You’re a block up from Pike Place. It’s the market with the gaudy art deco letters proclaiming in red neon—Public Market Center.
Vague, you think. Insincere. You wish you could march straight back in time and slap the hell out its namer. Give it some pizzazz, you’d say to them. At least a little spunk. This is for the intrigue! You’re screaming but only to yourself. The sound ripples from the point where your brain becomes voice but to no reply. You never get an answer when you need one.
You’re stuck at the bus stop in the graying evening. As much as you glower at the radiant sign ahead, it remains remarkably unbothered.
This serves to remind you: you’re still a tourist here. You try to shrug that heavy coat, but a visitor’s innocence curls in your eye, embedded in the circuitry of veins like an apple on those little red branches. It’s been nine months since you moved, and Seattle remains crisp at the edges.
A job led you here. The last one in Indiana had you formatting Excel workbooks until you brain was ground chuck. Dad called it the price of Fortune 500. He taught you the ethic of getting—life as exchange. Reverence for hard work comes second only to the Holy Ghost for him.
But you resent hard work. You see labor as tedium en masse. Not actually, but you wish you could. You wish you could see yourself outside the caravan of bodies, crying out unanimously, Onwards to Medicare! Toil makes you gray behind the eyes. The evening is graying still.
Obviously, it’s not healthy for you to feel this way at 24. Your mental health is failing, but you don’t admit it. Your parents are Hoosier. It’s a lot to ask of them. There’s no one else.
How could they understand that life in this exact moment feels like a chest ligatured to the top of an ironing board with rawhide belts floating down the Niagara River? How do you tell anyone you’ve lost control?
Where is the goddamn bus? you wonder.
You left home but did you do it for yourself? Could leaving Indiana and its meat-and-cheese stock ever be enough to satisfy the hole in your head. No, you decide, but this job is better than the one before it.
I’m going to be a Creative Strategist in Seattle, you told your parents, acceptance letter flapping between your pinch. Dad blew bubbles in his Coors Light. Mom shrieked: My boy, concentrating all her excitement to a vise grip hug around your waist—simultaneously excited and halted. They’re a CPA and school teacher; they’re part of the caravan too. The perception of life in your parents’ home has trimmed corners and fits into the neatest little boxes. You’ve always hated boxes.
You’ve always hated lots of things, like pickup trucks and gel pens and soliciting love and the feeling that life may be wholly unimportant.
Riding the bus is something you’re trying not to hate, even when you have to linger this long. 3rd Avenue’s broad chest is flooded with bodies and buses as the commuters make their way.
It’s not raining but earlier it did. The sidewalks gloss, reflecting street lamps in saran wrap puddles. People at work say it’s typical for the time of year. All the Facebook posts of once-met friends say the same. January is a dreary month, but Seattleites won’t be seen with an umbrella. You buy into the tedium of weather talk because it’s too difficult to have meaningful conversation. You find yourself talking over paper cups containing black coffee about how different it is to have a rainy winter. This is my first without snow, you say. It’s a refrain. You don’t feel any sort of allegiance to what comes out of your mouth in moments like these, and this is another thing you hate. You hate that when you were home for Christmas a month ago, six people asked you about rain like you had some sort of choice over what fell from the sky and what didn’t.
Who creates these stereotypes that dominate our vision? you asked yourself. Then you tucked worry in your waistband and told everyone that could hear you:
The rain is murderous. You might not think it, but a rainy winter is harder than a snowy one. Oh, you could just punch yourself. You phony! It’s up to you to correct the cliché, not perpetuate it. Where is your heart?
Seattle’s a liberal place, someone followed up. To this, you possessed no response. Legal weed and peace and love, they continued, throwing deuces in the air in a mockery of Nixon. You considered if Seattle fit the ideal of an urban Woodstock, but everything that came to mind birthed paradox. You were twisted at the mouth and with eyes begging for an answer, you could only offer up:It sure is different than here. There were nods into the carbonation of tomorrow’s hangover. Heavy eyes burned on the television screen playing a basketball game. You are losing touch with the truth.
