Here

by Michelle Assaad
They took everything from us. It got to the point where they even took our fear, but it took a very long time for that to happen. Before that we went home before the sun went down and barricaded ourselves in the darkness of our apartments. If someone had looked out into the street, all they’d see was a ghost city. Sometimes we could hear the motorcycle’s buzz reverberating off of the crumbling buildings. On those nights everyone would look at each other, not in fear, but with anxiety. Some people wanted it to just happen to them already. One good robbery and non-fatal gunshot wound, your odds of it happening again would drop. I have 100% odds that it will happen to me because nothing has ever happened to me. My friend Sam though, she had a 50% chance that it would and she said she could live with that number and the little fragments in her arm from the bullet. The only way to have anything lower than 50% was if you were already dead. It was all a numbers game.

I knew someone who died in a particularly awful way, before dying like that was a probability. Nobody said it was particularly awful, but I knew it was because I like reading books about war and morality: so I think I still have a good sense of what is awful and what is really awful. Dying from a bullet to the head, for example, is awful, but now it seems merciful. Dying how Oscar died, is really awful. Every time I hear about someone dying now, I don’t think it’s so bad in comparison. I keep hoping that nothing worse will come up.

Oscar was married to a particularly beautiful woman. She was the sort of girl that never fit in, because in all honesty, she didn’t belong with normal people. She had really long black hair, so black that it looked blue in certain light. Her eyes were a little bit Arabian and she was always smiling, which made her even more beautiful. Oscar loved her and she loved him and they both adored their baby. I don’t remember if it was a boy or a girl, but I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who remembers them. When people die here they tend to fade away after a few weeks of anger and protest.

It wasn’t even nighttime yet, it was 2 in the afternoon. Oscar was home with the baby and I don’t know where his beautiful wife was, but at least she wasn’t there. Four armed men broke into the apartment. They grabbed the baby and hit Oscar in the head so hard that it cracked open his skull. The commotion was so loud up there that it could be heard 5 stories below where my friend was waiting on the street for someone. My friend said that there was a crowd gathering below. She grabbed tight to her purse in case it was some sort of wild scheme to rob everyone blind. After a few moments a few men went inside the building, having decided to go up and try to help. They were unarmed but went in anyway. My friend called the police with shaking fingers knowing that it would be no good, and maybe it would make things worse.

There was yelling for a few seconds after that. Then came the sound of glass breaking and something flying out of the window. My friend said that she looked up and didn’t immediately register that it was a baby. Everyone in the street was screaming but it wasn’t enough to overpower the sound of the dead thud onto the cracked cement. Then came the bullets.

This particularly awful death didn’t even make the news. I don’t know what happened to the four men or the men who went in to help and I never saw Oscar’s beautiful wife again. All I know is that Oscar and his baby were happy and alive one minute and dead the next for no apparent reason. Some people tried to say that he was doing dirty business with the drug cartel. I think that this is just useless and hurtful justification for a murder.

Before fear took over I had great memories of this place, it wasn’t always like this. Or maybe I just hadn’t noticed anything before. The home I knew was a yellow house on the mountainside. It was almost elementary in its design: a box with a big door, two windows and a triangle roof. I remember having to wake up at four in the morning to walk down the mountain where my parents and I would then make the journey to the city. I can still feel the dirt and rubble underneath my Disney sneakers. I can still hear the remoteness of where we lived. I can still recall the smell of burning leaves. I was happy there maybe because I didn’t know anything else. But I do know the exact moment when everything changed: three men in my house with machine guns pointed at my father’s chest. I watched enough movies to know that it wasn’t a game. I was silent as I creeped up the stairs because I wasn’t sure what to do, except be quiet. It was only when my father jumped out of the window on the second floor that I realized that my life was hanging by a thread. Here, life is always a temporary state of being. Here, you can be killed in the middle of the day for a pair of beat up Nikes. Nobody wears Nikes anymore unless they can afford a bulletproof car. My aunt had one, it’s saved her quite a few times. She used to go around unafraid. Now she lives in Switzerland.

My aunt called me one day from her new home. She told me that there was something on the news about here that made her cry. I asked her what it was. She told me that there had been a truck of cattle being transported on a dirt road through the countryside. There were about 5 cows going to a slaughterhouse and then the truck flipped over allowing the cows to make a rather slow escape. Right there on the road, villagers went with their machetes as if they were prepared for it, and killed the cows. She said that there was a video made by the truck driver because he knew his boss wouldn’t believe him. In the video the cows can be heard screaming in pain. Their eyes frantically searching for help, terrified of their fate. She was crying on the other line from her safe place in Switzerland. I told her that if people  here didn’t care about humans, how could we expect them to care about animals. We let silence speak for us for several seconds.

One day I had to go to the city center for a doctor’s appointment. When I came out of the office there was a truck with dark tinted windows, so dark that you couldn’t see anything inside. I looked away; not even wanting to act like I knew the car was there. When I had walked a few steps, the car took off. As it drove, the doors opened. I didn’t have time to see what was going on but I did have time to see my entire life. It didn’t flash before my eyes but rather played out as in real time. I suddenly remembered the shock and pain of being born.

I didn’t get shot as I thought I would, but a naked, bruised and bloodied woman had been thrown out. She was alive and taken into the doctor’s office without much fuss. Things like that happen every day. Some people are sick of it and others live for the adrenaline rush. I’m neither, just tired.

One time I made the silly mistake of falling in love. It was during the summer, as all love seems to happen. It was just before things got really bad, back when you could still go away to Margarita for a week to drink beer and eat on the beach. Back when life was more of a party. People still go away to the beach, but it’s not really the same.

Alex was from the city, like me. He was also a student but at another university, he told me that he studied international affairs. He seemed to know his stuff and was really passionate about it. He was well traveled and spoke 3 languages. He was much more refined than I could ever be, more European and rich too, but he never acted like he knew the difference between us.

On the last day that I was there, I realized that I was in love with him and that maybe he was too. I’ll always have the image of him sitting in the sand, his cheeks and nose bridge red from too much sun. His skin was past the point of tan, it was black now and salty. His hair was stiff and streaked with golden strands. He looked at me with his big green eyes and smiled in a way that said, “I love you.” I smiled back in the same way because I was so happy.

We kept in contact for a little bit but then it stopped completely. It was weird because he said he would call me the next day but never did. I waited two days before calling him and it went to voicemail. I called him again and it was the same thing.

I mentioned this odd occurrence to my friend who saw Oscar’s dead baby and she said, “Well, maybe he died too.” I nodded because it was a very real possibility.

Even though it’s been years, I still think about Alex. I still look for him in the crowds of people, and sometimes I think that I’ve spotted him waving the flag in the middle of a protest. I imagine him as one of the people that doesn’t shut up about the United Nations and the ICC.  I think that he must have left. The day that he hung up the phone with me he must have not known what to do. His long, intellectual fingers must have been tapping on his desk anxiously, itching to call me and tell me so that I didn’t worry anymore. He wanted to tell me that he would be waiting for me in Miami, where all good Venezuelans go. He wanted to tell me that he loved me but love isn’t enough sometimes. I imagine him on the airplane, not wanting to see the sea because that would be the last time that he and I were in the same country. I imagine this but I’m sure that’s not what happened.

But I’ll never know because he never called me.

Its funny and sad how all my stories end up being about love.
Michelle Assaad is an animal activist and essayist. She grew up in Florida and enjoys traveling, painting, photography and beading. She lives in Manhattan.

© 2014, Michelle Assaad