Crawfish Boil

09/08/2011 12:41 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

As I struggled to give birth to my first child, a nurse burst into the delivery room and shouted: "We're bombing Afghanistan!" It was October 7, 2001, a few weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and I was at St. Vincent's, the Manhattan hospital closest to Ground Zero. The hospital walls were covered inside and out with pictures of missing people, TVs in the hallways showed footage of commentators discussing the impending war in somber tones, and the hospital staff was at breaking point. When the nurse made her announcement, my baby promptly "turtled," apparently reluctant to enter such a violent world. I had an emergency c-section.

By amazing coincidence, my son Robert's sister, Daisy, was born on May 1, 2011; the very same day U.S. forces apprehended Osama Bin Laden, accomplishing a key goal of the invasion that began on the day of Robert's birth. In a swiftly executed raid, counter-terrorism troops ambushed Bin Laden's Pakistani compound, shot him in the head, and dropped his body into the ocean. The atmosphere was dramatically different from that of Robert's birth: This time, visitors to my bedside asked gleefully, "Did you hear the other big news of the day"?

You'd think this perfect set of bookends would have brought about some kind of closure, perhaps a sense that the story had -- despite all that horrific suffering and death -- reached a satisfying resolution. But it didn't. My perception of the U.S. had been permanently altered by the attacks -- for the better.

Simply put, 9/11 brought me back into contact with reality itself.

Obviously the attack on the World Trade Center was a horrific mass murder. It took the lives of thousands of innocent people and forever destroyed the lives of many more thousands of their loved ones. But the depths of my delusions about this country were so profound that it took an event of this magnitude to shake me out of them. As an immigrant, I saw the U.S. as nothing less than a refuge from the suffering that afflicts the rest of the world. But if you distance yourself from human suffering, or allow yourself to imagine that it can be escaped, you lose the capacity for compassion. As difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, it took 9/11 to restore in me a basic sense of humanity and its plight.

Before emigrating, I -- like countless immigrants before me -- viewed America as a haven where one could find safety from foreign armies and domestic oppression. I also thought of it as a place that quite simply transcended regular life -- where you could step out of reality and into a movie set populated by over 200 million people. Even at its grittiest, I imagined, the United States could be counted on to provide justice, a happy ending -- or at the very least, glamor.

The attacks and their aftermath brought my adopted home down to earth from the exalted place I had accorded it, shattering the delusion that drove my decision to leave behind my culture and friends in order to move across an ocean to the New World. Obviously, the three thousand people who died that day, as well as their families and loved ones, lost far more than this. But the illusion that formed the basis for a major life decision -- not to mention my sense of security and confidence in something as elemental as my ability to keep my children safe -- is gone forever.

I didn't grow up in a war zone -- I'm British. But while many Americans picture Britain as the Land of Masterpiece Theater, during my teens, in the 1980s, it was also a country rife with racial tension, urban riots, and sky-high unemployment, (sadly, much like today), even terrorist bombings by the IRA. The city where I went to college, Glasgow, has the highest murder rate in Western Europe. And that's without guns. The grey, Orwellian London I moved to after graduating -- a city still traumatized by World War II -- seemed to me the corrupt heart of a dead empire, characterized by cynicism, depression and lack of ambition about life's possibilities.

In my youth, I identified with Jane Eyre, but I longed to dance with the kids from Fame. An alien in my own country, I felt most at home in a movie theater, preferably watching a Woody Allen film. When I finally left London, it was for the New York City of Holly Golightly, and for many years, that's where I thought I lived. Then came 9/11.

September 11th itself was not the date of my big bump down. The day I realized that I hadn't pulled off my escape from reality came a few months after the attacks, in June 2002. We -- my husband Greg, baby Robert, and I were on our way to a crawfish boil -- an exotic activity for us, which would take place in an equally exotic location -- Far Rockaway, Queens. We drove through the Saturday Night Fever land of plumbers, security guards and secretaries, observing the lives of those whose loves and aspirations were as mysterious to me, back then, as the interiors of their single-family row houses. I still saw the urban landscape through the lens of a movie camera, the unreal America I'd fallen in love with.

We were listening to Frank Sinatra singing, "I've got the world on a string," as we neared the beach. Larger, suburban-style homes vied for elbowroom on city streets clogged with SUVs. It was a beautiful, sunny day, with the kind of breezes that remind you New York City is surrounded by salty water. We were on vacation, temporarily escaping from our lives as Manhattan's underdogs and it felt good. Until I saw a studio portrait of a child my son's age, sitting smiling on a satin pillow. There's only one reason to publicly display a photo like that.

"I just saw a picture of a dead baby," I said dully. I was holding the soft, flexible starfish hand of my nine-month-old boy in mine, sitting next to him in the back seat of our car. We had stopped at a traffic light. The photo was wrapped in a plastic bag, taped to a chain link fence in front of the charred remains of a house. The baby looked back at me, then the light changed, and we moved on. The houses on the next block were also crushed and blackened.

We were passing through Belle Harbor, the Queens neighborhood where a passenger plane had crashed in the wake of 9/11. The American Airlines jet had hit the streets on its way to the Dominican Republic -- a horrific disaster that had roused fears of another terror attack, but turned out to be just another everyday, unintentional catastrophe. I squeezed Robert's little hand, experiencing a strange feeling. My skin was a thin membrane, and inside, something large, unknown and frightening was writhing like a bag of snakes, struggling to break free.

