The Boston Marathon Bombings Were 3 Years Ago, But I Still Feel Stuck
My apartment was only a few blocks away from the Cambridge home of Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers responsible for the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon. When the police embarked on a "manhunt" for Dzokhar after his brother had been killed, the whole country watched their frantic search. You probably remember hearing that the whole city was on lock down. Nobody was allowed to leave their home. Public transportation was put on hold. Schools were suspended.
The fear that my neighborhood and I were experiencing was a different beast entirely, though. While the cameras focused primarily on their attempts to find Tsarnaev in Watertown, there were countless cop cars and S.W.A.T. teams surrounding his apartment in Cambridge, right around the corner from me. They were concerned that there were live explosives in the area. The gravity of the lockdown here was much heavier, much more stifling. We were terrified that there was another bomb hidden near us, that the death count was about to rise even higher.
My then-boyfriend and I were wrapped in blankets, sitting on his upstairs neighbors' couch. They had a television with cable, which provided us with live updates. Almost everyone in the living room was on their phone, speaking in urgent, hushed tones with their brows furrowed. Some talked with family members, others with friends. I could only bring myself to text, though. I didn't feel like answering phone calls or verbally telling my loved ones who weren't in Boston that I was OK, that I was safe, and that I would keep them updated. Call me an asshole, but I honestly had no interest in speaking to them. My throat was collapsing in on itself, and I imagined this is what it would feel like to be choked against your will.
I was picking at the skin around my fingernails, which had turned swollen and bloody, when my boyfriend suddenly wrapped his arms around me. I should clarify: Things were so bad at that point in our relationship that we could barely stand to be in the same room as one another (we broke up only a few months later), so his touch had nothing to do with affection. I think he could see that I was falling into a hole, so this was nothing more than a gesture of solidarity, a sensible way of reminding me that I wasn't alone.
"Thank you," I whispered to him, the tears running freely down my cheeks.
Boston isn't my hometown. I didn't grow up there and I have no family there. In fact, when I moved into my Cambridge apartment in 2011, I knew I was only going to be a resident of the city for three years tops. Graduate school brought me to Boston, and although you can never be too sure about these things, I was pretty damn sure that I wanted to leave and continue my life elsewhere after my Master's program was complete. I can't get through brutal winters without turning into an insufferable monster, I despise Irish pubs (which are plentiful in the city) — in my mind, Boston was far from a home. It was a stepping stone, a layover of sorts.
But experiencing the tragedy of the marathon bombings during my last semester of graduate school unexpectedly anchored me to the city and the people around me, so much so that I ended up feeling helplessly separated from anything in my life that wasn't rooted in Boston. Being present for an act of terror like this one has the power to change you and transform the way you interact with the world. That's certainly what happened to me, anyway.
The entire country was shaken when news of the bombings hit. It was a gruesome attack on a historical public event that has been inspiring American people for decades. Three innocent individuals were killed and over 260 were injured, several of whom lost limbs due to the explosions. Through the suffering, though, it was comforting to see so many people nationwide rally behind the victims and their families, offering love, support, and rightful anger in a time of such senseless terrorism. Everybody I knew reached out to me and extended sincere words of concern. My mom stayed on the phone with me for hours. My best friend skyped with me while I screamed and cried. Everyone did everything right. But throughout all of the consolation, I felt markedly separated from them. It was like we were suddenly living on different planets, and the shared language we once had was slowly being stripped away.
That same feeling of being choked often resurfaced when I communicated with people who weren't from my graduate school program or my yoga studios (one of which was so close to the attack that you can see its front door in the video footage of the bombing). I found it hard to talk to them and answer their questions about the memorial services and "how things are going." It's not that my heartache was definitively bigger, better, or more significant than those who weren't in Boston on April 15, 2013. It's just that my pain came from a different place than theirs, and I was too tired to try to explain that difference to anyone. My therapist chalked it all up to grief. He said it was only temporary and that things would return to normal after enough time had passed.
At the end of 2013, I moved from Boston to Australia. Since then, even though I've restarted my whole life and fully recovered from the heartbreak, I still can't help but feel that throat-closing isolation every now and again. I don't speak to many people from my Boston days, especially not my ex, however kind he was to me on that night. My personal life now is fulfilling on many different levels, but there will always be a part of me that my friends and family will never truly understand. It's like I'm stuck in a "liminal space," which is just a fancy anthropological term for a state of ambiguity that exists when one is in between stages of a ritual. Richard Rohr, author and Franciscan alternative orthodox priest, describes liminal space as the following.
"It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing."
This is the time of the year that the ambiguity and "this terrible cloud of unknowing" affects me the most (especially because I'm not a monk and I'm very much untrained in "how to hold anxiety"). I will, like the last two years, remember and mourn the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings alongside people I love who weren't in the city on that day. I probably won't say much to them about it, because even just writing this makes me want to shrink from it all. I'll also remember and mourn the victims knowing that I'll never move back to Boston — but not because I hate the city or relive the tragedy every time I'm there. Rather, because there really isn't anything left there for me, even if it is the one place in the world where the part of me that floats through life in a "liminal space" could find peace.
A few weeks ago, I visited my parents, and the second day I was at their house, my dad walked out of his room wearing a bright blue t-shirt that had "Boston Strong" written on the front in yellow. These tops were wildly popular throughout the city around the time of the bombings.
"Where did you get that?!" I said suddenly.
"I got it when we came up for your graduation," he said matter-of-factly and continued walking into the kitchen, as if he'd been wearing the shirt for years.
And he had. I graduated only a month after the bombings in 2013, which meant he's had it all this time. Was it a first step toward feeling fully connected once again to the people in my life? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it felt comforting to see him wear that shirt. Just like having someone wrap their arms around me.