Groggy from a night of fitful sleep, I got out of bed and hobbled upstairs to brew a pot of coffee. I liked it fiercely strong, especially lately, when its jolt offered relief from Weltschmerz. Gone were my worries about the effects of caffeine. They're always coming up with new studies, anyway, aren't they? Besides, I reasoned, my vascular system was behaving itself -- no migraines in the longest time, my blood pressure had returned to normal -- and my female parts had done their job a long time ago, resulting in a rather beautiful son, Julian.
The attack hadn't permanently destroyed me.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the smudged window pane above the kitchen sink, let out a long growl, and then raked my messy silver-blonde hair with bony fingers. The thought of lighting a cigarette, something I hadn't done for over thirty years, crossed my mind, and this troubled me. My nerves were that ragged.
The nest -- a Victorian I'd inherited from an ancient aunt who'd once rolled in the dough -- was now empty, since Julian had hit the road and my marriage to his father hadn't lasted beyond ten years. An only child, I hadn't had to share this inheritance. No, the leaks in the old plumbing, the knee-high weeds, sketchy wiring, peeling wallpaper, uninsulated walls, and single-paned windows were all mine. But then again, so were the charming greenhouse, quaintly tiled kitchen, dramatically high ceilings, and sweet smelling cedar closets.
I rested my gaze on the limbs of a seasoned birch, eyeing not only a delicate hummingbird but a boisterous scrub jay, doing what they do amid tree limbs in the morning, admirably in harmony with each other, and for a moment I contemplated the weightlessness of a hummingbird's life, the audacity of the scrub jay's.
It felt good to push the plunger down on the French press. Instantly, the room filled with the smell of coffee, an aroma that now prompted mixed emotions. I poured a mug's worth, added cream, and sat down in the breakfast nook. I turned the tiny TV on to the news and just as quickly turned it off.
Goddamned ISIS, I heard myself say aloud, burning the roof of my mouth on the first sip. I had a couple hours before my meeting with an investigator from the FBI, so I clicked my computer on and examined my notes for the upcoming lecture in my Phenomenology course. We were tackling Heidegger's Being and Time. How was I going to bring Dasein, the German term for "being there" or "presence," into comprehensible terms? What spin would it need in order to hook the attention of my students? Studying it in my twenties -- straight from the 589-paged book which I still possess, personalized with beyond excessive marginal scribblings and underlinings -- was one thing. Teaching it thirty-five years later? Something else entirely, thanks to Wikipedia and the like, where the short version is accessible.
We had simply met for lattes. Jake, one of my more needy grad students, had asked me to review the outline for his dissertation, me being the Socrates to his Plato. And, as it often felt, mother with son. But I missed my own son Julian, so it felt nutritive, being in the presence of Jake. My own career, over thirty years thick, was nearly behind me while Jake's lay ahead. The barista, college-aged with her life story tattooed all over ashen flesh, could've use a jolt of espresso herself, making our order in what seemed like slow motion. Youth these days, so caught up in being in the moment. Namaste, chill, and all that. What ever happened to a little hustle when providing service? When our names were finally called, I grabbed the hot drinks, and Jake grabbed a table. He opened his laptop and clicked through the rough draft. I cupped both hands around my mug, staring at the elaborate leaf our tattooed sloth had designed in the foam.
"Mine has a paisley," Jake noted. "My mom loves paisleys."
"She must be about my age," I said. "I like paisleys, too." We sipped our drinks, and he dug his cell phone out of a backpack jammed with stuff, the sight of which nudged me into unanticipated thoughts of Julian, thirty now, last seen loading bare essentials into a backpack for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Desmond and I -- before the trouble began -- had raised him as wisely and generously as we knew how -- music lessons, library privileges, pets to care for, swim team, limited TV, contact with nature -- so it surprised me that a flash flood of worry immobilized me for a moment. I'd hoped for postcards before the remoteness of his hike sunk into my recently thickening skull. Postcards? Seriously? What did I think I was living in, stagecoach days? Jesus, really now. The hike could take up to half a year, depending on stamina and weather and all that. It was the all that part that spooked me. You hear creepy things, like the girl who gets mauled to death by the grizzly because the bear gets a whiff of menstrual blood. Or the lightning bolt that just happens to strike precisely where the teenaged boy is standing. Tree limbs breaking off in a storm, crushing to death two little boys sound asleep in a tent. And you can't forget the human aspect: the nut cakes out there.
"Professor Woods, you okay?" Jake nudged my shoulder.
"Oh, yes. Sorry. Caught me daydreaming." I reined my focus back to Jake and his treatise.
"Yeah, you and my mom are about the same age. I bet you two would hit it off," he said, one knee already shaking under the table. A rip in his jeans exposed part of his thigh. I could tell he was the type with killer metabolism. He removed a rubber band from his ponytail, letting a mane of teak-colored hair fall loosely past his shoulders. Once upon a time, Julian had worn long hair, too.
The cafe was packed. Tiny round tables like those you see on sidewalks in Paris wobbled beneath hearty mugs of espresso, saucers of croissants, and laptops. College students in torn clothes and messy hair smelling of weed were affixed to their computer screens, typing fiendishly, scratching their heads or looking up at the next person who entered, all the while in a trance that seemed a throwback to the hippies I hung with back in the late Sixties.
His essay was an examination of Sartre's claim: It disturbs me no more to find men base, unjust, or selfish than to see apes mischievous, wolves savage, or the vulture ravenous. He'd gotten three pages in when it happened.
