It was a beautiful Tuesday morning and I would have gladly skipped work given any reasonable excuse. Sometime over the night, I had turned off the air conditioning and opened my bedroom windows to allow the breeze to gently drift inside.
When the first plane hit, I was still curled up in bed, drifting in and out of dreams. I knew I'd have to get up and get dressed soon, but my ex-girlfriend was already up and watching the news in my living room. One of our differences was that she was very much a morning person while I was a night person. We had broken up over the summer, but we still had an easy chemistry, and the night before we had met up and she came home with me.
She called out to me as soon as it was announced on the news. I rolled over, looked out my bedroom window, and saw the smoke pouring out the side of one of the towers. It was unusual, but still possibly an accident. My initial thought was that it was the guy who got his paraglider caught up on the arm of the Statue of Liberty the week before, with the intention of bungee jumping off a monument. Great, some rich douchebag had stuffed his Gulfstream into the side of a building, possibly trying to fly between them.
I stretched out for a bit longer, thought about what I was going to wear to work over in SoHo, and whether or not there was any conceivable way to take the day off. I had gotten up and was looking out my window when I saw the burst of flames from the second impact.
My ex immediately echoed the update from the tv. I walked into the living room and watched the looping replays. We switched between stations to see the alternate views from different cameras.
As soon as it happened, I dryly commented "Oh, yeah, that's the beginning of a terrorist attack". She was in disbelief, but I'd grown up in DC - around people involved in national security, and I had done several years in the military. She asked what we should do, I said to stay calm and mentioned that if anyone could coordinate planes flying into buildings, the next most likely targets were the bridges and subways out of the city, as well as any major traffic routes.
I tried calling my office, but the phone lines were already jammed. She emailed her company to tell them she wouldn't be working that day.
I went downstairs to the bodega across the street to pick up coffee and some pastries. I ran into a good friend. He and I decided to go to my rooftop to watch the fires. I briefly stopped in to see my ex, but she didn't want to leave the television. I think she felt safer with the detachment of watching it all on a screen.
I thought about grabbing my digital camera, but decided I didn't want to feel like a tourist during a disaster in my own city. My friend and I continued on to the roof and stood drinking our coffee as first one tower fell, and then the other. Unless you lived here, it's hard to grasp how actually big
those buildings really were. They were vastly larger than what passes for high-rises in other cities, and acted as a guide post for most New Yorkers to find their bearings as we got out of the subway.
I remember watching the smoke and seeing the latent image in my mind of where the towers used to be. To my eyes, it was like there were two dark holes in the skyline.
I pulled out my phone and tried calling friends and coworkers who worked downtown, but the phone system was completely overloaded. My friend and I wondered aloud if there would be an exodus from the city, and decided that we'd stay and dig in if necessary, since we had nowhere else to go. I knew the country was going to war, even if we still were still unsure of the enemy as of that morning.
I still had my EMT certification, and we discussed walking downtown to see if we could help. I remembered that those buildings were supposed to be able to hold fifty-thousand workers. There was no telling how many people had died or been injured. I went back to my apartment to check on my ex, but she didn't want me to leave her by herself.
I then walked my friend downstairs to the street, on his way toward downtown on foot. We shook hands, I wished him well and told him to catch up with me later.
I picked up some orange juice and random food items from the bodega. By now, people covered in white ash were starting to pass through my neighborhood. I don't think I'll ever forget the look of their eyes as they somberly walked past in their business clothes, briefcases and purses in hand. Some local hipster, fresh out of bed, asked what was up with all the "suits" and dust. I told him planes had been hijacked and flown into buildings and that the World Trade Centers had collapsed. He said "no way" and acted like I was kidding. I told him to walk a couple blocks to where there was a better view.
As I passed my mailbox, I realized that I still hadn't gotten my final discharge papers from the Army. I had already done time as an infantryman, a paratrooper, and had even cross-trained as a medic. I checked my military ID card and saw that the expiration date was September 8. I had no idea what type of letter I'd be getting in the mail, but either option filled me with a different form of dread. My city had been attacked, and I still felt a sense of duty, but returning to one of my old jobs would mean giving up the life and career I had just started building for myself here.
There are moments in our life when we have to choose how we are going to react to the world around us.
It was a beautiful day outside. The world seemed like it could be well on the way to collapse. We had no idea if more were attacks coming. All means of escape from the city were undoubtedly already a mess. I sent a quick email to friends, family, and coworkers to make sure that everyone else was ok, and to find out who was missing.
As my ex sat close to me, I remember the smell of her skin as we sat there with our laptops. We kissed and pulled each other's clothes off. There was this quiet need to just be close. As we headed to the bedroom, I glanced out the window and was peripherally aware of the destruction and twisted metal only a mile or two away. Somewhere in a farther corner of my mind were memories of burnt metal and flesh out in the Iraqi desert, with the oil fields of Kuwait burning in the distance. I took a deep breath and pushed all those thoughts out into the darkness. In that moment, all my awareness was focused on the smell and feel of her soft pale skin. I just wanted to be lost in that connection, and I wanted a mental break from anything outside of that room.
Later, as we left the apartment, she asked if we should be worried. I remember telling her: "There's never a good time to panic. We may as well try to enjoy things as much as we can since we never know when it will all come to an end."
Walking through our neighborhood, we watched big billowing clouds of smoke rise from downtown. Jet fighters circled overhead through a rich blue sky.
It was a beautiful day on our block, while not too far away the world was falling apart.