January 17, 2009

It was eight years ago today. I can only easily remember the date and how long it’s been because I was supposed to have gone home to celebrate a friend’s birthday, but had decided to stay a little longer, hoping to go to Obama’s first inauguration. Honestly, I rarely think about it at all anymore. Certainly I think about it much, much less than I did in the year or two after it happened. I suppose another inauguration is what’s making me think about it now. I’m destined to remember this anniversary in four year increments instead of the traditional five, ten, or twenty that usually accompany the survival of some traumatic event and I usually don’t even remember those.

I had gone to DC for the resolution of a court case, the penance for one of my colossal missteps. When everything was resolved I had agreed to go out with friends and celebrate. I wanted to enjoy their company since my frequent trips would now become much more infrequent without a court appearance requiring my presence. I remember the night was fun. I’d stayed soberish for the most part, opting to spend most of the time texting “Emma” whose husband, “Phillip”, was a dear friend as well. Emma had stayed home with their baby and I spent the evening filling her in on the shenanigans of her husband and his friends. We played pool, toasted whatever ridiculous topics came to mind, and I enjoyed being surrounded by witty guys with thick British accents. We walked home, still cracking jokes and laughing.

When we got home Emma and I decided to play a prank on a passed out Phillip. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and was always making jokes or finding ways to make us laugh. On any other night, he would have woken in the morning to find “wanker” written on his forehead in lipstick, a photo of his sleeping face uploaded as his new Facebook profile picture, and he would have laughed and begun devising a way to get back at us. However, this wasn’t that night.

A series of events that unfolded after that that aren’t mine to share. Suffice it to say that there was an argument, the mother of all arguments, really. I had brought the baby into my room at that point, hoping to shield him from whatever was going to transpire down the hall. When I heard Emma screaming my name and that Phillip had a gun, I ran into their room. I didn’t know what I was running into, but when I entered the room Phillip threw himself into the bathroom and held the door closed. I remember screaming, crying, and pushing against the door with everything in me, begging him to come out and put the gun down. Emma, who was about half my size, was standing on the other side of the room watching in horror. I yelled at her to call the police and she snapped out of whatever world she was transfixed in. I was pushing the door hard enough that he couldn’t lock it and with one forceful shove I could see the reflection of his face in the mirror. The gun was in his mouth. I have forgotten a lot of things over the years, but I will never escape the vision of that as long as I live. I dropped to my knees, hoping that if a bullet was fired it wouldn’t come through the door and hit me. I kept pushing against the door, pleading with him, and reminding him of the baby he had sleeping down the hall. I know that couldn’t have gone on for more than a few seconds, but it seemed like forever then and still does now.

The door flew open and I stood up. Phillip took a step toward me and a sense of relief I can’t accurately describe washed over me.

“Emma, get out,” he said, brandishing the Smith & Wesson in her direction. “Lesley, you’re staying with me.”

Thank God, I remember thinking. He wants to talk. Then I noticed the look in his eyes. They weren’t the eyes of the man I knew. Phillip had always been kind and compassionate, but these were the eyes of a man who blamed me for the world he saw crumbling around him and I didn’t know the person behind those eyes. I suddenly understood what “bone chilling” felt like as I realized the gun was pointed at me. Emma was on the phone with the police and closer to the door. I started backing up, away from the person whose life I’d been pleading for a moment ago and realized I should have been begging for mine.

“Phillip, you don’t mean this.” I tried staying calm. “You’ve got a son down the hall. Don’t do this.”

“Emma, get out,” he said with more authority. He kept the gun trained on me.

I kept backing toward Emma and the door, each plea out of my mouth becoming a little more desperate. She and I eventually found ourselves backing down the hall side by side. She was still on the phone with the police. The barrel of the gun was getting closer and closer to my face. I kept backing up, trying to buy myself a few more seconds, another plea. I’d always thought that I’d be calm in that circumstance. I believed I’d be the person that remained composed, but I wasn’t. By the time we were nearing my room I was hysterical and I was imploring him to not to kill me. I was almost out of hallway and knew I couldn’t bring him into the room where the baby was sleeping. He must have known it, too, because he stopped and pulled the hammer back on the gun.

