This month, it’s been four years.
The bad thing didn’t happen to me, but at the same time, it did. It’s my story, but it isn’t my life that was ruined, and it doesn’t cast me in a particularly flattering light, yet something in me wants to tell what happened and what it felt like.
However many times I’ve tried to write this, something always stops me. Right now it’s What would he think if he read this? I don’t think he’d mind if I told his story–he always liked the idea of himself as a person about whom stories are told–but I know he would be devastated by my interpretation of events, because it can only account for my feelings and not his. That is the last thing I want; his survival and happiness were always the thing we wanted most. In my secret heart, I can admit that part of the reason I wanted it so very badly was so that we could walk away cleanly, as if such a thing were possible. But it’s not time yet to tell that part.
This part first: I came home from a barbecue last weekend, and shortly after I stepped into my apartment a fight erupted on the street outside. For the first time since I moved here, I turned off the lights and crouched below the window level, on the line with 911. I don’t think I was scared, exactly, but my body was: my heart galloped and my hands shook. It wasn’t as bad as the reaction I had after reading this vivid account of PTSD, when I had to get away from my computer and get in bed for a while, breathless and teary and cold, but it had the same flavor.
The body remembers. For years after the shooting, every creak the house made at night sent surges of adrenaline rushing through my body. I’d jerk out of sleep and into complete wakefulness, rigid with terror before I even knew what I’d heard; the dog sighing, the wind. Never mind the nights I was alone, or the off-season fireworks, or the times we really did hear gunshots close by. No sleeping at all then. When I did sleep, it was with my cell phone under my pillow, one hand clenched around it. I woke up with a numb arm each morning for my troubles, whacking at my snooze button as though I had a log growing from my shoulder instead of a limb. But I never put down the phone.
Because we didn’t call 911 that night. That’s the first bad thing, and the part the police questioned over and over again. Why on earth not? The windows were open, and we heard the gunshots and the shattering glass, but we didn’t call. Our next door neighbors called. The man across the street called, but only after he had rolled his pregnant, sleeping wife out of bed and on to the floor. For my sister and I, it happened so fast that we decided we didn’t really know what we’d heard, or where it came from. We met sleepily in the hallway to confer and settle the dog, and went back to bed. We’d heard plenty of gunshots before in our gentrifying northeast neighborhood. I was already dozing again when my sister roused me. I hear the police saying our address on the radio out front. We have to go down. Only a few minutes had passed, but oh, what a terrible few minutes to have been sleeping.
You either are the kind of person who has cleaned the blood and tissue of someone you think has died off of your doorstep, or you aren’t. When we opened the front door, pajama-clad and barefoot, I stepped cleanly out of Before the Shooting and plunged immediately into After. Flashing lights, dozens of emergency personnel, sparkling glass from where the storm door had been shot out, and the alien yet unmistakable odors of gunpowder and blood. My flowerpots were smashed. The porch railings had all been knocked loose, and he was there, bleeding and somehow semi-conscious. He had been standing between the storm and main doors when he was shot by someone standing very close. Paramedics crowded the tiny porch, tense and efficient. GSW to the head. Critical. Shortly after they blared away, the scene of the crime — my house — was sealed off.
All I wanted was to get out of there and go to the hospital where everyone had begun to grimly gather, to be there when they told my sister that he had died. Because surely no one with an entry wound where their right eye had been, no one who had lost such rivers of blood, was going to make it. But my car was sealed within the crime scene cordon, and we had children living on either side of us, so I waited until I could get back to the porch, taking the yellow tape down myself. I sobbed and scrubbed and swept up glass and bullet fragments and other, unmentionable things. My neighbor sat on her front porch — connected to mine, in the manner of tight rowhouses — and rocked and watched me, saying nothing. Before I left for the hospital I threw away every gory implement I’d used to clean, and the jeans I wore to do it, with their sodden and awful cuffs.
I had asked the crime scene techs as they packed up who was supposed to clean up. Surely this was a biohazard. (And surely, please god, not me.) They looked at me blankly. Sometimes, one offered, the city will send a fire truck to hose down the site of an outdoor murder.
I found his key in the lock. That, I took it with me to the hospital, though I did not think he would need it.
They said he was brain-dead, and then hours later retracted that; one doctor had dilated his remaining pupil to check for brain activity and failed to note it in the chart properly, so they’d assumed it was blown, indicating even graver injury. It was a long, desperate time between that mistake and its correction.
We knew right away that he’d lost one eye. Later, they raised the tally of things lost to include most of his right temporal lobe and part of his frontal lobe, about 10% of his brain mass in all.
