My apartment in Northridge was still warm from the heat of the day, as it often was in September in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. I was a fresh film school graduate up late writing a screenplay taking the occasional internet chess break when a friend in Sweden messaged me on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) to ask if I was okay. It was three in the afternoon in Sweden, nine in the morning in New York, and three hours earlier in Los Angeles. I was confused about what danger might be lurking. I did a quick internet search (as quickly as one could on dialup) to see if I missed an earthquake. I hadn’t. My apartment was on stilts above the communal carport. Even a small quake felt like a big one in that place.
I had forgotten that the space between places elsewhere in the world was small. That the distance between Los Angeles and New York is equivalent to the distance of several European countries. Sweden is only 4.8% of the United States’ size. My friend’s worry was based on his own geographic awareness of the distance between major cities in his country, not the distance between L.A. and New York. He thought I was possibly in imminent danger and told me to turn on the T.V.
Still clueless, I picked up the universal remote and turned on the television, at the moment the second plane hit the south tower. An explosion, smoke enveloped the top portion of the building. I yelled — my friend, who had been sleeping on my couch, opened one eye at me in annoyance. I started running around my apartment. I nudged my friend until he fully woke up and then rushed into the bedroom and woke my ex-fiancé.
I was spinning and flapping my arms like a penguin. I spouted off about perpetual war. I decried the death toll of those innocent killed at the moment, and the innocent who would die because of the imminent war. I went on wide-eyed lamenting. I spoke to the coming degradation of our personal rights as Americans. I asserted some country would be scapegoated.
My friend and ex looked at me like I was off, but I knew deep down what this meant. Both of them were annoyed. They were convinced I had gone off the deep end and was discharging insomniac nonsense. My empathetic response to the event was strong and left me shook.
What had happened was all the way in New York and didn’t directly impact them or me. They tried to reason with me, but it was pointless. They were still drunk with sleep, and I was alarmingly awake.
When not personally affected, it’s very human to not care when there is no direct tie. I cringed at the future of the United States. I knew war was coming, and our rights, as we had enjoyed them to this point, were going to be strip-mined.
I drove down the 101 South freeway to Hollywood. It was empty. It looked like the apocalypse had happened, and I was one of the few survivors. I went to work at a production company. As soon as I walked in the producer said, “Looks like we’ll be making little rocks out of a place with big rocks.”
My heart sank to the most profound depth it had ever traveled. I grieved for those lost, and those that would be lost. We just sat in the office quiet for hours, and then he informed my colleague and me that work would be canceled for the rest of the week. When the sky rains humans, and billows of smoke collapse a building down like an accordion, it is the only logical move.
The traffic back was nearly nonexistent, uncommon for L.A. at rush hour.
I arrived home in record time. When I walked into my pink stucco apartment, I saw my ex sitting on the couch crying. My friend was nowhere to be seen. Through stutters and sobs, my ex announced his cousin died in the second plane. I maintained my composure. I sat next to him and wrapped my arms around him. The tears and the spinning had ended for me in the morning. It was now his time to become unraveled. The global turned personal on the striped green couch for him a few hours after I had left for work.
My ex’s cousin had been scheduled to fly out on the tenth, but something resulted in a reassignment. She was switched to that fateful flight. I realized I had watched her die LIVE on T.V. — I suppressed a shudder. It wasn’t my moment to grieve. It was his. He had watched her demise in replays repeatedly before he received the news from his parents. He had convulsed in grief for hours.
A few days later, we flew to Boston via a domestic airline. It took sixteen hours to get there. We were on a layover at O’Hare for hours. When we arrived at Logan, I noticed the Atlantic air smelled different than the Pacific. Having not traveled much, it took me by surprise. I had always wanted to go to the East Coast, but tragedy tainted my arrival.
We made our way to the hotel, the one the airline paid for as a minimal mea culpa gesture. It was a Hilton or some such near the airport. The family gathered in the lobby. There were somewhere between twelve and sixteen, or maybe more family members. Not all had arrived yet, flights were spotty and slow. My ex’s father had several siblings; not all were able to attend, but more than half did with their children. It was a blur of emotion, which erased my ability to count. There was the uncle that was a colonel at the Pentagon, the parents of his cousin, the bereft fiancé she left behind, his immediate family, and the rest muddied in my memory.
The air was thick with mourning. There were hugs, sad smiles, and haunted pauses where the right words did not arrive. The mother, my ex’s aunt, held on to my arm and kept telling me what a good girl I was as she wiped tears from her eyes. Only a tad younger than her daughter, I was the fill in, the proxy. I took my job seriously and helped as much as I could.
The service was at an old Catholic Church in Boston. It had dark wooden pews; the light spilled in from the stained-glass windows, and frankincense and myrrh blanketed the air. The entire church was filled to the brim with people. It had reached capacity and was standing room only. My throat tickled from the herbs — I suppressed a cough. Seated in the family section, I noticed the table with the picture of his cousin. I thought how hard it must be to say goodbye when there is no one to say goodbye to. A public mourning that deprived family members of their private pain. Their loss would be played over and over again for weeks and then years on the anniversary of the tragedy as a cultural reminder.
His cousin’s fiancé stood up at the front of the church and delivered a beautiful eulogy. Their wedding had been scheduled a few weeks later and was denied by fate. He smiled sweetly as he spoke of his loss, the collective loss of family and friends, and the other colleagues who had been on the plane. His words were sad, profound, funny, and sobering. I sat there and selfishly wondered what it must be like to be loved by a romantic partner that much. I cried one large tear for him, for his love, for their deprived future. I then solidified again for the mourning of others.
Somewhere on the timeline, the majority of the family and I went to an Italian restaurant. The space was filled with light, laughter, and waiters excitedly sharing the day’s specials. It felt odd and surreal. It was different than the stale feeling of the hotel. The air was filled with the smell of garlic and bread, light and fluffy compared to the weighty scent of frankincense and myrrh. Alter boys were replaced by busboys and the priest by the maître ‘D. The flavors tickled my taste buds, and good wine washed the collective mourning down for a few hours. Aunts, uncles, and cousins shared memories, then talked about how they should get together outside of tragedy, and passively argued over the check and who would pay. I reminded myself it is okay to hold space for sadness and continue to live.
I promised his aunt I would live fully, and I have.
Thea Pueschel is a writer, multi-media artist, and filmmaker. She enjoys exploring the dark with light humor, and the light with dark humor. Thea believes that without the shadow, there is no story. She was a winner of the TAEM Summer 2020 Contest. Her work has been in Rebelle Society, Heritage Future, and DNA Magazine.