BY SAMANTHA PAIGE ROSEN
The look I had prepared for my first day in a new school consisted of a sheer brown and tan peasant top, a calf-length jean skirt, and brown sandal clogs, the platforms of which were, according to my mother, too high for an eleven-year-old. It was a bold choice to wear a skirt on the first day of sixth grade. I didn’t want to seem too girly. A little feminine was fine, but too girly was not cool, hence the jean skirt. I wanted to be cool this year. The Rosen girls were never cool.
The next day I wore a pink zip-up sweater over a white tank top with rows of sparkly hearts and a built-in bra that I didn’t yet need. This combination resurfaced at least once a week. Later in the year, when we were partners for a biology project, a cute boy named Peter asked, “Do you ever wash that shirt?!” and laughed his way over to where his friends were sitting, saddling me with the rest of the assignment. Peter’s comment made an anxious girl like me obsess even more over my outfits than I already did.
The third day of school featured green cargo capri pants and a bronze lace tank-top. This was a cool outfit. Then a girl named Marjorie cruised into advisory on convertible roller-skate sneakers. I couldn’t stop admiring them but I didn’t even entertain the thought of buying my own pair. They were probably too expensive and I wasn’t entirely confident that I wouldn’t crash into the lockers, books flying, if I did wear them.
By Friday, I was in possession of a Juicy Couture shirt—my first ever! It was navy with the phrase “Material Girl” in red sparkly letters. I coerced my mother into taking me to the boutique Bala Girls Club instead of our usual Kohl’s or Old Navy by stressing that everyone seemed to have the velour pants and zip-up sweatshirt set that ran about $120 but all I wanted was one Juicy item. We left with the $45 cotton t-shirt that made a weekly appearance after its Friday debut. Peter declined to comment.
The next Monday I took my red and white sparkly heart tank top out of the dryer and stepped back into the jean skirt I wore the first day of school. I surveyed myself in the full-length hallway mirror, all the way down to my red flip flops, smiling proudly at my matching skills.
Then Tuesday happened. That day is more vivid than any other in my mind, but I can’t remember what I wore.
We had just started second period math—my least favorite subject. Mrs. Pettit came around to collect homework as we copied down the problems on the board. The classroom phone rang and Mrs. Ketterer picked it up. A few minutes later, around 9:15, the PA system clicked on. “All students please report directly to your advisories. All students please report directly to your advisories. Thank you.”
Yessssss! I said under my breath, secretly thanking fate for this gift. I didn’t believe in God, but fate made sense to me. Even in elementary school, math had been a struggle. I just couldn’t understand it; the word itself made me nervous. I would ask my teachers why one step in an equation preceded or followed another. Why was it parentheses, exponent, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction (something I only still know because of the acronym: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” and I actually have an Aunt Sally)?
“It just is,” they would sigh. But I couldn’t memorize the steps if I didn’t understand them, and I couldn’t understand them until I knew why we were supposed to do them. I couldn’t understand anything—not fully—unless I could figure out the why that I believed should follow the how. I still can’t.
I waited in the hallway in front of padlocked gymnasium doors with my advisory, a group of fifteen sixth graders with nothing in common except the first letter of our last names. Gym teacher Dr. Smith, our Grinch-like drill sergeant advisor, was at least fifteen minutes late. He was never late. First no math, now no Dr. Smith? This day is awesome!
I view people like Dr. Smith as a challenge. If I can make them smile, win them over, it feels like I can find the humanity in everyone.
From the far end of the hall a woman barked, “What are you doing out here?!”
I took one for the team, as usual. “We’re waiting for our advisor, Dr. Smith, but we don’t know where he is.”
She brought us to the Main Office and handed us off to another adult without saying a word. We crammed into the office hallway where I noticed four or five students sitting in chairs, crying. Before I could consider why they might be crying, we were ushered into a conference room. There weren’t enough seats for everyone but I snagged a chair at the far end of the table.
Someone came in to talk to us, maybe a little before 10:00 a.m. It wasn’t the principal or the vice principal. It wasn’t the school counselor either—she was tending to the crying students. Whoever it was said something about planes flying into the World Trade Center in New York City. Whatever explanation she gave no longer registers with me, but I remember her offer.
“If any of you have friends or family in New York and you need to talk, come in anytime. And please, if you have brothers and sisters at the elementary school, do not tell them.”
After hearing the news I thought, I still don’t understand why people are crying. What happened was bad. But I wasn’t sad or scared, even though my aunt and uncle lived in Manhattan. I couldn’t connect the idea of planes crashing into buildings to the human beings on the planes or inside the towers. I couldn’t imagine the how, so I couldn’t understand the why. Not yet.
