There's no way to overstate what a difficult and important day 9/11 has become in the consciousness of our country. Both of my young sons -- ages 2 and 5 -- can describe to people the day when bad men took three planes full of innocent people and crashed them into buildings full of more innocent people. They can tell you that they, as Americans, will never let it happen again. They talk about being proud, about being strong. They know about this because it's something I talk about. 9/11 is a day that weighs heavily on me -- for all of the reasons I share with other Americans, but also for personal reasons; not because I lost someone personally, but because I lost a bit of myself.
New York City was my home on 9/11/2001. I'd lived there for four years and had never felt more at home with myself or in a physical place. Growing up in California, I'd never really fit in. On a family vacation at 14, I stood beneath one of the towers of the World Trade Center next to my brother and looked up at my mom, the steely grey of the tower rising behind her. I told her, "I'm going to live here someday." That was pre-Guiliani, and my declaration terrified my parents.
When I threw everything I owned into my car at age 24 and drove across the country, they warned me that I might be making a terrible mistake. They saw me, at 14, standing amid the grafitti scrawl and gang violence that had characterized that city in the 80s, and they were scared. But I was exhilarated. For four years, I let the city seep into my pores, let my soul be scoured and reshaped by the energy that found me there.
I worked at a technology start-up in 2001. Our offices were on Maiden Lane, and we spent lunch hours roaming the mall beneath the World Trade Center, dropping through Ben and Jerry's on the way out and Century 21 across the street before heading back to work. The company was struggling, and I was laid off in August. I decided to travel back to California to visit my family. My boyfriend would fly to LA to meet me on September 12th, and we were planning a vacation together.
Our plans changed.
I woke up the morning of 9/11 to my friend, Amy, coming back in her front door just moments after she'd left for work. Someone had stopped her in her parking garage to tell her that she probably wouldn't be working today and to go turn on the TV. The Today Show's Matt and Katie looked strange to me, but it was early and I had been sound asleep. The events that elicited their deer-in-headlights look took on a dreamlike quality in the cloudiness of my waking mind. We watched the second plane plow into the tower and disappear, and I asked Amy, "Is this a movie?"
In the wake of those events, Amy went back to work and I found myself stranded in Los Angeles. I wandered up and down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, trying to understand how I felt, what had happened, and what had changed. I felt seething anger when I passed sidewalk tables with diners chatting happily and laughing just days after the events. Huge naval ships were visible only as outlines looming out on the horizon of the Pacific.
When I finally got back to New York, I felt as if I was outside a bubble looking in. I felt like I'd missed a crucial moment in the life of the city that defined my own. I felt the way I imagined I might if I'd missed my child's most important game or recital. I felt like I'd let my city down. Of course, NYC didn't notice my absence, but that void will always live within me.
My boyfriend told me that I was more upset than people who'd been there when it happened. As we leaned against the railing on his rooftop and watched the constant plume of smoke billowing up into the sky a month later, he said that he didn't understand why I couldn't move on.
But he'd already said it. I wasn't even there.