“The trains are running again,” she said. She smiled at me as I joined her in the kitchen. “You can go home today.”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. My head hurt. It pounded, actually. But I was so relieved that I smiled back. I sat down at the table and gazed around the condo. Bright morning light filtered in through the windows. Her Scottie scampered around our feet. It was a beautiful day. She was calm and relaxed, which made me calm and relaxed, even though I was tense and afraid. I didn’t remember finally falling asleep the night before, but the beating of the helicoptors must have lulled me out of consciousness.
She walked me to the subway, hugging me before I got onto the train. I thanked her for letting me stay at her place. We’d just met two days before, my first day at the studio. She was a producer; I was an intern. The studio, which was in Queens, was like a dream to me. My whole life I’d wanted to go there. Now I was there, wondering if I’d get to leave. When the trains were shut down I was told I could spend the night in a dressing room. And despite the fear and mass chaos on the streets, I was kind of excited. I couldn’t help but wonder whose dressing room I’d get. But when the producer found out that I commuted three hours from Philly and was stranded, she insisted that I come home with her. We got take-out and talked like old friends. She set me up in her guest room and as I struggled to sleep, I wondered how long I’d be her guest.
Later the next morning I watched her wave until she was gone and in her place was a tunnel. I started to shake. I did not want to be back on a subway. I looked around. Everyone was quiet. Alert. Looking around. But also attempting smiles, and including one another in conversation. Where were you? Is your family okay? Did you know anyone? I’d never felt such companionship on the C train before.
As I walked from the subway to Penn Station, the only buzz was quiet, pleasant chatter. The vendors were all out, but no one was pushing products. No one was begging. Everyone was smiling. Saying “hi.” Talking to each other like neighbors the morning after a hurricane when all the power was out and everyone remembered that they had friends living next door.
Even Penn Station was subdued. It was packed, but no one pushed past each other as the location of the trains were unveiled. They just walked together. Calmly. I felt like a zombie as I ambled along with them. I’d be home in three hours if there weren’t any problems. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to actually get on the train if I hadn’t been caught up in the sea of people boarding…or if I wasn’t worried about having to stand the whole time. I sat down by a window, wishing the train would just move already. Before something else happened.
“Good morning,” said the conductor. “Welcome aboard the New Jersey transit. Please put away all of your tickets. We’re so glad that you’re with us today. This trip’s on us.”
I started to shake again, but couldn’t cry. The woman next to me did. The man across the aisle put his head down. As we left the city some of the thoughts I’d been too afraid to entertain started to break through. I pushed them back. I wasn’t ready. Even though I loved New York, I didn’t want to return. Ever. I didn’t want to get on another Transit train. Another subway. I didn’t want to be that far away from home again if something else happened.
But there was something inspiring about being part of the city on 9/12, and on the trains going home. It didn’t matter how far we moved from Penn Station, or how many people exited or boarded, or how the crowds changed in Trenton to the SEPTA heading into Philly. No one wore headphones, or ignored the person next to them. Everyone smiled and acknowledged each other, drawn out of themselves and onto this historic front porch that extended over a hundred miles, city to city.
And as I raced up the final steps from the Orange Line to the street I spotted him right away. My husband–my new husband of not even six months—waiting for me on the corner. I felt his arms around me before I could really take him in. It was there that I cried. Truly cried. Embraced how scared I’d been as the reports of other attacks surfaced the day before. Afraid that we might not get to stand together on the streets of our home. That I’d never see him again.
But here he was.
Here we both were.
We were two of the lucky ones. And I’d never, ever stop being grateful for that.
©2012 CEK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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