It started with my mother in the doorway. Five minutes into the school day and my mother is standing outside the door. How embarrassing. But there are other parents too, so embarrassment quickly dissipates to confusion. I don't remember leaving my spot on the rug or collecting my stuff but I do recall running down the school's three flights of stairs, with my mind tumbling ahead of me imagining family tragedies despite the noted presence of other people's parents outside the classroom.
Moments before I see the real reason for this departure, I see a collection of parents frozen on the street outside the red doors of the building. They look as if they've been planted in the ground. Like sunflowers, which tilt their heads toward the sun, the parents are all looking up and south. I turn my head like them. Rather than a fiery ball in the sky, these parents are staring at a fiery hole just short of it.
"Get your kids and get out of here!" My mom screams.
I'm still not clear on what has really happened. Two blocks south of us, one of the Twin Towers is burning. And the world around me seems frozen except for the smoke rising in the sky and the shapes falling from the hole.
My mom kneels beside me, because I'm only eight and she wants to look directly in my eyes when she says;
"I know you don't understand but I need you to look at this because this is history".
We head to Chambers Street and go into the subway.
On the 9 train, no one knows what has just happened, but my mom has dissolved to hysterics.
"A plane has hit the twin towers!" She shrieks.
A man in a suit moves away from us. I wonder if he thought about us later when he emerged from the subway and the world above was in crisis. I sit on my mother's lap and wipe the streams of eyeliner from her face with the furry collar of my pink sweater.
The two of us get off at Christopher St and walk to our friend's home on Charles street and 7th avenue.
The next couple of hours is a blur as bit by bit the house fills with friends. The people who actually live in the apartment, our friends Holly and Nancy and their daughter, Haley, open their home to myself and my two moms, my friend, Ian, and his mother and the Waterman family, mother, father and two daughters. One of the strangest things for me is that Ian and Haley have disliked each other since meeting at one of my birthday parties years earlier, but today they do not fight at all.
I spend much of my time on the windowsill looking down 7th avenue to the North Tower. Outside pigeons and sparrows fly in chaotic circles until one of them suddenly slams into the window and the rest fly off.
After making many calls to relatives all over New York, my mom's phone finally loses signal and she sinks into the couch. From the windowsill I have a split screen view of the North Tower and the television which alters between our city and the sight of two other crashes.
At some point the mothers go to Gourmet Garage and come back with two cart loads of food. The store allows them to leave with the cart. I'm sure this is a sign of the Apocalypse in New York City.
We can't see the South Tower fall from the window but we watch it on television. After it falls, I am gripped by the fear that the North one will hit my school or our apartment building which are both within a reasonable range if it comes down to the north or northwest. But when it does fall, it goes straight down and I watch the tower from the window as it disappears behind the buildings it used to dwarf. At that moment, I have no idea that I will not enter my apartment for nearly three months and my school for five or that my class will meet first in a broom closet in P.S. 41 and then in an abandoned Catholic School and that I will live in eight different places for the next two weeks before settling in a relative's old apartment in Brooklyn. I don't realize that my neighborhood will be forever changed and eternally under construction. I certainly don't know that every time I'm in this apartment over the next few years I will have the sensation that a plane is about to crash through the window. I can only understand my immediate surroundings. And later that day, when I see people walking the streets and say,
"It's like a normal day."
Ian and Haley, enemies before and after 9/11, will say in unison,
"Except there are no twin towers."
and that will somehow sum up much of what I understand.