Month: July, 2022

suburban war

Lawyers, doctors, and moms have the best drugs. One time, while out dancing with a doctor-mom-friend she pulled out a baggie of pills and offered me one. “What are they?” I screamed over the nihilistic mumblings of James Murphy. “I don’t know!” she screamed back before throwing a green pill into her mouth. I’m a good little immigrant girl trained to follow rules, listen to authorities, and never ask questions, so I declined my doctor-mom-friend’s offer.

That’s why, when grieving the desecration of my hometown and the related murder of my cousin and her husband, I told another pal, my lawyer-mom-friend, that I wanted drugs. Good ones. “Hallucinogens,” I told her over the phone while leaving a Highland Park Community Rally that mostly made me angry.

As I wandered the pristinely manicured streets, expounding on all the reasons why I wanted and deserved drugs, a woman in a car waved me down, “Excuse me,” she yelled, “Excuse me, do you know what’s going on?

“Hold on,” I said into the phone, walking up to the woman mainly to get her to stop yelling, “It’s a community rally because of the shooting.”

“Again?” She responded with an eye roll so pronounced, that I was certain my lawyer-mom-friend heard it over the phone. “They just did one on Friday,” she followed.

I was so put off by her response that I laughed. It had been five days since a 21-year-old male in a dress snuck onto a roof in downtown Highland Park, Illinois, and chose the same street where I used to serve pancakes to cantankerous octogenarians to snipe dead 7 people (two of which were married, one of which was my family friend)—injuring approximately 40 others.

I wanted to tell the woman in the car that I guess the issue hadn’t resolved itself with just the one rally, that somehow, people were still hurting and gun violence was still a problem, but I just shrugged. “Sorry,” I told her, adding an unexpected item to the list of my inexplicable apologies.   

“Okay, thanks…it’s just that I live here, and there’s no parking,” she concluded, before rolling up her window and driving off.

About 24 hours later, my lawyer-mom-friend was by my side, shoving a small vial with large pills the color of octopus, into my hand. The rapid delivery was incredible for a number of reasons; for one, my lawyer-mom-friend lives in Upstate New York, and I live in the heart of Los Angeles, yet somehow, we were both standing in the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Secondly, the exchange felt so pedestrian that for a moment I thought she was passing me breath mints. It wasn’t until she was halfway through her detailed instructions that I realized what was sitting at the bottom of the tote bag I bought at the Rijksmuseum only 7 days prior.

(It never ceases to amaze me how much life can change in only one week. One day you’re in the Netherlands wandering the gift shop of a historic Dutch museum, the next you’re in your childhood home burying friends and inspecting rooftops for killers.)

“Can we just take a moment to absorb this,” my lawyer-mom-friend said, breathing in the serenity of the gardens. At the entrance, a sign read: HEAR NATURE CLEANSING. I felt it was a bit aggressive, like the garden was screaming at us. My lawyer-mom-friend, however, was instantly charmed by the beauty of it all. “I want to throw something out there and feel free to say no,” she posited.

“No,” I demurred as we weaved in and out of loud families, who were also taking advantage of the last night of free garden admission due to the whole mass shooting thing. 

She laughed and I remembered that even though I was furious at humankind for unleashing this kind of pain and hopelessness on my family and neighbors, I still needed to act like a human person so as not to scare my very lovely friends—one of whom just smuggled illegal substances onto my person.

“Just kidding. Go ahead. What was it you wanted to ask me?” I robotically responded.

“I wanted to know if you’re interested in meditating together?”

“Here?” I asked looking around, growing acutely aware of the strangers and our exposure. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less than sit in public with my eyes closed and chest open.

“Yeah, we can find a quiet spot,” she told me her beautiful face melting into a warm smile. Her expression was so sparkly, so tender that I had to look away. 

“No.” There’s only so much human-person-ing I can do.

“Okay, and that’s totally okay,” she responded as she skipped up the steps to an alcove where a woman—who looked even sadder than I did—was sitting and talking on the phone. Maybe she’s from Highland Park too.

