Near the end.
My lungs heaved under the weight of the yellow haze.
At the beginning.
My stomach heaved under the weight of the upcoming school day.
I woke up and stumbled out of bed. My dorm room was empty, my other two roommates, Jon and Jonathan, left earlier in the morning. After waking up with stomach pains at about 7 am, I went back to sleep until around 10 as I had a late class that day.
I took my shower, struggling to wake myself up from my interrupted sleep. The sun shone through the window and warmed by skin and wet hair as I grabbed my books off my generic wooden dorm room desk.
I took the elevator down and as it opened I heard the daily buzz of the building entrance from around the corner. As I turned the corner I saw a large group of people standing around the entrance. I looked through the crowd and saw a familiar face, Marla Rosenberg.
Marla lived a few doors down from me on my floor, the 6th of the Weinsten building. She had long black curly hair, dark eyes, and large white teeth that wildly erupted from her mouth as she spoke. She was short and thin, looking like a reformed woodland creature from her native Hawaii.
“Look”, she said pointing up to the TV over the reception desk. “Classes are cancelled.”
I looked up at the TV.
Crash. Smoke. Crash. Smoke. Fall
Crash. Smoke. Crash. Smoke. Fall.
I watched this repeat over and over as the crowd of people began to evaporate in my mind. I walked out in the warm sun, a beautiful September day, white billowy clouds painted across the sky. I turned left, my normal route to the Arts and Sciences building I would have had class in that morning.
When I looked up the patch of sky that should have been blue, was now a large ball of white, reaching higher and higher into the sky.
I turned again, passing the building and walking to Broadway. I stopped at the corner of Broadway and Washington Place and looked south. The white mass had grown larger, and a deeper grey. I watched as a stream of people walked toward me. I stood and watched the cloud as they walked past. I think I stayed there for a few seconds, but I really have no idea.
At some point, I made it back to my dorm. The large group was still gathered around the TV. I had been in New York for about two weeks, my home was still in Maryland. My phone was not working, similar to millions of other New Yorkers. I turned on my computer and connected the only way I knew how, to friends from high school over AOL Instant Messenger.
I spoke to them about what was happening. That I was okay. That I had not been able to call anyone. The words escape me now, along with so much else. At some point my mom was able to get through to me. I told her I wanted to stay. That I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
I did make it home at some point. But I do not know how long it was before I made the 2 hr train ride back to Maryland. Time seemed to slow to a stop, but then move so fast days became seconds. I really only have flashes of what I can assume were a few days.
I walked down the same sunny streets the next day, hearing the sirens blaring, the smoke still pouring. Walking down the middle of the street, beyond the blockades at14th St, but above the evacuation zone past Canal Street, I looked through an intersection to see a man rollerblading.
The city was the city again above 14th street. Union Square was the same bustling mix of tourists, street performers, skaters, and business types. The only difference was the growing cloud and the blue NYPD barricades and the officers. I walked past them hesitantly, hoping that they would let me back through.
After people were allowed to leave the dorms halls emptied as people went to live with friends and relatives in New Jersey and other surrounding states.
John left to go with family in Pennsylvania. Jonathon was a native New Yorker and stayed with me in the dorm.
An evening where I went to the corner deli at the end of the street and sat at a window table and spoke to my RA. Her name was Sherri Offenhopper and she was a proud Texan. Not the stereotypical conservative Texan, but a liberal, math major, with a large personality, much bigger than her small frame. We sat and talked, about what I don’t know. But I cried. I remember only a few days prior standing at the top of the Empire State Building, looking across the city, all the buildings standing proudly, lights on.
“This reminds me of home”, I told her.
“Why”, she asked.
“It reminds of the stars.”
I watched the news as the cloud that once was covering Brooklyn was now moving toward Manhattan as the wind changed. The once blue sky and clear air, the stars across the city were now a dusty mustard yellow. People walked down the streets with masks, paper towels, scarfs, and all other items over their mouths.
I went to the bathroom and got a large paper towel. I folded it so that it was a square of 4 layers and ran it under water until it was soaked through, yet not dripping. I placed it over my mouth and made my way down the elevator and outside into the haze. I do not not how long I walked or where I walked. I only have one image. There was a man walking toward me and all I could see was the white of the mask over his mouth. Everything else was hidden through the yellow fog.
I did not wear this mask all the time, and I tried not to think about what I was breathing in: Bits of glass and concrete. Evaporated airlines seats and office furniture. A child’s T-shirt. A grandmother’s hair.
I was walking out of a subway station in midtown. It was late, around midnight. I was looking for the way to Penn Station, to be on a train for my first trip home.
I was on the train and I looked up at the sleeping people.
I was home. The sky bright and blue again. Real stars dotted the sky. The world was a little more peaceful. No sirens. Fresh air filling my lungs as I walked among the trees surrounding my rural Maryland home. I felt born again, like a baby being brought into the world. Everything seemed strange and new. I was not sure where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing. Life was normal here. It was like everything never happened.
I was not sure where I was supposed to be. Here no one could understand what it was like. I felt lost here as much as I did there. People asked me why I stayed, why I didn’t come home the first time I had a chance. Maybe I was in shock. Maybe I was not fit to make a decision. But I told myself I needed to complete the cycle. I needed to be there to see it through. To be a part of something. To be understood. To find some end to the entropy.
Without planning, I am writing this around the 14th anniversary of that day. I still have images of these events at times. I used to get them every time I looked at a clock and it said 9:11. That day of entropy, though the images still flicker back, gave me sense of purpose. That could have been the day I died. Melodramatic, perhaps. But true, nonetheless. A slight twitch in a trajectory and I could have been gone.
14 years later, I feel stronger and proud to have been a part of that event in history, one that built a new beginning out of entropy.