I remembered the following incident after listening to a podcast called Devil on my Shoulder. The episode was about people who say they found themselves “inexplicably doing something random and bad, something which made no sense to them at all.”
Picture by dfinnecy on Flickr
I knelt beside my best friend, running my fingers over the smooth contours of the object in my hand.
We were cloaked in the shadows of night, peering down from the 6th floor balcony of my downtown apartment.
Inside, the flicker of the television signaled that my parents were sufficiently distracted. They probably thought that we, like other 12-year-old girls, were out giggling about crushes or telling scary stories. They had no reason to suspect that their bookish daughter and her polite classmate were plotting an attack.
“What about him?” whispered Lily,* pointing to a balding man in a golf shirt.
“Nah,” I responded. “He’s walking pretty quickly.”
I don’t remember how or why we started doing it, but Lily and I had developed a mischievous game. We played it every few days, growing bolder each time. It had started with one egg, tossed very far away from a pedestrian walking below. He jumped and let out a little scream. As he looked up into the sky with a sort of bewildered awe, we muffled our laughter.
That was our simple goal: scare the heck out of people and laugh. We never planned to actually hit anyone.
But the night of “the incident,” Lily and I had each stolen two eggs from our parents — just enough to entertain ourselves for a couple of hours without stirring suspicions in the adults. We had already tossed one several feet ahead of a grumpy tenant from the building, who jumped back and paused briefly before screaming out the most typical reaction:
“WHAT THE F—!?”
We loved watching the disorientation of the close call — people shaking their fists, scratching their heads or bolting into the night. It was fun to predict how different people might react, and to marvel at those that kept walking, unfazed. We didn’t even consider little old ladies, but teenage boys and drunks were favourite targets.
That night, a car pulled up in front of the building and a man in a suit stepped out. He leaned against the passenger door, as music spilled through his open windows. He watched the entrance of the building intently.
I vaguely remember shaking my head at Lily, as if to say the nice suit and glossy car were untouchable. It was interesting enough to wonder who he was waiting for, and where they might be going.
A woman soon emerged from inside. She was gorgeous, smiling as she showed off a flowing white halter dress. Against the night air, she looked like she’d been draped in the milky way itself. Her hips swayed melodiously, and the man coyly stroked his chin as she approached.
We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but even preteens could read such body language.
As if preparing to watch a movie, I sat down and leaned my cheek against my palm. It was terribly exiting, and I turned to make a comment to Lily about the possibility of a live-action kiss.
But when I looked at her, time froze.
The first thing I noticed was her hand up in the air… then the way she’d arched her back… and then the oval object in her hand.
“Nnnnooo!” I began, as the egg soared past my eyes and hurdled down toward the scene below us.
And then, as if in slow motion, I watched as the egg not only hit the woman, but exploded all over the very center of her dress, its gooey contents splashing in every direction.
I was speechless, hands rising to my mouth.
The man’s smirk disappeared from his face, and his casual lean immediately turned into a wrestler’s pose. The woman’s shoulders locked and she stood, hands quivering, for what seemed like eternity.
Lily and I were silent. Several seconds passed before anyone moved.
Several floors above the couple, a family was having a barbeque. They were the only household with their lights on, and with visible activity on the balcony. A man had been leaning over the railing at the time of the egging.
His eyes locked with the driver’s.
Before we could process what was happening, the suited man began yelling accusations and the strongest one-syllable words we had ever heard in our young lives. The man on the balcony responded in kind, automatically defensive and enraged. As the venomous epithets flew between them, and the woman stared at her dress in disbelief, and I turned to Lily.
“Why…why would you d-do that!?” I stammered.
Lily’s face was blank, her jaw slightly dropped. She said nothing.
As the screaming grew louder, we went inside, almost slinking past my parents to get to the refrigerator. I quietly dropped my egg back into its carton.
In the harsh light of the kitchen, I clearly saw the look on Lily’s face. She was astounded.
