Thirteen twenty-somethings piled off the bus, shouting and shoving like the little kids who would arrive at the school later in the week. Hauling buckets of seawater, marine organisms, and pockets full of shells, we tromped across the dunes toward the building that held the auditorium. Aquariums waited inside, ready to be filled with moon snails and seastars and gallons of freezing saltwater: the teaching tanks of a residential ecology school located on Maine's rocky coast.
Water splashed into the tanks and onto the floor, bottles of ice were brought out of the freezer to lower the temperature, and we pressed cold fingers against each other's necks whenever someone got distracted. Some of the kelp disappeared when we dared each other to eat it but most of the plants and animals did find their way into the aquariums. Meanwhile, the directors were having a conference out in the hallway.
The practice lesson at the tidepools had been a long one, starting when we boarded the bus at eight o'clock on Tuesday morning. Breakfast had been even earlier, and by the time we finished setting up the aquariums it was after noon. We were all hungry and restless and we couldn't imagine what Drew had to tell us that was more important than lunch. Couldn't it at least wait until we were in the dining hall with communally grown veggies in front of us?
He took us all into the teacher's lounge, waiting until we were sprawled across the couches with the petulant looks that come whenever young people are deprived of food that they consider well-earned. "A plane crashed into the World Trade Center this morning," he told us without preamble. "Another one hit the Pentagon in Washington D.C."
I was on the oldest couch, the one with orange flowers and green pillows, and I don't remember who sat next to me. It was probably Lauren. But I remember looking across the room at Alexis, next to Greg on the new leather couch. She caught my eye and frowned, reflecting my own uncertainty. What was the punchline? Why was Drew telling jokes when we could be eating lunch?
He kept talking, uncharacteristically serious, quietly telling us a story that I belatedly realized would be in very poor taste, were it in fact a joke. It wasn't.
Bilen's home is burning. It was my first real acknowledgement that the news he was giving us meant something, was true, had an effect on actual people. She'll have been evacuated by now. She's watching her home burn on television. Again.
Fourteen days before, I had been standing in the lobby of the World Trade Center, making fun of my New York friends for thinking this building had anything on a redwood. After finally getting fired from Camp Hell we threw everything in the back of my car, hit the interstate and headed south to enjoy two weeks of unexpected freedom during the last golden days of summer. We ended up in New York City, staying on Long Island and taking the subway into Manhattan every morning. We ate, we saw the sights, we ate, we walked, we went clubbing and we ate some more. It was the antithesis of everything camp had been and we reveled in it.
Now it was buried under smoke and debris. Manhattan was blockaded and burnt and busting at the edges with hurt and horror and the haunted looks of people who wouldn't speak for days. Melissa's brother was one of them, one of the walkers who saw the towers fall from the back of a pickup that couldn't make it over the bridges before they were clogged with people fleeing the devastation. Bilen was another, leaving her Brooklyn apartment with less than she'd had when Eritrea erupted into civil war two years before, seizing her family's home while she was away at school and forcing her into exile in the US.
My sister says we're lucky.
"We're so lucky," she says, two years after September 11th. "Lucky to live in a country so safe that our first reaction was to think it was a joke."