My best friend Alia, whose family came from Afghanistan, and I were walking down Madison Avenue in our home city of Manhattan. It was about a week after the September 11th attacks. People around us were pushing but we took it in stride, because we thought it was just regular New York City hustle. So when Alia was shoved to the ground, I assumed it was just someone being rude. I went to grab her arm to help her up, but a rough shove landed on my arm. A man walked up in front of us and was glaring at us. Then, he shifted his gaze on me.
"People like you make me want to gag. How can you even look at such scum, let alone talk to it, after what they did to us?" He spat. His words dug into a feeling of confusion about my friendship with Alia that I had been having , and for a split second my head hung with shame. It was a feeling that I had been trying to ignore since September 11th. I tried to hide that shame but I didn't do a good job at it and Alia ran off as quickly as she could.
I found her sitting on a bench. I went to sit down next to her, but she got up suddenly. She turned around to me with a look of disappointment and rage in her dark, brown eyes. "You know what? Out of the choice of you and that horrid man, you are the monster here," she accused me angrily.
"I didn't say anything bad to you or try to hurt you. Why are you taking it out on me? I tried to help you up, but he wouldn't let me," I defended myself vigorously.
"Despite eight years of friendship, when your faith in me was tested, you failed and had shame written all over you. By your reaction, you probably proved that man's point right, at least in his mind. Quiet hate and racism is no better than the loud kind. It is all the same in my book, Whitney." She turned her back on me and ran off into the crowd.
I got up of the bench and started to feel indignant, because I had many friends of various ethnic backgrounds. I was just letting myself be aimlessly pushed around by the crowd. Eventually, a hard shove brought me back to reality, and I took in the sight around me. I had ended up at ground-zero of the tragedy. The ruble of the World Trade Center laid out in front of me. Next to it was a long trail of memorials and people who had lost loved ones in the tragedy.
I let my eyes travel over the line of people, and a familiar face caught my eyes. My mind was filled with horror. It was Alia's aunt, and the man in the picture she was holding was Alia's uncle. I had forgotten that he worked in one of the towers. I knew them from many of the parties Alia's family had hosted.
I walked over to her aunt, and tapped her on the arm. After staring at me blankly, she finally recognized me."Whitney," She whispered softly, and wrapped her arms around me. I hugged her back just as tightly, as a pang of guilt ran through me. I didn't feel worthy enough to hug her. After a minute, I pulled out of the hug. "Do Alia and her parents know?" I asked as I gazed at her anguish-struck face.
She shook her head. "I want to keep this a secret for as long as I possibly can. It is bad enough that we all have to deal with the shock of a blow to our country. We also have to battle hate on top of that. They don't need news like this right now. You know what gets me the most? It is the people who walk around like they don't see how badly we are being treated, and just ignore that we have suffered as much as they have. They are the worst kind," She told me as she looked in my eyes.
Her words hit me hard. "I am a monster. I am that person she was talking about, and every word Alia said was true. My reaction was ten times worse because I knew it was wrong, and I betrayed people who opened their arms to me and loved me like family. I didn't stop to realize they were suffering too," I thought to myself in shame.
As I was standing there dwelling in shame and guilt, Alia's aunt put her arm around me. She must have thought my silence was caused by grief. Part of it was, but some was caused by a deep humbleness in me. She and I stood together in silence for a long time, and I wrapped my arm around her as well. I was again so deep in thought that I did not notice a man stop in front of us, until I felt Alia's aunt stiffen beside me.
I focused my eyes ahead of us and looked at his face. It looked very much like the man who had confronted me earlier. "Dirty Afghan," He uttered, and then spit in her face. It took me only a split second to react.
He was already turning to walk away, when I grabbed him roughly by the arm, and grasped it until I could literally see it turn purple. "Look at the woman you just spat on. Look!" I commanded, "Afghan or not, she is just as American as I. She has probably been affected more then you, unless you lost someone here too. I'm sorry if that is true, but if it is, you should sympathize the most. Now, I want you to apologize to her."
The man looked flabbergasted. His face softened slightly as he feebly offered an apology. I let go of his arm when she accepted. The man again turned and walked away quickly.
I felt a hand on my back as I looked at the man walking away from us. I turned to Alia's aunt, and she pulled me into another hug. "You are remarkable," She told me. I still felt nothing but shame because of my earlier actions. I started to disagree. Then, a voice broke in before I could speak.
"Yes, she certainly is," Alia said as she stood next to us and looked into my eyes. The anger in them before had disappeared and forgiveness replaced it. She stepped forward and we all joined in an emotional hug. As I hugged her I knew that our friendship had changed but it wasn't ruined. My quiet hate hadn't destroyed us and I was very thankful for that.