I spent the 12th of September, in 2001, with the mother of my daughter and son. Our divorce had been final for one year, our physical separation for two. A day earlier, the city of my children’s birth, Washington, D.C., had descended into chaos, a natural reaction to the occurrence of previously unthinkable acts of terror. My ex-wife and son had kept a low profile that morning in the Capitol Hill row house I had once shared with them. My daughter was at her school three blocks from the U.S. Capitol, in a state of lockdown. I, too, was on the Hill that day, near my children only by measure of geography.
On the 12th, the four of us drove to an indoor play park in suburban Maryland. D.C.’s rush-hour traffic was as distant as the country’s sense of innocence. As my wife drove us out of town, I realized my children would never know a life without abstract fear, and I would not always be there to comfort them.
At the time of the divorce, I told myself I had not abandoned my children. I moved close by, to a bachelor apartment just across the Potomac River near the Pentagon. I chose to be contemptuous of those who argued that divorce was harmful to children, for they didn’t know me, they didn’t know my children, they didn’t know what the marriage had really been like. But now I was back, driven by the woman to whom I had given ten years of my life. I sat in the passenger seat of the sedan I had bought for her, watching my son and daughter tussle in the back seat over a plastic toy. I tried to imagine their future, and what role they might allow me to play in it.
It was easy to avoid eye contact with my ex-wife as she drove. As we left Washington I reflected on our first meeting, when I was a would-be big shot fresh out of college. My boss was a U.S. Senator who would walk by my desk every day and occasionally remember my name. I opened the Senator’s mail and answered it in his name, using a contraption called an autopen that guided a felt tip across the letter in a jerky motion, imitating his signature. I was in Washington, but I wasn’t a player. My bride-to-be was everything I imagined myself becoming. Nine years older than me, she impacted lives as a lawyer and policymaker with a federal agency. She had people who opened her mail for her. And she was willing to marry me.
I met her at a birthday party for a mutual friend. The setting was an Afghan restaurant in Georgetown, an incongruous location for my wife-to-be, who disliked almost all food. Her diet consisted of pasta with butter, cheese pizza, and Alaskan King crab legs. The wait staff conducted a murder mystery, and each time a server brought us a new delight, she would leave her plate empty while cross-examining the witness. Afterward I took it upon myself to feed her, taking her to a pizza-by-the-slice joint. I watched her joy as she dabbed grease off of her chin, and I knew.
She was a foot shorter than me, with black hair, an olive complexion, and an abundance of determination. Her jaw jutted out from her face, demanding to be seen, adding weight to her words. Her words had power. They had force. And I listened. About a month after I bought her that first slice of cheese pizza I broke up with her, because I considered myself congenitally allergic to commitment. She told me I had made a mistake, and when I finally conceded her point, she said she would take me back. A few months later she said it was silly that we were both renting rooms in separate Capitol Hill row houses, so I moved in with her. A few months after that, in January of 1991, we celebrated our first year of dating. She told me that if we were to marry, she’d want to do it in the summer, so we’d need to start planning. I said nothing, but a week later presented her with a ring. We married in August.
I welcomed her sense of certitude. Her friends became my friends. Her tastes became my tastes. I came to appreciate a dinner of pasta with butter, the secret being a lot of table salt.
Her career flourished. Soon after we wed she was recruited to work for a powerful Senate committee chairman. I left my Senate mailroom job, unable to compete with my peers, called Hill Climbers by a local trade paper. I lacked their internal fire, their fearsome ruthlessness, their powerful confidence. I found work a freelance writer while focusing on promoting my wife’s career. I was a shadow aide, unpaid but always on the clock. But I wanted more. I began to press for a child.
She wasn’t ready, so we waited. Give me five years, she said, I found the strength to point out she was already in her mid-thirties. Three, she offered, and I accepted her rare compromise. When the time finally came, it took no time at all for her to get pregnant; every part of me was eager. My wife didn’t slow down. People marveled at how hard she worked, even with her short frame weighed down by a growing bump. My daughter came with just as much fire, arriving on the scene five weeks early. She was tiny. She struggled to eat, to hold down her food. She was undercooked, just the way my wife loved her pasta. She was a joy. I loved her, perhaps more than I loved my wife.
