Stuck at the Border
As our bus pulled up to the French border on November 13th, I had no clue about the horrors that were unfolding on the other side on the border. I wasn’t thinking about anything relatively interesting besides why the hell I had decided on an eight-hour bus ride to Amsterdam instead of a plane. I had no idea that we were driving towards what would be known as the deadliest attack on France since World War Two.
I was calculating the hours before we’d hit a stop so I could finally get a Dr. Pepper and a semi-clean bathroom when my friend Other Laura (we still debate about which one of us is the Original Laura) nudged me, “Four dead in a bombing outside Stade de France,” she read aloud. It felt like someone had poured a bucket of cold water onto me. We looked at each other, neither one sure what to say. Whenever I heard news like that, I was hundreds of miles away, safe in my bed or at a café with friends. We would shake our heads in disgust and launch into a talk about how awful the world was. But now that I was actually there, I had no idea what to do.
“Maybe it’s just a…” I offered.
“Yeah. Probably,” She said.
“Accident. Maybe,” I say. But seconds later, her phone lit up again and we knew it wasn’t an accident.
It wasn’t just us who were watching the news. Everyone was frantically scanning news websites or peering at strangers’ phones, desperately searching for any scrap of news that would make this horror make sense. But all we got were more bombings. Gunmen shoot up Le Carillion, at least ten dead. Another bombing at the Stade de France. Eleven dead and counting at La Belle Equipe. The reports kept coming in as we pulled up to the France border.
“There’s no way they’re letting us through.” I said. Please don’t let us through, I thought to myself.
The bus driver went in to talk to the people at border control. Everyone was murmuring that we wouldn’t get through. I heard people canceling hotel reservations and changing plans, every ‘we’re defiantly going back’ and ‘they can’t put us in danger’ edged with fear.
Seconds later, the bus driver came back in, “Yeah, so apparently, they said we can go on through.”
I felt like I’d just been punched in the stomach. During the passport check, I felt weirdly aware of every part of my body: how bony my fingers were, how sore my feet were, how dry my hair was. How everything could be gone in a second.
We reboarded the bus. Some people were silent, some people were nervously rambling to the people next to them. Other Laura and I sat wordlessly, occasionally looking at each other, not sure what to say as messages of attacks flooded her phone. I did my breathing exercises to stop my spinning head. In two three four, out two three four.
There was a sharp click towards the back of the bus. My heart dropped. I turned around to see a tall, thin man standing outside the bathroom. He looked like he was waiting for something, going up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down.
My heart was pounding hard against my chest. Please no. Please no. Please no. In two three four-I looked outside, and outside in the darkness, I couldn’t tell what was shadow and what was people crouching between the trees, ready to attack, Out two three four. Why the hell is he still going up and down the stairs?
The fear was twisting my brain to conjure up horrible scenarios. In two three four. In my head, our bus was taken over by men with guns and they’d shoot us all down and I would have to wait with my seatbelt on to die while people back home tweeted #prayforbus21. In two three four, out two three four. In two three-two three-two three-
I would lose my mind if I kept thinking like this. Everything else was out of my control. I had to hold onto my sanity. I had to pull myself out of my own head.
“What’s your favorite type of candy?” I asked Other Laura. She stared at me in disbelief. We both burst out laughing. The absurdity and horror of the situation was so ridiculous that we couldn’t do anything else. We could either be stuck in the horror, or try to keep living.
“Um…I guess I’d say Recces Cups before I found out I was lactose intolerant,” Other Laura said. “But now I’d say Twizzlers.”
“Cherry or strawberry?”
“Strawberry, of course.”
“But the cherry ones have those little strings you can pull apart and tie into knots!”
We carried on like this as the bus drove around Paris and out to safety. That night, I couldn’t sleep, so I scrolled through Facebook. Social media was overflowing with messages of prayer and peace, but people were also insistent on living their lives. Over the next few weeks, I watched Parisians remember the attacks by dancing in the streets. As more attacks happened everywhere from California to Nigeria, people went on living and loving. Articles about the most recent shooting are sandwiched between silly Buzzfeed quizzes. Posts about the attacks come between pictures of proms and weddings. We discuss our fears of this era of terror while drinking beer and gossiping about who’s hooked up with whom. I think that’s what has surprised me most of all, not the attacks or the gore or the hatred, but the human response. Instead of giving in to the attackers’ agenda of hate and terror, people are fighting back with love. They were mourning their dead by celebrating life.