This story may not be what you expect. This is the introduction of a novella that I have been working on for over a decade. It is the story of the parallel struggles of two people to come to terms with cognitive dissonances in their memories of loved ones that they lost on 9-11. It is the story of the random encounter of a fire fighter’s widow with the younger brother of one of the hijackers.
It is not about wrapping ourselves in Old Glory and singing the anthem. Nor is it about pacifism. It is about humanity and healing. Through their eyes, I hope you will see not propaganda that has wrapped itself in the flag and rhetoric to the exclusion of even common sense and respect for basic tenants of human rights. Instead, I hope you will witness the real human tragedy of that day, which changed us all forever.
The human mind has this tendency only to remember good things about the dead. Especially given the heroic manner in which so many died on 9-11, it is even more natural to glorify them all. But the truth is that 3,017 humans, including nineteen hijackers, died when those planes hit the Twin Towers. They were humans with both good and evil in each and every person. In this story, there are no heroes or demons – just people trying to cope with a tragedy.
Of course, all people in this story are fictional and merely the creation of an overactive imagination that has witnessed too much of the human condition to believe in black and white or good and evil. It is about taking the first steps towards healing, accepting the truth, and seeing in shades of beige.
September 11, 2021 8:30am
Gail rambled through the park in Jersey City. She knew that everyone assumed she would be joining the other families at Ground Zero. The truth was that Gail rarely had anything to do with the other families. Their presence somehow made her feel even more a fake than she already did.
The truth was that for Gail, 9-11 had been a blessing. Her husband, who had died so heroically that morning, was a great fireman. But he had also been abusive to her and their sons. It was a side of the tragedy that no one, not even herself, wanted to see.
Gail had been just eighteen when she met and married Tim, who was a decade older and already a firefighter. The irony was that they met when she sprained her ankle running to make it to work on time in the South Tower. She had been bright-eyed, a recent high school graduate, who was so excited to have landed a temporary receptionist job at one of the trading companies in the big, shiny apple of New York City. It was quite an accomplishment for a Jersey girl.
Of course, the laughing blue eyes, dark curly hair, and seemingly endless broad shoulders of the mature firefighter had almost made her completely forget the pain in her ankle. He and his partner had bandaged it before transporting her to St. Vincent’s. Almost before the ankle had healed completely, she had become romantically involved with Tim. It had been a whirlwind three-month courtship before they ran off to Virginia Beach to elope. With her years of training, looking back now, Gail could recognize signs of trouble common in many domestic violence relationships. But she had been young then and had seen the possessiveness as romantic.
They had barely been back from their honeymoon when things went terribly wrong. Tim had been working nights when he arrived home a little before eight. Gail had been sleeping in late that morning. The exhaustion was most likely caused by a pregnancy of which she was not even yet aware. Tim had pulled the covers from her, and before she was fully awake, he had used his heavy booted foot to kick her from the bed they shared.
“Get up, you lazy whore. Where’s my fucking breakfast?” He demanded as he began to toss his clothes randomly about the room. “I didn’t marry you so you could fucking lay around the house getting fat all damned day,” he spat with vitriol that she had never heard before.
Even almost thirty years later, Gail could remember that morning so vividly that it was almost like going back in time. When she did not move fast enough, he had dragged her by the hair to the kitchen, where he oversaw each of her moves as she cooked his morning meal. She had cowered silently in a corner as he consumed his food. Then without a word, he had disappeared back into their bedroom, leaving her to cry for hours in shock and fear.
Over the almost decade they were married, the abuse was to escalate. Gail had even discovered a pattern. Tim was more likely to lose his temper, as she had come to excuse his behavior, if things had gone badly at work. If there was a big fire or he lost someone, then she had come to walk upon eggshells. She had learned to cook things just the way he liked. She kept the cleanest house on the block, despite having three young boys. She had done everything she could to create a perfect world, but it never seemed to be enough, especially on those days.