Our friends showed up in force as the news spread. They brought food and Diet Coke, and linty, hoarded Ambien. They took the dog and replaced the front door and arranged hotel rooms so we wouldn’t have to go home. They made me call my mom, to tell her to start driving from Ohio in case the worst thing happened.
I never wanted to go home again, would have cheerfully put the house on the market and had the movers bring everything somewhere new while we stayed elsewhere. I hated that house for the remainder of the time I lived there.
My sister bought me out and lives there still; she says lightning doesn’t strike twice.
He lived. Maybe I should have led with that. A month in ICU, a month in rehab, several months wearing a helmet while they waited for the swelling in his brain to diminish enough to replace his shattered skull with a synthetic plate. More surgeries to fit a prosthetic eye. My sister was a fierce advocate, demanding state-of-the-art care every step of the way, even though he was uninsured and wearying. He lived with us for a year, weeping and raging and paranoid and profoundly, terribly sad. They had said he might lose his language centers, forget English and how to play guitar, but he didn’t. They said he would be partially paralyzed, but he wasn’t. They never said that he would lose the filter between his brain and his mouth, or the ability to parse social cues, or the knowledge of how to regulate his emotional barometer, but he did.
Life can fuck you so completely that you lose the perspective necessary to gauge the extent of the damage, and sometimes that’s a gift. Losing the wherewithal to know that you are missing a set of clues, that you are somehow causing other people to react to you in ways you can’t understand, is a mercy he wasn’t granted.
We’d had a rocky relationship before the shooting, but in that grief- and trauma-filled year of recovery, it was much worse. I was a bit player, a minor casualty in the carnage of that night, but having him in my house meant that it consumed every minute. I used to stay in my office for hours, making up work to keep me out of the house, and crying at my desk at the thought of the dark and terrifying walk from my bus stop home, and of opening my door to find him still there, brooding and mercurial, a bottomless well of need. We could barely hold a civil conversation before the shooting, and that tension returned after the specter of his possible death receded. This meant that on top of my night terrors and anxiety I had the crushing guilt of both making my sister’s life even more miserable as she tried to smooth over the tension between us, and of hating The Boy Who Lived, even though I had prayed so hard that he would, and meant it.
Months later, we found out that the only suspect in the case, linked by a car, a gun, and a witness, had been killed four days after the shooting. He was 19, and had also been wanted for shooting another boy in the face for no known reason. In turn, the only suspect in the shooter’s murder was the father of that other boy. Everywhere, a kaleidoscope of horror, and no answers in sight.
The lead detective on the case was a good man, and stopped by the house often to check on us. He confided that in his decade on the force, he’d never collared anyone who didn’t have at least one prior arrest. He also said he’d only been to two shootings where the victim was innocent, the violence truly random.
The other guy died.
One way people separate themselves from tragedy is to immediately start marshaling the reasons why it could never have happened to them. It’s an automatic response, like closing your eyes when you sneeze. He must have been buying drugs, or with people who were. I would never live in that neighborhood. I don’t walk around by myself at night. He must have done something antagonize the shooter. Even long past the time when I could muster any patience with him, these rationalizations from friends and strangers made me shake with fury. If I have to accept the fact that appalling things happen to innocent people for no reason, then so do you.
He doesn’t remember, not a single detail, and the only other person who might know is dead. That’s a hard loose end to live with.
I wish that this had never happened. Barring that, I wish that he had made a complete recovery, regaining every scrap of every threatened faculty, and rode off into the sunset a survivor. I wish that I could look back at my own behavior and say that I was never petty or impatient, that I was always only empathetic and kind. My sister can do that, though they are not together now. She dedicated herself to his recovery for a year, doing everything from bathing him to wheedling doctors on his behalf to comforting him as he endlessly wept for what was lost, and this despite the fact their relationship was all but over when the shooting occurred and never that serious to begin with. Without her, his situation would have been exponentially more dire, his recovery at the mercy of a system that saw only an uninsured immigrant instead of a complicated and loved man whose life went bewilderingly and heartbreakingly off track when he was just walking home from work at the bar one night.
I thought I saw him on the bus this week, and my heart lurched and stuttered until I saw that I was mistaken. There is nothing to say that would bring closure to anyone, because there is no closure to be had, really. Someone’s life is in ruins, and there is no reason, no silver lining to find.
I always think of him more as this anniversary, heralded by the first hint of cooler days and open windows, draws near. I wish this year what I have wished every year since: that wherever he is, he is well and happy, and that next year is more peaceful than the last. That we all sleep through the night more often than we don’t. That I learn what this story means, and how to tell it.