Before 9/11, Jake and I were restless in our youth. We were at college but not so strictly following the blueprint. Didn’t really have any interest in academics. We spent most of our time getting wasted and sleeping in. There was no hurry to declare our intentions for our lives. Eighteen and unburdened.
On that September morning, we were sitting in the English building on campus when our poetry teacher, Ms. Schaffer, ran by us, looking bewildered. Wild-eyed. She shouted, though not to us specifically. “Terrorists are attacking the pentagon!” Then she ran off. Seeing as Ms. Schaffer was always a few crayons short of a rainbow we didn’t really pay it much attention. Terrorists attacking the pentagon? What would that even look like – a Schwarzenegger movie? A bunch of ski-masked men with AK-47s storming through the woods of Virginia? Then another professor came through and told everyone to head home, the school was locking down. Jake and I ran as fast as we could back to our dorm room and turned on CNN.
I think Hollywood special effects had fucked me up in terms of dealing with the scale of the catastrophe. When we saw the footage of the planes going into the towers for the first time I know I should have felt something else. Something more. Maybe it was shock or disbelief, but it didn’t feel real. Later I felt bad about not feeling overwhelmed. Like my brain was programmed to immediately call bullshit, to say it wasn’t really happening. Jake and I sat on our beds in our tiny dorm room, glued to the television, wondering what the world was coming to. Jake’s girl, Lana, found us there, and she wept into Jake’s pillow while we watched the TV.
Less than a week later we went to the local army recruitment center and told them we wanted to be enlisted. There was a line. Echos of the greatest generation. Forgotten were the jungles of the 60s and 70s, the deserts of the 90s, we were filled with the images of our grandfathers. Grandiose beach invasions. The toppling of dictators. The ticker-tape parade. The recruiting sergeant asked us why we wanted to join the army, and what we wanted to do. Jake stood up straight and said, loud enough for all to hear, “I want to kill the assholes that attacked us!” Loud cheering commenced. I found myself swept up in it. Yelling, hollering, spoiling for a fight. Out for blood. In the name of country. In the name of God. This was it, our generation’s call.
When I found out I failed the Army’s physical I was devastated. It was a thing with my knees, a condition that I developed in junior high that never went away; extra bone growth under the knee caps that tend to ache and hurt in cases of extreme activity like running, jumping, ascending things. In moderation I am able to be active, play a game of touch football, run at the gym, but in the extreme situations and conditions of a war zone where I could find myself in the desert, or on a mountain, or in a cave, my body was a liability. I couldn’t falter in my duty because the stress of our activities caused my knees to give. I could get myself killed, but worse, I would endanger those around me. Jake passed without a problem and so he enlisted and went off to boot camp. I went back to college, feeling like I was the one who lost out. I got to go back to parties, and girls, and the ease of civilian life while Jake was issued his gun and was off to war. It wasn’t fair.
For awhile we kept in frequent contact, mostly when Jake was in boot camp and then stationed briefly in the states. We would write letters, emails, and Lana and I would call him together whenever we could. Spring break came and we drove 1.5 days straight through to the base to see him. I was still jealous as hell, and seeing Jake after he’d been through the Army’s rigorous training did nothing to calm my envy. He had gotten lean, muscular, and it seemed like he’d aged beyond us. There was an intensity about him, but also he was still Jake, my childhood friend who I had grown up with, known since the second grade. College was supposed to be our great adventure together, our formative years where we said to hell with the rules and lived it up, side by side, memories to last us for the rest of our days. Now Jake was going off without me to a place where each day could very well be his last. In those visits, the calls and the emails, we never talked much about the future. Mostly we just liked to reminisce.
Jake finally shipped out to Afghanistan that summer, and I went back home with Lana. We’d met in high school and were always friendly, but it wasn’t until she and Jake started dating in college that we really became friends. We kept each other company, our mutual feelings of missing and worrying about Jake built a bond between us. We would write to Jake every few days and send off a letter. We’d try to be together around the times we would think he might be able to call. He was never able to call much, though, and his letters of response got shorter and less frequent as the months passed. We went back to school in the fall, and fall became winter, and winter became spring, and the communication between us and Jake essentially ceased to exist. It had become easier for us to forget he was over there than to constantly remind ourselves of his absence. I think he might have felt the same, that it was easier for him to focus on what he was doing than to wait for our next letter, or to write his next one to us.
