The giant Furby consumed the room at FAO Schwarz, downtown New York City. Grant was petting its hair in between fake karate punches and kicks. His bowl cut and round glasses exaggerated his round cheeks. Too distracted by my new black mesh Nike basketball jersey, I didn’t notice Mom with the disposable camera. The faint countdown was too common to grab my attention. My sixth-grade fingers traced the N-I-K-E patches as I dreamed of owning all the Nike apparel that the world had to offer.
“Sara Grace! We’re leaving, come on,” Mom said, as if for the third time. “Your sister is waiting for us.”
Inside the red brick walls of my suburban Minnesota middle school, it was game time. Pickle ball. Yet another way to prove my superiority over the early-blooming, large breasted seventh grade girls. My white t-shirt and maroon shorts hung awkwardly on my lanky body as I sat in my squad for attendance. I loved having gym class in the morning.
“We are starting the pickle ball tournament today!” Mrs. Handrick said. “Take your places!”
Gross. I sat on the toilet, expelling the pound cake that I ate for breakfast in the concierge’s room on the 48th floor of our Manhattan hotel. By now we were at my sister’s apartment. I looked around the narrow bathroom and noticed the murky water sitting in the shower. Claire’s apartment was on the fifth floor of the brick five-story walk-up.
This apartment is nasty, I thought.
I gladly hurried from the bathroom into the crowded kitchenette. The floor was littered with playbills and scripts. Claire stood, leaning on the counter with one arm. Her olive skin and long black hair was one of my favorite parts about being sisters—no one believed us. ‘But Sara’s hair is red! How are you two even related?’ (First of all, my hair is strawberry blonde, thank you very much.) But the question was as if her genes were 7 for All Mankind and mine were Levi’s.
“Where should we go out to eat?” Dad asked my sister.
“I was hoping we could find a seat at Lupa—it’s some great Italian food,” Claire said. “It’s pretty spendy though, Dad.”
“No worries, we budgeted for the ‘Big Apple’!” Dad said, pulling out his traveler’s checks to show us all.
“You got traveler’s checks to come to New York?” Claire asked in disbelief.
The gym echoed with seventh grade, high-pitched voices—bouncing off the cement walls and then absorbed by the wooden bleachers. My pickle ball racquet was ideal—no chips in the wood. My undefeated record continued to advance.
“Sara Sather!” Mrs. Handrick yelled from the entrance to the gym, standing next to my social studies teacher. Her voice caught my attention, and I looked up to see her beckoning me to run over. It’s never a good sign for the gym teacher to take you away from playing.
Is Mrs. Rehman still mad about that note I passed in class?
Heading toward my two teachers, I ran around the courts, weaving in and out of my classmates, trying to avoid the flying balls.
Yuck. I hate pizza! The entire restaurant smelled like ketchup to me. My family sat down in a dimly lit room, waiting to give our order.
“I just want noodles with butter on them,” I whispered to my mom. “Can you tell that guy?”
My sister Claire leaned over and squeezed my shoulder. “You haven’t changed a bit, Skipper.” She smiled. There may not be a smile I know better, beautiful straight teeth, with the front left tooth combating the work the braces had done by trying to sneak in front of the right front tooth again. Her lips were always a bit chapped, but refreshed with someone else’s ChapStick.
“And proud of it!” I said.
“Do you want to come to class with me tomorrow? It’s not like regular, boring class,” Claire said. “You’ll love it, come with me.”
“Sara, there’s been an accident,” Mrs. Rehman told me immediately as Mrs. Handrick walked away. “There’s been a plane crash. Your mom called me because I know your family.” Her eyes were wide, commanding my attention. Her arm reached out to my shoulder.
What is she talking about? Why does this matter? No one I know is flying on a plane today.
Claire and I walked a ways to her class. She pointed out the different places she stopped for coffee or Chinese food. I pointed to the skyscrapers. “When can I get on top of that building?” I asked, pointing to the two tallest buildings in the sky.
“The World Trade Center? We were in there yesterday! It’s kinda boring—just lots of offices. You and mom stopped there. That underground mall, remember? You saw those homeless people sleeping there?”
“Oh yeah, that’s gross,” I said. We entered her classroom building. I walked up seven flights of stairs, trailing behind my sister.
