Somewhere in America: Before and After Charleston

Somewhere in America, as I write this, you sit hunched over a laptop in your family’s basement planning a rampage. You are male and young—eighteen, nineteen, maybe twenty. You are not black or gay or transgender. You are not poor. You are not dumb. No one would call you disadvantaged.

But you are angry and hurting and lonely. The school counselor had an array of labels for you. But what do labels mean? You are you: sharp elbows and protruding Adam’s apple, a self-inflicted scar on your ankle, not quite a tattoo. You are fond of beer, allergic to peanuts. The skin on your wrists is pale and delicate. Your success on certain video games is legendary—or would be, if anyone knew. You were the one who drove the family dog to the vet’s when she had to be put down. You were told, in middle school, that you have a nice singing voice. Your racing thoughts wake you up at night, but there is no one you can tell. No one you would dare to tell.

It has been a very long time since you set foot inside a church. It has been a long time, or seems that way, since a girl returned your call. You have said to hell with girls. You have stood up the shrink your mother made you go see. You never did take your meds.

You feel, if you could put words to it, you have been left behind. No Child Left Behind? Yet here you are, drinking warm beer and googling gun shops and gun shows. Here you are, browsing weapons and ammunition you can get online without ever showing your face. You are so far behind that if you turned around and faced the opposite direction, you would be near the head of the line—the line of unholy despair.

You decide, therefore, to make the leap from silence in the basement to violence in the world. With this new resolve, you turn on your computer’s camera and stare at your bloodshot eyes, your unlined face. You play around, grinning and grimacing. You remember a picture from art history class—“The Scream,” they called it—and mimic it so well that you have to laugh.

That laugh was a mistake. It sounded too much like crying. You slap your laptop shut and pace around. It is one or two in the morning or worse yet, the middle of the afternoon. You are the only one home.

If not for the anger, you could almost stand the days. If not for the hurting, you could almost stand the nights. But it is the loneliness you can no longer imagine getting away from, not in this lifetime anyway. It lives inside the spaces between your heartbeats. The loneliness is too much.

You have read about Eric and Dylan, about Seung-Hui, about Jared, and now this guy Adam. You don’t admire them. You don’t even think about them. You think about your parents and your brothers and your old girlfriend. But not that much, not as much as the shrink convinced himself you did. Mainly you think about how much you hurt, and all of a sudden, you’re doing “The Scream” for a laptop camera, and it’s really too bad the world didn’t end on December 21.

If you go through with your plan—that jumbled mess of thoughts that you call a plan—you will be written up, reviled, perhaps pitied. Your name will be on every newscaster’s lips. There will be a Wikipedia page on you. Someone, somewhere, might actually pray for your soul. You wish them luck with that.

Thinking of how it will all be, you shrug into your jacket, emerge from the basement. Outside, cold air blows against your face. You walk hard and fast. At the store, you slap down money for cigarettes. They cost so damn much these days—cancer sticks, your dad used to call them.

The clerk’s fingers graze yours as she hands over your change. That makes you stop and look at her. You wish the faint smile on her face didn’t matter so much. Then you turn on your heel and leave without a word of thanks. You want this girl to think you’re in a hurry, and maybe you are.

You are somewhere in America as I write this, and I pray for your soul.

This essay was originally published in The Hook, a Charlottesville, Va., news weekly, in December 2012. I wrote it in response to the nightmare at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That nightmare has recurred at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

3 thoughts on “Somewhere in America: Before and After Charleston

  1. Three years later and it could have been written today. What is this pattern, and where does it come from? How old is it? Here are two matters colliding in mass death: racial hatred and alienation. The results are always the same; anguish. And maybe, terrifyingly, in some other circle of the estranged, satisfaction.

  2. Zangmola, I find it interesting that these young men who belong, historically, to the oppressor’s race and gender, are so starved for (more) attention and (more) power. Why do they feel both disenfranchised and thoroughly entitled to commit acts of evil?

  3. That, Hilary, is just an amazing piece of work. Thanks for bringing it back, although it’s awful beyond bearing that we need it again, and again.

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