The day it happened, she walked to her best friend’s before school as usual. It was Leah’s typical wont to depart from her house at about 6:45 a.m. in order to make it to Jen’s by 7:15 a.m. (Pacific Standard Time, that is). Looking back now, what seems more shocking to her than the terrorist attack itself is the fact that she was ever able to wake up this early and still be functional. And also that, when she arrived at Jen’s to see the scene of her mother watching the news report and the according footage that would be replayed ad nauseam seemingly for the rest of the year, she actually had no idea what the World Trade Center was. Sure, she was familiar with New York—as a vaguely sketched out silhouette. Had seen it propagandized countless times in film and TV. But she had no memory of the “WTC” in her visual lexicon.
Although it was an indelible part of New York’s signature skyline (regardless of being presented with geographical falsity in movies like Home Alone 2), for whatever reason, it simply didn’t compute in Leah’s Californian mind. And she secretly wondered what the big deal really was. This being her reaction even though both towers had been struck before she was awake, which meant, like many West Coastians, she was met with the one-two punch of visually assaulting images parading each plane’s deliberate crash and the second tower’s collapse (when the North Tower did the same, she and Jen would already be on their way to “getting educated”).
Jen didn’t seem as affected by the news as her mother was, which gave Leah some reassurance as the two proceeded to go to school as though a new world order wasn’t about to begin. In fact, Leah couldn’t even remember really talking about the “incident” on their journey, allowing her to push aside the vision of Jen’s mother staring in a state of catatonia at the TV screen. Instead, they were focused on more mundane topics, like a pop quiz, or their contempt for having to change into a bathing suit for PE that day (a reality that seemed far more appalling to both of them than anything that was going on in the Financial District). Later, Leah wondered if it was like that for people—especially young people—in small towns in far-removed places from New York all across the country. If they were, indeed, really as affected as they later claimed to be. Or if Leah was merely a trailblazer when it came to embracing impending universal sociopathy.
In her math class, the tone was mixed, with some students seeming to want to milk the opportunity to evade having to take a test by using the instance of this “national trauma” as a means to postpone it. That was the phrase one boy was clever enough to use. Leah even remembers thinking how it sounded too clever coming from someone like him. Her teacher, Mr. Maccabee, must have thought so as well, for he then proceeded to dive into a speech about how the best way to fight back would be to continue on with their lives as usual. This, of course, would be the rhetoric bandied for the next several years. In a bid, beneath it all, to keep the public feeling vindictive—stewing in a rage-oriented desire for retaliation—rather than experience anything like “genuine emotion.” In essence, the media and the government didn’t truly allow people to feel their feelings, so much as they manipulated these raw responses for their own ends. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Leah felt so guilty later on, when she was adult enough to better understand her sentiments (or lack thereof). She hadn’t felt “correctly.”
She can even remember being extremely annoyed about how the catastrophe preempted certain shows on TV from being aired. Including a little-loved MTV soap opera called Spyder Games that was never broadcast again after getting cancelled that week because of goddamn 9/11. What the fuck? Leah though to herself as she zoned out amid her parents talking about the “terrorist bastards.” And how Dubya wouldn’t let them get away with it. No one really seemed to be talking about the World Trade Center itself, so much as the notion that America was now at war—with not only whoever did this, but anyone who aided and abetted them in doing it.
Leah wanted to just come right out and ask, “What even is the WTC?” Is it a construct more than anything else? Probably. Which is why it was so “easy” to rebuild it back into one single dick shape, fucking the skyline and signaling to terrorists that no matter how many times they attacked, America would always rebuild, would always stand for “freedom” (or, at the bare minimum, something like it).
A decade later, when Leah, against all odds, ended up moving to New York, she felt foolish that she hadn’t fully understood what the World Trade Center was back then, at the age of fourteen. She was technically old enough to know, she saw that now. And that her sheltering from and oblivion to “East Coast things” out West made her not truly recognize it—or its significance. Not until she got close enough to the actual place. By this time, she had long ago fallen out of contact with Jen, so she couldn’t really commiserate (regarding such erstwhile ignorance) with one of the only other people who seemed just as blasé about the event when it happened. She had to keep it to herself, lest she offend any of the many New Yorkers who still worshipped at the altar of grief now called Ground Zero.
Anytime Leah happened to pass by it, she wanted so badly to experience something. A tear, a shiver up her spine—anything that might indicate she had empathy. And then it dawned on her that it was impossible to have empathy for a city like this. So cold and unfeeling itself, despite the frequent puff pieces about how it’s a multicultural hotbed that welcomes all who arrive. Leah didn’t feel welcomed, but she stayed anyway. That’s where her job was. Her paid one, at least. As for the unspoken job she was tasked with in continuing to reside there, it consisted of feigning the required signs of mourning that “true” and “respectful” New Yorkers must pay every year on this accursed day. The one that Leah remembers as being nothing more than just another harbinger of what it meant to live in twenty-first century uncertainty.