Late July 2016
“My baby girl!!!” My mom caught me in a rib-cracking embrace at the airport baggage claim. “You’re safe now. I’ve got everything planned and you don’t need to worry about anything.” Little did she know, I was already running the motions over and over in my mind: Would I notice something quickly enough and be able to drag her to safety? I had been able to survive in Nice because I was young, fit, and attached to no one. Now, I was in Paris with my own mother, trying to imagine similar scenarios in which we would both make it out alive, and I was coming up short.
It reminded me of movies I’d watched in which a shipwrecked crew was rescued by a friendly frigate. They were always so joyful and certain in their salvation - as if they had arrived on civilized land. But though the ship may be bigger and the tide calmer, who’s to say that this ship would not sink as well? Who’s to say that the ambulance won’t crash on the way to the hospital or the chopper be shot down in its flight from the battlefield? Maybe I learned it earlier than some, but I believe every person comes to realize, at some point, that we are all on ships sailing the same sea, a sea which adheres to no rules other than the constant changing of tide and never returning those it has claimed.
But now, here we were, together on the same ship. My mom had always dreamt of going to Paris, and it had finally become possible for the two of us to go, partly due to my scholarship, which paid for my flight to and from France, and partly thanks to my grandma, who insisted on paying for my mom’s ticket. We had ten days to see it all, and I was determined to not detract from her experience, even though there were moments when I felt utterly dark inside. My mom, however, made it clear that she knew this and insisted that I did not have to pretend in order to please her.
There was an occasion when we passed a woman in a sweeping black burqa on the street. Her face was covered with a medical mask because full burqas were not permitted in Paris. “Does that make you nervous?” my mom whispered after she had passed.
“No, of course not,” I replied haughtily, annoyed that she would even ask such a thing. But I could not deny to myself that my heart rate had elevated and jumped into my throat, just as it did when we rode the metro, like a tin can rattling and screaming over the rails, and I would notice two young men with eyes darting about, speaking Arabic in hushed tones; or when we would visit the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, and, amidst the masses of moving bodies, there was a dark-skinned young man leaning against the wall, watching us all….
“Can you understand what they’re saying?” my mom had asked me on the train ride to Giverny. There were two Arab men conversing in the seat behind us.
“Kind of,” I said. “They’re just talking business.” Again, I was short with her. Her questions embarrassed me. But, in truth, I had been listening intently for the entire ride… In moments like these, I became fear. I felt the whole world within me, and it, too, was fear.
There were other moments, though, when I felt wonderfully small. The magnificent stained-glass chapel of Sainte-Chappelle, the lone bored gargoyle amidst an army of terrifying sentries at Notre Dame - these architectural feats had consumed the lifetimes of unnamed people long ago. Yet, even knowing that they would be forgotten, they had spared no opportunity for perfection. Many years from now, another person would smile up at this gargoyle, thinking the same thoughts and, in this, there was greatness.
On the banks of the Seine in the early evening, the lovers would sit and drink wine. From the boat, I could watch them unnoticed, an endless chain of men and women, women and women, men and men. I made up stories in my head of how each couple had met - if this was their first date, or if they had been in love since childhood. I had never considered myself a romantic, but it was lovely to see young people like this; sharing loaves of bread and soft French words, legs dangling over water without a care.
Every so often, there was one who was alone. Cradled in a stony nook, she would look up to watch the boat pass, then back down at the journal in which she wrote. That one was me, I thought.
And then, a thought crossed my mind that was both beautiful and horrific: that if each and every one of these people were to be run down today, in three weeks there would be an equal number in their place...
The boat carried us gently past Notre Dame, the gargoyles perched and watching beneath a golden sunset. We passed the houseboats that creaked as they rocked, the tinkling of silverware and happy laughter wafting from within. A soft, warm rain began to fall. It carried with it the smell of dampened flowers and a million French dinners being cooked. I reached out my hand to feel it on my skin.
The grassy hills were sun-dried and yellow. They rolled by my window like sea serpents, humps cresting and submerging, up and down. I watched them in silence as my mom drove.
It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive west to the nearest airport, in San Francisco. We were only ten minutes into it and I had already snapped at my mom for something, thus ending the conversation. I didn’t want her to be left with this image of me for the next four months, and knew I should apologize, but I was unable to say anything at all. I had learned this year that a lot - anything - could happen in four months, and I was afraid. It was much easier to push her away....
“I hope you let yourself have fun this semester,” she said gently. I felt choked and couldn’t respond. The only sound was the road under the wheels, and it was painful. “You know,” my mom started again, “you are very young…. You should be happy and full of wonder.”
I continued watching the hills. I remembered driving them when I was a kid, and how I used to imagine myself on a giant horse, racing alongside the car. Up and down, up and down….
Today, I felt a hundred years old.
San Francisco International Airport
Between my mom and me, I alone had managed a tear-free goodbye. I was getting good at that. I was now sitting in the terminal surrounded by strangers, and the parting didn’t hurt as much anymore. I prayed silently that she would make it home safely before opening my laptop to occupy myself.
A woman in a burqa approached the terminal. The San Franciscans shifted in their seats, staring determinedly at Macs plastered with social justice stickers. She moved like a hovering black void, gazes bending around her and bouncing off in all directions. “Will she be on my plane?” was the thought that I read on each and every one of their faces, if only for an instant. I inwardly scorned their duplicity, until I realized I was staring at my own blank screen...
