(a photo of me in probably May 2001, one of very few photos of me from that year, looking nothing like I usually did and trying really hard to look like someone who might be popular in high school. this was a couple of years before I came out, chopped off my hair into a mohawk and dressed mostly in butch hand-me-downs I’d stenciled things onto, paired with those bondage pants from Hot Topic.)
There are not a lot of photographs of me that predate 9/11 that are not from the ‘90s, not from my actual childhood. On September 11, 2001 I was still a few months away from my fourteenth birthday, an awkward freshman in high school in the small town I’d lived in all my life. Shoreham, New York, is a seventy-three mile drive from where the towers once stood. It’s shorter as the crow flies, of course, or the plane. A town full of people who take the Ronkonkoma line to Penn Station five days a week, shuttling between a beach town where everyone knows everyone and the Center of the Universe. A town where everyone knew someone on that block.
I never quite know what to say about it, so I keep picking at the memories each year, all full of panic even when it sneaks up on me, even when yes I always remember September 11th but maybe I forgot that today was Tuesday and I wonder why I wake up sweating. Maybe it is a sign of adulthood that this time I knew it was coming and I slept alone for the first night in a long while and maybe I didn’t even have bad dreams. I just woke up thinking about my father, who never became a New Yorker, a thing that I have always been since birth and a title I don’t necessarily deserve, but he took that train, all that back and forth, when I was a tiny little baby who knew nothing.
I got my first camera in, I believe, 2003. My hard drive suddenly swells to fill all my young attempts to figure out not only how a camera works, but what I look like. This is still how I use cameras; to express, to document, to help me remember, to preserve, to celebrate, but also to sort through the fact that I exist in some physical form. Here I am. This is what I look like. I am a body in space. I often say that I’m a narcissist, but maybe I’m more of a detective.
There’s this stretch of time from maybe 1998 to 2002 where there is not a lot of documentation of my life – there are some physical photographs somewhere, buried in a box in my mother’s house – and so sometimes it doesn’t feel real. (Earlier than that, age 10 and under, just feels like the vague fog of childhood, an era that certainly happened although I don’t recall much of it in detail, certain moments sticking out and up into clarity like skyscrapers wrapped in mist.) These dissociated years roughly span the experience of middle school, perhaps not a surprise. Junior high is often a deeply trying time for the weird and queer. Hell, it’s a deeply trying time for almost everyone.
But a strange result of this trick of timing – a moment of real fear on a national scale, with an even more intense impact on my particular location in the country, occurring right when I was launching into my teenhood, mere days into high school – is that life prior to that moment barely feels real.
The difference between me and those several years younger than me is not that I clearly remember living in a pre-9/11 world, but that I clearly remember the moments in which we pushed through some membrane of time into a post-9/11 world, those minutes when we just hung in it, suspended in total uncertainty.
The phrase “never forget” always strikes me as so strange. There are things burned so deeply even in my faulty memory that they cannot go. I am sure for anyone who actually stood there, looking out the window, and rushing their colleagues down the stairs and up the block and off the island while the scene plays out again and again behind their eyes forgetting is not something to imply is an option. is the sentiment underneath “always learn”? isn’t it a warning for the future, for the ones who weren’t there? or a command not just to replay our memories, but to have them be understood as a part of everything that came before and also everything that comes after?
I don’t know. I don’t know anything. This day makes me feel small and afraid. This day is my first memory as a version of myself that doesn’t feel so impossibly distant from who I am now, although so much has changed.
It’s probably worth saying: this day isn’t about me, obviously, and I feel vaguely guilty even writing about it this way. I think, I should have written something eloquent about the lives lost that day, or the many lives lost later and the awful racism that some people used the suffering of that day to justify, or the incredible resilience of New Yorkers and their unique place in the national identity of this country. I also think, other people have done that better than I could. I think, I wasn’t really there, I don’t get to speak about this.
But even so many years later, I have an intense and complicated emotional response every time I look at the calendar and see it’s September 11th. Each year I find myself trying to process that, dig through another layer. Thanks for listening to me pick at old wounds.