We all remember how bright the sky was that morning. There was no premonition—no bruised veins in the clouds, no horizontal rain—that hinted to anyone that within a few hours, all the clocks in civilization would stop, and we’d begin to measure time again in a different way.
The previous evening, my husband and I had returned to New York from an anniversary trip to Paris, where we had been married 10 years earlier.
Like travelers throughout the centuries who returned from France with trunks full of silk undergarments, lace and gloves, my bags were bursting. I had new brown suede boots, a pile of fancy tights, a black wool suit and a pair of navy satin slingbacks with the soles already scuffed from one last, late dinner on the Rue de Lappe.
For my son and daughter, I had trinkets and coloring books and Babar figurines. There was still a franc in September 2001, and it bought a lot of stuff. At Charles de Gaulle airport, I headed to duty-free to snag three jars of face cream, at $250 a pop, which my friend had asked me to mule for her.
The next morning, I chastised her on the phone: “You owe me $750,” I said, “Which frankly is a huge waste of money.”
“It’s amazing cream,” she said.
“It’s a boondoggle, admit it,” I declared. “It’s the same as Neutrogena.”
I had unwrapped my spoils from Paris on the couch in the living room, and it was a festive sight. Torn sheets of tissue paper—violet, white, mottled brown—rested beside semi-opened boxes, resembling the aftermath of a birthday party. Pulling my bathrobe behind me with one hand and hiking up my pajama pants with the other, I slipped on the heels and modeled them in the mirror.
“They’re perfect,” I crowed to my friend on the phone. “I’ll wear them forev … .”
“Turn on the TV,” she interrupted. “Something bad happened.”
The news anchors scrambled to explain the goings-on in downtown Manhattan. I froze. That day my son had started first grade at a school in the West Village, just a mile up from the towers. My husband had taken him early and headed north to a work project two hours away. My friend and I murmured a few optimistic nothings and soon ceased our chatter. The local story about a plane gone tragically awry had already begun to unfold into what it would soon become.
We hung up the phone. I regarded my new packages with tenderness, as if they were already relics from a simpler time, one that was suddenly and utterly gone.
I shed the high heels, and threw on trousers and flip-flops. I stood by the door frantically awaiting our baby-sitter, who walked in confused but with her customary good cheer. She knew something was amiss but hadn’t stopped for details as she raced to work. I kissed my daughter Ava—who would soon be 4—goodbye and left her with a pile of new toys.
I bolted down Hudson Street to collect my son, and as I did I saw the first tower collapse. It took a while for me to eject him from class; the school encouraged the parents not to alarm the kids, who sat in a circle singing “Down by the Bay.” Reason had drained from my system, and I argued with the head of the school.
“How do you know the plane wasn’t loaded with a dirty bomb?” I said, or maybe shrieked, to her. She eked out a gentle smile, as if my question had been rhetorical. My insides were erupting, my arms twitching so desperately from wanting to feel my son’s moving, living body in my arms. “What I mean,” I said, emulating calm, “is that we could all be dead by the end of the day, and if that’s the case I want to be home with both of my children today, and immediately.”
I drifted into the classroom in that haze that arrives alongside tragedy, where faces blur and even nearby voices sound as if they’re piped through a distant, malfunctioning PA system. I relaxed when I saw my son, who was wearing his Derek Jeter jersey. It struck me for several reasons. First, he usually wore it to taunt me, a Bostonian genetically prone to loathe the Yankees and their fans. Second, earlier I had made him wear a dreaded collared shirt for his first day of school. We had argued about it, and he held back tears while I combed his hair and asked him march back to his room to change into the yellow polo he despised. Then, I piled a ham sandwich, pear and bag of Fritos into his lunchbox and sent him off with his father, while I stayed home with his little sister.
I wondered if he had snuck the baseball shirt into his lunchbox, or if my husband had conspired, or both, but it no longer mattered.
As we exited the school and began to walk, our faces kept turning south toward the burning tower. A call came through to my cell phone. My husband was hysterical. He couldn’t make his way back into the city. The toll station at the Saw Mill Parkway had already closed, as had the roads.
My son and I clutched each other’s hands and kept walking, but finally we stopped.
“Ray, as hard as it is, I think you should look at this,” I said. “This might be the most important thing you ever see.” It didn’t occur to me to shelter him from what I knew was imminent. He obliged, and stared at the flames as if he were watching a movie. “I’m pretty sure everyone’s safe,” he said and tightened his grip on mine.
“Just say a prayer,” I said, realizing that a fallen Catholic was appealing forcefully to the God I was completely estranged from.
“This is bad, isn’t it,” he said, eyes fixed on the smoking building.
“Yes, baby. It’s very bad.”
The second tower snaked its way down to the ground and as it did, I struggled to keep my knees from buckling.
“I’m glad everyone got out,” he said, looking bewildered as he scanned the transfixed crowd. People stood open-mouthed in horror, but there wasn’t a single sound as they clutched their chests or bent at the waist in nausea, or supplication.
I pulled my son close, and for second or an hour—I’ll never know how long—we stared at the plume of ash that rose to the sky. Already, we could sniff poison and death in the wind. I didn’t consider what I might be taking from him, or what, as his mother, I might lose as I held my son that beautiful, dreadful morning, frozen within the stunned and silent crowd on Hudson Street. But I have never regretted the decision to make my 6-year-old watch what happened to our city and his world that day.
The urgent sound of my flip-flops and the warmth of Ray’s hand is all I remember of my walk home to Chelsea on Sept. 11, 2001. That, and the sight of my daughter when we arrived back in the apartment. There she was in her pale-pink nightgown and my new Parisian shoes, wobbling on the impossibly high heels, laughing like there was no tomorrow.
Marcia DeSanctis now lives in Bethlehem, Conn. Her work has been published in Vogue and in “Best Travel Writing 2011.”