“We’re in a war,” he said. “The story of this war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this – this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.”
-Téa Olbrecht in The Tiger’s Wife
Everyone has a 9/11 story. Mine begins in November 1990 when I moved to New York City fresh out of college. I knew my future was there in the form of independence, career and, the damnedest of all things that ensures and derails your future at the same time, love. We were freshman-in-college sweethearts who had lost touch for years but, somehow, ended up in New York at the same time. His office was in the World Financial Center, mine was in the Flat Iron district. His subway stop, which soon became our subway stop, was Cortlandt Street, World Trade Center. The World Trade Center was our one-stop for facilitating the business of life. Our first joint checking account was opened at Chase Bank, 1 WTC. Our dry cleaners, our book store, the Lerner NY store where I bought work clothes for my $16,000- a-year PR job – it was right there in the WTC mall.
Every morning, we shared a subway ride to work. We kissed goodbye at the Cortlandt Street stop, and I would take a recently emptied, warm seat to read The New York Post until my stop came up. He would trek through the WTC mall, up the escalators, across the bridge over West Street that connected the World Trade Center to the World Financial Center and start his day with my scent on his jacket. Many days I would meet him for lunch or drinks at Moran’s and would take the subway downtown, exit Cortlandt Street, trek through the WTC mall, hike up the escalators, cross the bridge, and be welcomed by his new-love glow amid the sweeping space of the World Financial Center. Young love in New York, surrounded the smartest people in the world, the home of “people who have arrived.” It was a magical time for us.
Practicality, money and a few misadventures in renting inspired the move back to Texas, where we were both raised. We left New York, ready to start anew, on a rainy day in August 1993 driving a rented Hertz truck and getting lost in New Jersey 30 minutes into the drive to Dallas.
Maturity, wisdom, babies, jobs, relocations, bigger mortgages, alcohol, immaturity, adultery, desperation, decisions. Divorce.
In November 1999, I returned to New York to be a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. My husband had told me two weeks earlier that he was leaving me. Us. My friend spent a pre-wedding-week day with me to comfort and console me. She was witness to my romance nine years earlier and knew the way best friends just know, that it wasn’t going to last forever.
We awoke early on a crisp, clear November morning and arrived at the World Trade Center by 9, just in time to be among the first in line for the trip to the Top of The World, the observation deck atop WTC 2. Up we went, silently. We stayed on the observation deck for three years; or, rather, three years of my life condensed into three hours. She walked me through, from The Top of The World, where my life in New York started, ended, and where it would be resurrected. My first apartment, the illegal sublet on 58th and 5th; the Hell’s Kitchen bar where we were regulars and where I expected a proposal of marriage every Saturday night; Alphabet City where he got drunk and thrown out of a bar called “King Tut’s Wa-Wa Hut;” Brooklyn Heights where we set up our first home together; our place on 75th and Broadway where we first discovered the bitter taste of disillusionment. That day in November was so clear she and I could even see all the way to Coney Island, where he and I ate Nathan’s hot dogs on a day we played hooky from work.
From The Top of The World, I brokenheartedly retraced my steps. And plotted new ones. My friend noted where we stood, at that minute on the 107th floor of the tallest building in New York, that it wasn’t his New York, it wasn’t our New York, it was my New York because I was in it at that moment and he wasn’t. And I could, at that time, reclaim it. We left the observation deck with tear-stained cheeks and trekked through the mall and boarded the subway at Cortlandt Street to catch an uptown train towards the future.
September 11, 2001 I watched with horror, as everyone did the barbaric assault on the World Trade Centers. I watched as the towers filled with the people that I thought, as a 20-something just starting out, were the smartest people in the world, burned and collapsed into a plume of ash and dust. I watched as the West Street bridge, our bridge, my bridge, cratered. I knew that our Chase Bank, our bookstore, our Cortlandt Street, my Cortlandt Street, was gone. And with it, many lives, many ghosts, our ghosts, my ghosts.
The story of 9/11 belongs to everyone. Americans’ collective psyche was forever changed that day. I hardly watched live 9/11 coverage because I didn’t want those devastating images reeling through my young children’s minds. And because it was entirely too painful for me to watch. My ex proposed to his now-wife on September 10, 2001. The joy of their beginning coincided with, and was interrupted by, the violent destruction of the setting for ours. So as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I share a chapter that belongs only to me of a story that belongs to everyone.