September 11

by jkatejohnston

Here’s what I wrote twelve years ago. I didn’t get around to writing about it until the next day.

12 September 2001

Dear Max,

I stopped writing about the Loretta Lynn concert yesterday because Teresa came home from returning the rental car and said, “Something bad happened. Not to us.  Some planes got hijacked or something.” And that’s how our TV vigil started. It was one of those rare events that are so awful, while the TV coverage is so superb, that for seconds at a time you actually feel something like what you think you’re supposed to feel. We watched over and over again the pictures of the plane slamming into and almost through the second tower, the collapse, the second collapse, the clouds of smoke and construction dust consuming whole blocks in seconds, people running, some crying, some stopping to watch.

We sat huddled on the couch. At first bewilderment, then a cold sickness and then, after an hour or two—hunger. I didn’t want to be the one to bring up breakfast because I remembered how disgusted Teresa was with me after the Oklahoma City bombing when I said, “I didn’t know any of those people.” I’d wanted to sound like Johnson—not one of them will eat a slice of plum pudding the less—but I sounded like a jerk.

This time, I didn’t want to exaggerate my indifference, and I wasn’t indifferent. So I got hungrier and hungrier, and finally Teresa said, “Want some breakfast?” She made eggs and bagels, and I made a clearing on the kitchen table so we could eat. When I was almost done with my bagel, the TV showed a shot of a man jumping or falling from the building, a dark form turning, turning, falling so far that it almost seemed like slow motion, and for a few seconds I got some sense of incredible frailty and horror and my bagel stuck in my throat and I covered my face with my hands and started to cry. And then Teresa turned off the TV, and we went for a walk on the bluff tops.

All day I was reminded of the strange layers of awareness, the odd mixtures of response that come out so strongly at a time like this. On the drive home from the bluff tops I wanted to suggest that we stop at Rite-Aid and get a mud mask because Teresa shocked and delighted me a few days ago by suggesting that we give ourselves facials, and I squeezed her hand and  said, “You’re turning into a girl! First the nail polish, now this.” But somehow the picture of us sitting in front of the TV with our pale blue Queen Helene Mint Julep pore-clearing renewal masks seemed out of place with all the death and destruction. And yet, why not? You can’t do anything else while you’re watching TV. But I didn’t suggest it.

And all through the day as I watched Dan Rather report the live stuff coming in, the unbelievable footage of the third tower collapsing, the tape from reporters on the ground showing the massive cloud filling the streets and then filling the screen and then the picture veering out of control as the camera-person fell or dropped the camera. And all through this Dan Rather keeping all the parts of the story moving, reporting it all with perfect, unpompous graveness, and I kept thinking, this is the greatest TV I’ve ever seen, you guys are awesome.

Then around noon the footage from home video started coming in, and one shot from across the river showed the second airplane headed straight and fast and steady into the second tower and then the awful crumpling together of plane and building. I covered my mouth with my hands, still staring at the screen and then found myself laughing because the woman in the background of the tape kept screaming over and over, “Oh my fucking God.  Jesus Fucking Christ,” which seemed about right, and then Dan Rather’s voice, “We apologize for some of the language on the videotape.”

I couldn’t concentrate on anything all day, even when we turned the TV off. I felt a sort of delicious weakness, like when you’re sick but not really miserable. Finally instead of trying to read Evidence I just went to sleep.

Later I had An Incident. A Thing. An Encounter…

I had to go to lawschool to do the Student Bar Association nominations—stupid chore, but gotta do it as soon as possible so I can stop being President. I walked into the second year classroom, and someone had written on the board: Middle Eastern Man Seeks Legal Counsel. Call 1-888-Terrorist. There were only a few students in the room. It was about five minutes before class. “What unbelievable fucking bullshit,” I said and marched up to the front of the room in my super duper Paul Green patent leather oxfords and black suit (I looked really good) and erased it. I recovered myself and did the stupid ballots. And then the class started, and the teacher made some remarks about the Rule of Law and international law and what might happen if the people who did this ever get caught, the difference between retaliation and justice and so on. And then he opened up the class to comments. Well, rar-rar-rar, it was the usual call-in show opinion-spouting. And then I raised my hand, and I’m afraid I must have sounded as pompous and prim as any of them: I said what had been written on the board when I walked in, and the teacher laughed. And I said, “I don’t think it’s funny. I really don’t think it’s funny.” And he apologized, and here comes the embarrassing part—embarrassing but right.  “I think it just shows how fragile our sense of fairness is, how prejudice and stereotype and hatred are so close to the surface.  And it just totally underscores the importance of our…our democratic institutions. Because our impulses are so bad.”

The teacher said something conciliating, and I left, shaking with rage. Well fuck me. There’s no satisfying response at a time like that. You say nothing, you feel like a coward and jerk. You say something, you feel like a scold and a jerk. Two nights ago at the Loretta Lynn concert listening to all those faggot jokes raising the roar of automatic laughter, I couldn’t say anything. I felt completely defeated. And last night, I could say something, so I did, and I felt completely absurd—trapped in this sanctimonious box. When I walked out of the classroom I told Teresa about it. “Idiots,” she said.  “Let’s get out of here.”

I skipped class and went to the Mission service with Teresa. The music at the church was like theme music from a movie, all reverb-y and swelling and grand, and a wonderfully dramatic sorrow came over me, but I don’t feel like apologizing for it. Maybe that’s the only way you can start to comprehend something like this. It’s no use being embarrassed when the horror of events so perfectly matches to your sense of drama. I cried, and Teresa gave me half of her Kleenex. She was crying too—something she never does. I listened to the music and pictured the tiny figure falling from the building, turning over and over frail as a leaf. I thought of Theodore Olson’s wife on the cell phone telling her husband with perfect lawyer’s precision that the hijackers were using “knife-like” weapons, never just knives if they weren’t quite knives. And I remembered Theodore Olson’s face from the election cases—Mr. Distinguished Superman Lawyer—and thought, now he’s alone. [Note added 2013: Theodore Olson was George W. Bush’s solicitor general. His wife was a lawyer too and a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. This year, Olson represented the plaintiffs in the marriage cases.]

On the way home I was thinking about my little speech again, and I laughed out loud. Teresa glanced at me.  “What?”

“Oh, just my little encounter.  I think I actually used the words our democratic institutions.”

Teresa laughed.  “Oh, Prin.” And patted my knee. “Fuck ‘em.  You were right.”