One morning I awoke to my daughter’s cry. My wife was already at work. I fed my child from a bottle of milk her mother had expressed the night before. A sense of aloneness filled me, the realization that this tiny body nestled in my arm would die without my direct and constant interaction. I gasped for air. I imagined I was turning red, like my premature daughter’s complexion during her first week of life. I needed to get out of the house. I found myself at the Basilica of the National Shrine on the Catholic University campus.
I hadn’t attended Mass regularly since I was fifteen, when I was not enough of a Catholic to perform Confirmation with honesty but enough of a Catholic to know I shouldn’t go through the motions of a sacrament. But the Basilica, more tourist attraction than working church, held no service when we arrived. I wheeled my daughter inside, her stroller bouncing on the cathedral’s stone floor.
The National Shrine adopts the domed and symmetrical approach of Byzantine-Romanesque churches. It also lacks the usual Crucifix. In its place, looming over the altar, is a large mosaic of a startlingly fierce interpretation of the Son of God. Menacing eyebrows arched as dramatically as the halo above them. Arms lined with sculpted muscles thrust upward from a blood-red Roman-style toga. This was an Old Testament-style Christ, more wrath than forgiveness. His eyes pierced me with bolts of disappointment.
I fled. Outside, on the bottom step of the cathedral’s massive stairs, I removed my daughter from her stroller and pressed her against my chest. She looked up at me with her four-month-old eyes. I saw no anger. I cried, unable to stop. Something had happened. I knew then that passivity has no place when one is responsible for another life. She needed a father who could endure a withering glare.
I grew my freelance business, working onsite at various publications. I was forced to leave my daughter with a nanny, but occasionally I would slip away from a client and take her to the park at midday, ignoring the paranoid monitoring a man receives from stay-at-home moms. I’d read to her. I’d sing Irish lullabies I had grown up with, glad she didn’t understand the words of death and pathos that I only now noticed.
It took three years before I was able to convince my wife to try for a second child. Perhaps my body lacked its previous eagerness, but eventually we gave my daughter a brother. I discovered capacity for even more love, but saw him less. I had found my role in Washington, that of Hill reporter. I worked long hours exposing the dark side of politics I had seen up close for so many years. It was almost too easy. A month before my son was born, I won an investigative journalism award. I had attended many formal events as the spouse, and it felt odd to hear my name called, to have my picture taken, to have my pregnant wife left behind at the table. I don’t remember much about that lunch—what I ate, what I wore—but I remember her silence. She, meanwhile, had left the Hill for a higher paying job as a lobbyist. It was a difficult transition for her. Working for a Senate chairman meant she had held all of the power. Now, she was the supplicant. Still, she had three people at home who answered to her.
Unlike my prematurely born daughter, my son had arrived right on schedule. But in what mattered most in life he came too late. The dynamic had shifted. I was finally, at thirty-one, coming into my own. While permitting the addition of two new residents to our home, my wife saw no room for two self-directed adults. She stormed out of our marriage counselor’s office at the suggestion of a shared burden of adjustment. She convened a summit for the two of us on a Sunday night at her K Street office. While back home a babysitter put our children to bed, we sat surrounded by law books on opposite sides of a polished teak conference table. Clearly she chose the setting to intimidate, but I thought of that mosaic Christ and found the determination I had then lacked. Something had happened. A month later my wife and children distracted themselves at a Capitol Hill park while I moved out of our home.
My son was six months old that day. On September 12th, 2001, he was nearly three. Every memory he had was of his mother and father in separate homes. But my daughter, more than three years older, hadn’t yet reached the age where early memories fade. As we walked hand-in-hand from my ex-wife’s car to the Maryland Play place, those eyes that had warmed me at the Basilica met me again.
“Daddy?” she asked. “Does this mean you and Mommy are getting back together?”
If September 11th revealed our nation’s weakness, the 12th exposed my emotional fragility. But the second couldn’t have happened without the first. Every year the anniversary would come, and I would fail to prepare. When a full ten years had passed, it was a moment no media entity could resist. What had changed in the last ten years? Who had won? Who had lost? It’s probably wrong of me to ask people to stop reliving the day. But perhaps that first step to moving on is sharing what you wish to overcome. I haven’t told my story. Oh, I’ve shared a few nuggets of the 11th. After all, I covered it on the scene as a reporter, so my day is on the record. But the 12th is far more raw.
