June 4 – Day 2
I’m huddled in a corner of the women’s dormitory on the bottom bunk, my back against the cement wall. It feels rough. Its cold penetrates to my core, its thickness a mind-boggling five feet of concrete protection. The room is bright with white fluorescent light that starkly outlines the march of bunk beds with their sharp, metal grey angles. I take in a breath of air as if it were my last. It has a strangeness to it, an odor like nothing I’ve smelled before—the scent of entitlement?
I again put my pen to the page, the first in this journal, and hereby vow to recount with honesty everything that has led up to this moment and will keep a record, mostly for myself, but perhaps for people in the future, who might look back and wonder what an ordinary woman experienced during extraordinary times.
When I think back to the moment Peter told me it was time, I involuntarily feel a chill as I relive the surge of fear. That was many hours ago, but it feels like a lifetime—a lifetime of scrambling things together and rushing headlong into a new and unknown existence; a panic-filled lifetime thinking about the implications and the horror; a gut-wrenching lifetime imagining being in a confined space together with strangers waiting to see if it would happen.
Yet, as Peter keeps telling me, we are the lucky ones.
I wonder—are we?
Months ago he brought it up for the first time one night after getting home late. It wasn’t unusual for him to get home around midnight or later. When he accepted the honorable position as head of medical research for the National Institutes of Health, I didn’t expect him to change the pattern he began as an intern and continued during his rise to this position. As the proud wife of a brilliant doctor, I accepted it, and he rewarded me by slipping into bed silently so as not to disturb me. We have survived as a couple because of mornings--the time we glue our marriage together with intimacies and conversation after the children catch the bus to school.
But that night months ago, he shook me awake and said, “Start gathering things in case we have to evacuate.”
I was groggy with sleep. “Evacuate for what?”
“I can’t say right now. Just pack a couple of suitcases with changes of clothing for everyone. And whatever else is essential. You know, toothbrushes and stuff.”
Suddenly I was wide awake wondering if late thawing snow upriver was going to cause the Potomac to overflow its banks and force us to higher ground. Not that it had ever come anywhere close to our home perched 200 feet above the river, our deck reaching out over its ever roiling surface. No, we couldn’t be evacuating because of a flood.
“Is it your job? Some outbreak of a new disease?”
He sat on the bed, slumped over, his forehead in his hands. His body shook with suppressed sobs, but when I came over and put my arms around him, he remained tense, his muscles locked.
Finally he softened and let me hold him, rocking slowly as I ran my fingers through his thinning hair. “It’s been a horrible day,” he said. But that night he made no more mention of an evacuation and like I always do, I hoped that by not talking about it, it would go away.
The next time the subject came up was several weeks later on a beautiful April afternoon when the children were at friends’ houses and the sun shone through the translucent green of newly opened leaves. We were on the deck with our favorite weekend “let-it-all-hang-out” drink, a pitcher of sangria with sliced oranges, kiwi, and strawberries. Peter, ever conscious of the healthy aspect of things, liked the idea that fresh fruit was added to fermented grapejuice. (Oh, when will we ever taste fresh fruit again? Or see the translucent green of a newly opened leaf? Let me pause and shed a silent tear.)
Back to the recounting. Not that it will really be important to anyone but me, who needs its therapeutic cleansing of my shocked brain.
Perhaps the sangria loosened his tongue. Perhaps it was time to tell me because he could no longer keep it tight within his chest. For whatever reason, he filled his glass for the third time and refilled mine before he began to tell me the story.
“Our president,” he said, “because of his strong views on nationalism and ...” He paused. “You know how I feel about our president. What you don’t know and I only found out recently, is that every president, beginning with Eisenhower, has had a number of secret bunkers in case of nuclear war, where he, his family, and important people in the government can hide.
“The threat of using weapons of mass destruction has been with us for decades, but never like it is now. Over the last two years the world has turned into a powder keg ready to explode. Each country is showing its muscle, making nationalistic demands, and shouting threats of annihilation to its enemies. More and more countries have nuclear capability, not to mention chemical and biological weapons. Nations are acting like boisterous teenage boys daring, double daring each other, and our president is the loudest of them all.”
I knew what Peter was talking about, although I had stopped watching the news because it distressed me too much. Even without watching or reading the news, it seeped out from other media and through conversations with friends.
After looking around to make sure no one was in earshot, Peter continued. “So our president has decided he can’t stop it from happening. The end.”
“The end of what?”
“He can’t just give up!”
“Apparently he can.”
(An obnoxious buzzer is sounding and a voice over the loudspeaker says to come to the central meeting room. I must stop writing for now.)