With the hubbub of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 over I’ve had time to reflect on what this day means to me. Like the pixels on a dragonfly’s eye we all have a slightly different perspective, and mine is not one of sadness.
The story begins on the afternoon of September 10, 2011. I’m waiting to get on a plane in Washington, DC with my girlfriend and her brother. Thunderstorms are galloping through the capitol city, delaying our flight by one hour, two hours. I wouldn’t be concerned except we’ve only got a short layover in Newark, NJ before getting on an overnight flight to Lisbon, Portugal. Finally we board and as we bounce through the clouds I see we’ll have about ten minutes to run from one terminal to another to catch our flight. As we’re pulling up to the terminal in Newark I prep my girlfriend and her brother to run, flat out, to the gate. As the most fleet-footed I’ll get there first and hold open the jetway doors for them to make it. It’s going to be tight. We land, I burst from the plane like a cork released from a champagne bottle, and ricochet through the crowded passageways. When I reach the gate I’m told the jetway is closed, so sorry, but I can go to the customer service counter. There, just outside the window, is our plane. So close.
As my girlfriend arrives to negotiate, I run back past her brother, huffing and puffing his way gateward, and arrive at customer service. I’m behind what appears to be the entire Brazilian youth soccer league. Minutes tick by and I sense the plane is pulling away while I’m stuck in line behind Pele and Bom Bom. I run back to the gate and my girlfriend has been joined by an older Portuguese woman, the kind you often see wearing a house frock and shooshing cats away from the back door. You don’t mess with these women. The gate agent, with the cracking voice and shiny complexion of a man barely old enough to vote, has the wild-eyed look that tells me the women have surrounded him and are ready to pounce. Behind him, our plane sits on the tarmac, but the jetway is pulled back, a gap of feet but an insurmountable distance.
“Weather delay,” the agent says with a shrug.
“Surely we can just move the jetway and get on the plane. Surely…” we plead.
He picks up his phone and palavers with his bosses, then to the tower itself. He listens, nods, and we scan his face for any glint of hope. Then he hangs up and smiles.
“I just delayed a flight! You can get on!”
He runs down the jetway and we follow, giddy with excitement. As he maneuvers the jetway toward the plane we lurch to the side, our wheely bags tipping over and dragging on their sides. I can only imagine the safety and protocol procedures we’re violating, but we step into the plane and drop in our seats with a huff. After taxiing out to the runway we wait another half hour for weather-delayed planes to clear out.
“Look,” I say to my girlfriend as I point out the window, “There are the twin towers.” In the Manhattan skyline across the river, their profiles are unmistakable.
We landed in Lisbon on the morning of 9/11 and were greeted by my girlfriend’s family. After lunch her uncle told us to turn on the TV, there was a plane crash in America. America—it seemed as distant as the moons of Jupiter. While we watched the drama unfold, we played with her nephew, a toddler pushing a truck around the living room and trying to correctly pronounce the Portuguese word ‘crocodillo’.
A quarter-turn of the world away, surrounded by family and still foggy with jetlag, the events of 9/11 were a news event, nothing more. I verified with family that everyone was safe, then we went out into Portugal to enjoy ourselves. Three days after 9/11 I proposed to my girlfriend on the beach. Thankfully, she said yes and my life has been immensely happy and prosperous ever since. It wasn’t until we returned home we learned how life in America had been consumed by 9/11. It was in the frenzied magazine covers in the airport, the sunken-eyed looks of people who’d been watching the CNN scroll for more bad news, the air thrumming with fear and anger. I was glad to be out of the country on September 11th, 2001, and my memories of that time are filled with joy.
What was the pivot point on September 10th? Was it the gate agent? The mad dash through the airport? The engagement ring tucked away in my camera case? Life is full of these tiny things that reverberate through life in ways that can only be seen with the distance of time, like long-lost camel tracks leading to a sand-entombed caravanserai that are finally spotted by satellite a thousand years later.