I ’m guessing that the moment that your life begins to unravel is often unceremonious—heralded by a whimper. The bang should have told me something.
I remember mostly details.
The extra foam sliding down the side of the mocha. A couple arguing over whether to put the “Mighty OJ” juicer on their bridal registry. The rottweiler tied outside the café, standing on hind legs, paws pressed urgently against the window.
When she walked by, I was reading a languid description of a Boston river, somewhat guiltily speeding through the imagery to get back to the book’s action. I wouldn’t have noticed her at all had she not put a small, folded square of paper on the corner of my table. I registered graceful hands, and a ring on the index finger. Then I focused on the piece of paper. Was I being picked up?
When I looked up again, she was nearly out the screen door, purposeful, and not stopping to look back. I dog-eared a page in my book, picked up the folded note, and followed her.
I scanned the street. The young transplants who call San Francisco’s Marina District home meandered with designer sunglasses and designer baby strollers, enjoying a fogless July afternoon. Through the crowd, I could see she was halfway into a red Saab parked in front of the Pita Parlor.
Something kept me from calling out. I figured I’d wave her down, but she was in the car and pulling away before I could get close enough to yell without making a scene. I looked at the textured beige stationery in my palm. I unfolded the corners, and saw words like a bullhorn:
“Get out of the café—NOW!”
The café exploded.
Smoke. Car alarms. Glass, ashes, a cloud of dust. A sound inside my head like a hangover delivered via freight train. I don’t think I ever lost consciousness. The blast took me three feet through the air, dropped me on the pavement, but seemed to leave me intact.
I’ve seen footage of war zones, where the world seems to be coming undone. This was nothing like that—just a single moment of extraordinary violence, followed by haze. Like a bloody version of the time my father slammed a stainless steel pot on the kitchen floor to get my brother’s attention.
The front window of the café was blown out, and a side wall was ripped, though not torn down, exposing metal and concrete innards. A couple wandered out from the screen door; he held an arm limply at his side, her bloody legs churned between step and stumble. The owner of the rottweiler checked his pet for wounds.
These days, you imagine the first thought at such a moment would be of terrorism.
My first thought was of Annie.
She was rarely far from my mind, even four years after the accident that took her life at the age of twenty-eight. Mostly, I’d thought of her at moments of transition—when I got up, climbed into bed, or on a long drive between interviews. It said as much about me as us; it was in those moments, the quiet instances when life lacked structure, that I most needed a place to focus.
I wouldn’t defend my relationship with Annie as perfect, but it defined love for me, and endured. She was always chewing strong breath mints, causing our kisses to taste spicy, and I got sad when I smelled cinnamon. Sometimes at night, I told an imaginary Annie stories aloud and tried to guess at which point she would have sleepily asked me to wrap it up.
But it was more than longing that made me think of her as a thin layer of dust settled over me. It was the note I’d been handed. I’d know Annie’s handwriting anywhere.
“Can you move your legs?”
The words came through my fog from a police officer, kneeling beside me. I waved my hand to say, “I’m fine.” I started to stand, and he helped guide me up by the elbow.
“We need to get you out of this area.”
As my awareness returned, so did the sounds and colors, and the chaos. Police and firefighters, the sound of radio chatter, helicopters. I was embedded in the evening news.
The officer led me toward an area apparently being set up for the wounded. Was I hurt worse than I thought?
“Mystic River,” the police officer said.
I looked at him with confusion.
“Good book,” he added. “But you really should invest in the hardback. It’s a sign of a fully committed person.”
I looked down and saw I still had the novel I’d been reading in the café. My white knuckles told me I’d been clutching it like a life preserver. The note. Where was it? I fished in my pockets, but came up empty. I turned around and headed back to where I’d been lifted off the ground.
“Hold on, pardner. We can’t have you going back there. Too dangerous.”
“I lost someone,” I said.
“You lost someone?”
“Something. I lost something. Please.”
“Well, you’re not going back to get it now.”
With a powerful hand on my shoulder, he turned me around, walked me down the block to a concrete patch cordoned off by yellow tape, and set me on the ground with the others.
The cop’s name was Danny Weller, and he was a chatterer. He told me about growing up in Oakland, and learning to fish in waders in the Sacramento