After a few hours of aimlessly wandering the splintering pathways, it began to rain. “Hear nature cleansing,” we said in unison over the drumming of water on leaves. Our pace didn’t change, which I appreciated because my body was incapable of moving any faster.

We found a bench under a tree overlooking a pond and watched as the sun began to disappear beyond the horizon. It was a striking scene and I didn’t care one bit. I told my lawyer-mom-friend as much, “I feel nothing.”

At that moment, I thought of a story this very friend once told me. Her little-itty-bitty daughter was getting bullied by some punk named Skyler. One day, my lawyer-mom-friend walked right up to Skyler and gave her a stern sermon about the potency of kindness. Afterward, while walking with her daughter to the car, my lawyer-mom-friend told her kid to forget about Skyler. “Skyler is not someone you need to worry about,” she said to her precocious 5-year-old, whose big Hershey kiss eyes are so sweet they’ll give you cavities. Unexpectedly, her little-itty-bitty daughter looked up at her and angrily said, “Skyler knows exactly who I am but then she just fucks me.”

That’s how I felt. After getting hit by a car in 2019, I spent my second shot at life cobbling together an altruistic existence wherein I practiced radical love and boundless joy. During the pandemic, I watched evil unfold around me and I fought against it—naively according to my father, but aggressively nevertheless. I began volunteering with multiple organizations, donating so much money that I ended up in debt, I smiled, I listened, I cared, I cried, I loved, I meditated, I did it all.

“To quote your daughter,” I told my lawyer-mom-friend as the sun’s forehead ducked out of sight, “The world knows exactly who I am but then she just fucks me.” I looked over in time to see her pretty, tender face crumple into tears.

The next day I woke up at 2 p.m., needing to remind myself once again why I was in Highland Park, back at my parents’ house, with their broken floors and dying dog. Just about the only activity I felt capable of doing was walking to the local Dunkin’ Donuts; a delightfully unchanging safe zone.

I peeled off my XL sleeping shirt which, by this point in my week of funeral hopping, was splattered in toothpaste. I changed into something a bit more public-appropriate: an XL sleeping shirt not splattered in toothpaste. I love oversized t-shirts because they show off the best parts of my body; the area from my elbows to my fingertips and from my knees to my ankles. I threw on some black bicycle shorts and decided that this was a very decent outfit for an adult-girl-woman in mourning. Subdued, frumpy, black. Excellent. Good job to me.

I grabbed my bag but not before offering donuts and coffee to my parents, both declined. Cueing up “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire on my phone, I popped in my earbuds and headed out into the muggy midwestern afternoon. Unable to absorb anything in the days after the shooting, Spotify’s algorithm jettisoned “The Suburbs” beyond my grief and into the folds of my brain. It became the only song I could listen to without spinning off the edge of the earth.

The falsely cheerful piano chords came in and I disappeared inside the song…

In the suburbs, I

I learned to drive

and you told me we’d never survive

Grab your mother’s keys, were leaving

You always seemed so sure

That one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war

I’d always hated growing up in the suburbs. I thought they were creepy, flush with sterility and lacking culture. I never fit in and I hated everyone who did. I left the year I turned 18 and never looked back. Four years later Arcade Fire released “The Suburbs” and I realized that maybe I wasn’t alone in my experiences. I began noticing other kids who had scaled the deep pit of isolation that comes with a neighborhood designed for perfection but rotting at the roots. Why didn’t the shooter kid do the same?

As Win Butler presciently cooed about a dystopic militarized suburbia, sirens in the distance bled through the chorus. My thoughts diverged from the lyrics long enough to wonder what other horrors could possibly be unfolding in this town.

Sometimes I can’t believe it.

When I dug into my tote bag to pay for an iced coffee I had no recollection of ordering, I realized I’d left my wallet at home. My forgetfulness was at an all-time high and I was too sad to be frustrated. “Do you accept apple pay?” I asked the man behind the counter, the same one who had been there the day before and the one before that. He did.

