I’ve tried to write something about the attacks of November 13th for weeks. It never feels like the right time, or the right way. Still doesn’t. How can one possibly begin to put words to the enormous confusion of horror, pain, death, anger, grief, emotions, news reports, lack of sleep, tears that was it. How can one begin to describe something that you can’t touch, and which changed the very world in which you live, has coloured the way you see everything, and has made everything Before and After?
How can I, one among millions begin to even try? What right do I have to tell this story?
Like pushing magnets together, my words resist one another. The harder I push, the more violently they slip away into a messy pile on the other side of meaning.
Yet, I’m a writer. And the more time that passes from this event and the present, the harder it will be to write anything at all. My words feel small and pointless but they are the best means of expression I possess and I cannot call myself a writer in Paris if I don’t have the balls to write about this.
I wake up and within a few seconds it descends on me like fog, pressing me down onto the bed. A grey, thick sadness that will not leave me all day. I stay in bed, wide awake because what’s the point of getting up? I don’t have work, it’s the weekend. Nothing but the night before will occupy my consciousness and nothing about it is going to be normal or OK and the script has gone out the window. I begin to cry. I’ll leak tears all day.
It feels like somebody has died except I don’t know who. A family member, but not a close one. A friend, who I haven’t seen in a long time. I’m in shock and shocked at my constant and heavy grief.
I feel so much guilt. For crying too much. For drawing attention to myself with my grief. I’m crying like somebody who lost a sibling. I didn’t lose anybody. I lost 130. I’m not allowed to be this upset. 130 people died. My city, my home was attacked. My brain recreates the scenario from what I hear on the news. Their terror is a room in my head that I try not to enter. My pain is nothing compared to others. My tears are unearned. I feel so much guilt. I wasn’t in the neighbourhood. I wasn’t even outside. I got a warning text and hurried home as the tidal wave of truth destroyed the city. I was twisted up watching the agony of the news unravel while my phone buzzed and jumped and my friends were trapped in restaurants and huddling behind bars and hearing gunshots through their windows.
I can’t stand people seeing me cry, and I’m cursed to cry more than anybody else I know. My boyfriend finally makes it home from the newsroom before sunrise and I want him to tell me what we do next but of course he can’t. I don’t want to wake up to face the world. My beautiful, beautiful city is hurt.
I’m tired. Of picking up my phone every 3 seconds to read a new message. Of the endless stream of facebook comments, texts, calls, emails. I scroll obsessively, I stare at the “friends who have not yet check in as safe yet” list, and the number dwindles slowly. I stare at the names of people I barely know, met once, connected with and will them to log on.
I blink in shock when my a picture of a cocktail on a beach, or a cute dog interrupts my feed, a bit of flotsam from the life of somebody far away who is living in a totally different reality.
I have an obligation to reply to everybody, to reassure them that I am physically safe. But the task is insurmountable. I cannot write “I’m OK” because I’m not. I can’t write anything because no words that I can find come close to describing the bad dream we are all living through. I know that all they want to hear is that we were not harmed, but writing anything at all seems so feeble and limiting and wrong. I’m not ready to let them off the hook yet. I’m so fucking hurt. I want to scream at everybody. My pain is nothing compared to others.
We get together, the night after. My many expat friends who have no family to go to. Sometimes we forget for a moment and it feels like a normal night then like a punch in the stomach it comes back and takes our breath away. Guilt.
I look at my phone, compulsively, and see that somebody many of my friends know has died. Their status has moved from unknown to confirmed. I never knew them personally but I was once deeply entrenched in the community they called their own. This awful truth lodges in my throat and I can’t breath. I collapse in half, sitting cross legged on the floor. My two arms link up with four others and the three of us cry and cry and cry and cry and cry. For them, for the others, for us, for everyone, for Paris.
When I go outside, I speak robotically while running scenarios through my head. If a gunman appears on the other side of the hedge just there, I’ll knock my friends to the ground pretty quick. I’ll kick out their feet so they fall backwards and I’ll lie on top of them. A hedge wouldn’t stop a bullet. Would a bullet go through two bodies? I wonder if we could get to that statue in time. Are AK-47’s black or green?
Nobody can hold a conversation. It’s not a tennis game of serve and return. It’s shotput. Words don’t even touch the shape of it, yet we can’t talk about anything else. We gaze into the middle distance and jump at sirens.
I could jump into the river and try to hide under a boat. Would they try to shoot me in the water? I wonder if I could make a tourniquet out of my headscarf. Bleeding in the water would be worse. I’d play dead.
I register exits, low walls, dead ends.
Days pass, then weeks. I sit in bars and cafes. I imagine gunmen running in, spraying bullets. I wish I could do something heroic, to alleviate this guilt.
In the absence of instruction, we continue to do the things we used to do, the kind of way we used to do them.
A friend contacts me. An Australian TV channel wants to put on a concert, in solidarity with France. A celebration of music and life in defiance of the horrors. They want to interview Australians living in Paris. I agree to go. Maybe this will help. Four of us meet at a posh downstairs bar, far from the 10th. A film crew arrives. Brash, Australian voices laugh and make jokes and order cocktails while we uneasily twirl our glasses. The overly cheerful producer seats us right in the line of the camera. We shift on the plush seats. The producer comes back. He doesn’t need us after all, because he has “real survivors” to interview. After all, we weren’t there.
The room feels tight. Get out get out get out get out.
We leave, almost running up the stairs and back into the real world, feeling dirty by association. Guilt guilt guilt.
On the way to dinner one night, we walk right by two of the restaurants that were hit. Sopping wet flowers, candles, tributes and cards lie in a heap bound up by police tape. Every candle is out, and dried wax leaks onto the asphalt. We try to relight some. Ink runs from children-made posters like black tears. The plastic flower wrapping is slick and shiny from the rain. I see bullet holes in the wooden paneling.
I see bullet holes almost every day. I point them out to tourists. They are relics of the liberation of Paris, August 1944. At Ecole Militaire, Hotel de Ville, Place de la Concorde. Niches are carved into street corners all over the city, bedecked with flowers, commemorating those who died for France. The bullet holes are left, as a reminder.
I ride home at 1am, over the Pont du Carrousel, over the Seine. The beauty of the scene brings me to tears. For four and a half years I’ve called this place my home. It’s not always been a simple relationship, nobody has a simple relationship with Paris. There have been times when I’ve felt utterly rejected by it, alone and unwanted. There have been times when I’ve felt my heart sing with joy and love for it, bursting with pride in her glory. But this is the first time that I’ve ever seen this ancient, mighty city as vulnerable and injured.
Glowing in the wan moonlight, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame faces me from the distance. Over eight centuries old, she has seen innumerable deaths. Occupation, war, fire and conquering armies. The city grow and change beyond recognition.
Parisians are not demonstrative people. Displaying the tricolour flag and publically singing la Marseillaise does not come naturally to them. Parisians are a people who own ironic stickers J’aime rien. Je suis Parisien (I love nothing. I’m Parisian). Yet this restraint and preference for the privacy of emotion should never be mistaken for apathy or lack of pride or solidarity.
Paris is no stranger to pain. Paris is ancient and powerful and strong. Paris will go on, and so will we.