Later, I looked up to find her sitting across from me. Her hands were folded in her lap and a toddler clung to her skirt, supporting himself to stand. I wondered where she had come from and where she was headed, and I wondered if she felt invisible beneath her veil or tremendously exposed. I knew that I was headed toward hard days back at school - that I would have to hide behind my own veil of normality until I found reconciliation within myself. I had done it before, and I would do it again; but I would never be the same. Nonetheless, I would never wish to switch places with this woman who sat across from me, because here and now, on the news and in the airports, on the beaches of Nice and in the coming election, in my eyes and those of the passengers surrounding us, it was she who had to be reconciled.
Davidson College, North Carolina
Music blared, and the pungent fragrance of cheap beer wafted up from the floor. Our friends were inside the apartment, dancing in the dark and by all indications, having a fantastic time. Will and I were outside on the balcony, leaning over the railing beneath the moth-swarmed light. “This just feels weird,” said Will into the night air that vibrated with heavy bass and the sound of hundreds of drunk college kids.
“I know,” I agreed, watching a fraternity shotgun beer below us. We could never look at each other when we talked like this, and it happened almost every weekend when we spotted each other at a party and were reminded that we were only pretending. “Are you still having dreams?”
“Yeah…. I had one the other night with a truck coming out of the ocean onto the beach - and the screams....” He took a heavy sigh. “Do you have any?”
“Not really,” I replied. “I did have one with you and all my friends in body bags - and I was the only one left….” I had woken up with my pillow drenched in tears. “But I don’t dream a lot...mostly just can’t fall asleep.” Each night, there was a film reel of horrors that played in my mind, both real and imagined. “We should probably get counseling,” I said after a pause. I knew Will and I were not the “type” to seek counseling; we were “rub some dirt on it” people, for better or worse.
A few weeks after our return to Davidson, the Dean’s Office had learned the extent of our experience and sent representatives to sit down with us over Italian hors d'oeuvres. After an hour of academic small talk, they told us what they had been sent to say: we seemed fine, but should seek counseling, lest we “blow up” in the student union. We took great offense at this statement, which only increased our aversion to counseling.
But there had been too many nights spent brooding on this balcony; there had been too many dreams and not enough sleep. “Yeah, we should,” said Will.
Christmas Eve, 2016
It was my first Christmas with my family in two years. I wanted everything to feel the same, but the desire itself made that impossible. Before going abroad, I had always seen Christmas as an infallible tradition around which the natural world parted, as if there was a divine aura that brought out the best in people and made anything possible. It seemed so saccharine now, but it was what I believed not so long ago. I remembered how Stav had scoffed at me, a world away, when I spoke of Christmas. Only now did I understand.
Nevertheless, I wanted to feel that way again, with all my heart. I tried to remember how lucky I was to be alive and surrounded by family, but I was acutely aware of all of the families that would be missing a loved one tonight. Just a few days ago, a truck had plowed through the Berlin Christmas Market, killing twelve and injuring fifty-six.
Last night, I had prayed for the first time in a long time. Prayers felt futile these days; everywhere I looked I saw a thousand unanswered. But this one was not a humble plea - it was an ultimatum: Whatever you are, if you exist, and if there is any goodness within you, show me a miracle tomorrow or I will never believe in you again. I left it at that and fell into a dreamless sleep.
We finished dinner, opened gifts, ate pie, and the boisterous cousins went home. I sat alone in the living room that my late grandmother had decorated, fading in the afterglow of the evening. I stared at the exorbitantly decorated tree, feeling physically full and yet, abysmally empty. I had found resolution to my experiences many times over, I had conquered my anxiety with a perspective gained through countless epiphanies, I had ended my counseling as I felt it was no longer needed, but still, there were these moments of emptiness; of deep, drowning dread. Was this my life now? Shuffling from house to house during the holidays until someone died and the circuit changed? Would there be children? Could I ever bring children into a world in which they could be flattened by a truck while watching fireworks, or waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap? Dear God, what a world….
I pulled up Facebook on my phone to subdue my mind before going to bed, flipping through holiday benedictions and happy photos with little thought. Then, a headline caught my eye: “‘Christmas Miracle’ Comforts Parents of Nice Terrorist Attack Victim”.
The article stated that, a few days ago, the parents of Nicholas Leslie, the student from Berkeley, had learned that two local women had stayed with him all night long, surrounding him in candles and praying. The news had come just in time for their first Christmas without their son, and had granted them some respite from their torment. They intended to track down these women and thank them.
With this, one of the images that haunted me each night - that of a body lying alone and unidentified on the pavement - was transformed into the image of two women glowing in candlelight, keeping watch over a stranger who could never thank them, bearing the rain and that entire morbid night so that someone who loved him could know that he was never alone, even at the very end. And, in this act, there was strength to overpower that of a person who could end his own life and that of eighty-six others, and there were voices that rose up from the bloody pavement and drifted down to blanket the silent dead with the sound of resilience.
I shared the article with Will and Jason, before heading to the bathroom to cry.
We were never alone, thank God. We are never alone.