The aching hydraulic brakes of a bus bring you back. It’s not yours, the number 1, but the number 4, which you could take and walk the extra mile, but you’re feeling lazy. No, what’s the word? Aimless. It’s half past five and you’re content to be idle. This lets you take it all in. Thinking about absorption makes you feel like a tourist again. Will you ever shed your gawking eyes? You’re trying so hard to get rid of that feeling. You hate to not assimilate.
But you see the city differently. You can’t help but stare every time a syringe is stuck between toes in the well-lit doorways of gentrification. You watch a tarp-turned-poncho wrapped around a nameless body pool onto the cement sidewalk, leaving your world and entering another. Lines relax in the face showing creases where the grime hasn’t gone. You stare at the butterscotch teeth that show open to the sky, as if the world could all fall in right there.
This is what it means to be urban, you tell yourself. You have no way of knowing if it’s true. You see all these tags and can’t shake the doubled feeling that this is your home now. Detached and attracted, you feel the combative energies of the authenticity burn bubbles through your pink stomach. Tonight it’s not smack entering a dirty foot that strikes you, but an old woman in a wheelchair. She rolls toward you, and you can’t help but notice the wheels on her chair aren’t quite round. The rubber tires are popped on either side so there’s a gnashing metal song as she encourages herself along. Tall shoulders ripple from a sweater torn at the cable knit seams. She pulls on the wheels to take her, not caring that the rims are warped and skinned from the cement. She grinds her way ahead.
You and everyone else at the bus stop stare and make space, but that doesn’t stop her from pointing a finger right at you. In a throaty voice like Martha Stewart, the woman yells:This bitch needs on the bus!
She gets her way. She muscles up a narrow ramp where the driver fastens her in place with human-sized hooks. You see all this through the bus’s window, how the sitting people move away. You wonder if they are generous or terrified. Revolted or obliging. You think you know what it means to feel othered with her finger pointing at your sternum. You think of Mom.
Mom has a bum foot she calls Estelle, who makes her walk pigeon-toed and has since she was a gumdrop toddler. You hated Estelle when you were a child because you could never explain her to your friends. No single answer seemed to satisfy their asking mouths:
Why does your mom walk that way? You asked her this of course, but she would shrug and say:Estelle does what she wants.
You got the truth out of her in a rarer moment of white wine-induced lucidity. She caved and told you that she’d been born with a plain old club foot. You felt let down. Ever since I was in onesies, Mom said, Estelle was right there too. Doesn’t mean I didn’t hate her. Sometimes I still do. But I think of how long I hung on at the edges of what was supposed to be my life, and damnit, Estelle never went. This should’ve made you cry, but you had trouble imagining your Mom ever being as young as you. She looked into her stemless wine glass and popped another ice cube down in her drink, where it floated alone at the surface.
Sometimes Mom would ask if you ever heard anything she said to you. Have I taught you anything? she’d ask. In the sweeter moments, you might say:No, but Estelle has. Every time else you might just nod and guide her concern to the forgettable periphery because that how mothers are treated. You can see on Mom’s face, even now in your memory, she just wanted you to turn out right.
There’s a trickling sound from behind you—unmistakably liquid splattering the pavement. You look to find a tall man in a black leather trench coat with palms oxidized against the limestone wall he faces. He looks like he’s going to be stopped and frisked, his stance is ungainly and wide. But there’s no one there, only a slow trickle that soils the space between his feet. The urine runs sidelong, filling every crack and groove in the sidewalk. It heads straight for you.
You want to yell, Jesus Christ, but he’s big and he’s pissing, and those are sufficient deterrents to stay silent. The Midwest in you resents confrontation. You’re bred on passivity, so you only move off further from the bus stop’s hood until your feet decide for you that you’re walking. The damn bus isn’t coming anyway, you decide.
