Chapter XX: Safe

Grasse, France


I awoke from the first real sleep I’d had in days. The sun was shining in on me through a picture window that overlooked lush hills speckled with stone villas. For a moment, there was nothing but the view and the warmth of my sheets, but then I remembered everything….

I closed my eyes against the sun, wishing to fall back asleep, but the screams rang in my ears and the usual images flashed behind my eyelids like a macabre slideshow. Truck, bodies, roof. Repeat. I had become accustomed to these, but there were new images each day that worked their way into my memory - images which I had not seen myself, but were somehow far worse: Nicholas Leslie, an EIA student from Berkeley, unidentified on the pavement for hours, and the faces of his parents who’d flown in to retrieve him. Misha Bazelevskyy, an EIA student from Ukraine, leaping from the promenade to his death. Parents throwing their children and sacrificing themselves...

And then there were the news articles, featuring first-hand accounts that something deep within my psyche forced me to read. There was a Moroccan immigrant who walked all the way back through the wreckage to find his elderly mother, the first victim killed. The things he had seen were unspeakable, and they, too, were part of me now.

In the early morning after the attack, when the phone calls had been made, the news updates read, and there was nothing left to do but wait for word on the missing, the Davidson group had squeezed into a closet-sized dorm room and talked incessantly. We couldn’t stop talking, and we couldn’t be alone. We couldn’t go downstairs either, where the faces of shell-shocked students, some with friends still missing, were like ghosts in the fluorescent light. I had tried to talk to some of them, to comfort them, but after a while I couldn’t stomach it anymore. All I wanted to do was leave Nice right then and there, forever. When I had first returned, I was touched to find that Asha, Salah, and George had been worried sick searching for me. I was also proud of the Australians, who apparently all had crisis training and instantly took control in an unimaginable situation. Yet, in that moment, I never wanted to see any of them again.

The day after the attack, our program director had taken us out to lunch. We were timid to go into the city, but the dorms were unbearably bleak, and it seemed to be the only alternative.

Walking through the sunny streets was like a strange dream. There were people out, eating at the cafes and shopping - mostly tourists refusing to allow a terrorist attack to ruin their vacation. Every so often, we would pass one with a fresh arm cast or a bandage slapped over an eye. They had plastered smiles and appeared to be floating through the world. Everything felt muted and wrong.

We sat at an outdoor café, sipping wine mechanically and poking at our food. Will, Jason, and I spoke very little, letting the director do the talking. We had agreed not to tell her exactly how close we had come to dying yesterday, as it seemed cruel to rattle her any further. On occasion, we’d exchange looks with eyes like saucers. After a long-winded speech, the gist of which being that it was her main priority to provide us with whatever we needed to recover emotionally and mentally, the director informed us that a young Davidson alum had offered to host us at his family villa in the hills of Provence. The offer included a pool, and he was willing to drive us anywhere we wanted to go. “Who is this guy, the Great Gatsby?” I asked. Needless to say, we accepted his offer.

We soon learned that my assessment of our host wasn’t too far off. Matt was a twenty-five-year old Davidson dropout who wore only pastel button-down shirts, khaki shorts, and boat shoes. He had been heavily involved in his fraternity while at Davidson and liked to boast about the “good ol’ days” when the party scene was much wilder. His favorite story to tell was the time he was arrested for slapping a girl with a quesadilla (because she had asked him to). He had spent the better part of his childhood on a sailboat until his parents decided to settle down in a secluded villa here in Provence with a view of the sea.

Fortunately for us, the best thing about Matt was his love of food. He had quit school to work in a restaurant, and for the duration of our time here, we were fed as if we were living in a fine restaurant. It was the mother of all introductions to French cuisine. We would breakfast on blood sausage and French bread, and nibble off platters of chevre cheese throughout the day. At dinnertime, we would sit at the outdoor table with a view of the sunset and drink fine wine as Matt served us courses of escargot, roasted duck, and duck confit.

