On a side street a few blocks from the smoldering destruction, a couple of weary first responders, covered in a sweaty mix of soot and exhaustion, took pity on a couple of out-of-place gay boys sporting Capri pants and Kenneth Cole backpacks. “You’ll need these,” one said, handing me and Juan Pablo their masks to shield us from what was then just a putrid, rotting smell that we now know was an airborne toxic dump. The day after the disaster, obviously still suffering from shock, I agreed to hike with Juan Pablo, at that point my boyfriend of just over a year, down to Wall St. to recover anything we could from his now off-limits apartment.
Standing amidst debris from the fallen towers—a PowerPoint presentation, an old expense report, corners of photos once tacked to a cubicle—I knew that I had crossed a threshold in life. Not so much a loss of innocence. Lord, when had I ever been innocent? But a recognition of vulnerability. I had moved to New York and scored a seat at the glamorous table of magazine publishing, gathering the accoutrements of a high-flying and hard-partying lifestyle. And now all that seemed irrelevant. For perhaps the first time, I knew that I was inextricably linked to another soul—the one standing next to me.
It was about four days after the morning of 9/11 when the seeds of doubt first entered my head. I was sitting with Juan Pablo on the couch in our Alphabet City apartment and saying, “Maybe I don’t want to live in New York forever.” It was a big moment for a boy from Texas—I’d never imagined myself living anywhere else but Manhattan. But suddenly, I felt exposed, and beaten down. Living below 14th Street was like living in a war zone: police barricades checking identification, a steady rumble of heavy equipment, that constant burning smell. But every night, I could put all that aside because where I lived wasn’t nearly as important as whom I was living it with. Just being with Juan Pablo and sharing our life together was the important thing. I could be honest with Juan Pablo. And I honestly felt that I could cope with anything with him. Ten years later, I’m still here, still battling it out, still tamping down hard, uncomfortable memories that resurface this time every September.
My memories of the day are not the heartbreaking ones of loss of life. But of a passage into adulthood. We like to think we choose our life-changing moments. But as I get older, I believe those moments are thrust upon us. It’s how we react that defines us.