My mom heard the news while in line at Starbucks, after dropping off my sister Liz at her Jewish preschool. She confirmed that her own sister was unharmed as she drove back to our synagogue to pick up Liz. The Jewish community feared that the attacks might be anti-Semitic.
The rest of my school day, like my outfit choice, was a blur.
When the bell rang, I walked next door to the elementary school to meet my sister Jen at her third grade classroom. Usually we waited a few minutes for Mom to pull into the pickup circle. Today she was already there.
After once again scolding me for slamming the passenger door of our black Honda Odyssey she whispered, “I know you heard at school about what happened today. Please don’t tell Jenny.”
Five minutes later, I led Jen upstairs to my bedroom saying, “You’re not going to believe what happened!”
And I told her. It felt exciting, like I was sharing a secret.
Suspicious of my intentions in so eagerly inviting Jen into my room, my mom opened the door as I was relaying the news.
“I told you not to tell her!” Mom yelled as Jen bolted down the stairs to watch TV.
I joined her soon after at the family room table with my after-school snack of cut up veggies dipped in ranch dressing. The TV had already been on when Jen walked in. A Comcast guy was fixing the cable. As I sat down, I saw him flip through the channels out of the corner of my eye. Jen was staring straight ahead, silent. Jen was rarely silent. Why is she watching this guy change channels? When I looked up from my veggies, my body went stiff.
I saw the towers burning. I saw the thick clouds of black smoke and the glowing orange fire and the police officers and the firefighters with tanks on their backs and the EMS crews wheeling the injured from the buildings. I saw what would become 1.5 million tons of steel and debris floating unhurriedly down from the sky. It all looked like pieces of ripped up paper. Maybe some of it was paper. I watched the dark specs that were people jumping out of windows from the highest floors and noticed how much quicker they fell compared to the papery debris.
I heard the rapid-fire voices of reporters and police officers and firefighters and survivors talking about soot in their eyes and noses and mouths. Even though it scared me to look, I couldn’t turn away from the bodies on the ground and the groups of people running, screaming, crying, being escorted out, dragged out, covered in grey and white ash, maybe blood, some with giant clouds of smoke at their heels. The chaos was not just on ABC or CBS or CNN, whose chyron read, “AMERICA UNDER ATTACK.” It was on every channel. Now I understood because there was nothing left to imagine. This was the how. Mom marched into the family room and sent us back upstairs.
Later, as I got dressed for my first jazz dance class of the year, she sat with me. I asked if I had to go to dance class. She said yes. I didn’t want to go. I felt too weird, like after watching the Titanic. Nothing seemed real amidst the weight of tragedy, as though I was living in a disaster movie. I asked her if she was afraid. She said she was. I asked her if we were going to have World War III. I asked her if we had to start conserving our metals for weaponry, like my Grandma did as a child during World War II.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.”
The next thing I remember is asking why.
“The people who did this want us to be afraid,” she said after a discomforting silence. “We can’t give into that fear. We have to keep on living. Or else they control us and they win. We can’t let them win. We can’t live in fear.”
That was the reason I had to go to dance class, so I did. But after that I refused to go back.
My family seldom talked news or politics at the dinner table, a practice both of my parents learned from their parents. I knew we went to war in the Middle East, for example, but I didn’t know where or how or why until my senior year of high school, when I decided to start teaching myself about recent history and politics. But their decision not to discuss 9/11, I know, was a conscious one. This was an opportunity to protect what remained of our innocence. I’m still not sure whether knowing the details would have made me more or less afraid.
I don’t remember speaking at all with my dad about the attacks. My mom says he would watch the footage over and over on TV. “He had kind of a sick interest in it,” but he never let on.
In a way, so did I. I was already an anxious kid. I worried a lot, especially about academics and my appearance. But after that Tuesday, safety became my biggest obsession. Worrying about schoolwork or clothes or which sister got to sit in the comfy seat while watching TV no longer seemed important.
A few days after the attacks, I saw on the news a story about a New York City police officer who was on his way out of his precinct after filing his retirement papers. Officer John Perry. He was planning on becoming a medical malpractice lawyer but ran to the scene when he heard about the first tower.
I ruminated over this story for years—over how close this man came to making it through the physical danger he faced daily in his career; how close he was to enjoying retirement after years of hard work (at the time, I didn’t know he was moving on to a career in law). And he just died. The same day he retired. I understood his impulse to run to the scene to help, but I was—and remain—baffled by how cruel fate could be.
