By Liz Posner
It was 3:22 p.m. when I realized the boy I hopelessly loved might be dead.
The campus center was crowded that afternoon in 2013, packed with students sad to waste sparkling Boston daylight indoors, taunted by the brilliant sun reflecting off the green grass lawn, blinding us through the glass windows. The beautiful days before graduation were numbered.
Then the horrible news broke in waves. You could see students’ faces fall. You could hear gasps, audible as push notifications and breaking headlines ran across our screens, disrupting our final exams.
Frantic phone calls from family members followed. I reassured them that I was fine, at least eight miles away from Boylston Street where the bombs were detonated. Then I made my own panicked calls, racking my brains for every person I knew who might be downtown, refreshing Facebook every sixty seconds to see who’d marked themselves safe. A call to my friend at Boston College who was running the Marathon brought me instant relief. She was just fine, had only made it halfway through the race (impressive nonetheless!) and was on her way back to her own campus.
My boyfriend — he had left Boston early that morning after a weekend visiting his alma mater and was halfway back to New York already.
But the other boy I loved — my heart skipped as I remembered he was planning to cheer on the runners.
He picked up his phone on the first ring, and razorlike relief cut into my chest so that all I saw was white. He was on the T, miraculously the last subway out of the city before the green line service was suspended.
I shut my laptop, forgetting all about the take-home exam due the following morning, and drove the 35 minutes to the commuter rail station where he was arriving. The drive was just long enough to make me feel a little stupid. What was I doing? He could have called a taxi. He could have found his own way out. He wasn’t my responsibility. But I couldn’t not go.
I parked my car in the lot. When the train pulled in, a throng of people rushed out, sobbing and shaking hands with the uniformed attendant, hugging their waiting loved ones. When he climbed down the steps and onto the platform, I remembered why I had come.
On the drive back to school, he described the chaos around the Marathon. Happy cheering, then a slow-building, confusing rush of chaos as the crowds turned from celebratory to terrified.
He’d darted into a deli to take shelter from the stampede of panicked people. Police arrived quickly to direct traffic. Soon he spotted an opening and waded, sardine-like, through the pack of frightened Marathon viewers down into the T platform and into a subway cart, one of the very last to squeeze in, the doors shuttering behind him.
Over the speaker system, a man’s heavily Boston-accented voice announced they would be the last to leave the station that day. He locked eyes just then through the glass door with a redheaded woman still standing on the platform, her eyes wide with panic. He knew she was wondering how she would ever get home.
He made it out into the suburbs and into my car. I wanted to kiss him but I couldn’t. We were at a red light and it was dangerous and his best friend was my boyfriend, far away in New York.
You may think we could only discuss the Marathon, but there was not much else to say about it after that. I cared about the bombings, of course, I had watched the news footage about the dozens missing and those confirmed dead and maimed. But his story was the only one that felt real to me. On the sunny highway, the local radio stations had stopped playing music. They only repeated what we already know: two homemade pressure-cooker bombs went off at 2:49 p.m. that afternoon, blasting shrapnel into the bodies of the ordinary people who’d come to watch the Marathon, as well as the extraordinary athletes who approached the finish line.
We switched it off halfway through our drive. The conversation turned to the previous night — an eerie one in hindsight, we thought, given the day’s turn of events. It was Patriots Day, and we’d been in Lexington with my boyfriend and our other friends at a reenactment of Paul Revere’s famous ride. We’d crashed at a friend’s childhood home, woke up at 3 a.m., bleary eyed and clutching our Dunkin Donuts, as we gathered in the town square to watch historical reenactors mimic the Battle of Concord. How silly we’d thought it would be. But we were stunned by what we saw: it was more massacre than battle, not at all the way I remembered it from middle school history class. The British army outgunned and outnumbered the Yankee rebels. The soldiers plowed the men down like a lawnmower on grass. They lay in the dewy field as the sun rose around them, their limbs askew in a perfect rendition of unglamorous death in battle. At the end of the show, women in period costumes and their children assembled on the field, in the perfect imitation of shock and sorrow, to collect the bodies of their fathers and husbands. We watched as the actors dragged the lifeless men away. None of us spoke on the drive back.
In my car, he and I couldn’t think what to do next as we approached campus. There was no excuse to stay together, really, except that horrible times make you want to stay close to the people you love, even if you’re not supposed to be loving them. Neither of us suggested going to school. We didn’t want to see anyone else. We went downtown instead, to the main street, busy with restaurant workers on their way to the evening shift and women doing their food shopping at the Bangladeshi market.
We got ice cream. In the store, smoke-filled clips of the catastrophe looped across the television screen. The pimply teenager who served us almost forgot to ask us to pay, his eyes glued to the TV while he scooped ice cream into our cones. So we took them outside to sit in the sun. When the spring comes in Boston, it comes late and you’re so hungry for it, it’s like the most gorgeous, delicate flower bud bursting to life. You know it won’t last, and so you cling to the warmth in the air, and it fills you with a joy so fleeting, it’s barely even joy. More like desperation.
We talked of silly things, of a professor’s recent scandal, a friend who was backpacking through Asia. We did not speak about the bombing, nor about my boyfriend. There was nowhere else we wanted to be.
I felt we were selfish and immature and horrible then, licking our ice cream cones and flirting in the sun while only a few miles away, people lost their lives and limbs. I’d feel this way in the days and weeks to come — even months later when I’d see a Boston Marathon bombing survivor describe their agonizing recovery on a daytime talk show. I’d just think of him, the way he looked that day, the sun on his forearms, and my insides would twist with guilt, not sure if I was hating myself for finding bliss in a time of despair, or for indulging in my deep desire to be close to someone forbidden. Maybe I felt this way because I had so much and did nothing to deserve it. I had a campus and a laptop and final exams, a car and ice cream. And after that day, some people had no legs, no sight, no child. And they did nothing to deserve it.
Maybe that was why I loved him. We were both wired like this — both of us selfish, sometimes bad people. But also, this is what people do, I think. We get lucky. We follow the conquering army, plunge our bayonets into other men’s bodies and don’t look back. We catch the last train out of the danger and look straight into the eyes of those left behind. We fall in love with two people at once. We have cake, and we eat it, too.
I voiced these thoughts to him. “I don’t think that’s totally fair,” he said after a few thoughtful moments, sucking the melted ice cream out of the bottom of his cone and tossing the final piece into his mouth. “For a second today, I thought I was going to die.”
“For a second today, I thought you were dead,” I answered.
He looked into my eyes. “We deserve some ice cream, then.”
And so we went back inside and each got another cone.