She shivered, despite the warmth of the early fall morning, as she remembered her first thoughts that morning. She had dropped her older two at school and had settled their two-year-old in his highchair for his snack. As always, she flipped the television on in the family room as she began to clear the breakfast dishes and straighten the kitchen.
But instead of the cheery smiles of Good Morning America, the screen was filled with the images of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. She knew that Tim, who was on days that week, would be one of the hundreds of New York City firefighters responding that morning as would several of their neighbors in the quiet Brooklyn suburb.
Unlike her neighbors, the other wives, her first thought was not of the danger into which her husband was running. It was the danger that she and the boys would face from his anger that night. She immediately placed the chicken she had been thawing back into the fridge and pulled out steak. Perhaps it was futile, but she would try with all her might to avoid another beating. The bruises on her arms and ribs were still a faint green from the most recent one.
When she watched as the buildings crumbled to the ground, the possibility that Tim was trapped inside one of them was not even in her mind. She redoubled her efforts to scrub the sink, her fingers already reddened from the bleach. Of course, she heard the wailing from houses around her. Still, she cleaned, mopped, and vacuumed. After silently picking the boys up from school, she returned home to begin dinner, making sure not to overcook Tim’s rare steak. By that evening, the house was perfect, and his favorite dinner awaited him.
But Tim never walked through the door. Instead, there was a phone call. His captain told her that he had been in the South Tower and was missing in action. Gail was numb with disbelief. But a part of her was also relieved that this night at least she had escaped a beating. Still, she had expected him to walk through the door the next day. So again, she cleaned and cooked.
Looking back, she was confident that her behavior seemed odd to friends and family that began to gather at their home. The people only made it more difficult, of course, to keep the house clean. By the end of that first week, she was exhausted and had begun to wonder if Tim would ever come back to them. That thought alone brought conflict. She had clung for almost a decade to the good memories: that dazzling smile that had first won her heart, the loud ring of his rare laughs, and even the hundreds of tearful apologies and promises that it would never happen again.
Of course, there were darker thoughts too. Chief among them was relief that perhaps she would never have to endure another beating or protect their boys from the harsh words or too rough spankings. Then Gail would look around her at the truly grieving and devastated widows that were her neighbors. She would be filled with guilt at such an odd emotion as relief.
By the time that the second week came and went and with it all hope, Gail had withdrawn further, if that were possible. She kept the boys close to her as she politely dismissed the others that had invaded her home. She felt that she could no longer keep up the façade of the distraught widow, especially around Tim’s brothers, who had begun to impose their wills upon her and the boys. Like Tim, they had strict expectations of what she should do and how she should feel. After so long under one tyrant, she would not easily fall under others. Of that, she was determined for her boys’ sake.
Over the weeks and months to come, there had been other battles. The damned money seemed to draw out the worst in Tim’s family, who demanded that Tim would want them to have control of it for the boys’ sake. Of course, they pointed out that she knew nothing about managing finances; that Tim had always controlled the money. It was not a pleasant reminder of the man, whom Gail was trying to mourn in earnest.
Then when they found Tim’s body several months later, it was another string of arguments about the funeral. Gail did not want to be the center of some spectacle that drew huge crowds. She preferred a private and modest farewell to the man that she had both loved and feared. It was though a mixed victory: she kept control of the money but acceded to his family’s need for a huge traditional Irish wake.
Approaching the benches that overlooked the water and offered a clear view of Ground Zero, Gail was reminded again of all that had happened in the past decades. She was here today to try and make some sense to all of it. To find closure as those in her field would say. She feared that it would once again prove an elusive dream, but still, she tried. Not only each year on this day but every day of her life since that horrible moment.
Seeing that a man was sitting on the bench that she had always favorited for these musings, Gail almost turned back towards the car. But something kept her going, just as it had during those dark and confusing days, months, and years since that day. It was as if her body continued to do what was expected of her, even when her mind screamed out at the fallacy of it all.
