Preface: I didn’t plan on writing about this again. Many of you are probably ready to move on; I am too. And as the days pass, I feel a dwindling sense of ownership of this story, as I get back to my normal life while others remain in hospitals or worse.
But I guess I needed to write it. I am taking a fiction workshop right now and each day, as I sat down to prepare my pages for this week’s meeting, I found that I just…couldn’t. I needed to get this story out first before I could return my attention to the trials of my created characters. So this is what I wrote and presented instead.
I’m not sure what to do with it: I’m certainly not going to put it in my in-progress folder to come back to later, but it feels bigger than a journal entry, and too important to be tucked away in a private place and forgotten about. So I’m posting it here, in all of its long, rambly, navel-gazey, photo-and-MSPaint-lacking glory:
My feet had failed me.
And holy shit do they hurt, I thought as I eased my butt down onto the low curb. The cement was cold. I pulled the space blanket tighter across my chest and it crinkled as it curled around me like a giant piece of aluminum foil. My fingers were shaky, but I worked laces loose and pulled my feet out of the shoes that I’d spent the last four hours and seven minutes cursing. I pressed my feet into the cool pavement and wiggled my toes. It felt amazing.
But after a couple of minutes, I put the dreaded shoes back on. Impatience took over and I hauled myself up and continued my shuffle down Newbury Street, then cut back over to Boylston, toward my friend’s apartment. I’d actually just been there; I passed it during the last tenth of a mile of the race, grinning as I veered over to the edge of the crowd to slap Drew’s outstretched hand before making a final push across the finish line.
I was annoyed at how slowly I was walking. All I could think about was sinking my rear into the couch and crossing my ankles on the coffee table. Someone would bring me a beer. And then another beer. I’d be showered with hugs and congratulations – I’d just run the Boston Marathon! – and would do nothing for the rest of the day but sit on my ass. I couldn’t wait. And this walk was taking ages.
Four more blocks.
The bleachers at the finish line were just ahead of me and I paused for a moment to consider how I was going to navigate around them.
And then, the bleachers were gone, replaced with a plume of white smoke.
Next came the sound, which was deafening, sidewalk-shaking. For a couple of seconds, I saw an ambiguous series of images in my head that involved a piece of elecrical equipment spontaneously combusting. Then the smell came. And although I’ve never (to my knowledge) smelled a bomb before, I knew that’s exactly what this was.
I had barely peeled my feet from the pavement when the second one went off.
Which of course pointed to the very real possibility that there would be a third.
Volunteers from the medical tent, who wore white jackets, were rushing toward the finish; a volunteer in a yellow jacket, just like the ones I’d taken water and Gatorade from on the race course, was running in the opposite direction and telling everyone to follow.
I followed for a block and then ducked in to the doorway of a restaurant where a cluster of young women had gathered. I dont think they were runners; they looked like they’d just been having brunch.
“Can I use your phone to call my husband?” I croaked. Without hesitation, she obliged. My fingers were trembling so hard that I had to have her punch in Drew’s number. Of course, I couldn’t get through. I asked her to send a brief text (“its shelby, im ok”) and then decided to move along, back around to Newbury Street, where hopefully I could walk down past the finish and then cut over to get back to the apartment. Because my husband and friends were all inside that apartment, safe and probably scared but SAFE. They had to be.
I didn’t know at the time that the second bomb has actually gone off on their doorstep. Thank God I didn’t know that at the time.
For the second time that afternoon, I walked down Newbury Street. It was so different the second time. Clusters of people whispering and crying. Cell phones pressed anxiously to ears. Police cars and fire engines screaming through the neighborhood.
Finally, I thought I’d walked far enough to clear the finish area, and I tried to cut back over to Boylston. A policeman told me no way.
“But my friends live right there,” I pleaded.
“Your friends are probably far away by now,” he said.
I shook my head, not understanding. “No, they live right there.”
The cop swallowed, his eyes softening a bit, and said he was sorry.
I forced myself to consider, for the first time, that Drew and our friends might not be curled up safely in that apartment waiting for me to return.
* * *
I had started to walk back the way I’d come when a young girl, barefoot in yoga pants and clutching a coffee mug, stepped down from the stoop of a nearby brownstone and asked me if I knew what had happened.
“I’m pretty sure it was a bomb,” I heard myself say. I choked on an inappropriate laugh. It sounded absurd.
She asked if I wanted to come in, if I needed a bathroom, water, or food.
A stupidly obvious idea hurled itself at me. “Do you have internet?” I asked.
Of course she did, and minutes later, I made my safe status Facebook official.
But I still didn’t know where my husband and friends were. A wad of nausea bounced around my gut.
We stood by her front window and she tried to reassure me: “I’m sure they’re fine.” I tried to agree: “I mean, they were two blocks away from it. They’re fine.”
Below, an officer paced the sidewalk, trying to get people to leave the area. “If I were you,” he bellowed in his Boston accent, “I’d be far away from here.”
My hostess cast me a nervous glance and I knew she wanted to leave. I didn’t blame her. So I excused myself and, fighting back the urge to vomit, headed back outside.
I hadn’t been out there for a minute when a group of a dozen or so runners passed by, led by a guy in jeans and a sweater who introduced himself as Luke. He seemed to be rounding up runners who needed a place to go. I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed.
I could tell right away that he was a glass-half-full kind of guy. “My money’s on a transformer,” he nodded with authority as he herded us down Commonwealth Avenue, its stately green median crowded with ambulances and pop-up tents and what looked like armored tanks. Where did all of this stuff come from? How had it gotten here so quickly? Nothing about this made sense.
