Recent spring, in Tucson. You were driving to a meeting when you saw crashed cars and flashing lights ahead. You stayed in the clear left lane, eased up on the gas, sipped coffee as you approached. A black pickup truck jerked up onto the righthand curb behind the firetruck. A man jumped out and hurtled toward the accident – an EMT, you thought, stopping to help on his day off. Mr. Rogers told you to look for the helpers.
This next part happened quickly, a flip-book you saw out of the corner of your eye, through the rolled-down car window. The man ran toward the crash. A paramedic stopped him, hand on his shoulder, asked, “Are you the father?”
You were past the accident, nearing your turn, coffee still in your throat, when you realized: that wasn’t heroism, but horror.
He was there to rush to the crash because someone had been looking for the father. Someone made a phone call, two phone calls, many phones calls. Someone broke the news. Someone was trained to find the father, trained to break the news.
You thought about this for weeks.
Years ago spring, in Blacksburg. You are a sophomore, in the marching band. You are watching the news in someone else’s dorm room. There is afternoon sunshine. If there was any moment of denial, it was in the blink of your eyes when the numbers changed. From 3 to 32 dead in the chyron, laughing girls climbing down from their lofted beds in the middle of jokes about blocking the windows in the cinderblock wall, dark humor trailing away in the reflection of this math.
You remember this vaguely. You still didn’t know, then, what it would mean.
Late at night, you are sitting on the edge of a bathtub, talking on a cell phone. On the other end of the line, somehow, a producer from “The Today Show” asks you questions about a particular friend. You answer dully, looking at the sink. You feel, below the fog, a tearing urgency to make sure everyone knows about this particular, wonderful friend.
In the living room, your dad plays video games with your marching bandmates and a college professor. You leave the bathroom, catch your father’s attention. You say, they’ll send a car at six a.m.
You don’t live in reality anymore.
There is a sea of satellite dishes in a parking lot. You stand next to a news anchor and speak toward a camera, a mic clipped onto the front of your hoodie. You are trying to do a good job. This is very important, talking about your friend, and you must do it well. You are operating through a fog. You listen to the person standing next to you answering questions about your friend. You think he is brave.
When the interview is over, you don’t wait for the sound people before you turn away from the camera, sobbing. You cling to the person standing next to you, or he clings to you, planting yourselves against a strong wave. The wave gets you anyway. Through your stranglehold on each other you can hear the impersonal clicking of dozens of cameras. They’re pointed at you.
Ten minutes later, the person standing next to you gets a text. Someone he knows in Indiana has just seen a picture of him on television, hugging a woman. He is asked if you are his girlfriend. You laugh for the first time since you left reality.
Ten minutes after that, you and the person standing next to you are walking together on the grass between a blocked-off road and a closed parking lot. The cameraman is recording b-roll. You learn the word “b-roll.” You tell the person standing next to you that you should hold hands while you walk, since you’re his girlfriend now. This is desperately funny. You both laugh again, walking on the grass next to the empty road. You are asked to stop smiling. You should know they can’t use b-roll of a smiling couple under the description of this massacre.
They call it a massacre, on television. You hate this. The word is salacious, and shocking. It is too weak and too strong, both at once. It is dislocated: massacres happen somewhere else.
This is happening to you.
You try to think of a better word. For years, you resort to calling it, the thing that happened. At first, it’s because you can’t say any other words. Your therapists don’t realize you mean the shots, and everything that came after. Later, it’s because when your spiritual director finds out where you went to college, she asks, “Were you there when that guy did that thing?”
You think this is desperately funny.
You were there when that guy did that thing.
You don’t see that spiritual director again. You practice saying, yes, I was there when the shooting happened. Yes, my friend died. Yes.
You are doing research, nine years later, on the construction of informal memorials as a tool for public grieving after mass tragedy. You know the title is too long. You don’t know how to say, the representation, it becomes the window to the thing itself. Your university is mentioned in peer-reviewed journals. You leave those articles out (you can’t bear the citations). You wonder bleakly if you could cite yourself, reflecting on how the thing unfolded. First-hand witness to what memorials mean. Primary accounts of where they bought the candles.
On the day you leave reality, you wake up to an email from the university. “A shooting happened in your friend’s dormitory. Proceed about your day, police have suspect in custody.” They really thought they did.
You are eating apple chips. You send an instant message to your friend, checking in. No reply is normal. You are late for class. You proceed about your day.
You don’t know who taped it, but you have a copy of that “Today Show” on VHS. You have never watched it. It’s in a file cabinet in your parents’ house, stuffed in with newspaper clippings and gifts and magazine articles. Ten years after, you go through the drawer. You let some things go.
People stop asking you about the massacre, mostly.
That day, after the hospital, you learn that if you are sobbing when you park in a No Parking zone, the security guard will walk the other way. You are picking up the people who have gathered. You are all crying.
You are not allowed, yet, to share the news with anyone who doesn’t already know. No one has found his mother. No one has shared the news. You pace a living room full of people who learned before they were meant to. You bake chocolate chip cookies. It’s a thing you can do.
You practice saying, When I was 19, a young man with a gun killed my friend and 31 other people. When you can say it without crying, it becomes a victory.
The young man with a gun recorded a videotape before he opened fire, and planned ahead enough to mail it between the beginning of the shooting and the end. It plays on television constantly, for a while. News anchors analyze it for reasons why.
You never watch it. You never say his name. It takes you three years to say the young man with a gun instead of the shooter.
You want to give him his humanity back. You want your humanity back.
On the day you leave reality, after the numbers on the television change, you call every hospital in the area. You ask for your friend by name. No one can give you any information. You don’t know if that’s because they don’t know anything, or because they’re not allowed.
You walk back to your own dormitory. Nearly there, you walk toward a young man wearing a hoodie who is walking toward you. He is pulling something out of his pocket. You wonder, for a moment, if he has a gun too.
There is police tape blocking access to your friend’s floor in your dormitory building. You make this mean nothing.
With the others who have gathered, you make a plan. You print pictures of your particular friend, you write his personal information below his smile. You drive to the hospital with the other person who volunteered in the passenger seat. You show your friend’s picture to the nurse at the front door. (You are sure she takes the print-out – but years later, you find that paper in a box. You add it to the file cabinet.)
You are directed to wait. You are pointed to an exterior door. You and the other person who volunteered walk into a space under construction, big and empty and echoing as a warehouse. There are many other people in the room. You do not think about why they are there. You and the other person who volunteered take two chairs next to a table covered in pizza and soda. You trade off calling the hotline. You check in with the others who had gathered. They still don’t know anything. There is no procedure for this. You close your eyes.
The other person who volunteered is talking to someone from one of his classes. The classmate asks who you are looking for. You say your friend’s name out loud. “Him?” she says, “Oh, he’s dead.”
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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