It’s one of my earliest memories in which I suspect I’m sociopathic. The girl across the hall was having a fit that morning. She threw a tantrum over something every morning.
“They blew up the subway!” I heard.
I dismissed it. I showered and readied for class. As I pulled on a t-shirt, I checked CNN.com. It was down. That was a first. I didn’t know it could go down.
I stopped in the Commons building to check my mail. There was one cable television in there. Both entrances to the TV room were stuffed with people. I looked over a boy’s shoulder and watched the plane hit the second tower. It was probably a replay.
I couldn’t move. Not for terror or awe, but because that’s what I felt the room wanted. In social situations I’m keenly aware of what I think is acceptable in the group. In seconds I had all the news the TV had to share. I was ready to leave. No one else was. I only knew that walking away would break an unspoken covenant with these dozens of stunned strangers. That was my strongest feeling.
“Bullshit,” I heard from my left. “Bullshit. This is why everyone hates America.”
It was the Eastern European accent of one of my few friends. He was a prickly personality. We’d met during a Shakespeare workshop. When I confessed to the workshoppers that I’d taken it because I found his works unbearably stilted and desired understanding, everyone but him stared. He laughed his ass off.
Now he was cursing his ass off in two languages. His face scoured all the silent Americans, seeking argument. Most eyes remained on the TV, but some shifted with indignation. It grew hotter without the temperature going up.
I got up and touched his shoulder. He tensed as though to clock me, but I spoke before he could ball up a hand.
“Why don’t you tell me about this?” I asked. It was all tone; I don’t really know what I meant. I only knew that the attacks on TV were raw voyeurism, and that this was an act of violence I could actually prevent. My tone of voice engaged him enough to follow me into the mail room. There, he was completely unable to articulate what offended him. Something to do with our media and our excessive self-pity. After two minutes of spitting and spinning in place, he departed for class. So did I.
I sat in the classroom, greeting my fellow students and letting them know why everything was cancelled for the day. In half an hour, I went to the lawn for the dean’s little speech. I spent hours lending shoulders for people to cry. I knew enough to get out of the way of kids whose relatives might actually be in jeopardy, and enough to check up that no more attacks had happened. Once it seemed certain that it had ended with the fourth plane, my mind actually shifted to thoughts that if I could write a book about this fast enough I might ride it to publication. I knew enough to chastise myself for the thought, even though I didn’t feel shame.
There was no fear for myself or country. I knew enough to go stolid when others came around. I knew enough not to say a lot of things. I wondered if everyone around me was acting, or if the majority possessed empathy I lacked. Was I fundamentally broken? Or were they all going through imitation shock, out of the same social instinct that had kept me glued to the TV room?
But then, my potentially broken self had defused the situation with my foreign friend. Later I heard from two people that I’d probably saved him from a fistfight. And my potentially broken self knew enough to want to appease and help others around me all that day, and for the ensuing weeks. It was just that something in my head went too immediate and pragmatic to be shaken by tragedies from afar.
Ten years later, I’m still not comfortable with this feature about myself.
No, that’s not true. I feel like the group would prefer I wasn’t comfortable with it. Just like I felt I shouldn’t post this story until 9/12.