September 11th began true to routine. I parked on Capitol Hill in my special spot, a tucked-away alley overlooked by D.C. parking police. Like many Tuesdays, I walked the gentle slope of Capitol Hill to cover a congressional hearing. It was sparsely attended, two congressmen on the dais and about a dozen lobbyists in the audience. The committee’s Chairman provided the first odd moment, calling at the start of the hearing for a moment of silence. He informed us that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. I grieved for people I didn’t know, then began to formulate in my mind the story I would write about the hearing, crafting the lead before there was anything to report.
A few minutes later I felt as much as heard a mild rumbling. The hallways of Capitol office buildings are wide enough to accommodate herds of high-school students and motorized hand trucks. I assumed one of those trucks was echoing off of the corridors’ granite walls and floors more than usual. But I was mistaken, the first of many mistakes I would make that day. I would later learn that what I felt was a sound wave that ripped across the Potomac River, generated by a plane striking the Pentagon.
When the rumbling had run its course, the Chairman invited the first witness to testify, and I followed along on my printed copy. But after the third paragraph the witness stopped reading. I looked up, and saw the Chairman’s right hand raised in a call for silence. A young Hill Climber whispered something in the Chairman’s ear. I confirmed later that he had informed his boss of the Pentagon strike.
“Excuse me,” the Chairman said, “but this hearing is now adjourned. Something has happened.”
With that, the Chairman and the Hill Climber left through a rear door. A buzz filled the room as we discussed what to do, in whispered tones nearly as quiet as the Hill Climber.
Something has happened. The Chairman may have departed but his words remained, heavy and thick. I tucked my notebook in the breast pocket of my jacket and stepped out into a hallway throbbing with activity. Lobbyists in $2,000 suits pressed past Hill Climbers in $200 ensembles. No logic applied to their movement. An odd odor—a mixture of perfume and perspiration—hung in the air. I pushed my way to a U.S. Capitol police officer, a large woman whose white shirt barely fit into her black slacks, and asked her what was happening. She said she had no fucking idea, nobody would tell her shit. I apologized for bothering her and made my way to the press room. Someone had changed the TV channel from C-SPAN to one of the 24-hour news networks. I learned of the Pentagon strike, then watched a film loop of a World Trade Center tower being struck by a plane, panic on a Manhattan street, then the collapse of the tower.
Anyone who watched that same film loop likely can still remember their unique reaction. As for me, I felt a stabbing sensation just below my rib cage. I told myself not to indulge the pain. The U.S. Capitol was a logical terrorist target. I patted the breast of my jacket, comforted by the bulge of my notebook. Its spiral hinge pressed into the muscles covering my heart.
I left the building, swept into a fleeing crowd with no intent other than leaving Capitol Hill. Notebook in hand, I walked and wrote. I observed terror on the faces of Hill Climbers. I noted confusion among the white-shirted police officers failing to maintain order. When I heard what I believed to be a bomb, I wrote words seeking to capture the contagion-like spread of fear. My notebook would shield me from harm, I believed. As it turned out, I was safe because there was no bomb. The sound had in fact been a sonic boom echoing off of the stone façade of a Capitol office building, caused by a military jet mobilized overhead. I learned to add sound to the list of things that can be deceiving.
The throng carried me to Pennsylvania Avenue, a stretch of road extending southeast from the Capitol providing Hill Climbers with bars in the evening and coffee shops in the morning. On the corner of 3rd Street I ran into a congressman from Chicago. He looked out of place in a sweaty gray T-shirt with cut-off sleeves. His girlfriend was with him, and a Hill Climber who worked for the Speaker of the House. The congressman told me that he had been working out in the House gym when the Pentagon was struck. He had something in common with the Capitol Police Officer who had sworn at me, namely that no one would tell him anything. The Congressman’s girlfriend clung to his arm with such strength it seemed she feared he’d float away without her tether. She told me a plane had just hit the Sears Tower in Chicago, striking precisely one hour after the first plane struck in New York. That had not happened, but it seemed as real to us at that moment as anything. Then the Hill Climber told his story. He had been sitting in a meeting with the Speaker when a pair of Secret Service agents burst into the room. The agents said nothing. They simply grabbed the Speaker and left. The Hill Climber reminded me that the Speaker of the House is second in line for the Presidency, directly after the Vice President. We all absorbed the weight of that thought, the possibility of witnessing a Presidential succession.
I marveled at how clueless the four of us were. We knew the parliamentary tricks one could use to stall a bill in committee, or force a debate on an amendment, or trap a politician into casting a vote that could be manipulated in a political ad. But none of us knew what to do when the threat was physical.