Officer Perry’s story gave me an idea for a kind of preventative game. At least once a day I asked myself, if our house went up in flames, who would I try to save first? I didn’t just wonder; I put myself in the middle of the scene, imagining every detail. I would save Liz, the youngest and most helpless. I would run to wherever she was, tell her to grab onto my neck like a monkey and not let go, and we would jump out of the second-floor window together.
But how could I abandon Mom, Dad, and Jen left inside? How could I reach the fire department outside, without a phone? What if I had to raise Liz on my own after the rest of my family perished in the fire? What if it was winter and we had to wait outside for a long time and froze to death? Would I rather freeze to death waiting outside or burn to death inside? Burn or freeze? Burn or freeze? I chose burn every time because I hate being cold. Now I know to choose freeze. At least I would die numb.
Seven months after the attacks, I found myself nauseated in the third row of our minivan, about to pass Ground Zero. Dad’s own obsession led us there, while in the city for Easter weekend. Usually carsickness provoked my nausea, but today the culprit was nerves.
“Don’t worry, it’ll just be dirt and trash and rubble,” he assured us.
I tried to focus on the Mandy Moore CD in my Walkman. “Cry” was playing as we passed the site on our left.
“It’s like it was never even there,” Dad said, much quieter.
It was just rubble, but it terrified me. I knew that underneath were the obliterated bodies of those who jumped or fell from 1,100 feet above ground at 125 miles per hour; the scorched skin and exposed bone of those who burned; the bloodshot eyes of those who asphyxiated. I felt like I would get pulled into the heap if I got too close.
We lingered for a minute, until Mom said, “Stu, that’s enough.”
On the way to our midtown hotel, the Omni Berkshire Place, Dad took a long route so we could see the streets of New York City. The city was crowded compared to my hometown of Philadelphia, but less so than usual since the attacks—that’s how we could afford to stay at a hotel like the Omni Berkshire Place. People were afraid to visit. New York wasn’t safe anymore.
Looking out my window I said, “This is dirty.”
It wasn’t a judgment. The steam rising from the manholes and the scattered trash on the sidewalks reminded me of the smoke and debris I had seen on TV and at Ground Zero a few minutes before, although I wasn’t conscious of this association at the time. I didn’t, until fifteen years later, draw clear a connection between my fear and anxiety surrounding the attacks and my experience in the city that weekend.
My only other memory of New York City before this visit was a weekend my family spent in 1998, going to the Museum of Natural History, listening to a man play Don McLean’s “American Pie” by the swan boats in Central Park, and being dragged to Ellis Island to see how my great-grandmother came to America. That and the footage from September 11th.
I started to cry and hyperventilate as we pulled up to our hotel. My sister says that someone checked for explosives under our car with a metal detector before parking it in the hotel’s underground lot, but I guess I was too upset to notice. I knew that the city and the crowds were making me cry, that we shouldn’t have driven by Ground Zero, and that I was scared. But that was the extent of my analysis. I trailed my parents closely in the lobby, composing myself just long enough to reach our suite. Alone again in our unit of five, I allowed myself to be overcome by fear.
Mom suggested I go watch TV. 4:30—wasn’t 7th Heaven on right about now? I turned the TV to the WB channel, but I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t relax in my own skin. An hour later, when my parents mentioned going out for dinner, I burst into hysterics and refused. My dad was angry; my mom was concerned. I knew we were in a fancy suite at the Omni, where we would never stay again, and I was ruining it. But I couldn’t help it, I was just too scared, which is what I said over and over through tears. I had to stay put; I didn’t feel safe on the streets of New York.
Mom placed an emergency call to my psychiatrist, Dr. Reber, whom I had started seeing around November, for anxiety. Dr. Reber told my parents to give in and stay at the hotel for the night. We ordered a pizza and I lay in my parents’ bed, staring at the ceiling, while my more lighthearted younger sisters watched the Disney channel in the adjoining room. I took a shower but couldn’t wash off the fear. I remember being surprised by how fragile I was capable of feeling, and disturbed that I couldn’t be comforted by my parents’ presence.
The next day, my parents coaxed me out into the city. I don’t remember how. Perhaps a good night’s sleep had calmed me down a little. I felt disembodied as I walked to FAO Schwarz. Here I was, physically moving through the city, but my head was clouded with fear. I didn’t feel safe again until I had been home for a few days. And this feeling didn’t last long.
