Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

The first thing I heard of it was when my boss called. I was sitting on my bed, working on a colored pencil picture of a mech. It wasn't a particularly good drawing, and it wasn't a good day; I hadn't experienced a good day since I'd been there. College wasn't what I had expected. I was in the dorm drawing because I hadn't made any friends and I was too afraid to go looking for them even if I knew how to go about it.

Well, I guess I also must have been there because I had to go to my workstudy later, so there wouldn't have been time for anything else. I did like my boss. He was in the theatre department, a young and humorous professor whose desk held a plaque reading "Dungeon Master". At the end of the year I would find myself participating in the improv troupe that he led twice a week, probably the best thing that happened to me through the duration of college, but that was more or less a happy accident. I certainly didn't know how to ask him to help a lonely fellow nerd out.

He wasn't humorous or nerdy on the phone. He told me not to come in, and suggested I turn on the TV.

From that point on, the sequence of my memories becomes jumbled. The students on my floor congregated in the hallway under the leadership of the RA. I tried to call my family and was stymied by a buildup of automatic voice mail messages. I was, at one point, the one who had to explain to someone else what had happened, and couldn't find the words for it. "Terrorist attack", for some reason, didn't occur to me. "We were...New York was...I mean, the World Trade Center..." Embarrassment made me smile and hate myself. I tried again, stuttered, and laughed hopelessly, wanting to die. Did I really just laugh?

It still weighs on me, remembering the way I felt sorry for myself that day, above all else. The news and my desperate isolation were one and the same; the insignificance of my petty life was only driven deeper as I watched tragedy unfolding around me. I wanted to grieve, to be a victim and not a spectator, but calling attention to myself seemed nothing short of unholy. When one of the college's priests came around knocking on doors and found me alone in my room, I assured him I was okay, okay, okay, trying to get rid of him as quickly as possible so that I wouldn't feel I had wasted his time.

Before that, though, my roommate returned in a panic. Her family lived in the Bronx. Here's a testament to how confused I was that day: I had heard no fatalities on TV, probably referring to some specific area or group. I told my roommate there had been no deaths, and I still carry the guilt from that, too. As it turned out, she didn't lose anyone and never questioned me on my false report, but like that stuttering laugh it makes me cringe even now. As an awkward, depressed freshman, I often felt like there was no hope for me. Ten years later I still struggle to believe I was wrong.

This is the hard truth in today's remembrances: the little shaming voice that whispers, Don't make this your tragedy. Indeed, it isn't. I wasn't there and I lost no one. I certainly didn't have any emotional attachment to the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

I did have one thing I loved at risk, though - America. I love my country, not in the way that gives me misty eyes when I hear "The Star-Spangled Banner", but truly and fervently and perpetually nonetheless. I love the American wilderness and the great American cities, I love the bumbling history and fresh culture, the art and music, the literature, the language, and the ideals of the founding fathers, and I love more Americans than I can count. I inherited my patriotism from my immigrant father and I let it shape and comfort and enrage me for years before anyone thought to crash a couple planes into a couple iconic towers.

The elections had been hard on me. I didn't (couldn't) vote, but everyone was so angry that year that I lost what little taste for politics I'd had - permanently - and might have done so even if I hadn't been a conservatively-minded teenager amongst a crowd of liberal peers. I recall overhearing a talk show stating that whoever won the election would need, as his first task, to unite a divided country, such was the animosity. Even then I knew that it was a ridiculous statement. Nobody would ever bring us together.

After the towers fell and the changes began to appear, I remembered that talk show and thought, Bush didn't unite the country. Osama bin Laden did.

It wasn't a full truth, but nobody denies the pervading sense of national spirit in the following weeks. True, some just found it annoying. Every product from straw hats to M&Ms was available in a red, white, and blue color scheme. Tacky platitudes were everywhere. Fights broke out because people weren't happy with the way other people were reacting. But for once, we grieved together. We all knew that it was a crime and a shame that so many innocents had died; we all knew that the lives were what mattered.

I still like seeing 9/11 memorials. I like hearing about how people felt that day, how it affected them. It wasn't my tragedy, but I can accept now that it was our tragedy. Everyone must have felt some degree of helplessness, like me. We talked and we prayed and we lit candles like it was going out of style, but we knew we couldn't actually do anything to help. Maybe that's what really hurt, for me and for everyone. Maybe that's why it was so personal for each of us.

College might have turned out a lot differently for me if it hadn't begun with a terrorist attack, I don't know. September 11th might have been easier to deal with if I didn't feel like it was a metaphor for my whole life. But this is how it happened and this is how it hurt, and it's why I, for one, will never forget.