I left the Congressman, his girlfriend, and the Hill Climber. After another block an aging building came into view, surprising me. I knew it was there, of course, but somehow it had been out of mind. The imposing red-brick facade, the discolored windows in rotting wood frames, the swing set fenced in on a cracked slab of asphalt. It was St. Peter’s Interparish School, and my daughter was inside. What was she doing right now? Had she been whisked with her fellow first graders to the aging structure’s cinder-block basement? I hoped for something else, that she was idly doodling, oblivious.
I could walk the two blocks to her school. I could storm up those concrete steps, push through the 19th Century heavy wooden doors, fly past the principal’s office while ignoring her objections, charge down the long hallway lined with children’s watercolors, and burst into my daughter’s classroom. I could toss her giggling frame over my shoulder and take her to freedom, a freedom that unknown strangers were trying to take from us. I could do this, even though my ex-wife’s lawyer had called me no less than three weeks earlier, warning me I had to stop dropping in on my daughter on days I hadn’t been assigned, that the custody schedule was very strict, that with one more violation I could lose what little custody I had. This wasn’t an ordinary day, and I wasn’t an ordinary parent. Or perhaps I was less than ordinary. Perhaps I was less of a parent now, a man building his career without burden. The school lay two blocks to the south. I turned north, toward my car’s special hiding spot.
I fought through traffic, me headed to my downtown office, everyone else fleeing. I began writing, losing myself in the retelling. My editor loved what I filed. I shrugged and left for home. There was no traffic at all. A middle-aged man, red tie hanging loose, walked the yellow center line of New Hampshire Avenue. He glared at me for the audacity of driving in the street. My route home took me past the Pentagon and a post-apocalyptic scene. I couldn’t see the plane or the building’s destroyed walls. A thin stream of smoke still rose straight into a cloudless blue sky. The Pentagon’s massive parking lot blinked with the lights of emergency vehicles. As I neared an entrance to the Pentagon I stared down the barrel of a tank. After recovering from the shock, I wondered where it came from, where a tank is stored in suburban Virginia on days terrorists are not attacking.
Moments later, I was in my apartment building’s garage. I parked, stepped out, and almost vomited from the stench. Downwind from the nearby Pentagon, I was smelling dead bodies. Passengers on the plane. Workers at their desks. But the smell wasn’t merely organic in origin. It was industrial, the stench of burning plastic. The tools of the modern office—computers, fax machines, photocopiers, in-box trays, picture frames displaying loved ones—had fused with their users.
The garage elevator reeked. The hallway to my apartment reeked. My apartment reeked. I discovered the only place free of death’s odor, unexpectedly, was my apartment’s balcony. No walls could trap the smell, and a light breeze kept it moving south. I settled into a green plastic chair, idle for the first time that day.
Then, it just hit me, no warning, just like those well-meaning Pentagon workers received no notice. I wept so hard I began to gasp for air, reliving that day years earlier at the Basilica. My protective bubble gone. My notebook was back at the office. It couldn’t shield me from the overwhelming realization that everything had changed and nothing made sense. I was alone.
I pulled out my cell phone, and for the first time that day the network wasn’t overwhelmed with panicked calls. I dialed from memory the number that had been mine for a decade. She answered on the first ring. I masked my irregular breathing and asked if the kids were okay. She said they were fine. Our daughter’s school had first gone into lockdown, then the parents had been called to take everyone home. She said the word “parents” but in our case it had been “mother.” No one had tried to call me. She told me our son had been with her all day. Do the kids know what happened, I asked. They didn’t. She said they were downstairs playing while she watched the news upstairs. They were fine but she was not. She was in the cross-hairs, she said, insisting a plane was about to hit her house. She would stay there overnight so as not to alarm the children, but then get far away from Capitol Hill the next day. She had found a small-town indoor play park, a two-hour drive to a place no terrorist would know about. I told her she was crazy, the terrorists were done for now. But I knew she wouldn’t listen to me. She never had. I declined her offer to put the kids on the phone. I was suffering from heaves and didn’t want to cause them alarm. I hung up, and realized that was perhaps the longest stretch of time in the last two years my ex-wife and I had spoken without yelling.
