Where Were You?
6:30, Tuesday morning, in bed, at home, Sacramento, California, USA, coming to consciousness at the brrrrp! of the phone under the chin of a sleeping blond cat next to me. Struggling to sound alert—why do I always do that?—hearing my sister’s voice, choked, teary, and instantly I think, oh, God, not another one, who died? She blurts, “Turn on your TV—an airplane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” and as I’m tripping over my feet and the cat who is more like a dog, underfoot constantly, I think, Whaaaaa? She’s probably never heard of the World Trade Center before, she’s never been to New York, though she did go to college in Pittsburgh, maybe she has been to Manhattan, and I say stupidly, “The really tall buildings? In New York City?” and she says, “Yes, yes, go turn on the TV.” I say, “I gotta get my glasses,” because I can’t see anything without them anymore—damn progressive lenses—and I am startled by the cold gray tile of the bathroom counter as I retrieve them. I don’t even grab the bathrobe off the hook on the back of the bathroom door, even though it’s starting to feel fall-ish, I just stagger down the hall, cat just ahead of me, so quickly the old dog asleep on the bedroom floor hasn’t even struggled to his feet yet, and I reach the living room, still on the phone, fumble for the remote on the coffee table—for some odd reason plopped on the open pages of the American Heritage Dictionary—saying to my sister, in typical journalist fashion, “Who would…? When did you say this happ…?” and as the TV screen cracks to life, there on the screen are indeed the two World Trade Center towers, one on fire like in that early Bruce Willis disaster movie, and as the rest of the world and I will see something like 100 times in the next 24 hours, another airplane—a huge one—crashed into the other tower and now they’re both on fire, and I say to my sister, “Oh, my God, the other one, too,” as though it were expected, as though some pyrotechnic wizards had the things wire for the fake movie explosions, only this looks real—is that possible?—and people on the ground are screaming now and running as some videographer keeps the tape rolling, and some time during this part, my sister and I each hang up our phones, though I continue to hold mine, clutching it, actually, to my pajama’d chest, as much stomach clenches and unclenches. I think, I’ve been in those building, I ate in the restaurant on the top floor of one of them—it was the first time I ever had seared ahi—it’s like 100 stories tall, and then Peter Jennings says as we all watch, “It’s collapsing, the north World Trade Center Tower is collapsing,” and you can hear gasps behind him in the newsroom, and it is, in slow motion, the flames puffed out like a tutu being pushed down someone’s body at the same time a Mt. St. Helens-type ash clouds up, obscuring whatever building is left, and still I clutch the phone and think, Oh, my God, how many people, all those people. And then the other building, still flaming like a Roman candle, implodes—an even better view of this one—and my heart threatens to leap out of my chest, and two hands have just rung my gut dry, and then I realize that the dog has awakened and joined me, along with all four cats, the dog lying on my foot in his protective way, and I think, as I do frequently now, thank God, you aren’t here to see this, and Jennings is saying something about “the worst act of terrorism in the history of America,” and I think, now there’s a loaded word, they don’t know that yet, I’d be really careful about how I used that on national TV, and then I remember, oh, yeah, I’m not a journalist anymore, I’m a journalism teacher, and thank God I don’t have to teach today because how’m I gonna explain this to my students? How do I explain it to me? How do you say, the world just collapsed in ten minutes, and what’s this about another airplane in Pennsylvania and another one crashing into the Pentagon? How would you write the lead? It’s “The War of the Worlds” without Martians, more terrifying than even Orson Welles could’ve dramatized it on radio. And it’s live and in color and in our homes, right here on our damned TVs, narrated by people as stunned as we are. That Pearl Harbor thing and that Kennedy thing and that moon thing and that Challenger thing and that Waco thing, they were warm-up acts compared to this. I know that in the first hour.
And like most people across America—indeed the world—I am rooted in front of the TV for most of the day, unable to move much, only flip from channel to channel, wishing for something—anything—besides pictures of dust and flames and rescuers waiting anxiously with gurneys for the injured, only there aren’t many injured, not nearly enough, so I just sit there and watch as my insides cramp and uncramp.
When did you realize nothing would ever be the same?
Wednesday morning, when I have to get up and teach and act like a grownup, not a scared, shaky kid—because now I do have to try to sound confident in front of a class of journalism students. And I again have that sickening feeling in my gut, the one that stayed with me for the last half of March, the rest of the whole spring semester, actually, the ache of the constant reminder: something’s missing here, something huge.
So on the way to school I stop at the newspaper office where I once worked and buy 20 copies of the special edition with the headline that says—in what the old newspaper guys used to call Second Coming Type—“America Attacked,” with the gigantically sickening photo of the huge ball of fire emerging from a building that’s no longer standing. I buy 20 more copies of the regular edition of the paper, too, thinking, I can’t avoid this; we have to talk about it; might as well use it for the ‘this is a headline,’ ‘this is a caption,’ ‘this is a byline’ lesson.
I walk into class, expecting to see few students, but most of them are there, looking sleepy as usual. I put the papers on the table in the front of the room, and I say, “Take one of each,” and they do, sitting in their neat rows with the desks that slant down, making their books and papers fall off, and immediately begin looking through them. In silence.
And we talk for an hour, beginning with “this is called the masthead or the flag,” “this is Second Coming Type,” and when my 20-something students look puzzled, I explain how in the old days a newspaper would only use a headline font that large if Jesus walked the earth again, or maybe a war ended. Or started.
