Saturday, September 13, 2003

Sept. 10, 2001

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In February 2001, I was scheduling a date to take my GRE test, which is like the SATs for graduate school. It was a boring chore. From several testing dates, this is the one I picked, completely at random: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

The day seemed as good as any at the time.

Mostly everyone has already re-eulogized the more than 2,800 dead, remembered the World Trade Center towers as they once stood, bragged about what’s gone right since then, wagged fingers about what’s gone wrong.

Frankly, since that day, both what has both gone wrong and gone right scare the hell out of me.

We’ve cleaned up colossal messes in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania, and created substantially larger and stickier messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither of the latter two will be cleaned up soon, no matter how many times President Bush lands on any number of aircraft carriers.

And with the second anniversary of the attacks, we’re constantly ordered to remember 9/11, to remember our dead friends and family, and the planes crashing, and the stunned reactions from the reporters as the people trapped inside were crushed inside the collapsing buildings, to remember who did this to us and why we need to do the same thing back.

Enough! I’ve done that! Now I want to remember Sept. 10, before “terrified” became a natural state of being.

I want you to do the same.

Sept. 10, 2001, I am sitting on the floor in my living room, by the coffee table, studying for the GRE exam, which I am scheduled to take the next day. I’m also watching the television news, which is quite boring. The stories about shark attacks and Calif. Rep. Gary Condit’s hanky-panky are growing dull. I have no idea, but this is the last time in at least a year that the TV news will be dull.

I give myself three sample GRE tests. The GRE, by the way, is a picturesque slice of hell. It takes several hours — meaning I spent most of the day indoors, cramming my head full of statistics.

Meanwhile, a perfect, seasonably warm day lingers outside.

It is also a pleasant day in New York, I hear.

On another TV station, two anchors fill extra time during the news with idle chitchat.

Back in Fall River, I am not comfortable with my self-tested GRE scores, so to clear my head I walk my dog. There is a breeze through Kennedy Park, and the late afternoon light is a mild orange. Why wouldn’t the weather be nice in early September?

My wife comes home from work and she tells me that she had heard on National Public Radio that fish is “brain food.” In those days, NPR was full of harmless news stories like that. So I decide that since I will take my exam in Boston, I will eat lunch at a sushi place just before the test. We are both nuts for sushi.

“I wish I could come with you,” my wife says.

“I wish so, too,” I say.

In lower New York, people who work in the World Trade Center towers are going home for the day. Some are probably happy, some probably not. Most probably don’t feel much different one way or another.

My wife tells me about her day at work. I am preoccupied, because the shadow of the test the next day is hanging over my head.

As it grows closer to night, the red lights on the top of the World Trade Center towers light up. Many tall structures have pulsing red lights at their highest points, so planes flying by in the dark don’t accidentally crash into them.

Back home, I suggest that my wife and I get ice cream cones. We eat them sitting shoulder to shoulder outside the car at Somerset Creamery, and we talk about the future.

I’ve spent the whole day concentrating on the very near future, hoping the test will go off without a hitch. But in the end, I will spend the next morning glued to the TV set, horrified, listening to a reporter say simply, “It’s gone.” My wife will call me, and we’ll hear the report about the Pentagon crash together, and for one stomach-churning instant, I’ll put that together with the New York attacks and think, “This is the end,” meaning The Very End of Everything. That feeling will pass, luckily, and I’ll drive to Boston around noon for my test, one of just a few people driving into the city, as opposed to escaping it. I’ll pass by the sushi restaurant just in time to see the chefs and waitresses literally fleeing, as in locking their door and running away — because the restaurant sits in the shadows of the two tallest skyscrapers in Boston. I’ll be afraid to take the subway, so I’ll walk five miles from Boston Common deep into Brookline, and find that my test is postponed, and walk five miles back, a trip so serene I will almost forget that I was ready to be dead a few hours earlier. I’ll feel incredibly stupid and callous for thinking that my lousy test would not be postponed. Everything everywhere is postponed except for three grim searches: for the missing, for the dead, and for the guilty.

But that’s the near future, and on Sept. 10, 2001, it hasn’t happened yet. When my wife and I are eating ice cream that night, we’re talking about the long future. In between becoming millionaires, I say, we’ll travel the globe. Since we’re making it all up as we go along, it’s as nice as we want it to be.

Looking overhead that night, what look at first to be stars are actually blinking airplane lights. Planes are crisscrossing the country unmolested. Why wouldn’t they? There’s no reason to worry.

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