Freshman year began a couple of days before that early morning in Astoria, New York. But instead of attending class, I was heading to an immigration office for my appointment. I ate breakfast then put on dark jeans and a soft pink shirt with small sleeves. I packed a backpack in case I got out early and made it to school. I never did much with my hair during that year, mostly because I rushed for fear of being late, an ongoing dilemma at the time.
My dad took off work that day and drove us in his 1998 burgundy Toyota minivan with the heavy door. (Years later he would find that car in Corona after all its interior parts were stolen.) At the immigration office, my fingers were smudged with black ink, pressed onto white cards, and later I was asked to initial my name multiple times. We left, thinking I would be able to go to school, since it was still before 9 a.m.
On the highway heading home, we were listening to music at a low volume, and with my parents talking and my own thoughts, I couldn’t make out the songs or when it switched to chatter. I recognized a radio personality, but her voice was more subdued than usual. She was a popular host on Hot 97. I raised the volume. I heard something about planes and bombs, and I quickly changed the station. I kept changing the radio station, but they were all talking about the same thing. “Escuchen estan diciendo algo.” “Listen, they’re saying something,” my dad said, and told me to stop changing the stations. My mom was also not paying attention, until two radio announcers from a news program began describing a scene.
“They’re saying that it was a plane heading to…”
“The north tower was hit, and we’re seeing a lot of smoke right now…”
“We have confirmed reports that …”
“Witnesses said a second plane…”
“They don’t know if this was the pilot or someone one else…
In that short car ride the bursts of information left us disoriented: the tower, smoke, fire, running. I could envision a dark, sinister future. Their words were turning into fragmented images of what was unfolding. It was too outlandish to be true, too violent to be close to home and be factual at the same time. There was a mood of confusion in their voices, as if they didn’t believe what they were saying.
“Algo paso.” “Un atentado.”
“Something happened. An attack,” my dad said.
In my 15-year-old mind, I didn’t want to comprehend, “Un atendado.” We were no more than 30 minutes from those buildings that we often forgot about in our view of the skyline. “We have to pick up your sister,” my mom said. I held my backpack hoping everything would get solved. Could this be a depiction of a movie? Was this going to turn out like those fake snow days that never amounted to the real thing? “Only a few inches of snow,” and with that school would be back on.
When we entered my sister’s school everyone was rushing in the main office — phones were going off and parents were waiting to pick up their children. No one knew anything. While we waited, I asked my mom about what I heard on the radio. “Creo que es algo serio. No se lo que esta pasando.” “I think it’s something serious. I don’t know what’s happening,” she said. They finally dismissed my sister, who was confused and needed time to come up with her own questions. School had suddenly stopped, but teachers didn’t give them any details. “It was sad; kids were happy to go home without knowing why,” my sister said years later. “It was something bad, and we were told to line up in the lobby, so our parents could pick us up.”
When we got home, we turned on the T.V. and those words from this morning were pieced together with images, which flooded my mind, until I chose to stop watching in fear of not being able to see anything but the towers falling, and people sitting by those windows, as billowing clouds of smoke overtook the narrow streets.
Some of my friends who we’re in school, told me they were in the cafeteria having breakfast or in gym class when teachers told them what was happening. Some kids chose to get close to the window, thinking they could see it for themselves. Our school was next to the East River, but you could only see the smoke from far away. One of my friends whose school was in direct view of the towers said, her teacher let them stand by the window and watch across the river where the clouds of smoke expanded and curled up to the sky.