You cross the street and think about what in life would turn you into a mid-street pisser. This occupies you. You weave between headphone-wearing androids wandering on their paths toward home. Like bees, you see their hardwired bodies depart with task in the mornings only to return to the hive at night. Depart and return. This is the caravan. You wonder if you’re still a part of the caravan or if being able to see it makes you of a higher order? You wonder if freedom could exist.
But you’re getting distracted…the street pisser’s dilemma. The question has morphed from the preceding idea. Is it freedom to just not care anymore? This is a ping pong ball, and it collides with the walls of your skull without striking much of anything solid.
What would bring you there? You think drug addiction but that’s low hanging fruit. Of course you think drug addiction—skag, meth—but go further. What would have to happen? you ask yourself again. What is the lowest state of care?
The pieces come slowly. You’ve lost your ability to connect with others, so relationships are of no concern. Any professional skills you might possess—those would be gone too. Ability to speak, listen, see—it’d be like they never existed. You imagine yourself as a wandering burlap sack that no one helps and no one bothers because you smell of elderberries and what could they really do to change your world?
This is it, you tell yourself, and you’re visibly thrilled at how far above this concocted self you seem to be. The Perfectly No Good Rotten You is so much worse than the You of Right Now, and you pull out to your phone to write all this down in your notes app because this feels like the start of something.
But you catch yourself. You’ve steered off course. This is no longer a sequence of thoughts on freedom—freedom is not inherently a lack of caring. Mom is in your head. It’s an image that’s glued to the inside cupboard of your mind: she yells at Estelle to just damn fit as she jams herself unnaturally into a stiletto. You think of the wheelchair woman. Does she say, This bitch needs to get off the bus, when she makes it to her stop? Freedom cannot exist, you type into the app. You feel shame the color of kidney beans for whittling yourself away, even if it was just make believe.
You walk up the bus line and find a stop where only a handful of bodies congregate. There’s a digital sign hanging over a metal bench that no one uses: 1 Kinnear — 2 min. You don’t trust it. You’ve learned not to after all this waiting. It said five minutes back at Pike and 3rd and how long did you wait there? You should’ve taken the 4 when you had the chance.
Violence in this country is the child of access and serendipity.
Bullets can be unremarkable. Those indolent, kinetic projectiles are nothing more than industrial kernels waiting to be popped. What you gain at the bus stop in this moment is not a fear of bullets but of the random savagery held by a bullet’s guider.
It’s odd to find a pair of cherry red Converses striding into a street of oncoming traffic. It’s odder still to learn that without warning or reason, gun shots can occupy your life.
White heat explodes from the end of a sleek rifle tucked against a shoulder. He aims across the street, away from you, but you feel it. You feel the danger he possesses. How could you not?
The hair pulled back into a ponytail doesn’t strike you. It’s not his jeans or flannel either. It’s the repetition of those kernels he sends popping, echoes in the now-silent street, as he electrifies the sidewalks into panic with each whimsical pull of the finger.
The buses are atrophied, frozen by the violence, but the people around you are not. Everyone runs in a direction that is away, and you are a part of everyone. You come out of your head and enter the world again because that’s what it means to live.
You try not to look back a second time because you don’t want to see the gunman anymore. You don’t want him to see you. Because for him to see you is for him to take aim. You tell yourself, go, but your rubberneck disagrees. You resolve to turn once more as you run. This is what you find:
Among the deluge of people inundated with trauma, there’s an old man with tea leaves for eyes. He braces his back against a brick wall with his knees folded close to his chest. His chestnut skin is smooth from the youth that remains in him, but on his face there are clef notes of pain. He stares at the sky and mouths all the words he has straight up.
Did his words rise fast enough to save him? you later wonder. Again, there is no answer.
