On Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I was not yet 14 years old. I had been in high school for all of four days. My high school? Stuyvesant, just a few blocks from the towers.
My mother and I argued that morning. I wanted to go in early to meet a boy I liked, but my excuse was going to the library. My mother said having first period off meant not going in early. We yelled. I left. I didn’t stop for breakfast. I squeezed myself onto a crowded 1 train. All these things put me on Chambers St before 9 am, looking up at the World Trade Center.
The first thing I remember coming out of the stop is the silvery fragments in the air. I thought it was confetti. I thought it was a parade. I recall smiling as I walked to the left to get a better view, looked up, and saw the north tower burning.
A crowd of equally confused people stared up at the wreckage. We couldn’t see the plane because we were on the wrong side. I figured a fire had started somehow. I asked what was going on, and there was no answer. I learned that it is easy to tell falling debris from falling bodies because bodies fall much faster.
As we watched in mute horror, another explosion. The south tower had been hit, but what we saw was a sudden burgeoning of the structure outward. Debris came shooting toward us. Our strange calm broke, and we ran. I went to school, not knowing what else to do. On the way, a man shouted to someone on the phone that planes had hit the towers. I told him, no, it was a fire. He said, roughly, angrily, “It was terrorists.” I didn’t believe it. I still can’t.
School was oddly quiet. I had no idea the FBI were on premises. I went to class — the principal came on the speaker, said everything was okay and we shouldn’t call our parents or go home. In English class, we talked about it as if in a fog. Some of us nervously laughed — nothing seemed real. Suddenly the lights went out and the building jumped. The first tower had fallen.
We were summoned to homeroom. As I passed the grand marble staircase, the beautiful bay windows were black. I felt a certainty that I would die. We were evacuated minutes later as the second tower fell down around our ears. The pillars in the lobby quaked.
I clung to two girls I’d met in homeroom. We saw our teacher, tried to ask him what to do. He ran. He ran away from us and those falling buildings with a mask over his face. We didn’t have masks. We shook to our souls.
I was one of the few that got through on a fireman’s cellphone. I wish I knew that man’s name. He let me tell my parents I was alive. My eight-months pregnant mother cried as we spoke. She and my father had been walking on the Brooklyn Promenade when the planes hit. They’d had the perfect view.
My mother told me to go to Sixth and 40 something, where my aunt lived.
I walked further than I had ever walked that day, and yet it felt like minutes. Those girls came with me for a time, disbelieving passengers on the same journey. I couldn’t tell you what they were thinking. I don’t even know what I was thinking. At some point, they broke away to find transport to Queens.
I was crying, I was afraid I had soot all over me and it was poisoned. A man selling scarves — still selling! — saw me and told me it was okay, hugged me, squeezed my ass. I was flabbergasted, stunned. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I was wearing a red shirt with a butterfly on it, and white shorts.
I sat in the stairwell of my aunt’s apartment building, but she wasn’t there. She’d gone all the way downtown to find me, only to be turned away at the makeshift barriers. I waited for her to come back, and we had the quietest of quiet lunches. We watched the news with her friends; I don’t remember it. I think Giuliani spoke; it didn’t reach me. It’s a blur. Somehow we got to Queens where my uncle was, and I still don’t understand how. My parents picked us up in their car, and I still don’t know how they managed that. We went home. Brooklyn was covered in ashes, my home unfamiliar to me. I told my mother I was scared, but the word didn’t communicate the deep, dark, wrenching truth of it. She said it would be okay, unconvinced herself.
The next day I would turn 14, on the strangest and saddest day of all. In a few weeks, I would take temporary haven at Brooklyn Tech, then go back to Stuy. Those bay windows were clean, but the twisted wreckage of The Sphere lay just north of my school, visible from the bridge I took to get inside. In a month, I would get a baby sister. In a year I would leave New York City completely, dragged kicking and screaming by my parents.
In The Goldfinch, the narrator describes how small sounds of the city — a porthole blowing steam — can make him jump, think that the attack he witnessed in his childhood is suddenly imminent. How to explain to people that when I draw back at a loud noise, I’m thinking of that day? How to tell my boyfriend a few years ago that we had to switch seats at a restaurant because I could see outside the window to the corner I witnessed those murders from? How to tell my boss that the sudden motion of a bird outside his window as we’re talking reminds me of death?
Many things have happened to me since then and nothing is as strong as those people, those flailing specks, jumping to their deaths as refuge from the flames. Nothing has shaped me, done more, said more, lived always with me as the ghost of the Twin Towers has.