneasy, like the wind was blowing the wrong way. Even though it had been five years, the trees were still burnt black, and the empty spaces between scorched branches formed the jagged shape of a fireball.
I felt nauseous, and hid behind my mom and my grandma in the back of this weird wooden cabin, where we half-listened to a volunteer tell us a story we already knew. The crater itself had been filled in with woodchips, like a school playground. It was smaller than I expected.
The volunteer emphasized the miracle that no one was killed on the ground—if it had crashed just five seconds earlier, it would have hit houses. Five seconds later, an elementary school. The day after, the children at the school held hands in the parking lot and spelled out “THANK YOU” with their bodies, to be read from the sky. The volunteer showed us a picture. People got emotional. My grandma was unimpressed.
“Well, you saw it,” she said. “Tell all your friends.”
My grandma has been gone for twelve years now. The Capitol was spared that day, by that plane, only to be attacked by the freedom fries crowd twenty years later. I don’t know how I’d explain that to her. Madame’s husband passed away during the pandemic. Casey has a daughter now, who will learn about all this in school, someday. My sister is still afraid to fly.