As if the sun would never shine for me again

In memories of Friday, November 13 and to what followed

On Friday, November 13, 2015, exactly one week after having been joyfully and honourably celebrated for reaching a new age, I was headed out to meet a dear friend near the neighbourhood where I resided back then in Paris. Peacefully, I walked to République Station, looking forward to a pleasant conversation and dinner. The air was fresh, the temperatures decent. It was a nice autumnal evening. My friend was a little delayed and in a rather hectic condition, she explained that she had passed a long and cumbersome day at work. I was by then enrolled in my studies at university and generally felt fairly balanced and serene. That evening, we aimed for an Italian place next to the Canal Saint-Martin. We counted on putting our names on the list of the restaurant and whilst waiting, sip a fresh beer on the terrace of the place next to it. As a matter of fact, there were two restaurants and a bar situated at an intersection, one of them slightly set back. Surprisingly, and to the happiness of our craving stomachs, the Italian place immediately had an available table inside. So we were sitting there, with a glass of red wine, talking about our day and week, about all the unimportant yet seemingly relevant happenings. Our pizze were served. My friend quickly left to the washroom. When she came back, I thought of going too, but ravenously, I preferred to first eat some bites. Then all of a sudden, my human needs would unconsciously and for hours be put on hold. 

I did not watch much Crime in my life, I had grown up without television and mostly experienced fear rather through stories which put mental tension above physical violence. However, once it happened, I instantly knew what it was… The moment I heard this fast, fierce, shuttering sound. A man next to me whispered to his partner that it was fireworks. Her look, sceptic, but hopeful. I myself didn’t believe him, but desperately stuck to the thought. The table my friend and me were seated at was quite close to the entrance of the restaurant. I can until today not say whether it is my brain which transformed the situation or what my eyes really saw. When I think back of that particular moment, the picture that repeatedly comes up is the one of a big, glowing, yellow cloud covering the intersection. Even though I am curious about the reason, I did not try to push my research further, the yellow cloud somehow protects my mind. 

Obviously, I was not familiar with crime scenes, as it was only once I noticed all the other customers had crawled under the tables that I realised I should for my sake do the same. I saw my friend, squeezing up against the wall, leeching on to the woman next to her. Then the noise pended for a second. Someone was shouting to stay on the ground, to not move, anon the person screamed Louise !? The shouting man was big, frightening and as he was running around, I knew that if they had entered our restaurant, it could hit any of us; my life was not in my hands. Eventually, I would understand that the shouting man was a customer and that an other person was named the same as me. 

When not even seconds later the shuttering sound started again, my instinct made me flee. I happened to find myself relatively near a grid which led to the restaurant’s basement. It was narrow, and days after, when I saw the bruises covering my body, I got conscious about how narrow it must have been. It is known that as long as your head makes it through, your body will do so too, my mother told me. I would priorly not have believed her. Anyway, I was one of the first persons who arrived in the basement. To my surprise and to my shock, which made me subsequently deeply question my character and values, I had not only fled and left my friend alone to her destiny, but also grabbed my bag - What an egoistic and materialistic human being I am - it chased me for a long time and took many sessions with a therapist before I was able to put my actions under a brighter light. It is true that as I had my bag with me, I was one of the few who could contact the outside world. My reaction was quick, a brash text message to my parents in Switzerland saying something like I don’t know how, but everything will be fine. I want you to know that I love you very much. To my astonishment, their answer came immediately You scare us. With a helpless and almost sarcastic tone, I replied I am scared too. 

The moment after was a relief. When I saw my friend arriving in the basement, I slumped down into her arms. We clung together and hid in a corner. Meanwhile, the whole restaurant – approximatively 30 people – had come downstairs. No one knew what was going to happen. Oppressed silence. The staff was impressively calm, handed out glasses and opened bottles of water and wine. I dropped mine instantly. Then we received the news that they had continued towards Bastille. From my geographical understanding, I knew that this meant Away from us – selfishly, the major thing I right then cared about. Around half an hour later, it felt like an eternity, the police arrived in the basement. We slinked back to the ground floor, and what we encountered was literally a battle field: chairs and tables upside down, broken glass, dishes spread all over. The police’s explanation was simple and seemed rough Either you stay here, protected but you will be witnessed and this will take time, or you leave - on your own. As soon as I saw the blood on the street and the bodies being carried into ambulance, I decided We leave ! And so we left, two small human beings on the open streets of the French capital. My reasoning was merely that we would be less interesting as a target than a group of people, a taxi, or anything which attracts attention. Panicked, we ran to my apartment. Phone calls and messages. Horrifying information, emotions and dumbness. I can not sum up the rest of the evening. My spirit was all over and nowhere, at least We were together. The following night felt unbearable yet created a fusional relationship between my friend and me. Fearful, we startled at any tiny sound, our minds and bodies reacting, simultaneously. 

Although I considered myself generally quite independent, sleepless and forceless, I at some point gave in and wrote to my parents I don’t know how you can help me, but I need help. Any option was fine for them, in the end, they took one of the earliest trains the next morning to Paris. If ever before I should have had a slight doubt, I since then know that I may always rely on them; I will be thankful as long as I can. My surrounding was incredibly comprehensive, my friends supportive and my professors patient. I was given the time I needed. Between euphoria about being alive, questioning why I was still here yet not some others, and a languidness, conscious that it can hit each of us on any day, I could scarcely imagine to ever feel joy again.  

Few months later I was supposed to conduct my first field work in Japan. Whilst I was still struggling with going through a daily routine and regain trust, my advisor in France told me that this was probably a suitable timing Go to Japan, it will be good for you. He could hardly have been more right. I left and concentrated on my research. I experienced the magnificence of flourishing cherry blossoms, I felt safe and far away. At my return to Europe, I would not have considered myself healed, but I was ready to stop therapy and determined to move on. It took time, there were steps forward and backward. There were ups and downs, yet gradually, the more and more ups. Of course the Land of the Rising Sun is not a magic potion, though Japan, not only as a country but also as a project played for me an important role in processing the past, in seizing the present and envisaging the future. It brought me back to seeing the beauty of life, it gave me confidence and made me optimistic. I was taught a lesson about our fragility, so I realised that I should better appreciate the chance I got and make something out of it. It is not about forgetting, but about growing. 

Since 2015, I had in a bizarre way honoured November 13 of each year. In 2016 with my friend, then, after she moved back to the United States, on my own, travelling, and always ending up eating a pizza. Last year, to my surprise and with a feeling of shame, I had almost missed out on acknowledging the date.  

Today as often, my thoughts go to those who are not with us anymore. To those who were close to them and who had to endure their loss. To my dear friend and to all who have lived a similar experience. My profound gratitude goes to my amazingly supportive surrounding. To the luck I had. To Japan, for welcoming me, for giving me positive energy and for helping me overcome this challenging episode. It felt As if the sun would never shine for me again. 

There have been many sunny days since. 

Nouveau Soleil, November 13, 2020 © Louise Claire Wagner

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