I wrote the following essay for the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, and I thought I’d share it today. It was published in Portrait, a souvenir edition of the Beaverton Valley Times, the Tigard Times and the Tualatin Times, in September 2002.
Part of this particular essay was incorporated into “The September 11th Project,” produced in 2002 by the Chautauqua Theater Company. Members of the Chautauqua, N.Y., community were encouraged to submit their thoughts about 9/11. The chosen essays and poems were stitched together into a full-length show that reflected people’s personal experiences with the tragedy. I had the great pleasure of attending one of its five performances at the Bratton Theater. “The September 11th Project” was directed by Vivienne Benesch.
Here’s the essay:
On Sept. 12, 2001, I went for a drive — across America
Bryan Bennett. Scott Johnson.
Two names, four crisp words.
In college, I took a journalism class with Richard Severo of the New York Times. One afternoon he fed us a 30-minute scenario about a woman who died during a bitter winter. He challenged us to find the best opening sentence for the article. No one had ever done it right, he told us.
I worked feverishly, sculpting phrases, reviewing my notes. Like my classmates, I came up with a lushly convoluted, horrible sentence. And like Severo’s previous classes, we missed his ultimate point: If a person dies, let that be the lead, because the loss of human life is the most important angle any article can have.
I knew Bryan Bennett and Scott Johnson — not well, but I went to school with them in New Jersey. I remember Bryan from elementary school, tearing around the soccer field at recess, charging the ball. I remember Scott standing by the lockers at my high school, chatting with friends in the cafeteria.
They both died in the Trade Towers on Sept. 11.
At 25, Bryan was the man of his family, since his father had passed away. Bryan moved back from Boston 18 months before his death to be closer to his mom and sisters. More than a thousand mourners came to Scott’s funeral, including many high school classmates. They both liked traveling.
I’ve heard other stories about friends of friends who died, about people who watched the towers collapse from their offices, about really close calls. But I knew Bryan and Scott.
* * *
We had planned it months before, when we were summer roommates at the arts institution in Chautauqua, N.Y.
Becca Lurie and I stayed up late one night, whispering in pajamas with the lights off, wondering on our uncomfortably thin twin mattresses where we’d be in another year.
A few weeks later, we solidified our plans to drive cross-country together on my whim-crazed move to Portland. I had never been out here, but I figured at age 25, if I didn’t go soon I might live on the East Coast forever.
We chose Sept. 12 as our departure date. A frivolous, random choice.
* * *
I spent Sept. 11 with my parents, watching the news from the first confusing reports. Wondering who died, who I knew, who my friends knew.
The conversations were quick and breathless. Are you OK, I guess I’m fine, are you OK. We repeated the phrases like a litany, turning questions to monitone statements.
After the initial relief of hearing each other’s voices, what could we possibly say? I’m glad you’re still alive, thanks for checking in, I’m sorry to hear your cousin’s missing, I’ve got to make another call now. The shock burst the words against our tongues so they emerged deflated and absurdly formal.
Our mouths were dry and bitter, our voices soft and unsure. But urgent.
* * *
It makes a difference, where you’re from. I tell people New Jersey, but I haven’t lived there since age 18. I could see the Trade Towers from the hill in front of my high school. Once I got my license, I parked facing the New York skyline every morning. I wonder now if I appreciated that view. I think about what it will look like at my 10th reunion. If I can bear to look.
Oregon’s my home now, 3,000 miles away from that hill.
* * *
We stuck to our Sept. 12 departure date, pulling onto the suburban D.C. road that morning — escaping the familiar and driving into the heart of a suddenly wounded America, toward corn and lakes, silos and sunflowers. There wasn’t much traffic.
Driving west seemed like a great adventure replete with open windows, buffalo sightings and catchy road trip soundtracks. In some ways Becca and I lived in a mobile bubble, but every time we emerged, the tragedy was there. I stored away snatches of conversations from diners, rest stops, national monuments. Movie theaters closed in mourning. Signs proclaimed “God bless America.” Flags flew everywhere — on speeding trucks, on homes and in children’s hands, on a bridge at the Miller Brewing complex in Wisconsin.
A Wyoming man painted an enormous flag on the back of his house, facing the highway. As we drove by, he reached from his ladder to finish the white stars, his art a solitary statement set against the arid hills.
I didn’t know about Bryan and Scott then, so the surge of patriotism and the accompanying commercialism seemed a wild, surreal spectacle. It was thrilling and bizarre to be out there for 16 days, witnessing America’s reaction in small towns and big cities. We traveled when few others did; we didn’t see another pair of women on the road, only men and couples. The monuments and national parks weren’t mobbed.
* * *
On Sept. 14, in the morning, I found myself on the back porch of an old boyfriend’s house in Columbus, Ohio. He and his law school buddies stood around drinking black coffee and smoking, shaking off sleep.
I shivered uncontrollably despite nice weather, holding my steaming mug with both hands. I thought about moving so far away from family and friends, whether I’d ever be on that porch again, and whether any of it mattered when so many people had died three days before. We talked about Sept. 11, a bunch of well-educated idealists offering ineffectual sentences before lapsing into silence and then, hesitantly, reaching toward other topics.
From Ohio we drove to the desolate Big House, Michigan’s football stadium, in Ann Arbor. We had tickets for a game, but it was canceled.
In Chicago, a homeless man raved about the end of the world from inside a sandwich board, illegible words scrawled on it with a thick permanent marker. Underneath a metal sculpture of a phoenix in a bank plaza, someone chalked these words in pink and purple: “From the ashes we will rise, united, resolute, triumphant.” We had planned to stay with my friend, but he found a standby flight home to Jersey the night we arrived; he had missing friends.
Our adventures reminded us of America’s patchwork diversity. We played catch at the “Field of Dreams” movie site in Dyersville, Iowa. Wandered around St. Paul, Minn., in search of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s haunts. Visited art museums and college campuses. Prowled around Lewis and Clark’s Ft. Mandan. Explored the eerily beautiful Badlands and Yellowstone. Met poster salesmen, rode public transportation, drank coffee, ate steak in South Dakota, custard in Wisconsin and french fries in Idaho.
* * *
In North Dakota — my car by that point had transformed into a rolling picnic basket of snacks — we heard Bush address the nation about a war on terrorism. I think that’s when the tragedy really hit both of us.
It was so dark that night. Few cars, a sparse smattering of lights along the highway. It probably seemed darker than it was, the stars and moon muffled by clouds. Suddenly we realized how far we had come from our homes. We talked about pulling over, calling our parents to reassure them, to reassure ourselves. Instead we turned up the stereo and sang ‘80s tunes as loud as we could before pulling into Bismarck.
* * *
When I settled in Portland, I finally let myself cry — when the rain came, when I couldn’t understand why my life has so much future in it.
The tears came with the rain, they came and they didn’t stop for a long, long time. It still catches up with me, sometimes. Driving on Highway 99W one evening, I saw a burning white truck and I wondered if death was like that, so fiery and bright, for those boys I once knew.
For some more personal reflections on 9/11, head over to Tamara Sellman’s blog, Writer’s Rainbow. Today she’s posting a series of six writers’ reflections on the tragedy, beginning with Jane Smiley, and including Kathryn Kysar, Michelle Herman, Ana Menendez, Marilyn Krysl and her own thoughts. She’ll be posting new content every three hours, so check it out.