The sound of a loud violent explosion filled the room and my breath stopped. My eyes stopped taking in the reality of the room around me; the two small beds stood there with their mermaid blankets, while my hand clutched the rough and worn wooden door frame. I didn’t see it anymore. My mind had placed me back in the car I used to drive while it still had the oil leak, somewhere far away from Brazil.
Marathon training had left my body aching and after a long day of teaching elementary students, I was already regretting the four-mile run that lay ahead. Do I really want to go running today? The seed of doubt rose up again agreeing with my exhausted mental state. I glanced over at my roommate, the one that also worked with me, the one that was from my home state, the one that understood me more than anything. She’d be running today, she had a dedication that never missed. Yes, yes, I probably will go running today…not that I want to.
Our day at work ended in the usual fashion, a crazy wind-down of children screaming as we tried to control their end-of-the-day spirits just long enough to say our prayers and get them safely to their destination. My memory plays through the usual routine, the one I had followed for the past year and half. It could have been any generic day. I was exhausted, frustrated probably. My body was likely craving a McDonald’s smoothie and a McChicken…or maybe Popeyes, the food my roommate and I used to comfort especially trying days. My memory does not stick on what day of the week it was, or if we had stayed after hours to tutor or to simply lie on our worn carpets over the tile floors and take a deep breath. It does remember the daylight. The daylight that says we decided to call it a day earlier than normal.
Everything was so normal before. It isn’t etched into my brain because there was nothing unusual. The day was warm and as we threw our stuff into the car and began our daily verbal processing, it felt like every other spring day.
We rolled to a stop, four blocks from school, in respect of the all-way stop, three-way intersection, that was a part of our travels. It wasn’t unusual to see men outside, lingering on the sidewalk, leaned up against the fence, talking amongst themselves. It wasn’t unusual to see families with small children leaving the preschool on our left. It wasn’t even unusual to pause for a few extra moments as the car blocking the intersection used a multi-point turn to change directions.
I don’t remember the look of the car, just that it was blocking the intersection, because as multiple pops rang off, I needed it to disappear.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Silence.
Frozen. Everything around me was silent, my mind moving in slow motion as people moved around me as if the world was on mute. My body remained motionless. My eyes stayed forward, watching the car in front of me freeze in the middle of the intersection. My head refused to swivel, it didn’t want to validate reality, it didn’t want to make eye contact. I was highly recognizable in the area. My mind already knew what was going on, but my thoughts hadn’t caught up yet.
The law-abiding part of my brain said, There’s a car blocking the intersection, be patient.
The emotional part of my brain screamed, MOVE, CAR, MOVE!
My logistical side started analyzing possible ways to remove us from the situation, new routes that didn’t involve crashing into the car in front of us or turning right…onto the street where the noise had come from.
Of course, there was that tiny part of my brain that still hadn’t caught up. The part that knew what was going on, but was afraid to speak it into reality. It whispered in its calm and soothing “for crisis only” voice, Don’t freak out, but there’s a man a few feet away on your right, shooting downhill at another man. Don’t freak out, but if the man down the hill is still alive and if he has a gun, you’re sitting directly behind his target.
Then as if no time had passed at all, the sound came back. My roommate unfroze, as if her mind had suddenly released her body too.
“We’ve gotta go. We’ve gotta go now.”
“I can’t. The car. I can’t.”
“He’s gotta gun. He’s gotta gun. We gotta go. I can see the gun.”
The rest blurred as the man with the gun began to jog the couple steps up the hill in our direction. In my mind he brushes up against the back of the car, marking it forever. In reality, I can’t recall the details. I just remember the way he jogged across my rear view mirror, my eyes avoiding his hands.
I began to turn right, towards the cross-hairs of gunfire. All I could picture was getting around the car blocking us from going straight. Everything I didn’t want was to go right, even for the small maneuver it took to swing the car widely around him.
As we moved at a speed that may have been deemed reckless and we continued forward. My roommate and I simply clung onto each other’s hands. Our grips were firm and real, grounding our emotions, controlling them from taking complete control.
My breath came out as a laugh, the way it always does when it doesn’t know what else to do. And a heavy silence settled over us before our conversation started.
“I can’t believe…”
I remember some of the small decisions we made. I don’t remember if there was traffic. I remember my roommate deciding not to tell her parents, while I desperately needed to talk to my friend from home, my mom, and anyone else who could bring me peace of mind. I remember the run I went on that night. Just four miles, my usual short run. I remember how I jumped when squirrels shot out past me or rustled in the leaves. My spine would tingle and my heart would race as I watched men’s hands from a distance only to find out that the dark shape was not a handgun, just a bag.
Afterwards, driving through that intersection continued to make my hands sweat and my body tense, but as with time and repetition, I got better at handling it…I also only had a few more months to work at that school. I scrolled through countless news sites and police twitter feed. No news. The next school day we addressed it briefly as tragic, but casual. My whole being was trying to scream “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. IT’S NOT OKAY.” But, as with time and repetition, people have to shut off emotional responses or risk complete meltdowns.
I’m back in my one room apartment in Brazil, knowing the fireworks are just a pre-football game celebration, knowing that I have to walk up the street and can’t hide away in the house.
However, I can’t help but draw the parallel to walking around a small town neighborhood on the 4th of July following the shooting. Every spontaneous pop, every unexpected bang, every sign of people celebrating their pride in their country made my breath stop, my heart race, and my skin jump.
Here I am, experiencing a new kind of pride, over a year and a half later…and still feeling the effects of that car ride. The small laugh that bubbles through the emotion, the pressing need to stop myself from crying, and that “for crisis only” voice saying, Don’t freak out…you’re safe…it’s nothing. Leave the house, it is just a small walk up the hill, you’ll be okay.