“Attention passengers, we are being held momentarily due to an explosion at the World Trade Center. We should be moving shortly.” A woman gasped. I was annoyed.
I was up early, after very little sleep. Lucy showered as I made coffee and woke the kids. As I showered, Lucy took over with the kids, putting clothes on Lillie, who clutched her blanket as she drifted in and out of waking. Jason helped Collie look for his missing shoe.
Lucy drove us to the preschool and I took Lillie inside. Once she was settled with her teacher, I sat back in the passenger seat and picked up my coffee.
“Wow, it’s nice out,” Lucy said. “Isn’t it nice today, boys?”
“Yeah,” Jason replied, weary. Collie didn’t answer. David Gray was on the radio. I turned it up.
We double parked near the boys’ school and took them to the yard for assembly. Parents were chatty as the school year began. We met up with people we hadn’t seen all summer. Yes, the new house is great, I said. No, we won’t always both be here for drop off, Lucy explained. This is just for the first few days; after that, Henry would bring in the boys.
We both wanted to be there to reassure Collie.
Jason was already in the third grade, and an old hand at the routines of his school. He was looking out for his brother, who was just starting kindergarten.
The year had got off to a bumpy start. Collie first days ended after lunch, as the five year olds were transitioned into their classes. For the first day, his dad had stayed with him. The second day, he was left alone with his class. The third day, he didn’t feel well, and so he stayed home with his dad.
It seemed like “school” was not one thing, but a whole bunch of different things. Collie tried not to be confused.
His mom and dad smiled and waved goodbye as he held hands in line with some kid he didn’t know. He couldn’t see Jason anywhere.
Lucy’s eyes were wet. “Aw, honey, he’s fine, mama,” I kissed her cheek.
“I know, I know.” She wiped her lashes, and noticed another mother doing the same. She caught her eye and laughed. “Crazy, right?”
“I can’t weep every day,” the mother replied. “I’ll get dehydrated.”
I walked Lucy to the car and kissed her goodbye. I walked quickly to the subway. I had missed one day this week, and I had a shitload to do. I was eager to get to work. Then I found myself stuck in a subway tunnel. Great. My luck.
The train lurched forward. I was two stations from my stop. I was also starving.
I climbed the stairs to the street, and waited for the light to change. I crossed the avenue and went into a bakery that was usually packed. It was empty. My luck!
I bought a blueberry muffin. I began to tear nibbles from it as I carried the bag. As I reached the next avenue, I could see the sidewalks packed with pedestrians, shielding their eyes and looking south. At the corner I turned to look, expecting to see, I don’t know, a jumper on a ledge or something.
“Oh my God,” I said. I turned to a woman. “What happened?”
“A plane flew into it, just a few minutes ago.” She was pushing a stroller. “I was just taking Ethan to his playdate when it happened.”
I looked down at the toddler, whose head was turned to avoid the sun. I looked back up.
It looked as though the skin had been torn from the side of the tower, far up. There was no sign of a plane, no smoke, nothing.
I watched for a moment, then decided to head to my office. As I walked the next block, I stuffed bite after bite of muffin into my mouth. Adrenaline was kicking in as I thought, okay, people are going to freak out, because people freak out. This is just like the time that airplane crashed into the Empire State Building, back in the forties, but no one will remember that.
What do we need to do?
At the next avenue, I joined another crowd looking south. Jesus.
People were shouting and crying. It had just happened.
The second plane.
Now, black smoke drifted above the towers.
I walked the next block to my office. I found my colleague, a close friend, already at his desk. Our desks looked out over the avenue
“I know,” he said. “I’m trying to get the radio to work.” He fiddled with the CD player.
” . . . reports are now coming in of planes crashing into the Mall in Washington, DC, mere miles from the White House . . . ”
“Holy fuck!” I said.
He shook his head. “Incredible.”
“I was thinking of that plane that crashed into the Empire State Building.”
“No,” he shook his head. “This is like Pearl Harbor.” He was an historian. His brain made those connections faster than mine.
We listened to the radio. We went back outside. We ran into our employer, a man given to hysteria in the best of circumstances.
“This is it,” he gesticulated, pointing south. “We’re attacked. This is it.” He ran off to share his insight with others.