Lana and I also became a lot closer and it was getting complicated. We’d gone to a New Year’s party together and, unplanned but not unwelcome, we kissed at the toll of midnight. At first, it was just a light celebratory peck in the midst of joyous revelry, but then we kept going, and soon minutes had passed and while most of the other people at the party had gone back to drinking and dancing we were there in the corner of the room, passionately devouring one another. The next day was awkward silence, but we talked through it and found that we both were feeling the same – insanely attracted to each other but also feeling equally guilty. Lana had been with Jake until he left, and they’d never really laid out the terms of their relationship. They avoided that conversation until it was too late to have it. We didn’t know if he still thought she was at home, waiting for him, or if he’d assumed she’d date others. And forget dating others, he might not have ever imagined her dating me. Jake and I were brothers. Not by blood, but by choice. By love. Then there I was, falling for Lana.
We agreed that we’d wait until Jake got home to go any further. We wanted to talk to him in person first. We felt he was owed that. I didn’t know how he would react. I tossed and turned at night, worried, dreaming up nightmares in which he would use his new military training to end my life. Lana and I discussed every scenario, every possibility; even the fact that maybe down the line we wouldn’t work out, and how that would change everything. We were in a frustrating holding pattern, circling endlessly over our desires, wanting to explore one another, wanting to go further, but yet we loved Jake so much. We, again and again, had to commit ourselves to wait until Jake came home to make any real decisions. That would turn out to be more difficult than we had wanted to imagine.
The day Jake came home was a muggy day in late spring. It had been raining off and on for a few days and the humidity was sickly sticky. Lana and I drove together over to Jake’s parent’s house. I had to pull over on the way and vomit on the side of the road. We finally got there and were greeted by Jake’s mom and dad. They hugged us as we came in and led us into the living room to see Jake. There, by the fireplace, was my best friend, my brother. His face looked tired but calm, and his uniform was crisp and pressed. I walked over to him and took his hands. They were cool to the touch, but not hardened or stiff. It took Lana awhile to get herself over to the casket to see him, and when she finally did, it was all she could do to bury her face in my shoulder.
Friends and family came by throughout that day and everyone kept saying how proud they were of Jake. He’d heard the call, he’d served his country, and with each compliment about Jake I felt worse and worse about myself. I cursed god for giving me faulty knees. I cursed my parents for poor genetics. I cursed the army for not letting me go, for not letting me be there and watch Jake’s back. I kept telling myself that if I had been there that I could have saved him. Another soldier had tripped an improvised explosive that sent burning shrapnel through the air. Jake never knew what hit him as shards pierced his heart and lungs. I had always imagined the situation when Lana and I would have told Jake that we had been falling for each other. I thought his heart would ache, and his breath would be taken away. Part of me felt like I had killed Jake, that he had died in the way I was sure to make him feel. I had killed my brother.
Jake’s dad insisted on having him cremated and his mother couldn’t decide what to do with the ashes. She said that since I was probably the person who knew Jake the best that I should make the decision of what to do with them. I thought about begging her not to let me do that, and I thought about telling her how I felt responsible for his death. That somehow that shrapnel was just the manifestation of what I was going to do to him and somehow fate saw fit to take him while he was in Afghanistan instead of letting me do it in person. Jake’s mom looked so defeated, and worn, and I couldn’t stand to say no to her. A week later she gave me the ashes and told me it was okay if she never saw them again. Jake was gone, the ashes were just dust. She didn’t need them to remember her son.
I waited until it was dark out and then I picked up Lana in my car. She sat in the back seat and I strapped Jake’s urn into the passenger seat. We drove out to a place on the coast where Jake and I had gone a lot during high school. It was a secluded spot with an old, rustic pier out over the water. We would go out there to talk, smoke, listen to music, and have a place that was ours. It was our little getaway, and the view of the night sky was like no other, with the stars reflecting off the calm ocean water. Lana and I walked out to the end of the pier and we stood in silence. I hadn’t thought of anything to say, and I wasn’t sure any words would be appropriate enough for this moment. I looked at Lana and she looked at me and we felt the sadness of the world inside. I finally felt something, unlike when those planes crashed into the towers. This was my 9/11, my day of forever sorrow.
I opened the urn and shook it out into the wind, and there our restless youth would come to an end; by the sea, beneath the yellow and sagging moon.