When I realized that chaos and war were not impossible
I never wrote about 9/11, but I wanted to remember the way I saw it as a teenager.
Freshman year began a couple of days before that early fall morning in Queens, New York. Instead of attending class, I was heading to an immigration office for a fingerprint appointment. I ate breakfast then put on dark jeans and a soft pink shirt with short sleeves, still carrying a backpack in case I left early enough to finish the rest of the school day. I never did much with my hair during that year, mostly for fear of being late and missing the bus, which was nonexistent after a certain hour.
My dad took off work that day and drove us to the appointment in his 1998 burgundy Toyota minivan, which had heavy sliding doors. (A couple of years later he would find that car in Corona with all its interior parts gone.) At the immigration office, my fingers were smudged with black ink, pressed onto white cards, and later I was asked to initial my name multiple times. This was all for the purpose of one day being a citizen, which according to the adults would take a long time, because the system was slow. We left, thinking I would be able to go to school, since it was not yet 9 am.
On the highway, we were listening to music at a low volume. With my parents being loud and my own thoughts, I couldn’t hear the songs or when it switched to the chatter of voices. I recognized one of the radio hosts, but her voice was more subdued than usual. It might have been Angie Martinez, a popular host on Hot 97. I raised the volume. I heard something about planes and bombs, and quickly changed the station, thinking they were talking about a war movie, which made me depressed. I kept changing the radio station, but most of the radio hosts were talking about the same thing. “Escuchen están diciendo algo.” “Listen, they’re saying something,” my dad said, and told me to stop changing the stations. My mom was also not paying attention, until two radio announcers from a news program began describing a scene.
“They’re saying that it was a plane heading to…”
“The north tower was hit, and we’re seeing a lot of smoke right now…”
“We have confirmed reports that …”
“Witnesses said a second plane…”
“They don’t know if this was the pilot or someone one else…
In that short car ride the bursts of information left us disoriented: a plane hitting a building, smoke, fire, people running. I could envision a dark and sinister future. Their words were turning into fragmented images of what was unfolding on the other side of the East River. It was too outlandish to be true, too violent to be close to home. There was a mood of confusion in their voices, as if they didn’t believe what they were hearing.
“Algo paso. Un atentado.”
“Something happened. An attack,” my dad said.
In my 15-year-old mind, I didn’t want to understand, “Un atentado.” We were no more than 30 minutes from the twin towers that we often took it for granted when looking at the skyline from the East River. “We have to pick up your sister,” my mom said. I held my backpack hoping everything would get solved. Was this going to turn out like those fake snow days that never amounted to the real thing? “Only a few inches of snow,” and with that school would be back on. I wanted to believe it was a description of a movie and not real life.
When we entered my sister’s elementary school, everyone was rushing in the main office — phones were going off and parents were desperate to pick up their children. No one knew anything. While we waited, I asked my mom about what we heard on the radio. “Creo que es algo serio. No sé lo que está pasando.” “I think it’s something serious. I don’t know what’s happening,” she said. They finally dismissed my sister, who was confused and needed time to come up with her own questions. School had suddenly stopped, but teachers didn’t give the kids any details. “It was sad; kids were happy to go home without knowing why,” my sister said years later. “It was something bad, and we were told to line up in the lobby, so our parents could pick us up.”
When we got home, we turned on the T.V. and those words from this morning were pieced together with images, which flooded my mind, until I chose to stop watching in fear of not being able to see anything but the towers falling, and workers sitting by the windows, as billowing clouds of smoke overtook the narrow streets. I had reoccurring nightmares for the next few days, as if my world was suddenly consumed by planes crashing, the buildings falling, and people lost in the chaos.
Some of my friends who we’re still in school, told me they were in the cafeteria having breakfast or in gym class when teachers told them what was happening. Some kids chose to get close to the window, thinking they could see it for themselves. Our school was near the East River, but you could only see the smoke from far away. One of my friends whose school was in direct view of the towers said, her teacher let them stand by the window and watch silently across the river where the clouds of smoke expanded and curled up to the sky.
They knew something had changed and whether they wanted to believe it or not, the world appeared violent and filled with uncertainty. There was also a realization that I was signing up to be the citizen of a nation others hated; a nation whose history was troubling, something I was mostly unaware of until then.