Back on the street, I restarted “The Suburbs” and turned right when I should’ve gone left. I crossed 41, and walked past the Target and the Staples, past the retirement community and the gym, past the hospital where up until three days ago, I always thought of my little brother’s deviated septum surgery that I delight in calling a “nose job” to this very day. Now, I studied a toppled sign at the entrance, wondering if it blew over during a storm or if it was yet another victim of the 4th of July massacre.

I kept walking until I found myself at the entrance of Highland Park high school. A close friend’s dad—who was at the parade—recommended I attend their free counseling. I shrugged feeling uncomfortable by the support, “I wasn’t there…”

 “No,” he sternly said, adding another word to the approximately 50 he’d said to me over the past 20 years. “You lost someone close to you. It’s there for you,” his eyes began to water so I hugged him to spare both of us from the tragedy of watching someone you care about cry.

As I stood at the entrance of the high school, I told myself I’d turn around when my brain told me to. Forgetting, of course, that my brain hadn’t been properly working since before the shooting.

Inside, the place felt more like a movie set than a high school; elderly volunteers with stuffed animals trailed support dogs, shell-shocked parents guided small children through hallways built for big children, useless inspirational quotes hung from the banisters (“Art is not what you see but what you make others see.” – Edgar Degas), and strangest of all were the FBI agents. So many of them. Everywhere. Did they come from New York or Texas? Where were they sleeping? When was the last time they saw their families? How much more of this could they possibly take?

An elderly volunteer broke me from my trance to offer up a “squishmallow,” a circular stuffed toy lacking any defining features. Its innocent black eyes and rainbow coloring looked so cheerful under the fluorescent lights that it made me nauseous. “I’m okay,” I managed to choke out.  

“Are you sure? They’re so soft and they really do help.” I kept moving, scared I’d say something that would erase that smile right off her affable face.

Everyone who entered got a wristband; blue if you were at the parade, white if you weren’t. As I watched the white band get cuffed to my wrist, my face flushed with shame.

Sweaty and disheveled, I hadn’t even brought my eyeglasses with me, so I kept my burning eyes hidden behind sunglasses. The soft voices, sad smiles, and general gentleness made my nose prickle with despair. None of it felt real and the fact that I was pretending it was made me the fakest of them all.

An ancient security guard, clearly a retiree trained to wander the halls and absorb teenage rudeness, was slowly checking IDs and printing up visitor badges. A young couple in front of me, both wearing blue bands, were escorted into the FBI line. The ancient security guard waved me forward.

I reached into my tote bag, forgetting I’d left my wallet at home, and as my fingers searched the bottom, they brushed against a small, hard, unfamiliar vial. I froze, eyeing a chocolate lab three feet away from me. I let go of the drugs and considered my options:

I could turn on my heel and walk back home where I was safe from the authorities, the building full of strangers, the rote sadness, and the outside world. The second was to risk arrest (or worse: confiscation) and tell the security guard that I desperately needed to talk to someone about how I didn’t want to be a good person anymore, how evil was winning and everyone was losing, how I was filled with a terrifying amount of rage and I was scared of where it’d lead me.

I took a deep breath, tightened my grip on the tote bag, and took a step forward.

Break Open In Case of A Mass Shooting

An Angerly Written Guide In The Aftermath of Gun Violence

Here’s what happens when you’re experiencing a mass shooting from afar—I share this because, at the rate we’re going, you’re probably going to be in one, or know someone who has. If you’re lucky like I am you’ll only be saddled with unyielding, life-long trauma doggedly thrumming at the base of your neck. If you’re unlucky like my cousin and her husband, you’ll be murdered.

First, you will get a pithy text or a notification on your phone; shots fired, gunman, shooter…something of the sort. I got the notification when I was on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Austria. I was sitting at a high-top table in Vienna when Sam’s phone lit up: “Shooting at Fourth of July Parade.” It says it’s in Highland Park, he told me.

I’m used to these types of Citizen notifications in our current neighborhood where gun violence is prevalent; a few months earlier Sam and I watched from the same app as a family cradled their dead 14-year-old son, shot in the chest at the park where we walk our dog. A few weeks ago, Sam stepped into the front yard to find an unspent bullet casing glinting on the sidewalk. I battled each experience with my thoughts, prayers, voting, and action.