“I… I don’t know why I did it,” she said, the colour drained from her face.
“I really … just don’t know.”
*I’ve changed my friend’s name, just in case our old landlord is still on the hunt for us. Just so you don’t get the impression that preteen girls are that easy to shake, I’ll cryptically mention that we were up to no good again in no time. Although eggs stopped disappearing from our parent’s fridges, we took to pranks on the telephone and devising ways to escape from our homes undetected at 4:00 a.m. to cycle down the steep hills of Trinity-Bellwoods Park. Don’t worry, moms and dads, we turned out okay.
I am a child of El Salvador. That’s where I would have grown up and built my life had my birth not coincided with a civil war. When I was a toddler, my parents sacrificed everything for my future, but for years they never told me of their past.
It wasn’t until I was 22 years old that I asked.
My intent was to spin family history into narrative — to work it into something readable for a literary non-fiction class. As my parents conjured up painful memories at my request, I drew story lines and built narrative arches. I suppressed my own horror. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
I turned my family members into characters and convinced my professor to double my word limit.
Though I often felt I was in a position of crisis, I told myself I could impose meaning on the chaos.
A week before the story was due, I burst into tears and deleted more than half of it.
It was a difficult time to write a difficult story. For months, I’d been focusing on a war that was temporally and geographically distant, obscuring the conditions of my story-telling.
Meanwhile, my parents were getting a divorce.
Asking my parents to focus on the past meant blocking out their present-day lives. My story was supposed to end in a safe haven, Canada, which I’ve come to call home—but when my mom left after Christmas, I witnessed the disruption of my happily-ever-after.
Feeling the absence of the underlying narrative, I wrote in the divorce, I exposed my parent’s pain, and I described my own panic.
I finished the last line a day before the class’ deadline, having included the more proximate conflict between my parents and having allowed the two narratives to cross-pollinate. I called it Civil Unrest.
As an avid reader of non-fiction, I used to think closure came with the release of the final product.
Months have passed since my paper was returned. I impressed my professor but I felt I’d failed my parents. They both read the story—the most important thing I’ve ever written—and offered no feedback. I, in turn, never asked for it.
I now have two blank cards lodged in the back of my drawer, one for each of them. Mothers Day came and went, Father’s day is here… and I—who had feverishly written about my parents for months—can not write to them. I, who have faithfully given them a heartfelt letter every year, can not express my gratitude and guilt.
Papi, today I want ask to you what you thought of my story…ask you how you think the unwritten epilogue will turn out.
Through all this, I hope to come a little closer to understanding myself as an adult-child, a stand-in co-parent, an aspiring writer, and a person in my own right.
My Father, Italo Fabio Carletti. Photo Credit: Jessica Boivin.
Excerpt from “Civil Unrest”
Every work night, my dad moves erratically through the house.
He has a kind of departing ritual that he always adheres to, with slight variations: He grabs his keys from the hook, gathers his tools, makes a coffee, eats a sandwich, forgets his keys somewhere, starts singing a made-up song, looks for his cell phone or jacket or shoes, feeds the dog, and invariably yells, “Where are my keys? I left them on this hook!”
It’s dizzying if you watch him.
“Did you check the bathroom, Papi?” I usually ask. He always leaves things in the bathroom.
He also has the habit of calling me ten minutes after he has left.
“Fabi?” He says when I pick up the phone.
“Did I leave my ID card on the table?”
“Ok, I’ll be back in two minutes.”
Ten minutes later he bursts through the door, grabs his ID card and somehow manages to leave something else, like his keys, in its stead.
A few days before Remembrance Day, I noticed Papi beginning the ritual. I knew he didn’t have much time, but I wanted a digestible amount of information with which to begin my assignment — maybe, subconsciously, I wanted to start small, to avoid being overwhelmed.
“Papi, can you tell me about your first memory of the civil war back home?”
My dad seemed a little taken aback—but he never passes up an opportunity to tell a story.