The bullets continue to shower but with less repetition than before. Sirens grow from the distance already. You make turns at this corner and that one, zigzagging to freedom, that perverse word. On comes a backwards feeling of relief that will sink into the honey of your gut for a good long while.
You are spared. Who is not? Your comfort will later morph into anger that the gunman can decide. What is he but a violent urge; how can he be allowed to choose for all of us?
You run faster than you ever have, but people stream past you on either side. You tuck your chin and really charge but still you’re overtaken. Shoulders brush your own as the mass of bodies turn more corners in flailing feet. You wonder if you’re slow, if you’d be faster in something other than chelsea boots, or if everyone else is more afraid of dying in the street than you are. You don’t really think all this because you’re fleeing for survival, even though you already have it.
The bullets behind you are barely audible but sound like they’re deflecting off metal. The gunman is torturing the buses, you think. But with the increasing distance as you run away, who’s to say you know what you hear? Maybe the screams that rise in your ears any time you remember this night are nothing more than phantom noise. You sleep knowing those bleak, straining cords asking why? may be post-traumatic rememberings after all.
If you could only have one friend, it would be Mom. You know that the best ones build more in you than they break, and Mom does that. She’s the one who swung through Dairy Queen after spring school days in the elementary years, when the weather was warm enough for baseball.
Any size you like, she’d say, but you always chose small ‘cause you were conscious of your body, even then. You were taught to be scared of gluttony. A statuette of Thomas Aquinas lived on the windowsill above the kitchen sink.
She’d look at you in the backseat, her face flushed from the incoming sun and ask what went right today. You usually told her that everything went fine, that you did your homework in class, so you had none to take home. She’d smile but push. And?
You had to really think then. You had to dig into the cadaver of your day and remember the organs that comprised it. What did I have for lunch? What did I do at recess? Whose hand did I dream of holding? You could usually find something to share but even now you wonder if what you said, all those times, you wonder if you were right.
Mom was the first person you talked to after you lost your virginity. It was summer break after the first year of college and your lips were chapped.
All preceding thought told you that what you did was supposed to change you. You had crossed a threshold that would electrify you, and it did, but you also found that you were nervous and moronically clumsy, and in that way sex felt like everything else you did in life.
Mom asked where you were, and you didn’t say a thing. You were busy thinking about how little of your head you owned. All the before life it seemed that sex was supposed to be discretely scandalous. Unchristian. The darkest adjectives alive were made for what you’d done.
But what was it then? What was it to see that other side? Revoltingly normal might be right. You hate to find that so much of your life is normal.
Mom threw a pillow and it hit you in the face. Hello? Are you there? You told Mom you were just hanging out with a friend, and she laughed because she knew you were lying.
You are lying to her now.I’m fine. I’m fine, you tell her. But there’s been a shooting. Her voice is quickly soprano. Questions pour out of her mouth like water from a spring. She tells you it’s past nine back home. What time is it there? She never seems to remember.
Check the news, you say. See if there’s any word of the shooting. She tells you there’s isn’t. Instinctually, you wonder if she knows where to look. You ask for her sources and she tells you:I have them all right here on my phone. She lists them off—not a single one mentions word of a shooting in Seattle.
Something about this lack of acknowledgement feels sacred to you but just for a second. You’re walking now, not running, and you can’t shake the feeling that you’re a part of something that CNN will enjoy. You don’t know if it’s good or it’s bad. Well, you do, but then again, you’re nearly numb with observation.
There’s a blister where your sock keeps slipping down, exposing your heel to the snake bite of a boot seam. You recognize the pain but won’t allow yourself a sorry thought because you remember what’s just happened. All too quickly you’re drowning once more in the panic and the people in between. How many others are remembering right now too? A blister is nothing in comparison. You feel lucky, and it feels dirty to call it luck, but you’re away with thought still in your head about exactly what it feels like to hurt.
Are you there, hon? Mom said to you.Mostly, you said back.