I placed another call, to a woman I had slept with a couple of times. I didn’t have her number memorized, but I found it in the phone’s remembered-call list. She answered, and I told her I didn’t want to be alone. She said she didn’t want to either. She invited me to her home in Great Falls, upriver from the Pentagon and its stench. When I arrived she opened the door without a word, and I entered just as silently. We fucked. I assume we did, anyway; it’s what we both wanted, what we both thought we needed. I have no recollection of our time together that night. Most likely, we got down to business straight away, then drank wine, watched TV, and passed out. My only memory of being there is the next morning. I woke up disoriented. It took me a minute to figure out where I was, and then it all came back to me. I slipped out of her bedroom with my cell phone and left a voice mail with my editor that I wouldn’t be coming in. I called my ex-wife.
“I want to be with you and the kids today.”
September 11th in Washington, D.C., began with unthinkable horror but ended with startling conviction. While I was sobbing on my apartment balcony, leaders of the House and Senate gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a show of unity. The Speaker of the House, who according to my coverage had just hours earlier been whisked from his Capitol office to an undisclosed location, was back on the Hill. He addressed a television audience that hadn’t broken their gaze from their glowing screens all day. The Speaker, in a voice surprisingly soft for a former high school wrestling coach, said Congress, the U.S. government, and the U.S. people stood together as one. Like the Chairman earlier that day, he called for a moment of silence. When it was done he stood vacantly, seemingly at a loss as to what to do next. There was no script for this moment, no word of advice a Hill Climber could whisper in his ear. His colleagues were equally lost. They touched each other, showing they too needed companionship, that they were as human as any of us. They shook hands, patted backs, hugged. Then it began, a wobbly rendition of “God Bless America” that soon was embraced by everyone on the steps. It must have been chilling to witness in person, but when that moment happened I had already abandoned my notebook and my tether to that day’s news.
On the drive to the Maryland play center on September 12th, I tried to count the number of U.S. flags I saw flapping from front porches. I lost track after about four dozen or so. Did the terrorists appreciate their own power? Did they know that by destroying they would also be creating?
The play center was housed in a large metal warehouse in a sprawling industrial area, with few markings to distinguish itself from surrounding structures. Inside there were no interior walls, just a cavernous space filled with distraction. An old fire engine, perfect for climbing on and pretending to drive. A wall of mirrors in which to model costumes of turtles and ballerinas. A play supermarket with pretend groceries and cash registers. A play kitchen with a row of tiny ovens lacking power and sinks lacking water. Beyond the kitchen was a cluster of short tables bearing tiny place settings.
My daughter went straight for the supermarket, filling her basket with cardboard boxes masquerading as milk, eggs and butter. My son sat at one of the tables and began stacking the miniature teacups. I sat next to him while my daughter rang up her purchases, carried them into the kitchen, and began preparing a family meal. I can’t recall with specificity the pretend meal she made, but my memory tells me it was spaghetti. She brought servings to us, instructing her brother to stop playing at the dinner table. He did so, shifting his focus to the empty plate his sister had put in front of him. His eyes took in the invisible food before him. He grinned and began to mimic eating.
The low-rising table could hold four people. I sat to my son’s right, my knees nearly to my face as I sought to find a position of comfort. My daughter sat across from me. My ex-wife took the last remaining seat, directly to my right. I kept my focus on my son and daughter.
I wasn’t looking at her, but she was there. She was ubiquitous in their lives, and if I were to maintain a connection with them, she would be ubiquitous in mine. I hadn’t sat this close to her since we had attempted to mediate our divorce. I was stronger now. She would always be there, as the children grew bored of playing with pretend food, as they formed friendships, found love, moved out, traveled to places I had never seen and might never see.
I don’t remember how long we pretended to have dinner. I was in no hurry for it to end. It came to me that this was a first for my son, the four of us around a dinner table. Finally I turned to my ex-wife, and I didn’t recognize her. I saw a face unfamiliar to me, a face tired and scared and vulnerable. A mother just as happy to be eating pretend spaghetti.
“Thank you for letting me join you today.”
“I’m glad you called. It’s good for the kids to see us like this.”
It was. Of course, we were like those members of Congress on the Capitol steps, working without a script. When I watched the video of that moment on the Hill, I saw their discomfort. They didn’t belong standing side by side on those steps. My ex-wife and I didn’t belong sitting at the same dinner table. This was a new side of her, a side open to compromise. Were we to attempt to maintain this moment, though, the physical discomfort I felt from my tiny chair would be a precursor to its emotional counterpart. I had never answered my daughter’s question, her attempt to piece things together, but I knew the answer was no. Something had happened.