Noe Valley Voice November 2001

Pining for America -- A West Coast Tribute to Cesar Murillo

Sanchez Street resident Alexandra Torre wrote this essay on Sept. 25, a day after she and her husband Andrew returned from a two-week vacation in China.

Ever since my first trip to Europe at 14 years old, I've loved to travel. I developed a passion for exploring a new country, observing the local traditions, immersing myself in the culture of the land, the cuisine, language, arts and crafts. Being American served its purpose, enabling me to travel to countries requiring visas. Except at the border, I would often claim Canadian citizenship to the locals, for fear of being branded an arrogant and insensitive American. In truth, I never felt much of an allegiance towards America.

With each new conquest, I would yearn for more -- a more exotic land, a more colorful people, a more foreign language. Morocco, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam. I wanted to cover the world, and my husband's cry for a "relaxing" vacation went unheeded. My insatiable thirst for stamps on my passport clearly outweighed his desire for Hawaii -- most everyone we know had gone to Hawaii, I told him. Besides, Hawaii's in America.

Luckily, his interest in travel equaled mine. Fourteen days after we were married, we moved to the former Soviet Union and used that as a launching pad for four years of cultural exploration. But once back in the States, I constantly dreamed of other lands. It seldom occurred to me to explore my own country, my own state, my own city of San Francisco.

On Sept. 11, 2001, my husband and I were on our way to another country on my list. We landed in Beijing at about 9 p.m., 9 a.m. East Coast time. Arriving at our friend's apartment, we were met with cries of, "Terrorists have just flown three planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." After 17 hours of travel, the news couldn't have been more surreal.

We left Beijing early the next morning with another friend, for a two-week whirlwind tour of China. No matter where we were, CNN was on the television in our hotel room. We kept waiting for the good news, that everyone was okay. We started calling and e-mailing family and friends every day. Our friend Dan spent two hours one night calling almost everyone whose number he had saved on his cell phone. I started to feel guilty not being in America, guilty that I could even enjoy this holiday, guilty that I could think about something other than the tragedy of Sept. 11.

At the same time, we felt very distant from the attack, and in many ways untouched. But two days afterwards, the unthinkable happened: We received an e-mail from America saying, "Cesar [a close friend from college] is MIA. He called right after the plane struck the South Tower. He was in a stairwell, called from his mobile, and said he was okay and heading home. That was around 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday. No one has heard from him since." Cesar worked at Cantor Fitzgerald.

We became consumed by this news, determined each day to keep our hopes of his safety alive. Each time we'd log onto e-mail, my stomach would ache with butterflies, and I would wait with bated breath while the dial-up modems slowly accessed a message from New York. I could picture him safe yet injured, soon telling us of his horrifying experience.

We just got word that Cesar's memorial service will be held this Friday.

I have never been so desperate to be back in America as I was during those two weeks of travel. Usually at the beginning of a trip overseas, I have a nervous energy, I'm anxious about what's in store. Returning to America is usually a complacent letdown. This time, however, my feelings were in reverse. I couldn't sleep on the plane ride home. I was short of breath, jittery, and constantly on the verge of tears.

I've never been so happy and yet so sad to be an American. I've never pined for so long to be in America.

-- Alexandra Torre

The Torres joined 400 other friends and family at a memorial service for Cesar Murillo in New York on Sept. 28.