As it was. As it is. And as it may be. When I was five, I had no way of distinguishing one from the other.
September 11, 2001 Brussels, Belgium
Early morning light illuminates the frost that has found a temporary home in our backyard. Each blade of grass glistens as sharp as a knife. Only the second week of senior kindergarten, and fall is already coming.
I lay in my parents’ bed, watching Star Wars, while Mommy makes me porridge. We always sleep together when Daddy is away. I’ve been sleeping in Mommy’s room for a long time now; I can’t remember the last time Daddy was here to read with me at night.
Mommy comes in with the porridge so I sit up with good posture. She doesn’t like when I spill on the sheets. The hot milk burns my tongue, but it’s soft on my loose tooth. So wiggly now, the Tooth Fairy must be getting ready.
“Time to get dressed for school,” Mommy says, petting my head. My bangs are growing out; they stick up all over the place until she clips them back with my multi-coloured barrettes.
I wear purple leggings and a fuzzy pink top that Aunt Louise says looks like the shag carpet she used to own. My barrettes don’t match but I don’t mind.
We stop at Julia’s house on the way to school to pick her up. Her mom is in the hospital having another baby and her dad has to stay home to take care of her brother, Theo.
Julia slides into the back seat of our silver Beetle Bug, smiling at me. Blonde hair, blue eyes, the image of Sweden. I’m blonde and blue-eyed too but we aren’t the same. I speak English and she doesn’t. The kids in our class at school are split into people who can learn French and people who still need to learn English first.
I’m not happy about sharing my colouring book. I’m an only child; I hate when people touch my stuff. We sit in silence for the rest of the long drive to Waterloo, she colouring the right side of the page and me the left. I give her the markers that are all dried up so maybe she will get fed up and give me my book back. She doesn’t, just smiles.
I look out the window as we pull around the round-about in Waterloo. There’s the Pizza Hut, and the Carrefour grocery store and a couple other shops I recognize, but then suddenly we are swerving off onto a side road. None of these streets are familiar.
“Mommy, where are we going?” I ask.
“School,” she says. “But we’re going a different way today.”
“Is that because of what happened to Maria?” Julia pipes in.
Mommy glances at us in the rearview mirror without answering. “Don’t you worry,” she says. “It’s just for fun.”
But it wasn’t just for fun.
My nanny, Tina- she picks me up from school so Mommy can have dinner ready by the time we get home. But she’s not cooking dinner when Tina and I get home.
“Hello?” Tina calls, locking the front door behind us. We walk into the kitchen and she takes my back pack from my shoulder, tossing it onto a barstool. A stack of plates has been left on the counter next to a pot of Manwich that somebody has left to burn on the stove.
“In here,” Aunt Louise calls from the living room. Her voice is muffled by the walls separating us but that doesn’t stop me from hearing the tone. Anger? Fear?
My hand is snatched up and I’m pulled down the hall, back into the foyer and towards a collection of voices, all different pitches, all jumbled together. When I step into the living room, the noises engulf me. I don’t know what’s going on but the hysterics around me push tears into my eyes. I realize that part of the sound is from the television, volume up high. It’s the news, not in English, probably French, but I know it’s the news by the little crawler that goes across the bottom. The other noises around me are human and nothing like anything I’ve ever heard before. Noises so raw they make me instantly nauseous.
Mommy, huddled over the phone on the sideboard, heaving uncontrollably, jamming a number into the keys with all her might. Aunt Louise, collapsed on the chesterfield in front of the television, hands across her face, screeching like an angry bird.
“I need to know! I need to know!” Mommy roared at the receiver.
Whoever she was speaking to didn’t have much time to respond before she decided the answer wasn’t good enough.
“Damn you! Damn you!”
Tina, who I had forgotten was standing beside me, put a hand firmly on my shoulder as if to stop me from going further into the room. We are flies on the wall of a very unusual scene. Nobody has yet to notice we are standing in the door frame - and in retrospect, that was probably a good thing.
A newly-provoked scream fizzles from Aunt Louise’s mouth, choked out by another onslaught of sobs and hysterics. I follow her gaze of horror and we watch together as a plane flies into a massive office building. The nose of the plane makes contact with the concrete structure and suddenly the television shows a mass of dust and flame. No more building. No more plane.
“DAMN!” Mommy starts up again, smashing the phone into the wall.
“What’s happening?” I murmur. My quiet question seems to surprisingly command everybody’s attention. Tina clenches my shoulder in a death grip. Aunt Louise stares at me while mascara runs onto her blouse. Mommy drops the phone and swallows me into her embrace.
“Daddy’s meetings are there.” Mommy whispers into my ear. Maybe she thinks that it isn’t real until you say it out loud.
I pull away from her wet cheek to look her in the eyes. “You mean Daddy’s in that building?”
Mommy shuts her eyes and shakes her head, but I can’t tell what this head-shake is supposed to mean. “We don’t know where he is, Darling.”
October 11, 2001
Early morning light illuminates the frost that now creeps into the backyard each night. Each blade of grass glistens as sharp as a bayonet. Daddy has been home for two weeks.
I sit in my little wingback chair, watching Star Wars in the living room before school, while Mommy makes me porridge. Daddy’s driver has already come to take him to work. Everything is normal, but nothing is the same.
I thought driving a different route to school everyday was odd enough, before this all happened. “This” is called 9-11, Mommy says. And Daddy was very lucky to be safe. We are all very lucky to be safe.
Now we are not just driving different streets everyday to stay away from the bad people. We have a man sleeping in our guest house. He’s a guard, Mommy says, and he watches for bad guys while we sleep. I don’t like bad guys, but I don’t like strangers in my house at night either.
Daddy has always had a chauffeur who drives him to work in the morning and home at night, but now he has extra protection. I don’t know where New York is, but it sounds far enough away from here that all this guarding seems a bit much. Why would the bad guys jump on a plane to Belgium?
But we aren’t the only ones with guards. It’s been nearly a whole month since my school has been locked down. Armed guards, Mommy says they are, line the perimeter of the school grounds, standing at attention like the little plastic soldiers in Toy Story. They are still there this morning as Mommy pulls into the parking lot of the kindergarten classrooms, stopping so that the car can be searched. A buzzer opens the gate and we are motioned to continue.
I smile and wave at one of the soldiers through the back seat window but he is as still as a statue. Frowning in disappointment, I say, “Mommy, why won’t he wave at me?”
She swerves around in the driver's seat to get a good look at me.
“Machine guns are probably very heavy, Sweetie. I’m sure he needs two hands to carry it.”
The iron gates clanged shut behind us and we were met by a collection of other moms also getting out of their cards to walk their children to their classrooms. Inside the gates, the world is normal again. All I have to think about is spelling and reading, until 3:30 when the iron gates open again.
I’ve never been in kindergarten before, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be like this.
Therein lies the experience that fundamentally alters the rest of my life.