Yes, I’m okay; I’m in Boston—what’s happening?

Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center, and one into the Pentagon. No one knows what’s going on but they think it’s a hijacking.

We didn’t say that we were over the residual anger we had left each other holding—it was enough to know that we hated to be 1,100 miles apart at such a profound time, and our physical distance brought some emotional resolution. Our quarrel seemed vague and silly, at least for a while. Feelings of displacement in Atlanta were already open between us, and I knew he wished he wasn’t there. But now we both felt rootless—unsettled in any place we could imagine being that day. Clearly, it was no longer that we simply needed to leave Atlanta. The world we knew had just turned inside out, and it wasn’t clear how it would take shape again. Our most reliable community was in each other.

I hung up shortly, after we agreed I would focus on getting to my mother-in-law, Mimi, who lived on the north shore of Boston. I found myself outside on the sidewalk without knowing I had moved at all. The only movement I was aware of was in my confused mind, my roiling stomach, and my sinking, pounding heart. I stood outside the revolving doors of the airport: bewildered, disoriented in the squinty mid-morning sun. Set off like a wind-up toy, I boarded a rental car bus and sat across from a group of college-aged kids who were incongruously chatty, laughing.

The Hertz lobby was packed with others focused on what I knew I was now seeking, too—visual confirmation. We watched the towers collapse in miles-high clouds of dust, and I burst into tears. By now, my phone was dead. When the manager let me use his landline in the back room, I called my sister-in-law, Laura, and she offered to drive in from her house in Brookline and pick me up: Will they let me into the airport? Eager for a plan, I assured her: There are no more rental cars available so people have to find other rides, but you can’t get close so I will meet you at the entrance ramp. I limped through the lot to wait, briefcase ricocheting off of my hip like a pinball flipper.

Once in her car, I felt grounded on some level—still reeling, but with a known person. As we drove, I called directory assistance from her car, trying to update my colleagues in Atlanta, and the operator repeated over and over: I can’t believe this day is happening. We drove through the unperturbed natural beauty of Marblehead Neck—ragged cliffs rising above the filmy surf, leaves beginning their ascent to peak autumn color, a genuine chill, and the heavy smells of ocean and leaf decay in the air.

My in-laws’ house had always seemed stark—drafty and shrewd within its gorgeous setting—but I collapsed gratefully on the short couch in front of their box television. Familiarity and shock blanketed me, and we sat together absorbing waves of accurate and wildly inaccurate reporting. Gradually, more family drifted in: my brother-in-law Ted, Laura’s sister who was visiting from Toronto, and Consuelo, the cook who lived with my in-laws for years. I felt infinitesimal relief seep in as I grasped each family’s coordinates. Dick had gone home—all high rises in Atlanta were empty. His two sisters were in northern Manhattan, but decided to remain in the city. My sisters had met up in Virginia, far from their workplaces in DC. And my parents were back in St. Louis, a city far from the catastrophic events, but which was executing its own emergency protocols in the government building where my mom worked. The whole country seemed to be evacuating.

The weekend before, Mimi had promised a lobster dinner when I told her about my visit. Eating lobster reminds me of being in Maine on that spectacular childhood vacation, and feeling adventurous for eating the regional specialty. True to her word, we ate steamed lobster that evening; and just like the rest of the world, it felt wrong. In part, the lobsters were still filled with salty water, soaking both the table and our laps, as Consuelo rushed to cook them and take in the news at once. Mostly, though, it felt decadent in the middle of such deep sadness.

The next morning, I found a car service that would take me into Boston where I tried to squeeze in some of the assigned document review. My value as a high-priced associate in a large law firm felt steeped in a willingness to continue working. The deposition had already been cancelled, but I couldn’t get back to Atlanta by air, and I couldn’t watch any more footage: my brain threatened to freeze without new words or thoughts to interrupt its nervous circulation.

Once downtown, I thumbed through boxes of paperwork—the kind that still danced in the air around the wreckage in Manhattan that morning: email correspondence, copies of contracts, drafts of marketing decks—while the radio spoke to me in the background. My job was to flag relevant documents, but nothing in the boxes seemed relevant. I heard sirens for hours and realized that a hotel evacuated three times that day for bomb scares and suspect searches was across the street. Every place I went felt crazy with fear.

By the third day, Logan remained closed and Ted drove me down I-95 to Philadelphia to meet Dick, who would arrive the next morning by car. I spent that night under the covers alone in my dark hotel room, watching news shows highlight the people who had died that week: a popular college classmate of mine popped up on the screen, having been at Windows on the World for a breakfast meeting; another woman wept about her husband’s ill-timed arrival at his desk in the window where the first plane entered, nose first. She was expecting her first child around the same time I was.

Dick finally arrived. Tears had been pouring down my face for days, and I was so grateful for a familiar soul. Our physical reconnection offered a small slice of the elusive security everyone seemed to be seeking that week, and for months and years afterward. When he and I had last been in Philadelphia, we were students and together for every meal, study hour, and bus ride to class. We got engaged in dirty, elegant Rittenhouse Square. We treasured the city’s strange mix of culture and déclassé. Even during this surreal, short stay, Philly was itself to us: Dick’s car had a side window inexplicably smashed when the valet pulled it out of the hotel garage, which made us laugh for just a minute. That city, with its raw edges, was one place that felt a little bit solid.

On September 16th, we started our drive back down to Atlanta, pushing through in one day. On earlier trips, we made an effort to explore what we didn’t understand or know about the South, but this time we weren’t interested in quaint stopovers in Charleston or Savannah. I just wanted to know that we still lived in a country where it was possible to go from one end to the other. Once we were back in Atlanta, people seemed confused by my open grief; this was a major news event—certainly significant, but not significantly personal to many of our colleagues and neighbors.

···

I got back on a plane a few months later and—unexpectedly—September 11th was the nadir of my fear of flying. I gradually shed the panicky refrain that rang in my head during takeoff and landing. It was as if the fear had morphed into a sadness that still forms an unshakeable lump in my throat when I reflect on how I flew over so much grief and death that morning. All of the planes over the years that had actually crashed were not mine, and I didn’t think I deserved to maintain a fear based on coincidence, or near misses.

I was physically unscathed by the tragedies beneath my plane, and transformed in ways that unfolded for years afterward. It was the death knell between Atlanta and me. It took us two more years to finally execute a move and we landed in Boston, but we left our hearts in the Northeast that week. It was also the beginning of the end of my short corporate legal career, which would limp along for two more years until I proclaimed it too mundane, too vapid, too patronizing.

I understand that travel is what propels me—I can’t be content to stay on one path for long. The feeling of wanderlust, first unfurled as a romantic escape from my youthful anxiety, is also deeply attached to a reflexive desire for distance. When Dick and I were arguing during those tense Atlanta years, he hurled an enduring truth: You’re all push and no pull. I have spent decades pushing people and plans; useful tactics to avoid the discomforts of intimacy. My life is a voyage of unsettledness, with a deep itch to keep moving and improving upon the last place I landed. Fifteen years on, I find that itch still burrowed in more personal fears I hope to vanquish. I have so much goodness in my life to cherish—so many reasons to abandon geographic and circumstantial excuses—and a fervid desire to stop feeling doomed.

Pages: 1 2 | Single Page