[I saw United 93 today. If you prefer to skip the following, I understand.]
I can't always think of 9/11 without going back a couple days prior. My wife and I had taken a trip to Hearst Castle and Cambria for the weekend. During the trip, my wife started to feel ill, which was a concern because we were about six weeks pregnant with our first child at the time.
Sunday, September 9, we drove home. As we got out of the car inside the parking garage of the building we lived in, we felt a tremendous shake. There was an earthquake. Not particularly scary, especially for this here native, but it was weird to have it happen the moment we ended our multi-hour drive.
Two days later, I was up getting ready to leave for work - my job back then started at 6:45 a.m. - and I passively turned on CNN, as was my custom. I saw an image of the World Trade Center, and seconds later, registered that there was smoke, and seconds later, began to hear announcers trying to make sense of it.
The immediate aftermath obliterated anything that we felt or experienced in the days prior. We were fixated on the television and the horror. That night, we learned that my wife's cousin - whom she was not particularly close to, and whom I never met, was missing. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the WTC, and he was gone. It gave me a connection to the tragedy - a somewhat phony one, to be honest, since I never knew him - but it personalized the tragedy for us in the sense that it give us a specific family's grief to think about as the punishingly grim days passed.
And then, a few days later, it was our turn. My wife again felt something was wrong. We went to the doctor for an ultrasound, and found that the baby had not been growing the way it should have been. We then had to endure the slowest, most personally painful wait of our lives. A miscarriage - you probably don't know this until you've been a party to one - doesn't happen in a moment. It was days of my wife living with death inside her, days of living with death surrounding us. It is not the loss of a parent or a sibling or a child that has already been born. But it is very bad. You can't escape the nightmare, you just have to wait it out.
Slowly, time passed. Our baby was gone. Planes began taking off again. Amid the memorials, people began getting on with their lives. And 4 1/2 years have passed. We have been blessed with two healthy children, and we have skirted the perils of life in the 21st century, from plane flights to crossing the street with a toddler by my side. Last weekend, my 21-month-old son pushed open our front gate, and I spent the better part of the evening thinking about what might have happened if for some reason I had been distracted.
Around the same time, when I read the reviews for United 93 saying how powerful the film was, I knew I had to see it. My wife, who would sooner stick a fork in her eye than go anywhere near that movie - she says she still relives the terror too often in her own mind - asked me why, and I couldn't tell her. I didn't really know why. I just told her I needed to see it. Given the opportunity to leave work a little early today, I went on my own to the theater. (It had to be on my own.)
The movie began, and immediately I was tense. I've never been tense at the start of a movie, ever. I have a habit during some movies - and I promise you it's unconscious for a few moments before I realize I'm doing it - to sort of squeeze the napkins that I have with my popcorn or whatever like I'm John Wooden coaching with his rolled-up program in his right hand. Once I realize it, I sort of continue doing it as a silly homage to Wooden. Today, though, in the opening minute of the film, I grabbed the napkins and rolled them up on purpose. Call it pathetic - really, I understand - but I felt I needed something to hold on to. Something to grip
It was because the movie grips you and I swear, it does not let you go. Again, it was unlike any experience I've ever had. Normally, if a movie starts to get to me - whether it's a garden variety horror movie or some insistent human drama (the night before and morning of the final battle of Glory comes to mind), I can step back if I need to and say, "This is just a movie." And I can breathe like a non-simpering human.
But I don't think there were 20 seconds in this nearly two-hour film that I was able to do that. I realized early on that I couldn't say, "This is just a movie," because it wasn't. For one moment, I tried to think of bigger horrors, and the December 2004 tsunami came to mind, and that gave me a moment's freedom from United 93, but the movie immediately pulled me back in, and didn't really let go of me long enough to let me think of another release mechanism. The only other moment I could step back was when I tried to understand why, as the passengers overtly prepared to fight the terrorists, why all the terrorists didn't try to barricade themselves in the cockpit. Once I understood, I was back in.
I felt I was in a room - not a plane, that would be too precious - but in a room that no matter how much I stepped back, the room would extend back behind me, elastic, a rubber room, egg-shaped, dark with only the light of the movie in front of me. It wouldn't let me bust out the back end, not even close. As I pushed back, the back of the room pushed me forward. Not harshly, but insistently. There was no getting out.
I didn't cry much. The only time I cried was when the passengers began making their farewell phone calls to their families. That pulled the string on me. Otherwise, it was just a riveted, relentless ... if the word hadn't been defined altogether differently in A Clockwork Orange, it could have been invented for this ... horrorshow.
When the plane went down, I just rolled my head back, like I was watching someone pass away quietly. It was not a jolt. It was the culmination of watching someone who had been on life support - because we knew the plane was terminal when the movie began - reach the end.
I didn't linger in the dark theater for the closing credits like I normally do. I was due home. As I walked out of the theater, there was a strange phenomenon. From the moment I saw the usher open the doors of the theater, smiling the friendly but timid smile of a good working person conscious of what her clientele just has experienced, the tables had turned. The world was offering me escape from the movie, and I was resisting. I wasn't ready to let go of the horror. I passed people in line for the Mission Impossible sequel; I passed someone recruiting for a future movie screening. Music played in and around the cinema - a song ended, and the next one, ridiculously, was Earth, Wind and Fire's "September." I passed people walking toward the ticketing area, and I felt this undeniable separation. Of course, anyone over the age of roughly 9 remembers 9/11, but they weren't going through it again like those of us who had just seen this movie were. I didn't feel superior, I didn't feel inferior. I just felt I was walking in a different plane.
As I got in my car - and I apologize for the Wonder Years-style revelation, but this is how it happened - I solved the mystery of why I needed to see United 93. I needed the reminder of how it felt. I didn't want to forget the people we lost. I didn't want to forget the baby I lost. As nice as it has been to let the fever of September 2001 dissipate, my life isn't real without it.