Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sad Days, Long Nights & Graduation Day

Stories From The Road
September 11, 2013

Things go wrong. The best friends you've ever had die. One tragically at 23. Driving, windshield, snap. The other? Quick, Cancer, cremation.

People say what people say because silence is an uncomfortable filler. "They're in a better place ... God has His plan. They didn't suffer, I'm sure."

These comments garner a nod and a half-hearted smile followed by an impulse to


I haven't yet.

September 11, 2001. Both friends were still alive. The latter I hadn't even met yet. The first, Amanda, was an undergraduate class leader, brilliant academic and aside from me, the whitest looking Mexican at Ohio University. On the day in history not soon to become background noise, I was on the phone with my then girlfriend (let's call her Ally Sheedy). Back then, a land line actually got used more than my Sprint Samsung flip phone with long black antennae.

My girlfriend couldn't find her lipstick or rouge or something of significant make-up necessity. I flipped on the T.V. and there it was.

"Turn on the T.V.," I said. "Some kind of weird is happening ..."

The first tower had been hit.

I got quiet.

She continued to look for her make-up while complaining about her remote control.

And then she saw what I saw and we saw that this was not some make-believe whatever. It wasn't an action film. This was real. Very, very, unspeakably happening.

I drew my legs up on the Big Lots $399 green couch in my apartment above Premiere Video. I turned up the volume to a deafening proportion and for a moment Ally Sheedy didn't exist on the other end of the line.

Billowing smoke.




We sat together alone watching the America as we knew it end.


I spent most of the day channel surfing. All of the classes had been canceled at O.U. Police were cruising the empty streets. Airplanes, trains -- the transit of the US locked down. There was no way I was going to get to my girlfriend in Texas from Ohio anytime soon. To be honest, I had never been much for flying. After watching nearly eight hours of the Towers, the Pentagon and then the forced crash, getting in the air was the last thing I felt brave enough to do, and it wasn't an option.

I popped a Tombstone pizza in the oven. Cracked open a can of Pepsi and thumbed through a text book on experimental film. But I couldn't get the shattering windows -- the smell of ash and --

The apartment filled with smoke. I knocked over the Pepsi in route to the kitchen. I dropped the scorched pie on the floor. The charred remains scattered into divisible parts.

After declaring the expected obscenities for such mindlessness, I munched on a combo of candy corns and celery. This was a terrible idea.


It wasn't quite midnight when my girlfriend called back. She was worried about me. I asked her why and she said, "Because you don't deal well with bad things."

I told her I needed to use the bathroom.

We hung up.

I stared into the darkness of my ceiling and my throat constricted.

Don't panic, I thought.

I paced the wooden floors of the hallway.

Don't panic, I muttered.

I eased onto the couch. The television in full marathon report of the day's events.

Don't --

The phone rang. It was my brother. He lived in Belgium and was checking in.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I wasn't in New York, Kurt."

"Are you okay?" he said again.

"I don't think I know what to do," I said. "There's just so much sadness."

"Yeah," he said.

I imagined him exhaling from a Lucky Strike though I thought he'd given up smoking in the last year.

"Turn off the T.V.," he said.

"Why would someone do this?" I asked.

"I duhno."

I turned off the television, brushed my teeth and crawled into bed. In that moment, I was afraid to go to sleep. Afraid to be awake. Mostly, I felt such an emptiness for everyone who was in that building that didn't make it out. And everyone who was waiting for them to make it out. I had no idea what to do with that.


The death threats started almost immediately. Muslim students on campus were the target. Though they had not participated in the actions on 9/11, they were being treated as such. Amanda and I spoke (best friend who died in May 2003). She was distressed by the tension, the threats and fear. She organized a vigil and coordinated with the university and other organizations to thread together acceptance and not isolation. During the event, she spoke with elegance, tenacity and grace. She was kindness times pi.

Later I told her how I wouldn't have thought to do a vigil. She said, "We do what we can when we can. You can, you know? Do."

I shrugged my shoulders or looked away or something that was dismissive. My focus was to rule the world of cinema and climb the Hollywood sign doing it. And while I felt a massive pang of sadness, I had to stay on track. No distractions.

"I know you care," she said.

"It was wrong, you know? I can't get passed the wrong."

Amanda got pulled into a series of other conversations, and I faded into the background of hushed chatter and teary eyed students. I climbed the stairs of Lindley Hall (my grad film program building), and sat in the Editing Bay.

Aside from a few mouse clicks, the place was quiet.


I moved to New York City the following year two weeks before the anniversary. Alley Sheedy and I broke up over the summer, so I worked 24/7 to make myself indispensable at Killer Films. On the anniversary of the 9/11, military in fatigues shouldering machine guns patrolled the subways and Penn Station where I boarded Amtrak for the first time. I was in route to Washington, DC. There had hardly been anyone on the subway. The train car was empty. For a moment, I wondered if this was one of those b&w Twilight Zone episodes where I'm the only one left in the world.

The conductor entered between cars, eyed my ticket and grinned.

"Good day?" he asked.

"I guess."

Then he was gone.


In 2003, Amanda was struck by a teenager who blazed through a stop sign. Her car swerved into another lane and she just ... flew.

I'd later meet future best friend #2 in 2005, and she died of breast Cancer in 2011.

And while the details of these events weigh heavy on the morbid, I'm no longer in that place of selfishness. I guess in the sad days and long nights after 9/11 and the loses in my life, I'm on the other side most days and grateful.

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