My friend and I just watched the towers smolder. “Were they fighter planes?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I didn’t see them.”
We watched. “I don’t get it. Did they bomb them, or was it kamikaze?”
“I don’t know.”
We watched. “How many people do you think . . . ?”
“Thousands. At the beginning of a weekday? Tens of thousands.”
A tower fell. People around us screamed.
I was stunned. If you had asked me if a tower would fall, I would have bet against it.
At that moment, if you had asked me if a second tower would fall, I would have doubled my bet.
Then the second tower fell.
It was over. People just stood there. That was it.
A man with a European accent turned to me. “I didn’t go there today.”
A fighter jet boomed overhead. I ducked, instinctively.
We went to our office. I tried calling Lucy. I tried calling the school. Nothing went through.
The radio kept repeating the same words. Nothing about the schools. Nothing about the subways.
The phone rang. It was Lucy. “Henry, you heard?”
“I saw it. Where are you?”
“I’m leaving my office. They are closing the schools. The subways aren’t running.”
“I’m getting the boys. Can you meet us at the school?”
“If I’m walking, I won’t be there for a long time. You’ve got the car. We should meet someplace.” We agreed to meet at her father’s apartment. He was gone, but she had a key.
“Come with me,” I said to my friend. “Maybe we can get you someplace. There’s no subway.” I picked up my briefcase. I threw out my muffin.
We ran into my employer on the sidewalk. He was telling someone what he had seen. He noticed us. “Are you guys leaving?”
“Yes, I need to get my kids.”
“Okay,” he hesitated. “Yeah, I guess no one’s going to get much done today, so, yeah, you can go. See you tomorrow, okay? Early.”
At the end of the block, my friend turned to me. “He’s an idiot.”
I nodded, looking south at the smoke. “Yep.”
We walked north. Office workers were also walking. People spilled into the streets as vehicles dwindled. Some people stood impatiently looking for cabs.
A man came up from a subway station, covered in white dust.
We passed an electronics store. People looked in the windows. There I saw the first images of what I had witnessed.
We passed a clock. It wasn’t yet noon. I heard a woman laugh. It felt good, walking in this cool sunny day, when the city was still.
I found my family watching television. The same images. Collie burst into tears when he saw me. He ran to me.
I picked him up. At the sight of my crying child, my friend began to cry.
I carried Collie to hug Lucy and Jason.
We wanted to get out of the city fast, if we could, before the roads were closed. We offered the apartment to my friend. We drove home on empty streets. National Guard vehicles rumbled in the other direction.
For the next few days, I answered emails assuring people that we were fine. I was not dead. No one we knew was dead.
That night, Lucy got high and I got drunk, watching those same images.
For days afterward, Collie was very upset. He kept talking about what had happened. He had learned about it when the assistant principal assembled the students in the auditorium. She told the three hundred students, ages five to eleven, that school would be short today and everyone would wait in the auditorium for pickup. Some bad people had blown up the World Trade Center.
A kid near Collie said, “That’s where my mommy works.” Collie realized he wasn’t sure he knew where his daddy worked.
At age five, Collie was already very much someone who liked things to make sense. He liked rules. He liked knowing the rules, and he liked it when everyone played by them. When the kids played ball, he wanted to be referee.
This didn’t make sense. He couldn’t make it make sense. Too many things didn’t make sense.
He had lived in the city, and now he lived in a house.
He had a nanny, and then he didn’t have a nanny.
He went to kindergarten, and things were blown up.
Collie stopped going to the bathroom. He refused to eat. He had accidents and cried.
We found a therapist. His teacher helped. He got better.
This morning, as we waited for the bus. Collie looked at a newspaper box at the cover of USA Today. Under a headline about the anniversary was a photograph of President and Mrs. Bush laying a wreath at Ground Zero.
“Hey Dad, can I have seventy-five cents?”
“Because the Colts beat the Giants. Peyton Manning beat Eli Manning.”
“Well, that’s interesting.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “You know, it’s also the fifth anniversary of nine eleven. You okay?”
“Yeah, Dad. That was when I was five. So can I have seventy-five cents?”
“Here comes the bus. Let’s get you to school, baby. You can read the paper tonight.”