I spend the day listening to records of happiness and pain; I spend the day in tears.
But what claim do I have to this day? Here is where I was on September 11, 2001, when the plane hit the first tower: asleep, in the spare room in the condo in Reston I shared with my ex-boyfriend. I had picked him up from the Washington, D.C. Union Station 'round midnight September 10th; I was already half-packed, planning to drive across the U.S., away from him and my East Coast life, in 10 days more.
He called me into the living room, where the television coverage was still confused by this. Accident, yes? Accident: no. With our laptops and television we tensely followed the news for hours, wondering about our business school classmates and friends in the city. Wondering about my ex-colleagues, at Merrill Lynch, only an overstreet walkway from the WTC towers. Wondering about what if -- what if I was still working for Merrill, what if I was coming into the subway stop under the trade centers a little after 9 a.m. as I used to, what if I was stopping at my favorite bakery there in the basement for an extraordinarily sweet pastry and a giant paper cup of coffee. And what of the baristas there? What of the newsstand operator, the sales ladies at the Gap? What of...
We didn't know anything real, for days. Instead I thought to myself that morning, as the plane hit the second tower, as the horrible horrible things happened next -- the jumping people, the goodbye phone calls from the top floors, the plane going down in Pennsylvania, the ways I come to tears still -- "I will never have a birthday again." But what thought is this? Selfish, or sacrificial? Did I give it up willingly; did I begrudge it? I think I gave it without rancor; somehow, besides this small loss, the shared tragedy we all felt, I was safe.
No one I knew died. I would not even, in the 10 years to come, know anyone who lost anyone, but over the radio airwaves; the radio to which I still listen each September 11. I would think the pain would lessen over the years, but it has not; I would, after all, celebrate my birthday, but never with abandon, with joy. How could I claim this -- even this listing connection? -- I do not know the pain of this day. I did not sit in the street a few blocks away, watching my community disintegrate, feeling the ash of cubicles and file cabinets and humans over my face. I did not get a phone call from the 104th floor, or from anywhere in Manhattan at all. No: four days later, I drove toward New York in my fancy car, I watched the towers smoke, I could not tear my eyes away so I drove slowly through the city toward Liz' home on Long Island, where we were -- somberly -- celebrating her wedding shower.
Life goes on; life does not go on. The worst thing for me, the one I still remember as desperately as I did then was the stories about the cars left in train station parking lots. Were their owners still alive? the question went, with that downy lofting sense of not knowing we all had in those days. What could we know? I never heard an answer. Now, all victims have been identified, labeled, quantified, compensated, their names entered into an algorithm and carved into stone and spoken aloud all over the world, year after year, with voices wavering through tears and strength and pride.
There is nothing for me to rub, but my eyes; there is no monument for me; nor should there be. I celebrate my birth each year with tears but I no longer mourn for that. I mourn for life lost, and not just theirs, those 2,977 victims, but also my imagined life, my self in that pin-striped suit catching the E train, my high-heeled shoes on the concrete floor, my slow ride up the escalator, my sip of coffee, my unheralded ordinary part of that city, which I will never regain.