Time Was Away And Somewhere Else

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I flew back to London to begin my final year at university. For three months, I slept on a futon in my friend Anna's spare room in a building with a doorman and a dishwasher, an apartment far nicer than I could have afforded on my meager student budget. Anna had finished with university already and had a real job and a boyfriend with a BMW, a boyfriend who only tolerated my presence in the apartment because Anna and I had known each other since we were seven. During the day, I went to seminars and lectures and the library; at night, I wrote essays on depressed postwar female poets and watched movies with Anna, many of them starring Hugh Grant. I bought a moth-eaten shearling-collared coat from a dodgy vintage clothing shop on Holloway Road---a coat that Sean urged me the other day to throw away, guessing (possibly quite rightly) that it hadn't been washed since 1968---and wore it every day like I was Pamela Morrison. It got colder and colder. The evenings got darker earlier.

And where was Sean in all of this? Sean was floating somewhere off the coast of Chile, living on an aircraft carrier, working on a nuclear reactor, and lining up to receive all his meals. There were close to four thousand people on the ship and they slept in bunkbeds stacked in threes, and Sean was more miserable than he'd ever been in his life. In all directions, there was nothing to see but water.

We'd said goodbye at the end of August in Norfolk, Virginia, a gruesome, heart-wrenching experience at the end of a beautiful summer in which I'd lived with him three blocks from the beach---our first tentative attempt at cohabitation---and worked nights in a bar with a deck that looked out over the ocean. When we parted, it was the worst thing we could imagine. We had no idea that someone would fly planes into the World Trade Center ten days later, that our perspectives would be shifted, that the world would change so grievously overnight.

If I were asked to recall the strangest period in my life, those few months at the tail-end of 2001 would likely be my first choice, so wracked were they with uncertainty and confusion. I don't know how you felt after 9-11, but I felt discombobulated, like a cork floating in water, never quite certain of anything, never quite sure. It seemed anything could happen, like the whole world was jumpy, like you could sneak up behind it and tap it on the shoulder and it would scream and spin around in fear, and see you and sigh and say "oh my god, you frightened the life out of me, why did you do that?"

Sean had access to e-mail while he was out to sea, and we sent eloquent electronic love letters across the continents, trying to bridge the gap the best we could. Talking about how miserable he was and how busy I was got old, and so we developed a routine: I would ask him a question---any question, anything I liked---and he would answer it in his next e-mail; then he would ask me a question, and I would reply. I spent whole days thinking of questions, drafting answers, weighing the merits of what's your favorite memory of us? against where do you see yourself in ten years? I printed out every single email we sent during those months, all those questions and answers, and for a while I kept them, these most revealing of confessions and collaborations. Months later, when it was all over and we were painting my new apartment in London, I showed him the sheaf of papers I'd printed and kept, and we laughed. We laughed because it was easy to laugh afterwards.

But while he was away and I was unmoored, the world was weird. From time to time, I'd buy a newspaper to see if it would reveal the location of his ship, since he wasn't allowed to disclose his whereabouts by email. One day, in October I think, there was a bomb scare on the tube; someone found a package under the seat, and we all had to get out and walk, jittery, along the platform, up the escalator, and out into the fresh air of Aldgate East, where policemen in fluroscent yellow jackets milled around, shouting. I walked and walked and walked---trying but failing to get on buses---and when I eventually made it to the university campus, I'd missed whatever lecture I'd come to attend. I went to the computer lab instead and wrote Sean an email. There was almost a bomb, I typed. But I'm fine.

Another time I was alone in Anna's apartment one evening, writing an essay on Shakespeare, when there was suddenly an almighty BOOM! from outside. The sky went bright, my heart leaped, I got that awful surge of adrenaline you feel when the phone rings suddenly in the middle of the night, and all I could think was there's a bomb, there's a bomb, we're being bombed. I ran out of the front door, down all the stairs---Do Not Use Elevator In Case Of Fire Do Not Use Elevator In Case Of Fire Do Not Use Elevator In Case Of Fire---and out into the street, barefoot in November, panting. I looked up. Above me, over the Tower of London, someone was setting off fireworks. It was Guy Fawkes Night. I caught my breath. We weren't being bombed. We were having fun.

This has all been on my mind over the last few days, I suppose, because of what's been happening in London and Glasgow: the burning vehicles driven into airports, the could-have-been car bombs, the scares and suspicion. The world seems suddenly apocalyptic again, uncertain. The stable seems unstable, even from this far away.

Jul 02, 2007

Holly, this is lovely.

I was also in London on 9/11, trying to get back home to the States. You do a great job of describing the sense of jitteriness that lasted for so long, even after I eventually made it home.

I don't know if you also experienced this, but somehow the hardest part was being away from the States during those days. I felt like I needed to be at home, to be with everyone else as they were going through it...