More photos and cards preserved in plastic bags, interspersed with wilting bouquets, hung on the wire like old soldiers. As I looked at them, I smoothed a sweaty golden curl off Robert's tawny cheek. The strange exhibition stretched for one more block then ended, and we continued on to Far Rockaway, to the party.

The host of the boil, a Newsday reporter named Bob, had made the eccentric choice of buying a Victorian house on the beach, instead of a little cube of air suspended over Manhattan. The price he paid was a 90-minute commute, and what he got in exchange was the chance to live in an Edward Hopper painting, inside a Martin Scorsese movie, pirated by a Russian mobster, and sold by a West-African immigrant on a roll of Kente cloth spread on a subway platform. It was the perfect collage of cinematic New York images, one thoroughly in sync with the city that existed in my mind.

Up close the reality wasn't as pretty. Rundown streets surrounded Dave's house on three sides. In front of it was a desolate parking lot dotted with smashed street lamps. Edward Hopper, meet Dennis Hopper.

Bob's place was laced with people. There were women leaning on the wooden porch rail, looking at the empty parking lot, or the dirty beach; men holding beer bottles sitting on wobbly lawn chairs behind the white picket fence, spilling out of the kitchen onto the back porch, or gathering around the tall steel cylinder of water in the yard that was almost at boiling point. They were people in their late twenties and early thirties, mostly journalists, mostly people who, like me, had first read The Great Gatsby in the form of a hardback borrowed from their local public library.

Everyone at the party was talking about 9/11, expressing their fears and speculations for the future. I was suddenly, breathlessly angry. Since the morning of September 11th I'd been in a state of deep denial. As a nervous new mother I was holding more tightly than ever to my misconceptions about my adopted home, and I protected my bubble as fiercely as I protected my baby. Acknowledging the possibility of murder on such a massive scale would make it impossible for me to ignore the dangers inherent to the life Robert had just begun. The conversation around me threatened to force me to face reality, and I refused to participate.

Then I saw something I couldn't ignore: a huge tub of transparent crustaceans, alive, and moving their frond-like legs with delicate futility -- the crawfish waiting to get dumped into the boiler. Sleeves rolled, Bob and a friend dragged the tub towards the stainless steel tower of bubbling water that sat in the back yard. A small crowd gathered to watch the carnage.

"You're throwing them in alive?" yelled a woman wearing cut offs and flip-flops.

"Nice and fresh," explained Bob's friend, Tom. Bob took off his sweaty glasses and wiped them on his shirt.

"Are they going to scream?" called someone else.

"They're not lobsters!" joked another.

As the men tipped the crawfish into the water I stood back, so Robert wouldn't get splashed and scalded.

"They're trying to climb out!" said the woman in flip-flops. There was more laughter, punctuated with screams and cries of sympathy as we all realized how desperately the crawfish wanted to live.

"Don't worry, that water's hot. It'll all be over real soon," said Tom.

"Tom oughta know -- he's a fireman!" someone yelled. Sure enough, the crawfish stopped moving, and turned pink, like babies' fingers.

I stepped back again and bumped into Greg. I turned and he put his arms around me, sandwiching Robert between us. "I want to leave," I said.

"We haven't had any crawfish yet," said Greg.

"I don't want any."

"I'm going to have some. Then we can go, OK?"

I agreed. Greg offered to hold Robert, suggesting that I check out the beach. I walked out of Bob's yard past his neighbors' houses to the boardwalk. The sky had changed from a perfect blue to a muddy yellow-grey, as impenetrable and infinite as the choppy water. I sat in the sand, surrounded by cigarette butts and Popsicle sticks.

I revisited the day I'd been trying so hard to avoid. After the first plane hit the first tower, Greg, who was on his way to work, called me and told me to look out of the window at the World Trade Center. I looked out of my window in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and saw the second plane hit.

"Are you Ok?" he asked me.

"Yeah," I said.

"You're not upset?"

"Not really," I shrugged.

"You know people are jumping out of the buildings? Doesn't that bother you?"

I shrugged again and to my everlasting shame, said, "I don't know them." I truly didn't care. Or I thought I didn't.

As I sat on Far Rockaway beach, I remembered tiny figures tumbling out of the burning towers. There's no way I could have seen that far, but nevertheless, in my mind's eye, I saw them jumping again and again. People were falling like tears. Finally the reality of what had happened hit me. A small band of mass murderers had rendered thousands of humans as vulnerable and powerless as crawfish tipped into boiling water. I wished then, that I could apologize to those poor people for my first callous reaction to their horrific fate. I still do.

The past had caught up with me. My own immediate past as a New Yorker, and the sad, war-torn history I share with the whole human race. The death of the leader of Al Qaeda, 10 years later, does nothing to erase the horror of September 11, 2001. Ultimately, his demise can't alter the reality of our mortal state, exposed with such violence on that day. Bin Laden isn't the Grim Reaper. However, he did plunge me into a shockingly real present, a place where I can't protect either of my children any more than I can ultimately protect myself. I can't create a refuge from reality for my loved ones. And neither can anyone else.

I love America as only an immigrant can, with a full appreciation of its natural beauty, its citizens' commitment to democracy, and diligent, hair-brained pursuit of happiness. I still feel I have more love, money, safety and freedom here than I could anywhere else on earth. But it's a real place for me now, not an escape from life, but the place where I live.