There was the moment right before we knew what was going on. I remember the backs of the kids walking into the classroom ahead of me. They already knew. I could feel it. Everyone could feel it. the air was charged. People were crying and the room was silent except for the tv and the crying.
I was in 8th grade and I sat down in my plastic chair. I put my backpack down in front of me and stared straight ahead at the screen. I thought we were watching a scary movie at first but that made no sense. The teacher still said nothing. She just stood there glued to the screen like the rest of us without giving us any guidance or information. I am sure she did not know what to say. Some kids had their faces down on the cold metal desks. I saw them turn away from the people jumping out of the buildings on the screen. I could not look away. I could not make sense of this. I felt numb. I could not hear the words that the news reporter was saying. Maybe the teacher muted it because it was too much or maybe my brain muted it for the same reason.
We walked from one classroom to the next that day but did not make any attempts at algebra or biology. We watched the tv in every class. My school did not have enough tv’s for every classroom so our teachers quickly identified who had one and we all crowded into that room. We sat there criss-cross apple sauce on the floor and waited for the adults to come to their senses and comfort us. But the adults did not know how to comfort themselves and they were not ready to comfort us.
Weeks passed and my mom was worried about me. The silence and the numbness continued for me which terrified my mom because I am by nature neither of those things. Big feelings and lots of words are kind of my go-to personality traits. “I ran into V’s mom at the grocery store the other day….I told her that you have been really scared and sad about all of…this…stuff going on….and…and she said that you can come over to her house for dinner.”
I did not know how going to V’s house for dinner was going to make any of this make sense or bring me back down into my body. V was a year older than me and I had never even hung out with her outside of school and sports let alone go to her house. I liked her, I guess, but she wasn’t exactly a friend. I tried to talk my mom out of it, but she had decided I was going and I didn’t have the heart to fight about it.
I had never sat down for a middle class family meal. Dad. Mom. Older Brother. V. The family Dog. A big wooden table with matching chairs. This was not the best stage to get me to open up. I felt like a fish out of water here. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and looked down at the plate. I had always wanted to have family meals like they do in the movies. I had always been so jealous of the big families like the Winslows, The Tanners, you know all those tv families of the 90’s. Mom and I barely had dinner and even when we ate food together it was just in the living room. I can’t remember sitting down with my mom for a meal even one time without it being a holiday or something.
They were talking all around me and I could tell it was meant for me even before they directed it at me. It was like watching a performance of a family conversation vs. an actual meal conversation. Everyone would talk to each other, but then look at me.
“We are going to get THEM!”
“Yea, they don’t even know what’s comin’! America is coming now. They are about to get blown to pieces by AMERICA!”
I tried to force a few small bites of food past my swollen throat. I could not choke anything down but I did not want to be rude. I tried to smile but it felt unnatural.
Finally the mom spoke directly to me. “your mom says that you are really feeling scared? Well, honey, I just wanted to have you over here to show you that this country is full of STRONG men, I know you don’t have any men at home, and we are not going to let anyone hurt you or any other Americans!” She looked approvingly at her teenage son and husband. This started them in again.
“That’s right. We got the strongest military in the world! We’re gonna kill so many terrorists!”
Masculine strength is a beautiful thing that I do love to witness but I would not say that it comforts me. I am actually terrified of male violence so any kind of aggression or even this kind of talk makes me go into fight or flight mode instantly. My tolerance for it is so low that even just a man flipping me the bird on the interstate can send my heart racing. I just don’t like it at all.
They went on like this all night until it was just awkward to still be sitting there. I shoveled the last few bites into my mouth and thanked them for dinner. I knew I was supposed to say something in response to this performance but I truly had no idea what words to use in this setting.
The mom put her hand on my shoulder. “Well dear, I hope you are feeling better knowing that you are not in this alone. All of America is in this together and we are going to win! We always win!”
I declined a ride home preferring to walk alone in the dark with my thoughts. Again, not at all like me. I almost never prefer to be alone.
My mom was on the phone when I walked in. “Oh! I gotta go, Crystal Fawn just got in. Love you. Mmhmm. Yeah. I know. I know. Mh hmm. Ok. Love you. Gotta go!” She hung up the phone and smiled at me expectantly. “Well, how was it? You feeling better?”
Why my mom thought that strangers would be able to soothe my fears with their talk of violence and war and winning will always remain a mystery to me. But I appreciated the effort and it was clear that for whatever reason that was what she had to give me. Maybe she just didn’t know that much about it herself and did not know how to answer my questions. I needed someone to talk to. To just hear myself say outloud the terrible things that we watched on those tv’s at school and to ask someone what it all meant, but instead I just said, “Yea, ma. Thanks. Love you.” and sat down beside her on the couch. I picked up the afghan she was crocheting and crawled under it’s weight. “Who is this one for, mom?”
“Oh, your cousin saw me making one for the girl at church and she got jealous so I’m making her one now!”
Mom focused on working the hook through the yarn in her hands and I curled up next to her. We had no television or computer to fill the room with the news so we sat there in silence. Just the swish swish swish of the needle. I closed my eyes and listened to that repetitive sound. I felt my mom’s arm move up and over like a machine in the same motion in rhythm with the sound. The cheap yarn of the afghan was scratchy on my bare legs. I was so close to my mom that I could smell the Poligrip in her dentures. I did not think of the towers or the airplanes or the people falling. I did not think about the big men who were going to kill terrorists for America. I just sat there, like I had a million times before, next to my mom. I did not feel safe exactly, but I felt the comfort of having a mom.