It happened moments after the “your battery is dying” chime sounded off in my coat pocket. Maybe it was steps before that when I made the near mile trek alone in the dark from my office to the employee parking lot.
I work late.
Far after the sun concedes defeat. Usually I am not alone because I have a close co-worker who is typically in the trenches with me.
Not this night. He’s traveling for work and the sun happily followed him, it is only 5 o’clock in California.
Tonight I travel alone.
Walking through the parking lot I noticed in the darkened sky illuminated against an artificial light, a flock of what I thought were birds. Do birds fly at night? In this cold? There were so many of them flying in a solid circle. They looked lost. Like they didn’t belong.
I know that feeling.
I’d forgotten my headphones at home, there will be no soothing sounds of a Spotify playlist to walk me to the bus stop. I don’t mind the silence; there’s too much noise at work and I prefer the calming quiet of the night.
It is below freezing but I am bundled. I’m wearing the coat he bought me. Three years ago. Its warm, a bear hug. My phone is buzzing. Battery icon displaying an exclamation point. Mobile death is imminent. The number 7 lumbers up to me and the mouth of the bus swallows me. It is not crowded.
City noises don’t bother me. It’s the incessant talking that minds my nerves. Wasting words on worthless themes, it bothers me. Overheard conversations, exercises in banality. This world lacks intellectual discussions in favor of the inane.
It’s all jumbled now. Every turn is twisted.
I’m on my own.
Spit out at Broad and Oregon, I hit the train and ride to Walnut Locust then hop the 21. This bus is crowded. I grab a window seat, thankful to be sitting alone. This is a short lived reprieve. Everyone in Philadelphia boards at the next stop. An overweight woman squeezes in the seat next to me and I am trapped.
Deep breath girl. There are too many people on this bus and I feel trapped.
My phone succumbs to the cellular angels calling. The Sprint trumpets play the death march as the final black screen lays gently to rest. The feeling of helplessness is as immediate and crushing as a bullet released from a pistol.
I could feel a tightening of grief in my chest. A slow burning of lungs, breasts, throat. I open my mouth to swallow a breeze of peace. None can be felt.
Removing my glasses, nervous hands rub forehead; slowly sliding down my face. I can not breathe right. “What if this person next to me pulls out a gun?”
My body is flushing with heat.
“What if someone has an assault weapon and begins shooting?”
Oh my God, I think I’m panicking.
Stop thinking like this.
The floodgates have opened.
“I don’t have my phone, I can’t call for help.” The bus stops to pick up more strangers. A man boards, oversized jacket does not conceal his pants hanging low on his buttocks, he looks angry. What if he follows me? What if he attacks me?” Sweaty palms squeeze dead phone. Young white boy boards behind him, they are notorious for mass shootings, it’s happened in theatres, in schools, why not here, why not now.?”
There is a pulse inside the base of my skull that begins throbbing. My ears can hear the blood rushing through my body.
The aisle was jammed packed. No room to run.
“What are my chances of climbing over this behemoth woman pushing me up against this bus window. Oh my God her thigh is touching mine. What if she just pulls out a gun and puts it to my head and pulls the trigger? What will be my legacy? I’m not ready to die. I’m not ready to go. I have too much to do, to carry out, to strive for. What block is this? Why does it take so long to get home? Why am I on this bus? I should be picked up from work, protected, in a relationship. I should not be alone.”
I can’t breathe properly.
I’m sweating beneath this heavy bear coat. “Why would he buy something so extravagant? What block is this? I can’t see out the window. I have to get out. I should have just hailed a cab.”
I’m going to be sick. I’m going to be physically ill.
The moment my distraction powered down I felt left with nothing but my rapidly moving thoughts. I feel as though I am going to give in to the pressure pushing the breath deep down inside my chest preventing me from breathing easy.
This constant undercurrent is not fear. Its distrust. A clear and uncompromising shattering of trusting humanity. I live with it everyday but I manage to keep myself distracted. My phone is dead. Everyone is dead. My lifeline is dead. I’m losing my connection and sanity at the same time.
I recognize the corner near my house. My stop. I pull the yellow wire and my silent plea to get off this rolling deathtrap is granted.
Is this to be my life from now on? Afraid of imaginary acts of violence? Suspicion and distrust of everyone I come into contact with? This was not my life three years ago.
Things are different now, I am different, I think, act, react and feel differently. Nothing is safe. No one is safe. I see, think, and hear nothing but danger now.
I am reluctantly deposited into the quiet streets of West Philadelphia and I begin my short trek home.
Three years ago I was deployed into enemy territory where those closest to you are capable of cold blooded murder. In one moment, in one day, in one phone call I learned that anyone can do anything to anybody and nobody can stop it. That sticks with me. It stays with me. I can not shake it. I can not remove it, peel it off or shirk it.
It’s like second skin now, this feeling of jeopardy.
My hands shake as I get the key into the lock; once inside I lean against the door to my sanctuary, gripping keys to chest, eyes squeezed shut. Inside the comfort of my home, my body temperature and breathing slowly return to normal.
Although I can not stop it, I am aware I carry internal remnants of a war-torn psyche. It’s only triggered when I feel open, vulnerable or helpless. Only a select few will ever understand.
No matter, I’m home now and my phone is safely charging.