I’m just about to get frustrated when I catch myself.
I’m behind a pickup truck and can’t see ahead very far, but it hits me in an instant. There are still streets closed a month later. The cops are positioned, lights flashing, impotent, leaning, framed by flimsy yellow caution tape strung along the the streets. There isn’t anything to tie the tape to to in the section of block where my car is idled. It flaps in the breeze, held loosely by the loops around the stop sign. I’ve lost my impatience. It has been fully replaced with guilt. I am approaching sacred ground. This may look like a gravel parking lot but it is the outer perimeter of the most recently blood-soaked soil that reflects America’s deeply flawed love affair with guns.
It is different when you see it on TV. In all the times this happened before, it was beyond a screen. It was through the filter of the news. I saw it and heard it and maybe felt it, too. But I was protected by my distance and my distraction. My heart still reached for those that were lost but I was clothed and fed and busy. When we are busy we are padded from a lot of what happens around us. The selfish notions of busyness when we run around feeling that there is so much we need to accomplish in so little time. And yet these so-called priorities can be shuffled so ruthlessly. The powers that govern fate are not capable of worry. The incidents usually do not compel actions. The web of reactions is faint to us.
In an emergency, we can only move what we can carry with us. We can plan and we can make multiple trips. But we have limited capacity. Ultimately our arms and our hearts can only handle so much. Or so we think, until it happens to us. It is different when it is within earshot. When the shots are actually heard from the back patio. When the sirens are not a momentary annoyance when the they baby is trying to sleep. The night becomes darker when everything is thrown upside down and the unknown stretches the hours. The streets so mundane with trash. The palm trees need a trim. Don’t you hate that place where Koval curves and the speed limit is so low that the cars crawl and the cops wait to give tickets. Jerks. Not anymore.
What terror it must have been to need to run. To want to be faster than the bullets. To fear death was a step behind or in front or just to the side. For it to meet you right there in a line of evil geometry. To be stopped in your tracks. The ripping of flesh that halted so many. The dragging that must have happened. We must move. This body must not stop breathing, reaching, running. The theft of life. Their whisper was just in your ear. The hand still warm as the life fades. The rip of clothing as they tried to scale fences, tried not to trample limbs. I believe in their terror they all tried desperately not to trample each other.
The fear though. The terror had nowhere to go but out into these streets. Touching these cars, their drivers, the man working in the liquor store. The bachelorettes strolling under the lights. The woman with the accent on a double-shift in the never-dark gas station. And now the curve in the road where the speed limits no longer matter because death borders this place.
We live in a fantasy city. All the years of hating the bright lights and the flash. All the years of this place and its relentless meaninglessness. And then it was here that the news happened. A sinister Sunday night to reshape everything. It was near and it was in my place. Mine, though I had not accepted it. It was where I lived and where I drove to work and where I could lose people. These people who had just gone out for a night, who deserved to enjoy themselves. This town that I rejected was under the same microscope as so many before. I could not let it suffer scrutiny without me.
Experienced officials from elsewhere descended on us to tell us what to say, how to respond, what to do with the donations. Oh so many! These futile donations. I kept wondering what a blanket could do. They couldn’t take any more of our blood. They didn’t need what we wanted to give, but we gave anyway because we wanted to cover this pain with comfort. But the pain was too big. The convention center was built to hold a lot of people. We convened there in this huge space with strangers. Where there was grief, there was also a conference room and a police officer and a clergyman. Some of us were local and many were from nearby places. We were chosen by the gun to be family. We gave each other things we had never given to another human being. Our stories. Tears. We were angry. Mostly we were still afraid. And in this world you simply are not allowed to be afraid.
There is a tolerance for emotions, but it is a small window. It is constantly closing and constantly being obscured by newer, worse weather. Emotions are supposed to be a temporary condition. When pain is so deep it is no longer seasonal it doesn’t fit anywhere. It feels like the erosion of a mountain cliff in the course of a rain shower. Please slow it down. This isn’t supposed to happen like this. Not here. Not now. Not me. We cannot believe, so our mind holds on to thing things in a different way. It keeps a record and shows us images later. We remember the scrawled notes on the table by the phone, the way that she always misspelled that teacher’s name. We remember the lurid pink of a sock gone missing. The cold feeling of the alcohol swabs and a watch ticking. The smell of a funnel cake mixed with grass and blood.
There was a sunset that night like any other. Then there was rain in the desert. There was mud. There were so many tears that we forgot how to cry.
They were souls. Not perfect. But heroic because they are us. The mother who was working in the food stand who cannot go back to her job because she is now too afraid of open spaces. The girl who can no longer abide loud noises. The man who saved one of them and doesn’t know their name. The new employee who started on the day after who we greeted with donuts and scrolling cell phone screens. The city stunned and raw. I am lucky. My phone lit up with messages and I was alive to receive them.
But I am angry. I am unappeased and hungry for justice. I am so tired of trying to understand. And it isn’t enough. The lives lost, the grief and the constant ache. The helplessness of time passing as we drive through a town that has inherited a slogan. We have been christened in horror and now we earn a hashtag. This visibility helps us cope. We expect that we will be strong but this is a word. Only a word. It does not prevent the next one from happening.
As I sit here in Las Vegas, writing, there is breaking news. Another tragedy. This one is in another state, another venue, another troubled person we will never understand, more senseless taking from the innocent. As I write this, the cycle begins again. I can feel the collective sigh across America.
But, it’s so sad. Pray for them. Do this, don’t do that. I can feel the exhaustion as we start over, not having fully processed last month’s mass shooting, we are presented with a new one.
But this time, it is different. It is news and it is tragic and it is somewhere else, but it is also mine in a way it was not on September 30. I am all of them now. I am furious. I am sorry. I am so small that I cannot make any sort of difference. I cannot stop the violence. I can only speak with a whisper.
This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.