I was in Mexico when it happened.
When you travel out of the country for the first time it should be an experience to remember forever. What I got was an event that changed the entire world.
The night before we splashed around in the pool attempting to cool our sunburned skin in the dark but clear water. Above us the stars were unreasonably close to our heads and the sound of waves crashing in the surf forced us closer together so that we could hear what the other was saying.
I woke up first the next morning and began getting ready for our scooter ride to the big breakfast buffet at a hotel on the other side of San Miguel. After a long, refreshing shower we walked into the atrium lobby of the compound where two of the attendants were watching television.
The hallucinogens from the previous evening had not fully worn off and we stopped to take a look at the images they were pointing at. On the small screen were crowds of people wandering around in the business district of a large metropolitan city.
What happened next was, in my mind, an amazing display of special effects.
Dark, billowing clouds of black smoke rumbled around the corner of a building and chased the ash covered people in every direction. The reporter threw his microphone on the ground and joined the mad rush. But there was no escape.
I asked one of the men what was the name of the movie they were watching. He told me it was something happening in the United States. And we left, laughing at Mexican television for showing a movie so early in the morning about an American city being blown up.
When we reached the restaurant it was empty except for a small group, crowded around another television and I realized that this was for real.
All international flights were canceled. The Mexican army began patrolling the island. The reassuring sight of cruise ships in the harbor were now gone. We were alone.
But not really. The locals took care of us. The hotel discounted our rate to the point that we were staying there for free. Extra food would appear at our table when we would go somewhere to eat. A cab driver wept with us one night while driving us into town.
I was in the process of mapping a route to the Texas border when word arrived that a plane would take us to the States, but we had to leave immediately or risk being left here for the foreseeable future. I wanted nothing more than to be in my own home, even though we were in a tropical paradise filled with compassionate people.
The two things that remain in my mind about the flight was how everyone cheered the moment we touched down on American soil, and how we were treated as though any one of us might be planning another terrorist attack. It was a poor welcome back to a country that was already changing.
Next came the flags. They were everywhere. Overnight, cars, shirts and every house on the street where I lived had one flying outside their front door.
Do you remember that first Super Bowl after 9/11? The one with that amazing performance by U2 when Bono opened up his jacket to reveal that the inside lining was an American flag?
What I recall about that event were the soldiers on every corner in the French Quarter, guns in hand, scowling at anyone who was too loud or seemed to be having any type of fun. And in the middle of the night, the F-15’s screeching through the sky as they flew over the Superdome and our homes, creating an invisible net of security to make us feel safe.
I lay there in my bed listening to the screaming jet engines and they said to me that there was something big and scary in the world to be afraid of. And I ran with the herd.
When Katrina washed my life away, I was reminded that the lines that we put on maps are manmade and the creeds, beliefs and mottos that we use to group people together only matter because we have given them meaning. The world does not care who we are, the pain of life is the most equitable thing in our universe.
I still have a flag outside my front door, but these days it’s to remind everyone that gay people are part of this country too. If you want to know the truth, I’m leery of the things that define us because too often they are used to divide us.