Your life will immediately be split into before and after. You’ll long for the sweet, sweet moments of the before. In my before, Sam and I were enjoying our final night in Austria with our close friends. We spent the day wandering ancient Viennese streets, attempting to retrace the steps my family and I took 30 years earlier when immigrating from the Soviet Union to The Land of Opportunity.

When you do get that shattering text, it’s normal to not quite understand what you’re reading. I’d assumed it was all a miscommunication—someone mistaking fireworks for gunshots. Happens all the time in my neighborhood. But after a few minutes, the gears clicked into place and I figured it’d be good to send a text to my parents just to make sure it really was a misreport. The text back did not go in my favor.

My parents confirmed it was a mass shooting. My little brother wasn’t there. He texts the family chain to say he’s already getting information from friends who were there. A former coworker’s grandfather was murdered, he tells us.

That’s when your ears will probably begin to ring, at least mine did. The world around you will lose focus. You text everyone you know in the area, “WTF?! You safe?” collecting little moments of false relief with each response. Eventually, someone you know doesn’t respond.

In the hour or so after the shooting, you’ll be in this odd liminal period, an information vacuum. It’s before your neighborhood starts to trend, but after it’s changed forever. Soon it will be added to the bottom of a long list, bumping the last shooting into its new position of opening act. A name that was once so personal to your origin story will be uttered in somber tones by strangers across the country.

Before June, when venturing outside of Uvalde, its inhabitants had the privilege of laughing and telling people, “Oh it’s this tiny town you’ve probably never heard of.” Now, all these places, including my childhood home, have been violently stripped of their obscurity.

Before understanding the severity of the situation, you’ll want to post something to social media. You’ll feel like people need to know that you aren’t there, that your family is safe. Go ahead and post what you want, but be aware that it might turn out you’re wrong.

I posted from the bathroom, using a black background to convey the levity of what I was about to upload to dumb fucking Instagram stories. Not that it matters, but it was my second time doing so that week. How many more bathrooms will I have to stand in, choosing the perfect font to describe the end of one tragic existence and the beginning of another? Five? Eighteen? Infinity? For the gazillionth time, I considered deleting social media, as if that would keep the bad news from seeping through my phone.

Then, the articles will start to trickle out. Some have videos, I didn’t watch those and never will. All have chaotic snapshots; discarded shoes, dumped strollers, an empty street that still somehow looks like it’s in motion. These pictures will replace any memory you’ve ever created in that place. Bullet holes fill walls where you used to whisper the names of crushes into the ears of your best friends. I stopped looking at photos when I see a fountain I used to wade in as a middle schooler. Next to the fountain is the Dairy Queen where I used to lick my sticky fingers clean while searching for familiar faces in line. Now, it’s all just caution tape fluttering in the wind. A sash for the new Miss America: bullet-riddled Suburbia, U.S.A.

None of the early articles will have useful information or details…the story is still developing and it will continue to develop for the rest of your life—the picture never quite coming into focus.

You will find out about your loved ones before the rest of the world. Especially when the community is small and insular like immigrant Soviets in the Chicagoland area.

I found out at 5 a.m., the morning Sam and I were leaving Austria about 11 hours after the shooting. As I stirred awake, stretching through the peaceful moments before the reality of the previous day set in, I reached for my phone. Sam firmly placed his hand on my back, “I think someone you know died.” I clung onto the I think. I think is good because a thought is not a reality. Not yet.

I sat up and unlocked my phone, refreshing all the apps I use to communicate with my scattered family. The wifi where we were staying was spotty and my family thread remained unchanged. I snatched Sam’s phone out of his hands. He didn’t protest. WhatsApp was already open and the names were there: “Irina and her husband were killed.” A blunt text from my father, who wrote it on his way to Irina’s house to greet her mom, dad, and mother-in-law (who I’d later learn was shot in the head). The loopy handwriting Ira used to sign her paintings in art class flashes behind my eyelids before I slammed my face into the mattress, using the firm padding to muffle my sobs.