“Do you remember when the Challenger exploded?” I asked. “The space shuttle?” Blank looks all around. “Newspapers used type this size then, too.”
Silence, as they continue to turn pages. The student from Hawaii with the goatee says, “Didn’t a teacher die then?” And as a group they look up at me, eyes wide, innocents all in this moment, as we all are.
“Yes,” I say. “One did.”
After class, three students line up outside my office, as they often do to ask a quick question. And one by one, they come in, start to talk about schoolwork and after a couple of minutes, their faces fall and so do some tears. I sit them down, listen, pat their shoulders, offer Kleenex. My eyes remain dry.
I wonder about that.
Who would do such a thing?
There’s no who here, as in who did it? for the lead, I tell the class during the next session. At least not now. No one knows who. Not today. There are a whole lotta people who died—can it possibly be 5,000?—and many of us who are torn up from it, hauling out flags, pasting them to car windows. There’s a who in all those poor New Yorkers wandering around the streets with their photocopies of snapshots of loved ones, stapled on telephone poles, like advertising for a lost pet. There’s a who in those faces of the cops and firefighters and volunteers hoping, praying for a sign—any sign, please God—of someone still breathing, still fighting to live beneath all that concrete and steel and glass.
We can speculate about who dunnit—the powers that be think they know, and maybe they do, who am I to say?—and we can report that, or the real journalists can, but really, we don’t know. We don’t know much of anything except that we lost something huge, bigger than two buildings plus some of the neighboring ones, part of a Pentagon and four airliners.
Over the next six days, I scan the news services online, The Times and the Post, at their photos, and I am moved, silent, before the small screen on my desk. Two of the best pictures—my favorites, if you can call them that—are illustrations: The New Yorker’s all-black cover with the faint shadow of the two towers imbedded in it, and the photo of a hand on the cover of the Village Voice holding a postcard of the twin towers on the Jersey shore, the postcard held up against the Manhattan horizon to represent where the real ones once stood.
On the postcard, it says, in happy script: Wish you were here.
What should I do?
There’s too much blood—all of a sudden the blood bank that calls me every other week, it seems, does not need any more people with outstretched arms, ready to give a pint. I can send money to the Red Cross or someplace. But I don’t.
No, here’s what I should do: I should get a master’s degree in counseling and hang out a shingle, I swear. I’d make more money, and I wouldn’t have to grade papers after I listened to all these crying people in my office. I have held out the Kleenex box way too many times in a week, hugged more students than most teachers do in a year, been a witness to whatever they need to say. My heart is heavy; I have few tears.
I feel horribly unprepared for this despair, this agony, for the student in my office saying she’s having nightmares about being buried alive for days and days…
The college puts out a memo about common responses to traumatic events with a little chart outlining emotional (“sadness,” “feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed”) and physical reactions (“difficulty concentrating,” “fatigue or lethargy,” as well as effects on productivity (“feeling spacey”). I think after reading the memo, Duh. It lists things to help “students cope with these reactions,” such as “acknowledge and validate feelings without passing judgment” and “increase patience with students and yourself.” Of course, we can always refer them to counseling, the memo says. Sure, I think, as they’re crying, I’m going to say, don’t talk to me; maybe you’d like to go see a counselor.
“We’re all doing this, aren’t we?” I ask one of my colleagues, “listening to them cry?”
“No,” he says, he isn’t. He talks to his students about essays and late papers and poetry. “You must have a sign on your forehead that says, ‘Talk to me.’ ”
We both chuckle.
Later I think, OK. Fine. Can I get it removed?
say the students, every day, lines of them, it seems—no really, just a few each day—but they linger in the doorway, reluctant to come in at first, but they want to talk… about what classes they should take next semester, or should they try to get into Berkeley, or how they have a story they want to submit to the literary magazine only maybe it’s not that good. But what they really want to talk about is the why of the story, the part I can’t answer, the part no one can answer. They remember their own losses, their own tragedies, or those of people they know. Some of them stand and some sit, but they stay and the tears come, unbidden, surprising them, and I am shaken by the enormity of their loss, all of our loss.
How do I talk to them?
“What are you saying to people?” I ask my therapist, as I settle into her cushy sofa and tuck a pillow behind my back. We compare notes—as though I’m an old pro at this—and I’m grateful for the new material. Mine is getting old.
After a while, I say, “It’s been six months today. Since Cliff died,” and she looks at me, surprised, and says, “You’re just remembering this?” and I say, “No, I’ve thought about it several times since I woke up this morning, and I realized it’s a week today since these building exploded and planes crashed and thousands of people died, and I’m still thinking about a husband who had a stroke and died a peaceful death in his chair in front of the TV? There’s no comparison here.”
“No?” says my therapist. “Really?”
I know what she means: Pain is pain, loss is loss—we’ve been through this a lot—you can’t compare, and I say, “I’m not ignoring my stuff, it’s just that these students, these people out there, are suffering so, and some of them are coming to me—why me? There are lots of people to talk to…”
“You don’t know?” she says.
“Know what?” I ask.
“You’ve been there; you’ve experienced death recently. That’s why they’re coming to you. You know how it feels to lose someone very close to you so profoundly, so permanently. You know how to grieve. You do it every day. You can help them.”
No, I think, I’m supposed to teach them how to write fiction in some classes and news stories in others, how to make the squiggly delete symbol and how to rework a short story. That’s what they pay me for.
“I don’t think I got hired for that,” I say aloud.
She looks at me, long and kindly, and she says, “I think you did.”
And then, finally, I reach into her Kleenex box.