The World I Used to Know

It happened nine years ago today. Nine is an odd anniversary to celebrate, but none of us actually think we'll make it to ten. Why would we?

It was my generation's September 11th, our death of Kennedy, our Pearl Harbor. Everyone remembers where they were when it happened, or at least where they were when they found out about it. Of course, the difference is that no one's story is that "I was there." All those people are dead, which might be a mercy.

I remember where I was when the world changed.

I was waiting for my takeout order at an Italian restaurant down the street from my place when someone started screaming. Everyone frantically looked around, a roomful of people turned into meerkats. The screams were coming from a man eating by himself. He was staring at his smartphone, clutching it with both hands.

I felt that vicarious embarassment you get when other people do something ridiculous in public. I quickly pushed that down, ashamed of myself, wondering if he needed an ambulance. Was anyone calling 911?

A waitress, a tiny blond thing but braver than the rest of us, approached and asked him something in a low voice. He turned his head, slowly. I didn't hear what he said to her, but the waitress shook her head quickly in response. He thrust his phone at her face. She jerked back from him so fast I thought he had hit her. 

But no, she leaned forward. Her hand went over her mouth, and then she turned and ran from his table, her black flats urgently slapping the checkered floor.

The restaurant was silent in the wake of that. Then someone's phone rang. And then another. And another. Soon, the place was pandemonium - chairs pushed back from tables, silverware rattling on plates, people running for the doors. Outside, I heard squealing tires. A moment after, sirens.

I had left my phone at home that night, and felt like the eye of the storm. There I was, standing in the middle of a riot like a Zen master. Instead of leaving, which would have been way smarter, I worked my way deeper into the restaurant. I found two or three servers and a man in a shirt and tie clustered around the TV that hung above the bar.

When I saw the picture on the screen, I thought about all the things I had wanted to do with my life. Go back and get my degree. Start a business. There was this girl I wanted to ask out and...

I stood there with those strangers, feeling a coldness spreading inside of me. I should have left then, finally; I should have called my parents, my friends. But I couldn't. I was taking what I knew was probably one of the last moments of peace I'd get to mourn the life I wasn't going to have.

Is it wrong that I felt jealous of the dead, or the elderly? They had gotten to live most or all of their lives in the world I was rapidly leaving behind. Why wasn't I born ten years earlier? No, thirty?

Everyone else, we had to face the fact that our faith had deserted us. That's why I felt cold inside, and that's why everyone I know carries some version of that feeling with them. We were all members of the world's biggest and oldest religion; I've taken to calling it the Church of Everything Will Be The Same Tomorrow As It Is Today.

Didn't we believe that, at our core? Right up until the day our old world was swallowed whole?

It's funny, the world changes and all we can think of is ourselves. I'm not the only one who's said something like that. I guess that makes me feel better, for what that's worth. It's like how death isn't real until you lose someone you love. In that moment, we all lost someone we loved - ourselves, as we might have been.

I'm going to cut this off. I don't even know why I'm bothering to write it, or if I'll do this again. Who exactly do I think is going to be around to read? I think this is my last act of hope, which is to say, denial. If you were to lay both on a table and dissect them, would they look so different on the inside?

If I could talk to myself before all of this happened, I'd tell him to look around and appreciate everything he (we?) had. It wasn't much, but it was ours. Everything is precious when it can be ripped away in a moment. I'd beg him to renounce the universal cult we're all born into it, and live better than I did, while he could.

Because someday, the world is going to change.