Nothing But Bonfires
Jul 02, 2007

Hmm, I don't think I really thought of the States as "home" then; my family was already living in Singapore (which is where I actually was when 9-11 happened), all my friends (and the extended part of my family) were in the UK, and Sean -- my only real connection to the States at the time -- was out in the middle of nowhere. But yes, it did feel weird to be removed from a place I had such a keen sense of.

Jul 02, 2007

Yes. I know this feeling. It has never really gone away since 9/11 but now it's back again and I hate it.

Unstrung Harpy
Jul 02, 2007

It's probably one of the biggest ironies of my life so far. I'd just moved to Manhattan in August 2001 and it felt like the most unstable, uncertain time of my life. I was sleeping on my best friend's sofa, trying to find a job in the city, and felt completely uprooted because I was unemployed and homeless in what seemed like the biggest, most anonymous city in the world. I was ecstatic when I finally found a decent job and an apartment to share, and had the sensation that at last everything was falling into place. My very first day of work in Manhattan? Monday, September 10, 2001. (By the way, I'm moving to England in less than two months. Do I have great timing or what?)

Jul 02, 2007

Yes, it's exactly like that. Except I don't think I ever really relaxed after 9/11... I'm overly-aware by nature, and ever since the towers fell, I've been super-sensitized to any possible danger. I think they call that "paranoia". Whatever it is, it's hell on neck muscles.

- M

Jul 02, 2007

Loved this entry, not only for perfectly summing up the general sense of unease (why does this always seem to happen each summer?), but also because it's the second mention of Norfolk (my hometown!) in as many weeks. Did you really live in Norfolk? I was already out of college and living in DC by 2001, but I always visit my parents a few times a summer, and I like to think we may have crossed paths. Albeit inadvertantly. And anonymously. And six years ago. But whatever! Where did you guys live?

Nothing But Bonfires
Jul 02, 2007

We lived in a really crappy teeny-tiny house on a street called Marlow Avenue, a few blocks from the beach. Sean had three roommates and I just crashed there for the summer.

Jul 02, 2007

I don't think any of us has felt "easy" since 9/11/01... and we all are terrorized every time we travel. No liquids? Really I doubt my lipgloss can hurt anyone...except maybe YOU, TSA NAZI, when I shove the business end of it in your EYE!

Lovely post Holly.

Jul 02, 2007

oh, don't worry about us Londoners, we're as cheerfully flippant as ever. I've never even been to Tiger Tiger.

there, see?

Jul 02, 2007

I've had that same feeling of disquiet and dread, sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, as the news unfolded in the UK this weekend. My sister in law lives in London, and when the trains and buses were bombed a few years back she immediately sent word that she and her husband were OK. Right after my big sigh of relief I felt the huge weight of guilt, because 50 or so other families weren't getting such good news. September 11 was like that, too. I knew no one who had been hurt or killed and thought, "Phew." And then the grief of losing thousands of strangers almost overwhelmed me.

Jul 03, 2007

Live has never been the same since, has it? I fly a lot, and every time I look around and see "suspicious" people sitting in my plane. I hate that I am that brainwashed by media and that such an amount of fear can be placed in your head.

On September 11 my (now) husband was at the Boston Airport, only to be send home again after boarding. Well, 'home'... he was on his way to our home in Amsterdam, where I was very pregnant and waiting for him to have our first baby. It took him 10 days to finally make it to Holland. Good thing the baby ended up being 2 weeks late, but in those long and fearful 10 days I was sure I would never see my husband again. The hormonal influence is gone now, but I still don't like flying. Or big public places, or the metro.

Thanks for sharing this post. Very well written.

Jul 03, 2007

Oh, in Ocean View! I grew up on the other side of town, near Ghent, but I know Ocean View very well - it was on both the Chesapeake Bay and Willougby Spit, and was where everyone's parents took them to swim when they were too little for the 'big waves' at Virginia Beach. I've been a huge fan of yours for about a year now - following your wide-ranging travel adventures with great interest (and a palpable amount of envy) - and it cracks me up that you were living in my little hometown at one point.

Jul 03, 2007

I didn't even know my husband on September 11th but now as things are happening around us and it seems so unsafe at times - with every trip he takes I get more and more nervous. I too felt unhinged after 9/11 for a while - wondering when everything was going to be normal again and then realizing with such a heavy heart that it was never going to be normal again!

Jul 03, 2007

Great post, Holly. I was in Oxford on 7/7, and if I had had my way, we would have been coming into London at rush hour. Thank God my boyfreind slept in. I was in London on 7/9, and I admired the people so much, chin up, business as usual. Londoners were very inspiring, in spite of the loss. I keep telling myself that people all over the world live in much worse circumstances, so... must just live, as well as can be done.

Thanks for the thought-provoking reflections.

Jul 09, 2007

You write beautifully. Everything changed after 9.11 - you summed it up perfectly.