I wonder what acting school is like, I thought.
I liked going to all her plays when she was in high school: Blood Brothers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Secret Garden. I memorized all of the songs by the end of the closing show.
We walked into a room filled with mirrors. It terrified me only because it brought back memories of forced ballet lessons. Claire brought me over to the far end of the room next to piles of student’s tennis shoes, bags, and jackets. “You can sit here and watch,” Claire said. “This class only lasts about an hour.”
She turned, looked in the mirror, and walked towards the other students at the far end of the room.
“There was a plane crash today in New York. The principal just came on the loudspeaker and announced it. You must not have heard.”
I nodded my head, unsure of how this had anything to do with me or my sister. She was not flying today. It was the beginning of the school year. She wasn’t coming home until December.
My face demonstrated my thoughts.
“Are you okay?” asked Mrs. Rehman.
The instructor gathered the class together. She began to place the handfuls of students at different places along the wooden dance floor. Her voice was strong.
“Do you see this line?” she asked, pointing to a line closer to my end of the dance floor. “Your task is to all arrive at this line at the same time without looking at each other, and without speaking to one another. Begin!”
What in the world? This is college? I thought.
I leaned back in the plastic chair and watched the NYU Tisch School students straighten their bodies, puff out their chests, and begin to flow towards the line.
There was Claire, completely consumed in the task. Eyes forward, arms sturdy, carefully pacing her body’s advancement.
She looks really good, I thought. I don’t get it, but she does it so well. My regret that my sister was not ultra-athletic started to fade away. Captivated by her world, I leaned forward.
“Your mom called me,” Mrs. Rehman said again. “She wanted me to tell you that she spoke with your sister, Claire. She is okay but can’t talk on the phone very much because the lines are so busy. She said she will come pick you up from school.”
The bell rang. My classmates herded past us towards the locker rooms.
“So, should I go to class? Or when is she coming?” I asked.
“Yes, go ahead to your next class and they will bring you a pass when your mom comes,” she said.
I walked to my next class, Family and Consumer Science. We were working on our grocery lists today. Mrs. Tooley was the youngest looking girl of all the teachers. Her youth automatically caused me to like her on the first day of school. I was curious about this plane crash—maybe Mrs. Tooley could turn on TV.
The events of the class rushed past. I felt myself straightening in my chair as Claire approached, sweaty from the movements.
“What’d ya think, Skipper?” Claire asked. “Pretty cool, huh?”
I nodded my head, not sure what to say. I grabbed her hand and tried to hold onto it while she got her jacket back on.
The TV was scrolling with words. The video began to play. I watched as a giant plane, like the one our family had taken the year before, collided with the tallest building in the New York City skyline. There was nothing to think about yet. I just watched. Another clip began to play. This was from a different angle. The plane penetrated the building.
“This is a clip of a second plane, crashing into the second tower of the World Trade Center,” a woman’s voice said from the TV.
“Sara?” said Mrs. Tooley. “You have a pass to go to the office ASAP. Take all your things with you.”
I picked up my notebooks and pencil pouch. I walked toward the office, not sure what I would learn next about my sister, about her friends, or about the other stories of the people in New York. But I kept walking.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, I’ve grown up from a lanky, redheaded, and freckle-faced young girl to a 30-year-old woman. When the events of 9/11 began to unfold, there was so much uncertainty about my sister’s location and condition. Later we learned that she had been walking to class that morning at NYU when one of the planes flew overhead and collided with a tower. Although she was physically unharmed, the event changed our family’s lives. My dad was a part of a spiritual response team from around the country that moved into the city for the next nine months. I remember him describing the empty flights he would take from Minneapolis to New York. He and many others spent time making themselves available to care for people’s souls. After that event, my dad moved our family into the city of Minneapolis from a northern suburb. He launched a new chapter of an inner city ministry that partners with inner city churches to empower and improve communities. A vision he had seen so clearly in the churches and organizations in New York City after 9/11.
About the Author
Sara (Sather) Pimental is an adventurer near and far. She currently works in fundraising for a non-profit. She loves to explore and write as a hobby on her blog WeAdventureWell.com. She resides in Minneapolis, MN, with her husband and children.