The sun shined that day, the sky the color of a robin’s egg, the air smelled of back-to-school. The night before, the office supply stores had lines around the corner for mothers to buy two-pocket folders, the teachers to buy plastic boxes from crayons and pick up stacks of photocopied worksheets. When summer bleeds into fall, when people wear sweaters, shorts, sandals and boots. And I was outside, and we were outside. How could we be inside? And the blue sky was filled with smoke over the river, through the bridge, the exodus left, covering their mouths. And everyone was calling everyone and me, with no Cable TV, could no longer listen to public radio, and the fear swelled of taking the subway to the city where we worked, of new attacks, of never leaving Brooklyn again, of running out of food and water. I filled every glass and bowl with water and looked to see how many bags of rice I had and cans of soup were dusty in my cupboard. When I could get a phone line, I talked with Alka, Chitra, Fariba, Habiba, Jaishri, Prerana, Rekha, Sarita, Seema, Sharbari, Sunu and Tamina. What would happen to us? We all collectively prayed–let it be a crazy whiteman like from Oklahoma. Don’t let it be one of us.
It was a game I did not want to play on the bus, or the train. The game of yes-I’m-brown-but-I’m-not-Muslim-and-if-you-knew-anything-about-Indian-history-you-would-know-that-assuming-a-Hindu-Punjabi-girl-is-Muslim-well-that-is-a-sticky-assumption. I did not want to play the game of us-vs.-them that I had heard my whole life, of how Muslims and Pakistanis in particular were violent and out to destroy India. It was never a belief I held about Muslims in India, nor one I now held about Muslims at American airports. But the looks that I felt on the bus burning into my skin made me realize how little these differences mattered over here, where we actually live, and where I look like a terrorist’s wife or sister. I wore more sunglasses that Fall on the train and bus than I ever had before. I didn’t wear my typical ethnic printed blouses, scarves, and jewelry that could be recognized as being from “over there”. I wore a yellow ribbon on my purse and jacket, because I couldn’t quite stomach donning an American flag.
But the real reason I felt so emotionally unstable is that as the towers crashed, I knew my marriage was collapsing as well. My husband, whom I had been with since I was 16, was working in London, and he was growing more and more distant. When I called in his hotel room, he sounded annoyed. And after the towers fell, we probably spoke sometime that day or the day after, he expressed again and again “I’m so glad I’m over here and not there.” The sense of community I felt with my South Asian women friends, my own family, my colleagues, and even the New Yorkers on the bus, was this feeling of collective weariness. A compact that we were not interested in going to the World Trade Center site and posing for pictures, and that sometimes, there was nothing to say at all about that day. As nothing we could say could possibly be adequate. When my husband left the city for that three-week assignment, he left any sense of belonging and kinship to anyone here, especially me. And when I would think of his not wanting to talk to me, and intuitively knowing he was not alone those mornings I called to say “good morning”, it would often be on the M14bus. And I would start shaking and sobbing. The entire city was feeling post-traumatic stress. And someone looked at me, as I pushed the sunglasses up, to wipe my eyes, and she would start crying too. Was she crying because of the towers? Did she lose someone there? Or was the loss somewhere else? Or was she feeling the loss trickling away at that very minute, off her skin, down her leg, and down the dirty, black grooves of the bus floor?
Weeks later, I turned 26. I received a bouquet of roses with a handwritten card from a 60-yr-old retired English teacher florist, read: “Happy Birthday. Sorry I can’t be there to celebrate. Thank you for hanging in there.“ I celebrated that birthday with a few friends, most of them brown, all of them scared. No one laughed too much. No one drank too much. No one danced. We sat there. And I tried to not let the constant shaking of my legs make the whole table vibrate. We had some cupcakes. But none that had candles. The idea of a tall candle with a flame on top would have been grotesque. No candles.