“Come to the kitchen. I’m going to make a coffee.”
I nodded and followed him.
My dad added milk to his coffee, stirred it and took a long sip. Maybe, like me, he was thinking about how far away El Salvador seemed. Outside, flurries were falling past our window.
“The first time I saw anything serious happen, I was in high school, standing around with my friends and waiting for buses to take us to school,” he began.
“Wait, Papi, when and where?”
“We were in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. I was 18 so it must have been around 1975. Although we were aware that there were protests going on in the city, such issues weren’t on our minds at that moment. We were joking around, talking about girls. It was a pretty typical day,” he said, as if recounting the plot of a movie.
“The buses were taking a long time to come. It looked like the traffic had stopped flowing. Government soldiers started coming into the area, taking positions on street corners. Some of them were younger than we were. We asked some soldiers that looked about 14-years-old if they knew what was happening with the traffic. They simply told us they’d been dispatched to the area to protect the plaza, and that a march was coming our way. We didn’t know it at the time, but a huge crowd of protesters was heading towards us. The crowd was enormous, big enough to have caused the traffic jam.”
“Who were they, Papi?” I asked.
“They were members of El Bloque Popular Revolucionario—The Popular Revolutionary Block—a group which included young people, old people, union workers, grassroots protesters, farmers, church activists … average people. They were citizens united by the belief that the government was corrupt and that the people needed to fight back. Some carried signs. Most chanted ‘el pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido’ [the people, united, will never be defeated]. We watched them in fascination because, at that point, we weren’t really aware of the danger or of how angry the crowd was.”
“Suddenly,” my dad continued, “some people in the crowd saw the McDonald’s—the only one at the time—and they became very hostile. To them, the golden arches were a symbol of American imperialism, representative of the white men who were training our own soldiers to kill us. They took their rage out on the restaurant: smashing windows, causing ruckus—someone even brought out a cash register and threw it to the ground, with several people ‘punishing’ it for everything it represented to them. That’s when the soldiers started shooting rounds up into the air.”
“What did you do when you heard the shots?” I gasped.
“I obviously started to run! But as the saying goes, curiosity kills the cat. And at that moment, I was a cat. I was still looking all around me at everything that was going on. I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I was only concerned with getting out of the way. Even though I’d heard stories about this kind of thing, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I saw helicopters flying towards us in the sky; I heard a siren blaring from the daily newspaper’s building; I saw armoured vehicles heading in our direction — but it wasn’t until I heard the machine guns that my curiosity turned to terror. The soldiers had stopped shooting into the air; they were now shooting at anyone around them.”
“Even the students?” I asked.
“Everyone. They couldn’t tell the difference between the protesters and the other civilians. Anyone could be the enemy. People started falling like flies. They were targeting anyone who was not wearing an army uniform, especially anyone wearing anything red.”
He gestured toward the poppy I was wearing.
“Red was a dangerous colour.”
My dad took another sip of his coffee, struggling to piece together a sequence of events.
“Oh yes, I remember running and seeing my good friend Chamba just standing there, frozen in shock. Chamba was only 15-years-old and he was both terrified and fascinated. I grabbed his arm and yelled, ‘Run Chamba! The tanks are coming, they’re shooting everyone! It’s a massacre!’ ”
As the word “massacre” left my father’s mouth, something happened that I was not expecting.
His breathing suddenly became very shallow. The memory had triggered his asthma and he went to the couch to sit down. I followed him, but he avoided my eyes.
“Go get me some water,” he said, waving me away.
From the kitchen sink, I could see the couch clearly. As I ran the tap I noticed that he was rubbing his eyes and steadying his breath. Was he trying not to cry?
“Where’s my puffer? I’m dying!” he said in a forced-funny tone. I clutched the cup, realizing that it was really painful for him to do this.
“Probably in the bathroom” I responded. “I’ll get your jacket too. I don’t want you to be late for work.”