I believe that 9/11 exacerbated my anxiety. In the months following the attacks, I became afraid of the dark again. I stopped singing in the shower. I looked over my shoulder whenever I walked home from school. I wouldn’t use an elevator, convinced that I would get squished to death between the doors. Nor would I answer the phone or make a call—what if a terrorist posing as a pizza-delivery guy was on the other end? What if a terrorist was tracing my phone? By summer I was afraid of choking and stopped eating most foods except cereal and peanut butter and jelly. I considered these “safe” foods.
Depending on the day, I might have been afraid to go outside. I imagined being hit by a car or getting kidnapped or struck by lightning. I convinced myself that it was too dangerous to leave the house. My mom tried to explain that anything can happen at any time, even at home, so I shouldn’t be afraid of the outside world. She told me a story about a boy who was killed by a falling tree while playing in his backyard. Instead of taking her point—that it’s impossible to try to outsmart death—I stopped going in my backyard.
I became paralyzed even considering entering into a situation where I couldn’t control my own safety in the event of an emergency. I felt trapped and incapacitated. Every experience seemed to have a dark underbelly. Dr. Reber and I spent sessions riding the elevator together up and down, out through the doors and back in again. We made phone calls to Dakota Pizza, Delancey Street Bagels, and our local Borders bookstore.
By the end of that summer, after almost a year of weekly therapy, I began to live normally again. I slowly reintroduced the foods I had deemed unsafe. Riding the elevators and making phone calls showed me that most of the time, catastrophic things don’t happen. It’s possible but not probable, as my third-grade teacher Mrs. van Hollander used to say. That was an equation I could understand. I gradually learned to dial that possibility down to background noise. Now I had choice phrases, relaxation techniques, and safe elevator experiences to draw on when my what if voice grew too loud.
The one thing I don’t remember talking to the doctor or to anyone else about was the root of my fear. The adults in my life assumed that my New York City panic attack and these severe new anxieties were just natural developments of my nervous personality. No one asked me about 9/11. While the attacks certainly didn’t cause my anxiety, they expanded my growing list of reasons to be afraid of the world and the intensity of my fear. Now death and terror had a setting and a face—2,996 faces, to be exact—that I couldn’t have imagined before 9/11.
While I have never again experienced such a prolonged period of debilitating anxiety, I look over my shoulder at all times. I’m a young woman who is mostly alone and constantly on guard. I move places by myself—Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York (state, not city). This isn’t necessarily by choice; it just seems to happen that way. No one waits up to make sure I get home safely. Each night, upon locking myself into my apartment, I’m in slight disbelief that I actually did it. I actually kept myself out of harm’s way.
An exhaustive list of my phobias to date is as follows. Some I’ve gotten over, and some I never will: dying; family dying; pets dying; any animals ever dying; movies where animals die and/or face obstacles and/or look like my cats; Alzheimer’s; cancer; aging; guns; any weapons; kidnapping; sexual assault; any kind of assault; house fires; stove burners; choking; flying/airplanes; elevators; telephones; trees falling; lightening; vomiting; illness; reptiles; men; cities; high-rises; crowds; nightmares; scary movies; darkness; driving/car accidents; walking alone; banks (greater potential for robbery); extreme cold; mountaineering; germs; dogs; cruise ships; the ocean.
A few of these fears continue to infiltrate my brain, although I’m better at recognizing and subduing them before they cycle into a tornado. Last night, for example, I was driving on the highway around 11:00 pm when a familiar thought plagued me. What if my car drifts into the guardrail or into another lane while a car is passing? What if another car drifts and hits me? In a few seconds, I could kill myself by making one tiny mistake. I could do it on purpose right now. I could do it by accident. For a second, I wonder how it would feel. I have a morbid curiosity, my sister says. Like my dad. And that’s where I stop the thoughts. Now I can stop the thoughts.
Occasionally I will hear someone say, looking in my direction, “…for those of us who are old enough to remember 9/11…” The problem with this remark is that I was old enough to see and remember the attacks and the aftermath. I resent the idea that 9/11 didn’t affect me because of my age. As a child watching what truly did seem like the end of the world, fear became built into my consciousness. Being so young meant that I internalized the fear of a nation when my own identity was still forming. I understood that I was growing up in a fundamentally unsafe world when my mom banned me and my sisters from opening the mail and playing in our front yard unsupervised. Unlike the adults of 2001, my country’s fear developed with me, in me. No matter where I go, no matter the context, I don’t feel safe. In my mind, there’s always a possibility for terror of many kinds. I saw it with my own eleven-year-old eyes.
Samantha is a New York-based writer behind Samantha Paige Rosen Writing & Research. She contributes to The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Week, and other publications. Samantha is earning her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College’s Creative Writing, Nonfiction program, where she wrote this essay. Follow her on Twitter: @samanthaprosen.