Here’s my belated 9/11 story. My wife and I had just arrived in India a week before to spend the year. (Everybody back home had been worried about us before we left. “Take care of yourselves over there,” they’d all said.) We were staying for the moment at a small hotel in the little southern city of Panaji. The place, which had probably been an old estate house, was drowsy, damp, and as dark as the inside of a wooden box, its walls and floors the deep ferrous red of the local earth. We’d eat our breakfast on the upstairs veranda as bees the size of plums hovered around the overhanging banana tree and a couple of young French women ignored us from a few tables away.
We were out to dinner when the planes hit. By the time we came back, the towers had collapsed and the other guests—all of them European—were looking out for our return. They stopped us on our way to our rooms, led us to the television. “The World Trade Center was attacked,” a German guy explained. “The towers have fallen down.” My first response was stunned incomprehension. The World Trade Center? There was a building of the same name, we had learned, in Bombay. The one over here? I thought. But only for a second.
We took our seats. The other guests were silent—maybe out of deference (this was our tragedy), maybe out of respect, maybe they just didn’t know what to say. I sensed them waiting for a chance to offer us their sympathy. But here’s the thing: I didn’t want it. This was our tragedy, indeed. They couldn’t possibly understand. Besides, they usually hated us, didn’t they? Why pretend otherwise? I was angry at being cut off from what was going on back home, at being so far away from our friends and family, from the city I loved, at not being where I wanted to be. I was angry at these people for not being Americans. I wanted my wife and me to be alone.
My wife, I should say, felt exactly the reverse. She wanted, I sensed, to connect with the people around us. We often had this problem: she would send out friendly vibes, and I would counteract them with my freeze-rays. So ashamed was I in retrospect at the way I behaved that night, so much did I regret the lost opportunity to make a human connection, that in the days and months to come, as tourists and Indians alike reached out to us—rare, representative Americans—I followed her lead and allowed them in. But that night, as usual, I won.
The TV was bolted to a corner of the ceiling, and the only channel it received was Fox News. First we got Newt Gingrich. Then we got Pat Buchanan. Then we got Al Haig. It was like a trip down Republican memory lane. “Who are they going to roll out next?” I finally snorted. “Barry Goldwater?” Then came the news that the president was circling in Air Force One. The German guy—he was just about the only other guest who hadn’t left by that point—made a critical remark, something about a coward. I knew this was a way of reaching out to us, the offer of a little shared Bush-bashing, but I couldn’t stop myself from acting like my suspicions had been confirmed. “It’s a perfectly understandable security measure,” I snapped. “What do you want them to do?” A few minutes later, he left, too. I had gotten what I wanted. We were alone.
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