Our little group didn’t converse much while we walked, leaving the rustling of space blankets to fill the silence between whispered curses at non-functioning cell phones. My finisher’s medal thumped uselessly on my chest with each footfall. The pukey feeling continued to gnaw at my insides. My mind, however, had taken on the wrenching task of analyzing every minute between slapping Drew’s hand in front of the apartment just before the finish line and the disappearance of the bleachers into a cloud of acrid smoke. Would he have walked that direction, maybe trying to come find me at the finish? If so, where would he have been? Was he okay? He had to be okay.
I could tell I wasn’t the only one whose brain was weaving through this maze of potential nightmares. We exchanged anxious looks and gently laid our hands on each others’ backs. Everyone would be okay. They had to be okay.
* * *
At Luke’s apartment, I learned two things in quick succession:
(1) From the TV, I saw that the second explosion was not in the same place as the first one, at the finish line bleachers, as I’d assumed. Instead, it was right in front of my friend’s front door, which was right where Drew had been standing when we exhcanged our victory hand slap.
(2) From logging in to my email, I found out that everyone was safe and evacuated, but that Drew was not with them.
As a writer, I try to avoid trite metaphors. Things like my blood ran cold. Or my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. Or I felt like all of the breath had been knocked out of me. But I can tell you that all of those things happened to me when I read that email, adressed to both Drew and me, asking if “we” were okay. I sat down on the floor, my hands steepled over my nose and mouth, breathing with effort as someone grabbed my hand and someone else squeezed my shoulder, repeating our mantra from the walk over: everything will be okay.
I don’t know how long I sat there in this weird catatonic state paralyzed by these shock-and-grief metaphors which were surprisingly real, but I’m sure it was several minutes, at least. Finally I pulled the computer back on to my lap and began to sort through my email inbox and Facebook notifications for any other scraps of information, and to start the process of trying to figure out where exactly Drew was, if he wasn’t with me and he wasn’t with them.
* * *
In the end, everything was okay. At least for me, my husband, our friends. We were lucky.
They had all been in the apartment when the first bomb exploded. The party had hit its stride; platters of hamburger patties and shrimp skewers were prepped and headed toward the grill, friends who were running had finished the race, others had taken the afternoon off of work and were trickling in from offices to catch the last bit of the action.
Naturally, if naively, they all ran to the front window. They got there just in time to watch the second one fill the space right in front of them.
Drew had been down on the sidewalk in front of the building, cheering on me and the other racers. He had returned to the party less than five minutes before it happened. Within five more, he was gone again, looking for me.
They evacuated the building shortly thereafter. Firefighters escorted them out their front door and across Boylston Street, instructing them to keep their eyes forward and not look down or around. It’s horrible to think about what they would’ve seen if they hadn’t.
The group headed to another friend’s house a few blocks away; meanwhile, Drew, having received that first frantic text I sent from the stranger’s phone in the foyer of the restaurant, combed the neighborhood for me. In hindsight, we probably were never more than a block or two apart, but we never crossed paths. Eventually, via a complicated series of third-party emails and Facebook comments, we connected; his phone battery dead, he’d been hunkered down in the home of another generous stranger just a few blocks away. Two hours after the first explosion, I gave my husband the tightest hug I’ve ever given.
I’m not much of an emotional person, but I’ve felt many things in the aftermath of this.
Guilt: over being one of the lucky ones. Over running away from the cloud of smoke rather than toward it. Over living in a place in the world and a time in history where something like this is the big huge deal that it is.
Confusion: over why. Even though in the most basic sense, the rational part of me understands why (it was a big group of people at a huge sporting event with zero real-time security). But still: why?
Gratitude: to the brave officers, race volunteers, EMTs, doctors, and everyone else that risked their own safety to deal with this mess – both the immediate aftermath and the violent manhunt that followed. To yoga pants girl and Luke and the other strangers who opened their homes and offered cell phones and computers and comfort to those who needed it.
Sadness: above all, that four people lost their lives and hundreds suffered injuries, many of them life-altering.
Relief: that I didn’t. It really could have been me. (And then we cycle back to guilt again…)
I saw so many people cry that day and the next. But for some reason, I couldn’t. In fact, a week and a half later, I still haven’t. The ball of nausea in my stomach, however, and the inability to sleep, and the constant exploration of what-ifs…this isn’t over yet, I know. Everyone deals with this stuff differently.
* * *
I think often of the moment that the bomb went off. Although I know that it all happened at once, it’s always sight that dominates the memory: sight, then sound, then smell, these three in a tidy row. Perhaps oddly, it makes me think of working track meets in high school, our fingers hovering over stopwatch start buttons, squinting across the field at the tip of the starter’s gun and waiting to see the little puff of white smoke a split second before we heard the bang. It didn’t seem like much of a difference, but if you started your watch on sound instead of sight, you’d throw off the results of the race.
Sometimes, timing is everything.
* * *
After a marathon, runners tend to overanalyze every moment of the race and think about whether there’s something they could have done differently to improve the outcome. You know, things like: did I really need that extra walk break? Could I have done without that stop to adjust my shoelace tension? What if I’d stuck with that chatty chick in the zebra skirt – what was her time? If I hadn’t blown off my last long training run would I have finished a few minutes faster?
I can’t count how many times I’ve gone down this path and ended up in a labyrinth of dark hypotheticals. Four hours and seven minutes may be one of my slowest marathon performances ever, but it was the perfect time for me to run last Monday.
If I’d had known that as I crossed the finish line, collected my space blanket and medal, and began that first walk down Newbury, I wouldn’t have cursed my aching feet at all. My feet didn’t fail me. Somehow, they did exactly what they needed to do.