When my parents got to Irina’s house, 12 hours after the shooting, they sat at her kitchen table, mouths agape in horror. The journalists arrive before anyone else did, by the way. The gall. Irina’s mom tells my dad that I was lucky to be in Europe because with the time difference I got to live in a world where Irina was alive for a little bit longer than everyone else. Luck becomes a burden, forever pinned to your chest.  

If you’re far away from the shooting, you’ll try to disprove the information you received. I googled “highland park il victims” but it was the middle of the night in America and the articles wouldn’t be updated until I was in the air. I obsessively searched the internet until the fasten seat belt signs went on and we were asked to put our phones in airplane mode.

I enjoyed a private grief 38,000 feet in the sky while Irina and her husband’s name began trending below. The internet greedily lapped up the particularly cruel circumstances in which they were murdered; shot in cold blood by a sniper in front of their child. Irina and Kevin become the poster children for this massacre.  

Random memories sandwiched between violent imagery will start running through your head. Mine involved Irina teaching me to shave my legs, while our disapproving mothers smoked cigarettes in the backyard; Irina throwing her arms around her dad, who always looked like he just woke up from taking a nap under a tree; Irina lying in the street, her long, brown hair matted with blood.

Texts from friends who realize your connection to the tragedy will start coming in. Slowly at first, then at an unmanageable pace. Everyone will keep telling you they “don’t know what to say” as if there’s someone who does. A handful of people will send you “No words” texts. Until eventually, you’ll want to set your phone—the electronic trigger-bomb—on fire. Still in the air, I logged out of everything and passed my phone to Sam. Wanting to absorb information on my own terms.

The President will release a statement and for a moment you’ll wonder how he knows about your small neighborhood. Then you’ll remember. You will find comfort in the fact that, just like everyone else, his words also don’t have any meaning either. The abyss is too big to fill with words. Take comfort in the darkness. There’s no need for thoughts, prayers, voting, or action here. It’s too late, the monster is inside the house, outside the house, and on top of it.

I land at LAX 15 hours after the shooting and ask to see my phone. It’s confirmed. Irina and her husband were killed. I briefly look into flying straight to Chicago but decide to go home and shower first.

Vigils and guides and booths and dogs and priests and posters and hashtags and documents and food and books and GoFundMes will pop up. Journalists with gentle, rehearsed demeanors will descend into DMs and comments, encouraging you to reach out if you want to share. A resource sheet will go out with people to contact, but the only people you need to talk to aren’t available to take your call.

You’ll wonder if one of these things can answer your questions or ease your confusion. The answer doesn’t exist and never will.  

The GoFundMe campaigns are death by a thousand papercuts. Every time you see (and re-see) the photos of people you know, another part of you will die. Help with medical bills. Help with funeral costs. Help. Help. Help. The first one I saw was for a former camper, organized by another camper. Fifteen years have passed since I was a summer camp counselor in Highland Park but she looks just the same, her features more pronounced than when she was laying in the grass making lanyards with friends. In the GoFundMe photo, she smiles proudly into the camera with a newborn in her arms, her husband and toddler sitting on the bed next to her. She was shot in the leg. She’s one of the ones burdened with luck.

Next is navigating whether/how to do updates for those in your outer circles and where to post them. What’s too performative? Who has the license to take up space? Who gets to share a grief that’s so uniquely personal and national all at once? When is the right time?

Irina and I grew up together but grew apart in the way you sometimes do after college. We call each other cousins like most refugee-immigrants forced to find a new family in a foreign land…but we’re not blood relatives. Do I sneak in my hurt and anger onto the feeds? Do I put it on the grid where it will jut out amongst the curated work-related photos? Do I save that space for those closest to her? What happens when those closest to her do not speak English, are not writers, or on social media? What happens when the ones closest to her are in her bed right now wailing in pain? Do we keep it private? Grieve internally? Or do I use the algorithm to get her story out? Share words about Irina’s ease of laughter and absurd allergies in the same digital sandbox that’s radicalizing young broken men to terrorize a sleepy neighborhood’s 4th of July parade. What would she want? What do I need? The answer, of course, doesn’t exist and never will.