Ungodly pop-sounds from the weapons, muffled yelling from two masked faces, uncanny chaos. It was impossible to know whether the glass broke first -- from a parade of randomly fired bullets -- or whether the bodies falling into it caused the huge window, the entire storefront, to shatter into a trillion pieces. Oh hell, why does it matter? But I've been asked to report what I remember. There were screams, of course, mine included, and I have to say I was impressed by Jake's physical strength. If I ever meet his mother, I will take pride in telling her how he threw his body over mine, his thigh taking the bullet which landed him in the hospital, thus sparing me.
Panic ravaged the few faces I could see in those first moments of the atrocity -- horror in its most empirical form, moments fleeting yet indescribably contaminated. Someone's hand shattered, sending avulsed fingers onto the floor, and in the aftermath, someone -- whose wits were remarkably not frayed -- found them and put them into cups of ice. Another received a bullet to the shoulder, someone else bled from both thighs. Quickly, most of us played dead. I remember seeing a man, and what I took to be his daughter, maybe eleven years old, walking out from the cafe only moments before the shooters entered, and how, even though each of us is cherished, I gave pause, maybe I whispered a prayer, knowing the child was spared.
Humans, rich with complications and softness, reduced to carnage, falling to the floor like crash test dummies, pools of blood sending its metallic scent into my crazed senses. The piped music of Adele. The button of a coffee bean grinder left on, contributing an absurd, ear-splitting racket to the already turbulent scene.
Not one of us had taken on the role of sentry. Instead, we had been rapt in the nonchalance of normal life: testing our pricey drinks for the right sweetness; checking text messages; looking into the face of the person sitting at the table with us, innocently engaged. If there's anything I miss, it is that: living without simultaneously serving as a watchtower.
There is no reason I was spared physical injury. That's not to say I came away unaffected. Something happens -- a severe shift in perception -- after a brush with death. Once the police and the emergency response team had allowed me to go, I remember how completely strange it felt to be in my home after the attack. The possessions I'd held dear were still where they'd always been, unfazed. They would've gone on without me; I would have become the past. I stared around my bedroom, as if in a trance. The desk housing the secret treasures of me in the form of letters, notes, journals; my dresser containing the clothes that represented me, the antique beveled mirror that gave me back to myself, a self-portrait I'd painted in my twenties -- all would have gone on existing, minus me. That I gave profound thought to all of this? It stunned me into numbness.
"Count yourself lucky!" my friend Diana had told me. "You survived something horrendous."
I shook my head.
"Think of what it must be like in countries where fearing for your life is a common occurrence," I said.
"Have they determined whether those boys belonged to ISIS?" she asked.
"It's still under investigation, but most of the evidence is pointing more toward disgruntled teens. We've learned the shooters were children, both sixteen. One hundred percent American. Sophomores in high school. Both white."
"Wow. In the prime of their lives. Can't imagine what their parents are going through."
It felt silly now, to fret about the turn for the worse my potted pansies on the porch had taken, victims of neglect. I'd been considering finally upgrading the bathroom, the prospect of which now lost meaning. Did it matter that I wasn't up on all the films nominated for the Academy Awards, thereby ruling myself out of active participation at the upcoming Oscar party the dean of our department hosted every year? Good God, I'd lived through a horror movie.
I couldn't laugh for what seemed like forever. (That's another thing: time is a cheetah, time is a sloth.) But isn't laughter one of those things that heals all wounds?
For years, I could remember giving birth, how it turned me primal. I could picture the set-up of the delivery room with instruments and equipment. I could even channel the burning sensation. You're held captive during life-altering events like that. What the amnesia lets through now are my hands gripping as though they were welded to the labor bed's handles, the sea-hued scrubs of the obstetrician -- wasn't he, after all, the captain of this sinking ship! -- the nurse's voice a steady, calm ticking clock. I was spotlit. I memorized all of it, because the recollection of even the most profound experiences eventually breaks into fragments. Driftwood you hold onto in a tumultuous sea that's pulling you under.
But again, I was purely a participant, not an observer.
So, when people ask me what I remember about that morning in the cafe, I am no photographer or journalist. I've had dreams, but I haven't cried yet -- I'm limited to images that have become archetypal: the black of their clothing, the red of the blood, deafening hysteria, relief that flooded me when the SWAT team appeared. As for the rest, my psyche has disposed of it.
No one, it turned out, died from their wounds.
A week later, having been granted a necessary leave of absence, I forced myself to face something mindless, so I put on some Vivaldi and got the tub of cleansers out of the cupboard. It wasn't like me to be cleaning so often, but it gave me mundane focus; I'd even gone to the Goodwill with eight bags of stuff. That afternoon I would visit Jake, who'd been discharged after his surgery. Daffodils were in bloom, so I'd pick a bunch, and I'd chosen an old paperback off my bookshelf to give him -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to serve as a little light reading while he recovered.
It was eleven o'clock in the morning, but I poured myself a glass of wine. I'd finished the toilet and sink and was spraying Windex on the mirror when my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but I answered it anyway. It was Julian. He'd heard from another hiker about the attack, how close to home it had occurred, and was I freaked out about it? The sound of his voice caught me off guard, and finally, I couldn't bite back the tears. Then I thought the phone went dead. I couldn't lose him now.
"Hello? Honey, are you still there?" I managed to choke out.
"Mom, I'm okay. What's wrong? Tell me!"