I think Matt was lonely for American company, because every morning when I rose from my king-sized bed, I found him cooking in the kitchen with plans prepared for a full day of activities. In our brief time together, we visited a medieval hilltop village that sold perfume, toured a Grasse parfumerie, drank absinthe in the yachting town of Antibes, and perused the art galleries in Mougins.

Another good thing about Matt was that he rarely mentioned or asked questions about the attack. Even though it had happened just miles away where these hills met the sea, it felt like we were a world away. The only conversation we had about it was in the car one day, when one of us said we never thought that something like this could happen here, and he replied, quite the contrary, that he wasn’t surprised. “We have a lot of white nationalists in this area and a lot of Muslim immigrants,” he said. “Equals lots of racial tension. “I wondered if the deaths of eighty-six people could be boiled down to racial tension. As far as I had seen, the Muslim and French population of Nice coexisted peacefully; but then again, I didn’t live here.

I wished to remain here in these hills until the end of time, eating cheese and drinking wine, singing while Jason played the piano. Food had never tasted so good, and my own voice had never sounded so sweet to my own ears. At times, it was as if the Nice attack never happened, and there was only the feeling that I was extraordinarily alive and infinitely lucky to be so. But I was hiding. We all were. With only two days left before we parted ways - I to Paris to meet my mom and the others headed home, it was time to leave our little villa and face reality.

Nice, France


“They were just kids, Dakota!”

Will and I were leaning over the wall as the mist from the waterfall billowed around us. We had been talking for a while, staring out at the panorama of the city in the late afternoon. It was too hard to look at each other. “They were kids! They couldn’t have done anything!” So far, Will had demonstrated tremendous control of his emotions, but tonight was our last together in Nice. We both knew that, come tomorrow, we would be very much alone. “You believe in God, right? Tell me why He would let that happen.”

“I can’t.”

“That’s why I don’t believe in God.” He was angry. Will never cried, he just got angry. I didn’t know how to help him other than to tell him what I thought he needed to hear. I chose my words carefully and delivered them slowly.

“I don’t think the world has any inherent meaning, good or evil… I think we have to create the meaning for ourselves.”

“And how would you suggest we do that?” he pushed back.

“Well...I’m going to write about this,” I said. “And maybe, when I write, the meaning will come…. And maybe then, somehow, some good will come out of it.” There was a long pause. I watched the trick skaters veer widely around mountains of flower bouquets lining the promenade. There were clusters of people who were reading the letters there and paying their respects, but the numbers were shrinking each day. The black veil was lifting, and the children were coming out to play again. Though I dreaded it with every fiber of my being, I would have to visit the promenade this evening. I would have to read those letters and let myself cry, and then I would walk a mile through the shadows on the concrete until I found the roof that saved my life, and I would look at the dents where we had stood, and I would thank the roof.


“I think I’m really fucked up,” Will said, after a while.

I took a deep breath and my body shook slightly. “You are not fucked up,” I stated with attempted steel. “What happened down there - what we saw - that was fucked up.”

“Yeah…,” was all he could say as his voice faltered. For the first time, I was beginning to realize the extent to which my choice on the beach had damaged him. My heart filled with guilt and pain.

“You won’t be like this forever,” I said. “It’ll get easier…. I promise.” Though I felt it never would.

***

My final day in Nice was spent alone. I didn’t wish to be alone, but to entertain any company other than that of Will or Jason, who had gone home, seemed unbearable. I was bitter and tired and ready to go home. In the shuttered darkness of my tiny room, I passed most of the day lying on my bed, hiding, in a state which felt bleakly familiar.

I was hiding mainly from George. In the wee hours of the morning, I had been awoken several times by him and his Aussie cronies. I had finally drifted off after another night of tortured restlessness, when a pounding on my door jolted me awake. My heart raced and I could feel the familiar chill of adrenaline against the muggy heat of the room. Knowing full well who it was, I pulled the sheet over my head and tried to still my rapid breath. After a few moments of silence, the pounding continued. Stumbling through the dark, I wrapped my nakedness in a robe and cracked open the door. “I’m sorry - I really don’t feel like going out tonight,” I squinted at the swaying figures with pleading in their eyes. I was surprised at how ragged my voice sounded - like an unstable person. I answered their ready protests with more control, “I really don’t feel well. Please leave me alone...Goodnight!” I managed with a smile, shutting the door firmly on the motley cohort. I returned to my bed, where time became slow and terrible as I waited for the thoughts to clear, each one like a putrid, probing fly, only taking flight when the next one landed.

