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A Unique and Collective Experience

There were two people, a couple, who many of my friends and I grew up around. They were mentors to us. I think we loved them more than they loved each other. They were smart and creative; and as educators they believed in us at a time in our life when we most needed people to believe in us. Concerning them, there were rumors of infidelities. Alcoholism. Separate rooms. And forever-pending separations. But those only were stories. Talk among teenagers who understood the adult world as nothing more than a scripted film (or for the more sophisticated, a well-crafted play). Needless to say, it was a curious if not confusing relationship to an onlooker, especially one who really was a distant observer, who had no real stake in their lives beyond essentially a fan’s adoration and curiosity.

Their key backstory, as we understood it, was that as college students in Dallas they had been on an early date. It was late November in 1963, just before Thanksgiving, and they were young progressives in a conservative area, under the spell of the Kennedy promise, and just barely standing on the edge of a scale that soon would tip the world far away from any sense of balance it ever thought it had. And on that date they went to the Trade Mart, where, following his motorcade ride, John F. Kennedy would speak.

I imagine them among a giant, expectant crowd. The room is loud and echoing. There are rows of empty folding chairs, each claimed by jackets draped over the backs. People are standing, too excited to sit, engaged in small talk, all while keeping an eye on the clock as the hands pass twelve, knowing it is only minutes away from the president’s arrival.

Somewhere in the anticipation, I picture them taking each other’s hands, a subtle grasp, charged with the fear of rejection and the tingling rush of anticipation; and once their fingers clasp, they both stare straight ahead, afraid any eye contact or acknowledgement will sever the moment. But again, that’s only what I imagine.

What I do know is the president never arrived. There was a warbled announcement made through a loudspeaker, and word already began circulating through the room, and though people felt wounded, actually physically wounded, they had no idea what they should do. Sit? Weep? Scream? Drop? Run? All of the above? The story we were told was that our couple, just one among so many, bolted out the front door. There was no calculation. No discussion. Or no plan. Some ran, while others jogged or walked with an urgent pace, to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the gunned-down president had been taken. It was barely a mile. Northeast up the Market Center Boulevard to Harry Hines Boulevard. It was not a route anyone had practiced. Yet I imagine our couple holding hands the entire way, taking turns leading each other when degrees of exhaustion set in. Joined in the swelling mass of people, they trekked to Parkland with a homing instinct, and no idea what they would do once they arrived, no sense of what they would find, but knowing they had to be there.

They were in it together.

What else could they possibly do?

* * *

When November 22, 1963 came out, people sent me letters. They sent me emails. They made a point to come up well after the readings. And in nearly every case, it was to share the memory of where they had been when they’d heard the news. Now, I am not old enough to have had that experience. Before 9/11, the closest I could claim was the evening when John Lennon got shot—something that did devastate me for quite a while. But I did grow up in the aftershocks of the assassination, so everything I heard did ring very familiar. Perhaps the most interesting and touching aspects of hearing people’s stories were how similar they all were, yet each version still felt so individually moving. For each storyteller, the memory was personal and visceral. They recalled every sensory detail from the moment they understood they were about to have bad news delivered, to the exact moment they were told, to the precise details of the aftermath. They remembered inconsequential names of people they were sat beside at work or at school, people who in later years they never saw again. They described the hanging silence as though it were audible, in fact excruciatingly audible. It was striking how universal the stories were, as though each of my narrators were parts of one single body, simultaneously having a unique and collective experience. And like any class of the wounded, they almost all spoke of having lost hope and faith as though those were body parts. (Interestingly, this was mostly in November 2008, at the height of Obama hysteria, and many people had made a point of saying that, although it had taken forty-six years, they finally felt that their hope had returned.)

* * *

I’ve always suspected that the couple we knew had only ever stayed together and married because of the shared trauma of being at the Trade Mart on that fateful afternoon. And despite that all the rumors apparently were proven true (infidelity, alcoholism, divorce), the couple still seemed forever bonded as a unit, inseparable in our minds. Even when they both died living very disparate and separate lives, from our point of view—our romanticized point of view—it still felt as though we’d lost a couple. Both were fiercely loyal and generously giving to my friends and me. It just always struck us as confusing (again, just as naïve outsiders) that they weren’t to each other.

In truth, their experience was one detail of the larger story—a traumatic personal experience among the collective experience being felt all across the country. Still, it was their story. And I picture their hands never dropping during that day, and when they finally did let go somewhere into the night, they always kept those fingers figuratively gripped, never fully sure that it was love or devotion, but more that for a short moment of their life, they’d found they stepped off of a cliff together, and they were in free fall, and they only had each other to hold on to for dear life, and how could they possibly let go—how can anyone let go when you don’t know where the bottom will be? You just hang on to the only person who knows. Whether she is right beside you. Or whether she is part of you.

Adam Braver is the author of five novels, most recently Misfit. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders’ Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. He is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. In addition to having taught for the University of New Orleans’ Low Residency MFA program, he’s also been a regular writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.

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Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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