There aren’t any more questions after that. She’ll tell you much later that she always worried that you’d put yourself in a situation, moving to a city. How had she known? How do moms always seem to know?
You can’t say anything consequential about what you’ve witnessed right then, yet you recount what sticks out most: late bus, broken wheelchair, street pisser. Nothing that leaves your lips feels normal, but you know that’s better than if it did.
It’s so raw, Mom says, so hurtful, and you say these words back to yourself. Raw. Hurtful. Are they right? You feel like there weren’t modifiers made for this. Shootings are different from sex.
You’re climbing the Queen Anne hill when you realize the sidewalks have thinned out. The fleeing bodies grow fewer and those that are left move slower. You see it in their legs. There isn’t the pace, isn’t the energy of survival pulsing through strained achilles tendons.
Do they know? you wonder. They don’t. These people don’t know that two miles back, the city of Seattle became another American data point.
Mom is still pressed to your ear, but neither of you are saying much. Despite this, you can’t imagine letting her go. You hope she feels the same. She’s tired on the other end of the phone, her yawns glazed with endurance, and she says to you:What a day.
An understatement, you tell her, but there’s comfort in this exchange. You suddenly imagine how she tosses her arms back as she says it’s been another 24 hours of survival in a body. It’s a banal comfort that takes you from this place to one in Indiana with berber carpet and a Louisville Slugger mounted in the living room. The image dissipates when she repeats herself. What a day. You spiral all over again.
You have to be selfish right now because you’re not at home. You’re 24 and you’ve just seen a shooting, you tell yourself. To let Mom go is to succumb to the fact that you’re walking to your apartment with no one to hold your hand. You can look behind you and feign the plume of death swirling in the downtown air like cedar smoke.
You could walk down the middle of road right now if you wanted but you don’t. The city is arrested by the night. You look up and find clouds disfigure a moon that will never be yours. It’s too far away but gives just enough light to encourage you forward, to doubt your safety in the steps ahead.
You need Mom. She deflects the thought that any car you see, rolling idly with its headlights blinding and hot, might be driven by a shooter. Her voice helps you choke down the notion that every person in this abandoned place can choose to pull a gun, choose to aim it where they please. It’s enough to make you sob and you do. Because you have Mom there to hear your tears, you know it’s real sadness.
I hate this hill so much, you tell her, clearing your throat. The steep incline makes your knees hot with denim friction. It seems purposeless to keep walking. You could lie down right there and just let gravity have its way. Down you would go, rolling endlessly down, right into the mud of the Puget Sound. Mom hushes you, tells you how nice it will be to take a hot shower when you’re home. She describes the relief you’ll feel like what’s just happened is nothing more than a sour coating on your skin, something washable, purgeable from the body. The thought envelops you, this washing, but even as you pursue it, you know the fingers of this night have reached far deeper than the skin. Your brain has a black streak running through its cortices.
You want so badly to feel Mom’s dream for you: steam rising from a clawfoot porcelain tub. The water is hot enough to bring a red sting right to the top of your skin. Your pores dilate. Your curly hair swings down into your eyes. You feel life batting against your closed eyelids, but you’re behind them and that means you are safe.
You’re involved with the idea of lying on the floor of the bathtub, safe within your body, but then there’s an instant you can’t control. Someone flushes the toilet in an adjacent apartment, and now the water raining down is too hot. It burns holes through your nakedness, leaving your insides expsosed and vulnerable. You squeeze your eyes shut hoping this will help, but you exist like coral dried in the sand. You see holes are like bullet wounds, piercing your being, and there, you’re back to the shooting.
You open your eyes to the throat of the night, but the grip of the gunman remains. The oily glass of your phone screen kisses your cheek. When will you come home? it begs.
J. Dominic Patacsil (he/him) is a writer hailing from Indiana. He is a fiction student in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire, where he teaches in the English Department. You can find him on Instagram @dpatacsil.