I slept in that day. It was already 10am when I woke up and got myself together to meet a friend for brunch, at PJ’s Pancakes on Nassau Street.
I had just moved into my dorm for my senior year of college. My roommate and I got lucky and were able to select rooms with climate control. Air conditioning at the opening and closing of the school year in New Jersey felt like a luxury.
My building was at the bottom of campus. Princeton is situated on a slope; the oldest buildings at the top of the hill, near the town center, and the newer ones downhill, nearer to Lake Carnegie.
As I walked up through campus, past university gothic buildings and brutalist atrocities, a fellow student leaned out of her fire escape and yelled to the window next to hers. Something about the Pentagon.
I thought I had misheard her.
Maybe the Pentagon’s just on my mind, I thought.
You see, I had interned there that summer. One afternoon during my time there, I joined the other interns for lunch, in the building’s center courtyard.
We used to call it Ground Zero. Because that’s where the Soviets would have aimed their ballistic missiles first if the Cold War turned Hot. It was a joke. They served decent french fries.
But as I sat, I noticed commercial jetliners flying over head. Washington National Airport is only three Metro stops away. A little voice in my head said, it would be so easy to redirect a plane into this building, right here. Where I’m sitting.
That was August.
A month later I joined my friend for pancakes, a rare indulgence on a student’s budget. The restaurant’s PA system played a local radio station. We were within the orbit of New York City, an easy 45-minute ride away on New Jersey Transit.
No music that morning. Just talk show hosts trying to decipher what had happened downtown.
At that point, we and others who had decided to spend their Tuesday morning at PJ’s thought that maybe a small personal plane had collided with one of the towers. A Cessna with a pilot who spun out of control. To even think that it had been deliberate, let alone several commercial jetliners, had hardly crossed any of our minds… at least for those of us who hadn’t seen the television footage yet.
But the urgency of the news started to eat at me.
My friend and I want back to the basement of the Clio club, a Greek-revival building that was the home of Princeton’s elite debate team. They had a large television, and several Clio members were already there, glued to the local news.
Then the station showed the Pentagon. The smoking, gaping hole in its side. Raw, angry, and helpless. Or maybe that was me.
Mom, I thought. Mom is going to be so worried. She’s probably calling me right now.
But these were the days before we were incessantly glued to our cell phones. I had left mine in my room, because I never needed it.
I told my friend, “I need to go. Right now.” And I booked it back down the hill to my room.
I tried to call my mom. The line was busy.
Then I tried to call my brother. He lived in New York, worked downtown, and lived in Chelsea. I knew he frequently had business at the southern tip of the island, and I hoped that my parents had somehow reached him.
But the line was busy.
I called my then-boyfriend, who worked in Washington, DC, at a potential terrorist target.
And the line was busy.
So I sat. And waited. And turned on my television.
Then I saw it. The towers falling. Over and over again.
Sirens. So many emergency sirens.
People covered in dust.
The behemoth of debris engulfing the streets as the second tower fell. A person lucky to walk away from the scene scrambling to duck into a local convenience store to escape the tidal wave of rubble.
Over and over again.
That evening our belly dance company had our first rehearsal of the school year. Half of our members didn’t show up. We couldn’t blame them. But I thought that showing up was the only thing that I could do. If I had nothing else in the world, at least I could dance.
We stumbled through our choreographies, dredging them up from our memories after a summer off. Those of us who attended expressed the same sentiment: What else is there to do but dance?
The rest of the school year was a muddle. I wrote my senior thesis on the failed counter-terrorism policies of the Reagan Administration. My roommate, Moroccan and Muslim and a New Yorker, fielded emailed death threats to the university’s Arab student organization. We tried to attend an Arabic party at NYU, only to have the police shut it down before we got there. Mom told me that my brother was supposed to take Flight 93 that morning, and had decided to wait a few days.
As everything seemed to unravel, dance anchored me.
When the world around me collapses, I hold fast to movement and music and community. When I am empty, have no more tears, and feel helpless, I know that dance will comfort me, fill the gaping holes in my heart, and give me hope.
When all else feels lost and broken, dance is always there for me.
And on days like this, I must remember that it was dance that wrapped its arms around me, and told me that although the world would never be the same, I could still move. Even when the world would have me paralyzed.