Standing at the edge of her bench, as she had come to think of it, she looked over the slumped figure with dark hair and eyes as haunted as her own. It pulled at the counselor in her as other people’s troubles always did. She knew that a part of it was that when she dealt with the problems of others, then for a moment, she could ignore her own. But today was about dealing with her own, so she fought back the professional desire to probe the younger man’s thoughts and feelings, and instead simply inquired, “Is this seat taken? Do you mind if I sit here?”
Jamil looked up at the woman. His mind had been thousands of miles and almost twenty years away. He did not relish the thought of any disruption this day, which was one of the reasons he had avoided the bustle and crowds of that place, but not the only one. He knew that he would not be a welcome presence there. Then again, when was the last time that his presence had been truly welcomed anywhere? He nodded his dark head with its traditional, short-cropped hair. He tried to ignore the woman as he focused on the task that brought him to this place. Today of all days.
Growing up as they had the sons of an Egyptian bureaucrat, their lives had been privileged. Their father had begun his career in public service under Anwar El Sadat, a man whom he held up to his sons as a visionary for his peace treaty with Israel. Even Jamil’s mother, his father’s second wife, had been an American educated Christian. While the family professed Islam, as did the majority of their countrymen, they were not extremists by any means.
He still could not fathom how it had happened. How had the older half-brother, whom he remembered as a laughing and loving teen, become a man who could murder so many people? How did Abdul, his mentor and friend as a child, come to do such an unthinkable thing? Even after almost a decade of enforced solitude and another of self-imposed to consider the issue, Jamil still could not fathom it.
Of course, Jamil had been a mere boy of twelve when Abdul had left the family home outside of Cairo to study engineering at a German university. Over the next six years, he had only seen Abdul on the rare visits home, but during those trips, his brother had seemed unchanged to the teen. Of course, Abdul would call home to speak with his parents on occasion as well, but his father complained that most of those calls were only to ask for more money.
For him, the brightest memories were September 10th. He had just begun his freshman year at Boston University, an accomplishment of which both his parents were proud. He would study computer technology and return to a post his father would arrange in the government. He was adjusting slowly to the new surroundings and people, but he was also homesick for his large, extended family.
So, he was delighted when his much loved older brother called him that Monday afternoon. He had just finished classes for the day and was studying in his dorm room. He was surprised when his brother suggested that they meet for dinner. Jamil had no idea that Abdul was in the United States. The last he knew, his brother had been working in Germany. But he was delighted at the opportunity to see and converse with someone from home.
Over dinner, Jamil had noticed that his beloved older brother was at moments precisely as he remembered him. But at other times, he seemed distracted and distant. Jamil assumed it was the result of too many years apart.
The evening had ended rather abruptly when his brother received a phone call. He had stepped away from the table for several minutes, and when he had returned, he had said that he must go. He had hugged his younger brother warmly and then shook his hand firmly. His final words to him would stay in Jamil’s mind forever. “Remember, little brother, I have always loved you. Nothing will ever change that.” Then he was gone. Forever.
He had been in a calculus class the next morning when the news began to spread of the attacks on New York and Washington, but in his mind, it had nothing to do with the visit of his beloved older brother. Even when the news announced that two of the planes had originated there in Boston, Jamil’s thoughts had been hope that his brother was not on either of those planes. He never considered that his brother might be one of the hijackers.
The next evening when two men in dark suits knocked on his dorm door, Jamil was shocked when they began to question him about his brother’s visit. It was the look of shock, and then fear and hatred on the face of his roommate and new friend that shook him most. That night the men had left after only a few moments, but silence had reigned in the small, plain room the rest of the night.
The next day though, other men in suits had arrived at the university while he was in the computer lab. They demanded that he go with them. When he stood up, they shackled his hands and feet. They practically dragged him from the room as the eyes of all the other students followed them. Those eyes were filled with the same fear and hatred that he had seen in his roommate’s the previous evening.