I found myself crying into my pillow, deep heaving sobs that needed to be muffled, coming from a place inside me that I hadn’t visited in a long time- a place which I had inwardly feared I had locked up forever. But now the door was opened like a floodgate and it was painful. The control I had fought so hard to forge was utterly lost; I was powerless within my own body.

I don’t remember the tears ceasing or sleep taking me, but the next thing I knew there was a diabolical pounding that ripped through that delicate veil of unconsciousness and thrust me back into the robe and to the door. This time there was rage with the adrenaline. “I won’t tell you again: leave me the fuck alone, or I swear to God I will report you.” There was venom in my voice that even I found unnerving, and I could have laughed at the look on their faces if I had not been so deadly serious. I embraced my current visage, which must have been that of a batshit crazy woman. I denied their shaken apologies with a bloodshot stare and a slamming door. I didn’t fall asleep again until pinpoints of light broke through the shutters.

When I awoke in the early afternoon, my head pounded and I stared at all the objects in my tiny room as if I was seeing them for the first time. A few dirty dishes and a pile of old papers, the ever-swiveling fan that looked like a head shaking back and forth, back and forth; I hated them. I don’t know why - maybe it was their indifference, but they made me feel sick. I was also hungry, but I was bound in my musty sheets by lethargy and the dread of having to talk to anybody (most of all George, who I had told I had gone home when he’d texted me earlier this morning).

In truth, I was leaving tomorrow, so I would only have to endure one day like this. Just one day, I kept telling myself. How funny, I thought, I appear to be making a habit of running away…

It was now late afternoon, and I finally broke free from my vicious thoughts and bouts of feverish sleep. I needed to pack - I simply had to. My mom would be waiting for me in Paris tomorrow, and this, indeed, was something to look forward to. I could not let her down. So, I got up and took a shower, and when I emerged, steaming, I could feel my pulse throughout my body. I didn’t feel as stale as I had before, and I was inspired to throw open the tight metal shutter, revealing an overgrown Mediterranean hillside. I poked my head out cautiously and could see the vivid blue sea stretching out peacefully. There were no boats patrolling for bodies today. Okay then. I sucked in the balmy breeze and sighed deeply. It must be time to let it lie... I heard laughter emerging from below, and I ducked back inside. I turned on some music and started packing.

A few hours later, I went to the pizza truck down the street for dinner. The truck was owned by an Arab man, and we had grown friendly over the course of my time here, only speaking in Arabic because I didn’t know French. Even though I could not understand most of his jokes, it was clear from his interactions with the locals that he was quite funny and popular within his community of loyal customers. Tonight, though, he was quiet, and there were sad stories being exchanged in French that I was thankful I could not understand.

As I waited for my pizza, an EIA student named Zehni, whom I had met once before in passing, struck up a conversation. “Were you on the promenade?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I answered. I wondered if he could tell just by looking at me. Was I that scarred? “Were you?”

“No,” he replied. “But I’m from Syria, so I’ve seen my fair share.” I asked him where in Syria he was from, and he told me his story. He was from Homs, but his family had recently fled to the Netherlands. He would have rather moved to the US, but his family was too afraid after his cousins were murdered in their apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This must be so hard for you.”

“In truth, I am very fortunate,” he dismissed my condolences. “But I want to go home....” His hard exterior faltered momentarily. Going home, back to Homs, was not an option: the city had been razed.

“What is this world?” was all I could say. My tale of woe, in comparison, seemed too trifling to be offered up in commiseration.

“Nowhere is safe,” was his answer to my question. A garbage truck rattled by, and we both jumped.