We shared the same perfect sky. Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington–it was all the same aggressively bright sky that Tuesday. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a sky so blue. I know I’ve never heard a sky so silent.
I was fourteen.
I was supposed to be in French class, conjugating and dreaming of the places I’d go one day. But because of a quirk of standardized testing, I wound up in study hall. It was the only day that year I would be in front of a TV. It was the only day an aide would walk in and tell us to turn on the news, any channel.
I glanced up, then returned to my book. A plane hitting some skyscraper in New York was a tragedy, but accidents happen. Life, my life, went on. Until I happened to look at the screen just in time to see a tiny black speck smash into the second tower.
The bottom fell out of the world.
The rest of that day is blurs and smudges. A new face on the screen, scraggly beard and sunken eyes. Something about a faraway country I’d prayed for every Sunday, ever since my Weekly Reader showed pictures of women forced to haunt their own streets like ghosts, viewing the world through tiny windows in their all-encompassing veils.
The tower collapsed like a house of cards while news anchors whispered that it was gone, the tower was just gone. Then it happened again.
The talking heads absently referred to a fire at the Pentagon, another plane down in some field. I swore to the girl sitting behind me that the plane crash in Pennsylvania had to be an accident. It was better, easier, more comforting to think that plane had simply plummeted from the sky for no reason than to believe that evil, that a person, had brought it down, too.
Study hall ended and my gym class tramped to the athletic fields. With indignation, I told a classmate that when we’d turned the TV to CNBC in our desperate search for news, they’d only talked about the attacks’ effects on the global currency trade. As if money mattered now, I said. My gym teacher overheard and asked what the pound-sterling had done.
We played softball. My friend Sandy caught a line drive in the gut.
I went to other classes, but no one learned and no one taught. We huddled around televisions and traded rumors about students who were called to the office, who had aunts and uncles and cousins in New York. In Manhattan. In those towers.
I had a dentist’s appointment that afternoon. For once, the hygienist didn’t bombard me with questions while her fingers were in my mouth. We listened to the reporters on the radio talk in circles.
The dentist gave me a clean bill of health and a blue toothbrush.
The line of cars at the Shell station on the corner snaked down the street, blocking the entrance to the dentist’s office. I had to walk the mile home, stumbling through an unfamiliar neighborhood while staring up at the sky. There were no clouds. No vapor trails. If I listened very hard, I could hear helicopters in the distance.
At home, I sat at the computer, refreshing a handful of sites over and over again on our creaky dial-up modem. I told my mom I was looking for news, but I was looking for answers. How this could have happened. Who had done it. When it would happen again.
For once, Mom waived my Internet time limits and let me look.
I never found answers. I found pictures of people with ashes in their eyes, stumbling blindly down the street. Pictures of bodies free-falling forever, weightless and terrified. I found stories of people who ran into the buildings as others ran away. Stories of people who were ready to roll.
The perfect sky faded to an inky blackness full of constant stars. I stood on the front step and lit a tea light. I’d covered the holder with American flags I’d cut out of magazines. Holding the candle high in the darkness, I sang every patriotic song I could remember. Then I went to bed and wondered what kind of world I’d wake up in.
Ten years passed. They told us the architect of evil was dead. Mission accomplished, they said. My fourteen-year-old self had imagined that day as one of righteous vengeance and justified fury. That girl thought another death might cancel out the thousands. But that Sunday evening, I knew it would never be over. All I felt was tired. Old.
Even now, mention of that date still guts me. The idea of watching a movie or reading a book about those events makes me ill. I didn’t know anyone in New York, in the Pentagon, on those planes. The personal loss of their loved ones is staggering. But we all lost something that day. When those people died, so did innocence. So did ignorance. So did the belief that we were strong, untouchable, mighty. That we were always right.
No matter how long I live, I’ll never feel older than I did under that perfect sky.