suburban war

by marinashifrin

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.