On September 11th, 2001, I smoked my first cigarette. It was far from the outburst of teenage nihilism it sounds like. We were three idiots with no idea what we’d just seen, why we were out of school early on a Tuesday. For some reason I never forget that it was a Tuesday. We were out of school early and two girls asked if I wanted to smoke. We weren’t friends. And I didn’t do things like that. But we were out early and parents wouldn’t catch us. My mom wouldn’t know to look for me early, even with what had happened.
We didn’t know how to talk to each other. Did I not fit in or were we choking on the smoke in the air on the patio? Of course I didn’t fit in. I knew right when they asked because I yelped rather than answered. Kind of made a choking sound. We settled around the plastic table and tried to talk about It and quit. Quietly I pretended to be familiar with the ritual: fingertips, fire, breath, smoke, ash.
We’d been let out because they worried the smoke would travel, because people’s parents worked in the city, because nobody could wrap their head around this thing or pretend they had anything to teach us that day. When I got home my mom was actually there. Out early, too. All I could think of was the cigarette so I rushed to shower off the smell of ash.
If you could look at the scene on the patio I’m the gawky one. Too nervous to light my cigarette, to excited to catch some of the glow of a popular crowd I say I can’t stand. Frantic to be around girls at all. But excited. You’d see me race through the cigarette with fake billowy puffs. But something more off than not belonging. The world falling apart next door, all flame and ash and missing family members. And I’m the happy one, glad to be included in something. Making It about me. If you could see well, you’d see my brain failing to connect the thing with any concept of how seriously fucking real It is.
Fourteen years later, this is the first Fall in three years I’m not teaching about 9/11 to my students in First-year composition. Its absence is an odd sort of ache I never expected. Teaching public memorials, poetry, Falling Man, David Foster Wallace’s essay, the rhetoric of Bush’s megaphone speech—it was never easy to do but it felt important. Last year my students struggled to recover any memory at all of the attacks—they had been born only in 1997 or 1998, after all. Their accounts get less and less coherent every year but we’re about on the same plane when it comes to any insight about it. The edges blur further with each successive year and the task feels stranger, more urgent. But I still don’t know what to say about It.
That Wallace essay, by the way, is essentially perfect. Students have uniformly treated it with suspicion, and almost always turned that into vitriol about Wallace himself. They never have any interest in the best moment of the essay: Wallace falls apart and begins crying in a convenience store, then ends up making a homemade flag. The patriotism can’t be real, my students assert. Wallace is too cynical. His critical eye disqualifies him, suggests that his emotional breakdown must be feigned. But for my money that sequence—breakdown, convenience store, construction paper American flag—is maybe the best way to describe It.
When we did get back to school we started to play a new game my gym teacher called “Kill Bin Laden.” In order to get the full effect, you really need to pronounce the last word with a hard nasal a, like the first note of the word apple. It was dodgeball. Except that the last kid standing would be declared “Bin Laden,” to be punished with a “firing squad”: all of the dodgeballs and all of the other students hurling away, all at the same time. Part of me would like to think my gym teacher was oddly prescient about the paranoia we would come to adjust to over the next few years. But that’s bullshit. I know it was tone deaf, creepily violent and a disturbing game for kids to play. But I also know I felt strong when I got to be part of that firing squad. Playacting that violence felt good. It tapped into something primal, something difficult to admit.
I drive around writing this memoir all the time. I’m good for that maybe once or twice a month. Every month, since It happened. It’s hard writing without a pen, so I talk myself through the same few scenes over and over. There’s a deep, wordless knowledge of my need to process something, to take this dark shape and make it into words. So I hush the radio and whisper to myself: ash, September, birthday, cigarette. And every version of it is a failure because every time It revolves around me.
On September 11th this year, I will post this to the Internet and then I will go away. I will go to some woods new to me, sit by a lake, hide out. I will drive a car with the windows down, listen to a song about how things will be OK, and cry. I will try to remember and try to reforge my memories of It in ways that are less about me. And I’ll try to set them aside for younger and younger people, who will need to understand what all that was. This weekend I will go into a neighborhood bar I’ve never been to before, order a beer, pretend to be a regular. I will talk to myself on trails and country roads and keep the work up of processing It. And trying to make words out of this thing, for someone else’s sake.
Wade Linebaugh is the assistant editor of ‘Merica Magazine and a PhD Candidate in English at Lehigh University