November 13th, 2015 came out of nowhere.
I had been living in France for just over three years and was going about my day like any other. For the most part I was happy to be living abroad. My dream had finally come true: there I was, employed in Paris, fluent in French, going out like a 25-year-old should on a Friday evening.
When you live in a city like Paris, you don’t really consider all the things that can go wrong. What with the Eiffel Tower sparkling each day, beautiful Parisians brushing past you, the Seine glowing in the moonlight. In fact, no matter which city you live in, no one really expects these kinds of things to happen.
November 13 was a nice evening. Parisians were gathered in terraces of restaurants and bars along the Canal Saint-Martin, enjoying the mild November weather. At the time, I was slowly eating my pizza while my friend sipped her glass of red wine. Our quaint little restaurant felt cozy and safe.
In France, gun violence is rare in comparison to the United States. So when we heard the Kalashnikovs at around 9:30 p.m., we were stumped. I remember the pure bewilderment on my friend’s face as those first few shots were fired. She stared back at me, her pale face blank, her eyes wide. For a second, her fork was frozen mid-air.
From where I was seated, I could see the entire restaurant. I’m not sure whether it was instinct that threw me to the ground around the third piercing shot breaking through the restaurant’s warmth or whether I followed the cues of everyone else. Nevertheless, I’ll never forget the moment when the entire restaurant dropped to the floor. It resembled the flawless harmony you observe in a ballet, albeit a horrific one. Tables fell, chairs toppled over, food crashed onto the floor. In a matter of seconds, the restaurant transformed into chaos and we were spread out on its dirty floor.
The rest of the evening is a black hole in my vision. No matter how hard I try to go back and relive every detail, it’s always a bit blurred. What I cannot seem to forget, however, is the panic. That was the first time in my life that I had felt such intense fear—the sort of fear that seizes you and strangles you by the throat.
As the shots continued relentlessly, one after the other, I continued to lay helplessly on the ground. My eyes were glued shut, and my hands dug into the skin of the stranger lying next to me. I imagine that being on an airplane plummeting to the ground is a similar sensation—there’s not much that you can do about it.
Yet I cannot seem to get over the fact that I could have done something. I could have stood up, run away, hid behind the counter, done anything but lay there like a coward, waiting for the next round of firing to begin. After that night, I hated myself for the fact that I had remained on that floor like a wounded animal caught in a trap. I had let fear get the best of me; I had let it paralyze me. Had the attacker decided to target our restaurant next, I imagine that I would be dead.
At one point during the mayhem, I thought the attacker was inside of our restaurant. There are distinct images tucked away in my memory of a man running back and forth screaming to stay down, to not move. I remember thinking to myself, “this must be it. God help me.”
And then, by some stroke of luck, it was over. Just as quickly as it had started, it ended. The silence that ensued was deafening and our restaurant was deserted. I felt adrenaline pump through my blood; my body jolted itself into life. Leaving all my things behind, I tumbled downstairs into the restaurant’s basement, discovering my friend sitting on the floor, her head in her hands. She began to cry softly as I stood there, speechless.
Next, I remember wandering through our restaurant and the wreck that it had become. I remember the police arriving, the bodies being carried into ambulances, the blood. I remember racing back home, hysterical. I remember the phone calls and the text messages. I remember staying up all night with my friend by my side as we watched the news. I remember feeling cold and numb.
Friday night felt like a figment of my imagination, and that next morning was like waking up from a nightmare. I have never seen Paris look and feel as ominous. The sky was an endless gray and the streets were desolate. As I biked home, the wind bit through my thin jacket as I observed a city in mourning.
I stayed home for the remainder of the weekend, too frazzled to leave. By Sunday, I finally gathered the courage to step back outside, to pay my respects. I wandered over to where I had been on Friday night and was met by people crowded in the intersection where the three restaurants stood. Some were crying, some singing. There were flowers scattered all over the ground, mixed in with shattered pieces of glass.
When I saw a little girl with tears running down her face, holding on to her mother’s hand, I broke down. Lighting my candle, I said goodbye, knowing that I wouldn’t return for quite some time.
And I didn’t. For a year, I avoided that intersection like the plague. For weeks after the attacks, I battled with my own paranoias. At the sound of a loud noise, I would jump. My heart would race, my hands would sweat—I would turn around, convinced that I had to escape, that something was wrong. I would call my friend, hoping that she would understand. Other times we would be sitting in a bar, chatting casually, when I would freeze, suddenly gripped by fright. I created these awful little scenarios in my head, and dreaded being confined in an enclosed space.
My anxiety was particularly prominent on the metro. I was forced to take it daily, and daily I would observe strangers, change cars, and even miss trains because I couldn’t bring myself to get on. For a while, I also avoided public outings such as concerts, sporting events, and movies. When I did go back to the movies, I wasn’t relaxed. I would note where every exit was and turned my head away from the screen at any sudden movements. As attacks in Europe continued and bomb threats in Paris increased, I didn’t feel better. My fears were still there, and as much as I tried to conceal them, they kept trying to bubble over.
That night haunted me, and eventually I gave up on Paris altogether. I like to believe that my decision to move back home wasn’t solely because of the terrorist attacks—no, there were several other reasons why I picked up and left. I would, however, be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that November 13 put a crack in my rose-colored glasses. That night cast a dark shadow in my gray Parisian sky. And although Paris will forever remain the city of my dreams, it is not that city today, and never will be on November 13.