Jake would spend hours over the crib watching our baby daughter. In my dreams I watch them quietly from the doorway, basking in their warmth as they take turns laughing at each other’s funny faces. But the pretty picture in my mind never lasts. Reality starts to seep in, gliding with purpose through the invisible cracks of memory. The dream ends the same way every time: the walls of the bedroom slowly collapse around me like a cheap movie set; I desperately call out to them as they slingshot away and the world fades to white.
I wake up drenched in sweat, the panic attack already in full swing; reach across the bed looking for my husband but find the bedsheets cold and flat. It takes me a few seconds to remember what happened years ago – two men blowing themselves up in the middle of a crowd at the airport; an hour later, two others detonating a bomb in a packed subway station. Dozens of people dead, hundreds injured. Some managing to crawl out of the subway only to die on the pavement. My husband among the victims.
I remember some things, but not everything. The first places to get metal detectors were the shopping centres and the train stations. Then a second wave of attacks on New Year’s Eve, this time with semi-automatic weapons. Soon people couldn’t go to the movies without being frisked at the door, couldn’t take the subway without looking nervously around, couldn’t hear loud sounds without jumping to their senses. Military in the street, machine guns at the ready, dogs barking, day in, day out.
These days the routine keeps me going. I dress Amy for school, give her breakfast, make sure she has everything in her little pink backpack. Tell her to give me a big hug, spin her around when she comes running with open arms. She asks lots of questions: why she has to go to school; whether plants have feelings; why people point at us in the street. I tell her not to be silly, that people do no such thing. But, deep down, I know she’s right.
It usually happens when I introduce her to other kids on the way to school. The look on their parents’ faces is unmistakable – at first they’re confused, then they shield their children or move to the other side of the street. One or two people call me crazy. Amy says, But mommy, you know I’m not really here. And then my daughter disappears; leaving me all alone, lost and with no idea where to go. I sit on the edge of the sidewalk to collect my thoughts and a lady asks if I’m feeling ok. She offers to help, tells me she also lost someone. That she knows what it’s like. I ignore her and tell Amy to come before she’s late for school.
When we get there, I kiss her goodbye and watch as she disappears in the crowd. I stand still for a while, next to the soldiers with guns. They tell me to move along as the children rush past us on their way to class. I can’t help but think that their limbs are like pieces of a puzzle, fitting perfectly into the nooks and crannies and sockets of their bodies, like cogs on a clock. Take one out and everything stops. A man comes up to me and tells me that I scare the kids, that I should go. I take to the streets and try to find my way home.
The sidewalks and avenues multiply in front of me. People wear masks to avoid the pollution, ignoring the stretched hands of beggars while helicopters fly overhead and army trucks patrol the streets. The sounds pick and prod at my brain like splinters. To my side, an ambulance with spinning red lights stuck in traffic. The irritated cadence of its siren sends my thoughts spiralling into the past.
The night before the first attacks I was busy with work. Amy sat on the carpet looking vaguely disappointed at my lack of enthusiasm for her shenanigans. My husband was cooking dinner; I still remember the smell of his signature stew percolating throughout the house. Jake was going to take her to school the next day. He asked me offhandedly if they should take the subway or walk. It might rain, I said.
Those three little words turn the noise into more than I can bear. I cover my ears and cower in broad daylight as swarms of people converge on me, pushing and pulling my body from side to side. My throat lets out a suppressed wail that builds as random images come to me, summer picnics mixed with flesh and bones underneath thin white sheets. I’m not really here, I whisper to myself over and over again.
I clench my fists and close my eyes, letting the pain wash through me. Slowly my breathing returns to normal, I regain a sense of composure, people lose interest and clear out. I drag myself to a nearby wooden bench. It faces a flight of stairs leading straight into the ground, the subway exit where it all happened years ago. A handful of white tulips lie against the tiny memorial to the victims; among the names listed one that I cannot bring myself to read. And then it happens: the familiar feeling of her tiny fingers on my leg. Amy looks up at me with big blue eyes.
Let’s go home mommy, she says. I stand up and take her hand. My four-year-old daughter guides me along the city streets, past the angry crowds and back to the house where we used to live.