In my family’s living room on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, a joker danced for his people while, behind him, the kingdom burned.
We were gathered around the television. My father, a doer, alternated between studying the screen and redialing the numbers of at-risk family members. He paced from one side of the house to the other, remaining constantly, though futilely, active. My mother hugged herself with one arm while the other hand cradled her face, propping her chin up as if, without the insistence of her fingers, her eyes would refuse to witness another video clip. My cousin Jimmy, a recent college graduate visiting for the week, sat on the loveseat in the corner. Because of overloaded cell networks, we still hadn’t heard from relatives in the towers of the World Trade Center. The air snapped electric with the silence of phones yet to ring.
My little brother Ryan spent more time looking at each of our faces than to the television itself. Short and pudgy with round glasses, he was an eleven-year-old boy who snuck goodbye letters into my suitcase when I went away on trips; still brought his GI Joe action figures to bed; hid a stash of Mike and Ikes in his closet; and was bullied relentlessly, often forced to conceal bruises suffered on bus rides under his shirtsleeves.
He disappeared for a few moments but I, his fifteen-year-old sister, hardly noticed until he returned from upstairs.
“Jimmy, do you want a back massage?” he asked our cousin. It was in Ryan’s nature to play host by tending to my cousin’s anxiety.
Ryan was a perpetual pleaser, so I knew what an approving smile would mean to him. On a day when we could do so little, I could at least commend his kind effort. I lifted my gaze from the image of solemn broadcasters and cast it over to my brother, standing in the hallway. My brain was saturated with ugly visions, so it took a moment to digest the sight of him. Then recognition set in.
Ryan held, not a back massager, but my mother’s vibrator.
He gripped the adult toy by its wand and the electrical cord trailed behind him on the floor. Brandishing a smile of wholesome generosity, he proffered the vibrator to Jimmy as casually as one might suggest a cup of chamomile tea. He was perceptive enough to sense the tension in the house and to want to do his part to relieve it, but not intuitive enough to realize the world had just changed—that we were aching beyond the help of a backrub. And, apparently, not so astute as to know my mother had lied when she claimed the devices he’d found in her drawer were for releasing knots in your neck.
My mother was raised Pentecostal (and named, appropriately, Faith). She’d attended church four times a week, spent her summers at a fellowship camp where her aunt translated tongues, interpreted the Bible literally, and wasn’t permitted to dance, listen to non-Christian music, watch secular movies, or, perhaps most importantly, engage in premarital sex. But, as I was made too well aware by outfits, videos, and toys I stumbled upon in her closet while looking for a purse to borrow—inside married life?, the more sex the better. So, to make her (sex) life interesting, my mother owned seven vibrators in an assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes. After all, “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” One flesh, perhaps, was the one part of the Bible interpreted loosely, to include rechargeable battery-operated paraphernalia.
Mom was always proud and disturbingly open with me about her sexuality. Perhaps she was trying to prove that religious fervor didn’t have to mean being a prude. She made her point—seven of them.
Despite the protests of her Pentecostal family, she married my father, who was a Catholic, and they raised us Episcopalian, which basically meant our rules were lax and we were friends with rich people.
Our cousin Jimmy, however, was raised Pentecostal. Earlier that year he’d called me, his cousin five years his junior, to ask what “grinding” was. Because I couldn’t explain that sometimes a girl rubs her butt up against a boy’s crotch to a hip-hop beat, I said, “Grinding? Like with peppercorn?”
On that fall day, when Ryan presented our cousin with his aunt’s used pleasure stick, a chilling reality was interrupted by theater of the absurd. The only action that could have made the moment more ridiculous was if Ryan twirled the plug round and round and kicked his leg out like a Rockette, causing the rubber of the vibrator to wiggle with every hop. Or maybe not. Maybe Ryan’s owl frames, his pudgy fingers that wielded his mother’s sex toy like an offering, and his goodness, contrasting against a backdrop of hate, was as incongruous as it could get.
My neck whipped over to Jimmy, expecting to find his panicked expression, darting eyes unsure where to rest, or a radiant blush. But considering the circumstances, his face seemed relaxed, tranquil—maybe he didn’t need a massage after all. He simply acknowledged his younger cousin with a grateful, oblivious, “No, I’m okay. Thanks, Ryan.”
The purity was everywhere. And nowhere.
My mother shooed Ryan away. “Go upstairs and put that back where you found it,” she said. He shrugged and walked back up the staircase, the vibrator’s plug bouncing behind him as he scaled each step.
When he was safely out of sight, my mother turned back and our stares locked. Her eyes widened enough to acknowledge the bizarre interaction, but not so much as to give herself away. Her shoulders relaxed as her entire body sighed relief. The corner of my mouth tugged and I sucked my lips in. For that split second, inside the silent exchange of a mother and daughter, things felt normal. Playful, even. But the moment receded as fast as a wave pulled back to sea—we could have been convinced it never happened—and we returned our attention to the television, our source for information on a harrowing tragedy the world still knew so little about.
We continued to stare at the screen, watching a video from earlier that day, when clouds of black smoke and fire billowed into the sky, when an American architectural icon resembled a distress flare. Then, without warning, 1,776 feet of steel crumbled into itself like a pillar of sand. One moment it was a skyscraper that held desks, packed lunches, framed family photos, people who loved their jobs, people who hated them, people who enjoyed a cup of coffee or a smoke, people who didn’t miss their alarm that morning. People. The next moment, rubble.
We waited for the phones to ring, to hear that our family made it out, that it was safe to exhale. And we gritted our teeth, unsure how to reconcile living in a world where towers fall, but also where, just fifty miles north of the calamity, in a residential neighborhood, an eleven-year-old boy believed his mother’s vibrator was a back massager, and was eager to pass it around the room.
A world where evil panted hot breath on the neck of innocence.
Alena Dillon is the author of humor collection I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean: And Other Amusings From a Girl Wearing Sweatpants. She earned her MFA from Fairfield University. She lives in New York with her husband. You can follow her blog at alenadillon.com.