I don’t post. Not yet. Some people do; uploading their feelings between photos of cocktails and children. I can’t stand the thought of unexpectedly seeing the same wedding photo that’s trending on Twitter, used in the news reports, and the GoFundMe campaign so I delete all my social media apps from my phone.

After the confirmation of her death, I stop googling and reading the news stories because they don’t have the information I want them to have. The answer doesn’t exist and never will. I want journalists to tell everyone how Irina had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I want them to tell everyone how we used to sit in her backyard and smush blades of grass between our thumbs to try to make them whistle. I want them to share the story about how we first heard “Doin’ It” by L.L. Cool J at her house and Irina, two years older and a preteen sage, explained what doing it actually meant. I hope I never hear that song again.  

Life goes on after death and, criminally, so does death. In the same minute I receive confirmation of Irina’s murder, I also get a text from my half-sister: her mom died after a month-long battle with an aggressively rare form of brain cancer. Sam starts looking at flights while I stare at our blank TV.

I take two showers, sleep for 7 hours (and not 72 like I was planning), eat two hard-boiled eggs, kiss my dog between the eyes, apply for a job, and go back to the airport. By next Wednesday, I will have made nine trips to the airport. I wonder if that’s a record.

Making decisions becomes impossible. What do you pack for a trip you don’t want to take? There’s not enough black clothing in my closet for back-to-back funerals. There’s not enough black clothing in the world to watch multiple bodies go into the earth.

Get ready for invasive thoughts at all hours of the day. Every time I close my eyes, I imagine skulls being blown open by military-grade rifles. I keep them open instead; staring at walls, a glass of water, the wrinkles deepening in my father’s forehead as he cries. He shared a park bench with Irina last week, while her baby played with my parents’ dog. They made each other laugh and then parted ways for good.

Your brain stops working in the aftermath of murder. Grief corrodes your synapses. So when you go through your own mass shooting, I recommend not operating vehicles for a while. No complicated tasks—although unavoidable when you must fly to the scene of the crime. My flight numbers have jumbled into a string of code, I keep flashing them at faces behind desks. Floating arms wave me through to other rooms and metal boxes.

You should make lists. I’ve found them to be helpful. My last list, written while standing at the kitchen counter, hair sopping wet from a shower, started with “dry off.”

Dates, times, and days all lose meaning. Is tomorrow the day after or yesterday today? It doesn’t matter unless you have a flight to catch. You have to catch your flight so you can be with your family.

In 2016, when a gunman entered UCLA’s campus, Sam was in his office in the Public Health building working on his dissertation. I got the text “gunman on campus” and stepped into that odd liminal period where I knew tragedy was hard at work before the rest of the world. But it was only a murder-suicide. Only. A traceable line from beginning to end, which didn’t intersect with anything else. That night, cradling Sam to my chest, I shuddered to think about how close UCLA got to becoming a statistic, a name on the growing list of school shootings. It missed us…this time, I thought. We are lucky.

It’s been about 36 hours since the massacre and the waterboard of horrors has slowed to a drip. I don’t know what’s waiting on the other side of day three, so I’ll have to leave you here. I’m gonna go explore how much deeper and darker this grief will go. At the end of this message, I’ll delete my apps, silence my notifications, shut off my phone, and disappear into my family for the foreseeable future.

Before I disappear, though, I want to share a prediction: I believe that as the beast grows stronger and the circle of destruction gets wider, there will be fewer and fewer lucky ones. Enough is not, apparently, enough. There will be more. There will be another. The list on Wikipedia will grow longer, with bullets adding bullet points. Our community of broken hearts will grow bigger, swallowed up by unrelenting trauma, until we’re a mass of zombies, shuffling through the streets experiencing everything and feeling nothing.

Don’t worry, though, when your time comes, my family and I will be here to welcome you into the abyss.