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This stupid robe.
I’m still in my robe because I’m procrastinating. I hate Tuesdays — they’re filled with all the meetings no one wants to schedule on Mondays. I make my bed as The Today Show bounces along, informing me, for the tenth time, how perfect the weather is. I fluff a pillow. Then another. And suddenly, the perfect-weather-talk stops. The World Trade Center, hit by a plane. It doesn’t register. A witness dials in. He talks about a gaping hole in the building. He says “all those people, so many lives,” and his voice cracks and he can’t go on.
I call my husband Philip, who works at the New York Stock Exchange. He doesn’t answer.
I brush my teeth with a vague sense of urgency - vague, because I have no idea what I should be doing, but clearly, it is something. I rinse and spit, with one ear to the Today Show. I race past the TV to the closet, but am stopped by what I see.
A second hole. In the second tower. Suddenly, my dumb morning brain gets it.
I run to the living room where Thelma, our nanny, is putting blocks and stuffed animals into their places as my one-year-old twins nap. She’s humming so sweetly, I can’t bear to tell her. I pause, wishing we could both stay in the purity of her reality.
I stab at the remote and the screen is filled with smoke. Thelma stands beside me and our mouths fall open as our innocence falls away. I dial Philip again, this time faster. And then again, wondering why that man can not use a phone like the rest of the world. I call his office number and to my surprise, it’s picked up on the first ring.
I recognize the voice and say “Kevin! It’s Debra - Philip’s wife. Are you guys… is everything ok?”
“Everything’s crazy,” he yells. “People are running around like fucking crazy… we don’t know anything, the Towers are hit…they locked the doors.” I ask if Philip is there and he yells that Philip ran out.
“They said not to leave but he fucking bolted,” he says. “They said it’s not safe out there…” I feel sick. I start to cry as I say “be careful,” but he’s already hung up. Thelma says “God is good,” and I wish it comforted me the way it does her. Her husband isn’t picking up either.
We keep watching. We keep holding hands. I hold Ava’s teddy bear on my lap and squeeze it flat as commentators shake their heads and try to say sensible things.
I’m still in my robe. I can’t get dressed. I can’t leave the TV. Thelma’s hand pulses mine with nervous squeezes I don’t think she’s aware of.
The crack of the front door makes us jump. I run to it. I hug Philip tightly, but he doesn’t quite hug back. Or smile. His eyes are blank and his head looks like it’s been lightly dusted in flour.
“Your hair,” I say. He looks confused. “It has white stuff.”
He steps to the mirror and a look of realization spills over his face. Ashes.
He says he needs to shower, but instead walks to the TV. The three of us stare. And then the Pentagon is hit. We clasp our hands over our mouths, wide-eyed and silent. Again, I find myself understanding a basic concept for the first time. Terror is aptly named.
The sirens outside our window get louder.
At some point, later, we walk to the corner and stand on Fifth Avenue with the crowd that’s gathered - neighbors, looking up, as if it’s the Fourth of July. But this is the opposite of fireworks. No joy. No bravado. No freedom. Only black smoke churning with the anger we don’t yet feel. Because we are numb. And dumbstruck. Smoke instead of buildings. I think of my nephews, who used to say “twins, like us,” when they pointed their little fingers downtown.
It is a day of unanswered calls. Thelma’s husband. My friend Alan, a Washington big shot, who’s in the Pentagon a lot. We ping-pong back and forth, tapping their numbers into our phones, watching each other hopefully, then shaking our heads. When Thelma’s husband picks up, she lets out a very loud sigh, and walks to Queens with him. She’s been hugging my kids all day and needs to hug her own. When Alan finally answers, I sob, because I’d become convinced he wouldn’t.
The next day, as I go out to get milk, I hum “God Bless America” in my head and tear up at “my home sweet home.” A man touches my arm.
“Are you ok?” he asks.
“No,” I answer. “Are you?”
He shakes his head and we smile sadly.
This exchange is common. People keep saying, “are you ok?” Code for “did you lose someone?” Code for “Are you totally freaked out?” Code for “none of us are ok.” A well-dressed man sits, crying on a stoop. Neighbors surround a woman who has collapsed on the sidewalk, after getting a phone call about her son. People meet each other’s eyes with deep sadness that is at once their own and all of ours.
My mother tells me that a boy she taught as a second grader, was killed.
“There are some kids who you can imagine as adults. They have that maturity even as seven-year-olds,” she says. “He was one of them.” She sighs. “I remember saying to the other teachers, ‘he’ll be such a good daddy when he grows up.’”
Two days later, our friends Larry and Jackie come over. We put Ava and Ben into the stroller and as we walk, I know that clear blue September skies will never look as beautiful, and it makes me hate them - whoever “them” is. We head down Fifth, staring at the plumes in silence. We get to Washington Square Park. There are no strumming guitars, no comedians, no break dancers. The fountain, usually surrounded by a mix of college kids, moms, nannies and stoners, is quiet.
A shriek pierces the silence and we jump. A high-pitched wail rings out. Our eyes meet. And we realize. It’s coming from the children’s playground. We walk over. Three-year-olds giggle as they’re pushed on swings. They squeal as they zoom down sliding boards. They scream as they run in dizzy circles.
Joy. Coming from the only New Yorkers who have no idea what happened.
I can’t believe I still have the robe I wore that horrible day. I don’t even like it that much. But without thinking, I wore it this past Monday, as I found myself, once again, glued to the TV. Wanting to hug the name-readers, who talked about uncles and husbands and brothers; gone but not forgotten.
I listened for the name of the nice boy my mother taught. Normally, I’d call her to say I’d heard it and thought of his family, but in hospice, my mother does something she’s never done in her life. She sleeps late. I tell her she’s a lady of leisure now, but we both know her struggle is the opposite of leisure.
She is hanging on longer than expected. The nice boy, who would have been such a good daddy, lived shorter than expected. Way shorter. It is so damned unfair.
The people reading the names talk about loss and pain, so intimate, yet so public.
I should get rid of this stupid robe.
But somehow I can’t.