It was the beginning of an ordeal that was to last over eight years and, in some ways, continued to this day. He was taken from the lab to a darkened SUV. The men said nothing more throughout the drive to the airport. He was loaded into a plane with several other men that he did not know. They took off in silence for an unknown destination. One of the men had dared to ask where they were going. His only response was a backhand across the face and a bag over his head. The others had taken the warning and remained silent for the journey.
When they landed, similar bags were placed over the heads of the other prisoners as well. To this day, he never knew the places he was taken in those early days as he was transferred from one interrogation site to another. In fact, it had been sometime before he even knew of his brother’s death and the reason he was being detained.
Eventually, he was not sure if it was weeks or months later, he was transferred to a sunny place overlooking the sea. The irony was that the rare glimpses he caught of the tropical paradise belied the harsh torture and isolation that he endured. He lost track of time and place. He would spend long periods alone in his small cell with nothing to read or do and only the most basic of food.
Then for endless hours and days, he would be subjected to interrogation and torture. The worse was being forced to maintain the same positions for days upon a time. Even now, his back would still bother him if he remained in the same position for too long, a twinge reminded him as he shifted nervously on the park bench.
Of course, Jamil had nothing he could tell them. He knew nothing about his brother’s activities. He, himself, had no involvement with Al Qaida or any other radical group. He knew only of a loving older brother that would take him on long walks as a child. Eventually, his captors began to believe the truth of his assertions. He had thought that would result in his release, but it did not. Instead, they began to allow him to mix more freely with other prisoners, only to demand that he share with them any secrets they revealed.
It had been a dilemma for his conscious. He did not agree with the actions of terrorists, even his brother. But were these men any different from those terrorists? They had snatched him from his life without trial and imprisoned him without rights. They continued to hold him, despite knowing of his innocence. In the end, practicality had won out. He had chosen to spy upon others in hopes of winning his own freedom.
He knew now that he had been taken to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Gitmo, as it was called. He knew too that he had remained there for almost eight years until a new US President ordered its closure. Even then, it had taken months as the authorities decided what to do with him. He learned during this time of his mother’s death, likely from a broken heart as the result of the loss of a son and step-son. His father had lost his prized career as a result of the suspicion. Now he lived in a less affluent area further from the city. His health, too, was deteriorating.
Jamil had returned to Egypt when he was released. His reunion with his father was tense. As if his father blamed him as much as Abdul for the shame that had befallen the family. His father was stooped, and his face was drawn in pain. They spoke little in those days. Then one morning, his father did not wake up. Jamil was now alone. Alone in the world. Perhaps as he had been for a very long time.
He had not been able to find a job, haunted as he was by accusations. Finally, he had decided to return to school, but this, too, proved challenging. How did one explain a lost decade? Finally, with the help of the US embassy, he had been accepted into a small college in California. Instead of studying computers, he now studied psychology. He hoped eventually to understand his life and family even more than helping others.
This day, a decade after it all began, he had decided that he would start that journey with a trip to where it had all began. He had not thought himself capable of braving the actual place where his brother and the others had taken the lives of so many innocent people. But after some research on-line, he had discovered this park that overlooked the site, a safe distance from others. He had come here before dawn. He had watched the sunrise on a clear, beautiful early fall day. It was almost identical to that other fateful morning.
“It is a beautiful day, is it not?” he said almost without thought.
The woman turned to look at him. Gail admitted curiosity. The man was obviously Middle Eastern. Not that it bothered her. One of the things that bothered her most about that day had been the assumptions that everyone made. They all assumed that those who died in the Towers were innocent victims. And they blamed Muslims. But hatred and prejudice did not stop there. All people of Middle Eastern descent were clouded in suspicion, even the innocent ones.
Gail knew the truth. No one was truly innocent or purely evil. It was a struggle, sometimes daily, that she had come to accept as she learned to mourn and accept the flawed man that had heroically given his life for strangers even as he abused those he loved.
She nodded, “Yes, it is.” As her own thoughts went back to another morning, just like this one.