It was two days before my birthday, and we were at the same place we'd been going for years, my favourite birthday present: room 23 at the Hotel Hurricane, on the Andalucian coast, just west of Tarifa. The grounds - irrigated in an arid landscape - are lush, subtropical. It feels like one is in a Gauguin painting, or Rousseau landscape. You can almost imagine tigers' eyes peeking out from the blackness of the greenery.
It was a beautiful day, and my husband had had enough sun, but I stayed on the beach.
My mother taught us, as girls, to make what we called 'dribble castles' out of fine sand: you kind of drop the wet sand and they make the most amazing, organic castles. For years, I was photographing them with my dad's old Pentax, then collaging them, scaling them with self portrait images. That day, I didn't have my camera at the beach, and for some reason, instead of making one, I made two identical structures. Side by side.
It was the most perfect day. As I lay alone on a towel on the sand, watching the water, without camera or pen and paper to record my thoughts, I remember exactly what I was thinking. My father was alive, and though he had been living with cancer for many years, each day, each year was a gift. I remembered thinking: this is it. It doesn't get any better than this. I am happily married, our life is going well, my parents and siblings and friends are all alive and well. Life might not always be like this, but for now, this is the happily ever after moment. This is the part where the white words appear on the screen.
I didn't know what time it was, and realised I hadn't had lunch, but the hotel cafe that overlooked the beach would stop serving its wonderful food around 3:30, 4:00, and switch to just amazing cakes. But I didn't want to leave the beach. So I stood - and though there weren't any waves that day, I noticed that my two castles had vanished. I had been watching them, silhouetted against the water, from my vantage point on the beach. But somehow, while I lay thinking how grateful I was, they had simply disappeared.
When I wandered up to the hotel cafe overlooking the beach, my first thought was that it must be after 4:00, because there were just cakes. It was pretty full and guys were standing, watching the one little TV, shown here in the upper right corner, but that was typical: there was often a sports game on, and they'd be shouting in Spanish, so I didn't even look at the TV until a cute wind surfing instructor - standing there, barefoot, in his black wet suit - turned to me and asked 'Are you American?' Then he pointed to the TV. There was some kind of film on: smoke billing around NYC. One of those action films.
'They've attacked America,' he said, wild eyed. 'New York: it is gone. Washington, GONE.'
I stood there for a while - I don't know how long. My parents were at the summer home - about 1.5 hrs drive from NYC. I was wondering how far a nuclear bomb spread - and how the fallout worked. If they were to leave -where would they go? I thought all of this in slow motion, and I guess I wandered through the grounds, past the lower pool (above), then past the upper pool (below), to our room.
My husband was inside, showering. I could see the steam coming through the open door. I tried the hotel phone - our cells didn't work - and tried calling my parents. I got a recording in Spanish, then English. The country you are trying to reach is unavailable.
I told him what had happened - that NY and Washington had been blown up in a nuclear attack. He told me to go down to the lobby, which was a kind of lovely hanging out place with couches, pool table - there was a TV by the pool table. He said to see if we could get CNN, and he'd be down in 20 minutes. TWENTY MINUTES? 'Well I've got to shave, get dressed.. I'm sure it's not as bad as all that.'
It wasn't, of course. New York City, and Washington D.C. are still standing. But in the time that I was on the beach, and my husband was showering, as we all now know, over 3000 souls simply disappeared. Not just in New York, but in Washington. And the heroes and heroines of United 93, who died in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
And I didn't go and sit in front of the small television by the pool table, as I would in the hours, the days, to come. Instead, I went back down to the pool, to swim. I didn't know at the time if my family, my dearest friends, were alive - I didn't even know, at the time, that it wasn't a nuclear bomb. I just knew that whatever was happening, I needed to be in water. It was the only way I knew, to be spiritually connected.
The following days were some of the most beautiful displays of humanity, of all that is beautiful in the world, in my experience. Everyone at that hotel was so incredibly kind to me. They seemed to need to do this: to comfort me, the only American there. I have had no personal experience with suffering of any kind. Although I am a New Yorker, born and bred and in heart and in my soul, I can't claim any of this loss as mine. But for that week - because, of course, no one could leave, or arrive, so the guests on 9.11 - 30 rooms in all - became a community, that shared the one or two papers we could find in town. We were made up of every nationality, European mostly - Spanish and French and German and English. In the days that followed, my husband, via the little computer room, reached my dad, and his message came back. Simple words, calm and reassuring. It is a terrible tragedy. We are safe.
We weren't to know at the time, but eventually we would find out that everyone we knew directly was safe. There were small, unrecorded acts of courage and kindness: like my friend Sherri (who didn't tell me - it's not her style, her husband, Marc, told me later) who without hesitation went right to the kids' school and, along with other teachers, got on the phone to each parent, to make sure they were accounted for, before sending the children home.
But we were cut off from New York, in this beautiful place. I'd drift around, wander past people at the pools, or at the beach, and hear, in various languages, something something Bin Laden, something something Taliban. Al Queda. We were educating ourselves, holding vigil around that one TV. Dining together by the pool. We knew each other so well, we had become family. Apart from taking turns going into town to buy the paper, we never left the hotel grounds. We were in our own world: safe, in paradise.
I was the only American at the hotel. The staff would ask my husband if I was okay, and then they'd smile at me, with tears in their eyes. I felt that I had to be okay. I was representing my country, and so I had to behave with dignity. And I knew, above all, that this was not about me.
There was a special tent, that year, near the lower pool. A yurt. A cute French guy was doing what everyone said were the most 'amazing massages - with gongs and things'. I had never had a professional massage before, but my husband had booked one on my birthday, the 13th.
It was a really good massage. At the end, he left me alone, with the gongs playing. I think there might have been hot rocks on my back. And then it happened.
I can't describe it, but it felt like I was hallucinating, like I was in the middle of a three dimensional, Hieronymus Bosch painting, but it was all in red. To this day, I don't know if it was my imagination, but the experience was incredibly powerful and real. All these souls, and everything was red, and we were rising.
My memories of the 11th of September, 2001, are of water: pool and sea and coolness and sun. Nothing of fire, death, or destruction. When I was young, I dreamt an epic dream. I was on the subway, in NY, travelling downtown. Later, in my twenties, as an art director on Wall Street, I would take this long trip each day, by subway, from East 68th Street, to the World Trade Center.
In my dream, it was like New Year's Eve: the tension, the expectation, of waiting for the ball to drop. We were riding the subway, but it was going down, down, like an elevator, going back in time. At the bottom, it was old, dark, dirt, wood. Like a mine shaft. Along the way, I saw people I knew, my aunt and uncle, friends, on the platform. And then my dream switched to a motel in the desert: rooms that opened to the air, the way the Hurricane Hotel does, and I was with a boyfriend - I didn't know who - and the world had ended: an atomic war. I remember, in the dream, we were the ones who weren't on one side, or the other, of the war. We were the third side. We were the survivors. And together, we would build a new, Utopian world.
All photos, shot by me at the Hurricane Hotel, probably from September 2001. Top photo, also by me, on the beach in Hastings, while I sat, alone, steeped in memory.