Two-thousand miles from Manhattan, that day tasted like Dr. Pepper and felt like butterflies in the stomach.
It felt cold, but only briefly. The chill caught me off guard. My body temperature soon rose with anxiety and intimidation and fear. "What is happening?"
Fear is what probably led me to press on. The need to assert myself as knowledgeable and ready for what I was experiencing kicked in immediately, and the heat of my anxiety burned off into resoluteness. “I got this,” was the refrain in my head. This was a big deal, and it was time for someone to take control. “I got this.”
“I got this” was all I could think as she was kissing me with Dan Rather's somber voice in the background.
Earlier that day, the morning of September 11, 2001, my family got ready with all of our eyes fixed to The Today Show. The first plane had already taken out the first tower by the time we woke up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We watched Matt Lauer and Katie Couric discuss the "potential accident" with a commuter flight. It looked awful. At 14, I was starting to understand the scope of news like this. The size of the building, the way it was struck, the city it was in. I was able to conclude that it was a terrible event.
Undeterred, I scooped up my backpack and my mother took me to school.
In the car, we heard about the second tower. It was one of the only times I can remember my mother reaching for the volume knob to turn up the radio. As we pressed on down Yellowstone Road, newscasters on the radio were saying it wasn’t an accident, though my mind was unable to grasp the possibility that we were under attack. The extrapolation of “we” from New York to Wyoming was nearly impossible.
When my mother pulled up to the curb, she hugged me before I got out of the car. One of those awkward, over-the-console hugs that, in the years since, have punctuated several awful blind dates. As I stepped out of the car, my mind was no longer on the towers in New York City. I was wondering when I'd see my new—and really, first—girlfriend. I was preoccupied with getting to my first-hour art class. I was thinking about my final dress rehearsal that afternoon for Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. The image of that first tower, bleeding smoke and ash, must have been in there somewhere because now I remember it so well.
On the TV bracketed above us in the corner of our art room, we watched the replay of the second plane smashing into the second tower. I remember thinking how incredible it was that we could get this footage, these first-hand accounts relayed over cell phones. "It's like a movie," I thought, an observation that many people much closer to Ground Zero made that day, too.
By third or fourth period we were told that school was closing. I’ve learned in the years that followed, from friends who grew up in Minnesota or Virginia or California, that every town had its own reason for letting school out. In the case of Cheyenne, it was because we were sitting on the largest stash of nuclear missiles in America. Up until that moment, we had always been proud to be “Home of the Peacekeepers,” with three on display just outside the secure gates of Warren Air Force Base. Now, they seemed like a liability.
We hovered around our lockers, lingered in the halls. I can't remember at what point I finally found my girlfriend, but we were soon holding hands. She was excited to see me. We were getting serious. Two weeks in, this was my longest relationship, but between us we didn't have a lot of free time. When we did get a chance to hang out, we were often at the mall or seeing bad movies with friends. It was anything but intimate.
When I wondered aloud how I’d get home, she suggested I ride the bus back to her house and call my mom from there. I realized what had been suggested: a few hours of uninterrupted time together. My hand was unpleasantly sweaty, but she was nice enough to not let go.
The bus was buzzing with theories about what had happened. By that point we also had learned about the Pentagon and the attempt on the White House. My thoughts drifted to my mother, who worked in a government building. It was too low for a plane attack, that much I knew. A bomb? Lone gunman? It was horrifying to think about. A soft squeeze of my hand tugged me back to the present. We were only blocks away from my girlfriend’s house now.
She lived in the Avenues, the nice area of town—walking distance to all the fast food places and the best music store in the city. She had her own house key. At my house, about three miles away from Cheyenne’s pooling growth, my family left our doors unlocked. There wasn’t anything worth walking to on the dirt roads in my neighborhood. We were both 1,800 miles from New York City.
Her mother, a reformed hippy, was in the kitchen. We stood there, awkwardly talking about what this meant for America and us. I hadn’t yet thought of the attacks as political, and I tried hard to keep up as my girlfriend and her mother talked about Bush, Gore, Muslims and war. When we tried to slip away to basement, her mother told us to stay in the living room. “I just want to make sure there’s no funny business,” she said.
My girlfriend grabbed two Dr. Peppers from the mini-fridge in the bar, cracked open one of the cans, and took a pull of soda. As we heard her mother scoot her chair back into place upstairs, I turned to make a remark about how much of a bummer it was that MTV was running CBS news coverage. Before any words could come out, I felt my girlfriend’s cold lips on mine. Her kiss, completely unexpected, tasted like Dr. Pepper.
As I fumbled through this inaugural make-out session, Dan Rather relayed that al Qaeda was suspected in the attacks. With my arm around her, we watched the replay of the towers coming down. Then the footage of the Pentagon. Then years-old clips of Osama bin Laden. I remembered to call my mom, who said she’d come get me. Then I turned back to my girlfriend. We kissed again, unsure of what else to do. This was the most comforting thing I could think of.
We slowly ascended the stairs to find our moms talking. Their political identities diverged, yet they seemed to be in agreement over what had happened. Later, when I’d hear people speak wistfully about how united the country was in the days following 9/11, this was the image I recalled. My mother, an elected fiscal conservative, nodding in agreement with a left-wing woman who had a hyphenated last name.
As we drove home, my mother told me that she thought we had been attacked, but this would make us stronger as a country, that this could maybe even create a post-partisan America. I’d always felt like I was faking my way through political conversations with her, but here I was, starting to form my own opinions about what had happened that morning. And she treated me as an adult, sparring with my ideas, lowering the volume on the radio so we could listen to each other speak.