It is April 22, 2013 and the Brooklyn Bridge is silhouetted against a blazing orange backdrop as the sun sinks into the horizon and New York slips further away. I’ve been up since 4:00 AM, traveling with the sunrise to cover a technology conference at the Javits Center, and my exhaustion is finally making itself known. I sink into my seat on this high-speed train as it barrels forward toward home, toward my own city, where I know this same setting sun is now being reflected with overwhelming brilliance in the mirrored exterior of the John Hancock Tower.
It has been a mere 13 hours since I left Boston, but I am desperate to get back. Leaving that morning felt wrong, somehow, with only a week having passed by since a jagged hole had been torn – ripped open with abrupt, unspeakable violence – in the very heart of the city. Part of it was a strange guilt, as if I were abandoning an old friend in her moment of need. Another part of it was fear – a quiet, but persistent dread creeping along the nooks and crannies of my mind that believed something else could happen and that I would be hundreds of miles away from my loved ones when it did. Logically, I knew it was over, in the sense that the people who unleashed such madness one week ago were no longer a threat. But, also logically, I knew that it was never really over.
It is April 20, 1999 and I am a painfully awkward 14-year-old with very few friends in my small, stifling Catholic middle school in my small, stifling Western Massachusetts town. It won’t be long until I start high school, and I’m already fairly convinced that things are only going to get worse. (I am unfortunately very right; things will get progressively worse until I graduate and run 100 miles away towards my new life in Boston, at which point things will immediately start to get better.) There is a girl in my class who is beautiful and smiles in a way that makes something in my stomach hurt. I desperately want to get closer to her, but even I don’t yet understand what that means. It will be some years still before I do.
On the television, there are grainy black and white images of two boys, only a few years older than I am, frozen for all time in a smoky high school cafeteria. My adolescent brain is having a difficult time processing this image and the dozens of other images of chaos, terror, and loss in a place I have never been to, but could easily be exactly where I am. Two conclusions, however, are emerging with increasing clarity. 1.) High school is going to suck and 2.) We are never safe, no matter where we are. I will silently hope that I am wrong on both counts. I am not.
It is September 11, 2001 and I am sitting in my guidance counselor’s office, trying to switch out of a class that I have just started, but already hate for some reason. I am 16-years-old and I hate a lot of things, most especially myself. My guidance counselor has been listening to the radio and tells me that a plane has hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York. We both agree what a terrible accident it is, and then go on to discuss my schedule. When I return to my first period class, the TV is on and my classmates are unnaturally quiet. On the screen, a second plane crashes into a second tower and everything feels very cold. The camera switches to a shot of the burning Pentagon and one thought crosses my still-forming, self-obsessed teenage mind: We are under attack.
Some of my classmates try to call their parents or family members in New York. The cell towers are overwhelmed by this point and the calls don’t go through. I don’t try to call anyone. I just stare at the screen like one under the influence of hypnosis, unable to look away from the burning buildings. Nobody says anything, or they say everything, but none of it matters. The day’s classes go on as scheduled, or maybe they don’t. I honestly can’t remember the rest of the day beyond that TV screen.
It is April 15, 2013 and I am once again stuck working on Marathon Monday. I’m at least working from home this year, which makes me slightly less bitter (but only slightly). The Marathon was more exciting when I lived in Brookline right off of Beacon St., and I could watch from my window as the runners sped by and the crowds cheered and the BC students played drunken bean bag toss on the sidewalk. In my residential Somerville neighborhood, it’s as quiet as any other Monday. I read the names of the winners on Boston.com and then ignore the marathon for the rest of the day, preoccupied with setting up interviews for an upcoming article and taking a generous amount of Facebook and OKCupid breaks.
At 3:00 PM, one of my coworkers posts a confused Facebook status about an explosion in Copley. My first thought is that it was probably a manhole explosion, as one had taken place in Fenway earlier this year. I turn on the TV and see the smoke pluming out of Boylston. Then I open up Gawker and see the first still photo, and the first blood.
The texts start flying back and forth. I learn that there has also been a fire and an explosion at the JFK Library, where one of my closest friends and roommates works. She learns about the bombings in Copley as she stands outside, watching the entrance of that beautiful building burn. The fire started just a few minutes after the bombing, but investigations will find no link between the two incidents. I will be highly skeptical.
My roommates will remain scattered around the city in the coming hours, either trapped at work or glued to screens elsewhere. I watch the video of the explosion for the first time and feel a punch to my gut that makes breathing difficult. I pull my cat, who purrs at the sudden attention, close to me and wish somebody would come home.
As it has done in the past and will most likely do in the future, my mind struggles to process the nightmare in front of me. There’s the cute little candy store that everyone was so excited to see open, and in front of it are bodies. There’s the LensCrafters where I bought a pair of glasses with my own money and my own insurance for the first time, and its windows are completely blown out. CNN is pointing cameras at a place I have passed through almost every day for the last 10 years. The President is talking about Boston’s resilience. This time, screens provide no real barrier between me and suffocating horror. These images are too personal, too intimate, too…my home. My streets. My people. My life.
I don’t sleep more than a few hours a night for the next four days. On Tuesday, I work from home again, unable to stand the idea of getting on the T. I try to convince myself to keep the dinner plans I had made with friends, but I make it as far as the bus stop before I panic and go home. I’m not ready. On Wednesday and Thursday, I go into the office. I regret it each day. The silence is heavy, broken only by occasional hushed conversations, all about the bombing. My desk is across from a coworker who was at the finish line when it happened and ran for her life, escaping without physical injury. She doesn’t come in all week.
My roommate and I go to a memorial service Thursday night, and we both feel a little bit better when it’s over. It’s nice to walk around the neighborhood before returning to the TV, which has been on non-stop since Monday afternoon. Three hours later, an MIT officer is dead and a manhunt has begun. I force myself to go to bed at 12:30. Before I get a chance to sleep, I hear two loud bangs and a chorus of sirens nearby. I’m in front of the TV again in a flash and will remain there until 3:30 AM, when exhaustion finally wins out.
I awake at 7:00 AM to texts asking if I’m OK and begging me not to go outside. The city is in lockdown. I’m sent an address — the home of the bombers — and Google Maps tells me they live a mere nine minutes away. I return to my post in front of the TV with my bleary-eyed roommates. We stay away from windows. The day passes slowly, excruciatingly. I can’t concentrate on anything else and fail to file an article due that day. My editor tells me not to worry about it. The sirens near us are a constant now and are soon joined by a helicopter circling overhead. Everything feels like a movie and at the same time, crushingly real.
Finally, at 9:00 PM, it’s over. We all utter exclamations of relief and pull out ice cream and wine. The air seems less heavy, though not as light as air should be. On the TV, people are pouring into the streets, cheering and applauding and belting out the national anthem, but I stay inside, not ready for noise and crowds yet. Tomorrow, the rebuilding will begin. Tomorrow, there will be grins and hugs on the street and a brass band rollicking through Harvard Square. Tomorrow, I will clearly see the love and unity and strength that have carried us through darkness, and will carry us through again. But tonight, I am simply thankful that the city – my city – will finally sleep well.
It is April 22, 2013 and my train pulls into South Station at 10:45 PM. I walk through the station I’ve crossed so many times, onto the Red Line that I ride every day, and whiz past the Boston skyline on my way across the Charles. The Pru is lit up with a simple message: “One.” I feel my heart swell and forgive myself for a moment of shameless schmaltz. There is only one place that has ever really felt like home. One place where I found myself and my chosen family and a life I can be proud of. One place that I will always be happy to seen again. Boston, you’re the one.