When Tragedy Strikes and You’re on the Other Side of the World

If a tragedy occurs and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Story by Leslie Finlay - ljf5017@gmail.com Photo by Icarus Blake
Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Icarus Blake

I was on a subway in Korea when I found out about the Boston Marathon bombing. My morning commute is always so calm; the silent churning of a brand new train slithering along the steel with ease, 4G commanding the attention of passengers, heads all dutifully bowed low, noses inches away from their smartphones as I sift through my inbox and social media channels, cluttered with clues to another day passed by thousands of miles away. Preferable, definitely, to the hot, anxiety-ridden-invasion-of-personal-space a New York City subway ride promises.

But, the calm all at once became suffocating. I read the words of the headlines, but processing them was like grabbing at water mid-stream from a faucet. Every status update, news alert, tweet warped the reports, the way certain words can distort into meaningless characters when you stare for too long. After all, letters are just symbols, just representations of something real.

I watched the footage posted to Boston.com from the finish line. I watched it again. The passengers in the train car tapped away on their phones. I thought about getting up; moving so that someone could watch this video from over my shoulder, give me any reaction, maybe some camaraderie. The world I’d been straddling, one foot on either side of the planet, was shaken of all context as if my existence itself had just become an assortment of footnotes. No one stirred, still. If a tragedy occurs and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

A few years ago, I was on the forty-fourth floor of an office building overlooking Grand Central Station when the floor swayed. I’d say it was in a nauseating way, but there is really no other way for a floor to sway. Papers shuffled delicately across my desk, the already unstable pencil holder jostled over with a faint thump that cut the dead office air. I locked eyes with my coworker, unsure of what to do next. The disorientation began to melt away, but that made way for the uncertainty—which was only barely holding off panic. Another coworker tore past us, off to the stairwell, already a floor below by the time the door slammed behind her. It couldn’t have been a bomb if there was no explosion, right? I doubted my own ears. I remember closing my eyes and waiting for the boom, like the thunder that comes moments after the lightning has already struck.

But there was no sound.

What we’d felt was the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that had hit Virginia, the elevation of our office simply accentuating what was an otherwise subtle aftershock that barely nudged New York City. I didn’t let the thought linger, but I was bothered by where my mind immediately leapt. Like nostalgia or heartbreak, dwelling only compounds the uneasiness, but I felt robbed of a part of my humanity, my most basic sense of security gone and I hadn’t even known it. These days it’s like we always wear fear on our sleeves, where our hearts ought to be.

I now work on the first floor, a mountain range replacing skyscrapers out my window. As I shuffled the papers absentmindedly around this desk, a world away, the isolation caught me off guard. My status as an outsider to this society, an invitee to this culture, is evident every single day—but not at all in an uncharming way. My inability to communicate effectively is typically just an inconvenience that’s fixing itself day by day.  But today it segregated me. I felt trapped.

So, I turned to the Internet that had betrayed me earlier that day. That had delivered shivering news in the same tone, same inflection with which it diligently provides my consistent communication back home, in-case-of-emergency-American-TV, another damn parody Tumblr account… its unceremonious reporting seemed so impersonal.

But when the web weeps, it is personified.

As I dove into the photos, the updates, the stories of courage and heartache, I wasn’t in Korea. I wasn’t in the United States. I was among peers, those who unite to rise above the worry and angst of what will happen next, the worry we’ve been conditioned to believe we need. I thought about those former coworkers hovering above Grand Central Station, all the way up there. The floor is as fragile as terrorism wants it to be when you’re dangling by clothespins across a city skyline.

I thought about my friends dangling from their own office buildings all over the city. I thought of my apartment nestled near Union Square, on a block just inside the blast radius of a bomb the NYPD had found and disarmed in Tompkins Square Park two weeks after I moved to the city.

I thought about old drinking buddies now working on Capitol Hill, former classmates currently taking cover somewhere in Boston, my family members spread across three states, an ex-boyfriend whose travel schedule somehow always pins him on an airplane.

I thought about vulnerability. How uncertainty can somehow birth community. Untethered, unwired, we are more connected than ever.

I thought about this new life I’ve given my all, seven thousand miles away and under constant, albeit possibly bogus threat of nuclear attack. I thought about the concern everyone I know has expressed at the rising tensions and implied danger, how I dismissed their uneasiness so carelessly. How I truly understood, finally. I thought about my friend, going through the motions of a day in his life in Korea as his home city of Boston, along with his family and friends, sat on the brink of chaos. I thought about all of these people who have begun to build my new family in my new home, dotted all over this peninsula.

I thought about how you’re never close enough to the ones that you love.

One Response to “When Tragedy Strikes and You’re on the Other Side of the World”

  1. Janine Hurley-Nicoll says:

    Leslie- this article reflects what human beings experience and often do not know what it is until someone like you verbalizes it.. The disconnect among us is never slient- we just work to keep from hearing. I am grateful for writers such as you. Thank you from one who thinks about what disconnection and empty communication do to relationships. I think of you so often… love always, Aunt Janine