I was 25. I lived in Chicago. My marriage was barely a year old. My one-year wedding anniversary was coming up and already my journal was beginning to show the signs of strain. ("Do I want this? What do I want? What do you want, Mandy?" reads one entry.)
My parents were divorced from one another during that time. My dad was on the first of two fiancees he would have during this five-year span, and I remember on September 11, 2001, asking him if he would even care if my mother died. "More than you'll ever know," he said. Somehow, that felt like a victory to me at the time.
I was writing about buildings as the Twin Towers fell. Building buildings. High buildings. Buildings of excellence. I was churning out propaganda for a propaganda-writing job as a fundraiser and ghostwriter for the president of Northwestern University. That job taught me how to swing into the minds of the people who rule the world. An anecdote, a quotation, a turn of phrase. Big picture.
We didn't go home from that job as the world seemingly fell apart. We stayed. I wrote about excitement, innovation, pride, synergy, cross-fertilization and magnificence. NPR blasted throughout the building. A woman in a finely tailored suit wandered the halls and said, "It's really happening, isn't it? It just keeps getting worse."
I went to class in the evening because I was going to become an English teacher. I was going to have a nice life as an English teacher with a husband in Chicago and not have to deal with the heartbreak of the writing life. I couldn't be hurt with this life. There would be no rejection or failure as there is for a writer. I would be calling the shots. I would be an English teacher. That would be my identity.
Classes were not canceled that day, the very first day of the new school year. It was the very first day of my life as a graduate student. I was taking "Neurophysiology of the Brain," to fulfill my science requirement. I biked onto the campus of Evanston, where I had gone as an undergrad, and the class started right on time. My instructor was sweet -- an apologetic PhD who seemed nervous and distracted.
"I guess you could say," she said, looking down, "it's been kind of a bad day." She rifled through photocopies in her backpack. "Is there anything anyone wants to get off their chests?" A woman at the front of the class raised her hand and turned around to face all of us. "I have something. To get off my chest. My brother was in Tower Number Two, and if he hadn't left the building to go have a cigarette, he'd be dead right now." She turned around. None of us knew what to say.
Who knew what to say that day? It was all wrong. Everything was wrong that day. The truth was wrong. The lies were wrong. The day was wrong.
My journal entries during this period -- which rip up my insides to look at now -- reveal none of these details.
Mostly, they just have drawings.
The drawings are childlike and fragile. They are begging the universe to be held, to tell me that it will all be OK.
I look back at these entries, and I see such a scared young woman. My heart goes out to this woman. My heart goes out to all of us on that day.
Who were you then? Is it hard for you to look at, too?
Do you think maybe that's the point?
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.