“I said fucking now.” Phillip was gone. In retrospect, I can only surmise that the eyes I was looking into were the eyes of the man that had been deployed to the Middle East twice and had seen things that would have stopped him or any of us from laughing ever again. I watched his finger tighten over the trigger. The barrel of the gun was six inches from my face and I knew I was about to die.

He can’t shoot me in front of her. I don’t want her to live with that. I took a step forward. “Okay, okay. I’m coming with you.” Please God, just let it be quick. Don’t let me suffer. Let him miss so they can save me. I wish I could see my mom again. How much will I feel? Will being shot hurt as much as I think? A choir of thoughts erupted in my head simultaneously, each one was reminding me of people I could now only hope I’d adequately expressed my affection to.

Emma threw her arm out in front of me. “No!” She’d maintained a calmer demeanor than me, but then there hadn’t been a man with a gun focused on her head for the last several minutes. Phillip wanted her to stay. He blamed me for being the reason she was suddenly threatening to leave him. “The police are here, Phillip,” she said.

I took my eyes off the gun for an instant and could see the blue and red flashing lights illuminating the windows of their bedroom. Please, please come inside and save me. I was panicked thinking they couldn’t get to me before he could pull the trigger.

Something woke him up and he lowered the gun. Emma was giving him instructions from the police dispatcher and within a moment, he’d walked down the stairs and laid down, face first in the living room floor. He waited for the police while we waited for word that it was safe to come down.

I can honestly say I’ve never been more afraid in my life. I’ve never been so sure that I was about to die, never felt terror consume my body so completely before or since.

In the weeks that followed, I spoke to Emma and I even spoke to Phillip. They’d been two of my best friends for years and I adored them more than I had ever been able to convey to them. Phillip and I had many conversations about that night and I received more than one heartfelt apology from the man that I’d come to know over the years. I’m sure there are more complex issues that helped shape that evening, but I’ll always blame the vast majority of it on combat related PTSD.

I don’t know exactly what happened in the coming months, because Emma eventually disowned me for talking to him and not pushing to press charges that would have seen him deported and separated from a son that I knew he worshiped. They’ve managed to work things out and have another child. I ask a mutual friend about them from time to time and he tells me they’re doing well. In the end I guess the only thing she couldn’t forgive was my forgiving him. Or maybe I’m just a very vibrant reminder of something they’d both like to forget.

I’ve almost forgotten. Not the details, obviously, but I don’t think about it like I did at first, or even a few years later. In the year that followed, I couldn’t handle watching anything on TV or a movie that depicted someone being held at gunpoint. I would start shaking and dissolve into tears. For a couple of years I couldn’t even stand a water gun or a kid with a trigger finger pointed in my direction. Most of that has passed, although discomfort occasionally still creeps up on me.

For a few more years I would still get so angry with him. A few years ago I even sent him an email to an old address I had for him telling him I hated him. Not for what he did to me, but for costing me two of my best friends and the chance to get to know their children. I know they have to think of me, too, from time to time. They wouldn’t have met, dated, or gotten married if I hadn’t been there. I am an integral part of their origination story and they can’t erase me from that. I missed them more than I was mad at him, but with time I’ve come to understand why we can’t be in each other’s lives. There are some things you just don’t come back from.

A few nights ago I dreamt about him for the first time in nearly eight years. I was seated in a small plain room and he walked in, dressed in his military fatigues with a friend. I immediately started to panic and cry, remembering the face of the man that had wanted nothing more than to kill me. As I began to shake and generally come undone, he didn’t speak, but shook his head and looked at me with such remorse that I could feel it across the room. With his eyes he told me he was sorry, that he’d never hurt me, and that I had nothing to fear from him. His eyes told me he was sorry he’d ever done anything to cause me pain and suffering. He was disappointed in himself and worried that people he knew would find out what he’d done. He was ashamed. I know that’s a lot to say without words, but it was my dream.

I guess this is my way of saying that eight years later, I’m okay. It changed me a little, but that’s what scars do. And while I may not ever totally forget what happened that night, I’m not angry and I’ve come to a place of peace and forgiveness. I won’t ever know for sure, but I like to think he’ll stumble across this one day and realize that he’s found it, too.

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