I didn’t know it at the time, but September 11th was never going to make a great anniversary.
Just days before the event that would shape the course of history, I had started at a new school in downtown Brooklyn, just across the water from the site that would soon become Ground Zero. I had recently been unceremoniously asked to leave my all-girls school for a combination of lackluster academic performance and back-talkery, and I was eager to start anew at the progressive, co-ed Quaker school I would soon be attending.
I showed up on my first day in an entirely matching outfit — red cardigan, red platform sneakers, red crystal hoops and matching nails — and quickly found that I was out of my element. The other girls, most of whom were clad in skintight wifebeaters that served only to highlight their brightly colored lace bras and matching thongs that rose from their baggy sweatpants, were understandably wary of me.
However, for the first time in my life, the boys weren’t.
I had only been in school a few days before I noticed boys taking notice of me. It wasn’t that this hadn’t happened before — I had dated and hooked up with guys — but it was the first time I had been treated like an equal, someone capable of being a friend, girlfriend or simply a classmate, not just some weak-willed debutante waiting to be picked.
It was during this time that I met Kieran. A tall, skinny, punk kid, who had recently moved to New York after being signed with a modeling agency, he stood out from the tracksuit-wearing boys who referred to me as “shawty” and had few pick-up lines other than asking me to get high with them.
During the two classes Kieran and I took together, he began passing me notes, most of which contained unsubtle questions regarding my feelings about members of the basketball and soccer teams. While I found myself attracted to him, I was inexperienced and, having recently broken off a terrible relationship, unready to start a new one.
We had only been back in school a few weeks when a teacher ran into our class meeting and informed us that a plane had landed on one of the World Trade Towers. Confused by this news, we stayed in our seats, murmuring to one another our ideas about what this could mean.
The teacher turned on the local news, which told a different story. Planes had been flown into both towers by unknown assailants and the two bright beacons that I saw from my bedroom window each night, examples of New York’s unique mix of hubris and excellence, were gone. An announcement came over the school’s loudspeaker system, informing students to contact their parents and leave the building.
On the streets, it was chaos. Cell phone reception throughout the city was blocked as people tried frantically to reach their loved ones. The air was thick with dust as policemen handed out surgical masks and water to pedestrians. As I made my way through the crowd, Kieran and a few other people I recognized found me and told me they were going to a girl’s house nearby.
As we walked along the promenade toward her home, we were transfixed by the thick plumes of smoke rising into the air, captivated by the thick white dust falling around us like snow. Standing on the edge of the river, Kieran took my hand as the water became blanketed with scraps of paper and debris, and we watched the sky burn.
After days of watching from my window as FedEx trucks, serving as portable morgues, lined the streets of the city, my mother sent me to Boston while she figured out her plan of attack. During the 10 or so days that I spent out of state, Kieran called and texted me constantly, asking if I was OK and making plans for my return.
When I returned to the city, something had changed. His presence made me feel safe, and the indescribable fear we shared that day felt like a secret we shared.
Soon enough, we had met each other’s parents and were spending weekends together, sleeping over at one another’s houses, going to shows together, and sneaking off to grope each other at parties. We had been seeing each other consistently for months, until one day, reality barged in.
I was sitting in the school cafeteria doing work when, out of nowhere, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen came and sat down next to me.
“You’re Sarah, right?” she asked. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” She introduced herself as Alex, and mentioned that her boyfriend, Kieran, had told her that I had been a major source of support to him while she had been gone.
“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “I know he’s had a hard time making friends here, but I’m glad he’s had someone to talk to. We should all hang out sometime.”
She went on to explain that, in addition to spending part of the first few weeks in school on college visits, the events of September 11th had destroyed her family’s Battery Park City apartment, forcing her to spend two months living with family out of state.
I confronted Kieran soon after and he explained to me that the two had been hashing out the details of their breakup when September 11th happened. Not knowing what to do, he laid off the subject while she was away, only to realize that she didn’t know it was over.
Over the next few weeks, I began dating someone else, and my friendship with Alex grew. Soon enough, she and I were inseparable, which was equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking. While much of our relationship was based on the awe she inspired in me through her combination of fearlessness and talent, spending one day drinking and shoplifting and the next screening her precocious short films at festivals, I was constantly overwhelmed with guilt about the secret I was keeping from her.
Over the following year, my relationship with my boyfriend began to dissolve, as did Kieran and Alex’s. In addition to their growing drug use, an unwanted pregnancy finally toppled their already unsteady relationship. As Alex began to spend more weekends away showing her work, Kieran and I began to hang out again, rebuilding our relationship as friends.
One drunken night, while crashing at a friend’s house after a party, we found ourselves in bed together again.
Kieran and I spent the following year attending college in the same state, getting together when we could, both at school and at home. It wasn’t until the summer after my first year in college that I noticed his behavior changing. Instead of the funny, sensitive man I had grown close to, I found myself still attracted to his superficial charm, but increasingly frightened by his aggression toward me.
He would alternate between being taking me out on romantic dates and sending sexually explicit messages about the (sometimes violent) things he wanted to do to me.
Alex, who I still saw with some regularity, was worried too. While she didn’t know about our relationship, she knew I was still close friends with Kieran, and confided in me about his bizarre behavior. A few nights a week, she would receive calls from a blocked number and a man, who she suspected was Kieran, would leave her threatening messages.
While at first I was unsure about her stories, I came to believe her when I started receiving similar calls. The calls to me, much like the ones to Alex, were a bizarre mix of death threats and sexual fantasies, and often incorporated a few bars of music, quotes from movies, and any loud sound the caller could muster.
I tried talking to Kieran, but any questions I asked about his life or the calls were met silence.
Later that summer, I found out from Kieran’s parents that he had been kicked out of college for failure to attend class. While I assumed he was in school, he had been staying with friends, and falling deeper into drug addiction. During this time, he had gotten in contact with his biological mother, and had decided to move south to live with her.
Although I had spent the past few months trying to get him out of my head, he begged me to meet with him before he left. Afraid of what he might do, I asked two friends to accompany me to the restaurant where we would be meeting.
When we arrived, the man I saw was not someone I knew. He looked bloated, having packed at least 60 pounds onto his slight frame, and had let his hair grow long and shaggy. His face was pierced with countless spikes.
“Hey,” he said, between sips of the two (I so wish I was joking) pitchers of beer he was drinking from. “Is that faggot your boyfriend or something?” he whispered, indicating at my friend.
I stayed for a while, listening to his drunken ramblings and fending off his sexual advances, until, suddenly, he was gone.
Shortly after returning home that night, his parents convinced him to enter rehab. It wasn’t until he had detoxed that Kieran was diagnosed with schizophrenia. While I knew little about the disease, the combined wallop of his drug and alcohol addiction and his illness made his erratic behavior make some sense.
These days, Kieran is sober and living out of state with a girl who he was — shocker! — also dating during our time together. While we have limited contact through Facebook, I am glad that he’s found a life that seems to work for him, and that I am no longer a part of it.
Alex, too, has moved away, and found success in both her personal life and career. We still keep in touch and see each other from time to time, but there will always be something, whether she knows it or not, that both bonds us together, and keeps us apart.